Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why iBooks for Mac Matters (Goodbye, PDF!)

We folks who create ebooks have been waiting for iBooks for Mac for a long time as a testing tool. Copying EPUB files from one device to another is a hassle and being able to see a book right where you've created it is frankly, this side of wonderful.

But of course, we #eprdctn people are not at all the point. Apple's release of iBooks for Mac in its new Mavericks operating system is a huge step for ebooks and EPUB because it makes EPUB available where people want to use it: on their desktops. The fact that this is the very same format—and the very same files—that works in their ereaders and tablets is icing on the cake.

Have you ever tried to send someone an ebook? It's not fun. Most normal people out in the world have never heard of EPUB and if you start explaining how to download a Firefox extension or make them buy a program to open it, they'll smile (if you're lucky) and go do something else.

Up until now, if you wanted someone to be able to open an ebook easily, you sent it in PDF format. And frankly, PDF is a dead end. It works ok on a computer, but it's miserable for reading on smaller devices. (No apologies to you PDF folks, sorry, and don't flame me in the comments. I don't care that on some Android devices, a PDF is slightly readable. I want an open, universal, flexible, standard format, and that's EPUB.)

What's PDF's great advantage? After years of downloading Adobe Acrobat Reader, most people have it on their computers, and when they double-click a PDF, something miraculous happens: it opens.

The last Pew Research Center poll about ebook reading (April 2012) says that more people read ebooks on their computers than on any other devices. In fact, 42% of the Americans who had read an ebook had read it on their computers, similar to the 41% who read on black and white ereaders, 29% on cell phones, and 23% on tablets. And that was 18 months ago, in the US.

In Spain in 2012, just to give one example in Europe, 55.8% of ebook readers use a computer to read their ebooks, compared with only 6.6% who use ereaders. According to the Spanish Publishers Guild only 9.7% even own an ereader. (I wished they gathered data about mobile phone reading, but they don't.)

At any rate, until Mavericks, if they were reading on a computer, they were reading in PDF. But Apple changes that. Not only has Apple released a fairly decent EPUB reader—that supports both EPUB2 and EPUB3, and both fixed and flowing formats—the most important thing is that iBooks for Mac is included in the Mavericks installation automatically.

That means people don't have to even know iBooks exists. You send them an EPUB file, they double-click it, and it opens.

open iBooks

ibooks open

Pure magic. They can read all kinds of ebooks, as large or small as they like, with JavaScript, audio, video, media overlays (read aloud), and in Asian languages with right-to-left page progression where necessary. It just works.

Now, why was that so hard?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Quick iBooks for Mac preview

Update: Several people have reported to me that iBooks for Mac does not support pop-up footnotes. Hopefully that's a bug that will be fixed soon!

Although there have been ebook readers for the Mac for some time, I was very pleased to hear that Apple's new operating system (Mavericks) includes iBooks for the Mac—which in contrast with most other desktop ereaders (except Readium) supports both flowing and fixed layout and both EPUB 2 and EPUB 3 format ebooks. Since iBooks is free and installed automatically, this means that Mavericks users will be able to double-click an EPUB file from the desktop—or an email message—and have it open right up.

EPUB files with iBooks icon

I was very anxious to see what iBooks might look like on the Mac. But I'm not so foolhardy as to install a brand new operating system on my computer while I'm finishing up a couple of big projects, so I installed it on my daughter's computer instead! I thought I'd give you a quick rundown of what I found.

First, you don't have to install iBooks separately, it comes included with Mavericks. I found it on the dock: an orange circle with an open book.

iBooks on Dock

When I opened it up, it immediately asked me to sign in with my AppleID—it feels like you can't go anywhere these days without identification. I find it a bit oppressive, especially since I wasn't on my own computer. And though it let me log in, I couldn't download any of my purchased books because I had already authorized five computers and this wasn't one of them. So I went and deauthorized them all and then reauthorized this one only to be warned that if I downloaded books from this particular AppleID account, I wouldn't be able to download items from a different AppleID account (e.g., my daughter's, who owns the computer) for 90 days. I didn't think she'd be very happy with me, so I didn't do it. I tried creating a separate user and then opened iBooks again, but got the same error. So I opted not to download any of my already purchased books.


This was frustrating to me. I should be able to access my purchases on any device to which I log in, whether or not someone else also has an account there. This means iBooks doesn't really work in the cloud—it only works on your personal devices on the cloud, not at the library, or at the vacation house you rented, or on the computer you borrowed from your daughter.

For testing purposes, however, I don't have any trouble getting my hands on other EPUB documents. I chose an EPUB3 flowing book, and EPUB3 fixed layout book with JavaScript, and a fixed layout book with EPUB2-style read aloud.

To load them into iBooks you choose not File > Open Book (which remains stubbornly grayed out, and refers to opening a book that's already in iBooks), but rather File > Add to Library. You can add a few by command- or shift-clicking multiple items in the dialgo box. Click the Add button and you'll see them listed in your library screen.

Library, showing title and author

If you've logged in with your AppleID, you'll also see any books that you'd previously purchased, with tantalizing cloud icons in their upper right corners. Display the books' authors and titles by choosing "Show Title & Author" from the Sort By menu in the upper right corner of the Library window.

Let's look first at the flowing book (double-click to open). I used What's up with Catalonia? (a recent collection of essays from leading Catalan leaders and thinkers on the independence movement there).

The default view is a two-page spread. The cover is shown on the left-hand side, which in my case, shifted the copyright page to the right-hand page, and the title page to the left-hand page, an effect I didn't like much. But of course, there's not a lot of control with a flowing book, so I bit my tongue.

You can switch to a one-page view by choosing View > Single Page or by simply dragging the right edge of the page to make the layout narrower. iBooks will let you view a narrow single page, or you can drag it out to make it wider.

flowing book 2
flowing book 3

If you get too wide, iBooks will first add white margins around the text, and finally it will shift to a two-page layout to keep the text from displaying on excessively long lines. You'd think you could choose View > Two Pages to go to the two-page spread view, but although it was automatically chosen when I pulled the layout out manually, it was always grayed out, and I couldn't ever choose it. Looks like a bug.

flowing book 4
flowingbook 5
flowing book 6

Click the full-screen option (diagonal arrows in the right top corner to fill the window with the screen, which means a two-page spread with moderately wide paragraphs and ample margins.

flowing book 8

Make the text larger with Command-+, and then make it smaller with Command-–.

flowing book 10

And yes, you can make the text sufficiently large so that a full-view contains only a single page.

flowing book 9

But you can't make it so small as to force a third page.

Turn pages either by clicking the arrows that appear when you hover over the right or left edges of the page, or perhaps more easily by clicking the right and left arrows on your keyboard.

page arrows

Consult a dictionary for the definition of a word by double-clicking the word in question.


If you select a phrase or two, you can choose to highlight (or underline) the text for further reference, add a note, copy it, look it up in the dictionary, search the web or Wikipedia, or post the selected text to Facebook, Twitter, send it in a Message or Email, or (with Start Speaking) read the selection out loud.

iBooks for Mac options

iBooks appends a link to the excerpt's book on the iBookstore, but that link only works if the copy came from the actual copy of the book on the iBookstore (and not a local version).

excerpt notes

If you already know you want to highlight, hold down the Command key while you're selecting text.

iBooks won't let you copy more than a few paragraphs of text at a time, presumably for copyright reasons.

You can see the contents of a note in two ways. First, you can click the little note icon next to the highlighted text itself. Or you can view all your notes and highlighted text by clicking the small page icon on the left side of the window. The notes will be organized by chapter—as long as the book is in EPUB3 format with a proper NAV document. If the ebook is in EPUB2 document, the notes are displayed in chronological order, which seems a lot less useful, to be honest. You can jump to the referenced section in the book by clicking the page number next to the note.

iBooks notes

You can consult the Table of Contents by clicking the bulleted list icon in the upper-left corner. Note that the chapter currently being viewed will be highlighted in blue. (Curiously, this works for both EPUB2 and EPUB3 documents.)


OK, how about Fixed Layout?

I opened up my Monarch Butterfly Book to see how iBooks for Mac would do. The Monarch Butterfly Book is EPUB3. I felt compelled to jump to Full Screen view right away so the photography-filled book wasn't lost among the myriad windows on my screen. You can always choose View > Thumbnails, click the little Thumbnails icon, or press Comand Shift T to make the handy page thumbnails appear at the bottom of the screen. Click on a page to jump there.


All of the JavaScript effects in the book worked just fine, including transitions and animations, scripts, and more. Again, use the right and left arrows for navigating (or the thumbnails), and the mouse to click.

You can also set bookmarks for fixed layout books. And once you have, you'll see them listed when you click the bookmarks menu.

There are two related things that annoyed me about iBooks rendering of fixed layout: you can't show a single page, and you can't zoom in to a book. My Monarch Butterfly Book has high resolution photos but you can't zoom in to see the details like you can on the iPad or iPhone.

One solution is to create a single image out of two pages (half of the image is on each page), like I do in Barcelona Beyond Gaudí: (If you were specifically targeting an EPUB to a laptop audience, you could also be careful with the aspect ratio so that it better fit a horizontal orientation.)

one image with two pages

Read Aloud, and Right-to-Left Page Progression

My manga.epub example is an EPUB 3 fixed layout book with Japanese writing and right-to-left page progression. I'm happy to report that iBooks for Mac displayed it perfectly, including the proper highlighting of the words when the Read Aloud media overlay was invoked. You can double-click words to have iBooks restart the reading from that point.

iBooks for Mac Read Aloud_Japanese

Another interesting thing is that you can have multiple books open at the same time. This is obviously useful for readers, but I can see it coming in very handy for testing and production work as well.

iBooks-multiple books

Finally, I should call your attention to iBooks' preferences, where users can choose whether to force text justification (regular line endings on the right side of the page) or let the lines divide naturally, and/or whether to allow hyphenation. I haven't yet tested whether these settings override or are overridden by settings in an EPUB document itself.

Users can also choose to sync bookmarks, highlights, and collections across devices, but it didn't work for my manually uploaded books. I suspect it only works for books purchased from the iBookstore.

I'd love to hear if you find out anything else interesting about iBooks for Mac. Overall, I'm pretty pleased. It's great to have a free program on the Mac that people can read EPUB ebooks with.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

About croquetes, Twitter, and the Catalan Way

Photo Sep 11, 4 32 52 PM

Yesterday's Catalan Way—Catalonia's 250 mile long joining of hands in support of Catalan independence from Spain—would not be the first movement to question Twitter's algorithms for choosing trending topics. But I'm sure it's the first one to respond with #croquetes!

Yesterday, Twitter buzzed with reports, videos, and photos from the #CatalanWay, which in Catalan is called the "Via Catalana". Today, it is newspapers all over the world, from the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times in the US, to the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent in the UK to Der Spiegel, Die Welt, Berliner Zeitung in Germany, and so on and so on. VilaWeb has a good list.

But Twitter stubbornly refused to register #ViaCatalana, the hashtag marking most of the posts, as trending. During a radio show on RAC1, Jordi Basté explained that Twitter had told them that 1000 people had to be talking about a particular topic in order for it to 'trend', but that it was important that that topic not have trended the previous day. Half in gest, he said, why don't we test that theory with "#croquetes" [a very typical and common kind of special leftovers in Catalonia, generally meat mixed with bechamel sauce and fried, quite delicious].

Within minutes, everyone was tweeting #croquetes, and sure enough Twitter quickly listed it as a trending topic. In fact, it's still trending this morning.

(20) Twitter / Search - catalanway

While some talked of conspiracy and showed that #viacatalana was being heavily used across social networks, others explained Twitter's system for designating trending topics.

My opinion is that whatever Twitter's system is, it does not work. There is absolutely no reason that such an event, closely followed by the world media, front page on Wikipedia, and tweeted by hundreds of thousands of people would fail to 'trend'. Twitter needs to revise its trending topic algorithm, so that we don't have to resort to silly tricks like tweeting about yummy food. And it's true that, totally coincidentally, I had #croquetes for dinner last night!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Playmobil triggers, or why I spend so much time on Twitter

Last night, my daughter decided to recreate our entire kitchen in Playmobil. The counters and kitchen furniture, a dog and three cats, a bowl in the island and silverware in the drawer just where we keep ours, but also dishes in the sink, overflowing compost, father making dinner, son playing soccer, and me on Twitter. I'm biased but it's quite brilliant.

Liz (and her phone) in Playmobil

My kids tease me about my Twitter addiction and at dinner, after I tweeted the tomato picture they also accused me of being one of those “food tweeters” (gasp!), clearly not a good thing. But subscribing to Tim O'Reilly's tenet that ambient intimacy is one of Twitter's keystones, I forged ahead undaunted, and tweeted the part of the Playmobil portrait that was of me and my coffee and my phone.

Which is when Twitter did its magic. My Twitter friend Melissa Techman favorited it and asked if she could use it for a Thimble mashup she was doing with her teens. Melissa is a librarian in Virginia (Maryland?) who is always working on amazing ways to get kids thinking and working on books and technology. Though we haven't (yet) met in person, we've been following each other for a year or so, and seem to continually find interests in common and ways to bounce ideas of each other. She organized an online workshop last year for which she invited me to do a short presentation on ebook production. I'm excited to see what else we can collaborate on in the future.

Melissa and Thimble

Meanwhile my daughter wanted to know what a Thimble was, so I asked Melissa, and she pointed me to the website. And it turns out it's a way of creating web pages—I haven't figured out the remixing part yet—and so my daughter and I spent the next hour or so writing HTML. It's hard for me to quantify what a treat it is to be able to share my knowledge with my kids. They know almost everything already (!) so it's pretty rare that they let me teach them anything. But if someone else suggests it... well, thank you, Melissa!

After my daughter went to bed, I spent a little while following some of Melissa's tweets about #clmooc. I keep bumping into MOOCs and I know I should know more about them and that I will love them when I get there, but I haven't had a moment to look more closely. But just reading those MOOC-related tweets is what gives me hope about the world. There are so many people working together, sharing knowledge, learning cool things, inventing, making.

It didn't stop there. This morning I found that Kevin Hodgson had started to follow me. It caught my eye that he lives in Western Mass, but as I wandered about the last few tweets in his timeline, I found interesting clues to just what #clmooc is up to, and also found a great list of Techno Skills, written by Kevin Kelley, which I shared with my Catalan tweeps. Hopefully, one of them will be inspired to translate the list into Catalan so it can be shared further.

One of Kevin Hodgson's links also got me thinking about Minecraft which helped me realize I should probably not freak out quite so much about how much time dear daughter spends with it. Indeed, encourage her even. And so it goes full circle, while leaving and sharing a little bit at every stop.

Bonus. This is not the first time I've been depicted in toys. I met another Twitter friend, Maia Weinstock after reading in her bio that she makes "science and music personalities come to life in LEGO". (I love Lego.) Then I noticed she retweeted my Catalan stuff, and it turns out she's part Catalan too! We met in person for the first time for a Sant Jordi event at Harvard University in April, when she presented me with a Liz Castro minifig. Totally honored!

Thursday, July 4, 2013



My garden this year is mostly populated by volunteers, and a good thing too, otherwise there wouldn't be much there. There are several patches of Mexican sunflowers, and a couple of surprise pumpkins (or gourds, perhaps :), and even a cosmos or two. The only thing I planted myself were two rows of peas, in a fit of energy and desperation at the end of May, and a tiny collection of tomato, cucumber, and annual starts that I bought at the farmer's market, which is cheating, but I don't care.

I'm not a very good gardener. I'm not good at imposing order: I hate thinning what I've planted and I almost never pull out volunteers. It's an unwillingness to choose between serendipity and what I think I want. In a way, it's a refusal to take responsibility, and/or to pretend I have control. Before I fall overboard, I'll admit that I do distinguish between 'volunteers' (plants I like) and 'weeds' (plants I don't like), although I'm not very good at pulling the latter either.

cosmosHow do you know when to push for change and when to accept what's offered? When is it right to change course—in a sort of zen exercise of being present—in order to follow what you have before you. And when should you pull it out, to leave space for the seedling that you thought you wanted there?

The space of my life is overrun with both planted seedlings and volunteers. And I can barely keep up with either one. I met an important mentor because I didn't do well enough on a Spanish placement exam. I found my first job in Barcelona because I got lost in an office building. I got the rights to the Spanish edition of The Macintosh Bible after asking for permission to publish just a few tips. I got invited back to the US in the middle of a concert of the Rock Bottom Remainders. I agreed to do the HTML book so they would let me do the Netscape books. Oh my. But I knew I wanted to do EPUB as soon as I saw the iPad :)


And everything is so interconnected, and gets more and more so. The peas climb up my volunteer sunflowers, and I go to Barcelona and learn how to publish books and then 20 years later publish books about Barcelona. I never know what's going to come out and how tightly to hold the rudder.

More of my books