Saturday, February 12, 2011

DRM, and a review of ereaders

Last week I legitimately downloaded an ebook in encrypted Adobe DRM PDF format. Because of the format and encryption, my options were reading it on my computer (ick) or reading it in one of the two apps on my iPod Touch that actually work with Adobe to let you read their DRMd PDF files. The two apps are Bluefire and txtr. Notwithstanding the annoyance of reading a book on the tiny iPod Touch screen (something I do when I don’t have any other option) there are more serious issues involved in reading an encrypted PDF. In general PDFs kind of suck for reading novels. Stanza, my go-to reading app, doesn’t display them in a legible manner. PDFs are formatted for larger screens, so reading them on a dinky screen means having to scroll back and forth, up and down, just to see an entire page (if you’re lucky and get an app that can properly render the damn thing in the first place). Add encryption, and all of a sudden I can’t use the one app that does PDFs well – PDF Reader. So I’m stuck with Bluefire and txtr. And here the problems get worse. Neither of these apps reflow (basically the ability to scroll seamlessly from one page to another), so you have to turn each page individually. That doesn’t sound so bad, but you also have to resize each page individually, since if you magnify one page enough to be actually able to read the text, that size does not carry over to the next page, so you have to do it all over again each time you go to the next page. A truly horrible reading experience.

So, I decided to see if any of the ereaders out there were any better. Thankfully I work for a large library that provides downloadable ebooks as part of our service, so our Materials Management department has a bunch of ereaders for testing that I was able to borrow. I figured that since the library offers encrypted PDF ebooks to the public, there should be some readers out there that could handle them. I borrowed a Kobo, a Nook, and a Sony PRS-300 and I loaded the PDF onto each of them. I was actually shocked at how bad the PDF looked on the Kobo and the Sony. Neither of them was able to fit the text to the screen, so it was a wee little block of text in the middle of a white field. I couldn’t get any further than this with the Sony, but I was able to zoom in on the Kobo, but then I had to scroll left and right to read the whole page – not a pleasant experience at all. The Nook was the best, but by best I mean okay. I wouldn’t want to read a whole novel in PDF on it because the formatting was a bit askew (weird page breaks, and headers and footers that ended up in the middle of the text sometimes).

One would think that Adobe would at least provide decent platforms for reading their encrypted files, or work with the ereader companies to make a device that can read them well.

Up until this point I never really worried about stripping DRM from ebooks. I either read encrypted epubs on my iPod or dealt with the hideous limitations of the Adobe authorized apps or read short stories on my desktop computer. But now I realized that even the ereaders that we are recommending to the public to use with our library ebooks choke on PDFs. All I wanted to do was read my book comfortably, and if I had to figure how to convert it to a better format I would. Once I knew what I was looking for, I found some Python scripts that strip the Adobe encryption from PDFs and went to work. Within 20 minutes I had a shiny new unencrypted PDF. Of course, I already knew that it would look awful on the ereaders, so I set about converting it into an Epub, a format that most ereaders handle natively, so I know it would look good. With the help of Calibre, some internet forums, and my good friend who understands programming far more than I do, I was able to take the PDF and make a perfectly readable Epub. All this work just to be able to read a book I got legally on a device I already own!

All this leads to my big experiment of the week (no, learning to decrypt ebooks wasn’t it). Here I have an Epub to read, and three ereaders to read it on! Although I usually read on my iPod if I have to read an ebook, I know an opportunity when I see it.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Sony PRS -350.

I have issues with the button placement for turning the page. The button is on the front of the reader just under the screen, right in the middle. Maybe I just have really short thumbs, but I found that to press the button I needed to stretch my right thumb uncomfortably from where I was holding the device. By a few chapters in my thumb really ached. Not good at all! Also, the screen is a dinky 5 inches, so I was turning the pages a lot more often than a real book just because there’s a lot less text on each page. Sony does have larger readers, so this isn't a fault of Sony and if you're not a speedy reader like me it probably is just fine. It's very light and portable, which some people prefer over a larger screen. Personally, I gave up on this one pretty fast. Bear in mind this is an older version of the Sony reader, later version have a touch screen where you swipe to turn the page. I tried one of these briefly and don’t like the swipe to turn. I found the motion of swiping distracting, and the reader didn’t always respond correctly. Now, if it was a tap to turn the pages (like in the reading apps on the iPod Touch and iPad) I might be happier because it’s minimal movement. Anyway, the Sony Reader didn't work for me.

2. Kobo

The Kobo is amazingly light! It’s about 7 1/2 ounces, so it’s really easy to hold and read one-handed. The back has a lovely quilted texture that is really nice to touch and hold. The print is readable and the screen is 6”, so there’s more space for more words on the page (which reduced the number of times I needed to turn the page). But let’s talk about turning the page, why don’t we? There is one big page turning button on the Kobo, on the front bottom right of the device. I guess they think people will only read right-handedly? I’m right-handed, but the way I hold a book depends on a variety of things – if I’m reading while eating, what side I’m lying on in bed or on the couch, if I’m in the window or aisle seat on the bus, if I just feel like switching off which hand I want to hold the bloody thing. The button placement causes a huge problem if for some reason you want to hold the book in your left hand (and don’t even think about holding it near the top instead of the bottom). The button (a four way controller) is stiff, so it takes a bit of force to press it, and there’s an audible click when it’s pressed. Not fun at all. The other issue I have with the Kobo is that the response time is pretty slow. I press a button (any button) and then wait. Eventually what’s supposed to happen happens, but it’s slow like molasses. Page turning is slow also. The way an ereader works should be this: you read to the bottom of the screen, press the page turn button, and then your eyes go back up to the top of the screen. By the time your eyes are at the top, the next page should be waiting for you to read. With the Kobo, when my eyes get to the top, the device is in the middle of refreshing, so I see a bit of the previous page, the flash of a page refresh, and then the new page. That flash should be happening during the time it takes for me to shift my gaze, not once I’m there. This response time was annoying because it would break the flow of the story each time I turned the page. I did, though, read a whole book on it without hurling it against a wall. Pros: lightweight, quilted back. Cons: button placement, response and refresh time.

3. Nook.

Compared to the Kobo, the Nook is a monster (and I don’t even have the colour Nook, which is even heavier). This thing is heavy! I definitely wouldn’t be holding this one-handed. I started reading my book club book on the Nook, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. A monster book for a monster ereader, I guess. I really like the buttons on the Nook. Along the edge of the device on both sides are integrated areas to press for forward and back, so you can use your right or left hands to turn the pages in either direction. They aren’t discreet buttons and the bezel is seamless on the sides, but the areas to press are big and have a little raised dot over the direction arrow so you can find it without looking and can rest your fingernail on it (which is what I do). Brilliant. The refresh speed is really good – miles better than the Kobo. The contrast on the screen is nice. So far so good. But wait –the Nook has a another colour touch screen underneath the reading screen. The only other buttons on the device are the forward/back buttons and the power button. Everything else has to be done with the touch screen. It’s awfully unresponsive and because it’s so small the space you have to touch for a specific selection is tiny. The controls are unintuitive and it drains battery life like crazy. Halfway through my book, only reading a few hours every day, it ran out of power. Not good at all! What would have happened if I was on a plane or beach or somewhere where I couldn’t charge it? And even if I was at home, I’d have to sit next to the power outlet to read while charging. One other tiny thing is that the power button is on the top of the device and easy to hit by accident, so I found myself putting it into sleep mode by mistake a lot until I figured out not to pick it up from the top. I’d be happier if the power button was a slider instead of a button. Overall I love the back/forward button placement, but I hate the colour touch screen and the weight is an issue.

So, of the three devices I tried, all of them had at least one fatal flaw.

Then I decided to try the Kindle. I’ve been against the Kindle from the beginning because of it’s proprietary format, DRM, and unwillingness to play nice with library books. But now that I know how to liberate my ebooks and put them in the format I want, my main concern about the Kindle is gone. Having used the Sony, the Kobo, and the Nook, I know what I want out of an ereader: lightweight, ambidextrous page turn buttons, and fast response time.

The library doesn’t own a Kindle because it’s not compatible with library ebooks, but luckily I have a friend who let me play with her Kindle 2. It’s big and there’s a lot more bezel than there needs to be. But the screen is crisp, the response time is fast, and the buttons are well placed. I really like the dedicated Home, Menu and Back buttons, and don’t hate the huge keyboard on the bottom as much as I thought I would. It’s relatively light.

Of course, the Kindle 2 is no Kindle 3, so I headed over to Staples to play with the latest and greatest Kindle. The good: it’s much smaller and lighter than the Kindle 2, so one-handed reading is possible. The e-ink screen has amazingly good contrast. It’s super zippy fast. The not so good: The buttons along the side are very narrow, so you can’t rest your whole finger on them anymore. They are also along the side edges of the device, so I’d worry that if I picked it up by the side I might inadvertently turn the page. When looking at text, the margins are very wide, and you can’t adjust them very much on the device (you can make them bigger, but not smaller, than the default setting). I did look around online and found a way to set the margins by rewriting some of the system code, so I’m not going to worry about that. My biggest pet peeve is that it does not tell you where you are with page numbers. It uses indicators instead (and a progress bar, like the Nook). I have absolutely no idea what indicator 456 of 13295 means in terms of book length. I don’t know what they’re counting, and it doesn’t give me a sense of place. If I’m reading a book on the Kindle and my friend’s reading the real book, what good does telling her I’m on indicator 348 do? I know Kindle is going to be showing “real page” numbers on Kindle books in their next software update, but what does that do for those of us who would be putting our own ebooks on it? But, overall the Kindle has the best hardware of all the ereaders I’ve tried, and the interface is no slouch either.

Last week if you asked me I probably would have said that I have no desire to own an ereader. I love real books, the feel of paper, the expanse of text, the ability to know just by feel where you are in the book, being able to flip back and forward with ease... The course of this week has made me look at how and what I read and determine that an ereader is a good thing to have. It won’t replace my books – I have a deep and abiding passion for reading physical books, but it is a good companion for those things that are not available in print (e-galleys, online-only publications, etc…).

So yesterday I ordered a Kindle. Once I get it and start playing with it, and set up Calibre plugins and tweaks to get it working the way I want it to, we’ll see if I made the right decision.

While actually doing some serious reading on ereaders instead of just playing around with them for a few minutes, I discovered some interesting things about how I read.

1. I read much slower on an ereader than a print book.

2. I don’t really like having just one page in front of me. I find myself distracted by things in my peripheral vision. One of the things I like about a real book is that I have a wider field of text in front of me, so if my eyes wander they hit more text, so I stay in the mindset of “reading” and don’t get distracted by things outside the reading experience. This might be one of the reasons I read more slowly on an ereader.

3. I find reading a social experience. I talk about what I read, and when I’m in public I like seeing what people are reading and have them see what book I’m reading (except if it’s something embarrassingly smutty) Conversations have been started on planes and in waiting rooms based on the book in my hand. I’ve read books because I’ve seen other people reading them on park benches. I find that ereaders lose that “social networking” aspect of books with the loss of a unique cover for each book. This is what I want on my ideal reader: The back cover should be a colour screen (covered with something like plastic for protection) on which you can, at your own discretion, have an image of the cover of the book that you’re currently reading. That way you can show off your highbrow tastes on the subway, or your ironic lowbrow tastes in your favourite hipster coffee shop. Or just reconnect with the non-virtual world of people who might be interested in what you are interested in. It’s like Foursquare for books, just in the real world!

Monday, September 13, 2010

12 Books, 12 Months Challenge

Taken from Sebethis. This looks like fun (and will push me to read some of the books that have been patiently waiting for me for YEARS). I'm a little late to the party, but I'm sure I can squeeze all twelve in in the next twelve months.

The Rules

12 Books, 12 Months Challenge

* Pick 12 titles from your To Read Pile. These should be titles you currently own in whatever format you prefer.
* Acquisition of other formats or translations is permitted. So, if you have a paperback but want to read on your Kindle, you can get a Kindle copy. If you have a library copy but want to buy your own, that's kosher. Heck, if you own a copy and want to check another out from the library, I'm not gonna stop you.
* Post your list in your public space of choice by September 1, 2010. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your list.
* Read all 12 titles between now and September 5, 2011. Might as well tack on an extra long weekend at the end for cramming.
* When you finish a title on your list, post about it in your public space of choice. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your review.

My List (in no particular order)

A Piece of cake, by Cupcake Brown

The Secret shopper's revenge, by Kate Harrison

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Room, by Emma Donoghue

For the win, by Cory Doctorow

Meeting Mr. Wrong, by Stephanie Snowe

The Feng Shui detective, by Nury Vittachi

Maximum light, by Nancy Kress

Storm front, by Jim Butcher

Little bee, by Chris Cleage

Peeps, by Scott Westerfeld

Brave new world, by Aldous Huxley

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Last year I read 261 books. I've been keeping track on aNobii for the past few years and I have a nasty tendency to get super competitive with myself. Since I read 261 last year I've been itching to beat my record for this year. I finished reading #262 (and 263 - I was home sick) yesterday.

Book #262 also ended up being one of my favourite books of the year.

Swish: My quest to become the gayest person
ever by Joel Derfner

You can read the introduction here

Here's a super cheesy trailer for Swish.

I picked up Swish because I thought it looked hilarious and shallow, which is the mood I was in a few weeks ago. I sat down with the book yesterday and it is indeed hilarious. It's also super bitchy and surprisingly poignant and wise. I highly recommend it.

Derfner is also a composer, and writing a musical about the Terezin concentration camp. Here's a really disturbing song from the musical. It's sung by a Nazi. It's called Good.

Oh, and book #261, the one that tied me with last year, was Impossible, by Nancy Werlin, a teen book that expands on the story from the folksong "Scarborough Fair".

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

Books of the Year (so far)

I've read a lot this year so far. Here are some of my favourites:

Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible
by David Plotz

Coming at the bible from the perspective of someone who kinda knows the stories, but never really read it (kinda like me), Plotz goes through all the books of the bible - including ones I've never heard of before. It's a fascinating, often disturbing, look at the un-whitewashed book behind the stories I thought I knew.

The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley

The heroine of this mystery set in post-war Britain is Flavia de Luce, an eleven year old girl with a penchant for poison and a love of chemistry. When a dead body appears in the garden Flavia is intrigued, and sets out to uncover an old mystery and solve the murder. Flavia is a great character - clever and slightly sociopathic. I look forward to reading more books about her.

Addition by Toni Jordan

At first I thought this book would be a standard chick-lit romance, but it is really quite a bit more. The basic premise is that Grace, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, meet a man who throws her out of her carefully ordered routine. The book looks at whether Grace's mental illness is part of her unique identity that should be embraced or if she should try to fix herself.

The boy Who Harnessed The Wind
by William Kamkwamba

William is a young boy living with his family in Malawi. When drought strikes the country and the crops fail, he can no longer afford to go to school. After finding a book about windmills in the library, he decides to build one for his home so they can have electricity. This is actually a fascinating book not just determination, creativity, luck, and building windmills, but of what life is like in rural Malawi. I really enjoyed it, and I also enjoyed reading William's blog and seeing what he's been doing since the events of the book.

Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt
by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby, who I know better as the author of About a Boy and Slam, wrote a column for the Believer called Stuff I've Been Reading. It's pretty simple - he lists what he bought in a given month, and what he read that month. So each column is like a really interesting conversation with a friend about what they liked reading (and what they didn't), with occasional digressions into football. I ended up making a list of books that I want to read based on what Hornby said about them. There are two other collections of Stuff I've Been Reading essays by Hornby - Shakespeare wrote for money and The Polysyllabic Spree

Santa Olivia
by Jaqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey is better known for her Kushiel series (which I love). When I picked up this book I thought it was her first foray into urban fantasy. It's not. In fact, there's no fantasy in it at all. It's a book set in the near future where the US has sealed it's borders to to some sort of epidemic. Santa Olivia is a town between the border of the US and Mexico under military control. Pretty much the only way out is to win a boxing match with the governor's champion, but no one has ever accomplished that. I didn't think I'd enjoy a book about boxing, but I found myself sucked in.

The Actor And The Housewife by Shannon Hale

Famous actor meets small-town Mormon housewife, friendship ensues. It's basic romance novel premise (except they're both married to other people) but this book is an interesting take on the question of whether a man and a woman can be platonic friends (not to mention if one is hot and rich and famous and the other is not).

A Homemade Life
by Molly Wizenberg

This is pretty much a love letter from Molly to her father, revolving around food. I adored this and it made me want to give my dad a hug. Also, there's a romance in the second half between Molly and a guy who writes her a fan letter that's really sweet. I'm planning to actually buy this book, I liked it so much.

The Housekeeper And The Professor
by Yoko Ogawa

A woman is hired to be the housekeeper for a professor who suffered an accident years ago that has left him with the ability to only remember a few hours into the past. Is it possible to come to care for a person when you can never remember them? In turns heart-wrenching and beautiful.

And some series that I'm quite enjoying:
T.A. Pratt's Marla Mason books
Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega books
Joanna Bourne's Spymaster series
Kelly McCullough's WebMage series
Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series
Michelle Sagara's Chronicles of Elantra series
Tanya Huff's Valor series. Actually, anything by Tanya Huff.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fancy Dinner

My Seperated at Birth Twin and I have decided that we're going to go to a fancy/interesting/special restaurant once a month so we can expand our dining horizons and see how the richer half eats.

Our bar was set a few years ago when we went to Morimoto and had the $120 chef's choice tasting menu (omakase) for our birthdays. Holy crap, that was good. I still dream about some of the dishes we had.

A few months ago we went to Pearl, which then promptly changed concept and/or closed (it's now called Akoya). It was great. A bit pretentious, but the food was delicious.

Last night we went to James, which is a high-end local ingredients place. I loved the decor, our waiter was great, and the food was... for the most part good. I had herbed sweetbreads and my friend had sashimi, we shared a stinging nettle tortelli, and then I had the lamb and my friend had the veal. Then we shared a salt caramel semifreddo. The sweetbreads were nicely herbed but could have stood to be a bit crispier. The sashimi (which I got a bite of) was delicious and fresh. The tortelli was wonderful, it was my favourite dish of the night. The lamb, which was cooked medium rare, managed to be dry (I'm not quite sure how that's possible). On the other hand, the veal was perfectly done. The semifreddo was very nice, the perfect end to the meal. So, the food was okay leaning towards very good in my opinion. It was also extremely expensive. My portion, for an appetizer, a shared second course, an entree, and a shared dessert (none of them large dishes) came to $75. Which would have been okay, I guess, if it was amazing. But I've had better food for far less at places like Saute. Plus, we were only offered bread once during the meal, and when I got home I ended up eating a bowl of popcorn and some pineapple because I wasn't full. For the price we paid I expected to at least end up with a full belly.

So although the service was good and the place is gorgeous, my food did not measure up. I'm glad we gave it a try, but I won't be going back - if I'm going to spend that much money on that little food, it had better be knock my socks off amazing. This was just good (and the lamb just barely made it into that category).

Any suggestions for further experimentation? We'll eat pretty much anything.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Greek Feast

This weekend I decided that I wanted to cook Greek food, so I invited some friends over for Sunday dinner and started searching for recipes. I had lamb in the freezer so I decided to make souvlaki, but I wanted to try something different than the the slapdash 10-minute recipe I normally use (it's delicious by the way, I just wanted to try something different). While searching online I also ran across an interesting recipe for Dried Fig Souvlaki. It involves feta cheese, figs, sage, and prociutto. What the heck, I decided to give it a try. I was also set on making rice, but found a recipe for Greek oven roasted potatoes, and since I love those in restaurants, I wanted to see if I could make them at home.

Surprisingly, I ended up batting three for three! I decided that I don't really like the taste of fresh sage, so the fig souvlaki wasn't my favourite, but my guests seemed to really love it. The lamb was delicious and the potatoes are addictive.

I also lazy'd out and bought baba ganoush, tzatziki, and dolmades from Kamal's Middle Eastern Specialities in Reading Terminal Market. I also walked over to Cafe Fulya to pick up some of the best baklava I've had since the stuff made by the little old ladies at the Syrian Orthodox church in Sioux City, Iowa.

I'm looking forward to leftovers for dinner tonight.

I forgot to take pictures, but here are the three recipes I used:

Lamb Souvlaki (I misread the recipe while making it and used a tablespoon each of oregano and garlic instead of a teaspoon)

Dried Fig Souvlaki (I used 1/2 a sage leaf per fig because a whole leaf was far to overpowering when I tested it out first)

Oven Roasted Potatoes (I halved the recipe and it worked out just fine, with lots of leftovers(I think we were all getting pretty full))

There was also a great Greek salad courtesy of my guinea pigs...I mean dinner guests, but I don't have that recipe.

All in all, a successful evening. The only casualties were a pair of salad tongs that snapped during washing and a salad plate that I dropped in the sink and shattered.

Plus, my friends just got cable yesterday, including HBO, so I went down to their place afterward and watched the True Blood season premiere.

I think I'll try Afghani food next, or maybe Thai or Vietnamese. Guinea pigs welcome.