Achieving the digital detox.

Over the past few months, during my interaction with various people on Twitter and offline, I have been hearing about the information deluge that makes it impossible for them to acquire new skills. We indeed have limited 24 hours!

I wouldn’t be able to give a blow by blow account of how I manage things, but I have had to stick to certain good habits that have made things more comfortable for me. I will mention a few services below that make it incredibly easy to flow past the flood of distractions.

1) Mobile phone:

This is the biggest annoyance! I am off the social networks on the device barring Telegram. More on that later.

Twitter is accessed only on the browser. No dedicated applications exist. All notifications on the device are blocked except for text messages.

Telegram helps me to mute all conversations except people whom I deem essential. I have a lot of channels where I consume content passively. No mainstream social networks like Facebook or Instagram for me. They are antiquated because I cannot control them.

I also don’t have a fear of missing out. My associates either call me or text me if needed. Android has become better to manage notifications in recent times. I don’t have any experience with iOS, but I remain convinced that Apple iPhones are merely iPods with a calling facility.

2) Email.

I had mentioned this earlier too. I use Fastmail because I find there is inherent value in paying up for the email. I use a lot of aliases whenever I sign up for the service. It helps to signup with a unique email address. For example, for Dropbox, my alias will be dropbox (at) FastMail dot com (it is a hypothetical- just for illustration). Therefore, if any spam flows into my inbox, I know where is the leak from. All I have to do is to delete the alias.

This simple hack has served me well over six years, and I am happy to stay with this service. Mainstream email applications like Gmail or Yahoo are useless.

I have also created extensive rules which directs the email in the trash. It helps to clean up the clutter at the server itself without manual intervention. For example, all newsletters go to trash directly. Some of them are automatically marked as read and stay in the inbox- I scan through them when I get time. When they are marked as read, I don’t get a notification. Therefore, can easily stay focused on my work without being distracted by the flow in the inbox.

3) Password Manager

1Password is the password manager that is my life saver. It generates unique passwords for all the websites. It is a paid service, but good cloud sync helps me to sync it with my Android device as well. It eliminates the need to remember unique passwords.

4) The use of Telegram chat app

Telegram remains the only way to stay connected with any semblance of “social network”. I use a combination of groups and channels to stay informed. Channels work as public broadcasts. Any specific information I need is transmitted to it. I use bots (both paid and free) to achieve the effect.

For example, I use the IFTTT bot to work with the RSS feeds to populate the channels with the Pubmed content. If I need to track, say the latest publications in the development of MR-LINAC, I don’t have to visit the website manually. By use of booleans, I can filter the content, generate the specific RSS feeds which pipes it elegantly in the channel via IFTTT bot. Likewise, I use junction-connection bot and Feed-Reader bot for different purposes. I pool in information from all specific channels I need to follow into one omnibus channel so that I don’t have to deal with a multitude of channels. I do this by using junction-bot on Telegram.

Feed-Reader bot helps me to tap into various other social networks. For example, I have a specific channel devoted to cycling. All posts from multiple Instagram accounts flow in the channel. It helps me to keep track of the sectoral development. Likewise, I developed a channel for journalists on Telegram to keep track of telecom sector and clean energy. I also have a dedicated art channel that I helped to make for a friend. That collects all impressionist art, beautiful nature pictures and graffiti! None of the posts is done manually.

Focused groups require extensive group management. I recommend using Combot because it comes with a beautiful web-interface. Although the community bot management has introduced a paid plan, it is free for groups that have up to 100 members. The bot deletes specific stop words automatically along with other nifty features like muting users. The bot also keeps groups free of spam messages. Therefore, the groups stay efficient, productive and on course. It is unlike WhatsApp where users start spamming others without any rhyme or reason.

This above may sound onerous, but it helps to maximise the efficiency gains. As long as you are not distracted, it helps to keep focused on work.

In the busy schedules that we keep, always find time for solitude. That is the most critical period to stop and reflect on your goals.

Digital tools need a constant refinement. Hopefully, I will update this in the future.

(Images are for representational purpose only. This blog post is not intended for any commercial purpose).

Twitter for oncologists: Beyond 280 characters

I had my disdain for social media. It had been in the news for all wrong reasons. This post isn’t going to add to a growing and mounting evidence that social media is practically useless for politics because it amplifies our echo chambers and fuelling our confirmation biases. In the past few months, I have learned enough to hand hold a few tech-phobic colleagues and discover the positive side instead.

The hashtag: Twitter revolves around hash-tags. This is akin to a large room where people are discussing a topic; they come, and they leave the room. By having an open door policy, anyone can join in the conversation. It is like a large town-hall. Twitter usually lists trending hash-tags, but there are numerous third-party services which reveal global hashtags; not large enough to trend but essential nevertheless.

For example, #btsm is the hashtag for brain tumours social media. Often, patient advocates invite many thought leaders to debate and discuss on brain tumours. Anyone can use the hashtag to follow the process.

You guessed it right. The signal to noise ratio is very low, which makes it difficult to follow the conversation, meaningfully.

Username by @: They enduring symbol “@“ when prepended in front of a username, alerts the person (via notification) that he/she has been called out in the noisy room. You can either use the hashtag in the conversation (when the chats are being conducted) or individually if you wish to draw someone’s attention to their Twitter stream.

Twitter stream: Algorithms usually determine the endless “tweets” you see. Therefore, when you start out, with an empty slate, the number of tweets tend to be overwhelming as you start following various users. It happens because, Twitter, as a service, uses, the number of signals (your community engagement or number of re-tweets etc.) to determine what you are going to see there. The idea is to stay focused on what your goals are.

Direct Message: This works like an inbox system; you can restrict the users who can reach out to you.

It can quickly get overwhelming on this service. You will have to make several modifications to the way you are notified- via email, desktop or mobile clients. I prefer to get a notification only on a direct message from people who follow me. For everything else, it is switched off.

I prefer and recommend a desktop application (TweetBot for Mac). But you are forewarned. The developers do not bother to reply to your queries, and it lacks several customisation features. It gets the job done because I can filter out the advertisements on the web service. I also prefer to have a Tweetmarker service to go through the unread tweets. You can also turn off retweets from specific followers or mute them indefinitely.

Should you use Twitter or Facebook? In my opinion, both are bad. Even though the masses are there, but it represents too much of concentration of “power” in the hands of an algorithm. That’s why I prefer, the simple and straightforward Telegram. Groups work precisely that ways- you can quickly set up hashtags to organise the chats. Not many people follow this. Channels work exactly like a public broadcast. You can always set up links to discuss issues in the groups. As usual, there is a going to be a vast majority of people who will not speak up.

Closing thoughts: Twitter represents a dominant social media with numerous warts. I call it robust, only because of the sheer number of users, who have flocked to this medium. Most users are technology agnostic. People usually go by word of mouth recommendation or something which they have heard is “popular”.

It is time to take the leap of faith and contribute to the positive side of social media. As well as, try out something different and better! (Hint: Telegram)

How I have refined my academic workflow?

(Estimated reading time: around 8 minutes).

I have been trying to establish an academic workflow for quite some time now. Writing about it helps me to organise my thoughts better. I’ll highlight what I have found useful. This list is by no means exhaustive. This is also in line with my idea of documenting everything as I hurtle towards the goal of academia. Its an ongoing struggle but I am hoping that someone more knowledgeable than me would take time out to point any obvious flaws. I also hope to spur on discussion about their own workflows.

Mind Map and how ideas could flow

Created in scapple; a basic mind map

Step 1: Creating a mind map.

I use Scapple for it. There are other alternatives available but I haven’t explored them. Stare at a blank canvas and start writing randomly. Identify the thoughts as they come to you. They help in brainstorming. This involves identifying the parameters that I have to use/cover, all the ideas I have to write about and how I need to be able to distinguish my write up from other published ones.

That, I believe, is the most important part, since the first part of any research is identifying the question and being able to coherently frame it. This is followed by supportive evidence (if any) and the strength of the protocol that you are out to write. If you don’t want to use Scapple from the outset, you can always write it down; see all the ideas that form a feedback loop, if any, and then take it forward.

Key takeaway: Identify the idea first!

Step 2: Pubmed

Once I have done it, I hit Pubmed. The search on Pubmed has improved vastly although a compelling use case exists for Quertle as well. Previously, Quertle had a free tier but its a paid option now. I haven’t used it recently though. Nevertheless, I use advanced search and booleans to drill down to the specifics on pubmed. Once I have identified my key words that give me adequate results, the fun starts.

A specific keyword is likely to give a river of publications. Most of them are usually contextually related and Pubmed has complex algorithms to sort them out. I prefer to subscribe the whole list by RSS feeds (which I covered recently). These RSS feeds then pipe into Inoreader. Few people might prefer to get email for it but this is easily lost in the sea of email that we get (I hit on a specific actionable inbox zero protocol long time back and its serving me very well). Email is a bad idea.

Step 3: Inoreader for RSS feeds

Inoreader is a fantastic resource. Apart from the specific Twitter searches, I can filter out the feeds.

Lets say, if the feed is showing up keywords for canine oligodendroglioma (which is irrelevant for me), it can be filtered out. Once its done, I can set up several other rules in conjunction with IFTTT.

Inoreader and IFTTT (If This, Then That) allows you to create applets that links various services. For example, I pipe articles related to specific keywords, IFTTT can be triggered each time the article comes in. I add specific hashtags to it and viola! All articles that are of relevance (from specific keywords/filtered) are pushed out to Twitter. A bit of human curation also occurs in this river of articles. I usually “star” the articles (things I have to follow) and IFTTT appends separate hash tag to it and pushes out to Twitter.

In this, specific write ups that are relevant to my work (starred articles, for example), are saved and downloaded (usually from Sci-Hub or through institutional paywalls).

Step 4: HighlightsApp on Mac

I use Highlights App on Mac (I think it was created by a PhD student himself). The coolest thing about it is the annotations come as a note (which now happens in Bookends as well). These notes are exported as TextBundle and opened up via Ulysses. I add meaning to these notes (needed to learn a little Markdown; enough for me to get going) and Ulysses pushes it to my publishing website on word press.com

Step 5: Using Ulysses to craft your ideas

The beauty about Ulysses (apart from the simplicity, writing long form, ability to preview in various formats etc) is stellar customer support. I faced an issue with Highlights app and Ulysses and it was addressed by the developer himself. They moved towards a subscription based model and I think it was a wise sensible decision.

Step 6: Always use a Bibliography manager for your papers!

Nevertheless, I have found peace with using Bookends. It is (I think) a one man show (Sonny Software) and is one of the most comprehensive solutions. Sente/Papers 3 are gasping but Bookends has thrived on a payment model (upgrade every 2 years) with stellar support; both on forums and email. Bookends serves as a bibliography tool (this deserves another blog post some day).

Step 7: Scrivener for writing papers. A must have and a life saver!

After annotations/note taking, I prefer to write using Scrivener; especially the long form. I break up the article in several parts and I can work on them at different intervals. This also requires another blog post!

Scrivener pipes out the output in rtf (for example) where Bookends can scan it, add the citations which then requires some more formatting to be pushed to journals for submission (and then hope that the anonymous reviewer would be nice to you!)

Starting from Pubmed, this train of thought may sound complex (but it isn’t) and is straightforward. Each one of them serves a specific purpose.

Ulysses works perfectly to write these blog posts since I prefer to use a distraction free environment. I use Vivaldi browser as my preferred software; has tons of shortcuts and muscle thats absolutely amazing.

Don’t forget cups of tea/coffee and some Spotify lists to keep things interesting! (meditative music helps me :))

Disclosure: None of them are affiliate links and I have paid for the software in full. They deserve to be highlighted!