my nine month experiment with safari books online

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my nine month experiment with safari books online

May 20th, 2018 by Jeanne Boyarsky

I’ve completed an experiment of using Safari online for nine months. I learned it’s not for me. I also learned specifically why. So keep reading. You may find that one or more of these don’t apply to you.

My bias

I love paper books. We spend so much time with screens; I like to read on paper. It’s relaxing and uses the eyes differently. Also for computer books, I learn tactically. I remember where things are on pages. I use page numbers to see where I am in the chapter and create mental anchors. I read mainly on the subway while commuting.

I do read books electronically on occasion; usually when editing/proofing books that aren’t in print yet. These are in the form of Word docs or PDFs.

What I tried to read (and what I thought)

  1. Core Java SE 9 for the Impatient” – I picked this as my first book to attempt to read. I love Cay Horstmann’s work. And I’m pretty familiar with what is in Java 9 so I figured this wouldn’t be a terribly hard read. Learning something new while getting used to the Safari reader seemed overly ambitious.
    • I read two chapters before I got too fed up with the O’Reilly “Queue” reader.
    • My biggest problem was that it was hard to figure out where I was within a chapter. There are scroll bars, but I want to see the mapping to chapter subheadings like in the table of contents. I can view these subheadings and go to them, but not see where I am. Pagination matters!
  2. Effective Java” – Ok so maybe the problem was that the previous book was too easy and I couldn’t get into it. I did want to read the revamped Effective Java book. And it has very short sections – there are 90 tips in about 400 pages. So I figured I wouldn’t be impacted with the problems I had with Core Java. Well, I had two new ones.
    • The code blocks don’t fit on the  screen so you have to use two finger horizontal scroll to read the code. Alternatively, you can click a link to view the code as an image. The image is all the code in the book in various fonts. It’s just as hard to follow. Besides either of these approaches break flow and make it harder to read/understand the text and how it relates to code.
    • I also learned that even with the short sections for each item, I was losing the spatial memory of being in a specific place on the page for reading. (This problem isn’t as bad with e-book PDFs when I review because there are page numbers and page break so you still have some level of anchoring.)
    • Oh and you can highlight text for notes in the iPad app, but the only way I can find to view the highlights/notes in one place is on the web site. Grumble.
    • I still want to read this book, but I’ve given up on reading the Safari version and ordered a paper version. And I paid for the paper version. I might have been able to get a review copy in December from CodeRanch, but I didn’t ask then because I thought I’d read it on Safari.
  3. My books – I flipped through parts of my books. I know the contents of these books well having written them. And I was just checking out the format so the anchoring/pagination problems weren’t a big deal. Or so I thought.
    • First of all, publishers report errata by *page number*.  Getting rid of the page numbers does the reader a disservice. Especially on certification study guides where errata matter a lot.
    • The rendering is bad. I’ve seen the official e-book of my titles. The official e-books look nice. The Safari book is nothing like them. On the assessment, the answers have numbers instead of letters. (The answer key of course uses letters so this is annoying.)
    • The code doesn’t fit on the screen without scrolling despite the fact that there over an inch of whitespace on the side of each code block in the rendered version.
    • The excessive whitespace margins are annoying in and of themselves. It means less text appears on the screen. Computer book authors put effort into making sure certain things are visible at the same time for comparison/reference when learning. All this is lost.
  4. Introduction to DevOps with Chocolate, Lego and Scrum Game” – Last try. This book is relatively short (140 pages), doesn’t have code and is light reading. I still had to horizontal scroll in a couple places for tables. At least this book I was able to get through in Safari online.

What I didn’t try

I didn’t watch any videos. I prefer to learn by reading vs video. (probably because I want to be reading when I’m not at my computer and use my computer time for actually coding or typing.) I could watch a video on my iPad, but then I’d have to juggle another item to take notes. Yuck.

I didn’t read the e-books in a browser on my computer. A quick scan says the code does fit on the screen there, but there still isn’t pagination.

Other opinions

During this experiment, I asked others what they thought of Safari Online. Two mentors at the robotics lab felt it was too expensive. I also asked at CodeRanch in this post. Highlights:

  • Bear (a very senior developer and successful author who reads e-books exclusively) said he wasn’t impressed during the free trial and PDFs are far superior.
  • Tim C (who has a free subscription at work) uses it occasionally for copy/paste but prefers paper book.
  • two people comment the material they need is already online for free

What is good about Safari Online

I imagine the videos are good. And being able to reference so many books or read as much as you want is a nice benefit.

Why Safari Online isn’t for me

For books the decision to not have pagination ruins it for me. As does the poor highlighting/note taking ability. DRM is all well and good but I find the iPad app to be far inferior to a PDF as far as e-books go.

The other problem is the cost. I typically read 10 computer books a year (cover to cover). Granted some are books I borrowed from others or are books I get for free for reviews. But even if I bought them all, that would cost roughly the same as a Safari online membership. ($39/month.)

Personally, I’d rather have the physical books to show to others, reference my notes in, etc. I’m going to request my license either be transferred to someone else or not renewed for next year.

Disclosure: my employer paid for the year of Safari Online so this experiment only cost my time.


why i’m so proud of frc team 694 and their two cube auton this year

May 19th, 2018 by Jeanne Boyarsky

Two years ago, I offered a prize if the robot could score a certain number of computer vision (CV) shots. The prize was custom printed M&Ms. This year, I offered a challenge again. I’m not doing a challenge every year. The challenge needs to meet certain criteria:

  1. Significant jump in tech capabilities
  2. Significant jump in teamwork
  3. Attainable, but stretch goal
  4. I feel like it

Here’s our robot:

There were a number of factors enabling success:

  1. The team was able to set up shop in the cafeteria for about 10 days. (Chinese New Year weekend and Presidents Day week.) This allowed for building a full size half practice field including sufficient height to test. It also allowed the practice field to remain set up so time wasn’t wasted setting up every day. We would not have had such a successful autonomous routine with this.
  2. This year was the first year, FRC Team 694 StuyPulse successfully built two robots – Wildcard and Mildcard. Not only that, but the robots were pretty much identical. Having an “extra” robot allowed us to test advanced autonomous modes even after the robot was “done.” This program has a “change freeze” on working on the physical robot, but not on software.
  3. Many skilled, smart and motivated students. Even the freshmen took on significant challenges in the space of programming and engineering. This allowed us to drive straight, go the right distance, tune, etc faster than usual. In fact, a couple freshman are leading a motion profiling project!
  4. Self starters. One of the freshmen (freshwomen?) started a project to record every practice run. This replaced debates on what happened in a run with actual facts. All competition matches were recorded as well for the same reason.
  5. Never giving up. I’m big on valuing this. The students worked on and succeeded at things that I thought were impossible.
  6. Communication was the best I’ve ever seen. Much more communication was on Slack (in a place mentors could see) than ever before. Different departments of the team communicated well throughout the season.

I’m particularly pleased that some of the contributions to our success this year came from some of the younger members of the team. This means that we get to advance even more next year. Go StuyPulse!

On to the prize. This was better than the CV year so I wanted to bring in something nicer. It needed to portable and have a low cost per unit (I needed a few hundred.) And ideally it would be wrapped. I decided on 30 mini chocolates each saying:

Congrats Team 694. Two identical working robots and two cub auton. What a year!

(two cube auton means scoring a game element, acquiring another and then scoring that one)

I also did a random draw for “nicer prizes”. (ex: my championships field pin and t-shirt). To enter the random draw, students had to say how they contributed. I got a nice range of replies including:

  • Helped with robot and field reset as well as carpet duty, so the autons could be tested more quickly
  • helped wire the bots and came to every meeting to retrieve batteries for auton testing
  • I filmed our tests so that we could rewatch them and learn what went well.
  • I helped wire the practice bot so that SE could continue working on auton development after bag and tag.
  • I helped set up the carpet 🙂
  • helped fundraise the team to have money for a second robot! 🙂
  • built bumpers to make sure the bot was legal and could play

I picked these to share because they will make sense to someone not on the team, don’t reference specific people or inside jokes. Fun fact. Half the total entries use the word “helped”. That’s a nice teamwork word!

pathways launch day – initial observations

May 15th, 2018 by Jeanne Boyarsky

While I’ve been in Pathways long enough to complete four levels, today is my first day as an officer in a Pathways club. So what did I observe?

Choosing a path

The self assessment has more questions than from when I took it in December. You do have the option to skip the assessment entirely and just pick a path. I recommend taking it though. It’s interesting to see what the system suggests for you.

Approving awards

Once a member picks a path, you have the ability to submit awards for the levels. (Obviously nobody completed a level on day one.) For how to approve levels, see this blog post. Still, it is cool to see our VPE’s name having the option in Club Central.

Reports have lag

The reports in base camp manager get pathways “periodically”. I think it is every few hours, but hard to be sure. However you can click the triangle and refresh at any time.