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Book Notes: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

This is the second installment of the book notes series. These aren't book reviews but a place to record some notes and a place to think out loud about what is to be gained from the book.

The Big Idea

Creativity isn't a magic process, there are concrete, repeatable steps that will produce more and better ideas. Catmull, the current president of Pixar and a former computer engineer, takes a systems approach to increasing the quality of the creativity of the people working for him and showcases the way they come to think about their work.

As Brad Bird… likes to say, "The process either makes you or unmakes you."

Katherine Sarafian… tells me she prefers to envision triggering the process over trusting it–observing it to see where it's faltering, then slapping it around a bit to make sure it's awake.

Pink Highlights

At too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end.

The pressure to create–and quickly!–became the order of the day… and its unintended effect is always the same. It lessens quality across the board.

It's been my experience that deadlines are anti-creative. Videos I've produced under deadlines usually come out worse.

Also useful is the notion of 'The Beast', the part of your business that needs charts and numbers that go ever upward.

The Beast cannot be sated. It is one of life's cruel ironies that when it comes to feeding the Beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why at too many companies the schedule drives the output, not the strength of the ideas.

When I set up Subbable -- my first attempt at crowdfunding -- it ended up increasing stress in an unexpected way. Subbable billed people automatically every month. I had created for myself a 30-day production deadline when the natural life cycle of my projects is closer to six weeks. While I produced videos like Humans Need Not Apply under that system, the biggest result was guilt and stress every month there was no video. Creativity, Inc is one reason why, when setting up my Patreon page for the eventual merger of the two companies, I made funding be per video. It's early days now, but I think this is an improvement to the process worth the decrease in revenue for months when no videos are made. (Though I can already tell that the trade-off is worrying about videos that are 'too small' to charge for.)

Actionable Items

This section caught my attention:

In December 2009, more than three years before the movie premiered in theaters, a dozen people from Pixar… flew east to visit MIT, Harvard, and Princeton. "Monsters University was to be one of the most prestigious campuses for scaring, so we wanted to visit big-name, old-world, prestigious schools"… They visited dorm rooms, lecture halls, research labs, and frat houses; they hung out on the campus lawns, ate pizza at dives that students frequented and took a lot of pictures and notes–"documenting everything, right down to the details of how pathways integrated into the quads and what the graffiti scratches looked like on the wooden desks." The finished film was loaded with these kinds of details… all of which gave audiences a feeling of reality.
Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.

This is something I'd like to try and work into my own processes. My work tends to be extremely insular, if I can work more with experts or visit locations related to the topic of my video, it might introduce some beneficial randomness into the information-gathering process.

Miscellaneous Highlights

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.

Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.

Easy isn't the goal. Quality is the goal.

There is a bit of a weird creed passing around business circles about how amazing failure is. This is a good explanation of the process on a more individual level:

The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren't experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

The above matches my (limited) personal experience in working with other people.

… copying what's come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe–to succeed with minimal risk.

Buy The Book:

You can get Creativity, Inc from Amazon or iBooks.

Where is Scandinavia?

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Discuss on the reddit.

Credits

Music by Kevin MacLeod

Photo by Cecil

Script

Scan-duh-nay-vee-ah!

Look at this Arctic wonderland -- fjords, saunas, fjords, lutefisk, blondes, vikings, blond vikings?, fjords, Ikea, babies in government issued boxes, Santa, death metal, and fjords. But like, where exactly are the borders of Scandinavia -- because not off of this stuff is in it. Scandinavia is just three countries exactly: Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Three kingdoms to be more precise, all of which are on the Scandinavian peninsula -- well, except Denmark, and errrr plus Finland. Wait, this doesn't help at all. Forget that.

The three countries on this peninsula can be collectively called Fennoscandia -- but if you do everyone will look at you weird because no one except the nerdiest of geography nerds uses that word.

Fennoscandia.

So, Scandinavia is a term that's one part geography, one part history, and one part linguistics -- which is why people will argue about who exactly is included. Finland is normally excluded because she used to be considered one of the Baltic sisters with historical ties to mother Russia. And Denmark, though on the other side of the sea is included because of her relationship 'it's complicated' with Sweden. They've had something like 15 to 21 wars between them depending on how you want to count it. And it's complicated-er because they mostly fought over Norway. And who wouldn't? She beautiful -- and rich.

Anyway, when outsiders say Scandinavia they probably mean The Nordic Countries. That's these three plus Finland and Iceland.

Though you can hardly blame people for confusion when organizations like the American Scandinavia Foundation lists everyone as members. And all the Nordic Countries sometimes advertise abroad under the banner of Scandinavia anyway. This is the 'Holland' approach to international relations: if there is a fun name that everyone likes and keeps using wrongly, just go with it.

The Nordic countries get along well enough that they've made an official union: The Nordic Council, a Viking cool kids club, that other Northern European places occasionally unrealistically dream of joining. Though the Baltic sisters do get to sit with them, but not actually vote on anything.

The Nordic Council is largely a collection of committees that tries to get its members to cooperate on common problems like the Arctic environment and social welfare, and business in the region. And also finds time to make a surprisingly long and hilariously specific list rules for how their logo can be used. Including a 'respect distance' the sovereignty of which must not be violated. But the biggest deal of the Nordic Council is that citizens of these five countries get to live and work in any of the others.

(Which, if you've seen the EU video -- adds yet another semi-overlapping bubble of complexity to an already complex region)

The immigration rule, however, doesn't apply to Icelandic horses which are

  1. Super adorables

And 2. Banished from returning to Iceland should they ever leave. But that's a story for another time.

Now, it wouldn't be a political union in Europe without some special territorial weirdness to mention, mainly:

  • Aland: an autonomous region of Finland, that speaks Swedish.

  • And The Faeroe Islands and Greenland, both countries in the Kingdom of Denmark.

Greenland is really the odd girl out in the Nordic club, given that she's in the wrong hemisphere and that Greenlanders aren't historically or linguistically related to Nords. Also, her flag ruins the otherwise consistent design motif. But she's part of Denmark because Vikings.

Lastly there's Svalbard, an unincorporated territory of Norway, that must be mentioned because it has prepared for the apocalypse with a seed bank of every plant to rebuild all of agriculture should it be necessary. And it's also guarded by armored bears.

So that's that -- next time you say Scandinavia, and you're not 100% sure who that includes, just say the The Nordic Countries instead.

Iteration

Though people think my job is making YouTube videos, most of my working time is actually spent writing.

When I think about how to work better or faster, it's all about improving the writing process. I read a lot of books about writing because that's where 90% of the benefits and 90% of the bottlenecks of my working life reside.

I've been doing this long enough to have developed a rough process of my own and I'm comfortable enough to let you, dear reader, in. If you want to see this messy process of mine, this article is for you.

Now, I'm not actually a good writer, I'm a competent writer. This isn't false modesty: competence, it turns out, is depressingly rare as is.

But where I excel is iteration. Re-writing and re-writing.

If you want to be a better writer but, like me, you know you're not actually great at it, I suggest you try iterating a short piece of work, over and over.

How many iterations?

As best I can tell, going back through all my files, writing the script for this video took somewhere between 30 drafts at a minimum to 50 drafts at a maximum.

Here's how that happens:

A video starts its life as a collection: a folder for a topic I have any interest in doing. 'This Video Will Make You Angry' began as a collection named 'memes'. The intention was to talk about the phenomenon of image macros -- a sort of meta-know-your-meme video.

The collecting stage can be very, very long -- the 'memes' collection started in 2012. My oldest, still-active collection is from 2011.

Right now I have 217 collections. Obviously, I'm by no means working on 217 things, but that's the number of topics that I'm at least aware might make for a good video. Everything I read or watch or listen to or think of, if it's relevant, goes into one of the collections. My biggest collection has fifty items in it, the smallest just one.

A collection can get promoted to a zeroth draft -- where a dedicated text file is made in my system so that it can be accessible at any time. I take morning walks and during this time my brain often thinks of sentence fragments for some of the videos in zeroth draft stage. Anything interesting gets added via my phone.

Zeroth drafts then are semi-stream-of-consciousness thoughts on a topic spread out over weeks. It's completely unreadable to anyone other than me, often hugely repetitive. But, importantly, they're the repository of ways my brain has tried to explain all the junk in the collection.

It's hard to say exactly why a collection gets promoted to a zeroth draft, but for this most recent video I know exactly when and why: in June 2014 I came across two things in a short period of time: Trust Me I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday and This is Phil Fish. Both are brilliant and both approach the topic of how things that make us angry get out of control on the Internet.

As a somewhat public Internet person and someone who observes a lot of Internet arguments I felt there was something more here. For a long time, I'd had an 'arguments' collection, that contained this sketch of something I'd observed with groups:

My beautiful artwork: groups argue with their own idea of what the other group is.

My beautiful artwork: groups argue with their own idea of what the other group is.

'Memes' combined with 'Arguments' to become a zeroth draft called 'How Ideas Spread'.

Right now there are about 11 videos in the zeroth draft stage. But lots of projects die here -- five of these my brain hasn't added to in months. They'll probably get killed at my next post-video review.

The stage after 'zeroth draft' is 'active video'. This promotion is serious business: it's where I invoke a 66 item template in OmniFocus that details the steps from zeroth draft to published video.

'Active videos' are where the iterations really begin. Start with the 5,000 to 10,000 words of near nonsense in the zeroth draft and iterate over it again and again with two goals in mind:

Clearer.

Shorter.

These drafts are where I spend the majority of my working mental energy. The end goal is 800 to 1,200 coherent and interesting words. Were I a better writer I could get here faster, but I'm not. I have to iterate draft by draft, day by day. As such I limit 'active videos' to three -- more than that slows down everything. Too little butter over too much bread.

'How Ideas Spread' got promoted to active-video status in the beginning of January. This means it gets three to four full drafts a week. Drafts are slower at the beginning -- it just takes more time to go through 7,000 words than 3,000 -- and I rotate the three 'active videos'. Usually two get iterated on a working day leaving one to rest.

One 'active video' is also The Next Video. This script I work on almost every day. It really hurts, but about one in three videos that make it to this final stage still get killed. Either because of research problems. (This happened to one in January) or because they're just boring (February) or because I break my keep-your-mouth-shut rule and tell someone what I'm working on (November).

But even when things seem to be going fine scripts can get stuck. Something isn't working and it's hard to say what. If this happens I break out the big guns: pen and paper.

I don't know why but switching to paper can burst the mental log jam. Often I find big sections to cut or realize that I need to re-order the way that I've explained things. Stuff just looks different on paper.

But if I do drafts on paper, they always get turned back into a digital version near the end which is just faster for what I do best: endless iterating until I have something worth recording.

So that's the basic process right now. If you're really interested in the details, I've attached the three physical drafts for This Video Will Make You Angry. Be warned: I don't use spell check.

The final version of the script is available on my blog and, as always, you can discuss this article on the reddit.


About 10 drafts before final version:


Draft not-exactly sure when:


About 5 drafts before final version:

You may notice that I'm still using the word 'ideas' instead of the final word 'thoughts'.  That was a change made in almost the very final draft.  

This Video Will Make You Angry

Made with your support on Patreon.

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Argue about it on the reddit

"What Makes Online Content Viral?" By Jonah A. Berger & Katherine L. Milkman"

Script

Hello Internet.

Thoughts compete for space in your brain: cat photos, news stories, beliefs structures, funny GIFs, educational videos, not-so-educational videos and your thinking inventory is limited. A thought without a brain to think it, dies.

Now we can treat thoughts as though they're alive. Specifically alive like germs. That might sound weird but stick with me.

Take jokes. Jokes are thought germs that live in your brain -- and when you tell the joke to another brain, you help it reproduce.

Just like when you have the flu and sneeze to help it reproduce. This germ gets into its host by snot through the mouth and this one by words through the ear but it's reproduction either way.

Logging on to your social media then, is exposing yourself to everyone's mental sneezes. Each post a glob of snot with an thought germ trying to get in your brain -- if not for permanent residence then at least long enough to get you to press the share button and sneeze it with everyone you know.

In this analogy then, a funny cat photo with a perfect caption is a super-flu.

Now just as germs exploit weak points in your immune system, so do thought germs exploit weak points in your brain. A.K.A. emotions.

Once inside, thought germs that press emotional buttons get their hosts to spread them more -- measurably more. Well, except sadness, sad thought germs don't get very far. Awe is pretty good which is why websites that construct thought germs like biological weapons arm them with them titles like "7 whatevers that will blow your mind" or "The Shocking Secret behind... this thing"

But anger is the ultimate edge for a thought germ. Anger, bypasses your mental immune system, and compels you to share it.

Being aware of your brain's weak spots is necessary for good mental hygiene -- like knowing how to wash your hands. Because even without intentional construction, any thought germ on the Internet can, on its own, grow more infections as it spreads. To talk about why, lets forget anger for a moment and go back to that cat photo.

Every photo ever taken is a thought germ, and most die a quick death like the bazillion cat photos (or baby photos) posted on The Internet that are never shared. But a mildly funny cat photo can grow into so much more, because just as transatlantic flights were the best thing to happen to germ germs, so the Internet is the best thing to happen to thought germs.

For once on-board, that cat photo is a thought germ that can leap into other brains. And those brains might share it, and here's the key point, occasionally, change it -- a Photoshop here, a tweaked caption there.

Most changes are terrible, but some make the thought germ even funnier, getting brains to share it more. Which results in more changes and a shot at super-stardom. A thus a lowly cat photo can achieve global brain domination. At least for a few hours.

The Internet, with its unparalleled ability to share and randomly change thought germs can't help but help make them stronger.

With jokes, that's awesome -- but with angry germs not always so awesome. No.

Angry germs, the more they're shared undergo the same process, changing and distorting to be more aggravating. These have a better chance of spreading than their more accurate but more boring rivals.

But like plagues, thought germs can burn though a population too quickly. Just watch your favorite meme generating machine for a week and you'll see the life-cycle fly by.

However some thought germs have found a way around burnout. Now, I must warn you, depending on which thought germs live in your head and which you fight for, the next section might sound horrifying. So please keep in mind, we're going to talk about what makes some thought germs, particularly angry ones, successful and not how good or bad they are.

OK? Deep breath: calm.

Though germs can burn out because once everyone agrees, it's hard to keep talking and thus thinking about them.

But if there's an opposing thought germ, an argument, then the thinking never stops. Disagreement doesn't have to be angry, but again, angry helps. The more visible an argument gets the more bystanders it draws in which makes it more visible is why every group from the most innocuous internet forum to The National Conversation can turn into a double rage storm across the sky in no time.

Wait, these though germs aren't competing, they're co-operating. Working together they reach more brains and hold their thoughts longer than they could alone. Thought germs on opposite sides of an argument can be symbiotic.

One tool symbiotic anger germs in particular can employ is your-with-us-or-against-us. Whatever thought germ just leaped to the front of your brain, push it back. This video isn't about that. We're just talking about the tool, and this one makes it hard, for neutral brains to resist and its divisiveness also grows its symbiotic partner.

This explains why, in some arguments gaining more allies also gains more enemies. Because though the participants think they're involved in a firey battle to the death from the anger germs perspective one side is a field of flowers and the other a flock of butterflies. Of course planting more flowers will get you more butterflies and getting more butterflies will pollinate more flowers.

If there is some argument that splits the population and lasts forever that even the most neutral people find difficult to avoid, you just might be looking at a super successful pair of symbiotic anger germs that have reached ecological stability

Now, one final depressing though. Uhhhh… I mean one more Awe inspiring point, that will reveal the secrets of, ahhh -- actually no it's just depressing.

When opposing groups get big they don't really argue with each other, they mostly argue with themselves about how angry the other group makes them. We can actually graph fights on the Internet to see this in action. Each becomes its own quasi isolated internet, sharing thoughts about the other.

You see where this is going, right?

Each group becomes a breeding ground for thought germs about the other -- and as before the most enraging -- but not necessarily the most accurate -- spread fastest. A group almost can't help but construct a totem of the other so enraging they talk about it all the time -- which, now that you know how though germs grow, is exactly what make the totem always perfectly maddening.

Now, all this isn't to say that there's no point in arguing. (That's a different video). Or that the Internet isn't amazing, or that there aren't things worth trying to change peoples' minds about. And thought germs of all kinds come and go.

But it's useful to be aware of how thought can use our emotions to spread and how the more rapidly a thought is able to spread the more chances it has to become even better at spreading through random changes made to it. Sometimes that's great, sometimes it's terrible.

But if you want to maintain a healthy brain it pays to be cautious of thoughts that have passed through a lot of other brains and that poke you where you are weakest.

It's your brain -- be hygienic with it.

So, of course this video is a thought germ, one constructed very intentionally over time to spread a thought germ about thought germs -- exposing their secrets -- one could say. But I tried as hard as possible, not to have, this video attack your brain through emotions, so it could use a little help spreading. Please be a good germ vector and click the share buttons to sneeze this at your friends. Your coworkers. Your family. Infect them all.

You shared the video, right? Well if you're still here, you really got infected hard. Only thing left is to click onscreen and sign up to the email list which will get you exposed to many more thought germs in stick figure video form.

How 'Hello Internet' is Edited

During the editing of the Christmas episode of Hello Internet I recorded the screen for a time-lapse video. This show was unusually long so it ended up being 11 hours compressed down into an hour. For those of you interested in the details, here is how my editing process looks:

Edit 1: The Rough Cut

Two things happen here:

1) Alignment

Brady and I use the dirty-sounding double-ender recording method: he records the audio locally on his end, I do the same on my end and additionally I record the call with both of us.

The first thing that needs to be done is to sync our two local recordings using the recording with both of us. Double-ended recording adds a lot of work but has the benefit of making the audio quality much higher.

2) Cut Boring Nonsense

There are many things that can obviously be cut: technical problems, segments that don't work out or that are just boring.

Because this phase doesn't require visual attention in the same way as other tasks, I can play a game during this phase. Prison Architect has been my go-to at this stage from the beginning.

When complete, this edit gets sent to Brady to listen to for any edit suggestions.

Edit 2: The Precision Cut

(Starts at 17:45)

This is where most of the work happens. This edit is to tighten the podcast as much as possible: I'm listening for any sentence (or word) that can be cut without loss. I don't cut all the 'ummms' because then it wouldn't sound like a real conversation but I do cut as many of the annoying ones as I can.

Any conversation over The Internet is going to have some points where the participants talk over each other. Another advantage of double-ended recording is it allows me during this edit to pull apart those sections for easier listening.

Edit 3: the Final Cut

(Starts at 39:00)

This edit is for three things:

1) Add in the sponsor reads and jingles

If I'm on top of things I've recorded my ads and gotten any of Brady's ads between cut 2 and cut 3. This is the time to figure out where they go best and to add in the theme and jingles.

2) Create the show notes.

On the final listen through I add in links to the things we have discussed in the video. While in theory I could do this in edit 1, I'd rather wait until all the cuts have been made.

(You do know about the show notes, right? You can easily look at / click on them because you're using a podcast app like you should right?)

3) Listen for errors.

I've learned from experience it's easy to make pretty embarrassing errors in edit 2, so this listen through is to catch them. While I listen to the first cut at 2x and the second cut at 1.5x this final cut is at normal or almost-normal speed because there are sometimes little audio glitches that are difficult to notice at the faster speeds.

Why Bother?

Why take all this time editing the show if it's just a casual, two-dudes-talking show? Well, let's be honest: many two dudes talking shows are death to listen to. Many people who start podcasting assume that sounding casual also means that the process of creation is casual. But it's often the reverse: a casual sound requires a lot more effort to make it bearable to actually listen to. While there are some podcast naturals who can just roll the tape and let it fly, that's not me. Luckily that can be fixed with work.

The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained

Wallpapers:

If you like the artwork, there are 4k resolution wallpapers of the characters available at Patreon and Subbable

Script:

The Lord of the Rings has lots of different kinds of people: elven people, dwarven people, tree people, half-sized people, even people people.

There's like a million pages of background explaining this world that goes much deeper than the books or the movies, but if you don't want to read it all here's a four minute summary, starting with Wizards:

It's easy to mistake the wizards as humans trained in magic, like elsewhere.

But in the Lord of the Rings, wizards are low(ish) level angels. They're called Istari (get ready for lots of names in this video) and there are five of them -- Sauroman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two blue wizards.

Their power comes mostly from being supernatural and not so much from book learnin'.

They're sent (by who? We’ll get to that in a second.) to help the people of world stand against evil -- not wildly successfully either. Sauroman, the leader of the five with a mind of metal and wheels gets corrupted, Radagast, gets distracted by all the pretty nature, the blue wizards just kind of fade into the East -- possibly starting cults of magic and it's only Gandalf that stays true to the quest.

Now, where there's angels there’s a god and in this Universe that's Eru Ilúvatar.

In the beginning there was naught but Eru and the infinite timeless nothing, which is rather boring so he created lots of angels to keep him company.

Ilúvatar 's angels are called the Ainur and are divided into two groups The Valar (Guardians of the world of which there are fourteen or fifteen depending on who you want to count) and their servants The Maiar.

The Wizards are the Istari a subset of the Maiar, which serve the Valar, all created by Ilúvatar.

Ilúvatar and all his angels sang together to make the world. The harmony started out great But there was one Valar named Melkor, and just from the name Melkor, you know what's going to happen, even before learning he's also the smartest, and the most powerful of the angels. And also a bit of a loner.

Melkor didn't want to just be part of the chorus like his dimmer Valar co-workers, he wanted his own song and creations and so his voice became discordant from the others and... created all the suffering and evil in the world.

But Melkor's song also attracted some Maiar to his side including the balrogs. Which means the balrog is a low-level angel making him on the same level of the power org chart as Gandalf: which explains why an old man can hold his ground against a giant lava monster.

Through his discordant singing Melkor also created some of the evil creatures in the world such as the dragons and trolls. Which finally gets us to things that aren't angels.

Other Valar, also made their own non-angelic creations, though in a cooperative spirit with Ilúvatar.

Manwë makes the Great Eagles.

Aulë made the dwarves and his wife Yavanna made all of the animals and plants in the world before capping off that minor task with the Ents, her own race of sentient creatures.

While Ilúvatar seemed happy to leave it to his Valar to make most of the stuff -- he did personally create men and elves which makes them special and kind of above all the other living creatures. (Sorry Dwarves)

And of these two, the men are Ilúvatar 's favorite children: and he show's this by giving men shorter lives than everybody else and also the gift of death? Thanks a lot, Dad. But their short lives set them apart from the other creatures and they aren't tied to the music of creation and the world like everyone else and so are the able to forge their own futures. These qualities make them the get-stuff-done species of middle earth.

Elves, on the other hand, are so connected to the world they're practically made of nature. Same with the Dwarves in their own way, and the Ents of course. These species all but follow the flow of nature and it's partly why the humans have such a hard time getting them to do anything.

Even when faced with armies of Orcs, which brings us to Orcs. Melkor was powerful but couldn't make his own creatures as great as the elves and men and so cheated by corrupting some of them in the beginning and selectively breeding them over the generations into these creatures.

This business Melkor was up to of torturing elves, making monsters, recruiting angels from the other side eventually, but unsurprisingly, led to a war that Melkor loses and got him banished into the void.

All of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings comes long after the epic good vs. evil fight of that universe. Sauron, the Big Bad who caused all of the trouble in these books was just one of the Maiar, though an unusually powerful one, who started his career as Melkor's lieutenant -- after the war he did make a ring to focus his strength, but that's a story for another time.

Last, but not least, we have the hobbits. Even though they seem related to dwarves, what with the living underground and the vertical challenge, hobbits are a subspecies of men. For such an important and pivotal race there is little written of their origin other than the phrase 'related to men.' Turns out with a million pages you still can't talk about everything, just like in a four minute video.

Voyage to Nowhere: The Amazon Kindle Story

When Amazon announced the Kindle Voyage, it filled me with hope. Lighter?  Yes please.  Higher resolution?  Why not?  Magnesium case?  Sounds great.  Page-turning buttons?  Huzzah!  Amazon cares about Kindle again!  Instant pre-order.

But when the Kindle Voyage arrived, hope turned to despair.  Not just for the future of Kindle, but for the future of Amazon itself. 

What Readers Want

A promotional image for the Voyage reads: “passionately crafted for readers”. 

Imagine a restaurant that advertised its meals as: “passionately crafted for foodies” but a visit reveals sticky tables, dirty plates and a smoking chef. 

This is the Restaurant de Kindle and I’ve been eating there for years. Hoping – against all evidence to the contrary – that the sign represents the food. 

But actions, repeated over years, speak louder than words.  Everything Amazon does shows they don’t care about the details and pleasures of the reading experience.  There is no evidence to believe they will. 

Typesetting

I’ve already written much and spoken much about typography on the Kindle.  Please allow me to continue for just a little bit longer on this final Kindle review.

Kindle, from its inception uses ‘full justification’: changing the width of the spaces between words to force every line to span the screen.  This doesn’t give you more words on the page, just the same words spread unevenly across every line.  The effect makes ugly ‘rivers’ of space on the page and, for some readers, has the effect of speeding up and slowing down the narrator in your head.

justified-text.png

The effect is bad enough on the physical kindle but is magnified on narrower screens, such as on the Kindle app.  Add in Amazon’s inability to understand em dashes and the result is comically, insultingly bad for a product with the sole purpose of displaying text. 

em-dash.jpg

There are two options to improve readability: either break the words with hyphens at their syllables (as paper books and open source typesetting programs do) or simply don’t spread the words out (left justification) as is the case with this review. 

Amazon Kindle gives you neither option to fix the justification.  Search The Internet and you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of people asking, begging for Amazon to change this.  Users go to great lengths to manually left justify their books which turns each Amazon ebook purchase into a multi-step-DRM-cracking trial of customer loyalty. 

“Passionately crafted for readers.”

Let’s take a brief look at something that would be deserving of the above label.  Instapaper not only does justification right, but also includes dyslexie among its font choices to make reading easier for dyslexics.

That’s the kind of thing a product does when it cares about its users. Oh, and by the way, when Instapaper introduced dyslexie it was a one-man product not a billion dollar company. 

Is such a font available on Kindle?  No.  Is there any reason to hope it might be?  Since Amazon hasnt updated anything about their typography since 2009 I wouldn’t hold my breath.

It’s not about Dyslexie in particular, it’s about Amazon saying they love readers yet failing to make even the most simple, low-hanging-fruit changes to improve the reading experience. 

Fixing text justification isn’t asking a restaurant to find a new chef, it’s asking for clean tables. Yet Restaurant de Kindle does it not. 

Worse and Worse

Even when Amazon makes changes, you often wish they didn’t. 

Here is the first Kindle I owned:

A perfect device?  No, but it was pretty great (typographical issues aside).  It felt weightless and had satisfying buttons on the sides to turn pages.

Then Amazon introduced the Kindle Paperwhite. 

I was more optimistic about the paperwhite in my review but I found myself using it less and less over time.  The touch screen made accidental page-turns more frequent and white light is the worst for reading in bed.  It’s proven to keep you awake.  A design team that cared would have made the light warmer. 

Amazon also couldn’t manufacture screens that lit evenly.  I exchanged mine many times before giving up settling on a screen that was good enough but also made every page slightly more irritating to read.

These irritations, combined with the increased weight, contributed to less and less frequent use of the paperwhite. 

‘Button’

Rather than bring back the page-turn button for Kindle Voyage, Amazon birthed a Frankenstein's monster: This pressure sensitive white strip on the Kindle Voyage’s bezel.

This pressure sensitive ‘button’ is so bad, such an obvious worst-of-both-worlds construction its existence makes me doubt everything about the product team at Amazon.

To replicate the experience of the Kindle Voyage ‘button’ find an immovable surface in your house: a marble kitchen countertop will do. Place your thumb upon the surface, then press down – deforming your thumb. 

Not pleasant, is it?

imagine repeating that gesture thousands and thousands of times over dozens and dozens of books for every turn of the page.

This is no button, it’s a repetitive strain injury machine. And a committee of humans (presumably including Bezos) somewhere in Amazon saw it, approved it, and shipped it.

Such judgement cannot be trusted. 

If you want to avoid the RSI-‘button’ the Voyage does also have a touch-screen option like the Paperwhite.  But this too has been made worse. 

The touch screen, previously recessed, is now on the same level with the bezel which makes accidental pages turns more frequent.  This flatness doesn’t make reading books any better – given the way the rest of the device is set up it makes it worse. 

At Kindle design headquarters there should be a whiteboard with ‘Does this feature make reading better?’ at the top.  Instead Amazon is trying to make the Kindle into an iPad-like tablet rather than making a speciality device “passionately crafted for readers”.  The result feels like it fell out of an alternative universe where Palm survived into the tablet age.

Switching Costs

A recent two-week trip to America was intended to be a kindle testing ground but since Amazon does everything outside the US weeks or months late, my Kindle Voyage didn’t make it in time so I decided to try something else:

I used Apple’s iBooks for my reading on the trip. IBooks may not be the industry leader, but their product shows evidence of caring about the reading experience: 

  • There are multiple options for handling text justification.
  • You can tap both margins to advance the page. (Unlike Amazon who thinks readers always hold their books in the same hand. Have they ever seen people read books?)
  • There is an acceptable (though not great) dark mode.
  • Collections of books sync in an understandable manner.
  • You can make highlights in a book sample before you buy it.

Speaking of highlights: Amazon has no graceful option to update books. Updating a book, in Amazon’s world, is the digital equivalent of handing you a new book, then burning your old one.  Hope you didn’t have any notes or highlights in there. 

IBooks, meanwhile, can update books while keeping your notes and highlights intact.  ::gasp::

You Can’t Convince Someone to Love You

Reading books is a large part of how I make a living. My decision to switch away from Amazon’s ebooks doesn’t come lightly.

I have a huge sunk cost in terms of my existing library of books in Amazon.  The future costs will be large as well.  I buy, and still plan to buy, my audiobooks from Audible – which often lets you get the Amazon version for a dollar extra.  Now, many of the audiobooks I buy for work will have to be double purchased.

To be pushed over a switching-costs wall so high is serious business. This long-coming decision is helped by Amazon’s other blunders: Their Firephone is so terrible they literally can’t give it away and the existence of the Amazon Echo strains all reason. 

(Seriously, I dare you to sit through the Echo Ad without skipping. While you watch that train wreck unfold before your eyes, keep in mind that somewhere at Amazon is a team of humans, led by Bezos, who approved it.)

These bizarre products, combined with making the kindle line worse two generations in a row, and a neglected software system for half a decade makes Amazon feel unstable.  Mentally. 

I had been planning to launch a big, public campaign about Kindle typography to try and get Amazon to change her ways.  But I came to the conclusion: why bother?

A restaurant won’t get better no matter how much you care if the owners don’t.