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Productivity: Part 4

I want to finish off the posts I've had planned with a bang.* My tool for
today is the greatest asset for productivity, organization, and workflow
that I use. It's the mother of all productivity tools as far as I'm
concerned, and you can use it too (and for free!). That's right. We're
talking about Evernote.

On the surface Evernote appears to be quite simple: you can create new
documents (called notes) and organize them however you want. In this way
the program actually is very simple, offering you complete control over
what you create and how you organize it. But Evernote goes far, far beyond
these abilities. Let's start with two ways it does so: notebooks and tags. 

Notebooks function exactly how you imagine they would. You can gather
multiple notes into one notebook for whatever general purpose you've
decided: maybe you'd have a "Work" notebook, a "Personal" notebook, or a
"Financial" notebook. Into these notebooks you'd put notes related to,
respectively, work, your personal life, and financial matters. I like to
use the file cabinet metaphor, so imagine notebooks as drawers in a file
cabinet, labelled according to the category of the documents inside.

But what if one document crosses over between those notebooks? What if
you're self-employed and your financial matters mix both your business and
personal life? Should you simply duplicate a "Financial" note and put it in
both the "Work" and "Personal" notebooks? Or how are the "drawers" of your
"file cabinet" themselves organized - should you meticulously alphabetize
all the documents in each drawer, put them in date order, or use some other
organizing principle? OF COURSE NOT! This is where tags enter the picture -
and boy, do they shine. Tags are words, phrases, or numbers that you assign
to notes to help describe what's in the note. One tag can be applied to as
many notes as you like, providing a whole new level of organization. 

Let's consider my own workflow for illustrative purposes. My two most-used
notebooks are "Cabinet" and "Pending Action." The first is a general
catch-all for things I want to keep but don't necessarily have a use for at
any given moment; the second is for projects that are in progress right
now. However, there are relationships between the documents in each
notebook. Take, for instance, one of my tags: "Spring 2014." Everything
tagged with that tag has something to do with the Spring 2014 academic
semester. Some notes I no longer need: grades for a completed and returned
student assignment, for example. Others, like student assignments in
progress or notes for an upcoming class, belong in "Pending Action" since
I'm still working on them. But if I want an overview of everything related
to Spring 2014, I simply click the tag and every note, from any notebook in
which it appears, shows up. When I finish a project in "Pending Action," I
simply move the note to "Cabinet" - and the Spring 2014 tag goes with it,
automatically keeping things organized. 

Evernote's biggest obstacle is actually its simplicity. When explaining how
it works to someone new, I inevitably end up getting a confused,
glassy-eyed stare: how is Evernote any different from the file system on a
computer? Can't I achieve the same thing with Word documents and a flash
drive? It's hard to explain just how useful Evernote really is without just
showing the person; it's even easier to discover how useful it is when you
actually try it. It's a bit like euchre in that way.** I told a colleague
about Evernote around this time last year; he didn't seem particularly
enthused by my description, and he never mentioned it again - until two
weeks ago, when he raved about its utility. Once you're in, you're hooked. 

An obvious advantage that even non-users can recognize is Evernote's deep
integration into many, many different digital tools and services. The
connection I use most often is the simplest: Evernote allows you to email
notes into your account. Each Evernote user is allotted a unique email
address to which documents, links, photos, or just about anything else can
be sent. I've saved that unique address as a contact on my phone; that way,
if someone emails me something important, I can simply forward it on to my
Evernote account, clear out my email inbox, and tag away in Evernote. Thus
I can go from an email saying "Let's meet about your dissertation proposal
next week; prepare a revised chapter list in advance" to an Evernote note
in my "Pending Action" folder, tagged with "@[advisor's name],"
".Dissertation," "@work," ".Publication," and so on.*** Clicking on any one
of those tags will take me to all the other notes with the same tag -
allowing me to see how all of my materials fit together and what I might
need for that meeting. Since you're assigned a unique Evernote email
address, you can also set up filters on your email account to forward
certain emails to Evernote automatically - I do this with our library's
book scanners, so that anything I scan and email from those stations goes
straight to Evernote without me having to manually forward them one by one.

The email function is very simple and Evernote goes far beyond that. In an
earlier post I mentioned the Chrome extension that allows you to clip sites
and save them to Evernote. You can save an entire site, a simplified text
block that saves the important information you're after, or just the URL.
You can tell the extension which notebook to send the site to, what tags to
apply to it, and even add comments. I can't tell you how many sites and
articles have made their way into my account via this tool.

Many mobile apps offer Evernote integration as well - for my Android phone,
I often send information from Pocket, Digg Reader, the mobile Chrome
browser, or the camera app. The actual Evernote app is itself a powerful
tool, allowing you to create notes manually, take photos from within the
app, or even record voice notes.

For Windows uses, Evernote offers the ability to import all files from any
folder you designate. This automatically creates new notes for you, rather
than forcing you to create a new note manually and then attach the file to
it. For example, whenever I read an article on my computer and annotate it
with Sente or Preview, I save a copy to my "Read articles" folder on Google
Drive. Since "Read articles" is synced to both of my computers, Evernote on
my Windows machine at home detects when I've saved the read article to that
folder, imports it into Evernote, and deletes the original file. Thus, at
that point I've gone from an unannotated PDF article to an annotated
article in Evernote, which I can tag and file away for later reference. If
that ain't wizardry I don't know what is. Oh, and did I mention Evernote
will search within PDFs? Yeah. Just wait for the first time you can't
remember who wrote what but you remember a key phrase from the article.
You'll be throwing every dollar to your name Evernote's way.

These are but a few of the numerous uses to which I put Evernote on at
least a weekly, if not daily, basis. It's become a great tool for
externalizing my brain, as it were, allowing me to stay focused on the
big-picture questions of my research and writing while keeping relevant
materials close at hand and easily searchable. I can't recommend Evernote
highly enough. Reading about certainly won't do the job, though - go
download it right now. The free version will do just fine (although I pay
for a premium subscription myself - you'll see that it's worth it soon
enough). Do it. Do it now!


* - I may post in the future on other productivity tools. Today's post
concludes the tools I wanted to talk about for now.

** - If you get the reference, congratulations! You're likely a
born-and-bred Midwesterner like me. Let's get in touch and throw down some
mad trumps and euchres.

*** - Adding the @ and periods before the tags is intentional. Evernote
provides an alphabetized list of tags in its main window; these symbols
guarantee that important tags rise to the top of the list.
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On technology and rights of public use

On technology and rights of public use | Graduate education and professional history |
Over the past few weeks, the TWiT network has hosted a debate on the
boundary between the right to use technology in public places others'
rights of privacy. This debate, conducted through This Week in Tech and
This Week in Google, has taken Google Glass as its starting point. The
pertinent issues boil down to this: at what point should Glass users remove
the device in public? Do they have any obligation to do so? Is a feeling of
harassment or intrusion reasonable on the part of people interacting with
Glass "Explorers" (Google's term)?

The debate often unfolds like this: Leo Laporte supports the utility and
innovation behind Google Glass while calling for some sort of social code
to guide Glass users while in public. Jeff Jarvis argues in another (and
always more passionate!) direction: Glass users have zero responsibility to
remove the device in any public setting, as there is no reason to believe
an Explorer is using Glass for any sort of nefarious or inappropriate

I think Jeff Jarvis would relish any pushback - the man loves an argument
and it's always a joy to listen to him either take down some poorly-based
position or just rant in general. I wish I knew him and we could fight this
out: I recoil at his suggestion that it should be completely acceptable for
Glass users to carry on with no social restrictions.

Let's consider why people out in public might be a little put off by Glass.
Glass offers the ability to take photographs, record video, and access
information in such a way that it's quite easy to do undetected. If I walk
into a room full of people and someone's using Glass, I've got no way of
knowing if they're taking photographs or taking video of everyone. Jarvis
would counter that I can't make those assumptions - I have no reason to
think the person is doing any of that.

That's fair enough. But let's swap out Glass and put my smartphone in its
place. If I walk around with it held up at eye level - even without using
the camera app - it's reasonable for people to wonder whether I'm taking
photos or video. If I'm in the midst of a conversation with someone and
have my phone hovering between us, they may construe this as rudeness -
perhaps I'm not into the conversation. But maybe I'm not doing any of those
things. I'm not taking photos, I'm not taking video, I'm not browsing the
Internet while talking to someone. My device, though, and the way I'm
positioned in relation to it, can give the impression that I'm doing any of
the above. It's reasonable to wonder if that's the case and even take
offense (especially if I'm in a place like a restroom or locker room).

So does the right to own, use, and wear Glass trump the rights of others in
public? Does the fact that a Glass user may not give any outward signs of
doing something inappropriate invalidate feelings of intrusion for those
around them? I don't think so. And that's not the same thing as being a
Luddite, as Jarvis suggested in this week's TWiG. Technology itself
receives no rights because of its existence. As with any other material
object, its implementation and use in public is subject to obvious, if not
written and codified, social norms. I don't play with a yo-yo in the middle
of a conference presentation; I don't text people while working with a
student during office hours; and I don't pull out my laptop and start
typing away when I'm talking to my wife. None of those actions are wrong
per se, but the context in which they take place is important. 

Ditto for Google Glass. No, I may not have any reason to suspect that a
person wearing Glass is photographing me or recording our conversation. But
the presence and positioning of the device also offer me no assurance that
those things are not happening, either, in the same way that a phone in
someone's pocket or a digital camera kept in a purse do. It's legal for
someone to carry a shotgun down the street on a public sidewalk. There's
nothing illegal about said person having a conversation with the gun waving
around as he gestures. But everyone else in the vicinity would feel
threatened: the right to carry a gun on one's person does not invalidate
the expectation of the general public to be safe and secure.

So it's not as simple as Google Glass being an innocuous bit of (amazing)
technology. The very things which make the device so incredible also have a
"creepy factor" against which our established social norm resist. In and of
itself Glass represents many possibilities of the future, for which we
ought to be excited. But going from A to B involves cautious steps and
careful progress - not a leap from start to finish.

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Productivity: Part 1

Productivity: Part 1 | Graduate education and professional history |
I'm a productivity tool junky.* News aggregator apps or interest curators
always draw me toward productivity or workflow improvement. This
introduces, of course, the problem of having access to too many
productivity tools: it's hard to get anything done when you're hopping from
platform to platform, taking a gander at every tool that comes on the
market. But I do rely on a few tools on a regular basis and I'm grateful
for the innovation that's made them available.

I'd like to post every once in a while about the tools I use on a regular
basis to get things done (not the same thing, mind you, as the Getting
Things Done method, which I've more or less abandoned for the moment).
There is more to historical research and writing than finding sources and
writing about them! The tools you use to accomplish those sorts of tasks
can make life much, much easier, enabling you to spend more time on
qualitatively more important work than grinding through housekeeping tasks.
Today I'll start with some of the software that makes tasks easier,
highlighting Alfred and Google Drive.**

Alfred is a Mac-only app that indexes files and folders on your computer. I
know, I know - big deal. Finder does that and it's built into the operating
system. But Alfred makes it so much easier. You establish which directories
you want it to search - I have it set to search the entire hard drive - set
up a combination of keys that bring up the search box, and have at it. So,
on my computer, I simultaneously press Shift+Command+Enter to call up the
Alfred box. Then I start typing a file name (or what I think the file name
might be) and the search results appear instantaneously. Sometimes I'll be
looking for an article and simply type in the author's name. Or I'll be
trying to find a student's paper and can get by with their name. Or I can
type in a certain semester - say "Spring 2012" - and find everything I did
back then. If you have it search the appropriate folders (which it does by
default, I believe), Alfred will also return applications in your search
list. This means I very rarely open the Applications folder on my computer,
instead simply typing in "Word" or "Spotify." You can also connect Alfred
to your default Internet browser's search capacity, meaning that you can
Google whatever you want directly from Alfred - saving you yet another step
and allowing you to stay on task.

The great benefit here is that the search results begin to populate as you
type, so in many cases you need only a few letters to find what you're
looking for. Furthermore, the ability to assign a hotkey combination to
bring up the Alfred search means that you don't need to stop what you're
doing and open Finder or another file indexing program. Finally, it's an
enormous asset to those of you with less-than-pristine file storage and
organization abilities (I say "you" because I'm fairly particular about
where my files go). Alfred will simply find them wherever they are,
preventing you from clicking through folder after folder in an attempt to
remember where you saved something.

Alfred links up quite nicely with my second tool today, Google Drive. If
you're a GMail user or your institution relies on Google Apps, you've
already got access to Google Drive; otherwise, it's free to sign up and you
get a healthy storage allotment automatically. Drive functions as a site of
both creation and storage - you can use the built-in Google Docs to write
text documents (think Word replacement), create spreadsheets (think Excel
replacement), and more. Google Docs offers limited features with these
applications but they suffice for many uses. The storage side of things,
though, is where Google Drive really shines. You can manually upload files
to your Drive or email them in; even better is the option to install the
Google Drive client on your computer or other device. Google offers
Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android clients, meaning you can access your files
on just about any device you might have. Once you've installed the client,
Google Drive syncs your files across all of them in real time - eliminating
the need to email yourself files or save them to a USB stick. Thus if I
work on a document on my laptop and then save it in a folder I've told
Google Drive to sync, I can go home and open it on my desktop, picking
right up where I left off. I can pull up a file on my phone while I'm out
and about and find whatever information I need. If I log into a public,
university-provided computer, I get access my Google Drive and download any
file I might need, edit it, and re-upload for my own use or email it to
someone else. As I hinted before, this means you don't need to take all the
extra steps of saving files to a USB stick and carrying it around or
emailing the file to yourself: once you install the client, your files are
up-to-date across the board without you having to do anything.***

Alfred and Google Drive are but two of the many tools I use on a daily
basis. They do take a while to get used to and require some practice, but
they're well worth the time and energy. I spend exactly zero time looking
for files on my computer and I'm never worried that I'm going to lose
anything of importance. I'll delve into some other tools in future posts
but hope you'll take a look at each of these two in the meantime and see if
they'll work for you.

*Note that this is not the same as being a productivity junky! See Exhibit
A, "Blogging while a thousand other responsibilities beg for attention."

**I don't represent any of the companies mentioned in this or any other
productivity post. I am not a paid reviewer or compensated in any way for
my feedback.

***Even with this capability, I strongly recommend having a good backup
protocol in place. I make backups of all my files on a weekly basis: I
download the entire contents of my Google Drive, compress it into a .zip
file, copy it to a USB stick, and upload it to That way it exists
in three different places; if I lose my up-to-the-minute Google Drive
files, I'm only out a week, at most.
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Productivity: Part 3

Productivity: Part 3 | Graduate education and professional history |
In this third installment of my productivity series, I want to focus on my
browser and its various extensions.

I've been a Google Chrome user for some time now. I moved over to Mozilla
Firefox in 2005 or so but find Chrome to work much better for my purposes.
Two specific elements attract me the most: extensions and syncing.

I'll start with the latter. You can sign into Chrome with your Google
username and password. Once you've done so, settings within the browser
sync across all your devices that have Chrome installed. For me, this means
my laptop, our home desktop, and my Android phone. More important are the
synced bookmarks. I've got them all organized into folders on the bookmark
bar (a few are "News," "Databases," "Tools," and "Primary Sources"); when I
work from home, anything I've bookmarked on my laptop syncs to my desktop.
I understand there's also a way to sync your open tabs, but haven't dabbled
with this. I don't like to keep tabs open for long, once I've finished up
whatever I'm working on.

Extensions are another area where Chrome shines. Extensions are little
applications installed to the browser that provide more functionality. I've
got nine installed and on the extension toolbar right now: Clearly,
LastPass, Amazon Wishlist, Evernote, Pocket, TL;DR, Session Buddy, a Gmail
mailer, and StayFocusd. These all offer tools to enhance (in theory) the
browsing experience:

-Clearly: Removes extraneous information (sidebars, ads, etc.) from the
main text of a page, allowing you to focus on what you're trying to read.

-LastPass: Connects with your LastPass account (more on that later),
allowing you to sign into web accounts to which you've assigned complex
passwords for greater security.

-Amazon Wishlist: Allows you to add any product, from any web site, to your
Amazon wishlist.

-Evernote: Allows you to clip articles, whole pages, URLs, and more,
sending them to your Evernote account. I'll devote an entire post to
Evernote later.

-Pocket: Saves web sites and articles that you want to read to your Pocket
account. I use it to save long pieces for later reading.

-TL;DR: Summarizes long blocks of text so you get the gist of the item. I
don't use this all that much as it's been unable to summarize several
things I've thrown at it. You may have better luck.

-Session Buddy: On those few occasions when I do want to keep certain tabs
handy for a long time, Session Buddy saves every tab you've got open for
later review. You can save these sessions under custom names and open
entire groups later.

-Gmail mailer: Saves the step of going to, opening a new draft,
and pasting in a URL. With this extension, the site you've got open goes
into a new draft opened by the extension itself.

-StayFocusd: Allows you to block out certain web sites so you can stay
focused on the task at hand. It's particularly useful for things like
Facebook or Twitter, which many people (myself included) often check while
trying to get work done.

Google's Chrome Web Store offers many, many more extensions that provide
various services. These do the trick for me and, in particular, help me to
collect the vast amount of content that I need to review and utilize for
productive work.

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Productivity: Part 2

Continuing my series on productivity tools, today I'll turn to some of the
lighter fare that I find myself taking advantage of. The fact that these
tools are perhaps not as "serious" or important as others doesn't lessen
their utility. I find myself opening some of them at least on a daily

First up is Spotify. If you've used iTunes, Pandora,, or just about
any other music software, you can use Spotify. I discovered it a few years
ago and have used it ever since. Spotify works at both the paid and free
levels. Both allow you to listen to music anywhere - on the desktop or via
a mobile device, Spotify has an app presence. You can listen via their web
player now, too. Paying for the service ($9.99 per month) allows you to
choose specific songs, avoid ads, and even download files for offline
listening when you're not connected. The free service works a bit more like
Pandora. Spotify has an enormous catalog from which to choose - I rejoiced
when I saw Led Zeppelin the other day - and the search function is
wonderful. One small catch is that only one listener can use your account
at a time: I'm currently listening to Pandora to avoid battling my wife
over using Spotify at home right now!

I often use Spotify for ambience while I write, be it a classical
selection, some sort of binaural tone, or straight up muzak. More geared
for productivity is the app Coffitivity, which aims to simulate the coffee
shop experience. Coffeetivity loops from a small selection of recordings
while you work. You hear indistinct chatter, the clanging of  mugs and
spoons, and so forth. The app  offers only the track selection and a volume
control. It can be difficult to get into the coffeeshop feel without the
visual distractions that accompany a trip to your local Starbucks, but it
can be helpful.

F.lux works with the body's natural preference for certain types of light
to reduce eye strain. Working with your current location, f.lux slowly
changes the tint of your screen to simulate the shifts of natural light
over the course of the day. Thus in the evening your screen will become
more mellow, taking on warm tones to match the sunset. This helps tell your
brain that it's getting late in the day, rather than seeing bright lights
and thinking it's more like 10 AM. 

Of these tools, I get the most use out of Spotify. I can't tell you how
immersive it is to shut off the lights in my carrel, put Word into Focus
Mode, and crank up some sort of ambient music while I write. My eyes say
it's just me and the computer, and the sounds of the world are completely
shut out. Of course this goes against the natural cycle f.lux tries to
impose - it's quite easy to lose track of time with my little method! 

Next time we'll return to some of the more practical tools I like to use in
my workflow. 
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Patriotism and historical memory

Patriotism and historical memory | Graduate education and professional history |
This morning's New York Times featured a story about Dozhd, an independent
television news station in Russia. The station has recently come under
government scrutiny and has found itself cut off from cable providers, who
have suddenly decided not to pick up the channel's programming for
less-than-straightforward reasons. 

Author Andrew Roth offers a few possible reasons, along with an interesting

It could have been the report on a secret dacha owned by a top aide to
President Vladimir V. Putin. Or it could have been its coverage of the
political crisis in Ukraine, which officials here describe as the work
of fascist revolutionaries and meddling Western diplomats. Or its
discussions of corruption at the Olympics, which state television
presents as manicured panoramas of Sochi's sparkling new facilities.
The answer, people at the station say, could be all of the above or
perhaps different reasons entirely. Russia, after all, is a country
where an independent news channel is increasingly an oxymoron. But they
all reject that the reason was a poll on a Sunday evening talk show
late last month that asked whether the former Soviet leaders should
have surrendered Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, to the Nazis "in order
to save hundreds of thousands of lives" from a crippling, 900-day siege
during World War II."


So station employees and stakeholders deny that the poll was behind the
government crackdown, yet

Legislators from United Russia, the ruling party, claimed that the poll
was unpatriotic, and the national prosecutor and the Federal
Communications Agency began an investigation of Dozhd[...]In a recent
interview with the television station, Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s
personal spokesman, said that Dozhd had “crossed a moral and ethical
red line” with the Leningrad poll.


I doubt the utility of debating the decisions made by military commanders
during World War II in a TV station poll; while historians often go at each
others' throats during such debates, the nuance and evidentiary basis for
those arguments far outstrip what can be contained in a television
question. More interesting, however, is the accusation of un-patriotism for
even asking the question. Similar accusations abound in the United States,
too, to be sure - to doubt the appropriateness of the atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, or the use of chemical weapons in
Vietnam, or the attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro is often akin, in some
minds, to "hating America" or disloyalty via disagreement with discrete
actions. But the real repercussions of those doubts differ, apparently
vastly so, from what is happening to Dozhd in Russia. 
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