Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

A few more notes on the “Big Three”

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

…or…”What? Two posts within a week of one another that aren’t about C&I or OA? What is this world coming to?”

The most recent post was about the “Big Three” science fiction magazines and the fact that, as of January 2017, each one publishes six very large issues a year (to save money on postage and handling: the amount of fiction appears to about the same, the equivalent of one longish novel in each two-month issue).

I thought I’d add a few notes about the “Big Three” and my own reactions to them.

What’s so Big about the Big Three?

In 1980, Analog and Asimov’s each had about 100,000 circulation. That’s a lot for a print fiction magazine of any sort. F&SF ran about 60,000: still enough to make it one of the Big Three–especially since so few other magazines survived for very long (sigh: I do remember Galaxy and [Worlds of] If).

At this point, these three are mostly survivors of the pulp fiction era. By 2004, Analog was don to something like 40,000; Asimov’s to something like 30,000; and F&SF to something like 20,000. By 2009, those numbers were 26,000; 16,000; and 17,000 respectively.

The latest figures I can find for print circulation are lower, but not that much lower. The latest USPS form (in the Jan/Feb 2017 issues of Analog and Asimov’s, which curiously arrived on the same day) are–for the year as a whole–19,963 for Analog and 13,966 for Asimov’s; the latest-issue figures are in both cases nearly the same. The most recent figures I can find for F&SF have print circulation just under 12,000; I’ll update this post when the USPS form appears. (Unlike Analog and Asimov’s, F&SF actually publishes issues within the cover date range.) All three have electronic subscriptions as well, probably numbering in the thousands: it’s quite possible that overall circulation has stabilized. On the other hand, I wouldn’t pay more for a lifetime subscription than for a five-year subscription…

These are three distinctively different magazines, even if all three use small type on cheap paper (they’re still pulps) and the two A’s are the same length and published by the same company. Here’s my current personal take:


The one with the visible gears–this is very much the Hard Science Fiction place, also in some ways the traditionalist magazine. If you know about the Sad Puppies…well, they’re more likely to appear here than in the other two. It’s the only one where you can expect letters saying that certain stories Really Don’t Belong Here.

I’m finding more and more that the gears show in the writing as well. While some first-rate writers appear here, there’s more clunkiness here than in the other two; I’m finding a couple of authors that appear all the time where it’s liberating to give up after a few pages, something I almost never do elsewhere.

No fantasy. Humor tends to be frowned on (except in short-short “Probability Zero” pieces). Lots of science and “science” articles.

I’ll look at this one very carefully when renewal time comes around (like the others, subscriptions tend to be around $37/year or $63/two years: these mags just don’t have many ads). Maybe after decades of reading I’ve gotten too young for Analog.


To my mind, the best writing tends to appear here (but F&SF is close), and there’s a broad mix of all types of science fiction, including humor and some fantasy. For a long time, you could predict that a significant percentage of Nebula and Hugo short-fiction and editorial nominees would be from Asimov’s, and as of its 40th year, the magazine notes that stories have won 53 Hugos and 28 Nebulas, with editors receiving 20 Best Editor Hugos.

[I just slapped together a little table using Wikipedia’s lists of Hugo nominees and the find function. Here’s what I find from 1978–when Asimov‘s began–to the present:

Analog Asimov’s F&SF
Novella 34 80 28
Novelette 32 78 30
Short Story 27 77 33

That suggests something about writing quality, I think. (Asimov‘s editor has apparently been nominated every year but one, and won half the time.)

Here’s a similar table for the Nebulas, chosen by writers–again since 1978:

Analog Asimov’s F&SF
Novella 23 75 42
Novelette 15 66 56
Short Story 8 55 48

Anyway: I’ve read Asimov’s from the start (kept ’em for 20 years but lost them somewhere along the way, more’s the pity: were it not for the mailing labels defacing covers, that collection would probably be worth something…) and I’m likely to keep reading it for years to come.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

I think the order of the title is significant: F&SF is particularly strong on fantasy and the occult, and tends not to have much hard science fiction. It uniquely runs cartoons and reader competitions, and has a healthy respect for humor.

I’ve read it for decades off and on, and am likely to keep doing so; I sometimes think I’m likely to outlast the magazine (which could, unfortunately, be true for all three). I’m not sure I have a “favorite” between Asimov’s and F&SF; both seem to have high editorial standards and publish a wide variety of good fiction.

Trying to imagine a Venn diagram of the three–that is, with overlaps for stories that could appear in more than one of them without raising the ire of the readers (that being apparently mostly an issue for Analog), I’d guess about a 20%-25% overlap between Analog and Asimov’s, about a 30%-35% overlap between Asimov’s and F&SF, and maybe a 5% overlap (if that!) between F&SF and Analog, although that overlap would have been higher before Asimov’s came along.

[When do I read these magazines? Back when I was speaking, we were vacationing, and I was attending conferences, I mostly read them during travels. Now I read them at lunch–and I’m about half a year behind, one reason that Analog may get cut.]

Science fiction magazines: the “big three” all 6 BIG issues a year

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

I’ve subscribed to all three of the “big three” of science fiction print magazines for a long time–e.g., I’ve read every issue of Asimov’s, which is in its 40th year, and both Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) even longer.

I put “big three” in scare quotes because none of them have large circulations. (There are other SF magazines, some of them probably in print, but these are the three with long histories.)

A couple of years ago, F&SF switched from monthly issues to bimonthly (that is, six times a year), while making each issue much fatter: the postage costs were killing them financially. Meanwhile, both of the others (which are both published by Dell, also home to two mystery magazines) went to slightly larger but fewer pages–and to 10 issues per year, two of them double-thickness.

Now the shift is complete: as of January-February 2017, all three magazines publish six double issues per year. (They’re double issues so they don’t have to double the length of outstanding subscriptions.)

Initially, I thought the results meant less fiction. Now, I think it may mean more, as fewer pages are devoted to columns, editorials and overhead. So, for example:

  • The November/December 2016 F&SF has four novellas and seven short stories in addition to its two book review columns and film column.
  • The January/February 2017 Asimov’s has one novella, four novelettes and seven short stories plus poetry, a book review column, and three other editorials and columns.
  • The January/February 2017 Analog has one novella, four novelettes and eleven short and short-short stories plus a fact article, book reviews, poetry and several columns.

That’s a lot of text–novellas are 17,501 to 40,000 words while novelettes are 7,500 to 17,500 words.

It felt like I was getting at least a fairly long novel’s worth of reading in each issue. A quick scan and crude OCR of page pairs from each of those issues bears that out. F&SF has smaller pages and a little more leading, but more pages: 256 pages, which seem to average about 370-400 words. In other words, with six pages of overhead an issue could have up to 100,000 words; I’d guess the average is 90,000 or more (given that four novellas alone are at least 70,000 words!). The other two appear to have 650 words per page (roughly), and run 208 pages; given 8 pages of overhead, an issue could have 130,000 words or so, and I’d guess these issues run on the order of 100,000 words.

(Those numbers could all be seriously off–this was just one pair of pages scanned using Canon’s built-in OCR routines. Let’s just say that each double issue is probably between 75,000 and 130,000 words, and quite possibly 100,000 words or more–in any case, at least as long as a novel.)

Now, if I could keep up with them…while still reading actual novels. I wonder how long they’ll survive in these book/zine forms?


It’s not just (some) librarians who seem professionally suicidal

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Reading an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (via Kindle) about a magazine that started up three years ago and may not have money enough to produce any more issues.

With, but of course, an early paragraph about the curiosity of starting a new print magazine when (paraphrasing) magazines and newspapers are shutting down EVERY DAY.


Newspapers aren’t shutting down “every day.” After most afternoon newspapers (and, unfortunately, most competitive newspapers in most cities) shut down, there have been very few shutdowns–and, interestingly, ad revenue seems to have bottomed out and started rising again.

As for magazines, old ones do disappear (not every day, but every so often), as they have throughout the history of magazines. And new ones do appear (not every day, but almost) as they have throughout the history of magazines. Mr. Magazine (Prof. Samir Husni, who specifically tracks magazines available on newsstands) pretty consistently finds more startups than shutdowns every year. Yes, newsstand sales have continued to fall–but for most magazines (except People and a few others), newsstand sales are pretty much irrelevant. There’s a reason Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and ACLU have all introduced print magazines in the past few years–they work in a way few other media do. (It’s also true that there are a lot fewer multimillion-circulation magazines than there were years ago–but many more niche magazines. I think that’s a good thing, but then I never was much for the multimillion-circulation magazines. Except, I guess, for the biggest circulation magazine of them all: AARP The Magazine, which is steadily growing and now close to 24 million.)

Then, halfway through the article, we get to the “AHA!” moment, after blaming The Death Of All Print for the upstart magazine’s problems:

  • It doesn’t accept advertising, because that would impair the purity of the vision.
  • The online version not only doesn’t require subscriptions, it doesn’t accept them, because…

The founder’s pretty much upfront about wanting the magazine to be funded as somebody’s charity. That’s nice, but a failure to maintain that funding model has nothing whatsoever to do with The Death Of Magazines.

Meanwhile, Happy Holidays–all 27 of them during this season. For that matter, for a few of you, keep that colander shiny!

Another meaningless musical post

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Not sure why this stuck with me, but it did: a remarkable six-word lyric, to wit:

My heart cries out in desperation

which immediately precedes the chorus for the song (Ronnie Milsap, “Don’t Take It Tonight” if you’re too young to know it).

As far as I can tell, Milsap originated the phrase; Bing and Google show up other uses (mostly religion-related), but I’m guessing those authors copped it from Milsap, quite possibly without even realizing it.

In the original it is part of a love song–naturally, a lost love song.

Which brings me to the companion item: a remarkable little disquisition on happiness and love songs. This time the author is Harry Nilsson and it’s a bit long to quote without possibly being a copyright violation. So, instead, I’ll point you to the YouTube video:

I think the song’s hilarious in general (if you don’t know Nilsson, this is not, shall we say, his usual singing voice or accent). But the disquisition in particular comes as the spoken interlude in an otherwise-sung song, beginning right around 1:27 and running to 2:16.

For some of us, “…if everyone was happy…” is enough to trigger the whole sequence.

Have a nice weekend. (If you’re wondering, still happily married after 36.5 years. Tom Paxton wrote great lost-love/losing-love songs that didn’t refer to him either.)

The Final Economist

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

It arrived on Monday–two days later than the cover date, but that happens sometimes.

It’s sitting in the special throne room plexiglass stand used to hold magazines being read in the throne room.

For the last year, it’s been the only magazine there–because it takes more than a week of throne room visits to get through an issue.

I never actually paid for The Economist; it was a Magazines-for-Miles deal using airline miles from one of several airlines I never plan to use again. Even at the absurd $0.02/mile exchange rate (which most people now think grossly exaggerates the worth of airline miles), the “price” was nowhere near $160, the one-year subscription price; I think it was around $60.

I’m one of those readers: I read most magazines cover to cover, and we subscribe to a lot of magazines. (Including ones that come with various other arrangements–e.g., VIA, On Investing, AARP The Magazine, Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife, and now the new ACLU magazine–it’s something over two dozen.)

So next week I’ll go back to having a mix of magazines in the throne room stand–Fast Company (well suited to the location), some of the infrequent “comes because you do something” magazines, maybe Fortune if I’m ahead on other things.

I decided not to renew some months ago–quite apart from the $160/year, which is more than we spend on any four magazines, much less one.

A few of the reasons why:

What I Won’t Miss

The strained British/slang/invented language the “newspaper” uses.

The feeling that the only difference between “leaders” (editorials) and other articles is that the leaders are explicitly slanted.

The constant slagging of the U.S. and especially Obama.

Added 7/11: I especially won’t miss the frequent admonitions for the U.S. to get into another shooting war.

The special definition of “liberal” used when business or markets are involved.

The sheer volume of it all.

What I Will Miss A Little

Being better informed (to the extent that you can filter out the slant) about a range of nations and economic issues.

Some of the special sections.

I might say “The World in 2014”–but I never received that special issue, and by the time I realized I should have received it, it was far too late.

What I Will Miss The Most

I’ll miss this enough that I’ll probably start extending my library visits so I can catch up with recent issues (I’m assuming they keep at least four back; if not, I’ll have to start going more often).

The final page, especially when there’s no obvious candidate for the obituary of the week.

I find the final page superb. I plan to keep reading it.

[By the way, in case any silly person thinks the only reason I’m dropping The Economist is the price and thinking of giving it to me: Please don’t. Contribute a third of the cost, or a little less, say $50, to Cites & Insights.]

In some ways, I’ve liked having a weekly magazine. Time is such a shadow of its former self that I’d find it sad to take (I read it for years, back when there was some substance to it). I might look at The Week or, less probably, Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Most likely, I’ll get used to not having a weekly–after all, I do still read the daily, even if via Kindle Fire 8.9.

Songs and arrangements, 1

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

(Or maybe 15 or 20…it’s been a while.)

The songs I’ve kept–specifically, the 800-odd songs on my Sansa Fuze, chosen from my collection of a couple thousand–are there for various reasons, mostly pure pleasure.

That pleasure sometimes comes from the arrangements not just the songs. And sometimes what I believe to be the key theme of an arrangement…isn’t.

Two cases (only the second speaks to the paragraph just above):

I haven’t kept all that many old war protest songs, but I have kept Tom Paxton’s Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation. That’s partly because of the lyrics (the YouTube version I link to includes them; consider the wonderful chorus–“we’re sending 50,000 more to help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese”–but also the penultimate verse. Both say a lot about the Vietnam conflict.

But there’s another reason the song’s on my Fuze: It’s one of the few songs I have that uses a 12-string guitar in its orchestral/organ mode, the really mighty sound of a well-played 12-string acoustic. (Back in Berkeley, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I knew of a local who played Great Gates of Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition on the 12-string–or maybe he played the whole suite. It was damned impressive.)

The second one’s entirely different: Uptown Girl by Billy Joel. That’s the one where what I always remember as the key element of the arrangement…really isn’t.

To wit–well, play the song. At 2;20 there’s a drum riff (two groups of three strikes). It’s repeated four times, I think.

My auditory memory tells me that the riff is used throughout the song.

It’s not: It’s only used during about 15 seconds near the end of the song.

[I always think of Uptown Girl as Joel’s tribute to the Four Seasons, but I may have the wrong group in mind.*]

Then there’s the single passage in James Taylor’s Gaia that makes it almost a test record for one aspect of speakers and headphones…but that’s another post.

*Or not. According to Wikipedia, Billy Joel says the Four Seasons served as inspiration for the song.

How many years ago did downloaded music pass physical purchases?

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

There’s the question.

Based on way too many articles and posts and other stuff, you’d have to assume it happened quite a few years ago, that CDs and the like have been pitiful ghosts for quite a long time.

That’s partly because digital gurus have become very adept at phony equations–e.g., assuming that a single-track download equals a full-album purchase, then shouting about number of downloads exceeding number of albums (in physical form) sold.

And, of course, because The In Crowd abandoned physical media far ahead of anybody else.

So what’s the answer?

According to Sound & Vision, at least, the answer is…


Last year.

The first year in which revenues for downloaded audio exceeded revenues for physical audio media.

Which, by the way, only means “nobody buys CDs [or LPs] anymore” for that special definition of “nobody”: “none of my friends” or “none of the in crowd” or, in this case, “slightly less than half of all music purchases, therefore essentially vanished.”

Even that magazine used “eclipsed” to mean “exceeded by at least 1%,” which is far more dramatic.

(Other sources say it was 2011, depending on what’s included: To wit, combined revenue for digital downloads and streaming services passed 50% of total music revenue in 2011. But that’s the earliest.)

Huffington Post’s “coverage” of 2012 numbers was typical: The headline says the numbers prove that, among other things, “CDs are Dead.” Because they represented only 40% of total music revenues in the U.S. in 2012–40% is dead. Makes life simple, doesn’t it?

Oh, by the way: Globally, 57% of the music business is still physical (mostly CDs, although LPs are a slowly growing field).

And for album purchases, CDs and LPs still considerably outweighed downloads in 2012–in numbers, 198 million to 118 million.

What? The U.S. saw nearly 200 million CDs and LPs sold in 2012? But physical music is dead!

Apparently some people didn’t get the memo.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 as a newspaper substitute

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Consider this both an informal review and some sort of groundbreaking post, at least for me.

Prelude: The Use Case

I love a good print newspaper. I’ve subscribed to the San Francisco Chronicle for decades. The broadsheet format gives me a way to scan a lot of stuff at once, I almost always read something at least twice a week that I would never have thought to look for–call it serendipity, call it broadening my horizons, call it being involved in the broader world.

But…two things happened over the past few years. Well, in addition to the paper getting thinner, due to lost ads and the need to cut pages.

  • The management–now Hearst, which bought out the family that had always published the Chron because the latest generation wasn’t interested–decided that subscribers/readers needed to pay 40% of the cost of the paper, not the 10%-20% we had been paying. They dropped outlying areas entirely and raised subscription costs. A lot. Enough so that, with our current lack of earned income, it’s a serious factor.
  • Due to carrier problems, the arrival of the paper has become irregular (although it’s getting better now). I count on it being there by 6:45 a.m. (and, except for Sundays, you can call if it’s not there by 6:30)–and too often it wasn’t. (They have until 8 to deliver it on Sundays. Of course, I still want to start reading it at around 6:45 a.m.)

So…we decided to look into alternatives. Not “taking the local paper instead”–the so-called “local” daily (really a slightly modified version of a San Jose paper) isn’t all that good. (The local weekly is just fine, but it’s a weekly.)

I knew that the Chronicle had an iPad version for $60 a year (with or without a print Sunday paper thrown in). I knew there was a Kindle version, although I hadn’t heard much about it. And the paper was starting to promote an e-edition (as with the iPad version, free if you’re a print subscriber; in this case, $100/year if you’re not).

We considered whether we could reasonably switch to some sort of tablet to read the paper over breakfast and lunch. Neither of us have ever owned an e-reader or tablet, for the same reason we don’t own smartphones: We haven’t felt the need, and we’re not interested in spending money for something we don’t feel a need for.

I’ve always said that, if and when I had a good use case for an e-reader, a tablet or a netbook, I’d probably get one. For some time, I’ve said that if I was still doing six or more speaking trips a year, I’d probably get a netbook or something else…but I’m not, and I haven’t.

Here was a use case: Given that the print Chronicle is up to $559/year, and certainly not likely to get cheaper any time soon, we could even pay for a current-generation iPad in a little over a year. My brother and sister-in-law both have iPads (one not currently in use, one first-generation, I think, one current/Retina); we’ve certainly seen them in use and played with them. Neither my wife nor I is especially anxious to become part of the iTunes hegemony, but if that was the way to proceed, fine.


So there we were, a few weeks ago, deciding that we really couldn’t afford the print Chron any more but weren’t willing to lose the paper. Which way to go? Well, the web-based e-edition was/is a very good rendition of the print paper in small (using Olive software); if that would work on a tablet, that would be a possibility–but it would clearly need to be a large-screen tablet. The pictures we’d seen of the iPad version made it seem like a somewhat cruder “reimagining” of the print paper, but it might be OK too. We hadn’t seen the Kindle app.

We knew we wanted high resolution–after all, reading the paper involves a lot of reading, easily 10,000-30,000 words a day, maybe more on Sunday.

We shopped around. The obvious choices seemed to be the current iPad, the Nook HD+, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, the Microsoft Surface, and whatever the best Android 9″-10″ high-rez tablets are called.

The obvious choices that we could actually see were the iPad, the Nook HD+ and the smaller Kindle Fire HD (the 8.9 wasn’t in the stores we frequent yet).

There’s an obvious and substantial price difference between the two “HD” units and the others: they’re around $300, the others are $500+ (as far as I could see).

We were pretty sure what we wanted and didn’t want:

  • High-quality, easy-to-read renditions of all the stories (and preferably more) from the San Francisco Chronicle–the primary use case.
  • When we do start traveling again, the ability to check email once in a while (Gmail for both of us, with separate accounts).
  • Maybe, when we start traveling again, the ability to play a couple of games (e.g. video poker) and probably to read stuff, either stuff we already have or free books and the like.

We didn’t want to pay more than we needed to: Especially given the Fed’s insistence on punishing retired folks who don’t like to gamble with their savings (by making it impossible to get decent CD rates), we’re not throwing the dollars around.

We didn’t plan to do a lot of video streaming or music purchasing–our broadband’s not fast enough for video streaming to work well, and we’re not vidiots anyway. As for music, we seem to have enough CDs for now. We’re not hotshot gamers: video poker does not make big demands on a system, and my wife almost never games at home anyway.

We concluded that if the Nook HD+ or the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 would do the job, they’d be good, economical choices. My wife was, however, worried about the Nook–mostly the lack of market share and recognition for the HD+ and its implications for the future of the device and support.

Then things got more interesting in two ways: Target was offering $50 back as a giftcard with iPad purchases (and we get 5% off for using a store charge card)…and Amazon had a one-day sale on the Fire HD 8.9, selling for $249 instead of $299, thus making it still $200 cheaper than the iPad. So, since we also knew that Amazon (and Target) allowed return on these items until the end of January, thanks to the holidays, we decided to order a Fire HD 8.9 and see whether it would do the job. (Yes, we also ordered the “$10 discounted from $20” fast charger that really should be included with the device. Let’s talk about nickel-and-diming.)

We ordered the unit on December 10, the day of the one-day sale. It was shipped on December 15, apparently using a special via-mule-train USPS option reserved for super saver shipping (which usually gets stuff to us two days after it’s shipped, sometimes the next day). It arrived on December 22, yesterday.

This isn’t a full review, and it’s not quite final–but I thought I’d give my impressions.

Act 1

Amazon did a nice job of minimalist packaging once inside the not-too-large shipping box: a black angled cardboard box with a tear strip that opens nicely and has very minimalist instructions, including the one touch gesture that’s neither obvious nor optional (unlocking the screen).

Unpacked the charger, plugged the device in to finish charging (it had about a 50% charge).

While it took 15 minutes to connect to our wifi, that was partly due to the long passphrase we use–it involved a lot of shifting back and forth between the virtual keyboard’s modes and backing up from accidental doublestrokes–and partly due to our router’s deciding to be grumpy: After the third try to validate, I finally unplugged the router, plugged it back in and, voila: We had wifi. (Good antennas, by the way: It spotted three or four networks in all, all secure, and at least one not in our house.)

The high quality of the display was immediately obvious. As was the ease of adding fingerprints and smudges to the GorillaGlass.

Once fully charged, I decided to try the e-edition of the newspaper, which is on their website (after all, it’s free since we still have the print subscription). Silk, the Kindle browser, is sometimes leisurely, and the virtual keyboard is finicky (more so for my wife, who has a low body temperature or something else that makes it generally difficult to use touch-sensitive devices), but I eventually managed to get there and log in and say I wanted today’s (Saturday’s) e-edition. It said it was loading the Olive software.

And loading. And loading. And loading… After eight minutes, I gave up. Best guess: Olive simply isn’t compatible with Silk or the device, but Silk isn’t smart enough to tell me that. Since Olive takes at most 5-10 seconds to load on a 5-year-old notebook on the same network, I find it impossible to believe it was ever going to successfully load.

Let’s see. So far:

  • Packaging and startup: A-
  • Screen: A
  • Virtual keyboard: B-
  • Wifi performance: A
  • Web browser performance: C
  • Web compatibility with newspaper software: F

That last was a disappointment–although we weren’t sure how well that full mockup of newspaper pages would work on a 9″ screen anyway.

We looked at reviews of the newspaper’s Kindle app. They were mixed–but we noticed that most of the negative ones were a couple of years old. And it came with a 14-day free trial. So…after I turned on 1-click ordering at Amazon (which seems to be mandatory to get anything at the Kindle store, even if it’s free):

Act 2

Went to the Kindle store, newspaper section, found the San Francisco Chronicle, verified the 14-day free trial, clicked on it.

About 15 seconds later–this being Saturday, December 22–we had a screen full of story headlines and brief excerpts, not in any way trying to emulate an actual newspaper, with a “Sections” option above. The page all in boring sans serif, and that type is not changeable (as far as I can tell), but it was easy enough to navigate. Touching any story summary brought up the whole story–and the full stories, frequently with one (but only one) photo each–were very easy to read. I’m guessing they use the standard Kindle book-reading method–or something very much like it. I could change the type (to any of three serif faces, all of them very good; I mostly left it at the default Georgia), change the type size (but the default “4” was extremely readable), even change the background color. I probably should reduce the brightness somewhat, but didn’t yet.

Reading the stories was immediately just fine, and it didn’t take long to figure out navigation back to the set of stories and sections. In practice, the Fire HD 8.9 is much more readable than a daily paper: that’s hardly surprising, given that the paper is in small type on the cheapest paper stock available.

On the other hand, the Chronicle does a good job with color photos, especially in two slick-paper Sunday sections, and the little pictures in the Kindle version don’t compare. But that’s minor.

Going through Saturday’s paper, I found that all the stories were there–but the obituaries, weather page, lottery summary and TV listings weren’t. Neither were the comic strips and surrounding games and horoscope. What? No comic strips? Boo!

We were both wondering how much of the Sunday paper would be included…and when it would arrive (since some reviews had said the paper wasn’t there early enough, and late physical delivery was one reason we were considering switching)…

For this act:

  • Overall interface for the paper: B (I’d like a choice of typeface for the overall interface)
  • Story reading quality and navigation: A+ (crystal-clear type, intuitive navigation)
  • Battery life: A- (It was looking as though 10 hours was a good estimate.)

Ah, but we also tried Gmail. It worked–once I was able to log in–and Gmail recognized it as a mobile device and simplified the interface, perhaps a little too much so. (No, I didn’t try the email app, at least not yet: After all, two of us would be using it if we’re on vacation, and I don’t see any way to set up separate email accounts for the two of us.) I found it clunky to use Gmail, partly because Silk’s a little clunky, partly because the virtual keyboard is, well, a virtual keyboard. But it worked. We also looked at one of the two built-in books, a dictionary. Text quality was great there as well, and finding worked more than well enough. I’ll stick with the A/A+.

  • Gmail via the web: B

Act 3

This morning (“this” being Sunday, December 23), after getting up and feeding the cats and putting on coffee, I checked for the paper at 6:45 a.m.

It wasn’t there.

I turned on the Kindle, clicked on the SF Chronicle picture on the home page–and noticed that it changed from December 22 to December 23 as soon as it was live. Waited 15-20 seconds for it to load (I’d had the Kindle fully off, not in sleep mode, overnight: figure 5 seconds to start up in the morning). By 6:47 a.m., I was reading the paper.

At 7:45 a.m., the physical paper arrived–on the light side for a Sunday paper, especially in ads (there aren’t a lot of flyers on the last weekend before Christmas), but still a pretty big hunk. And by that time, I’d already read the whole thing–probably more stories than I usually read in the physical Sunday paper, and looking at summaries for every story.

After doing the usual Sunday shuffle to segregate ads we don’t care about, ads we do care about, and paper sections in some workable order, I checked the physical paper against the Kindle paper.

Missing: The obituaries, the comics, the ads, the weather two-pager (on Sunday), TV listings, real estate listings and houses sold, etc. Oh, and Parade Magazine, for what that’s worth.

There: Everything else. Every story in every section, including sections we thought might not be included.

Just for fun, I tried going into airplane mode–turning off wifi to save battery life. It worked for a little while, but as soon as I tried to change sections, it said it needed wifi: It doesn’t download the whole paper, at least not the whole Sunday paper. That’s minor.

I realized that I’d been reading stories for a solid hour, without fatigue, and that I’d almost certainly read more of the paper than I usually wood (in 90 minutes or so). I still needed to skim through the ads and read the comics, but that was OK.

And, to be sure, I could read the paper as soon as I got up, not have to wait until it arrived. On an inclement day, not having to brave the rain for the paper also helped.

My wife’s now read it as well–but, unlike the daily paper, she reads very little of the Sunday paper other than actual news. She’s happy enough.

I’ve now checked the comics carried in the paper. About one-third of the ones we care about are on SFGate, in a separately-bookmarkable comics section with lots of other comics, although that’s still a separate step on the computer (or, I suppose, very clumsily on the Kindle). The others are on GoComics, and for $12 I can set it up to get the ones I want all show up as a daily email… Again, not as clean as having them over breakfast, but workable. (And I might add some other comics, and can ignore certain gems that neither of us read anyway.)

I’m guessing–although I don’t know–that the iPad version would have the comics. I’m also guessing, given the lower price, that it would have the ads. I know it would be on a much more expensive device. Just for comics, it’s not even close to being worth it.

I also tested a couple of other things. For example, my assumption has been that a 6×9 PDF would look pretty good on a 9″ or 10″ tablet. Was that assumption correct? Let’s go to (the shorter URL for C&I), click through to the one-column version, and see…

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the C&I home page looks and works great on the device. I knew it didn’t use fixed coding (I hand-coded the page), but it flowed into the smaller space more effectively than I’d actually expected. (On most webpages, including that one, the apparently standard spread-and-pinch zoom-and-unzoom gestures work just fine. I still don’t know where or whether Kindle has an actual touch tutorial, but I think I’ve picked up enough to get by pretty well.)

As for the one-column PDF…I touched the link. Nothing seemed to happen. Then I touched it and noticed the URL in the address bar changing…but immediately changing back again. I tried this three or four times (well, seven, apparently), saying “What the hell?” I’d already checked: The Kindle Fire HD has a built-in PDF reader. Why wasn’t it displaying?

Because, it turns out, Silk doesn’t display PDF. It downloads the PDF. Silently. When you go to the menu, there’s a “Downloads” option. Touch that, you get a list of all downloads–oops, eight of them, with Kindle-supplied differentiators. Touch one of them and…

Yes! The 6×9 PDF looks great on the Kindle screen. No need to mess with settings: It just looks great as is. That’s what I was hoping, and it’s clearly the case. That should also be true for any 9″ or larger tablet with PDF-reading capabilities (which, I believe, is almost all of them).

The HTML separates: Not so much, because Silk doesn’t pick up “serif” or “Palatino Linotype” from the CSS in such a way as to render serif type: It’s all in sans. Otherwise, fine.

Oh: We haven’t purchased any books yet. We did go to the Kindle store looking for free books. There’s no easy way to browse free offerings, but if you look for a book (e.g., Pride and Prejudice), free versions do show up. I guess I can’t fault Amazon for preferring to sell stuff, as long as they do offer the freebies.

Also haven’t downloaded any other apps yet, but will be checking the Free App of the Day. And a couple of quick searches suggest that there are a lot of free apps for games and the like, and probably for other things. Not as much as the Android Store or Google Store or iStore (or whatever it’s called), but enough for what we need. [Skype is builtin, as is an office viewer of some sort. Haven’t tried either one.]

  • Completeness of Sunday paper: A- (no worse than daily, also no better)
  • Promptness of paper: A+. It was there when I wanted it.
  • PDF quality: A
  • Browser transparency: C. It really should let me know that it did, in fact, download something. You could use up a whole heap of disk space trying to download something when it’s already there…especially because it just silently keeps appending new numbers to keep copies unique.
  • Battery life: Still A-/A: I was reading and using wifi for at least a full hour, and it showed 90% at the end of that time. That translates to 10 hours life as far as I can calculate.
  • Overall impression: B as a web device, A as a reader.
  • But as a newspaper replacement? Probably B+/A-

Which is to say: We haven’t entirely made up our minds. We’ll try it for another day or two. Then, unless something big makes it look bad, I’ll cancel the print Chronicle subscription, see whether there’s a cheaper annual Kindle subscription, set up GoComics and SFGate/comics accounts/favorite lists, make sure I have the stores bookmarked where I do want to check the weekly ads (yes, ads do count)… If the Chron was $100/year or even $200/year and I could count on consistent early delivery, we’d probably keep the print paper. As it is: Times do change.

I’d say the odds of that happening are between 95% and 99%. The use case was there, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 seems to satisfy the use case, and that makes it a good purchase. See note below: The odds of that happening are now 100%, since I just canceled the print newspaper.

Can I emphasize again that the high-resolution display really is a joy? Even as I probably should turn down the brightness. (I think it’s a *little* on the bright side;l my wife thinks it’s more than a little brighter than it needs to be.)

One oddity along the way: Every newspaper story has a word count. I never thought about the actual length of news stories…today’s feature restaurant review, for example, was just under 1,800 words (or about 1.5 newsprint pages). And this non-review is just about 3,450 words.

Another oddity that I hadn’t thought about: Front page stories don’t have cutovers on the Kindle. That means it’s far more likely that I’ll read them in full and without interruption. That’s a good thing.

Followup, Monday, December 24

So today I assumed that the Kindle was the newspaper–I didn’t check for the print paper until I’d finished breakfast. And it was fine, but with an unexpected twist: I read more stories, and I was done by 7:30, where I usually leave part of the paper for the afternoon. Maybe because it’s Monday (a slender paper); maybe it’s because the screen (now on auto-brightness) really is easier to read than newsprint–not a high bar.

Oh, and SuperLotto results are there now (but badly formatted; since other tables are now showing up well-formatted, that’s probably a matter of time).

So: We’ll set up ways to get the comics we want (from two sources), and I’ll probably cancel the print newspaper today or tomorrow. But I’m still a daily newspaper reader–maybe more so, if reading the actual stories is what counts.

Final update (I think), 8:50 a.m.: I’ve cancelled the print newspaper. I’ll get around to setting up GoComics and sfgate.comics for the comic strips we want.

Sunday silliness: Two meaningless miniposts

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

If you’re looking for significance, librarianship, or any of that stuff, you’ve come to the wrong place (and look! there’s an Oxford Comma, which I normally don’t use).


Part 1: Really? A 72-page Section?

The San Francisco Chronicle Sporting Green section (yes, it’s on green paper–or, rather, has green as a background except when printing color photos/ads) has been doing a bang-up job of covering that local baseball team, including a remarkable series of full-page (broadside, 11″ x 21″, good-quality color printing albeit on newsprint) action photos of most of the team, with each photo as a single sheet (backed with a full-page color ad, of course) during the post-season. It doesn’t hurt that the paper recently added first-rate writer Ann Killion to its already superb sportswriting staff. There’s been a ton of orange ink along with all that green…

So Friday the paper noted that it would have a 72-page special section commemorating the World Series in today’s Sunday paper. First reaction: Really? 72 pages? That’s as much content as a fairly substantial book. Of course, lots of it will be reprints of front pages or Sporting Green front pages from the post-season, but still…

Then I thought: How is the Chron going to print a single 72-page section? None of its sections are ever more than about 20-24 pages: Can the presses even handle that big a wad of paper?

Got the answer today. You redefine “section”–it’s actually four sections, two 24 page and two 12 page. No, haven’t skimmed through it yet. (I’m not much of a sports fan, but I read a fair amount of the Sporting Green for the same reason I once subscribed to Sports Illustrated: I love quality writing.)

Part 2: “You would have won…”

Some of you know that I enjoy playing video poker–and until the past decade or so (my wife’s asthma has gotten a little worse and we’ve both become more sensitive to smoke, especially as sane states outlaw smoking in hotels and restaurants), we went up to Reno two or three times a year, spending half of each day visiting places in Northern Nevada, half getting cheap entertainment at the poker slots.

(It’s not gambling in our case, it’s gaming: Neither of us had any expectation of winning, since we’re both very numerate, and we set our limits such that it really was cheap entertainment, never more than $100 a day for both of us combined. Playing quarter or nickel video poker one or two coins at a time, with a 96% or better payback–not 98% or better, because you don’t get the 4,000-coin royal flush payback unless you play five coins–$50 per day per person goes a long way.)

It’s been years since we’ve gone to Reno for a vacation (that may change, and would certainly change if the casinos would listen to 80% of their customers…), and the last time I played for money was during ALA in New Orleans, spending two or three very profitable hours in Harrah’s. Meanwhile, thanks to (a non-gambling site run by the maker of most multihand video poker slot machines), I’ve enjoyed video poker whenever I need a break from whatever I’m doing on the computer–for no money, with of course no money to be won either.

Technically, I pay $29/year to avoid lots of flashing third-party ads. And technically, there is money to be won–there’s a daily contest with a $50 first prize, which I won once and, based on normal odds, might win again in about 10-12 years. The last few days of each month, there’s a monthly contest with several cash winners up to $500. None of this is gambling because paying either the $29/year silver membership or an $8/month gold membership–which lets you chat and do other things–improves your chances of winning in any way whatsoever, much to the chagrin of some gold members.

Anyway: The daily and monthly contests–and the site as a whole–are designed to expose people to different variations on video poker and, presumably, encourage us to be more adventurous next time we’re in a real casino. (It also helps thoughtful people figure out what they should or shouldn’t hold, to actually get the 98%-101% payback that’s possible on some video poker variations in casinos with Nevada odds.)

It’s backfired for me, I think: I find the video poker almost as much fun as the real thing, with the advantage of no smoke, my choice of background music (if any), my choice of whether or not the slot machine makes noise, my choice of “free” drinks…and the ability to enjoy a five-minute or fifteen-minute session as often or as occasionally as I want, with no effort. My desire to go to real casinos is considerably less than it was before I started playing at the site…although, if I go to ALA 2014, I’ll certainly drop in to a few of the casinos there. Briefly.

And, after all this digression, here’s the point. The daily and monthly contests are hundred-hand rounds (of which you can play up to five or eight, depending on whether you played five the previous day), always at maximum bet. Instead of the way the site usually works–where you start with 10,000 points and the total goes up or down depending on your play–in this case, you start with zero and gain whatever you win. At the end of the round, your score is reported and you land on another screen.

If your score is higher than the nut–the amount you’d actually bet if you were playing with real money–you get a big Congrulations! and the amount you would have won if you’d been playing at a quarter machine in an actual casino. (As some of the gold members have commented during monthly contests, some of the high scorers really need imaginary wheelbarrows to cart off all that imaginary money.)

This is all amusing, and keeping track of won/loss for a particular variation is one thing I do (and I’m sure others do), and would probably guide what I actually play if/when I do go to a real casino. But…

Last month’s monthly contest was a new variation: Hundred-hand poker (that’s not new: one hand is dealt; you choose which cards to hold; those cards show up on 99 other hands, and each of 100 hands is dealt out)…with Super Times Pay, which means that about 6% of the time your hands are worth anywhere from 2 to 10 times as much. (“About” is key: I’ve seen as few as zero and as many as 14 out of 100 hands get the STP multiplier, although it’s usually from 4 to 8.)

With Super Times Pay, max bet for each hand is six rather than five.

Doing the arithmetic…six times 100, carry the…you can see that you’re wagering 600 coins. On each hand.

So when, on my best session last month, I was informed that I would have won $7,370 or so…I found it hard not to laugh. Sure, if I was willing to wager $125.00 on each play. Let’s see: My total voluntary exposure is $50 per day. So I could play one play every 2.5 days… And, by the way, on the round just before that (which was far and away my best round–and about 5% of what I’d need to win the monthly contest), I would have lost $2,848.50.

Not. Gonna. Happen. Not ever. Oh, I’ll play 100-hand poker: It’s a great way to test out the odds of various holding strategies in real life. But I won’t play it in a casino: Even at a penny machine, that’s $5 per hand (without the Super Times Pay nonsense).

Let me amplify Not. Gonna. Happen. There are, I’d say, three categories of video poker:

  • Versions I would play in a casino once in a great while: Mostly versions where the total exposure on each hand is, say, $1 or less. That could include three-hand poker (the most common multihand option) with maximum wager on a nickel machine ($0.75/deal).
  • Versions I might play if I’d won Super Lotto or the Publisher’s Clearing House megaprize and was really bored, but probably not for very long: Those are games like my favorite online, Multi-Strike Poker (my favorite mostly because it’s visually and sonically superior to most others), where you’re betting 20 coins per deal.
  • Versions I wouldn’t play even if I won both Super Lotto and PCH, unless somebody else was paying for all the wagers and giving me some portion of the winnings. That’s basically anything involving a wager of more than $2 or so per deal. Which puts $600 per deal way out there.

All of which means I’ll never be a casino’s favorite customer. I don’t gamble: I game. And I only game as cheap entertainment, where I assume that I’ll lose all of my allotted funds and stop. Even if I was wealthy, it would offend my sensibilities to redefine “cheap” in a manner that made spending $5 on a single deal plausible.

As for actual real-world winning and losing: The odds say that, even if you play perfectly, you will spend money in the long run…and, of course, most slot players don’t even play close to optimally. A 1.5% house edge adds up over the long run.

But the long run is the long run. In fact, I’m up overall for at least the past decade, because other than a little gaming on cruises and the New Orleans sessions, I really haven’t spent much time playing with actual money in the past decade–and I was extraordinarily lucky in NOLA, including the first royal flush I’ve ever had. Was I disappointed that I only got $62.50 for the royal flush instead of $1,000 because I’d bet one quarter, not five? Not at all. I was gaming, not gambling.

And that’s it: some Sunday silliness. Now to get back to a project. Or maybe try one round of today’s free contest, where I can neither win nor lose any actual money.

Why I’m Giving Up Wired: Exhibit 1

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Some time back, I was offered Wired Magazine on one of those airline miles-for-magazines deals, from one of several airlines I don’t expect to use much in the future.

I’d subscribed to Wired back in the days when reading it was an ordeal thanks to “innovative” design and typography. While I found much of the writing good, I found the overall attitude so absurdly deterministic (digital is always better, the new always replaces the old, Negroponte and Jobs are both saints and never ever wrong) that I give up on it.

When it started coming again, I saw several things:

  • The layout is much more conservative. It’s easier to read the text.
  • It’s a Conde Nast magazine–which means it’s not only generally well written but generally well edited and even proofread, with strong production values.
  • But it’s still Wired–except that now it seems to be an even stranger mix.

It’s possibly worth noting that I’d also been visiting every day or two. I stopped doing that because I didn’t need more material for the snarky sections of Cites & Insights and eventually found the cheerleading and oversimplification (and, yes, Apple-worship) tiresome.

That turned out to be true in the print mag as well–even though along with the  product reviews that reminded me how silly most product reviews are (outside of Consumer Reports and specialist magazines) and the sheer digital triumphalism, there were and are some first-rate pieces of journalism.

I’d decided to give it up. That turned out to take a lot longer than I expected–because another mag-for-miles deal, Conde Nast’s newish business magazine, folded before I received my first issue and the publisher chose to extend my Wired subscription.

Now it’s finally coming to an end: The June 2012 issue is the final one.

The publisher’s been trying pretty hard to entice me to stay (it’s all about the guaranteed base circulation for advertising rates). The last two offers have been on the absurd side: $15 for two years of a monthly magazines.

Was I tempted? Well, not very much, but…

Your Next Car Will Drive Itself

There’s the killer. The 72pt (inch-high), all-caps, bright red text on the February 2012 cover. (I’m a couple months behind on magazine reading.)

In somewhat smaller type: “NO TRAFFIC JAMS   NO CRASHES   UNLIMITED TEXTING.” Now there’s an interesting trio…and I’m guessing that “UNLIMITED TEXTING” is at least as important to the target demographic as the other two.

My immediate response to the big bold text?


I knew damn good and well that for a fair number of the well-to-do folks who read Wired (and yes, there are lots of those), their next car would have been purchased between the time this issue was published and the time I read it. Not one of those cars would drive itself.

I finally read the article. “Let the Robot Drive.” It’s a pretty good article, actually–and, of course, it certainly does not say what the cover implies. The most optimistic projection (and I’m suspicious of that) was that by the end of the decade, self-driving cars might be fairly standard.

In other words, for the cover to be right, no Wired subscriber can buy a car for the next eight years.

[Realistically? Yeah, I’d love to see self-driving cars, if the car mfrs. assume the liability when things go

wrong (oh, that’s right, things never g

o wrong where computers are involved). I’m not at all convinced that they can really work effectively unless every car is self-driving and it’s not possible for a self-centered idiot to override the autonomous features. Think that’s gonna happen next year? Next decade?

Maybe. I’d love to see it. But the cover turns out to be such a pure example of the hype that makes Wired run that I’m tempted to save it, just in case the publisher comes back with even more absurdly low renewal prices.

I’m just as happy not to have the website and the mag as unending sources of stuff to make fun of in my own writing. There’s enough of that around in any case. If you love Wired, I’m sure you’ll continue to do so. Don’t let me discourage you.