Almost two weeks ago, my old, trusty flip phone, an LG Lotus Elite, decided to flip me off when its primary screen went ultra-fuzzy, making it impossible to read. I was a little discouraged by that because it was a staple in my life, a constant companion that could do fancy things like tell me the time, and, other stuff I guess. Not that it was a good staple because friends often made fun of me for having it—due to it being a flip phone. But I’d used it for as long as I had because it still worked, I could still make phone calls, and I could text whomever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Granted, I could not send or receive emojis anymore, much to the consternation of many emoji fanatics who happen to live on my contacts list, and that’s been true for several years, and that disability had been a source of trouble every time someone would attempt to smile at me and my phone’s response was to report the message as “No Content.” But I’m normally okay with that because I don’t really care about emojis. Unfortunately, the people who text me are fans of emojis, and they would often send me emojis even though I tell them not to. Needless to say when my phone finally flipped me off two weeks ago, I had to get a new phone that could handle emojis. Now I don’t know how I feel about having a phone that can handle emojis because now I know people are going to send them to me every time they text. But I suppose the price I have to pay to have a phone that can also take high resolution pictures means that getting occasional emojis is probably for the best.
Why does this really matter? you may ask. Well it matters because I just discovered that my new phone, an LG V40 ThinQ, aka my phone number’s Generation 3, has a dictation device attached to it, which means I can now record blogs and journals with my voice.
Let’s pause for effect.
I realize that some people already have this feature, and to them they may think, Oh yeah, that’s a big deal. And, of course, they’re being sarcastic thinking that because they haven’t spent the last nine years talking on a flip phone. But for me, a guy who does not normally migrate to 21st century technology, I think this is darn cool because I can crack my blogs out in a hurry, as well as anything I write, because, you know, when I record my voice, I just have to say it and it will happen and then I can go back and review for content later [which I’m doing now in the rewrite]. Does this mean I’m likely to create a mess for the first draft? Why, of course it does. Truth is I’m probably going to have a really messy first draft because I have to remember every punctuation as a word. For example, in order to craft the sentence I’ve just said, I have to actually sound out the punctuation like the word period. But that’s okay because I still think it’s cool that I can write anything I want just by saying it into my phone. It definitely saves a lot of time to get my ideas in print when I don’t have to chop away at a keyboard and make all of this noise, as much as I like the sound of a key clacking against keyboard. But the challenge, of course, is that now I can’t quite see what I’m typing as I speak because I speak better when I’m not looking at words racing across the page. Doing so otherwise means that I’m going to be self-conscious about what I’m saying and think that now I have to fix everything before I stop speaking. That’s not particularly practical. It’s worse when the microphone turns itself off and I don’t catch it until a paragraph or two later.
Yeah, that would totally happen to me…if I don’t look at what I’m doing every couple of lines.
In short, I’ve just typed over 550 words in about five minutes using this dictation device, and I think that is really cool. If you have a project you want to get done in a hurry, and you don’t want to take forever to write it, then you may want to use a dictation device as well because it goes like lightning and it is awesome and I think everyone should use it if they want to be productive and cool.
Just make sure to spend a good amount of time reviewing and editing it before you post it anywhere. The voice-printed draft is probably terrible, especially since it records broken thinking as much as it records lucid thinking, and the grammar is likely garbage. That’s true of this post. [Editing it is taking about three times longer than it did to “write” it.]
Also, for those of you who are wondering where I’ve been lately, just read my last post, and you’ll see that I’m busy doing other projects and that I am going to be catching up on my blog some point soon, and this dictation device might be an incentive for me to do that. I guess it’s easy to say that maybe I will be more active here in the coming days or weeks, so if you are interested in more of what I have to say then please come back soon and see what I’ve written with my voice.
Writing is my core creative outlet, but it’s not my only creative outlet. Even though I don’t advertise it much on this blog, I also have a side hobby in making computer games. In particular, I have a business adventure I’ve been working on (read: picking at) since May 2009, called Entrepreneur: The Beginning, about a recent high school graduate who must defend his honor against the preppy jock who stole his girlfriend by engaging in a cutthroat game of business. The year is 1985, time travelers from the future have recently entered the town of Hybrid City, and our teenage protagonist, Buck Star, must leverage their need for coffee (and other products eventually) to launch an empire and earn enough money in 60 days to win his bet against Chet Armstrong, and maybe get the girl back? Or, maybe just find himself a new girlfriend? It’s up to the player really.
Here’s a recent screenshot:
Well, I keep a blog about this game over on Slime Salad, a forum for indie game-making, in a thread called “Entrepreneur Central,” and in this blog I post news about progress, screenshots, and videos of new mechanics I want to show off. It’s pretty high-tech. (Not really.) For years I’ve been updating this blog, and for years I’ve been using a nifty little website called Photobucket to host my screenshots, as Slime Salad, for years, had no self-hosting of images, and only recently began allowing for a terribly formatted version of self-hosted images.
Basically, I liked that Photobucket could cast true-to-size images in context to the text about the features each image portrays, and do so with the simple copying and pasting of an image link. It’s quite beautiful.
I’ve been using Photobucket in this way for years, showing off numerous promotional type screenshots of Entrepreneur: The Beginning, a few of my other games-in-progress, my book covers, and on rare occasions, images of something that went wrong in the game (or engine it’s built on) to troubleshoot the problem. I’ve got maybe a couple hundred of images posted on these forums, all in forums I’ve since forgotten about, but are still easily accessible by anyone looking for information.
Because I’ve been using this free service for years to keep my “fans” in the know without issue, you can imagine my surprise when in early July I got an email from Photobucket stating that I’m in violation of their third-party hosting terms.
I thought, what?
I didn’t explore it any deeper. I figured it was a mistake, and I went on about my day. I got no further notice from Photobucket.
Fast-forward to late July, when I return to “Entrepreneur Central” to play catchup on announcements I’ve made in the last year, and discover that all of my beautiful screenshots advertising the game and its newest features have been converted to this:
I thought, what? So, I signed on to Photobucket to see what in the world they’re on about, and discovered that their free hosting service is still free (with the usual upgrade packages for unnecessary inflation of storage space that I’ll never need), but their third-party hosting rules have changed so that you not only have to pay for it now, but you have to buy their most expensive package to use it.
I shook my head. They now want me to pay $40 a month or $400 a year to display the images I’ve already posted in various forums around the web. These places get little traffic, and “Entrepreneur Central” gets hardly anything, and bandwidth problems are not a factor with my photos. Yet, I’m now supposed to pay money I don’t have to keep my photos on display, something I’ve done for free without any problems for years.
Screw that. I’ll sign on with Imgur, or just use the forum’s crappy image self-hosting feature instead. I’m just irritated that I now have to figure out which images I’ve used for those screenshots (I can’t see them anymore, after all), which threads and forums I’ve posted images to, locate them on my hard drive, and reupload them to a new hosting site and relink them in those same threads I’ve posted tens or hundreds of photos to.
It’s a time-sink, and I’m demotivated by it, and I’m tempted just to scrap the whole idea and leave those shell images in place.
I write this story to prove a point. In my travels through marketing lessons, I’ve learned one core message above all others: Don’t put all of your trust into a single corporation to handle your advertising or marketing needs (or, for that matter, your social needs). Amazon and Facebook might handle the brunt of your sales traffic or existing clientele, and their advertising services may work beautifully in automation today. But all the experts say not to trust any of these companies to feed you forever, and you should always have a backup system in place in case the algorithms, plans, or procedures change and your financial (or social) well dries up.
I think the Photobucket Apocalypse is proof of that.
We can put our faith in God in all things, but for everything and everyone else, they have limited reach and unpredictable behavior. It’s best to have side roads in place on your path to success if you’re trying to make a name or presence for yourself.
I think it’s safe to say this applies to all elements of life. You know that job you have that you love? If someone else is in charge of it, you probably don’t want to get too attached to it. If you want to continue to sell things to people, have a backup mailing list that you control. How’s your love life? Have you taken it for granted yet? These things should be obvious, but all the heartbreak in the world proves we’re still trusting in too many things, people, and corporations that don’t deserve our trust.
Don’t take anything you have for granted. Treat it all like it’s a gift. You don’t know when you’ll lose it. Even if that sounds like a cliché, remember that clichés are born from perpetual truth. You can’t make a cliché out of something that has low relevance. Don’t take anything you have for granted. Even Photobucket might turn on you eventually and screw up your entire system without warning you first that it’s about to hold your images for ransom.
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Earlier today, I was skimming Digital Book World for some writing news and happened across an article about Amazon’s lack of innovation toward e-books. This relatively short article, “Amazon, Ebooks, and the Lack of Innovation” by Jason Illian, discusses how Amazon is known for innovations in technology, but chooses not to innovate in reading technology. It’s an insightful, and somewhat discouraging thought about the state of reading and the attitude that the major distributors of e-readers and e-books take on it. It’s definitely worth the read, as are the comments that appear from readers at the end of the article.
And it got me thinking about the topic of e-book innovation, not just on why they choose not to innovate, but also on how they could innovate if they were to choose to, as the article and certain articles linked to in the comments section, particularly one by Chris Meadows in his article “Whoever feels like innovating e-books, please raise your hand!” posted at TeleRead, address the question of how e-books can leap forward without becoming “spammy” with advertisements or cluttered with distracting materials that no reader actually wants.
Coming up with ideas can certainly be tricky, but the bigger problem, according to these articles, is that the e-reader manufacturers don’t want to innovate. They don’t want to because they don’t need to. If they’re not losing the market to paperbacks, then they are keeping the market on the backs of those who aren’t looking for innovative leaps in e-reading.
If the people are complacent, then so will be their providers of technology. I mean, why should they innovate if no one is asking for it?
To be perfectly honest, I’m okay with the lack of innovation in e-reading. I’m one of the massive many who prefers paper to electronic form. In fact, the only reason I’ve spent the last year writing for the e-book format is because I can, and because I can do it for basically free. Reading it is a different matter. I don’t have an e-reader of my own. Nor do I have a trendy phone that can read my books to me or for me. I’m still a technically backwards guy who does his reading in print or on a computer screen, thanks to Adobe Digital Editions.
But, I’m still an imaginative reader who has ideas on what could get me to start reading in electronic form more so than on paper (not that I would ever give up reading paperbacks entirely) if anyone were to take a chance on moving things forward. I’m one of the reasons why innovation in electronic reading should be considered more by those technical geniuses who know how to implement it. I’m one of the reasons why the e-reader market even has a slump.
What Readers Want
I’m going to make an educated assumption now. E-readers have lost a chunk of their audience to Androids and other well-adapted cellphones because, in many cases, these devices are better, clearer, and, let’s be honest, linked to something they already have. Some of these phones have the ability to “flip” pages according to where the user draws his or her finger, which I think is pretty cool. The first time I saw Shell Out on a friend’s phone and manually turned those pages, I was awestruck. I was turning pages of my short story, on a phone! For these people, why would they even need an e-reader, especially one that’s ugly, clunky, or archaic? Better question: Why would they pay for a dedicated e-reader when they can just press a button on their phone? If my phone did all that, I wouldn’t bother buying an Amazon Kindle. Well, not likely. Exclusivity poses its own issues, but I’m not going to focus on that here.
Now, I’m not usually so easily impressed by the latest innovations unless it makes something I like doing a lot easier. I had a similar reaction the first time I saw the computer program Sprout in action. But, when this new technology I generally don’t see in action is doing something special to something I’m responsible for (in this case, taking my favorite short story from my personal collection and making it electronically interactive in a physical world—use your imagination if you’re lost by that comment), then I’m colored impressed. I’ve yet to feel that way about the average e-reader. Maybe I thought the Kindle was cool the first time I saw one in action many years ago. But I’m more impressed with phones these days.
I agree with those who think e-readers, or e-books for that matter, lack innovation. But the accusations don’t end with this simple opinion. The argument they make is that readers aren’t crying for innovation. They further argue that readers want to be left alone with their books and don’t want the advertising blitz, or fancy videos or sounds to ruin their personal experience that a likely strain of e-book “innovation” may create. Honestly, I agree with these arguments. When I read a book, I want to be left alone, in a quiet place, with my thoughts on the story or the information I’m reading, not the series sales pitch or the related graphics that might try selling me the phone that the writer is writing about. Not really.
But, I think that part of the reason I don’t want these things is because I haven’t been given a world where I have these things.
Now, I don’t advocate bastardizing the reading experience with gimmicks, ads, or other intrusive things. But I do think the way to leap e-readers, e-books, and book reading in general forward is to innovate how reading is handled. And to do that, it’s important to understand two things:
Readers don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Until Gutenberg developed the printing press, none of us knew we wanted our books in print. Until trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks became a thing, none of us knew that getting the same story at a cheaper price was possible, or that getting that same story in slightly lower quality was somehow acceptable. We learned our ability to adapt after we were given the chance to experience it. I think the same goes for the first generation of e-readers. The idea driving the development of the Amazon Kindle was awesome, until people figured out it didn’t have the same personal touch as a physical book, yet plenty of readers stuck around to give it a fair chance. Eventually, it “caught fire.” Maintaining that fire is a different story, but the important thing to consider here is that, once upon a time, this technology was introduced and a particular population embraced it.
Readers are innately personal. But they are also visionaries, researchers, explorers, and dreamers. They want the feeling that sitting on a beach during the summer with a good paperback brings, and they want to experience that feeling quietly, unobtrusively, and personally. But, they’re not going to bring their dictionaries with them. And they’re not going to bring with them the memory of what happened 100 pages ago to a minor character who did something terrible to the protagonist, or the recollection that the thing that happened was in fact 100 pages ago. They’re going into the reading wilderness the same way they have since the dawn of books. At some point, readers may want the extra help, the same way that farmers and hunters figured out that the world would someday need a Chick fil A or Applebee’s.
What readers want is the experience they understand. A point made in the article by Chris Meadows (which he links to in the comments posted under the main article by Jason Illian) is that one way to keep the e-reading experience different is to use scrollbars instead of page-flipping. I agree, that would be different. But, it’s not really what I want as a reader. I may be okay with them in web articles, but I hate scrollbars in fiction, so utilizing scrollbars as a selling point, for example, is not a good way to get me interested in e-readers. Of course, I’m one man. Maybe there are readers out there who do want scrollbars. So, for them, they should have one. For them, they should be allowed to check the preference box that says “scrollbars enabled,” where I may want to check the preference box that says “page-turning enabled.” The default, of course, would be a page shuffle. You get the idea.
Yes, custom options would be a great step toward innovating e-books and e-readers. Videogames use options like these all the time in their setup menus. Electronic reading devices would benefit from the same. And maybe there are some out there that are already programmed for that. I don’t know. As I said before, I read my electronic texts on my computer. Point is, it’s something.
But that’s a small leap forward. Having that scrollbar or page-turning application is great for single-screen devices. The problem with that is that it only enables the limitation that the average reader has with the average e-reader. It’s a single screen. Running your finger across the screen doesn’t provide the personal connection that grabbing a sheet of paper and flipping it has. It cannot simulate the joy of clumping entire groups of pages together and flipping them over to span massive chunks of story to more quickly access earlier or later parts of the book to gain insights on the details we have since forgotten. In short, it makes us feel robotic.
Giving Readers What They Want
To counterbalance that robotic feeling, we need an e-reader that makes us feel human again. So, here are my suggestions for making things more personal while jumping e-reader technology forward, and perhaps getting those who treat e-readers like pariahs more on board with the idea of reading things on a “screen.”
Make a “real” e-book. Don’t give us a Gameboy from 1989 and change its programming to read books instead of controlling a plumber through Goomba-infested lands.
Perhaps this needs explanation. The average e-reader is a simple handheld device with an interactive screen. It’s cheap and functional, but not the least bit personal. A true e-book would serve as the electronic equivalent to a real book. And the way to do that is to give readers a real book. Let me clarify: a real book with programmable pages.
Okay, yes, if you’re visualizing what I’m visualizing, then you’re already counting the cost of producing such a thing. It would be expensive to buy, and maybe expensive to make. But, every new thing is expensive at first. Once upon a time, that bulky television you bought for ten bucks at the Goodwill would’ve cost you hundreds of dollars at your local retailer. The money you spent on that black and white in the 1950s would probably get you a nice 60” UHD flat screen today. Electronics go down in price eventually. Everyone knows that. In the early 1960s a pocket calculator would cost you over $2000. Kids get them in their Christmas stockings as a bonus item today, so don’t fret about cost.
But, while we wait for that beautiful day when a thousand-dollar e-reader drops down to the price of a Kindle or lower, we can have those publishers who without conscience raise the prices of e-books to the level of their paperback counterparts use the extra money they save on manufacturing to help supplement the production costs that go into the e-reader, and then take a small percentage of every e-reader sale. This would give it sustainable marketability, and serve to drive the price down for everyone eventually. I think. Sounds right. They won’t do it, of course, but it sounds right.
But back to the ideas, a true e-reader should be made up of an electronic cover (matte or glossy), with fiber optic pages that you can customize through add-ons. Each reader would come with a default 350 pages (as most novels clock in at just over 300) and adapters that would allow a reader to add a stackable group of 25 pages each (with limits depending on the digital spine, which should probably be flexible to allow for the adapters, or maybe the adapters add more spine—probably that) to accommodate long books, longer books, epic fantasies, and Stephen King books. Each add-on would cost the reader a little, but once they have it, they’re covered for the life of the true e-book (a brand name which I will henceforth use to describe this magical form of innovative e-reading technology).
Which brings us to the beauty of this system. Each page of the electronic book is hardwired to allocate the digital pages as defined in the .epub file (we’ll say .epub4, as that’s the next generation of .epub if I’m not mistaken). So, page one of the .epub will “print” only on the first electronic page of the true e-book. Well, no, it’ll print on the front of the first page. Obviously, page two will appear on the back side. Can you visualize that?
So, already we’re beginning to feel more like a real book. Add digital loading to the front cover, back cover, and spine, and you have yourself a truly customizable electronic reading device that gives the reader the feeling of reading a real book. That, of course, is because the reader is reading a real book. Just one that can change the content of its pages with a simple upload of a new .epub file.
This means that the true e-book would need a docking bay in which to change the programming. It could work the same way that modern e-readers use menus and online features and “bookstores” in which to shop for new titles. This docking bay would be the impersonal device that modern readers are used to today, the thing that serves as both storefront and book. Or, it could be their computers, as the one element the true e-book will have that a real paperback won’t is a USB port. I mean, even Neo in The Matrix had that input jack on his neck. We can’t escape computer technology in favor of reality entirely. But we can get really, really close.
Now, this enhances the visual appeal of e-books, but not the sensory appeal. To do that, all true e-books should come with a cartridge that emits that “new book smell.” The fiber optic pages, or “paper screens,” should also be meticulously crafted to feel like real pages and real matte or glossy covers. My computer screen feels almost exactly like a matte cover, so I know it’s possible. Shouldn’t be difficult to duplicate. I also think that pages should have Instagram style filters that make electronic pages look like real cream or white pages, with digital noise in the fonts to simulate ink. Or, you know, options for other styles. Make the look of the pages customizable. The modern e-reader already makes it possible to adjust for size and font. The true e-book can do the same, but it should recognize the defaults as set by the author or publisher. This assumes that the author or publisher cares enough about the title to put in these extra options. Unfortunately, a new kind of e-reader won’t necessarily create a new kind of publisher.
Give readers features they want that real physical books can’t offer.
The modern e-reader already provides digital bookmarks, dictionary support, and highlighting options. I think it also provides keyword search. Certainly, the true e-reader would provide all of these things (though bookmarking won’t be as necessary, as the pages are now physical, but if the book automatically opens to the digital bookmark when you tap the bookmark sensor, then that would be cool).
But the true e-book would also provide advanced indexing options that would allow you to quick-find characters, events, or other details that might otherwise take away precious minutes from your narrative flow when searching for previous reminders about who these people are or what happened during these events. For example, if you double-tap on the name of the minor character that the protagonist is talking about, it can bring up a small menu with options, including one that highlights any page where that character’s name appears, and then highlight in a different color the name itself so that every instance he’s mentioned can be found in seconds. And for those who still want their foot in The Matrix while reading, other options can include reloading the current page with supplemental information, including other books or volumes the character may have appeared in (and where in the context of those books), basic character descriptions, and whatever else the author or publisher may preload into the supplements file, including an option to load up another book in the series (provided the reader owns a copy). And, if a book doesn’t come with that information, then the selection in that particular menu is disabled. It’s possible that the modern e-reader does these things already, or will soon enough, but the true e-book would most definitely have to do these things to stay on par with, if not ahead of the game.
And, I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear: Digital books don’t have to be impersonal. And we, as readers, don’t have to accept their impersonal touch. I don’t love the idea of replacing paperbacks, and, as long as we have bookshelves and a desire to fill them, I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of them completely. Even in the age of Netflix and Hulu, we still have DVD and Blu-ray discs bought and sold daily. Even with iTunes dominating the music market, stores are still selling CDs (kinda). The demand for these things may not be what they were before digital markets invaded their turfs, but some of it still exists, and there are still people out there who want to stick to the classics. But regardless of how many want to innovate or how many want to keep to the systems they’re used to, the corporations involved in the production and distribution of these materials need to consider their entire customer base, not just the rich and the trendsetting, and create the kind of experiences that anyone could want, modern and retro alike. It starts by understanding human psychology.
To adapt the famous line from Field of Dreams, “If you [make] it, they will [use it].” Make the true e-book and drive its price down to something affordable, and I’d give it a fair chance. Heck, I might even like it enough to modify my current library of hardcovers and paperbacks. I may be technologically backwards, but I still have movies I like on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, and I suspect I’ll get them again on 4K UHD someday. I’m not against a good leap forward. Perhaps those in charge of e-reader design shouldn’t be either.
Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing chapters for my third novel (my first needs to be rebuilt, thanks to an error in judgment, and the second is on hiatus, since I don’t want it to be my “first”), so I’ve slacked considerably on every other form of writing I’m known for. Journals, or blogs as they’re called on MySpace, are the chief among the neglected areas, and I owe part of that to common distraction—the Playstation 2 is a strong proponent of temptation. But I also have to owe part of it to the Internet, as AOL hates me.
I’d imagine AOL hates a lot of people, actually, so I think anyone reading this might sympathize with my situation. But for those who can’t sympathize or for those who don’t use AOL (pure geniuses) here’s my story:
The thing is, when I sign on, AOL plays nice for about five minutes. First, it coddles me, making me think everything’s gonna be all right when the news page loads up (AOL tends to give a choice of five lists to read from, starting with world news, then moving toward entertainment, then medicine, then real estate, then finally to the random nonsense page). Then, when I decide I’m not interested in the news, I’ll hit the “X” to vanish the main page; though, the AOL options menu and instant messenger refuse to die. When all the stuff I don’t care about is gone, I start checking messages. So, I log onto Hotmail to see five or six different organizations trying to get me to use their services. From there I ignore them, search for something relevant, nod my head as nothing fits the bill, and “X” out of Hotmail on another washed mission. It’s about then that AOL starts cashing in on its tease.
Lately I’ve gone straight to the messaging boards that I’ve frequented for about eight years after signing out of Hotmail. For a season, however, I followed Hotmail with MySpace. In either case, AOL uses the second site, the one that comes after I’ve been online for five minutes, to assault my nerves. Everything starts out okay, usually, loading the first page with as much speed as dial-up allows. But then it pulls the plug. Everything stalls. I can be in the middle of scrolling through someone’s message, hanging in suspense as I wait to read the final words, when all of a sudden the system locks up for at least two minutes, with no reason as it’s not loading anything, and then resumes as if ignoring the fact that it just got caught in a two-minute hiccup. What’s worse, it stalls my whole computer with it. Microsoft Word, usually friendly to me, also gives up life two minutes at a time. The calculator? Twenty times ten equals…equals…wait for it…
There are several reasons why I don’t visit MySpace much anymore. A big part has to do with the fact that nothing ever happens here. I probably don’t need to go into details, as I’m sure many witness the same lack of activity. But it feels like a waste of time. Blogs are written; no one responds. Friendships are requested, but not from real people. Plus, the whole convention is superficial. But AOL is the element that kills the experience.
Having said that, I officially deleted AOL yesterday in an effort to regain functionality out of my computer again. Yes, I will reinstall it, as DSL does not service my area and a cable hookup might cause more cracks in my bedroom wall than I already have and one false drill might bring the whole house down, so I’m short on options. But as of now, I’m writing everything blog-related out in Word (which works great when I’m not online), and will transfer it to MySpace when the time is right for the rest of the world to read it.
Which I suppose has already happened if you’re reading this.
So, what’s the moral of this story? Find a new information source, as the Internet demands too much performance out of simple machines.