Things I’ve learned, published for the public benefit
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FAQ about the constitutional crisis in Poland

If you happen to be interested in European politics, you might want to check out my FAQ about the current constitutional crisis in Poland. (A constitutional crisis is what happens when two or more branches of the government fight so intensely that basic cooperation is impossible.) It took me over 100 hours to write – mostly because I had to do a lot of research about legal issues, including talking to constitutional lawyers.

Polish Constitutional Crisis – FAQ

Kryzys konstytucyjny – FAQ

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Plasticity 1.2: Keyboard shortcuts, mobile support, and some eye candy!

I’ve just released a new version of my music training / anti-tinnitus Web app Plasticity. Here is a list of changes:

  • Keyboard shortcuts with WASD keys should make long training sessions easier (per Lord Denton’s request)
  • Mobile support with a responsive design lets you train when you don’t have your computer with you. Please use high-quality headphones and make sure all “audio enhancements” (built-in sound distortion) are disabled on your device.
  • Eye candy: Pretty sweet slide in/out transitions between questions, re-rendered high-resolution images for retina screens, redesigned buttons (uniform across platforms)
  • Improved performance when replaying last tone
  • Tested on Firefox, Chrome (Win/Android), Safari (Mac/iOS). (Worked around a Web Audio bug in Safari which sometimes resulted in sounds no longer playing until the game is restarted.)

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Plasticity and Online Tone Generator now work in Firefox and Chrome

I have just uploaded new versions of Plasticity – my audio training game which may also alleviate tinnitus – and my increasingly popular Online Tone Generator – a handy tool for those times when you need your speakers to produce a specific frequency, and nothing else. The current versions use the HTML5 Web Audio API and have been tested to work on Chrome 33 and Firefox 28, at least on Windows. (They might also work on recent versions of other browsers – it’s worth a try.) Enjoy!

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Online Tone Generator

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I made an online tone generator based on the Firefox Audio API HTML5 Web Audio API. It’s basically a large logarithmic slider that allows real-time, smooth frequency changes.

Features

  • Fine-tune the frequency in 1 Hz increments
  • Pick a music note from a list (added Sep 2014, revamped May 2016)
  • Increase/decrease the frequency by one octave (added Aug 2015)
  • Can change the frequency smoothly as you move the slider
  • Keyboard shortcuts (added Aug 2015)
  • Generate a link to a specific tone, so you can share it (added May 2016)
  • Works well on Chrome, Firefox & Safari – including mobile devices (iOS, Android) – requires a browser with support for the Web Audio API.

There are other tone generators on the Web, but they are not as cool (if I do say so myself) and/or they require Java or Flash.

What can you use a tone generator for? You can do a science experiment with resonance, tune a musical instrument, test your new audio system (how low does it go?), test the limits of your hearing (I can hear virtually nothing above 18,000 Hz, even at maximum volume), or figure out your tinnitus frequency to better target therapy.

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Plasticity – train your ears

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Plasticity is a pitch discrimination game — that is, a game which tests and improves your ability to distinguish between similar sounds based on their frequency (pitch). You hear two sounds, which may have the same or different frequency (with 50-50 probability) and your job is to say whether they have the same frequency or different frequencies. At first, the differences are fairly obvious, but as you level up, they become smaller and smaller, which makes your job harder.

Plasticity can be a fun game to play (at least, if you believe some of my friends). In addition, it might be helpful if you want to improve your pitch discrimination skills – for example, if you’re a musician.

Plasticity is based on the Firefox Audio API and, as such, requires Firefox 4 or higher. Plasticity uses the HTML5 Web Audio API. It has been tested to work (at least) in recent versions of Chrome, Firefox and Safari – including mobile devices (in the latest release).

I wrote Plasticity to treat my tinnitus (a phantom sound in my head). The idea was to re-wire the auditory cortex in my brain through repeated training in order to change my perception of the tinnitus sound. The name “Plasticity” refers to cortical plasticity – the ability of the cortex to reorganize in response to stimuli. Did Plasticity help my tinnitus? Well, I no longer have a tinnitus problem, though I am not sure to what extent Plasticity contributed to the improvement. If you have tinnitus (especially pure-tone tinnitus), you might as well give it a try. Here are some tips on how to use Plasticity for tinnitus.

Feedback request

If you’re using Plasticity for your tinnitus, don’t forget to post a comment below. I want to know how it went!

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Is constant consumption of content keeping you from having your best ideas?

Where do you have your flashes of genius? You know, those moments when a really clever answer to something you’ve been thinking about for the past few days (months? years?) pops up in your head out of the blue.

When you ask people this question, several answers keep cropping up: “in the shower”, “in the toilet”, “in bed”, “on vacation”. Why these places? Maybe because they’re among the few places where we are (1) not actively thinking about some problem, (2) not talking to anyone, (3) not consuming content. In other words, among the few places where we are idle.

Idleness is important. In order to have creative, out-of-the-box ideas, you have to be in a relaxed state. You know that state of mind when you’ve just woken up after a refreshing sleep and there is nothing in your brain yet, and your mind just wanders from topic to topic, bringing interesting ideas and insights? You can’t tell what your next thought is going to be about, but you know it will probably be really original. That’s the state I’m talking about.

Picture of a balloon in the sky

Photo by Geoff Leeming

The opposite of idleness is focus. By the time you start focusing your mind on tasks – your morning email, the morning news, or the meeting you’re going to have at your job – the relaxed, creative frame of mind is gone. If idleness is a hot-air balloon that takes you whichever way the wind blows, focus is a high-speed train that goes straight to your destination, with no sightseeing stops or other diversions. You’ll get from point A to point B, but don’t expect any exciting adventures.

Of course, most of the time, focus is what you want. It makes you complete tasks. It makes you efficient. But it always results in some degree of tunnel vision. The more focused you are, the less likely you are to have a brilliant idea that no one else has thought about.

Tim Schafer, the man behind some of the best videogames in the world, uses a technique he calls “freewriting” in early stages of his projects. You open a notebook and write down your every thought, non-stop, for a certain amount of time. According to Schafer, the best time for freewriting is in the morning:

it has to be first thing in the morning, when the brain is empty. You’re not allowed to check email, Twitter, Facebook—nothing. Talk to as few people as possible beforehand. Every input you allow into your brain is just distracting junk that will grow and swell and muck things up. You are allowed to use the bathroom, but no reading in there. No verbal input!

Why is Tim Schafer so adamant about avoiding input? Probably because he understands that an idle, unfocused state of mind is essential for true creativity. Exposure to other people’s thoughts, whether through conversation at breakfast, reading a newspaper or checking email, focuses your mind and narrows the range of ideas you can come up with.

Unfortunately, idleness is becoming a rarity in today’s digital world. We don’t want to be idle. We want to be connected. We want to be informed. We want to be entertained. And we’ve got the technology to achieve it. So we fill every idle second of our lives with content. We watch TV shows while exercising on a treadmill. We listen to the news while driving to work. Instead of simply walking somewhere, we walk and listen to a podcast. Instead of daydreaming on our morning commute, we read on the Kindle and congratulate ourselves on putting that time to good use.

By always consuming content on our electronic devices, we are, in essence, allowing other people to put their thoughts in our heads every waking minute of our day. What about our own thoughts?

The next time you have nothing to do, consider doing exactly that – nothing. Having a bowl of cereal in the kitchen? Don’t turn on the TV, don’t update your Facebook and don’t catch up on your favorite podcasts. Don’t think about that problem you’ve been thinking about all day. Just relax, chew your cereal, clear your mind, let your thoughts wander, and give your brain a chance to come up with something great.

This post was inspired by Scott Hanselman’s talk on personal productivity, in which Scott tells you, among other things, to do less so that you can do more of it.

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How to tie your shoelaces securely

Back in my high school days, I had constant problems with my shoelaces coming undone. I was always having to stop and tie them, sometimes several times a day. Then I discovered Ian’s Secure Knot. It took me 10 minutes to learn (it’s really simple, once you get past the initial difficulty of translating diagrams into hand movements) and I’ve never looked back.

I’ve been using Ian’s Secure Knot for over ten years and (I swear I’m not exaggerating) I haven’t had my shoelaces come undone once. As far as I’m concerned, this knot provides military-grade security for your shoes. It looks great, too!

Finished Ian's Secure Shoelace Knot picture

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How to clean eyeglasses

Picture of Ludwik dishwashing liquidI’ve worn eyeglasses since I was 3 years old. A few years ago, I started getting annoyed with the dust and grease that keep building up on my glasses. Maybe it’s old-age grumpiness kicking in, or maybe it’s because I started to use LCD displays whose immaculate picture quality sensitized me to any blurriness between the LCD matrix and my retina.

Anyway, I started cleaning my glasses regularly. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out a good cleaning technique. First, I tried washing my glasses with running water and then drying them up with towels. That didn’t work so well for the grease and the towels (either cloth or paper) would leave tons of lint on my glasses. So I bought a professional microfiber cloth, the same kind that I use for cleaning photographic lenses, and some isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol), the stuff that they put in those overpriced “lens cleaning kits” you’ll find in the photography section of your electronics store. That was a lot better than my previous technique, but the alcohol would not clean off all the grease, which was impossible to remove completely with the cloth.

Well, I’ve finally figured it out. (Actually, I wish I had. I learned about this technique from my optician.) The answer is dishwashing liquid (AKA dish soap).

  1. Rinse your glasses under running water.
  2. Put a bit of dishwashing liquid on one of the lenses, then use your fingers to gently rub the liquid on both sides of both lenses.
  3. Rinse glasses again to remove the dish soap. You don’t need to use your fingers to get the dish soap off – just use running water. You should be looking at perfectly clean lenses with a few drops of water on them. If there’s any grease or other spots, repeat steps 2 and 3.
  4. Use a microfiber cloth to gently clean off remaining water drops. Use light touches – there might be small pieces of dirt on the cloth and if you rub it too hard, they might scratch the lenses. The microfiber cloth leaves no fluff, so your glasses should be perfectly clean.

It’s really a perfect combination. The dish soap dissolves all the grease, so you don’t get any smudges when you use the microfiber cloth. The microfiber cloth removes the remaining water drops and (non-greasy) stains made by evaporating water, and leaves no lint. The result: pristine-looking glasses in one minute.

What’s more, this technique is fairly convenient to use. Many online how-tos recommend special eyeglass-cleaning sprays or vinegar, which may be expensive or unavailable. On the other hand, most people have dish soap in their kitchen, so the only special accessory you need is a microfiber cloth, which costs $7 (for a top-quality one) and can be re-used for years. And even that isn’t really necessary, as paper towels or tissues work almost as well.

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