A good keyboard is important

    For most people, the keyboard may be the cheapest part of a computer that they buy (with the possible exception of the mouse). However, the keyboard is for most people the most important interface that the have with the computer. Depending on how you use your computer, you might be spending many hours a day typing away. And whenever you spend so much time doing one particular task, it is important that you do it in a way that doesn’t place undue stress on your body (and mind).

For a good few months I have been using my laptop keyboard almost exclusively. I really like my laptop keyboard, the keys are of a good size, close together and they are absolutely flat.  The space around the trackpad provides a convenient location for me to rest my wrists. As a result, I’ve developed a way of typing which involves very little actual hand movement. I just rest my wrists and then sweep my fingers across the trackpad, rarely lifting them high, I don’t actually strike the keys anymore, I just press down on them until they give away (which happens with quite little force). I’m still not quite sure if all this is all well and good from a medical point of view, I have a feeling that resting my wrists all the time may not be so good. But I’m quite certain that it is more efficient. I’m typing faster and more accurately, I think the fact that I don’t have to hit the keys hard makes it somewhat easier.

At the moment though, I am typing at an old Mac keyboard, the white chunky ones. Although I know a good few people who swear by it, I find it intolerable. The height and thickness of the keyboard makes my hands rest at what feels like an awkward angle. The keys themselves are quite high and curved and the keys require more force than my laptop keyboard. All of these make it impossible for my fingers to glide across the keyboard like I do with my laptop. I’ve become so used to that feeling that doing anything else for a long time feels very uncomfortable. I haven’t managed to try out the new keyboards, but I feel that I may be more comfortable with them.

I have an old G4 mac which right now has a older keyboard. I find the Mac interface very soothing for (non-coding) writing projects but the keyboard puts me off. I have been looking for a good keyboard for it, and if I like the new ones, I might even get one. I also looked at the DiNovo Edge keyboard, but at a price tag of over $160 at Amazon, it is just a bit too much. And when it comes to something as important to me as a keyboard, I would like to try before I buy, which would not be an option in this case. I’ll post a follow-up as soon as I get my hands on a slim Mac keyboard.

Put your documents under version control

Being a college student means that I have to write papers every now and then. And writing papers means multiples drafts and lots of changes. Normally this would mean having lots of documents having each with a different version of the paper. While this lets you look up all the different versions quickly, it also means that you’ll quickly have a folder filled with lots of files with different and often conflicting names, making it rather hard to find the one you want.

Enter version control. Programmers (especially open source ones) have been using version control for years to manage the various revisions that they make to their source code. If you’re willing to get your hands a bit dirty, then you can easily leverage any of these robust and powerful systems to manage your everyday documents.  There are a large number of version control systems to choose from. The old favorite was Concurrent Versions System CVS, but it has been largely superceded by Subversion. Subversion is extremely popular in the open source world, and it is the system that drives Sourceforge. Both CVS and Subversion are centralized systems, i.e. there is a central copy of the files (called the repository) and everyone who wants to make changes has to check out a working copy and then sync changes back to the central repo. There are also a number of decentralized or distributed version control systems including git (used by the Linux kernel) and lightweight alternatives like Mercurial.These do not require a central repo relying instead on a peer-to-peer approach to keep differing copies in sync.

So which one is right for you? If you use one computer and are not particularly interested in keeping things synchronized between multiple machines, one of the centralized systems would be sufficient. But if you need multiple machines (and use them all frequently) you should look into the distributed systems. I have a PowerMac desktop and a Linux, however I tend to use the laptop more. I went with Subversion, turning my Mac into a lightweight Subversion server, housing the central repo and working copies on both machines.

Though the systems will have different ways of setup and management, they are still quite similar in the way they require you to add, change and sync files, so you should not have much trouble moving and adapting once you get used to one of them. Tomorrow I look into setting up a simple subversion server and using it get files out to another machines (and then synced back).

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).