Wikileaks and the other hand

How much of our mainstream media is distractions, nowadays?

How much of the area of any news site page is actually information you need?

It's getting a bit hard to keep your eye on the ball. Important changes happen nearly every day, but they're drowned out by the "celebrity" gossip and vociferous editorials.

While following the Wikileaks releases, I have found this to be a major obstruction to actually finding out WTF is going on. Does our media show us any of the original documents released by Wikileaks? Or does it just pick and choose bits of information, then smother them in the thick sauce of opinion?

There also seems to be quite a bit of disinformation going around. Let's look at a sample of the most common distractions...

Nothing to see here, move on

We're told that the Wikileaks releases on the Iraq War, then the Afghan War, and now the diplomatic cables are "nothing new, we all knew this", it's "unimportant", while also being told that

Danger! Danger!

it will "cost lives". Neither turns out to be true. A great deal of new information is included in each Wikileaks release, things that we definitely didn't know about how our governments are acting in our name. The number of deaths, injuries and damage to ordinary Iraqis and Afghans is far greater than any admitted by our governments. They are committing assassinations with our implied consent. They are disregarding human rights and the rules of war (remember that Wikileaks also published the Guantanamo Bay operating manual).

How many times have you seen the "cost lives" and "dangerous", "irresponsible" comments? These continue to be made, even though nobody can point to any lives lost or anyone harmed by Wikileaks' revelations. The Pentagon has specifically said that nobody has been harmed. But the disinformation continues. It's confusing, and we could do without it.

What about

Bias and editorializing

in WIkileaks documents? We're told that Wikileaks is choosing to release only certain documents, and forcing their opinion on us. We need to look more closely at our mainstream media. Wikileaks releases the entire contents of any document group they are sent. Once, they supplied a summary version of the Collateral Murder video, alongside the complete version. Since being heavily criticized for doing that (something any other media group would do as ordinary practice), Wikileaks simply supplies the original documents to big newspapers like the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times. So who's editorializing? Oddly enough, you don't see many criticisms of the big newspapers for choosing to talk about specific documents (although most don't allow you to see them) and adding opinion.

Wikileaks only supply the original documents, and they don't pick and choose, which means they're

Overloading us!

There's too much information! How can we find the bits we really want, or analyze what it means to us? That's what a reputable media organization is supposed to do. The Guardian has done the best job in this respect. The BBC also provides links to the original documents, sorts them into categories, and explains their significance. While complaining about overloading, I've seen the same people complain that Wikileaks hasn't released all the cables yet.

Releasing them in smaller groups makes it easier for the media organizations to analyze them and provide them in a way which is easier for us to handle. I expect Wikileaks have done this after watching the Iraq War and Afghan War documents slip out of the public mind so quickly. There was a huge amount of new and important information in those documents, but they were old news, and besides, we had to read stuff. Hey, a sports star got drunk and did something stupid!

However, universities and other research organizations continue to work with the documents Wikileaks has released. There have been some very interesting papers published about the 9/11 pager records (did you know Wikileaks released them? not on your front page?). They show that our assumptions about the way people react in an emergency can be quite incorrect. This affects our planning for natural disasters. With the Wikileaks documents, people are analyzing history as it happens.

As people get the time and resources, each lot of documents which Wikileaks releases is provided free of charge online, in a searchable database, with a number of tools to make it easier to find what you want. This isn't just Page 1 for 10 minutes. It's something to chew on.

So, while we're getting seriously interested in what Wikileaks shows us (this was about a year or so ago), suddenly there are heaps of articles asking

Who is (behind) Wikileaks?

You wouldn't believe the time and effort spent on filling up our news pages with speculation on who Wikileaks might be and (most importantly for an hierarchic institution like the U.S. government) who is leading it. The actual Wikileaks documents, and the facts they contain, fade away from the front page again.

To avoid this distraction, and put an end to the continual speculation, Julian Assange comes out as the Wikileaks frontman. He spends a lot of time trying to drag questions about his personal life and ambitions back to what Wikileaks is doing. This results in

Look at Julian Assange!!!


So we get pages and pages of mostly speculation about Assange, his hairstyle, his childhood and a book he apparently co-authored many years ago and which I doubt if anyone much has read. FFS.

Assange does get to talk about Wikileaks and its aims at some software and development conferences, but in the mainstream press he's still a focus of speculation ("who is he, really?"), aversion ("he's a bit creepy, with that white hair") and gushing ("he's so smart!"), and for all we know, there have been cults formed to worship and/or defeat him.

But we can get back to the Wikileaks documents. There's a lot going on with analysis of the Iraq and Afghan War data. Unfortunately, we have to dig past the front pages to find it.

Meanwhile, in Sweden...

Yes, yes, oh YES!!!



depending on the facts, which we hope to see sometime this decade. Assange's sex life, which he understandably says is "private", is now front-page news. Now, normally a charge like this would be made, the suspect would be interviewed, the case moved quickly through the courts, and the details kept as private as possible. After all, these are serious charges, and the people involved don't want a media storm.

They get one anyway. In fact, a Swedish tabloid news site knew about the allegations before Julian Assange did (the information was illegally leaked by the prosecutor). Assange only found out because people pointed him to the article. That same tabloid news site flogged the story in social media for days.

Meanwhile, back to the Wikileaks documents...


Maybe not. The story goes viral, while Julian Assange unsuccessfully tries to talk to the prosecutors about the case. They don't want to see him. At some stage (it's hard to keep up), a more senior prosecutor dropped the charges, saying there was nothing to substantiate them. Fine, there's genuinely nothing to see here. Back to the Afghan War documents?

Nope. The "sexual assault" allegations continue to be flogged in the media. There are ins and outs, ups and downs and among all this, the charge is restated and the circus continues. Assange keeps trying to be interviewed (this goes on for months), then is told he can leave the country with no conditions, they don't need to talk to him.

So he leaves, and the big news is the release of the U.S. diplomatic cables. This affects every country in the world, and we're just starting to take that in when

Interpol Most Wanted!!!

Oh FFS. Leave us alone. Assange probably felt the same. These warrants are issued for fugitives who are also extremely dangerous international criminals: war criminals, organized crime kingpins, drug mafia. So we all goggle for a bit, and the media thrashes the topic.

I could continue, but having struggled through this morass for weeks, I'll spare you the details. The result is that Assange, who gave himself up and at all times said he was happy to talk to the prosecutors, is currently in gaol, because Sweden claims he's a fugitive.

Meanwhile, how are those diplomatic cables going?

We find out that the U.S government has instructed its diplomats to spy on the United Nations, stealing credit card details, DNA etc. (a multitude of criminal acts). The U.S. government has widened the war to Yemen, despite denying that formally and repeatedly. China is willing to allow the Korean peninsula to re-unite and

Assange is a sociopath

Huh? What about...? Oh, for heaven's sake. This particular distraction varies in accusation: Assange is a sociopath (despite working continually for others' welfare), a narcissist (despite wanting to talk about Wikileaks rather than himself), making millions out of Wikileaks and living the luxury life he denies you (despite having to be reminded to eat and often sleeping on the computer-room floor). But it's scary, isn't it? Outrageous, that this person, who has been shoved in your face continually for the past year, and is a RAPIST, has caused all those deaths and misery through releasing those documents—

Hang on. Haven't we been here before?

OK. Balanced approach. Look at the facts. Don't be distracted by the hoopla. I can do that.

The diplomatic cables confirm that parts, at least of Russia are effectively mafia states


{sigh} Yep, apparently Assange is a terrorist and Wikileaks is a criminal organization (despite not having broken any laws). The media doesn't generally mention Wikileaks in these attacks, describing it as "Assange's group". Both the U.S. and Australian governments say they have "teams of lawyers" trying to find ways to charge him and "his group". Wow, it's great to be a citizen of the free world.

This is starting to stink just a bit. What is really going on with the attacks on Assange? So we waste huge amounts of time following this up. Not that Assange will mind our support (and he probably needs it), but the issue is actually what Wikileaks does, and the freedoms which it embodies.

Publishing leaked documents is not against the law. In fact, it's specifically protected by law, otherwise journalists couldn't expose corruption among those in power. Leaking documents is also protected under whistleblower law. This is about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It affects all of us

Kill him!

That is definitely going too far. Incitement to murder is against the law. Oddly enough, neither the U.S. nor the Australian government seems to mind. But you (various American establishment figures) can't just call for someone to be murdered because you don't like their opinions. People online have become outraged by this egregious addition to what seems like a series of over-reactions by the U.S. government. Why don't they just let the whole document release happen and then blow over? we ask ourselves.

Because the over-reaction is the distraction. "Watch carefully," the magician says, waving one hand, while s/he does something sneaky with the other hand. Behind all the media circus, the U.S government is trying to do what several totalitarian governments and corporations have failed to do (after their abuses were exposed): shut down Wikileaks.

Wikileaks won't be the only online organization trying to make it easier for ordinary people to access information about what is done in their name, with their money and even their lives. But it is the first really effective one. It is a symbol of Internet empowerment, of the change new media brings. It is a challenge for governments increasingly trying to control ("filter") the Internet, and eavesdrop on everything we do. People are rallying around Wikileaks and paying attention to the information it makes available. The U.S. government wants that to stop.

So they're trying to starve it of resources. The U.S. government has bullied PayPal, Visa, Mastercard and even a Swiss Bank into refusing to process donations to Wikileaks, and freezing those accounts. They have bullied Amazon into booting Wikileaks off their servers, and have bullied various European governments (the French showing up as the most pusillanimous) into trying to shut down Wikileaks servers in that country. They do this with the excuse of "illegality", even though their bullying is illegal, and Wikileaks hasn't broken any law.

"Keep on target..."

Amongst all this furore and our understandable outrage, we have to understand what's really important to us. That's our freedom to share information online. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This is the right which our governments threaten, by trying to censor the Internet and shut down groups like Wikileaks. For democracy ("power by the people"), we need free speech, and we need a free press. Those two rights are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, which all of its government members have sworn to uphold. A country breaking away from an exploitative empire considered those rights among its most important. At that time, England was the oppressive tyrant, and America was the group trying to assert its rights to self-determination.

If our governments are determined to infringe our human rights, and our corporations are determined to see us only as mindless consumers to be fed the next toy, it's up to us to choose a freer life. Take a breath of fresh air. Go for a walk. Think of the things that really matter in your life.

Then come back here and start defending your rights. Start by defending and supporting Wikileaks, because they're the tip of our iceberg, and it's melting fast.


The Accessible E-reader

This article was originally written for Oz E-Books.

The Accessible E-reader

A small child reaching for books on a shelf
(Stock image by bies from stock.xching, sxu licence)

What does "accessibility" really mean? Is it just for disabled people?

Actually, no. "Accessibility" means the ability to access something. It means making something easy to use. This benefits everyone.

Whenever you have trouble understanding or using a program or device, you're encountering a lack of accessibility. This often comes down to the way the app or device is controlled and presented. Accessibility is simply good design.

Disabled people are particularly aware of this, because they have more difficulty in certain areas. For example, someone with visual difficulties may need a larger font, or a coloured background. Someone without those difficulties will still have trouble reading small print on a reflective background. Everyone reads more effectively with fewer distractions.

It Just Works

When you compare one device or app with another, you're looking for accessibility. You don't want to have to learn a lot of new stuff. You don't want something that makes the task more difficult or complex. You want something that's straightforward and easy to use.

If the device or app doesn't work in some way, then that gets in the way of what you want to do. If it is unreliable, slow or missing things you need, then it's not doing the job. The best apps and devices "just work".

The Right Device

It's really difficult to buy a device online, although customer reviews can help. If this device is different from anything you've used before, is it really going to suit you? It's certainly worth going to where you can see it and try it out.

  • Does it look confusing, or interesting?
  • Does it sit comfortably in your hand?
  • Are the buttons easy to reach and use?
  • Is the screen easy to read?
  • Is the software easy to understand and use?
  • Does it load files and turn pages at the right speed for you?
  • Does it do all the things you need it to do?

Nevermind all the technical details, or how popular it is. The real test is whether this device works the way you want it to work.

Specific Needs

So what suits you, may not suit someone else. This is where detailed accessibility comes in. For example, if someone listens to a lot of audio books, then they definitely need good audio quality and the ability to play audiobooks and/or convert text to speech.

So looking for an e-reader is like looking for the right car. Is there enough room inside? Does it get good mileage? How good is its engine? Is it comfortable for you, and does it have all the things you need?

Just like when you decide to buy a car, you spend some time thinking about what you need, how much you want to spend, and how much each feature is worth to you.


A high-quality screen reduces eyestrain and makes it much easier to read. Is it easy to read on this screen? What's it like in artificial light and daylight? Try it out in different situations.

Does the device or e-reading software have a night setting (for low light or reading in the dark)? A high-quality device will also avoid eyestrain by adjusting the backlight/brightness when there is more or less ambient light.

A good screen will reflect less light, and on top of that, anti-glare screen-protectors can make your screen much easier to view in different light conditions.

Different background colours work for different people. You see this in the coloured glasses some people wear for reading. Even if you don't have visual difficulties, you may find you read more easily off a coloured background. (I do best with a yellowish colour, for some reason.) White is actually the worst background colour for reading, because it reflects the most light, distracting and tiring your eyes. Compare reading off a blackboard and a whiteboard.

Although different font sizes were first invented for advertizing, and later sporadically provided to help people with visual difficulties (e.g. Large Print Books), this is a basic feature on computers nowadays. We've all found that different font sizes work better in different situations. Different fonts and sizes also help make things clearer. Like me, you've probably found a "favourite" font, size and type which makes it easier for you to understand what you're reading.

People with visual difficulties have had to find out what helps them read. They may use a "reversed" display (white on black), a specific background colour, a different font size/type, even "special" tools for reading. But the fact is that we all read better with the right screen, background and font size/type. So it's worth finding out what suits you best, then making sure your device/app provides it.

(For reading in your browser, check out the free tool Readability.)


Whether you want to listen to audiobooks, spoken text, radio or your music library, you need good audio quality on your device. Does it sound good through the internal speakers? How about through headphones? You might want to connect your device to external speakers. Does this particular device deliver the clarity and quality of sound you want?

If you want to listen to spoken text, how good is the Text-to-Speech software? Will it read you the material you want, and do it well enough? Is it easy to manage this feature? Do you want it to read you text messages and email? Can you get ebooks/files for this device which allow Text-to-Speech?

Again, what works for disabled people also helps everyone else. Clearer, higher-quality audio is easier to hear and understand. Wider availability of audiobooks and Text-to-Speech means greater access to our information and entertainment, whether we're having difficulty reading, or whether we're busy driving a car.


An "intuitive" interface is one that makes sense to you. You can see where all the bits are, and can easily work out what they do. The software should have a QuickStart with illustrations or video. Reading the manual is always a good idea, but you shouldn't have to do that simply to start using the app or device.

A cluttered or complicated interface will be harder to use, and will use up your concentration more quickly. This may be more obvious to disabled people, but everyone does better with a simple, intuitive interface. It doesn't get in the way, it doesn't waste your time hunting for the "right" item, and you can use it more easily and for longer without getting tired.


On this device, where are the physical buttons, keyboard or other controls? Are they easy to use? Do they fit your fingers well? Is it easy to tell whether you've pressed them? Are they protected from accidental pressing? Is it obvious what they do? Like everything else, buttons should be easy to understand and use.

If the device has a touch-screen (and the associated software), does it work properly and actually make life easier? Some low-quality touch-screens don't react quickly or consistently when you touch them, or they aren't easy to control. (For example, today a friend told me, "My touch-screen scrolls past so quickly, I can't keep up. It won't scroll slowly".)

Does the touch-screen allow you a variety of different controls, e.g. swiping, using two fingers, even pressure-sensitive touch? These extra controls make it easier for you to use the software without an external keyboard or mouse. They also reduce the load on the buttons, which are "moving parts" and wear out faster. New features in applications now require this kind of variable touch control. If you're going for a touchscreen, get a good one with multi-touch.

For reading, what's the most comfortable and easy way for you to turn pages? Reader software for a touchscreen device should allow you to choose where to tap (the left, right, top or bottom of the screen) in order to turn the page. This is a movement you will be making millions of times, so having it in the right position makes a big difference. On a non-touchscreen device, does the software allow you to assign the page-turn function to different buttons, so the button you use is in the best position for you?

The page-turn-press position doesn't just vary between left-handed and right-handed people. (For example, I started using handheld devices principally to read books, so I held them in my (non-dominant) left hand, where I would hold a book. My daughter's first devices were iPods, which she held in her (dominant) right hand, to have finer muscle control of the different functions. Now we both have iPhones, but I hold mine in my left hand and she holds hers in her right hand.) Different people are more comfortable holding devices in different hands, or in different ways. That is why more advanced devices have customizable controls.

Reading View

Does the software display a clean, uncluttered page for you to read?

eReader in reading viewBorders reader in reading view

(From left to right: on the iPhone 4, eReader in reading view with my chosen background and font, and Borders reader in night reading view)

For the best reading experience, there shouldn't be anything distracting you or getting in the way. On a touchscreen device, the software should have the option to hide the toolbar and any other information, only bringing it up when you request it.

eReader with toolbar showingBorders reader with toolbar showing

(eReader and Borders reader show toolbars at a touch)

On a non-touchscreen device, any on-screen information should be minimal and unobtrusive. Sure, there are other things you'll do with your reader, like managing your library, transferring books, even buying more books, but none of that should get in the way of the primary reading experience. If it does, you won't find it as easy and comfortable to read.

The software should allow you to to set the background colour and font size/type, as mentioned above and shown in the screenshots, to suit your own personal comfort. It should also allow you to change orientation (portrait or landscape) so you can shift the position of the device in your hand, or view files which look better in landscape. More advanced devices make it very easy and intuitive to do this: simply by turning the device sideways.

Does the software break up pages and chapters at the right point, does it hyphenate words correctly and does it display cover images and links? Can you make notes in your book or document? Can you look up words in a dictionary? These are all basic features which your e-reader should have.

How well does the software display PDF documents? Although PDFs are popular for their portability, they're more like images than text documents, so the e-reading software has to be able to handle the original size of the image. Does it reflow the PDF properly (to fit the screen while keeping a readable font size)? Can you zoom, and scroll sideways if necessary? How easy is it to read these documents?

If you're buying this device principally as an e-reader, reading is the experience you'll want to test most. If possible, borrow the device and read a book on it. Try a newspaper or magazine. Open a few files in different formats. Does it do what you want, and is it comfortable and easy to use? If you can test more than one device, on which one do you enjoy reading more?

Library View

On a handheld device, you also need to be able to find the book you want. Can you sort your library by Author, Title and Date, then go quickly to a particular section? Can you search for a specific book in your on-device Library? Is it easy to pick one title out of the list?

eReader in library viewBorders reader in library view

(eReader and Borders reader in library view)

Some less-developed readers and reading software simply give you a list of titles, with distractingly prominent images and extra information, then leave you to scroll through them. At only a handful of titles per screenful, that's inconvenient and inefficient. A modern reader should make it easy to find, sort and delete titles. More advanced readers should allow you to sort your titles into categories, which helps significantly in finding books and following series.

The device should also show which books have been read. An e-reader has much more capacity than a bookshelf to help you organize your books. If a physical bookshelf would do a better job, then the device isn't good enough.

Other functions

If you want to use your device for other tasks (music, applications, remote control, telephone), the same principles apply. Does it let you do the task without distracting you? Does it have the features you need? Does it provide the quality and clarity you need? It is easy to find and manage information on the device?

No-one else can tell if the device is right for you. Test-drive it with the tasks you plan to do. There is a wide variety of devices and software available, with more being developed all the time. You don't have to put up with less than you really want.


(For reference, "hardware" is something you can touch, while "software" is the instructions the device follows. It's a bit like the difference between your body and your thoughts.)


Some e-reading devices require "firmware" upgrades. Firmware is software we don't get to customize, but it often fixes bugs and improves the performance of a previously-released device. The key question is: how painless are the upgrades?

The best situation is where your device has its firmware upgraded during normal syncing. You don't need to do anything differently. A separate firmware upgrade process can be difficult to manage, and it becomes a significant barrier for some users. If you choose to buy a device with separate firmware upgrades, find the one which causes you the least convenience and has the best record of actually fixing things and improving functions.


If you want to be able to customize your system, you'll have to look around pretty carefully. Although some devices are running on cut-down Linux systems, most retailers have "locked down" the system for their own use. A locked system isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it does its job without interference. For most users, a locked system can be more reliable, because other people can't mess with your device. However, if you want or need to customize your system for specific functions, you'll need an open Linux system.


In many cases, an advanced device will handle any specific functions through different applications. For example, the Apple App Store has an impressive range of special-purpose apps. Whatever your interest or task, you're likely to find an app to fulfil it. Android systems also have access to a wide range of applications.

These applications can expand your device in all sorts of directions. So it really depends on what you want to do with it, and if you want that sort of flexibility. I originally bought my iPhone as a combined phone and e-reader, but I've since found it extremely useful for all sorts of other tasks. However, other users may want a dedicated e-reader without extra functions, to get away from other input. What would work best for you?

Files and Transfer

What are you going to want on your device, and how will you get it there? You might read a lot of PDFs, have many different formats of ebooks, or spend most of your time out of range of your desktop computer. You may not even have a desktop computer.

USB, WiFi and 3G

These work well in different situations. USB transfers files directly through a cable between your device and computer. WiFi transfers files through a wireless network. 3G uses the phone data network to transfer files. So, where are you spending your time (and what will data transfer cost you)?

  • USB: right next to your computer (free)
  • WiFi: connected to a wireless network (some free, some cost per time)
  • 3G: connected to a mobile phone tower (cost per data)

The odds are, you're going to spend at least some time away from your computer, and even out of wireless range. Do you want to be able to access files then? How good is the wireless coverage in your area? If you can afford it, having all three of these connection options gives you more flexibility and reliability. Wherever you are, you can get and send data or books.

Using Calibre

Calibre is a free, cross-platform ebook library program. Calibre makes it easy to catalogue your books on your desktop computer, and to convert between ebook formats. It also works directly with quite a few USB-connected e-reading devices, and allows you to access your ebook library over a local network or the Internet.

Does your e-reader connect directly via USB with Calibre? If not, you can still use Calibre's library and conversion functions, but you can't transfer books directly to/from Calibre. This function does make it much easier to manage your on-device library, so it's worth considering when you choose your e-reader. Regardless, you will be able to access your Calibre library over WiFi or 3G.

Networking and Cloud

Do you want to be able to buy/download more books when using your handheld? Some devices can do this, and some can't. Some are locked into a single retailer, while others allow you to buy from different retailers. Being able to shop around is an advantage when you can't get all the books you want from a single retailer, but being locked into a single retailer can be simpler. It's up to you.

Some devices will allow you to transfer books or files directly to another person's handheld. You can also set preferences for different computers and networks. Some devices and e-reader apps now support cloud services like DropBox. This means your device is constantly backed up to the "cloud" (remote computer), which you can access from anywhere. Being able to keep in touch in this way can be very useful if you travel a fair bit, or if you can't afford to lose data from your device.


Once you pay for your books, music files or other data, and once you've spent time writing emails or working on documents, you don't want to lose them. Unfortunately, this can happen. It's way too easy to lose your handheld device, or for someone to steal it. Even without that, the storage in your device can fail with no warning. So you need a backup.

You can backup using available USB, WiFi and 3G connections. Just like in general networking, the more connections you have available, the more options you have. Automatic, ongoing backups during the day to a cloud service like DropBox or MobileMe mean at the worst, you lose the last few minutes of data.

Each time you connect to your desktop computer, you make a backup on that, too. You might only need to backup once a day, and it doesn't matter if you lose any changes in between. Or you might want to keep track all the time.


Syncing (synchronizing) keeps mirror copies of your data in both places. If you have multiple handheld devices, you can sync between them. Good e-reading software also syncs the status of your books, so you can pick up, say your mobile phone and see the same page where you left off on your dedicated e-reader. On well-designed devices, syncing and backup are done at the same time: all you need to do is connect your device.

So you can sync between multiple devices, sync with your desktop computer, and sync with cloud services. This means you have mirror copies of your data in several places (effective backup) which you can access anytime.

Syncing also makes life easier when you buy, add or delete files on one device or computer. As soon as you sync, the change will appear on the other device(s). Older backups also mean you can bring something back if you delete it by accident.

File Types

What kinds of files will you want to access on your device (e.g. books, music, images, movies, documents, webpages, email)? Does this device work with the files you already have? This is an issue with all media, but especially with ebooks. Although ePub is the standard format (which all e-readers should support), retailers lock other software out with DRM, and there are a number of other widely-used formats which don't necessarily work on all platforms.

(For reference, DRM is Digital Rights Management. It's supposed to protect the copyright holders, but in practice just gets in the way of legitimate purchasers reading their books.)

Calibre can convert all the common formats, but not if they have DRM. So you can be stuck with purchased books which don't work on your new device. Again, flexibility is valuable. Look around at the books you want to buy or read, and other files you want to use, then find a device which makes them available to you.


One of the big selling points for e-readers is that they're portable. You can carry them around in your pocket or bag, and it's much easier than carrying around a stack of paper books, magazines, documents etc.

However, your e-reading device needs to be portable for you. Different people need different sizes and weights of devices: what suits another person may not suit you. The size of your hands, the way you hold books, the way you move around and where you need to use the device are all things you might want to take into consideration.

This comes back to how the device feels in your hand. Is it the right size and weight for you to hold through a long reading session? Are there stands or mounts so you can use it hands-free? Do they work in the situations you'll encounter? Does the device work well hands-free for your purposes?

Some people want to be able to walk around, ride their bike or drive their car while having easy access to their device. Are there useful mounts for these locations? Do they make it easy for you to see, touch or remove the device when necessary? Are there cases or other accessories which protect your device from being bumped, dropped and splashed by rain?

When you're sitting in your favourite chair and reading on your device, can you prop it up and read it easily? Are there arm-mounts or lap-stands which position the device where you want it? Mounts and stands can give you better access in different situations, and be less tiring on your hands in others. For anyone who has difficulty holding a book for any length of time, the right size, shape and weight of ebook will sit comfortably in your hand and place much less strain on it.

Can you prevent the device from slipping off the chair-arm or your lap? When you're carrying around a small device, taking it in and out of pockets or bags and moving it from one position to another, over time it's very likely you'll drop it, or it will slip off or out of something. Is it robust enough to survive a few falls onto a hard surface?

(I found my iPhone had an irresistible urge to dive for the floor at the least opportunity. My daughter installed an ingenious elastic strap which holds it on my chair-arm. You can also get pockets which hang over your chair arm, but having the device on the arm makes it more visible and easier to pick up. A case will protect your device, but a removable case may not be as effective. I found I mostly dropped my device when it was out of its case (and I've been amazed at how many falls onto concrete it's survived). Now I have a case which protects the device while still showing the screen. It's minimal but effective when combined with a screen protector, and it makes the device easier to grip.)

A device is only truly portable if it can keep on working when you need it. How long does the battery last, under different conditions? How can you reduce the load on the battery, when you need it to last longer (e.g. turn off extra features)? How does the device charge?

Handheld devices usually charge via USB (the sync cable) and/or AC (plugged into the wall). Having both options is better, and you can also get wall plugs which let you plug in your USB cable. (Then you only have to carry your USB cable with you, not a bulky adapter.) You can also get car chargers which accept USB cables, solar chargers with a range of plugs, and extra battery packs which attach to your device. These options are important if you're on the go all day, or if you're away from mains electricity.


People buy e-readers (and other electronic devices) when they're easy to use and good value for money. Recent price cuts have made e-readers more competitive, but successful devices are the most accessible ones. You buy a device, use it and keep on using it when it's easy to understand and does the things you want.

Each person's situation is different. Truly accessible devices adapt to your needs.


Further resources


It's not personal

I've just told my beloved daughter not to come and visit me. Why would I do that?

(Warning: temporarily disabling 'Brave and Cheerful™' mode)

I have severe M.E. (a neurological disease similar to M.S.). There is no cure or effective symptom management, and the future I "look forward" to is not one I want to describe. The present sucks: I am severely debilitated, disabled and disadvantaged. I suffer horribly, every second of every day. I normally prefer not to talk about it, but I'm making an exception today, here.

One of the nastiest thing about this "progressive" disease is how it isolates you from your family, friends and community. I don't know my neighbours. I haven't seen any of my family, friends, colleagues etc. for years. I desperately want to see them. So why doesn't it happen? Do I live in the Antarctic (which oddly enough would ensure me a steady stream of enquiring visitors)?

No, I live in a pleasant rural town, where any of my friends or colleagues can drop in to see me. My family is perfectly willing to travel across the country to see me. They care, and they want to help. So they don't visit me.

Anyone who has had or dealt with a virulent chronic disease is probably getting the point by now: contact makes me sicker ... permanently. Early on, I would trade days or weeks of being much sicker, just to spend some time with friends or family, until I learnt that I never quite got back to my previous level of capability. As the disease "progresses", each time you lose more and more of your rapidly-vanishing capability. It's rather like borrowing money at very high interest, then not being able to repay it. However, this disease is even more extortionate than our banks: it doubles and triples the interest rate whenever you overdraw. You end up with nothing, which probably wouldn't be so bad if the process weren't so drawn-out and agonizing. Foreclose on me already! Don't leave me scrabbling desperately for small coins in the dirt.

So, how do you feel if your much-loved relative asks you not to come and visit her? By the sound of my daughter's voice on the phone today, you feel disappointed, rejected and unappreciated. She tried very hard not to show it, but I know her. In the same way, she probably sees through my determined cheerfulness in other calls. The fact is, we're separated by this disease, and we both hate it. Do I feel abandoned by my family because they don't visit me? No, but I feel resentful and miserable that my condition prevents them from doing so. Who do I blame? I really wish I had something I could hammer or lambast. My grandchildren are toddlers, and I've never seen them, apart from photos. I couldn't be with my daughter when she gave birth, or help her afterwards. I'm really angry about that. Unfortunately, I have nowhere to direct my anger. I'm no longer able even to punch pillows or scream. I end up being a quiet victim, and in many ways that is the greatest humiliation.

My daughter had made a great effort. Even though she and her partner are very short of money, they planned to spend it on bringing the kids to see me, over thousands of kilometres, with all the difficulties of travelling with children on a strained budget. After that, they were going to move even further away, to improve their work opportunities and the environment for their children. But first they wanted me to have this chance.

God, I appreciate it so much. I am crying as I write this. It hurts so much to say "No". I wish, desperately, that there were some way we could do this. Actually to hug my daughter again, to meet her partner, to be in the same room with their beautiful kids ... why isn't there a way?

I want this article to stand as a public declaration to my daughter, that I love her so much and appreciate what she tried to do. I don't want her to doubt her self-worth, or feel unwanted in any way. I value her, and her efforts, more than I can possibly say.

We have occasional phone calls, which mean a lot to me. I wish there could be more. I email when I can, and I read hers when I can. Whole weeks go past when I can't read or write, but email is actually the best mode for me: I can do it in bits. It may take a whole day to read or write an email, but I can try whenever I'm able. Any live contact is a much higher load. I've done very occasional IRC or IM/Skype, but can't maintain any contact. Worse, as the disease "progresses", I become unable to maintain previously-viable contacts. It's horribly frustrating, hurtful and confusing to those contacts, and more discouraging and isolating than I can express.

I really hope, in the future, that my daughter's family and I can video-chat. Maybe I'll even live long enough to see hologram contact. Maybe then, I can pretend I'm actually touching the people I love.

Sian, this article is for you. You're doing your best, and that's always good enough for me. Please don't doubt that. And thankyou for not pushing the point, not using emotional blackmail or being deliberately obtuse. These tactics cost sick people enormously. I have great respect for the honesty and consideration you showed. I know you're trying to understand my condition. I wish, so much, that you didn't have to.

The disease shreds my nervous system, starves and poisons my body, fogs my mind and deprives my spirit of the joy of contact, the buoyancy of realistic hope. It has taken me out of your life, held me at a distance, and left you without my support. It's a vicious, destructive cycle. I have fought so many things in my life, but the more I fight this, the worse I get. It's the ultimate Catch-22.

It's an uncaring force of destruction, like an earthquake or a bushfire. And no matter how much it isolates us and destroys our relationships, we're supposed to deal with it, somehow. "It's not personal."


The first election

Game Together: Responsible Gaming This month's South Australian election is the first for my younger daughter, who turned 18 last year. This afternoon we had a preparatory talk, prompted by her suddenly saying: I have to vote tomorrow. What? Who? How? Fortunately she knows "where". She's come along on many previous voting days. I have to vote by post, so I was able to show her the voting slips. She took one look at the Senate slip and said: What is that? An alien robot sex-ed diagram? Quite possibly. Question Time does makes one wonder. However, this handy webpage tool (thanks to the ABC for publicizing it) reduces the Panadol quotient of the Senate voting slip. You can rate your interest in each political party, then the tool outputs a page looking just like the Senate voting slip, with your numbers already filled in. It even takes account of preference voting. You can print out the page, even scribble on it, and take it with you when you vote. It's like having a whiteboard with all the Senate names and boxes already shown. You can see the whole thing in one place, and adjust your ideas as you go. So, my daughter and I worked our way down the list of parties on that webpage. She's very keen to support Gamers 4 Croydon, who represent the online gaming community. At the age of 19, she enjoys playing network games with her friends all over the world. However, our inconsistent and frustrating censorship policy bans all games not suitable for children, regardless of the very large adult gaming community. The Australian censor appears to ban games almost at random. My daughter bought the computer game Left4Dead, which was rated 15+ in Australia. When the sequel, Left4Dead 2, was released, her friends bought it overseas, and couldn't wait to play it with her. However, she couldn't buy it in Australia, because our censor decided this second version of the same game should be Refused Classification. This event has infuriated adult gamers all over Australia, who have been lobbying for years for an R18 rating for adult games. So here we have Gamers 4 Croydon on the Senate voting slip. Its varied and responsible platform belies the name. The other urgent topic for my daughter (and the rest of our family, and all netizens) is Internet censorship. Only the Greens have opposed it from the start. Other parties have vacillated at best, and at worst, parrotted Senator Conroy's horribly embarrassing lack of basic understanding of how the Internet works. Australia now looks really stupid to other countries, and as voters, we don't like that. Also, the Labor Party has dropped the ball on the environment, so the Greens are needed even more. Even allowing for eccentricity, this year's Senate ticket is a walk on the wild side. From the head-in-the-sand "Climate skeptics" and "Family First" to the cryptic "MAGS 2010" and "CARS", we have almost every tint on the political spectrum, including more than one party aimed at corruption in state government. What worries people most right now? As usual, we want our rights and services protected. Who can we trust to represent our needs? As my daughter said: We don't want to turn out like America, where everyone has guns and no-one has health insurance.


Censorship really annoys me

Get the facts!I've held out a long time without creating a blog. There is always something else that needs doing, especially with my intermittent and very limited capacity (I'm very ill). But at this point, it's either express my opinion or get a new set of false teeth. I'm grinding this lot way too much. For those of you who actually live in the free world, the Rudd Australian government is trying to push through legislation to censor the Internet. Yes, I said Australia... not China, Burma or Iran. Right here in the "lucky country", our government is once again pushing its sticky fingers into what we read, view and enjoy. Australia has a remarkably inconsistent censorship system, the only observable result of which is that we miss out on things everybody else can access. Ask my adult daughter some time about the difficult of accessing computer games her friends are playing all over the world. Sheesh! Anyway, the so-called clean feed is pretty much the last straw. With no community mandate whatsoever, the Rudd government intends to legislate compulsory ISP-level Internet "filtering" which
  • doesn't work
  • will significantly slow down your Internet connection
  • will not prevent child-abusers from circulating illegal content
  • will not protect children from cyber-bullying, identity theft or sexual stalking online
The latter two points make the government's "For the children!" rallying cry sound particularly tinny. If they want to make the Internet safer for kids, it will be much cheaper and more effective to educate kids and parents on the tools they already have available. They could also make a major difference by allotting even a fraction of the censorship bill's costs to our overworked Federal Police, who specialize in trapping child abusers online. Both these measures would have appreciable results. This is a censorship bill, however much the government may try to dramatize and confuse the issue. The proposed legislation violates Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory. No other supposedly democratic country tries to censor the Internet like this. Despite our government's odd disinformation on this point, the U.S., U.K. and France have rejected mandatory Internet censorship. So it's just us and some rabidly totalitarian countries, huh? In addition to all of the above, the Rudd government have ignored any and all expert advice given them by ISPs and the Internet industry in general. Actually, you don't have to be an expert to see how technologically inept this "filter" is. Every kid with a mouse or a smartphone knows it won't work. It doesn't handle secure webpages, webpages with logins, email, chat clients, peer-to-peer or any of the multitude of other access methods, but the Rudd government is still determined to spend millions of our taxpayer dollars on it. A five-year old buying lollies at the corner store makes better financial decisions. Really, I'm stuck in deciding whether I'm more outraged by this censorship bill because it's stupid (it won't work), or because it contravenes UDHR Article 19. Decisions, decisions...