Tools are great. Talent and dedication? Better.

January 9, 2008

Many academics are pure geeks when it comes to software and gadgets. But tools exist solely to let your ideas shine.

As evidence, consider this little number, the first song on what is frequently called “The Greatest Rock Album of All Time”. It was recorded, in it’s entirety, on a 4 track tape machine. Which means that a song, no matter how complex, ultimately had to be recorded in no more than 4 takes. Modern recording studios now have an infinite number of tracks at their disposal. But, arguably, nothing has bested Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, recorded, by way of computer analogy, on a Kaypro.

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Because it just don’t get better than the way it once was.

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On leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures

January 9, 2008

My mini-rant against Microsoft Word prompted reader Sasha to suggest looking into Scrivener. Now wouldn’t you know it, Virginia Heffernen has a nice article on cheesey little website about her move away from the Redmond empire.  It links to a nice essay by Steven Poole on the same topic.

The upshot of both: the process of creative, synthetic writing is largely divorced from the process of formatting mass-produced documents. Our job as academic scientists is not to write memos, but manuscripts. Why not find software that gently removes the distractions, and lets you, and your words, flow?  Read the rest of this entry »


Five ways of keeping email from running your life

December 19, 2006

It happens to all of us. We’re slogging through that key paragraph in the Discussion or outlining the logic of a new experiment. Its tough going, incremental work.

Think I’ll check my email.

Now, email is good. But so is sodium, football, and a warm puppy. The fact is, its the potential utility of checking your mail that makes it so insidious. After all, we may hear from that high school buddy, lover, or ex (and maybe even hit the trifecta in a single message). And we do subscribe to Nature table of contents, we are waiting for a manuscript revision from a colleague. All of these are useful things.

But we were making….incremental….slow….progress on something that was probably more important. And its not like that mail is going to blow away. Or that Jack Bauer, typing with his tongue bouncing in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental, needs your advice at this very moment.

It just is so easy to point click, hit refresh and wait for the little spinning disk to do its thing. Funny thing, that spinning disk. Kinda like a slot machine. And Kathy Sierra reports there may just be a reason. Its called Intermittent Reinforcement, a highly effective training method in which the subject (that’s you) is rewarded not every time she hits the button, but every so often, with most rewards being small (“Great, Oecologia has a new table of contents”) or nonexistent (“Greetings dear friend…”). Casinos figured this out a long time ago, as have dog trainers.

So here are a few tips to make email work for you, not keep you from getting your stuff done.

Update 1 February 2006:   WTF?  Its gone.  The secrets to email productivity gone forever below the fold.   No idea what happened.  While I do a post-mortem, check out a similar post on the ever dependable 43 Folders.

Read the rest of this entry »


Second-brain software

December 3, 2006

One thing I can do as Director of EEB is pass on little morsels of goodness. Nuggets of knowledge. Brain bupkis. I will try to get into the habit of sending one of these a week. They will accumulate on the “resources” page of the EEB website.

In today’s entry, James Fallows reviews a variety of software, PC and Mac, that allow you to store, organize, and, most importantly, retrieve information in the form of emails, notes to yourself, and all those PDF files you downloaded. Some of these programs use AI that learning how you make associations. All the better to collect in one place everything on your computer that has anything to do with, say, the “Stoichiometry of Zn in ants”. An amazingly useful thing when you are writing a Discussion and need to figure out why ant populations appear to track gradients of Zn in the field.

Just as an example, of course.

As we all labor under a growing information glut, such software will, I suspect become part of every scientist’s toolkit.

For you Mac users, I can vouch for Devon Think Pro as an absolute godsend. These folks have just brought out Devon Think Office–which adds smart mail archiving, optical character recognition (to turn all those old JSTOR files into searchable text) and an ability to network with other such databases (communal mind, anyone?).

Finally, a small victory as that pile of reprints grows higher, and higher, and….