Solutions!

Most of my free time has been wrapped up in the An Ember in the Wind rewrite, but I think it’s about time to wrap up a couple of loose ends.

Here are the solutions to a couple of the blog’s riddles.

The solution to “Fact or Fiction 1” is true. You can read it on the BIPM website itself.

As for False Dogma, here’s how to do it:

I usually give this riddle in my “College Algebra” course, as a quick illustration of how the “rules of mathematics” can be altered.

When can you add 2 and 11 to get 1?

Here is the answer.

A more formal answer is “in the integers modulo 12.” If you’re willing to buy that, you can also add 2 and 11 to get 3 in the integers modulo 10.

So what about integers modulo 1? It turns out, such a thing exists. And in the integers modulo 1, any two integers are equal. So 2 + 2 = 4, which is also 5.

As for a simple explanation, just imagine a clock with only one hour on it. No matter how many hours you advance the hand, it’ll always point to the same number.

Nanowrimo Statistics Over the Years

November is National Novel Writing Month, and I will most certainly not be participating. For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo, is an annual event which challenges participants to write an entire novel in thirty days.

The rules are fairly simple. Write a 50,000 word novel in a month. If you win, you receive a certificate you can post on your website, blog, whatever. If you don’t win, the organization hires a team of henchmen to harass you. They mostly just do little things, like call pizzas and taxi cabs to your door in the middle of the night, drive slow in front of you on the highway, and basically, slowly drive you mad. You’ll definitely regret not finishing your novel.*

I will have my hands full with the revision of An Ember in the Wind, which spares me the potential public tar-and-feathering should I fail to complete a new manuscript. Plus, I’ve already “won” – in 2004.

Nanowrimo is an exercise in literary endurance more than anything else. To win, a writer must produce an average of 1,667 words per day. This is about 5-6 pages, double-spaced – the length of a typical, short college writing assignment.

At first glance, 1,667 words per day doesn’t sound too bad. “1,667 words” isn’t the hard part – it’s the per day that will get you. And this seems to be where many people drop off.

How many fail to complete the challenge? A lot. And it’s surprisingly difficult to find the numbers. I managed to track down the total statistics, which were mainly reported in various blogs. There was no central repository for this data – at least, that I’m aware of. Here are the Nanowrimo statistics that I found.

 

http://anorthogonaluniverse.com/misc/nano-stats.gnumeric

Download Spreadsheet (includes extra data) { gnumeric } { xlsx }

 

As you can see, the first year was, by far, the best. But given the history of Nanowrimo, that should come as no surprise. It started as a group of writer friends.

Participation has grown steadily since the turn of the century. But dedication has not. In fact, last year was the worst year ever in both completion (percentage of winners) and average word count. If you assume each winner wrote a 50,000 word novel, then the word count of the typical 2012 participant who did not complete the challenge was only 4,500.

This figure represents less than three day’s worth of writing at 1,667 words per day – suggesting the typical participant who did not complete the challenge gave up after the first couple of days.

Of course, writing a novel is hard work. Apparently it is also a task whose difficulty is easily underestimated. After all, we tell stories about funny things our cats do all the time. How hard could it be to type it all out?

It’s more difficult than it first seems. Without a coherent plot, characters, well, a plan, your novel is a wingless airplane – destined for a quick take-off and crash-landing in the shrubs. Writing a longer work takes a certain amount of practice. And there’s only one way to get it.

Write.

Nanowrimo has done at least one thing right – it has encouraged many people, who otherwise wouldn’t, to step into the world of “writerdom.” Win or fail, hopefully participants leave with at least a new appreciation for what their favorite authors do. Perhaps they learned they have what it takes.

But more than likely, as was in 89% of the cases last year, they learned they didn’t. That’s okay, though. In my first attempt, which I believe was in 2002, I fell 28,000 words short of the mark. The failed manuscript sits on my hard drive, collecting bit-dust. I will probably never complete it, but it had served one useful purpose. It taught me how to do better the next time around.

With as much criticism against Nanowrimo as there is out there (and there’s a lot), if at least some of those 89% who failed the challenge in 2012 come back this year and win, with a new appreciation for writing and a respect for the work involved, I’d say it has done the literary world a service.

 

* Some of the statements in this paragraph may not be true.

statistics references
2012 – 2011: http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/37647090597/2012-nanowrimo-stats-bigger-and-better-than-ever
2010 – 2009: http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/2068578620/the-great-nanowrimo-stats-party
2004 – 2008: http://www.mpsaz.org/academy/staff/kmprocopio/class_18/files/nanowrimo_handout_for_website.pdf

What You May Not Know About Textbook Publishing

Over the past year I learned a lot about the world of publishing – in particular, fiction publishing. There’s an old adage in the world of book-making, to make a small fortune in publishing, start with a large fortune. I can’t say I have any personal experiences to the contrary.

I was somewhat surprised to see how seldom textbook publishing came up. Although e-books and POD have certainly made publishing more accessible, I wouldn’t expect many people to be itching to start a calculus book empire. Still, I’d think more people, students in particular, would be asking why they spent $200 on a book, half of whom probably wouldn’t even read.

I thought I’d take a moment to shed some light on this mystery. Having been at both ends of the classroom, I can say:

1. The student is not the customerAt least, not in the sense of to whom advertising is targeted. Sure, the student is the one buying the book. But they’re not the ones selecting it. The department, or in some cases, the individual professor, is the customer.

At first glance, it may seem like a bit of a raw deal for the student. They get to put down the money, but receive none of the perks – you know, the little things companies give out to try to woo new clients. Those are generally reserved for the faculty and staff. And it’s big business.

When I was a graduate student at NC State, the faculty lounge was regularly stocked with coffee and donuts. Sometimes there was even free lunch – all paid for courtesy of the publisher who provided the calculus textbooks. Note that at any given time, roughly 3,000 students are enrolled in calculus – and that’s not counting the “specialized” versions of calculus that use other books.

These days don’t receive as many freebies, but NC State is a much larger school than I’m now at. I still get a free lunch and a few goodies now and then.

What do the students get out of this? They get to pay for the books.

But the existence of these little perks and goodies is evidence of something that does benefit the students:

2. The textbook market is very competitive. I have an entire row of a bookshelf of just calculus books. They’re all different. The funny thing is, calculus hasn’t changed all that much. The way it is taught has, but the innovations in teaching don’t seem to happen as quickly as new books are written.

Faculty do care about the price of the books. It’s not the only factor, of course, but it matters. Quality is priority, but if a $100 book does just as good of a job as a $300 book, which would you go for?

3. Producing textbooks is expensive. I’m adding this as a response to all the times I hear people suggest the textbook publishers are rolling around in dough, Scrooge McDuck style. I selected a random book off my shelf and counted no less than seven editors. Seven. This was for a college algebra textbook.

If you think about all the skill sets that are needed, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Someone has to do the copy editing, but that person may not have the skills required to check the math, and neither would have the skills to check the art and figures.

This particular book has four authors – and they’re all math professors, so I’d be surprised if there was a graphic designer among them. Who will do the layouts?

All together there were 20 credits – mostly individuals, but also some companies which may have pulled more than one person into the production.

I haven’t included advertising. All those goodies I mentioned earlier? Those were given out to keep the current customers. Attracting new ones is another issue entirely.

That row of textbooks I mentioned – how much do you think they cost me?

Hold up zero fingers.

One day I walked into the mail room and found a package waiting for me. Inside was almost $1,000 worth of books. I didn’t ask for them, they were sent for me to review, and hopefully, adopt.

At some schools, these free copies are donated to the library for student use. Some are bought by individuals who go around asking to buy them from faculty members – I assume so they can turn around and sell them to students. Many of these review copies are clearly marked as such, and generally can’t be distributed.

4. There aren’t many sales. “Many” is relative, of course, but riddle me this. Which book do you think is more popular, Calculus, or Harry Potter? Keep in mind there are multiple calculus books to choose from, but no derivatives of Harry Potter. Suddenly, a new piece of the puzzle emerges. All those editors, artists, writers, etc. have to be paid. With fewer units sold to absorb the cost, there’s only one alternative – raise the price.

With the average tuition increasing more and more, it may only become harder for students to afford their books. Fortunately, a few remedies are catching on. e-books, for instance, remove a considerable expense from the equation. The bulky, printed textbooks aren’t cheap to produce. For the books I use for two of my courses, students can obtain an e-book copy for about $10.

There are also open-source textbooks. These are completely free, and while the selection may be small now, they are of sufficient quality that some schools have adopted them.