Saturday, July 31, 2010

One last thing

I'll shut up about ereaders and ebooks and anything else that involves taking a regular word and then sticking an 'e' in front of it, but I just wanted to share one last thing that makes me happy about my Sony PRS-600:

One thing they got completely right is that when I switch it on it takes maybe three seconds to go from switched off to looking at the last page I read.

That's faster to boot up than my MP3 player. It's faster than my TV or my mobile phone. It's so much faster than my PC that I could switch them on at the same time and read a few pages while I wait for the computer to get its act together.

I'm not sure I could find my place any quicker with an old fashioned, dead-tree book.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


A week after I give up waiting for Amazon to get together a British edition of the Kindle and go buy another ereader, they announce a release date for it.

I expected to feel a little annoyed, but I'm not really. I found an ereader that I'm so happy with I want to hug it and pet it and call it George, and while the Kindle has some advantages, notably the massive library of ebooks that Amazon aren't interested in selling in any competing formats, it also has a few drawbacks that I'm delighted I don't have to deal with.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

ebay strangeness

I just counted fifteen copies of The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas listed on ebay in the non-fiction category.

I realise that homoeopaths are deluded at the best of times, but I find it hard to believe that many of them would claim their magic remedies to enable telepathy or time-travel.

eBook report: second impressions

When you read a review it's usually true to say that the reviewer has not spent enough time with the thing they are reviewing to get bored with it or break it. The truth is that a professional reviewer simply doesn't have the time to spend much more than half an hour with the thing because they are paid by the word, and time spent reading books, playing games, or poking gizmos is time they are not earning money.

Consequently they can give you some basic look & feel information about the product, but they can't say much about what it's like living with it for a month. So I thought it take that extra step and chronicle my ongoing experiences with the Sony PRS-600 Reader.

It's been a week now and I'm surprised how much the reader has become an integral part of my life. I'm almost tempted to clasp it close and murmur "my precious". I think the size is key here. It is small enough for me to easily carry around with me, but with a large enough screen to make reading it as easy as reading any paperback. I'm glad mine came with the nice leather cover as this prevents it from getting bumps and scratches from everyday use, and holding it with the cover open feels much more like an ordinary book-reading experience than if I was just looking at the screen.

I'm also glad I invested in a 2GB SD card, as I managed to fill up the main system memory quite quickly. And while this may be largely down to the half-dozen manga I included, any graphics heavy files, like computer manuals or text books, would similarly take up much larger amounts of space than pure text. The specifications say it will hold "upto 350 books"; I doubt I managed fifty before I moved on to the SD card. Having said that, I think 2GB is probably enough. Unless you are a voracious reader who is planning to be away from home for a month or more, loading up the machine with more than 200 books is only going to leave you lost for choice about what to read next.

I think I've now managed to work out how to use all the functions available. The librarian in me is a little dismayed to find that listing books by author name will only catalogue them by first name rather than surname, but I like that you can sort books by "collections" based on tags. This takes a little effort to use efficiently because a lot of books come with dozens of tags, but I just worked out how to edit them down to something that suits me using Calibre. So if I don't have anything particular in mind I can now easily search through individual catalogues of "short stories", "humour", "science fiction", "cheese", or any other category I feel like setting up.

I did install the Sony software that came with the Reader, but Calibre is so much more useful that once I became aware how limited the Sony program is I haven't bothered with it.

As for the extra features of the PRS-600, I like the touch screen. I haven't tried a reader that has a lot of buttons, or a few buttons that have to do multiple jobs, but I have an old MP3 player that has one rocker switch that, depending on how you press it, adjusts the volume, moves forward or back through the current track, moves forwards or back between tracks, and pages through the menus. It's a pain in the ass, and way too easy to find yourself in completely the wrong track when you just wanted to make it a bit louder. Even if you have enough buttons for all the functions, I doubt it compares with simply touching the relevant part of the screen. It feels very intuitive and comfortable.

I haven't yet felt the need to use the dictionary, except to try it out. But I can see where it would be nice to do an immediate look up when I come across a word I don't understand. And this feature also enables you to search for particular words anywhere in the book. For me it's a nice extra, but I'd definitely class it as a luxury, rather than an essential.

I still find the biggest drawback is the lack of books available in ebook format. While it's possible to find plenty of free ebooks on the net, from copyright-free older books at sites like Project Gutenberg (who so far have surprisingly little H.P. Lovecraft) to more legally dubious collections, if you want to buy from strictly legal booksellers like Barnes & Noble or Waterstones, you'll find the selection limited and expensive. I read an ebook of a writer previously unknown to me and was unable to find any other works by her available in electronic form. I ended up getting her Times Bestseller in paperback from Amazon for the princely sum of one penny.

In conclusion, one week on I give the Sony PRS-600 Reader 9 out of 10 for making reading fun, but I give the booksellers 4 out of 10 for wasting the opportunity to sell me stuff by not providing books I want to read at a reasonable price.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eye on the Price

One big drawback of ereading is book prices. On the one hand you can't browse second hand bookstores for ebooks, and on the other it seems that publishers are under the distinct impression that it costs more to format a one megabyte file and make it available for download than it does to buy a lot of paper and ink, combine the two with a lot of big machines into a pleasing shape, and then ship the result to the shop.

I can't imagine any other reason why the new bestseller I want to read costs more as an ebook than it does as a hardback.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

eBook report: first impressions

While I was waiting for the Sony Reader to arrive on my doorstep I've been preparing a bunch of books to load onto it using Calibre on my PC, which is a great little program that appears to be able to convert almost anything into a format my Reader can understand.

I therefore picked samples from many different sources and formats to test how the Reader handled them. The one thing I'd been a bit concerned about was the page refresh speed, particularly with graphics, after seeing this little video.

The reader duly arrived. Instructions are minimal. One page of the small leaflet shows you where all the buttons are, and the other page basically just tells you to plug it into your computer and follow the prompts. To be fair, it's a fairly simple device. It only does the one thing, so the instructions don't need to be lengthy. But it would have been nice if it had informed me about basic functions like automatic bookmarking of everything you read, rather than leaving you to find this out by trial and error.

The unit itself is the size of a Tokyopop manga, but a lot thinner. Also noticeably heavier. I did set up the official software, but soon found it limited and annoying. I think I'll probably just stick to Calibre.

I loaded it up with my test selection of books, and started reading.

First impression is how dark the screen is. I'm just not used to a screen that isn't backlit. It's fine in normal daylight, but I can see why they sell little light attachments for them. Next thing I noticed was that I had a little trouble focussing on the lettering. I think that's maybe because I was trying to read it at the distance I would for a normal book, and it's not quite the same. We shall see.

Then I got on to testing how comics looked on it. Manga looks surprisingly good, although text readability drops off fast as it gets smaller. Some fan translations use an unnecessarily small font that leaves lots of empty space in the text boxes and balloons, and is difficult to make out even on a full size monitor. After a little trial and error I found that changing the orientation does wonders for readability. It leaves something to be desired aesthetically to only be able to see half a page at a time, but I'm prepared to sacrifice that much if it means I don't have to squint with my nose pressed against the screen. It still doesn't save the tiny-text fan scans, but I'm not sure what would.

The major relief is that page-loading times are fine. I noticed it was a little slower for a 200 page file, but I'd expected that, and had intended to split up anything over 100 pages anyway. As far as manga is concerned, it ticks all the boxes.

Ordinary book files read pretty much like reading a regular book. Variation in quality seems more down to the original file coding than anything else. Hard to say without an extended test. I need to actually read a whole book on it to judge.

The touch screen works so well I almost forgot to mention it. After a couple of minutes it felt so natural to turn pages by a little flick of the finger that I stopped noticing I was doing it.

Clever stuff you can do with the Reader includes highlighting passages or even scribbling on pages, but I can't work out how to do the dictionary look up, though. You'd think a machine that is perfect for reading PDF manuals would come loaded with one of its own, but no. I think I saw a review on Youtube that went through all the features. I'll have to see if that explains it.

To conclude first impressions, it seems to do pretty much what I expected of it, which is a good thing, since that, after all, was why I bought it. Biggest drawback at this point is the annoying lack of documentation. But, to be honest, if the worst you can say about a new device is that the manual is a bit lacking, then I think it's a good result.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Like a book

At the point where everyone is buying an iPad I have instead opted for a Sony Reader. Why? I suppose the most obvious reasons are 1) it cost me less than a third as much as an iPad, and 2) an iPad wouldn't fit in my bag.

It's all about defining what you want. I wanted something that enables me to read books, that reads like a book, doesn't strain my eyes (like a book), and that fits the paperback sized space in my bag(1). Sure, the iPad is new and shiny and does lots of clever things and connects to the net and all that stuff, but it doesn't have an e-ink screen and it's too big for my bag. So the fact that it does all kinds of extra fun stuff is a bit pointless if it doesn't fulfil the primary criteria I was looking for(2).

I had been waiting for the Kindle to show up in the UK. But it's been a year since the Kindle 2 was released, and Amazon UK are still suggesting I import it myself, so I don't think they are really trying. Plus I'd need to get the Kindle DX to get the right wireless connection and that one is again too big for my bag.

So that was how I ended up looking at the Sony PRS-600. I did my research and read user reviews, and it seems to be the best e-reader currently available. The older 505 is a little cheaper, and it's generally considered to have a slightly clearer screen, but the 600 has twice as much memory and useful extras like the built in dictionary. It's also touch screen based, instead of all the buttons on the 505; not sure what difference that makes.

Having decided on my choice of reader, it then seemed a good idea to see if I could actually find the books I wanted to read in a suitable format. It turns out that yes, I could. I found all sorts of obscure science fiction novels that I own or once owned and would love to read again. I found books I wanted to read that I've been unable to find in dead tree format because they've been out of print for twenty years. And I found five of the seven books currently on my Waiting to be Read shelf.

Okay, I confess some of these were not strictly legally authorised editions. But when it comes to books that I already own in another format, or a book that I've been hunting for ages and would happily pay money for if only someone would make it possible for me to buy it, I don't feel like I've cheated anyone.

What really surprised me was the manga. It hadn't occurred to me that I could read manga on it. I mean manga collections are the right size(3), but I guess it hadn't realised it could do pictures too. In fact there seems to be a whole niche fan base for ebook manga. It's a shame the official publishers haven't noticed or they might be able to open up a whole new market.

So having found my e-reader and ascertained that there is plenty of material available for me to read that interests me, I have now ordered a Sony Reader PRS-600. I'll let you know how it works out when it arrives.

1) Truth to tell, the last two actual books I've read don't fit that last criteria, as one was an oversize paperback and the other was a hardback.
2) Sure, I could get a bigger bag, but I like the one I've got. Had I found something that was perfect in every other way, I might have considered this, but I didn't.
3) Manga, specifically, rather than comics generally because the standard collected format for manga is the right size, so it's intended to be read that way. Western comics are intended to be seen larger and so are much harder to read at this size. They are also usually in full colour.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tooting one's own tooter

Returning to this blog after a long gap, I had a stroll through some of my old posts and I'm surprised to find that some of them aren't half bad. Which got me thinking about collecting together the good bits and publishing them. Probably just as PDFs, as there would be all kinds of copyright issues if I wanted to do anything more professional.

And then that turned into two books, because there's enough to do one that's purely Wonder Woman focussed and one that's everything else. So I'm now working my way through collating it all and polishing it up a bit. Though probably not much, as I'm far too lazy to make that much effort when I'm not getting paid for it.

I guess this means I'm going to have to finally get around to reading the last thirty issues of pre-Crisis Wonder Woman in order to finish it off. Le sigh.

ETA: Here's a question for anyone who has read much of my ramblings; for the non-Wonder Woman collection I wasn't thinking of including any actual comics reviews, but as I look through, I find that some of them (particularly the Teen Titans and Legion Showcase bits) stand up quite well. Should I include them or not?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Feminist language

Language defines our world in so many unconscious ways. The words we use to describe things say a lot about how we view the world. More, the associations we have for a word are important, even if we don't see any connection. So when people say that when they use "gay" as an insult it has nothing to do with their attitudes toward homosexuals, they are wrong.

How can I say that? Consider the trouble caused by the usage of the word "niggardly", which has no racial connotations at all, and yet people who have used it have been given reprimands, been sued, or even lost their jobs for using a word that sounds similar to an unacceptable word. In fact it's now pretty much disappeared from the language altogether.

In the early days of feminism there was an effort to add some gender balance to language by changing words that had "man" in them to something a bit more gender-neutral. Some did take; for example "chairman" is now often "chair-person", or the slightly sillier (to my mind) "chair". Many did not. What I've noticed lately is something of a feminist revenge, where rather than attempting to "fix" the established language and persuade other people (particularly men) to use it, women have just started making up new male-specific words that often describe aspects of the female experience (eg. mansplain, man flu) which somehow hadn't been covered before.

And what's even more amusing, to me at least, is the rise of male-specific words to describe things that are traditionally more female associated, and why it's not in any way effeminate or un-manly for a guy to be associated with them (eg. man purse). Possibly used sarcastically, but your mileage may vary.

Not to be confused with words where someone has taken an offensive female-specific word and applied it to a man (eg man-slut). Equality of offensiveness is still just offensive.

A stroll through Urban dictionary has pages of this stuff, including many hilarious examples I've never heard of before, but am now noting down and looking for opportunities to insert them into conversation.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Boring, Boring Violence

It's not exclusively a comics thing, but I am starting to get fed up of what many comics writers seem to think is a realism thing to get specific about all the injuries the characters are suffering.

The first time I noticed it was The Dark Knight Returns, where we get this litany of damage Bats is suffering from as the story progresses, but I've seen it a lot recently. Where the "reality" falls down is where despite being concussed, shot, beaten up, a broken arm, had their powers stolen, shot again, dropped out of a helicopter, and had their leg bitten off by a werewolf, the hero still somehow manages to hold it together for as long as it takes to win the day.

It doesn't take long before the tension created by injuries becomes lost once you realise that it's not actually stopping them from doing anything they need to do, and they will completely recover from it anyway. Lately I've been reading The Dresden Files, and it's reaching the point where I feel like a sucker for feeling any kind of concern for the latest injury Harry is dealt, because, honestly, if the broken leg he got last chapter isn't slowing him down, I don't see how being beaten up again is going to make much of a difference.

I'm not saying that I want to see the lasting effects that such injuries cause someone to recur through the rest of the series, I'm just saying that if they are not going to have real effects then don't have them in the first place.

Is it worse to have a character seriously hurt but somehow act like they haven't been nearly as badly hurt as we've been told, or to not have them hurt that bad in the first place?

Edited to add:
I think I've solved it. It was when it occurred to me that The Dresden Files are written in the first person. It's Harry telling the story. Things never were quite as bad as he tells you; he's bigging up how hurt he is for sympathy and to show how cool he is. Harry Dresden has manflu.