About a month ago the fine folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media released an update to Zotero, their fabulous research management and citation software. The update broke Zotero free from the confines of the Firefox web browser and gave it the ability to stand as it own application. That change was big news for folks who prefer Chrome, Internet Explorer, or one of the many other browsers out there to Firefox. I’m actually a Firefox user so I wondered if the release would have much to offer for me beyond saving the step of opening Zotero in a separate browser window to make it seem like its own program. Did it ever!
The new standalone version rolled out a number of tweaks and upgrades to the previous iteration of the software, including a very useful duplicate detection and management system. But, for me, the most significant improvement over the old system came in the form of a wonderful new interface for adding citations to Microsoft Word and OpenOffice. In the new system, activating the “Insert Citation” action for the Zotero add-in brings up an elegantly simple search bar. To add an item you simply begin typing the author’s name or part of the title. As you type the system brings up a menu of options meeting the search criteria. It even moves items that you’ve previously cited in this file up to the top of the list for faster access. Once you see the source you’re looking for you can click on it or use the arrow keys to select it.
Adding additional information to the item such as page numbers or prefix or suffix text is as easy as pressing Ctrl and the down arrow. That command brings up a separate menu for the item where you can add those details. Overall it is a snap to use and makes it much easier to add citations to your text. And with a few tweaks to your word processor’s hotkey settings, you can improve your workflow even more.
Let me start by saying that I’m not one of those people who flies into a blind rage when a cell phone goes off during a meal or a meeting or even during one of my classes. It annoys me at the movies, sure. But I’m not so foolish as to think that dinner with me or one of my lectures offers anything close to the experience of getting “lost in” or “sucked into” a great movie. In a theater, the ring of a cell phone jarringly returns to you the reality of being crammed in a room with dozens of other people, and maybe even some bedbugs.
These days, however, our phones are not just mobile. They are smart. And if you have a smart phone, then there’s no reason to allow it to do dumb things like ring, buzz, or chirp when you don’t want it to. Fortunately a variety of Android apps out there allow you to quiet your phone on a set schedule.
On my phone, I use a simple little app called Silence Scheduler (shown at left). I just tell the program the days and times that I have lectures, discussion sections, and meetings. And the phone switches automatically to silent mode during those times. When the time period ends, it switches the phone back to normal mode. No effort on my part required for the rest of the quarter. You can download it for free via the Android Market. And a quick search of the market also shows a number of other free apps that will do the very same thing for you.
If you have $6.23 to burn, you can also try out an Android app called Tasker. It can silence your phone on a schedule and much, much more. Tasker allows you to set conditional automation for nearly everything your phone can do. Want your phone to be silent and send calls directly to voicemail if it detects that you are driving based on your GPS signal? Tasker can do that. Want it to activate the GPS and network data whenever you open Google Maps? Tasker can do that too. I’ve just started working with it so I won’t give a full review. But I’m already very impressed. I’ll let the folks over at Lifehacker fill you in with their review of Tasker and their subsequent post detailing some of the creative ways they were using it.
Way back in the 90s when I was an undergraduate, I worked as a lab assistant in a campus computer lab. Primarily my work there consisted of scanning lab users’ 3.5-inch floppy disks for viruses, assisting with file conversions between Mac and PC file types, showing users how to map their computer to the campus servers to retrieve their fancy new electronic mail, and a whole host of other, now entirely obsolete, tasks.
Unfortunately for all of us, one unpleasant duty of the lab assistant remains a part of all our lives today, dealing with lost work. Short of having to tell local vagrants that if they weren’t students they could not sleep in the 24-hour computer lab, consoling those who’d lost work due to viruses, file corruptions, computer shutdowns, or save errors was definitely the most difficult part of that job.
And somehow, despite all our technological advances over the last decade-and-a-half, we are still losing work. A colleague told me just the other day that he’d lost six hours of work in Powerpoint. His tale of woe prompted me to look into the advice I might give here at DiYiT beyond the old computer lab assistant standby of “save early and save often.”
Not to long ago I read a post over at Lifehacker suggesting that changing the font of a document improves your ability to edit it. The logic being that a new font will give you a fresh look at the document. Having just wrapped up a 60-page dissertation chapter, I thought I’d give it a shot.
Typically when I’ve finished a piece of writing I do an onscreen edit and then a printed edit. Finally, after taking a day or so away from the document if possible, I do another printed edit. Usually there are many more steps in that process, but that is the very simplified version. With the chapter I just finished I changed the font for that final printed edit from Times New Roman to Comic Sans MS because it was different enough from the original without being hard to read.
And I have to say that the change in font seemed to help. Obviously I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have caught the errors that I did using the original font. But it certainly seemed like some types of problems stood out more clearly because I wasn’t simply running my eyes over text they had seen many times over.
The technique seemed most helpful for the types of errors that hide in plain sight. I caught misplaced or missing apostrophes, words that were supposed to be deleted at some point but managed to hang around, and words left in the wrong order after some earlier edit changed the flow of the sentence.
Most of all, I think the font change highlighted problems with the little ubiquitous words that our brains take for granted. The third sentence of my very first paragraph began with the phrase, “According to President Jefferson’s specific instructions….” In none of my previous edits had I noticed that the sentence actually read, “According President Jefferson’s specific instructions….” In all previous readings, some of which were done out-loud, my mind simply assumed that a “to” was where it needed to be.
In the end, I’m thankful that I caught the mistakes and I’m happy to recommend this little piece of advice. Happy editing!
Despite the promises made by children’s cartoons and most works of science fiction we continue to endure life without personal jetpacks, flying cars, robotic housemaids named Rosie, and an exhaustive and fully digitized record of human knowledge. And while there’s not much advice I can offer to get you any closer to those first three goals, I’m pretty certain that you’ve got the tools at your disposal to digitize any document or publication you can get your hands on.
You might assume that the proper tool for this kind of work would be a flatbed scanner. For a while that was definitely true. These days, however, your digital camera can almost certainly handle the job. Yes, even that point-and-shoot camera that you bought years ago to take on vacations and photograph your cat for her very own blog. I use my camera all the time to photograph manuscript material at archives and sections of books or articles that I can’t or don’t want to lug home from libraries. Continue reading →
For this post I decided to give my “Tech and Feeling” series a rest and discuss copyright issues about using video clips in class lectures, such as for a slide presentation. I am taking this detour because when I discuss using video clips from professionally produced DVDs with instructors and grad students, immediately their fear of copyright infringement comes up. And their fear is almost always their reason for not learning how to manipulate videos for the classroom. I completely understand that fear, because the legal language and the fuzziness of the laws can be daunting. Add to that the massive amounts of resources, especially on the Web, and the threat of prosecution for breaking laws you do not quite understand in the first place, and that fear can become paralyzing. However, with a little effort, getting the right information about copyright for educational purposes is a breeze.
Now, since I am in no way a legal expert, in this post I am not going to give any specific advice except the very basic “do a little research,” which applies to almost any pedagogical tools we want to use. To help ease the common and understandable fear many of you may feel about this, here I am taking some of the “search” out of research by giving you some links to other sites that provide solid, useful guidelines that will make you feel comfortably safe with your “fair use decisions.”
I believe a little humor break is in order now to help you decompress a bit before diving in, so here is a nifty video mash-up I found in The Stanford School of Law’s Center for the Internet and Society Web site. The short description in the site reads: Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University created this humorous, yet informative, review of copyright principles delivered through the words of the very folks we can thank for nearly endless copyright terms. Please make certain to read the FBIWarning at the very beginning, after the title sequence. It is enlightening, elegantly witty. Continue reading →
We’ve mentioned Dropbox here at DiYiT before. In fact, back in our very first post Philip declared it to be “an academic’s best friend.” If you missed that post and aren’t familiar with Dropbox, you should definitely check it out. In a nutshell, Dropbox allows you to sync folders between two or more computers. You can also access the files in your Dropbox folders via the web at dropbox.com. The service effectively eliminates version control issues while also providing a convenient offsite backup for your files. For this post I want to describe how Dropbox has improved my research workflow by housing my Zotero database.
If you aren’t familiar with Zotero, unfortunately we don’t have a previous post to help you. At some point soon, I plan to write up a full review describing the many benefits of this free, open-source research organization and citation system produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For now, you’ll need to check out their page to learn about this wildly useful add-on for Firefox. And although it has a certain cart-before-the-horse feel to it, I’m going to forge ahead with this current post about how Dropbox can improve upon the typical Zotero user experience. Those of you who use Zotero might benefit from it. And those of you who don’t will undoubtedly be switching over now that you’ve heard of it. So there’s really no downside here. Continue reading →