2012-09-23

Doing the Wrong thing for the Right reason


You know those scenes where someone has an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other? It must help if you can see the red skin, horns and barbed tail of the devil. Don't listen to that guy, huh?

It's interesting that we depict the devil in such an obvious way. In Abrahamic (Judaic, Christian, Muslim) mythology, Lucifer, Son of the Morning was the most powerful angel, and so beautiful that any human who saw him would weep for joy. Did he get the spiky suit because he rebelled against God? Or can the devil still look like a force for good?

And why am I asking these questions?

I was thinking about leaders, what they say and what they expect us to do. They tell us that sacrifices (inevitably of people not-them) are necessary. They divide us against each other. They find ways to normalize things (murder, torture, egregious invasion of privacy) which previously they have promised not to do in our name. These are the good guys.

After all, wouldn't it be easier for the devil if he could look appealing and impressive, if he could tell you you're doing the right thing, while directing you ineluctably towards self-destruction?

My gut feeling on this is: if someone in authority asks you to harm another human being, that's wrong. I don't care what suit they're wearing, or what arguments they use. Harming people is wrong.

Most of us probably won't be asked to torture a prisoner. But we are asked to approve it, by voting for people who do it. We don't get out there and club peaceful protestors, but we vote for administrations which do.

Worse still, our leaders tell us that we are doing the right thing, that these "difficult steps" are necessary to defend our freedom and have a peaceful place to live.

In Australia, they tell us we're putting refugees in concentration camps to prevent them from drowning, and taking away the choices of Indigenous people in order to build them Stronger Futures.

We're starving the unemployed in order to encourage them to get jobs, which either don't exist or for which they don't have the training.

We're paying huge amounts of taxpayers' money every year to subsidize the production and use of fossil fuels, the emissions from which are changing our climate and threatening the survival of our own people.

But hey, our leaders make it sound like we're doing the right thing. We can trust them!

Sometimes, those we trust and admire can make wrong things sound right. A long time ago, there was a guy called Agamemnon, whose sister-in-law went off with another man. So he decided to invade and loot that man's city and enslave everyone in it. His army loaded up the sailing ships, but he needed a good wind to push them to Troy (the other city).

His god told him he would get a good wind if he killed his daughter in front of everyone. So Agamemnon murdered his daughter in front of cheering crowds, got the good sailing wind and was universally praised by his people.

Because it was the right thing to do.

Her name was Iphigenia, by the way. Next time you turn on the news or walk down the street, you could be looking right at her.


2012-08-25

How the U.S. government created Julian Assange as an international issue

Let's say someone bumps you a bit on the stairs. Most of us would think, "It's crowded, I bump people sometimes" and just take it in our stride. The exceptions are the people who genuinely believe they are so important and special that nobody should be allowed to inconvenience them.

These people often surround themselves with a buffer of money and/or power, to protect themselves from any bumps. As a consequence of this paid-for illusion of control, they become hyper-sensitive to the slightest bump.

You can't accidentally bump this person, because they are the centre of the universe. Everything either supports or threatens them.

This is how a single teenage blogger in Vietnam or Bahrain, simply writing their opinion online, becomes a "threat to the security of the state" and results in those kids being tortured and imprisoned.

"You can't disagree with me, because I'm always right! I have to be right!

Truly strong people are quite willing to admit to mistakes and learn from them. This is how you build strength: by facing reality. You don't lie about what you did. You don't blame it on someone else. It's your mess: you fix it.

So, when Wikileaks released the "Collateral Murder" Apache helicopter video, did the U.S. government say, "It's true. No, it's not OK to kill civilians. We're going to do our best to make up for this, we're going to change our procedures to try and prevent it happening again, and we'll report back to you."?

No. The U.S. government complained, loud and long, that someone had dared to release this information. They blamed the messenger. They repeatedly said that they saw the release of facts about their activities as "a threat", and anyone who let us know those facts was a criminal, a terrorist, should be executed etc.

This was

Mistake #1: refuse to take responsibility for illegal acts and atrocities revealed by your own documents

combined with

Mistake #2: blame the person who reveals the truth

It thus becomes obvious to us ordinary people that you don't want us to know the truth. Since relationships are based on trust, you're throwing credibility away in heaping handfuls right now.

So, do you acknowledge your mistakes and come clean? No, as Hercule Poirot once said, you "cover the bad fish with a thick sauce". You go into CYA mode. "See? There's nothing wrong with the fish. *choke, gasp* It's the sauce which is making it look bad."

At this point in history, few people knew about Wikileaks. The U.S. government could have taken responsibility for their actions, and Wikileaks would have faded off the radar, like many small publication groups and even key whistleblowers whose names we don't know. Later Wikileaks releases would have simply brought more issues to the U.S. government's attention (something their constitution, and any healthy organization, explicitly encourages). Wikileaks would have just been a publication pipeline, nobody important.

But no, the U.S. government made

Mistake #3: build up the messenger's profile

As an attempted distraction from the revealed facts, they put a great deal of time and energy into accusing Wikileaks of being a serious and imminent threat to the whole country. They insisted on the existence of a "leader", a single person behind this organization who could be targeted, personally reviled and taken down, thus disabling the threat. Wikileaks isn't an hierarchical organization, and removing an elected/consensus leader doesn't disable any healthy group, but somehow the U.S. government thought this was a good idea.

To a certain extent, they achieved their aim of distracting the wider community from the facts Wikileaks had revealed. There was constant speculation about this shadowy leader, much FUD generated, and the more difficult issues of government law-breaking were largely abandoned for the more personal, everyday focus on whether someone is "hot or not": whether you like/approve of them or not. This is easy, and requires virtually no thought.

However, in generating this distraction, the U.S. government made

Mistake #4: create the messenger as a popular icon

A lot of mainstream media time was spent speculating who this supposed leader was, until Julian Assange came forward to try and water down the distraction. Then a staggering amount of MSM time was spent speculating on Assange's background, opinions, appearance, personality and God knows what else. Whether people agreed with him or not, they certainly knew about him. And inevitably, as the U.S. government polarized the discussion, some people started supporting him.

Even then, Wikileaks and Assange could have dropped out of public discourse, if the U.S. government had simply played a soft bat: "Yes, we've seen the documents, and we're working on those issues. Follow this site for updates." Instead, each document release resulted in the same frothing outrage, convincing the public that there must be something really important being revealed, and that Assange and Wikileaks were people to watch. Even so, not many people supported Wikileaks at this stage, not really being sure what they embodied.

Instead of leaving well enough alone, the U.S. government then made

Mistake #5: financially blockade the messenger

This may have worked in the days when you could blockade a country, stopping all communications, but we're long past that. Again, the U.S. government might as well have put up billboards saying, "We can't cope with what Wikileaks reveals". Financial blockades are directed by governments at whole countries, and are only ever partial, strengthening negotiations about specific behaviours. However, the U.S. government pressured Visa, MasterCard, several banks and more than one other government into cutting off Wikileaks completely.

Since we ordinary people can easily identify with not having access to our bank accounts, this brought Wikileaks into the everyday frame. We can also identify with being bullied. Suddenly, the most powerful country on earth was obviously trying to suffocate a small publishing organization. These actions also didn't pass the smell test: you can donate to the Klu Klux Klan, or a range of other law-breaking and destructive groups, but you can't donate to Wikileaks?

Along with the financial blockade, the U.S. government pressured Amazon into throwing Wikileaks off their servers, and continued to make grandiose threats in the mainstream media. Any PR professional would be pulling his or her hair out by now. When you want an issue to go away, you deal with it, addressing the underlying concerns. You don't keep lighting rockets under it, continually re-detonating it in the public eye.

Like anyone playing Whack-a-Mole, the U.S. government appeared to think that just one or two more strikes, and they would win. Nevermind everyone standing around and losing respect for you by the minute. Nevermind the fact that the bad fish still stinks. You're going to yell a lot and everyone will go away. Because you have told them that there are no issues, and besides, we can squash these guys like a gnat.

Mistake #6: put enormous pressure on the messenger: assume that legal threats, imprisonment and financial starvation will make the messenger fold

On the information the U.S. government already had about Wikileaks and Assange, that was a notably inaccurate assumption. Even we ordinary people knew by now that Wikileaks was a minimalist distributed group, and that Assange had no expectations of an easy life. Incidentally, even after one year of torture, two years of imprisonment without trial, Bradley Manning (who might have been considered a softer target) hasn't folded.

Punishing people for telling the truth tends to strip life down for them. Do I believe the truth is worth this struggle, or not? If you go up against an oppressor, there will always be a cost. You decide if it's worth that cost.

Some of the Wikileaks members may have had an illusion of safety, and a few did run when confronted with the reality. The rest were disillusioned but probably not all that surprised. I doubt if Assange was surprised at all.

I could say, "Assange has been chased by a crazy cult before" (which is true), but that would probably be unfair to the U.S. government. They're not crazy, they're just choosing to be staggeringly inept. It's hard to understand why.

Faced with growing popular engagement with Wikileaks, and interest in Assange, the U.S. government brings the whole thing into a long, drawn-out spotlight by making

Mistake #7: be seen to be persecuting the messenger

The whole "yes it's rape, no it isn't, you can leave the country, INTERPOL MOST WANTED!" soap opera has dragged even more eyes onto the situation. Women sincerely wish even a tiny proportion of these resources were directed at the rapes which happen in our communities every day. Assange's alleged victims don't get the speedy and professional investigation they deserve. Assange is hunted with far more tenacity (and bombast) than existing mass-murderers. The U.S. government repeatedly denies that it wants to prosecute him under the 1917 Espionage Act (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary), the Australian government refuses to represent him in any useful way (on the facts, he'd be much better off if he'd been caught smuggling kilos of cocaine into Indonesia), the Swedish government says it doesn't extradite political prisoners to the U.S. (despite having been involved in illegal CIA "renditions" of its own citizens) and the British government has specifically threatened to invade an international embassy in London.

Seriously, we pay you guys the big bucks to make decisions like these?

Maybe it's worked for you in the past. Maybe dramatizing, pointing fingers, making threats and misusing the legal system has made some people go away.

It doesn't make the underlying problems go away.

As long as people are losing trust in government, worrying about systematic invasion of their privacy and being confused, fragmented and even misinformed by polarization of issues, the fabric of our society is indeed threatened.

It's not Wikileaks down there, driving a pick-axe into our foundations. It's you.

2012-06-03

OzLog undermines trust in Australian government

Australian technology site Delimiter has done an excellent job of following up on the Australian government's planned #OzLog legislation. Under OzLog, everything Australians do online, every phone call, every email, every chat session, every browser address and action, will be stored for two years at our ISP, available on request to any Australian government agency (plus those in a slew of dodgy European countries)... and we will pay for it.

Does that seem right to you?

We've been lucky so far that guys like Delimiter, the EFA and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam have been willing to put a lot of time and energy into digging up OzLog info our government is patently unwilling to share with us. However, as with imposed "treaties" like ACTA, the facts don't look good. We get screwed, while big corporations and government gain enormous power over us.

I really don't get how supposedly democratic governments can get away with pushing copyright-enforcement and police-data-collecting work and costs onto local ISPs. If there are any small ISPs left (our regional ISP just went under), this will sink them.

If the justification is that anyone can become a criminal, then we need to factor into the severity and scope of surveillance the actual probability of that happening. 0.00001?

Unless our government plans to legislate against normal life in the future, OzLog bills us, and comprehensively invades our privacy, based on law-breaking we're overwhelmingly not doing. Why not address the actual causes of criminality, especially in communities where some decent social investment would have immediate and significant results?

Why assume a whole population intends to break the law, when we have a very low criminality index compared with other developed countries? Trust in government is a fundamental part of a successful democracy. How can we trust a government which invests huge amounts of our money into demonstrating how little it trusts us?

Basically, laws succeed when people agree with them. In general, nobody thinks it's OK to bash a grannie or hurt a child. We know it's stupid to drive on the wrong side of the road. We're not so sure about being blocked from buying ebooks, movies, TV shows or music. We're quite willing to buy them, so we don't understand why so much effort goes into stopping us. We don't accept that our privacy should be systematically invaded, just in case we decide to change a lifetime of behaviour and become criminals.

If YOU – the government – want community support for OzLog, you're going to have to convince us that we have adequate privacy protection, that our information is not going to be misused (or simply handed over on request to thinly-disguised European dictatorships like Azerbaijan), and that our lifetimes of responsible civilian behaviour add up to more than "Yeah, but you might do something".

Trust goes both ways. Let's see you earn some from us. Stop hiding things which affect us. Respect our skills and experience: really listen to what we say. Work with us to create responsible communities, rather than treating us as the enemy.

The U.S. may have 49 million people living in poverty, but we still have a functioning democracy. Use it.

2012-05-28

Dear Mr Baillieu – Don't Slash TAFE

Dear Mr Baillieu

It doesn't make sense to slash TAFE funding when we are so critically in need of workers with vocational skills. TAFE is an essential bridge between secondary-level skills and actual employment. It is also an opportunity for the unemployed and/or dispossessed, which makes it an essential safety-valve in a era of growing social discontent.

I have seen kids turn their lives around by attending TAFE. I've seen single mums returning to work through TAFE. I've seen migrants improve their language skills and become independently functional in our community, through TAFE. I've seen people upskill to gain entrance to emergency services and armed services, through TAFE. I've seen people reskill for university entrance, through TAFE. I've seen employers benefit from TAFE workplace education, gaining evenly-skilled workers and avoiding low productivity and injury liability, through TAFE.

Oversee TAFE and its profit-motivated competitors, by all means. Just don't pull the rug out from under people who can improve their lives, our community and our economy through TAFE.

Clytie Siddall

2011-12-19

No Australians Allowed: the joys of ebook-buying online

(originally published on Oz Ebooks)

No Australians Allowed

The joys of ebook-buying online



(Thankyou to Darryl for his invitation to post on Oz Ebooks!)

As anyone reading my previous (and possibly acerbic) posts and comments will know, I get pretty steamed about geographic limitations on buying ebooks.
They're like a weird DVD-zoning system which assumes Australians can't read.
We're half the U.K. book-buying market, despite our much smaller population, so it should be evident to even the most confused publisher that not only can we read, but that we read a lot.
We're good customers.

Good customers get...

...shafted. In the days of loyalty programs and reward points, this comes as a bit of a shock. It would shock an accountant even more. "What, you have all these customers who want to buy your ebooks, and you won't let them? What are you, an idiot?"
It's a good question. For those of you not yet familiar with the geolims saga, I'm going to explain it briefly before going on. Geolims veterans may skip the next section.

Barbed Wire on the Internet

Up until a couple of years ago, you could buy ebooks from anywhere online. The Internet is a worldwide network, and we've all found that amazingly convenient when it comes to finding the things we want to buy or know. The Internet has removed the national boundaries which kept us all apart.
Apparently, this freedom to communicate has made corporations/governments nervous. They have less control over what we see and do. So they try to impose various kinds of censorship. In Australia, for example, our government is still threatening to censor and monitor everything we do online.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

so Internet censorship specifically violates our rights.
It's also massively inconvenient. Nowadays, can you buy electronic media online? Or is it "limited" by "geographic location"?
In effect, the media "industry" decided to put up barbed-wire fences on the Internet. They divided us back into different countries again. Music, movies, TV shows, audio and ebooks are "available" (or not) according to where you live.
For ebooks, this means Australians are "not allowed" to buy most of the ebooks produced by the "Big 6" or "Agency" publishers. These companies own nearly all of the popular authors. So how do you get the titles you want?

Dodging the Prickles

I'd really like to see a good guide for navigating the ebook-buying maze if you happen to be one of the majority of English-speakers who don't live in the U.S. Meanwhile, here's mine. ;)

1. Use an ebook search engine

I use Inkmesh. You'll notice that its home page has links to a range of free ebooks and specific genres. Plug your book title and/or author into the search field, and you get a fast and accurate result. I used to spend hours trying to find ebooks via Google: Inkmesh takes you right to the ebook retailers. You get a list of titles matching your search, and the one you want is usually at the top. Click on that, and you get a much shorter list: the retailers who are actually selling that ebook.
Inkmesh provides results for a number of the major ebook retailers, including W. H. Smith in the U.K. They told me some time ago that they would add Borders Australia. They seem willing to provide more country-specific sites for those of us locked out by the main U.S.-based publishers.

2. Watch out for geolims

Inkmesh results usually include excellent ebook sites like Fictionwise, Diesel Ebooks, BooksOnBoard and Amazon. If you live in the U.S., you can click on the link and immediately buy that book. If you don't (and especially if you live in Australia or NZ), you can save browsing time and attempted-buying time by watching out for the signs saying effectively "Not For You, Mate".
Amazon gives the best and clearest warning. Every time I curse at them for not allowing me to buy the ebook I want, I also reluctantly acknowledge that they didn't lead me on. ;) On the RHS, where I normally see the brightly-coloured "Buy with 1-click" and "Deliver to Clytie's iPhone" choices, I see the green-only box saying "This title is not available to customers from: Australia".
Fictionwise and Kobo will simply not show you a title if you aren't allowed to buy it. In some ways this is kinder (not dangling a much-wanted book in front of your nose), but it sometimes gives you the impression there isn't much there. In over two years of checking Kobo results from Inkmesh, I've never found a title I wanted to buy. I'm told Kobo has a great range, but evidently it's not so great if you live in Australia. Fictionwise has been bought out and systematically strangled by its competitor Barnes and Noble, so it's not the one-stop-ebook-shop it used to be. However, it does still have its advantages, as I mention further on.
Diesel eBooks shows an "Allowed Countries (Hover)" link in red, under the book description and Buy/Wishlist buttons. When I hopefully "hover" my mouse cursor over that link, it inevitably says "US". Before Diesel added this info, I used to get all the way to Checkout with a stack of great books, only to find I wasn't allowed to buy them. Early warnings do save us time, even if they continue to frustrate us as legitimate customers.
BooksOnBoard won't show a price for a title if you're not allowed to buy it. If you click the Buy link anyway, a popup window will tell you you're not allowed to buy that title because you live where you do.
Retailers could also play a raspberry sound as well. "Hey, April Fool! We let you think you could buy this book, but you can't. LMFAO!!!" :S

3. Shop around: there is inconsistency

Not only do geolims not make any sense from the book-selling or book-buying points of view, they can also be inconsistent. For example, a few months back HarperCollins released the first three titles of Lynsey Sands' Argeneau series. They hadn't previously been available in ebook, so followers of that series (including me) rushed to grab them. Australian readers quickly found out that we were only "allowed" to buy 2 out of the 3 titles. Huh?
As I asked HarperCollins at the time, why would three consecutive ebook titles from the same series by the same author and published simultaneously by the same publisher have different geographic limitations?
I didn't get an answer. Diesel Ebooks also contacted HarperCollins about this inconsistency, receiving the disjointed reply "We haven't turned on any of our ebooks for Australia yet". You get the impression that the publishers don't understand geolims either.
The point of this story is that I actually found different sites blocked a different title out of the three ebooks. God only knows why, but I wasn't about to question my good fortune. This meant I could buy all three titles, with a little ebook-retailer-surfing.
I keep a list of the titles I haven't been allowed to buy (especially those part-way through a series I follow), and recently I also found a single ebook site (which normally blocks me on everything) allowed me to buy not one, but several of my most-wanted titles. Again, I have no idea why that site didn't have the same geolims info as the others: I just bought the books! I've also noticed that sometimes I'm allowed to buy a book in pre-order, and get it, where it's blocked to purchase once the pre-order period is over. All this means it can be worth shopping around.

4. Use Calibre

Calibre is a free cross-platform tool for managing, cataloguing, converting and transferring ebooks. Seriously, this thing rocks. It will convert any non-DRM format, transfer to just about any device, provide a catalogue you can access from a computer or smartphone, allow you to search your catalogue, keep track of what titles/authors you have, keep track of series, import metadata (including cover images, blurb and ISBN) and apply your own tags.Before geolims were imposed, I didn't need Calibre. I bought all my ebooks from Fictionwise, which had an excellent Bookshelf with categories (including your own categories). It was really easy to keep track of which books I had, which ones I'd read (or not), which were in series etc.
After the Electronic Curtain came down, I spent way too much time not only trying to find books I was allowed to buy, but trying to keep track of which books I'd bought from where, in what format, and whether they belonged to series. My collection was all over the place. Instead of series all being in one format from one retailer, they had titles in multiple formats from different retailers. One series of seven books is in five different formats from five different retailers, requiring me to read it in five different apps on my iPhone. I couldn't go on reading some series (because none of the newer books were available to Australians), and other series had missing titles (I could buy all the books in a 9-book series except Book 5? WTF?). I couldn't keep track, and ended up buying some ebooks I already had, and missing the opportunity to buy others I wanted.
Calibre keeps track of all my ebooks now, and some of my hard-copy books (you can add an "empty" record and use it for a hard-copy book, magazine etc.). I imported all my previous ebooks into it, and I drag new ebooks into it as I buy them. Tags and series make it really easy to keep track of which books are from which retailers, which I'm missing, which I've read, which have DRM or not. So what if my ebooks are now scattered across different locations on my hard drive (Digital Editions, My Kindle Content, eReader etc.)? Calibre keeps a copy of each ebook in its own Calibre Library.
Calibre also works seamlessly with Stanza (one of the best e-readers for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch). If you turn on the Calibre Server preference, Stanza immediately sees your Calibre library, and allows you to download titles over a wireless or wired connection. I find this quite a time-saver.
Update: if Amazon (who bought Stanza to stifle competition) breaks the app again, you can also access Calibre from Tomes and several other mobile reading apps.

5. Support your local online bookseller

For Australia, that's Borders Online. Despite the ongoing bloodletting within the company, Borders Online is likely to continue. Its costs are low, and its profits should be substantial. OK, its website still sucks (see my recent post), but by and large Borders is a viable Australian ebookstore. Every ebook in its catalogue is available to Australians. Its range is improving, and it does get titles which are otherwise blocked to us. Keep an eye on Borders, and buy ebooks there when you can.
Some local publishers (e.g. Pan Macmillan Australia) and local sites like Read Without Paper are starting to sell ebooks online, so it's also worth looking around for Australian book sites. You may pay more, but at least you may be able to buy the book. That goes literally double for iBooks (iTunes bookstore): you will pay at least twice the U.S. price, but if you can't find a title anywhere else, you might be desperate enough to pay that much.
Otherwise we're left with sites like ebooks.com, a major international ebook retailer located in Perth, Western Australia, which follows the U.S. publishing model and blocks us from most titles. It's hard to see what Australians get out of having this site in our country. Perhaps ebooks.com could start getting ebooks for Australians?

6. Try author sites, indies, self-pub and public domain

Once geolims were imposed, I spent a lot of time trying to find out WTF was going on. (There was no announcement to customers: I just couldn't buy the books I wanted anymore.) Publishers seem to be a dead end: either they don't care, or they are genuinely confused about their job. Some are both, which is a little disturbing. Authors, on the other hand, really want you to read their books. So it's definitely worth visiting author websites (and just about every author has one nowadays). Author websites often offer free stories, directly sell their backlist titles at a much better price and without DRM, and keep you informed about upcoming titles. Most importantly, every author I've contacted is shocked and upset that Australians can't buy his or her ebooks. Most have said numbly, "But I insisted on world rights for ebooks". Telling an author that you're blocked from buying his or her ebooks is a good way to raise awareness about geolims. The author complains to his or her agent, the agent complains to the publisher, and things may change. You can also contribute to the Lost Book Sales site, to advise publishers when they have lost a sale due to geolims (or ridiculously high prices, bad formatting, dreadful typos etc.).
The Big 6 aren't the only publishers of ebooks. They may have amalgamated all the well-known brand-names, but they don't necessarily have a stranglehold on authors. Due to the much lower cost of publishing ebooks, a number of independent ebook publishers exist now. Each one has its own website and ebookstore, and many of their titles are also available at Fictionwise in Multiformat (a range of non-DRM formats) for considerably less than you pay the Big 6. You can discover some new and entertaining authors from Indie (independent) epublishers. Indie publishers give you more book for your buck. ;)
Ebooks also make it easier for people to self-publish. Authors self-publish their own work: both backlist and new titles, sometimes in response to reader request. In particular, have a look at the websites of long-time professional authors J. K. Konrath and Michael Stackpole. Both have found creative ways to communicate directly with their readers, while charging much lower prices. The great part about self-published authors is that you are directly paying them. Do you know how much an author of your favourite paperback gets when you buy it? As low as 7% of the selling price. If they self-publish on Amazon they get 70%. Smashwords gives them at least that much. Sites like Author Direct also help you buy books straight from the author. Who wants to pay the middleman?
It's also much easier now for a new author to get started. Anyone can self-publish on Amazon or Smashwords. There are several sites dedicated to finding the best of the new ebooks. The Web Fiction Guide focusses on the best free online fiction, and on member reviews of new ebooks. Don't be discouraged by the sheer number of new self-published ebooks, or by the bad quality of some. There are some real gems out there.
Thanks to the sterling work done by Project Gutenberg (named after the inventor of the first printing press), you can also read an amazing range of completely free, non-DRM books which are in the public domain. This is particularly valuable, since the media industry is greedily pushing laws which will ensure nothing ever goes out of copyright again. Make the most of Project Gutenberg's volunteer effort: these books are available from its own site, from your local Project Gutenberg if there's one in your country (e.g. Project Gutenberg Australia, which has some books not available at the main PG site) and from a range of book sites online (like Feedbooks and ManyBooks). Read great stories for free!

Paying the Price

I'd have to say, geolims have changed my reading and purchasing patterns. I used to buy a great many ebooks from Fictionwise (over 2000 in three years), but now I can't buy the ebooks I want, I read more free books, more blogs and websites, and buy more directly from authors. I'm spending less money overall and enjoying my reading. I hope you do, too. :)
The "Agency Six" publication cartel hasn't just severely limited the books we're allowed to buy. It's also set a much higher price than ebook-production justifies. Before geolims, I rarely paid over $5 for a popular ebook, usually paying between $2 and $3. Now, most ebooks I can buy from Amazon cost between $7 and $10. Recently, I finally found a middle-of-the-series previously-missing title in iBooks (iTunes Store Australia), and had to pay $14 for it. This may or may not be a reasonable price for a hard-copy paper book, but it is not reasonable for an ebook.
Update: just before Christmas 2011, Hachette and HarperCollins more than doubled ebook prices specifically for Australians. This means a new-ebook price of over $20, while the new paperback is around $7. Penguin and Macmillan have since followed suit. There is now (2012) a Parliamentary committee investigating extortionate technology prices targeting Australian consumers and business. Have your say. :)
I'm a great P. G. Wodehouse fan, and at times like these I remember him commenting in his stories that publishers always excused the pittance they paid him by saying the "cost of pulp paper" had risen. When questioned on the price of ebooks (and the pittance they give authors), publishers moan about the cost of scanning, proofreading and "promoting" a book. Oddly enough, Project Gutenberg can do all that for free, and at a higher level of quality.
There's no excuse for charging more then $5 for an ebook, and self-published professional authors will tell you the same. All current ebooks would be presented to publishers in electronic form, if not already in ePub (heck, you can produce an ePub file in Pages (OSX) or Word), and I haven't noticed publishers spending any money on proofreading. In a way, you don't mind spending $2.99 on an ebook and finding typos, but you do mind when you spend $14 because the publisher claims that is the cost of quality.
Let's say you pay $9.99 for a new paperback. It had to be printed, stored, transported, stored again, promoted in the shop and eventually sold to you by a human who deserves a living wage. The price of paperbacks also includes "returns", the number of printed copies which won't be sold and will eventually be pulped. It includes the fact that you can keep the book anywhere (not in one particular program), read it in bright daylight, make copious notes and photocopies, give or lend it to friends and family, and eventually sell it to a second-hand bookshop, which will sell it on. A paper book costs a lot more to produce, and provides much greater and longer-lasting value than an ebook.
An ebook at $9.99 doesn't have any of those costs, extra features or ongoing value. I was a bit shocked to find this out, but according to the "sale" contract, we only rent an ebook. We don't actually own it. At most, we should be paying a quarter of the paperback price. Where is the flexibility, the ongoing value of an ebook?
For Australians, and particularly for disabled Australians like me who can't read paper books, access to ebooks is a big issue. Why are we barred from buying ebooks online? How come we are "allowed" to buy any hard-copy book from anywhere in the world, but we're not allowed to buy ebooks?
Australians are probably the biggest customers of U.K. online book retailer The Book Depository. Hard-copy books there, even ones published in Australia then shipped half-way around the world and back, are half the price of books sold locally. Yet ebooks on that site are still blocked to us.
Australians pay what Delimiter refers to as the "Australian technology tax". Everything here is much more expensive, even when it comes directly from overseas. Even when it's a data download like an ebook. So it's good to have Project Gutenberg, independent publishers and self-publishing authors, who evidently consider us part of the wider world.

The Good Guys

It's not only the independent publishers and the self-publishers who can provide good books without DRM and at a reasonable price. The real heroes of our story are Baen Books. Very early on in the use of ebooks, Baen decided that DRM was self-defeating and that providing free books was good for business. They have proven that thoroughly over the intervening years.
Baen publish great science fiction (including military and historical) and fantasy. Even if this isn't your thing, have a look at some of the titles in the Baen Free Library. You might be surprised. :)
Why don't the Big 6 publishers follow Baen's example? Beats me. It's worked for Baen, and all the ebook-limitations are doing is pushing legitimate customers to the darknet. Maybe in real life, the people wearing the black hats really don't know they're heading for Tombstone.

More good tools

Once you start cataloguing your ebooks and/or hard-copy books using Calibre, you might be looking for cover images, blurbs or other details. You might want to share your reading experience with other keen readers online, or swap books, or get newsletters on good stuff out there. Here are some excellent sites to help you!
Mobileread
has its own collection of free ebooks for download. It also has a specific forum for each type of e-reader. It's the place to sit down, read a book and chat with friends. Visit the Mobileread café.
Ebook Friendly
is a distraction-free site for browsing ebooks. It's particularly useful if you're sick of overloaded webpages, or if (like me) you have visual or concentration difficulties. It's a peaceful place to find ebooks.
Gnooks
"is a self-adapting community system based on the gnod engine. Discover new writers you will like, travel the map of literature and discuss your favorite books and authors."
LibraryThing
is a site where you can catalogue your whole library, if you want (including importing from Calibre export files). It's also "the world's biggest book club". There are lots of features, and you can easily connect with people who like to read the same books.
FictionDB
provides heaps of information about fiction books, including series, author background and bibliography and a good search across their categories. You can also catalogue your books there.
Password Incorrect
is an ebook site with lots of quick guides and a mobile focus.
Sigil
is a cross-platform editor for ePub ebooks without DRM. It's quite easy to use, and allows you to edit your own ePub books, or fix awful typos and formatting in existing ePubs. I also use it to change the background colour and font type/size in ebooks for which I don't have an accessible ereader app.
Readability
is a terrific tool for distraction-free reading. It provides two bookmarklets you drag into your bookmark bar in your browser: one to Read Later (saving the articles for later) and one to Read Now. This works with Instapaper on your mobile device. Readability also provides a subscription option so you can reward (micropay) the bloggers and websites you read online. Whatever you want to read, Readability will provide it when you want it, on the background you want, with the font size and spacing you want, and most importantly, without distractions. Sick of flashing and cluttered webpages? Use Readability. (Again, it's particularly valuable for people with visual and/or concentration difficulties.) Update: the Safari browser for desktop and mobile devices now includes a "Reader" button in the address bar. Click that for distraction-free reading, and click-and-hold on a link to add it to your Reading List.
Enjoy. :)

2010-12-09

Wikileaks and the other hand

How much of our mainstream media is distractions, nowadays?


How much of the area of any news site page is actually information you need?


It's getting a bit hard to keep your eye on the ball. Important changes happen nearly every day, but they're drowned out by the "celebrity" gossip and vociferous editorials.


While following the Wikileaks releases, I have found this to be a major obstruction to actually finding out WTF is going on. Does our media show us any of the original documents released by Wikileaks? Or does it just pick and choose bits of information, then smother them in the thick sauce of opinion?


There also seems to be quite a bit of disinformation going around. Let's look at a sample of the most common distractions...


Nothing to see here, move on


We're told that the Wikileaks releases on the Iraq War, then the Afghan War, and now the diplomatic cables are "nothing new, we all knew this", it's "unimportant", while also being told that


Danger! Danger!


it will "cost lives". Neither turns out to be true. A great deal of new information is included in each Wikileaks release, things that we definitely didn't know about how our governments are acting in our name. The number of deaths, injuries and damage to ordinary Iraqis and Afghans is far greater than any admitted by our governments. They are committing assassinations with our implied consent. They are disregarding human rights and the rules of war (remember that Wikileaks also published the Guantanamo Bay operating manual).


How many times have you seen the "cost lives" and "dangerous", "irresponsible" comments? These continue to be made, even though nobody can point to any lives lost or anyone harmed by Wikileaks' revelations. The Pentagon has specifically said that nobody has been harmed. But the disinformation continues. It's confusing, and we could do without it.


What about


Bias and editorializing


in WIkileaks documents? We're told that Wikileaks is choosing to release only certain documents, and forcing their opinion on us. We need to look more closely at our mainstream media. Wikileaks releases the entire contents of any document group they are sent. Once, they supplied a summary version of the Collateral Murder video, alongside the complete version. Since being heavily criticized for doing that (something any other media group would do as ordinary practice), Wikileaks simply supplies the original documents to big newspapers like the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times. So who's editorializing? Oddly enough, you don't see many criticisms of the big newspapers for choosing to talk about specific documents (although most don't allow you to see them) and adding opinion.


Wikileaks only supply the original documents, and they don't pick and choose, which means they're


Overloading us!


There's too much information! How can we find the bits we really want, or analyze what it means to us? That's what a reputable media organization is supposed to do. The Guardian has done the best job in this respect. The BBC also provides links to the original documents, sorts them into categories, and explains their significance. While complaining about overloading, I've seen the same people complain that Wikileaks hasn't released all the cables yet.


Releasing them in smaller groups makes it easier for the media organizations to analyze them and provide them in a way which is easier for us to handle. I expect Wikileaks have done this after watching the Iraq War and Afghan War documents slip out of the public mind so quickly. There was a huge amount of new and important information in those documents, but they were old news, and besides, we had to read stuff. Hey, a sports star got drunk and did something stupid!


However, universities and other research organizations continue to work with the documents Wikileaks has released. There have been some very interesting papers published about the 9/11 pager records (did you know Wikileaks released them? not on your front page?). They show that our assumptions about the way people react in an emergency can be quite incorrect. This affects our planning for natural disasters. With the Wikileaks documents, people are analyzing history as it happens.


As people get the time and resources, each lot of documents which Wikileaks releases is provided free of charge online, in a searchable database, with a number of tools to make it easier to find what you want. This isn't just Page 1 for 10 minutes. It's something to chew on.


So, while we're getting seriously interested in what Wikileaks shows us (this was about a year or so ago), suddenly there are heaps of articles asking


Who is (behind) Wikileaks?


You wouldn't believe the time and effort spent on filling up our news pages with speculation on who Wikileaks might be and (most importantly for an hierarchic institution like the U.S. government) who is leading it. The actual Wikileaks documents, and the facts they contain, fade away from the front page again.


To avoid this distraction, and put an end to the continual speculation, Julian Assange comes out as the Wikileaks frontman. He spends a lot of time trying to drag questions about his personal life and ambitions back to what Wikileaks is doing. This results in


Look at Julian Assange!!!


{sigh}


So we get pages and pages of mostly speculation about Assange, his hairstyle, his childhood and a book he apparently co-authored many years ago and which I doubt if anyone much has read. FFS.


Assange does get to talk about Wikileaks and its aims at some software and development conferences, but in the mainstream press he's still a focus of speculation ("who is he, really?"), aversion ("he's a bit creepy, with that white hair") and gushing ("he's so smart!"), and for all we know, there have been cults formed to worship and/or defeat him.


But we can get back to the Wikileaks documents. There's a lot going on with analysis of the Iraq and Afghan War data. Unfortunately, we have to dig past the front pages to find it.


Meanwhile, in Sweden...


Yes, yes, oh YES!!!


or


RAPE!!!


depending on the facts, which we hope to see sometime this decade. Assange's sex life, which he understandably says is "private", is now front-page news. Now, normally a charge like this would be made, the suspect would be interviewed, the case moved quickly through the courts, and the details kept as private as possible. After all, these are serious charges, and the people involved don't want a media storm.


They get one anyway. In fact, a Swedish tabloid news site knew about the allegations before Julian Assange did (the information was illegally leaked by the prosecutor). Assange only found out because people pointed him to the article. That same tabloid news site flogged the story in social media for days.


Meanwhile, back to the Wikileaks documents...


RAPE CASE!!!


Maybe not. The story goes viral, while Julian Assange unsuccessfully tries to talk to the prosecutors about the case. They don't want to see him. At some stage (it's hard to keep up), a more senior prosecutor dropped the charges, saying there was nothing to substantiate them. Fine, there's genuinely nothing to see here. Back to the Afghan War documents?


Nope. The "sexual assault" allegations continue to be flogged in the media. There are ins and outs, ups and downs and among all this, the charge is restated and the circus continues. Assange keeps trying to be interviewed (this goes on for months), then is told he can leave the country with no conditions, they don't need to talk to him.


So he leaves, and the big news is the release of the U.S. diplomatic cables. This affects every country in the world, and we're just starting to take that in when


Interpol Most Wanted!!!


Oh FFS. Leave us alone. Assange probably felt the same. These warrants are issued for fugitives who are also extremely dangerous international criminals: war criminals, organized crime kingpins, drug mafia. So we all goggle for a bit, and the media thrashes the topic.


I could continue, but having struggled through this morass for weeks, I'll spare you the details. The result is that Assange, who gave himself up and at all times said he was happy to talk to the prosecutors, is currently in gaol, because Sweden claims he's a fugitive.


Meanwhile, how are those diplomatic cables going?


We find out that the U.S government has instructed its diplomats to spy on the United Nations, stealing credit card details, DNA etc. (a multitude of criminal acts). The U.S. government has widened the war to Yemen, despite denying that formally and repeatedly. China is willing to allow the Korean peninsula to re-unite and


Assange is a sociopath


Huh? What about...? Oh, for heaven's sake. This particular distraction varies in accusation: Assange is a sociopath (despite working continually for others' welfare), a narcissist (despite wanting to talk about Wikileaks rather than himself), making millions out of Wikileaks and living the luxury life he denies you (despite having to be reminded to eat and often sleeping on the computer-room floor). But it's scary, isn't it? Outrageous, that this person, who has been shoved in your face continually for the past year, and is a RAPIST, has caused all those deaths and misery through releasing those documents—


Hang on. Haven't we been here before?


OK. Balanced approach. Look at the facts. Don't be distracted by the hoopla. I can do that.


The diplomatic cables confirm that parts, at least of Russia are effectively mafia states


TERRORIST!


{sigh} Yep, apparently Assange is a terrorist and Wikileaks is a criminal organization (despite not having broken any laws). The media doesn't generally mention Wikileaks in these attacks, describing it as "Assange's group". Both the U.S. and Australian governments say they have "teams of lawyers" trying to find ways to charge him and "his group". Wow, it's great to be a citizen of the free world.


This is starting to stink just a bit. What is really going on with the attacks on Assange? So we waste huge amounts of time following this up. Not that Assange will mind our support (and he probably needs it), but the issue is actually what Wikileaks does, and the freedoms which it embodies.


Publishing leaked documents is not against the law. In fact, it's specifically protected by law, otherwise journalists couldn't expose corruption among those in power. Leaking documents is also protected under whistleblower law. This is about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It affects all of us


Kill him!


That is definitely going too far. Incitement to murder is against the law. Oddly enough, neither the U.S. nor the Australian government seems to mind. But you (various American establishment figures) can't just call for someone to be murdered because you don't like their opinions. People online have become outraged by this egregious addition to what seems like a series of over-reactions by the U.S. government. Why don't they just let the whole document release happen and then blow over? we ask ourselves.


Because the over-reaction is the distraction. "Watch carefully," the magician says, waving one hand, while s/he does something sneaky with the other hand. Behind all the media circus, the U.S government is trying to do what several totalitarian governments and corporations have failed to do (after their abuses were exposed): shut down Wikileaks.


Wikileaks won't be the only online organization trying to make it easier for ordinary people to access information about what is done in their name, with their money and even their lives. But it is the first really effective one. It is a symbol of Internet empowerment, of the change new media brings. It is a challenge for governments increasingly trying to control ("filter") the Internet, and eavesdrop on everything we do. People are rallying around Wikileaks and paying attention to the information it makes available. The U.S. government wants that to stop.


So they're trying to starve it of resources. The U.S. government has bullied PayPal, Visa, Mastercard and even a Swiss Bank into refusing to process donations to Wikileaks, and freezing those accounts. They have bullied Amazon into booting Wikileaks off their servers, and have bullied various European governments (the French showing up as the most pusillanimous) into trying to shut down Wikileaks servers in that country. They do this with the excuse of "illegality", even though their bullying is illegal, and Wikileaks hasn't broken any law.


"Keep on target..."


Amongst all this furore and our understandable outrage, we have to understand what's really important to us. That's our freedom to share information online. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:


Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.


This is the right which our governments threaten, by trying to censor the Internet and shut down groups like Wikileaks. For democracy ("power by the people"), we need free speech, and we need a free press. Those two rights are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, which all of its government members have sworn to uphold. A country breaking away from an exploitative empire considered those rights among its most important. At that time, England was the oppressive tyrant, and America was the group trying to assert its rights to self-determination.


If our governments are determined to infringe our human rights, and our corporations are determined to see us only as mindless consumers to be fed the next toy, it's up to us to choose a freer life. Take a breath of fresh air. Go for a walk. Think of the things that really matter in your life.


Then come back here and start defending your rights. Start by defending and supporting Wikileaks, because they're the tip of our iceberg, and it's melting fast.

2010-09-21

The Accessible E-reader

This article was originally written for Oz E-Books.

The Accessible E-reader

A small child reaching for books on a shelf
(Stock image by bies from stock.xching, sxu licence)

What does "accessibility" really mean? Is it just for disabled people?

Actually, no. "Accessibility" means the ability to access something. It means making something easy to use. This benefits everyone.

Whenever you have trouble understanding or using a program or device, you're encountering a lack of accessibility. This often comes down to the way the app or device is controlled and presented. Accessibility is simply good design.

Disabled people are particularly aware of this, because they have more difficulty in certain areas. For example, someone with visual difficulties may need a larger font, or a coloured background. Someone without those difficulties will still have trouble reading small print on a reflective background. Everyone reads more effectively with fewer distractions.

It Just Works

When you compare one device or app with another, you're looking for accessibility. You don't want to have to learn a lot of new stuff. You don't want something that makes the task more difficult or complex. You want something that's straightforward and easy to use.

If the device or app doesn't work in some way, then that gets in the way of what you want to do. If it is unreliable, slow or missing things you need, then it's not doing the job. The best apps and devices "just work".

The Right Device

It's really difficult to buy a device online, although customer reviews can help. If this device is different from anything you've used before, is it really going to suit you? It's certainly worth going to where you can see it and try it out.

  • Does it look confusing, or interesting?
  • Does it sit comfortably in your hand?
  • Are the buttons easy to reach and use?
  • Is the screen easy to read?
  • Is the software easy to understand and use?
  • Does it load files and turn pages at the right speed for you?
  • Does it do all the things you need it to do?

Nevermind all the technical details, or how popular it is. The real test is whether this device works the way you want it to work.

Specific Needs

So what suits you, may not suit someone else. This is where detailed accessibility comes in. For example, if someone listens to a lot of audio books, then they definitely need good audio quality and the ability to play audiobooks and/or convert text to speech.

So looking for an e-reader is like looking for the right car. Is there enough room inside? Does it get good mileage? How good is its engine? Is it comfortable for you, and does it have all the things you need?

Just like when you decide to buy a car, you spend some time thinking about what you need, how much you want to spend, and how much each feature is worth to you.

Visibility

A high-quality screen reduces eyestrain and makes it much easier to read. Is it easy to read on this screen? What's it like in artificial light and daylight? Try it out in different situations.

Does the device or e-reading software have a night setting (for low light or reading in the dark)? A high-quality device will also avoid eyestrain by adjusting the backlight/brightness when there is more or less ambient light.

A good screen will reflect less light, and on top of that, anti-glare screen-protectors can make your screen much easier to view in different light conditions.

Different background colours work for different people. You see this in the coloured glasses some people wear for reading. Even if you don't have visual difficulties, you may find you read more easily off a coloured background. (I do best with a yellowish colour, for some reason.) White is actually the worst background colour for reading, because it reflects the most light, distracting and tiring your eyes. Compare reading off a blackboard and a whiteboard.

Although different font sizes were first invented for advertizing, and later sporadically provided to help people with visual difficulties (e.g. Large Print Books), this is a basic feature on computers nowadays. We've all found that different font sizes work better in different situations. Different fonts and sizes also help make things clearer. Like me, you've probably found a "favourite" font, size and type which makes it easier for you to understand what you're reading.

People with visual difficulties have had to find out what helps them read. They may use a "reversed" display (white on black), a specific background colour, a different font size/type, even "special" tools for reading. But the fact is that we all read better with the right screen, background and font size/type. So it's worth finding out what suits you best, then making sure your device/app provides it.

(For reading in your browser, check out the free tool Readability.)

Audio

Whether you want to listen to audiobooks, spoken text, radio or your music library, you need good audio quality on your device. Does it sound good through the internal speakers? How about through headphones? You might want to connect your device to external speakers. Does this particular device deliver the clarity and quality of sound you want?

If you want to listen to spoken text, how good is the Text-to-Speech software? Will it read you the material you want, and do it well enough? Is it easy to manage this feature? Do you want it to read you text messages and email? Can you get ebooks/files for this device which allow Text-to-Speech?

Again, what works for disabled people also helps everyone else. Clearer, higher-quality audio is easier to hear and understand. Wider availability of audiobooks and Text-to-Speech means greater access to our information and entertainment, whether we're having difficulty reading, or whether we're busy driving a car.

Interface

An "intuitive" interface is one that makes sense to you. You can see where all the bits are, and can easily work out what they do. The software should have a QuickStart with illustrations or video. Reading the manual is always a good idea, but you shouldn't have to do that simply to start using the app or device.

A cluttered or complicated interface will be harder to use, and will use up your concentration more quickly. This may be more obvious to disabled people, but everyone does better with a simple, intuitive interface. It doesn't get in the way, it doesn't waste your time hunting for the "right" item, and you can use it more easily and for longer without getting tired.

Controls

On this device, where are the physical buttons, keyboard or other controls? Are they easy to use? Do they fit your fingers well? Is it easy to tell whether you've pressed them? Are they protected from accidental pressing? Is it obvious what they do? Like everything else, buttons should be easy to understand and use.

If the device has a touch-screen (and the associated software), does it work properly and actually make life easier? Some low-quality touch-screens don't react quickly or consistently when you touch them, or they aren't easy to control. (For example, today a friend told me, "My touch-screen scrolls past so quickly, I can't keep up. It won't scroll slowly".)

Does the touch-screen allow you a variety of different controls, e.g. swiping, using two fingers, even pressure-sensitive touch? These extra controls make it easier for you to use the software without an external keyboard or mouse. They also reduce the load on the buttons, which are "moving parts" and wear out faster. New features in applications now require this kind of variable touch control. If you're going for a touchscreen, get a good one with multi-touch.

For reading, what's the most comfortable and easy way for you to turn pages? Reader software for a touchscreen device should allow you to choose where to tap (the left, right, top or bottom of the screen) in order to turn the page. This is a movement you will be making millions of times, so having it in the right position makes a big difference. On a non-touchscreen device, does the software allow you to assign the page-turn function to different buttons, so the button you use is in the best position for you?

The page-turn-press position doesn't just vary between left-handed and right-handed people. (For example, I started using handheld devices principally to read books, so I held them in my (non-dominant) left hand, where I would hold a book. My daughter's first devices were iPods, which she held in her (dominant) right hand, to have finer muscle control of the different functions. Now we both have iPhones, but I hold mine in my left hand and she holds hers in her right hand.) Different people are more comfortable holding devices in different hands, or in different ways. That is why more advanced devices have customizable controls.

Reading View

Does the software display a clean, uncluttered page for you to read?

eReader in reading viewBorders reader in reading view

(From left to right: on the iPhone 4, eReader in reading view with my chosen background and font, and Borders reader in night reading view)

For the best reading experience, there shouldn't be anything distracting you or getting in the way. On a touchscreen device, the software should have the option to hide the toolbar and any other information, only bringing it up when you request it.

eReader with toolbar showingBorders reader with toolbar showing

(eReader and Borders reader show toolbars at a touch)

On a non-touchscreen device, any on-screen information should be minimal and unobtrusive. Sure, there are other things you'll do with your reader, like managing your library, transferring books, even buying more books, but none of that should get in the way of the primary reading experience. If it does, you won't find it as easy and comfortable to read.

The software should allow you to to set the background colour and font size/type, as mentioned above and shown in the screenshots, to suit your own personal comfort. It should also allow you to change orientation (portrait or landscape) so you can shift the position of the device in your hand, or view files which look better in landscape. More advanced devices make it very easy and intuitive to do this: simply by turning the device sideways.

Does the software break up pages and chapters at the right point, does it hyphenate words correctly and does it display cover images and links? Can you make notes in your book or document? Can you look up words in a dictionary? These are all basic features which your e-reader should have.

How well does the software display PDF documents? Although PDFs are popular for their portability, they're more like images than text documents, so the e-reading software has to be able to handle the original size of the image. Does it reflow the PDF properly (to fit the screen while keeping a readable font size)? Can you zoom, and scroll sideways if necessary? How easy is it to read these documents?

If you're buying this device principally as an e-reader, reading is the experience you'll want to test most. If possible, borrow the device and read a book on it. Try a newspaper or magazine. Open a few files in different formats. Does it do what you want, and is it comfortable and easy to use? If you can test more than one device, on which one do you enjoy reading more?

Library View

On a handheld device, you also need to be able to find the book you want. Can you sort your library by Author, Title and Date, then go quickly to a particular section? Can you search for a specific book in your on-device Library? Is it easy to pick one title out of the list?

eReader in library viewBorders reader in library view

(eReader and Borders reader in library view)

Some less-developed readers and reading software simply give you a list of titles, with distractingly prominent images and extra information, then leave you to scroll through them. At only a handful of titles per screenful, that's inconvenient and inefficient. A modern reader should make it easy to find, sort and delete titles. More advanced readers should allow you to sort your titles into categories, which helps significantly in finding books and following series.

The device should also show which books have been read. An e-reader has much more capacity than a bookshelf to help you organize your books. If a physical bookshelf would do a better job, then the device isn't good enough.

Other functions

If you want to use your device for other tasks (music, applications, remote control, telephone), the same principles apply. Does it let you do the task without distracting you? Does it have the features you need? Does it provide the quality and clarity you need? It is easy to find and manage information on the device?

No-one else can tell if the device is right for you. Test-drive it with the tasks you plan to do. There is a wide variety of devices and software available, with more being developed all the time. You don't have to put up with less than you really want.

Software

(For reference, "hardware" is something you can touch, while "software" is the instructions the device follows. It's a bit like the difference between your body and your thoughts.)

Firmware

Some e-reading devices require "firmware" upgrades. Firmware is software we don't get to customize, but it often fixes bugs and improves the performance of a previously-released device. The key question is: how painless are the upgrades?

The best situation is where your device has its firmware upgraded during normal syncing. You don't need to do anything differently. A separate firmware upgrade process can be difficult to manage, and it becomes a significant barrier for some users. If you choose to buy a device with separate firmware upgrades, find the one which causes you the least convenience and has the best record of actually fixing things and improving functions.

System

If you want to be able to customize your system, you'll have to look around pretty carefully. Although some devices are running on cut-down Linux systems, most retailers have "locked down" the system for their own use. A locked system isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it does its job without interference. For most users, a locked system can be more reliable, because other people can't mess with your device. However, if you want or need to customize your system for specific functions, you'll need an open Linux system.

Applications

In many cases, an advanced device will handle any specific functions through different applications. For example, the Apple App Store has an impressive range of special-purpose apps. Whatever your interest or task, you're likely to find an app to fulfil it. Android systems also have access to a wide range of applications.

These applications can expand your device in all sorts of directions. So it really depends on what you want to do with it, and if you want that sort of flexibility. I originally bought my iPhone as a combined phone and e-reader, but I've since found it extremely useful for all sorts of other tasks. However, other users may want a dedicated e-reader without extra functions, to get away from other input. What would work best for you?

Files and Transfer

What are you going to want on your device, and how will you get it there? You might read a lot of PDFs, have many different formats of ebooks, or spend most of your time out of range of your desktop computer. You may not even have a desktop computer.

USB, WiFi and 3G

These work well in different situations. USB transfers files directly through a cable between your device and computer. WiFi transfers files through a wireless network. 3G uses the phone data network to transfer files. So, where are you spending your time (and what will data transfer cost you)?

  • USB: right next to your computer (free)
  • WiFi: connected to a wireless network (some free, some cost per time)
  • 3G: connected to a mobile phone tower (cost per data)

The odds are, you're going to spend at least some time away from your computer, and even out of wireless range. Do you want to be able to access files then? How good is the wireless coverage in your area? If you can afford it, having all three of these connection options gives you more flexibility and reliability. Wherever you are, you can get and send data or books.

Using Calibre

Calibre is a free, cross-platform ebook library program. Calibre makes it easy to catalogue your books on your desktop computer, and to convert between ebook formats. It also works directly with quite a few USB-connected e-reading devices, and allows you to access your ebook library over a local network or the Internet.

Does your e-reader connect directly via USB with Calibre? If not, you can still use Calibre's library and conversion functions, but you can't transfer books directly to/from Calibre. This function does make it much easier to manage your on-device library, so it's worth considering when you choose your e-reader. Regardless, you will be able to access your Calibre library over WiFi or 3G.

Networking and Cloud

Do you want to be able to buy/download more books when using your handheld? Some devices can do this, and some can't. Some are locked into a single retailer, while others allow you to buy from different retailers. Being able to shop around is an advantage when you can't get all the books you want from a single retailer, but being locked into a single retailer can be simpler. It's up to you.

Some devices will allow you to transfer books or files directly to another person's handheld. You can also set preferences for different computers and networks. Some devices and e-reader apps now support cloud services like DropBox. This means your device is constantly backed up to the "cloud" (remote computer), which you can access from anywhere. Being able to keep in touch in this way can be very useful if you travel a fair bit, or if you can't afford to lose data from your device.

Backup

Once you pay for your books, music files or other data, and once you've spent time writing emails or working on documents, you don't want to lose them. Unfortunately, this can happen. It's way too easy to lose your handheld device, or for someone to steal it. Even without that, the storage in your device can fail with no warning. So you need a backup.

You can backup using available USB, WiFi and 3G connections. Just like in general networking, the more connections you have available, the more options you have. Automatic, ongoing backups during the day to a cloud service like DropBox or MobileMe mean at the worst, you lose the last few minutes of data.

Each time you connect to your desktop computer, you make a backup on that, too. You might only need to backup once a day, and it doesn't matter if you lose any changes in between. Or you might want to keep track all the time.

Syncing

Syncing (synchronizing) keeps mirror copies of your data in both places. If you have multiple handheld devices, you can sync between them. Good e-reading software also syncs the status of your books, so you can pick up, say your mobile phone and see the same page where you left off on your dedicated e-reader. On well-designed devices, syncing and backup are done at the same time: all you need to do is connect your device.

So you can sync between multiple devices, sync with your desktop computer, and sync with cloud services. This means you have mirror copies of your data in several places (effective backup) which you can access anytime.

Syncing also makes life easier when you buy, add or delete files on one device or computer. As soon as you sync, the change will appear on the other device(s). Older backups also mean you can bring something back if you delete it by accident.

File Types

What kinds of files will you want to access on your device (e.g. books, music, images, movies, documents, webpages, email)? Does this device work with the files you already have? This is an issue with all media, but especially with ebooks. Although ePub is the standard format (which all e-readers should support), retailers lock other software out with DRM, and there are a number of other widely-used formats which don't necessarily work on all platforms.

(For reference, DRM is Digital Rights Management. It's supposed to protect the copyright holders, but in practice just gets in the way of legitimate purchasers reading their books.)

Calibre can convert all the common formats, but not if they have DRM. So you can be stuck with purchased books which don't work on your new device. Again, flexibility is valuable. Look around at the books you want to buy or read, and other files you want to use, then find a device which makes them available to you.

Portability

One of the big selling points for e-readers is that they're portable. You can carry them around in your pocket or bag, and it's much easier than carrying around a stack of paper books, magazines, documents etc.

However, your e-reading device needs to be portable for you. Different people need different sizes and weights of devices: what suits another person may not suit you. The size of your hands, the way you hold books, the way you move around and where you need to use the device are all things you might want to take into consideration.

This comes back to how the device feels in your hand. Is it the right size and weight for you to hold through a long reading session? Are there stands or mounts so you can use it hands-free? Do they work in the situations you'll encounter? Does the device work well hands-free for your purposes?

Some people want to be able to walk around, ride their bike or drive their car while having easy access to their device. Are there useful mounts for these locations? Do they make it easy for you to see, touch or remove the device when necessary? Are there cases or other accessories which protect your device from being bumped, dropped and splashed by rain?

When you're sitting in your favourite chair and reading on your device, can you prop it up and read it easily? Are there arm-mounts or lap-stands which position the device where you want it? Mounts and stands can give you better access in different situations, and be less tiring on your hands in others. For anyone who has difficulty holding a book for any length of time, the right size, shape and weight of ebook will sit comfortably in your hand and place much less strain on it.

Can you prevent the device from slipping off the chair-arm or your lap? When you're carrying around a small device, taking it in and out of pockets or bags and moving it from one position to another, over time it's very likely you'll drop it, or it will slip off or out of something. Is it robust enough to survive a few falls onto a hard surface?

(I found my iPhone had an irresistible urge to dive for the floor at the least opportunity. My daughter installed an ingenious elastic strap which holds it on my chair-arm. You can also get pockets which hang over your chair arm, but having the device on the arm makes it more visible and easier to pick up. A case will protect your device, but a removable case may not be as effective. I found I mostly dropped my device when it was out of its case (and I've been amazed at how many falls onto concrete it's survived). Now I have a case which protects the device while still showing the screen. It's minimal but effective when combined with a screen protector, and it makes the device easier to grip.)

A device is only truly portable if it can keep on working when you need it. How long does the battery last, under different conditions? How can you reduce the load on the battery, when you need it to last longer (e.g. turn off extra features)? How does the device charge?

Handheld devices usually charge via USB (the sync cable) and/or AC (plugged into the wall). Having both options is better, and you can also get wall plugs which let you plug in your USB cable. (Then you only have to carry your USB cable with you, not a bulky adapter.) You can also get car chargers which accept USB cables, solar chargers with a range of plugs, and extra battery packs which attach to your device. These options are important if you're on the go all day, or if you're away from mains electricity.

Conclusion

People buy e-readers (and other electronic devices) when they're easy to use and good value for money. Recent price cuts have made e-readers more competitive, but successful devices are the most accessible ones. You buy a device, use it and keep on using it when it's easy to understand and does the things you want.

Each person's situation is different. Truly accessible devices adapt to your needs.

 



Further resources