Two Ideas
4Jun/140

My FCC comment regarding Net Neutrality

Inspired by John Oliver's rant on Last Week Tonight, I went to the FCC's comments site and submitted the following comment:

To Whom It May Concern:

Back in the mid nineteen-nineties, a handful of us Internet activists worked mightily to get sensible service plans available to home users. (At the time, the telephone companies wanted people to connect to the Internet over pay-by-the-minute or pay-the-byte ISDN connections.)

Once relatively reasonable options became available to home users, home broadband use exploded, and the Internet became such a part of everyone's lives that it's nearly impossible to imagine the present day without it.

Allowing telecommunications companies to define "fast lanes" for some classes of traffic, or some preferred partnerships, turns the future of the Internet over to the same people who nearly stopped it from happening the first time.

The Internet as we know it would not survive this arrangement. It would turn the thriving metropolis we love into the most sterile, and most quickly abandoned, of shopping malls.

Please reaffirm Net Neutrality in its entirety, and do not permit the kinds of preferred-peering agreements that today's home Internet providers desire -- for their continued success, as well as ours.

Thank you,
Jonathan Lasser


I encourage all of my readers (both of you) to go to the FCC and submit your own comments supporting Net Neutrality.

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30May/140

Taking Sides: Simple Kobo Management

[This is the fourth article in a series about migrating from Kindle to Kobo. You can find the earlier pieces here, here, and here.]

As soon as I got my Kobo, I installed the Kobo desktop app on my Mac.

What a mistake.

As far as I've been able to figure out, the app offers little more than the same bookstore you can access on the Kobo itself over Wifi. You can't manage books you didn't purchase from the Kobo store, nor can you control the e-reader. I'm not entirely sure what the point of this app is.

However, there is an app that integrates with a number of the DRM-enabled bookstores for .epub books. Further, if your library uses Overdrive to provide e-books (Seattle does), it'll transfer those books to your Kobo too. It's Adobe Digital Editions, and every Kobo owner should download a copy.

In fact, if you don't have Amazon books to manage, and if all of your e-books are .epub or .pdf, you can manage all of your digital books in Adobe Digital Editions, and transfer them to your Kobo as well. It's ugly, and DRM still makes me feel icky (especially after my Amazon experience), but ADE is indispensable.

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29May/140

Story Recommendation

My Grandma Ruth always said, "Free advice is worth what you pay for it," but when Penumbra asked me to recommend some fiction, I did. I picked an oldie-but-goodie, and hope it's good company for the suggestions from my fellow authors in the same article.

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29May/140

Taking Sides: Onto Kobo

I'll be honest: I haven't exactly figured this part out to my satisfaction yet. I've installed the Kobo Touch Extended Driver into Calibre (remembering to disable the Kobo Touch basic driver), and the Kobo Utilities too. And I'm mostly—but not entirely—happy with the results.

A big part of the challenge is that the Kindle uses a different e-book format, or family of formats (.azw, .az3, and possibly others) than pretty much everybody else, who mostly use Adobe's .epub format. (Everybody supports reading .pdf files, but since they're laid out for a specific page size, they're often hard to read on e-books.)

I started with a bulk convert of my .az3 format books to .epub, which appears to be the preferred format of the Kobo. (I thought I could use .mobi files, but I seemed to have some trouble with tables of contents.) I configured Calibre to prefer .epub to the .mobi format, which both Kindles and other devices read, and transferred the files.

Some looked great. Some didn't. They suffered from random page breaks. Turns out this is a known issue, and the solution is to change a conversion setting and regenerate.

But now I don't know which .epub files are correct-from-the-publisher files, and which are Calibre generated! And I don't know which books have problems and which don't. So I'll have to regenerate files as I discover problems. Ugly.

Files transfer easily onto the Kobo, once you figure out how to make the interface go. There's no sync button, bidirectionally copying everything. You can sort by the check-mark that indicates a file is on the device, select everything without the checkmark, and then copy the files—then repeat for the reverse direction. That's ugly too.

Also ugly: If I use the basic Kobo driver, the page footer shows how my page number relative to the whole book (e.g., "Page 103 of 411"), but if I use the enhanced driver, the page footer shows my page number relative to the chapter I'm in (e.g., "Chapter 5 - page 2 of 6"). There doesn't seem to be a way to see both of these numbers, the way I can tap between them on my Kindle.

Still, I have books on my Kobo, including my Amazon-purchased books, and I can read them. That's great. The fiddling I'll need to continue to do, to address formatting and file transfer issues, that's less great.

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28May/140

Taking Sides: Out of Amazon

Now that I've bought a Kobo and determined to abandon my Kindle, what now?

The first step is to get my bought and paid for e-Books off my Kindle. This means, first, finding alternative software to manage e-Books; and second, removing the DRM tying my books to the Kindle.

Calibre is unmatched in its ability to manage e-Books. It provides an interface to manage a single book across multiple formats as a single entity, to convert books between formats, and even to read those books.

Honestly, the interface is terrible. It's software only a nerd can love, and makes me want to dive weeping into Amazon's outstretched arms. But beneath that ugly face lies software of immense power. It's software for geeks, with all the good and bad that implies.

Plug in the Kindle, and Calibre sees the books. It can store them and manage them—but wait. You can't convert or transfer the files to other devices. You need to add a plugin that removes DRM. Download the file from Apprentice Alf, take the .zip file, and add it to Calibre according to the instructions. It's not difficult, but it's ugly and annoying. (It's also arguably illegal in the US, thanks to the DMCA, but so long as you're not trying to steal from authors, don't let that stop you.)

Now copy the books from your Kindle to your Calibre library. That wasn't so hard, was it? Well, okay, it wasn't easy. It was ugly, had too many steps, and generally made me much crankier than anything I had to do to keep using the Kindle. But most of the difficulty is the first time around. Next time it'll be easier.

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27May/140

Taking Sides: Abandoning my Kindle

Around three years ago, my Dad got me a Kindle Touch. I'd been resisting e-readers, in part because of ongoing file format and DRM shenanigans and in part out of a false sense of economy.

Once I slapped a leather cover on, to make it more book-like, I discovered that I did like reading on an e-ink reader. (I'm still less convinced I like reading on LCDs, though text looks gorgeous on my iPad Retina Mini.)

Some months ago, I read George Packer's New Yorker piece with mixed feelings. I bought some books from non-Amazon sources—particularly from Angry Robot and O'Reilly—but mostly I felt content to work within the Amazon ecosystem. It was smooth, frictionless. They made it just so easy to buy books.

Last week, the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette drove me over the edge. I'm even agreeing with Farhad Manjoo.

Charlie Stross summarized the impact most ably:

Amazon's strategy against Hachette is that of a bullying combine the size of WalMart leaning on a much smaller supplier. And the smaller supplier in turn relies on really small suppliers like me. It's anti-author, and in the long term it will deprive you of the books you want to read.

I find Amazon's behavior, finally, unconscionable and untenable, and they've driven me to seek my e-book fix elsewhere. I'm giving up that beautiful frictionless ecosystem, plunging into the thickets of the DRM and file-format wilderness. I've bought myself a new e-reader, a Kobo Aura HD.

Expect a series of blog posts on negotiating this unkindled world.

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17May/140

Buy my story!

Cover of the Penumbra May 2014 issue
As I mentioned the other week, my story "The Saviors" is in the May issue of Penumbra. You can buy the Penumbra May issue for $3.99.

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15May/140

Migrating from RCS to a git repository

Way back in the day, I used RCS to do version control for configuration files (a trick that Hugh Daniel taught me), as well as for single-file scripts. I always used CVS and later Subversion for larger, multi-file projects, but for a single file, RCS was all I ever needed.

Recently I've had to migrate code to a git repository at work, and for historical purposes I've wanted to include the RCS checkin history for these scripts.

The best tool I've found for this is rcs-fast-export. The command sequence looks something like:

cd ~/src
mkdir -p project-directory/RCS
mv RCS/script,v project-directory/RCS/script,v
mv script project-directory
cd project-directory
git init
~/src/rcs-fast-export/rcs-fast-export.rb script | git fast-import && git reset

This of course presumes you've cloned rcs-fast-export into a subdirectory of your ~/src directory, which you'd do with the following commands:

cd ~/src
git clone https://github.com/Oblomov/rcs-fast-export.git

Once you've imported your history, git log and all other sensible git commands will work as expected.

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16Apr/140

Revisiting an old idea

Way back when, my mission was to post actual new ideas to this blog.

One of those ideas, back in November of 2007, was a slow cooker with a PID controller for temperature.

I just wanted to point out that the wide range of home sous vide cookers that emerged last year and looks to be accelerating this year is the natural evolution of my idea.

I haven't made the leap yet, but I'm thinking very seriously about it.

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15Apr/140

Penumbra eMag: A Luncheon Date with Jon Lasser

In the run-up to my story, "The Saviors," appearing in Penumbra's May Issue, I appear in their blog today.

In the post, I answer the question, what famous author would I most like to share lunch with?

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13Apr/141

Upcoming Publication: Penumbra’s May issue

Cover of the Penumbra May 2014 issue

As you can see from the picture, a story of mine is being published in the May 2014 issue of Penumbra, their superhero issue.

It's a very small story, but I'm proud of it, and it's my first paid fiction publication. It's hard to explain how excited I am to have finally "broken in" to the SFF market. I hope everyone's going to read it!

(Also, who's going to be at Norwescon 37 next weekend? I hope to see you there!)

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