Saturday, October 23, 2010

Further Frustrations with Kindle

I have been using my Kindle for a couple of weeks now. After the initial learning curve, I was settling into being able to listen and read to my Kindle with minimal interruptions. Mind you, I can't do anything special with it -- I have not felt comfortable enough to experiment.  However, I have even started to trust the claims of long battery life.

I used to charge it obsessively as I have been trained to do by iPods, netbooks, and other devices. However, I am now not charging it every night. With light use it has lasted several days without recharging and with more than half the battery left. I do believe it is reasonable to expect to get a week of use without recharging it. I also learned how to turn off wireless which soaks up a lot of battery. If you're not planning to download or go online, there's no need for the wireless. I can also report that it recharges quickly.

That's a win on battery life. That's a major point and will hopefully permit me to ditch the charger while sailing with the ship. I'm going away for a week to Downrigging Weekend in Chestertown, Maryland this week. I will take the umbilical cord because I haven't driven the battery to its extreme, but I plan to use the Kindle as much as I can without recharging to see how long it lasts.

Note, use of the reading light built into the Kindle case will also use up battery life. I plan on using it in my bunk, so that will be an extra drain on the battery. In a week I should know just how long-lived the battery is.

However... the Kindle's bad design continues to surprise me in new ways. For example: the cover and table of contents for a Kindle book is hidden. My personal feeling is that when you acquire a book, the cover is the first thing you should see. It has important stuff on it like title and author and cover art. This tells you what book you've got in your hands and sets expectation for the work.

Next, the copyright information and table of contents and other front matter should appear. I admit it, I skip over the copyright material, but it really ought to be there -- because it's illegal and unethical to steal ebooks, just as it is illegal and unethical to steal physical books. Readers of my other blog,, will know about my unhappiness over discovering my fiction series is being pirates. In fact, I think there are to be very large print warning against stealing books, just like there is a warning at the beginning of DVDs warning that electronic piracy is a crime. There ought to be no excuse for a person to claim, "I didn't know it was wrong."

Then the table of contents should appear. I like reading the chapter titles. They intrigue me and interest me. I like to see how many chapters there are to help me gauge what a commitment I am making in pursuing the book. The Kindle's "00%' complete really gives me no clue how long a book is. When buying a physical book, knowing that something is a half inch thick verson three inches thick matters. When I'm planning my time, I like to have a rough idea at least of what I'm diving into.

The table of contents should be easy to get to. I have found that the Kindle's 'automatic' bookmarking leaves something to be desired. It would be much simpler to refind my place by having an easily accessible table of contents so that I can at least get to the correct chapter. To get to the table of contents you have to click on Menu, Go to, then navigate using tiny buttons to click on the tiny button that says 'table of contents'. Once you have done this, you are lost. You will not automatically return to where you left off reading. Same thing if you want to look at the cover art or something else, you are not bookmarked.

Yes, it's possible set bookmarks, but I haven't figured it out yet. I don't like setting bookmarks because then you have to delete bookmarks. To me it seems that a little contextual awareness would be easy to implement. Once you've gone to a non-prose part of the book, there should be something you can click to take you back to where you were in the text. Maybe there is and I haven't found it.

I have also found further shortcomings to text to speech, plus some small benefits. Pressing the space bar will pause and resume text to speech. That's easier than pressing the teeny tiny Shift key + SYM key. I suggest to Kindle that turning on text to speech can more easily be accomplished by pressing the space key for three seconds, and turning it off the same way. That will only take one hand and less coordination than the current method, which will make it easier for those of us with fine motor problems to use. The Kindle with its ability to enlarge the font and read aloud should be popular with older folks as well as people with disabilities, and I'm sure they would welcome less dependence on teeny buttons. Given that the space bar is shaped differently than the other buttons, it's easier to find in the dark or if you don't see so good.

Unfortunately, pausing the text to speech does not allow you to use the menu or turn pages. You still have to turn off text to speech to do anything. The only exception is the Menu button which will operate while speaking. However, all the options are greyed out except for Turn Wireless ON/OFF and "Shop the Kindle Store." Yes, if you want to buy a Kindle book, they will let you do that. If you want to do something for your own convenience like add a bookmark, you can't. Kindle is all about making it easy for you to give them money, not so much about making the Kindle useful to the consumer.

I decided to try and teach myself how to use the Dictionary. Gah. More frustration. You use the navigation button to scroll through to the word you want. Unfortunately, the Kindle defines EVERY word the cursor passes next to. They pop up at either the top or the bottom of the screen (in very small print, much smaller than the print size you have chosen), and they flicker and don't stay put. If you have vision problems, this will drive you up the wall. If you've selected an enlarged font because you need it to see, you won't be able to see the tiny dictionary font. The flickering is bad for people who have a negative reaction to other flickering lights (as I do): instant eye strain. The fact that it doesn't stay in one place means you have to hunt for it if you want to read it. Kindle: make up your mind. Put it in one place and leave it. If the cursor disappears under it, then move it.

On the positive side, the tiny little sliver of definition you get is easily expanded by pressing the more button (back arrow) on the keyboard. Not to be confused with the delete button conveniently located right next to it. Fortunately, clicking the Delete button does not appear to do anything. Assuming you can hit the correct tiny little button, a screen pops up that replaces whatever you were reading with dictionary page. The dictionary page is in your chosen font. However, you context has now disappeared, so if you want to check what you were reading to try and figure out which of several meanings makes the most sense in the work, you can't.

Having a half page screen so that you could examine context and definition would be better. This would be especially useful when say, looking up how to do something in the Kindle Guide that turns out to have multiple steps. You could flip back and forth between the instructions and attempting to do it. As it is, you need a piece of paper so you can write down all the steps, then close out the Guide and attempt to do what the directions told you. If that doesn't work, you then have to navigate back into the Guide.

The dictionary page also brings up irrelevant entries. Having clicked on 'xebec', the page also gave me Xeloda, Xenakis, and Xenathra. No thank you. The dictionary lets you page forward and backwards through it, so if you want to read the entries next to the word you looked up, you can. The dictionary is directly implemented as a book you read, not as a resource you use. There's a leap of imagination needed here: We don't want to use a dictionary because it is a book, we want to use a dictionary because it is useful. A book is not the most convenient way of implementing a dictionary, hypertext is.

An even bigger conceptual leap is needed here: the ability to have two (or more documents) open at once, the ability to confer easily between them. For example, I'm an author. Sometimes I need to proofread two documents side by side. I can't do that on a Kindle. With a little bit of thinking about how to make the Kindle useful to an active reader, as opposed to a passive reader, the Kindle could become a professionally necessary device instead of just a substitute for the printed book.

The worst drawback to the dictionary: you can't use it while using text to speech -- the navigation button doesn't work, so you can't pick a word. You have to turn off text to speech. Pausing doesn't work. You have to turn it all the way off. Once you turn it off, you can navigate to your word to look it up. The cursor is NOT located at where the text to speech stopped speaking. It's at the top of the page, so you have to navigate through the page to find it. Fortunately, the navigation button does wrap. However, and this is a Very Bad Thing, text to speech is not enabled for the dictionary.

I have also learned how to restart the Kindle. This became necessary when text to speech failed to start and took out the book I was reading with it. As in, gone. Blank. Nothing. Rebooting the Kindle, which required navigating through multiple menus and selections, fixed the problem.

Conclusion: I am having a love/hate relationship with my Kindle. I love being able to read a book in a week instead of six months, but I am repeatedly frustrated by the klunky interface, lack of true accessibility support, poorly thought out features, and the need to take a zillion steps to do just about anything. It doesn't make me any happier to think that the Nook and other rivals to the Kindle are worse.

I hope that Apple's iPad is better at this because Apple has a better record for design and accessibility support, but since it isn't possible to download Apple's bookreading software to my desktop Mac, I haven't a clue what they've done about it. You'd think Apple would want its existing users to be able to access the iBookstore, but no.

Sadly, not only are the rivals worse than the Kindle, they're far more expensive. Glitzy with their shiny color screens, but not better.

I can tell you this: if I didn't love words, the Kindle would not turn me into a book reader. It is only because I love books that I am willing to put up with its shortcomings. Should any other device do it better, I will instantly leap to it. Or as soon as I can afford it.

Kindle, I'm grateful you read to me. Now get your shit together.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Spoon Theory

When a person has a chronic illness, a disabling illness or condition, life becomes very difficult. Energy is limited. For a person who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), lack of energy is the problem. It's very difficult to explain to people why you can do this thing but not that thing. If you can do one thing, surely you can do it all? Well, yes. I can do 'anything', but not 'everything.' The Spoon Theory is a graphic illustration of just how that works. Devised by a woman with lupus, it applies to anyone else struggling with a disability. Abled-bodied people don't have any idea how time consuming and difficult it is to cope with a disability.

I make choices: I'm a terrible housekeeper because I'd rather do things like working as a sailor on a tall ship and read books. I wear the same clothes day after day because it minimizes the amount of laundry and simplifies the complex process of figuring out what to wear today. All my work pants are tan, and all my work shirts are blue or black. It's impossible not to be presentable if the options are eliminated. It's like wearing a uniform; you don't have to think anymore. Of course, self-expression, variety, and fun disappear, but that's a small price to pay for being able to get dressed decently and not have a crisis when I'm supposed to be getting ready for work. There are things more important to me than deciding what shirt to wear.

You can read about The Spoon Theory at:

I have also been listening to the CSFAC meeting on the Internet. Day One presents the science we already know, but having it all together in one place in digestible pieces is very handy. It certainly made an impact on some of the attendees -- the representatives from the CDC seems to finally be tuning in to what's been said for years. The committee also addressed the question of recommending the name be changed to ME/CFS, for myalgic encelphalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome in order to underscore the seriousness of the illness. As it was remarked, people don't take it seriously if you sound like you could have a problem that could be cured by taking a nap.

Also useful was the information on Day Two about how to document disability for a disability claims to the Social Security Administration and private disability insurance. Especially helpful were the exercise physiologists describing their tests and how they correlate to function and the evidence they use to make recommendations about level of activity. They also discussed how the great majority of work tolerance examinations do not follow any standardized procedures and are not based on evidence directly derived from the patient's actual condition. In other words, they are the opinions (or fantasies) of the examiner.

The videos can be viewed at:

Day Three has more procedural and political information about funding, etc, that is of less interest to patients, but probably useful to researchers and clinicians seeking resources.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Day Three, Kindle with Case

Monday I got my Kindle 3G as a gift from a fan (thank you very much). It came with a Kindle cover... on Tuesday. So, the two are now united and in operation. It hooked up easily enough. I like the built in light that comes with the case. It would be better if it rose a little higher, it does not shine evenly on the Kindle. In particular, it does a poor job of illuminating the keyboard and navigation keys. As mentioned previously, it's hard to see the teeny little keyboard and navigation keys as it is. It gives me a headache to squint enough to be able to make out the keys necessary to turn text to speech off and on. It's easier to cart the thing to a lamp than to make my eyes hurt trying to use the built in light. On the other hand, the light is adequate for reading the screen.

Reading my first book was tiring and frustrating. I was able to read it in one day, but it tires my brain sufficiently I must pace myself if I want to get anything else done on a given day. I think I must allocate a week with a little reading/listening each day to get through it. This is a vast improvement over six months to read the same thing in print.

I also mentioned that the entirety of Captain Blood is not on my Kindle. My first contact with customer support informed me that they would take care of the problem in 3-4 weeks. WEEKS. Yes, you read that right. They may get around to fixing it in a month. Today I was reading the manual in an effort to learn more about how my device works and found a troubleshooting tip: Delete the item, then redownload it from the archives. I did that. Still doesn't work. In fact, it's even worse. It opens to the blank end page and will not go anywhere else. Not even back to the page before it. So I have a blank page that says 100% -- and there is nothing else to be gotten out of the redownloaded page.

I have also found the USB cord. It's the power cable. The USB unplugs from the power cable. I wonder how long it will be before I lose the adapter... Having received a case custom made for the Kindle, you would think that it would include a pocket for the storage of the cable. It doesn't. Now maybe other people don't plan to recharge their Kindle when they travel, and maybe they never need to sync it with a computer. In short, maybe they have no need of a USB cable. I do. I also need earbuds so that I will be able to listen to the Kindle when I am aboard the ship and not disturb other people. No pocket for the earbuds, either. Shopping the Kindle Accessories page, I don't see any cases for earbuds or USB cables for sale.

Yesterday I started reading Candide. Within a few chapters my brain was tired. It was probably overly tired from having read Captain Blood and struggling with the Kindle and its various shortcomings. Thinking that perhaps some of the problem might be the malfunctions of my brain, I decided to read something familiar: my own novel.

To do so required transferring my copy of The Sallee Rovers from my iMac to the Kindle. This is not an obvious undertaking. Going online via my Mac, I was able to search for documentation and find that I need to email the Kindle edition of The Sallee Rovers from the Mac to an address they provide, with the possibility of a fee being charged if a conversion is necessary, which it's not.

You see, I have a Kindle version of my own book because the publisher gave me one. It's normal for publishers to give a copy of a book to the author. However, that means it's not part of my archive at While I'm happy that is not squawking about my possession of an unregistered Kindle edition, it makes syncing the Kindle and the Mac a bit awkward. And slow. It takes a minimum of five minutes to transfer the file from my Mac to the Kindle six inches away. It's done by emailing it to your special personal Kindle email address. There may be some way to transfer directly, but I have not sussed it out yet.

The first impression of The Sallee Rovers being read by an artificial mechanical voice is that it sounds pretty good. My delivery is dead pan and the flatness of the artificial voice suits it. The humor in the writing style is more apparent as spoken by the artificial voice than  in print, I think. I'm also pleased that the conversation sounds almost natural in spite of the artificial voice. That I have to take some credit for: Bishop sounds abrupt and Thorton sounds nervous. It's the patterns of their speech that makes it so, and hearing it out loud makes it obvious.

On the other hand, the Kindle does not pause after a closing quotation mark, thus conversational remarks run into each other. That makes it hard to tell who is speaking, and the difference between speech and narration. The Kindle's inability to process abbreviations correctly is disruptive also. 'Mr.' is constantly pronounced 'em-ar' not as 'mister.' When doing future books I shall eliminate as many abbreviations as possible so that it will be less disruptive when read aloud.

I want to learn how to code Kindle books myself. I suspect I could fix the flow by inserting white periods after closing quotation marks, for example. The white periods would be invisible on the page, but would force a pause by the coded voice. All the same, a pause after a closing quotation mark ought to be programmed into the text to speech software.

I was also driven crazy by the inconsistent pronunciation. It was hard to get used to hearing the Ajax constantly referred to as the 'I-yaks.' It may be the Greek pronunciation, but it isn't the English pronunciation, and I have always heard it as 'ay jacks' in English. I was therefore surprised and annoyed when the possessive was pronounced 'ay jack's'. Again, this is a defect in implementation. If you're going to go in and code manually to force a particular pronunciation, it should be consistent. Plurals and possessives are perfectly common parts of grammar and ought to be handled properly.

It also bugged me that 'below' is pronounced 'billow' and 'summon' is pronounced 'sum monn.' The artificial voice sounded Jamaican, mon. Effort should be put into making certain common words and abbreviations will be properly handled -- the average reader is going to have far more need of words like 'Mr.' and 'below' than 'Ajax' and 'forecastle.'

Listening to a story I knew very well I did not get as tired or frustrated. Because I knew the story I did not need to pause very often, although I did pause it at times so I could re-read the text in order to determine if there was a typo or it was a reading error by the reader. (One typo, the rest were device errors.) Fewer interruptions and less disruption made it enjoyable to listen to the story in spite of the minor annoyances.

Today I took the device with me while doing errands. That reveals a nice feature of the Kindle: you can listen to it even with the Kindle closed up in its case. Nice. I had the earbuds plugged in while I was a passenger in a car. I did not get motionsick, and that was a greatly appreciated feature. I cannot read in a car because I get carsick when reading. Now can enjoy books while traveling when I couldn't before. Big Kindle win.

It would be super nice if the Kindle would get friendly with car stereos like some mp3 players do. It would be spiffy to be able to plug the Kindle into the car to charge/use power, and it would also be nice to be able to put the sound through the car's sound system. Having used Apple earbuds, the sound quality was better in the earbuds than from the device's own speaker. My car speakers are pretty good too, I expect it would sound better through the car speakers than through the device's speaker. It's illegal to wear earbuds while driving, so if listening to the Kindle while driving, it means using its own speaker or the car's. I guess the claim of up to one month battery life is something I don't take seriously.

The battery life issue is important. I'm guessing that an active use of the machine, such as text to speech, uses up more energy than plain old silent reading. If the device is used to listen to music, that will use more battery too, as the documentation warns. The question is... how long? Ergo, my convulsive need to plug the thing in whenever possible, just to keep the battery up when I have no idea how long the battery will last.

Which brings up another annoyance: the battery indicator disappears. It starts off showing it, but as soon as the page is turned, it disappears. Therefore, if you're listening to a book you have no way to know how fast the battery is being used up. If you want to know, you have to pause text to speech. The battery indicator does not reappear. You have to press the home button and drop out of the book entirely. Then you can see the battery indicator. The same applies to the Wi-Fi and bars indicator and the book title. They, along with the battery indicator, are in the header. As soon as you turn the page... gone. This happens in plain text or in text to speech. Why on earth would you want to know how much battery life you had left, anyhow?

So, after three days with the Kindle: I like it. I'm frustrated by its shortcomings, but it does two things for me that make me happy: 1) It reads books so I can read a book in a week instead of needing six months for it, and 2) it lets me read in the car without getting carsick. These are two big wins to set against a horde of minor annoyances and general frustration.


Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tom Wisner, Bard of the Chesapeake

I have only just now learned that Tom Wisner, the Bard of the Chesapeake Bay has passed away. Daddy Art, that is to say, Captain Art Daniels delivered the eulogy.

It is always sad to see a piece of the Chesapeake's history and culture pass away, but I am sadder still that this is old news and I have only just now heard it. That's what comes of committing the disloyalty of spending my year on the Delaware side of the world, crewing the Kalmar Nyckel and her boat, the Little Key. I have never been homesick for any place in the world, but I am surely homesick for skipjacks. Finding out that I missed something important has made me miss the Chesapeake even more.

Tom used to go around to festivals on the Chesapeake Bay and I saw him perform a few years ago at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, if memory serves me correctly. I was also thinking I would see him again, because Erik Spangler is composing a 'Watershed Sound Poem' that includes some of my poetry from Heron Sea along with some of Tom's work and other local artists and sounds. Watershed Sound Poem has an estimated time of arrival next spring. I am hoping to be able to attend its performance, which will be even more poignant if it includes Tom's work.

In Japanese aesthetics there is a quality called 'aware', pronounced ah-wah-ray, which is translated as 'the pity of things,' or an awareness of the perishable of the world. I encountered this Japanese aesthetic principle as a teenager, thanks to the Japanese exchange student we had, and was immediately and deeply immersed in Japanophilia for several decades. 'Aware' impressed me deeply and has provided me with a melancholy but not depressing way to view the world and to prize its fragile beauty. It also introduced me to the classical tanka of the Kokinshu and Shinkokinshu eras -- when I was homeless, Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry was one of the items I managed to retain possession of.

It was not until many years later that I wrote tanka and found in the 'aware' of Japan a way of viewing the world that was a perfect match for the fragile beauty of the Chesapeake. There is a numinous quality in both tanka and the Chesapeake, so it would not surprise me if some Japanese pilgrim erected a Shinto gate in the shallow waters of the bay. It would have to be painted blue if they did, because blue is the traditional color for offerings given to the god of the Chesapeake by the Indians who lived here. Boats are never painted blue here because if you do, the god of the Chesapeake will accept the gift and pull it under.

I am currently serving aboard a big blue ship, the Kalmar Nyckel, a reproduction of a 17th century vessel that was used to bring Swedish settlers to the Delaware Bay. When I have been aboard her going along the Chesapeake Bay, I often reflect on these matters, and I expect I will reflect again when she goes to the Chestertown Downrigging Weekend. Chestertown, Maryland, was the site of the Chestertown Tea Party during the American Revolution, and there is nothing more beautiful that a dozen or more historic and wooden ships and boats cozy together as October ends with a crazy Halloween party.

I keep
the ship's cat
at three am
on a Cape Cod night

I am glad to be home again.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Kindle vs Nook and the winner is....

Kindle. Hands down, no debate, knock out punch in the first round.

Today I had the opportunity to compared a Nook and Kindle 3G side by side in the Barnes and Noble bookstore. I must say the staff at Barnes and Noble were very nice and helpful, even as it was apparent the Nook was going down in flames.

First: Nook doesn't do text to speech. POW. Dead. Not even a contender. Vainly did the clerk tell me that Nook does do audiobooks. I have not investigated this in the Kindle yet because I've never done audiobooks before, they being so damned expensive. I have downloaded a lot of classics for free with text to speech enabled -- more on that in a separate post. Kindle wins by a knockout on the first blow.

So, having eliminated the Nook as a contender, I went on to examine it as a reading device. First thing I noticed: glare. Lots of it. Not as much as my netbook which is functionally a mirror in bright environments, but way more than the Kindle. I tried the Nook and Kindle side by side at different distances and in different positions. Kindle won hands down every time. Nook has an optimal reading position and distance. Deviate from that and the glare increases dramatically. Worst positions are unreadable due to glare. This does not happen with the Kindle. Worst positions have somewhat more glare than the optimal position, but remains readable. Given that you have to move your hands to turn pages, drink your soda, or other things, this means waving the Nook around a bit until you find the sweet spot.

Really bad screwup by Nook: the anti-glared treatment was applied only to the reading window, not to the touch sensitive menu window. The glare is twice as bad on the menu window, making it really hard to read and use.

The smallness of the buttons makes it really hard to type when using the on screen keyboard and other features. This is about as difficult as the Kindle's tiny little buttons on the keyboard. The difference is, there's a bit of space between most of the Kindle buttons so that an error has null effect (usually), whereas on the Nook the onscreen buttons are side by side, so a minor error on your part means you just hit a button you didn't intend and must backspace, and can result in you visiting random pages you didn't intend. Nook fails for people with fine motor problems. Kindle is not so hot on this, but is not a complete fail.

Looking at the loading of pages and other stuff, I found the Nook hard to navigate and poorly implemented. There is no 'back' button, which on the Kindle has saved me from many of my errors. No, on the Nook, choose wrong, and you're lost. Worse, things like the 'Nook tour' are badly implemented. For example, it tells you 'try this feature'. You try it... and have no way to get back to the tour. You have to already know how to use the Nook so that you know which menu to pick to navigate back to the Nook Tour, open it again, thumb through several pages, and get back to where you were in the tour. #fail

Looking up a word in the dictionary isn't easy, either. You have to magically know which menu items to press on the touch sensitive menu screen, navigate to the dictionary, get the popup arrows, and press them a bunch to select the word. Except, you have to know to move the cursor to the beginning of the word. With the Kindle, the navigation button is right there. You want a word look up? Navigate to it and press the center of the navigation button. Much much simpler and faster.

Unfortunately, the Kindle navigation button is one of the bad buttons that is too close to other buttons, so you are likely to accidentally hit the Menu or Back buttons, so this impedes dictionary usage. Still, it beats the heck out of the Nook.

The Nook will apparently play music for you, as will the Kindle. I have failed to figure out how to get the music from my iMac to my Kindle, which is a #fail on Kindle's part. I saw menu stuff on the Nook relating to music, but I couldn't figure it out either, although I didn't have as much time to spend on it and didn't have access to my own music on my iMac, so it wasn't a fair comparison, but all the same, it does not appear to be simple. No score for Nook on music: game called on account of rain.

Since reading is what both are designed to do, how do they hold up in various situations? I did not have the opportunity to take the Nook outdoors, but I suspect the glare problem would only be worse and the high-glare touch screen unusable. I have had the Kindle outside -- and it reads very well in bright natural light. Kindle's claims to beach reading are validated here. That matters to me -- I'm a tall ship sailor and have been frequently frustrated by glare from my Netbook. The Nook will not serve my needs there.

Low light is another condition often encountered on the ship, or at my desk for that matters. Kindle's tiny keyboard and navigations buttons are a #fail -- I must carry the device into the light to read them. I did not have the opportunity to view a Nook in low light conditions. In my waving it about checking glare I did have it in locations in which there was less light, eg, it was in the shadow of my body, and the glare persisted, so I'm not optimistic about the Nook in dim light. The Nook does have one low light feature that is helpful and beats the Kindle: raised dots on the page forward and back buttons. I have several times fumbled and pressed the wrong button on the Kindle in low light situations. Unfortunately, the raised dots are exactly the same for backwards and forwards, and on each side of the device. It is entirely possible that a blind person, or somebody picking it up in the dark could have it upside down without realizing it and press the wrong buttons. So, raised dots are in fact helpful on the Nook, although they could be better. Nook wins this one.

Nook wins on glitz, too. You can change your wallpaper on the Nook. I don't think you can on the Kindle, which is annoying me to no end. I do not like looking at pictures of famous novelists. I want to put pictures of ships on my Kindle :) This is a cosmetic issue though, so although Nook wins here, you don't buy an ebook reader for its cover.

Shopping proved a pain in the butt with the Nook as well as the Kindle -- due largely to teeny tiny buttons and hard to navigate menus. The Nook displays covers in its touch screen navigation window, which seems pretty spiffy, but is then obscuring my ability to use the navigation window for its intended purpose. How do you get back and forth between the book covers and menu items? No, it would have been much better to show book covers in the display window. The book covers are touchable and will open then, but considering you can only see three book covers in the touch screen window, this does not seem like a very helpful way to thumb through your books.

Conclusion: Kindle wins hands down as a reading and listening device. The Nook advantages are trivial. The Nook defects are huge and glaring. (Pun intended.) Want a trendy device that does a lot of things badly? Nook is your choice.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Listening to My New Kindle

I received a Kindle 3G as a gift from a fan, which I greatly appreciate. We met each other in an online game a month ago and were chatting. I told him about my novels, the Pirates of the Narrow Seas series featuring a gay lieutenant during the Age of Sail, and intrigued by my telling him the Kindle would read aloud (which I had heard from print-impaired friends), he decided to buy a Kindle and my book. He liked them both, and so, last week, when we were chatting again, he bought me a Kindle as a gift.

Due to a neurological disorder, I have had great difficulty in reading and writing for more than a decade now. As a young person I used to read two paperback books a day. It was quite routine for me to sit down and read a 300 page book from cover to cover in a single sitting. Now it takes me six to nine months to read a paperback because I can only handle it in small increments of a few paragraphs or a couple of page at a time. Moby Dick is an extremely long book this way. I do a great deal of reading because I write and editor tanka poetry, but the good thing about tanka is, it's short! That's about the right size chunk for me.

When he told me he bought me the book, and I was waiting for it to arrive, I had a sudden bout of grief. I have become inured to being functionally illiterate -- to read a bill, or a cereal box, or a set of medical instructions, requires me focussing my brain in a way and to a degree it does not normally care to focus. Reading for pleasure had become non-existent -- I have read very few novels since becoming impaired. I read for information because there are things I want to know that can only be hand in a book or website. Reading for fun? Reading wasn't fun. Reading was extremely hard work prone to great frustration.

I contemplated being able to listen to a book, I was struck with how much I had missed it. I wanted to read for fun! In my splurge of book downloading, I downloaded fiction: Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Every single novel by Captain Marryat. Gulliver's Travels.  I was desperate for books, hungry for books, starving for books. I wanted stories.

My first book listened to was Captain Blood. I had never actually read Captain Blood. I saw it as a movie starring Errol Flynn when I was twelve. Thereafter I was an Errol Flynn junkie, with Flynn's swashbuckling heroes imprinted in my juvenile brain as the very model of What A Hero Ought To Be. I had no idea there were books behind Captain Blood or The Seahawk. By the time I knew it, I was neurologically impaired. The notion of reading a novel was no fun. And yet, I had written three novels deliberately invoking those swashbucklers I loved as a kid. (Writing is easier than reading. I am typing this with my eyes shut. I don't need to be able to see to write.) Gerry B remarked on the resemblance between Errol Flynn and my character, Captain Tangle, and he was right.

Thus, Captain Blood was my first book listened to on the Kindle.

It did not go smoothly. First of all, the buttons were so tiny and small that I had difficulty seeing them to turn on the text to speech or pause it. I have to carry it into a bright light to do this, which kind of defeat's the friendliness of a Kindle for a print-impaired person. If you could see, you wouldn't be needing to listen to it. There ought to be a big orange button to press in some obvious location that says, "Speech." Having figured out how to do that much, I didn't worry about the full accessibility feature that would read the menus and other items aloud to me. Short pragmatic lists are within my brain's ability to process.

However, I swiftly discovered that 'reading' is not just a visual activity. The brain must not only process what it sees into words, those words must be translated into meaning. This is something I have trouble with, and my brain lags behind the spoken word. Often I found myself needing to pause the reading in order to figure out what I had missed. Slowly it down was not an option, I found it painfully slow already. Speeding it up doesn't seem like a good idea either.

What I needed was an easy way to click back one paragraph to relisten to it. Kindle doesn't do this. Either it's on, or it's off. There also needs to be protection from fumble fingers. Having arthritis, I don't have good fine motor control. At one point I pressed something, I don't know what, by accident, and sped ahead to the 80% complete part. There was no way to get back to where I was but to click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click... which is not friendly for a person who has problems with their hands.

While listening, I found myself checking the printed text. Reading along at times helped me grasp the content of the story. But the print was too small. In vain I tried to increase the size of the type by following the instructions. Eventually I figured out that you have to turn off text to speech to adjust the font size. That seems silly to me, but as it only happens once, then my text size is picked, it's a minor inconvenience.

I also figured out that if you want to go back a page, you have to turn off text to speech, which is worse than silly, it's a royal pain in the neck. You also can't skip ahead. There were redundant places in the novel where I wanted to skip forward, but the time involved in carrying the Kindle into the light so that I could find the buttons to press to pause text to speech, skim forward, re-enable text to speech, and return to my seat and resume listening, just wasn't worth it.

Ultimately, I let the thing go at its own pace, picking it up and reading along where I needed to to catch important details, or else deciding that I didn't really need to know that particular paragraph and letting it go by uncomprehended. Such inefficient reading is acceptable in a novel, but when reading for non-fiction, it's not okay. I haven't tried non-fiction on it yet.

The Kindle really really needs a way to go forward or back while in text to speech mode, and it needs a way to speed up or slow down the text to speech while in text to speech mode, something that doesn't involve tiny buttons. I envision a large orange button that you press once to turn on or off. It would have sides, like the navigation button, so that if you press the right side, it skips forward, press left it skips backwards, press the top it speeds up, press the bottom it slows down, press in the middle for two seconds and it brings up the text to speech settings. It will also give you a choice of more than just 'male' and 'female' voices.

The quality of the voice didn't bother me, although a colleague warned me it was hard to get used to. The strange handling of punctuation and spacing was the most disruptive. For example, it does not pause for an emdash or quotation mark. These sentences simply run into each other, impairing comprehension. When I had to look at the book or stop and read, it was usually because conversations where simply run into text. It also does not pause at a paragraph break, or after a title. So the chapter titles ran into the first paragraph as if they were all one sentence. That's needs to be fixed.

The Kindle is variable in its pronunciation of Roman numerals. IX it pronounced correctly as 9. XXI it pronounced as 'see I.' The Kindle really needs to learn how to recognize and handle Roman numerals correctly. It also fails to understand common abbreviations, such as Mrs., which it read out loud as m-r-s. There were many ordinary words, such as 'succinct' which were not pronounced correctly. It absolutely floored me then, that 'forecastle' was correctly pronounced as 'fo'c'sle.' That means somebody deliberately went in and programmed the Kindle to say focsle -- because that is NOT a reading that a person or machine would produce upon reading 'forecastle.' If Kindle is going to make certain obscure words like 'forecastle' are pronounced correctly, it ought to do the same for all common words.

One kudo, though. It pronounced 'truculent' correctly. That's a relief, because 'truculent' is probably Sabatini's most favorite word ever, and hearing it pronounced incorrectly as many times as he used it would have driven me insane.

That the Kindle is confused by 'bow' of a ship and pronounced it 'bow' as in 'bow tie' I forgive, because deducing which pronunciation is correct requires a correct parsing of the grammar, which seems a little much for a text to speech program to accomplish. Still, I am betting that should Kindle offer a premium text to speech program capable of handling anything thrown at it -- including random bits of French, Latin, and a bad Dutch accent, as Captain Blood does, people would buy it. I would.

The other problem is that there were words I wanted to look up. But, brace for it, you have to turn off text to speech. Then you have to use the teeny tiny buttons to navigate to the word, which became further complicated by all the times I accidentally hit 'Menu' and 'Back.' Okay, forget the built in dictionary. I had my Mac sitting right in front of me, so I used that to look up words.

There was one more problem. The download of Captain Blood was not complete -- and I was missing the last few pages or chapters. Fortunately, having seen the movie, I knew how it ended. I moved on to Candide.

So. A lot of complaints and shortcomings. But what about the purpose of the Kindle, to actually enjoy a book? Can I accomplish that? The answer is a qualified 'yes.'

The most notable thing is that I was able to read/listen to a novel today. There were numerous interruptions and starts and stops, but I accomplished it in one day instead of six to nine months. I am frustrated though, so that I cannot say I exactly enjoyed it. So, I am able to read a book by listening to it with considerably more speed than by reading with my eyes. That's a great positive benefit, but it's not enjoyable because it's frustrating and tiring, and my comprehension of all that I read is imperfect. I know I am missing chunks of the books. Thus, for 'light' reading, it's not very light.

On the other hand, I am going to keep using my Kindle because the reading of a book over six to nine months is fraught with even more frustration and more numerous and lengthier interruptions than the Kindle is. Thus, the Kindle is a great improvement over not having it, but there is a great deal of room for improvement in the device.

Now a great deal has been said by colleagues of mine about the needs to print-impaired people and whether it is profitable for the Kindle to meet them. Accessibility is  generally not profitable, so one must view the provision of text to speech capability in the Kindle as an act of charity. Looked at that way, it can be seen that in the larger scheme of things, the needs of print-impaired people are of no concern to great corporations. I say this with a great deal of irony, since being one of the print-impaired people, I am certainly of the opinion that Amazon--and everyone else--ought to care a great deal more than they do.

On the other hand, the Kindle is cheap. I remembered when a capability of this sort required expensive computers and software to accomplish the same thing, which nobody could afford. I am also well aware of the expense and inconvenience of books on tape, having never been able to afford a textbook on tape, given that I am not officially blind, nobody was going to give me one for free. Thus, Kindle puts a lot of books into the hands of a lot of people that wouldn't have them otherwise.

What Amazon needs to consider are the needs of people who are not blind. I have noticed a great many people like to listen to stories while commuting, while working out, while riding the bus to school, sitting in doctor's office, and so forth. There are vastly more bored people in the world than there are print-impaired people, so making a Kindle that appeals to them will guarantee commercial success. However, bored people will not put up with a funky mechanical voice that can't even read a chapter heading correctly, does haven't a color display, and is a pain in a net to use for music or surfing.

I'm afraid that the iPad is going to beat the Kindle here, except that, there's precious few books available for the iPad and you can't even shop the iBookstore without one and the iPad is too damned expensive. Somebody will come along and make a device that marries the best of both and put them both out of business. That device will be marketed to bored people who want to take their entertainment with them and it will show movies and stuff as well as reading books and surfing the web. It will incidentally be useful to print-impaired people. Sadly, it's not coming to market any time soon.


Saturday, October 02, 2010

#Applefail - no iBooks for You!

You can't access iBookstore unless you have an iPad or an iPhone. No, you're not allowed to even look at the catalog and browse. Period. You must shell out hundreds of bucks before you can even look and see if there's something you want to buy. By contrast, I can view the Kindle store from any kind of machine I want. I downloaded the Kindle for Mac app and I can read and buy books from the Kindle store on my Mac. Sadly, it the Mac version does not enable text to speech. That's a big shortcoming. So, I looked into iBookstore because Apple has an excellent record for accessibility.

The first requirement of 'accessibility' is that you can actually ACCESS something. Which, you can't. Unless you're rich and can afford to own a zillion expensive gadgets. Which I can't.

I have an iMac. You'd think that when Apple was thinking about, "Who is going to buy books from the iBookstore?" the answer would be, "All the millions of loyal customers who already own Apple products!" But nooooo. If Apple won't even support its own customers, who will?

Kindle, that's who. Not only is there a Kindle app for the iMac, there's a Kindle app for the iPad. #amazonwin

Apple, we've been married since 1988. I've been faithful to you all this time, sticking up for you when other people said you were nothing but bling and flash, but you've let me down one too many times. You're just not meeting my needs. You look great, but at my age, I don't care. I want somebody that will actually pull his weight around the house. I can't count on you when I need you.

So sorry, Apple. I'm seeing somebody new and his name is Kindle. Monday I pick him up and he moves in. It'll be better for both of us. Okay, it won't be better for you, but who cares? It's time to put myself first.