Music to Study to

As my favorite week of the year approached (yeah finals!) I figured it would be a good time to talk about some of my favorite music to study to. I use music in the same way that most college students do, to block out the outside word and get down to businesses finishing that paper or problems set. I am not sure if it is just me, but I find that can't really focus on anything other than purely instrumental music (with a few exceptions). Since electronic music has never really bean my jam, the other best source of purely instrumental music are movie soundtracks which make up a good portion of this list. Another lovely thing about soundtracks is that they are meant to flow together, so there are not disturbances in the sound to distract you. For this list, I tried to pick my favorite albums that have stood the test of time and that I keep coming back to.

The Social Network

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

 Music

Spotify

If you listen to one album from this list choose this one. My go-to album if I need to block out the word and get stuff done. Unlike most movie soundtracks you won't find an orchestra here. Instead, this album reflects the movie it was created for and is all digital. Truly a masterpiece of film scoring there is no real high or low point to this album. It is all so good. No other piece of music can give me goosebumps like "Hands Covered in Bruises." If you have never done work with this album on give it a shot, if your brain is wired like mine you won't be disappointed.

P.S. Pretty much everything else Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross have done is also golden. Here is a playlist that I found on Apple Music that does an excellent job displaying their complete collection of work.

Westword: Season 1

Ramin Djawadi

 Music

Spotify

The newest album to makes it's way into the study rotation. One of the elements that struck me most when I watched the first episode was the music. Not only did it effectively set the mood of each scene but the music also gave me a sense of place. Scenes set in the park where set to more classic sounds (piano and strings). The scene set in the control center had a more modern feeling, using synthesizers and digitally generated instruments. The real highlights of the album is the stretch from "This Word" to "Reveries." That being said any of the piano covers of the contemporary songs are great (see "Paint it Black" and "Black Hole Sun").

Interstellar

Hans Zimmer

 Music

Spotify

Interstellar is a pretty good movie. I have enjoyed it the few time that I have watched it. In my mind, the best aspect of the film is the music. With all the signature tropes of a Hans Zimmer score (lots of organ and whooshing horns), this album is very intense. The reason that I find makes it perfect for studying, when compared to his other score, is that it is more atmospheric rather than intensity building. This is not to say that it does not have exciting moments, the music can make finishing a paper feel like, say, docking a spaceship.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alexandre Desplat

iTunes

Spotify

Ok, so this score probably the biggest outlier on this list. Where the other soundtracks on this list favor are a more contemporary style, this score is more old school. I would not call it a classical movie score (far too much balalaika), but it is a really cool sounding score. Pulling many elements for central European melodic themes, it sounds different from pretty much anything else being composed no and days. Like the movie that it belongs to it is difficult to describe this score but I recommend giving "Mr. Moustafa" a listen. If you like that, then you will enjoy it as a whole. The soundtrack also is from one of my favorite movies, if you have not watched anything by Wes Anderson you should change that.

All Day

Girl Talk

Direct Link

I said at the top that most of the music that I listen to while studying is instrumental. Well, this album is one of the acceptions. I first heard about this mash-up album when listening to Cortex. On episode 2 Grey and Myke talk about music that they listen to while working. Grey explained how this album is shockingly able to help him focus. It has the same effect on me. I can not explain why but this is one of the best "get focused" bits of music around. It is weird, but you should definitely give it a listen.

A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead

 Music

Spotify

This album is on this list for one reason and one reason only. Don't get me wrong, it is an excellent album to listen to while studying but this album more than any other on this list is pure nostalgia for me. It came out right before finals my sophomore year, and I must have listened to it 50 times while studying (a.k.a. cramming) for my differential equations final exam. I am convinced it helped me pass. Anyways if you like Radiohead, it is another great album from them.

More

These albums are just a few of my favorites, but I have a bunch of other music that I like to listen to while studying. I put togeather a playlist of a collection of my favorites. Well back to working on project and studing. Good luck on exams everyone and happy listening!

Starting Something New (a Podcast!)

Show Art.jpg

Podcast are my favorite form of media. Part audiobook, part new story, and part just listening in on interesting people conversations. For the last few months, I have been bouncing ideas around my head about what type of show I could start. Well finally came up with one.

Origin Stories is a podcast about how stuff came to be. Focusing on how items, ideas, organizations, and basically anything that has an interesting story about how it came to be. I have never really done audio editing before, so this will be a learning experience, but I am excited about the possibilities. Would really appreciate any feedback.

Origin Stories can be found at:

Overcast

Apple Podcast

Direct Download

Simplecast

The Year of Focus

I am not a big fan of New Year's resolutions. The problem to me is that they are too rigid. On January 1st it 's hard to know what the year ahead is going to hold. The uncertainty of the future makes it challenging to know how the goals set on this day will fit into the year.

Last year I came across a better way to tackle New Year's resolutions. CGP Grey and Myke Hurly's have a fantastic podcast called Cortex. The show is about what makes them productive and the ways they get their work done. In episode 20 they talk about resolutions. Grey brought up two points that resonated with me. First is that the purpose of goals is to create the systems needed to reach a goal rather than achieving the goal itself. Second is the idea of giving a year a theme. I liked these two points. That is why I decided to make 2017 "The Year of Focus."1

This theme comes from the scattered feeling I have had for the last year. While things in my life are going well overall, I just felt like I was coasting with no real direction. Alongside this feeling was the fact that I felt like I was not effectively using my time. I was giving things that I didn't care about much more time then the things that I loved. That is why this year I am focusing in on what is important to me and deciding which parts of my life mattered the most. I decided to focus on these four areas:

  • School
  • Work
  • Health
  • Side Projects

These were intentionally left fairly broad so that the specifics were able to flex and change as the year progressed. Not being able to see the future make it difficult to know how my life is going to look in September compared to January. That being said, I did expand out each area into what I want to achieve there (and what I have achived so far).

School

College plays a dominant role in my life. Its campus is where I live, go to classes, study, eat most of my meals and sleep. I spend 20 hours a week in class or lab and at least as much time on homework or projects. I enjoy learning and being a successful student is something I am proud of. School in 2016, however, felt more like a series of boxes that I had to check off, not an activity I enjoyed. This feeling was not the fault of the content of my classes (which was as interesting as ever) rather the fact that I was not giving my education the attention it deserved. This year I have changed that by changing how

  • Taking on less: I like having a busy schedule. In past semesters I have tried to take the maximum amount of classes my college allows a student to take. The problem with this is I have more work and less time outside of class to do that work. This semester I took only five classes (one of which is an elective), giving me much more time outside of class to sink my teeth into the material we are learning.

  • Balancing my schedule: Being a full-time student and having a part-time job can be a challenging balancing act. Last semester I failed at this. Not so much this year. More on this in the work section.

  • Finishing what I started: In college, I had developed the bad habit of getting stuck on a piece of homework and move on to a different assignment. Now obviously this was a horrible idea because it left me with a bunch of half-finished piece of homework that I was stuck on. This year I set a rule for myself if I start and assignment I need to finish it before starting something else. If I do get stuck and can't figure it out with research, then I make a to-do item to ask the professor about it during their office hours. Speaking of to-do items...

  • Getting (more) originated: For my first two years of college I was using an app that while very capable was quite limited in what it let me do for schedule and assignment organization. Over winter break I overhauled this system, putting my calendar and assignments into separate more capable apps. I am not going to get deep into how I am using these in this post but I might in the future. To keep it brief using these apps has allowed me to be much more focused on the work and less about what I have to do.

These changes are beginning to deliver the results I wanted. While there is still a long way to go, I find that I feel like I understand the material better and my grades are reflecting this.

Work

I love my job. It is the type of job that when I was younger, my family always said I would have. I work with great people, and there are some quite rewarding parts of the job. The problem was, I started working there at the end of last summer2 and I spend most of last Fall feeling overwhelmed dealing with being a full-time student and a part-time employee. This year I focused on two things to help improve my work-life balance.

  • Having a schedule that works: The biggest mistake I made when starting my job was that when putting in the hours I was available to work I didn't put much thought into it. This lead to my work schedule not encouraging a health work-life-school balance. This semester I planned out my work hours with much more thought, leading to me having a better balance or work-school.

  • Being present: A piece of advice I heard at the end of last year was to only worry about the tasks that you were capable of doing at that time. This idea stuck with me especially when it came to my life at work. I often find myself at work stressing out about school work, thinking about something I have to do when I get home or a test I have coming up. What this piece of advice made me realize is that no good comes from this worrying. What I have been doing this year is trying to forget about school while I am at work. Focusing on doing the best job I can do

Health

The changes I have made to my school and work life are helping with my mental health. Feeling less pinched for time can help with the stress levels. Getting more school work done and getting better results is nice. Beyond the side effects of the changes stated above, I am making some more health-centric changes.

  • Doing all the typical "get healthy stuff": No writing about New Year's goal would be complete without the stereotypical "eating better and going to the gym." So yeah I'm doing that stuff, and it is helping. One nice side effect of this is that having a better diet does make dealing with my ADD easier, making me more focused.3

  • Spending time on things I enjoy: Another obvious one here but something I noticed last year was that I was spending far too much of my time doing activities or spending time with people who just didn't make me happy. With a limited amount of free time, I need to spend it doing things that I enjoy. Mixing up the people I choose to spend my time with and doing an activity that I like has helped my mental health.

Side Projects

The whole point of the previous three areas of focus is so that I have more time for a side project. I stated at the beginning of this post that I did not feel fulfilled with what I have been doing for the past year. What I realized this was caused by was the fact that I had no creative outlet. Going back to Cortex, Myke and Grey have talked about how having side projects is an important part of their life. I feel the same way, but for at least the last year I have let that part of my life lay stagnant. While unlike the previous three areas I do not have any bullet points because must of the side project stuff I am working on isn't ready for prime time yet. I am going to start making Youtube videos about things I find interesting. I have lots of ideas about stuff I want to do and am just excited to start making things again!


This year is off to a good start. I am feeling good about the progress I am making to achieve my goals and am starting to see results. There is still a significant amount of work to be done, but the path forward is looking a lot more defines. I am excited about some of the things I am working on. Hoping I can keep this focus going through the rest of the year. Speaking of focus, back to studying for exams. Spring break can't come soon enough.

P.S. You might ask why I am writing this post about goals for the year when we are already two months in. Two reasons. First is that I needed to get my house in order at the beginning of the year. Second is that I find when let others know about my goals too early on I am less likely to feel driven to achieve them.

1. [Which is quite a silly name now that I write it down. 🤷🏼‍♂️]

2. [August 2016]

3. ["ding"]

The Problem with Digital Textbooks

The tools used by a modern college student have changed greatly since my parents attended college 30 years ago. Gone are the days of typewriters, encyclopedic research and stats tables. A majority of students are still taking notes on paper [^1] and we still us the same calculators we did 20 years ago [^2] but computers have become one of the most important tools for a students. Typewriters have been replaced by word processors, rows of books have been replaced by online resource databases and stats tables have been replaced by the STAT button on a calculator. Not only are computers replacing old technologies for student but they opening up new possibility as well.

The Current State of Things

Digital Textbooks have a lot of benefits. First and most obviously is the fact that traditional textbooks are big and heavily. Trying to take all your classes is almost impossible or would require two bags. Digital textbooks can always be with you if you carry a laptop or tablet with you to your classes anyways. Another benefit is that digital textbooks allow you to search the text, so if your looking for a definition you can quickly find it. The last major traditional benefit is the ability to have a quick overview of all notes or annotations.

Despite these benefits digital textbooks are still not widely adopted by students. Here are some reason why.

  • Digital textbooks cost the same or more than their print counterparts. The is not equivalent to used digital textbooks so this eliminates a cost saving technique used by many students. Renting a textbook digitally almost always costs more then renting the print version. There might be a good reason for this but from a students point of view it makes no sense.

  • Textbook purchases are tied to one company. If you buy your books from Amazon they will be available only within the Kindle app which still almost a year later does not support split view on the iPad. This means that if you want to write and look at your book at the same time you can not. Same goes for Chegg, Person and almost every other textbook distributor. Apple's iBooks app does support split view but good luck finding any of your textbooks in that store. So if you want to be able to work on a problems and look at your textbook at the same time there is really no option left.

The benefit of PDF

The reason that PDFs would be the dream formate for textbooks to be is that it allows for versatility. Anyone who has every worked in a group while studying knows that everyone has a different ways of organizing information. Some people are all about color coating passages with highlighters, some people love sticky notes to marking pages, some people are fans of scribbling notes in the margins and some people do all three. Getting digital textbooks in PDF form opens up the world of fantastic reader apps on iOS. Apps like PDF Expert which is very powerful and allows for all the traditional types of annotations a student would do with a print textbook. The benefit of digital textbooks however is that you don't have to stick to the traditionally possibilities. Apps likes LiquidText take the traditional types of annotating to the next level, giving the ability to pull out and compile all of these notes. For people who are auditory learners apps like Voice Dream Reader can make any textbook into a high quality audiobook. These are just three examples of the benefits of having textbooks in a standard that gives students choice.

The Problem with PDF

Here is the rub, it is impossible to legally acquire textbooks in PFD forms. This makes sense when you look at the current state of the textbook industry. If your company makes all of it's money selling textbooks you don't want to give them out in a form that can be easily copied and distributed. This has lead to the current state of digital textbooks described above. However the current state of things is not the best solution.

The Future

Looking into the future it is clear that digital textbooks are no wear near their final form. Colleges and schools are only getting more reliant on technology. What is the happy medium between offering textbooks in a way that allow all students to process textbooks in the way they learn best while still making the publishers satisfied? These the tentpole features for the future of digital textbooks.

  • Open Standard: Digital textbooks need to be distributed in a way that when a student purchase the book they have options about how they interact with it. As shown with the PDF form, when developers can innovate they create amazingly useful apps that no books seller would dream of. Everyone learns differently so allowing students to have textbook in a setting they are conferrable with can help greatly.

  • Protection of Intellectual Property: This extremely boring sounding bullet point is actually the most important and hardest to solve problem. The reason that currently all digital textbook exist only in subpar apps is that publishers need to protect their books from easy copying. The current way to do this is to never expose the buyer to the file but rather have them log into an account which is tied to there purchase. This is not a bad solution but there is not reason the account has to be tied to a specific companies app. Why can't the same log in process exist but not be tied to a single app, rather be a way to get files from with any app developed for the new textbook standard.

Closing Thoughts

Solving the digital textbook problem is not easy but it is a problem that is going to have to be solved. There are many benefits to digital textbooks. With a new generation of students currently working there way through the school system there is going to be demand. These students are more reliant and comfortable with technology that any that have come before them. The generation that comes after them will only continue the trend. The textbook industry is ready for a shakeup. It can't come soon enough.

[^1]: However some people including myself has started taking notes on laptops or tables. I am in a fairly technology friendly major so I would say we are right on the bleeding edge of this but about 10 students in my classes for 20-30 are taking notes this way.

[^2]: The TI-84 is still a great calculator which is pretty amazing since since it was introduced in 2004 and remains relatively unchanged to this day.

iPad Pro in College

Quick background on me. I am an undergraduate student at Roger Williams University pursing a degree in mechanical engineering. For the last few years I have been trying to shift more and more of my work onto digital platforms. I first started by toying around with note taking on my iPad Mini with a third party stylus. This worked for some classes but the precision was not nearly good enough to use for every class (math, which I do a lot of, requires pretty fine accuracy in order to have clear work). While I was still having to carry at least two paper notebooks I did not have a drive to consolidate‘everything into one devise. My backpack was heavy with two notebooks, a textbook, my 2010 15" MacBook Pro and a few calculators. When I heard rumblings of Apple making a larger iPad that had native stylus support I started to think that such a device could make possible a lot of what I have wanted to do for years. I can say now that is certain has.

What is now possible

First off, note taking. The Apple Pencil is magical, after using it for a day I knew that I would no long have a need for paper notebooks. I have been using Notability ever since I started to take notes on my iPad Mini in 2013. I like how clean the app is while still having a huge amount of features that I want. I love being able to zoom in on what I am writing so that I can add small details (for example adding detentions to a figure). I have a lot to say about Notablility so I will cover that in a separate piece later on.

The next change I wanted to make was to develop a paperless workflow. I have never been good at organizing all the handouts and old homework assignments and other papers a student collects over a semster. The system I have developed for eliminating the need to hold onto these paper has two steps, scanning and filing. I use Scanbot to scan all the paper I am given and convert them to PDFs. What really sets it apart from other scanning apps is its edge detection and OCR text recognition which allows scanned documents to be searchable. Once I have scanned documents I make the choice weather something is going to be a reference document or something I will want to be able to annotate. If it is a reference document I use PDF Expert as a filing system to store documents. If it is something like a handout I put the scanned PDF into Notability.

These are the major breakthroughs that have come from moving to the iPad Pro as my main computer. I still do basic things like word processing in Microsoft Word and data organization in Microsoft Excel. What I am doing in these apps really has not changed since moving away from the Mac.

Learning Difference

One of the major driving forces behind wanting to do all of this is my learning disability. I am dyslexic, ADD and have dysgraphia. Having everything in one organized place take a good amount of mental burden off me day to day. Another big made possible by moving to the iPad Pro is something I just started using last week. I am taking a literature and philosophy class right now that requires a lot of reading. We are given the reading in paper every day during calls. Once I have scanned and organized these papers on my device I can then send the PDF to Voice Dream Reader which will read the PDF to me with a remarkably realistic voice. I can play this in the background like an audiobook while making notes on the document I have in PDF Expert. For someone like me this is a game changing feature.

Goals for 2016

Develop a Workflow

One of the big thing that I want to figure out this semester is an iOS workflow. As you can see above I am working on figuring this out and I have narrowed in one the major key elements to my day to day life:

  • Note Taking: This I have pretty much figured out. Notability is a great application that I a good iOS citizen getting frequent updates.
  • Scanning: I want to make a workflow in Workflow that allows me to scan, name and organize all in one action. I have been playing around in the app for about two weeks now with now luck. If anyone has any tips would love to hear from you
  • File Management: Right now I am happy with how I am organizing my PDFs but I need to work out a system for organizing everything else (Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, any file really). I have started playing around with Dropbox this week an so far I can see a system that may work. Will post an update once everything I proven and working
  • These are the major workflow items I feel I need to figure out going into this semester. More will arise I am sure but right now this is what I am focusing on.

    Textbooks

    Digital textbooks are something I have often though about in the past but has never been possible if I wanted my iPad to be more then just a textbook. However with iOS 9 and split view this is now possible. Now the problem is finding these textbooks digitally. Many textbook publishers offer digital textbook that can only be read in their own apps which of course have not been updated in years thus they have not split view support. Amazon also sells a lot of my textbooks but there are two problems with this. First off the kindle app for iPad still does not support split view. Second many eTextbooks on Amazon are more expensive than their digital counterparts. In a perfect world I would love to be able to pay a reasonable price for a PDF version of the textbooks and put it in whatever reader app I would like. Having just purchesed my textbooks yesterday this is what I have done for this semester. One of my textbooks was avalible to rent digitally only from Amazon for a reasonable price. One could not be found digitally anywhere so I found a paperback version for $20 on Amazon (side note about this book it appeares I have bought the book that is made for developing countries and is technically not for sale in the us but it is the same book inside). The other two books I needed for my math classes I was able to find older editions online in PDFs. This semester will be an intresting learning experiance in which of these models works best.

    Discover Limitations

    There are still going to be things that I know that I will need to go back to my Mac. As an engineering student I need to work in 3D CAD program like Solidworks, something that I simply can not do outside a desktop environment. There are also website that many of my classes homework is done on. Most of these have iOS optimized site however one (I am looking at you Sapling) is flash based so nothing I can really do about that. Right now these are the two limitations I have run into and not been able to workout a solution. I am sure I will run into more as the semester goes on.

    Closing Thoughts

    So this is the start of something new for me. I am not a writer but I want to talk about how I am using the iPad in college. There are a lot of technology writer who are now writing about using the iPad as there primary computing device but I have not come accosted many college student doing this (those of you who are out there let me know). I am currently writing on a deeper dive into how I use Notability every day and what it make possible.

    The iPad Pro is the future of computing. This is not to say that this is the beginning of the end for the PC but in the coming years a lot more people are going to find they can us an iOS. Looking at this from a college students perspective the iPad opens new possibilities that are not possible using a Mac. The iPad can be all your notebooks, binders and textbooks. I have already been able to downsize my backpack because I do not have to carry as many items with me day to day. Fraser Speirs's piece "Can the MacBook Pro replace your iPad" is a really good take on this idea. Many of the tasks I am now doing day to day seem so natural even tho four months ago they where not imaginable. I am exited to see what this semester brings for new workflows and continues to make my academic life more efficient.