Archives for category: writing under development

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 be ((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.)) , within the iOS platform. ((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. )) “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 elite 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. ((see Joe Espisito’s spot on analysis for more on this))

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. ((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)).

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. ((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.)) 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.

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.