Category Archives: Net smart

Mindful or mindfull social media?

Mind map with ways to minimise distractions when online

What happens when you see that little red marker pop up? A new message? A new friend or like? A new tweet?

It is ever so tempting to stop what you’re in the middle of to check. Straight-away, because it’s so important, right?

Checking an alert all too often leads to checking something else, which leads to time disappearing down a black hole. I know because I’ve been down that vortex.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Using computers and respond to the 24/7/365 stream from social media is something new to all of us. This implies learning some new tricks.

Of course, some people blithely ignore the seductions of constantly checking messages or following up on just one more link. But many of us aren’t so good at this.

At the workshops with Beth Kanter in Auckland recently, we touched on attention and information coping skills.

Everyone laughed when Beth reported that according to one study 39% of people check their phones for updates and new emails in the bathroom. The urge to stay connected obviously comes from a very deep place within.

Talking over Jane Genovese’s mindmap on “How to focus in the age of distraction” (pictured above) at one of the workshops was useful. Even thought I’ve looked at this before, I still found some tips to hone my practices.

Beth collects and shares useful articles on Mindful social media and Information coping skills. There isn’t a single approach that will work for everyone.

I admit I haven’t read all of Howard Rheingold’s book “Net Smart: how to thrive online”, but I am selectively grabbing tips. If I tried to sum up his advice in a single word I’d say it’s breathe!

A glimpse of Howard’s infotention advice can be found freely online – the 15 minute mini-lecture offers a few hints, plus there are articles and links if you want to read more.

Being Zen-like is a topic Oliver Burkeman’s delves into in a recent article on ‘conscious computing’. Setting aside the esoteric rationale, I’ve actually tried a couple of software programmes listed that help focus attention.

Ommwriter offers a 100% blank screen to write on, and Flux dims the screen brightness in sync with the actual time of day.

I don’t sense there is a magic wand that will instantly vanquish distraction. It’s something I sense will take more practice yet (as I return to writing this post after checking a red pop-up signalling incoming mail).

What are your strategis for staying focused and surfing on the sea of incoming information?

Tidying up my info flow

Slipping into cosy routines and ways of being, only to have things shaken up seems to be an immutable law of nature.

Disruption can come in many forms: fire, flood, computer failure, moving house, bankruptcy or even doing an online course.

Having been a co-learner on Howard Rheingold’s Think Know Tools online course, it’s the latter cause of disruption that’s been exercising my mind.

The course dives into both the theoretical-historical background of intellect augmentation and some practical skills for personal knowledge management.

It’s been a demanding and invigorating experience. The diverse and intelligent co-learners from all over the globe have generously shared insights, knowledge and encouragement. I even awoke at 5am a couple of times to join everyone ‘in-person’ at a ‘class’.

People have been prolific. Over 1300 discussion board comments, dozens of blog posts, multiple mind maps, 155 bookmarks with annotations. All this, and more, in just six weeks.

It’s been impossible to keep up. Indeed our co-learner in chief cautioned at the beginning it’s perilous to try. Yet Howard popped up everywhere: guiding, chivvying, encouraging, enthusing, connecting, sharing know-how, and more besides.

Normally, the way I learn about things I’m interested in and keep tabs on topics I’m working on, can be a bit scattered. It not only looks messy, it is messy. Imagine piles of books, photocopied articles, clippings, print-outs, sorted using three or four different labeling systems. Mostly it works, but there is always room for improvement.

A six-week course isn’t going to change this. Much as I hanker for a neat and tidy era of information harvesting and retrieval, I know I’ll continue to evolve my practices in an organic way. Seeing what others are doing and understanding why, has been very valuable.

I’m besotted with the features of Diigo social bookmarking – sticky notes, highlighting within the text can add to shared understanding. I’m equally besotted with using a variety of visual thinking techniques. Just take a look at a sketchnotes on social bookmarking by Amanda Lyons to get an idea of how drawing can capture a tonne of meaning.

Don’t worry – I won’t be making any rash changes to my personal knowledge management techniques. I am inspired to keep exploring and refining. Ideally in a more intentional way. A starting point for this is naming the various steps in the process and practicing drawing. I’ve included my first attempt at this below.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ll finding ways to learn with others. Not only this a good way to make things sticks, it’s a helluva lot of fun too.

Mind map / drawing on finding, sorting, reading and sharing useful information by Stephen Blyth

Get a taste of what the Think Know course covers

Mind Amplifiers: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter? by Howard Rheinbod, September 2012. Cheap ebook only.

Think Know course schedule

Being a content producer ain’t always easy

Picture of a crumpled, batter book left outside, by penelopejonzeDon’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Opportunities abound for everyone to create and share creative and serious work online. Here we all come, as the saying goes.

Yet, it’s not always easy.

I’ll give you a real life example from last night.

In a bit of an experiment (cos I’m that sort of guy), I decided to add audio to a presentation of mine available on SlideShare. In May I gave a lecture to Visual Communication Design masters students at Massey University on the august topic of the “Future of the book”.

My starting point was as a common, garden reader talking about where reading fits in my life, blurring boundaries between being a producer and consumers, and what really is a book.

When I sat down at my computer last night, my slides were already uploaded to slideshare. All I had to do was transfer the recording from my dictaphone to create something they call a slidecast. Simple, huh?

After two and a half hours of expletives and wild swipes at my (inanimate) screen I eventually got there. This is what the real web is like, not the airbrushed version you’ll see in ads for apps.

Here’s a brief outline of what I went through:

  1. Dictaphone storage drive is not appearing in the finder after I plug it in via USB port – it normally pops up straight away.
  2. Hmmmm, maybe I need special software for Mac OS version 10.7.
  3. Find and install Olympus’ Digital Speech Standard (DSS) software.
  4. Oh, a serial number is needed for the software to work.
  5. Search for the box, find serial and enter it.
  6. The drive is still not appearing.
  7. Strange error message pops up when I remove the USB cable.
  8. Time to dive into the help forums.
  9. Try various restarts and key combinations.
  10. Still no joy.
  11. Try swapping cables. Brilliant!! I can now see and transfer the .wma files.
  12. Upload the file to iTunes as AIF, then convert to MP3.
  13. At least an hour has elapsed.
  14. Time to import the file into SlideShare. It takes five minutes of fluffing around.
  15. As it’s the first time I’m using their browser based audio editor, it takes a while to make the manual adjustments so that the audio plays with the right slides.
  16. Argh… the editor keeps freezing!!! I find a work around which involves quitting Firefox, reopening the browser and waiting for the full audio file to reload.
  17. Very slow to buffer after refresh and editing is fiddly.
  18. Finally, DONE – it’s 11.06pm.

Okay, so I skipped a few steps, but I’m sure you get the idea.

In detailing all this, I’m not saying that what slideshare offer isn’t user friendly. But I am saying the process of uploading was agonising and not terribly creative in itself. It took some willpower to persevere to the end.

Using any new online publishing tool tends to involve a similar amount of wrestling formats, fiddly interfaces and delays. I could easily write a couple of other blog posts about this in relation to video codecs (argh!!!).

While the opportunity to share and be creative definitely exists, it’s not without hurdles. I wonder how others surmount these types of barriers, or if it’s all too much?

PS My “Future of the book” slidecast is now online with audio. A list of publication, links, etc I referred to are also available.

Photo credit: penelopejonze

Staying on top of the information avalanche

Orange RSS logo made from fabric on jacketAt the end of my workshop I quipped “I hope you haven’t ended up more overloaded than when you began.” The participants in my workshop at the Engage your community conference on Friday smiled warily in reply.

Setting out to cover the main bases of how to fine-tune harvesting information online meant we had to cover a lot of ground.

During the 2.5 hour session we touched on email alerts, email filtering/ rules, twitter, url shorteners, social bookmarking, dashboards and folksonomies. The main focus was on using RSS to manage the information flow, and blogging networks.

The benefits of staying in touch and contributing to a virtual network of fellow bloggers can be very rewarding. The opportunity for interaction combined with personal reflection makes for a great way to learn. Fortunately I found an article on online that sets out the key ideas behind a blogging network, so I won’t expound on these here. (See “How do you build community?” by Denise on here Flamingo House Happenings blog.)

The utter lack of standardisation on the internet is no more apparent than with the RSS button. It appears on websites not only in standard orange, but also in blue, green, grey and other rogue colours. Try explaning why this might be to people new to using RSS.

Another challenge for me as trainer was explaining why an RSS feed one of the participants found couldn’t be imported into a reader. (I’d welcome any explanations about the offending RSS feed didn’t work, the URL is

The most important question that arose was, what is the best way of receiving updates?

My answer was: it depends.

Choices include: using online services, eg Google Reader, Bloglines, MyYahoo, PageFlakes; installing software on your computer eg RSSOwl, NetNewsWire, FeedDemon; using your browser, eg LiveBookmarks in Firefox, or Favorites in Internet Explorer; and I’m sure there are other ways I haven’t come across.

Each of the options has pros and cons. As I didn’t really get time to go into this in-depth on Friday I’ll cover this briefly based on my own experiences.

I use Google Reader as it means I can read feeds anywhere there is an internet connection (using my computer or someone elses). It also means I can add new subscriptions when I find them rather doing later, which l invariably forget to do. The tagging and sorting features are strong, plus there are ways you can follow people or explore sources of new feeds. Importantly, it’s moderately uncluttered so actually reading articles is fine.

At the same time I also use a desktop client called NetNewsWire (for Mac OS only). Fortunately this syncs with Google Reader so I get exactly the same list. I want a desktop client so I can scan, search and read articles (or excerpts) without needing to be connected to the internet. The sorting features and readibility meet my peculiar standards.

I’ve never been drawn to following feeds in my Browser (or Email client such as Thunderbird) as these lack the powerful sorting/ highlighting features of the others and updates don’t follow you around. I also don’t find lists in the browser easy to navigate or the most attractive reading option.

Now, I can imagine someone liking the reverse of what I do. Perhaps you’d like to have one place to look at all your updates, and if you subscribe to a few sources sorting is not so important.

Although anything goes, I’d suggest you don’t get stuck with the first option you come across (which is likely to be browser based as it’s obvious). Try it out another way of subscribing. Check first that you can export your subscription, as you can easily move if you can do this (something that’s important if you follow more than a handful of feeds). I’ve changed RSS clients 3 or 4 times in the last five years.

I’m not about to launch a campaign to promote recognition of the neglected RSS service (for an honour after an industrious career, in web years at least). But I will say that anyone who is serious about staying on top of the information avalanche should take a look at using RSS to stay in control.

PS For anyone who attended my workshop, I’m still waiting for a reply from the insurance company about whether my laptop is repairable, or if they’ll replace it. Unfortunately I had a Minities moment at the beginning of the session. A glass of water ended up on my keyboard. For those of you that we’ren’t there, this didn’t stop me.


Fine-tune how you harvest information slides
Fine-tune how you harvest information resource list on wikispaces
A list of RSS readers on

Photo credit: Popoever.

Lists – are they letting me down?

An array of notebooks: 5 spiral bound, one each felt covered, Webstock and William Morris print, and one listIt’d be fair to say I like lists. Not necessarily other people’s, such as the 1001 movies to watch before you die prematurely, or all time top 10 songs of 1974.

The lists are my ones. I got to thinking about lists to see if it might help explain why I’m failing to blog as often as I’d like.

My lists come in all shapes, sizes and forms. And I keep trying new ways of keeping lists.

The latest is simple: take a blank piece of paper, rule lines to create 6-8 segments, add reminders of what to do. Normally I have about three projects I’m being paid for in varying stages of completion, then there are proposals, get rich slow schemes my own business ideas to investigate, and then my volunteer webmaster duties. Add stuff, tick it off, repeat daily.

Also on paper, I’ve many lists in the spiral-bound, A-5 notebooks you’ll see me clutching as I go from meeting to meeting. I’m vacillating between marbig’s version with a plastic cover (bad from a greenie point of view) and Esselte’s version, with cardboard cover, which doesn’t last as long. Inside are notes from meetings, interview accounts, lists of links, and of course lists for specific projects.

In yet another book I keep business ideas. Currently I’m using a very chunky spiral bound notebook from Webstock 2009, plus have some spares ready to go (including a gorgeous felt covered Clairefontaine notebook made by VIA Werkstatten gGmbH, a gift from Roz). In my Kiwi diary I keep lists of when bills and invoices are due and other (exciting) financial info.

Hmmm, I’m at about four ways of keeping lists already.

Online I’ve been fairly profligate, trying a few pieces of software or online services before settling on Evernote.

I liked Google Notebook, now discontinued, as it slotted into my iGoogle page. Before that was xPad with it’s neat colour coding of entries. I must have deleted the software at some point, for a very well thought out reason I’m sure. Exactly why alludes me right now.

And of course, I’ve got at my fingertips the beautifully simple Stickies software built into Mac OS, plus a private notes widget installed in the dashboard where I store passwords. 

Evernote is becoming very ingrained in my work habits. Not only for the neat “to-do” checkbox I can add to lists, but also because the desktop software syncs with a web-based tool so I can access my notes, and make them, anywhere. The snippet tool in my browser toolbar means I can store selected text or a whole page from within Firefox. With it’s ease of use, non-demanding feel and bright green branding mean this one is still near and dear after 12 months use.   

Until I started writing this, I wasn’t aware of just quite how dissipated my listmaking mania is. Perhaps this is clue to why blog posts do not runneth over. Perhaps some ideas are lost, or a sign of too much to do?

Amidst all the means and ways of writing lists are about three attempts at keeping track of blog post ideas, plus there are the half constructed fragments. My most active list is stored on Evernote is woebegone. Forlornly, last updated on 18 July, spliced by a mighty interregnum of silence. A list of failed deadlines, and acknowledgments of weeks gone by without a word written.   

This confessional tone is in part about putting the past behind me, and part a public commitment to trying to stick to my goal of blogging weekly. Perhaps the beginning of a new list focusing on learning and inspiring myself to be a more active blogger. Or maybe no list at all – decide on the spot. Set a time and blog, come what may.

I am, of course in good company, as Gregory McNamme writes “On lists and listmaking” for the Britannica blog: “I have yet to master the cardinal rule of effective listmaking—which is to say, keep just one of the things.”

Holiday reading for 2009

Now it’s time to head-offline to actually read something, rather than just scanning, sorting, saving links, removing unread articles from my desktop, more scanning, etc.  Yes, I’m downing tools and going on holiday.

Packed in my bag are a couple of books and unread newspapers.

And, yes, amongst everything else is my laptop. I’m taking it along mostly so I can read feature articles and to decide if I’ll print out a few e-books I’ve downloaded over the last year.

Making reading more appealing on a computer is a big ask, but I’ve found a few ways to make things more pleasurable. Of course, for Mac users we’ve had the nifty Tofu application for ages: simply paste a story in the box and the text is converted into columns. Each column is only as high as your window so it’s a bit like reading a paper.

Even more like reading a paper is the PressDisplay database offered to Wellington City Library patrons. Open the browser based programme and you can read any one of hundreds papers from 80 countries exactly as it appears in print. That means all adverts, page numbers, cross words, weather forecasts, as well as the actual articles. Editions are often available on the day they’re issued. Zoom in, select articles for printing, make comments. Brilliant – thank you librarians.

Although the New York Times isn’t amongst papers in the PressDisplay collection, they do have a new tool for reading the paper. Called the Times Skimmer, you are presented with one page snapshots of articles from the paper’s 17 main sections. At a glance on a single screen you can get a sense of the top stories – it’s not like looking at a webpage at all. When you do want to read something, you dive back into the website proper, where fortunately there is plenty of whitespace around the actual article text.

Whitespace isn’t always obvious on many websites – busy, crowded, distracting are words that come to mind. Installing the Readibility bookmarklet solves this unforgiveable affront to readers. After finding a page or article you want to read on any website, click on the bookmarklet and you’ve got a clean, immensely readable view. All adds, navigation and other clutter are remove, leaving you with just the text you want to read. Thanks to Miraz for pointing this out – I’ve been using it heaps.

Aside from mentioning the ever popular and contentious Guardian top 100 websites (released 9 December), which is likely to induce more surfing than actual reading, I will throw in a mention of Zotero. I’m really taken by this tool which sits inside Firefox and is designed to help people organise their publicatin collections. Mine include manuals, reports, guides, case studies, newsletters, etc. (Okay, so this one is not strictly about holiday reading).

When I apply myself, I’m sure the documents I use reguarly will be well sorted, easy to retrieve and provide reference citations at the push of a button. References of any sort can be entered, both electronic and print. With hundreds of documents scattered across folders on my computer and in manilla folders it will take a fair amount of effort. I’m going to pace myself, as I’ve tried before and made little headway. The my classification will be organic, but I’m pretty sure the search function using tags will be more searchable than what I’ve currently got (even with the powerful Spotlight).

It remains to be seen if I end up being as virtuous as make out I’m going to be. Given a sunny day you’ll probably find me reclining under a shady tree, book tossed aside and eyes closed.

Happy reading. See you in 2010.

PS To see what I’m reading in print, here’s a recent booklist I started on Goodreads.