Life & much, much more

I’m sick and tired of this ebook nonsense.

No. I like ebooks. At least the concept. I would love to be able to read books in beautiful, standardised print similar to that produced by LaTeX, on any device, on any screensize, without any problems like math reflow, images, and usage of ridiculous fonts. Oh, and DRM too. But that’s hell in itself.

But no. Ebooks are a mess. A big, honkin’ ridiculous pile of crap. A prime example of what not to do when converting a traditional medium to an electronic form. Why? Because of a lack of standardisation. There is no single format, due to (in a nutshell) firms not being able to talk nicely to one another, swallow their egos and agree. So now we’re stuck with 27 major formats (yes, count them) and each with its own little annoyance. Oh, and that’s without considering potential DRM being slapped on each one of them.

It’s not just the electronic format that is a mess – it’s the physical formatting too. Ebooks can be related to the pre-CSS days of HTML, filled with non-semantic markup and tables stuck around everywhere. Anybody who has experienced the LaTeX nirvana that is "this is a title, not a bold, size 26, centered font" can relate to this – whilst creative freedom is good, computers unfortunately suck at this and are unable to tell what is title and what is paragraph. Thus I am stuck with some ebooks doing nonsense like linebreaking at 80 characters, not telling me when paragraphs start and end, and oh yes- every single plaintext ebook with its own flavour of markdown.

Terror doesn’t stop there. It continues by plaguing the now-necessary routine of converting from format to format whenever you want to transfer from one device to another. Every time you format, it is inevitable that more non-semantic formatting is lost. This, of course, only happens if you can even convert it in the first place, thanks to our lovely friend DRM.

So what is the solution? The solution is threefold – 1) force (taunts and physical violence may and shall be used) all publishers to agree to use a single, open format, such as EPUB, and make that format use TeX markup. Thus ebooks will be distributed in plaintext with attached and compressed images. 2) Force (see previous) all publishers to agree to use a single repository to prevent duplication of effort (another of my pet peeves, thank you for noticing) and spend time manually and painstakenly correctly converting existing ebooks to this new format and dumping it in the repo. 3) Fix all the kinks to allow this TeX-structured ebook source to be then rendered or converted to any other format (eg: LaTeX-generated PDFs cannot reflow) should the retailer or consumer want, even if it means the retailer wants to affix some sort of DRM at this stage. If you noticed, this follows a very much source (TeX-structured format) and binary (whatever you render the TeX into) way of distributing ebooks. This is a win-win situation. Anybody can buy from anywhere without fearing incompatibility. Retailers still can satisfy their craving for DRM. EBooks are semantically-marked and rendered beautifully. Even the plaintext looks beautiful.

It turns out I’m not the first to come up with an alike proposal. A firm known as River-Valley has been cashing in on this opportunity by reformatting ebooks for their rather technical clients, and have made significant progress towards this goal, unfortunately though this project has been stalled for quite some time apparently. A few hopefuls at the MobileRead Forums have tried to make a start, but again I think it just died from lack of love.

But recently I had a wondrous epiphany to solve my woes once and for all. It was the sheer audacity to go against one of my joys in life – standards and conventions. The idea can be summed up in the two froody words "why bother?" Life is too short to care if your music collection is made up of oggs and not flacs or mp3s. Life is too short to bother to ensure that your metatags are using the ampersand corrently in place of "and". Life is too short to fix everybody else’s stupid mistakes that don’t fit your mental specification. So if you see somebody walking down the street reading a book where every sentence stops sharp at 80 characters, give them a pat on the back and congratulate them on finally getting their priorities straight.

Somebody please fix Nepomuk to make it do something useful like automagically sort my collections for me.

End rant.

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On the nth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nx, (n-1)x, (n-2)x…

The start of the December holidays always begins with a guilt struck period of procrastination. Then you realise when you get back your exams are just around the corner and you panic. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t, it can’t. Uhoh, braindump in progress.

Anyhow, this Christmas I’m going to be hopping over to Canada to catch up with my relatives – first Toronto, then a bit in Quebec. Living on the other side of the world keeps our visits rare and therefore quite action-packed. Not to mention the complete change in weather – snow is a rarity in Malaysia.

Doing some Christmas shopping yielded a lovely blouse and camera (combined present) for my mum. Due to computer literacy of my other two family members I won’t yet reveal what I got the others. It also lost my faith in Malaysian technology awareness. It seems as though in some areas of technology Malaysia seems to be lagging far behind.

The first example was when I was searching for an ebook reader (mainly out of curiosity). I could only find one, at MPH (a popular bookstore), and it turned out that even they had just begun selling it. It had a hefty pricetag of 1200RM (~equal purchasing power of 1200USD in the US) and featured a lagtastic interface marketed by a guy who didn’t even know how to turn the thing on. Definitely not worth the price – it won’t be surprising if as a result MPH decides it was a bad decision and stops selling it.

The second came when I attempted to find out if the ZuneHD had come out in Malaysia yet – apparently not. The ZuneHD, for those that don’t already know, is a music player by Microsoft apparently rivaling the iPod. WIth an NVidia Tegra chipset, it’s supposed to be blazing fast and it’s interface is apparently a pleasure to use – not to mention an amazing screen. Of course like Apple, it’s locked into some proprietary Windows-only music management application which makes it useless to me. However I didn’t get to check it out as – yep, it doesn’t exist in Malaysia.

In unrelated news, I am now an idea moderator on the KDE forums. That means I take a peek at the upcoming killer-features KDE will have in the brainstorm section and approve them. The brainstorm is one of the best things any software should have – it gives users a voice – someplace where they can say "hey, could you create/improve this?". Other people can chip in and vote and ultimately a developer will pick one up for his next task. If you’re a KDE user, go and throw in your vote.

Merry Christmas everybody, I’ll hopefully have a real update in January.