Series Intro: Useful apps, services, and software.

This post is an introduction and placeholder for a planned series of posts on useful apps, services, and software. Once there are a few posts in the series I will eventually promote this post to a page with an index of all the posts from the series.

I decided to make a series for this because although using computers has become a key part of academic work, too many academics remain uncomfortable using them. Often I come across people using Word for anything that involves text. Not due to it being the best tool for the job but that they are unaware of the alternatives. Even when someone knows it is not an ideal solution, it is not always easy to find a good entry point to start learning how to use new software. At a training event I attended last year I was sat next to a professor. From the introductions he obviously had years of experience using an advance software package for tasks similar to the software the training was on. Yet, it became clear from the start that he was uneasy and disorientated when facing a new application with an unfamiliar interface. After accidentally launching another application and then opening the wrong file, that resulted in a garbled mess of symbols appearing on the screen, he got up and left only ten minutes into the session. While it is rare for someone to feel so at a loss that they leave, I have heard multiple times from PhD students that despite feeling like walking out they have persisted through a training session and still come away not feeling any more confident in knowing how to use the software. Such experiences end up reinforcing self perceptions of not being ‘a computer person’.

I do not think this is a fault of the trainers. Instead, I think there are two reasons why training workshops are not the best solution. The first is that they are often focused on complex specialist applications when there is a need to improve the general diversity of software academics are using and help with basic computing skills. The second reason is that training workshops are not always the best way to introduce new software. Too much ends up being covered at once and, unless paying for personalised training, the dates available for training do not align with when people actually start using the software within their project. By the time people then reach the stage in their research and launch the software for the first time in months, they have forgotten most of what was taught. It is common for PhD students to attend a training workshop at the start of their PhD in anticipation of analysis. Then a year later once they have their data needing to delay analysis in order to attend another workshop as a refresher. A significant chunk of their funds as a result is eaten up by training costs.

This series of posts is primarily concerned with the first issue and will focus on introducing a broad range of software that can be used in various contexts. The aim being to help people break out of their comfort zone to try new apps and services. I have to admit that part of me dies whenever someone goes to show me their notes to see them shift through a mess of assorted doc files and PDFs strewn about their desktop. I also realise I am on the other end of the spectrum, often perceived as using software for anything and everything. Since I have handwriting that even I struggle to read, I always look for options that allow me to ditch any reliance on pen and paper. The series of posts then is in no way meant as a proscriptive ‘you should use all of these’ but a pick and mix of what looks of potential interest. Please feel free to use the comments to highlight anything that is unclear or for any questions not addressed in the posts themselves.

Some posts will focus on a single item whereas others will be on a theme with a few apps covered together such as ‘Ahhh, my eyes’ and ‘Reducing e-mail overload’. Posts will not be in a specific order, though they will be categorised and tagged. Additionally, there will be a range in the complexity of what is introduced from single use apps, command line applications, apps like Anki and Tasker that contain programming elements, to introducing programming itself in the form of AutoHotKey, Python, and R. The latter will be tied into another planned series of posts I am working on, covering scripts I have written and, where feasible, a line by line breakdown of what the code does. The aim being to offer numerous entry points for starting to learn and become comfortable with more advance computing tasks.

Predominantly, desktop software will be Window based and mobile apps Android. In an ideal world I would be using Linux, but its rare for Universities to offer staff desktops running Linux as well as there still being academic software that cannot easily be installed on Linux. However, I will where possible highlight MacOS and Linux alternatives to software that is Windows only. Furthermore, a decent number of posts will be focused on making Windows less painful to use. For example, the one saving grace of Windows 10 is the new Linux Subsystem for Windows that enables access to a whole host of useful command line tools. For those running older versions of Windows there is Cygwin, that achieves a similar result but through a different means. Both will be covered in a future post.

 

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