Category Archives: Internet
I was in a moderately-well-known-Professor-who-shall-remain-nameless’s office the other day, watching him bang out an email. Except he wasn’t banging it out, he was using his two index fingers to hunt-and-peck at the keyboard while continually lifting his head to look at the screen, and then putting it back down to peer at the keyboard. It was painful to watch. I nearly gnawed right through a knuckle.
I was fortunate. When I was 13 years old, my Mum sat me down at her electric typewriter (yes, really, I am that old), gave me a Mavis Beacon book, and told me I wasn’t allowed any dinner until I could do at least 60 words per minute with no mistakes. A week later, when I was so faint with hunger and the pain from my finger-blisters that I could barely see the page anymore, I managed it.
Of course that’s not true, but my Mum is a fantastic typist, and did teach me when I was about 13, and honestly in terms of investment/payoff ratio it’s probably the best few hours I’ve ever spent in my life. Learning to touch-type is not hard and doesn’t really take that long; like most things it’s just a matter of discipline and practice. Actually, once you start doing it properly it’s hard to imagine how you ever managed without it. If you’re reading this, then you probably spend at least a substantial part of your day sitting at a keyboard, why not spend a few hours making the entire rest of your working life easier and more efficient? And if you’re reading this thinking “Yeah, but I’ve developed my own version of semi-touch-typing which is pretty fast and efficient, actually” then you’re wrong. It’s likely nowhere near as fast and efficient as it could be.
There are lots of good online touch-typing courses available. Most of them give you feedback on speed and the number of mistakes you make while typing. TypingClub looks like a good option. The BBC has a good course aimed more at kids. This site has a free course and a number of games to improve and sharpen up your skillz.
Seriously, this is one of the best things you can possibly learn. Yes, it’s a drag, but it will literally make the rest of your life easier. DO IT.
When I was an undergraduate student, email was still not widely used, and the idea of emailing a lecturer or professor would have been quite daunting. Times have changed however, and nowadays most academics deal with a steady stream of emails from students throughout the year. This is a good thing in many ways; it helps to break down barriers between the staff and students and can be a very efficient way to communicate. Unfortunately many students don’t follow some basic rules of general politeness when contacting staff and this leads to faculty members getting irritated, and students receiving witheringly sarcastic responses or links to let me Google that for you.
Here are a few pieces I’ve collected that set out precisely how best to communicate with your advisor, lecturer or professor. First of all, we have a guide from Wellesley College titled How to Email Your Professor, shared on Twitter by Tom Hartley. Tom also went to the bother of conducting a survey about this kind of thing, and presented the results on his blog. He highlights some interesting cultural differences, particularly between the UK and the US – well worth reading through.
I won’t bother repeating much of what these excellent sources suggest, except to say that the common threads through them all seem to be:
1) Be polite, and relatively formal (at least at first).
2) Don’t ask stupid questions.
3) Don’t make stupid (i.e. any) spelling and grammar mistakes.
4) For the love of all that is good and holy, get the name and title of the person you’re emailing correct.
How hard can that be, eh?
I’ve just come across two outstanding tutorial videos over on xiph.org – an open-source organisation dedicated to developing multimedia protocols and tools. So, the first one covers the fundamental principles of digital sampling for audio and video, and discusses sampling rates, bit depth and lots of other fun stuff – if you’ve ever wondered what a 16-bit, 128kbps mp3 is, this is for you.
The second one focusses on audio and gets on to some more advanced topics, about how audio behaves in the real world.
They’re both fairly long (30 mins and 23 mins respectively) but well worth watching. If you’re just getting started with digital audio and/or video editing and production, these could be really useful.
So-called brain-training tools seem to have exploded in the last few years; one estimate puts it at a $6 billion market by 2020. It’s clearly become a major industry, but what’s less clear is exactly what it does, and if it even works. The typical procedure seems to be to engage in short games, puzzles and working-memory-type tasks, and these are supposed to produce long term changes in attention, engagement and general fluid intelligence.
Whether this is actually true or not is a matter of some debate. I’m not a specialist in this area, but the received wisdom appears to be that training on specific tasks does improve performance – on those tasks. There seems to be little generalisation to other tasks, and even less to domain-general abilities like executive processing, or working memory. A high-profile study by Adrian Owen and colleagues (2010) reported exactly that – benefits in the tasks themselves, but little (if any) general benefits. A previous study from PNAS in 2008 does seem to contradict this, and reports an increase in fluid intelligence as a result of working-memory training – not only that, but they claim a dose-dependent effect, that is, more training = more increase in intelligence. The gains in that study were relatively small, and it should be also noted that the control group also apparently increased their intelligence somewhat over the same period as the experimental group – curious. There are lots of other studies around, but many have issues; small samples, poorly-controlled etc. etc.
So, the jury’s still very much out (though personally, I’m on the side of the skeptics on the issue). This hasn’t stopped a bewildering array of businesses starting up, making all kinds of wild claims, and playing on the fears of educators and parents that perhaps if they don’t provide these kinds of programs, their kids will be slipping behind the rest. All these companies have glossy, highly-polished, ethnically-balanced websites with testimonials, and lots of links to science-y looking videos that present their program as the only scientifically-proven method of increasing your child’s intelligence. A brief browse through some of these companies websites reveals that they range from the absurd (QDreams! Success at the speed of thought!) to the very, very slick indeed (e.g. Lumosity). Other examples are Cogmed (seems to be backed by Pearson publishers and, to its credit, links to a list of semi-relevant research papers), and the very simplistic PowerBrain Education – which seems to involve getting kids to do some odd-looking arm-shaking exercises. There’s literally hundreds of these companies. Some of them even seem to cater to businesses who want their employees to do these ‘exercises’.
LearningRX definitely falls into the slick category. According to this New York Times article it has 83 physical store-front franchises across the USA, where people can come to pay $80-90 an hour for one-on-one training, and they market this to parents as an alternative to traditional tutoring. A quick glance at their Scientific Advisory Board is pretty revealing – I count only one (clinical) psychologist, and a grab-bag of other professionals – mostly teachers (qualified to Masters level) with an optometrist, a chemical engineer and an audiologist. Not a single neuroscientist, and only a few qualified at doctorate level.
I’m not trying to be unnecessarily snobby about their qualifications here, I’m suggesting that the claims they make for their brain-training programs (literally: it will change your child’s life) are big ones, and we might expect that the people who developed it might be qualified in some area of brain-science. If it really, clearly worked, then of course it wouldn’t matter exactly who developed it, and what their qualifications were, but there’s definitely reasonable doubt (if not outright disbelief) over its effectiveness.
And this is the important point. People are spending money on this – big money. Whether that’s a hard-pressed family struggling to find an extra $90 a week for their kid to have a session at one of LearningRX’s centres, or an education board deciding to institute one of these programs in its schools. Education budgets are tight enough, but these kinds of programs are being heavily invested in, and I can see why – they promise to make kids smarter, better-behaved, more attentive, and all you have to do is sit them in front of a special computer game for an hour a week. That must seem like a pretty attractive proposition for teachers. Unfortunately, if they really don’t work, then that money could be better spent on books, or musical instruments, or something else which might genuinely enrich the kids’ lives.
There’s a long and venerable history of unscrupulous people making money from pseudo-neuroscience – back in the 19th Century phrenology was described as “The science of picking someone’s pocket, through their skull.” I’d like to believe that some of these companies have a solid product that actually made a difference, but they all seem to have the whiff of snake-oil about them. For now I’m very much of the opinion that you’d probably be better off learning the piano, or Japanese, or even playing the latest Call of Duty. If you were really ambitious you could even try and get your kid to (Heaven forfend!) read the odd book now and again.
I put that last sentence that mentions Call of Duty in there as a bit of flippancy, but I’ve since been informed (by Micah Allen on Twitter) of some evidence that playing action video games can indeed improve some cognitive processes such as the accuracy of visuo-spatial attention and reaction times. These results mostly originate from a single lab and so are in need of replication, but still – interesting. (I still reckon you’re probably better off with a good book though.)
A quick post to point you towards a great website with a lot of really cool content (if you’re into that kind of thing, which if you’re reading this blog, then I assume you probably are… anyway, I digress; I apologise, it was my lab’s Christmas party last night and I’m in a somewhat rambling mood. Anyway, back to the point).
So, the website is called cogsci.nl, and is run by a post-doc at the University of Aix-Marseille called Sebastiaan Mathôt. It’s notable in that it’s the homepage of OpenSesame – a very nice-looking, Python-based graphical experiment builder that I’ve mentioned before on these very pages. There’s a lot of other cool stuff on the site though, including more software (featuring a really cool online tool for instantly creating Gabor patch stimuli), a list of links to stimulus sets, and a selection of really-cool optical illusions. Really worth spending 20 minutes of your time poking around a little and seeing what’s there.
I’ll leave you with a video of Sebastiaan demonstrating an experimental program, written in his OpenSesame system, running on a Google Nexus 7 Tablet (using Ubuntu linux as an OS). The future! It’s here!
This post might seem a trifle umm… politically insensitive after recent revelations in the UK about exactly how much corporation tax Google pays (answer – basically none), but I’ve been planning it for a while, and unlike Starbucks (which should be boycotted at all costs, because their coffee sucks) Google is a little harder to avoid, and actually provides a whole slew of incredibly worthwhile, and mostly free, services. One of the first things you should do when you start an undergraduate course at a college/university is sign up for a Google account. Here’s why:
You’ve probably already got an email address, but if you’re not using Gmail then you need to switch. The interface is brilliantly usable and customisable, and you get a massive 10Gb of storage for all your mail – more than you’ll likely ever need. The most important benefit though, is Gmail’s ability to pull all your current and future email accounts together in one place. Gmail can be set up as a POP3 client (here’s how) meaning it can pull email in from several different accounts and present it all in one inbox. You’ve probably got an account already, you’ll definitely get an account on your university’s servers, and when you leave and either go on to postgraduate study (maybe at a different university) or get a job, you’ll almost certainly get given yet another account. Gmail can centralize everything, and mean that you only have to check one inbox for all your accounts. You can even configure it so that it sends mail through, say, your university account by default, so people you contact see your ‘official’ email address. I’ve currently got five email accounts configured to read through Gmail, and I honestly couldn’t manage without it. Additionally, if you start using Gmail from day one, all your contacts and mail are saved in your Gmail account, and won’t be lost when you complete your course and your university account inevitably gets cancelled/deleted. Another benefit of Gmail is its ease of use with various smartphone platforms. Android (obviously) and iOS devices are designed to sync up with Google accounts pretty much seamlessly.
So, set up a Gmail account, and assume it’ll be your email address for life. Be sensible. Don’t choose a username like email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org – choose something you’ll be happy to put on a CV when you leave college, i.e. something that pretty much consists of your name.
In one sense, Google Drive is a simple online storage locker for any kinds of files you like, a bit like Dropbox, or any of the other similar services which have proliferated recently. You get 5Gb of free space, and it’s easy to set up file sharing for specific other users, or to make your files available for download to anyone you send a link to. In another sense, it’s a full-featured web-based alternative to Microsoft Office, with the ability to create/edit documents, spreadsheets or presentations online, collaborate on them simultaneously with other users, and download them in a variety of the usual formats. Use it for just backing important things up, or use the full ‘Docs’ features – it’s up to you.
One other incredibly powerful feature of Google docs are the forms tools. These can be used to create online forms – the best way I currently know of to create online questionnaires for research purposes. The data from the questionnaires all gets dumped into a google docs spreadsheet for easy analysis too – very cool. This page has some good tips.
3. Google Scholar
Google Scholar is pretty much my first port-of-call for literature searches these days, and is often the best way of looking up papers quickly and easily. Yes, for in-depth research on a particular topic then you still need to look at more specialised databases, but as a first-pass tool, it’s fantastic. You can use it without being logged in with a Google account, but if you’re a researcher, you can get a Google Scholar profile page – like this: Isaac Newton’s Google Scholar profile page (only an h-index of 33 Isaac? Better get your thumb out of your arse for the REF old boy). This is the best way to keep track of your publications and some simple citation metrics.
4. Google Calendar
Yes, you need to start using a calendar. Google calendar can pull together several calendars together into one, sync seamlessly with your ‘phone, and send you alerts and emails to make sure you never miss a tutorial or lecture again. Or at least, you never miss one because you just forgot about it.
Blogger is owned by Google, so if you want to start a blog (and it’s something you should definitely think about), all you need to do is go to blogger and hit a few buttons – simples. That’s the easy bit – then you actually have to write something of course…
6. Google Sites
Probably the easiest way to create free websites – as for Blogger above, you can literally create a site with a few clicks. Lots of good free templates that you can use and customise.
Yes, I know you use Facebook, but Google+ is the future. Maybe. The video hangouts are cool, anyway.
8. Other things
Use your Google account to post videos to YouTube, save maps/locations/addresses in Google Maps, find like-minded weirdos who are into the same things as you on Google Groups, read RSS feeds using Google Reader, and oooh… lots of other things.
Honestly, the feature of Gmail should be inducement enough for everyone to sign up for a Google account, the rest is just a bonus. Get to it people – it’s never too late to switch.
Following a couple of comments (below, and on Twitter) I feel it necessary to qualify somewhat my effusive recommendation of Google. Use of Google services inevitably involves surrendering personal information and other data to Google, which is a large corporation, and despite these services being free at the point of use, it should always be remembered that the business of corporations is to deliver profits. Locking oneself into a corporate system should be considered carefully, no matter how ‘convenient’ it might be. This article from Gizmodo is worth a read, as is this blog post from a former Google employee.
I’ve come across a couple of more web-links which I thought were important enough to share with you straight away rather than saving them up for a massive splurge of links.
The first is ViperLib, a site which focusses (geddit?) on visual perception and is run by Peter Thompson and Rob Stone of the University of York, with additional input (apparently) from Barry the snake. This is essentially a library of images and movies related to vision science, and currently contains a total of 1850 images – illusions, brain scans, anatomical diagrams, and much more. Registration is required to view the images, but it’s free and easily done, and I would encourage anyone to spend an hour or so of their time poking around amongst the treasures there. I shall be digging through my old hard drives when I get a chance and contributing some optic-flow stimuli from my old vision work to the database.
The second is for the (f)MRI types out there; a fantastic ‘Imaging Knowledge Base’ from the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. The page has a huge range of great information about fMRI design and analysis, from the basics of Matlab, to how to perform ROI analyses, and all presented in a very friendly, introductory format. If you’re just getting started with neuroimaging, this is one of the best resources I’ve seen for beginners.
With thanks to Nick Davis. I wonder if he codes better with his right or left hand?