Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why I Love My Kindle

Years ago, at the now-defunct Border’s books in Flint I spied a massive box, about the size of a steamer trunk, containing The Complete Works of Mark Twain. It carried a price tag of several hundred dollars but I was still drooling. It was something I would have loved to own, but the inconvenience of the size of the box combined with the steep price steered me away.

   Fast forward a good number of years. I now was working as a janitor at the Cardiovascular Center in Ann Arbor. I loved reading on my break time as much as ever, but taking books back & forth was beginning to become a hassle. Small books weren’t too much of a problem since I could always stuff them in my coat pocket in the wintertime but larger books and books during the warm weather months weren’t as convenient.

   I had been wondering whether one o’those newfangled electronic gizmos for reading books would be a good solution for me. I had first seen them on vacation several years earlier in Washington D.C. Many commuters were engrossed in reading them on the Metro. It looked like a convenient way to enjoy reading in busy, chaotic circumstances. I wanted to know more about them, and as it turned out the weekend supervisor at the hospital had just purchased a Kindle and she let me check it out. I was immediately sold. It was easy to read and easy to use. Plus, I could download lots of public domain titles from such sources as Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

   One of the criticisms of the Kindle (usually from those who don’t yet own them) comes from people who say they like the feel of holding a physical book. I completely understand that. Heck, I like physical books, too. But this isn’t an “either/or” proposition. Using a Kindle doesn’t mean you can no longer read regular books again. It’s something one uses in addition to physical books. Not in place
of them.

   So finally, last year, I saved up my birthday money and bought my Kindle. I’ve never regretted it. I’ve been reading an insane amount of material… much of it old and obscure historical works from the previously mentioned internet sites which are available for free. I also enjoy reading old technical papers from NASA which are posted on the history sections of their website.

   But one of the most amazing finds for my Kindle was an electronic version of The Complete Works of Mark Twain. Yes, not only was it available online, the price was a mere 99 cents!!! Naturally, I clicked the download button and within a few minutes I was the proud owner of a work I’d wanted those many years before. Cheap, easy, convenient. What’s not to like?

   Lest you think I’m merely being a shill for Amazon, I would like to state clearly there are certain things I DON’T like about how Amazon does business. One thing I don’t like is you can’t order a magazine subscription using a gift card. Seems kinda silly to me. I think it’s related to another thing I don’t like. Namely, you can’t just order a magazine subscription for your Kindle for a finite period of time. If you wanted to order a 1-year subscription to a given magazine for X amount of dollars, you can’t do it. You can only give them your credit card number and get an open-ended subscription and have your account billed indefinitely until such time as you actively cancel the subscription. I do NOT like that. I want to pay a given amount of money for a given good or service and be done with it. If I want more later, I’LL make the decision to renew.

    Heck, even on subscriptions to the print versions of magazines they will automatically renew your subscription and keep billing you unless you cancel it. I found that by going to the website of a magazine itself I could not only get a print subscription for a finite period, it was cheaper than the price charged by Amazon as well.

    That having been said, however, the Kindle itself has been a welcome presence in my daily routine. Not only does it excel in its primary role as an electronic reading device, it also has basic e-mail and web browsing functions. Nothing fancy, mind you, but it gets the job done when no other internet access is available. When I’m taking a break at work and need to let my wife know I may be late getting home, a quick e-mail from the Kindle does the trick.

   The Kindle I have is the one with the monochrome screen. Since I bought it, there’s now the Kindle Fire with full color display and (from what I understand anyway) a more powerful processor and enhanced internet connectivity. Yeah, that would be neat, but on a janitor’s salary money IS an object and for now my old reliable Kindle is handling things well. Along with the trusty old Sony ICF-2010 shortwave radio which I’ve had for decades, it’s one of the favorite material things I own.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Lesson

The most valuable lessons in life are sometimes those which happen when you simply think about everyday things in a new way.

 I remember in 1990 when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. I was working at the Public TV station in Flint at the time and we were required to sit through some videoconferences explaining the law and its ramifications. I figured it was only marginally relevant to me. I didn't have a physical handicap. Neither did the employees I supervised. If the new laws made the lives of disabled people a bit better, that was fine, but as far as I was concerned this was all stuff that would take place in the background.

 One of the immediate results of the ADA was the rather old building which housed the TV station was upgraded to make it more accessible to those with disabilities. One such upgrade was the addition of a push button outside the entry door which would automatically open that door when pushed. I had no problem opening that door anyway, so I figured it made no difference to me either way. But then we started airing telecourses for a local Community College. One of my jobs was to haul the weekly load of videotapes from a building located across campus back to the TV studio. On some weeks, these heavy tapes had to be carried by yours truly in an cumbersome box requiring all my strength to carry. And guess what? When I arrived breathless at the entry door and my hands were full, I was able to push the access button with my elbow, have the door automatically open and easily walk inside.

 I've often thought about that incident in the years which followed. In making things a little better for one group, we - sometimes in unintended and unplanned ways - make things a little easier for ourselves as well. Ever since, when questions of rights for minority groups have come up, I have tended to err on the side of wanting to maximize the rights of such groups. My reasoning is that not only would expansion of those rights be good in and of themselves, but there might, when one least expects it, be benefits for us all.