IFTTT, if this then that, is an online, multi-service task automation tool I first read about on Lifehacker last year. I finally started using it today, and am seriously impressed.

IFTTT

Once you’ve signed up for an account, you can create IFTTT ‘recipes’ to check for actions and events on one online service (e.g. Google Reader, Dropbox, WordPress, Facebook etc.) and use them as an automatic trigger of a predetermined action in another (e.g. Gmail, Google Calendar, Tumblr etc.)

Example: To keep track of journal articles I should read, I monitor journal table of contents RSS feeds and e-mail interesting posts to myself for later download and consumption. I use my iPad, my phone, and occasionally my PC browser to access Google Reader, but struggle with how fiddly it is to e-mail myself on my mobile devices (with my filter-trigger keywords in the message body) whenever I find an article I want to read.  I’m sure I’ve missed articles I ought to have read through setting my action criterion a bit too high, as a direct result of how annoying it is to e-mail myself articles using the various Google Reader interfaces on my mobile devices. Today I set up IFTTT to check for starred Google Reader feed items, and automatically do everything else beyond this that I find annoying. Perfect!

IFTTT will check for custom recipe triggers every 15 minutes, so it isn’t something you’d want to use for actions you require to be instantaneous, but it’s perfect for situations like the above. The services with which it is integrated are many and varied, and the possibilities therefore nearly limitless.

UPDATE 16/04/2014: I just came across this page and found that I had referenced the now defunct Google Reader. When Reader died I moved all of my RSS feeds across to feedly, which IFTTT supports with identical functionality. I also apply the same rule to twitter posts I favourite, meaning that I have a Gmail folder in which IFTTT aggregates all of the stuff I want to read from both feedly and twitter.

Can the iPad2, with its 132ppi 1024 x 768 screen, be used to comfortably read pdfs without the need to zoom and scroll about single pages?

That was a question that troubled me when I was splashing out for one earlier this year. To try to get a better idea of what a pdf viewed on only 800,000 pixels might look like was hard. Neither my attempt to I resize a pdf window to the correct number of pixels (too small) nor my attempt to screengrab  a pdf at a higher resolution and shrink it using GIMP (too fuzzy) were particularly informative. I just had to take plunge and see.

There’s enough wiggle-room (as you can see in the screenshots below) to suggest that there’s no definitive answer, I think the answer is probably yes. But, that’s only if you take advantage of some nifty capabilities of pdf-reading apps, Goodreader being the one I use, mostly thanks to its almost seamless Dropbox syncing capabilities.

Below is a screengrab of a standard, US letter-size, pdf, displayed unmodified on the iPad. The size, when the image is viewed inline with this text (and not in its own separate window), is approximately the same as it appears on the iPad (there is some loss of resolution which can be recovered if you click on the image and open it in its own window).

Click on the image to simulate holding the iPad close to your face whilst squinting.

The screengrab above demonstrates that virgin pdfs aren’t great to read. The main body of the text can be read at a push, but it’s certainly not comfortable.

Thankfully, the bulk of the discomfort can be relieved using Goodreader’s cropping function, which allows whitespace around pdfs to be cropped out (with different settings for odd and even pages, if required).  A cropped version of the above page looks like this:
A marked improvement which could be cropped further if you weren't too worried about losing the header information. Click on the image to see the screengrab with no loss of resolution.

The image above demonstrates that cropping can be used to get most value from the rather miserly screen resolution (the same on both the iPad and iPad2, though almost certainly not on the iPad3, when that’s released).

But, cropping doesn’t solve all tiny text traumas.  There are some circumstances, such as with particularly small text like the figure legend below, that necessitate a bit of zooming.

The figure legend is a little too small to read comfortably, even when the page is cropped.

I don’t mind zooming in to see a figure properly, but that’s probably a matter of personal taste.

If you’re used to using an iPhone4, with its ridiculous 326ppi retina display, then you’ll find reading pdfs on a current model iPad a bit of a step back. But, it’s passable and I certainly don’t mind doing it. It certainly beats printing, carrying and storing reams of paper.

Having deleted my facebook account nearly two years ago, as I activated a Google+ account this week I was wary of repeating previous mistakes.  Back in 2009 I had decided that I wasn’t getting as much out of facebook as I was putting into it. Specifically, I was ashamed at the amount of my time it consumed, I was worried, not so much about my privacy, as the disregard of my right to it (even if I chose not to take it up), and I was anxious about expressing myself too freely lest I cause offence to my friends.  Google+ has lessened my anxiety with its subdivision of friends into circles, though, of course, its potential to cause me shame and worry over my time and privacy are just as real as they ever were with facebook.

With all this in mind, my early experiences of Google+ have been very positive. As I was hoping to, I have re-connected with some lovely friends who had remained on facebook and never ventured onto twitter. Perhaps most encouragingly though, it looks like Google+ might be able to reach beyond the social, and enrich my professional life too. The following exchange, which I started to try and learn more about the use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in psychological research, is the sort of thing that’s making me very excited about this possibility.

Full Google Plus conversation

The discussion went in to far more detail than I could have hoped, and for those who are interested, a text-searchable pdf of the exchange complete with clickable links is available here.  (Incidentally, the reason I have had to go to so much trouble to provide a link to the thread with jpgs and pdfs, as opposed to the sort of easy html permalinking offered by twitter, is down to Google’s as-yet imperfect post-hoc sharing system. Once I decided that the thread deserved a wider audience, the options available to me were a) to re-share my original post, without the comments, to anyone on the web, or b) to provide a permalink to the whole thread that was only accessible to those with whom I had originally shared my first post. An option to change the sharing permissions for the entire thread, with the permission of all contributors of course, would be highly appreciated!)

As to why the question about Mechanical Turk generated so much useful information, there are three reasons I can think of.  The first is a simple affordance of the length of posts and comments.  Unlike twitter, detail can be provided when detail is required.  Whilst I have read the thoughts of writers praising the cognitive workout required to condense their tweets to be both eloquent and informative, it is limited medium that doesn’t lend itself to information-rich content or detailed evaluation.  Google+provides a clean, long-format forum in which ideas can be effectively transferred.

The second reason lies in the flexibility of the medium to provide relevant information to those who care.  Circles can be used to selectively share updates with certain groups.  This means that scientific updates can be restricted to my ‘Science’ circle, posts on running can be restricted to my ‘Runners’ circle,  and users may be feeling the effects of a more targeted dose of updates and information.  Comments aren’t driven by a desire to appear funny to a large number of people who probably share your boredom at the fact that, as it’s Sunday, Akira has once again completed a 6.3 mile run in a smidgen over 50 minutes – you’d probably only reach 5 people who would actually be rather preoccupied with trying to work out why Akira hasn’t managed to improve on his 6-mile time despite having done the same run every week for about 6 months.  Depending on your willingness to invest time in the categorisation of contacts, you can be taken as seriously as you want.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Google+ is current rife with early-adopters. These are technologically ‘switched-on’ folk, who are willing to take a punt on a new medium, testing its capabilities and its uses as they go. To illustrate, Tom Hartley, Tal Yarkoni and Yana Weinstein all maintain current blogs/websites of their own and all contributors to the above thread are active twitter users (and well worth following).  Asking a question about how to conduct science using a nascent technology via a nascent communication technology stood every chance of being successful given the overlap in the Venn diagram of technology users.  Add to that the diminished risk of being called out as a ‘geek’, we’re all geeks here even before uber-geeks are further isolated within the ‘Geek’ circle, and we have the optimum conditions in which to find out about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

This isn’t to say that Google+ won’t be successful for non-technological academic discussion, or for technological discussion even after the the laggards arrive.  But I think that success depends on the parameters for its use in academia being established now.  If academics recognise that Google+ can be used to exchange work-related ideas early on in its life-cycle, then it has a much better chance of taking off and even being further developed with this use in mind. It already seems to me a far more attractive site for academics than academia.edu which has comprehensively failed to do anything other than act as a repository for electronic papers and CVs.

So, I’m quietly optimistic… until the next big thing comes along and I jump ship, desperately trying to keep up with all the other early-adopters.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suJgV9HhJp8]

Last night I capitulated and ordered an iPad2.

Since blogging about whether it might be a good idea to get one a while ago, I have noticed mention of iPads cropping up more and more in my RSS feeds.  Of course, this is down to the release of the latest version of the iPad, but I generally find it easy to ignore the engadget hype posts about stuff I’m not all that excited about… for example I really don’t give a toss about the Nintendo 3DS and there’s a fair amount been written about those lately too.  More difficult to ignore have been the mentions in the academic blogs I subscribe to (such as the consistently interesting Profhacker) and recommendations from friends (such as @pam_psych).

Other contributing factors have included the construction of  a ‘reading nook’ in my office, having to over-ride my HP printer’s helpful out of ink notification (if you’re out of ink, why can I override you and still get perfectly readable printouts?)  and noticing my ‘to read’ GMail label pile up to over 20 items once again.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was seeing Alex Easton give a very smoothly presented departmental seminar on Friday, all administered using, rather inevitably, an iPad.

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...
Look at his smug little face. Image via Wikipedia

Which has led me to quite a conflicted state of being.  I dislike Steve Jobs immensely.  I despise the arrogance with which he suggests that the iPad is “magical” (I invariably had to stop myself from spitting on the sign that proclaimed this ridiculousness outside the Washington University Bookshop).  I even bought an Android phone so I wouldn’t line his pockets.  But the allure of a well-designed, perfectly useful product has made me eat my words and give him some of my heard-earned cash.

So, I’m now looking forward to the day in May when I receive my magical and revolutionary product.  I’m eagerly awaiting the sense of frustration I’ll feel when I realise that its 1024×768 resolution isn’t quite good enough to read a single page of a pdf article in fullscreen.  I can’t wait until the perfectly standard use of Flash on a website I’m viewing fails to load.  I’m on tenterhooks to experience the pointed glances that scream “pretentious wanker” at my smug little face.  Because from within my £399 walled garden, I will have even more reasons to dislike Mr Jobs.

 

Having just skimmed the Lifehacker article below, I started thinking about what habits I have started incorporating into my work-day, and what habits I really need to cultivate.

Lifehacker’s “Why and How I Switched to a Standing Desk”

Drinking More Water: At the start of the year I bought a Brita filter jug with the aim of drinking more water.  Seeing the jug on my desk every morning compels me to fill it up and I probably drink a couple of litres throughout an average working day.  This new habit has got rid of a lot of evening headaches and I’m pretty happy with it.  More frequent toilet breaks don’t hurt with breaking up the monotony of a day sat at the desk either.

Standing Desk: There seem to be a few benefits to making the switch to a standing desk.  First, my posture is worsening by the year, and I seem to be collecting muscular pains which are exacerbated by hefting an all-action two-year old around in my spare time.  I imagine a standing desk would get me focused much more on my posture and the body-mechanics that facilitate my working day.  Second, anything to get a bit more physical activity into my life right now would be a good thing – Scottish winters aren’t blessed with an abundance daylight hours or days that scream “Go out for a run” at me.  The barrier making the conversion seems mostly to be social. I don’t want to become ‘The guy in Psychology who has his desk up on reams of printer paper.’  I’m also worried that I wouldn’t make it through the initial 5-day breaking-in phase.

Running: I ran my first half- and full-marathons in St. Louis.  As part of the training for these events, I got into a nice routine of running around Forest Park (close to 7 miles) at least twice a week.  that’s fallen by the wayside recently.  I hope it’ll pick up again in the summer, but I think I’ll try and catalyse that change by going for runs during my lunch break.  I just need to find a suitable shower facility in order to maintain basic standards of hygiene.

Being less wasteful with toner/paper: I don’t like reading journal articles on computer monitors.  Therefore, I print thousands of pages a year, most of which I only read once.  Most of these articles end up catalogued in my Endnote database (if they’re lucky) and locked in a metal filing cabinet with a few notes scrawled on them.  That’s quite a waste of paper and ridiculously expensive toner, which I now have to buy myself.  Motivated by saving trees and money, I’m starting to consider other options.  Now that they’ll display pdfs, I’ve thought about a Kindle; the e-ink is easier on the eye than an LCD screen, the battery lasts for weeks and they’re (relatively) cheap.  BUT they won’t display colour, something I need if I’m to follow the neuroimaging papers I read.  Colour alternatives like the iPad and Nook Colo(u)r have some combination of a shocking battery life, back-lit screens and a horrendous price-tag and I’m not sure it’s worth taking a punt on a gadget that may end up presenting me with more problems than it solves.  For instance, I don’t know how I’d make notes effectively on an electronic pdf document using each of these devices.  I’m settling on the thought that I’ll wait for colour e-ink before committing to wasting less paper, but it does seem like a shame that there isn’t something suitable on the market right now… and I’ll probably be waiting years.

I’d be interested in reading comments from anyone who has converted to a standing desk or bought a Kindle/iPad for the purposes of reading journal articles.  Nothing’s ever going to be without its own problems, but do these innovations improve overall working conditions?

In the past few weeks, a couple of students have approached me asking if I would be willing to take them on as a summer intern.  I scrabbled around to gather some information on the sort of scheme that these students were after.

Here are my summer internship pass-notes:

  • Typically they offer £180-£200 per week to the student to engage in a research 6-10 week project during their summer holidays.
  • Whilst students should liaise with their proposed PI during the application process, they are generally expected to write the application.
  • Students considering internships should be interested in pursuing research as a career after the completion of their degree and should be on course for a solid 2i or 1st class degree.
  • Closing dates tend for the various schemes tend to be towards the end of February/March.

Here are some links to schemes I am aware of that would be particularly suitable for me as PI, along with some points specific to each:

The BPS Undergraduate Research Assistantship Scheme: £200 per week, for a 6-8 week project.  PI must be a member of the BPS. Student must be in the punultimate year of their degree.
Wellcome Trust Biomedical Vacation Scholarship: £180 per week for 8 week project.  Student must be in a middle year of their degree.
St Andrews Undergraduate Research Internship Programme: PI must be a researcher at the University of St Andrews.
Nuffield Undergraduate Research Bursary in Science: £180 per week for 6-8 week project.  Student must be in a middle year of their degree.
UPDATE 28/12/2010: Here another scheme from Medical Research Scotland:
Medical Research Scotland Vacation Scholarship: £180 per week plus £50 per week for the sponsoring lab.  Placements must be in Scottish universities.  Applications must be made by potential supervisors, not students.

It’s been a while.

Settling in to a new job has been terrifying and tiring in equal measure.  The seemingly boundless spending of the early weeks has been replaced by an awfully adult awareness that the only thing you can’t buy is time: more time in my day to prepare for contact with students, to write grant applications, to read journal articles, to blog (yes, this is something I feel I ‘should’ be doing)  but most of all, to think.

Whilst I find it very easy to develop my thoughts on how the Comprehensive Spending Review affected me (not much, yet), whether I support the student protest movement against tuition fees (I do, wholeheartedly), and why QPR saw fit to lose on national television in the only fixture I’ve seen them play this season (regression to the mean), I’m struggling to come up with original ideas for experiments that will be an instant imaging hit.  I’m in the profession of thinking, so it’s certainly no good thing that I’m running dry, but it’s also rather inevitable.

For the past three years I’ve been thinking about work that isn’t actually my own. I have deferred my own ideas about projects to those of my PI and we have primarily pursued paths that he has wanted to pursue.  This was great for showing me the ropes, and showing me how to think about fMRI within Psychology, something I have been employed to further here in St. Andrews, but it has also lead to this rather awkward moment of transition.  I now have to build up my own head of steam, run my own behavioural pilots and read other people’s’ articles with my own research agenda in mind.  Of course, I was doing this when in St Louis, but my livelihood didn’t depend on it.  Now it does.

So, I’m ploughing on with behavioural projects and hoping that forcing myself to think will lead to better thinking (after all, your brain is a muscle isn’t it? gah!).  I’m also considering a couple of more contrived mind-hacks to nudge the process along:

1) Read journal articles at a minimum rate of 1/weekday.

2) Design an experiment I could run at a minimum rate of 1/week.

3) Blog at a minimum rate of 1/week.

I’m not sure if I’ll follow through on these, or whether they’ll be any help if I do, but I’m going to try.  I can’t afford to stay barren for too long.

I’m fortunate in that I have my own office.  If things get noisy, in the lab, I can shut my door.  In fact, to avoid the social awkwardness of shutting my door on lab-mates mid conversation (when they’re talking with each other, not to me, that would be plain rude!) I tend to keep the door to my office closed, or only slightly ajar, at all times.

I’m also fortunate in that I am able to listen to music I know without being distracted.  If the door isn’t holding back the tide of free-flowing conversation, I can usually put on an album I like, turn up the music and just get on with it.

But there’s a problem – my office neighbours the experiment testing room.

If there are participants in there making responses ‘as quickly and as accurately as possible’, they won’t appreciate Tom McRae’s latest album leaking into their consciousness (probably just as much as they don’t appreciate folks talking outside the testing room).  In that special case, I’ve found that non-musical white noise (and its variations) works best.  It’s perfect at masking out distracting conversation and it doesn’t carry.  I’ve had it up at deafening levels when I’m sat in front of my computer, but as soon as I head out into the communal area of the lab, it registers barely a whisper.

“Noise, that sounds amazing.  From where can I purchase such a technology?” I hear you gasping.  Well, rather predictably if you consider the bits and pieces I tend to write about on this blog, it’s free and available online (no download required) at:

http://simplynoise.com/

One of the nice features of the newly re-designed simply noise website is that you can choose your poison: white noise, brown noise, pink noise.  These different varieties of noise have different frequency spectra that impart a slightly different feel to each: white noise sounding tinnier than the other two, with pink noise sounding quite like steady monsoon rain and brown noise like the rumble of distant ocean.  You can also set the volume to rise and fall (though that does leave open the tendency for chitter-chatter from outside to creep in at the low volume points) if you fancy a little more variation in the sound.

If course, if you’re into a more naturalistic noise, you can try:

http://www.rainymood.com/

It sounds just like a rainstorm because that’s exactly what it is – a high quality loop of a storm complete with rolling thunder.  (On the occasions that I’ve turned the volume right up,  I have noticed that you can make out something that sounds a little like distant music – maybe it’s just distortion but I imagine it could be touch distracting if you were bothered by that sort of thing, in which case you’re probably best off sticking to the uniformity of simplynoise.com.)

It goes without saying that this sort of noise can be useful in a number of different ways.  I was initially turned onto it by a friend who does research into auditory perception and since using it myself, I’ve found out about new parents who swear by it for getting their babies (and themselves) to sleep (simplynoise.com even comes with a sleep timer for this very purpose).

Give it a go if you can’t work and listen to music, or if you find yourself in a situation where music just won’t do.