The week in the cloud

When I was at school, I would always take home what I now realise was ‘optimistic homework’. Two text books, two binders, my pencil case, the novel we were reading in English, three notebooks, my diary, and my calculator. You know, just in case. It was lucky for me that large, surfing brand backpacks were cool when I was at high school, because mine was chock-a-block on the bus almost every day, full of tasks that I ‘might’, but generally didn’t, complete.

During my PhD, I did all of my work on a laptop. It was connected to a large monitor most days (I’m not a complete posture masochist) but again it meant that almost every night I would ride home with my Mac Book Pro on my back, full of intentions to work. Inevitably, I would then drag it back again the next day having not opened it at all.

My current work situation puts me in the blessed position of being able to walk to and from my office. I can come home for lunch, nip back if I’ve forgotten something, and walk a lovely 3km everyday. But finally, I am getting a bit smarter. I take a small bag, my diary, a bottle of water, and that’s it. Why? Because now I live in the cloud.

It’s taken a little while, and a couple of heartbreaking losses, but the majority of my work and research is now stored online, available whenever, wherever and on whatever I like. For some of you this might be standard, but for me it is a bit of a revelation.

Here are the main tools that I am using to slow the growing hunch that comes with carrying heavy bags every day. I am absolutely not using them to the best of their capabilities, but for now they are making my life easier and making me feel reassured that I will not lose my work in a freak office fire or computer mutiny. Dropbox

Dropbox has been a good friend of mine for many years, and most people would be familiar with its use. It is great for sharing and saving files, and acts like an online USB. All my work files are now stored here, for easy availability at home or at work.

One issue that some people have with Dropbox is the storage space: when you first sign up, you are only given 2GB for free. However, there are often deals and bonuses for inviting friends or accessing with other devices. After logging onto my account with three computers and a tablet, and inviting myself using various email addresses, I now have a whopping 50GB of space, which is more than enough for now.

Mendeley2. Mendeley

When it comes to managing references and citations, my heart still belongs to the Mac program Papers2, which got me through my PhD and is at least one bagillion times better than Endnote. But as I have a Linux machine at work now, my heart must settle for something else.

Luckily, Mendeley has come to the rescue. This open source reference manager has been a real surprise package, and thanks to my university’s institute account, gives me 5GB of online space to store PDFs and paper details. The Linux desktop version is a little buggy, but generally my comments and saved articles are synced across both computers. There is a citation plugin for Word, and a lot of online help available. Even better is that Mendeley have recently re-released their app for Android devices, meaning I can read half a paper at work and finish it at home on the couch!

evernote3. Evernote

Evernote is another very well known cloud tool (I was going to write ‘cloud solution’, but it made me feel like I was selling software!) for making lists, organising tasks, keeping notes and basically sorting your shit out.

I am still at the beginner stage of making the most of this handy program, and have not yet harnessed the power of taking photos of my handwritten notes and letting Evernote translate it so that I can search later. However, I do find the different notebooks very handy for keeping my thoughts organised, as well as jotting down blog and research ideas when I have a spare 10 minutes, even on my phone. The Lunix Evernote client Everpad does a pretty good job as a desktop version too, although again it is a bit buggy.

bitbucket gitRStudio-Ball4. Github/Bitbucket/Rstudio combo

Version control is one of the key things I took away from a Software Carpentry BootCamp that was held by the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society a few years ago.

You know, when you write a script to plot a graph, then change that script 15 times to plot 15 different graphs, and then you have you make the first graph again? With version control, you just simply go back to the original script, saving you time, making your workflow much more traceable, and minimising the huge chance that you will make a mistake.

Using version control with a code hosting platform gives you the added bonus of having all of your scripts saved in the cloud. You can share them with collaborators, access them anywhere and they are backed up. Win win win! There are many different combinations of version control and online code hosting tools you can use, depending on your style as a programmer.

I use Git to conduct version control, and Bitbucket to store all of my scripts (and their versions). I am only a beginner, exactly like this, but so far I have had no troubles. Right now, I am working mainly with R and the very friendly Rstudio interface, which conveniently has Git functionality built in. Committing the changes I have made to my script, and pushing them up to Bitbucket takes approximately 10 seconds at the end of the day. If I think of the solution to a bug on my walk home (which is ALWAYS when I think of the solution), I can simply open Rstudio on my laptop, pull down the latest version of the program from Bitbucket, and keep on working before the solution falls out of my brain and into some patatas bravas.

pocket5. Pocket

Pocket is not so much for keeping work in the cloud, but for keeping distractions out of the way. This little app and browser plug-in allows you to save websites and articles to read later. The result of this is that a) you can rein in your procrastination by eliminating the excuse of “oh, I’d better read this article now or I’ll never find it again and b) if you DO need a break then you have a pre-selected list of articles that you want to read! There is a really nice mobile app, and Firefox and Pocket play very well together.

moleskine6. A paper diary

OK, so it’s not in the cloud, and there are no safety nets if and when I leave it on a train. But I am still unable to manage my day without a diary to make lists in and note down what is scheduled for the week. There’s something about crossing items off a list, or blocking out a day in pen that makes me feel organised. My weapon of choice since 2010 has been a Moleskine A5 “week to two pages”, or “week one one side, notes on the other” design. I’m open to suggestions though—does anyone have an idea to ween me off this paper addiction?

That is my toolkit of cloud equipment, helping my productivity and my back! But there must be a million more tools and programs out there to make sure your work doesn’t touch the ground at all. Which ones do you use? Why did you choose them? Do you have any cloud tips or tricks?

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