I Can’t Find My Paperless Office For All The Books

I tidied up my office recently and managed to clear out about a couple of boxes full of old paper. Some of these were working drafts of research papers, covered in scrawl (usually red because it shows up more), some were book chapter mark-ups, and some were things like project meeting plans that I could scribble on as people spoke. All of this went into either the secure waste bins (sekrit stuff) or the general recycling because I do try to keep the paper footprint down. However, my question to myself is two-fold:

  • Why do I still have an office full of paper when I have a desktop, (two) laptops, an iPad and an iPhone, and I happily take notes and annotate documents on them?
  • Why am I surrounded by so many books, still?

I don’t think I’ve ever bought as many books as I have bought this year. By default, if I can, I buy them as the electronic and paper form so that I can read them when I travel or when I’m in the office. There are books on graphic design, books on semiotics, books on data visualisation and analysis, and now, somewhat recursively, books on the end of books. My wife found me a book called “This is not the end of the book”, which is a printed conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I am looking forward to reading it but it has to wait until some of the other books are done. I have just finished Iain M. Banks latest “The Hydrogen Sonata”, am swimming through an unauthorised biography of Led Zeppelin and am still trying to finish off the Derren Brown book that I have been reading on aeroplanes for the past month or so. Sitting behind all this are “Cloud Atlas” and “1Q84”, both of which are officially waiting until I have finished my PhD application portfolio for creative writing. (Yes, dear reader, I’m nervous because they could as easily say ‘No’ as ‘Yes’ but then I will learn how to improve and, if I can’t take that, I shouldn’t be teaching. To thine own dogfood, be as a consumer.)

A book that I hope to read soon!

A book that I hope to read soon!

Why do I still write on paper? Because it feels good. I select pens that feel good to write with, or pencils soft enough to give me a good relationship to the paper. The colour of ink changes as it hits the paper and dries and I am slightly notorious for using inks that do not dry immediately. When I was a winemaker, I used black Bic fine pens, when many other people used wet ink or even fountain pens, because the pen could write on damp paper and, even when you saturated the note, the ink didn’t run. These days, I work in an office and I have the luxury of using a fountain pen to scrawl in red or blue across documents, and I can enjoy the sensation.

Why do I still read on paper? Because it is enjoyable and I have a long relationship with the book, which began from a very early age. The book is also, nontrivially, one of the few information storage devices that can be carried on to a plane without having to be taken from one’s bag or shut down for the periods of take off and landing. I am well aware of the most dangerous points in an aircraft’s cycle and I strongly prefer to be distracted by, if not in-flight entertainment, then a good solid book. But it is also the pleasure of being able to separate the book from the devices that link me into my working world, yet without adding a new data storage management issue. Yes, I could buy a Kindle and not have to check my e-mail, but then I have to buy books from this store and I have to carry that charger or fit it next to my iPad, laptop and phone when travelling. Books, once read, can either be donated to your hosts in another place or can be tossed into the suitcase, making room for yet more books – but of course a device may carry many books. If I have no room in my bag for a book, then I don’t have to worry about the fragility of making space in my carry-on by putting it into the suitcase.

And, where necessary, the book/spider interaction causes more damage to the spider than the contents of the book. My thesis was sufficiently large to stun a small mammal, but you would not believe how hard it was to get ethical approval for that!

The short answer to both questions is that I enjoy using the physical forms although I delight in the practicality, the convenience and the principle of the electronic forms. I am a happy hybridiser who wishes only to enjoy the experience of reading and writing in a way that appeals to me. In a way, the electronic format makes it easier for me to share my physical books. I have a large library of books from when I was younger that, to my knowledge, has books that it is almost impossible to find in print or libraries any more. Yet, I am in that uncomfortable position of being a selfish steward, in that I cannot release some of these books for people to read because I hold the only copy that I know of. As I discover more books in electronic or re-print format (the works of E. Nesbit, Susan Cooper in the children’s collection of my library, for example) then I am free to use the books as they were intended, as books.

What we have now, what is emerging, certainly need not be the end of the book but it will be interesting to look back, in fifty years or so, to find out what we did. If the book has become the analogue watch of information, where it moved from status symbol for its worth, to status symbol for its value, to affectation and, now, to many of my students, an anachronism for those who don’t have good time signal on their phones. I suspect that a watch does not have the sheer enjoyability of the book or the pen on paper, but, if you will excuse me, time will tell.

The Future of the Text Book: A Printbook, an eText and a Custom walk into a bar.

Well, it’s still Banned Books Week so I thought I’d follow up on this and talk about text books. I’ve just come from a meeting with a Leading Publishing House (LPH) who, in this fine age of diversification, have made some serious moves into electronic publishing and learning systems. This really doesn’t identify any of the major players because they’re all doing it, we just happen to have a long term relationship with LPH. My students are not the largest purchasers of text books, a fact that LPH’s agent confirmed. While Engineers buy a lot of books, Computer Scientists tend not to buy many and will, maybe, buy one serious text if they think it will be of use to them.

It’s not hard to see why. Many programming language or application books are obsolete within weeks or months, sometimes even before they arrive, and when the books cost upwards of $100 – why buy them when you can download all of the documentation for free? Unlike Humanities, where core texts can remain the same from year to year, or Engineering and Physics, where the principles are effectively established, my discipline’s principles are generally taught by exposure to languages and contextualisation in programming. There are obvious exceptions. Bentley’s Programming Pearls, almost anything by Knuth and certain key texts on algorithms or principles (hello, Dragon Book!) all deal with fundamentals and the things that don’t change from year to year – however, this is not the majority of recommended texts in CS, which tend to head towards programming language guides and manuals. With very few exceptions, any book on a specific programming language has a shelf-life and, if we are updating the course to reflect new content, then we really shouldn’t be surprised if students don’t feel the need to keep buying the new book.

Ah, the Dragon Book.

In other disciplines, the real text book is still being sold extensively and, interestingly, in Australia the eBook is generally sold in a bundle with the real text, even when we know that the student has some form of eBook reader. The model appears to be “work at home from the book and have the eCopy for skimming at Uni”. Both of these forms are still the text book and, if we’re talking about the text book, it appears to be that if students see the need, they’ll buy it. However, the price is becoming more and more important. Is there a widespread model where students can only buy the chapters they need, much as you can buy individual songs from the iTunes Store, and wait until later to see if they want to buy the whole thing? Well, yes, but it’s not widespread in the text book world and, as far as LPH is concerned, it’s not something that they do. Yet.

What is interesting is the growing market in textbook mash-ups. It is now possible to pick a selection of chapters from a range of a publisher’s offerings, add some of your own content, get it checked for copyright issues and then *voila* you have your own custom printed book with only the chapters that you need. All thriller, no filler. Of course, any costs involved in this, especially costly copyright issues, get passed on to the people who buy it. (The students.) This, fairly obviously, restricts the mash-ups to easy to mash materials – books only from one publisher where the IP issues are sorted, open-source images and the like. One problem that surfaces occasionally are people who put their own work in to be included in such a custom run and it turns out that some of the content is not actually original. This can be an oversight and even due to inheritability sometimes. Suppose that Person A created a course from a text, B inherited the course and made some changes based on the course, then continued to change it over the years. It’s a Boat of Theseus problem because the final work is the work of A and B but probably retains enough of the original text source to cause copyright issues when combined back into a new book. Copyright issues can often be overcome but it increases costs and, as stated, that costs the student more.

Given how expensive text books (still) are and that the custom market still operates at a high-ish price point, I’m still waiting for one of the LPHs to take the radical step of providing books at a price point that makes them effectively irresistible. Look at the Orange Penguin reprints, which I do often because I own a million of them, they cost $10 (cheaper in a bundle) and you can pick them up anywhere. Yes, there is an amelioration of the editing costs because these are all reprints of previous versions. Yes, there are no cover arts costs and they are using relatively mainline stock for the printing. But, hang on, isn’t this exactly what we can do in the custom sense, if we stick to jamming together existing chapters? Yet my early researches indicate that there is no large market of custom textbooks that are anywhere near this cost.

I’m going to put up the naïve and relatively ignorant flags here as I’m sure that LPH actuaries have been all over this so, rather than say “Surely…” (and have to kick myself), let me make this a wish.

“I wish that I could assemble a useful book for my students from key chapters of available works and, with low presentation costs, get a book together for under $40 that really nailed the content required for a year level.”  I’d be even happier if that $40 was $20. Or even free. There are some seriously successful free text book initiatives but, as always, there is that spectre of reimbursement for the effort expended by the author. I’m certainly not advocating doing authors out of their entitlements but I am wondering how we can do that and, with minimal overhead, make all of these books as useful and widespread as they need to be. 

There are some books and sets of chapters that I’d love my students to have, while respecting the author’s right to receive their entitlements for the work and setting a fair price. To be honest, it really seems like I’m expecting too much. What do you think?

Brief but good news

A happy surprise in my mailbox today, but first the background. We’ve been teaching Puzzle Based Learning at Adelaide for several years now, based on Professor Zbigniew Michalewicz’s concept for a course that encouraged problem solving in a domain-free environment. (You can read more details about it by searching for Puzzle Based Learning with the surnames Falkner, Michalewicz and Sooriamurthi – we’ve had work published on this in IEEE Computer and as a workshop at SIGCSE, among several others.) Zbyszek (Adelaide), Raja (Sooriamurthi, a Teaching Professor at CMU) and I teamed up with Professor Ed Meyer (Physics at Baldwin-Wallace) to put together a textbook proposal to help people teach this information.

Great news – our proposal has been accepted by an excellent publishing house who appear to be genuinely excited about the book! As this is my first book, I’m very excited and pleased – but it’s a great reflection on the strength of the team and our composite skills and background, especially with the inter-disciplinary aspects. I’ve seen a lot of exciting work come out of Baldwin-Wallace and, while this is my first time working with Ed, I’m really looking forward to it. (Zbyszek, Raja and I have worked together a lot but I’m still excited to be working with them again!)

Good news after a rather difficult week.