iBooks 1.5 Refines the Reading Experience

by Tonya Engst - 

With the release of version 1.5 of the iOS reading app iBooks, Apple has made a few welcome changes aimed at enhancing your reading experience. None are earthshaking (unless you need the white-text-on-black, as people with certain vision problems do), but if you are an iBooks user, the release is a good excuse to take a moment to learn more about iBooks. Let’s look at what’s new in iBooks 1.5, and make sure you know the nuances and special tricks.

Previously, you could tweak iBooks for reading in different lighting situations by changing the overall screen brightness or (for EPUBs only) by switching the background page color to sepia. In a PDF, the Brightness button is near the upper right, while in an EPUB, the Brightness setting was previously tucked away in the Table of Contents view. (To switch between PDFs and EPUBs, on the iPad, tap the Collections button. On the iPhone or iPod touch, tap the Books — or whatever the label may be — button at the top of the main view. In the iPhone screenshot below, I’m in the PDFs view, so I need to tap the PDFs button to switch to a different collection.)

In iBooks 1.5, Apple has enhanced the display options for EPUB viewing and grouped them in the Fonts menu, so the Brightness control has moved there. The Sepia switch used to be immediately available on the Fonts menu, but now it’s a button nested under a new Themes button, along with the new Night option. The Night option shows the ebook with white text on a black background — a setting that will work better for some people’s eyes and which will cause your iPad to emit less light, something that anyone trying to sleep nearby will appreciate.

On the iPad only, there’s also a new Full Screen toggle switch nested under Theme; turn it on to make your EPUB look less like a book in favor of showing a bit more text at once — EPUB expert Liz Castro calculates the increase in text shown at about 15 percent. For example, with Full Screen on while in the landscape orientation with two “pages” showing side-by-side, the image that looks like the inside of a book spine disappears, making the two “pages” look like two columns on a single page.

Apple has also revamped the lineup of fonts that readers can choose from. In the serif camp, Baskerville and Cochin have been replaced with three new fonts: Athelas, Charter, and Iowan. On the sans-serif side, Verdana is out, but Seravek is in. Georgia, Palatino, and Times New Roman remain as before. Apple gives no reason for the switch to these little-known fonts, but our own Glenn Fleishman suggests, at BoingBoing, that the new fonts are simply better for on-screen reading. As always, it’s worthwhile trying a few different fonts and sizes to see what you like in the context of a particular publication.

One small touch added in version 1.5 is that the generic covers of ebooks that lack designed covers, such as many public domain texts, now have a leather-bound look. In the screenshot below, the “New” ebook called “No Special Cover” is one that I created myself to test whether an ebook had to be some sort of anointed classic to get the fancy cover or just be one that didn’t get a cover specified for it by the publisher. So any EPUBs you create yourself using Pages (or even Automator!) will get these new covers if you don’t specify your own. iBooks seems to assign the color and style of the covers randomly, which makes for nice variety.

Much like jotting your thoughts in the margin of a print book, you can attach notes within the text of EPUBs in iBooks, and the basic procedure has not changed in iBooks 1.5: double-tap a word, drag the blue selection dots if desired to expand the selection, and then tap Note. As you type, the note has a popover-style triangle pointing to the selection (previously, the note looked like a sticky note). Tap the Hide Keyboard button to complete and save your note. To change the color associated with a note or to delete a note, after you’ve created it, tap its associated text and then tap either the color of your choice or the red-slashed delete button.

In the previous version of iBooks, the completed note displayed a small icon in the margin that you could tap to view the note in context, and that icon had the note’s date on it. In iBooks 1.5, you get a smaller and more refined icon, but no date. You can view all your notes at once in the Table of Contents view; previously, notes and bookmarks were combined under the Bookmarks button, but now they appear when you tap a separate Notes button. A note’s date appears in the list, so it’s not a big deal that the margin icons no longer include it.

A helpful iBooks feature that remains unchanged in iBooks 1.5 is that if you own more than one iOS device, your notes (and highlights and bookmarks) can appear in copies of the same ebook on all your devices, so long as you are logged in to the iBookstore with the same Apple ID (in Settings > Store). To turn this option on, tap Settings > iBooks and then turn on the Sync Bookmarks switch. Be sure to turn it on for all devices that you want linked!

That’s the end of today’s iBooks lesson. I hope you’ve found a few useful tips, and feel free to share more iBooks tips in the comments below.



Let’s Stop with the Siri Baiting

by Adam C. Engst

Immediately upon the release of the iPhone 4S with Siri, Apple’s speech-driven virtual assistant, people started asking Siri all sorts of questions and posting Siri’s often-hilarious responses (there are plenty more sites with names and URLs that will get our email issue marked as spam).

Now, however, toying with Siri has taken a darker turn, with people reading all sorts of things into  Siri’s  responses.  Most recently,  a kerfuffle erupted over Siri’s inability to find an abortion

clinic in New York City, while a similar request for Washington, D.C. resulted in directions to anti-abortion centers. (Apple quickly responded to the New York Times, attributing the problem to “kinks in the product” and the fact that Siri is still in beta.)

In a move reminiscent of how Greenpeace harangued Apple for the PR value (see “Greenpeace Hitching Itself to Apple’s Star?,” 2 February 2010), MoveOn.org even sent out email encouraging people to sign a petition asking Apple to modify how Siri works, claiming that Siri “won’t tell you where you can get an abortion or even emergency contraception — instead she’ll promote anti-abortion pregnancy ‘crisis’ centers.” MoveOn went on to say, “When a user asked her why she is anti-abortion, she replied, ‘I just am.’” Oh, please.

Siri is neither a comedienne nor an Apple spokesdroid. Apple has cleverly programmed Siri with a wide variety of chatty responses to give the impression of personality and make people more comfortable speaking to what is essentially a chatterbot. The technique is of course not entirely successful; just like the original algorithmic psychoanalyst ELIZA (created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966 at MIT), Siri can’t hope to understand and respond to your every question or comment, and must therefore waffle to avoid disappointing you with flat, robotic answers.

Siri is most helpful when what you say contains keywords that enable Siri to pass off what you said to one of the supported apps or services. Apple provides a list of these in the Siri FAQ. But even then, Siri is limited by the capabilities and information encapsulated in those apps and services. (AI programmer and teacher Jeff Wofford has an interesting blog post speculating on how Siri works, though it’s worth remembering that he wrote it before the iPhone 4S came out.)

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Siri will fail to provide the desired responses to certain questions. Presumably, whatever Yellow Pages-like database Siri uses currently lacks a category for abortion-related services, an omission that Apple can and should address. In contrast, the YellowPages.com Web site has an “Abortion Services” category. But very few of the organizations appearing in that category use “abortion” in their names. When I asked Siri for directions to the few that did, Siri had no trouble finding them in the Maps app.

In short, Siri is only as good as the underlying databases that Apple baked in. (Luckily, because Siri’s processing happens on Apple’s servers, not on the iPhone, Apple can continue to improve and extend Siri’s capabilities.) When I scanned the list of organizations that YellowPages.com returned for Manhattan under “Abortion Services,” I didn’t see any mention of Planned Parenthood. So I did another search in YellowPages.com for Planned Parenthood around Manhattan, and of the 98 hits, found that they were variously categorized under “STD Testing Centers,” “Family Planning Information Centers,” and “Birth Control Information & Services.” In other words, metadata matters, and if you don’t have good metadata, you don’t get good results.

This is actually a serious issue in one respect, since it shows just how important technology has become in shaping our impressions of the world around us. And that in turn points to how essential it is that we continue to scrutinize how well search-related technologies work and remain aware of those technologies’ inescapable limitations. Just as you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet, you shouldn’t believe everything Siri tells you.

Oh, and MoveOn’s snarky report that Siri self-identifies as being against abortion? That’s one of those chatty responses that Siri throws in to seem more human. I asked Siri, “Why are you anti-abortion?” and got back Popeye’s standard retort, “I am what I am.” Of course, I got the same answer when I asked, “Why are you against kittens?” and “Why are you a cannibal?” Similar questions generated a few equally fluffy responses, including:

“Why, indeed?”

“I can’t answer that.”

“I don’t know.”

So can we stop pretending that Siri is anything more than ELIZA’s chatterbot daughter? Siri can be useful, and is a whole lot of fun to demo, but it’s unreasonable to read anything more — certainly not Apple corporate policy — into Siri’s successes, failures, and little asides. Heck, we can’t even get Apple PR to say what Apple policy is most of the time. At least Siri always responds to our questions.




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