Don’t type “format c:”

Lately I have been asked by various people to help them make better use of technology in their academic work – or at least write a post about it.

It seems I have developed a reputation as the ‘technology expert’ and, lately, the ‘social media expert’  in my workplace. This is not a new experience; throughout my working life I have been the ‘go to’ person when people have technology problems and new ideas. I find this curious, because this is not how I think of myself. I will admit to being an ‘early adopter’ and being fascinated by the Shineys (new gadgets). I’m always looking for new ways to use computers in my work, but I have spent my life around true geeks. I have high standards as to what ‘geek’ really means and it usually involves being able to program UNIX.

My dad studied to be a dye house chemist in the 1960s, but  became a computer programmer in the late 70’s . His first job involved looking after mainframes, so I spent my childhood playing making necklaces out of punched cards. But even though computer geekery is clearly in my blood, I have never become a proper computer nerd. Despite a brief addiction to Zork in the 80’s, I never really got into computer games, nor did I display much aptitude for computer programming – much to my father’s disappointment (I did marry a computer programmer though, which cheered the old man up a bit).

So when I get asked to share the knowledge with my colleagues – which I am always happy to do – I try to explain that it is not software proficiency which makes me ‘geeky’, but the attitude to technology I developed in my childhood. I think this attitude is best summed up by the conversation I had with my father when he sat me down in front of our family’s first PC, sometime in the early 80s. As I recall it went something like this:

Dad: “We’re going to learn ‘Basic’. Type: 10 print “hello world”
Me: “What if I hurt it?”
Dad: “What do you mean?”
Me: “What if I kill its brain?”
Dad: “You can’t kill it. It’s not alive. It doesn’t have a brain”
Me: “Then how does it, you know – do stuff – if it doesn’t have a brain?”
Dad: “The computer is stupid. It only does what you tell it to do. The only way you can hurt it is to type “format c:”
Dad: “please don’t do that by the way”
Me: “OK.  Can I play Zork now?”

In retrospect, this conversation was almost the most important I have ever had with my father. He gave me the confidence to face new software without fear. I jump in and fiddle around, break some stuff and eventually work out how to use it – with the comforting knowledge that nothing I do (except typing “format c:”) will cause lasting damage.  Technology isn’t scary, but it isn’t that special either; computers are stupid – humans are smart. When it comes to ‘working more effectively with technology” I try to think of the problem before the tool – and be open to the idea that technology is not always the answer.

This approach works best if you take the time to really understand the nature of your problems. Let’s look three problems you definitely have and how they might be solved with technology:

The Information Problem

Researchers have to collect information from various sources: books, journal articles, interviews, experiments, artefacts and so on. Storing this information and finding it again is obviously a problem, but there’s a larger problem lurking: how to make sense of the information. Specifically, how to make connections between pieces of information and your own thoughts in order to come up with original ideas.

I’ll admit to being old school and keeping a journal, but I rarely transcribe what I write there into the computer, or even look at it again to be honest with you. I used to worry about this, but I’ve come to accept that the act of writing is important to helping me to remember and understand what I hear or read.  The information I wrestle with most is in electronic form – there’s so damn much of it and bookmarking is inadequate as a way of retrieving and using it.

One way I solve this problem is Evernote, a free online database application. You can store random webpages, pdfs, images and notes which appear as little thumbnails in the viewer; these can be arranged and viewed in different ways. Evernote is a ‘cloud app’ which means I can use it from any computer or my phone, which is handy, but it’s key advantage is that you can ‘tag’ ideas with keywords. This means you can store multiple sorts of information in ways which are meaningful to you – and start to see the connections between them.

The Reading Problem

Researchers have to read. A lot. Again the problem is twofold: managing the sheer volume references, and reading them efficiently.

Most researchers use bibliographic software to store references (if you don’t, you really should) and most universities support Endnote. People tell me Zotero is better and I see the appeal, but I like Mendeley; mostly because it works a bit like itunes (I like being able to make ‘play lists’).

Reading efficiently is an art. I’ll admit to ‘surface reading’ most of it and ‘deep reading’ only what’s interesting, but it’s still an enormous task. If you take it seriously, reading inevitably leaks into every corner of your life. I read on public transport, in waiting rooms, playgrounds, while cooking and even at parties (ok – boring ones). Making your reading material portable is solved by printing it out – but then the article is ‘off line’ and the notes can get lost. This is where an e-reader and something like “instapaper” or Calibre can be useful. Mr Thesis Whisperer recently bought me a Kindle (which I LOVE), both these programs will make the webpage into a kindle document, which I can then write notes on.

The Writing Problem

I’ve written previously about Scrivener, which I think addresses many problems of research writing better than MS Word. However the other problem with writing is that it can be arduous – I have tendinitis from my PhD and a sore back. I find it physically painful to write at times. On the advice of Paul Gruba and @sadistician I have started using the built in speech recognition capabilities in Windows to talk my first draft straight into MS Word (thank you Microsoft – you still totally rock). I then transfer the text into scrivener. This doesn’t solve the writing/pain problem entirely, but it’s a significant improvement.

So how about you? Do you use technology to solve these kinds of problems? Or do you have ‘analog’ techniques which are just as effective? I’d love to hear about them.

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22 thoughts on “Don’t type “format c:”

  1. Vicky says:

    Online backups – I’m utterly paranoid about my computer failing (probably since it did once and I had to get a new harddrive). Mendeley has online syncing up to 2 Gb, but I also use dropbox (again, free 2 Gb) and have all my work in a folder that syncs to it. I like using Google Docs for similar reasons, also as it’s easy to annotate from whatever OS you’re on.

  2. LeRoy Hill says:

    Great post reflecting on your evolution of technology. Quite nostalgic indeed reading through your post. I remembered playing so many text based dungeons and dragon games and teaching myself to program in basic. Lately when my son introduced me to runescape ( felt happy that some elements of reading was incorporated into the game. which means its pretty much a text based as well. Happy posting.

  3. Francesca says:

    My writing problems have mostly been solved by finally getting around to learning the basics of LaTeX. Seriously, it is awesome, very easy to use, and produces lovely looking documents for all my notes and the thesis itself (plus the ability to put in comments which show up when I’m reading through means I don’t have that embarrassing ‘remember to actually find the reference to this’ still in the document when my supervisor sees it). It’s really not just for math and science; I wish someone had made me start using this when I was an undergrad.

    Most LaTeX distributions come with BibTeX which is a flat-file format database which makes citing and creating bibliographies really easy.

    • @Sadistician says:

      LaTeX is absolutely awesome and we use it to allow 5 of us to collaborate on the same large scale document simultaneously across the network. Combined with JabRef (similar to EndNote) we can easily create (and reuse) sections of text for our lectorial notes. Many journals also accept LaTeX submissions as then the formatting is completely taken care of by the journal, rather than having to depend on the author to use the Word template correctly. I’ve also used LaTeX to create a set of conference proceedings and I’m currently (along with a colleague) preparing my PhD Thesis in LaTeX. Of course, now that I’m also using Scriviner (along with SciPlore Mind Mapping), I’m finding that I can generate most of my textual ideas first, arrange my thoughts (and references) and then output to LaTeX for tiding up, inserting graphics and equations.

      Another piece of technology I also like to use is my LiveScribe pen which allows me to record both the audio of a conversation and my penstrokes. So meetings with supervisors/colleagues become more brainstorming than notetaking. I’m still working out the compatibilities, but I’m hopeful that soon I’ll be able to have the audio from my LiveScribe and the Speech Recognition in Windows working together to short cut transcription of the great ideas.

    • Julia says:

      Yep, I’m a Transana user. Its not the most intuitive interface, especially the somewhat FTP-ish File Management window, (but that’s cos I don’t FTP much I think), but it is rock solid, does what it says on the “box” and David Woods, the developer will always get back promptly to a query. It does not have forums on the website because he has been spammed to death on them, which is initially a bit frustrating for users, but he is fine with email queries even the dumb ones. (I just made one!)
      Transana is really helpful for interview transcription, but also allows you to do analysis by breaking data up into labelled buckets that you can make notes on, somewhat in the way of NVivo, but at a fraction of the price. It is much less sophisticated than NVivo. It takes fewer data inputs and does no fancy data analysis displays or graphing. It is designed for video analysis, but works just as well for audio analysis.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Excellent post! I totally agree – our relationship with technology is largely a matter of ‘attitude,’ rather than a clear cut ‘hate it-love it’ mentality. Speaking as someone of a certain, ahem, generation, I think I’ve adapted quite well, taking those aspects that have proved valuable and ditching those I can’t get on with. I, too, started off with Zotero and thought it was great. But then I kept forgetting to look at what I had saved – out of sight, out of mind. I still have to have important stuff on paper (I get through a lot of printer ink!)

    I use Dropbox and Google Docs to save important drafts etc. and, until the Apocalypse comes, I think this is a safe enough back-up for my computer files.

    I absolute refuse to use a Kindle. I fully appreciate their benefits but am still nostalgic about paper books and it’s so much more restful for the eyes. Plus, losing/damaging one Kindle really means losing/damaging your entire bookshelf.

    We have access to so much digital knowledge and information hidden in our ‘black boxes’ and this is wonderful for research. But it is precisely this intangibility that troubles me, the fact that I can’t get my hands on a hard copy.

    I’m glad to see you haven’t succumbed to technological determinism – let’s not forget who’s in charge here!!

    p.s. I loved the story with your father (how times have moved on). When my father saw my very first home PC – without internet, he asked: ‘What do you do with it?’ His question was so down-to-earth and naive, I didn’t know how to reply. For the first time, he left me speechless!

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks Elizabeth – and what a great question 🙂 I too thought the kindle would be a waste of time because of my great fondness for paper book. I thought it would be an add on, not a replacement, but now I’m totally sold. You can’t lose things if you break it because it’s all up in the cloud. If I forget to bring my kindle with me (like I did today) I fire up the kindle app on my phone and the book is there – it even remembers my page. It’s not back lit, you need a light source to read it. Honestly I find paper books more frustrating now.

    • Anonymous says:

      I also found that it was too easy to file and forget when using Zotero – though I’ve now started adding an “unread” tag alongside the article keywords. I try to put aside some regular time for catching up on reading… on Friday afternoons I have a look at everything in the unread category, and remove the tag as I read each article.

      • Julia says:

        Ben, I agree its really hard to keep track of individual items in Zotero, particularly unread ones and even more particularly when you do as I do, and add items as a displacement activity from actual writing, and end up with squizillions. I think your “unread” category is a good idea. But here is a supplementary way to keep track of trains of thought.

        I find I add things in little “runs” when I get sleuthy on a particular topic, so its kind of handy to look back by “date added”. To do this click the little windowish icon above the scroll bar on the centre pane. I think its supposed to be a representation of columns. You’ll find listed a column called “date added”. Tick it. Click in the head of this column to make it the “live” one. Then when you scroll through you can see your thinking at the time of adding and remind yourself of things you thought relevant at the time.

        I have also rearranged my columns by dragging and dropping. I keep the +plus sign that tells you how many sub-items you have with each main item on the far left and the “date added ” column on the far right, next to “date”, so from left to right columns read +, Title, Creator, Date, Date Added. And I’ve squished the column width up a bit for all except “Title” which I have widened, by dragging column edges in the header bar. Works for me.

        Hope this helps

  5. philip says:

    Interesting post, Inger. I love the image of your dad, telling you about ‘format c:’… I have to admit to being very confused about which format/platform to go with, for research and writing. I lurch between analogue and digital. Generally I’m like Elizabeth – I need paper. I learned to write essays in my early days at uni by scribbling down notes on lined paper, cutting them up into sections, and then arranging/rearranging across a table or a pin board. It helped me see connections, and develop flow. Now, I’m always starting up new paper copy notebooks … but I lack a system for keeping them in order, and allocating different topics to each one. So good stuff is often lost amongst the pages… I sometimes return to sticky notes, and card files – good for collecting and setting out key elements of a topic, and then ‘drawing things together’. But then I’m also like you – I like to experiment with the digital. I have used Scrivener, and enjoyed it. I use Dropbox, for convenience – it’s great that I don’t need to carry laptops from home to work and back anymore, even though there’s maintenance issues sometimes in staying under my 2+GB limit. I’ve used GoogleDocs to co-write articles with distant colleagues. Ultimately, I guess our collective dilemma these days is that there’s just SO MANY options. I think many of us tend to flip flop between the different ones, and maybe that’s our downfall. At least it’s mine…
    BTW, a nice website that sometimes deals with this stuff is at – in case you’ve not seen it.

  6. M-H says:

    I’ll fess up – I like Word and Endnote. Maybe it’s because, although very tech savvy, I’m older and really can’t be bothered using the brain space to learn new software for my PhD, because I have to learn new software in my day job all the time.

    I write specific sections in small documents in Word, often quite roughly at first and gradually tidied up, and nest these into a master document. Eventually I will have a BIG master document with the whole thesis in it, but not until I’m nearly finished. I use many of the word features that most people have never heard of, like styles and templates, TOC, macros, master docs, etc. In endnote I use the keywords field for tags the relate to the different documents (sections) of my thesis, and my Endnote library syncs seamlessly as I add citations.

    I have some really complex textual styles in my thesis, because of the way I’m presenting data, and Word handles all these for me, including inserting graphic icons using a macro.

  7. Rebecca says:

    Thanks. I have had similar thoughts about my relationship to technology. I think it is a generational thing. My dad bought his first computer in December 1981, and I was born in January 1982. I have never lived without a computer, and therefore, I am not afraid of them, though like you, a bit afraid of the accidental format (much harder to do these days). These ideas are also wonderful. Being a lawyer, I’m finding Endnote pretty useless, but I like the idea of Evernote and may give that a shot. Otherwise, I just keep a “useful quotations” table and I add questions and articles to my outline. I also just write and hope for the best. Sometimes we have to let go of the aids and learn to trust ourselves. I think I am finding that to be the most useful. Thanks!

  8. Eleanor McPhee says:

    No one has mentioned Papers yet so I will. Papers lets you organise all your documents and tag, label and keep notes on them somewhat like Mendeley. The advantage of papers is that the iPad/iPhone app imports all papers themselves, not just the bibliographic data. This means that when doing a literature review say, you can write on the macbook and refer to the papers on the iPad. No annoying toggling from word to PDFs or bits of paper floating around. Ahhhhh bliss 🙂

  9. LMS says:

    Great post, Thesis Whisperer! I really want to use Scrivener but the Windows beta version didn’t work for me (for some odd reason). I also want to use Zotero, but Chrome is my main browser. I tried downloading the stand alone version, but can’t make it work. Argh!

    I wrote something similar a few weeks ago, about how I have integrated technology into my dissertation writing. Peep it here:

  10. Julia says:

    I think there are two kinds of nerd. Inventor-nerds who like to develop new things and User-nerds who like to figure out new uses for new tools. The difference can be illustrated by thinking about the laser. Lasers were a really interesting useless invention. It wasn’t the inventors who thought of using them for pointing at white boards, levelling potato fields, guiding missiles or doing eye surgery. I think Inger’s Dad was nerd 1 and Inger is nerd 2. The literature sometimes refers to the latter as finding “affordances”. It takes a special skill.

  11. Kelly says:

    Actually I scan my handwritten journals into evernote when I feel like getting Ms. Bottom out of Chairland for awhile. They get emailed from my department photocopier to my email account as PDFs, I drag and drop them into endnote. I used to go through and write a title for each one (e.g. writing journal page 2 Tsing 2005) so I would know what was basically on the page. INcreasingly though, it searches and recognises myhandwriting. And I have less time to write titles.

    I’ve come to almost all the same tech conclusions as you, late in play though! Yet to ditch endnote but very very tempted…


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