Archive for August, 2012

Oh my…

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Cheapskates:

Oh… my… goodness… I think I am about to hand out my first bad review on the September Cheapskates.

Never fear, though… it’s no going to be the primary review on the show, but only one of two short “bonus” reviews at the top of the show.

But this… wow… just… wow…

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Sneak Peek!

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Want to know what’s coming up on Cheapskates?
Here’s a little reward for being someone who follows the blog:

September will be “Some of the Best of Tor.com 2011” plus a couple of smaller bonuses. I’m down to the last story in the collection.

October will be a special feature in honor of Halloween: “Frankenstein”, which I’m reading for the first time.

Android free eReader apps reviews

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

As I suggested in the Cheapskates podcast segment, what I thought would be an easy task (reading eight ebooks using eight different Android Apps) proved to be quite the ordeal. Here’s a quick rundown of my experiences of each of the apps I was able to successfully use and some of their positives and negatives.

Kindle: This was a logical first Android app to try, given that I already owned the $79 Kindle eReader. It connects and syncs smoothly between my dedicated eReader device and the phone app, which is useful. The program is solid and stable (I don’t ever remember it crashing), and, of course, it gets a place on my phone as the only one that can play the Amazon file format. The controls are fine – you’re either tapping the edges or swiping left and right to change pages. This results in a feel less like a book and more like reading a stacked sheaf of papers in a manuscript. It also probably does the best job of any of the apps I tested in handling images – you can double tap to get a full image, with the ability to “pinch” in and out and look at the images in detail.

Other options are bare-bones, however – you only get one font style, but can make a few basic changes in size, line spacing, borders and colors (a day, night and in-between with “sepia”). For as stripped down as the app is, it’s a bafflingly large program on my space-strapped phone – currently 4.5 MB. Still, when it’s the only one with a popular yet exclusive format, you deal with it.

From Kindle, I moved on to apps using more universal formats, starting with:

Nook: This was a logical next step for me, as Nook is the main competitor to Kindle and runs on the popular epub format. It has a nice page turn effect, that changes dynamically depending on where you “grab” the page and how you turn it, making for a more “authentic” page experience – at least as much as a tiny computer screen can give you. This was probably my favorite feature of the Nook app. You do also have more options as far as font styles and other visual options go, vis-a-vis Kindle.

There were major problems with the app however, the first of which is the unusually large margins for such a small screen. I was able read about two sentences each time before I had to flip to the next little mini-page, really pointing up the “book on a Post It note” sensation that’s so annoying on phones. Next, the Nook does a horrible job handling images. You end up being able to see a little bit of the upper left hand corner of images, with no way to see the whole thing or zoom in or out. The biggest problem is the size of the program, however – again, we’re talking multiple megabytes. Kindle survived on my phone where Nook did not, simply because other programs could do basically the same thing with less space.

Such as:

Aldiko: This program was recommended to me by my local library for reading the epub format, but it initially did not appeal to me. For starters, shame on them for trying to sell book 7 of Lost Tribe of the Sith (which is free!) for 79 cents through the Aldiko store.

The layout of Aldiko is more appealing than the Nook, but setting it up can get pretty absurd. You have to have a web connection to even get started, then once that’s done, getting DRM protected books to read on the program can get absurdly complicated. For example, importing books from the Barnes & Noble/Nook store required me to input the name on my debit card with the card number as my password before it would open up the DRM protected file – which was completely non-intuitive and frankly absurd.

Visual options were again pretty baseline – one font with the option to change size and margins (however, I think you can download others if desired). The sliding page turn is similar to the Kindle app, with the added benefit of being able to use the volume rocker button on the side to flip pages. This is a great feature for one-handed operation, and I find myself wishing I had it in the Kindle app.

Another helpful feature is being able to slide up and down the left hand side to quickly adjust the brightness – the setting I’m usually tweaking the most.

The program seems a little less stable than Kindle and Nook – I’ll often have it crash unexpectedly doing simple tasks, such as switching from day to night settings.

But ultimately, Aldiko won out over Nook for reading ePub files for a simple reason – it’s less than a megabyte and fits better on the phone’s memory.

Kobo: Starting on using the Kobo app, I started to get the first inklings that my little experiment was going to be a tougher job than I expected. Kobo was a clunky app, with lots of unwanted and unneeded features. Foremost among these features were “Accomplishments” and “Reading Life” – giving you little digital badges met specific milestones or did certain things. These were pretty absurd for anyone who’s a serious reader. Truly, who ever got into reading for virtual “awards” – get rid of them and use the programming space for something useful. In contrast the “Statistics” feature was actually pretty interesting (although potentially eye-opening about just how much time you spend with your nose in a book – eep!)

Each page flips quickly, at least until you switch from landscape to portrait orientation or vice versa, or when you go from one chapter to the next. When these happen, you’re sitting annoyed for about five seconds or so while it’s thinking and loading. Kobo also has the rocker button feature to change pages, which is helpful. I also appreciate that it calculates the page number for the actual digital screen rather than the huge “location” number on Kindle, which is hard to translate into anything meaningful.

On the downside, there’s little for page transition – they blink and disappear and it’s pretty disorienting. Options are limited – you get the choice of serif or sans-serif on fonts. But the worst is the required and extensive online setup at the beginning. This nearly had me delete it out of hand from the start.

Good thing I didn’t however, as from here on out, some desperation set in to find another four eReaders that would actually work.

Moon+ Reader: First off, Moon+ was my absolute favorite in terms of options. The page turn effect is incredible – you can even see the print translucently on the other side of the page as you turn pages. It has a huge number of background and contrast options. The key functions are highly customizable to be exactly what you want. It’s easy to change brightness by sliding along the left side of the screen. It will even remind you to rest your eyes after an hour or other time period that you define.

My favorite option is the auto-scroll feature – give the phone a little shake and it starts scrolling up at a pace you define. It’s a great feature anytime you’re doing dishes or otherwise need your hands free while you read at the same time.

Basically, whatever your preference for how you read ebooks on a phone app, this program can probably make it happen.

Except for this: its compatibility stinks. In particular, if you want to read a book with DRM protection, you have to illegally strip off the DRM before you can even read it. (I got around this by using Adobe Acrobat professional to convert the free pdf available from Del Rey into a straight text file).

This one fact meant Moon+ went away from my phone. Too bad.

iReader: With iReader, my desperation for another working eReader is readily apparent. The look is cartoonish at best and the instructions are given in nearly unintelligible English. Moreover, it’s extremely limited in terms of file formats it will successfully read. Even with all these drawbacks, it’s still a memory hog with more than 3 MB required and no way to move even part of that to the SD card.

On the positive? Well, it does have the autoscroll option I like, and it has a nice page turn effect.

But needless to say, it was deleted back off my phone almost immediately.

HAL eReader: Yep, it’s named after the HAL of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and it’s one of the few eReaders that did a competent job of doing the text-to-speech feature. Of course, text to speech is really its only feature. Still, this one was a surprising dark horse – I didn’t expect how useful it would be. This was a good free option for those who prefer to listen or are sight impaired. It doesn’t take up much space, either, and works decently.

Still, HAL has quirks (much like the movie namesake, if less homicidal ones). For example, it reads out symbols in a monotone (“Asterisk. Asterisk. Asterisk”) and has a lot of trouble with book-specific words (Jedi comes out “Gee-Dee.”) It’s also hard to keep your place in the book if you close the program. You’re pretty much stuck keeping it open until you’re done – meaning you’ll want to limit yourself to short works. Again, file format compatibility was limited, meaning a lot of annoying conversion or simply not playing a lot of works.

Digibooks4All: This one was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Digibooks4All works, but only just barely. You have to put pdfs into “reflow mode” for them to be at all readable. The software is slow, and it often skips pages, or even gets stuck in a loop on a single page. I never figured out how to make epubs work in the program, though it claims it can read them.

I wouldn’t use this for anything longer than a novella, but why would you even bother? There’s better readers out there that do the same thing and are likely to leave you with more hair.

 

The Boneyard:

These programs got left by the wayside on my journey to bleach in the sun. These didn’t work for me at all.

Sony Reader: For a decent competitor on the eReader market, I would have thought this would be compatible with my phone.

It wasn’t.

Ebook Reader: An uncreative and inaccurate name. It simple doesn’t work the way its description claims it does, at least with my phone. It appears to download the book, but it never actually opens up. What’s more, it’s 4.42 MB and doesn’t let you put any of that to the SD card. Ick!

FB Reader: A constant crasher. Useless.

Google Books: For coming pre-loaded on the Android system, it’s truly worthless for the cheapskate. There’s absolutely no way to sideload books onto the microSD card, meaning the only way to download any books is through the Google Books market – which means you essentially have to pay for any books you want to read with it. If Android let me delete it, I’d do so in a heartbeat.  

Link to Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Here’s the promised link to John Jackson Miller’s page about Lost Tribe of the Sith. He’s done a good job of collecting all the links to the various formats and devices. (Scroll down a bit until you see the eight covers, as you click on each one, if you select “Click here to find it at online retailers”, you’ll get a good list).

http://www.farawaypress.com/fiction.html

Also, if you want to hear the full interview with John Jackson Miller on Fictional Frontiers, there’s this link below:

http://star-wars.suvudu.com/2012/06/15-minutes-of-fiction-with-fictional-frontiers-featuring-john-jackson-miller.html

(Thanks to Steve, who pointed out in the comments below that apparently only the “Collected” edition for $4.99 is now available. Fortunately, Del Rey still has the free pdf versions available here: http://suvudu.com/tag/lost-tribe-of-the-sith. Sorry about that!)

(Update 10/8: Thank you to Mac, who pointed out to me that apparently Del Rey got wise and has now removed the links to the free .pdfs. It stinks, but it does occasionally happen with free content. My best suggestion would be to check with your local library to see whether they have an elibrary collection. I found that my local library had the “Collected Stories”, including the new book in the series available to borrow as a free download. The pdfs are probably still floating around the Internet somewhere, but as I’m committed to remaining both free AND legal, you’ll have to do that on your own time and conscience. Sorry this happened, Cheapskates, but I guess that’s the risk you take!)

Transcript of Cheapskates #6

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks and audiobooks.

Before we really get started with today’s Review, I wanted to share a few cheapskates-related news and notes.

First, for any of you who followed my lead and got a $79 ad-supported Kindle, you might like to know that there’s a software update now available. It’s supposed to create a crisper, more paper-like experience, at least according to Amazon. Frankly, I don’t notice much difference, but then again, I was pleased with the previous software version as well.

If you have kids who enjoy picture books with you, however, you’ll appreciate the new version. These now display with thicker border lines, giving you clearer pictures in the black and white format, even if they were originally in color. 

Second, on to the Kindle’s main competitor – the Barnes and Noble Nook. They now have a new product offering that I think is brilliant – the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. It’s nearly cheapskate-worthy at $139, and it solves one of my greatest frustrations with the Kindle – it looks like paper, but you also have to light it like paper if you want to read before bed. This version of the Nook claims to create a soft, even glow across the e-ink display when you turn on built in light. No turning on an endtable lamp or buying a clip-on light. It sounds like a great solution that will likely make the Nook my next reader when I have – inevitably – broken my Kindle.

Finally, I wanted to let you know about a bit of an expansion to the reviews on Cheapskates. While the free books I review for Cheapskates are a big chunk of my content consumption, they are by no means the only things I’m reading or listening to. So, I’m starting this new thing I’m calling “Cheap Cheeps” that’s c-h-e-a-p c-h-e-e-p-s – just the perfect joke for an audio podcast, right?

Anyway, these will be Twitter-length reviews of science fiction and fantasy books, short stories, movies and other SF podcasts. These will all be content that I’ve enjoyed for free, but I’m not able to use them here for Cheapskates because I have no way to guarantee that you can get them for free. I might have enjoyed these for free thanks to a library loan, a free promotion, search rewards points, gifts and so forth.

You can check out these short reviews on Twitter by looking up the handle @CheapCheepSF. I’ll also use this new Twitter handle for other Cheapskates news and updates. Hope you enjoy.

All right, on to today’s review. Two months ago, I promised you Star Wars, but put you off to do a tribute to Ray Bradbury instead – I hope you didn’t mind. But now I’m making good on my promise with a review of the free “Lost Tribe of the Sith” novellas by John Jackson Miller. These come in eight parts, so I thought I might use this as an opportunity to do something a little different on the Review. Here’s the setup:

See, a few months ago, my wife bought me the best phone I have ever owned – a credit to her generosity… and everlasting patience . It’s a Samsung Replenish, and it’s the first phone I’ve had with a touchscreen and running the Android operating system. Owners of fancier phones might scoff, but for me it’s awesome. Just a quick rundown of what my phone can do at this moment  includes, Web browser, calculator, calendar, camera, video camera, clock, contact list, Email, GPS device, Navigator, MUD Client, Crossword puzzles, Sketchbook, an app that does nothing but turn on my ringer back on when I forget to, mp3 player, Text messaging, Voice mail, To-do list, Word Processor, Spreadsheet program, Power Point Presentation program, stopwatch, kitchen timer, more games than I can ever hope to play including Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, two hundred and fifty solitaire games and a flashlight… or, a torch, if you insist.

There’s… something else it can do, too, but it, uh… can’t be too important. Hm…. (Phone ringing under this).

This all comes around to say: there are three apps in particular on my phone are relevant to this episode of Cheapskates. The first is a standalone game of Pazaak – which players of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game would recognize as the Star Wars universe card game that’s part blackjack, part collectible card game. What an age we live in, huh?

The first other two relevant apps are the Kindle and Aldiko ereader apps currently on my phone. As I was tinkering with ereader apps, it occurred to me that the Star Wars novellas I’m reviewing this month come in eight parts, so I thought I would put my phone through its paces and read each one using a different eReader app, then review each of them on my blog.

However, this proved to be a far more difficult in practice than in theory. The first four were easy enough, for the most part they’re made by the same people who are doing a decent job of making full-size ereaders.

The Kindle app made the grade even though it’s clunky and basic because, well, it’s the only one that can read Kindle format. Aldiko was recommended to me by my local library: it reads the more open-source epub format fairly well – even with digital copyright protection features – and with a minimum of space.

Nook and Kobo apps were also fairly easy to find and performed competently, but were simply too big for me to keep around on my bare-bones smartphone.

But after that, finding another four was a torture of programs that wouldn’t work, incompatible formats and awkward processes to just get them to read. In the end, I managed to eke out getting Moon + Reader, iReader, HAL eReader and Digibooks4All to actually read the last four books, but it was a close thing.

I won’t consume my segment with detailed reviews of each app, but if you want that, I’m going to post the blow-by-blow on my site cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.

However, to give you the broad strokes, reading on a phone is an entirely different ebook experience, altogether.

(Layered) Reading on a phone is an entirely different ebook experience.

OK, Bad jokes from the “Airplane” movie aside, relying on my mobile phone to read these was as different from reading a traditional book as possible.

For starters, there’s the size – my Samsung Replenish has a mere 2.8 inch screen, making it feel like I’m reading a book off of a pad of post-it notes. An iPhone gets you to just 3.5 inches and even the phones with the absolutely largest screens fall well short of 5 inches. In addition, there’s the much shorter battery life – I have to charge my phone daily, but with eink we’re talking about a month.

But on the positive side is the high portability – because my phone is already in my pocket, it’s easy to open up my books and catch a few minutes of reading in the small gaps of life – waiting in lines, walking to the car, waiting for a meeting to begin.

Part positive, part negative is having a lighted display like a computer screen rather than the eink. The good is that it’s possible to read in the dark before bed, although even on the lowest brightness setting it feels too bright. The drawback is that it’s much more difficult to read a phone in bright sunlight – even on the brightest setting it never feels quite bright enough.

 But that’s enough on the medium, let’s get to the content.

When I first bought my Kindle, one of my first orders of business was to browse the top 100 free science fiction books list on Amazon. I was shocked when some of the first books to stand out to me were the “Lost Tribe of the Sith” novelette series by John Jackson Miller. I mean, who gives Star Wars away for free?!

I was dubious at first that the books were even official. For one, John Jackson Miller was new to me as an author. What I now know is that Miller is best known for his works on comic books and graphic novels, having been the writer on Star Wars: Knight Errant, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and the graphic version of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crustal Skull for Dark Horse comics. He’s also written Iron Man and Crimson Dynamo for Marvel.

Miller’s had his share of more traditional sci fi fiction with novel versions of Star Wars: Knight Errant, a number of short stories for the official Star Wars site, and a contribution in the “Armored” anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams.

I also then quickly found that Del Rey was the publisher and that the novelettes were listed in the official timelines of the books and movies.

I also figured out why it’s free content – each has been associated with the release of a new book in the Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi series and includes a teaser chapter to encourage the ultimate purchase of a full-length novel. I’d actually read some of Fate of the Jedi series before discovering the free novelettes, and I’d actually recommend reading the full-length novels first, even though that isn’t the intention. It’ll give you some context for what’s going on and why you should care about the characters.

And if I may use that to transition into the plot, figuring out what’s going on was one of the biggest issues I found as I started into the first novelette, entitled “Precipice.” You’re pretty much thrown into the Bacta tank and told to swim.

Actually, whether you understand that metaphor or not is a good first test of how much unfamiliar territory you’ll encounter in Lost Tribe of the Sith.

For example, right up front, you need to know that 5,000 years BBY stands for “Before Battle of Yavin” aka Star Wars: a New Hope aka the first time they blew up the Death Star aka the first Star Wars movie.

If you need another reference point, 5,000 years BBY makes the initial tales told in the first four books – Precipice, Skyborn, Paragon, and Savior – the oldest tales in the chronology of the Star Wars universe – already a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

So if, like me, you aren’t readily familiar with Ho’Din, the Houk, Primus Goluud, the Massassi, or the dark lord Naga Sadow, you’ll probably want to have Wookiepedia – the Star Wars wiki – brought up on your computer and handy for reference.

The plot of the first four books follows the captain and crew of The Omen – A Sith mining and transport ship – that is attacked by Jedi and jumps to hyperspace to escape. Off in their navigation by just a hair, they crash onto the backwater of Kesh – a mineral-poor planet populated by a beautiful, pale-purple-skinned people holding to a religion laden with superstition. The small but powerful population of Sith take advantage of this fact to subdue the locals under their control, even as they squabble and backstab each other, in the manner you would expect from an entire society of Sith. This is complicated further by the existence of a Keshiri resistance to Sith rule.

I found the turns of these first four novelettes generally unsurprising and the writing … solid even if it wasn’t stellar. Nothing to complain about, truly, but neither have I been bringing them up with like-minded nerds – the clearest sign I’ve been impressed with a work of fiction.

No, what I actually found the most compelling in the first four novelettes is the underlying concept. In the rest of the Star Wars fiction I’ve encountered, everyone takes the precognition, telepathy and telekinesis of the Force, Lightsabers and hyperspace travel in stride. It’s just a given of their universe.

Here we get a whole new view by seeing force users for the first time through the Keshiri eyes. For the first time, it made me consider what would happen on our own planet if Jedi – or heaven forbid Sith – were suddenly to appear.

Miller himself describes the feeling the novelettes create quite well in this except from an interview he did with Fictional Frontiers, a weekly radio show about pop culture on WNJC in Philadelphia:

[Audio clip]

The next two novelettes – Purgatory and Sentinel – form their own mini story arc and mark a jump forward in time of more than a millennium. These were actually my favorite out of all eight of the books. First, because it’s the only one where we encounter any Jedi and get to see their perspective of this forgotten Sith culture on Keshiri. Second, there are fun connections into the “Knights of the Old Republic” series, which I certainly enjoyed.

Next, the novelettes introduce the concept of there being a huge portion of the Sith culture generally outside of the political scheming and backstabbing. It reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s old bit on the Death Star Canteen. Here’s a short sample of that routine, just, well, because it’s brilliant:

[Audio Clip]

You know that these regular folks have to exist underneath the high-drama space opera, but I’ve never actually seen it shown in detail in any other work besides these novellas. It’s intriguing to consider that behind any dark empire, there’s a vast number of ordinary people going about their daily tasks with little or no concept of what happens at the upper echelons of society.

Finally, whether Miller intended it or not, I found fascinating parallels to first-world cultures of today that seem to encourage personal success, achievement and acquisition of power at the expense of almost anything else of virtue. Remind you of any countries you know of?

I found some comfort in Miller suggesting that we can choose to “opt out” of this kind of society, and find fulfillment in a simple life that’s its own reward. Consider the following passage from “Sentinel”:

 

“You can be strong,” he said, reaching for her and pulling her off the ledge, down into the water before him. Her feet touching the bottom, she looked up at him. “You are strong,” he said. “You just don’t have to rule the galaxy.”

She looked away from him, down at the pool. “It’s what we’re born to do, you know. To rule the galaxy.”

“Then the Tribe is built on a trick,” he said. “A deception. Everyone is fighting over something that only one person can have. Just one. Which means that to be a Sith—is to be an almost certain failure. Almost everyone who follows your Code is doomed to fail, even before he starts.” Jelph chortled. “What kind of philosophy is that?” Nudging her chin upward with his hand, he looked into her eyes, brown again. “Don’t be tricked. You can’t lose if you don’t play.”

 

What’s particularly interesting is that Miller doesn’t necessarily count out the good points of the Sith. Individualism isn’t all bad – sometimes you have to look out for yourself some if you want to help anyone else. The star-crossed lovers in this tale seem to come to a happy medium between Jedi and Sith into something altogether new.

 

Books seven and eight – Pantheon and Secrets – jump ahead another millennium, when Sith society on Kesh is crumbling, both figuratively and literally. One of the first scenes of Pantheon has our hero – the archivist Varner Hilts – nearly crushed by a collapsing aqueduct.

I have to admit here, having the bookish, bumbling Hilts as the hero of these last two books is a lot of fun. I think I enjoyed reading Hilts as much as Miller did in creating him.

The plot of these final installments is something of a race-against-time mystery novel. The Sith of Kesh have forgotten the true stories behind their grandiose myths, and all it takes to send their world into an apocalyptic tailspin is the revelation that the founders were lowly miners and subject to a much higher galactic society and an alien one at that. Hilts is racing against the clock of destruction to find a new rallying point for the Sith before they tear each other apart.

Again, I found fascinating parallels to our modern society. Especially amusing was a line about how any child can grow up to be the Dark Lord. I found it a wry, if dark, reflection on the old American dream of “any kid can grow up to be President” that was supposedly told at one point to all young children here in the states.

Also, Miller certainly steps up his plot pacing, writing style and creativity in these final installments, making them some of the best of the free series.

The ending certainly leaves you wanting a “what happens next” installment, and true to the P-S alternation of the series’ titles, Miller has a postscript available to read, as of July 24. However, the final installment – “Pandemonium” – will only be available if you’re willing to pay $4.99 in an ebook format for “Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith: The Collected Stories.” This omnibus will also include all eight of the free stories as well as maps of Kesh for the first time.

Touche, Mr. Miller. It’s almost enough for me to break my Cheapskates pledge. But will it?

Ah, but I am not telling unless you purchase “Cheapskates: The Collected Reviews.” Hahaha, take that Darth Miller!

In all truth and seriousness, I have nothing but appreciation for these fine free Novelettes, for letting me explore an ancient Star Wars culture in detail and thereby letting me reflect for a few moments on my own society.

If you visit my blog page, I’ll provide a link to Miller’s fiction webpage, which has excellent collected links to the free novelettes in a variety of formats.

Well, that’s all for today’s installment of Cheapskates. Theme music is by the great Jonathan Coulton under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial license. This is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.

Running Late!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Sorry to not have the transcript and reviews of the Android applications up yet. This one went up a week earlier than I expected, so I didn’t have all the work done yet. Please check back tomorrow.
Thanks!