The future is yesterday…

I find it amusing that in science fiction, there is a great deal of time and attention spent on what would be, while science-y, best considered fantasy. These would be concepts like teleportation, faster than light travel, time travel, lightsabers, etc. There are entire groups of people who have dedicated themselves to explaining how warp drive would actually work, why light sabers can cut through anything but another light saber, and why you can transport from a ship in orbit to a point on a planet, but you don’t keep your inertia.

The little, throwaway ideas are what impress me more. In several of Heinlein’s novels, his characters have telephones that are small enough to fit in a pocket or purse, their number works anywhere they are, and oops – might as well mail it home now because I’m going into space and it won’t work as high as low Earth orbit. It wasn’t showy or flashy. The technology wasn’t overly defined, it was just assumed. Everyone knows what a phone is and how it works, no explanation required. This was over 60 years ago – when many Americans didn’t HAVE phones, let alone a phone without a cord. In fact, any call not in the local exchange was actually routed through a person, not a machine. Yet to him, ubiquitous mobile phone ownership was obvious and inevitable.

Varley has a device in some of his novels called a newspad. This device is essentially an e-reader tied to a subscription with a newspaper publisher. You subscribe to the New York Times, but they no longer publish on paper. Instead, they send you a newspad, and that device shows you the current news, as reported by the NYT, updated constantly in real time. Varley’s newspad plays a larger role in at least one of his stories than Heinlein’s phone, but it is another example of an understated technology with a lifestyle impact.  I think multifunction devices will prevent them from ever existing as described, but 10 – 15 years ago they could have been considered a possible future technology, if not a likely one.

I mentioned earlier that while I use my Kindle constantly, I seldom use it to read purchased e-books. What I do use it for is my version of Varley’s newspad.

Let me be clear, I don’t use Amazon’s method of using my Kindle as a newsreader. Amazon is happy (very happy) to sell you a subscription to many of the major newspapers. You can subscribe to the New York Times for $19.99 a month, USA Today for $11.99, Le Monde for $14.99, and many others. While these prices are not horrible, they are far above my favorite price point – free.

Enter Calibre.

Calibre is an e-book management tool with many functions, including:

  • Library Management
  • E-book conversion
  • Syncing to e-book reader devices
  • Downloading news from the web and converting it into e-book form
  • Comprehensive e-book viewer
  • Content server for online access to your book collection

It’s the news download feature that I get the most use from. Calibre can automatically fetch news from websites or RSS feeds, format the news into a .MOBI file,  and upload that file to my Kindle. The files include the full versions of the articles, not just the summaries.

So, every night I plug my Kindle into my MacBook. Around 2:00 AM, Calibre goes out and gets today’s versions of the news from The Economist, Forbes, Newsweek, Reuters, Slate, USA Today, BBC News, CIO, Businessweek, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Wired Daily, and the Washington Post. It also downloads any new updates to several blogs and online reports I’ve selected (There are about 300 predefined choices). These are all waiting for me on my Kindle when I get up in the morning, and I head to work with essentially 14 newspapers in my backpack ready to be read. Since they are already downloaded, I don’t need Internet access when I want to catch up with the news over lunch (or any other time during the day) and the entire list is absolutely free.

The end result is that I get to keep my Kindle in the realm of useful, and I don’t have to pay hardback book prices for the privilege.

This makes me happy – even if it isn’t quite the future I was promised…


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