Sunday, November 16, 2008

eReader : Why it is So Good, in Spite of My Low Vision

(Thanks to a polite comment request, I retrace some steps and answer questions specific to software and equipment, instead of my reading interests. My new post will be up, hopefully, by next Saturday).

I have 20/200 vision in my only good eye. Without glasses I can clearly see about three feet in front of me. With a 12x magnifying bubble mounted in a pair of glasses, I can read print sizes from the printed phone book on up. I have to guess at entries in a printed phone book, or an average printed pocket dictionary, as I can't really see the individual letters clearly.

Every low vision person I've met sees differently. What works for one, does absolutely nothing for another person with low vision. For me, 12x magnification makes 99% of print available to me. I have to hold the printed material right up near my face (about a third of an inch away from my eye). I can only read about an hour and a half, before I get slight eye pain and muscle and body aches, from holding books up so close to my face. I also have to have a 100 watt light bulb about 4 inches away from the side of my head when reading real print on paper in a book.

When I got my first computer I found out about reverse video. The print is write and the background is black. For me this was a true revelation. I got a Mac, as I'd always had serious problems "losing" the cursor on a PC.

The only way you can get the experience of seeing my screenshots as I see them is to temporarily adjust your computer so you get reverse video. Look in the accessibility control panel and you should be able to reset your machine to see my screen as I see it. For the last two screenshots, my desktop is blue, not orange, in reverse video.

On a PC the cursor is a dotted outline, which is very easy to lose track of on the screen. The Macintosh cursor is a solid black arrow. In reverse video it is a solid white arrow. I can see it well enough to find it again after clicking a link and being moved to another page.

The way my vision works, contrast is everything. Black background gives more contrast to the print, then black letters on a white background. I find it interesting that for normal vision readers, reverse video is distracting and is avoided when possible.

In order to produce the square box you see around my cursor in the 2nd and 3rd screenshots I do the following in the accessibility panel. I increase the computer's screen zoom magnification to its maximum, but only request the "preview" viewing area. This produces a nice drawn rectangle around the cursor. This is what I use all the time on my computer, to quickly find the cursor when I lose track of it. With the 12x magnification in my glasses, I can only see about one square inch of screen at a time. This is why it is so easy for me to "lose" the cursor while working on my computer.

I soon discovered electronic, or ebooks. I have a screenshot of an ebook in the ".pdf" format. Either Adobe Reader, or Preview recognize ".pdf" (portable document format). These programs are designed for editing and sharing office documents, not books.

I read by moving my head more then the material on the screen. With preview, (screenshot to the right), I have to constantly scroll down as I work my way through an ebook. It is very doable, but not my preferred reading experience.

I can use Page-Down, or Down-Arrow keys to scroll. Page-down moves too much of the screen before I've gotten to the lower part of the page. So, I have to use the Down-Arrow key.

I was shocked to realize that I could read at my computer for three hours or more, with no pain anywhere in my body. I sit with my back straight in my chair, with the screen elevated to be right in front of my face. I have a table with a tray for the keyboard and I type with the keyboard completely recessed within the table. (I've never had such good posture).

I discovered eReader (another program for reading ebooks) while exploring this new world of books made to read on a computer, or handheld device. Adobe and Preview read ".pdf" files, while eReader deals with ".pdb" files. Most of my ebooks are in the ".pdb" format, as that is the one I have found works the best for reading books on my computer.

eReader was designed specifically for the book reading experience. You'll notice at once, its full screen looks more like the page of a book, instead of an office document, with its wide margins and page separators.

On the next two screenshots, the screen is 21 inches.

As you can see from the full page screen shot of the eReader program, I still have the problem of this long document to meander through. But with eReader, when you adjust the page size, you don't have to scroll through the document line-by-line, but it redefines a page according to your window size.

I may start out with a book of 200 pages, but when I shrink the window, the page count jumps into the thousands!. I use one Page-Down, arrow-Down or Arrow-Right per page. When I began exploring handheld devices, it is still the best reading experience. I've found. (eBookWise and Palm Handhelds will be covered in my next post).

One final note on ebooks. I live in a very small room, making a library of thousands of books impossible. With eBooks I literally own thousands of titles, all on my hard drive. This technology saves on paper, ink and the energy to print the book. Here are the links to the programs I've been discussing.

Adobe Reader

Apple's Preview

eReader (go back to their homepage for the FREE eReader version).

Free eBooks (in .pdb format)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The JOY of Easily Looking Up Words While I Read.

Yes, this is a love story about my new Palm Tungsten E2 hand held personal data assistant. (PDA). Having low vision has always been a dreary fight when having to use more than one book at a time. I have to explain the bad old days to help you understand why I am shaking with joy at this change in my life.

I have a 12x magnifying bubble mounted in a pair of glasses, leaving my hands free. I would pick up the book, or lean way over to write on a piece of paper, as I have to be about half an inch away from what I'm looking at. I did not start reading on my own until the sixth grade, when a friend stole a 12x magnifier from her science class for me to experiment with. It opened up the world of books, libraries and dictionaries to me.

But when I was reading something and I'd run into a word I did not know, I would have a serious set of problems.

  1. Put the book down, carefully, so as not to lose my place.
  2. Grab a pocket dictionary and start hunting down the unknown word.
  3. Realize I don't know how to spell the word and would have to go back to #1.
  4. Locate word in dictionary and try and read that really tiny print. I have learned to do some very accurate guessing by the "shape" of print that is truly too small for me to read. Not always correct: "boot" and "boat" look similar, but usually I'd figure it out via context.
  5. Return to the original book I was reading.
  6. Realize I no longer remember the thread of what I was reading.
  7. Go back a page or two to remind myself of what I didn't know.
  8. Find strange word again and realize I don't remember the darn definition. Return to #1!
Note taking in the library for research projects was almost as bad. I have always had a lousy short term memory and for sure, that gave me many hours of idea chasing. I learned it was faster to "guestimate" the meaning of a word. A very fast and lose system of having the vaguest notion of the meaning of say "habeas corpus".

I knew this was Latin and having something to do with legalese. That is a pretty crummy understanding of this term. I reproduce the following from my new Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary for that goofy phrase habeas corpus:
n{ME, fr. ML, lit., you should have the body (the opening words of the writ)} (15c) 1: any of several common-law writs issued to bring a party before a court or judge ; esp : habeas corpus ad subjiciendum 2 : the right of a citizen to obtain a writ of habeas corpus as a protection against illegal imprisonment
Now, that means something. I'm reading a legal book outlining the problem of "enemy combatants" as opposed to "enemy soldiers", those who commit sabotage and spys. Legally the Iraq war is a mess. A lot of the problem has to do with this habeas corpus stuff.

We were so freaked out after 9/11 we rounded up people we suspected of being involved in the three planes-used-as-bombs and tried to detain them indefinitely with no official charges. This is a problem, legally if they are under the rules of our Constitution. I find the whole thing fascinating.

I had no clue that the law made such fine distinctions between types of behavior in war. Now I have a dictionary that is up to all the Latin they want to throw at me. But now I introduce you to the miracle of today's technology.

Well, okay, actually the Palm device I bought was new in 2005, but I love eReader as a program and I absolutely love the way Palm does things on their little hand held device.

When I'm using my hands, I shake a bit because of Cerebral Palsy, so touching the screen with my finger usually delivers something other then the command I'm trying to execute. But with the stylus - a metal pencil tipped with plastic for touching the screen more accurately - works like a charm for me. So here is the new way of my world.
  1. I'm reading my law book, or the King James Bible (old and odd English), or some police forensics book and I run into something I can't even guess at, in terms of its meaning.
  2. I reach for the stylus held in its slot and pull it out.
  3. I high light the word, or in some cases, the phrase, with the stylus.
  4. My eReader program automatically goes to my dictionary, finds the word, or the words which are closest to it and displays the definition on my screen.
  5. When I've chased down any other words in the definition I don't know, I hit "Done" and return to my original text! It takes seconds and not minutes.
For the first time in my reading life I can actually learn something from looking up words in a dictionary. I had to check out this new dictionary to see if it had all the strange things I am running into with my wide range of reading material.

Wist, Wont and blain - all old English. This baby not only tells me where the word originated and where it traveled, but the YEAR of its origination! Oh, its like candy for my mind.

Habeas corpus and that other phrases came up as soon as I correctly guessed the spelling on habeas. So, I went to the front of the dictionary and took a look at their pronunciation key. (It is a bit strange). I'm not sure if it is because the font is foreign to my eReader program, or they just have a strange system.

I started reading the definitions of things like 24/7 and 411. While grazing through a few of these abbreviations, I discovered chemical formulas! Yeah, this thing is smart enough for me - I am absolutely clueless when it comes to Chemistry.

What is so satisfying is the fluidity of my learning. Since I no longer keep having to run around trying to remember what I was looking up, or what the word ment, or what was happening in the original book, I no longer get discouraged, or angry. This is truly a miracle in my estimation. Now, my six hours of butt time on buses each week will be filled with reading and learning. It is nice to listen to music, but after awhile, I get bored.

I have thousands of things I want to read. A huge library a friend put together for me of public domain ebooks and a hundred, or so ebooks I've purchased. I also have an eight volume set of Church History on my computer, which I can easily move over to my handheld, a bit at a time.

My real prize is the 37 volumes of the Early Church Fathers. Believe it, or not, I'm in volume four of the set. These are source documents and they are amazing. I read what people thought about the works of the Early Church Fathers in the History book, but then I check for myself what these men actually WROTE. Sometimes the differences are a little scary.

Kind of like what happened over the new puppy Barak Obama promised his daughters in his acceptance speech. A day or two later, I heard a report from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) that the dog had not only been acquired, but had tried to bite a reporter! There was a bit of ga-fawing and this quite proper Canadian ended her report with: "... we'll be sure to keep you informed of any breaking (or barking) news as it happens here on the CBC". Cute report, right?

I don't know what happened for sure. But several people I know, who have turned Obama watching into their new religion, have vigorously informed me that Barak hasn't even gotten the puppy yet. A dog did try and bite a reporter, Bush's dog snapped at a reporter who reached out to pet it. I'm still not clear on where the truth is on that one.

But more then likely, I'll end up reading about the truth as I romp through my ever growing library of electronic books. I now can read comfortably not only sitting at my computer, but lying in bed, riding a bus, or standing in line. Works great in restaurants too, when I am alone with a bowl of soup.

Lying in bed is still my favorite place to read, because it has been so long since I was able to set up lighting to where I could read printed material in bed. Who needs print? I can scan it into my computer. As long as I don't sell it, who cares? Well, that's illegal, or it will be, but you never read this and I never wrote it, right?