Cory Doctorow on writing for a living

There is an interesting talk about who controls computers via HN.

At around 51:30, there is an off-topic question from the audience, which leads to an great answer:

Q: What can you say about making a living writing things. Will you advise it?

A: If you want to make a living writing things I would advise you to stop trying, because that is a bit like saying “I want to make a living buying lottery tickets”. Sounds like a If you don’t have a plan B for earning a living, you have the wrong career. Writing is a very very high-risk entrepreneurial venture that almost everyone who tries it fails at. Some people have succeeded using CC and some fraction without using CC, but they are rounding errors against all the people who try to earn a living with writing.

Ouch! I guess he is talking specifically about writing fiction. Textbooks are OK. I mean somebody has to teach people science. So I will keep going despite this advice.

▷▷   M A T H

I am thinking of de-emphasizing  the “minireference” brand for the upcoming release. It just doesn’t tell that the product is an actual textbook-level coverage. Maybe we could have TUTORIALS in the title? “MATH and PHYSICS textbook”. Ok back to work now. 4 days left till launch.

Reading analytics for eBooks

We are coming into very interesting times for publishing books because the new ePub 3 format that is coming up will have the possibility to track reading behaviour. From the readers’ perspective, this isn’t necessarily good because it amounts to a massive invasion of privacy, but from the perspective of someone trying new ways to teach mathematics like me, this would be a major tool.

“So much of the time, it’s an editor and agent and publisher telling you, ‘This is what readers want,’ but this is hands-on reader data,” says Ms. Fenske

I love the above quote as it succinctly describes what is going on. We don’t need the publishers anymore. I mean yes, the average writer might still need some support along the way, say to write some js tracking code, and install piwik, but in general the hacking-author can go a long way on his/her own now.

But J. says I should delegate more, so let us look at what platforms are out there. For $20 per month, Hyptype will let you see what is going on in your book. I love the idea. This is perhaps the first good startup idea I have heard about in a long time. The value proposition is loud and clear. GA for eBooks. Bam! I will definitely have to get in touch with them.

What other platforms are out there? The WSJ article lists several other companies doing stuff in that market. First there is big A, with their kindle dev program which is a way to create interactive reading stuff on the kindle. The startup Coliloquy is using the kindle dev API to offer choose-your-own-adventure kind of books. Very cool, though a little Kindle specific. It seems that every one is getting  in on this stuff.

Like I said, interesting times are upon us.


I have been working every day on the linear algebra chapter in order to push them forward as much as possible before September 1st. I can’t say that it is going too well. The old cadence of one section per day seems to hold true regardless of how much effort I put into the process. I guess there is some  natural daily capacity limit for the human mind (at least mine) for the production of thoughtful written word.

This is not good in terms of having Minireference ready on time for the first day of classes. Let’s do a quick assessment right now:

  • Math: 90% done.
  • Physics and Easy Calculus digression: 20% done (will require 4 days)
  • Vectors: 95% done
  • Mechanics: 80% done
  • Calculus: 90% done
  • Electricity and Magnetism: 70% done (couple of days)
  • Waves and Optics: 20% done (~ a week of work)
  • Linear Algebra: 60% done (~ a week to go)

From the above estimates, it means that I am about 3 weeks away from a finished product. But wait! Recall that any time estimate ought to be doubled if you want to have a realistic time estimate for the real completion date. What does that leave us with? Aug 19th –2 montsh–> Oct 19th. Not to mention that I have to give a talk in Singapore in the meantime. Hmm… Not good. Shall we aim for a launch date mid-term?

Perhaps more important to the whole entreprise and this September’s market test is the support material and not the actual book content. These include:

  • Book cover design (Charlotte?)
  • website (design, pitch text, PDF sample)
  • One-page condensed content flyers for Calc & Mech
  • (print) / ejunkie (pdf) purchase page tests
  • facebook page for Minireference Co. ?
  • Who can sell for me at McGill while I am in Bulgaria?
  • Concordia sales?

Wow! That is quite a bit of things to do before September 1st. It is kind of depressing to think about all that needs to be done. I have to go into another energy level if I am to get through this. Well it is not like I have never overcome obstacles before. I just have to stay together and minimize the down-days. Keep your eyes on the product. The world belongs to those that ship!

How to learn PHYSICS from the web

An interesting discussion over on HN was going down today about online resources for learning Physics. Some good links came from that. The calculus notes here: and a very comprehensive collection of physics links: it is really worth taking a look at the resources linked to from there.

I will close on a personal recommendation from 1914. Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson

Math problems solved on computers

Here is a link to an interesting talk/text about how we could get people to like MATH: use computers for the tedious steps.

He has a good point, but I still think children should know how to do math with only pen and paper.

Once you see what the computer can do (solve quadratic equation), then you should be able to solve it on your own too. View source, yes, but also explain source.

Come to think of it “explain source” is quite good as a name for what Minireference is meant to be. This could be the turning point in terms of naming. Come to explain source dot com and learn about anything. For any function/operation/algorithm out there, I will give you a js/py implementation and explain the source code from first principles. For example, a physics simulation engine could be used to teach you classical mechanics, wink wink.

Ok. So I hear you saying now “I am reading this blog and there is one guy saying that computers are good and another guy saying that people need to understand the details and be able to do things with pen and paper. A modernist giving a TED talk and the blogger is some sort of idealist who wants people to actually understand math.” and wondering where the story may be going.

In reality, there are not two opposing views. Both points are important. Computers need to be used to do cool math and physics stuff and demonstrations. Afterwords, the interested student can explore what is under the hood of each function/operation/algorithm whenever he wants to learn how it works. But definitely one should always start with the applications of any given concept. This is the pitch part of any lesson. Why would I want to know about that? People really don’t care about what you have to say in general, and on top of this you will be teaching them math which generally doesn’t get warm receptions as people have phobias and complexes. The pitch therefore becomes that much more important.

Ok I will end this with the summary. To teach concept c, you have to start with a really good story about c, to get people interested, then you show some cool applications of c (possibly using a computer for more wow effect) and then you explain what c is all about. Most importantly (in math) you need to discuss the connections between c and other stuff.

Summer progress

As of changeset 135:2b29bc006dbb in the minireference repository, we have a 70% finished book. Still lacking are certain sections in E&M and Linear Algebra. After today’s reading of some of the Mechanics material, it makes me think that another pass might be necessary there too, in order to really give good explanations.

The text is the problem right now though. I would say that the main thing separating me from the v3.0 release on September 1st is the lack of figures and exercises. A figure is worth a thousand words, and so I think I really need to work on that (TikZ? scanned drawings?). As for exercises, it goes without saying that half of the learning happens while solving exercises so it would be a shame not to have exercises.

There are just about 23 days left before September 1st though. How are we going to do that?
Magic. Magic my friends. We are going to use magic, the skill I learned back in my Electrical Engineering days when I was able to put away n exams and m assignments in one week. Three weeks is a lot of time.

Let’s have a draft ready by the end of the week, then focus on proofreading and inventing fun exercises.