Web 2.0 for Musicologists

Further to our conversations at yesterday's Happy Hour (I *knew* sitting around in a bar would be good for divisional development!)

RSS feeds, Social bookmarking, Google calendar: synching and sharing, VOIP

Musicologists' shortcuts for Google Reader

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) readers are "aggregators"--they "aggregate" the feeds or updates of web-sites to which you choose to subscribe, and collate those into scrollable, clickable messages that you access from within a single web-location. Hence, an RSS "aggregator" makes it possible to vastly streamline the flow of information coming at you: you can subscribe to as many or as few websites' "feeds" as you wish, and know when and how those sites have been updated with new information, without ever having to visit them.

Your "feeds" and feed-information are maintained online, so are accessible from any computer or internet-enabled phone, and are password-protected: you can hide, share, or forward all or any of the information contained within. A number of online services provide RSS aggregators (I used bloglines, now sold to a Chinese company, for a long time) but the best-maintained, cleanest, most-logical is Google Reader.

Note that if you have been using another RSS reader (like Bloglines), you can "export" your RSS subscriptions as an .xml file, download to your computer desktop, and "import" into Google Reader. It is not necesary to rebuild your RSS subscriptions from scratch.

Here's how to sign up:

1. Go to reader.google.com and either sign-in with an existing or create a new Google account (no cost, no data-mining); you will need a personal email account at which you can receive signup instructions and information. A good way to do this is to set-up a gmail account (mine is drchristopherjsmith@gmail.com), which you can access anywhere and which is separate from your ttu account. Sign in.

2. You'll see a paned window, not dissimilar to an Outlook email window (menu on the left-margin, individual message windows in the center-right). Google supplies initial "suggestion" articles, like "Getting started with Google Reader," "Keeping track of what you read," etc, and you can accept/reject those suggestions, but you can also "Add a subscription"; look for the rectangular button on the upper-left of the screen. Click on that button and paste in the website's URL. Reader will tell you whether that website "publishes an RSS feed" (some few still do not); if so, click "Add" and the subscription will appear, after a few moments, at the bottom of your "Subscriptions" list at the bottom of the left-margin menu. Note that you can click-and-drag that subscription into an existing or newly-created "Folder"--I have my feeds filed in folders like "Buddhism," "DIY," "Education," "Higher-Ed," "Local," "Music," "News," "Politics," and so on--you can do the same.

Once signed-up, here are some ideas and keyboard shortcuts that speed and streamline the process:

Click on "All items" (upper left) and the individual items from all folders will appear in reverse-order: most recent first.

Click within the body of any of the individual messages (R-hand pane) and a blue border appears around the message--this is how you know that it is "active". When an item is "active", the following single keystrokes perform the following actions:

Hit "j' and the pane will "jump" to the next item. You can set Reader to "keep" messages you've already read, or to "delete" them once you've jumped forward--I recommend the latter: if you've read it once, you should either file or delete it, so the only material appearing in the pane is that which you've not-yet-read.

Hit "k" and Reader will jump back to the previous message.

Hit "v" and Reader will open a new tab, going directly to the website which was the source of the message.

Hit "s" and Reader will add a "star" (upper-left corner of the message), maintaining the item in the "Starred items" folder (upper-left of menu). I use this for items to which I know I need to return, reread, or take action upon: I can click on the "starred items" folder and get the messages I saw and wanted to return to. Note that I use this only for action items: if I just want to save an item so that I can reference it some time in the future, I'll bookmark in Delicious (see below). In my system, then, "Starred items" are "items requiring action." Once I've taken that action, I either bookmark or delete altogether.

There are lots of other keyboard shortcuts, and tons of ideas, tips and strategies, in a highlly accessible format, under "Help" in the upper-right corner of the Reader screen. However, the above represent how *I* use Reader as part of my information processing.

Philosophical point:

Your RSS reader is particularly useful for musicologists' professional purposes because of the ways it lets you *categorize* and *systematize* how you receive, store, locate, and share information. If you couple Google Reader with an online tagging system (del.icis.ous is the standard), you can access, read, modify, and share your saved links from any computer and to any third party.

Bookmarking: Why http://delicious.com/ is a Web 2.0 musicologist's best friend

We all get a lot of information online which we want to be able to store, search, systematize, and reference in the future. Not all of this information is or should be downloaded; some should be maintained as "bookmarks" in the "Cloud" of the worldwide internet. We have all probably used the "Bookmarks" available in both Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox: these are a permanent list, rather like an address book, of places we want to be able to locate and revisit quickly.

The problem with Explorer or Firefox bookmarks is that they are desktop-bound: that is, they are specific to a particular copy of Explorer or Firefox: if you lose or crash your computer or your copy of the browser, if you are not *at* your own computer, or if you want to *share* those bookmark lists with colleagues, browser-bookmarks don't permit that.

Delicious (originally the URL was http://www.del.icio.us) is an *online* bookmarking service, which is like an RSS reader in that it is free, unique to and password-protected by you, and most importantly is maintained, like your websites themselves, in the "Cloud". You can access from any machine, you can (if you wish) share with others, and you are protected in the event of a problem with a specific computer or copy of the browser.

Go to http://delicious.com and click on "Join now." As with any online email or other service, you'll be asked to supply basic info (first & last name, username, password) and will then be supplied a Delicious ID in your username. Note that you can "Import Existing Bookmarks" from various other RSS readers or, in some cases, your desktop browser--you do not need to rebuild your subscriptions list from scratch.

Once you have created and signed-in to your account (which, depending on your personal virus settings, you may or may not have to do each time you open your browser), no further action is required. Any time you wish to "bookmark" or save a website, simply hit "Ctrl-D" and Delicious will pop-open a "Save a bookmark" window. Click "Save" or "Cancel" and Delicious will perform the action. Note that you can add "tags" (keywords") to each bookmark, so that, for example, if you wanted to locate all sites which you had tagged with "musicology", you can click on that tag only, and see only those sites.

Note also that at any time, you can go to your personal Delicious homepage (go to http://delicious.com and sign in) and see all of your bookmarks.

Locating saved items in your Delicious bookmarks is even easier and faster, though, directly from your Firefox browser window. Once you have signed-in to Delicious in a given browser session, if you wish to locate a specific bookmark you recall saving, just hit "Ctrl-B" and Firefox will open a left-menu with *all* your Delicious bookmarks, which you can rank by last-added, by site, A-Z and so on. But you needn't scroll through them to find the bookmark in question: at the top of the left-menu, there is a "search" box: enter *any keyword from the page you are seeking*, and Delicious will bring up all of your bookmarked pages that contain that word (so don't search "music", for example, as the results will be far too lengthy). You will also see an A-Z list of all your tags, and can browse tags as if they were subjects.

You can see, then, that coupling an RSS reader like Google Reader with an online bookmarking-and-tagging system like Delicious makes it relatively easy to move very quickly through a very large volume in incoming data. Using both, consistently, every time you are browsing, search, or saving the internet, will obviate the necessity of searching for or re-reading items repetitively.

Google calendar: synching and sharing

Google Calendar is part of the integrated suite of Google products: I have found Reader, Gmail, and of course Books and Images very useful tools.

Although at Texas Tech we try to keep our official communications on official communication tools (ttu.edu email for administrative business, Blackboard email for student-specific class email), it can be very handy to exploit the suite of Google tools. I maintain a gmail account, for example (drchristopherjsmith@ttu.edu) because it is very easy and quick to do email via my Blackberry phone--the TTU mail servers don't play nice with Outlook Webmail. It is likewise very easy to access Google Reader, and Google Maps, from a smartphone.

Outlook Webmail's calendar also does not play nice with a smartphone. However, Google has a Calendar function, which can be activated from your Google account, and which can be set up to *synch* with a smartphone--so that a new calendar item (or contact) added to your desktop calendar will automatically be updated on your smartphone. And, very importantly, the reverse is also true: an item added to the calendar on your smartphone will be "synched" to your desktop machine. If your schedule is anything like mine, it is very helpful to have your up-to-date calendar of meetings/etc synched on your phone (which most of us will have with us all the time) and your desktop or laptop (which most of us have with us not-quite-all-the-time).

Once signed-in with your Google account, go to the "Synch" portion of the Google Calendar (click on "Synch" in the upper-right corner of the Calendar screen). Here you'll find buttons that will connect you to specific plugins for various phones; note that you can also synch your Google Calendar with your desktop Outlook, iCal, or Sunbird email client. For use with the smartphones, however, you'll need to select your particular model under "Synch with mobile devices." There you will find instructions for downloading the small application (free) from your mobile network to your phone. Once installed on your phone, you can select personalized settings (time of synch, which portions of the Google Calendar to synch, etc). Note that, since your Google Calendar is maintained in the "Cloud" (e.g., on the web, NOT on your desktop or laptop) your phone can access and synch your Calendar regardless of whether your computer is online, or even turned-on.

Related, but the subject of a separate post: backups!

For the sake of your own sanity, and speaking from the voice of rueful experience, I urge you to investigate one of the online data-backup services: http://dropbox.com, mozy.net, etc. A basic subscription to one of these online data-backup services is free, and very large space can be purchased for very modest monthly fees (like, $10/month). Once downloaded and installed to your machine, and signed in to your created online account, any folders you select on your computer can be automatically synched-up every time your computer is connected to the internet. I like http://dropbox.com, because it is so intuitive: you install dropbox, a small application, on your computer, and it then appears as a folder in your directories. Any files (or sub-folders) within this dropbox folder are automatically backed-up; any omitted from this dropbox folder are not. This can be very handy, as it means that items which you are regularly altering, and which thus require frequent backup, can be maintained within your dropbox folder; wile files or folders which are not changed so frequently, can be omitted from the dropbox folder. For example, I have all of my "Documents" files (including especially professional work, course files, and writing-in-progress) inside my dropbox folder, because I want them backed-up rigorously and frequently. Conversely, I do NOT have my "Music," "Videos," or "Pictures" files backing-up to dropbox, chiefly because, in the case of Music particularly, the files are so large (about 70gb of music, just on this machine, not counting various external hard-drives) that they would overload my dropbox online folder, or cost me a fortune in monthly fees.

But, regardless of which service you use or which folders you decide to synch/backup online, let me employ you to use something for this purpose. Lose of data is a catastrophe; trust me: I know whereof I speak!

VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol)

Some of you will be aware of the various methods by which voice or other audio (and video) can be carried over an internet connection. The commonest (free download) software is Skype (www.skype.com). This is a small-footprint software program which you download and install on your computer. Once installed, and having signed-up online for a "Skype account", you can call computer-to-computer (assuming that both machines are equipped with a internal or external microphone and have Skype installed) at no charge, at any distance, for any duration. Skype, as they have moved toward a monetized model, have also added extremely inexpensive computer-to-landline/cell and, now, even cell-to-cell coverage: essentially, you "purchase credit" to your skype account, and the costs of such calls are charged against your account; when you run low, you purchase additional credit.

But, the most important--and not to mention the most economical--option is computer-to-computer. It means that, anywhere you have internet access (wireless or hardwired) and two Skype-equipped computers, you can talk at any length at any time at no cost.

But, there are more profound implications: Skype can equally handle video-calls: that is, if each computer has a microphone, Skype installed, and a video-cam, you can get video-picture along with audio. This is pleasant in terms of conversational immediacy, but *far* more important are the implications for teaching at a distance. In our MUHL "smart" classrooms, for example, the installed desktop computer's screen (and the laptop USB cable) are ported directly to an installed Powerpoint projector. Hence, any window open on the computer screen can be projected on-screen.

So if you, the teacher, are not able to be physically present in the room, you can *still* conduct an interactive, real-time conversation, presentation, lecture, or seminar with a classroom full of students. Sitting in front of your skype-enabled computer's microphone and video-cam, you can have an assistant connect the classroom's destkop, via skype, to your computer, and have your voice and video projected in real time in the classroom. Even without a video camera in the classroom (which would mean that you could only hear, not also see, the students), *they* can still hear *and see* you.

This means that we have *more* flexibility, at least in terms of our upper-level classes, with maintaining our teaching schedule in the event of physical absence. There is no reason why any of us could not meet with any seminar via Skype, for example.

Finally, it can be useful to have wireless-phone access if you can't find wireless-internet access, and vice versa. Recently, in the wilds of central Vermont, there was not wireless-phone access to be had--so we parked outside the (closed) public library in a small town, found their un-passworded wireless signal, connected to the internet, and used Skype VOIP to let him call his office, computer-to-landline.