Thursday, November 29, 2007


In the 80's, i read Robert Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King. This is a novelization of the epic poem. I loved it. To be honest, i hadn't been turned on very much by Silverberg's other works, though my friends like him. Pick up a copy. Amazon is showing it for 2 cents. What's with that? You must have to pay shipping, at least. It's a must-read.

Author Stephen Mitchell has written a modern verse english version of the epic tale of Gilgamesh, entitled Gilgamesh. Kind of an odd thing. I'm pretty sure that i downloaded it from Librivox, but there is no sign of it there now. Perhaps it was mistakenly published there. It is available from LearnOutLoud for about $20. The book is narrated by George Guidall, who has the perfect voice for this work, and provides a competent reading of the book and Stephen's analysis and notes. It is published on four CDs, but takes a bit over three hours.

The book itself is on two CDs. When i reached the end of the book, it was announced that the rest of it was commentary by the author. I thought i'd skip it. I thought of the main book as very short. Silverberg's novel is, well, a full length novel. That should be some eight hours of audio. Yet it was about two. Though i liked it, i thought that the commentary would completely bore me. I know the story. What is he likely to add to it?

And yet, there it was. After a few days, i stuffed the first hour onto my iPod, for consumption on the way to work. If it was terrible, i could always skip to my next podcast. So, it starts out a bit slow, picking apart the details of the story. But instead of basically repeating what was already in the story, he provides insight on why the original author used the structure that was used, why the original author picked the perspective that was used, what the inuendo means and doesn't mean.

OK, so here's where i'm coming from. If you launch an application, say Microsoft Word. But, really, any application will do. Turn on context sensitive help, and point at something, and read what it says. In MS Word, it's under the Help menu, and it reads "What's This". Point it at the icon that vaguely looks like a floppy. It will say something like Saves the active file with it's current file name, location, and file format. Nothing wrong with that, right? Except that it says nothing about why you might want to do such a thing. For Save that is perhaps, not a big deal. But for many more complicated functions, it's everything, and the online help is useless. But Stephen Mitchell's commentary on Gilgamesh covers exactly the why do we care? ideas. It's really very good. It's written by someone who has really thought about it.

Ok, so the book is short, and there's an equal length commentary. It some ways, it's a Reader's Digest or Cliff's Notes version of the epic. Not that i read either Reader's Digest or Cliff's Notes. But in other ways, the work is an attempt to create a translation that captures the spirit of the original. Not easy to do for a work in a dead language. Even if one stands in the footsteps of giants.

(If I have not seen further, it is because I stand in the footsteps of giants. - a wonderful misquote of Newton.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Extracts from Adam’s Diary

I recently listened to Extracts from Adam’s Diary, a Mark Twain piece read on Librivox, and available for free download. The work is short. There are five chapters, the longest is about six minutes. It's a good quality recording, and read competently. Twain has sharp wit, and this somewhat masks the points he also manages to insert into this short story. If Genesis read this way, more people would understand it.

I particularly liked it, partly because it happens to be a bit of Twain i'd never read before. I've read alot of Twain, so this is becoming more rare. I have read Twain's Letters from Earth, which also has a Biblical bent. But where Twain didn't release Letters, probably because he wasn't satisfied with it, he did release Extracts. Letters starts out sharper, but soon runs out of good material, and drifts from focus. Extracts maintains focus and reaches a conclusion.

It's funny. It's a very consumable sound bite. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reading books

Ars has an article about how reading ebooks is not like reading books. The article tries to make the point that somehow paper books are better. Or at least, something is lost going to a non-paper form. I'd say we've gotten to the point where this is moot. In particular, there's an image of a book in the article. Guess what? I read the article in a browser. I could have done this on a portable browser. I get the full artwork. It's also a special case.

I have a 2002 vintage Visor Platinum. If fits in my shirt pocket. It has a monochrome LCD with backlight. It works well in full sunlight, and pitch dark. There is a twilight where the backlight isn't strong enough which is pretty awful. This situation doesn't come up often. It runs on twin AAA batteries, which last, with modern rechargables from the grocery store, about 20 hours per charge. I can carry spares, for longer life. The device life in not limited by batteries. It has 8 MB memory (RAM/file store), enough for several books. The Bible is 1.44 MB compressed. It cost $110 when new. I bought two of them. One loads new books on it via USB or serial.

Until recently, i used it to read books, using the freeware weasel reader. It reads Palm doc books, and also it's own zlib compressed text format. It's own format has bookmarks that can be prebuilt for chapters, etc. There is a utility that will create this format from Gutenberg books, for example. It has two usable fonts - small and large bold. It allows bookmarking and annotating. It remembers where you were in a book. So you can always annotate using some other Palm application, like creating a memo.

I never annotated real books - postit notes hadn't been invented, and i never got into that habit. I don't write in books. But with electronic books, i'll spot an error, and put together a 'diff file' and send it to Gutenberg. My changes tend to make it into the archive, and i'm encouraged to continue doing this. Electronic books are interactive for me in a seriously real way.

There are only a few books i've read more than once. The Harry Potter series, and The Lord of the Rings, for example. But also, from Gutenberg, Reddy Fox. I've read this one maybe five times, out loud. It's incredibly hard to proof read, and i found errors even in the 5th reading (using a text will all my previous corrections applied). Most errors will go unnoticed, but i hope i've helped improve the quality of the work.

I read about 50 books a year. I read about 35, and listen to another 15. It takes a long time to get through 1,000 books. Having alot of books makes sense primarily for reference.

The Visor is an excellent book reader for me. The battery life is long. The device is highly portable. It's main drawbacks are that it is no longer sold - so it can't be replaced, the digitizer is fragile, and it will eventually break, it was basically incapable of showing pictures, it was limited to plain text - no bold, italics, etc.

Now, I have a a Nokia 770. It was about $150 new (sort of closeout). It is the same physical size as the Palm. It has an internal (but replacable) rechargable battery which lasts about 5 hours. That's enough for a commute. One loads data on it via USB or WiFi. The screen is high resolution color. I have 2 GB of file store, enough for a small library. FBReader is available for it, which can read plain text, html (but it is NOT a web browser, in particular, it doesn't seem to let you follow links, so books should be one huge file). FBReader can read compressed files. But with 2 GB of space, this isn't much of an issue. FBReader lets me pick colors for text and background, as well as font and size, so i can customize the experience to the lighting conditions. I read alot in the dark. HTML books, such as A Christmas Carol on Gutenberg, have a few images, and FBReader displays them extraordinarily well on the 770. FBReader also lets you flip between books easily.

The 770 also has a real web browser (Opera) which allows me to read some web based books better. It also allows me to surf the web, read web comics, etc.

The 770 also has a PDF reader. I don't like PDF for online books. I much prefer a format where i can increase (or decrease) the font size, and have the machine rewrap the text to match the screen size. The PDF format is not very flexible. PDF's which have been formatted for two columns on 8.5x11 paper work better than those with one wide chunk of text. But on the 770, i'll make it work if the content is worth it.

With several book readers available, i find that i'm reading several books at a time. Two or three in FBReader, three or four in a web browser, and typically one or two in PDF.

The 770 can play music. I don't generally listen while reading. If it turns out that playing music consumes the reader's batteries, one could use an appropriate dedicated mp3 player. My iPod lasts about 18 hours on a charge. Other mp3 players use AAA batteries, and a pocketful will last weeks of continuous use.

I don't currently commute to work hands free. When i did, it was about an hour each way. I have used a laptop during the commute, and four hours endurance was fine. I could (but didn't) recharge at work.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sony book reader

Ars Technica has a review of the Sony PRS-505 electronic book reader. Very strange. $300. It can read books, and play audio (badly). No downloadable software. So if this isn't exactly what you need, then that's it. Move on.

The screen is grey scale. 8 greys. It has alot of dots - 800x600. The screen does not consume power when displaying - just when you turn pages. But, it takes 2 seconds to turn a page. If there's no backlight, then it's game over for me, however. What i really like to do is read in the dark. The batteries last a long time, unless you play audio. There's a memory stick - and, yes, it's Sony's proprietary format. It syncs to Windows computers only. I don't run Windows.

I've read tons of books on my 2002 vintage Palm OS Visor Platinum. It's 8 MB RAM holds tons of books. At one point, i had the entire Bible, and several other books on it. There are at least half a dozen free book readers (software) to pick from for it. One of the book readers was pretty slow turning pages. Not as slow as two seconds, just not very fast. Fortunately, other readers are quicker. The Visor Platinum has an LCD screen, which works fine in bright sunlight, and has a backlight for reading in the dark. If you aren't using the backlight, the batteries last for days. And, since the batteries are just AAA's, you can always bring spares, or stop in at 7/11.

OK, so my new Nokia 770's color screen is nicer. Even very tiny text is very sharp. However, the rechargable battery only lasts 4 or 5 hours. It handles text and PDF's and web pages. FBReader is totally awesome on the Nokia. It's better than the best of the Palm readers. For reading in the dark, i like to set the page to black, and the text to a dark red. Very nice. No screaming white light around the edges - just red text. The Nokia was $150 (on sale). The770 uses an MMC memory card. Can't get it at your local store, but it is an industry standard, available on the net.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ipod Vs My Musix

For various reasons, i have two mp3 players. I've had both units for more than a year. In fact, both units are no longer sold as new. Even though they both have excellent sound, I really only use one of them. Try to guess which one it is after the descriptions below.

One is the original Apple iPod Shuffle. It looks like a white pack of gum with a rounded rectangle look. It has a button in a ring. The button is the play/stop button. The ring has forward a track and (hold it down) fast forward, back a track and (hold it down) rewind, volume up and volume down. There's a blinking light indicating it's on, etc. I mostly ignore it. On the back, it has a three position switch which gives you power off, sequential play and shuffle mode. There's a button which lets you check the state of the internal battery. The light shows green, amber or red.

The unit has a USB connection. You mount it on some computer, add tracks, and delete tracks. You need software which knows how to update the database on the device, otherwise, the device won't play it. I use gnupod, since other software for the iPod doesn't really work for Linux. This software works on the command line, has awful syntax, but this can be fixed with aliases and such in your shell's startup file. The key is that it works. I could say that again, but you'd get bored. You can store things on it that aren't music, for example to copy things from one place to another. Inside, there is half a GB of flash. That's enough for 12 to 20 hours of content, depending on encoding, quality, etc. While you're connected, the battery charges. I don't think about the battery unless i'm going on a long trip. It usually works. But for long trips, the limit is 18 hours of use on a full charge. I haven't tested this lately.

If you pause the unit, it will eventually turn itself off. When you turn it on, it sometimes remembers where you were in a track, and sometimes it skips to the beginning of the track. Sometimes it forgets the track, and skips to the "first track". This is the same as the first track your computer reports is on the device. Sometimes, the software records that you deleted a track, but the track isn't actually deleted. It takes up space, but isn't accessible. It can be hard to figure out which track it is, or even notice that it has happened. The tracks are always renamed with a "1_" prefix added. Sometimes, part of the file names are removed. It might have something to do with the DOS FAT 32 filesystem, and name length limitations or name mangling. Hey, blame it on Micros~1.

The other unit was on sale at Radio Shack, and is called My Musix. It is black, rounded everywhere, slightly fatter than the Shuffle, but otherwise comparable in size. On the front is a fairly large dot matrix display, which tells you what you're doing. There is a big play/stop button. There is a forward track and reverse track rocker, and if you hold them, you get fast forward/reverse. There is a volume up and volume down rocker. There is a record button. There is device lock slider switch. Lock it, and other controls will not respond. Handy for preventing error.

Turn the unit on by pressing the Play button. Turn it off by pressing (and holding) the Play button. Play by pressing Play, right? Well, that depends on what mode you're in. Mostly, i press the Record button first, which puts it into a mode menu. Modes let you change folders, each which might have different content, like a book in one, and space music in another, and podcasts in a third. Have as many as you like. Another is Play mode, where you can opt for sequential or random play. Another mode is Delete. You can delete tracks from the interface. Another mode is Repeat - including none, one track, one folder. Another mode is FM Radio. You can tune in FM stations. You can even record FM. Play the FM later, or download it to your main computer. Another mode is Record. You can record ambient audio. The sound is recorded with 8 bit samples at 8 KHz. Not very high quality. There are two levels of menu. The settings menu has a mode for setting the screen backlight. You can use a red backlight - which is good for astronomy, as it doesn't ruin your night vision.

The unit has a USB connection. You mount it on some computer, add tracks, and delete tracks. No special software. When the device turns on, it figures out what it has, and lets you play it. You can store things on it that aren't music, for example to copy things from one place to another. It ignores things it doesn't understand. Inside, there is one GB of flash. That's enough for 24 to 60 hours of content. That's enough that you can stuff content in a folder for reference. It uses a AAA battery. I use rechargeable batteries. It gets about 8 hours on a charge, but you can bring more batteries with you, so you get infinite duration with minimal preplanning. If you don't preplan, there's always 7/11. And if your rechargeable battery dies a final death, you can always pick up more at the grocery store. The design of the battery cover door suggests that you'll misplace it sometime. So far, i've been careful, and though i've lost it twice, i've also quickly found it again. It's a nuisance when you have to pull off the road to fish under the seat. Probably should have pulled over to change the battery. Think safety first.

If you pause the unit, it will eventually turn itself off. When you turn it on, it sometimes remembers where you were in a track, but always skips to the beginning of the track. Sometimes it forgets the track, folder and everything. You usually get to the first track in a random folder. Well, it's random to me. It even forgets the track when you actually turn it off gracefully, sometimes. It sometimes suffers from the Micros~1 problem. However, it doesn't, in general, rename files. Though long folder names sometimes get renamed to eight characters. This summer, i loaded Lord of the Rings audio book tracks on it, and the unit was bricked. I called customer support, and got software that let me reflash it. The new software fixed the unusual characters in the filenames can brick the unit problem, and cleaned up some display bugs too. I now have the software, and can use it any time to unbrick the unit. Since the unit behaves so much better, i'm actually glad i had to reflash it. In fact, if they had a registration system, and could, for example, send you email when new operating software was available, it would be worth signing up for spam. In any case, the customer support rocked. It's hard to remember when i've dealt with good customer support before.

Note that both units have their faults. The Apple Shuffle needed to keep the form factor, fix rewind so that it can hack into the end of the previous track, fix it so that it remembers where it is in a track when it is turned off, and remove the "off" position, letting it toggle between sequential and shuffle mode only. The form factor is fine - it didn't need to be made smaller. I'd offer it in multiple colors, not just white. Of course, then i'd buy the unpopular polka dot version at discount.

The My Musix needs to have a single menu, not two nested menus. It needs to remember where it was when turned off. If it's going to record, it needs to be high quality 16 bit sound with at least 22 KHz samples, preferably CD rate samples. Mono is OK. The battery cover design needs fixing. The display shows the current track. But if the track title doesn't fit in the display, it scrolls. It starts scrolling instantly, which doesn't give you time to consume the first few characters. Just a couple second pause before scrolling would fix this. It should be offered in multiple colors, not just black. Of course, then i'd buy the unpopular polka dot version at discount.

OK, so which one do i use? Simple interface, half storage? Or complicated interface, replaceable batteries? The answer is that i nearly never use the My Musix. But one day the battery in the Shuffle will die, and i'll switch to the My Musix, and use it for twenty years. And i'll likely pine for the good old days when life was simple.

Friday, November 02, 2007


I've used a spell checker ever since they became available. For me that was about 1980, on a DecSystem 20. That's when i first got access to a spell checker that could quickly offer good guesses as to what i probably intended. These spell checkers improved my spelling skill dramatically. At first, my essays were filled with errors. But, the spell checker would catch them, and usually offer the right word. I'd study how the word was really supposed to be spelled, and after being corrected twenty or thirty times, i'd start getting it right the first time. Spell checkers improved my typing as well.

One must still proofread. That's because spell checkers will not save you form every mistake.