A collection of books that supports emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation while universities, schools, training centers, and libraries are closed.
An ebook published using TiddlyWiki
Your finger reader for fantastic reading experience in android
They’ve got some reasonable highlights and notes functionality and sharing/export (though their HTML export doesn’t seem to be working).
Vox looks back at the ebook. It hasn’t made progress in a decade. Publishing spent the 2010s fighting tooth and nail against ebooks. There were unintended consequences.
Watch out: 2019 is sneaking in some last kicks to the crotch before it’s done. Overdrive, the leading provider of ebooks to public libraries, is being sold by Rakuten to the investment firm which “bought and bankrupted” Toys R Us.
While some people are scrambling to collect log-ins for Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu and, now, Disney Plus, Sarah Jacobsson Purewal is working on a different kind of hustle. She signs up for any public library that will have her to find and reserve available e-books.
I liked the tip about putting one’s e-reader into airplane mode to keep it from updating and removing overdue books. Of course there are some more technical methods of stripping DRM or even pirating books which I was a bit surprised they didn’t delve into, but which are frequently mentioned with respect to college textbook related articles.
In this issue, I want to open a conversation about a technology of our age that hasn’t quite worked out the way we all had hoped—and by we, I mean those of us who care about the composition and transmission of ideas, which I believe includes everyone on this list. Twenty years ago, literary critic Sven Birkerts reviewed the new technology of ebooks and e-readers for the short-lived internet magazine Feed. They sent him a Rocket eBook and a SoftBook, and he duly turned them on and settled into his comfy chair. What followed, however, was anything but comfy:
René Descartes designed a deck of playing cards that also functioned as flash cards to learn geometry and mechanics. (King of Clubs from The use of the geometrical playing-cards, as also A discourse of the mechanick powers. By Monsi. Des-Cartes. Translated from his own manuscript copy. Printed and sold by J. Moxon at the Atlas in Warwick Lane, London. Via the Beinecke Library, from which you can download the entire deck.)
My immediate thought is that this deck of cards was meant as a memory palace. I’m curious what training in rhetoric/memory methods Descartes must have had?
November 06, 2019 at 08:49PM
We are beginning a renovation of our main library at Northeastern University, Snell Library, and have been talking with architects (some of them very well-known), and I’ve found the discussions utterly invigorating. I would like to find some way to blog or newsletter about the process we will go through over the next few years, and to think aloud about the (re)design and (future) function of the library. I’m not sure if that should occur in this space or elsewhere, although the thought of launching another outlet fills me with dread. Let me know if this topic would interest you, and if I should include it here.
, this is definitely interesting. Please include it here or on your main site!!!
November 06, 2019 at 08:43PM
But wait, there’s more. Much more. We generally encounter four different acquisition models (my thanks to Janet Morrow of our library for this outline): 1) outright purchase, just like a print book, easy peasy, generally costs a lot even though it’s just bits (we pay an average of over $40 per book this way), which gives us perpetual access with the least digital rights management (DRM) on the ebooks, which has an impact on sustainable access over time; 2) subscription access: you need to keep paying each year to get access, and the provider can pull titles on you at any time, plus you also get lots of DRM, but there’s a low cost per title (~$1 a book per year); 3) demand-driven/patron-driven acquisition: you don’t get the actual ebook, just a bibliographic record for your library’s online system, until someone chooses to download a book, or reads some chunk of it online, which then costs you, say ~$5; 4) evidence-based acquisitions, in which we pay a set cost for unlimited access to a set of titles for a year and then at the end of the year we can use our deposit to buy some of the titles (< $1/book/year for the set, and then ~$60/book for those we purchase).
Nice to see this laid out. I’ve never seen a general overview of how this system works for libraries.
I’ve always wondered what it cost my local public library to loan me an e-book whether I read it or not.
November 06, 2019 at 08:40PM
It is worth asking why ebooks and e-readers like the Kindle treaded water after swimming a couple of laps. I’m not sure I can fully diagnose what happened (I would love to hear your thoughts), but I think there are many elements, all of which interact as part of the book production and consumption ecosystem.
For me, and potentially for a majority of others, our memories have evolved to be highly location specific. It’s far easier for me to remember what I’ve read when I read a physical book. I can often picture what I was reading at the top, middle, or bottom of the left or right page. This fact in addition to how far I am in the book gives me a better idea of where I am with respect to a text.
These ideas are very subtle and so heavily ingrained in us that they’re not very apparent to many, if at all.
See also Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture by Lynne Kelly (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
November 06, 2019 at 08:32PM
I’ve started into the documentation, but I’m curious if there’s a simple way of doing this without some 3rd party like Hypothes.is, Genius, etc. or some other massive framework?
Chris Sim, founder and CEO of Kadaxis, spoke at Digital Book World about how indie authors and publishers can better use keywords to increase book sales.
Over the past month or so, I’ve been experimenting with some fiction to see what works and what doesn’t in terms of a workflow for status updates around reading books, writing book reviews, and then extracting and depositing notes, highlights, and marginalia online. I’ve now got a relatively quick and painless workflow for exporting the book related data from my Amazon Kindle and importing it into the site with some modest markup and CSS for display. I’m sure the workflow will continue to evolve (and further automate) somewhat over the coming months, but I’m reasonably happy with where things stand.
The fact that the Amazon Kindle allows for relatively easy highlighting and annotation in e-books is excellent, but having the ability to sync to a laptop and do a one click export of all of that data, is incredibly helpful. Adding some simple CSS to the pre-formatted output gives me a reasonable base upon which to build for future writing/thinking about the material. In experimenting, I’m also coming to realize that simply owning the data isn’t enough, but now I’m driven to help make that data more directly useful to me and potentially to others.
As part of my experimenting, I’ve just uploaded some notes, highlights, and annotations for David Christian’s excellent text Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History which I read back in 2011/12. While I’ve read several of the references which I marked up in that text, I’ll have to continue evolving a workflow for doing all the related follow up (and further thinking and writing) on the reading I’ve done in the past.
I’m still reminded me of Rick Kurtzman’s sage advice to me when I was a young pisher at CAA in 1999:
“If you read a script and don’t tell anyone about it, you shouldn’t have wasted the time having read it in the first place.” His point was that if you don’t try to pass along the knowledge you found by reading, you may as well give up. Even if the thing was terrible, at least say that as a minimum. In a digitally connected era, we no longer need to rely on nearly illegible scrawl in the margins to pollinate the world at a snail’s pace. Take those notes, marginalia, highlights, and meta data and release it into the world. The fact that this dovetails perfectly with Cesar Hidalgo’s thesis in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies, furthers my belief in having a better process for what I’m attempting here.
Hopefully in the coming months, I’ll be able to add similar data to several other books I’ve read and reviewed here on the site.
If anyone has any thoughts, tips, tricks for creating/automating this type of workflow/presentation, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
A year ago, I opened started a publishing company and we came out with our first book Amerikan Krazy in late February. The author has a small backcatalogue that’s out of print, so in conjunction with his book launch, we’ve been slowly releasing ebook versions of his old titles. Coincidentally one of them was a fantastic little book about Ali entitled Muhammad Ali Retrospective, so I dropped everything I was doing to get it finished up and out as a quick way of honoring his passing.
But while I was working on some of the minutiae, I’ve been thinking in the back of my mind about the ideas of marginalia, commonplace books, and Amazon’s siloed community of highlights and notes. Is there a decentralized web-based way of creating a construct similar to webmention that will allow all readers worldwide to highlight, mark up and comment across electronic versions of texts so that they can share them in an open manner while still owning all of their own data? And possibly a way to aggregate them at the top for big data studies in the vein of corpus linguistics?
I think there is…
However it’ll take some effort, but effort that could have a worthwhile impact.
I have a few potential architectures in mind, but also want to keep online versions of books in the loop as well as potentially efforts like hypothes.is or even the academic portions of Genius.com which do web-based annotation.
If anyone in the IndieWeb, books, or online marginalia worlds has thought about this as well, I’d love to chat.
t’s the beginning of yet another quarter/semester (or ovester, if you prefer) and a new crop of inquiries have come up around selling back used textbooks and purchasing new textbooks for upcoming classes. I’m not talking about the philosophical discussion about choosing your own textbooks that I’ve mentioned before. I’m considering, in the digital era,
What are the best options for purchasing, renting, or utilizing textbook products in what is a relatively quickly shifting market?
The popular press has a variety of evergreen stories that hit the wire at the beginning of each semester that scratch just the surface of the broader textbook issue or focus on one tiny upstart company that promises to drastically disrupt the market (yet somehow never does), but these articles never delve just a bit deeper into the market to give a broader array of ideas and, more importantly, solutions for the students/parents who are spending the bulk of the money to support the inequalities the market has built.
I aim to facilitate some of this digging and revealing based on years of personal book buying experience as well as having specified textbooks as an instructor in the past.
Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.
Before taking a look at the pure economics of the market for the various forms of purchase, resale, or even renting, one should first figure out one’s preference for reading format. There are obviously many different means of learning (visual, auditory, experiential, etc.) which some will prefer over others, so try to tailor your “texts” to your preferred learning style as much as possible. For those who prefer auditory learning modes, be sure to check out alternatives like Audible or the wealth of online video/audio materials that have proliferated in the MOOC revolution. For those who are visual learners or who learn best by reading, do you prefer ebook formats over physical books? There are many studies showing the benefit of one over the other, but some of this comes down to personal preference and how comfortable one is with particular formats. Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts. It’s taken me (an avowed paper native) several years, but I now vastly prefer to have books in electronic format for some of the reasons indicated above in addition to the fact that I can carry a library of 2,500+ books with me almost anywhere I go. I also love being able to almost instantly download anything that I don’t currently own but may need/want.
The one caveat I’ll mention, particularly for visual learners (or those with pseudo-photographic or eidetic memory), is that they attempt to keep a two-page reading format on their e-reading devices as their long-term memory for reading will increase with the ability to place the knowledge on the part of the page(s) where they originally encountered it (that is, I remember seeing that particular item on the top left, or middle right portion of a particular page.) Sometimes this isn’t always possible due to an e-reader’s formatting capabilities or the readability of the size of the text (for example, a .pdf file on a Kindle DX would be preferable to the same file on a much smaller smartphone) , but for many it can be quite helpful. Personally, I can remember where particular words and grammatical constructs appeared in my 10th grade Latin text many years later while I would be very unlikely to be able to do this with the presentation of some modern-day e-readers or alternate technologies like rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP).
Purchasing to Keep
Personally, as a student and a bibliophile (read: bibliomaniac), I would typically purchase all of the physical texts for all of my classes. I know this isn’t a realizable reality for everyone, so, for the rest, I would recommend purchasing all of the texts (physical or electronic, depending on one’s preference for personal use) in one’s main area of study, which one could then keep for the long term and not sell back. This allows one to build a library that will serve as a long term reference for one’s primary area(s) of study.
Renting vs Short-term Ownership
In general, I’m opposed to renting books or purchasing them for a semester or year and then returning them for a partial refund. It’s rarely a great solution for the end consumer who ends up losing the greater value of the textbook. Even books returned and sold later as used, often go for many multiples of their turn in price the following term, so if it’s a newer or recent edition, it’s probably better to hold on to it for a few months and then sell it for a used price, slightly lower than the college bookstore’s going rate.
For tangential texts in classes I know I don’t want to keep for the long term, I’d usually find online versions or borrow (for free) from the local college or public library (many books are available electronically through the library or are borrow-able through the library reserve room.)
Most public libraries use systems like Overdrive, Axis 360 (Baker & Taylor), Adobe Digital Editions, 3M Cloud Library, etc. to allow students to check out a broad array of fiction and non-fiction for free for loan terms from as short as a week up to a month or more. Additionally well-known websites like the Project Gutenberg and Archive.org have lots of commonly used texts available for free download in a broad variety of formats. This includes a lot of classic fiction, philosophy, and other texts used in the humanities. Essentially most works published in the United States prior to 1923 and many additional texts published after this as well can be found in the public domain. Additional information on what is in the public domain can be found here: Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States.
Why pay $10-20 for a classic book like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan when you can find copies for free online, unless of course you’re getting a huge amount of additional scholarship and additional notes along with it.
Often college students forget that they’re not just stuck with their local institutional library, so I’ll remind everyone to check out their local public library(s) as well as other nearby institutional libraries and inter-library loan options which may give them longer term loan terms.
General Economics in the Textbook Market
One of the most important changes in the textbook market that every buyer should be aware of: last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. the US Supreme Court upheld the ability for US-based students to buy copies of textbooks printed in foreign countries (often at huge cut-rate prices) [see also Ars Technica]. This means that searching online bookstores in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. will often find the EXACT same textbooks (usually with slightly different ISBNs, and slightly cheaper paper) for HUGE discounts in the 60-95% range.
Example: I recently bought an international edition of Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis (Amazon $121) for $5 (and it even happened to ship from within the US for $3). Not only was this 96% off of the cover price, but it was 78% off of Amazon’s rental price! How amazing is it to spend almost as much to purchase a book as it is to ship it to yourself!? I’ll also note here that the first edition of this book appeared in 1964 and this very popular third edition is from 1976, so it isn’t an example of “edition creep”, but it’s still got a tremendous mark up in relation to other common analysis texts which list on Amazon for $35-50.
Hint: Abe Books (a subsidiary of Amazon) is better than most at finding/sourcing international editions of textbooks.
For some of the most expensive math/science/engineering texts one can buy an edition one or two earlier than the current one. In these cases, the main text changes very little, if any, and the primary difference is usually additional problems in the homework sections (which causes small discrepancies in page number counts). If necessary, the problem sets can be easily obtained via the reserve room in the library or by briefly borrowing/photocopying problems from classmates who have the current edition. The constant “edition-churning” by publishers is mean to help prop up high textbook prices.
Definition: “Edition Churning” or “Edition Creep“: a common practice of textbook publishers of adding scant new material, if any, to textbooks on a yearly or every-other-yearly basis thereby making older editions seem prematurely obsolete and thereby propping up the prices of their textbooks. Professors who blithely utilize the newest edition of a texbook are often unknowingly complicit in propping up prices in these situations.
One may find some usefulness or convenience in traditional bookstores, particularly Barnes & Noble, the last of the freestanding big box retailers. If you’re a member of their affinity program and get an additional discount for ordering books directly through them, then it may not be a horrible idea to do so. Still, they’re paying for a relatively large overhead and it’s likely that you’ll find cheaper prices elsewhere.
These are becoming increasingly lean and many may begin disappearing over the next decade or so, much the way many traditional bookstores have disappeared in the last decade with the increasing competition online. Because many students aren’t the best at price comparison, however, and because of their position in the economic chain, many are managing to hang on quite well. Keep in mind that many campus bookstores have fine print deals in which they’ll match or beat pricing you find online, so be sure to take advantage of this fact, particularly when shipping from many services will make an equivalent online purchase a few dollars more expensive.
There are fewer and fewer of these around these days and even fewer textbook-specific stores that traditionally sprouted up next to major campuses. This last type may not be a horrible place to shop, but they’re likely to specialize in used texts of only official texts. Otherwise, general used bookstores are more likely to specialize in paperbacks and popular used fiction and have very lean textbook selection, if any.
Naturally when shopping for textbooks there are a veritable wealth of websites to shop around online including: Amazon, Alibris, Barnes & Noble, AbeBooks, Google Play, Half/EBay. Chegg, Valore, CampusBookRentals, TextBooks.com, and ECampus. But in the Web2.0 world, we can now uses websites with even larger volumes of data and meta-data as a clearing-house for our shopping. So instead of shopping and doing price comparison at the dozens of competing sites, why not use a meta-site to do the comparison for us algorithmically and much more quickly.
There are a variety of meta-retailer shopping methods including several browser plugins and comparison sites (Chrome, Firefox, InvisibleHand, PriceBlink, PriceGong, etc.) that one can install to provide pricing comparisons, so that, for example, while shopping on Amazon, one will see lower priced offerings from their competitors. However, possibly the best website I’ve come across for cross-site book comparisons is GetTextbooks.com. One can easily search for textbooks (by author, title, ISBN, etc.) and get back a list of retailers with copies that is sortable by price (including shipping) as well as by new/used and even by rental availability. They even highlight one entry algorithmicly to indicate their recommended “best value”.
Similar to GetTextbooks is the webservice SlugBooks, though it doesn’t appear to search as many sites or present as much data.
When searching for potential textbooks, don’t forget that one can “showroom” the book in one’s local bookstore or even at one’s local library(s). This is particularly useful if one is debating whether or not to take a particular class, or if one is kicking tires to see if it’s really the best book for them, or if they should be looking at other textbooks.
From an economic standpoint, keep in mind there is usually more availability and selection on editions bought a month or so before the start of classes, as often-used texts are used by thousands of students over the world, thus creating a spot market for used texts at semester and quarter starts. Professors often list their textbooks when class listings for future semesters are released, so students surfing for the best deals for used textbooks can very often find them in mid-semester (or mid-quarter) well before the purchasing rush begins for any/most titles.
And finally, there is also the black market (also known as outright theft), which is usually spoken of in back-channels either online or in person. Most mainstream articles which reference this portion of the market usually refer tangentially to a grey market in which one student passes along a .pdf or other pirated file to fellow students rather than individual students being enterprising enough to go out hunting for their own files.
Most will know of or have heard about websites like PirateBay, but there are a variety of lesser-known torrent sites which are typically hosted in foreign countries which extend beyond the reach of the United States Copyright law enforcement. Increasingly, mega-pirate websites in the vein of the now-defunct Library.nu (or previously Gigapedia) or the slowly dying empire of Library Genesis are hiding all over the web and become quick and easy clearing houses for pirated copies of ebooks, typically in .pdf or .djvu formats, though many are in .epub, .mobi, .azw, or alternate e-book formats. The typical set up for these sites is one or more illegal file repositories for allowing downloads with one (or more) primary hubs that don’t necessarily store the pirated materials, but instead serve as a searchable hub which points to the files.
Creative advanced searches for book authors, titles, ISBNs along with the words .pdf, .djvu, torrent, etc. can often reveal portions of this dark web. Naturally, caveat emptor applies heavily to these types of sites as often files can be corrupted or contain viruses to unwary or unwitting thieves. Many of these sites may attempt to extract a small token monthly fee as a subscription or will rely heavily on serving banner advertising to help to offset large web hosting and traffic fees associated with their maintenance, though it is posited that many of them make in the millions of dollars in profit annually due to advertising arrangements, though this is incredibly hard to validate given the nature of these types of markets and how they operate.
Rather than stoop as low as finding textbooks on the black market this way, students should place pressure on their professors, the faculty of their departments, and their colleges or universities to help assist in smoothing out some of the pricing inequities in the system (see below). In the long run, this will not only tend to help them, but many future generations of students who will be left adrift in the market otherwise.
Long Term Solution(s) to Improving the Textbook Market
The biggest primary issue facing the overpriced textbook market is that the end consumers of the textbooks aren’t really firmly in charge of the decision of which textbook to purchase. This is why I advocate that students research and decide by themselves which textbook they’re going to use and whether or not they really need to make that purchase. Instead, individual professors or the departments for which they work are dictating the textbooks that will be purchased. The game theory dynamics behind this small decision are the massive fulcrum which allows the publishing industry to dictate their own terms. Students (and parents) should, in a sense, unionize and make their voices heard not only to the professors, but to the departments and even the colleges/universities which they’re attending. If universities took a strong stance on how the markets worked, either for or against them and their students, they could create strong market-moving forces to drastically decrease the cost of textbooks.
The other larger issue is that market forces aren’t allowed to play out naturally in the college textbook market. Publishers lean on professors and departments to “adopt” overpriced textbooks. These departments in turn “require” these texts and students aren’t questioning enough to use other texts for fear of not succeeding in courses. If the system were questioned, they’d realize that instead of their $200-300 textbook, they could easily purchase alternate, equivalent, and often even better textbooks for $20-50. To put things into perspective, the time, effort, energy, and production cost for the typical book isn’t drastically different than the average textbook, yet we’re not paying $250 for a copy of the average new hardcover on the best seller list. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that universities, departments, and professors are colluding with publishers, but they’re certainly not helping to make the system better.
I’ve always taken the view that the ‘required’ textbook was really just a ‘suggestion’. (Have you ever known a professor to fail a student for not purchasing the ‘required’ textbook?!)
In past generations, one of the first jobs of a student was to select their own textbook. Reverting back to this paradigm may help to drastically change the economics of the situation. For the interested students, I’ve written a bit about the philosophy and mechanics here: On Choosing Your Own Textbooks.
Basic economics 101 theory of supply and demand would typically indicate to us that basic textbooks for subjects like calculus, intro physics, or chemistry that are used by very large numbers of students should be not only numerous, but also very cheap, while more specialized books like Lie Groups and Lie Algebras or Electromagnetic Theory should be less numerous and also more expensive. Unfortunately and remarkably, the most popular calculus textbooks are 2-5 times more expensive than their advanced abstract mathematical brethren and similarly for introductory physics texts versus EM theory books.
To drastically cut down on these market inequities, when possible, Colleges and Universities should:
- Heavily discourage “edition creep” or “edition churning” when there really aren’t major changes to textbooks. In an online and connected society, it’s easy enough to add supplemental errata or small amounts of supplemental material by means of the web.
- Quit making institution-specific readers and sub-editions of books for a specific department
- If they’re going to make departmental level textbook choices, they should shoulder the burden of purchasing all the textbooks in quantity (and taking quantity discounts). I’ll note here, that students shouldn’t encourage institutions to bundle the price of textbooks into their tuition as then there is a “dark curtain,” which allows institutions to take the drastic mark-ups for themselves instead of allowing the publishers to take it or passing it along to their students. Cross-reference Benjamin Ginsberg’s article Administrators Ate My Tuition or his much longer text The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford University Press, 2013).
- Discourage the use of unpopularly used textbooks written by their own faculty. Perhaps a market share of 5-10% or more should be required for a common textbook to be usable by a department, and, until that point, the professor should compete aggressively to build market share? This may help encourage professors to write new original texts instead of producing yet-another-introductory-calculus-textbook that no one needs.
- Discourage packaged electronic supplemental materials, which
- are rarely used by students,
- could be supplied online for free as a supplement,
- and often double or triple the price of a textbook package.
- Strongly encourage professors to supply larger lists of relatively equivalent books and encourage their students to make their purchase choices individually.
- Consider barring textbook sales on campus and relying on the larger competitive market to supply textbooks to students.
Calibre: E-book and Document Management Made Simple
As an added bonus, for those with rather large (or rapidly growing) e-book collections, I highly recommend downloading and using the free Calibre Library software. For my 2000+ e-books and documents, this is an indispensable program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality. It works on all major OSes and is compatible with almost every e-reader on the planet. Additionally, plug-ins and a myriad of settings allow for additional extensibility for integration with other e-book software and web services (for example: integration with GoodReads or the ability to add additional data and meta-data to one’s books.)
- Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying | The Chronicle of Higher Education (1/27/13)
- Study Indicates College Textbook Piracy is on the Rise, But Fails to Call Out Publishers for Skyrocketing Prices | TechDirt.com (9/23/14)
- How Slugbooks Subverts the Dirty Tricks of the College Textbook Market | Fast Company (4/14/14)
- More students are illegally downloading college textbooks for free | Washington Post (9/17/14)
- Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right. | Washington Post (2/22/15)
- A Smarter Approach to College Textbooks | Inside HigherEd (8/18/15)
- (Update 8/26/15): Great article via Attn: Here’s Exactly Why College Textbooks are So Expensive | Attn: (3/12/15)
Be sure to read through the commentary on some of these posts for some additional great information.
What other textbook purchasing services and advice can you offer the market?
I invite everyone to include their comments and advice below as I’m sure I haven’t covered the topic completely or there are bound to be new players in the space increasing competition as time goes by.
riends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful. So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.
Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.
Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread. The first installment of the series can be found here: What I Use: April 2014. It includes some additional sections and material that hasn’t changed since then.
Samsung Galaxy S6 on Sprint – I’ve had this for a couple of months now and like it a lot, but I honestly feel like there hasn’t been anything really new or exciting in the phone space for a while. Phones are becoming commodity items.
Lenovo Flex3 – I’ve had it for a couple of months and love its size, weight, and the fact that I can flip it over into a tablet. I’m still occasionally using my Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431, but planning on decommissioning it shortly.
I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC. Windows 10 is starting to roll out, and I’m about to make the jump…
I still have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux, but I’ve rarely used them in the last year.
I made the jump to Office 365 Home Premium about a year ago and generally love it, particularly being able to dump almost everything I have into the cloud via OneDrive with a 1+TB storage option. For the bulk of my writing though, I still eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. I’ve actually been doing the typesetting and layout for a client’s novel with this set up over the past few months, and it is truly great despite having do dig under the hood a bit more than I’d prefer to get the exact results I want.
Since my last “What I’m Using” I’ve moved away from Dropbox as my primary cloud service and prefer OneDrive for syncing across multiple platforms. I still have a huge amount in Dropbox and still use it for some collaboration. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook, though for some collaborative work, I have been using Google’s Calendar a lot more in the last year particularly for its simple integration into my phone. I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam. I have gone through lately and cut the number of notifications I get by email in half. For reading Gmail, I primarily use Googles Inbox app on my cell phone when I’m waiting in lines.
Internet and communications
For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts.
I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. Over the past year, I’ve become a big proponent of the IndieWeb movement which fits in line with my long held beliefs about personal data. Toward this end, I’ve added a lot of IndieWeb plugins to my WordPress workflow, and I also love WithKnown which I use as my primary social stream tool. It dovetails with most major social networks incredibly well.
I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. I tried a free trial of McAfee with my Flex3, but it was awfully bulky and annoying and the UI was just dreadful. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.
Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise; I’m also not currently subscribing to any online delivery systems. For the last year, I’ve been using Spotify to the exclusion of almost all others, though I still visit Pandora, Google Music, and Amazon Music depending on my location and needs. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync my iTunes playlists and music to my Android devices. I sporadically use XM/Sirius in the car, but can’t bear to spend more than about $4 a month on such service when there are so many alternatives. I’m currently on an XM/Sirius hiatus, but I do miss the clarity and the dedicated bluegrass station.
Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area. I spend a lot more time using my Lenovo Flex3 for Netflix with my Chromecast a close second.
Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all. In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and OneDrive. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital. Most technical books I read within some version of Adobe Acrobat for its ability to highlight, comment, and create notes. For most of the last year, a lot of my pleasure/fiction reading has been done via the BaltoReader app on my Amazon Kindle 7″ which allows me to read at greatly increased speeds. (I covered it and some other options here: Speed Reading on the Web and Mobile.
Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m still on a hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s an awesome service. I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.
Photos: I still do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos. In line with a general switch to OneDrive, I autoback up my photos from my phone there, but still also prefer to use Google+ photos. I will admit that some recent changes to Flickr make me want to reconsider it for broader use, but I’m not all in just yet.
Other applications and utilities
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.
I’m still using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen. Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound. Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.
In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR which I upgraded last fall to a newer model with 1TB storage , I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast. The Chromecast gets far more regular use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television. The Roku is ancient and clunky and now doesn’t support a lot of the newer apps/channels. I get regular emails from Roku about discounts for upgrading, but I’m not sure I use it enough or that the upgrades are worth replacing it. I rarely use the mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television these days.
- Cambro Containers: Over the last year, I’ve gotten a dozen large Cambro containers ranging from 2qt-8qt for more easily storing bulk goods like flour, sugar, rice, beans, etc. They store much more easily and functionally in the kitchen and the fridgerator. I don’t know how I lived without them before.
- Scraper: Almost a year ago, I got an OXO Good Grips Jar Spatula, White and it has been my single-most used kitchen item after my knife since. For size, shape, and sheer versatility it’s one of my favorite tools. I’m tempted to get rid of all of my other scrapers and buy 4 more of these.
- Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just great. I’m still very tempted to get the relatively inexpensive Aerobie AeroPress…
- Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
- 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?
For the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.
What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?
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:
- Category Theory for the Sciences by David Spivak
- Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama
- How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
- Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
- Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo – just finished and it’s awesome on so many fronts; it’s also the only physical book I think I’ve bought in the last two years.
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.
I’ll also give him a shout out for being a mathematician with a fledgling blog: Rick’s Ramblings.