A Morning at the Park


We place our lawn chairs beside the small stream in Saddington Park, underneath gnarled, elvish willows, our backs to the lake. Marion unpacks her art supplies and lines them up on the ground, then begins sketching. I switch on my Kindle and begin reading “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s another of the endless stream of classics I neglected in my youth.

Male redwings shout their shrill, aggressive calls nearby, chasing intruding birds that venture into “their” territory. Female redwings sneak through the undergrowth. It’s mid June and they have youngsters hiding from view. The Redwings may have staked this as their spot, but no one owns a stream and other birds fly into the trees and down to the water.

Momentarily losing my concentration on Poe, I begin inventorying birdsong. A red-eyed vireo belts its pretty but incessant affirmations from overhead, high in the treetops. A mockingbird cycles through its extensive repertoire. A male robin joins in, then a male cardinal. Then a nuthatch and a song sparrow. Just beyond the trees rough-winged swallows and barn swallows swoop and tumble noiselessly through the air, speeding like stealth fighters, nailing insects in mid flight.

Marion stands for a moment, stretches, then takes a couple of limping steps. She gets bursitis in the region of her replacement hip, and her other hip is deteriorating. Osteoarthritis — painful, insistent. I stretch too, stiff, sore. In our mid 60’s our health is relatively good, but age is telling. We feel young, but the internal scaffolding is wearing out.

As Marion turns to the lake, she sees someone on a plank with a sail attached. We both grope after the word for it but can’t bring the name back to memory. Something like “sail plane” but we know that’s not quite right. I turn on the Kindle’s wireless and search Wikipedia. Nope, a sail plane is a glider, but I stumble across “sail board” and “sail boarding.” That’s it. We do crossword puzzles every day to try to stave off memory loss. It helps … a little.

Back to the stream. Marion finishes her initial pencil sketches and starts applying watercolour. I return to the tale of the gold scarab beetle and its deepening plot. What has possessed Mr. William Legrand? Jupiter, his black serving man, thinks the gold bug is bad mojo. The narrator thinks Legrand may be going insane. Jupe is now up an ancient tulip tree, at Legrand’s insistence, and finds a skull nailed to the seventh branch. The plot is twisting.

As we sit quietly, a pair of mallards silently paddle into view where the stream widens at this spot under the willows. They stop to preen. A redwing chases out a grackle. The vireo never stops singing. For some while little insects have been alighting on my hands and arms, occasionally ambling across the Kindle’s screen. I look more closely at them: there are three kinds leafhopper nymphs, all of them green. The largest is about the length of the quick of my thumbnail and is a brilliant uniform green — katydid green. The middle one is darker green, with black stripes. The smallest is a uniform muddy green. All of them look much the same, except for size and colour. Then, in the middle of the green, a red speck strolls across my hand to the kindle and across its top. A red mite.

Suddenly I need a cuppa. I check with Marion and she too would like a hot drink. And a bagel. There’s a Starbucks about a fifteen-minute walk from the stream, so I switch off the Kindle, leaving the story near its climax. I’ll savour it more once I’m caffeinated. Besides, I need the exercise. I had a good physical exam on my 65th, but my doctor chided me a bit on my waistline and weight. As I’m a heart patient, he advised me to slim down.

At the Starbucks counter I learn that someone came in earlier and bought up all the bagels. I remember seeing a ferris wheel appear suddenly across the bridge at the local library. Waterfront Festival. The carnival people have just arrived and set up, which probably accounts for the run on bagels. I pick up a grande mild coffee and a grande black tea and slice of lemon poppyseed cake for Marion. With luck she’ll offer me a bite.

I walk back to the stream and the redwings and the lawnchairs. We sip our hot drinks and I finish “Gold Bug.” Although the prose is from another era, Poe was an immensely creative writer. It was a very good read.

Marion adds black ink “highlights” to her watercolour, bringing out more of its structure. As usual, she dismisses her work, but I like it. Like most artists, she undervalues her talent.

Soon we wrap up. Marion puts away her brushes, pens, and pencils while I attempt to take a macro shot of one of the leafhopper nymphs with my little digicam. They move too quickly and appear blurry in the viewing panel, so I delete the pix. We fold our lawn chairs, carry our trash to the bins, and return to the car in the parking lot, bidding adieu to the park until next time.

A Morning at the Park

In Praise of Project Gutenberg

So, when was the first time you encountered ebooks? For many folk, it was when they got their first Palm PDA, iPhone, or Blackberry. I think everyone has the same reaction: Wow! Thousands of free books available for the downloading. Here’s what you may not know: nearly all of them come from the most enlightened volunteer project of our era: Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg (abbreviated as PG) has created over 30,000 documents since its establishment by Michael S. Hart. Its first document was posted online in 1971.

Whoa! 1971? That was before many of today’s ebook readers were born. PG is the oldest digital library and it continues actively to this day.

I first encountered PG in 1978, using a VueComm terminal and 110 BAUD modem to connect to Unix on a PDP-11 at the Zoology Department of the University of Toronto. It was a “huh!” moment. I was able to ftp Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice and read them on the terminal.

Since 1971 volunteers around the world have laboriously typed in, scanned in, or read in the full texts of public domain books. Other volunteers proofread the results before releasing the titles. In 1971 all books were plain text, allowing them to be read on terminals connected to mini and mainframe computers.

Nowadays PG releases books in plain text, HTML, PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and Plucker formats. The “free” books you get for the Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo Reader, iPhone, iPad, etc., are mostly obtained from the vast PG library. The titles are primarily English language but there’s an increasing number of non-English books.

The PG collection is certainly heavy on classics of literature, history, and philosophy, but it also has mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, westerns, romances, and nonfiction books, including cookbooks. You can also find copies of old periodicals at the Project Gutenberg site.

All you need to enjoy a good PG book is a computer or handheld device with e-reader software.

What a marvellous project. I say “kudos!” And I say, if you’re the contributing type, PG could use your time and/or donations to keep the project moving. You can help them continue the work of preserving world culture.

Project Gutenberg is located at www.gutenberg.org

For ease of downloading, a great site that carries PG material is manybooks.net

Does the Kindle Contain Steroids?

I’ve owned the 6-inch Amazon Kindle Global Wireless for about 15 days as I write this, and I’d never have guessed how much reading I’m doing. In terms of novels or novellas, I’m reading, or have finished:

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton
The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft
A History of Terraforming, Robert Reed (Asimov’s, July 2010)
Triplanetary, E.E. “Doc” Smith
The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal, E.A. Poe

In addition I’ve read short stories by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Charles de Lint, plus whatever else is in Asimov’s July 2010.

Current nonfiction on the go:

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould
Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present, Edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone (just finished the marvellous essay, “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” by John McPhee)
The Smashwords Style Guide, Mark Coker
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

With nonfiction, I tend to read bits at a time, usually a chapter or another logical unit.

The Kindle, as evidenced by the above, has put steroids into my reading habits. The only downside so far, I’ve been neglecting my math studies for the past few days.

Why Kindle?

Early B'Day Present

What I asked for, and received, for my birthday, was an Amazon Kindle, the 6-inch screen international model sold to Canadians.

Several of my friends told me they were surprised I didn’t go for an iPad. Given my penchant for tech toys, it’s a legitimate observation. Here’s my attempt at an explanation.

First, let me say I have nothing but admiration for the iPad. I’ve held one and had a good look at it. I also have an iPod Touch I use frequently, which, I believe, provides me with a smaller but similar experience to the iPad.

Though it may be counter-intuitive, it’s the iPod Touch experience that dampened my enthusiasm for the iPad. The reason is that it can do too many things.

When a technology provides multiple things that can be done with it, I’m the kind of person who tends to hop from thing to thing, enjoying each goodie. I add programs. I do my email. I check blog sites. I solve a sudoku. You know the drill.

Everything about the iPad is leading edge and is justly praiseworthy. However, I’ve confirmed many times over that, for me, trailing-edge technologies that offer less sometimes deliver more.

Take word processors, for example. Though they do many things well, including decent page layout, I do all my professional and personal writing in plain text editors. I import them into a word processor to pass along to editors, but I get more done with simple text editors. They’re less distracting, and the files are superbly portable.

Another example is the AlphaSmart Neo. It’s essentially little more than an electronic typewriter with a great keyboard and a small LCD screen. It stores files as text files and squirts them into computer programs via a USB cable. When I have the Neo along, instead of the Touch or the netbook, the only option I have is writing. And I write more, with better concentration.

Turn this to reading, and I had a hunch that the Kindle would result in my spending more time reading e-books than an e-book reader on a multipurpose device. The Kindle essentially does only one thing, and does it well. It provides a good reading screen, simple controls, great battery life, and the ability to annotate and make notes.

I’ve had the Kindle less than five days and I’ve already read two novels and am halfway through another. I’ve also read several short stories. It’s light enough to hand hold while I’m lying in bed.

There are drawbacks to the Kindle, or any e-Ink e-book reader such as the Sony Reader. They don’t display colour. Although the Kindle will display PDFs they’re hard to read. The Kindle is not well adapted to newspaper formats, with fancy columns.

But feed it straight text–the kind you get in stories and essays–and it allows you to see right through the device itself, into the flow of the text. That is, it provides a good reading experience.

I don’t chase best sellers, so contemporary e-books aren’t a high priority for me, though they’re available. What I like is downloading Project Gutenberg copies of free e-books from sites such as manybooks.net that offer them in just about any popular e-book format, including Kindle’s native AZW format.

So far I’ve read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and I’m well into H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time. I’ve been reading short stories by Poe, and the Sherlockian adventures of Conan Doyle. There are thirty or so more books waiting in line.

Do I like the Kindle? Very much! Sometimes less is more.