In Memoriam: Millard Kaufman, WWII Veteran and Front for Dalton Trumbo

In Memoriam: Millard Kaufman, WWII Veteran and Front for Dalton Trumbo

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n Veterans Day this year, which lands very near the release of the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston, I thought I’d take a moment to remember my old friend and mentor Millard Kaufman.

Millard not only fought for us in the war, but when he came back home he helped to defend our right to free speech and our ability to pursue happiness in a very fundamental way in his career as a screenwriter.  I often hear friends in the entertainment industry say, “This isn’t brain surgery, we’re not saving lives, here.” but in a great sense Millard was doing that in small steps throughout his career. Millard Kaufman enlisted in the Marines in 1942, served on Guadalcanal, landed at Guam with the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) where he wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette about the battle, then participated in the Battle of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division.

Millard Kaufman

I met Millard 20 years ago in 1995 on a trip to Los Angeles with Matt Gross while we were ostensibly programming the 1995 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium entitled “Framing Society: A Century of Cinema” which coincided with the 100th anniversary of film.  Dr. John Irwin, the long-time head of the Writing Seminars Department at Johns Hopkins, had provided us with a long distance introduction as Millard was a Hopkins alum from the class of ’39. So we met him at his home in the Hollywood Hills looking out over a forested sanctuary. Over our first simple tuna fish sandwich lunch, we began a friendship that spanned the next decade and a half.

Most may remember Millard Kaufman, if at all, as the co-creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, who he based on his uncle, while many others will know his Academy Award nominated films Take the High Ground (1953) or Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). I’ll always remember him for his charm, his wry wit, his ability to swear comfortably in any company, and his sense of fairness.

Millard Kaufman in his youth

Apparently Hollywood itself has glossed over his contribution to helping to maintain Dalton Trumbo’s writing career in the recent release of Trumbo (2015), in which he isn’t mentioned (or portrayed on screen). [I’ll note here that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and may boycott it for the slight.] It is here in which Kaufman’s strong internal moral compass pressured him to help ensure Trumbo’s freedom of speech and, in part, his writing career. In short, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) pressured Trumbo which resulted in Trumbo’s being blacklisted in Hollywood and effectively destroying his writing career.

Trumbo and Kaufman shared the same agent at the time, George Willner. One day, relatively early in Kaufman’s career, Willner approached him to see if he would be willing to put his name on the script Gun Crazy that would turn into the 1950 film-noir crime classic to allow it to get made. As Millard told me many times, “I didn’t have much sense then, but at least I had sense enough to say, ‘Let me talk it over with Laurie’ [his wife].” “But we discussed it and we believed it was rotten that a man couldn’t write under his own name,” Kaufman told Daily Variety in 1992. That same year Kaufman, a board member of WGAw, officially requested that the Writers Guild take his name off the credits and replace it with Dalton Trumbo’s name. Kaufman’s fronting for Trumbo helped allow the film to get made, and Trumbo’s career to continue on, even if in the dark. As a board member of the Writer’s Guild Millard helped to restore credits to many writers of the blacklist era who were similarly slighted as a result of their politics at the time. It’s a travesty, that a film gets made highlighting this exact period in Trumbo’s life, but Millard’s small contribution to it has been all but forgotten.  Fortunately there are enough who do remember to tell the story.

Millard Kaufman

When I think of Millard and his various contributions, my favorite is always that he wrote the stunning script for Bad Day at Black Rock (MGM, 1955), a superb Western suspense film starring Spencer Tracy as a one-armed veteran facing mysterious enemies in a small desert town. The film shows how post-World War II America could be be both horrifyingly racist and cowardly, but it also showed a way out through Tracy’s character which always reminds me of Millard’s high-mindedness. It was such a great film, I was personally honored to screen it on November 3, 1995, as the premiere film in Shriver Hall after we had mounted a year-long renovation of the film equipment, screen, and sound system. The day before we were all honored to have Millard speak on “Censorship in Film” as part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium.

For those who never had the chance to meet him, I’m including a short 3 minute video of several clips of him talking about a variety of topics.  The Millard portrayed here is the no-holds barred man I’ll always remember. Thanks for fighting for all of us, Millard!

 

For those looking for more information about Millard Kaufman, I’ll include the following articles:

Millard Kaufman, on writing novels. Quoted in Vulture while discussing his debut novel Bowl of Cherries.

Kaufman hands to head

“…[Millard] is the only first-time novelist I’ve met who could relate first-hand writing advice from Charlie Chaplin.”

Jordan Bass, editor, McSweeney’s in Salon (April 21, 2010). 

 

4-04-2008 Los Angeles ,CA Novelist Millard Kaufman, who published his first novel, "Bowl of Cherries," at age 90, at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Mr Kaufman is a veteran of WWII , a former newspaper copy boy, and a Hollywood screenwriter. He is also co-creator of Mr Magoo. photo © Jonathan Alcorn
4-04-2008 Los Angeles ,CA
Novelist Millard Kaufman, who published his first novel, “Bowl of Cherries,” at age 90, at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Mr Kaufman is a veteran of WWII , a former newspaper copy boy, and a Hollywood screenwriter. He is also co-creator of Mr Magoo.
photo © Jonathan Alcorn

In Memoriam: Millard Kaufman, WWII Veteran and Front for Dalton Trumbo was originally published on Chris Aldrich

To Purchase, Rent, or Pirate? The Broken Economics of Textbooks in the Digital Age

To Purchase, Rent, or Pirate? The Broken Economics of Textbooks in the Digital Age

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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.

Reading 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.

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).

bookstore-bookshelves-1024x768

 

Purchasing Options

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.

Free Texts

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.

HintAbe 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.

Book Outlets

Bookstores

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.

Campus bookstores

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.

Used bookstores

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.

Online Retailers

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.

Meta-Retailers

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”.

A screencapture of GetTextbook.com's search and sort functionality and layout
Example of GetTextbooks.com‘s search/sort functionality

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.

Black Market

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.)

 Further Reading

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.

To Purchase, Rent, or Pirate? The Broken Economics of Textbooks in the Digital Age was originally published on Chris Aldrich

Little Free Library #8424 (Adams Hill Branch) Grand Opening

Little Free Library #8424 (Adams Hill Branch) Grand Opening

About two years ago while surfing online I came across the concept of the Little Free Library and  instantly fell in love.  It turned out I had been driving by one on my commute regularly and had always wondered what it was and what was going on.  I immediately had big dreams for building my own.  I surfed their website for ideas and building plans.  I registered for my placard. I received my placard. I drew up elaborate plans for building my own.  I debated buying new parts versus recycling or upcycling parts. [Trigger warning for bibliophiles: addictive material to follow] I spent hours surfing photos of Little Free Libraries on their Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Flickr pages.  This is when Little Free Library Envy set in… for almost two years.

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I’ve finally broken the spell! Supplies have been purchased. Work has commenced.  Drilling and mounting have been completed.

The first branch of the Adams Hill Little Free Libraries is now open!

 

Little Free Library #8424 Grand Opening

You’re cordially invited to the grand opening of the first Little Free Library in Adams Hill (Charter #8424).

Date: Sunday, August 9th, 2015
Time: 4pm – 5pm
Location: 1411 Dartmouth Drive, Glendale

Lemonade and cookies will be served.

Come chat with your neighbors, say hello, and check out the library.  If you’re so motivated, feel free to bring a book (or two) to help stock the library.

More information about the Adams Hill “branch” can be found at our library’s page Little Free Library #8424, but the scant basics are below:

  • The books in our library are always free and never for sale.
  • Feel free to take a book.
  • If you have a book you’d like to share, please feel free to donate it.
  • When you’re done with your book: return it, pass it along to a friend, or release it back into the wild.
  • You don’t need to “check the book out” or “check it in”, but we do encourage you to sign our guest book and participate via Book Crossing.

 

More Details About Little Free Library #8424

First, What is a Little Free Library?

It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share. You can, too!

If you want to learn more about the movement or host your own Little Free Library, please visit their website.

Location

Little Free Library Charter #8424 is located at 1411 Dartmouth Drive, Glendale, CA 91205. It is located at the dog-leg on Dartmouth on the west side of the street. It is just west of S. Adams Street, roughly at the top of the hill.

A library with a view of the mountains
A library with a view of the mountains

Our Library Philosophy

Though Chris built and hosts the library, he’s simply a steward or caretaker, of the branch. The library is free and open for the use of our friends and neighbors in Adams Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods. If you’ve stopped to check things out, you’re automatically an associate librarian. It is appreciated if everyone helps to care for and maintain the library.

General Suggestions

  • The books in our library are always free and never for sale.
  • Feel free to take a book.
  • If you have a book you’d like to share, please feel free to donate it.
  • When you’re done with your book: return it, pass it along to a friend, or release it back into the wild.
  • You don’t need to “check the book out” or “check it in”, but we do encourage you to sign our guest book and participate via Book Crossing [see below].

Arrangement of Books

Since there isn’t a full time librarian and only so much space, there isn’t (usually) a set order to the arrangement of our books. Since it’s been a long trip up the hill, feel free to stop for a minute to cool off, consider yourself an associate librarian, and rearrange them to suit your whimsy – it is your neighborhood library after all. We only ask that you try to keep any children’s books on the lower shelf for short legs and arms to be able to reach, and that your arrangement ensures all the books fit into the library just in case it rains.

Possible suggestions for arrangements might include:

  • by size
  • by color
  • by the order in which you’ve read them
  • by author’s first name
  • by publication date
  • by publisher or imprint
  • by topic in reverse alphabetic order
  • by best to worst (in your opinion or someone else’s)
  • by those you’ve read and those you haven’t

The options are infinite, so be creative.

Book Crossing

All of our books in the Adams Hill Branch are “traveling” books. We try to register all of them on Book Crossing. This is a free web service for watching the journey of individual books as they meander about the world. If you’d like to, you can enter the BCID number inside the front of the book to see where it’s been and even where it goes after you’ve read it. You can also enter any data, thoughts, reviews, etc. for the book on your own, as well as create a note about where you re-released it. (Note that we don’t expect all of our books to necessarily come back to our branch, but we do ask that you pass them along when you’re done with them.)

Pending people updating the location of books removed, check availability at our Book Crossing Zone.

Donating Books

We gladly accept your donated books.

If you have more books than the little library will fit, please don’t simply dump them! You can leave them in a covered box preferably on our stairs/landing – this will keep our sprinklers and the elements from ruining them or you can contact me through Nextdoor.com. If the library has more books than will fit, we’ll occasionally rotate them to help improve the diversity of the available collection over time.

If you’d like to, please write the titles of your donations into our guest book as this will help us to register them on Book Crossing. (You’re welcome to register them on book crossing yourself prior to donation as well.)

Guest Book

Our library has guest book and a pen. Feel free to write down any thoughts, comments, or suggestions you might have about the library and leave them in the library for the other associate librarians who happen by.

You’ll find a red composition book (and pen) inside our library where you can leave your thoughts and comments. Kindly leave the guest book in the library – it’s the one book we have that doesn’t circulate!

In some part the guest book is meant to help catalog the progress of our library. Below are some suggestions for what you might write into our guest book when you visit:

  • Patrons/Associate Librarians are encouraged to (optionally) write in the books they donate or check out.
  • Say hello to your fellow neighbors! You can simply write down the day and time of your visit along with a note for future visitors.
  • Bringing back a book? Feel free to write in a short review of the book you’re returning so others will know what they’re getting into. (If you give it a number of stars, be sure to indicate out of how many possible, so we know your scale.)
  • Liked a book you borrowed? Flip back into the guest book to see who made the donation and write in a thank you to the donor.
  • Have a book you’ve been longing for? Write it in and maybe a fellow neighbor has a copy they can donate on a future visit.
  • Visiting our branch from far away? Be sure to write down your hometown and country  so we know how far away our books travel.
  • Maybe you’re waxing poetic when stopping by? Feel free to write a short poem or haiku about our library.

Wish List

Our wish list has two functions:

  1. Write down any books you’d love to see come to our library so you can borrow them in the future.
  2. Read the list to see if you have any of the books you might donate so that others can enjoy them.

A Tiny Library with Its Own Social Media

To help support the neighborhood library (in the digital age every library needs a blog right?), I’ve created a website for it at: http://lfl8424.boffosocko.com/. The site has a variety of resources relating to our branch. For those that prefer to follow and interact with the content via social media, there are also the following:

 

Building Process

For those interested in my particular process, here’s how I did it.

Recently I saw something a bit more quirky and interesting than my original plans that I could up-cycle, so I made the purchase (happy belated birthday to me)!  It was a nice little metal newsstand that Cost Plus World Market had put on clearance as they’re no longer going to carry it.  The last one the store had was a bit dinged up and had some scratches, so I negotiated an additional discount. It’s got two spacious shelves with two doors including a glass fronted one, and it’s got the capacity for at least 6 linear feet of books.

A trip to the hardware store for a small sheet of plywood, an 8′ post, and some wood screws, machine screws and nuts finished up the material needs.  I cut the post down to 54″ and cut the plywood down to fit underneath the newsstand.  I pre-drilled some small  holes in the plywood to screw the plywood down onto the post.  Then I drilled holes into the bottom of the newsstand and fit it down on top of the plywood and attached with the screws and nuts.

Photo of plywood, ruler, tape measure, screws, nuts, sandpaper, pencil, and Little Free Library placard.
Parts and hardware for building my Little Free Library

I posted a note on Nextdoor.com and within just minutes had an offer from two neighbors to loan me a post hole digger. (Thanks Rob and Scott!) The following day the 2 foot hole was open and the library was planted.  (And I returned the post hole digger to Rob.)

Following this, I dug up a handful of seeder books, registered them with BookCrossing.com and put them on a GoodReads.com shelf, and put them into the library.  We’ve technically been open for a week and without any publicity at all, we’ve had over a dozen books flow through the library already.

Total cost out the door: just under $200.

Little Free Library #8424 (prelaunch)
Little Free Library #8424 (prelaunch)
The library finally planted in the ground.
The library finally planted in the ground.
A library with a view of the mountains
A library with a view of the mountains
The first books move in
The first books move in

Little Free Library #8424 (Adams Hill Branch) Grand Opening was originally published on Chris Aldrich

What I Use: August 2015

What I Use: August 2015

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

F

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.
  • 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.

What I Use: August 2015 was originally published on Chris Aldrich

Why Aren’t Math Textbooks More Straightforward?

Why Aren’t Math Textbooks More Straightforward?

Some General Advice for Math Students of All Ages

I recently saw the question “Why aren’t math textbooks more straightforward?” on Quora.

In fact, I would argue that most math textbooks are very straightforward!

The real issue most students are experiencing is one of relativity and experience.  Mathematics is an increasingly sophisticated, cumulative, and more complicated topic the longer you study it. Fortunately, over time, it also becomes easier, more interesting, and intriguingly more beautiful.

As an example of what we’re looking at and what most students are up against, let’s take the topic of algebra. Typically in the United States one might take introductory algebra in eighth grade before taking algebra II in ninth or tenth grade. (For our immediate purposes, here I’m discounting the potential existence of a common pre-algebra course that some middle schools, high schools, and even colleges offer.)  Later on in college, one will exercise one’s algebra muscles in calculus and may eventually get to a course called abstract algebra as an upper-level undergraduate (in their junior or senior years).  Most standard undergraduate abstract algebra textbooks will cover ALL of the material that was in your basic algebra I and algebra II texts in about four pages and simply assume you just know the rest! Naturally, if you started out with the abstract algebra textbook in eighth grade, you’d very likely be COMPLETELY lost. This is because the abstract algebra textbook is assuming that you’ve got some significant prior background in mathematics (what is often referred to in the introduction to far more than one mathematics textbook as “mathematical sophistication”, though this phrase also implicitly assumes knowledge of what a proof is, what it entails, how it works, and how to actually write one).

Following the undergraduate abstract algebra textbook there’s even an additional graduate level course (or four) on abstract algebra (or advanced subtopics like group theory, ring theory, field theory, and Galois theory) that goes into even more depth and subtlety than the undergraduate course; the book for this presumes you’ve mastered the undergraduate text and goes on faster and further.

A Weightlifting Analogy

To analogize things to something more common, suppose you wanted to become an Olympic level weightlifter.  You’re not going to go into the gym on day one and snatch and then clean & jerk 473kg! You’re going to start out with a tiny fraction of that weight and practice repeatedly for years slowly building up your ability to lift bigger and bigger weights. More likely than not, you’ll also very likely do some cross-training by running, swimming, and even lifting other weights to strengthen your legs, shoulder, stomach, and back.  All of this work may eventually lead you to to win the gold medal in the Olympics, but sooner or later someone will come along and break your world record.

Mathematics is certainly no different: one starts out small and with lots of work and practice over time, one slowly but surely ascends the rigors of problems put before them to become better mathematicians. Often one takes other courses like physics, biology, and even engineering courses that provide “cross-training.”  Usually when one is having issues in a math class it’s because they’re either somehow missing something that should have come before or because they didn’t practice enough in their prior classwork to really understand all the concepts and their subtleties.  As an example, the new material in common calculus textbooks is actually very minimal – the first step in most problems is the only actual calculus and the following 10 steps are just practicing one’s algebra skills. It’s usually in carrying out the algebra that one makes more mistakes than in the actual calculus.

Often at the lower levels of grade-school mathematics, some students can manage to just read a few examples and just seem to “get” the answers without really doing a real “work out.” Eventually they’ll come to a point at which they hit a wall or begin having trouble, and usually it comes as the result of not actually practicing their craft.  One couldn’t become an Olympic weightlifter by reading books about weightlifting, they need to actually get in the gym and workout/practice. (Of course, one of the places this analogy breaks down is that weightlifting training is very linear and doesn’t allow one to “skip around” the way one could potentially in a mathematics curriculum.)

I’m reminded of a quote by mathematician Pierre Anton Grillet: “…algebra is like French pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one’s hands to the dough.” It is one of the most beautiful expressions of the recurring sentiment written by almost every author into the preface of nearly every mathematics text at or above the level of calculus. They all exhort their students to actually put pencil to paper and work through the logic of their arguments and the exercises to learn the material and gain some valuable experience.  I’m sure that most mathematics professors will assure you that in the end, only a tiny fraction of their students actually do so. Some of the issue is that these exhortations only come in textbooks traditionally read at the advanced undergraduate level, when they should begin in the second grade.

Patissiere puts their hands to a pie crust in a rustic kitchen
“Algebra is like French Pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one’s hands to the dough.” -Pierre Anton Grillet

“It’s Easy to See”

A common phrase in almost every advanced math textbook on the planet is the justification, “It’s easy to see.” The phrase, and those like it, should be a watchword for students to immediately be on their guard!  The phrase is commonly used in proofs, discussions, conversations, and lectures in which an author or teacher may skip one or more steps which she feels should be obvious to her audience, but which, in fact, are far more commonly not obvious.

It’s become so cliche that some authors actually mention specifically in their prefaces that they vow not to use the phrase, but if they do so, they usually let slip some other euphemism that is its equivalent.

The problem with the phrase is that everyone, by force of their own circumstances and history, will view it completely differently.  A step that is easy for someone with a Ph.D. who specialized in field theory to “see” may be totally incomprehensible for a beginning student of algebra I in the same way that steps that were easy for Girgory Perelman to see in his proof of the Poincaré conjecture were likewise completely incomprehensible for teams of multiple tenured research professors of mathematics to see. (cross reference: The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe by Donal O’Shea (Walker & Co., 2007))

How to Actively Read a Math Text

The Problem

So how are students to proceed? It will certainly help to see a broader road map of what lies ahead and what the expected changes in terrain will look like. It will also help greatly if students have a better idea how to approach mathematics for themselves and even by themselves in many cases.

In my opinion, the most common disconnect occurs somewhere between high school mathematics and early college mathematics (usually a calculus sequence, linear algebra) and then again between linear algebra/differential equations (areas which usually have discussion followed by examples and then crank-out problems) and higher abstract mathematical areas like analysis, abstract algebra, topology (areas in which the definition-theorem-proof cycle of writing is more common and seemingly more incomprehensible to many).

The first big issue in early college mathematics is the increased speed at which college courses move. Students used to a slower high school pace where the teachers are usually teaching to the middle or lower end of the class get caught unaware as their college professors teach to the higher ability students and aren’t as afraid to leave the lower end of the spectrum behind. Just like high school athletes are expected to step up their game when they make the transition to college and similarly college athletes who go pro, mathematics students should realize they’re expected to step up their game at the appropriate times.

Often math students (and really any student of any subject) relies on the teacher assigning readings or problems from their book rather than excersizing their curiosity to more avidly and broadly explore the material on their own.  If they can take the guidance of their teacher as well as that of the individual authors of books, they may make it much further on their own.  High school teachers often skip sections of textbooks for time, but students should realize that there is profitable and interesting material that they’re skipping.  Why not go and read it on their own?

Earlier I mentioned that an average undergraduate abstract algebra textbook might cover the totality of a high school algebra textbook in about three pages.  What does this mean for upper level mathematics students?  It almost always means that the density of material in these books is far greater than that of their earlier textbooks.  How is this density arrived at?  Authors of advanced textbooks leave out far more than they’re able to put in, otherwise their 300 page textbooks, if written at the same basic level as those that came before would be much more ponderous 1000+ page textbooks.  What are they leaving out?  Often they’re leaving out lots of what might be useful discussion, but more often, they’re leaving out lots of worked out examples. For example, a high school text will present a definition or concept and then give three or more illustrations or examples of problems relating to the concept.  The exercises will then give dozens of additional drill problems to beat the concept to death.  This type of presentation usually continues up to the level of calculus where one often sees massive tomes in the 800+ page length. Math texts after this point generally don’t go much over 300 pages as a rule, and it’s primarily because they’re leaving the examples out of the proverbial equation.

The Solution

How does one combat this issue?  Students need to more actively think back to the math they’ve taken previously and come up with their own simple examples of problems, and work though them on their own.  Just because the book doesn’t give lots of examples doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

In fact, many textbooks are actually presenting examples, they’re just hiding them with very subtle textual hints. Often in the presentation of a concept, the author will leave out one or more steps in a proof or example and hint to the student that they should work through the steps themselves. (Phrases like: “we leave it to the reader to verify” or “see example 2.”) Sometimes this hint comes in the form of that dreaded phrase, “It’s easy to see.” When presented with these hints, it is incumbent (or some students may prefer the word encumbering) on the student to think through the missing steps or provide the missing material themselves.

While reading mathematics, students should not only be reading the words and following the steps, but they should actively be working their way through all of the steps (missing or not) in each of the examples or proofs provided. They must read their math books with pencil and paper in hand instead of the usual format of reading their math book and then picking up paper and pencil to work out problems afterwards.  Most advanced math texts suggest half a dozen or more problems to work out within the text itself before presenting a dozen or more additional problems usually in a formal section entitled “Exercises”. Students have to train themselves to be thinking about and working out the “hidden” problems within the actual textual discussion sections.

Additionally, students need to consider themselves “researchers” or think of their work as discovery or play.  Can they come up with their own questions or exercises that relate the concepts they’ve read about to things they’ve done in the past? Often asking the open ended question, “What happens if I…” can be very useful.  One has to imagine that this is the type of “play” that early mathematicians like Euclid, Gauss, and Euler did, and I have to say, this is also the reason that they discovered so many interesting properties within mathematics.  (I always like to think that they were the beneficiaries of “picking the lowest hanging fruit” within mathematics – though certainly they discovered some things that took some time to puzzle out; we take some of our knowledge for granted as sitting on the shoulders of giants does allow us to see much further than we could before.)

As a result of this newly discovered rule, students will readily find that while they could read a dozen pages of their high school textbooks in just a few minutes, it may take them between a half an hour to two hours to properly read even a single page of an advanced math text. Without putting in this extra time and effort they’re going to quickly find themselves within the tall grass (or, more appropriately weeds).

Another trick of advanced textbooks is that, because they don’t have enough time or space within the primary text itself, authors often “hide” important concepts, definitions, and theorems within the “exercises” sections of their books.  Just because a concept doesn’t appear in the primary text doesn’t mean it isn’t generally important.  As a result, students should always go out of their way to at least read through all of the exercises in the text even if they don’t spend the time to work through them all.

One of the difficult things about advanced abstract mathematics is that it is most often very cumulative and even intertwined, so when one doesn’t understand the initial or early portions of a textbook, it doesn’t bode well for the later sections which require one to have mastered the previous work.  This is even worse when some courses build upon the work of earlier courses, so for example, doing well in calculus III requires that one completely mastered calculus I. At some of the highest levels like courses in Lie groups and Lie algebras requires that one mastered the material in multiple other prior courses like analysis, linear algebra, topology, and abstract algebra. Authors of textbooks like these will often state at the outset what material they expect students to have mastered to do well, and even then, they’ll often spend some time giving overviews of relevant material and even notation of these areas in appendices of their books.

As a result of this, we can take it as a general rule: “Don’t ever skip anything in a math textbook that you don’t understand.” Keep working on the concepts and examples until they become second nature to you.

Finally, more students should think of mathematics as a new language.  I’ve referenced the following Galileo quote before, but it bears repeating (emphasis is mine):

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.

Galileo Galilee (1564–1642) in Il saggiatore (The assayer)

Though mathematical notation has changed drastically (for the better, in my opinion) since Galileo’s time, it certainly has its own jargon, definitions, and special notations.  Students should be sure to spend some time familiarizing themselves with current modern notation, and especially the notation in the book that they choose.  Often math textbooks will have a list of symbols and their meanings somewhere in the end-papers or the appendices. Authors usually go out of their way to introduce notation somewhere in either the introduction, preface, appendices, or often even in an introductory review chapter in which they assume most of their students are very familiar with, but they write it anyway to acclimate students to the particular notation they use in their text.  This notation can often seem excessive or even obtuse, but generally it’s very consistent across disciplines within mathematics, but it’s incredibly useful and necessary in making often complex concepts simple to think about and communicate to others. For those who are lost, or who want help delving into areas of math seemingly above their heads, I highly recommend the text Mathematical Notation: A Guide for Engineers and Scientists by my friend Edward R. Scheinerman as a useful guide.

A high school student may pick up a textbook on Lie Groups and be astounded at the incomprehensibility of the subject, but most of the disconnect is in knowing and understanding the actual language in which the text is written.  A neophyte student of Latin would no sooner pick up a copy of Cicero and expect to be able to revel in the beauty and joy of the words or their meaning without first spending some time studying the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the language.  Fortunately, like Latin, once one has learned a good bit of math, the notations and definitions are all very similar, so once you can read one text, you’ll be able to appreciate a broad variety of others.

Actively Reading a Mathematics Text Review:

  • Work through the steps of everything within the text
  • Come up with your own examples
  • Work through the exercises
  • Read through all the exercises, especially the ones that you don’t do
  • Don’t ever skip anything you don’t fully understand
  • Math is a language: spend some time learning (memorizing) notation

Exceptions

Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. Not all mathematics textbooks are great, good, or even passable.  There is certainly a spectrum of textbooks out there, and there are even more options at the simpler (more elementary) end, in part because of there is more demand.  For the most part, however, most textbooks are at least functional.  Still one can occasionally come across a very bad apple of a textbook.

Because of the economics of textbook publishing, it is often very difficult for a textbook to even get published if it doesn’t at least meet a minimum threshold of quality. The track record of a publisher can be a good indicator of reasonable texts. Authors of well-vetted texts will often thank professors who have taught their books at other universities or even provide a list of universities and colleges that have adopted their texts. Naturally, just because 50 colleges have adopted a particular text doesn’t necessarily mean that that it is necessarily of high quality.

One of the major issues to watch out for is using the textbook written by one’s own professor.  While this may not be an issue if your professor is someone like Serge Lang, Gilbert Strang, James Munkres, Michael Spivak, or the late Walter Rudin, if your particular professor isn’t supremely well known in his or her field, is an adjunct or associate faculty member, or is a professor at a community college, then: caveat emptor.

Since mathematics is a subject about clear thinking, analysis, and application of knowledge, I recommend that students who feel they’re being sold a bill of goods in their required/recommended textbook(s), take the time to look at alternate textbooks and choose one that is right for themselves.  For those interested in more on this particular sub-topic I’ve written about it before: On Choosing Your own Textbooks.

Parting Advice

Often, even with the best intentions, some authors can get ahead of themselves or the area at hand is so advanced that it is difficult to find a way into it. As an example, we might consider Lie groups and algebras, which is a fascinating area to delve into. Unfortunately it can take several years of advanced work to get to a sufficient level to even make a small dent into any of the textbooks in the area, though some research will uncover a handful of four textbooks that will get one quite a way into the subject with a reasonable background in just analysis and linear algebra.

When one feels like they’ve hit a wall, but still want to struggle to succeed, I’m reminded of the advice of revered mathematical communicator Paul Halmos, whose book Measure Theory needed so much additional background material, that instead of beginning with the traditional Chapter 1, he felt it necessary to include a Chapter 0 (he actually called his chapters “sections” in the book) and even then it had enough issueshewas cornered into writing the statement:

…[the reader] should not be discouraged, if on first reading of section 0, he finds that he does not have the prerequisites for reading the prerequisites.

Paul Halmos in Measure Theory(1950)

This is essentially the mathematician’s equivalent of the colloquialism “Fake it ’til you make it.”

When all else fails, use this adage, and don’t become discouraged. You’ll get there eventually!

 

Why Aren’t Math Textbooks More Straightforward? was originally published on Chris Aldrich