My computer should stay out of my way

While I am a big supporter of automation and getting tedious, repetitive tasks done by a computer, I also believe that my software should also just stay out of my way and let me do things the way I want. Using a Mac regularly over the last week has made me realize how true this is. I want to use my Mac as a simple media center, which means using the iLife software to manage my music, pictures and a few movies. I’ve used iTunes on Windows and I quite like it, iPhoto was something I was looking forward to, but unfortunately, it isn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

Both iTunes and iPhoto use libraries which keeps the user from having to manually manage and worry about the actual file. While that may be acceptable for the average user, for someone like me who likes knowing where my files and wants to keep everything well organized, the library concept is one abstraction too many. Neither program has a file-manager like view, if something is in your filesystem, but not in your library, you won’t be seeing it. This wouldn’t really be a problem if your filesystem was always well-organized, but considering that yoou may have lots of different media files from lots of different places, chances are, it isn’t organized. Added to that is the fact that even if you take the time to organize your libraries, your files may still be just as disorganized. In this case, your software doesn’t get out of your way and doesn’t make it really easy to do things yourself when you want to.

So what’s the solution? If you want to keep your files well managed you’ll have to do it yourself. The first thing to do is to stop your software from messing with your filesystem in the first place. Turn off copying of files from their actual location to the library directory, that’ll save you quite a bit or disk space and turn off any option to order the files according to the library. That’ll get your software out of your way. Before you start reshaping your files structure, it’s necessary to have a solid idea of how your files are organized. I keep my music organized by artist and album and my photos by date and event. A good naming convention also helps for the times you have to move your files and are stuck without your library. There are AppleScripts that will rename your audio files according to iTunes library information. iPhoto will only rename the files if you export them from the libary. You may want to rename your photos manually with descriptive titles, but if you want to use automated data like the date and time, then try ExifRenamer, which can extract metadata from your photos and renames accordingly.

iPhoto doesn’t allow you to selectively import photos from your camera, and it doesn’t let you choose where to place your photos. My workaround for this is to use the software that came with my camera to move photos into my file structure, rename them with ExifRenamer and only after that import them into iPhoto. Tedious, but it works and it let’s me use the excellent iPhoto export plugins for Picasa Web and Facebook.

While I’ve talked about media files, the same principles apply to other files as well. If your computer won’t play nice and get out of your way, you’ll just have to push. Sometimes using some other software will make things a lot easier (Winamp and Picasa come to mind). But if that is not something you want to do, then some brute force might be needed.

Spend less on buying a computer

Computer prices may have plummeted in recent years, but they are still quite expensive, especially for students. With some planning and looking around you can avoid a lot of unnecessary costs without compromising on quality. Some of the stuff I’ll talk about is free, while others just cost a little less. However they do require that you invest some amount of time and effort, so it’s up to you if the savings will justify the work you have to do.

1. Software

If you’re an average computer user, almost all the software you’ll need can be gotten for free. There are lots of free (and in many cases, open source) software that will take the  place of popular commercial software. You might have to sacrifice support services if you want things absolutely free stuff, but if you pay just a bit, you can buy a supported Linux Distro and get help with your problems. If you’re even a bit computer-savvy, you can easily get free help from online forums and mailing lists and take care of most problems yourself. This may well be the largest saving that you’ll be making.

2. Don’t get standard upgrades

Most computers that you buy nowadays let you upgrade things like RAM and hard disk space for an extra price. This is certainly convenient, but in many cases you could buy the parts for a fair deal less and install them yourself (or ask a tech-savvy friend to do it for you).  If you think you won’t need the upgrade immediately, it makes sense to wait until you do. Prices keep falling, so in 6 months time, chances are you’ll get a bit more for your buck.

3. Keyboard and Mice

These things don’t really cost much, but you can get them even less of Ebay and other auction sites. Unless you’re a hardcore gamer or you’re typing all day long you probably won’t recognize the difference between a new one and an old one. If you work in a large corporation or are in a college environment, chances are the IT department has a fair number of unused  keyboards and mice lying around. If you’re friendly with the IT guys, you could get yourself one for free.

4. Look around and wait a while

Computer stores and websites often have good deals going on things like printers, scanners and other peripherals as well as many seasonal discounts. Often you can get things for a good $100 or more less (often in the form of mail in rebates). If you don’t need a computer right now, try waiting a while, and if you do need one now, look around. In addition to looking at websites for the best deal, also visit physical stores near you, they might have special local offers going.

As for college students, if you have a student discount, remember to use it. Late summer is a particularly good time to buy thanks to lots of ‘back-to-school’ offers going around. Apple is currently giving rebates on iPods and Printers bought with a desktop or laptop.

A combination of all of the above could easily knock a few hundred dollars off your computer expenses. Of course, just buying a computer isn’t the end of it, there’s also a certain price associated with running a computer (upgrades, printer supplies and of course the monthly power bill). Tomorrow I take a look at the things you can do spend less money on running your machine.

5 Public Computer Safety Tips

Now that I’ve started college, I’ve had to learn to live with not having my own computer. Like many people starting college, I’ve had to rely on computers in computer labs scattered throughout campus. While you might be able to get work done on a public computer just as easily as you could on your personal machine, there are some crucial differences, the most important of which is security. The crux of the matter is this: public computers are used by many different people everyday. This means that any data that is on the computer will be seen by a lot of different. And since you are one of the people using the computer, you just might leave data that other people might exploit. This can be anything from a copy of tomorrow’s history paper to important User IDs passwords stored in a browser’s cache. But there are a number of things (of varying complexity) that you can do to make your work on a public computer safer.

1. Always Log Off

On a public computer you’ll have to manually log in lots of different services such as instant messaging software, email accounts and social networks. All this means that you will have to input your username and password. Never opt to store the password if prompted and always log out of everything. That way, the next person accessing the computer won’t have straight access to everything you logged into. If you have to log into your school or corporate network at any time, log out of that as well. If most of your work is online (and involves multiple logins), you might want to clear the browser’s cache and cookies once you’re done. This can get tedious, but will keep you safe. I’ll deal with a way around the tedium later.

2. Never leave anything on the hard disk

You probably won’t be able to avoid storing things to the hard drive at one time or the other, whether it’s stuff you download from the net, or files that you are creating as part of your work. However you probably don’t want to leave your documents available for everyone to see. The easiest way to make sure you delete everything that you’ve created is to create a separate a folder for yourself as soon as you start work and save everything to that folder. Once you’re done, just delete the whole folder. Also please remember to check the Trash or Recycle Bin and permanently delete things from there as well.

Another solution is to not keep anything on the hard drive in the first place. If your school or company gives you network disk space, learn how to access it and try to save directly to that disk space, that way there are no local copies to worry about. If you don’t have such space at your disposal, carry around a USB Pen Drive (they are quite affordable nowadays) and save directly to that.

3. Don’t carry out money transactions

Don’t buy, sell, or in any other way give out any financial information while you’re on a public computer. You have no idea what sort of software may have been installed on the computer you are using. Losing your Facebook password is one thing, giving away your banking PIN is quite another.

4. Carry your own software

If you know that you’re going to be using public computers for a long time, it would be worthwhile to invest some time (and a little money) in getting software that you can carry around in your pocket. Many of us carry around documents on USB drives, but you can also carry around software such as Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org, Gaim and even antivirus and encryption tools. PortableApps.com has a excellent software package of popular and useful programs which can easily be installed to and run from a USB drive. These programs have been modified to work for people on the go. For example the portable version of Firefox is designed not to leave cookies or a browsing history on the host computer (but you can still install your favorite themes and extensions).

5. Sit in a corner

Not all the technology and security software in the world is going to stop someone from looking over shoulder and seeing what you’re typing. Try to sit somewhere so that it’s hard for someone to peek over your shoulders. Some cyber-cafes also offer private cubicles for a slightly higher price. Of course, you don’t have much control over this (it depends largely on how the computer are placed) but it never hurts to be a little careful. Some libraries will let you borrow a laptop for a few hours, try to use these if possible (and go look for a cosy spot at the back of the room).

3 Productivity Questions

Technology and productivity have been intimately linked for quite a long time and it’s still not really clear whether technology helps us or hinders us. I personally believe that it all depends on how much technology you use, what you use and how you use it. I’m not really a fan of productivity blogs, there are only two that I read on a regular basis: Productivity501 and Scott H. Young. Productivity501’s Mark Shead recently interviewed about 30 bloggers asking them three simple productivity-related questions. And now he has thrown it open to the public. Here’s my take:

1. What is the single biggest way people waste time without even realizing it?

I would have to say multitasking. A lot of people think that they will be able to get more done if they do a lot of things at the same time. While some people might be good at this, most people aren’t and they will end up simply wasting time. Remember that switching tasks requires changing your frame of mind to handle the new task, in effect, reloading your mental RAM. The more tasks you try to handle at the same time the more time you will spend moving between tasks and switching mindsets. Not only do you waste time, you will also tire out faster than if you devoted yourself to one task at a time.

When talking about computers, one fact that many people overlook is that out the dozen windows that some people keep open, only one or two are really being used for work. The rest are just there, more often distracting you than helping you. Please remember that reading blogs or chatting with friends while working on your project doesn’t lead to increased productivity.

2. What change has made the most difference in making you more effective in life.

This is an easy one for me to answer: making an sticking to an appropriate routine. Google Calendar is one productivity tool that I’ve come to depend on. Not too long I used to waste hours of time simply because I couldn’t remember or decide on what to do. Nowadays I spend the last fifteen minutes of my waking day making up next day’s routine. I have different calendars for different areas of my life (Academic, writing, social) etc. and they are each different color. I allocate between 1.5 to 3 hours to a single area and if my daily schedule is colorful enough, it means that I generally have a good balance. A large, uninterrupted swath of a single color probably means that I’m spending too much time on one thing and that I need to space out so that I don’t get bored.

Of course the times that I allocate aren’t always accurate. If I find myself unable to finish my work in the allocated time slab, I have to decide whether I can take a break to do something else and come back later or whether it is more important that I just get it over with no matter how much longer it takes. If I happen to finish early I pull up my simple pen-and-paper to-do list. This list contains “tit-bits”, tasks that aren’t important enough or long enough to warrant a place on my calendar. I can generally get them done in less than ten minutes without much of a mental or physical effort. I find that this combination of a proper daily schedule for longer block tasks and a sinmple to-do lists doe smaller things helps me save a rather large amount of time each day.

3. If someone were to read just one post from your site, which would you recommend and why?

A hard choice to make, because there are a number of articles that are close to my heart. However as a representative of this site, I would like to put forward my opinion piece on Mathematics: A Universal Language. Though I generally write about technology and computers, mathematics is something I’m very fond of and I personally consider a good grasp of Mathematics a prerequisites for anyone seriously interested in computer science. A lot of people who work with computers daily including many IT professionals, programmers and sytem administrators aren’t really aware of the deeper mathematical basis of what they are working with and I think a lot of this is because many people consider math to be very hard, simply because they were taught in a very uninteresting and rather tedious manner. This post outlines how I would like mathematics to be taught and how I try to teach myself mathematics. This post really doesn’t get much traffic on its own, but if there’s one post that I would like more people to read, it’s this one.