What I Use: August 2015

The second in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly

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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.

Primary equipment

Mobile device

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.

Computer

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.

Operating system(s)

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.

Productivity

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.

Digital media

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.

Other applications and utilities

Feedly.com, TweetDeck, Mendeley.com, GetPocket.com – these are all still must haves, though I always wish I had more time to spend on Feedly.

Android Phone/Tablet apps

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.

Home technology

Television

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.

Set-top boxes

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.

Kitchen

  • 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
  • Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
  • #ff0000;">Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
  • Thermometers:  Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer.

Free-form Broad Questions

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?

What I useFor 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?

My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading.  I’ve also had some great experiences with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.

For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.

I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.

What do you listen to while you work?

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.

My specific active reading list right now includes:

And I’m currently listening to:

What are you currently watching on television?

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.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Book Review of Dominic O’Brien’s “Quantum Memory Power”

Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O'Brien
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien

I’ve read many of the biggest memory related books over the past three decades and certainly have my favorites among them.  I’ve long heard that Dominic O’Brien’s Quantum Memory Power: Learn to Improve Your Memory with the World Memory Champion! audiobook was fairly good, and decided that I’d finally take a peek having known for a while about O’Brien and his eponymous Dominic System.

General Methods

Overall, I was fairly impressed with his layout and positive teaching style, though I don’t particularly need some of the treacly motivation that he provided and which is primarily aimed at the complete novice.  While I appreciate that for some, hearing this material may be the most beneficial, I would have preferred to have some of it presented visually.  In general, I wouldn’t recommend this as a something to listen to on a commute as he frequently admonishes against doing some of the exercises he outlines while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Given the prevalence of and growth of memory systems from the mid-20th century onwards, I personally find it difficult to believe all of his personal story about “rediscovering” many of the memory methods he outlines, or at least to the extent to which he tempts the reader to believe.

Differences from Other Systems

Based on past experience, I really appreciate his methods for better remembering names with faces as his conceptualizations for doing this seemed better to me than the methods outlined by Bruno Furst. I do however, much prefer the major mnemonic system’s method for numbers over the Dominic system for it’s more logical and complete conversion of consonant sounds for most languages. The links between the letters and numbers in the major system are also much easier to remember and don’t require as much work to remember them.  I also appreciate the major system for its deeper historical roots as well as for its precise overlap with the Gregg Shorthand method. The poorer structure of the Dominic system is the only evidence I can find to indicate that he seems to have separately re-discovered some of his memory methods.

I appreciated that most of his focus was on practical tasks like to do lists, personal appointments, names and faces, but wish he’d spent some additional time walking through general knowledge examples like he did for the list of the world’s oceans and seas.

While I appreciated his outlining the ability to calculate what day of the week any particular date falls on (something that most memory books don’t touch upon), he failed to completely specify the entire method. He also used a somewhat non-standard method for coding both the days of the week and the months of the year, though mathematically all of these systems are equivalent.  I did appreciate his trying to encode a set up for individual years, which will certainly help many cut down on the mental mathematics, particularly as it relates to the dread many have for long division.  Unfortunately, he didn’t go far enough and  this is where he also failed to finish supplying the full details for all of the special cases for the years.  He also failed to mention the discontinuities with the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar making his method more historically universal. For those interested, Wikipedia outlines some of the more familiar mathematical methods for determining the day of the week that a particular date would fall on.

Instead of having spent the time outlining the calendar, which is inherently difficult to do in audio format compared to printed format, he may have been better off having spent the time going into more depth memorizing poetry or prose as an extension of his small aside on memorizing quotes and presenting speeches.

I could have done without the bulk of the final disk which comprised mostly of tests for the material previously presented. The complete beginner may get more out of these exercises however.  The final portion of the disk was more interesting as he did provide some philosophy on how memory systems engage both lobes of the brain within the right-brained/left-brained conceptualizations from neuropsychology.

While O’Brien doesn’t completely draw out his entire system, to many this may be a strong benefit as it forces individuals to create their own system within his framework. This is bound to help many to create stronger personalized links between their numbers and their images. The drawback the beginner may find for this is that they may find themselves ever tinkering with their own customized system, or even more likely rebuilding things from scratch when they discover the list of online resources from others that rely on people having a more standardized system.

O’Brien also provides more emphasis on creativity and visualization than some books, which will be very beneficial to many beginners.

Overall, while I’d generally recommend this to the average mnemonist, I’d recommend they approach it after having delved in a bit and learned the major system from somewhere else.

Git and Version Control for Novelists, Screenwriters, Academics, and the General Public

Marginalia and Revision Control

At the end of April, I read an article entitled “In the Margins” in the Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences magazine.  I was particularly struck by the comments of eminent scholar Jacques Neefs on page thirteen (or paragraph 20) about computers making marginalia a thing of the past:

Neefs believes contemporary literature is losing a valuable component in an age when technology often precludes and trumps the need to save manuscripts or rough drafts. But it is not something that keeps him up at night. ‘The modern technique of computers and everything makes [marginalia] a thing of the past,’ he says. ‘There’s a new way of creation. Some would say it’s tragic, but something new has been invented. I don’t consider it tragic. There are still great writers who write and continue to have a way to keep the process.’

Photo looking over the shoulder of Jacques Neefs onto the paper he's been studing on the table in front of him.
Jacques Neefs (Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

I actually think that he may be completely wrong and that current technology actually allows us to keep far more marginalia! (Has anyone heard of digital exhaust?) The bigger issue may be that many writers just don’t know how to keep a better running log of their work to maintain all the relevant marginalia they’re actually producing. (Of course there’s also the subsequent broader librarian’s “digital dilemma” of maintaining formats for the future. As an example, thing about how easy or hard it might be for you to read that ubiquitous 3.5 inch floppy disk you used in 1995.)

A a technologist who has spent many years in the entertainment industry, I feel compelled to point everyone towards the concept of revision control (or version control) within the realm of computer science.  Though it’s primarily used in tracking changes in computer programs and is often a tool used by large teams of programmers, it can very easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation of nearly any sort.

Example Use Cases for Revision Control

Publishing

As a direct example, I’m using what is known as a Git repository to track every change I make in a textbook I’m currently writing.  I can literally go back and view every change I’ve made since beginning the project, so though I’m directly revising one (or more) text files, all of my “marginalia” and revisions are saved and available.  Currently I’m only doing it for my own reference and for additional backup not supposing that anyone other than myself or an editor possibly may want to ever peruse it.  If I was working in conjunction with otheres, there are ways for me to track the changes, edits, or notes that others (perhaps an editor or collaborator) might make.

In addition to the general back-up of the project (in case of catastrophic computer failure), I also have the ability to go back and find that paragraph (or multiple pages) I deleted last week in haste, but realize that I desperately want them back now instead of having to recreate them de n0vo.

Because it’s all digital, future scholars also won’t have problems parsing my handwriting issues as has occasionally come up in differentiating Mary Shelley’s writing from that of her husband in digital projects like the Shelley Godwin Archive. The fact that all changes are tracked and placed in a tree-like structure will indicate who wrote what and when and will indicate which changes were ultimately accepted and merged into the final version.

Screenplays in Hollywood

One particular use case I can easily see for such technology is tracking changes in screenplays over time.  I’m honestly shocked that every production company or even more likely studios don’t use such technology to follow changes in drafts over time. In the end, doing such tracking will certainly make Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitrations much easier as literally every contribution to a script can be tracked to give screenwriters appropriate credit. The end results with the easy ability to time-machine one’s way back into older drafts is truly lovely, and the outputs give so much more information about changes in the script compared to the traditional and all-too-simple (*) which screenwriters use to indicate that something/anything changed on a specific line or the different colored pages which are used on scripts during production.

I can also picture future screenwriters using services like GitHub as platforms for storing and distributing their screenplays to potential agents, managers, and producers.

Redlining Legal Documents

Having seen thousands of legal agreements go back and forth over the years, revision control is a natural tool for tracking the redlining and changes of legal documents as they change over time before they are finally (or even never) executed. I have to imagine that being able to abstract out the appropriate metadata in the long run may actually help attorneys, agents, etc. to become better negotiators, but something like this is a project for another day.

Academia

In addition to direct research for projects being undertaken by academics like Neefs, academics should look into using revision control in their own daily work and writings.  While writing a book, paper, journal article, essay, monograph, etc. (or graduate students writing theses) one could use their own Git repository to not only save but to back up all of their own work not only for themselves primarily, but also future scholars who come later who would not otherwise have access to the “marginalia” one creates while manufacturing their written thoughts in digital form.

I can easily picture Git as a very simple “next step” in furthering the concept of the digital humanities as well as in helping to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” (I’d also suggest that revision control is a relatively simple step one could take before learning a particular programming language, which I think should be a mandatory tool in everyone’s daily toolbox regardless of their field(s) of interest.)

Git Logo

Start Using Revision Control

“But how do I get started?” you ask.

Know going in that it may take parts of a day to get things set up and running, but once you’ve started with the basics, things are actually pretty easy and you can continue to learn the more advanced subtleties as you progress.  Once things are working smoothly, the additional overhead you’ll be expending won’t be too much more than the old method of hitting Alt-S to save one of your old Word documents in the time before auto-save became ubiquitous.

First one should start by choosing one of the myriad revision control systems that exist.  For the sake of brevity in this short introductory post, I’ll simply suggest that users take a very close look at Git because of its ubiquity and popularity in the computer science world and the fact that it includes a tremendously large amount of free information and support from a variety of sites on the internet. Git also has the benefit of having versions for all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux). Git also has the benefit of a relatively long and robust life within the computer science community meaning that it’s very stable and has many more resources for the uninitiated to draw upon.

Once one has Git installed on their computer and has begun using it, I’d then recommending linking one’s local copy of the repository to a cloud storage solution like either GitHub or BitBucket.  While GitHub is certainly one of the most popular Git-related services out there (because it acts, in part, as the hub for a large portion of the open internet and thus promotes sharing), I often recommend using BitBucket as it allows free unlimited private but still share-able repositories while GitHub requires a small subscription fee for keeping one’s work private. Having a repository in the cloud will help tremendously in that your work will be available and downloadable from almost anywhere and because it also serves as a de-facto back-up solution for your work.

I’ve recently been playing around with version control to help streamline the writing/editing process for a book I’ve been writing. Though Git and it’s variants probably seem more daunting than they should to the everyday user, they really represent a very powerful tool. I’ve spent less than two days learning the basics of both Git and hosted repositories (GitHub and Bitbucket), and it has been more than well worth the minor effort.

There is a huge wealth of information on revision control in general and on installing and using Git available on the internet, including full textbooks. For the complete beginners, I’d recommend starting with The Chronicle’s “A Gentle Introduction to Version Control.” Keep in mind that though some of these resources look highly technical, it’s because many are trying to enumerate every function one could potentially desire, when even just the basic core functionality is more than enough to begin with. (I could analogize it to learning to drive a car versus actually reading the full manual so that you know how to take the engine apart and put it back together from scratch. To start with revision control, you only need to learn to “drive.”) Professors might also avail themselves of the use of their local institutional libraries which may host small sessions on learning such tools, or they might avail themselves of the help of their colleagues or students in the computer science department. For others, I’d recommend taking a look at Git’s primary website. BitBucket has an excellent step-by-step tutorial (and troubleshooting) for setting up the requisite software and using it.

What do you use for revision control?

I’ll welcome any thoughts, experiences, or additional resources one might want to share with others in the comments.

The Teaching Company and The Great Courses versus MOOCs

Robert Greenberg recently wrote a Facebook post relating to a New York Times review article entitled “For This Class, Professors Pass Screen Test“. It’s substantively about The Teaching Company and their series The Great Courses (TGC); for convenience I’ll excerpt his comments in their entirety below:

A most interesting article on The Great Courses (TGC) appeared in the New York Times on Saturday. TGC has been featured in newspaper articles before: scads of articles, in fact, over the last 20-plus years. But those articles (at least the ones I’m aware of and I am aware of most of them) have always focused on the content of TGC offerings: that they are academic courses offered up on audio/video media. This article, written by the Times’ TV critic Neil Genzlinger, is different. It focuses on TGC as a video production company and on TGC courses as slick, professional, high-end television programs.

My goodness, how times have changed.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall my descriptions of TGC in its early days. I would rehash a bit of that if only to highlight the incredible evolution of the company from a startup to the polished gem it is today.

I made my first course back in May of 1993: the first edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”. We had no “set”; I worked in front of a blue screen (or a “traveling matte”). The halogen lighting created an unbelievable amount of heat and glare. The stage was only about 6 feet deep but about 20 feet wide. With my sheaf of yellow note paper clutched in my left hand, I roamed back-and-forth, in constant motion, teaching exactly the way I did in the classroom. I made no concessions to the medium; to tell the truth, it never occurred to me or my director at the time that we should do anything but reproduce what I did in the classroom. (My constant lateral movement did, however, cause great consternation among the camera people, who were accustomed to filming stationary pundits at CNN and gasbags at C-span. One of our camera-dudes, a bearded stoner who will remain nameless kept telling me “Man . . . I cannot follow you, man. Please, man, please!” He was a good guy though, and offered to “take my edge off” by lighting me up during our breaks. I wisely declined.)

We worked with a studio audience in those days: mostly retirees who were free to attend such recording sessions, many of whom fell asleep in their chairs after lunch or jingled change in their pockets or whose hearing aids started screaming sounds that they could not hear but I most certainly did. Most distracting were the white Styrofoam coffee cups; in the darkened studio their constant (if irregular) up-and-down motion reminded me of the “bouncing ball” from the musical cartoons of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

I could go on (and I will, at some other time), though the point is made: in its earliest days TGC was simply recording more-or-less what you would hear in a classroom or lecture hall. I am reminded of the early days of TV, during which pre-existing modes of entertainment – the variety show, theatrical productions, puppet shows – were simply filmed and broadcast. In its earliest permutation, the video medium did not create a new paradigm so much as record old ones. But this changed soon enough, and the same is true for TGC. Within a few years TGC became a genuine production company, in which style, look, and mode of delivery became as important as the content being delivered. And this is exactly as it should be. Audio and video media demand clarity and precision; the “ahs” and “ums” and garbled pronunciations and mismatched tenses that we tolerate in a live lecture are intolerable in media, because we are aware of the fact that in making media they can (and should) be corrected.

Enough. Read the article. Then buy another TGC course; preferably one of mine. And while watching and/or listening, let us be aware, as best as we can, of the tens-of-thousands of hours that go into making these courses – these productions – the little masterworks that they indeed are.

 

My response to his post with some thoughts of my own follows:

This is an interesting, but very germane, review. As someone who’s both worked in the entertainment industry and followed the MOOC (massively open online courseware) revolution over the past decade, I very often consider the physical production value of TGCs offerings and have been generally pleased at their steady improvement over time. Not only do they offer some generally excellent content, but they’re entertaining and pleasing to watch. From a multimedia perspective, I’m always amazed at what they offer and that generally the difference between the video versus the audio only versions isn’t as drastic as one might otherwise expect. Though there are times that I think that TGC might include some additional graphics, maps, etc. either in the course itself or in the booklets, I’m impressed that they still function exceptionally well without them.

Within the MOOC revolution, Sue Alcott’s Coursera course Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets is still by far the best produced multi-media course I’ve come across. It’s going to take a lot of serious effort for other courses to come up to this level of production however. It’s one of the few courses which I think rivals that of The Teaching Company’s offerings thus far. Unfortunately, the increased competition in the MOOC space is going to eventually encroach on the business model of TGC, and I’m curious to see how that will evolve and how it will benefit students. Will TGC be forced to offer online fora for students to interact with each other the way most MOOCs do? Will MOOCs be forced to drastically increase their production quality to the level of TGC? Will certificates or diplomas be offered for courseware? Will the subsequent models be free (like most MOOCs now), paid like TGC, or some mixture of the two?

One area which neither platform seems to be doing very well at present is offering more advanced coursework. Naturally the primary difficulty is in having enough audience to justify the production effort. The audience for a graduate level topology class is simply far smaller than introductory courses in history or music appreciation, but those types of courses will eventually have to exist to make the enterprises sustainable – in addition to the fact that they add real value to society. Another difficulty is that advanced coursework usually requires some significant work outside of the lecture environment – readings, homework, etc. MOOCs seem to have a slight upper hand here while TGC has generally relied on all of the significant material being offered in a lecture with the suggestion of reading their accompanying booklets and possibly offering supplementary bibliographies. When are we going to start seeing course work at the upper-level undergraduate or graduate level?

The nice part is that with evolving technology and capabilities, there are potentially new pedagogic methods that will allow easier teaching of some material that may not have been possible previously. (For some brief examples, see this post I wrote last week on Latin and the digital humanities.) In particular, I’m sure many of us have been astounded and pleased at how Dr. Greenberg managed the supreme gymnastics of offering of “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music” without delving into traditional music theory and written notation, but will he be able to actually offer that in new and exciting ways to increase our levels of understanding of music and then spawn off another 618 lectures that take us all further and deeper into his exciting world? Perhaps it comes in the form of a multimedia mobile app? We’re all waiting with bated breath, because regardless of how he pulls it off, we know it’s going to be educational, entertaining and truly awe inspiring.

Following my commentary, Scott Ableman, the Chief Marketing Officer for TGC, responded with the following, which I find very interesting:

Chris, all excellent observations (and I agree re Alcott’s course). I hope you’ll be please to learn that the impact of MOOCs, if any, on The Great Courses has been positive, in that there is a rapidly growing awareness and interest in the notion that lifelong learning is possible via digital media. As for differentiating vs. MOOCs, people who know about The Great Courses generally find the differences to be self-evident:

  1. Curation: TGC scours the globe to find the world’s greatest professors;
  2. Formats: The ability to enjoy a course in your car or at home on your TV or on your smartphone, etc.;
  3. Lack of pressure: Having no set schedule and doing things at your own pace with no homework or exams (to be sure, there are some for whom sitting at a keyboard at a scheduled time and taking tests and getting a certificate is quite valuable, but that’s a different audience).

The Great Courses once were the sole claimant to a fourth differentiator, which is depth. Obviously, the proliferation of fairly narrow MOOCs provides as much depth on many topics, and in some cases addresses your desire for higher level courses. Still TGC offers significant depth when compared to the alternatives on TV or audio books. I must say that I was disappointed that Genzlinger chose to focus on this notion that professors these days “don’t know how to lecture.” He suggests that TGC is in the business of teaching bad lecturers how to look good in front of a camera. This of course couldn’t be further from the truth. Anybody familiar with The Great Course knows that among its greatest strengths is its academic recruiting team, which finds professors like Robert Greenberg and introduces them to lifelong learners around the world.

 

Brief Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen Greenblatt provides an interesting synthesis of history and philosophy. Greenblatt’s love of the humanities certainly shines through. This stands as an almost over-exciting commercial for not only reading Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), but in motivating the reader to actually go out to learn Latin to appreciate it properly.

I would have loved more direct analysis and evidence of the immediate impact of Lucretius in the 1400’s as well as a longer in-depth analysis of the continuing impact through the 1700’s.

The first half of the book is excellent at painting a vivid portrait of the life and times of Poggio Bracciolini which one doesn’t commonly encounter. I’m almost reminded of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, though Greenblatt has far more historical material with which to paint the picture. I may also be biased that I’m more interested in the mechanics of the scholarship of the resurgence of the classics in the Renaissance than I was of that particular political portion of the first century BCE. Though my background on the history of the time periods involved is reasonably advanced, I fear that Greenblatt may be leaving out a tad too much for the broader reading public who may not be so well versed. The fact that he does bring so many clear specifics to the forefront may more than compensate for this however.

In some interesting respects, this could be considered the humanities counterpart to the more science-centric story of Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Though Simon Winchester is still by far my favorite nonfiction writer, Greenblatt does an exceedingly good job of narrating what isn’t necessarily a very linear story.

Greenblatt includes lots of interesting tidbits and some great history. I wish it had continued on longer… I’d love to have the spare time to lose myself in the extensive bibliography. Though the footnotes, bibliography, and index account for about 40% of the book, the average reader should take a reasonable look at the quarter or so of the footnotes which add some interesting additional background an subtleties to the text as well as to some of the translations that are discussed therein.

I am definitely very interested in the science behind textual preservation which is presented as the underlying motivation for the action in this book. I wish that Greenblatt had covered some of these aspects in the same vivid detail he exhibited for other portions of the story. Perhaps summarizing some more of the relevant scholarship involved in transmitting and restoring old texts as presented in Bart Ehrman and Bruce Metzter’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration would have been a welcome addition given the audience of the book. It might also have presented a more nuanced picture of the character of the Church and their predicament presented in the text as well.

Though I only caught one small reference to modern day politics (a prison statistic for America which was obscured in a footnote), I find myself wishing that Greenblatt had spent at least a few paragraphs or even a short chapter drawing direct parallels to our present-day political landscape. I understand why he didn’t broach the subject as it would tend to date an otherwise timeless feeling text and generally serve to dissuade a portion of his readership and in particular, the portion which most needs to read such a book. I can certainly see a strong need for having another short burst of popularity for “On the Nature of Things” to assist with the anti-science and overly pro-religion climate we’re facing in American politics.

For those interested in the topic, I might suggest that this text has some flavor of Big History in its DNA. It covers not only a fairly significant chunk of recorded human history, but has some broader influential philosophical themes that underlie a potential change in the direction of history which we’ve been living for the past 300 years. There’s also an intriguing overlap of multidisciplinary studies going on in terms of the history, science, philosophy, and technology involved in the multiple time periods discussed.

This review was originally posted on GoodReads.com on 7/8/2014. View all my reviews

Speed Reading on Web and Mobile

“Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a Read-aholic.”

I

‘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.”

Information Consumption

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 called Spritz which 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.

 

A photo of how Spritz works for speed reading on the web.
Spritz for speed reading the web.

 

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.

As a sample of how Spritz works on the web, OysterBooks is hosting a Spritz-able version of Stephen R. Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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.

A picture of the Spritz RSVP reading interface featuring the word Boffosocko.
How to read Boffosocko faster than you though you could…

 

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)?

What I Use: April 2014

The first in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly

Friends, 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.

 

Primary equipment

Mobile device

Samsung Galaxy S III

Computer

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431; I’m enamored of the fact that the operating system lives on a small internal SSD for incredibly fast boot times.

Operating system(s)

I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC.  I 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.

Productivity

I haven’t found a reason to really upgrade from the Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business suite of tools including Word, Excel, and Outlook, which I use on a regular basis, but  I’ve seriously been considering getting Office 365 Home Premium. For the bulk of my writing though, I usually 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. Lately I’ve also been working at rolling git version control into the mixture with Bitbucket. I use a variety of online storage solutions in addition to Google Drive and SkyDrive Pro, but my primary account is on Dropbox which does an excellent job of syncing files across platforms as well as sharing document with others. I generally use it by way of their Windows integrated application which makes for a very seamless workflow. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook.  But 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.

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. 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. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.

Digital media

Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise.  I bounce back and forth between free versions of Pandora and Spotify, though I tend to spend much more time on Spotify lately. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync to my Android devices.

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.

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 Dropbox. 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.

Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m currently on a short hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s a truly lovely 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 generally do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos, but what little effort I do put forth goes into both Google+ Photos with Picasa or into the auto-backup feature in Dropbox.

Other applications and utilities

Feedly.com, TweetDeck, Mendeley.com, GetPocket.com,

Android Phone/Tablet apps

My favorites and most often used include: Waze, Evernote, Foursquare, Google Hangouts, DoubleTwist, Amazon Kindle, OverDrive Media, Audible, Facebook, Pocket, Netflix, Coursera Companion, Instagram, Path, Starbucks, Key Ring, Dropbox, Mailbox, Pandora, Flipboard. There are others, but I rarely use many of them.

 

 

Home technology

Television

I’m 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, though I also pay for Comcast cable (just to get internet 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.

Set-top boxes

In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR, I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast.  Though I enjoy the Roku, the user interface could be much better.  The Chromecast gets far more daily 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.  I’ll also frequently use a mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television as well.

Kitchen

  • 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 lovely.
  • Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
  • Soda maker: At the beginning of the year, I got a SodaStream and have been making my own carbonated beverages. Nothing is really quite as good as a Coke or a Dr. Pepper, but it’s been more creative and entertaining than pursuing my old habits.
  • #ff0000;">Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
  • Thermometers:  Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer

 

 

Free-form Broad Questions

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?

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?

My WorkspaceFor 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?

It’s probably not the best, but at the beginning of the New Year, I had read some material about slimming down my wallet, which had gotten a bit out of control, and though it hasn’t been a major life-changer, the subtle differences have improved my daily life and workflow as a result. Using the android app Keyring or the Google Wallet app has helped significantly in reducing the amount of plastic I carry in my wallet. Everyone should have at least 10 library cards, but no one should have to carry them in their wallet (or on their keychain).

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, but I’m also progressively using Evernote for some tasks. I’ve lately taken to using Evernote as my commonplace book.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading as well as the occasional Netflix screening.  I’ve also had some great experiences lately with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.

For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.

I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.

What do you listen to while you work?

Most often, lately, it’s been concert music from the past 500 years as well as some jazz work I’ve been exploring.  I’ve lately been re-exploring the late 70’s and early 80’s music which I missed in my very early youth.  Often I’ll also sample material friends and colleagues are listening to which is relatively easy on both Pandora and Spotify.

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. I’m a sucker for great youth literature.

Because of my commuting habits, I’ve also taken to listening to audiobooks and particularly course titles from The Learning Company’s Great Courses Series over the past several years. They’re not only educational, but they’re almost always very entertaining.

My specific active reading list right now includes:

And I’m currently listening to:

What are you currently watching on television?

I regularly watch Modern Family, The Big Bang, Hannibal, Charlie Rose, Person of Interest, Suits, PBS News Hour, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, White Collar, Major Crimes, Psych, Parks & Recreation, Blue Bloods, The Profit, Restaurant: Impossible, Grimm, Perception Recent one-off shows include: H2’s Big History Series and Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews

 

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 5-6 hours of sleep at night usually from 2-7am. 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.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Robert Greenberg’s Music Curriculum

The Learning Company Improves My Commute

For quite a while, primarily because of lengthy commute times in Los Angeles, I’ve been regularly listening to audio lectures from The Learning Company in their Great Courses series.  Last fall I came across a four volume collection entitled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music taught by the dynamic and engaging professor Robert Greenberg.  I was immediately entranced and have vowed to work my way through his entire opus of lectures.  At the time I wasn’t quite sure how many there actually were, though I was aware of at least four others I’d come across on library shelves, and I prayed that there would be one or two more to carry me through a couple of years.  If I needed to, I was fully prepared to listen to everything two or three times to really soak it all in the way I’ve done with repeated viewings of television shows like The West Wing.

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Third Edition

When I was partway through the series, I made an update to my Goodreads.com reading list with a short snippet about my progress. This progress update fed through to Twitter whereupon I was pleasantly surprised to receive an encouraging comment by Professor Greenberg, who apparently takes the time to search social media for mentions of his work and to respond to students.  A brief correspondence with him revealed that he’s recorded far more lectures than I could have dreamed – an astounding 26!

Robert Greenberg’s Curriculum Recommendation

Of course with such a fantastic and tremendously large list of what is sure to be brilliant material, the real question becomes: “How do I create a curriculum to wend my way through it all in the most logical manner!”

Robert Greenberg to the rescue!

Via a most helpful Twitter conversation, Professor Greenberg recommended a curriculum for plowing through his material.  For posterity, I’ll repeat it below for those who are interested in charting his recommended course of courses:

  1. How to Listen to & Understand Great Music
  2. The Fundamentals of Music
  3. How to Listen to Opera
  4. Bach & the High Baroque
  5. The Concerto
  6. The Symphony
  7. Great Masters: Haydn
  8. Great Masters: Mozart
  9. Operas of Mozart
  10. Chamber Music of Mozart
  11. Great Masters: Beethoven
  12. Symphonies of Beethoven
  13. Piano Sonatas of Beethoven
  14. Piano Sonatas of Beethoven
  15. Great Masters: Schumanns
  16. Great Masters: Liszt
  17. Great Masters: Brahms
  18. Music of Richard Wagner
  19. Life & Music of Verdi
  20. Great Masters: Tchaikovsky
  21. Great Masters: Mahler
  22. Great Masters: Stravinsky
  23. Great Masters: Shostakovich
  24. The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works
  25. The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works (October 2013)
  26. Concert Masterworks

Given the magnitude of his opus, this obviously may not be everything, but will provide the tyro as well as the expert a clearer path through some fascinating work. I’ve presently worked my way through 3 of his courses (72 lectures comprising  54 hours of material), so I’ve only barely scratched the surface, but I couldn’t be more enticed and satisfied with what I’ve consumed so far.  His engaging lecturing style, the melodic quality of his voice (not too far from that of renowned announcer and voice artist Casey Casem – though with out the “big bottom” common to radio personalities of this type), and the dynamic range of his emotion make these series more entertaining that most of what is on television these days (and keep in mind I consume a lot of television). Even better, I’m always learning something while I’m listening.  I would dare to say that even if he “phoned in” the remaining lectures, they’d still be at an absurdly high quality level, and I would still want to devour them all.

Follow Robert Greenberg

Robert Greenberg Headshot: Graying Hair, wearing glasses, a slight smirk, black suit and tie with teal colored shirtFor others who are (or are soon sure to become) fans of Robert Greenberg, you can find him easily on Twitter and Facebook.
Happy listening!

Tool Review: Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

Overview: Simply the best messenger bag out there

5out of 5

Pros: Delightful To Use, Roomy , Excellent Design and Engineering,  Napoleon Pocket, Lightweight , Great Strap Length, High Quality, Attractive, Great Craftsmanship, Comfortable , Durable

Best Uses: Commuting, School, Office, Day Trips, Computer Laptop, Airplane travel

Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

I spent quite a while (months/years) looking at almost every messenger bag in existence (and even contemplated designing my own) for my mobile office and for weekly trips to study abstract mathematics at UCLA. I’ve been through dozens of bags (including one that could only charitably have been called a “murse”) and had problems with all of them – particularly shoulder and neck problems from carrying around so much weight. The Timbuk2 Command messenger bag ($139, medium, black) seems to have remedied all of that. My neck and shoulder pains have gone away because this bag is simply so comfortable it feels like I’m carrying half the load that I used to.

The two length adjustment mechanisms on the shoulder strap of this bag should be a requirement for every bag on the planet. I simply don’t know how I managed without them for all this time and now I can never go back. One makes it dead simple to take the bag on and off and the other allows for additional easy length change – the combination makes the bag wear incredibly comfortably.

As an engineer I can readily appreciate some of the very subtle design and manufacturing elements that truly make this bag a wonder. It’s not only functional and sturdy, but it’s both beautiful inside and out. Timbuk2 has certainly put some serious thought into how to make a bag. In particular the velcro strips at the top of the the flap to keep water out, the Napoleon pocket (so one doesn’t have to completely open the bag to retrieve frequently used items), the plastic strips sewn into the lining to provide additional internal structural support, and an ingenious custom pocket at the bottom of the bag for my cables and computer power brick are simply genius.

My only minor caveats about the bag are:

Although there are quite a number of great and useful pockets, I could do with maybe half a dozen more for daily use to keep either small items (I carry my desk in my bag) or organizing additional papers from floating around inside the bag. One can’t really fault Timbuk2 for this as it’s personal preference on my part and I haven’t seen any other bags on the market with a better designed grouping of pocket spaces for such things.

Having a slightly larger water bottle carrier on the outside of the bag would also be excellent, but it’s nearly perfect for my Zojirushi stainless steel thermos and most small (<16 ounce) plastic water bottles. I’ll mention that one of Timbuk2’s line of Classic messenger bags includes internal water bottle pockets for those that desire something like this — or who need full waterproof interiors. The Command bag is roomy enough that I’ve also contemplated using a Camelback-type of fluid reservoir and drinking tube inside for longer day-trips.

As a comparison, the next closest high quality bag I’ve seen in my research is Tumi’s Alpha Bravo Benning Deluxe Messenger Bag ($275). It rates incredibly high for design and beauty, but slightly lower on the functionality scale (which still makes it one of the top 0.1% of bags on the market in my mind, so if you’ve got the money, it’s definitely worth it).  It’s almost twice the price and though it’s got equivalent design touches and is made from some equivalently excellent materials with fantastic craftsmanship, it is missing some of the more interesting engineering touches including the engineering work on the shoulder strap.

Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag Open

Tool Review: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

Designer/Artist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” My Zojirushi stainless steel mug is one of the few things I’ve ever owned that I feel truly meets both of these criteria.


The design, materials, manufacturing and workmanship of the mug are nothing short of outstanding; the aesthetics and heft in the hand are truly fantastic. I really could not want for more out of such a product. I love looking at it, I love holding it, and I love using it.

I hope one day to come back and write a review worthy of how truly great this travel mug is, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m in love. I spent a LOT of time reading reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and searching stores and vendors to find the best thermos/mug on the planet and settled on this one. Not only is it easy and intuitive to take completely apart and wash thoroughly (too many I’ve come across are impossible to take apart and clean properly, if at all), but it seals completely and doesn’t spill.

Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

Even better it keeps my beverages piping hot or cold for far longer than I wish it would. There have been days that I’ve filled it with hot coffee or tea and come back several times to drink it hoping that it had cooled a bit only to find it still too hot to consume. After several rounds with this over an eight hour span, I finally opened it up and put in some ice so I could finally drink my coffee. Now I often just leave the cap open (or off) to let it cool a bit more quickly, although even this is a fairly slow process. Now I try to put my beverages in at the temperature I want to drink them knowing that that’s generally the temperature they’ll be when I get around to drinking them.

I love the fact that the cap is designed with a two stage opening mechanism (which probably won’t be noticed by most users because it’s so subtle). One pushes the button and the top opens just a few millimeters. Then letting go of the button allows the top to spring back and click neatly into place so that it doesn’t fall forward and bonk one on the nose when attempting to take a drink.

When I first came across it, I will admit I was a bit reticent at it’s relatively high price (particularly in comparison with cheaper mugs on the market, many of which I’ve tried and been highly disappointed with), but the Zojirushi is certainly worth ever penny; I would not hesitate for a moment to buy more of these.

As a small aside, I will mention that due to physics and the design of the mug that it can occasionally leak a bit when filled with carbonated beverages and then shaken. Doing this creates additional interior pressure that pushes up the internal seal mechanism on the cap that allows a small amount of liquid to escape. Beyond this small category of fluids, which I infrequently use with the mug (and I’m sure others probably won’t either), it has been absolutely airtight and worry-free.

Rating 5 out of 5 stars.

Review by Chris Aldrich

Lecture Series Review: “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint” by Phillip Cary

Augustine: Philosopher and Saint (Great Courses, #611)Augustine: Philosopher and Saint byProfessor Phillip Cary, Ph.D., Eastern University (The Learning Company, 1997)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)

Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.

My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.

As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:

“fields and spacious palaces” “…where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. There is stored up, whatsoever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.”

Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.

Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.

I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.

View all my reviews

Brief Book Review: “Make Your Own Soda: Syrup Recipes for All-natural Pop, Floats, Cocktails, and More”

Make Your Own Soda: Syrup Recipes for All-Natural Pop, Floats, Cocktails, and MoreMake Your Own Soda: Syrup Recipes for All-Natural Pop, Floats, Cocktails, and More by Anton Nocito
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I ran across this at random and picked it up on a whim as I often do with books about concocting drinks–particularly having recently picked up a SodaStream machine for fashioning my own seltzer and sodas at the beginning of the new year. Certainly with some lovely photographs it does a reasonable job of harkening back to an older time. There are a handful of small asides and historical facts – though not nearly enough in my mind and it could have included some photos of early and mid-century soda fountains for all its talk about them. The real star of the book has to be the litany of recipes of which I’ll begin trying a few (and hopefully posting up reviews of those over time.)

I’d put this book in a similar league with my all-time favorite Charles Schumann‘s American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks which is dense with some great information and recipes for the bartender. This book isn’t quite as “hard core” as Schumann’s, but seems to come pretty close to his rigor for the art of mixology. I read an e-book version, which was generally passable, but I would likely have given it 4 stars had I read what I’m sure is a richer experience in print.

View all my reviews on GoodReads.com

Review of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t

Read The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't by Nate SilverNate Silver (Amazon.com)
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don't Book Cover The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don't
Nate Silver
Business & Economics
Penguin Press HC
September 27, 2012
Hardcover
534
personal library

The founder of FiveThirtyEight.com challenges myths about predictions in subjects ranging from the financial market and weather to sports and politics, profiling the world of prediction to explain how readers can distinguish true signals from hype, in a report that also reveals the sources and societal costs of wrongful predictions.

Started Reading: May 25, 2013
Finished Reading: October 13, 2013

Given the technical nature of what Nate Silver does, and some of the early mentions of the book, I had higher hopes for the technical portions of the book. As usual for a popular text, I was left wanting a lot more. Again, the lack of any math left a lot to desire. I wish technical writers could get away with even a handful of equations, but wishing just won’t make it so.

The first few chapters were a bit more technical sounding, but eventually devolved into a more journalistic viewpoint of statistics, prediction, and forecasting in general within the areas of economics, political elections, weather forecasting, earthquakes, baseball, poker, chess, and terrorism. I have a feeling he lost a large part of his audience in the first few chapters by discussing the economic meltdown of 2008 first instead of baseball or poker and then getting into politics and economics.

While some of the discussion around each of these bigger topics are all intrinsically interesting and there were a few interesting tidbits I hadn’t heard or read about previously, on the whole it wasn’t really as novel as I had hoped it would be. I think it should be required reading for all politicians however, as I too often get the feeling that none of them think at this level.

There was some reasonably good philosophical discussion of Bayesian statistics versus Fisherian, but it was all too short and could have been fleshed out more significantly. I still prefer David Applebaum’s historical and philosophical discussion of probability in Probability and Information: An Integrated Approach though he surprisingly didn’t mention R.A. Fisher directly himself in his coverage.

It was interesting to run across additional mentions of power laws in the realms of earthquakes and terrorism after reading Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour (review here), but I’ll have to find some texts which describe the mathematics in full detail. There was surprisingly large amount of discussion skirting around the topics within complexity without delving into it in any substantive form.

For those with a pre-existing background in science and especially probability theory, I’d recommend skipping this and simply reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s work is referenced several times and his book seems less intuitive than some of the material Silver presents here.

This is the kind of text which should be required reading in high school civics classes. Perhaps it might motivate more students to be interested in statistics and science related pursuits as these are almost always at the root of most political and policy related questions at the end of the day.

For me, I’d personally give this three stars, but the broader public should view it with at least four stars if not five as there is some truly great stuff here. Unfortunately a lot of it is old hat or retreaded material for me.

Book Review: “Complexity: A Guided Tour” by Melanie Mitchell

Read Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie MitchellMelanie Mitchell (amzn.to)
Complexity: A Guided Tour Book Cover Complexity: A Guided Tour
Melanie Mitchell
Popular Science
Oxford University Press
May 28, 2009
Hardcover
366

This book provides an intimate, highly readable tour of the sciences of complexity, which seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals. The author, a leading complex systems scientist, describes the history of ideas, current research, and future prospects in this vital scientific effort.

This is handily one of the best, most interesting, and (to me at least) the most useful popularly written science books I’ve yet to come across. Most popular science books usually bore me to tears and end up being only pedantic for their historical backgrounds, but this one is very succinct with some interesting viewpoints (some of which I agree with and some of which my intuition says are terribly wrong) on the overall structure presented.

For those interested in a general and easily readable high-level overview of some of the areas of research I’ve been interested in (information theory, thermodynamics, entropy, microbiology, evolution, genetics, along with computation, dynamics, chaos, complexity, genetic algorithms, cellular automata, etc.) for the past two decades, this is really a lovely and thought-provoking book.

At the start I was disappointed that there were almost no equations in the book to speak of – and perhaps this is why I had purchased it when it came out and it’s subsequently been sitting on my shelf for so long. The other factor that prevented me from reading it was the depth and breadth of other more technical material I’ve read which covers the majority of topics in the book. I ultimately found myself not minding so much that there weren’t any/many supporting equations aside from a few hidden in the notes at the end of the text in most part because Dr. Mitchell does a fantastic job of pointing out some great subtleties within the various subjects which comprise the broader concept of complexity which one generally would take several years to come to on one’s own and at far greater expense of their time. Here she provides a much stronger picture of the overall subjects covered and this far outweighed the lack of specificity. I honestly wished I had read the book when it was released and it may have helped me to me more specific in my own research. Fortunately she does bring up several areas I will need to delve more deeply into and raised several questions which will significantly inform my future work.

In general, I wish there were more references I hadn’t read or been aware of yet, but towards the end there were a handful of topics relating to fractals, chaos, computer science, and cellular automata which I have been either ignorant of or which are further down my reading lists and may need to move closer to the top. I look forward to delving into many of these shortly. As a simple example, I’ve seen Zipf’s law separately from the perspectives of information theory, linguistics, and even evolution, but this is the first time I’ve seen it related to power laws and fractals.

I definitely appreciated the fact that Dr. Mitchell took the time to point out her own personal feelings on several topics and more so that she explicitly pointed them out as her own gut instincts instead of mentioning them passingly as if they were provable science which is what far too many other authors would have likely done. There are many viewpoints she takes which I certainly don’t agree with, but I suspect that it’s because I’m coming at things from the viewpoint of an electrical engineer with a stronger background in information theory and microbiology while hers is closer to that of computer science. She does mention that her undergraduate background was in mathematics, but I’m curious what areas she specifically studied to have a better understanding of her specific viewpoints.

Her final chapter looking at some of the pros and cons of the topic(s) was very welcome, particularly in light of previous philosophic attempts like cybernetics and general systems theory which I (also) think failed because of their lack of specificity. These caveats certainly help to place the scientific philosophy of complexity into a much larger context. I will generally heartily agree with her viewpoint (and that of others) that there needs to be a more rigorous mathematical theory underpinning the overall effort. I’m sure we’re all wondering “Where is our Newton?” or to use her clever aphorism that we’re “waiting for Carnot.” (Sounds like it should be a Tom Stoppard play title, doesn’t it?)

I might question her brief inclusion of her own Ph.D. thesis work in the text, but it did actually provide a nice specific and self-contained example within the broader context and also helped to tie several of the chapters together.

My one slight criticism of the work would be the lack of better footnoting within the text. Though many feel that footnote numbers within the text or inclusion at the bottom of the pages detracts from the “flow” of the work, I found myself wishing that she had done so here, particularly as I’m one of the few who actually cares about the footnotes and wants to know the specific references as I read. I hope that Oxford eventually publishes an e-book version that includes cross-linked footnotes in the future for the benefit of others.

I can heartily recommend this book to any fan of science, but I would specifically recommend it to any undergraduate science or engineering major who is unsure of what they’d specifically like to study and might need some interesting areas to take a look at. I will mention that one of the tough parts of the concept of complexity is that it is so broad and general that it encompasses over a dozen other fields of study each of which one could get a Ph.D. in without completely knowing the full depth of just one of them much less the full depth of all of them. The book is so well written that I’d even recommend it to senior researchers in any of the above mentioned fields as it is certainly sure to provide not only some excellent overview history of each, but it is sure to bring up questions and thoughts that they’ll want to include in their future researches in their own specific sub-areas of expertise.

Book Review: Gregory Chaitin’s “Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical”

Gregory Chaitin’s book Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical combining biology, microbiology, mathematics, evolution and even information theory is directly in my wheelhouse. I had delayed reading it following a few initial poor reviews, and sadly I must confirm that I’m ultimately disappointed in the direct effort shown here, though there is some very significant value buried within. Unfortunately the full value is buried so deeply that very few, if any, will actually make the concerted effort to find it.

proving

This effort does seem to make a more high-minded and noble attempt than what I would call the “Brian Greene method” in which an academic seemingly gives up on serious science to publish multiple texts on a popular topic to cash in on public interest in that topic through sales of books. In this respect Chaitin is closer to Neil deGrasse Tyson in his effort to expound an interesting theory to the broader public and improve the public discourse, though I would admit he’s probably a bit more (self-) interested in pushing his own theory and selling books (or giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the publisher has pushed him to this).

Though there is a reasonable stab at providing some philosophical background to fit the topic into the broader fabric of science and theory in the later chapters, most of it is rather poorly motivated and is covered far better in other non-technical works. While it is nice to have some semblance of Chaitin’s philosophy and feelings, the inclusion of this type of material only tends to soften the blow of his theoretical work and makes the text read more like pseudo-science or simple base philosophy without any actual rigorous underpinning.

I’m assuming that his purpose in writing the book is to make the theories he’s come up with in his primary paper on the topic more accessible to the broader community of science as well as the public itself. It’s easy for a groundbreaking piece of work to be hidden in the broader scientific literature, but Chaitin seems to be taking his pedestal as a reasonably popular science writer to increase the visibility of his work here. He admittedly mentions that his effort stems from his hobby as his primary area is algorithmic information theory and computer science and not biology or evolution, though his meager references in the text do at least indicate some facility with some of the “right” sources in these latter areas.

Speaking from a broad public perspective, there is certainly interest in this general topic to warrant such a book, though based on the reviews of others via Amazon, Goodreads, etc. the book has sadly missed it’s mark. He unfortunately sticks too closely to the rule that inclusion of mathematical equations is detrimental to the sale of ones books. Sadly, his broader point is seemingly lost on the broader public as his ability to analogize his work isn’t as strong as that of Brian Greene with respect to theoretical physics (string theory).

From the a higher perspective of a researcher who does work in all of the relevant areas relating to the topic, I was even more underwhelmed with the present text aside from the single URL link to the original much more technical paper which Chaitin wrote in 2010. To me this was the most valuable part of the entire text though he did provide some small amount of reasonable detail in his appendix.

I can certainly appreciate Chaitin’s enthusiastic following of John von Neumann but I’m disappointed in his lack of acknowledgement of Norbert Weiner or Claude Shannon who all collaborated in the mid part of the 20th century. I’m sure Chaitin is more than well aware of the father of information theory, but I’ll be willing to bet that although he’s probably read his infamous master’s thesis and his highly influential Bell Labs article on “A/The Mathematical Theory of Communication”, he is, like most, shamefully and wholly unaware of Shannon’s MIT doctoral thesis.

Given Chaitin’s own personal aim to further the acceptance of his own theories and work and the goal of the publisher to sell more copies, I would mention a few recommendations for future potential editions:

The greater majority of his broader audience will have at least a passably reasonable understanding of biology and evolution, but very little, if any, understanding of algorithmic information theory. He would be better off expounding upon this subject to bring people up to speed to better understand his viewpoint and his subsequent proof. Though I understand the need to be relatively light in regard to the number of equations and technicalities included, Chaitin could follow some of his heroes of mathematical exposition and do a slightly better job of explaining what is going on here. He could also go a long way toward adding some significant material to the appendices to help the higher end general readers and the specifically the biologists understand more of the technicalities of algorithmic information theory to better follow his proof which should appear in intricate glory in the appendix as well. I might also recommend excising some of the more philosophical material which tends to undermine his scientific “weight.” Though I found it interesting that he gives a mathematical definition of “intelligent design”, I have a feeling its intricacies were lost on most of his readership — this point alone could go a long way towards solidifying the position of evolution amongst non-scientists, particularly in America, and win the support of heavyweights like Dawkins himself.

I’ll agree wholeheartedly with one reviewer who said that Chaitin tends to “state small ideas repeatedly, and every time at the same shallow level with astonishing amount of redundancy (mostly consisting of chit-chat and self congratulations)”. This certainly detracted from my enjoyment of the work. Chaitin also includes an awful lot of name dropping of significant scientific figures tangential to the subject at hand. This may have been more impressive if he included the results of his discussions with them about the subject, but I’m left with the impression that he simply said hello, shook their hands, and at best was simply inspired by his having met them. It’s nice that he’s had these experiences, but it doesn’t help me to believe or follow his own work.

For the technically interested reader, save yourself some time and simply skim through chapter five and a portion of the appendix relating to his proof and then move on to his actual paper. For the non-technical reader, I expect you’ll get more out of reading Richard Dawkins’ early work (The Selfish Gene) or possibly Werner R. Loewenstein’s The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life.

Though I would certainly agree that we could use a mathematical proof of evolution, and that Chaitin has made a reasonable theoretical stab, this book sadly wasn’t the best one to motivate broader interest in such an effort. I’ll give him five stars for effort, three for general content, but in the end, for most it will have to be at most a 2 star work overall.

This review was originally published on June 17, 2013.