Kevin Colyer's thoughts and ponderings

Semi-random rambles

Leave a comment

Using Zotero to manage bibliographies and simplify writing essays


Zotero running with several collections on the left

I am a student again for the next three years and amidst the general perks of student life (leaving dirty dishes in the sink, book buying and NUS card discounts) there is the downside of having to write essays of which the worst part is writing bibliographies and formatting them correctly. Worse yet we need to use the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) style to format them, which is not the easiest style.

So as computers are supposed to make our lives easier I searched about for some software to help. I think I have found an amazing (and FREE) tool and I wanted to share it with you.

Zotero is a bibliography manager. This means it is a database you can put books (and any other resource – webpages, journals, pdf’s etc.), you can even make notes in it. Then you can create smaller folders (mini-bibliographies) with the sources you are using for different essays. It comes with plugins and exports that make sticking the references into the proper places in your essay very simple. It also dumps the bibliography in the right place too, and keeps it in alphabetically sorted, AND it formats each entry and citation perfectly according to the MHRA style (or any other it supports). Did I mention it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux and was free?

I enjoy getting sources into it the most. If you know the ISBN of a book for example you can type it in and, poof, it searches for the data and plops the entry in Zotero. If it gets it wrong you can change the data too.

The best bit comes when you are browsing the web. If you are searching for Journals, books (Amazon) or even what to source the webpage you are reading there is a small blue book icon that appears. Clicking this drops the resource straight into Zotero! If there are multiple sources you get to pick which. Wow. Utterly painless.

How it works

You can grab a copy from If you are a Firefox user then you are in luck as it integrates best with Firefox as a plugin. Otherwise you can install it as a standalone (which I do). At this point you will most likely to need to register an account at Zotero, which is also free and painless. This means your database is up to Zotero and even synchronised with another copy of Zotero if you have two computers. But you will need an account so you can use the Zotero plug-in for other browsers. Safari and Chrome are supported. You need to dig into the preferences of Zotero and the relevant plugin to enter your username and password. This is straightforward. Do make sure you select the MHRA style when asked (or go to preferences to select it) as otherwise it will diligently use the Chicago style or some other (saner) style and not MHRA.

So off you go, adding sources. I make sub folders for each essay and it is simple to drag and drop the sources about. I also make notes in Zotero when I am reading. Each source has a notes section. You can search and tag stuff and have as much fun as you wish.


Selecting more sources – you can choose multiple sources if you want.

Writing an essey

Zotero has plugins for Word and for Libreoffice and offers to install when you install the main program. This offers you a handy little toolbar.

MHRA requires lots of footnotes. You can add footnotes in the normal way in your word processor, but when you want to add a citation you can click in the insert reference button on the Zotero toolbar in the word processor.

This pops up a bar on the screen. Type the author or a word from the title and Zotero will offer you a drop down list of sources to choose from. It puts a blue blob around the source once selected. Click on the blob to add a page number or page range. After that hit return or add another source if you want. Now the magic happens as you continue to edit and add resources Zotero keeps adapting the footnotes according the style rule.


Inserting a citation (click on the blue oval to add pages)

You will of course need to add a bibliography section at the end. Again. Make the page you want it on click on the Insert Bibliography button and, poof!, a sorted and well formatted list is dropped in. This dynamically changes as you add new sources.

For the Durham Common Awards we have the added pleasure of needing different bibliographies for Primary sources, Secondary sources and Dictionaries. This is more troublesome but can be worked around in the following way. In Zotero make a separate collection folder for your essay and add the word “secondary” to it if you like and perhaps another collection with “dictionary” in the title. Add the appropriate sources to each folder. Then when you are done right-click on the folder and choose “Create Bibliography from Collection…”. This offers you several choices. I chose Copy to Clipboard and then pasted it into my essay after the proper heading. Poof (again!), a delightfully formatted sorted list.


Choose where you want the bibliography to go. This grows as you add more citations

Over to you

I hope you find this useful. Do play with Zotero. I am finding this a genuinely useful tool playing to the strengths of the computer. Computers are good at formatting following complicated styling rules. Humans are not. Humans are good at selecting suitable sources for essays, computer are not! And that’s the way it should be.

One more thing – Getting the Modern Humanities Research Association Zotero style sheet with ibid!

This may not mean anything to you but the MHRA style sheet that comes with Zotero is wonderful but misses placing ibid as the authors name in a citation if it follows directly on from the last footnote. This is in the standard that I have to follow from Durham. Some kind folks have modified the style to include this feature. You should download it here.

To make it work you need to import it into Zotero. You do that from the Edit/Preferences menu. It brings up the dialog in the screenshot. If you click on the button marked 1 you will get a file picker and you can point it to the attachment .csl file.

Then all you need to do is to select the new style (2) and Zotero will format your footnotes even more perfectly!


Leave a comment

A useful tip for Wordpress users…

I really like WordPress. I have used Blogger, use Typepad regularly and tried other systems but WordPress seems to do all I want quickly, easily, slickly and for free!

Now I love the RSS technology that enables a website to publish a series of articles or pages so that other sites can syndicate them and make use of them. I set up to captialise this as it sucks in the RSS feeds from websites and then re-publishes them on one page. It makes an auto-matic newspaper that publishes once an hour. Only with out editorial control. But it does have its own RSS feed too!

Anyway I wanted to set up this blog so that only articles that I place in the YWAM category are published on planetYWAM. It turns out this is quite easy to do. WordPress allows you to add a /feed to the end of the blog url or the category url or comments url with provides a feed to that subset of articles.

e.g. will give me an RSS link to a series of articles I have placed in the YWAM category. I have added this link to the planetYWAM engine and so it should publish this article presently!

Very cool eh? And all for free! Actually, something this good is worth paying for as if it ever goes away I will be sad!

Leave a comment

This Linux thing

If you are wondering what is all this Linux thing about then perhaps this little explanation will help!

Linux is the core of an operating system, like Windows or Mac OS X, and is a variant of Unix if you have ever heard of that. The Linux kernel is at the heart of the Gnu/Linux Operating system and was started off as a project of a young Finnish, Linus Torvalds, under-graduate in 1991 during his summer holiday break. He started the project just for fun yet the project has mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar software industry.

Where would you find Linux? Pretty much everywhere these days. Due to its open nature it can be taken and modified for many different applications. For example, whenever you watch Shrek, all the animation and rendering was done using computers running Linux. When you buy a book on Amazon (their entire business is built on Linux), when you search Google! Linux runs on nearly all of the fastest 500 supercomputers in the world. It also runs on mobile phones, TV set top boxes and all sorts of electronic gadgets. Where you might not see it is on Desktop computers as only about 1% or 2% of desktop computers run Linux but it is gaining more and more acceptance.

Why would I want to run Linux on my computer? Well, its cheap! Often free. It has a great reputation for being very secure compared to Windows. It has been designed from the start to work on the internet and with multiple users safely and securely. You will not need to run a virus checker as there are not really any serious viruses compared to the tens of thousands of viruses for Windows. It also runs very well on older hardware as it is efficient and fast. It is really stable too. It is very hard to lock up a Linux machine. Programs that break often do not take crash the whole machine along with it! It generally uses less memory than Windows making a struggling computer feel responsive and zippy again. It has tons of great software built in and installing new software and keeping it up to date is really simple and pain free. It is also often easy to install, as there are no license keys to remember and no endless searching for this and that driver you can’t find, plus hours spent in installing and rebooting that you need to add software to make it useful. Linux can be up and running in 20 minutes, and you can be doing useful work straight away. There are even a few powerful office suites right at your finger tips. Linux can save you hundreds of Euros on software and hardware.

Why is it called Free and Open source software? Linux belongs to a class of software called Free and Open source. This is free as in Freedom, and Linux is released under a special free software agreement. This does not always mean zero cost but it means that you will have several freedoms when using the software that you wont get elsewhere. These include the freedom to run the software, examine the code, modify it and improve it and also give those changes away to others (to help you neighbour). You really can share a great game or other program with friends without needing to pirate or pay large fees to do so. What this means is that there has grown a community of people who develop the software. Big business is involved (like IBM and SUN for example) just as much as ordinary people in their spare time. Very often the software is created for, and by the people who use it. That means that the users are the ones who get to dictate the direction of the software and not a corporation for its own profit. This can produce software that is more innovative, easy to use and productive. A good example of this is the Firefox web browser that has revolutionised innovation on the World Wide Web.

Is it hard? Well, yes and no! In many ways it is often very easy and a modern Linux distribution is no harder than Windows. There is much to learn and you can go as deep as you wish in exploring this fascinating system. There are some hard things and not all hardware works straight away. This is often because the manufacturers are unwilling to write the driver software or open up the specifications to allow the Linux community to write their own. However, when hardware works it often does so out of the box. There will be things that wont work but shopping wisely by researching your purchase is the best way to prevent disappointment. Help is often on hand too both on the internet and from enthusiasts who will willingly give you a helping hand.

What can’t it do? Well, it can’t do everything. Some weak areas are: video editing, there might not be a Linux version of your favourite software (games especially), some hardware is difficult including wireless internet cards and some video cards. But it can do everything else including making coffee.

How do I start? Get hold of a Live Linux CD (say Ubuntu, OpenSuse or Fedora) from a Linux Magazine, from a friend or even downloading a CD image and burning it onto a CD. Run that CD and see what happens! Live CD’s run a version of Linux directly from the CD, not touching your other data at all on your hard disk. It will be slower than normal but you will get a good idea if it is likely to work or not on your machine without having install it. Buying a cheap second hand machine and installing Linux on to it is a great learning tool.

What ever you do make sure you enjoy the freedom Linux brings, and spirit of Linux, which is to have a lot of fun!

Leave a comment

16th Birthday

Sixteen  years ago Linus Tovalds wrote this little email as he launched a little project he had spent most of the summer  working on…

 From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki
Hello everybody out there using minix -
I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.

Sixteen years later his little “Linux” project is rather big and professional! And his software has made it into MILLIONS of devices for the Top Supercomputers in the world to Mobile Phones! (And in virtually every set top box on millions of TV’s)

It is amazing how a little idea can grow and grow and grow like that!

PS Thank Linux and all the GNU crowd!

Leave a comment

Blog This!

The last few weeks have been quiet here in Brussels  as it is holiday time. However, I have been having a lot of fun interacting with YWAMers all over the globe! From Australia to England and who knows where!

RSS symbol

What I have been doing is getting a website up and running What this site does is grab news from other websites that publish a site summary using a technology called “Rich Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication” or RSS for short. Basically wherever you see the symbol on the right lurking you can get a link to  a “feed”, this link can then be used in a program called a Reader to pull the latest news from the website.

The upshot is that if you put lots of these “feed” links from your favourite websites in one place then you will get all the latest news from one place and save yourself loads of time clicking on a long list of bookmarks.

What I have done with PlanetYWAM is set up an Open Source program and given it a list of links. The program runs once an hour and grabs the latest news and then creates one single page of news from the various sources.

The most fun part has been to interact with  YWAMers all over and find a lot more news about the wide world of YWAM than I ever knew before! Plus it is hardly taxing to cut and paste links into the configuration files to keep it up to date!

One of my passions is to connect YWAMers together from all over and it is good to be able to achieve a little success through this project… and I will write soon about my thoughts on creating effective communities.

1 Comment

A terrible ache in all the diodes down my left side…

For a long time now I have had an annoying problem here in the YWAM building in that all the computers on the left hand side of the building would run very slowly over the network; not slowly enough to stop work from happening, but slow enough.

We used to have a recurring problem on Monday’s at 5pm when the left hand side of the building’s network simply refused to work until resolving itself mysteriously on its own by 10am Tuesday. This happened so regularly we knew how to work around it.

Our building’s network is split two, one half stretches all the way to my office and up to the top floor of the building via a relay of 8 port switches. And it is always fast! The other half stretches through the office and down into the basement.

In the centre we have a 4 port US Robotics router that connects the two halves and also connects to our broadband cable modem and out of the building along the tubes and pipes of the Internet. I always assumed the problem were the cables I had crimped together or some strange electrical interference from the Aurora Borealis or simply mice munching the cables in walls.

The other day, having got completely frustrated working on a machine on one half of the building that was crawling along on the network, I left the office and went shopping. I had a spare switch knocking about and I suddenly realised what the problem was. The US Robotics router was simply not up to the job of switching the data around the lan. So I replaced the 4 ports into the 8 port switch and linked just one port to one port on the router.

And… speed again! Can’t believe it took me a year to figure it out though…

So I guess the lesson learned is that a cheap switch might be more efficient than a cheap mulit-port hub/router etc. (not that I am complaining too much about the router – it has a great firewall).

Sorry if I put anyone to sleep there, but maybe it will help you!


Leave a comment

Sharing Windows printers with computers running Linux

One of the things that I have found hardest to get working over the years is printing to a printer attached to a Windows machine from my Linux machines. In general Linux will print to about everything and even has some success with those cheap GDI laser printers that rely on Windows to render pages. Postscript printers work wonderfully as do Network printing.

My particular problem has been to print to Inkjet printers attached to Windows machines. Well after a long, long search I have made progress thanks to some Ubuntu mailing lists. It turns out that Windows XP (and I guess 2000 and Vista too) have some extra facilities that you can use.

If your Windows printers are shared over your Windows network and all is working well you can get Linux printing working well by:

On the Windows XP Machine

  • Go to the Install Software and Install Windows Software. Choose to install Other Network File and Print Services and choose the Unix Line-Printer service.
  • Go to Management Console’s Services sections and TCP/IP Print Services. Make sure these are started and set to automatic so they run at each reboot.
  • On the Windows Firewall (or other Firewall program you are running) open port 515 on the and call it LPD or something
  • Finally on the printer you want to share disable bi-directional printing support as this just doesn’t seem to work over the network.

On the Linux Machine
(I use KDE desktop but it should be similar in Gnome or even from the http://localhost:631 control panel)

  • Create printer
  • The backend should be a LPD network printer
  • Give IP address or host name of printer
  • For the print Queue give Windows share name of the printer
  • Follow through with the installation and select the right driver for the printer.
  • Give it a good name and save!
  • Try a test print! Success! (I hope!)