Archive for the 'rapidBOOKS' category

 | August 17, 2010 4:10 am

Evolution of Abstract ArtOne of my all time favorite charts is entitled “Cubism and Abstract Art.”  It was a lithograph created by Alfred Barr (then director of the Museum of Modern Art) as the catalog cover image for a 1932 exhibit of the same name.

I love the image for three reasons reasons:

  1. It’s simply awesome.  Barr’s chart manages to take 45 years of tumultuous history and condense it down to 13 categories, 80 words and 51 arrows.
  2. The graphic is simultaneously informative, provocative, controversial and insulting.  It stressed the evolution of art at the expense of the people responsible, a significant blow to monumental egos.  Only six artists are even listed by name!
  3. The chart beautifully accomplishes an ambitious goal.  Alfred Barr attempted to map the evolution of artistic ideas and cultural movements, both of which are notoriously difficult to chronicle.  Yet, he manages to provide information about how the trends are related to one another, how they evolved through time, and which influences were internal to the art world (depicted in black) and those which were external (red).

It’s a fantastic example of a concept map, network diagram, and process chart all rolled into one.  (Edward Tufte has a great write up about the chart on page 64 of Beautiful Evidence.)

I was reminded just how fantastic again this morning.

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 | August 3, 2010 5:50 pm

Vignelli-SubwayOver the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wandering about in a daze.  (This often happens when I’m doing too many things at once.)

I’m trying to get LyX-Outline done, finish my book, and draw up plans for  Time Drive.  I’ve also got dozens of ideas for blog posts, scientific studies, articles, software projects, and even books dancing about in my head.

(I wish I could figure a way to make some of these ideas pay for themselves, as I would like to pursue them more aggressively.  But, that is a topic for another day.)

Amidst all of the creative chaos, there is one question that I find particularly interesting.  Namely: How the form of a thing influences its function?  This question also goes by a secondary, better known moniker: “the medium is the message”.

Like other dynamics such as nature/nature,  form/function is  a constant in graphic layout, analytic design, horse training, writing, software development, scientific inquiry, marketing/advertising, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology (basically everything which interests me).  My obsession with it has already filled one book chapter and, unless I can exercise some self-restraint,  will likely consume another.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  While researching typographical examples this morning, I found a very interesting instance and thought I’d share.

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 | July 28, 2010 6:28 pm

daVinci-NervousSince “Hannibal, Napoleon and Joseph Charles Minard” was posted in February, it has consistently been one of the most popular posts on this website.  Along with “Eragon Shadelayer: Sociopath” and the project pages for Time Drive and LyX-Outline, it accounts for about 60% of my overall traffic; which is pretty impressive since there are nearly 150 other posts, an image gallery and several content pages vying for people’s attention.

The popularity of Time Drive and LyX-Outline is self-explanatory.  Other than the book, they are my two largest projects.  Moreover, they are the only projects that I promote outside of this website with any regularity.

(Time Drive was even featured by Lifehacker, which was just awesome.  Seeing one of my projects in a big-time website/media outlet was one of ten Life Goals I set in High School.  Now I just need to do something cool and world changing, so I can be invited to present at TED.  That would knock out two more.)

I also understand why “Eragon Shadeslayer: Sociopath” is popular.  There is a thriving community of people who utterly detest the work of Christopher Paolini.  They’re a far more cohesive community than even Paolini’s fans.  They have support clubs, websites and everything.  It’s really quite impressive.

Earlier this week, I finally figured out why “Hannibal, Napoleon and Joseph Charles Minard” is so popular.  While I would like to think that it’s my brilliant commentary or witty prose, that would be wrong.  It’s because I included pretty pictures.   But unfortunately, the popularity of the post isn’t because of my skill as an artist, either.  It’s due to the subject matter of the images.  Because, they’re more than just pretty pictures.  The images included with the Minard post are high quality and (somewhat faithful) translations of Minard’s original maps; and to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only place on the Internet where you can get PDF (vector) copies of the artwork.

I created my copies of the illustrations for the book project, but I liked them so much, that I also wanted to post them on this site.  But since I drew heavily on the work of others (including Edward Tufte and the wonderful Revisions of Minard website), I thought it best to release them under a Creative Commons License.

Over the past six months since they’ve been available, I’ve been contacted by many people who have wanted to use the images for various purposes.  Of these requests, the most common is a desire to print out very large copies and hang them on the wall.  (Edward Tufte offers a copy of the Minard poster for purchase and it is wonderful and beautiful.  Unfortunately, it is also very small.)

It wasn’t until earlier this week, after some back and forth with a nice man named Kevin, that a light bulb in my head went off.  I thought, “Since people want big copies of the images, why don’t you offer them as posters?  You used to run a production office and know something about this whole printing thing … and it probably wouldn’t be that hard.”

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 | July 13, 2010 6:38 pm

In the past few months, I’ve written several articles about the ways LyX can be customized.  These included a brief introduction to layout files and how they relate to document classes in addition to a tour of character styles and how you can add them to the LyX local layout.  What I have not written about, though, is one of the most important ways of extending LyX, the module.

Ever since version 1.6 of LyX, the core LyX developers have worked very hard to make LyX a modular system.  Instead of hard coding values and options – as they had done previously – they’ve instead placed all of the needed information in configuration files that can be edited and modified by users.  This is a Very Good Thng.  It means that (given enough motivation), you can customize LyX to behave exactly was you wish.  You can change the default document classes, styles, fonts and anything else that your little heart desires.  It also means that any extensions you create will exist as first-class citizens.  They have access to all of the internal wizardry as the default document classes and features.

In order to make this transition work, it was necessary to have certain chunks of code that could be switched on when needed and switched off when not required, and that’s how “modules” were born.  In a lot of ways, you might think of modules as document plugins.  They let you do stuff that, while not required, can greatly improve your editing experience.  (Modules are switched on and off from the “Document Settings” pane.)

They let you do things like run Sweave code, add additional theorem environments, or apply a different style to your text.  But unlike a layout file, they are not tied to any particular document class or type; which makes them very powerful.  In fact, nearly all of them they can be used with any document type that LyX supports.

There are two main types of modules:

  1. Modules that contain all of the code needed to implement a particular feature (or modify an existing one) and do not reference external packages.
  2. Modules that load existing LaTeX styles/packages and translate their features into insets, commands and headings.

In both cases, modules serve as a container for the code.  You can use a module to package code that would normally live in a document layout file, or you can use code that might have been placed in the local layout.  The code may be a document header, a new LaTeX command, a character style, a custom inset, or any other type of user customization that LyX supports.

The biggest difference between using a module instead of a layout, of course, is that when the code is placed in a module, you can then add it to any document on your system.  This makes modules a tremendously flexible way to reuse customizations that you’ve created.  In fact, in nearly all cases, they are the best way to package your customizations for use on your own system or for sharing with others.

In this article, I’d like to introduce the module.  I will explain its position in the larger LyX/LaTeX “big picture”, its internal anatomy and provide a few examples of how it can be used to add new features.

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 | July 6, 2010 2:32 pm

Since posting my thoughts on the integration of notes into LyX-Outline, I have gotten a number of very interesting emails. These have provided tremendous insight into how people would like to use LyX-Outline, while also helping me to better understand the role of notes and content management in the writing process.

There is, however, one point that has come up several times that I would like to address.

A variety of people have pointed out that in my original write-up, I don’t make any meaningful distinction between sources (e.g. the work of others) and new, original thinking. This was not due to an error, or oversight; but rather, I deliberately lumped the two together. Moreover, there was a rationale behind that particular piece of madness.

I understand that the sources of others and our own thinking are not the same thing. I get that using the work of others as our own is Bad Mojo. Even so, I wanted to highglight that from a creative standpoint, they can be extremely similar. The ideas of others, interesting observations of nature, or even misunderstood communication can serve as a springboard for creative endeavors. So while sources, responses, thoughts and other information might not be exactly the same thing, they are certainly on the same spectrum and most definitely related.

The notion that such a spectrum exists is very interesting to me. I originally stumbled across this idea while reading a blog post by JoAnn McNeil of The Tomorrow Museum; but pooled bodies of information can found in many other places. The collective body of scientific knowledge, for example, has long been viewed as a shared pool from which you may borrow or contribute freely (while thoroughly respecting and acknowledging the work of others). Similar “community commons” seem to exist in literature, art and design. In some cases, the shared mythology runs so deep that it is simply impossible to determine where an idea originated, or who should get credit.

Which brings me back to the subject I really wanted to write about.

Trying to figure out how notes should integrate into LyX-Outline and writing a book chapter about open source note/outline tools has given me a chance to really think about where my ideas come from, how they can be captured, and the best way to sort and manage them. While pondering such deep questions, I realized that I have a personal “taxonomy of thought”. It’s a five item list that described both the sources of my ideas and how I should use them. This was a bit of a personal revelation, and since I found the exercise interesting, I thought that I would share it here (with figures and everything).

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 | May 26, 2010 9:15 pm

Adobe Acrobat

The PDF file, created by Adobe, has become one of the most common ways to share information and documents.  In some ways, it’s managed to transform entire industries and even change the world.  (Printing, for example, is entirely based on PDF technology.)

Given its popularity and widespread use, PDF viewers and other utilities have become extremely important.  So much so, in fact, that a PDF reader is an essential part of the operating system.  Mac OS X comes with one by default and most computer manufacturers will install a copy of Adobe’s Reader prior to shipping  (Some will even include PDF generation tools, such as PDF Creator or the full version of Acrobat.)

Over the past few months, while working on my book, I’ve really come to appreciate the versatility of the PDF.  It’s allowed me to share files with editors, other contributors, and “beta” readers without worrying if they can read my draft or view the figures.  This has saved me from innumerable headaches and unprofitable fights with technology.

At the same time, I’ve become exposed to the huge amount of PDF related software available for Linux.  It’s all great stuff, and can be downloaded at no cost.  With  the right programs, you can even replicate all of the features of Acrobat, and in the process save yourself hundreds of dollars.

In the rest of this post, I will look at the tools that let you do this.  These include programs to create PDF files, modify layout once they’ve been generated, merge documents and rearrange pages.  If you know of any that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments.

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 | May 20, 2010 8:50 pm

Cite-While-You-Write applets are extensions for word processors that give you access to your reference library while writing a research paper, book, or thesis.  They can be used to insert citations into the text and make it easy to automatically generate a “Works Cited” page.

For the past several days, I’ve been working on a book section that compares many popular Cite-While-You-Write plugins.  While trying to wrap my head around the different programs and what features they offer, I thought that an overview table would be helpful.


Note: If you see any errors, or there are other features that you think should be added, please let me know in the comments.  I will try and post regular updates.  (Last Updated: May 20, 2010; 2:55 PM)

 | May 19, 2010 3:52 am

While LaTeX is a powerful way to prepare and typeset many types of publications, there are certain times when it is both more convenient and efficient to have a graphical user interface.  This is why the document processor, LyX, was created.

LyX combines many of the best characterizes of a Word Processor with the strengths of LaTeX; and the result is a program that gives you the power of semantic writing without having to laboriously climb the LaTeX learning curve.

But as wonderful as LyX might be, it isn’t perfect.

One of LyX’s biggest limitations is the relatively small number of LaTeX document classes that can be used with it.  This limitation is due to the fact that even though LyX uses LaTeX to create its final output, it isn’t able to directly read and parse LaTeX styles.  Rather, it requires a special type of file (known as a “layout”) to help translate between what a user sees on the screen and what eventually appears on the printed page.

Unfortunately, creating layout files is a bit of an arcane art; and as a result, many document classes are never adapted to work with LyX.

(For more information about how the relationship between LyX and LaTeX –including an example of how to create a custom layout from an existing document class – please see my earlier article, Customizing LyX: Create an NIH Grant Proposal Template.)

This is not something that I would like to see happen with my custom Curriculum Vitae document class, xetexCV.  I spent a great deal of time developing and debugging the document class and  as a result, I would like to see people using it, including LyX users.  As a result, in this article, I will introduce a layout file that allows you to use xetexCV from inside of LyX and I will show how LyX users can enjoy the same amenities (including an automatically generated bibliography) enjoyed by LaTeX purists.

What I will not discuss, however, are topics that I’ve written about previously.  This includes the overview of xetexCV, its use and installation; the dissection of the LaTeX code and my design choices; or a detailed set of instructions on how to automatically generate a list of references from your BibTeX database.  As some of that information is pertinent to things discussed here, you may wish to read the earlier entries in this series prior to proceeding.

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 | May 14, 2010 5:56 pm

Microsoft Word is the most common writing program in the world.  It’s everywhere, and at some point in their lives, nearly everyone has used it. Much of this success is hard-earned. Word is a good piece of software, and it works very well.

But the dominance of Word has resulted in a rather significant problem for the users of other programs. Microsoft Word files have become the de-facto way to exchange written material with others, and if your alternative program doesn’t support Word files, you can be cut off from colleagues, friends, family, and publishers.

Unfortunately, one my favorite Open Source Writing programs, the LaTeX front-end LyX, does not support Microsoft Word files. And even though I prefer to write using LyX and LaTeX, I’m often forced to use MS Word simply so that I can “stay in the loop”.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been happy about it, though.

When I’m not happy, I get motivated to solve the problem. For quite some time, I’ve been trying to shoehorn my preferred tools into a world dominated by Word. I’ve experimented with a lot of different options and I think I’ve finally come up with a system seems to work pretty well.

Here’s how you can import Word documents into LyX:

  • It allows me to import Microsoft Word files into LyX with a single click.
  • It maintains most document structure, including headers, styles, and other structural elements.
  • It successfully translates MS Word syntax to LyX.  This means that I do not need to spend time repairing double quotes or fixing em-dashes.

In this post, I will describe that system, how to set it up, and its use. I will also take a look at instances where it may be limited and provide manual alternatives that may be more appropriate.


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 | February 22, 2010 5:49 pm

Charles Minard - Railroad Routes

No study of the history of scientific communication can be complete without mention of Joseph Charles Minard, a 19th Century French civil engineer and cartographer.

At the end of his life, Minard created two very famous examples of statistical charts, called flow maps, that every scientist, engineer and student should be familair with.  The first showed Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (218 BC, Second Punic War), and the second describes Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia (1812-1813).

Both examples are beautiful works of art and masterful examples of evidence.  But they are also more than that, they tell cohesive and interesting stories.  In this post, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the history of Hannibal and Napoleon, and highlight the ways which Minard’s charts help us to explain their eventual outcome.

(Note: High resolution, PDF versions of the two maps are available for download.  These versions have been translated from the original French.  To download, either click on the images, or here for the Hannibal invasion of Northern Italy, and here for the French Invasion of Russia.)

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