Category Archives: Efficiency

Using the Internet to Recall Sayings and Quotations You’ve Forgotten

Ever remember fragments of a saying? Or just part of a quote? You’re not alone. The trick is figuring out how to search for it. Here are two searching tricks to rescue you from that annoying feeling of remembering just part of something.

1: The Asterisk
There’s a really handy Google trick that almost nobody seems to know about: an asterisk (*) matches any single word. This lets you easily search for quotes that you can only remember part of. For example, “one death is a * a million deaths is a *” will easily bring up Joseph Stalin’s fairly well-known statement, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” (I have this posted on my wall right in front of me, so I’m not liable to forget it, but I couldn’t think of a better example.)


This trick works wonders; there are only so many possible sentences with that precise structure, and if it’s something reasonably well-known, the first page of hits is liable to give you a unanimous verdict on what you were trying to think of. If you get irrelevant results (which has actually never happened to me), you can try putting the whole thing in quotes. It’s also possible that you remembered the part that you knew wrong; try adding more asterisks in places you weren’t sure of.


2: Searching Books on the Internet
This is what happened to me the other day. I remembered the following phrase: “You may be the world champion tetris player, but eventually….” That was it. For the life of me, I could not figure out where it came from, or indeed any information about it. So I went to Google and just typed that in. Guess what? There was exactly one hit, a Google Books result taking me to exactly the passage I was looking for.


To test whether this was a transferable trick, I grabbed five books from my bookshelf, flipped them open to a random page, and typed in a quote from each. A search for the quoted passage (only ten words long or so, and devoid of any specific names) brought up the correct title of the book in five out of five cases.


The uniqueness of fairly mundane English sentences is truly surprising. Some things that worked:
  • “It lay out in the open, several feet away and unreachable” (Once Upon a Time In the North by Philip Pullman, 1 result)
  • “nudging people to use the standard cursor keys” (Windows XP Annoyances for Geeks by David Karp, 3 results)
  • “For the last six months we have exhausted every means of locating you” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 3 results).
So next time you can’t remember the source of a quote you’re thinking of, forget about thinking hard and scanning through books–just type it into Google. In most cases the websites also let you see a couple of pages of context, so you probably don’t even have to go get the book. Remember to use quotation marks around the quote, assuming that you’re fairly sure your words are exactly right–you’ll get much more relevant results.


Many sites and devices that you might use have their own search features (for instance, I can search all the books and documents on my Kindle from the main screen), but with the success rate of this technique, I’d only recommend using that if you don’t have immediate access to Google.

Avoiding Unnecessary Typing When Entering URLs

Repeatedly typing gets old really fast. Here are three ways to avoid typing any more of a web address than you need to.

1: Simplify the URL
Most people probably already know this trick, but every modern web browser will fill in the http:// for you if you omit it. You also don’t normally need to include the www., but in this case a few stupid websites will return an error if you omit it. (When I attempted to contact my school corporation about the fact that their website did this, I discovered that nowhere on the webpage was there a webmaster email.)


So all you really need to type is (Additional Note: If your website has something else before the dots, like this website,, that’s called a subdomain, and you cannot omit that–it leads to a different page than if it was missing.)


2: Ctrl-Enter
If you type just google and press Ctrl-Enter, the .com and .www parts will be filled in for you. Some browsers support additional modifiers of Ctrl and Shift to allow you to also use this trick for .org and .net websites as well–try it and see if yours does.


3: Autocomplete
Google Chrome has a really nice feature where beginning to type runs an incremental search through websites you visit frequently. So all I have to do to get to Google is press Ctrl-T to open a new tab, type a g, and will appear in the address bar. Then I just press Enter and I’m there. This can save you an enormous number of keystrokes, and is one of the primary reasons that I use Chrome. If you don’t have Chrome, you might consider trying it out.


Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad


If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:


Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Finding the Date a Page was Last Updated

Ever visited a page and been unable to find a publish date anywhere on the page? It can get really annoying when you’re afraid the information might be old or you need to cite it. Here’s how to find the date even when nobody bothered to put it on.

Note: This method doesn’t work every time. If the page updates dynamically (for example, Facebook, or some news sites), you’ll just get the current date and time. If you do get the current date and time, you’ll just need to try some other method of determining the date. It’s still usually worth a shot, though.

1: Getting Started
The simplest version of this trick is just to type the following into the address bar of your browser (while you’re at the site you want to get the date of):
(Note: This is case sensitive.) This will bring up a small dialog box containing the update date:
2: Simplifying
That’s all well and good, but you’re probably not going to remember that code. So you can create a very simple bookmarklet that brings up this dialog box. (If you don’t know, a bookmarklet is simply a small snippet of JavaScript or a link to a JavaScript file that can be saved as a bookmark. They can do almost anything–for instance, I have one that converts the current page to a PDF.)


To create it, just drag and drop the following link to your bookmarks bar: Date Last Modified. If you don’t have a bookmarks bar showing, you can also drag it into your bookmarks menu (tested on Firefox, and no reason why it wouldn’t work on another browser).


When you’re done, anytime you can’t find a date, simply click on the bookmark.


Note: For no apparent reason, the latest version of Firefox won’t seem to work when I just type in the code into the address bar. (Earlier versions have always worked.) However, the bookmark still works fine.

The Escape Key: Getting Out of Stuff

“Yeah, if you press Escape enough times, you’ll escape from your problems.” (*)

Nice try. But even though it’s not really a solution to everything, you can still get out of quite a few things using your Escape key.
  • If you open a dialog box you don’t want, just press Escape to close it. For instance, if you choose File –> Open in Microsoft Word and realize you don’t want to open a file after all, you can just press Escape to close the window instead of looking around for the cancel button.
  • If you start dragging a file or text from one place to another and realize you don’t want to move it after all, or you started moving it to the wrong place, pressing Escape will release whatever you’re dragging and put it back to its original location.
  • If a website is hung up or you accidentally browsed to it and don’t want to wait for it to load, you can press Escape to stop it from loading. (You can follow up with F5 to reload it if appropriate, as discussed in this tip.)
  • If you open a menu (or right-click) and you don’t want it, Escape will close all the menus quickly.
  • If you’re in a PowerPoint presentation and want to stop it before the end, pressing Escape will end the show.
There are more uses that I didn’t mention–you can use it almost any time you want to cancel an action you’re in the middle of taking. If you’re not sure if Escape would work, feel free to try it–pressing Escape will never cause anything particularly untoward to happen (unless you just spent five hours filling out a dialog box, in which case you have other problems).


(*) I said this a few months back when someone was in a sticky situation in a computer game and another player had told him to press Escape to clear a message box. Nice try!


Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad


If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:


Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Switching Quickly Between Windows

Here’s another shortcut that everyone should learn. It’s a godsend if you’re switching repeatedly back and forth between two windows, and useful even if you aren’t.

1: Alt-Tab
Pressing Alt-Tab will allow you to switch windows to the most recently used window. If you continue to hold down Alt after releasing the Tab key, the window switcher will remain open and allow you to select any other window as well.
If that sounds confusing, try it out, and it will become clear immediately. (Mac OS X users: Use Command-Tab instead of Alt-Tab.)
The behavior of Alt-Tab is actually a lot more complex than it looks–if you’re interested in the details, see the Wikipedia article. But the main thing you should remember is that it lets you easily toggle between two windows. Next time you have to copy and paste text several times between windows, try pressing Alt-Tab instead of clicking each of the windows in turn, and keep your hands off the mouse!


2: Similar Shortcuts
On Windows Vista and 7, Windows-Tab (the Windows key is often labeled with a flag icon) will do roughly the same thing, but display a fancy Rolodex-style preview of the window. On earlier versions of Windows, pressing Windows-Tab will select each program on the taskbar in turn; you can press Enter to select one.
Alt-Tab is really handy in keyboard macros, which I’ll probably write an article about later on.

A Little Refreshment: Reloading the Current Page

If a website has changed, you often don’t see the changes right away. A few sites, such as Facebook, do dynamically update the website, which usually makes this tip unnecessary. However, occasionally Facebook and similar websites do fail to update, and most websites will still need manual refreshing. Here’s what to do if you suspect the website on your screen isn’t the most recent version.

1: Refreshing a Page
The Refresh button has been moved all over the screen by many major browsers lately. It’s usually either next to the Back and Forward buttons or at the end of the address bar. Here are screenshots for Chrome and Firefox.

To reload the page, just click the button. Most of the time this will load the most recent copy of the page with no problems.

2: Really Refreshing a Page
Sometimes your browser thinks it’s smarter than you, and when you push Refresh it just loads a copy from your computer’s cache. (The cache stores copies of frequently accessed Web resources on your computer so that pages can be loaded more quickly.) So even after you’ve pushed Refresh, you may not actually have the site’s most recent version.

If you’re suspicious that you still don’t have the latest version of a site, simply hold down the Ctrl key while hitting Refresh. This will disallow loading from the cache and force a full copy of the page to be downloaded from the Web. (A few browsers use Shift instead, so if it still doesn’t work it can’t hurt to try that as well.)

3: Keyboard Shortcuts
I’m a big fan of keyboard shortcuts. I use Refresh several times a day, so I get really annoyed by having to try to click the button every time I need it, especially since it’s in different places in different browsers. So the handy shortcut for Refresh is F5. (This also works in combination with Ctrl; see section 2.)

If you don’t like F5 for whatever reason, a few browsers also accept Control-R.

4: Refreshing Other Stuff
The refresh concept (and the F5 keyboard shortcut) also works for folders on your computer. If you save a new file in a folder, for example, but currently have a window open showing that folder, the folder may not display the new file. Pressing F5 will tell it to look for files again, thus showing your new file. If your desktop isn’t displaying changes, you can use this trick there too: click anywhere on the desktop, then press F5.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Two Shortcuts for Working with Files

Ever opened up a really, really long list of folders and hunted through the list trying to find a folder or file? Or maybe the same thing happened on your desktop–you know the name of what you’re looking for, but you can’t see it. Here’s a better way.

Tip 1: Jump to a File or Folder by Typing its Name
This trick is so simple you’ll probably be surprised you never knew about it. If you know the name of a file or folder located in the folder you’re currently browsing, but you can’t see it, simply click once on any file or folder you can see, then start typing the name of the folder. You’ll be moved to the folder as you type. (Don’t stop typing for more than a second or so, or the search will start over.)
This works in a File –> Open dialog box, in a Windows Explorer/Finder/Nautilus window, or on your desktop, in all operating systems.
Tip 2: Rename a File Quickly
Renaming a file can be a little bit annoying sometimes, especially if you have to rename quite a few files. You can right-click it and choose Rename, or you can click twice slowly on the name of the file. Either way, the process requires some clicking, and if you’re renaming a bunch of files you have to keep switching between the keyboard and the mouse.
Instead, just select the file and press F2.
Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:
Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Using Your Middle Mouse Button In Your Browser

Most people don’t even know what a middle mouse button is, let alone how to use it. But it is enormously useful. Here are a few ways to deal with tabs in your browser much more easily.

“But I don’t have a middle mouse button!”: That’s what 90% of people I inform about this tip say. Of course, they’re wrong–unless you have a really old mouse, you have a middle mouse button. To middle-click, you just press down on the scroll wheel. (If you have a laptop, you can usually emulate a middle-click by pressing down the left and right touchpad buttons simultaneously, and if you have a Mac with one mouse button you can hold down the Command key and click.)

A disclaimer: I only had access to the Chrome and Firefox browsers while writing this tip. While I personally believe you should be using one of these two browsers, I understand you may not be, in which case these tips will probably work but I can’t guarantee it.

1: Closing a Tab
To close a tab, you could aim for the little tiny “x” button in the corner of the tab. Or you could just middle-click anywhere on the tab and save yourself a couple of seconds every time you close a tab.

2: Opening a Link in a New Tab
I couldn’t live without this trick. Sometimes you’re researching a topic and come across a link that looks interesting, but you want to be able to easily return to the current page. Don’t follow the link (and maybe several more links in the same fashion) and then click the Back button a few times–this is a lot of wasted effort, and you might even have trouble figuring out which page of the 5 you just visited was the original one. Instead, middle-click the link, then switch to the new tab. When you’re done with the new page, you can simply close the tab to get back to where you were.

This is also really nice if you’re reading a page and see something that looks interesting, but you don’t want to stop reading the page you’re on to look at it. Instead of trying to remember all the links you wanted to look at, middle-click the link, then move to that tab when you’ve finished reading the original page.

I also use this trick when visiting news sites: I scroll through the list of available articles, middle-click all the ones I want to read, then close the home page. In this way I can easily read all the articles I’m interested in without having to click the Back button, wait for the page to load, and find a new article each time.

3: Opening the Previous Page in a New Tab
Tip #2 is all well and good, but sometimes you don’t realize that you still needed a page until after you click a link on it. In this case, you can middle-click the Back button, which will bring up the page you were just visiting in a new tab. This option is even kind enough to duplicate your browsing history in the new tab, so you can still click Back and Forward in the new one (unlike if you opened a link in a new tab, where the new tab starts with no history).

4: Duplicating a Tab
If you want to duplicate a tab, you can middle-click on the Refresh button, which will open a new tab pointed at the URL of the current page. In practice, usually this tip is unnecessary because you can use 2 or 3 to accomplish the same thing.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Tips & Tricks for Filling Out Forms

Ever had to fill out a form like this one? A lot of people waste large amounts of time working with forms because they don’t know a few simple shortcuts (namely, the Tab key!) Here’s how to get it done more quickly and less painfully.

0: Screencast
I’m trying something new this week—a screencast. If you don’t know, a screencast is a video of someone’s screen as they perform some task (in this case, purchasing a cash register online), usually with a voiceover explaining what’s going on. I’d suggest you read the article first, but I think checking out the video afterwards will probably help you see what I’m talking about, and perhaps put the information into a form that will be a little bit easier to apply. And above all, if you take only one thing from this article, let it be this: Use the TAB key. It will save you hours over the course of your lifetime.

1: Terminology
Before I can cover how to move through a form quickly, you probably want to know some terminology–if you already know it, feel free to skip over this section. So here are the elements that often appear in forms (all these are in the screenshot, so you can reference it if you need to):

  • Text Box: You probably already know what this is–a (usually white) box that you can type text into. Usually you can type whatever you want into here, though some text boxes may have validation–for instance, an email address has to contain an @ and a ., and the CAPTCHA code where you have to type in the funny letters to prove that you’re human has only one correct answer.
  • Drop-Down Menu (or simply drop-down): A (usually gray) box with a little arrow on one end. When you click on it, a list pops open and you can scroll through it and select one of the choices. These are usually used when there are a lot of options, but sometimes form designers might put short lists in a drop-down.
  • Check Box: A small square box; when you click on it, a check appears or goes away. This is (usually) for on/off and yes/no questions only.
  • Radio Buttons (or option buttons): Little round buttons, typically used for short lists of options. When you click one of the radio buttons, any previously selected one gets unmarked.
  • Field: Any one location asking you to enter data (i.e., “first name”, “state”, “telephone number”, and so on).

In addition, forms can contain text, lines, and pictures, but you can’t enter any information with these.

2: Moving Around a Form
Your TAB key is your best friend when filling out a form. It will advance automatically to whatever the creator of the form has defined as the next field (hopefully this is an order that makes sense to you!). If you accidentally skip a field or need to go back and change something, you can press Shift-TAB. When you use the key to move into a text box that already has something in it, it will usually highlight any previous text so that you can just start typing over it (be careful that you don’t accidentally delete anything).

When you’re moving through a form that has a text box, then a series of check boxes, then another text box, you can save a fair bit of time (and a lot of effort) by avoiding the mouse, because you don’t have to keep switching from mouse to keyboard. If you use the TAB key and the following tips, you should have no reason to touch your mouse. (If you’re filling out a form that consists entirely of check boxes, drop-downs, and radio buttons, such as a survey, then these tips are probably a waste of time for that particular form.)

The next sections tell you how to deal with each individual element; they assume that you pressed Tab to move to and select that element.

Text Boxes
There’s not much to say about these–the biggest factor here is your typing speed. Unfortunately there are no magical efficiency-improving text box tricks.

Drop-Down Menus
There are several tricks with drop-down menus. Don’t even think about reaching for your mouse to use a drop-down menu. All you really have to do is start typing, and the menu will scroll to that choice. For instance, if you’re asked to fill in your state, you don’t have to scroll through the entire menu hunting for your state–instead, just type the first couple of letters and it should be selected for you.

If you aren’t sure what options are in the drop-down menu (and therefore can’t type the first letters of it), just press the spacebar. This will open the drop-down menu so that you can see the options. You can then start typing the option you want.

If all the choices don’t fit on the screen, you can use the arrow keys and Page Up/Page Down keys to see the rest of the list. If you select the choice you want with the arrow keys (instead of typing to move to it), just press Tab twice to close the drop-down and move to the next field. (Enter and then Tab also works, but double-tabbing is faster.)

Check Boxes
Check boxes are very simple to manipulate–to turn them on or off, just press the spacebar. If there’s more than one, just press tab and repeat.

Radio Buttons
Radio buttons are funny because they have a different state after you’ve selected something once–before you choose a button, nothing is selected, but after you make a selection it is impossible to return to having nothing selected.

Unlike other sets of elements (like multiple check boxes) radio buttons are selected as a set when tabbing, so pressing Tab while the first radio button is selected will tab to the field after all the radio buttons, rather than to the next radio button.

To select the first radio button, you can press the spacebar. To select any others, simply use the arrow keys, and buttons will begin being selected as you press the keys.

When you finish entering your data, you can press Enter to send it. At this point, Murphy’s Law states that the site will usually return an error and require you to retype some or all of the information (often because you missed the little tiny button that states you agree to the terms and conditions that have been read by approximately five people, or because you mistyped the eye-straining verification code). If it’s only one field, clicking on it and fixing it is probably best, but otherwise you can reuse the tips above.

If you haven’t seen the screencast yet, I suggest you watch it now.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

How To Plug In A USB Cable The Right Way The First Time

Ever gone to plug in a USB cable, couldn’t get it in, and flipped it over and tried again, only to discover that you had it the right way the first time? What’s that? You do it every day? Fortunately, this is a surprisingly easy annoyance to fix.

1: Getting The Cable The Right Way
Ever noticed that nearly all USB cables have a little USB logo on one side of the plug (picture)? That logo is on the same side of every USB connector–unplug one of your USB cables and see for yourself. Flash drives, unfortunately, don’t have the logo; however, this can be rectified by memorizing which way is which, or you can put a little sticky dot, Sharpie mark, or correction fluid on that side.

2: Which Way Do I Plug It Into the Port?
There aren’t any guidelines that are right 100% of the time, but most equipment does conform to a couple of standards. On laptops, the logo will face up, and on desktops it will face the far side of the case (the side that is furthest away from the ports). On the sides of monitors, the USB logo will face you. As for everything else, like hubs, the best thing to do is to try it and see.

Rather than remember all these rules, I take a labelmaker, print out a neat label that says something like “LOGO LEFT”, and stick it on my hub/case/other device. That way you don’t have to think about it. The result is something like this.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:

Some parts of this article were taken from

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.