First, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, read this: Amazon.com: Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device: Kindle Store. Kindle is basically Amazon’s new lightweight ebook reader. It looks like its built on pretty solid technology, and it has cool features — wirelessly download books inexpensively, read blogs, play music, etc.

The internetarati are up in arms already, especially the anti-DRM crowd, with whom I sympathize. Mark Pilgrim compares it to devices in 1984, John Gruber defends the iPod as a an acceptable form of lock-in but decries the Kindle as too risky. They’re both right, but they’re probably over reacting.

True, you can’t share books. True, you can’t back your books up. True, you can’t import books from other sources. And True, if Amazon cancels the Kindle, you’re screwed.

I don’t know if this means that it won’t become the “iPod for books,” but I also don’t know if their is even a demand for such a device. And nobody’s making the argument that I want to hear: reading on an electronic devices sucks. It’s hard on the eyes, you can’t fold your Kindle or laptop or what have you in half, you can’t dog ear the pages, etc.

Although, as Pilgrim points out, at the very least, its nice to be able to search through books. Actually, I think he’s dead on here. In fact, I have physical and PDF versions of most of my favorite textbooks (and yes, the PDF files are ill-gotten), and it’s a system that I really like. A hard-copy book that I can use for serious studying, and a PDF file that I can search through when I need to find something quickly, print a few pages from when I don’t want to lug around the whole book, etc. In fact, the usefulness of this hybrid approach is a good argument for Gruber’s idea: let us buy the book and give us the Kindle copy. It would also be nice if the books were in a protected version of some other format — e.g. password protected PDF.

But that’s just wishful thinking. People will probably buy this thing and use it. It may grow popular, but who knows. I wouldn’t want to own any important books in the Kindle format. But, then again, companies are starting to realize that, at the very least, there is a small but very vociferous market segment that will pay for files that are unencumbered by DRM. And that’s an opportunity for competition.

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YouTube – HuckChuckFacts. Actually pretty cool, I suppose.


This opinion piece (PDF) in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, argues that since mathematicians increasingly rely on software in generating their results, we should be increasingly concerned about the use of proprietary math software, since (a) not everyone has access to that software and (b) the code used by that software is usually closed-source, so the algorithms used can’t generally be evaluated.

I agree. It’s the same reason why I (and other scholars) don’t like locking my information into proprietary file formats — academia has a tradition of free exchange of information, at least in the sense that academics almost always disclose all of their methods and results.

At the same time, scholarly communication has traditionally taken place through, among other channels, publications in expensive academic journals. If you’ve ever tried to get an article on Science Direct without being hooked up to your campus network, you know that this information is not “freely” exchanged. Often, an individual article goes for about $30.

Increasingly, though, academics are using the internet to facilitate free exchange. Working papers are published on the web. Entire textbooks are posted online for free. And academia is probably one of the richest sources of open-source software.

But as the article also points out, good software is costly to make, and it can be difficult to make money on open-source software. So if commercial programs are easier to use or more powerful (as they often, though not always, are), it seems natural that many serious researchers will want to use them.

So what are we to do? I suppose that, as long as results can be checked in free software, there isn’t really a problem. Everyone is entitled to the information, but it seems reasonable that people with funding should be allowed to access that information with a slicker interface. After all, I think everything you can do in MATLAB you can also do in SciLab, and everything you can do in Stata you can also do in R, though you might need to invest a substantial amount of time and knowhow. Still, there is something unappealing about the widespread use of materials that, to some, are prohibitively expensive, but that’s really nothing new. After all, the armchair particle physicist doesn’t have access to a supercollider.


Bowling online

17Nov07

I just learned that the Saguaro Seminar has a Social Capital Blog. Cool. Oh, and it’s hosted on WordPress.com. Also cool.


A poem

17Nov07

\{ \text{people} | \heartsuit_{\text{my}} (\text{people}) > \heartsuit_{\text{my}} (\text{you}) \} = \emptyset


Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber takes issue with Robert Scoble’s definition of irony. And he’s right, Scoble is just being bitter. But Scoble does make a good point:

Oh, and if you think I have something against Apple, no I don’t. But my computer, a 17-inch MacBookPro, has already been in the shop twice. My son’s MacBookPro 15-inch has been in the shop twice and has a dead USB port now so both of our machines need to go back into the shop.

This has been my experience as well. My iBook, the iBook of a friend, and the PowerMac’s of two friends have had serious hardware failures. Other PCs that I have owned have had hardware problems too, but not nearly as bad, and not nearly as quick. So here’s the irony: by most accounts, Apple is a hardware company, and there hardware, while very cool, also kind of sucks. On the other hand, Microsoft, by most accounts, is a software company. And although their software is very widely used, it kinda sucks.

Kinda reminds me of my old friend Mr. McGregg, with a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg.


The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush: Politics & Power: vanityfair.com

When we look back someday at the catastrophe that was the Bush administration, we will think of many things: the tragedy of the Iraq war, the shame of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the erosion of civil liberties. The damage done to the American economy does not make front-page headlines every day, but the repercussions will be felt beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this page.

You just know that an article that starts like this has to be a fascinating polemic. A good read, though somewhat depressing. And by the way, if you’re not that economic-history savvy, “The economic consequences of the peace” was the title of John Maynard Keynes seminal work that laid the foundation for much of modern (though, not too modern) macroeconomics.