A fascinatingly simple method for getting focussed (and the science behind it)

focusatwillIf you are urgently looking for a way get focussed right now, just head over to focus@will and everything will fall in place. If you want to read my quick story, read on.

I am almost a bit embarassed to admit that I only found out now just how much it helps to listen to music while working. More specifically, it helps me to get (and stay) focussed. Until last week, I tended to frown at all those hipsters with their headphones on while working on their laptops MacBooks. Like: “Yeah, as if listening to your favourite music is going to help you focus…”

Turns out, I was so wrong (but also a little bit right). Wrong, because I’m now listening to music while I work and it is incredible how much it helps me to focus. Right, because I’m not listening to my favourite music.

As an academic, I always have an open ear for scientific arguments and when I learned the mechanism behind why listening to music helps you focus, I got curious: Basically, the theory goes like this: when our brain is focussed on a specific task or goal, it eventually gets used to that goal and it becomes increasingly boring. It’s called “goal habituation”. So what happens is that your brain is starting to “look for” something new and more exciting than that task that it’s been looking at for half an eternity (read: 10 minutes?). So that’s when you start checking your phone or remember that you really need to add something to your shopping list.

And this is where the background music comes in: listening to (the right) music apparently keeps your brain just busy enough to not get bored but not too busy so that you are distracted. In other words, it prevents (or perhaps: mitigates the effects of?) goal habituation.

The trick is that the music has to be such that you neither particularly like it nor dislike it.

It sounds plausible, doesn’t it. So I got curious and tried out focus@will  last Friday and was baffled how well it worked. I got so much done! I had achieved similar states of flow before and without music, but those were special moments, when something really cought my attention and no other important things were on my mind.

But I decided not to believe this until it worked multiple times. So I turned it on on Monday too and it worked just as well. And so it did on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and right now (Friday again). So I am confident now to say: this really works for me.

In fact, I’ve almost become addicted (in the good sense): I now sometimes find myself craving to get back to my desk, turn on the music, and get flowing again.

I combine focus@will with the PomodoroTechnique, which means that I now consider any 30 minute slot between two scheduled things a slot in which I can get something done, instead of thinking: “oh well, I only have 30 minutes, it’s not worth working on that article because by the time I get started, I have to stop again.” Now I say: “Yippieh, 30 minutes, that’s perfect to do one flow-pomodoro session” and off I go.

Another advantage with the focus music might be that colleagues will learn: when s/he is listening to music, s/he is working working hard and doesn’t like to be interrupted.

Okay, enough for today. I’ll update this post if my opinion about flow@will changes. In the mean time, please let me know if I’m the only one who is so fascinated with this tool or if you have similar experiences. More importantly: if you feel it’s not working for you, please leave a comment so that this review get’s some necessary balance.

Also, I’m wondering if anyone manages to achieve a similar effect with a Spotify playlist (or their 1980s mixtape, for that matter). If you are already paying for Spotify (I don’t), it might be worth trying one of their ambient or chill playslists first…

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The Xcanex document scanner: a first review

Xcanex-scannerFirst off: this is a product with some potential, in fact it is a great product, once you have worked yourself through some of its glitches and annoyances. I have had the “Xcanex Professional Book & Document Scanner” for just a couple of weeks now, but I think it’s time to share my first impressions and experiences with this innovative little gadget, which is basically an 8MP digital camera with an LED flashlight built in and which “scans” your documents by taking pictures of them. It also includes a software that does quite a good job in cropping the image so that you end up with a jpg/pdf of just the document that you wanted to scan. It is in many ways similar to booksorber, but booksorber comes without the hardware because most of us already have all the hardware at home, i.e. a DSLR camera).

But let me start from the beginning: a couple of months ago, I wrote this review about the “IRIScan Book 3” mobile scanner and basically scrapped it and sent it back. I then received a message from a hitherto unknown little company from Singapore suggesting that I should have a look at their newly launched document scanner. And so I did. First on the many videos on their website, and later by trying out the free unit that they sent me. Given that all the basic information about how the thing works is actually in these videos and on their website, I will skip over those basics and provide you with what you wont find anywhere else on the net: my experience and evaluation.

So, here we go:

For ordinary users with little knowledge about the existence of admin-rights on windows, the journey with this scanner may well end before it has even started: When I tried to install the driver (version 1.0 from a burned DVD!), it repeatedly failed until I noticed that it never asked me for admin rights so I figured that it may require these rights but fails to ask for them, perhaps because the developers use admin accounts and therefore never noticed this as a problem (I use an account with limited user rights as generally recomended). So I started the installation with administrator rights and finally the software was installed properly. It requires quite a bit of space on your hard-drive:

The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
After install, what happened? – Nothing. I mean, I like it, when software doesn’t try to take over my computer after I installed it, but this was kind of the opposite extreme. I wanted to try the scanner out, but there was no desktop icon, no popup question that would ask me: “Hey, would you like to try me out right away?” I checked “all programs” in the start menu and searched for “piqx”, “xcan” as well as “perfecapture”: nothing. I was wondering whether I actually installed the thing.

So I went to the program files folder and found a folder called “piQx Imaging”. Aha! And in that folder I found a file called “PiqxImaging.exe” and I (double)clicked on it. What happened: nothing.

Finally, I found a new icon in my taskbar (the ones on the right, not the ordinary program icons) which said “Xcanex Launcher”. Ha!  Gotcha!

Looking for the Xcanex Launcher
Looking for the Xcanex Launcher

So let’s (double)click on it! What happens: nothing! – How about a right click? Aaah! It gives me some options to choose from:

Right clicking the Xcanex launcher helps
Right clicking the Xcanex launcher icon helps

I’m not sure what BCO is, so I choose “Launch PerfeCapture”. And? Something happens! Finally! But hey, did I say it works?

Selecting "Launch PerfeCapture" leads to an error message
Selecting “Launch PerfeCapture” leads to an error message

Scanner not found? But it’s here on my desk!

The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)
The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)

Oh! maybe I should plug it in? Maybe that is what the error message is trying to tell me. Okay, this is a minor glitch, but after all those other issues, I’ve gotten into a “complaining mood”. It will be difficult to please me now…

And indeed, after plugging it in, the steps above no longer produce an error message but the piece of paper lying under the scanner actually shows up on my screen! Wow! But my euphoria comes to an abrupt end when I try to position my piece of paper so that it is fully visible under the scanner: before I can even press the “scan” button the PerfeCapture crashes:

Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
But the good thing is (and I have actually not seen anything like it on any other program): the problem did actually solve itself and without me doing anything so that if I had left the room for two minutes while this happened, I would never have known. Or actually, I would, because this happened several times: crash without me even touching the computer, crash disappeared again. Strange.
Sadly, however, I was still not able to scan. At least, when I clicked on the “scan” icon nothing happened. This was not a bug though, but due to me ignoring the read notice on my screen saying “too low”. I ignored it, because I didn’t know what it meant. What is “too low”??
Once again I had to figure it out myself (or I could have read the manual, but honestly, who reads manuals?) Hmm, maybe the scanner is too low, i.e. to close to the paper? I twist it upwards and click on “scan”. And now the magic happened: The thing focused, then flashed, and then the software identified exactly what I wanted to scan, i.e. this little instruction manual and cropped it from the overall image:
My first test scan with the Xcanex
My first test scan with the Xcanex

So there you go! After quite a bit of trouble with the setup, I finally got not a very acceptable scan (you can click on the image to see it in full resolution).

I have done some more testing but I will write about that in a second post (which will be linked here once it’s done).

Just one last thing: the second time I tried to use the scanner, I couldn’t even find this little launcher icon that I used above to start the scanning software… I thought that this maybe because the scanner is not yet connected to the computer? So I plugged it in and what happened was that drivers were automatically installed (Why again?), but the icon did not come back. So I’m clicked on “PiqxImaging.exe” again. Nothing.

I finally go deeper into the “piQx Imaging” branch of the program files directory and I find “perfecapture.exe” which finally starts the scanner. I created a shortcut to this file manually so that I would remember how to start the scanner the next time. And it has worked fine for me since then. I have never seen that Launcher icon again…

So let me give you a preliminary verdict (as I said, there is more to come): The setup has been more than cumbersome and I’d say it is impossible to master for the average user. But what I have is version 1.0 of the software on a burned DVD and I assume that the developers will soon have fixed these problems (although there is quite a but to go to make the software really easy to use – more about that in the second part of the review). Otherwise, this scanner is solid hardware (I could quibble a bit about cheapish plastic, but I’ve seen worse) and it is obviously well though through. When you assemble the product (you actually do need to look at the IKEA type instruction to but it together correctly), you can’t help notice that the developers really worked hard to design this innovative pocket scanner which is a bit bigger than the IRIScan Book 3 but it still suitable for taking it with you on a trip.

But would I pay 299 US-dollars for it (it’s price as of October 2013)? Definitely not. The product is definitely overpriced, I’d say 150 USD would be reasonable. I think I might pay that much for it. Perhaps some people who don’t have access to a scanner at work would pay more? But I think then I’d by a proper scanner with automatic feed for a bit more. When it comes to mobile use and portability, I’m wondering what actually can be done with a smartphone camera in combination with booksorber. I have not tried booksorber yet and I know that an on-camera flash easily ruins your “scans”, but what if there is sufficient ambient light? Or what if you hold it at an angle to the page you’re scanning, just like Xcanex does? It might be worth a try.

Speaking of money: I need to mention that I received my scanner unit for free from piqximaging. But I can clearly state that piqximaging did not require me to agree to any conditions whatsoever. They merely asked me to review the device. And while even that is not a legal obligation, I do feel morally obliged to do deliver this review now, and I’m sorry if they had hoped for an earlier post on the device, but I’ve been just too busy…

UPDATE: have a look at my updated review here

Prezi now imports your old PowerPoint slides

Just wanted to mention that Prezi now lets you easily import powerpoint slides .ppt or .pptx-files). Look here.

Are you wondering what on earth is Prezi??? Well, its a website tool that helps you create animated presentations. And the good thing about “animated” is that there is no flying words or bouncing letters distracting your audience from what you are trying to say. None of that junk that we still have to bear in various PowerPoint presentations! The only thing that’s animanted in Prezi is the ‘camera’ that smoothely glides over your desktop as you move from one topic to the next and zooming in when you go into details.

The point is that you can convey a visual image of how the different parts of your presentation are related to each other. So you don’t need to actually say it. Well, I won’t go on explaining it more. Look at their website and you will understand. There is a free plan for everyone, but it doesn’t allow you to make your prezi private. If you are a student or teacher, you can get and edu account which gives you that privacy (and some extra space).

Oh, so what do I think about it? Well, it’s great, but although they improved the interface over the years, there are still some bugs and glitches. Or maybe I should say: by improving the interface with new features, they have also introduced new problems.For example, there is this strange behaviour that an element that you have moved from position A to B will suddenly show up back at A. Or you changed the size of a frame and it suddenly jumps back. Or: there seems to be no way of duplicating a view in your path to reuse it at a later point. These little things are annoying but hey: maybe they are all gone by the time you read this? [UPDATE: The issue of elements flipping back into their original size/paosition seems to happen only with the ones that you have not created yourself, i.e. the ones you find in templates. So if you chose to use one of the pre-designed templates (can make life easier), be prepared to delete some elements and add them again manually in order to be able to change them.]

My other warning is: in all the excitement over this great new way of doing presentations, don’t overdo it. Otherwise you end up with the same effect as with the flying words and swirling pictures in PowerPoint, i.e. people will be distracted and annoyed. Believe me, the very fact that you are using Prezi will will catch people’s attention more than it should. That’s why I decided not to use it for my test presentation when I applied for my current job. Sometimes some conservatism in the form of the presentation helps you get across the inovativeness of your ideas.

SugarSync sucks

Just a quick update on SugarSync: it sucks! I wrote a more ambivalent blog post about it earlier, then I wrote about some serious synching problems (that seem to be fixed by now), but I have been annoyed again and again by this service that I just want to air my discontent here once again and say that I just think that the only reason that I have still not uninstalled it is its ability to sync whichever folder you chose, rather having to move everything to a designated folder like in dropbox and google drive. There is really no other reason (perhaps some laziness to change stuff on various computers).

To be a bit more precise,here is what annoyed me today: firstly, there is the android app, which is rather buggy or at least it often does not react to me tapping on some button. But secondly, and more importantly, I just found out that I can see neither my mobile phone nor my iPad on my PC. I added both of those devices to Sugarsync some weeks or even months ago and they do show up on the sugarsync website, but for some reason I cannot see or access them through the SugarSync client on my PC. This thread in the SygarSync User forum indicates that there is some bug, but apparently they have not managed to find it since more than a month…

Well, as I said: if you are wondering if you should try SugarSync: don’t bother. Try out Google Drive instead and tell us your experiences below (I havn’t really used it yet).