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On Comic Book Reading

First up, I wanted to share this article from Polygon – DC Comics’ Rebirth worked because it’s actually good. Long read, but well worth it, and to be honest I happen to agree on many accounts. I tried buying into the new 52 when it came out, avoiding some of the bad (Starfire scantily clad? really?) and focussing on the fresh retelling of some of the “core” characters. Aquaman in particular caught my interest, and I really enjoyed it. For a while. But I’m part of that percentage of sales Susana mentions, that initial bump that later just faded away. With the two major comic book publishers going through yet another reset this last summer, I stumbled away from reading all together. But maybe there’s something to reconsider here.

Marvel’s song is no better to my ears, I have to admit – and yet I bought into Marvel Unlimited. Why? Because while a lot of the current story arcs are of no interest to me, MU gives me access to the entire digital history of Marvel. I can read (so long as it’s been digitized), every issue that came out in any month ever. Think about that for a second, comic readers – imagine if you could have a retroactive pull list that covered every title for only $10 a month. We all know there are little hints and tie-ins, usually nothing that affects the main story line, but always present between related comics. With MU, you can actually sit down and read every issue published in January of 2015 (for example) and build that complete picture. By the way – there are 70+ titles from January of 2015 available. At an average cover price of $3, that would have been over $200 in comics.

I know some folks out there are just scratching their heads and wondering – why comics? The best I can offer is that they offer a little something to the creative brain, pulpy stories that lay the bed for further what-if’s. Even when they reset the entire universe you’re enjoying to start the characters over again in a new mould.

Resetting my writing expectations for myself, Asimov style

Writing has been hard these last few months. The interest is there, the stories continue to bubble and steam in my head, but the effort to take that next step and actually write has been lagging. The last week has seen a dramatic improvement – about 10k words so far this month – but it has been a struggle.

When I was younger (all of a year ago), time was easily manipulated. Balancing work, family, interests, and writing seemed trivial. Then I went from being able to write one to two thousand words a day to the struggle of writing any words. Despite the fact that I’ve had two sales in the last 12 months (and that’s two more than ever), I find my own self doubts creeping in and taking hold. It’s a self defeating cycle, I realize – I don’t feel like I’m writing enough or well enough, which causes me to not write, making the original statement true.

But I remember when it wasn’t always this way. I remember years where I wrote novels and short stories as if they were being transmitted from some future repository, to be deposited in my chicken scratch handwriting and poorly pecked typing. A writer I considered a big influence back then was Isaac Asimov, who wrote both some great (classic) science fiction as well as an overwhelming number of nonfiction books. Looking at how prolific he was, I could only assume he spent his entire writing career producing words.

I mention Asimov in particular because he’s shown up in a variety of places in my feeds lately. First, an older Zen Pencils popped up, drawn around a quote from Asimov about always being a learner. The same day, a Medium article by Charles Chu about “How to Never Run Out of Ideas Again” appeared in my feed. Wow, two Asimov quotes in a day? And then Alvaro Zinos-Amaro – who I was introduced to because of a blog post I made about Asimov’s reading habits – popped up with a link back to my blog on Tor.com in his “Asimov Reads Again,” a more thoroughly researched and well written version of my notion.

Referenced a few times in the above was Asimov’s posthumously published It’s Been A Good Life. I tried reading this title once before, but at the time found it to be a weak compilation of snippets from other sources and said as much in my Goodreads review. Now older and wiser (I guess?), I recognize that most of my issues with the book are formatting. To put it simply, it was poorly digitized, and it shows. Sentences that in the print edition were bridged for space with –‘s are in the e-book smooshed back together again, with the — intact. Ack. The book itslef was intended as a collection of letters and commentary/quotes from Asimov, grouped together in chapters by subject. But what in the print edition would have been smooth breaks between fragments in each chapter are lost, making each chapter look like one continuous passage. That in turn makes the reading disjointed, since it’s hard to tell where one fragment ends and the next begins visually.

Mechanics aside, though, I have found there to be some good advice distilled in these fragments. Indeed, most of my previous assumptions have all been proven wrong. Asimov struggled to write, just like the rest of us. During the early part of his career, not only was rejection as often as success, but there are surprising gaps between stories. As I read this, I learned that he would go as long as a year between writing stories. I also found it reassuring that if he got stuck on a piece, he would set it aside and work on something else. His goal (at least later) was to always be writing, but not to let himself get stuck on a story he couldn’t write at that moment.

Lightbulbs went off. Not because I feel the need to model myself after Asimov, but because it was reassuring to see that even a giant went through the same pains. He didn’t give up, he just set it aside and came back later.

Now I find myself taking some of the same lessons I use at work and considering how to apply them to my writing. At work, if a problem is insurmountable, and I have no way of tackling it, I take a step back. I tackle something smaller and trivial, something I can manage without any effort. Partly to get it off my list, and partly because it lets my brain brood over the larger problem while my hands are busy typing at the mundane.

So too should my writing be, I think. If a story, or these days novel, is giving me trouble, don’t box the whole thing up and call it lost. Set it aside and work on something else while the brain does its magic. That brain has gotten me this far, I bet it can get me a little bit further if I let it.

The cheap Kindle Fire

Almost 16 months ago, I bought one of the (then) new $50 Kindle Fire’s. There were a couple of factors in the purchase, but ultimately what convinced me was the price tag. At $50, I didn’t expect much, but figured it was worth the risk. What follows is my impression after 16 months of using the device.

TL;DR – good if you are looking for a really cheap media tablet for reading and watching videos.

My Setup

I started with the basic model, with ads. Not long after buying it, I added an SD card for additional storage. While I use the card (more on that below), the card I bought is almost too big for my needs. If you can afford to add the SD card, and depending on your use case, it’s definitely worth it, but it isn’t a requirement. At some point, long after my purchase, I also paid to have the ads removed, but that’s really a cosmetic issue. It is perfectly reasonable to spend the money on the unit and never expect to spend more on it (unless you want a case). Now, on to the review of the product itself.

Reading

It only makes sense we should start here – this is a Kindle, after all, and while the tablets may have all of the flare of color and moving pictures, ultimately they started out as a means of reading digital books. Accessing my Amazon library, reading books, etc., works flawlessly. I still have issues with synchronizing between devices not always working correctly – but that’s been an issue I’ve seen whenever synchronization is involved and isn’t specific to the Fire. If you expect to read on multiple devices, be ready for synchronization to not always work like you expect. Or to work perfectly. It really is that random.

Of course, reading on a tablet is considered bad for the eyes, at least at the end of the day. The Fire has a blue light mode now that is supposed to reduce eye strain, although my few experiments with it have been less than conclusive. If you are strictly a book only person, never to deviate, then I really recommend the e-readers. They have better battery life and are easier on the eyes. That said, reading magazines on the Fire is a lot more pleasant visually than on the Kindle, but that’s a matter of personal preference.

But what about reading with non-Amazon materials? After all, while locked to the Amazon app store (Sort of. More on that below.), there are still plenty of other reading apps you can use. Personally, I use my Fire to read my Feedly articles on when I need a break from the computer. I also have Pocket setup, so I can browse and read articles I’ve saved for later. Comixology, now owned by Amazon, works perfectly, though that should not be a surprise.

Videos

Amazon Videos, which as far as I know is best with a Prime membership, works out of the box on the Fire. Watch TV shows, movies, etc., just as you would expect. The screen is smaller than your mammoth TV, no doubt, but for a personal viewing it’s just fine. If you happen to have an SD card, you can even download media to it for 30 days (you could also download to internal storage, but there’s a lot less of that available).

Of course, if Amazon Video was all we needed, no one would watch videos (sorry). Luckily, the Netflix app works great on the Fire (assuming you have an account – I hate to have to caveat that, but these are the times we live in). A few weeks ago Netflix added the ability to download parts of their library to your local device, which sounds great. Unfortunately, it isn’t configurable, so you can’t tell it to use internal storage (yet?). On my moderately loaded Fire, that meant I could only download one episode of a 42 minute show before being warned I was almost out of storage space on the device. My other quip with the Netflix downloader is that the whole point (to me) to download something is to be able to watch it when you’re offline. I’m not sure if this is a part of the nature of the Fire, or the Netflix app, but when I went to watch my offline episode from the BART, I was prompted to login into Netflix first. Ack. I tethered for a few minutes while I logged in and accessed the episode, but that isn’t an ideal solution for anyone. I’m really hoping that’s something I messed up, because that seems like a serious design flaw otherwise.

Unsurprising, the Hulu app works just fine on the Fire. There’s even an app for my cable provider to watch shows and live TV “On Demand.” It works about as reasonably as expected.

Of course, whenever you watch video on a small device, battery life is a concern, and the Fire is no different. Bingeing for a few hours will leave the device almost drained, though to be fair that’s the same with most smartphones these days.

Comics, Games, and other apps

I have to tread careful ground here, because I am not opening myself to be your tech support. The Amazon app store is big, but it isn’t huge. There are a lot of applications that they have chosen not to incorporate as supported on their devices.

That doesn’t mean they don’t work.

In fact, many of them work just fine (the Fire’s are Android tablets under the surface, after all). For example, although I have comics in Comixology, I have also recently taken part in a sale on Marvel Unlimited subscriptions (all of their digitized comics from forever for $10 a month). Unfortunately, the app is not supported on the Fire – but it does work. If you disable the requirement blocking non-Amazon apps from installing (a toggle in a top level setup menu on the Fire), you can install the package for Marvel Unlimited directly. The screen size isn’t perfect – the screen is only barely big enough to read a full page at a time without strain, and guided view really requires you to turn on Auto-Rotate to deal with the crazy mix of pane sizes – but it works. And given how little I paid for this device, that’s an investment that seems to be worth it.

What about games, music, and other apps? I honestly don’t know. I use my Fire strictly for reading and viewing materials. Our kids have nicer Fires and have, in the past, played cooperative Minecraft with theirs, but I don’t think the cheaper chipset of the $50 Fire is up to that task. I certainly would not recommend it if that’s what you’re looking to do with it.

Conclusion?

It’s not always the best device for the job – there are just days where the form factor is wrong, or my eyes are too tired to deal with the lit screen, whatever – but at $50 for an initial purchase over a year ago, it was well worth it. The battery life could be better, but you get what you pay for, and sometimes, a little bit more.

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