lundi 27 décembre 2010

Crashing William

I just wanted to share with you the latest update message of Readdle's Shakespeare app, a free iPhone app, giving you access to Shakespeare's complete works:

Definitely a fantastic summary of the pros and cons of ebooks!

vendredi 17 décembre 2010

iPad reading

Today's post won't be, for a change, about Amazon!

I not only have a Kindle, I also own an iPad. I bought the WiFi version, not the 3G, because I am less comfortable bringing it everywhere with me, than I am with, err, a Kindle for example (Gee, I promised no Amazon!) The iPad seems a bit fragile to me, and I don't feel like putting it my bag and going everywhere with it.

Nevertheless, it has some ebook features that I'd like to discuss.

You've certainly heard about Apple iBooks, the app that let's you use your iPad as an ebook reader. I will not talk about it today (but I promise to come back to it once soon).

You know by heart the Amazon Kindle App, but I will not talk about it either.

No Stanza, either.

I wish to talk with you about Safari. No, not Safari, Safari. I mean O'Reilly's Safari Books Online which, as its full name implies, gives you access to many books, from publisher O'Reilly, via a Web browser (for instance, Apple Safari...)

I happen to have a limited access to it through an ACM membership subscription, 600 titles out of 13000. It seems a tiny fraction, about 5%, but they are well-chosen titles, and it fits the bill.

Oh, and before you ask, they are computer science titles, not the latest John Grisham best-selling novel.

Above, you can have a quick look at what the interface looks like on a PC, using Google Chrome as the browser. It is a page from Robert C. Martin's Agile Principles, Patterns and Practices in C#.

As you can see, it features a very neat rendering. Figures and code excerpts are rendered OK, text is perfectly readable, and you have a quick navigation from the table of contents on the left. On the other hand, it suffers from the good old lanscape nightmare of today's PCs: You can't actually read the book, since your screen would display approximately half a page, and you will have to constantly scroll down.

On a desktop PC, you often have the option to put the screen in portrait mode, but it is definitely not very convenient to do this on my home laptop.

All in all, you can only use Safari Books Online on a PC for reference material, but not for actual reading.

It is completely different on an iPad.

As you can see on the image on the left, when in portrait mode, you have a nicely laid out page that you can read happily, lying in your bed rather than sitting on a chair.

You have to tweak things a bit to have a comfortably sized font, and to see the table of contents on the left (which I didn't do on this picture), but once you got used to it, you can actually read the book, not just browse it.

Funny note: when you are viewing the book in Chrome, you are actually using a Flash plug-in. When I first had my iPad, it didn't work, of course! There was - and still is - an html view, but it is crappy for code excerpts.

Now, it works like magic on my iPad. I don't know what technology they use. It is not a plain html view, because the displayed page is a single entity (you can only select it as a whole, not select a single paragraph). It is not an image, because you would be able to save it. And of course you cannot see the page source code on the iPad!

So, does anybody here know the technology that is behind it?

mardi 14 décembre 2010

Barcode scanning?

Lately, Amazon added a barcode scanning feature to the iPhone mobile app.

I have to admit that it is, technically, an awesome feature: to scan a barcode, you only need to approximately put the red line on it, and it very quickly provides you with the information about the book you are scanning.

Oh, and as opposed to what I am doing on the picture, you must not put your finger in the way, either.

OK, I have been stunned by the technical prowess, but I am left wondering: what is this feature good for? The whole point of it is that you have to be holding the very book in your hand to scan the barcode. Why, in this case, do I need to get to Amazon in the first place?

I tried to imagine a few scenarios where this feature could come in handy:

- I am at a bookshop, and I spot an interesting book, but I want to check if I cannot find a better bargain for it (e.g. as a used book).
- A person shows me the book, and I want to buy it now.
- I really loved this book, but now I have to return it to the library. I want to own it!

On the one hand, these all seem perfectly reasonable scenarios. On the other hand, I think they are basically biased, since they are all based on the occurrence of several unrelated or, worse, opposite, events.

One event is common to all three scenarios: I really want the book, be it a love at first sight or after carefully reading it.

The other event depends on the scenario.

The first scenario exhibits an opposite event, since on one hand I do want the book but, on the other hand, I am ready to wait a while to have it. We are all used to that, aren't we? You have the object right there in your hands, but you are perfectly ready to wait... Trust me, it has to be a hell of a bargain for me to resist the temptation to buy it right now.

The other two scenarios are based on the straightforward assumption that I cannot buy the physical object I have at hand. They are also based on the sloppy assumption that I will forget all the information, including the title, about a book I really want to have, as soon as it vanishes from my view. This is possible, but not really plausible: I don't need to buy it at once; I can wait a bit to return to my comfort zone, and nevertheless be able to buy the book.

All in all, I am not really convinced by the actual need for such a feature.

And call me pompous if you want, but I picked up a book at random next to my bed for the above photo, and Amazon did not find it on its virtual shelves!

Sic transit gloria mundi...

samedi 6 novembre 2010


I have been the owner of an Amazon Kindle for about one year now. For nitpickers, it is very exactly the Kindle 2 International Version.

I am an avid book reader, and a book lover. My wife and I own thousands of books, and I can't go anywhere without at least having a look at the local bookseller.

Why did I need a Kindle? First and foremost because it is convenient. I commute every weekday, spending between 90 minutes and two hours daily in public transportation. Needless to say, I always have a book at hand.

But I was getting more and more disturbed by two things. First, a book can get heavy (nothing new, but maybe I am getting older), and, second, it is very easy to damage books when travelling back and forth with them.

This, combined to the fact that I was intrigued by this e-book thing, led me to buy a Kindle almost as soon as it was available in my country.

First steps

Three things are immediately visible when you start using the Kindle 2:
  1. It does not have gorgeous look. Definitely. The Kindle DX is way cooler, IMHO.
  2. It has a bit of a learning curve. The documentation is there, very clear and all, but it has so much functions that, up to now, I bet I don't master it very well.
  3. The screen flashes between each pages. Everybody claims you won't notice it after a few hours, but these were my first steps, and I did notice it!
I was well aware of these three points, they appear in every review of the Kindle. And they are no big deal, in the end.

I'd rather have a cool-looking gadget, but I was in need of a tool. And the Kindle fits this need perfectly, so I forgot about its look.

As I said, I certainly don't master all the functionalities. I should read the documentation again, but I'm OK with what I know.

Before you ask for a clarification: Yes, I did read the documentation "cover-to-cover" (this expression looks strange when it comes to e-books...); I often do it with manuals.

And, yes, you don't notice the screen flashing after a while.

And now?

I could write you pages about the pros and cons of the Kindle. I think you only need to know one thing: I take it with me anywhere I go.

Now, I always have a book to read at hand. Now, I am always able to buy a new book. I love it.

The eye of the beholder

When people see you with a Kindle, they have all sorts of interesting reactions.

Be used to have people glancing at you, wondering what sort of device you are getting out of your bag. It is far from a common device here.

Some people mistake it for some sort of a netbook, and are amazed by the idea of someone using such a crappy keyboard. I don't correct them: I'm busy reading!

Other people know it is an e-book reader, and start to ask questions. Many are interested in the concept, but I have seen surprisingly strong rejections of the whole idea of e-reading. The reason I hear most often is missing the physical contact of the book.

This reason sounds awkward to me. I am a book lover, considered by many as a book maniac. But, for a few very beautifully crafted books, you often read standard-crafted books. As soon as the real value of the book is in its text contents (art books are not suited to be read on a Kindle, for instance - images are awful), I can't buy into this physical contact story.

The last tribe you meet are you own kin. Two or three times in the past year have I seen someone with a Kindle. You click, exchange a glance and a smile. And you go back to your reading.

Now I have a question

Given my number of followers, I certainly won't have an answer, but I try anyway.

When off, the Kindle displays an image. It has a set of images, and the image changes everytime you switch it off. You have portraits of many authors, for instance.

Does someone know what monument is displayed on the photo above? I think I got most of the images, but I'm stuck on this one. Thanks!

samedi 13 mars 2010

Memory Lane

Formal introductions are a bore, and do belong to a sidenote I am too lazy to write right now. Instead, allow me to sketch myself by sharing a few memories.

Working in computer science, I am convinced I owe a lot to the computers I used. Here are a few.

Early 1980s: Commodore Vic 20

This is the first computer I ever touched. It belonged to a schoolmate of mine.

I have to confess that I only played games on this one (I remember some sort of Space Invaders), but it introduced me to these strange computer things.

Self quote: "Where do I plug this cord already?"

Early 1980s: Sharp MZ80K

This one also belonged to a schoolmate. Both of us banged our head on an awful BASIC programming manual, hoping to write the next killer application.

Self quote: "I did not really understand this concept of variables. Do you have any clue?"

1983: Thomson TO7

In 1983, we moved to another town, and I applied to the newly created local computer club. They had these Thomson things, with which I started to learn programming. I'm still learning!

Beside an awful keyboard, soft and beeping on each keystroke, the TO7 had a light pen. Writing a drawing program was a piece of cake, but I never really understood what else you could do with that.

Self quote (syntax not guaranteed!): "
10 inputpen x,y
20 plot x,y
30 goto 10

1984: Sinclair ZX81

When you are a kid, you don't know how skilful you are; you only notice these skills when you lose them, while growing up. Indeed, it took me an extraordinary combination of menacing, cajoling, praying and what else, to have my father finally buy me my first computer: the Sinclair ZX81 (that you may know as Timex-1000).

I must have been really efficient, because I also had a 16KB RAM expansion at the same time!

I spent hours polishing my BASIC, then jump into the Z80 assembly language bandwagon. It was the time when I really dived into programming.

My cousin, already a hardware hacker at the time, completely rebuilt my ZX81 in an aluminium case, with a mechanical keyboard. I still have this curious beast somewhere, and I will probably make a post about it someday.

Self quote: "Mind if I use the TV set?"

Mid 1980s: Amstrad CPC 464

The race was on: I put money aside for years, to buy a new, more powerful computer. Isn't that what we have been doing ever since then?

I bought an Amstrad CPC 464 (you may know it under the Schneider brand), which was the most affordable of the "modern" computers of the era. Incidentally, the one on this photograph is not the model I used: Mine had a monochrome display (green on green - ouch!), and an AZERTY keyboard, not a QWERTY one.

With this computer, I lost all my faith in graphics programming: I have never been satisfied with the graphical programs I painfully wrote, don't ask me why...

But I got my kicks writing a multitasking system for my CPC! It took me days, and never ran more than two programs at a time, specifically the two ones I developed for the system. Probably in the top three of the most crash-prone programs I ever wrote - and I wrote a few!

Self quote: "mode 2"

Since 1988: PCs, PCs and a couple of Macs

I became a computer student in 1988, and I have been using mostly PCs ever since then. But I am quite addicted to Macs, even though I rarely used them.

And, yes, I actually programmed in C on a Mac in the early 1990s. Well, not a memory I cherish...