e-Reader – Beginning to Cave

I am an avid reader. I started in high school, voraciously reading science fiction. I can get through 3 or more Sci Fi novels in a week.

I used to be a frequent visitor to the used book stores.

E Readers, FTW!
E Readers, FTW!

The advent of eBooks was a godsend. Instead of raiding the used book stores, and carrying 6 or 7 books when I go on business trips, I use a reader.

My first reader was a Sony. I got it before the launch of the Kindle, so it was the only real choice. I loved that thing. I could carry as many books as I wanted to carry, and always had fresh material.

A couple years later, my Sony got stolen, and I replaced it. This was probably 2010 or so.

In the mean time, the Amazon Kindle launched and pretty much took over the market. But I had a pretty large investment in ePub books, and they are not compatible with the Kindle. So the kindle was never a really an option.

Fast forward to today. My sony has been through 3 batteries, and is feeling its age. I still have a shitload of ePub books (with and without DRM), and I read mostly on one of my tablets. Yes, it isn’t as satisfying as a good e-ink display in bright light, but it is convenient.

But the tablet is not an ideal platform. The temptation to just drop to email, or do a quick check on Facebook is too great, and interrupts my reading.

Kindle makes an appearance

I was browsing Amazon a few weeks ago, and one of their free kindle books was tempting. I had known that there was an app for my iphone/ipad and android tablet. So I grabbed the free book, and the app and started reading. I reall liked it.

The Kindle ecosystem has some great attributes:

  • The store is very well set up. It is easy to find what you are interested in. Plus, since I have been buying books and media from Amazon for 14 years or more, they know what I like. So their recommendations are on target.
  • The buying process is easy. No, I am not using whispernet, but it is real easy to buy a title and have it sent to one of my devices.
  • The selection on the store is amazing. Amazon truly does have the widest selection, and the prices are good. I mostly bought before from the Sony store, or the Google Play store. Rarely from the Apple itunes store.

So, I am once again in the market for a dedicated reader. While the tablets are nice, and very servicable, a dedicated reader has some benefits, including the higher resolution e-ink screen, and vastly longer battery life.

I could go back to Sony, but the quality and features have really degraded. Or rather they haven’t kept up. Kobo is another choice, but again, it is a distant 3rd place.

Thus, it looks like I will be opening my wallet to buy a kindle. Probably a Paperwhite Wifi unit.

I can use Calibre to convert my ePub library to kindle format. So I will be able to move over most of my collection seamlessly.

I have held out against the Kindle for a long time. Early kindles seemed toylike and cheaply built, but it is clear that it has won the e-reader market.

I thought I was done… The Baroque Cycle

I am a huge SciFi fan, been reading it since I was in high school. I have lately become a fan of Neal Stephenson (ok, not so recently, I read Snow Crash shortly after it was published), but it has taken me forever to read the the books in the Baroque Cycle. Today, I finished the second novel, The Confusion, thinking that I was finished with the set.

WRONG.

It seemed like a funny place to leave off, and alas, it was. There is a third book, another 900 pages. The System of the World.  Groan.  I guess I will have to work my way through this tome as well.

One of the reasons it has taken me so long to get through the first two tomes is that it became clear that my lack of knowledge of European history of the 1600 – 1800 was pretty weak, so I have been bolstering that as well (and it greatly enhances the enjoyment of the novels).

It is back to see what Jack Shaftoe has in store.

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Some thoughts

I have been doing a lot of reading of history, deep into European history from the middle ages to present, as well as a pretty deep dive into US history. Sparked by a conversation with a colleague in Europe who was showing me where many historical events happened in Frankfurt-Mainz during a day of sightseeing on a trip last year. It reminded me that I knew very little about actual European history, apart from what little is covered when studying the US Colonial period.

I find that in my facebook friends feed, I have several people who are dedicated Tea Party adherents, and they love to toss out quotes from the founding fathers in support of their beliefs. However, I find that many of these quotes are so far out of context that they are contorted into precisely the opposite of the original intent. Additionally, it is clear that these folks have a pretty thin knowledge of US history, likely what they learned in secondary (high) school.

I of course had Civics in highs school as well as the required US History curriculum, and I lived happily ever after … until in my 3rd year of college I took a university level US history course. My eyes were opened. The high school level course was superficial, and outright hid/lied about many of the formative events throughout the history of these United States. The curriculum was clearly molded to make America appear to be a beacon of all that is right in the world, and that she never, ever did anything wrong. But America is made of men, and men do many dumb, and unsavory things. Much of this came out in a fairly unbiased text when I was in college. I have additionally read a few different historians to broaden my knowledge and understanding, and I remain just as skeptical of the claim that the USA is the most, bestest, and complete beacon of freedom in the world.

Unfortunately, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the Tea Party believers/adherents in my circles seem to have halted their study of history and political affairs after that biased high school history and civics course.

To truly understand the writings and intents of the founding fathers, you need to understand much more than just a high school history and civics education. You do need to understand what was happening in the world at that time, and leading up to that time, and then you will have a very different appreciation of the words written in the federalist papers, and the other formative documents of the revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Jefferson certainly had in mind the lessons of the 30 year war, and how state sanctioned religion tears apart the fabric of society. How the rigid class system with ~ 5% nobility, 10% clergy, and the rest being serfs tied to a landlord. How systems of revenue generation of states by increasingly squeezing the serf population with taxes, while exempting both the higher classes.

There is much more context, and turmoil in continental politics, and people who want to have an understanding of the forces and fires that forged the American experience ought to take the time to read up on the history that preceded the revolution, and the subsequent development of our constitutional republic.

Some sources that are good reads:

European history – A complete history of Europe from the middle ages to the present – by John Merrimack – Professor of history, Yale

American history – Daniel Boorstin has a series of very approachable books that are worthy, and chart the evolution of the Americas from early colonial times through the 20th century.

I will probably not accept any comments, as I really don’t want to get into ideological rants. I just hope that I spark a few people to look more at what was happening around the time of the formation of the USA and how we fit into the world of that time, and how we have changed to where we are today.

What I am reading: 1984

With all the buzz lately about the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, and the surveillance state, I thought I would pick up my copy of 1984 and re-read it.

Set in the year 1984, it is a masterful piece of fiction that is remarkably prescient in many of its predictions, given that it was published in 1949. The two way telescreen is particularly poignant, with the amount of listening that is apparently being done by BB.

I didn’t read this, or its other kin when I was in High School like most people. I picked this up in my 30’s, along with Animal Farm, and Aldus Huxley’s: Brave New World. So I didn’t have a literature teacher guiding us through the analysis, so I was free to take my own views.

First, the world is different from the time when George Orwell wrote this. At that time, it appeared that “socialism” would sweep the world, and that there would be three major centers of socialism, Ingsoc (or english socialism), eastasia, and eurasia, that would be perpetually at war with each other. Like the Russian and Chinese form of socialism, society has been structured into two halves, the proles (proletariat) making up about 85% of the population, and the “party”; the apparatus that keeps the proles in check. Within the party, there is the inner circle, who don’t have much privation or limits on what they can do, and the rest of the party, who lives in a state of fear/hate.

The protagonist, Winston Smith works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth (minitrue), “adjusting” prior published facts to ensure that the official party line from today matches what was said yesterday.

There is a whole group who works on newspeak, a language that is used to communicate to the party. New-speak phrases like “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” are the mantra of the party, and talks about the double speak.

While I don’t think that we have devolved to a society where common household goods are rationed, and there is a black market for things like coffee and razor blades, it is hard to not see the parallels with the modern state. A significant amount of history revision is common in the political class (both parties are equally guilty), and the policy makers /  “aristocrat” class seem to become ever more isolated from the plight of the common man.

I am also reading a detailed history of Europe from the middle ages to the present, and much of the societal structure outlined in 1984 is aligned with typical European societies in the past. Of course, the mechanization of production, and the shifting of power to labor, and now back to capital, is part of the shifts in society.

Along the way, Winston starts doubting the world order when he comes across incontrovertible evidence of fraud in the ruling class. From that point on, he begins with small rebellious behaviors, and escalates.

The story is a great tale of fighting the system.  If you haven’t read it since your secondary school, I would highly recommend picking it up and reading it again.

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Fixing ebooks with errors – A personal challenge

I have wholly embraced the eBook revolution. As a long time traveler, and SciFi aficionado, I have assembled a large collection of books that I continue to read to mark them off my to do list.

Being a fan of science fiction, I have been forced to acquire some of my books by extra-legal means. Since many of the classic tomes of the golden era of SciFi are out of print, and have no official ebook release to buy, I turn to the internet.

With few exceptions, these books are scanned and OCR’d from print, and then stuffed into a file to read. Lots of early Heinlien, and obscure authors exist only this way.

The problem, OCR still sucks.  Even the best algorithms barf a lot on text and thus there are spots of garbage in many of these books.

I sometimes make it a personal mitzvah to clean up a book.

Classic example was the “To the Stars” trilogy, by Harry Harrison (his real name, not a nom de plume). It was a rather poor scan and conversion to an RTF file. It was a painful process to fix, but totally worth it, because it made the book completely readable.

However, if your book is in ePub of PDF format, you have fewer options.

Sigil, a pretty awesome open source ePub editor
Sigil, a pretty awesome open source ePub editor

The program I go to is Sigil. Provided there is no DRM, you can open and inspect the book, and fix small things. If you are savvy, you can also dive into the CSS stylesheet and alter fonts, indents, and other text properties (but be warned, some readers ignore much of the CSS codes and classes – I’m looking at you Sony Reader).

Sigil allows you to look at the text as it renders, at a split screen with the code below the rendered text, or just pure code. You can fix a lot of errors and glitches with the search and edit the code, saving back to the original file.

A future series of posts will go into depth on how to better structure the ebook.

Another good program, and one that is widely used Calibre. A library, and file manipulation program, it is open source and extensible. It makes it easy to convert from one format to another (Kindle to ePub, or LRM to ePub, and many other options.)

A nice touch is that in Calibre you can better setup the ISBN, the cover images, and get data on the book from public databases. I used Calibre to convert a collection of Doc Savage stories from the lrm format (the original Sony Reader format) to ePub, and to add good cover pictures.

In fact, most of the ebook files I look at in Sigil have signs of being converted/cleaned by Calibre, even some commercial books.

Doing this work, you find some things like:

  • Files which came from Microsoft Word – littered with the “class=msonormal” tag. Ugh. I don’t usually curse too much about microsoft office, but what it outputs for HTML that is converted into an ebook is a crime against humanity.
  • Most ebooks, even commercial, professionally edited and assembled ones, have horrible structure. Not proper links to the chapters, nor proper tables of contents. Commercial books are much more likely to get this right, but it is a disaster on the community sourced works. I am working up a process to fix that.
  • There are some truly shitty OCR engines out there. Even high priced, high performance engines have trouble, the second tier is atrocious. Someone once grumbled on Slashdot why there weren’t any good (free) open source OCR engines, and the answer is that because it is friggin hard, and it often becomes a lifetime’s work to tune and improve the algorithm, so the good ones are not in a hurry to be given away.

I rarely make a mission to fix an ebook, but when I do, I want to leave something that is a better experience to read.

(For the record, if there is a place to buy a book, I will always buy it, but much of what I read is esoteric, or out of print, so I am forced into alternatives. )

What I am reading – Catcher in the Rye

I had read it a long time ago.  I think I bought a used copy at one of my trips to Powells in Portland, but a recent re-run of a South Park episode, “Scrotty McBoogerballs” caused me to pick it up again.

Certainly one of the best works of the 20th century.
Certainly one of the best works of the 20th century.

I am talking of course about Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. A story told from the eyes of the main protagonist, it is alive with the references and language that a troubled teen would use. When I was in high school, the words were different, and I didn’t go to a boys only prep school, but we used the lingua franca of the times in our daily conversation, much as Holden does in Catcher.

I did not read it as a teen, because at that time it was prohibited from the library. But had I, I would have identified well with Holden. Perhaps not as brusk or abrasive, but, like many, High School was a tumultuous time for me.

The premise of the South Park episode is that the boys are assigned the book, and told it used to be banned.  Thinking that it was filled with foul language, sexual innuendo and other titillating tidbits, the boys are disappointed in how tame the book was.

Likewise, my original thoughts on reading a “banned” book, the first time I read it I was looking for the causes of that banishment, but failed to “get” the whole point of the story.  This time through, I am reading it carefully, enjoying and savoring the experiences of Holden Caulfield, and his recounting of his experiences. It is both entertaining, and thought provoking.

If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, I highly recommend picking up this classic, and re-reading it, perhaps a few times, to truly grok its fullness.

Refresher: Set theory and logic

Yesterday, while I was waiting for my computer to be reimaged due to some serious funk happening with my outlook mail, I had a couple hours to burn. After I killed a longer than normal walk at lunch, I sat down in the lobby with a good book.

Background: my products are reliant on a lot of technology, but one aspect is critical in how they work and are used. This being a PID Servo Control system. While you don’t need to know in depth what that is to use one of our instruments, having a deep knowledge does indeed help you get the most out of it.

Control theory is something you would imagine to be the realm of electrical engineers, but curiously, it seems to be the realm of mechanical engineering. And at the root of it is math. To understand what is really happening, and how it works, you need to know a branch of mathematics called “Discrete Mathematics”. This is the foundation of computers and computer science, dealing with the world broken into discrete pieces and processed algorithmically. (As an aside, my education is in Physics, and there we deal in continuum mathematics, similar, but distinctly different).

So I picked up a textbook. I might have mentioned in the past that Dover publishing does a wonderful job of keeping classic science and math texts in print, and affordable.

The early parts of this text are a deep dive into set theory, function representation, and logic (mathematical logic is not the same as what most people think of logic). Being a child of the 70’s, and the evolution of mathematics elementary education, I had always some concepts of sets, and operations on sets. But beyond this informal early introduction, I never really dove into the subject. Some of my physics topics touched upon it, but again, it was using set theory to get to a solution.

The first chapter was an eye opener. I realize what I had learned earlier was very shallow, and cursory, but now I have a much deeper understanding of these foundations of modern mathematics.

A good way to spend a couple hours.  Next up is counting (combinatorics).

What I am reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

(Well, re-reading really)

A classic, "must read" science fiction novel. It propelled me to read lots and lots of SciFi
A classic, “must read” science fiction novel. It propelled me to read lots and lots of SciFi

My memory is foggy, but I think this is the book that someone tossed at me in my sophomore year of high school. Written by Robert Heinlein, and originally published in 1961, it is one of the “must reads” in the SciFi genre.

The premise is fairly simple. A manned expedition to Mars meets with tragedy, and the only survivor was an infant born shortly on their arrival. Orphaned, he was raised by the Martians as a (strange) martian. When a follow-on mission arrived, they expected to not find any survivors, but instead found the child, now in his late teens (early 20’s?  It is never mentioned how old he was directly), who has never had contact with his race. The story of Valentine Michael Smith, the first interplanetary bastard.

They bring him back, and a wild ride begins. He is early on involved with some intrigue and political interplay, but is soon spirited away to the compound of one of the central figures, a cantankerous old man named Jubal Harshaw.

From there, many formative episodes are lined up in short order to integrate him into humanity, but, like the boy who was raised by wolves, the integration is never quite complete. Indeed, the introduction to the concept of ‘religion’ is through a cult like church called the Fosterites (after their founder, whose name was Foster). Preaching a gospel of be happy, don’t worry, and all will be good.  The services include interesting dance, and other traditions that you would not associate with “church”.

Michael takes from this a “badness”, but senses that at a deep level the concept of god is “goodness”. The martian in him leads him to declare that “Thou art God”, that is me, you, the blade of grass, my greyhounds etc.  Every entity has some element of god in it, and by learning the Martian language, you can learn to control both your body as well as physical things around you.

Of course, the established religions view this with disdain, and run the “nest” (as the church is called) out on a rail.  The ultimate confrontation is where the Fosterite congregations whip up a mob mentality, and Michael takes their abuse, violence and even gunfire in a calm, peaceful manner, uttering as his last breath a “Thou art God” to the grashopper by his head as he expired (discorporated in the parlance)

I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I first read it in high school, and have re-read it a few times over the years. It started me on a quest to read and enjoy SciFi, and I have relished in it. When the book was written originally, it had some 320K words.  The editors in 1960 thought that was too long, ans asked for 70K words to be edited out.  That was the official version until Heinlein’s widow discovered the original manuscript, and had it re-published.  The extra words do much t help the story, and I am glad to have read both versions.

The other thing this story did was cause me to look at religion from the outside.  I was not brought up in a family that went to church, and apart from tagging along a few times with neighbors, I had little exposure to organized religion. The theology of Michael and the Fosterites was intriguing, from an intellectual point of view. I got the impression (many years later) that the Fosterites was a swipe against L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Perhaps, perhaps not (what I have learned about scientology gives me the creeps.)

If you are a fan of science fiction, and haven’t read this, I highly recommend it. If you aren’t a fan, but are interested in the genre, this is actually a very readable book that will entertain on many levels.

What I am reading: History of Modern Europe

I am an avid reader, have been since I was in my early teens.  While most of my reading tends to favor the SciFi genre, I have developed a taste for history.

When I was in High School I had the usual US history, and with it a smattering of world history. Of course, my 3rd year of university, I took a college level US history course, and learned how badly we were lied to in high school. Since then I have read more granular accounts of the US experience, and I have enjoyed it.

Lately though, I have come to the realization that I have a severe deficiency in my knowledge of European history.  Late last year, I was in Germany, and one of our local people took me to the Frankfurt Christmas market, and he was explaining to me about the history of the Frankfurt/Mainz area. I realized that I had almost no knowledge of the history of the Continent.

So I have resolved to rectify that shortfall.  I first found a course on the Itunes university on modern European history, taught by John Merriman, professor at Yale.  I also picked up his monstrous tome, “A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Present” (fortunately I was able to grab a used copy for $40 on Amazon).  It starts with a smattering of important topics from the medieval time, as that laid a lot of the groundwork of the renaissance.

I am through the renaissance and into the Reformation. It is a riveting read, and John Merriman is a gifted story teller.  The pace is good, and the illustrating stories are very helpful.  As this book is more than 1400 pages long, I will take quite some time to read it, and thoroughly learning the path from feudal medieval Europe into the states that exist today.

(I also read a lot on the history of mathematics and physics, but reading about real history helps place the development of mathematics in context.)

I will drop back in and report as I am working my way through this.