I need a training progression for academia and programming

As some of you might know, I am currently a fellow, aka at my personal writing retreat at Wolfenbüttel. And I decided to combine this with some sort of a training camp for my bouldering progress because you do need to have some breaks from writing during the day anyway and I can’t always watch Bones or create CV templates. You might have been following some of my bouldering on epigrammetry, the blog, or epigrammetry, the Twitter.

 

Training progressions in sports

Also very few of you might know as well, I used to train a lot for long-distance running (10k) during my teens. So I know what training progressions are. I used to have detailled training plans, eating regimes, supplements to take and all that jazz. I stopped at some point because my immune system kept bullshitting me and as an ambitious person, I couldn’t take the idea of having to start from scratch after a half-year of being very sick and weak. I’d had it with having to arrange my whole life around my training. Yet the principles I’d learned over the course of the years, plus the high level of discipline required in those persuits, have helped me a lot during my early university studies.

 

Systematic progress needs training goals

Looking back now, I used to approach studying and my ‘university progress’ just like I would have had planned my training progression. And it worked. I was really productive, things were going well. For me, at the time, this consisted mostly of getting all the translation homework done, reading a lot of Latin and Greek (at least an hour every early morning before starting my day) and getting through all the classics. Because I was fucking motivated.

This might have been due to there being actual goals to be achieved daily which I could measure my progress on. Like the speed, and thus number of pages, I would get through during my early morning reading practice. Back then, by the way, I also used to combine physical exercise with mental workouts like I have taken up again for this summer’s ‘training camp’. It works quite well. I should probably continue with it back home.

 

How do you create a training progression for programming?

My problem is now: Over the years, I seem to have gotten out of the habit of approaching progress systematically. Or, well not exactly, but – let’s say – I follow academic learning goals with a lot less zeal ever since I got my degree. Which probably is the case for mostly everyone else. Because it’s quite a bit harder to find time and motivation for non-goal oriented learning after a hard day at work than when you had all the time in the world to study. I really envy my youger self for having all this time for learning. I love learning. But life-long learning isn’t exactly the same and doesn’t end after your degree, espeically not if you’re an early career scholar. Now I have a vague idea of some skills I want to improve in. But I am very good with training progressions and thus I know that the common advice ‘just program a lot’ or ‘do a private programming project’ just really is crap advice. Of course, it’s true. You just need a lot of practice. But there still are ways of approaching this effectively or ineffectively.

There are some good books out there which actually provide some learning progression. There is John Sonmez’s Software Dev Career Guide which is the single only thing close to a book providing a progression to systematically get better at programming. And, who would have thought, he is an athlete too. I always thought I was the only one who wanted a systematic training plan. But apparently, he felt that need, too. And for good reason. I have already complained many times about why people don’t approach learning like training and still expect to get reliable, constant results. With learning, this systematic training approach is called ‘curriculum’. In the post linked above, I mentioned that I thought online programming platforms were the answer.

 

Which tools or medium can actually provide curriculum?

At the moment, I am at the point where I have let those online trainings slip again, a long while ago already. As it has happened to me multiple times over the years. If I can deduce from experience, I am likely or restart eventually and go crazy at online programming workouts for a while, then drop it completely again. But what you really need is consistency and daily workout. Plus, I can’t just do the apps. I always have a lot of books to read as well, which is quite important to me so they can’t be neglected either. But then I often end up only spending half of the time I would want to spend, read the book or, if you want to call it that, finish my ‘reading time’ and get tired after that. Also, I should already be at work, so I skip the programing workout.

While something surely is better than nothing, I should probably focus more on the practial work if I want to make faster progress. But in programming, that’s different from bouldering. In bouldering, it’s easy to see which routes I am capable of doing or whether I nailed a particular route. Or count how many pushups and pullups I can do (not enough, I have to admit). So I can measure progress easily. But with programming, this just isn’t the case. And in addition to that, for bouldering, there are tons of youtube gurus with mulitple videos each on how to get over plateaus and make progress, what you can work on, etc.

 

Willpower alone isn’t enough

For programming, most of the advice isn’t too good in my opinion because it’s often too generic (“get a project”). Bouldering tips are concrete like “Perfect your flagging technique”. It’s easy to look up how you do that. It’s easy to notice when you’ve got it, physical feedback makes sure of that. So I decided I’ll have to look at my programming workouts the way I approach my pushups for now (they need to get done no matter what and no whining around). But it’s not really a solution to the problem to rely on willpower alone. Willpower alone will ultimately fail once you get stressed or anything comes up. And when that happens, I have a really hard time getting back into the routine. Which I hate. And then I hate myself for not managing to and then the vicious circle goes on. It’s really annoying.

 

We need curriculum for systematic and swift progress

Of course, even with a good curriculum or a training plan, there will still be plateaus. You will still get stuck. But a good curriculum can help you over that last edge of the boulder. It can help you re-gather yourself after a failure or after you’ve let it all slack for a few weeks.

So this subject also makes me think with regard to this blog, it’s all the more important that curriculum gets developped for learning advanced LaTeX, so a willing user can make rapid progress. Rapid progress is good. It keeps you motivated. Plateaus are really dangerous because the can make you lose motivation and give on up the goal alltogether. So let’s find ways of measuring progress and collecting tips of what you can do to actively and systematically improve if you’re willing to.

Step one probably is to get the people to shut up who sneer at systematic approaches like this one. “Learning to program just doesn’t work this way”, they repeat time and time again. Yet I think this is not true. Getting better at programming is like learning any other skill. There is a systematic approach to it and when we have a systematic progression and training goals, we can figure out the steps we need to take.

That was it for now,

best,

the Ninja

Buy me coffee!

If my content has helped you, donate 3€ to buy me coffee. Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

€3.00

Advertisements

Cheat Sheets and Study Summaries

This is a quite long post about cheatsheets and also about effective studying. When you need a cheatsheet, chances are you’re trying to learn something (or use something or not yet very familiar with). Because if you already were and experiened expert, you wouldn’t need a cheatsheet, right?

First, I only wanted to share this cheatsheet template I made and explain why I did what I did. I ended up explaining the concept of the “survival summary” for effective studying and exam preparation, rant about what I think people do wrong when making cheatsheets and why I think the theory of effective learning should ultimately reflect in your cheatsheets. By the way, I hardly ever stick to my own rules when making cheatsheets… 😉

If you only care about the cheatsheet, please just scroll down and go get the template or skip to the section on the ‘design principles’ for my template 😉 . Everything else is a (prolonged) explanation of what I did and why I did it on a more theoretical level but I think (hope?) it might be a beneficial read 😉

colorful-cheatsheet
Also, as always, you can find the template on Overleaf.

Cheatsheet philosophy

Space

If you google how to create a cheatsheet, people will recommend you redefine all the section headings etc. as to remove as much unnecessary space as possible. But space is what gives you overview, it’s what guides your eves. If you remove it, you will lose a tremendous amout of time looking for information and not finding it straightaway. It would make more sense to actually reflect what you’re doing and try to save space by reducing unnecessary contents.

Content

But apart from squeezing too much info on cheatsheets per page, another problem is the content itself. I checked out some cheatsheets to research this post and obviously with LaTeX-based cheatsheet templates, many take LaTeX itself as the subject. With what I found, the results often contain pretty superfluous information. That is to say that, for example, in many cases, almost the whole first page is made up of information with a way too short half-life. The starting out info will become obsolete once you’ve used LaTeX 3 times. Do you really want to add that to your cheatsheet? Maybe you could leave it out or create another resource (a getting started manual) or just reduce it to a bare minimum with a small font size.

Font

Chose an easy-to-read font. Especially one which is easy to read from a little bit further away. Information which is very easily readable will be remembered more than some serify font. Resetting this might actually benefit your cheatsheet more than removing space because an easy to read font will make sure your document is readable from further away. Meaning you can reduce the font size. LaTeX’s standard font, Computer Modern, is very beautiful but it’s (modern) serif. Serif fonts are not good for study summaries or cheatsheets since the require a “closer reading”. Ever wondered why advertisements hardly use serif fonts? Sans-serif fonts are easier to read even when you’re not really looking. I would, by the way, also suggest you write your handwritten summaries in print type rather than in cursive writing for better overview.

Cramming in more

If you have to, downsize the font size but don’t get rid of the spacing. Of course that’s going to save you time and allow you to cram in as much information as possible. But is that really the most effective thing to do? Don’t you want the cheatsheet in the first place to reduce the complexity of the topic? If you’re going to just copy it in from any source, you might as well not make a summary but always use the internet so you can find the information you need quickly. Thus, wouldn’t getting rid of all the structuring elements amount to the opposite result of what you intially wanted?

A good cheatsheet (or study summary, which is probably more accurate), in my opinion, will contain shockingly little information but all the information included will be highly relevant. Also, instead of listing all the possible commands, why not mention or introduce them, while explaining something actionable? You could group your cheatsheet not into types of commands but into topics or problems one might want solved. An actionable and task-oriented cheatsheet is more effective than a reference style one.

The “survival summary”

When I write about cheatsheets, I can’t help but mix it up with the concept of the “survival summary” somehow. I got to know the concept in Krengel 2012 (see references) where he writes about how to study best. I am aware they’re not the same but thought you might be interested to learn about them anyway. In his book, after demonstrating effecitve note-taking (very visual and structured), Krengel explains his concept of the “survival summary” where you condensate all the material to be learned in one single page, in a late stage of studying for an exam when you already have the overview (also this method forces you to get yourself an overview…).

The idea behind this is that you can’t remember one hundred pages. But you can sure as hell remember one. So make sure everything which is absolutely necessary (what you need “to survive”) is on this page and act like your survival depended on it. Only add key concepts, not detail facts. Except maybe one or two indispensable, central ones which help to make it more visual. Using examples is always good as it induces some kind of “storytelling” which is good for memory.

Of course, if your exam consists in knowing detail facts by heart, this is just a good guideline for your memory. This summary is not meant to replace everything else. It just serves as the “memory hook” where you can localize your detailed knowledge. But I will exclusively reveal here that I have passed many exams by just knowing this most important info and having prepared a really good “survival summary” (without studying anything else before). You can definitely get by like this because the survival summary is basically the definition of a “pass grade”, embodied in an object in the form of a piece of paper. It contains all the info you need to succeed. Of course, you’ll really need to know its contents well, but if the summary is visual enough, it will be quite easy to remember. Hardly anyone will have problems remembering just one page if they really try.

Note taking and ‘reducing’ information to the most imporant bits

Reducing is probably not the right word. It’s more like condensing lots of bla into the info behind it. Once you start doing this that the bla-to-info ratio is quite scary. In most kinds of schooling, there is tons of bla and, usually, very little info. So reduce complexity, introduce clarity and overview. Be visual. Focus on the bigger picture. Unnecessary detail will only cloud your mind. Don’t try to remember everything. It’s a recipe for disaster and, if anything, will ensure you remember nothing at all.

This overview, this summary is your security. Think of it as insurance. If done well, it will ensure you pass the exam. If you aim higher, it will be a sound base to ground your details on and give you a sense of security which will make you more confident. You can remember one single page, right? This page contains everything you need to pass, so what could really go wrong?

I personally started even taking my lecture notes like “survival summaries” rightaway, to save even more time. You end up with 10-12 survival summaries which you can reduce into the final study summary just before the exam. This will save you lots of time. So rather than just mindlessly noting down everything the professor says, only note down important stuff or information which is likely difficult to find outside of the lecture notes. If the information is on Wikipedia, only write down the keyword. Or make a glossary rightaway where you put all the ‘difficult words’ and their definitions.

These words alone often can go as a survival summary. If you know what they all mean and the concepts they’re related to, you already have the gist of what’s going on. When in class, always make three columns on your paper.

  1. Left column: Leave empty to fill in the summary / keyword / heading of the current topic.
  2. Middle column: Your actual notes.
  3. Right column:  Anything you need to remember, be it historical dates in history, vocabulary in a language class or a glossary of difficult words.

In the middle column, highlight the important words as you write, so you don’t have to re-read everything to remember what paragraphs were about. You need this info to fill in the topic heading in the left column. The left and right columns are the prep work for your study summary. When preparing for the final summary, cut out everything repeating itself or not strictly necessary. Sum it all up in one final survival summary.

Reduction and reflection >  mindless note-taking

Dare to only note the most important stuff. Most people want to note down everything because it makes them feel safe. Leaving things out, they fear to end up not understanding their notes anymore. This is not an issue if you take good notes and give thought to how you write things down. Often you don’t need to write a whole sentence to unambiguously understand the content. Or, if you have the keyword and the context, it takes 5 seconds to look it up on the internet should you really not remember what it meant. It is way more time-consuming to have to work through extensive notes. That’s why lots of people fail exams despite lots of work taking excessive notes. Every single word you note down you will have to work through again. Do yourself a favour and note down only what’s actually important.

Not noting down everything is beneficial for many reasons:

  1. It’s the first stage of reduction of the material, if done right.
  2. Taking good notes makes creating summaries so much faster.
  3. Having condensed visual notes from the last lessons allows you to have the overview and keep you from noting down things multiple times.
  4. If you never take more than one page of notes per lesson, reviewing the content before the next lesson will be really easy. You can learn things straightaway rather than waiting until the exam. Learn things as they come up! This advice from Steve Pavlina is probably the best studying advice ever.
  5. Not writing complete sentences, using visual boxes with no more than 3-5 concepts per block, you actively make the information easy to grasp for your brain. Also, you find things more quickly.

8. Learn material the very first time it’s presented.

One of the biggest time wasters in school is having to relearn something you didn’t learn properly the first time. When students say they’re studying, most of the time they’re making up for a previous failure to learn the material.

In software development it’s well known that bugs should be fixed as soon as possible after they’re introduced. Waiting to fix a bug near the end of a project can take 50x as much effort as it would take to fix the bug the first time it was noticed. Failing to learn what you’re supposedly taught each day is a serious bug. Don’t try to pile new material on top of an unstable foundation, since it will take even more time to rebuild it later.

If you don’t understand something you were taught in class today, treat it as a bug that must be fixed ASAP. Do not put it off. Do not pile new material on top of it. If you don’t understand a word, a concept, or a lesson, then drop everything and do whatever it takes to learn it before you continue on. Ask questions in class, get a fellow student to explain it to you, read and re-read the textbook, and/or visit the professor during office hours, but learn it no matter what.

10 Tips for College Students, Steve Pavlina

Once you’re not new anymore at university and know your way around, you will quickly know where the lecturer has gotten his or her information on. (Hint: it’s probably somewhere in the literature list you never cared to notice). This is why my survival summaries and notes only contain insights or information so condensed you wouldn’t find them anywhere else. If your summary is supposed to be a go-to resource alongside the omniscience of Google, it has to be really good and give you access to information Google (or the library) couldn’t give you.

If it can be looked up quickly, is a detail and not extremly central to the point, don’t bother writing it down. You won’t be able to read your own handwriting in a few weeks anyway. If you type your notes on a computer and have decent typing skills, chances are you’ll procude so much text you’ll never be able to go through when studying.

I used to be quite religious about lecture notes and summaries. I wanted to make perfect notes, grasp all the information, constantly improve my note-taking skills until I realized the true art of good summaries lies in leaving things out.

Good notes glow with simplicity. If you’re notes are digital (written in LaTeX like my cheatsheets of course), use \href{http://link.com}{Name} to hide reference links in the texts. This will stop ugly links from ruining the overview but calm your fear of “forgetting or leaving out important information”.

Of course, since you’re not the one teaching the class, you can never quite know exactly what is most important, or completely unimportanty respectively, to the teacher. This is why, perfectly simplicistic survival summaries will remain a theoretical ideal you can never fully achieve. But that’s not a reason not to try. Don’t think this is the lazy way out either. It is actually quite hard, challenging work and requires a very good overview about the subject in question. I have created many bad survival summaries because I didn’t bother take enough time to understand the material at hand. These bad summaries will not get you very far.

Ideally there should be no need to study outside of class, at least in the sense of relearning material you didn’t learn the first time. You can review old material to refresh your memory, but you shouldn’t have to devote a minute of your time to learning something that was taught a month or two earlier.

[…]

During each semester ask yourself this question: Am I ready to be tested right now on everything that has been taught up to this point? If your answer is ever “no,” then you know you’re falling behind, and you need to catch up immediately. Ideally you should be able to answer “yes” to this question at least once a week for every subject.

[…] Put in the effort to learn your material well enough to get As in all your classes. It will pay off. Much of the material you learn will build on earlier material. If you get As in your freshman courses, you’ll be well prepared to pile on new material in your sophomore year. But if you get Cs that first year, you’re already going into your second year with an unstable foundation, making it that much harder to bring your grades up and really master the material. Make straight As your goal every semester. In the long run, it’s much easier. I found that C students tended to work a lot harder than I did, especially in their junior and senior years, because they were always playing catch up. Despite my packed schedule, it wasn’t stressful for me because I kept on top of every subject. Consequently, I had plenty of time for fun while other students experienced lots of stress because they constantly felt unprepared.

Steve Pavlina, Do it now

How to know if a summary is good?

How do you know the summary is good? Well, you’ll never be able to guarantee. But usually, you’ll have a good feeling about it. If it doesn’t contain all the topics, for example, that’s a good indicator of a bad one. Or, when you went into a lot of detail in subject one and left out subject two because you spent all your energy on subject one, this is a classical example of the “unbalanced survival summary”. This happens, but shouldn’t. Thankfully, seeing as these summaries are quite visual, it will be quite apparent to you.

A summary or part of summary with tons of detail also mostly is an indicator you should deepen your knowledge about the subject first. A lot of detail usually means you lack the general understanding of the bigger picture and are very unfamiliar with the topic. See my comments about how an advanced person’s cheatsheet is not the same thing as beginner’s intro. This is exactly what I’m talking about here. A beginner will add detail which is necessary only for the very limited amount of time you’re a beginner. It might even be very relevant then. But it will turn to completely irrelevant once you’ve moved on to advanced user. An advanced user will add very little detail unless there is a good reason for it. The result will visibly be more balanced, topic-oriented, containin key concepts and an overview of the bigger picture.

You will learn a lot trying to condense information into a survival summary like this. In fact, this had turned out to be the most effective study strategy for me as you’re not complelely passive in this kind of revision.

So make sure to:

  • use the methods of chunking (2-4 chunks) or storytelling (I mostly use chunking only though)
  • Garbage In, Garbage Out –> if you don’t do some serious “editing” with your learning materials, this is what you’ll get…
  • Condensate: “zoom out”
  • Reduce: get rid of anything redundant or trivial
  • get visual
  • Facts versus skills: Operationalize

What is a cheat sheet? Theory and practice

What it should be

A memory aid which stores information you might need quick access to and need fairly frequently but not frequently enough so you would recall it without the cheatsheet.

What it shouldn’t be
A crib

The thing you used in school to cheat (ok, yes I did too. I fact, quite masterfully so^^). I used to have these really full cribs which contained EVERYTHING and I printed them out, using the 16 pages or 32 pages on one page mode. Used to work pretty well.

A beginner’s guide

Beginner’s guides are totally legitimate but please, if you want both a cheatsheet and a beginner’s guide, make sure to create two different documents.

The problem is: A beginner’s guide includes tons of information you totally do need when starting out. But once you’ve successfully gotten started, most of this information is 100% obsolete. You’ll either never need it again (because it was one time information, like how to install something) or you will have it memorized by heart because you use it too frequently. The information contained in the beginner’s guide can intersect with the one still relevant later on, but in part, certainly will be obsolete once you’re not a beginner anymore. And, believe it or not, once you actually get started, you will reach advanced status fairly quickly. So make sure to keep those documents seperate. Just take the time to make one sheet with basic info and another one with info which might still pass as “basic” but will remain at least somewhat relevant to an advanced user.

A lexicon or a reference

I see this with LaTeX cheatsheets a lot. People cram in all the information there is. Including a minimal working example of a LaTeX document. Please, people, you will need this information exactly once. If you’re using an editor which provides some setup support (like Overleaf or even TeXmaker etc.) you will never use this information again. Unless you’re one of those hardcore people who don’t use IDEs. And even then, you probaly won’t need it more than three times until you have memorized it.

The command graveyard

Or, instead of the minimal working example, they add in all the symbols you can possibly use in LaTeX. Even if you use LaTeX for math purposes, there is no way you’ll ever need all those symbols. Some you will need fairly frequently, some you won’t need at all. And, if you have some basic familiarity with the greek alphabet, you will know the names of the letters. And can just write them as commands. No need to print the whole alphabet, right? If you don’t know the Greek alphabet and need it regularly, learn it please?

Like I will elaborate in the “design” section below, every detail which is in the slightest bit  unnecessary will ruin the overview and undermine the purpose of your cheatsheet (quick access to relevant info).

If the overview is so poor and you’re faster Google-ing your wanted information, what the hell do you need a cheatsheet for? Unless you have no internet, of course. So when preparing a cheatsheet, don’t go thorugh all the beginner’s tutorials and add everything they have (unless you want to make a beginner’s guide, but if you do so, please do so explicitly).

Look for information which fits the criteria below:

  1. If you feel you absolutely need to add in some basic function, don’t waste a lot of space for it. Or demonstrate the basic thing while demonstrating something more advanced or rare.
  2. Don’t add things you might ever only need once, like infrequent symbols.
  3. Don’t add startup info unless you’ll need it more than once. Also, make this a “detail on demand” (see design principles below) if you feel you absolutely can’t go without it.
  4. Also, just generally avoid adding “extensive lists”. If your cheatsheet is supposed to be a memory aid, keep in mind that the brain can only process so many chunks at a time (3-5). Accordingly, one block of information should not include more than 3-5 elements at a time.
  5. Cut out anything unnecessary. Summarize, cut and shorten radically. Keep to the absolute minimum. Make it zen. Simplify. Really take the time to do this, it will maximize your benefits.
  6. Good cheatsheet design takes up a lot of time. But once the cheatsheet is done, it will be useful to you for a long time.
  7. Don’t just sit down and create a cheat sheet. A really good cheatsheet will need some design first. Brainstorm, see what information you want to include. Note down everything you feel you need, then shorten radically and find creative ways to make it more to the point.
  8. This creative process is what we might call editing. There is this quote: The first draft of everything is bullshit. What it means is that most people stop before the actual work starts and that’s why their results are bad. Outputs only get really good if you sit down to edit them and make them better, design them carefully, etc. When writing a paper, for example, putting the info on paper is only half of the work. Internal editing, peer review, etc. will make the final result take about twice as long as the inital step of “writing the paper”. Most seminar papers are bad because students just stop after they have sloppily collected and written down the information. The papers end up lacking detail in research but also lacking grammatical corrections, reformulating to make the outline and the sentences more clear, etc. The same goes for anything you produce.
  9. A good cheatsheet is something you might want to use for a long time or even share with others so they can profit from it too. If you make a good summary for studying, you can use this as a memory aid or refresher long after the exam. If, and only if, you did it well to begin with. Or imagine you want to take an advanced class. A good cheatsheet will make sure you master the basics, and if you don’t, have them at the ready whenever you need them. Or, when preparing for an exam, the extra time might seem a waste of time – but, on the plus side, you’ll be way further along in your studying if you have taken the time to make a high quality cheatsheet, and you also have a good point to start should you happen to fail the exam. Whoops.

Basic design principles

Data vizualization 101 also applies to effective learning and, thankfully, the most important principle can be summed up in one single sentence:

Overview first, zoom in, detail on demand. (Shneiderman’s Mantra)

  1. Overview first: means big headings about the subject of every block.
  2. Zoom in: you go from the “hook” which is the heading to the actual information, i.e. details (in this case).
  3. Detail on demand: this works well in responsive applications but how to implement this on an analogous piece of paper, you ask?

When I prepared class summary sheets for studying (and I used to be very religious and peculiar about this, believe me. In fact, I probably still am.), I made big headings (stage 1: overview first), then added the info below (stage 2: zoom in) and added details in such a small font size that you had to physically get close to the paper to be able to read it. As I wrote this by hand, the writing became almost impossible to read. And that was the brilliant part of it.

The point is, we mostly are so afraid to leave some less than important piece of information out, because we feel like we’re going to miss out (or something, I can’t even really explain why). We’re afraid this information is a crucial detail when mostly, you’ll never need it again. Also, by noting down all the information, we are lured into the false security of thinking we have it noted down anyway, so it’s not so important we actually memorize it.

While this is not exactly the goal of learning, it also makes us end up with pages and pages of notes which we will never get through when studying for the exam. Also, working like this, we will never ever actually have an overview what the class was about and since teachers mostly fail to mention which ones were the most important contents, we will probably remember the least important detail only. Congratulations.

The cheatsheet is not a universal reference and not the place where you “write down everything”. You only write down that which is important and choosing what is important always means you’ll have to discard certain items. The study cheatsheet does not need to include everything, that’s what books, Google or your notes are for. The cheatsheet sums up the most important stuff in an overview.

I don’t always follow my own advice, of course, and tend to want to include every little detail. But once the summary is done and I acutally use it, I always regret including too much detail, especially the absolute basics. I find the best way here is to include them but

a) keep it small and

b) include it combined with some other less important information you kind of want to include but wouldn’t be important enough otherwise.

I sometimes write my summaries while a class still goes on: I reserve a spot on the (analogous) paper for every session. My university classes are usually 12 to 14 sessions. This is more tricky, of course, since something which seemed new and important at the beginning might be obvious and unnecessary once you’re deeper into the topic. Avoid reserving too much space for the basics as they are likely to end up not being important anymore. Or write your cheatsheet in LaTeX (of course 😉 ). You’ll be able to modify it in the way that makes the most sense once the class is over, there is nothing more to be added and you’re doing revisions. So these are the key principles:

  1. Big headers: Overview first
  2. Boxes ( don’t add more than 3-5 chunks)
  3. White space: Unlike many other cheatsheets, don’t use every inch available to you. Don’t cram in every detail. Space it out, it will greatly benefit the overview (and thus, your learning).
  4. If you absolutely can’t go without some detail, make it so small you’re almost unable to read it. Force yourself to have to remember it. Don’t count on the fact that it’s all there and all available at one click.

The Cheatsheet – Template and explanation

The \mycommand command for displaying commands and their explanations uses \detokenize to display code. It functions as explained here . However, some problems remain, like you can’t use \maketitle or comments (%) in the command.

Also, don’t forget you can’t add any styling to the command part of \mycommand. This should be obvious but I catch myself trying to insert commands and wondering that they’re just displayed as text all the time. 😉 It usually takes me a few seconds before I realized this is a feature I actually knowlingly configured to work as such.

The subboxes are done using tcbraster (indicating the number of columns). There would be an option to indicate rows as well, but I couldn’t see why I would need that and if one ever should, one could just use 2 mulitboxes (works just fine, if you ask me…).

Playing around: Cheatsheet to beamer

After I created a cheatsheet using this template, I had the idea that I could ‘generate’ presentation slides from it. This was quite easy. I opened a beamer template and pasted the document body of the cheatsheet into it, replacing all the \begin{textbox} with \begin{frame}[allowframebreaks] and the \end{textbox} with \end{frame}.

This seemed like a quick and easy way to create slides from the cheatsheet. It turned out, however, that tcblisting has some issues with enumerate or itemize environments in the beamer documentclass. The co-presence of those two in one document will stop the whole thing from compiling due to a bug in the beamer class, apparently. It took me very long to find out why exactly, believe me.

Also, the resulting slides are not, like, suuuuper beautiful, if you know what I mean. The automatic framebreaks are not great but, at least, will give you working slides instantly, even if your boxes were very full (which probably they shouldn’t be in the first place…). The slides are nothing special, but they work as long as you never have code examples and lists in the same document. Or you’d have to rearrange your code exmaples from tcblisting to lstlistings. I do quite prefer tcblistings to be honest. And, in the concrete case, if you care to know, I had been late preparing my class which was supposed to happen in a few hours time, so I decided my students didn’t need the code on beamer 😉

So, that’s it for now.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

the LaTeX Ninja

References

  1. Martin Krengel, Bestnote. Lernerfolg verdoppeln, Prüfungsangst halbieren. Berlin 2012.
  2. 10 Tips for College Students, Steve Pavlina
  3. Steve Pavlina, Do it now

Buy me coffee!

If my content has helped you, donate 3€ to buy me coffee. Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

€3.00

Two basic image manipulation life-savers

In this post, I wanted to share a few tricks for simple image manipulation (with the goal of making pictures look better) I’ve picked up over the years. While tip one will always be to learn to take better pictures, maybe these little tricks will help you when you are asked to put the latest conference pictures online and realize they’re not good and really need a makeover first. So one thing will be to beautify event photos. Another tip I share is how to easily create a nice little vector graphic from a photo of some historical object or person.

First things first

This might seem obvious, but make sure you only use images you actually have the right to use. Check explicitly, don’t just assume! Get written permisson, if it’s not 100% clear what your rights are. If you are supposed to take pictures for an event, most people now mention that pictures will be taken in the event invitation already and that by attending, you agree to have your picture taken. Check what practices are at your institution.

Secondly, I am not a graphic designer or anything and fully self-taught in this realm. These tips work well for me and might work for you too. But just to make sure: I’m not actually competent to teach anyone on this topic 😉

Vector graphic from photo

I want to give you a few tips on how to create a nice vector graphic from a historical photo. Vector graphics make for nice logos, for example. Adding one can be all the spicing up a simple template or poster needs. It’s an eye catcher. They take a while to make if you want a good one (a few hours), but can be done on a train ride or during a meeting 😉 and I’ve never regretted making one and people loved them. Even though I’m not a professional logo / graphic designer and my results are far from perfect.

tikzposter-with-timeline
A TikZ poster for the exhibit “Lyrik des Widerstands – Richard Zach zum Gedenken”, PH Steiermark / Graz / Austria. It illustrates what I mean by “a nice vector graphic can go a long way”. At least I hope it does.

How to go about it

Scan very high quality if the image is from a book. Or take a high quality photo, reducing background elements if possible (will save lots of time later). Get rid of noise (Gaussian blur, 10px or something, try it). Then vectorize it, for example using Vectorizer.io: they will let you do quite enough if you sign up for a free account and disable your adblock. You can’t do very many images at the same time but since you’ll have other image manipulation taks to do in between, this will be just fine. Of if you’re pressed, use a trial account.  Or do Vectorization.org. I also like the Imaengine app. But you can only save the results when you pay a few bucks for the full version (worth it though). In this case, save it high quality. But maybe also get back to Imaengine only after you’ve cleaned out background elements you don’t need to add final touches. Play around with reducing the number of colour or adding some blur. But reducing the number of colours basically is the main thing you want to do. Maybe start with the smallest possible number of colours and go back up until you think you got the “feel” of the original image back, but without the details. (For example, with just two colours, you’re likely to have lost the original “feel”.)

Then the work starts: Manually get rid of patchy sections as well as all the background in GIMP. It will look a lot better and way more professional if you just take the time to do this (even if it’s not perfectly done). This is where you can invest the 1-2 hours I mentioned this would take. As I said, I am by no means an expert but I feel that most image manipulation things just take a lot of time and effort – they aren’t necessarily difficult to do. So even a beginner can achieve an ok result if they’re just willing to put in the time.

Edit: For getting rid of the background, you could also use services like Remove.bg to speed things up, as was pointed out thankfully by the #TeXLaTeX community on Twitter. It works super well with many types of photos. However, with my early modern print thingy, it didn’t know what the foreground was supposed to be: “Please select an image with a somewhat clear distinction between foreground and background. For instance, try a photo of a person, product, animal, car or another object.”

maierus
This image is a direct result of a vectorization tool and now you probably understand why we need the manual labour. The simplicity of the end result is the result of lots of work. But tweaking the vector output can help, too. This was made from a scan of an engraving depicting the early modern iatrochemist Michael Maier.

Manually drawing on the computer in an image manipulation program is not everybody’s thing an might take some getting used to. Many people will want to use a mouse for this. Don’t get discouraged by initial failures. It still is a question of practice and routine. You will, however, be able to get instantly better and more failsafe results if your base image is fairly big and you zoom in very closely. Start with baby steps. It will get easier once the most patchy areas are gone. Once you’re done, run it through the vectorizer once again to get rid of some of the small patchiness you might have overlooked or created while manually drawing around.

Delete the background. This can be done in multiple ways. If it’s all done in the same color, there is the option ‘color to transparency’ (or something like that). Else you might want to use the wand too and click delete or the like. Save (=export) the result. Voilà, your vector graphic is done.

maierus3
After you’re finally done with the manual editing done and marvel at your finished vector graphic, you’ll be so relieved you’ll start making pop art out of it. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about 😉 Oh, those train rides…

 

 

Some more tips

  1. To take into account: If the logo is supposed to be displayed very small, be sure to reduce a lot of detail. Always opt for 30% less detail than you think you need.
  2. Maybe make multiple logos or draw stuff on paper. Multiple quick sketches always yield better results than trying to get it perfect the first time. Fail fast and learn from your failures.
  3. Another win when using vectors is that you can output them as SVG or enlarge their size without things getting pixely. This might also be a reason you want to create a vector graphic in the first place.

Summary of a few GIMP shortcuts (learn some to significantly speed things up)

  • O = get the color (click)
  • P = switch to pencil
  • CTRL + C: copy
  • CTRL + V: past
  • CTRL + SHIFT + V: paste as new image
  • CTRL + SHIFT + E: export as (this is the ‘saving option’ in GIMP which will save the actual product, not the project itself – ‘save’ will save the project).
  • CTRL+Z to undo
  • paste (CTRL+V)

Beautifying event photographs

Use the GIMP Retinex filter

From my research into the retinex filter you should only change the bottom-most setting to adapt the filter. The stronger you make it, the less natural the result, the more noise will be created, the more colours will be enhanced.

retinex-filter3
With retinex, adjust only the bottom-most option “dynamic”.

Usually, the point will come quickly where you crank up the colours and sharpness too much so the result looks weird and gets a “steely” feel (try it out to see what I mean).

 

retinex-filter2
Overdone retinex. Colours ruined. “Steely” feel.

 

For more or less failsafe use of this if you want to achieve results that still look more or less natural: use the filter, then copy the product (CTRL+C). CTRL+Z to undo the effect in the base image. Then paste (CTRL+V) the version with the filter on top of the now reverted to its initial state image. Open the layer editor, click right: make the pasted section as a new layer. Then scale down the manipulated layer’s transparency to 50% (or as you like). The original picture will be improved without looking all unnatural. And you won’t have to take a lot of time looking for the perfect retinex setting. Just take one that looks ok. With the overlay, details will get lost anyway. And by the way, retinex will always create noise. The default settings reduce this to a minimum but it’s still pretty noticeable. So maybe use a relatively fine-grained Gaussian blur afterwards to make up for it again.

And maybe combine the effect with the “three layer trick” explained below. Play around with it. Find something that works for you. I’m no expert either but I found these tricks quite useful.

 

The three layer trick to bring out colours and contrast

Copy your initial picture into three layers. Desaturate the first to grayscale and invert it. Then do a light Gaussian blur on it, set its transparency to 30-35% and ‘merge down’. Then (you’re ‘on’ the middle layer now) set this layer’s mode from ‘Normal’ to ‘grain merge’ (‘Faser mischen’ in German), then merge down. This will bring out colours and contrasts better. However, if the colours are not nice to begin with, they will just be intensified as if you’d cranked up the saturation too much.

If this is no good, mabye try the retinex filter to bring out the colours and sharpen instead. I found this three layer trick on the internet somewhere in the past and sadly, can’t find it anymore. If you accidentally happen to know the source, feel free to point it out to me 😉

Other things you could do to enhance your images would be to tamper with the white balance or colour curves. But I decided not to add other stuff here to keep it simple and actionable.

both-filters
Left: initial image. Not bad, but I’m not happy because these wooden rooms always give nasty light. Right: image after having used both techinques explained above. First the three layer trick, then retinex. The result is not much different in the way that it looks “obviously manipulated”, but it does kind of look better and more professional, I feel.

Very basic ‘mini’ retouch for dummies

Select the eyes and increse colour and contrast. Select the skin regions where there are no lines (like the nose, elbow pit on the arm, etc.) and blur them – either manually or with the blur ‘pencil’. This will smoothen out impefections. Don’t overdo it though or it will be very noticeable. Don’t smooth over lines or the result will look comical at best.

The best image manipulation is taking better pictures in the first place

But, the most important thing is: Try to get hold of a good camera and take pictures in good light. I personally find it easy to take good pictures when the light is good but when you would need flash, human beings always look bad. At least if you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. So I try to avoid situations where flash is necessary when taking pictures of people. Maybe other people are better at this. But if people are not wearning tons of foundation and powder to mattify their skin, flash is not advisable and you might get better people pictures without it.

Also, ever wondered why models spend so much time on makeup before photoshoots?That’s because image manipulation can only do so much. The better the pictures you start out with, the better the result.

Conclusion

So, these were some simple tips. I’m not really good at this myself but I’ve been doing it for a few years. These little tips have helped me in situations where, for example, I was asked to beautify some snapshots of the last conference. My experience is that your suffering will be minimized when you have good light and can bring a good camera. This is the most important part. “Repairing” pictures taken under bad circumstances and making them look good is a really hard task. But making mediocre shots a little better is something you can learn. But then again, if you only need small pictures for social media, phone apps offer filters to improve your pictures with a few clicks. So maybe it’s not even relevant for you to “go traditional” and use GIMP at all.

Hope this helps someone,

best,

the Ninja

 

Buy me coffee!

If my content has helped you, donate 3€ to buy me coffee. Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

€3.00

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.

[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.

“Student journals” – The good, the bad and the ugly

In this post, I want to share some experiences regarding “student” or “young researcher” journals. By “student journal” I mean journals which specialize in supporting young researchers, mostly only accepting publications from authors who don’t yet have their PhD. While this is a great idea in general which should absolutely be supported, I find that it can often be misleading and less-than-great in reality. In these journals, often even undergraduate students (before finishing their Bachelor’s) would be qualified to submit. But I find that they tend to be too much of a hassle, especially as they are not perceived as ‘high quality’ journals. Also, like the title suggests, my own experiences were mostly not so good.

So, the gist of what I am going to say is: I wouldn’t recommend them. “Student journals” are “worth less” in your CV and, confusingly, I have found them to be more trouble than normal journals are. So, mostly a total waste of time and energy if you ask me. Read on for the details on good aspects and my own experiences which influenced this judgement. In short: The student journals I have tried had given me the illusion that it would be easier and more quick to get a publication out here than elsewhere. The complete opposite was the case! (If you just want the summary without my ramblings, it’s in the last paragraphs.)

What do I mean when I speak of “student journals”?

By “student journals” I mean journals accepting only authors until at maximum their dissertation / PhD thesis is finished. This is done in the goal of creating a “safe space” where young researchers can get publishing experience early on without having to worry about being in competition with full professors.

The good and the bad

On the up side: You, as a young researcher, maybe even without a degree at all, will get heard.

On the down side: The reviewers they have might not be specialized in your field – which will either make the publication less good and the review less trustworthy or it might even generate conflicts (as it happened to me, read below). Also, reviewers are usually aware that they are about to review for a “student journal”, ergo they know that you don’t have your PhD yet which might cause them to scrutinize over your work in a way they might not with a real journal (so the ‘blind’ part of ‘blind peer review’ is not actually a given anymore). This is probably the main factor that leads to publication being more difficult here than in a ‘regular journal’. Another main aspect of the hassle are, sorry to have to point this out (I won’t give any details on the journals I tried to retain anonymity), the inexperienced editors.

Inexperienced “student editors”

These “student journals” are mostly students’ initiatives and so the editorial board consists of, you guessed it, people in the same stage of their career as the early career scholars trying to get published in this journal. This might sound like a good thing at first – believe me, it’s not!

This means they don’t really have experience yet and since most “student journals” cover really broad topics (such as “Classics” in total) which would be difficult to have a full overview about even for a full professor, the editors themselves are not qualified to judge your work. In a great majority of cases. (Sorry editors, nothing personal.) Yet, since they are not yet experienced and – sorry again – mostly feel slightly pompous about themselves being first-time editors of a journal, will tend to interfere in ways which they are not qualified to do. Also, arguing with them on an objective basis will probably not be possible since they have no clue about what you’re talking about.

One of the editors in my cases even lacked knowledge of a basic technical term of our field which I found quite shocking (and wrote a comment like: “What does XY mean?”). Still, since the editor was in a position of power over me, in a way, I had to bend to their feedback even though they had displayed a frankly astonishing lack of basic knowledge of the field we were talking about. Since the editor works on a very different sub-field than me and was on the exact same career stage as me, I totally lost confidence in the editors and had a hard time taking them seriously after that.

To continue the not-so-professional processing, they subsequently assigned me a new editor (probably the editor in chief with more experience) after the situation had gotten weird. I don’t generally criticize the fact that they did but rather the fact that they did so without providing any sort of explanation. At that point, I already felt like they didn’t actually want my paper anymore and were merely looking for an elegant reason to reject it. The tone had changed drastically as well. I had built up somewhat of a personal relationship with the old editor (which probably already was the first mistake) and then it all was very cold and written in a very politically correct way like they were trying to weasel out of the situation and get rid of me without honestly saying they intended to.

Also, another interesting fact: They were really religious about anonymity. That is until they compromised my identity in the “blind” review. Which I only know because I requested to get the full written reviews after that one paper had been rejected and saw that the reviewing person noted in a comment that they should take better care when anonymizing the papers. I had initials in the footnotes indicating some of the translations were my own and of course, I cited one of my own papers on the topic in the references. Thus, my identity was disclosed to the reviewers within seconds, without them having to google me or anything. Not that I cared particularly much (it had no further consequence), but it just added to the overall impression of lacking professionality.

The reviewer’s board is not specific to your field

Also, the reviewers board, while mostly consisting of full professors who (should) know their stuff, will not be specific to your field and only be able to cover the topic in a very broad way which might cause conflict as well.

So if you’re in for bad feedback, rather go get it from a journal pertinent to your field. In case you get bad feedback (which you probably will in any case), you can at least be sure that the editors and reviewers are competent and relevant to your field of study. I have had the experience of getting feedback from reviewers as well as the editors themselves who totally distorted some of what I had said. Regarding some of their feedback, I would have been able to provide 5+ standard publications indicating I was right. After all, I hadn’t “invented” this “bold and coloured statement”, like they claimed –  I had merely repeated (and cited) it from standard sources where it is common sense. Which they obviously were not aware of. I am not sure how a mutually beneficial review can happen under those circumstances. After the reviewer had criticized this general tone of my article (which was in totality a summary of standard works on the field, the statements weren’t even intended to make a point – they were just the introduction), the editor seemed to think me incompetent and got really strict with me, asking me to change those things. I agreed to leave out one whole “problematic” paragraph, but refused to correct statements I believe to be correct in general. This whole problem emerged from an authoritative opinion of the reviewers which they hadn’t backed up with one single reference. It was my word against theirs. This is not good scientific practice, as they should very well know. I can merely assume this situation was produced through the power situation of the review situation which is not “peer review” but a teacher reviewing a student. One of the reviews even mentioned grades in the review. Like, “some changes would make the paper from a C to a B”. I am sorry, but being treated like a stupid pupil was not what I had hoped to get in a peer review publication. Had I not submitted in a student journal, there was no way for them to know I was less senior than they were (at least no official ways).

My personal advice: Steer clear of “student journals”

It’s really not worth the pain. I have done it twice and had trouble both times.

I felt, not to be mean or anything, that the young editors wanted to “use their power” on me. That they felt superior to me even though they were not at a higher level of qualification at all.

I am sure not all young editors are like this and I sure as hell am not trying to suggest that. I just have to state that, sadly, this was my experience. It seemed to me that these young researchers just lost sight of where they stand and what their competences are or where they end.

Also I somehow felt that the reviewers (which were probably important professors mostly, judging by the board) were more strict with me than they might have been had they not known that I am still “at the beginning of my career”. They did not trust me to have knowledge in my particular narrow field of expertise. Even though they didn’t seem particularly well-informed on it themselves.

The ugly: Lengthy rambling with examples of my personal experiences

Here follows a lengthy rant about how it went for me (without calling names, of course). Skip it if you’re not interested. However, I think my experience might be relevant to you when choosing where to submit your paper (which probably represents the distilled sum of months of your time). Please note, however, that all of this is my personal opinion and might not be representative of your experience or the phenomenon of “student journals” in general. Just some innocent, highly subjective observations of mine.

“Student journal” fail story number one

The first time, everything went well until basically the day before publication. Then, all of a sudden and for no discernible reason at all (I suppose it was just stress-induced), the editor started yelling at me via email that I was not being grateful enough because it is an honour for me to publish in their journal. Which, I have to add, I don’t really see to begin with. It’s a student journal without reputation and I am very well able to publish with “real journals” and have done so. Publishing with a “real journal” would be better for me and they don’t ask me to be grateful. I mean, honestly, what the fuck?! An unsolicited aggression like this from a person I have never met, had never happened to me in academia before. And it’s not like weird things didn’t happen to me in the wondrous land of Academia on a regular basis (ass-grabbing during a panel and the like).

If the editor doesn’t think my paper is good enough for their journal, they should not have accepted it in the first place. Also, both the student journals I have published with (I will not name names and don’t want to blame anyone here), had like a maximum of 2-3 papers per issue. So it’s more the other way round: They needed my contribution (or any contribution whatsoever for that matter) or else they wouldn’t have anything to publish. Which isn’t much of a quality indicator for the journal I handed the precious fruits of my labour to. I was frankly pretty angry at this out-of-nowhere yelling via email (I honestly don’t think I did anything wrong up to that point and felt I had put in tons of effort in being polite). Then – seeing as I have quite a temper myself 😉 – she got the full blow back. Like, does she honestly think she’s the only one working crazy hours for free in the Humanities? That had been one of the points, that she works for free and I’m not grateful etc. And, hell, I really get how this can be frustrating seeing as that had been my exact situation at the time as well. Working 60 hours to get this grant proposal done and getting paid for 10 hours which was totally not enough to live off. But hey, that’s the Humanities. You signed up for this and you knew it was going to be like this. Don’t take it out on fellow PhD students who suffer from the same system…

Student journal fail story number two

So that was story number one. Story number two was after that. First I had this really (a bit too) good relationship with the editor who was overly friendly and helpful. At some point – once the review had come in and I had worked in the suggestions – the editor kept accusing me of not having integrated the suggestions etc. The paper was sent into review again to see if it had improved and the reviewers said no. I was a bit confused about the fact that I didn’t hear back from the editor in months and was only told afterwards that they had sent it to the reviewers once again. Which would have been fine by me but I kind of felt attacked having not been informed about this and then criticized after the review had come back. Apparently, the reviewers could not see how I had worked in their remarks. But seeing as I work on a very narrow field, I pretty much know mostly everyone in that field. The reviewer had made some comments on a historical person which led me to frankly doubt their ability to judge my paper since they were ridiculous, not at all backed up by any literature I know of and seems to me totally contrary to current opinions.  Of course, the esteemed reviewing professor is not asked to back up their claims by literature, while I am. Maybe I misjudged this, but I still found that highly dubious… Also, before, having worked in the suggestions from the first review, I gave the paper to multiple professors from “my circle” to criticize and worked in their feedback as well. I had done a private round of, not even peer- but “boss-review”. So I really felt a bit hurt at the accusation of not having worked in the suggestions. I don’t think most people add in private review rounds in between peer-reviews (nor have professors around who are willing to take the time to do this, which I am grateful that I do)… The longer this went on and the longer the emails between me and the editor became, I had the suspicion (which I had secretly been doubting since the very first feedback) that they didn’t want me to make some changes. They were not happy with how my paper was done in the first place.

Since I don’t think this is what peer-review is for, I only corrected the smaller issues. If the editors don’t like the overall making and idea behind the paper, they should just reject it straightaway, shouldn’t they? That would have been fair to me since at that time, it would still have been easy to make minor changes and send it in to another journal. After a million very specific corrections which had ever only made sense to the editors, not to me, I didn’t have that choice anymore. The paper had been altered so fundamentally according to their requests and wishes that already, I felt it was not really “my initial paper” anymore.

Also, I had to furnish lots of justifications of my choice of words which I deemed unnecessary and a bit weird, to be honest. One of the main issues had been my language (which nobody else has ever had a problem with in the past). Apparently, I am not “reflected” enough, whatever-the-hell that means… It went to a point where you were not even allowed to normally use any word anymore. You had to justify every choice of words, put any term which could possibly be misunderstood in quotation marks. Ambiguity is an inherent characteristic of language, folks. Sorry to have to break it to you. I wasn’t even really allowed to talk about my topic anymore (it was about superstition) because that is such a judgemental word. Science needs to be objective and free of judgement, blah blah. But I had stated about five times already that I don’t intend to judge any historical practices and just wanted to discuss religious deviance which was regarded as potentially superstitious. Honestly, I have hardly ever lived anything more annoying and frustrating than this.

To end this story, I have just received a rejection of my paper (after the draft for this post had already been done). They had sent out the paper for a third review, this time by a neutral other person. (And they, of course, hadn’t bothered telling me because why should they… It’s only a question of being polite and professional.) Since that person had criticized similar points than the other one and the atmosphere between me and the editors had gotten rather cold, they rejected me. Annoyingly, however, all of the reviews had stated they thought my paper was really good and interesting, except for the continuously problematic parts.

Reviewer 1 had criticized me using subjectively derogatory words to describe certain religious practices and “had used vocabulary worthy of conspiracy theories” (which I rather find to be a quite derogatory and subjective statement in itself). Reviewer 2 had criticized the presence of some ‘problematic terms’ which weren’t reflected upon enough, so I assume they must have concluded, I hadn’t made the changes they had asked for. Interestingly however, the words which had been criticized in the first review weren’t even present in that third version of the paper anymore since I had fully deleted the paragraph in question. So the criticism could not have possibly pertained to the same problem, even though the problem description / issue was a similar one. My view is that the new reviewer just had other preferences – which will probably always happen once you invite a new person into a discussion.

The same things were criticized in the paper, though the paper had been changed quite substantially between the three reviews. I felt I had responded to everything I had been asked to do. I am still at a loss of what the problem was in the end since both reviewers stated that the article was generally really interesting and they recommend its publication, if some minor changes are made. The changes I have made in this process were far from minor. I am now left feeling like this would have spun into an endless story hadn’t they put an end to it by rejecting me. I am not sure they knew what they wanted from me.

I am not the only one to feel like this about student journals either

You might think now that my rant on “student journals” is only due to my personal “fail stories”. Fair enough point. I respect that opinion. I probably wouldn’t believe it either without further proof to sugest the point is valid. I would love to say that my case is the only one. Since I really believe in the idea behind those “student journals”.

But I have heard equally disastrous, disappointing and unnerving stories from others as well. Papers ending up not being published after all, even though there had been no problem before and the author really needed this publication before a job application, etc.

Also, a professor I work with told me she was really disappointed because she wanted to look into these journals and support them and was treated in a most impolite way. Sentences in her paper had been changed without telling her by somebody who obviously didn’t understand her field of specialization very well, so they ended up not making any sense anymore.

Other friends of mine have similar stories to their portfolio.

Not an opportunity of a ‘quick paper’ but a lot of trouble

So, sadly, as much as I would like to encourage you to try those “student journals”, I really have to advise you to stay away from them. I can’t see one single advantage to you. The process is not easier than in any other journal. The editors who don’t get lots of contributions have “too much time” to spend on your paper and since they are not in the habit yet, you will probably end up as their lab rat (which clearly happened to me one time). They will take your paper apart more than senior editors probably would do but they don’t even really have the competence to back them up in this endevour.

Also, my hope of just getting a “quick paper” out using this approach did so not work. While the first paper was published in time, with the second one I wasn’t sure anymore whether the journal still wanted it after a whole year of back-and-forth. It ended up being rejected. After this year now, however, I have moved on to a new focus and don’t  currently have the time to rework it to submit it elsewhere. This is sad and stupid. A publication lying around for another year might not matter to a more senior researcher, but for my growing publication list, this is still a blow.  I had already been thinking about withdrawing the paper (which my professors had urged me to do due to lack of professionality from the editors) but I since had made so many changes already which the editors had specifically requested that I would have had to undo to hand it in anywhere else. So I kept hanging in even though professors from my circle of friends and colleagues strongly urged me to withdraw the paper straightaway at this unprofessional behaviour.

This is, honestly, a most ridiculous situation. These ‘young journals’ are supposed to be a source of empowerment and a safe space for new researchers. Yet in reality, they use their power to put pressure on you or let out their bad temper and frustration out at you.  They should be an opportunity for you to get taken just as seriously as a “grown-up” researcher and yet a reviewer talked about ‘grading my paper’. This didn’t feel exactly empowering to me, in any case. At least that was my experience and not only in one single case. In a third journal where I submitted, it seems they forgot about my paper and it’s been lying around for over a year now. Here as well I had already made tons of changes which will probably have been a waste of time in hindsight.

This opinion of mine is not pure conjecture either. I honestly received this pages-long angry email by one editor at one point shortly before publication was due. The person obviously was suffering from very high stress levels. I hadn’t done anything to provoke the aggression and the editor basically accused me of being ungrateful and said things like I didn’t appreciate how she worked for free, etc. (as though she was the only young researcher in the Humanities who ever worked for free… At that time, I worked 60h per week while being paid for 10. So thanks, but I really didn’t need a reminder to what it’s like…)

You really don’t need that. Try to find some professor or senior researcher who is willing to take care and really help you in your endeavour of getting you first publishing experience if you can. Submit to a journal they trust. Include them in all parts of the experience so they can help you should things go sideways. Steer clear from student journals.

To sum it up

If you do not yet have a Bachelor’s degree and think that you actually have something publication-worthy in the pipeline, “student journals” might be for you. Maybe even if you don’t have your Master’s degree yet, although you could probably already submit to most ‘normal journals’ by then. Once you have the possibility of submitting your work to a ‘real journal’, always choose the ‘real journal’. With blind peer review you should have the same chance of being accepted as everyone else.

Since you are not so far along in your studies yet, you also don’t have millions of papers to hand out. So I suggest you don’t “waste” your one good paper on a bad journal bad (in the way that it doesn’t have a good reputation and might not be perceived as a ‘real journal’). Your first publications are about building your CV’s publications list (see the post on how to build your publication list for young academics on this), so the choices you make matter way more than they will later on. Also, don’t submit your paper to a “student journal” if you need a ‘quick publication’. While no journal will guarantee a ‘quick publication’ (whatever that means), a journal which appears quarterly and is well established is far more likely to be able to “deliver” in this respect.

So, like I said, take what I have written with a grain of salt. The post is definitely coloured by my own bad experiences but since I myself have found it difficult to find information on how to get started publishing / building a publication list, I thought my experiences might be helpful and welcome to somebody. And while my experiences are definitely coloured by what happened to me, I submitted to three different such journals and none of the results were exactly pleasing, so I do have to conclude my experience must at least be kind of valid. I am very sad to have to say so, but I really regret submitting to student journals and will never do so again in the future. Mind you, I tried three different ones in three completely different fields (none of them DH). They basically all were similar. So please, if it’s your one good idea, have some self-respect and dare to submit it to the best journal in your field (especially if it’s the summary of your MA thesis, so the result from multiple months of work). If they don’t accept it, you can still scale down.

Best,

the Ninja

Fast typing LaTeX

I recently became aware of this post where somebody asked how you can become faster at typing LaTeX. Just a little post with a few recommendations.

Experience from constantly using LaTeX for everything

I have to say, I think it really gets better with experience. And experience from doing your everyday stuff in LaTeX (like to do lists, taking notes, etc.). Else you probably just won’t get enough experience to become really fast.

Raise awareness

But then again, slowing down might not be a bad thing if you’re supposed to produce high quality work. Using LaTeX, then, will force you to take the subconscious back into your conscious mind. Maybe not what you want when just quickly taking notes, but maybe something to reflect upon in the long term.

I also found that, since I don’t constantly use MS Word’s auto-correct anymore, I’m actually better at spelling and grammar (even though, as someone holding a degree in Latin, I probably never was bad in the first place).

However, I find it useful that LaTeX forces you to be more conscious on some stuff (like typing correctly instead of bad touch typing and relying on auto-correct to clean up your mess).

10 finger system touch typing

Quick typing generally comes down to correct 10 finger system touch typing (Zehnfingersystem being the German name, focusing on the fact that  you use all your ten fingers, whereas the English name touch typing focuses on the fact that you type by muscle memory and don’t look at the keyboard). So if you don’t know that already, please stop complaining about LaTeX. You’re probably super slow and make tons of mistakes, so don’t pretend LaTeX plays a big part in slowing you down.

The free open-source Tipp10 app is a great resource for learning touch typing (available for all distributions, your Linux package mangager will probably have it) . Especially as you can use it to target LaTeX-specific typing effectively since the program allows you to use your own texts for typing practice. This means, if you want to get better at typing LaTeX, you should create a “fake” document which contains tons of the commands you use most often, then add it to the app as a custom practice text and practice for 5 minutes daily (ideally before starting work as a “warm-up“). You will get better very quickly. Here is an example text I created for this purpose. Feel free to add what you need or remove what you don’t need.

This is what I would recommend for now,

Cheers,

the LaTeX Ninja

 

Buy me coffee!

If my content has helped you, donate 3€ to buy me coffee. Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

€3.00