Over at Tor​.com, Ryan Britt has published a smart essay about how most of the residents of the Star Wars universe are illiterate. Its really insightful and worth a read. I particularly liked the point he raises about droids:

Uncle Owen needs a droid who can speak “bocce,” and then says something about the binary language of load lifters. Okay, so Uncle Owen needs a translator and someone to do math for him. This doesn’t sound like a guy who has gotten a suitable education. I suppose it’s possible that Luke picked up some reading here and there, but we don’t see any books or any evidence to suggest he’s a fluent reader. It seems like all the characters in Star Wars learn how to do is punch certain buttons to make their machines do what they need to do, and everything else is left up to droids.
– Ryan Britt

This essays triggered three unrelated thoughts about reading as an action and a theme in sci-​fi:

First: Its not just Star Wars. The act of reading is often overlooked in many areas of fiction and movies. I suspect that the primary reason is that its difficult to compellingly portray reading. After all, it’s hard to find a more internalized action. For an audience, reading not a particularly exciting visual activity. The answer in film is to either (a) make the reading an address — either to a present in-​story audience or via voice over or having the reader read the actual text in question or (b) convey reading through a quick montage of cuts between the individual looking at the book/​screen and then a close up of the text in motion ending with a visible “ah ha!” reaction on the face of the reader.

And, as Britt points out, 99.9% of the time when reading is only there (along with Libraries) to advance a plot point (Indiana Jones reading where the treasure is buried, or the Officers on the Death Star reading a control panel).

Second: It’s noteworthy how many great distopian and sci-​fi works are based around societies willingly giving up reading. Take the examples of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the first reading and the traditional arts are abandoned for a society built on easier pleasures, in the latter reading is abandoned because it was seen as bringing the world to ruin.

I sometimes wonders how much of the popularity of this theme — beyond being a excellent hook — is because it offers a platform for the author to justify their profession. Viewed in that way these books belong to a wider genre of works-​about-​the-​importance-​of-​the-​works. For other examples see: plays that largely revolves around celebrating the importance of theatre, journalism about the importance of journalism, etc.

Third: While it may be true that few people seem to read in the Star Wars fictive universe, it’s equally true that the Star Wars universe has inspired untold amounts of writing and reading in the real world. Think about it: reviews of the films, novelizations, spin off fiction (textual and graphic, pro– and fan-​), behind-​the-​scenes books, video games instructions and cheat docs, toy packaging, academic articles, and, even the contents of this post.

The characters in Star Wars lives might lack the richness of the typographic word, but their “existence” has enriched our lives and filled it with lots of reading.

For more than a millennium, the codex was king. The gathering of paper or vellum, folded into pages, and bound with a protective cover to a common spine was developed in second century Europe. Over the next two hundred years it would slowly overtake the scroll as the primary vessel1 for the recording, storage, and dissemination of the written word.

And since its development, the form of the codex has remained largely unchanged. In fact, the most important innovation in the production of books — the development of movable type printing in the mid fifteenth century — was a manufacturing revolution rather than a reinvention of the codex itself. Gutenberg’s revolution was finding a faster and cheaper way to make books.

Granted, the print revolution did begin the evolution of the manufacture of codices. Vellum pages gave way to paper. Over time, new binding techniques allowed for the production of books of all shapes and sizes with all manner of coverings.

And thanks to the print revolution, the content contained by codices changed tremendously. The spread of the book form led to a blossoming of knowledge and art.

Information begot information. Books begot books.

But for all the changes in content, for all the new shapes and sizes of book, the overall container — the codex — remained largely the same. The form of the book had been locked down a thousand years before the birth of Gutenberg. In other words, channeling Douglas Adams, if a wormhole opened in a Barnes and Noble today and a paperback fell back in time to the court of Charlemagne circa 785 AD, the famed scribe Alcuin would immediately recognize the alien object as a codex, as a book.

The old adage is that when all you have is a hammer, everything comes to look like a nail. If thats true, then it stands that when the only information container you have is a codex, all information starts to look like a book.

Where there is no real alternative, content becomes inseparable from container. The two collapse into a single, seemingly inseparable form.

Well into the 1980’s, if not the early 1990’s, the codex remained the only mass-​market container for the written word. The advent of new types of recording and broadcast media created alternatives to reading. But none of them offered an alternative for reading.

It’s only been in the last two decades with the rise of eReading devices — first the PC, then cell phones, and now eReaders and Tablets — that reading has taken a truly revolutionary step.

We are in the midst of a renaissance for readers and reading. And this renaissance was facilitated not just by an explosion in publishing, but though the creation of alternatives to the codex.

The introduction of alternatives into a space where they had not previously existed disrupted a thousand year old illusion of a hard bound relationship between form and content within the pages of a book. People have discovered, for example, that novels are, for the most part, platform independent — words read just as well on screen as they do in a paperback or a hard cover. A book is no longer synonymous with its traditional physical container. Today the choice of which version of a text to read — hardcover, paperback, audio, or ebook — is becoming increasingly dependent upon what type of experience a reader wishes to have with that text. And that includes having multiple experiences with the same text over a variety of platforms.

The appearance of alternatives containers for words also opens up new and exciting ways of looking at the present, the future, and perhaps, most importantly, the past.

Thinking about reading on smart-​phones and tablets has given me a new perspective on the books in my library. I increasingly find that my books shelves contain printed apps like cookbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, how-​to books, travel guides, and directories. These collections of functional information, written for random access rather than narrative reading, and intended for specialized tasks were relegated to books, not because that was the optimal format for that information, but because the codex was the only option available.

Looking at things from this perspective — that these were always apps that we mistook for being books — is it any surprise these categories of publishing have been revolutionized by the advent of electronic reading platforms?

Realizing that digital reading has freed apps hidden within traditional books, points us to the exciting challenge/​opportunity for publishers and creators. Sure, people will continue to write platform independent works like novels. Despite so many fears, there is no real evidence to suggest that long form writing is going to go away. I’m sure their popularity will wax and wane. But while the business models will change, the overall production of that sort of narrative writing will continue unabated.

What is far more exciting, from my perspective, is that creators can now choose between a diverse set of publishing platforms. And that choice opens up new opportunities to create revolutionary works that work to embrace the full potential of their chosen platform. Publishing consultant and all around bright guy, Joe Esposito, beautifully described this challenge as follows in a recent email discussion thread:

[T]here is another model, and that is what I will call the Frostian (from Robert Frost: “all I ask is the freedom of my material”) model. In the latter model, the creative impulse comes about in a struggle with the material – good fences make good neighbors: the operative word is “make.” In this sense, books ARE their containers, or at least they are born of a struggle with their containers.

Now that we have learned how much of our content is platform independent, now that we can stop trying to force apps into the form of books, there’s a wonderful opportunity to create platform-​dependent works. To create books that truly link content and form.2 To choose to work with the codex format and embrace what makes it different than an eReader (and visa versa, of course).

For more than a millennium, the codex was king — the only game in town for the written word. That is now over. We are in the second decade of having real alternatives. And those alternatives are not going to go away in the foreseeable future. In fact we’ll most likely see them expand.

This is such a good thing.

We now have the space, the opportunity, to rediscover the codex and choose to embrace it. We do not need to try and recreate the codex experience on a digital device. After all, the codex has been with us for a long, long time. It isn’t going away. If anything, now is when things get really interesting.

Vive la différence.

  1. Other media for the written word — scrolls, clay tables, chiseled stone, graffiti on walls — persisted, but these were largely relegated to special uses. []
  2. To be fair, there have always been authors and book creators who have worked to tie content and form together. Examples of such works include Tristan Shandy, House of Leaves, and Watchmen … my hope is that this will become a far more common practice. []

We’ve known for a while, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, that Apple was planning something big in the book/​textbook market. Yesterday, January 19th, we found out it was iBook 2. Quoting from Apple’s oh-​so-​subtle press release entitled Apple Reinvents Textbooks with iBooks 2 for iPad, here are the key things that are part of the upgrade:

(1) iBooks textbooks, an entirely new kind of textbook that’s dynamic, engaging and truly interactive […] with support for great new features including gorgeous, fullscreen books, interactive 3D objects, diagrams, videos and photos;

(2) iBooks Author […] a free download from the Mac App Store and lets anyone with a Mac create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books and more, and publish them to Apple’s iBookstore. [You create a ibook] with Apple-​designed templates that feature a wide variety of page layouts [… and] add your own text and images by simply dragging and dropping, [… you can also] add interactive photo galleries, movies, Keynote® presentations and 3D objects.

(3) iTunes® U app [which provides students and teachers with] access to the world’s largest catalog of free educational content, along with over 20,000 education apps at their fingertips and hundreds of thousands of books in the iBookstore that can be used in their school curriculum.

At first glance, there seems to be a lot in here for advocates of self-​publishing and eReading to like. In particular, iBooks Author could be an incredibly powerful tool for getting students to engage with authorship and course material in an entirely different way — imagine every student making their own custom textbook.

However, when one digs beneath the surface a bit, iBooks Author has a few big problems. These are the two — one small and one big — that concern me…

Problem #1 — Interactivity
Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes that while iBooks make a claim of being “truly” interactive, what that really means is interactive animations…

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-​on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

I would take this one step further, in that the books that I’ve seen also don’t seem to provide much connection between text and interactivity. Rather than integrating the interactivity into the content in such a way that it becomes inseparable, it largely remains there to illustrate the text. In this way, all we have is dancing baloney sort of illustration within a closed reading experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t a revolutionary interactive experience.

Still even if iBook Author isn’t all that interactive, the promise of providing students a tool to build their own books is a good thing… right?

Not if the book is locked down to the iOS platform.

Problem #2 — ibooks can only be read on iOS devices
The iBook format, .ida, is a proprietary build off of the industry standard .ePub format which can only be read on an iOS device. That means that a student’s work can only be viewed, as it was intended to be1 , within the iOS platform.2 “Taking home” the book you made in class to show your parents requires you to take your ipad as well.

This may not seem like a big thing — especially since we imagine that each student would have their own iPad. However, it doesn’t take much to imagine less affluent school districts where students would share iPads. Or other scenarios where school supplied iPads cannot leave the school campus. Without access to a “home” iPad, that student’s work becomes more-​or-​less inaccessible — even if the family has a computer. Further, if the student wants to share that work within her extended family, all of them need iOS devices as well.

The problem is a closed, hardware based, platforms
The fact that iBooks only work on iOS devices seems to me an exceedingly problematic development for ebooks in general.

The rational — on the surface — for going with a proprietary format, is that the current ePub standard does not currently allow for an ebook experience that meets Apple’s high standards. As someone whose struggled with the limits of ePub, I’m sympathetic to this argument. Especially, if we are talking about typographic nuances and interactive elements, by all accounts iBooks are able to do things that standard ePubs cannot do as well (if at all).

This will surely result in some beautiful ibooks.

However, if we look beyond élite publications, this slavish attention to “experience” makes less sense. Most self-​publishing authors — including students — rarely end up using many of those advanced interactive features that made it necessary to drop ePub. I expect that time will show that, outside of the typographic tweaks hard wired into Apple’s templates, the vast majority of iBooks could have been created as ePubs without sacrificing anything.

And if those books had been “born” ePub, they could have been read on just about any computer, tablet, eReader, or phone available today. Instead thy will be locked to the iOS. In this way iBooks coverts generic content into something that can only be viewed on Apple devices.

Considering that the iPad’s traces its lineage back to the iPod, whose success was based on the cross-​platform MP3 standard, there is a certain irony to this decision.

Beyond the issue of experience, there’s another compelling reason for Apple to do this. As was recently pointed out to me in an email discussion, while Apple makes a lot on content (some $1,571 million in its 2011 fourth quarter!), content only accounts for 6% of all of Apple’s revenue. Almost 70% of revenue in that same quarter came from the sale of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and their related services, carrier agreements, and accessories.

To be blunt, iBooks are about selling iOS devices, not the other way around.3

Thus, there is very little incentive for Apple to develop an iBook reader for Windows or Android, let alone for Apple lap– and desktop computers.4.

For the foreseeable future, expect iBooks to be locked to a hardware platform. And that in turn means that a lot of new, traditionally platform agnostic, content will become locked to a platform for no other reason the artificial restrictions of the platform it was authored on. While that might not seem like much, it’s a very different approach to electronic texts than we have seen up to this point.5 Granted, there have always been technological barriers to reading and writing, but I cannot think of a bigger attempt, in recent memory, to restrict mass-​market reading and writing to a single platform. It may result in a win for Apple, but I can’t help but this of it as a loss for the rest of us.

  1. Apple does provide the ability to export a platform independent PDF of an iBook. However, all of the much touted interactivity is stripped from the book. And PDF is a format that still is primarily intended for print consumption, which means that all of the screen-​reading advantages of an ebook, such as dynamic text reflow, are also lost. []
  2. Additionally, the iBooks Author EULA contains a big “catches” to the distribution of ibooks. While free ibooks can be distributed how ever the author wishes, ibooks can only be sold via the iBookstore. []
  3. see Joe Espisito’s spot on analysis for more on this []
  4. In this way Amazon has a fundamentally different reading platform strategy. While they are heavily invested in Kindle, one must understand that it’s the Kindle platform versus the hardware that Amazon really cares about. In order to reach the broadest community of readers/​customers, Amazon has published Kindle software for every major Computer, Tablet, and Smartphone platform. Kindle books, which typically have DRM applied to them, may also be in a proprietary format, but, to some degree its platform agnostics approach makes it a far more available format to readers than Apple’s hardware locked .ida []
  5. Even during the browser wars of the late nineties, text on a site optimized for a given browser could still be typically read by anyone who visited that site, regardless of their web browser. []

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in the coming weeks JSTOR will make a subset of it’s archive of academic journals available to anyone who registers for a free account. This is, generally speaking, a good thing. However, as Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic points out, details from the Chronicle’s article suggests that this is, at best, a very small victory for open access. He writes:

JSTOR told the Chronicle that each and every year, they turn away 150 million attempts to gain access to articles. That’s right. 150 million attempts!

The way I see it, that’s 150 million chances lost to improve the quality of the Internet. JSTOR, as the keeper of so much great scholarly work, should be one of the Internet’s dominant suppliers of facts and serious research. But if something is not publicly available, key gatekeepers like journalists and Wikipedians, move to the best available source, even if they know that there probably is a better source behind JSTOR’s paywall. So, instead, JSTOR’s vast troves of valuable information remain within academia and the broader Internet’s immune system is that much weaker.

Madrigal is makes an important point. Search engines like Google now regularly return links to academic articles as part of search results. For most people1 following a journal link leads to a page that informs you that you don’t have access to that article. Want to experience it for yourself, just follow this link to as article on Open access and academic journal quality … #irony.

Other than examining attempts, there are other ways to wrap our head around the problem. I decided that I’d look into how many articles are firewalled at JSTOR. To do this, I ran a number of queries on the JSTOR search engine2 using variations on the string (cty:(journal) AND ty:(fla)) AND (year:[1 TO 2012]) The results are rather sobering. Here’s the top line:

Publicly available articles on JSTOR as of 1÷13÷2011 total articles publicly accessible articles publicly available as a % of total
All articles on JSTOR 3,816,066 272,475 7.14%
Texts out of copyright (beginning-​1922) 533,282 264,384 49.58%
Texts published since 1922 3,172,269 8,085 0.25%

Currently, only 7% of all of JSTOR’s content is freely available.

Worse yet, only half of articles that have entered the public domain are publicly available via JSTOR!

0 of the 2,465,468 articles published between 1923 and 1996 are publicly available.

In 1997 the first open journals began to publish. However, only 8,085 — less than 1% — of the 829,330 JSTOR articles published after 1997 are publicly available.

These are big numbers.

In theory, the point of publishing is to disseminate research for the development of knowledge. Further, many of those 3 million articles were built on data collected through publicly funded research. I have a hard time seeing how we can say the public is getting a solid return on its research investment when it still doesn’t have open access to research it helped funded over fifty-​years ago.

As an academic of sorts, I appreciate the need to protect the work of research. But I cannot buy into the idea that copyright is the right way to protect that work (especially when the one who benefits in the long term is the archive as opposed to the scholar). Imagine an alternative scenario. For example, that academic publication were handled more like patents — which enter into the public domain after 20 years for the good of society. JSTOR currently holds approximately 2,567,820 articles that would, under patent laws, have entered the public domain, versus the 533,282 that currently have passed out of copyright.3

All of this speaks to Madrigal ‘s point. This massive amount of information that is only available to those of us who are lucky enough to be in institutions that are willing to pay for it.

Admittedly, as I understand things, JSTOR has no legal obligation to provide free access to any of this content. And the price of access for back articles is often set by the journals, or rather their publishers. However, moral obligations are entirely different.

To their credit, in September of 2011 JSTOR began the process of opening up access to all their content that has entered into the public domain. Approximately 50% of it is currently available, but that still leaves half of it behind firewalls.

Hopefully, JSTOR’s new program will greatly improve public access. However, given the fact that there are over three million articles that currently remain beyond the reach of the public (and many scholars), it’s going to take a lot to make a real dent.

BTW, I’ve made all of the data I collected available via google docs. Please feel free to use it as you’d like. If you do something cool with it, let me know.

  1. this includes academics as there are far more journals available than even the most affluent research institutions can afford to subscribe to []
  2. I had to brute force this. I’d love it if someone could point me to a example of python code to do the same sort of thing. []
  3. Currently 2,303,436 of those articles are firewalled. []

The last few weeks have been full of two things: transitions and writing. I will post on the prior soon. The blog’s immediate future, however, is focused on the latter activity. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be sharing a lot of under development writing, and I’d love feedback. Though much of it will be related to Anthropology, technology, and media theory, today’s piece is related to Martial Arts.

Our school is in the process of updating its website and I’ve used this as an excuse to write out some ideas that have been developing in my head for quite a while. As you will see, the essay below is written with beginners (or really perspective beginners) in mind, but I hope that there are ideas in it for students at all levels. As always, I’d love feedback on it — especially in terms of tone and suggestions about material to condense or remove outright (as usually it’s longer than I would like).

On Fighting and the Purpose of Martial Arts

The the truth shall set you free (but first it will make you uncomfortable) — anonymous

Since you’ve arrived at this page, you’re most likely interested in learning more about the martial arts and possibly taking lessons. So, let’s have a frank discussion about what you’re getting into:

At some point in your life you probably heard one of the following:

  • The Martial Arts are about peace”
  • or “The Martial Arts are a great workout”
  • or “The purpose of Martial Arts is to improve confidence and focus”
  • or “The purpose of the Martial Arts is to make you into a better person.”

While well meaning, all of these statements distract us from the far simpler, and perhaps uncomfortable, truth:

Martial arts are about learning how to fight.

When you study a martial art you are learning a collection of ideas, strategies, and tools for overcoming physical conflict. When you commit to taking lessons at a good martial arts school, you are learning how to how to hurt someone seriously enough to stop them from hurting you or someone you love.

Motivation and Benefits versus Purpose

Learning how to fight” doesn’t have to be the main reason you take martial arts lessons. Some students at our school primarily study for the fitness and focus benefits. Other students come because they find fulfillment in constantly testing themselves in an environment that unites and challenges both the mind and the body. And many people appreciate the sense of community they find, both with their school and within the larger martial arts community.

All of these are great reasons for getting involved in the martial arts. But you must remember that all of those benefits — improved fitness, increased focus and confidence, making new friends, fun and fulfillment — are all byproducts of diligent study, not the purpose of it. In fact, the dedicated practice of just about any sport or hobby can bring you similar benefits.

If your sole purpose is to get in shape — and you don’t want to learn to fight — you probably are better off taking up to something like running, swimming or weight training, as all of those activities will get you fit much more quickly than the martial arts will. On the other hand, while committing to exercise will get you fit and help you develop a “never quit” attitude — both critical to overcoming conflict — they are not going to teach you how to fight (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Regardless of your motivation, the purpose of martial arts is to teach you how to fight, and if you commit to studying, you need to accept and commit yourself to that purpose.

Purpose and Responsibility

Martial arts are not all doom and gloom — walk into a good martial arts school during class you’re likely to encounter a positive atmosphere, hear laughter, and see smiles. Understand that fun training environment based on the fact that everyone training has made a serious commitment to learning to fight and each person knows that they are responsible for each other’s safety in multiple ways:

When you become a student of the martial arts, you are placing your trust, and ultimately your safety (and even the safety of your loved ones) in our hands. As instructors, it’s our responsibility to teach you material that will always work for you (and not just us). Self defense that only works if your a world class athlete (or a Feudal warrior) is stuff that will get you hurt.

It’s also your responsibility to do what it takes to learn and execute the material — as good as our instructors are, they can’t fight your battles. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. What we teach are simple ideas and techniques, but that doesn’t mean that they will work without practice or some fitness. The less time you put in, the less likely it is to work.

Studying the martial arts — learning to fight — also means taking responsibility for the safety of others in two ways:

The first is obvious: you’re promising not to hurt each other. In order to learning how to do varying amounts of damage to the human body, you need a body to experiment and practice on. And, believe it or not, to understand the martial arts you also need to have your body practiced on. Working with a partner means controlling your actions to keep both of you safe during training.

The second responsibility to your partner is less talked about but equally important: you are also promising to help each other get better. If your partner is “letting” you escape, you only think you learning that escape. If you refuse to let your partner hit you during a controlled drill, you not only are not learning what it means to be hit, your preventing your partner truly learning how to hit. Imperfect practice guarantees bad things for both of you when push-​comes-​to-​shove.

This is serious stuff. The only way for everyone to stay safe, both inside and outside of the school, is for everyone to remember that martial arts dealing with dangerous material (btw, most physical activities involve some danger, for example, swimming always inherently involves the risk of drowning). If everyone isn’t on the same page, people can get hurt, or worse, learn bad habits that can literally hurt them (or lead to getting hurt) down the line.

Assertiveness versus Aggressiveness

You can’t learn to swim without getting wet. But that doesn’t mean that you have to live in the water. Likewise, you can’t learn martial arts without learning how to hurt people, but that doesn’t mean you must become a violent person. Rather, the work of learning a martial art — practicing and perfecting a wide range of physical and mental skills — develops in you a self-​awareness and self-​control that can help you become more assertive.

Being assertive — recognizing and accepting that you always have the power (and responsibility) of choice — is the key to controlling your life. If you choose to take lessons and choose to learn, you are taking the first steps in learning to control yourself. Gaining control over yourself positions you to control your response to the situations and conflicts you find yourself in; that could mean verbally defusing a situation; it could also mean physically attacking your attacker. The key thing to understand is that taking control means consciously choosing and committing to act — in other words asserting yourself.

Learning a martial art provides you with both the framework to help make that choice and the “flight-​time” — practice under pressure — to learn to trust yourself to make the best choice for that situation. As our head instructor says: “a key focus of the martial arts is developing tools for conflict resolution.”

Final thoughts

Ultimately the bottom line is this: If you commit to learning a martial art, in addition to punches and kicks, you will learn a lot about yourself; you will become more fit, more confident and more assertive; and, along the way, you will have a lot of fun. But that self-​improvement can only come if you are ready and willing to fight for it — and that means being ready and willing to learn how to fight.