Poster prep for ASPB 2013

I started working on our poster for ASPB 2013 today, revising my student’s previous version to add new data and generally smooth out the rough patches. I’m using OmniGraffle to do the layout, since I don’t have to share it with anybody else during the editing. It’s a bit of a luxury not to have to use PowerPoint for the layout, which is the least common denominator that I’m usually stuck with for this job.

Rather than simply transfer our figures on the old version into the new one, I’m going to take this opportunity to make publication-quality figures with my tool of choice, DataGraph. This is also a great chance to think about the data we have and what we still need in order to finish this project.

I’m trying to use a grid-based layout for the poster to impose some structure behind the scenes. The poster’s 40 in wide, and I’m working on 4 × 9.5 in columns at the moment. Not sure I’ll stay with this, but it’s a start. I’ll have to see how well the various graphs fit this grid before I commit to it, and I’m still working on those.

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AirPlay Display coming to the next version of OS X

It looks like the next version of OS X will improve on AirPlay, turning an AppleTV display into a full-on display for the Mac and overcoming some of the severe limitations I’ve experienced and written about previously.

Here’s what Apple says about the new feature, called AirPlay Display:

With AirPlay and Apple TV, your HDTV works as a fully functional display. So while you’re using your TV to present a slideshow or stream a video lecture, you can take notes on your Mac or chat using Messages.

I’ll revisit this issue when the next version of the OS ships, later this fall.

I’m also reasonably excited about iBooks for Mac, as this will bring the iBooks store into closer feature parity with the Kindle store. As it stands, I can read my Kindle books anywhere, but my iBooks are restricted to the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch. The demo looked good, and the big advantage of interactive, high-quality artwork and feature-rich note-taking could potentially tip the balance in favor of iBooks for me.

Evernote in the lab

EVERNOTE logoThis summer the lab is using Evernote again as an organizing tool for our work. I upgraded to a premium account on a month-by-month plan to test and see how well it would work, and so far it’s exceeding expectations. We just have a single account for all five research students, with each student maintaining their own notebook within the one account. I like this approach for a community space like a lab because I can keep each computer logged in to the one account and everything’s already there. If they each had their own account, I could imagine students accidentally saving to another user’s account if they sat down at a computer where somebody else had been working.

Each student has a slightly different approach to using it, but they all post their daily activities, experimental plans, timelines, and observations. A couple are collecting primary data in their notebooks. Some attach spreadsheet files with results. Some have uploaded images that they are analyzing. All use it to take notes on the articles they are reading.

Speaking of readings, I also created a notebook for journal articles related to all of the various projects going on. That is the main reason I upgraded, so we could upload and store many PDFs without running into the upload limit. A few of them have found articles on their own and uploaded them, but I’m mostly the one collecting the literature.

Whenever I would come across an important paper in my Papers library, I would hop over the Evernote on the web, create a new note, make an attachment, open the PDF in Finder, and drag it in — a tedious process, to say the least. This would be easier if I logged in to the lab account in the Evernote client on my Mac, but I like to stay logged in to my personal account with that.

Papers application dialog boxAs I was looking over the options in Papers, I remembered I could email notes to Evernote through a private address. I created a contact on my Mac called Lab Evernote, pasted in the private email address for the lab Evernote account, and tried it out — BOOM! it worked. I can even specify the ‘papers’ notebook by adding @papers to the subject line. The PDF becomes fully searchable, too, which makes it easier to find later.

I’ve tried lots of different tools for managing lab groups, including blogs, wikis, Dropbox, and network shared folders. I have to say, Evernote is the best tool I’ve found. I can’t think of any way to do it better.

A new view on Twitter with Twitterific

I’m not a huge Twitter user, but it has largely replaced reading RSS feeds in daily use for me. My primary interface for it is my phone or iPad, and I chose Tweetbot as my client a long time ago. I was pleased with it, especially once it could sync my position in my timeline. But over the last few weeks its sync began failing for me, and none of the troubleshooting I tried revived it.

After poking around a bit, Twitterific seemed like the closest competitor in terms of features and polish, so I took the plunge. Sync via Tweet Marker has worked perfectly for me so far, and there are several features that are implemented better in Twitterific than in Tweetbot, in my opinion.

For example, I love how I can set it up to save links to either Instapaper or Pinboard at the same time. It never made sense to me why Tweetbot made me choose between these two services — there isn’t much overlap in the way I use them, yet it lumped these and others into the “Read Later” services. I tend to save lots of links to Pinboard that I think I might want to access later, but Instapaper is only for long articles I know I want to read later, most likely offline. Everything I post to Instapaper I want in my Pinboard account, but I don’t want random links cluttering up my Instapaper reading list. I never found a comfortable configuration in Tweetbot, even resorting to emailing links to my Instapaper account as a workaround.

I also like the implementation of “muffling” better in Twitterific than “muting” in Tweetbot. When I muffle a user in Twitterific, the program displays a single line indicating that the muffled user has posted something, a reminder that I’m still following them and can check back in any time. In Tweetbot, if I “mute” a user, I don’t see anything in my timeline from them.

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Better meetings through podcasts

Back to Work podcast cover artListening to podcasts has become one of my guilty pleasures, with Back to Work topping the list on both counts. I’m not quite sure why I say guilty, maybe because some that I listen to come dangerously close to being part therapy session and part college seminar (not counting the parts about comics and superheroes). I’m not even sure which part of that combination makes me feel guilty, it just does. But regardless, Back to Work has an uncanny way of wandering around in a fog of silly and bumping into incredible insights about work and life. Even in the shows where Merlin is clearly reading from his cards, the fog and the insights are still there.

In the episode Invitation to a Blame Party, there is a great section, beginning at around 1:03:00 on how to run a meeting. Actually, it’s more like how to create a culture in which meetings are productive. No, scratch that, it’s more about how to help create a productive culture, period. Meetings are not the goal, doing the thing you do is the goal. Bad meetings can completely sabotage productivity and waste time, and the time loss is multiplied by all the people in the room.

Even though I’m not a corporate stooge, meeting culture in academia is no better, and it might be worse. It’s one thing to sit through a meeting you shouldn’t have to attend, but it’s a whole different experience to be in a meeting where everyone has a Ph.D. in an area far, far removed from the topic at hand. Earning a Ph.D. means you are smart, tenacious, creative, and probably somewhat self-loathing (I kid, you don’t really have to be that smart). Being a professor means there are some people who are required to listen to your ideas, usually for an hour, three times a week. They even pay for the opportunity to hear your ideas. The combination of having a Ph.D. and having access to people who pay to hear your ideas can do some strange things to a person, and meetings are the most likely place for the strangeness to come out. Kind of like combining distant relatives with an open bar at a wedding — nothing good can come of it, with the possible exception of some YouTube ad revenue. So the more control and focus that can be maintained in a meeting, the better for everyone.

All of the suggestions in this episode for improving meetings are great, but the best advice, in my opinion, is the idea of scheduling guests. Don’t ask every person to attend the whole meeting, call in experts when needed and only in response to a specific question. I like this so much because if you’re going to schedule guests, then you have to know in advance what your aims and agenda are. If you have people scheduled, you have to watch the clock and move through your agenda items. It serves as a keystone for the rest of the points about running good meetings. And speaking of which, I have a meeting with a tall stack of final exams, where I find out whether the people who spent all the money to listen to me actually heard anything!

A week with the Fargo outliner

I’ve been using Fargo, the new outlining tool that lives in the browser, pretty heavily for the past week. As this semester winds down, I’m busy preparing to teach my summer session class and train about five research students in the lab for the summer. Both of those activities require a lot of thinking and planning, and because Fargo solves my biggest problems with other outlining tools, I’ve been using it fearlessly.

One of my observations over the past week is that I appreciate having an ambient writing space. By not having to think about where to write something, I’ve tended to write more. This may seem dorky, but I think there’s something to it. Also, having a scratchpad outline where I can both collect research fragments and string them together into paragraphs feels powerful.

It doesn’t hurt that Small Picture has added two power features over the past week, either. Both the ability to post directly to a WordPress blog and support for Markdown on export make Fargo an even more appealing writing environment. What I like about both of these features is the implicit acknowledgment that Fargo is not necessarily a final destination for ideas, that it is happy to help give birth to them and send them on their way.

Despite its strengths, Fargo is still young and has some rough edges. One minor annoyance is the way the dialog boxes that open when entering a link or exporting to Markdown don’t respond to the ‘Return’ key consistently. Maybe this is a limitation of programming an application in the browser, but it seems if I can dismiss one dialog with the Return key, I ought to be able to dismiss others. For example, I always seem to be able to ‘OK’ the Link dialog by pressing Return, but not the Attribute Editor dialog.

One issue I encountered while writing this very post is with cutting and pasting. I wanted to split a paragraph, so I created a new node, cut the text I wanted, and pasted it into the new node. No problem, except all of the links that were in the text went away. Toggling into non-render mode avoided this, but I doubt I’ll remember to do that before editing text.

Another complaint I have is that I can’t edit the attributes of more than one node at a time. I’d like to be able to select a few nodes and add an icon to them, as described by Jeffrey Kishner at This converts the stock wedge into something more visually descriptive. All of the icons in the Font Awesome collection are available, but right now they have to be assigned one-at-a-time.

What does smarter calendar software look like?

There’s a smart piece at Macworld with some suggestions for making calendar software smarter, including this gem:

I’d love a feature that allowed me to set a maximum meeting load, after which my entire day would become blocked off as busy and all future meeting requests would be declined.

During advising season, when I’m meeting with my 23 advisees in a 3-week period, I already do what he describes, adding dummy appointments for breaks and class prep time. But with a little smarts built in to the calendar software this would be unnecessary.

One point in the article that I have to disagree with is this:

[…] calendars that show you an entire week or month are wasting space—and the closer you get to the end of the week or month, the more space it wastes. Can’t we break free of this metaphor and let time and space be a little more flexible?

Preference dialog for Calendar on MacI’ve tried to use the Calendar app in Mountain Lion configured to ‘Scroll in week view by week, stop on today’ and just can’t get used to it. I agree this seems like a better use of space, but I have become so habituated to glancing at my calendar and associating position with day of week, I can’t break out of it. I always see the left-most column as Sunday, and the right-most as Saturday. In addition, I think there’s value in viewing time in actual weeks and months and years, I think that adds rather than detracts.

Fargo solves outline syncing and sharing

I love outlines. One of my favorite writing and thinking tools is OmniOutliner. Most of my teaching notes start life in an outline, and some complete classes live within a single outline. Every research paper I’ve written in the past 8 years has started as an outline. I can’t imagine a better tool for organizing and re-organizing ideas as I think through the best way to explain something. There are two problems with outlining software, though: sync and sharing. Both of these problems are solved by Fargo, an outlining application that lives completely in the browser.

In my dream world, the outlines I keep on my Mac would automatically sync with the outliner on my iPad. Even though they’re working on it, the Omni developers don’t yet have this working between their Mac and iPad clients. I can use Dropbox to act as a middleman, but that’s not the same as real sync; I have to remember to manually update to the latest version of the file when I’m using the iPad, and to export changes before I open the file again on the Mac. Ugh, might as well use a floppy while you’re at it.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

fargoAppAs a native web application that runs in the browser, Fargo is never not in sync. Here is how it works: when you first load in your browser, you are prompted to grant access to your Dropbox, where it stores your outlines in a folder. From that point, any outlines you open or create in Fargo are always in sync. I was able to export my topic outline from OmniOutliner as an OPML file, move it into the Fargo folder in my Dropbox, and open it from within the Fargo app running in my browser on my Mac and iPad. I like to teach with my notes on my iPad, and this has been a perfect solution. Editing on the iPad has already improved significantly from the first days after launch to detect the touch interface and allow single taps instead of double-clicks, for instance.

The other major bummer with outlines is that I’ve never found a good way to share them. I can’t send an OmniOutliner file and expect anyone else to know what to do with it, and even the open OPML format is not widely known. I complain when somebody sends me a Word file, so I surely can’t be so hypocritical as to distribute an even more obscure file type. This means that at some point in the life of an outline, I have to give up and export to plain text or HTML, which means, from that point on, I lose most of the advantages of a real outliner.

Fargo has an answer to this problem too, with a built-in ‘Reader’ mode. In Reader, the outline is read-only and outlines can be shared through the Reader with anyone through a public link. For example, have a look at my outline on plant reproduction. I haven’t tried this with students yet, but I think it might be a solution to the sharing problem for teaching outlines while I am still editing and building the outline.

Fargo is being developed by a startup of two called Small Picture, one of whom is Dave Winer, who is, in my opinion, the prototypical blogger, but I’ll write more about him and how he has inspired me some other time. Suffice to say, I think the small team at Small Picture is onto some big ideas.

Presentation on teaching technology

Last week I had the opportunity to share with the OWU Board of Trustees some of the ways I’m using technology to enhance my teaching. I shared about my experiences trying to ‘flip’ my intro cell biology class last semester. Below is a rough outline of my 10-min talk, and here are my slides, which should be viewable in any modern full Louis C.K. 2017 2017 movie online

Trying a Flip

What’s the idea?

  • expose students to concepts through self-guided study prior to class
  • spend class time helping students apply concepts to solve problems
  • technology is an enabler for this kind of teaching

Why flip?

  • better use of class time than lecture
  • encourages students to build more critical thinking, application skills
  • critical thinking and problem-solving skills are a major point of emphasis in recent reports on the state of improving undergraduate science education
  • research evidence that it’s better for learning than lecture

How did I do it?

  • switched to new, more modular, online textbook, required reading in advance
  • created in-class experiences allowing students to apply concepts
  • created website that provided scaffolding for students
  • student groups kept an online notebook, shared with me, for feedback and input
  • used online clicker questions through to register student understanding

How did it go?

  • classroom space design was a real inhibitor to exploration and discussion
  • holding classes like this in a space designed for active learning would be amazing
  • students are very reliant on lecture for information transmission
  • designing in-class experiences is difficult, time-consuming

  1. I made the presentation with reveal.js, a framework for making presentations with HTML. The whole presentation lives in a simple text file. Use the space bar or arrow keys to navigate; press ESC to pick a specific slide. What can I say, I like to experiment!