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After many weeks talking about doing it, and many months recognizing the need, I’m finally posting the first of a four-part weekly series on the ‘tools I use.’ As a (potential) academic-in-training I’ve been enjoying the relative downtime of the summer to reflect on my own habits that contribute to productivity or procrastination. This reflection has given me the chance to appreciate the tools that have consistently made my life and the work I do as a writer/researcher more bearable. It is in this spirit that I share some of the software tools that have worked the best for me. I hope to not only introduce these tools to readers who might not have heard of them, but also to highlight the ways I have personally used these programs and how they’ve helped me. Everyone’s got their own workflow, and at the end of the day we need to work in the way that works for us. These tools might not be your thing. They might even hinder your work. My goal is to make you aware of these wonderful tools, use them as you may, or ignore them all together. But hopefully I’ll be able to share something new with you and if I am able to make your life just a little easier, then I will consider it a success. All of the software highlighted here will be free, easily accessible, and user-friendly (I promise).

To begin this series, I will introduce the cornerstone of not only my academic work but, dare I say, my wired life itself. That, of course, will be Google Apps – and includes, Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Reader, and even Youtube. The range of Google applications extends beyond my ability or need to go over each of them and their uses in detail. Many of them will not factor into your daily workflow and since there exists a variety of tools available that do the same thing, I am not confident that Google necessarily provides the best of all worlds. There are three apps that I do use on a regular basis, and I will explain why below.

Before we continue, it’s important to understand broadly how Google works. This concept, ‘cloud computing,’ will apply to all of the tools I will be introducing in this series so it is worth beginning with this:

The first is Gmail. Gmail is my primary email and I have my other (school) accounts forwarded to my gmail. Doing this is pretty straightforward but differs by account type. You’re also able to reply to email inside your gmail using other accounts, which is handy if your gmail emails are being bounced back or being filed as spam. Internet-based email has the obvious advantage of being accessible from any computer, and therefore suffers from not being accessible when offline (which has never been a problem for me – and is apparently no longer the case). Gmail also offers great customization and organization (such as labels and stars). Google has published a guide to becoming a “Gmail Ninja” that walks you through your own personal setup depending on your familiarity with the service. It’s also worth mentioning that the Gmail blog has some really useful tips and advice for getting the most out of gmail. For example, a recent post offers a “grandmother’s guide to video chat.” Oh, and did I mention the instant messenger and address book built into the app, unlimited* storage and the ability to search through email the same way you would the Internet itself?

The second is Google Calendar. In addition to many of the perks of gmail (such as customization and being accessible from anywhere), the thing I really appreciate about the Calendar is its ability to provide reminders of upcoming events. I love being able to insert a birthday, indicate that it repeats every year, and give myself a ten day reminder (enough time to pick out something nice and have it send in time for birthday arrival). Being able to share calendar events with groups of people (such as a study group) doesn’t hurt either. It is definitely worth checking out.

The third is Google Docs. To be honest, I only started using Google Docs again quite recently. It is an extraordinarily useful tools, but it mainly caters to collaborative work, whereas I have been mostly engaged in solo projects. The original setup also left something to be desired, it was a bit clunky and didn’t integrate greatly with other apps. That, apparently, has changed:

However, as useful as Google Docs is for collaboration I don’t use it for the sort of frantic notetaking that is an essential part of my research and writing practice. For this I use a specific tool which I will introduce in a couple weeks. Stay tuned.

“At TEDxNYED, former “young Republican” Larry Lessig talks about what Democrats can learn about copyright from their opposite party, considered more conservative. A surprising lens on remix culture.”

This talk is a follow-up to the talk ‘How creativity is being strangled by the law’ that he gave in 2007, but stands alone.

I haven’t been active enough on this site so I thought this talk merited a share. I’ve been following Lessig’s work since I posted his first TED talk back in 2007, and so I was excited to find a talk in which he outlines his recent thoughts. I really like his presentation style, its impassioned and engaged with a poetry slam feel to it. His slide use is tactical. I recommend watching the first if you haven’t.


Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, Botany of Desire, is now a film, and you can watch it online, courtesy of PBS. (Click to watch complete film.) The film takes you inside our relationship with the plant world, and shows “how four familiar species — the apple, the tulip, cannabis and the potato — evolved to satisfy our yearnings for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control.” According to a piece in The San Francisco Chronicle, it took eight years to pull together the funding for the film, and that’s simply because marijuana was in the mix. The film runs close to two hours. The preview is below, the full film is here.


Carl Sagan gave his last interview with Charlie rose on May 27th 1996. He discussed pseudo-science, religion, unfounded claims, his personal love affair with science and his struggle with myelodysplasia.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education

Ray Kurzweil: A university for the coming singularity

The Impending Demise of the University by Don Tapscott (

Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education.” <home>

I am very honored to share, on my 100th post, a phenomenal website with learning aspirations that mirror those of the OpenLearning project.

From their mission statement:

“We are building a user-friendly educational ecosystem that will give internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment in which that content is remarkably easy to use and where user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.” <about>

I encourage you to take a moment to browse the lectures available in a clean and accessible format covering a wide range of subjects from a variety of universities and professors. Also, take a look at their great playlists.

Elizabeth Gilbert on a new way of thinking about creativity.

“Eat, Pray, Love” Author Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Here are five great books on writing and a creative life. These are not “tip books” or self-help guides, they will not give you a quick-and-easy shortcuts or try to convince you that anything but practice and effort will make you a better writer and a more creative person. This short list represents a small sample of some of the best titles out there and come heavily recommended. Read one of these books, and you will no doubt devour the rest in turn. So, lets begin.

1) On Writing Well by William Zinsser

“This book is as engaging as it is instructive. It’s so easy to read and understand, you can’t help but improve. It spells out everything that’s wrong most people’s writing, then provides simple solutions. You’ll cut pounds of fat from your writing. Your sentences will sparkle and your paragraphs will dance. Best of all, your readers will read, not groan.”

Read more reviews of this book.


2) Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

“I’m hooked on Lamott. She slaps me in the face with her startling revelations, nudges me in the ribs with her unpredictable humor, and prods my frozen little writer’s hands back into action with warm compassion. This book won’t solve the mechanical aspects of my writing, or lead me on the path of structural excellence, but it will spark my creativity, free my characters to be true to themselves, and, ultimately, shake me from my doldrums back into the writing mode.”

Read more reviews of this book.

3) The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

“I’ve seen many books on creativity, but this is by far the most practical and accessible one I’ve read. Tharp knows that it takes hard work and good habits to create something tangible, and she doesn’t waste our precious time on mystical mumbo jumbo or some magical “way” of the artist. It’s the work, folks.”

Read more reviews of this book.


4) On Writing by Stephen King

“No matter if you are a non-writing King-reader or if you are a writing King non-reader, On Writing will entertain, teach, and open your eyes to the complex world of (creating) fiction. ‘Creating’ fiction, because it is not just writing in proper grammar that makes a book good. It is the determination, the love, feel and creativity the author pours into his/her piece. And King most certainly brought all these points – and more – very well together.”

Read more reviews of this book.

5) The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and Roger Angell

“Put the principles laid out in this slim book to use, and you will write better than ninety-nine percent of college educated Americans. Anyone reading your writing will thank you for it.”

Read more reviews of this book.

Extremophiles were first discovered just 40 years ago in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Since their discovery, scientists around the world have worked to find how extremophiles might be useful to humans, and how they might harm humans. Thermophiles were the first extremophile to be discovered, but other extremophiles have been found living in ice, deep under the surface of the ocean, in salty environments, and in environments with both high and low Ph levels. The United States, Germany, and Japan are three of the countries that are searching for extremophiles. Scientists have found a few extremozymes that can be used today. As scientists continue to search, they will find more.

When these organisms were found living in harsh environments that would kill any other organism, scientists began trying to understand how they were able to survive. The proteins inside extremophiles each adapted to the habitat where the extremophile lived. It was discovered that each type of extremophile had enzymes that were resistant to extreme heat, saline, acids, high/low Ph, and high barometric pressure.

Since extremophiles use proteins in different ways than other microorganisms do, scientists are working on adding a sixth kingdom in the classification of life just for the extremophiles. This classification will be called archea and it will include all prokaryotic and eukaryotic extremophiles.”
— from History of Extremophiles

“Tardigrades (or “water bears”) are polyextremophiles and are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (303 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal, nearly a decade without water, and even the vacuum of space.” <wiki>

The Deep Ocean: a ribbon of life (David Gallo) —

More on underwater astonishments.

Astrobiology is the field concerned with forming theories, such as panspermia, about the distribution, nature, and future of life in the universe. In it, microbial ecologists, astronomers, planetary scientists, geochemists, philosophers, and explorers cooperate to constructively guide the search for life on other planets. Astrobiologists are particularly interested in studying extremophiles, as many organisms of this type are capable of surviving in environments similar to those known to exist on other planets. For example, Mars may have regions in its deep subsurface permafrost that could harbor endolith communities. The subsurface water ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa may harbor life, especially at hypothesized hydrothermal vents at the ocean floor.” <wiki>

Antarctic ‘resources’ at risk — Antarctic organisms face an onslaught by prospectors anxious to exploit their unique nature, the United Nations says. <link>

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

Carl Sagan

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau

“Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.”

John Dewey

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”

Albert Einstein

“Think of it as a theater, from a lighting and engineering standpoint. But it’s not a performance space. It’s an engagement space.”

Jay Walker

Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, refers to the alleged trend that children are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen. Recent research has drawn a further contrast between the declining number of National Park visits in the United States and increasing consumption of electronic media by children.

Louv spent 10 years traveling around the USA reporting and speaking to parents and children, in both rural and urban areas, about their experiences in nature. He argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally “scared children straight out of the woods and fields,” while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors “safe” regimented sports over imaginative play.” <wiki>

Five Dangerous Things Kids Should Do:


Welcome to OpenLearning! Here you will find the useful links to online learning material suxh as academic podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks; in addition to posting must-see videos on topics of interest.