[Tech tips] Drowning in information

As the semester gets into full swing, you may start to feel overwhelmed with all the information you have to manage in your life.  Here are a few of my favorite applications for wrangling information.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to ‘the cloud’.

[Please read this statement about the privacy of student data and other protected information, if you are going to use any of these applications in a university setting.]


I don’t know about you, but I’ve got about 152 usernames and passwords, plus library barcodes and all sorts of data that I want to keep secure, but want to be able to access at any time. LastPass is a browser add-on that keeps track of all that stuff, and it offers many other tools as well, including a password generator.  You use one master password to manage your  ‘vault’ of information.  Even better – you can login to your vault on the internet, so if you’re not at your own computer, you can still get to your passwords. The best part, though, is that LastPass will log you into sites once you have stored your username and password in the vault.  You won’t have to type them again and again. I don’t know how I lived without this.  (Well, I do.  By using bad passwords and by *gasp* writing some of them down.)


Drop what you’re doing right now and sign up for Evernote.  This is a notetaking application that can both live on the web and on your computer.  It even gives you a bookmarklet for your browser so you can ‘clip’ parts of webpages and add them to your Evernote stash.  You can create separate notebooks to organize your notes, and add tags to individual notes as well.  Besides the clipping feature, it offers you a basic text editor so that you can write notes.  You can take photos with your phone and add them to Evernote.  You can email stuff to your Evernote notebooks.  This isn’t just for serious use, either.  I often clip recipes into a cooking notebook, or save craft project ideas I find online. 


Do you wish that someone could send you an email to remind you to do something, but you want it sent next week?  Or three days from now?  Or next October 14th, at 3:30pm? You can do that.  It’s called Laytr.  You sign up on their website, and then you send emails to Laytr, using special email addresses they provide on their website.  Laytr processes the email from you and sends it back to you at the date/time you specified in the address.  It’s really easy to use, since it’s just a matter of sending an email – which you already know how to do.


[Edited 07/26/2011: Want something more secure than DropBox?  Try SpiderOak.]

If you are not using DropBox, you are missing out on something really good.  This is an online file storage system.  You download a small program to your hard drive, and it creates a folder on your hard drive.  Everything you put in that folder is automatically synced to a backup copy online.  Also, if you’re not using your computer, you can login to your DropBox online and access your files.  They give you several gigabytes of storage for free, but you can pay for more, if you need it.  This service offers you the peace of mind of knowing that whatever it is you are working on, there is not only the copy on your hard drive, but there is a copy backed up somewhere else, somewhere where you can’t spill coffee on it and short circuit it.


This is a service that is very similar to DropBox, but it comes with even more perks – the ability to edit some Office documents online.  Again, you don’t have to be sitting at your computer – you can edit that Word document no matter where you are – even if the computer you are using does not have Microsoft Office on it.  The online versions of Office programs in SkyDrive are not as full-featured as the Office programs you have on your hard drive, but they can do quite a bit.

URL shorteners

Bit.ly is one of the many URL shorteners out there.  Tiny.cc is another one. Of course, there is also goo.gl.  If you have to share a URL with someone, why give them one that wraps around three lines of text, and is impossible to re-type?  Make it shorter!  You just go to the site and enter the URL, and it creates a short version of the URL for you.


This has nothing to do with ‘the cloud’, but everything to do with the sky.  Stellarium is not productivity software.  It will not make your life easier or more organized.  But maybe it will provide the mental break you need.  It’s a free software package for gazing at the stars – a planetarium on your desktop.  It is created and supported by several of the leading observatories in the world.  I like the fact that you can speed ahead to a future date to look at the sky – so if you’re camping next Saturday, you can find out what will be on the horizon before you go.  It also can show you the constellations, their labels, and their artwork.  It’s free, it works on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and it is awesome.

You’re welcome.

[13 May 2011 – Edited to remove information about Xmarks. I use to love Xmarks – it synched my bookmarks across multiple computers AND multiple web browsers – but then it just got buggy and it ate all my bookmarks.  I really can’t recommend it any longer.  Hopefully, they’ll get it fixed in the future.  In the meantime, I’m sticking with Firefox Sync, which is built-in to the newer Firefox browsers, and can even work with your smartphone.]

If you’ve read this far, maybe you want more.  Here’s a really interesting article about “information overload”:  Blair, Ann, “Reading strategies for coping with information overload, ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the history of ideas 64 (2003): 11-28.


4 Responses to [Tech tips] Drowning in information

  1. Aida Neary says:

    Great article.

    I use Microsoft Office OneNote for my note taking. Granted it’s only for work so I just have the notes on the server and they are updated.

    Otherwise, I started using dropbox, but I find that gmail works just as well (as long as a I remember to email myself the files). After your post, I may revisit it.

    • If you store your OneNote files in the DropBox folder on your hard drive, they can be automatically backed up online, so that means they can be accessed at any computer that has OneNote and access to the internet. I do this myself because I use two different computers almost every day, and it’s nice to have access to the same OneNote files in both places.

      If you’re running OneNote 2010, you can do the same with Windows Live Sky Drive. (You can do it with OneNote 2007, but you have to back it up manually, which takes the fun out of it and makes it a hassle.)

      OneNote really does have a lot of great features, and is probably under-utilized. Evernote has some other features that might be appealing, too, like the ability to email notes into your notebook. Also, you can pay for an upgraded Evernote account so that it will work with your smartphone. Even if you don’t sign up for Evernote, I think it’s worth visiting the site – they have a lot of videos demonstrating what people are doing with Evernote, and a lot of those things would work with OneNote – ideas like managing a home renovation with a notebook, collecting art project ideas, preparing course lectures, etc. (Yes – there is part of the site that is devoted to educational uses of Evernote.)

      Gmail does work for file storage, but, yes, you have to remember to email it to yourself, and then you’ve got the problem of multiple versions floating around. DropBox backs up files for you, so you won’t forget. I would definitely recommend giving it another try.

      • Aida Neary says:

        I just went back to DropBox (to tell you, I had an old beta account); it’s much better and smoother than I remembered. So i’m hooked. I don’t have OneNote at home so even if I backed up my one Note files on dropbox, I couldn’t access them. hmm…

      • WindowsLiveSkyDrive has a simple version of OneNote in their online storage system. You might want to check that out, if you’d like to be able to sync OneNote for home and work use. If you used the Office syncing feature in SkyDrive, you’d be able to access your notebooks at home, and make some changes, even though you don’t have OneNote on your computer at home. (I have not tested this out personally to see what features are available via this lite, online version of OneNote.)

        That was why I started to use Evernote, initially. I didn’t have OneNote at home, and I wanted something comparable. Now that I have OneNote at home, I use it mostly for academic purposes. (I ‘print’ power point slides from my classes into the notebook, and then I can type right onto the slides to take notes.) I use EverNote for personal use, like clipping recipes, capturing handicraft project ideas, capturing poetry, etc.

        Glad you found DropBox to be helpful. It is really simple, once it is set up – you don’t have to do anything. It just works quietly in the background.

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