Ode to my web designer(s)

One of the really fun parts of my work over the last few years has been getting to work with web designers to build the 25 Stories from the Central Valley website.  In 2008, Derek Hunziker from the John Muir Institute for the Environment at UC Davis built the current site, and over the last few months I’ve been working with his replacement Tyler LaGue to add more content and revamp the site’s look and organization.

Derek built me a beautiful site that I loved.  I had a blast dreaming up ideas and seeing him bring them to life, only better.  The only problem was that it was really hard to update.  When we launched the site, clicking on one of the key menu items brought up the optimistic message “Coming soon!”  Three years later, the message still hasn’t changed.  : (

In the meantime, I met Aspiration’s tech guru Allen Gunn at the Greenaction holiday party last year.  He immediately diagnosed the problem as having created a custom-built website that locks me into relying on a programmer to make changes instead of a pre-fab one designed for people like me to be able to manage.  That meant that any small correction or addition I wanted to make had to wait to be addressed until I could fundraise more money to hire another programmer to make the changes.  That conversation launched my experiment with WordPress and this blog.  I had a great time browsing among the many looks available and and setting it up to appeal to my aesthetics.  It’s a much more whimsical, personal site than the 25 Stories site, and the look reflects that.

Now, Tyler is rebuilding the 25 Stories website to reflect the best of both worlds.  It’s a WordPress site that I’ll be able to update on my own, but he is using his programming magic to make it do more than I could.  We’ll finally do away with the “Coming soon!” message and replace it with an interactive collage  that features excerpts from my interviews with women environmental justice leaders of the San Joaquin Valley.  We’ll also have a slide show of the project’s playback theater performances by Kairos Theater Ensemble, and a media feed that collects and archives coverage of San Joaquin Valley environmental justice advocacy.

The whole process has been a blast, and a great way to balance out the other kinds of work I do.  I get to dream up what I want, bounce ideas around with Tyler, and then see how he magics them into existence. It’s richly creative and entirely satisfying.  Plus, how many times in your life do you get to hear someone say, “Whatever you want, we can make it happen.” ?!?  Stay tuned for the final product!

New presentation software

I know there’s a lot of Powerpoint haters out there but I’m not one of them.  I remember using it for the first time towards the end of college and being thrilled with how easy it was to show photos, and I still enjoy it as a visually rich medium today.  Yes, some powerpoint presentations are terrible, but many other kinds of presentations are terrible too.  I’ll risk following the lead of the gun lobby to say that ‘Powerpoints don’t bore, people do.’

Nonetheless, I was excited to see a different kind of software in action for the first time at a recent conference, and used it in a presentation of my own on Friday.  Prezi let’s you create one big canvas and zoom around on it to focus on different aspects of what you want to say.  Your presentation lives online so you can access it from any computer with an internet connection, and you can e-mail people a link to your presentation for them to view on their own.

That said, it seems just as easy to go wrong with Prezi as it is with Powerpoint.  The zoom effect is fast enough that you could easily get overzealous and end up with a roomful of disoriented audience-members.  The canvas-like starting point gives you more leeway to present your ideas in a non-linear fashion, but it still won’t organize them into something meaningful for you. If your presentation doesn’t have a clear organizing thread there’s nothing the software can do to help.

Check it out yourself! Clicking here will take you to the online version of what I showed on Friday.  If you have any suggestions for improvement, let me know!

Tech tools for graduate students

I seem to spend half my time keeping up with my computer.  It updates itself, deals with its own viruses, and is generally a miracle of the modern world.  Still, each update means some new twists to the programs I use, and figuring out how to make use of its massive capabilities feels like a full-time job.  Here’s a list of some of the tricks and tools I’ve been trying to master.

  • Backup your work!  Who hasn’t heard a horror story of the student who lost all their work in the final stages of writing their dissertation?  I double up.  My Mac uses Time Machine to automatically back itself up to an external hard drive.  I also use Carbonite for automatic online backup to a remote site (in case my house burns down and said hard drives become a gooey mess).
  • Accessing documents on my computer when you’re not actually at your computer (you know, in case inspiration hits while you’re on vacation or otherwise enjoying a perfectly good day away from your desk): Carbonite
  • Creating a virtual library to house all the crazy pdfs that would otherwise suffocate my desktop: Zotero.  I used to use End Note, but just switched over to Zotero.  So far it seems a lot easier to use.  Plus, it’s free!  They both also automatically format your citations and bibliographies in the style of you choice.  Wow!  Can they do my laundry too?
  • Finding things on the rabbit’s warren that is my computer: Google Desktop.  I just downloaded this yesterday so I haven’t used it much yet, but my friend Bernie assures me it does the trick.  It searches not only file names, but also what’s INSIDE the files.  Crazy!
  • Sharing massive documents and syncing e-mail accounts and other information across computers.  I use Mobile Me, but I hear Google does this pretty well too.
  • For when you go back to your desk and realize that although you thought you understood it at the time, you actually have no idea what your advisor was talking about:  Recorder app on a smart phone.  Record the conversation now, make sense of it later. Kind of like interviewing.
  • For organizing and analyzing interview transcripts: NVivo.  NVivo is designed for PC’s, so using it on a Mac also requires using Bootcamp or Parallels.
  • For recording and calculating student grades: Excel or Numbers.  They both work but I like Numbers because it has a pre-fab grading worksheet that automatically transforms number grades (92%) into letter grades (A-).
  • For staying up to date with the outside world: Google ReaderTweet Deck, and that old fashioned thing called the phone
  • Task management software (otherwise known as to-do lists): OmniFocus.  I was thrilled with this when I first got it, now I’m closer to lukewarm.  I’m back to using my whiteboard for day-to-day to-do lists, but I still like it for storing my longer term to-do lists.
  • One of my writing buddies uses Foxit Reader to read pdfs online and highlight and take notes on them, but it doesn’t look like it works for Macs. Plus, I don’t like reading things online.  Still, I may snoop around and see what’s out there for Macs and give it a go.

And that marks the end of my tech savvy.