More Kindle Stuff

I’m aware that most of what little I’ve blogged in calendar year 2010 is Kindle related. What can I say? It’s what I’ve been most interested in lately, which corresponds with me also not having a whole lot to say on much else. C’est la blog.

I got some nice traction on my Spanish to English dictionary, getting links from Teleread, Kindle World as well as assorted fora and other places.There appears to have been a few people with technical glitches but that were able to get them sorted out. I assumed correctly that a reasonable chunk of the feedback would be “Can you do another version for Language X to Language Y”. The answer there is “No”, as the only other language I care about at this moment is Spanish. What I did was not rocket science and anyone with minimal scripting and Google skills could easily duplicate the efforts in other languages if they desired.

I also got some traction in my head to head comparison between the Kindle and the Nook. I still am wiling to love future versions of the Nook, particularly the screen contrast. The hardware is quite nice and if they ever fix the lagginess of the UI and the weird counterintuitive menuing system, it has a whole lot of potential.

I personally am excited about the upcoming release of a Kindle Development Kit that allows for putting apps on there. I and a lot of my kindred spirits had two immediate thoughts on hearing this news: 1) I’m not sure this is a good idea because the strength of the Kindle is that you don’t have much going on but reading books and 2) I’m signing up to join the developer program anyway. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of ideas that would use little or no bandwidth and would also play into the strengths of the Kindle. These fall into two classes: apps that one might want to spend a lot of time immersed with that don’t require huge amounts of screen refreshing and plugins that extend the existing functionality of the device. If one is allowed to do things like add extra menu options such that you can leave a GoodReads or LibraryThing review from inside a book, for example, that could be a hot bit of functionality to extend the device. I’m looking forward to seeing the KDK once it is available.

I’m an AAPL shareholder who has done awfully well with my stock, and as such I love whenever people get excited about mythical upcoming products. However, I’m completely sick of iTablet speculation and will consider it a sweet relief tomorrow when whatever announcement is finally made. I think most of the “Kindle killer” talk is by gadget headed techno-insiders who consistently fail to understand how ordinary consumers actually use devices. Like I said above, I think the affordance of the Kindle actually make it better for reading than an iTablet will be. When I sit down on the couch with the Kindle, books are not competing with videos, email, Skype or the panoply of distractions offered by your average online laptop. I’m looking for less distraction in my life and more time with words, and I think that key bit is beneath the notice of tech pundits who evaluate from every angle except for how a non-early adopter might actually incorporate this stuff in their lives.

This is a random half-baked thought that I’ve been wanting to blog about but am still ruminating over, so I’ll stick it on the bottom of this post like a tail that isn’t quite pinned on the donkey. With the coming of Kindle apps, the possibility of Nook apps, and the very real present of much money moving through the iTunes App store it occurs to me that in a large part these devices – an object with an account/open wallet attached to them – is a working manifestation of the dream of micropayments. Even though BitPass and other parts of the Scott McCloud-ian vision never worked or came to fruition, in their own way these apps represent a way micropayments can actually work. As I think about what things I could develop for Kindle apps, it’s never far out of my head how to tap into that. Assuming developers are given a way to invoke additional purchases from in app it could be very direct, but even having an app on a subscription is still a form of that. I have no walloping insight on this, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Kindle Vs Nook: My Experience

Nook and Kindle

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

I am blogging this from a Barnes and Noble cafe (specifically, the one at Market Commons in Myrtle Beach.) I meant to come in and do a final head to head comparison between my Kindle 2 and the new B&N Nook. I have previously done tests where I set the two of them side by side and done the same operations to get as close to a controlled test as possible. I can’t do that today because at the customer service desk where the Nook has been, there is now an empty anti-theft cable dangling. I’ll do what I can without the refresher. (Update: They put it back, and I did do another few minutes of fiddling and took this photo with my camera phone. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t show the screen differences well.)

As ground rules, because this kind of post is always a lightning rod for haters: I took the time to gather data and am posting dispassionately my first-hand experiences with both devices. Any comments of the form of “Device X sucks, you are stupid” will be summarily deleted. I brought data and science to the table, knee-jerk comments without them are valueless. I am very far from an Kindle fanboy and advocate. I did this comparison because one day my Kindle will die and if the Nook impresses me it could well be the next device. I did not approach this with a foregone conclusion and then gathered data to support my prejudice. My experience thus far is that talking to the very few Nook fans is a lot like arguing theology with a Branch Davidian. It doesn’t matter how much sense you make, the conversation is going the same way every time. Nook fans, rise up and be reasonable please. You have a stereotype to overcome, with me at least.

Now the results: When I first did this a week ago, every single operation on the Nook was slower. The opening of a book was very slow on the Nook (15-30 seconds), compared to less than a second on the Kindle. Turning pages in an already open book was slower on the Nook. I’d hit the button on both simultaneously, and the Kindle page would have been finished refreshing before the Nook started. Interestingly on the Nook, paging backwards was faster than paging forward. Both operations were slower than on the Kindle, but compared to itself, the Nook can page backwards more quickly.

Changing fonts between the two is radically different. In the Nook’s favor, it allows the choice of different fonts where on the Kindle there is no choice. In the downside, because of the increased complexity of the menuing and the very long refresh time of the book itself when you do change fonts, it is between 20 and 40 seconds between deciding to change fonts on the Nook and looking at the changed fonts. This is the same whether changing the font itself or just the size. On the Kindle 2, there is a dedicated button for the font menu. One can hit the button, use the 5-way controller to select a new font size, select it and looked at the refreshed page in about a second, two if slow. With the 2.3 software update, you can do the same for changing between portrait and landscape modes. I just timed myself and that was about 3 seconds total, which includes having to navigate a few rows down on the menu.

I’ll have to say that I find the menuing and the controls on the Nook pretty unsatisfying and significantly harder to use. The Nook is trying for a dive with a higher degree of difficulty here, it is true. However they aren’t executing on it. I found the touch screen very difficult to select the correct thing consistently, the swiping of the book covers to not work very well, and the menu structure organization to be convoluted. In March 2009 when I took my Kindle out of the box, it took maybe a minute to figure out every common operation and bit of navigation. I’ve spent half an hour over several trips fiddling with the Nook and still am not always certain where I should be navigating to. It completely perplexes me when at any list screen, such as the library management page (equivalent to the Kindle’s “Home” screen”) that one can only move up and down the list from the touch screen. The page up and down controls do nothing in that case. You are looking in one spot but the controls require you to manipulate from a different spot, one on a touch screen with a target narrow enough that me with my fat fingers must pay attention to exactly where I’m trying to click. It is not a good experience.

It felt this way from isolated tests, but setting the two devices makes it clear that the Nook has better contrast on the screen. The “print” is darker and the background is lighter. That is the one aspect that I think is clearly in its favor. The devices are of very similar weight and dimensions. The Nook is slightly shorter, and barely thicker. I think for most real users, you wouldn’t notice any difference in size or heft. For myself who occasionally likes to Tweet from the device (having no iPhone and using my Kindle as my own ubiquitous connection) the keyboard is awesome and even if the Nook adds a web browser then it will be a soft keyboard at best to type in URLs, which seems like it would be a drag.

In the final analysis, I’d recommend against buying the Nook 1.0. This is not a final, durable recommendation. I didn’t buy a Kindle 1.0 or any other Gadget 1.0 either. I find it best to let other people break in the worst problems and I’ll swoop in later when those are fixed. For the identical money and with the differences in usability, I don’t think $259 today is a good investment for a Nook 1.0. The good thing for Nook users is that most of my problems with the device are potentially fixable in software (B&N demo I used had 1.1.0 version on it.) Just like the Kindle’s 2.3.0 update made the device significantly better, a future software update could make the Nook much better. If I were an undecided consumer, I’d make B&N fix it before I gave them my money.

Let me finish with one point beyond the head to head comparison. A lot of talk is floating around with the possibility of an Apple iTable or future apps going on the Nook because of the Android operating system. One thing that gets lost in all this talk is that I consider it a strength not a failing of the Kindle and Sony Reader and Nook that they are not general purpose devices. Even with the web browser on the Kindle, this whole thing only really does one thing well, and that’s display text for you to read. It’s about sitting down and reading. You can tweet or check email in a pinch, but it will never be your first choice to do it on the Kindle the way you would on a laptop or iPhone/Blackberry. It’s possible but not fun. What it is best at is being a device you can sit down with on a couch or a beach or the middle seat of an airplane and read. And read and read. I have enough reading material on mine today that I could read for 2 solid months before I exhausted it, and there is still 1.1 Gigabyte free. A tablet, or adding more apps on these devices is the wrong direction in my life. I say I’m a reader and that I enjoy reading, but if you look at my actions the last 10 years I don’t actually read for pleasure that much anymore. Haivng a device that enables reading but doesn’t enable much else is a plus for me, and being an e-ink version of a laptop or an iPhone isn’t good for my particular needs. Milage varies, but for what is important to me today, that’s it.

Final score: I prefer the Kindle 2, but I’d love it to have the better contrast of the Nook. The Nook has a lot of potential but I’d seriously recommend that at the very least, you make the software get better before you give B&N $259 of your dollars.

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for January 10, 2009 – “Ringing in a New Year”

Here is the direct MP3 download for the EGC clambake for January 10, 2010. I take a moment of silence for the loss of Natalie Morris; I play the promo George Hrab did for the JREF; I play a song by Retribution Gospel Choir; I talk about what I hope for 2010 and what I did wrong and right in 2009; I play a song by Fleet Foxes; I talk about using Calibre with my Kindle and also how I both succeeded and failed simultaneously in NaNoWriMo; I play a song by AFCGT and get on with my year.

You can subscribe to this podcast feed via RSS. To sponsor the show, contact BackBeat Media. Don’t forget, you can fly your EGC flag by buying the stuff package. This show as a whole is Creative Commons licensed Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5. Bandwidth for this episode is provided by Cachefly.

Links mentioned in this episode:

My Free and Open Kindle Formatted Spanish to English Dictionary

Over the holidays, I took upon myself a challenge. I’ve been fiddling around creating a Mobipocket format dictionary consisting of Spanish words and their English translations. I wanted to be able to set it as my primary dictionary on the Kindle and then use it for on-demand word translation as I gut through trying to read documents in Spanish. A few months back, I couldn’t find any unencrypted ones for sale although now apparently some do exist.

This seemed straightforward enough, so I did a little Ruby scripting (getting a crash course in Unicode characters in the process). I found these lists of Spanish word frequencies and wrote a script to parse them into one word per line. I then wrote a script to take lists of words from STDIN, check to see if they existed in the map and if not look them up from various online sources and add it, and then save it as a YAML file. It was most of a week including false starts and do-overs to finally run the whole list against online translating tools. From there, I created another script to take the YAML file and rewrite it as a (roughly) alphabetically sorted and tab delimited text file. With that done, I used these already available tools to take that file and create files suitable for Mobipocket Creator.

The upshot is that this Kindle formatted Spanish to English translation dictionary is available now to download, for free. [Update 2012/05/11 – I’d recommend you use Marc Sturm’s version as of today.] In order to use it, place it on your Kindle via USB or emailling it to your device. Go to “Home->Menu->Settings”, then “Menu->Change Primary Dictionary.” From that point, moving the cursor over a word will work like the dictionary used to with definitions, but with English translations of Spanish words.

I offer this to the world, for free, no strings attached. In fact, because of the Creative Commons license on it (described below) you are free to take the files and do whatever you want with them as long as you comply. Be aware of the following caveats with this dictionary:

1: This is a machine generated translation from various online sources. There is no guarantee of correctness for any given term. I did find and scrub some bogus racist translations that have been put into some online repositories, and there may be other erroneous or malicious terms submitted that have ended up in this dictionary. I warrantee nothing and can pretty much say there are some translations or source words that can offend delicate sensibilities. Over time I might try to find ways to improve this file, continue to fill out the dictionary word list and maybe even improve the translations that are already there. Keep watching this blog for future revisions.

2: There are still formatting issues for the dictionary popup lookup. While you will see your term first in the list, it will not stop at the following term. Any feedback on how to engineer the source files to make this work correctly can be sent to dave@evilgeniuschronicles.org or left as a comment on this post.

3: This book is offered with a Creative Commons license: BY-NC-SA For the required attribution, please provide a link to http://www.evilgeniuschronicles.org

4: This is a word-by-word dictionary, so you won’t get a translation for idiomatic phrases. That’s a downside. An upside is that because this was done word by word from frequency lists, conjugated Spanish verbs get their own entry and each get translated individually.

I’m glad to get any feedback on this dictionary, particularly on point #2. If anyone can describe how to reformat the HTML input files to make the dictionary popups not run together, I’d be highly appreciative. Beyond that, roll and have fun with it and let me know how it works for you. If someone can point me to directions on how to turn these source files into the equivalent version for the Nook, I’d be happy to publish that as well, although I’ll need volunteers to help me test it.

For me, I’m off to take another crack at Don Quixote.

[Update 2011/12/01] The long asked for source files have been committed to this repository at github. I don’t blame you if you can’t make heads nor tails of that as it stands, I certainly couldn’t. At my next available opportunity, I will document the process and try to improve the scripts. No timetable is promised nor implied, mileage may vary, secure your own mask before helping others.

Also, if you want to say thank you for this I ask for nothing other than clicking the Amazon ad in the upper right corner of this blog before you make a purchase sometime. It costs you nothing and kicks a few affiliate percentage points back my way. Thank you.

[Update 2012/05/11] Marc Sturm is the first person I know of to make a modification to this dictionary. He figured out how to make it work with the newer Kindles and has published his version. If you have a Kindle 3 or greater, I’d recommend using his version.

Kindle Tools I Am Using

I got my Kindle in March 2009 and shortly after that I installed Calibre, mostly to test out its ability to convert PDFs and other documents into Mobi format. It wasn’t until the holidays that I really worked with it a lot and realized what a sophisticated library management tool it is. I’m too lazy to look at the release history to see if a lot of this functionality is new or I just missed it last spring. It doesn’t matter, I’m using it now.

A really cool bit of functionality is the news fetching and conversion functionality. I had experimented with subscribing to some of the Kindle blogs via Amazon but to be honest, none of them excited me enough to pay $1/month for them. The news fetching is cool and Calibre converts to very readable books. You have the option to configure the program to email the converted books to your Kindle but that’s really not necessary. I have it configured to automatically move the news books to my device and then delete them from the library on the laptop. It works really well, and then when I read them on the Kindle I just delete them.

Because the conversion is so good, I changed my strategy in how I deal with Project Gutenberg books. I used to download those books in MOBI format but I’ve started defaulting to getting them in EPUB. SInce EPUB is an open format with rich metadata it converts well so I’m treating it as my “lingua franca” format. Should I ever end up with a Nook (unlikely as that seems today), it’s a matter of one sync and I’ve got the same library of books on the new device.

Calibre is now the center of my Kindle experience. I don’t move documents to the device via file copy anymore. I add them to Calibre and let it be the transport mechanism, the catalog and format manager, and in the case of the news the RSS fetcher. It truly rocks and I’m very happy with it.

Another tool I found (via Teleread) is Neotake, an ebook search engine. I followed the link from my Teleread news ebook (as per above), and it took me to the mobile version of Neotake in the Kindle’s web browser. I searched for “George Eliot”, which gave me a very easily readable list of results. I followed the link to The Mill on the Floss and downloaded the MOBI version from the browser. In a few seconds the book showed up in my list in the home screen. It was basically about as easy to use as the Amazon store. I made sure to add Neotake to my bookmark list. It looks to be a valuable tool in the Kindle and other e-reader toolkit.

New Media Vacation

This holiday season my last day at work was December 22, and I’m going back on Monday January 4th, which is tomorrow. This is my 12th day off in a row and it doesn’t seem like I’ve hardly started.  I’d love to say the batteries are recharged and I’m raring to go but truthfully, I could easily do another 12 days if I had the opportunity. Thinking it through, I realized this is the longest stretch of vacation I’ve had since grad school where I had a job to go back to. I was out of work from layoffs for three months or so in 2001 at the bottom of the dot-bomb period but that wasn’t a vacation. It was more stressful than having a job, really.

While I’ve been on vacation, I’ve also kind of been on vacation from the computer somewhat. There were multiple days in that stretch where I didn’t touch a computer, and I’ve been mostly off of Twitter, Facebook, et al. I did read a lot of comic books, do a good bit of reading on my Kindle and we’ve been working our way through The Wire: The Complete Series, which we’ve been loving. We watched movies, leaning towards the stupid comedies but also including Slumdog Millionaire. I’ll be contrarian and say that while Slumdog isn’t a bad movie, it was completely nothing special to me. I’m not sure why it got the hype and buzz that it did. It was competent enough but I didn’t find it anything more than an average quality diversion of a film. I was much more enthused about The Hangover, which was like Memento with a raunchy sense of humor. After I watched it, I realized that it has basically the same plot as Dude, Where’s My Car? and that’s OK.

During the vacation I had vague plans of productivity in new media that never happened. In retrospect, that is probably for the best. I don’t feel bad about not blogging or podcasting and I only wish I had made that as a deliberate choice up front so I didn’t have free-floating guilt about my lack of productivity. I feel recharged and happy and ready to prosecute 2010 to my fullest. I’ve already recorded a podcast this morning, have another blog post lined up behind this one.

Hello new year, let’s light this candle.