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.
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.
[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.