Academic Workflow: How to get Siri to read papers to you

Often, when I'm reviewing a manuscript or reading a paper, I first like to familiarize myself with the general topics and themes discussed in it, before diving deeper to assess and analyze the text. For this purpose, I find that "listening to the text” is highly beneficial because it involves less friction compared to having to sit down and prepare myself to read a manuscript. Additionally, I can listen while I'm at the gym, or while commuting, at the coffee shop, etc.

Here's how I do it:

  1. Get Instapaper: Instapaper is a free read-later app that is handy for several reasons. Essentially, it strips the clutter from any webpage article and stores a clean, ad-less, plain-text version for you to read, accessible on any platform. You can pay for premium options, but both free and pro versions have the basic "text to speech" functionality, where your article is read aloud to you.
  2. Prepare your manuscript for Instapaper: Instapaper gives you the incredibly convenient and useful ability to forward article links, text, or even newsletters or email to its platform (see below). Once the text is in, Instapaper will parse and neatly format the contents of your email, which is then synced across its website and apps. If you are interested in sending a formatted, published journal article to Instapaper, extracting the text from the PDF and pasting it into your email window is rather straightforward. For an unpublished manuscript PDF with line numbers, I’d suggest cropping out the line numbers (this can be done in Apple’s native Preview or using Adobe Acrobat), to prevent Instapaper from reading them on every line (it can get annoying). After cropping, selecting and copying the body text is easy. If it’s a Word doc,
  3. Email the text to Instapaper: Each Instapaper user gets their own mail-to-instapaper address. Now, all you need to do is paste the manuscript text into your composer and send it off to Instapaper.
  4. Get Siri (or the built-in Instabot) to read your paper!
1. Crop line numbers out from your manuscript.

1. Crop line numbers out from your manuscript.

2. Select all the text from the manuscript after cropping

2. Select all the text from the manuscript after cropping

3. Email the text to your Instapaper Account

3. Email the text to your Instapaper Account

4. Hit the share button and click on “Speak” for text-to-speech

4. Hit the share button and click on “Speak” for text-to-speech

Thoughts on alternatives:

There are other apps out there (like Voice Dream Reader — which I’ve heard good things about) that can convert text to speech. Although, my limited experience with many common apps has not been… up to par. The iPhone itself has an “accessibility” option where text on the screen can be read out loud, but this feature doesn’t work when the phone is locked and is not convenient. For me, Instapaper is a simple, minimalistic app that excels at what it does. Its email feature is very convenient, and with the workflow above, I find it to be the best way to “listen” to papers.

Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport


Georgetown University’s Cal Newport is back with another book, Digital Minimalism, which extends his outlook on doing more meaningful work in an increasingly distracting world. 

Digital Minimalism is one-part manifesto and one-part popular science. In essence, it is a discourse on the critical disadvantages of constant connectivity and the advantages of being intentional about using today’s technologies. By documenting several studies as well as anecdotal examples of how mobile applications and social media have become deeply interwoven into the fabric of society, Newport makes an excellent case for minimizing the usage of most things digital to (a) break free from screens and (b) regain control of intentionality in communication. Newport contends that finding tools for a problem at hand is a far superior strategy to first gathering tools for hypothetical future issues. This philosophy resonates throughout the book and in particular, hits home concerning today’s smartphone ecosystem, with countless (many unnecessary) mobile applications and innumerable (unconscious) sign-ups for the shiniest new social media platform. 

Newport, unsurprisingly, goes quite deep into providing concrete examples of methods and strategies for assimilating into the digital minimalist’s mindset. Newport showcases read-later apps and blocking apps, but most effectively, demonstrates how social media companies prey on addictive tendencies to develop their platforms (swipe down for refresh = slot machine; bright red notifications, etc.) The book details many suggestions and techniques to offset such tactics and lists the many disadvantages of continually glancing at Twitter or Facebook. Ultimately, Newport asks us to reclaim our time because “our time = their money.” In doing so, he delivers a stark warning about the impact of addictive digital media in today’s attention economy.

At the same time, Newport, who is a computer scientist by profession, also emphasizes that digital minimalism is not an anti-technology movement. The book outlines why careful curation and consideration of apps, as well as their intentional usage, can actually elevate efficiency and efficacy in the workplace (“dumb down your smartphone”). Much of this builds on concepts described in Newport’s earlier book, Deep Work. Concerning the minimization of screens altogether, Digital Minimalism goes a step beyond Deep Work’s ethos of emphasizing “value in boredom” and contains an additional dimension of focus: leisure. Newport pulls together examples of how ‘leisure’ activities, which is easily distanced from the activity of endless scrolling on an app, can contribute to wellbeing and how technology itself can foster such ‘crafty’ activities. 

It’s at this end of the book where I felt that Newport begins to meander and briefly loses sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps unwillingly, the tone morphs into one with a somewhat preachy demeanor and extols the virtues of activities that do not appeal to most readers (e.g., Crossfit) nor extend to their day-to-day realities (e.g., emphasis on handiwork), and importantly aren’t relevant to the message at hand. At times I also felt that the balance between scaremongering and hard facts became fuzzier than at a comfortable level. 

Regardless of these setbacks, Digital Minimalism is an important book on an important topic. Whereas Deep Work was a tour de force on honing intentionality in the workplace, Digital Minimalism is Newport’s effort to extend this perspective to overall wellbeing and personal nourishment. By highlighting some alarming ongoing trends in digital addiction as well as offering tangible solutions to minimize screen use, Digital Minimalism is a compelling read.

[Thanks to Chris Maupin for gifting me a copy of this book!]

Mathkey: A great resource for LaTeX on iOS

I’ve been using LaTeX (enjoyably!) on iOS for quite some time now. It is *still* remarkable to me that I can continue chipping away at a manuscript that I was working on in the office outside at the park — on a piece of glass. For those not in the know, LaTeX is a typesetting language that has many uses, and can be particularly useful for writing manuscripts.

After graduating from a 8.2” iPad Mini 2.0 to a 9.7” 6th generation “educational” iPad, I’ve been getting more and more writing done on iPad. The larger screen is more conducive for split-screen usage and the Apple Pencil compatibility is awesome (gives my post on note-taking tools a whole new depth - I should revisit that). Texpad is still my LaTeX editor of choice (I wish this could somehow be integrated with Overleaf) and its latest version, with several updated tools, makes editing in LaTeX rather simple. Although Texpad’s symbol editor tool is handy, I recently came across an app that makes complex typesetting, and equations, in particular, easy and intuitive.

Cue: Mathkey. The iPad app costs $7.99 (rather reasonably priced IMO; although it is also available via Setapp) and is available on the iPad as well as the iPhone (and Macbook). Essentially, it is a LaTeX keyboard (add it under General->Keyboard) that receives input via touch, and can produce output as text or as an image. What exactly does Mathkey do? Instead of struggling with symbol/equation typesetting, Mathkey uses the MyScript engine to parse handwritten equations into an image or as snippets of LaTeX code (as plaintext) that you can insert into your editor of choice. This becomes especially powerful when you have an external keyboard for typing opened with Mathkey as your active keyboard. I’ve been using Mathkey for about 3 months now and its accuracy is rarely off. On the iPad, using Mathkey with the Apple Pencil has been delightful. Finally, Mathkey can also remotely connect to the Macbook so that you can write equations on the iPad/iPhone while editing LaTeX on the Mac.

All in all, this app is a worthy addition to my (iOS-)LaTeX workflow. Here is a screencast of Mathkey usage: