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Is it better to go off-line when teaching?

Students, just like most of us including me, are too distractible, especially younger ones lacking self discipline, and by younger I mean first year university, not genuinely young. These days we put the content and the tutorial questions on the Learning Management System (LMS, really just a website) and we tell them to use the LMS to access the questions and the supporting materials and such. Once upon a time they’d just get a bunch of photocopies (‘photostats’) or before that roneos (mimeographs) or just “copy this down off the board.” I’m not pining for the past, I’m trying to work out how we can combine the best of then and now.

What happened then was we’d come to class having not looked at anything beforehand, we’d copy down a bunch of questions or question numbers off the blackboard (it wasn’t a whiteboard) like ‘Ch 8 Q 12-18’) then we’d have the book open in front of us and we’d whisper to each other while we were supposed to be working out the answers. Hmm.

What happens now is this:

They come to class having not looked at anything beforehand (just like in the old days), because the know they can access it when they get there (we knew we’d be given it when we got there, back in the day, so no difference there). But, and this is different now, they then spend ten minutes getting onto the university network and getting distracted by Facebook or whatever and don’t download the questions until the tutorial is half over. Then they get out their notebook (or tablet and stylus) and read the question and… check their messages. Then they show the guy sitting next to them a cat video. Then they laugh and eat some Skittles (fine, fine, that is not the internet’s fault), then they look at Pinterest or for all I know Tinder, and then I ask them how they’re going and they mumble and we’re over half way through now and they have written down a few bits of data pertaining to the first question and that’s it.

Okay, maybe I’m overstating, but I have seen it happen that way. I’m not just fighting any innate apathy or disinterest (or depression or sense of futility) to get them to do the work, I am fighting the single most interesting thing the human race has ever constructed — a world wide distraction machine that has everything on it and available at the touch of a screen.

At best, even when they are doing some physics or mathematics, their attention is divided — they are always ready to pounce on an alert from whatever bit of social media they use, so their brain is never really thinking about the questions we give them to (we hope) help them learn.

Now, in the past when you copied a question off the board, it went in your eyes, through your brain and out your fingers onto the paper. I’m not sure that’s much better than not engaging with it at all, but it can’t be worse. You could only really talk to the people either side of you, just as students can now, so there were by definition fewer distractions because now there are all the ones I had as a student plus smart phones, so at the very least students now have more distractions. Do they deal with them better than I used to? Valid question. Maybe these days they have extra information, extra connectivity, and the ability to use that without being consumed by it.

I’m not sure.

I started thinking about this post while I stood there watching students flick away from Snapchat (or whatever it was) and back to the LMS whenever they saw me coming. A few were able to use the ‘net to find useful information, or a website with some helpful content, and that’s good because a working scientist or problem solver (engineer, IT, whatever) does just that, calling on the info around them as well as what they know. But those students were a small minority.

I recall thinking how I would really, really like to given them all a paper copy of the questions or, better, ask them to bring their own copies (then at least they would have looked at it to the extent of downloading and printing it off and getting it from the printer with their own actual physical fingers before they got there — does that count as ‘engagement’?), and then use just their notebook, their bog basic calculator and their textbook (they still exist, they do!) to tackle the problems.

I don’t say the web is useless. It is great for communication, for extra activities and resources. They can use the web to access the material easily and flexibly when they are not in my class. I use it to distribute videos to buttress the material, to direct them to external resources, though Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics is getting a little behind the zeitgeist now… The WWW ought to be great for collaboration, for ready access to what the students have not internalised. For simulations, for VR, for virtual laboratories, for Skype visits to major laboratories, for feedback, for interaction, for… the sky is the limit.

But not if you can’t sit still long enough to actually do it.

We’ve tried to engage the students to make them want to be there. I mean, that should solve everything. And there’s always a few who do want to be there and  that’s great, they learn almost regardless of what the teachers do. But some students are in the class because they have been told to be there, because the subject is a prerequisite for what the really want, because they thought they would like it and now it’s too late to drop out without recording a fail, whatever. By giving them the option to more easily be mentally elsewhere when they have not developed the self-discipline to choose to do what needs to be done, I’m not sure we’re helping. I wonder if more distraction-free classroom time would have its benefits as part of a broader suite of learning opportunities? Some of the environments would use all the tech at our disposal, and some would just have the student and their brain and the stuff to be tackled.

I just want the best of both worlds; is that too much to ask?


Old fart, I am.

Why I Dislike Metrics

Metrics are used to measure a researcher’s output. How many publications? Patents? Students? Where are they publishing? Are they being cited? How many dollars in grants are they pulling in?

It’s tricky, because researchers at universities do need to be held accountable for the money invested in them — and the opportunity given to them that may have been given to another. Yet the outcomes of research can be diffuse, slow to materialise and hard to evaluate. A great conceptual breakthrough may have little impact initially. The investigator may have been fired by the time it is recognised. How does a non-expert administrator (who holds the purse strings) distinguish between a researcher who is ahead of the curve, and so not being cited because there are few others working on similar ideas, and one who is poorly cited because they are simply dull? Both are likely to have a tough time getting grant money, too.

Such an administrator falls back on metrics. Impact factors, grant dollars accrued, and so on. Complex formulas are developed. So much for a publication in one of these journals, less for one in these; citation rates are multiplied by this and divided by that, papers with a lot of authors [are|are not] (choose one) down-rated…and when government agencies that dole out grant money choose a particular metric, there’s really no choice.

Just looking at publications, once sheer numbers was the ‘in’ thing. Then it was citations. Then the H-index, the M-index, the insert-your-own-clever-metric-here-index, who knows. Now there are scores that mean publications in lower-ranked journals will actually count against a researcher, such that when comparing two researchers, one with four papers in ‘top’ journals and one with four in top and three in middle, the latter would actually be penalised relative to the first.

I cannot understand how this can be considered equitable, reasonable or sensible. I recognise that it is better to have high impact than low. I recognise that staff who consistently fail to have high impact need to improve that record. I have no problem with that. But the idea that a tail of papers in lower ranked journals is to be penalised is short-sighted, counter-productive and shows a lack of understanding about how science works. I will not speak for other fields.

(1) If I have a postgraduate student, or even an honours student, who had produced a nice result, a novel result, but not a high-impact result, I must now deny them the right to publish that result and build their publication record. They will finish their studies with fewer papers, less experience in writing up their work, a poor publication record, and less chance of employment. Writing for publication is a valuable part of a student’s training. By publishing a (possibly minor) paper extracted from their thesis before the thesis is submitted, a scholar gets feedback on their work and their writing ability from a wide audience, begins to build a profile, and can be more confident that the thesis will be passed because a component of it has already passed peer review.

(2) It would be easy for any such rules to be biased against staff publishing in certain areas. Who decides what is a ‘top’ journal? How is this harmonised across fields? Some fields are oddly replete with high-ranking journals and some have a dearth. This needs to be recognised.

(3) Science is a dialogue, a discussion. Many important results come from bringing together many small results. By forcing staff to only publish their highest-impact work, many results that might be useful to other workers in the field will never see the light of day, will never contribute to the debate. This holds back the field. To give a simple example, databases like the Inorganic Crystal Structure Database are populated by thousands of individually minor results. Most of these were not published in high-impact journals, yet data mining across that database and others has produced powerful results that are of great value. Great cathedrals can be made from many small bricks. This policy prevents those bricks from accumulating. It works against the fundamental (okay, and idealised) nature of science as a transparent, collaborative enterprise.

(4)  Building of collaborations will be inhibited. If I have a colleague at a university or facility (like a synchrotron, say) who is not subject to the same rules, they will quite reasonably say that a piece of work may not be ‘high-impact’, but is worth publishing nonetheless, and I will have to either accept the impact on my own record or deny publication. That is hardly a great way to build a relationship.

(5) Metrics have a habit of being applied retrospectively. Evaluating my performance in 2015 or 2016 (or even further back) against criteria that were not in force or even available at the time is simply unethical. If organisations are going to use metrics, it is because they want to (a) select staff that are performing at a high level and (b) encourage staff to perform at what is considered to be a high level. Evaluating staff who have been trying to satisfy one regime against totally new criteria is unfair and unreasonable, yet happens all the time. There need to be grandfather clauses.

I fully agree that we need to do high-impact science. I fully agree that staff need to be encouraged to publish in top journals. But actively precluding publishing in lesser, but still sound, journals is short-sighted and dangerous, and an example of how the careless use of metrics is destructive. Perhaps metrics are a necessary evil, but I have yet to see whether they do more good than harm.


Pontification over.

nu and vee, I and l — design of physics books and modern fads for fonts


As someone working in a technical field, I often feel like designers do not really appreciate the subtleties of notation and how to make it clear. In the title of this post, ‘I and l’ is upper case ‘eye’ and lower case ‘el’. Not that you can tell.

For example, because so many symbols are used, formulas can often contain symbols which might be mistaken for each other. The classic example is…ilb1

and here is the same formula using some sans serif fonts, using Microsoft Word…


Now, this is not to criticise these fonts. They are just not designed for this job. It is the chooser of the font who is being a wee bit silly if these fonts are used in a mathematical document. An even trickier example is…


which I have produced in LaTeX, and the nu and vee are well-differentiated, but that is because the font was designed by someone (Knuth) with the express purpose of laying out mathematics.

If I was able to give advice to anyone out there designing a text with mathematics in it, it would be to look at the two letter/symbol pairs I have shown here, and make sure they can be told apart. If not, the font choice is a poor one and needs to be changed. And what is fashionable at the moment is irrelevant beside the need for clarity and the fight against ambiguity and lack of precision.


Rant over.

Reink sample: A few weeks later

Just posting a sample of text from reinked ribbon a week or two after doing it. Looks OK to me.


Small sample. Real colour. Low res.

Small sample. Real colour. Low res.


Hi res, well, 300dpi anyway.

Hi res, well, 300dpi anyway. On used paper, so there is some show-through.

So, it’s not very blue but it is blue. It is pretty even, and has actually improved since I did it. And it has had plenty of time to dry out and it hasn’t, even the bit of ribbon near the paper and which is exposed to the air. Maybe if I left the machine unused for weeks it would dry out, but so far it looks like the glycerine works.

Time wasters.

Ignorant reflections on US politics

But There’ve been some comments in the light of the recent US election about reforming/abolishing the electoral college — after all, apparently, like Gore in 2000, Clinton got more votes but they were in the wrong places and so Trump won. Votes in less populous states count more, and so on.

I would argue, based on what I’ve read and seen, that there are more important things. The US needs an electoral commission, independent of Federal and State governments, that makes sure polling booths are equally available to all groups across the country. Voting systems need to be uniform. There need to be as many booths in non-white communities as in white, for example, and they need to be open. It needs to be easy to vote by post, in advance and from overseas. Recall Florida 2000 — Federal votes need to be immune from state-based interests.

That is a far bigger factor than the EC. I mean, sure, reform that — but you need to fix the bigger problems first. It needs to be easier to vote, equally easy everywhere. Once everyone gets to vote under a more uniform system, then you can get the inputs into the EC system to be more representative. At the moment the EC is GIGO, Fix the garbage going in first.

Second, once you’ve made it easy for everyone to vote, you would (ideally, though this will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever happen) introduce what I call ‘compulsory attendance’. Put simply, you can fail to vote if you want to, but you have to show up (or postal vote or whatever) and tick the Brewster’s Millions box (draw a funny face on the ballot paper, whatever) or the Feds come after you. Failing to vote through apathy, or showing up and choosing not to vote for anybody because they all suck are two very different things, and send two very different messages, and what it does — and this is very important — is it removes the effect of voter turnout. Getting out the vote is discounted as a factor. That means there can be more focus on policy and genuine comparison of the parties. And you have to appeal to a wider range of voters, which tends to cut down on the more extreme ideas like Mexican walls. it is not undemocratic, because you do not have to vote, you just have to actually choose to not vote, rather than just be lazy.

But there’s no way you can have a law like that until everyone has an equal chance to vote, and right now that’s not the case.

Reinking a typewriter ribbon II: My crazy experiments yield something

This follows on from part I.

So the next thing to do was get a clean glass jar, drop in twenty or so drops of ink and one of glycerine, then mix. Well, here is a numbered list of things:

(1) I made up a small jig to hold two spools. The spools were not parallel enough, but it was okay for a first pass.

Do a little jig.

Do a little jig. I just wound the spools by hand.

(2) Between the spools I put a stamp pad, and I loaded the stamp pad with some Artline stamp pad ink that had been mixed with glycerine, the latter simply bought from a supermarket, from the cake-making aisle. The ratio of ink to glycerine was about 10:1, possibly richer in ink than that.



(3) I used a glass jar held on its side to push the ribbon against the pad as I wound the ribbon from one spool to the other. I recharged the pad a couple of times on the way.

(4) When I was done I dropped a little excess ink on the tightly-wound spool and let it soak in, just because I had some left. I wanted to see if the glycerine stopped the ink from drying out too quickly, so it was better to err on the side of having extra ink, so that I could be sure that a simple lack of ink was not the problem.

(5) I note that the ribbon is quite old (metal spools) and rather frayed which leads to stray strands of nylon flopping around and giving unwanted spidery lines on the page. Can’t blame the reinking for that.

(6) I found that immediately after reinking it worked pretty well. An hour later it still worked just as well. Next day even the exposed bit of ribbon was still usable, so it seems to work! I seem to have put too much ink into the ribbon, and not as uniform as I would have liked, so probably not much good for serious work, but for a few notes and whatnot it would be fine, and with a bit of trial and error I think I’ll be able to get ribbons that can do almost a well as a bought one, and in some funky colours. Can even experiment with buying a lightweight half inch nylon ribbon and inking it.

Not exactly brilliant, but a good place to start.

Not exactly brilliant, but a good place to start. Scan is b&w so not blue at all.

I am wondering if a different brand of ink — Horse brand comes to mind — would not need the glycerine added. I’d be interested to hear.

Live and don’t learn.

NaNoWriMo 2016: InNoReMo

Well, I posted on NaNoWriMo in 2014 and 2015 so I thought I ought to in 2016 even though I’m not doing it this year. Why not do it this year?…

…Because I already don’t revise and rewrite enough. I have done very little with the 100,000 words that are the legacy of he last two years, and while you can’t polish a turd, I need to ensure that they are irredeemable before I erase them from existence and churn out more verbiage. And if they are not irredeemable I should do some work on them.

So, for me this is not NaNoWriMo, it is perhaps NaNoRewriMo. And given that the event it now international, it should really be InNoRewriMo, but that is even less pronounceable than the original. ‘InNoReMo’?

(Note to event organisers in the USA: ‘The USA’ is not synonymous with ‘the world’. Events that happen outside the USA are not ‘national’ USA events, and when only teams from the USA are eligible to compete, it is not a ‘World Series’.)

I stand by my conclusion that the event has some value but only for people who have reasonable expectations. Should one of the 50k blodges of text I blatted out in previous years turn into something decent, the event will have done something worthwhile for me. Since I wrote them largely to gain some idea of how I can handle a longer narrative, I got some useful experience. Since I did not write them expecting to produce salable copy, I was not disappointed when I did indeed produce drek.

But that’s enough drek for now.



Reinking a typewriter ribbon: My crazy experiments

So first I needed some stamp pad ink. I got that at TCF in Canberra. They sell Artline stamp pad ink in 50 cc bottles for about (at time of going to press!) $A6.00 each, which is very reasonable. Most excitingly, it comes in a range of colours — blue, black, red, green and violet. Fantastic. I would like to be able to type in green in particular. I could buy a ribbon, and not for much money, and some nice colours are available, but I’d rather do an experiment first. Now, when I bought my Olympia, it came with a completely dead ribbon. A two-colour ribbon, the customary red and black. It was very dead, though on two nice pressed-metal spools. I also had a nearly-as-dead one on plastic spools. I kept them both for experiments…

A couple of plastic spools.

A couple of plastic spools.

Now, plainly you should always reink a ribbon with the colour it was originally. That would essentially restrict me to reinking in black and tossing out the two-colour ribbons. But the ink is only $6, and the ribbons are useless anyway, so a better idea is to monkey around first.

Reading around the web, it is clear that there are essentially two schools of thought on reinking a ribbon (assuming you are going to bother at all). First, some just say wind it onto a spool as tightly as you can, so that it is a sort of single mass of nylon, put ‘some’ ink on it and let it rest, possibly rotating it periodically, to let the ink spread through the ribbon via capillary motion. The other method talks about inking a stamp pad, laying the ribbon on the pad, laying a weight on the ribbon and pulling the ribbon across the pad under the weight. This on the surface sounds more convincing, but also more effort. And I only have one stamp pad and it is purple/violet, not that that would be a bad colour to have for a ribbon.

So, what I am going to find out initially is: does the lazy method work, and does it work on a ribbon that used to be two-colour but is very dried out? Some articles talk about rejuvenating ribbons using a spray of WD40, but I want to steer clear of those kinds of solvent chemicals for now. That will come along if it looks like the ribbon won’t wet properly.

Anyway, I wound the ribbon onto one spool, keeping it under tension just with my fingers. (Using very dry but two-colour ribbon, so may make a horrible mess.) I started with just a few drops of ink, since I had no idea of quantity, but that did very little. So more and more, but the ribbon was blotchy, as if the ink was not spreading enough. Tried adding a few drops, rotating ribbon a few degrees, and repeating until a full circle. Left ink to spread for some hours. Looked unchanged, as if it had not spread. I am thinking it is the wrong ink — it seems to wash out in water, which suggests it will dry off too fast. This was confirmed when the ribbon that was exposed to air (the bit between the spools, when I put it on the typewriter) was a different colour (blue) to the eye, but when I tried to type on it after a few hours it gave me the same almost-invisible red and black the ribbon had had before I dyed it.

In other words, the ink was drying out and ceasing to do anything except crufty up the ribbon.

So the experiment was dead, except I tried one more thing. Even though I knew the ribbon would not keep, I tried making a wooden frame to hold the spools, placing a well-inked stamp pad between the two spools and winding the ribbon from one spool to the other while pressing the ribbon against the stamp pad with the back of a wooden spoon. Visually, the ribbon looked far more uniformly inked, and when I went to use it right after the test, apart from getting ink on everything when I threaded it on the typewriter, it worked quite well — too dark, if anything.

Hence, I have the following conclusions: If I try this again, I’ll research the ink I use better first (I had read on the web that stamp ink was the way to go, but I assume not all inks are equal). Also, I’ll make an improved version of my wooden frame and use the stamp pad method rather than just expecting the ink to spread.

Next: glycerine.

‘pod’ is an interesting word because it has a two-fold rotation axis.

Live and learn.

Live and learn.


My Fortran rotating star and cost of screen output.

Ignore this post.

Got a Fortran program that does some numerical work and I just have it outputting a single character (‘-‘) to the screen each cycle, so I know it’s ticking along. It looks like this, sort of:

-------------------------------> done
Whoa! Exciting.

Whoa! Exciting. This was made using gifsicle.

But I thought that was ugly, so I’ve got something much nicer now. You know how in some text-based programs the fact that it has not completely locked up is shown by having little rotating bar, made just by printing |, /, -, and \ in the same place one after the other? Well, this is one way to do it in Fortran (note, just a snippet, not a working program):

! declare array 'star()'

       character,dimension(1) :: star(4)     

       star(1) = '|'
       star(2) = '/'
       star(3) = '-'
       star(4) = '\'

!other code...

       do iloop=1,nloop
!content of loop...
       end do

So all that this does is write an ‘achar(8)’ character to make the output backspace, use “advance=’no'” to avoid adding a line return, and use ‘mod’ to run through the four characters in the array over and over again.

‘achar(13)’ also works but only if you want to return to the beginning of the line and overwrite everything.

While thinking about this, I wondered: The loop is fairly big (searches some big arrays, does some calculations, works out an energy in a Monte Carlo simulation, that sort of thing) and so since this starry thing is the only screen output, I was wondering — how much does it cost in runtime?

using Gfortran, with -O2 optimisation. With and without the above ‘write’ statement, times are:


 $ time ./Dom2016G_tests < inputsG 

real	2m50.757s
user	1m57.032s
sys	0m1.616s


real	2m49.191s
user	1m56.895s
sys	0m1.587s

So there we have it, a time cost (looking at the ‘user’ time) of less than 0.2s, and only about 0.1%. So I think I’ll keep it. It looks nice.

Oh, and making the animated gif: I made four little bitmaps by screen grabs from LibreOffice, all the same size, and called them a1.gif, a2.gif a3.gif and a4.gif. Then just this command line (I put loopcount in to stop it after a finite number of loops. –loop and it goes forever…):

gifsicle --loopcount=100 -d 30  a?.gif > star.gif








Productive For Whom? The Productivity Commission and Copyright in Australia.

So some months ago the Productivity Commission of the Australian Government released a draft report on ‘Intellectual Property Arrangements‘. The summary of recommendations can, as of October 2016 when I write this, at least, be found here:

It suggests that copyright should expire much sooner…

DRAFT FINDING 4.2 While hard to pinpoint an optimal copyright term, a more reasonable estimate would be closer to 15 to 25 years after creation; considerably less than 70 years after death.

Many books are still valuable properties of the authors at 15 years out. An author writes a book at 25 and loses their own rights to it when still only 40 years old? Under such a recommendation, once a book is 15 years old, the publisher (any publisher?) can make money from it, a bookseller, a wholesaler, Amazon (poor, living-on-the-breadline Amazon) can make money from it, but not the person who wrote it. Madness. At least let them own it until they die. I agree, 70 years past death is a bit generous (is that the Walt Disney provision?) but at least let an author own their own work while they’re alive.

How about this one:

DRAFT RECOMMENDATION 5.2 The Australian Government should repeal parallel import restrictions for books in order for the reform to take effect no later than the end of 2017.

So while the UK and the USA and nearly every other major market in the world has such restrictions, we should remove them, handicapping our own industry. This one does make sense in one perverse way; we have already killed off manufacturing in Australia, and are currently in the process of killing off agriculture, by opening up our market to other countries who do not open up to us. No, of course I am joking; this one does not make sense. It might make books a little cheaper (though I doubt it. I can’t see the handful of big publishers (who such a change would put in an even more powerful position) passing on any savings; I don’t think there is real competition), but it will mean that Australian stories are harder to find at any price. Now, a significant amount of what the report suggests is not unreasonable, but some things are untenable. I wrote a submission to the commission, on the draft report, which I discovered is available freely on the web Please ignore the typo in the second paragraph (winces). Since it is freely available, I reproduce it below, because I can.



May 23, 2016

To whom it may concern:

I’d like to address the issues of copyright and parallel imports, though I am not a commercial author, editor or publisher or working in the industry at all.

Lifting of parallel import restrictions will reduce the number of locally made, written and published books. The case of New Zealand makes this clear, where multinational publishers have closed NZ offices. Since major players like the USA have parallel import restrictions, it is not like we are even creating a level playing field. It may be time to open an international dialogue about PIR, it is not time for self-destructive unilateral action. Unless we like the idea of local voices being even more maginalised.

As to ‘DRAFT FINDING 4.2’, this is clearly a discouragement to create. It is also absurdly inequitable. It may be true that most works have a short commercial life, but this is far from universal. How can the commission simply assume that all books have the same pattern of sales? Many books go through multiple editions over twenty, thirty or more years, especially in technical fields. Successful books by living authors remain in print for decades. Why after 15 or even 25 years is it acceptable for a publisher to make money from a book but not the author? What gives the publisher more rights than the actual originator and creator of the work? This priorities are, well, backwards.

And if an author does not want a book back in print, they need to keep that right, too. An author’s reputation is a major asset. Allowing publication of early, inferior works, or of works that the author no longer believes in, against the author’s wishes, has the potential to damage their reputation and hence livelihood. One can easily imagine a well-resourced publisher putting a non-copyright version of an early work up against a newer book by the same author, capitalising on the publication of the new book, but paying no royalties and possibly muddying the waters and reducing sales of the new book, which after all has to pay royalties where the out-of-copyright edition does not. That is not equitable. Maybe it is or is not a bad financial decision for an author to not allow a work back into print – but it must be their decision.

Just because it is easy to reproduce a work, especially in the electronic age, does not make it right. It is easy to slap a baby; that does not make it right. We download stuff for free all the time, legally and easily. We must guard against the attitude that we should get stuff for free just because it is easy.

Productivity includes ensuring that the creators have a position from which to create, otherwise there is no industry, no productivity. While it may be true that artists and writers are driven to express themselves, that does not mean laws should be changed to make them easier to exploit. If they cannot make a living from their work, they will do it part time or not at all, and we will all be the poorer.

Perhaps the pendulum needs to swing, but in this case it is swinging too far.

Best wishes

Darren Goossens



Shouting at the void.