Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New age tools for the Researcher - Part 1

You wake up late in the morning only to gather that you awfully overslept the morning class; you cannot remember for the presentation that you worked on all night the previous day; the slow and outdated Windows XP in your lab terminal vexes you; you have loads of information but unable to organize it and pull it out when needed; at the end of the day you feel defunct!.. Relax there is a way out of this "frustrated researcher syndrome" :)
I was in this condition sometime ago. Our lives are becoming incredibly hectic and if we do not embrace the latest technology it could become simply unmanageable. This post is about a collection of tools which I have tested, tried and continue to use. These have improved my performance substantially and I wish  share them with you.
    Awareness: The key to survival in today's life is being aware. Let us consider this, you have your set of favorite websites that you visit periodically. Has there been times when you visited them only to find nothing new? Have you wondered if you could get alerts each time the website gets updated? Yes, its possible. If you notice the site carefully, somewhere in the bottom or top or corners you would find words like RSS, Atom. These are called feeds and if you click on them you would notice a rather uninformative xml page. But this is your treasure and to read them you need to have a RSS reader. There are plenty of RSS readers (either offline or online or built-in the browsers) but my choice is Google Reader. Here you can star the feeds, search through, share them etc. Some newer sites might not explicitly share their feeds page, in that case you can enter the page's URL in Google Reader and it will find them for you.
    A rather outdated method was to enable to the RSS feed extension in chrome or an equivalent in Firefox. Every time you visit a page with feeds, a RSS button would creep up on your address bar. In the worst case, some of the poorly maintained websites might not even have feeds. In that case you can employ a web tool to monitor the site privately for you and alert you when something new comes up. Feed burner is that free tool.
    Browser: Your browser is your second operating system! I am online 80% of time I use my computer. Similar could be the case for most of you. I guess its worth to catch up with what's new and best in today's browsers. Extensions - the recent versions of Chrome and Firefox are on par to a full fledged OS. You can literally install small and large applications. Extensions are those small tools that run in background and enhance your browsing experience. My favorite ones are hover zoom (loads larger pictures when you point the mouse over images - works great with FB esp), Google dictionary (just double click any word to get the meaning in a pop-up), Google Voice (send sms, place calls right from your extension - I understand its not very enticing for those outside the US / CA), Google chat (start chatting from your Gmail but continue chatting even when you are browsing other sites in other tabs), Screen capture (take easy screen shots of webpages, annotate them, save/copy/email them), Calculator (at the cost of sounding geeky, I love this app, you can type in any equation even something like 10C5 and it would spit out 252 after calculating the nCr).
    I have been talking only about extensions and apps for Chrome. Sure there are plenty for Firefox too. I do not want to bore you over by mentioning them.
I believe this post can be longer than I intended it to be. I am deciding to break this into 3 parts. I will meet you back with more tools in the next 2 parts. This post by no means could be comprehensive. It represents only a few subset of tools that I came across and liked. I would be happy if you could write about those tools that you liked in the comments.