Books: To E- or not to E-?

December 14, 2014

16019808532_3c6a940a6c_oI love books, and am getting used to the idea that a book isn’t necessarily a physical object. These days, I buy more books made of electrons than books made of dead trees.

The photo shows the first three books in Lemony Snicket’s current series, All the Wrong Questions. Each is in different form.

  1. Who Could That Be at This Hour? I have in hardback. I’d been meaning to try out the series for a while. I bought this particular edition because it was only $4 at a book fair at my kids’s school. Reading it made me want more books in the series, preferably in dead tree form. Although this is not a long book, this is a pleasingly chunky volume, with apt illustrations by Seth.
  2. When Did You See Her Last? I have in paperback. I bought it from Amazon, where the paperback edition was $7, and the Kindle edition only 35c cheaper. Still I wanted more.
  3. Shouldn’t You Be in School? I have as an ebook: on Kindle, to be specific. That edition was only $2 when I bought it (it now, a couple of weeks later, $4). I did have some concerns that the illustrations wouldn’t work as well on a tablet’s screen, but the cover and other illustrations show pretty well, I think.

As you can see, price sways me toward ebooks, but a lower ebook price doesn’t always defeat dead trees. But sometimes time defeats dead trees: a download takes seconds, rather than the hours or days involved in dead tree pickup or delivery. Sometimes ebooks win because they don’t take up shelf space, or gather dust.

How do you make the decisions between the ebooks and dead tree books?

“WordPress is web software you can use to create a beautiful website or blog”: this according to WordPress.org, a site that surely ought to know. WordPress was originally for blogs. Then it was for blogs and, if you wanted, other websites. Now it is for websites, including, but certainly not limited to, blogs.

When WordPress 3.0 came out, back in 2010, I realized that a Learning Management System (LMS) could be built on the WordPress platform. I thought about building one myself, but decided against it: the LMS market was crowded; it contained a huge competitor in the form of Blackboard; I didn’t see how I could get a first foothold in the market; and so on.

2014 saw the release, not only of WordPress 4.0, but also of CoursePress: a WordPress-based LMS from Edublogs. While it didn’t make sense for me to build a WPLMS in 2010, it makes a lot of sense for Edublogs to do so now. The LMS market is still crowded, but Blackboard is less dominant. More important, Edublogs already has a foothold in many educational organizations: those for which it manages blogs.

So how is CoursePress implemented? In WordPress terms, it is a plugin. You can download it at no charge. So what is it in business terms, and how does it make money for Edublogs? There are two answers: it is a feature of the CampusPress service; and it has a Pro version, for which there is a charge.

I consider CoursePress interesting, and in with a chance. How about you?

I just gave in to the temptation to start a new blog, having resisted said temptation for… months? years?

I teach at Virginia Tech. Like many universities, it hosts WordPress blogs for those to whom it provides an email address.

So I started a new blog there. Well, there isn’t physically at Virginia Tech: Blogs @VT is run by Pressable.

I had fun choosing a theme, and writing about choosing a theme. Is that sad? Understandable? Feel free to leave other adjectives in comments.

This will continue to be my main blog, and my personal home on the web.

Back To Firefox From Chrome

December 9, 2014

After my daughter’s school started using Chrome, it seemed that the browser wasn’t big enough for the both of us. So I switched back to Firefox.

In a way, my switch away from Chrome was prompted by the success of Google for Education, and of Chromebooks. At school, my daughter Maddie uses one of the over 50,000 Chromebooks purchased by Montgomery County, Maryland, for use in K-12 schools.

Maddie has to sign in to her school Chrome account to do some of her homework. She does so on the office computer, otherwise known as dad’s laptop. When she started doing this, strange things happened to my browser, to the extent that Chrome no longer seemed like home to me. At first I thought about coexisting in Chrome, and set up a Chrome account for myself.



Then I considered switching to a different browser, and came up with multiple reasons for switching back to Firefox. It would be simpler to use a different browser from the one Maddie uses. I’m still a little annoyed at Google for discontinuing Google Reader. I was curious about what had happened in Firefox while I was away. Some recent browser comparisons favor Firefox over Chrome and other browsers.

Firefox this time round? So far, not bad.

Thanksgiving (Is) For Games

November 27, 2014

I am deeply thankful for games, and for the people with whom I have played them over the years. I am particularly thankful for board games. Clarifications: I am not criticizing video games, or the people who play them; some of the board games I like best are actually card games; perhaps tabletop games is a better term than board games; I am not thankful for every tabletop game ever, and do acknowledge than many of them stink; neither am I thankful for every single person with whom I’ve played a tabletop game…

Is this board games’ golden age? Owen Duffy’s article in yesterday’s Guardian argues that it is. I agree, and hope that an even better (platinum?) age will follow. It is certainly a good time for board/tabletop games: “the past four years have seen board game purchases rise by between 25% and 40% annually.”

So why is this a good time for board/tabletop games? There are at least two explanations. I think of them as the compliments explanation and the complements explanation.

“Games are simply getting better” is the compliments explanation. That quote from the article compliments designers and publishers of games on making better games available.

Another quote illustrates the complements explanation. “The rise of smartphones and tablets has given players an inexpensive way to try digital versions of board games, and many go on to buy physical copies as well.” The digital and physical versions are complements, rather than substitutes. To be more specific, and perhaps more surprising: the existence of the digital version increases, rather than decreases, purchases of the tabletop version, even if the tabletop version costs ten times more than the digital version.

Dear readers of this post, it may be time for parting words. If you celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, I hope that you do so safely and happily. If you are “tabletop game compatible”–and I believe that most humans are–I hope that games play a positive part in your holiday season, and in the rest of your life.

If you are interested in the impact of technology on our lives, please bear with me for another paragraph or two. It seems strange that tabletop gaming and smartphone usage are on the rise at the same time. Who wants games with components of cardboard and wood, costing dozens of dollars, when there are so many mobile games available for a few bucks, or at no immediate financial cost? One answer is that such gamers are rare, and becoming rarer.

Despite our affection for them, the market for board games tumbled 9 percent in 2010 and the road ahead is straight downhill… With apps, every boardgame can be brought to the screen, be carried in your pocket…. online game centers… knit people together.

The quote, from Michael Saylor’s book The Mobile Wave (2012), presents an argument that games on mobile platforms will substitute for games (sometimes the same games) on the tabletop. The book presents an argument that connected mobile devices will substitute for pretty much every existing way we do pretty much any thing. I suspect that data from the few years provide tend to support the general mobile wave thesis.

But the games for which I am thankful seem to be buoyant, their cardboard boxes floating on the mobile wave rather than being swept away by it. I think that tabletop games will remain on top the the wave, although sales figures may bob up and down.

Here are some of the questions on my mind. I’d love to see responses, and further questions.

  • Will the current “golden age” of board/tabletop games continue, or even turn into a more precious age?
  • Are digital versions of tabletop games complements to, rather than substitutes for, the tabletop game itself?
  • In what other arenas are digital versions complements to, rather than substitutes for, “the real thing”?

Have a great Thanksgiving, or Thursday, or weekend, or whatever it is for you,
Andrew

ps edited for clarity on Dec 3, 2014

Thompson Family Album

November 23, 2014

My father is one of the greats to ever step on the stage
My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world

ThompsonFamilyFrontThose two lines open the album Family. The writer is Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda.

Richard and Linda Thompson’s best-known song is the title track of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an album released forty years ago. If you want to hear “I Want to See…”, and have Spotify, my Thompson Family playlist starts with that track, and continues with half a dozen selections from Family itself.

To be specific, the playlist continues with Teddy’s above-quoted song “Family”. Teddy produced the Family record, and describes it as:

an album of new songs by Thompsons written specifically for this project. It started with the idea of each of us [Richard, Linda, Teddy, and his younger sister Kami] recording two tracks and then we added my nephew Zack and my brother Jack each doing one.

Eleven people, all members of the extended Thompson family, are credited with performing on the album. See the Thompson Family Album site for further facts, photos, links to the web sites of specific Thompsons, etc.

Linda may well have started singing “Bonny Boys” while you were surfing the Family site. (I’m assuming here that you are listening to the playlist, and that you didn’t desert this page for good.) It’s the third song on the playlist, and the third with lyrics that initially sound hopeful, or even positive, then mix in darker matter.

So it may come as a relief when the next song starts gloomily (“We still keep falling for the same old lies… times are tough”), rather than raising hopes, only to dash them. This song is Richard’s, and it works well on this album, with much of the family to joining in on the title line: “That’s Enough”.

It may come as even more of a relief that the next track on the playlist is an instrumental. Jack Thompson wrote “At the Feet of the Emperor”, and plays bass on it. Richard plays guitars, but the track reminds me more of Daniel Lanois than of any Thompson.

If you wanted relief from dark lyrics, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this, and you won’t have got as far as “I Long For Lonely” in the playlist. This cheerful ditty is written and performed by Kami and her husband, James Walbourne. It closes the album.

“Perhaps We Can Sleep” closes the playlist. It’s one of Linda’s two songs on the album, although Teddy co-wrote it, and played all the instruments.

The Family album can be viewed from many perspectives. It is certainly a clan collaboration. It was also, to some of the musicians involved, a competition to provide the best contributions to the album. Blending this competitive perspective with my own judgment, I declare Linda the winner. I consider “her” two tracks the two best tracks on Family; that’s why I included both in the playlist.

Here’s my own perspective on the Thompson Family. Richard Thompson is my favorite musician, and probably always will be. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is my favorite album, and probably always will be. I am (to put it mildly) interested in the Thompson family. So there are many things about the Family that fascinate me. Is that Richard playing lead guitar on this particular track? How do the various Thompsons interact with other, musically and otherwise?

I sprung for the Deluxe edition, which at ~$15 includes the music CD, a DVD with a 15-minute “making of” mini-movie, a booklet with lyrics, credits, family snapshots, etc., and a foldout sleeve to contain those three items. (I should take a photo in the morning, when the light is good enough for my phone to get a quarter-decent shot.) It was excellent value for me, partly because I found the mini-movie moving and fascinating.

There are many things in the Family project that tie in with the ghosts of Thompson stuff past. Most of them are in the songs and performances. Then there are the other things. For example, there’s the remark on the sleeve (I presume by Teddy) that the family tree on the cover (and towards the top of this post) “does not illustrate how we are all related. We would have needed gatefold vinyl to even attempt that.” That reminds me of a certain double album I used to own on vinyl, with gatefold sleeve, part of which had a lovely illustration of the early Fairport Convention family tree.

Time to wrap this up. So, link again to the Thompson Family Album site. Point out that it includes links to online stores where you can buy Family in its various forms, with any affiliate money going (I assume) to the Thompsons involved in the project. Mention that the site also links to media coverage, including radio segments, but single out the excellent NY Times Magazine piece anyway. Sneak in, at the end of a paragraph, that the Family album is more likely to intruige those already pro-Thompson than to make new converts.

So, from my perspective, Family was a must-buy, and a good buy, but is not a great album. Feel free to share your perspective in the comments!

Camera Dies at Five

October 29, 2014

CameraLibCardI took this picture in July 2009, when the young camera had just come to live with me in Boston. For five years, it served me well: the limit on photo quality was more often the photgrapher than the camera. It was very portable, and rather resilient.

But it was not immortal. Its behavior became more and more erratic until, a couple of months ago, it stopped working altogether.

What device (or devices) should I use to take photos for the next five years? The option with the lowest incremental cost is my phone, an iPhone 4. I know I’ll want something better than that as a camera, and probably soonish rather than later.

But I haven’t done much with the photos I’ve taken this year. I haven’t looked through the photos on the deceased Canon’s card. My Flickr photostream has seen little activity.

A new camera would probably renew my interest. A new photosharing service might also do the trick. I don’t feel as Flickr-friendly as I used to; and no, that isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the acquisition by Yahoo.

As the holidays (and my birthday) approach, it’s time to start thinking what I want in a camera in terms of photo quality, ease of use, portability, price,…or to search for the natural heir to the camera in the photo. Any suggestions?

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