Archive for September, 2011

A case of hummingbirds

For the past few days, my wife and I spent a lot of time photographing hummingbirds around the house. These beautiful, little birds can be mesmerizing and it is often surprising to watch just how inquisitive they are. Some of them are truly quite fearless.

Hummingbird

Since we’re using camera flashes in order to properly highlight the birds against the background, it was very interesting to see that some of the birds were actually attracted by the flash. More than one of them flew straight for the camera to take a closer look what that thing is and where the light comes from.

These birds are also very territorial. You can notice that one bird often “owns” a feeder and whenever another hummingbird tries to approach it, the owner will bully the new arrival away with loud chirps and chatter, as well as physical violence if need be, chasing the intruder away.

Hummingbird

At one point my wife decided that we should try to photograph the birds from a different angle, and, perhaps, a little more exposed to the natural sunlight so that the flash would not flatten out the colors too much. We lowered the feeder about 15 inches, set up the camera and waited with remote release in hand.

Interestingly, the birds first flew to the exact spot where the feeder used to hang. Seemingly perplexed that it was no longer there, you could see them hover around for a moment before noticing that it was simply hanging a little lower. I found this very surprising.

As humans, we would take in the bigger picture from a distance, see the feeder and directly home in on it, regardless of its change of position. Not so these birds. Obviously they are a lot more hard-wired. They seem to remember locations in a more dimensional space, it would suggest, as if driven by an internal GPS. Sight seems to come only second to that.

Hummingbird

I found this behavior incredibly interesting, though if you’re asking me why I am telling you all of this, I can understand that, too. As I was thinking about the birds’ behavior some more, I realized that I could actually use this in a book at some point. No, I am not planning to pit my Victorian era occult detective Jason Dark against a hummingbird from hell, but this behavioral pattern could be used to solve a mystery. If, for example, the crime scene were moved and the perpetrator were lured to it, showing up at the wrong place would clearly be an admission of guilt. I mean, that’s what Columbo would have done, right? And he always got his man.

HummingbirdIt’s a pretty good idea, I think, thank you very much. But don’t send me fan mail just yet, I still have to create a plot around it and write the story.

On the subject of hummingbirds, you may also be interested that my wife released a children’s picture book a little while ago, called Growing up Hummingbird, which shows the first two weeks in a hummingbirds life, as experienced and photographed by her early this spring in our backyard.

You can get a copy of the book at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo and in the Apple iBookstore.

I am a huge fan of the Kindle. Always been. I owned a first-generation Kindle and in my mind, the Kindle was every bit as revolutionary a product as the iPhone. A game changer.

However, as great as it is, even the Kindle is not perfect. I am not talking here about buttons being too small or somesuch thing. I am talking about the software implementation in the device.

Over the past two years I have formatted hundreds of e-books, as I’m sure you know. I have formatted books for NYT best-selling authors, for publishing houses, midlist authors and indies alike, and I have been able to study many of the idiosyncrasies of the ebook readers in the market close up.

The Kindle has a number of firmware bugs that have unfortunately not been corrected in its three-year lifespan or its three platform generations. At first I was always willing to admit that it was easy to forget that Amazon is simply not a software company but a retailer. So the experience pool is simply not there and mistakes happen.

As the competition mounts we can no longer be so forgiving, I suppose. Apple shows everyone how it is done with an ePub implementation on their iBooks platforms that not only lives up to spec for the most part, but extends it with significant improvements. Apple may drop the ball entirely on the store side of iBooks, but that’s a different story for another blog post.

I think, however, that Amazon can no longer afford to let things like these firmware bugs slide and should take steps to address them properly. Not only in the current or upcoming platform generations, but backwards also, to make sure all Kindle users enjoy the proper, highest quality e-book experience they are looking for.

Here is my list of 10 Things that Amazon should correct in the Kindle.

  1. Let’s start with a simple one. Image transparency. The Kindle supports PNG images but not the format’s transparency settings. Instead it renders the background white. This would be a simple software fix to correct the issue and could be done in a few minutes. In fact, it is surprising that this bug exists at all because PNG transparency is one of the image format’s most basic features.

    Transparency error
    Notice how the background of the image is white against the sepia paper color, while it should be transparent.
    Click on the image for a larger view
  2. Em-spacing. As a book formatter em-spacing is the key to all good formatting, because it allows for proportional scaling of the content, which is key for applications in which text is free flowing – such as e-books.
Currently the Kindle miscalculates the size of em entirely, making it about 4 times larger than it should be. Proper formatting using em-spacing is therefore problematic on the Kindle and I am sure everyone agrees that spacing in pixels is unacceptable in a world where display sizes range from the tiniest cell phone to the largest tables and desktop screens.
  3. Margins are also a sore topic on the Kindle. Not only are margins calculated incorrectly as a result of the em-spacing error mentioned above, the Kindle completely ignores all margin-right settings. To make matters worse it ignores all padding-right information also. As a result it is impossible to space text properly in various occasions.
  4. Border properties are also ignored in many cases. Depending on your Kindle generation or software you may or may not see borders that have been created using the border style attributes in the e-book.
  5. One of the biggest issues, perhaps, is text justification. The Kindle does not properly justify text. Every few lines or so it will suddenly create a ragged line, throwing off the formatting. This is clearly a software bug that should have been addressed long ago but for some reason it hasn’t been addressed even though it is at the heart of the most basic function of the Kindle, the actual flow of text paragraphs.

    Justification error
    Notice how the lines in the top paragraph are ragged when, in fact, they should be fully justified.
    Click on the image for a larger view

  6. Going along with this issue is the lack of hyphenation. While the Kindle software reader software support hyphenation, the Kindle devices do not. Now, I can understand that perhaps the dictionaries necessary to do proper hyphenation may be too large to fit on a Kindle or may be too processing intensive – though I honestly doubt it, giving modern software technologies – the fact that the Kindle does not even support HTML’s soft-hyphenation is really a disappointment. Hyphenation is integral part of text flowing and I am not sure why it has been so overlooked for all this time.
  7. Early generations of the Kindle also do not support tables. When at first the Kindle arrived and was used for novels mostly, this was perfectly fine, but as the acceptance of e-book readers grows, so does the diversity of the books, and, let’s face it, text and reference books need tables. There is always a need to be able to tabulate content, something the Kindle makes impossible. While the current Kindle generation supports tables, it is a feature that cannot be used because legacy readers do not. This feature should be introduced to the Kindle 1 retroactively with a firmware upgrade also to ensure uniformity across all generations.
  8. Another point of contention is object floating. The float property is not part of the mobi e-book specifications, but let’s face it, these specs are older than your last computer. Amazon has bought the company that developed the mobi e-book file format but sadly the development and extension of the format has completely seized, making the Kindle the only e-book reader with a completely outdated e-book format. Before you tell me that Amazon also allows ePub submissions at this point, let me remind you that Amazon converts these ePub files into mobi files before delivering them to users, stripping the e-books of all ePub specific features.
The float properties would allow text to float around images, giving us not only the opportunity to insert images into the text, but they would also make graphical drop caps a possibility at last.
  9. What is also missing from the Kindle is a way to properly deep link to other books in the Kindle store. Sure you can use a link to Amazon’s website and insert it into your e-books, but did you ever look what happens? The Kindle tries to display the Amazon website on its screen, rendering it garbled and virtually unreadable. Why not give Kindle authors the chance to link to page that has been optimized for the Kindle like the one the Kindle pulls up when you search and purchase a book directly on the device.
I cannot tell you how many emails I have exchanged with Amazon on this subject but for some reason the support staff does neither seem to understand the issue, nor care much about it. I was continually referred to use either regular Amazon web links or some XML links that the Kindle could not even interpret properly.
Since upselling more books would be in Amazon’s interest every bit as much as in the authors’, I am flabbergasted at Amazon’s disinterest in providing such a specialized deep link.

    Store page
    This is what a deep link to the Amazon store looks like on the device. Not very useful, is it? Most of it is not at all readable.
    Click on the image for a larger view
  10. Last, but not least, Amazon should spend some time to make sure the software versions of their readers are actually representative of the devices. They do have the best software readers out there — don’t get me started on the Nook software reader that can’t even center text and will crash in 9 out of 10 times — but the way a book looks in the reader is not representative of the device at all? Why is that? Just use the same fonts, the same firmware routines and things should look identical. It is called code portability and I’ve done it for 10 years on cell phone games, making games look the same on hundreds of different phones.

As you can see, these are some basic flaws and it is surprising that they have been sliding by for so long. The things in question are not tied to hardware issues at all. They are all simple software bugs that can be addressed without too much of a hassle. It is really not rocket science. All it requires is a little discipline.

If you agree with me, maybe you would join me in telling Amazon about these issues and reminding them that in order to remain the market leader, they will have to make sure they continue to deliver a superior experience.

Send them an email at kdp-support@amazon.com. Send them a link to this bog post or pick your favorite flaw and ask if they could please fix it. Maybe together we can direct Amazon’s attention towards these software errors that truly deserve to be fixed.

Only now I realized that, despite posting about the preparations for the launch, I have never actually informed you that my middle-grade chapter book “Kitt Pirate: Snaggletooth’s Treasure” has actually been released.

Kitt Pirate cover
As I mentioned before, I have settled on the pen name Ben Oliver for this release, to create a bit of separation between the horror books I’ve been writing before, and this children’s book. It seems the sensible thing to do to me, although it does create a lot more work and can cause a bit of confusion here and there. Who am I today? Guido Henkel or Ben Oliver?

For those of you with kids somewhere between 7 and 10 years, you may want t to give the book a closer look. It is available as an e-book for $2.99 in all major distribution outlets, and it is also available as a paperback for only $5.99 on Amazon and Barnes&Noble. So, whichever format suits you best, feel free to support my efforts and my work and grab a copy for yourself. It is — I think — a fun adventure read with a great main character and it features a couple of cool pencil illustrations by my friend Juan F. Garcia, who also created the cover.

Here are some quick access links for you to find the book.

Amazon Kindle
Amazon Paperback
Barnes&Noble Nookbook
Barnes&Noble Paperback
Apple iBookstore

And, while we’re on the subject of children’s books, I also want to let you know about two other e-books that have originated in our household. My wife has released two picture books for toddlers. Although available as e-books only, they have been designed specifically for larger display e-book readers, such as tablets and laptop computers.

Hummingbird cover
The first book is “Growing up Hummingbird,” a wonderful look at the first two weeks in the life of a hummingbird. From the moment the eggs were laid to the day the little birds were fledging and leaving the nest for good, my wife has captured the key moments with her camera and put them together in a kid-friendly picture book for toddlers to experience.

Amazon Kindle
Barnes&Noble Nookbook
Apple iBookstore
Kobo


Beach cover
Down the same lines, she released “At the Beach,” a collection of photos from the beach. Colorful and complemented by simple first words, the book will easily grab a toddler’s attention and keep him or her occupied or quite a while.

Amazon Kindle
Barnes&Noble Nookbook
Apple iBookstore

Both books are available for only 99 cents on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Apple iBookstore and Kobo. Feel free to grab copies and see if your toddler enjoys these colorful picture books.