Tutorials


Recently I needed to convert some figures from British pounds to dollars for use in a spreadsheet. My original idea was that I’d just plug the numbers into a converter on the internet and then copy and paste. That would have worked well enough, but it wasn’t the best way.

Google has all kinds of little tricks up their sleeve and built right into Google Spreadsheets. You can even build a formula that asks Google Finance for the latest info on currency exchange rates between the currency of interest. It looks like this:

=B3*GoogleFinance(“Currency:gbpusd”)

The gbp is for pounds, and usd for dollars, and you can easily swap them if you want to convert the other way, or find the symbols for other currencies. Of course, you replace the cell number with the one you’re using.

Awesome.

If you’re like me and you frequently create documents on your laptop and then later need to access them for editing or printing from a different computer, you should check out Dropbox. You can sign up for a free account, download an unobtrusive background application to your computer and you’re set to go.

A free account with Dropbox gives you 2GB of storage space, which is more than enough for a couple thousand word documents. The application creates a folder which it monitors for documents and changes and then synchronizes with Dropbox’s online servers. Anytime you add or change anything, the changes are copied online. On the other end you can either install the application on your desktop computer or simply log on to access your files through the website from any computer.

What to store in your Dropbox folder? I store any work in progress such as academic papers, resumés, job applications and anything else that I may need to print or review somewhere other than my laptop. It’s just like any other folder, except that I use it as the place to store any project I’m actively working on.

If you’re tired of forgetting to email yourself files and not quite ready to make the switch all the way to Google Docs or a similar alternative, Dropbox is a great way to get your files where you want them when you want them.

Now that the holidays are over, most of us are ready to be done with holiday music for a while. The problem is that sometimes our digital music collections have a mind of their own and start playing holiday music even in the middle of July. CNET’s Donald Bell suggests several ways to make sure you don’t have this problem, including storing all of your holiday music on a special flash drive. But if you don’t want to go to all the trouble and expense of his methods, there is a simpler way for those of you who use iTunes on a Mac. It’s easy to setup, doesn’t require any additional materials or software, and works year after year without any user intervention.

1. Make a Smart Playlist
Create a new smart playlist from the iTunes File menu and set it to contain all of your holiday music. You can make this as simple or complicated as you want by using different rules. If you haven’t carefully organized all of your music by genre, just set several rules including genre searches for “Christmas” and “Holiday” and even the word “Christmas” within the song or album title fields. Then set the playlist to include tracks that match any of your rules. As an added bonus you now have all your Christmas music in a single playlist for all of your holiday parties.

2. Make An Automator Workflow
Open up Automator on your Mac and create a new workflow. Add the action “Get Specified iTunes Items”, and select your new holiday music smart playlist. Your second action should be “Set Options of iTunes Songs”. After adding this, select the option “skip when shuffling”. Then save your workflow.

automator-ss

(If you’ve never used Automator, this site is full of examples and explanations.)

3. Make an iCal Plug-in

Use the File menu in Automator and select “save as . . . plug-in for iCal”. iCal will then open and automatically create an event that runs your new workflow. All you have to do is make sure the event is set for the appropriate date after the end of the holidays and make sure it’s scheduled to repeat yearly.

4. Add Your Music For Next Winter
Modify your workflow so that it sets your playlist to be included in shuffle. Then save this plug-in and schedule an event that will add your music back to your library before the holidays begin.

Pretty simple huh? If you get your hands a little dirty up-front you’ll never have to worry about a surprise Christmas song out of season again. Unless of course you like Christmas music enough that you enjoy listening to it year round. In that case, this project is definitely not for you.

Note that this tip works for Mac users. If any Windows users have ideas on how to accomplish this in Windows, mention them in the comments.

I purchased my first Mac recently and the switch opened up new doors for me because there are many software options that aren’t available for PC. Apple’s default web-browser Safari recently became available for Windows as well, but I didn’t bother to try it out until I switched to OS X. Safari is an interesting browser, and far better than Internet Explorer, but it falls far behind Mozilla Firefox 3 in my opinion.

One important reason I installed Firefox on my Mac is the ability to easily add powerful add-ons that increase browser functionality. A less obvious Firefox feature that I started missing immediately while I was using Safari was the ability to add keywords to bookmarks.

By taking a little extra time to designate your most used bookmarks by a memorable keyword, you can easily pare down the time it takes to open web pages. For some web sites I use frequently, like Gmail and Facebook I use keywords that are only two letters long. I can type “gm” in the address bar, hit enter, and the full address for my gmail inbox is filled in. It’s a huge time-saver.

To add keywords to your own bookmarks in Firefox open the bookmark organizer. With Windows you can right click on a bookmark, select properties, and then enter the desired value in the keyword field. With OS X select the bookmark and then click the arrow next to “more” at the bottom of the organizer window.

Put in a little time up front and you can start launching your favorite web pages with three key strokes.

Sometimes the best solution to our overwhelming problems is to just take a break and start again later. The same thing goes for our PC’s. For a while you can just reboot the computer and you’re good to go, but eventually it gets beyond that. It’s time to reinstall Windows.

If you’re at all like me, and you’ve never done that before, it sounds a little frightening. I used to be worried about somehow getting lost in DOS, a place where I had never been, and destroying the computer for good. Fortunately, the process of reinstalling the operating system isn’t really as scary as we novices might think. It’s actually just like installing a really big program and the worst thing we have to worry about is losing some of the files on the hard drive. With a little caution, even that can be avoided.

I prefer to totally start over, reformat the hard drive partition, and then go from there. That destroys whatever data is on the hard drive, so before getting that far, it’s very important to thoroughly back-up whatever files you want to keep. Saving the whole My Documents folder is a bit of a no-brainer. It’s the first data I’d think about. I just move it over onto an external hard drive. But to be thorough, it’s important to dig a bit deeper and think about things like browser bookmarks, Outlook emails and addresses, any program data that you need to keep. Also double check that you have the license keys for Microsoft Office, Anti-Virus, and any other paid programs you have installed. The key to this process is being thorough. I suggest working your way through the Start menu looking at all the programs you have installed and making sure you have everything you need to get the essentials working again after your OS reinstall is complete.

Starting the installation process is as simple as putting your Windows CD or DVD in and following the instructions. From there on in, while the process isn’t exactly snappy, it’s not very difficult. Finish up with Windows and then move your data back and install your more important programs. I usually install the rest of my programs over the next couple days when I suddenly remember that I need them.

Reinstalling Windows is not without hassles. It can be time consuming, and it can also take a bit of time to get your system customized to your tastes again. But when the computer is really getting bogged down, it can do wonders for your speed and your mental health. Watching the Microsoft logo all morning will give you a little variety, and your computer will gain new life and speed you didn’t remember it had.