Category Archives: Books

Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow

gone girlMy diary entry for 29th November 1986 is a miserable one. I’m lamenting the fact that – as a notoriously slow reader on a university course involving a fair amount of french and scandinavian literature – I’m doomed only to read only books that I’m told to for the next three years. Turns out I was right, too. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Candide and Barnens ö, just that I couldn’t spare the time to read anything else, even as a bit of light relief.

At one point I started looking for ways to get through my books a bit faster. Claims have long been made for the benefits of speed reading if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort – mostly by cutting down on subvocalisation (essentially, mentally muttering the words you’re reading). Popular approaches include consciously skimming, meta-guiding (keeping focused with various types of pointing) and Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), in which the reader is presented with single words at high speed one after the other. However, the general consensus seems to be that you probably shouldn’t speed read anything you genuinely need to comprehend. And as this piece of research from Reading university says, it’s not actually about speed anyway – it’s about the task you’re trying to complete.

Woody Allen quote

Perhaps a more pertinent question these days is to consider the differences between reading on paper and reading on screen. Many of us spend hours at work reading on screens, yet will tell you that certain documents – dependent on length, content or other factors – demand to be printed out and read on paper. The practical and physical differences between the two activities are discussed in detail in this excellent Scientific American article: The Reading Brain: The Science of Paper versus Screens.

The fact that we’re constantly trying to make screen reading as rich an experience as paper reading shows there’s still something lacking in even the most advanced of e-ink interfaces; not that we’re not having a go:

But why stop at such a one-dimensional way of consuming text? Enter Amazon Whispersync for Voice. Despite its slightly unwieldy name, this is one of those obvious-when-you-think-about-it uses of technology that feels a bit like magic the first time you use it.

Here’s how it works:

1. Start reading on your Kindle using your eyes. Read as much as you want. No bandwidth limits and no buffering!

2. Fancy a rest? Plug in your earphones, press play, and listen to the audio version of the book instead – it picks up right where you left off reading. Now do the ironing while you listen. Or maybe sunbathe. Up to you.

3. Prefer reading at bedtime rather than listening? Bring up the book on your Kindle and the last word you’ve heard spoken is highlighted for you in a spooky ‘we know what you’re doing’ kind of a way.

It may not turn you into a speedier reader, but it certainly gets you through more books.

If only I’d had it back when I really needed it!

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Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

How to write a novel

Out, Brief CandleOn the one hand, I’m feel like I’m the last person to give advice on how to write a good novel. On the basis of sales alone, this is certainly true. On the other hand, I have actually managed to produce one (Out, Brief Candle – currently free to download for Kindle to celebrate this post!), so maybe it’s worth a word or two on the experience.

My diary entry for 26th May, 1986 contains my  first-ever throwaway mention of the idea of attempting a novel. Little did I realise then quite how long it would take me (almost 20 years) and how much I would change in the course of writing it (a lot).

Here’s how it was for me.

In my case, I started with a theme. I was inspired by a quote from a book called The Shape of Chaos by David Helsa. It went something like this:

There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories.

As a language student at the time, I was fascinated by Helsa’s idea of the difficulty involved in genuine communication and I wanted to explore it further. I decided there and then to make this the crux of my story.

So far so good. I started to think this novel-writing stuff wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Then came genre and setting. I thought a lot about this, but my late-teenage lack of life experience meant I only felt qualified to write about an imaginary world where I couldn’t be too wrong about things – so I chose to set the novel in the near-future and ended up with science fiction.

Next, I started thinking about plot, characters and general planning. At this point, I reckon I lost about five to eight years during which I graduated, started work, moved house a few times, got married, ruminated about my imaginary world a lot, and wrote embarrassingly little.

Psion Series 3cThe breakthrough came in my late-twenties, when I got fed up with all the thinking, mulling and pondering, and realised I just needed to get the hell on and write something. This turned out to be a revelation. I wrote unhindered by preconceptions of where my story was going; instead, I did it just to find out what would happen next. It was like reading a story I’d never read before, watching it being told as it appeared on the screen in front of me line by line. I learned about characters as I created them. I explored settings as they came to me. It was both freeing and exciting. It was also productive. Despite the demands of family life and eventually three children, the bulk of Out, Brief Candle was written in the following few years on a series of small personal organisers, starting with a tiny Psion Series 3c (pictured) and ending with the big daddy of them all – the Psion Series 7.

Then came the train crash. I wrote thousands of words and had a great time producing them, but I also had a mess on my hands: plot strands that didn’t link, inconsistencies everywhere, character flaws and unexplained events by the bucketload. If I ever wanted to reach the end, I knew I had to start taking things seriously. I started re-imagining and re-describing my characters, now I knew who they were. I created a long overdue timeline of the principal events. I drew out my settings and created backstories where I realised I didn’t know them. And finally, I decided how my story would end, and I worked out what I needed to do to get from here to there. It was a different way of writing and it took a while, but it was worth it.

This gear-change was the best decision I ever made. Without it, I would never have extracted myself from the dog’s dinner I’d created.

I finally wrote my last few words in 2002. I made a pact with myself not to fiddle with the text any further – however strong the urge – printed out a clean copy, and optimistically sent it to myself via registered post as proof of copyright.

When I read Out, Brief Candle now, I can hear myself change over the years it took to write. It’s a story in two parts, and Part Two could easily have been written by some new guy drafted in to replace the author of Part One, who was presumably too exhausted to continue. Despite its many flaws, I’m very proud of it. If you’re out there wondering whether to write something of your own, I’d definitely give it a go. But remember that – like me – you might end up being in it for the long haul.

*I’m afraid I’ve lost the exact original quote, but it went very much like this: “Man longs for knowledge but he has only the words of his speech to use, and these are inadequate. There can be  little or no communication between man and man, for words are the names of memories, and no two men have the same memories. Moreover, words are little-suited to knowledge since each word is surrounded by the undertones of its own history. Finally, words are inadequate for piercing the essence of reality, since they are merely the indicators of our own memories and these being merely contingent can no more get at the true reality than a spider that has put its nest in the corner of a palace can get at the total reality of the palace.”

This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

Ten reasons why a Kindle is more than just reading

Diary date: 29th March, 1985

I’d forgotten how much obligatory reading I used to have to do. In 1985, I was in the first year of my degree course in French and Scandinavian Studies (mostly Swedish, with a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure). I was never the fastest of readers, so by the time I’d got through Stendhal‘s epic Le Rouge et Le Noir (which, according to my diary, I bought today), the entire four-year course was all but over.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

These days, it feels like it would be so much easier.

Yes, I’m talking about my Kindle.

I haven’t read a physical book since I was introduced to my Kindle; but I’m not sure ‘read’ is really the right word – Kindling is an activity that feels different enough to deserve its own name.

Like everything else, Kindling comes with its good and bad points, so here are my top ten reasons why it’s great – plus another five that should reassure you that my love is not blind.

The good stuff

1. I can read faster on my Kindle.

I have absolutely no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but as a notoriously slow reader, I can tell when I’m motoring through pages at a decent lick – and my Kindle maximum is a darn sight higher than my standard top speed.

2. I never have to buy trashy airport novels or exceed my baggage allowance with loads of weighty books.

I have as much of the world’s literature as I can afford already in my pocket – and it will never weigh an ounce more, even if I do decide to buy Le Rouge et Le Noir at some point for old times’ sake.

3. I can try before I buy.

As someone from the old school of being morally obliged to finish a book once I’ve started it, sample chapters are a godsend and can save me months of heartache and frustration. I just wish my Kindle had been around before I bought The Da Vinci Code. There’s a few months of my life I’ll never see again.

4. I can concentrate on what I’m doing.

There’s nothing else really going on to get in the way of some serious reading, like dog-eared pages, coffee cup stains or distracting covers. The uniformity of the overall experience lets me hone my powers of Kindling to the max.

5. No one knows what I’m reading.

Embarrassing books or covers are no longer a worry in public places. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no intention of doing so, but you get the idea. ‘Nuff said.

6. I have a vague feeling of being part of something.

In a spooky way, I feel just a teensy bit connected to other books and other people. I can ignore both if I want to, but at least they’re there if I need them.

7. I Kindle on my own terms.

Font size and line spacing are suddenly up to me, not an anonymous typesetter somewhere. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.

8. I can save my favourite bits.

Not just from one book, but from every book I read – and keep them all together in one place. I have no idea why I find this so cool, but I do.

9. I actually look up words I don’t understand.

In the past, I would almost never have looked up the meaning of a word I didn’t know in a dictionary – especially if I was cosy and warm and tucked up in bed. On my Kindle, I do it all the time and now know the meaning of crepitus , xenobiotic and of course, sciolism.

10. I can fool myself that my eyesight is not deteriorating.

Just adjust that font size and pretend it’s not happening. Who knows, it might not be.

The not-so-good stuff

1. Every book feels a bit the same.

There’s so little that obviously distinguishes one book from another – size, weight, colour, font, spacing – that I occasionally get myself all mixed up and start wondering why Jack Reacher is suddenly in Life of Pi.

2. You can’t easily flick backwards to check stuff.

OK, you can, but not easily or quickly enough for my liking, and especially not if you’re going back a long way and need to check the name of a minor soldier you last encountered 300 pages ago in War and Peace.

3. Pages don’t stay the same.

This is probably just me, but I remember a lot of what’s-happened-when in a book from the physical layout of the page. I’ll know for example that a particular scene happened a couple of pages after the start of the previous chapter, on a page with lots of dialogue and a long, solid paragraph at the bottom, and with a speck of mud-coloured dirt in the top right-hand corner. Kindling doesn’t give me these kind of clues, and if a bit of mud-coloured dirt is on one page, it’s on every page.

4. There’s no hard evidence of what you’ve read.

Finishing a book has always provided a moment of minor celebration and achievement for me, but somehow I don’t get the same buzz with my Kindle. Putting a completed book on a shelf somewhere has been like a rite of passage. All I’ve got now is a screen full of digital covers that only I ever see. My bookshelves are starting to look rather forlorn, and increasingly either out of date, empty, or filled with other stuff that’s probably even harder to dust. If I was in the bookshelf industry, I might start thinking about diversifying.

5. You can’t see what other people are reading and get inspired by it.

Watching someone absorbed in a book on the train and making a mental note to buy a copy is becoming a thing of the past. I can confirm that peering closely at fellow travellers’ Kindles to try and achieve the same effect is frowned upon and considered impolite, creepy and whatever else it was that woman said before she moved to the other side of the carriage.

Happy Kindling!

Belgium, man! Belgium!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tape boxed setDiary date: 20th March, 1985

On this day back in 1985 I am not happy. One of my cassette tapes has broken, beyond even the ability of a rewinding pencil to repair it.

Understand please that this was not just any tape. To record it five years earlier in 1980, I had plugged a tiny microphone into my portable cassette recorder, and propped it up against the speaker of my bedside radio alarm clock. The squeaky-sounding reward for my efforts had eventually been the full second series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I then listened to on a fairly perpetual loop every night for years afterwards. The lost episode was the one in which Zaphod utters the most obscene word in the universe (‘Belgium’, in case you were wondering – fortunately here on Earth we don’t know what it means) – not once but twice.

No such trouble these days, with the entire five Hitchhiker radio series available for download from the likes of the iTunes store, stored in the cloud if I need to access any of them, and syncable across as many devices as I can afford.

It can feel as if this sort of ubiquitous availability is somehow also equivalent to  permanence – that Douglas Adams‘ work is now saved and secured forever. But that’s surely a mistake. Who’s to say what the world will be like years from now, and whether we’re even capable of building a digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time?

Interesting then, that when the Long Now Foundation – an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking and the originators of the wonderful 10,000 year clock – were considering how best to preserve a record of the world’s many disappearing languages, they decided to etch the information onto a nickel disk in addition to committing it to the potentially ephemeral ones and zeroes of the cloud. Copies of the disk will be sent off into the centuries to come in the hands of individual owners across the world – a physical, distributed, analogue storage system far more capable of surviving a journey of thousands of years into into the future than anything the digital world currently has to offer.

If we want to avoid on a grander scale the kind of sad end that befell my cassette, we’re going to have to work a lot harder at managing both our data and the platforms that allow us to access it. Within a year or two – possibly less – the technology required to play my remaining Hitchhiker tapes will probably have departed the house – unlikely ever to return.