Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Medium priority

In my opinion, I lack assertiveness. I'm always reminded of this when I log into my LoveFilm account. The basic idea is that you create a list of films that you'd like to rent and from that list they select titles to send you. You can control the order of dispatch to an extent by selecting whether the titles on your list are low, medium or high priority with medium being the default.

I first joined when they were called ScreenSelect and have been a member, on and off, for several years. Through all that time I never used the prioritising system. Every time I'd log on there would be a message reminding me that all my titles are medium priority but I never did anything about it. The reason? I felt guilty about doing so. My logic was this: when a new title is released, a lot of people want to see it at once. LoveFilm only have a certain amount of copies. So, if I mark it as high priority, and they actually take notice of my request and send it to me, that means someone else in the country is missing out. And it's all my fault. Unable to live with this, I just decide that I'll wait my turn and when they send it to me as a medium priority title that obviously means that all the people who wanted to see it in a hurry have done so. It's nuts, especially since in most other areas of life I'm extremely selfish, but I can't shake it.

But last week I did something reckless. I was looking at my list, which included Black Swan because I never got round to seeing it at the cinema, and I thought to myself I'd really like to see that. So can you guess what I did? That's right: I looked over both shoulders and clicked on the little radio button marked 'High Priority'. It's no guarantee of course; there would surely still be many people in front of me in the virtual queue. People who'd camped out for days, weeing in bottles and eating Ryvita from sandwich bags.

I logged into my account half an hour ago. In the top right hand corner they list the titles they have sent out. My subscription permits two discs at a time. The first disc they have posted me today is Fever Pitch, starring Colin Firth, released in 1997. That's fine; the rush for that one has probably died down. The second disc they've posted me is Black Swan. Shit! I feel like a kid who was just lobbing stones at the seagulls for a laugh and didn't really mean to hit one. Now there's blood and feathers everywhere. I'm grateful, don't get me wrong, and looking forward to watching it but I feel bad for the couple in Doncaster, or wherever, who have missed out because of my bloody-minded insistence that I must see it before the other titles on my list. Sandra and Paul - for those are probably their names - I'm very, very sorry.

If anyone works for LoveFilm and can reassure me that they have more than half a dozen copies of each disc, I'd be grateful. Otherwise I'll just end up renting Short Circuit and The Goonies to assuage my guilt.

Graham Nunn is 34 and single.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Breaking technology news: The Amazon Kindle 3

On Saturday I made one of my frequent impulse buys in the shape of an Amazon Kindle. They sell them in Tesco now, you know, and for £111 I thought it was worth a punt. My sister showed me her e-reader a few months ago and while I was amenable to its flirting, I couldn't see myself using one enough to justify the cost - forgetting, temporarily, that justifying the cost plays no part whatsoever in 99 per cent of my purchasing decisions. I'm the guy who, almost a year ago, spent £1,700 on filmmaking software that has yet to process a meaningful frame of footage. So, at the weekend, I became a non-reading Kindle owner - safe in the knowledge that if it became the latest in my circus of white elephants, at least I'd given my Clubcard points a boost.

But this time there is no elephant in the room. As soon as I slid the power switch I fell in love with it. Despite its fairly undemanding brief of displaying text, I honestly think it's the most impressive application of technology I've used in years. To obtain reading material, you simply pair the Kindle with your Amazon account (which is a simple as logging in to it), and from then on any book you download is sent wirelessly to the device within seconds. Even if, like me, you are blighted with slow broadband, an average book is only 500 kilobytes in size. There is also an option to transfer books via USB if you want to avail yourself of titles from sources other than Amazon's Kindle Store, and it can also display other file types including Word documents, jpegs and PDFs (albeit in monochrome). That said, you probably won't feel the need to stray beyond said Kindle Store which offers over 700,000 books, newspapers and periodicals with many classic titles available free of charge. Also free are the generous samples - at least the first two chapters - that you can download if you're unsure about committing to a purchase. Full book prices vary depending on content, but many new fiction titles will only set you back £5.00.

The e-ink display only consumes battery life when it is refreshed (ie, when you move to the next page), which means that single hour long charge will apparently provide you with a month's worth of reading assuming an hour's use per day - handy if you want to go on holiday without leads and adaptors. The powerless display is such an unusual concept in this backlit world of ours that it's a little disconcerting at first - the device shows an image even when it's turned off and you keep thinking to yourself, 'Is that really not draining the battery?' The display itself is very high contrast and exceptionally detailed, comfortably resolving fine images without pixellation. Everything text based is adjustable, from font size to line spacing and even margins. You can also rotate the screen to a landscape orientation if that's your 'bag'.

For those who enjoy their prose without any emotion or cadence there is a text-to-speech feature which is optional on most e-books and is easily employed via the built-in speakers or headphone socket. It does a fairly impressive job despite sounding like John Major doing an impression of Stephen Hawking, though I can't think of a useful application for it among sighted owners unless you want to swot up on something while you're driving. It's certainly no replacement for an audiobook, but you wouldn't expect it to be.

The best thing about the Kindle though, from my point of view, is that it makes reading a pleasure. You'd think it would remove all the magic from a book - the smell of the paper, the dog eared corners, the almost inevitable spot varnished cover - but I find that it breathes new life into it. Whether that's just its novelty value remains to be seen but with fewer words on its screen compared with the average printed page, progress feels rapid and encourages engagement. E-books don't seem to be subject to piracy in the same way as music so everyone is getting a fair deal and their convenience is undeniable - it's like having a branch of Waterstone's in your sitting room.

So is this the end of the printed word? Amazon claims to have sold more e-books than printed books last year, which surprised me, but pushing nostalgia aside it's easy to see the environmental benefits of this. I still think there will be a place for the printed word but given the option to charitably donate all my books in exchange for electronic versions I can't see any reason why I wouldn't do it. Books take up so much space and there aren't many that you read twice. This is one seismic cultural shift that I'm happy to go along with. What book loving knowledge seeker wouldn't endorse such a simple means of sharing ideas? I honestly think the Kindle will encourage me to read a lot more than I used to, and that's the biggest endorsement of all.