Syncing books, rising texts

Getting back to the text with ebooks

There must be a name in business school for the curve of ebook reading v. real books, for the shape that flares up at the beginning for individual readers, drops way down, possibly to zero, and then gradually climbs back a bit to some lower, steady level, like this:

Percentage of reading on device over time

Every ereader I know experiences some version of this curve. If we do it at all, we fall in love with the novelty of ereading, the cost and time savings, the ease of carrying around a pile of books on one device. The features of the ereader itself, like its bed-time back-lighting. But all or most of that leeches away in the face of this creeping feeling that we’re not actually reading, not actually absorbing the words as we flip through them, not seeing scenes, or having the recommended catharses, not getting into the text.

I’m on the steady, later part of the curve now, reading maybe half of my books and some magazines on a Kindle 1 device. The whiz-bang novelty has worn off, and so I feel like I’m finally in a position to appreciate the genuinely useful features of a digital reading device, the ones that are not pale versions of the book but advantages:

  • Searching in an ebook is real. It’s fantastic. The more you do it, the more you use this habit you acquired from web-surfing to locate, say, the first reference to a character, the name of a town.
  • e-Ink is really nice now. I tried reading on an Android tablet and the reflective glare and dim screen made that a non-starter outdoors.
  • Back-lighting and font control: I’m getting older! It’s nice to read on a device whose illumination, font-size and layout I can control. Keeps me from having to use readers. Plus I can read at night and disturb my wife [less].
  • Goodreads.com integration: If you can get over how bummed you are about how big and monopolistic Amazon is with the experience of reading, you can like how your lists on Goodreads.com–to-read, currently reading, etc.–are integrated into the ereader. A related item is that you can share your highlights and notes in the ebook as its own text, and can see sections and passages in a book that have been highlighted a lot.
  • Send content to your device to read later.

The feature of Kindles that I was most eager to try is this WhisperSync, which is a bridge between an ebook and its audio version. Amazon, having purchased Audible, allows you to move back and forth between the ebook and audiobook versions seamlessly, reading then listening, then reading. (The audio version is often advertised for this at a cheaper, “buy also” cost.)

For me, the whole point of returning to ebooks after having fallen down the ereading curve above, like everybody else, was not to take the place of actual books but to get a digital reading experience that wasn’t smothered in sidebar ads, cloying, embedded “read also” links, and bad layouts; hidden behind paywalls or hopelessly short or slapdash. I want digital long-form. I send myself readable versions of articles and focus on them as texts.

The ereader is pretty good for this. As you get used to it, it keeps improving, in my opinion.

And when you sync an ebook across the Kindle, the Audible version on your headphones 2, and maybe also the Kindle app on your phone for a quick few pages at the grocery store, it gets….really different, and maybe great! You can read a chapter, then hear the next one read by the author in a voice that’s completely consistent with your own internal one. It gets to be (again) like: I’m going to dive into the book. Too early to tell yet, but maybe syncing between these different formats can be even more absorbing, can reclaim “the text” for what it was before all these devices and distractions started diverting us.

Notes:

  1. Which reading platform to use—the Kindle, the Nook, or another device, like the Kobo—is another story, and one I want to write about soon, since I used to do pro-indy, anti-Kindle work for bookstores, have owned various Nooks as well, and now use this Kindle.
  2. You can use Bluetooth or aux headphones in newer Kindles

Website hacks and craft Web development

For the last several weeks, a few of the websites I maintain, including this one, have been getting absolutely buffeted by exploits and malware attacks. These attacks drop redirects in the headers and footers, throw up those fake blue “ATTENTION Microsoft” windows that take over your browser, and in general wreck the sites and make them do what the hackers want, whatever that is.

I change all the usernames and database logins, delete pernicious PHP files, chmod the wide-open directories. It keeps happening. It’s gotten so I think it’s not (just) a negligent webmaster like me, but something exploitable in my ISP, some way they’re not clamping down, some way-hidden hole I haven’t found yet. Because even when I change everything these exploits keep re-spreading. So it’s bad. It’s frustrating and it makes me throw up my hands about manual website maintenance. And about writing things on the web, since brownhen.com is like my (very occasional) journal.

But then I think: the good side of this is all this checking and fixing, this SSHing and tail-ing and chmod-ing. Like a fisherman darning his nets, I have to go in every day or so and look around, look at the logs, add IPs to the .htaccess (which is silly because hackers grab hundreds/thousands of computers, like mine, to drive their exploits, so it’s not like you’re reaching the guy’s laptop or anything), clean out the now-familiar fake files ( /wp-admin/user/exdbpabq.php is not a valid file from WordPress, for example). It’s like weeding a yard, sharpening your tools.

And it’s zen-like and pleasant like that. And direct. And craftsman-like. When I get over my frustration, I really like this mending and pruning and sharpening. What doesn’t get old is the directness of a web server and a shell, your favorite Unix editor, the activity on the site itself legible in logs, the cat-ing and bashing 1. Craft website development.

Notes:

  1. I found this cool Bash script that watches when new files are written to your website directory. I adjusted and am watching the intermittent “Waiting for changes” notes scroll down the terminal. All clear for now? Sorry this site has been down or abusing you when you visit.

    #! /usr/bin/env bash
    
    FILELIST=/tmp/filelist
    MONITOR_DIR=/home/usr/local
    
    [[ -f ${FILELIST} ]] || ls ${MONITOR_DIR} > ${FILELIST}
    
    while : ; do
        cur_files=$(ls ${MONITOR_DIR})
        diff <(cat ${FILELIST}) <(echo $cur_files) || \
             { echo "Alert: ${MONITOR_DIR} changed" ;
               # Overwrite file list with the new one.
               echo $cur_files > ${FILELIST} ;
             }
    
        echo "Waiting for changes."
        sleep $(expr 60 \* 2)
    done
    

Watson Dialectics

An idea for a new Watson service/application

What if you could convene a conversation with people you have strongly disagreed with, or find it difficult to exchange facts with, people with whom you have been driven you to stridency and name-calling, and have Watson help keep that conversation on the right foot? What if Watson could ensure that the tone of this conversation remains dispassionate, its participants receptive, and its assertions verifiable in real-time?

Two services, Watson Tone Analyzer and Watson Discovery, are the tone- and fact-checking engines, respectively, in a new application, Watson Dialectics, which monitors conversation in real-time through a mobile application and a microphone.

If as you try to make your point your tone starts to overcook, Watson will stop the conversation and gently suggest a reframing, or a retreat back to the ground that had been coolly agreed upon. If your conversational partner says something like “50% of American males own fire-arms,” Watson will go verify this fact in the background and politely countermand if necessary. Human debate monitored and enhanced by artificial intelligence.

Watson Dialectics also uses IBM’s Mobile First platform, speech-to-text, and a couple of other services to create a system for real conversation (as opposed to the Conversation service that developers use to build chatbots, that is to enable “conversation” between humans and software).

It’d be great! You could bring it along to your kids’ cafeteria Lincoln-Douglas competitors, to the water-cooler chat at work, or to that Thanksgiving dinner table.