Saturday, February 19, 2011

I Have a Problem

As you can tell from my earlier post, I like to read. I don't think that reading is a dying art, though I think the way in which we read is changing. David L. Ulin has a great book on the subject, entitled The Lost Art of Reading. I highly recommend it. I, however, prefer to read the old fashioned way, sitting in my orchid greenhouse, dressed in my smoking jacket, a pipe at my elbow, occasionally gazing into my Victorian relecting orb.... I keep all my books to be read in a little pile at my side. And this is my problem. This pile continues to grow.

Currently residing in this pile is:

The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer
Sunshine, Robin McKinley
The Demon and the City, Liz Williams
City of Glass, Cassandra Clare
Ironside, Holly Black
The Horns of Ruin, Tim Akers
Matter, Iain M. Banks
Biomega, Vols. 4 & 5, Tsutomu Nihei
Wastelands (Anthology)

This doesn't even count the books currently living on my Nook:
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard
Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Michael Moorcock
The Kensai, Jon F. Merz
Darkfever, Karen Marie Moning
A Dreamer's Tales, Lord Dunsany
The Book of Wonder, Lord Dunsany
The Next 100 Years, George Friedman

Yes, I know the Nook was supposed to keep me from buying hardcopy books. First, as I stated in a previous post, the Nook lags woefully behind in keeping current with publications both old and new. I wouldn't have to buy these books in hardcopy if Barnes & Noble would helpfully provide these books in ePub format (by strong-arming publishers into providing them). Which leads me to my second reason for buying books that reside in meatspace, and my problem: I can't not buy a book when I come across it.

Here's what I mean. I walk along the aisles of my Barnes & Noble, and something pops out at me. I generally like to swing by the tables in the front of the store, because that's where the put books that either the store or the publishers want you to see. I'm a particular fan of the "Strange and Unexpected" table; it's the place where you'll find books like Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife (drat! Add another book to the "to be read" pile) and the history of salt. I also like the section where the staff recommends stuff. When I worked for Barnes & Noble, I took my suggestions seriously, and I always thrilled when I saw someone pick up a book I recommended. So when I see a book that strikes my fancy, I generally buy it. Immediately. Because I'm horrible about remembering things, even if I write them down.

I just know that if I don't get Atlas of Remote Islands, I will never get it. Then, I'll miss out on whatever drew me to the book in the first place. Even if I put the book on my wish list, I know I'll lose the fire for it. I'll go back and discover I didn't want the book after all. Or more likely, new books will demand my attention, and I'll buy those instead.

So you see, I have a problem. I like to read. Now, where's my velvet smoking jacket?

My Nook Problem

Like most men, I'm a technophile. For those who didn't pass basic English, that means I'm a fan of technology. The Fortress of Solitude is stuffed with it, from my multiple big screen TVs to this cold fusion reactor I've got stuffed in a corner (I never seem to have enough banana peels to stuff into that thing, and it makes a terrible racket). If it comes in black and has blinking lights, I love it. The Japanese actually did research on the subject (of course they did), and they discovered that black pieces of technology with blinking lights (preferably in many colors) appeals to men more than anything else. Which is why your stereo, TV, DVD player, cell phone, and blender are all black with lots of blinking lights. If they could coat a woman in black plastic and give her lots of useless blinking lights, they would. Because the Japanese are strange.

One of the devices I recently purchased is a Nook Color. It's sleek. It's got a touch screen. It's in color. Though why that's important to me is beyond my understanding, because 90 percent of what I do on my Nook Color is read books, which is strictly a black-and-white affair. I choose the Nook C)olor over the Kindle and iPad because the former is basically a giant Motorola Droid; it runs Android and can be hacked to access the Droid marketplace. I've even been told by the Nook people at Barnes & Noble that they plan a massive update to turn it into a tablet. My nerd mind reels.

What I love about my Nook is the functionality. Believe it or not, I read a lot. I spend a good two hours a day on subways, and I need something to do besides look at some guy across the train pleasuring himself. ( Yes, men whip it out and do "that" on subways, in front of women. There is even a website where women post pictures of the offenders taken with their cellphone cameras, but I decided not to include that link. For more information on the problem, click this link: Click on and support women with a donation.) Anyway, when I'm not trying to avoid contact with my fellow human beings on a train, I'm at home reading (and also trying to avoid human contact). What's great about the Nook is that I can carry dozens of books with me at the same time. I'm currently reading Elric: The Stealer of Souls and The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian at the same time (to compare and contrast them. But that's another post). Without the Nook, I'd easily be lugging eight books around at the same time.

Really, my problem isn't with the device per se. My problem is with the publishers. See, there are books I can't get on the Nook. Admittedly, my reading tastes are pretty obscure. When I tried to find Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar series, I discovered they didn't have this in Nook format. Okay. I was disappointed, but I kind of understood. Apparently those books are out of print anyway. Then I went to look for an e-book version of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. That wasn't available in Nook format, either. How about Michael Moorcock's Cornelius Chronicles? Nope.

The problem is not unlike the early days of DVDs. Back when DVD players first came out, you could get all the latest films, but you couldn't get movies like Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz. This made a certain amount of economic sense. Hollywood studios had an incentive to rush out more recent movies, because they wanted to capitalize in the viewer's interest in what they'd just seen. Besides, the film was more readily available for conversion to the DVD format; in other words, they didn't have to go down to the cold storage vaults to get Casablanca out of storage (Yes, they have them; I've seen the ones at Paramount). They could eventually get around to putting out movies in their catalog sometime later. So I understand that publishers don't want to pay some desk monkey to convert a bunch of old books no one really wants into an e-reader format.

(Though I'll note that I can get Analysis of the Gospel of St. Matthew and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, as well as a bunch of other obscure stuff. If I can find Lord Dunsany in e-reader format, I should be able to find The Last Unicorn, don't you think?)

Okay. So publishers just haven't gotten around to putting everything in Nook's ePub format. Surely, then, I should be able to find new stuff for my Nook. I searched for Elfsorrow, by James Barclay. No dice. How about Tim Aker's The Horns of Ruin? No, that's not available, either. Glen Cook's Darkwar (which just came out in an omnibus trade paperback)? Uh, no. And this is where I start to get steamed.

It would seem to me that since the publisher has a book in digital format already (in the form of a Word file on some editor's desktop), it would be a simple matter of converting it to the ePub format and making it available. I mean, wouldn't a publisher want to take advantage of the maximum number of avenues to sell their books? Even if only ten people buy Horns of Ruin as a Nook file, doesn't that mean they've sold ten more books than they otherwise would? How many people wanted to buy that book, discovered it wasn't in Nook format, and simply walked away from the sale? Not only that, but once the book is in the Nook format, the publisher never has to return to the book again. It's in their Nook catalog. They won't have to pay that desk monkey to convert the book later.

Maybe the answer lies in the Betamax/VHS wars of the 80s (or the HD-DVD/Blu-ray wars of the 21st century, for you youngsters out there). No one wants to spend all that time and energy (which converts to money in the MBA's mind) to convert books to a format when the winning format hasn't been decided upon. Only problem with that is, they're okay with the present situation enough to produce something, just enough content to keep me buying. It's not like it's that hard. I could publish in the ePub format. I looked into it; and quite a few people are self-publishing in this way. So it can't be that hard. It seems to me that publishers want it both ways.

All I want is my @!^$ book.

The Nook's functionality is severely reduced when I can't get what I want, when I want it. That's the whole point of the e-reader. You'd think B&N would use their muscle in the marketplace to force publishers to convert their already digital files into the ePub format. As in "No, we won't buy 25,000 copies of your book unless you also support the Nook. Have fun selling your book out of the trunk of your car...." Moreover, publishers should stop being mired in the "we publish books" mentality, which I believe may be part of the problem, too. If you put your newest releases in ePub format, I'll bet you sell more books, guys.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The CIA Wants YOU?!

It's been an eternity since I wrote anything here. I've been spending a great deal of time posting to my game design blog ( And that's in between all my time attempting to write the definitive history of the Scythians. They had horses. They had gold. They out Mongol'd the Mongols for a time. Then, they disappeared. I propose that aliens had something to do with it, and one day space-Scythians will return to conquer Earth. So I've also been busy hardening the Fortress of Solitude against attack.

Since Studio Manta is where I post my thoughts on the hobby games industry and game design, this blog seems more appropriate to what I want to ruminate on today. Because it has nothing to do with game design. See, lately I've been getting this ad on Facebook about joining the CIA. We're going to chat about that.

When you click the link on Facebook, this is what you get:

Go click on it. You need to see the page in order to understand the rest of this article. Go on. I'll wait.

Okay, you looked at it? There is all kinds of wrong on this page, not the least of which is that the CIA does NOT advertise on Facebook. The CIA does not need you. They already have tons of people working for them. The CIA prefers it if you come to them. Moreover, this ad does not scream "we're a secret organization looking to hire". It screams "COPS!"

Look at those pull down menus. Associates degree? GED? The CIA I know prefers its employees to have a minimum of a Bachelors degree, preferably in something useful, like Russian politics, Chinese cultural studies, or agricultural studies. I'm completely serious about that last one. See, what the CIA will do is look at satellite photos of farmland and predict yield based on crop density, in order to predict whether there'll be a famine in the Ukraine this year. Doesn't that sounds exciting? Yeah, that ad doesn't really communicate that, does it?

There are really three tiers of employment at the CIA, and they break down like this:

Analysts: This is ninety percent of your CIA. You sit and listen to NSA intercepts about what General Chernenkov had for dinner last night. Or you read a newspapers from the country to which you've been assigned (this last one is actually pretty instructive. For example, the Chinese Communist Party will tell you what's important to it by the language they use in their mass media. Also, they'll tell you what they're focusing on, policy-wise, by the articles they publish. So an analyst needs to know how to read between the lines. When they use "running capitalist dogs" in an article on bicycle safety that means something is going on, but not that bad. When it's about corruption in the army, that may mean a purge is in the offing.). Or you may spend the day going cross-eyed looking at satellite photos of the port of Aden to see which ships are there, what they may be loading aboard, and where they're going. Basically, working for the CIA is a lot like working for any other corporate environment.

It looks a lot like this:

Pictured: Spying
 Now go back to that web page from above. Totally does not look like what you do all day at the CIA. I see bullet holes. I see a cop car. I see a dude in SWAT gear. What I don't see is a fat guy who also happens to be an expert in industrial production trying to figure out how many refrigerators the Iranians are making this year... Maybe they're advertising for the next tier.

Field Operations: You may think that the CIA is about actual spying. They must give someone a laser watch and toothpaste explosives and send them to Upper Slobovia to sleep with hottie Eastern Europeans and play baccerat. Yes, and that person is likely to be Upper Slobovian. See, they reserve these field operations for foreigners. You know, the people upon whom we're spying. When the CIA recruits for field ops, they want people who are familiar with the cultural landscape, people who speak the language, people who are pro-USA and would like to demonstrate this by spying on their own country. Let's put it this way: who do you think would be better at spying on China? Some blond, six foot tall guy, with maybe four years of Chinese language study under his belt OR a Chinese guy? At least he's not going to stick out like a sore thumb at the PLA Family Barbeque. 

That's not to say there are no American spies in other countries. If you do get field operations, you'll be sent to some embassy, posing as an undersecretary for the Department of Education, sent to advise the locals on the best of educational techniques. That's your cover, because they can't put "CIA Handler" on your office door. Alright! Let's get the spying on! Bring on the cloak, and the dagger! You know what you'll actually be doing? That's right: sitting in an office at the embassy, collecting reports from foreign nationals, and forwarding them on to Langley.

This office is TOTALLY in Moscow.
Okay. So clearly the Criminal Justice Department is not talking about Americans involved in field operations, either. There's action and excitement in that photo, so maybe they're talking about the last tier of CIA operatives.

SOG: The Studies and Operations Group. SOG is the private army of the CIA. These guys are bad ass. They're trained in nothing but combat. They're pulled from the uniform services (typically Special Ops like the Green Berets) and given the cool stuff to do. Because they're technically part of the Executive Branch, the President can send them anywhere he wants and without Congressional approval. So if the President totally wants to blow up some cocaine labs in Colombia, he sends SOG. SOG operatives jumped out of airplanes prior to the Afghanistan invasion, carrying anodized briefcases stuffed with cash, in order to buy off tribal leaders. When we wanted to buy Russian-made helicopters in Vladivostok, a SOG team went along to protect the "businessman" sent to make the deal. Maybe this ad is all about joining SOG....

But there's already a way to get hired by the CIA for this work. In fact, it's pretty much the only way. It's called joining the Army.

I mean look at that guy in the ad. He's dressed in SWAT gear. The CIA doesn't kick in doors and haul out bad guys. Even if they did, they wouldn't dress up like that. And what's up with the cop car? The CIA prefers nondescript Chevy Suburbans. The advertisement looks like you'll be doing all kinds of exciting stuff for the CIA. And in as little as 18 months! When the reality is this:

Oh, and did I mention that you should replace the woman with a fat, balding guy?
So I have to call shenanigans on this ad. I don't know what it's advertising for, but it's clearly NOT the CIA.