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Techno-musing Thursday

I am willing to try almost any piece of technology at least once if I think that it has the potential to improve the way that I teach, write, or do research.  The investment in time required to learn a new piece of software or gizmo while often unsatisfactory one an individual level, has so far paid dividends across the whole range of technologies that I use to manage my everyday life.  To put it another way, I was very reluctant to learn to use the so-called e-mail, but the initial investment in learning Eudora (many years ago) has added a level of efficiency to my everyday life that more than makes up for the time wasted trying to learn to use the latest gizmo or application.

Over the past six months, I’ve used and appreciated a whole range of new technologies, ranging from my iPad and my Android powered phone to light duty web-aps that solve an immediate problem (how is it possible to schedule a meeting without Doodle?).  From that little gaggle of software and hardware, three piece of intriguing technology stand out:

1. Omeka.net. I am really excited to be an alpha test for Omeka.net.  Omeka is an online collection management software produced by the Center for History and the New Media at George Mason Universityand our neighbors at the Minnesota State Historical Society.  It allows an individual or organization to organize and present collections of material – from texts and podcasts to images and video.  As someone who views the world as a kind of infinite archive, a program of this kind has obvious appeal.  For the last year, I’ve had Omeka running on a server at the University of North Dakota and it has become home for various collections of images including a fine art photography exhibition, a research archive of vernacular architecture in Greece, and a small collection of maps from my survey project in Greece.

The only downside to the program was that it took me quite some time (and a bit of money) to get it up and running on a University server.  Omeka.net eliminates the hassle of running and maintaining server based software because they offer both the software and the server side maintenance in the same way that WordPress.com hosts WordPress blogs.  This means that soon, even the least technologically inclined could be up and running with Omeka and begin to catalogue their personal or group archives.

The potential for teaching is really clear.  Curation is becoming an important watchword in our digital age as people come to realize that the quantity of data produced has come to challenge our ability to manage it. The ability to deploy and teach easily a powerful tool like Omeka for collecting, organizing, and presenting a wide range of digital material (primarily in the humanities, but Omeka is hardly a tool limited to a particular discipline) will introduce information management and literacy skills that are likely to be relevant for our digital age.

Right now, Omeka.net is out in invitation only Alpha testing with all the attended caveats, but I asked for an invitation and received it within a few months.

2. Ecto vs. MarsEdit. This past week, ProfHacker (a must read for tech-curious faculty) discussed briefly the relative merits of two offline, blog composition tools, Ecto and MarsEdit. If you’re a blogger (and these days, who isn’t), it is almost essential to be able to write a blog post someplace other than the online space provided by your blog provider.  In general, the online editors provided by most blogging services (e.g. Typepad, WordPress, Blogger) are underpowered, a bit fickle, and dependent on your connection to the internet (and stability of your browser) to work.  There is nothing more frustrating than composing a brilliant post online and seeing it vanish with a browser crash or internet interruption.  Offline composers are half light-duty word processors and half light-duty html editors.  The best option is probably Windows Live Writer, but there is no Mac version of this flexible and stable little program. The two best for Mac users are Ecto and MarsEdit.  Both provide a word processor type interface that allows you to compose easily, edit HTML, and to integrate various media content.

I used Ecto for over a year and found it pretty satisfactory.  It did a particularly nice job managing links (and a blog is nothing without its links to other blogs and sites on the web) and images.  MarsEdit has a slightly nicer interface for writing, however.  I love that I can change the font that I am writing with in MarsEdit without changing the font that appears on my blog.  In other words, I indulge my idiosyncratic preference to compose in American Typewriter font without having to publish using that font. MarsEdit may be a bit less capable of handling images, however.

Either tool makes blog writing less of an adventure and more of a pleasure.  The simple interfaces encourages a focus on the words (not dissimilar from the recent spate of simplified word processors likeWriteRoom) and the stability and security the software encourages me to write in a longer form than I might do on the web.

3. Daytum.  Daytum is one of the quirkier services on the web.  It provides a subscriber with an interface where they can record and quantify things.  For example, I count the number of words that I write each day (since I started using Daytum, I’ve written 73,810 words).  I also record whether I get a ride home with my wife or walk; to date, I’ve walked home 35 times and got a ride home 34 times since January.  I like recording the temperature in my office in the morning, but I’m just like that.  I also like the idea of keeping track of how many pages I read each day, but I’ve found that more of an inconvenience as I move from reading paper books and articles to reading across a wide range of media, many of which do not use pages at all (e.g. the web, on my iPad, et c.).

Daytum is a free indulgence for those obsessed with quantifying their lives.  At the same time, it represents the far fringe of a whole batch of software designed to help one become more efficient or at least more aware of how one spends their time. As academics, it seems like we are always running out of time, stumbling across some new deadline, or having to negotiate some kind of delicate work management solution to balance relationships, teaching, research, or “outside” interests.

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