Ways in which print is superior to digital, part 1

NOTE: Which are better, fish or birds? Silly question, right? We must ask, “better for what?” I’m not maintaining that print is inherently a “better” medium than digital media, nor the reverse. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We should maintain both.

1. Permanence

Information on the web can vanish overnight. Maybe your webhost suddenly shuts down.

I once hosted a site that talked more about this idea at http://mind.blazingfast.net/TheRaft, but it seems that google nor the wayback machine are able to help me reclaim that page. source


Or someone controlling the content decides on a change…

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama launched a Web site with detailed information about his plans for technology, Iraq, and health care policies.

Now they’re gone. source.


Image source.

In my own computer files I have the complete text of a book published in 1976, which was made available online by the author. It had to be downloaded one chapter at a time, and as I did so I was thinking “Oh this is silly, I can come back to this whenever I want.” But recently when I tried to go back to the link, it was gone, and the text is nowhere to be found as far as Google can tell.

What’s online may be altered too: the writer can undergo a complete turnaround, or merely make edits to what is posted, so that it’s difficult or impossible to recover the original. Rather like the drastic re-writing of history in 1984. With a printed book, such changes are additive rather than subtractive: an author publishes a “revised second edition” for example, but the first edition still exists and can be consulted. This means you can recover specific details lacking in the revised form (citations, turns of phrase, pronouncements, data, whatever it might be), as well as track the writer’s alterations.

As with other differences between print and online material, this lack of permanence shows how what’s considered an advantage can have a flip side, a drawback that is the consequence of a valued feature. Things have the “vices of their virtues”. Something that is easily updated cannot remain constant.

Even if digital data isn’t altered, it may become unreadable. We have found many examples of the earliest known writing, from 4600 years ago. And its glyphs are all visible to the human eye, able to be widely studied via photos so that languages are reconstructed and unknown forms of writing are deciphered. The pre-cuneiform writing below is part of a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple” about 2600 BC. (Wikipedia)


Yet digital records less than a decade old may become unreadable because of physical deterioration or hard to access because of the adoption of new systems and hardware. The Wikipedia article on CDs shows a CD recorded in 2000 which by 2008 had lost part of its data due to physical degradation. And any computer user who is old enough, and is conscientious about making back-ups, probably has a stack of old floppy disks bearing data that didn’t get transferred before the old machine went out the door. If you find a ribbon-bound bundle of letters written in 1810 you can open and read them easily, but your own material stored 8 or 10 years ago on floppies—getting at that will take considerable effort, and each year that goes by will increase the difficulty of finding compatible equipment (as well as the likelihood that the disks themselves may be damaged or degraded).

When works exist only in digital form, there is reason to be concerned about how long they will endure, and be accessible. A shelf of books and movies on DVD may be about as hard to play in 2025 as a box of 8-track tapes is today. Software and hardware will have moved on. Where does that leave an author, if demand doesn’t support a re-issuance in new media? How do you share or re-read a book you liked or found important, when the computers that could read it are all in the landfill? What about historians, will they all have to congregate in museums of carefully-maintained antique computers, trying to coax words from deteriorated storage media? Print books, on the other hand, won’t become obsolete until the human eyeball evolves into something else (a barcode reader?).

So, if you want text or other material to be accessible to you in ten years, or to posterity in a hundred years, print it. On archival-quality paper.

Longlasting media


Above, one tablet of the earliest known dictionary (about 2,300 BC). Source is the fascinating HistoryofScience.com, which has timelines of short articles for various aspects of science, medicine, and technology. Some of their articles (including this one) are based on Wikipedia, but not all. Being able to scan through them by topic is great. “It consists of Sumerian and Akkadian lexical lists ordered by topic. … One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian. Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 [the one pictured] lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.”


Here’s a piece of thin paper 1300 years old: part of the earliest known complete star map, the Dunhuang Star Atlas. It was drawn in China about 650 AD. The paper survived being stored in a cave for an unknown period, and was found in 1907. Image source. More on this and another early Chinese star atlas here.


This book, printed in 1543, is a first edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. No data loss in nearly 500 years! Copernicus wrote it in Latin, which was then the international language of science, and is now called a “dead” language because it has no living native speakers. But due to its historical and religious importance, there are far more people alive today who can read Latin than can read 16th century Polish, the language Copernicus grew up speaking.

The iPad comes to our house

Yesterday was going to be one of those cherished days when we didn’t have to get in the car for anything. Or maybe just drive somewhere nearby to go for a walk on a forest service road. We had been expecting Dan’s iPad to be delivered, but an email had informed us a couple of days earlier that UPS doesn’t make Saturday deliveries out where we live. Sigh. Wait until Monday. Then UPS phoned: “We can’t bring it today, but we are open until 1 pm if you want to come and pick it up.” Silly question! Suddenly we wanted nothing more than to make that 25 mile trip to town.

The web is already full of accounts and reviews of the iPad, even though the official release date was only yesterday, so there’s no need for a full description of the device here. And we haven’t had it long enough for an actual review. But we’ve had it long enough to know how we like it, and that is: very very much.

The sleek design is matched by perhaps excessively minimalist instructional materials. It came with one postcard-sized piece of paper showing the external controls: Home, On/Off, etc. That was about it. And something about using iTunes to configure it. Maybe Apple expected all the early adopters to be iPhone or iPod Touch users, who would find a lot of familiar features. That’s not us (no cellphone service at our house, no need for an iPod), but we figured it out. You start out with the iPad by connecting it to your computer and opening iTunes, which detects the iPad and takes you through registration, setting up email account settings, and syncing music. An excellent user guide is on the web, readable in Safari on the iPad, but we didn’t find that out right away. An upfront referral to the user guide would have saved us some struggling, mostly with the touchscreen “gestures”. We also spent at least an hour trying to figure out how to play the music that had been synced to the iPad, until the user guide led us to an icon we hadn’t touched yet because it said “iPod”. Turns out that opens up your music library. Hunh, imagine that.

That’s all minor stuff. The iPad itself is a marvel: how easy it is to hold and use, the bright sharp screen, long battery life, intuitive operation. There it all is: your photos, the web, email, music—and Dan hasn’t even downloaded anything from the app store yet except a dictionary/thesaurus, a news reader, and the free iBooks app. This last comes with a free book, Winnie the Pooh, which seems an odd choice except that the typography and color illustrations show off the marvelous visual rendering strengths of the iPad. Some say the bright LCD screen will cause eye fatigue for readers. I can’t say yet, and the brightness is adjustable; I do think it is a great advantage to be able to read in the dark, not possible with some other e-reading devices. I’ve still got an old Palm that I keep by the bed so I can read when sleep eludes me, because it too is backlit, and I really expect the iPad will be kinder on the eyes than the small low-contrast screen of the Palm on which I have read for hours at a time.

The ability of the iPad to go from landscape to portrait mode whenever you turn it is just amazing, and makes it easy to try in an instant whether you want to read this book with one larger page shown vertically, or two smaller pages side by side. Depends on the book and how you feel at the moment, and having the choice offered and made so effortless is very nice.

In fact I’d say that’s one of the generalities I’d make about this device: it’s not just thoughtfully designed for ease of use, but for ease of use by people with different requirements. Adjustable, customizable. And that’s just out of the box. I’m sure the coming months will see lots of changes and third-party add-ons offering even more flexibility in different areas.

The QWERTY keypad that appears on the screen, whenever you need to type, is big enough and each key-press makes an unobtrusive but adequate sound so you know you’ve pressed it. What does that mean, “whenever you need to type”? When you touch the Search box in Safari and need to fill in a term, it appears; when you touch the “paper” of the Notepad application, it appears, and so on. This is intelligent anticipation of the user’s needs and it feels right.

The sound quality is surprisingly good, far better than that of my MacBookPro, and seems to have more volume too. We played around with the iPad well into the evening, maybe 6 hours of using the browser, looking at photos, playing music, and still had 55% of the battery power left.

Dan’s keen to get some specific apps designed for the iPhone that we have been yearning for: one is iBird Explorer Backyard: “This interactive field guide lets you search North American birds by color, shape, habitat, location, and more.” And there’s one for butterflies too. Imagine having this in your coat pocket or daypack, a field guide that can show you “birds with red markings” if that’s what you’re looking at, and play bird calls! There’s a hand-held star-guide we saw demo’ed on Rachel Maddow’s show, which gives you a labelled view of the part of the sky you are looking at—move it and the section of sky moves too. Not sure if that one is going to work for us or if it requires the iPad with 3GS, but we’ll look into it.

Okay, looking back at what I’ve written I can see people saying critically “You say it is ‘thoughtfully designed for ease of use ‘ but you couldn’t figure out how to get at your music? You must be a shill for Apple.”

I confess, I got a Mac SE in 1987 or ‘88 and it did change my life. It enabled me to do things, such as edit and lay out a magazine, producing camera-ready copy, that I would never have been able to do otherwise. The iPad gives me that same feeling as the SE, or the first laptop I got, a blue clamshell iBook: the feeling of possibilities and of a pleasure of use. After all, the Mac made computers fun to use. You could enjoy the way the machine worked, as well as enjoying what you were able to do with it. And the iPad is one more landmark on that same path.

I found myself wondering last night what computing would have developed into without Apple, if Bill Gates and Microsoft had been not just the monolith of computing but (effectively) a monopoly, the only game in town. Who can say, but I’m confident it wouldn’t have been as much fun, or unleashed the personal possibilities that the Mac has. For those too young to remember, it was the Mac that made possible the use of fonts, WYSIWYG, page-layout with Aldus Pagemaker, paint and draw programs, photos on a computer, the graphic web, and on…We went from this

iPad MSDOS.jpg

to this

iPad HelloMac.jpg

and now this




and this (none of these hurried photos does justice to the iPad; it’s brighter, sharper, and of course not skewed or moiré-patterned)


Coming soon to our iPad:


and who knows what else? It’s exciting.

If Babbage HAD built his “Difference Engine”

Here’s a funny comics-version, from 2D goggles. Actually it is about mathematician Ada Byron Lovelace (1815 – 1852), but we all know that women never get top billing!

The comic was made for “Ada Lovelace Day”, to promote a film (to be offered to local stations by PBS) about this remarkable woman, and the film-makers need our help:

letters of support from people who have been influenced in some way by Ada and who are willing to help publicise the film, be a part of the interactive website, perhaps show the film, or contribute in any other way.

Rosemarie says, “I need letters from people stating how important a film like Ada is and how they through their networks can help to publicize the film. It would be great if the women have organizations they work or belong to. If they are software developers or computer experts, this would be great. It would be best if they were Americans, as the NSF (National Science Foundation) is American.”

If you’re not American, letters would still be useful of course! The deadline is the end of October.

Please write to:

Rosemarie Reed
On the Road Productions International, Inc.
310 Greenwich Street, 21F
New York, NY 10013
Or email Rosemarie directly, rreed40148@aol.com.

After some thought, I decided to write a letter based on my experiences giving books to kids at the food pantry, and the unabated gender gap I see in kids’ interest in science and math. Sure, the older kids are computer users, but computers are fun personal devices; they still display an aversion to math and science, especially the non-biological sciences. A few boys get drawn in by technology, but I don’t see it in girls. [I have a small sample size, I admit, and it is a rural area.]

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron (his only legitimate child); she married a nobleman, and was part of the social whirl of that class, dancing and entertaining. [Photo below from Wikipedia]


Wikipedia tells us that

During a nine-month period in 1842-43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include (Section G), in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine ever been built. Based on this work, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world’s first computer program.
However, biographers debate the extent of her original contributions. Dorothy Stein, author of Ada: A Life and a Legacy, contends that the programs were mostly written by Babbage himself. Babbage wrote the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1846):

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

The level of impact of Lovelace on Babbage’s engines is difficult to resolve due to Babbage’s tendency not to acknowledge (either orally or in writing) the influence of other people in his work. However, Lovelace was certainly one of the few people who fully understood Babbage’s ideas and created a program for the Analytical Engine, indeed there are numerous clues that she might also have suggested the usage of punched cards for Babbage’s second machine since her notes in Menabrea’s memoir suggest she deeply understood the Jaquard’s Loom as well as the Analytical Engine. Her prose also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculation that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

The Difference Engine becomes reality after 150 years

Babbage never built his mechanical computer, but the London Science Museum did make a working version. It was finished in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth.


A view of “some of the number wheels and the sector gears between columns”


Difference Engine model photos source.

Ada Lovelace, “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace”, gave birth to three children (the firstborn was named Byron), and died at 37 of uterine cancer and being bled by her doctors.

Let’s support that film, with letters or emails to demonstrate demand for stations to show it! Here’s the email again, rreed40148@aol.com.

More about girls being turned off to math and science

Feminist Chemists cites a 2008 study by the American Mathematical Society:

In elementary school, girls do as well as or better in math than boys. In middle school, girls with an inclination for math begin to lose interest and fall behind, mostly due to peer pressure and societal expectations. Throughout middle and high school, social stigma and lack of appropriately challenging educational opportunities for the mathematically precocious becomes a hard reality in most American schools. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, often camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.

A study published in June by the National Academy of Sciences found

“It’s not an innate difference in math ability between males and females,” says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the authors of the article that analyzes and summarizes recent data on math performance at all levels in the United States and internationally. “There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn’t exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality.”

Gender bias and expectations are not the only thing we have to worry about. It’s not just girls––boys are losing interest too, according to the AMS research:

”The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys,” says Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of oncology and the senior author of the study. “The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here.”

[NOTE: While Janet Mertz was one of the authors on each study, the PNAS and AMS studies are two different projects. The latter, published Oct. 10 in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, was a comprehensive analysis of decades of data on students identified as having profound ability in math (Science News Oct. 13, 2008). The other study was published June 1, 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy. It looked at US and international data on students of all levels of ability, to answer three key questions: “Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent? The answers, according to the Wisconsin researchers, are no, no and yes.” (Science News June 2, 2009).

You may remember the remarks of Lawrence Summers in 2005 (he was then President of Harvard, and is now an economic adviser to President Obama), to the effect that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. These two studies would support the conclusion that if innate differences do influence women’s lack of success in these fields, the differences are not in mathematical ability. Maybe we should look at “innate differences” in aggressiveness and willingness to withstand unduly competitive or even hostile treatment from colleagues and superiors. Or at insecurity and discomfort, innate or not, which arise in male academics and administrators when females display ability, competence, and promise. A few decades ago women rarely appeared in symphony orchestras unless they played the harp; auditions behind screens changed that! Did our musical ability transform itself overnight? Probably not. ]


[Photo from another good article on the AMS study]

Send an email for Ada and our kids, and consider how you yourself might interact with kids about math and science. Take a trip to the Science Museum if you are fortunate enough to live near one, read a book together, in general don’t act as if math and science are boring geek fare. Even if a lot of it is beyond you, as higher math seems to be beyond me, that doesn’t have to be true for the kids you know. Since I was in college, math has become much more important in biological sciences, ecology, even social sciences like history, so if I were a history major today I would probably need to take at least an introductory statistics class.

We all need to model a respect and interest for learning, to the kids around us. Kids start out as voracious learners: have you tried to learn another language lately? Hard, right? Babies do it, and young kids pick up second languages easily. They’re always learning, not just skills and processes but attitudes too, so let’s not convey bad attitudes about learning, reading, thinking!