Category Archives: tech tools

On typewriters and computers

Behold this solitary remnant at the Arapahoe Community College Library of a bygone era: the typewriter. (In case you’re curious, it’s one of those large, clunky-looking electric ones, an IBM Wheelwriter by Lexmark.)

It’s out-survived other relics of the past at the Library such as microfilm, video and cassette tapes, and the card catalog. (Will we be saying the same thing about print books in the near future? That’s a whole topic in itself.)

It sits next to a row of computers, sort of an oddball among its high-tech bretheren.

It’s about the last anachronism left standing, er, sitting, so to speak.

Dad, what’s a typewriter?

It’s what Andy Rooney owned until he died.

Who’s Andy Rooney?

Never mind.

Typewriters actually do have a practical use, unless you’re a collector of celebrities’ typewriters. They’re great for doing envelopes and filling out forms (do they still have those forms with carbon copies?). Not everyone uses online forms. Not every form is available to be filled out online. Maybe that’s why we still have a typewriter at the ACC Library.

Yes, instead of computers, there are still some writers who use typewriters, just as some writers still use yellow legal pads (admittedly a dying breed of writers).

Once I had a patron ask me if we had a user manual for our typewriter. I couldn’t find one. At the time it didn’t occur to me look online, where most user manuals are available for free. Another time, a student told me she needed the price of a typewriter in 1974 for his economics class, to illustrate the rise of the CPI over time (price inflation). After a huge amount of effort, I actually found the answer for her. But I digress…

A Google search reveals that at least a fair number of libraries still have a typewriter for public use. Even Harvard has a typewriter–in the computer lab of the law library. But, in contrast, the Berkley Public Library in Michigan, in its FAQs, states, “Note that the library DOES NOT have typewriters.”

Now, I’m going to pick a bone: if a typewriter is good enough for the library at Harvard, why isn’t it for the University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries? Here’s the rather condescending CU explanation for lack of typewriters in its libraries (I admit, it almost made me chuckle with the same feeling of superiority):

There are no typewriters in the Libraries. We don’t know of any in use on campus. The UMC Reception Desk used to have one available for public use but it is long gone.

 Prior to the introduction of the personal computer in the mid-1980s, these machines — both manual (no power) and electric (powered) were widely used. The rapid adaption of the personal computer led to their drastic, dramatic, decimating decline and dodo-like disappearance.

 Typewriters are primarily seen in museums of technology and in movies of a by-gone era but their spirit lives on in the QWERTY keyboards you use today.

There are still some of us old-timers around who formerly used typewriters, believe it or not. One way you can easily detect these old codgers is when they type text with a computer, they put in two spaces after a period. That’s a no-no in the post-typewriter age. So is underlining words for emphasis. And not knowing how to make an “em” dash. And so on. What made sense using a typewriter doesn’t hold using a word processor.

There’s a book The PC is Not a Typewriter, which explains the fine points of these differences of using a word processor properly in the age of desktop publishing. Following the advice of this book will help make you look like a savvy, sophisticated writer and scholar, and will help you not betray yourself as a dinosaur from the past. A shortened PDF version of these principles put out by a college is at mcli.maricopa.edu/files/dvl/Word2007-Assignment-Finished.pdf.

Yes, these tips are indispensable and important for everyone who cares about how they look in print. Whoops! On second thought, these tips are indispensable and important for everyone who cares about how they look in print. (Yes, underlined stuff should be reserved for links only in this new age.)

P.S. Here’s an interesting library blog from 2007 about typewriters and libraries

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Changes in Delicious leave a certain taste in the mouth

Delicious, the librarians’ favorite social bookmarking tool, has gone through some major upheavals, which, like a roller coaster ride, can impact a queasy stomach.

Rumors of a shutdown of Delicious were greatly exaggerated, it turns out. After acquiring Delicious from the original developer in 2005, the financially fragile Yahoo! was looking to unload the much loved but unprofitable venture.

Yikes! After slaving over a hot keyboard bookmarking hundreds and even thousands of bookmarks, would your precious listing of sites be on the chopping block? Would your work end up burned to a crisp? No worry, as you were able to migrate your bookmarks to the alternative Digg.

Then, another turn of events: AVOS Systems, consisting of former YouTube founders, saved the day by buying Delicious in 2011. AVOS is re-designing Delicious, re-launching it with new social networking bells and whistles.

But can you trust AVOS not to screw it up? Will this still be your beloved Delicious when they get through tinkering with the original recipe? The new beta version of Delicious was launched perhaps prematurely, because it had bugs and imperfections that could make you feel nervous, seeing your familiar Delicious looking like a messed up omelet, not to mention inaccessible busy servers not experienced under the previous ownership. But the company blog has assured everyone that things are under control and that things will turn out okay.  And uh-oh, if you missed the new owners’ deadline to migrate your bookmarks to Digg, you’re stuck and out of luck. You better hope the new reincarnation is as advertised.

But if your stomach likes new taste sensations, you might be in for a treat. AVOS appears to be very imaginative and on the cutting edge, promising to take a previously solid but bland Delicious to some new heights, finding new ways to extend the social bookmarking concept. A little excitement for Delicious might not be a bad thing—pass the hot sauce.

In fact, here’s the latest news: AVOS has bought trunk.ly and will integrate it into Delicious. Trunk.ly collects in one place what is shared or liked in Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Wow, can your stomach handle that? Where’s the Pepto-Bismol?

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Taking notes the digital way

I am a compulsive note-taker. When I go to a meeting or seminar I find myself trying to write everything down, including the speakers’ lousy jokes or side comments that may have nothing to do with the topic, or even observations about the audience or the meeting facility. Even when I am told that the PowerPoint presentation will be available for downloading, I am still jotting down its contents. Perhaps this has something to do with my prior life as a journalist and my temperament as the consummate writer. I am an “information packrat”—I feel the need to retain every bit of information I run across, even the most trivial, thinking someday it might be of use. I have boxes of papers and notebooks, innumerable computer files, and thousands of bookmarked websites. And don’t get me started on a discussion about my book collection.

Recently in my work at the library I have found myself as the keeper of the minutes for several committees and groups that I am involved with. I’ve always taken notes the old-fashioned way, jotting them down on paper, a method that has been reasonably effective. But I’ve always considered ways of modifying or improving the task of taking notes. For years, off and on I’ve casually played with Gregg shorthand, but have never mastered it enough to feel confident to use it for important meetings (when I looked at my shorthand scrawls, I find deciphering them a major challenge, showing that I need a lot more work and practice with it). I have thought about using an audio recording device, but felt that my note-taking was sufficiently strong enough that the idea of spending time going through audio recordings seemed like an unnecessary bother and waste of time.

I’ve looked at some innovative, brilliant high-tech ways of taking notes, and, for certain people (but not me), they certainly are a viable option, maybe even a godsend. And, if you love clever gadgets, you’ll love these even more. I even tried one of the gadgets.

One option is in the form of the inexpensive iPad apps like PaperDesk ($1.99), Penultimate ($2.99), WritePad (($3.99), or Note Taker HD ($4.99) for note-taking with a writing stylus, or even your finger. With it you can scribble down notes on your iPad as well as draw diagrams and mathematical equations. Some even allow audio recording. As yet, though digital, these apps’ notes are not searchable and do not convert to Word docs. Of course, there is the iPad’s virtual keyboard, fine with some note-takers, not with others.

But the gadgets I speak of are those wireless digital pens (notably Smartpen and LogiPen) that record your writing, which then can be uploaded (your writing, even your drawings) into your computer, printed out, and even e-mailed. Your longhand can be converted to Microsoft Word text. Now how nifty is that? But they require their special pen, so you can’t use your favorite pen. Some even require special paper. Some even have a built-in audio recorder and speaker in the pen, so you have audio backup of your note-taking. Wow!

But then, you are dealing with a hundred dollar price tag, special pens, special ink refills, special paper, batteries, USB cables, software. (Someone I know ordered one of these off the Internet, and came to him with a part missing, and he had a wonderful time getting the right part delivered.) The program menu has so many options and features, all with helpful tutorials and help screens. But, of course, if you’re a real geek, that’s heaven. What fun note-taking has become!

For a long time I had considered using a laptop to take notes, but shied away from it, perhaps because I didn’t want to look like an oddball or nerd. I already felt self-conscious for the non-stop taking pages of notes when everyone would hardly take any.

For me, using a laptop to take notes is superior to any other form of note-taking that I have available, for reasons of speed and convenience. I am an extremely fast typist—I timed myself and found that I can type notes twice as fast as writing them down, which means I am going to miss fewer bits of information and will be more productive. Second, writing for an hour or more produces fatigue and “writer’s cramp” that using the keyboard does not. Third, occasionally in my rush of writing down notes, I find myself not completing words, causing the words to be illegible. Fourth, when using a laptop I save the step of having to enter my notes into the computer—it’s already done. And with today’s thinner, lighter, even smaller machines, lugging around a laptop is not an issue.

To sum it up, for me, using a digital pen is slower, more time-consuming, less efficient. It seems like a lot of unnecessary work and steps in having to write the notes, input them into the computer, and then converting them to a Word document. Using a laptop beats it by a mile.

The Smartpen and LogiPen systems are brilliantly conceived, but best for a certain kind of person: a pen-and-pad note-taker looking for a boost for an old way taking notes, or someone who cannot use a laptop because they are a slow typist or do not have access to a laptop, or for whatever reason does not want to use a laptop and prefers writing. I would certainly recommend these digital pens to that certain kind of user who would find it useful for their particular situation. Likewise worth trying is writing with a stylus on an iPad.

For me, using a laptop is the almost perfect way to take notes and even going back to paper and pad wouldn’t be the end of the world. But others just love using these digital pen devices. As long as we’re both happy, and the important and crucial notes of the world are taken properly, and civilization is preserved in its highest intellectual glory—we have done our proper part, and perhaps even deserve overlooked commendation.

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Savvy scholars: throw away your flash drive?

Sony and other computer manufacturers have announced they will stop manufacturing floppy disk drives soon. Floppy disks are going the way of eight track players, and, more recently, cassette tapes. The technology dinosaur graveyard keeps getting bigger.

Flash drives (thumb drives, pen drives, memory sticks) are one of the latest gee whiz tech advances—carry gigs of storage on your keychain. Wow, what’s next? A biological chip implant into your brain that will blur the difference between external computers and your internal computer? (Perhaps not that far-fetched.)

And then flash drives will go away too?

Forget about chip implants, there are other developments that are casting a shadow over flash drives.

Flash drives (thumb drives, pen drives, memory sticks) are one of the latest gee whiz tech advances—carry gigs of storage on your keychain. Wow, what’s next? A chip implant into your brain? (Probably not that far-fetched!)

Flash drives come with their own downsides, one being the fact that it is easy to lose them or misplace them. How many people reading this have forgotten to take their flash drive out of a computer they were using, walking away and potentially losing your saved documents forever? Just what I thought: most people are raising their hands.

This is doubly scary, because of the huge storage capacity of flash drives, some people use their flash drives as either another drive for their computer or as an external backup drive. As an additional drive, you may create or download something on your flash drive away from your main computer, intending to save it to your computer eventually. Or, as a backup external drive, you have all your computer’s stuff on the flash drive, so that if your computer dies or gets stolen, you have your data backed up.

In either case, if you lose your flash drive, you could be up the creek. Using your flash drive as the all-purpose Swiss knife of storage can lead to trouble.

For backing up your computer, instead of relying entirely on your flash drive, you should use an anti-virus program that does that as part of their service, or use one of the automated backup Web services. Also, you could use an old-fashioned external hard drive to back up, which you keep hidden away in your home or office.

Using your flash drive as a temporary parking spot for your data is still the main (and best) reason to use a flash drive.

But let’s come back to my point above, about the downsides of a flash drive, especially the danger of losing it (or even damaging it—I heard about a flash drive that went in the washer, and came out still working!)

There is help for this flash drive bugaboo of losing your flash drive or leaving it in a computer and walking away. More hi-tech than tying a string around your finger are some free programs that help remind you that your flash drive is in the computer and needs to be removed. Other types of apps can even encrypt your information on your flash drive if it gets into the wrong hands. And there’s a suggested way to create information on your flash drive that tells who to return it to. I’ve bookmarked these free app sites at delicious.com/acclibrary/flash.drives

There’s still another solution to the downsides of a flash drive. This may seem radical: get rid of your flash drive for a better alternative. What a concept!

This solution is espoused by some: use a free online storage service that not only can be your computer’s backup, but also virtually replace your flash drive. One such service that is highly touted is DropBox.com With DropBox, everything you do on a computer gets saved to the online storage, as well as automatically to every computer (and smartphone) in which you have created a DropBox folder.

I won’t reinvent the wheel and give you all the details of how DropBox can do this for you, instead go to an educator’s blog that has done a good job of explaining this: edgalaxy.com/teaching-apps/2010/6/7/5-reasons-everyone-needs-a-dropbox-account.html

This DropBox way is just about the ultimate solution for security and convenience for your computer. It’s called “cloud computing,” where you rely on an a website to provide the tools that you otherwise would have to provide yourself in terms of software or hardware.

But will I get rid of my flash drive? No way! Let’s say I believe in “redundancy,” where you don’t place all your eggs in one basket—instead you try to have as many baskets as is reasonably possible to maximize the safety of your holdings.

While cloud computing may be the best thing since sliced bread, I still believe in being neurotically cautious without going to the extreme of paranoia. There was once a site that bookmarked your favorite Web pages (not Delicious, which is what I use). Well, a not so funny thing happened—the site crashed, and everyone’s bookmarks were permanently lost. Admittedly, such a disaster is extremely rare, but the moral of the story is that nothing is 100 percent foolproof. After all, didn’t an ordinary British bloke hack into the Pentagon computers, not to mention reports of the Chinese doing the same thing? That’s why you can’t go wrong with redundancy. Think of it as insurance.

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