All posts by Michael Peper

Power tool for working with data

If you deal with large amounts of data and especially if you use spreadsheets to work with it, there is a new tool for you. Freebase Gridworks allows you to upload data and then examine, filter and do data cleanup for ‘grid-shaped data.’  Visit the Gridworks project site for more information and videos that more fully explain and demonstrate some of the functionality of this tool.

Short List of Gridworks Functions

  • Bring similar data together for normalization (CIT and C.I.T. or just plain old data entry errors)
  • Create facets based on any column of data
  • Make graphs of any two columns to quickly visualize relationships
  • Pull data from the Freebase database to add to your own data
  • Make external data sets more useful by creating linking

This is just a brief list, but visit the site for more detail and see how Gridworks could save you time in data cleanup or help to create visualizations you couldn’t before.

Books To-Go


Earlier, we told you about the many ways to get audiobooks through Duke and on the web.

There is now a new way to download audiobooks straight from the web.  NC Live is now providing 750 downloadable audiobooks that are available in .mp3 format so you can burn them to a CD or transfer them to a portable device like an iPod.   Just browse, select, and download the title of your choice to your computer, then transfer your selection to a portable listening device for on-the-go audio enjoyment.

Subjects focus subjects focusing primarily on language learning, classic literature, history, and biography.  Available titles include The Shawshank Redemption, Slaughterhouse Five, Atlas Shrugged or learn to speak French, German, Greek or Thai.

Use this link to download books while you’re on campus

And if you’re off campus, connect to NC Live and then browse to Audio Books.

Photo Credit:

Video Killed the Journal Star?

We previously discussed the growing number of sources for getting lecture videos in the post Free Video Lectures.  These are great ways to provide an alternative for the classroom experience.  But what about using video as an alternative to traditional scholarly communication or publishing through journals, books, etc?  Here are a few sites promoting open scholarship by allowing researchers to display their research methods and results through video.


This site is focused in terms of content, focusing on the sciences, but could be helpful for a wide range of audiences.  There are videos here for children through postgraduates.  They build in nice browsing features as well, so users can select the proper language, audience, subject and sort by recency or popularity.  Contributors also include figures, supplemental materials and links to the original article or presentation.  The theme here is openess as anyone can view or contribute anything.

Research Channel

While not as slick and easy-to-use as YouTube, Research Channel focuses on high quality submissions from research universities, like Duke, and large organizations such as the National Institutes of Health.  You can browse by institution, program title or subject and the quality is good and from respected sources.


An interesting and well-designed site.  It focuses on videos about politics and economics, but also includes categories such as the environment, science, technology and culture.  This is a great place to come to see mental celebrities (General Richard Meyers, Dr. David Kessler for example) talk about the subjects for which they are famous.  FORA.TV can’t compete for YouTube in terms of volume, but it more than makes up for that with its quality and interesting discussions.

Big Think

Another example of lower volume, but higher quality.  These videos have big thinkers (if not always big names) discussing the big ideas.  Instead of talks about individual research projects, these videos focus more on big-picture synthesis of research on important topics of the day.  While it’s not the open model of SciVee or YouTube, Big Think provides a platform for discussion of important issues by those who speak knowledgeably and engagingly about them.

What are other good sites for publishing or viewing research-oriented videos?

*Thanks to Lisa R. Johnston for her SciTech News column which inspired this post.

Tools for Back to School

Now that classes are definitely back in full swing, we wanted to share some help with some of those consistently vexing issues for students.  Refer to previous posts for some information on data backup, free video lectures, and electronic sticky notes.

Finding textbooks – Most know Amazon, but there are some other options out there for online textbook shopping.  Bookfinder searches across many online book retailers, making it easy to compare prices.  Chegg is a big textbook rental site, allowing for use of books for only a short time.

Lifehacker tips – This site helped inspire the name of this blog and is a great source for little ways to make life better, often with technology, but often without.

  • Sleep better: Includes alarm clock suggestions and napping strategies
  • Take better notes: Taking notes seems simple enough, but there are three methods here for getting more out of those scribbles
  • Memory Hacks: Ten tips for remembering all you’re learning

For a large list of all types of web apps that could be helpful for students, check out this list from readwriteweb.  This list is a couple years old, any new apps on the scene since then?

**Photo Credit:
Student raising his hand in a classroom, 1970
William Gedney Photographs and Writings
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Back it up!

There are few things worse than working hard on a paper or a project, spending hours researching and writing only to lose that work and not be able to retrieve it.  This can be just as frustrating when all your past work is lost because of a computer crash, lost flash drive, etc.   Backing up your files is increasingly important, but often it’s something you don’t consider until it’s too late.  Here are some strategies to make backing up easy.  Take a look.  Your future self will thank you.

Lifehacker did a feature on the various methods for recovering deleted files.  This is for those moments when you’ve deleted a file and you realize it right away.  Won’t work for every situtation, but when this happens, here are some helpful tips.

It’s now also possible to store your data and files “in the cloud.”  This allows you to keep all your important items on a remote server that really helps if you delete something on your own machine or if your laptop is stolen or otherwise damaged.  Some of these options allow you to schedule backups automatically, so your data is backed up without requiring you to remember to do so.  Mozy and Carbonite are two of the leaders in this area, but there are many providers, all with their own storage limits, features, strengths, weaknesses and pricing models.  Look to the comments about various providers in this blog post to get a sense of some of your options.

Lifehacker gives you step-by-step instructions for setting up automatic backups to an external hard drive.

Finally, Wired magazine provides a feature with several backup options for Windows PC users and Mac Users.

Have you found any backup strategies that are easy and effective?

Photo Credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Want the Library Everywhere? There’s an App for That

There are iPhone apps for just about anything.  They’ve got you covered if you need to get Danish handball scores, calculate alimony, keep track of your pet’s vet records, or create and test palindromes.  There is more than just fun in the world of apps, though.  Here are some great research tools for mobile devices.

At Duke, there are a number of great ways to work in the library wherever you are.  You can use the library’s mobile website to find library hours, available computers, directions, contact info and more.  If you’re doing medical research, take a look at Duke’s Medical Center Library mobile site.  It’s full of features enabling you to do PICO analysis, browse e-journals, and link to many helpful mobile resources.

On the Digital Collections blog, it was recently announced that you can search, browse and view our Digital Collections on your mobile device.  Be sure to watch the short video demonstrating the ease of this feature in their post announcing this new tool.  Just announced this week, you can now watch vintage ads from Duke Libraries Hartman Center from Duke iTunes U.

There are other nice mobile tools outside of Duke as well.  This is just a partial list and some of these are third-party apps, but this will give you an idea of the possibilities out there.  Some useful apps include those for, the arXiv pre-print server for physics, math, computer science, etc, or the Papers PDF organizer software in mobile form.

I’m sure I’ve missed some helpful mobile resources.  What others are out there?

Tree-saving Sticky Notes / CC BY 2.0Sticky notes are great for jotting down quick thoughts to act on later.  On the negative side, they have serious shortcomings when it comes to organizing all these ideas and sharing them with others.  Here are a few web tools which expand the utility of sticky notes and bring them to your electronic environment.


Here is beefed-up, electronic version of your paper sticky note.  Here you can create sticky boards and  cover them notes, photos, to-do lists and documents and mark them up as you want.  Then you can share them with group members and they can make and see edits and updates too.


This tool is a great way to organize your thoughts and is very easy to use.  The interface is very appealing and is really fun to use.   Plus, you can share your maps and collaborate with others with Twitter, Skype, iGoogle gadgets, Firefox add-ons and various export options. You can get a basic account (read: free) with up to six maps and premium accounts for a little more than free.  Check out a completed map.

This is a similar tool to MindMeister.  It’s not as feature-rich, but for what it does, it’s simple and easy.  It has great keyboard shortcuts that allow for quick brainstorming and notetaking.  Again, it keeps things organized and related in a way that you can make sense of all the notes you’re taking.


What you get here is basically a clean slate.  It approximates a clean white board and you are free to doodle, add text, change colors, etc.  It also has browser buttons that, when clicked, bring that web page into Twiddla where you can mark on them and share with others.  This could be a helpful way to comment on the design or content of a web page and let others see your ideas.

What web tools do you like for keeping track of your thoughts and collaborating?

*Thanks to Lisa R. Johnston for her SciTech News column which inspired this post.

Publish or Perish

There are a number of ways to analyze the impact of publications of a particular researcher (including yourself).  A longtime favorite has been ISI’s (Social) Science Citation Index, which has come to the web as Web of Science.  The web has introduced a number of other tools for assessing the impact of a specific researcher or publication.  Some of these are GoogleScholar (don’t forget to set your preferences!), Scopus, SciFinder Scholar, and MathSciNet among many others.

Joining this group is Publish or Perish, with a slightly different take on this process.  Publish or Perish uses data from Google Scholar, but it automatically does analysis on the citation patterns for specific authors.  After searching for an author (works best with first initial and quotes, such as “DG Schaeffer”) you can select the papers you want to analyze and you get metrics such as total citations, cites per year, h-index, g-index, etc.  Any analysis done can be exported to EndNote, BibTeX or a CSV file.

The software is available for Windows and Linux and is a quick, light, free download from the Publish or Perish website.  It’s more of a do-one-thing-well software and isn’t full of features, but this makes it easy to use.  It was created by an Australian professor and she includes some thoughts on her site about GoogleScholar as a citation tool as well as an explanation of the metrics used in the software.

Free video lectures

Even the best professors, books and classmates can be improved with some additional information.  In this post we’re going to list a few places where you can find some great lectures to supplement what you’re getting in your own course.

The first is a series of lectures from Academic Earth.  This site includes one-off lectures on a given topic or entire courses from schools like Harvard, Princeton and UC-Berkeley.  They can be browsed by university or subject area.  Viewers also have an opportunity to rate each lecture or course so others can see which are “top-rated.”  There are resources for many different subjects including political science, astronomy, religion and entrepreneurship.  Get started with an Introduction to Ancient Greek History.

Lecturefox provides a search engine and browsable lists for lecture materials.  The site indicates the title of the lecture, the university and whether video, audio, and/or notes are included.  You can browse by chemistry, computer science, math and physics categories, but again, there are other subjects included.

Some lectures can also be found at individual university sites such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, UC-Berkeley’s YouTube page and of course all the resources available at iTunesU at Duke.

r u prplxt? snd a txt!

The library has provided quite a few ways to contact us with your questions including phone, email, IM, research consultations and the reference desk on the first floor of Perkins.  Take a look at the Ask a Librarian page for more details.

Now you can ask questions just by texting us.  Send us a question via text message and you’ll get an answer on your mobile device within minutes.  Send a message to 265010 (that’s right, just six digits), enter ‘dukeref:’ followed by your question and send.

This can be handy if:

  • You’re on the bus and you want to confirm that the library is open
  • You want to see if that book on reserve is available right now
  • You’re in the library and you can’t seem to locate your book or get the shelves to move
  • You have a research question and you just love to talk with your thumbs

Messages are limited to 160 characters and texting rates apply.  But if you like to text, you knew that already.

Read books one email at a time

DailyLit LogoEven if you like to read books, can be hard to find the time or get into the habit of reading for pleasure.  This is especially difficult for those of us that do a lot of reading for work and school.  When we find ourselves with free time, we often neglect reading for other activities.

Using DailyLit, you can read short sections of books each day, received by email or RSS feed.  Each installment is very short (intended to be read in 5 minutes) and can be sent daily, on weekdays, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, etc.  Some books are available for a fairly small fee, but many others are available for free.

You can search or browse by author, title or cateogry.  Try out Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or Austen’s Price and Prejudice for free.

Sync Files on Multiple Computers

If you do work on two or more computers, or work on teams, Dropbox might be a helpful tool for you.  Working on multiple computers allows us to be productive more often, but it adds a layer of coordination.  Do you keep emailing myself files or carry a USB drive back and forth?  And ensuring that you are working with the most current version can also cause confusion.

Dropbox, in beta phase, could provide a better way.  Download the software onto the computers that you use and want to be connected and link them with your single Dropbox account.  It fits right into the file directory systems for Windows or Mac machines.  You just have to drag and drop the files and they are immediately synced between computers.  Revisions or changes made to the file are immediately available in multiple computers.  Your Dropbox folder also has a public folder which you can share with friends and co-workers.  This could help facilitate group projects where many people on many computers are working with the same files.

There is no online storage of files with Dropbox, but it does revision history, so if you accidentally save a file and want to revert to an old version or deleted a file, Dropbox can recover any previous version.  Check out the video below for a complete demonstration of its features.

How to find a human

Woman yelling into a cellphoneWe’ve probably all experienced the frustration of automated telephone systems.  Your needs are never included on the menu.  You feel like you have a quick question that could be solved in 30 seconds if you could just talk to a real person.  Or that sinking feeling when you realize you’ve heard this menu before. And let’s not forget the feeling of foolishness associated with giving canned voice commands to a computer.  Shouted expletives generally aren’t understood by these calm-voiced operators.

There is, however, a resource for getting to human operators.  In 2005, Paul English created the gethuman database, which has a listing of companies and services from insurance to hardware.  For each phone service, there is a list of instructions for what to do to get out of the automated menus.

In addition to this original database, there is, which is “more actively maintained” than the original site, but which has some obvious design differences.

Writing this post made me think about how interacting with companies like those listed in the gethuman site differs from the interactions that users have with libraries at Duke and elsewhere.  Duke Libraries has expanded its service points from face-to-face contact to include phone, email, IM chat and now text messaging (click here to see all the ways to contact reference staff).  But regardless of the method of communication, you’ll always reach an actual person who is trained and eager to help answer your questions.  We hope this service enhances your work and keeps your blood pressure low.

Zoetrope: Browse the pages of Internet past

**This tool is not yet ready for public use, but it seems to offer a lot of promise, so we’re sharing it with you now.**

Adobe Systems, working with researchers at the University of Washington, has just debuted Zoetrope, a new tool which we hope can illuminate the past of the Web. Web sites and pages within those sites change so quickly that the past is easily forgotten. It can be very interesting to look back at changes in layout and content and to track trends.

We wrote about the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine as a way to look at selected snapshots of Web pages in the past. The Wayback Machine has saved a huge quantity of data and is a unique tool for preserving the Web of the past. Zoetrope adds the ability to track changes by creating tools for easily browsing past Web pages. Users could use a slider to move back and forward in time. As displayed in the video, you could also create a “lens” to track a specific piece of information like the price of gasoline and compare it to the price of oil over time.

During the current testing phase, Zoetrope creators chose 1,000 websites that update frequently and stored information captured every hour over four months. While this is much more limited than what the Internet Archive is saving, the Internet Archive has expressed an interest in sharing its data. Maybe soon we’ll be able to use the Zoetrope tools to browse and analyze the vast data of the Internet Archive.

The video best displays the cool features of Zoetrope. Take a look and comment on some of its possible applications for personal or research use.

Search beyond Google

SearchMany of us use Google to search the web for personal research and library resources for scholarly publications.  Sometimes, however, it’s not clear whether what we need will be on the web or in scholarly literature.  I’d like to point out some nice search engines for specific types of information that combine the ease of Google with the specialization of a library database.  These tools could help you make sense of the web.

To find more like these, go here for a list of 100 Useful Niche Search Engines.

Scirus – Specializing in scientific information, it allows researchers to search for journal content and also scientists’ homepages, courseware, pre-print server material, patents and institutional repository and website information.  Also, its new ‘topics pages‘ are Wikipedia-style entries with identified (usually scholarly) authors.

Meta-Index to U.S. Legal Research – This site gathers search engines for U.S. legal information from across the web and puts them all in the same place.  It points you towards good tools for searching legislation, judicial opinions and regulations on the web.

CiteSeer – This search engine for computer science and information science is full of features including citation analysis tools.

InternshipPrograms – A nice way to search for internships and for organizations to find interns.  Register by including your résumé and interests.

Clusty – Provides search results in a list, but also includes a sidebar with categories, so you can review results by subject area.

Google – Don’t forget about Google’s own features such as Advanced search, Google Books, Google Scholar, Google News, etc.

Academic Skills Videos

  • New to college and looking for advice about how to get started researching and writing all these papers?
  • Want to give your students some extra help in learning how to navigate the research process in an academic environment?
  • Are you just a sucker for charming Canadian accents?

The University of Prince Edward Island has created a really nice set of videos to help students with skills like active and critical reading, choosing a topic, using library databases and essay building.  The videos are about 5-10 minutes long and are fast-moving and clear in the style of the “… in Plain English” series.

These videos could be really helpful and even enjoyable for people who have a long list of papers, but just can’t seem to get started.  Good luck!

Want to vote in North Carolina?

Enjoying the presidential and vice-presidential debates?  Been following the campaigns in North Carolina for Governor and U.S. Senate?  Ever wondered if you could register and vote in North Carolina?

As the general election approaches, here are some important things to remember:

  • The general election is on Tuesday, November 4.
  • The last day to register in North Carolina for the November 2008 election is Friday October 10.
  • In North Carolina, you only need to live in the county where you register for 30 days before the election.
  • This means Duke students are eligible to vote in North Carolina.
  • Check out this voting guide for Duke students that has much more information and links to other resources like the Federal Election Commission, the North Carolina Board of Elections, etc.