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

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

Save Time by Saving Keystrokes with AutoHotkey

Autohotkey LogoAutohotkey (AHK) is very powerful software. And it is exactly the type of tool that we want to highlight here at DIY Ivory Tower. At the most basic level, AHK allows you to create your own keyboard shortcuts in Windows. [Mac users should check out this post from Profhacker describing Mac software called TextExpander. It also mentions a few other Mac and Windows text expanders that can accomplish at least some of what AHK can do.] I started using AHK for very simple tasks like having my computer type my phone number when I press a certain combination of keys. I’ve got other hotkeys set for my name, a complex part (but not all) of my email password, my address, and my email address. These shortcuts come in very handy when filling out forms online or sending simple emails. Once you start using the software and reading through its user guide, however, you’ll quickly see that it is capable of very much more. Continue reading

Save Your Eyes and Maybe Even Sleep Better with f.lux

f.lux is a simple program that alters the color temperature your computer’s monitor according to the time of day. During the day, your screen keeps the typical bright white look that you are used to. Once the sun sets, however, f.lux lowers the color temperature so that warmer reddish tones replace some of the bright whites and blues. The application’s developers suggest that this change may help you sleep by toning down the color temperatures you are exposed to before bed. Upon setup you simply let f.lux know your zip code so that it knows when the sun rises and sets in your area. You also let it know the type of lights you use in your room at night so that it can match the ambient color temperature of the room. I have it set so that the color change happens gradually over the course of an hour and I hardly ever notice it happening. If you prefer an abrupt change, you can set the software to make an instant switch.

f.lux settings

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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.