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Void Star is one of my favorite novels of recent years.

I have at times described it as being as if China MiĆ©ville had written a book in the Bridge trilogy, with plot devices contributed by Neal Stephenson. Other times I’ve just described it as my favorite William Gibson novel this millenium. Both of which I think communicate the tone of the book and the high regard in which I hold it. With Void Star, Zachary Mason created a sort of ethereal cultural exploration, very Gibsonian in nature, and you won’t like it if you’re reading it for the plot.

The audiobook is also very good. I say this as someone who dislikes audiobooks. Neither audio books nor podcasts fit into my life, and I can count the number of audiobooks I have ever listened to on two hands. But the actors who perform the three main characters of Void Star – especially the woman who voices Irena, who I wish would perform Pattern Recognition – are all perfect in their roles and somehow manage to capture how I imagined the characters when I read the book, which is a thing that I think rarely happens in any adaptation of a book into a different medium. Zachary Mason imbues the prose of his novel with a sort of poetry and rhythm that the actors all capture perfectly. I read the book a second time months after listening to the audiobook and found myself reading it in their voice, emulating their pacing.

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Vanity Covers

One of the things I vainly enjoy about e-books is that I can choose my favorite covers and apply them to whichever edition of the book I happen to have. The cover of a book sets its mood, and browsing through these covers in the Calibre grid offers remembered fragments of the worlds within.

For Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I use the Vintage Classics cover, slightly modified.

For Trevanian’s Shibumi I use the French Gallmeister cover.

For Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series I use illustrations by Wayne Dorrington (unfortunately missing the last two).

For Uncle Bill’s Sprawl trilogy I use covers that were previously used by Editora Aleph for the Brazilian editions.

For Gibson’s Bridge and Blue Ant trilogies I use the Penguin covers.

For Burning Chrome I use Daniel Brown’s fractal cover for Gollancz.

I don’t recall where I acquired the cover for my omnibus The Lord of the Rings.

Sometimes the editions I purchase come with enjoyable covers. I have a few of William Scott Wilson’s translations of historical Japanese works, and I find the covers used for his books by Shambala Publications aesthetically pleasing.

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Book Scanning

As previously mentioned, I like e-books. Unfortunately many books are still only available as dead trees. Fortunately, the internet provides book scanning services.

These services will professionally scan a book and run the images through an OCR program. The output is usually a PDF. This is a poor format for something like a novel, where you want the text to be able to dynamically reformat itself and flow across pages, but it remains a good choice for technical and reference books, where the layout of the page tends to be fixed around things like tables and graphs.

A couple years ago I tried two book scanning services: Custom Book Scanning and 1DollarScan. Both offer destructive book scanning services, meaning they cut the spine off of the book to ensure a well orientated scan. The output from both services was similar, but since that first trial I’ve come back to Custom Book Scanning rather than 1DollarScan. I appreciate that they perform the scan at 1200 dpi, which is higher than necessary for text but can be useful for documents that include photographs. In addition to the customary PDF, they also include a Microsoft Word document, and will provide e-book formats such as EPUB and MOBI for additional cost.

In my experience the OCR performed on these scans is completely adequate for searchability, which is my main requirement for the scans to be useful. It is not good enough to output something in EPUB or MOBI. Don’t expect to run pdftotext on the document and extract anything that does not require heavy editing by a human, but you’ll certainly be able to point pdfgrep at the file and get useful output.

As an example, here is a PDF extract of the first few pages of Botany in a Day by Thomas J Elpel (7MB). It demonstrates the sort of output one can expect from these services. The full book, with all of its figures and color drawings is 155MB. Botany in a Day is also exemplary of the type of book I find it worthwhile to scan. It’s a book I first read years ago and will probably never read again cover-to-cover, but it has remained on my bookshelf for over a decade because it is an occasionally useful reference. It is worth keeping around, and a digital copy makes it even more valuable: it can be searched, and easily carried with no space or weight penalty.

So far I have not actually sent any of my books in to be scanned. Instead, I’ve purchase new – that is to say, new to me – copies of the books online and have them shipped directly to the scanner. Used books in like-new condition can generally be found fairly cheaply. In the case of reference books, this has often let me upgrade to a newer edition than the one that I previously owned (such was the case with Botany in a Day). But mostly this is just so that I get a clean scan, without worrying about any notes or dog-eared pages that I may have in my old copies. After I receive the PDF, I give away my old hard copy.

Scanning has allowed me to reduce my physical book collection more than would otherwise be possible. I still own books that have yet to be published digitally and that don’t lend themselves to scanning – I am patiently waiting for whatever luddite owns the publishing rights to AB Guthrie Jr to produce digital versions of his books, as I have no expectation that OCR would be able to deal with the mountain man slang – but I’m glad to have these services available.

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On E-Books

The Kindle Paperwhite has been my primary medium for consuming books since the beginning of 2014. E Ink is a great display technology that I wish was more wide spread, but beyond the fact that the Kindle (and I assume other e-readers) makes for a pleasant reading experience, the real value in electronic books is storage.

At its peak my physical collection was somewhere north of 200 books. As I mentioned years ago I took inspiration from Gary Snyder’s character in The Dharma Bums and stored my books in milk crates, which stack like a bookcase for normal use and kept the collection pre-boxed for moving. But that many books still take up space, and are still annoying to move. And in some regards they are fragile – redundant data storage is expensive in meatspace.

My digital library currently sits at 572 books and 13 gigabytes (the size skyrocketed after I began to archive a few comics). I could not justify that many physical books in my life. I still have a collection of dead trees, but I’m down to 3 milk crates. I store my digital library in git-annex, allowing me to redundantly replicate my collection across the globe, as well as keep copies in cold storage. I also burn yearly optical backups of the library to M-DISC. The library is managed with Calibre.

When I first bought the Kindle it required internet access to associate with my Amazon account. Ever since then, it has been in airplane mode. I spun up a temporary wireless network for the setup that I then deleted after the process was complete, ensuring that even if Amazon’s airplane mode was untrustworthy, the device would not be able to phone home. The advantages of giving the Kindle internet access seem minute, and are far outweighed by the disadvantage of having to trust Amazon.

If I purchase a book from Amazon, I select the “Download & Transfer via USB” option. This results in a crippled AZW file. I am under the radical delusion that I should own what I purchase, so I import that file into Calibre using the DeDRM_tools plugin. This strips any DRM, making the book ready to be consumed and archived. Books are transferred between my computer and the Kindle via USB, which Calibre makes simple.

When I acquire books through other channels, my preferred format is always EPUB: an open format that is simply a zip archive of HTML files. Calibre’s built-in conversion tools are quite good, giving me confidence that any e-book format I import into the library will be readable at any point in the future, but my preference is to store data in formats that are open, accessible, and understandable. The closer one gets to well-formatted plain text, the closer one gets to god.

While the Kindle excels at the linear reading of novels, I’ve also come to appreciate digital copies of reference books and technical manuals. Often the first reading of these types of books involves lots of flipping back and forth, which is easier in the dead tree variant, but after that first reading the searchability of the digital copy is far more useful for reference. The physical size of these types of books also makes them even more difficult to carry and store than other books, all but guaranteeing you won’t have access to them when you need to reference them. Digital books solve that problem.

I’m confident in my ability to securely store digital data. Whenever I import a book into my library, I know that I now have permanent access to that knowledge for the rest of my life, regardless of environmental disaster, the whims of publishing houses, or the size of my living quarters.

Thrilling Developments in the Art of Folding

I few months ago I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s not the sort of book that usually finds its way into my library, but it had been recommended periodically by a handful of different people over a year or two. I found the book to be disappointing. Many of the pages struck me as fluff – clutter, you might say, which is ironic given its subject. Edited down to a pamphlet of a dozen pages, or perhaps a short series of blog posts, it could be enjoyable, but there isn’t enough content for a book.

The one thing I did take away from the book is folding. Kondo recommends folding things such that they stand on edge in the drawer rather then being stacked on top of each other. This way all the contents of the drawer are visible at once, instead of only the things on the top of a stack.

The goal should be to organize the contents so that you can see where every item is at a glance, just as you can see the spines of the books on your bookshelves. The key is to store things standing up rather than laid flat… The number of folds should be adjusted so that the folded clothing when standing on edge fits the height of the drawer. This is the basic principle that will ultimately allow your clothes to be stacked on edge, side by side, so that when you pull open your drawer you can see the edge of every item inside.

This made sense to me. Unfortunately, the combination of having a walk-in closet in my apartment and not owning much in the way of furniture means I don’t actually fold many of my clothes. Most things end up being hanged (a Kondo no-no). I fold some less-seasonally appropriate clothing for storage in Transport Cubes (another Kondo no-no) and I fold larger things like sheets and towels for storage in underbed boxes, but neither of those really lend themselves to this method of folding.

One of the few pieces of furniture I do find useful enough to own is a filing cabinet. I keep socks in the large bottom drawer and underwear in the middle drawer. The top drawer holds an assortment of bandannas, hand wraps, and some seasonally appropriate head and neck wear. After reading the book, I dumped out all the socks and underwear and folded them to Kondo’s specifications.

It is definitely an improvement. Previously I rolled socks together, which is not very efficient in terms of volume (and disrespectful to the sock, according to Kondo). The drawer was overfilling. A pair or two would frequently fall behind the back of the drawer, where I would forget about it until I happened to notice that the drawer was no longer closing all the way.

Folded this way, everything fits. Immediately upon opening the drawer I can take stock. As with all clothing categories, I have different types of socks and different types of underwear, each more or less appropriate for different applications. A quick glance in the drawer lets me know what I have available, and when it may be time to address the laundry pile.


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Currently reading Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald.

The novel tells the story of dynasties struggling for power on the moon, which has been settled and turned into a mining colony. It has been described as “Game of Thrones in space”. While I have not read Game of Thrones, that seems like a roundabout way of saying that it is like another series that deals with the struggles of feudal families mining resources in space. Luna is much like Dune – even up to including a female religious order interested in long term breeding programs and social experiment (funded by The Long Now, of course). Fans of classic science fiction will likely feel at home in its pages. I look forward to the sequel.

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Currently reading The New Spymasters by Stephen Grey.

The book begins with an overview of espionage immediately before, during, and shortly after the Cold War, before moving on to the role played by Western intelligence agencies in the current millenium. Grey contrasts the earlier focus on human intelligence with the growing dependency on signals intelligence and assassination programs, and makes a compelling case for the need to return to a balanced approach with a focus on traditional spy running.

The dichotomy is reminiscent between that of the longer-term, unconventional warfare practiced by US Special Forces and the direct action focus of other Special Operations Forces as discussed by Tony Schwalm.