Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

Apps I love – Focus@Will edition

I spend a lot of time at my computer. As a student, I write papers and do programming assignments. As a researcher, I read papers, write more, and try to keep on top of what’s going on in the world and especially in my field. As a nerd, I play League of Legends. For all of those besides the last one, I often need to be able to block out distractions and focus on the work at hand. And working either at home with two kids or in an office with 12 other guys can be distracting.

Enter focus@will, my favorite website for providing non-distracting music for reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic (or programming). Focus@will was created by a group of researchers at UCLA and designed specifically to help listeners achieve maximum productivity. The playlists created are designed around 100 minute cycles, shown to be the most productive way to organize work.

The biggest advantage focus@will has over competitors like Pandora and Spotify is that it has been designed to require little to no user input. Preselected categories of music are available, and that’s it. If you hear a song that’s too distracting just skip it and you’ll never hear it again. I had to do this with Stuff We Did from Pixar’s Up. Very good song, but I ended up thinking more about the song than the work, so it had to go. Also, at least for now, there are no ads.

If focus@will doesn’t fit your taste, you can also try musicForProgramming();. I found their tracks just a bit too distracting, but for others it might just fit the bill.

What do you listen to while you work?

Apps I love – BeyondPod edition

Not so very long ago, I used an iPad for a lot of things. One of those things was listen to podcasts. Now, the Apple podcast app came out about that time, and it was a train wreck. Nothing started, there was no way to manage a playlist, and half the time it would just quit. So I moved to Downcast and was a happy camper.

When I started to use my Android phone more, I looked for a podcast app that could match my favorite feature of Downcast: a priority playlist. After trying Pocket Casts, DoggCatcher, and Podkicker, I finally tried BeyondPod. And it nailed it!

For regular podcast listeners who don’t know what a priority playlist is, boy are you missing out. I’ll use my own example to illustrate what a beautiful thing this can be. Here goes:

The beauty of a smart playlist

I listen to 4 podcasts: (1) Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, (2) Car Talk, (3) Freakonomics, and (4) Stuff You Should Know. The first three come out with one episode per week. Stuff You Should Know (SYSK) has an archive of about 500 episodes, and I’ve listened to about 100 of them. I’m slowly working my way through the list. So my ideal listening scenario is to listen to new episodes from (1), (2), and (3), and then fill in the rest of my time with SYSK.

A smart playlist in BeyondPod will let me set this up automagically. When a new episode of any of my first three podcasts shows up, it is automatically downloaded and put at the top of the playlist. Once played, the episdode is removed from the playlist and deleted. For SYSK, I can tell BeyondPod that I want to listen to the 10 oldest, un”read” episodes. Each night, BP goes out and downloads enough episodes to fill my playlist.

It is truly a beautiful thing. I can configure the podcast playlist to automatically be created just how I want it. I haven’t actually opened the app in weeks because all of these things are taken care of by magic.

The best part is that the app comes with a free one week trial of the fully-functioning application. If you decide it doesn’t work for you, no loss. But if you do try it, I highly recommend you take the time to configure SmartPlay to fit your needs. You may, as I did, find that BeyondPod is perfect.

Apps I love – Anki edition

Memorization is a tricky beast. It comes in handy when learning a new programming language, a new computer program, a new set of papers with authors and dates, and lots of other places. When learning something you'll use every day, memorization comes naturally. I can pretty quickly learn the basic syntax to a new programming language and be able to crank out "Hello, World!" Because I program somewhat infrequently, though, there are a lot of things, and very useful things, that I only once a month or so.

Enter Anki. Anki is a cross-platform application for creating and reviewing flashcards. But above and beyond your average flash card, Anki creates a schedule for reviewing the cards based on your own needs. If you see a card and immediately know the answer, Anki can stash it away for a week, or even a month once you have reviewed it a few times. For things you are just beginning to learn, Anki can show them every day or every couple days until you've got them down.

The schedule is driven by your own responses as you review the cards. After each card you have the option to mark it as Hard, Good, or Easy. When you see the card next depends on your response. Hard questions are shown again relatively soon, while saying a certain card was Easy will push its next viewing far into the future. You also have the option to view the card again during the same review session. I use this for any card I get wrong, or that takes me too long to remember.

Using the Ankiweb service, cards and progress are kept synchronized between the desktop and mobile applications. This service makes it easy to create a bunch of cards as you're learning new things at the computer, then review them in the waiting room, over breakfast, or (ahem) in the bathroom.

Anki is available for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Apps I love – Pocket edition

This is a ridiculous question, but have you ever found an article online that you wanted to read later? Bookmarks just don’t seem to fit the bill for me in that situation. A bookmark is a commitment. It means I want to keep this site around for reference into forever. Pocket (formerly ReadItLater) fits the bill perfectly here.

The beauty of Pocket is that it’s everywhere. The Chrome extension lets you click a button in the browser and save a page to read later. The Android (or iOS) app lets you save articles from Twitter, the web browser, or a million other apps. It keeps all your saved articles in a queue that you can read either in the app or on the website.

Another beauty of Pocket that beats the heck out of bookmarks is the Archive. I have a record of all the articles that I have saved to read, but it’s kept neatly out of sight. It also lets me tag articles so they can be all organized and stuff. I don’t use that feature much, but I can see how it would be useful.

So pretty much, if you are the kind of person who reads a lot of stories and articles online, look into Pocket. It’s the awesomesauce.

Apps I love – F.lux edition

I’m a computer person. As a computer person, I’m often using my computer late into the evening, and it’s often one of the last things I look at before I head to bed. Sadly, staring at bright computer screens just before trying to sleep is not the best way to fall asleep fast.

Enter f.lux, a software program designed to tone down the brightness of your computer at night. By changing the color contrast on your computer screen at night, f.lux helps your brain recognize that it is, in fact, nighttime. It does this by toning down the blue light emitted by the screen. This gives everything a slightly yellowish tone, similar to an incandescent lightbulb. The trick is that the blue light is secretly telling your brain it is still time to be awake. By toning that down, you will be more likely to follow a natural circadian rhythm.

The only time I really notice the color difference is when I am using my computer at sunset or sunrise when the color changes. I have f.lux to change the color in 20 seconds, which results in a pretty sudden change. There is an option to make the change a much more gradual 60 minutes. Once the change has been made, though, I rarely think about it. Sometimes I even notice the change and turn it off, only to turn it back on because I realize how glaring the bright white of the screen is.

F.lux is free for Windows, Mac, Linux, and for jailbroken iDevices. Download it now.