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Put an Office in Your Pocket

Put an Office in Your Pocket
Put an Office in Your Pocket

    Just about everyone these days knows how useful a USB thumb drive can be for moving files from place to place. For people on the go, who may find themselves sing a variety of different computers, a thumb drive offers more than just portable storage. With very little work and no money aside from the original expense of the drive itself, you can easily turn a thumb drive into your primary workspace — complete with the software and settings, reference material, and documents you uses the most.

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    Here’s what you need to do:

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    • Buy a thumb drive. Or “pen drive” or “USB stick” or whatever you call it. You can also use one of those portable USB or firewire drives, though they’re more expensive and not quite as pocketable. Look for drives that are certified USB 2.0 (or “high speed”) with at least 2 GB of memory (they’re so cheap these days there’s no reason to buy smaller unless your budget is very tight). Stick to brands you know — the flash memory in “no-name” drives tends to be less quality-controlled, which could mean fewer read-write cycles. In short, they may not last as long.
    • Download and install the Portable Apps Suite. The Portable Apps Suite consists of several open source programs you already know and love, specially configured to run from a thumb drive without being installed on the host computer. The applications include: the entire OpenOffice.org suite (word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software), GAIM/Pidgin (IM software), Firefox (web browser), Thunderbird (email), Sunbird (calendar), ClamWin (anti-virus), and Sudoku (game). If you don’t need the entire OpenOffice.org suite, you can download the “Lite” version which replaces OOo with AbiWord, a simple word processor. It also includes a launcher program that offers access to all the programs and files on the thumb drive from the system tray when the drive is inserted.

      Insert your thumb drive and run the installer program, which will copy the files onto the thumb drive and create folders for documents, music, and apps. Once installed, you can easily delete programs you don’t use by opening the thumb drive program using Explorer and deleting them from the apps folder. There are also dozens of other programs available at the Portable Apps site that you can install if you need them; I added FileZilla (FTP client), GIMP (graphics editor), VLC (media player), and NVU (webpage editor) when I set mine up.

      (Note: alas, the Portable Apps Suite is PC-only, though I’m sure Mac-friendly equivalents are out there somewhere. If anyone has any pointers, feel free to leave a comment!)

    • Configure the applications. If you use any of these programs on a regular basis, you’ve probably got them set up just how you like them; the good news is, you can usually easily transfer your settings to the thumb drive version. For example, you can copy your Firefox profile from the “Documents and Settings” folder on your PC to the FirefoxPortable\Data\profile directory on the thumb drive; all your extensions, themes, and even saved passwords will be transferred. You can do the same thing with Thunderbird, which will also copy your accounts over. There are clear instructions under each application’s page on the Portable Apps site to tell you how to transfer your settings, where applicable.

      There are a few things to keep in mind, though. Since you likely keep your email on your own PC or on the web, make sure you check the option under each email account in Thunderbird to leave a copy on the server when you download email. In Firefox, you’ll want to turn off the disk cache to avoid excessive wear and tear on the thumb drive (instructions are on the site). You can install extensions on the thumb drive-based browser normally once you’re up and running. Once you have everything set up just the way you like it, you can use the software the same way you normally would — they are all feature-complete.

    • Add reference materials. You can install the free Sage Dictionary and Thesaurus by installing it on your PC and just copying the installed directory to your apps folder. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is available from Project Gutenberg. You can download a 2500-article extract from Wikipedia via BitTorrent and copy the files over (it’s around 700 MB, so only do this if you have a large thumb drive!).

      Don’t forget your own references: syllabi for classes, PDFs of research articles from J-Stor or elsewhere, lists of addresses, notes, your resume, whatever else you might need to access somewhat regularly.

    • Load your documents, music, and photos. Add whatever you’re currently working on, as well as some MP3s and photos you might like to look at from time to time. Since text documents are fairly small, a student should be able to keep an entire semester’s worth of work on their drive along with everything else. A business person should find room for months’ worth of work. The nice thing about keeping work on a thumb drive is it’s always available if you want to share your work with someone else — just plug it into their PC and launch the document (or copy it over).
    • Backup regularly! Use a program like SyncToy to backup the whole drive to a folder on your PC (or just drag and drop the files over). The downside of thumb drives is that they’re very small and get lost. Plus, they eventually wear out. Keep a recent backup on your main PC — backup daily if possible — and when you need a new drive, just copy the entire backup folder back onto the new thumb drive (no need to reinstall Portable Apps Suite).

    I’ve said before that I’m a big fan of LogMeIn’s free remote access service, and that is in fact what I use most of the time. However, using LogMeIn or Windows Remote Desktop or VNC requires leaving the server PC on all the time, and an always-on Internet connection, so these options won’t work for everyone. If you share a PC with other people, use dial-up Internet service, or are otherwise unable to use a remote access solution, a thumb drive-based virtual “office” makes a lot of sense. With the price of flash memory dropping almost constantly, it’s possible to keep almost everything important to you in your pocket at all times, ready to use at just about any PC you find yourself in front of.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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