U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Technology and (Intellectual) History Open Thread

Back in April, 2009, I put up a post complaining about MS Word and musing about the possibility of switching to another word-processing program.  I’m almost embarrassed to report that, after spending some time trying to migrate to Apple’s Pages (a nice little program in many ways), I crawled back to the overwhelming industry standard. Word still infuriates me in many ways, but I’ve yet to find a program that practically replaces it.

Nevertheless, I found the little discussion of other possibilities–and the investigation of those possibilities–intriguing. So I figured I’d start a similar conversation again, this time using as a starting point some computer tools that I actually enjoy.  Though I doubt any of the programs I discuss below the fold will be new to the readers of this blog, perhaps my positive experiences with them will encourage others to give them a shot.  And I hope you’ll reciprocate by suggesting things that you’ve found helpful that I may not have thought of using.


One of the programs that I most rely on is Eastgate’s Tinderbox.  Most often described as a notetaking program, Tinderbox is actually a lot more.  I use it primarily to keep track of my notes on my book project.   But it’s also been great for taking notes on the candidates for a job search that I’m chairing.  Though it has an extraordinarily loyal group of users, Tinderbox suffers a bit because it’s hard to explain what it does…and because, though it’s very easy to use, one always has the impression that one is just scratching the surface of its capabilities.   The image at the top of this post is a good example of the sort of thing that Tinderbox can do.  It’s a tree of American historiography which graduate student Dan Allosso put together and posted late last year to The Historical Society’s blog.  For a closer look at the tree–and a discussion of how Dan made it–check out the original post here (h/t Mark Bernstein, the designer of Tinderbox).

Tinderbox is only currently available for Macintosh (though other versions are apparently in the works).  And at $249, it is a little pricey, though you can demo it for free.  Luckily, Eastgate has just come out with Twig, which appears to be a kind of Tinderbox Lite.  At $79, it’s considerably less expensive (though still Mac only).

A much less expensive–and more universally common tool–that I find indispensable is Dropbox, a little program that makes syncing files across one’s computers (and iOS devices) incredibly simple.  Dropbox works with Windows, Mac, Linux, and most mobile operating systems.  And the first 2 GB of storage are free.  My guess is that most of you already use it, but if you don’t, just download it and give it a spin.

Even more ubiquitous than Dropbox is the free mediaplayer VLC.  Again, I assume that most of you already know and rely on this little piece of freeware that will play just about any media format.  But if you don’t, download it now and give it a spin. There’s a version for just about any operating system you’ve heard of (and probably a few that you haven’t).

Until about a month ago, I’d have sung the praises of the cloud-based back-up service Mozy, which offered limited online backup for free and unlimited backup from a single computer for a very reasonable annual fee.  But in January, Mozy announced that they were eliminating their unlimited backup service and were instead essentially charging by the GB.  (To their credit, they gave their users advance notice, which in turn gave us time to find another service to use before canceling our Mozy accounts.)  After doing a little research, the best option for me turned out to be CrashPlan, whose Crashplan+ Family Unlimited service will allow me to back up every computer in my household much more cost-effectively than Mozy’s new pricing scheme would allow.

What software (or hardware) are you finding particularly useful these days?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. OpenOffice and NeoOffice are slightly different open source clones of Microsoft Office. All the convenience of Office with fewer features and longer loading time! Plus they are free. But Office format files are a de facto standard if you’re going to send text documents or spreadsheets to anyone else.

    Having gone through still-enfolding monetary cost from lost connections when my Email provider of the last decade+ died, I strongly recommend against any Web-based backup service. None of them can guarantee that they will be around ten years from now. Neither can Google, really, even though I broke down and started to use Gmail because nothing better was immediately available. The same goes for Internet-based financial software — Quicken Online recently died and didn’t transfer its records to its successor, Mint.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rich. I agree that one shouldn’t count on online backup services being there forever; they’re no substitute for longer-term, local backup solutions. But I think they’re a great secondary backup. I have a complete backup on my Drobo at home, but if my house burns down, I can always turn to my online service (and if it goes away, I’ll just switch to another one….as I’m currently switching to CrashPlan from Mozy). Incidentally, one of the nice features of the CrashPlan software is that it also allows you to backup one computer to another computer’s harddrive over the net. Assuming you have the disk space, this is the best of both worlds: such a backup is off-site but not cloud-dependent.

  3. I’m trying to find a software that will keep track of the connections between all of my different research subjects–something that I can plug in letters or meetings or living/working in the same place and then connect that person to another person. Sort of like a mind map, except I wish that the computer would have more control than just a visualization of the network. I wish I knew network theory, because something like that might help.

  4. Thanks for the above information.Nothing makes me happy than knowing that all my files are secure online because if any disaster hits my place or if my computer is stolen or crashes i can always access my files online.And currently i have got a backup software called Safecopy backup installed on my computer and this not only saves my time or money but i’m able to backup multiple computers on a single account for only 50bucks a year.

Comments are closed.