Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Publishing’s Future, in Parts

November 28th, 2011

sIn the walk-it-like-you-write-it mode, contributors to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto break conventions. They conceptually and practically cover the current nascent forms of publishing.

Book Review Note: This is another in my ongoing series of technical book reviews.

Most obvious include that this work is in process. The intro material and part one of three is available now. Buy it and you get the upgrades as they are ready. The electronic versions are much cheaper. You can also stumble around on the authors’ site to read it for free online, but not take it away.

This work lives its content and requires flexible commitment by the reader. Nothing could be more reasonable for authors Huge McGuire (writer/technologist) and Brian O’Leary (publisher/futurist), and their set of essayists. They come from various angles on how books will come to be conceived, designed, written, laid out, distributed, updated and more.

This first cut is The Setup: Approaches to the Digital Present. It’s 91 pages at the moment. Coming up are in the next months will be The Outlook: What Is Next for the Book?, and The Things We Can Do with Books: Projects from the Bleeding Edge.

Part one tries with fair success at defining the concepts of old and new-style books. Various chapters by different writers cover largely conceptual material, backed up by small to moderate specifics. In the main, a shortcoming is that having set us up for a whiz-bang new world, their uses of links, graphics and other technologies are only so-so.

Never mind, their ideas are big and sound.

Sure, we’ve all noticed and used ebooks in various formats on disparate platforms. The writers in the manifesto tell us how we got to this point, from technological, artistic and business perspectives. It is well worth wading through the differing voices of part one to get a fix on how format and form, context and content, truly differ and how each affects the present and will affect the future of publishing.

Note for example that context is key, above content, already. Writers and publishers are already responding to the new truth that “Increasingly, readers want convenience, specificity, discoverability, ease of access, and connection.” That is bringing with it such features as automated updates and links that go beyond the footnote model. Extra information now has to offer two kinds of new utility. First it must be “immersive” — appearing at a point in the book where it is most useful, and second, it must be nontrivial — “Primary source material, topics not easily discoverable via search engines, or deeply curated dives into ancillary topics represent rewarding additions that readers will want to explore.”

That requires a heightened, self-aware level of savvy that the writers claim is in the works.

So you can see what’s happened so far and what is in the works, they dive into the related technologies as well as the concepts. There’s a good introduction to a dozen development, publishing and distribution tools with examples. There’s also a tutorial on the benefits and drawbacks of the different digital rights management (DRM) schemes. Distribution, design and metadata each get a section by a different expert.

While O’Leary’s Context, not Container piece is self-serving, it is specific about how O’Reilly approached epubs. He details the technologies and distribution methods they used. They clearly were not afraid of jumping in and learning in the process.

He criticizes publishers who fumble in this transitional period. Many do in fact just want to figure a way to continue as they have as much as possible, while keeping profit margins. He calls this attitude “container myopia.” He figures that new entrants and existing publishers who get it will thrive by delivering books or book-like-things that let the readers discover in the process, as well as reuse the material. The old minds who simply see digital publishing as a cheaper way to deliver will get left out.

Instead, this work includes calls for deep and early tagging, for products that solve readers problems and let them satisfy their curiosity with related material and seems to flow from the content. Publishers will have to adhere to current and emerging standards and encourage reuse of their products.  Success should come to those who help readers/purchasers manage abundant information well.

This first third is, as they admit up front, a teaser. I want the rest. The epub itself makes a compelling argument for updatable books, purchases that include improved versions as they are ready.

I already want more from writer/designer Craig Mod, who framed his section with Everyone asks, “How do we change books to read them digitally?” But the more interesting question is, “How does digital change books?” And, similarly, “How does digital change the authorship process?” He provides examples of divides between products delivered as printed, on an iPhone or Kindle, and on an iPad. The tablet leaps over the limitations of the other deliveries.

Another touchstone is Wikipedia. It lets us “develop a text in real time, erasing the preciousness imbued by printing.” Or in futurist terms “Time itself becomes an active ingredient in authorship.”

With its flaws, such as fairly lame links, the manifesto is plenty of value in its first third. More please.

Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto
Hugh McGuire, Brian O’Leary
Publisher:O’Reilly Media
Formats: Print Ebook Safari Books Online
Print: December 2011 (est.) $24.99
Ebook: October 2011 $7.99
Kindle at Amazon $6.39
Pages: 91 for first release
Print ISBN:978-1-4493-0560-4 | ISBN 10:1-4493-0560-1
Ebook ISBN:978-1-4493-0559-8 | ISBN 10:1-4493-0559-8
PressBook free version for online commenting. Click on ToC entry to read it.

Maxing Out Outlook

November 1st, 2011

thumbDespite the book on time management with Outlook® being under 300 pages, reviewing took quite awhile. I mention that because that is likely what many readers will find. I kept returning to implement.

Effective Time Management: Using Microsoft® Outlook® to Organize Your Work and Personal Life is just what it says. However, it could use an additional subtitle about changing everything about how you handle your desk and computer.

To receive the book’s substantial value, you cannot just take a tip here and another there. You have to change the way you receive, read and send email, how you plan, attend or conduct meetings, and master the to-do and journal functions many Outlook owners do not know of or use. Time-management guru Lothar Seiwert and productivity expert Holger Woeltje show specifically how to do all of that. They lay out the problems, describe the concepts for those and their solutions, provide real-world examples of best practices, and give step-by-step description of how to do it yourself.

People who feel harried and overwhelmed by information and tasks coming at all times from all directions can get tremendous help here. All it takes is looking at each aspect of the business day in a new framework and then implementing better systems to deal with them. It is not at all simple, but the authors put it all right there in front of you.

By the bye, as a technical writer, I also appreciated their index. That often contracted-out weakest aspect of technical books is actually useful in this one. For example, it uses concepts instead of just the precise words Microsoft and the authors use.

The authors do not stint on any area. They separate these into email, tasks, weekly planning, daily planning, meetings and goals. Each gets the full problems, solutions, examples, and procedures treatment. If you thought you understood what you face everyday, know that they have made a deeper analysis.

You may find yourself skimming the examples, with their generalized, bullet-point concepts. That will be OK, because they lead you into the procedures, which is the essence of each area. If you think you do not have time to upgrade the way you work, you are likely to conclude you must take that time, so you will end up in much greater control of your job.

One of the best aspects along the way is that the pair introduces and explains how to use Outlook features invisible to and unused by many owner. Think block building and journal use, and how to get the most out of OneNote.

As an aside, it is possible to use other productivity tools than Outlook. The authors do not generalize to those. They do show why they have found what they need in Outlook.

Effective Time Management: Using Microsoft® Outlook® to Organize Your Work and Personal Life
Lothar Seiwert, Holger Woeltje
Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA
October 2011
Pages: 272
ISBN-10: 0735660042
ISBN-13: 978-0735660045
$29.99 Paperback and $9.99 Kindle available at O’Reilly or Amazon.

Saving and Sorting Lives

October 10th, 2011

sA Microsoft researcher in England has thought more about our life traces than the rest of us have. In The future of looking back, he interweaves the pluses and problems of personal artifacts from his grandfather’s photographs to current digital and online tools we use to the newest stuff around his Microsoft Research in Cambridge UK.

The book is as much philosophic as technical. For his work and avocations, Banks understands collecting, analyzing, storing and retrieving artifacts of human lives. The result of all that could have been a huge, turgid work, but is not.

In 141 pages, plus supporting references, he presents the qualities and uses of our photos, data, video, audio, journals and more. He uses simple declarative sentences, which makes even the complex concepts easy to follow. Coupled with his clever design questions at the end of chapters, the reader ends up thinking about how to make the fullest, safest uses of inherited and current material. We shall be better librarians of our lives after reading this.

He’s straight-ahead in dividing the book into three sections — Stuff and sentimentality, A digital life, and New sentimental things. Those would be the nature of the objects we use to remember, the hows and whys of reminiscence, and new and pending tools for doing so. I’m fairly observant, but he bring in details, down to the weight and texture of photographs. He catalogs our now-digitalizable range of artifacts. I considered my many objects like they were suddenly laid out before me.

That would be enough, but his design questions are truly thought provoking. For just one example, he asks, “How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?” These chapter enders did slow me down, in a good way. I am thinking of my own set of several generations of objects with these in mind.

How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or
archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?

I only have one complaint. He seems to assume that more is always better, and to let the future users draw on technologies to sort and prioritize. I think instead that as we complain of information overload, storing many millions of artifacts would work only for someone with a team of biographers to reconstruct the life and times. I vote for selectivity and subsets in what we store.

Richard Banks
Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK
The future of looking back
Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 2011
184 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7356-5806-6
$24.99 paper, also available in Kindle editions, O’Reilly or Amazon
Review Shtick: This starts a series of book review on technology and other topics that interest me.