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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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