Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man Christmas e-cheer

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

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Unsure what to buy for your loved ones this Christmas? Here are two ideas.

For diehard smokers, try buying an electronic cigarette, currently causing controversy in California, where an attempt to prevent their sale was recently vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. The devices cause debate for a host of reasons — not least because there is a near unanimous consensus among health professionals that they present a potential source of enjoyment. Some claim they will act as a gateway drug, causing those ‘smoking’ them (‘vaping’ is the current word, since the devices produce nicotine-infused vapour, not smoke) to move to harder drugs — on that same inevitable path by which youthful dabbling with loose-leaf Darjeeling leads to crystal meth. This silly ‘gateway’ argument reminds me of the joke about Scottish Presbyterians — that they are opposed to sex standing up, as it might lead to dancing.

But the real concern of those fighting these devices is that, since they contain nicotine but no tobacco, they may circumvent anti-smoking laws: in fact Scandinavian Airlines has already added a rider forbidding their use on flights. This means that, a mere four years after their invention, they have already been outlawed by SAS and supported by Arnold Schwarzenegger: I cannot think of anything else that comes more highly commended.

My other tip for Christmas is similar to the e-cigarette, in that it offers an electronic way to enjoy an age-old pleasure: in this case reading. Amazon claims its latest generation Kindle has a finer screen resolution than earlier versions. Having owned one for the last few months, I can corroborate this. The display is now just like print.

But the case for spending £109 or £149 (I recommend the latter) on a Kindle for Christmas doesn’t rest on the quality of the display alone. Will a Kindle ever be as pleasant to hold as a book? Will it furnish a room in the way a fine bookshelf can? Of course not. But for a relatively modest price, it has features that easily make up for this.

First, plenty of literature is now available for the Kindle for free — or nearly free. The current UK Kindle favourite is The Complete Sherlock Holmes at £0. Many ex-copyright works are a bargain. The whole of Dickens is £2.23, the complete Virgil in Latin is 72p. Even new books are cheaper: Larkin’s £20 Letters to Monica is £11.55.

To anyone who commutes or travels a lot, there is an obvious value in compressing 1,000 books into something the size of a single slim paperback. Not to mention being able to buy the latest Spectator over the air from a moving train in Latvia, should you wish.

If your eyesight is not perfect there is also the freedom to enlarge the size of type for whatever you are reading. And if you hate reading scientific papers or PDF files on a PC, transferring them to your Kindle will reduce eyestrain.

Lastly there’s another virtue the Kindle has which devices like the iPad don’t. Focus. Quite simply the only thing you can do with a Kindle is read a book. It won’t let you check your email, watch a video or play Angry Birds. I find it hard to concentrate at the best of times; when a device has too many functions, it’s near impossible. Maybe I need to take up e-smoking.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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