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Civilization 5 - One City Cultural Victory

Game Options

I've been playing Civilization 5 recently, and enjoying every minute of it. All of the core gameplay I know and love is in there, and the new hex system and non-stacking combat units make for much more interesting strategic decisions about combat and city placement (in particular, chokepoints in the terrain, such as mountain ranges and lakes, are much more important as natural borders). After having played several games where I aimed for good 'ole military domination, I decided to branch out and try for the other victory conditions (the associated achievements had nothing to do with the decision, I swear!). The streamlined gameplay makes multiple game runs a much more viable option now, since even late-game empire management does not devolve into the arduous stack management and city micro of previous iterations.

Once my Great and Bountiful British Empire of North America reached the stars before any other civilization, it was time to start up yet another game to try for a cultural victory. And with the one city achievement sitting there taunting me, I decided, why not, I'll go all-in and see if I can pull off the one city cultural victory.

I knew that defense was going to be the most pressing issue while attempting this goal, so I hedged my bets just a bit by picking an archipelago map type. I knew from previous games that a few well-trained naval units could hold-off mass invading armies. Everything else was left standard: standard map size, standard game pace, all civs (including mine) left to random chance, and a difficulty of prince (normal).

The Founding

I spawned as Suleiman of the Ottomans, a choice that was fairly neutral to my goals. The leader bonuses were not particularly helpful for a cultural win, but the barbarian navy could prove helpful for my defensive strategy. My starting placement, however, was fantastically fortuitous for my goal. Though I didn't fully appreciate just how good it was at the time, there were promising indicators early on. With my settler spawning one hex to the north-east of my final city location, and my warrior one hex north-east of that, I could already see snow, tundra, a hill to the west, and furs. The snow and tundra told me that I was near the edge of the map, which would be a great help to remaining unnoticed for as long as possible. The furs meant I would have at least one early luxury for happiness and trading, as well as the gold income I knew would be key. And the hill gave hope that I would not suffer too badly for production.

Starting Position

In a one city game, city placement is crucial, and I was worried that I would have to spend several turns scouting the area to find an ideal spot. Upon moving my warrior to the SE, however, the situation only improved. Another hill, this one with gold, meant even better production and another luxury. In addition, this uncovered ruins across the bay, which meant I could count on at least one early boost. The tundra hex to the SW of my settler looked like a promising spot -- equidistant between the hills I could then see -- and moving my settler there just sealed the deal. Grasslands for farming, coastal waters for gold, food, and the eventual navy I would need, and good access to a decent selection of resources and luxuries. I was able to found my city on the very first turn; the great city of Istanbul. This was a relief, as it meant I could avoid falling behind on the early production and research.

With my city founded I immediately started production on a monument and research on calendar (via pottery). My early goal was simple: I knew I had to be the first to build Stonehenge, both for the massive early cultural boost (+8) and also for the +1 great engineer point that would allow me to hurry production later on. This was the first in my list of overall goals that I knew would be key for a cultural victory:

  • Stonehenge: a wonder that adds +8 to the cultural output of its city.
  • Oracle: a wonder that grants a free social policy.
  • Angkor Wat: a wonder that reduces the culture cost of acquiring new tiles.
  • Sistine Chapel: a wonder that increases city cultural output by 33%.
  • Cristo Redentor: a wonder that reduces policy costs by 33%.
  • Sydney Opera House: a wonder that grants a free social policy.
  • Free Religion: a policy in the Piety social tree that grants two free social policies.
  • Mandate of Heaven: a policy in the Piety social tree that converts 50% of excess happiness into culture.
  • Constitution: a policy in the Freedom social tree that doubles cultural output in cities with a wonder.
  • Free Speech: a policy in the Freedom social tree that reduces policy costs by 25%.
  • Aristocracy: a policy in the Tradition social tree that increases wonder production by 33%.

Based on these goals, I was already committed to the Tradition, Piety, and Freedom trees. Luckily these trees have good synergy with a one city victory; they improve my capital city in many ways, and grant happiness bonuses as well, both of which would be crucial for keeping my empire running smoothly with only one city.

I continued to explore my little island, first by raiding the ruins. They gave me a +30 culture bonus (I swear, I didn't bribe the RNG!), which allowed me to adopt Tradition, which in turn sped the growth of Istanbul. The exploration yielded little else of importance. With the cultural boost from the ruins, I was able to adopt Aristocracy a few turns before calendar finished, so production on Stonehenge would be as fast as possible. After the monument completed I began production on a worker, but switched that to Stonehenge as soon as calendar completed. Research began towards philosophy (for the Oracle), and my warrior tirelessly patrolled my tiny island to seek out and destroy any barbarian encampments that might spawn. By 2140BC Stonehenge was completed, and I switched production back to a worker, which I set to farming.

Once philosophy finished, I immediately begin construction on the Oracle. Since researching philosophy began my Classical Era, I used a social policy I had "saved" to adopt Piety. Likewise, I began research on those technologies that would allow my worker to exploit the nearby resources: the furs, forests, deer, fish, and gold in my immediate vicinity. And another stroke of luck; horses were uncovered right next to my capital once I researched animal husbandry. Finally, as my next social policy came due, I adopted Mandate of Heaven, which converts excess happiness into even more culture.

Starting Position

In 1520BC (turn 62) I completed the Oracle and used my free policy to adopt Legalism, which improved my civilization's happiness. At this point Istanbul had grown to 6 population and was generating 4 gold per turn, 5 happiness, and 14 culture. The fact that I had been able to build both Stonehenge and the Oracle implied that the Egyptians had probably not been one of the random civs spawned in this game (an assumption which turned out to be true); this was another stroke of luck for my starting conditions.

Pax Ottomana

At this point my civilization entered a long and quiet period of peace and prosperity. After researching sailing and exploring the local coastlines further, I discovered just how beneficial my starting position was. My only nearby neighbor was the cultured and friendly city-state of Brussels. This suggested Patronage as a likely fourth social tree, since their allied culture bonuses would help with my final goal, though I wasn't yet at a point where I could leverage this. Most importantly, my little corner of the world was otherwise completely cut off from the rest of society by deep ocean waters. I knew it would be many turns yet before having to worry about any other civ, which freed me to focus my city production on improvements instead of having to maintain a standing army to fight off invasion. To determine my city production, I picked improvements based on a simple set of priorities:

  • 1. Culture (temple, etc.)
  • 2. Growth (granary, etc.)
  • 3. Production (workshop, etc.)
  • 4. Research (library, etc.)
  • 5. Gold (market, etc.)

Once I had researched the technologies needed to tame the local resources, I made my next technological bee-lines for theology (to build Angkor Wat) and acoustics (to build the Sistine Chapel). Thanks to both Stonehenge and the Oracle, Istanbul was turning out the occasional great engineer which could be used to hurry along production. As part of this process, I unlocked Free Religion in the Piety tree but did not adopt it until I finished researching acoustics and entered the renaissance era, so that I could then immediately adopt Freedom and Constitution with my two free policies.

From this point I aimed for archaeology to unlock the additional cultural buildings it allowed, all the while building wonders and improvements in my capital. I had built one worker and some fishing boats, and my only other unit was the warrior I had started with. The single worker was having no problems keeping up with tile improvements to match my pace of research and expanding borders.

Pax Ottomana

By 1330AD (turn 193), Istanbul had a population of 12 and was producing 8 gold, 13 happiness, and 54 culture. I had adopted 14 of the 30 social policies required for a cultural win, and committed to the five social policy branches that must see me through to victory.

  • Tradition
  • Piety
  • Freedom
  • Commerce
  • Patronage

In addition to those branches previously mentioned, I adopted Commerce as a means of improving my navy, my coastal city's production, and increasing my income to help with maintaining city-state relationships.

Social Policies

On the way to researching archaeology I passed through astronomy, which meant I could build a caravel to begin exploring the world. I knew that the moment of truth would soon be upon me: first contact with the rest of the world. What opposition would I face on my path to cultural dominance?

As I began to explore, my very first encounter was with Montezuma of the Aztecs. This gave me pause, as he can be an aggressive leader. I immediately setup a research agreement and traded resources to try and improve the relationship. As I continued to explore, I took this approach with every civilization I encountered. I negotiated for open borders and trade agreements, and agreed to any pact suggested to me short of declaring war against another civ. In fact, I even acquiesced to all demands made of me; I was not hurting for resources, and had plenty of luxuries to keep my citizens happy, so I bent over backwards to stay in the good graces of all the other leaders. Eventually I encountered all seven of the other civs in my world.

  • Montezuma - Aztecs
  • Wu Zetian - China
  • Napoleon - France
  • Ramkhamhaeng - Siam
  • Bismarck - Germany
  • Catherine - Russia
  • Alexander - Greece

The Era of Next Turn

Once I had encountered all of the other civs and knew what I would be dealing with, the Pax Ottomana held strong. I knew I would need some economic improvements in order to keep up the income level necessary for both city-state relationships and to meet the demands and research agreements from other civs. Once archaeology finished, I began researching banking to further this aim.

Istanbul continued to grow and pump out culture, and I kept filling out the five policy trees I had selected in no particular order. Great engineers were used to hurry production of improvements, great scientists to quickly discover new tech, and great artists to start golden ages (though in one case I did have a great artist culture bomb a little deserted island to gain access to iron).

Istanbul Details

Around this time my empire entered the era of the never-ending next turn. From approximately turn 200 to the end of the game, I was simply accepting all demands placed on me by other civs while occasionally slotting in a new building for my production queue. Most of the other civs seemed to be too busy with each other to spend much time bothering me, and while many wars took place in the world, all were beneath me and my tiny but enlightened civilization.

Despite the apparent peace, I was still worried about maintaining my defense. After all, one quick strike from any of the large empires could quickly spell disaster. For this reason, after banking I headed for electricity so that I could use destroyers to defend my island paradise. This also worked nicely with the desire to get radio and telegraph for the cultural buildings enabled there (Cristo Redentor and broadcast towers).

In the end, my good neighbor policy served to keep the other civilizations at bay. I was also the first civ to field destroyers, which may have helped to keep the AI from becoming overtly aggressive. No one ever attacked me, and my cultural domination was finally at hand. It proved unnecessary to even reach radio or telegraph to manage my one city cultural victory, which was achieved in 2034AD, on turn 468.

The Victory

Armor of the Black Fox v2.0 Released

Armor of the Black Fox title

I've released v2.0 of the Armor of the Black Fox mod for Dragon Age. This mod adds a set of armor and weapons to the game. These custom items were once owned by the notorious and dashing Orlesian rogue known as the Black Fox.

There were quite a few changes in this version. The big ones are the name change (previously called "Leliana Item Set"), the addition of male variants for the armor, and support for the Universal Dye Kit.

Warden Shields v2.0 Released

Warden Shields title

I've released v2.0 of my Warden Shields mod for Dragon Age. This mod adds a set of shields forged to match the Warden Commander armor set.

The major change in this version is to add support for the Universal Dye Kit. I also removed the runic shield variants since that mod now comes with its own matching shields.

Universal Dye Kit v1.2 Released

Universal Dye Kit title

I've released v1.2 of the Universal Dye Kit mod for Dragon Age. This is an item that allows custom tinting to be applied to most armor and weapons. Use in conjunction with my Online Tint Creator to customize your armor and weapon colors or color coordinate your entire party.

Among other changes, this version adds the UDK to Lem, the vendor in Leliana's Song. It also improves compatibility with The Winter Forge.

Leliana Item Set v1.5 Released

Leliana Item Set

I was thinking recently it might be smart to cross-post other stuff I do more often to my blog. So in that vein, I have released v1.5 of my Leliana Item Set mod, an armor and weapon mod I created for Dragon Age: Origins. This release adds female dwarf support and an important bug fix.

Ripping CDs the nezroy Way


FullTone OCD ampI would never claim I'm OCD; like schizophrenia, it is a disorder far too often misunderstood and trivialized to its pop-culture interpretation, much to the disservice of its sufferers. However, there's no question that I have my own fair share of bizarre quirks and compulsions. For instance, only recently did I stop "tracking" the number of strokes while brushing my teeth (10 per zone, and 30 zones in my mouth... I could draw a diagram, if you're interested). Or the fact that when I listen to music on a player that shows numerical volume levels, I can only stand to listen at volumes that are prime numbers. I like to think of it as a perfectionist issue; ask my wife, though, and I suspect these traits might rather be described as ridiculous, weird, annoying, or just plain dumb.

The most common way this idiosyncrasy of mine tends to manifest is in the way I approach any discrete task. I will start with a firm set of idealistic requirements that are often impractical or downright trivial, yet serve to completely stall any progress for lack of viable options or willingness to settle or compromise on my part. And even if I don't start out with any pre-built roadblocks, by the time I'm finished with my initial research phase, I'll probably have managed to acquire quite a few lofty and barely informed hang-ups. I suppose the fact that I start most tasks with a "research phase" is odd-enough. Am I supposed to be using 10d box nails or common nails? Would a 12d nail be better? Maybe it'll get put outside in the rain for 10 minutes one day... shouldn't I really be using galvanized nails for this project? Do we have any 12d common galvanized nails? No?! Sorry honey, I can't fix this right now, it would be WRONG! Honey, put down the hammer! You don't even KNOW what kind of nail that is, do you?!

So as you might imagine, something as littered with perfectionist pitfalls as ripping my music collection to disk can be practically paralyzing. It's a task I've been meaning to get to for quite a while; actually, ever since our CDs were stolen from the car 7 years ago. And yet any time I've started working on it, the lack of a solution that meets my requirements has prevented me from making useful progress. If it couldn't be done "the nezroy way", then dammit, it wasn't getting done at all.

In this case, I didn't actually think my requirements were *that* unreasonable:

  • the ripped format should be loss-less, because I'm not doing all this work just to get an imperfect audio copy
  • the ripped format should be an open standard, because... well, really there's no particularly justifiable reason for this one, leave me alone
  • the ripped format should be natively playable on at least one decent digital audio player because I am NOT transcoding all this crap again
  • the ripped format should, at minimum, be playable on windows media player with a trivial amount of work
  • the process must produce a "pretty" library with good tagging
  • the process must be simple enough that I can remember how to do it the same way next time I buy a CD; which means I'm not going to put up with a command-line, batch file, or scripting solution for doing this... nothing personal, I love Linux, bash, and what have you, but come on, it's 2010 now and I've become old and irritable
  • ideally, the music library it generates should be easy to use, for some nebulous definition of easy

Given that list, it really breaks down into three independent variables to resolve. The format, the process, and the player. Unfortunately, every time I've looked into this in the past, the output of "the format" and the input of "the process" never matched up. Which is to say, none of the formats I wanted to use had decent tools, and handling that impedance mismatch made the process too difficult to easily reproduce. Rather than compromise on format or do some extra work with the tools, I mostly just let our CD collection gather dust (and scratches). I am thrilled to report, however, that this great new decade has brought with it a process that finally meets all of my requirements. Yay!

Problem the first; the format. Picking the format has always been relatively easy for me, if only because there aren't many options that even come close to my criteria. Loss-less restricts it to something like WAV, WMA, WavPack, FLAC, or any number of other obscure and irrelevant choices. WAV is simply too large and inefficient, and doesn't have decent standardized tagging support to boot. WMA loss-less has decent compression and good tagging, but it's not truly open, though it was "standard enough" that I was willing to consider it. WavPack is fully open and has good compression, but is not widely supported in comparison. Lastly, FLAC has good compression, good tagging, is completely open, and has a lot of support.

Xiph.org logoIn the end I've always come back to FLAC for this, for a number of nuanced reasons. As an open project it's part of the Xiph Foundation, the backers of Ogg Vorbis and a whole suite of open multimedia formats. This provides considerable long-term viability in comparison to some other options. As a format, FLAC achieves its compression ratios without cutting corners, which is also a big plus compared to some other formats. In particular, it decompresses extremely fast, which translates directly to battery life when it comes to portable devices, and its streaming and seeking features are unmatched by other loss-less formats. Lastly, it's trivial to add Windows Media Player support for FLAC via the DirectShow filters provided by Xiph.

Problem the second; the process. This, of course, has always been the real stickler. My unwillingness to compromise on the format has meant that finding tools that would let me rip and tag to a FLAC library has historically been very difficult. Even grudgingly considering WMA didn't yield a lot of good options either. Recently, however, I was finally able to achieve my ideal FLAC ripping process with a collection of 3 tools. None of them are particularly new, but apparently I had just never managed to get them all together in the same room before:

The ripper of choice for many folks seems to be Exact Audio Copy (though CDex is also a popular choice). EAC transcodes to FLAC (among other formats), supports freedb metadata, and does a good job of producing pretty music library files with good tagging. It's also highly configurable, which means you can accommodate just about any tagging/naming convention you care to think up.

That said, the real niche of EAC is that it specializes in producing digitally exact copies of the CD. This can make it much slower than other rippers, but that is the trade-off for knowing that your rip is clean and glitch-free. The issues surrounding this are surprisingly complex, but suffice to say that even though a CD contains pure digital data, a CD player reading an audio CD tends to be very imprecise. Highly specialized glitch- and gap-fixing hardware in consumer CD players minimizes the audio impact of scratches and missed data, but these will show up glaringly in your digital audio library if left unhandled. It's actually quite time-consuming to get a digitally exact copy of a scratched CD, even though it might play and sound just find on a consumer player. Other ripping software tends to simply ignore the issue entirely, but EAC addresses it head-on with a host of features that guarantee accurate rips.

screenshot of foobar2000 interface

The other heavy-hitter in my toolset is foobar2000, whose primary function is actually as a music player. However, its tagging and library management features are phenomenal. Anything that EAC misses in tagging can easily be cleaned up with foobar2000. You can view and organize your library based not just on folder structure but also extracted tagging metadata, and you can apply precise tag tweaks to entire swaths of your library based on searches and filters of that metadata. You can also rename and move the file structure around en-masse based on tagging data as well, and any number of other similar tasks.

As an added bonus, I've actually replaced the use of Windows Media Player with foobar2000 for my default music player. It's just so easy to use and does such a good job of managing and exposing my music library that it became a no-brainer.

screenshot of Album Art Downloader interface

The last tool I use is really a non-essential item, but it provides that last little bit of polish. It's the Album Art Downloader, which searches a ton of different online sources to allow you to pick and choose front and back cover art, insert and artist art, etc. for the CDs you've ripped. It's not really a necessary part of my library or ripping process, but it's definitely a "nice to have" feature that I find to be worth using. It's managed to uncover album art for some of the most esoteric and oddball CDs I have, which makes it a great tool in my book.

Problem the third; the digital audio player. Having never gotten this far before due to the issues with process, I wasn't sure what to expect. However, it turns out that there are so many digital audio players on the market these days that it's not hard to find something that meets all of my obscure requirements. And FLAC actually has a decent level of hardware support, making the choices plentiful. Since the player is primarily for my wife, it's really her needs that came into play here. She likes her devices tiny and simple, and she hates the very concept of iTunes and iPods with a passion. Her preferred UI is a play button, and her preferred choice of library management is a USB drive or memory card and good 'ole Windows file copy. She also listens to the radio a lot, which is an esoteric but, happily, accomodatable request.

Clip Plus 4 GB MP3 Player (Blue)In the end we decided on the SanDisk Sansa Clip+, which is a cute little player that has exactly those features mentioned. Native FLAC support, an FM radio, a tiny screen and easy to use interface, and it connects to her PC via USB and appears as a simple USB drive to drop music onto. As an added bonus, it also has a voice recoding mode which turned out to be a great perk. With 4GB of internal memory for CDN$50, it was hard to beat. And it has a MicroSD slot which can handle another 16GB.

So there you have it; everything you need to know to rip CDs the "nezroy way"! Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of disc swapping to attend to.

The Kindle Seduced Me


I have a secret I must now confess: I'm a bit of a gadget Luddite. This may come as a shock to anyone who knows me, since I'm a software developer by trade and have, at last count, 6 active computers in my household (and enough parts for a couple more). But while I am an unabashed computer geek, I've really just never been able to get into gadgets. My cellphone is more than two years old and weighs about as much as a small toaster oven. It answers calls, and it makes calls, and that's about all I expect from it. The screen cracked 6 months back and I didn't really care. I've never asked it to try and find the mythical intarweb, and it has obliged my lack of curiosity by resetting itself randomly in the middle of calls, or any time I try to add a contact to the address book.

I do have an iPod nano, but it sits unused in my "stuff I should really find a place for" bin at the corner of my desk. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of its blank little screen staring at me forlornly, but I simply look away. Each time I notice it, I promise myself that we'll spend more time together. Maybe go out for a stroll so I can listen to its finely crafted playlist, or at least plug it into the USB port and fire up iTunes for a couple of minutes. But we both know that it was an unwanted child, and I'll never have the time it wants from me. I even flirted with a PSP once, which regaled me with GTA and some crazy but fun marble game... for a while. But eventually the spark died, and I found myself leaving the house without it more and more often. It finally got to the point that I could no longer bear the recriminating stare of its darkened face, so I relented and gave it away to a new owner who could give it the attention it deserved.

Kindle Wireless Reading Device (6" Display, U.S. Wireless)So I was surprised, even shocked, to feel within me a growing lust for the Amazon Kindle after learning that the global version had finally been released in Canada. It makes sense, I suppose... this gadget is totally my type. I imagine that if it were a woman, it would be a librarian. Slim, smart, and bookish; complete with horn-rimmed glasses, a tightly wound bun, and a plain, gray, knit sweater. Not like that free-spirited hippy iPod, or that pretentious urban chic PSP. This was a woman... er, I mean, a gadget, that I really wanted to get my hands on.

This funny feeling didn't even begin with the Kindle. My attention was first drawn to modern ebook readers by a chance internet encounter with Sony's PRS-300. I knew about their existence in general, of course; I remember reading about the first generation Kindle when it launched. But something about the PRS-300 (and its big touchy brother, the Sony PRS-600) piqued my interest anew. Enough so that I decided to head to Best Buy to take a look. After all, the Christmas season was fast approaching, and I had a feeling that Santa hadn't yet figured out what to bring me.

And I fell in love!

More precisely, I fell in love with the e-paper screen. The moment I laid eyes on it, I knew I had to have one. I yearned for its clarity, focus, and contrast. The choice had been made for me... a modern ebook reader would be mine before the holidays were holidayed! All that remained was to decide which one it should be. I'd like to report that I was an informed consumer who spent weeks researching the best option for my ebook reader. Scouring over internet reviews, creating charts of pros and cons, and consulting the Oracle of Delphi for advice. But alas, that's not really how it happened.

The PRS-300 display model I saw in Best Buy was extremely slow and unresponsive, and had a 5" screen which simply felt a bit too small for me. The PRS-600 was more snappy, but the display was, in a word, fuzzy. It is a result of the touch screen overlay, so I've been told, but it simply did not appeal to me next to the clarity of the PRS-300. Not to mention the PRS-600 cost far more than I wanted to spend, especially for touch-screen technology that I knew I would never use. Simply put, neither would suffice to satiate my growing desire.

I then rushed home, thought to myself "Hey, didn't Amazon make one of these? I think they sell a lot of books", looked up the Kindle, and found to my delight that the global version had just been released in Canada not two weeks prior. Thus invited into its welcoming embrace, I noticed the price: $260, with free shipping. The ecstasy now brimming, I was already hovering over the bright yellow "buy me!" button. The last thing I remember, before succumbing to its seductive overtures and making the plunge, was a bit about free wireless connectivity to Wikipedia. Everything after that is a blur, though I distinctly remember "Don't panic!" being murmured in sweet, dulcet tones. (Turns out that was probably the audio reader feature, something I didn't learn about until long after our relationship had been consummated).

The Kindle arrived shortly thereafter, but in repentance for giving in so impulsively, I forced myself to wait four weeks before I opened it. It simply wouldn't do to walk around with the thing where the kids could see it, then wrap it back up and put it under the tree from Santa on Christmas morn. I'm pretty sure that would have raised pointed questions regarding Christmas mythology that I didn't really want to answer this holiday. Explaining how Santa got into our house when we don't have a fireplace or a chimney was a taxing enough endeavor for me this season. But Christmas morning did finally arrive, and at last Santa had delivered into my hands the object of my desire; an Amazon Kindle ebook reader.

As a gadget, the ebook reader has a singular purpose. It lets you read books. Since I love to read books, and have hauled hundreds of kilograms of paperbacks with me on over a half-dozen moves to prove it, this seems like a perfect match. And the Kindle is very good at handling the mechanics for reading a book. First, and most importantly, is the e-paper screen. The best way to relate what the Kindle's e-paper looks like is to simply have you find a nearby paperback, open up the cover, and look at a printed page. Yes, that's really what modern e-paper looks like. It's that good. It's clear, precise, high contrast, and has no glare. Some devices with a touch-screen overlay can have a fuzzy display or a bit of glare, but that's not the e-paper's fault. I'll try to illustrate with a photo, but really, it's just like reading paper.

photo of Kindle e-paper display with text

The e-paper display is the distinguishing feature of the modern ebook reader, and it's the reason they will always have a place in the world. It doesn't matter how many tablets Apple announces this year, or how small my laptop gets or how long its battery lasts -- I will never go back to reading copious amounts of text on an LCD or OLED display ever again. I've no doubt that "gadget people" have no problem reading their ebooks on laptops, tablets, or what have you. But for the rest of us there will be no competition; reading on any display that emits light is awkward and eye straining, and reading on e-paper isn't. As far as I'm concerned, e-paper will be a defining feature of mass market ebook readers... once all the other ebook issues are sorted out, of course. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Beyond its beautiful screen, the Kindle is a simple device. It has a basic keyboard for note-taking and a couple of buttons for navigation and interaction. The device in total is a little bit larger than a standard paperback, but not by much. The screen is 6" diagonal, which is noticeably smaller than the reading surface of a paperback page. For my reading speed, however, it has been large enough and hasn't bothered me in the slightest. Several other readers have a 5" screen, which I think would have been just a little bit too small for me.

Amazon Kindle Leather Cover (Fits 6" Display, Latest Generation Kindle)Along with my Kindle I also ordered the Amazon Kindle Leather Cover, which is visible in the photos. The Kindle has two slots with mechanical latches on the left side, so it locks securely into a compatible cover (such as that one), leaving no worry at all that it will accidentally slip out. With the leather cover the Kindle is absolutely comfortable to hold, and it feels just like holding a paperback. I have read it for hours in many positions -- sitting, standing, and lying down -- with no discomfort at all. In some positions it's even more convenient than reading a paperback, as you can lay it flat or hold it with one hand and the pages don't start flipping around on you. That particular cover can also fold back on itself without stretching or damaging it, and it takes up little more room than the Kindle itself, so it's suitable for all positions. I suspect that even without the leather cover it would be comfortable to hold, but it fits so nicely and provides such good protection that I've never undressed my Kindle.

My Kindle, fully dressed, weighs in at 462g. In contrast, the paperback in the photos, which is a relatively short book, comes in at 103g. One of the larger paperbacks I have, James Clavell's Noble House (1370 pages), weighs in at 560g. So the Kindle is a bit on the heavy side, but even with my cover it's still not as heavy as the larger paperbacks, and the weight has not once been a comfort issue for me.

photo of Kindle with leather cover and Fahrenheit 451 paperback for comparison

Reading a book on the Kindle couldn't be simpler. When you click on either of the two large and well-placed "Next Page" buttons, it displays the next page. The screen takes about a half second to a second to refresh, which does not seem to interrupt my reading flow. A speed-reader might have problems, but I'm no slouch and it doesn't bother me. A "Prev Page" button on the left does what you'd expect, though it would have been nice to have a "Prev Page" button on the right side too, though that's a minor nitpick at most. You can adjust the text size and margins through a decent range, so just about anyone should be able to find a comfortable page setup for reading.

When you are finished reading, you simply put the Kindle down. That is, once you've gotten over the ingrained urge to look for the page number to open to the next time you pick it up. You know an ebook reader is doing something right when you have to constantly remind yourself that you DON'T need to put a bookmark in it before you put it down. After a few minutes of inactivity the Kindle goes into "sleep" mode automatically, which doesn't seem to tax the battery at all, giving you a couple of weeks per charge if you have the wireless turned off (once the e-paper is "printed", it takes no power for it to continue displaying whatever it is displaying). Of course this varies with how many pages you view, but I've used it several hours a day and it's easily gone more than a week. When you pick up the Kindle again (and wake it from sleep, if it has gone to sleep), it will simply start you with the book and page you were last reading.

The Kindle remembers what page you were on for every other book you were reading as well. You simply click the "Home" button to get to the main screen, which lists your books, and select whichever book you want to read. It will automatically take you to the last page read, so you can read multiple books concurrently without losing your place. The home menu also shows you how far along you are in each book, and while reading a book a progress indicator on the bottom of the display shows you how far along you are as well. Because an ebook has no concept of pages, the Kindle shows you your current "location", which corresponds roughly to a paragraph or sub-paragraph level. It makes for an easy way to quickly jump back and forth in a book; about as easy as flipping to a specific page number in a physical book. You can also bookmark a location and even annotate a book, which is great for academic reading or just remembering interesting stuff. And with 2G of memory, which translates to a couple thousand books, it's pretty hard to run out of interesting stuff.

photo of leather cover closed and Fahrenheit 451 paperback for comparison

The Kindle has some other features that aren't relevant to its primary task of letting me read books, but I've found most of them useful, without being intrusive.

  • The built-in dictionary; when you highlight any word on the page, a small window pops up at the bottom of the display with a definition. You can hit the enter key to expand it to a full page view with the complete definition, and hitting the back button takes you right back to your spot in the book. It's a simple feature that is well executed, and though I don't use it all that often, it's extremely convenient when I do need it.
  • Text-to-speech; the Kindle can read any text on the page to you with a speech synthesizer (well, almost, but I'll talk about that later). I don't use this myself, but I imagine this could be extremely useful to a lot of people.
  • MP3 player; along with the audio reading feature, it can also play MP3s. Or so the docs say. I haven't tried it yet for fear of sending my iPod into a jealous rage. Plus I'm sure it can't be good for the battery life.
  • Free wireless to Wikipedia; the "Whispernet" that Amazon uses to connect to its store for book purchases is just an Edge/3G wireless deal they've worked out with various providers. The fact that it's free to browse Wikipedia on the Whispernet is stupendously awesome, if only because I can pretend to be an intergalactic restaurant critic. I actually haven't used it very much; it's a bit slow and I had to turn off images to make it very usable. But still, it's free and in a pinch it would do the trick nicely. The biggest drawback is simply that turning on and extensively using the wireless drops the battery life down to a few days.
  • Multiple Kindle sharing; you can have up to 6 Kindles registered to your account, all of which can have copies of the ebooks you have purchased. This means you can share your ebook library among multiple devices for a family or group. It's certainly a selling point for me, as I'm thrilled that I can get a Kindle for my wife without us having to worry about buying the same ebooks more than once.
  • More than just ebooks; when the Kindle is plugged into your computer, it shows up as a standard USB drive. You can copy over any format the Kindle supports to read on your Kindle. The most interesting of these formats is PDF, which means you can read things like manuals, reports, etc. It's not just for ebooks!

I'm not a "Kindlenatic", as I hear some folks have been dubbed, and I won't say that the Kindle is unequivocally the best ebook reader on the market. I haven't done the research to support such a ridiculous claim, and even if I had, I don't believe there's a single ebook reader to meet every need. It's not a perfect ebook reader; for instance, even basic 802.11 wi-fi would have been a welcome addition. However, the Kindle is a very solid product; one that I'm happy with for the price-point at which I acquired it. And more importantly, one that meets my needs quite well.

So the real question is, if the Kindle is so awesome, why hasn't it reached a mass audience already? I certainly don't think the answer is price; at $260 it's already worth every penny. No doubt ebook readers will see more penetration as they hit the sub-$200 and eventually sub-$100 ranges, but I don't think that's really the problem area. And the ebook prices are certainly not an issue either; at anywhere from $10 to $2 for the average ebook, it's not as though you feel you're being gouged. No, unfortunately the biggest issues are the problems surrounding ebooks themselves.

For instance, I mentioned that the Kindle can read an ebook out loud, but in order to appease the publishers, who were convinced that this would damage their audio book sales, the ebook can set a flag to disable this feature. This is farily typical of the publisher perception of "those damned ebooks!" (as I imagine them shouting). More problematic, there is still no single standard ebook format and, critically, no central ebook standard exchange system for handling formats, DRM, and search/discovery that multiple portals and retailers can tie into (basically an ISBN on steroids for ebooks). I use the free Calibre software to manage my ebook library and convert between formats, which works extremely well, but it's still an annoying extra step that would instantly alienate your average mass market user. And even the Amazon store, which is arguably the largest single ebook retailer out there, doesn't have a LOT of the books I've wanted to read. I'd guess at least 80% of my searches for ebooks on Amazon have been unfulfilled, which is simply depressing. I want to pay them money to read their wonderful books on my Kindle, but I can't because publishers still haven't gotten with the program yet. Sure, there's plenty of great stuff over at Project Gutenberg, but that doesn't help me if I'm looking for something modern.

Even those publishers that embrace the ebook concept are still left to decide which of the half dozen or so ebook retailers and formats they are going to support, meaning you can sometimes find an ebook you want, but it's not one that you can (easily) USE on your particular device. It's not as bleak as I may make it sound, but it's still frustrating that it's not even better. Luckily I can commiserate with the folks at the MobileRead site, which is a fantastic resource for learning about the ebook world and all its issues.

Ultimately, I'm convinced ebook readers are eventually going to hit a tipping point and become ubiquitous mass market devices, just like the datapads from Star Trek. It will take some major improvements in ebook accessibility to make that happen, but I'm hoping this future is closer than it looks. Until you can buy the vast majority of books you want in ebook format, without having to leave the confines of your ebook reader, without ever worrying about arcane ebook formats or if the DRM is going to work on your device or not, it won't be a mass audience device. Part of the reason I went with a Kindle is because I suspect Amazon, more than any other company, has the clout and desire to pull publishers, kicking or screaming, into this vision of the future. Unfortunately, I suspect it may take many years and several bitter legal battles before we get there.

Fashion Mash Fate


It's been a while since I've talked about Fashion Mash, the website project that occupied several years of our life. It's with mixed emotion that I can now report its eventual fate: we sold Fashion Mash to Apply Marketing, who manage, among other things, the OpenFashion website.

Of course I'm thrilled that we managed to find a new home for the site, and for the more than 800 users who stuck with us since our launch back in 2007. I have no doubt that Apply Marketing will be able to help the site realize its full potential. I'm certain that the sale was the right thing for the site and for us, and I wish the new owners the best of luck in moving Fashion Mash forward.

As confident as I am in the choice to sell and in the new owners we found, I'm equally disheartened about the events that led to this eventual outcome. It had become painfully clear over the last year or so that we (mezamashii and I) no longer had the time, energy, or resources necessary to give the site all that it deserved. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong and what went right with this project, as it is an invaluable learning experience that we hope will enable us to lay the foundations of success for our future projects.

From the very beginning of this project we did a lot to stack the deck against ourselves without realizing just how important some of these factors would end up being. The timing and choice to open Heliostorm and begin the Fashion Mash project was precipitated in part by a major life event. Now this is not that uncommon, and I have no doubt that an unforeseen kick in the pants has been the last bit of necessary motivation to get many would-be-entrepreneurs started down their own paths.

In our case, however, it was not something "simple" like a downsizing job loss. Instead our catalyst was that the children we had been parenting in foster care for nearly two years, and working to adopt, ultimately went on to live with a blood relative in something of a last-minute change of heart beyond our control. While we were happy that the kids found their "forever family" with a blood relative (something we feel is extremely important), it was still emotionally devastating for us. There's no question that the grief we experienced over this event was a hindrance to our early progress on this project, and it certainly impacted our rational decision making processes.

Had this been our only obstacle, I suppose we might still have made good on our efforts. But at the time we were "in for a penny, in for a pound", and decided that this was a good time for several other pending life changes as well. So we liquidated our assets, sold our house, and moved. Not just to a new place or a new city, but to a new country. With our U-Haul packed and itemized, we headed north across the border into Canada, winding up in my birth city, Edmonton. In retrospect this was certainly the right decision for our family as a whole, but it was not necessarily the best decision for starting our business.

This choice had a lot of unanticipated knock-on effects for starting our company and beginning the Fashion Mash project. First were some of the direct effects, such as the practical problems with starting and running a business in a country where the legal, social, and cultural foundations surrounding employment and business are very different from those with which we were familiar. While Canada and the US are oft compared and the differences minimized, I can assure you that the similarities are superficial only. Under the hood there are a LOT of important differences, and many of the practical things we had learned from our years working in the US had to be re-evaluated.

Another direct effect was that we had shortened our runway. While attending a local entrepreneurial course at the Anderson Career Training Institute, an excellent analogy which I found particularly endearing was presented to us. The startup phase of a new business was compared to a plane taking off. Your starting capital, resources, energy, opportunities, and initial conditions are your runway. If you can't get your business airborne (self-sufficient) by the end of your runway, disaster is the probable outcome. By moving to Canada in general and Edmonton in particular, we effectively doubled our cost of living and about halved the length of our runway.

The foreshortening of our resources was not the only unexpected limitation we encountered financially. A word of advice for those looking to hop the border -- your credit history does not immigrate with you. And you probably aren't a student any more. The practical implications this has for starting a new business are profound. Our first credit card was a $300 secured card; we were not able to graduate up to an unsecured credit line (with a paltry $1000 limit) for a YEAR. I won't even go into the farcical details surrounding the Catch-22 of trying to sign a rental lease when you don't have a bank account, and getting a bank account when you don't have an address. (It's hilarious now, of course, but in the deep February winter, living out of the Jasper ave. HoJo with 3 cats, it wasn't quite as funny).

The last direct effect was that my wife was unable to work legally in Canada for pretty much the entire life of our company and the project. Which isn't to say that she didn't do an insane amount of work for us, but the roles she could take on were often limited by the fact that she could not legally be a director or even employee of the company. Unfortunately her immigration was not pushed through until long after we had floundered off the end of our runway and changed focus in our life. Of course the immigration process itself is something we probably could have done much more efficiently too, but that is a topic for another day.

Beyond these direct, practical obstacles, there were also some fuzzy factors that made things difficult as well. By moving to a new country we had effectively cut ourselves off from all of the support of our family and friends. We had distanced ourselves from all of our business and professional contacts and the networks we had established over the years. Though we made significant effort to set down roots and network in our new home, the simple fact is that these things take a lot of time. This was further hampered by some of the cultural and social differences we had not accounted for. As a result of this, our runway was not only shorter than it could have been, but far bumpier as well.

And yet, for all of these mistakes, I think we still could have made it, but for what I believe to be our most fatal choice. Fashion Mash was not the only project we wanted to execute under the Heliostorm banner. We were constantly thinking about what we would get to next, and not spending enough time thinking about what we were doing right now. Even more importantly, Fashion Mash was not even our favourite project idea, and our choice to implement it instead of our other ideas had more to do with our perceptions of marketability and feasibility than with an essential passion for the concept. And I'm convinced that this lack of passion, more than anything else, led to the site's eventual fate under our stewardship. At every turn it sapped our energy and killed our momentum, even when we managed to fight through the many other obstacles and produce a compelling product with avid and interested early adopters.

Though I have focused on many of the negatives, there were also a lot of things I think we executed very well with this project. And the failures are certainly educational, and I think invaluable for our future goals. Already my wife has leveraged the lessons learned with her follow-up business; a successful family daycare that has been running self-sufficiently for more than a year.

If we'd had the necessary passion we could have fought through anything to finish our takeoff roll. With a longer, smoother runway we might have pulled it off regardless. But together these two factors conspired to bring our first entrepreneurial project to a dignified but less than spectacular close. I've no doubt, however, that I'll be back in the pilot's seat.