The Prefect

I loved the initial Revelation Space books but had them filed under “gothic space opera,” so I wasn’t sure The Prefect–a detective story set in the pre-plague Glitter Band–would do it for me. Really enjoying it. Even though Chasm City was pretty street-level, its post-plague setting (and three nested plots) kept it from the sort of fine strokes Reynolds manages here. Nice addition to the RS world.

Ignore the Internet (except me) and fix the Kobo “previously deauthorized” error with DRM protected ebooks. Also, get a password manager and complain about DRM loudly whenever you can.

I’m writing this post in a likely futile attempt to save you a few minutes or hours if you have run into the following message on your Kobo e-reader while trying to read an ebook protected by Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM:

This book is protected by DRM. Because you previously deauthorized your eReader, you need to re-import the book using Adobe Digital Editions.

You may be wondering why you’re getting that message, and all I can say to that is this parable:

“Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.”

In other words, if you’re here, it happened to you and you might as well accept that if you ever want to read an ebook with Adobe DRM on your Kobo ever again.

If you want to go beyond the technical “why” into the practical “why,” the answer is “DRM is user hostile and built on a paranoid world-view that pretty much guarantees the many edge cases the developers are trying to solve for to ensure that nothing is ever unlawfully copied again will generate brittle, random behavior that breaks when any system they’re developing for changes at all.”

That said, I’m writing this because I want you to be able to get books from your public library in a way that doesn’t endanger your public library’s ability to continue to deliver ebooks to people, and that allows your library to continue to show that it is serving the public. The biggest favor we could do to the people demanding DRM is to get frustrated and turn away from a public good like the library in favor of “just works” solutions that further atomize our communities and even our families, weaken our resolve to support public goods, and reduce access to books for people with less privilege than e-reader owners.

There is a lot of advice on assorted user forums about how to deal with this problem. A lot of it is quite old in Internet time, leaving a lot of room for the underlying realities of the broken system to change. Most of it is a variant on “deauthorize everything, reauthorize everything, and try to side-load a book you have never read before. Everything will start working again.”

Some of that advice includes the meta-advice, “do not bother trying to factory reset your Kobo. That won’t work.”

Speaking as someone who lost about an hour to trying all the special spells and incantations of desperate support forum denizens, I am here to tell that the one thing that did absolutely and without fail work was doing a factory reset of my Kobo.

I want to make this easier for you to decide:

  • Let’s assume it takes about five minutes to read through a thread on a forum to get to the advice people say worked. (+5 minutes)
  • Let’s assume it takes about three minutes to carefully apply all the advice. (+3 minutes)
  • Let’s assume it takes about two minutes to find an ebook you have never read before, check it out, download it, and load it into your Kobo. (+2 minutes)

That’s 12 minutes per solution, and I tried four of them. That’s 48 minutes. And even if the first one works, it’s still 12 minutes.

  • Let’s assume it takes about five minutes to factory reset your Kobo, enter your credentials for Wi-Fi, Kobo store, Dropbox, library, and Pocket.

That’s 5 minutes total. Even if it doesn’t happen to work, it’s a relatively efficient thing to try, and you can actually try it with only three credentials: Kobo store, library, and Wi-Fi. Save signing in to Dropbox and Pocket for later, once you know it worked.

Doing a factory reset sounds like a pain, but it’s actually pretty fast. A Kobo is not like a laptop or iPad, which may have more elaborate onboarding processes. It’s a very simple device in 2020 technology terms. Even if you have all the bells and whistles turned on, you have a max of five passwords to enter.

If the password business sounds like a pain to you, I’m going to make two suggestions: One for low-tech people and one for high-tech people:

  • Low-tech people: Buy a password notebook and keep it somewhere safe. Put your passwords in there. Ignore the advice to never write down your passwords. That was advice for when people had a few systems to deal with and it assumes a level of determination to steal your secrets that most of us won’t experience. If you’re at risk of experiencing it, you’ll know it. My in-laws have a password notebook, and it is very helpful for them. They treat it with as much care as their credit cards and prescription medications.
  • High-tech people: Get a password manager like 1Password and use it. If you’re feeling fancy, label everything your Kobo needs to work again with a “kobo” tag to make it easy to find after a hard reset.

These are good things to do beyond making a Kobo work again today. Any Internet-enabled device of any complexity will eventually need to be reset to fix a problem, or replaced with a newer model, or simply forget its settings. I think people younger than me have been trained to understand this. People closer to my age may still have moments where they’re unpleasantly surprised that they actually need to remember five or ten passwords to return to the normal Internet lives they still vaguely consider “new.”

On DRM

Finally, I’d like to note that if you’re here you may be quite frustrated with your Kobo, libraries, and Adobe. These groups are all living inside a DRM system created by intellectual property owners. Adobe profits from this system, the others just have to live in it. It’s a futile system that only stops people with zero technical wherewithal from copying books and sharing them freely. It does no good against people who know how to use a search engine or download simple and easily found software.

At the peak of my frustration with my Kobo’s inability to read library books I lawfully checked out, I just resorted to checking out the Kindle version and stripping the DRM off of it. Once I fixed the problem, I deleted the stripped version and got the “legal” version. It took about the same amount of effort to do either.

Let’s look at the time involved for doing it legally:

  • Realize that my Kobo can’t provide an automatic download of a book I checked out. (+5 minutes — the book doesn’t show up after syncing)
  • Go from where I read to my computer, go back to the library site and download the Adobe DRM version. (+3 minutes)
  • Plug in my Kobo, wait for it to go into USB drive mode (+1 minute)
  • Copy the ebook into Adobe’s software (.25 minutes)
  • Copy the ebook from Adobe’s software to my Kobo (.25 minutes)
  • Unmount my Kobo (.25 minutes)
  • Open the book and pause, because there’s some sort of DRM handshake that seems to make the book open more slowly the first time. (.5 minutes)

That’s about 10.25 minutes.

And here is is “illegally”:

  • Realize that my Kobo can’t provide an automatic download of a book I checked out. (+5 minutes — the book doesn’t show up after syncing)
  • Go from where I read to my computer, go back to the library site and download the Kindle version. (+3 minutes)
  • Open the Kindle version in the Chrome Cloud Reader app. (+.25 minutes)
  • Run the software that strips the DRM from the Chrome copy and drops the book in Dropbox. (+1 minute)
  • Go back to where I do my reading, open the book from Dropbox. (+1 minute)

That’s about 10.25 minutes.

In other words, if you need to be frustrated, you should be frustrated over a stupid system that wastes your time and doesn’t really work if you know how to use a search engine and a computer. You should be even more frustrated that the people demanding it work this way aren’t really interested in fixing it because it’s in their interests for you to say “fuck it, I’ll never get this user-hostile library system to work, I’ll just buy the book outright from some monopolist somewhere.”

On borrowing instead of buying

Just a side note:

I’ve been pleased with how quickly my ebook holds come available. The library quotes pretty long times—weeks and weeks sometimes—but many holds I’ve placed are available two or three days after I place them, likely because the library is just counting the checkout period, which defaults to 21 days.

When I decided to experiment with placing holds and waiting to see how my reading stack worked out, I thought I’d be waiting a while to have something to read and I made sure to load a few favorite re-reads into the Kobo. I ended up with four new books from my holds in under three days.

When you first go looking for ebooks to read from the library, the default search can be discouraging. All the new stuff is probably checked out and has long apparent wait times. Popular classics will be in the same boat. You can toggle for availability in the results if you just need something to read right now. It’s weird, if you’ve been buying through an e-reader for a while, to delay gratification. Give it a week and it’ll seem fine.

Forma’s form factor

I’m really fond of the Kobo Forma’s large, rubbery physical buttons and didn’t realize how much I had come to dislike the Kindle Voyage’s haptic feedback.

The first few generations of Kindles had physical buttons, then there was a switch to using the screen to change pages. If the Kindle were a fast or responsive device, that might be fine–touch works fine on Kindle for iPad–but it’s not and it felt like a challenge to get it to register a touch reliably. I bought a Kindle Voyage because of the haptic feedback feature, which seemed to be the closest we were going to get to buttons.

Haptic feedback felt like a big improvement. Over time, though, I began to feel like I had to rest my thumb just so on the edge of the device. For whatever reason, my thumb always drifted toward the “back” region of the touch-sensitive area and I’d end up on the previous page.

Having real buttons back is nice. The Forma largely feels like it is a bit more responsive than any Kindle I’ve used. It also has a setting to only refresh the screen at chapter breaks, which does a lot to make page turns feel snappier while ensuring that the e-ink screen will occasionally get a power wash.

I’ve got a few other appliances and devices that have gone where the Voyage did, with flush, touch-like mechanical switches underneath a uniform surface: My dishwasher, an air purifier, a humidifier. None of them are great. Whatever the switch mechanisms are under the mildly flex plastic touch surfaces, they are dialed in to need a level of force I never quite get right: they register too much force as a double-tap, but won’t acknowledge the kind of grazing tap we’ve been conditioned to deliver with smartphone touch screens.

I think a generation of industrial designers got the memo that physical is out, touch is in, but are misapplying the principle with poor “touch-like” mechanical interfaces.

Kobo Liberation

Last night went to figuring out how to get all my Kindle books into a format I could use on my new Kobo.

“Figuring out” isn’t quite right, because it sounds like I figured it out. It isn’t particularly hard, so what I was really doing was picking through a few Google results to find instructions that worked for someone on a Mac. The race between Amazon and book liberation hobbyists seems sort of slow-moving, so there was one false start because the author of the page forgot to mention that the process they were documenting didn’t work any longer until the very end of the guide. Judging from the number and quality of the ads plastered on that page, I attribute that organizational choice to simple dinginess of spirit on the part of the author. Anyhow … it was a quick process.

The Kobo links to Dropbox, by the way, so there’s a cable-free way to move things onto it.

So, I liberated a bunch of books and moved them onto the Kobo and was pretty happy with the results: The cover images came over, everything looked fine, I was reminded of books I bought but didn’t read, and I was happy to actually have my books back instead of simply knowing I could probably have my books back.

Then this morning the Libby app notified me an ebook I put on hold at the library was available, and then there it was on the Kobo.

It was sort of interesting to pause and think about how good it was to take a few weeks off of work. I was sick for the first part of it, but it was an amazing feeling to wake up feeling better after fretting I’d spend the entire break sick and realizing I had nine more days ahead of me. I haven’t taken that much time off in over ten years.

The time went to a few hobbies that have been languishing, so the feeling of having my e-reading situation sorted added to a general glow I’ve been experiencing of finally having things squared away in such a way that my time away from work can be spent enjoying the hobby instead of organizing the hobby.