All tech bright and beautiful.

Technology can be made exciting, cool and tempting. After all, if you’re to reach for that apple, you’ve first got to reach for your purse. And nobody wants to waste money buying the wrong thing. What about wasted time though, the purveyors of technology don’t point this out but choosing, trying and learning new technology is time that could be spent on something else. For me, an OU student studying nights after a full time job (and dyslexia*), any tech needs to be worth the candle. Fortunately some of it is.

Dropbox. This is free and means you will have info wherever you go, as long as you sometimes have an internet connection. Basically it is an online filing cabinet for information. It makes a copy of itself on any computer or internet-capable phone that you ask it to. This means you can update a file in the copy on your machine, or save a new file there, and it will update in the copy on Dropbox.  It also means that it is very easy to keep back-up copies in a variety of places. Flat burned down? Last thing you will (need to) worry about is your dissertation as it is stored ‘off-site’ as well as on your computer. I think it’s secure enough, and I back my dissertation up elsewhere too. The bigger risk is in losing your saved work because your home computer dies, rather than from your Dropbox account being hacked when you’ve a copy saved elsewhere. What would a hacker do with ‘Britain in Vespasian’s Empire’ anyway?

Chrome browser.  Many of the things I use have an extension for Chrome (some may also have for Firefox – I’ve not looked). Chrome’s apps are a bit disappointing though, I’ve not really found anything useful. I’d like something that reads directly from the website; screen readers centre round the needs of people visually impaired and so they focus on reading the instructions for the webpage.

Camera ‘photocopying’.  Take a pic of the cover and the frontispiece for accurate citation and photograph relevant pages as you read. I like photocopying double page spread, and find a small paperweight useful to stop pages flipping about. Make sure you capture page numbers, and take them in page order so when you upload them to your computer they are easy to put in the right order for turning into a PDF (there are loads of useful apps and bits of software that work with PDFs). Go to the folder with your pics in, hold down the ctrl key and click the ones you want in your PDF. Then choose print and ask it to save as a pdf. (If your computer is older and has no save as pdf option, download ‘cutePDF’ – free from the internet – which does the same thing.). If you’re saving them to Dropbox, upload it overnight – it can take a long time.

PDFs. Adobe’s latest reader versions (free online) will read out loud to you. Open a PDF, go to the ‘view’ menu and the option is the one at the bottom. Unfortunately lots of PDFs are not set up properly so it will read the text in the wrong order. It also won’t handle PDFs that are made from images – which lots on JSTOR are, as are your camera photocopied ones, . So I use vBookz PDF on my iPad – although this is not the only app in town you are looking for something that can handle optical character recognition and it also links directly to Dropbox.  It isn’t perfect – it struggles with some common letter combinations such as ‘ir,’ and stops when iPad goes to sleep. Waking the screen starts it from the point it left off though, so a minor irritation. You also need to tap the start of where you want it to read sometimes (eg, don’t read out graphs or page headings). It does read directly from PDFs though, rather than wasting your time copying and pasting. You would need to be very accurate with your phone ‘photocopying’ for this to work with them though; if you’ve a home scanner, this works better – and means you can more quickly return and exchange your library books.

Highlighter.  This is another iPad app and again, it links straight to Dropbox. Does what it says on the tin – use your finger as a highlighter and see the text underneath it. You can also add a note which you can see as a little speech bubble in the text, so can jot your thoughts on the text as you go. I’m having trouble uploading amended PDFs back to Dropbox, but since I’m basically using it as a text book, not a problem I can be bothered to spend time on. I’ve not used the other stuff it does.

White noise. This is a blindfold for your ears. I can’t deal with music whilst I’m studying  but even when Regular Phil is Skyping, ambulances wail past, and the downstairs hag is cackling as long as I’ve a pair of headphones and Simply Noise running I can blot it all out. There is a thunderstorm recording which makes a change. Nature Sounds is an alternative with waves and things – I’ve their free app but not used their website.

Google Books. Worth signing up to Google for, as lots of things are previewable and with one click you can ‘save to favourites’ – useful when checking references/quotes later.

Readability. A freebie. You can add this to Chrome and control how a web page is displayed. It strips adverts and other text from the screen, which makes reading less tiring – nothing to distract your eyes. There is a save for later option too – you still need to be online to read it. There are other options; this happens to be the one I’ve tried and like.

Evernote. Another freebie. I don’t use this much but it is a very easy way of copying and saving stuff from webpages. Like Dropbox stores it locally on your computer/phone etc and online. It does more too, but nothing I really need. I’ve found it a bit ropey at syncing, which makes me reluctant to trust it.

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*The parenthesis and endnote approach are because this isn’t a post about dyslexia, a subject of little interest to most people and, reader, I don’t want you to switch off. Pretty much everyone has to deal with some of the things that dyslexia makes worse though, so I will say a little about that.

The biggest downer is having the short term memory of a goldfish.  This makes trying to retain information in most formats like trying to grasp running water as it cascades away from you. Being given information verbally can be like being drowned under a waterfall – unless you can control how it is being given. Text often looks as though it is written in a language only vaguely familiar, even with the visual aids I use. So I generally read sentences and paragraphs over and over again to comprehend it and move it into my longer term memory – like I’ve heard most people do when they are very tired.

Dyslexia is also a bit of a time thieving demon** as it means the things you do take longer: it does not mean you get extra time to do things. You can extend the time of an exam, but not of a course, and the gods are not going to allot you extra hours in the day.  Instead I try to keep ahead of it and mostly end up trailing after, trying to limit the damage from inevitable fuckups and pratfalls. (What, you mean all that checking I did and I still got the date wrong and am in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong stuff – again?)

**A more realistic view of the ‘gift’ of dyslexia. The ‘gift’ is a myth that seems to originate from a man called Ron Davies, and characterising it that way means he can use hope to sell his not-gift-like-at-all program to parents of dyslexic kids. It makes untestable assertions about the benefits of dyslexia, and uses fallacious arguments such as because some people with dyslexia are geniuses, all people with dyslexia must be similar.  If dyslexia is so great, why isn’t everyone queuing up to get some ? To me it appears the dyslexia gift is a reappearance of an old myth, similar to the one that says blind people’s other senses are unusually acute.

Arguments about what is neurologically normal and social models of disability are different – and better, although again, I am not entirely sure on what science they are founded. But the fact is that the world is run by and for the majority: non-dyslexics. Unless that changes – get behind me demon.

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