Recently I have been thinking about eBooks and eReaders – not something to which I gave serious thought in the past. That might be surprising given my predilection for electronic gadgets and books. Two passions which have not found the opportunity to merge in any plausible fashion. However, at a meeting of a book club that I frequent a few of the members were enthusing about their eReaders, a Kobo and a Sony Touch eReader. There are also others on the market, including the much-promoted Kindle from Amazon. One of the book club members had her Kobo with her and passed it around so that we could get a look and feel. I was intrigued.

I have never been convinced by the line that eReaders enable you to carry hundreds of books with you when you travel. Whether on business or pleasure I have never been able to read even half a hundred books while I travel. If I manage one, two at the most, I feel reasonably satisfied. Then there is the pleasure in leaving behind in some distant cottage a novel that some other traveller some day may pick up and enjoy.

So, the portability of mass quantities is not particularly motivating.

Is there any cost argument in favour of eBooks and eReaders? Of course nothing but the ingenuity of man hinders the vast reduplication of digital objects which, in theory, could reduce unit cost of eBooks effectively to zero. In theory, perhaps. In practice the ingenuity of man (dread phrase) seems to have been dedicated to sewing up the DRM on eBooks about as tight as you can sew a stitch. And though the unit cost of production of these digital objects must over time approach zero, I am willing to accept that in the shorter term there are costs that need recovery. Where, then, is the price point – the point at which consumers will click the purchase button – for eBooks? To my surprise the price point is rather high (for others). Not exactly the same as the versions of books transported on organic matter, but not so far distant as to be insignificant. But to be fair, I shouldn’t compare the cost to full price paper books because I am loathe to make such purchases except as gifts. When eBooks are compared against the kind of discounting that Amazon does on a continuous basis or, worse, compared to remaindered texts (for which there seem to be numerous outlets in my region), then the eBook suffers. After all, these would be superfluous purchases for me. My price point for such purchases is very low indeed.

Especially when you consider the further alternative – the library.

The public library, along with socialized healthcare, is, I think, a gauge of civilized society. We are blessed with a fabulous public library within walking distance, the Waterloo Public Library, and an equally impressive public library just down the road in the adjacent city, the Kitchener Public Library. Access to books that can be borrowed free of charge (to the end-user) is more than adequate.

My experience is that libraries are always near the forefront of technological advancement. That impression was confirmed when I discovered that our public libraries also make available eBooks for loan. The Waterloo Public Library, for example, offers some 1655 eBooks, a small but growing collection. Of course these are licensed digital objects. The DRM systems in place are able to limit downloads to a single library patron for a set period similar to the period of loan for paper books. (Set aside how counter-intuitive that seems for a digital object.)

So perhaps a cost argument could be constructed in favour of purchasing an eReader. (I notice that my  ‘cost arguments’ always seem to be hypothetical arguments I might have with my wife, or better self.) For an initial not insubstantial capital investment, I could have access to eBooks at no further cost (to me) on into the future. Isn’t that the way I justified buying a somewhat pricey digital camera a few years ago?

Perhaps. And yet, for me the price point still has not been reached (at least for the eReaders themselves).  I think I will stick with my paper bound volumes of text for the time being. Or wait to be convinced by someone else.

Turning a page

In the spring I did something that I haven’t done before. I bought an Apple computer. It is an iMac (the smaller one) and I confess I find it to be exactly what I hoped it would be. Beautiful, elegant, unobtrusive, simple.

A surprising amount of thinking and research went into that decision. Or rather, a lot of research went in to helping someone else arrive at the best possible decision for his next computer. And having convinced him that the right choice was an iMac, I found I had very little counter-argument when it came to purchasing a new home desktop machine.

My father-in-law turned 80 in April. For more than a year he had been struggling with a home computer that seemed to soak up all of his time, and my time whenever I visited, reclaiming lost files and resolving issues. In short, he was no longer having fun. Of course some people find their fun in constantly tinkering with the innards of their operating system. He is not that sort of person. He had attempted to upgrade a perfectly serviceable XP machine to Vista. That was a mistake. Despite adding extra RAM he was left with an extremely sluggish machine and a mess of documents, pictures and other files shifted to places he knew not where. His computer was now taking up increasing amounts of his time and he was becoming less and less productive. It was time for a change.

He decided that he would buy himself an 80th birthday present – a new computer that would liberate him from the morass his computing had fallen into. He began by exploring new Windows 7 machines and was, for a time, enchanted by the idea of a touch-screen HP desktop. However, before making a purchase he decided to ask my advice (which, regrettably, he had not done prior to his XP to Vista disaster). And so I set about exploring the options.

I decided to concentrate upon his computing experience. What did he most dislike? What did he most enjoy? One of the things he appreciates is elegant, functional design. A well-engineered machine can be in itself a beautiful object. Like a high-end BMW or Audi, a good computer (and operating system) should get out of the way of the experiences you hope to have using it. His computing needs, in effect, were simple: email, some Internet surfing, word processing, a handy collection of photos of his family, one or two solitary games, and possibly some VOIP (probably Skype) to keep in touch with distant family. There are lots of machines that could meet these computing needs. But what would transform his experience? What would, for him, make computing fun again?

I recommended the 21-inch Apple iMac.

He had not even considered a mac until then. He had successfully taught himself to use Windows computers from 3.1 to Vista and didn’t immediately see that he could step away from that paradigm at this point without a huge change cost. When he went to see his local Apple dealer, however, he fell in love with the iMac almost immediately.

And he has been delighted with it ever since.

Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that in convincing him that the iMac was right for his needs I also convinced myself that it was right for me. And I too have been delighted with it ever since we got it. So much so that it seems like it has always been here. Or maybe it is that, because it doesn’t require constant attention, I forget about the device and have simply got on with having fun again. And that seems like a good page to have turned.

In the garden

Here follows photographic evidence of what I have been up to in the garden. Thanks to a delightful spring and early summer this has not required a great deal of effort. It turns out that most plants just grow on their own accord without call for my intervention.

A Guernsey Cream clematis that we planted in the autumn survived the winter and produced its first flower by 23 May. Later it developed four flowers that lasted for some time.

We also had a lovely crop of tulips out front from bulbs we planted the previous autumn.

And here is proof positive that finally we have managed to harvest something from our square-foot garden.

For a much more comprehensive view of our developing garden, you might want to view the following sets of photos on Flickr:

Book clubs

One of the gentle pleasures I have discovered in Waterloo is a book club organised by Words Worth Books. I attended in the spring for the first time, not because I have any experience with book clubs but rather because I simply happened to have read, very recently, the book they were set to discuss that month. That, and the meeting was taking place at a location in walking distance of my house. So it was easy.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was both relieved and pleased. The group, whose membership varies slightly from month to month, is small enough to allow everyone to share their thoughts. And everyone does. Moreover, the level of discussion is excellent. These are good readers with insights into the text that I may not have had. There is usually sufficient difference of opinion to warrant further scrutiny of the text. It’s the kind of interplay that I consider essential for due appreciation of the integral nature of art to life.

Having entered upon the project by happenstance, continuance has required me to read novels which I almost certainly would not have chosen on my own account. That turns out to have been a good thing. For example, tomorrow evening we will be discussing Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel. This first novel – she has a second out at the moment – is beautifully crafted. I consider it a real find, one which I have since been urging upon my friends. And I definitely would not have stumbled upon it had it not been for this book club. I hope the others in the group will have been as impressed as I was. On the other hand, I fully expect they will open my eyes to aspects of this novel that I have not yet considered.

Here are the other books that the book club has discussed since I have been participating:

TransferSummit/UK in Oxford: 24-25 June 2010

If I were going to be in the UK in late June, I know where I would be heading. I would definitely be attending the impressive looking TransferSummit/UK organised by OSS Watch. With a host of fabulous speakers, including Stormy Peters, Martin Michlmayr, and even David Humphrey from The Seneca Centre for the Development of Open Technology (which is just down the road from where I live now, at least in Canadian terms), I certainly would have learned a lot and have had a great time. Maybe someone reading this blog will attend the event in my stead and report on how it goes.

Well done to Ross Gardler and the fine folks at OSS Watch for organising another super event.

P.S. And don’t forgot the BarCamp that will be taking place immediately following TransferSummit/UK!