Shallow Thoughts : : Aug

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 26 Aug 2015

Switching to a Kobo e-reader

For several years I've kept a rooted Nook Touch for reading ebooks. But recently it's become tough to use. Newer epub books no longer work work on any version of FBReader still available for the Nook's ancient Android 2.1, and the Nook's built-in reader has some fatal flaws: most notably that there's no way to browse books by subject tag, and it's painfully slow to navigate a library of 250 books when have to start from the As and you need to get to T paging slowly forward 6 books at a time.

The Kobo Touch

But with my Nook unusable, I borrowed Dave's Kobo Touch to see how it compared. I like the hardware: same screen size as the Nook, but a little brighter and sharper, with a smaller bezel around it, and a spring-loaded power button in a place where it won't get pressed accidentally when it's packed in a suitcase -- the Nook was always coming on while in its case, and I didn't find out until I pulled it out to read before bed and discovered the battery was too low.

The Kobo worked quite nicely as a reader, though it had a few of the same problems as the Nook. They both insist on justifying both left and right margins (Kobo has a preference for that, but it doesn't work in any book I tried). More important is the lack of subject tags. The Kobo has a "Shelves" option, called "Collections" in some versions, but adding books to shelves manually is tedious if you have a lot of books. (But see below.)

It also shared another Nook problem: it shows overall progress in the book, but not how far you are from the next chapter break. There's a choice to show either book progress or chapter progress, but not both; and chapter progress only works for books in Kobo's special "kepub" format (I'll write separately about that). I miss FBReader's progress bar that shows both book and chapter progress, and I can't fathom why that's not considered a necessary feature for any e-reader.

But mostly, Kobo's reader was better than the Nook's. Bookmarks weren't perfect, but they basically worked, and I didn't even have to spent half an hour reading the manual to use them (like I did with the Nook). The font selection was great, and the library navigation had one great advantage over the Nook: a slider so you could go from A to T quickly.

I liked the Kobo a lot, and promptly ordered one of my own.

It's not all perfect

There were a few disadvantages. Although the Kobo had a lot more granularity in its line spacing and margin settings, the smallest settings were still a lot less tight than I wanted. The Nook only offered a few settings but the smallest setting was pretty good.

Also, the Kobo can only see books at the top level of its microSD card. No subdirectories, which means that I can't use a program like rsync to keep the Kobo in sync with my ebooks directory on my computer. Not that big a deal, just a minor annoyance.

More important was the subject tagging, which is really needed in a big library. It was pretty clear Shelves/Collections were what I needed; but how could I get all my books into shelves without laboriously adding them all one by one on a slow e-ink screen?

It turns out Kobo's architecture makes it pretty easy to fix these problems.

Customizing Kobo

While the rooted Nook community has been stagnant for years -- it was a cute proof of concept that, in the end, no one cared about enough to try to maintain it -- Kobo readers are a lot easier to hack, and there's a thriving Kobo community on MobileReads which has been trading tips and patches over the years -- apparently with Kobo's blessing.

The biggest key to Kobo's customizability is that you can mount it as a USB storage device, and one of the files that exposes is the device's database (an sqlite file). That means that well supported programs like Calibre can update shelves/collections on a Kobo, access its book list, and other nifty tricks; and if you want more, you can write your own scripts, or even access the database by hand.

I'll write separately about some Python scripts I've written to display the database and add books to shelves, and I'll just say here that the process was remarkably straightforward and much easier than I usually expect when learning to access a new device.

There's lots of other customizing you can do. There are ways of installing alternative readers on the Kobo, or installing Python so you can write your own reader. I expected to want that, but so far the built-in reader seems good enough.

You can also patch the OS. Kobo updates are distributed as tarballs of binaries, and there's a very well designed, documented and supported (by users, not by Kobo) patching script distributed on MobileReads for each new Kobo release. I applied a few patches and was impressed by how easy it was. And now I have tight line spacing and margins, a slightly changed page number display at the bottom of the screen (still only chapter or book, not both), and a search that defaults to my local book collection rather than the Kobo store.

Stores and DRM

Oh, about the Kobo store. I haven't tried it yet, so I can't report on that. From what I read, it's pretty good as e-bookstores go, and a lot of Nook and Sony users apparently prefer to buy from Kobo. But like most e-bookstores, the Kobo store uses DRM, which makes it a pain (and is why I probably won't be using it much).

They use Adobe's DRM, and at least Adobe's Digital Editions app works in Wine under Linux. Amazon's app no longer does, and in case you're wondering why I didn't consider a Kindle, that's part of it. Amazon has a bad reputation for removing rights to previously purchased ebooks (as well as for spying on their customers' reading habits), and I've experienced it personally more than once.

Not only can I no longer use the Kindle app under Wine, but Amazon no longer lets me re-download the few Kindle books I've purchased in the past. I remember when my mother used to use the Kindle app on Android regularly; every few weeks all her books would disappear and she'd have to get on the phone again to Amazon to beg to have them back. It just isn't worth the hassle. Besides, Kindles can't read public library books (those are mostly EPUBs with Adobe DRM); and a Kindle would require converting my whole EPUB library to MOBI. I don't see any up side, and a lot of down side.

The Adobe scheme used by Kobo and Nook is better, but I still plan to avoid books with DRM as much as possible. It's not the stores' fault, and I hope Kobo does well, because they look like a good company. It's the publishers who insist on DRM. We can only hope that some day they come to their senses, like music publishers finally did with MP3 versus DRMed music. A few publishers have dropped DRM already, and if we readers avoid buying DRMed ebooks, maybe the message will eventually get through.

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[ 17:04 Aug 26, 2015    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 20 Aug 2015

Python module for reading EPUB e-book metadata

Three years ago I wanted a way to manage tags on e-books in a lightweight way, without having to maintain a Calibre database and fire up the Calibre GUI app every time I wanted to check a book's tags. I couldn't find anything, nor did I find any relevant Python libraries, so I reverse engineered the (simple, XML-bsaed) EPUB format and wrote a Python script to show or modify epub tags.

I've been using that script ever since. It's great for Project Gutenberg books, which tend to be overloaded with tags that I don't find very useful for categorizing books ("United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century -- Fiction") but lacking in tags that I would find useful ("History", "Science Fiction", "Mystery").

But it wasn't easy to include it in other programs. For the last week or so I've been fiddling with a Kobo ebook reader, and I wanted to write programs that could read epub and also speak Kobo-ese. (I'll write separately about the joys of Kobo hacking. It's really a neat little e-reader.)

So I've factored my epubtag script into a usable Python module, so as well as being a standalone program for viewing epub book data, it's easy to use from other programs. It's available on GitHub: epubtag.py: parse EPUB metadata and view or change subject tags.

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[ 20:27 Aug 20, 2015    More programming | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 09 Aug 2015

Bat Ballet above the Amaranths

This evening Dave and I spent quite a while clearing out amaranth (pigweed) that's been growing up near the house.

[Palmer's amaranth, pigweed] We'd been wondering about it for quite some time. It's quite an attractive plant when small, with pretty patterns on its leaves that remind me of some of the decorative houseplants we used to try to grow when I was a kid.

I've been working on an Invasive Plants page for the nature center, partly as a way to figure out myself which plants we need to pull and which are okay. For instance, Russian thistle (tumbleweed) -- everybody knows what it looks like when it's a dried-up tumbleweed, but by then it's too late, scattering its seeds all over. Besides, it's covered with spikes by then. The trick is to recognize and pull it when it's young, and the same is true of a lot of invasives, especially the ones with spiky seeds that stick to you, like stickseed and caltrops (goatheads).

A couple of the nature center experts have been sending me lists of invasive plants I should be sure to include, and one of them was a plant called redroot pigweed. I'd never heard of it, so I looked it up -- and it looked an awful lot like our mystery plant. A little more web searching on Amaranthus images eventually led me to Palmer's amaranth, which turns out to be aggressive and highly competitive, with sticky seeds.

Unfortunately the pretty little plants had had a month to grow by the time we realized the problem, and some of them had trunks an inch and a half across, so we had to go after them with a machete and a hand axe. But we got most of them cleared.

As we returned from dumping the last load of pigweed, a little after 8 pm, the light was fading, and we were greeted by a bat making rounds between our patio and the area outside the den. I stopped what I was doing and watched, entranced, as the bat darted into the dark den area then back out, followed a slalom course through the junipers, buzzed past my head and the out to make a sweep across the patio ... then back, around the tight corner and back to the den, over and over.

I stood watching for twenty minutes, with the bat sometimes passing within a foot of my head. (yay, bat -- eat some of these little gnats that keep whining by my ears and eyes!) It flew with spectacular maneuverability and grace, unsurpassed by anything save perhaps a hummingbird, changing direction constantly but always smoothly. I was reminded of the way a sea lion darts around underwater while it's hunting, except the bat is so much smaller, able to turn in so little space ... and of course maneuvering in the air, and in the dark, makes it all the more impressive.

I couldn't hear the bat's calls at all. Years ago, waiting for dusk at star parties on Fremont Peak, I used to hear the bats clearly. Are the bats here higher pitched than those California bats? Or am I just losing high frequencies as I get older? Maybe a combination of both.

Finally, a second bat, a little smaller than the first, appeared over the patio and both bats disappeared into the junipers. Of course I couldn't see either one well enough to tell whether the second bat was smaller because it was a different species, or a different gender of the same species. In Myotis bats, apparently the females are significantly larger than the males, so perhaps my first bat was a female Myotis and the male came to join her.

The two bats didn't reappear, and I reluctantly came inside.

Where are they roosting? In the trees? Or is it possible that one of them is using my bluebird house? I'm not going to check and risk disturbing anyone who might be roosting there.

I don't know if it's the same little brown bat I saw last week on the front porch, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

I've wondered how many bats there are flying around here, and how late they fly. I see them at dusk, but of course there's no reason to think they stop at dusk just because we're no longer able to see them. Perhaps I'll find out: I ordered parts for an Arduino-driven bat detector a few weeks ago, and they've been sitting on my desk waiting for me to find time to solder them together. I hope I find the time before summer ends and the bats fly off wherever they go in winter.

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[ 21:47 Aug 09, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]