Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Too Soon Old

It is said that humans grow “too soon old and too late smart.” Compared to our “smart” devices, however, we’re immortal. For example, I have an iPod touch that I bought two years ago. It still functions perfectly well, so I have no desire to replace it (and given my current economic condition, replacing it isn’t in my budget until at least 2014).

Unfortunately, both Apple and the people who write applications for iPod, iPhone, and iPad seem to think I should be replacing it. Actually, they seem to think I should have replaced it six months ago. Four of the applications I use (three of them on a daily basis) have upgrades that will not install on my current operating system, and the operating system they think I should have will not run on my device. Another app, which I used at least once a month, wiped itself out, which was really annoying. At least the Kindle app simply doesn’t install the update, and the old version continues to work.

I wasn’t paying too much attention to this (it’s November, so at lot of my attention is on National Novel Writing Month) until the notifications came from Fictionwise. I knew, of course, that Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise back in 2009. The Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust published a lot of books and stories (over 700 of them) on Fictionwise, and some of them became available on the Barnes & Noble site then. A couple of years later Barnes & Noble came up with PubIt, which is close enough to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing that the same source files can be used for both. This is not, of course, the file format used for Fictionwise. Because I’m the Trust’s IT department, I’ve spent a lot of time converting Fictionwise stories into Kindle/Nook format. It’s a long, slow process.

Then, on November 15, Fictionwise sent an e-mail to the Trust, informing us that they were ending sales on December 4, 2012. Because even the Fictionwise books that were transferred to Barnes & Noble did not take their metadata with them, I just spent several days copying search keywords, book/story descriptions, and reviews from the individual item pages on the publisher side of the Fictionwise site to a text file. Now at least I have all the data in one place as I continue to convert the books.

I also have a second relationship with Fictionwise. I bought over a thousand eBooks from them during the past decade. I now have until December 21 to download the ones I want to keep and then convert them to Kindle format. This involves the unlock codes for a lot of .pdb eBooks (that being the format that worked on my Palm Treo last decade). It’s a good thing I kept my old credit cards, because I’ll need my Waldenbooks Preferred Reader Visa card to unlock some of the older ones. (Remember Waldenbooks?)

This is not, of course, what Barnes & Noble expects me to do. They want me to opt-in to have my Bookshelf transferred to a Barnes & Noble Nook Library. As they put it: “With your NOOK Library, you will have access to an expansive and ever-growing eBookstore. You can read NOOK Books on NOOK's free mobile app for your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, NOOK® for Windows 8 PC or Tablet, as well as reading your eBooks with your PC/Mac web browser, or on the award-winning NOOK® devices.”

Well, (1) Nook’s free mobile app for iPod doesn’t run on my operating system, (2) I don’t have an Android anything, (3) I don’t have an award-winning (what award?) Nook device, and (4) I don’t want to sit at my computer to read eBooks. I spend way too much time sitting at my computer as it is. For me, the whole point of having eBooks is that I can keep them on a device that fits in my pocket. That way I always have something to read with me.

So, as soon as I finish National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be downloading my Bookshelf from Fictionwise. It’s a good thing I did my Christmas shopping early.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pas Devant

There was a French phrase that my parents used fairly often when I was a child: pas devant. Depending on context, this is shorthand for either pas devant les enfants (not in front of the children—or as Timon told Pumba in Disney’s The Lion King—“not in front of the kids”) or pas devant les domestiques (not in front of the servants). My parents generally used the first meaning. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure that either of them actually spoke French beyond a few useful phrases, and they stopped using it to exclude me the day I looked up from where I was playing on the floor and said “Twenty-five what?” I believe I was eight at the time; my school started foreign languages in third grade, and French was my favorite class.
I learned the second meaning as well, mostly from the books I read. Emerson used it in TheMummy Case, by Elizabeth Peters, which is a bit of a joke, because Emerson didn’t worry about what he said in front of his servants. His wife’s reaction was “Naturally I paid no attention to this remark, which was only meant to annoy me.” Unlike many of his contemporaries (the book is set in 1894-1895) Emerson talked to his servants, even in the middle of dinner. He didn’t regard them as the walking equivalent of furniture.
This attitude still exists in some places today. I have a friend who plays the harp and is a truly gifted musician, but I have heard her describe her job at some of her gigs as “musical wallpaper.” Of course, when she is hired to provide background music for a party, she expects this. A lot of people are ignored at a large party, particularly one that includes dinner.
There were two things the girls at my boarding school were all required to take turns at: waiting tables at dinner, and running the switchboard. This meant that we all graduated with at least two usable job skills (I spent the summer I turned eighteen working as a long distance operator for the local phone company) and also taught us what it felt like to stand silently near a table until it was time for the next course or somebody wanted a refill on her drink. I hope that it also taught us never to be rude to a telephone operator, receptionist, or waitress. I personally feel it’s unfair to be rude to people who are not in a position to be rude back. Just because you can snap at a waiter who mixes up your order doesn’t mean that you should. I was a camp counselor one summer, and I had the most polite table of campers in the entire dining room. The staff loved us.
There are still people today who ignore the “servants,” even to the point of forgetting that they are in the room. They have forgotten what pas devant means and why it’s a useful phrase. There are some things you don’t want to say in front of the servants—especially the servants with camera phones. “There are 47 percent of the people who...” is probably the best recent example.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Junked Election

It’s not just the buttons that will soon become either cherished memorabilia or landfill, or the bumper stickers that will be obsolete on Wednesday but will stay firmly attached to their cars while the sun fades them to illegibility, or the signs on utility posts that will stay there until the rain finally washes them down. The greatest quantity of election-related garbage is the junk mail.

I live in San Francisco, so I have two pieces of election mail that I actually read and use. One is the Sample Ballot (147 pages), which shows what will be on the ballot, tells me where my polling place is, and has the information on local candidates and ballot propositions. The second is the California General Election booklet (143 pages), put out by the Secretary of State, which has the information on the state propositions. In addition to candidate statements, these booklets contain a summary of each proposition, an analysis by the legislative analyst (background, proposal, fiscal effects), an argument in favor, an argument against, and rebuttals to both arguments. The booklets also contain the text of the applicable laws, with strikeout and italic type showing the proposed changes. I really think that this is plenty of information to enable me to make an informed decision.

But all the campaigns seem to have extra money and an inordinate fondness for the printing industry. In addition to the material I actually read, I also have 41 pieces of mail—most of them on glossy paper—with severely biased instructions on how to vote. The one I just picked up from the top of the pile says in large letters “You Deserve A Reward For Following The Law.” Not only is this contrary to my personal belief that you should follow the law whether you are rewarded for it or not, but when I looked up the proposition in the General Election booklet, it’s about maintaining continuous coverage on auto insurance. San Francisco has excellent public transportation (and gas and parking are expensive), so I am far from the only person in the city who does not own a car.  Does whoever wrote the copy for this piece of junk mail still think I deserve a reward? I do not have auto insurance, but I am certainly following the law.

We still have another two days until the election, plus whatever mail trickles in after that. They may be spending plenty on printing, but they’re not paying for first class postage. That’s a shame, because the post office could really use the money. By the end of next week, I will have put all of this into the recycling bin. Maybe it can be made into something useful.