Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book: Writing for Scholars

Writing for Scholars: A Practical Guide to Making Sense and Being Heard by Lynn P. Nygaard
ISBN: 9788215013916

Writing for Scholars is a great guide for (aspiring) academic writers. The simplest thing I could say is that it ought to be required reading for anyone in graduate school who will be doing academic writing - e.g., journal articles or a dissertation. In my experience, academic writing was something that a graduate student was expected to either know already or absorb quickly without little or no coaching.

I've read a couple of books on the subject of academic writing, especially in the area of the sciences. Those books focused on a lot of the minutia of presenting and formatting one's work in a journal or similar medium. Ms. Nygaard takes a much larger view of the writing process, and she de-emphasizes (without completely dismissing) the technical minutia, putting it in the later chapters. She begins by talking about how to develop good writing habits, which is applicable to non-academic writers, too. She also explains the academic dialogue and how an academic paper has to fit into and extend that dialogue.

She continues by explaining how to identify your audience, which is also applicable to non-academic writing. Then she gets down to what I would term the core of the writing process: forming your argument and expressing it in standard academic form (abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion). She also explains how and when to use figures and tables.

A couple of topics that I don't recall reading in other books are: feedback (giving and receiving) and presenting a paper at a conference. Again, both of these are subjects which were never taught in my graduate schooling. These are both crucial topics that complete the academic dialogue.

Throughout the book, Ms. Nygaard includes numerous (sometimes humorous) examples drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines. Perhaps I'm just reading it through my own science-tinted glasses, but I'd say the book does lean more towards the "hard" sciences rather than social sciences or liberal arts. However, I would assume that non-science writers would find this book just as useful as the geeks in the world.

If I had to make a minor criticism of this book, I'd say that Ms. Nygaard should include some references to other sources relating to the various topics she addresses. This is a short book (less than 200 pages), and that's a good thing. But, as a short book, it cannot possibly be the end-all and be-all encyclopedia for academic writing. For example, her chapter on figures and tables is a great introduction, but references to authors like Tufte would serve the (novice) reader well.

In conclusion, Writing for Scholars is a great guide to academic writing. It is a must-read for anyone beginning a career that will involve such writing, and even seasoned writers can learn a few things by filling in some gaps that were left over from learning by osmosis.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book: Pro Django

Pro Django by Marty Alchin
ISBN: 978-1-4302-1047-4

Pro Django is an excellent book on Django, but it's not for beginners. The term "Pro" gets thrown around a lot, and it gets applied to things that might better be described with "Dummies." This is the Real Mc Coy - it's serious advanced stuff.

The chapters are centered around nice little chunks of the Django system: Models, Views, Forms, Templates, etc. Each chapter is a nice, self-contained bit of Django knowledge, except for Chapter 2, which is a great survey of advanced Python like meta classes. Most chapters also include an Applied Techniques section which gives some examples of how to apply the material in the chapter.

While reading this book, what struck me was how the chapters seem to pack in a level of detail that you'd typically find only in a comprehensive reference, but yet this book is not a bunch of dry reference material, or worse yet, copies of online manuals. The reader gets serious detailed information, but it almost reads like a fluffy tutorial. It's pretty remarkable.

Something that's unique about this book at this time (Q1 2009) is that it covers the 1.0 version of Django. A bunch of the first books on Django were written against 0.96 or earlier. You'd think there wouldn't be much difference (0.04 versions if you only look at the numbers), but the jump to 1.0 was significant for Django. It's nice to have a book that reflects the 1.0 world.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Does OpenOffice Base suck?

Is it just me, or does OpenOffice Base (the database tool in their suite) suck? Or maybe it just sucks on the Mac? Honestly, I'm not throwing bombs just to be a tool. If I'm doing something wrong, please tell me.

For some time I've been looking for a database tool along the lines of Access, but which runs on the Mac and possibly other platforms. It's not that I'm a big Access fan - I've only used it a time or two, but every now and then, I have a task that cries out to be implemented with a database. Creating a desktop application from scratch using something like Swing and JavaDB/Derby seems like overkill (not too mention, way too much work), but I've always thought that there should be a database tool that's based on Java (cross-platform) and some open-source database (e.g., Derby or SQLite).

On paper, Base is just that tool. I heard somewhere that it's written in Java, and I know that it uses HSQLDB, but can use any JDBC database. Looking through the interface it's got tables, forms, and reports. And OpenOffice runs on Macs, Windows, and Linux. Sounds perfect.

Here's just a short list of the issues I've had:
  • The first time I ran it, it crashed before I'd even defined any tables. D'oh!
  • Once, the UI locked up (no visible updates but the mouse still worked) while I was trying to add a List Box. I kept trying until it crashed. When it came back, I had a zillion List Boxes in the spot where I was adding them.
  • After removing the List Boxes, it crashed again. After restarting, the recovery process restored all those list boxes. I removed them all again, it crashed again, and they were all restored again.
  • Eventually, I removed the List Boxes, saved and quit. After restarting, the boxes were finally gone. This marked a new work pattern - save and quit every ~5 minutes. Sometimes, saving alone wasn't enough to prevent work from being lost.
  • The replace form control function crashed consistently enough for me to realize it doesn't work. This is a shame because the form wizard creates text boxes by default, which need to be converted. I had to add new controls, wire them up, remove the original text box, and move the new control into place - all while saving frequently.
  • It took me forever to get a List Box that wasn't tied to a database table or query - e.g., Gender can only be Male or Female (or Gelded on our farm). To do that, you have to turn off wizard mode.
  • There are various UI boogers on the Mac - e.g., list boxes are sometimes not quite tall enough so the text in the box is chopped when the list is not dropped down.
  • The documentation that I could find was minimal, at best. I realize that's a common complaint about open-source projects, but for something as big as OpenOffice, I expected more.
Anyway, it's so unusable, I don't think I can use it for my own personal purposes, let alone recommend it to clients. Quite a shame. I'm thinking to checking out FileMaker. It runs on both PCs and Macs, and it has a free 30 day trial.