Speed-reading pdfs using the “Spritz” technique

sprint reader logoA couple of days ago, I came across Spritz, a company that is popularizing a speed reading technology whose name I’ve forgotten called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation.  You get the idea once you look at the Spritz website. I immediately thought that this could be a way for me to read all those texts that I have to read as an academic a lot faster.

I am a very slow reader for three reasons: the first is that I look up every other reference and almost all footnotes. Sometimes I get so distracted that I even look up some of the references and start reading those instead (and so on).

Another reason is that when I read an interesting paragraph of sentence, that often triggers my own thoughts and associations and I start wandering off, thinking about how I might integrate that idea into my own text or whatever.

Finally, the third problem is that I simply read slowly, I guess because I really want to understand and thing through everything, rather than focusing on the essentials.

Now, I don’t want to philosphize too much about the pros and cons of speed reading here. Suffice it to say that if the aim is to get through a text reasonably fast at 350 words per minute with at least superficial understanding of the content (or even ridiculously fast at 800 wpm with probably minimal understanding but a rough idea), then this Spritz technique seems adequate to me, and I have indeed read two articles that way yesterday.

My point here is to show you how to read pdfs using this technique (not the original Spritz itself, cause their app is not released yet) because the reading apps that are out there at the moment seem to work only with plain text, while most academic articles come as pdf files.

It’s not a big deal, actually, but it took me a while to figure it out nevertheless. All you need is the Chrome bowser with the Sprint Reader extension installed. You also need to make sure that you have the native Chrome PDF Viewer enabled. This is the case by default, but if you are using Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat, you might have disabled it. In order to enable Chrome PDF Viewer, type “chrome://plugins/” into Chrome’s address bar and scroll down to find Chrome PDF Viewer and, well, enable it. The following will not work with pdf-files that are not displayed using Chrome’s PDF viewer.

You can now use Sprint Reader to speed read not only text on websites but also your locally stored pdf files (just drag them into the browser). Select the text you want to read, right click and select “Sprint read selected text”. There you go. (Needless to say that your pdf file needs to have actual text in it, not just a scanned image of text. If you have an image of text, you need to run some OCR on it.)

The Sprint Reader extension in action
The Sprint Reader extension in action

I recommend setting the “pause after period” higher than the default 450 milliseconds. I’m currently using 900. I also set the “pause after paragraph” to 2000, but that basically has no effect when reading a pdf, because there seem to be no paragraphs in there that the Sprint Reader would recognize as such, unfortunately.

There are also a couple of other drawbacks that we currently will have to live with, especially that the reader will – not surprisingly – read all the text in the pdf, which means it will also read the header on each page, the page numbers, and – most annoyingly, the text inserted on every page by various publishers, such as:

This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

You will also encounter problems when there are tables and figures in the text, but hey, otherwise it works okay.

Why did I chose Sprint Reader and not any of the many other similar services and extensions such as Spreed – speed read the web, Spread Speed Reading Extension, Spreeder, or OpenSpritz, to name but a few? Well, it’s the best of them all. It’s not perfect (I did encounter a couple of crashes or whatever it was when it simply did not work until I restarted the browser), but it is very customizable and it works with pdfs, which not all of the others do.

Having said that, here are some suggestions for improvement in Sprint Reader, especially for people like me reading scientific texts:

  1. Add an option to exclude (i.e. hopp over) brackets containing a four digit number. Why? Because that would exclude all references provided using an Author-Year citation style and make reading academic texts a lot easier.
  2. Recognize abbreviations such as e.g. and treat the dots in these differently (i.e. don’t apply the “pause after period” rule). One quick way of minimizing this problem could be by checking whether the dot is followed by a capital letter. If not, it’s not a period.
  3. It would be nice to be able to exclude customized strings, such as “This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions” (see above)
  4. Ignore hyphens at line breaks and join the words to one. The few cases where the hyphen should not be eliminated because it is a hyphened word, are negligible.
  5. Recognize paragraphs in pdfs (see above). I’m not sure whether this is possible, but I might as well add it to my wish list.
  6. Add a keyboard shortcut for quick rewind as, for example Spreed has it (I think it was spreed anyway). In addition, it would be nice to have the replay at a lower speed and then back to normal speed when passing the point where the rewind was initiated.
  7. The extension should not be dependent on the text selection in chrome, once it has started. This is feels almost like a bug to me, although it is not, but it is a bit of a pain in the *** that you cannot unselect the text you are currently reading without the reader losing track of it. It would be better if the reader would load the whole text into its own memory, once you press play, making it independent from what happens in the browser.

UPDATE: I just realized that the Sprint Reader sometimes seems to have problems rendering text in pdfs. I have a pdf in which it reads some of the text without problem but when I select and right click other parts, there is not even a possibility to select “Sprint read selected text”. In fact, this may be a problem of chrome (or the pdf?) and not the extension. Either way, be prepared to encounter this problem with your favourite pdf file…

Update on the Xcanex document scanner review

Xcanex-scannerI just thought I’d mention that there have been several software updates since my first review of the Xcanex Document Scanner by PiQximaging. The current version of the scanning software (called perfecapture) is

I have installed it and it works fine. I did not do an entirely new install so I cannot say whether the glitches that I described with version 1.0 have disappeared, but I’m inclined to believe so since the developers seemed to take my review quite seriously when they wrote to me and apologized for the inconveniences I had encountered.

They also said that they

have studied the problems you encountered (from your blog post) and ver solves them:
– installer issues when installing as Windows Standard User (not asking admin rights, no icon found)
– software hang and crashes caused by some USB 3.0 ports (marked with ‘SS’)

(Just as an aside: I don’t think I have a USB 3.0 port on my 4 year old PC, so that none of my hangs or crashes can have anything to do with that)

I can say that I still have the scanner on my desk and now and then, when I want to get rid of some papers and store them on Evernote, I flip them under the scanner and within less than a minute, the job is done and the original hardcopy goes into the shredder. It works just fine, although sometimes (when the paper is a bit too crumbled or has bent edges) the scanner does not recognize the edges of the paper 100 percent properly and cuts off a bit too much. (I guess this has something to do with the straightening algorithm which makes sure that your final image is always rectangular.) But in those cases where it matters, it is quite easy to correct this manually by repositioning the edges.

It has also been useful a couple of times when I urgently had to send a scanned copy of whatever document it was to whoever it was: I could do it from home. But for the ordinary scanning work, I still use the scanner/photocopier at work. It is faster, and the quality is better.

Here is a comparison between a 300 dpi scan from the photocopier and Xcanex:

image from Xcanex
image from Xcanex (click on image for 100% view)
image from photocopier
Image from photocopier (click on image for 100% view)


And here are the full page scans, if you want to see more (please note that it was me who cut off the margin in the Xcanex scan):

scan from photocopier
Full page scan from photocopier (click on image for 100% view)
Xcanex scan
Full page scan from Xcanex (click on image for 100% view)

I have to say that the point of this comparison is not to say that the Xcanex has bad scanning quality. It is actually quite amazing, considering the size of the device. And when it comes to ordinary size text, I would say it the difference is almost negligible for ordinary use. Where the difference becomes more obvious is in very small print in a coloured or grayscale context as in the image shown in the top left of the scanned page.  I am not making this a point of criticism, but I thought it is good to show where the difference to photocopier scans is, since many of us have access to those big machines at work.

So while the scanning quality is not a point of criticism here, the following is: The settings menu has now OK button, so you are left wondering: how do I save the changes?

settings menu
Perfecapture settings menu

At first I thought it is the big “Calibrate Scanner” button that is filling in while the OK button is on vacation or so, but then I noticed that changes actually seem to be save immediately as you make them and you close the Settings-dialogue with what would usually be a cancel button: the cross in the top right hand corner…

It would also be nice to have an option to scan directly into Evernote, but even without it, it is quite easy to do this: just activate automatic saving as shown in the screenshot above and then tell the Evernote client on your PC to watch the folder in which your scans are being saved and voilà! (That is: if your EN client reliably notices new files in the folder and uploads them to Evernote, which is unfortunately currently not the case, according to my experience).

Another option is to email your scans to your Evernote account, directly from the scanning software.

But I would really like to encourage the Xcanex developers to implement a “save in Evernote” button. It should not be too difficult to implement this using the Evernote API. Check it out here.

The Xcanex document scanner: a first review

Xcanex-scannerFirst off: this is a product with some potential, in fact it is a great product, once you have worked yourself through some of its glitches and annoyances. I have had the “Xcanex Professional Book & Document Scanner” for just a couple of weeks now, but I think it’s time to share my first impressions and experiences with this innovative little gadget, which is basically an 8MP digital camera with an LED flashlight built in and which “scans” your documents by taking pictures of them. It also includes a software that does quite a good job in cropping the image so that you end up with a jpg/pdf of just the document that you wanted to scan. It is in many ways similar to booksorber, but booksorber comes without the hardware because most of us already have all the hardware at home, i.e. a DSLR camera).

But let me start from the beginning: a couple of months ago, I wrote this review about the “IRIScan Book 3” mobile scanner and basically scrapped it and sent it back. I then received a message from a hitherto unknown little company from Singapore suggesting that I should have a look at their newly launched document scanner. And so I did. First on the many videos on their website, and later by trying out the free unit that they sent me. Given that all the basic information about how the thing works is actually in these videos and on their website, I will skip over those basics and provide you with what you wont find anywhere else on the net: my experience and evaluation.

So, here we go:

For ordinary users with little knowledge about the existence of admin-rights on windows, the journey with this scanner may well end before it has even started: When I tried to install the driver (version 1.0 from a burned DVD!), it repeatedly failed until I noticed that it never asked me for admin rights so I figured that it may require these rights but fails to ask for them, perhaps because the developers use admin accounts and therefore never noticed this as a problem (I use an account with limited user rights as generally recomended). So I started the installation with administrator rights and finally the software was installed properly. It requires quite a bit of space on your hard-drive:

The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
After install, what happened? – Nothing. I mean, I like it, when software doesn’t try to take over my computer after I installed it, but this was kind of the opposite extreme. I wanted to try the scanner out, but there was no desktop icon, no popup question that would ask me: “Hey, would you like to try me out right away?” I checked “all programs” in the start menu and searched for “piqx”, “xcan” as well as “perfecapture”: nothing. I was wondering whether I actually installed the thing.

So I went to the program files folder and found a folder called “piQx Imaging”. Aha! And in that folder I found a file called “PiqxImaging.exe” and I (double)clicked on it. What happened: nothing.

Finally, I found a new icon in my taskbar (the ones on the right, not the ordinary program icons) which said “Xcanex Launcher”. Ha!  Gotcha!

Looking for the Xcanex Launcher
Looking for the Xcanex Launcher

So let’s (double)click on it! What happens: nothing! – How about a right click? Aaah! It gives me some options to choose from:

Right clicking the Xcanex launcher helps
Right clicking the Xcanex launcher icon helps

I’m not sure what BCO is, so I choose “Launch PerfeCapture”. And? Something happens! Finally! But hey, did I say it works?

Selecting "Launch PerfeCapture" leads to an error message
Selecting “Launch PerfeCapture” leads to an error message

Scanner not found? But it’s here on my desk!

The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)
The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)

Oh! maybe I should plug it in? Maybe that is what the error message is trying to tell me. Okay, this is a minor glitch, but after all those other issues, I’ve gotten into a “complaining mood”. It will be difficult to please me now…

And indeed, after plugging it in, the steps above no longer produce an error message but the piece of paper lying under the scanner actually shows up on my screen! Wow! But my euphoria comes to an abrupt end when I try to position my piece of paper so that it is fully visible under the scanner: before I can even press the “scan” button the PerfeCapture crashes:

Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
But the good thing is (and I have actually not seen anything like it on any other program): the problem did actually solve itself and without me doing anything so that if I had left the room for two minutes while this happened, I would never have known. Or actually, I would, because this happened several times: crash without me even touching the computer, crash disappeared again. Strange.
Sadly, however, I was still not able to scan. At least, when I clicked on the “scan” icon nothing happened. This was not a bug though, but due to me ignoring the read notice on my screen saying “too low”. I ignored it, because I didn’t know what it meant. What is “too low”??
Once again I had to figure it out myself (or I could have read the manual, but honestly, who reads manuals?) Hmm, maybe the scanner is too low, i.e. to close to the paper? I twist it upwards and click on “scan”. And now the magic happened: The thing focused, then flashed, and then the software identified exactly what I wanted to scan, i.e. this little instruction manual and cropped it from the overall image:
My first test scan with the Xcanex
My first test scan with the Xcanex

So there you go! After quite a bit of trouble with the setup, I finally got not a very acceptable scan (you can click on the image to see it in full resolution).

I have done some more testing but I will write about that in a second post (which will be linked here once it’s done).

Just one last thing: the second time I tried to use the scanner, I couldn’t even find this little launcher icon that I used above to start the scanning software… I thought that this maybe because the scanner is not yet connected to the computer? So I plugged it in and what happened was that drivers were automatically installed (Why again?), but the icon did not come back. So I’m clicked on “PiqxImaging.exe” again. Nothing.

I finally go deeper into the “piQx Imaging” branch of the program files directory and I find “perfecapture.exe” which finally starts the scanner. I created a shortcut to this file manually so that I would remember how to start the scanner the next time. And it has worked fine for me since then. I have never seen that Launcher icon again…

So let me give you a preliminary verdict (as I said, there is more to come): The setup has been more than cumbersome and I’d say it is impossible to master for the average user. But what I have is version 1.0 of the software on a burned DVD and I assume that the developers will soon have fixed these problems (although there is quite a but to go to make the software really easy to use – more about that in the second part of the review). Otherwise, this scanner is solid hardware (I could quibble a bit about cheapish plastic, but I’ve seen worse) and it is obviously well though through. When you assemble the product (you actually do need to look at the IKEA type instruction to but it together correctly), you can’t help notice that the developers really worked hard to design this innovative pocket scanner which is a bit bigger than the IRIScan Book 3 but it still suitable for taking it with you on a trip.

But would I pay 299 US-dollars for it (it’s price as of October 2013)? Definitely not. The product is definitely overpriced, I’d say 150 USD would be reasonable. I think I might pay that much for it. Perhaps some people who don’t have access to a scanner at work would pay more? But I think then I’d by a proper scanner with automatic feed for a bit more. When it comes to mobile use and portability, I’m wondering what actually can be done with a smartphone camera in combination with booksorber. I have not tried booksorber yet and I know that an on-camera flash easily ruins your “scans”, but what if there is sufficient ambient light? Or what if you hold it at an angle to the page you’re scanning, just like Xcanex does? It might be worth a try.

Speaking of money: I need to mention that I received my scanner unit for free from piqximaging. But I can clearly state that piqximaging did not require me to agree to any conditions whatsoever. They merely asked me to review the device. And while even that is not a legal obligation, I do feel morally obliged to do deliver this review now, and I’m sorry if they had hoped for an earlier post on the device, but I’ve been just too busy…

UPDATE: have a look at my updated review here

Problems with Winedt 7 and Adobe Acrobat?

I just spent a while trying to solve this problem: the latest version of WinEdt (v7) seems to be unable to close the pdf document that it is working on and therefore can’t compile a new version of it (because Adobe Acrobat is blocking access to the file). I keep getting an error message saying “Cannot Open DDE Link to: “C:\Program Files (x86)\Adobe\Acrobat9.0\Acrobat\Acrobat.exe” Service: AcroviewA10 …” (see screenshot below).

Some posts (can’t find it anymore) suggest that this is not so much a problem of WinEdt but of Adobe constantly changing the interface of their pdf software. Whoever is to blame: I could not find a solution that works with WinEdt 7. Regardless of some people stating that the solution is the same for any version of WinEdt, the idea of  replacing DDE Service Acroview with AcroviewR10 (Acrobat Reader) or AcroviewA10 (Adobe Acrobat) in “PDFCloseDoc.edt” (that’s what the file is called in WinEdt 7) does not work (for me).

So what’s the solution? It’s more a workaround than a solution: don’t use an Adobe product as your pdf viewer when working with WinEdt. You can keep Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader and use it as you like, but don’t have it as your pdf Viewer in WinEdt. Use Sumatra pdf instead. WinEdt works fine with it and you no longer need to close your pdf-document manually everytime you compile your LaTeX text.

How do you change the settings in WinEdt? – Go to

Options -> Execution Modes -> PDF Viewer

and change the path to the “PDF Viewer Executable” to wherever you installed SumatraPDF (in my case, it is “C:\Program Files (x86)\SumatraPDF\SumatraPDF.exe” because I have a 64bit version of Windows). Voilà!