Sunday, 22 May 2011

Good stuff

1. I love how cutting-edge technology keeps getting used for quite trivial things. First there were those many odd gadgets in the Innovations catalogue which claimed to have been developed by NASA, as if the point of the moon missions had been to develop pens that worked upside down and really comfortable pillows. Total surveillance became possible, and the concept of Big Brother turned from a government controlling its people for sinister ends to a low-brow TV game show used to sell gossip magazines. Complex motion sensors and accelerometers were developed, and people use them to play tennis with someone in another city, or to pretend to be drinking beer from their iphone. It hadn't occurred to me that the Artificial Intelligence and the Turing test have gone the same way until I saw this excellent conversation between a bloke and a chatbot who wanted to get his credit card by pretending to be a young lady. This is really the Turing test in action, with real stakes. As a species, we're pretty slobbish. But I like that about us.

2. But this vision of books as places where you hang out to chat with random people about the book, rather than just reading it, and where the poor author never gets to finish the thing sounds pretty hellish to me. Interesting, but if it happens I don't think I'll be taking part. And a lot of readers are unsociable types like me. I think that digital books should instead develop things along the lines of the dictionary that's built into the kindle, things that help you read without getting in the way. The dictionary needs more words in it, since one only looks up obscure things anyway and there are so many old books for free on the Kindle, and it should have a lot more in the way of proper names, so that you can get a reminder of obscure references to mythical or historical figures. At the moment the endnotes of good editions of classics can be even harder to use than in the actual book, and that's just the sort of thing where an ebook reader ought to be able to give you instant info without breaking your reading. I have an edition (paperback) of Beowulf which has enough marginal vocabulary and notes about cruxes that it's possible to read Beowulf in the bath, and it makes so much difference to be able to read it as a poem rather than just translating it as a text. I think ebooks should go the route of unobtrusive help.

3. Talking of books and technology, I do rather like this new "book trailer" thing. At the time I missed the one Gary Shteyngart made for the release of Super Sad True Love Story in hardback, but it's great. He's made a sequel for the release of the paperback which is also quite funny, if not as good. Basically, if you've read any Shteyngart these will assure you that Super Sad True Love Story is the same sort of thing, and remind you why you like him. Well done Shteyngart.


  1. Are Kindles waterproof? People always say that books have the advantage that you can read them in the bath, but I don't take baths, I shower. Why isn't technology catering for ME?

  2. I know what, the page you're reading should be projected onto the wall next to the shower/bath and you can turn the pages using a rubberised waterproof remote. I want to see this happen and soon.