Computing stuff tied to the physical world

The Ultimate Bookshelf

In Musings on Dec 25, 2011 at 00:01

I do a lot of reading…

Reading has changed a lot these past few decades. I used to devour books in the library and subscribe to lots of magazines. As a kid, when visiting New York one summer, I spent weeks on the floors of the the New York Public Library – because they had all the back issues of Scientific American and you could read as much as you want!

The thing with SciAm, is that it had a column every month, called The Amateur Scientist – which, in hindsight, was really the ultimate “maker” breeding ground. I don’t think I ever built anything described in it (’cause teenagers don’t have any money), but that did not diminish the fun and learning experience one bit.

A side-effect of all this was that my environment filled itself with books, papers, magazines, and articles.

And although the human mind is incredibly good at remembering where things are, by association, and particularly by how it looks and its location, there comes a point when ya’ can’t find that one friggin’ article back. With computers, things quickly got (much!) worse… no more clues as to which book (file!) is large, which one looks worn-out, what the books (files!) around it look like, or to leaf through it quickly to locate a section (bits!) by its visual appearance.

Besides, most magazines and books are really just meant to be read once. You digest the info, learn from it, and never look back. It seems silly to buy them in dead-tree form, and continuously add more bookshelves for them.

So I started to get more and more books, articles, and magazines in PDF form. They were easy to store, could be browsed as well as searched via keywords. I bought – and still buy – lots of books that way. My favorite PDF shop (for programming-related books) is probably the Pragmatic Programmers – nice collection, well-written and good-looking books, and you get update notifications when books get revised (a key benefit of the electronic format).

My collection of PDFs is growing fast. Purchased as well as downloaded. And now also lots of electronics datasheets.

This reached a point where I decided that I wanted to get rid of the paper stuff, at least for normal technical books to which I have no particular emotional attachment. So I got one of these a couple of years ago:

S510m header

That’s a Fuijistu ScanSnap S510M document scanner. There are newer models now, for Mac and PC. The thing about this scanner is that it’s surprisingly effective. It scans quickly, and does both sides of the page at the same time. But the real gem is the supporting software. It knows what’s color and what’s black and white, it knows what’s up and what’s down, it knows what’s portrait and what’s landscape, and it it knows how to start up the software when you press the big button on the front. Best of all, it comes with OCR software which places the recognized text inside the PDF, and puts it there invisibly – behind the scanned images, so to speak. That sounds crazy, but the result is that the pages you look at are complete photographic reproductions, and yet the document is fully searchable!

To be honest, the OCR process is so time-consuming that I don’t enable it for books & magazines. But for invoices and loose sheets of paper, this is incredibly useful. I do not need to organize it – text search does it all!

I’ve cut up some 10 meters of books already, and turned them into PDFs. Yeah, it hurts a little at first, but hey.

For reading PDFs, I use the Mac’s built-in Preview, which is a lot better (and faster) than Adobe’s, eh… junk.

For locating documents, by file name or by content, there is Spotlight in the Mac, which also works with a server. This search technology is fast enough to instantly locate documents in many dozens of gigabytes of data. And since it’s available to all applications, there are some great front ends for it such as Yep, Leap, and Papers. I’ve been using DEVONthink Pro Office for all my docs and notes, because of its integration with the ScanSnap.

The above is all for the Mac, but there are probably similar offerings for Windows.

But the real revolution is much more recent…

Screen Shot 2011 12 18 at 03 10 33

There’s an “app” for the iPad, called GoodReader. This little bit of software lets me put over a thousand documents on the iPad and actually be able to find stuff, read stuff, and manage stuff. About 25 GB so far. Offline.

Which means I can now manage my entire collection as a folder on the server, add books, reorganize as needed, add tags and quickly access it from multiple Macs through Yep, as well as have the entire set on an iPad.

The Ultimate Bookshelf, no less, if you ask me. Alan Kay’s DynaBook has become an affordable reality.

To put it differently: food for thought – especially slow food for slow (off-line) thought, as far as I’m concerned!

  1. I’m still a little hesitant to turning all my books to pdf’s, but i try to use PDF’s where possible! I’ve been lucky that I have the possibility to make my collection digital from the start!

    On the mac, there’s spotlight, on linux there are Strigi and Recoll for this, but they are still not at where spotlight is. For online articles, I use an RSS readers (I use two, one of which uses your metakit as a backend ) I am still looking for a good and affordable document scanner, and still use a flatbed today.

    Nice to see what you cooked up!

  2. Good article – Thans for your overview! I am a bit hesitant to reading all papers in an iPad due to the reading different reading experience of an shiny finished iPad compared to real paper. I will turn digital as soon as the reading experience of digital readers is comparable to that of paper.

    • Have you tried the e-ink displays such as the Kindle? I’ve found them to be very easy on the eyes, and having a battery life of several weeks (with ease) is quite a new experience (outside of the JeeNode world of course).

    • Yes, the Kindle is interesting – perhaps not quite enough resolution for A4-sized PDF’s yet. Also much less storage (at a much lower cost, evidently).

    • has anyone experience from the kindle dx with iPad-like formfactor? compared to the standard kindle quite pricey though…

  3. The AmSci “Amateur Scientist” articles certainly were amazing. I spent several years trying to get the nitrogen laser project working, and never did, although I did end up with a working 20 kV power supply (well- worked only when it wasn’t too humid). They weren’t afraid to publish dangerous projects. I started on the homebrew rocket, but had second thoughts when I actually held the 1.5″ diameter steel pipe(!) specified for the rocket body… for my science project I switched to an acetylene cannon instead :-).

    • Ah, yes, lasers. I dreamt of creating holograms :)

      As for rockets – you did the wise thing. A good friend I met long ago lost two fingers with those things… quite a horrific sacrifice, if you ask me.

      Great link (I’ve taken the liberty to browse “up” a bit, tons of cool stuff!).

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