Thoughts on eBooks

In recent months, I have been doing a clear out of paper books in case the recent European Union referendum result in the U.K. affects my ability to stay there since I am an Irish citizen. In my two decades here, I have not felt as much uncertainty and lack of belonging as I do now. It is as if life wants to become difficult for a while.

What made the clearance easier was that there was of making sure that the books were re-used and eBooks replaced anything that I would wanted to keep. However, what I had not realised is that demand for eBooks has flatlined, something that only became apparent in recent article in PC Pro article penned by Stuart Turton. He had all sorts of suggestions about how to liven up the medium but I have some of my own.

Niall Benvie also broached the subject from the point of view of photographic display in an article for Outdoor Photography because most are looking at photos on their smartphones and that often reduces the quality of what they see. Having a partiality to photo books, it remains the one class of books that I am more likely to have in paper form, even I have an Apple iPad Pro (the original 12.9 inch version) and am using it to write these very words. There also is the six year old 24 inch Iiyama screen that I use with my home PC.

The two apps with which I have had experience are Google Play Books and Amazon Kindle, both of which I have used on both iOS and Android while I use the Windows app for the latter too. Both apps are simple and work effectively until you end up with something of a collection. Then, shortcomings become apparent.

Search functionality is something that can be hidden away on menus and that is why I missed it for so long. For example, Amazon’s Kindle supports puts the search box in a prominent place on iOS but hides the same function in menus on its Android or Windows incarnations. Google Play Books consistently does the latter from what I have seen and it would do no harm to have a search box on the library screen since menus and touchscreen devices do not mix as well. The ability to search within a book is similarly afflicted so this also needs moving to a more prominent place and is really handy for guidebooks or other more technical textbooks.

The ability to organise a collection appears to be another missed opportunity. The closest that I have seen so far are the Cloud and Device screens on Amazon’s Kindle app but even this is not ideal. Having the ability to select some books as favourites would help as would hiding others from the library screen would be an improvement. Having the ability to re-sell unwanted eBooks would be another worthwhile addition because you do just that with paper books.

When I started on this piece, I reached the conclusion the eBooks too closely mimicked libraries of paper books. Now, I am not so sure. It appears to me that the format is failing to take full advantage of its digital form and that might have been what Turton was trying to evoke but the examples that he used did not appeal to me. Also, we could do with more organisation functionality in apps and the ability to resell could be another opportunity. Instead, we appear to be getting digital libraries and there are times when a personal collection is best.

All the while, paper books are being packaged in ever more attractive ways and there always will be some that look better in paper form than in digital formats and that still applies to those with glossy appealing photos. Paper books almost feel like gift items these days and you cannot fault the ability to browse them by flicking through the pages with your hands.

Fixing Background Image Display in GNOME Shell 3.10

On upgrading from Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 to Ubuntu GNOME 14.04, a few rough edges were to be noticed. One was the display of my chosen background image: it was garbled. Later, I discovered that there is a maximum width of 2560 px for background images in GNOME Shell these days and that things get messy beyond that.

In my case, the image width was around 6000 px and I was used to its getting resized in GNOME Shell 3.8 and its predecessors. It seems that the functionality got removed after that though so the workaround of manual image resizing in the GIMP needed to be employed. Though having big images open in memory creates an additional overhead, not handling them very well at all looks like a bug caused by setting 2560 px as a maximum screen width for the GNOME Shell panel and the complete removal of Nautilus from desktop rendering duties. Let’s hope that sense is seen with ever larger screen sizes and resolutions coming our way.

It’s the sort of thing that did get me looking at adding on Cinnamon 2.2 for a while before setting background image scaling using the indispensable GNOME Tweak Tool was discovered. LinuxG.net has a useful tutorial on this for anyone with such an adventurous streak in them. For now though, I am OK with my set up but the GNOME project’s focus on minimalism could affect us in other ways so I can see why Clem Lefebvre started the Cinnamon one primarily for Linux Mint and the desktop environment is appearing elsewhere too. After all, Gedit lost its menu bar in GNOME 3.12 so it’s just as well that we have alternative choices.

Update 2014-05-06: It seems that the desktop image bug that afflicts GNOME Shell 3.10 got sorted for GNOME Shell 3.12. At least, that is the impression that an Antergos instance in a VirtualBox virtual machine gives me.

A display of brand loyalty

Since 2007, my main camera has been a Pentax K10D DSLR and it has gone on many journeys with me. In fact, more than 15,000 images have been captured with it and I have classed it as an unfailing servant. The autofocus may not be the fastest but my subjects tend to be stationary: landscapes, architecture, flora and transport. Even any bus and train photos have included parked vehicles rather than moving ones so there never have been issues. The hint of underexposure in any photos always can be sorted because DNG files are what I create, with all the raw capture information that is possible to retain. In fact, it has been hard to justify buying another SLR because the K10D has done so well for me.

In recent months, I have looking at processed photos and asking myself if time has moved along for what is not far from being a six year old camera. At various times, I have been looking at higher members of the Pentax while wondering if an upgrade would be a good idea. First, there was the K7 and then the K5 before the K5 II got launched. Even though its predecessor is still to be found on sale, it was the newer model that became my choice.

Pentax K5-II

My move to Pentax in 2007 was a case of brand disloyalty since I had been a Canon user from when I acquired my first SLR, an EOS 300. Even now, I still have a Powershot G11 that finds itself slipped into a pocket on many a time. Nevertheless, I find that Canon images feel a little washed out prior to post processing and that hasn’t been the case with the K10D. In fact, I have been hearing good things about Nikon cameras delivering punchy results so one of them would be a contender were it not for how well the Pentax performed.

So, what has my new K5 II body gained me that I didn’t have before? For one thing, the autofocus is a major improvement on that in the K10D. It may not stop me persevering with manual focusing for most of the time but there are occasions the option of solid autofocus is good to have. Other advances include a 16.3 megapixel sensor with a much larger ISO range. The advances in sensor technology since when the K10D appeared may give me better quality photos and noise is something that my eyes may have begun to detect in K10D photos even at my usual ISO of 400.

There have been innovations that I don’t need too. Live View is something that I use heavily with the Powershot G11 because it has such a pitiful optical viewfinder. The K5 II has a very bright and sharp one so that function lays dormant, especially when I witnessed dodgy autofocus performance with it in use; manual focusing should be OK, I reckon. By default too, the screen stays on all the time and that’s a nuisance for an optical viewfinder user like me so I looked through the manual and the menus to switch off the thing. My brief flirtation with the image level display met an end for much the same reason though it’s good that it’s there. There is some horizon auto-correction available as a feature and this is left on to see what it offers since there have been a multitude of times when I needed to sort out crooked horizons caused by my handholding the camera.

The K5 II may have a 3″ screen on its back but it has done nothing to increase the size of the camera. If anything, it is smaller that the K10D and that usefully means that I am not on the lookout for a new camera holster. Not having a bigger body also means there is little change in how the much camera feels in the hand compared with the older one.

In many ways, the K5 II works very like the K10D once I took control over settings that didn’t suit me. Both have Shake Reduction in their camera bodies though the setting has been moved into the settings menu in the new camera when the older one had a separate switch on its body. Since I’d be inclined to leave it on all the time and prefer not to have it knocked off accidentally, this is not an issue.  Otherwise, many of the various switches are in the same places so it’s not that hard to find my way around them.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other changes like the addition of a lock to the mode dial but I have used Canon EOS camera bodies with that feature so I do not consider it a step backwards. The exposure compensation button has been moved to the top of the camera where I found it very easily and have been using perhaps more than on the K10D; it’s also something that I use on the G11 so the experimentation is being brought across to the K5 II now as well. Beside it, there’s a new ISO button so further experimentation can be attempted with that to see how it does.

If I have any criticism, it’s about the clutter of the menus on the K5 II. The long lists through you scrolled on the K10D have been replaced with a series of extra tabs so that on-screen scrolling is not needed as before. However, I reckon that this breaks up things too much and makes working through the settings look more foreboding to anyone who is not so technical in mindset. Nevertheless, settings such as the the type of file to capture are there and I continue to use RAW DNG files as is usual for me though JPEG and Pentax’s own RAW format also are there. For a while, I forgot to set the date, soon found out what I did and the situation was remedied. The same sort of thing applied to storing files in different folders according to the capture date. For my own reasons, I turned this off to put everything into a single PENTX directory to suit my own workflow. My latest discovery among the menus was the ability to add photographer and copyright holder information to the EXIF metadata attached to the image files created by the camera. With legislative proposals that dilute the automatic rights of copyright holders going through the U.K. parliament, this seems a very timely inclusion even if most would prefer that there was no change to copyright law.

Of course, the worth of any camera is in the images that it produces and I have been happy with what I have been getting so far. The bigger files mean less images fit on a memory card as before. Thankfully, SDHC card capacities have grown even if I don’t wish to machine gun my photography altogether. While out and about, I was surprised to apertures like F/14 and F/18 when I was more accustomed to a progression like F/11, F/13, F/16, F/19, F/22, etc. Most of those older values still are there though so there hasn’t been a complete break with convention. The same comment applies to shutter speeds where ones like 1/100 and 1/160 made there appearance where I might have expected just ones like 1/90, 1/125, 1/250 and so on. The extra possibilities, and that is what they are, do allow more flexibility I suppose and may even make it easier to make correct exposures though any judgement of correctness has to be in the eye of a photographer and not what a computer algorithm in a camera determines. For much of the time until now, I have stuck with an ISO of 400 apart from a little testing in a woodland area of an evening soon after the camera arrived.

Since the K5 II came my way a few months ago, I have been meaning to collect my thoughts on here and there has been a delay while I brought mu thinking to a sensible close.At one point, it felt like there was so much to say that the piece became larger in my mind that even what you have been reading now. After all, there are other things that I can adjust to see how the resulting images look and white balance is but one of these.The K10D isn’t beyond experimentation either, especially since I discovered that shake reduction was switched off and it has me asking if that lacking in quality that I mentioned earlier has another explanation. Of course, actually making use of my tripod would be another good suggestion so it’s safe to say that yet more photographic explorations await.

Getting an Epson Pefection 4490 Photo scanner going with Ubuntu GNOME Remix 12.10

My Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner has been in my possession for a while now and its impossible to justify any replacement given that it both works well and digital photography has taken over from its film predecessor for me. Every time I go installing an operating system afresh, I need to reinstate it again and last year’s installation of Ubuntu GNOME Remix 12.04 only saw me do the deed recently. When I did so, it was brought back to me that I’d never gone and documented on here how this was done. Given that I sometimes use this place as a repository of stuff to which I need to refer again in the future, it seemed remiss of me so here it is for you all.

Though I had XSane and SimpleScan already installed on the system, Sane wasn’t on there so I went and added it and a few other extras using the following command:

sudo apt-get install sane sane-utils libsane-extras

Then, it was onto the Epson website for their Perfection 4490 Photo Linux drivers since Sane’s support for this scanner seemingly remains incomplete even though it pre-dates my move to Linux in 2007. Three files were needed and the following commands install them (depending on when you do this, the file names may be different so just change them to whatever they are for you; it can be done with a single command too but there is not enough girth for that here):

sudo dpkg -i iscan-data_1.22.0-1_all.deb
sudo dpkg -i iscan_2.29.1-5~usb0.1.ltdl7_i386.deb
sudo dpkg -i iscan-plugin-gt-x750_2.1.2-1_i386.deb

With those in place, there was one other task that needed doing so that scanning could be done without resorting to running scanning software using sudo privileges. To free up the access to a normal user account, I needed a HAL device information file. These normally are in /usr/share/hal/fdi/ but they change every time an installation so any modifications that you may make are going to be lost. Therefore, there is no point modifying either /usr/share/hal/fdi/preprobe/10osvendor/20-libsane.fdi or /usr/share/hal/fdi/preprobe/10osvendor/20-libsane-extras.fdi where scanner information usually is to be found.

The first task in creating an fdi file was to issue the lsusb command and look for a line corresponding to my scanner. This is the one that I got:

Bus 001 Device 004: ID 04b8:0119 Seiko Epson Corp. Perfection 4490 Photo

From this, I gleaned the manufacturer ID and model ID as 04b8 and 0119, respectively. These are needed later on. Next I needed to create the hal/fdi/preprobe/ folder structure under /etc since it was there. Then, I created epson4490photo.fdi in the bottom folder of the tree (/etc/hal/fdi/preprobe/epson4490photo.fdi) as follows:

cd /etc/hal/fdi/preprobe/ && sudo touch epson4490photo.fdi

Then, I edited the new file using the following command:

gksu gedit epson4490photo.fdi &

When open, I added in the following text:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<deviceinfo version=”0.2″>
<device>
<match key=”info.subsystem” string=”usb”>
<!-- Epson Perfection 4490 Photo -->
<match key=”usb.vendor_id” int=”0x04b8″>
<match key=”usb.product_id” int=”0x0119″>
<append key=”info.capabilities” type=”strlist”>scanner</append>
<merge key=”scanner.access_method” type=”string”>proprietary</merge>
</match>
</match>
</match>
</device>
</deviceinfo>

It’s all in XML so the place to look is immediately beneath the scanner name comment. The int attributes of the two match elements immediately following the comment line are populated using the information from the lsusb command output with 0x prefixing both the manufacturer and model identifiers. The element with a key attribute of usb.vendor_id is the former and that with a key attribute of usb.product_id is the latter. With epson4490photo.fdi saved, I rebooted the machine to restart HAL and all was as I wanted it to be apart maybe from XSane making complaints that seemed not to be of any actual consequence. With Epson’s Image Scan! and Simple Scan on the PC, there’s no need to be bothered with those messages. Choice is good when you have it, especially when you have expended some effort to get that far.