I’m reading a PDF book

I posted a
couple of days ago
about my difficulties in reading PDF files
on the Nokia
. I also started a thread on the maemo-users
, which you can read here.

The upshot is that I discovered that although the interface is
quite misguided in a number of ways, if you pull your stylus out
and fiddle with it enough, you can in fact read a PDF.

I still think it’s odd that a program that’s called a “reader”
doesn’t present the user with one button that always moves to the
next text to read. The way I actually have to read is to stroke
the stylus up and left to move the page around on a screen, and
then tap an invisible button on the right side of the screen to
move to the next page.

If they wanted to call it a “viewer” and not a “reader”, I
could understand this interface — it actually does let you go to
any part of the PDF file and view it at a wide variety of sizes.
But to me “reading” means going continuously through the text, and
this “reader” just doesn’t seem to be designed for that.

Another interesting point about that thread is that at least
two of the four people who participated (I’m one of them) were
interested in the problem because we were trying to read the
packet of Hugo award nominees which you can get by going to the Anticipation
website and joining. Without joining, you can read or download
(but not vote on) a large number of the nominees from the Hugos page
on the anticipation site.

Although you would expect Hugo nominated Science Fiction
writers and publishers to be more interested in how to implement
mobile technologies than the average publisher or writer, a large
fraction of the material is provided as PDF’s formated for the
printed page. No matter how good the interface design on the PDF
reader, a reflowable format is always going to be more flexible
for being read by a wide variety of people on a wide variety of

If you’re interested, the book I’m reading is Zoe’s
by John Scalzi.


Reading PDF’s on the N810

I’m working hard on setting up the Serpent Publications
site, so you’re getting an email I wrote to a list on
something I’ve already goofed off about.

I’ll let you know if I get a useful answer.

Subject: pdf reading?

To: maemo-users@maemo.org

Date: Sat, 23 May 2009 13:36:26 -0400

I’m finding the interface on the included pdf reader on my Nokia

pretty unusable.

My impression is that people on this list have mentioned that evince
might be better, but I can’t install that.

At least one of these problems must be fixable. So here are my

Included reader:
The file selector dialog (not only here but in the file manager
and other apps, but not FBReader) doesn’t allow me to select
from the external memory card (mounted as /media/mmc1), although
it does from the internal memory card (mounted as /media/mmc2).
Is there a way to fix this? I worked around it by opening a
terminal and copying the file I wanted to see from external to
internal, but there has to be a better way than that.
As far as I can see, the way to page down is to open the case
and use the down button on the pad. Is there a way to configure
it so that the +/- switch on top (preferable) or the buttons on
the side page up or down?
I have it zoomed to a size where the text area of the page is
the width of the screen, that is, the margins are off the
reader. But when moving down gets to a new page, the reader
resets the position of the page so that the left edge of the
page is at the left edge of the screen. Is there a way to tell
it not to do that?

This is generally true of a lot of the apps I try to install
from the application manager. It’s listed in “Installable
Apps”, but when I try to install it, it says, “Unable to install
evince. Some applications packages required for the
installation are missing.” When I click “Details”, it says,
“Application packages missing: libhildonfm2 (>=1;1.9.49)” Is
there a way to work around this?

If I do install it, will I have the same problems I do on the
included PDF reader?

This is somewhat frustrating, because people who don’t read
books on a mobile device do tend to assume that PDF is the way
to electronically distribute a book, and I could in fact read
them on the Nokia if the interface were a little bit better.
That is, for the book I’m trying to read, if the screen tries to
show both the printed area and the margins, the type is too
small for my 58 year old eyes, but if I can zoom it to where the
print area is the size of the screen, it’s readable without
glasses. But the designers of the application don’t seem to
have considered this usage pattern.


Making the machine go

I’ve been spending more time than usual the last few days on just getting my
desktop computer to run.

Graphics card

The problem I was trying to solve was that it would slow to an
unusable crawl if firefox had been running for more than a day,
especially when the automatic backup kicked in every 4 hours.

One thing I thought might help would be to run the monitor off
of an NVIDIA GeForce 7300 SE/7200 GS graphics card. The network
know-it-alls on one of my mailing lists laughed their heads off at
this idea, but it still seems reasonable to me.

Unfortunately, it fixed the problem of firefox taking over the
whole computer when it had been running for more than a day,
because with the nvidia driver, the whole X system would freeze up
in much less than a day. The nvidia driver is a closed-source
product of the Nvidia corporation; there’s also an open source
driver called nv, but when I tried that, it would only let me run
at very low resolution.


Then a small number of days later, I got home after midnight
and went to check my email before bedtime and the monitor died.
(The little light was yellow, and instead of turning green as the
screen came back to life, it went out and wouldn’t come back on no
matter what I did.)

So I hooked up the old heavy 17″ CRT that I replaced because it
got jittery and was giving me headaches, and ordered a new monitor
for pickup from microcenter. I use
microcenter (which is less than two miles away) for anything I
need fast, for anything that might have a problem with linux
compatibility, and for anything with a motor in it. They sometimes
cost a little more than buying online, but they’re really good
about taking returns.

I bought this
Acer 22 inch wide monitor.

I had to boot it several times in order to get it configured
right. It seems that with the nvidia driver, you have to run both
envyng and nvidia-setup, or some such to get it to recognize that
you have a different sized monitor.

And it ran for most of a day, but this morning when I got up, X
was frozen again.

So I googled some more, and found a different open source
driver called “nouveau”. It figured out the right resolution and
size to run the screen at, so it looks good so far. It’s only been
two hours, though.

If you’re running ubuntu and have an nvidia card, you just have to “apt-get install
xserver-xorg-video-nouveau” and then edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf to
say “nouveau” instead of “nvidia” or “nv”.


I’ll tell you some more about the browsers I’ve been
investigating later. The current situation is that the google
chromium-browser is great when it works, but has serious bugs,
like not displaying this blog at all and the “copy link address”
not copying. So I’m currently using that as well as firefox,
which is still what my mail program opens links in.


Choosing a blogging platform

I started thinking about this again after my post
about how I write my posts.

I got a comment from a
who blogs on a platform (jekyll) that’s set up so that everyone
posts directly from their editor.

I actually started blogging on blosxom, which
is a really nice simple program. If all you want is to post your
own thoughts in a blog sort of format, I would recommend it.

However, if you want to add features, you will soon run into
problems like this,
from a pyblosxom (a close relative of blosxom) user:

I’ve just spent the whole night setting up blog comments. PyBlosxom doesn’t make it painless, sadly, more like the opposite.

First: don’t be scared by the list of comment-related plugins on the PyBlosxom site. There’s only one important plugin: comments. All others depend on it and enhance its functionality. The last three or four times I was about to add comments to my blog I got scared at step one: evaluate the available plugins. Don’t repeat my mistake!

Second, follow the instructions carefully. There’s no shortcut.

Third, fix what’s broken. Be prepared to debug the source
code. print >> sys.stderr, "message" is your friend.

Fourth, fiddle with the look (CSS and HTML).

It was when I wanted to add comments that I switched to wordpress. I figured that if you want other people
to do the testing for you, you need to sign up with a widely used
program, so that there will be lots of other people running it.

It has worked out pretty well. When I’ve run into problems,
I’ve pretty often been able to find a solution just by googling
the problem, and someone else had hit it before me and written up
the solution.


Of course, there’s a dark side to using the most commonly used
anything, which has been called the monoculture

If someone wants to do the work to crack a site for their own
nefarious purposes, they aren’t going to do it on some little
python program that’s used by a small fraction of the people who
wish they could post directly from emacs to their blogs. They’re
going to crack wordpress. This is the same reason why Mac and
Linux people worry a lot less about viruses and other malware than Windows people.

My blog has in fact been hijacked
several times, and when it happens, I always think of going back
to something simpler and less common.

My current solution to at least some of the hijacking problems
is to not use the wordpress uploading facilities. I’ve often
found they don’t “just work”, and to make them work, I’ve
sometimes done undesirable things that have compromised the site

What’s supposed to happen is that you tell wordpress while
you’re writing a post that there’s a file you want to upload,
e.g. a picture. Then it uploads the file somewhere it knows
about, and there’s some simple syntax you can use for including it
in that post, and a slightly more complicated syntax for showing
it with a different post.

What actually happens when I do it is that is tells me I can’t
upload, and then when I finally do get it uploaded, I can’t
remember the syntax for including it. And if I have to upload 5
pictures (for instance, for the garden posts), I have to go
through this for each one of them.

So what I do instead these days is just upload the pictures
into a directory on my site (not under wordpress) and refer to
them by their normal URL’s. This would be a bit more typing if I
did it all for each picture, but since I’m in emacs, I just type
the URL once, and modify the filename for the next picture.

Site Redesign Progress

I finally got started on the site redesign, so this has to be a
short one.

It’s the kind of project that every time you solve one problem,
three others pop up, so I suspect it will be at least days if not
weeks before I have it ready even for friendly perusal, let
alone to loose on the unsuspecting public.

I’m starting with the thematic wordpress
theme framework. It allegedly lets you customize almost
anything, but that turns out to be only true if you know CSS. I
learned a bit about it the last time I did site redesign, and
actually sort of liked the look of the site I did for the Boston
Recorder Society (they changed it when I stopped maintaining it,
so you can’t see it there). Anyway, I have the mechanics pretty
much the way I want them, and the look something like the old
BRS site, so now all I have to do is:

  • Write the content for the new pages, including the new
    search form.
  • Fiddle with both LaTeX and Gimp to get the banner at the top
    of the pages right.
  • Fiddle with the wordpress stuff so the sidebars and footers
    are the way I want them.

My accomplishments for yesterday included:

  • Finding where the home page on the new hosting site should go. I
    broke accessing it altogether twice yesterday afternoon trying
    to be too cute about that.
  • Setting up a test environment on my home machine. There’s
    still work to do on this, because I used the Ubuntu wordpress
    package to do it, so I have to fiddle with permissions and
    ownership and groups and maybe links before it really lets me
    work on it right. But I made substantial progress.
  • This morning before breakfast, I installed keyring and now I can do openssh to both the old
    and the new hosting sites without entering passphrases.

I was frustrated enough yesterday when I had access to the new
site broken and hadn’t yet figured out how to customize anything
in thematic that I considered just going to bed and reading
trash fiction, but I have persevered, so far.

The most inspiring story I learned in high school was in the
history of English literature book. Thomas Carlyle had spend
several years writing the history of the French Revolution, and
he gave the only copy of the manuscript to his friend Macauley
to see what he thought. Macauley’s maid (at least, she had to
take the rap) thought it was trash and put it in the fire.
Carlisle went to bed and read trashy fiction for a week and then
got up and wrote the book over again.

I admit that story has more often inspired me to go to bed and
read trashy fiction than to write the history of the French
Revolution. But it’s really true that there are times you just
shouldn’t be doing some things, and it was looking like
yesterday afternoon was the wrong time to be slaving over a hot

Following up

Ubuntu upgrade

The Ubuntu people made a change to the X windows interface for
the 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) release. It doesn’t matter very much
to me, but it does (by default) remove a feature that I use once
in a while. Formerly, if you wanted to kill your X windows session
without rebooting the machine, you could say
<CTL><ALT><backspace>, and now by default that
sequence doesn’t do anything.

I’m not sure I agree with this decision — the rationale is
apparently that people sometimes hit that sequence by accident,
which doesn’t seem to ever happen to me.

In any case, if you want the feature, putting it back is pretty
easy. There are places that will tell you what to put in your
/etc/X11/xorg.conf file, but the easy way is to install the
“dontzap” package, and then run dontzap -d.

Lilies of the valley

When I posted the last set of garden pictures, I forgot to
include the lillies of the valley.


Buying ebooks, Part II

I’m sure you’re sitting on the edge of your seat to find out
what happened to my quest to give the publishing industry money
for a book I can read on my Nokia 810 Internet

I told you a couple of days ago about trying
to buy a .lit book from a linux computer running firefox.

Next I tried buying one from a Windows computer running
Internet Explorer. Here’s what I wrote about it to a mailing
list that discusses such things:

I keep hearing (I think on this list as well as other places) that
people buy ebooks at fictionwise.com in .lit format, and then use clit
to turn them into html and read them on the platform of their choice.

I have occasionally gotten a .lit format book from somewhere and been
able to use clit to read it, but I’d never seen one I wanted to buy.

Then last week, I found out that The Lord of the Rings is now
available as an official ebook, and decided I would buy it.

This turns out to be too hard for me to do. You would think that if I
wanted to give someone $30 for a book, they would give me the book, but
not if Microsoft is involved.

First they said I should get a free one to make sure I had a process for
making it work. That sounded reasonable, and they actually sold me a
free ebook without asking for my credit card number.

Then I went to download it, and they said I had to be on a Windows
computer (and in Windows Explorer).

So I went away, but after a few days, I realized I had a couple of other
things I needed to boot windows to do, so I booted Windows, and fired up
IE and went to my bookshelf in Fictionwise.

Then they said I needed the latest Microsoft Reader software, so I
downloaded that.

Then they said I needed to activate the Reader on that computer. It
took quite a while to find out how I should do that, and I had to type
illegible characters several times to set up a Passport account.

Then they said I needed to install ActiveX, without telling me how to do
that. I did a search, and found someone who had the same problem and
had been told that it’s a browser option and where to go to change it,
so I did that.

But I’m still getting the error message about needing ActiveX, or to be
logged in as a real user (which I am).

So how do you buy a .lit book from Fictionwise, if you do, or is there
some other way to get commercial DRM books like the Tolkein that will
let me read it on a linux computer?

And how does anyone stay in business if it’s this hard to buy something
from them?

This reminds me of the time when I was in college and the lock to my
dorm room was balky, so I started thinking about getting the kind of
religion where you don’t ever lock your door. I already almost have the
kind of religion where I never buy DRM, and it looks like I’m not
capable of backsliding from it even if I want to.

One of the readers of the list took pity on my and sent me a
500 line python script that converts ereader books to html.

So this morning, I bought The Hobbit from fictionwise in the secure ereader
format. I had to tell the download program my name and credit
card information, but then it just gave me the file, without
complaining about what browser I was using or making me type
illegible characters or anything.

After that, there was only an hour or so of debugging, and now
the book looks pretty good in all of ereader running under Wine, firefox, and FBReader.

Actually, it looks a bit better in firefox than in the other
versions. FBReader is clumsy about placing the .png files for
the runes, and eReader doesn’t indent the verse gracefully.

For those who want the gory details, the two problems I had to
fix before the HTML displayed correctly were:

  • The .html file didn’t specify the character encoding, so all the
    quotation marks and such were displayed as something like 222
    in emacs, and as a ? in a diamond box in firefox. The fix was
    to put:
    <META http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;

    at the top of the file.

  • The html file referred to a lot of the graphics as generated
    with mixed case letters, but the script had actually written the
    names with all lower case. I haven’t scripted that fix yet, but
    if I hit the problem again, I probably will.

I haven’t yet read it on the Nokia, but my experience is that
if FBReader on the desktop can read it, so can FBReader on the

So if you want electronic books without being a pirate, you can
have them, even if you want to use non-commercial software to
read them.


Buying ebooks

On my list for later this morning is to boot the laptop into
windows and do several things I can’t do on linux:

  • Print the final tax returns from TaxCut.
  • Fix some annoyances with the Universal remote
  • See if it’s really possible to buy DRM’d books from Fictionwise and read them
    on a non-comercial OS.

The others have been discussed at length (taxes
and remote); this is the day for
my rant on the ebook marketplace.

I’m surprised that this topic hasn’t come up before, more than
two months into this daily blog, because a lot of the blogs I
read are devoted to rants about the publishing industry’s
benighted attitude towards ebooks. So I would have expected to
have wanted to rant myself before this, but it wasn’t until last
week that I felt the rant coming on.

What happened last week was the discovery that
The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit
and The Children of Hurin, but apparently not
The Silmarillion) is available in official ebook

I’ve had an illegal download for some time, and that’s the way
I reread it these days, but it certainly isn’t ideal — it
screws up all the letters with accents, for instance. So
although I’ve already bought it in both paperback and hardcover,
I would be willing to buy it again as an ebook, if that meant I
could read it on my device of choice (the Nokia

If you haven’t been following this topic, the major topic of
debate is the fact that many publishers and authors aren’t
comfortable just letting you download a book in a format like html
or text or various open book-specific formats that you
can read on any computer you can put it on. They feel that there
will be too much piracy, and they’re only comfortable letting you
buy their books if they have something called DRM (digital rights
management) attached to them. There are a lot of good arguments
against this point of view. The most concise summary of them is
that if you buy a book with DRM, you don’t own it, you’re only
renting it for an unknown length of time.

The conventional wisdom these days is that if you need to
convert a DRM’d ebook to something readable on an open platform,
the Microsoft .lit form is the format of choice, since it’s
apparently just a wrapper around some html. So once you’ve
unwrapped it, you aren’t any longer bound by the DRM limitations.

So when I found that Fictionwise didn’t have Tolkein’s books in
what they call “multiformat”, which means you can download any
of a number of open formats to any device you like once you’ve
paid for it, I attempted to buy them in .lit format.

The shopping cart was fairly confusing, but I manged to get to
where I could push a button to complete the purchase, but it
warned me that I should download a free one first to verify that
I would be able to read it on my platform of choice.

That sounded like a good idea, so I moved all the Tolkeins to
my wish list, and tried to “buy” the suggested free .lit

They had no problem letting me do a $0.00 purchase without
giving them my credit card number (don’t laugh — lots of
shopping carts won’t), but then when I went to
download it, I couldn’t because I wasn’t on a Windows

So in order to give them lots of money for a book I want to
buy, I have to boot an operating system I don’t want to run.

And then they’re surprised that ebooks aren’t taking off

If you do want to see whether you like ebooks, I recommend
getting started the way I did — either download works that are
out of copyright from gutenberg or manybooks, or buy non-DRM’d
books from Baen or

Maybe it will turn out that there’s a way to get DRM’d books to
work without booting windows, or that booting the windows
occasionally to do the download is worth being able to get the
books. If so, I’ll let you know.



Upgrading the Desktop

I said I was looking forward to doing it
based on how well the new version worked on the laptop. I’m
pretty well done, and I’m not really looking backwards with
fondness, but upgrading is really a lot easier than it used to
be in the bad old days.

Doing the upgrade

To begin with, when I first tried it yesterday via the standard
network upgrade, it downloaded a
few packages and then hung. When I tried it again, it downloaded
a few more and hung.

This didn’t happen when I upgraded the laptop, but that’s
probably because I didn’t do that the day after the release was

So I read the instructions, and found a way
to use a bittorrent to get the CD and upgrade from the CD
images. This was quite fast, and I had the upgrade completed in
only 3 or 4 hours. I didn’t have much time between then and when
my dinner guests arrived to check things out, but there wasn’t
anything obviously wrong.

Finding the problems

As I mentioned, I use the desktop for a lot more different
things than I do the laptop, so it’s only to be expected that
there will be more problems.

First, the good news — I can use the -# option to the lpr
command again. This is going to make Tuesdays, when I print new
music for the Cantabile
, much less irritating.

Now for the (relatively) bad news:

  • The other problem that seemed to be fixed on the laptop was
    that audacity didn’t make any sound when it played music. This
    was still true on the desktop. So I deleted the
    $HOME/.audacity-data directory, and now audacity plays. Maybe
    that would have worked without the upgrade.
  • When I went to send mail, I got an error message about
    gnutls-cli not being there. I checked and mail seemed to be
    being sent anyway, but I posted a message to the gnus newsgroup,
    and two people replied with the name of the package that now
    includes gnutls-cli. So now I’m not getting the error message.
    I didn’t get an answer to my question about what gnutls was
    doing, and of course I should file a bug on gnus in ubuntu for
    the upgrade not having happened correctly.
  • My key repeats have gotten a lot slower, so I’m going to
    have to figure out how I set that and set it to a different
  • When I post to a newsgroup, it now complains that my .sig is
    too long, when it’s any longer than one line. I thought four
    was a fairly standard limit; I’ve never heard of two being
    considered asocial. I tried two different mail2news gateways
    and they were both doing the same thing, so it may have to do
    with the upgrade. I’ll try to find it; I know some of my quotes
    are too long, but you should be able to say something.

On the possibly good news but not yet verified front — firefox
may be leaking less memory.

What to put on a Linux netbook

A friend who’s going to England soon and doesn’t want to carry
his Macbook, but wants to be able to check email, bought a
used netbook with Linux on it. He’s used Unix at work quite a
lot, so he wasn’t expecting to have much difficulty with

I don’t know that it was especially difficult, but he was
complaining about how time-consuming it was while he figured out
the package management system and found the names of all the
programs he needed to load.

I have a lot to do this morning, so I thought posting this
correspondence might be useful and quick.

At one point, he wrote me:

Spent far too much time figuring out the netbook. Have better
understanding of the Package Manager now. Installed emacs, ed,
lynx, audacity, ghostview and some other stuff. Still need
ssh and scp. Still need codecs for audio and video — probably
a big list, including h.264 and AAC/FLAC for sure. And MIDI —
Acer’s version of mplayer won’t play midi files!

Any suggestions for codecs, utilities?

and I replied:

I use timidity for playing MIDI.

In ubuntu there’s a package called something like nonfree-extras that
has all the codecs you generally need. It will install it if you try to
play something it doesn’t have the codecs for.

If you don’t have xpdf, you need it. The default in ubuntu [evince] has some
bugs that make the lilypond output look bad.

If you run into audio problems, gnome-alsa-mixer can usually fix them.
It has more knobs and buttons than the other mixers. Their names don’t
make sense, but if you twiddle them for long enough, the audio starts

If you want to read books, get FBReader. The latest version will go out
to the web and get anything out-of-copyright for you.

For system monitoring, I use something called gkrellm, which has a bunch
of little programs (called krells) that will tell you the weather and
the phases of the moon and how busy your cpus and disk drives are.

ssh is probably called openssh, and you probably need both server and

I don’t know what you use for graphics, but getting imagemagick is
probably a good idea. Gimp is overkill unless you really want to do
high-powered stuff, but being able to convert between formats is good.

I find gnumeric less bloated for spreadsheets than openoffice. And you
can read Word documents with just the wv package.

Hope this helps.

Later, in a message titled
Yahoo! Acer runs stuff!
, he wrote:

I saw more of the useful ssh stuff in Add/Remove today,
Oh is there stuff. Pages and pages of stuff, most of which
I’ll never need nor want to put on here.

and I replied:

I forget what the command line search for rpm’s is [rpmfind], but I never use the
GUI for exactly that reason. On ubuntu, I would say something like
“apt-cache search openssh”, and pipe it through grep if it gave me too
much stuff to read.