Paperpile makes me more productive

One of the first things I tell my new research students is to use a reference management system to help them keep track of the papers they read, and to assist in creating bib files for their bibliography. Most of them use Mendeley, one or two use Zotero. Both do a good job and both are free.

I use neither. I did use Mendeley for several years (and blogged about it a few years ago), but it became slower and slower to sync as my reference collection grew. Eventually it simply couldn’t handle the load. I have over 11,000 papers in my collection of papers, and I was spending several minutes every day waiting for Mendeley just to update the database.

Then I came across Paperpile, which is not so well known as some of its competitors, but it is truly awesome. I’ve now been using it for over a year, and I have grown to depend on it every day to keep track of all the papers I read, and to create my bib files. Continue reading →

Highlighting the web

Users of my new online forecasting book have asked about having a facility for personal highlighting of selected sections, as students often do with print books. We have plans to make this a built-in part of the platform, but for now it is possible to do it using a simple browser extension. This approach allows any website to be highlighted, so is even more useful than if we only had the facility on

There are several possible tools available. One of the simplest tools that allows both highlighting and annotations is Diigo. Continue reading →

Internet surveys

I received the following email today:

I am preparing a thesis … I need to conduct the widest possible poll, and it occurred to me that perhaps you could guide me toward an internet-based way in which this can be done easily. I have a ten-question questionnaire prepared, that I wish to have an random sample of the population respond to. I have no budget for this, so I hope you can suggest a way in which a good number of responses can be harvested using blogs or sites you may be aware of.

Here is my response. Continue reading →

Use Mendeley to manage your references

Every researcher collects large numbers of papers, references, and notes, and it is important to have a good system to keep them all organized. For many years I had several thousand papers all numbered and stored in filing cabinets, with a JabRef database providing an index to them.

These days, it’s much easier to have everything stored electronically, and so I have accumulated many pdfs (about 1300 so far) of published articles. But the problem of being able to find something fast is still important.

Mendeley is a free software tool for managing your reference database. It actually solves many problems simultaneously and is likely to become an important part of how I work. Continue reading →

In praise of Dropbox

Every couple of years, a new technology has a big impact on how I work. Gmail was one. My iPhone was another. And I rank Dropbox in the same category.

I get three huge benefits in using Dropbox:

  1. All my files are backed up online. The house can burn down and I know I can still get my files. Also, if I’m away from my desktop or laptop, I can still access my files on my iPhone. Online backup is the only sensible backup strategy.
  2. My two main computers are kept in sync. When I finish work in my uni office, I can go home knowing that everything I’ve done during the day will be already on my home PC when I arrive home. And when I go to my uni office, everything I’ve done on my home PC will already be on my uni PC when I get to work. I never have to think about what files I will need; they will all be there.
  3. Dropbox provides a simple version control system. Other people use services like github and bazaar, but I find them far more complicated than I need. When I edit or delete files, Dropbox keeps previous versions in case I wish to restore them (up to 30 days normally, but forever if you pay a bit more). With a couple of clicks I can rollback to a previous version, or download a previous version and use a file comparison tool to see the changes made since that version.

The best thing is that I get those benefits without any work! Once installed, Dropbox just does its stuff seamlessly in the background.

For up to 2Gb, it is free. I pay $99 per year for 50Gb. If you sign up as a result of this post, you get an additional 250Mb free (and I get another 500Mb — although I’d say all of the above regardless). Available for Windows, Mac or Linux.

Take note

Your best ideas don’t necessarily come while sitting at your computer ready to type. They might come while playing sport, taking a shower, lying in bed, or enjoying dinner at a restaurant.  So you always need something to write on to capture the ideas before they float away.

For about twenty years I carried a little spiral notepad and pen just for this purpose. When iPods became popular, I named my notepad my “iPad”. Then Apple stole my brand name! Although they were low-tech, my iPads were extremely efficient and functional.

In an interesting parody, you can now get a real notepad that looks like an iPad or iPhone! (Click on the image below for more information.)

However, I’ve sold out to Apple and use an iPhone, so it makes sense to keep my notes on the iPhone.  But the native notepad app is not so useful because it doesn’t sync with my computer. I’d like to jot down some ideas and then have them available on my PC without any re-typing. The native iPhone notepad app does sync with MS Outlook but who wants to use that when there is gmail?

I’ve tried about half-a-dozen note taking apps with syncing capabilities and have deleted most of them for being too slow or because the syncing doesn’t work properly. However, there are two that I think are worth mentioning.

Evernote is a feature-rich application that allows notes, pictures, audio and webpages to be saved, annotated and synced online. To access the information on another device, you can go to the website, or install an application on your computer. It works well and is very popular, but the rich set of features mean that it is sometimes a little slower than I would like. Also, if I use some rich text features such as bulleted lists on my computer, the note on my iPhone can be read but not edited as the iPhone app doesn’t allow anything fancy. That can be annoying. I don’t care about the rich text features, but I do need to be able to edit my notes on any device. Still, if you want all the features that Evernote provides, it is a nice tool.

Simplenote is what I am using. It has very few features — it doesn’t store pictures, audio files or bits of webpages — and there are no applications to install on any computer. It is just a very simple and fast note taking app. It has tagging and searching facilities so it is easy to find the note you are after, and it allows notes to be emailed. All notes are synced with the simplenote website where you can see them on your own account. Another nice feature is the ability to roll back to previous versions of a note. And there is a chrome extension giving you easy access to the notes within Chrome.

Backing up Gmail

I recommend Gmail to everyone who asks, and many who don’t, as it is far superior to every other email platform around. But being paranoid, I don’t like all that valuable email in someone else’s hands. What if Google goes bust one day? Or the Australian government’s internet filter stops gmail? Or I move to China? So I need a local backup just in case. I also need the backup to be painless and not require much attention.

The solution is Thunderbird, but there is a bit of setting up to do at first, then you can sit back and let it do its work. The instructions are here. You need to follow them — simply setting up Thunderbird to access your gmail is not enough as Thunderbird won’t download your mail for local storage by default.

Once you’ve set up Thunderbird to download everything, all you need to do is open Thunderbird every few weeks and leave it to do it’s stuff.

If that’s too much work, you can always have Thunderbird open automatically at start up but stay minimized to the tray.

Mathematical research and the internet

On Monday night I attended a lecture by Terry Tao on “Mathematical research and the internet”. Terry is Australia’s most famous mathematician, our only Field’s medalist, and one of the most active mathematical bloggers in the world. He has been described as the “Mozart of mathematics” for his remarkable precocity and prolific output. The slides of his talk are available on his blog site.

It was an interesting talk, with excellent slides, marred only by the poor sound system and his bad habit of mumbling. I keep a pretty close eye on internet developments that affect research in my field, so there wasn’t a lot new for me, but the following observations may be of interest.

  • Mathematical blogs are providing a means for recording the informal chats that are an invaluable part of research but were never previously written down. These are the sorts of things that happen at conferences, in tearooms and hallways, or over dinner. The advent of informal blogs allows these chats to be online, with interaction via commenting, and fully searchable.
  • There is a list of mathematical blogs on the Academic Blog Portal although the statistics list is incomplete — it omits Chris Lloyd’s excellent Fishing in the Bay blog.
  • The quality of mathematics on Wikipedia is slowly improving (although it has a long way to go in statistical modelling, and especially in forecasting).
  • The Tricki is a useful resource for mathematical tricks.
  • The advent of pre-print repositories (notably arXiv for mathematics, but RePEc for econometrics) has changed the way new results are distributed and how we stay in touch with current research.
  • There are now a handful of high quality mathematical presentations on YouTube. e.g., this one on Moebius transformations.
  • Single authored papers are becoming less common due to increased internet interaction and the rise of more cross-disciplinary research.
  • Open online collaborative research is an emerging possibility. The first (mathematics) experiment in this direction has been Polymath which has been a huge success so far. The first problem was solved (although the results are not yet written up). Presumably this could work for statistics too, although the number of potential participants is much smaller.

Terry concluded by saying

In some ways, there are too many such technologies. And they don’t always work well with each other. But these issues should fade with time as later generations of tools become easier to use, more integrated, and more mainstream. Eventually, some version of these tools will be as universally adopted among mathematicians as email and LaTeX are today.