Tag Archives: Books

How long does it take you to buy a book?

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This will come as a surprise to exactly no one but I have a big fractal book wish list. I’ve actually become kind of obsessive about it since I’ve been focusing more on a specialized area of fractals, while still considering options for broader fractal surveys.

Back when I was writing A Programmer’s Approach, my method for selecting books was simple. Search “fractal” in Amazon. Buy any book that looked vaguely helpful and that cost $0.01 (+ $3.99 shipping). Of course even then there were special books that I would pay a little extra for, but overall I was looking for a broad survey of authors and perspectives.

Considering that I have a full bookshelf now of fractal books, and that the bookshelf has started to bleed over onto my desk, I do not need more general books.

But, and again this might surprise you, specialized books are expensive. A lot of the better fractal books fall into one of two categories: college textbook or obscure lecture notes from a math conference. In college spending $120 on a textbook was a necessary evil. In later life, especially one that expects it to take a while to make $120 from a fractal book, that price is a little steep.

I’ve started to camp on books, throwing their Amazon listing into a wishlist called the “buying queue” and I’ve noticed something weird. Usually, even an expensive book, will have two sellers who have the lowest price. These two prices will leapfrog each other down by a few pennies several times a day. It can sometimes take weeks of waiting, but you can knock a couple of bucks off the book’s price if you wait long enough.

However, if you wait too long and somebody snatches one cheap copy up, the other cheap copy shoots up in price to match the second lowest price, and they fight it out again. I’ve observed this behavior on comic books, DVD’s, regular books, etc. I’m pretty sure it must be a setting in the Amazon Marketplace, coupled with an algorithm. Either that, or all marketplace sellers are exhibiting the same behavior.

With the buying queue, a good five minute segment of my day is looking at a book, gleaning as much information as I can from the preview or the reviews, and deciding if this is the day I will buy it, or if it’s the day I decide to take it off my list entirely, or bump it down to a secondary wish list I check less often. I’ve had books I’ve debated over for months, doing the online equivalent of picking it up, flipping through the pages, and putting it back down again.

With reference materials in particular I want as little overlap as possible, while still getting something that builds on other material I have. I prefer electronic books just because I will read them more often, but still acknowledge that there’s nothing like flipping through a real book. I have limited shelf space, but I’m always willing to clear away the chaff for something great. And, probably most difficult, all of these books aren’t popular, so there’s virtually no reviews or sales rank to give me a sense of whether it is actually good. Occasionally I can find an academic review if I do some digging, but that only sometimes helps.

Do you think it’s too late to start a Kickstarter campaign so I can buy more books. I’d do it for my Star Trek comics as well, but I have a hard enough time convincing others that reading comic books is “research.”

Ah well. Maybe I’ll go to an actual bookshop this weekend and stare at those books for a while. Happy Friday all.

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Waste of Time

I spent a good chunk of my weekend purging books, CD’s, computer games, console games, board games, and DVD’s from my life. The stated purpose of this latest purge was to raise some funds for a new fractal book I wanted to buy, and also the more general goal of weeding out the things in my life (and house) that are taking up space.

This is a task I meet with equal parts enthusiasm and grouchiness. I like clearing out new spaces in my office, getting clutter off desks, making it so less of my books have to be stacked on top of each other in my shelves, etc. I even get a certain good feeling from giving myself permission not to read something I thought I should back in the day.

But the task takes up a lot of time. I have media on all three floors of the house, and particularly in my office, shoved into just about every nook and cranny. To save space in my operational life, I keep the empty cardboard boxes for PC games (yes, we used to have those before there was such a thing as Steam) back in my storage area. At the moment the storage area cannot be walked into without moving a bunch of objects, and balancing awkwardly on one foot, but if I’m selling a game I want to get rid of its accompanying box.

And there are decisions to be made. I’ve gotten rid of things in the past that I’ve later regretted and re-bought. That is a waste of both time and money. Usually the two year rule works well for me. If I haven’t touched this in two years, it’s a potential for the chopping block, though there are lots of things that meet those conditions that still get a free pass.

Long story short I spent most of Friday, and a good portion of Saturday morning on this task, and earned $44 (about half of which was for the console games which took all of about five minutes to go through).

And then I determined that I didn’t want to buy the book that had kicked off this whole process in the first place.

OK, in the long run it wasn’t so bad. I got double fuel points for the Amazon gift card. After a couple of hours more weeding down my Fractal Book wish list, I did get a new book on L-systems that’s on its way, with budget left over for more. And I didn’t waste $36.80 on a book that wouldn’t have helped me much. Plus I gained a lot of space, though you’d hardly know it by looking.

I get frustrated at such expenditures of time because I would rather be spending my time creating new things. And it forces me to grapple with the fact that at varying times in my life I just let a lot of junk pile up, and now I’m trying to sift through it to determine if it has any meager value for the future. And these projects are always the sort of thing that start as a small project, and spin out into something that takes half the weekend.

I know that tasks like this are good in the long run. There’s a difference between busy work, procrastination, and actually organizing one’s life. And I got money from stuff that was sitting around gathering dust. Plus gathering research materials is a part of working on a book, even though it doesn’t feel like much. This is why authors should never figure out their hourly rate for creating a book. It would depress you to no end.

My wife says I should not let these things bother me, that the clearing away of junk is valuable in its own right, and of course she’s right. I spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t working on my book, and it isn’t all wasted time. In fact most of it are the parts of life that bring me the most joy. I wouldn’t have much to write about if all I did was work and sleep.

Now I just have to figure out how not to be such a grouch about it.

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Information Glut

One of the details that struck me in watching some of the early X-Files episodes was how Mulder and Scully looked at the case-files. In the first episode Scully is reading a newspaper clipping that has been taped to a piece of paper. I remember preparing reports and research in highschool and early college. I tended to use very “dead tree” methods, photocopying articles out of books, printing out stuff from online, and shoving all of this material into large black binders.

How much things have changed in the intervening years.

Now my process involves a combination of Google searches and bookmarking web-pages, and downloading scholarly articles, cataloging them in Calibre, and sending them to my Kindle to review. As I’m preparing material for another book, I’m amazed at all the stuff I downloaded during the production of Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach that got thrown on a flash drive and never looked at again.

In addition to making me wonder what the plural of thesis is, looking at all of these papers (many of which are frankly far above my head even with the pretty pictures) I’m struck by how I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject. Part of me thinks at some point I should study another area of significance, maybe global warming, or even other areas of math. But the truth is this one field is so rich, and touches so many parts of life, science, and engineering, that I’m probably going to spend the rest of my life working on and writing about fractals.

One of the nicknames for a PHD is “Piled Higher and Deeper” meaning you know an incredible amount about a very narrow range of things. I’m not going after a doctorate, at best I might be trying to be the next Martin Gardner, but I still find myself amazed at just how much access I have to knowledge that would have seemed unthinkable 10-15 years ago. I’ve downloaded course slides from university classes in the Netherlands, dissertations from Germany, and papers from dozens of conferences.

I’m still old fashioned in some ways. I may load all this stuff onto a Kindle, but I keep a notebook handy to take notes. And I still refer to my old printouts, if for nothing else but to find the books and articles the material came from. And I write books as signposts along the way as a way of encapsulating what I’ve learned, for fear that the knowledge is somehow fleeting. I look back at some programs I wrote in highschool, or even a few years ago for programmer’s approach and wonder, how the hell did I do that (Green ink is very important not only for other programmers but for yourself)?

How do you compile your research? Is everything on the computer, or are you still a very physically oriented sort of person?

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Making a Fractal Coloring Book

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A lot of the projects I take on are just natural extensions of the things I immerse myself in (i.e obsess about). Even before being contacted by a publisher I’d been considering a fractal coloring book project for a little while. I had a lot of the programs I’d need, and 1000’s of images I’d generated in producing my previous two fractal books and subsequent posts. All I  would need to do is select the best of them, maybe write a good intro, and I’d have a quality book.

I think the only way we take on big projects is by deluding ourselves into thinking they’re not big projects, then plowing forward full steam ahead.

For a start, fractals that are good to color have a very different set of criterion from most of the fractals I’d been creating up to this point. You want something intricate but not so detailed that you can’t color it. You want some kind of pattern, but nothing too regular. You want something very open to interpretation, but with some common points of reference to give you guidance. You want a good variety of images, while providing people enough of what they’ll like. You need to cater to different difficulty levels, and because I like to teach about fractals as well, you need to use different generation techniques.

That’s a lot to think about when you’re trying to make 25 images.

Creating fractals for this book fell into one of a few different modes. There were a few, including the dragon curve and the Apollonian Recursive Gasket (see below), that were “classic” fractal designs that I felt just had to be in a book like this (though for the life of me I couldn’t get a Mandelbrot Set image I was happy with, maybe next book). In the case of the gasket, my insistence on including it might have had a little to do with spending 8 hours trying to write the code that would correctly generate the image (including learning a new way to think about circles, more on that some other time).

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Other designs were created by looking at things around me, a pattern on a quilt, a set of kitchen shelves, and playing around with some L-Systems interpretations of those objects until I got something I liked. Or other times I would draw out a small axiom on paper, sketch out a potential replacement rule, and just see what happened.

The third method involved perusing the thousands of Julia and L-System pictures I’d previously generated for my two fractal books and for posts on this site (this is where my new $50 kindle came in handy). The Julia images in particular took a lot of work, as the generation time to get an image with a good drawing edge is pretty long (2-8 hours on my quad-core laptop). L-Systems by comparison usually take at most only a few minutes, meaning you can experiment a lot more with tiny changes to see what the new result might be. This is probably why 19-20 of the images in the final text are variations on L-Systems and Turtle graphics.

Overall I produced well over a hundred images, culled from potential lists in the 1000’s. By comparison the selection process from those 100 was pretty simple: print the image out, run it by my wife to see if it’s a good candidate, and try not to make too many agonized screams when an image that took many hours to generate is rejected. Actually, my wife had a lot of good suggestions for potential ideas, or questions about tweaks I could do to make an image better.

The initial arrangement of the final images was done on my basement office floor, with one of us playing goalie to keep the dogs from walking all over the paper. Some things are just easier when you can see them out in front of you. We marked each image with a crayon indicating the rough level of difficulty, and moved sheets around until we got an arrangement we liked.

And this was all before I’d written a word.

Just to be clear, this was all great fun for me. I’ve seen other examples of coloring books where people slap together a bunch of stock images, or throw a bunch of their own previous work in without a lot of thought as to whether it would be fun to color. I didn’t want to make a book like that. I always like to create something new. Sure, there were times when I’d create 15 images and only get one good one, but that’s pretty much the experience with every creative endeavor. And there were plenty of “rejected” images that I had a new idea about, and made something even better.

This applies to just about any kind of writing. Writing something you later cut is never wasted effort. Everything is part of the process of making the final product, and even the things you look at and go “what was I thinking” had a part in shaping the final whole. And into making you a better writer or artist.

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My new book, Adult Coloring Book: Fractals is available now on Amazon. Published by Green Frog Publishing. You can see some of the fractals from the book, and color art by my wife (“the little red-haired girl”) on my new website bentrubefractals.com.

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