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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 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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