App Recommendations: Photography

While we [regretfully] live in the age of selfies, good photography is still valued. However, modern photography highly favors convenience and ease. Instead of dragging around a heavy professional camera, we tend to snap photos with our phones. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Apps have allowed our phone cameras to transform photo journalism. Below are two of my favorites.

Camera+ consistently ranks as the no. 1 photography app, and it’s easy to understand why. The app is wonderful at adding brightness to low light photos. Its impressive collection of filters leaves nothing left to be desired. This is my favorite app to use when editing vacation photos. The landscape just looks so much more warm and vibrant after selecting “Backlit” and “Diana”.

VSCO Cam has the best filters around. It will up your Instagram game! The app doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of filters/features, but the old adage is true: quality over quantity. As a picture is worth a thousand words, I will simply provide you with an example:

Original photo:

Filtered with VSCO Cam:

We Say
The convenience of a phone camera – instant, no film to develop – should not, however, sacrifice quality. These apps will truly enhance your digital library and make them worthy of print!

How to Increase Your Productivity

We have all caught ourselves wishing for more hours in a day, for deadline extensions, and for a less flooded inbox. None of these wishes are in our control. Today, I will share four productivity techniques that have worked for me and are incredibly easy to apply. Implement them and you won’t need to wish for Genie!

1) Reinvent the to-do lists
Don’t we loathe those lists? Yet, how can we live without them? You can increase your productivity by making emotional lists. Don’t title them “TO DO”. Instead, create separate lists targeting the emotions you would feel when you’re done with those tasks. Examples:

I will be so proud, elated, and feeling accomplished!
– schedule Master’s defense
– finish analyzing data
– edit manuscript

I will be dirt broke if I don’t do this:
– file tax
– deposit checks

2) Schedule specific times for your tasks
Let’s further reinvent your to-do lists. You don’t make a habit of skipping meetings, do you? And why is that? Because they’re scheduled. So do the same for your tasks! Set specific times to accomplish them. This process is made incredibly easy by using FREE app Timeful. This app seamlessly integrates your tasks and calendar. After adding your to-do’s, you can drag them right onto your daily calendar – in the midst of your events – so you can always have realistic expectations of how much can get done per day. Timeful also suggests healthy habits (i.e. take a walk) and recommends the optimal time to achieving them based on your existing calendar. It’s truly your BFF in electronic form.

3) Log how you spend your time
Rescue Time starts logging all your activities the moment you turn on your computer/laptop. It categorizes everything you do as either productive or distractive. Then, weekly, it will email your productivity report. You can quickly analyze it to see what applications/websites steal most of your time and resolve to restrict access to them. Are there certain sites you wish to restrict access to (i.e. Facebook)? You can use SelfControl for Mac users, LeechBlock for Firefox users, or StayFocusd for Chrome users to block any sites you wish.

4) Employ the Pomodoro technique
Focus your attention to a specific task for an allotted amount of time, then take a short break. Rinse. Repeat. In the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo, who invented this technique, recommended working for 25 minutes and taking a 5 minutes break. Researchers now believe it’s best to work for 57 minutes and break for 12. Whatever your time combination, stick to it. The toughest part of finishing a task is to start it! With this technique, it takes the pressure off of completing something. Simply, it only asks that you stay committed to a task for a certain amount of time. Then, see where you are with it. Take a short break to replenish yourself. Leaving a task at a cliffhanger actually makes your brain craves it, much like how TV shows leave you with a cliffhanger. You therefore will be more excited to continue an unfinished task. With multiple Pomodoro sessions, you will eventually finish your task. Try the 30/30 app to help you stay on your Pomodoro schedule!

We Say
Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed with mountains of to-do’s. Make your tasks more fun by attaching positive (or avoiding negative) emotions in performing them. Then, schedule those tasks! Try performing them using the Pomodoro technique. Don’t be clueless as how your day has gone to waste. Let Rescue Time inform your habits and work to strengthen your weak spots.

For more apps that help increase your productivity, check these out!

How to Stay Motivated in School

Summer is unofficially over. For many students, school started yesterday. For some, this would be their first school year. For others, they’re returning students. For others, still, they are already tired of school. Suffering from Senioritis? How to keep going and focused despite all of life’s temptations and real world opportunities?

First, identify factors that may kill your motivation.
1. Health – eat well and sleep well! Staying focused requires physical energy. Don’t deprive your body of the necessary rest and nutrition in order to function well.
2. Willpower depletion – willpower isn’t a skill. If it’s a skill (like playing an instrument), we’d be able to tap it reliably each and every time. However, you definitely have noticed that some mornings you can go for a jog while others, you just can’t muster up the willpower to get off the bed. Willpower is a finite source that can be depleted. Therefore, it may not be the best idea to go through a long day of school/part-time job and then start doing homework. Try to change up your schedule so you can work on assignments during a time when you can concentrate. Schedule your day around your body’s optimal times (when it can focus best). This involves some trial and errors.
3. Scenery – sometimes we’re stuck in the same rut and can’t be inspired. Sometimes, we just need external motivation like being among a group of people who are focused. For this reason, many people choose to study at libraries or coffee shops.

Focus on High-Impact Activities
The key to success in school is staying focused on your course work. Make a list to get an overall picture of your workload before you start to tackle any of it. Then, make a plan. Although it’’s tempting to do the simplest assignments first, those that take more time and effort to accomplish are probably the ones that you’’ll learn the most from. To determine what your priorities are, rank your assignments in the order of their importance. Then rearrange your time and devote more energy toward those that have the greatest impact on your course work and grades. For example, even though all homework assignments are important, studying for a midterm exam takes priority over writing a paragraph for English class.

Set Attainable Goals
If you’re having trouble writing a 25-page paper for class because it seems like such a big job, don’t focus on that final number. Break the paper down and consider each section of your paper individually. You can handle any project in small chunks. The hardest part of any task is starting it. Don’t psyche yourself out. Just break down a big task and start.

Find a Social Support Network
Create a group of people around you who want to help you succeed. Mentors can be teachers or family friends who can give you guidance and help you develop new skills. Counselors can help you with planning your courses and starting to explore colleges. You can also reach out to friends and peers who can motivate you by listening and sharing ideas. In Vietnamese, there is a saying that loosely translates to, “Near the light, it’s bright. Near the ink, it’s dark.” Surround yourself with positive, goal-oriented individuals and you’ll be able to soak in all that light. Avoid hanging with trouble makers or those who constantly express negativity.

Acknowledge Your Accomplishments
Give yourself a quick reward when you complete an assignment or task. Take a walk, send an email, or get a snack. Then, move on to the next project. We also recommend documenting your accomplishments and categorizing them. For example, did you do well on a class presentation? Document that. The next time you have to give a big presentation, you can refer back to your previous success as a motivator. There is even an app to track your big and small wins – Remember Win!

We Say
While there may be more exciting things in life outside of the classroom, don’t let your days slip by in a slump. Your academic performance can impact your future careers, so stay focused! For more tips on how to succeed in school, read our post on GPA Matters. Good luck with school and make this year your best yet!

Movie Review: Mrs. Doubtfire

In Remembrance of Robin Williams
Everyday, more names are added to the obituaries. Sometimes, it’s of an actor or actress we “know”. But when news broke that Robin Williams passed away, it hit me harder than I ever thought possible. I never met the man. He didn’t know me. I recognized his extreme talent through past works. I marveled in his wit whenever he gave interviews. But at the end of the day, I still know nothing of him, personally. Why did his passing strike me so hard?

The most recent work of Williams that I saw was Bicentennial Man. I watched this with my late brother. And perhaps that is why I haven’t seen another Williams’ work since. I associated them. When I see Williams’ face, I hear him say “Little Miss”, which my late brother adopted as my nickname. Perhaps Williams’ passing reminded me of my own loss, my very personal loss. It has been twelve years since October 29th, 2002. The pain is still there.

A part of me is upset at society. We are still so ignorant about mental illnesses. We senselessly establish and maintain a stigma for those diagnosed with mental illnesses. We call them weak. We call them moody. We think it’s all psychological and something people can just snap out of. Depression is a physical illness and it is debilitating. Get professional help.

Love. Love often and love deeply. Don’t let anyone in your circles of family, friendship, and acquaintances feel lonely. Reassure them that they can lean on you and that you love them without judgment.

Since I prefer celebrating life over mourning loss, Thanh and I decided to watch one of Williams’ most known works – Mrs. Doubtfire.

Title: Mrs. Doubtfire
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Robin Williams, Sally Field, Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence, Mara Wilson, Pierce Brosnan, Harvey Fierstein
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 125 minutes
Accolades: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy) and Best Actor (Musical/Comedy) at the Golden Globe; Best Makeup at the Oscar
Purchase Mrs. Doubtfire: DVD

After fourteen years of marriage, Daniel (Robin Williams) and Miranda (Sally Field) filed for divorce. They have three children, whom Daniel could only spend time with on Saturdays. A devoted but slightly irrational Daniel transformed into an elderly woman in order to secure the position as his children’s nanny, Mrs. Doubtfire. Disguised as the nanny, Daniel managed to bring peace and warmth back into his household.

He Said
I was underage the first time I watched Mrs. Doubtfire nearly 20 years ago and I only recalled laughing at the hilarious antics (notably the infamous scene in which Williams’ titular character tries to cook dinner and sets ablaze his fake bosoms). This time around, the movie was even more wonderful than I remembered (which often isn’t the case when you try to rewatch childhood favorites) as I had completely missed the realism and poignancy in its social commentary on divorce, marriage, and family. Williams gave a standout performance as per usual that was complemented by his co-stars (side note: it was strange seeing a younger Sally Field as I will always see her as the Walker matriarch from Brothers & Sisters, but great to see her nuanced performance in her rather limited role here).

She Said
A perfect family drama! So much love, beauty, and genuine warmth. Daniel said it best when he claimed that he’s simply a father addicted to his children. Right from the start, Williams portrayed impeccable chemistry with his movie children. The court rulings brought tears to my eyes. I became invested in Daniel’s success in securing time with his children and improving his career/habitat. I almost resented the realistic ending for I desperately wanted the family to be wholesome again. This movie was an honest portrayal of divorce and would serve as a good explanation for children going through this difficult transition.

We Say
Mrs. Doubtfire is a classic, timeless movie that showcases the extraordinary talents of one of the most brilliant actors of modern times, the late Robin Williams. It does require suspension of belief, but it is a must-watch movie that goes beyond the humor (something that comedies as of late rarely do) to deliver a meaningful and realistic message about family and divorce.

How To Live [Comfortably] On A Budget

Ever since I turned 18, I became financially independent. Ever since then, I started living on a stipend. I’ve never accumulated debt, not even student loans. In college, my scholarships paid for tuition and I had part-time jobs as a tutor and medical interpreter that paid for my living expenses. After college, I started getting consistent paychecks for a full-time research position. Research, however, doesn’t pay much. Now as a graduate student, you bet my paycheck is even less substantial. But I’m happy and I’m grateful. I can stretch dollars and I live comfortably. Here’s how:

What you Need vs. What you Want
The simplest way to save money is through assessing your needs versus wants. Too often, we purchase the latest gadgets, cute items, and trendy products that simply are not essential. If it doesn’t affect your health, your career, or your personal relations, it’s not a need. If it’s not a need, you don’t have to waste money on it. Consider those purchases splurging and only indulge when you’ve made enough earnings.

Track Your Spendings
Knowing where your money goes is the best way to save money. I used to keep a spreadsheet of my spendings. At the end of the month, I look at my tallies for various categories and decide where I need to cut. It turns out I was spending $120 on coffee per month! So I quit Starbucks cold turkey and made my own coffee. This lasted for more than a year. I still make my own coffee, but do allow myself to indulge in a cup of Starbucks now and then. Due to my increasing busy schedule, maintaining a finance spreadsheet was no longer viable. Instead, I turned to the Mint app, which tracks all your credit card spendings and bank deposits. It’s absolutely a must-have tool.

Never Pay the Full Price for Clothes
I like cheap clothes. I also like quality clothes. I’ll risk being a snob by saying this: I would never purchase a shirt or pair of pants at Walmart. But you can bet that the money I spend on high quality clothes is within the Walmart range. I own a $7 BCBG skirt, a $10 pair of Oxford shoes, etc. And I didn’t have to wake up early or waste time in long lines during Black Friday. The trick? Get designer’s clothes that aren’t exactly trending at the moment. Fashion recycles itself so honestly, anything can become trendy! Shop places like Nordstrom Rack and Last Call Neiman Marcus for deep discount on high quality clothes. Do you shop online? Avoid shipping fees. My rule of thumb is that I would never pay for shipping. What if I end up not liking the product? Then I’d waste money on shipping both ways! Do you prefer shopping in stores? Hit the outlet malls over Labor Day’s Weekend for the best deals.

Change Little Habits
1) Pack lunch. Eating out is around $10 per lunch. That totals to $50 a week. If you pack lunch? The ingredients probably would cost you $20.
2) Lower your thermostat down 3 degrees (in winter) and raise 3 degrees in summer when you leave the house.
3) Sell something on eBay. Surely you have items laying around that you no longer need but someone else would want. We have the best luck with selling textbooks and used electronics after we upgraded our gadgets.
4) Create a “No Spending” day once a week. Chances are, you spend a little bit more over the weekends. Dinner dates. Movies. Road trips. Stocking up on groceries. So on Mondays, commit yourself to no spending. If there’s something you really want to buy, save it for Tuesday!
5) Go “Cash Only” for a week. Swiping a credit card and spending imaginary money is too easy. Make it harder to spend. Use real, physical money that exists in your wallet for a week. You are bound to save money.
6) Live the mantra: one item in, one item out. That is, only buy a shirt if you can donate a shirt from your closet. This tip is also great for decluttering – win/win!
7) Buy generic brands. The store brand Claritin D fights allergies just as well as the mega expensive brand. Milk, sugar, salt, flour, cleaning products, etc. can all be purchased generic brand.

We Say:
As long as you have a paycheck – even on minimum wage – you should be able to live comfortably. There is no quick money in this world. The money you earned is enough to sustain you.

Our First Home

Originally posted on TkN Portrait:

It was love at first sight. Our apartment hunt couldn’t have been any easier. We started the process early so as not to rush into a decision. Yet, the very first townhome we encountered was *the one*. Never in my life had something clicked so instantly. Of course, that is not to say this is my ideal house. Oh, far from it! But, it is the perfect house that meets my current demands. I want something manageable, something charming to interest me for three years (and no more).

The townhome is situated in a lovely neighborhood with a community pool close by. Trees and a big backyard provide for a gorgeous landscape. There’s even a lamppost near the front steps. The entire place was newly renovated. What caught my attention instantly were the detailed textures on the walls and unique light fixtures. The place gave a very welcoming vibe. I…

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Themes: Wreck It Ralph, Frozen, Tangled

My infatuation for Frozen sparked a renewed interest in Disney and a desire to watch the creative team’s past works. Having finished Tangled and most recently Wreck It Ralph, I observed very common themes among all 3 movies.

But first, a mini-review…

Wreck It Ralph runs in a similar creative vein as the Toy Story franchise. Instead of toys, Ralph brings to life video game (arcade) characters. It immerses the viewer into a colorful world with very “human” characters. Essentially Ralph is a story about discovering self-worth against prejudice and labels, told through the heart-warming quest of a misunderstood “villain” (Ralph) who just wants to be the “hero” for a change. This is a fun, feel-good family movie that offers a strong and touching message.

Themes: Identity & Acceptance
One of the biggest struggles that we can all relate to is learning and accepting who you are.

Societal “norms” correlate with acceptance, something that all humans desire. Divergence from said “norm” results in ostracization. In an attempt to fit in with the majority, some go to great lengths to change themselves and conceal any and all glaring “differences”; this can result in self-suffering with unexpected and undesired consequences.

Too often we are also quick to apply labels to others and form opinions without truly knowing who the person is. Indeed, prejudice can sadly cloud our judgment, which sometimes makes us lose out on potential relationships.

Thus the struggle for identity and acceptance can be hard and life-long. Fittingly breaking beyond their labels as “animated movies for kids”, Tangled, Ralph, and Frozen tackle these very “adult” topics through their characters’ journeys.

In Tangled, Rapunzel and Flynn learned who they were through their relationship with one another. Rapunzel overcame her fears of the unknown and became confident in herself. Flynn realized he was more than a “bandit” and found meaning and purpose beyond surviving and living for himself.

In most fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists. “Real life” is not so black and white. The video game characters in Ralph try to depict the multidimensional layers of people. During the day their “job” is to be either the “hero”, “villain”, or supporting cast. Sadly for “villains”, the stigma of their “job” carries off-duty and they are discriminated and considered by peers as “bad guys”. Ralph is the epitome of this prejudice; he consequently suffers from low self-esteem and just wants so badly to show others that he’s not a “bad guy” and be liked by others.

The movie chronicles Ralph’s quest to break through his labeled persona, but actually ends up with him learning who he is. In the touching and strong climax, Ralph boldly states:

I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I would rather be than me.

In this epic scene, Ralph not only proves he is more than a “bad guy”, but he finds his self-worth and embraces his “difference”. It is only after he accepts himself that others accept him.

In Frozen, Elsa is forced to hide not only her magical ice/snow-making abilities, but also herself. She was miserable, trapped by fear. When her secret is revealed, Elsa is at first scared, but later becomes empowered by her new-found freedom as she belts in “Let It Go”. After years of isolation and trying to keep a secret, she no longer cared what people thought and just wanted to “live” for once. She relished in her abilities, her “difference”, as she makes a beautiful ice castle (and the lovable, scene-stealing Olaf).

Due to a lack of understanding, people believed Elsa to be a “monster” – a Snow Queen. People fear the unknown. It is only when they start to understand her powers (as a result of Elsa embracing, rather than concealing) are they able to see past her “difference” and realize that she is still human.

We Say
As people, we all have our own quirks; no two are exactly alike. It is crucial to learn who you are and especially understand the “differences” that make you unique. Don’t try too hard to conform to societal “norms” or appease the majority. Ultimately, the big message is this: Living life freely results in happiness.