Right Skill, Right Time

OK, first of all, let me say that there exist few better ways to procrastinate than reading an essay on time management. Terry Tao has lots of suggestions; following a fraction of them would probably make me a better human being. One item, though, is worth special attention:

It also makes good sense to invest a serious amount of time and effort into learning any skill that you are likely to use repeatedly in the future. A good example in mathematics is LaTeX: if you plan to write a lot of papers, it makes sense to go beyond the bare minimum of skill needed to jerry-rig whatever you need to write your paper, and go out and seriously learn how to make tables, figures, arrays, etc. Recently I’ve been playing with using prerecorded macros to type out a standard block of LaTeX code (e.g. \begin{theorem} … \end{theorem} \begin{proof} … \end{proof}) in a few keystrokes; the actual time saved per instance is probably minimal, but it presumably adds up over time, and in any event feels like you’re being efficient, which is good for morale (which becomes important when writing a long paper).

The risk is that you might end up a freak like me: after you’ve defined a few macros for moments and cumulants and partial derivatives, you get bitten by a radioactive backslash key and start typing all your class notes in LaTeX while the professor is lecturing. That aside, thinking about the proper time to learn these “accessory skills” puts me in the mood for a rant. (Well, what doesn’t?)

MIT did an exasperating thing with its undergraduate physics programme shortly before my time. The way I heard the story, they’d been afraid of losing students to other majors, so they dumbed down the sophomore-year classes (virtually excising Lagrangian mechanics, for example). We were left with a “waves and vibrations” class which was rather a junk drawer of different examples; a quantum-mechanics course which lacked guts and thus forsook glory; a decent introduction to statistical mechanics; and a relativity class which, hamstrung by fear of sophistication, also suffered because it lacked a singing Max Tegmark.

Whatever the historical root cause, we were definitely ill prepared for junior year, which featured our first real term of quantum physics, along with Junior Lab, the course which (a) convinced me I should never be an experimentalist and (b) disrupted my sleep cycle enough to give me really cool alien-abduction hallucinations. Now, there’s a great deal to be said for stress-testing your students (putting them through Degree Absolute, as it were). The real problem was that it was hard for all the wrong reasons. Not only were the experiments tricky and the concepts on which they were based abstruse, but also we students had to pick up a variety of skills we’d never needed before, none of them connected to any particular experiment but all of them necessary to get the overall job done. For example: we had to pick up statistical data analysis, curve fitting and all that pretty much by osmosis: “Here’s a MATLAB script, kids — have at it!” This is the sort of poor training which leads to sinful behavior on log-log plots in later life. Likewise, we’d never had to write up an experiment in formal journal style, or give a technical presentation. (The few experiences with laboratory work provided in freshman and sophomore years were, to put it simply, a joke.) All this on top of the scientific theory and experimental methods we were ostensibly learning!

Sure, it’s great to throw the kids in the pool to force them to swim, but the water is deep enough already! To my way of thinking, it would make more sense to offload those accessory skills like data description, technical writing and oral presentation to an earlier class, where the scientific content being presented is easier. Own up to the fact that you’re the most intimidating major at an elite technical university: make the sophomore-year classes a little tougher, and junior year can remain just as rough, but be so in a more useful way. We might as well go insane and start hallucinating for the right reason.

Of course, nobody has died and made me King. (I’ve got a bottle of ear-poison; just give the word.) For the moment, I’m just an annoying guy who thinks that everybody would benefit if some priorities were shuffled around.


    #1 \right\rangle}}
    #1 \right\rangle_{c}}}

10 thoughts on “Right Skill, Right Time”

  1. Yeah, interesting. When I did my thesis, I would have gone nuts without LaTeX macros, but it’s been a long while since I’ve used LaTeX (the journals I publish in now** haven’t dealt well with it in the past) and my skills have atrophied, since I got sick of having to retype my papers and just ended up doing them the way they wanted in th efirst place. That said, some of them at least should be able to take pdfs now, so it may be worth starting again.

    ** and most of my best research is unpublished in any case, being commercially sensitive.

  2. One of the frustrating things about an “interdisciplinary” environment is that you get a mix of papers coming through the place, some of which (the ones from the physicists and mathematicians) are all LaTeXnical, while others (biology, economics) are in a Word-like format. Putting together a volume of conference proceedings with that kind of mixture is an unrelieved pain.

    LaTeX suits my thinking style: it lets me worry about content and structure first, and then worry about how that structure is translated into visuals later. Of course, anything which suits me well is going to be horrible for somebody else — different strokes, and all that. I’m lucky in that the way I’m wired is fairly compatible with the “industry standard.”

  3. I am constantly astounded that there are kids are starting grad school in astronomy or physics with absolutely NO physics background whatsoever.

    Your complaints of Junior Lab is spot on: the hardcore soul-crushing parts would be totally awesome if that intensity implied that learning (or, more specifically, being taught) useful skillz. But no.

    Also: I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt unprepared around that time; I have always assumed my total lack of ability to do problem sets etc. was due to my stupidity in swallowing the Kool-Aid and doing 8.022 and 8.03 in ESG …

  4. \newcommand{\moment}[1]{\ensuremath{\left\langle
    #1 \right\rangle}}
    #1 \right\rangle_{c}}}

    Shouldn’t you have shortened these to something like \mom and \cum to save those few extra keystrokes? (Yes, I know I said “mom” “cum” and “stroke” in the same sentence, but now I’ve made the joke so we can move on.)

  5. I was amazed to hear that MIT physics has no GR requirement. Given that even the standard model is all about (a quantized version of) differential geometry, this seems to be an inexcusable omission.

  6. I guess I should be happy about my little, no-name, boondoks uni.

    But on the other hand, I’m not the one with a blog, a job and not on drugs.

  7. Valter:

    The ones whose papers I’ve had to deal with must be insufficiently academic. Sigh.


    This way, it’s clear what the macros are for; anybody who wants to reuse them can rename them.

  8. Thanks for this! As an undergrad who’s had to learn LaTeX on his own, I never learned the utility of macros. I’ve just gone and created one to save me ten or twenty seconds when I’m typing partial derivatives (the last barrier to me typing my notes in LaTeX in class!)

    I have had a lot of success creating dead keys on my keyboard to save keystrokes later. It doesn’t involve writing any new commands in the preamble of each file, and it lets me compress all my most-used commands to two, or at most three keystrokes. I’ve wasted many a productive hour on my keyboard.

  9. I just stuck my favourite macros in a style file and included it with a \usepackage command, which at least keeps the clutter per file to a minimum. For some reason, I tend to define key combinations for launching new programs, rather than doing tasks within programs.

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