Multilingual authoring for the win

I have been working on a French translation for the math book and in the process I stumbled upon some really powerful “authoring hacks” that I would like to describe here in case they might be useful for other bilingual authors and educators.

Let’s see les maths!

Before we begin with the “How it’s made” episode, let me show you some examples of the final product. I have selected the best four “backports” — explanations that now exist in the English version thanks to the additions in the French version.

  1. Reader feedback was consistent at pointing out the algebra sections as boring and TL;DR. Readers are willing to learn algebra (the rules for manipulating math expressions), but then when it comes to algebra “techniques” they are not sold on the concept. One solution to this problem would be to drop the “boring stuff” (lower the expectations of the reader), but I was having none of this. Instead I decided to just improve the explanations and add pictures: Completing the square en Français et in English.
  2. Functions (modelling superpowers) are the best thing ever, and probably the most powerful tool readers will develop in the book. This is why proper definitions and examples of functions are essential.
  3. Polar coordinates are super important—for both practical reasons and for the “aha” moment (knowledge buzz) that occur when readers understand $(x,y)$ is just one example of the many possible representations of the points in the Cartesian plane and $r\angle \theta$ is an equivalent representation (instructions that specify the position of a particular point int he Cartesian plane based on the distance $r$ and direction $\theta$).
  4. Speaking of knowledge buzz through representation theory, the book now finally has a proper motivation why readers need to think about the concept of a basis (a set of direction vectors that is used as the coordinate system for a vector space). On this one I go back to the basics—explain through an example.

Contuinuez à lire si ça a l’air intéressant. Read on if you’re interested.

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Impression from NYC and the RC

Two months ago I was on a train going from Montreal to New York City. It’s a long ride, but I used the time on the train to triage all the coding project ideas I could work on while at the Recurse Center (RC). So many projects; so many ideas.

Today I’m on the same train heading back to Montreal and have another 10 hours to triage the thoughts, experiences, and observations about the big city and the social experiment that is RC. Here is my best shot at it—stream-of-consciousness-style—before I forget it all.

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Linear algebra problem sets progress

I’ve been working on the problem sets for the linear algebra book non-stop for the past month. It’s a lot of work, but also very rewarding. I’m going through online resources and looking for inspiration by reading exams and books to find illustrative exercises and challenging problems. This leads to a lot of  learning and reviewing of ideas along the way…

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No BS math and physics v5.1 update

Over the last years, several readers uncovered mistakes in the No bullshit guide to math & physics, which I immediately fixed in the source. The errors were mostly minor, so they didn’t warrant a new edition, but once I reached a threshold of six errata, I decided it’s time to release a v5.1 update. With this bugfix update, I took the time to make some other minor improvements described below.

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Git for authors

Using version control is very useful for storing text documents like papers and books. It’s amazing how easy it is to track changes to documents, and communicate these changes with other authors. In my career as a researcher, I’ve had the chance to initiate many colleagues to the use of mercurial and git for storing paper manuscripts. Also, when working on my math books, I’ve had the fortune to work with an editor who understands version control and performed her edits directly to the books’ source repo. This blog post is a brainstorming session on the what a git user interface specific to author’s needs could look like.

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I’m still a beginner

I’ve done a lot of writing in my life. From the choose-your-own-adventure books I wrote as a kid, to the various blogs which I wrote through university, and my book-length theses I wrote in grad school. Of course, I count the No bullshit guide to math and physics and the No bullshit guide to linear algebra as major writing achievements too. So I figured, I should be a good writer by now, right? Nope!

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Progress on linear algebra

It has been almost a year now since the linear algebra book is “almost finished.” I don’t have any real, legitimate excuse for this delay. The first seven chapters are now done, and have been thoroughly edited and finalized. What is taking forever is finishing the applications chapters, which I’m being super slow at. The only thing I can say in my defense is that there are A LOT of applications of linear algebra, and writing about even a small part of them takes a lot of time.

Okay, so what’s coming?

  • The applications chapter covers topics in cryptography, error correcting codes, network coding, Fourier analysis, as well as the standard topics of least-squares fitting and solving equations.
  • I’ve decided to cut the section on linear programming (the simplex method). Despite trying very hard to make the material interesting and concise, I wasn’t able to. It’s just a boring-as-hell topic, so I don’t see the point of including it in the book. The text is almost done though, so I’ll probably release it as a free PDF for students who have to do this in their class.
  • I added a new chapter on probability theory, Markov chains, and quantum mechanics. This will be optional reading, but I think I managed to fit all the important things (Dirac notation, postulates of QM, quantum gates, examples, etc.) to make a decent introduction to the subject.

The final version of the book will be around 450 pages, which is kind of chunky. Not cool, but I think it’s good to include the chapter on probability theory and QM, even though they are not “core” for a linear algebra class. What do y’all think? Should I include prob. theory and QM or cut it to make the book shorter by 60 pages (reply in the comments or by email)?

The other good news™ is my friend agreed to prepare exercises and problems for the book, which means the first edition (v1.0) will be very solid and complete. Estimated time of release is circa February 1st. Dear readers, I apologize for the massive delays. Hang in there, LA is coming!

Linear algebra applications

I spent the last month at the chalet in Petkovo, the village where my grandfather is from. Check out the view from my office:

View from the office in Petkovo

I have good progress to report on the linear algebra book. Sandy (my editor) has gone through the first few chapters and looks on track to finish editing the book by the end of October, which means the NO BS guide to LA will be available in print soon.

On my side, I’ve been working on the applications chapter. In this chapter I discuss all the cool things you can do using linear algebra. The topics covered include linear programming, error correcting codes, solving for the voltages in electric circuits, and other applications to economics and science. It really feels good to be able to discuss all these applications, and substantiate the claim I make in the book’s introduction, namely, that learning linear algebra will open many doors for the reader.

In other news, I think I’ve finally found a civilized way to generate html and .epub versions of the book: polytexnic, which is part of the softcover platform for self-publishers. Here’s a quote from the documentation:

The real challenge is producing EPUB and MOBI output. The trick is to (1) create a self-contained HTML page with embedded math, (2) include the amazing MathJax JavaScript library, configured to render math as SVG images, (3) hit the page with the headless PhantomJS browser to force MathJax to render the math (including any equation numbers) as SVGs, (4) extract self-contained SVGs from the rendered pages, and (5) use Inkscape to convert the SVGs to PNGs for inclusion in EPUB and MOBI books. Easy, right? In fact, no—it was excruciating and required excessive amounts of profanity to achieve. But it’s done, so ha.

Stay tuned for .epub version of the books in the No BS guide series.