Links of Interest (August 25th 2008 Through September 28th 2008)

Sunday, September 28th, 2008
jQuery and Microsoft
When Microsoft started adding some of the often requested features to their ASP.NET AJAX Client API they realized that jQuery (my personal favorite javascript library) already did what they wanted. Rather than reinvent the wheel Microsoft will be shipping the standard, as-is jQuery with full intellisense support in Visual Studio.

The Creative Process
“For me, ideas stream through my head at a frantic pace. I feel like a bear trying to grab a salmon. If my paw misses its target, that salmon is gone for good. I don’t dwell on it. I just lunge for the next salmon.” Scott Adams (Dilbert) discusses ideas, and how he sometimes forgets he’s already used them.

Tip: Using a background image on an image
Using CSS to create layered images (with a fun animated example). Simple but effective.

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Fresh Out – PDF Version
Free fun little mini-comic from Natalie Metzger. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll really want some cookies! Ready for printing.

Sizzle: John Resig has a new selector engine
Ajaxian brings word that John Resig is working an a new Javascript selector engine, which is expected to replace the one in jQuery. So far it’s less than 4k (but it doesn’t support IE yet). “4x faster in Firefox 3, 3x faster in Opera 9, 1.5x faster in Safari 3 than the other major JavaScript libraries.”

Re: Cover to Cover #319B: Electronic Formats Revisisted

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Dragon Page: Cover to Cover has been discussing ebooks at length lately, especially since Mike Stackpole is selling his stuff in the iTunes App Store. In the latest episode they spend the opening section lampooning the idea of e-book standards. The conversation that ensued contained a good deal of misinformation1 .

So I’m posting this in response here, hoping to keep the conversation going (I could post it as a comment on the site, but it’s a bit long for that, and it’s way to long to leave as a voicemail without sounding like even more of a crank).

Stand Alone Readers in the iTunes Store

The discussion gives an impression about the stand alone readers (specifically Stanza and eReader) having access to a bunch of old public domain content nobody actually wants to read. No mention is made of putting content you purchased outside iTunes or creative commons works into these readers, which seems to be their primary purpose.

Stanza

The Stanza iPod Touch/iPhone app is an offshoot of the Stanza desktop reader (Mac Only). Any file you can read on the desktop reader2) can be transferred to the mobile Stanza app. This covers a lot of commercially available content.

Also the mobile Stanza app is pre-configured to pull ePub files from Feedbooks. Feedbooks has 2500+ titles available for free. While many works are those you avoided reading in high school, it also includes titles from authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lester Del Rey, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, Robert Silverberg and E.E. “Doc” Smith. Those too old school for you? How about Steven Brust, Tobias Buckell, Cory Doctorow, James Patrick Kelly, and Charles Stross, to name a few.

eReader

Although it’s stated that the eReader can be used to download free content (I admit I don’t even know if can download free content), no mention is made that it is actually designed to download your purchases from eReader. Also, any multi-format purchase from Fictionwise is also supported.

Since I personally avoid books that come locked in one format, the vast majority of my Fictionwise purchases are instantly downloadable to my iPod touch. That’s a big win for me, because it means when I’m home I can read on my dedicated e-book reader, with it’s larger screen, but when I’m stuck in the waiting room I can keep reading the same book off my iPod Touch without buying it twice.

ePub and Tower of eBabel

There is a group of […] e-book enthusiasts who are deaf on anything that is not the one true ring, the one true way. They want everything to be available in one universal format, which doesn’t happen to exist yet. […] and they want it to then be cross-platform available because they’re very resentful if seven years ago they bought a book for their palm pilot and now they can’t play it on their iPod.

Yeah, those people. Me.

Mike and Mike then then proceed to talk down to “those people” as if we all just fell off the esparanto truck by giving the same arguments all the digital music players that didn’t play MP3s used to give and why music would always have DRM. Making a buck will always trump the demands of the consumer. Format wars will always go on forever and ever and there will be no standard delivery mechanism3 .

More importantly, the format does exist in the form of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)‘s ePub, and it does have vendor support. Adobe, Amazon4 , eBook Technologies, OSoft, VitalSource and LibreDigital (among others) all support ePub in their current products. Sony just added ePub support to it’s line of readers, and Bookeen is currently working on adding it to their Cybook readers. You can get any of Feedbooks 2500+ titles in .epub. Heck, even the last of the freebie releases from TOR was released in .epub rather than .mobi.

Maybe I’m Crazy

I like e-books. I prefer them to print. I like being able to increase the font to rest my eyes. I like being able to read them on multiple devices. I don’t want this to happen to my books. I feel that e-books have to be more convenient that print to really take off5 . So either I’m a nut-job, or I’m who the people trying to sell these things should be targeting. I’m the one going to go out and extolling the virtues of these things to the people I know who are hanging by the sidelines waiting to see if they want to jump in. Feel free to tell me which one you think I am in the comments6

  1. I honestly don’t believe this was intentional. []
  2. Stanza supports HTML, PDF, Microsoft Word, RTF, Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, Palm doc, and EPUB (at least the DRM free variations of the above []
  3. Yeah, that’s why we don’t have a way to deliver audio programming in mp3 files over HTTP using RSS to any number of devices. []
  4. Amazon supports ePub in it’s Mobipocket products, but there’s no mention of the Kindle yet []
  5. It’s very likely publishers don’t what them to take off. Record companies still want you to buy CDs too. []
  6. If I don’t get any I’ll know I’m a crazy person talking to myself. []

Is the Audiobook Industry Broken?

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Evo Terra over at Podiobooks.com feels that the audiobook industry is broken. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him mention it, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

NOTE: Before going on I feel I should mention that I am an affiliate for Audible.com as well as a long time customer. That is in no way my motivation for posting this1 , but I figured I should mention it. The opinions are mine, as always.

Overdrive and the MP3 Audiobook Bait and Switch

Evo starts off pointing to points to Borders offering downloadable DRM2 free MP3 audiobooks. The problem is they aren’t offering downloadable MP3s at all. All Borders is doing is putting yet another new front on Overdrive3 . Overdrive is everywhere4 . If your library offers free audiobook downloads, chances are they’re Overdrive.

Overdrive very carefully words things to say their product works with most MP3 players. Until recently they didn’t technically work with any MP3 players. They were all DRM protected WMA, and if your device doesn’t play WMA 5 then you are out of luck.

What really left a bad taste in my mouth was the slimy marketing they used to defend this. They used to have literature all over their sites decrying Apple for only supporting DRM on proprietary formats, all the while using Microsoft’s DRM laden proprietary format, which cut non-Windows users out of the loop all together. This lead to my local library posting information that was practically correct, but technically bogus as to why you couldn’t use your iPod to hear the MP3 audiobooks they offered. In reality they didn’t offer MP3s at all.

More recently they’ve started offering files in MP3, or so they claim. They still package the files in some container format, and you need to use their software to get the “DRM free” MP3s out. The software only runs on Windows, so Mac users are out in the cold. I can not comprehend how an action that seems to have been taken primarily to support the Apple iPod doesn’t support users of Apple computers.

Evo’s Four Reasons

Evo offered four reasons for why he thinks the audibook industry is broken, and I’m going to respond point by point.

Availability

Publishers aren’t willing to make the additional investment required to turn every book into an audiobook.

This is generally true. Not every book receives an audiobook release. How I wish this weren’t so. Audible.com , at least in the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy, is doing their best to rectify this6 .

[Podiobooks.com’s] goal is to leverage something the other audio houses haven’t thought of or are only experimenting with — letting the authors do much of the heavy lifting.

Author’s reading their own books was common practice for some time. I have many audiobooks on cassette read by the authors. These are more rare today, because audiobook consumers voted with their wallets and pro-narration won out.

I realize Evo is referring to authors recording and editing their own readings their own works for the publisher if the publisher would just take and release the files, but I’m almost certain it’s not that simple7 . I’m sure many authors would have no problems, but just as many wouldn’t bother because they wouldn’t know where to begin. Also some authors are openly hostile to the idea of audiobooks, and don’t think people who have listened to them have “read” their books8 .

Usability

The act of listening to an audiobook is, well, difficult.

No huge argument there from me. In fact Random House’s recent split with Audible.com is a great example. To listen to Scott Sigler’s Infected on my iPod I had to rip the CDs and merge them into an audiobook file. It’s not something I’m willing to do again. I don’t really care who is at fault in this one. The fact that the parties involved can’t suck it up and come to some agreement is childish. It’s costing them both money (Audible.com because they can’t sell me the books I want, and Random House because they don’t offer a viable alternative).

DRM is a huge part of the inconvenience, but not all of it. Audible.com uses DRM, and I wish they didn’t, but the way they deliver their books, and how the work on devices is damn close to my idea of audiobook nirvana. I only have one or two files to stick on my device, and it’s broken up into chapters for navigation, has cover art9 , bookmarks where I left off 10 , and just generally works for me. Basically the other conveniences, for me, outweigh the DRM issue (for now) 11 .

Most of the DRM free options are not so convenient a listening experience. I have to jump through hoops to make the books work for me. It’s a pain.

Low bit rates are the norm in the download space, and it’s really unnecessary in a world where bandwidth and storage space are anything but scarce

I couldn’t more strongly disagree on this one. You can ask anyone who knows me, I’m very picky about audio quality, but I cringe when I see audiobook files at high bitrates. Last time I checked my audible library was about 25GB for just under 11 weeks of audio, all of which sounds better than my cassette based audiobooks ever did12 .

Accessibility

It’s not uncommon for audiobooks to cost more than twice their hardcover counterparts and be an order of magnitude higher in price than the paperback version. […] Things are different for disc-distribution. It may cost more to stamp out 20 discs than it does to print 400 pages. But when looking at a digital download, the cost to distribute approaches zero.

I was used to audiobooks costing a lot, but you have to look at the length of the content. I have audiobooks that are 24+ hours and cost less than a DVD Season Box Set from HBO. I value books higher than I value TV, so I pay for it13 . My understanding is that CDs are cheap as dirt, so if you think you’re paying for the physical medium you’re being ripped off just the same.

Profitability14

It seems downloadable audiobook companies apparently don’t pay out great royalties. I assume this comes down to the fact that most non-casual purchasers buy books with membership credits, so while the cover price may be $80+, the customer only ended up paying around $1015 . I believe it was Orson Scott Card who mentioned that by recording some extra audio content for all his books he gets paid twice (book royalty and performance royalty). I don’t know how solvable this is for traditional publishing.

So Is it Broken?

All the numbers I’ve seen point to the audibook industry booming like it never has before. Sales were estimated at $923 million in 2006. While all the issues mentioned above are real, they don’t seem to be slowing things down enough that I expect any big changes any time soon. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or I’m living in a bubble.

From where I’m sitting this is the Audiobook Golden Age. Most pro-audiobooks are unabridged, and there are more audibooks available than ever before. There are some really great places like Podiobooks.com and Librivox offering free content.

Do I wish things were different? Sure. I wish Audible would drop DRM, at least at the publisher’s request. I wish Overdrive would go jump in a lake and get out of my library, or change their tactics to be less slimy. I wish Podiobooks.com offered convenient audiobook-listener friendly formatted files16 . So, from where I sit it’s a bit broken, but it’s better than it’s ever been before.

  1. In the years I’ve been an affiliate I don’t think I’ve hit three digits yet, total, so honestly the money doesn’t enter into it here []
  2. What’s DRM? TIME magazine’s The Battle Over Music Piracy may help you understand. []
  3. aka SimplyAudiobooks. []
  4. Like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but without any hot beverages. []
  5. like that iPod thing []
  6. As are folks like Scott Brick who is independently producing Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books []
  7. Although Scott Sigler’s Infected shows that it is at least allowable. []
  8. more on this lunacy here []
  9. although it really needs a resolution face lift []
  10. some devices offer a way to drop in your own bookmarks as well, but the iPod does not []
  11. Audible’s management software has CD burning support so if you can get DRM free access to your purchases, it’s just a bit of a pain. []
  12. Audible.com does offer BBC Radio Dramas, which I will not buy because of the bitrate, and lack of stereo support []
  13. Truth is I end up paying ~$10 per audiobook currently, but I used to pay the cover price. []
  14. Couldn’t find a good pullquote, you should have read Evo’s article anyhow. []
  15. actual transaction []
  16. which I would be happy to pay for []

Links of Interest (February 21st 2008 Through April 1st 2008)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008
INFECTED Trailer
Amazing film-style trailer for Scott Sigler’s novel Infected (available now in hardcover).
OverDrive to offer DRM-free audiobooks via Borders: Time to try unshackled e-books, too?
This can only be good news. OverDrive has an interesting history with DRM. They have always claimed to be unable to work with iPods due to Apple’s proprietary DRM, while failing to make clear they were using Microsoft’s proprietary DRM.
garfield minus garfield
Take Garfield (the comic strip) and remove the title character, and you’re left with something darker and disturbingly funny.
‘Lego Universe,’ a brick MMO, is in development
I haven’t been real interested in Massively Multi-Player Online games in a while, but the idea of a Lego based MMO might change that.

Links of Interest (January 28th 2008 Through January 30th 2008)

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008
jQuery Validation plugin overview
Examples of how to use the jQuery Validation plugin 1.2 to provide unobtrusive Javascript validation to forms.
The Dissing of SF
Ever have someone ask you for a favor and simultaneously insult your career? Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer had this happen twice in one hour, and he posted his responses.
JavaScript Pretty Date
John Resig has released a prettyDate Javascript library that can take strings like “2008-01-28T20:24:17Z” and turn them into “2 hours ago”. It works standalone or as a jQuery plugin.
JavaScript Memory Leak Detector
Paolo Severini of Microsoft’s Global Product Development team has released a utility to help find Javascript memory leaks in IE. It can be set to detect things that would leak in IE6, things that would leak in IE7, or actual leaks.
Getting HTML 5 styles in IE 7+
Possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the X-UA-Compatible discussions was this method for allowing IE7+ to apply styles to elements it doesn’t support.
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Write to Done
A friend (thanks Kate) recommended this spin off of zenhabits.net which is billed as “Unmissable articles on writing. Twice weekly.” So far it’s living up to it’s promise.
MD044 – Stan Lee Interview
Veronica Belmont interviews Stan Lee on Mahalo Daily. I never get tired of seeing interviews with Stan Lee. Maybe it’s his voice.

Best Viewed in X-UA-Compatible

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Note: This post is quite a bit more technical than what I usually talk about.

Yesterday saw the release of A List Apart #251 which is causing quite a bit of discussion. It focuses on a proposal put forth my Microsoft and some members of the Web Standards Project for a new meta tag than will control the rendering mode of IE8.

The first article (Beyond DOCTYPE: Web Standards, Forward Compatibility, and IE8) covers the proposal, what it means and why it’s needed. The second (From Switches to Targets: A Standardista’s Journey) documents Eric Meyer’s shift in perspective from being opposed to, well, not opposed.

My initial thought is that it’s a horrible idea. After reading more about it, and seeing the arguments in favor I think it’s a bad idea.

(more…)

Links of Interest (January 8th 2008)

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008
An Interface of One’s Own
Virginia Heffernan covers alternatives to Microsoft Word for writers including Scrivener (my personal favorite), Ulysses, WriteRoom, and Nisus Writer.
Future of Ajax.NET Professional
With the release of VS2008 and .NET 3.5 Michael Schwarz is ending development on Ajax.NET Professional (an alternate Ajax toolkit for ASP.NET that predates Microsoft’s own).
The Secret Lair
An all new podcast hosted by Chris Miller and Kris Johnson.
The transformation of a writer with Mur Lafferty
Wayne Sutton interviews Mur Lafferty about social media (video).
IE7.js version 2.0 (beta)
Dean Edwards IE7.js has been updated after a long period of inactivity. The new version is split in two files IE7.js brings IE5+ into the same level of compliance as IE7, while IE8.js contains further standards compliance fixes beyond what IE7 currently

Links of Interest (May 3rd 2007 Through May 7th 2007)

Monday, May 7th, 2007
Lost’s end in sight.
“Lost” has three more seasons (but with only 16 episodes each), ending in 2010. It’s still one of my top five shows, and I’m glad they are planning a definitive ending (not because I want it to go, but because it can’t go on forever).
DryerFox – It’s like Firefox, but inside a dryer!
Just what it sounds like.
IE 8: Opt-in for standards compliance
Apparently there will be a way to tell IE8 “my site is standards compliant”. I imagine that means the default assumption is “my site works in IE”.
MASSIVE: Microsoft May Acquire Yahoo for $50 Billion
Peter Cashmore’s take on the news that Microsoft is in talks to buy Yahoo! My immediate reaction is to wonder about Pipes and YUI.
Science Fiction and Politics University Course continues
“Professor Courtney Brown’s course at Emory University is a Political Science course entitled Science Fiction and Politics (Political Science 190).” The lectures are available free for download and as a podcast.
Can e-books hurt your eyes?
As someone whose vision is not at all good, this is near and dear to my eyes. Also this is one of the reasons I avoid DRM crippled e-books and PDF e-books. I want to view e-books on my preferred device, with my own font size choice.