Shallow Thoughts

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: 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 ]

Thu, 30 Jul 2015

A good week for critters

It's been a good week for unusual wildlife.

[Myotis bat hanging just outside the front door] We got a surprise a few nights ago when flipping the porch light on to take the trash out: a bat was clinging to the wall just outside the front door.

It was tiny, and very calm -- so motionless we feared it was dead. (I took advantage of this to run inside and grab the camera.) It didn't move at all while we were there. The trash mission accomplished, we turned out the light and left the bat alone. Happily, it wasn't ill or dead: it was gone a few hours later.

We see bats fairly regularly flying back and forth across the patio early on summer evenings -- insects are apparently attracted to the light visible through the windows from inside, and the bats follow the insects. But this was the first close look I'd had at a stationary bat, and my first chance to photograph one.

I'm not completely sure what sort of bat it is: almost certainly some species of Myotis (mouse-eared bats), and most likely M. yumanensis, the "little brown bat". It's hard to be sure, though, as there are at least six species of Myotis known in the area.

[Woodrat released from trap] We've had several woodrats recently try to set up house near the house or the engine compartment of our Rav4, so we've been setting traps regularly. Though woodrats are usually nocturnal, we caught one in broad daylight as it explored the area around our garden pond.

But the small patio outside the den seems to be a particular draw for them, maybe because it has a wooden deck with a nice dark space under it for a rat to hide. We have one who's been leaving offerings -- pine cones, twigs, leaves -- just outside the door (and less charming rat droppings nearby), so one night Dave set three traps all on that deck. I heard one trap clank shut in the middle of the night, but when I checked in the morning, two traps were sprung without any occupants and the third was still open.

But later that morning, I heard rattling from outside the door. Sure enough, the third trap was occupied and the occupant was darting between one end and the other, trying to get out. I told Dave we'd caught the rat, and we prepared to drive it out to the parkland where we've been releasing them.

[chipmunk caught in our rat trap] And then I picked up the trap, looked in -- and discovered it was a pretty funny looking woodrat. With a furry tail and stripes. A chipmunk! We've been so envious of the folks who live out on the canyon rim and are overloaded with chipmunks ... this is only the second time we've seen here, and now it's probably too spooked to stick around.

We released it near the woodpile, but it ran off away from the house. Our only hope for its return is that it remembers the nice peanut butter snack it got here.

[Baby Great Plains skink] Later that day, we were on our way out the door, late for a meeting, when I spotted a small lizard in the den. (How did it get in?) Fast and lithe and purple-tailed, it skittered under the sofa as soon as it saw us heading its way.

But the den is a small room and the lizard had nowhere to go. After upending the sofa and moving a couple of tables, we cornered it by the door, and I was able to trap it in my hands without any damage to its tail.

When I let it go on the rocks outside, it calmed down immediately, giving me time to run for the camera. Its gorgeous purple tail doesn't show very well, but at least the photo was good enough to identify it as a juvenile Great Plains skink. The adults look more like Jabba the Hut nothing like the lovely little juvenile we saw. We actually saw an adult this spring (outside), when we were clearing out a thick weed patch and disturbed a skink from its hibernation. And how did this poor lizard get saddled with a scientfic name of Eumeces obsoletus?

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[ 11:07 Jul 30, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 26 Jul 2015

Trackpad workarounds: using function keys as mouse buttons

I've had no end of trouble with my Asus 1015E's trackpad. A discussion of laptops on a mailing list -- in particular, someone's concerns that the nifty-looking Dell XPS 13, which is available preloaded with Linux, has had reviewers say that the trackpad doesn't work well -- reminded me that I'd never posted my final solution.

The Asus's trackpad has two problems. First, it's super sensitive to taps, so if any part of my hand gets anywhere near the trackpad while I'm typing, suddenly it sees a mouse click at some random point on the screen, and instead of typing into an emacs window suddenly I find I'm typing into a live IRC client. Or, worse, instead of typing my password into a password field, I'm typing it into IRC. That wouldn't have been so bad on the old style of trackpad, where I could just turn off taps altogether and use the hardware buttons; this is one of those new-style trackpads that doesn't have any actual buttons.

Second, two-finger taps don't work. Three-finger taps work just fine, but two-finger taps: well, I found when I wanted a right-click (which is what two-fingers was set up to do), I had to go TAP, TAP, TAP, TAP maybe ten or fifteen times before one of them would finally take. But by the time the menu came up, of course, I'd done another tap and that canceled the menu and I had to start over. Infuriating!

I struggled for many months with synclient's settings for tap sensitivity and right and left click emulation. I tried enabling syndaemon, which is supposed to disable clicks as long as you're typing then enable them again afterward, and spent months playing with its settings, but in order to get it to work at all, I had to set the timeout so long that there was an infuriating wait after I stopped typing before I could do anything.

I was on the verge of giving up on the Asus and going back to my Dell Latitude 2120, which had an excellent trackpad (with buttons) and the world's greatest 10" laptop keyboard. (What the Dell doesn't have is battery life, and I really hated to give up the Asus's light weight and 8-hour battery life.) As a final, desperate option, I decided to disable taps completely.

Disable taps? Then how do you do a mouse click?

I theorized, with all Linux's flexibility, there must be some way to get function keys to work like mouse buttons. And indeed there is. The easiest way seemed to be to use xmodmap (strange to find xmodmap being the simplest anything, but there you go). It turns out that a simple line like

  xmodmap -e "keysym F1 = Pointer_Button1"
is most of what you need. But to make it work, you need to enable "mouse keys":
  xkbset m

But for reasons unknown, mouse keys will expire after some set timeout unless you explicitly tell it not to. Do that like this:

  xkbset exp =m

Once that's all set up, you can disable single-finger taps with synclient:

  synclient TapButton1=0
Of course, you can disable 2-finger and 3-finger taps by setting them to 0 as well. I don't generally find them a problem (they don't work reliably, but they don't fire on their own either), so I left them enabled.

I tried it and it worked beautifully for left click. Since I was still having trouble with that two-finger tap for right click, I put that on a function key too, and added middle click while I was at it. I don't use function keys much, so devoting three function keys to mouse buttons wasn't really a problem.

In fact, it worked so well that I decided it would be handy to have an additional set of mouse keys over on the other side of the keyboard, to make it easy to do mouse clicks with either hand. So I defined F1, F2 and F3 as one set of mouse buttons, and F10, F11 and F12 as another.

And yes, this all probably sounds nutty as heck. But it really is a nice laptop aside from the trackpad from hell; and although I thought Fn-key mouse buttons would be highly inconvenient, it took surprisingly little time to get used to them.

So this is what I ended up putting in .config/openbox/autostart file. I wrap it in a test for hostname, since I like to be able to use the same configuration file on multiple machines, but I don't need this hack on any machine but the Asus.

if [ $(hostname) == iridum ]; then
  synclient TapButton1=0 TapButton2=3 TapButton3=2 HorizEdgeScroll=1

  xmodmap -e "keysym F1 = Pointer_Button1"
  xmodmap -e "keysym F2 = Pointer_Button2"
  xmodmap -e "keysym F3 = Pointer_Button3"

  xmodmap -e "keysym F10 = Pointer_Button1"
  xmodmap -e "keysym F11 = Pointer_Button2"
  xmodmap -e "keysym F12 = Pointer_Button3"

  xkbset m
  xkbset exp =m
  synclient TapButton1=1 TapButton2=3 TapButton3=2 HorizEdgeScroll=1

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[ 20:54 Jul 26, 2015    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 19 Jul 2015

Plugging in those darned USB cables

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's forever trying to plug in a USB cable only to find it upside down. And then I flip it and try it the other way, and that doesn't work either, so I go back to the first side, until I finally get it plugged in, because there's no easy way to tell visually which way the plug is supposed to go.

It's true of nearly all of the umpteen variants of USB plug: almost all of them differ only subtly from the top side to the bottom.

[USB trident] And to "fix" this, USB cables are built so that they have subtly raised indentations which, if you hold them to the light just right so you can see the shadows, say "USB" or have the little USB trident on the top side:

In an art store a few weeks ago, Dave had a good idea.

[USB cables painted for orientation] He bought a white paint marker, and we've used it to paint the logo side of all our USB cables.

Tape the cables down on the desk -- so they don't flop around while the paint is drying -- and apply a few dabs of white paint to the logo area of each connector. If you're careful you might be able to fill in the lowered part so the raised USB symbol stays black; or to paint only the raised USB part. I tried that on a few cables, but after the fifth or so cable I stopped worrying about whether I was ending up with a pretty USB symbol and just started dabbing paint wherever was handy.

The paint really does make a big difference. It's much easier now to plug in USB cables, especially micro USB, and I never go through that "flip it over several times" dance any more.

[ 20:37 Jul 19, 2015    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 14 Jul 2015

Hummingbird Quidditch!

[rufous hummingbird] After months of at most one hummingbird at the feeders every 15 minutes or so, yesterday afternoon the hummingbirds here all suddenly went crazy. Since then, my patio looks like a tiny Battle of Britain, There are at least four males involved in the fighting, plus a couple of females who sneak in to steal a sip whenever the principals retreat for a moment.

I posted that to the local birding list and someone came up with a better comparison: "it looks like a Quidditch game on the back porch". Perfect! And someone else compared the hummer guarding the feeder to "an avid fan at Wimbledon", referring to the way his head keeps flicking back and forth between the two feeders under his control.

Last year I never saw anything like this. There was a week or so at the very end of summer where I'd occasionally see three hummingbirds contending at the very end of the day for their bedtime snack, but no more than that. I think putting out more feeders has a lot to do with it.

All the dogfighting (or quidditch) is amazing to watch, and to listen to. But I have to wonder how these little guys manage to survive when they spend all their time helicoptering after each other and no time actually eating. Not to mention the way the males chase females away from the food when the females need to be taking care of chicks.

[calliope hummingbird]

I know there's a rufous hummingbird (shown above) and a broad-tailed hummingbird -- the broad-tailed makes a whistling sound with his wings as he dives in for the attack. I know there a black-chinned hummer around because I saw his characteristic tail-waggle as he used the feeder outside the nook a few days before the real combat started. But I didn't realize until I checked my photos this morning that one of the combatants is a calliope hummingbird. They're usually the latest to arrive, and the rarest. I hadn't realized we had any calliopes yet this year, so I was very happy to see the male's throat streamers when I looked at the photo. So all four of the species we'd normally expect to see here in northern New Mexico are represented.

I've always envied places that have a row of feeders and dozens of hummingbirds all vying for position. But I would put out two feeders and never see them both occupied at once -- one male always keeps an eye on both feeders and drives away all competitors, including females -- so putting out a third feeder seemed pointless. But late last year I decided to try something new: put out more feeders, but make sure some of them are around the corner hidden from the main feeders. Then one tyrant can't watch them all, and other hummers can establish a beachhead.

It seems to be working: at least, we have a lot more activity so far than last year, even though I never seem to see any hummers at the fourth feeder, hidden up near the bedroom. Maybe I need to move that one; and I just bought a fifth, so I'll try putting that somewhere on the other side of the house and see how it affects the feeders on the patio.

I still don't have dozens of hummingbirds like some places have (the Sopaipilla Factory restaurant in Pojoaque is the best place I've seen around here to watch hummingbirds). But I'm making progress

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[ 12:45 Jul 14, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 09 Jul 2015

Taming annoyances in the new Google Maps

For a year or so, I've been appending "output=classic" to any Google Maps URL. But Google disabled Classic mode last month. (There have been a few other ways to get classic Google maps back, but Google is gradually disabling them one by one.)

I have basically three problems with the new maps:

  1. If you search for something, the screen is taken up by a huge box showing you what you searched for; if you click the "x" to dismiss the huge box so you can see the map underneath, the box disappears but so does the pin showing your search target.
  2. A big swath at the bottom of the screen is taken up by a filmstrip of photos from the location, and it's an extra click to dismiss that.
  3. Moving or zooming the map is very, very slow: it relies on OpenGL support in the browser, which doesn't work well on Linux in general, or on a lot of graphics cards on any platform.

Now that I don't have the "classic" option any more, I've had to find ways around the problems -- either that, or switch to Bing maps. Here's how to make the maps usable in Firefox.

First, for the slowness: the cure is to disable webgl in Firefox. Go to about:config and search for webgl. Then doubleclick on the line for webgl.disabled to make it true.

For the other two, you can add userContent lines to tell Firefox to hide those boxes.

Locate your Firefox profile. Inside it, edit chrome/userContent.css (create that file if it doesn't already exist), and add the following two lines:

div#cards { display: none !important; }
div#viewcard { display: none !important; }

Voilà! The boxes that used to hide the map are now invisible. Of course, that also means you can't use anything inside them; but I never found them useful for anything anyway.

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[ 10:54 Jul 09, 2015    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]