Tag Archives: e-readers

Mini-Rumination: Stating the Obvious

So the people from the Pew foundations – in this case, some highfalutin’ no-think tank called the “Pew Internet & American Life Project” – have issued a report that shows that more and more people are using e-readers and tablets to read books.

Talk about stating the obvious.  What’s next, Pew?  A study finding that water is wet?  That illness eventually leads to death?  That the sun’ll come out tomorrow?

Pew:  these are foundation people who use their millions and billions – or, in the case of old-school foundations like Pew, other people’s money – to try to tell people how to live their lives.  We don’t need them for that; if we want to listen to people tell us what we should think or how we should act, we have our priests, our ministers, our rabbis, and our mullahs.  In addition, the people on talk radio and the bozos on Fox and MSNBC are always pretty ready to tell us what to do and how to act.

And let’s not forget our mothers, either.

Pew.  It’s sort of onomatopoetic, isn’t it?

The Greatest Tool Ever for People With E-Readers

As described in a previous post, The Curmudgeon loves his Kindle.  Once upon a time, though, he wasn’t sure if he’d enjoy using an e-reader and had no idea which one might be right for him.

He knew he didn’t want a Nook; he’s never heard anything good about Nooks.  Everything he read suggested that a Sony reader was the best device, but they also were the most expensive at the time; at a cool $600, the iPad wasn’t in the contest at all and didn’t rate anything more than a laugh (and still doesn’t).  Cost was a legitimate concern because The Curmudgeon had never tried or even held an e-reader and had no idea if he would like it.  $200 was a lot to spend when it was possible any new acquisition would end up in the Drawer of Discarded Electronics, along with the transistor radio he hid under his pillow when he was a kid so he could listen to Phillies games late at night, his turntable (which doesn’t fit under his pillow), a Sony Walkman (for cassettes), a Sharp Wizard, a Handspring Visor, a cell phone the approximate size and weight of a brick, a silly little poker gizmo, a hand-held baseball game, and his first Palm (the gizmo, not the body part).

The Kindle looked like a good compromise – better than a Nook, less expensive than a Sony.  When the price fell to $119 – yes, a lot more than today, but that was inevitable – The Curmudgeon was about to take the Kindle plunge when he learned of one Kindle challenge he had heretofore heard nothing about:  the Kindle couldn’t read library books.  This was a serious issue:  The Curmudgeon is a library/used book guy, not a toss-out-thirty-bucks-for-a-new-hardback-at-Barnes-and-Noble fellow.

This challenge would discourage many people, but not The Curmudgeon – not so much because of his positive, indomitable, can-do spirit (those of you who know The Curmudgeon can resume reading when you stop laughing) but because he’s used a Mac for more than twenty years and has grown accustomed to being resourceful in doing all the work needed to convert content of all kinds into something he can use.

The problem is that as great as Amazon is – and The Curmudgeon is a big fan – his fondness for the company does not prevent him from seeing that Amazon is every bit as arrogant as Apple.  They want you to buy their products and their products only and they really don’t care if that’s not what their customers want.  They want all of your reading material to be new books you buy from them, not new books you buy from someone else and certainly not books you get from the public library for free.  The challenge, then, was to find a way around Amazon’s corporate piggishness.  So the question was this:  was there a way to translate a (non-Kindle) library book into a form that can be read on a Kindle – despite Amazon’s best effort to make that impossible?

Extensive research – okay, a quick Google search and some brief but serious reading – revealed that there is:  there’s a web site – http://calibre-ebook.com – that offers free software that will translate almost any e-book into whatever form you need to make it readable on your gizmo of choice.

And Calibre works.  In the past year The Curmudgeon has withdrawn and read dozens of free books from the public library, downloading them from the library’s web site (the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is free for all residents of Pennsylvania, not just Philadelphians, and sells non-residents (like The Curmudgeon) a library card and borrowing privileges for $35 a year), running them through Calibre, and then loading them onto his Kindle.  That’s too much work for some people but no big deal for a long-time Mac user like The Curmudgeon.  (Since The Curmudgeon went through all this work, the library has begun offering some books that are Kindle-compatible without all the effort.)

But Calibre is about much, much more than helping you read books that corporate profiteers want to deny you.  It also gives readers extraordinary access to periodicals – hundreds of periodicals – without charge.

What kinds of periodicals?  Newspapers, for starters.  Among the newspapers you can download through Calibre and then load onto any e-reader are the New York Times (excerpts only), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal (excerpts only), Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Detroit News, San Jose Mercury, Hartford Courant, and many more.  The Curmudgeon is a newspaper junkie, and with Calibre, it felt like he had died and gone to heaven.  Every Sunday is newspaper day in his house as he curls up with the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor (if you’ve never read the Monitor, don’t laugh until you’ve at least tried it), Politico, and about ten lesser Sunday papers each week or about forty different Sunday papers a month.

But there’s more than newspapers.  What?  Magazines:  entertainment magazines, political magazines, science magazines, business magazines, professional magazines, magazines that make a magazine-lover like The Curmudgeon a very happy boy.

As a political lefty, The Curmudgeon regularly downloads Mother Jones, the Columbia Journalism Review, American Prospect, The Nation, The Atlantic, and more.  He also reads magazines from the other side, like National Review, offerings from some conservative web sites, and transcripts from television and radio programs hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and other loony tunes.

For sports there’s Sports Illustrated.  For entertainment there’s Rolling Stone and Variety.  For you science aficionados there’s Discover Magazine, New England Journal of Medicine, Popular Science, Physicsworld, Science News, Scientific American, and others.

For news and general interest information there’s the Catholic News Agency, Business Week, Esquire, Field and Stream (sorry, The Curmudgeon refuses to classify this as sports:  if you win, you get to kill an animal or fish; if the animal or fish wins, it gets to live another day), Forbes, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, Newsweek, Time, The Economist, Politico, The New Yorker, Wired, and many others.  There are magazines about food and cooking, about computers and hobbies, about nature, about medicine, and about much, much more.  Finally, there are internet-only “publications:”  Slate, Salon, Grantland, Teleread, a very cool site called “Watching America,” Pajama Media, and others.  In all, Calibre offers some kind of access to more than 1100 periodicals, more than 400 of them in English, as well as more than 700 others from dozens of other countries and in dozens of other languages.

And did The Curmudgeon mention that this is all free?

How does Calibre do it?  At first that question troubled The Curmudgeon because it seemed like the only way to do get these free periodicals would be to persuade people to “contribute” their paid e-subscription materials and share them with others, which at the least would be highly unethical and at worst would be outright theft.  It turns out, though, that all of the periodical content available on Calibre is material that’s offered free of charge on the web sites from which the materials are drawn.  Calibre’s creator, Kovid Goyal, provides users with what he calls a “recipe” – essentially, a kind of program that is a great deal of work – for going to the web site of a favorite publication and automating the download of free material.  He then encourages people who’ve used his recipe to share their final product with other users of his site.  (The Curmudgeon hasn’t tried to implement a recipe; it looks a little – well, actually, a lot – beyond his technical capabilities).  Hundreds of people have contributed recipes, others report bugs, and all of it is loaded into almost weekly updates of the software.

So how good is the end product?  It varies, but mostly, it’s very good.  Some publications are almost complete; some are incomplete, tailored more to the interests of the person who created the program (for example, when The Curmudgeon first started using Calibre, the program for the Philadelphia Inquirer did not include local news and sports, so The Curmudgeon had to keep his paid subscription; now, the recipe is more complete and that subscription is long gone); and some become worthless over time because when publications revamp their web sites, the recipe no longer works (unless someone writes a new one).

Still, Calibre is an extraordinary tool for someone like The Curmudgeon.  It makes it possible to read library books that the people at Amazon would rather you not read; it enables newspaper junkies to gorge themselves at the buffet table; and it makes it possible for people like The Curmudgeon to eat their fill, and much more, on a regular basis.

The (free) site is calibre-ebook.com, and The Curmudgeon heartily endorses it for those of you who own e-readers and love to read and also for people who are considering getting an e-reader and are not sure whether it would be worth the investment.  Calibre changes the math in calculating whether an e-reader is worth it and for that reason alone is worth a few minutes of your time.

And no, cynics, this is not a paid advertisement.  It’s more like a love letter.

Kindle Love

The Curmudgeon is in love – with his Kindle.

In fact, it was pretty much love at first sight.

While The Curmudgeon enjoys his toys as much as anyone, he is not an early adopter.  To take the leap into expanding his digital horizons, he needs to see the value of leaping.  IPod?  No:  The Curmudgeon has never seen the need for portable music.  IPad?  No again:  The Curmudgeon still doesn’t see that as anything more than a toy.  Smartphone?  No again:  The Curmudgeon is single and childless, and when he’s not home, he doesn’t particularly want people reaching him without a very good reason.  His solution:  a prepaid phone – what an amused co-worker refers to as a “drug dealer’s phone.”  He makes clear to the very few who have his cell phone number –  his mother, his sister, his brother, his sister in-law, his nephew, and possibly an old girlfriend who was around long enough before dumping The Curmudgeon to store his number in her own phone – that he views the cell phone as something that should be used for two reasons and two reasons only:  emergencies and Chinese food.  The Curmudgeon does not “text.”

But like a sixteen-year-old boy and a Ford Mustang, The Curmudgeon had cast a lustful eye on e-readers for several years.  His reluctance to take the plunge was predicated on several factors.  For starters, the early generation e-readers were too expensive for a toy that might or might not prove worthwhile and The Curmudgeon is not made of money.  Also, The Curmudgeon tends not to read a great deal of popular literature, and less popular literature still tends to be less available in electronic form.  Finally, the most natural source of supply for reading material for an e-reader, the public library, still didn’t have much of a selection of e-books – and little that was on the list of “must-reads” that The Curmudgeon maintains in his Palm (see?  he is not a technophobe).

In early February, though, the stars finally aligned:  Amazon dropped the price of the Kindle and a quick survey of e-books offered by public libraries finally started uncovering more than a few books of interest.

So on a crisp but clear Saturday morning in February, The Curmudgeon walked to the Staples store on the corner and came home twenty minutes later with a Kindle.

And he’s been smiling ever since.

The Kindle (and The Curmudgeon is relatively confident that his assertions about the Kindle can be made about other e-readers as well) is sheer joy.  It’s easy to use and elegant to navigate and holds more books than the phony libraries that arrogant rich guys always seem to have in the movies.

The real benefit of the Kindle, The Curmudgeon finds – a benefit he did not anticipate – is how much easier it is to read a Kindle than it is to read a “real” book.

You see, The Curmudgeon has worn glasses since the third grade and has reached that age in life where his literal myopia is accompanied by the need for bifocals – in his case, the snazzy, I-don’t-look-so-damned-old-when-I-wear-these-progressive-lenses kind of bifocals.  Those unschooled in bifocaldom may not realize that such glasses, while a vast improvement over – well, over inadequate vision – mean that you never see quite the same way again.  The Curmudgeon finds it impossible, for example, to watch television in bed or while lying on his sofa:  his sightlines fall exactly where the upper part of the lens that treats one vision problem meets the lower part of the lens that corrects the other vision problem.  The result:  watching “The Big Chill” is a Big Blur.  While it’s theoretically possible to reposition televisions higher or lower, that seems like an awful lot of work for a guy who seldom watches from a prone position.

But The Curmudgeon had noticed over the years that reading had not been as comfortable as it once was.  After sitting up all day working – memo to self:  learn to type in a recumbent position – he has long found lying almost flat on his sofa to be the ideal position for recreational reading.  Over the years, as his vision deteriorated, The Curmudgeon found this increasingly difficult to do:  the book would be too close, or too far, and needing to hold it with two hands made even lying mostly flat somehow less comfortable.

The Kindle has changed that.  You can hold a Kindle with one hand, turn the page with one hand, change hands when you feel like it, prop it on your belly, hold it out to the left, push it out to the right, do the hokey pokey and shake it all about.

But that’s not all.  You can change the typeface to suit your needs:  bigger, smaller, more condensed, more spread out.  You can make the type larger when it’s later in the day and your eyes are tired or if you’re reading outdoors and it’s harder to see.

With the Kindle, reading became a whole new physical experience – an easier experience, a more comfortable experience, a better experience that has helped The Curmudgeon read more books in 2011 than he probably read in the three or four years before that combined.  No matter where The Curmudgeon sits, there’s a better, more comfortable way to read than he’s experienced in years.

And reading material is becoming more available, too.  For fifteen dollars, The Curmudgeon purchased borrowing privileges from the Free Library of Philadelphia and now borrows regularly.  He also dropped his thirty bucks a month subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer and subscribed to the Kindle version for $5.99 a month, mooching a wireless connection from a neighbor so it’s delivered automatically to his Kindle in the early hours of the morning – a fair trade in exchange for information provided to that neighbor about a web site that yields a huge trove of free periodicals formatted for e-readers (more on this site in a later post; if you haven’t already heard of Calibre, prepare to have your mind blown).

Oh, The Curmudgeon still reads “real” books; a lot of the things he wants to read aren’t offered by the library, aren’t available in e-book form at all, and are available for peanuts when purchased used.  But The Curmudgeon has no sentimental attachment to the look, the feel, or the smell of a “real” book.  Many years ago, The Curmudgeon and his father came upon a trove of used books at a flea market in Costa Mesa, California.  When dad smirked at the idea of buying used books, The Curmudgeon turned to him and said, “Same words.”  Many years later, father still occasionally cites son’s wisdom about this matter.

Today, like two people in the throes of love, The Curmudgeon and his Kindle are virtually inseparable.  They go almost everywhere together:  on vacation, on work-related road trips, to doctors’ waiting rooms, and more – everywhere except the bathroom.  There, even the Kindle can’t beat a hard copy of The New Yorker.