How I turned my lovely book into more useful, lovely ebook

Fiona bought me a few books for Christmas and one of them was more perfect than the others. This beauty.

It’s a pretty dense academic text on, as the title implies, digital photography and how a century of thinking about analogue photography has been challenged by the last decade or so. And unlike so much guff spouted by the photographic and artistic world about digital photography it seems, on first browse, to be relatively in tune with my interests and prejudices, while challenging them in useful ways.

But there’s a problem.

For some reason, the publisher, Routledge, has decided that the book should be set in a really tiny type, presumably because the words are really important and require extra effort to read. As someone who has a few mild dyslexic issues with comprehending large blocks of text, this is not optimal for a book that promises to have large blocks of text requiring careful comprehension. For example, on page 44:

As a product of the technological age, photography occupies a privileged place within the Cartesian representational schema, for it is an image the truthfulness of which is underwritten by the scientific procedure that created it. By situating visual representation within a framework of empirical knowledge supported by automatism on the one hand, and by logical and rational use of light, optics and chemistry on the other, photography has been framed as an offshoot of objectivity and empiricism.

Now, I understand that, but I find it hard to comprehend that sort of thing at whatever tiny point size Routledge dictate. So it’s in my interests to hack the book.

I need the the text in an electronic format that I can read on a computer screen.  In short, I need an ebook. 

As an academic text with limited audience the book sells for £27, which is reasonable given the authors need to get paid. But because the cost is born by the authors and not the printers and booksellers (trade discounts for academic books are notoriously small) the eBook is a similar price so buying both would cost £50.  Which is kinda silly. 

Because book publishers haven’t figured out the “download code with physical purchase” thing yet, and because when they do they have a tendency to fuck it up (a DRM-free eBook I bought last year had a copyright warning with my name encoded at the end of every chapter, like I was some kind of child) I need to go elsewhere to get my digital copy.

You might thing getting illegal downloads of copyrighted material would require some kind of “darknet” hackery, but in fact a simple Google search with usually do. Pop in the title of the thing you want and the format you require it in and put aside, ooh, 5 minutes to sift through the spam. The chances are you’ll find it. On Google.

Eventually I found a link to download a PDF. Now, a PDF is either as useless as the book or just a step towards a useful file. It all depends on what kind of PDF it is.

If the PDF is simply a bunch of scans or photographs of the book text then it’s of no use. But if it’s a “true” PDF generated from the text itself then we’re getting somewhere. You can tell by trying to highlight the text. If you can, then you’re good to go.

The ease of getting text out of a PDF also depends on how it’s formatted, or rather how much formatting there is. If there’s a lot of fancy layouts and columns then you’re in trouble, as anyone who’s tried copying something from a PDF timetable will attest. But if it’s a standard flowing document where one line follows another then you’re fine. All you need to do is extract the text while retaining as much stylistic formatting as possible.

Even if you plan to avoid it like the plague, MS Word is the standard editor for formatted text so it makes sense to search for that. I found this tutorial on MacWorld where the ultimate aim is Word but the half-way point is an RTF file, which is perfect. RTF is Rich Text Format, a rarely used format which is just good enough for word processing and compatible with almost everything. This bit is Mac only but I’m sure Windows and Linux have similar things. In short, you use Automator.

Set this up, press Play, select the PDF and, boom, you’ve got a Rich Text version.

It’s important to remember that, while the conversion will do its best, it will rely on cues from the original document. If they’ve gone for some wacky cool formatting (which is another good reason to avoid the print and go digital) it may not map to standard document markup. But if there’s a logic to the layout you should find a nice hierarchical flow from Title to Headlines to Body.

(One downside of this process is all images are stripped out. This isn’t a huge problem for an academic text but they can be put back in later with a bit of work.)

Now, if you’re simply interested in the raw text you can stop here, or at least start tidying up the copy here. But I want an ePub file, one which works with book readers on my iPad and other mobile computing devices. So I’m turning to a slightly more powerful editor than Textedit, one which will allow me to export to ePub, in this case Apple’s Pages which, while not the most powerful editor causes less headaches than Word or OpenBloodyOffice.

The first thing to do is to deal with cruft from the PDF conversion. Here’s some of what I had to deal with.

  • Section titles not marked up correctly. (Solution: manually select and mark up using correct Paragraph Styles.)
  • Body text in various fonts and sizes. (Solution: manually select whole section and mark up as Body.)
  • Header and footer text appearing mid-flow. (Solution: manual deletion)
  • Hyphenation of words which shouldn’t be hyphenated. (Solution: search and replace.)
  • No line space between paragraphs. (Solution: search and replace, then manually remove the excess.) 
  • Blockquote indentation vanished. (Solution: manually replace.)
  • Italics vanished. (Solution: hell, I can deal without them.)

As mentioned, the images didn’t survive the conversion but in this case they weren’t critical so I ignored them. If they were I would have simply taken a screenshot of the PDF, cropped it to size and dragged it into the editor. Simple.

All in all the tidying of this 200 page book took about a hour. Was it worth it? I think so, because while I was working on the book I was also skim-reading it. I now have a pretty good general sense of what the sections of the book are about and know how to approach it.

This idea of comprehending something by working on it, no matter how mundane the work, is something I highly recommend. It’s no substitute for deep study but as a first pass it does wonders, particularly if you’re daunted by the thing in hand.

Now all I needed to do was export the document as an ePub and check it out in iBooks (a good default app for checking formatting, if not the best reader).

And there you have it. An electronic version of a book I own which I can now read enjoy and learn from without struggle. The book is a lovely object, and I’m glad I was gifted it as I wouldn’t have considered downloading the PDF and going through this process if I hadn’t had it in my hands, but I’m also glad I have the knowledge and wherewithall to create a digital copy. And now you do too.

Remember kids, always try and pay the people who make stuff you use, no matter how hard they make it to give them money.

Bye YouTube

Yesterday I made a decision to never post anything to YouTube again. It wasn’t a particularly hard decision as I don’t post much there anyway, but it did mean I had to finally pay £50 for a Vimeo Pro subscription to get over the 500MB/month limit of the free account. 

YouTube was always a handy fallback. You can throw anything at it at any size and it’ll host it for free, leading one to reasonably ask what the point of a Vimeo (or other) account was other than ethics, and ethics only go so far when you’re trying to function in an unethical world. 

So why I have a quit YouTube? Simply put, the experience of watching stuff on there has become horrible. The adverts are excessive and intrusive and the culture of hawking for subscriptions and the like through annotations and post-rolls is dispiriting. I appreciate it’s a ad-funded service and many people make a living from increasing their audience, but it’s just not a nice place to be. Oh, and that’s not to mention how the whole “discovery” side of YouTube has been totally colonised by mainstream media obsessions making a mockery of its self-publishing roots. And the excessive copyright infringement patrols. And the fact that if I were to fall foul of some arbitrary infringement I could have my entire Google account suspended, including Gmail, which would be a fucking disaster. And loads of other things which are important but not as important as the actual experience.

I simply don’t want people who look at my videos to have to plough through all that nonsense to see them. So I’m going with Vimeo 100%. 

(Other video hosting companies are available. I think.)

The Certainty Of Middle Age

In the last couple of years, since I turned 40 really, the world has begun to make more and more sense to me. And I’m really not sure what to make of this. 

While memory is an incoherent fiction told by the brain to contextualise the present, I do remember life not making much sense in my 20s and 30s. Life was just a long chain of assumptions and refutations, small piles of certainty quickly demolished by brutal facts as experience marched on. 

And this was a good thing. I was learning, not just new things but how to think about things. Which is why this recent development is disconcerting me.

While I’m certainly not right about everything and have plenty to learn, I’m finding my knowledge has become more iterative. Rather that rejecting a belief or assumption I feel I am building on it, improving it, reinforcing it. 

This feels good because the mental and intellectual platform on which I’m working is stronger and can take me to different places. But it also feels wrong. 

What if my ability to self-criticise is failing? What if I’m becoming complacent? What if this strengthening of my ideas and ideals means I’m less open to new ideas and new challenges? What if the foundation for my bigger, stronger mental framework isn’t as solid as I think?

I am now fully into middle age, which is when humans get stuck in their ways, conservative with the small c. When we fear change and get stuck in our ways, longing for a past when the world made sense. Except the world makes more sense to me now that back in the day. Back in the day is was… brrr! I hate to think! 

I just got married, of course, which is something you’re “supposed” to do in your 20s. Maybe I’m flush with a delayed confidence of youth? Maybe I’m actually thinking like a young person, nimbly stacking up the ideas and building a mental world? 

I genuinely don’t know. But it’s fun, so I’m happy not knowing. 

Bring on the thinks. 

Tools to help you do vs tools to do for you

Google’s Inbox is spreading around my ‘sphere. I haven’t bothered asking for an “invite” because I don’t need it. I’ve mastered my email, ironically though using tools in the Gmail web-app. So I don’t need Google’s algorithms to help me sort my unreads. I don’t have any unreads. 

I don’t say that to boast, like I’ve achieved some herculean feat. It’s not that hard really. I just stay on top of it in a GTD-lite kinda way: delete / mark-read / reply / flag for later. And I only do that a few times a day. Maybe I’ll write about it in more detail later because a shocking number of people I know don’t have control over their inboxes and don’t seem to realise how easy it is to get control. 

You certainly don’t need this Google Inbox nonsense.

Google Inbox is interesting, though. It’s another recent example of the big tech companies providing tools and services which let the user off the hook rather than assisting them in a task. 

Facebook’s News Feed is the classic example. It defaults to the stories Facebook’s algorithm thinks are most relevant and you have to actively select “most recent” if you want to see everything in chronological order, as the gods of blogging intended. (Caveat – I closed my Facebook account a few months ago so this may have changed.) Twitter are talking about doing a similar thing, to help users find relevant tweets rather than the chaotic stream they’ve subscribed to. 

The reasoning for doing this is the raw stream is too much. Having been encouraged to follow and subscribe and friend indiscriminately users of these services are overwhelmed and fear missing out. So it’s in their interest that the services do all the hard work and curate a manageable platter of content to consume. 

That feels like a retrograde step to me. It feels like television, or newspapers. Trust Aunty BBC. Murdoch knows best.

Fuck that shit. 

Online tools have undergone a subtle shift over the last decade from tools which help us manage our lives to tools which relieve us of that burden. With a decade of iterations behind it Google’s Gmail is a good illustration of this.  

It started as a new way to approach the inbox. Rather than laboriously processing your inbox into folders and such you simply searched a single archive. I immediately loved this approach and have lived in the Gmail web-app ever since. 

The first major innovation I remember was the Priority Inbox. This took the Spam filter technology and reversed it. People you emailed a lot, or who fit other criteria, would appear at the top of the page. Other stuff would be listed below. It’s a bit like having two in-trays – important and everything else, and usually “everything else” is bacn which can be marked read and archived for future reference.

Priority Inbox is how I do my email and I can’t imagine not having it. It uses Google’s massive computing power to help me manage my email, but it leaves me in control. 

But that wasn’t good enough, it seems. Google then introduced what is now the Default inbox where your email is split into five categories: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums. These seem to be defined by where they’re coming from rather than whether you actively engage with them or what their subject matter is. So when I set up a Mailchimp mailing list for our wedding guests to make things easier for me (it’s a tool I use for Photo School so I know it well) a lot of those relatively personal emails which everybody receiving would probably consider “important” wound up in the Promotions tab. I doubt anyone actively checks their Promotions tab. 

The frustrating thing is, Gmail has all the tools in place to set up your own tabs based on you needs. Want to automatically move notifications from Twitter and Facebook out of the inbox into a folder? Set up a search filter. It’s piss easy. But I guess people didn’t know how easy it was. 

Powerful tech companies like Google and Facebook had a choice. They could either educate their users to use tools to empower themselves, or they could turn their users into dumb content-consumers.

I wonder which one the advertisers prefer? 

The Mac Finder’s new face is wrong and I don’t like it

It’s Mac OSX update day today and while there’s some good stuff in there (and, more importantly, no terribly ill-concieved stuff) theres also a major visual overhaul in this that is called Yosemite. Which, since we’re visual creatures, means everything is wrong. At least for a few days until we don’t notice it anymore.

But there is one thing I can see I’m going to have trouble with. The icon for the Finder (which, for non-Mac users, is the catchall term for the file system). Here’s the old one and the new one next to each other:

It was only when I saw this comparison that I realised what was wrong. They both show the same thing – a face that is actually two faces, one in profile in front of the other. But the old one is an abstraction. It could be a faces or it could just be some geometric lines. The two blues are much softer too. It feels like something that has accidentally formed a face, or two faces.

The new icon is definitely a face. Even the old duck-rabbit trick of the two faces has been softened to push forward the smiley. As chum Helen said, “I feel like it’s laughing at me”. The old icon wasn’t doing anything at you. It was just there.

Humans love faces. We see them everywhere, which is why the old icon works so well. It can be a subtle arrangement of lines and colours and we’ll still see a the face. But the new icon is a smiley face, no question about it.

Considering this is supposed to represent the file system and not the Mac as a whole, it does feel a little odd that the personality thing should be emphasised. The Smiley face was once the computer itself. Now it’s the directory structure.

Simple cartoon faces get meanings attached to them, and that meaning can be very subtle and nuanced. If you don’t believe me look at these collections of simple lines:

What’s interesting about those two is when I was searching for examples I came across a lot of fan art by people trying to copy the originals and, for the most part, it stood out a mile. Not because they were bad but because even the slightest variance in the lines can dramatically change the meaning we attach to the face.

Using a face to represent something, especially something abstract like a file system, is fraught with danger. Faces are important to us. We trust people based on their faces. We go to war with people based on their faces. We honestly believe that we can tell if someone is telling the truth by looking into their eyes, which is palpably nonsense but that’s how important faces are to us.

Before today I could pretend the Finder icon wasn’t a face and treat it like every other colourful blob on the screen when I Cmd-Tabbed to another app. Now there’s this face, this representation of The Other, smiling at me.

Who are you? What do you want?

It’s very disturbing.