Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Holiday Writing Project: Smashing Perverse Insentives

My goal this break is to revise For All x, a logic textbook made available free under a Creative Commons license, so that it is appropriate for my community college students. Textbook prices are salt in the wounds of students who have trouble paying from college, but right now teachers have no pressing reason to assign cheap or free textbooks, since they don't have to pay for them. (The economists call this kind of situation a "perverse incentive.") Most free logic books are written for geeks by geeks and aren't useful for the sort of student who is hurt most by textbook prices, so I think my project will help more than just my students.

I'm already running into problems, though. The changes I want to make are fairly basic: I want to rearrange the order the material is presented in so that more of the basic stuff comes first, and then I want to create more exercises for that basic material. (I'm just calling my version of this text a "remix.") But simply moving around text is turning out to be difficult. Magnus wrote the whole thing in LaTeX, which I don't know, so I've been opening the files in MS Word, replacing the formatting tags with formatting in Word, and then making the alterations I want to make. I was then going to convert the whole thing to a .pdf and send it to Kinko's to create $3 coursepacks for my students. Getting all the formatting straight is a big pain, though. Which leads to questions

Should I just learn LaTeX? Can I do this over the break and get the text ready in time for my stduents? Is there a reader I should use to show how the marked up text will appear in print? How do I put this all in a form that Kinko's will accept?

If I don't learn LaTeX right now, how do I get my formatting to look like Magnus's? How can I figure out what fonts he is using given the LaTex files or a .pdf file? If I'm just approximating his formatting, what fonts should I use?

These are just my initial worries. I haven't even begun to do things like generate new exercises yet. I'm still hung up on the mechanics of producing a book. Anyone have advice?


Anonymous said...

LaTeX really isn't too hard if you have a template to work from, which it sounds like you do, (Marcus's?).

Anytime I don't know how to do something, I google it and can usually find something that works within a couple tries.

The only thing tricky is getting LaTeX up and running on your computer. I recently had a friend come over and do the whole shebang on my new laptop, and she put TeXShop on it, which is an editor and a compiler and makes everything nice and easy. It even has some built-in commands.

I'd say if you have someone who can get you going a little bit, you could be back to revising the book within a day. Go for it.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Yeah, I can normally Google my way to a solution to ordinary problems, but LaTex has always stymied me. I'll look for a PC editor and compiler for LaTeX and see what happens.

Unknown said...

Yes. Learn Latex. It's useful for other things also. And as Heebie said, googling gets you pretty much all the tutorials you need to do it. It is much much more user friendly for anything than the most basic text in word. Very flexible. Good luck.

Matt BK said...

I've found LaTeX useful when I wanted to do something simple that I could have control over (a manuscript I submitted) but sucky for something I had to make fit a standard (my MS thesis). If you have free reign, go for it!