Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year End Objectivist Round-up

Hey, Jen has the year end Round-up over at her blog. This issue is a “Best of 2009” issue. Don’t miss the extra-special Objectivisty goodness! Two of my most read posts are included in the mix.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Realizing a Long-term Goal – How to Make Yourself into a Cook

It’s a lazy day after Christmas and I am doing what I normally do at year’s end: using the time to clean up unfinished tasks that I’ve been meaning to complete. Today it’s reading; I’m cleaning out my backlog of magazines and trying to make progress on the two books I’m reading. One of the sets of magazines I’m catching up on is a few back issues of Cooking Light. Given that this is the time of year to think about goals and given that I’ve used that subscription to improve my cooking skills over the last few years, I thought I’d relate that method for you as a way to look at developing goals and making good on them over the long term.

Cooking was always something I enjoyed but never really spent enough time on to do really well. Mostly I appreciate eating good food. As I was exiting my marriage about two years ago I decided that I wanted to become a better cook, specifically I wanted to be able to make meals that I could enjoy eating, that is being able to make really tasty food. I chose to do this with a particular method or formula that was regimented and thereby relatively easy to follow and stick to. Here’s what I did:

  1. Bought a subscription to a cooking magazine. In my case it was Cooking Light. I had a few friends who made recipes from the magazine regularly, and had enjoyed tasting them so my decision was easy.
  2. As each month’s issue arrived, I would in reading it mark those recipes that I thought looked good.
  3. I’d make photocopies of the marked recipes and place those copies into a stack.
  4. I resolved to make a regular habit out of grocery shopping picking the same time each week to go the store. This afforded me the ability of being able to plan menus for the week.
  5. At planning time I’d go through the recipes in the stack and pick 2 or 3 that sounded good at the time, and make a shopping list for the ingredients for that recipe.
  6. That week I’d take a few nights to prepare the selected recipes. If I liked them, I’d make a few notes about them (what they would go with, suggestions to improve the taste, etc) and then place them into a 3 ring binder. If not, then I’d either consider retrying them or discard the recipe altogether.

Over the course of a year or so then I managed to build up a repertoire of recipes that I liked, and in the course to improve my cooking skills. Sometimes, I’d make an error in the preparation by not realizing the importance of particular step. I’d make a note about it on the recipe, and then maybe a month or two later retry the recipe. If a particular combination of two dishes didn’t pair well, I’d make a note about what I thought the recipe would be better paired with, or maybe make a note about what sort of wine would pair well with the dish.

I think that this method had some really nice advantages over say simply buying a cookbook.

  • I wasn’t committing a lot of extra time, but rather was committing to a consistent routine. Any week I never was biting off more than I could chew or expecting to become proficient overnight. I simply was taking time to plan menus that were selected based upon my interest in eating the foods described.
  • I was learning techniques as I was making recipes. For example, 2009 saw Cooking Light do a while series of issues on basic techniques (braising, steaming, sautéing, grilling) and with each I’d understand the mechanisms of how each worked, what types of dishes they were used to prepare, and what they did not do well.
  • I was using my own interest in eating good food, by reading about it regularly to continue to keep myself motivated to try the recipes. I think this aspect is critical. Considering the fact that you’re going to have days when recipes fail (and believe me I did! sometimes a whole week’s worth turned out poorly) its easy to get discouraged.
  • Because the method is systematic, when it came down to the preparation of the dish on a particular evening, the planning had already been done. The recipe was tacked to the fridge. I knew all the ingredients were already purchased. On any evening I could simply focus on the basics of preparing the dish. And when you’re coming home from a long day at work, this is the sort of ease that you want. In fact I actually got to the point where cooking was a form of decompression for me. My work is at times abstract, long term, and at time frustrating. Cooking is immediate, concrete, and “hands on.” My success or failure was entirely mine, and would be evident within 60 minutes of starting.
  • Finally I was learning how to think about the science of preparation, not just trying to make recipes. By understanding cooking concepts and then attempting to use them, and by analyzing what went wrong or right I was making these techniques concrete for myself. Essentially applying theory to practice.

The result? Well, I won’t say that I’m a great cook. There are still lots of people whose skills I admire much more than my own. But what has changed is that I’m confident that I can assemble a menu, and prepare a meal well; one that I enjoy eating and would not be embarrassed to prepare for someone else. And that was essentially my goal. I also find that now I can modify recipes to suit my taste because I understand the principles behind how they are put together. All this has had the effect that making food at home is now something I can do as a social activity. I used to enjoy greatly going out to eat with friends or heading to a party where I knew the host(ess) was a great cook. There is something about enjoying good friends and good food together. Now I can do that by my own hand. This sort of sensual, emotional experience is one that is tied to experiencing our values through the people that we value, and our ability to provide them an enjoyable experience, and it is a fantastic experience to be able to create. Some people even make their careers by helping others understand and create this experience, such as good friend and objectivist Jen Iannolo, whose Culinary Media Network strives help people bring that sort of sensual experience into their own lives.

As an example, I had my sister over yesterday for Christmas. The day consisted of not much more than playing with our pups, and chatting, maybe watching a movie. But I inserted food into the mix and it added a special ingredient. In the afternoon I had a small cheese plate, and made up some homemade guacamole (first time I’d ever made it) which turned out fantastically. Then for dinner I made a tenderloin steak with sautéed spinach, and herbed potatoes. My Philly apartment isn’t conducive to owning a grill so I’ve been working on the best way to prepare meats without it. After several different attempts using slightly different technique variations, I made these steaks by first searing them in a pan for about 3 minutes a side, and then finishing them using the broiler, using internal temperature to gauge doneness.  The spinach was sautéed in sesame oil and garlic and finished with just a bit of rice wine vinegar to complete the wilting process. The potatoes tossed in olive oil and herbs, and then roasted in the oven. The whole meal came out perfectly; the preparation was part of the experience as she sat at the bar and helped while we chatted.

It’s taken a year or so to get to this point, but this is what I envisioned as a goal. A goal that was reached by a method that was rather simple to execute looking back on it.  Next year, cooking will be about expanding my repertoire. We’ll see what comes out in my goals for the year. That post will be up in a about a week. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Pierre and the Caroline Blue Bells

I’m sitting back after a wonderful Christmas spent with my sister, and feeling generally radiant about life. So rather than a heavy post on some intellectual topic I thought I’d pull something a little bit more personal out. This story is from almost twenty years ago, but I posted it to a private blog a year or so ago (original post date: 1/11/08) after pulling out my journal from the experience and reliving it through those words. I’m not too sure what it has to do with Christmas other than I think this time is a time to sit back and reflect on one’s life; to savor it. You’ll see how this ties into it if you keep reading.

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It was 1992, and I'd decided to go on a backpacking expedition. I'd graduated college a year earlier and taken a two week trip to Colorado with Lori. Before that, the last packing trip I'd taken was as a Boy Scout in my teens. So I decided that I was going to do a solo trip and had chosen Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness, based upon a review I'd read in Backpacker magazine. The Wilderness is the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, ending at it's northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin. It is a contiguous, uninterrupted, rugged, foreboding hundred miles buried deep in the northern Maine woods. Once you start, there is really no way out but to finish, and for most of the trip one will be at least 50 miles from help. The idea of such a trip might seem like biting off more than one could chew, but for some reason I was drawn to it. Maybe it was a testosterone-laced sense of bravado, the need to prove something to myself after my breakup with Lori, or just plain stupidity. It was probably a mix of all those and more. So the decision was made.

After arriving in Maine at midnight after a marathon drive out from Michigan, a brief sleep, and huge breakfast, I set out, with a 60 lb pack on my back filled with 2 weeks of provisions. The trip started horribly. I was carrying so much weight, that I was slow, and on my first day, I stopped several miles short of my planned camp site. Rain set in. Day 2 saw me still hiking at 10 pm, exhausted, headlamp lighting the way, stumbling along the trail, arriving in camp after most other hikers had gone to sleep. Also unknown to me, my pack frame had cracked and the weight of my pack was poorly distributed causing chafing that by week's end would have me plastering duct tape to my hips to hold together the patches of blistered skin. Day 3, the third day of constant rain. I was losing feeling in my feet as they had been wet and cold for a solid three days, and I was behind my hike schedule by almost a full day. The weight of the pack was wearing me out by lunchtime. I was cold and wet, and demoralized, and at times scared. Suddenly this trip had become a daunting demon staring me down, and I was quickly crumbling under its constant stare.

I was considering quitting. There was one escape route about half way in that involved hiking out 15 miles on a logging road and then hitching a ride back to the start, and I was now considering taking it. But that was only one week of hiking and so I was also replotting my route to shorten each day so that I could stretch out the hike to a more respectable length. I hated doing it. I was ashamed. I was trying to grit every day out, and quickly crumbling and I had told everyone at home about my trip and they had been impressed. And now I was faltering. The trail was incredibly tough with wind-sucking, quad-burning climbs and root-littered, muddy trails. Several times I'd lost the trail and almost panicked at the thought of being lost in the woods. I felt alone and I felt like a failure, and worried about how I'd explain it all.

There were hikers all over the trial of course, "thru-hikers" mostly, walking the entire AT for the last 5 months from Georgia to Maine, all with colorful handles (e.g. "Cotton Patch," "Silverback," "Seabear," "Wild Bill," "The April Fools,"), forming a little trail micro-culture. And there were others as well, people doing just The Wilderness. By the fourth day I'd seen many of them a couple of times and was starting to learn their names. They were all friendly, but I was despondent and not in much mood to talk. On night 4 I stayed in a shelter about 5 miles shy of a creek. My plan was to camp at the creek the next night, and then the next day to the jump off point. With me in the shelter that night were two hikers, one a chemist who'd recently been laid off from a pharmaceutical firm and was thru-hiking the AT before starting a new job, and the other a French Canadian named (of all things) Pierre. Pierre was hiking the wilderness only, and I'd already spent a night or two with him at other shelters. His english was poor and we'd spoken very little, but he was a friendly, calm, quiet type. That night the three of us talked over dinner. I confessed to them that I was changing my plans and that I'd not go all the way through the wilderness. I talked a little bit about my frustration and disappointment. The next day's hike would mean that even if I changed my mind, I had lost enough distance that I probably had no way of making Katahdin. I'd "lost the moon" as Tom Hanks would say in Apollo 13.

The next day I was the last one out of the shelter and onto the trail, maybe trying to stretch my time since I only had a few miles to go before I camped. I reached the creek at about noon. Pierre was on the other side. He'd arrived a couple of hours before, and had taken a lazy lunch while he waited for his boots to dry out. I forded the stream and sat next to him and ate my own lunch quietly. I was through for the day. Half way through, Pierre got up, loaded up and turned to continue on the trail. I wished him well. He turned to me and said in broken english, "I see you at the shelter tonight." He didn't ask me; he just said it calmly as if it was simply the truth. And in those words he laid bare my options, my decision. He knew I wasn't planning on going to the shelter tonight, but he'd said it anyway.

And as I finished my lunch alone I weighed it. In my fear and concern at what others would think, and my depression and my efforts to quickly make my journey easier for myself at the least trifle, I'd somehow overlooked what I was giving up. I had 60 miles to go. And I realized that those 60 miles were looming up at me as an impenetrable fortress. They intimidated me. I considered the pain in my legs and my back and my hips, and my fatigue, and 60 miles seemed impossible. But it was only 5 miles to the next shelter. If I continued on I was committed. I'd have to go the distance, there was no turning back. And at that moment, what other people would think ceased to matter; no one was there with me. I asked myself if I could go 5 more miles, and I asked myself if I was prepared to go the full distance. It was not the next step that was daunting. It was thedecision to take the next step. It was somehow finding the will to begin, knowing the journey I had in front of me. I'm not sure what broke then, but I thought of Pierre and what he had said so calmly, and in that instant I was the person he was referring to. I simply saw myself making it. I finished my lunch, and I put my boots back on deliberately, and I loaded up, and I started off.

The trail was still as difficult, and although the rain had stopped, it was still wet and slippery. But I didn't falter. I was going to do this. The "escape plan" had evaporated and I was replotting camps and hikes in my mind order to make up time. My feet were still numb, but they carefully and deliberately put themselves one in front of the other for the next five miles until I reached the shelter just before sundown. Pierre was there cooking his dinner and he smiled and greeted me calmly as if he'd been expecting me. My trip changed that day as did my life. I learned that the way to conquer the seemingly insurmountable is not through strength, but through will, the courage to take the first step. That insurmountability is an illusion; a function only of your perspective. I learned where will comes from, from deep inside, motivated by self. The external does not motivate it, it must spark itself. And I learned what that spark feels like and what it takes to light it.

But that was not the only lesson I was to learn on this trip.

I continued on, the next three days, with daunting hikes each day. The first 60 miles of The Wilderness crosses 2 ranges of mountains. After that it spends 40 miles in the lowlands until coming upon Katahdin and the end of the AT. I spent the next 3 days finishing those first 60 miles. I gutted out each day. I saw many hikers during that time as well, and was moderately cordial to them. I was focused on the goal, and I was determined, and I had a schedule to keep. I took pictures during the first part of the trip but I can't say that I remember appreciating the scenery much. Even now that I had committed to Katahdin, I wasn't focused on it as much as the trail and my goals. The final peak in this segment was Whitecap mountain and as I crested it's summit, I was proud and happy. I could see Katahdin in the distance from the peak and I even though the path between here and there seemed incredibly long I knew that I would make it, one step at at time. I took a few pictures and descended to the next shelter at the base of Whitecap to camp for the night.

I grabbed a spot in the shelter, and began unpacking my pack to make dinner and  go to sleep. Several other hikers had already picked out their spots in the shelter and were doing the same. I heard a noise from the trail and looked up to see two women arriving from the trail headed in the opposite direction as I was. I was a bit amazed when I saw them, as one of them looked to be in her mid 60's and the other was more frail and seemed to be more like 70. They were walking slowly and chatting happily together. They came up to the shelter and stopped and said hi to every hiker in the shelter, asking their name and where they were from. Through those various conversations I pieced together their story.

Aurelia Kennedy and Kakii Haudley were two retirees and best friends from North Carolina. They'd come from Katahdin!! I couldn't believe it. I then figured they'd be jumping off at the same mid-point I was planning on or that they were taking 3 weeks. No, they were doing the entire 100 Mile Wilderness in the same 10 days I planned! They backpacked regularly, and had the lightest equipment, in order to keep their packs under 25 lbs. In the spirit of thru-hikers they'd taken the handle of "The Carolina Blue Belles". They were friendly and bubbly, and infectious. After a while Aurelia unpacked her stove and began heating water for a late afternoon snack, while Kakii began scouting out a spot to pitch their tent. She decided on a spot next to the nearby brook after calling back and commenting to Aurelia how lovely the spot looked and how she loved to sleep next to a babbling brook.

Their snack consisted of tea and reconstituted vegetables that Kakii had grown in her own garden and then dried for the trip. And they talked to each other and the other hikers, asking each about their travels. I asked them about the trail they'd just come on from Katahdin, and they went one about how lovely it was, and how their climb of Katahdin had been gorgeous and such a sunny day. They spoke about the lakes and rivers they'd seen and the various thru-hikers they'd met, some of which I'd also met earlier in my hike. I asked how they got along on the trail and they said it was fine. They packed light, started early each day, walked at a leisurely pace and made good time as a result.

By this time I'd finished my dinner, and the sun was setting. I'd laid out my sleeping bag, and was talking to them tucked in my bag while they finished fixing their own dinner. I was amazed by these women. They were on a different kind of trip that I was. Not different in content for that was identical, but worlds apart in perspective. They had the same goals, the same "one foot in front of the other" perspective, for at their age they had to. But they were happy! They were living in this moment, soaking everything up, and appreciating every little thing they could. And they were infectious. They seemed to genuinely care about the other people they met, and take interest in their stories, enriching their own travels through their interaction with others. I on the other had, though having conquered my fear and set my sights on the goal, was "gutting" it out, stoic, focused.

Aurelia then spotted a book under my sleeping bag, and asked what I was reading. I pulled it out and showed it to her. It was a book of poems by Robert Frost. I'd brought it with me from Michigan somehow thinking that my favorite poet at the time and the Maine woods would go together. Truth was, I had been too preoccupied and too exhausted to enjoy it, even though I dutifully pulled it out and tried every night. Upon seeing it Aurelia gasped and asked if I wouldn't please regale them with a reading of some poetry. She asked so sweetly, and in that wonderful genteel Southern lilt found in the Southeastern coastal states, that I couldn't refuse. They had infected me by that time and I was having the first good night of my trip, one not focused on sleep and pain, and planning out the next day's trip. So I read to them. They each had a favorite and I found it for them and when I asked them to read they said no, they wanted me to do it, and so I did. "The Road Not Taken..," "My November Guest," "Fire and Ice," "Stopping by Woods," "Mending Wall" and on. At the end of each one, they would say "Oh, how lovely," and ask me what I thought of it, and talk of which images they liked the best and recall some memory from their own lives that was similar. And we talked like that for an hour or more. I made hot chocolate, and they had tea, and it was wonderful. Then they packed up their gear and thanked me ever so graciously for reading to them and headed off to their tent.

I sat and read Frost for another hour by the light of my headlamp and I loved it. I took in every poem I read and paused and considered it as they had, and the words seeped into my exhausted body until it finally reminded me that I needed sleep too. They awoke in the morning and made breakfast by their tent and broke camp. Before they left, they came over to the shelter where I was also packing up to head out. They thanked me again for the evening of poetry, and wished me well on my travel and ascent of Katahdin. Then Aurelia asked if I wouldn't like to read them one more poem before they left. They thought it would be a wonderful way to start the day. They asked if I had a favorite and I said I did, and they asked me to read it, and I did. They paused when I finished and said, "Oh my, that is a beautiful poem." And they thanked me again and I hugged them, and then they started off.

When I finally donned my pack that day it felt lighter, and I knew that the reason was not that it was lighter than the day before. My back still ached, and my legs did too, but not as much it seemed. That day, I was in the moment too, and it was as if I was floating over the terrain I was so light. And instead of looking down at the trail in front of me, I looked up, and I finally saw the forest and the beautiful colors, the streams, and the ponds and lakes with moose grazing in them. The air was clear and sunny and fresh and I felt alive. It had all been burned away, all the inessentials and I was here, with myself, for myself. It was not about the goal now. I was the goal. And Katahdin was merely a means of expressing myself. It was not that I seemed insignificant to the world. It was that I was more significant than anything. The world seemed smaller and I seemed larger, and everything was calm and effortless.

I walked 20 miles that day, if you can believe it. I scarce can. I hit my planned campsite at the 13 mile mark by 2 in the afternoon, and decided to press on another 7 miles to the next. The world was in technicolor, and I took it in, and I talked to everyone I met, and asked them at least one question about themselves, and I smiled when I left each of them and wished them well.

Another 4 days to Katahdin, and there were some rough patches, but I carried those lessons with me, and the trials never seemed quite so hard as a result. I climbed Katahdin on October 1st, along with several thru-hiker friends I'd met in the last 4 days, and even witnessed a wedding of two thru-hikers at the summit. I was elated at the summit and so was everyone else. It was a wonderful feeling, pure and rich and floating.

I have a difficult verbalizing how that trip changed my life. I'm certainly not in those perfect states all the time, but much more of the time now. When I came back I had this sort of calmness as someone coming back from war, who sees the trials of everyday life and realizes that they are insignificant compared to the past experience, and who handles themselves calmly and matter of factly. I look back among the posts I've written in the last few months and realize that these two lessons, the lessons of will and savoring the moment litter everything I've written about. For me they are two of the pillars of egoism, and I would see those characteristics purely expressed in the heroes of The Fountainhead, which I was to begin reading shortly after returning home. One cannot coexist one without the other, for it is value and purpose that give life it's meaning, that allow one to sit back and savor the accomplishment. Without value savoring is simply idleness, and without the savoring value is simply stoicism. Together they are pure joy.

And that has made all the difference...

A few of the many pictures here.

Excerpts from my Journal

Things I Learned

1. Carry a walking stick. It helps you through the tough spots and keeps your pace up when you're getting tired.

2. The secret to making good time or distance in a day isn't to go faster - it's to start earlier.

3. Treat each root, boulder, brook, rock slide as a new and challenging problem all its own.

4. Patience - slow and methodical wins the race and keeps you alive.

5. Instant mashed potatoes are the thru-hiker's "perfect meal."

6. Never overestimate what you can get done on the 1st day.

7. Never underestimate what you can get done through the long haul.

8. Wear gaiters every single day. They work!

9. If you have to rest, at least find a place that's pretty - kills two birds with one stone.

10. Don't step on the roots. Step over them.

11. If you follow rule #8, then you can just plow through the mud instead of picking your way across the slippery log bridges. Have fun with it!

12. Wear your boots when you ford a river. Much safer.

13. If you don't stop to take in a view, then why hike.

14. When you get to camp, unload everything you're going to need right away cause you're going to unload it sooner or later anyway.

15. Don't pack your stove after dinner. You never know when you're going to want hot chocolate to go along with good conversation.

16. Let other people have their triumphs. Congratulate them and get out of their way.

17. Take time for your own triumph.

18. Never be afraid to give a little. It comes back to you in so many ways.

19. Get more names and addresses next time.

20. Everybody who tries makes a difference.

21. Thanks to everyone I met, I will keep you all in my heart.

Saying written in shelter logbook by AT thru-hiker

What is above knows what is below.

What is below knows not what is above.

There is a manner of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw from above.

One cannot always see, but one can still know...

Kendall's poem for the Carolina Blue Belles to start their day

Into My Own - Frost

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Poem for a frigid Oct 1st 1992 ascent of Mt. Katahdin

My November Guest - Frost

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The eBook Explosion

It seems Obloggers are into their eBooks. Both Diana and Paul Hsieh have each weighed in with successive posts looking at their versions of the Amazon Kindle and Ari Armstrong weighs in at his blog as well. No one it seems is quite happy yet. Diana doesn’t like the “Heraclitean stream” of words, and the inability to make detailed annotations. Ari naively thinks that the DRM is killing the industry. And Paul, although closest to thinking his DX ideal, only uses it to read books as he’s travelling.

Given the debate I thought I’d weigh in with my experiences. Although I’ve been reading eBooks for over 2 years now, I have yet to buy into an e-reader like the Kindle. The reason is simple. I’m an techie contrarian; eBook technology and devices are yet too immature, and I prefer to buy in when winners have been determined and the technology and business model are proven. I will forgo being the first one on the block with a new technology and keep my options open until such time as it makes sense to commit to a proprietary channel. Although my family has had iPods since their inception, I am only now considering buying one. I still remember the first Shuffles, and Mini’s that were overpriced pieces of junk.

If I haven’t bought a reader, how have I been reading eBooks? I started reading them on my mobile smartphones, first a Palm Treo and most recently a Blackberry 8800 series. Great options when I was travelling on business and there was simply nothing else to read, but difficult experiences at best. Since I purchased a small MSI Wind netbook over a year ago, I’ve been reading books on that platform as well. My software of choice has been Mobipocket reader and my content has almost exclusively been open source content obtained from Project Gutenberg. Almost anything published before 1925 is available at Gutenberg (Aristotle, Locke, The Federalist, Hugo, Dumas, Twain, Fitzgerald… the list goes on), and given that I’ve been wanting to add classical literature to my repertoire, this seemed like a perfect way to experiment with the ebook experience without making an early commitment. Mobipocket has it’s own store as well, and I have purchased one book mostly as an experiment with the purchase process and to understand the DRM issues. I have recently added Kindle’s e-reader software for the PC and eagerly am looking forward to the Blackberry version which should be out soon. I want a Kindle desparately but I’m holding out until a few features are better developed.

My thought so far? Well, if you’re a very specific type of reader – if you read mostly popular literature in high volume without much study of the content - then ebooks have matured enough to satisfy you. This is the target segment that commercial eReaders like the Kindle are targeting to build their initial bases and I think that they are being quite successful in penetrating this market. That is, ebook readers have mastered the features of readability, convenience in purchase, and portability. If you’re the type who always has a book or newspaper wherever you go, reads for enjoyment, and doesn’t need to study the text, and hangs out in Barnes & Noble or Borders on weekends, then go buy an eReader. The fact is, this really is most consumers. You’re ready for it and it is ready for you. This type of reader is simply replacing the book you’d normally tote with a much more convenient eReader and that is certainly an improvement.

So let’s talk about technology for a moment. The one feature that I wish I had on my platforms is the e-ink technology. I am working entirely with backlit LCD displays. They each have pros and cons as pertains to reading environments (e-ink is great in full light and daylight – lcd’s rock in dimly lit spaces such as the bar I’m writing this from) LCD’s can be hard on the eyes and I find that I fatigue much more quickly when reading from and LDC display. I have managed to compensate for this a bit by using the Mobipocket software’s settings to change background and text color so as to make it easy on the eyes. (I use a light beige background with grey – not black – text. In low light, I darken the background, and in daylight I shift to a white background)

My netbook although slightly heavier than say a Kindle is quite easy to use. I have an app that rotates the screen with a key combination so I can hold it in my hand as if I was holding an open book. The advantage of the netbook is two-fold. First, I can make detailed annotations using the netbook’s fully functional PC keyboard, and second, the netbook itself is multifunctional so I don’t carry a separate laptop and e-reader when I travel. My netbook is my e-reader, PC, and last ditch phone and music player.

Diana’s observation that she found navigating an ebook more frustrating than a paper book is one that I share. I didn’t realize this until I studied the ways in which I use a paper book to help me navigate and recall my location in the text. When I’m returning to a paper book after weeks of not reading, I may not remember where I am. As a result I’ll hold my place and flip back a few pages, scanning paragraphs as I go until I can get enough of a gist of where I am in the story to return to my spot and continue forward. This is eminently easier with a paper book than with an ebook, as the pages and visual patterns of the pages are an aid to fast navigation. I find myself grasping for page numbers. Without those visual cues, re-familiarizing myself my location is much more difficult. This leads to the feel of a Heraclitean stream that Diana reports.

As for the use of a phone like the iPhone or Blackberry to read, this in my mind is a last ditch option and will always remain so. The “Heraclitean” problem is compounded because not much more than a paragraph or two can be displayed on these devices. I have used them either when travelling, or commuting, but I have found that the best thing to read here are short stories, where one is not trying to integrate a story over more than a few sittings. As such the experience of page-size readers like the Kindle will be critical to the broad proliferation of the technology until such time as a leadership position is established.

Returning to business models, Amazon and the Kindle are the clear leaders, but the technology is still young and this could easily change. However, Amazon is 2 generations ahead in it’s reader technology, has a growing installed base, and is quickly taking the correct and savvy next steps to advance its position. I think that the development of this technology will ultimately follow the iPod model where the storefront and installed based will determine the dominate leader. The reader hardware may or may not play a critical role although successive generations need to improve the experience. However, DRM is critical to hold the installed based until a leadership position is established.

As an aside, Mobipocket is owned by Amazon, and the proprietary .mob format is identical to the Kindle’s .azw format, save for a digital switch that requires a check of the Kindle hardware’s id in order to read it. Gutenberg is now publishing in the .mob format and so that makes these open source files immediately readable on the Kindle platform. I think this is a brilliant move as it allows Amazon to experiment with the experience of different consumer segments without blurring the two until such time as they think they understand each consumer’s needs independently at which point they can remove this switch and allow instant cross platform compatibility of e-book libraries. Genius!

My recommendation? If you’re type of high volume reader I mentioned above, jump in with both feet. If you need more from your experience such as detailed annotation or clear cross-platform access then experiment with the experience. See what you like. See what you need.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dan Edge Weighs In

Dan Edge has posted a thoughtful review of my previous post on relationships. Thanks Dan. I’m happy that he pulled out a key point from the post, and that is the focus on an action orientation. And as such I take as a great honor that he chose to spend his time reading, digesting and ultimately responding to the post. He also rightly points to my discussion of how to think about chemistry as needing further clarification. Dan and I discussed this point last night and it definitely could use some concrete examples. So I plan to come back with some thoughts on it, but not before I finish the 2nd installment in the series.

For those of you who are eagerly waiting on that post, know that I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still sorting through some of the essential points and hope to get to work on it over the Christmas break. Stay tuned!