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:


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:


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.

Below is a list of tools I find useful or interesting.

Caveat: I use Windows XP on my current work machine.  Some of the listed tools are available only for Windows, others are geared at bringing some of the functionality of Windows 7 and Mac OS to my XP machine.

Academic Tools

Google Scholar (web)
Google’s academic search engine is a fantastic tool when you know bits and pieces about an article you’d like to get hold of, but don’t have a comprehensive reference.  I use it in combination with Wash U’s excellent library site whenever I’m after a pdf I’ve seen referenced in a talk or at lab meeting.

Publish or Perish (desktop)
A handy application that allows you to quickly explore an academic’s publication metrics.  I use it to keep track of citations, though it’s not the most reliable source of this information as it use Google Scholar’s liberal citation counts.

GPower (desktop)
An application with a number of nifty functions related to power analyses.  I can see this being very useful when it comes to grant application time.

Effect Size Calculator (web)
Online tool for quick and dirty effect size calculation.

Gimp (desktop)
Powerful image editing desktop application.  I use this for everything from fine-tuning figures for manuscripts to adjusting the resolution of instruction slide images for Experiments.  I’m not a image-editing power-user so I tend to create the images with in Powerpoint (or Statistica for graphs) before exporting them as high-resolution tiffs to touch up using Gimp.

General Windows Tools

Dropbox (web & desktop)
Dropbox has changed my whole approach to synching files across multiple computers.  I don’t need to worry about CDRs or memory sticks anymore, I can just drag something into my Explorer-integrated dropbox and see it pop-up on all the other machines on which I have dropbox installed.  I recently designed a new experiment on my desktop machine, and found that I could test each iteration of the development on the laptop machine on which it will be run as soon as I saved the desktop machine version.  Even if your internet connection goes down, you still have access to your files as local copies always available  and only updated from the cloud.  You get 2GB for free with incremental additional space available for certain forms of software evangelism (i.e. converting your friends) and subscription access to more space.  Wonderful!

Logmein (web & desktop)
A great alternative to remote desktop.  I use this to tunnel into my work PC from home if I need to check anything or gain access to resources on the work network.

Chrome (desktop)
Google’s lightning-fast browser.  I made the switch from Firefox when the Mozilla browser started getting very slow.  Although Firefox still wins the addons/extensions war, Chrome is making vast strides here.  Extensions I use include: AdblockGoogle Mail Checker Plus and ForecastFox. (I’ve also tried the even faster Opera, though it’s still a little too prone to crashes for my liking.)

Microsoft Security Essentials (desktop)
Excellent background antivirus software from Microsoft.

Revo Uninstaller (desktop)
A comprehensive uninstaller that searches and removes traces of applications forgotten by built-in application uninstaller.  I use the free version with no complaints at all.

RocketDock (desktop)
A mac-style application launcher.  It’s endlessly customisable and much more useful than the Windows XP taskbar.  I’m not sure I’ll persist with it once I get onto a windows 7 machine though

Stalled Printer Repair (desktop)
Portable tool that allows you to quickly flush a printer queue following a stall.  A vast improvement on the built-in printer queue manager’s efforts.

Novapdf (desktop)
I got this free from Lifehacker a while ago and it’s proved so useful I will be buying it for my next machine. It allows you to create pdfs from anything you can print – pretty useful if you’re putting documents online.

Aquasnap (desktop)
A utility that emulates Windows 7’s Aerosnap functionality.  Great if you have a large monitor and often have applications open side-by-side.

Taskbar Shuffle (desktop)
Drag and drop taskbar applications into new positions.  Not essential, handy if you’re into organising things.

Fences (desktop)
Another organisation utility, this time for the desktop itself.  I tend to use my desktop as a holding pad for anything and everything – Fences allows me to fence sections of it off for certain types of files, e.g. pdfs, portable applications, data I’ve been sent that I need to look at etc.  Also, if you double-click on the desktop, it all disappears, giving you the illusion of being ultra-organised.