Always Learning!

The world through the prism of my mind

Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

Language learning and public content – ‘I am Tarzan’

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on November 29, 2006

I frequently say that public domain books are a great source of further innovation and small business ideas. Today I found another example that brings together several of the themes I track: Language acquisition, Publishing and Public Domain books.

Mark Phillips has taken Tarzan of the Apes book that is now available in public domain and rewritten parts of it to teach grammar as part of the story. The resulting self-published book Tarzan and Jane’s Guide to Grammar (or Amazon link) has been selling quite well in schools for a year or so. The book’s idea is similar to the one of The Twisted Doors, but is targetted at English readers wishing to increase their vocabulary rather than at learners of a foreign language. It also feels to me like a precursor to my 3rd idea from the earlier article on How e-books could revolutionize language-learning.

About a month ago (from what I can tell), Mark decided to push the book to the general public more aggressively. He set up the website and sent some copies out as promotion. I heard of it in one of the Grammar Girl‘ podcasts.

He did not contact me (this is not a sponsored post), but I liked the idea of the book since – as I mentioned at the start – it connects to multiple of my interests. I hope his work will become more known and spur other people to experiment with using public domain material in innovative ways. Especially, if they are innovative language-learning ways.

Posted in Language acquisition, Publishing | Leave a Comment »

On open e-book standards and whether translating to Esperanto will bring more readers?

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on November 5, 2006

There is a fight brewing between David Rothman of TeleRead and Bill Janssen of Plucker fame. The point of contention (as I understand the issue) is what would be good format to produce e-books in.

Bill’s position is that any format that is not already accepted (specifically not html) is a lock-in and a disadvantage, whether that format is an open standard (like OpenReader) or a proprietary one (like Sony’s BBeB). He advocates using web browsers as ebook readers.

David’s point (and he invokes me in there) is that HTML format is not sufficient for all e-books, mostly due to the layout and browser changes issues. So, if HTML is not sufficient, we have to chose a new format. Thefore, it is better if the format is an open standard that can be implemented and maintained by multiple parties.

I am with David here and mostly for the reasons he pointed out. For my interests (language learning e-books), HTML is not a good enough format. Sure, I could hack HTML into submission for some of my goals, but it will require so much javascript, that it will not work in anything but a full-blown browser. I invite Bill to replicate the functionality of the Pocket e-Sword. so that it works well in IE, Firefox, Opera and Safari. Maybe that’s why Pepper Pad is integrating FBRReader despite already having a built in Firefox web browser.

So, where does Esperanto comes into it? Well, here is Bill’s quote (emphasis is mine):

Trying to standardize on a common “ebook format”, be it some IDPF creation, some OASIS masterpiece, or even the so-called OpenReader, would only be an attempt to force them all to publish in Esperanto, instead of their house languages. They still wouldn’t have customers.

Publishing in Esperanto does not bring customers? Really! I wonder where Bill gets that data. I don’t know how many (human)  languages he speak, but the only reasonable way I could interpret that statement was as “publishing English material in Esperanto would not bring any more English customers”. That could be a a point, where he would be mostly correct. Of course, the market for Esperanto is not English, it is global.

As an example, I want to take the book/movie Night Watch by my favourite author Sergey Lukyanenko. The book started in Russian, was made into the Russian movie with english subtitles, impacted American market and finally was translated (quite well) into English. What about Chinese or Egyptians? Would they be interested in this book? Maybe, but there is no easy way to find out because translation or even subtitling is very expensive.

Except that there is a way. Night Watch has just been translated into Esperanto (announcement in russian). There is even an excerpt available (unfortunately in PDF). Now, the book is accessible to people in China, Egypt or Germany, as long as they can read Esperanto. And if there is enough interest from those people, the book can be translated into their native languages as well to reach to the rest of the audience. The push model of finding the markets suddenly becomes a pull model of market finding you. This is not a new idea, it is already used by newspapers and even Vatican. It is called establishing a beachhead, I believe.
And that’s exactly the strength of open standards. They can expand the audience beyond original planned targets and bring new markets to your solution, adapting the solution to the market needs in the process.

Closed standards control the markets they know about, open standards create new, unplanned markets. I am currently in the market segment, Sony does not want to think about. Do I wait another 5 years for Sony to catch up or do I look for open standard and open source alternatives? There should be no need to guess.

Posted in e-books, Esperanto, Publishing | 2 Comments »

E-book discussion at the Philips’ Simplicity forums

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 9, 2006

Philips recently had a Simplicity event, where they showcased a number of concept products that may or may not make it into the real world in the future.

To go along with the event, Philips also setup a voting board for a number of discussion topics. One of the topics currently under discussion is whether e-books are a good idea. You can pick a side and argue out your position or vote on the arguments of others. At the end of the discussion (3 weeks from now), the results are summarised, based on the vote counts.

I have added my opinion to the forum and pointed to the TeleRead hosted copy of my article on the issue and I invite you to join in the conversation either at Philips forums or in the article’s comments area for your view on the situation.

I believe that the more interesting functionalities we can point out now, the more likely they will be incorporated into the future e-book design. Waiting until e-books are avialable, will lead to those design having just some of the advantages of a paper book, but all the disadvantages of an electronic device.

In fact, Sony’s e-book reader seems to have proven that point already. It does not even seem to have dictionary lookup, something most of the handheld e-book readers provide.

Posted in e-books, General Education, Language acquisition, Publishing | Leave a Comment »

How e-books could revolutionize language-learning

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 8, 2006

[This article also appears in a slightly edited form as a TeleRead entry]

Ever tried learning a foreign language? Noticed how the books you could read were often boring, and the books you wanted to read were just that bit too hard to understand? Wished, you could have a quick translation of a complex passage or precise meaning of the word from the spread of twenty that dictionary entry offers?

With paper books, you are pretty much stuck. On the other hand, e-books – with the right combination of software and open formats – may soon prove to be just the solution to keep you reading and learning in the new language. And, with the language learning market attracting billions of dollars, you can be sure somebody will find a way to make the best of the possibilities offered by e-books.

So, what are the advantages e-books can bring to language learning? Let’s start from what is achievable today and progress to the possibilities further down the line.

  1. Parallel texts – Intermediate and advanced readers appreciate being able to read original text, while still having a good translation available a glance away. Paper books like this do exist, but just a few, due to a high cost of production and distributed target market.For e-books, the ever decreasing price of the storage makes the size of the download irrelevant – slashing the cost of physical production. And with electronic distribution, the market reach is as wide as the internet itself.If you still have doubts, this model is already being exploited extremely well in another multi-lingual market – bible study. There are many bible translations and scholars like to be able to read them side by side to understand the deep meaning better. A number of free eReaders exist to make this task easier, including a portable one for the PocketPC.
  2. Dictionary bundling – Continuing with the theme of practically unlimited storage, we can easily imagine a book being bundled with a look-up dictionary that is capable of prividing a translation of every word and expression in the text.This is only possible with specially adapted texts at the moment and, even then, only some words and basic phrases are provided.With e-books, it would be possible to embed invisible hints that will show the specific meaning of the phrase in the exact context of the paragraph.Again, something similar to this has been done for Bible study with Strong’s numbers, but, with good dictionaries, the concept can be extended to any text. Many of the current e-book readers allow dictionary lookups, so the basic functionality is already available.
  3. Grammar learning through real examples – Most of the texts provided for learning grammar are boring and feel artificial. How about being able to choose your own text and have the reader software automatically highlight the structures you are learning this week, whether it is colour names, present perfect constructions or conjugations of the irregular verb ‘to be’? With the material being presented completely in context, the rules will be easier to understand and recall. And even if you are rereading the last week’s passage, you are learning something new, as the highlighted parts will change.
  4. Automatic text leveling – If we can bundle additional text that does not show up in the book normally, why can’t we have the same text several times with different levels of reading difficulties. That way, a book may contain adapted/simplified text as well as an original one.Then, any number of combinations might be used, depending on whether the reader is connected to other systems or not.For example, if the book is delivered as serialised chapters from a website, there might be grading tests in between chapters with the simplification level of the next chapter adjusted automatically based on the test results. Or it could be a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book, where the language level of the ‘next’ page depends on the language introduced in pages seen before.

    This is not something that can be done economically at all for printed books, since they are frozen at the time of publishing, but with e-books the material can be reused in smaller chunks across multiple learners and therefore will allow for a viable publishing model. Especially, if we can throw the increasingly ubiquitous broadband wireless connection into the mix with pages arriving in near-real-time directly to the reader device.

  5. Text generation – If a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ format is suitable for language learning, why not a computer generated book all together. It is nearly possible with current technologies to create a book as a concept graph and have the computer generate the actual text. With a bit more design, the generated text will purposefully incorporate new words and grammatical structures to match the learner’s progression in the learning plan. It would even be possible to dynamically generate grammatical explanations, since the text-creation system has to figure it all out anyway to generate the sentences. Again, combined with feedback from external or on-device tests and near-real-time downloads, the text can always be just ahead of the learner’s own language knowledge.
  6. Finally, with eBooks’ texts being available in open electronic formats, it would possible to use them to generate additional contexts (such as geographic mapping) or tests based on the exact texts the learner was reading for his or her own pleasure.

There are many more possible uses of texts available in e-book rather than print form. I have just scratched the surface of what is possible.

Nor have I discussed technical details that would make each of these items really tick. Perhaps I will in a future post, if there is enough interest (vote in the comments).

For those curious now, I will just mention two concepts. They are Computational Linguistics and CALL/ATALL. Follow the directions these fields of study point out and your thinking adventures will be more wondrous than those of Alice.

Posted in Computational Linguistics, e-books, Language acquisition, Publishing | 1 Comment »

Of Cabbages, Kings and e-books

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on September 22, 2006

I have 100+ blog and search feeds that I keep track of in my online world. A couple of them are general techie feeds that many other people subscribe to as well. Most, however, are very specialised in topic and theme they discuss. I guess I am one of those people that helps to wag the long tail of online distribution model.

Among those feeds, TeleRead is a blog that I rate very highly. It talks about E-Books, software and devices that allow to read those e-books and issues that will affect us all negatively, if we don’t pay attention to them now.

As a voracious reader, I find that e-books are easier to carry around, easier to keep and even, in some way, easier to acquire (at least russian fiction is). And because a large book and a small book make no weight difference inside an e-book reader, I have also discovered some new interesting authors that I would have never read otherwise due to the unwieldiness of their output.

So, it was my pleasure to actually be quoted in TeleRead’s recent blog entry. And not just quoted in passing, but also invited to contribute to their stories on the ongoing basis. I have, of course, agreed.

I think the future for e-books is bright. And I hope that by combining my message with the messages of others writing about the same topic, the long tail of e-book readers and creators will wag that much stronger.

Posted in e-books, Publishing | Leave a Comment »