Nerd Book Love

The Dover Publications folks [Link] have recently started a ‘book club’ for nerds, aka the Dover Math and Science Book Club. As you might expect from Doer, this is the good kind of book club, not the wallet scalping mode of most that call themselves book clubs and offer stercus for choices n their monthly scam.

The Doer folks started as reprinters of out-of-print/furrin nerd books. I believe their first product was a reprint of Jahnke and Emde, which is a German maths handbook of great value if you are interested in things like Riemann Zeta functions. Since then they have grown to be a publisher of greater dimension, offering high quality – printing and binding – books at good price. Yes, that already sets them apart from the majority of publishers who offer poor printing, fall apart binding, and outrageous prices. From most publishers, nerd books seldom are priced less than $50 whereas at Dover it is hard to find one over $50.

The dimensions of Dover include not just the sciences, maths, and engineering, but bairn books of all manner, arts and crafts and hobbies books (of interest to FD SCP,) and lots of CDs with collections of all manner of illustrations and art. I used their old omnibus ten CD clip art set for years back when I lived all too closely with the venereal disease known as PowerPoint.

Their nerd book club requires you to register and in turn reduces prices on books to 0.8 of list, and uses all sorts of targeted marketing communication that is infinitely more dignified than either Amazing or Barnes & Ignoble. No monthly dunnage to buy or be fines. No deadlines that have already expired before the flyer got mailed out (a tactic the book industry apparently learned from the medicalists!) Just an opportunity to buy good, often classical books at an even more than fair price.

I first discovered Dover when I was a teenager learning in high shul about logarithms and then trigonometric functions. I bough a lovely little maths handbook at the appropriate level by Carmichael and Smith, Mathematical Tables and Formulas, for the princely sum of $1, It was the first book I had bought by mail order and when it arrived it was the first paperback I had ever had that was sewn rather than perfect bound (glued.) I still have the book, it shows a bit of wear and I had to patch the spine a few years ago with binding tape, but it still holds and delivers. I still buy from Dover several times a year and after American Science and Surplus, Dover is second on FD SCP’s hate list, which is a form of high praise in itself.

Back when I was called upon to abuse teach graduate students I always tried to select a Dover book as the text since they were fairly priced. I first ran across this practice when I was in graduate shul and took an advanced mechanics course under John David Jackson at the campus of the Boneyard. Sadly his electromagnetic theory book is not published by Dover, a lapse that will go uncriticized.

But what set off this mumblage was the announcement of a memorial day sale at Dover and this statement of one of the books on sale

“This classic text explores the geometry of the triangle and the circle, concentrating on extensions of Euclidean theory, and examining in detail many relatively recent theorems. 1929 edition.”

Dover is the type of book publisher who would associate a 1929 publication date with the phrase “relatively recent”.

Truly a wonderful symbiosis between nerd and publisher of nerd books.

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Pole or Branch?

Well. All Hallows Eve is past and the week is again renewed. FD SCP and I have no seekers of confection, which may have been about us not emitting photons on the front porch but seems more likely to be an indication of the mysticism rampant in Greater Metropolitan Arab. The Sowth has a long tradition of ladling up large doses of sugar as part of the organized religion experience and evidently this has been confirmed with the association of a church holy day with evil, albeit not the evil of sugar and the holy day is one of those appropriated to bring mind fetters to the heathen.

Regardless, Monday is here again and dampened only intellectually by the promise of tomorrow’s eminent debacle and the presence in force this morning of educationalists at gym. As is my want, Monday is CBC “Ideas” day and I listened this morning to an episode from August – I am running a bit behind – of a panel discussion of the future (?) of the book publishing industry. The panel was biased, being comprised only of publishing folk and authors, and while these people are readers, they are all more something else. And their message was lacking in numbers, but that is to be expected from a program devoted to blue serge thinking. Two things rather stuck out: the declamation that a new age cohort of readers is emerging, putting the lie to the demise of the book; and the contention that the on-going change of environment may do something to alleviate the rot. I found myself divided between hope and cynicism.

But even as I was listening to these people, all of whom make their livings in some way by pBooks, argue, without supporting data, that the pBook would continue as more than a curiosity or collectible, my consideration was also encompassing a piece sent me this weekend by the Singularity people. [Link] This article was announcing the eminent publication (?) of a series of eTextbooks on biology from a distinguished institut as the first of the ‘true’ eTexts.

I should comment that I have rather less excitement for the Singularity folks than most. I have long had deep questions about their guru Kurzweil who evades too glibly too many critical questions about assumed matters that fracture what little common sense I possess. Here, for example, paper and pBooks are gone, like Southron civilization in a Yankee wind, one with the bones in the LaBrea tar pits, and only eBooks do and will remain, somehow unquestioned as supreme. I was particularly taken with the statement,

“The textbook won’t be a dead piece of paper, it will be alive, constantly updated by the latest in scientific understanding.”

The eText being celebrated is some paragon of hypertextuality that somehow magically gets archived and modernized within the precincts of a research institut without benefit of reciprocal cash flow. Now I am all in favor of the idea of teachers, at least the educated ones, not the educationalists who are only trained in educationalist pedagogy rather than the subject matter they ostensibly teach, composing their own texts. Back when I abused the minds of graduate students with lectures on mechanics, classical and quantum, I also distributed keyed notes of the meat of my lecture material. Admittedly those notes were Xeroxed since that was in the days of DOS and dot matrix printers, and I did not include derivations very much, but such are better noted by hand in a notebook since the act of writing aids the learning process.

But even as the Singularity people celebrate the success of multimedia over the statism of pBooks, I think of a recent New Yawk Times article where students celebrate the value of the pBook. [Link] I have argued the value of my colleague Temperature Gibbs Free Energy’s ‘potty factor’ as a negation although now I have to admit with tablet computers and even eReaders this may be vacant. Still, that statism has its value. Textbooks are not just learning devices; they are also sources of reference and hence must be enduring as well as accessible, neither of which fits the Singularity model. Further, not everything one has to learn is best expressed in video. It has its place but that place, in my experience is of limited measure, at least in the nerdery I am familiar with.

The Chinese were right when they said that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse. And yes, I did use the “I” word – in a quote.

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Darling Bud of May

One of the characteristics of spring – the season, not the oscillator – is renewal or regeneration. Yesterday was certainly a day of such even if it is rather late in the season for any such rosy associations with flowers budding and bees marauding.

Yesterday, courtesy of the Red Orbit news folks, I found in the RSS feed accumulator an article [Link] entitled “NIST Releases Successor To Handbook Of Math Functions”. NIST is, of course, the Yankee government National Institut of Science and Technology and the article was announcing that NIST had updated a work of wide reaching importance to theoreticians and maths modelers, the 1964 Handbook of Mathematical Functions edited by Milton Abramowitz and Irene A. Stegun, commonly called simply ‘Abramowitz and Stegun’, or in modern irreverence, ‘A&S’. This 1064 page tome is a true handbook (handbuch) that is at once one of the books that must be available to anyone interested in doing applied maths above the level of solving quadratic equations and thereby one of the books that puts the lie to eReaders and tablets like the iPad.

This book was originally published on good paper, hard bound with cloth binding by the Yankee Government Printing Office (GPO). In recent years a rather sad paperback version has been published by Dover, which is also surprising considering their reputation for quality paperbacks. Along with a few other basic books – Gradshteyn and Rhyzhik’s integral tables, Korn and Korn’s handbook are two other key pieces – this book resides close at hand, consulted almost every day and several times a day for the proper form of an equation. No theorems here, or extended discourse, only the tools of the applied mathematician in one large container.

I acquired my hardbound copy when I was a senior in undergraduate shul, and lived with it until it was lost in a fire in 2001. I quickly replaced it with the Dover shabbiness and it continues to hold pride of place in my study. The last intense discourse with it was a couple of months ago when I needed a rather hefty Gauss-Hermite quadrature. Hefty in the sense that I needed more points than provided in the tables of A&S and needed to know how to go generate a bigger set from scratch. That information was forthcoming, saving me days in library stacks or waiting on inter-library loans stuck out here in the intellectual wasteland that is Greater Metropolitan Arab although I did need days to actually generate the weights and abscissas to adequate accuracy. This process was simplified enormously by the work of a colleague, Magnetic Induction Force, whose decades old work on simultaneous root computation of polynomials allowed evasion of numerical quagmires.

The new work is a combination of a web site and a book, this time published by Columbia, whose web site yesterday indicated some fundamental inability of the publishing house to cope with the responsibility of the tome. Happily the stalwarts of Amazon and Barnes and Noble held true and I have the task of clearing space in bookcase shortly. This rush to purchase reflects that although SCP blogs, he is not really a Web 2.0 person. Being such out here in the hinterland would display an irresponsibility not found in nerds. While the urbanite – bog or nerd – may access the WS almost anywhere in their daily haunts, that is not the case here on top of Brindlee (sp?) mountain. My access stops not far from my domicile, and there are scant places in town where it resumes, which is probably why I don’t see iPads all over Marshall county.

If ever there were an information repository I would like to be portable, resident on a tablet or eReader with several of its closest friends, this is it. And its absence from the stable of eBooks offered by Amazon or Barnes and Noble, because of the inability of Kindle or Nook to display equations and graphs, is their damnation to little more than panderers of near-pornography.

Not that the new version, with four editors,

is without concern. For one thing, the size is smaller, both in page area and in number of pages. Yet with claims of new material one has to wonder what erroneous decisions have been made that resulted in the loss of vital need-to-know information. No work of this sort can be complete but it is all too easy for overconfident editors to prune heart wood while adding petals. Still, it is an indication that there is yet hope for the continuation of the species.

Inadequate Contentions

That Amazon is disabling the text-to-speech feature of the  Kindle is no longer quite news. [Link] There are however, some aspects of this that trigger some consideration chains.

That Amazon would give in on a feature that to most of us is as irrelevant as power windows were to the functionality of the Edsel is glaringly obvious. If your core business is selling books, predominantly paper, a few audio, and only a scantling few electronic, that you can win a contest against a minor technological feature with a long history of supportive case law is irrelevant. What is important is that a boycott by the Authors’ Guild would hit in the enormously large, enormously soft underbelly causing a massive loss of financial body fluids.

Socially one would expect the matter to be a wash. While the demographic that the Kindle is aimed at – urban non-driving commuters – probably want books spoken to them, they probably do not want the words from a device with the form factor of a Kindle. Such is more readily desired from an MP3 player or a cellular telephone. Score one for Victrionix over Leatherman.

But that same generality is the root of the primary consideration chain. Will Amazon continue to adhere to its preservation of the Kindle as a proprietary, effectively autarkic, architecture? The concept of the eBook reader is an attractive one to me. Aside from my consistent objections of inadequate resolution, the other problem is the availability of books. Clearly, I am not anywhere near the target demographic. Nonetheless, the idea of being able to cart around a few hundred of the works in my library in my briefcase, in the volume of one work, is compelling, almost emotional.

I have commented previously on the absence of nerd books from the eBook catalogs. Beyond this however, a significant component of my library, that I should like to cart about on my eReader, are copies of my own writings. These writing range from books through draft papers and briefings, and simple electronic notes. Most, bordering on all, have figures, diagrams, graphs, and, most importantly, equations! And the primary formats used on the Kindle do not support these things. Indeed, most eBook formats do not even support figures or pictures,

There is a format that does support such, the PDF-A, for archive, format. And it is very easy to generate PDF-A files of all of my writings, at least the wones I am talking about.

So, Amazon and Authors’ Guild, get you derrier inertia overcome and either fix the eReaders or get a decent eBook format.

Textbook Immorality

The other day I had occasion to compare notes with a couple of colleagues who are members of the Arab Science and Technology Interest Group. It seems that one of the subjects discussed at the meeting was the high cost of college textbooks and the rather poor ethical behavior of faculty perpetrating this.

Hence I was piqued by an article in the student newspaper at the campus of the Boneyard [Link] on this very subject. I was particularly taken by the interview statement

“she agreed that the science textbooks were far more expensive than other books. ”

Since I still have daughter in shul and occasionally am presented the opportunity of purchasing for her with some of the vendors who extend me a discount, I have some familiarity.

The practice these days seems to be for publishers to bring out a new edition of texts every year. Combined with their practice of providing adopting professors will all manner of lecture materials and syllabi gratis, this means that only current – new – editions may be used in classes. I have colleagues at local shuls who corroborate this and disturbingly some – too many – are absolutely complacent with this.

When I was lecturing back in the days when chromatic television was young and the dinosaurs were sagging, I always selected text based on a trade-off of quality of information presentation and cost. My preference was to select books published by Dover. I also shared out copies of my lecture notes and derivations.  I understand that modern professors who have such an outlook distribute open source textbooks, usually in electronic form.

The thing that particularly bothers me about this is that as we move away from the classic lecture format into on-line presentation, the textbook takes on even greater significance and the shell game of annual editions more morally reprehensible. Since publishers are corporate organizations, orthogonal to any ethical considerations not survival in nature, the responsibility for rectifying this inequity must reside with the academics themselves.

And yes, nerd books do cost more than non-nerd book, in the main. But when I buy something for my use it is either tax deductible as a professional expense, or I can live with an older, used edition.

[1] Actually, as I understand it, the meeting is more of a coffee and teas symposium held weekly at a local coffee house, Rooster’s, which is by far the better such emporium in Greater Metropolitan Arab. The better is multidimensional, including superior brew, wider selection, more decadent nibbles, and overall exceptional environment.