A Little Rant about My Nook

Some things every e-reader should be able to do. In this list I’m using the word “category” as the devices use list, category, shelf, and similar words.

  1. The device should tell me what books have not been put in any category. This is basic. My Sony Reader, my Original Nook, and Joan’s Kindle all provide this feature. My Nook Simple Touch does not, and neither does Aldiko (the reader on my tablet I use for reading PDFs). The Nook and Kindle apps on my phone and tablet don’t doesn’t categorize at all.
  2. Each book should know–and show–the categories currently associated with the book. One way to say this is that the categories should be properties of the documents, not the other way around. Every device and app (including Aldiko) I use gets this right except the Simple Touch. (And the category-less Nook Android app, of course.)
  3. Adding or removing a book from a category should not involve paging through a long list of every book you own. If you think you need to go that way, add a search function. But it’s still bad design.
  4. The categories should be be stored both on the device and on the device’s micro-SD card in a way which facilitates both replacing/upgrading the card and moving the card to a new device. This failing is the reason I’m writing this rant today.
  5. Ideally, the categorization information should be stored in the user’s account on the device vendor’s servers. This is not simple, of course. On the other hand, the newest incarnation of iTunes manages to do this for my music, metadata, and playlists. It’s the right solution, and I expect it to be standard within my lifetime.
  6. Ideally, again, that stored-on-server index would include information about side-loaded books. I’m reasonably certain this could be implemented in ways that don’t compromise anyone’s intellectual property, but those IP concerns will likely delay implementation. I don’t expect to see this soon, and will necessarily live without if necessary.
  7. The categories–and categorizations–should be automatically transferred to the brand’s reader apps on portable devices, and to any new device you purchase from the vendor. I don’t know that any vendor does this, though Apple might.
  8. It should be possible to shelve a book on (in) more than one category. One reason is that most of us have an “Unread” category. Fortunately, every device and app I use gets this right.

Until all e-readers can do this, no one should consider this a mature technology. BN and Amazon both manage to track notes, bookmarks, and “last-read” pages for individual books. This is similarly important, and one would think the technical issues are similar. They’re certainly not insurmountable.

I upgraded the micro-SD card on my Nook Simple Touch last week. Although the books survived the move, the shelves are broken. I’m paging through 424 books for every shelf I’m trying to reconstruct. This is both boring and painful. (Of course, the problem could be operator ignorance, or error. But I don’t believe that to be true. It looks a lot like bad design.) And, regardless, the rest of the critique stands. The Simple Touch didn’t implement “shelves” well. To my knowledge, no one has done this right.

Revision 1/6/14: Changed the Aldiko mention in the first bullet point.
Revision 1/29/14: Changed to reflect that Amazon has added categorization features to their Kindle app for Android.

A Tradition of Victory by Alexander Kent: a short review

Admiral Bolitho leads a small squadron tasked with destroying the small craft the French are building to convey an invasion force across the Channel, shortly before the anticipated Treaty of Amiens brings a temporary peace. His captains include Thomas Herrick (a commodore in this book), Francis Inch, Oliver Browne-with-an-e, John Neale, and Valentine Keen. And old Phalarope–Bolito’s frigate in To Glory We Steer–joins the fleet on location, with Adam Pascoe as first lieutenant. Things go wrong, then they go right.

There are telegraph towers, too. All of these Royal Navy series need a story involving telegraph towers. (That’s a cheap shot. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Besides the naval action, and a bit of political discussion, this book’s notable for its portrayal of Belinda Laidlaw, who’s loyal (far beyond the call of duty) and loving. At the end of the book Richard and Belinda marry.

McBooks Press (or perhaps IPG, their distributor) is the only publisher I read that routinely does scanned ebooks properly. They’ve obviously given thought to presentation, as chapter headings are deliberately (albeit oddly) formatted, nearly all scanning artifacts have been fixed, and mid-chapter text breaks are clearly indicated. The big publishers should take note, and follow suit.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Potter: a review

In 1890 I sold my Vermontville farm and bought another in the same county, located on the new line of railroad being built by the Pere Marquette Railroad where I laid out the present village of Mulliken, Michigan, and continued a few years longer as a farmer with an incidental lumber business. My Mulliken farm I soon sold to my eldest son and purchased a quarter interest in the Potter Furniture Manufacturing Company at Lansing, Michigan, which city has been my home for the past thirteen years.

I live on Potter Street in Mulliken, and that quotation explains why I read this book. I’m pretty sure that 1890 date is wrong, as the railroad line and settlement both date from 1888, but we’ll allow an old man that error. I stumbled across this while looking for something else, so I snagged an electronic copy of the book. It’s far better than I expected, though potential readers should be cautioned that it describes many brutal events.

Potter was a competent writer and a gifted story-teller. His memoir is largely concerned with the years from 1852 to 1865, during which the author joined the California gold rush, took part (after a fashion) in William Walker’s Nicaraguan filibuster, visited New York, New Orleans, and Saint Louis, and took up residence in southern Minnesota. He was a captain in the militia which defended New Ulm during the Dakota War of 1862; later he was a Union officer whose troops participated at the fringe of the Battle of Nashville–mostly they chased, and sometimes caught, partisan guerillas. Some years later he was involved in the apprehension of the Younger brothers gang, again in southern Minnesota.

Theodore Potter–it’s pretty clear his friends called him Ed–was born in Saline, Michigan, in 1832. His family moved to Eaton County (at or near what became Potterville) in 1845 and Potter spent his teen years in the area. The first chapter largely tells of his teenage escapades; these tales have a delightful grasp of the local geography. About half the book recounts his California adventure; in tone and in substance it’s much like Twain’s Roughing It, and enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. The Minnesota portion of the book is largely devoted to describing the Dakota War and the Army’s subsequent efforts to quell the rebellion, and is an exceptional rendering of what folks call “the fog of war.” While the last chapter describes his encounter with the Youngers, it also provides a sketchy overview of his subsequent life (through, apparently, 1904; the book was published in 1913, three years after Potter’s death.)

A few notes: It’s fair to say that Potter was sympathetic to the plight of the plains Indians, except when they were threatening his family and neighbors. He had far less sympathy for the rebel cause. The author’s wife gets surprisingly little mention, though their marriage lasted over fifty years. And the book describes a surprising number of truly gruesome events.

In 1916 the Minnesota Historical Society published a version of Potter’s account of the Indian war, which is available here. (A casual check seems to show it to be nearly identical to the account in this book, with some changes.) The footnotes published with the MNHS account make it clear that while Potter’s memory of details cannot be fully trusted, his account is essentially true. One would reasonably suppose that to hold true for the rest of his story.

Ed Potter’s life wasn’t particularly remarkable, as he notes on the last page of his book. It was, however, not an untypical life for a man born on the American frontier before the Civil War, and he recounted it well. The book deserves more attention than it’s received.

This ebook is a 254-page Google scan, though my copy’s via the Internet Archive. The scan deserves a couple comments. The first 180 pages are excellent, with only the minor punctuation and capitalization errors which plague most OCR scans. These are followed by a half-dozen pages of often-garbled text, with usual result that the reader’s obliged to guess occasional words and to sometimes puzzle out the meaning of entire sentences. After this rocky stretch, the scan returns to the previous excellent rendering. Then from pages 244 through the end the scan remains excellent but the text retains the page headers that had evidently been edited out of the rest of the book. It is, all in all, an odd rendering that defies obvious explanation. Overall, though, it’s unusually readable for a Google scan.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

A Note on eBook Design

I recently completed reading Frederick Brooks’ excellent The Mythical Man-Month, a book I’ve been aware of pretty much since it was published but somehow hadn’t read. I don’t see much point to adding another review to the large stack that’s already extent, but I wanted to talk a bit about the ebook edition.

The ebook is an excellent, impeccably scanned, version of the book’s 1995 edition. I mention this because the preface to that edition includes the following paragraph:

Addison-Wesley’s house custom did not permit me to acknowledge in the preface to the 1975 edition the key roles played by their staff. Two persons’ contributions should be especially cited: Norman Stanton, then Executive Editor, and Herbert Boes, then Art Director. Boes developed the elegant style, which one reviewer especially cited: “wide margins, [and] imaginative use of typeface and layout.” More important, he also made the crucial recommendation that every chapter have an opening picture…. Finding the pictures occasioned an extra year’s work for me, but I am eternally grateful for the counsel.

I pull this quote because all that fine formatting and design work, including all the hard-sought pictures, got lost in translation when the book was scanned. On my Nook, which renders all books pretty much alike, this wouldn’t have been quite so obvious (although I’d certainly have recognized that the pictures were missing), but I read it on my Galaxy Tab, which could certainly display the original as designed, and the lack was pretty obvious.

Which leads to my point: One of the plain deficiencies of the current generation of ereaders is their inability to deliver interesting formatting. Joan’s Kindle 2 and my Original Nook make little effort in this direction, while my Sony Reader’s better in some respects, worse in others. The various apps on my tablet could certainly do better, but I’ve not noticed that any do so. Strangely enough, my smartphone’s apps, which are more mature than the tablet’s, tend to give me (but not the publisher) more control over presentation than any other electronic device.

For some books, design is important. It’s less significant for most, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, as good design can make reading easier. Design has long been a feature differentiating publishers, all of whom use it to add value for readers. Basically all paper books show the impact of a designer; not just the cover and illustrations, but typeface, margins, chapter headings, page headings/footers, and even paragraph orphans are items within design purview. None of these things make it into your typical ebook. Partly it’s that the delivery devices are mostly concerned with presenting text. Partly it’s that most of the current generation of ebooks began as scans, rather than electronic documents. And partly it’s a failure on everyone’s part to take this seriously.

That needs to change. We need to decide the current ereader crop is first generation and unfinished. We’ll move to more sophisticated devices in time, and the publishers will remember that design is one of the ways they add value for customers. I imagine the epub (mobi, ibook) spec discussion has included these issues, but I’ve not been following that. I may begin to do so.

Postscript: I’ve not mentioned books-as-PDFs, because on the whole they annoy me, but they’ve solved this problem–at the price of removing whatever control I might need to adjust the presentation to my circumstances/needs. Such books are unreadable, or nearly so, on most of my devices; only the Tab handles them well.

Revision History:

A Ball Player’s Career by Adrian C Anson: a review

An oddly interesting book. Now, more than a century later, Pop Anson’s remembered mainly for his racism, and because he had approximately 3,000 hits (the total depends on what you count, actually, and in this case it’s fair to debate the margin). In his time, he was considered a formidable player, and an excellent captain (manager), albeit grouchy and rough-edged. Neither is a well-rounded image.

Firstly: Anson’s racism was real, and shows in this book. He often calls black folks coons, and says nasty things about many people of color. (To be fair, he also says unkind things about many white folks, though they’re usually less offensive.) One question to ask is how different this was from his typical contemporary. (I’m not in a position to answer that.) Another question to ask is whether that fact alone is enough reason to ignore everything else in his life. I’d say not.

Secondly: Fully half of the book is devoted to describing the 1888 Baseball World Tour promoted by A.G. Spalding. Some of this portion of the book is interesting, other parts are not, except as they illuminate the author’s character. It’s definitely an unexpected feature in what is basically a fairly conventional autobiography.

Thirdly: While Anson denigrates his education, this is the work of someone who’s reasonably cultured and literate. The book is not formulaic in any way, shape, or form; instead, it’s an account of Anson’s playing career, with some asides to cover his non-baseball life. (There’s also a short digression about the origins of baseball which isn’t much different from the current consensus). While I presume there was a ghost writer, it’s clearly Anson’s book and the opinions are clearly his. So are the unexpected bits of cultural knowledge.

Finally: The last few chapters, which are mostly about Anson’s later career and his deteriorating relationship with Spalding, can only be called strange. A late chapter is about the founding of the American League, which perhaps pays for the mostly-unexpected bitterness of the preceding chapters.

All in all, a surprisingly interesting read.

I bought this nook ebook from Barnes and Noble; it was published by Quality Classics. Internally, it’s clear that the book was originally a Project Gutenberg effort produced by another project, called Lawson’s Progress. It’s a scan, and was poorly proofed–far weaker than the typical Gutenberg offering. The quality’s roughly equivalent to the best Google scans; easily readable, but annoying.

This review was also published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Score by Richard Stark: a short review

Not my cup of tea, but certainly readable. Decidedly hard-boiled. 3 1/2 stars for this.

My copy is a free University of Chicago Press ebook; they’re hoping I’ll buy the rest of Stark’s Parker set after completing this gift copy. As loss leaders go, though, this is a disaster. A bad scan; about the quality of your typical Google Books effort. There are mis-scanned characters throughout the book, lost paragraph breaks on nearly every page, and it’s just generally frustrating to read. Something’s wrong with this picture. Half a star, at best, for this effort.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Ed Barrow by Daniel Levitt: a review

This is a terrific portrait of long-time Yankee GM Ed Barrow, his teams, and his times. Levitt’s research is impeccable, as are his interpretations of the material.

While this is primarily a biography, the book features the author’s enormous research effort about the way baseball’s conditions and working rules changed over the course of Barrow’s career. This is important because Barrow was constantly adjusting his work to accommodate those conditions and rules. It’s valuable because I’ve not seen a similar effort by any author.

I do wish Levitt had included footnotes in some way, shape, or form. But there’s a fine bibliography.

Delightful book. Well worth any serious baseball fan’s time.

Having praised the book, I need to rant about the ebook. The ebook version has been butchered, as the publisher (Nebraska) has omitted all but one of the book’s photographs, and roughly half of the statistical (mainly financial) tables that Levitt compiled in the process of writing the book. The surviving tables are unlabelled, and isolated in an appendix, which makes it painfully difficult to refer to them, even though they’re mentioned in the text. A better publisher would have included all the tables, and built hyperlinks from the references to the tables, and from the tables back to the text.

Treating ebook purchasers as second class citizens is simply irresponsible. In the long run, it’s a losing strategy.

The missing pictures and tables are all marked with the comment “Copyrighted image removed by Publisher”, a note apparently intended to give the impression that the copyright is at issue. That’s silly, and it’s insulting.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Evaluating Baseball’s Managers by Chris Jaffe: a review

Best to think of this as a reference book. Chris Jaffe examines the evolution of baseball management by examining the careers of major league baseball’s long-term managers. The book discusses all managers who worked for at least a decade, and a handful who worked shorter terms but made contributions to the way baseball is played or managed. He also provides overviews of manager practice for each of the game’s major eras, and occasionally reminds everyone that managing a baseball team involves more than lineups and in-game player changes. It’s an interesting book, and quite readable, except that it’s grounded in modern baseball analysis.

How you’ll react to this book depends a lot upon what you think about sabermetrics, because the author makes no effort to hide the statistical underpinnings of his study. What’s more, he uses a normalization technique which generates numbers which have no intrinsic meaning, but permit him to compare the tendencies of managers across eras; this is valuable, but many will find it confusing. If you choose to ignore the numbers, the prose will generally carry you along whether you understand the stats or not, but the numbers themselves are quite intrusive.

Organizationally, the book begins with an introduction and three chapters which describe Jaffe’s analytical tools. The tools will be familiar to those who’ve been following baseball analysis over the past decade, but even stats-savvy readers will find the methods he uses to normalize those numbers unfamiliar. Essentially, he converts nearly every comparative statistic to a weighted ranking with values centered at 1.0. You may be able to ignore the methods chapters if you wish, as he explains the meanings adequately in the text, but they’ll certainly drive some folks away.

The rest of the book consists of chapters describing fairly obvious eras in baseball history, dividing it into timespans of 25 or 30 years. He adequately justifies the divisions in the text. Each era places different demands on the field manager and generally speaking there’s a concurrent change in the folks holding down the managerial jobs as each era passes. He begins each section with an overview which discusses how things changed over time, the general characteristics of the era under discussion, and how that impacted managerial practice and strategy. These are followed by manager essays, in alphabetical order, describing every significant person who worked as a baseball field manager mainly in that era.

The manager essays are the heart of the book. Each begins with factual description of the manager’s career, and a series of estimates of his impact on the team (Walter Alston, for instance, is estimated to have added 904 runs–about 90 games–to the Dodgers’ results by his efforts; call it 4 or 5 wins per season). This is followed by a short prose description of his management style. Then there’s an essay which usually covers the impact the manager had on the game and on his team. These manager essays occasionally go off in unexpected directions. One regular feature is that Jaffe likes to make cross-era comparisons; Phil Garner, for instance, reminds Jaffe of Jimmy Dykes, while he describes Bruce Bochy as a far blander version of Wilbert Robinson. These comparisons are always interesting, and often helpful.

I was hoping for more, though. Jaffe repeatedly reminds us that the field manager’s job is primarily a management job, not a game-tactical job, but he doesn’t demonstrate that well. Would he’d given more examples of specific managers performing such tasks as lineup management, giving input on staffing decisions, keeping difficult clubhouses under control, and similar things. While there’s a little bit of that, here and there, it’s not systematic enough to be a proper argument. Since he clearly believes the argument can be made, I really wish he’d done so. A closing survey chapter might have been sufficient.

The book is full of references to other books, and has a bibliography, but there are no footnotes. This may or may not matter to you; some folks would call it a feature.

This is a fine book, and certainly worth reading, as it brings much data to light, is full of interesting details and comparisons, and offers a sound argument. I don’t, however, think it advances the discussion very far past where Bill James’ manager book left it.

I need to briefly discuss the epub edition’s shortcomings. I read this book on my Nook, and in general that experience went well. Although the book is full of tables which were presented as graphics, those are readable (and, thankfully, usually short). At the back of the book, though, are long lists of query results, a bibliography, a glossary, and a table of contents; these, too, are presented as graphics, and are unreadable. This needs to change, folks; folks using ereaders need this material quite as much as other readers.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Sir Dominic Flandry by Poul Anderson: a review

Three novels and a short story. And that appalling, off-putting cover.

Nothing much to say about A Plague of Masters, the first novel. Hunters of the Sky Cave has much of interest, including a delightful demonstration of Anderson’s ability to fully imagine interesting aliens. The short story’s–well, a short story, about how the empire’s disintegrating right before Flandry’s eyes.

A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows–the final novel in this book–is by far the most elaborate tale in the entire van Rijn/Falkayn/Flandry set. Captain Flandry’s getting old, and it’s starting to wear on him. The novel’s convoluted, carefully plotted, and a bit experimental. I can’t say everything works, but it’s an impressive effort, and on the whole it’s successful. And Kossara’s far more appealing than most of the women in this series.

By the way, this is the first ebook in the set which was clearly built from scanned pages. I was a bit surprised. There weren’t a lot of errors, but enough to annoy. One rather suspects the editors are growing bored with the project….

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt Beyer: a review

This book is not, in any meaningful sense, a biography of Grace Murray Hopper. There’s a perfunctory sketch of the first 36 years of her (pre-Navy) life, and some mention of mid-life depression and alcoholic binges, but otherwise the book is fully devoted to describing her career in computing, her impact on the industry, and (to some extent) the development of both hardware and software in places outside her immediate purview. For all practical purposes this book ends with the standardization of COBOL; Hopper’s subsequent career is only lightly touched, and her late-in-life celebrity is briefly described in the first chapter but not really discussed.

On the other hand the book covers Hopper’s essential achievements extremely well, and is perhaps the best survey of early computing technology (and its associated community) I’ve seen. Like most early-computing books to date, it’s not intended to be a comprehensive survey; within its intended scope, it’s truly excellent.

DO NOT buy this book from MIT Press as an e-book (but see my update below). Their e-book definition is limited to online reading; you log into their website and use their software to read the book. This software isn’t terrible, but it’s quite frustrating: It can’t remember your last-page-read, it doesn’t remember your font settings, and (at least for this user) doesn’t fit well on the computer screen. While it’s possible to annotate the book, and to make highlights in the text, the software seems to prevent copy/paste activities, thus unnecessarily complicating note-taking. And then there’s the preposterous notion that storing books in many web locations is a reasonable way to manage my library. All in all, a bad experience; I rather wish I’d purchased the book in hardcover. But I’ll not do that after investing $20 in the electronic copy, however unsatisfactory I find it.

Update 22dec10: MIT Press, I’ve discovered, also permits offline reading using a client called iOffline, which was built using Adobe Air and more or less duplicates the online reading experience, including most of the limitations mentioned above. I think this is a slight improvement, but I’m still annoyed with the situation.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History: