kodumut via Flickr under Creative Commons license
I love books. I love book stores. I worked in a library for four years. But when I read Ali Wunderman’s post entitled Why You’ll Never Catch Me With An E-Reader, I was not convinced. In almost all cases I prefer to buy and read digitally. I’ll discuss her argument, my reasons for preferring digital in most cases, and cases where e-readers and digital books are worse than their paper alternatives.
The two main points of Ms. Wunderman’s argument are:
- She likes the sensations of reading a physical book (touch, smell, sight)
- She values the serendipity of meeting new friends who love the book that she’s reading. Had she used an e-reader, those people would not have been able to see what she was reading, and thus she would have missed out on such encounters
I can’t argue against the first point – it’s a matter of opinion whether or not holding a book feels good. Since e-readers are such a recent invention, I think this argument is rooted in nostalgia more than anything else. It would be interesting to see whether children who grow up with a choice between e-readers and physical books end up with such a physical attachment to books. I do like the touch and smell of books, but it’s not enough to make me buy paperbacks exclusively.
The second point is also subjective. I’ve never had strangers comment on what I’m reading, but I can imagine it would be a fun experience. I am willing to bet that it’s rare. On the other hand, I have heard that some women are more comfortable reading romance novels on their e-readers than physical copies. I don’t really care one way or another; I don’t read books with the intention of showing others what I’m reading.
I have had the experience of bonding with new friends over the contents of our respective bookshelves. If there were no books for us to look at, we would have missed out on some level of connection. While this makes more sense to me than the serendipity argument, I still don’t think this is a reason to stay slavishly attached to dead trees. Once you have established a relationship, it’s easy to converse about books you’ve read, no matter the medium.
The reasons I prefer digital books are price, convenience, ergonomics and lack of physical clutter.
E-books are often cheaper than physical alternatives. This makes sense – the price of publishing and distribution is virtually zero.
E-books are incredibly convenient. Let me count the ways:
- Instant gratification – purchase, download, and start reading a book in less than a minute. No need to wait for a book to be shipped to you, or to go to a store
- Instant definitions – no need to break the flow of reading to learn the meaning of a word. Tap and hold on the word to get a quick pop-up definition
- Read free samples of a book before committing to buying it
- Free lending library – check out one free book a month to read
There’s a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. It’s the same with books. I rarely bring physical books with me, sometimes I have my Kindle Paperwhite, but I always have my phone with me, and that phone has all of my Kindle purchases on it. When I used to use an iPhone it was uncomfortable to read on such a small screen, but I recently switched to a Nexus 5 and have happily consumed entire books on it. The progress I make on one device is instantly synced with all of my other Kindle compatible devices.
I find it more pleasant to read digitally. I can control how big the font is, I can turn pages one-handed, I can read in the dark with no external illumination, and my devices are light to hold. For example, I bought Cryptonomicon on Kindle to replace a hardcover version partly because I was tired of reading such a bulky book.
Most importantly, buying digitally frees me from physical clutter. If you’ve ever moved, you know how heavy and unwieldy books are. If you’re traveling, they add weight and bulk to your luggage.
Unlike Ms. Wunderman, I am not absolute in my preference. I often prefer digital, but I acknowledge that there are some real problems with digital books. These include ownership, longevity, batteries, screens, and the distractions of reading digitally.
When you buy digital content, what do you actually own? In 2009, Amazon deleted unauthorized versions of Animal Farm and 1984 straight off of owners’ Kindles. As the article says,
Digital books bought for the Kindle are sent to it over a wireless network. Amazon can also use that network to synchronize electronic books between devices — and apparently to make them vanish.
When you deal with DRM (digital rights management) content, there are very strong restrictions placed on what you can and can’t do with the content. It’s more like a limited license to view the content rather than outright ownership.
For instance, let’s look at lending. With physical books, you can lend your book to whomever you want for as long as you want. With Amazon’s titles, not all publishers allow digital lending in the first place. Of those that do, there are Draconian limitations. From the Amazon Kindle help page:
You can lend a Kindle book to another reader for up to 14 days… A book can only be loaned one time.
Until you can freely loan or give away your digital copies of books, paper wins hands down.
Even if you buy DRM-free content, you take the chance that you won’t be able to read that content in a few years or decades. There is a strong precedent of technologies dying and data being trapped on obsolete devices; see Lost Formats for examples. If Amazon goes out of business, what happens to all of the Kindle content you’ve amassed? Hopefully if that were to happen, Amazon would offer a service like Google Takeout to transfer the books to you. (Full disclosure: I work for Google.)
Trav1085 via Wikipedia
The other aspect of longevity is the e-readers themselves. I haven’t had the best of luck with my Kindles so far – I am on my fourth Kindle in about as many years. Three of them died quickly, but as of yet I’ve had no problems in the past 2.5 years with the Paperwhite. It makes me wonder how long these devices last. If you have to buy a new $100 device every 3-5 years, this changes the calculus of whether e-books are more affordable.
Digital readers run out of batteries; books don’t. Standalone e-readers typically don’t need charging very often, but phones do. If I were traveling and didn’t have ready access to electricity, this would be a concern. In practice this isn’t a big problem for me.
Some people prefer the look of a book to an e-reader screen. The e-ink display on the Kindle has improved with each generation, both in resolution, sharpness, and refresh speed. I don’t think there’s an objective winner here. The display on my Nexus 5 is incredibly sharp and I can read it in the dark, just as with the Paperwhite. My only objection to the screen is that it contributes to my spending 90% of my time staring at a glowing rectangle. I mitigate this somewhat by changing to the white text on black background on my phone, and keeping the light low on the Paperwhite.
It’s easy to get distracted if you are reading digital books on a multi-purpose device. Reading takes time and concentration. Sometimes it’s hard to stick with that when there’s the allure of games and an infinite expanse of Internet content that’s a few button presses away.
Standalone e-readers offer a more focused reading experience that’s closer to that of reading a book. Since there’s fewer things you can do on it, there’s less temptation to do something other than read. Depending on your level of willpower, this point could be completely moot.
I vividly remember seeing the first clunky version of the Kindle just a few years ago and wondering how its owner could enjoy reading on it. The technology has improved so much since then that I’m a happy convert. While I acknowledge the superiority of physical books in some ways, it often makes sense to buy digital. Doing so avoids physical clutter and is extremely convenient. Most of the technical problems with digital books and e-readers have been solved; the remaining hurdles of consumer-unfriendliness are sociological problems that we can combat. For example, Microsoft changed its restrictive DRM in the Xbox One due to overwhelming negative response. If consumers showed as much passion for their rights to the book publishers and Amazon, perhaps we’d see a loosening of the reins as well.
While our desktop computers excel at multitasking due to their multiple cores, the human mind fares much worse. There have been multiple studies showing that multitasking can impair productivity. Often the reasoning is that the brain requires time to adjust between different tasks, due to the switch in context. An analogy for this would be driving on a highway. You’re going to cover a lot more ground in the same amount of time if you can keep a constant speed (focusing on one task) rather than having to constantly take exits and switch to new roads (tasks). While those who multitask frequently might think that switching tasks bears no greater cost to them than switching lanes on the highway, the studies suggest that the cost in focus and time in switching to the new task is more akin to having to take that offramp, find a new highway, and then get back up to speed.
But enough about metaphors and science. I am not a cognitive scientist so I’ll leave that up to the people who do it best. I can only speak for myself, and I find that it’s supremely tempting to pick away at pieces of problems rather than to focus on one thing and make significant progress in that regard. I also know that I am objectively less productive if I constantly am switching tasks.
It is for that reason that I’ve assembled a set of tools that allow me to have a stronger single-minded focus while working on a computer. While there are systems such as Getting Things Done and the Pomodoro Technique which address the human aspect, I’m going to be focusing more on technological solutions with respect to working on an Apple computer. While many criticize the iPhone and iPad for their limited multitasking support, I think having full-screen applications and focusing on one thing at a time is very beneficial. With that thought in mind, the rest of this post will show various ways to make the Mac less suitable for multitasking and closer to the iPhone/iPad model of computing.
Hide the dock
Gain more desktop real estate. Eliminate the visual clutter at bottom of the screen.
Right click on a portion of the dock which does not have an icon, e.g. on the portion where the dock can be resized.
Reduce use of tabbed browsing
I love the ability to open multiple webpages in a single browser. It can be supremely useful when you are researching and need to have multiple pages open to reference. Unfortunately it can also lead to shallow reading and a mild form of A.D.D. wherein the user (i.e. me) keeps opening new links with the intention of reading them later. There is seemingly no cost to opening a link in a new tab, but it does exert a cost – it makes it harder to find the tabs that are actually relevant, and it also uses more system memory.
There is a discussion on the Firefox feature request group to limit the number of tabs that one can open at a time, for reasons similar to what I have presented above. The best solution given is to install a TabCounter extension in FireFox which shows how many tabs you have open. It still requires you to monitor the number and prune the number of tabs when things get too bogged down, but it’s better than nothing.
For those using Chrome, there is a Tabs Counter plugin which performs the same task.
Hide your desktop icons
My desktop inevitably is the dumping place for miscellaneous junk. I’d rather just keep it out of sight and search with a program than keep it organized and visually scan through them for what I’m looking for. Computers are a lot better at search than humans; let’s take advantage of that. The icons on the desktop do nothing more than distract me.
Camouflage hides desktop icons
+ allows you to double click on the desktop to have a finder window popup for the desktop
+ allows you to change the desktop background
+ also has option of dimming the menu bar
– paid ($17)
I use Camouflage on both my home and work Mac. I was happy to see that Windows 7 allows you to hide the desktop icons without installing an additional program.
Dim your menu
Eliminate distractions by de-emphasizing the elements on the screen that are not important. For the time you are not actively attending to the menu, make it less visually important.
– doesn’t seem to work in 10.5
+ Works fine in 10.5
– abrupt jump between dimmed and not dimmed – the menu dimming in DeskTopple is more gradual / less harsh
I use MenuEclipse on both my work and home computer. It’s not a life changing application but it does what it sets out to do.
Dim your unused applications
When you have multiple applications jockeying for your attention, you necessarily lose focus
There are some obvious exceptions to this; for instance it is often extremely convenient to have both a calendar program and e-mail program open side by side when scheduling things, or having a web browser next to your programming environment for web search results. There are other times in which such extra programs are a distraction; in this case having a single program as the focal point can allow you to focus.
– does not interact correctly with Quicksilver/Alfred quick launchers
– noticeable lag when switching between windows
– no way of specifying the brightness
– seemingly not in active development
– Ugly icon that takes up a huge amount of space
+ Much more polished than DooDim
+ Allows you to customize how dim the background gets
+ System settings stay bright
+ Works with Quicksilver/Alfred
O different interface than Doodim – you have to explicitly choose a new window to focus on via an interface similar to the standard task switcher, rather than being able to shift the focused window by clicking on other windows.
– Does not work with multiple spaces
I use think on a daily basis; in fact I am writing this article with all but my FireFox window dimmed out. The higher your screen resolution, the more useful this program is. When working on a 13″ screen I don’t often tile my windows too much. But when you have a 30″ monitor or something similar, you can end up with many programs onscreen simultaneously. And you might not want to put the program you’re working on full screen, especially if it’s just a text editor. That’s when being able to have your programs the size you want and still be able to dim all the rest can be especially useful
The final piece in reducing distractions and improving single-minded focus is to remove the interruptions that our installed programs produce.
Turn off Growl notifications
If you’re unfamiliar with Growl, it’s a program which ” lets Mac OS X applications unintrusively tell you when things happen. ” While it is a lot less intrusive than a traditional modal popup window, it still can be distracting. The first thing you should do is close the programs that are creating the popups in the first place, but you might want the program to run, just not keep interrupting you.
I personally haven’t taken this step, but you can remove Growl if you find it too distracting. Instructions are here.
Turn off e-mail alerts
E-mail clients on the Mac seem to think every e-mail that comes in is a matter of life and death, and that you absolutely must see every e-mail the instant it arrives. Those of us who work in an office know that this is far from the truth. As Merlin Mann writes:
Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a fucking pebble!”
While dealing with e-mail is a whole different issue, the least we can do is make sure that each pebble falls silently into the inbox rather than calling attention to itself.
Mail -> Preferences -> New mail sound: None
How to turn off e-mail notifications in Entourage
Entourage -> Preferences -> General Preferences -> Notification ->
Uncheck Display Alert, Bounce Icon, Bring Application to Front, and New Mail Sound
This post was started long before Apple’s announcement of its new operating system, Lion, but it was not surprising to me that Apple is going to make OSX work more like iOS, with the addition of full screen applications and an app store. I don’t want the Mac to become exactly like a giant iPhone or iPad, and I certainly wouldn’t want every application to be full screen. However, there are times when I need to focus, and by making the computer less capable, it makes me more.
Stanza is a great free e-book reader for the iPhone or iPad. One thing I noticed while using it was that the screen would be very dim from time to time. Thinking there was a problem with the light sensor, I’d try all sorts of things to try to get the screen brightness to fix itself. Other apps on the phone didn’t have this problem, so I figured I must have changed some setting. I looked in the settings of the app but there was nothing indicating how to change the brightness.
Finally I discovered by accident that dragging your finger up and down the screen increases and decreases the brightness. So if your Stanza app reading experience is hampered by a dim screen, try dragging your finger from the bottom to the top.
Hopefully this helps someone similarly confused.