Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Holmes:  I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?

Miss Stoner:  Certainly not.  But why?

Watson:  My God, I whispered; did you see it?

Holmes: That is the baboon.

Speckled Band IconTap to start; swipe to turn pages; tap to start/stop audio; double tab to sync your reading position with audio; adjust your audio layer volumes; tap to adjust your reading speed…  Ingenious, Watson.

Finally, a Holmes rendition worthy of Holmes.  “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” on the iPad by Booktrack:

“Booktrack represents a new chapter in the evolution of storytelling…by creating synchronized soundtracks for e-books that dramatically boost the reader’s imagination and engagement” says the Booktrack management blurb.

We hear the crackle of the fire in the Dickensian glow of 221B Baker Street just as Holmes says “I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire.”  In the foggy street below we hear the muffled sound of shod hooves and cart wheels.  As Helen Stoner tells her fraught tale we hear the sounds of the story within a story, “It was a wild night.  The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows.”  Just as we read that the door was suddenly dashed open we hear it so.  As the despicable Dr. Roylott excoriates Holmes and bends his fireplace poker in a rage we hear the poker’s protesting creak, and rest assured we hear it again as Holmes straightens it.  As Holmes and Watson arrive at Waterloo, we hear the steam whistle.  We hear birdsong as they journey along in their dog cart through the Surrey countryside.  We hear footsteps grinding of gravel paths in the night, the howl of the exotic cheetah that Dr. Roylott keeps on the grounds of the forbidding Stoke Moran, the creak of Roylott’s safe, wherein resides the creeping evil, the sudden slashes with the cane against the bell pull as Holmes beats back the deadly serpent, the terrified scream and low moan of the spoiler spoiled.  What a relief when Holmes delivers his verdict:  “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent…”

The speckled band certainly gains in drama and entertainment value, reading it in the Booktrack edition.  Here is a preview video:

Booktrack editions (their catalog is thusfar slight and is described in full below) are the clever idea to add background music, ambient sounds, and special sound effects that keep in sync with your reading rate.  Bear in mind the story itself is not narrated.  The app bases your reading rate on how often you turn pages, or double tap on a word to re-sync the audio.  Once it establishes your reading speed (there is also a speed test that you can use before you begin reading to set an initial rate) it stays in sync remarkably well.

App controls are simple.  First, you are able to adjust font (from among three), font size and screen color.

font settings

Tap the lower case or upper case A to raise or lower font size successively.  I find reading stark black on white on a backlit screen difficult, so when I have the option I change the screen color to sepia with contrasting dark brown type.

Volume of the three audio tracks can be adjusted independently, or can be dispensed with altogether by turning them off (though there would be little point to the app if you did).

audio settings

Clicking on the little wrench icon at the bottom right of the screen (these icons only appear when you have paused your reading by tapping the screen) will cause the reading speed tools to appear.

Reading speed tools

The reading indicator tools are just what you think they are, an underline or bouncing ball that travel word to word or an arrow shaped slider that slides down the right margin of the page as you read.  I want to meet the reader who leaves these turned on.  They are off by default and should stay that way.  I experimented with them and found them terrifically distracting.  I suppose is you found the text getting out of sync with the sound effects you might deliberately use these tools to slow down or speed up the audio track, but it is much easier to keep things synced by double tapping any word, which I had to do just a couple of times in reading the story.  It was remarkable how well it stayed synchronized.  Finally, the speed test button is how you access the speed test.  My only complaint about the test is that it was a couple of paragraphs from the story, but in a very tiny font size that I wish I could have enlarged, but could not.

Do the sound effects, background music and atmospherics enhance the story?  Yes, of course they do.  But then again it is a very familiar story.  Very few people will encounter the Booktrack version as their first exposure to Holmes or the speckled band.  It is therefore hard to judge if I would have found it distracting if I were reading the story for the first time.  That’s not likely to be an issue, though, judging by their catalog.  Booktracks markets a number of titles: short stories, like the Holmes story (free), and Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” for $1.99; childrens’ stories: Kipling’s “Riki Tiki Tavi,”  Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,”  the brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” all free, and “The Ugly Duckling,” for $0.99; and a couple of novel length productions Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, for $1.99 each and  The Power of Six for $12.99.

I have only minor criticisms of these apps, which are really just wish list items.  You cannot create multiple, working bookmarks (there is a bookmarking feature, but you can only create one effective bookmark).  It would be nice to be able to add multiple bookmarks and have them appear on the book’s table of contents, to go to at a tap.  I also wish the app had a simple way to jump to a certain page.  If you are seeking a quote from a later page there is no simple way to jump there other than by paging through one page at a time.  A more distant wish would be the ability to annotate and highlight, but that might be going a little far afield from the producers’ intent.

Do these editions have a serious academic use beyond the simple pleasure of re-reading these stories in a more dramatic treatment?  I’m not sure.  I can see them being used in reading labs as benchmarks for testing reading speed, but I suspect reader teachers would regard the soundtracks as distractions rather than enhancements.  Nevertheless, they might just be the hooks that interest young readers in an author or genre.  I think they are great, and have to admire the effort put into them by the developers.  If you go to their web site and register, one of the questions you are asked is “Would you like a Booktrack created for your book?” which may hint at a business model.  Let’s hope they do well.  They deserve it for creating these enjoyable apps.

Free Books


I wrote this review for my personal blog, but liked this app so much that I thought I would add some material to the post and bring it to the more general audience of this blog.

I ran across a great app for iPad today.  It’s called “Free Books” and is just what it says, a free interface to 23,469 public domain books from Project Gutenberg.  In fact, I liked it so much that I purchased (for all of 99 cents) it’s companion app called “Classicly HD,” which is the same app with access to the same collection of free books, but also access to 2,947 audiobooks from LibriVox, the free volunteer reader audio book project.  This is not the entire Gutenberg library, which at this writing contains over 36,000 books.

Now, it is true that access to Project Gutenberg books and LibriVox audiobooks is completely free anyway—these are all public domain works, generally published before 1923 or, in the case of the audiobooks, books performed by volunteer narrators—but actually downloading them and side loading them from iTunes (or otherwise) onto your iPad is far from elegant.  This app puts the elegance into access to these masterworks of Western literary culture.

The app uses a bookshelf/library analogy, like iBooks, and classifies the titles into large, generic collections like Best Of, Autos & Bios, Banned Books, Ghost Stories, The Great Poets, and so on; not nearly so efficient as a library catalog, but fine for browsing where the serendipitous discovery of a title feels like more of a genuine find.  (Interesting how we sometimes are pleased to be hobbled.)  Within collections the books can be displayed on tabs by Title, Author, Popular and Rating.  Much of the app developer’s work must have involved dressing up the works with custom covers.  I don’t care what anyone says, book covers are VERY important to book reading.

Once you select a book to read you will be presented with an information panel about the book, with the option to download and read (or download and listen, in the case of audiobooks), with a gallery of related titles below.

book selection

If you do select to download and read the book will be placed on a shelf in your Library, and once you add something to the library you can toggle between browse view and library view to access whatever you are currently reading.  It is easy to delete a book from your library if you no longer wish to store it on your iPad.

The reading experience is very similar to the Kindle app, with controls for changing font size, background color and brightness, bookmarking, reading reviews of the book, jumping to bookmarks or jumping to another section in the table of contents.  There are no annotation or highlighting features, unfortunately, and I recommend this as the first improvement the developers work on.

Reader Controls

To access audiobooks only, touch the audio icon in the top toolbar, from browse view.


The Help (?) doesn’t seem to do anything, even if you go through the labyrinthine process of creating an account with Get Satisfaction for this app.  The globe icon is just an add for a for-pay browser app this company makes called Browser+ HD ($2.99) for which I cannot imagine a need.  And, by the way, is the only add you will accosted with in using the book app, free or paid.  The search icon is excellent, and is the best gateway to finding the works not categorized in the very general heads that can be accessed through Collections, Authors, or Genres.  The Authors category in book view displays only 33 of the very best known authors arranged alphabetically in FIRST NAME order!  To find works by the great Dorothy L. Sayers or John Forster, Dickens’ friend and original biographer, you need to search, not to mention Percy Hethrington Fitzgerald, Forster’s own biographer.  The search can be rather sluggish, because it reports results in a hit list as you type, but patience is rewarded.

Once an audiobook is downloaded, it can be played from within the app with a player that allows for chapter by chapter access (that is how books are recorded at LibriVox, a volunteer records a chapter or more), a feature that gives finer control than is normally available on audio playback devices like iPod.  It is true that many of the LibriVox volunteers are not professionally trained narrators, but they beat synthetic text-to-speech generators by a mile.

Audio Book Player

The audiobook player is a jewel, with controls, as mentioned above, for chapter-level access, email book to self (or any valid email address, actually), and a unique sleep timer, for those who like to be read to sleep, I suppose.

There is a companion web site to the app at, which has the same library of books and audiobooks, and allows download in PDF, Kindle or mp3 format (in the case of audiobooks).

classicly website

Of course the books then need to be side loaded if you are putting them on a mobile device, but the world is not perfect yet.

Other than the sluggishness of the search function and the admittedly odd classification system, this is a terrific app for the price (or free, without audiobook access) and takes all the drudgery out of downloading and reading or playing the most popular public domain works.

Should eBooks expire for good?

In an interesting article in Today’s NY Times, “Publisher Limits Shelf Life for Library E-Books” Julie Bosman discusses HarperCollins’ recent decision to limit the number of times an eBook can be checked out from a public library to 26 times–that’s 1 year assuming a 2-week checkout period without renewal rights.  Heretofore libraries that check out eBooks have not been limited to total number of checkouts.

As with the rest of the movement to abandon analog media in favor of digital–though a good ways behind music and movies–book publishers are probing the limits of what they can get away with without provoking an unpleasant and competitively punishing backlash.  Naturally, many consumers, including some librarians, are outraged.  Publishers do not attempt to limit the number of times a physical book can be checked out.  Why do it with ebooks?  Obviously, because they can.  Did we really think publishers entertain non-capitalistic motives?  Yes, we did and do.  Some definitely do, just not HarperCollins in this instance.

What to do?  A boycott is suggested, and not a bad idea.  A larger public debate will result, which is good.  Publishers and the authors they represent need to make money, but this form of lifetime DRM, like all forms of DRM,are intrinsically self-defeating because they strike consumers as unfair and manipulative,and in fact, are unfair and manipulative.  Deviations from the traditional legally protected rights of libraries to circulate materials are–or at least should be–unacceptable.

Many ebook titles are already available on bit torrent sites, and the numbers will surely grow if publishers pursue DRM methods that strike consumers as unfair.  The motive to buy and own books will never change, but the strategy for reading books that one does not necessarily need to own will change, and for the worse, unfortunately, for all concerned if HarperCollins gets its way.

Google eBookstore Opens in US

Today Google’s long touted eBookstore has opened in the US.  It will open in Europe in early 2011.  Now no longer links to a reader’s wonderland, but something much more–well, not ominous, but “commercial,” in all its negative associations, seems more the word.  You can still gain access to public domain, free scanned volumes, but without some of the impressive features of the old Google Books.  With the new eBookstore the for sale sign is definitely front and center in the display window.  You’ll have to hunt for the freebees.  Here is the Pollyanna-ish intro video:

Google eBooks can be read on Android devices, iOS devices (iPhone, iPad,iPod Touch), via a web browser on Mac or PC,or on the B&N Nook and Sony Reader to name the major players.  (Here is the full list of supported devices).  Books you purchase are stored in the “digital cloud” and are accessible from anywhere the cloud can be reached.  Google touts its format as “open” but this is a stretch.  Paid books are not DRM-free,and eReaders must conform to Adobe’s DRM protected eBook format to work.  Free, public domain books can be obtained in EPub format.

Notably absent from the list of supported devices is the Amazon Kindle, though in a cheerful support note Google says “Currently, Google eBooks are not compatible with Amazon Kindle devices, though we are open to supporting them in the future.”  Non-DRMed books in EPub format can be easily converted to mobi format (compatible with Kindle) using a great free application known as Calibre.

Google has the catalog, with over 3,000,000 volumes available, and a huge back catalog for sale once their suit with authors and publishers is settled.  They have also partnered with Alibris, the ABA, and Powell’s to expand the shopping opportunities.  Like many other Google efforts however, it is so big that it lacks focus and discipline, and may appear difficult or confusing to the average consumer.  Whether the new eBookstore will be widely used, or whether the omission of Amazon, with its industry leading technology, marketing, and unparalleled customer service experience will be a deal breaker remains to be seen.

Do Libraries Need Books?

Books courtesy of Liam Quinn who created the imageI love books.  I also supervise a large computer lab at Palomar College, the largest, in fact.  We are located on the ground floor, more like the semi-detached basement, of the library building.  Right now the lab is jammed.  Every computer is occupied and there is a line of about 40 people waiting to get on a computer–this after expanding the lab several times over the years.  I have just read the New York Times article “Do School Libraries Need Books?“, so I was struck with the idea of going up to the third floor of our library building, the area called the “stacks,” where our circulating books are located and which also serves as a large, open study area with tables and chairs where students can sit to study.  The stacks are extensive and I toured all of them.  There were a total of 3 students browsing the stacks and about one-third of the study area seats were occupied by students, many of them with laptops and almost all of them with their cell phones on the table tops at the ready.

So, what does this tell us about libraries and books, and computers,for that matter?  Not much,really.  People have many reasons for flocking to the computer labs and the distractions of the Internet, but the chances of them doing serious school-related work on the first or the third floor of the library building are probably about the same.  This doesn’t help us answer our question, do libraries need books.  It only shows us which technology the actual students embrace: the one that is interactive, hands-on, moving, multifaceted, and, yes, I would say exciting, is always going to win, because people are just that way.

The New York Times article asked some guest authors to comment on the question, and I quote two below:

Pro is James Tracy, the headmaster of Cushing Academy, a boarding and day school in Massachusetts for grades 9 to 12.  Cushing and staff elected to “create a digital format for our library” but this “in no way signaled the end of books at Cushing.”  Tracy argues for digital libraries, and states that the former library collection was winnowed for usable volumes and those volumes were sent to the various departments, with the library space redesigned into a “21st century library:

“Our library is now the most-used space on campus, with collaborative learning areas, classrooms with smart boards, study sections, screens for data feeds from research sites, a cyber cafe, and increased reference and circulation stations for our librarians. It has become a hub where students and faculty gather, learn and explore together.”

Tracy makes the interesting point that library staff has been increased by 25% to assist patrons in the more intricate art of finding resources in an all-electronic holdings environment.  It all seems to make a lot of sense.  Dump the underutilized resource in favor of one that will be utilized and put your money into experts who can assist with the location and evaluation of information.

Contra is Matthew G. Kirschenbaum associate professor of English at the University of Maryland and director of the campus honors program in Digital Cultures and Creativity.  He says, “A screen is less conducive to deep concentration than the stillness of the page. Bits are brittle,” but it is difficult to discern exactly what he means by this.  It seems to me more likely that this is a generational thing than an actual fact.  I know students who insist they cannot read from books but prefer screens when they really need to understand something.

Kirschenbaum also says that “Books and libraries are working (or living) models of knowledge formation.”  Once again, is this true?  It seems to me that they are really just models of artifact aggregation, not at all “knowledge formation.”  The only way that knowledge can form is in a human (or animal, but let’s not talk about that now) cerebral cortex.  Libraries are just the last century’s state-of-the-art repository for the artifacts that cerebral cortices could most conveniently utilize to form knowledge.  Things have changed–for the better.

The Times article quotes other vocal “info-analysts,” if that is the right term–but you can read the article for yourselves.  Contrarians on this issue seem to share the Golden Age myth, where in the past they claim there was something called “deep thought,” or “deep reading,” another popular current term, that is now disappearing because of the influence of electronic media, or perhaps it is the volume or prevalence of media that is thought to be the cause of the problem.  Is it rude to ask exactly where this “deep thought” has been, who has been doing it, and how it was measured, since we seem to know it is disappearing?  One is familiar with deep thought over history by reading the greats of previous centuries (most available on the Kindle, by the way).  We don’t see it today simply because today is not yet history.  It is an illusion, and, again, it is always irresistible to mythologize about a past age of excellence now fading.

There are dangers to removing physical books from libraries in favor of electronic resources, but they have nothing to do with the quality of thought, accumulation of knowledge or depth of reading.  They have to do with democracy and the open society.  Who, in fact, controls access to the information once it lives on centralized servers?  Google?  Microsoft? Amazon?  Can we trust these entities to be free and open?  The case of the Amazon withdrawal of the book 1984 (ironically enough) from the Kindle platform recently is instructive.  Even more disturbing is the current movement among publisher to push e-book prices higher as their sales begin to gain over their physical counterparts.  This is especially alarming among textbook publishers.  In a market system where the price of an electronic book should continue to drop as more are sold, it is now beginning to rise, not because this makes demand/supply sense, but because publishers can artificially control the market through a system of licensing, governmental sponsorship (through the copyright law and elsewhere), and strong arm tactics towards retailers.  I am not willing to abandon the book in favor of electronic media until we have an open access, non-DRMed, completely democratic system of access to all literary resources. One that has been removed from the greedy claws of the publishers.  I want to see publishers make a fair profit, but not hold readers, and especially student readers, hostage.  Libraries can certainly reduce their holdings of public domain books in favor of electronic media, and most have already done so in the far-too expensive and transient world of periodicals, but they need to continue to develop their collection of copyrighted books in order to guarantee public access.