Gas station without pumps

2015 August 7

Book draft available online

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 01:29
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In Lean publishing I said

I’ll think about it for a week, but right now I’m leaning towards doing a pre-release of my book at a very low price on Leanpub.  What do my readers think?  Anyone interested?

Well, that week lasted less than a day.  I’ve put the book up on Leanpub’s book store as

For now, everything is pretty much draft format: I have a temporary cover page, lots of marginal notes to myself about what needs changing, few exercises, and a host of things that need to be done to the book.

The book is only available in PDF format, because I’m developing it in LaTeX, and there is no good way to get LaTeX documents into EPUB and MOBI formats.  From what I’ve seen so far, there is no good way to produce books with a lot of figures and cross references in EPUB and MOBI formats, so I’m stuck with LaTeX at least for the next year.

I dithered for a while about setting a price for the book—I wanted it cheap enough that people who were interested in it would be willing to get a pre-release copy, but not free—since the people would not bother looking at it, even if they got a copy.  I settled on a minimum price of $2.99 and suggested price of $9.99, as representing a fair price for the book in its current draft form.  Those prices probably won’t stop anyone who wants to read the book from getting it, but will discourage random freebie hunters. I do plan to raise the minimum price as the book gets more nearly finished.

The Leanpub model, where purchasers get all updates to the book that are done on Leanpub, means that early purchasers get a real bargain.

I’ve not yet put up a sample chapter or table of contents for the book, but I plan to do that later this week—I’ll probably include all the front matter and two sample chapters (a lab chapter and the associated supporting theory chapter) in the sample.  I’ve not figured out which chapters to include in the sample yet. (If anyone does buy the draft book, I’d welcome suggestions about which chapters to show in the sample.)

I’ll be setting up coupons for  students who take my class to get the book for free, and I’ll make those coupons available to students who have formerly taken the class.  (I’ve not done that yet, since the next class isn’t until Spring 2016, but if there are former students reading this blog, send me e-mail and I’ll set up a coupon code you can use.)

None of the book is set in stone, but some parts are more solid than others—I’m pretty happy with how several of the chapters worked in the Spring 2015 offering of the course, but other labs need complete rewrites, changing the nature of the lab.  The cover page is definitely a placeholder—I threw it together in a couple of hours tonight, just to have something to put on the site. I started an index, but have not really gone through the book looking for what concepts need to be indexed, nor indexed all occurrences of the concepts I’ve started indexing.  A better index is pretty far down on my priority list right now, but I will take suggestions about things that really need indexing—fixing one or two entries in the index could be a good break from more intense writing.

At some point I’ll be putting up a bunch of other files with the book as a “bundle”.  The bundle will include all the gnuplot scripts and programs that I provide to my students, plus Eagle files for the prototyping PC boards.  I might also do a “teacher” bundle that includes all the gnuplot scripts and data files used for generating the figures in the books.  I don’t know whether Leanpub provides a way for purchasers of a book to later upgrade to a bundle that includes the book—but a workaround can probably found using coupons.

One of the reasons for releasing a draft on Leanpub is to get feedback from readers—particularly about things they find incorrect, poorly written, inconsistent, missing, redundant, or just confusing.  That feedback can be on the Leanpub site, by email (Leanpub provides a link), or here on the blog.  Tiny details are probably best done by e-mail, but more substantive suggestions that might be worth discussing (like pedagogical approach or order of the material) may be better done in blog comments.


2015 August 5

Lean publishing

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:17
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Katrin Becker just pointed me to another publishing opportunity that might be a good fit for my textbook:

Are you going with a publisher or doing it yourself?
I ask, because I recently discovered It strikes me as a really good option for some kinds of publishing–especially if it is something you plan to update regularly.

I looked at Leanpub and it looks like a reasonably good deal for what I want to do.  The offer very minimal services: mainly a storefront and translation from Markdown to PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats, but have very author-friendly terms (royalties are 90% -50¢ a sale, they take no ownership of any of the content, and you can up-stakes and move to a different publisher at any time).

They believe that they can be profitable with this very lean model, surviving on the 10% +50¢ a sale by having very little in the way of expenses: no marketing, no printing, no editing, … .  It is essentially a way for an author to self-publish e-books without having to handle the actual sales.

The authors can set both a recommended price and a minimum price—the buyer gets a slider to choose any price they want to pay above the minimum.  The author can also create coupons for discounts or even free copies (something I would want to do for students in my classes—I don’t think professors should require their own books without arranging for the students to get them at the lowest possible price with no royalty to the professor).

The advantage for readers over many other  e-book stores is that the reader gets updates to the book whenever the author makes them—Leanpub recommends their site for authors developing books, to get in contact with readers and get feedback from them.  The store even lists the authors’ estimate of what % complete the book is, so that readers can watch the progress.

The big downside for me is the use of Markdown.  It would be very, very difficult to convert my book to Markdown.  The math alone would be a nightmare.  There are some extensions to Markdown for math, but

It’d be nice if everybody could agree on the same syntax(es) to denote math fragments in Markdown; alas, as every extension to Markdown, it’s a mess. []

Leanpub does offer the capability of just publishing files created elsewhere (bypassing their conversion of Markdown to PDF, EPUB, and MOBI), so I could publish just the PDF generated by LaTeX.

I don’t think that I’d necessarily want to do my final publishing with Leanpub—I don’t have the enthusiasm to run a marketing campaign for the book—but it might be  good way to get early copies into the hands of a few readers, to provide me feedback on the drafts and to tell me whether there is a market for the book outside my classes and a handful of hobbyists. Leanpub encourages this model fairly strongly:

Serial, In-Progress and Lean Publishing

Using Leanpub, authors can start publishing their books before they are finished.

As an author, publishing your book before it’s finished lets you interact with early readers and improve your book in a number of ways. As a reader, you’ll receive all future updates of the book for free, as new content is added and as the book is otherwise improved. At the same time, you can provide the author with suggestions and even corrections.

In the twenty-first century, in-progress publishing is a great way to publish non-fiction books too. Technology books are perhaps the most obvious example of a book category that naturally fits the Lean Publishing model, since things move so quickly and early access to cutting-edge thinking is so important. []

Leanpub claims to have made about $3.5m in sales so far, with $2.9m of that going to the authors as royalties. So, though they are a small company, they might be making enough to stay in business a while longer. They have about 725 books listed on their store, about 50 of which are textbooks.  The store is really bare bones, and browsing looks like it will become difficult if they ever get enough books to matter.

I think that some of the bigger sales are from books that are textbooks for Coursera courses—the class is free, but the book for it is not, allowing the author to make some money off the Coursera course.

Leanpub also provides the ability to bundle other documents with the book (or bundle multiple books together), providing the ability to make a free or low-cost book, but charge extra for handy extras (like source files for programs).   I could bundle the Eagle files for the PC board designs, for teachers or hobbyists who want to order their own boards, for example, or gnuplot scripts and data for some of the plots in the book.

I’ll think about it for a week, but right now I’m leaning towards doing a pre-release of my book at a very low price on Leanpub.  What do my readers think?  Anyone interested?

2013 August 3

University of California faculty commit to open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:06
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According to the press release, The University of California faculty have just endorsed an open-access publication policy.  The policy does not require publication in open-access journals, but deposit of articles in  eScholarship (UC’s open access repository).  There are supposedly opt-out mechanisms, which will undoubtedly see heavy use, both because many major journal still don’t allow deposit in university repositories, and because depositing in the UC repository will probably be a bureaucratic hassle that is easier to opt out of than to comply with.

Of course, I haven’t seen the details of the policy—it has not been distributed to the faculty yet.  Once again, I find out UC changes of policies first from the news media, not from any internal communication with the faculty.

I’m basically in favor of open-access publishing, but not in favor of author-pays funding of it (as an unfunded researcher, I can’t afford $2000–3000 per article).  Having a UC-based respository is basically a good idea, as long as it isn’t as much hassle to deal with as the NIH repository was (and maybe still is—I’ve not had NIH funding for a while).  I don’t know how good the indexing is going to be, either—whether people will be able to go from a standard journal citation to the UC copy of the article easily, without having to go to the eScholarship site explicitly looking for the article.


2013 July 6

Disseminating the applied circuits labs

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:41
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The post I just published about academic conferences lead me to thinking (again) about how I should disseminate my course design (or individual lab designs) for the Applied Circuits course.  I suppose I should write up a paper and submit it to a conference or some journal like the Journal of Engineering Education.

One problem is that my course designs are not education research—they are attempts to solve particular curricular problems by taking advantage of my strengths as a teacher.  Some of the course design generalizes to other teachers and other institutions with somewhat different curricular needs, but there is no controlled experiment to say that my course design is “better” than another is some predefined, measurable way.

I’m not sure where this sort of here-are-some-good-ideas-you-may-be-able-to-use course design work fits in academic publishing.  If I were teaching physics, I would probably submit to The Physics Teacher, but I don’t know what the closest equivalent is in engineering—particularly interdisciplinary stuff like teaching circuits to bioengineers.  There don’t seem to be good journals intended for disseminating instructional labs and curricular design. Maybe Advances in Engineering Education would be a better fit than Journal of Engineering Education, even if I don’t feel that my course design contains “significant, proven innovations in engineering education practice, especially those that are best presented through the creative use of multimedia.”

Of course, distilling down the 200–400 pages of notes on my circuits course that I’ve collected on this blog to a conference presentation or a journal article is a daunting task—one that I’ll probably keep putting off until it is so stale that even I’m not interested in it any more.  It might even be easier to turn the notes into a book than into an article, since I would not have to do 100-to-1 compression.

I’m not sure who the right audience for such a book would be—instructors trying to create a new course, students taking my course, hobbyists wanting to learn the material at home, … ? That is, should I be writing about a case study in course design, should I be trying to create a textbook for the course, or should I be trying to put together a self-study book that could accompany a kit of parts for people to learn electronics at home?

Again, the book project is big enough that I’d probably keep putting off indefinitely.  If I was sure there was an audience, I’d be more inclined to put in the effort to disseminate the material beyond this blog, though.

Another approach for disseminating the course materials would be to put together stand-alone kits for each lab (with detailed tutorials) that could be sold independently.  Releasing one lab at a time would be a more incremental effort than doing all 10 labs in one package, but would require some redesign, both for reduced expectations of lab equipment and to make the kits more modular.

I suspect that one could do most of the experiments of the circuits course for about $360 in lab equipment and tools, using something like the Velleman Lab2U unit (which PartsExpress sells for $210), a $40 multimeter,  a $17 soldering station, an Arduino, and the $66 bag of tools and parts I put together for the course.  The Lab2U is only a single power supply, so some of the projects that used a multiple supply would need to be redesigned—most notably the class-D power amp.  Unfortunately, $360 is too big a chunk of money for anyone but a dedicated hobbyist, who quite likely already has most of the needed equipment.

Making the kits more modular might be difficult. For example, many of the labs require students to choose resistors and capacitors from a large set of possibilities, since their lab kit contained 10 each of 112 different resistors and 10 each of 25 different ceramic capacitors.  It is easy to justify the cost of those parts spread over 10 labs, but harder to provide that much selection for a single lab.  Perhaps one would have to sell a core kit (with breadboard, resistors, capacitors, …) to use with the Arduino and add-on kits for each lab.  The core kit would need to have some fundamental experiments (like RC time constants), so that it would be instructional even without add-ons.

I wonder if there is a market for such lab kits, and how I would find out if there were a market (without sinking months of my time and thousands of dollars). I wouldn’t want to assemble or market the resulting lab kits either, but would want to distribute them through a company like Sparkfun electronics, Adafruit Industries, or Seeedstudio, who have already set up the necessary business infrastructure.

I also wonder whether I’m capable of writing the tutorials at an introductory enough level to work for hobbyists, while still covering enough of the theory.  I’ve never cared for kits that have great assembly instructions, but treat the way the things works as too difficult for the purchaser of the kit.

Writing instructions that included the use of an oscilloscope or multimeter, when there are many different ones that the person may be trying to use, would be a very challenging task.  Oscilloscopes in particular have evolved to have many radically different user interfaces, some of which are very complicated.

Also, all my writing has been for well-educated people: college professors, university students chosen from the top 10% of high school students, my loyal blog readers, … .  Can I make my writing intelligible for an average, or slightly above average, high school student, without sounding condescending or patronizing?  From the rather unsuccessful attempts I’ve seen in kit instructions in the past, that is not an easy task.


Do academics need to travel?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:29
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In a comment on the Academic Jungle blog, a commenter identified only as “Alex” wrote

This is an important point. Bloggers talk a lot about the tradeoff between work and life outside of work, but what about the tradeoff between work and work? How does one effectively mentor students or stay engaged in the intellectual work of the project, or (gasp!) teach effectively (we are, after all, professors) if you’re always on the road? I know it works for some people, but I just don’t get how.

Or, to really walk on the wild side, how does one effectively serve their institution if you’re always on the road? I mean, nobody wants to be the bore who gossips about the minutiae of the Academic Senate, but I’m proud that I spent a year working on a change to a policy that was getting in the way of opportunities for students. Service, if done right and in moderation, can be rewarding.

I’ve often wondered about the need some faculty see to be traveling all the time.

I used to go to 2–3 conferences a year, and I found them fairly stimulating intellectually.  After a while, I dropped down to about 1.5 conferences a year, in part because funding was tight, and in part because I wasn’t getting as much intellectual stimulation at the conferences. There were few new ideas that gripped me and a lot of rehashing of old ideas, often by people who hadn’t even done their homework to read stuff from outside their own institutions.  It was good to see friends that I only ever saw at conferences, but I had trouble justifying the expense of cross-country or international travel for what was becoming a purely social event. For the past few years I’ve not been to any conferences, and sometimes I wonder whether I ought to take the $2000–3000 out of savings to go to one of the bigger ones in my field, just to find out if there is anything new going on.

I used to justify conferences as places to present my work to the world (particularly when I was in computer engineering, where conferences were the main archival publications—journal turnaround was way too slow to be of much use).  Nowadays, most of my work is in collaborations where I am not first author, and journal publication in biology and bioinformatics is faster than conference publication, so conferences are rarely important for disseminating the actual work—in this field they are for advertising the work published in journals and for informal schmoozing.

I suppose that if I were a job hopper, jumping from school to school in an attempt to maximize my salary and fame, I would want to be a major player on the conference circuit.  But I’m not that excited by moving—I’ve been at the same university now for 27 years and expect to retire from it in another decade. But some of the other faculty at our university are probably just as settled in their jobs, but see the need to travel dozens of times a year, so it isn’t just the job hoppers populating the conference circuit.

It’s not that I’m stuck in a rut—I do look for novelty from time to time, both in research fields and in teaching.

I made a major change from VLSI design and logic minimization to protein structure prediction about 18 years ago, and I’m currently looking for a niche in DNA sequencing or assembly where I can be a productive contributor (the collaboration with the UCSC nanopore lab is going well, but the collaborations using PacBio data have not produced anything I think is publishable yet, despite a lot of effort spent and some interesting preliminary results).

In teaching, I’ve created a lot of different courses over the years, and I expect to create a few more before I retire.  I find creating a really good course more stimulating these days than most of the research projects I’ve been working on, which puts me somewhat out of step with most of my faculty colleagues, who would be only too glad to shed all teaching responsibilities to be full-time researchers.

I’ve wondered whether I should go to some teaching conferences—perhaps presenting the design of the Applied Circuits course, for example.  But I’d have to be convinced that there was really an audience interested in hearing what I had to say—spending $2000–3000 of my own money to talk to 50–100 people who didn’t care would be really a bummer.

This blog costs me nothing to produce (except time), and I reach about 300 people with each post, without the huge carbon footprint of traveling by jet. So conferences are seeming a less and less efficient use of resources all the time.

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