Time Saver: Automated Course Journals

I’ve always had a terrible time keeping track of how well my classes run from one semester to the next. I always mean to make note of a typo on a handout, or an activity that needed tweaking, or a day that ran long or needed padding, but I never remember to make those changes at the time. I’ve tried to keep a course journal, both electronic and on paper, but by the time I’m back in my office I get busy with a hundred other things and forget all about it.

This year, I automated my course journals. And it’s incredible.

Now, 15 minutes after class is over, a text document automatically pops up, I type a sentence about what worked and what didn’t, and the next time I teach these courses I’ll be able to make the necessary tweaks without having to remember how things worked in the past.

Unfortunately, these instructions only work on a Mac. I looked around for PC equivalents and only found much more complicated instructions, but I’m hopeful a commenter may be able to help.

Mac’s built-in Calendar application will open a document at a specified time using the “alert” feature. But it didn’t work the first few times I tried, because there were a couple of tweaks I had to make.screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-7-52-59-pm

If you don’t already have one, you first need to make calendar that is just “On My Mac.” Calendars that are shared through iCloud won’t trigger the alerts properly. That wasn’t even an option for me initially, so I had to jump through an extra hoop – basically turning iCloud off and on again – to fix that.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-8-03-40-pmOnce you have your new calendar, create a new event at the time you want your document to open. Then click on “Addscreen-shot-2016-10-31-at-8-04-00-pm Alert, Repeat, or Travel Time.” This is also where you can make this alert reoccur every time you have a class. Click “repeat” and “custom” to set when the file will open.

Under “alert,” select “Custom…” Once the new menu opens, change “Message” to “Open File,” and change “Calendar” to “Other.” That will prompt you to select the document you want to open. You can also tweak the time you want the file to open.

And that’s it: you shoscreen-shot-2016-10-31-at-8-05-20-pmuld now have a document that opens automatically whenever you want. It was so easy to set this up, and I can already tell it’ll save me mountains of time when I teach these classes again. And this functionality seems to be crying out for other uses: opening a note after department or research meetings, opening my cv after a conference, reminding me to email people at specified times, or opening Automator scripts if I really need to do something more involved.

I hope some of you will find this as useful as I have. If you come up with other uses of this little trick, let me know in the comments!


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The Wall

Big week for me—I took down a bunch of sticky notes. This made me really happy, though it doesn’t sound so hot. You see, one of my office walls looks like this:

The view from my desk.

The view from my desk.

My students probably think this is weird, especially since the words on the notes likely mean different things (or nothing) to them: “What makes maximal curves, besides natural embedding theorem?” or “graph zeta for student?” or “Julia Robinson Math Festival.” These are things I’d like to figure out in my research, work on in my teaching, or just generally do in my career. I have them arranged in a sort of tree (nobody else can tell it’s a tree, because I don’t think the department would love me writing on my wall), with doable tasks branching off from some big general research hopes, and other stuff arranged vaguely by relationship and difficulty.

I put these on my wall in February, when I got back from re:boot 2016, a grant writing workshop organized by Alina Bucur, Heekyoung Hahn, Pirita Paajanen, Lillian Pierce, and Caroline Turnage-Butterbaugh.* As part of the workshop, we were given a poster board and told to make a big map of our research plans. Many people made beautiful, artistic posters with color and good graphic design. I covered mine in sticky notes, maybe because I have some kind of fear of commitment and I couldn’t bear to put the marker directly to the poster board. Also, I had no idea what to do when I began, so I just started writing all the things I could think of on sticky notes and spreading them out on the table. Apparently sticky notes are a pretty common way to organize stuff—see 3M’s amazing array of uses for Post-Its, and this excellent event facilitation wiki (thanks Ben Smith). But I’d never really appreciated sticky notes until this.

When I was done (or stopped to take a breath), I had a sea of ideas—way more than I realized that I had. Then it was organization time, and I found the whole process of physically moving the notes around really fun. It helped me take a research agenda that could have looked really scattered and organize it into one overarching theme, with a few different directions, with some auxiliary projects that I put on their own branches and didn’t include in the grant proposal.

This helped me write my CAREER proposal, and I liked the way it gave me a big picture look at where I could go, and also the flexibility to add and remove parts if my interests change. So when I got home I transferred the whole mess to my wall. Now, every time I look up from my desk I see this web of ideas. I might have thought that would stress me out, like a giant to-do list, but for some reason this is inspiring instead of daunting. Maybe because it is only the stuff I really want to do, none of the tasks, like grading, that get to be a grind. This is at least partially a picture of my daydreams and ideas—not a list of things that must happen so I can keep my job.

Victory looks like this.

Victory looks like this.

I made a few changes these last few months, mostly thinking of new ideas and sticking them on the wall. This was a big week because, for the first time, I took some notes down because I had done the things on them, or because I don’t want to do them anymore.  Major fun, by my standards.

As I wrote this blog, I suddenly freaked out: “Oh my god, is this a vision board?” Over the years, some great friends have tried to get me to make a “vision board” and I have respectfully refused. It’s just not for me. I have always cringed at the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?” and all its relatives. I value the idea of being open to the unexpected awesomeness of life and haven’t wanted to even try to visualize my one ideal life path. I don’t believe in the “law of attraction” and I’m not reading The Secret. However, applying for a grant is kind of like answering the question “where do you want to be in 3-5 years?” so this is a place where visualizing a narrative is important. Still, I’m not calling my wall a vision board. I guess there are a bunch of math things I think it would be cool to do. I refuse to even call these goals, exactly. My memory isn’t great, so stuff disappears if I don’t write it down, and my desk is a mess, so ideas that land in a pile of other stuff on my desk will probably stay buried. So, I’m okay with writing down a bunch of my math-related ideas and thinking about how they fit together, using one of the great inventions of modern office technology. That I can handle.

How do you organize all the stuff you want to do? Do you think I’m giving vision boards a bad rap? Let me know in the comments.

* I have mentioned this before, and I really can’t say enough good things about the workshop. Good news—I just heard that re:boot 2017 is being funded, so for any women in number theory, watch out for details here!


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Anamorphic Art for High School Students

I’ve written here before about our annual Sonia Kovalevsky Day at Hood, where we invite local high school girls to campus to learn more about math and careers in STEM in honor of Sonia herself, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. This year I was co-organizing the event and also running one of the workshops. I dithered for way too long about what I wanted to do with the students, but I finally settled on a topic I’ve liked since I was a kid: anamorphic art. We’re often called on to show off our discipline to kids, and I think this is a neat topic that’s cheap to implement and easy to adapt to most grade levels.

By Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) - bQEWbLB26MG1LA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22354806

The Ambassadors, By Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) – bQEWbLB26MG1LA at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain,

Anamorphic art refers to art that needs to be viewed from a specific angle or using a specific device like a mirror in order to be seen properly. The classic example is in a painting called The Ambassadors by Holbein, which holds a Halloween-appropriate secret message when seen at the right angle. I put it on the screen and had the students wander around the room until they found the sweet spot.

I showed a few more examples of these types of paintings, both old and new, and talked a little bit about how images can be transformed via different types of grids. Most of them knew about one- and two-point perspective, so they seemed to get how that type of transformation would work.

Then we got to the fun stuff: circular mirror anamorphosis. I passed out a bunch of examples without really explaining anything, and asked them to figure out what was going on. Most of them started bending the pages into a cylinder right away. I gave them small sheets of mylar I’d cut to roll into a cylinder to see the images properly. Mylar comes in a big roll for about $20, and you can find it online or in hydroponic gardening stores. Then they spent awhile looking at a bunch of examples. Some came from an old book of examples from a Victorian toy, now out of print but still widely available. Most I found online in various places, and the most notable examples came from an artist named Istvan Orosz, who makes incredible prints where the mirror reveals a hidden portrait. img_1494

Last I had them make their own examples, using pre-made grids I found online. These grids aren’t completely accurate, and someday I’ll probably make my own, but I just didn’t have the time. The students drew their own pictures and transcribed them onto the circular grid, and admired their handiwork in the mirror. Biggest advice for doing these: keep your drawing simple. Pixel art is highly recommended if you’re not artistically inclined.

I finished by talking very briefly about the mathematics behind img_8493-1all this, and gave some applications: painting road signs or logos on sports arenas, snapchat filters, and projection mapping. I showed a couple cool videos of those at the end, while they finished their drawings.

I was worried about hitting the right level with my audience: didn’t want to be too technical, but also didn’t want to dumb it down too much. Also, we only had 45 minutes together, so I couldn’t include everything I wanted. These students aren’t necessarily already math-inclined; in fact we encourage teachers to bring students who don’t think they’re strong mathematically. This was my shot to talk to a bunch of young women about why I love math, and I didn’t want to blow it by either confusing or boring them. Their evaluations of the day aren’t quite processed yet, but I think I hit the sweet spot.



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