Thursday, April 28, 2011

Can Google Be Trusted with Our Books?

So asked Craig Morgan Teicher in his Publishers Weekly blog yesterday, noting what he called "a disturbing observation" made by yet another journalist writing for The Guardian in the UK. That observation, spurred by Google's recent decision to pull the plug on Google Video, wondered whether the search company's cold business calculus about online videos didn't mean it would do the same to the millions of books it's scanned and uploaded should Google Books flop, too.

As it happens Google appears to have reversed course on this decision, so for the time being those videos remain safe for viewing. But what's odd about this hand-wringing is that it overlooks that just about everything on the web is as vulnerable as those Google videos. Wikipedia, for instance, despite its status as a not-for-profit venture, is just as likely to go 404 should it be mismanaged and its contributions dry up. And what about those of us who rely on Gmail and, like me, have years of email correspondence archived in their accounts?

Which brings us to The Cloud.

It's a vogue term these days, especially with Amazon's latest attack on iTunes via its Cloud Player. The Cloud Player allows those of us who use Apple's music store but don't have an iPhone to play our ripped CDs and, uh, non-DRM downloaded music (meaning only the stuff you've bought from iTunes at the premium, non-copy-protected price) on an Android, BlackBerry, or Palm smartphone. Or from a notebook or desktop PC via a web player.

Then there's Amazon's Cloud Drive, which is basically your backup hard drive in the sky.

Whatever you call it, the Internet has slowly been storing (and occasionally losing or exposing) more and more of our data -- from credit card numbers to medical records to email addresses -- since the web became a consumer hit in the mid '90s. So wondering whether Google can be trusted with our books is a little like wondering whether Chase can be trusted with our credit cards or United Healthcare can be trusted with our medical records. Except wondering about Chase and United Healthcare is a tad more important.

After all, should Google hit the skids and shutter Google Books those millions of volumes will still be available ... they'll just be stuck in antediluvian libraries, where to read them you may have to (shudder) visit them and check them out.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Goon Show

I'd no sooner finished A Visit From the Goon Squad and was spending a few milliseconds trying to decide if it could be adapted for the screen when I learned that HBO was way ahead of me.  Except obviously they've decided to adapt it for a far smaller screen than the one I was thinking of.

Boy, I really have mixed feelings about this!

So says Woody Allen, with a certain neurotic glee, in Play It Again, Sam when he learns he's been set up on a date with a gorgeous woman. That's my view on turning Goon Squad into an HBO movie. Egan's book may be, to quote T.S. Eliot on The Waste Land, "only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life" -- in this case life in a digital era that leaves us living in a perpetual near future. (It's seldom a leap to imagine tomorrow's cooler version of the gadget you buy today.) Hence the novel's concluding chapters take place in a world where global warming has left Arizona's golf courses scorched ruins to be reclaimed by the desert, the sun sets before 4:30 in the afternoon in January, lower Manhattan seems to have a sea wall, texting starts at toddlerhood, ethics has become a quaint relic taught only in university courses, and -- perhaps wackiest of all -- young people no longer use profanity.

It isn't that these visions of the future are unfilmable. Most don't demand the kind of digital effects that erase impossibilities in even the most mundane action film. It's just that a novelist's grouses against life, when they pile up eliptically in a story that bounces around in time among characters whose relationships to each other unfold unexpectedly, wouldn't, I imagine, translate well to the screen ... at least not for a mass entertainment. Hollywood-style movies avoid subtlety and indirection -- they're bad box office. Not to mention the anger, despair, and intimations of mortality that rumble beneath Goon Squad.

I don't envy the screenwriter on this one.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on April 18th.  The Pulitzer judges called it "an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed."

So I'm wondering just how old Jennifer Egan might feel in the digital age if she knew that not everything in her book can be read on my Android smartphone. And that some of it is barely legible on my Nook 3G.  Let me explain.

I bought the "Nookbook" version of Goon Squad from Barnes & earlier this month. I'd been reading it mostly on my Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V, whose touchscreen display and resolution (3.2" and 320-by-480-pixels) is inferior to that of an iPhone 4 (3.5" and 960-by-640-pixels) but comparable to previous versions of the iPhone, whose screens sport the same physical dimensions as the iPhone 4's but the same resolution as my LG Optimus V's.

For reading text, a 320-by-480 pixel color screen works fine.  And the text size is adjustable to five different sizes for those of us in the reading glass set.

Curiously, however, in a later chapter of Goon Squad Egan departs from ordinary text and turns to what appear to be PowerPoint slides to present the story of a 12-year-old girl and her autistic brother.  Since the slides are grayscale they don't pose an insuperable challenge to viewing on my Nook 3G's E-Ink screen, which supports 16 shades of gray.  (In a world where even low-end notebook displays handle 16.7 million colors with ease 16 shades of gray may sound pathetic. But it offers enough contrast for basic black-and-white photographs and, yes, PowerPoint slides that consist mostly of text occupying flowcharty geometric shapes.)

But because these slides are embedded in the Nookbook file (and, I'm guessing, any other ebook file format) as graphics and not as text their limitations become instantly noticeable.  Here's how p. 188 appears on my LG Optimus V:

This screen capture displays the page at its native resolution of 320-by-480 pixels.  You might think that turning the phone to landscape mode would improve readability -- and it does:

But in landscape mode, as you can see, it can't display the entire slide.  And there's no way to scroll down or use the touchscreen to push up the image to see what you're missing.  You're stuck with an almost complete image.

And on the Nook 3G?

I couldn't figure out how to do a screen capture of my Nook 3G, so I was forced to take a picture of the screen and crop it.  This image doesn't display at the Nook's native resolution -- but it does approximate what you see on the 600 x 800 pixel E-Ink screen:

It's readable, but just barely.  What's more, because these PowerPoint slides are embedded graphics they can't be resized.  While the Nook 3G has the same text-sizing capability as the Android Nook app, text sizing is useless with embedded graphics.  They display only at heir native resolution.

Consider that this chapter of Goon Squad consists of more than 60 such images and you've got a feel for how unsatisfying it is to read on either an Android phone or the Nook 3G.  (I ended up reading the chapter with the Nook for PC app on my 20" desktop monitor, where the slides were effortlessly large.) Since the garden-variety Kindle has essentially the same E-Ink screen as the Nook I assume this problem afflicts Amazon ebook customers, too.  Or, for that matter, Sony Reader customers.

In the end not, as technology marketers are fond of putting it, a good "user experience".  Then again, good literature sometimes demands patience and persistence. Jennifer Egan may have imagined making such demands on her readers when she departed from linear storytelling and chose to fragment, concentrate, and embed a girl's discourse in a stream of PowerPoint slides. But I doubt she figured her choice would force any reader to persevere through three different ebook platforms just to render her content legible.