Wednesday, 17 April 2013

the book has no future

In his recent article in Chemistry International [1], Peter Atkins wrote:

The book has no future. Most of us who have been brought up surrounded by the tactile pleasure of paper books (p-books) have a sentimental attachment to them, relishing their feel, enjoying being curled up with them in their friendly presence, responding perhaps subconsciously to their smell, enjoying their instant access, finding it easy to browse, serendipitously opening a page and lighting on an enjoyable enlightenment. For those like us in this respect, there will always be paper books, just as there are vintage cars for enthusiasts. The rest of the world, however, will have moved on.
With all respect to the author of the classic Physical Chemistry textbook — the Russian translation of which I was using in my university days — I disagree. The printed book existed for hundreds of years and it will take more than advent of cheap e-book readers to make p-book extinct. It was predicted that compact discs will kill vinyl, then that DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD will kill CDs, and that mp3 downloads will render all of the above obsolete. Today very few people remember what DVD-Audio or SACD was all about, while vinyl sales are on the rise. (The only SACD I have is 30th Anniversary Edition of Dark Side of the Moon which I bought ten years ago and never had a chance to listen in all its 5.1 surround glory.)

If anything has no future, it is the traditional publishing model. The big publishing houses missed their many chances to make any meaningful contribution to e-books. Now, the main focus of Atkins’s article is on textbooks. He seems to be either unaware of the Open Access movement, or simply ignores it. He mentions some “wikitexts” but, amazingly, never names either Wikipedia, Wikibooks or Wikisource. Too bad. With all the wealth of free educational information on the Web, one must be mad to buy e-textbooks. In the meantime, the authors increasingly move to self-publishing. Who needs the middlemen?

Interestingly, in his earlier article on the same topic [2], Professor Atkins explained exactly why p-books will stay with us:

A p-book is a beautiful thing. It smells good when new, it generally looks good, and it has the virtue of serendipity, for casual browsing can bring the browser to an unexpected viewpoint. The approximate location of knowledge in books can be remembered, or at least half-remembered, for years. Books are life’s companions, and even the sight of a volume on a shelf can remind one of a special moment. But, most important of all, a p-book is “always on.” A book can be opened at a whim and immediately offers its contents to its reader. Books can be read in the brightest sunlight, on the balmiest beach, at almost any angle, in even the most bizarre bodily posture, for hours on end, even while one’s airplane is landing and taking off.
Printed matter is self-sufficient. You don’t need any device to read it. If hacker attacks destroy all Amazon Cloud services, or a hurricane plunges the cities into darkness, the books will still be there. If there are problems with sat nav reception or you forgot to charge the mobile phone, the map still can help. And so on.

But what the new generation think? My children love their PCs, Wii and MP3 players. I asked them today what they prefer, e-book or p-book. And the answer is: the real thing.

  1. Atkins, P. (2013) The future of the book. Chemistry International 35, 3—6.
  2. Atkins, P. (2009) Beyond the book. Chemistry International 31, 9—11.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

hand wash

Last night I put this, presumably, hand-wash only jumper into a washing machine. On a hand wash cycle, cold water. The machine stopped in the middle of the cycle because the filter was blocked. I left it overnight. This morning, I took the filter out (a minor flood followed). It looked as if someone was trying to stuff a felt hat into it and partially succeeded. The rest of the hat is all over the drum. Mopped the floor. Decided to repeat the rinse. The machine stopped in the middle of the cycle. Took the filter out. Mopped the floor. Took the dripping jumper out to the garden. Washed my hands from fluff. Cleaned more serious fluff from the washer’s drum. Run the rinse. Took the filter out. Mopped the floor. Cleaned some further fluff from the drum. Run the rinse. Checked the jumper. My, this hand wash involves a lot of hand washing. Took the filter out. Mopped the floor.

This reminded me of my early or, indeed, my later days (and nights) in “biocomputing”, now known as “bioinformatics”. True, the machine does something, eventually, but cleaning the mess is left up to you.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

it’s nonsense to look for a solution if it already exists

Мы сидели, подперев головы, и предавались самоуничижению, когда в зал заглянул Федор Симеонович. Насколько я понял, ему не терпелось узнать мое мнение о составленной им программе.
— Программа! — желчно усмехнувшись, произнес Хунта. — Я не видел твоей программы, Теодор, но я уверен, что она гениальна по сравнению с этим... — Он с отвращением подал двумя пальцами Федору Симеоновичу листок со своей задачей. — Полюбуйся, вот образец убожества и ничтожества.
— Г-голубчики, — сказал Федор Симеонович озадаченно, разобравшись в почерках. — Это же п-проблема Бен Б-бецалеля. К-калиостро же доказал, что она н-не имеет р-решения.
— Мы сами знаем, что она не имеет решения, — сказал Хунта, немедленно ощетиниваясь. — Мы хотим знать, как ее решать.
— К-как-то ты странно рассуждаешь, К-кристо... К-как же искать решение, к-когда его нет? Б-бессмыслица какая-то...
— Извини, Теодор, но это ты очень странно рассуждаешь. Бессмыслица — искать решение, если оно и так есть. Речь идет о том, как поступать с задачей, которая решения не имеет. Это глубоко принципиальный вопрос, который, как я вижу, тебе, прикладнику, к сожалению, не доступен. По-видимому, я напрасно начал с тобой беседовать на эту тему.
Аркадий и Борис Стругацкие, Понедельник начинается в субботу

So we sat, propping up our heads and abandoning ourselves to mutual devaluation, when Feodor Simeonovich looked in. As near as I could make out, he was impatient to hear my opinion of his program.
“Program!” exclaimed Junta, smiling biliously. “I haven’t seen your program, Feodor, but I am sure that it is a work of genius in comparison to this— ” He handed Feodor Simeonovich the sheet with the problem, holding it in ginger disgust between two fingers. “Regard this exemplar of mental poverty and vapidity.”
“B-but, my dear f-fellows,” said Feodor Simeonovich, having diligently deciphered the handwriting. “This is B-Ben B-Beczalel’s problem! Didn’t C-Cagliostro prove th-that it had no s-solution?”
“We know that it has no solution, too,” said Junta, bristling immediately. “But we wish to learn how to solve it.”
“H-how strangely you r-reason, C-Cristo... H-how can you look for a solution, where it d-does not exist? It’s s-some sort of n-nonsense.”
“Excuse me, Feodor, but it’s you who are reasoning strangely. It’s nonsense to look for a solution if it already exists. We are talking about how to deal with a problem that has no solution. This is a question of profound principle, which, I can see, is not within your scope, since you are an applications type. Apparently I started this conversation with you for nothing.”
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Begins on Saturday (translated by Leonid Renen)