On Veteran's day, a memoriam of writer Millard Kaufman.
n Veterans Day this year, which lands very near the release of the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston, I thought I’d take a moment to remember my old friend and mentor Millard Kaufman.
Millard not only fought for us in the war, but when he came back home he helped to defend our right to free speech and our ability to pursue happiness in a very fundamental way in his career as a screenwriter. I often hear friends in the entertainment industry say, “This isn’t brain surgery, we’re not saving lives, here.” but in a great sense Millard was doing that in small steps throughout his career. Millard Kaufman enlisted in the Marines in 1942, served on Guadalcanal, landed at Guam with the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) where he wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette about the battle, then participated in the Battle of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division.
I met Millard 20 years ago in 1995 on a trip to Los Angeles with Matt Gross while we were ostensibly programming the 1995 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium entitled “Framing Society: A Century of Cinema” which coincided with the 100th anniversary of film. Dr. John Irwin, the long-time head of the Writing Seminars Department at Johns Hopkins, had provided us with a long distance introduction as Millard was a Hopkins alum from the class of ’39. So we met him at his home in the Hollywood Hills looking out over a forested sanctuary. Over our first simple tuna fish sandwich lunch, we began a friendship that spanned the next decade and a half.
Most may remember Millard Kaufman, if at all, as the co-creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, who he based on his uncle, while many others will know his Academy Award nominated films Take the High Ground (1953) or Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). I’ll always remember him for his charm, his wry wit, his ability to swear comfortably in any company, and his sense of fairness.
Apparently Hollywood itself has glossed over his contribution to helping to maintain Dalton Trumbo’s writing career in the recent release of Trumbo (2015), in which he isn’t mentioned (or portrayed on screen). [I’ll note here that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and may boycott it for the slight.] It is here in which Kaufman’s strong internal moral compass pressured him to help ensure Trumbo’s freedom of speech and, in part, his writing career. In short, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) pressured Trumbo which resulted in Trumbo’s being blacklisted in Hollywood and effectively destroying his writing career.
Trumbo and Kaufman shared the same agent at the time, George Willner. One day, relatively early in Kaufman’s career, Willner approached him to see if he would be willing to put his name on the script Gun Crazy that would turn into the 1950 film-noir crime classic to allow it to get made. As Millard told me many times, “I didn’t have much sense then, but at least I had sense enough to say, ‘Let me talk it over with Laurie’ [his wife].” “But we discussed it and we believed it was rotten that a man couldn’t write under his own name,” Kaufman told Daily Variety in 1992. That same year Kaufman, a board member of WGAw, officially requested that the Writers Guild take his name off the credits and replace it with Dalton Trumbo’s name. Kaufman’s fronting for Trumbo helped allow the film to get made, and Trumbo’s career to continue on, even if in the dark. As a board member of the Writer’s Guild Millard helped to restore credits to many writers of the blacklist era who were similarly slighted as a result of their politics at the time. It’s a travesty, that a film gets made highlighting this exact period in Trumbo’s life, but Millard’s small contribution to it has been all but forgotten. Fortunately there are enough who do remember to tell the story.
When I think of Millard and his various contributions, my favorite is always that he wrote the stunning script for Bad Day at Black Rock (MGM, 1955), a superb Western suspense film starring Spencer Tracy as a one-armed veteran facing mysterious enemies in a small desert town. The film shows how post-World War II America could be be both horrifyingly racist and cowardly, but it also showed a way out through Tracy’s character which always reminds me of Millard’s high-mindedness. It was such a great film, I was personally honored to screen it on November 3, 1995, as the premiere film in Shriver Hall after we had mounted a year-long renovation of the film equipment, screen, and sound system. The day before we were all honored to have Millard speak on “Censorship in Film” as part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium.
For those who never had the chance to meet him, I’m including a short 3 minute video of several clips of him talking about a variety of topics. The Millard portrayed here is the no-holds barred man I’ll always remember. Thanks for fighting for all of us, Millard!
For those looking for more information about Millard Kaufman, I’ll include the following articles:
What's wrong with the economics of the textbook industry, and what students, parents, professors, and universities can do to mitigate the ever-rising price of textbooks.
t’s the beginning of yet another quarter/semester (or ovester, if you prefer) and a new crop of inquiries have come up around selling back used textbooks and purchasing new textbooks for upcoming classes. I’m not talking about the philosophical discussion about choosing your own textbooks that I’ve mentioned before. I’m considering, in the digital era,
What are the best options for purchasing, renting, or utilizing textbook products in what is a relatively quickly shifting market?
The popular press has a variety of evergreen stories that hit the wire at the beginning of each semester that scratch just the surface of the broader textbook issue or focus on one tiny upstart company that promises to drastically disrupt the market (yet somehow never does), but these articles never delve just a bit deeper into the market to give a broader array of ideas and, more importantly, solutions for the students/parents who are spending the bulk of the money to support the inequalities the market has built.
I aim to facilitate some of this digging and revealing based on years of personal book buying experience as well as having specified textbooks as an instructor in the past.
Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.
Before taking a look at the pure economics of the market for the various forms of purchase, resale, or even renting, one should first figure out one’s preference for reading format. There are obviously many different means of learning (visual, auditory, experiential, etc.) which some will prefer over others, so try to tailor your “texts” to your preferred learning style as much as possible. For those who prefer auditory learning modes, be sure to check out alternatives like Audible or the wealth of online video/audio materials that have proliferated in the MOOC revolution. For those who are visual learners or who learn best by reading, do you prefer ebook formats over physical books? There are many studies showing the benefit of one over the other, but some of this comes down to personal preference and how comfortable one is with particular formats. Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts. It’s taken me (an avowed paper native) several years, but I now vastly prefer to have books in electronic format for some of the reasons indicated above in addition to the fact that I can carry a library of 2,500+ books with me almost anywhere I go. I also love being able to almost instantly download anything that I don’t currently own but may need/want.
The one caveat I’ll mention, particularly for visual learners (or those with pseudo-photographic or eidetic memory), is that they attempt to keep a two-page reading format on their e-reading devices as their long-term memory for reading will increase with the ability to place the knowledge on the part of the page(s) where they originally encountered it (that is, I remember seeing that particular item on the top left, or middle right portion of a particular page.) Sometimes this isn’t always possible due to an e-reader’s formatting capabilities or the readability of the size of the text (for example, a .pdf file on a Kindle DX would be preferable to the same file on a much smaller smartphone) , but for many it can be quite helpful. Personally, I can remember where particular words and grammatical constructs appeared in my 10th grade Latin text many years later while I would be very unlikely to be able to do this with the presentation of some modern-day e-readers or alternate technologies like rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP).
Purchasing to Keep
Personally, as a student and a bibliophile (read: bibliomaniac), I would typically purchase all of the physical texts for all of my classes. I know this isn’t a realizable reality for everyone, so, for the rest, I would recommend purchasing all of the texts (physical or electronic, depending on one’s preference for personal use) in one’s main area of study, which one could then keep for the long term and not sell back. This allows one to build a library that will serve as a long term reference for one’s primary area(s) of study.
Renting vs Short-term Ownership
In general, I’m opposed to renting books or purchasing them for a semester or year and then returning them for a partial refund. It’s rarely a great solution for the end consumer who ends up losing the greater value of the textbook. Even books returned and sold later as used, often go for many multiples of their turn in price the following term, so if it’s a newer or recent edition, it’s probably better to hold on to it for a few months and then sell it for a used price, slightly lower than the college bookstore’s going rate.
For tangential texts in classes I know I don’t want to keep for the long term, I’d usually find online versions or borrow (for free) from the local college or public library (many books are available electronically through the library or are borrow-able through the library reserve room.)
Often college students forget that they’re not just stuck with their local institutional library, so I’ll remind everyone to check out their local public library(s) as well as other nearby institutional libraries and inter-library loan options which may give them longer term loan terms.
General Economics in the Textbook Market
One of the most important changes in the textbook market that every buyer should be aware of: last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.the US Supreme Court upheld the ability for US-based students to buy copies of textbooks printed in foreign countries (often at huge cut-rate prices) [see also Ars Technica]. This means that searching online bookstores in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. will often find the EXACT same textbooks (usually with slightly different ISBNs, and slightly cheaper paper) for HUGE discounts in the 60-95% range.
Example: I recently bought an international edition of Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis (Amazon $121) for $5 (and it even happened to ship from within the US for $3). Not only was this 96% off of the cover price, but it was 78% off of Amazon’s rental price! How amazing is it to spend almost as much to purchase a book as it is to ship it to yourself!? I’ll also note here that the first edition of this book appeared in 1964 and this very popular third edition is from 1976, so it isn’t an example of “edition creep”, but it’s still got a tremendous mark up in relation to other common analysis texts which list on Amazon for $35-50.
For some of the most expensive math/science/engineering texts one can buy an edition one or two earlier than the current one. In these cases, the main text changes very little, if any, and the primary difference is usually additional problems in the homework sections (which causes small discrepancies in page number counts). If necessary, the problem sets can be easily obtained via the reserve room in the library or by briefly borrowing/photocopying problems from classmates who have the current edition. The constant “edition-churning” by publishers is mean to help prop up high textbook prices.
Definition: “Edition Churning” or “Edition Creep“: a common practice of textbook publishers of adding scant new material, if any, to textbooks on a yearly or every-other-yearly basis thereby making older editions seem prematurely obsolete and thereby propping up the prices of their textbooks. Professors who blithely utilize the newest edition of a texbook are often unknowingly complicit in propping up prices in these situations.
One may find some usefulness or convenience in traditional bookstores, particularly Barnes & Noble, the last of the freestanding big box retailers. If you’re a member of their affinity program and get an additional discount for ordering books directly through them, then it may not be a horrible idea to do so. Still, they’re paying for a relatively large overhead and it’s likely that you’ll find cheaper prices elsewhere.
These are becoming increasingly lean and many may begin disappearing over the next decade or so, much the way many traditional bookstores have disappeared in the last decade with the increasing competition online. Because many students aren’t the best at price comparison, however, and because of their position in the economic chain, many are managing to hang on quite well. Keep in mind that many campus bookstores have fine print deals in which they’ll match or beat pricing you find online, so be sure to take advantage of this fact, particularly when shipping from many services will make an equivalent online purchase a few dollars more expensive.
There are fewer and fewer of these around these days and even fewer textbook-specific stores that traditionally sprouted up next to major campuses. This last type may not be a horrible place to shop, but they’re likely to specialize in used texts of only official texts. Otherwise, general used bookstores are more likely to specialize in paperbacks and popular used fiction and have very lean textbook selection, if any.
Naturally when shopping for textbooks there are a veritable wealth of websites to shop around online including: Amazon, Alibris, Barnes & Noble, AbeBooks, Google Play, Half/EBay. Chegg, Valore, CampusBookRentals, TextBooks.com, and ECampus. But in the Web2.0 world, we can now uses websites with even larger volumes of data and meta-data as a clearing-house for our shopping. So instead of shopping and doing price comparison at the dozens of competing sites, why not use a meta-site to do the comparison for us algorithmically and much more quickly.
There are a variety of meta-retailer shopping methods including several browser plugins and comparison sites (Chrome, Firefox, InvisibleHand, PriceBlink, PriceGong, etc.) that one can install to provide pricing comparisons, so that, for example, while shopping on Amazon, one will see lower priced offerings from their competitors. However, possibly the best website I’ve come across for cross-site book comparisons is GetTextbooks.com. One can easily search for textbooks (by author, title, ISBN, etc.) and get back a list of retailers with copies that is sortable by price (including shipping) as well as by new/used and even by rental availability. They even highlight one entry algorithmicly to indicate their recommended “best value”.
Similar to GetTextbooks is the webservice SlugBooks, though it doesn’t appear to search as many sites or present as much data.
When searching for potential textbooks, don’t forget that one can “showroom” the book in one’s local bookstore or even at one’s local library(s). This is particularly useful if one is debating whether or not to take a particular class, or if one is kicking tires to see if it’s really the best book for them, or if they should be looking at other textbooks.
From an economic standpoint, keep in mind there is usually more availability and selection on editions bought a month or so before the start of classes, as often-used texts are used by thousands of students over the world, thus creating a spot market for used texts at semester and quarter starts. Professors often list their textbooks when class listings for future semesters are released, so students surfing for the best deals for used textbooks can very often find them in mid-semester (or mid-quarter) well before the purchasing rush begins for any/most titles.
And finally, there is also the black market (also known as outright theft), which is usually spoken of in back-channels either online or in person. Most mainstream articles which reference this portion of the market usually refer tangentially to a grey market in which one student passes along a .pdf or other pirated file to fellow students rather than individual students being enterprising enough to go out hunting for their own files.
Most will know of or have heard about websites like PirateBay, but there are a variety of lesser-known torrent sites which are typically hosted in foreign countries which extend beyond the reach of the United States Copyright law enforcement. Increasingly, mega-pirate websites in the vein of the now-defunct Library.nu (or previously Gigapedia) or the slowly dying empire of Library Genesis are hiding all over the web and become quick and easy clearing houses for pirated copies of ebooks, typically in .pdf or .djvu formats, though many are in .epub, .mobi, .azw, or alternate e-book formats. The typical set up for these sites is one or more illegal file repositories for allowing downloads with one (or more) primary hubs that don’t necessarily store the pirated materials, but instead serve as a searchable hub which points to the files.
Creative advanced searches for book authors, titles, ISBNs along with the words .pdf, .djvu, torrent, etc. can often reveal portions of this dark web. Naturally, caveat emptor applies heavily to these types of sites as often files can be corrupted or contain viruses to unwary or unwitting thieves. Many of these sites may attempt to extract a small token monthly fee as a subscription or will rely heavily on serving banner advertising to help to offset large web hosting and traffic fees associated with their maintenance, though it is posited that many of them make in the millions of dollars in profit annually due to advertising arrangements, though this is incredibly hard to validate given the nature of these types of markets and how they operate.
Rather than stoop as low as finding textbooks on the black market this way, students should place pressure on their professors, the faculty of their departments, and their colleges or universities to help assist in smoothing out some of the pricing inequities in the system (see below). In the long run, this will not only tend to help them, but many future generations of students who will be left adrift in the market otherwise.
Long Term Solution(s) to Improving the Textbook Market
The biggest primary issue facing the overpriced textbook market is that the end consumers of the textbooks aren’t really firmly in charge of the decision of which textbook to purchase. This is why I advocate that students research and decide by themselves which textbook they’re going to use and whether or not they really need to make that purchase. Instead, individual professors or the departments for which they work are dictating the textbooks that will be purchased. The game theory dynamics behind this small decision are the massive fulcrum which allows the publishing industry to dictate their own terms. Students (and parents) should, in a sense, unionize and make their voices heard not only to the professors, but to the departments and even the colleges/universities which they’re attending. If universities took a strong stance on how the markets worked, either for or against them and their students, they could create strong market-moving forces to drastically decrease the cost of textbooks.
The other larger issue is that market forces aren’t allowed to play out naturally in the college textbook market. Publishers lean on professors and departments to “adopt” overpriced textbooks. These departments in turn “require” these texts and students aren’t questioning enough to use other texts for fear of not succeeding in courses. If the system were questioned, they’d realize that instead of their $200-300 textbook, they could easily purchase alternate, equivalent, and often even better textbooks for $20-50. To put things into perspective, the time, effort, energy, and production cost for the typical book isn’t drastically different than the average textbook, yet we’re not paying $250 for a copy of the average new hardcover on the best seller list. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that universities, departments, and professors are colluding with publishers, but they’re certainly not helping to make the system better.
I’ve always taken the view that the ‘required’ textbook was really just a ‘suggestion’. (Have you ever known a professor to fail a student for not purchasing the ‘required’ textbook?!)
In past generations, one of the first jobs of a student was to select their own textbook. Reverting back to this paradigm may help to drastically change the economics of the situation. For the interested students, I’ve written a bit about the philosophy and mechanics here: On Choosing Your Own Textbooks.
Basic economics 101 theory of supply and demand would typically indicate to us that basic textbooks for subjects like calculus, intro physics, or chemistry that are used by very large numbers of students should be not only numerous, but also very cheap, while more specialized books like Lie Groups and Lie Algebras or Electromagnetic Theory should be less numerous and also more expensive. Unfortunately and remarkably, the most popular calculus textbooks are 2-5 times more expensive than their advanced abstract mathematical brethren and similarly for introductory physics texts versus EM theory books.
To drastically cut down on these market inequities, when possible, Colleges and Universities should:
Heavily discourage “edition creep” or “edition churning” when there really aren’t major changes to textbooks. In an online and connected society, it’s easy enough to add supplemental errata or small amounts of supplemental material by means of the web.
Quit making institution-specific readers and sub-editions of books for a specific department
If they’re going to make departmental level textbook choices, they should shoulder the burden of purchasing all the textbooks in quantity (and taking quantity discounts). I’ll note here, that students shouldn’t encourage institutions to bundle the price of textbooks into their tuition as then there is a “dark curtain,” which allows institutions to take the drastic mark-ups for themselves instead of allowing the publishers to take it or passing it along to their students. Cross-reference Benjamin Ginsberg’s article Administrators Ate My Tuition or his much longer text The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Discourage the use of unpopularly used textbooks written by their own faculty. Perhaps a market share of 5-10% or more should be required for a common textbook to be usable by a department, and, until that point, the professor should compete aggressively to build market share? This may help encourage professors to write new original texts instead of producing yet-another-introductory-calculus-textbook that no one needs.
Discourage packaged electronic supplemental materials, which
are rarely used by students,
could be supplied online for free as a supplement,
and often double or triple the price of a textbook package.
Strongly encourage professors to supply larger lists of relatively equivalent books and encourage their students to make their purchase choices individually.
Consider barring textbook sales on campus and relying on the larger competitive market to supply textbooks to students.
Calibre: E-book and Document Management Made Simple
As an added bonus, for those with rather large (or rapidly growing) e-book collections, I highly recommend downloading and using the free Calibre Library software. For my 2000+ e-books and documents, this is an indispensable program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality. It works on all major OSes and is compatible with almost every e-reader on the planet. Additionally, plug-ins and a myriad of settings allow for additional extensibility for integration with other e-book software and web services (for example: integration with GoodReads or the ability to add additional data and meta-data to one’s books.)
Be sure to read through the commentary on some of these posts for some additional great information.
What other textbook purchasing services and advice can you offer the market?
I invite everyone to include their comments and advice below as I’m sure I haven’t covered the topic completely or there are bound to be new players in the space increasing competition as time goes by.
After I've suffered almost two years of Little Free Library envy, you're cordially invited to the grand opening of the first Little Free Library in Adams Hill (Charter #8424) on Sunday, August 9th, 2015 from 4pm - 5pm.
About two years ago while surfing online I came across the concept of the Little Free Library and instantly fell in love. It turned out I had been driving by one on my commute regularly and had always wondered what it was and what was going on. I immediately had big dreams for building my own. I surfed their website for ideas and building plans. I registered for my placard. I received my placard. I drew up elaborate plans for building my own. I debated buying new parts versus recycling or upcycling parts. [Trigger warning for bibliophiles: addictive material to follow] I spent hours surfing photos of Little Free Libraries on their Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Flickr pages. This is when Little Free Library Envy set in… for almost two years.
Come chat with your neighbors, say hello, and check out the library. If you’re so motivated, feel free to bring a book (or two) to help stock the library.
More information about the Adams Hill “branch” can be found at our library’s page Little Free Library #8424, but the scant basics are below:
The books in our library are always free and never for sale.
Feel free to take a book.
If you have a book you’d like to share, please feel free to donate it.
When you’re done with your book: return it, pass it along to a friend, or release it back into the wild.
You don’t need to “check the book out” or “check it in”, but we do encourage you to sign our guest book and participate via Book Crossing.
More Details About Little Free Library #8424
First, What is a Little Free Library?
It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share. You can, too!
If you want to learn more about the movement or host your own Little Free Library, please visit their website.
Little Free Library Charter #8424 is located at 1411 Dartmouth Drive, Glendale, CA 91205. It is located at the dog-leg on Dartmouth on the west side of the street. It is just west of S. Adams Street, roughly at the top of the hill.
Our Library Philosophy
Though Chris built and hosts the library, he’s simply a steward or caretaker, of the branch. The library is free and open for the use of our friends and neighbors in Adams Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods. If you’ve stopped to check things out, you’re automatically an associate librarian. It is appreciated if everyone helps to care for and maintain the library.
The books in our library are always free and never for sale.
Feel free to take a book.
If you have a book you’d like to share, please feel free to donate it.
When you’re done with your book: return it, pass it along to a friend, or release it back into the wild.
You don’t need to “check the book out” or “check it in”, but we do encourage you to sign our guest book and participate via Book Crossing [see below].
Arrangement of Books
Since there isn’t a full time librarian and only so much space, there isn’t (usually) a set order to the arrangement of our books. Since it’s been a long trip up the hill, feel free to stop for a minute to cool off, consider yourself an associate librarian, and rearrange them to suit your whimsy – it is your neighborhood library after all. We only ask that you try to keep any children’s books on the lower shelf for short legs and arms to be able to reach, and that your arrangement ensures all the books fit into the library just in case it rains.
Possible suggestions for arrangements might include:
by the order in which you’ve read them
by author’s first name
by publication date
by publisher or imprint
by topic in reverse alphabetic order
by best to worst (in your opinion or someone else’s)
by those you’ve read and those you haven’t
The options are infinite, so be creative.
All of our books in the Adams Hill Branch are “traveling” books. We try to register all of them on Book Crossing. This is a free web service for watching the journey of individual books as they meander about the world. If you’d like to, you can enter the BCID number inside the front of the book to see where it’s been and even where it goes after you’ve read it. You can also enter any data, thoughts, reviews, etc. for the book on your own, as well as create a note about where you re-released it. (Note that we don’t expect all of our books to necessarily come back to our branch, but we do ask that you pass them along when you’re done with them.)
Pending people updating the location of books removed, check availability at our Book Crossing Zone.
We gladly accept your donated books.
If you have more books than the little library will fit, please don’t simply dump them! You can leave them in a covered box preferably on our stairs/landing – this will keep our sprinklers and the elements from ruining them or you can contact me through Nextdoor.com. If the library has more books than will fit, we’ll occasionally rotate them to help improve the diversity of the available collection over time.
If you’d like to, please write the titles of your donations into our guest book as this will help us to register them on Book Crossing. (You’re welcome to register them on book crossing yourself prior to donation as well.)
Our library has guest book and a pen. Feel free to write down any thoughts, comments, or suggestions you might have about the library and leave them in the library for the other associate librarians who happen by.
You’ll find a red composition book (and pen) inside our library where you can leave your thoughts and comments. Kindly leave the guest book in the library – it’s the one book we have that doesn’t circulate!
In some part the guest book is meant to help catalog the progress of our library. Below are some suggestions for what you might write into our guest book when you visit:
Patrons/Associate Librarians are encouraged to (optionally) write in the books they donate or check out.
Say hello to your fellow neighbors! You can simply write down the day and time of your visit along with a note for future visitors.
Bringing back a book? Feel free to write in a short review of the book you’re returning so others will know what they’re getting into. (If you give it a number of stars, be sure to indicate out of how many possible, so we know your scale.)
Liked a book you borrowed? Flip back into the guest book to see who made the donation and write in a thank you to the donor.
Have a book you’ve been longing for? Write it in and maybe a fellow neighbor has a copy they can donate on a future visit.
Visiting our branch from far away? Be sure to write down your hometown and country so we know how far away our books travel.
Maybe you’re waxing poetic when stopping by? Feel free to write a short poem or haiku about our library.
Our wish list has two functions:
Write down any books you’d love to see come to our library so you can borrow them in the future.
Read the list to see if you have any of the books you might donate so that others can enjoy them.
A Tiny Library with Its Own Social Media
To help support the neighborhood library (in the digital age every library needs a blog right?), I’ve created a website for it at: http://lfl8424.boffosocko.com/. The site has a variety of resources relating to our branch. For those that prefer to follow and interact with the content via social media, there are also the following:
For those interested in my particular process, here’s how I did it.
Recently I saw something a bit more quirky and interesting than my original plans that I could up-cycle, so I made the purchase (happy belated birthday to me)! It was a nice little metal newsstand that Cost Plus World Market had put on clearance as they’re no longer going to carry it. The last one the store had was a bit dinged up and had some scratches, so I negotiated an additional discount. It’s got two spacious shelves with two doors including a glass fronted one, and it’s got the capacity for at least 6 linear feet of books.
A trip to the hardware store for a small sheet of plywood, an 8′ post, and some wood screws, machine screws and nuts finished up the material needs. I cut the post down to 54″ and cut the plywood down to fit underneath the newsstand. I pre-drilled some small holes in the plywood to screw the plywood down onto the post. Then I drilled holes into the bottom of the newsstand and fit it down on top of the plywood and attached with the screws and nuts.
I posted a note on Nextdoor.com and within just minutes had an offer from two neighbors to loan me a post hole digger. (Thanks Rob and Scott!) The following day the 2 foot hole was open and the library was planted. (And I returned the post hole digger to Rob.)
Following this, I dug up a handful of seeder books, registered them with BookCrossing.com and put them on a GoodReads.com shelf, and put them into the library. We’ve technically been open for a week and without any publicity at all, we’ve had over a dozen books flow through the library already.
The second in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly
riends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful. So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.
Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.
Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread. The first installment of the series can be found here: What I Use: April 2014. It includes some additional sections and material that hasn’t changed since then.
Samsung Galaxy S6 on Sprint – I’ve had this for a couple of months now and like it a lot, but I honestly feel like there hasn’t been anything really new or exciting in the phone space for a while. Phones are becoming commodity items.
Lenovo Flex3 – I’ve had it for a couple of months and love its size, weight, and the fact that I can flip it over into a tablet. I’m still occasionally using my Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431, but planning on decommissioning it shortly.
I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC. Windows 10 is starting to roll out, and I’m about to make the jump…
I still have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux, but I’ve rarely used them in the last year.
I made the jump to Office 365 Home Premium about a year ago and generally love it, particularly being able to dump almost everything I have into the cloud via OneDrive with a 1+TB storage option. For the bulk of my writing though, I still eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. I’ve actually been doing the typesetting and layout for a client’s novel with this set up over the past few months, and it is truly great despite having do dig under the hood a bit more than I’d prefer to get the exact results I want.
Since my last “What I’m Using” I’ve moved away from Dropbox as my primary cloud service and prefer OneDrive for syncing across multiple platforms. I still have a huge amount in Dropbox and still use it for some collaboration. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook, though for some collaborative work, I have been using Google’s Calendar a lot more in the last year particularly for its simple integration into my phone. I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam. I have gone through lately and cut the number of notifications I get by email in half. For reading Gmail, I primarily use Googles Inbox app on my cell phone when I’m waiting in lines.
Internet and communications
For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts.
I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. Over the past year, I’ve become a big proponent of the IndieWeb movement which fits in line with my long held beliefs about personal data. Toward this end, I’ve added a lot of IndieWeb plugins to my WordPress workflow, and I also love WithKnown which I use as my primary social stream tool. It dovetails with most major social networks incredibly well.
I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. I tried a free trial of McAfee with my Flex3, but it was awfully bulky and annoying and the UI was just dreadful. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.
Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise; I’m also not currently subscribing to any online delivery systems. For the last year, I’ve been using Spotify to the exclusion of almost all others, though I still visit Pandora, Google Music, and Amazon Music depending on my location and needs. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync my iTunes playlists and music to my Android devices. I sporadically use XM/Sirius in the car, but can’t bear to spend more than about $4 a month on such service when there are so many alternatives. I’m currently on an XM/Sirius hiatus, but I do miss the clarity and the dedicated bluegrass station.
Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area. I spend a lot more time using my Lenovo Flex3 for Netflix with my Chromecast a close second.
Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all. In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and OneDrive. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital. Most technical books I read within some version of Adobe Acrobat for its ability to highlight, comment, and create notes. For most of the last year, a lot of my pleasure/fiction reading has been done via the BaltoReader app on my Amazon Kindle 7″ which allows me to read at greatly increased speeds. (I covered it and some other options here: Speed Reading on the Web and Mobile.
Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m still on a hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s an awesome service. I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.
Photos: I still do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos. In line with a general switch to OneDrive, I autoback up my photos from my phone there, but still also prefer to use Google+ photos. I will admit that some recent changes to Flickr make me want to reconsider it for broader use, but I’m not all in just yet.
My favorites and most often used include: DoubleTwist, Waze, WithKnown, Google Hangouts, Google Voice, Amazon Kindle, BaltoReader, Facebook, Google Inbox, Pocket, Netflix, Instagram, Starbucks, Key Ring, Shazam, S Health, Periscope, Flipboard and less frequently Audible and OverDrive Media. The notable new entries in the last year are the “Do Suite” from IFTTT.com including Do Camera, Do Note, and somewhat less frequently Do Button. I use these several times a day and they’re front and center on my phone now. I also love IFTTT for a variety of back-end integrations for various other web technologies.
There are certainly others, but I rarely use many of them and didn’t reinstall many when I upgraded phone in June.
In the last year, I’ve moved away from Evernote in favor of OneNote which provides better integration to my Outlook workflow, but I will admit I do miss the UI of Evernote.
I’m still using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen. Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound. Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.
In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR which I upgraded last fall to a newer model with 1TB storage , I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast. The Chromecast gets far more regular use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television. The Roku is ancient and clunky and now doesn’t support a lot of the newer apps/channels. I get regular emails from Roku about discounts for upgrading, but I’m not sure I use it enough or that the upgrades are worth replacing it. I rarely use the mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television these days.
Cambro Containers: Over the last year, I’ve gotten a dozen large Cambro containers ranging from 2qt-8qt for more easily storing bulk goods like flour, sugar, rice, beans, etc. They store much more easily and functionally in the kitchen and the fridgerator. I don’t know how I lived without them before.
Scraper: Almost a year ago, I got an OXO Good Grips Jar Spatula, White and it has been my single-most used kitchen item after my knife since. For size, shape, and sheer versatility it’s one of my favorite tools. I’m tempted to get rid of all of my other scrapers and buy 4 more of these.
Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just great. I’m still very tempted to get the relatively inexpensive Aerobie AeroPress…
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
In a year, nothing here has changed. I simply love these:
Calibre – For my 2000+ ebooks, this is an indispensable e-book and document program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality.
Waze – When living in Los Angeles, this real-time traffic application often saves me anywhere from 30-90 minutes of time in traffic a day; it also has the side benefit of helping you explore parts of the city you might not find otherwise.
DoubleTwist – Since I’m an avid Android fan, I use this simple app to dovetail my music and video collections in iTunes to sync with my other digital devices.
What’s your workspace setup like?
For the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.
What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?
A combination of Feedly, Pocket, and the Spritz Bookmarklet on my computer allows me to plow through way more reading material that I used to be able to before.
What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
I primarily use a very customized version of Outlook and its task functionality to track my to do list items. I use OneNote as my commonplace book particularly as it has a bookmarklet that makes it dead easy to transfer data into it.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget(s) can’t you live without and why?
For a while now, I’ve been catching up on the mid-70’s music I missed in my early youth. I’m still exploring 60’s Jazz and classic bluegrass.
What are you currently reading?
Generally I’m actively reading 4-5 books at a time and less-actively up to 15 or so. I use Goodreads.com to manage my reading lists, to find recommendations from others, and in part to catalog my library (though I’m far from having everything I own there). I usually tend toward non-fiction, science, math, history and biography when reading for pleasure, though the occasional fiction piece will work its way into the stack.
Lately I’m regularly watching Hannibal, Mr. Robot, Murder in the First, Charlie Rose, Suits, Royal Pains, The Closer (early season reruns), PBS News Hour, Major Crimes, and The Profit. Guilty pleasure watching includes Shark Tank, Last Comic Standing, America’s Got Talent, UnREAL, and solely because there’s a “Chris Aldrich” on the show, I’ve seen a few episodes of season 2 of VH1’s Dating Naked. When they return I’ll still be watching Modern Family, The Big Bang, Person of Interest, and Grimm. Relatively recent binge watches include Mad Men (final 3 seasons) and House of Cards (season 3).
Bernard Pivo-esque section
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I have a generally better memory than most. Though it was naturally good when I was younger, I ran across the concepts of the major system and the method of loci (aka the memory palace) at an early age and they have helped significantly.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I never seem to sleep as much as most, but lately I’ve been getting 7-8 hours of sleep at night usually from 12-7am. I’m far from a morning person and most of my best thinking hours are from 11pm to 2am.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I grew up definitely as an introvert, but during college I managed to force myself to be an extrovert. These days I move between the two as my mood and social circumstances dictate.
Math textbooks often seem difficult, obtuse, and often incomprehensible. Here are some hints and tips for making the situation better for all students.
Some General Advice for Math Students of All Ages
I recently saw the question “Why aren’t math textbooks more straightforward?” on Quora.
In fact, I would argue that most math textbooks are very straightforward!
The real issue most students are experiencing is one of relativity and experience. Mathematics is an increasingly sophisticated, cumulative, and more complicated topic the longer you study it. Fortunately, over time, it also becomes easier, more interesting, and intriguingly more beautiful.
As an example of what we’re looking at and what most students are up against, let’s take the topic of algebra. Typically in the United States one might take introductory algebra in eighth grade before taking algebra II in ninth or tenth grade. (For our immediate purposes, here I’m discounting the potential existence of a common pre-algebra course that some middle schools, high schools, and even colleges offer.) Later on in college, one will exercise one’s algebra muscles in calculus and may eventually get to a course called abstract algebra as an upper-level undergraduate (in their junior or senior years). Most standard undergraduate abstract algebra textbooks will cover ALL of the material that was in your basic algebra I and algebra II texts in about four pages and simply assume you just know the rest! Naturally, if you started out with the abstract algebra textbook in eighth grade, you’d very likely be COMPLETELY lost. This is because the abstract algebra textbook is assuming that you’ve got some significant prior background in mathematics (what is often referred to in the introduction to far more than one mathematics textbook as “mathematical sophistication”, though this phrase also implicitly assumes knowledge of what a proof is, what it entails, how it works, and how to actually write one).
Following the undergraduate abstract algebra textbook there’s even an additional graduate level course (or four) on abstract algebra (or advanced subtopics like group theory, ring theory, field theory, and Galois theory) that goes into even more depth and subtlety than the undergraduate course; the book for this presumes you’ve mastered the undergraduate text and goes on faster and further.
A Weightlifting Analogy
To analogize things to something more common, suppose you wanted to become an Olympic level weightlifter. You’re not going to go into the gym on day one and snatch and then clean & jerk 473kg! You’re going to start out with a tiny fraction of that weight and practice repeatedly for years slowly building up your ability to lift bigger and bigger weights. More likely than not, you’ll also very likely do some cross-training by running, swimming, and even lifting other weights to strengthen your legs, shoulder, stomach, and back. All of this work may eventually lead you to to win the gold medal in the Olympics, but sooner or later someone will come along and break your world record.
Mathematics is certainly no different: one starts out small and with lots of work and practice over time, one slowly but surely ascends the rigors of problems put before them to become better mathematicians. Often one takes other courses like physics, biology, and even engineering courses that provide “cross-training.” Usually when one is having issues in a math class it’s because they’re either somehow missing something that should have come before or because they didn’t practice enough in their prior classwork to really understand all the concepts and their subtleties. As an example, the new material in common calculus textbooks is actually very minimal – the first step in most problems is the only actual calculus and the following 10 steps are just practicing one’s algebra skills. It’s usually in carrying out the algebra that one makes more mistakes than in the actual calculus.
Often at the lower levels of grade-school mathematics, some students can manage to just read a few examples and just seem to “get” the answers without really doing a real “work out.” Eventually they’ll come to a point at which they hit a wall or begin having trouble, and usually it comes as the result of not actually practicing their craft. One couldn’t become an Olympic weightlifter by reading books about weightlifting, they need to actually get in the gym and workout/practice. (Of course, one of the places this analogy breaks down is that weightlifting training is very linear and doesn’t allow one to “skip around” the way one could potentially in a mathematics curriculum.)
I’m reminded of a quote by mathematician Pierre Anton Grillet: “…algebra is like French pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one’s hands to the dough.” It is one of the most beautiful expressions of the recurring sentiment written by almost every author into the preface of nearly every mathematics text at or above the level of calculus. They all exhort their students to actually put pencil to paper and work through the logic of their arguments and the exercises to learn the material and gain some valuable experience. I’m sure that most mathematics professors will assure you that in the end, only a tiny fraction of their students actually do so. Some of the issue is that these exhortations only come in textbooks traditionally read at the advanced undergraduate level, when they should begin in the second grade.
“It’s Easy to See”
A common phrase in almost every advanced math textbook on the planet is the justification, “It’s easy to see.” The phrase, and those like it, should be a watchword for students to immediately be on their guard! The phrase is commonly used in proofs, discussions, conversations, and lectures in which an author or teacher may skip one or more steps which she feels should be obvious to her audience, but which, in fact, are far more commonly not obvious.
It’s become so cliche that some authors actually mention specifically in their prefaces that they vow not to use the phrase, but if they do so, they usually let slip some other euphemism that is its equivalent.
The problem with the phrase is that everyone, by force of their own circumstances and history, will view it completely differently. A step that is easy for someone with a Ph.D. who specialized in field theory to “see” may be totally incomprehensible for a beginning student of algebra I in the same way that steps that were easy for Girgory Perelman to see in his proof of the Poincaré conjecture were likewise completely incomprehensible for teams of multiple tenured research professors of mathematics to see. (cross reference: The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe by Donal O’Shea (Walker & Co., 2007))
How to Actively Read a Math Text
So how are students to proceed? It will certainly help to see a broader road map of what lies ahead and what the expected changes in terrain will look like. It will also help greatly if students have a better idea how to approach mathematics for themselves and even by themselves in many cases.
In my opinion, the most common disconnect occurs somewhere between high school mathematics and early college mathematics (usually a calculus sequence, linear algebra) and then again between linear algebra/differential equations (areas which usually have discussion followed by examples and then crank-out problems) and higher abstract mathematical areas like analysis, abstract algebra, topology (areas in which the definition-theorem-proof cycle of writing is more common and seemingly more incomprehensible to many).
The first big issue in early college mathematics is the increased speed at which college courses move. Students used to a slower high school pace where the teachers are usually teaching to the middle or lower end of the class get caught unaware as their college professors teach to the higher ability students and aren’t as afraid to leave the lower end of the spectrum behind. Just like high school athletes are expected to step up their game when they make the transition to college and similarly college athletes who go pro, mathematics students should realize they’re expected to step up their game at the appropriate times.
Often math students (and really any student of any subject) relies on the teacher assigning readings or problems from their book rather than excersizing their curiosity to more avidly and broadly explore the material on their own. If they can take the guidance of their teacher as well as that of the individual authors of books, they may make it much further on their own. High school teachers often skip sections of textbooks for time, but students should realize that there is profitable and interesting material that they’re skipping. Why not go and read it on their own?
Earlier I mentioned that an average undergraduate abstract algebra textbook might cover the totality of a high school algebra textbook in about three pages. What does this mean for upper level mathematics students? It almost always means that the density of material in these books is far greater than that of their earlier textbooks. How is this density arrived at? Authors of advanced textbooks leave out far more than they’re able to put in, otherwise their 300 page textbooks, if written at the same basic level as those that came before would be much more ponderous 1000+ page textbooks. What are they leaving out? Often they’re leaving out lots of what might be useful discussion, but more often, they’re leaving out lots of worked out examples. For example, a high school text will present a definition or concept and then give three or more illustrations or examples of problems relating to the concept. The exercises will then give dozens of additional drill problems to beat the concept to death. This type of presentation usually continues up to the level of calculus where one often sees massive tomes in the 800+ page length. Math texts after this point generally don’t go much over 300 pages as a rule, and it’s primarily because they’re leaving the examples out of the proverbial equation.
How does one combat this issue? Students need to more actively think back to the math they’ve taken previously and come up with their own simple examples of problems, and work though them on their own. Just because the book doesn’t give lots of examples doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
In fact, many textbooks are actually presenting examples, they’re just hiding them with very subtle textual hints. Often in the presentation of a concept, the author will leave out one or more steps in a proof or example and hint to the student that they should work through the steps themselves. (Phrases like: “we leave it to the reader to verify” or “see example 2.”) Sometimes this hint comes in the form of that dreaded phrase, “It’s easy to see.” When presented with these hints, it is incumbent (or some students may prefer the word encumbering) on the student to think through the missing steps or provide the missing material themselves.
While reading mathematics, students should not only be reading the words and following the steps, but they should actively be working their way through all of the steps (missing or not) in each of the examples or proofs provided. They must read their math books with pencil and paper in hand instead of the usual format of reading their math book and then picking up paper and pencil to work out problems afterwards. Most advanced math texts suggest half a dozen or more problems to work out within the text itself before presenting a dozen or more additional problems usually in a formal section entitled “Exercises”. Students have to train themselves to be thinking about and working out the “hidden” problems within the actual textual discussion sections.
Additionally, students need to consider themselves “researchers” or think of their work as discovery or play. Can they come up with their own questions or exercises that relate the concepts they’ve read about to things they’ve done in the past? Often asking the open ended question, “What happens if I…” can be very useful. One has to imagine that this is the type of “play” that early mathematicians like Euclid, Gauss, and Euler did, and I have to say, this is also the reason that they discovered so many interesting properties within mathematics. (I always like to think that they were the beneficiaries of “picking the lowest hanging fruit” within mathematics – though certainly they discovered some things that took some time to puzzle out; we take some of our knowledge for granted as sitting on the shoulders of giants does allow us to see much further than we could before.)
As a result of this newly discovered rule, students will readily find that while they could read a dozen pages of their high school textbooks in just a few minutes, it may take them between a half an hour to two hours to properly read even a single page of an advanced math text. Without putting in this extra time and effort they’re going to quickly find themselves within the tall grass (or, more appropriately weeds).
Another trick of advanced textbooks is that, because they don’t have enough time or space within the primary text itself, authors often “hide” important concepts, definitions, and theorems within the “exercises” sections of their books. Just because a concept doesn’t appear in the primary text doesn’t mean it isn’t generally important. As a result, students should always go out of their way to at least read through all of the exercises in the text even if they don’t spend the time to work through them all.
One of the difficult things about advanced abstract mathematics is that it is most often very cumulative and even intertwined, so when one doesn’t understand the initial or early portions of a textbook, it doesn’t bode well for the later sections which require one to have mastered the previous work. This is even worse when some courses build upon the work of earlier courses, so for example, doing well in calculus III requires that one completely mastered calculus I. At some of the highest levels like courses in Lie groups and Lie algebras requires that one mastered the material in multiple other prior courses like analysis, linear algebra, topology, and abstract algebra. Authors of textbooks like these will often state at the outset what material they expect students to have mastered to do well, and even then, they’ll often spend some time giving overviews of relevant material and even notation of these areas in appendices of their books.
As a result of this, we can take it as a general rule: “Don’t ever skip anything in a math textbook that you don’t understand.” Keep working on the concepts and examples until they become second nature to you.
Finally, more students should think of mathematics as a new language. I’ve referenced the following Galileo quote before, but it bears repeating (emphasis is mine):
Though mathematical notation has changed drastically (for the better, in my opinion) since Galileo’s time, it certainly has its own jargon, definitions, and special notations. Students should be sure to spend some time familiarizing themselves with current modern notation, and especially the notation in the book that they choose. Often math textbooks will have a list of symbols and their meanings somewhere in the end-papers or the appendices. Authors usually go out of their way to introduce notation somewhere in either the introduction, preface, appendices, or often even in an introductory review chapter in which they assume most of their students are very familiar with, but they write it anyway to acclimate students to the particular notation they use in their text. This notation can often seem excessive or even obtuse, but generally it’s very consistent across disciplines within mathematics, but it’s incredibly useful and necessary in making often complex concepts simple to think about and communicate to others. For those who are lost, or who want help delving into areas of math seemingly above their heads, I highly recommend the text Mathematical Notation: A Guide for Engineers and Scientists by my friend Edward R. Scheinerman as a useful guide.
A high school student may pick up a textbook on Lie Groups and be astounded at the incomprehensibility of the subject, but most of the disconnect is in knowing and understanding the actual language in which the text is written. A neophyte student of Latin would no sooner pick up a copy of Cicero and expect to be able to revel in the beauty and joy of the words or their meaning without first spending some time studying the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the language. Fortunately, like Latin, once one has learned a good bit of math, the notations and definitions are all very similar, so once you can read one text, you’ll be able to appreciate a broad variety of others.
Actively Reading a Mathematics Text Review:
Work through the steps of everything within the text
Come up with your own examples
Work through the exercises
Read through all the exercises, especially the ones that you don’t do
Don’t ever skip anything you don’t fully understand
Math is a language: spend some time learning (memorizing) notation
Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. Not all mathematics textbooks are great, good, or even passable. There is certainly a spectrum of textbooks out there, and there are even more options at the simpler (more elementary) end, in part because of there is more demand. For the most part, however, most textbooks are at least functional. Still one can occasionally come across a very bad apple of a textbook.
Because of the economics of textbook publishing, it is often very difficult for a textbook to even get published if it doesn’t at least meet a minimum threshold of quality. The track record of a publisher can be a good indicator of reasonable texts. Authors of well-vetted texts will often thank professors who have taught their books at other universities or even provide a list of universities and colleges that have adopted their texts. Naturally, just because 50 colleges have adopted a particular text doesn’t necessarily mean that that it is necessarily of high quality.
One of the major issues to watch out for is using the textbook written by one’s own professor. While this may not be an issue if your professor is someone like Serge Lang, Gilbert Strang, James Munkres, Michael Spivak, or the late Walter Rudin, if your particular professor isn’t supremely well known in his or her field, is an adjunct or associate faculty member, or is a professor at a community college, then: caveat emptor.
Since mathematics is a subject about clear thinking, analysis, and application of knowledge, I recommend that students who feel they’re being sold a bill of goods in their required/recommended textbook(s), take the time to look at alternate textbooks and choose one that is right for themselves. For those interested in more on this particular sub-topic I’ve written about it before: On Choosing Your own Textbooks.
Often, even with the best intentions, some authors can get ahead of themselves or the area at hand is so advanced that it is difficult to find a way into it. As an example, we might consider Lie groups and algebras, which is a fascinating area to delve into. Unfortunately it can take several years of advanced work to get to a sufficient level to even make a small dent into any of the textbooks in the area, though some research will uncover a handful of four textbooks that will get one quite a way into the subject with a reasonable background in just analysis and linear algebra.
When one feels like they’ve hit a wall, but still want to struggle to succeed, I’m reminded of the advice of revered mathematical communicator Paul Halmos, whose book Measure Theory needed so much additional background material, that instead of beginning with the traditional Chapter 1, he felt it necessary to include a Chapter 0 (he actually called his chapters “sections” in the book) and even then it had enough issueshewas cornered into writing the statement:
This is essentially the mathematician’s equivalent of the colloquialism “Fake it ’til you make it.”
When all else fails, use this adage, and don’t become discouraged. You’ll get there eventually!
I recently ran across this TED talk and felt compelled to share it. It really highlights some of my own personal thoughts on how science should be taught and done in the modern world. It also overlaps much of the reading I’ve been doing lately on innovation and creativity. If these don’t get you to watch, then perhaps mentioning that Alon manages to apply comedy and improvisation techniques to science will.
Uri Alon was already one of my scientific heroes, but this adds a lovely garnish.
I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old. The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.
The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons – perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered. This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.
The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:
Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
s, z, soft c
“z” is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
n has two downstrokes
m has three downstrokes; m looks like a “3” on its side
last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
L is the Roman Numeral for 50
/ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/
j, sh, soft g, soft “ch”
a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu
capital K “contains” two sevens (some variant systems include “ng”)
script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Vowel sounds, w,h,y
w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value
There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings. When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration  , I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method. Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!
My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand.  In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen – one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method. 
I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:
Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!
Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!
The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.
The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump – heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.
Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.
One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.
I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588)  , John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602)  , Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618)  , or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626)  ? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.
Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.
UPDATE on 7/6/14:
I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.
B. Furst, You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co., 1965.
‘ll be the first to admit that I’m a reading junkie, but unfortunately there isn’t (yet) a 12 step program to help me. I love reading lots of different types of things across an array of platforms (books, newspapers, magazines, computer, web, phone, tablet, apps) and topics (fiction/non-fiction and especially history, biography, economics, popular science, etc.). My biggest problem and one others surely face is time.
There are so many things I want to read, and far too little time to do it in. Over the past several years, I’ve spent an almost unreasonable amount of time thinking about what I consume and (possibly more importantly) how to intelligently consume more of it. I’ve spent so much time delving into it that I’ve befriended a professor and fellow renaissance man (literally and figuratively) who gave me a personal thank you in his opening to a best-selling book entitled “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in an Age of Distraction.”
At least twice a year I look at my reading consumption and work on how to improve it, all the while trying to maintain a level of quality and usefulness in what I’m consuming and why I’m consuming it.
I continually subscribe to new and interesting sources.
I close off subscriptions to old sources that I find uninteresting, repetitive (goodbye echo chamber), and those that are (or become) generally useless.
I carefully monitor the huge volumes of junk email that end up in my inbox and trim down on the useless material that I never seem to read, so that I’ll have more time to focus on what is important.
I’ve taken up listening to audiobooks to better utilize my time in the car while commuting.
I’ve generally quit reading large swaths of social media for their general inability to uncover truly interesting sources.
I’ve used some portions of social media to find other interesting people collating and curating areas I find interesting, but which I don’t have the time to read through everything myself. Why waste my time reading hundreds of articles, when I can rely on a small handful of people to read them and filter out the best of the best for myself? Twitter lists in particular are an awesome thing.
I’ve given up on things like “listicles” or stories from internet click farm sources like BuzzFeed which can have some truly excellent linkbait-type headlines, but I always felt like I’ve completely wasted my time clicking through to them.
A New Solution
About six months ago in the mountain of tech journalism I love reading, I ran across a site launch notice about a tech start-up calledSpritzwhich promised a radically different solution for the other side of the coin relating to my reading problem: speeding the entire process up! Unfortunately, despite a few intriguing samples at the time (and some great details on the problem and their solution), they weren’t actually delivering a product.
Well, all that seems to have changed in the past few weeks. I’ve waited somewhat patiently and occasionally checked back on their progress, but following a recent mention on Charlie Rose, and some serious digging around on the broader internet, I’ve found some worthwhile tools that have sprouted out of their efforts. Most importantly, Spritz itself now has a bookmarklet that seems to deliver on their promise of improving my reading speeds for online content. With the bookmarklet installed, one can go to almost any web article, click on the bookmarklet and then sit back and just read at almost any desired speed. Their technology uses a modified version of the 1970’s technology known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) to speed up your reading ability, but does so in a way that is easier to effectuate with web and mobile technologies. Essentially they present words serially in the same position on your screen with an optimized center mass so that one’s eyes stay still while reading instead of doing the typical saccaddic eye movements which occur with typical reading – and slow the process down.
As a biomedical engineer, I feel compelled to note the interesting physiologic phenomenon that if one sits in a rotatable chair and spins with one’s eyes closed and their fingers lightly placed on their eyelids, one will feel the eye’s saccades even though one isn’t actually seeing anything.
Spritz also allows one to create an account and log in so that the service will remember your previously set reading speed. Their website does such a great job of explaining their concept, I’ll leave it to the reader to take a peek; but you may want to visit their bookmarklet page directly, as their own website didn’t seem to have a link to it initially.
Naturally, Spritz’s solution is not a catch-all for everything I’d like to read, but it covers an interesting subcategory that will make things useful and easier. Though trying to speed read journal articles, textbooks, and other technical literature isn’t the best idea in the world, Spritz will help me plow through more fiction and more leisurely types of magazine and online articles that are of general interest. I generally enjoy and appreciate these types of journalism and work, but just can’t always justify taking the time away from more academic pursuits to delve into them. Some will still require some further thought after-the-fact to really get their full value out of them, but at least I can cover the additional ground without wasting all the additional time to do so. I find I can easily double or triple my usual reading speed without any real loss of comprehension.
In the last week or so since installing a my several new speed reading bookmarklets, I’ve begun using them almost religiously in my daily reading regimen.
I’ll also note in passing that some studies suggest that this type of reading modality has helped those who face difficulties with dyslexia.
Speed Reading Competition
Naturally, since this is a great idea, there’s a bit of competition in the speed reading arena.
There are a small handful of web and app technologies which are built upon the RSVP concept:
Clayton Morris has also developed an iOS application called ReadQuick, which is based on the same concept as Spritz, but is only available via app and not on web.
Rich Jones has developed a program called OpenSpritz. His version is opensource and has an Android port for mobile.
There’s also another similar bookmarklet called Squirt which also incorporates some nice UI tweaks and some of the technology from Readability as well.
For those wishing to Spritz .pdf or .txt documents, one can upload them using Readsy which uses Spritz’s open API to allow these types of functionalities.
There are also a variety of similar free apps in the Google Play store which follow the RSVP technology model.
Those on the Amazon (or Kindle Fire/Android Platform) will appreciate the Balto App which utilizes RSVP and is not only one of the more fully functional apps in the space, but it also has the ability to unpack Kindle formatted books (i.e. deal with Amazon’s DRM) to allow speed reading Kindle books. While there is a free version, the $1.99 paid version is more than well worth the price for the additional perks.
On and off for the past couple of years, I’ve also used a web service and app called Readfa.st which is a somewhat useful, but generally painful way to improve one’s speed reading. It also has a handy bookmarklet, but just wasn’t as useful as I had always hoped it might be. It’s interesting, but not as interesting or as useful as Spritz (and other RSVP technology) in my opinion since it feels more fatiguing to read in this manner
Bookmarklet Junkie Addendum
In addition to the handful of speed reading bookmarklets I’ve mentioned above, I’ve got over 50 bookmarklets in a folder on my web browser toolbar. I easily use about a dozen on a daily basis. Bookmarklets make my internet world much prettier, nicer, and cleaner with a range of simple clever code. Many are for URL shortening, sharing content to a variety of social networks quickly, but a large number of the ones I use are for reading-related tasks which I feel compelled to include here: web clippers for Evernote and OneNote, Evernote’s Clearly, Readability, Instapaper, Pocket, Mendeley (for reading journal articles), and GoodReads.
Do you have a favorite speed reading application (or bookmarklet)?
Not long ago, my alma mater Johns Hopkins University announced the creation of a task force on Academic Freedom. Since then, I’ve corresponded with the group on a few occasions and in the spirit of my notes to them, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts with others in the academy, science writers/communicators, and even the general public who may also find them useful. Toward that end, below is a slightly modified version of my two main emails to the task force. [They’ve been revised marginally for their appearance and readability in this format and now also include section headings.] While I’m generally writing about Johns Hopkins as an example, I’m sure that the majority of it also applies to the rest of the academy.
On a personal note, the first email has some interesting thoughts and background, while the second email has some stronger broader recommendations.
My First Thoughts to the Task Force
Matthew Green’s Blog and Questions of National Security
Early in September 2013, there was a rather large PR nightmare created for the university (especially as it regards poor representation within the blogosphere and social media) when interim Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering Andrew Douglas requested to have professor Matthew Green’s web presence modified in relation to an alleged anti-NSA post on it. Given the increasing level of NSA related privacy news at the time (and since as relates to the ongoing Edward Snowden case), the case was certainly blown out of proportion. But the Green/NSA story is also one of the most highlighted cases relating to academic freedom in higher education in the last several years, and I’m sure it may be the motivating force behind why the task force was created in the first place. (If you or the task force is unaware of the issues in that case you can certainly do a quick web search, though one of the foremost followers of the controversy was ArsTechnica which provided this post with most of the pertinent information; alternately take a look at what journalism professor Jay Rosen had to say on the issue in the Guardian.) I’m sure you can find a wealth of additional reportage from the Hopkins Office of News and Information which maintains its daily digests of “Today’s News” from around that time period.
In my mind, much of the issue and the outpouring of poor publicity, which redounded to the university, resulted from the media getting information about the situation via social media before the internal mechanisms of the university had the chance to look at the issue in detail and provide a more timely resolution. [Rumors via social media will certainly confirm Mark Twain’s aphorism that “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”]
While you’re mulling over the issue of academic freedom, I would highly suggest you all closely consider the increased impact of the internet and particularly social media with regard to any policies which are proposed going forward. As the volunteer creator and initial maintainer of much of Hopkins’ social media presence on both Facebook and Twitter as well as many others for their first five years of existence (JHU was the first university in these areas of social media and most other major institutions followed our early lead), I have a keen insight to how these tools impact higher education. With easy-to-use blogging platforms and social media (Matthew Green had both a personal blog that was hosted outside the University as well as one that was mirrored through the University as well as a Twitter account), professors now have a much larger megaphone and constituency than they’ve had any time in the preceding 450 years of the academy. This fact creates unique problems as it relates to the university, its image, how it functions, and how its professoriate interact with relation to academic freedom, which is a far different animal than it had been even 17 years ago at the dawn of the internet age. Things can obviously become sticky and quickly as evinced in the Green/APL situation which was exacerbated by the APL’s single source of income at a time when the NSA and privacy were foremost in the public eye.
What are Some of the Issues for Academic Freedom in the Digital Age?
Consider the following:
How should/shouldn’t the university regulate the border of social media and internet presence at the line between personal/private lives and professional lives?
How can the university help to promote/facilitate the use of the internet/social media to increase the academic freedom of its professoriate and simultaneously lower the technological hurdles as well as the generational hurdles faced by the academy? (I suspect that few on the task force have personal blogs or twitter accounts, much less professional blogs hosted by the university beyond their simple “business card” information pages through their respective departments.)
How should the university handle issues like the Matthew Green/APL case so that comments via social media don’t gain steam and blow up in the media before the university has a chance to handle them internally? (As I recall, there were about two news cycles of JHU saying “no comment” and resulting bad press which reached the level of national attention prior to a resolution.)
How can the university help to diffuse the issues which led up to the Green/APL incident before they happen?
I hope that the task force is able to spend some time with Dr. Green discussing his case and how it was handled.
Personal Reputation on the Internet in a Connected Age
I also suggest that the students on the task force take a peek into the case file of JHU’s Justin Park from 2007, which has become a textbook-case for expression on the internet/in social media and its consequences (while keeping in mind that it was a social/cultural issue which was the root cause of the incident rather than malice or base racism – this aspect of the case wasn’t/isn’t highlighted in extant internet reportage – Susan Boswell [Long-time Dean of Sudent Life] and Student Activities head Robert Turner can shed more light on the situation). Consider what would the university have done if Justin Park had been a professor instead of a student? What role did communication technology and the internet play in how these situations played out now compared to how they would have been handled when Dr. Grossman was a first year professor just starting out? [Editor’s note: Dr. Grossman is an incredible thought leader, but most of his life and academic work occurred prior to the internet age. Though unconfirmed, I suspect that his internet experience or even experience with email is exceedingly limited.]
In a related issue on academic freedom and internet, I also hope you’re addressing or at least touching on the topic of academic samizdat, so that the university can put forward a clear (and thought-leading) policy on where we stand there as well. I could certainly make a case that the university come out strongly in favor of professors maintaining the ability to more easily self-publish without detriment to their subsequent publication chances in major journals (and resultant potential detriment to the arc of their careers), but the political ramifications in this changing landscape are certainly subtle given that the university deals with both major sides as the employer of the faculty while simultaneously being one of the major customers of the institutionalized research publishing industry. As I currently view the situation, self-publishing and the internet will likely win the day over the major publishers which puts the university in the position of pressing the issue in a positive light to its own ends and that of increasing knowledge for the world. I’m sure Dean Winston Tabb [Dean of the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins] and his excellent staff could provide the task force with some useful insight on this topic. Simultaneously, how can the increased areas of academic expression/publication (for example the rapidly growing but still relatively obscure area known as the “Digital Humanities”) be institutionalized such that publication in what have previously been non-traditional areas be included more formally in promotion decisions? If professors can be incentivized to use some of their academic freedom and expanded opportunities to both their and the university’s benefit, then certainly everyone wins. Shouldn’t academic freedom also include the freedom of where/when to publish without detriment to one’s future career – particularly in an increasingly more rapidly shifting landscape of publication choices and outlets?
The Modern Research University is a Content Aggregator and Distributor (and Should Be Thought of as Such)
Taking the topic even further several steps further, given the value of the professoriate and their intellectual creations and content, couldn’t/shouldn’t the university create a customized platform to assist their employees in disseminating and promoting their own work? As an example, consider the volume of work (approximate 16,000-20,000 journal articles/year, as well as thousands of articles written for newspapers (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.), magazines, and other outlets – academic or otherwise) being generated every year by those within the university. In a time of decreasing cost of content distribution, universities no longer need to rely on major journals, magazines, television stations, cable/satellite television, et al. to distribute their “product”. To put things in perspective, I can build the infrastructure to start a 24/7 streaming video service equivalent to both a television station and a major newspaper in my garage for the capital cost about $10,000.) Why not bring it all in-house with the benefit of academic flexibility as an added draw to better support the university and its mission? (Naturally, this could all be cross-promoted to other outlets after-the-fact for additional publicity.) At a time when MOOC’s (massively open online courseware) are eroding some of the educational mission within higher education and journals are facing increased financial pressures, perhaps there should be a new model of the university as a massive content/information creation engine and distributor for the betterment of humanity? And isn’t that what Johns Hopkins already is at heart? We’re already one of the largest knowledge creators on the planet, why are we not also simultaneously one of the largest knowledge disseminators – particularly at a time when it is inexpensive to do so, and becoming cheaper by the day?
[Email closing formalities removed]
Expanded Thoughts on Proactive Academic Freedom
Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age
[Second email opening removed]
Upon continued thought and reading on the topic of academic freedom as well as the associated areas of technology, I might presuppose (as most probably do) that the committee will be looking more directly at the concept of preventing the university from impeding the freedom of its faculty and what happens in those situations where action ought to be taken for the benefit of the wider community (censure, probation, warnings, etc.). If it hasn’t been brought up as a point yet, I think one of the most positive things the university could do to improve not only academic freedom, but the university’s position in relation to its competitive peers, is to look at the opposite side of the proverbial coin and actually find a way for the university to PROACTIVELY help promote the voices of its faculty and assist them in broadening their reach.
I touched upon the concept tangentially in my first email (see above), but thought it deserved some additional emphasis, examples to consider, and some possible recommendations. Over the coming decades, the aging professoriate will slowly retire to be replaced with younger faculty who grew up completely within the internet age and who are far more savvy about it as well as the concepts of Web 2.0, the social web and social media. More will be literate in how to shoot and edit short videos and how to post them online to garner attention, readership, and acceptance for their ideas and viewpoints.
The recent PBS Frontline documentary “Generation Like” features a handful of pre-teens and teens who are internet sensations and garnering hundreds of thousands to millions of views of their content online. But imagine for a minute: a savvy professoriate that could do something similar with their academic thought and engaging hundreds, thousands, or millions on behalf of Johns Hopkins? Or consider the agency being portrayed in the documentary [about 30 minutes into the documentary] that helps these internet sensations and what would happen if that type of functionality was taken on by the Provost’s office?
I could presuppose that with a cross-collaboration of the Provost’s office, the Sheridan Libraries, the Film & Media Studies Department, the Digital Media Center, and the Communications Office as an institution we should be able to help better train faculty who are not already using these tools to improve their web presences and reach.
What “Reach” Do Academics Really Have?
I’ve always been struck by my conversations with many professors about the reach of their academic work. I can cite the particular experience of Dr. P.M. Forni, in the Department of Romance Languages at Krieger, when he told me that he’s written dozens of academic papers and journal articles, most of which have “at most a [collective] readership of at most 11 people on the planet” – primarily because academic specialties have become so niche. He was completely dumbfounded on the expanded reach he had in not only writing a main-stream book on the topic of civility, which was heavily influenced by his academic research and background, but in the even more drastically expanded reach provided to him by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show shortly after its release. Certainly his experience is not a common one, but there is a vast area in between that is being lost, not only by individual professors, but by the university by extension. Since you’re likely aware of the general numbers of people reading academic papers, I won’t bore you, but for the benefit of those on the committee I’ll quote a recent article from Pacific Standard Magazine and provide an additional reference from Physics World, 2007:
Some Examples of Increased Reach in the Academy
To provide some examples and simple statistics on where something like this might go, allow me to present the following brief references:
As a first example, written by an academic about academia, I suggest you take a look at a recent blog post “Why academics should blog and an update on readership” by Artem Kaznatcheev, a researcher in computer science and psychology at McGill University, posting on a shared blog named “Theory, Evolution, and Games Group”. He provides a clear and interesting motivation in the first major portion of his essay, and then unwittingly (for my example), he shows some basic statistics indicating a general minimum readership of 2,000 people which occasionally goes as high as 8,000. (Knowing how his platform operates and provides base-line statistics that he’s using, it’s likely that his readership is actually possibly higher.) If one skims through the blog, it’s obvious that he’s not providing infotainment type of material like one would find on TMZ, Buzzfeed, or major media outlets, but genuine academic thought – AND MANAGING TO REACH A SIZEABLE AUDIENCE! I would posit that even better, that his blog enriching not only himself and his fellow academy colleagues, but a reasonable number of people outside of the academy and therefore the world.
Another example of an even more technical academic blog can be found in that of Dr. Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize), and mathematics professor at UCLA. You’ll note that it’s far more technical and rigorous than Dr. Kaznatcheev’s, and though I don’t have direct statistics to back it up, I can posit based on the number of comments his blog has that his active readership is even much higher. Dr. Tao uses his blog to not only expound upon his own work, but uses it to post content for classes, to post portions of a book in process, and to promote the general mathematics research community. (I note that the post he made on 3/19, already within a day has 11 comments by people who’ve read it close enough to suggest typography changes as well as sparked some actual conversation on a topic that requires an education to at least the level of a master’s degree in mathematics.
Business Insider recently featured a list of 50 scientists to follow on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and blogs amongst others). While there are a handful of celebrities and science journalists, many of those featured are professors or academics of one sort or another and quite a few of them are Ph.D. candidates (the beginning of the upcoming generation of tech-savvy future faculty I mentioned). Why aren’t there any JHU professors amongst those on this list?
As another clear example, consider the recent online video produced by NPR’s “Science Friday” show featuring research about Water flowing uphill via the Leidenfrost Effect. It is not only generally interesting research work, but this particular research is not only a great advertisement for the University of Bath, it’s a great teaching tool for students, and it features the research itself as well as the involvement of undergraduates in the research. Though I’ll admit that producing these types of vignettes is not necessarily simple, imagine the potential effect on the awareness of the university’s output if we could do this with even 10% of the academic research paper output? Imagine these types of videos as inspiring tools to assist in gaining research funding from government agencies or as fundraising tools for Alumni and Development relations? And how much better that they could be easily shared and spread organically on the web, not necessarily by the JHU Corporate Umbrella, but by its faculty, students, alumni, and friends.
How Does the Academy Begin Accomplishing All of This?
To begin, I’ll mention that Keswick’s new video lab or the Digital Media Center at Homewood and a few others like them are a great start, but they are just the tip of the iceberg (and somewhat unfortunate that faculty from any division will have to travel to use the Keswick facility, if they’re even notionally aware of it and its capabilities).
I recall Mary Spiro, a communications specialist/writer with the Institute of NanoBioTechnology, doing a test-pilot Intersession program in January about 4 years ago in which she helped teach a small group of researchers how to shoot and edit their own films about their research or even tours through their lab. Something like this program could be improved, amplified, and rolled out on a much larger basis. It could also be integrated or dovetailed, in part, with the Digital Media Center and the Film and Media Studies program at Krieger to assist researchers in their work.
The Sheridan Libraries provide teaching/training on using academic tools like bibliographic programs Mendeley.com, RefWorks, Zotero, but they could extend them to social media, blogging, or tools like FigShare, GitHub, and others.
Individual departments or divisions could adopt and easily maintain free content management platforms like WordPress and Drupal (I might even specifically look at their pre-configured product for academia known as OpenScholar, for example take a look at Harvard’s version.) This would make it much easier for even non-technicalminded faculty to more easily come up to speed by removing the initial trouble of starting a blog. It also has the side benefit of allowing the university to assist in ongoing maintenance, backup, data maintenance, hosting, as well as look/feel, branding as well as web optimization. (As a simple example, and not meant to embarrass them, but despite the fact that the JHU Math Department may have been one of the first departments in the university to be on the web, it’s a travesty that their website looks almost exactly as it did 20 years ago, and has less content on it than Terrence Tao’s personal blog which he maintains as a one man operation. I’m sure that some of the issue is political in the way the web has grown up over time at Hopkins, but the lion’s share is technology and management based.)
The Provost’s office in conjunction with IT and the Sheridan Libraries could invest some time and energy in to compiling resources and vetting them for ease-of-use, best practices, and use cases and then providing summaries of these tools to the faculty so that each faculty member need not re-invent the wheel each time, but to get up and running more quickly. This type of resource needs to be better advertised and made idiot-proof (for lack of better terminology) to ease faculty access and adoption. Online resources like the Chronicle of Education’s ProfHacker blog can be mined for interesting tools and use cases, for example.
I know portions of these types of initiatives are already brewing in small individual pockets around the university, but they need to be brought together and better empowered as a group instead of as individuals working separately in a vacuum. In interacting with people across the institution, this technology area seems to be one of those that has been left behind in the “One Hopkins” initiative. One of the largest hurdles is the teaching old dogs new tricks to put it colloquially, but the hurdles for understanding and comprehending these new digital tools is coming down drastically by the day. As part of the social contract in the university’s granting and promoting academic freedom, the faculty should be better encouraged (thought certainly not forced) to exercise it. I’m sure there are mandatory annual seminars on topics like sexual harassment, should there not be mandatory technology trainings as well?
To briefly recap, it would be phenomenal to see the committee make not only their base recommendations on what most consider academic freedom, but to further make a group of strong recommendations about the University proactively teaching, training, and providing a broader array of tools to encourage the active expression of the academic freedom that is provided within Hopkins’ [or even all of the Academy’s] mighty walls.
[Email closing removed]
I certainly welcome any thoughts or comments others may have on these topics. Please feel free to add them in the comments below.
David Christian, a trained historian, is one of the leading proponents of the relatively new concept of Big History, which I view as a sea-change in the way humans will begin to view not only the world but our place in it and what we might expect to come in the future. His work presents a truly monumental and profound thesis and a drastically new framework for where humankind fits into the universe. Of the broad variety of works I’ve read in the past several decades, it is simply one of the most interesting and cohesive theses I’ve come across, and I highly and unreservedly recommend it to everyone I know. I’d put it on par or above works like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimistamong others for its broad impact on how I now view the world. For scientists and researchers it has the potential to be the philosophical equivalent of The Bible and in fact, like many religious texts, it is in effect a modern day “creation myth,” albeit one with a scientific underpinning.
Christian’s work was initially brought to my attention by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey R. Young in which he mentioned that Bill Gates was a big fan of Christian’s work and had recommended it himself at a TED conference. (Gates is now also a financial supporter of Christian’s Big History Project.) I myself was aware of the Learning Company’s generally excellent coursework offerings and within a few weeks got an audio copy of the course of forty-eight lectures to listen to on my daily commute.
I’ve now devoured both his rather large text on the subject as well as a lecture series he created for a course on the subject. Below are brief reviews of the two works.The magnum written opus Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is an interesting change of reference from a historical perspective combining the disciplines of physics, cosmology, astronomy, geology, chemistry, microbiology, evolutionary theory, archaeology, politics, religion, economics, sociology, and history into one big area of contiguous study based upon much larger timescales than those traditionally taken in the study of historical time periods. Though it takes pieces from many disciplines, it provides for an interesting, fresh, and much needed perspective on who humans are and their place in not only the world, but the entire universe.
By looking at history from a much broader viewpoint (billions of years versus the more common decades or even just a few centuries) one comes away with a drastically different perspective on the universe and life.
I’d highly recommend this to any general reader as early as they can find time to read through it, particularly because it provides such an excellent base for a variety of disciplines thereby better framing their future studies. I wish I had been able to read this book in the ninth or tenth grade or certainly at the latest by my freshman year in college – alas the general conception of the topic itself didn’t exist until after I had graduated from university.
Although I have significant backgrounds in most, if not all, of the disciplines which comprise the tapestry of big history, the background included in the book is more than adequate to give the general reader the requisite introductions to these subjects to make big history a coherent subject on its own.
This could be an extremely fundamental and life-changing book for common summer reading programs of incoming college freshman. If I could, I would make it required reading for all students at the high school level. Fortunately Bill Gates and others are helping to fund David Christian’s work to help introduce it more broadly at the high school and other educational levels.
Within David Christian’s opus, there is also a collection of audio lectures produced by The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series which I listened to as well. The collection of forty-eight lectures is entitled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Great Courses, Course No. 8050). It provides a much quicker philosophical overview of the subject and doesn’t delve as deeply into the individual disciplines as the text does, but still provides a very cohesive presentation of the overall thesis. In fact, for me, the introduction to the topic was much better in these audio lectures than it was in the written book. Christian’s lecture style is fantastic and even better than his already excellent writing style.
In the audio lectures Christian highlights eight major thresholds which he uses as a framework by which to view the 13.4 billion years of history which the Universe has presently traversed. Then within those he uses the conceptualization of disparities in power/energy as the major driving forces/factors in history in a unique and enlightening way which provides a wealth of perspective on almost every topic (scientific or historical) one can consider. This allows one to see parallels and connections between seemingly disparate topics like the creations of stars and the first building of cities or how the big bang is similar to the invention of agriculture.
I can easily say that David Christian’s works on big history are some of the most influential works I’ve ever come across – and having experienced them, I can never see our universe in the same naive way again.
For those interested in taking a short and immediate look at Christian’s work, I can recommend his Ted Talk “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes” which only begins to scratch the surface of his much deeper and profound thesis:
Given how profound the topic of big history is, I’m sure I’ll be writing about and referring to it often. Posts in relation to it can be found here with the tag: “big history“.
In Big History and the Future of Humanity, Fred Spier has built on an earlier work of his and on the work of Eric Chaisson to produce what is currently by far the most sophisticated attempt to construct a thematic scaffolding for big history. He carefully links the idea of increasing complexity with the associated themes of energy flows and the idea of goldilocks conditions—the notion that complexity can increase only under very special conditions and within quite exacting “boundary conditions.” Here are broad theoretical ideas that can help give greater depth and coherence to the story told within big history.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 443
big history promises to open up exciting new research agendas (including the meaning of complexity and energy flows, and the role of information across many disciplines),
Highlight (yellow) – Location 483
Introduction: A Modern Creation Myth?
sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to as “anomie”: the sense of not fitting in,
Highlight (yellow) – Location 550
Russian matryoshka doll
Highlight (orange) – Location 651
Accounts of the past that focus primarily on the divisions between nations, religions, and cultures are beginning to look parochial and anachronistic—even dangerous.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 702
Highlight (orange) – Location 753
Chaisson, Eric J. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Highlight (green) – Location 795
Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution. London: Allen and Unwin, 1987.
Highlight (green) – Location 844
Maynard Smith, John, and Eörs Szathmáry. The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origins of
Highlight (green) – Location 847
Spier, Fred. The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996.
Highlight (green) – Location 878
Part I: The Inanimate Universe
Highlight (green) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 907
This is very much how modern nuclear physics views the idea of a vacuum: it is empty but can nevertheless have shape and structure, and (as has been proved in experiments with particle accelerators) “things” and “energies” can pop out of the emptiness.
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 923
Popol Vuh, or “Council Book,” a sixteenth-century Mayan manuscript,
Highlight (green) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 927
Dr. Lightfoot from Cambridge “proved” that God had created humans at exactly 9:00 AM on 23 October 4004 BCE.13
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 992
The particles that did find a partner were transformed into pure energy,
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1088
Perhaps this is where dark matter and energy are hiding?
As an anonymous wit is supposed to have put it: “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, changes into people.”25
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1131
The idea that form and matter are different expressions of the same underlying essence was proposed by the Italian Giordano Bruno as early as 1584, in a book called Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One.
Highlight (yellow) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1134
Eric Chaisson’s Cosmic Evolution (2001) is an attempt to think through the meaning of order and entropy at many different scales, from stars to microbes,
Highlight (green) – 1. The First 300,000 Years: Origins of the Universe, Time, and Space > Location 1394
The second law of thermodynamics ensures that all complex entities will eventually die; but the simpler the structure, the better its survival chances, which is why stars live so much longer than humans
Highlight (yellow) – 2. Origins of the Galaxies and Stars: The Beginnings of Complexity > Location 1521
Even in the densest part of the galaxy, the disk, regions of empty space normally contain only about one atom in each cubic centimeter. But in the earth’s atmosphere, there may be 25 billion billion molecules in the same space.15 And pouring though this matter is the energy emitted every second by the Sun. In other words, human history has taken place in a pocket of the universe that is dense in matter and packed with energy. It is the extraordinary richness and complexity of this environment that made life possible.
Highlight (yellow) – 2. Origins of the Galaxies and Stars: The Beginnings of Complexity > Location 1755
A Danish scientist, Nicholas Steno, first argued that fossils were the remains of organisms that had once lived on earth.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 1991
Charles Lyell first stated clearly what came to be known as the principle of uniformitarianism.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 1999
As the English philosopher Francis Bacon pointed out in 1620, it was easy to see from these maps that the continents looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This similarity was most striking when the west coast of Africa was matched up with the east coast of South America.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2016
The idea that the continents really had drifted apart was given a thorough scientific basis in a book called The Origin of Continents and Oceans, written in 1915 by a German geographer, Alfred Wegener.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2020
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2024
uppermost layer of the earth (the lithosphere) consists of a number of rigid plates, like a cracked eggshell. There are eight large plates and seven smaller ones, as well as smaller slivers of material.
Highlight (yellow) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2071
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2072
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2109
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2109
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2110
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2110
Highlight (green) – 3. Origins and History of the Earth > Location 2113
Part II: Life On Earth
“The unfolding of events in the life cycle of an organism exhibits an admirable regularity and orderliness, unrivalled by anything we meet with in inanimate matter.”
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2158
In Schrödinger’s famous phrase, each living organism seems to have an astonishing capacity for “continually sucking orderliness from its environment.”
Highlight (blue) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2166
Unlike stars or crystals, which are general, all-purpose antientropy machines, …
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2180
Think of homoestasis vs longevity
Darwin rarely used the term evolution, perhaps because it seems to imply some sort of mystical force that drives biological change in particular directions and thus would contradict his own view of biological change as a more open-ended process.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2240
Herbert Spencer, who did the most to popularize the term,
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2242
Highlight (orange) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2297
Erasmus Darwin, suggested that species evolved so as to adapt better to their environments.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2315
In a book first published in 1809, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested a possible mechanism. Perhaps minor changes acquired during a creature’s lifetime could somehow be passed on to its descendants.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2317
Time we spend in the gym does not guarantee that our children will be fit.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2323
Though epigenitics may be at work; see the studies of weight of self vs peers from c. 2010
Evolution works in fits and starts, according to the modern theory of “punctuated evolution,’ which was proposed by Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2481
1920s by Alexander Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane, uses the basic ideas of evolutionary theory to explain not just the evolution of life on earth but also its initial appearance.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2512
But precisely how chemical evolution generated the first living organisms remains unclear. To understand these difficulties, we must break the problem into several levels. First, we need to explain how the basic raw materials of life were created: the chemical level. Second, we need to explain how these simple organic materials were assembled into more complex structures. Finally, we need to explain the origins of the precise mechanisms of reproduction encoded in the DNA that is present in all living organisms today. At present, we have reasonably good answers to the first question; we have plausible answers to the second question; and we are still puzzled by the third question.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2519
Harold Urey and his graduate student, Stanley Miller.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2537
Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe have argued that Earth was seeded with life from outside. This theory is known as Panspermia.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2572
A. G. Cairns-Smith has suggested that in shallow water, tiny crystals of clay may have provided a template for the formation of more complex molecules.
Highlight (yellow) – 4. The Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution > Location 2590
Humans do not have the 60,000 to 80,000 genes we once believed were necessary to construct us but half that number, about 30,000. Roundworms have two-thirds as many genes as us (ca. 19,000), and fruit flies just under half (ca. 13,000); even Escherichia coli, a bacterium that inhabits our gut, may have as many as 4,000 genes. So, though constructing large organisms is tougher than constructing small organisms, the difference is not as great as we once imagined.
Highlight (yellow) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 2782
It would seem that we’re not really becoming that more complex from a relative perspective here. What is the next major jump on the hockey stick?
As Margulis and Sagan put it: “For the macrocosmic size, energy, and complex bodies we enjoy, we trade genetic flexibility.”
Highlight (blue) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 2867
The first extensive fossil evidence of multicellular organisms dates from the Ediacaran era, ca. 590 million years ago. But the fossil record of multicellular organisms really becomes abundant during the Cambrian era, from ca. 570 million years ago.
Highlight (yellow) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3032
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel suggested that all single-celled organisms be classified within a separate kingdom of Protista. Then, in the 1930s, biologists realized that there was a fundamental difference between cells with nuclei and those without. As a result, they began to divide all organisms into two distinct kingdoms, the Prokaryota (organisms whose cells had no nuclei) and the Eukaroyta (organisms whose cells had nuclei). In some systems, the Eukaryota also include all multicellular organisms. In the second half of the twentieth century, powerful arguments emerged for the creation of separate kingdoms for fungi and for viruses (which are so simplified that they cannot even reproduce without hijacking the metabolic systems of other organisms). In the 1990s, Carl Woese proposed a new large classification to distinguish between the archaea and other forms of bacteria. Like all prokaryotes, archaea do not have nuclei; but unlike other prokaryotes they take in energy neither from sunlight nor from oxygen but from other chemicals.
Highlight (yellow) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3057
Highlight (orange) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3188
John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry’s The Origins of Life (1999) is a history of life on Earth, constructed around the central idea of the evolution of complexity.
Highlight (green) – 5. The Evolution of Life and the Biosphere > Location 3367
Part III: Early Human History: Many Worlds
Net primary productivity (NPP) is that portion of energy from sunlight that enters the food chain through photosynthesis and is turned into plant material.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3418
This means that the impact of human history will be visible on scales of at least a billion years.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3443
new ways of extracting resources from their environments.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3478
We have seen that the emergence of new forms of complexity always involves the creation of large structures within which previously independent entities are locked into new forms of interdependence and new rules of cooperation.7 Following this hint, we should expect to find that the transition to human history is primarily marked not by a change in the nature of humans as individuals but rather by a change in the way individuals relate to each other.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3482
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3512
In an article first published in 1967, two biochemists working in the United States, Vincent Sarich and Alan Wilson, argued that much genetic change is subject to similar rules.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3589
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3640
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3690
another possible candidate for the oldest hominine, Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba,
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3692
Highlight (orange) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3792
It is possible that tool use evolved through a process known as Baldwinian adaptation (named after the nineteenth-century American psychologist who first described it systematically). This is a form of evolutionary change that appears to combine Darwinian and cultural elements, because behavioral changes lead to changes in an animal’s lifeways, thereby creating new selective pressures that lead, over time, to genetic changes.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3814
the so-called Levallois or Mousterian tools.
Highlight (yellow) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3905
Highlight (orange) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3945
Roger Lewin’s Human Evolution (4th ed., 1999)
Highlight (green) – 6. The Evolution of Humans > Location 3985
Steven Mithen has proposed that a number of once discrete brain modules, some of which may have been present in the earliest hominines, merged quite suddenly—perhaps within the last hundred thousand years—in a sort of linguistic “big bang.”
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4025
The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon
Highlight (green) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4033
Two factors stand out: the volume and variety of the information being pooled, and the efficiency and speed with which information is shared.
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4257
In a deliberately provocative essay published in 1972, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins describes the world of the Stone Age as “the original affluent society.”
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4323
In his simple but influential model of social structures, Eric Wolf has suggested that “kin-ordered” societies constitute a major type of human community, one that survives in many different forms even in the modern world.26
Highlight (green) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4364
Australian archaeologist Rhys Jones referred to such techniques as “fire stick farming.”39 Fire stick “farmers” deliberately set fire to bushland in regular cycles. In part, their aim was to prevent buildups of combustible material that could lead to hotter and more dangerous fires. But by clearing away underbrush, fire stick farming also encouraged the growth of new plants that, in turn, attracted browsers that could be hunted. Recent research suggests that such techniques may have been used as early as 45,000 years ago.40
Highlight (yellow) – 7. The Beginnings of Human History > Location 4486
Part IV: The Holocene: Few Worlds
All of recorded human history has taken place within the Holocene interglacial.
Highlight (yellow) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 4768
Highlight (orange) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 4860
Highlight (orange) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 4969
The Trap of Sedentism
Highlight (yellow) – 8. Intensification and the Origins of Agriculture > Location 5240
In fact, most of human history (chronologically speaking) has taken place in communities quite innocent of state power. Even in the villages of the early agrarian era, for most people, most of the time, the important relationships were personal, local, and fairly egalitarian. Most households were self-sufficient, and people dealt with each other as people rather than as the representatives of institutions.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5442
But exploitation, like symbiosis, is never simple or unambiguous. Like predation in the nonhuman world, it can take more or less brutal forms. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan observe, “In the long run, the most vicious predators, like the most dread disease-causing microbes, bring about their own ruin by killing their victims. Restrained predation—the attack that doesn’t quite kill or does kill only slowly—is a recurring theme in evolution.”
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5525
irrigation could raise agricultural productivity decisively, which is why irrigation has been one of the most revolutionary of all technological innovations.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5674
But population growth itself counts as a form of intensification, for in the era before fossil fuels, the energy resources available to human societies came mostly from human or animal muscle power.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5702
Inequality is what all top-down theories of state formation predict.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5730
as the sociologist Émile Durkheim first suggested, our thinking about the way the universe works often mirrors the way our own societies work.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5756
But most were used as sources of stored energy for their owners: where human labor power was as important a source of energy as oil is today, controlling energy meant controlling people. To make slaves more amenable to control, they were often separated at birth from their families. And, like domestic animals, many were deliberately kept in a state of infantile dependence that inflicted a sort of psychic amputation on them—they remained like children, and their helplessness made them easier to control. Both animal and human slaves could be controlled best if kept economically and psychically dependent on their owners.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 5797
Highlight (orange) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6004
Outside the cities, they usually had little authority over the more localized forms of violence used to collect taxes, prosecute offenders or deal with banditry, or right local injustices. These powers were exercised by local elites or kinship groups. For most individuals, the righting of wrongs remained the duty of the household or kin group, which might seek the support of local patrons or officials.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6032
Sounds like modern day Muslim middle eastern practice now…
Wolf calls “tributes.” This is justification for regarding societies with states as an entirely new type of social structure. Wolf treats the emergence of what he calls “tribute-taking” societies as a major transformation in the lifeways and the organization of human societies.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6127
They include the emergence of dense populations, which generated a complex division of labor that posed new organizational problems, led to increased need for conflict resolution and to more frequent warfare, and encouraged the building of large monumental buildings as well as the creation of some form of writing.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6136
The demographic dynamism introduced into human history by agriculture ensured that sooner or later, humans, like termites, would face the novel challenge of living in dense communities of their own species. For all the local differences, the solutions humans found in different parts of the world turned out to be remarkably similar to each other—and also strikingly similar to those found by termites and other social insects.
Highlight (yellow) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6173
Marvin Harris’s classic essay, “The Origin of Pristine States” (1978).
Highlight (green) – 9. From Power over Nature to Power over People: Cities, States, and “Civilizations” > Location 6190
we can think of four main types of societies in this era: three—foragers, independent farmers, and pastoralists—lack states; one—agrarian civilizations—has states.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6226
World historians have become increasingly sensitive to the importance of large systems of interaction, and have often analyzed them using the notion of world-systems. Immanuel Wallerstein, the originator of such theories, argued that particularly in the modern era, it was necessary to analyze not just particular nations or civilizations, but rather the larger networks of power and commerce in which they were entangled, because these networks explained features that could not be explained solely from the internal history of particular regions. Wallerstein called these networks “world-systems,” even though they did not literally embrace the entire world, on the grounds that in many regards they functioned as separate worlds.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6354
Centers of gravity gave structure and shape to large networks of exchange, while hub regions were more lightweight and were more easily transformed by the exchanges that swept through them. So it was often in hub regions that significant innovations first became important because here was where they could have the greatest impact, while the mass and momentum of centers of gravity ensured that those regions normally changed more slowly.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6421
During the reign of Sargon of Akkad (who ruled from ca. 2350 BCE for ca. 50 years), we have the first evidence for a new stage in state formation: the appearance of a state controlling several different city-states and their hinterlands.14
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6475
Highlight (orange) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6644
Rein Taagepera has tried to measure the areas ruled by “imperial systems” of Afro-Eurasia at different dates.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6694
three other factors shaped the pace and nature of innovation in this period: population growth, the expanding activity of states, and increasing commercialization and urbanization.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6721
Scale as a Source of Innovation
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6728
“the respiration of a social structure.”
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6868
One reason for their immense influence was the overwhelming importance of the agrarian sector. Where most forms of production relied on organic materials and energy sources, agricultural output set limits to the production not just of foodstuffs but also of clothing, housing, energy, productive implements, and even parchment and paper.33 Because agriculture was the main motor of economic growth in the agrarian era, rates of innovation in agriculture dominated medium-term economic, political, and even cultural cycles.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6869
States as Sources of Accumulation
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 6998
The most stable states and the wisest rulers protected the productive base of their societies by taxing lightly, maintaining basic infrastructure, upholding law and order, and encouraging growth in rural populations and agricultural output.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7063
Thus, an eleventh-century CE Muslim prince from Tabaristan wrote in a book for his son, “Make it your constant endeavor to improve cultivation and to govern well; for understand this truth: the kingdom can be held by the army, and the army by gold; and gold is acquired through agricultural development and agricultural development through justice and equity. Therefore be just and equitable.”50
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7068
Powerful states spent freely on large prestige projects, including cities such as the Achaemenid capital, Persepolis. Such projects were designed to overawe subjects and rivals, but they also provided employment and attracted merchants and artisans.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7086
In Muscovite history, the reign of Ivan the Terrible offers a horrifying example of the dangers of excessive predation.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7113
First, elites in tribute-taking societies had to be specialists in coercion and management rather than in production.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7118
Stable and long-lived polities such as that of China thrived in part because they were rich enough and durable enough to maintain predictable and relatively light levels of taxation, which gave peasants a greater stake in productivity-raising innovations.57
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7153
as Joel Mokyr has argued, technological innovation is unlikely to happen quickly where those who work lack wealth, education, and prestige, and those who are wealthy, educated, and have prestige know nothing about productive work.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7157
Exchange, Commerce, and Urbanization
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7165
Thus urbanization itself dampened population growth, and it did so most decisively when cities grew fastest.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7289
Though tributary states normally tolerated and sometimes encouraged commerce, their predatory methods and willingness to resort to force were ever-present threats to the freedoms needed for trade to flourish. There was therefore a fundamental long-term conflict between the methods of tribute takers and those of merchants; and as long as tributary elites dominated political systems, this conflict limited the productivity-raising potential of commercial activity.
Highlight (yellow) – 10. Long Trends in the Era of Agrarian “Civilizations” > Location 7293
Part V: The Modern Era: One World
Scythians north of the Black Sea more than 2,000 years ago:
But though they are on the whole less violent, personal relations in modern urban communities also lack the intimacy and continuity of those in most traditional societies. Increasingly, they are casual, anonymous, and fleeting. These changes may help explain the loss of a clear sense of values and meaning in modern lives, a subtle and disorienting alteration in the quality of modern life that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to in the late nineteenth century as “anomie.”
The German sociologist Norbert Elias has argued that these changes have reached deep within our psyches, as modern forms of work and time discipline, enforced through the market, have shaped behavior in interpersonal relations, table manners, and attitudes toward sexuality. He has shown how the “emotional economy” typical in the modern world arises out of a relaxation of external restraints combined with an intensification of internal restraints: “The compulsions arising directly from the threat of weapons and physical force gradually diminish, and . . . those forms of dependency which lead to the regulation of the affects [feelings or emotions] in the form of self-control, gradually increase.”
As Daniel Headrick writes: “Knowledge is both cause and effect of economic growth, and the information industry has been the primary cause of the acceleration of technological change in the past 200 years.”
the very nature of most premodern states suggests that as a general rule, in agrarian civilizations tribute-taking generated more wealth and certainly more power than commercial exchanges. This differential helps us understand what might at first appear puzzling: though commercial networks are as old as agrarian civilization, their impact on rates of innovation has been limited until the past two or three centuries. Why, then, did commercial exchanges suddenly become so much more significant in the modern era? Did they reach some critical threshold?
And what then is the next threshold? For think of what the Internet is doing to the entertainment industry and their reticence to go along with it.
Speaking generally, it is the steepness of this gradient of wealth that accounts for capitalism’s remarkable dynamism, just as the large temperature gradient between the Sun and the space surrounding it drives complex processes on Earth.
is the steepness of the gradient that drives wealth so efficiently through capitalist societies and that helps explain why, paradoxically, modern states have to be so much larger and more complex than the states of the tributary world.
So the onus is on the workers to ensure that their labor is productive enough to find a buyer. In this way, the economic lash can stimulate genuine, even creative, self-discipline, whereas the overseer’s whip can generate no more than grudging conformity.
Well-to-do merchants accumulate goods and redouble their profits, while the less well-to-do sit in their shops and sell. They control the markets and daily enjoy their ease in the cities. They take advantage of the pressing needs of the government to sell at twice the normal price. Their sons do not plough or hoe. Their daughters do not raise silkworms or weave. They have fancy clothing and stuff themselves on millet and meat. They earn fortunes while suffering none of the hardships which the farmers suffer. Their wealth enables them to hobnob with princes and marquises, and to dispose of greater power than the officials.29
This quote about 2nd century BCE China sounds a lot like modern day China.
this process was completed by 1279 after the conquest of South China by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. After reunification, two of the three conditions encouraging states to support commercialization (small size and intense rivalries) vanished, and the third (easy access to rich trading systems) lasted only slightly longer.
wealth. The mercantilist policies of European states in the seventeenth century—such as the Navigation Acts of the English commonwealth, which protected British commerce within British colonies—are good examples of new government attitudes toward commerce and the actions that these changes encouraged. Also illustrating this trend is the proliferation throughout Europe of patent laws, which were pioneered in Venice in the fifteenth century. Governments also began to promote innovation through the founding of scientific societies or the offering of prizes.
Over time, commercialization transformed traditional tributary elites. Such transformation was most likely to occur when demands on elite incomes rose sharply in environments where commercial revenues were available for the taking. The English wool trade offers a classic example, for it tempted landowners to clear the land of tenants and replace them with sheep, particularly in the sixteenth century, when new land became available as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries.
the invention in France of the Jacquard loom, which pioneered the use of digital coding as a form of mechanical control (1801);
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 8951
As early as 1837, the French revolutionary Blanqui used the term industrial revolution
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 8956
For most rural dwellers, these changes were catastrophic.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9024
This is now what is happening in most of the rest of the world now.
The appearance of societies in which most people depended entirely on markets for their subsistence was a new phenomenon, and it gave a tremendous stimulus to commercial production of goods of mass consumption.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9097
The idea that atmospheric pressure was a potential source of mechanical power had a history going back at least to the sixteenth century, and it may have been familiar in China as well as in Europe.23
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9126
In 1718, a new owner, Thomas Lombe, in an early example of planned industrial espionage, stole techniques already in use in Italy to set up an improved factory.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9137
Richard Arkwright’s water frame, James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny, and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule, a modification of the jenny.24
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9140
Karl Polanyi argues in a classic study of modernity,
Highlight (green) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9336
Where literacy spread, knowledge became more abstract and less personal, and abstract knowledge began to acquire an authority quite independent from the prestige of particular teachers.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9375
In the nineteenth century, beginning in Germany, science itself began to be incorporated into entrepreneurial activity as companies set up laboratories specifically to raise productivity and profits. By the late nineteenth century, scientific research was taking a leading role in processes of innovation that might have simply petered out if they had continued to rely on the technical and practical skills of individual entrepreneurs and artisans.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9389
Think about how this is done now and how much of it is done by universities instead of by industry. Where is his innovation happening in the future?
The modern world is ruled by larger and more impersonal forces, from faceless bureaucracies to abstractions such as “inflation,” or “the rule of law.” Where abstract forces take over the work of coercion from the landlord, the executioner, and the overseer, it is not surprising that there should emerge cosmologies ruled by equally abstract forces.
Highlight (yellow) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9395
Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches (1990),
Highlight (green) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9532
Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (rev. ed., 1992), is good on some of the political changes associated with the Industrial Revolution.
Highlight (green) – 13. Birth of the Modern World > Location 9533
During the “great depression” of the 1870s, it became apparent for the first time that economic growth could falter because of overproduction as well as underproduction.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 9700
Over the following decades, it became clear that in a world of steadily increasing productivity, the problem of finding (or creating) markets would shape the rhythms of economic activity much as the problem of insufficient productivity had done in the agrarian era. As a result, the modern era is dominated by cycles of activity with a different (normally a shorter) periodicity, which we know as business cycles.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 9702
Indeed, lifestyles have changed so greatly that they may be exerting a significant evolutionary impact on human bodies.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 9715
The tensions and dislocations of the hurricane of change affecting the entire globe will ensure that conflict remains endemic, and modern weaponry will ensure that local conflicts continue to cause great suffering.
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 10017
Lester Brown argues that “while the Agricultural Revolution transformed the earth’s surface, the Industrial Revolution is transforming the earth’s atmosphere.”
Highlight (yellow) – 14. The Great Acceleration of the Twentieth Century > Location 10049
Part VI: Perspectives On The Future
“With chaos, it is sensitivity to initial conditions that makes the dynamics unpredictable. With emergent properties, it is the general inability of observers to predict the behavior of nonlinear systems from an understanding of their parts and interactions.”
Highlight (yellow) – 15. Futures > Location 10163
it is better than doing nothing at all, just as studying the form at a racetrack is better than tossing a coin. In the long run, you will end up with more money if you study the form.
Highlight (yellow) – 15. Futures > Location 10245
the space technologies envisioned by the Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, which enabled the first human to leave Earth on 12 April 1961 and the first human to land on another heavenly body on 21 July 1969,
Highlight (yellow) – 15. Futures > Location 10468
Appendix 2: Chaos and Order
But the patterns we detect are really there, and their existence is one of the great puzzles of the universe. Why is there order of any kind? And what rules allow the creation and evolution of ordered structures?
Highlight (yellow) – Location 10964
On Earth, the temperature differential between our sun and surrounding space provides the free energy needed to create most forms of complexity, including ourselves; energies created early in the history of our solar system drive the internal heat battery of Earth, which drives plate tectonics. These differentials enable energy to flow, and energy flows make patterns possible. And given enough time, the mere possibility of pattern makes it likely that patterns of many different kinds will eventually appear.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11024
After the first problem—explaining how order of any kind is possible—is addressed, the second problem remains. How did complex entities emerge, and, once they had emerged, how did they sustain themselves long enough to be noticed by us (or to be us)?
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11037
Paradoxically, the tendency toward increasing entropy—the drive toward disorder—may itself be the engine that creates order.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11039
The drive toward disorder seems to create new forms of order, just as the energy of falling water can cause droplets of water to splash upward, or a river’s current can create eddies in which small amounts of water flow against the main current.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11044
Roughly speaking, the more complex a phenomenon is, the denser the energy flows it must juggle and the more likely it is to break down. So we should expect that as entities become more complex, they become less stable, shorter-lived, and rarer. Perhaps even a slight increase in complexity can sharply increase their fragility and, therefore, their scarcity.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11064
What we can do is to describe some of the ways in which complex structures emerge. The fundamental rule seems to be that complexity normally emerges step by step, linking already existing patterns into larger and more complex patterns at different scales.
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11072
new rules of construction and change seem to come into play. These are known as emergent properties,
Highlight (yellow) – Location 11076
“Leibig’s Law of the Minimum . . . states that populations will be limited by critical resources (e.g., water) that are in shortest supply” (Allen W. Johnson and Timothy Earle, The Evolution of Human Societies, 2nd ed. [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000], pp. 14–15).
Highlight (green) – Location 11456
articles, “Immunological Time Scale for Hominid Evolution”; it was published in Science, 1 December 1967, pp. 1200–1203.
Highlight (green) – Location 11492
There is a good short survey of theories of growth in J. L. Anderson, Explaining Long-Term Economic Change (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991); and see the survey in Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, chap. 7 (“Understanding Technological Progress”).
Highlight (green) – Location 12288
Guide to highlight colors
Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word Green–Reference to read Blue–Interesting Quote Gray–Typography Problem Red–Example to work through
Editor’s Note: Data relating to reading progress was added to this post on 10/21/16. Data relating to highlights, quotes, and marginalia added on 10/23/16.
Enterprising students are either looking online for what those fall textbooks will be, or contacting their professors for booklists so they can begin pre-reading material. Here's some general advice for choosing the right textbook for your educational goals.
We’re just past mid-summer. This means that most professors have just put in their book orders with bookstores for their fall courses if they haven’t already done so months ago. Enterprising students are either looking online for what those fall textbooks will be, or contacting their professors for booklists so they can begin pre-reading material.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog recently published an article by Erin Templeton entitled “Read Ahead to Get Ahead? Not so Fast” in which she stated a philosophy in which reading ahead might not be such a good idea. I certainly understand the point of view of withholding a reading list for the reasons mentioned particularly for fiction classes, though I would personally tend to use her spectacular advice given in the last paragraph. Unfortunately, for the broader topic of textbooks, I think it’s disingenuous to take such a narrow view as fiction (and similar) classes are a small segment of the market. If nothing, the headline certainly makes for excellent link-bait as the blogosphere would define it.
From the broader perspective, it is generally a good idea to get copies of the reading list early and get a jump start on the material. But more than this, there is actually a better way of approaching the idea of textbooks, particularly for the dedicated student.
It’s more than once been my experience that the professor chooses the worst text available for a particular course – perhaps because she doesn’t care, because it was the cheapest, because she liked the textbook salesperson, because it’s the “standard” text used by everyone in the field despite its obvious flaws, because it’s the legacy text prescribed by the department, because it’s the text she used in graduate school, because she wrote it, or simply because the deadline for ordering for the bookstore was looming and wanted the task out of the way. Maybe she actually put in a great deal of work and research choosing the book six years ago but hasn’t compared any texts since then and there are two new books on the market and her previous second choice has been significantly updated and all of them may be better choices now.
Historically, it used to be the case that the first job the student faced was to do some research to choose their own textbook! Sadly — especially as most courses have dozens of excellent potential texts available for use — this concept has long since disappeared. How can this travesty be remedied?
The first step is realizing that when the course guide says that a book is “required” it really means that it’s recommended. Occasionally, for some courses or in-class work (think literature classes where everyone is reading the same text because absolutely no alternates are available), actually having the required text may be very beneficial, but more often than not, not having the particular text really isn’t a big issue. One can always borrow a classmate’s text for a moment or consult a copy from a local library or from the library reserves as most colleges put their required textbooks aside for just such a use.
When taking a course myself, I’ll visit the library, local bookstores, and even browse online and pull every text I can get my hands on as well as some supplemental texts about a particular topic. I’ll cull through recommended reading lists for similar courses at other universities. Then I’ll spend a day or two browsing through them to judge their general level of sophistication, the soundness of their didactic presentation, the amount of information they contain, what other texts they cite, are there excessive typos, are they well edited, do the graphs, charts, or diagrams assist in learning, find out if the third edition is really better than the second to justify the eighty dollar price differential, and a variety of other criteria depending on the text, the class, and the level of difficulty. In short, I do what I would hope any other professor would do herself, as one can’t always trust that they’ve done their own homework.
Naturally I’m not able to do this research from the same perspective as the professor, and this is something that I take into account when choosing my own textbook. More often than not many professors are thrilled to engage in a discussion about the available textbooks and what they like and dislike about each and which alternates might be more suitable for individual students depending on what they hope to get out of the class. But doing this research certainly gives me a much broader perspective on what I’m about to learn: what are the general topics? what are the differing perspectives? what do alternate presentations look like? what might I be missing? how do the tables of contents differ? how has the level of the material progressed in the past decade or the last century? Finally I choose my own textbook for personal learning throughout the semester. I may occasionally supplement it with those I’ve researched or the one recommended (aka “required”) by the professor or may read library reserve copies or take the requisite homework problems/questions from them. I find that in doing this type of research greatly enhances what I’m about to learn and is far more useful than simply taking the required text and bargain hunting for the best price among five online retailers. In fact, one might argue that forcing students to choose their own textbooks will not only help draw them into the topic, but it will also tend to enhance their ability to think, rationalize, and make better decisions not only as it relates to the coursework at hand but later on in life itself.
Often textbooks will cover things from drastically different perspectives. As a simple example, let’s take the topic of statistics. There are dozens of broad-based statistics texts which try to be everything for everybody, but what if, as a student, I know I’m more interested in a directed area of application for my statistics study? I could easily find several textbooks geared specifically towards biology, economics, business, electrical engineering and even psychology. Even within the subcategory of electrical engineering there are probability and statistics books aimed at the beginner, the more advanced student, and even texts which are geared very specifically toward the budding information theorist. Perhaps as a student I might be better off using texts from writers like Pfeiffer, Leon-Garcia, or one of Renyi’s textbooks instead of a more broadly based engineering text like that of Walpole, Myers, Myers, and Ye? And even in this very small subsection of four books there is a fairly broad group of presentations made.
I think it’s entirely likely that a student studying a given topic will be much better motivated if she’s better engaged by the range of applications and subtopics which appeal more to her interests and future studies than being forced into using one of the more generic textbooks which try to cover 20 different applications. Naturally I’ll agree that having exposure to these other topics can be useful within the context of a broader liberal arts setting, but won’t the student who’s compared 20 different textbooks have naturally absorbed some of this in the process or get it from the professors lectures on the subject?
For the student, doing this type of choose-your-own-textbook research also has the lovely side effect of showing them where they stand in a particular subject. If they need remedial help, they’re already aware of what books they can turn to. Or, alternately, if they’re bored, they can jump ahead or use an alternate and more advanced text. The enterprising student may realize that the professor requires text A, but uses text B to draw from for lectures, and text C for formulating (often read: stealing) quiz and test material. Perhaps while using an alternate text they’ll become aware of subtopics and applications to which they might not have otherwise been privy.
Finally and fortuitously, it also doesn’t take more than a few moments to realize what wonderful and profound effects that such a competitive book choosing strategy will have on the textbook industry if it were widely adopted! I’d imagine there would be a much larger amount of direct competition in the textbook market which would almost necessitate newer and better textbooks at significantly reduced prices.
If you’re a student, I hope you’ll take the time for one of your upcoming classes to try this method and select your own “required” textbook as well as one or two recommended texts. I’m sure you’ll not only be more engaged by the subject, but that you’ll find the small amount of additional work well worth the effort. If you’re a professor, I hope you might not require a particular textbook for your next course, but might rather suggest a broad handful of interesting textbooks based on your own experience and spend 15 minutes of class time discussing the texts before making the student’s first assignment to choose their own textbook (and possibly subsequently asking them why they chose it.)