Open letter to Amazon.com: Please make my Kindle not suck

Update: It appears Amazon is indeed listening; I was able to preorder Robert J. Sawyer’s latest for Kindle delivery, and most of the titles I talk about in this post are alerady available in my region. Thanks Amazon!

Like (according to Amazon.com) millions of people, I own a Kindle e-book reader. However, I’m a bit irked by the fact that Amazon is treating Kindle users as second-class citizens. As early adopters who paid a hefty sum for Amazon’s flagship product, I think we deserve better.

I’ve been a fan of e-ink technology since I first learned about the early, clumsy prototypes. When the original Kindle came out, I nearly jumped at the chance to get one. However I decided that the hassle of having a Kindle in a non-supported country (Mexico), meaning I’d have to jump through hoops to get content into the kindle, was not worth being an early adopter.

So patiently I waited, until, in late 2009, Amazon finally started selling the Kindle, complete with wireless content delivery, in Mexico and a host of other countries. “Great”, I thought. “I get to have my nice gadget, save on shipping costs and delivery time, and I still get to read a lot”.

The story has been a bit different. And it has more to do with politics and commercial interests than with technology. Let’s get this out of the way right now: I have only ONE complaint about the tech side of the Kindle, and it doesn’t even have anything to do with the product itself. More about that later.

So I got my shiny new kindle and went online to get some books for it. I naturally searched for my favorite Sci-fi author, Canadian writer Robert J. Sawyer.

To my dismay, there’s very little from him available as Kindle content. None of the books I was interested in were available: nor Calculating God, the first RJS book I read; neither Factoring Humanity, my all-time RJS favorite; I can’t get the Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, one of the very few RJS titles I haven’t read. They’re simply not available for the Kindle.

Titles are being “kindlefied” all the time. However selection is still quite shallow.

Sometimes I do find the title I’m looking for, only to be greeted by the message “not available in your region”. Amazon, if you CAN send physical books to my region, why can’t you deliver them to my Kindle? I know you’re going to say it’s not the same, but to me, that doesn’t cut it.

A few days ago I received a notification for Dan Simmons’ latest book. Black Hills was to come out in a few days, and I was offered a nice pre-order discount. However, it didn’t apply to the Kindle edition. So you mean to tell me that, even though I’d click on “buy now” this minute AND wait for the book to actually come out and be delivered to my Kindle, I can’t? and that the only way to take advantage of the discount is to wait for the dead-tree version to actually come out? well, never mind, because the book is for sale right now and there’s no Kindle edition in sight. So anyway I have to either get the hardcover or wait until the publisher decides it’s OK to let the Kindle edition out. It’s ridiculous that a hardcover book delivery will actually have me reading it sooner than the instantly-delivered electronic version.

Amazon, this is one area where you have to work with publishers and let them see what a big market they’re missing, and help them reach it. Because all these artificial restrictions, stemming from the irrational fear they have of electronic distribution, will only end up hurting their bottom line. I’m able (and more than willing) to purchase books. Look at my past history if you don’t believe me: even with a 50% delivery overcharge (the joys of not being in the United States) I routinely spent over $500 a year on books. Now I’m a bit weary of ordering physical books, since I’d prefer to offset the delivery cost with my Kindle; however, many of the titles that interest me aren’t available for the Kindle.

Interestingly, I find myself loading mostly classic literature on the Kindle; from Wilkie Collins to Jules Verne, these wonderful titles are available for free in Kindle-compatible formats. This is a consequence of the titles I want not being available on the Kindle; so if I have to choose between Jack London’s Call of the Wild  (old book, I’ve read it 1000 times, I can get it for free at mobipocket.com) and Robert Sawyer’s Starplex (haven’t read it, but is not available for the Kindle), guess what, I’ll get the former.

Now for my one technical quip: What’s this about “optimized for large screens” books? so now I need a Kindle DX to read content? That just sucks.

So Amazon, you have the clout, but also the flexibility to work with publishers and stop (both you and them) treating us like second-class citizens, just because we find the convenience of the e-book reader worth the high admission price. A lack of reasonably-priced content shouldn’t be part of that price.

Back to the stone age: a tale of two phones

So my iPhone fell and got damaged. To its credit I have to say I did hit it pretty hard several times in the past, and it’d survived. However this time it didn’t, and I had to get a replacement. I had to pay for it since it was out of warranty. However the truly painful thing was spending one week without the perks of the modern smartphone.

I had to dig out my trusty 5-year-old Nokia 7210 (not the SuperNova, I mean the original funky-buttoned 7210), a stylish and compact phone which, however, is pretty featureless by modern standards. You can talk on the phone, send SMS (barely; I don’t know how I sent messages without a full QWERTY keyboard) and that’s about it. It has no camera, no network access, the screen is only 128-color and uploading stuff requires a tedious conversion process, and it only supports 4-voice MIDI polyphonic tones.

This was due in no small part to the death of my Blackberry’s lame battery; the ‘berry would have been a decent temporary replacement for the iPhone,even though it’s not compatible with my data plan. So here’s a tip: when your phone is about to be left indefinitely in a drawer, remove the battery.

Being without the iPhone, what I missed the most was:

  • The QWERTY keyboard, without a doubt, is the most-missed feature. Whether virtual or real, it’s a necessity if you plan on composing a lot of text.
  • The camera, believe it or not, is really useful for a lot of purposes.
  • Synchronization with my computer’s address book. A lesser phone can do it but the Nokia lacked connectivity (only infrared).
  • The browser, being able to access the internet anywhere, anytime has become a true necessity.
  • E-mail. Yes, also not being able to receive emails periodically or, at least, on demand, is crippling and makes me feel out of touch and claustrophobic.
  • Music, I guess it’s a case of “if you have it, you will use it”. Somehow carrying the iPod around in addition to the Nokia didn’t seem like a good idea.

What I didn’t miss:

  • Ringtones. However weak the Nokia’s ringtone support is, it’s very loud and adequate, and my favorite ringtone ever (acceleration.mid) was available. I like it so much, I made an MP3 of it and loaded it on the iPhone.
  • GPS. It’s cool to have it but I really don’t use it all that often.
  • Most of my games. I don’t play on the iPhone that often. I must point out that neither the Nokia nor the iPhone had the “snakes” game from older (and newer) Nokia phones. I guess this 7210 got stuck in the past.

Also in case you hadn’t noticed, the entire point of this rant was so that I could have a new post before the 12th and thus keeping my blog updated “more than once every 6 months”.

Nasty bug with binary files, Rails and erb.rb – how to fix it

OK, so I happily hack away on my  Rails application on a Debian box with Ruby 1.8.7 and Rails 2.1.0, and then deploy to a Fedora 8 server with Ruby 1.8.6 and Rails 2.2.2. All of a sudden a particular release causes Passenger to spit an error page on application startup. The key error was:

undefined method empty?' for nil:NilClass

Now I'm combing all over my code to find where I'm using "empty?" but I'm sure it's somewhere that gets run on application startup, otherwise it wouldn't show up when Passenger tries to start the application. But I find nothing and I'm about to shoot myself.

Following the trace I end up hacking Ruby's erb.rb file, as there appear to be some bugs in this; indeed, this one from 1.8.6 is different from what I have in 1.8.7, so the app runs fine here. I try to fix instances where empty? might get called on a nil object, but after fixing 3 of these the app stops responding altogether. Hmm, so something, somewhere, depends on erb.rb's buggy behavior. Best to leave it alone.

HOWEVER, on the deployment server, running with script/server works fine; it's only when using Passenger that things blow up.

Finally I find this thread that points me in the right direction:

One of the users dropped some
JPEG files into the /app/views/static directory, and that seems to be
jamming up the works with 2.2.2.

Indeed, as part of my last set of revisions, I'd left several samples of static content I was converting into dynamically generated pages; sure enough, they included JPGs and whatnot. Just to be safe, I decided to move the entire directory into public to avoid any problems.

Now the app runs just peachy and I only wasted 2 hours chasing down this bug. Thanks to the guys at Nabble!

Eventually it all boils down to this Rails bug reported at Lighthouse. So hopefully it'll be fixed soon. In the meanwhile, keep binary files out of your views subtree.

I'm attaching the entire Passenger error page, in case it's useful to anyone. Mainly so that Google can find it faster for other people with this problem.

Ruby on Rails application could not be started

These are the possible causes:

  • There may be a syntax error in the application's code. Please check for such errors and fix them.
  • A required library may not installed. Please install all libraries that this application requires.
  • The application may not be properly configured. Please check whether all configuration files are written correctly, fix any incorrect configurations, and restart this application.
  • A service that the application relies on (such as the database server or the Ferret search engine server) may not have been started. Please start that service.

Further information about the error may have been written to the application's log file. Please check it in order to analyse the problem.

Error message:
undefined method empty?’ for nil:NilClass
Exception class:
NoMethodError
Application root:
/var/www/spcccdec/releases/20090227005857
Backtrace:
# File Line Location
0 /usr/lib/ruby/1.8/erb.rb 478 in scan'
1 /usr/lib/ruby/1.8/erb.rb 524 in compile’
2 /usr/lib/ruby/1.8/erb.rb 691 in initialize'
3 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/template_handlers/erb.rb 51 in new’
4 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/template_handlers/erb.rb 51 in compile'
5 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/template_handler.rb 11 in call’
6 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/renderable.rb 21 in _unmemoized_compiled_source'
7 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 57 in compiled_source’
8 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 25 in __send__'
9 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 25 in memoize_all’
10 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 22 in each'
11 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 22 in memoize_all’
12 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/activesupport-2.2.2/lib/active_support/memoizable.rb 17 in freeze'
13 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 88 in reload!’
14 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 102 in templates_in_path'
15 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 100 in each’
16 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 100 in templates_in_path'
17 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 86 in reload!’
18 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 78 in load'
19 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 109 in load’
20 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 109 in each'
21 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/actionpack-2.2.2/lib/action_view/paths.rb 109 in load’
22 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 357 in load_view_paths'
23 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 182 in process’
24 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 112 in send'
25 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/rails-2.2.2/lib/initializer.rb 112 in run’
26 ./config/environment.rb 13
27 /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems/custom_require.rb 31 in gem_original_require'
28 /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems/custom_require.rb 31 in require’
29 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 254 in preload_application'
30 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 214 in initialize_server’
31 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/utils.rb 179 in report_app_init_status'
32 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 203 in initialize_server’
33 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 166 in start_synchronously'
34 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 135 in start’
35 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 112 in fork'
36 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 112 in start’
37 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/railz/application_spawner.rb 179 in start'
38 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 222 in spawn_rails_application’
39 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 217 in synchronize'
40 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 217 in spawn_rails_application’
41 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 126 in spawn_application'
42 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/spawn_manager.rb 251 in handle_spawn_application’
43 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 317 in __send__'
44 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 317 in main_loop’
45 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/lib/passenger/abstract_server.rb 168 in `start_synchronously’
46 /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/bin/passenger-spawn-server 46