The cost of Kindle books

I was waxing lyrical about my Kindle at work on Thursday. This followed my post extolling its virtues the previous evening.

My client was lacklustre about the concept of an electronic reading device. She claimed she liked the feel of a book, and didn’t see the appeal of reading it on a screen. In fact, she was mildly repulsed at the thought.

So I showed her. She immediately warmed to it. She liked that it was the size of a book, and that the contents of the screen looked just like a book, as opposed to being backlit in an iPad-esque kind of way. She liked that it could hold 3,000+ books, and that its battery would last for weeks. She was particularly interested in being able to take lots of books on holiday without having to pack them all. The upfront cost didn’t bother her too much either.

She asked whether all titles were available. So I asked what she would be interested in. We did a quick search for the book that she was currently reading. On Amazon UK, Martina Cole’s The Family was priced as follows:

She will never buy a Kindle.

This needs to be sorted. I’m not sure why the Kindle book costs more than both the paperback and the hard cover. Is the publisher charging more for making their author’s work available electronically? Or is Amazon strapping on a significant margin for Kindle editions?

Whatever the reason, the electronic version of a book should *never* be more expensive than its physical equivalent. Same price, possibly; cheaper, almost always. As well as not turning people like my client off immediately, such a cost model is important to reflect the true cost of delivering the work to the buyer. Kindle editions are cheaper to create in the first instance, and the incremental delivery cost is so much lower than that of physical editions.

So Amazon, sort out your cost model. And don’t shame yourself in front of prospective customers again. OK?

Kindle: reviving my interest in reading

I’m loving my Kindle. I’ve had it for a few weeks now, and it’s re-ignited my love of reading.

Don’t get me wrong—I read before. But over time, my reading has become more bitty. I now read blogs, tweets, news articles, seldom delving into books any more.

Enter Kindle stage left. I’ve started reading books again. First up was Peter Taylor’s The Lazy Project Manager. And now I’m reading Professor Brian Cox’s Why does E=MC2. And each morning, my daughter chooses whether Winnie the Pooh or Alice in Wonderland will delight us aboard the bus to school.

I’m not reading swathes—I’ve never been that sort of reader. But when I board a bus or Tube, I automatically reach for the Kindle. And that, I love.

I have but two gripes thus far.

First, it seems that books launched to the Kindle are not proofread as well as their offline equivalents. (“Andmass…” at the beginning of a sentence, instead of “And mass…” in Why does E=MC2, for example.) Where the book is available both physically and on the Kindle, I’m surprised at the Kindle typos, and doubt that they’ve made their way into the offline versions. Yet I would be equally surprised if the books had been re-typed for electronic delivery. So I’m flummoxed.

Second, there’s a user interface gripe to which I have no answer. It seems that standard text formatting is justified, meaning that the edge of the text lines up beautifully down the left and right of the page. But because of the Kindle’s relatively narrow reading pane, fewer words appear on a single line under the standard portrait view than is the case in a paperback. The result: on occasions, where a particularly long word appears at the start of a line, the Kindle is unable to successfully kern the previous line, resulting in a ragged right line in the middle of an otherwise justified paragraph. It grates.

Overall though, utter joy.

Distributed editorial for data.gov

At GovCamp on Saturday, Hadley Beeman explored the concept of reward when it came to editing government datasets.

Discussion soon turned to the Wikipedia model, and this fascinated me—the idea that people out there in the street might contribute to enhancing datasets without a tangible reward.

Firstly, is a distributed editorial model possible? I don’t see why not.

Wikipedia has evolved with rules about grammar, content, structure within pages; and about relevance across pages. The former set is, as I understand it, largely self-policing. I’ve switched many a hyphen to an en dash in my time, and clarified grammar where needed. I once added a sentence detailing Hazel Blears’ height (4’10”) in the Trivia section of her entry. Someone added its metric equivalent (147cm) soon thereafter, before the entire sentence was removed about six months later.

Page inventory is more closely monitored and managed. And necessarily so. If Wikipedia was full of half-baked articles about everything and anything, then it would not be half as successful as it is. Hence why my page containing a half-baked list of UK government web domains was pulled, albeit quite some months after its original submission. (Quite how Wikipedia’s original set of articles was defined I’m not sure.)

In the data world, the grammar and structure rules can be replaced by field definitions, file formats and the like. But my feeling is that relevancy is a huge issue, one that needs centralised coordination. There is so much data in government. And I feel that it would be wholly wrong to release all of the non–protectively marked data to the public for analysis. Not because it would be dangerous, but because it would cause chaos and confusion. Data requests should be advertised, and responses to such requests should be sponsored by the departments or authorities best placed to source them. But those requests should be limited.

Without this central control, data.gov.uk will become akin to the internet, with lots of tosh out there obscuring the rare nuggets. But good, useful data is much more difficult to identify than is useful content, for the moment at least—hence the need for some centralised control.

Once defined, I see no reason why the creation and enhancement of those datasets cannot be outsourced to the community, with well-placed subject-matter experts dotted around for quality control.

Would that work?

My UK GovCamp 2011

Yesterday, I attended my first ever Govcamp. Not only was I in attendance, osirra.com was one of the 18 sponsors of the event, so as well as desperately wanting to attend, I also felt obliged to go.

It was fabulous.

Essentially, it’s a get-together of people who care about how the public sector can benefit from technology. And it was inspiring to see Microsoft’s big auditorium in Victoria packed to the rafters early on a Saturday morning. I think the actual numbers were higher than the 200 free invites officially distributed.

It was a damp, drizzly start to the day. But from the very first person I met, the weather was pushed to one side, and it was clear that the day was going to be marvellous.

To see so many people give up half of their weekend to something that, for most, is closely coupled with their jobs, was powerful. After brief introductions from all 200+ of us, the blank agenda was filled by people who wanted to talk about something, or those who wanted help with a specific issue.

For me, Chris Chant, the government’s interim CEO of digital, kicked off the meat of the day, describing how he believed the impending ICT strategy might support the evolution of government over the coming years. It was a popular session.

During the rest of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed a talk by Michele Ide-Smith on Agile project management (and learnt a lot!), hopefully helped Hadley Beeman crack the social side of distributed data editing, and was fascinated by Lloyd Davis’ social experiments.

The sessions were great. But the people made the event. The passion, the fervour, the huge levels of interest in what the vast majority outside the intersect of public sector and technology would find mind-numbingly dull. People struck up corridor conversations with people they’d never met, and it all felt rather fabulous. (I even started talking to Luke Harvey, a guy I’ve never met from the DWP, who informed me that he read my blog. At last, the reader has been found!)

I met some lovely folk, talked about some cool things, learnt a heap about what’s going on and how it’s being done, and look forward to building on those relationships.

BBC News: six months on

It is six months to the day since the BBC launched their new look news website. The timing of this post is entirely coincidental—I sent myself a reminder earlier to post my more considered opinions. So here goes.

I still hate it. On 19 July (a birthday post, it seems), I wrote a considered yet damning post articulating my views. Nine days later, upon reflection, my opinions hadn’t changed.

And six months later, I’m in the same boat. I use the News homepage as a means of accessing directly some of the lead stories. But I rarely touch the rest of the site. On the previous version, I regularly accessed many of the main sections on what was the left-hand nav.—Technology, Science/Nature (as it was), Politics, Sport etc. Now, I access my bookmarked Sport page, but rarely think to go to the other section homes.

I feel that the BBC are depriving me of news I was once eager to access. Yes, it’s partly down to my laziness. But in the main, I feel that it’s down to some site changes that didn’t focus sufficiently on the user—me.

The seven day working week

The five day working week simply isn’t long enough. It’s not about the amount of work you can get done per se. It’s about the amount of time between weekly status updates. You see, more often than not, project status updates occur weekly. And for one project I’m working on, I have to allow time to compile data for the reports, and time to socialise and agree it with the US taking into account a five hour time difference, all of this while working part-time on the project.

Together, these factors mean that an inordinate percentage of time is spent reporting, with too little time dedicated to the “doing” that makes this week’s report different from last week’s.

Rather than eat into weekends, which would likely be an unpopular move, I’m proposing that the full week is increased from seven to ten days in length, three of which will form the weekend. There will be 36.5 (or 36.6) weeks per year. Let’s leave the months as they are—don’t want to go too wild.

Weekends will make up 30% of time (up from 28.3% under the current regime). The weekdays will be named Monday, Pluday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Bacday and Friday; the weekends Saturday, Danday, Sunday. Wednesday will still fall in the middle of the working week with Pluday (named after Pluto, the God of Wealth, a day of earning) being slotted in before Tuesday and Bacday (after Bacchus, the God of Wine, an evening of drinking) being slotted in after Thursday. Bacday will be the new Thursday. Danday has been named after me in honour of me providing everyone with an extra weekend day. Everyone must raise a glass in my honour at least once during that day.

It will be a long working week, but the three day weekends will make it all worthwhile.

Who’s with me? We’re looking to re-baseline on Monday 1 January, 2012. (It would have been a Sunday, but we’re re-baselining, remember?)

A brainful of tut

My brain is filled with tut.

I know 25 digits of pi.  I know the first 21 powers of two without skipping a beat, a list of numbers that I can recite digit by digit, 75 in total. I know all of the American states, although for a long while I used to pronounce Arkansas as it’s written. I can tell you which US towns lie in zip codes that are themselves powers of two (Plymouth, FL; Lebanon, MO; Yarmouth, ME; Mansfield, MA).

I love knowing this shit. (For shit is what it is.) But I sometimes wonder whether something else should be there in its stead.

Google autocomplete’s 15-step infinite loop starts and ends with love

While walking up the high street this morning, I suddenly wondered whether there was an infinite loop triggered by following autocomplete results in Google. The methodology would be thus.

  1. Type <Google> into Google and take a note of the first autocomplete suggestion.
  2. Type that extension into Google and see what that term’s first autocomplete suggestion was.
  3. Repeat step 2. until the loop was closed. I.e. the same term occurred twice.

If you type <Google> into Google, its first autocomplete suggestion is for <Google Maps>. Search for <maps> and you’re prompted with <Maps quest>. And so on. Below is the full set of results.

And here we loop back to step six.

(For the record, this post was autocompletely useless.)

Single space: the final frontier

Right now, I am a troubled little soul.

You see, I was taught at school that there should be much space in between sentences. Indeed my teacher at the time, in the days of yore before computers were standard issue, literally applied a rule of thumb: there should be a full thumb’s width between a full stop and the subsequent sentence. Even with my rather petite thumbs, this amounted to quite a hefty gap.

On the second day, God invented computers—PCs in the morning; Macs and handheld devices in the afternoon, I believe. To allow me to move beyond my first typed sentence, I subconsciously—if I don’t remember correctly—converted the SI unit of space measurement in the handwritten world (the thumb) into two spaces in the space age, for want of a better phrase. (I’m laughing at that one, even if you’re not.) And ever since the mid-1980s, sentences emanating from my fingers have been succeeded by a double-tap of my right thumb.

(I later discovered that my mum has ever used three spaces, a behaviour that I can only describe as deranged (in the loving sense, of course), similarly deranged to the way in which sticklers will no doubt describe my own double-space habit.)

I always thought it was a style thing, a view likely encouraged by my mum’s quirky behaviour on this front. But my behaviour has drawn an increasing number of frowns of late. Those in the world of publishing—both online and offline—have reliably informed me that such behaviour is not to be accepted, and that one space is the standard.

This is a revelation that I’m happy, nay eager, to embrace. But I expect it will be my equivalent of giving up smoking. Or putting your socks on in the opposite order to which you generally do it (my modus operandi is left, right, btw). It sounds easy. But it’s not. For the split second for which my right foot is besocked and my left one is bare, my world is in utter turmoil.

I will need a support mechanism to help me through the months ahead, to unlearn something that has been a subconscious action for well over half my life.

If you catch me using two spaces, please take me to one side and slap me gently across the face. I expect it will be a rough ride, but I’m hoping you can help me reach the other side a stronger and better person.

Crowdsourcing lunacy

Back in October 2010, people were lauding that the month was the first in hundreds of years that featured five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays. And this month, people are similarly bowled over about the rarity with which we witness a month that contains five Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

Immediately upon hearing the first example, I knew it was bunkum. But this time, I decided to document the idiocy.

Every single year features no fewer than seven months containing 31 days. This is a prerequisite for three separate days to appear five times. And in those months, the days that fall on the first, second and third of the month will feature five times. It’s as simple as that.

Now over the course of time, the probability of each day of the week hitting the first day of one of those months tends to 1/7, or 14.28%. So the first of January in a randomly chosen year is (roughly) equally likely to fall on a Monday, a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

And given that there are seven candidate months each year, you should expect to see an average of one month a year containing five Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Or any other combination of three consecutive days for that matter.

The likelihood of getting five Saturdays in February on the other hand is much smaller. It happened three times in the 20th century (1920, 1948 and 1976) and will next happen in 2032.  *That* would be something worth writing about, were it not for the lunacy that is the Gregorian calendar.

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