Robots in the Workplace

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Small, mobile robots will learn to take over the tasks in the automotive industry that have not yet been possible to automate. This challenge is part of a 47 million kroner EU funded research project aimed at making robots available to small and medium-sized companies without the need of robotics expertise. Read More →

Using Dropbox in the Classroom [App Review]

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Dropbox is one of those apps that mean different things to different people. In this case it refers to a free service on iOS 4.0 and higher devices that allows people to trade different types of files. It lets users dump photos, documents and videos into the same repository that’s accessible from the Dropbox site. That means that desktop and mobile device users can interface with the same storage area and not have a single problem. Facebook, AirPrint, and Twitter users can also interface their accounts with the Dropbox app.

While this is all well and good for social networking users, the real power of Dropbox comes into play in the classroom. Students can use the program to securely submit assignments to their instructors. While they could also just use email, Dropbox provides a level of security and reliability that few email services can offer. Teachers could place lectures, videos and other objects in a Dropbox storage area. Students could then follow these lesson plans at their leisure.

Online distance learning is becoming a major industry. Virtual classrooms are usually built around complex software packages. This provides a platform that doesn’t have any real system requirements. Teachers could use the app on a regular Apple mobile device and students can access the classroom from whatever device they choose. Web interfaces are extremely flexible.

Students could theoretically write discussion posts and place them into a Dropbox folder that other students could view. Of course, one could just as easily set up a private folder for handing in tests. The software is easy to use, so training students shouldn’t cut into instructional time. Best of all, the Dropbox app doesn’t cost anything.

While the Dropbox service has paid service plans available, the basic service is free to use and that means that cash-strapped educators shouldn’t have any problem adding it to their phones. Since it can take a long time to rebuild lesson plans, some teachers might want to consider backing up their documents to the storage system as well. One could essentially use a private folder as a free offsite data backup service.

Additional Learning Resources:

Carry Star Charts in Your Pocket [App Review]

  Free App Download

Planets by Continuum takes a 3D approach to solar system exploration. While it works great for anyone who wants to carry a planetarium and almanac in their pocket, the app does quite a bit more than put on a light show. Visibility charts and a moveable globe are just a few of the extra features that the software boasts.

After having a little fun with the planetarium features, astronomy fans should take a look at the accurate star charts. The 3D version tends to be more fun than the regular flat celestial map, but the latter might be a bit more practical for most stargazers. Since most astronomers are concerned with preserving their night vision, it could be a good idea to turn down the backlight before using this app alongside of a telescope.

Quite a few iPhone users have expressed a desire to use GoogleSky on their devices. For the time being, that doesn’t appear to be possible. Planets isn’t exactly the same thing, but users who want a similar experience would do well to check it out. The software requires iOS 3.0 or later, which means it should probably run on the majority of Apple mobile devices out there.

Trouble Ahead for Science Writers?

On Friday, Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, sent out the following open letter to members about a supposedly precarious situation arising in the already troubled book industry (letter below).  I’m posting about this on here because this could potentially affect those of you that write about science. Let me know what you think below.

For the record, I personally feel that this letter is self-serving and inaccurate in several areas. I completely disagree that eBooks (in particular Amazon’s discounting) were the cause of significant declines in the book industry – this was going on before then if memory serves well. The notion that they were the cause of Border’s failure is absurd and not worthy of a response. In any case, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions but would be remiss if I didn’t share my own. Make no mistake. I love books as much as anyone. The world is changing however. It’s time for publishers to figure out how to survive in the new economy or they need to get out of the way. I think if anything, authors today have more options than ever before – I for one consider that a good thing.

Letter from Scott Turow: Grim News

March 9, 2012. Dear member,

Yesterday’s report that the Justice Department may be near filing an antitrust lawsuit against five large trade book publishers and Apple is grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture.

The Justice Department has been investigating whether those publishers colluded in adopting a new model, pioneered by Apple for its sale of iTunes and apps, for selling e-books. Under that model, Apple simply acts as the publisher’s sales agent, with no authority to discount prices.

We have no way of knowing whether publishers colluded in adopting the agency model for e-book pricing. We do know that collusion wasn’t necessary: given the chance, any rational publisher would have leapt at Apple’s offer and clung to it like a life raft. Amazon was using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.

Just before Amazon introduced the Kindle, it convinced major publishers to break old practices and release books in digital form at the same time they released them as hardcovers. Then Amazon dropped its bombshell: as it announced the launch of the Kindle, publishers learned that Amazon would be selling countless frontlist e-books at a loss. This was a game-changer, and not in a good way. Amazon’s predatory pricing would shield it from e-book competitors that lacked Amazon’s deep pockets.

Critically, it also undermined the hardcover market that brick-and-mortar stores depend on. It was as if Netflix announced that it would stream new movies the same weekend they opened in theaters. Publishers, though reportedly furious, largely acquiesced. Amazon, after all, already controlled some 75% of the online physical book market.

Amazon quickly captured the e-book market as well, bringing customers into its proprietary device-and-format walled garden (Sony, the prior e-book device leader, uses the open ePub format). Two years after it introduced the Kindle, Amazon continued to take losses on a deep list of e-book titles, undercutting hardcover sales of the most popular frontlist titles at its brick and mortar competitors.  Those losses paid huge dividends.  By the end of 2009, Amazon held an estimated 90% of the rapidly growing e-book market. Traditional bookstores were shutting down or scaling back. Borders was on its knees. Barnes & Noble had gamely just begun selling its Nook, but it lacked the capital to absorb e-book losses for long.

Enter Steve Jobs. Two years ago January, one month after B&N shipped its first Nook, Jobs introduced Apple’s iPad, with its proven iTunes-and-apps agency model for digital content. Five of the largest publishers jumped on with Apple’s model, even though it meant those publishers would make less money on every e-book they sold.

Publishers had no real choice (except the largest, Random House, which could bide its time – it took the leap with the launch of the iPad 2): it was seize the agency model or watch Amazon’s discounting destroy their physical distribution chain. Bookstores were well along the path to becoming as rare as record stores.  That’s why we publicly backed Macmillan when Amazon tried to use its online print book dominance to enforce its preferred e-book sales terms, even though Apple’s agency model also meant lower royalties for authors.

Our concern about bookstores isn’t rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling.  Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online.  In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered.  Publishing shouldn’t have to choose between bricks and clicks.  A robust book marketplace demands both bookstore showrooms to properly display new titles and online distribution for the convenience of customers.  Apple thrives on this very model: a strong retail presence to display its high-touch products coupled with vigorous online distribution.  While bookstores close, Apple has been busy opening more than 300 stores.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes.  Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult. The high royalties of direct publishing, for most, are more than offset by drastically smaller markets. And publishers won’t risk capital where there’s no reasonable prospect for reward. They will necessarily focus their capital on what works in an online environment: familiar works by familiar authors.

Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble’s investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months.  Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.

Let’s hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.

This would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support.

Sincerely,

Scott Turow
President