Category Archives: Other

Misplaced Blame: Why We Hate Our Computers

I don’t think I like computers very much.

Maybe that sounds a bit odd. After all, I enjoy playing with and configuring new software, researching how parts of computers and software work, and writing software. I have a job supporting a computer software program. I’m going to major in computer science next fall. I read Slashdot and keep up with the latest trends and news in technology. I’m good at fixing things on computers. So I enjoy spending time on my computer. I like the things I can do with computers.

But if there’s one thing I’ve become convinced of through all this time spent with computers, it’s this: computers never, ever work right. Maybe the software crashes and you have to restart your computer. Or your ISP stops providing Internet access to you and you miss an important deadline. Or somebody convinces you to click a link and suddenly your system is spewing spam at other people. Or you install a “stability update” and the program won’t start anymore. Or maybe your hard drive fails catastrophically and years’ worth of data disappears into the Great Bit Bucket in the Sky.

When these things happen, I invariably get mad (once I’m past being scared if it smells of data loss), and I always get mad at the computer, even if the problem isn’t actually the computer’s fault. I don’t do this when other things don’t do what I expect. If I were to try to mail a letter and found that the outgoing mail box wouldn’t open, I would wonder why it wouldn’t open and maybe get a little bit annoyed that I walked out there and couldn’t mail my letter. I wouldn’t, however, be mad at the box itself, and I probably wouldn’t even be mad at the post office, since I wouldn’t know why the box wasn’t opening or whether it was the post office’s fault that it wasn’t. But if there’s a network issue and the computer won’t send my email, I get angry at the computer, without knowing or caring why it’s not working. Or if my house burned down and all my books were lost, it would really stink, but I wouldn’t get mad at the fire or at nature; at the most, perhaps I would get mad at the fire department for not putting it out faster, or at the person who installed the malfunctioning electrical system that caused the fire. If my computer won’t read my file, though, I get mad at the computer.

I sit here writing my first draft at my desk, on a piece of loose-leaf college-ruled binder paper, with a refillable clear plastic rollerball pen that every few days I fill with green ink from a bottle on my desk. Occasionally the pen leaks ink into the cap. Sometimes it scratches while I write. Sometimes I have to pause to refill the pen or to wipe ink off the tip. Sometimes I get some ink on my fingers when I refill it. But I’ve never gotten upset at the pen when it acts up, even when its misbehavior is in no way my fault. I’ve never thrown the pen or slapped it with my hand or yelled at it angrily when it did something it wasn’t supposed to. But I’ve done all those things to my computer, and when I start typing this into my computer, if the keyboard drops my keystrokes or the computer freezes for ten seconds, I’ll at the least be making an annoyed noise.

Why is the computer different? It obviously is. If my violin is difficult to tune up on a day when it’s really humid, it’s the weather’s fault; if my draft gets rained on and becomes unreadable, it’s my fault for leaving it outside when it was about to rain. It’s not the draft’s fault that it got wet because it was in the rain. But if a computer does even one thing we don’t expect, we always say it’s the computer’s fault – even when it’s evident that it was probably user error, like when we think we’ve clicked in the right place and the computer doesn’t respond until we click again. The pattern is clear: when most things don’t behave as we wish they would, we have several options: blame ourselves for doing something wrong (the draft in the rain), see the problem as a natural part of using that thing and try to find a way to work around it (the pen, the violin), or, when the situation is particularly bad or unusual (the fire, the mailbox), look for the cause and complain loudly about that. But when the computer doesn’t work right, we stop seeking causes right at the computer and get upset at it. We say “The computer hates me,” or “The computer is acting up again.” It’s the computer’s fault – nobody and nothing else’s.

But really, none of the problems are the computer’s fault – the computer as an entity is only a bunch of electronics that execute directions. The problem could be caused by a blip in the electrical current that powers the computer, or by a bug in one of the millions of lines of code that tell it what to do, or by a button the user pressed at the wrong time, or by countless other small differences that are enough to set something off in the amazingly complex system that powers a modern computer. It could possibly be caused by a part of the computer’s hardware malfunctioning, but this is not what we are actually thinking about and directing our anger towards when we get angry at “the computer.” The issue is that these things that actually cause computer problems are not concrete, not evident to us as users; we cannot note the fact that our computers have frozen momentarily and immediately blame the person who wrote line 918 of dosomething.c in Google Chrome, or the person who turned on her air conditioner fifty miles away and caused a momentary change in the power supplied to the computer. So we blame what we do see: the computer. What we can see of the computer is no different than the fire that destroys a house – it’s merely an agent that carries out the instructions or the damage incited by another process – but looking at the fire, it’s easy to see that the fire does nothing for itself, that it arises from external forces it doesn’t control. We understand that the flames themselves are in no way responsible for their own existence in a way we don’t seem to understand that a computer is not responsible for the processes it runs. We understand that the computer is not responsible on a logical level, if we pause to think about it, but we don’t understand it on an intuitive level, which is where we get angry at our computers.

So I am led to dislike computers: they are simply too easy to blame when they don’t work right. I only tolerate them because of what they can do for me. I will try to be more patient with them, but it sure isn’t easy.

My Space

This week I thought I’d show off my room and workspace a little bit, as well as showing some of the unusual devices and pieces of technology I own.

I did a few calculations the other day; I have about 144 square feet of space (the room has pieces cut out of it in two out of four corners, so it’s not easy to calculate), along with about 90 cubic feet of storage space (that counts drawers, shelves, and the closet). Surprisingly, even though it’s not very much space for a house in suburban Indiana, I’ve never really felt crowded in it.

As you might have read in last week’s post, over my internet break I cleaned things up, so it’s looking nice and neat now.

So how about the pictures? You can click on any picture to enlarge it. Apologies for any less-than-stellar photography—my room has horrible lighting.

Here’s a view of most of my workspace.Obviously the computer is on a sort of standing desk; it’s about an inch higher than I’d like for perfect keyboard position (I’m a bit obsessed with ergonomics), but it works absurdly well for being exactly the height that my bookshelf was. I’ve been using this desk for about half a year, and in general I find it works great, especially in the afternoons after school—after sitting for almost an entire day with only short breaks, it’s really nice to be on my feet for a while. If I get tired of standing, I switch to using my laptop on the desk or, better yet, go do something else.

Here’s a closer shot of the desk with some code up on the left monitor and a running instance of the program on the right (this is a text adventure game I wrote up as a programming exercise a while back). I love having two monitors; it divides the desktop very nicely as well as giving you more screen space for cheaper than a big monitor.

No doubt you’ve been wondering “What the heck is with that weird keyboard?” Here’s a closer look:It’s called a Kinesis Advantage Contoured keyboard. While it looks really weird, it feels really good once you get used to using it (about a week or so). Along with the Dvorak keyboard layout (which is on the keys in the smaller letters), you have to move your fingers such a ridiculously low distance compared to a standard keyboard that you wonder how you were ever happy with a normal keyboard before.

This is one of the thumb pads:Ever noticed that your thumbs (your strongest fingers) never do anything except hit the spacebar? Now, this isn’t a complete catastrophe, since spaces aren’t exactly uncommon characters to type, but it’s still a comparative waste of your fingers. And most people let one of their thumbs idle completely, striking the spacebar exclusively with the other thumb. On the Kinesis, your opposite thumb hits the backspace key, which makes a lot of sense once you think about it. (For my first two weeks, I was constantly hitting space instead of backspace when I used any other keyboard, but I soon got used to it.) And instead of making awkward stretches from your pinky out to hit shortcuts with Ctrl and Alt, you press them with your thumbs instead.

This is a Logitech Marble Mouse:Some people are crazy about trackballs, but I’m not one of them. However, I obviously still like them, since I have one on my desk! I find it somewhat more comfortable not to have to move my hand as much, and it’s nice that the trackball stays in one place and takes up significantly less room on the desk. It’s also nice that you can give the ball a neat flick to cross all the way across the 2.5 feet of monitor width I have, rather than having to pull the mouse all the way across. However, while I find the trackball excellent for occasional mouse usage, I find myself significantly slowed on things that require constant mouse usage, such as photo editing, some games, and so on. For these tasks, I use a mouse.

My interesting input devices aren’t the only thing I use; I have alternatives for most of them near my desk, and when one is better than another I swap them out. Here’s one configuration, something I might use for playing games. It uses a flat QWERTY keyboard with a numpad (important for some programs), a Logitech MX Revolution mouse (a $100 mouse, but a very nice one, though if I understand right they’ve moved on to a similar but different model), and a pair of headphones plugged into my speakers’ volume control.

I have one more keyboard, the TypeMatrix 2030, although this one typically lives in my laptop bag or attached to my laptop on the desk rather than with the desktop. It’s a really nice keyboard for only $100, and it’s very portable and seems fairly resilient:

This is the laptop I’ve been talking about. It’s going to be my main machine in college starting next year (that’s why I got it). The screenshot is on the setup utility simply because I was too lazy to boot the system all the way up, not because of any issues with the system or because that’s all it can do. :-)(That piece of paper to the side is the checklist I keep in my laptop bag to avoid forgetting things in my room when I go out.)

The following is, indeed, a hard drive platter being used as a coaster. It doesn’t stay nearly as clean and smooth as the platters are in a newly sacrificed drive, but it still looks cool on a geeky computer desk. It’s not labeled because I wouldn’t know it’s a coaster otherwise—I label everything that has a permanent place because it helps remind me to keep it there and not put other things there that don’t belong.

This is a lantern for mood lighting:

It spins because of a convection current created by the light, but because of its placement on top of the top ventilator of the computer, it spins even when the power to both it and the system are off (I think it’s because the power supply unit right below it generates a small amount of heat in standby).

I salvaged this piece of ancient power equipment from my church office when I upgraded their systems.I don’t have a printer or computer connected to the labeled buttons; instead I use it to control my lighting and the chargers connected to the back. It’s a really handy way to switch some devices on and off quickly, and the inside of the case holds any extra cord you don’t want.

I bought this stopwatch for timing my work on the Anki support forums: Unlike every other cheap stopwatch I’ve owned, it’s actually enjoyable to use and doesn’t feel like it’s either about to fall apart or wasn’t really meant to be used as a stopwatch in the first place (ones added to cheap watches, for instance).

Here are my pedals for the StealthSwitch 3, a device that assigns keyboard events to foot pedals. I have had five pedals for over a year and am still in the process of trying to figure out what they should be assigned to. One of these currently does media play/pause, which is very nice:Another one, located on the opposite side of the desk, puts the computer into standby so I can just touch the switch as I’m leaving the room (my computer draws a good 150W of power idling, so it’s important to turn it off when it’s not being used). The other simply locks the screen if it needs to remain running for some reason. The red spike tape is so that I know roughly where they should go if they drift; I’ve marked out quite a few places in spike tape so I know where the chair mat goes, what floor space needs to be clear for the drawers to be openable, and so on.

I’m going to switch gears to some less electronic-related stuff. As much as I love gadgets and technology, I love paper too. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I own an electric typewriter. The book on the left is a textbook that I picked up at a rummage sale for 10 cents.The other reason is that I got it at Goodwill for six dollars when I was seven years old and have never seen fit to get rid of it. I don’t use it every day or even necessarily every week, but it’s there and I do use it; it’s nice to be able to type on a form or worksheet, or just sit down and write something without using the computer.

Here’s a device you’ve probably never seen the likes of before:It’s an AlphaSmart 3000, but if you looked at the picture you saw that. It’s sort of a cross between those typewriters with screens and a laptop; officially it’s called a portable word processor. You type on it, then wire it to a computer via USB and it acts as a keyboard and inputs your file. I don’t use it too often, but it comes in handy if I want to work on something away from a computer (to avoid distractions or because I’m in the waiting room at the dentist) and not have to type it in again later. It’s rated for 700 hours of operation on 2 AA batteries, it can hold some 80 pages of text, and you could throw it across the room and expect to damage the wall first. Since it’s old, they run for about $25 on eBay.

Oh, and you noticed the keyboard is laid out in Dvorak, right? Yes, it supports Dvorak natively.

This is my handheld scanner. It can scan a page in about four seconds, and you can scan hundreds of pages onto a MicroSD card before needing to transfer them to a computer. It makes it practical to scan your mounds of paper, which means I’ve gotten rid of piles of old notes and imported them into giant PDFs stored in Evernote instead.(That’s a note-taking sheet for NetHack, a game I play. It’s in the picture because it was on top of my inbox when I went to take a picture.)

Speaking of my inbox and my other specific in/out boxes…yeah, they need some work:Let’s not talk about those for now, huh?

Moving even more to paper, this is a note-taking system I use, based on techniques promoted by Lion Kimbro (website is rather old and does not contain a reference to my reference) in Mindhacker. In the notebook are some ideas about backups and the intrinsic differences between different types of data and their value, and the sheet of paper is a map organizing the contents of the whole notebook. (To zoom in closer and read, right-click and choose Copy Image Link, then open a new tab and paste the link.)Here’s part of the index (same drill on zooming):

Some more writing and paper stuff. I’ve had the fountain pen for about a year now (it’s a Pelikan Tradition M200 for anyone interested), and the drafting pencil on the case for somewhat less. The nibs in the clear case (it’s a repurposed iPod Touch package) are antique steel nibs.

I keep all my computer gear in these file cabinets, then use the tops as extra storage space for items that don’t belong in my room and need to go somewhere. The flash drive hanging on the wall is needed to boot up my laptop, so I keep it somewhere prominent where I won’t lose it.

I carry the items in the box with me when I go out (this all fits in my pockets comfortably, but I couldn’t add anything else): Roughly from bottom-right to top-left: green pocket notebook (more later), iPod Touch, four-color ballpoint pen+pencil (the most useful pen I can carry with me if I only carry one), Livescribe pen (only when I go to school—used for notes, but I keep it in my pocket when I go because it’s expensive and I don’t want it to get scraped up or covered with lead shavings in my pencil case), really cheap dumbphone (I don’t really care for texting and make all my calls from my house landline, so I don’t have much reason to own a more modern phone, but I do need to call people while I’m out occasionally), wallet, and keys + flash drive + flashlight.

Here’s an example of some pages from my pocket notebook. I write down ideas, quotes I hear or say/think myself, things I need to do, and stuff I need to send to or tell other people. I cross them out once I act on them or move them into a more permanent place like my clippings file or to-do list, but leave them for future reference. If it looks like I spat random letters onto the page in some places, that’s a form of shorthand known as Dutton Speedwords (Google it).I really would be in trouble without my pocket notebook now that I’ve gotten used to having it (I’ve been carrying one regularly since this September). I could use my iPod, but it takes forever to pull it out, open the notes app, and then type on a touch-screen keyboard—by the time I was ready to type, I could have written something down in a notebook. Also, you can sketch if you need to—I don’t need to very often, but I have. I’ve even squished in three more lines between each line and made makeshift staff paper to write down a melody I wanted to remember. It’s also rarely socially unacceptable to write something on a piece of paper, whereas there are times when you simply can’t use an electronic device.

In the past, I’ve had trouble really warming up to pocket notebooks because they were simply too big: in the side pocket of dress pants or khakis they were fine, but in the side pocket of jeans they really constricted my movement and were uncomfortable, and in the back pocket they were too rigid and were uncomfortable when I sat down. When I tried the soft-cover kind, they got smushed and ripped up in a few weeks. But this one is barely the size of my palm, and it even fits in a shirt pocket:(Speaking of shirt pockets, the world needs more shirt pockets. I much prefer having my notebook in a shirt pocket because otherwise it has to share a pocket with my iPod, making both significantly more difficult to get out. But only one or two of the shirts I wear regularly have one, even the button-up ones and polos. I suppose it’s cheaper not to put them on.)

I’ve always been a fan of weather, so this barometer is an obvious functional decoration:(Sharp-eyed readers may notice a misprint on the dial.)

And then you have my bed, which is in complete contrast to the rest of my neat spaces:It doesn’t really bother me much, but maybe I should start making my bed sometime.

Noticed that bright blue backlit alarm clock?It’s a Neverlate Executive alarm clock, which can proudly state that it is quite possibly the only alarm clock to require a “Quick Start Guide.” It has 21 alarms, a radio, a nap timer, a radio sleep timer, one-time alarms, a skip alarm button, and a “settings” menu that lets you control all of those and more. Despite all the features, it’s still easy to use until you want to change the settings.

I bought this boom box sometime around 2004. It still works, so I keep it for when I want to listen to CDs. It takes up some floor space and gets in the way sometimes, but I do like having a way to play music without using my computer.That timer in the back kicks in for four hours a day to provide juice to my charging station, then cuts out to eliminate standby power draw. It’s not much energy, but since I already had the timer and it was just lying around, I figured I might as well set it up.


Here’s the back of my computer desk:The cables aren’t too pretty, but there’s not much you can do about that when you want to put the computer smack in the middle of the room (and there’s really no other way to lay out the bookshelves—the two tables which run the length of the room for sitting desk space have less than a foot of space at the ends, and the bed only fits on the side of the room where it is). I hardly see them anymore, even though I’m normally very picky about that kind of thing. Of course, writing about them has made me start noticing them and being annoyed by their ugliness. Let’s move on, shall we? ;)

My display shelf. The chess board isn’t just for decoration; I’m playing chess over Facebook with a friend. I put the board up on the display shelf because in the first game we played, I accidentally brushed the board (which was on the file cabinet) while coming into the room in the dark, sliding a knight over by one space without noticing, eventually causing me to lose the game because I thought moves were safe which weren’t.

I keep all my computer parts, lesser-used peripherals, and cables in these cabinets.I really regret not having taken a “before” picture of my cable drawer before I organized it. The cables were in one huge knot which didn’t fit inside the drawer, so it was perpetually propped open with cables hanging out of it. If I needed a cable, I inwardly groaned and spent the next five minutes going either “I know I had that in here!” or “I see the end of the cable, but how do I get it out?” This is much better, huh?

I actually have free space in my closet now, as well as an office supply organizer:The plastic bin is the “doodad bin,” which consists of all the random stuff I have that doesn’t really belong anywhere. It’s not, however, a junk bin—I refuse to have a junk bin, as everything is supposed to either have a place or get out of my room (or be in a pile for organizing). I go through there regularly and throw things out.

You’ve been seeing a lot of labels, so here’s the thing that makes them:


It’s been a long tour—I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Feel free to ask about anything I didn’t explain adequately in the comments, and I’ll be back next week with some sort of a “tip,” as we’ve had a shortage of those compared to other types of content lately.

How to Use BitTorrent

What Is BitTorrent?

To put it simply, it’s a way to download large files quickly. Instead of using a single server, like you do when you visit a website and click a conventional download link, BitTorrent allows you to download from many other people who have already downloaded the file simultaneously.

Why Would I Want to Use It?

If a file is popular enough (and there are therefore enough other users who have downloaded it), you can usually download files at the maximum speed allowed by your internet connection, rather than the speed the server can manage at the moment. Additionally, using BitTorrent is a great help to the owner of the server, especially with small projects with a limited budget, since the server is only required to upload the file when there are few or no other people offering it. Finally, if your download gets interrupted, you can resume right where you left off. There’s nothing more annoying than having your connection terminated with 95% of a 4GB download complete and having to start over.

Isn’t This Illegal?


You’ve probably seen the huge posters that often get put up in libraries and schools talking about the evil file-sharing programs. Most of those are funded by the RIAA, which is a group that likes to sue random people for illegally sharing copyrighted content and then keeps the money for itself instead of giving it to the people whose copyright was actually infringed. Regardless of that, I’m not denying that BitTorrent can be used to download material illegally, but the act of using BT (or any other file-sharing program) is not in itself illegal, and there are plenty of legal uses, such as downloading free software or music that the authors have made public domain or available under Creative Commons licenses.

There are a number of other uses which are in a legal gray area but most people would consider ethically sound. For instance, if you have lost the installation disc for a program that you legally purchased and you still have the license key, you might find a copy of the program and download it. While the company probably didn’t intend for the software to be available that way, you aren’t avoiding paying for it by doing so.

Using BitTorrent

There are a lot of clients that connect to the BitTorrent network, but two are especially popular, uTorrent and Transmission. For the most part, it doesn’t really matter what client you use.

Once you’ve installed a client, you need to find something to download. Unlike older file-sharing networks, BitTorrent doesn’t include a search feature itself; instead, you need to use other services to locate a torrent file, which you can then download and import into your client. (This is what the notorious The Pirate Bay service does.) A torrent file does not actually contain any of the data you’re intending to download; instead, it contains information about how to find parts of it.

The Internet Archive recently announced that they were making parts of their collection available over BitTorrent, so I’m going to use something from there as an example. The Archive’s torrent search page is here:I clicked into ‘books’ and the ‘spotlight item’ on the left as an example. This file is actually fairly small, so we’re unlikely to notice any speed difference on it, but it’s just an example. We can also see to the right (“Possible copyright status”) that this book is public domain, so there are no possible legal issues here.When you find something to download (wherever it may be), download the torrent file (in this case, click the ‘torrent’ link, then open the file. Your client should come up and open the torrent (I’m using Transmission in this example). In this particular case, there are a number of files available, so we can choose which ones we want.With an uncommon file, sometimes you’ll run into a problem where you wind up stuck because no other people (“peers”) have the parts of the file you still need, and the download can stall and go idle. In some cases, like with the Archive, there are official servers that will take over if the file is not available any other way; they just might take a little while to kick in.

When the download is complete, the status display will change to “Seeding.”This means that you’re now making the file available for others to download. Depending on how popular the file is, your internet connection may slow down as you upload parts of the file; to prevent this from becoming a problem, all decent clients have a speed limit feature built in. You can set that to whatever number you need to keep your browsing and other connections working fine.

It’s good etiquette to keep seeding a download until the ratio (on the right side of the file size data in this screenshot) has reached 1.0, meaning you’ve uploaded as much data as you’ve downloaded. Although it may seem annoying and unnecessary, remember that you probably downloaded the majority of your file from other people who were seeding it (a small percentage comes from other people who are simultaneously downloading the file in a different order than you). If nobody kept seeding files, you’d never be able to download anything. Additionally, some servers will begin to throttle your download speed if you maintain a low ratio over a period of time, since you’re being a drain on the network.

I don’t use BitTorrent that often, but it really is handy for downloading large files (one of my most common uses is disc images for software and operating systems, which are usually at least 600MB and often take an eternity to download from the official server). Even if you don’t use it much, it’s not a bad idea to have a client and know how to use it for the odd case when you find a file that’s only distributed via BitTorrent or the only non-torrent servers run at an extremely slow speed (I ran into a server once that was giving me a download speed of 3 KB/s over a broadband connection).

Email Etiquette: Summary

This is a summary of a four-part series on email etiquette.

This page is not intended to be a full guide to email etiquette: I wrote the other pages for a reason. It will probably be nice to read if you’ve read through the other posts and want a quick refresher, or if you’re lazy and just want to see what I have to say quickly. For this reason, I also haven’t put a lot of links in that I could have—if you’re interested, click the main article link and find more information there.

Part 1: Using the Cc and Bcc Fields

  • Sometimes you shouldn’t put everyone’s email addresses in the To field. The other two fields are there for a good reason.
    • The Cc field can be used to indicate that you are sending a message to a certain person and only want to notify others of this.
    • The Bcc field should be used when you are sending an announcement to many people and don’t need to share people’s email addresses with other recipients of the message.
    • You can also use the Bcc field to hide the fact that you’re sending a copy of an email to somebody else who needs to see it, or if you need to send a copy of an email to yourself and the Sent folder won’t do the trick in your present situation.
    • If your email client will not allow you to put nothing in the To field (because you want to put all the email addresses in the Bcc field), put yourself in the To field.

Part 2: Subjects and Attachments

  • Make your subject line as concise as possible without removing important meaning.
    • If you want someone to do something, make that clear in the subject line.
    • Write your subject in title case or sentence case, as appropriate, not in all lowercase.
    • If nothing else, at least put something in the subject line.
  • Before attaching files to your email, consider whether you really need attachments. Instead, could you:
    • Paste the contents of some of those files into the body of the email?
    • Remove some of the files?
    • Zip the files so the recipient doesn’t have to download a ton of files?
    • Post to a photo-sharing website? (Only applicable if you’re attaching pictures, of course.)
  • If you need to send a large file, use a service such as Dropbox to share it.
  • To avoid forgetting to attach a file to a message:
    • Attach the file as soon as you think that you need to include a file. If you do it now, you can’t forget to do it later.
    • Turn on your email client’s “undo send” feature. This way, if you remember right after sending the message that you forgot your attachment, you can still take it back.
    • Use Gmail, which provides a warning if you write “attached” in your message but don’t attach a file.
  • Don’t attach unusual file formats to emails and assume that the recipients will be able to read them. The following file formats are probably email-safe: JP(E)G, PNG, GIF, TIF(F), PDF, RTF, TXT, HTM(L), WAV, MP3, DOC, XLS, PPT.
  • To avoid emailing a document back and forth zillions of times, use Google Docs if you’re collaborating on a project.

Part 3: Replies and Formatting

  • Don’t send replies to everybody without a good reason—stop for a moment and consider who really needs to see your message. This can make using email better for everyone by eliminating unnecessary messages from everybody’s inboxes.
    • For examples on when I suggest replying to everyone and when I don’t, see the full article.
  • Avoid backgrounds, changing the font or colors, or putting unnecessary images in emails.
    • Bold or italics, links, and the occasional embedded image can improve the presentation of your emails. Anything more is probably going into the “annoying” section of the scale.

Part 4: Odds and Ends

  • Signatures are nice—just consider what information about yourself will be useful in an email signature and what won’t.
    • Putting your email address in an email signature is pretty silly unless it’s somehow different from the address that you send your email from.
    • Snippets, quotes, and similar things are fine, but:
      • Keep it clean and inoffensive to everybody, no matter what account you’re on. You never know when you might be sending formal email and forget to check what you had in your signature.
      • Change it occasionally. The point of including something witty in your email signature is to keep people interested, not to bore them by sending them the same thing for years in a row.
      • Don’t create a monstrously long signature. Four or five lines is probably plenty.
    • Remove your signature if it’s unnecessary or gets in the way of your email.
  • Don’t forward chain emails, no matter what they say. Check out Snopes to see if they might actually have some grain of truth in them.
  • Keep your email as short as possible.
    • If it has to be long, summarize your email at the top and consider apologizing for and/or explaining the length.
    • Instead of sending a single person a five-paragraph email, pick up the phone and call them.
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.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit

Email Etiquette (4): Odds and Ends

This is the fourth and final part of a multi-part series. Previous posts were “Replies and Formatting,” “Subjects and Attachments,” and “Using the Cc and Bcc Fields.” There is also a summary.

This week has no particular focus except to deal with a few more things I thought of: email signatures, chain emails, and length of emails.


Email signatures are good. It’s nice to be able to easily find somebody’s name at the bottom of their email, especially if they don’t have their “from” name in their email client set to their actual name (so you get something like “From: hq723″ instead of “From: Soren Bjornstad”). If somebody might want your address, phone number, or website, those are good things to put in as well. Putting your email address is a waste of space unless you’re using a different address than normal: this is what the “reply” button and the email header are for.

If it’s not a work email (and maybe if it is, depending on the environment), creativity is always appreciated—just don’t go overboard and make it something that could potentially offend somebody. Quotes or interesting observations are always welcome. If you choose to include a quote or something similar in your signature, changing it every so often is nice; I know more than one person who has had precisely the same email signature for over five years. Even the most creative snippets tend to lose some of their luster after that long.

Don’t make your email signature more than four or five lines. HTML and images are probably unnecessary. Also don’t be cautious to strip your signature from your email if you’re responding to a mailing list that knows perfectly well who you are or you’re adding to a long chain of people adding a small amount of information to an email and sending it on. (Feel free to strip other people’s signatures and “so-and-so replied:” from those emails too; nobody will ever do it if you don’t take the initiative.)

Chain Emails

Do me a favor: Next time you get an email that ends by telling you that if you don’t send it to ten more people your computer will explode spontaneously, don’t forward it to me.

If you get an email warning you about something that actually seems important:

  1. Don’t send it to anybody.
  2. It’s probably completely fake.
  3. If you still really aren’t sure whether it might be true, check out Snopes first. (Do this even if the email claims that Snopes has confirmed the veracity of its statement—Snopes is becoming well-known enough that I’ve seen more than one chain email/Facebook post that makes a false claim.)
  4. If you really received chain mail that tells the truth, you still probably shouldn’t forward it to anybody. If there really is an email virus spreading like wildfire (which really doesn’t happen anymore anyway), then people will learn about it on the news anyway. Do you really need to send yet another email?
I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here—most people interested in reading this blog are probably not the type to forward email indiscriminately. But please take this to heart. So much complete misinformation gets spread this way, not to mention the annoyance of the resulting flood of email.

Email Length

Try to avoid making your email more than a paragraph or two long. If it really needs to be longer, you should start worrying about structure. Include a paragraph or at least a line or two summarizing the email and explaining what you’re going to talk about in it. If it seems appropriate, you also might consider apologizing for the length and explaining why it’s as long as it is.

Why? Five-paragraph emails don’t scan well. Sometimes I get a copy of an email I don’t really need, and I like to be able to discard it quickly instead of wasting my time reading the whole thing. If I have a flood of email, it’s nice to be able to immediately determine which emails require immediate action and which ones can wait until I’ve finished sifting through emails. And besides, nobody likes reading you ramble on forever about the same thing. If it’s that complex a topic and it’s not for mass distribution, you should probably just pick up the phone and call the other person—that will be faster anyway.


I’ve compiled another post that summarizes all the main ideas in all four sections of this post. Check it out, and send it on to people who annoy you with their emailing habits. :-)

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.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit

Email Etiquette (3): Replies and Formatting

This is part three of a multi-part series. Last week we had Part 2, “Subjects and Attachments.” Part 1 was “Using the Cc and Bcc Fields.”

This week I’ll first discuss when you should reply to everybody and when you should only reply to one person, then consider the problem of how much formatting in your email is too much.

Replying to Everybody

Sometimes everybody really does need to receive your reply. Other times, they really don’t. This is sometimes a difficult problem to deal with: is it better to err on the side of replying to everybody (thus sending people a bunch of spam) or the side of replying to only one person (and leaving people out of the loop)? That’s really a matter of personal preference, but usually you should be able to make a pretty good decision. Here are a few cases:

  • If somebody asked you about a meeting or similar group activity, you should reply to everybody. Otherwise other people might not realize that you’ve already replied and make plans that don’t work for you behind your back (like you just did to them!).
  • There is very rarely a sensible reason to send an email that says something like “Thanks” or “Cool, I’ll do that” to everybody. In fact, you might consider whether you really need to send that email at all—in many cases, all it will end up doing is wasting the other person’s time. (Of course, there are plenty of times when being courteous is intelligent. But it’s at least worth thinking about.)
  • If you’re on a mailing list and really only need to reply to one person, see if the mailing list allows you to see the email address of the person who sent it. If so, don’t hit reply—copy that email address, then compose a new email to that person, rather than to the entire list.
  • Consider choosing “reply to all,” then removing several people’s names from the address list. Perhaps only the person who just sent you an invitation and the person you know who just responded need to get an email, not the other three people on the original mailing as well.
  • If somebody sent you an email with two hundred names in the To: field, first of all, shame on them. Second of all, please double-check to make sure you didn’t hit “reply to all” before you send the email. If there’s something worse than getting a completely useless email from somebody, it’s getting a completely useless email from somebody you don’t even know.

I know some people will say, “Big deal! It doesn’t take that long to delete a useless email—why should I bother to think about all this before I send email?” But think about it this way: either you spend a few seconds thinking about who needs to get your email, or someone else spends a few seconds deleting your email because she didn’t need it. If all of us were polite and spent a few seconds considering who needed to receive our emails, then we would all have fewer useless messages drifting around in our inboxes (that sometimes even interrupt our work because we notice that we have a new email and go to see what it is). And we wouldn’t lose any time because of it, either—we would simply have moved those few seconds from the receiving to the sending end.

HTML and Formatting

Have you ever gotten an email that was in 18-point italic red text with a blue speckled background? I sure have. And guess what: it doesn’t make you look cool. All it does is strain people’s eyes, make them annoyed because it’s difficult to read, and make their email take longer to load. Simply put: stick with plain text unless you actually have a good reason to add formatting.

Some people dislike getting any formatting in email (mostly the technical people who use text-based email programs, for whom any formatting displays as HTML markup and random gibberish). You’ll probably know who these people are, because they’ll write you back asking you to please send them plain text-only email in the future. If you’re not dealing with one of those people, adding some bold text, a link, or maybe a relevant image to the body of your email looks professional and is perfectly acceptable. Changing the font of your entire email to Comic Sans, putting the entire thing in italics, or adding a background is obnoxious.

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.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit

Email Etiquette (2): Subjects and Attachments

This is part two of a multi-part series. Last week (actually, two weeks ago) we had Part 1, “Using the Cc and Bcc Fields.”

This week I’ll discuss choosing better subjects for your email, as well as many different aspects of the complicated mess that is called “email attachments”: when you should use attachments and when you shouldn’t, how to avoid sending too many attachments, and what kinds of files most people can be counted on to be able to read.


Here are some bad subjects:

“(no subject)”
“Please walk me through…”

Your subject line should be concise, yet make it clear what the email is about. If you want someone to do something, try to make that clear in the subject. Most importantly, though, make it obvious what the email is about—if you need to find that email two months in the future, it’ll be a lot easier if the subject is sensible.

So try something like “Request for Book” or “Link to [website we were talking about]”. And for heaven’s sake, write something in the subject line. Emails with “no subject” even get filtered out by some email filters, and they make it look like you were in a hurry or didn’t know what you were doing.

A personal pet peeve of mine is when people write subjects in all lowercase. Depending on what your subject is, it’s either a title or a sentence describing the email. If it’s a title, it should be in title case; if it’s a sentence, the first letter should be capitalized (you don’t need a period, though; in fact, it looks better without).

See this Lifehacker post for more interesting tips on keeping your email a bit more efficient.


Before you attach anything to your message, consider whether you really need an attachment at all. I get a bit annoyed when people attach a Word document to an email, then I go to the trouble of downloading it and opening it in a word processor to find that it contains a five-sentence message in plain text. If your attachment is another part of the message, just copy and paste it into the body of the email. If the problem is that the formatting comes out horribly broken when you paste it in, you might choose to mention that in the email. At the very least, provide a description of what the attachment is. Many people don’t have filenames that make sense outside their folder structure and their mind, and few people remember to rename files before attaching them to emails, so describing what the attachment is really helps.

Also try to avoid attaching zillions of files to one email. If you have fifty pictures, you ought to find a better way to send them than attaching each one individually. If you send it to people who don’t have a “download all” button on their email client, you’re going to make them pretty annoyed. If you have more than three attachments, you’re probably getting a bit excessive. If you have too many attachments, you could try one of the following:

  • Do you really need all those files? Some of them may be unnecessary, could be combined, or could be posted in the body of the email.
  • If they’re all related (for instance, if you have fifteen pictures), at least put them in a zip file so the recipient only has to download the file once. If you don’t know how to zip files or the person you’re mailing them to doesn’t know how to unzip them, take a look at this Microsoft Knowledge Base article. If you’re not using Windows, a Google search for “zip files” and “Mac” or “Linux” or “BSD” or what have you ought to get you instructions. Note: “Zipping” files is sometimes known as “compressing” them, although there are other ways to compress files besides ZIP files; “unzipping” is sometimes called “extracting.” Also, for no apparent reason than being different, Microsoft likes to call zip files “Compressed (zipped) Folders.”
  • If you have more than a couple of pictures, you should post them on a photo-sharing website, Facebook, or something similar rather than attaching them to an email.

It used to be that sending someone an attachment of more than a few hundred kilobytes was considered rude; in many cases sending a 10MB attachment could cause the remainder of the recipient’s mail to bounce until he checked it and deleted the attachment. Now that free webmail services offer 7 gigabytes of storage and nearly everybody in a developed country has broadband internet, this is rarely a problem. However, most email programs will not let you send attachments larger than 25MB or so—if you need to send something larger than that, you should consider a service like Dropbox, which will let you store and sync up to 2GB of information for free (accessible with a public link if you so desire).

No discussion of attachments would be complete without a mention of the dreaded “oh crap, I forgot to attach the file” moment. I find that the best plan for avoiding this is simply to attach the file the moment you think about it. If you open an email intending to send someone a file, attach the file and then write the message. If you’re writing a message and think “oh, I should include this file,” then take a break from writing the message, attach the file, and then finish your message. Also, I find that I usually notice I’ve forgotten a file within a few seconds. If your email client has an “undo send” feature, turn it on—it’s a lifesaver. And Gmail also gives you this handy warning on occasion:

One more thing to avoid is blindly assuming that the recipient will be able to read the file format you send them. If you send someone an Adobe PageMaker file and they don’t have Adobe PageMaker, they’re going to have to write you back and tell you they can’t read the file. Also annoying is receiving a .docx file when you don’t have Word 2007. (Most word processors can now read the files, but sometimes they have difficulty with the formatting, and some people have not installed the Compatibility Pack for earlier versions of Word.)

Stick to established formats unless you know that the recipient has the same software as you (for instance, if you work in the same office). Everyone with a computer from this century should be able to read the following standard formats (among others): JP(E)G, PNG, GIF, TIF(F), PDF, RTF, TXT, HTM(L), WAV, MP3.

Nearly everyone (except a few activists who have a good point but sometimes go a bit over the top, in my opinion) can also read .DOC files. Many people can read .DOCX files, but unless you have a specific reason to send them, it’s often better to save them down to .DOC files or paste them into the email. If you need to send a spreadsheet or PowerPoint, it’s probably best to use the Microsoft Office formats (.XLS and .PPT), even though you’re contributing to and encouraging a Microsoft monopoly, simply because they’re more established and likely to be openable.

You can use Google Docs if you need to collaborate on a project; it lets you work together on one copy (at the same time) instead of mailing files back and forth. Sometimes it clobbers your formatting a bit, but most of the time it works extremely well. I personally wouldn’t use it as my regular word processor, but for working with others it does exactly what it says on the box.

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.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit

Email Etiquette (1): Using the Cc and Bcc Fields

Many people probably simply fill in the “to” field in their emailer every time they need to send a message. But the other options are there for a reason. When used correctly, these options can give people useful cues and avoid leakage of information that is none of other people’s business.

Keep in mind that this (mostly) just my opinion. I don’t think that you’re using email the “wrong way”—whatever that would even mean—if you don’t follow these tips. But at the same time, I think you’ll have serious trouble finding anyone who is annoyed by them.

This is part one of a planned multi-part series on email.

Cc field

The Cc field can be used to indicate that you are sending the message to a specific person and merely want to notify someone else that you’ve done so, or if one of the recipients is less important than the others (in terms of responding to the email, of course). Many email clients automatically use the Cc field when activating “reply to all”, only filling in the To field with the name of the person to whom you’re directly replying.

Cc doesn’t actually have any impact on the way the message is delivered, except that some email addresses appear under the “Cc” heading instead of the “To” heading; it’s only a convenience to be used however you want to. For all the computer cares, you could establish guidelines in your office that if you Cc someone a message, that means you’re in trouble and they need to telephone you immediately. But the “less important” or “FYI, I sent this message to so-and-so” interpretation is pretty much universally understood among serious email users. Like putting people’s emails in the To field, every recipient of the email can see all the people you Cc’d a message to.

Sometimes you need to click a link or button marked “Add Cc” in order to see this field.
By the way, “Cc” stands for “carbon copy”, though you’ll have a difficult time finding an email program that actually says that anymore.

Bcc field

Bcc stands for “blind carbon copy”—when you use it, nobody sees the email addresses in the Bcc field except you, but everyone still gets the email.

Not using the Bcc field properly is one of the things that I actually do get annoyed with people about on occasion. This is why: say someone sends a wedding invitation to 200 people using the standard To field. Now, everyone who received that email can see the entirety of the To field. If I’m a recipient of this message, my email address has now been given to 200 people that I likely don’t even know, without my consent.

There are plenty of uses for the Bcc field, but the most important one is this: always use the Bcc field when sending email to multiple people who do not know each other and do not need to write each other back. If all you’re doing is sending an announcement to people, the only person they would possibly care to write back to is you. (If they did want to write someone else on that list, they would already have his or her email address.)

Another use is stealth: say I’m sending a message to someone that’s somewhat confidential. I may want someone else interested to see the message and what’s going on, but I don’t want the main recipient of the message to see. This can be a bit dishonest if you use it the wrong way, but there are plenty of perfectly reasonable situations in which you might want to do it.

In the old days, it was common to blind-copy yourself if you wanted to keep a copy of the email. Now any email program worth its salt will store a copy in the “sent items” folder automatically, so this use has largely fallen by the wayside. In the rare situation that you’re sending an email from someone else’s email account, you might still want to do this so that you have a copy on your own account.

Sometimes you need to click a link or button marked “Add Bcc” in order to see this field. Additionally, some email clients will not allow you to send a message with only the Bcc field filled in (nobody in the To field); if yours won’t, established practice is to put your own email address there, as this doesn’t single anybody out and doesn’t give away any information that people didn’t already know.

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.

Six Things Not To Do When Asking for Computer Help

I often work as an unofficial technical support representative—it’s pretty much an unavoidable result of learning something about computers. Tech support is just inherently frustrating, but the way people act when they ask me for help, more than anything else, can make the difference between whether I’m happy or annoyed at the end of a call or work session. Here are six things that people ask me or do that get me frustrated really fast. Some of them are things that just plain tick me off; others are things that not everybody would necessarily know but that still get annoying when people don’t know them.

This is drawn mostly from personal experience, but most if not all of these things annoy almost everybody.

I’m not intending to offend, make fun of, or complain about anyone with this post. If you’ve done anything on this list, it’s not your fault! You almost certainly just didn’t know it was liable to annoy somebody. My purpose here is to help people know some of the things that tend to annoy their more technical friends so as to help them avoid doing it in the future.

My intent is also not to sound like I’m being constantly wronged; reading my whole article through, I realize it might sound a bit like that’s what I think. I don’t; in fact, my main purpose in writing this article was not hoping that I’ll get these questions less often as a result (I know better than to expect that) but helping people avoid annoying the people they ask for help.

6: “Is this going to harm my computer?”

Do you think that I would tell you to do it if I knew that it would? Because that’s basically what you’re asking me here.

How to Avoid It: If you want to ask clarification questions about what effect an action is going to have or why I want to do it, I’m perfectly fine with that. I always explain what I’m doing before I start actually making any changes to a computer. But I’m aware that sometimes my investigation, which does not change the computer at all, appears to be messing everything up from the eyes of a less technically proficient user. So by all means, don’t have any qualms about asking what’s going on or what I’m planning to change, just don’t ask me if it’s “going to harm the computer.”

5: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

How to Avoid It: Do you really have to ask this? This question makes me doubt whether you’ve made a good move in picking me to work on your computer. If you don’t trust me, then that’s fine, but please ask someone else to fix your computer in that case.
If you just don’t understand what’s going on, feel free to ask questions about that; see #6. But asking if I’m sure I know what I’m doing isn’t a good way to ask—it’s not specific, does not express what you’re actually feeling, and comes off to me as rude.

4: “I have a problem. My computer doesn’t work.”
I have a problem as well. My problem is that I don’t know what your problem is, but I know you want help from me. This doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, but once people start asking you for help on a regular basis, this starts to get old really fast.

How to Avoid It: If you have a problem that you want me to help you with, please start by telling me what the problem is—not saying “I have a problem” and waiting for me to say, “Okay, what is it?” A sample question would be, “Hey Soren, I’ve been having trouble printing lately. Could you help me figure it out?” (If you’re writing an email, it would be nice to include any other information you know as well, like “it started happening right after I updated Microsoft Office.” If I have the chance to respond right back to you in person or over the phone, that’s not important.)

3: “What was the error?” / “I forget.”
Hey, guess what I forgot? The solution to your problem.

How to Avoid It: If there’s ever an error on your computer, the message you get is where you want to start solving the problem. A well-written error message can make the difference between having the problem fixed in a minute and searching and fiddling around for several hours. (Oh boy, have I been there: I once even got an error message that said Error: No Error.) If you don’t have the error message, I’m going to have a really hard time figuring out what the problem is. This isn’t a problem if you can make the error happen again, but frequently people can’t reproduce the problem, and they’re wasting both their time and mine.

The simplest way to avoid this problem is to write down the error message and include it in an email or have it ready if I need it. Or just know what steps you need to take to make the error come up again. If you have to say, “Hold on, let me bring it up,” that makes me feel like you’ve been doing your homework; if you say, “I forget,” that makes me think, “Now I have to spend an extra five minutes on this.”

2: “Okay, now what happened?” / “Nothing.”
This scene, or something like it, happens to me on a regular basis:
Me: “Type ‘nohup anki’ and press Enter.”
User: “Okay.”
Me: “What happened?”
User: “Nothing.”
Me: “Hmm, that’s odd.”
(I ponder for a couple of minutes and run another Google search.)
Me: “What happens if you run ‘anki’?”
User: “The same thing that happened before.”
Me: “Which was?”
User: [what I was hoping for in the first place when I asked what happened]

How to Avoid It: If anything happened when you clicked the mouse button or pressed Enter, that qualifies as “something.” The response “nothing happened” does not mean “I don’t understand the message I got” or even “I ended up back where I was before.” To me, anyway, it means that you pushed the button and no pixel on the screen changed (which could happen, but typically doesn’t).

I can do my part for this, too—I try to avoid asking “What happened?”, instead saying, “Did [x] happen?” But sometimes I’m don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and sometimes I just forget.

1: “What program are you using?” / “Microsoft.” (or even worse, “Adobe”)
Microsoft is not a piece of software, or even a piece of hardware (nor is Adobe). It is a company. (It may be a software company, but that doesn’t help much; being a logical person, I would not need to ask to conclude that the software you’re using was made by a company that makes software.)

For the purposes of solving a problem, “Microsoft” is a word almost completely devoid of useful information. It could refer to one of probably over a hundred products. And plenty of those are liable to be used: Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, the Windows Live apps…the list goes on. And that’s not including the hardware: the Xbox, mice, Kinect…

Referring to your software as “Microsoft” is something like calling an auto supply store to request a part for your car and describing your car as a “Ford”.

How to Avoid It: “Microsoft” is never an acceptable name to refer to anything except the company itself. There is no piece of software called Microsoft, nor can I usually assume which Microsoft software you’re using. If you’re not sure what the software is actually called, please describe it (“I can type documents with it”) instead of calling it “Microsoft.”
And “Adobe” is even worse: we have Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Reader, Photoshop, InDesign…the same goes here.

0: “Are you hacking?”
This isn’t really about technical support, and it’s also number 7, but I get this question a lot. My typical internal response is, “Well, I will be hacking your head off if you keep asking me that.” (Of course, I never actually say that.)

The answer really depends on your definition of “hacking.” If you mean the typical popular culture definition of “breaking into computer systems,” then (generally ;-)) the answer is no. But in geek culture, hacking means a whole lot more: coming up with creative solutions to problems and the like. See here for the view of much of this community. * If you mean that, then frequently I am.

But nobody who asked me this question ever meant that, did they?

How to Avoid It: Suppose I came up to you and accused you of breaking the law because you were using a Mac instead of a PC. That’s roughly what it’s like to me when you ask me, “Are you hacking?” So please don’t do it. I’m just trying to work on my computer, and I happen to use different tools than most people do.

* If you notice, in order to avoid this ambiguity, I typically try to use the term “cracking” instead of “hacking” to mean attempts at defeating security systems.

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.

Three Fun Google Tricks

Google is well-known for putting cool logo modifications on their homepage. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see that they love throwing random and quirky tricks into their search engine. Here are a couple of things to try searching for.

I’m not going to tell you what these do, or it wouldn’t be fun anymore–try them and see for yourself.
  • do a barrel roll
  • askew
  • recursion
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.