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Make your idle computer work for you

Make your idle computer work for you

    Since you’re not sitting at your home computer all day, (you have a job right?) your computer is probably available to become your personal productivity/fun slave. The following are five ways to make use of your idle computer when you are away.

    Legally download (good) music for free
    If the whole copyright issue surrounding free music irks you, and if P2P clients aren’t your bag (Limewire, BearShare, etc.), don’t worry because there is still a way to download mainstream MP3s, legally, for free. A lot of bands have jumped on the free music band wagon recently, but these tend to be smaller, “underground” bands. I’ve reached the point in my life where this no longer excites me. I don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to listen to a bunch of crappy bands just to hear one or two good songs. I just want the mainstream stuff that I know I will like.

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    That’s where StationRipper comes into play. StationRipper is a free Windows program that allows you to set your computer to download streaming radio over the Internet. Remember the good old days when your favorite song came on the radio and you quickly put a tape in your boom box to record the song? This is the exact same concept except StationRipper grabs every single song, and rather than creating one long MP3 file, it parses the file according to the meta data. StationRipper comes fully loaded with tons of Internet radio stations. The total setup time is less than 5 minutes. After an hour or so, you will have around 15-25 MP3s perfectly named, tagged, and ready to be enjoyed by you. Let StationRipper go all day and you’re talking about 200 – 500 songs.

    Linux users can grab the sister program Streamripper which is widely available in the repositories.

    Setup your own personal DVR

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    If you’ve got a TV card for your PC, you are just one step away from having your own personal “Freevo” (Free TiVO). In the matter of minutes you can have your PC setup to record all of your favorite shows. Many people are familiar with the extremely robust Linux DVR software known as MythTV. Unfortunately for some, MythTV can be a bear to set up. Windows has a fantastic alternative called SageTV (it has a one-time cost of about $80). SageTV is perfect if you are not extremely technically inclined. What I like most about SageTV is that their API is available and many addons are available. One addon that you will not want to miss is the SageTV web server. You can use SageTV and the SageTV web server to setup your recordings and stream live TV over the Internet. The setup is extremely easy even for the non-technically inclined.

    SageTV has versions for Mac, Windows, and Linux — pick your poison!

    Hate paying for software? There are several free DVR software packages that may catch your fancy. Give MediaPortal and Yahoo! Go a try.

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    Automate your downloads
    I am a digital media and graphic art pack rat. I often scour the web downloading interesting media and graphic art. A great tool known as Wget does this for me. Lifehacker has an excellent introduction to Wget. If you want the short story, you can setup Wget to grab updated content from around anywhere around the web. For example, if you have an MP3 website that gives you a free download everyday, but you can’t remember to go to the site, you can setup a simple Wget script and download the daily song without ever thinking twice about it. Or if you wanted to backup your website everyday, you could do it with Wget. If you’re wondering how I like to use Wget, I download the daily Dilbert comic over night and I have a script setup to turn the image into my desktop background. Every morning when I wake up I get my dose of Dilbert. You can setup Wget for your favorite comics, also.

    Donate to charity
    You can use your computer’s processor to contribute to medical and scientific advancement through distributed computing. Distributed computing allows millions of people to install a program that runs when your computer is idle that will solve many small problems. This program communicates with a supercomputer and uses the small problems your computer solved to solve very large problems. Standford University has an impressive and important project known as Folding@Home that is working to cure cancer and Alzheimer’s. I have been happily running it for several months. This is a great way to donate to charity without your wallet taking a hit.

    Folding@Home is a distributed computing project — people from through out the world download and run software to band together to make one of the largest supercomputers in the world. Every computer makes the project closer to our goals.

    Folding@Home uses novel computational methods coupled to distributed computing, to simulate problems thousands to millions of times more challenging than previously achieved.

    Turn it off!
    No surprises here, but if you want to save a few bucks when it comes to the electric bill, just turn the thing off! I’ve heard people say in the past that it is bad to turn your computer on and off all day, so you might want to avoid this if you’ve got a really nice computer (due to the wear and tear on the hardware). But if you’ve got an el-junko, go ahead and pull the plug and save a buck or two per month.

    How do you put your idle computer to use? Do you have the ultimate automated setup? We want to hear about it in the comments!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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