Tag Archives: Research

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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Research Mode

Image Source: Tumblr

Image Source: Tumblr

I just got my first interlibrary loan yesterday (ILL for all you bibliotheque nerds). It is an interesting mix of adult responsibilities and genuine excitement. The book is due on April 30th (no renewals), and I will be fined $2.50 a day if it is not returned. There’s an envelope it must be returned inside, and a sleeve that is stuck to the outside cover. The cheapest I could have bought this book was $20, with most copies ranging more in the $50-$60 range. As I continue on the journey from a general interest in fractals to a more specialized exploration, there are only going to be more such books and loans (though I still have to fight off the hoarders mentality that I’d have if I had a University Library’s budget).

It struck me the other day how different the way I conduct research now was from when I was in highschool and college. The internet was a strong resource in both times, but where I’d be printing off papers in college and compiling them in a notebook, now I am just throwing things on my tablet. I found a 2000 page math encyclopedia on the Internet Archive the other day, and I can carry it around in my bag without any back strain.

Yet I still find myself working with paper when it comes to taking notes and working things out. Part of this is simply mobility, it’s easier to take notes on paper at idle moments than it is to use a computer. And part of it is that I believe as many do, that taking notes on paper is a better way to retain information and to organize thoughts. Plus it’s a way to make use of the dozens of notebooks that have piled up in my house that have yet to be filled with brilliant short stories.

I’m a little more specialized with these notebooks than college. I got into a genuine discussion with Brian over whether Moleskine is pronounced “Moleskin” or “Moleskeen” (I prefer the later even though it is likely wrong). And I have all different sizes, larger stay at home notebooks for rough work, smaller reporter pads for technical notes, and mid-size for more general information. My “go bag” has a tablet, an eReader and six notebooks!

And even when I find myself frustrated with pay-walls for articles, or expensive books, I am amazed at how much knowledge is just out there for free. Even with the potential for steep fines, getting a book from an inter-library loan was cheaper and almost as quick (if not faster) than buying the book myself. I do admit to some impatience with having to wait for physical materials, both waiting for them to arrive, and waiting for time to read them at home. It’s why I’m a fan of writing affordable eBook reference materials. But sometimes there’s nothing like a good primary source from an author whose name you need a pronunciation guide for.

How do you do research? Are you still a pencil and physical book sort of person, or is Google the way to all knowledge?

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One of the results of previous research projects was Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach. If you’re looking for a gateway to understanding fractals, particularly how to make them, it’s not a bad place to start, and it’s free on Kindle Unlimited.

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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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Working with tablets

Microsoft’s recent series of ads for the new Surface Pro includes the tagline “The tablet that can replace your laptop”. In the sense that the tablet costs roughly what 2-3 decent laptops cost ($899) I would agree. But this isn’t really a post about ragging on Microsoft (it’s generally not nice to kick someone when they’re down). Instead, I’d like to take on the notion of tablets replacing your laptop.

I’m a cheapskate when it comes to tablets. The idea of spending more than $99 on a single piece of tablet hardware seems silly to me when I can buy more power in a laptop. So most of what I own are 7″ tablets and eReaders, including the newest fifth generation Amazon Fire (which I discussed last week). Some of you with 10″ tablets or more disposable income may have different opinions, but listed below are some of the ways tablets have helped and hindered my writing work.

Reading (Superior to laptop, both superior and inferior to paper books): I am a voracious reader, and tablets let me bring a whole library books with me wherever I go. They’re not as good to flip through for specific bits, though tablets outstrip most eReaders in this respect. And physical books can’t travel as easily to the places I actually have time to read (I can’t plug a paper book into a car stereo and have it read to me).

Research (Internet research okay, Wikipedia good, not as good as paper books): The same principle of being able to carry more with me applies, and it is nice to not have to lug around 900 page programming books. But for fractal research, the real book is much better. Basic internet research can be slower especially for a multi-tab person like myself, but specialized apps like Wikipedia hold up to their laptop equivalents.

Writing new drafts (Terrible): Even with an external keyboard, tablets will never match up to the capabilities of even the most stripped down computer. And onscreen keyboards, even on larger tablets, feel unnatural and are prone to fat-fingering or auto-correct. There may be an argument that tablets slow you down in the same ways writing a draft by hand does, but I don’t have to fight my hand to write the word I meant to say.

Writing notes (On par, maybe even better): I’ve been keeping notes for my latest book on my new Kindle. It’s nice to have by the bedside, and I have more confidence the notes won’t be lost. Still slow going, but not bad.

E-mail (On par, more convenient locations): For complex or long e-mails it’s not as good as a laptop, but for a basic conversation it’s nice to just sit in the living room rather than having to go down to my office.

Sorting through files (Great): At the moment I’m going through several 1000 images selecting some for an upcoming project. This is tedious and necessary work, and something that’s nice to do when I’m watching a show or waiting on a program to run. My old tablets weren’t as good at this task, but the new Fire lets me toss 4GB of image files on without disturbing all of my personal entertainment media.

Revision (Helpful aid, but the real work is being done on the keyboard): I find it extremely helpful to always have access to my latest or previous drafts of a book on the tablet. It’s something I can easily put side-by-side with my computer, particularly when I’m re-writing new sections from scratch, or when I need to catch up by having a section read to me. But the idea of doing complex editing like rearranging paragraphs, words, or sections on a tablet just doesn’t work for me. I need the finer control of a mouse.

Social Media (Twitter great, Facebook okay, WordPress good for looking at stats and not much else).

Programming (N/A): If there’s a way to write code on the tablet I’d love to try it, but for now I like IDE’s on real machines.

My general conclusion is that a tablet is a great way to complement tasks I perform on the computer, or to allow me to work in odd locations at shorter intervals. But my real work is still done on computers.

Discuss.

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