Natural History: Mammals - Carnivores. DK Books, 2011. iBooks exclusive.
Reviewed by John Timmer
My attachment to science started out as a love of the natural world. My childhood was filled with national parks, nature specials, natural history museums, and picture books, all filled with the amazing things from our world and its past. These books were packed with photos and illustrations of places I'd never travel to, and they introduced me to the Cambrian and Devonian, took me to the depths of the ocean, and generally nourished the early stages of my science addiction.
The beautiful color images that the books contained would have failed miserably on the black-and-white screens of the early eBook readers. But they're a perfect match for the latest tablet screens, which can make their photos look about as good as they do in print. So I was excited to pick up DK Publishing's Natural History: Mammals - Carnivores, figuring it would let me find out whether an eBook provided a satisfying trip into my past. It didn't, and I don't think that's only because I've grown out of it.
This repurposing shows in the introduction, which has some good material, but is a bit erratic. There's a nice discussion of phylogenetics, but it seems to stop abruptly. There's some information on why pinnipeds are carnivores, but no indication of how carnivores relate to other branches of the mammalian family tree (which would presumably explain why some carnivores, like the orca, aren't carnivores). With that patchy introduction out of the way, it dives into the species, with no indications about how the different groups of carnivores relate to each other. The adult me, with an understanding of mammalian history that's been shaped by the genomic era, would have loved a bit more.
In any case, the stars of the show are the pictures, which are accompanied by short paragraphs with a couple of salient facts about the animal depicted. The photos are gorgeous and show off their subjects well. Most of the charismatic megafauna are pretty familiar, but there are plenty of shots of some more obscure mammals that you'd probably only be familiar with if you happened to be a Zoo Borns addict.
The gorgeous photographs of Carnivores are accompanied by additional media, like this sound clip.
With just a short paragraph of descriptive text, there's not a lot to learn about any of these animals. Still, the uncredited author(s) manage to have a bit of fun with their subjects. Perhaps in a nod to its internet fame, the honey badger is called an "exceptionally feisty animal," while the Palawan stink badger is referred to as the "bumbling cousin of the American skunks." Unfortunately, some of this information is out of date. As its entry notes, some zoologists have grouped the red panda with raccoons or the giant panda. But the text doesn't recognize that these designations are an artifact of the past, something that molecular evidence pretty definitively shows to be wrong.
The use of the enhanced features offered by iBooks is a bit mixed. It turns out that there are a lot of weasels and cats so, to balance out the flow of the books, many of these species are accessible via a "see more" graphic. Some of the movies really enhance the book's content, like the clip showing just how graceful and curious some sea lions are. At the same time, another movie of a seal is there simply to verify that it rests on land during the day, which doesn't exactly make for compelling cinema. There's also a smattering of audio, and a few "Look closer" galleries that let you go deep on a single species.
Overall, it's not a great book, although I think it's a really good foundation for one. Despite the terse text, I did learn things, and certainly enjoyed the photos and some of the other media. Would the six year old version of me love it despite its flaws? Probably. But if he had access to a tablet, I'd wager that even he'd have figured out you'd need to go straight to Wikipedia whenever you came across a species you actually wanted to learn much about.
Some notes on Apple's new big thing
This is the first enhanced eBook I've looked at that uses Apple's new iBooks/iBooks Author system. Based on this, I'd say the system has a lot of potential, but (like the book itself) it's potential that's not fully realized. It's the first book I've ever had crash on me, and it's done so more than once. It's also the first book I've read that had performance problems.
The best thing about the system is how seamlessly it blends text, video, audio, and zoomable images, as well as image galleries. These don't disrupt the book experience and, when the content is well chosen, really add something. In short, it really fulfills the promise of enhanced eBooks.
This particular book only works in landscape mode, although I've seen others since that work in either orientation. I actually found a single orientation to be an appealing limitation, since I've used too many applications where I only discovered there was additional content if I turned the screen in a specific orientation. It wasn't possible to change the size of the font the text was displayed in, though I'm not sure if that was distinct to this book or a limit of the platform.
There were definitely downsides to the system, primarily related to the fact that it was anything but smooth on a first-generation iPad. Simply loading the book when you launched the program took a while — this made the crashes that much more infuriating, since each one forced you to reload the book. My habit of hitting the button that took me back to my library also became an outrage, since it meant another reload. Transitions between pages sometimes lagged, and it was simply not possible to flip quickly through the pages of the book.
Why the problems? My bet is that it's a product of the eBook's format, which is a modified version of ePub. This format is a mix of HTML5 and additional XML, so it requires the document to be validated, then each bit of content to be needs to be evaluated and rendered before anything appears on screen. That can be processor intensive, which is why things slow down. The rich multimedia also ensures that the iPad's limited memory can't cache many rendered pages at a time, meaning they have to be redrawn as a reader pages through.
These problems aren't insurmountable. Processor speeds keep going up (a different book, viewed on an iPad 2, was quite a bit snappier), while HTML rendering times are generally dropping. There may also be ways for Apple to get smarter about caching page layouts without keeping their contents in memory, which should speed things up. But, for now, performance was actually one of the biggest downsides of this book.
John Timmer spent 15 years doing scientific research before deciding he'd rather write about it. He's now the science editor of the technology news site Ars Technica. He received a Kindle on the day Amazon first introduced them, and has been following eBook and eReader technology ever since.