Common faults that will drop your grade

After reading close to 50 term papers the last couple of weeks, I see that there are many small things that have an impact on the grading. So to all students out there, here are a few hints to what will most certainly improve your grade (next time):

  • Spelling errors: using modern word processors, there is really no need to have any spelling errors in your documents at all. A few is acceptable, several per page is too much. This will most likely irritate the reader, and your grade will certainly drop.
  • Division of words: this has become a huge problem in Norwegian in recent years. As we get
    more influenced by the English language, more people have started spelling words apart. Sometimes this is semantically harmless, other times it ends up being involuntary funny, but it may also change the meaning entirely. Anyways, dividing up words still counts as spelling errors.
  • Style: it is always more pleasant to read documents that are well written. I am not a particularly good writer myself, so I am constantly trying to remind myself that it is OK to think about writing as a tool to convey a message. If you are struggling with writing, write shorter sentences. Then check that the sentences make up a logical structure.
  • Informal: a term paper is a formal document, like a research paper or a book, and the language used should be formal. Informal language, which is often acceptable in e-mails or a blog post, should be avoided.
  • Punctuation: there should be no space before a punctuation mark, and one space after. Parentheses, on the other hand (like this), should have space both before and after. This is really a part of the basics of writing, so I am very to sorry that I have to mention this…
  • Layout: a nice looking document will certainly always give a good impression. Receiving poorly formatted documents, e.g. with 1 cm margins, ugly looking and odd-sized fonts, etc., does not help your grade. Remember to use the same font type and size throughout the document.
  • Line breaks: use either double line breaks or one line break and indention. Mixing them makes for a chaotic visual impression.

Of course, the most important is the content of the paper, but that is a totally different story. Here I would just come with one advice:

  • Clearly state what you want to say, and then say it.

PDF please

I receive a lot of e-mails from students, and even though I always tell them to send me PDF files, they almost always send me the source files for their documents instead (.doc, .docx, .odt, .pages, …). This semester we have started with electronic submission of term papers at our department, and even though it said everywhere that PDF was the file format to submit, of course all sorts of other formats turned up.

Besides the fact that I personally find it much easier and faster to handle PDF files, there are many reasons why it is not a good idea to send off the originals:

  • Compatibility: I am running three OSes (OSX, XP, Ubuntu) and have access to most word processors, so it is very seldom that I can’t open a file. But as the number of widespread text file formats have started to increase recently (with the addition of .docx, .odt, .pages to the old-timers .rtf and .doc), I notice that the issue of file format compatibility is starting to become an issue again for many people.
  • Accessibility: there is no point in passing away the source material unless you want people to edit it.
  • Layout: opening a .docx file in OpenOffice usually always results in a document that looks differently than it was intended in MS Word
  • Pictures: I often see that there are problems with embedded pictures, either they may not be there or formatting and image adjustments may be different than what was intended
  • Changes: if the “track changes” function was turned on while writing, all changes will be accessible to the reader. This may not always be a big problem, but there are several examples of where this has been a crucial issue.
  • Legal: the state regulations in Norway tell that all public documents should be saved as open formats, either .odt or .pdf. This is a fairly new regulation (1 January 2009), so it has not had a full impact yet, but hopefully it will one day.

Take-away message: never pass around your source material unless you specifically want people to change it (which is not the case with a university term paper, nor an official letter on your institution’s letter head…). Use PDF, please.

Eduroam in Australia

I have written about Eduroam before, and will probably do it again. Just to recap:

eduroam is the secure, world-wide roaming access service developed for the international research and education community. eduroam allows students, researchers and staff from participating institutions to obtain Internet connectivity across campus and when visiting other participating institutions by simply opening their laptop.

Over the last few years I have noticed that more and more institutions in Europe have joined eduroam, and being in Australia at the moment, I am very happy to see that both University of Technology Sydney as well as University of Sydney are also members of the club. Brilliant.

What to bring for a conference: Video camera or photo camera

In terms of quality the best thing to do for documentation is to bring your big SLR, your big HD video recorder, your big audio field recorder, microphones, tripods, etc. But when going to a conference on the other side of the world, carrying stuff around for 14 hours per day and moving between rooms every 30 minutes, this isn’t going to happen. So what to bring for documentation?

Its a long time ago since I gave up on doing pure audio recordings during conferences. I just never listen to the things I record, mainly because it is too painful to sort out what the different files are. It is just much easier with something visual that you can browse through. Hence if I want to record audio, I record a video to have some visuals to go along with it. The audio result is usually not very good, but having something is better than having nothing.

But I am always uncertain as to whether I should use a small photo camera or a small video recorder. This boils down to whether I want to have decent photos and poor video, or decent video and mediocre photos. Often I have chosen the first, bringing along my small photo camera (currently a Nikon Coolpix S7). This camera is extremely portable and fits nicely into a pocket. The photo quality is not great, but not too bad either. It doesn’t perform very well in low light, and the lens is not particularly wide, but the overall size is a clear winner. The problem, however, is that the video quality is so poor that it only rarely can shown to people later on. So during NIME 2010 in Sydney, I decided to bring my new small video camera (Sanyo Xacti HD-2000) and see how it works as a conference camera, both for pictures and videos.

Here is a quick wrap up of what I have found so far:

  • It starts super-fast
  • Video quality is (obviously) much, much better than the the Coolpix
  • Photo quality is (obviously) poorer than the Coolpix, but the total
    image quality (photo + video) is better
  • The shotgun grip is very useful for taking pictures, making it less obvious that I am running around with a camera
  • The zoom and low-light features are great for such a small device. Even in poorly lit auditoriums I manage to get a close up of the person talking without too much blurring
  • The size of the camera is quite a lot bigger. I do manage to put it in my pocket, but it is not particularly comfortable
  • It records HD video directly into MPEG-4 files with H.264 compression, so files can be play back instantly on all systems (compare this to all the mess working with AVCHD files!)
  • It is clearly larger than the Coolpix, so I usually put it back in my backpack when not in use

All in all I am quite happy about using the HD-2000 as a conference camera. We’ll see if I cange my mind over the next couple of days.

Slow internet… makes for different thinking

I am sitting in a hotel with a horrible internet connection. Not only is it costly, but it is also slow and the connection seems to fall out every 2 minutes. This makes me think about how used we are to having fast and reliable connections these days. It is not that many years ago since I was connecting through a dial-up modem, which would probably have made my current connection seem like a dream.

I don’t mind being without an internet connection, this just primes me for doing other activities. But I notice that having a poor and unreliable connection is frustrating since it interrupts my work-flow. It makes me think about how both my private and professional life is so reliant on having internet access all the time. I choose to think about this as a good lesson on how I should be more careful about not taking connectivity for granted.