Why I like the tablet form factor

This post is a response to a conversation I’ve been having on Twitter. People ask me why I’m interested in getting a tablet (or slate, if you prefer) PC.

First, let me be clear. I’m not trying to sell anyone else on this form factor. I’m saying I personally like the tablet profile, and here’s why.

I surf the web. I know that term is now considered obsolete but it really describes what I do. When I’m sitting at my desk staring at a computer, I’ve got a bunch of tabs open to various web pages. I have a twitter client running. I have an IM client running. I’ve got email notifications popping up. My RSS feed is filling. I flit from place to place, skimming lots of different content. I’ll read a paragraph or two of a page, then be distracted by something else and later go back to ingest another ‘graph or two. “Surfing” definitely describes what I’m doing. I do very little “deep reading” on my traditional computers.

When I use a tablet, I don’t work in the same way. My current tablet (that I just got for Christmas) is the Asus EEE T91MT. It’s a netbook with a touch screen that folds back into a tablet format.

When I use it as a tablet, I tend to run a web browser with 1 – 2 tabs open (generally my Instapaper listing or articles to read and the current article I’m reading) or I run some e-book software. I focus on one thing. Part of that is a limitation of the netbook hardware. It’s got 1 gig of ram and an Atom processor…it can’t handle running a bunch of software all at once. But part of it is the experience of the tablet.

When I sit at a computer I’m reading the screen from 18″ or so away. I’m reading text that’s on an object. I also see my keyboard and the window behind the monitor and all kinds of other things. Even if I don’t run a lot of different software, I have a lot of distractions and I’m easily distracted by nature.

When I lay on the couch (or in bed) with the tablet I’m holding it 9-12 inches from my eyes. I see the content on the screen. Essentially it’s like reading a book or a magazine. What you’re reading pretty much fills your field of view. That keeps me focused on one thing, and I get a lot more out of what I’m reading. I read more deeply. I retain more. I finish articles all in one swoop.

The tablet form factor also means I can read more comfortably. I can shift around, move it closer or farther way. Lay on my side with the tablet laying on the bed next to me, or lay on my back with it resting on my chest like a book. It doesn’t get hot and it doesn’t have a keyboard jutting out of the screen (I know some folks balance a netbook on their chest…for my old eyes, that’s going to put the screen too far away unless the front of the keyboard is touching my teeth). Now the T91 is a little thicker and a little heavier than I’d like it to be, which is why I’m looking forward to a ‘true’ slate PC at some point in the not so distant future.

Werit mentioned that he could do all that I want to do with his Droid, and I agree. But for me the Droid is just a bit too small. I can hold it sideways to get an 800 pixel wide screen that displays the main column of most web pages, but then the depth of the page is so short that I’m constantly scrolling. For ebooks, I’m constantly paging and that kind of breaks up the cadence of reading. I just need something a tad bigger than the Droid’s screen for my personal comfort. (But don’t get me wrong, I have e-book software on my Droid and will happily read from it when I’m out and about and have some time on my hands…it’s an awesome phone.)

People say tablets are too big to lug around and I agree. I don’t want one to carry around with me. I just want one to take to the couch or to bed for when I want to catch up on reading some web content (or ebooks) that I really want to relax and enjoy; not skim through.

So those are my reasons…they’re hard to convey 140 characters at a time. 🙂

Dragon Age: The Calling

Regular readers may remember my enthusiasm surrounding the first Dragon Age novel, The Stolen Throne, by David Gaider. I found it to be an entertaining stand-alone fantasy novel and its tie to a video game irrelevant. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up Gaider’s second DA novel, The Calling. I’m sad to say, this second book lived down to the general reputation of books based on games.

A lot of things went wrong here. My guess is that Gaider was under a lot of pressure to get the book out before the game, and it shows in sloppy editing leading to cringe-worthy sentences like “Holding up his hand, a surge of black energy surged out of him and lanced toward Fiona.” There are also lots of incongruous shifts in POV and characters reading each other’s thoughts via steely eyed glances and such.

Second, the plot is extremely one dimensional and honestly not very interesting. This is the most basic of “Quest” novels. A group consisting of Human/Dwarf/Elf Fighters/Thieves/Mages have to enter the Deep Roads (a series of tunnels first encountered in The Stolen Throne) to stop a Foozle. *yawn* The book was so clearly designed to showcase the races and classes of the game that it felt like one long chunk of marketing copy. The vast bulk of the book has our Group roaming through the underworld fighting Darkspawn.

Thirdly, even if you can get past the lack of editing and wafer-thin plot, the characters’ motives often make no sense. Without spoiling anything, one character in particular suddenly betrays the group and we never understand why (or at least I never did, perhaps I missed the one nuance in the entire book).

The epilogue is equally bizarre and I have to assume will make sense once I play the game.

Mike Stackpole says everyone has one novel in them and the real challenge is being able to go back and do it all over again once that first novel is out. Here’s hoping David Gaider has more than one in him and that he just faltered here due to time pressures (after all he is lead writer on the game and so must have had a very busy year; The Stolen Throne came out only last March). I’m not ready to give up on him yet!

Read The Calling only if you’re a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins and want to dig deeper into the lore of the world, and in particular the Gray Wardens. But don’t read it for the story; it’s just not worth your time.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer doesn’t want my money

So Angela and I have a subscription to Beckett Massive Online Gamer. Now before I don my Cape of Self-Righteous Ranting +2, I have to be totally upfront. We mostly subscribe because Stargrace writes for them, and secondarily for the free item codes they publish for various games (though rarely do we ever remember to actually use any of these codes).

The magazine definitely has problems. Timeliness being one of them (the May-June 2009 issue had a preview article of an upcoming game called Free Realms), typos being another, and the writing is pretty uneven. But y’know, I let that all pass and subscribed in spite of these issues because it felt like a real ‘fan’ kind of magazine. It felt like it was a magazine for people like me and my friends.

I was apparently wrong. Today, in the same May-June 2009 issue, I read this: “if you want to play solo, there are a lot of console games out there” in an article by Rebecca Bundy.

I do want to play solo, Ms. Bundy, so I guess I’ll go play a console game and stop subscribing to Beckett MOG, since clearly the editors are not interested in people like me reading their magazine. Just to be totally clear, I’m pointing my finger at the editors, not Ms. Bundy, who is entitled to her ignorant and bigoted opinion that everyone who plays MMOs should play them the same way she does [Update: I clarified this in the comments but will do so again. I’m not calling Ms. Bundy ignorant and bigoted in a general sense, but am saying within the microcosm of MMOs, her opinion that people who solo should go play something else IS ignorant and bigoted.]. But since the editor let that snarky remark stand, they must believe the same thing.

I’m so god-damned tired of being sniped at because I don’t feel the need to chain myself to 5 strangers when playing these games. Since when did being independent become a character flaw? It’s bad enough hearing it from bloggers; I don’t need to pay to read the same BS.

LOTRO & LOTR

So last weekend I was playing LOTRO and made the journey to Rivendell, on foot. As I crossed the Fords of Bruinen I stopped to look around, and said to Angela “Check this out. Remember when Arwen drove back the Nazgul here?”

And I stopped, appalled.  Because that’s how it happened in the movies, but not in the books.

And I realized it had been far too long since my last read-through of The Lord of the Rings.

So I dug out a copy — Angela’s copy, (despite the face that it has Elijah Wood on the cover), since the pages of my copy are falling out — and started reading. This has been rather a hellish week, work wise, and I’ve only managed a few pages each evening before falling asleep, but already I’m finding it really interesting to read the book after playing the game. Places referenced casually, like The Chetwood, mean something to me now.

I do find myself wondering why the hobbits chose the path they did, given the fine road from The Shire to Bree (in the game) but maybe that will become more clear as I re-familiarize myself with the true story.

If you’ve been playing LOTRO and haven’t read the books in a while, I highly recommend doing so! The two complement each other really nicely.

A hypothetical question for fiction lovers

My post rebutting Neil Gaiman spawned a lot of comments and a lot of good debate. It’s always eye opening when issues you feel are self-evident wind up being very much open to different interpretations with other people.

So I’ve devised a little test to peer into your minds to see how you tick. 🙂

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation.

Assume a writer self-publishes (just to take the publisher out of the equation and make the example cleaner). He writes Book 1 of a new fantasy series. You pay your $25 for it, and you find that he’s a good writer, his characters feel really alive, his world is interesting and he poses a lot of intriguing questions. The end of the book is a classic cliffhanger with no resolutions…

Two years pass, and the next book he publishes is Book 1 of a different new fantasy series. You pay your $25 and find that once again, his writing is technically very good, his characters are well written, this new world is interesting and he poses a lot of intriguing questions. And again, a huge cliffhanger ending, no resolutions, no closure.

Two years go by, and he self-publishes a third book and it is Book 1 of a third new fantasy series. You know the drill — you pay your $25 and find the writing is good, characters are good, world is interesting, no closure, cliffhanger ending.

Another two years goes by and he self-publishes his 4th book, and it is book 1 of a fourth new fantasy series.

My question is: would you buy it?

And it is only fair that I be the first one to answer. And I absolutely would not buy it (in fact I probably would’ve stopped after book 2). An unfinished story gnaws at my soul — that’s just the way I’m wired. It’s like an itch that I just can’t scratch, and if an author indicates to me that he isn’t going to be finishing his stories, I won’t put myself through the self-inflicted torment I’d endure, no matter how great the author is. It just isn’t worth it to me.

There are more great books out there than I have life enough left to read, and more are being published every day. I literally don’t have time to read everything I’d like to read, so I’m always looking for reasons to filter out a particular author, and this is an easy filter for me.

If you’re in the same boat, you *probably* could at least see my point in my Gaiman post (even if you didn’t agree with it). If you think my answer is bizarre, then you probably thought my Gaiman post was off the wall. But maybe this’ll give you a glimpse into how I come to the conclusions that I did?

Anyway, I’d love comments on this. Am I just part of the lunatic fringe on this, or do most people like the closure of having cliffhanger endings followed up on?

Rebutting Neil Gaiman’s Entitlement post

So today Neil Gaiman wrote a post called Entitlement issues… in which he answers a reader’s question about whether or not it is realistic for that reader to feel let down [an odd way to phrase things, but I’m just using that readers’ words] by the slow progress that George R R Martin is making on the next Song of Ice and Fire book. The reader asks what responsibility Martin has to finish the story.

Gaiman’s response: “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Teach that fan to respectfully ask a question, I guess. But anyway, Gaiman elaborates:

You’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.

No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.

To which I say, bullshit.

Now, before I go any farther, I’m not hating on Martin. I’m addressing the issue in more theoretical terms here.

So anyway, yeah, Gaiman’s answer is bullshit. There is most definitely a social contract in place here. When I buy book 1 of a series, it is not a stand-alone story. I’m buying the first part of the story with the understanding that the rest of the story will be forthcoming. Without the rest of the story, the first book is just unfinished business. Essentially, when I buy book 1 I’m investing in the author, helping him pay the bills so he can continue to work on finishing the story. My $10 for Book 1 is a down payment on the $30 story I’m intending to buy (assuming it takes 3 volumes to tell the story).

If someone can genuinely convince me that this isn’t the case…that I can’t in good faith expect a half-told story I’ve paid money for to eventually be finished, then I’ll make sure never to buy part of a series until the entire series is completed. And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe these books shouldn’t be published until the whole tale is told. But publishers won’t do that. Why? Because they need us “investing” in the story in order to finance the rest of it being written.

Gaiman finishes his post by re-phrasing his first line like this: “George R. R. Martin is not working for you.”

Oh really? If Martin, or any author making his living from writing books, isn’t working for me, who is he working for? When he puts dinner down in front of his family, where did the money for that dinner ultimately come from? I don’t see many ads in the pages of the novels I’m reading. I don’t see any indication of a corporate sponsor. As far as I can see, the only source of revenue comes from the people buying the books. The customers. He is absolutely working for me. So is Mr. Gaiman, for that matter.

I write code for a living. Other people design buildings, or write soundtracks for movies, or create balanced and delicious menus for charity dinners, or build custom cabinets… many, many people use the creative sides of their minds in order to do their job. And pretty much all of them have commitments and deadlines and manage to make their deadlines, regardless of whether they’ve fallen into or out of love recently (see Gaiman’s post for that reference).

This idea that writing is some kind of holy behavior that can’t be tainted by being held to deadlines is, in my opinion, bullshit. And frankly, 99% of fiction authors can’t get away with missing deadlines, either.

And the idea the an author will sell you part 1 of a story and just decide “Naa, I’ve decided I’m not going to write the rest of that story. You can just make up your own ending.” and that we should be OK with that, is ludicrous. And the reality is, any author that regularly pulled such a stunt would soon find him or herself without a readership.

Again, I’m not hating on Martin. Because for people in all walks of life, shit sometimes happens. Contracts get broken, deadlines get missed in spite of our best intentions, we bite off more than we can chew and get into trouble [which seems to be where Martin is]. That’s part of being human and it happens to everyone. I feel for Martin. He must feel completely trapped at this point.

But I’ve also decided not to buy any more pieces of A Song of Fire & Ice until he finishes it, because I’m not sure he’ll be able and willing to finish it, at least not in my lifetime. My choosing not to purchase his most recent piece of the story isn’t malice on my part. That’s me investing wisely. I work hard for my money and I have to be choosy about where I spend it. My time is also valuable, and I prefer devoting it to complete stories, or stories that I’m confident will be completed.

So yes, there is a contract in place, and in spite of the best intentions on everyone’s part, sometimes the contract will be broken. When that happens, the people who had entered into the contract have every right to be disappointed, every right to feel let down. Telling a reader that he has no right to feel let down is astonishingly disrespectful, in my opinion.

Gaiman should keep in mind that we readers aren’t his bitch, either. Authors who work for us should be mindful of the fact that if you let us down enough times, we’re going to stop reading your work. And if we all stop reading your work, you’re going to have to find a new job.

Duma Key

Duma Key
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Duma Key by Stephen King

Once upon a time, I was a huge Stephen King fan. I read ’em as fast as he could write ’em. And then he wrote Pet Sematary, and I read it, and something snapped inside of me. King’s skill with descriptions had gotten too good, in a way. Some of the stuff I was reading…it just didn’t feel healthy to me. I didn’t need to be filling my head with that kind of potent and disturbing imagery.

So I quit reading King, or at least, reading his horror stuff.

Then last Thanksgiving my brother gave me a copy of Duma Key, which he’d enjoyed. I felt obligated to give it a try, and early on there’s a scene that almost caused me to set it aside, but I pushed on, and I’m glad I did.

Duma Key isn’t horrific. It’s creepy and sometimes unsettling, but never horrific (I mean that as praise). It never gets truly scary — or maybe that’s because I was so braced for something worse — but it gets nice and weird a lot.

And it’s a pretty good story as long as you just fly through it and don’t stop to think very hard about the characters and their reactions to events going on, because sometimes they make odd choices that don’t ring true.

Vague example, trying to avoid spoilers: You and some friends need to accomplish a certain task before a specific time. If you don’t finish in time, the group is going to wind up in very dire circumstances. These are people who trust you. Do you a) quickly accomplish your goals, informing your friends of what needs to be done and assuring them that you’ll explain the details later, or b) Ramble on and on explaining all the reasons why you have to do what you have to do, as the deadline draws nearer and nearer and your friends urge you to shut the hell up and get moving?

Most people, I think, would choose A but our protagonist chooses B. While you’re reading it, you’re flipping pages like mad because you want to find out what happens. But afterward you stop and think, “What the heck? Why’d he waste all that time talking??”

On the other hand, certain cliched behaviors that you expect to see never emerge. When weird things start happening to the protagonist, we expect him to keep what’s going on a secret. But in fact he doesn’t; he shares the burden with friends. That sounds simple but to me it was unexpected and welcome.

I don’t know if die-hard King fans will like Duma Key; I haven’t followed him recently and don’t know if this is a departure from his other recent books. But I liked it well enough. It was a good yarn, the characters were genuinely likable (at least, when we were supposed to like them) and had great (one could argue, a little too great) chemistry together. Duma Key itself was realized well enough to be a character in and of itself.

I can’t imagine that I’ll be thinking about this book a week from now, but it was a good ride while it lasted.

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No Longer on the Map Review

No Longer on the Map
Rating: 2 of 5 stars

No Longer on the Map by Raymond H. Ramsay

It almost seems pointless to review a book that was obscure in its heyday and is now out of print, so I’m going to approach things a little differently.

When I was a child, I was enthralled with anything unknown and fringe. Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, UFOs… you name it, I believed in them. I assumed that “No Longer on the Map” was going to be filled with tales of Atlantis and other lost continents. I ordered it (I got all my books mail order back then; one thing my mom really indulged me with was books) and when it arrived and I realized it wasn’t about such fantastical places, I put it on the shelf, and there it sat for over 35 years.

Not sure what prompted me to finally pick it up and read it, but you should have seen the cloud of dust I blew off it before I opened the front cover. It was like something out of a movie mystery. 🙂

What the book is *actually* about is cartography. The author discusses places that were on maps from hundreds of years ago but aren’t on modern maps. Some of them you may have heard of, such as a navigable Northwest Passage or the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Others were new, at least, to me, like Breasil, an island in the North Atlantic, or Quivira, a gold-rich empire in the Pacific Northwest.

I enjoyed the authors descriptions of the various explorers who claimed to have found/sighted/discovered these non-existent places, but they weren’t really the focus of the book. The focus was more about what cartographer included which place and why. Where the names came from (and the author makes some pretty wild leaps in his name speculation). When the places vanished from maps. That sort of thing. It all made for some fairly dry reading for me.

But I don’t have any kind of deep interest in cartography. If you’re fascinated by maps then you might love this book, if you can find it. Definitely a niche book for a niche audience.

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Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne Review

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider

Wow. What a surprise.

This is a prequel novel to the upcoming video game Dragon Age: Origins, by Bioware. I was reading it more to ‘get in the mood’ for the game than anything, and I had very low expectations, to be honest. And I was blown away.

I’m giving it 4 stars, and that is judging it against all fantasy, not against “pre-generated world” fantasy (novels based on games, movies, tv series, etc). Within that sub-genre it’s a 5 star book, easily.

As the story begins, a cruel usurper sits on the throne of Ferelden, and the Rebel Queen has been betrayed and murdered. The only member left of the royal family is young Maric, a charming but slightly inept princeling, now on the run for his life. He soon teams up with a young commoner named Loghain, and the two set off to reunite with the rebel army, and begin the daunting challenge of trying to push the usurper from his ill-gained throne.

There’s a bit of game-ness to the book here and there as character classes are mentioned, but it isn’t very intrusive and if you didn’t know it was a game-prequel novel, you might not even notice it.

The story has everything you could ask for in a fantasy. A noble, seemingly impossible quest, great battles, characters who feel very real, and who interact in ways that also feel very human. A smattering of magic and strange creatures. Joy and pain, victory and defeat. All written with genuine emotion.

A nice change of pace is the way elves are handled, who are definitely second class citizens in this world, scraping by working as servants and living in squalid quarters of most cities.

All in all, a very, very enjoyable read, and a very ‘self-contained’ novel. You aren’t left with a cliff-hanger ending that is going to require you to play the game or read another novel. You can download a sample chapter from http://dragonage.bioware.com/noveltst.html

I hope the author, David Gaider, focuses on more novel writing, and less game writing. I’d love to read more from him!

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