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 OTexts​.org.

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 →

Organizing travel

Whether trav­el­ling to a sem­i­nar or con­fer­ence, or just hav­ing a hol­i­day, using a travel orga­nizer can make the process sim­pler and eas­ier. A good travel orga­nizer keeps all your travel details (flights, hotels, car rentals, meet­ings, weather fore­casts, etc.) orga­nized and synced to what­ever devices you use (two com­put­ers, an iPad and an iPhone in my case). 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.

Neil Postman on technological change

Neil Post­man was Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at New York Uni­ver­sity until his death in 2003. He wrote many won­der­fully insight­ful and thought-​​provoking arti­cles and books about tele­vi­sion, edu­ca­tion, tech­nol­ogy and child­hood. I recently came across a speech he gave in 1998 on “Five things we need to know about tech­no­log­i­cal change”. Here is an online tran­script. The five things are:

  1. That we always pay a price for tech­nol­ogy; the greater the tech­nol­ogy, the greater the price.
  2. That there are always win­ners and losers, and that the win­ners always try to per­suade the losers that they are really winners.
  3. That there is embed­ded in every great tech­nol­ogy an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal or social prej­u­dice. Some­times that bias is greatly to our advan­tage. Some­times it is not.
  4. That tech­no­log­i­cal change is not addi­tive; it is eco­log­i­cal, which means, it changes every­thing and is, there­fore, too impor­tant to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.
  5. That tech­nol­ogy tends to become mythic; that is, per­ceived as part of the nat­ural order of things, and there­fore tends to con­trol more of our lives than is good for us.