Location Agnostic Research (with Backup): using Mozy, DropBox, LogMeIn, Adobe Pro, and Zotero

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It’s been a long time since I posted here, so I want to quickly share some tips that have helped me this past semester. Before I started my PhD at NYU-Poly in August 2010, I was writing at book while in residence at Eyebeam and doing some engineering consulting work. This meant my laptop went wherever I did. However, once I started at NYU-Poly, I got a shiny new desktop computer. I had to figure out how to take advantage of the new hardware while still keeping in touch with my digital life on my laptop. The point of this post is to share how I’ve figured out an almost free way to work effectively in my new office or at home, desktop or laptop, and have access to everything I need. This has contributed significantly to my quality of life as a graduate student by always letting me get home for dinner and still work late when I need to.

1) Backup
Before I even get into the working remotely thing, I want to stress the importance of automatic backups. Not the kind where you buy an external hard drive and promise yourself you’ll sync up once a week, but the sync-without-thinking kind. I chose Mozy Home from www.mozy.com. It’s free up to 2 GB of backup, then just $5/month for unlimited backup of one computer. That computer is my laptop that lives at home. As long as it’s online, it gets backed up twice a day. I’ve never had a crash situation while using Mozy (knock on wood) so I can’t attest to how easy it is to recover, but the reviews are excellent.

2) Dropbox
Since I was still in the process of editing my book when I started my PhD, I wanted a way to access the files from work if the publisher needed something quickly or had a question. I also read a lot of research papers that I wanted access to at home and on my commute. Enter Dropbox.com. It creates a folder in your My Documents folder called My Dropbox that you can share between multiple machines. Just download Dropbox on both machines and log in with the same account. As an added bonus, you can also download a Dropbox app for iPhone. If there’s a paper I want to read on my commute, I go into my Dropbox app, make it a “favorite” so it downloads to my phone, then I have full access the pdf even underground in the subway. Nerd-tastic.

And, since the My Dropbox folder is on my home laptop computer, the Mozy backup (#1 above) backs up this folder as well. Double nerd-tastic life hack.

You get 2GB with the free account, and if you click here we each get 250MB more free!

3) LogMeIn
This is basically free remote access software. I first heard of it when I worked with a doctor doing clinical gait analysis from multiple office locations who needed to be able to view patient data at different locations. I now have it installed on my home laptop and my work desktop now, and as long as they’re both on and online, I can always control one from the other. I realize this isn’t the most energy efficient solution, so I adjust the power settings on each of my computers accordingly so they don’t do dumb things like keep the monitor on when not in use. This allows me to not only view files that only live on one computer or the other, but use programs that only live on one or the other. This is especially necessary with engineering software that can get expensive quickly.

4) Adobe Acrobat Pro
Speaking of software, this is the only program in this post that isn’t free, open source, or super cheap. But I’ve become addicted for a few reasons:

  • I used to print our articles just so I could highlight and take notes as I read. I don’t know how anyone can read and retain any level of information without doing that. Now I can use Adobe Pro to do that exact same thing.
  • That saves trees, printer ink, staples, etc.
  • Keeping digital versions of everything means they are searchable. My brain is not so reliable, and once something is printed there is no telling where it may end up.
  • UPDATE: The newest version of the FREE Adobe Reader allows comments and highlighting!

    5) Zotero
    Zotero is like an awesome open source version of EndNote or RefWorks. If you’ve never used either, they’re all designed for managing references. Say you want to write an academic journal article, blog post, white paper, report, or anything you’ll need to reference other sources in or keep track of sources for. Zotero can automatically capture citation information so you never have to type it in yourself. It only works with Firefox (an open source browser) and actually lives in your browser. However, once you set up an account, you can download Zotero to Firefox browsers on different computers and it will sync up. In the preferences, you can set it to automatically download a pdf of an article you look up (if available). Then if you click on the pdf in the drop down and go to Show File, it will bring up the default file folder Zotero stores that file in. Then you can reference #4 above and take advantage of Adobe Pro to take notes on the pdf. The file stays linked through Zotero and your notes are preserved, and better yet the whole thing is searchable from within Zotero.

    Up too 100MB of storage is free, so I’m not likely to run out any time soon since I just use it for Word/Excel/pdfs, so it’s perfect.
    UPDATE: With pdf’s, make sure to attach a stored copy (NOT a link to a stored copy) if your original grab doesn’t automatically download the pdf for you. Links do not sync up between computers – for example, a link to a file I create on my home laptop gives me an error when I try to open it at work. Linked copies are stored locally, but files you actually attach to the citation are stored in the cloud, so accessible from anywhere. #lessonlearned

    Shazam! Efficient, backed-up, mobile working. I hope to share more things about my first semester as soon as these pesky PhD qualifying exams are over (January 20th!!).


    1. Have you considered Mendeley as a replacement for Zotero? Just wondering since I am not familiar with Zotero and your description makes it sound like a Mendeley with some limitations.

    2. Wow thanks I definitely have never heard of that! It looks like it can sync with Zotero libraries too – might be another helpful layer to add to my list.

    3. You can simply double-click on the Zotero item with a PDF attached to have it open in the system’s default PDF reader, which in your case is probably Acrobat Pro.

      You may well need more than Zotero’s free 100 MB — PDFs add up quickly. In that case, you can use a WebDAV service to get more storage, or pay for Zotero’s service (more expensive, but better integrated).

      1. Yeah 100MB isn’t a lot, but the next step up is paying $1.67 a month for 1GB so I can handle that.

        What class do you teach Terry? That’s a great idea. I think I’ll start the group library function within my lab. I just have to stop the engineers from using IE!

    4. Don’t forget about the Group library function. They call it ‘Academic Commons’ and I will be using it when I teach a university research class this Spring. Zotero is working on a Chrome/Safari/every other browser version called “Zotero Everywhere”. Unlike Endnote and others of the commercial ilk, I find that Zotero’s developers do not overpromise. I really think this will take off when it can work with Chrome and Safari. Great post. I love how you have created a workflow out of a repertoire of pieces loosely joined. Sweet!

    5. Re: Mozy Home – “It’s free up to 2 GB of backup, then just $5/month for unlimited backup of one computer.”

      Didn’t take them long to realize that was a bad model!
      Now it’s $5.99/month for 50 GB, $9.99 for 125 GB.
      No such thing as “unlimited” or “free” any more…

      Here I was hoping to back up my 1.5 TB HDD that shares all out home PCs files, for free.


      1. Yeah there were too many 1.5 TB customers ready to pounce on that! I can still handle $5.99, but if they go up higher than that I’ll have to rethink these layers.

    6. I like your list of tools! I run my own Engineering consulting company and have a similar list of tools for many of the same reasons as you.

      I use i-drive instead of Mozy because their prices as the drives get larger worked out cheaper for me. Also at the time I first setup they were the only one that supported a network attached storage device and I have all my files on that (another good idea in my opinion as computers seem to die or need to be reformatted more often than I would like, also I have a netowrk of computers I use and they all have access to the same files…)

      The other tool that I just started using about 6 months ago and really like is an online bookmark manager. I use quickbookmarks.com. It allows you to have access to the same bookmarks no matter where you go (home, client, machine #3 in the shop, relative’s house on vacation, etc…)

      Again, nice list of tools! Thanks

      1. Thanks for the additions Eric! I have never heard of i-drive, and had given up on bookmark managers. I just rely on typing in a couple letters of the URL and the smart browser figuring it out (mc goes to mcmaster, etc.). I rationalized this by figuring it was about the same amount of clicking/typing strokes than to look for a bookmark. BUT I’m always happy to learn about a new tool!

        1. I hadn’t even thought about a bookmark manager, but I was working on getting arduinos to work for a project I’m doing and I kept on having too many windows open because I didn’t want to loose track of the information I was gathering. Compounding on top of that I was working on a shop computer, and also an office computer. Add to this I have 3 computers on my desk, a laptop, multiple shop and lab computers and keeping a good set of links synced between them all turned into a huge mess… Now all I do is make sure I have my bookmark manager site as a bookmark itself on each machine and I’m done 🙂

    7. Nice writeup! I just thought I’d push for the excellent (and free) Foxit Reader as an alternative to Acrobat Reader. It’s about a tenth in size, which means less feature bloat and less exploits, but most importantly it also handles highlighting and annotations.

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