William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Library Ebooks & the Indie Author Conundrum, Part 1

"Turbulence is life force. It is opportunity. Let's love turbulence and use it for change." --Ramsay Clark

In case I haven't mentioned it in the last three or four minutes, I have a new book out, and like every independent, fledgling author, I'm trying to come up with different ways to find an audience -- no small trick when your book is digital-only and digital still comprises less than 15% of the total book market.

I'm an avid library patron, and, as an audiobook nut, I've dabbled with OverDrive's Library2Go service over the years. Library2Go (L2G) is my home state's chosen conduit for making electronic media available to library patrons over the Internet. Most people to whom I mention the service have no idea that it even exists...perhaps for good reason. Historically, I've found L2G fairly underwhelming. I had trouble finding enough audiobooks that were in MP3 format, not DRM-constrained WMA, and the titles that interested me were few and far between. I went a year, perhaps two, without looking at the site.

And then something amazing happened. Library2Go hit puberty. We often forget that most librarians, like teachers, have the public's welfare in their minds and hearts, and they work every day trying to help make the world better. I can only assume that it was librarians (and, behind them, a fleet of impatient patrons) responsible for not only a significant rise in the number of quality audiobooks available but also the recent appearance of ebooks.

The last time I touched OverDrive, I was listening to audiobooks on a 5G iPod. Today, all of my listening filters through a Motorola Droid. (For would-be audiobook listeners, I found my 2007/2008 BlackBerry and other "legacy" cell phones inferior to the iPod for this task. This is no longer the case. Media player apps have matured to the point that they're at least as convenient for book enjoyment as traditional music devices.) OverDrive's player app, called Media Console, is available for Windows, Mac, Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad, and Windows Mobile.

Media Console surprised me with both how easy it was to use and how convenient it made the process of downloading new books from third-party sites such as Smashwords or the library. In fact, if you tap the Get Books icon within the mobile app, it prompts you to enter your ZIP code and suggests your closest library systems. Just enter your library account username and password to gain access to the OverDrive catalog (assuming it participates with OverDrive; your local libraries may use a different network). For a site such as Smashwords, if you elect to download a book in EPUB format, your phone will ask you which app you use to view it. Simply select OverDrive Media Console.

Perhaps you're thinking, "There's no way I'd read a book on my phone. The screen's too small!" My experience has been that I would mostly agree. Smartphones in the Droid/iPhone-type form factor, even with their relatively spacious screens (for a phone), will do for short stories in a pinch, but they really do suck some of the enjoyment out of longer format works. There's simply too much page flipping. I haven't tried a tablet yet. I do know that dedicated e-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, provide a far superior experience for full-length books. This is no longer a secret. What I didn't realize is that my local library is now pushing ebook reading via Sony's Reader devices.

The first time I saw this display a few weeks ago, it blew my mind. It's not like Hillsboro Central buried it in the back. This table is fairly close to the main check-out area by the front entrance. The first question that hit me was, "Why Sony?" The answer is probably that Sony has the right mix of deep pockets and third-place market position to fork out for such efforts. Despite being one of the early players in e-readers, Sony has had a tough time gaining traction. This is unfortunate, because the Reader family is decent hardware, and Sony deserves recognition for working with libraries in this way. If other vendors follow Sony's lead here, it might go a long way toward easing public opinion about e-reading.

The second question for me was, "Why is this here? Aren't ebooks the death knell of libraries as we've known them?" This is a much more complex issue. If you fast forward to 2021, it seems increasingly likely that printed books will be approaching where ebooks are today: 15% of the total book market...or less. There are too many factors propelling ebooks ahead of print now. We're at the tipping point, and the buzz is all in digital's favor. Without printed books, why do we need big libraries? With each passing year, attrition will whittle down public printed collections. There will be location consolidations, reduced staff, and a (hopefully brief) period of confusion as libraries attempt to reinvent themselves and find relevance in the brave new e-world.

I applaud the library's willingness to embrace this change by promoting e-reading. It's better to be smaller and still at the forefront of public literacy than the poster child of a dying paradigm.

But I had one more question come to mind: I have an ebook that I want people to read. I'm going to have more ebooks coming soon. How do I, without the help of a publisher or even an independent author's consortium, get my content into this metamorphosing library system? With conventional books, a library might buy five, ten, even dozens of copies of one title per location. With digital, how are authors, particularly independent ones, compensated for library sales?

Suddenly, I realized that this wasn't just about me. This was about if and how the thousands of writers just like me are going to be able to participate in tomorrow's libraries. My best friend is a librarian and has been with Multnomah County's library system for almost two decades, so I asked him these questions.

He had no idea. And that's what will bring us to Part 2 of this blog entry soon...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Stopping the Birthday Insanity

Another one of the projects I'm working on is co-authoring a book on personal finance with a close friend and former financial manager. The book, titled "Where Does It All Go?," is on track to have its second draft completed by the end of May. This is my first spin with non-fiction collaboration, and it's curious to watch myself sometimes bow out of the limelight and other times step into center stage. We'll see how much of the "me" material survives into final draft, but here's one such passage. As the parent of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, the phenomenon of modern children's birthdays continues to perplex and vex me. Within the broader context of understanding and changing spending habits, I used the following passage to illustrate the point:

I have to pause here for one small, tangential rant. As the parent of young children, I’m perplexed and vexed by the insanity surrounding birthday parties today. When I was a kid, I could count the number of birthday parties I had on one hand, and they were humble affairs. A pizza parlor, some arcade games, a few presents—done. Today, it seems like every birthday party has to rival a Fortune 500 gala event. You rent a venue or hire entertainment. There are plates and party favors themed from Care Bears to Indiana Jones. The pizza alone for a decent-sized group can run over $200. Every kid “needs” a favor pack ($5 to $10 each). It’s hard to host a kid’s birthday party for under $400 these days.

Worse yet, these parties are viral. It’s not just about keeping up with the Joneses. It can become a virtual birthday party arms race. Who comes out ahead in the end? Not the hosts, who are out several hundred bucks. Not the guests, who paid $20 and up for not-quite-the-cheapest thing at Target. And not the birthday boy or girl, who end the event with a pile of plastic and cardboard junk piled waist-high, half of which will never be played with. It’s utter hyper-consumerist lunacy. We delude ourselves and justify the madness by looking over all of the event’s photographs and thinking about all the wonderful memories that have surely been created. But once again, here’s the secret of living with greater financial responsibility: If you go in with the right attitude of love, you’re going to have great memories no matter what. I remember being delighted with my homemade chocolate birthday cake that had the number 5 written on its top in M&Ms. I remember my parents taking me to any restaurant of my choice on my birthdays and us having a great time just being together. On the other hand, I can’t remember a single birthday present I ever gave or received at a childhood party.

The only people who truly benefit from this insanity are the purveyors of goods and services, that island in the corner of the Bermuda Triangle of Personal Finance that caters to children’s birthdays. But just like in an arm’s race, no parent wants to be the first one to pull back, to look like the cheapskate, to risk hearing his child dejectedly say, “Aww, everybody else’s birthdays were so much better than mine.” So the race goes on every year, getting incrementally more expensive in a perennial game of one-upmanship.

In the end, it’s the love and friendship that matters. A bunch of games played in the park for free can be more fun than renting out the local inflatable fun house. If everyone on the RSVP list kicked in $5 before the party to get one or two really nice, wanted presents collectively, would the birthday kid feel cheated or elated at being able to afford exactly what he or she wanted? It would be a win-win for everyone involved. Try it. I bet you’ll discover that, just as financial lunacy is infectious, so is financial sensibility. We all want to spend less on stuff we know isn’t needed. Within your social circle, you can strike the first sledgehammer blow against the Berlin Wall of Peer Pressure Spending.

I’ve indulged myself in this rant to emphasize a bigger point. Changing your financial numbers means changing your lifestyle habits. We all know that habits are hard to break—or even bend. Habits have weight. The longer you’ve practiced a habit, the bigger and heavier it gets and the harder it is to move. Fortunately, the more people you have helping you, the easier it is to break down those old habits and build new ones. This is why I avoid counseling married people on financial management individually. You can’t have two people in a marriage practicing opposing money habits. That’s a recipe for disappointment and, unfortunately often, divorce. So it’s critical to have your spouse in step with you as you start changing your money habits. If you can get your friends to join in, the cycle of positive reinforcement only gets stronger.

Friday, March 25, 2011

And Now, Something Dark and Different

Up until now on this blog, nearly all you've seen from me is content about technology. Well, before wrote about computing, I wrote speculative fiction, which I enjoyed immensely. The trouble was that my very first paycheck from a computer magazine in 1996 paid 7.5X more than all of the income I'd ever generated from publishing fiction. Being young and not terribly bright, I followed the money. Thankfully, it's never too late to try and fix your past missteps.

I remember when the idea for "The Sound of Autumn Night" came to me. It was shortly after my dad had purchased seven acres and was enlisting manual labor from the family in setting up an alpaca farm. (Don't ask.) My uncle was married to this very smart and charming woman from Pakistan, and occasionally she would tell me stories about her life in that country. So there we were, out in the middle of a field, digging post holes, and she told me this Pakistani folktale about a guy who tries to court the woman of his dreams, but it all goes very, very badly for him. I stopped, stood up straight, and just stared at her as the story images started flashing through my head. The folktale itself was creepy, but I just couldn't leave well enough alone. I had to amp it up and make it mine. Now it's yours, to be found here on Smashwords...

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Solar Wake-Up Call From Fukushima

The recent and ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear facility is a bitter addendum to Japan's earthquake tragedy. For the past week, I've followed the national headlines, engaged in several Facebook discussions, and watched the American politicians waste no time drawing their ideological battle lines on nuclear energy. Nothing about this situation is pleasant.

What amazes me, though, is how little, if any, attention is being paid to the obvious. The current debate seems to be about whether or not we should have nuclear energy, as if a "no" answer would result in America shutting down all of its reactors tomorrow. This simply isn't going to happen. Nineteen percent of our energy comes from nuclear, and regardless of how old and over-capacity those generators may be, there is no way we're going to shut them down with gasoline already over $3.50 per gallon.

The flip side of the debate seems to ask, "Are we going to build more generators? Because we obviously need more energy, and nobody wants to increase dependency on oil." This sets up an all-or-nothing dilemma. Either we shut the reactors down or we commit to nuclear and build more reactors.

Not once have I heard someone in the media say, "We obviously need more energy, yes. But it's going to take seven to 10 years to bring new reactors online. Why don't we take all of the money we were going to spend on new nuclear production, take a fraction of it to ensure that our least safe reactors are functioning well within safety specs, and use the remaining billions to fund a massive wave of U.S.-bred solar energy tech development?"

The knee-jerk reaction is that solar photovoltaic technology simply isn't efficient enough to provide sufficient energy to be cost-efficient. But such reactions are based on today's efficiencies and fabrication methods. Consider the following chart pulled from Wikipedia, derived from the Mott MacDonald June 2010 UK Electricity Generation Costs Update:

Technology↓Cost range (£/MWh)↓
New nuclear55-85
Onshore wind80-110
Natural gas turbines with CO2 capture60-130
Coal with CO2 capture100-155
Solar farms125-180
Offshore wind150-210
Natural gas turbine, no CO2 capture55-110
Tidal power155-390

As you can see, solar has roughly twice the cost of nuclear today. But photovoltaics remain a largely silicon-based technology, just like microprocessors, and thus solar cell fabrication benefits from many of the same improvements seen in computing. Take Silicon Valley-based Solar Junction, which recently announced that it had achieved 41% efficiency from a production cell by implementing multiple layers within the cell, each designed to absorb a different part of the sun's spectrum. In contrast, most solar panels today only offer 15% to 20% efficiency. If we suddenly double the generation efficiency of solar panels, what do you suppose happens to the cost of solar energy?

In case that seems like a fluke, consider excerpts from two of the interviews in "Architects of Tomorrow, Volume 1":

Famed scientist and inventor Kay Kurzweil notes, "We have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100% of our energy needs. The total amount of solar energy we are producing is doubling every two years, and we are only eight doublings away from meeting all of our energy needs."

Even if we had to wait for two, even three, of these generations, isn't that still faster than we could bring on a new crop of nuclear reactors -- and with no hazardous waste or increased risk of radioactive materials falling into the wrong hands? Where is the national security risk inherent in solar technology? Ah, right...there isn't one.

Then consider Greg Nielson, Lead Researcher, Sandia National Laboratories. Nielson heads the team that developed "glitter." Glitter is, as he describes it, "these little thin crystalline silicon PV cells that can measure only one-quarter of a millimeter in diameter." Imagine specks of dust that are actually solar cells. One of the Sandia group's guiding visions is being able to blend these glitter cells into paint and have ordinary structures gather and store energy.

"With the solar cells we showed off last December [2009], we were showing up to around 15% efficiency," says Nielson. "We expect to go higher. But the key thing is that as your efficiency goes up, the costs of almost every component in your system, from wiring to racking to installation labor, are driven down. ... Researchers have shown PV efficiencies up to 40% or more, but the modules you buy are typically around 15%, because increasing efficiency above 15% costs more and more money. We need to figure out how to take advantage of high-efficiency materials, like crystalline silicon, gallium arsenide, indium gallium phosphide, and lower the cost of those materials while still taking advantage of the high efficiency they provide. That’s the hard part. But that’s exactly where we’ve been trying to make progress. And I think we’re really on to something.

"Based on our initial cost models," Nielson adds, "it appears that our ‘solar glitter’ approach to solar power has the potential to become cost competitive with fossil fuels. This is partly a result of significantly reducing the cost of materials, particularly expensive semiconductors, in a solar module and partly a result of improved performance and new functionality in the modules. These cost and performance improvements result from taking advantage of scaling benefits that occur as solar cells are significantly reduced in size."

With such advances being made, why isn't the Fukushima tragedy being viewed as a wake-up call to help these researchers make even greater strides? Why are we persisting in this ridiculous, polarized nuclear energy argument when it's clear that this energy "solution" from the 1950s no longer deserves relevance in the 21st century? Let existing reactors run their course, but put further infrastructure investments where they belong: in solar energy. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Are Student Tablets Worth the Price?

Everyone should keep an open mind and be willing to consider not just new facts but even opposing viewpoints, provided those viewpoints are cogently stated and based on observable facts. Back in January, I posted about the $750 price tag attached to iPads landing in classrooms, stating that while I pro-technology and even pro-tablet in schools, I thought $750 was exorbitant and unreasonable.

Since that post, I've seen more stories about school iPad adoption appear, including this one detailing adoption by the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts in South Providence, RI. The article makes many persuasive points, including:

"At Trinity, the iPad has nearly eliminated the need for paperback novels. The school buys one book for $6 and downloads 34 copies. And there are many books in the public domain, such as the entire works of William Shakespeare, available free of charge. The potential for cost savings is considerable."

However, this is true of any tablet. Admittedly, the article notes a $500 cost per iPad, which is much better than the $750 I'd seen in January. But Providence Journal writer Linda Borg raises a critical point: much of the iPad's value rests in intangible elements. Apple is famous for it's "magic," that special something that helps Apple to command such high profit margins. Normally, I take a dim view of "intangible value" points. But I'm willing to modify my opinion in this case if student enthusiasm proves that such value exists in this context. As the Journal's Borg writes:

“When teachers say, ‘Get out your worksheet,’ I’m like, ‘OK,’ ” says 12-year-old Teri Thompson. “When they say, ‘Get out your iPad,’ I’m like, ‘Yes! The iPad!’ ”

If it turns out that this type of exuberance doesn't appear when students are presented with a tablet based on Android, Windows, or some other OS, then sure, Apple's iPad deserves its price tag.

Additionally, one of my Architects of Tomorrow interviewees, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker, gave me this bit of insight to chew on:

“I think these expenditures make smart long-term sense, not only for the schools but for the students as well,” Coker answered. “If you assume each device will provide at least three years of usage, that brings the annual cost down to $250 per pupil per year, which is negligible when you assume average expenditures per pupil are around $10,000 a year [see http://www.edweek.org/rc/articles/2009/01/21/sow0121.h27.html]. These devices will cut down on printing expenses, open up new learning opportunities, reduce backpack weights for kids, open up the opportunity for schools to acquire free or lower cost digital open education resources, and help automate myriad other tasks. You can also count on prices to drop dramatically over the next few years. Most importantly, we should never miss an opportunity to improve education for children. This is an investment in the future of our country.”

I can't argue with that. Between amortized costs and additional student involvement, perhaps the iPad really is justified. The question now is whether school districts will be willing to adopt tablet technology and harness it in a coherent, productive manner. Tablets can't end up like the PCs in my children's school, turned off and gathering dust because the district ran out of money to network them. We need to let technology be a tool to help students run forward with their learning at their own pace, with teachers standing by to help guide, clarify, and expand on concepts as needed. Tablet technology can help kids become more proactive with their development and assist with the potential debacle of 82% of our students failing the No Child Left Behind standards, but school districts need to take their own proactive steps first.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Incredible Inventor Woody Norris on How the Best is Yet to Come

With my official AoT blog now live, I try to avoid cross-posting between the two sites. However, I found this particular bit so inspirational that I wanted to share it here, as well....


As of the inclusion of over 4,000 words of fresh interview material this morning from ingenious inventor Woody Norris, Architects of Tomorrow, Volume 1 is now (I hope!) done and just waiting for final editorial approval before going live.

I'd actually given up hope on reaching Norris in time for the Volume 1 release, but he surprised me by calling my office Friday morning, apologizing for having been away working to promote the latest incarnation of his HyperSonic Sound (HSS) technology, now being developed through his new company, Parametric Sound. If you're not familiar with HSS, check it out here. I can't wait to experience this!

Norris and I spent a large part of our interview discussing the inventing process. He's a firm believer in the power of invention to solve humanity's problems, and he feels we've hardly begun to realize the full potential of human invention. The best and by far largest quantity of inventions still lie in our future. This is a piece of what you can look forward to reading from him:

WVW: Toward the end of our last conversation, you said that you’d had a couple of ideas for inventions just while we were talking, which just blew my mind—

Norris: And I always write those down. I’m serious. Nothing of consequence has been invented yet. This whole field of nanotechnology— When I grew up, I came to the point in school where I realized that there was the periodic table of elements, and everything in the entire world that we have done up to pretty much now has been based on combinations of the elements—refining them, making a few artificial elements. With nanotechnology, it’s like you’ve got 100 new periodic tables. Really! Every element, carbon being the most common in the world we live in, changes into about eight different elements just by making it nanoparticle-sized. It changes colors, electrical characteristics, becomes an insulator, practically a perfect conductor, stronger than steel. And this is just one element! So it’s like we have a whole bunch of new periodic tables with which to make new inventions. But if you don’t learn about that and study it, you’re a caveman. You’re looking at earth, wind, and fire being all there is. Knowledge is the key to it all. Einstein made a great comment one time. He said, “The most abundant thing in the universe is hydrogen. The only thing more abundant is stupidity.” 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

When Digital Photography Meets Augmented Reality

I have not reviewed the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FX77, and I'm not sure I want to. It scares me.

See, the FX77 looks like your standard issue, high-end point-and-shoot. It's got a 12.1-megapixel sensor, 1080p movie shooting, 3.5" touchscreen, and all the other amenities of a modern, must-have consumer cam. It's even got a 3D Photo Mode that works by shooting 20 consecutive shots and overlaying the two best to create a 3D image. I don't care about that. I'm still a 3D skeptic waiting for the day when the technology can add to my media enjoyment more than it distracts me from it.

No, my concern is with this little new feature called Beauty Retouch. As Panasonic recently told Reuters, about half of digital camera buyers "are not satisfied with the way their faces look in a photograph." My guess is the other half are lying. Ten years ago, I had a chin. Now it's gone. There's an app for that.

The LUMIX FX77 and its Esthetic Mode aim to pack an armada of desktop photo editing tools into the camera so you can whiten teeth, lift jawlines (yes!), remove blemishes, and even enlarge eyes for that "I'm a manga warrior princess" look. Need a tan? Bam! You got one. Feeling awkward about those new wrinkles? Poof -- gone. By the time these pictures reach your blog or Facebook wall, you've duped nature and perfected your face.

I'd like to tell you that I'm immune to such vanity. The truth is that I succumbed to temptation and recently took a Photoshop liquify brush to my just-emerging jowls while prepping my blog and LinkedIn portrait image. I spent ten minutes sculpting the athletic look I wanted. And just as I was about to upload the picture, I stopped. "Is this who I want to be?" I asked myself. "If I'm going to write the truth, shouldn't I also be showing it?" So I deleted the image. What you see is who I am.

I can be that strong-willed at 40. At 45 or 50...who knows? But that's not the fun and scary part. Beauty Retouch is where photo technology is at today. Consider where we could be after another two or three doublings in processor capability. Why go through the hassle of post-editing your images when you could pre-edit them? Really, how long will it be until we can download our own avatar skins into a camera and overlay them on top of the real person? There would be no risk of a poor "real" version of the photo leaking out because such a photo would never exist in the first place. Your skin will always be perfect, your teeth dazzling, your eyes never prone to that half-closed, stupefied expression. How many pounds do you want to shave off? If we can comb 20 images to create one 3D shot, why not take the same 20 images, analyze the space around the subject, and trim in the body edges?

If building augmented reality into compact cameras sounds outrageous, think of how close we've already come. In early 2010, Guinness sponsored an augmented reality game in Ireland (tied to the Six Nations Rugby Cup) in which cameras map real-world people's faces and overlay them onto virtual players within the game space. I've personally dabbled with webcams and augmented reality-linked trading cards, in which you see yourself on-screen in real-time with an animated character mapped to a physical object. (For more on augmented reality, check out chapter 4 in my ebook, Strange Horizons Retrospectives, available on Amazon and Smashwords.) It's only another few steps before we apply these capabilities to cameras with photographic-quality realism.

What do you think about pre-editing your photos? Is it insincere and deceptive, or will it simply be how we do things in the years to come? And if the answer is "both," what will you do?