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How To Enter Equations Quickly In Class? 823

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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  • LyX (Score:5, Informative)

    by sl3xd ( 111641 ) * on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:37PM (#29915847) Journal

    I used LyX quite a bit; the equation editor is pretty quick to work with (better than MS Equation Editor or similar addons).

    LyX is generally much faster than straight LaTeX - and there's a much shallower learning curve.

    Additionally, LyX works on pretty much whatever platform you want to use.

  • What's old is new (Score:5, Informative)

    by 404 Clue Not Found ( 763556 ) * on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:38PM (#29915863)

    Wacom's low-end Bamboo Pen [] ($69) tablet should be more than you need. Amazon has it for $60. [] Combine it with Microsoft OneNote or similar and you'll have recreated the fabulous 2-buck pen-and-paper experience. Go you!

  • pencil/paper (Score:5, Informative)

    by jschen ( 1249578 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:38PM (#29915865)
    Pencil/paper and digitizing later should be fine.
  • Re:pencil/paper (Score:5, Informative)

    by Reeses ( 5069 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:39PM (#29915891)

    Pen and paper got me through my math classes in school. Then I'd transcribe the equations later into digital form.

  • Windows 7 (Score:4, Informative)

    by thefogger ( 455551 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:41PM (#29915929)

    If you do choose to invest in a Wacom tablet, Windows 7 comes with a math input panel:

    It's not very usable with a mouse, though.

  • Analog (Score:2, Informative)

    by Pete Venkman ( 1659965 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:42PM (#29915951) Journal
    I encountered this problem too during my last year and a half in uni, so I used a low-tech solution. When I needed to put an equation in my notes, I would type "See EQ. 1-1" and fill up a piece of paper with equations. Later on (that day or the next), while reviewing my notes I would look up the eq on my sheet and type it into my notes the correct way.
  • by jsac ( 71558 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:42PM (#29915957) Journal
    Windows 7 now features a math input panel, which converts handwritten mathematics to MathML. You can see screenshots at this link: []
  • Mathematica (Score:2, Informative)

    by raybob ( 203381 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:42PM (#29915965) []

    is a lot of fun to play with, does computation & all kinds of neat tricks in addition to typesetting.

    $139 for the student version, available for the Mac.

  • I remember using... (Score:2, Informative)

    by CannedTurkey ( 920516 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:45PM (#29916017)
    ... a product called MathCad 15 years ago. I seem to recall they had a free student version. Looks like they have a 30 day trial, and a $60 student version if it suits your purposes.
  • Re:LyX (Score:5, Informative)

    by gardyloo ( 512791 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:48PM (#29916071) []

          You'd think that people would learn that language isn't always sensical, and that terms may have multiple --- even mutually contradictory --- meanings. Hope that's not too inflammatory a hope.

  • LyX? (Score:3, Informative)

    by steveha ( 103154 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:48PM (#29916087) Homepage

    I don't know if it is up to the speed you need, but the equation editor in LyX is pretty darn cool. []


  • Re:pencil/paper (Score:4, Informative)

    by ocean_soul ( 1019086 ) <tobias.verhulst@gmx . c om> on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:49PM (#29916099) Homepage
    I agree. You should not be taking notes on the computer. It's much better to do it on paper and, if you really need it, digitize them later. This coming from a former mathematical physics student, now teaching mathematical physics. So I do have (a lot of) experience with it.
  • Re:LyX (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:56PM (#29916239)

    Steep refers to the ability to be productive vs. time. If you can't be productive until your good, something like piloting a helicopter, the learning curve is steep. There is a point when your productivity makes a large jump. A shallow learning curve is something like python: productivity grows with knowledge. You never have a large jump.

  • by VGVL ( 1557555 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:57PM (#29916273)
    I've been using Wolfram Mathematica to take class notes and exams for years. By using the keyboard shortcuts you can easily keep up with the class. You can also have instant interactive graphs which will be much easier to understand than anything a professor could draw on a board, although it's not like my professors write on the board as they use Mathematica or Matlab to teach the class as well. This is at a private university in Mexico.
  • Re:pencil/paper (Score:3, Informative)

    by budhaboy ( 717823 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @04:58PM (#29916277)
    totally agree. The best editing software for equations I've ever seen is latex, and I suspect it's still too slow for taking notes in class. There used to be these crazy pens that could capture notes (and doodles) to image files... But it'd probrably be easier just to scan them later, as it'd give you a chance to review them anyway.
  • Re:LyX (Score:3, Informative)

    by BetterSense ( 1398915 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:00PM (#29916311)
    I'm a graduate student in physics and my friend started using started using LyX to do class notes and even homework. I've used it too and still do for very math-heavy homework and so on. It's very readable compared to handwriting, you can cut and paste, and it's not significantly slower. I still do a lot of analysis on paper with a good fountain pen, but I always have to rewrite a final, legible version anyway, and LyX is very easy and my professors love it.
  • by iivel ( 918436 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:04PM (#29916387) Homepage
    Actually the screenshots show it failing to recognize an "h" in two seperate instances.
  • Re:Tex Faster (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:05PM (#29916399)

    Use the auctex mode in emacs, which *greatly* reduces the number of keystrokes you need.

    That combined with x-symbol let me take notes in graduate math classes for an experiment.

  • (Score:3, Informative)

    by carluva ( 963158 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:11PM (#29916505)
    I took all of my notes throughout university (including engineering courses) using The equation editor in OpenOffice is easy-to-learn, fast (as in, no mouse use required and the keystrokes are all sane), and the completed equations look great. (By default, there isn't a keyboard shortcut for inserting a new equation, so you'll need to manually assign one—I used Ctrl-Shift-F, if I remember correctly.

    Your example would almost work as is; it would be entered as:

    f_x (x) = int from -infinity to infinity f (x, y) dy

    Or, if you prefer your parentheses to stretch (in case you have fractions inside, or what have you):

    f_x left ( x right ) = int from -infinity to infinity f left ( x, y right ) dy

    Either way, it comes out looking very nice. The one thing that takes some getting used to is that you need to make liberal use of whitespace (e.g. between f and the opening parenthesis of the function), otherwise things will occasionally come out looking a little strange. The best part is, when you don't know what you need to type for a particular symbol, you can select it from the menu and OO will insert the plaintext code, which makes it very easy to learn the code for new items.
  • Remap the keystrokes (Score:5, Informative)

    by wfstanle ( 1188751 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:12PM (#29916523)

    I was disabled and taking notes was VERY slow for me if I tried writing. I used a word processor WP or MS Word (I don't remember which one) to take notes. I had a similar problem until I discovered that I could map an entire phrase into a single keystroke. For example: "ALT + CTRL + F " could be "f(X) = " You could even be more elaborate because certain phrases are used time and time again in lectures. My longest remapping was 20 characters. For different classes, I had completely different keystroke mappings. Just be careful not to remap the standard keystrokes.

    This technique worked for me all though grad school. I also used a tape recorder (get the professors permission first) and reviewed my notes after class to make sure I got it all.

  • Re:LyX (Score:3, Informative)

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:21PM (#29916671) Homepage Journal

    Some people might think that. It really means that the jump is very sudden, regardless of how big it is. That said, by definition, most sudden jumps are big, or else we wouldn't perceive them as a jump, so that's not a particularly surprising interpretation. And in a relativistic sense, a quantum leap of an electron is fairly large... compared with the size of an atom, that is. Not huge, but certainly not tiny.

  • Pulse Smart Pen (Score:4, Informative)

    by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:21PM (#29916673) Journal
    The pulse smart pen is far better. I tried the Wacom bluetooth tablet but the problem is that you cannot see what you write. If you use the Pulse Smartpen [] then it acts like a real pen - so you can see exactly what you have written - and as well as recording exactly what you wrote it records audio as well so you end up with a document that you can click on to hear what was being said at the time that you wrote that bit of text.

    The only downside is that it needs special paper which you can buy in notebook form or which you can print yourself using a laser printer. The windows version has some extra software you can buy to perform OCR on your handwriting but since I have a Mac I have no idea how good it is. There is even an open SDK for you to develop your own applications for it but it unfortunately only supports Java.
  • Re:LyX (Score:2, Informative)

    by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <{tms} {at} {}> on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:22PM (#29916689) Homepage

    If something's easy to learn, it has a steep learning curve: your ability rises rapidly over time, repetition or whatever your measure of effort is.

    No. The notional "learning curve" people are talking about when they say "steep learning curve" is not a plot of how ability varies over time. It's a plot of how much learning is needed to reach a level of competence. A task with a steep learning curve requires you to learn much (plotted on the y axis) before you can make even the smallest amount of headway (plotted on the x axis).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:25PM (#29916741)

    Don't know about the cost.... But I used MathCAD somewhat recently (2001 ish) and it was pretty quick once you get the keyboard shortcuts worked out. It definitely satisfies the "real-looking" requirement - good for notes or presentations.

  • Re:LyX (Score:3, Informative)

    by lithis ( 5679 ) <> on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:36PM (#29916913) Homepage

    I second this. If you don't know TeX math commands, there are toolbar buttons, menus, and dialog boxes for everything. But once you do learn the commands (and the TeX commands are listed in the menus and appear as tooltips over the buttons), you can just type them. So instead of pressing the subscript button, you press _ and the display switches to subscript mode. Instead of clicking the sine function, you type \sin. Instead of clicking the fraction button, you can type \frac.

    Also, text entry is pretty easy. For example, after creating a fraction two empty blue squares appear--the numerator and the denomerator. Focus is in the numerator, and you can press Tab to switch to the denomerator. Pressing the spacebar exits the fraction, putting the cursor just after it.

  • Re:LyX (Score:3, Informative)

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:36PM (#29916919) Homepage Journal

    And if you want a specific recommendation that works very well, any of the Canon Digital Rebel series with an 18-85mm lens are great choices for that. Pricey, but priceless.

  • Infty Editor (Score:3, Informative)

    by UltraAyla ( 828879 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:58PM (#29917251) Homepage
    I used Infty Editor in my classes - I think it's based on LaTeX but, it was pretty quick. I didn't use it to take notes in realtime though, so I can't tell you how successful that would be. []
  • Re:pencil/paper (Score:3, Informative)

    by The_Wilschon ( 782534 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @06:25PM (#29917647) Homepage
    As far as typing odd symbols goes, here's my .xmodmaprc for anyone who wants it. It lets me type in greek symbols, and a few other things, by making the caps lock (original function: worthless) into a new shift key:
    ! first set caps lock to be a group shift key
    keycode 66 = Mode_switch

    ! Now set up all the keys: first two are the normal qwerty en_US keys, 3rd and 4th are greek characters (or others)
    keysym a = a A Greek_alpha Greek_ALPHA
    keysym b = b B Greek_beta Greek_BETA
    keysym c = c C Greek_psi Greek_PSI
    keysym d = d D Greek_delta Greek_DELTA

    ! there exists
    keysym e = e E Greek_epsilon 0x01002203
    keysym f = f F Greek_phi Greek_PHI
    keysym g = g G Greek_gamma Greek_GAMMA

    keysym h = h H Greek_eta 0x0100210F

    ! set ownership
    keysym i = i I Greek_iota 0x01002208
    keysym j = j J Greek_xi Greek_XI
    keysym k = k K Greek_kappa Greek_KAPPA
    keysym l = l L Greek_lamda Greek_LAMDA
    keysym m = m M Greek_mu Greek_MU
    keysym n = n N Greek_nu Greek_NU
    keysym o = o O Greek_omicron Greek_OMICRON
    keysym p = p P Greek_pi Greek_PI

    ! partial, del
    keysym q = q Q 0x01002202 0x01002207
    keysym r = r R Greek_rho Greek_RHO
    keysym s = s S Greek_sigma Greek_SIGMA

    ! dagger
    keysym t = t T Greek_tau 0x01002020
    keysym u = u U Greek_theta Greek_THETA
    keysym v = v V Greek_omega Greek_OMEGA

    ! times
    keysym x = x X Greek_chi 0x010000D7
    keysym y = y Y Greek_upsilon Greek_UPSILON
    keysym w = w W Greek_finalsmallsigma Greek_SIGMA

    ! cdot
    keysym period = period greater 0x010022C5

    keysym 8 = 8 asterisk 0x0100221E

    ! equiv
    keysym equal = equal plus 0x01002261
    Maybe you don't need as much greek, and instead need more random mathematical symbols. Easy to change things out. The hex codes are 0x01######, where ###### is the unicode hex code for the symbol. In general, with the ucs package, LaTeX understands these.
  • (Score:3, Informative)

    by level_headed_midwest ( 888889 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @08:24PM (#29918875)

    I second using to enter equations. I liked to take notes on the computer in classes that had much of any written text in the notes (I took notes in a notebook for calculus, statics/strengths, physics and such that had almost all equations as notes). Since I was an engineering major, just about every class had at least some equations as part of the notes and I could bang out equations pretty easy with the text math symbol input in Writer. One other neat trick is to do the Ctrl-Shift-U + Unicode key code or key code + Alt-X shortcut to quickly put Greek symbols in notes.

  • Re:Mathematica (Score:2, Informative)

    by ClashTheBunny ( 1657329 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @08:44PM (#29919093)
    'I second this. This is the FASTEST way to input information into a computer. Check with your school, sometimes there are license servers that you can hook up to. It takes maybe a week and you learn all of the "esc-s-esc" (sigma), "esc-int-esc" (Integral), ctrl-6 does superscript, ctrl-5 or 7 I don't remember does underscore, etc. All of it is immediately visible so you never make syntax errors and you never have to take your hands off of the keyboard. You also can do the computations real time and correct all of your prof's mistakes.
  • Re:LyX (Score:2, Informative)

    by priegog ( 1291820 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @04:45AM (#29921565)
    Well, for me the easiest of routes was tu ultimately buy a tablet pc. I know you must be a poor student (like me), but bear with me. eBay is your friend. When I had such a dilemma (except not with equations because I'm a med student), I looked around for a solution and finally figured I could make with and old (2003 old) tablet pc. The kind that are tiny because they don't even have a keyboard. I ended up buying a Motion Computing M1300, for around $100, and honestly, it's the best purchase (computer-wise, and price/usefullness) I've ever made. Of course it came without even a pen, charger, HDD or battery, but all of these things, plus a mini USB bluetooth adapter and a bluetooth folding keyboard AND 1.5 GB of ram placed the whole thing at a little less than $200. And it's just a dream for taking notes, I loaded Ubuntu on it, and notes save to either some weird XML format that takes no space at all or slightly bigger PDF files (with a program called Xournal). I've never had the need to do this, but I guess you could also OCR the whole thing and make it searchable. In the end, it's not a gaming computer, but it's definitely smaller and lightner than my normal laptop, the hell of a lot more useful (bigger screen AND faster processor, believe it or not) than a netbook, and ends up costing way less than either of them. All of this was a little over 2 years ago, so I'd imagine with a little luck and patience you might be able to score a similar deal for an even lower price. my 2 cents (and actually one of the few posts that actually try to address your question directly)

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton