Resources for curating and sharing information relevant to teaching

Tomorrow I’ve got 10 minutes to show a workshop how to quickly ‘curate’ (find/gather) information that is useful for teaching (e.g. examples relevant to this week’s topic) and the share them across various social platforms.

The point of this is that it can be done when on the train with little more than an iPhone and some automation in the background through services such as Buffer and IFTTT. It takes a little to set up, but once done, the rest is simple and takes almost no time at all.

Getting information In Sign up and use the lists function to pull together a list of people and organisations that are sharing information that is useful to you and your class. – Think of this as a place to send things you want to get to later. A digital ‘catch-all’. Revisit it when you’ve got time to do all that reading…

FlipBoard – A digital platform where you can pull in articles on topics that interest you. Categories such as technology, business, sport, celebrity….

On iOS (iPhones/iPads) – Apple News. A news aggregator that you can set up to show things that are interesting to you. Filter for the best content.

Getting information Out – A scheduling service for sending links that you find on the web to your social media platforms. Schedule updates to go at regular times, or choose a specific time. Works with Twitter, Facebook (profile/page/groups), LinkedIn (profile/page), Google + (profile/page), pinterest, instagram.

Facebook Page – Your professional profile on Facebook. This way you don’t have to be ‘friends’ with anyone. #creepy

LinkedIn – For when you want to share with your professional network. You are working on things that are interesting both in the classroom and to industry, right?

If This Then – Get the internet to work for you. Set up ‘recipes’ that when they trigger, actions get taken. For example, IF I tag something on Pocket with the tag ‘strategy’, POST the article to my twitter account in buffer <— result: the article and link gets shared in my next scheduled tweet via Buffer.

Almost, but not quite: the ‘OS Canvas’

Today I read The OS Canvas with interest. In it Aaron Dignan from consultancy and research firm The Ready tries to make a case for designing an ‘OS canvas’ that a business can run on top of. The basic argument is that the activities of an organisation are similar to the concept of an app that runs on your phone: a series of routines and action driven activities that produce a (desired) outcome. These activities run atop an ‘operating system’ (hence the name), of underlying assumptions, understandings and shared(?) and accepted definitions of reality. These often unstated rules and beliefs structure the way in which actors within an organisation work.

The beauty behind this canvas is not the selection of the various elements that are included upon it, but rather that the elements provide focus for searching questions that members of the organisation can ask to clarify its purpose. An extension of this would be to ask external stakeholders to contribute to this process also.

The authors point out that their conceptualisation of the OS Canvas is version 1.0 and that it may change with further study and input, something that I have no doubt they will find. Nevertheless, this attempt at designing a canvas does encourage that which I believe to be the central activity of management: creative destruction and rebuilding of organisations in response to changes in the external and internal operating environments.

In making their point that this canvas works as an underlying operating system they may have overstated the importance of this canvas. While it is certainly an effective tool for understanding tensions within a business, for it to be the DNA upon which the organisation is built, the canvas needs to be understood as a fundamental to the operation of the business. And it is here that designers of tools like this fall into trouble: it’s not the tool that is important, it is the way in which people use the tool that matters. While I agree that this particular tool covers more ground that more narrowly focussed management and strategy tools like the TOWS matrix, Jay Barney’s VIRO model or even Michael Porter’s famous Five Forces Model I see it as only one in a constellation of thinking tools that managers need to be able to access, deploy, critique and recreate in the pursuit of creativity and organisational effectiveness.

The iPad pro and my future workflow

Yesterday I spent some time in my local Apple store and I had the opportunity to pick up and play with the new iPad Pro. The short version is: I’m *totally* sold. Although it is larger than I thought it would be, it is also much lighter than I expected.

I use tech to get my work done (rather than for entertainment) and it’s rare that I read something online where I don’t want to take notes or in some other way record my thinking about the topic. The smaller iPads have always been too fiddly (at least to my mind) to do this effectively.

If the iPad version of Papers for Mac works as advertised, then the workflow of: Papers>Byword>Wordpress will suddenly become a whole much easier. I can see myself sitting in a beanbag, Apple Pencil in hand, marking up articles, converting them to useful notes and publishing directly to my Quotes and Notes page all on one device and in one sitting.

I can’t wait to get my hands on an iPad Pro. I think it’ll be a game changer for my work.

Papers 3 for iOS is now free. Good.

I recently wrote about how Papers 3 for Mac has been getting better and that now that they had ironed out many of the bugs, I was once again back using it. So far I haven’t been disappointed.

Some more good news to come out of the Papers 3 manufactory is that their iOS version is now offered for free. While it has dropbox syncing capability, I would stay away from that system and stick to the WIFI sync system if you want to keep your iPad/iPhone and mac based Papers 3 libraries in sync.

Why naming your PDFs consistently matters

I write on my MacBook Air and that is where my main Papers library resides. Each time I import a PDF into Papers, I get Papers to automatically rename the imported file from whatever it was to the following: Author Year Title . Since each PDF gets named the same way, this means that within my Mac, I can do a spotlight search on any of these elements and it is likely that I will be able to find the PDF I am looking for. Although I have many PDFs sitting in my Mac, I can usually remember enough of the detail to be able to quickly find it if I want. Having a consistent naming structure means that I have to spend less time worrying about how to find the original PDFs if I need to.

Syncing my Papers library with dropbox screws with this system. Dropbox needs to create a unique name for each PDF to keep everything straight in its database. Grrr.

The WIFI sync system, however, doesn’t rename your papers as can happen when you sync with Dropbox. This means my PDFs remain neatly filed away on my Mac. This makes me happy.

What’s Papers 3 on iOS like? I can’t wait to find out…

I haven’t used the new iOS version of Papers 3 yet. I have one of the first generation iPads and it is now so old and slow that it is basically unusable. I do hope to become more familiar the iOS version of Papers 3 in late November, however, as I intend to buy one of the new iPad Pro devices. Swoon.

The new iPad Pro will, I think, be awesome for my reading and writing workflows. I’m particularly looking forward to having a screen which is almost the same size as my MacBook Air and the ability to ‘split-screen’. Reading a paper on one side of the screen while having a browser open at the same time makes sense to me. I can search for related papers through my institutional library, check facts with Google or maybe check out the author’s online profile(s). Similarly, reading on one side of the screen while taking notes in, say Byword, on the other feels like it will be a great way to continue to do work when I’m out and about.

If you’ve got a perfectly good iPad and you are using Papers 3 for Mac already, now would be the time to try out their iOS version. At the price of free you’ve got nothing to lose, right?

If you do download it and try it out, I’d love to hear your reaction to it. Feel free to comment below, or tweet me @jasondowns.

Papers 3 and PDF Pen – a match made in Heaven (a workflow)


The problem: PDFs as scanned images (the text can’t be ‘selected’)
The workflow: Extracting PDFs from Papers 3 for mac and OCRing them with PDF Pen and replacing the original PDF with the new OCR version in the right spot
The software: Papers 3 for mac (reference management software) and PDF Pen for mac (PDF manipulation)

The Problem

Managing PDFs is the bane of my existence – well at least on the ‘academic’ side. Fortunately there have been some recent improvements made by the developers of my favourite reference manager Papers 3 for Mac that makes things a bit easier. Finally.

For anyone who has been using Papers for any length of time, you will be aware that Papers 2 was awesome… and then they released Papers 3. We don’t talk about the early period of this release except in hushed tones. I think everyone will agree it is best that it was forgotten. However, with the most recent update (v 3.3.2), Papers seems to be back on track again. Many of the features that were so dearly loved in versions 2.x are back and they seem to have sorted out local wifi sync which means that I can sync my library with an iPad without having to use a third party service like Dropbox (which would do weird things to my file directory/naming conventions).

Like most PDF/reference managers Papers allows me to ‘mark up’ the PDF being read – including extracting quotes, highlighting, underlining etc. This works because most PDFs downloaded directly from the publisher have been OCR’d first. However, if I get a PDF from my University Library Document Delivery service, it usually arrives as an image file. This means no OCR. It also means no clicky, selecty, highlighty, extracty goodness.

Enter PDF Pen by the good folk at Smile Software.

PDF Pen is a powerful piece of software that allows me to alter PDFs in many different ways, but the one I rely upon the most is the ability to OCR a scanned PDF.

OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. What this means is that the software will look at an image file (in this case a scanned PDF) and if it recognises words in the image, it can convert those images of the words to actual words that the computer can read[Footnote 1].

The Workflow

How to magically OCR a PDF in Papers 3
In the past it has been a nightmare trying to find the actual image of the PDF file within the (hidden) library of Papers 3, extracting it, opening PDF Pen, OCRing the document, saving it somewhere and then replacing the original image file in Papers 3 with the new OCR version. Papers 3 would see the ‘new’ version of the PDF and add it as a supplementary paper, rather than replacing it as the primary paper. Now, with the latest release of Papers 3, the process is much easier[Footnote 2]:

  1. Import scanned image of PDF into Papers 3
  2. Make sure all the metadata is correct using the inspector
  3. Save as a new record in my Papers 3 library
  4. In the inspector panel within Papers 3 right click on the PDF file (see screenshot below)
  5. Choose the option to “open with PDF Pen”
  6. PDF Pen will recognise the image of the PDF as a scanned image and will offer to OCR it for me. Click yes.
  7. PDF Pen does its OCR magic and when completed, overwrites the original PDF image file in Papers 3 with the new OCR version saving it in the same location as the previous image file.
Right click on the PDF image in the inspector panel and then select "Open with PDF Pen"

[CLICK TO ENLARGE] Right click on the PDF image in the inspector panel and then select “Open with PDF Pen”

It works like magic and the PDF is now searchable; sections of text can be highlighted, direct quotes can be extracted etc. all without the messy business of trying to find the original file and making sure that the delicate file structure that I’ve set up is not screwed up.

The fact that the most recent release of Papers 3 now allows spotlight to index the text of the PDFs within its library, it means that I can search for text within any of my PDFs in Papers 3 right from the desktop.


  1. It doesn’t actually covert the text itself, but rather places another layer on top of the document which mimics the underlying text. This makes the text readable by a machine/software. Crucially, it also means that the PDF now becomes searchable.  ↩
  2. If you already have the image of the PDF within your Papers 3 database, you can ignore steps 1 to 3  ↩

While you were away…

You deserve a break. A real break. Go on leave for a bit. The words can wait.” – Well-meaning supervisor.

So I did. I took time off. Stopped writing and everything. Sure, I knew I had to come back to the words later, but I could defer them a little bit. It’d be ok. And it was. I was on track and had some time up my sleeve before my completion date loomed. I had flexibility.

Flash-forward a couple of years; post PhD.

God. You look knackered. You need a break.” – Well-meaning colleague.

“Yep.” – me.

And so for the last little bit I have been in Far North Queensland attempting to catch some fish and commune with nature in the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage Listed Area. With the exception of some spectacularly bad luck with the fishing, it’s been great. I am beginning to feel relaxed. ‘Work’ is fading into the background.

Except, it’s not.

It’s always there, you know? Just in the background. A vague awareness that the emails are piling up and that when I get back I’m going to have to catch up on what I missed. Gah.

It’ll probably take a week, maybe more, this catching up busyness, as I deal with well over a few hundred emails and all the new work that continues to pour in. For a week or so I’ll be in the electronic salt mines trying to piece together what happened and what I should do about it (if anything). And there’s the rub; even if the email doesn’t require action, I still need to read it to know that I never needed to read it in the first place. Catch–22. Gotchya.

So this got me thinking; thinking about the role that email plays in our lives and the power we give it over our thoughts and actions. It doesn’t really matter how you define ‘work’, whether it is working on your thesis or grading papers or whatever it is that you do for most of your waking hours, the fact seems to be that no matter how efficient we are, no matter how many systems we put in place to stem the tide, that there is always more to do.

For me, work seems to mostly arrive by email. Student requests (usually poorly structured and astonishingly short on context), meeting requests (often making the student emails look positively expansive by contrast), FYIs from colleagues (who, apparently, have so little understanding of what I do that they tell me things I just don’t need to know about), and occasionally something important that absolutely, positively demands my attention right then and there. Even when I was PhD student, I had to deal with emails from supervisors, administrators and various others. Email become one of the main ways in which things got done and expectations got managed.

How did we get to the point where email = expectations? How did we get to the point where managing your email = managing others’ expectations? What can be done about it?

And as I sit here in FNQ thinking about this, I realise that I thought I had an effective mechanism in place to manage others’ expectations – the out of office reply on my email. I’ve been thinking that because I had crafted a polite (and not even a little bit passive-aggressive) OOOR that I had bought myself some time. Some time that I can spend doing what I wanted. Like fishing. I’ve been thinking to myself:

“Work. It can wait.”

But it can’t, you see. The OOOR hasn’t so much bought me some time as borrowed it. I still have to pay it back (with interest). The work still needs to get done. It is expected.

Now I’m not pointing fingers at my current workplace – it doesn’t matter who I talk to or from which industry they come, the story is the same – there is a growing (set?) expectation that once someone has sent an email, that their bit is done.

“I sent you an email about this…”

Take for example the recent industrial furore over the shipbuilders who were told – via email – not to turn up to work for their next shift. Since when has email become so core to the way in which we transact work that it is ok to sack people[1] through it?

And so we get closer to the the real problem: email, for all its reply functionality, doesn’t work well when people stop attending to it. In fact, the OOOR does the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it gives comfort to the sender that the email has been received (and so from their point of view: “job done”), but it leaves the responsibility of replying firmly in the recipient’s email court. All those poorly written, half thought-through emails remain in the inbox, waiting for something appropriate to happen to them, something like me working overtime to catch up on what I missed.

The net effect:

I didn’t really get to go on leave. Deep down, I am still at work. Psychologically, I don’t get to have a break. The point of having break to refresh my capacity to do better work is diminished, lost.

So what can be done?

The solution to this problem is not a technological one, but a behavioural one. To truly be able to take advantage of ‘time off’, we need to know that we can come back to our work rested and ready to tackle the work that is coming towards us, not kill ourselves by trying to “catch up.” We need to begin to pay attention to the ‘socio’ part of this socio-technical system we call email/expectations. For that is all it is, a system. A system that we can change, if we choose to.

My solution to this problem is a two-step approach[2].

  • Step 1: When I get back to work, create a special folder in my email client called: While you were away… and then move every email that is in my inbox into that folder. Studiously ignore it from that point on.
  • Step 2: Begin to let people know that I have archived all email that arrived during the period that I was away and will be working from a clean slate. If there they sent anything that they think absolutely needs my attention then they need to let me know. Otherwise, I’ll assume that it’s ok for me to safely ignore. I was, after all, on leave.

I’m willing to bet that very few people will actually re-send those ‘important’ emails or that I’ve missed anything so mission-critical that someone else hasn’t covered for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Right now, though, I’m off to another World Heritage Listed Area – Mossman Gorge – to soak up the bliss and I promise you I won’t be thinking about work at all.

Maybe you should have a break too? You know, a real break? It’ll do you, and your work, good.

  1. I’m aware that this is still playing out in the courts, but the example is instructive.  ↩

  2. To be fair, when I left to go on leave my email inbox had nothing in it, I was blissfully at “#inboxzero”.  ↩

Doing Academia

I’ve been listening to @tferriss interview Rick Rubin about how he helps creatives (musicians) find their muse and create excellent work. Rick makes the point that if you are in a creative pursuit then you need to surround yourself with excellent examples of creativity. Furthermore, he says it doesn’t matter where this excellence comes from – poetry, a museum, a book, a film – as long as you have access to excellence and tap into it regularly.

What stops excellence, he says, is when the creative person begins to compare themselves with others, losing the focus on what they are trying to create and becoming distracted by those things that are not the work. Once this happens, it is easy to lose confidence, to think that you are not as good as that other person, or that your work will never be as widely read/heard/seen/acknolwedged as that other person’s is. Once you go down that path, it is hard to turn it around.

Rick’s advice? Focus on doing your own work, but each day that you do it, do it a little better than you did the day before.

This advice rang true for me. When I’m not focussing on my work but instead worried about my relative success in terms of my career (will that other person get promoted before I do? Are my teaching reviews as good or better than others in my field? Is my work interesting enough? Is my writing good enough? …) my work suffers. I lose momentum. I stop writing. I obsess over the unimportant, rather than doing the work I need to do to get better.

It doesn’t help that the academy is built on a hierarchy, or that universities are brutally competitive places and that promotion within departments often comes at someone else’s expense. It’s easy to get distracted by the minutiae of promotion applications and petty jealousies (professional or otherwise).

I’m not alone when I complain about the lack of resources in our sector, or the lack of time available to undertake all the teaching, research and administrative tasks that academia calls for, but I do have a choice about how I respond to those challenges. We all do.

We can either get sucked into the vortex of doing academia or we can concentrate on being academic. One of these paths will lead to success. The other, not so much.