Monthly Archives: February 2009

E-Books, or Kindle? What Kindle?

I have an iPhone. Have had since about two weeks after they first came out. Now that third party apps are available, I’m having more fun than ever. One app in particular that I’m enjoying is Stanza, a free e-book reader. It’s great. There are thousands of books available for free, and also many available for purchase. I already have a dozen books on my iPhone.

That said, I have some gripes.

First, navigation within the application is less than great. The main menu lists numerous categories including several different e-book suppliers. Instead of just presenting a list of all available material and then once you’ve found something showing who will give/sell it to you, first you have to choose a provider, and then browse through their catalog. Don’t find what you’re looking for? Then navigate all the way up and choose another provider.

Second, navigation within books is a bit funky. You use gestures, but instead of swiping the text to move it up or down, the text is divided into pages and you tap (or swipe) to swipc from one page to the next. Resizing happens by pinching as you would expect, but only in increments, and the screen update takes too long as well.

Third, there is the pricing. One of the first things I did was look up a book I have on my nightstand that just doesn’t seem to get read. I bought the paperback for about seven dollars new. The e-book version, presumably based on the hardcover edition, was something over twenty dollars. There’s already a great deal of free fiction. How long before free books drive out pay books?

So, quick comparison:

Cost: the Kindle with no monthly fee wins compared to the iPhone, but the iPod Touch is cheaper still.

Storage: the iPhone and the iPod Touch both win handily here, with several times as much storage.

Display: the Kindle has roughly three times the pixels, but no color. Still, color isn’t too necessary for books, so the Kindle wins. The e-ink aspect works in the Kindle’s favor as well, unless there’s a problem with it I don’t know about.

Content Pricing: not sure, but Amazon seems to have better pricing, at least on non-free material.

Connectivity: the Kindle has the same as the iPhone, but with no monthly fee. Assuming you use the iPhone as a phone, a tie. Compared to the iPod Touch the Kindle wins.

Openness: the iPhone/iPod Touch win, with standard e-book readers.

Convenience: if the iPhone is your phone, then it wins big time. You always have it with you. The Kindle is more cumbersome, but smaller than real books.

Battery Life: the Kindle lasts much longer, but as long as you’re charging your iPhone each night, not a problem.

In all, I’m happy with my iPhone.

Puzzles and the aha!

I solve lots of puzzles. One type in particular that I enjoy is the take-apart puzzle, for example these. Something I find fascinating about these puzzles is the aha! aspect. Often I’ll buy a puzzle and be baffled for fifteen minute by it, then set it aside, then several days later be baffled again for another twenty minutes, then set it aside, then pick it up again a week later, take one look at it and say, “Hmm, that should work, right?” Ten seconds after picking it up for the third time, it’s solved.

It’s a very curious process. Is it that my subconscious is working on the puzzle all the time? Seems unlikely. Is it that I’m sometimes in the right frame of mind to see through the puzzle? Perhaps. Am I being caught seeing a pattern where there is none? Always a possibility, but it doesn’t seem like it.

In any case, it just happened again.

The Illusion of Free Will

I heard Janna Levin yesterday on Speaking of Faith on NPR talking about her novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Ms. Levin is a physicist, and the novel discusses the lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. It sounds like an interesting book.

Predictably, the host Krista Tippett used Gödel’s incompleteness theorems to support her case for faith — that there is more to the universe than can be understood by poor man’s understanding, but that’s a topic for when I have more time.

Another topic that caught my attention was the discussion of free will. Ms. Levin and Ms. Tippett danced all around the question of whether we have free will or not, and what the ramifications are if we don’t. It seems to me that this is pretty straightforward.

Suppose you have two identical closed boxes and within them set up a number of molecules in exactly the same arrangement: position and velocity. Yes I know this is impossible as far as we know, but this is a thought experiment, anything is possible. Unless there is something mystical going on (which I don’t take as a serious option) there are two possibilities:

  • The two boxes will remain identical as the molecules go about their business.
  • Some randomizing factor — quantum or otherwise — will cause the boxes to fall out of sync.

First, I would argue that in the second case it might be you didn’t do a good enough job of meeting the initial conditions. I find it hard to comprehend something truly random, given enough detail in the initial setup. It may be that there is no way to run such an experiment in real life.

But that’s irrelevant. In either case, there is no free will, even if the “number of molecules” is a human being or two, and one of the “boxes” is the universe. It’s just not there. That said, consider a video game like Mario Kart. The artificial intelligences in the game can give the impression of novel behavior, of “free will.” Depending on the game (I have no experience with Mario Kart) the illusion can be more or less convincing, often depending on the complexity of the algorithms used to generate the artificial intelligence.

Scale that up to human beings and the “simulation” becomes so complex, the illusion of free will so convincing, that to try to find the limits of it is seemingly futile. A human being cannot be predicted.

With today’s technology, anyway.

Short Story: Anniversary

I write fiction every now and then. This (very) short story came out well I thought.



Last year was the same as all the years before: when I woke up on June 14th, she was there beside me in bed. She looked fantastic. Her hair, shoulder length and dark, looked as if it had been professionally arranged on the pillow. Her scent was just noticeable, a slight hint of lilac. Her mouth naturally formed a slight pout in her sleep, and her full lips begged to be kissed.

I obliged by kissing her. She stirred, then opened her eyes and smiled. She stretched as she said sleepily, “Happy anniversary, tiger.”

“Happy anniversary yourself. What would you like for breakfast? It’s on me.”

She laughed lightly, not because it was funny but to let me know that after many years she still loved me enough to laugh at my tired jokes. “The usual: eggs and bacon please.”

I got up and went to the kitchen to make them for her. I had considered changing that part, since it held bad memories, but I just couldn’t do it. She had to be true to herself — as true as possible given the circumstances.


After breakfast, we spent the day together. We hiked up to Pilot Rock with a picnic lunch. We ate in silence, but afterward she asked, “How’s your work?”

“Fine. The new experience is coming along nicely.”

“What kind is it?”

“Sort of an adventure/drama. Of course you can never know for sure, but the people who’ve tried the prototypes come out of it with that wide-eyed look that says they’ve seen something that really grabbed them. I think it will do well.”

“That’s great. When do I get to try it?” Okay, so I changed some things. Sue me.

“You really want to? You never did before.”

“You’ve worked so hard. I ought to at least give it a shot. If I don’t like it I can always drop out, right?”

“Of course.” The whole exchange rang false, as usual when I changed something. I wouldn’t be doing that agan.


We walked back after lunch holding hands. The sunlight cast dark highlights in her hair, and her eyes sparkled with life. I almost couldn’t stand it, she was so beautiful. After some small talk about the summer weather, she turned to me slightly and asked in a low voice, “Have you found someone?” I really should fix that, but each time I tinker, I end up frustrated.

“No, of course not. I love you.”

“Even so, you should find someone. This can’t go on forever.”

“Maybe not, but I’m not ready for it to end yet.”


That night I made her favorite fried chicken for dinner. Again, the bitter truth wasn’t lost on me. I almost cried when I served it to her, but it was her favorite, what else could I do? While we ate, I made a point of telling her I loved her. I said it at least a dozen times over the course of the day. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, that’s for sure.

Later we fell asleep in each others’ arms. In the morning, she was gone as if she were never there.


There’s nothing illegal about bringing her back. It’s uncommon, but I’m not the only one. Still, everyone else I know of went all the way — they reintegrate the duplicate into their lives, and after some time everyone looks the other way and treats the duplicate like it was the original. 

It’s not, though. There’s no record of what her mind contained the day years of omelettes and fried foods caught up with her. That was long ago, before recordings. Her mind is just my best guess. My idealized version of the truth, perhaps. She’s a memory — a walking, talking memory — better than a regular memory, and at the same time much, much worse.

I can’t lie. I can’t pretend it’s her when it’s not. But I can’t give her up either. It’s been almost eighty years, and I can’t let go. It’s late June 13th, time for bed, and I can almost smell the lilac. I know what I’ll find when I wake up tomorrow.