New free Amazon Kindle word game Thread Words

I tried to explain to my friend Len Edgerly last week just how much I enjoyed playing games on the Kindle. It’s fun to do something digital on a screen that isn’t backlit — and I always enjoy spending time with my Kindle. And it turns out that two weeks ago, Amazon released a brand new word game for the Kindle — for free. It’s one of several new games that are available for the Kindle — and most of them cost just 99 cents.

Amazon’s new free game is called “Thread Words”, and it’s sort of a cross between “Every Word” and “Boggle”. (There’s 25 letters in a 5 x 5 grid, and your goal is to create words by using one letter from each column, while only moving up and down by one row.) This marks the eighth free game that Amazon has released. (They’d released their slick version of “Dots and Boxes” just three weeks earlier, plus their own version of the classic number-grid game “Number Slide” on March 31.) I’d describe their latest game as “horizontal Boggle,” since you’re trying to form as many words as possible while still reading from left to right.

But on the same day, a new game company was releasing their very first game for the Kindle. Olmatech Technology has put together a nice version of the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders,” where players take shortcuts through a 100-square board — either traveling up on a ladder, or sliding backwards instead! Surprisingly, the game dates back to ancient India, according to Wikipedia, where its original name was “the ladder to salvation.” (It taught the concept that good deeds are rewarded while bad deeds are punished.) In the Kindle version, there’s a tiny little “Kindle” icon that represents your opponent — and if it slides backwards on the back of a snake, a cute little animation plays in the game’s lower right-hand corner!

There’s also a new kind of crossword puzzle that’s been released by Puzux games. (They’re the company that first brought to the Kindle those Jumble puzzles that you’d see in your Sunday newspaper.) In a mind-boggling twist, the grid is rotated 45 degrees, so the “across” words are formed using squares that only touch at their corners, in what would be a diagonal line in a conventional crossword puzzle. Their game is called Diamond Crossword, of course, and though there’s fewer words than a traditional crossword puzzle, this also means that it won’t take you forever to finally finish a grid!

Kindle Diamond Crossword game screenshot

But those aren’t the only new games for the Kindle. I’ve also been enjoying Strimko from Braintonik games – an interesting variation on Sudoku where all of the digits are connected by a line (instead of appearing in the same box). There’s an easy version (with the digits 1-4) and a trickier version with the digits 1 -7. And if you’d like to try the game before you buy it, just point your web browser to strimko.com/play.htm

But I think I’m most excited to see a new Kindle game called “Peg Solitaire.” I’ve always loved solving brain teasers, and there’s actually 40 different challenges packed into this game. It’s another classic puzzle
that’s finally reached the Kindle. (“Did you know…” the game asks at the bottom of one screen, “the first evidence of the peg solitaire game can be traced back to the court of Louis XIV in the year of 1697.”) I enjoy trying to think out my moves in advance — and even after I’ve solved one of the puzzles, I still get a special thrill if I can solve them again.

Kindle Peg Solitaire game screenshot

Hopefully one of these days, I’ll even be able to convince Len Edgerly to try playing games on his Kindle! ;)

Map of the United States showing cities that read the most books

Amazon just pored through their sales data, and compiled an interesting list of “the 20 Most Well-Read Cities in America.” They included sales data for both printed books and e-books (as well as digital subscriptions to magazines and newspapers), carefully studying the first five months of 2011.

Amazon joked that they were releasing the results “Just in time for the summer reading season,” then revealed which American cities, with a population of more than 100,000, had the most
readers per capita.

 1. Cambridge, Massachusetts
 2. Alexandria, Virginia
 3. Berkeley, California
 4. Ann Arbor, Michigan
 5. Boulder, Colorado
 6. Miami, Florida
 7. Salt Lake City, Utah
 8. Gainesville, Florida
 9. Seattle, Washington
 10. Arlington, Virginia
11. Knoxville, Tennessee
12. Orlando, Florida
13. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
14. Washington, D.C.
15. Bellevue, Washington
16. Columbia, South Carolina
17. St. Louis, Missouri
18. Cincinnati, Ohio
19. Portland, Oregon
20. Atlanta, Georgia

Interestingly, four of the top five cities are “college towns,” including the #1 city — Cambridge, Massachusetts — along with Berkeley (California) at #3, Ann Arbor (Michigan) at #4, and Boulder (Colorado) at #5. I’m sure each of these cities has a campus bookstore, but students may be checking Amazon.com for used text books that are even cheaper. If that’s going to start a trend, it’s yet-another bad sign for the future of bookstores. Amazon’s press release noted that Cambridge — the home of both Harvard and MIT — also ordered more nonfiction books per capita than any other city in America. But Cambridge is also the home of nearly a dozen world-class bookstores (which the students are apparently bypassing), including one of my all-time favorites — a bookstore named “Curious George and Friends.” (It’s an independent, family-owned store founded in 1995 “with the help of our neighbor, Curious George author, Margaret Rey.”)

Amazon reports that the city ordering the most children’s picture books is actually Alexandria, Virginia. It’s just 6 miles from Washington D.C. — though I’m not going to make a joke about the reading level of your average Congressman. It turns out that Alexandria just employs a lot of federal government workers, many of who have presumably started families in the area. Though it’s #2 on Amazon’s list, it’s not a college town — but it is the home of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Institute for Defense Analyses, according to Wikipedia, which points out that Alexandria is “largely populated by professionals working in the federal civil service, the U.S. military, or for one of the many private companies which contract to provide services to the federal government.” And Arlington, Virginia — which is just 9 miles away — also came in at #10 on Amazon’s list, while Washington D.C. was at #14.

There must also be a lot of readers in Florida, since three different cities made it onto the list — Orlando, Miami, and Gainesville. (Florida is the only state to get three cities into Amazon’s top 20, though both Virginia and the state of Washington ended up with two.)

And college students shopping online may have helped some other cities crack into the top 10, since the next five cities on their list also have major universities. (Miami, Salt Lake City, Gainesville, Seattle, and Arlington). I’m intrigued that Seattle — the home of Amazon.com — only reached the #9 spot on the list of the most well-read cities. Besides having a lot of universities, Seattle also has the highest percentage of college graduates for any major city in America, according to the U.S. census bureau. In fact, 53.8% of the city’s population (over the age of 25) have at least a bachelor’s degree (nearly twice the national average of just 27.4%), while 91.9% have a high school diploma (vs. 84.5% nationally).

Bellevue, Washington — just 10 miles from Seattle — also came in at #15 on the list, so the ranking might’ve been higher for the whole “Seattle Metro Area”. But fortunately, Amazon is still a good sport about their home city falling into the #9 spot on their own “well-read” list. “We hope book lovers across the country enjoy this fun look at where the most voracious readers reside,” Amazon’s book editor announced yesterday, “and that everyone gets the chance to relax with some great summer reads.”

Amazon Kindle vs Barnes and Noble Nook Spy vs Spy cartoon

C|Net just received an angry response from the president of Digital Products at Barnes & Noble. I’d linked to C|Net’s story yesterday, so I was surprised that its facts were now being challenged. Barnes and Noble is now claiming that the Nook’s battery actually lasts more than two and a half times longer than a Kindle’s battery — at least under certain conditions.

“While reading at one page a minute, the all-new Nook battery lasts for 150 hours, where the Kindle battery, using the same page-turn rate, lasts for only 56 hours (both with Wi-Fi off)… In our side-by-side tests, under the exact same conditions, continuous use of the device resulted in more than two times Kindle’s battery life.”

If that’s true, then Barnes and Noble mangled the launch of their touch-screen Nook by botching their description of one of its main selling points. Paul Biba, a Kindle blogger, actually watched the official announcement live at a Barnes & Noble store in downtown New York City. And when the question of battery life came up, Biba reported, their official answer was that it was calculated “based on 1/2 hour reading per day with WiFi off. ”

The next day, Amazon claimed the Kindle could also run for two months on a single battery charge — if you only read it for half an hour a day.

You might wonder if Amazon was inventing new statistics — but apparently it’s the same claim that’s been around for years. In November of 2007, Popular Mechanics was already reporting that the Kindle’s battery would last for 30 hours — which of course breaks down into 60 half hours, or two months of reading just one half hour a day. (Assuming the battery isn’t also draining too much during the time that it’s not being read!)

And another obvious response is: who cares? How often would you need to read more than 30 consecutive hours without stopping to re-charge your Kindle? Obviously you can invent a few scenarios. (“What if I’m back-packing across hundreds of miles of Siberian tundra, and I’m also huddling in my tent each night trying to read War and Peace“?) But the distinction is a signal of a fierce competition between Amazon and Barnes and Noble, C|Net’s reporter points out, and “as these devices become more and more alike, marketing language becomes very significant, especially when it comes to selling points like battery life.”

Another blogger was more blunt. “Barnes and Noble pretty much called Amazon a liar for manipulating the battery life claims,” wrote Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader. But I’m more surprised by what Barnes and Noble was claiming about the Nook on Wednesday — since it’s very different than the performance statistics that they’d cited on Tuesday.

For example, Wednesday Barnes and Noble made an even more incredible claim. “While reading at one page a minute, the all-new Nook battery lasts for 150 hours.” Unless I’m missing something, that would come out to 300 days of usage (at a half hour a day) — which would be a whopping 10 months. I guess the battery must continue draining quite a bit during the 23.5 hours a day when the Nook isn’t running. Especially since the Barnes and Noble official also claims that the new Nook “offers more than 25,000 continuous page turns on a single charge.” But if you’re making just one page turn every minute, then shouldn’t that charge last 416 hours (or 25,000 minutes)? If so, that’d represent 17.36 days of non-stop use — but if you’re using your Nook for just 30 minutes a day, it comes out to 2.2 years.

And if the Nook can really run for 2.2 years on a single battery charge — then why didn’t Barnes and Noble just say so on Tuesday?

Kindle 3 vs new touch-screen Nook on battery life

A bright reporter at C|Net made the discovery. Amazon says the Kindle now has a battery life of two months. Wednesday morning Amazon released a new version of the “Kindle with Special Offers” — a 3G version that’s discounted to $164. But instead of promising the usual one month of use without a battery charge, Amazon now says this Kindle’s battery will last two months!

And Amazon’s also doubled the battery life that they’re reporting for the Kindle 3 and Kindle WiFi…

So what’s going on? C|Net’s reporter has it all figured out. On Tuesday Barnes and Noble launched a brand new touch-screen Nook — and then claimed that its two-month battery life was double that of the Kindle (calling it “the longest battery life of any eReader”). “Amazon countered by magically upping the battery life of the Kindle to two months,” reports David Carnoy. But it turns out that Amazon may have had a good reason…

The Nook’s battery life was calculated by assuming just one half hour of reading time each day. “Let the math shell games begin!” joked one user in a Barnes and Noble discussion forum. “Anyone want to lay odds on who will go to 4-month battery life assuming a 15 minutes a day reading habit?”

The CEO of Kobo also took issue with the Nook’s ‘half-hour-a-day” figures, complaining “that’s not a typical usage scenario,” and arguing that the same lofty claim could be made about the battery life of the Kobo.
“It appears that [Amazon] just took issue with how its competitor was calculating and presenting its battery life numbers,” C|Net reports, noting that Amazon also updated their Kindle product descriptions with a full explanation.

“A single charge lasts up to two months with wireless off based upon a half-hour of daily reading time. If you read for one hour a day, you will get battery life of up to one month. Keep wireless always on and it lasts for up to 10 days. Battery life will vary based on wireless usage, such as shopping the Kindle Store, Web browsing, and downloading content. In low-coverage areas or in EDGE/GPRS-only coverage, wireless usage will consume battery power more quickly.”

So the Kindle’s battery hasn’t suddenly become twice as powerful as it was before. And I thought C|Net’s reporter gave this episode the perfect epitaph. “Amazon didn’t have any comment about its number changes, but it clearly shows that the competition is intensifying in the dedicated e-reader space…”

New Amazon small Android tablet Kindle Nano or Mini?

Tuesday the Kindle got some new competition! Barnes and Noble announced a new touch-screen version of the Nook. And there’s also a new touch-screen version of the Kobo ereader.

But is Amazon planning their own surprise for the next generation of the Kindle?

Each digital reader is fighting for an early lead against its competition. (Barnes and Noble announced their new Nook today, even though they won’t actually be able to ship them until June 10.) It’s possible that they’re worried Amazon will steal the market by releasing their own touch-screen tablet device soon. But I wonder if Amazon has another idea.

Today a technology analyst described the reactions you’d have if you held the new Nook. First you’d admire it’s form factor, he said. (Besides the power switch on the back, the device’s only button is a shortcut for reaching the home page — plus a “fast forward” page-turning bar.) And I noticed a few other mild improvements, like the ability to look up definitions just by touching a word. (Though the Nook still doesn’t have a text-to-speech feature.) The new Nook is one inch smaller than the Kindle, and it weighs one ounce less. But inevitably, the analyst notes, you’d start comparing it to the larger, full-featured tablets. And eventually you’d begin thinking that the new touch-screen Nook “shouldn’t really cost a lot because it’s basically an oversized drink coaster!”

The analyst’s conclusion? e-ink readers like the Nook and the Kindle will drop below $99 by the end of the year. But one way to do that, I’m thinking, is by making the Kindle smaller! It’s a possibility that’s at least implied by the latest rumors about Amazon’s plans for a tablet-sized device. Besides a full-sized tablet device, there’s also speculation that Amazon might also be working on a powerful but compact 7-inch version!

But I’d like to see Amazon release a “Kindle Mini” — about the size of a smartphone, but with a fully-functioning e-ink screen. I say this partly because I’ve already seen Amazon’s Kindle app on a smartphone-sized screen — and it works great! A smaller screen must refresh faster than the larger ones, and that also would extend the device’s battery life. And besides e-books, it could also store music and audio files (creating a nice alternative to an Apple iPod).

And the device could also play audiobooks — available through the Amazon-owned web site Audible.com. One technology blogger is already listing the advantages, noting that an even-smaller Kindle could be carried in a shirt pocket. And he’d like to see something like a “Kindle Nano” — modelled after Apple’s smallest music-playing device — which was actually optimized for audiobooks.

I’d had the same idea, but this blogger is so enthusiastic that he’s issued a plea to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Jeff, buddy, I know you’re out there. Give us our Kindle Nano.

“Don’t worry, we’ll buy it. You know we will.”

Susan Orlean

She wrote the best-seller The Orchid Thief (which was made into a wonderfully strange movie called Adaptation starring Nicolas Cage). And her next full-length book will finally be released in October — though you can pre-order it on Amazon now. But just a few days ago, Susan Orlean came to Amazon’s Kindle Store with a brand new piece of writing that’s available right now. It’s apparently a Kindle exclusive — an essay about animals that she’s releasing as a short “Kindle Single” e-book, as a kind of a preview for her upcoming book!

She’s one of five best-selling authors who’ve released a new Single in the Kindle store, Amazon proudly announced this week. But there’s also more Kindle news. The Orchid Thief will finally be released as a Kindle e-book for the first time in August. (Amazon will automatically deliver the e-book edition to your Kindle as soon as it becomes available.)

And believe it or not, I’ve also got my own strange personal connection to the Susan Orlean story…

It’s not just that we both love dogs — but I did know as far back as 2006 that Orlean’s next book would be about Rin Tin Tin. (It was World War I when an American soldier in an abandoned French village had first found that shell-shocked puppy cowering in the rubble.) He’d scooped the dog up, and brought it back to the United States with him — and eventually Rin Tin Tin was discovered by several movie producers. It’s a wonderful story, so I wasn’t surprised that Orleans wanted to re-visit that Hollywood legend, as a way of discussing people who love animals — and their role in our culture.

But in both the Kindle Single and the upcoming book, Orleans seems to be applying the same combination that she used in The Orchid Thief: lots of exotic research and some carefully-crafted literary writing. “Susan Orlean has produced a hugely entertaining and unforgettable reading experience,” wrote one reviewer about an advance copy of the book. (And he added, “I was astonished to learn from this delightful book that he has existed for eleven generations over a century!”) In fact according to Wikipedia, early in his career Rin Tin Tin appeared in one movie that may have saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy in 1924. But Orleans weaves her historical trivia with some great personal animal stories of her own.

Her new Kindle Single looks like it’s both funny and fascinating. One reviewer on Amazon remembers one particular story from Orlean, “[W]hen a boyfriend named John surprised her on Valentine’s Day by having someone named Rick drop by her Manhattan apartment with his pet lion in tow…” As an lifelong animal lover, Orlean “fed the beast a bowl of two raw chickens and then proceeded to stroke its back. Presumably the feline purred in gratitude…”

But it’s not just lions. She’s had every kind of pet from the usual dogs and cats to more unusual animals like chickens, cattle, turkeys, and guinea fowl. (“With guest appearances by horses, lions, and canaries,” notes the product description at Amazon.com of her Kindle Single.) Orleans has written for some of the top magazines in America, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and even Vogue — so she’s having a brilliant literary career. So I’m really impressed that Amazon.com was able to negotiate the opportunity to sell an original piece of her writing.

What’s my personal connection to Susan Orlean? It’s a story that I’ve never told before, but I once got an e-mail from the Orchid Thief. Orleans’ book included the profile of a wily rascal in Florida who poached rare (and valuable) orchids from a Florida swampland. As I read Orleans’ book, I followed the story of John LaRoche from one scheme to the next — and towards the end of the book, Orleans reveals that he’d moved on to a new online business. That’s when I remembered that I’d met a John LaRoche online back in 1995 — and that he’d been using the same nickname that Orleans mentioned in the book!

Back then we’d all wondered if he was crazy. He’d stormed into an online newsgroup in 1995, posting wisecracks (and making fun of newbies), and acting like he owned the place already. (“Cattle are so easy to please….” he posted derisively when someone praised their ISP’s customer service.) If I remember correctly, he was starting his own internet business — tonight I found an old e-mail from 1995 where I wished him luck. And eventually he’d written back to me that instead he’d sold the rights to his life story, and they were going to make a movie about it in Hollywood.

I still have the e-mail he sent me about it, 16 years ago this month. I didn’t believe a word of it, and I instantly forgot all about him — until I started reading The Orchid Thief!

And that same weekend they held the Oscar ceremonies — and the actor who’d played him won an Oscar.

Girl and Boy from new Kindle bookstore commercial

It’s one of the fun things about being a Kindle owner: recognizing yourself in Amazon’s Kindle commercials! Last week Amazon released a funny sequel to their commercial about the young woman who doesn’t have a Kindle (while her male friend does). In this commercial, she’s seen rushing off to a bookstore…

“Hey, where you going?”

“I want to get a book that came out today.”

“Me too!”

“Come to the bookstore with me.”

“I’m good. Got it! It takes less than 60 seconds to download a new book on my Kindle…”

“60 sconds? Wow. That’s the book I was going to get!”
           [She stares with delight]

“Weren’t you going to the bookstore?”

“Shh….”

And this commercial struck a familiar cord with a couple in Scotland – at least according to the comment that the husband left on Facebook. “We used to have a Kindle,” he posted in the comments below the video. “Then my wife started using it. Now SHE has a Kindle!” I had to smile, because I experienced the same thing with my own girlfriend. I finally had to buy her a Kindle of her own.

The couple in the video also drew a positive reaction on YouTube, at YouTube.com/Kindle, where one user posted that “These two have great chemistry.” Their verdict on Amazon’s new Kindle commercial? “Even cuter than the last one.”

I first found out about the video from the Kindle’s page on Facebook (at Facebook.com/Kindle). And the page also offered a handy tip if you want the notes in your Kindle e-books to include notes from your friends on Facebook! “When you link your Facebook account to kindle.amazon.com you can see the Public Notes of your Facebook friends in your Kindle books,” Amazon explains, adding that you can also “automatically share your reading activity on your [Facebook] Wall.”

Of course, you’ll never see those notes until you get your Kindle back from that woman who borrows it on her way to the bookstore!


I’m having a lot of fun with Amazon’s “A-Z Sweepstakes”. Every week they’re giving away a new prize, “in celebration of the many ways ‘Amazon Prime’ members take advantage of free two-day shipping on millions of items…” But I’m also enjoying the comments that people are leaving as they see Amazon’s prizes.

Amazon will be giving away their prizes in alphabetical order over eight weeks, so in the first week, the prize was a Motorola Android tablet computer, with Amazon explaining that “A is for Android.” Now we’re up to the K’s — and of course, “K is for Kindle.” The lucky prize-winner will receive a new Kindle 3G with its own leather cover with a built-in light– plus a $50 Amazon gift card!

“How wonderful it would be to win this!” wrote one woman in Tennessee. ” Would definitely make up for my crappy Mother’s Day….”

To enter the contest, just point your web browser to Facebook.com/Amazon (and then click on the Sweepstakes link). Amazon’s form asks for your e-mail address, name, and phone number (“to inform winners”), and there’s still a lot of prizes left to win. For the first week of June, the prize is an $800 digital Nikon camera (“P” for photography), and the next week the prize is an X-Box 360 game console. (“V” for video games). And in the last week — starting June 13th — Amazon’s actually giving away a $1,000 Amazon gift certificate “for your choice of the ‘zillions’ of things you can find at Amazon.com.”

But this contest is fun for another reason. Amazon has been asking questions related to their prize, so this week’s question was related to the Kindle. “What would you read first on your Kindle?” Amazon asked on the contest’s web page — and over a 500 different people posted their answers.

Stephen King stuff
American Psycho
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The directions for the Kindle
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
A Dance with Dragons
Gone With the Wind
Alice in Wonderland

The answers kept rolling in, with hundreds of reading enthusiasts sharing the title of their next book. (And on another page, Amazon simply asked users to name their favorite books.) There were a variety of answers — and over 500 more comments — ranging from “”The Bible” to “Harry Potter”. And one user even said their next book would be The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway “because I’m headed to the festival San Fermin in Pamplona to run with the bulls!”

But this was my favorite response of all. One reader announced that if they won Amazon’s prize this week, “I’d give this Kindle to my sister so I could read the 600> books on my Kindle in peace!”

Photo of Stieg Larsson author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last month, Random House made a startling announcement. One of their authors had made e-book history, becoming the first author ever to sell one million digital copies of a single book. But of course, their announcement was haunted by a dark irony. It was six years after that author’s death, and a life of mysterious secrets.

The book is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” by Stieg Larsson (who died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50). And there’s an even darker secret behind the origins of the book. Larsson was haunted by an assault on a young woman that he’d witnessed in his own teenaged years. That’s according to a new biography about his life which was just released in September.

“For Larsson geeks such as myself, the unearthed details of his past and the fond recollections of his ceaseless pursuit of justice are gripping,” wrote one reviewer. 12 years before his death, Larsson had started an intense friendship with another Swedish journalist named Kurdo Baksi. In fact, Baksi actually appears as himself in Larsson’s final book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Its hero, Mikael Blomkvist, visits the offices of Black/White Publishing, and then later reads about his own visit in a surveillance report.


It was 2:30 in the afternoon. He didn’t have an appointment, but the editor, Kurdo Baksi, was in and delighted to see him.

“Hello there,” he said heartily. “Why don’t you ever come and visit me anymore?”

“I’m here to see you right now,” Blomkvist said.

“Sure, but it’s been three years since the last time.”

They shook hands…

In the novel, the two are old friends, since Baksi had begun his career publishing that magazine secretly at night, later hiring Mikael as a proofreader. (“Blomkvist sat on a sofa while Baksi got coffee
from a machine in the hallway. They chatted for a while, the way you do when you haven’t seen someone for some time, but they were constantly by Baksi’s mobile…People called from all over the world to talk to Baksi.”) Then Mikael requests an introduction to Baksi’s Kurdish uncle, because of his expertise in getting immigration-related residency permits.


Baksi knew that Blomkvist was busy planning some sort of mischief, which he was famous for doing. They might not have been best friends, but they never argued either, and Blomkvist had never hesitated if Baksi asked him a favour.

“Am I going to get mixed up in something I ought to know about?”

“You’re not going to get involved… And I repeat, I won’t ask him to do anything illegal.”

This assurance was enough for Baksi. Blomkvist stood up. “I owe you one.”

“We always owe each other one.”


The real-life Baksi tells a story that seems so intertwined with the novels, at first I had to wonder if it was a hoax. But “Baksi walks the line between grieving friend and impartial investigator reasonably well…” a reviewer noted, and another article by ABC News confirms that the real-life Baksi does publish a magazine about race relations that’s called Black/White. And they also report that Baksi’s book — titled “Stieg Larsson, My Friend” — ultimately clarifies a surprising connection between what Larsson wrote and his own childhood. This part of the story is a little graphic, but it ends with a teenaged girl shouting “I will never forgive you.”

In 1969, 15-year-old Stieg Larsson had watched, terrified, and did nothing as three friends had raped a 15-year-old girl. Larsson later phoned her to apologize (though she shouted “I will never forgive you”),
and according to Baksi, the author was haunted by the incident for the rest of his life. “It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape.” The girl’s name was Lisbeth — and in his book, Stieg gave her name to his own empowered heroine.

Each section of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” opens with a statistic about the number of assaults on women. Baksi believes the novels were “his way of apologizing”, according to one article, and Baksi himself remains committed to avenging that 1969 assault. (“I don’t even know if Lisbeth is alive,” he tells the reporter, “But it’s very important to me.”) The book’s original title was “Men Who Hate Women,” and there were two other news events which moved the author to write it. A fashion model was killed in 2001 when she’d tried to end a relationship with a boyfriend, and the same year a Swedish-Kurdish woman was killed when she tried to break away from her father.

Possibly because of the author’s real-life commitment, his books ultimately shattered several records in the publishing industry. The combined e-book sales for all three books in the trilogy is more than three million, Larsson’s publishers told the New York Times. And in both print and non-print editions, it sells another half a million copies each month. In the United States, hardcover sales alone were 300,000 copies for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — which was only released in the U.S. in September of 2008 — and the trilogy has sold nearly 17 million copies.

There’s a rumor that a manuscript exists for a fourth, “nearly finished” book. (Before his death, Larsson had claimed to have ideas for at least 10 more books in the series.) Ironically, his widow has earned a single penny from the sales of the book. (Playing off of Larsson’s title, one article described her as “The Girl Who Didn’t Inherit a Fortune.”)

I’ve read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and it really is quite a story. And I also remember last year, when all three of Larsson’s e-books simultaneously occupied the #1, #2, and #3 spots on Amazon’s best-seller list. There’s another biography about Larsson’s life, written by an expert on crime fiction, who notes that Stieg Larsson’s life “would be remembered as truly extraordinary even had his trilogy never been published. Larsson was a workaholic: a political activist, photographer, graphic designer, a respected journalist, and the editor of numerous science fiction magazines.” (Adding “At night, to relax, he wrote crime novels…”)

But in one of the great ironies, that biography of the best-selling e-book author has never actually been released in an e-book format. When the book was released last year, I looked on the positive side, noting that “it’s nice to see that in the middle of the book-publishing feeding frenzy, the author himself is receiving some genuine appreciation from the people who knew and remembered him.”

And with the release of “Stieg Larsson, My Friend,” that’s even more true.

Book cover for Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Here’s something I didn’t know. Amazon actually has a special web page where they share with Kindle owners what they believe to be the “Best Books of May.” It’s got links not only to new e-books — but also some other special lists created by Amazon’s own book editors.

At the top of the page? A real-life thriller called “Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.” In May of 1945, an airplane carrying 24 tourists crashed in the jungles of New Guinea, leaving behind just three stunned and wounded survivors. “Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside,” according to the book’s description on Amazon.com, “a journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white man – or woman.”

The book’s author pulled out all the stops to research this book — including declassified military documents and even one of the survivor’s diaries — and at one point even returned to the jungle in New Guinea to track down any natives in the villages who might remember the day 65 years ago when strangers fell from the sky. It sounds fascinating, but it’s a book I wouldn’t have known about without Amazon’s “Best Books of May” page. And the page offers a nice variety of reading choices. There’s several novels, a couple of thrillers, a short story collection, and even a history book.

But there’s also some specialized categories — like the “Best Books for Young Adults” or “Best Books for Middle-Grade Readers”. (I have to complement one of the authors on a very clever title. “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making!”) And my favorite list is a fascinating hybrid, showing which of the editor’s picks are currently also best-sellers in Amazon’s Kindle store.

At the top of the list is Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and of course Stieg Larsson’s trilogy (including “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is still going strong in the top 10. But the list keeps on going, ultimately offering 100 different recommendations. It’s got a great variety of authors, featuring books by everyone from Stephen King to Keith Richards. (And there’s even a new book by Mark Twain — a new edition of his autobiography.) I’ve noticed that my Kindle makes me want to set aside more time for reading.

And now Amazon’s “Best of May” web page makes it easier to find something to read!

Free Audiobooks for your Kindle

I just discovered a fascinating new web site that’s offering thousands of free audiobooks for your Kindle! It’s called LibriVox, and it’s offering over 4,200 different Kindle-ready audiobooks. And they’re adding hundreds and hundreds more every year…

In fact, they claim to be one of the world’s most prolific audiobook publisher, since every month they release up to 100 new audiobooks. The books are available in 33 different languages, and if you tried to listen to them all, one by one, it would take you a full 2 years and 251 days. “Our objective is to make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet,” they explain on their web site. And they’ve already recruited a community of thousands of talented volunteers who are working to make it happen.

“We love reading, love books, love literature…” explains one page, and it adds that they “think the public domain should be defended and enriched, we like free stuff, we like to hear people read to us, and we like reading to other people.” Even though there’s already millions of free e-books available in the public domain, the site’s creators firmly believe that there should also be a free audiobook version for every single one of those e-books. And it’s an inspiring vision which makes me want to wish them all luck.

“It’s fun, it’s a great community, it’s a rewarding public service to the world. And ‘nothing’ is in it for us, except the satisfaction of participating in a wonderful project.”

I’m not the only one who’s a fan of the site. One of the top free apps in Amazon’s new app store (for Android smartphones and tablets) is an audiobook apps from travelingclassics.com. And it gives you easy access to all of the LibriVox audiobooks, plus specially-edited versions of the audiobooks as well as professionally narrated and recorded titles. If you don’t feel like listening to audiobooks on your Kindle, you can also try installing them on your smartphone.

I enjoyed reading the app’s web page, just to read comments from other fans of the audiobook files. There was someone who was already on chapter 44 of a novel by Charles Dickens — and another who was listening to a reading of the original horror book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve been reading the literary children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, and I was delighted to discover that there were three different versions! I’ve enjoyed using the text-to-speech option on my Kindle — but this offers a nice twist. Now I’m actually hearing the same books being read by a live narrator!

Of course, it’s also possible to download audio versions of the current best-sellers from Amazon’s audiobook store, Audible.com. (I’ve been intrigued by the chance to hear authors reading their own works.) But I think
the Librivox site offers another way to experience the joy of words — by letting you hear them in the voice of someone else who loves the book just as much as you do. I wonder if I could take a long car trip someday,
and leave my Kindle in the passenger seat to read to me. And at least one blogger hints that it makes you feel like you’re part of an invisible community.

“Literature fans looking for something beyond Oprah Winfrey’s book club are discovering a new kind of club on the Internet…”

help_wanted sign

Amazon is suddenly hiring new employees for customer service centers in six different states. Is this yet-another clue that Amazon’s planning to release a tablet-sized computer soon?

Just Wednesday Amazon announced they were building a new customer fulfillment center in Washington — 500,000-square-foot facility creating “several hundred” new full-time jobs. But last week Amazon also tucked six different press releases onto their web site, each one advertising a new hiring campaign at Amazon’s order fulfillment centers in one of six different states. (“Candidates should be highly motivated with drive, ambition and a passion for providing customers a first-class shopping experience.”) The press releases cite new hiring in each of the following regions.

Phoenix, Arizona
Goodyear Arizona
Coffeyville, Kansas
New Castle, Delaware
Fernley, Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada
Kentucky
Pennyslvania

The press releases are identical, except that there’s no mention of any technical support openings in the press release for Kentucky. And in addition, according to the Seattle Times “Amazon is looking for hundreds of additional technology workers for its expanding headquarters complex in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

It’s hard to imagine why Amazon suddenly needs so many new employees all across the country — unless they’re anticipating a sudden spike in purchasing. And it seems to me that that “trigger” could be the release of a tablet-sized computing device. Amazon would pre-load the devices with a slick shopping application, and would probably offer ways to connect the devices into their discount shipping program. If Amazon were planning the release of such a device, they’d definitely want to build up their ability to fulfill the extra orders!

And there’s one reason why Amazon would need service centers all across the country. Amazon’s “Prime” shipping program specifically promises free two-day shipping on orders — and a discount on the even speedier one-day shipping. Maybe Amazon anticipates a flood of new tablet owners signing up for the Prime” program, making it even more important to fill orders from a nearby state, ensuring the speedy delivery times while reducing Amazon’s own shipping costs.

Of course, it’s possible that Amazon.com is just expanding beyond its current capability. “Many years ago, Amazon’s requirements reached a point where many of our systems could no longer be served by any commercial solution,” Jeff Bezos revealed Wednesday in a letter to shareholders, because “our key data services store many petabytes of data and handle millions of requests per second.” Maybe he’s learned a lesson — especially since this year Amazon’s sales have been 38% higher than they were for the same period a year ago. But it’s also possible that he’s learned a different lesson from Amazon’s experience with the Kindle.

Namely, the value of selling consumers a really cool device which lets them buy things from Amazon.com.

Wal-Mart

“Starting this week, Kindle will be available in over 3,200 Walmart stores nationwide,” Amazon announced Tuesday. But instead of formally announcing the news in Amazon press release number KS7N87PRB8G6 they quietly tucked the news onto the Kindle’s page on Facebook at Facebook.com/Kindle — linking to a story on Amazon’s Kindle blog, The Daily Post.

“Most stores will have a Kindle on display so you can check out all the features before you buy,” the blog explained, noting that Wal-Mart isn’t the only chain store where you’ll now be able to purchase Amazon’s latest digital readers. “Walmart is the latest in a growing list of retailers offering Kindle, including Target, Best Buy, and Staples, among others.” (Since February, the Kindle has also been also available at the chain of 125 Fred Meyer stores.)

I had to smile when I read the news, because Wal-Mart had already worked the Kindle into a heart-warming community re-investment program. Since late 2010, In 100 different cities across America, Wal-Mart has been making donations to a charity dedicated to teenagers. (“Boys & Girls Clubs of America Getting Teens Excited About Reading,” read their official press release.) Walmart’s been giving $10,000 grants to 100 local chapters of the “Boys and Girls Club of America” — and some of them are using the money to buy Kindles!

The “Bright Spot” program was designed to launch a new reading initiative to get teenagers more interested in reading. (For example, in Stanton, California, the money will be used to help create a reading center, to train its staff, and encourage “intercommunity relationships.”) But in Central Arkansas, they’re also making Kindles available to the children — along with magazines and music. And the same thing is happening at a Boys and Girls club for teenagers in Lodi, New Jersey.

“Our goal is to make them avid readers,” the club’s executive director told a local newspaper, “which of course, leads to other things like higher learning,” His is one of three clubs in New Jersey receiving grant money, and they’ve used Wal-Mart’s donation to buy five different Amazon Kindles, plus a slew of printed (and teen-appropriate) books. The club is also using the money to fund fields trips — like to the New York Public Library — and to hire mentors for their program. (They’ve already got 66 middle school- or high school-age teenagers in their program.)

But I know that Wal-Mart was the world’s single largest public corporation last year — and that they’ve got 8,500 stores, in 15 countries (according to Wikipedia.) Their annual sales are actually close to half a trillion dollars, coming in at over $408 billion last year.

But it’s still nice to think that some of that money is going to encourage teenagers to read by buying new Kindles.

Amazon Free Kindle game screenshot - Dots and Lines

Thursday Amazon released yet-another free game for the Kindle. It’s called Dots and Boxes, and it’s a very attractive rendition of one of the classic mathematical strategy games.

Amazon’s game was actually invented more than 150 years ago, by a famous French mathematics professor named Edouard Lucas. (According to Wikipedia, he invented another classic math game — the Tower of Hanoi puzzle — which was also recently adapted into a game for the Kindle 120 years after his death.) Lucas once discovered a 40-digit prime number by performing all the calcuations by hand! But what’s funny is that Lucas himself tried to market a version of “Dots and Boxes” back in the 1800s, saying the game’s author was “N. Claus de Siam” (which was really just an anagram for “Lucas d’Amiens” — acknowledging the city in north France, where he was born).

It’s a game which is traditionally played with a pencil and paper, but Amazon’s created a slick update. Players take turns drawing lines between the dots on a grid — and if a player’s line forms the fourth side of a box, a picture of an animal appears inside to show that they’ve claimed the entire square. “Your goal is to beat your opponent by completing more boxes than they do,” Amazon explain in the game’s instructions, but the game is surprisingly difficult. The first time I tried playing a game against my Kindle, the Kindle actually managed to beat me! (“Wow! The Kindle is really smart and very tricky,” posted one reviewer on Amazon.com.)

But I really liked how Amazon indicated which player had claimed the square — using either a lion’s head or the head of an elephant. There’s also a nice illustration of the two animals above each of the menus (which are framed with vines and flowers.) Even when you’re scrolling through the menus, the “selection indicator” is an elephant’s head on one side and an lion’s head on the other. I think it would’ve been fun if Amazon had just decided to call the game “Elephant Heads and Lion Heads.”

This makes the seventh free game that Amazon has released. (Less than a month earlier, Amazon released — Number Slide — and there’s also two free card-based games, Video Poker and Blackjack.) Amazon’s also released two (free) word games — Every Word and Shuffled Row — and of course, the first free game for the Kindle was Minesweeper. There’s a link built into “Dots and Boxes” that leads to Amazon’s own game page in the Kindle store where you can donwload all of their other free games to your Kindle.

This game brought back fond memories for at least one Kindle blogger. “I can remember being in the back of the car on a long trip with a large pad of paper with a 100 square grid playing with my sister,” remembers Michael P. Gallagher. In a review he posted to Amazon’s web site, he suggests that the Kindle version reminded him of some of that childhood drama.

“We were usually good to be a little more quiet for ten minutes or so until one or the other would get frustrated with losing, or gloaring a little too much with winning!”

Jeff Bezos speaks!

May 2nd, 2011


CEO of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos


Here’s the most interesting Kindle-related thing that happened last week. When Amazon announced their quarterly earnings, CEO Jeff Bezos also issued a five-page personal letter addressed to Amazon’s investors. Its headline? “Why I, Jeff Bezos, Keep Spending Billions On Amazon R&D.”

In just the first three months of 2011, Amazon spent $579 million on “technology and content” costs, an increase of more 58% over the same period one year ago, according to Amazon’s quarterly report. But Bezos addressed that issue head-on, in a strongly-worded letter that felt confident and even a little boastful. “Walk into certain Amazon meetings, and you may momentarily think you’ve stumbled into a computer science lecture,” Jeff Bezos wrote, saying Amazon’s engineers are taking computer science beyond anything that’s taught in colleges todays. “Many of the problems we face have no textbook solutions, and so we — happily — invent new approaches.”

The letter was so positive, the Seattle Times even theorized that Bezos was trying to entice new technology workers towards the new job openings Amazon’s headquarters. But I liked seeing Bezos’s personal pride in his company as he argued that Amazon’s highly specialized technology “is deeply integrated into everything we do.” And the example he supplied? The Kindle — specifically, its Whispersync service, which now even serves Android phones, as well as Kindles which can go for weeks without connecting to Amazon’s network. Bezos proudly explained its complexity, describing Whispersync’s mission as insuring that “everywhere you go, no matter what devices you have with you, you can access your reading library and all of your highlights, notes, and bookmarks, all in sync across your Kindle devices and mobile apps.”


“The technical challenge is making this a reality for millions of Kindle owners, with hundreds of millions of books, and hundreds of device types, living in over 100 countries around the world – at 24 x 7 reliability… As a Kindle customer, of course, we hide all this technology from you. So when you open your Kindle, it’s in sync and on the right page. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, like any sufficiently advanced technology, it’s indistinguishable from magic.

The letter offered a fun peek into the head of the man who runs Amazon — and it shows that he’s still got great confidence in Amazon’s futures. But my favorite part was how Bezos concluded his testimonial by republishing a letter that he’d written to investors in 1997, saying “Our approach remains the same, and it’s still Day 1.” Re-publishing it has apparently become a yearly tradition for Bezos, and it’s amazing
just how much of it remains absolutely applicable to the year 2011. And even 14 years later, it’s still an exciting read.

Here’s my favorite parts…


To our shareholders:

Amazon.com passed many milestones in 1997: by year-end, we had served more than 1.5 million customers, yielding 838% revenue growth to $147.8 million, and extended our market leadership despite aggressive competitive entry.

But this is Day 1 for the Internet and, if we execute well, for Amazon.com. Today, online commerce saves customers money and precious time. Tomorrow, through personalization, online commerce will accelerate the very process of discovery…

We have a window of opportunity as larger players marshal the resources to pursue the online opportunity and as customers, new to purchasing online, are receptive to forming new relationships…Our goal is to move quickly to solidify and extend our current position while we begin to pursue the online commerce opportunities in other areas. We see substantial opportunity in the large markets we are targeting. This strategy is not without risk: it requires serious investment and crisp execution against established franchise leaders.

We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position…

  • We will continue to focus relentlessly on our customers.
  • We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.

  • We will continue to measure our programs and the effectiveness of our investments analytically, to jettison those that do not provide acceptable returns, and to step up our investment in those that work best. We will continue to learn from both our successes and our failures.

  • We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case…

  • At this stage, we choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model…


The past year’s success is the product of a talented, smart, hard-working group, and I take great pride in being a part of this team. Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com’s success… we are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy.

We are incredibly fortunate to have this group of dedicated employees whose sacrifices and passion build Amazon.com…