Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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The Best Boxes for Books

December 5, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Deirdre and I "transitioned" to upstate New York on Monday — moving ourselves and the two cats and a bunch of stuff from our tiny New York City apartment to our little house in the Catskills, where we'll be spending December and quite likely a significant chunk of January.

The uncertainty of our return back to the city mostly involves my current work-in-progress, The Annotated Turing. I do not want to transition back to the city before submitting the final chapters to my publisher. I'm basically stranded here in the snowy mountains until it's done.

Among the stuff I needed to move up here were books that I'm using for research for The Annotated Turing — everything from the obvious (Andrew Hodges's biography, the four volumes of the Collected Works of A.M. Turing, Jean van Heijenoort's extraordinary anthology From Frege to Gödel) to the more obscure (Machine Man and Other Writings by Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Bertrand Russell and Trinity by G.H. Hardy, and The Love that Dared not Speak its Name by H. Montgomery Hyde).

Books are not easy to box and move. Most people forget how heavy books actually are. They try to put them in large boxes which are unwieldy to carry. Sometimes the bottoms even fall out, scattering the poor books all over the sidewalk.

Go small! I know from experience the best box size for books:

The box is 12" by 10" by 8" deep, a size also known as F30. Unless you're a collector of coffee-table books or huge art books, this size box will probably fit 99% of your books. It works best when each box is packed with books of approximately the same dimensions; depending on their size you can arrange them parallel to either of the three sides of the box. One strip of packing tape closes the bottom; the top can be flapped.

Each F30 box holds on average ten books. The boxes are easy to carry and maneuver, easy to stack and shove into tight places, and can be used multiple times. Several years ago we used 250 of these boxes to move 2,500 books. Today's transition only required 16 boxes. Deirdre used a couple, and I used 12 of them for about 120 books. It's not that I need 120 books to complete The Annotated Turing. I only need some of them. But the problem is that I'm not sure which ones I'll need. It is, as they say, an undecidable problem.

As I removed these books from the shelves in our apartment and boxed them, as I carted these boxes from the apartment out to the car, and as I later carted them from the car into the house, and then unboxed them and re-shelved them (moving the books already on the shelves to other bookcases), didn't I have the tiniest little inkling for an alternative approach? Didn't I whisper to myself —

"Charles, wouldn't you really rather have a Kindle?"

Gosh, I suppose. The problem right now, of course, is that the number of books I'm using for research for The Annotated Turing that are actually available for the Kindle probably comes in at less than 1%. I wouldn't be surprised if it were 0%.

Now I know Jeff Bezos has big plans for the Kindle: "The vision is that you should be able to get any book—not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print—on this device in less than a minute," he was quoted in Steven Levy's article in Newsweek, sounding much like a Miss America contestant speaking about world peace. The folks at Google Book Search had a similar "vision" and look at the mess they made of that.

One problem is that ebooks should be stored in a markup-base format — actual text with markup indicating paragraph and character formatting. This is great if the publisher actually supplies the books in this format, or something convertible into that format. Otherwise, the only real alternative is scanning and basically making a PDF file out of a bunch of bitmaps. The result — again, as anyone who's actually used Google Book Search knows — is hard to manipulate and search.

At this point, substituting a Kindle for my multiple boxes of books is utopian, perhaps less utopian than substituting a teleporter for the job of stuffing the wailing cats into their carriers for the trip, but aImost. The printed book was refined over millennia to reach its present form. It's ridiculous to suppose that somebody's going to get the digital alternative correct in a period of several years.

So as I pack my books into F30 boxes, I'm not stubbornly hanging on to obsolete objects of the distant past. I'm using the only technology that actually works for me at this time.


Small correction: unofficially, the Kindle can accept PDF files and reflows them. Works "pretty well" for layout-light texts ("Programming Ruby") and terribly for layout-heavy texts (SD Times).

Larry O'Brien, Wed, 5 Dec 2007 13:44:28 -0500 (EST)

Thanks! I knew from your informative "hacking the Kindle" blog entries that it could handle PDF files, but I don't see how it can possibly deal with the zillions of PDFs that are merely collections of bitmaps, which is the case with those available from Google Book Search. For example, I'd be curious what happens when you try try this 4.8 megabyte PDF of the first edition of Trollope's Cousin Henry (only 280 pages). — Charles

As far as I'm aware the Kindle strips all the text out of the PDF (without all or most of the formatting) and then displays it in a single column. Anything with multi-columns or tables will probably be a nightmare. I'm really keen to hear about how our free PDF classics eBooks look in the Kindle -- from the sound of it all design elements are stripped out and you're left with something resembling a plain text file.

If you have time, please check one out, and post a comment.

R Crocker, Wed, 5 Dec 2007 21:05:23 -0500 (EST)

I find it rich that you can criticise Google for their enormous efforts on this front when you yourself have denied your readership downloadable and searchable copies of your own books. Google's solution may not be ideal at the moment, especially as a research aid, but they are tenacious and I doubt they will be giving up on the venture.

May I suggest a cheap small format notebook in preference to the DRM-infested Kindle? I hear the new Asus models are popular in the US. Google Desktop will index your PDFs for you, although it isn't clever enough to OCR the bitmap copies for you yet ;)

— Dave R., Thu, 6 Dec 2007 07:47:29 -0500 (EST)

Usually when I hear people moan about the non-availabilty of electronic books, I suspect that they're really just peeved that they cannot get the book off bit-torrent.

I think that the BEST collection of books is the massive, and overlooked, project gutenburg

— Daveb, Thu, 6 Dec 2007 13:39:09 -0500 (EST)

@Daveb: Wrong, actually I'm peeved that, even when I pay over the odds for my technical books (I'm in the UK), some publishers still don't make an electronic version available, either on a CD, via (legitimate) download or through another means (like O'Reilly's Safari service). It's no wonder that many increasingly turn to the Net as their first point of call instead of relying on texts any more.

If you think Project Gutenberg has any relevance to the discussions on technical literature or non-public domain books, then you're sorely mistaken. They only deal with books that are out of copyright, unlike Google and Amazon, who attempt to digitise everything, but only provide limited access to books still under copyright.

— Dave R., Fri, 7 Dec 2007 07:45:34 -0500 (EST)

Mr Petzol

Why should we need to buy a book at all when there are so many free book download sites available!, for IT books there is absolutely no need to put your money on something that will be outdated in year or so.

For porn magzines and erotic novels , you can use them in many ways like when you are alone and electricity is out , with your girlfriend and want to turn on ... and most of times you can even sell them at good prices to 11 year old kid!!

For books that fall under category of "Break Through or Must Read" yeah you can buy them so next time your friends show up you can show them that you have high sence of book reading specailly the ones with good ratings !

All in all book reading is a good habit , but putting money on something that is available for free is not logical even not sane!

If you are afraid that you are book author and will not able to run your finances move to country which is welfare state , cause if you have passion for writing you will not stop writing books on the other hand living on mimimum wage will not help your domestic life.


Jason Bourne

— Why You Purchase Books Mr Petzol???, Tue, 11 Dec 2007 01:29:55 -0500 (EST)

"I'm basically stranded here in the snowy mountains until it's done."

That reminds me of an old Jack Nicholson movie.

All work and no play...

— Benny, Wed, 26 Dec 2007 11:24:03 -0500 (EST)

Hey. No box is big enough to hold all the annotations of Turing.

— Weapon of mass indecision, Mon, 25 Feb 2008 05:02:34 -0500 (EST)

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