Why I am a terrible reviewer

I like everything. I mean, I don’t love everything, but I get enjoyment out of almost everything I experience, whether it’s a book, comic, album, or movie. Of course, I enjoy some more than others, and I revisit some of them again and again, but I find it really hard to name something that I actively dislike.

This is evident in my ratings of songs in iTunes, my ratings of film and TV on Netflix, and the ratings I assign to things I review at Guerrilla Geek. Now part of that is probably selection bias; I’m likely to watch a film or listen to an album that I have either been recommended or that’s from an artist I know that I like already. This also means I am not experiencing completely new things as much as I tend to stick with what I know which is something that I moan about to friends often, but rarely do anything about. As I’ve grown older the time I am able to put in to seeking out new music or new authors has shrunk quite a bit.



My hope was that the digital revolution of music and written media would once again enable me to browse through lists as I once would browse through records and books at my local stores. This has not been the case, and I’m not sure it ever will be, due to the lack of tactile feedback: There’s something about running ones finger over the spines of books or flicking CD cases that is lost when scrolling through a list on a screen.

The same is true of video games: If I spend a couple of days at a weekend engrossed in a game, as I used to, I enjoy it at the time but feel like I missed out on an opportunity to do something else once I’m back at work. I have therefore started to focus on playing demos of games or Arcade titles (and I’m not the only one); bite-size chunks of video games that give me the enjoyment of playing a game without the commitment that sucks away my evermore precious free time. I had a conversation the other day with someone else of about my age who does a job similar to me, and we bemoaned the hours we put into building and upgrading PCs just to play the latest game. Both of us have forsaken that world for one of simplicity and ease — that of consoles and downloadable titles — and I think this is a common trend.

The time that I spend listening to music and reading books has not changed significantly, however. I think this is because listening to music is something that I can, and will, do while doing other things. Walking the dogs, exercising, traveling to work, even while I’m at work, are all opportunities to listen to music. But rarely new music. New music demands respect from me and a focus of attention that I can’t give when multitasking. I still like to read album notes when exploring an album for the first time, and I will never ever put it into shuffle rotation until I’ve listened all the way through it at least once. I am trying Pandora as a way to find new music, but I get frustrated when there’s a song that I really like and I can’t easily click through to the whole album and listen start-to-finish.

Books, of course, demand attention. The difference there is that reading a book is my ground state. When I have nothing else to do, I will turn to a book first. For a while this wasn’t true: I would open my email, check Twitter, check my news aggregator, check Twitter again… But I’m back on the books again mostly thanks to the convenience of owning a nook with a sizable chunk of my book library installed on it. I have even started to use the nook to find new books. It’s very easy to grab a free sample of a book and download it, and on finding that it’s a good read, to buy it with a single click. It still feels very clinical to me though and I find myself going to my local book store to find new books instead, but just buying them on the nook. And then I feel guilty for not patronizing the local book store. At least I’m finding new things again.

But even when I’m reading something to review it rather than having picked it myself, no matter what it is, I enjoy it. I can tell when something isn’t to my taste, but I have a positive experience reading or listening. When I come to write the review, I will find things to like about it much easier than I find things to dislike. Perhaps I’m just not critical enough to be a good reviewer, or maybe those that are more critical have to try hard to find things to criticize too. I do think that my opinions are skewed by the sheer joy I get from devouring media.

I haven’t decided yet if it’s a problem that I’m not more critical of things and that I seem to enjoy everything. It makes my life a happy place to be even if it makes me an ineffectual reviewer. Just don’t expect many ratings below three stars in my reviews.

eBook user Bill of Rights

This post started as a comment on this post, but it became really long, so you should read that first and then come back to read my thoughts. I’ll wait.

I have a problem with the approach outlined in this post. I understand the issues, and am frustrated that media ownership has become media leasing across the board from music, to movies, and now books. I want to own something when I pay money for it unless it is explicit that I am entering into a rental agreement. Electronic books, digital copies of movies bundled with Blu-Ray copies, and music from online retailers, are not advertised as rentals but as purchases. Of course there is the small print, the EULA, the Terms and Conditions, that to varying degrees specify the rights of the purchaser in regards to use of the product, but I am not aware of any that are explicitly rental agreements and that is exactly what they are becoming.

So on to books.

Let’s be clear: Traditional books suffer from the same copyright issues as digital media. There is nothing stopping me from buying a book, reading it, copying huge chunks of it, and publishing my own book plagiarizing the work. Similarly, I can, should I have the time and patience, copy the pages, bind them, and sell them myself. Or is there? Of course there is. There are existing legal processes in place for dealing with copyright infringement outside of the digital realm. It is important that we work to make publishers and distributors see that there is no difference between the traditional and digital spaces. It may be harder to track the perpetrator of copyright infringement, and it may be easier for the crime to be perpetrated, when dealing with digital media but the legal framework is already there. Changing the relationship between the publisher and the purchaser by setting limits on lending or sharing, or limiting how I can store and access the media I have purchased is equivalent to, and as ridiculous as, replacing bookshops with libraries and printing books using ink or paper that deteriorates on each read or after a fixed amount of time.

If any publisher tried to do this to traditional books they would be faced with an almighty uproar from the public and laughed out of business.

So on to the eBook User’s Bill of Rights.

I applaud Sarah Houghton-Jan’s efforts to raise the volume of protest regarding this issue. I applaud all bloggers and writers who are trying to raise awareness of this issue. But I do not think this is the right way to go about it for one simple reason:

Traditional media consumers do not require a Bill of Rights.

By setting up a Bill of Rights we are strengthening the belief that digital media consumption is different to traditional media consumption and requires special treatment. This is one of the foundations for the argument for Digital Rights Management and is a false premise. The right way to push back on this issue is to show that digital media and traditional media are equivalent and the users’ rights are equivalent. We do not have or need a Bill of Rights for traditional media and should not need one for digital media.

I agree with the central tenet of Houghton-Jan’s Bill of Rights, and I am also sympathetic to those who suffer copyright infringement, but it is important to find the similarities between traditional and digital media rather than highlighting the differences. We need to show how ridiculous a concept DRM is and encourage the legal system to find ways to protect ownership of copyright that make sense for all media irregardless of delivery system.

That, or maybe it’s time to question the notion of copyright as a fundamental truth.


In which the word ‘intereading’ is coined

In between ending my old job and starting my new job, I had 10 weeks off. In that 10 weeks I started a lot of the little projects that have been on my mind (and finished none, of course): a z80 emulator (the cpu from a gameboy) and some bits of the graphics processor, a short story, the start of a longer story, an iPad version of the old Fighting Fantasy books (which someone beat me to releasing), and an iPad framework for developing old-school text adventure games. Most of these projects were just clearing out dusty corners of my cerebral filing cabinet, but I was most excited about playing with the notion of books and interactivity on the iPad.

This next bit may seem like a non-sequitur, but i’ll pull it all back together in a bit. I promise.

I’ve admired Oliver Jeffers‘ work for ages. I own a few of his books, have a large print of his in the bedroom, and have a tattoo appointment booked to get a tattoo inspired by another of his images.

Here’s where this post comes back together: This is one of those ideas that I wish I’d had. It’s a version of Oliver Jeffers’ latest book, The Heart and the Bottle, developed for iPad with beautiful, whimsical interactions for the reader.

As an aside, we’re probably going to want to start using a more active noun for someone who reads interactive books. An interacter, perhaps? Or intereader?

Anyway, I cannot wait until there are more books like this, and if I was a kid I would interead this over, and over again.

Who am I kidding; I will be intereading it over, and over.

Thank you, Douglas Adams

It’s Towel Day so I feel compelled to write about the effect Douglas Adams had on my world view and my life. I’m certainly not alone in recognising his impact on the world and it delights me to be one of many who felt touched by his writing.

I received my first copy of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (a trilogy in four parts) in 1984 when I was the ripe age of 7. I think I bought it during one of many regular trips to the book store that my parents would take me on.

I don’t think I have ever officially thanked them for that so I will take the opportunity now: I always looked forward to the times I could spend wandering the aisles and browsing through books, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t leave the store with a purchase; frequently a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, and in later years Pratchett books. But back to Mr Adams.

The edition I have has a wonderful cover that is truly of its time: A heavily pixelated star field with the title and author’s name in computer generated extruded type.

I fell in love with the writing immediately. Nothing had so perfectly blended the absurdist humour that I’d inherited from watching Monty Python and listening to The Goons courtesy of my Dad with real characters that I could invest in. It set my imagination on fire in ways that even The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings had failed to do. Not that I love Tolkein’s work any less, but there’s something grounded in reality in Adams’ stories and characters that make them easier to get lost in.

The book rarely left my side and I devoured it in short order, and I have continued to revisit it every year since. Thanks to a recent purchase of a nook, I now have a copy on me at all times (next to my towel, of course).

It was another three years before I found another Adams book to love, which was Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. This was the book that introduced me to the notion that a book didn’t have to be high fantasy or science fiction to be compelling. By this time I had already started programming computers (I had just received an Acorn Archimedes 310) and felt a connection to Richard MacDuff and his Anthem software that converts corporate accounts into music is the basis for my continuing fascination with data visualisation.

Similarly, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul released the following year introduced me to Norse mythology and Mostly Harmless a few years later encouraged me to pursue the beauty inherent in the perfect cheese sandwich.

I can trace so many influences directly back to Douglas Adams’ work that I must offer my heartfelt thanks, not only for all the fish, but to opening my young mind to a world of wonder, imagination, and absurdity.

To quote Dirk Gently himself, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

The perfect gift

Sometimes, you get the perfect gift. The gift that my wife bought me for Christmas finally arrived today, and it is every bit as awesome as she promised that it would be.

Presents are kept as great secrets in this house, and when it didn’t arrive for Christmas, she was very upset, and insisted that there was no way that ‘they’ could possibly send another. Also, she let slip that it came from Ireland. Now I don’t know about you, but thinking of strictly limited items coming from Ireland left me stumped. Unless it was a Leprechaun’s pot o’ gold. Or his Lucky Charms (that’s a North American cultural reference. I’m getting better at those). Fortunately, whatever Giants, Faerie Kings, Sober Irishmen and other mythological creatures she dealt with came through and another was sent.

When I finally saw what it was, it made me think about what it takes to get that perfect gift for someone, and hopefully how I can get there next year.

In essence, there are a few different categories of gift that can be given from one person to another. The first is the sort of gift that you buy, maybe when you don’t feel that you know someone particularly well, that you base off of what you would like to get. There’s no shame in that; it’s a perfectly good strategy when working with limited information. However, the gift is likely to be uninspired, and might even be something the receiver hates.

The next type of gift is the easy route: Get the thing that the receiver has been asking for, or dropping massive hints about, for the last 9 months. While possibly uninspired, you’re going to pretty much guarantee a happy recipient. You can also step this one up a bit by getting something that you know the receiver wants, but won’t ever get for themselves. Perhaps it’s a collectable gadget with no practical use or just something a little on the expensive side like the best watch ever.

If you’re not Mirto you can ignore this next bit: LOOK!

So how do you get the perfect gift? Well, it’s risky, but as with most risky strategies it has the greatest potential payoff. You get something that you know the receiver will love, but would never, in a million years, think of getting for themselves. That’s what Mirto is able to do again and again.

This time, she found a limited print of a watercolour of a scene from a magical kids book that I adore. Amazingly, I did not know that I adored the book until she bought it for me this Christmas. Yes, she knows me frustratingly well. The book is Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers and the print is the cover of the book. The book, by the way, is being released as an animated movie.

I would never buy art for myself. And if I did, I would never think to find a print of a scene from a book that I haven’t even read yet. Still, it is just what I wanted. I just never knew it until I had it.

A perfect day

It’s the end of Christmas day, and while it was the least Christmassy Christmas day I’ve had in a long time, it was exactly what I needed in terms of a day just hanging out in the apartment with the family.

There were some last minute things to finish up from the move yesterday, including the great Book Purge and Sort Out. I’m not a fan of getting rid of books, any books, and never have been. However, it became clear while unpacking that we just don’t have the room for every single book, and there are some books in the collection (800+. And now I write that down, I realise just how silly a number that is) that really don’t need to be kept. Someone else can find joy in the Dan Brown bought-at-an-airport-about-to-get-on-a-flight novels and a selection of fad diet books from the last fifteen years. As it turns out, figuring out which books to pass on to others was the easy bit; the difficult bit was actually putting the books we wanted to keep in the bookcases.

In the past, I have ordered my books loosely by genre (fiction, non-fiction, reference) and then by author, and finally by chronological order of first publication. However, when you are working with limited space, and many, many (i mentioned we have over 800 books, right) books, this is no longer an option. So I had to find a new system. The one I settled on is still ordered by genre, and in fact more strictly than I have in the past, but the author order is more general. When there are multiple books by the same author (Adams, Gaiman, Pratchett, Banks, Scott Card, Herbert, Tolkein, spotting a pattern?), they stay together, however the Herberts are not necessarily before the Holts, but they are kind of on the same shelf. The general effect is actually rather pretty, aesthetically, as the bookcases appear to be a little haphazard and disordered, but any book can be found very quickly.

The real end result of that digression, which I am leading too in a rather too rambling manner, is that we awoke this morning to a finally tidied apartment (not counting the den, or study, which we won’t speak about until after the holidays).

Now, I’m afraid I must wander off down the path of another aside here for a moment, before finally getting to what is rapidly becoming the point of this post no longer. The family tradition round these parts is not to cook the almight turkey and its various accoutrements, but instead to offer a smörgåsbord of cheese and breads, as well as meat things for those that eat it, and a selection of other bits and pieces such as hummus and pesto.

However, this Christmas morning, we started with pancakes. I’ve posted about pancake breakfasts before and they still remain my favourite breakfast. Now that we’re in the US, I suppose I’ll have to clarify that there are really crepes, and that I, probably unusually, prefer mine with different cheeses and pesto or olive tapenade fillings.

Once these were eaten, and episodes of Fringe and Pushing Daisies were also consumed, it was time to think about putting out the food for the rest of the day. But wait! No hummus has been made! And the last of the pesto was used in the crepes! What are we to do?!

Fortunately, sitting in the corner of the kitchen is a shiny new Krups mini food processor, perfect for tackling such projects. Now, we had a mini food processor previously, but it worked on the wrong voltage and was so old and blunt that you could put your hand in while it was working and still walk away with all of your fingers. The new one, though: You can feel the power throbbing beneath your hand as you push the lid gently down and encourage the blades to whirr within. You can hear the motor whine as it forces the blades through whatever you choose to process. It is just the right size, and an extremely pleasing shape, and activation by pressing the lid adds a more visceral interaction to something that is normally abstracted by a switch or button. I think it’s my new favourite gadget.

I decided to celebrate the arrival of this newest electronic child into the home by making pesto, for the first time, and hummus, not for the first time, but on a much longer leash than normal; away from the strict instructions of the hummus master of the house. For once, both my kitchen experiments were successful and it all turned out deliciously fresh and tasty. While I will take credit for much of this, I do have to allow part of that success to be down to the inclusion of the special ingredient: Skywalker Ranch Olive Oil, fresh from Uncle George.

The rest of the day is actually a bit of a blur, which is almost certainly due in some part to the bottles of wine that have become mysteriously empty during the course of the day. We had a short but sweet visit from our new neighbours, a chicken was roasted and two batches of Swedish cinnamon buns were baked, and the day was rounded out by a few hours of playing Little Big Planet together.

All in all, a pretty darn perfect day, Christmas or not. Tomorrow, we might even get the smörgåsbord going and try to make a dent in the dozen cheeses in the fridge as we entertain a very special guest.

Making the choice to read

As always, Mr Wil Wheaton has given me cause to ponder. In a blog post today, he quotes from an interview with Neal Stephenson regarding making the choice to read a book rather than engage in one of the many other activities we have available to us now.

It’s something that I’ve recently rediscovered: While I might love to browse my netvibes feeds and keep up with twitter, not to mention browsing the latest game demos through whatever means are available, or watching guilty pleasure TV, I still find the greatest peace and pleasure when I drop some music on a stereo, open up a book and allow myself to be absorbed. I still find the greatest connection to a story, and to characters, is that connection that comes through the pages of a book.

I’m really looking forward to the next two weeks of vacation before I fly out to my new home: Warhammer is coming, I get a chance to work on my own projects, but above all, I get to just sit and read for a while.