Although I work with code and stay abreast of all the latest tech news, I don't believe in spending on gadgets. So no iPhone, no fancy computers, etc. For me, it's always been a laptop (MacBook Fall 2008), a Sony Ericsson w880, and good old pen and paper.

However, just 2 days ago, I added a new item to that inventory: An Amazon Kindle 3.

Honestly, I didn't know what to expect, and hence I placed my expectations low. I'd read prior reviews about how great the screen was no eye strain, better than iPad, etc, etc. However, I paid much more attention to the reviews from fellow programmers, and the message was clear: The Kindle sucks for Technical books.

However, the low price point really got to me, and so I thought I'd give it a legitimate shot.

Initial Reaction

First, I've got to praise Amazon for their quick delivery. I'm in Melbourne Australia, and was given an expected shipping date of September 7th. On Friday, I got the email confirming that the package had been shipped. I got it on my doorstep on Monday afternoon.

The screen is beautiful, and I really thought that the initial welcome screen was a sticker. Despite that, some eye strain was present when I first booted it up for reading. I attribute that to getting used to reading from a computer screen, which I speculate encourages the use of too much peripheral vision as compared to the small Kindle screen.

With the small screen of the Kindle, I felt like my eyes were constantly darting around looking for various other signals, and finding none, they gave up in protest.

Fortunately, I adjusted really quickly, and with adequate light, it's all great for reading now. (Which is why I've got that theory, but it's all speculation nonetheless)

Trying to Read Technical Books

Some fiddling around with different file formats, and the consensus was still clear - you can't read SICP on this device.

In short, too much scrolling, tiny text, and the lack of easy navigation doesn't suit the non-linear reading fashion of technical texts.

Why it's useful

First, at the time of this writing, I'm a college freshman. Reading lecture notes and slides on this thing is wonderful. Basically, any short-form summary or narrative information is presented very well on the device. You must say that having all your lecture notes handy is a great plus.

Next, the 2 column layout of most scientific papers fits just right for zooming in and reading. (click to enlarge)

But most surprising to me, is that all of the sudden, programming cheat sheets became A LOT more useful.

Holding a Program in One's Head

Once a project gets up to speed, a programmer knows how the structure of the program flows. The problem is that during the act of programming, one achieves a state of flow, that is too easily interrupted by grokking through an unwieldy stack of poorly-written documentation.

That's where cheat sheets come in. Cheat sheets are great because like ideas a notebook, each reference item is surrounded by a whole set of related material (assuming the cheat sheet is good). Oftentimes, I'd be looking at a cheat sheet item, and then seeming serendipitously catching another related item in the corner of my eye. Everything clicks, and my program flows again.

The great thing about having it on a Kindle of course, is that it's portable. That means that you can conduct code reviews with people having their own cheat sheet which they are familiar with.

It also helps with picking up some fickle languages (R), getting to know some libraries, as well as getting up to speed with feature-rich text editors (VIM image).

So why the Kindle versus some other portable reader?

I can see myself doing the exact same thing with an iPhone or iPad. That's surely a viable solution, and if you own one of those devices, then exploit it.

But of course, the Kindle also doubles down as a great reader of the subset of all books \ {technical books}, so that could be a plus too.

But probably more importantly, the Kindle looks and feels like a book, and thus you treat it like one. Ergo, you treat the content on it having a more everlasting quality compared to that on an iPhone. Hence, it's easier to give the content the due respect, and utilise it fully. In more succinct terms: Placebo effect FTW!


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