posted by on Mar 19th, 2010App “Reviews” for Pay

Gruber:

Brian X. Chen:

The two sites that were most frequently mentioned by programmers who contacted Wired.com were TheiPhoneAppReview.com and AppCraver.com. Both sites appear in the top four Google search results for the search term “iPhone app review.”

Is Googlebombing still a thing? If so, I can think of a few better phrases to associate with these sites than “iPhone app review.”



posted by on Mar 10th, 2010Kindle, Copy and Bibliopiratical Machinations

Kindle App - No Copy

It sure would be nice if there were a “copy” option on Amazon’s Kindle iPhone app. That would make it much easier to do something like run a quick Gooogle or Wikipedia search, the kind of thing that would add real value to reading a book on an Internet-enabled device.

My beloved Stanza app — now also owned by Amazon — allows copying (if a bit awkwardly), so clearly there is no technical reason why it is missing from the Kindle.

I strongly suspect that this a move intended to placate publishers worried that the Kindle app could become an open door to copyright infringement. And who can blame them? If a reader could copy text from the Kindle app he might be tempted to copy a passage from a book, paste it into the iPhone Notes app, then repeat that painful process some ten thousand times until he has the entire book in Notes and can email it to a friend. Instead of, let’s see, maybe telling his tightwad friend to go to amazon.com and spend $9.99 on his own damn copy of the book.

Stanza - Copy!

Too bad for Amazon I’ve discovered a hole in their defenses. Thanks to the iPhone’s screenshot capabilities, it’s possible to make a readable copy of any Kindle book and import it into iPhoto. Screen by tiny screen. Meet me here in about two and a half years and maybe I’ll hook you up with an awesome bootleg of Tuesdays with Morrie.



posted by on Mar 6th, 2010Leverage, Amber and Strategic Storytelling

Last week Darling Wife and I watched the Season 2 finale of Leverage, TNT’s updated fusion of Robin Hood and Ocean’s Eleven. Timothy Hutton stars as Nate Ford, a former insurance investigator who leads a team of all-star criminals — a Hitter, a Hacker, a Grifter and a Thief — to steal back justice for those victimized by the rich, powerful and unethical.

This most recent season of Leverage had its rocky moments, but the two-part finale was brilliant. Written by series co-creator John Rogers and directed by his co-exec producer Dean Devlin, it showed both their talent and the care they have for the material.

The season finale also brought home for me one of the reasons I enjoy the structure of Leverage, why its stories settle into the mind so comfortably. I think it is because the plots operate on a purely strategic level.

The plot development in Leverage is all about the big picture, the master plan. That’s because the show has quietly but firmly established that each member of Ford’s outlaw band is the best in the world at his or her specialty. There is no doubt that when it comes to a fight Eliot the Hitter will win against anything less than an armor division. If something needs to be stolen or a building to be infiltrated, Parker the Thief will get it done. If the team needs to access a secret computer system, gather classified data or perform any other technological trickery, Hardison the Hacker will succeed. If they need to sell a bad guy on a false identity or a fake business deal, the mark will believe thanks to Sophie the Grifter (or in this season her temporary replacement Tara, played by Jeri Ryan filling in while Gina Bellman (Sophie) is on maternity leave. OK, so those two are co-best-in-the-world.)

There are some close calls, and on occasion it may look like someone else is getting the upper hand as Elliot takes a bad punch or Hardison gets out-hacked. But these setbacks always turn out to be fleeting, partial and/or part of the scam.

You might think that this would rob the show of its excitement. If the good guys will always win, where’s the drama? Where’s the suspense?

Well, that’s the catch: even though each member will always win his or her brand of challenge, that doesn’t mean that the team will always succeed in its mission.

In order to succeed, the team needs strategy. They need a master plan to ensure that they steal the right thing at the right time, that they craft just the right con or hack for the job, and that if there’s fighting to be done it happens exactly when and where they need it to.

This of course is the role of the Mastermind, Nate Ford. The pressure is on Ford to make sure each job unfolds the way it should. The show’s most suspenseful moments arise when Nate’s plans go off course, either because of some surprise or because of some distraction such as his ex wife or his alcoholism.

This allows Timothy Hutton to shine, even while his generosity as an actor allows the rest of the cast to do great work with their clever, quirky parts.

The structure reminds me a lot of the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, a tabletop RPG based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Unlike most table top games, Amber does not rely on dice to determine the outcome of a conflict. Instead characters are ranked on attributes such as strength and magical power, and in a fair fight the character with the higher rank in the relevant attribute will win. This attracts players who are more interested in role playing and story development than war-game tactics, and has lead to long continuing games with intricate plots and intriguing characters.

Similarly, for a series that often has a light tone, Leverage offers some great characters and great character development. Their skills may not be in question, but they all find ways to grow. One of the pleasures of the show is watching bad guys learn the joy of being good guys.

(Sadly the Amber Diceless RPG is out of print, but used copies are available.)



posted by on Oct 10th, 2009Arianna Huffington Knows What’s Obscene

I’ve just begun reading Paul Krassner‘s essay anthology Who’s to Say What’s Obscene?: Politics, Culture, and Comedy in America Today. Normally I’d wait until I’ve finished a book before writing a review, but in this case I have some comments about the foreword by Arianna Huffington.

In her foreword Huffington condemns censorship, decries government intimidation of media, and applauds the maverick speakers and writers brave enough to express themselves no matter what those in power might want.

This seems strange and amusing to me because of how Huffington came to my attention back in 1996. In those days she was billing herself as a conservative, and when I first heard of her she was beating the drum for the Communications Decency Act, an Internet censorship bill designed to let the government stop all of that nasty pornography people were learning to access right from their computers. She argued the point in print and teamed up with Wiliam F. Buckley and friends for a televised Firing Line debate in which she tried to smack down the ACLU and the EFF and practically argued that anyone who does not want the federal government restricting the Internet must hate children.

The CDA passed, and was promptly struck down by the courts as contrary to the First Amendment. However, unless Huffington has recanted her position in some forum I cannot find I can only assume that she is still in favor of the of restrictions attempted by that Act.

So, how does this square with her grand defense of free expression in the foreword to Krassner’s book? In the usual way, I suspect: Huffington seems fiercely, morally supportive of government intervention to block expression she deems offensive, and fiercely, morally opposed to government intervention against expression she favors. She may hate internet porn, but she urges Krassner’s readers “Don’t miss the bit on Palin Porn (‘No anal required’).” She may crow about letting the government protect children, but don’t dare act against Krassner’s famous poster of a sex orgy filled with Disney characters.

In her swing from right to left Huffington illustrates the reality that spans both sides of that false political division: the belief that we should rely on the government to control how people live. And, by extension, that we should have a government that is as large, expensive and intrusive as required to get that job done.

I’m not putting the kind of pornography condemned by Huffington in 1996 on the same level as the political commentary found in Krassner’s book. I suspect that the internet porn she found so hateful would be hateful to me as well. It sounds stupid, grotesque and terribly offensive. But then so does the “Palin porn” Huffington finds so amusing.

However, I don’t get to decide what may or may not be published. Nor does Arianna Huffington. Nor should the government. As long as those involved are consenting adults then none of us has the right to force them to behave differently. Nor do we have the right to sanitize the world to make all communications acceptable for children.

Certainly we should make our moral and ethical positions clear. We may shun those who offend us, we may speak against them, but we must draw the line at the use of force — which government intervention is, inescapably.

Huffington represents a different view. She seems all for using government force to restrict speech as long as it is never pointed at her or her friends.

Who’s to say what’s obscene? Apparently Arianna Huffington knows what’s obscene. And she wants a government made in her own image to protect you from it.



posted by on Sep 2nd, 2009A New World for Japan?

Back in the mists of time I ran TETSUJIN.ORG as a blog for news about Japanese culture, entertainment and politics. Its recent revival has a different focus, but maybe if there had been more weeks like this I’d have stuck with the Japan angle.

The big recent event:

The Liberal Democratic Party was voted out of power. This is the party that has ruled Japan since 1955; in the past 54 years the has controlled the Japanese government continuously except for a period of less than one year in the early 1990s. The LDP lost to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, whose leader Yukio Hatoyama is likely to become the country’s next Prime Minister.

The icing on the cake:

Mr. Hatoyama has been known by the nickname “The Alien.”

Mr. Hatoyama’s wife, Miyuki Hatoyama, reportedly claims to have taken a ride to Venus in a UFO.

I don’t have much to add to that, so I’ll just bask in the wonderment. I’d love to make this stuff up, but the world beats me to it. And since it involves the junction of global politics and alien encounters, I’m sure David Icke will be all over this story to show us how the evil reptiles are involved.



posted by on May 14th, 2009Angels and Ignorance

I won’t be seeing the movie Angels and Demons when it is released. I plan to avoid it, as I did The DaVinci Code a few years ago.

This is not a boycott based on religious sentiment. I happily explore controversies of all types, and if your story is good you can use the Pope, the President, the Dalai Lama or Betty Crocker as your bad guy and I’ll keep reading. No, my reason for avoiding Angels and Demons is that even I have a limited tolerance for bad storytelling.

I slogged through the novel The DaVinci Code, but quit reading Angels and Demons after a few chapters. Putting aside the mediocre writing,* I just could not stand to continue a book that revels in ignorance.

Here’s the line that finally got me to put the book down:

Langdon had spent his career studying religious history, and if there was one recurring theme, it was that science and religion had been oil and water since day one…archenemies…unmixable.

I don’t recall where Robert Langdon is supposed to have studied, but wherever it was he got ripped off. An expert in religious history, but he knows nothing of the history of scientists in religious life? Does not know that the Vatican has maintained an astronomical observatory for centuries? Never heard of Jesuit priest George Coyne or scores of other scientist-priests? Never heard of Gregor frikkin’ Mendel and the dawn of genetic science?

There is plenty of room and reason for discussion about the positive or negative effects that religion has had on scientific progress. But for Dan Brown or his hero to suggest that religion and science are always and utterly “unmixable” is absurd.

It would be interesting to think that Brown has intended a farce, a story about a supposed expert who really knows very little about his subject. Inspector Clouseau Meets the Illuminati might be a fun movie. Sadly, I understand from reading The DaVinci Code that this is not the author’s aim. Brown seems to portray Langdon as a genuine expert.

This leaves us with two possible explanations:

1) Dan Brown is writing on a subject about which he knows very little and which he has not bothered to learn, or
2) Dan Brown thinks so little of his audience that he believes he can put howlers like “religion and science never mix” into the mind of his religion expert and no one will notice the error.

Sadly, if option 2 is correct then the success of his books suggests that Brown is justified in his low opinion of his potential readership. But either way, for me, this kind of sloppiness or cynicism means that a writer is not worth my time.


*Two novels, and each one introduces the same main character by having him examine his own reflection? Really?



posted by on Jan 18th, 2009Someone Is Being Stupid

NBC’s Life was one of the best new television series of 2007 – 2008. I’m grateful it survived its strike-shortened first season to return even stronger for 2008 – 2009.

When I first heard of Life I was not especially interested. I’m not all that big on cop shows. Then I heard it involved a detective who had survived 12 years of wrongful imprisonment by adopting and practicing Zen Buddhism. This made me really determined to avoid it. I expected yet another half-baked pop culture abuse of the word and concept of “zen.” Something like “Zen and the art of homicide investigation” to go along with Zen and the Art of Vampires or Zen and the Art of Steel Boat Building.

Then I happened to see a bit of the show while Darling Wife was watching, and after a few minutes I realized this was something special. The characters are interesting, original and cleverly written. The performances are sharp and brilliant, not only from stars Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi, but also from a great supporting cast including Brent Sexton, Adam Arkin and (new in 2008) Donal Logue. It’s also well shot, with camera work and editing that increases the drama and enhances the storytelling but never distracts.

And then there’s the music. Life makes excellent use of some incredibly good music, with selection and placement of songs that truly serve the story. Comments by Rand Ravich, the show’s executive producer, to Vanity Fair last year highlight how carefully the music is selected, and the importance of music to the show’s style. I’ve discovered a number of new artists and purchased a number of songs and albums because of tracks that I heard on Life, including great songs like Down Boy by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Little Toy Gun by honeyhoney

If you’ve never seen Life, I wish I could suggest that you take a look at some recent episodes on hulu.com — a site that offers free streaming episiodes of programs from NBC and other networks.

I also wish I could recommend that you buy the first season on DVD. Hell, I’ve even been known to drop an Amazon affilitate link from time to time — solely for your convenience, you understand, dear reader.

Sadly, I can’t do that. Sure, the first season has been released on DVD, and Hulu has the last few episodes. But I won’t suggest that you go watch them. To do so would be to steer you toward a diminished, bastardized product that does not well represent the production I came to enjoy so much.

In the version of Life available on Hulu, and on DVD, the songs that were so important to the original production are replaced with bland, generic-sounding stand-ins. It sounds like some effort has been made to provide a vaguely similar sound, but generally the effect is just sad.

I suspect the reason is that it is less expensive for NBC to use the inferior replacements in the online and DVD versions than to use the music originally selected by the show’s creators. I have no doubt that the replacement songs are cheaper, considering how much they cheapen the impression made by the show.

This all leads me to think that someone is being stupid.

Maybe the artists or the record companies holding the rights to the original songs are being stupid by refusing to license them for use online and on DVD. Or may be they are just being stupid by holding out for an unreasonable amount of money for the additional use. It seems to me that they are throwing away a great opportunity for exposure and marketing. I doubt I’m the only person who has purchased music specifically because it appeared on Life or another series. And I don’t see what the rights holders are possibly risking by allowing the use of the songs. I do not believe anyone who might otherwise buy a song would decide not to buy it because they can hear a part of it on a DVD or an online TV show.

Or maybe NBC is being stupid by refusing to pay a reasonable license fee to use the songs on DVDs and online. They may be saving a little money, but at the cost of unhappy fans, diminished DVD sales and an inferior product to showcase on Hulu.

Of course it’s also possible that all parties involved are being stupid, by refusing to negotiate reasonable licensing terms. It seems to me there may be plenty of stupid to go around. I just don’t see how the end result is good for anyone.

So here’s what I do now, with regard to Life:

  • I watch every episode on Tivo, skipping commercials as I am wont to do.
  • If an episode is especially good, I keep it for future viewing.
  • I purchase music and discover new bands based on what I hear on the show. I’ll happily keep doing so, if the music on the broadcast continues to be as amazingly good as it has been.
  • I will NOT watch the butchered episodes on NBC.com or Hulu — which, by the way, have non-skippable ads I would actually sit through.
  • I will NOT buy the DVDs, because they don’t really contain the program that I so admire.

Good luck with that model, NBC. The outlets that would actually get people to view commercials, lay out hard cash, and forego unauthorized distribution channels are being saddled with inferior content. If people do find another way to get copies of the excellent, original versions of the episodes, it will probably be be from a source that provides no compensation to the show’s creators. And that’s just stupid.



posted by on Jan 13th, 2009Keep Apple Out of the Publishing Business – Use Stanza

With the iPhone and the App Store, Apple has introduced not only an excellent device for reading, but also a powerful new distribution channel for writers and publishers. However, this combination gives Apple a lot of power, and they may be exercising that power to make decisions they have no business making: decisions about what kind of material people should and should not read.

Smartphones and PDAs can be terrific devices for reading. I’ve been enjoying novels and book-length nonfiction on handhelds since I started using a Sharp Zaurus in 2002. Most of my e-reads have been classics from Project Gutenberg, and a few free titles released under Creative Commons licenses.

Palm and other platforms have had commercial ebooks available for purchase before now. Amazon is building an enthusiastic audience for its Kindle ebook reader. Even so, the iPhone and App Store offer a whole new level of accessibility and ease of use for people who are not interested in carrying yet another device just to read ebooks, but who might take advantage of the chance to buy and read books on the phone they’ll be carrying anyway. I count myself among that group — I love ebooks, but the last thing I want is another piece of hardware to carry.

A number of app developers have jumped at this opportunity. Hundreds of ebooks are available on the iTunes App Store. Most are classics going for $0.99, while others are contemporary commercial works costing more.

But there’s a problem with this model of selling stand-alone ebooks via the App Store. It’s the same problem application developers have run into. Before an application can go on sale on the App Store, it has to get Apple’s approval. Because stand-alone ebooks are considered applications in their own right, they need approval as well.

All of which means that Apple is in a position to approve or reject novels and other books based upon their content.

The iPhone SDK agreement states that “Applications must not contain any defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found iPhone or iPod touch users.” So, you want to publish a novel that contains adult themes or language? Watch out.

This is not just some speculation about what Apple might do if it wields this power badly. Apple has already rejected at least two novels from the App Store: David Carnoy’s Knife Music and Mur Lafferty’s Playing For Keeps. The case of Playing for Keeps is especially strange, because Apple initially approved this novel. In fact it’s still available on the App Store for $4.99. A later version, with additional blurbs added, was rejected.

Now, I hesitate to call any of this censorship. And before anyone gets lathered up, this is not a First Amendment issue. (Few things enrage me quite as much as people citing the First Amendment in situations that don’t involve government action.) Apple is free to sell what they like on their own store. But users are free to vote with their actions and their dollars, and I think it’s high time for that.

For those interested in selling and buying ebooks, there is an alternative to selling books as stand-alone applications: selling ebooks as files to be used with ebook reader software.

The best ebook reader I’ve used is Stanza by LexCycle. In addition to a comfortable user interface, Stanza provides access to direct downloads from a growing library that includes free books from Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and Book Glutton, and materials from major magazines and newspapers.

More recently, the Stanza online catalog has added sections that allow users to buy books for actual money, some of which presumably goes upstream to help compensate the authors. Through Fictionwise, readers can purchase books from well-known publishers — and contrary to the “Fictionwise” name, their offerings include hundreds of major nonfiction titles as well. Stanza also allows readers to purchase books from Smashwords, a digital self-publishing service.

Whether Stanza will secure a place as the leading iPhone ebook reader, and whether Fictionwise, Smashbooks, and other stores will find success as content providers, we can’t yet tell. But they already demonstrate that there are ways to sell books for the iPhone other than as stand-alone apps.

The important point here is that because the books themselves are not sold through the iTunes App Store, they do not require approval from Apple. If they did, I doubt we’d see 358 titles in Fictionwise’s Erotica category.

Only the reader software need be approved by Apple. This lets Apple keep its attention where it belongs: on ensuring that their store sells well-constructed software that won’t start crashing iPhones. It also leaves the decision as to what constitutes acceptable reading with the right parties: publishers, authors and — most importantly — readers.


UPDATE: A version of David Carnoy’s Knife Music is now available in the iTunes App Store. Apple approved the book for sale after Carnoy removed words Apple found objectionable.

The original, uncut version of the book is available in the Stanza reader from Smashwords.

Carnoy seems happy with this arrangement, and believes that distributing books as stand-alone apps in the App Store is superior to other options such as Stanza with Smashwords. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not worth giving Apple control over an author’s choice of words. Until Apple finds a way to distribute novels without interfering in their content, Stanza and its variety of distribution channels is the better way to go.