Apple’s iBooks Author Does not Create a Book

After almost a thousand years of trying it out, I think it’s safe to say that the book as a way of publishing things is a success. Yet all the things that make books work are being abandoned in the latest tool to make ebooks.
A “book” still means something made out of paper-like material; the word origin refers to a slab of beechwood or (in the case of the latin word codex), bound leaves of some kind. The idea of printing being involved is not at the core of what a book is, and to have the object is to have access to the knowledge there. Ebooks are any kind of publication produced for electronic reading; again, what produced the content is not at the core of what an ebook is.

So what is basic to being booklike? Some kind of package for publishing, and one that belongs to the reader. A book and an ebook are more alike than they are different from this perspective, and it’s a recent development that they have diverged. Because of the success of Amazon and other companies in creating closed systems for people to buy and read ebooks, suddenly the idea of a book is contingent on a particular company giving a key to a locked box, etc.

And now, Apple’s iBooks Author program requires publishing a book in one proprietary format and for sale on one store, in such a way that can only be read on one kind of device. A truly faustian bargain.
The marketing for iBooks Author says it “allows anyone to create …just about any kind of book for iPad,” but given that what it actually makes is very far from the actual definition of a book (or even an ebook for that matter), I don’t think it’s accurate to say that. It’s something, maybe more like an old-school CD-ROM. It’s just not a book.

nook color is another crippled reader

A lot has changed in the past year in the ebook world; the ePub format has gained a lot of interest and activity as an open format. Open standards are, of course, the reason that the Web has had its spectacular growth and vibrancy as a new medium, so you’d think that the creators of a new reader device would see which way the curve of history is going. I had no idea what to expect from the new nook color, but I did hope that (as an android device) it might be slightly more open than other things on the market.

And, in fact, it is. Very slightly. It is news that you can actually go to a Web site and download an ePub (that is not copy-protected) and read it. The browser (a version of Chrome, included in Google Android) is good enough to be useful. The touch screen is a little balky but not nearly as bad as the first nook.

However, the nook color still makes it hard to get and read books in any other way than the B&N store. To download non B&N books and read them, I can copy them to the nook over USB, but if I download them over the browser they only appear in the “my files” part, not in “my books.” If I download an ePub from a Web site via the nook Web browser, it is placed in the “my downloads” directory. I can go and open it there on the nook, but since I have no way to move files on the nook itself, the only way I can make it appear in the nook “library” is a workaround. That is, connect the nook to a computer, move the ePub file from the “my downloads” to “my books” directory; and only then (after a refresh button-press on the nook) it shows up in the nook “library.”

The nook mounts as a regular mass-storage device, similar to a Kindle, but allows me to see the entire document tree (including the DRM’d ePubs). This is more transparent than an iPad/iPhone at least, but that doesn’t mean I can just rearrange files myself in anything other than the “my files” directory. Maddeningly, if I add or move files to the B&N directory, it doesn’t show them — only the DRM’d files are recognized. And, of course, I can’t get applications from the Android Market for any price (that much I expected).

The small roadblocks that the nook color places in the way of getting and reading non DRM’d files feel petty and stupid. For the price ($250) it can’t be getting subsidized by B&N, so why the desperation? So much work must have gone into ensuring that I can use the device in only one way; if only B&N had just let it be a decently-sized android device in that way only (even sans-apps). At some point someone will make the equivalent of an iPod Touch with Android software that is tied to a good content store (but is a flexible device that I can geek out with). I am surprised that (given the market dominance of the iPod) someone hasn’t.

why make pictures?

Top: Tricycle, Memphis, 1969-71
William Eggleston, Dye transfer print

Over the last twenty-five years, I went to school to be an artist, abandoned that, became a designer, married, and had a daughter. After many life changes, I think about almost everything differently. But I still have this incoherent desire to make pictures, not much different (and not much more understood by me) than when I was much younger. Then, I thought that people make things for their own sake, because they are beautiful or some part of the truth. I am not sure about that anymore. There are many much more important things to me now, but nothing more mysterious than that (despite only extremely sporadic and privately satisfying pictures) I keep wanting to do it. It could be just my own personal hang-up. At this point, I want more to understand this drive than do anything meaningful with it!

I’m interested in photography, since it has some of this same mystery. In contrast to painting, sculpture, or even film, millions of people take photos meaningfully. Photographs can be completely mundane for even close family, or epic and affecting to anyone, and the difference is usually pretty ellusive. After I took a picture of a tricycle I saw a similar picture of a tricycle by William Eggleston, but there’s no meaningful relationship between the images (other than to point out just how great he is). There are plenty of good images in the world, more are not needed. What is meaningful, then? Why do it?

So, I read Photography After Frank, by Philip Gefter, and Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams, to see if there was some vocabulary people use to write about this and how to make sense of it. They are both good books with strong ideas and clear thinking.

Gefter was the front-page picture editor for The New York Times and a critic for that newspaper. He surveys a lot of recent good photos and motives behind them. Usefully, he offers themes like “the document,” “staged documentation,” “photojournalism,” “portraits”, “collections,” and “the marketplace.” He offers a way to anchor and understand the work of good artists. For example, he writes that in

…the 1980s the photograph underwent a rigorous, necessary, and unforgiving examination by postmodern artists and critics. They challenged its fidelity to fact, its role in constructing social realities, its validity as a form of art, — to the point where straight documentary photography seemed conventional, even retrograde.

I can see that in the edgy Cindy Sherman, subversive Sherrie Levine, and the raw Nan Goldin, all of whom were newly-made art-world stars when I was in school. But this way of thinking seems to say that these artists made images because they were engaged in some kind of cognitive research project (collaborating in teams!), however. Having (very briefly) met two of these people and seen all three speak a number of times, I don’t believe anything like that motivated them. They all seemed very self-absorbed and chaotic (but appeallingly vulnerable and human). In one case their best description of their method was to “struggle out from under my fear of being disgusting” (I believe this was Nan Goldin at the New School, but I can’t find a reference for it). Even though the cultural effect of their work might be formal, their work was not pursued logically or methodically. The critical/art history approach doesn’t help me.

Adams’ book is much more personal about the ‘why’ in photography, divided into sections on “what can help” (“…humor, teaching, money, dogs”), “examples of success,” and “working conditions.” He speaks as someone who has spent many hours with the desire to make images and struggling with the results. Speaking of “living in several landscapes,” he mentions living “in hope” but mostly of “a simple, generic” place, a

country crossroad on the high plains. There are thousands to choose from. Often there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all–just two roads, four fields, and sky. I feel foolish to have stoopped, but small things can become important– a lark or a mailbox or sunflowers. And if I wait I may see the architecture– the roads, the fields, the sky. [...] We might find there a balance of form and openness… It would be the world as we had hoped, and we would recognize it together.

This is an appealling way of seeing, tying together the act of taking pictures with two people (him and you, to whom he’s giving a direct invitation) experiencing familiar things with new appreciation. This feels to me like the Buddhist direction, where the practice and living with humility is more important than the results of the activity. This may in fact be a good way to live, but it doesn’t answer the question of ‘why’ (even if it is a good side-step of that) for me.

There is something visceral and silent about taking pictures. Analysis is useful for understanding ‘why not,’ but not why. After abandoning the wish for importance, insight, understanding, beauty, or connection, why does the drive stick around? It seems too easy to just say that the meaning of making pictures is the work itself.

David Foster Wallace and the Failure of Zen

David Foster Wallace, giving the commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, among many other things, said:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

and:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

and:

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us…

He expressed, in a painfully coherent way, a sharp dilemma that he saw: between his own strong drives, needs and desires, and an awareness and compassion of others that could detach him from the fact that he would never be able to satisfy those drives or desires. What he argues for is a recognizably Buddhist approach; compassion and awareness, but you hear the despair in how it’s described.

There’s a good deal of evidence from an excerpt from his unfinished book, The Pale King (about a man that works for the I.R.S.) that he was thinking along these lines:

Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinkie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month. Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once, except to put the completed files and memos in the two Out trays side by side up in the top tier of trays, where the cart boys could get them when they came by.

What is this other than a painful attempt at meditative practice? And when he says the below in a manuscript note, it’s even more explicit:

Bliss — a second-by- second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.

Of course, Wallace calls such awareness and compassion ‘unimaginably difficult’ in his commencement address, and when he says he is not claiming any special knowledge or authority on how to do it, he’s not being modest. He is talking about his own struggle, a struggle that few are conscious or smart enough to try, and almost no one (especially not these smug Zen monks) would be able to express in such clear and heartbreaking terms.

Those who practice Zen, I think, would say they strive to achieve a “mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. ‘I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?’ Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgement, just asking ‘what is it?’” Undoubtedly, this is a wonderful way to exist, and I would myself very much like to live that way.

But imagine Mr. Wallace, bristling with talent, supremely gifted with words, aching to wrestle with a good chunk of what people have done with literature. Could he actually do any of that while detaching himself in that way? It would be like cutting off an arm, or at least a finger. Buddhism seems to offer one track of fulfillment, but it doesn’t seem like it encompasses enough for someone like him. Maybe he needed two tracks, one for his life and one for writing, each with different rules. I wish he was still around, so I could see what he would undoubtedly have figured out.

design and agile

New methods for managing people making Web sites are big these days, with the most popular being Agile. Basically it boils down to making a small team of builders completely responsible for a project, and enforcing constant communication as people work on it in well-defined chunks. There are many engineer/programmer proponents for this, but few designers seem to have adopted the approach (though there some, but others are skeptical or downright hostile to it).

The difference is another example of Aristotle vs. Plato, the scientific, evolutionary approach vs. the aspirational large vision. Design wants to create a beautiful vision up-front for what a new world would be, but divorced from the deeper and more meaningful design that engineers do.

Without going into the problems and tensions that have been common in these projects, I think it’s safe to say that no one has developed a great ‘best practice’ for how it can actually work (and I’ve worked within dozens of Agile teams and read quite a bit about it, so anyone who claims to have it solved I can say is probably pulling your leg). So what could work better, at least?

Just Start

Often there is the assumption that designers need time to develop separate deliverables and have their ideas specified out before they can talk to builders. This is a breeding-ground for mistrust, and more importantly the designers shouldn’t be working without an intimate knowledge of the technical design–what information is gathered, how it moves around, and what’s done to it. Designers should get into the project at the very start, talk through the project in detail with the whole team, and make decisions with the team. They should be making sketches or prototypes the first day.

Visual and Interaction Design Comes Last

Many sprints I’ve worked on have tried to have design done a sprint ahead of implementation, or a week, etc. This is sadistic. When engineers are iterating and improving as they go but designers get one shot at it before they’ve seen any working code, everyone is set up to fail. Rough interaction design and pages should be done collaboratively with engineers as they work, and detailed interaction design and visual design should come last, as a refinement of that.

Actual Alignment

Much of the attempts at collaboration between designers and engineers in Agile projects have put the designer in a rough spot, between the product owner and their team. The designer makes mocks/comps/boards to should how the thing could look, and the product person signs off on that before the sprint starts. The documents for what will be built, however (e.g. the stories, acceptance criteria, etc.), doesn’t include the designs. Inevitably, the team makes changes to the designs as they implement, and the designer is either out of the loop (working on a different part, or not part of the team), or has to redesign on the fly in mid-sprint. Designers and engineers should put aside time for ‘alignment’ tasks, where they discuss and agree on what they will build, either as part of the pre-sprint tasks or the sprint itself. This is similar to ‘engineering-only’ sprints, which focus on the ‘plumbing’ of a project and not what users see.

The alternative to having these kinds of deep integration of designers into Agile teams, I believe, is mediocre work, or a lot of additional work to fix the inevitable breakdowns that happen when talented people work together. This is actually much more simple human nature stuff that’s been going on in offices everywhere, for a long time, probably since cave-people first called a meeting.

Republican House Districts Emit More Carbon per Capita

Shown are U.S. House districts (average population of 650,000 people), red for Republican and blue for Democrats, with districts that emitted more carbon per capita last year shown in darker colors.


I discovered project “Vulcan” at Purdue University, which is mapping carbon emissions on a detailed level in the US; very cool. I wondered whether there is a difference in emissions between parts of the country that lean Democrat or Republican. Fortunately the wonderful Vulcan project people made it very easy to find out by publishing their data (I used the simplified data set showing emissions per capita change over about 8 months, and binned the counties by predominant House district). I did a fast and sloppy job, so this map is just approximate. To me it shows that there is a pronounced difference between the parties in likelihood to emit carbon, but (as the Vulcan project found) geography is a larger factor.

UPDATE: Kate Sherwood, who has an extremely intimidating amount of expertise and knows what she’s doing, points out that the method I’m using to map county data to congressional districts is flawed (I used centroids of counties to centroids of districts) and inaccurate so it really should be taken as only approximate (I removed the percentage thing from the title, that sounded too specific)! She pointed me to a better resource for mapping counties to districts and I am going to re-do it with that…

data as interface: flow

I believe that there are two kinds of ideas in the world: those that divide things into two types, and those that don’t… and then there’s a third, which tries to wriggle out of either. This is one of those.

The basic idea: a better interface to data would be to turn the data itself into the interface, as a flow between an overview and actual experience.

What is an ‘overview’?

  • visual language of overview: parallel
  • movie trailer, menu, signage
  • graphs, piles, sorts, maps, matrices
  • optimizes attention
  • optimizes action
  • browsing, analysis, editing, outlining, listing
  • powerpoint, excel

What is ‘experience’?

  • visual language of experience: serial
  • long, slow changes
  • reading content
  • still photos
  • based on important details
  • narrative
  • based on sustained attention
  • email & twitter

This is false duality of course; the actual value of either references the other, and both are necessary and interesting and have been around since the dawn of time. The reason this is an interesting thing to revisit is that there is a huge advantage in new media and social contexts: you can jump between them quickly and continuously, so that they start to merge into a ‘flow.’ This flow is an interface, perhaps a good one.
In basic terms, the flow interface resembles a lot of existing interfaces:

  • a list of emails > reading an email
  • table of contents > page
  • map > walking

But the differences that would be possible include:

  • use content itself in the overview, not a label/symbol/sign
  • browse and refine both the overview and the experience
  • interact with one through the other
  • interaction with an overview element shows an experience
  • interaction with an experience element references an overview

Now speed things up, so that the interface can offer:

  • “you can sort this stuff into piles three ways, which one works the best?”
  • “we have these three prototypes that show how the product could work”
  • “have a taste of 12 dishes before you pick your meal, then change your mind halfway through”

And of course, this can benefit from the language of data visualization, but we need a framework for overviews and a framework for experiences, not just one, and the ability to pick the framework itself should be content-based and usable through familiar conventions:

  • show proportional distances instead of vertices or measurements
  • make maps
  • show size relation, piles
  • show a tree graph
  • show nodes and edges

And here is where I sketch some actual designs for the very vague concepts I’m throwing around, but of course I haven’t got there yet. But I think it would be easy to show new interfaces for twitter, netflix, and digg that work this way.

Generation M: an Unmanifesto

The below is my attempt to remove the frothy and breathless tone from “Generation M manifesto” by Umair Haque, because I liked it in many ways. It is definitely more boring, but I hope more real as well. I don’t believe any manifesto can express the right amount of humility towards these questions, but it can emphasize belief in the possibility for something better, so I focused on that.
Dear gradualists, ideologues, and partisans,
We are in a time of large differences between groups, young and old, east and west, rich and poor, but one where many of the traditional ideologies seem to have been scrambled both by a global economy and crisis and fundamental changes in how information is shared through technology.
Everyday, we see the costs of doing the same things. It looks like some big, new, and huge problems are looming, but the solutions that are talked about are old, timeworn, and plain unambitious.
Old ideas of generational shift and left/right politics no longer seem to work. We can’t use simple terms in this new, hypercomplex and interdependent world. We need a new way of seeing and strengthening the relationships we have, not a manifesto of ideas.
These times demand not single solutions, but systems of solutions, involving less large-scale business and more individual opportunity. Less ideology, and more practicality.
Businesses and governments must get connected to and become responsive to a public that is comfortable using social tools to express themselves in massive ways. The hyper-connected “sea of green” in Tehran is the model for a new, speeded-up politics.
Much of this new world no longer requires massive capital or leverage to work, and banks should play a smaller and more supporting role. A smaller role for finance means less focus on lucrative return.
The huge accumulation of risk and the massive gaming of global markets resulted in crisis. This should drive a lot of wealth away from financial instruments and towards tangible, collective works and accomplishments that everyone can benefit from.
Growth as a goal incentivizes distortion. We should prize flexibility and agility, so that no matter which way the markets go, business can prosper and act to benefit everyone.
Rather than nurturing a few elites (or even oligarchs), the new economy should be a huge number of distributed markets. It wouldn’t be entirely controllable, and those that would want to profit from it will have to compete for influence just like everyone else.
We’ve seen the consequences of short-term thinking in spending and debt and felt the pain; now we should start working on ideas that are built to last a generation, not 5 years.
Our sense of ourselves has moved too far towards what we can do as individuals; it’s time to nurture some shared beliefs, projects, and experiences.

Our culture should connect us to our shared past, and remind us that when it comes to the most meaningful things for human beings, there’s usually nothing new under the sun.

In order to provide some label for what’s needed, let’s call it Generation “M.”
This is not a movement in the traditional sense (our society is too distributed one manifesto, one protest, one set of ideas). It’s more the recognition that a new set of norms is needed for a new time, the recognition of a shift. It’s the belief that we can come up with practical ways to live and work together that do a better job at caring for each other.
Ideologies and manifestos will always run up against their own logical extremes. Gen M is the belief that innovative ideas married with historical consciousness and brutal practicality can be vastly more powerful, and meaningful.
Big changes will be necessary. The institutions and norms that we’ve lived within for a long time are too fragile to pass on to our children.
Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lived with cheap, easy, expensive lifestyle, but one that was empty of meaning and for which we have little to show. Every age has a large responsibility, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday’s profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainably shared prosperity.
Anyone — young or old — can answer it. Generation M is more about what you do and who you are than when you were born. So the question is this: do you want to build the new relationships, businesses, and systems we need? Or do you want to keep repeating the same old ideologies, marching in protests, or clinging to dying institutions?

sharable media design convergence

Twitter, Friendfeed, and Facebook have seemingly converged on what has become the major reason to be connected to others on a social network: sharing short updates, links, photos, etc. A concept for mozilla’s Firefox also looks similar, and lifts ideas from iTunes to help organize things. The designs share some major elements:

  1. Publisher an area to enter some text, a url, or other media, to publish it out to friends or the public.
  2. Items an area where items are listed, either most popular or latest items, or some subset of items
  3. Sets an area where the set of items to show is chosen; it can be all items, items from certain friends or other sources, or user-created sets
  4. Notifications two of the designs have an area to surface notifications, recommendations, alerts, or otherwise push to the user stuff that might be interesting

I like this design convergence, if only because establishing a vernacular for these kinds of sharable media apps will lead to more familiarity with the interface as more people start to use them, and form the basis for the next leap towards an interface that supports more sophisticated forms of sharing and publishing.

don’t hate the designers

Douglas Bowman had to quit Google, and Valleywag explains it all for you (to hell with Owen!). I had a similar experience at Yahoo, so I’m only surprised Douglas lasted this long. The comments on Valleywag are really sad though; a palpable hostility towards “precious,” “childish,” “short-sighted” designers (you can look for yourself, I’m not linkin’). A lot of product design is really bad, sometimes the designers get a chance to do something really good with a job, but not often.
Jared Spool, an Extremely Important Person, once told me over Pad Thai that “visual designers are just failed artists.” I took that personally, being a failed artist (heh), but didn’t understand why the “visual” distinction was necessary… I guess he would have to be a failed artist as well if he just said “designers”? Or he has to get the frustration of just speaking at conferences out somehow.
Facebook’s redesign inspires widespread unhappiness and derision. On Techcrunch, incredible bile is thrown at the designers. I can’t say I like it, but why does anyone think that Facebook is anything other than an ongoing experiment? Facebook users are not “customers,” they are collaborators in inventing new ways of being connected, and much is required of them sometimes. The new Facebook stuff is not very good, but at least they haven’t given up like Irene Au and the crew at Google.
I have attempted to be useful as a designer, and had enough failures and successes to know a good deal of humility. There’s no research method, process, innovation technique, conference presentation, or even extra-talented designer that magically makes good stuff.
UPDATE: Another comment thread at an article about designers quitting Google, filled with ignorant stuff. It really does seem that there is a cultural lack of understanding about design and what it is. I suppose the only real solution is to increase the overall cutlure’s understanding and ability to parse visual and experiential elements; then (and probably only then) will people want a specialist to make the choices about those things instead…