Do you use an ereader?

In the commercial world of book sales, ereaders have surged into the spotlight over the last few years. Book retailers Amazon and Barnes and Noble each release new models of their dedicated ebook readers with the same frequency as other popular electronic gadgets. Since Apple first release its popular iPad, the world of tablet of computing is also making inroads into the ebook world.

The perception, however, is that ebook readers are popular mostly among casual, pop-lit readers. If you have an ebook reader (e.g. Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader, Apple iPad), please complete this simple survey about how you use ebook readers in an academic setting.

http://bit.ly/mPnZbn

Ephemera + Instapaper + E-reader = your own periodical

Scott McLemee, the Intellectual Affairs blogger at Inside Higher Ed, recently shared with readers his method for saving articles he finds online to his e-reader. The idea, as he explains, is to take advantage of your e-reader’s strengths (text display, large storage capacity, and portability) and start hand-crafting your own library. Think beyond the Kindle store or Sony store and explore the world of free books (books in the public domain) through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive and other repositories of texts made available for free. And once you get the hang of it (and you’ve finished reading the 33,000 books in PG’s archive), then think creatively about those long articles you find online.

I don’t know about you, but if an article is more than 1000 words, I won’t read it online. At least, I won’t read it on a backlit screen. For years, this has meant that I print out longer articles. In his blog post, McLemee shares how he saves those articles to his e-reader. Continue reading

Mac users, try Skitch for annotating images

Sometimes you want to show someone else what you’re looking at online. You can email her a link, post it on Facebook, or share it on Twitter. But sometimes, you need to show someone exactly what you’re seeing. Why? It might be because you see an error that someone else doesn’t see. Or, you might want to call attention to just part of a website, a program on your computer, or something else on your screen.

This is a classic case where you want to take a screenshot. Screenshots allow you to show someone else what you’re seeing. A few weeks ago, Adam showed Windows users how to take simple screenshots. Today, I want to show Mac users how to take screenshots and then annotate them.

OS X has a built-in screenshot program called Grab. It can handle both snapping a photo of your entire screen as well as what ever is within any given window. But I found Grab’s TIF default file format annoying, since if I want to upload my screenshot to Flickr, I’ve saved my screenshot in the largest file size possible. And if I then want to annotate my screenshot, I have to open the TIF in Photoshop or Fireworks.

Skitch is a free app that allows you to take screenshots, annotate them, and share them via the web all within the workings of one program. Continue reading

OCR in Google Docs makes transcription simple

While running an online seminar in professional development the other night, I had a request for the text of the Nebraska folk song with which historian Louis Warren concluded his presentation, “Settling with Debt: Western Development in the Railroad Era.” All Louis had with him was a hard copy of the song’s lyrics, which were printed at the bottom of his last page of notes. He was happy to share the text, but he understandably did not want to let go of his notes. So, I snapped a photo with with my phone, focusing on the bottom portion of the page.

This morning, I opened the original image in Picasa for some simple tweaks. First, I cropped out all irrelevant, surrounding text, and then brightened the image and heightened the contrast. The result is a more white background and darker, clearer text.

Next, I uploaded the image to Google Docs. I had read that Google Docs now supports OCR (optical character recognition), and this was my first opportunity to test it. When you upload an image and want Google to attempt OCR, be sure to check the box to convert text in images and PDFs to documents (see below).

Google Docs OCR

The result, as you can see in the image below, is an image in the top portion of the page and editable text in the bottom portion.

OCR makes editing simple - Nebraska folk song

Toward the bottom of my photograph, the image bends a little. I’m not sure if this is an effect of the wide-angle lens on my phone or perhaps I did not lay the sheet of paper down flat on a table. Nonetheless, the angled lines of the image cause the OCR process not to accurately recognize the points at which one line ends and another begins.

OCR makes editing simple - Nebraska folk song

I went back to the image in Picasa, straightened it, then uploaded it once again to Google Docs. The straightened image produced better results.

To finish it up, all I needed to do was clean up some odd spacing in the text (see image below).

While this folk song presents a simple set of text, an amount that surely would not have been a burden to retype, this sample demonstrated to me the value of an accurate OCR process. I’m happy to have this tool in my belt when I need to take on a larger, longer transcription project.

OCR makes editing simple - Nebraska folk song

Hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,
The home of the grasshopper, bedbug and flea,
I’ll holler its praises, and sing of its fame,
While starving to death on a government claim.

My clothes are all ragged, my language is rough,
My bread is case-hardened, both solid and tough,
The dough is scattered all over the room,
And the floor would get scared at the sight of a broom

How happy I am on my government claim,
I’ve nothing to lose, I’ve nothing to gain
I’ve nothing to eat and I’ve nothing to wear,
And nothing from nothing is honest and fair.

– traditional folk song, Nebraska

This post originally appeared at nicomachus.net.

Dropbox is an academic’s best friend

Have you ever been writing a paper, working on an article, or organizing a book project — for example — at home, but then need to jot down an idea or insert a phrase of perfectly crafted language while you’re at work?

Or, have you ever started working on a paper on your laptop only to continue it on your desktop, then finish the editing back on your laptop? Most likely, you’ve had an experience like this, and the back-and-forth exchange of drafts can be maddening. If so, you have run into the problem of file synchronization. Dropbox is the solution, but I will get to that in a second.

How do you get your drafts from one computer to another? Many of the scholars with whom I have worked have used one of two methods (or both): USB key drives or email. And both have limitations. If you rely on a USB key drive (thumb drive, pen drive, USB stick, call it what you want), then you have to remember to save a copy of the latest version of your paper on the drive. Right there, your draft is already messy, and here’s why — you saved a copy on your thumb drive. And now you have at least two copies. It’s more likely that you have another copy on your other computer too, the one to which you’re planning to take the USB drive next. It’s not difficult to imagine problems with having multiple copies of a single document. Every time you make an edit, add a sentence, revise a draft, the copies are out of sync.

You could solve this by having just one copy of your draft, the copy that’s on your USB drive.  But, I recommend that you do not try this. One good static shock to the USB drive, and it’s a blank slate. Besides, a typical USB drive’s small size is both its strength and its weakness. Portable, it is also as easy to forget as it is to lose, not to mention easy to steal. You don’t want the only working copy of your next article to live in such a precarious environment.

Or, if you email your drafts back and forth, you have the problem of endlessly multiplying drafts. Every email attachment in a chain of emails sent to yourself has an iteration of your writing. And unless you have good email habits, it is deceptively easy (especially using an email client such Microsoft Office) to double-click the Word Doc icon in the email, opening the document unwittingly from a temporary folder, and working in an ephemeral environment that, once you close the document, disappears. None of the changes you make will be saved in the document that’s attached to your email, even though the working environment’s false sense of security stems from its familiar look and feel.

What you need is a folder that lives in two places: on both of your computers. This magic folder would be a place where, when you save a document, that same document with all of its current revisions automatically appears on your other computer as well. That way, you could write at home in the morning, saving your draft before heading in to the office. Then, after class and during dormant office hours, you fire up your office desktop, and look in that folder — there is your latest draft. Open it with your favorite writing program (Word, Pages, Scrivener, etc) and keep on working. Save it before you head out the door, bound for home. Later that night, when you steal a few moments to add some phrases you’ve mulled over, you open up your laptop and open the document from the magic folder; you’re right where you left off.

Dropbox is this magic folder.

Dropbox is a program you download and install on your computer, creating an account that you link to your email address. When Dropbox installs, it creates a folder in your computer. By default, it makes a folder called Dropbox in your My Documents folder (on Windows) or in your user folder list (on a Mac). Whatever you put in this folder is automatically saved to the slice of server space that Dropbox reserves for you based on your email address (and kept secure with the password you created). The magic happens once you install Dropbox on the second computer and log in using the account credentials you just created. Wait a few moments (depending on the speed of your internet connection and how many files you put in your Dropbox folder), and your files start appearing in the folder, ready to use.

From this point on, Dropbox will keep your files in sync. Newer versions of the files in your Dropbox folder (i.e. Every time you save a document that resides in the folder) are uploaded to Dropbox’s online space, which are then downloaded to your other computer’s Dropbox folder. You don’t have to do anything.

It is helpful to remember that Dropbox needs your computer to be online in order to sync properly, but that doesn’t mean that you need to be online to access the files in your Dropbox folder. If you work on a file while off-line, using your laptop to edit an article while outdoors or mid-flight for example, then Dropbox will simply sync your changes the next time you establish an internet connection.

Dropbox is platform agnostic, meaning that it doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac, a PC, or a Linux computer. There is a Dropbox version for you, and you can sync files between the different types of computers. Dropbox builds on this idea and seems to make your work computer agnostic. That is, it doesn’t matter whether you are working on your home computer or your office computer, your laptop or your desktop. Dropbox is also file agnostic in the sense that it doesn’t care whether the files you save in your Dropbox folder are Word documents or Pages documents, jpgs or mp3s, video files or EndNote files. As long as the total size of the files in your Dropbox folder does not exceed your space limit, Dropbox will keep them in sync across your two (or more, if you have more) computers.

Dropbox Pricing

Dropbox gives you 2GB of free space to start. If all you are using it for is syncing your writings, and your documents don’t have images embedded in them, then 2GB should be plenty of room. If you need more space, you have two options. You can purchase more: $10 per month for 50GB. Or, you can invite your friends to use Dropbox. If they sign up based on your recommendation (following a personalized link that you give them), then Dropbox gives you an additional 500MB of space per person. You can earn up to 16GB of free space this way.

Dropbox solves something that has long been an annoying problem for scholars. In addition to being unreliable, email and USB drives are inefficient ways of keeping your documents in sync. They’re inefficient in that each method has idiosyncratic baggage. You have to remember to move your email attachments into a regular folder before opening them; otherwise, you risk working within that impermanent “Temp” folder that saves nothing but frustrates everything. Or, you have to remember to carry your USB drive, to open the latest version from it, to save a copy on your computer (for security beyond the USB drive), and then to save a copy back to your USB drive, then start all over again on the next computer.

I don’t know about you, but the less I have to remember about how all this works, the more mental space I reserve for working on important things — like my work. Spending less time making things work right and more time working within an intuitive digital environment leads to more productivity.

Dropbox works the way you want any utility to work: in the background, requiring minimal set up and little-to-no maintenance.

This entry was originally posted at nicomachus.net.