Tech Toolbox: Quizlet

I will never be able to truly consider myself as well-versed in technology; very few people have seen it all. But I do love searching out the best I can find, and once I find it, I stick with it. In my Tech Toolbox you can find my favorite software, applications, and occasionally gadgets.

One of my very favorite tools out there on the internet at the moment is Quizlet, a rising flashcard tool. Although admittedly limited in its purpose for studying term-definition relations (it’s hard to manipulate the cards into holding other types of information and the tool still being effective), and thus its effectiveness only for students, that doesn’t stop it from being an amazing company.

To start, the tool functionality itself is amazing. Equipped with a simple 6 ways to study terms, each is effective in its own way.

  • While studying with Cards, you have options to shuffle them and even hear them read out loud.
  • Speller is useful for foreign language learners, drilling the terms in using a different sense than sight–sound.
  • My favorite mode for drilling in definitions is Learn, in which you have to go through the cards again and again until you are able to correctly repeat the definition for each one.
  • Auto-generated Tests can help simulate anticipated tests; there was a period where I was able to use Quizlet to make up Test questions exactly the nature of the matching questions I’d get on my Latin tests.
  • The two games, Scatter and Space Race, are so simple yet strangely addictive. I suppose it helps when you have the most competitive of friends to try and match scores with! Not to mention these can help improve your mouse accuracy and typing speed.

(Click on the circles for mode previews and screenshots. And repetitive captions?)

There are little pieces of genius all over Quizlet–the process of printing lists of terms or even paper flashcards is so wonderful and just as effective on paper as it is on the computer. The ability to quickly juggle, copy, combine, and edit already-entered terms is amazing. There is support for innumerable foreign languages (I mean, languages and flashcards, right?), and thought is even given to things like being able to sort sets into folders (accessing them by class!) and getting stats on who’s studying what where in the world.

Another aspect of Quizlet is the all-important, but, in a sense, ‘gated’ community. Quizlet is specifically designed for classroom use, so that students studying the same thing can spur each other on, and teachers can track their students’ progress in studying. Yet, while maintaining that encouraging aspect of friendly competition, it’s not a social platform–it’s not built to make friends on or discuss on.

There are a couple extra features you can get with a PLUS account (which, by the way, I could not resist getting when they went on sale for back-to-school; the awesomeness of the company and wanting to support them overcame the slightly underwhelming benefits of the upgrade); for example, the ability to add pictures to your cards. That way, instead of matching terms to definitions, you can match pictures of different butterflies to their names (for example). Another perk is being able to join an unlimited amount of classes. Classes are collections of sets shared between a private set of people. As I had many uses for many categorizations, it became extremely annoying that this ability was stunted with a free account, and was probably my favorite upgrade with the PLUS account.

If I stopped here, Quizlet would just be a pretty sick flashcard tool. But I’m far from done. Quizlet has the most awesome UI ever. The look, the prettiness, the simply beautiful CSS–that’s what I’m talking about. The fluidity of the keyboard shortcuts and their modern, sleek design is some of the best I can say I’ve seen on the internet (and I like to think I’m a hard critic!). Often, when websites make large overhauls or add new features, there’s plenty of criticism and begging for the old way (I’m among them usually). But never once have I ever disliked anything Quizlet does to improve their website. It all just keeps getting better. And the ability to pull off non-subtle gradients and not look super cheesy! That takes talent.

There’s yet another amazing point about Quizlet that makes it stand out from virtually any other tool I use for any other purpose–their customer support is simply out of this world. I mean, check out this totally sick feedback tool they use! It’s simple to send them notes, bug reports, and feedback, and their staff is the best. They’re all so cordial, polite, and everybody shows enthusiasm for getting their users what they need. Upon sending something in, they’ll reply to anything and everything you say within a dazing few hours–usually faster than I ever estimate. Perhaps I’m not even describing the quality of their support adequately–you need to use it yourself to understand. It’s saying something when I dream of emulating their support system myself one day for who-knows-what purpose, I just want one with tools, speed, and staff like theirs.

I could go on, but I’ve said my share. As I know the majority are, some people have little use for flashcards in the first place (I myself, in fact, am not a perpetual user of flashcards), so Quizlet can be quite useless for many. But I remain in love because of more than them being an impressive flashcard tool–they are an amazing business company and website. So go use it, maybe not even for the flashcards; for using it.

UPDATE (12/2/15): Approximately a week ago, Space Race was rejiggered and renamed Gravity! They’ve jazzed it up to look a little more like space. As it’s just been released it’s not that polished yet, but I’m confident it will be.

Tech Toolbox: Quizlet

YouTube Limelight: Pentatonix

I spend so much of my time watching YouTube videos, that, hey, it’s become one of those things that defines me. In YouTube Limelight, I’ll feature a content creator whose work stands out to me. Roughly put, the majority of YouTubers can be categorized as Vloggers, Gamers, or Musicians. Here are my favorites.

Pentatonix is an a capella group who made their breakthrough on the TV show The Sing-Off, and now resides and makes their name on YouTube. They’re one of the biggest YouTube artists today, and they even had the #1 selling Christmas album in 2014. They even recently won a Grammy award for arrangement. They’re practically my favorite artists in my entire music library. And yes, we’re talking about YouTubers here.

The main distinction which sets them apart from other musicians and a capella groups is their group dynamic and their unique talent. Scott has a beautiful baritone, Mitch is able to sing in what’s usually a girl’s register, and Kirstie tacks it down by joining Mitch in the higher notes. These three were friends since high school, already forming a strong core bond. In 2011, the addition of Kevin, the beatboxer (who can also play cello and speak Chinese!), and Avi, their bass (who can hit extremely low notes–it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard), marked the culmination of Pentatonix.

But it does the band injustice to single out their individual talent and present them as such–Pentatonix is truly Pentatonix because they combine to form one inseparable group. One doesn’t listen to their music and say “oh, he’s the best” or “her part was amazing”; even on the songs clearly designed to feature one of them–their music is one big conjoined group effort. You can’t pick it apart.

Not only do they cover, rearrange, and write a wide diversity of amazing music, already making them an exceptional a capella group, their dynamic on top of this is heartwarming. The group already represents so many different backgrounds come together as nothing less than a family–gay, Christian, white, black, Jewish, and so on–and it speaks to how we can still have our differences and be the best friends there are.

In terms of being YouTube content creators, and since they’re in the music division, their music videos, it never fails to match how well they sing. Whatever they do visually for the video is almost as entrancing as the sound. Sometimes they’ll sit in their signature order for a live cover, or there’ll be a tiled visual of each of their faces. They’re also fond of occasionally dressing up (Radioactive, Daft Punk, Love Again).

But what I cannot express in words is their unique sound. Let the music speak for itself; here are some of my favorites that they have posted on YouTube.

Pentatonix’s main signature is covering pop hits in the musical world. A look down their YouTube videos reveals a potpourri of hits, whether they were from last fall or two years ago. One of my recent favorites is their cover of Clean Bandit’s Rather Be. This is also an example of what I said before–it’s designed to feature Kirstie, but you can’t ignore the group as a whole.

Pentatonix also does live covers, mashups, arrangements, so forth…here is a very popular video of theirs, which is a four-and-a-half minute time travel through music history.

Although not the first I heard, their Carol of the Bells is the first song that truly hooked me into listening to them. Probably one of their more intricate arrangements, I still love this one.

In terms of accolades, Pentatonix isn’t nowhere. They won the 3rd season of The Sing-Off, and most recently, they won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Arrangement (for Instrumental or a Capella)–for their Daft Punk Medley.

In addition, they write originals. Love Again is one of them which is on their channel, and there are a couple more on their most recent EP, such as See Through, On My Way Home, and Standing By (which I all love).

I could go on, but I could also bore you with too many videos. If you would like to listen to more, their YouTube channel is here. If you need even more, they have three EPs, PTX Vols. I, II, and III, as well as two Christmas albums, PTXmas, and the aforementioned 2014 #1 Christmas album That’s Christmas To Me.

Pentatonix has one of the most unique and pleasing sounds I’ve heard from a contemporary genre in a while, and to top it off, they have the most loveable group dynamic. Ruling the top of the YouTube-based music channels, I can’t wait for the day when bands like them will be equaled with traditional music artists.

YouTube Limelight: Pentatonix

Leisure Literature: The Hunger Games

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

Good day, I’ve been late to the bandwagon my whole life. I read Harry Potter for the first time this past January, I saw Star Wars for the first time last year (and at that, I’ve still only seen 4, 5, and 6!), and I’ve yet to finish Tolkien or read John Green. The Hunger Games received so much publicity back in 2012 due to the movie, and I knew I’d have to read it eventually (my mom cited it being a ‘candy book’ as a reason for me not to read it). It’s like being the only one left in your friend circle who still hasn’t seen Mean Girls (nope, I still haven’t) or doesn’t have a cellphone (that too). You miss out on a lot–the jokes, the references, the understanding, heck!

I finally took the liberty to check out The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins from the library. By now, I assure you that every bit of the plot has been spoiled for me. I knew exactly what to expect–the love triangle, the rules of the games, the Capitol-districts relationship. I thought I was just checking it out to have read it, to be in on the references. I thought I was just reading it to have read it. I thought it was just another poor candy book that received a too-large amount of attention and publicity due to a catchy killing game and a large-scale movie. How wrong I was.

Yes, I loved The Hunger Games. I’ve become too indifferent to truly love the concept of the games, or join the fandom, but the book was far more stunning than I expected. The powerful first person, present tense keeps the suspense going, as if things haven’t happened yet. Katniss’ thoughts run free on the page, her love for her family strongly displayed, and some very direct symbolism explanations unexpectedly ‘working’. Since I knew what the themes were going into this book, it was so fun to pick out the little nuances and symbolism. “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.”

The games themselves were just another of those fantastically mechanical things that I love to read. Katniss clearly goes through somewhat stuttering phases (first thirst, then fireballs, then Rue, then Peeta, etc.), but somehow it’s still coherent enough to like. The themes with rebellion and playing pretend love to keep herself alive are surprisingly well-woven into the action itself.

I cannot stress how well Katniss’ love is conveyed, and it’s displayed in every move she makes–for her family, for her friends, everything she does to rebel against the Capitol’s grip. It’s so powerfully written that you can’t help but cheer for the heroine. She doesn’t come across as another ‘very strong girl protagonist’, but her character is so defined yet vulnerable.

One of the plot points I liked the most was Katniss’ relationship with Gale. They were the best of friends, a perfect pair, and ‘nothing romantic between [them]’. I personally envision finding friends like Gale, who are true friends, who truly love you, yet they don’t have to be your romantic relationship.

I think one strange, problematic thing with the Games is that you look at the rest of the thickness of the book (and, if you’re as late as me, the rest of the series), and observe how it’s all first person Katniss, and see how she cannot possibly be doomed to die. Although a lot of her thoughts are built on impending and seemingly inevitable death, it’s somewhat softened by this obvious ending. To compensate, Collins has to add enough twist to the ending of the Games so it’s not that predictable.

Overall, The Hunger Games is so worth a read. Although, as I’ve said already, I was indifferent and already completely spoiled when it came to the plot, the writing was nonetheless stunningly beautiful. Laced with diction, imagery, vocabulary choice, and more well-placed choices, it shows that Collins is a great writer.

In the coming days, I’m going to be working through Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I’ll likely not post about these, but I’ll be finishing. For the sake of finishing or because I now know Collins is a great author? We’ll see.

Leisure Literature: The Hunger Games

Spasmodic Baking: Cinnasugar Monkey Bread

As a general rule of thumb, I’m not to be trusted in the kitchen. However, I’m slightly better with the oven. I sporadically bake cake and cookies and the like (you can count on it around my birthday), and it usually turns out kind of tasty. In “Spasmodic Baking”, I share recipes I’ve done.

Due to my ties with food science and thus, baking (thanks Science Olympiad!), I try to keep my skills reasonably sharp. Thus, it’s become a tradition for me to bake something for my birthday. Around a month before my birthday happens, I keep an eye out for recipes.

This year, I saw a tweet from Food Network for a monkey bread recipe. The description sounded too delectable not to try, and it was nowhere near complicated. I was able to create this sugar-cakeish-thing in about 1.5 hours the day before my birthday.

Monkey bread is called so because it is made of small morsels which can be pulled off with your fingers. This one is coated in cinnasugar (cinnamon and sugar) and boils down some caramel too after baking. The point is to be very sweet (not overwhelming, of course), so if in doubt, lean on the more sugary side.

This was very quick and easy to make; I did it as ungracefully as a non-baker can, but if you’re cooler than me, you don’t have to resort to microwaves and the like. If you’re especially talented with the oven and have more time than I do, you may be able to create your own dough instead of getting canned stuff.

What you need:

  • 2 16oz cans of biscuit dough (I used buttermilk; if they’re out of the regular kind, honey is fine)
  • a generous 1.5 sticks of unsalted butter (12 tbsp)
  • a generous 2 cups of sugar
  • a generous 1 tbsp of ground cinnamon
  • a 10-inch Bundt pan (I don’t own one, but I was able to borrow one. One of your acquaintances probably has one if you don’t)

The oven goes at 350 degrees. Preheat it whenever you feel moved to do so; every time I’ve baked in my life, I never started the oven when a recipe directs me to, since I’m slower at prepping than the recipe expects. The rack can just be in the middle-ish of the oven.

  1. Melt the butter in a medium-size bowl, using a microwave. Some tips: go slowly, use low heat settings and plenty of patience.
  2. Combine the sugar and cinnamon thoroughly in another bowl.
  3. Coat the inside of the pan with a thin layer of melted butter.
  4. Pop open the biscuit dough and separate the biscuits. Cut each into quarters. Now you have all the little pieces that will constitute the cake.
  5. Coat each biscuit piece in melted butter, and then in sugar. I kept one hand in each bowl to minimize mess-making. As you finish coating each piece, add it to the Bundt pan. You don’t have to pack them in, but press them snugly into the crevices.
  6. When you’re done, the dough will fill around 3/4 of the pan. Cover it with foil and pop it into the oven for 35 minutes.
  7. Take it out and uncover the pan, and put it back in for 15 minutes more. When it’s done, loosen the cake and flip it out on to a plate.

It was a big hit. The friends I shared it with were quickly excited about the idea of eating it and immediately started making up jokes about the ‘monkey’ part of the name. It disappeared quickly and somebody even called it “dangerous[ly tasty]”. For something so simple, it wasn’t bad. I usually don’t reuse recipes, due to me always wanting to try a new recipe (the infinite amount of them out there!) but if I ever decide to repeat something, I definitely will do this one again.

Spasmodic Baking: Cinnasugar Monkey Bread

Leisure Literature: Fairest

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

I’ve wanted to read Fairest by Gail Carson Levine for years. I read Ella Enchanted for the first time many years ago, and I fell in love with the spunky heroine and the well-crafted fantasy universe. The twist on the Cinderella tale was captivating, and it was enough for me to search out other works by Levine and look up her biography, and so forth (something few books are able to get me to do!). I eventually got my hands on Dave At Night, which was equally powerful, matching the absolute hateability of the villain and pity for the hero’s miserable situation. When I found out that Fairest was Levine’s twist on Snow White, I was down.

I finally checked it out from the library last week, and I got through it in about 3 days. However, although I was thrilled to be back in the same fantasy universe as Ella Enchanted is set in, and I adored the singing traditions of Ayortha, the book was a complete letdown compared to her other works.

Although Levine’s non-cliche fairy tale creations are as good as ever, the plot was very weak and the message of the book was ineffectively communicated. Much of the book focuses on the heroine’s dissatisfaction with her straight-up ugly appearance and her unique talent to illuse (throw her voice so that it sounds from a different source than her mouth). A glaring foreshadow in the very beginning of the book was too obvious to be held in suspense by it.

I never found myself cheering for Aza, the heroine; she never seemed to have any driving purpose. She gets sucked up into fortune after fortune, and then misfortune after misfortune. There’s no goal; her only oppression is her own insecurity about her appearance and a tyrannical queen who threatens her distantly-written family.

The villain in this book, Ivi, is ill-exposited, and her opposition is unclear and nowhere as hateable as Hattie from Ella Enchanted or Mr. Bloom from Dave At Night. Not to mention the poor resolution where she ends up being a ‘good guy’ and was only possessed by a not-very-scary spirit.

The Prince Charming sequence is alarmingly similar to Ella Enchanted–the magical falling in love between Aza and Ijori is almost identical to Ella and Char. Yet somehow, Ijori also manages to be less round than Char, and much less convincing and real.

The message of the book, quite clearly, is that beauty’s value is not what we deem it to be, and that whatever you have is beautiful enough. Upon reading the author interview in the back of the book, it’s clear Levine had a message, a vision, but she did quite poorly with it. Not until we meet Skulni do we finally realize that all this going-on about Aza being repulsively ugly has some meaning, and it was far too subtle that it would be sprung upon the reader that Aza’s not pure-human. The sequence in which Aza interacts with Skulni is more than confusing, and the conclusion to the book seems thrown together and, for the purposes of tying up the message, incoherent.

I was looking forward to finally reading Fairest, since Ella Enchanted has become one of my all-time favorites, but unfortunately, it was a big letdown. Unless you truly need to indulge yourself in more of Levine’s Ayorthian lore, reading Fairest will be a waste of time.

Leisure Literature: Fairest