The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

An E-Book Reader

A small break from more serious posts. I’m the sorta guy who takes a book almost everywhere. When I was younger I’d grab a paperback and read it while walking wherever I was going. I certainly never get on a bus, train, or plane without a book, and often multiple books.

And as for classes at school and university, well most of them are about an 80 percent waste time to anyone who’s done the reading so I usually bring a book as well. (To this day, I still loathe people who don’t do the reading, so that the professor thinks they should recapitulate it and wastes everyone else’s time. Also, profs: Don’t do that!)

So, anyway, yes, normal books are nicer than e-books, and most e-book formats which handle footnotes or text boxes or images badly (well, all formats, but maybe I’ve missed something), so if it’s a book where those matter, a print version is important.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

All that said, buying a good e-book reader, ummmm, changed my life? I hate using that phrase about a consumer purchase, but the fact is that the books are cheaper and I can buy them so much more easily that it’s vastly increased how many books I read.

I got out of the habit of reading tons of books with the rise of the internet. The problem with that is that while the internet is nice in many ways as long as you don’t become addicted to social media, reading online articles is not the same as reading books. It cannot substitute in terms of actual learning or enjoyment.

I had already started a move back to books before I bought an e-reader, but the ease of it ramped it to the point where, today, I’m back to teen rates of reading at least a book a day, and often two or three. (Four or five happen occasionally.)

Cheaper, more convenient, and the e-reader is small enough that I can stick it in a large pocket. And when I finish one book, there’s always another.

Anyway, e-readers: One of the few things I really like about the late telecom revolution. (As much as I love the internet and have made much of my living on it for two decades now, I’m not sold that it’s overall a good thing and I don’t like smartphones much at all, even though I have one.)

(Oh yeah. E-readers have been used to hurt the publishing industry. Absolutely. But that’s a policy matter and could be fixed with policy.

What pieces of tech have actually made your life better?


Another Biden Problem


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – June 22, 2019


  1. Ray Blaak

    I love my Kobo.

    I had always loved reading scifi paperbacks, and had also fallen off of reading due to the internet, kids, work pressures.

    My wife got some professional enhancement money, wanted to try out an E-Reader for her academic books. We chose a Kobo due to its Epub support.

    She hated it, likes only actual books.

    I decided to try it, deliberately read a whole novel through to get the proper experience.

    I loved it. Text is always nice and sharp, pages do not turn yellow, the E-Ink is easy on the eyes just like paper, I can hold it effortlessly in one hand, no more hand/thumb cramps, battery lasts a couple of weeks.

    I loved being able to buy a new book at any time using the built-in Wifi connection to the Kobo store.

    I can sideload any EPub so I am not restricted to just that store. I can even convert Amazon MOBI ebooks, although that is more tedious.

    A few years later, my reader has a nice backlight for reading at night, and I have hundreds of books on it.

    Its gotten to the point where if I want to read an old paperback off of my shelf I will actually buy the ebook instead, since I now dislike the paperback experience so much.

    Note that E-Readers are only good at one thing: reading text novels. They are terrible at anything else, anything that requires a proper tablet. Maybe someday they will be good at colour comics, but not quite yet.

    As for publishers dying, they have been ripping off authors for years. With ebooks the story is better for authors, at least in theory, allowing them to have better control and a bigger piece of the pie. Just google “self publishing vs traditional” to get a better sense of the tradeoffs.

    Nevertheless I do feel regret over those old book stores I used to hang out at, shopping for books certainly is more enjoyable in an actual store.

  2. Kris

    I used an e-reader for several years. I agree they are handy for travel, and you can take hundreds of books with you without having to decide what to read beforehand. But I don’t like that I have trouble finding previously-read passages that relate to something new I’ve just read and didn’t know were important and required highlighting at the time I read them. I also can’t dog-ear the bottom corner of pages I want to quote from or research further. Somehow, paperbacks fit the “map” of the content I create in my head, and (so far) the e-reader doesn’t.

    I do wish someone would invent (or tell me about) a searchable database so you can use to search through thousands of articles on your computer by keyword or sets of keywords. When writing and trying to chase down a fact or source, or link together different approaches, it can become terribly time-consuming.

  3. bob mcmanus

    I live on my desktop, got a unearned bonus of about $2000 when first hit SS, bought a big state-of-art gamer (two synced video slots, actually built it for a grand with Win7; been two years now without trouble of any kind even though never turned off

    Foxit for pdf books, pdf my preference; Calibre for epub and mobi and most everything else;VLC for movies, but recently been using Amazon Prime;AIMP for music;software from libraries

    All free for most functionality; these have made my life infinitely pleasurable

  4. Stirling S Newberry

    A larger apartment to hold most of my books.

  5. Herman

    I honestly cannot think of any tech developed in the last 30 or 40 years that, on the whole, has made my life better. Sure, there has been an increase in general convenience with the late telecom revolution, but every good thing I can think of (easier access to information, the convenience of online shopping and faster communication with others) is just not that important in the grand scheme of things especially when compared to the huge downsides. The story of the last few decades has been big loss and small gain.

    This also applies to the economy. We now have an economy that gives people more entertainment and more consumer goods and convenience than ever before but cannot deliver jobs that pay a decent wage, give a sense of meaning or dignity or have any kind of stability. We now have hundreds of cable channels and streaming services but good luck affording an education or housing or health care.

    The best symbol of the modern era is an unemployed or underemployed person sitting in a dingy apartment eating fast food delivered by an equally poor gig worker and just wasting their life away watching Netflix or YouTube or playing video games or whatever electronic distractions that people have to keep them from going off the deep end. This is the state of affairs that UBI is meant to make permanent.

    I am sorry for getting dark and heavy in a lighter post but I feel strongly about how much damage tech has done to our lives. I guess if there is one thing I really like about modern technology it is modern medicine. Otherwise, I am not a fan of the last several decades of technological development and I even think that the impact of inventions like the airplane, the automobile and television were mostly negative in the long run.

  6. nihil obstet

    @Ray Blaak

    I just ordered a Kobo, the 8″ kind (Forma). I’ve had a 6″ Nook for years, but I didn’t like reading such a small box of text and then having to go to a new page. I liked only one of the fonts, and somewhat to my surprise, I found reading everything in the same font dreary — not something that would ever have occurred to me just thinking.

    All the reviews say the 8″ makes a huge difference in the reading experience. There’s not a local store that stocks them, so I ordered online, and am now slavering and drooling for it to arrive. There seems to be some disagreement on how good the Kobo is, so I am happy to read that you like it.

  7. Stirling S Newberry

    Off Topic:
    The “news” here in the US is filled end to end will the President’s PR stunt. The base loves it, which all that matters, apparently.

  8. Dan Helton

    What e-reader did you buy, Ian? I’m trying to get back to my teenage/early-20’s reading level too.

  9. Hugh

    I would describe myself as old tech. I don’t use the cloud or social media. I know people whose whole life is online. With today’s surveillance state you could track where they were, what they were doing, whom they were with, even what they were thinking minute by minute, for years. That’s not me. I like to keep my online and offline lives separate, and myself mostly offline.

    I got to thinking about all the resources we used to use on the net: the Senate and House sites to track roll call votes, what was said on the floor, even the text of bills. Then there were all the individual government sites: DOJ, DOD, the Fed, Treasury, Supreme Court opinions, as well as others like the BLS (jobs), BEA (GDP), NBER (recessions), CBO (budget), the GAO (reports), FRED and the Census. I still analyze some of the BLS data, but use the other stuff rarely. I do track the climate data reports like the IPCC, National Climate Assessment (NCA), IPBES, etc.

    I like to collect DRM free books. These of course tend to be older. There are sites like Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg Australia, fadedpage (Project Gutenberg Canada), all HTML and I think EPub, If you like French texts, there are Bibliothèque électronique du Québec (BEQ) and Ebooks libres et gratuits, never had much luck with Gallica. And then there is the huge Internet Archive, mostly image pdfs but also OCRs that you can prepare your own edition from, also audiobooks, a lot of pretty most everything.

    I also like paintings, especially seeing the whole trajectory of a painter and variety in a movement. Sites I have used include wikiart, wikimedia, and the Athenaeum, Wikimedia has many high quality images, including those from google arts and culture. I also used to use Mutualart but its downloaded images recently don’t open for me anymore.

  10. Colin Fletcher

    Sitting at anchor in my sailboat as I read your wondering of others\’ life-improving technology, my mind immediately lept to the electronic self-steering device I have for my tiller. It has changed singlehanding from a tedious, anxiety-filled endeavour into one that\’s relaxing, satisfying, and pleasant. With it I am no longer tethered to the helm, and underway can now do things like adjust the sails, make lunch, spread out charts, and lie on the foredeck with my e-reader.

  11. Ian Welsh

    I think paper books are a superior technology in almost all matters of readability and usability.

    But being able to carry an entire library with me is a huge deal, as is storage space. Over the course of my life I’ve had to get rid of literally thousands of books. It still pains me.

    Should have chosen richer parents and a good trust fund.

    Colin: good example.

  12. Ian Welsh

    I bought a kindle paperwhite. I had bought a kobo before that, but it broke almost immediately (and not due to any abuse on my part) and that turned me off.

  13. Marcus

    I missed the whole smartphone craze as I was mostly living in the woods between 2004-2013. I got my first iphone in 2016, and while it’s become distracting, it’s also a lifesaver in terms of the writing project I’ve been working on since then.

    Whenever I have an idea for my book I can just email it to myself, and all emails with the book’s subject line get sorted to an easy-to-search folder.

    Also, if I have a clear thought while running (which is the best place for me to work through a block,) I can just switch from my music to my voice recording program and dictate while running.

    As an extra bonus, Apple somehow knows how to compile a perfect smorgasbord of the Fox News/HuffPost pissing contest in the “Apple News” section, which is great bathroom reading, other than that Apple News constantly crashes on my 6 year old phone.

  14. Joan

    E-readers are great if you are an expat and anything in your native language would have to be shipped great distances, frequently transoceanic. Of course, if I can actually find it at a library or physical bookstore, I’ll go for that. I completely agree with needing a physical book for marking pages for further research, jumping around different sections, basically if I am trying to study something instead of just pleasure reading.

    I tried Kindle Unlimited, which I know is controversial, but it really worked out for leisure reading. The genre I prefer has a lot of KU/self-pub authors, and I was able to read 10-15 books in the free one-month trial, which amounted to less than a dollar per book. I canceled before it charged me, and plan to dive back in for another month once I have a list of 15 or more books to pursue. That method works better for me than just letting the monthly payment cycle through.

    I would say another technology that has made my life better is higher quality train travel. I get motion sick easily enough that I cannot handle older trains, so I appreciate the advances made in that area.

  15. nihil obstet

    A lot of the new car technology has helped me. According to all the polls, I am the only below-average driver in the U.S. I detest driving, and I’m bad at it (inferior depth perception) and also bad at maintaining a car. Unfortunately, it would be difficult for me not to drive. So — the car indicator lights are great. No more obsessing over whether my tires are adequately inflated. The automatic headlights mean I haven’t had to get someone to jump-start me after leaving lights on and draining the battery. I haven’t actually used the lane departure warnings, but it’s comforting to know they’re there. This may not be all that new in technology, but since I keep cars for upwards of twenty years, a new car is a real revelation to me.

  16. Olivier

    Washing machines! That’s probably not what you had in mind but they’re not that old and they haven’t become ubiquitous until recently.

  17. Willy

    There are more speedy options for finding that long lost anything. For example with music, back in the old days one had to embarrass themselves mouthing a beatbox riff hoping the record salesman could guess what you were looking for. Now that oldie can be found safely in private, with just a few clues.

  18. Don Quijote

    TIVO, it makes TV watchable, you can record any show you want, watch it when you want and more importantly skip the commercials.

  19. Stormcrow

    Actually, I’ve found ebooks to be one of the nicest things technology has served up so far. They’ve enabled me to access far more of the sort of information I find useful than I could possibly have done with print.

    Furthermore, they’re truly portable. You can stuff a 50,000 volume library on a memory card smaller than a fingernail.

    The joker in the deck, is that the ebook publishing industry is still in diapers.

    Consider the formats. Most tech publishers run out titles on PDF, EPUB, and MOBI. That last format is a godforsaken mess, but it’s also a decade and a half old. When they screw up a PDF or an EPUB, you have some recourse if you have editing tools and a bit of knowledge. But MOBI is too primitive a format; you cannot meaningfully edit one.

    Then there are the readers. Adobe Reader was the reader of choice for PDFs, before Adobe started wrecking it. Until and unless a really capable open source reader surfaces, my alternate reader is now version 5 of Nitro Reader.

    EPUBs are even worse, because Adobe has also completely failed to maintain Adobe Digital Editions. Right now, my recourse is a fork of Firefox prior to “Firefox Quantum”, and the EPUBReader extension.

    And if you don’t have Windows + Mobipocket Reader 6.2, the only way you can really use a MOBI (other than Kindle, which I loathe and refuse to use) is to first convert it to another format that you do have software for.

    Publishers are another headache. The various smaller university presses do decent jobs. But just about every “name” publisher out there manages to miss something. Cambridge University Press can, and often does, run up a PDF with the best legibility, navigational tools, and internal formatting that I’ve ever seen. Then they put an ugly low-resolution pixelated cover on the thing. Chapman & Hall excised the indices from its PDFs, up until the last two years or so. O’Reilly Media doesn’t bother with inline tables of contents in its EPUBs. And so on.

    Most of these issues can be addressed by the user, with tools and time. But that simply re-iterates the point that the vendor failed to do a fully competent job.

    This industry isn’t even close to mature.

  20. Electric pressure cookers. I discovered them years ago when I was looking for something to prevent my mother-in-law from burning the house down (she has a habit of turning on the stove and leaving the room). I quickly became an evangelist: steel-cut oats (put in at night and timed to be ready in the morning), yogurt (I couldn’t be bothered to use my previous yogurt machine), rice, reconstituting dried beans (avoiding plastic can linings), and a handful of recipes. My mother-in-law uses hers all the time too, with no fires yet.

    Also, an induction stove. I’m impatient; with the slow response time of a regular stove I routinely burned things, walked away when I shouldn’t have, and generally didn’t enjoy cooking. With induction, I cook better food and enjoy doing it.

    Podcasts are nice, but I could happily live without smart phones. Tablets are good for RPG PDFs, so have revolutionized that industry, but it’s not that important. I write software, but even the mobility of laptops isn’t necessary. But food is the ritual that brings the family together every day. Just about anything that enhances that experience (good pots, electronic thermometer, etc.) is worthwhile.

    I’ll also give a nod to the vim editor. It seems cryptic and perverse at first, but it makes word processors feel like stone tools when it comes to writing and editing text. Working with words and paragraphs as proper units for every operation, without ever touching the mouse, makes so much sense. Too bad it’s basically its own parallel universe from the dumbed-down mainstream, so I’m not using it now, for example.

    Finally, and probably most important, dense transit-oriented development around frequent automated high-speed rail and well-structured bus service. A local concentration of residences, shops, services and recreation allows my family to drive less and less in the nightmare that is Metro Vancouver traffic. If not for aged parents, we really could live without a car.

  21. I also nominate the private automobile as the worst technology of all time.

    Some people might argue that we never should have stopped hunting and gathering, making agriculture the worst; and there are a number of technologies that could be extremely bad in the future. But setting agriculture aside, and looking only at effects so far, the car: kills huge numbers of people; was responsible for brain damage and a major crime wave; led to racist reactionary politics; is the basis for a sprawling consumer lifestyle that has destroyed communities and is gobbling the planet; is the end-point of resource extraction justifying many wars; and is a key component of an economy that is destroying the oceans, the climate, and extinguishing species.

    Maybe the car didn’t have to be this way, but it is. I can’t think of a better candidate for worst technology.

  22. Ian Welsh

    Washing machines are brilliant, but not really part of this tech revolution.

    In fact, I agree with (someone else whose name I forget) that washing machines are one of the most important and emancipatory technologies in history.

    Though I just say, for things that don’t actually need digital, I prefer analog. That includes all appliances.

  23. Herman


    I think you might be thinking of economist Ha-Joon Chang. One of his more famous arguments is that the washing machine was a more important invention than the Internet because it and other household appliances freed many women from household work and enabled more women to enter the workforce and gave them a stronger bargaining position in the household.

  24. Ray Blaak

    @nihil obstet

    I am currently using a Kobo Aura H2O (and I will never test any waterproof abilities!).

    This is my 3rd or 4th device. A few of them were hardware failure replacements, a few were feature upgrades.

    I think the device is now at the point where I in theory never need to upgrade again: holds plenty of books, the E-Ink resolution is just great, page turns are snappy, nice backlight for that late night reading, online store integration is excellent.

    It looks like I have a 6″ device, I am fine with that for novels. It turns out there are plenty of fonts on it, although it has never occurred to me to care about varying them.

    I find the Kobo ecosystem well managed, the book store keeps up well with Amazon, at least for the novels I seem to care about. The devices have been upgraded nicely, it looks like they seem to care about the reader experience and doing a good job.

    I am loyal until if and when they eventually fuck up.

    Also “Kobo” is the coolest name, being an anagram of “Book”.

    The only think I can think of that would make me upgrade is if they can do a good color E-Ink experience for e-comics.

  25. RobotPliers

    Having a computer at my desk at work transforms a boring, often slack job into one where I can read, write, program, or do other activities while not attracting the attention of my boss or less sympathetic co-workers. Without a computer I’d probably still be able to write and maybe read a bit while looking busy, but it would be riskier and slower.

    As long as I stay off social media… I feel notably worse on days when I spend too much time there. Huge swathes of the internet are just bad for me.


    In fact, I agree with (someone else whose name I forget) that washing machines are one of the most important and emancipatory technologies in history.

    A strong argument can be made that while washing machines may have liberated women in one way, the system found other ways in which to keep them, and all the masses, incarcerated and in bondage.

    Technology, in general, promised to set people free and yet people simply have no time for anything these days, not even time to think. Technology itself has become the chains that bind us. At least while washing my clothes on the washboard or down by the river, my mind could wander, and wonder, freely rather than having to answer every second of every day to the electronic master that rules us all.


    Civilization, if nothing else, is about the chains that bind us and there are so many chains of various shapes, sizes and colors. Just when you think you’ve slipped one set of chains, another set is there to make sure you don’t escape. There’s no way out.

    Technology Is Destroying Our Inner Lives

    Two years ago, I started using the Kindle app on my iPad to read those big heavy biographies and novels that I had been lugging around the world. I still wasn’t using it to read books I might reference in my writing, but nonetheless I was glad to discover, by chance, the underline function. While immersed in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, underlining as I read, I was completely unnerved when a message popped up to announce: “You are the 123rd user to underline this same passage.”

    Shocked by this intrusion, I threw the iPad onto the bed and nearly out the window. A sickening feeling came over me. Then I became afraid. Someone was reading over my shoulder. Not a person, but a Program, calculating what I found most important in the text. Was I supposed to feel validated (or banal) to learn that a passage I noted many others also liked? Or was this data only for some marketing strategy?

    The idea of surveillance, in the abstract, has not bothered me as much as it perhaps should. I have acclimated to the notion that everything we do is findable, knowable and marketable—forever—except, I believed, our deepest thoughts, which is why the intrusion on my contemplative reading affected me so profoundly. Reading is my refuge from the world, and now it too had been invaded.

  28. nihil obstet

    On washing machines as emancipatory — I read once about a foreign service wife returning home on her husband’s retirement. Her old friends showed her what had become available in the home during her years abroad in third world countries, as labor saving devices. She simply sniffed, “The best labor saving device is a servant.” I’m a big fan of replacing human muscle and time with machines, but automation does raise questions about jobs and access to money.

    On digital devices — I like the cameras. You can keep trying to get the picture you want, and you know what you have. The use of smartphone cameras have become valuable in providing witness to public events.

  29. Creigh Gordon

    A lot of the advantages of an e-reader apply to music. I own possibly 1000 CDs, which is roughly 9 cubic feet. I can put all that music on a thumb drive which I can carry anywhere. I can find any song instantly. Again, an inferior medium, but the convenience is really hard to argue with.

  30. Ian Welsh

    Hah. I’ve had servants, and I’ve had machines, and yes, servants are superior.

    But they require, well, servants. Sometimes/someplaces that’s the best that can be done. When I was in Bangladesh, people really wanted to be the servants of ex-pats, and we hired 4, and that was a GOOD thing.

    But it was not a good thing that it was a good thing.

  31. A1

    While I understand the readership dislikes automobiles but in car GPS is fantastic. Better than maps, can be used by one person, is definitely a must if travelling to parts unknown. Especially handy if using busy convoluted interstates. While I like maps reading and understanding maps can be challenging. The GPS are also typically updated more often than maps. The only place a map is better is an overview in a glance, but for actual details like specific lanes GPS wins.

    The GPS watch is also great for exercise times and distance.

  32. My new startup is a service wherein someone comes to your house, scans all your books for you, then burns them.

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