Use Dropbox to Turn Microsoft’s Autorecover Feature into an Autosave Feature to Avoid Losing Work

old computer lab by flickr user Wesley FryerWay 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.”

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Use Your Point-and-Shoot Digital Camera as Document Scanner

Rosie by ((carola)) on flickrDespite 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

Use Dropbox to Sync and Store Your Zotero Database

DropboxWe’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

Use Creative Commons Search to Find Text, Images, and Other Media

Creative Commons SearchA few weeks back I posted some advice about how to best display images in PowerPoint. That post ended with mention of a few online resources for finding images. Today I want to highlight another, more comprehensive option. The fine folks over at Creative Commons have put together a page which provides quick and convenient access to a variety of search engines. The Creative Commons Search page can draw data from Google, Google Image Search, Flickr, blip.tv, Jamendo, SpinXpress, and Wikimedia Commons. With one search at Creative Commons you can tab through the results from each of these engines.

For those of you unfamiliar with Creative Commons, it is a non-profit organization which promotes the sharing of creative and intellectual property. Here at DIY Ivory Tower, we’ve elected to publish our posts under a Creative Commons “share and share alike” style license. It allows others to share, copy, distribute, and adapt our work so long as they provide proper attribution and make the resulting content available in a similar manner. You can learn more about our license in particular and the organization in general by following the Creative Commons link at the bottom of the content bar on the right side of this and every DiYiT page.

Creative Commons Search

As you might expect from Creative Commons, their search page automatically limits your results to the text, images, videos, music, or other media available for legal reuse. The search page gives you the option to find results which can be used for commercial purposes or those which can be legally adapted, modified, or built upon. Creative Commons does note that they do not have any control over the results displayed by these search engines so you should definitely double check the copyright status of any media you intend to use.

A few weeks back I posted some advice about how to best display images in PowerPoint. That post ended with mention of a few online resources for finding images. Today I want to highlight another, more comprehensive option. The fine folks over at Creative Commons have put together a page which provides quick and convenient access to a variety of search engines. The Creative Commons Search page can draw data from Google, Google Image Search, Flickr, blip.tv, Jamendo, SpinXpress, and Wikimedia Commons. With one search at Creative Commons you can tab through the results from each of these engines.

For those of you unfamiliar with Creative Commons, it is a non-profit organization which promotes the sharing of creative and intellectual property. Here at DIY Ivory Tower, we’ve elected to publish our posts under a Creative Commons “share and share alike” style license. It allows others to share, copy, distribute, and adapt our work so long as they provide proper attribution and make the resulting content available in a similar manner. You can learn more about our license in particular and the organization in general by following the Creative Commons link at the bottom of the content bar on the right side of this and every DiYiT page.

As you might expect from Creative Commons, their search page automatically limits your results to the text, images, videos, music, or other media available for legal reuse. The search page gives you the option to find results which can be used for commercial purposes or those which can be legally adapted, modified, or built upon. Creative Commons does note that they do not have any control over the results displayed by these search engines so you should definitely double check the copyright status of any media you intend to use.

Use URL Shorteners to Create Custom, Trackable Links

In the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of web sites offering a simple service: shrinking long URLs down to nice manageable sizes. Demand for URL shortening has been driven largely by Twitter’s 140-character per tweet maximum. Without a URL shortener you’d have little room in a tweet to say anything about an included link. The URL for this post, for example, would take up nearly three quarters of a tweet’s real estate.

Long Tweet

Fortunately for the web user, competition in the URL shrinking business has resulted in the rapid development of new features. Various shortener services now offer integration with web browsers or social media sites, link previews, and even profit sharing based on advertising. All in all there are far too many options out there for me to attempt any reasonable summary of them. A quick Google search for “best URL shortener” will net you plenty of blogs and other sites that have attempted to shoot that particularly quickly moving target. For this post I want to highlight two features offered by many URL shorteners that grads and academics might find particularly useful, whether you’re using Twitter or not.

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Use AutoHotkey, Microsoft Word, and doPDF to Grade Papers Electronically

Attendee lists by quinn.anyaA few weeks back I detailed the many benefits of using Autohotkey (AHK) to create custom hotkeys and automate keystrokes. As a follow-up, I wanted to spell out the method I use for marking up student papers electronically using a combination of AHK, Microsoft Word, and doPDF. For those of you who dislike Microsoft products or simply don’t own a copy of Word, any full-featured word processor should do. You’ll just want to make sure that it offers you the ability to add comments to existing text. Similarly, you can use your preferred PDF creation software. There are many that do exactly what doPDF does.

Unlike many aspects of life, grading papers is faster with a pencil than with a computer. It seems as if the added time required to grade papers electronically represents a significant obstacle to the adoption of a largely paperless classroom. When grading a paper, you need to be able to read and mark quickly, often leaving just a single word, phrase, or editor’s mark above a word or sentence. I find, often enough, that a simple question mark best illustrates my profound confusion with what’s being said in a paper. These marks are quick and easy to make with a pencil. Unfortunately, inserting comments and typing such notes into a word processor isn’t nearly as convenient. The number of keystrokes and mouse clicks required slows the process and keeps you computing when you need to be grading. Continue reading

Get a Better View of the Web with Readability

Each day we all do a great deal of reading on the web. Along with blog posts like this one, you’ll probably plow through some news articles and maybe even some research publications before turning your attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, much of this content resides on web pages ill-suited for actually conveying information. Many web sites with news content, for instance, have been designed not to show you news, but, instead, to show you advertising. These sites also inundate you with links to their other content in the hopes that you’ll browse around a while. Readability strips away all of that clutter and presents the content you desire in a format designed for one thing, reading. Continue reading