Writing code motivates me to be productive

I’m going to graduate college in 11 days. I’m submitting my last assignment for grading in 5 days. I’m giving a presentation about my senior research project tomorrow. You’d think that with all that pressure, I’d be banging out code and papers at break-neck pace.

Well, I haven’t been. Senioritis has gotten the best of me. It’s been very difficult to bring myself to work my thesis and Japanese assignments knowing that in 11 days it will all average out to a grade on my transcript that’s mostly predetermined by now. It doesn’t help that I have already secured my post-graduation job. I felt weak and unmotivated yesterday as I struggled to write and prepare my thesis presentation. I needed a boost, but didn’t know where to get it.

I eventually realized that I wanted a couple more features in my research project’s map application for presentation purposes. Boom, I opened my IDE! Boom, I code got banged out! Once I had a task closer to doing what I love, I was suddenly able to focus and be productive.  Continue reading

Take notes and learn now, or get them online and learn later

Today, as I sat in a physics class copying graphs from the lecture slides, I saw the guy in front of me ask his friend, “This is all going to be online later, right?” When he got an affirmative answer, he stopped writing entirely.

Even though I knew the notes would be online, I still wanted to copy the graphs. Taking notes means distilling the presented information and picking out the important parts, which implies at least some level of understanding. If I can’t explain something to myself on paper, it means I need to be asking more questions. As I’ve written before, it helps me learn. Continue reading

Summer is awesome!

I love my internship. I’m doing fun, challenging coding work, I’m absorbing office culture, and I get to sit in on seminars about business practices. It’s great because I feel like I’m learning what I need to know about the software industry that I can’t learn in a classroom.

But moreover, my internship is great because I don’t have signs like these on my door anymore. As much as I’m excited to go back this fall, I’m so glad classes are out for summer!

Handling a busy schedule with Google and without Reddit

My spring semester started two weeks ago and already I feel swamped. I’ve entered a semester-long robot competition in addition to having a normal course load, and I have summer internship applications and club responsibilities to juggle. The hardest part is that whenever I have a free moment and I just have to take a break, I can’t relax without thinking to myself that I have a full to-do list, and I don’t have any excuse for not doing those things that have to get done.

I’m doing two things differently this semester to organize the deluge of work, and it has worked well so far.

Google Calendar and Tasks

I discovered this semester that if you turn on Tasks in Google Calendar and assign due dates to them, they show up on the calendar with little checkboxes. When you check an item, it draws a satisfying little line through the title of the task. I use tasks for my things to do outside of class, like club duties and internship deadlines. Those show up in orange. I have a seperate green calendar for homework, so I can see at a glance what has an academic deadline and what might be put off until tomorrow. I also have calendars for class times and general events.

In the past, I’ve kept track of homework assignments in my head. It worked well throughout high school and had worked out all right until now. But without my calendars, I don’t think I could keep up this semester. It’s amazing how many times I’ve thought to myself, “I feel like I have nothing to do; there must be something!” at which point I check the calendar and find that yes, there are at least five or six things I should be doing. Having a ready list keeps me on task. Just having everything on the calendar also helps me realize how little time I actually have and how important it is to schedule well.

Avoiding Reddit

I’m a big fan of Reddit.com. I like the community, and I always find interesting articles to read. I even participated in the first Reddit Secret Santa last year. The problem with it for me is that once I click a link or two, I find myself clicking more, and I can never get away from it.

At some point over winter break, I decided that although I was having a very relaxing vacation spending hours a day on Reddit and never getting out of bed, not being productive was getting on my nerves. I’d think of lots of projects I wanted to work on, and at the end of the day, nothing happened. To break that pattern, I decided that for my new year’s resolution I would remove the Reddit link on my browser toolbar and abstain from the site altogether. I didn’t think I could handle never visiting Reddit again, so I decided to stay away until February and reevaluate my decision at that time. Well, it has been a month, and even though I miss keeping up with news and memes, avoiding Reddit has been wonderful for my productivity. I’m a little sad to say that for the sake of my classes I’m going to have to continue my resolution into the rest of the spring semester.

My classmates are taking their notes digitally, but I can’t fathom how they keep up

I noticed today that as I frantically scribbled to keep up with my philosophy professor’s lecture, there was an audible hum of typing in the classroom. It was the first time I noticed that I could count more students using netbooks than notebooks to take notes in class.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to take notes with a pen and paper. As I’ve discussed previously, the act of writing helps cement the lecture material in my mind better than passive listening does, and studies have shown that it’s not just me [pdf]. Still, I know that my old-fashioned ways are quickly going out of style.

I don’t know if typing notes aids memory as well as taking notes on paper does, but I do know that it does not work for me. I decided at the beginning of last year that it would be nice to bring my laptop to class so that my notes would be neatly organized (and actually legible for once), and changed my mind after only one or two classes. I could never type fast enough to keep up with the professor, and every five minutes I found myself cursing at not being able to copy the diagram on the board. It was a relief to have my Five Stars and Pentel R.S.V.P.s back at the end of that little experiment. Considering my negative experience, I wonder how my classmates can keep up. I know that not everyone learns the same way I do; maybe my peers don’t need notes as copious as mine in order to do well.

If notes are going digital soon anyway, maybe there is a technology that will make up for my ineptitude with typed notes. Tablet computers have been around for years, but I know only one person who uses one in class, and even then she types rather than using the stylus to take written notes. (Maybe Apple’s soon-to-be-announced tablet will bring tablet computers into more common use, the same way the iPhone has with smartphones.) There are also electronic pens which record your written notes for later uploading. I was able to test-write one such pen at MacWorld Expo last year, and it was all right. It would probably mesh well with my way of learning, but I don’t trust myself either to bring one pen to every class or to keep it charged. I’m also not sure if my busy schedule can accommodate the extra step of uploading the notes from the pen to my computer.

Of course, I’m making the assumption that my classmates are actually using their computers to take notes rather than goof off online, which is a huge leap of faith and a different rant entirely. But even though I’m not keeping up with the latest tech trends in note-taking, I’m doing what works best for my learning style, and I’m okay with that.

Google Student Blog misses the mark

I subscribe to the Google Student Blog primarily for scholarship announcements, but the majority of posts are ideas on how students can use Google Docs to simplify their lives. Sometimes the suggestions are good, but most of the time the ideas are too mundane to be of much use. The most recent post, however, is just patronizing. Apparently the Google Docs help site has set up a new Docs for Students page, designed to “highlight how various student populations can use Google Docs in their daily life.” Unfortunately, rather than sort tips and tricks by document type or class subject, the content is distributed among five stories of fictional students using Docs to accomplish tasks that might be better accomplished though other means. For example,

Lisa is a French major and very excited about starting her classes. On the first day of class, the French teacher doesn’t speak a word of English. Lisa’s French is good but she realizes she needs some help. To test her ability, she pastes an article about soccer from a French newspaper in a Google Docs document and tries to understand what it says. Then, she uses the Translate document feature to test her knowledge. Turns out, she doesn’t know as many French words as she’d like to, but this helps her improve her vocabulary.

Granted, I appreciate being able to translate chunks of foreign-language text into English. I am just amazed that Google thinks that it isn’t enough to inform me of the feature, and that it would be better to frame a story of a French major around the feature so that I might better relate to her. It sounds as though it is supposed to appeal to a middle school student, rather than a college student. (A college student should at least know that Lisa would learn more effectively if she looked up the unknown words herself, rather than translating the document all in one go.)

Sadly, it gets worse.

Lisa’s life long dream is to study abroad in Paris. She applies for a study abroad program during her Sophomore year. To help her gain an edge on the competition, she decides to use one of the many professional looking resume templates in the Google Docs template gallery and picks one particular template called Blue Rays Resume. Between the styles on the template and her well written essay in French, she impresses the judges and is selected to go to Paris.

I’m no human resources expert, but I shudder at the thought of sending out my resume using that template. Google does have a few nice resume templates, but that isn’t one of them. What is Google trying to tell me here? If I use Google Docs, I could be chosen to go to Paris like Lisa?

Google could have made a well-organized list of reasons why college students should use Docs. There really are some compelling reasons, including no cost, ease of collaboration, and the ability to back up documents and access them from any browser. Instead, they wrote success stories for us to relate to. I’m just not impressed.

A group project actually taught me something

One of my favorite classes this semester has been Intro to Cognitive Science. I took the class because more than a few of my friends who think the same way I do are Cognitive Science majors, and this semester the class was taught by one of the rock-star professors in the department. He’s a great lecturer, and I think I’ve learned a lot from the class about cognitive function, as well as the crossover between cognitive science and computer science. I might even get more into studying artificial intelligence before I graduate.

That said, while I think very highly of this professor, he did something I thought to be ridiculous this past week: he assigned a group essay.

I dislike group projects as much as the next person, because I worry that my group members will slack off and leave me with the brunt of the work. But even if they’re all hard workers, it still doesn’t feel fair to me that my grade will be partially determined by the efforts of people I have no control over. So to take control and ensure a good project, I feel pressured to take extra time and help the group members who need extra coaching to produce a decent piece of writing, which still does not seem fair.

Just having a group project is one thing, and I probably would have been okay with a different kind of project. Usually in these sorts of situations the group members can divvy up the work and put it all together close to the due date, spending minimal time consulting with other group members. But this assignment was a group essay. Essays, as I know them, are supposed to have a single point of view throughout to create coherence. How were we supposed to write the paper, I thought, without sitting together the whole time so that the person who wrote the conclusion knew what the person who who wrote the introduction had written? How was one paragraph supposed to follow smoothly to the next when the next paragraph had not been written yet?

The worst part, I felt, was that this was the last assignment in the class before finals season, meaning that during the time everyone was rushing to finish final class projects and study for finals, we also had to find time to meet as a group. It would have been more courteous, I thought, for the professor to have assigned this project much earlier in the semester.

Despite the fact that I spent a significantly larger amount of time worrying about the paper than actually writing it, the method we used to divide the work actually worked fairly well. Everyone did their research and came up with topics for the essay independently, and we went with the best idea among the four of us. The essay prompt came with 8 questions that had to be answered, so we divvied up the questions and answered them each in a paragraph or two. To put the whole thing together, we used Google Docs to compile our sections into one document, then sat around a table for a couple hours, each on our own laptops, reading through the paper, asking each other questions about what we had written, and editing simultaneously (Google Docs is cool with simultaneous editing like that). The end result did not flow as a paper written by one person might have, but it was at least coherent. My fellow group members really liked the simultaneous editing idea, and they had fun watching comments and corrections appear spontaneously in their writing.

I understand why students have to complete group projects: working in groups doesn’t stop in school, and we’ll probably be doing collaborative work the rest of our lives. For this paper specifically, the professor told us outright that the reason he assigned it was that no one researcher writes a scientific paper alone anymore, and that articles are now expected to include descriptions of how each author contributed. However, the difference between group projects in business and in schools is that in business there is usually a designated group leader, whereas in school the group members are expected to agree on everything democratically. This slows down the group’s progress and increases the need for constant consultation, which is the part that bothers me the most.

In retrospect, I guess assigning a group essay was not all that silly. I did learn some cool stuff about how the brain processes vision, and I did introduce my groupmates to the wonders of Google Docs. But the experience was still stressful, and like most students, I wish my professors would refrain from assigning group projects altogether!

Dropbox solves my iPod problems

db1I’ve been a Dropbox user for about six months now, and it’s been pretty useful. I use it primarily to transfer files between my own computer and my computer science department lab account. It also comes in handy to share a quick picture online: dragging and dropping the file into my public dropbox folder is easier than opening a browser and uploading the picture to a hosting service. Still, it’s only been useful in a minor way so far, and hasn’t really done anything I couldn’t have done already with a little more effort.

That has changed. Enter the Dropbox iPhone app [iTunes link]. This app solves a problem I’ve been having, namely storing PDFs on my iPod Touch. A few of my professors upload their class readings online as PDFs, and before now I’d had no way of storing several PDFs on my iPod for offline viewing. The Dropbox app lets you not only access files in your Dropbox folder, but lets you download your “favorites” for faster (offline) viewing. This essentially gives my iPod the eReader functionality I’ve been wanting since I got it. I’ve tried other apps, like Stanza, for uploading PDFs, but I had too much trouble syncing. Stanza must be synced over a local wifi network, and my school’s network doesn’t seem to allow it. Syncing to the Dropbox app couldn’t be easier; it’s just click and drag.

The other problem the Dropbox app solves is transferring photos quickly and easily from the iPod Touch to my computer. Syncing my iPod with my Mac is a pain sometimes; half the time the computer refuses to recognize the iPod at all, and the other half of the time, it thinks it’s a camera and doesn’t open iTunes. Now I can upload photos from my iPod to my Dropbox account, and from there I can save them on my computer in less time than it takes iTunes to realize my iPod has been plugged in. Admittedly, this would be a more useful feature if I had an iPhone instead of an iPod Touch, but this feature did allow me to upload the screenshots I took quite speedily.

Unfortunately, the Dropbox app only lets you upload photos. It would be fantastic if it could upload notes as text files. If it had just this one extra feature, I’d probably pay about $5 for the app. However, the best part is that I don’t have to. It’s free!

Click to expand thumbnails of the app in action.

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Found key item: Jisho.org

jisho.orgThis new semester marks my third year studying Japanese, and I don’t think I could have done it without jisho.org and its Kanji by Radicals index (jisho is dictionary in Japanese).  In my Advanced Japanese class, we primarily review grammar and learn new Kanji, but the hardest part for me is that the instructions in our homework are in Japanese for the first time. Jisho.org has saved my life, or at least my homework, on more than one occasion this year, and for this I thank it.

Update (9/19/09): I recently discovered that Jisho.org also has a mobile version for iPhone/iPod Touch that works better than most dedicated Japanese translation apps. I highly recommend it!

Digitalized textbooks are one thing, but …

book_ipodI’ve always said I would love to have digital textbooks, reasons being that I would greatly appreciate the flexibility to read on either my computer or iPod Touch or to print pages I need in hard copy. Annotating wouldn’t be a problem for me because I rarely find myself writing in books anyway. When reading textbooks, I usually find myself wishing I could just do a ctrl+F, and I would really appreciate not having to lug heavy books around. Most importantly, cheaper books are always a plus for me, and a win for people without access to libraries who want access to more cheap reading material.

Today I found out that a couple of the books I need for classes this semester are available as Kindle downloads. I don’t own a Kindle, but I have the Amazon.com app for my iPod Touch that would let me read Kindle downloads. However, I decided not to go with the Kindle downloads. Here’s how my options stack up for Kindle download vs. actual books:

Flexibility:
I would normally appreciate a digital textbook for the flexibility of reading it on more than one device. As far as I can tell with the Kindle, its downloads are only readable on the Kindle or iPod Touch. The iPod is great for reading between classes and on the go, but to just sit and read, I would want to use my computer, for sure. The book wins this battle.

Searchability: The download wins this round. I’ll buy way more books when they figure out how to add control and F keys to them.

Price: For this semester, I looked at two books available as digital downloads. One was a paperback book with a $16 list price, $11 Amazon price, and a $9.99 Kindle price. Not much savings there. The difference in prices on the larger textbook was greater, but not particularly significant: Amazon shows a $153 list price, a $120 Amazon price, and a $99 Kindle price. The download sounds like a good deal there, but these prices are only for new copies. Used copies sold in the Amazon marketplace for this book started at $65. For the books I need, at least, Kindle downloads offered no significant price savings.

Portability: Considering one of the books I looked at was a substantial text book, I will give the win to the download, but only by a bit. I look forward to the day when I will only have to bring one device with me to hold my textbooks, as opposed to the armfuls one can find herself hauling when a research paper is in the works.

Annotation: Despite the fact that I rarely annotate books (I usually take notes separately with reference to page numbers if I must), the win still goes to the books here. Kindle downloads can be annotated using an actual Kindle device, but not through the iPhone app (the app can be used to read existing notes, though).

Testability: In my computer science department, the majority of tests are open book/open note. Not only would I not be able to use an electronic device to view the book, but with Kindle downloads I wouldn’t even be able to print out crucial pages to bring to the test. The win clearly goes to non-electronic books.

I think Amazon is missing an obvious market: computer users. If I were only able to read Kindle downloads on my computer, that would solve the flexibility problem, and would ideally solve the annotation problem. Until I can purchase my textbooks as PDFs that I can annotate and use with all my devices, I think I’ll just have to stick to good old fashioned paper and ink.