Archive for the ‘computing’ Category

The Importance of Backups

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

How safe are your documents, your data, your media, your computer ’stuff’? When did you last back it up? If you have an answer to that last question – well done! You’re a step ahead of most people out there. If you don’t have an answer, or if you are wondering what I mean by backing up your stuff, then please read on.

The importance of backing up one’s computer – or at least the important stuff – was a lesson driven home while I was a grad student in Scotland. One of my friends and colleagues, who was in the middle of the third year of his Ph.D., developed a problem with the hard drive in his computer. He had no backups. Nothing. Not a single note from his research, not a single chapter of his thesis. Nothing. If the university’s IT department had been unable to run some recover utilities and extract his data from the dead drive, the work of two and a half years of his life would have been wasted.

Not all drive failures are as dramatic as his nearly was – but they can still be disastrous. What would you do if, the day before an essay was due, your computer died or was stolen, or was dropped, or damaged/destroyed/disappeared in some other way? Would you go begging to your prof, desperately hoping for an extension? Would you then be surprised to find that most profs would not give an extension in such a case?

Incidentally, why would a prof be unlikely to grant such an extension? Simply because it is your responsibility to submit your work on time. Part of this responsibility involves taking care of your work. If you fail to protect and care for your work, and this result in it being late, then you frankly have no one to blame but yourself. Don’t run this risk: protect yourself by backing up your work!

So what should you back up, and how should you do it?

What should you back up?

Anything and everything that matters to you. This can include, but is certainly not limited to:

  • your documents: essays, notes, letters, resumes, etc. Any file whose name ends in .doc, .xls, .ppt, .pdf, .odt, .txt, .docx, etc. Any file that makes your life, your work, and your learning easier. There are many, many other document file types. Document files tend to be smaller, and so are more easily backed up.
  • your email: do you have copies of your important email securely saved, or is it all ‘in the cloud’? If you lost access to an email address tomorrow, would you be able to access old messages?
  • your website/blog: if your website or blog host went up in flames, would you be able to resurrect your online presence, or would you have to start from scratch?
  • your media: photos, music, movies, etc. Depending on what you do for a living, loss of media files can range from utter disaster to minor irritant.
  • software: not just the programs themselves – these can often be easily replaced – but user-generated or user-specific information as well. Software keys and serial numbers, saved game files, passwords, etc.

How should you back it up?

Everyone has a different set of priorities, and everyone will have a different set of types of files to back up. The suggestions I offer here work for me, but they may not work for you. Take some time to investigate the options and find a solution that works for you.

These are ways in which I deal with some of these issues:

  1. DROPBOX: dropbox is a wonderfully useful cross-platform (ie works on PC, Mac, and Linux) cloud-based backup and storage solution. It also happens to be very handy for document sharing. They have a free version that gives 2gb of storage. When you install dropbox it will set up a folder on your computer that is linked to their servers. Any file you drop into the folder will be synced with the cloud. When files are updated on your computer, they are also updated in the cloud. If your computer dies, you can access your online files from any computer, and even perform a full restore of all files to your desktop.

    I will probably one day upgrade to their 50gb or 100gb storage option, but for the time being have stuck with their 2gb option. All of my important documents, text files containing things such as my software keys and serial numbers, and anything else that is important but not too big is securely stored in my dropbox.As mentioned above it is also handy for document sharing. You can set up specific folders to be shared with specific people, and the documents therein will be automatically synced between the two users’ dropboxes. Very handy for any project that involve collaboration. .

    The thing I really like about dropbox is that is it neither exclusively cloud-based nor desktop-based. If their servers die or if their service stops, no worries – you still have copies stored on your desktop. At the same time if your computer is unavailable, you can retrieve your files online.

  2. WEBSITE/BLOG: Over the last few days I have been migrating my website and blog from one webhost to another. While I chose to rebuild my site pretty much from scratch, the process was made a whole lot easier by the fact that I had backed up all of my content (in a text file which was then stored in my Dropbox). This blog on the other hand has a lot more content than the historyhelp.ca site, and there was no way I was about to rebuild it by hand!

    Luckily I have developed a good habit of regularly backing up my content. I generally do this about once per month, and the resulting small backup file is securely saved in – you guessed it – my Dropbox. Because I had this backup file, the process of rebuilding my blog content took about five minutes.

  3. MEDIA: While I do have my music and photos backed up on an external hard drive, I have to confess to being slightly lax on this part of the backup front. I could also back them up online. In fact I should back them up online. But that takes time and bandwidth. I have not taken the time, and as I am on a slightly wonky satellite connection, I simply do not have the bandwidth.

    When I do get around to tackling this, I will probably opt for an online backup solution like Mozy, Carbonite, or iDrive. While these services are not free, is it worth a small fee to securely protect the thousands and thousands of songs and pictures that I have? Absolutely. I briefly used Mozy last year and found it to be very useful, but switched to Dropbox as it served my document-based needs better. I have not used either of the other two services mentioned above and so cannot recommend one. As ever, do some research, read some reviews, figure out what pricing system is best for you, and pick the solution that works for your needs.

  4. EMAIL: Do you use gmail, yahoo mail, hotmail, or any other cloud-based email service? Do you have a university/college/work email address? Did you know that email providers occasionally lose their customers’ mail? Or that they can permanently lock you out of your email? What will you do when you leave your university/college/job and need access to messages sent to or from that email address?

    The solution to this is pretty straightforward – install a desktop email client and use it to download your email and store messages locally. You don’t even have to use the client to send email. If you prefer gmail’s web interface, then keep on using gmail’s web interface. All you have to do is install an email client like Thunderbird, set up your accounts, occasionally start it up, and download your messages.  Every time you do this, you will save a permanent, personal copy of all your messages. And if you set up Thunderbird to save your messages to your Dropbox, you will have a recoverable backup of your email backup. In this case, redundancy is very good!

These are just some of the things I do to protect myself from computer failure, damage, or theft. The things that truly matter (in my case these are my documents) are securely backed up, as are my website, blog, and emails. And I am at least thinking of doing the same with my media.

If you have not backed up your computer recently, please do not put this off. Sign up for dropbox, download your emails, backup your website / blog, and check out your options for larger-scale media backups. All it takes is one simple hardware or software failure, and this will all be very worth the effort!

In celebration of fee and open source software…

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Lifehacker has just released its list of “61 Free Desktop Applications, Webapps, and Tools We’re Most Thankful For.”

If you are new to the world of free and open source software, take a look at the list – you may be surprised how many excellent free applications there are out there. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are many others that I would have liked to see included (Drupal, Wordpress, Inkscape, and Scribus for starters) but it is a good introduction to the potential of free and open source computing.

If, like me, you are a free / open source enthusiast, you may find some new tools, or just smugly count how many of them you either have used or currently use. My total was 39 out of 61. It may also remind you to check for newer versions of software or tools that you haven’t tried for a while.

I’m off to see if Songbird has figured out how to deal effectively with podcasts yet…

Google Wave and History

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

I am in an odd place, technologically speaking. I have at my disposal one of the most interesting, exciting and potentially useful pieces of new technology. And it is for the moment completely useless to me.

The technology I am talking about is Google Wave and it is at the same time fascinating and infuriating.

Why do I think Wave has so much potential? Because it can be used to collaborate, to communicate, to create, and to share ideas, documents and conversations in a way that has never before been possible.

Why is it completely useless to me at the moment? Because not one person I know is currently using it! This means that I can play around in Wave, add and remove extensions (I especially like the mind-mapping and whiteboard potential!) and wade into the sordid world of public waves to which every registered user can contribute. But thus far I have not been able to actually do anything productive or remotely useful with it, and this is simply because the people I would like to collaborate with are not yet using Wave.

But what would I like to use it for? Here are some ways in which I think Wave has great potential for the historian, author and editor in me:

  • collaborative organization. I would love to organize a conference on medieval concepts of time, and I think that a tool like Wave would be ideal for bringing organizers together to share ideas, and collect our documents in one secure central location
  • essay feedback and discussion. Once Google has added more and faster servers to the Wave service (there is a pretty bad lag at the moment) I believe it has the potential to be an excellent tool for any service where feedback and discussion of a document is necessary. As historyhelp.ca teaches students how to become better at research and writing, this could be an excellent fit. It is not there yet, but there is definitely potential
  • online tutoring. Not only would Wave provide a secure and private forum for tutoring, it would also provide the student with a permanent record of the tutoring session. As any number of people can be invited to join a wave, this opens the possibility of group tutorials that would previously have been completely unwieldy in a text-based setting (i.e. dozens or even hundreds of emails bouncing between participants)
  • Collaboration on articles or books

How can it benefit you as a student?

  • collaborative note-taking. For as long as students have been taking notes, they have been sharing notes. This can be a great way to learn as you are able to benefit from multiple ears and brains – all of which may have picked up something completely different than you from a lecture/book/whatever. If you have a group of friends who regularly share notes, you could start up a wave with all group members invited, and collaborate in real-time on note-sharing
  • Project management. If you are part of a group assigned to complete some kind of project, Wave might be an ideal solution

To be honest, I have only just begun to think about ways to use Wave. These are just some initial suggestions about ways to use it, and I am certain many, many more will follow. But this all depends on assembling a critical mass of Wave users. Right now Wave is restricted to invited users. You have to apply to join the preview, and once you have joined, you are then given a number of invitations that you can use to get your friends/family/whoever started on Wave.

So how do you get an invitation?

  • I still have a few invitations to share: the first five people to email me will receive one: kris@historyhelp.ca
  • go to wave.google.com and add yourself to their waiting list
  • visit the good folks at Lifehacker who have been generously sharing their invites for several weeks now. If you receive your invitation from the Lifehacker community, please do the right thing and share some of yours there as well. Remember, the more users there are, the better it will be for all of us!

And finally, once you are up and running with Wave, look me up: ktowson@googlewave.com

Keeping things honest pt.1: note-taking basics

Monday, April 6th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, a good historian will approach his or her work with integrity and honesty. Saying that is all well and good, but how does one actually put that ideal into practice?

The first thing to do is do develop good habits when you are actually ‘doing’ your research. Many of the students that I have ‘busted’ for plagiarism in the past have found themselves in hot water simply because they did not take care when doing their research. Here are some tips for avoiding this kind of trouble:

  • Collect, record, and track your sources with great care!
    Just wanting to be a good historian is not enough. You have to be a good historian, and this starts with the careful recording of your sources. When you are doing your research, pay attention to your note-taking habits. Sloppy note-taking can prove fatal to an essay. It can cause you to misrepresent the past. It can cause you to incorrectly identify your sources (or worse, fail to give credit to your sources at all). In short it can make your essay inaccurate, poorly written or simply unacceptable.
    Things to remember when taking notes:

    • Do not confuse your words with your source’s words
      • if you include a direct quotation in your notes, clearly indicate in your notes that it is a quotation. Enclose the quotation in quotation marks, and make sure you have a precise citation (author, book/article, page) so that if you use the passage in your essay you do not have to search it out
      • if you paraphrase in your notes (ie if you take what your source has said and put it into your own words) make sure that your paraphrased version is different and distinct from the original. If it is not, then use a quotation as above
        • if you don’t pay attention to this, it is easy to fall into one of the most common traps that catch students: inadvertent plagiarism. If you use someone else’s words without proper acknowledgement – even if it is unintentional – then you are plagiarizing.
      • early on, settle on a system. For example, when I take notes it is assumed that I am paraphrasing unless my notes clearly indicate a quotation. Your approach may differ, just come up with a system that works for you, stick to it, and be consistent. You don’t want to go back to notes at a later time and be unsure as to whether you paraphrased or not!
    • Include a citation in every note
      • citations are especially important when recording quotations in notes, but to save yourself a lot of work later, include citations in all of your notes. This does not mean full bibliographic details every time you jot something down. What you need to do is to give yourself enough information so that you can quickly and easily locate your source.
      • For example, if I am taking notes from a particular book, I will include full bibliographic information (author, title, publisher, date) at the beginning of a section devoted to that book and that book alone. Then, as I work though, I only have to add page references in the margin.
        This takes very, very little time to set up, but it can literally save you hours in the long run.
    • Don’t cut and paste blindly
      • For those of you who use computers for note-taking as well as writing, pay attention!
        It is so very easy to cut and paste a passage from your notes to an essay or from one essay draft to another, that it is also very very easy to make simple but costly mistakes.
        When cutting and pasting, think about the things I have mentioned above. Are these my words or someone else’s? Is it a quotation or a paraphrase? Where did it come from? Do I need to acknowledge my source?
        In other words, don’t cut and paste without thinking about what you are cutting and pasting!
        Again, the importance of accurate note-taking comes into play here. If you follow the suggestions above you will know what is yours, what is not, and where it came from.
    • Keep notes and essays separate
      • it can be tempting to take a ‘one big file’ approach to essay writing. Using this approach, you would keep everything related to an essay in one big file. This could include your notes, links to online sources, text copied from those sources, and of course your essay itself. This is generally a bad idea! Not only will you spend more time jumping back and forth within a file than you will actually working on the file, you may find it difficult to keep track of what came from where, what represents your own thoughts and what represents your sources’ thoughts, etc. Do yourself a favour and try to keep your essay itself separate from other related materials.

One thing I noticed over the last several years is the huge increase in the number of students using their laptops to take notes in class. I want to talk briefly about what kinds of software tools they are using to do this.

While it is possible to jot down notes in a simple text file or a Word document, there remains the problem of organization. how do you keep all of your files related to a subject or to an essay organized in such a way that they are easy to find?

There are many software packages out there that help to streamline this process. Remember, it remains your responsibility to keep accurate and reliable notes, but these can at least help to keep things organized:

  • Microsoft OneNote (Windows)
    • if you already have MS Office installed, you may already have OneNote
  • Evernote (Windows, Mac, Linux*)
    • has the advantage of online syncing, can access files/notes from any computer, some phones
    • was the runner-up behind pen and paper in a recent Lifehacker Hive Five poll, which is generally a very good sign!
    • Evernote can also be installed on many (Blackberry, iPhone, Palm Pre, and Windows Mobile) mobile phones
    • *By default it is intended for Windows and Mac only. Google “evernote linux” to find instructions for linux installation. I have it installed under Ubuntu 8.10 and it works great. I have installed and used it under Ubuntu 8.10 and 9.04 and it works great.
  • Basket Note Pads (Linux – KDE)
    • Runs on KDE, so Gnome users (ie Ubuntu) may find the odd problem with it
  • Tomboy Notes (Linux – Gnome)
    • If you are on Ubuntu and run into issues with Basket Note Pads, try Tomboy
  • Pen and Paper (they still work!!)
    • cheap, portable, really fast boot-up times, extremely flexible, may encounter occasional (or in my case frequent) legibility problems

Whether you use a pen and paper, one of the software packages mentioned above, or another system altogether, remember to be a mindful note-taker. A little care at the outset of your research can save a great deal of time and many headaches down the road.

Some thoughts on software for writing essays

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

As I mention on the main historyhelp.ca site, academic writing has become highly dependent on technology. This means that as a student you will need to be comfortable with computers. What it does not mean is that you have to shell out hundreds of dollars for your software. This post is not intended to slag off Microsoft, Apple, or any other particular company. The fact that MS and Apple are the two dominant forces in computing is due at least in part to the fact that they make some pretty good products. But there are alternatives, and this is what I want to write about today.

Apart from the physical hardware (ie your laptop or desktop system) two things are essential to academic writing:

  1. An operating system. This is the software package that controls how your hardware actually works. The most well known current examples are the various versions of Microsoft Windows (XP, Vista, and coming soon Windows 7), and Mac OS X.
  2. A word-processor. The most widely used example is MS Word, a Microsoft product that has come to dominate the field in recent years.

Operating System

When it comes to your operating system, you may have little choice or you may have no inclination to change your system. Don’t worry about it – if your system works well for you, why change it? If you are happy with your operating system, skip ahead to the part about word processors below. But if you are unhappy with your system or if you are just curious about what alternatives are available, read on as I introduce an excellent alternative: Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is one of many available distributions of what is known as Linux. A distribution is simply a particular version of Linux. Linux is free. You do not have to pay to get and use Linux. You can if you so choose pay to get versions of Linux distributions shipped with manuals, technical support, etc. (click here for an example), but this is not necessary. There are many completely free and legal distributions, and I am going to focus one one particular one: Ubuntu.

I was first introduced to Ubuntu through Lifehacker. If you are at all interested in computers and productivity ideas, I cannot recommend Lifehacker highly enough! Incidentally, Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker, has a new blog: smarterware.org.

When I first heard about Ubuntu, the story caught my eye because my computer was developing serious problems that would necessitate a re-install of my operating system, and it was not powerful enough to run the then new version of Windows, Vista. The upshot is that I downloaded Ubuntu, installed it ‘for fun’ and have been using it alongside Windows for the past two years.

Advantages to Ubuntu:

  • it is completely free and legal
  • it is very regularly updated (there are two versions released every year)
  • it WORKS and does not crash (ie. no ‘blue screen of death’) as often as Windows has in my experience
  • it is very secure: for example you do not have to worry about viruses when running Linux

Disadvantages to Linux:

  • some of your favorite Windows or Mac software may not run on Linux (although there are usually excellent alternatives available). From a productivity point of view, this can actually be an advantage. For example if I log on to my desktop using Linux, I am not tempted to play games that only run on Windows!
  • you may have to do some tweaking to get your particular hardware working perfectly. Luckily there are many forums filled with extremely helpful people who are happy to lend a hand
  • not so much a disadvantage as a word of caution: be careful whenever you are messing around with operating systems. Back up your important data before doing anything to your system! It is possible to completely wipe everything from your system if you are not paying attention.

If you are looking to set up a new computer or are considering making a change, give some thought to Ubuntu. There is even now an option whereby you can install and run Ubuntu without making any changes to a Windows installation. That means that you can check it out without harming or changing in any way your current system. And if you decide to take the plunge and install it on your system, you can set it up so that your original operating system is still available. This is called dual-booting and it is what I currently do on both my desktop and laptop.

Word Processor

Whatever operating system you choose to use, you will need a word processor to actually get words on pages. As mentioned above, MS Word has come to dominate the market over the last several years. MS Word is an excellent word processor, and it makes up part of the Microsoft Office suite. MS Office is very good. If it comes bundled with your computer, by all means use it – it will serve you well.

But if your computer does not have a word processor installed, you will have to install one. And with current prices running from approximately $140.00 for a student edition to nearly $900 for the ‘Ultimate” edition, this is not exactly cheap. For a variety of reasons beyond cost, some people also simply want to avoid using commercial software products such as MS Office.

Whatever your motivation for seeking an alternative, you should at least check out OpenOffice.org. Like Linux, it is free. You can even download a portable version to install on a flash drive so you can take your word processor with you and not have to rely on a computer having the software you need in a lab, for example.

Advantages of OpenOffice.org:

  • it is completely free and legal
  • you can get a portable version
  • it offers full compatibility with Word documents
  • it does everything you need to write academic essays and much more
  • it is an office suite that includes software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations (ie like PowerPoint) and databases
  • the ability to produce PDF files is built in

Disadvantages of OpenOffice.org:

  • the interface is slightly less polished than the newest MS Office products (ie no ‘ribbon’ interface)

If you don’t believe that Ubuntu is a viable alternative to Windows or Mac, check out these guys. All that System76 sells are computers with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Key Points:

  • use whatever software works for you
  • do not assume that you have to use particular software just because it has market dominance
  • don’t pay for commercial products until you at least check out free alternatives
  • Ubuntu offers a stable, secure, viable, productive, very user-friendly alternative that works
  • OpenOffice.org offers a stable, portable, cross-platform (ie you can use it on Windows, Mac or Linux), compatible, user-friendly alternative that works