Kindle is not for me

Surely I must count as some sort of a dinosaur, as it was only today that I’d purchased – and then promptly returned – my very first Kindle e-book. I managed to avoid Kindle up until now by being able to find paper books or online e-books at my university library for the titles I needed. But today I urgently needed a book that wasn’t available at my library and I couldn’t find it in any other electronic format.

I did see the book before in some kind of a PDF format for a reasonable price at Google Play, and I naively assumed that it would be waiting for me there in my moment of need. It turns out that e-books can sell out too (how exactly, I don’t quite understand), as the PDF was gone from Google Play and is nowhere to be found on the net.

The Kindle version of the book I was looking for was slightly cheaper than the paperback, and if I bought it I could have it instantly, so I took the plunge and purchased it. I downloaded a copy to my “Kindle for PC” app, and another copy to the Kindle app on my iPad. But as soon as I started reading, I began to run into several disappointing surprises.

First, there was no real pagination for this academic e-book, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to reference quotes directly. I was amazed that after all these years of kicking around, the Kindle people still haven’t solved this problem.

I also found it inconvenient that when I carried out any sort of operation with the e-book such as a simple search, Kindle would re-flow the text and it would end up looking different every time. The highlighted text with my note that I expected to find at the top of the page ended up at the bottom of the page and so on. Annoying. I need to have a sense of where stuff is in the book that I’ve already read and made a note of. Shifting its position around just makes it more difficult to comprehend an already challenging academic text.

Then I discovered that there was no direct and easy way to export my highlights and annotations from either the PC or the iOS app. The only way I could get any quotes or notes out was if I enabled an external clipboard capture software and copied each quote and note individually. I was ready to put up with that until after an hour of copying and pasting Kindle had kindly informed me that I had reached the copying limit set by the publisher. What? I’ve paid for this book, I should be able to copy out anything I like from it for my personal use, just like I can do with a paper book. I was starting to get angry.

The “icing on the cake” was when I had enough of reading on  the PC and I decided to carry on in my armchair using the iPad. When I loaded the Kindle iOS app, I fully expected to see my highlights and annotations that I had created on the PC app and which had been synced with the Amazon cloud. But after several attempts at reloading and refreshing, my notes simply didn’t show up on my iPad.

Perhaps some of the above problems had to do with me being a Kindle novice and missing some of the features that may have solved them instantly. But I just had an overwhelming feeling of being underserved and constrained by both Kindle apps and the entire platform. Both apps are very feature-poor compared to such excellent PDF readers like GoodReader or PDF Expert. I could think of two possible reasons for this. 1) Amazon can’t be bothered about the academic market that needs page numbers and annotation sync and export, or 2) it is some sort of an underhanded effort to force you to buy an actual Kindle device, where I presume at least some of the above issues have already been resolved.

Whatever the case, I’ve returned my first Kindle e-book and I will avoid buying another one, if I can help it. And I certainly won’t be buying a Kindle device any time soon. I’d rather read a good old PDF file on my iPad any day!

P.S. (12-Apr-2013):

Another shortcoming of the desktop PC Kindle app is its inadequate search function. I did a search for a single word in my e-book, and Kindle returned the suspiciously round figure of 100 results. I went through all the 100 results and then repeated the search. Not only did I get a different figure the second time (99 results), but they included results not contained in the previous search. When I manually flipped through the rest of the book, I found several occurrences of the search term that were simply not found by the Kindle app in either of the first two searches.

Together with everything else I mentioned, this makes the Kindle PC app – in conjunction with the iOS app – unsuitable for academic reading (at least in comparison with the tools available in PDF readers such the aforementioned iOS apps and PDF-XChange Viewer on the PC).

P.P.S. (12-Apr-2013):

Out of curiosity, today I had installed the PC app for NOOK Study and downloaded the same e-book (in whatever format NOOK uses) that I tested with the Kindle app. NOOK Study is directly targeting the academic audience, so I expected it to be more sophisticated. And it was, to some minor extent. For one, it allows you to export your annotations in .doc and .txt format, which would work for me. But I still found it far inferior to the PDF readers I use. I wasn’t able to test the search function because, as NOOK informed me, they were still building the search index for this book, and the search function would be available at some point in the future, depending on the size of my library. It all sounded a bit too tentative to me.

However, the problem of the page numbers has not been resolved. NOOK did provide the page numbers, but they were not the same as those of the paperback, which they claimed to have used for the e-book version. Basically they had started numbering the pages from the electronic table of contents that they had inserted in front of the cover of the scanned book, and then they kept on counting all the pages for which there weren’t even page numbers in the paperback. For this reason all the page numbers had shifted. This wouldn’t be a problem if the text of the book had not been reflowed, as I could have just recalculated the pages myself. But unfortunately NOOK re-flows the pages, meaning that the pages become meaningless and useless for the purposes of academic referencing. Too bad. PDFs it will be…

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Recursive outlining and writing

I am in the middle of writing my dissertation, and I’m constantly experimenting with my writing process flow and set-up. I have two monitors, a 19 and a 22-inch one. The overall writing process appears to be a recursive process of  alternating between outlining and writing (though the two are not always clearly separable).

My actual writing started once I got to a point that I had so many outlines in different outliners that the only way out of that morass was to start writing them up. Let’s call that condition obsessive-compulsive outlining behaviour (OCOB), and the cure “writing.” The reason for the many outlines is that I use outliners as part of a distillation process, for extracting and abstracting information by translating ideas from one outliner into another. This is a fun and productive process until it gets out of hand and you end up with more outlines than you can keep track of. At that point I decided to start writing, so that the written piece be the place where all the information from the various outlines can be consolidated into a final train of thought.

To my surprise I have selected Word 2010 as my main writing tool. I considered Scrivener and DragonPad, but I found that Word trumped them by being compatible with the most software that I wanted to use during the writing process. For one, I could dictate directly into Word and all the Dragon NaturallySpeaking functions would work the same as in DragonPad, making DragonPad redundant. Scrivener on the other hand couldn’t handle direct Dragon dictation. But I also already had a detailed outline in Scrivener (using it as a two-pane outliner), so it seemed sensible to keep that open in my second monitor, while doing the writing in another software in my main monitor.

For times when I wouldn’t be using Dragon, I would want to use WordExpander to speed up the typing, and it turned out that it would display the pop-up menu of word choices by the cursor in Word but not in Scrivener. Finally, Word has an EndNote add-in, so I could directly be inserting references as I write, rather than using a more roundabout way of referencing in Scrivener by having to paste in raw EndNote code first, and then having to convert it once the Scrivener draft had been exported into Word. While Scrivener has strengths when it comes to tracking word count and to switching from an individual section view to a total document (Scrivenings) view, word count in Word is acceptable and I can use headings to navigate the document when the Navigation Pane is enabled.

So, Word is open in my 19-in monitor that is facing me and where I do the final writing up (dictating with Dragon or typing with WordExpander). I also have a little 4-inch (10 cm) of a NoteTab Light window open on the right of the Word window, where I type quick notes I need to refer to or text fragments I want to use a bit later.

In my 22-in monitor that I have on my right-hand side at an angle, I have a number of software windows open, though not all at the same time. At most there would be two open at any one time, arranged vertically.These would include my three main outlines which I have given up on consolidating into a single overall outline. They are in Natara Bonsai (a single-pane outliner), Outline 4D (a single-pane outliner with inline notes), and Scrivener (a two-pane outliner). Scrivener holds my overall outline for the whole PhD, for all 8 chapters. Outline 4D holds a detailed outline just for my current chapter.

The advantage of Outline 4D over Scrivener (as an outliner) is that it is single-pane, so I can see the entire text with its headings and sub-headings in a single window. Although Scrivener does have the “Scrivenings” view which combines all its documents into a single view, it is more of a ‘tape’ view than an outline view. Plus in Outline 4D you can select different colours and fonts for the different hierarchical levels, which makes navigating and comprehending the outline easier.

Finally, I have an even more detailed outline of just one section of the chapter in Bonsai. Bonsai’s disadvantage over Outline 4D is that it does not have inline notes (notes can be displayed in a separate pane to the right of the outline or at the bottom, which is just not the same). On the other hand Bonsai is faster to operate than Outline 4D, can cram more information into the same amount of window space, and it also allows you to colour in hierarchical levels.

Besides the outlines, I also need to have ConnectedText (CT) open, as it contains my reading notes. This information is more detailed than the one in the outlines. If I need even more detail about the particular source (usually an academic article), then I look at the corresponding PDF with the original article in PDF XChange Viewer (it’s called up by one click on the PDF link in CT). Finally, I also have Directory Opus open, should I need to look for a file that way; EndNote, so I can insert references directly into Word as I’m writing; and Waterfox, so I can look up things on the Internet, when necessary.

This describes the set-up of my outline-to-writing process. It’s a matter of gathering and weaving the information from the various application windows together into the written text in Word. However, the reason I called this “recursive outlining and writing” is because after I had written a reasonably big junk of text, I need to go back and outline some more. The reason for this is that the actual written text has its implicit outline of its own, which does not fully correspond to any of the original outlines. First, it already started out as an amalgam of the other three outlines, so it naturally can’t be identical with any of them perfectly. However, the work of outlining and conceptual development continues during the writing process itself. The writing itself is the workshop where some of the final ideas get eventually hammered out. The text has some new content.

In order to fully grasp the implicit structure of the argument that I have developed in the course of the writing, I need to re-create it in another outline. (It’s difficult to discern this structure easily in the written text itself, once you have thousands of words in a complex academic-type writing). Let’s call this step “retrospective” or “reverse outlining.” The perfect tool for this I found in VUE. I did try Noteliner first, but I found that using a visual concept-map worked better than yet another text-based outline.

I maximised the VUE window to the entire 22-in monitor, and starting at the top, flowing from left to right, and then downwards, I started to map out the core argument of each paragraph in the form of a concept map. When the screen filled up, I just continued scrolling down (there seems to be unlimited space). I also used colour to mark out important moments such as theses, propositions or key findings. Each major section of the chapter is represented by nodes in different colour. Arrows are used to represent logical relationships.

This is the overall shape of the concept map for the chapter that I’m currently working on, in a 25% zoomed-out view (text becomes visible at a 50% zoom):

This reverse visual outline helped me find gaps in my argument, as well as redundant sections. It also worked as an analytical tool, as it helped me discover new relationships and come up with new findings and interpretations. It also helps with developing a sense for what to write about next. This recursive process of outlining-writing-outlining (with the help of VUE as the virtual whiteboard where I sort all my conceptual issues out) is likely to become a permanent part of my writing practice. I am even considering printing these VUE maps out and pinning them on the wall. This would enable me to survey the entire line of argument from chapter 1 to chapter 8 of my dissertation, that represents a text potentially the size of 80,000-100,000 words.