High prices, limited options leave students searching for textbook alternatives

24 January 2018

From The Lantern (Ohio State University):

With the closing of Student Book Exchange in December, students were left looking for alternatives to purchase textbooks other than those at Barnes and Noble.

Why the need for alternatives?

Without other options around campus, students are forced to go Ohio State’s official bookstore — arguably the only one within walking distance of campus. Barnes and Noble is the only bookstore remaining in the campus area, where students expect higher prices relative to online competitors like Amazon.

At Ohio State’s Barnes and Noble book store, for example, a copy of “Introduction to Graphics and Communications for Engineers” costs $87.25. On Amazon, the same copy costs $71.47.

In addition to its closing, on SBX’s website, a link for professors to buy textbooks for their classes redirects them to Barnes and Nobles’ official site.

Cary Amling, a fourth-year in mechanical engineering, said while she usually finds free or low-priced textbooks from friends in the same major, Amazon offers an alternative to Barnes and Noble.

Amling said she only buys textbooks if the class requires it for open-note tests.

“I buy the international versions. It’s the same content and usually way cheaper [than Barnes and Noble],” she said.

For Sarah Avdakov, a second-year in Spanish, using Facebook groups as an alternative for finding textbooks has had added benefits.

“As someone who buys and sells through the Facebook groups … it’s sort of like ‘I’ve already used this, I don’t need it anymore,’” Avdakov said. “You know there’s this network out there and you know there are people who have already gone through what you have gone through.”

Link to the rest at The Lantern

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

20 January 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

At the heart of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which thrilled audiences from 1883 to 1913, was a story about the struggle for the U.S. frontier. According to historian Richard White, the show featured the myth of the “inverted conquest,” depicting white Americans as victims suffering at the hands of their Native enemies and thus sanitizing their invasion of Indian country; in this telling, settler aggression was merely a form of self-defense. Not one to skimp on realism, William F. Cody (better known by his stage name, Buffalo Bill) enlisted dozens of Native people—some of whom had even fought against the U.S. military—to appear in his extravaganza, playing the foils. And for a brief stint in 1885, the Lakota holy man Sitting Bull, the era’s most famous Indian, was a celebrated member of the cast. A pair of new and starkly contrasting books considers his through-the-looking-glass experience starring in the endless rout of his own people.

In “Blood Brothers,” Deanne Stillman, a California-based author of four previous books about the West, offers a condensed history of the Wild West show, homing in on the unlikely bond between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull. Already regionally famous for his exploits as an Army scout and bison hunter, Cody became a bona fide national hero in 1876, when, a few weeks after the Indian victory at the Little Bighorn, he killed a Cheyenne warrior, taking “the first scalp for Custer.” Sitting Bull, by contrast, though not present at the annihilation of the Seventh Cavalry, was nevertheless blamed for the slaughter and fled to safety in Canada for five years before agreeing to confinement on the Standing Rock Reservation. Ms. Stillman explains that, despite the divergent paths they walked, a genuine friendship blossomed between the two men after the Sioux leader joined the Wild West show, begetting the slogan, “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.”

Cody banked on Sitting Bull’s notoriety to draw crowds. And spectators flocked to the show—some came to boo and hiss, but many others to gaze with fascination upon “the Napoleon of the Great Plains,” as he was billed. In exchange for Sitting Bull’s participation—which consisted of a single turn around the arena, in a buggy or on horseback—he was the highest-paid member of the ensemble and retained exclusive rights to the sale of his image and autograph, which proved to be lucrative. But by the end of his first season he had tired of life on the road and wished only to return home to South Dakota. It was there, in December 1890, that he was killed by his own people, when a group of reservation police came to arrest him in hope of containing the Ghost Dance movement.

. . . .

The novelist and film director Éric Vuillard, whose recent book about Hitler won the Goncourt Prize for 2017, shares none of Ms. Stillman’s optimism. First published in France in 2014 to great acclaim, his “Sorrow of the Earth” (translated into crisp and colloquial English by Ann Jefferson ) is a pungent work of historical reimagining, blending fact and speculation to capture the perspective of Sitting Bull and other Native performers in Cody’s show. The picture that emerges is ugly and dispiriting. Gone is the coarse but avuncular Buffalo Bill of more established narratives. Whatever financial benefit the Indian participants receive is offset by their ruthless exploitation, which includes, after each performance, the hocking of trinkets “that derive from their genocide.” And the men, women and children in the audience, who turn out in droves, are stirred less by curiosity than their unquenchable (and unselfconscious) hatred of Native peoples.

. . . .

Only in the United States, Mr. Vuillard intimates, could a huckster like Cody turn the tragedy of Native dispossession, still unfolding even as the Wild West toured across North America and Europe, into a garish, multimillion-dollar extravaganza, with the Indians playing themselves. Mr. Vuillard’s contempt for the show, its creator and its audience is palpable.

. . . .

But as with many ad hominem indictments, over time the insults that stand in for argument come to seem lazy and imprecise. The same is true of sweeping generalizations and overstatements, intended to provoke reflection but which instead begin to clutter the book. Take this: “Civilization is a huge and insatiable beast. It feeds on everything.” Or this: “Previously, no American or any Westerner in the world had ever seen anything. Up until now, all they had seen was their dreams.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG is far from a real historian, but he has read enough history to know that, over the ages, the world has been full of conquerors and their supporters. Of course, where there are conquerors, there are conquered. Since the conquered are understandably unwilling to be ruled by others, wars of all sizes and types have been a near-constant feature of the human condition. No major portion of the habitable world has been free from such activity.

One might wish otherwise (PG does), but the history of every 21st century civilization includes a significant history of warfare and conquest. Likewise the history of every 20th, 19th, 18th, etc., civilization. Ancient Egypt was a great conqueror and destroyer/enslaver of other peoples. Likewise ancient China and Rome. Arab slave traders had built a large and complex network for capturing and selling Africans as slaves long before any Western nations started the same practices.

The twentieth century records frequent depredations of one group by another:

  • The “liquidation of Kulaks as a class” ordered by Joseph Stalin from 1929-1933 resulted in the deaths of 6 million (suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) or 3 million (Soviet Archives) mostly Ukrainian peasants who were called Kulaks and identified as “class enemies” because they had owned even a very small portion of land or employed even one person.
  • The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which began when Japan invaded China with no real provocation, resulted in 20 million Chinese dead and 15 million wounded (PRC) or 1.5 million Chinese killed in battle, 750,000 missing in action, 1.5 million deaths due to disease and 3 million wounded (US academic studies).

On a personal note, while he was in elementary school, PG’s best friend was the son of a Japanese couple who (as PG realized only much later) had been interned in the US during World War II. PG played high school football (badly) on the same team with members of the Dakota Sioux Nation, whose ancestors had fought a successful battle in a losing war at a site within walking distance from the house where PG lived.

The Dakota War of 1862 began when a Dakota hunting party killed five settlers and  a council of Dakota decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley to try to drive whites out of the area. The Dakota then began attacks on hundreds of settlers and immigrants, driving them from their homes. The war ended when 38 Dakota were captured by the United States army and hanged. In Abraham Lincoln’s second annual address as president, he stated that not less than 800 men, women, and children had died.

PG is not excusing any of this behavior, but disputes the idea that the United States or Western Civilization is uniquely guilty of crimes or historically atypical behavior against ethnic groups with which it came into conflict.

No, machines can’t read better than humans

19 January 2018

From The Verge:

Computers are built to process data, but there’s a particular form of information so rich and dense in meaning that it’s beyond the full comprehension of even the most advanced AI. It’s also one that you and I process intuitively and deal in every day: language.

Understanding the written and spoken word is a big an important challenge for computer scientists. This month, a small milestone was passed when a pair of teams from Microsoft and Alibaba independently created AI programs that can outperform humans in a reading comprehension test. As you might expect, this news resulted in a flurry of coverage. Headlines like “Robots can now read better than humans, putting millions of jobs at risk,” and “Computers are getting better than humans at reading.”

But of course, it’s not as simple as that.

Technically, these headlines aren’t wrong. But, like a lot of coverage of artificial intelligence, they exploit ambiguities to exaggerate things to the point that they become incredibly misleading. (It’s ironic, considering the subject at hand is reading comprehension.) Computers can now outperform humans at reading, it’s true, but only at one very specific and constrained task — which even the creators say was never designed to capture the full complexity of what we understand as “reading.”

As is often the case in AI, the test is actually a dataset, compiled by a group of Stanford university computer scientists that includes Percy Liang and Pranav Rajpurkar. It’s called the Stanford Question Answering Dataset (or SQuAD for short), and consists of more than 100,000 pairs of questions and answers based on 536 paragraph-length Wikipedia excerpts. You then read the excerpt and answer questions on it.

. . . .

But while these questions and topics look intimidating, the test itself is easy. Think about it like this: for each question, the computers and humans know that the answer has to be in the source paragraph somewhere — and not just the answer, but the exact wording. Asking “Whose authority did Luther’s theology oppose?” seems tough, but when the source text includes the sentence “[Luther’s] theology challenged the authority and office of the Pope,” it doesn’t look quite so bad. You don’t need to understand what “authority” is, you just need to look for basic grammatical components, like the subject and object of a sentence.

All this is expected, explain Pranav Rajpurkar and Percy Liang. “A lot of these models use pattern matching to arrive at an answer,” Rajpurkar tells The Verge.

. . . .

Goldberg also notes that the baseline the computers are being measured against doesn’t really capture humanity at its finest. The 82.3 percent accuracy score comes from workers recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (standard practice in computer science), who are paid a few cents per question and have to answer under a time limit. “So maybe they weren’t really doing their best,” suggests Goldberg.

Liang adds, “Just to paint the spectrum a little bit: when you take the SATs or whatever, those are much, much harder than SQuAD questions. Even elementary school reading comprehensions are harder, because they often include questions like ‘Why did X do this?’ and ‘If this person had not gone to school what would have happen?’ So they’re a lot more interpretive. We’re not even tackling those more open-ended types of questions.”

Link to the rest at The Verge

Rare Scraps of Paper Unearthed in the Sludge of Famed Pirate Ship

14 January 2018

From The Smithsonian:

Three-hundred-year-old scraps of paper that somehow survived centuries aboard the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship are offering new insight into what pirates read during their down time, according to conservationists at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, researchers found 16 tiny scraps of paper embedded in sludge pulled from a cannon recovered from the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship vessel re-discovered in Beaufort Inlet in 1996.

. . . .

For a year, the researchers scoured the library, looking for books that referenced Hilo. Finally, in August, Kimberly Kenyon found a match in the book A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke. “Everyone crowded into my office and we started matching all the fragments we had,” Kenyon says in an interview with Gannon.

As it turned out, the book recounts the voyages of two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which set off on an expedition in 1708. Ironically, the expedition leader Captain Woodes Rogers was later sent to the Bahamas as Royal Governor in 1718 with the mandate of getting rid of pirates. The book also recounts the rescue of Alexander Selkirk, a man who had been marooned on an island for four years and who was the inspiration for the 1719 book, Robinson Crusoe.

Dvorsky reports that narratives of voyages were popular reading material at the time. While no one can say if Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, read the book himself, it’s likely someone on his crew did, either for fun or to gather ideas for places to pillage or insights into pirate-hunters of the Royal Navy.

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian


Unexpected Demand for ‘Fire and Fury’ Proves a Challenge

8 January 2018

From Publishers Weekly:

Michael Wolf’f, who is currently doing the rounds promoting his White House tell-all Fire and Fury, is having one of those once-in-a-lifetime publishing moments. His book, in the span of a little over a week, has gone from a blip on the radar to a cornerstone of the national conversation. It’s the topic of conversation at water coolers, in the media, and at the White House. The only problem? Getting a copy of it. Intense demand for the book has caught its publisher, Henry Holt, off guard as the Macmillan imprint scrambles to get copies into the marketplace.

Gauging a book’s traction in the marketplace and setting its print run is, arguably, one of the trickiest aspects of the publishing process. And Holt, in this instance, got it very wrong. Fire and Fury, which became a hot commodity last week after bombshell comments it contained from former (and current) White House staffers were released early by the media, is currently out-of-stock at the major chains, Amazon and independent bookstores. It’s available in limited supply at most libraries.

Amazon said in a statement that “due to a last-minute change in the release date [of the book] and heightened interest, we are working with the publisher to fulfill print book orders as quickly as possible.” The book is currently #1 in all major formats at the retailer (print, e-book and audio), with Amazon estimating it could be as much as two to four weeks before it can ship copies.

. . . .

Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest bricks and mortar bookseller, was also without copies of the title as of late last week. B&N said it expected new copies to reach stores later this week. Fire and Fury was #1 in both hardcover and e-book at B&N and sold more digital copies than print.

The county’s two largest wholesalers were also out of copies of the book this weekend. Ingram told PW after running out of copies over the weekend it was set to receive “thousands” and books today and thousands of additional copies throughout the next week at all of our distribution centers. “We are filling orders as these books are received,” the spokesperson said, adding that any account is encouraged to place a backorder for the book.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

A New History of the Second World War

23 December 2017

From The New Yorker:

In 1936, Charles Lindbergh arrived in Berlin to inspect the Luftwaffe. The visit had been arranged by Truman Smith, an ingenious intelligence officer who knew that Herman Göring, the Nazi air marshal, would find the American aviator’s celebrity irresistible; Lindbergh flew to Berlin with his wife, Anne, as his co-pilot, and then, along with Smith and another officer, spent a few days meeting German pilots, inspecting operations, and even flying several German planes. (The group also had dinner at Göring’s house, where they met his pet lion cub, Augie.) Lindbergh was impressed by what he saw; Göring so enjoyed impressing him that Smith was able to arrange four more visits over the next few years. Drawing on them, Lindbergh sent a dire warning to General Henry (Hap) Arnold, the commander of the U.S. Air Force, in 1938. “Germany is undoubtedly the most powerful nation in the world in military aviation,” he wrote, “and her margin of leadership is increasing with each month that passes.”

Lindbergh was right to sound the alarm about a German military buildup. But he was wrong about the strength of the the Luftwaffe, which was not as good as he—or the Nazis—believed it to be. It was true that the Germans had more planes than anyone else. But, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson explains, in “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” the Luftwaffe had a number of weaknesses, some very fundamental. A lack of four-engine bombers, for example, made it hard for Germany to conduct truly devastating long-range strategic-bombing campaigns against enemies overseas. (The Nazis never succeeded in mass-producing an equivalent to America’s B-17 Flying Fortress, which was in the air before the war.) The German Navy had no aircraft carriers, which made air supremacy during naval battles impossible. (In total, the Axis fielded only sixteen carriers; the Allies, a hundred and fifty-five.) Germany had limited access to oil, and thus to aviation fuel, and this constrained the number of missions the Luftwaffe could fly. Unlike the Allies, who excelled at building tidy, concrete runways from scratch as the front shifted, the Germans relied on whatever slapdash rural runways they could find, resulting in more wear and tear on their planes.

The Nazis were slower than the Allies to replace downed aircraft (they had less experience with high-volume manufacturing); they were also slower to replace fallen pilots (their aircraft were harder to operate). Over time, this lower replacement rate eroded, then reversed, their initial numbers advantage. They also lagged behind in various other areas of aviation technology: “navigation aids, drop tanks, self-sealing tanks, chaff, air-to-surface radar.” Some of these factors emerged only during the war. But others were clear beforehand, and analysts could have noticed them. In truth, Hanson writes, Lindbergh and many others were “hypnotized by Nazi braggadocio and pageantry.” The Nazis were apparently hypnotized, too. As a land-based power with a small navy, they needed the Luftwaffe to perform miracles (for instance, bombing Britain into submission). They did not see the Luftwaffe realistically; they deluded themselves into believing it could do the impossible.

“The Second World Wars” takes an unusual approach to its subject. The book is not a chronological retelling of the conflict but a high-altitude, statistics-saturated overview of the dynamics and constraints that shaped it.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

PG has read about 2/3 of this book and does not hesitate to say it is excellent.

He has read a great many histories of World War II, some very comprehensive and others focused on particular theaters or battles of the war.

Victor Davis Hansen has discussed quite a few topics PG hadn’t seen in any other history of this period. It’s 751 pages in print, well-written and packed with fascinating information.


17 December 2017

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

philopatric, adj.

. . . .

Of an animal or species: tending to return to or remain near a particular site, esp. the place of origin.

. . . .

1951   Ecology 32 353/1   It is quite common among birds..for the females to be somewhat less philopatric than the males, but only in the prothonotary warbler is the difference known to be as great as in the pied flycatcher.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

PG says this is a two-for-one OED entry for lovely words.

  1. Philopatric – see definition above
  2. Prothonotary – (from Wictionary):
    1. A chief clerk of one of various courts of law
    2. The chief secretary of the patriarch of Constantinople.
    3. One who had the charge of writing the acts of the martyrs, and the circumstances of their death.
    4. One of twelve persons, constituting a college in the Roman Curia, whose office is to register pontifical acts and to make and preserve the official record of beatifications.

While he can’t speak to the patriarch of Constantinople or the Roman Curia, PG has observed that most prothonotaries of the court clerk variety tend to be quite philopatric.

You can view a photo of a prothonotary warbler here.

Papers of Florence Nightingale Now Digitized Using Handwritten Text Recognition Technology

8 December 2017

From No Shelf Required:

Medical Services and Warfare, 1850-1927, the latest primary source collection from Adam Matthew Digital, has transformed access to the personal and professional writings of Florence Nightingale with exclusive Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR). The HTR technology allows these handwritten papers to be fully searchable for the first time.

. . . .

Along with the Nightingale Papers, thousands of digitized documents from prestigious archives will give students and scholars first-hand knowledge of the development of medical practice as influenced by the wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Presented across military, scientific, professional, and personal perspectives, key developments including X-rays, plastic surgery, artificial limbs and sanitation are explored, with a focus on rehabilitation, nursing and the psychological toll of war.

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

Astronauts Get Writer’s Block, Too

8 December 2017

From The New Yorker:

Not quite two years ago, I received a call from what appeared to be a Houston area code. When I answered, I discovered that the caller was not in Texas, nine hundred or so miles from my home in Knoxville, but rather two hundred and fifty miles above me, orbiting Earth. The astronaut Scott Kelly was calling from the International Space Station; he had read my book about the end of the Space Shuttle era, and he wanted to talk about his own attempts to portray the personal and emotional meanings of spaceflight in a journal he was keeping during his mission. We talked a long time that day—about Russian literature, our shared love of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” what the inside of a spacesuit smells like, and the food on the I.S.S.

. . . .

By that point, in December, 2015, Kelly had been living aboard the I.S.S. for close to nine months. A former Navy pilot and a veteran of three previous spaceflights, he was flying a mission distinct from any attempted by NASA before—a full year in space. Before humans can hope to reach a far-off destination such as Mars, scientists must first understand the effects of long-term spaceflight on the body and mind.

. . . .

In the months following that first call, Kelly told me more about his life in space—the frustration of fixing the same air purifier over and over again, the pleasures and challenges of working with crewmates from seven countries, the satisfaction of completing a difficult spacewalk, the unexpected pride of bringing a crop of zinnias back from the brink of death, the dread when an emergency call about his daughter reached the station. He also told me surprising details about his life before joining nasa, including his lifelong struggles with what he now believes was undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder.

Once Kelly returned to Earth, in March, 2016, we began working together on his memoir, “Endurance.” We spoke again shortly after its release, this past October.

M.L.D.: In the book, you write a lot about your difficulty paying attention in school. Compared with other subjects, was writing hard for you?

S.K.: Absolutely. All schoolwork was hard for me, but writing was impossible. I just didn’t have the ability to stay focussed enough to get through even a short piece of writing.

Do you remember ever enjoying writing?

No. I only remember it being a struggle.

What kind of writing did you have to do once you got to college?

I took only the minimum required English courses—two semesters of freshman English.

It was around that time that you read “The Right Stuff.”

That’s right. Reading that book gave me the motivation to become a pilot and an astronaut. I changed schools and changed my major to engineering. Learning that material was hard for me with my attention issues, but I still don’t think I could have written even a simple paper.

What kind of training in writing did you get in your career?

As a test pilot, a great deal. A big part of being a test pilot is writing a very detailed technical report on the data from each test flight—evaluations of the airplane’s flying qualities, recommendations for improvements. The hardest part of test-pilot school is not the flying but the writing.

. . . .

Since “Endurance” was released, I’ve heard you say that writing it has been the hardest thing you’ve ever done. That always gets a big laugh, because people know the other things you’ve accomplished—things like spending a year in space, commanding the Space Shuttle, and landing the F-14 Tomcat on an aircraft carrier. But I suspect you’re being at least partially serious.

There are different kinds of hard. It’s not the hard of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier. It’s not the hard of doing a spacewalk. But writing a book is the type of project that takes a persistent focus over a long period of time, a lot of energy, a lot of work. I’m not joking when I say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was pretty damn hard.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

N.Y. Times Scales Back Free Articles to Get More Subscribers

2 December 2017

From Bloomberg:

The New York Times, seeking to amass more paid subscriptions in an era of non-stop, must-read headlines, is halving the number of articles available for free each month.

Starting Friday, most non-subscribers will only be able to read five articles rather than 10 before they’re asked to start paying. It’s the first change to the paywall in five years. A basic Times subscription, with unlimited access to the website and all news apps, is $15 every four weeks.

Scoops on the Trump administration’s scandals and sexual-harassment allegations in Hollywood have already contributed to a surge in Times subscriptions, which jumped 60 percent in September from a year earlier to 2.5 million. With demand for journalism “at an all-time high,” the Times decided this was the right moment to experiment with giving away less online content for free.

. . . .

[E]nticing casual readers to open their wallets raises a tricky question: Just how many free articles do you let them sample before requiring them to sign up?

The decision comes with trade-offs. By reducing the number of free articles, the Times will likely see a drop in traffic at the website, which could hurt ad revenue.

Levien said that tightening the Times’ paywall would have a “modest impact” on its digital advertising business, which increased 11 percent last quarter from a year earlier. The increase failed to offset the continued decline in print ad sales, which fell 20 percent.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

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