Tools and Toolchains

In software development the phrase toolchain refers to a set of discrete tools linked in such a way that the output of one tool becomes the input for another tool. As wikipedia notes “A simple software development toolchain consists of a text editor for editing source code, a compiler and linker to transform the source code into an executable program, libraries to provide interfaces to the operating system, and a debugger.”  The toolchain idea recurs in several work environments; in software development where code written in a text editor becomes an interactive program, in publishing where a series of notes and thoughts becomes text written in a word processor then transformed by typesetting and offset printing, and life science laboratories where discrete protocols are used to effect transformations in biological material.

The chain metaphor works, but the wrinkle in the metaphor is that at each link a transformation takes place. If a different type of transformation, or style of working is desired, another tool can be substituted in the chain and a different effect introduced. A good tool chain is modular, robust, and flexible. A canonical example of a well designed toolchain is the suite of GNU programming tools. Here is a diagram showing the relation of tools and procedures in the autoconf toolchain: Autoconf Toolchain

But, there is more than a bit of bricolage in the creation of toolchains. That is to say, toolchains unavoidably end up with a bit of their creator’s interests and dispositions in them. They are idiosyncratic and subject to the aesthetic whims of their creator. The level of personnel investment possible in a particular link in the toolchain becomes clear through a Google search of the terms “emacs vs vi”.  Or just read this: One True Editor

In anthropology the toolchain has been written about, worried over and reflected upon since Malinowski put pen to paper. Here is a toolchain Malinowski might recognize:

Observation – Head Notes – Jottings – Scratch Notes – Descriptive Field Notes – Draft Manuscript – Manuscript – Monograph

At a more intimate level of detail, certain types of notebooks are to be preferred over others. Is a bound notebook required? Or, to use an example recounted by Sanjek in Fieldnotes, can the medium be a collection of 2×3 sheets held together with a paper clip? Is a discrete 2 inch pencil the right tool for jottings, or is a full sized pen always required? If so, which pen shall it be? Pens, especially, seem to be a deeply personal choice and the choice of tip type relates to the choice of notebook and on and on. Add in surveys, interviews, photographs, video, archives, digital data and the toolchain grows exponentially more complicated. And I haven’t even broached the question of storage and/or indexing.

But, as Sanjek notes (pun intended) further along in Fieldnotes, the aesthetic choice of field equipment is most often driven by the demands of the field situation –  mutatis mutandis – we all work in a recognizable manner. My field site in Silicon Valley requires a commute via automobile. Like most people working in Silicon Valley I spend a considerable amount of time in stuck in traffic. Also, like everyone else in Silicon Valley I deal with an avalanche of emails, tweets, blog updates, rss feeds, SMS, calendar updates and voicemail.

While I work with a toolchain that Malinowski would recognize in the abstract, I have made a few concrete substitutions to handle the particular difficulties of my site. The primary problem working in a place where so much communication occurs across so many channels is cleaning, filtering and parsing the wheat from the chaff. Below are some new tools I have found useful:

1) Reqall

So far I  mainly use Reqall to jot audio notes to myself while stuck in traffic, though the program is capable of more interesting things as well. The great advance here is that my audio jottings are transcribed and emailed to me thus saving me some housekeeping work. A typical workflow looks like this:

Create audio note – Received note as email – Use to send email to Evernote – Move note from Evernote to Atlas.ti

2) Tape-A-Talk

This Android app is useful because of one simple feature – it records in the background thus allowing you to use you phone for other purposes.

3) GorillaPod

This is a flexible tripod which allows mounting a small video camera in places not accessible with a standard tripod. I’m working from video in a laboratory and this tool has proven its worth by allowing me to attach my camera to lab benches and other pieces of lab equipment.

4) If This Then That

I use this tool to route twitter streams and emails to Evernote – a switchboard of sorts for internet traffic. It filters, sorts, parses and stores based on a set of user defined logical operators. The learning curve can be steep depending on your technical background. On the other hand, I find it absolutely the most powerful tool I am using right now. The amount of housekeeping it saves is well worth the work to set it up.

5) Evernote

Much has been written about Evernote and I don’t have anything exciting to add. It works and you should use it. I still don’t like the export format, but the good far outweighs the bad.

6) Mendeley

A person has to choose between Mendeley and Zotero and I choose Mendely simply because sharing references is more straightforward than with Zotero. The latest version of both Mendely and Zotero will export bibliographies in AAA format.

7) Atlas.ti

I don’t do anything with Atlas.ti except use it as a storage, text retrieval and indexing tool. The advanced tools scare me and I avoid them. But, two killer features are a) the ability to read and index full text pdf files, and b) the ability to index photographs. I bought a student license for under $100 otherwise I would have selected something else or worked out another method of indexing.

8) Dropbox Premium

Like Evernote this is well worn territory. It works and you should use it. The only wrinkle I would add here is that buying the premium version is worth the expense not just for the extra storage (100G for $20 per month) but also for the security features.