Ontology Links

I recently had to make a presentation at work on ontologies–the basics, really, of what they are, how they’re used, and what the heck is OWL? I found the following links and sites helpful in creating my presentation, and thought I’d share them here.

The Basics

Advanced Material

Wikipedia

Controversy

Images

OWL, Protege

Incidentally, it’s always seemed a bit curious to me that given what the Americans say they owe to the Separatists and the Pilgrim Fathers, and indeed it could be proved that they owe a great deal, the English are so often the villains and while we have people in America happy to be Afro-Americans and Irish Americans and Hispanic Americans, I have yet to meet anyone in the United States who has told me that he was an Anglo-American.
From Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter

Advice for economics grad students

Because, for whatever reason, I'm nervous about entering a world that plays according to different rules than the corporate one I'm used to, I've taken to reading and bookmarking a lot of "how to succeed in academia" articles. So as I come across good advice (or at least good advice for me), I'll post it here.

In 2005, Matthew Pearson wrote a letter for the new graduate economics students at UC Davis. The letter (PDF) has some advice specific to that program, but there's other good general advice buried in there too.

  • In the first year, it's "about learning that survival is not all about intelligence, nor passion, but commitment." Learning the fundamentals can be grueling, you'll feel like an imposter, but keep going. Pearson says: "Some research in behavioral economics suggests that people are happier with decisions they know are irreversible. Simply putting that decision [to quit] out of the realm of possibility will relieve you of a lot of burden."
  • Although he talks about preliminary exams at one point, the advice can be generalized: "...[I]t is very important to believe that you have it in you to pass." Learn from your mistakes, take your grades as indicators of where you may need to adjust and improve. "Freaking out is a waste of your time and energy."
  • "Begin to develop your strategy to pass early on." He's talking about the prelims here, but I'm thinking in terms of my master's paper I'll have to write. Ideally, my projects over the next few years will feed into the paper, so that the effort to compile, research, and write will be minimal. (My adviser suggested looking for a subject at my workplace; maximize what I already know well.)
  • I really like this bit of advice. He's talking about getting the fundamentals of economics in your bones, but again, I'm expanding its purview:

Develop your intuition. I cannot stress this enough. As I mentioned above about studying for understanding and not merely memorizing, you must believe that the intuition is there and that the material will seem much, much easier once you have grasped it...When you aim for this kind of understanding, however, things become so much clearer.

Often the barrier to true understanding is the nagging sense that you have SO MUCH to study, so you really must move on to the next topic. However, grazing over lots of material gathering cursory familiarity can be, at best, far less productive than studying one thing until you really understand it and do not need to depend on memorized content...[Me: Hmmmm.] Repetition [can be] sufficient for understanding less challenging material, but this is no longer the case.

[Me: In my spring information course, I felt bombarded by so many new concepts--RDF, metadata, ontologies, thesauri--that it wasn't until I was studying for the final that I grokked how they all fit together. Until that time, they were only vocabulary words. Given the pace of the course, and the fact that I was working full-time and taking a second course, there really was no time to do more than keep my head above water. Also, where I'm at now, everything is basic and fundamental. Intuition will only develop for me after I've worked with these things some more.]

  • "Develop your student capital." Learn to ask your classmates, professors, and TAs questions, no matter how silly you might feel. "There is no place for pride when you do not understand."
  • Develop an effective method for dealing with note-taking and note-studying. "Choose something that addresses your weaknesses effectively." (Spoken like a true lifehacker.) Pearson takes notes on looseleaf paper, transfers them to a binder, and then makes his own notes on the other side of the page as he goes through them. A nice system. I'm still working out mine. What I did in the spring worked OK, but didn't encourage revisiting the material and refreshing itself in my mind.
  • Rest effectively--this means time with friends and family, exercising, getting enough sleep. And yes, that means there can be "unproductive rest," as he calls it, like zoning out in front of the teevee.

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"Callous Complacence"

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter reproduced this fascinating document from WWI war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, denouncing the conduct of the war at great personal risk. It was originally printed in The Times in 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

The Bandwidth of Books

This Design Observer post about who is reading all those books went over some familiar ground ("explosion of information" = "ignorance about more things") and elicited some good comments. The crux of the post was to answer this question:

Why keep on with the work of traditional publishing when the Internet would seem to provide a much more efficient means for reaching people? What is it about the book, pamphlet and magazine formats that continue to lure publishers onto the rocks of insolvency?

It's a good question. Control of the design and sheer love of the physical object are two compelling reasons. (I really can't imagine Bryan Talbot's eye-popping Alice in Sunderland as multimedia object--it just works and feels so complete as a book.)

One of the more interesting answers was that the authors use their small print runs to trade books back and forth with other authors.

Such books function primarily as a currency within the network of other artists, other publishers, and other designers who share their particular sensibility.

Does this sound like zine fandom or what? Or maybe link exchanges in the blog world? The intent being to create a community and start a conversation among members of a self-chosen tribe.

Perhaps it's also those members of our modern digital media culture looking in the rear view mirror at what's receding into the past. Hence the burst over the last 10 years of books about books and reading (though such objects have always been a part of literate culture, just as the theater and movies abound in stories about backstage dramas).

It all reminds me of an Isaac Asimov essay about the perfect entertainment cassette that would be physically comfortable to hold and use, in any lighting, allowing one to start or stop it at any point, rewind or fast-forward and then return to one's present location immediately, and so on. Of course, this perfect cassette is a book.

It also puts me in mind of the astonishing success of Lulu.com and the craftspeople I see selling handmade paper and blank books. There's still a need for the physically beautiful and tactile in us, which the vaporous digital ether can't compete against. (When the next hurricane comes and takes out my electricity for 5 days, will I pass the time reading an e-book or a real book?)

The Sociology of Suicide Notes

From the newsletter that accompanies BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed program, hosted by the ebullient Laurie Taylor:

Whenever the subject of suicide or attempted suicide comes up in conversation I can be relied upon to describe a piece of research on suicide notes that was published some years ago (even though I’ve tried, I can’t find the exact reference any more).

What the researcher had done was collect a large selection of suicide notes written by two classes of people: those who had successfully ended their own life and those who had failed for one reason or another to kill themselves (attempted suicides).

He then submitted these two sets of notes to a computer analysis in the hope that this might throw up some interesting differences in style or subject matter.

As I remember he found clear evidence that the notes written by the ‘attempted suicides’, by people who had not taken quite enough pills, or not sealed the door sufficiently well to prevent noxious gases or fumes escaping, were heavily philosophical in tone. The writers spoke at length of life no longer being worth living, of the meaningless of existence, of the impossibility of optimism.

These were in stark contrast to the suicide notes written by those who had succeeded in killing themselves. These notes tended to be much shorter and much more practical than those provided by attempted suicides. One for example simply said “You’ll find the car keys on top of the sideboard and the will in the top desk drawer.”

There are thousands of other research papers on the subject of suicide. Indeed, it could be argued that sociology first asserted itself as a distinctive subject back in 1897 when Emile Durkheim first tried to formulate a structural and cultural account of its incidence which did not rely upon any psychological understanding of individual desires and motives.

The Hands of an Artist

The Illustration Art blog has two wonderful posts on the great Mort Drucker. This one focuses on how Drucker drew hands, and this one focuses on how he drew and differentiated hair. Tiny tiny things that you don’t notice very much as a casual reader of Mad parodies, but take them away, and the experience lessens.

Artists in Love

David Apatoff has a lovely, heartbreaking post on his Illustration Art blog about a Polish student imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz, how he fell in love with a fellow prisoner, and what became of them. I don’t know where he got the story, but thank the gods that the story still exists.

Godamighty, but can Winterson write!

The British novelist Jeanette Winterson has maintained a web presence for many years. (She even went to court to protect other writers’ privileges when some wanker registered jeanettewinterson.com and refused to release it to her. She won her suit and, of course, no one thanked her for her efforts.)

Every month, she posts her latest journalism to the site, a general update column, and a poem she’s read that demands to be shared.

She’s one of Britain’s great culture warriors and, my god, does her passion for art and culture and her disappointment and hatred of the politicians and vulgarians (on both sides of the pond) come through clearly in this month’s selection of writings.

Jeanette Winterson - Journalism - The Times : Books - The Fight For Culture
“It is important to say this, because we are often fed the line that poetry and story-telling are contrived or artificial, and certainly that they are entertainment or luxury goods – in any case, stuff we don’t need. We need playstations and ready-meals of course, and cheap flights to places we don’t want to go, and two cars per family, but art? Now that’s really self-indulgent.”

Jeanette Winterson - Journalism - The Times : Books - The British Library
“I can (just) hear the arguments that not everyone wants opera or experimental theatre, (myself, I do not want war, but I still have to pay for it), but I cannot accept any arguments that jeopardise a prime cultural resource that is in trust for the nation and must be passed on to future generations.”

Jeanette Winterson - Column - March
“What any creative person needs – all they need – is not praise or blame, but an active and grown-up engagement with the process of making things. That process is necessarily experimental, either in part or in the whole, and sometimes things work well, and sometimes less well. Sometimes things work for a big audience, sometimes only for a few. That’s how it is, and I wish, really wish, that we had a mature culture, interested in creativity, that could understand that. “

Don't Fear The Creeper

Datajunkie runs a great series of scans on Steve Ditko’s “Beware the Creeper!” series that he created for DC. I actually remember having the first issue but never knew others followed.

What I like about this post is the casual examination of Ditko’s storytelling style over the series and how it changed when he returned to the character years later. Also, that it’s liberally illustrated with scans from the issues themselves.

Organizing my books

We’re studying classification in my Organization of Information class. One of my classmates shared a link to a posting about arranging and classifying your personal library by the color of the book’s spine. The link was from the Design Observer blog (though the site has been unavailable to me recently). This spurred a lot of discussion on the mail list about our own personal methods for arranging our book collections at home. Here’s my typical over-the-top response.




I remember reading a designo tract years ago suggesting you group your books by color, by size, or by the publisher’s insignia, the latter of which I found most intriguing for some reason. Imagine all the O’Reilly and Penguins and Modern Library books clumped together.

Another way to arrange your personal set of books would be by autobiographical timeline–when did you acquire them? What associations and nostalgia would they bubble up in you? (I think I got that idea from “High Fidelity.”)

I have 3 vertical bookshelves in my home office, 2 out in the room, 1 in a closet with the record collection. After a lifetime of grouping books by author or genre, I went a few years ago with a totally randomized approach. I just threw them on the shelves in no order, two-deep. Periodically, when I got too familiar with what was on the top 2 shelves, I’d switch them out with books from the lower shelves. I think I did this because I enjoyed being surprised by finding a book I’d forgotten or enjoying the juxtaposition of 19th-century diarists shelved next to “The Mole People.” It broke down the categories in my own head so that I had to keep seeing the books anew.

But it did become too much work to find the book I was looking for and I often found myself tearing the shelves apart when hunting for a specific title. I loved browsing my shelves but hated trying to find something on them.

Inspired by Marc Brodsky, I’m purging my books so that I can only keep what I have shelf space for. (Marc purged his entire collection down to what would fit on a 2-foot shelf, but I’m not that strong.) It’s an arbitrary limit, but aren’t they all? It’s a practical limit anyway.

Lord Peter Wimsey says in one of his stories that one’s library is like a carapace, a shell we carry with us that reveals signs of our travels, interests, and philosophies over the years. I’m finding lots of categories of books that I don’t need or have time for or have lost interest in, which seems kind of a shame, in a way. As a result, most of my collection is sitting in piles on the floor of my office.

As I re-shelve, the closet bookcase becomes the main Holder of The Books. I’m putting them back in rough genre/subject matter/author clumps: journals/diaries/letters, reference, essays, computer, etc. Art books tend to go on the bottom shelf, which has the most headroom, though all my Delacroix books (his journal and letters and various monographs) sit together in one place, as Hinar described. (Reminds me of how The Book Shop on Franklin Street does it; all of the biographical or other material on a writer is shelved with that writer’s novels and stories, so you don’t have to go all over the store to find the books dealing with an author.)

One bookshelf is devoted totally to my graphic novel collection, which are arranged by creator (all the Alan Moore stuff in one place, all the R. Crumb in one place). Anthologies are all grouped together. And then within those clumps, pretty much random. I’m not big on alphabetizing by author/title/date/etc. I know geographically about where a book should be, and if it’s in that region, I’m happy. The remaining onesie-twosie books are non-clumpable, and therefore randomized. The top two shelves hold unread or unprocessed books/comics/magazines.

The 3rd bookshelf has a shelf dedicated to current schoolwork/papers/registration junk, with other shelves holding most of the fiction and poetry. I tend to group authors together, but not alphabetically. For poetry, I tend to group them on a timeline from ancient sources (Greek translations, through to India, China, Japan) to modern (Wright, Rexroth, Sexton). I never noticed that till I wrote that sentence and I have no idea why I do it.

The top shelf holds the books I’m currently reading (or was reading before school threw itself bodily into my path). When I put a book I’m reading back on the shelf, I place it on the far left. Books I’ve not read recently migrate to the right, over time. So when I have time to read something, I’ll reach for the leftmost book first; I don’t have to stop and wonder where that book I was just reading went to. (When I stop reading a book, I either stop at the end of a chapter or stop so that I start reading again on the first full paragraph of the left page.)

It would be a good idea to leave about 10-20% room on a shelf for more books, but that ain’t gonna happen.

Aside: My personal book purge makes me wonder – wouldn’t it be interesting to junk a public library’s classification system every 75 years or so, and start over again with a new system based on the learnings and experience gained from using the old system(s)?

Other links of interest:

Good Questions: How To Arrange My Bookshelves?
http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ny/good-questions/good-questions-how-to-arrange-my-bookshelves-012749

bookshelf on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/santos/27538777/

Superpatron - Friends of the Library, for the net: Books arranged by colour
http://vielmetti.typepad.com/superpatron/2006/07/books_arranged_.html

Books arranged by colour on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/popsie/156057963/

Huddersfield Public Library Reading Area on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/organised/98972109/

Huddersfield Colour Coded on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/organised/98972115/in/photostream/

The library labeled their color-shelved books as the serendipity shelves.

Jeanette Winterson - We Need Poetry

From one of Jeanette Winterson’s latest columns, this one on why we need poetry:

And in the way of things, the memory gets used to being fed something more useful than crossword puzzles, and will deliver you the lines you need, when you need them. Poetry, because it has rhythm and because it is made out of breath, is easy to remember. It fits under the tongue like a slowly dissolving pill, but there are no side-effects – well maybe there is one; the next time you open your mouth to speak, something of the poem stays with you, and laces your response. In that way, poetry makes poets out of all of us, enlivening our personal capacity to speak with feeling and with an honesty that comes of being able to find the right words.

NaNoWriMo '06 - Lessons Learned

The blog went quiet in November because I decided to once again compete in the National Novel Writing Month competition. I blogged a bit about the comp last year when I dropped out then dropped back in. By then, though, it was too late and I only had about 30-some-thousand words by month’s end. I’ve since learned that this is called the “sophomore slump.”

This year, I stopped work on the short story that’s taken my attention off and on throughout this year and plunged into nanowrimo ‘06. I got my friend Sue in California to do it with me for our first comp, in 2004, and we’ve done the comp together ever since. I should add, she has won every year.

She had difficulty with her book this year, but finished just in time. I, by contrast, had it pretty easy, apart from dealing with effluvia of the moment like family obligations, job, and school work. I thought about what made my freshman effort a success, and what could I do this year to be successful again.

I decided to go back to the source: Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! book. I read it in 2004, didn’t read it in 2005, and decided that I probably should read it/skim it for 2006. I rediscovered Baty’s checklists and reminders that helped me to reconnect with what made nanowrimo fun:

  • Get a magic totem that you always have with you when you write. For me, this is my black fedora-type hat that I wear. When Liz sees me wear the hat, she knows I’m writing.
  • Get the music going. I have a Baroque playlist on Rhapsody that helps put my brain in the right mood.
  • Make the writing a priority. I’m astonished at how many low-value activities I discard during nanowrimo.
  • Have fun. This should not be work (though there’s effort).
  • Go for quantity, not quality. I think I took my story way too seriously last year. I was also trying to figure out a plot, what would happen next, which was not good for me. I worried too much about it. The main thing is to meet the daily word quota. It gave me great freedom to bring boring scenes to an end and start up something fresh.
  • This year, I read in and out of Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing, and it really turned my thinking around on plot. His contention is that plot is what you remember in retrospect. But for the writer writing, the process is more about structure: I just finished a slow passage with two people, I now need a fast passage with lots of people. Or: The last chapter took place in the past, the next chapter needs to take place in the present. The structures a writer uses to help him or her write a novel don’t have to be as elaborate as Henry James, and they don’t need to be obvious to the reader (solving that puzzle is part of the reader’s fun) but I think they’re like a rhyme scheme for a poet: they provide spaces that the writer’s imagination is challenged to fill, and that challenge is part of the excitement of writing and imagining a world and characters. They also help to pull the writer along and keep the discovery process fresh.
  • Delaney is also pretty strict about writers starting at the beginning (no funky playing around with time, few flashbacks) and, even more importantly, setting the scene. Describe the setting. I found this to be incredibly valuable in getting my character into a physical space that would often come back to play a part later in the scene. I’m a believer in this now.
The Sunday prior to Nov. 1 I was strapped for an idea. I looked through my notebook and other loose pages for novel-length ideas, and was about to do my long-unapproached ghost story, but that’s always struck me as maybe novella length, working toward a single effect, and not suitable for the grab bag that is the novel.

I was about ready to grab Sue’s idea, till I thought for some reason about all the self-help books I’ve collected on my shelves. I thought, “Hm, what if someone goes to see lots of self-help gurus? Then, I could just spew all this self-help gunk I’ve been reading for years in the character of a guru, and that would up my word counts effortlessly!”

Well, not effortlessly, maybe, but I found the experience of writing about memory improvement, tarot, meditation, and journaling all helpful in the sense of putting down what I think I know into a narrative stream. And too, it was always a pleasure to do a core dump of these subjects and see my word count go up and up without having to worry about plot, character, or emotion.

My idea for the book’s structure was that my character could go to a guru then spend a chapter consolidating his gains or losses, then off to the next guru and consolidation. A very simple two-part structure, with an introduction and an ending. Any development, if it happened, would happen on its own along the way.

The structure worked quite well (though I never followed it strictly, it did help get me started), as I was never really strapped for stuff to write, though I did often wonder “what can I put him through next?” The tarot and meditation sections both kept me busy for 3 or 4 days apiece, which I thought was pretty cool. This structure also had the very helpful gambit of bringing in someone new every couple of days. I was always surprised by who showed up to take the stage for the next bit of guru-dom, and even I chuckled to myself now and then and shook my head at what what these strange people were doing and saying.

Another thing that helped me out this year was my decision to go for 2000 words/day when I wrote. I missed about 3 days early on in the month, and the “2000K every-day” mantra eventually got me back on track. I finished two days early with an incredible (for me) 5000-word burst that finally put me over the top. (I knew I had to work late the next two nights, so I had to make the heroic effort or work even harder on those two nights to do both my work and the novel.) I find it very easy to generate about 1000-1200 words in a sitting, but that last 500-800 words were a struggle. When I could, I broke the writing up into two daily sessions about 1000 words each, and that worked very well.

Nanowrimo always teaches me something about my writing process and I learned a lot that I hope I’ll take back to my short-story writing. Someone in my writing group asked me why I did it, why not just write the novel normally. A couple of reasons would be:
  • It’s more fun this way.
  • I like doing it with Sue.
  • I need the practice. I get hours and hours of writing practice in November that I don’t get throughout the year.
  • I’m often surprised in a way that I’m not when writing normally. I didn’t know I had this idea in me, and I didn’t know that what came out would be pretty good (I’d say I got about a third or more of really good material that can be shaped later.)
  • It helps me remember that writing can be fun, that sometimes I don’t need great ideas to get started. All I need to do is sit down and write.
Links

"Monday-morning lines"

John Sutherland’s Guardian article on the contention that some of Shakespeare’s worst lines were written the morning after a big drunk is amusing, though it feels kind of rushed into print to fill space on a slow news day. Alhough all of the Macbeth examples were pretty well chosen, it feels as if Sutherland is basing his argument on lines pulled at random from the text; he’s making a big statement based on weakly presented evidence.

Still, he does cite Kermode and others who testify to some of the Bard’s “crap lines.” And I don’t doubt that it’s true. Running a theatre, acting, and writing plays consumed lots of time and energy, sometimes the muse snoozes, and there’s no better way to relax your mind than to leave your workroom and get snockered.

I also assume Shakespeare wrote without benefit of an editor or readers (apart from his fellow actors), and since the canonical texts were largely re-membered by his fellow players, is it beyond the bounds of belief that maybe they threw in a few lines of their own that we now attribute to the Great Man?

The article reminded me of Anthony Burgess’ book on Shakespeare, where he says that most everyone in London at that time walked around half-drunk because there was no reliably potable water supply. As a result, they drank the beer, wine, and other fermented beverages that were safer to drink than the water.

Eh–so what? In plays that are so big and sprawling, there are places for odd lines, lazy writing, strange motivation, and lapses in the plot, just as there are places for witches, ghosts, assassinations, passion, and all other things that grab an audience’s wayward attention. Shakespeare didn’t write well-made plays, he wrote great plays. We shouldn’t be surprised that Shakespeare wrote lazy lines now and then; what’s surprising is that what he tossed off “without a blot” is still so good and still lives.

Liz cracks me up

We were driving through the miles ‘n’ miles of shopping center near the 70 and 540 intersection. As we drove down the faux Mayberry Main Street blocks of chain stores, I said, “To think, all that was here before was just trees and unproductive land.” Pause. Then Liz said, “And now, it’s servicing America.”

For whatever reason, that just cracked me up.

Al & Mel's "Lost Girls"

For a man widely described as a recluse and rarely given to interviews, Alan Moore is all over the place. First with “V for Vendetta” and now with “Lost Girls.” This page at Top Shelf Comix links to all or most of the interviews he’s been giving since the book’s release.

Top Shelf reports it’s sold out the 1st and 2nd printing, so they’re going to a 3rd printing.

Phillips on death

The world without the people who matter to us is not the same world and so not the world at all. Life becomes progressively stranger as we get older - and we become increasingly frantic to keep it familiar, to keep it in order - because people keep changing the world for us by dying out (mourning is better described as orientation, the painful wondering whether it is worth re-placing oneself).

Adam Phillips, Side Effects

Doppelganger

I blogged about my new Honda Fit earlier this summer. Given that I’ve seen so few Fits in the Durham area, I felt very pleased that I was the only one on my block with a Fit, and an orange one at that.

When Liz and I left the Carolina Theater recently, we walked to the side street where I’d parked the car. (As the offical “new car” in the family, the Fit is the default go-in vehicle for errands and trips.) As we walked, Liz thought she saw a Scion, also orange, parked across the street.

But no–parked directly across the street from my orange Fit was another orange Fit. WTF?!? I thought I was the only one with an orange Fit in Durham! It was spooky, let me tell you. And that neat feeling of being the only kid on the block with a new toy faded quickly away.

Rating my GRE study materials

Part I dealt with how I prepared for the GRE. This is Part II.

  • Flash cards. The best thing I did was create my own flash cards. I used the Princeton Review book as my basis, but any of the books would have done. This made the learning more personal, and I could put page references to the book on the card, in case I needed to refresh my memory. (All of the GRE books seem to not believe in indexes, and the tables of content seem undernourished.) I referred to these when waiting for the bus to take me to class and found myself really liking them. They’re a useful tool if you believe in the “little and often” strategy.
  • Sample tests. The best thing about the CDs that come with the practice books are the sample tests. They’re timed to resemble the actual test, and the Kaplan and PowerPrep tests mimic the actual interface used on the actual GRE test. It’s great rehearsal for what happens. They don’t operate exactly the same as the real GRE; the real GRE questions calibrate to your answers, pushing harder questions on you when you answer correctly and easier questions when you get them wrong. But it’s good enough so the experience on test day isn’t so alien.
  • Practice books. The best tell you what to expect, explain the basics behind the math concepts, and offer sample tests. After you’ve read about the concepts and the formulas, really the only thing you can do is practice practice practice, and that’s the value these books provide. But why in God’s name are they so frickin’ oversized? What’s the idea? The smaller-sized Barron’s Passkey book was much friendlier and more portable for just that reason.
  • GRE PowerPrep software and GRE 10th edition book. Written by the makers of the GRE test, the book was OK, but is official orthodoxy and so its rules are not to be taken too literally. The non-ETS books emphasize shortcuts and tactics rather than recommend full-bore seriousness.
    • The first two sample tests in the book are best because they contain answer explanations. I stopped doing the book’s tests after that because they did not explain how to derive the math answers–how can I identify what I’m doing wrong unless I’m told where I went off track?
    • The PowerPrep software was OK, but very primitive; it took over the video to render a 640x480 resolution. Fortunately, the sample tests offer explanations and look like the real thing.
    • I believe in 2007 the GRE will debut new test formats and sections, so a lot that’s familiar now to the GRE aftermarket may need significant rethinking.
  • Princeton Review book and CD. Rani loaned me these and was complimentary about the book. It’s written more irreverently than any of the others, which I liked a lot, and was a good place to start. I actually laughed out loud here and there.
    • No index, and the TOC could be better–good luck finding the section on permutations and combinations. Great answer explanations.
    • The CD is fair; it links to the Princeton website where they try to hook you with offers for more prep and tutoring. Contains 4 sample tests but these do NOT mimic the actual GRE test interface, so a demerit there; no other prep materials, so another demerit.
    • Nevertheless, a good and friendly place to start and I used the book’s tactics quite a lot as I worked through the GRE today. It’s got a great procedure for handling the quantitative comparison questions, including the best explanation of permutation and combination questions I’ve read. I also appreciated its templates for the essay questions.
    • The CD sample tests track your scores so you can see how they improve (or decline, in my case) as you progress. I found these scores to be similar to the actual scores I got.
  • Arco. I think this is the name of it (I’ve already returned it to the library). Fair explanation of math concepts, OK math questions and explanations. Good for extra practice but not serious study.
  • Barrons. I had the big book from the library, which I wound up not using because I ran out of time.
    • However, I bought a smaller trade paper, the Passkey to the GRE, from B&N and found that very useful; it seemed to include most of the important material from its big brother and took up less room in my bag so I could carry it to work and read it at lunch. (The Passkey book does not include a CD.) Its math section condensed all the math facts you needed to know and memorize in one section, which I found myself constantly referring back to when I needed the formula for figuring the area of a trapezoid. 12 points for convenience right there.
    • The Passkey contains 3 sample tests and lots of math practice questions with good explanations. I found the math problems REALLY hard, and they seem to favor really tough geometry figures–find the area of the non-shaded portion of a square filled with four shaded semi-circles, that kind of thing.
    • One of the interesting things about my personal learning process was discovering that sometimes I did way too much calculation, and other times I used shortcuts to get an answer that Barrons would explain in the most elaborate way. It’s an odd thing: most of these books say “don’t waste time calculating,” yet they explain the answers to their questions in ways that involve elaborate calculation.
  • Kaplan 2004 GRE review. Richard at work loaned me this book/CD. Of them all, I’d place this at the top of the heap. The book had great advice, somewhat different from the Princeton book, and I liked reading the differences. For example, Princeton provides sample templates for the essay questions. Kaplan instead recommends writing the body of the essay first, and finishing with the intro and conclusion, which I found to be excellent advice.
    • They also had great test-day advice, such as avoiding coffee, eating lightly, and bringing a small snack to stave hunger.
    • The book contains good explanations of math concepts and good sample questions and vocabulary.
    • The CD is good and bad. It has lots of helpful resources for refreshing yourself on math, including a flashcard program for math and vocabulary, good overview of the basic math strategies, and a diagnostic test that highlights your problem areas so you can create a personalized study plan.
    • The CD includes 3 sample tests that mimic the GRE interface and provide an amazing amount of detail on your test-taking style. For example, after finishing a test, Kaplan shows you the five questions where you spent the longest periods of “think-time” plus whether you answered the question rightly or not, questions where you changed your answer (and whether you switched from incorrect to correct or correct to incorrect), and a brief estimation of your performance.
    • One of the eye-openers for me was its observation that I tended to spend lots of time on questions where taking the time didn’t make a difference–I tended to get those questions wrong anyway. This played into how I handled tough questions on the actual test.
    • So lots of great resources are on the CD. Unfortunately, the CD is mired in the worst of late-‘90s multimedia production: cutesy animation, overly clever script-writing, plonky music, video snippets of actors giving you test advice, etc. And the UI takes over the monitor–there’s no way to skip these damn videos once they start. So to get to the great content, you have to suffer through excruciating UI design. Perhaps the more recent editions are better; I hope so, because the material is excellent.
  • Exambusters GRE study cards. Business card-sized flash cards; probably best for studying vocabulary. I didn’t find them as helpful to me as my homemade flash cards and rarely used them.
I learned too late that my local technical college offers a GRE math prep course. Had I known about it beforehand, I’d have surely signed up for it.

But I think there comes a point where, you know, I’m not going to progress much further than where I am right now. When I found myself consistently missing about half of my questions and getting well below 600 on my math questions, I figured that I’d hit the wall. Carbo-loading wasn’t going to help. So I hoped to get at least a 580 so I’d meet the minimum grad school requirements. To get 640 exceeded what I dreamed I could do.

My standard reply to this is: the questions must have been easy. But maybe a more uplifting answer is that I was exceptional today – and lucky.