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Learn Via Podcast

We've covered free stuff on the iTunes Store before, including some higher education content. But did you know there's a whole directory of educational podcasts, including higher education content?

Unlike the "sold by the store but free" content we mentioned last time, these podcasts should be available worldwide, not just in the US. Your humble blogger recommends Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (yes, this is the second time we've plugged this podcast) and TED Talks (video) (an audio version is also available).

Do you have a favorite educational podcast?

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Why the Soundtracks to Games Like 'Mario' or 'The Sims' Can Help You Work
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When I sat down to write this article, I was feeling a little distracted. My desk salad was calling me. I had new emails in my inbox to read. I had three different articles on my to-do list, and I couldn't decide which to start first. And then, I jumped over to Spotify and hit play on the theme to The Sims. As I listened to the upbeat, fast-paced, wordless music, my writing became faster and more fluid. I felt more “in the zone,” so to speak, than I had all morning. There's a perfectly good explanation: Video games provide the ideal productivity soundtrack. At Popular Science, Sara Chodosh explains why video game music can get you motivated and keep you focused while you work, especially if you're doing relatively menial tasks. It's baked into their composition.

There are several reasons to choose video game music over your favorite pop album. For one, they tend not to have lyrics. A 2012 study of more than 100 people found that playing background music with lyrics tended to distract participants while studying. The research suggested that lyric-less music would be more conducive to attention and performance in the workplace. Another study conducted in open-plan offices in Finland found that people were better at proofreading if there was some kind of continuous, speechless noise going on in the background. Video game music would fit that bill.

Plus, video game music is specifically made not to distract from the task at hand. The songs are meant to be listened to over and over again, fading into the background as you navigate Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom or help Link save Zelda. My friend Josie Brechner, a composer who has scored the music for video games like the recently released Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, says that game music is definitely written with this in mind.

"Basically, successful video game music straddles the balance between being engaging and exciting, but also not wanting to make you tear your ears off after the 10th or 100th listen," Brechner says. Game music often has a lot of repetition, along with variation on musical themes, to keep the player engaged but still focused on what they're playing, "and that translates well to doing other work that requires focus and concentration."

If you're a particularly high-strung worker, you might want to tune into some relaxing classical music or turn on a song specifically designed to calm you. But if you want to finish those expense reports on a Monday morning, you're better off choosing a fast-tempo ditty designed for seemingly pointless activities like making your Sims eat and go to the toilet regularly. (It can help you with more exciting work responsibilities, too: Other research has found that moderate background noise can increase performance on creative tasks.)

These types of songs work so well that there are entire playlists online devoted just to songs from video game soundtracks that work well for studying. One, for instance, includes songs written for The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Super Smash Bros., and other popular games.

The effect of certain theme songs on your productivity may, however, depend on your particular preferences. A 2010 study of elementary school students found that while calming music could improve performance on math and memory tests, music perceived as aggressive or unpleasant distracted them. I was distracted by the deep-voiced chanting of the "Dragonborn Theme" from Skyrim, but felt charged up by the theme from Street Fighter II. There's plenty of variety in video game scores—after all, a battle scene doesn't call for the same type of music as a puzzle game. Not all of them are going to work for you, but by their nature, you probably don't need a lot of variation in your work music if you're using video game soundtracks. If you can play a game for days on end, you can surely listen to the same game soundtrack over and over again.

[h/t Popular Science]

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3 Easy Ways to Curb Your Smartphone Addiction
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In the modern era, it feels virtually impossible to live without a smartphone. How would your friend tell you she's running late to meet you for lunch? How many life updates would you miss if you're off Instagram? How on earth do you find anything without Google Maps? Few of us are able to resist the siren call of cell phones and social media, and as a result, researchers say that smartphone addition is on the rise, causing greater levels of anxiety and depression, especially among young adults.

Even if you don't feel like your phone is making you depressed, you probably feel like you stare at it at least a little longer than you should each day. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of smartphone owners say they couldn't live without their device. But there are ways to detach from your precious phone without having to totally disconnect. Here are three tips to help you back off your smartphone usage, no withdrawal pains necessary.

1. TURN OFF VIBRATIONS.

Let's face it: You probably look at your phone regularly, whether you know someone is trying to reach you or not. You know, just in case. A 2015 Gallup poll found that half of all smartphone owners look at their device hourly. Checking your smartphone is essentially a compulsion for many people, one that researchers say plays on the brain's dopamine circuitry to leave us always wanting more. To short-circuit that process, take away those intrusive notifications that derail your attention even when you're not looking at your phone. Trust us, you will rarely miss an important text message by waiting a few minutes to answer it, and you'll probably get rid of those pesky phantom vibrations in the process. Does it really matter if you find out now or in an hour that you have three likes on your latest Instagram post? We didn't think so.

2. DITCH THAT BATTERY PERCENTAGE NUMBER.

Checking your phone all the time doesn't just make you stress over whether or not someone is texting you back. The more time you spend on your smartphone, the quicker your battery dies, and the more time you spend stressing out over whether or not you'll have enough battery left to keep using your phone for the rest of the day. But knowing whether your phone is at 63 percent battery or 57 percent battery probably won't help. It's hard to judge exactly how long a phone will last even when you can see the percentage, and the constant downward tick of the numbers is only going to make you obsess more. So just disable the setting, hiding the battery percentage display altogether. You'll still be able to get a rough idea of how much charge your phone has left from the icon, there just won’t be a specific number attached to it. Because when it comes to actually using your smartphone, the difference between 54 percent and 53 percent battery is essentially meaningless, anyway. You might as well just ignore it.

3. MAKE IT GRAYSCALE.

This one is a recommendation from Tristan Harris, a former "Design Ethicist" at Google. He is a specialist on just how our phones hijack our attention, and how those random notifications keep us coming back to our home screens again and again and again. To break the pattern, he suggests making your phone’s shiny graphics look a little less interesting. Make them grayscale instead of color. Suddenly, your vibrant, colorful phone will look a little more drab. You'll be able to text and make phone calls and use Google Maps, sure, but scrolling through Facebook won't feel quite as rewarding.

This one seems a little extreme when you first try it, but it's pretty easy to switch back and forth between color and grayscale when you enable the setting. For an iPhone, go to the General tab in your settings, then Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Color Filters. When you turn on color filters, you should be able to select grayscale as an option, turning your phone drab. To switch back to color occasionally, go back to the Accessibility menu in your settings, then select Accessibility Shortcuts all the way at the bottom. Enable Color Filters in that menu, and you'll be able to switch back and forth just by triple-clicking the home button.

If you have an Android, the process is a little more complicated, and you may have to enable a developer mode to unlock it. (More instructions here.)

Once your phone is robbed of color, you'll be surprised at how much less powerful the rush of opening up your home screen is. It's like taking a sip of decaf coffee.

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