Books


I’ve had a chance to test two different eBook reader devices recently thanks to my friend, Paul Klipp. He is a fan of e-readers and has been trying to “convert” me for some time. Finally, he he gave me his two readers to try them out.

I did get the FoxIt’s eSlick first and I immediately liked it. The device is very light and therefore easy to carry around. It supports SD cards, but has enough internal memory to hold dozens of books. It connects to any computer with a standard USB cable and is visible as a USB drive, so it is easy to manage books stored on it on any operating system. And of course it loads its batteries from USB too.

But what I liked most about eSlick was its display – very crisp and paper-like, with characters clearly rendered in a very print-like manner. It was a pleasure to read in any light and I did read a lot over those few days I had it.

I tried it with some books and articles I had on my computer in PDF form, but I was mostly reading Peter Schiff’s “Crash Proof” which I have in both electronic and paper form. I was able to get a hundred pages further into this great book within just a few days – while the paper version has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for some time now. The reason is simple – eSlick is lighter and smaller than even this one book and therefore so much easier to carry around and get those quick reads while waiting for a bus, taking a break from work etc.

However, eSlick did have one annoying quirk with advancing pages. The device has just a few buttons (probably to reduce costs) and they are laid out in such a way that only the biggest square selector button is comfortable to use. This main button also serves the purpose of advancing pages – again, not very comfortable but enough to serve its purpose. However, the problem was the device was like falling “asleep” during the time it took me to read a whole page of my book. When usually just one press got me to next page after reading through it I had to tap the button a couple of times to get any reaction. This was distracting, because I had to mentally disengage from reading and keep on looking at the LED at the top of the device while taping the button to see when I’ll get the device to react. And it also did hang badly a few times – once I had to press simultaneously reset and power buttons to get it back to life.

Also, eSlick can only do PDF and text. And it can’t handle password-protected PDFs, so my attempt to read my copy of the PMI PMBOK failed with “corrupted file” error message.

But even with all those quirks and limitations I was starting to like the idea of having an e-reader after those couple days with the eSlick. So, when Paul handed me his Sony PRS 505 I expected an even better experience. After all Sony has been into ereaders for some time now and PRS 505 is a very popular reader.

The PRS 505 is much sturdier than eSlick thanks to its metal casing and – frankly – has a way better design. It is also significantly heavier. Keys are laid out in a way that makes it much easier to operate even with one hand and the navigation software is also superior to eSlick’s. However, I was utterly disappointed with it.

First, the display is much worse than eSlick’s, which was a surprise as it is based on the very same e-ink technology and I think made by the same company. While eSlick’s screen was crisp and sharp Sony’s looked dull and grey. The background was light grey and characters dark grey – not black on white paper-like display of the FoxIt’s reader.

But even worse, the Sony’s software can’t handle PDFs properly and above all fails utterly at zooming in any format maybe except plain text.

Only after trying PRS 505 I was able to appreciate way eSlick handled PDFs – and especially zooming in on them. eSlick zoom is what you expect it to be: when you zoom in it is the same page, laid out in exactly same way, with same typeface, same diagrams, pictures and sidebars only bigger. Not so with Sony – there zoom means reflow, that is a crude attempt at extracting plain text from the file and displaying it with built-in fonts. So on my “Crash Proof” PDF I had the option of either trying to decipher minutely small print of the 100% zoom or suffer with the reflowed version, without diagrams, with sidebars text just messed up with the main text etc.

Paul suggested that Sony’s zoom may work better on books from Sony’s ebook store which are specifically optimized for the device, so I tried “The back of the napkin” which Paul had on the device (great book BTW, will have to read it one day). Again, zoom failed miserably – while it zoomed text nicely it completely failed to zoom the images, so again it was hard to decipher them – and in this book they are quite an important part. Maybe there is a way to zoom them that I was unable to find, but certainly not by just pressing the zoom button as one would expect.

So, for those two reasons I didn’t read much on the Sony and in fact look forward to giving it back to Paul to get rid of it. To my utter surprise eSlick offered an overall better experience, especially thanks to its way superior display and better PDF handling. If they only fix the software glitch with advancing to new page I think I would be happy with it. In any case even as is it’s the clear winner in this comparison.

Also, after considering it I think that I like some design decisions Foxit made to keep eSlick reader simple. The fact that it handles only PDFs and not dozens of ebook formats like other readers maybe a very good design decision – after all almost anything can be converted to PDF and it is definitely the most popular format for books, articles – any written material other than web pages. The fact that it doesn’t have connectivity means you are kind of forced to focus on reading and are not tempted to browse the web, check blogs or download new content as would be the case with other readers.

Overall Paul did succeed to converti me to the idea of having an ereader and I think I’ll be buying one myself pretty soon. I’d just love to test hands-on (or, rather, eyes-on) the BeBook before I finally decide.

Anyone out there willing to lend me one for a week? :)

Tech Crunch claims repeatedly that Last.fm passed user data on to notorious extortion syndicate theRIAA has become. Their reports are based on unnamed sources, but Last.fm’s strong denial strengthens the suspicion that it may be indeed true (Prince Gorchakov, Russian foreign minister in the 19th century used to say that he doesn’t believe rumors that have not been strongly denied).

The prospect of RIAA thugs laying their hands on records of what all Last.fm users listened to over – in many cases – years is something that should serve as a wake up call for all of us. Even if it did not happen yet there is no guarantee it won’t happen in the future. Actually, one can be sure that one day it will. As we move more of our data to the notorious “cloud” – that is machines we have no control over at all – we basically make it available to the highest bidder. And consequently we loose some degree of control over our lives and privacy.

Conversely, the corporations operating the “cloud” get more and more insight into our lives, views, relationships, material possessions and even thoughts. Then they sell it to advertisers, governments and – as it turns out – RIAA thugs. This is, basically, why all those services are free to use. The users pay for them not with currency but with their data they feed into them.

And Last.fm is just the tip of the iceberg. Think of Google. If you use the whole range of their compellingly simple and easy to use services then they can corelate your e-mails kept in GMail with your photos kept in Picasa, with your conversations on Groups, your blog posts on their blogging engine, your documents and spreadsheets in their Docs and even your browsing history if you use their browser toolbar or Chromium browser. And they don’t have to manually browse through all that to use it – on the contrary, they can algorithmically process all this data and single out people that match a certain profile. Or detect trends. Or predict events. Or map people’s connections.

There is a book out now called “The Numerati” written by Stephen Baker that describes in terms understandable for a layman what can be algorithmically derived from all the data we leave about us. It is all great for marketers for pinpointing their advertising Google and others live off. But it’s also great for secret police and others who want to single out people based on their views or associations. And great for governments who want to know about trends in a population even before they are publicly expressed.

You think Google won’t work hand in hand with the government if asked, that they would resist to protect your privacy? Don’t delude yourself – they will do it the instant some types from NSA or another gov agency walk into their offices. And they even do it publicly now. Yeah, I know, it is just for predicting flu outbreaks and who would object to something this good etc. But same technology can be used for detecting and pinpointing, say, tax dissent (like tea parties). Or map support for anti-Obama politicians – especially given Google’s political views being in line with the current’s administration.

Since I have been using GMail for some time now I think Google knows more about me than any of the people close to me in the real life. I should have moved away from GMail already – the reason I didn’t do it yet is that using their services is so easy and in our busy lives there is little space left for setting up private servers, installing spam-fighting software etc. But the more I see and realize what is going on the more I’m compelled to do this.

For now I’ve uninstalled the Last.fm’s scrobbler – and so should you.

This is Saturday and as usuall after an intensive week like the last one I’m unable to work, even though I should. My spleen catches up with me so I took refuge in a book. Instead of reading about strategic management, which I should do, I indulged myself with Paul Johnson’s “The Birth of the Modern “, a well written popular history of the second quarter of 19th century, just after the Wiena congress.

It is refreshing in a sense to see that looking in detail at any historical period shows how ilusory is the conviction about uniqueness of our own time. And that social forces and pure luck influence the direction and pace of technological progress much more than many intelectuals would admitt.

OK, time to bed, I’m tired enough so that I shouldn’t have trouble falling asleep.

I’m not a great connoisseur of Gabriel García Márquez prose, in fact, “Doce cuentos peregrinos” (“Strange Pilgrims: Twelve Stories“) that I’m reading now is my first real encounter with his work. And this collection of twelve short stories is also the second real book I read in Spanish. It’s not as easy to read in that language for me as Coelho, since Márquez’s language is much richer and complex. Yet, I really like it and I would like to recommend this book, as it seems to be a good introduction to Márquez.

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