My first impressions with Safari Books Online

I have never hidden that I’m a fan of the so-called authored content: I still prefer a well-edited guide to a blog post or a Wiki entry, evne though I’m the first to write blog entries to document issues and common problems, mostly out of lack of time and, honestly, laziness.

Given this, when I’m planning to work on a new technology or technique, I used to roam to O’Reilly’s website and buy myself some e-books to read on the subject. More than once, this saved me from having to spend hours and hours googling for up-to-date content on the topic. At least once, this let me complete overnight a task I was failing to complete, after two weeks — it had to do with flex and bison and most of the guides out there seemed to relate to their “grandparents” lex and yacc; the solution was much easier to implement once I read flex & bison by John Levine since it provided me with the actual, up-to-date syntax.

Two months ago, I reviewed how much I spent during 2011 in O’Reilly ebooks and … I was quite upset: over €200 in less than six months, with most of the books being one-time reference or something quite near. So I finally decided to bit the bullet and I bought a yearly subscription to the Safari Books Online Library service. Thanks to the fact that I’m basically always connected to some network, and even more important, I’m always connected when I’m working on some new technique, having a whole lot of books, not limited by either my choices or publisher, makes it cheaper in the books — and hopefully my accountant can record the expenses down in my freelancer’s balance.

You might already guess that, since I’ve not been keeping up with writing blog posts lately, I was quite busy with my work stuff (to which I had to add some personal stuff, some very good, some very bad), so I gave the service a run for its money with some of the projects I’ve been following. I have to say that the selection of books is quite good indeed, even though sometimes it is difficult to find an updated book, simply because nothing new is written on the topic, causing the old stuff to be obsoleted early, when the technology is moving fast, which is the case for most of the Free Software-related writings — a different story applies to stuff like Microsoft SQLServer, even though that one also changed quite a bit between one version and the other lately, but that’s enough for another story.

There are three main interfaces to the Library that I tried: the standard website, the mobile one and the iPad-specific application. As far as I can tell, there is no Android application yet, which makes me somewhat lucky for having an iPad instead of an Android-based tablet — and for those wondering, it was part of a project for a customer that needs to run on it, thus why I bought it in the first place.

The main website is somewhat usable; on the other hand it can create a bit of confusion especially for what concerns the difference between searching and filtering down the search, but at least it provides a quick way to find about anything you need. The mobile interface is definitely more limited, and especially on a space-constrained screen such as the HTC Desire HD’s (my newest phone) it isn’t exactly making me happy to search for something.

The iPad application, instead, seems to have been designed to be much more immediate than the mobile website… if it hadn’t its share of painful bugs and mis-features. For instance, if you’re looking for something particular in the table of contents, you’re out of luck, as it doesn’t get you to the right place in the book for the selected entry, but rather to the nearest “section”, i.e., at the HTML file that includes the entry you selected. But what bugs me the most is that, even though the service uses HTTP and is generally lightweight, the application refuses to connect if you’re Internet-bound via 3G network, only working via WiFi.

Overall, the service looks convenient to me, but I’ll reserve to say something more once a few months have passed. In the mean time I’ll be hoping that an Android application will be released, and that the iPad one will start supporting 3G connections, to make the whole experience more.. natural.

Slow readers, fast readers

I’ll be honest, the Reader felt like another cool gadget at first, but right now it really shows how easy it is to bring with me a number of books, without needing bookmarks, and without the physical constrain of book size — might sound very puny, but think about going around with a couple of volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and thank call me back.

Now this added with the ability to buy just-released books that aren’t available in Europe just yet, and the fact that I don’t pay any shipping on them, also meant I started getting hooked more and more to some book series, more than I would have before. Unfortunately, book series are expensive; not excessively expensive by themselves, but when you read through an instalment in less than a week, at the end of the month you’ll feel again the weight of the books on your credit card statement.

So I’m now thinking simply of dividing books in “fast readers” and “slow readers”, and get myself a rule so that I don’t spend a lot of money in fast readers one after the other. The obvious separation between the two would be “stuff I enjoy enthusiastically” and “stuff I really read just for the kicks”… but given I’m no longer in school, I have near to nothing within that set — there has been a few technical books I endured more than enjoyed, before, but that’s part of my job anyway.

It’s not a matter of taste, it’s even less a matter of page count; some books might be short, like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but while they are interesting, they take me the longest time to read through them. Others might look “fatter”, like the Dresden Files series, but they capture me to a point I have difficulty turning away from the book.

But the first rule I have to get myself to respect is “Finish the dead-tree versions first!” — No point in getting new stuff as long as I haven’t finished all the technical books I have here. Well, it’s mostly alright for me given that I try to stay away from technical books during the summer so I can relax; not that it worked out pretty well this summer (no vacation, no break), but what I read was nothing I had before, nor something I had in dead tree form so it didn’t count.

So anyway, I’ll be back for a while to read stuff that makes a difference for what I do daily (packaging and coding), in dead-tree form for the most part. And a note here is worth it. I’m not sure whether the problem is with DocBook itself, but as good as O’Reilly’s content is, the ePub versions of their books tend to be .. difficult to read on the Reader itself; I’ll have to see if converting them with Calibre makes a difference, that would be interesting… but as it is I feel like reading them in PDF form would be probably easier; I just wish there will be some iPad-like tablet running Android sometime soon, that would definitely help — even more because CJKV Information Processing is exclusively available in PDF form, d’oh!

Technical eBooks? Scarcer than I’d have said!

Do you remember I went back to using the Reader with proper (ePub) content? It also turned out pretty well when I could get a newly-released book even before it’s released in Europe (and for a much lower price).

A month after resuming this, I have to accept an absurd reality: it’s much easier to find novels than technical books in ePub format! Now it is true that most of the O’Reilly catalogue is available in ePub format (one exception being CJKV Information Processing which, for the complexity of the script, is only available as PDF — and it would still have been pretty expensive, if I couldn’t make it to the 1-day offer the other day of getting any eBook for $10; for that price, even just a PDF is good enough), but they seem to be an exception.

Indeed, Addison Wesley does not seem to have their catalogue available as eBook at all! And they tend to have some very interesting books – some of which I read thanks to the gifts received – if they had them available as eBook, I would probably be buying a few more of them!

Tonight I was also looking at MIT Press since I would like to convert my current shelf to eBooks, for those titles that I’m still interesting to have around, and which are available as eBook obviously; Using OpenMP is one of them — my idea was to know ho much they would cost me as eBook, which is usually a fraction of their original price, and “sell” them for the same price to interested friends. While they do have an eBook store, it doesn’t have their older titles, and it leaves a lot to be desired.

My reason for wanting to convert what I have already is that I’m getting ready to pack and get the hell away from home; nots of things are going on and I’m in the middle of a very nasty family situation. I’ll be looking for my luck elsewhere, most likely in Turin, hopefully later on this year. But before leaving, I’m trying to get rid of some baggage, both psychological and physical; books are something that, while I’d be sad splitting from, I cannot afford to bring with me when I’ll be moving.

Incidentally, I’m in a bit of a pinch with CDs and DVDs as well… I already rip all my CDs and the music DVDs to bring them with me more easily on the iPod — but I don’t want to get rid of the originals; I guess that once I move I might still get some “physical storage space” here, to keep them. I already moved to buying music digitally – through the iTunes store, thankfully they don’t have DRM any more! – but audiobooks are still crippled protected, as they tell you, and metal loses some edges when encoded. Let’s not even get into digitally-distributed movies. And yes, I’m the kind of person who gladly pays for content.

On the other hand, for what concerns fiction and non-fiction books, there are quite a few possible stores, such as -WHSmith- Kobo and Waterstones — the only problem I got with them is that none of them supports a wishlist; I’d love to replace the one I have now on Amazon with one for eBook: they’d be cheaper and I’d have less trouble bringing them around.

Anyway, I’m still baffled by the lack of vast archives of technical eBooks.

My impressions about the Reader

So I finally received the Sony reader I ordered almost a month ago. Actually the shipment was quite fast, sent on January 20, received today.

First impressions with the hardware are positive, it’s a bit more heavy that I would have thought, but it’s big enough, and the eInk display is really good. Quite a nice item. PRS-505 photos here

An half problem is having the software working. There is libprs500 which takes care of almost everything, but packaging that is becoming a bit of a challenge.

While the author is a Gentoo user, and very helpful to improve the situation, I found a bit of problems now with xdg-utils. The post-installation script of libprs500 uses xdg-utils commands to install icons, desktop files and similar stuff. Unfortunately xdg-utils is … far from perfect. 81 open bugs on FreeDesktop’s bugzilla, and a lot of gray areas.

First off, xdg-utils don’t support DESTDIR (nor does the postinst script, but that I fixed); this means that it tries to write directly on filesystem, which is not good at all for distributions, not only Gentoo. I can workaround some of these problems by setting XDG_DATA_DIRS to a modified path forcing it to use the correct DESTDIR.

Even worse, xdg-mime and xdg-desktop-menu don’t even use XDG_* variables, they install data for GNOME and KDE separately, and for KDE, they use, respectively, kde-config ’s output, and nothing, just hardcoding the path. I was able to fool xdg-mime to work as I need by faking a kde-config script, but for xdg-desktop-menu there is nothing I can do. Beside the ability to use DESTDIR, I could have fooled them enough if they at least used KDEDIR/KDEDIRS variables, as I suppose they should, but they don’t.

Hopefully I’ll be able to get a modified xdg-utils soon so that I can actually complete the ebuild for libprs500, and then add it to portage.

I’m still having one problem with the connection of the PRS-505: the SD card in the slot is not seen by Linux. It’s working, because I can see it working on OSX, but on Linux somehow it does not appear to be given a device at all. I suppose it should have a device assigned like a 50-in-1 flash card reader, but this does not currently seem to happen, and I don’t know yet why.

Beside that, libprs500 is a nice frontend, it’s complete, not rough at all, and quite appealing. The only problem with the software itself I have is that it uses a sqlite db to store the books. No, not the books metadata, but the books themselves, it saves the whole file into the database. As you can guess, this is far from optimal, considering also my pet peeves with sqlite, I’d very much like to try steering upstream to something different, especially because I want to load something like 300 MB of books on the Reader.

As for what concern the kind of books to load on it; A4 books work nicely when used landscape and zooming in; tomorrow night I’ll experiment a bit with paper types for texinfo manuals, so that I could generate GDB, Make and ELISP manuals in a suitable size for the reader itself. The conversion to the reader’s own format is not that good when you have complex PDFs from texinfo or LaTeX.

There is one non-small problem with O’Reilly’s openbooks, like LDD3: the PDF has the guides printed around the page, and the zoom function of the reader is thrown off by that (it removes the white borders, but then the white border is interrupted by the guide on those books. To read those easily on the reader, the trick would be to crop them; I should look into tools to handle that, there has to be something there able to do that.

For what I’ve seen up to now, it was worth buying.

Looking for PDF books suppliers

So, after my wondering about getting a Sony Reader, I actually ordered one today. On eBay (without laser engraving) as Sony’s shop doesn’t have it available anymore, and I’d rather do it sooner rather than later, as you’ll never know what might come up when you plan too far ahead.

The main use will certainly be to read the common PDF reference documentation as I’m plenty of that, and I often end up either printing it or not using it at all. Give me a few months and the amount of paper I’d be saving would be worth the money I spent on the reader ;)

But there are other books too; Pragmatic Bookshelf sells PDFs for books, and they have quite some interesting titles, so that’s also quite a big improvement.

The only thing that would be missing would be O’Reilly books (I don’t have many, but I’m interested in some from time to time, like the GNU Make book I linked before too. Sure I can live without them as PDF, but if possible, I’d like that option too :) For what I can see, they don’t sell the whole book as PDF on the standard store, you can buy chapters at $4, but that’s quite too much for a whole book.

Luca told me to look for the subscription option, which I suppose is Safari Book Online; it sounds interesting, but considering its cost, I’d rather be sure first if that subscription is what I need. So the question here is for hoosgot a Safari Book Online subscription already. Are books in the library downloadable as PDF? Or are chapters downloadable one by one?

Thanks in advance for the info.