Tech Notes from a MAPH Alum: A Lesson in Useful Procrastination

October 18th, 2007 § 0 comments

Joel Witmer graduated from MAPH in 2007, spending much of his time in the Regenstein concentrating on Cinema Studies. During his academic pursuits, Joel also pursued one thing very seriously: the internet. His countless hours on the web are now here to serve you current MAPHers to both help you with your coursework as well as help you waste time. If you make a comment about Joel’s post he will probably respond immediately. He is online right now.

Here is his advice about using technology to better navigate the tricky landscape of graduate studies at the University of Chicago:

Here are seven applications that might help you during your year in MAPH. Most are Mac only, but there are comparable programs available for Windows users as well.

DEVONthink: This application is the most robust tool for maintaining a database of all of your digital information. I could not have gotten through MAPH without it. Each time I took notes for a class, on a book or article, or needed to jot down an idea for an essay, I put them in DEVONthink. Each webpage I visited that had relevant information I bookmarked through DEVONthink. Every PDF I downloaded I stored in DEVONthink. Each version of every essay I wrote in MAPH I archived in DEVONthink. Simply put, everything I did in MAPH ended up being stored or indexed in DEVONthink. Whenever I needed to retrieve something it was right there in one program, but the beauty of DEVONthink is that it also functions as a semantic search engine for your ideas. Based on a series of complex algorithms DEVONthink connects your documents—your ideas—to one another, oftentimes in ways you never imagined. It’s like having a second brain whose job it is to remember all of your ideas and figure out how they all might be related. If that description sounds outrageous…it isn’t. But don’t be intimidated. Using DEVONthink is very intuitive and even if you use it only to organize your notes it’s still quite valuable. (Mac only; $40, education discounts available)

Noise: Can’t concentrate because Classics Café is too loud? Can’t sleep because you live on Woodlawn St. and the fire engines do not care that it’s 3am? Your neighbor’s television is driving you insane? Enter: Noise. Noise is a program that creates background white noise. That’s all it does, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to block out the din of Hyde Park, which is a not-so-surprisingly effective way to be more productive. (Mac only; free)

NewsFire: This isn’t exactly an academic application, but its usefulness is undeniable. Instead of spending 30 minutes procrastinating on the internet NewsFire made sure I only spent 15 minutes procrastinating. Over the course of a quarter that time adds up quickly. It is my favorite RSS reader and it costs $25 (Mac only), but there are plenty of good alternatives, like RSS Owl. (Mac, PC, Linux; free)

Nocturne: Nocturne inverts the colors on your computer screen. This makes your screen less distracting during classes. It also makes it easier to see your screen outdoors on a bright day, though in Chicago few days are few and far between. Bonus: darker screen means longer battery life for your laptop. There is an option to switch to monochromatic mode, which I found especially useful. (Mac only; free)

Think: At any moment you probably have multiple applications running, each occupying their own window on your desktop. So many windows can be awfully distracting, which is where Think comes in handy. Think blacks out everything on your desktop except for the application you select, making concentrating on reading that PDF much easier. (Mac only; free)

WriteRoom: In a similar vein to Think is WriteRoom. WriteRoom is a full screen writing application. This is a good program if all you want to do is write. It’s a bad program if your writing process involves multiple documents. (Mac only; free to try, $25 to buy)

Gmail Notifier: First of all, if you haven’t done so already I would recommend setting up a Gmail account and running all your mail through it. If you have a Gmail account then install Gmail Notifier. This will save you the trouble of having to manually check your email. Instead you’ll have a small icon that will let you know when you have new messages. Like the RSS reader this application isn’t strictly related to academic work, but it can make you more efficient, leaving you with more time to go to Jimmy’s study.


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