Finding the best ebook format

February 4th, 2016

I haven’t looked up survey results to confirm this, but I doubt that very many technical writers are producing their documentation in ebook format. However, some of the things that you need to think about when producing ebooks also apply to the new responsive HTML formats that current tools like Flare, RoboHelp, or WebWorks ePublisher can produce.

DBW has a good article that examines some of the design issues in producing ebooks that were originally based on a print design. Writers producing responsive help need to consider some of the issues raised in this article, even if they’re not specifically producing EPUB/MOBI/iBook files.

One purpose of print design is helping readers find their way from chapter title to text to sidebar to footnote. Another is decoration: using typefaces, color, imagery and ornament to embellish. Sometimes navigation and decoration work together to provide extra meaning (for example, in a cookbook, blue recipe titles can indicate main courses; red titles, desserts).

But navigation, decoration and meaning work differently in reflowable ebooks. Users change font and font size at will, causing reflow; decoration may or may not display well in different reading modes (particularly night mode); and light-blue heads may not be very visible in e-ink devices, and text to speech doesn’t mention that it’s reading a blue recipe title instead of a red one.

Developing reflowable and fixed-layout ebooks is a combination of design and technology. Developers need to know how to build solid, semantic HTML documents, and how to wield CSS to create attractive, useful books.

Rescuing Columbia

February 2nd, 2016

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Columbia disaster in which seven astronauts died when their Space Shuttle disintegrated on re-entry over Texas. In the subsequent investigation, it became clear that at least some of NASA’s engineers were worried that the foam impact had fatally damaged the orbiter and had lobbied for access to classified assets (spy satellites) to take photographs of Shuttle so they could try to ascertain the damage. If they had known conclusively that Columbia couldn’t safely re-enter, was there anything that could have been done.

Hindsight is always 20-20m but in retrospect it seems that a rescue mission could have been launched. It would have been insanely risky, but there was at least a chance that it might have worked. Ars Technica looks at the plan and what would have been involved.

During the writing of its report, the CAIB had the same question, so it asked NASA to develop a theoretical repair and rescue plan for Columbia “based on the premise that the wing damage events during launch were recognized early during the mission.” The result was an absolutely remarkable set of documents, which appear at the end of the report as Appendix D.13. They carry the low-key title “STS-107 In-Flight Options Assessment,” but the scenario they outline would have pushed NASA to its absolute limits as it mounted the most dramatic space mission of all time.

Locus recommended reading list and poll

February 1st, 2016

Locus, the news magazine of the SF field, has released it’s annual recommended reading list for 2015. It’s a good start to finding books and stories to nominate for the Hugo awards, but I do see one notable omission – Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities is not on the best novel list, and it should be. I’m a bit more than halfway through it and I will be nominating it for a Hugo. Many of the stories in the short fiction categories are linked to online versions.

Concurrently with the recommended reading list. Locus has also posted the ballot for the annual Locus poll and survey.  I believe (I could be wrong) that the poll is used to determine the winners of the Locus Awards. You don’t have to be a Locus subscriber to vote, but Locus subscribers’ votes count double.

Garnet Rogers at Hugh’s Room

January 31st, 2016

We certainly enjoyed Garnet Rogers’ show last night at Hugh’s Room. The place was packed, as usual. Garnet was in fine form, both vocally and instrumentally, playing half a dozen different guitars. Standouts were the first set closer of The Last Trawl > Make and Break Harbour, and in the second set, a gorgeous version of The King of Rome (on the Yamaha electric bodyless guitar with full synthesized orchestration).

The show closer was a powerful electric performance of Night Drive > Northwest Passage. And when I say electric, I mean more than just the guitar – Garnet sang Northwest Passage with more fervour than I’ve heard from him before, blasting fuzzed out power chords into the audience like he was channelling Pete Townsend. It gave me goosebumps. Unfortunately, we had to skip the encore to catch the last GO train.

He also read a couple of passages from his forthcoming book about the 10 years he spent touring with brother Stan. It’ll be called, appropriately enough, Night Drive and should be out in a couple of months. During the set break, I asked him if there would be an ebook edition and he said not right away, but he is planning to release an audiobook, which he’ll read himself. Based on his readings last night, I think that will be the one to get.

He will be back at Hugh’s Room on March 12, opening for Judy Collins and at Acoustic Harvest in Scarborough on September 17.

Snapseed – a review

January 30th, 2016

I’ve been using Snapseed as the primary photo editing app on my phone for some time. It’s powerful and easy to use, more so than the default photo editing app that comes with my Samsung phone. Amateur Photographer just published a detailed review. If you have an Android or Apple phone, I’d definitely recommend it.

Nik Software has been developing a range of excellent plug-ins and standalone software for photographers since the 1990s. Most famous for its image-editing program Snapseed, the company was acquired by Google in 2012 and its focus was steered towards mobile image editing. The desktop version of Snapseed was dropped in 2013 and the mobile app began having bigger and better updates.

Skip forward to April 2015 and Snapseed 2.0 was released in the Google Play and Apple App Store. This new update was a complete overhaul. The user interface changed and the toolset became more comprehensive than ever, making it one of the most sophisticated editing apps available – all for free!

It’s available on iOS and Android, and both versions work similarly across both platforms, with the same feature set. The interface is also consistent between tablets and phones. Once the app is open, users can edit images from albums on their smart device. When an image is open, there are a few options. By double-tapping the screen, users can zoom into the image and move around using the navigator in the bottom left of the screen. When zoomed out, users can toggle a histogram on or off in the bottom-left corner. In the top right is a menu that allows users to undo, redo, revert a recent adjustment, share the image, or look at the details of the file including camera, shutter speed, aperture and more. The most important element, though, is the Pencil icon in the bottom right, which marks all the editing functions available. These are in two sections: Tools and Filters.


Paul Kantner, R.I.P.

January 29th, 2016

The news came late last night that Paul Kantner, guitarist and singer for the Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship had died from a heart attack at the age of 74. There has been a spate of high-profile musicians dying recently, but this one really hurt.

Like everyone else my age in the mid-sixties, I was a Beatles fan, but the Airplane were my gateway into the world of rock and roll. I wasn’t a serious music fan until I heard Somebody to Love on the radio, and a short time later, White Rabbit. They burned their way into my brain, permanently frying some synapses and opening others. When I got to SAM’s on my first visit to Toronto, the first album I bought was Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.

I saw the Airplane live twice while attending university in Windsor. The first concert, at the Grandee Ballroom in Detroit, was a bit disappointing in that there were two shows that night, so the Airplane’s set was less than an hour long and was interrupted by a power failure. They were great anyway, but I wanted more. The second concert, at the East Towne Theater in 1969 was another matter. The Airplane were touring with their own light show and they played for about 2-1/2 hours. They were loud, really really loud, tremendously powerful, energetic, and beautiful. Kantner’s 12-string cut through the roar, ringing like a giant cathedral bell. After all these years, I still think it was the best rock concert that I’ve been to.

Kantner’s pre-Jefferson Starshp “solo” albums, Blows Against the Empire, Sunfigher, and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, are for me the peak of his career. Most of the songs have a science fiction theme and Kantner’s 12-string is prominent. Recorded with the cream of the West Coast’s musicians (Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, David Crosby, Neil Young) in what became known as the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (PERRO), they still sound as vital and exciting as the did 40 years ago.  Although Blows is the best know, Baron von Tollbooth is Paul’s masterpiece.

I saw the Jefferson Starship twice in the 70s, playing to huge crowds on account of the commercial success of Red Octupus and Miracles, but they didn’t have the magic of the original Airplane. For me, it was Kantner’s science fiction epics that stood out: Ride the Tiger, St. Charles, Dance with the Dragon.

In 2006, I attended a conference in San Francisco and one night a friend drove me around the city. We stopped at a North Beach café for coffee and sitting in the back reading a newspaper was Paul Kantner. (It might not have been him, but I’m fairly certain it was – he lived in the area and wasn’t on tour at the time). I didn’t have the nerve to bother him and he left. I rather regret that now, although I’m not sure what I could have said, other than thank you for all music you gave us. So I guess I’m saying it now.