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How To Enter Equations Quickly In Class? 823

Posted by timothy
from the napkins-and-a-digital-camera dept.
AdmiralXyz writes "I'm a university student, and I like to take notes on my (non-tablet) computer whenever possible, so it's easier to sort, categorize, and search through them later. Trouble is, I'm going into higher and higher math classes, and typing "f_X(x) = integral(-infinity, infinity, f(x,y) dy)" just isn't cutting it anymore: I need a way to get real-looking equations into my notes. I'm not particular about the details, the only requirement is that I need to keep up with the lecture, so it has to be fast, fast, fast. Straight LaTeX is way too slow, and Microsoft's Equation Editor isn't even worth mentioning. The platform is not a concern (I'm on a MacBook Pro and can run either Windows or Ubuntu in a virtual box if need be), but the less of a hit to battery life, the better. I've looked at several dedicated equation editing programs, but none of them, or their reviews, make any mention of speed. I've even thought about investing in a low-end Wacom tablet (does anyone know if there are ultra-cheap graphics tablets designed for non-artists?), but I figured I'd see if anyone at Slashdot has a better solution."
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How To Enter Equations Quickly In Class?

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  • ASCIIMathML (Score:5, Interesting)

    by anidiot (821082) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:39PM (#29915877) Homepage
  • Re:pencil/paper (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:52PM (#29916169)

    I have been an engineer for 30 years and have tried over and over to take digital notes. I have never found an efficient solution. You're right - equations and drawings / sketches make digital note-taking a mess. OCR technology pukes on my handwriting.

    Here is the work flow that I have used for the last 5 years, or so:

    1. Handwritten notes in black pen.
    2. Scan according to your preference (200 dpi grayscale for me). Save as tiff.
    3. Import into Paperport.
    4. Use Paperport's annotation function to add searchable text boxes.

    It sux, but I have about 2,500 pages of notes that I can search by my added keywords, and can back up in case of catastrophe.

    I continuously try to improve this workflow, and Paperport's ability to search on text boxes is unique. Most software needs/wants to OCR and and make a linked text file in order to search.

  • by zentechno (800941) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:00PM (#29916321)
    Firstly, the Mac has an incredibly rich simple character set. This is NOT coincidental, as Apple copied their editing capabilities from the publishing industry decades ago. E.g. in TextEdit type alt-b and you'll see a '' integral symbol (looks correct as I type it, hopefully the post wont change it). If you can learn these keyboard shortcuts (learning-curve arguments aside), you *may* be able to type these directly into your mac in class, BUT... If you take notes by hand, then transcribe them into your mac using these short cuts, or simply via the Mac's Font (e.g. TextEdit --> commant-T) and characters (e.g. via the gear drop-down in the Font) pane, you're doing yourself a much bigger favor.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:04PM (#29916395)

    emacs has an amazing TeX input system. You can type everynthing in normally, but most LaTeX magic is bound to a 2-3 key combination starting with `
    I don't actually remember what everything is any more, but i did find it incredibly useful. You may also want to cook up your own bindings for things that you like. One of my favorites that everyone else seemed to hate was Cx ( would insert \left( \right) and leave the cursor before the \right).

  • Re:LyX (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:06PM (#29916421)

    The true learning curves....

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/23579228@N04/2335016192/ [flickr.com]

  • Mathematica (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:06PM (#29916433)

    Mathematica can be pretty quick for formatting if you use the escape sequences ((escape)int(escape) gives an integral sign, for instance), and you can evaluate the things too if you're so inclined.

    Of course, you'll have to pay an arm and two legs for it, but you didn't need them anyway...

  • Re:LyX (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:20PM (#29916633)

    I have used LyX in advanced mathematical courses such as quantum mechanics and relativistic electrodynamics. With the help of the copy-paste function I found that I could type the equations faster into my laptop than my classmates could write them onto paper and so had a little more time to think about them and ask questions.

    LyX is very easy to learn for note taking as you type stuff like:
    CNTL-M \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \alpha(x) dx
    and get instant pretty graphical equations.

    If you need to draw pictures, however, you will need a tablet or pen and paper.

    Hope this helps...

  • Re:LyX (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Z1NG (953122) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:20PM (#29916639)
    I also use Lyx. It is pretty fantastic. As is, it is already a bit quicker than straight LaTex, and you could try making some keyboard shortcuts to speed things up more.
  • Re:pencil/paper (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chrisb33 (964639) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:21PM (#29916661) Homepage
    If you're just interested in organization and searching, I'd highly recommend the LiveScribe Pulse smartpen - all the smarts are in the pen, which isn't too expensive compared to a tablet, and you can buy the compatible notebooks cheaply. All your notes get backed up to your computer when you dock your pen, it does a great job searching for a specific piece of text. My handwriting is a disaster, and I have never seen a search fail so far - I believe that it actually uses the sequence of pen motions (not just OCR on the final result) and it can tolerate some of the letters being unreadable. It has other features as well, such as recording audio (the mic has a decent gain) and syncing it with your notes. They also have an SDK and are launching an app store, so in the future you should be able to make good use of the ARM processor in the pen.
  • by KK (4704) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:30PM (#29916819) Homepage

    This is not the old Equation Editor 3.0 from Word 2003, which is a crippled version of MathType, but rather a brand new equation facility in Word 2007, which is also the basis for the new equation support in the OneNote 2010 beta another poster has referred to.

    The Word 2007 equation editor supports a "linear format" for completely keyboard-based input, which is based on TeX-like commands like "\sum" and "\int" and is documented in this Unicode technical note: Unicode Nearly Plain-Text Encoding of Mathematics [unicode.org]

    I've been using this for my math classes since last semester, with great success. Once you master the linear format, it's not difficult to keep up if you have a reasonable typing rate to begin with.

  • Re:LyX (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:40PM (#29916983)

    Even though we both have similar concepts of what the learning curve is referring to, I think the GP's interpretation is backwards, at least from a user interface design perspective. If the learning curve is steep, that means you learn a lot at the very beginning, which means that you have to learn a lot just to get started. Otherwise, you wouldn't have bothered to learn all that stuff up front. Thus, a steep learning curve means that the UI is relatively hard to learn, even if it doesn't take you a huge amount of time.

    The ideal learning curve for software is actually fairly linear; the amount you learn at the beginning should be minimal because the UI should be discoverable enough and familiar enough (relative to other software) that you don't need to learn anything of substance to start using it at a basic level. As you get into it more, you should continue to discover things that make your life easier.

    Just my $0.02.

    As an audio engineer who also teaches beginners how to compose on the computer, I have to say that Apple GarageBand is the closest thing to this "linear learning curve" in a UI I've ever seen.

    It's easy to get started on a basic level of simple loops, and GarageBand '08 and later have (tucked away under the hood) all the advanced features you need to make a good-sounding original recording if you know how to use them.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:47PM (#29917079)

    Hi, I'm a physics professor. I say, take your notes on paper. Math is the most computer-incompatible writing system ever designed. You'll never ever be able to type equations fast enough to keep up with me on the blackboard.

    And even if you manage to find a math entry system that's fast enough, it won't help you with the diagrams, graphs, and sketches.

    Of course, I don't practice what I preach: my own lecture notes are in text files. But that's because to me, "block ramp friction mu=0.2, 1 kg 30deg 1m long, find final v. U=4.9 Wf=1.7 v=2.5" is a complete set of notes for a 20-minute segment of lecture.

    Oh, also: write in pencil. I guarantee you that whenever you bring a pen, I will spend the entire lecture correcting minor mistakes by erasing with the heel of my hand, changing variable notations, and editing diagrams and drawings halfway through working a problem.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:47PM (#29917081)

    Used to work there. Honestly, you can't beat it for mathematics editing, graphing, etc. Saves in Latex if you want. Free trial downloads too if you want to give the tires a kick.

    http://www.mackichan.com/ [mackichan.com]

  • My experience (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ledow (319597) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:48PM (#29917103) Homepage

    - I hate writing, and always have and avoid it wherever possible - it hurts my hand and my handwriting is awful.
    - I was using computers way before anyone else in my school, I even took some of the lessons that I was supposed to be taught in (the teacher found it easier that way).
    - I went to university to study Mathematics and Computing and had already had five years (at least) of proper exposure to things like Maple, Matlab, etc. (I was doing my A-level projects in Maple when nobody else, including my teachers, had even heard of it) through my brother who attended the same university.

    Every single mathematics-based lecture, for three entire years, I hand-wrote notes. It's the only sensible way to do so. There isn't a notation or shorthand that can cope with rapidly sketching down formulae (especially integrals, sums of series, etc.) and diagrams. In some subjects, a simple diagram showing an angle, or a particular piece of geometry is invaluable and could takes hours to reproduce properly on a computer. I know, because for the last ten years, I've worked for tuition centres, state and private schools and I'm often asked to professionally produce an electronic version of their course materials (99% of the time mathematics because that's my speciality).

    Don't waste your time, memory, money and brainpower - just take pad and pen, or use a touchscreen/tablet PC if you *insist* on using a computer. When you're taking notes the last thing you want to be doing is taking down the mathematics like it's some kind of gospel. There will be a million books on the subject where you can find the nuts and bolts of the process, but if you lose that "feel" of the mathematics that you can only get by watching someone apply it in front of your eyes, you'll never truly understand it.

    The point of a lecture is to demonstrate and explain and give opportunity for questions (yes, ask questions... why does *nobody* ask questions in lectures? It isn't forbidden, just don't waste everyone's time with trivialities!), you learn more in a ten minute lecture on a particular subject than you ever will by studying the materials from that lecture. *Being* there, with the enthusiastic tutor, and the commentary they give, is what makes the mathematics explain itself. Everything else is just paper-based memoranda of that lecture. Someone, somewhere will be selling notes from that lecture. I've taken copies of complete stranger's notes (with their permission) when I missed lectures for reasons beyond my control. Notes are memory-aids only. Wasting an immense amount of time recording them in such a fashion is to focus on the aesthetics of the tool, not the job you're doing with that tool. All you're actually doing is writing the book that your lecturer learned from, you're not learning anything, and doing so at great expense. Your concentration should be on the mathematics happening in front of you, not the paper in your hand or the computer under your fingers.

    I often just sat in awe when I was in a lecture and watched the mathematics unfold in front of me, sketching only notes on the specifics.

    Scribble notes. If you have special needs, ask to video/record the lectures or for the lecturers to provide assistance afterwards (and complain to the highest authorities if they don't let you). Then, study, study, study from your notes, your memory, your skills, and the vast wealth of materials on every subject imaginable. Anyone can find out how to apply equation X to input Y, or read a book on graph theory or calculus, but advanced mathematics is more about the patterns and the art of being able to discover, use and apply that knowledge, not copy from rote from two-year-old notes.

    I graduated. Not a great grade but I was hitting a wall in my abilities in even the first year, a wall I've never been able to pass in the years since. Some courses ran like water through my sieve of a brain, and some were just second nature (and still are). But at no point did the actual taking of my notes interfere with

  • Re:ASCIIMathML (Score:2, Interesting)

    by CyrusOmega (1261328) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @06:01PM (#29917295)
    Wow, never thought I would see that again. I actually used this for a web site in high school several years ago and it did very well. I am actually the one that ended up making the little logo that's at the bottom of that page so I could advertise it on our site in the "powered by/this-site-uses" section. Don't go bashing my artistic abilities from the 9th grade :)
  • Re:What's old is new (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hugortega (721079) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @06:09PM (#29917419)
    Wacom's Bamboo on windows having a Mac?... Leopard has a fantastic support for tablet pen. much better than windows vista. Also, with a bit practice, you can use LyX or any other equation editor, combined with Leopard's hand-write recognition. Just an idea
  • Webcam (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @06:48PM (#29917905)

    What about getting a small, good quality webcam, preferably with a zoom feature? When your professor writes out an equation, point the camera at it, take a quick screen capture, and paste it into your notes.

  • Re:What's old is new (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fm6 (162816) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @08:11PM (#29918699) Homepage Journal

    I've been using OneNote for a couple of years, and I'm pretty disgusted with it. Too complicated, too limited. too unreliable, too many "what were they thinking" gotchas.

    Right now, I'm giving Evernote a try. Not as many snazzy features of OneNote, but the features it does have work well and are easy to access. And it's free, if you don't mind a few non-obnoxious ads. If it continues to bear the strain, I'm transferring all my data from OneNote and deleting the sucker.

  • Digital note taker (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @08:31PM (#29918967)

    I have seen many different types of digital note takers that will store many pages of hand written notes. These are often stand alone devices that do not require a computer to input stuff. Then later you plug it into your computer and download the data. Many come with OCR software. Do a search on IOGEAR MOBILE DIGITAL SCRIBE for an example (note, I have not personally used any of these devices).

  • by gordguide (307383) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @09:30PM (#29919457)

    Get an inexpensive drawing tablet, turn on Ink in OSX (10.5 and up; at: System Preferences: but note that the preference pane will not show unless you have a graphics tablet plugged in). Write the formulas on the tablet.

    You can take screenshots (Command-Option-3 full screen; Command-Option-4 select an area to capture) to save what you write/draw and use Ink's character recognition to convert it to formulas with a check via the saved screenshots to make sure it didn't make errors. You can turn the character recognition off or on anytime via the Ink preference pane.
    You will want to enable the Character Palette (at: System Preferences: Keyboard & Mouse) so you have quick access to the mathematical symbols in your chosen fonts for your saved notes.

  • Mathematica (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CoolQ (31072) <quentins@@@comclub...org> on Thursday October 29, 2009 @10:08PM (#29919765) Homepage

    I love how everyone here is telling you to just pencil and paper. For the past 7 years (through both college and high school), I have taken all of my math notes in Mathematica. Every symbol, even the most esoteric ones, is at most four or five keystrokes. For example, an integral like integral x=0 to inf (x^2)/xbar is quick to enter:

    integral template -- ESC i n t t ESC
    bound -- x = 0 TAB ESC inf ESC
    value -- x C-6 2 RIGHT C-/ x C-5 UNDERSCORE

    it's really quick to type, and you'll quickly learn the keystrokes from the character palette. I haven't taken a single note on paper in any of my math classes since about sophomore year of high school.

    --Quentin

  • Re:LyX (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @10:14PM (#29919795)

    I agree. As a student, I handwrite my notes during lecture because it is easier for me to refer back to an earlier note to reiterate a point with a handwritten * than it is to scroll through lines of text, place an *, then scroll back and catch up with the lecture again. That's just my opinion, though.

  • by questioner (147810) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @10:45PM (#29920029)

    If you're serious about taking mathematical notes, there really isn't anything to beat LaTeX except for the multi-mentioned writing tablets, where you're essentially recording images (and could do the job just as easily with pen and paper).

    If you're worried about your typing of LaTeX taking too long, make macros. It's trivial to create commonly used macros for "long" things like \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} so instead, you type \iII (i - i-cap - i-cap) or some other easily remembered name. If you're still typing out every bit of math you do in LaTeX long-hand, you aren't coming close to using the true power inherent in a markup language.

    Want easy ways to represent \mathbb{R} or \mathbb{C}? \rS or \cS defines work great. Integrals? Same idea. Just figure out what the commonly used things are in the class you're taking notes for, and make macros for that.

  • LaTeXiT (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @10:55PM (#29920101)

    There is a wonderful mac program called LaTeXiT. It basically lets you type latex directly into a very small editor. The results are compiled and displayed in another window and you can drag the result into your favourite notetaking program.

    It's pretty neat.

    That said, in a lecture, I still prefer my pen.

  • by braines (723956) on Friday October 30, 2009 @02:33AM (#29921071) Homepage Journal
    Ink is great and completely under utilized gem in OS X, and I think you could maybe even get away with using it on the track pad without the wacom tablet if you're tight on space and don't want to seem like a total douche bringing a laptop and tablet to take note.. BUT thanks to the fact that you're using a mac, I think what might be more direct and faster even is to be able to type the darn thing? its not that hard to type your special characters: option-b is "" for sumation, option-v is "" for square root. a few parentheses latter and you have a quick enough way to write most things, pi is option-p is "" . hold down option for a while and mash the keyboard to find what you want, or you can launch the 'special characters/unicode' typing window and figure them out that way I might use optino-5 for infinity "" and option-a for alpha "å" you can probobly do a find-replace latter to fix any oddness in what you want to see vs. what you typed.
  • Re:LyX (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wall0159 (881759) on Friday October 30, 2009 @04:31AM (#29921507)

    I wrote my thesis in LyX, and it was basically a good experience with few problems. However, if I was doing it again I'd probably use straight LaTeX via a nice editor (gedit has a nice LaTeX plugin, for example). The reason for this is that I think LaTeX is in someways a bit simpler than LyX because it is always clear what is happening, whereas LyX has a second markup stage. I had a bit of difficulty doing some document-wide formatting in LyX that I think would've been more straight-forward in LaTeX.

    I'm certainly not being heavily critical of LyX, and think that if you stick to their bundled document formats, you should be fine.

    (this is a little off-topic, because the article is about taking equation notes in class, which would be a cinch in LyX, I reckon.)

  • Digital Pen? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by clickclickdrone (964164) on Friday October 30, 2009 @05:56AM (#29921769)
    Unless I've missed it, I can't believe no one has suggested a digital pen such as the e-Pen ones? http://www.practicalpc.co.uk/reviews/hard/peripherals/e-pens-create.htm [practicalpc.co.uk]

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