December 14th, 2010

Dual Screening

Once upon a time, the only screens available were CRTs and they were expensive. Well, assuming you don't count projectors.

For the first several years of my life, there was a single, small black and white TV in the house. It's amazing, in retrospect, how enthralled I could get watching TV on it. There was a production of Taming of the Shrew, in particular, with minimalist props (so people using hobby horses for the travel scenes, type of thing) that I was completely riveted by in the late 1970s. When we got a color TV, the black and white went upstairs, and again, I continued to be willing to watch it. Lots and lots of after school Batman was tremendously exciting -- not having to compete with the adults for the TV was heaven, altho there were still restrictions on what we could watch. One of my first significant garage sale purchases when I had babysitting money was $20 on a "portable" black and white TV, which had a completely tiny screen. When I got my first Real Job (minimum wage at a movie theater), I got a larger, but still very small screen, RCA color TV (and a VCR). I think I may still have the check registers around with the purchases logged. That was back when Fred Meyer would take a check, and I did not yet have a mastercard or visa.

When I was in college, the first Trinitrons came out [<-- ETA: R. points out that Trinitrons have been around longer than I have been alive, and his family had one when I was younger than our son is now. I'm not sure what I'm remembering. He thinks maybe the early XBRs.], and they were the object of unending lust on the part of geeky people like my friends and, honestly, me. They were fabulously expensive (IIRC, $5K or so) and very beautiful. I was doing almost all my coursework on DEC terminals: green text on a black background. There were some workstations around, and when I got out of college, I had one of each of my very own in my cubicle at work.

Windowing systems on computers got around the need for multiple screens to accomplish work as a programmer. Even the DEC terminals supported some kind of windowing system (I know, you're thinking, you are _so_ making that up, but I'm not, and I got really good at switching between the layered windows), and the workstations had a setup recognizable to anyone using a PC or Mac. None of this was new to me in college, since I'd been using the early Macs in high school to do layout for the school's literary arts magazine. It was _so_ nice to not have to deal with lightboxes, but in practice, we had to use the lightboxes anyway for anything involving an image.

I mention all this for a couple reasons. First, I was never one of those people who felt compelled, to have multiple monitors all set up to do debugging. Not my style. (The one exception was when I was trying to isolate a bug that had an impact on the windowing system. A severe impact.) Second, my son can manage to keep 2 iPads busy, and still find time to nag the adults in the room to put something on the TV and to put the iPod in the boombox back on Bottle of Sunshine. Really, this is all about personality.

And third, until people get source linkages right, I _am_ going to be dual screening scholarly works. Which will be the subject of the next post.

How to Read a Book

Years ago, I read a book with that title. It was a book that the authors had clearly expended a lot of careful thought on and which I took a lot of care to understand. Also, really asinine. But that's neither here nor there.

There's a kind of book I like to read. It is non-fiction, but not the "fun" non-fiction, where the author includes themselves in the story, doing research, doing interviews, contemplating the subject matter, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. Certainly not the wacky non-fiction where the author is the subject, engaging in some kind of year long insanity like trying to reduce their environmental impact to zero or whatever. No, the non-fiction I am referring to here is often called a "monograph". You can recognize a "monograph" in several ways. First, the subject matter is very narrow, and the writing style is formal? Stilted? Certainly scholarly. None of this, and then I got lost trying to find this guy's basement office where he attempts to measure psychic presence stuff. Second, the publisher is a university press, or, conceivably, an scholarly imprint of a trade press. Third, the main text of the book is relatively short (on the order of 200 pages), and endnotes (hopefully at the very end, and not at the end of each chapter) plus things like a bibliography and index constitute a third of the book. There may be a few pictures, but they probably aren't in color. The cover matter (cover art, title fonts, description of the book and author) is restrained and probably doesn't include any review matter along the lines of, gosh, wow, you really MUST read this fantastic book right now it's so compelling. (Altho if a university press could get someone plausible to say that about the book, they would probably put that on the cover. Of course, they have their own sense of who is plausible as a reviewer.)

I love this stuff. I can't read that much of it (I need my trashy, narrative thrusty, ahem, genre fiction in between, along with the cotton candy kind of narrative non fiction), but it's the entree of my reading meals. You _can_ just read an appetizer and then have dessert, but it's not the same.

Some monographs read just fine ignoring the endnotes: I'm familiar enough with what they're talking about that I know what those notes are probably referring to. I'm here for the argument, not the information. Some monographs I _have_ to read the endnotes, because portions of the argument are developed in the endnotes (I disapprove of this). Some monographs _I_ have to read the endnotes, because I'm not familiar with the information and thus can't follow the argument without doing a little side research along the way. The strategy for a parallel read (text and notes) is to have a finger and/or bookmark in the text and in the sources. That's a lot of work, tho, so I prefer when the book supports losing and refinding my place in the notes. Ideally, that's by printing at the top of each and every page in the notes (which are at the END OF THE VOLUME, not buried in arbitrary spots throughout the book) which pages the notes are referring back to. That also lets you read the notes, and go read the text as secondary (which, believe it or not, is a great strategy in some monographs).

As near as I can tell, all major e-reading file types support linkages between the number in the text and the note it is referring to, generally in the form of an anchor tag and target. Unfortunately, as you can probably imagine, manually creating all those tags and targets is a painful and thankless task, so most publishers are not doing it. While it is quite possible to create software that would support creating these linkages in an easier way, it is probably not possible to create software to do it fully automagically (well, actually it probably is, but writing an expert system for these purposes does not sound remunerative or even personally rewarding, even to me, and I doubt you could even communicate the requirements to most software engineers. And then people would persist in complaining about all the weird errors it committed in books with, say, lots of tables or quantitative anything in the text). I'm not holding out any hope that this problem gets fixed soon, as a general rule, certainly not for backlist titles that are autoconverted.

I have been doing some experimenting with bookmarks, but advancing bookmarks in the sources is a pain in the neck in person with fingers; doing it using the bookmarking facilities in kindle and elsewhere is worse. And so, I have resorted to Dual Screening.

I started by looking at the book in Adobe Digital Editions. It is pretty, but longform reading on an active screen is really tough for me. I can do it, but it gives me a headache, and the more I do it, the worse that headache gets until it is a migraine. No fun. When I got the kindle edition, that was better, and I used Adobe Digital Editions to be a bookmark in the sources. That was nice, but awkward. It works okay sitting in my chair, but not lying in the bed. Once I got Bluefire up and running and the kids were no longer competing for the iPads, I had the chance to experiment with the Sources in Bluefire and the text on the kindle. This worked great, altho I personally would probably prefer two kindles. In this particular instance, that would require me asking the publisher to resend the kindle text to a second kindle (since it was going via the email link -- it's a Netgalley thing), which seemed like more hassle than it was worth.

Here's the executive summary for anyone who has read this far:

(1) There's nothing about this that scholars can't adapt to. The laptop + kindle solution also supports note taking and side research really effectively. I expect this one to be the default, altho it does trap you back at a surface or at least in a chair.

(2) E-editions which make you pay for every copy SUCK. Having figured out how to do this, any scholarly text that didn't let me have enough copies to at least dual screen would be a scholarly text I would avoid.

(3) Endnote linkages matter a lot less than I thought they would.

(4) I can suddenly see a purpose for headers (altho not footers) for chunks of a file. Each section of the notes, say, could be marked off by chapter, with a header that indicated the chapter. This would allow reflow, but let a scholar "flip" through the notes to the spot they wanted much faster than looking painstakingly for the breaks with the headings.

(5) None of this addresses the basic problem of citation caused by reflow and the lack of stable pagination that is currently pushing the academic world towards pdfs. I don't, personally, see the problem: cite the kindle edition and the location number and call it good. Page numbers aren't (necessarily) stable from hardcover to paperback or across editions anyway (altho to be fair, they usually are stable on the hc/pb pair of a monograph from a university press).