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I Came This Close… January 9, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in eReader, physics life.

With the release of Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, the nook, I came very very close to getting one for myself this Christmas. When it finally arrived in stores I went to look… it is tiny. Really tiny.

I have no idea how I’d really use one of these eReaders until I get it, but I’ve been wanting them to fix one big problem in my life: the shear number and weight of magazines I carry back and forth every time I go to Europe. I get the New Yorker and the Economist – both weeklies – and often I have a stack of 10 or 15 of them that I try to read while on the plane or while drifting off to sleep in a hotel room. Storing them on a eReader would really help quite a bit.

The good news is that both the New Yorker and the Economist are available in eReader format. But… !!! Most pictures are not in the Economist version and most cartoons aren’t in the New Yorker eReader version! Sorry – I’ll have to stick with paper. I wonder what it is about the eReader format that makes it so unfriendly to this sort of thing.

A third thing I’d like to be able to do is read my physics papers on them. These are usually stored as PDF’s and can be downloaded from just about everywhere. The main problem here is that PDF files do not reflow the text – so that full 8.5×11 image will be on the screen all at once, or a portion of it will be on the screen and I would have to constantly scroll. On a slow eReader that would be very painful. I would really need to have something like the Kindle DX or one of these new ones that is coming out soon (maybe at the CES shows that are going on right now?).

The other thing holding me back is the general dissatisfaction I hear when these devices are used for text books or other scholarly journals. It sounds to me like the current design has really nailed reading a simple book of text (novel, etc.). But almost nothing else.

Yet. 🙂



1. tim head - January 9, 2010

re: none reflowing pdfs

I am wondering if re-latexing the articles with a smaller page size (different font size too?) would help? Most of the articles on the arxiv seem to have their latex available.

I guess one would need to figure out what is “broken” about images in ebooks to decide what to do with them, maybe something along latex’s “draft” mode would do as a start.

2. Gordon Watts - January 9, 2010

Definately – this is the right approach. What you really need to do is “reflow” the article to the device size. So, re latexing on the fly is one way to do it. You could imagine that when you made the request of the web address you’d specify your device dimensions and then it woudl latex it. That would probalby get you 90% of the way.

The other possible approach is to translate it into something more amenable to dynamic page sizing. Can you imagine having to re-download a 300 page document every time the user switched the font size?

My impression is that the eBook format doesn’t do very well with figures, etc. I also get the impression for anything “advanced” that the various ebook readers don’t render uniformly.

If HTML had more math in it (which I think HTML5 should) then maybe we could all adopt HTML for the output of latex, word, etc., as we already have some very good reflow engines around for html…

We can dream… 🙂

tim head - January 22, 2010

I was thinking of a simple script which you give the arxiv number to and it downlaods and re-latexs it for your kindle and then emails it (or what ever the way of uploading stuff to it).

Another thing I always wondered, how good are these readers at emulating the very useful “leaving a book open on a page” we do with real books? I guess it remembers for the current book where you are but for others?


3. Chip Brock - January 10, 2010

I was caught on a plane with Gordy and he had one of the small Kindles and I got hooked. I’ve had one for a year, including applying a well-known python hack that allowed pdfs to be uploaded when the thing was tethered. I love it for fiction and the NYT. I talked myself into it when the home delivery of the Times increased so much that the difference, including the Kindle subscription, more than paid for the Kindle. I’ve since bought a DX for my son, who’s an archeology PhD student and lives in pdfs. Here’s what I like and dislike:

1. fiction. Like I say…love it. My backpack for long trips is smaller. There is zero eyestrain – I suspect a backlit device might do that after hours of reading. Did I say that I love it? I load it up for a CERN trip, turn off the wireless…and the battery stays charged for more than a week.

2. NYT. Pretty much love it. There are not as many figures as in the paper version or the on-line version. But, I eat lunch every day with it and can do the whole thing with one hand. Not done a magazine or blog. I too use the New Yorker for airplanes, but now for the non-electronic part of airplanes below 10,000ft.

3. pdfs. notsogood for the small one for just the reason you indicated. So, I disabled the hack when an update happened (out of paranoia) and then Amazon included native pdf reading with the last update. The pages are just too small for physics papers.

4. DRM. Is. A. Crime. Against. Nature. Here’s where Amazon is crooked (and I’ll bet the Nook is no different). Every book has a publisher-determined “clipping limit”. You have no idea what it is. I was doing highlighting in a book, preparing for a bunch of public talks in which I would include cosmology history. At some point, both the Amazon personalized web page stopped updating and the text file started to say “clipping limit reached” instead of continuing to concatenate. On the device there was no difference. After 3 customer service people, who didn’t know of this unpublished limit, the 4th admitted it. I’m working through another hack that allows you to read the limit in HEX that’s imbedded in books’ metadata and allows you to change it to 100%, for no limit.

5. DX. This is beautiful. I uploaded some physics papers to my son’s device and they rendered perfectly. There is more gray shade in this object, so figures and equations look sharp. I didn’t find any formatting problems, but I know that can happen with pdfs. The buttons are only on one side on the DX. Why, I cannot imagine.

I may have to get a DX. I’m waiting out the Apple tablet frenzied anticipation, but I think my wife is ready to jump at my Kindle should I decide to buy a DX. I thought that the small size would be nice – fitting in jacket pockets – but I just don’t do that. So, the bigger size would be good for the pdf addition. Cochran’s got a DX and he loves it.

4. gordonwatts - January 22, 2010

Tim – yes – I’d been thinking of that too. Your device would make a request to the web server, give its screen size, and then waits for a new PDF to show up that is specifically adjusted for the screen size.

Given the explosion of screen sizes (netbooks, kindle, phones, big monitors, 40″ TV’s run by computers as home entertainment) this seems like one direction.

I find the idea that the server is a bit more “dumb” and sends down some text that can be reflowed (like an eBOOK) a bit more attractive. Then the device can taylor things a bit better to its needs.

But what you suggest might be the 90% solution – will work for almost everything and is simplest. 🙂

5. gordonwatts - January 22, 2010

Oh – and things like the Kindle are very good at remembering exactly where they were for each book you are in the middle of reading. So I don’t think tthat is a problem. The difficulty is that there isn’t an easy way to flip though pages quickly: you need a high speed CPU to do that (= battery drain) and a fast display (like an LCD display == battery drain).

We are on the edge of solving this last browsing problem – in a few years we’ll either have fast very low power screens (like the ebook readers) or we’ll have batteries that are lots better.

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