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Dr MacLove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Apple

tumblr_lvuw7pdsFg1r2r3c4o1_500Back in the 90s it was easy; if you were a graphic designer, or some kind of proto-hipster with a trust fund you used a Mac. Everyone else used a PC. Then in the 2000s Apple started making iThings, everyone started going absolutely batshit crazy over them, and suddenly Macs were everywhere as well.

I’ve used both in parallel since about 2003 – I started off with a G5 power mac as a desktop complemented by a Windows laptop, but that’s now reversed with a Windows 7 PC on my desk at work, and a MacBook Air. This shift was significant – the desktop is what’s provided to me by my job, the laptop is my personal computer; what I choose to buy for myself.  Despite using OS X since 2003 I only really started liking it when I got my first Apple laptop – a 2009 MacBook Pro. This was also around the time that I got an iPhone 3G, which seemed like some incredible advanced artefact from the future compared to the chunky ‘smartphone’ I was using before that ran Windows Mobile 6.5; an unbelievably awful OS which I could never get to work as it should. I’ve since swapped the Pro for a 2012 MacBook air, bought an iPad mini, and am on my third iPhone, so my conversion is pretty much complete. I’ve looked at Android ‘phones and tablets, honestly, I have. Some of them are very nice, but the OS just always seems too…  busy. Maybe it’s my age, but I just want something I can pick up and use without a massive learning curve. I’m happy to stand up and say I’m an Apple-guy, and it took a while, but I’m finally actually OK with that.

It took a while, but I’ve now found Mac versions or fairly close equivalents for all the software I used on my PC. At first I sometimes used to boot into Windows using bootcamp to use a couple of applications, but I deleted the partition a while ago – I just wasn’t using it anymore. I probably won’t be spending money on any Windows machines for the foreseeable future. I know that Mac vs. Windows is one of the most hackneyed, pointless and bitter debates on the entire internet, but I just couldn’t resist setting my own bit of troll-bait out. Here, then, are the major reasons I became a Mac convert – your mileage may vary, personal opinions only, blah blah.

The MacBook Air
The Air is the machine that kicked off the ultrabook trend and, to my mind, PC manufacturers have still yet to equal the Air’s amazing combination of power, usability and portability. My 2012 model is greased-lightning-off-a-shovel fast – it chews through a set of fMRI pre-processing twice as fast as my old MB Pro, and that was no slouch either. The 2013 models are even faster, with better graphics and a frankly ridiculous 12-hour battery life. If you can live with a relatively small (128/256Gb) amount of storage, it’s a peach of a machine. Plus, I can carry it around all day and barely even notice the weight. For my money, the Air is the best value computer out there – I don’t think the step-up in performance you get with the Pro is worth the price, personally.

The Apple Trackpad
Using the trackpad on a Windows laptop feels like going back to the stone age after you’re used to the fantastic set of multi-touch gestures on an Apple laptop. Have never found one on a PC that even comes close.

Migration Assistant
Remember the excitement of getting a new computer and then the agony of re-installing all your applications, and tweaking the system to get it the way you like it? That pain doesn’t exist for me anymore. Apple’s Migration Assistant lets you do a time-machine back-up of your old computer on to an external  drive, plug that into the new one and everything is reproduced; your applications, desktop, OS settings, bookmarks, everything. It’s awesome.

OS X’s system of virtual desktops is brilliant, and essential for me, now that I’ve got used to it; flipping between desktops with ctrl+left/right arrow keys is fast and smooth, and means you can really extend the limits of what can be done on a 13″ laptop screen. I have no idea why Windows doesn’t implement virtual desktops.

In the last couple of years I’ve switched to using FSL as my main fMRI-analysis platform. FSL is developed on Macs, runs well on other Unix systems, but needs some kind of unix-emulation to run on Windows. Urgh – forget it. I do like being able to open up a terminal and institute little tweaks to the OS and applications as well. Of course Matlab/SPM and BrainVoyager also run beautifully on OS X.

To install an application on OS X you drag it to a folder. To uninstall it you drag it to the recycle bin. That’s it.

Mac-only software
Osirix is without any shadow of a doubt, the best free DICOM image viewer available, and it’s Mac-only. Other things like Automator I’d really miss too, plus of course Apple’s super-fast and comprehensive spotlight search is awesome.

No crapware
You know all that shit you have to uninstall as soon as you get a new PC? Free trials of anti-virus software, media players, desktop icons that link to shitty Yahoo services you have no intention of ever using? Doesn’t exist in OS X.


Having said all that, of course there are annoying things that drive me crazy about OS X too. No system is perfect after all…

No Cut/Paste
You can copy and paste files between two file locations, but you can’t CUT and then paste. Seriously Apple, is this really a problem?

Annoying behaviour of the green button
The green button at the top of the window that I still think of as the ‘maximise’ button – it’s annoying. It seems to re-size the window pretty much randomly. I hate it.

For the love of all that is holy Apple, will you please do something about the benighted clusterfuck that is iTunes? It’s utterly heinous.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments. If you think Windows 8 is the greatest OS ever devised, please say so. Personally I think it’s a botched, compromise that tries to bring touch-functionality to laptops and laptop-functionality to tablets and does neither well, but hey, that’s just my opinion. Windows is like Star Trek movies – every other one in the series is decent, which means Windows 9 should actually be pretty usable.

Anyway – flame on!

Psychology experiments enter the post-PC era: OpenSesame now runs on Android

smartphones-picard-uses-androidI’ve mentioned OpenSesame briefly on here before, but for those of you who weren’t keeping up, it’s a pretty awesome, free psychology experiment-developing application, built using the Python programming language, and it has a lot in common with PsychoPy (which is also awesome).

The recently-released new version of OpenSesame has just taken an important step, in that it now supports the Android mobile operating system, meaning that it can run natively on Android tablets and smartphones. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a psychology-experimental application has been compiled (and released to the masses) for a mobile OS.

This is cool for lots of reasons. It’s an interesting technical achievement; Android is a very different implementation to a desktop OS, being focused heavily on touch interfaces. Such interfaces are now ubiquitous, and are much more accessible, in the sense that people who may struggle with a traditional mouse/keyboard can use them relatively easily. Running psychology experiments on touch-tablets may enable the study of populations (e.g., the very young, very old, or various patient groups) that would be very difficult with a more ‘traditional’ system. Similarly, conducting ‘field’ studies might be much more effective; I can imagine handing a participant a tablet for them to complete some kind of task in the street, or in a shopping mall, for instance. Also, it may open up the possibility of using the variety of sensors in modern mobile devices (light, proximity, accelerometers, magnetometers) in interesting and creative ways. Finally, the hardware is relatively cheap, and (of course) portable.

I’m itching to try this out, but unfortunately don’t have an Android tablet. I love my iPad mini for lots of reasons, but the more restricted nature of Apple’s OS means that it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar system on iOS anytime soon.

So, very exciting times. Here’s a brief demo video of OpenSesame running on a Google Nexus 7 tablet (in the demo the tablet is actually running a version of Ubuntu Linux, but with the new version of OpenSesame it shouldn’t be necessary to replace the Android OS). Let me know in the comments if you have any experience with tablet-experiments, or if you can think of any other creative ways they could be used.



iPad app in development to help with macular degeneration

CachedImageI’ve written before about iPad apps useful for vision research, but I’ve just come across a new vision-related app, so new in fact that it’s still in the development/testing phase. It’s been produced by my old Colleague Prof. Robin Walker at Royal Holloway University and is designed as a rehabilitative tool for people with Macular Degeneration (MD).

Age-related MD is by far the most common form of blindness/vision-loss in people over 50, and involves degeneration of the visual sensitivity of the centre portion of the retina – the part of the eye which has the highest density of rods and cones. This makes tasks such as reading and recognising faces more and more difficult as the condition progresses. One way of mitigating the effects is to try and use portions of the retina which are less affected, i.e. the periphery. For reading, the ‘eccentric-vision’ and ‘steady-eye’ techniques involve fixating at a point and then moving the text through areas of the visual field which are less affected. These techniques require some practice to counteract the natural tendency to make eye-movements when reading, and it’s this training process that the app is intended to help with.

Read more about the app here, and there’s also a (pay-walled) article in the British Journal of Opthalmology here.

Tablet computers (iPad, Nexus 7, etc.) for children with developmental disorders

A very minimal post merely to point any interested readers towards an interesting discussion going on in the comments section of a post on Engadget here. A reader asked for suggestions for a tablet and/or apps for his developmentally-delayed daughter, and a large number of people have contributed some useful ideas and links. Just try to ignore the (inevitable *sigh*) Android vs. iOS fan-boy squabbling.

iPad app for generating visual psychophysics stimuli

I’ve been meaning to write a new post which would be an update to my previous one on good psychology-related iPhone/iPad apps for a while now, but I just came across one app which is just too good not to share immediately. It’s a free app called RFSpotter, written by Nicolas Cottaris of the  IRCS and Dept. of Psychology at The University of Pennsylvania, and it generates simple visual psychophysics stimuli for use in mapping receptive fields and the tuning properties thereof. It has a very slick interface, where stimulus size, position and rotation can all be controlled by the usual iOS finger-gestures (e.g. pinch-to-zoom to change stimulus size, two-finger rotation for orientation) with many other parameters editable through a pop-up menu. It will do gratings, patches, dot-clouds, coloured stimuli – all kinds of things! Very, very neat indeed.

See this page for more details and a video of it in action, and visit the iTunes store here to download it.

Some screenshots:

The iPad really has the potential to be a serious platform for research, and it’s tools like this that will make it possible to do some really interesting work with it – here’s hoping we see many more specialist, research-oriented apps like this in the future!

Nature Article on the Paperless Lab

Very quick post to point out an interesting article in Nature this week, on how some labs are going paperless for their record-keeping and management. The examples given go well beyond just using an iPad instead of a paper notebook though – well worth a read. You can find the article here.

The iPad and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for Social Anxiety

The iPad - not totally useless after all, apparently

My lovely wife has just found a new use for her iPad in the course of her clinical work using cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). One of the techniques she uses for socially anxious clients is video recording them giving short presentations. Before giving the talk they generally believe that they will perform very badly, but when they view the video afterwards they’re usually pleasantly surprised by their performance. This technique was first proposed in this paper, and (I’m told) is pretty effective at convincing such clients that sometimes their own predictions of how they’ll perform in a given situation can be inaccurate and negatively biased.

Anyway, she used to do this by lugging along a video-camera, a tripod, and a laptop to her therapy sessions, video-ing the presentation using the camera and tripod, then connecting the camera to the laptop in order to let the client view the video on the larger screen. But, since she got an iPad she just props it up in the corner of the room, shoots a video using the built-in camera on the back (it’s not a great camera, but it’s definitely good enough) and when the client needs to see it, all she has to do is flip the iPad over and hit the play button. Simple, elegant, and all that’s required is the iPad itself. This is definitely the best use I’ve ever heard of for an iPad – perhaps they’re not just expensive toys after all? ;o)


More on e-textbooks, plus Cognopedia

A very small update just to point interested readers to a few things I’ve found recently.

Firstly, you may recall me blogging about e-textbooks for students previously, here and here. have just published a couple of articles relevant to this topic. Firstly, they have an opinion piece here which unfortunately comes to the conclusion that publishers are failing to drive along the adoption of e-textbooks at the moment. Interestingly it mentions that many students are already pirating textbooks (downloading them from torrent sites, etc.). Yet another example of how traditional media companies are always behind the curve when it comes to new technology, which forces users to seek illegal routes for what they want to do. The other piece (here) is a run-down of the major pieces of e-reader (e.g. the Amazon Kindle) and tablet (e.g. Apple’s iPad) hardware available at the moment – a nice piece as it compares both classes of device side-by-side.

The other tender morsel which I shall try and tempt your jaded mouse-finger with today is a site called Cognopedia, which is essentially a wiki-like site, but entirely focussed on the brain. Seems to have a lot of good information, and a lot of good embedded videos and multimedia on various topics. Worth checking out. Credit for bringing this to my attention goes to the never-less-than-excellent Mo Costandi (follow him on Twitter: @mocost) and also the relentlessly sublime BPS research digest (here). If you’re a psychology student or a psychologist and you don’t already subscribe to the BPS research digest blog, then you are definitely, definitely missing out.

E-textbooks – a tiny update.

The future - you can touch it.

I blogged the other day about e-textbooks and how they might change the way we study and consume information, and have just come across this page on the Nature site (via the never-less-than-excellent GrrlScientist). It’s an online biology textbook, published by Nature, full of beautiful illustrations, you can read it anywhere you have web-access, on any device, and it’s constantly updated, so it never goes out of date. The future – it’s here!

Kno for iPad, and e-textbooks – the future of studying?

E-textbooks - the future?

OK, I know I ragged on the iPad (and tablets in general) somewhat in this post, but there’s just been a very interesting announcement from a company called Kno, and what can I say, I’m capricious. This company had previously put out a massive piece of hardware, which consisted of two 14.1 inch tablets stuck together – they were marketing this as a digital textbook. The device was generally poorly reviewed, and it looks like they’ve come up with a different strategy – licensing their software for the iPad. You can download the Kno app, and then have access to a store which will sell you e-textbooks for (they claim) 30-50% off the list price.  A quick perusal of their store reveals many common undergraduate psychology titles (although quite a lot are labelled as ‘coming soon’). This has to be better (and cheaper) than carrying around a load of massive textbooks, right? Their software looks pretty good – you can make annotations, share stuff through the normal social-network channels, zoom-in on illustrations etc. Read the rest of this entry