Category Archives: School

Thoughts on Textbooks on iBooks

I was thinking about the latest news from Apple, that they were partnering with textbook publishers to bring cheaper textbooks directly to the iPad while at the same time releasing an application for anyone to publish iBooks for the Apple Bookstore.

Perhaps I am being cynical, but it’s always appeared to me that the main business model of a textbook publisher is to slightly tweak versions of a textbook, altering page numbers and quiz questions in order to force students to buy newer editions instead of used ones. Perhaps the industry is thinking that iBooks will eliminate the used book market, and they’re probably right. But this could also have some negative (for publishers) side effects as well.

Apple is lowering the distribution costs of textbooks dramatically. Assuming that schools actually pay for a set of iPads for each student, it becomes trivially easy (with the iBook publishing software) to create free textbooks for schools. Who would want to give textbooks away for free? Teachers. There are cases of teachers self-publishing for their own schools, but for this idea to really work, I think teachers would need to collaboratively create a textbook that meets either regional or national standards and release it for free on iBooks. If you don’t believe this will happen, take a look at Khan Academy.

Previous attempts to create free textbooks have been hit or miss. I am not quite sure how popular Wikibooks are in the classroom. The problem is probably that of traction and scale. Previously, no one has created a standard for e-textbook distribution. Apple is doing that with iBooks. The beautiful part is that they’re bootstrapping it with traditional publishers who are probably digging their own grave.

Of course, this could play out in a number of ways. Maybe iBooks will prove to be too costly for most public schools to adopt (I’m guessing this is very likely). If only private schools or schools with a lot of funding can support them, it may not become worthwhile to create free textbooks for all.

What I’d hope to see is a slow adoption of iPads in the classroom using iBooks as textbooks. Once a critical mass of schools is using iBooks, free textbooks will be developed and adopted by certain school districts and spread to others.

I’m glad to see that Apple is trying to “disrupt” (I lose some points here by using a word I hate) the textbook industry, and it’s awesome that they’re partnering with that industry to do it. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out, hopefully for the benefit of our education system.

Did Library School Change Me?

Looking back on my old posts from before I went to school at a hybrid Information/Library Science school, my opinions of librarians seemed fueled by a bit of prejudice. For example, in my visiting days post I wrote:

I sat down at a table whose occupants were librarians. Pretty much everyone there was an LIS (library and information services) specialist. This wasn’t really a great first impression, since I applied under the HCI (human-computer interaction) specialization, and to be honest, libraries aren’t really my thing.

What, exactly, did I have against librarians and libraries? I think I mostly felt that, from the school’s website (or the parts of the website that I studied), the program was more for people who were generally interested in information from a more technology-oriented viewpoint. So I was hoping to see more technological-minded folks at my table.

I still, however, decided to enroll. And I’m glad I did. Slowly, I think I started to understand what libraries are all about. I started using the local library. A lot. It probably also helped that I worked at a library my entire time at the school. I wasn’t studying to be a librarian, but I was exposed to the culture. Computer nerds and librarians make a good team.

So did library school actually change me? Or was I somehow intrinsically drawn to the program where computer nerds and book nerds collide? Maybe a little of both. I’ve always had a secret love for organizing and archiving things.

For example, pretty much no one in my family seems to care much about backing up files. I, on the hand, am a bit obsessed about it. I still have files from middle school preserved in their original file formats and directory structure in place. Who knows, some day I might want to look back on that stuff. I’m also kind of a nut when it comes to properly organizing and applying metadata (and preserving said metadata) from photos. Oh, and also backing everything up, both on-site and off-site (using multiple online services).

I also get really irritated when I go to the library and see something like this:

Infuriatingly bad organization!

Is that a Drama and Horror blu-ray disc I see mixed in with the Action ones!? Usually I will take the offending discs and put them in the right place. There was also that one time I saw Harry Potter in Comedy when it should have gone in Fantasy. The worst is when a DVD gets mixed in with blu-ray. That’s like the same as a book being in the CD section! Oh man, now I’m rambling.

The point is, I think I already had some Librarian/Archivist in me before coming to library school. Hanging out with like-minded people probably reinforced the behavior mentioned above. And probably for the better. If you’re a computer nerd, I suggest you check out libraries (and librarians!). If you’re a library nerd, I suggest you check out computer nerd stuff (and computer nerds!). Together, we can make the world a more information-y place.

The State of The Book (and Bookishness)

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I attended a sorta all day symposium last Friday at the University of Michigan titled “Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age.” While a lot went over my head (I am not as prolific a reader as many of the presenters), I think I still got some cool ideas from it.

Leah Price spoke about book fetishism. How, as the book is considered less and less the de facto vehicle by which its contents are delivered, it becomes more of a fetishized object than just a “book.” In other words, there are computer screens, Kindles, audio books and other ways for us to digest fiction and non-fiction works. Because of this, books become special objects. The act of reading a book instead of a screen or anything else becomes something special and deliberate.

I tend to agree a lot. Just as part of me enjoys wearing glasses because many people do not, and the act of wearing glasses sort of differentiates me from other people, so does reading a physical book. On top of the fact that leisure reading of books seems to denote socioeconomic status (and the kind of company you keep), I guess I also just like reading. Besides, I don’t have a TV, so what else am I supposed to do with my free time?

Paul Courant brought up a lot of issues with digital vs. physical intellectual property that has a lot to do with other mediums as well (and not just books). He pointed out that digital copies of things do not currently afford the kinds of things that physical copies do by virtue of simply existing in real life. He argued that there’s a lot of information contained in physical artifacts. When you walk into someone’s house, you see the books on their shelf and can make an estimate of who they are by what books they’ve read. Someone later pointed out that it isn’t necessarily which books they’ve read but which books they’ve bought! Another point is the legal ramifications of DRM of digital goods versus the common sense physical item. Courant asked hypothetically if he’d be able to leave his Kindle (and the books on it) to his kids when he dies. He has a number of books passed down from generation to generation. Will that stop with digital distribution?

I tend to like the romanticized notion that physical items have a particular charm and historical value. I also think that digital information can also have some valuable information, especially in the form of metadata. The digital photo from your Canon SLR may not have the same qualities as film, but it could also contain metadata like where the photo was taken, when it was taken, camera settings and other stuff that’s very valuable. We might not be able to put things like Bill Gate’s computer into a museum like we do Galileo’s sketches, but think how cool it would be to have the revision history of a future great novel (assuming novelists keep their documents in a version control system…)! You could see all of the steps that the writer took, things they wrote and erased, and the order in which they produced a work. Now that I think of it, WordPress keeps a revision history of sorts, so I guess we’re not too far off that idea.

It’s interesting to see how the “death of the book” is being described. It seems as though the general message of the day was that books were already dead (and long live the book). The decoupling of the book and its contents happened a long time ago. But for now, I think as long as people continue appreciating them (and I think enough do), the book will still exist as one of many vectors for the dissemination of information.

I’m in Ur Universities, Graduating Ur Programs

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At some point in the last week or two, I graduated from the University of Michigan School of Information with a Master’s of Science in Information. Yes, that last sentence was totally for SEO purposes.

I figured I should write a blog post about it since I made a big deal about grad school in the past. So much so that I even made a blog for it. Maybe I should cross-post there. Nah, that blog is long-dead. In fact, it was totally dead until I just checked it and fixed a php bug that’s probably been there for two months… Oops!

It’s fun to look back at my old posts and see what I was thinking (or attempting to portray what I was thinking) at the time. I went through a bunch of my posts when I was writing this post up, so I guess I can skip a lot and focus on the University experience.

When I went to visiting days, I just coming from an interview with Google that I thought I had aced. Apparently I was wrong about that. I came in with a sort of nonchalant attitude. I think this was kinda good (being too serious is never a good thing) but also kinda bad (I might have not taken the visit as seriously as I should’ve). At the time I thought there were a pretty large number of non-technical peers for an HCI program, regardless of how interdisciplinary it was supposed to be. In hindsight I think this concern was reasonable for a CS person. I guess I don’t think of myself as a CS person anymore, though.

One shock of the program I had to overcome was that people outside of it don’t know what to think of it. In my numerous job fair experiences, I noticed that recruiters really didn’t know what to do with me. “You have a computer science background, but you don’t want to write software!?” Well, sort of but not really. I lucked out and talked to a recent graduate who worked for Google. He told me that the ideal position I was describing had a name: Product Manager. That exchange really helped me solidify my goals for what I wanted to do after I graduated and what I should accomplish before I graduated.

I should also note that I’m pretty lucky that I have a background in CS. Many of my classmates and peers in the program do not have a CS background, which makes finding an internship or job even harder for them. In a field that’s so new, we have a lot of explaining to do about why the skills we’re learning are valuable to employers. I’m able to explain it in relative terms (I’m like a software engineer + 1) whereas others have to define who they are from a blank slate, at least in terms the recruiters can understand.

I had some great opportunities to do academic-style research. I did two independent studies: one on an audience-aware public display (using bluetooth, facial detection and a large touch screen display) and another on the reputation system of a large social network, CouchSurfing! For the latter I co-authored a paper. We’ll see if it gets into the conference June 1st! I tried to make sure that I experienced a full range of academia including normal classes, research and being involved with a student org. I think I did a good job, though I feel I might have overextended myself a bit.

I sense this post is getting a bit tl;dr, as many of my posts tend to drift towards. So maybe I’ll just conclude. Back when I started thinking about applying to graduate schools, I did so because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. At this point, I think I have a better understanding of what I want to do, generally. I should probably try and escape the ivory tower of academia, at least for a while, and see if doing real industry stuff is a good idea. Then again, I have been doing my own thing for as long as I’ve been programming. I had thought of applying to PhD programs but that process was cut short when I remembered how much I hate applying to grad school and also after I got a job offer in November. I think that making the leap and attending school for another two years was definitely worth it in terms of professional and personal growth. I don’t know if I can say the same for spending ~$70 for a cap, gown and hood that I wore for one ceremony…

Ann Arbor Duck Graffiti

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It’s been a while since I noticed this but I hadn’t written a blog post about it yet. All around Ann Arbor, you can find a distinctly unique signature of “Duck” written on stuff. From mailboxes to walls to whatever. I think I first noticed it on a paper towel dispenser at BTB Cantina. I thought it was some kind of trap where once I read it, I had a second to actually “duck” or be hit on the head by a log or something… That obviously wasn’t the case (I didn’t duck).

Does anyone know what the deal is? Is Duck a gang? Can I join? Do I want to join? Is Duck involved in illegal activities? Does Duck fight crime? I wanna know.