Don’t call it a database!

When I started this blog, one of my promises and goals, apart from LaTeX-Ninja’ing, was to demystify the Digital Humanities for non-DH people. For a long time I have watched and I think one of the big mysteries of the DH still persists in Normal Humanists’ heads and thus, really needs demystifying. You might have guessed it, I want to explain why DH people will cringe if you call digital resources ‘databases’ which are not, technically speaking, databases.

Is it ok to call any digital resource / corpus a ‘database’?

We know, that’s what you tend to call a digital corpus. But in most cases it’s not correct, it’s a pars pro toto. A database is just one possible technical implementation, but the term is used more broadly for any ‘digital base of data’. By laypeople, at least. A pars pro toto stylistic device is a Humanities’ thing, right? You do get stilistic devices. So you can also understand why you shouldn’t use imprecise terminology. You don’t like it when people misuse your fields’ terminology either and probably make quite a religion about it.

If you want to work with the DH, you need to understand their terminology and respect it by using it correctly. Even though it might initially feel unintuitive to you. Believe me, you will adapt quickly if you give it a try.

I’ve caught myself so many times now, educating my Normal Humanist friends about digital resources and why my (DH) colleagues won’t take you, as a Humanist, very seriously if the word “database” slips out your mouth at inappropriate moments. It’s kind of like the Tourette’s of NH-moving-in-a-DH-world. Which probably is not a politically correct analogy. No offense to people who actually have Tourette’s, I don’t want to devalue or disrespect your struggle in any way! It’s just analogical in the way of spluttering out inappropriate words at inappropriate moments.

Everybody has their cringe-prone terminology item, right?

To be honest, I am not sure how strict the English speaking DH world is in this, but I can guarantee you that this distinction is very valid concerning the German language use of “Datenbank”. When a quick web search yielded this result, I wasn’t sure anymore if it’s actually a thing in English too. Digital Humanities at King’s College define a database as follows:

Database is the term we use for any large collection of online material.

( https://libguides.kcl.ac.uk/dighum/dighumdbase )

This, however, is exactly the way I don’t suggest you use this term. I am aware that this is the association linked with it in many people’s minds. But hey, you are Humanists. You do have a sense for the intricacies of terminologies, right? I, for one, really hate it when people use the wrong gender on the term corpus (in German: neutral (!) for a collection of documents, so always neutral, unless you mean an actual body like that of a musical instrument). You probably have a thing like that, too, where you get furious at laypeople saying it wrong, don’t you? Well, the DH equivalent of this thing is the misuse of the term database.

Using terminology correctly is a sign of respect towards the DH community. It shows you respect us as researchers and don’t think of us as the ‘idiot who does the tech stuff’

Well, to be exact, it’s not even a misuse. You sure can use the term database in this way and it’s not, strictly speaking, completely incorrect. It’s just misleading, and – most importantly as the subject of this post – it is a strong pointer to the fact that you are not very tech-savvy and either unaware or else disrespectful of digital terminology. It will be seen as either a lack of respect and esteem towards the digital field or, I don’t know which is worse, a lack of competence in general. You would deem it impolite, too, and probably take it as a sign of general incompetence or lack of intellecutal ability/openness  if a DH person came along and persistently misused your terminology, right?

Edit/addition 2019/06/04: I think this issue is less about whether it is technically or theoretically correct to use a term like this or like that. It’s a question of being ‘politically correct’ and of not hurting people’s feelings. To show the point on an extreme example (which is maybe exaggerated applied to databases but illustrates the point): you could theoretically argue that the term ‘nigger’ has been used historically to mean ‘person of color’, ergo it would – terminologically speaking – not be incorrect to use it, right? Wrong. In this case, it’s obvious (to everyone, hopefully) that it would be extremely rude and not ok to call a person of color a ‘nigger’ nowadays. Nobody would be confused if people’s reaction to this was to feel insulted because the above explanation does not take connotations into account.

Like you could say that before the advent of the DH, it maybe wasn’t a big deal to throw around the term ‘database’ to mean any digital ‘base of data’, but since the DH is starting to be established as a discipline and not only as a tool like it might have been in the beginning, things have changed. DH people sometimes feel like their competencies are not taken seriously because their part of the job is seen as the ‘handiwork’ whereas the non-DH input data is the actual research. I think that this latent inferiority complex, or maybe rather some sort of struggle for recognition, is the reason non-precise use of DH-related terminology is sometimes taken bitterly.

So ultimately, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about being respectful and not hurting other people’s feelings. Also, non-DH people insisting on using the term in a non-DH way while simultaneously wanting to participate in a DH project will cause a clash of terminology. It might be ok for a non-DH person to use the term like this, but DH people are kind of bound to use the term in a strictly technical way or else they might be seen as incompetent of their own field. In this case, I think the non-DH person should give in because even when they will not be judged by their use of DH-specific terminology, a DH person will. You don’t want your imprecise language to reflect negatively on your cooperation partners.

Since the initial publication of the post, I received the feedback that some people with technical backgrounds are quite open to non-technical uses of the term ‘database’. But from my own experience of the DH overall, I feel this is not necessarily representative. And only because people will accept that it is theoretically valid to use the term to one’s own judgement, that doesn’t mean people will condone it in practice.

If you want collaboration, start actually collaborating by learning about DH terminology

Especially if you are trying to get a collaboration DH or label DH project, I suggest you prune your language a little bit here. After all, DH people usually have lots of people queueing to get a project with them. They will tend to take the ones interesting for them (in terms of subject) and/or those where the applicants seem nice. And it is deemed base politness to research your collaboration partners’ field so you don’t draw a complete blank. You want your partners to be understanding and reasonably well-educated on the baseline of your field too, right? And you probably catch yourself sometimes, secretly saying to yourself in indignation or disbelief ‘How can any academic not know that?! This is completely basic!’

Well, it happens to DH people, too. Often concerning so-called ‘databases’ which are not, in fact, databases. If you persistently use the term wrong, it’s seen as lack for trying or plain incompetence. Don’t be rude. Now you are aware of the problem, you have no excuse to continue saying it wrong.

How to know if it’s ok to call it a database?

Two questions to ask to get a feel for whether what you mean might actually be a database:

  1. Would it make sense to represent this data in an (Excel) spreadsheet? Then it is likely someone chose a database format to represent it digitally.
  2. Are there any other fitting means to represent it? Only because it outwardly looks like it stores spreadsheet-formatted data, this doesn’t mean it’s they way data is stored “behind the scenes”.
  3. In case of any doubt whatsoever, just refrain from calling it database. Just say ‘digital resource’, ‘digital corpus’ or basically anything else which seems half appropriate. Anything else is way less stigmatized and cringe-worthy than the misuse of ‘database’.
  4. So to be on the safe side: Just don’t call it a database unless you’re sure it is one (technically speaking). When not 100% sure, just term it a digital resource or digital data collection. I know you just mean a ‘digital base of data’. But please respect that the wide category ‘digital base of data’ doesn’t mean the same thing as the narrow term of ‘database’ in a technical field.

Just a little thought – hope this helps!

Best,

the Ninja

PS: Can someone tell me whether you think it is valid to inform people they should not use the term database or would it be ok with you when they use the term in a non-technical way? I only know that people around me react quite aggressively when you do and will think you’re a technical layperson, thus not trust you much once you did. You’d basically be ‘disqualified’ after that unless you really have some very interesting other assets or extremely good grant acquisition records or splendid networking connection value.

 

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How to improve at programming when your current position doesn’t require it & Online Learning Resources

Have you ever felt like you would like to get better at programming, maybe even get a position involving more programming some day but the fact that you currently don’t really need it at your current position seems to hold you back? This post is for you.

Daily practice is key for improvement

You need daily practice if you actually want to improve. You already need daily practice just to keep your skills sharp during a time where you don’t need to use them. Also, if you don’t even have programming skills yet, you probably are too tired after work to sit down and work on a private programming project.

But you should. Programming is a skill which takes a long time to learn. That is, if you want to reach a decent skill level. This means that you have to start regular practice long before you actually need that skill or need to apply for a job, if possible.

The common advice: Find a starting out project to program in your free time

When I first informed myself on this, the most common advice was to find a cool project and try to program it in your free time. But I found that when you don’t have an idea for such a project which makes complete sense to you, you’re not going to go through with it. Without an acutal, urgent need you probably won’t sit down the amount of hours necessary to actually make progress. At least the great majority of people wouldn’t.

Then I tried setting myself mini-challenges. This was a good idea. But there wasn’t a lot of guidance (obviously). This, in return, was discouraging and wasted a lot of time. Of course, time well spent learning something. But since I am really interested in effective learning, I felt that I was wasting time. Effective learning is always better than just playing around. You need curriculum. At least some. That’s when I found out that there are a lot of competitive programming sites which offer useful short exercises where you can do one per day.

Before that, I had tried all sorts of “Learn programing” sites like SoloLearn, freeCodeCamp, the Enki app, just to name a few of my favourites. But really, I didn’t like them all that much. They went through the syntax of the language and that was it. Like learning the vocabulary of a living language but never using it.

Review of some of the materials out there

Here, I want to share links to all sorts of learn coding sites out there. Of course, it’s not extensive but I think it does cover a good few of the most important ones. And maybe has a bit of a different perspective from most other “here are 30 sites to learn coding for free” blog posts out there.

A constraint for me was that the site had to be completely free of charge. So, for example, DataCamp is a no-go. Although, I have still linked to some pay-sites in case you are interested.

But especially as there are so many pages where you can get a similar service for free, I don’t see why I should pay for one of them, when there are so many alternatives available. If it were really brilliant, I would probably pay for it, in theory. Like HackerRank, I like so much at the moment, that I would probably get access for a one-time payment. But most of those apps and sites ask for monthly payment of up to or even starting at 10€ – that is a crazy amount of money and you already get books starting from 10€. I personally would always put more trust in a book in terms of quality and the hope that there might be a logical progression to the teaching; and thus, rather go for that. Also, I just don’t do monthly subscriptions. They eat so much of your money and mostly, when you sum it all up, are not really worth it. 

Also, the amount of sites (plus all the apps!) out there has become so huge, it’s really a full-time job to check them all. That time might be better invested in just picking one and learning to code. These other sites that I found initially focused more on interview prep for experienced programmers or programming contests, but many of them have actually developped training tracks. They also tend to offer a broader range of subjects than many other very popular sites which focus on web development (“coding”) mainly.

Enki app

I had liked the Enki apps daily workouts, but the learning progression was not stable. They give you a random tutorial every day. This was not very effective and I quickly was through with all of their material. Ergo, the workouts started repeating very quickly.  For more, you would now have to pay monthly for access which I am not willing to do since learning-wise, it is not sooo well done. It was really good for a free site (for a while I used it a lot), but not good enough to be paying for it. Sadly, I have experienced this with most of the sites I have tried (and I have tried quite many).

App-wise, you will just get the Enki review here. I tried probably all the most important apps out there. But mostly, in their way of just explaining the syntax of a language, the progress was slow and it was ineffective for me who already knew most of the syntax. You usually can’t skip much or speed up if you’re getting bored. Still you never get any actual programming done which I found both useless and frustrating. Having tried all the apps and “learn the syntax of XY” (disguised as “Learn programming language XY” which is not the same thing, in my opinion), I now found competitive programming sites to be more what I had been looking for. 

Some of them don’t have all the languages you might want, especially the smaller ones and the web dev focused ones.

 

General-purpose learning sites (video-based, MOOCs, etc.)

Many popular sites (Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Khan Academy, MOOCS like edx, OpenMIT) are video-based and I don’t personally like that. I prefer interactive sites where you can type your code directly. But well, now you have the links to those resources as well.

Online books or blog tutorials

Even though I have a tutorial blog myself, I personally would not try to learn a programming language from a blog. Sometimes you find useful posts for a specific problem you need to solve, that’s mainly what they are good for. I just think that the available interactive things are cooler for actually getting programming experience as a novice programmer.

Youtube tutorials or channels

Some posts on free “learn coding” resources recommend Youtube tutorials or channels. This is, I think, a valid point if there really is an excellent tutorial video out for exactly what you want. So, if what you want isn’t uncommon, there is likely to be one. Sometimes a 5min video can save you an hour of reading a tutorial. But I find that hardly any channels offer sensible curriculum for a motivated learner, so I’m not sure how much you would get out of it in the long run. That’s why I won’t recommend any here.

Sites just/mostly teaching the syntax of languages

 

Many of them are gamified as well

Sites I really like for practice / or of the type I like (challenge-based)

Learn the language tracks are available on for example: HackerRank, HackerEarth (teaches algorithms).

With Hackerrank, for example, I really like their testcases. They don’t just ask you to write a solution on your own (sites like SoloLearn, Codecademy hardly do that in their regular curriculum), they also provide testcases where, for example, overflow is bound to occur. So with every single test you are reminded to remember that. This is a good reinforcment method in  teaching, I think 😉 Also, have I mentioned that supposedly, the only thing which really works wonders in teaching is getting tested? So forget about what learning type you are (visual, audio-visual-bla, etc.) and become a tester. You can skip some of the testcases of course, but the frequent reminder still works wonders. Also, you can learn from other users good (high-ranked) solutions. Especially in algorithms, it’s really worth checking how more experienced programmers did it. However, these competitive programming platforms do kind of encourage bad programming style (and dirty hacks to improve speed), so be sure to take care of that yourselves. Be persistent disciplined when it comes to using good style! And remember to still work on bigger projects every once in a while, since the daily practice from these sites is just one single function without context.

Learn Catch the Flag / Hacking

Also, if you’re interesed, these are some sites where you can learn CTF (catch the flag), something like competitive ethical hacking.

Other / Tutorial-based

More tutorial-based sites which are useful but not for the kind of rapid learning I recommend:

Resources

Also, check these other posts on free coding resources:

 

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Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part II

Today, I am yet again happy to present the second part of the latest LaTeX Noob guest post:

 

Last time, I told you about four important steps to organizing your life. They were:

  1. Know your priorities.
  2. Learn to say “no”.
  3. Leave your comfort zone.
  4. Never back down.

If you want to re-read the last post, you can find it here!

So, time management.

You will need a calendar, let’s start with that. Take your phone, open your Google calendar. Start. It is actually that easy. You have to know the most important basics. When do I work, what are my main working hours? Do I like a silent or slightly more lively environment for my work? Am I a morning person or a night owl? When will I need a break, when do I want to go to sleep?

When am I meeting my friends, when do I spend time with my partner or my family? What do I do for relaxing? How often? Exercise? Any activities? When and where?

What is there to do on household chores (you know, cooking, cleaning, gardening etc.) and when are they due?

Just write those things down. Think about it. It is creepy at first sight, I know, but hey…

Labyrinth-Girl

I am a morning person, I like to start early with my work.

I love good instrumental or orchestral music during work. I like other people around me while I work, because of the swift “office-noise”.

For relaxing, I like reading, listening to music, going climbing, watching TV, taking long walks, photography, writing, people-stuff (friends and family).

Basic week:

  • 4 work days, Monday to Thursday = 30 hours of work
  • 1 “thesis day” (also called somehow home-office)
  • 1 university course to teach and prepare
  • 4 university courses to attend and prepare
  • one evening to go climbing
  • (at least) one evening to have dinner with my partner

An example week

I will give you my five days of my working week in my calendar now, just as an example and to show you how I work on my organization and how I try to plan my days. You may have got it until now – it is all about your own rhythm: find it, then stick to it.

Monday

7:00 start work

15:00 short coffee break with friends

17:00 back home, dinner

18:15 climbing (1.5 to 2 h)

  • hair day, bathroom cleaning

  • prepare courses

22:00 bedtime

Tuesday

7:00 start work

10:00 Coffee break with colleagues

18:00 back home, dinner

  • washing clothes

  • prepare courses

  • TV/Dinnertime with my partner

22:00 bedtime

Wednesday

7:00 start work

10:00 teach my university class

12:00 lunch with friends

15:15 university course 1

18:45 university course 2

20:30 dinner with colleagues

22:00 back home

23:00 bedtime

Thursday

7:00 start work

13:00 end work

13:30 university course 3

15:00 prepare next course (learning a new language for work)

17:00 university course 4

19:00 back home

22:00 bedtime

Friday

7:00 morning routine

  • Thesis Day

  • kitchen cleaning

  • washing clothes

  • shopping supplies

14:00 lunch with my partner

15:00 beginning of my pre-weekend

Weekend

Normally spend with family and/or friends and /or partner – and sometimes spent with reading texts or papers connected to my research field

Conclusion

So I actually do have some kind of private life, but I have to organize it in a very strict way and I have to be very strict with myself sometimes. I am a morning person and I am in the possession of a “daylight alarm clock” – you know, it starts with deep red light approximately one hour before your actual alarm time and continues getting brighter like the sun rising, so your body can wake up before you actively open your eyes and wake up in your head. It works! At least, for me.

I need my bedtime set earlier now, so around 10 pm I am really grateful for a warm and cozy bed and sleep. I enjoy resting in my bed on the weekend, this is a fact, but it is like a reward I promise to myself.

I am still meeting my friends and I have still a lot of other things to do in my life, things which I enjoy and which are keeping me relaxed and sane.

It’s worth the hard work. You just have to start.

Some thoughts on grading

Grading is always a touchy and emotional subject. When students misbehave, you automatically feel the urge to punish them with a bad grade. When students receive a bad grade, they will be angry and pissed off. And ‘bad grade’ is relative to what they expected, not ‘realistically bad’, like in a fail grade. In most cases, they will also think you are unfair if they honestly expected a better grade. And they will be gradually more pissed off, the more work they put in your class. So make sure you put as much thought into planning your grading scheme as into the rest of the preparation, because the grade might just leave the biggest lasting impression on students looking back.

 

The good student receives bad grade problem

I just cleaned out my old archived data and remembered I had this class with a teacher I really liked. But now, I hardly remembered her. Then I realized it probably had something to do with a weird bad grading situation that had left a sour taste with me.  Also, it happens that situations like this (and I defintely had more than one) were always in the Linguistics department. Anybody who knows me is aware that I am a language nerd, I love dialects, etc. I came to university really looking forward to studying Linguistics. Now I hate it, not because it turned out I disliked the subject but because of many bad grading situations where I felt treated extremely unfairly.

This particular teacher had doted on me during the class. I also loved the subject and participated a lot. Then I handed in the paper, and I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but she gave me a really bad mark and said I could only turn it into a positive one, if I made major changes. A C, to be exact! Which was as good as a negative mark for a student like me with overall high marks. This would ruin my GPA. But then again, I had such a tight schedule that I couldn’t afford just redoing this class. This whole situation came as a huge shock to me. I felt I had written an ok paper, as far as I was qualified to judge. It was in my fourth semester only, so you probably can’t expect a publication-ready work. It would have been be ok if I had felt I had put in minimal work only and performed badly. But I had honestly really tried to write a good paper. And it’s not like you generally get a lot of help in how that is actually done. I’d given it my all and ended up being treated like an abysmal student who had personally offended the teacher by handing in such a bad paper. Also, once I already knew that the only thing I could do is rework the paper but would still get a grade which would ruin my GPA, I was not exactly super-motivated to put in a lot more good work.

I had seen the papers my colleagues had handed in, they were obviously less good than mine (from formal standards already) and left an obvious impression of having been done carelessly in a haste. I was profoundly shocked. Maybe the teacher had taken to me so much because she had seen herself in me and thus, expected a publication-ready output. The teacher was not very experienced either, so this misconception might have easily happened to her. Since, of course, I was only in my fourth semester, I was not able to deliver that level of high quality she had expected from me and thus, graded me way more strictly than my less good colleagues.

 

If a good student underperforms, ask what went wrong instead of lashing out on them

Dear teachers, something like this happened to me mulitple times and is a surefire way to make your students hate you in retrospective. You don’t want your best students to hate you, right? They will talk badly about you (as I sure did) and ruin your reputation for generations of new students to come! Especially good students will get very angry at less-good-than-expected results since, unlike really bad students, they probably actually care about their grade point average which you just ruined!  Some people’s stipends also rest on this GPA. Don’t be so quick to give out bad marks to students of whom you would have expected more. Try to clarify what the problem was instead of just being angry. That’s just childish. Don’t let students’ outputs scratch on your ego. Students probably really don’t care about you all that much and if they did, they sure don’t have a positive impression anymore now. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding? Especially if you had expected better result, it’s obvious you should investigate what happened.

Beware of thinking a good student is you. Don’t expect your good students to be scientists. They are not, despite their apparent motivations to be come full-blown researchers one day. By ruining their GPA, you actually negatively influence whether they will one day be able to become researchers.

 

On silence and introverts in class

Silence does not mean disinterest, like many teachers assume. It might just be that they’re an introvert. And even though they might have participated in the beginning of the course, stopping later might not mean disinterest. To give a personal example, I often participated very actively in classes I was interested in. But then the teacher focused so much on me that I felt awkward and didn’t want to be the center of attention anymore. Actually I had never wanted or intended to become the center of attention. I therefore stopped participating because being the center of the attention made me feel uncomfortable. This, the teachers usually took as a horrible insult and were furious.

In multiple cases, I ended up with a really bad mark despite knowing (from having seen my colleagues papers) that my work had been well above average, if not even very good. Already formally, my papers were a few classes above those of my colleagues because I had way more experience writing papers than them. These times, I first wanted to complain. But then I was so annoyed that I never talked to the teacher about it. One teacher even told me my paper was an A but they would make it a B because I had stopped participating. I didn’t want to confront them and was ok with a B because, after all, it was true that I had stopped participating and found it to be their good right to take a grade off. A B, after all, would not hurt my GPA in bad ways. Then they put a C in the online system. That was pretty mean, seeing as my paper really was quite good (without being too fond of myself, but I had worked on that particular topic for a long time in another context already). The teacher offered no explanation for this behaviour except being hurt personally and stressed many times how good my contributions had been.

I’m sorry, extroverted teachers. Have you really never thought about the fact that it might be uncomfortable for a good student to be called out to answer questions all the time? It makes your fellow students dislike you. Please don’t take this as an insult and also, definitely don’t base your grading on it! You are scaring away good students. I continue to dislike this particular teacher after years. The lasting impression was extremely negative. This didn’t happen only once either.

 

Grade using check-lists to avoid mixing in personal emotions

I handle the problem of grading by having a check-list with points. So I don’t “grade” or hand out marks – they score on a check-list. That way, I as a person will not be the object of a student’s hatred. A lot of people actually recommend to do grading this way, especially if you’re still young or lack authority for whatever reason. That way, I can act like a mentor and trainer during my (very workshop-style) classes and still be fair in my grading.

Of course, coming up with these check-lists is some work in the beginning but it is very fair, good practice and will save you lots of trouble once complaints come in. And they will at some point. Another technique I find very useful is to ask a lot of the students (greater amounts of portfolio work to be done, in my case), but then am fairly easy on giving out points. That way, they feel like I grade so nicely, but they still have done more work than they would have otherwise, so it’s really ok when they all get very good marks.

Would be happy to hear how you handle these situations,

best,

the Ninja

 

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LaTeX for PhD students

Today, I decided to finally publish some thoughts on why I think PhD students can profit from using LaTeX. In this post, I try to avoid common not-all-that-creative reasons and point you to some aspects you might not yet have thought about like the fact that your PhD thesis will yield two PDF outputs with (more or less) the same content but very distinct different formatting requirements. Enter LaTeX.

1 PhD = 2 (!) print outputs, i.e. thesis print and printed book publication

Typesetting your PhD in LaTeX is a good idea because of the citation management, for formulars and for images. You probably already know that. But another aspect a lot of people tend to forget while writing their PhD thesis is that a thesis will usually result in two different output PDFs with different typesetting needs: The thesis to be handed in at your university and the print publication which follows. But these two usually have some important differences in requirements. Like a thesis print will probably be a4 or letter paper, a font size of 12pt, etc. A print publication almost always has a smaller paper size and thus, a smaller font size. In my case, this was: paperwidth=170mm, paperheight=240mm and 11pt. Where as a4paper is 210:270, as far as I remember. If you take this into account beforehand, you can save yourself a lot of work and trouble. Also, it’s not like you will suddenly have tons of free time in the time after the PhD writing, probably the opposite. You don’t want to make that even harder by placing another unnecessary burden on yourself.

Already here, LaTeX really pays of. Just change two settings. That’s basically less than 10 characters (!) in your main.tex. If you don’t have to make other changes, that is. Well, you get what I mean. Whereas in MS Word, this can be a lot of effort since quotes probably have a different text size and unless you use the “Standard” predefined templates which you can then change, this can take you a while. Also, it probably often happens to people who don’t reflect on the typesetting while writing (which, after all, will occur long after the writing, so we don’t yet give it a lot of thought) that you don’t consistently use those templates and thus, will have to change or at least check everything manually. With LaTeX, you don’t. Isn’t this enough of a point for LaTeX already? But behold, we have more.

 

Typesetting concerns like orphans and widow lines

Another thing for producing nice typesetting: A (respectable) publisher will usually ask you to take care of orphans and widow lines. In a 300 page MS Word document, you will probably end up having to do this all manually which usually entails all sorts of horrible consequences you hadn’t even dreamt about this far. While this problem cannot be fully automated in LaTeX, you have the possibility of adding this simple statement to your preamble:

\setlength{\emergencystretch}{.25em} % avoid line overflow
\clubpenalty10000\widowpenalty10000\displaywidowpenalty=10000% avoid widow lines and orphans

This, supposing that you have included all the languages you use with \usepackage[ngerman,english]{babel} (for example, last one is the one active), will avoid most line overflows.

A problem that you, admittedly don’t have in MS Word but do have in LaTeX. But more important is the following line. There, we add to the internal ‘penalties’ which LaTeX has, thus preventing orphans and widow lines quite effectively. Maybe you’ll still have to correct one or two things. But one or two things in the whole document, speaking of a document wihch basically handles itself, is not that much of a big deal. In MS Word, calculate to sit down for a few hours. Thus, yet another plus for LaTeX: less grey hair and more time for work-life-balance. Isn’t it amazing?

 

Another plus: Relative and absolute positioning

It’s always better to use relative positioning and values and also, leave litterally everything up to LaTeX. Thank me later. For some info on relative and absolute sizing, consult the upcoming post LaTeX for Archaeologists: Typeset your PhD catalogue in LaTeX post.

 

The (lack of) comment function: A workaround

A possible down-side for LaTeX is that advisors often like to use the comment function in MS Word to correct and comment your work in progress. This, I personally have solved by converting it to MS Word using Pandoc and then uploading it to GoogleDocs for my advisor to make corrections. These have to be put back into the original by hand, of course. But you need to proof-read multiple times anyway, so I reckon it doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s a wee bit inconveniant, is all.

But… LaTeX is scary?! On common concerns

If the prospect of first “having to learn complicated LaTeX” sacres you, you might want to check my article on The power of simplicity, or: Why LaTeX needn’t be scarily complicated. If you think LaTeX will slow you down, you might want to check my post on typing fast in LaTeX. But then again, when writing highly qualitative work (like your dissertation should be), it might even be better if your writing slows you down a little. Pause to reflect!

Transition to LaTeX and get a life. A manifesto

“Well, at some point, LaTeX really had more features than Word but nowadays, I don’t see why you should bother using it anymore.” That’s a typical counter-argument, a justification why people don’t use LaTeX and don’t see why it’s worth the effort to learn it and finally make the transition. To this, I want to say: Well, can it do this? Hint: no. I rather suggest you don’t even try. Well at least, don’t hold me accountable if you should try and fail.

If you don’t see why using LaTeX would benefit you, maybe you just haven’t heard the facts yet? And well, probably you aren’t an archaeologist with 1 million images in a 500-page PhD thesis. If you are, don’t commit suicide just yet. There are other ways than Word. If your thesis document won’t even open anymore, don’t despair. Just convert it to LaTeX! And, thank me later.

Citation styles

LaTeX offers citation support. It’s basically a lot like Citavi or Zotero, only less complicated. Not that I have a lot experience with those, I do admit it. But the principle is the same. LaTeX and Bibtex seem complicated at first. But you’re most certainly just so conditioned and accustomed to MS Word workflows that you don’t remember anything else. And what we don’t know, we fear. But you need not fear, LaTeX is here for you.

A tutorial and more info on this will follow in a separate post.

Yes, LaTeX will throw warnings and errors. It’s not a big deal, really.

People are put off by the fact that you can get warnings or fatal compilation errors. Well yeah, it’s inconvienent to have to debug your own bullshit but well, sorry to have to break it to you, that’s life. Would you rather have a program that doesn’t complain there is a mistake, subsequently hide the problem from you entirely but just stop working for inexplicable reasons and you have no way of escaping? Wait, yes, maybe you do. It’s called MS Word.

You’re not a qualified typesetter

LaTeX is an art. It’s supposed to be an art. Typesetting is an art. And if you haven’t learned to be a typesetter, you probably are not and thus, should not act as a professional typesetter. But MS Word, one hell of a program (and I mean this litterally), makes you believe that you are or you could. It even suggests you should. Hint: You shouldn’t. And in your heart, you really know that’s true.

How to transition from an existing MS Word document or LaTeX-ify your workflow

  1. Migrate your document. (Oxgarage, Pandoc, you name it. Read how to do this in my post on who to quit MS Word).
  2. Continue writing in Word and transform your stuff to LaTeX before adding the images and thus, killing Word for good. Why the hell would anyone want to continue using MS Word? But hey, my opinion isn’t the truth. It’s just my opinion. Do what works for you. If it contains LaTeX, all the better. The LaTeX Noob uses this workflow and it seeems to work for her. Kind of like a “the best of the two worlds” compromise. You get the parts where MS Word is conveniant (letting your advisor use the comment function, etc.), but the typesetting and image handeling is done in LaTeX.
  3.  Just write it in LaTeX. It’s just a question of getting used to it. Using it exclusively will give you just that. Even though I had been using LaTeX for years, transitioning completely made me quite a bit better still. I now also write quick notes in LaTeX without batting an eyelash. Sometimes I still use a GoogleDoc to write things down that are just meant for note-taking, not for creating PDF output.

I will follow up with a post on citation styles and how to import your Citavi to BibTeX, etc. Until then, consider looking up some of my already existing posts which might be of interest, like Jumpstarting: Learn LaTeX in 3 minutes  or A Humanities’ seminar paper with LaTeX – in 10 minutes or How to quit MS Word for good.

Best,

your Ninja

Further resources

The not-so-short intro, also available in German. Tobias Oetiker, Hubert Partl, Irene Hyna & Elisabeth Schlegl: The Not So Short Introduction to LATEX 2ε. Or LATEX 2ε in 139 minutes. Version 6.2, February 28, 2018

https://www.latex-tutorial.com/tutorials/

https://learnxinyminutes.com/docs/latex/

https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX

A Survival Guide for a PhD: http://karpathy.github.io/2016/09/07/phd/

https://www.quora.com/I-wrote-my-PhD-dissertation-in-LaTeX-but-my-advisor-told-me-it-needs-to-be-in-a-format-other-than-PDF-to-send-to-my-committee-members-He-says-it-is-too-difficult-to-make-comments-or-corrections-on-PDF-What-is-the-best-format-for-a-dissertation Quote: “And I’ll even print out the occasional paper and use a red pen. ” yep, good idea. I thought that was actually very sensible advice 😉

https://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/1756/why-should-i-use-latex

https://www.overleaf.com/project/5c42fa03a343e77a02003def (The Scientific Paper: A Template with Tips for Working with LaTeX)

 

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[Guest Post] Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part I

I am happy to introduce the second guest post by our friend, the LaTeX Noob. This time not on LaTeX 😉 So, here we go. Enter the Noob.

 

I am currently writing my PhD thesis and, hell yeah, it is rather pleasant, because I am good at getting sh*t, I mean, stuff, done. Now, I will tell you how this is possible and show you how to achieve that too.

 

Before time management, find structure in your life first

However, it was not always that easy and organized. I have to admit I am generally a structured person: I like notebooks, I do keep a bullet journal and I love calendars to organize my life. But how to get the great amount of work together with one’s private life (for we all love our family, our partner, our friends, and we want to spent time with them, right?), enough sleep, healthy eating, some sports, some Me-time?

The ways of time management are paved with many books, tons of good advice, and many expectations – but, essentially, always depend on yourself. This might sound like a yoga mantra, but only you can be the best version of yourself. Therefore, before getting into structuring your life, you have to reflect on yourself and on your life.

This is like our Ninja’s post on why courses on learning how to program go wrong most times. You cannot start with an expectation to be the best structured and organized human being in this world just from zero to hero – no, it is hard work. However, I can give you only some advice on how to build your organized self, but it will take its time.

Self management first!

1) First things first: Know your priorities.

What do you want in life or at this moment? Is it your PhD – like for me – or is it the next career step? Is it to spend more time with the people you love? Is it to get enough Me-Time, quality time for yourself, to caress your soul etc.?

2) The next thing will be: Learn to say NO.

Let’s say, you are planning your life as a graduate student, like I do. You have a job, you have to write your thesis, you have to relax and practice self-care. So, the important word is “no”. You have to know when you can and when you should use it. Trust me, sometimes this is really hard. However, you, your mind and your body, are your resources, so be careful with them. We are living in a hard world, full of burnout and bore-out; we have to be careful with our resources. That should be clear.

Of course, there are some situations, where you have no choice – you have to give everything in this specific moment. So, please, imagine, you have to give everything, but are very stressed out because you never take a break. When you are constantly giving everything or nearly everything, you have no resources left for the moment you will need them the most. Easy enough to understand, I guess. So, just take care and take a break when it is necessary.

3) Leave your cozy cavern.

The next thing is: After you know how to use the word “no”, learn to be fearless. One only grows with new situations. Therefore, if you really want to get to the next level in your life, you have to leave your comfort zone. Moreover, as always: Start with the tiny steps and the little things. It will be that you make a terrible fool out of yourself, as it happened very often to myself, but hey, we can get up again and try the next time. This leads us to the next step.

Ninja’s addition,  a nice quote: “Never be afraid to ask. Someone might be willing to show you her answer to your question. Despite all the necessary baby steps, it is OK to aim high. Always aim high. But you have to do all the baby steps in order to eventually get there. ” (Karl Posch, A Lesson On Programming, Graz 2018. p. 177. https://kcposch.wordpress.com/

4) Never back down.

Just because you are making a fool of yourself, your life does not end, you know? I know of what I speak here, because I had some tough times in my life, but guess what – they are past and gone now. I cannot act like they never have happened, but I can cope with them. Sometimes, there are dark days where feelings like shame will hit you hard, but still, you survived all of your worst days so far. You are doing great. Therefore, never let them get you down. You have to try again. You have to work on yourself.

My four steps

Now, this should be a post on time management and somehow it came out as what – four steps to be a better person with self-care? Well, yeah, seems like that. I will end this post in giving you an example (actually, I am talking about myself, because that will be a very valid example) on how you can do all these steps.

1) My next step is finishing my PhD – and I have a job at a research project, so two deadlines and some pressure. However, I want still see my friends and my family and spend quality time with them, next to time alone, because I love to read, alone, in my room. So, how to do that?

I have timeslots in my workdays, where I go and have a cup of coffee – actually taking a break after some hours work, but also meeting friends and talking and laughing. Next thing, I meet some of my friends in our climbing hall, because we exercise together. With my partner, I look for one evening in my workweek, where we will have a cozy dinner together and watch TV on our couch, talking to each other about the current important things in our lives.

2) I am the one who will stand next to you, cheering on every good idea. So… guess, who always has a very hard time on saying “no”? Nevertheless, I am trying to make my choices consciously. I have to work 30 hours on my project, so I try to work hard in this time slot to get my project stuff done. Always giving the best I can and certainly leaving after 30h. I get up early in the morning and work for my thesis. I have some free evenings that way (as long as I can go to bed around 10 pm). On my weekends, I have no plans for work, just for people I love and for me and myself. In addition, if there are some extra tasks that I have to do, then it is like that, but if they are unnecessary, come often and just lead me in the wrong direction, I will say “no”. It is a very complicated game to play, very complicated, if you are working in academia, I know. This might fill another big discussion on how much unpaid work to do and when to refuse, etc.

3) Leaving my comfort zone was and is very hard. I gave talks at conferences which scared the hell out of me. Back in my classes and university courses, there were always people who liked me, so I had support, you know. I am actually a very good presenter, but in front of strangers…?

I practiced my talks in front of my mirror, in front of my boyfriend, in front of my parents. I learned to live with that fear (a fear I cannot name…). I am one of this kind of people who are actually frightened of calling strangers on the phone or writing emails to strangers Yes, I am weird, it is called being an introvert. And it is not helpful, knowing that many people telling you that you actually have to be an extrovert, because of – *insert any reason*. It was getting on my nerves, but then I got it – you cannot see that someone is introvert. You can see that a person is nervous, but that does not mean that this is an introvert. So, deep breath and go.

4) I rushed into very bad situations very often, but I survived them and I am somehow getting over them. It takes time. I had actually a very hard time in learning that all those things take time. You will have to give yourself that time. Moreover, for your next try, just try to make it better in some way. I am trying not to be afraid when I know I am right and the other person is definitely wrong. Introvert-style, you know. Nevertheless, no, I have to stand up for my opinion and my thoughts. In addition, if there is a mistake in my work, I will correct it, but you have to show it to me first.

Time Management part follows in the next post

Now we can dig in the dark mystery of time management, if you still want to. Next time, I will tell you on how building good habits to strengthen your workflow and organization. However, remember, it is always your own life, your own time, your own way. Everybody has the same 24 hours a day. You just need to make them count.

Riding higher waves

At the risk of boring you all with my frequent thoughts on better teaching, I wanted to give you another metaphor on good teaching, inspired by a surfing class I took. To sum it all up, surfing was great fun. But this year, I was a bit unfortunate to get teachers who were a lot worse than the ones I’d had previously. The high waves and the shallow water make for good metaphors for the basics and the advanced topcis I frequently drone on about in my philosophy of teaching well. So, there you go.

The shallows and the high waves

The teachers were over-protective of us in the shallow waters. They helped more than we would have needed help and thereby, didn’t teach us to act independently. I wanted to do so, but it was not encouraged and we weren’t given any instructions on how to catch a wave on our own. They wouldn’t even let us paddle onto the wave ourselves, but rather pushed the board for us. This might seem very nice and thoughtful. At least, that’s how I felt at first.

But then, once we got to the higher waves – waves high enough for me to find them somewhat scary and thus, distract me quite a bit – they hardly helped at all! But since they had been so overprotective with the basics, doing everything for us, I didn’t have a feeling for how to catch a wave on my own. And this doesn’t exactly get any easier when you are panicked by the high waves. The more difficult situation we got thrown into all of a sudden made it difficult to think clearly, let alone grasp a skill on my own which no one had explained to me beforehand. The deep water is not a place to learn the basics. They should have told us those in shallow water. I think this is a very good analogy for teaching since this is exactly what happens in many classes as well. And then the teachers act like you’re an idiot for not being able to figure out the difficult stuff on your own. Because “that’s just what you do and we all had to learn it the hard way”. But really, this means that the teachers are not doing their jobs and there’s no excuse for that. Don’t blame your failings as a teacher on your students! Don’t turn your lack of teaching competence into a ‘character building’ opportunity for your students. This will not make them better people. It makes you a worse person. And a teacher I would fire on the spot if I were in the position to do so.

Don’t excuse your bad teaching as being a ‘character building’ opportunity

This is very apparent in technology classes at technical universities. In the class, you get this ridiculously simple mini example which is so easy that everybody understands it rightaway. Subsequently, teachers go on to over-explain this for 10 minutes. All students, by now, are lured into a false sense of security because the example was easy. Then they set the task for the assigment and it’s 500% more difficult than the example. This, they pretend, is a learning progression. Hint from someone who actually is a qualified teacher and has experience with training with a systematic progression in sports: No, don’t be ridiculous. This is not a progression. A progression challenges you but doesn’t set tasks which are practically impossible to achieve with the basics training provided beforehand. A progressions means setting a challenging, but doable task – not a sink or swim experience. In these programming classes, usually only those survive who had more knowledge beforehand, came from schools where they’d had years of programming practice, or else, they had more advanced friends or relatives who agreed to help them.

This creates the illusion for teachers that the class is actually doable if you’re willing to put in the work. This is a joke. If you pretend to be a teacher whatsoever, your class should be understandable without help from relatives who are experienced programmers! In some of the classes, I even read all the suggested introductory books and 2-3 more but the class was still difficult because you had to look up hundreds of programming libraries and so on. I managed because I worked hard and had some emergency help from more experienced friends. Having to look up stuff is normal in programming, of course. But as a seasoned programmer, you already know what to search for and know where the new information fits into your previous knowledge. A newbie can’t – I repeat – can’t know that. Don’t blame them for your lack of understanding of how learning works!

Maybe it’s a mistake so many people teach at universities who have never gone through teacher’s training. That is not to say that teacher’s training only produces great teachers. We all know that, sadly, it doesn’t. But at least people necessarily have heard about how learning is supposed to work in theory. Having teachers who do not know nor care how learning and teaching is supposed to work should not be allowed. Yet this is the norm at universities. Students are lucky to come across a natural every once in a while. But it is no coincidence self-help gurus stress the importance of mentors: Not to say that you couldn’t learn it on your own. But your results are just going to be a million times better and faster if you happen to come across a good teacher.

Clear instructions for the ‘danger zones’

Danger zones provide excellent opportunities for accelerated learning progress. But especially before being thrown into ‘dangerous situations’ the students are barely qualified to handle at their stage, giving out clear instructions is crucial. With the guidance of a good teacher and very, very clear instructions of what they should or shouldn’t do, treating students to  a difficult challenge will greatly speed up the learning process. If not done well, however, it will be a nightmarish experience which might even end up deterring students from going on with their studies!

Having something like a life line or a safeboat might be enough to circumvent this. Or having more time or trainers to guide students as much as needed. Don’t rush into these situations without carefully planning them. Students need thoughtful teachers who are there to help students when they need it. Maybe even teachers who anticipate pitfalls students are running into because they can’t know themselves due to lack of experience. If you don’t have a lot of means to make this experience as good as possible, use the one most important element: very clear instructions and some abundant background information before you start. It is also important that students understand why certain rules or behaviours are imposed on them or why certain actions might be dangerous. You can always limit the scariness scope of an overly taxing situations by limiting choices and options through clear instructions and rules. Reduce the scope of a problem and you’ll make success much more achieveable.

Another experience from surfing was on this utmost importance of clear instructions, especially with difficult tasks. On a side note, to avoid any confusion: Surfing was a lot of fun overall, not to give a misleading impression, I just wanted to use the opportunity to point out some interesting observations on teaching. Anyway. In the high waves, the teachers hardly took any notice of me at all. As a novice, I had a hard time paddling against the force of the high waves and was constantly being carried away by the current. I was busy remembering where I was and keeping a vague orientation by looking for where the teachers were. Now was the time when I would have needed their help they had so over-abundantly and unnecessarily given to me in the shallows. I didn’t know whether I should just take the next wave I deemed ok (how the hell should I know which wave is ok? But anyway…) or if I should wait for the teacher to make that choice for me, which they had previously done most of the time.

In this difficult situation, however, they made no clear announcement of what I should do and when they took notice of me after I had spent almost 10 minutes paddling against the waves and waiting around for directions from them, both teachers gave me conflicting instructions. They told me to come over to them but my arms were so weak from paddling and the waves had gotten pretty violent, so it wasn’t easy for me to get to them. Then they decided I had drifted off too much and should just carefully get out of the water. I was shocked. Had I just wasted so much of my energy and didn’t even get one wave to ride? The situation had not only drained the physical energy of my arms and the heat out of my body, it had also drained me emotionally since there was no reward for putting in the effort. Afterwards, I sat on the beach resting a little bit and felt that I didn’t really want to get back in at all. I had lost my trust in the teachers. What if they’d let me rot out there in the waves again? I already didn’t have much energy left. Also I didn’t want the emotional blow of having to get back out again without getting one single wave. Maybe I was just tired, cold and stressing about the situation too much. But then again, I think this is exactly how most students feel when taught difficult subjects. They are left alone at sea in conditions nobody prepared them for. 

Just a thought for now 😉

Best,
the Ninja

PS: Oh, and my experience would probably be a starting point of discussion on multiple teachers who are teaching overlapping topics in parallel but contradict themselves. But that’s a topic for another time…

 

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