Borrowing e-books from the library


I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I borrowed the e-book from the Québec National Library. Just the process of borrowing an e-book has been fascinating. When an e-book is borrowed from the library, it is no longer available for other users to borrow, because the library uses a particular kind of DRM software.

This is interesting to me because traditional borrowing of library books had the “scarcity” of the books (and thus the protection of the author/publisher’s rights) built-in to the “hardware” itself. That is to say, by the nature of the physical book itself, two people could not be borrowing it from the library at the same time.

This is manifestly not true of digital materials. Much to the chagrin of publishers of all types, it’s difficult to stop people from sharing media if it’s digital, and in fact it takes a good deal of effort to stop people from doing so, while still allowing for legitimate uses of the media in question.

I’m 67% of the way through, and I’ve come across a couple typos. Nothing major—nothing that changes the content of the book, or even makes it much more difficult to read. I don’t know why, but I can’t resist keeping a record of when I find typos.

  • “It isn’t the sort ofthing you ask questions about …” p. 29
  • “I press my hands against the sides of my thighs, breath in, set out along the hall …” p. 142

Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines here, but when I saw these typos, I started thinking about maps. Stay with me, here. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but it used to be said that map-makers would put fake streets—small ones that no one would notice—into their maps, so that if someone copied their work, they would know that it was copied.

I’m sure it’s possible to find software that will strip an e-book of its DRM, and so I wonder if these typos are like that—little “fake streets” that the publisher has inserted into the e-book, so that if it’s copied, they’ll know. If they were sophisticated about it, they could probably even make up a way of encoding which library and even which user stripped the DRM by inserting particular “typos” into the borrowed e-book.

So here’s my question for all you Margaret Atwood fans out there: Does anyone have a physical copy of The Handmaid’s Tale? If you do, can you tell me if the typos are there in your copy? Also, does anyone else feel like borrowing the e-book from the library to see if the typos are there (or in the same place)?

Side-note: How long before we drop the hyphen from “e-book” and “e-reader” the way we dropped the hyphen from e-mail?


    title = {Borrowing e-books from the library},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-09-17,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Borrowing e-books from the library" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 17 Sep 2012. Web. 21 Feb 2019. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Sep 17). Borrowing e-books from the library [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Review of the Kobo Touch e-reader


I recently bought a Kobo Touch, which is not a new piece of technology. Here, I review it anyway, since it’s new to me. I’ll start with the negative and work my way to the positive.

For the non-initiates out there, a Kobo is an “e-reader.” That means it’s a handheld piece of electronics for consuming media—mostly books/magazines/things that would have otherwise been print media. A Kindle is also an e-reader, but made by a different company. I refuse to get a Kindle because of the sorts of things that Amazon does to customers who own Kindles. You could also put the iPad into this category, but it’s more of a tablet than an e-reader, I think. Anyway, a Kobo is a kind of e-reader that doesn’t have a back-lit display.

Things that the Kobo doesn’t do well

  • PDF documents—if the PDF wasn’t formatted for a Kobo or something, you’ll have to zoom and scroll all over, which will get really annoying really fast.
  • Apps—if you want to play games, don’t get a Kobo. You will be disappointed. It doesn’t do apps at all. There’s sort of an app where you can draw with your finger, but it is terrible.
  • Web browsing—there is a browser. No, don’t try it. You’ll be happy you didn’t.
  • Social integration—it keeps trying to post things to my Facebook. I really don’t like Facebook all that much. I would actually be okay if it offered to tweet things, but there’s no Twitter integration on the Kobo.
  • Annotations—entering text using the touch keyboard on a Kobo is slow, inaccurate and frustrating. Highlighting text is similarly difficult, but not as bad as annotating. Selecting text takes a while, and it sometimes can’t figure out where your finger is on the screen.
  • Discoverability of features—it took me a long time to figure out that I can bookmark a page by just tapping the top-right corner of a page. I’m still not sure if there’s a way to know how many pages in a book on my Kobo.
  • Buying books from the Kobo store sucks. It sucks pretty bad. It’s hard to browse for books on the Kobo e-reader, so I tried finding a book on the website and adding it to my “wishlist” so I could buy it. But it turns out that my wishlist doesn’t sync between my Kobo e-reader, the Kobo web store and the Kobo desktop app. Not only that, but it’s hard to get things onto your wishlist from the desktop app in the first place. This is something I hope they figure out soon, because it’s a fairly essential part of their business model—getting people to pay for their content.

Things that the Kobo does really well

  • It’s excellent for reading in direct sunlight. Due to the nature of the e-ink screen, the Kobo is perfect for reading outdoors. I have tested this extensively in the park near my house this summer. It’s wonderful, and it’s something that you can’t really do with an iPad.
  • Further, the Kobo doesn’t cause much eye strain. first off, the Kobo formats EPUB books so that the text is a nice size for reading. Also, the e-ink screen has no back-light, so it’s way easier on the eyes. Reading from a Kobo screen is really no more tiring than reading from a book.
  • There are lots of free books. this is not exclusive to the Kobo. Come to think of it, I always had access to these free books through Project Gutenberg, which you should check out if you haven’t yet. There are thousands of free books to be downloaded. These are largely classic works of literature whose copyright has expired, putting them in the Public Domain. But really, I never read these books before I had an e-reader, because it sucks to sit in front of a computer screen and read, even a laptop.
  • It’s “tossable.” I feel like I can throw it across the room, shove it in my bag, etc. There’s no glass screen, and it’s not very heavy. I feel like if I dropped it, it’s not heavy enough to break itself when it hits the floor.
  • Last thing is battery life, which I regard to be one of the biggest assets of the Kobo. I charged my Kobo for the first time on Tuesday July 24, 2012. Since then, I had the wifi turned off, except on three occasions during which I downloaded new books. It has now been just over four weeks since the last charge, and the battery indicator is around the one-quarter mark.
    To give you an idea of how much use I made of the Kobo during that time, I used it at least twice a day, every day, having taken up the habit of reading while using the stationary bicycle at the gym, and reading before bed each night. And because it was something new and shiny, I used it much more than that, just out of novelty, at the beginning of its life.

Overall assessment

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the thing. It was a fraction of the price of an iPad, and for reading books, at least, I think it does a better job. I’m enjoying it thoroughly and I’ve got about a million books I plan to read on it. Well, no more than 1 GB at a time, anyway.


    title = {Review of the Kobo Touch e-reader},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-08-22,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Review of the Kobo Touch e-reader" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 22 Aug 2012. Web. 21 Feb 2019. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Aug 22). Review of the Kobo Touch e-reader [Web log post]. Retrieved from

GPS, governors and traffic police


When a police officer stops you on the road to issue you a ticket for speeding and you’re only 20 km/h over the limit on a major highway, generally the real reason you’re receiving the ticket is not one of safety. If the issue was safety, your licence would be taken away, your car would be impounded and the fine would be much higher.

This is what is done (in Ontario at least) when someone is caught speeding 50 km/h over the limit. We rightly think that this is dangerous behaviour, and the coercive powers of the state are brought in to make sure it doesn’t happen.

In the case of a ticket for 20 km/h over the limit on a highway, the real reason is one of revenue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the way that this tax is being applied brings about some irrational consequences.

What we have currently is a “speed limit” (as posted on signs—usually 100 km/h on the highway) and then an actual limit (as enforced by police—usually 150 km/h on the highway). For speeds at or below the “speed limit” (as posted), the highway is free to use. For all the speeds between the posted an the enforced limit, there’s a non-zero chance that you will be required to pay a fee to use the highway at that speed. The chance that you will be required to pay the fee increases with the amount of time that you are driving above the “speed limit” (as posted), and the amount of the fee increases with how much faster than the “speed limit” you are driving.

This is essentially a pay-as-you-use tax applied to drivers who want to exceed the speed limit, but instead of applying the tax equally among the community of drivers, we use a lottery—a random number generator (the distribution of traffic police in space and time) to decide who will pay.

So if v is your speed when caught by the police and t is the number of minutes you are speeding, let us take p(t) to be the probability that you will be caught speeding by the police (p is a function of time), and f(v) is the amount of the fine that you will pay (f is a function of your speed when caught). So if you are rational, you can expect to pay p(t)∙f(v) dollars for speeding at speed v for t minutes.

Unfortunately, people don’t expect to pay that much. Humans aren’t rational. They blame it on bad luck when they get caught, and they chalk it up to their own cleverness when they get away with it. Everyone wants (and expects) to be the lucky one who gets away with not paying anything.

It is the fact that this tax is applied in a probabilistic way that makes people act irrationally. Have you ever noticed that traffic slows down considerably when drivers see a traffic cop on the side of the road? There is no reason for that. By the time you see the police officer, it’s already over. He knows how fast you’ve been going, and if he’s going to radio his partner to pull you over, slowing down won’t help you out at this point.

This randomised way of distributing taxes brings in a number of other inefficiencies too. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I think it has a negative impact on our attitudes toward law enforcement. On being caught speeding by a traffic officer, who among us hasn’t thought, Don’t you have something better to do? It is also, I think, a poor use of a police officer’s time to have them standing on the side of the road with a device for measuring the speed of passing vehicles and a radio.

There are already a few technologies that exist today that could combine to solve all of these inefficiencies and irrational behaviours.

There are relatively cheap GPS machines that can indicate what the speed limit is in any given stretch of highway with very high accuracy. There are also governors—machines that regulate the speed at which a vehicle can drive, regardless of the preferences of the driver.

I propose that instead of using the “who’s gonna get caught by the police?” lottery to decide who pays the “driving over the posted limit” tax, we could use a GPS/governor system to limit and tax the use of highways at speeds greater than the posted limit.

First off, a GPS/governor system could actually enforce strict speed limits where we want them. For example, we do not want drivers to be able to drive more than 150 km/h on the highway under any circumstances. As a society, we’ve made that clear in the laws that we’ve enacted. A GPS/governor could actually prevent a car from accelerating beyond that speed. Or in the city, a GPS/governor could strictly prevent going over 30 km/h in a school zone. It would not be a matter of punishing offenders—the technology just would not allow for breaking the rules.

Then, in cases where we have already decided that we do want to allow for a certain amount of speeding, but we want to tax it, like in the case of a car travelling at 120 km/h on the highway, a GPS/governor could record the time that the driver is over the limit, and by how much. The area under that function would be the fine, and you could make that to be equal to what one would rationally expect to pay under the current system, if one was caught exactly as much as one would expect to be. So, if you are speeding for t minutes at speed v, at the end of the month, you would receive a bill from the Ministry of Transportation for exactly p(t)∙f(v) dollars. You’ll note that it’s the same amount that a rational person speeding exactly the same amount should expect to pay under the current system.

Such a system would free traffic officers to be watching for actually dangerous driving practices (texting while driving, extremely aggressive driving, etc.), and it would save money in the long run.

The difference is that all the people who think that it’s their own cleverness that has allowed them to get away with speeding will hate a system like the one I’m suggesting.


    title = {GPS, governors and traffic police},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-08-12,
    url = {}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "GPS, governors and traffic police" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 12 Aug 2011. Web. 21 Feb 2019. <>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Aug 12). GPS, governors and traffic police [Web log post]. Retrieved from


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