Frequently Asked Questions about the Notebooks

06 Mar 2004 14:20

I. Utility

1.1 How come one of your notebooks turned up when I searched for X, even though there was almost nothing there?
The notebooks are intended, in the first instance, for my own use, a way of storing ideas, references, questions, puzzles, connections, possible connections, mistakes (unavoidably), things to look at or look into. My interests change; my time is limited; I know very little and have less to say about many things. For this reason, many of the notebooks are little more than placeholders. These do grow over time into more substantial documents, some of them anyway; in the meanwhile, it's not my fault if the search-engines serve them up to you.
1.2 Well, but why'd it get a high score then?
What's a high score from a search engine got to do with the price of tea in China? Many of them calculate it as something like the ratio of the number of times the keywords appear to the total number of words. A very short document in which the keyword appears twice (as the document title and as a header, say) can get a very high score which reflects very little information.
Some search-engines use more sophisticated varaints of this procedure; they remain dumb as rocks, but are cheap to program and require minimal human skill and effort beyond reading Programming Perl.
1.3 Still, I feel cheated by your page.
What, should I give you a refund? Here, have a clue: searching the web is a very inefficient way of learning about a subject, as opposed to finding documents containing certain words. Go to the public library and get help from the librarians --- to be crude, it's part of what you pay taxes for. (This goes double if you're at a college, where there are real experts and real research librarians.)
If you simply must rely on the web, try the Wikipedia, or, if worst comes to worst, the Google search engine. (Google's ranking of a page is, roughly, a reflection of how many links lead to it from other pages which are themselves the ends of many links.)
1.4 Why are you clogging searches on X with a vacuous, useless, nearly-empty page?
As a well-paid tentacle of the Conspiracy, it's part of my job to hinder people from learning about X. Your testimonials will be of great assistance to me at my next performance review; thanks!

II. Time

2.1 Where do you find the time to write so much?
I don't watch TV, I touch-type, and I always go with the first draft, once it's finished. Also, you're looking at all of my output since 1994 at once.
2.2 Where do you find the time to read so much?
I don't watch TV, I have no social life, and I read about a page a minute, if there isn't any math to slow me down. Also, you're looking at all of my input since 1994 and before at once.
2.3 Don't you have enough to do with teaching and research?
2.4 Doesn't this stuff hurt your teaching and your research?
My students and my supervisors have no complaints.
2.5 Do you do anything non-academic?
I cook; and pretty well, if I say so myself.
Update, January 2024: I'm leaving that text (from twenty years ago!) alone, for old time's sake, but I'm now a married, middle-aged father of a small child with aged parents of my own, so there are, in fact, a lot of other demands on my time. But you're still seeing all my output since 1994 at once...

III. Books

3.1 Why are there so many references to books, and so few links to things on the Net, especially other people's work on the Net?
First answer: Because I'm an egotistical book-lover.
Second answer: Because, not writing books, I'm not jealous of those who do.
Third answer: Because, on almost any subject you care to name, there is very little on the web but elementary expositions, provisional and forbidding technicalities, and rubbish. The net, in its present infantile condition, gives access, not to the sum of preserved human knowledge, but rather to advertisements, cranks, journalists, and technical reports. (Of course, if you do know of a useful link relating to some subject I'm interested in, by all means send it along.)
You pays your money and you takes your choice.
3.2 Have you actually read all those books?
The ones I actually recommend, yes, cover to cover. (There are a few exceptions, noted as such.) Books listed as "to read" are either not begun or not finished.
3.3 How come you read so much trashy genre fiction, and so little respectable mainstream literary fiction?
I mostly read either for instruction or escape. (Who was it who said "Only jailers object to escapism"?) It is easier for me to find fiction which is intelligent, absorbing and well-written in the genres I'm familiar with than in the respectable rump of contemporary literature. (Pointers are, of course, eagerly received.)
(Some years after I wrote that, I learned from Teri Dalston that the quip about escapism originated with Tolkien, in a 1938 lecture later published as "On Fairy-Stories".)

IV. Discourse

4.1 Give me essays on X.
Do your own homework, child, and be thankful if I don't take the trouble to figure out who your teacher is and let them know about this.
4.2 Could you please help me find out X about Y, for my 4th-grade book report / term paper / dissertation / unsponsored curiosity?
Well, maybe. Since you're being polite about it, unlike that chump, I'm inclined to be helpful if I can.
4.3 How dare you say such things about X?
Look, Igor, this piece of mail is hot and smoking about the edges. Into the bit-bucket with it at once, then, before it bursts into a flame.
4.4 Hey! You're wrong about X!
Really? Why? Are you sure?
4.5 You're wrong about X, because Y and Z, so U, instead of, as you say, V.
Damn. You're right. Thanks for the correction; how would you like to be acknowledged in the revised notebook?
4.6 Please convert to my religion / promulgate my crank theory / join my paraonid conspiracy-theory cult. You're a moral coward / tool of the Conspiracy/ ivory-tower academic if you don't.
You know, I don't even guilt-trip that easily from my family and friends, never mind utter strangers. (And of course I'm an ivory tower academic, you dolt! You think I didn't know that?)
4.7 [Long message, often as not an MS-Word attachment, or HTML in duplicate, and reading "RATAK! Crustaceans * OF * Mars!" or something of that order.]
Thank you for your generous donation to the Archive of Particularly Unsolicited Manuscripts.
4.8 Please hire me / admit me to graduate school / let me join your lab
I have no openings for post-docs, research assistants, etc. I only work with graduate students who are admitted to CMU by the regular admissions process. (And I have no influence over the admissions process, and don't want any.) I also don't have a lab.
4.9 Why don't you list my / my friend's book / paper / words-in-liberty poem as "recommended"? Or even as "to read"?
If I don't recommend it, I either haven't read it at all (most likely), haven't finished it (less likely), or read it and didn't think it was very good (least likely). If I don't even list it as "to read", I either have never heard of it (most likely), haven't gotten around to recording it (less likely), or read it and didn't think it was very good (least likely). I'm usually happy to receive suggestions of things relevant to my interests, but this puts me under no obligation to like, agree, or recommend.
4.10 I feel that I am being judged by others and hurt by your not recommending my work, and it is up to you to rectify this egregious situation.
I fail to see the necessity.

V. Technical Support

5.1 How can I be notified when the notebooks are updated?
The easiest way to do this is to subscribe to the RSS feed.
5.2 How can I be notified when a particular note is updated?
Each note has its own RSS feed, linked to at the bottom of its page, which you can subscribe to separately.
5.3 What's this "subscribe to an RSS feed" business?
A way of keeping track of website updates, basically. This page gives a very basic explanation, and this provides links to programs that will let you read RSS feeds.

VI. Miscellaneous

6.1 Do you have an e-mail address for person X?
Probably not. Even if I did, that's generally not the kind of thing I'd pass on.
6.2 Can I link to your page on X?
Of course. It's not like I could stop you even if I wanted to, but I actually like being read and being linked to. Thanks for letting me know about it, though.


These notebooks began in September 1994 as a set of key-words for Usenet filtering; I don't remember why I started to elaborate them, but I did, and put them online on 3 October 1994. They quickly became a single huge useless file, which a few people, moved by boredom, misplaced pity or Teutonic thoroughness, were kind enough to read. At their urging, on 13 March 1995 I split it into many more or less conveniently sized files, one per subject, ordered by date. (Those still dated 1994 haven't been significantly changed since before then, or if they have, I've been too lazy to update their date.) That was the last change in format until March 2004, when I moved them into Blosxom, so they could have an RSS feed and a basic search facility (since I'm clearly never going to get around to creating, much less maintaining, a genuine index).

The notebooks have been written in Emacs on, successively, 1992-vintage NeXT workstations, a succession of Sun workstations, a second-hand Powerbook Duo named sloth, a much-missed Powerbook G4 named gluttony and, currently, a new Powerbook named wrath. (Note to hardware manufacturers: those could be the names of your products instead, if you give them to me!) Each notebook is a simple HTML file. (The ones containing mathematical symbols are produced using MathJax; formerly, with HTMX.) For the first ten years, that was it. Since I started using Blosxom, it's dynamically generated the displayed pages, so that the pages you read are filtered, prettified versions of the ones I write. Index pages are statically generated (using cron every half hour), so they get served faster, and some fiddling with Apache's URL re-writing engine keeps you from seeing the seams. The complete installation uses the following Blosxom plugins: entries_template, file, find, flavourdir, foreshortened, interpolate_conditional, meta, metadate, SmartyPants, storytitle. Danny Yee kindly provided me with a cascading style sheet, and explained how to use it.

Update, 2024: The basic set-up hasn't changed (though that was many laptops ago). If I was starting over, or advising someone who was starting from scratch, I'd be very tempted to write the notebook entries in Markdown, and then use Pandoc to turn them into HTML and populate references from a bibliographic database. (Something like blogdown might also work, but it seems like there's a lot to install there.) But I do miss the simplicity of my publication process being cp nb/foo.html public_html/notebooks/.