Pony Palace Camp

Pony Palace IllustrationAt the Pony Palace riding school, ponies Barney, Biscuit and Kaz are getting up to their usual mischief during Summer Camp with their riders Holly, Carrie and Patrick. With a clear round needed to clinch the winning rosette, it’ll take tumbles and tears before everyone’s back safely in the stables.

Pony Palace Camp is the first in a new series of books, Pony Friends Forever, that all pony-mad children will love. Based on the animals and events at Lessans Riding Stables outside Belfast in Northern Ireland, author Pauline Burgess tells the stories from the ponies’ point of view. Although light-hearted and fun, each book will will deal with a situation that young people face, from illness to family-breakups. Launched today at Lessans, the book is available from all good retailers, including Amazon and Waterstones.

For regular Geek News Central readers who fear that they have inadvertently logged onto Mumsnet, the author Pauline, is a friend and neighbour, hence the diversion from the usual tech topics. Normal service will be resumed shortly with reviews of the Motorola Moto X and the Archos Helium 50 smartphones.

Reading Together, Reading for Pleasure

Booktime LogoMore time is spent reading with children but parents are finding modern life tiring and stressful, according to research commissioned by Booktime. The average time spent by parents reading with their child (4  & 5 year olds) is now one hour 26 mins per week, an increase of 10% over 2009. 60% of parents read with children for pleasure on a daily basis.

Tiredness was cited as the main reason for shared reading not being fun, but it was the tiredness of the parents (18%) rather than the child (6%) that was the problem. Getting home from work in time was also a problem, with 30% of dads getting stuck at work.

Regardless, 71% of parents and carers said that reading with their child was always or usually the highlight of the day. 80% of the parents said that reading was associated with fun with 86% of children laughing out loud.

The book is still the main reading device (86%) but other devices such as smartphones, tablets and e-readers are becoming more prevalent. By the time a child is six, nearly a quarter of parents use technology in addition to paper-based books.

In a time of economic doom-and-gloom, this relatively minor story made my day. It costs so little to read to children especially when books are available from libraries or the Booktime programme, yet the benefits to both parents and children are immense. As a father of a 4 year old daughter, I love reading with her, especially at bedtime. It’s just us, with no distractions and we read the story together. If she grows up with a love of reading and learning, I will have done my job as a parent.

Booktime is a national (UK) free books programme for pre-school children that aims to promote the pleasure of reading by encouraging families to have fun reading together. This year, nearly 1.4 million books will be given away in partnership with Pearson.

eBooks with a Sound Track?

US company Booktrack has just released a new concept onto the literary market – ebooks with a sound track. Yes, you read that right, ebooks with a sound track. To quote from their website, “Booktrack represents a new chapter in the evolution of storytelling, and an industry “first” in publishing, by creating synchronized soundtracks for e-books that dramatically boost the reader’s imagination and engagement. The company’s proprietary technology combines music, sound effects and ambient sound, automatically paced to an individual’s reading speed.

One of the first Booktracked novels is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Plenty of scope there for creepy sound effects but…

…does anyone else think this sounds (sorry) doomed to fail? I’m all for new ways of experiencing stories but we’ve done pretty well with books, radio and TV / film. Each medium has its own strengths and for me, the attraction of a good book is that your imagination creates the world in your head. Now when I read that the door creaks open, I hear it too. Surely if I want a story with sound effects, I get an audio book? Maybe I’m being too critical.

If you want to try it out, it’s available from the Apple App Store for the iPhone et al. There’s only five books available at the moment, two for adults and three for children. On reflection, children may well respond to this approach and it might encourage reading, so that changes my opinion a little. Great idea for kids, bad idea for adults.

What do you think?

CyanogenMod 7 On The Nook Color

CyanogenMod 7I’ve had my Nook Color for about a month at this point, long enough to develop a real feel for how it integrates into my life.

Keep in mind, the Nook Color is not an iPad and sells for half the price of the cheapest Apple jewell. I’ve already got the latest iPod Touch with dual cameras, so I don’t need or currently want cameras in a tablet device.

The Nook Color shines best as a word-centric consumption device. It takes the Internet and turns it into a very portable book.

To be perfectly honest, the stock Nook Color version of Android is very locked down. Besides being a good reader platform for books and magazines, you can browse the web, do email, do social networking, and run a limited but growing number of apps (mostly paid but a few for free) from the Barnes & Noble Nook Color App Store. The Nook Color stock software experience is nice for what it does, but still rather limited overall. The included stock Android browser does include the ability to run Adobe Flash. The Nook Color has a bright and very clear 7 inch widescreen capacitive glass touch screen along with about 10 hours’ worth of battery life.

What makes the Nook Color a great value at $249 dollars is its ability to boot into other versions of Android FROM the built-in internal Micro-SD chip reader without affecting the built-in Nook Color’s Android operating system.

After experimenting with different bootable Micro-SD card arrangements, the best pre-built Android solution I’ve found so far comes from http://www.rootnookcolor.com, a website that is selling pre-configured versions of Android to give a good overall tablet touch screen experience starting at $39.99 for a pre-configured 4 gigabyte Micro-SD card.

Cutting to the chase, the best version I’ve gotten so far from Root Nook Color.Com is called CyanogenMod 7, also know as Gingerbread. This version offers great battery life (almost as good as the stock Nook Color Andriod at about 7 hours) and even enables undocumented Nook Color features such as its built-in Bluetooth radio. It also comes installed with the full Android Marketplace, enabling the ability to browse, download and install most of the available Android apps, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. As mentioned above, since it’s running entirely from the Micro-SD card slot, the stock Nook Color Android operating system remains entirely untouched and completely intact. It’s not even necessary to remove the Micro-SD card to boot back into the stock Nook Color operating system since it comes pre-configured with a dual-boot loader.

While it’s possible to play YouTube and other videos along with apps such as Pandora, by far the most use I find myself making of CyanogenMod 7 is as a highly portable news feed consumption device. I am currently compiling a list of Android apps that take the best advantage of the Nook’s 7” display and will report on these apps in future posts.

Overall, the Nook Color opertated with the CyanogenMod 7 version of Android from Root Nook Color.Com offers a genuine Android tablet experience at a bargain basement price with very good overall performance.

The Tablet Influence

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I’ve had my Nook Color Android-powered e-reader for a few weeks, long enough to really get a feel for not only the e-reader experience but a bit of a tablet experience as well.

I have to admit I was initially somewhat dismissive of tablets. My feeling was though they would be useful in many situations, I personally had little use for one. I spend the majority of my time in my truck, where I’m already equipped with an iPod as well as laptop computers. I felt that the iPod had most of the functionality of an iPad, and that since my MackBook Pro was running most of the time when my truck is parked I really wouldn’t have much use for a tablet.

Since having the Nook Color I find myself spending quite a bit more time on it than I initially thought I would. I use the iPod for listening, and I’m using the MacBook for tasks such as recording my own podcast as well as email and iTunes. However, a great deal of the time I find myself using the Nook Color to browse and consume web-based content.

I believe the adoption of tablets is going to change the content that people consume from the Internet. The change isn’t going to be dramatic or overnight, however it does seem to me that if I’m browsing on a tablet I’m much more likely to read certain types of articles and/or news stories that I probably wouldn’t read in a laptop of desktop browser.

In other words, tablets are turning the Internet into the equivalent of a digital book or magazine as opposed to something that is best used sitting at a desk. The effect of this change in consumption psychology is likely to be subtle but relatively substantial over a period of time.

The Master Switch

Once in a while, a book comes along that contains ground-breaking insights.  Such is the case with a book I’ve listened to over the past couple of days, the Audible audio book version of ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by author Tim Wu.

“The Master Switch” is a compelling look into the history of major information industries such as the telegraph, the telephone, commercial broadcast radio, the commercial movie business, and commercial broadcast television. The book points out an identifiable, slowly-repeating cycle obviated by the fact that these industries were able to gain and hold monopoly status. Each in turn became quite adept at retarding disruptive technological innovations that threatened their respective business models.

Today we take an open Internet for granted, but these same and other forces are looking to take over control of the Internet and turn it into a closed, much more tightly-controlled system.

The book is extremely well written and well researched. The Audible audio book narrator Marc Vietor brings the book to life in a wonderful way.

Mr. Wu does a fantastic job of laying out the often-fascinating histories of companies such as Western Union, AT&T, NBC, etc. As consumers, we think we know these companies through their consumer advertising. The real history of these companies is often quite different and very eye opening.

If you enjoy stories about technology and business, you will almost certainly enjoy “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu.

The Man Who Lied To His Laptop

I just finished listening to the unabridged Audible audio book version of “The Man Who Lied To His Laptop” by Clifford Nass and Corina Yen.

After many years of working as a software interface design consultant, Clifford Nass has developed the theory that human brains cannot completely and fundamentally distinguish the difference between interacting with people and interacting with devices. This book details nearly 30 experiments Nass has performed that back up this revolutionary theory.

Remember “Clippy” from Microsoft Word? Chances are, the mere mention of the dreaded Microsoft Office animated paperclip brings up wildly negative feelings. Clippy’s main flaw was that he couldn’t learn and kept badgering Office users over and over for carrying out repetitive tasks that were not mistakes. Even though users “knew” that Clippy was just an animated character, part of their brain actually related to Clippy as a real, despicable character that lived in their computers.

Similarly, BMW had a big problem with male German car owners complaining loudly about the integrated BMW GPS units. It turns out that German men objected over and over again to BMW’s help line that the BMW GPS units came equipped with a female voice, and that just wouldn’t do, because it just wasn’t “right” to take driving directions from a female voice. “Knowing” that mostly male engineers had developed it wasn’t enough to eliminate the problem.

The book is filled with some rather amazing results of experiments that indicate just how suggestible the average person really is. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Tablets, E-book Readers and Paper

Imagine a school that passes out Amazon Kindles instead of printed textbooks. No books at all, zilch, zero, nada – everything electronic. Printing costs could be completely eliminated, along with a myriad of associated problems – replacement books, textbook obsolescence, and book disposal to mention but a few. A single high-battery-life device such as a Kindle would suffice for replacing all books.

Let’s take this electronic book thought experiment a bit farther. The next logical step would be for the teachers to pass out tests and other traditional paper handouts electronically, eliminating paper altogether. At that point, the Kindle or other reader or tablet would have to be able to allow student interaction, say on a multiple-choice test.

The stickiest problem with this scenario would revolve around having an easy-to-use input system on these devices that allowed students to write phrases, paragraphs, papers, and draw images or diagrams to send back to the teacher.

All of this technology already exists in various forms. Perhaps the iPad comes close to meeting many of these requirements, but some form of the dreaded pressure stylus input would still be needed. Also, two separate devices would be needed – a reading screen, and an input screen on which to write, type and/or draw.

Are we there yet? Not quite, but we are getting close. With the success of the Kindle, iPad, smartphones and maturing touch screen technology in general, the day of eliminating the need for tons of paper is finally becoming a practical, desirable reality.

Amazon Kindle E-Books

Shortly after getting my HTC Evo phone, one of the initial apps I downloaded from the Android Marketplace was the Amazon Kindle app with the idea I’d probably check it out at some point. Weeks went by, and I pretty much ignored the app.

Yesterday I was talking to a good friend that is in the process of formatting e-books for an author friend of his, including formatting the books in the Kindle format. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to him once again that I needed check the Android Kindle app out. He pointed out that there were free e-books available in the Kindle format on the Amazon website, including many books from 1922 and before that were now in the public domain, so after I finished his call I went on Amazon.Com with my computer and started digging around in the Kindle Store area of Amazon. Sure enough, there seemed to be plenty of free e-books available, so I started adding them. To get the Kindle app on my phone to synch with my Amazon account couldn’t be easier, I simply entered in my email address and Amazon password into the app. Any books in my Amazon storage area are quickly updated to the app.

Sure, some of the free books weren’t exactly my taste, but I was able to open them on my phone and finally see how well the Kindle app worked. Hummm, not bad – not bad at all. To make a long story short, I ended up finding a current book I really liked and purchased it for $9.99.

What a pleasant surprise I was in for. Reading a Kindle book on my HTC Evo is actually a good experience. The text is quite legible. The surprising part is that twice now I’ve carried the phone with me into restaurants and was able to easily read using the phone while eating. Of course, the HTC Evo has a handy built-in kick stand that allows the phone to sit on its side at an angle. I can eat and then periodically lightly touch the right side of the screen in order to make the Kindle app advance to the next page. The Kindle app even synchs the latest page I’m on back to the server, so if I open the book up again either on my phone or on my laptop, it opens up right at the exact page where I stopped reading.

At this point I have no plans on buying an actual Kindle, however I suspect I will be buying more Kindle e-books in the future. I often carry my phone around with me wherever I go, and because of the way the Kindle app works across all Kindle apps associated with my account, I have instant access to every Kindle e-book in my Amazon account storage area on every associated Kindle installation. There are often times I end up having to cool my heels waiting on something, and it’s incredibly handy to be able to use that otherwise often wasted waiting time reading. Ten minutes here and twenty minutes there really do add up over time.

All of this talk about, “Oh, the iPad has killed the Kindle” is bogus. Amazon has been very smart to put Kindle apps out for as wide a variety of devices as possible. Even if they don’t sell that many Kindle readers, the Kindle format e-book is a huge Amazon win, both for Amazon and for consumers like me.

Free E-Books Sell Books

If the electronics industry has anything to do with it 2010 will be the year that the e-book finally gets off the ground.  They’ve been kicking around for years – I remember reading stuff from Peanut Press on my Palm III back in the ’90s.  Anyway, this isn’t going to be about e-books and their rise, but rather about a study into free e-books carried out by Jeff Hilton and David Wiley at Brigham Young University in the USA.  In summary, they found that giving away free e-books resulted in higher sales of the printed copy.

The study involved 41 books in four different categories and the sales figures were assessed over an eight week period. In three out of the four categories, sales increased where a free e-book version was made available.

Category 1 – non-fiction +4%
Category 2 – fiction (sci-fi) +26%

Category 3 – Random House fiction (sci-fi) +9%
Category 4 – Tor fiction (sci-fi) -24%

It’s not clear whether the titles chosen because they would generally appeal to digerati, who would presumably be the most likely to read e-books, or whether the titles were self-selected by being free.  Most of the books were PDFs but a few came in other formats.

Overall, sales of print books in three categories rose but in the fourth category, Tor sci-fi, there was a significant fall.  This fall in sales is likely to do with the method of distribution.  Each free e-book was only available for one week before the next one became available and the results were also skewed by one particular title which contributed to 65% of the fall on its own.

The authors suggest a number of reasons why free e-books may lead to increases in print book sales but admit that it’s difficult to giving a convincing explanation. One might simply be the publicity around the free giveaway.  It’s much easier to say why publishers give away free e-books.  Tor wanted publicity for a new web site and Random House gave away free the first book of a series, presumably to entice readers into buying the subsequent novels.

However, perhaps the comment that gives the most food for thought is simply that e-books are searchable.  Not in the context of a single e-book on your e-book reader, but rather when on the web and indexed by a search engine, it makes low volume books more easily discoverable.  This will translate into sales of the book that would simply not occur because the purchaser is unaware of the title in the first place.  This should be sufficient in itself to encourage publishers to get digital copies on-line.

The full paper is The Short Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales.