Archives For Technology Posts

A couple of days ago, Peter Krautzberger sent me an email asking if I was interested in becoming an editor for Mathblogging.org. According to Mathblogging.org’s about page:

From research to recreational, from teaching to technology, from visual to virtual, hundreds of blogs and sites regularly write about mathematics in all its facets. For the longest time, there was no good way for readers to find the authors they enjoy and for authors to be found. We want to change that. We have collected over 700 blogs and other news sources in one place, and invite you to submit even more! Our goal is to be the best place to discover mathematical writing on the web.

Mathblogging.org is run by Samuel Coskey, Frederik von Heymann, and Peter. Felix Breuer also had a hand in the site’s creation. The current editors are Peter Honner, Fawn Nguyen, and Shecky Riemann.

Lately, I’ve been feeling stretched a bit thin, so I told Peter that I needed to think about it before deciding. I’ve been trying to be careful about the new projects I take on so that I don’t get in over my head. But…then I remembered the talk that Joe Gallian gave at the conclusion of my first Project NExT workshop in 2008. The theme of Joe’s talk (which he gives every year for Project NExT) is “just say yes.” His thesis is that by saying “yes” we open doors to new opportunities and by saying “no” we close ourselves off to what might have been. Okay, I’m sure Joe would admit that we shouldn’t say “yes” to everything, but I believe he would say that most of us say “no” too often.

I took Joe’s talk pretty seriously my first few years post PhD and I think it has worked out pretty darn well for me. There have been numerous times I thought that I should say “no” but followed Joe’s advice instead. Most of the time it has worked out for the best. A good example is when Ivars Peterson asked Angie Hodge and I to start blogging for the MAA. Actually, let me back up a notch. First, Nathan Carter suggested that I apply for the editor position at Math Horizons. I implemented Joe’s philosophy and talked Angie into applying with me as co-editors. Alas, we were not chosen and instead the committee selected the most awesome Dave Richeson. However, as a result of our application, Ivars approached Angie and I about starting up Math Ed Matters. Around this time, I was beginning a new position at Northern Arizona University and I was concerned that my tenure committee wouldn’t value this sort of work. I dragged my feet for a couple months, but eventually Joe’s voice in my head won out. Angie and I have only been blogging for a few months, but we certainly made the right decision. Lots of new opportunities have presented themselves as a result of the blog. I could go on and on about similar choices.

Okay, by now you’ve already guessed that I agreed to Peter’s offer. So, what does being an editor entail? I already keep up with quite a few math-related blogs, but now I just need to “star” the ones on mathblogging.org that I find the most interesting/enjoyable/useful/compelling and leave a brief comment about them. Doesn’t sound too bad. Of course, to be fair I should start reading a few more of the blogs that pass through.

Yesterday was my first day on the job and I already selected two recent blog posts for Editors’ Picks:

I’m looking forward to reading more excellent blog posts and seeing if Joe is right again.

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, yada, yada, yada. Each of these social networking sites has something to offer and I have accounts on most of them. However, I think it may be time to streamline. Increasingly, I feel pressed for time to do all the things that I need and want to do. There’s an endless amount of work-related stuff to do, but I also want to be a good father and husband. Moreover, if I don’t squeeze in time for exercise, I’m not very good at anything. I’m like a dog. If I don’t get in a walk, I might chew the furniture.

I currently have two accounts on Twitter: @danaernst and @IBLMath. Why two accounts? Most of my tweets are math-related, but not all of them. I created @IBLMath for two main reasons. First, I wanted to increase awareness of inquiry-based learning in mathematics. Second, I thought it was a good idea to have an account that was solely devoted to tweeting about math and teaching-related content. At the time of writing this post, I’ve tweeted 4,445 times from @danaernst, and according to How long have you been tweeting?, I made my first tweet on March 4, 2009. Twitter has been an amazing resource for me.

Then along came Google+, which launched in June of 2011. I don’t know the exact date that I joined, but it was within the first few weeks. I connected with quite a few academics early on and now I have a substantial network of people interested in mathematics, teaching, and technology. In fact, nearly all the people that I enjoy most on Twitter are also on G+. Since my network on G+ is so much larger than on Twitter, I often encounter content on G+ that I don’t see on Twitter, but I rarely see content on Twitter that doesn’t pop up on G+. Moreover, the interaction that happens on G+ is often much more substantial than what I’ve experienced on Twitter. I regularly cross-post content on Twitter and G+ and it’s not uncommon for one of my “popular” posts on G+ to see zero attention on Twitter.

I’ve been wondering for a while now whether maintaining my Twitter presence is worth my time. One of my weaknesses is that I’m not very good at doing things part-way. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. As a result of this, I find myself feeling anxious when I’m not caught up on surfing Twitter, G+, Facebook, etc. posts. The reality is that I don’t have time to even come close to keeping up. The rate of new content is overwhelming. My first semester at NAU has been successful, but I need to find ways to be even more efficient and effective at work, family, and play. In this vein, I’m looking for ways to trim unnecessary things from my life. I don’t plan to give up social media, but I think that I can save myself actual time and certainly some mental and emotional bandwidth by walking away from Twitter.

I’ll treat this as an experiment and see how it goes after a few months. I don’t think that I’ll miss it. I will likely continue to advertise my blog posts (from this blog and my Elevation Gain blog) on Twitter and respond to @mentions.

Inspired by a recent discussion on Facebook about accepting friend requests (on Facebook) from students, Matthew Leingang (Courant Institute), Ron Taylor (Berry College), and I decided to write a short article about the issue with the intention of submitting the article to MAA FOCUS. Also, I must give credit where credit is due. The idea for writing the article actually came from Karl-Dieter Crisman (Gordon College).

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to experiment with coauthoring a paper using GitHub. Since our paper about potential Facebook policies for teachers is going to be relatively short and simple, I figured that this would be a good project to experiment with on GitHub. In case you are wondering what the heck GitHub is, according to Wikipedia:

GitHub is a web-based hosting service for software development projects that use the Git revision control system. GitHub offers both paid plans for private repositories, and free accounts for open source projects.

Most people use GitHub for collaborating on software projects, but the service is becoming increasingly popular for hosting teaching materials, including open-source textbooks. I currently use GitHub to host a few of my inquiry-based learning (IBL) task sequences. For example, you can check out the LaTeX source for my IBL introduction to proof notes by going here.

If you’ve ever coauthored a paper with multiple authors, then you’ve probably lost track of all the emails and files flying around. I think using GitHub goes a long way to address many of the complications. Of course, the price to pay for this is that the process may seem “technologically advanced” for most users.

It is worth mentioning that SciGit has the potential to replace GitHub for coauthoring papers. According to their webpage:

SciGit is a collaboration system for researchers to work on the same paper with version control easily.

The only problem is that SciGit is not yet available. I’m looking forward to SciGit’s release and I’ll definitely be giving it a try once it is released into the wild.

Update: SciGit is now available for beta! To sign up, you can go here. At this time, there is only a Windows version of the desktop client available. However, the developer has told me that a Mac version is in the works. I’m looking forward to checking this out. I’d also like to here from others about there experience.

For most of my inquiry-based learning (IBL) proof-based courses, I typically assign two types of homework assignments:

1. Daily Homework
2. Weekly Homework

I’ll briefly explain each of these.

Daily Homework

The Daily Homework is assigned each class meeting, and students are expected to complete (or try their best to complete) each assignment before walking into the next class period. All assignments should be carefully, clearly, and cleanly written. Among other things, this means that the work should include proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. However, the work done on these assignments is not intended to be perfect. The Daily Homework generally consists of tasks (e.g., completing exercises, proving theorems) from the course notes. On the day that a homework assignment is due, the majority of the class period is devoted to students presenting some subset (maybe all) of their proposed solutions/proofs to the tasks that are due that day. Students are allowed (in fact, strongly encouraged!) to modify their written work in light of presentations made in class; however, they are required to use a felt tip pen, which I provide at the beginning of each class. Students can annotate their work as much as they like and there is no penalty for using the felt tip pen. Students submit their their work at the end of class and the assignment is graded on a $\checkmark$-system. Whether the student receives a $\checkmark-$, $\checkmark$, or $\checkmark+$ depends on how much work they had completed before they walked in the room. The felt tip pen strategy works amazingly well.

Weekly Homework

In addition to the Daily Homework, students are also required to submit two formally-written proofs each week. During week $n$, students submit any two problems marked with a $\star$ that were turned in during week $n-1$ for the Daily Homework. The $\star$-problems are typically a subset of the medium to difficult proofs. The students are required to submit a PDF of their write-ups, and in general, the Weekly Homework assignments are due on a non-class session day (so that they don’t interfere with the Daily Homework). One huge advantage of this approach is that students are forced to reflect on the previous week’s work and it allows them another opportunity to learn the material if they didn’t master it the firs time.

If you’d like to know more about my approach to Daily and Weekly Homework, as well as the felt tip pens, check out the slides for this talk. In the future, I plan to write a more extensive blog post about the advantages of the felt tip pens and the multiple rounds of revision that the Weekly Homework promotes.

Using LaTeX for the Weekly Homework

I either require or strongly encourage my students to type up their Weekly Homework assignments using LaTeX. In case you don’t already know, LaTeX (pronounced “lay-tech”, or sometimes “la-tech”) is a markup language that is the standard for typesetting mathematics (and other technical fields). Most people find it difficult to get started with LaTeX and my students are no exception. To minimize some of the initial difficulties, I encourage them to use writeLaTeX, which is an awesome and free online LaTeX editor. This way students do not need to worry about installing the LaTeX backend and an editor. One advantage to writeLaTeX is that my students can easily share their source documents with me. Whenever they are having difficulty, I can just take a look at their file and either make a comment right in the file or do a quick debug. Another way that I try to reduce the LaTeX start-up cost is by providing my students with a LaTeX Homework Template (see below).

This template is set up exactly how I want the Weekly Homework to look. I also provide a minimal amount of guidance, as well as some examples in the template. Here is what the resulting PDF looks like.

Using the template in writeLaTeX is as easy as clicking the link below. Try it!

Feel free to use the template and if you have ideas for improvements, I’d love to hear about them. Lastly, I’ve written a Quick LaTeX Guide to help my students get started with the actual writing of LaTeX.

Update June 2013: I originally encouraged my students to use ScribTeX, which seems to have joined forces with ShareLaTeX. However, I now have my students use writeLaTeX, which my students and I have been very happy with. I modified my original post to reflect my current use of writeLaTeX.

I don’t use vim very often, but when I do it would be handy to have some syntax highlighting. Over on Google+, Vincent Knight shared a link to a post on Geekology that describes how to turn on syntax highlighting and autoindenting for vim on a Mac. Here is a summary.

Open the Terminal and type the following commands.

cd /usr/share/vim
sudo vim vimrc


Press the i key and then paste the following lines of code just below the set backspace=2 line:

set ai                  " auto indenting
set history=100         " keep 100 lines of history
set ruler               " show the cursor position
syntax on               " syntax highlighting
set hlsearch            " highlight the last searched term
filetype plugin on      " use the file type plugins

" When editing a file, always jump to the last cursor position
\ if ! exists("g:leave_my_cursor_position_alone") |
\ if line("'"") > 0 && line ("'"") <= line("\$") |
\ exe "normal g'"" |
\ endif |
\ endif


Lastly, type Esc followed by :x. That’s it!

I’m a big fan of using the Mac productivity tool Alfred and I use Evernote to store all sorts of snippets of information. Alfred is free, but if you purchase the Power Pack, you gain the ability to add custom scripts via Alfred extensions. While browsing the extension gallery, I stumbled on the Evernote extension by Kristian Hellquist that allows you to use Alfred to create a note in Evernote with the subject and tags that you specify. However, using the default script, you cannot add content to your note via Alfred and Evernote does not come to the front.

Typically, when I want to create a new note in Evernote, I have something specific that I want to make a note about, and it seemed that having to then click on the note you just created in Evernote to add content defeated the purpose of using Alfred. Within a few hours of asking about this, Kristian was kind enough to create a new script that brings the note you just created to the front for you to add content to. To use this alternate script, copy Kristian’s gist found here and then update the original Evernote script by going to the Extensions tab of Alfred’s preferences.

Note: This post overlaps significantly with Mendeley’s blog post found here.

My current reference manager of choice is Mendeley, which is a free desktop and web solution designed for storing, annotating, and sharing research papers, discovering research data and collaborating online. It combines Mendeley Desktop, a PDF and reference management application (available for Mac, Linux, and Windows) with Mendeley Web, an online research paper management tool and social network for researchers. You can find a short YouTube video that describes what Mendeley is here.

For nearly all of my academic writing, I use LaTeX together with BibTeX. One of the many benefits of Mendeley is that it will automatically generate BibTeX files. However, at the time of writing this post (version 1.1.2 and earlier), integration with BibTeX is lacking in a few ways. In order for things to go smoothly, I suggest the following set up in Mendeley Desktop.

You want to uncheck the “Escape LaTeX special characters” box so that braces, backslashes, dollar signs, etc. don’t get clobbered by Mendeley when it generates the corresponding .bib files. You should choose “Create one BibTeX file per collection”. This generates one .bib file for each subcollection (folder or group) you create in Mendeley Desktop. If you don’t do this, Mendeley will create a duplicate entry in your synced .bib file for each entry appearing in a subcollection, which will in turn prevent LaTeX/BibTeX from compiling properly if you happen to cite one of the duplicate entries. I create a new subcollection for every document that I am writing that might require a bibliography.

Once you have got everything set up, it is really easy to incorporate Mendeley into your LaTeX writing workflow. If you want to cite a particular item, just click on it in Mendeley Desktop, hit “command/control-K” to copy the BibTeX citation key, then paste it into the appropriate location in your .tex file.

I’m currently writing a grant proposal and the narrative is supposed to be double-spaced. As with most of my writing, I’m using LaTeX. I’ve double-spaced a .tex document before, but I do it so infrequently that I needed to remind myself how do it. It seems the most common technique is to make use of the setspace package, which you can find here if you don’t already have it. Here are the steps necessary to double-space.

In the preamble of your document add the line usepackage{setspace}. In order to double-space your document, add the line doublespacing before begin{document}.

The setspace package also supports singlespacing, onehalfspacing, and even setstretch{1.5}, where you can change 1.5 to whatever you desire. In addition, you can make a block of text single-spaced in the middle of a double-spaced document by using begin{singlespace}stuff you want single-spacedend{singlespace}.