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Writing lines

When your kid is in early primary school, and they are still learning to write and spell, and they hate sitting still while other kids are doing fun stuff, then I have found the best consequence of unwanted behaviour is writing lines, a bit old school but it seems to work.

(1) It is a well-defined task so they know what they have to do to get away from me and back to what they want to do.

(2) It results in improved handwriting and spelling (it really does).

(3) There’s no threat of physical violence.

(4) Non-compliance just means more lines.

(5) They hate it so much it is an effective deterrent.

(6) Time out in their room just results in playing or reading.  Time out in a corner just results in other forms of disruption.

A typical line might be ‘I will not use my fists to communicate with my brother.’  Sometimes the lines serve to amuse us — ‘I ken there are times I should shut my big fat gob’ was inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men.

Clearly it only works if they eventually knuckle down and do the lines.  But then all consequences are like that.

A minor rant: We’ve used various techniques from various books and they all have the same problem — they work on kids who are well enough behaved to submit to the consequences (we avoid the word ‘punishment’).  Time out does not work on a kid who won’t stay there.  You spend all your time trying to keep them in place and then have to have a second-order set of consequences for not engaging with the first set.

Conclusion – Darren’s Law of Parenting Books: Parenting books for dealing with bad behaviour only work on kids that aren’t really all that bad anyway.

So just make ’em write lines and help their literacy and behaviour all at once.


Converting “On Second Thoughts. . .”: Changes of Mind as an Indication of Competing Knowledge Structures

A paper recently published by a couple of my colleagues was converted from a Word .docx file to a LaTeX file. We tried a whole bunch of the more common converters, and in the end could not get a good result without considerable manual labour. I have almost come to the conclusion that it is easier to just take the text as unformatted ASCII and add the formatting by hand.


The document, published at, looks at how questions in tests, in this case a very widely used diagnostic test from Physics, are not independent.  I have talked briefly about it before.

The text does not contain any figures, but contains several tables.  Tables are very rarely converted well by any of the usual tools.  I tried importing into LibreOffice then saving as LaTeX, and similarly with Abiwordword2latex was similar.  All got some things right, but all added enough stuff that I had to undo manually that the benefit was minor, especially because I had to fit the document into the journal’s document class (REVTeX 4.1, actually), which means that the preamble all had to be put together by hand.  So once I had to sort out the preamble manually, the tables manually, and fix much of the other text manually, I almost decided I might as well just get unformatted text out of Word and mark it up manually.  But in the end I used chunks of the LibreOffice converter output, cutting and pasting blocks of ‘good’ conversion in when it was sensible to do so and using manual conversion when it wasn’t.

A bit laborious.

I explored my options pretty thoroughly, converting the document in quite a few different ways, so I conclude that at this time none of the free and open conversion tools is really up to the task.  I can’t speak on the proprietary ones.



Oh well.

Getting to Grips With the Data

Can there be too much automation? Well, yes — but even in some apparently tedious tasks that we really don’t want to do by hand, automation can hide important details.

Some colleagues of mine are engaged in education research in Physics, and as part of that (and also as part of being good educators in general) they get their students to tackle the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), which gives an idea of their grasp of basic mechanics.

An FCI question

An FCI question (reproduced from A. Savinainen and P. Scott 2002 Phys. Educ. 37 45).

Recently, when going through responses to tests on paper rather than on-line, and entering the results into Excel manually, they noticed that one question (say, ‘A‘) was frequently answered correctly, only for the correct answer to be scrubbed out and a particular wrong one chosen.

Most on-line quizzes would not capture this, and many tests, including the FCI itself, are often delivered on-line these days.

It turned out that the question after this one (say, ‘B‘) was on a similar topic and was causing students to rethink their previous answers and change them from correct to wrong.  This caused a study of interaction between questions and a useful publication: ‘”On Second Thoughts. . . “: Changes of Mind as an Indication of Competing Knowledge Structures’ by Wilson and Low, soon to appear in The American Journal of Physics, one of the top Physics Education journals.

In research, when we are in a sense looking for the unlooked-for, a little less automation, a little more time close to the data, even if it is tedious, may be just what we need.



My LaTeX Primer

Well, I’ve been working on an article about LaTeX for a newsletter, and I thought a nice way of illustrating it would be to make a little document that implements some of the functionality. There’s a lot of functionality. The document does the usual stuff — indexing, glossary, bibliography, cross-referencing, images, tables, maths. It talks about editors and GUIs, compiling documents and tracking changes.

A figure from the document, based on an example in <i>gnuplot Cookbook</i> by Lee Phillips (Packt Publishing 2012).

A figure from the document, based on an example in gnuplot Cookbook by Lee Phillips (Packt Publishing 2012).

As is always the case with these things, it took a lot longer than I had planned, but on the other hand I learned a lot.  I had fun playing with \typein and then using the user’s response to choose fonts and insert different bits of content.

The source files needed to compile the document are zipped into and can be found at my freebie web page. The accompanying PDF (cse_example_tx.pdf) is not the same as the version in the zip because my free server only lets me upload files < 256kB in size, and later versions got too big…

I hope it proves of some use to someone.



Out of My Depth: write|edit|index 2015

This year Canberra hosted write|edit|index, the 2105 Australian Conference for Editors, Indexers and Publishing Professionals.  Though not a publishing professional (I’ve produced a little bit of content from time to time…), I attended to learn about the arts in question.  It was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve been to — and it was right in my own back yard.  I learned an enormous amount.

Postcard advertising the next IPEd National Editors Conference, the successor to write|edit|index 2015.

Postcard advertising the next IPEd National Editors Conference, the successor to write|edit|index 2015.

The first thing I learned were that my grasp of grammar are inadequate.  The second thing was that you can be an editor if you are good enough to get and keep the business.

Editors and indexers are a diverse bunch.  Many are freelancers — self-reliant business people.  Any given editor may have specialised in editing fiction, whipping documents into shape for government departments, fixing the English found in scientific papers, who knows.  This was reflected in the range of topics, from continuity in the novel through using markup languages to indexing texts in South Africa.

As a Physicist I found the gender balance unfamiliar.  At a session by Sarah JH Fletcher (‘Everything in its right place: fiction continuity’), I counted about 45 females and 3 males, including myself.  Even at a Physics meeting I would expect the audience to be more evenly split than that — say 40M:8F.  The ratio was most pronounced in sessions to do with editing fiction, but was always tipped that way.

I can’t help but wonder why.  Does the freelance, flexible nature of much of editing and indexing work better with the career interruptions caused by family life?  (Despite change, this is still likely to impact on women more strongly than on men.)  I know many female academics whose careers suffered due to pregnancy.  Are women simply better with words?  Are men too precious to work hard on somebody else’s words without (much? enough?) kudos?

The sessions were for the most part extremely sensible and useful.  The panel discussion on ‘Valuing our professions’ got down to cold hard numbers — talking about dollars per hour and working out your businesses operating expenses.

And I liked their banner head…



I’d do it again.

Picture Books and Technical Papers

So I am a couple of weeks into a Grad. Dip. (Professional Writing) at University of Canberra…  My focus is on editing, which means one of my subjects is called Writing For Young People (?).

H in my alphabet.

H in my alphabet.

So far we’ve worked on ABC books, picture books, and children’s poems.

It’s a long way from diffuse scattering from organic molecular crystals, at least at first glance.  Writing for scientists who have PhDs and kids who can’t read is not as different as one might think.  The lecturer (Tony Eaton) has been very clear that in a picture book the words must not simply recapitulate the pictures, and that there needs to be a strong focus on the story and a willingness to pare away unnecessary detail, and to rephrase for clarity, and to collaborate and if necessary let the collaborator (illustrator, in the case of a picture book) represent ‘your’ ideas in ways you did not expect, and perhaps don’t even agree with; you need to be able to let go of the work.

When writing a paper I do expend some words drawing out the meaning of the figures, so there is a difference there, but the other exhortations do apply.  Precision is important.  Also, in both cases it helps to look at the work from a point of view not your own to make sure you have explained enough, but not too much.  And in science it is good to be dispassionate enough to let a collaborator reinterpret some data, criticise the reasoning, represent data in a different manner.  Both forms combine pictures and words in an attempt to be efficient and clear in their communication.

O is for ooze.

O is for ooze.

(I considered titling this posting ‘Blogger makes tenuous linkages in order to generate blog post’, but that applies to most of my entries anyway.)


Quote of the Day: “there is a lot of dull, hard work to be done.”

Cover of <i>Magnets</i> by Francis Bitter.

Cover of Magnets by Francis Bitter.

Before you can read or write stories you must learn spelling and grammar; before you can play a sonata on the piano you must learn scales, harmony, and musical notation; and before you can go into a laboratory and make an intelligent stab at discovering something new, there is a lot of dull, hard work to be done.  No one escapes that.

Francis Bitter, Magnets: The Education of a Physicist


New ideas

“Sometimes the best way to generate new ideas is to go out and learn something.”

Bill Watterson

The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book

My contribution to a thing at Questacon

It was called ‘Night Rocks After Dark‘ and I was trying to make crystallography interactive.

We assembled some hair. (See this link.) Two laser pointers, no higher than class 2, a CD, an LP (someone asked me what it meant — ‘long player’), a 78 and a 45.

Songs to learn by

Cover of 78rpm record…

Some balls, lots of balls, some blocks, not so many but still quite a few. I talked about stacking balls to make hexagonal close packed and face centred cubic structures, talked about how you can’t just ‘zoom in’ forever to see how atoms are arranged, which leads into diffraction as a way to see the too-small-to-see, and a proof of concept by looking at diffraction from CD, records and hair.

Simple gear to measure width of hair.

Simple gear to measure width of hair.

Talked about how important structure is — graphite and diamond are both carbon, for example (had models).  Would not want to use powdered diamond as a lubricant…

Diamond and graphite.

Diamond and graphite.

Talked about how when you stack up cubes you can only make faces with certain angles, which was some of the first evidence that solids were made of unit cells.

Cubes to make a pyramid.

Cubes to make a pyramid.

Note: There are no people in the pictures not because I got no interest but because it is not legally simple to use pictures taken in a place like Questacon of people who may not want their images published.

I got some interest. Not a massive amount, but enough that I gave up counting.
A couple of visitors were very interested, and the balance was not bad between having too many people to really engage with properly (since it was very much a hands-on set up) and too few to keep me busy.

Would have been nice if there were a few more, but it was still worthwhile.

The crew at Questacon are enthusiastic and helpful, and it was a pleasure working with them. I’d like particularly to thank David Cannell and Patrick Helean.