A brief anecdote – last week I had to fix a website. Doesn’t matter which one, but there was a link that needed removing. Easy, you might think; not so, unfortunately. The link was embedded in a piece of malicious code in a website theme, which uses a bit of web technology called PHP. Now, I know very little about PHP, but I managed to find the right bit of code on the server and opened the file, to be greeted with absolute gibberish – a totally unintelligible string of numbers and letters. A bit of googling revealed that the code had been intentionally obfuscated by encoding it in base-64 – sneaky. A bit more googling eventually turned up a base-64 encoder/decoder which made sense of it, I stripped out the offending link, and uploaded a new version of the file back to the web server (using this awesome online ftp client), which (miraculously) worked! Job done.
The point of this anecdote is that you can achieve a lot with computers with a tiny bit of knowledge and a lot of experimentation – or just hacking around. Read the rest of this entry
These days most university departments provide at least some basic computing facilities for their students, but most students also want to have their own computer for all-night last-minute essay-writing sessions and/or illegally downloading episodes of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ or ‘Jersey Shore’ (depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on) outside their university’s firewall. Not that I would ever condone or seek to promote such activity, oh no. Anyway, computers are cheap nowadays, but they still represent a major investment for most students, so here is my advice on the matter. All opinions are mine alone, your mileage may vary etc. etc. Feel free to flame me in the comments if you feel I’ve unjustifiably dissed your favourite OS, or whatever.
The initial decision you need to make is which operating system takes your fancy most – and there are really only two options – Macintosh OS X or Microsoft Windows.* A lot of people get very excited by the Windows vs. Mac issue and Mac users in particular seem to have a genuine and somewhat creepy devotion to their chosen OS. My take though, is that the latest version of both (Windows 7 and OS X 10.6) are excellent, and either one will do everything you could possibly want. I regularly use both and have very little issue with switching between the two pretty much seamlessly. Nowadays, you can even install Windows natively on Mac hardware, so you could potentially buy a MacBook and use it purely as a Windows machine. If you were some kind of pervert. Read the rest of this entry
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Julius Caeser, Act 4, scene III
This will be the first in a (probably fairly lengthy) series of posts about how to design, program and run a successful psychology experiment. For this initial post I want to go over some basics about how computers work, and what that means for running successful experiments. Of course there are many different kinds of experiments that it’s possible to run, but for the purposes of the present discussion I’m going to use as an example a canonical kind of cognitive experiment, where the dependent variable is reaction time, measured using a button-press. This kind of experiment is still widely-used, in paradigms like the dot-probe attentional task, and the Implicit Association Test.
The first thing you need to understand is that modern operating systems are very, very complicated. When you boot up Windows (for example) all you see at first is a nice, clean, uncluttered desktop, but examining the Windows Task Manager reveals a whole host of ‘background’ processes which are buzzing away invisibly all the time. These might be search indexers, printer services, network connections, anti-virus software, firewalls, and a whole mess of other stuff. If you then open a few different applications (a web browser with a few tabs open, Microsoft Word, an email program, some instant messaging application) the computer has a few more processes to juggle, as well as all the background stuff. This is normally fine, as long as you have enough RAM to handle all the requirements of these different processes – modern OSs are multi-tasking, meaning they can handle having lots of things going on at once. Read the rest of this entry