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How to Actually Use Your Computer: Part 3

Feeling in a rather procrastinatic (word?) nature, I’ve once again displayed my utter aptitude in presenting delayed articles. This is the third part in the series, so you might want to check out part 1 – a general overview on the types of computer users, and perhaps even part 2 – about web browsing, email & PIM, IMs, and document editing.

Right now, being 00:18AM (and counting!) I’m going to continue this series to talk about a few hidden tricks and activities you could use your computer for that you might not be accustomed to normally.

RSS Feeds

It’s amazing how many people who don’t know what an RSS feed is. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (yeah, really) and is basically a format of a web feed. In technophobe terms, this means it’s a fancy new way you can access information. For example, you can access your emails through your email client, you can view web pages with your web browser, and now you can view RSS feeds with, well, an RSS aggregator (or reader). Ok, it’s more complex than that, but that’s all you really need to know.

Let’s use a practical example to explain the usefulness of an RSS feed. Let’s say you absolutely love the thinkMoult blog, and you want to keep up to date on it all the time without getting extra spam in your inbox notifying you of updates. Well, like most blogs, we offer an RSS feed (hint: that was a link to our feed URL) You can input that URL into your RSS aggregator (which is a program you can download), and you can now easily view each post just as it is: a snippet of information, instead of laid out in this bulky (though beautiful) webdesign. It allows you to quickly parse information from all around the web in bitesize pieces. Don’t read too many blogs? You can also use it perhaps for comics, such as Dilbert or XKCD. Now you don’t need to remind yourself to check those pages for updates every time you’re online.

Multiple IM Protocols

Now, that’s just a fancy and technical way of saying MSN Messenger isn’t the only thing that exists. You can use Skype! You can use Jabber (such as GTalk), Yahoo chat, and there are so many other popular IM services that people use, you might just need to sign in to those accounts to make sure you can contact all your clients or important whomevers you meet online. I personally use Skype, MSN, and GTalk all the time.

You might find it’s a hassle to manage the multiple accounts, but fear not! There are less handicapped programs than your Windows MSN Messenger that actually support multiple protocols! For example, I use Kopete on KDE, and I can sign into all my accounts (save for Skype) with just one client. It really makes life easier.

Also, I know it isn’t exactly IM, but you should also familiarise yourself with IRC. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, and it’s what the whole online community used before other things got invented. Right now it’s still a massively popular form of communication, though mostly populated by people of the more intelligent and technical sort. It’s basically a huge chatroom (think 800 people per channel) categorised by topic. There are many IRC servers, though the most common is arguably irc.freenode.net. What you’ll need is an IRC client (try HydraIRC on Windows or IRSSI on Linux), and connect to the irc.freenode.net server. Once in, you might want to try joining some channels related to what you’re interested in. For example, I can be found regularly in #gentoo, #gentoo-kde, #gentoo-chat, #blenderchat, #vim, and occasionally some others depending on what I’m doing.

Set up a Personal Server

Yes, you can easily set up your own web server, even on Windows. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist. There’s this nifty little prepackaged LAMP setup (that’s Linux Apache MySQL, and PHP) in the disguised form of XAMPP. The absense of the L means it probably works on Windows, eh? The extra P is probably for Python or Perl, but I haven’t poked too much in the package to find out personally.

What use is a personal server? You can dump your files in it, give others your IP, and then they can easily download files from you. If you’re on a network (even through your router), you can easily transfer files from one computer to another at speeds reaching up to 1gb per second (either that or the little notification window lied). If you’re into webdesign, or need an environment to run PHP scripts, that’s the perfect place to do it! Or even if you want to use PHPMyAdmin (oh, the extra P could be that too) to interface with your MySQL databases (if you use them, of course) a server is probably the most useful thing you could have.

Set up some transfer protocols

We’ve all known the popular protocols, FTP, SSH, SFTP, Telnet, etc. Why don’t you set it up on your own computer? Let people upload files to your computer. Let people connect to your computer and control it remotely! If you have an X server, let people do X tunneling through SSH so from anywhere you can access your GUI applications. Or if you’re braver, setup a VNC server too so that you can control it as though you were sitting right in front of it!

You’d probably have to do some research on how to set these up for your operating system (for Linux just check your package manager), but it’s worth it. The ability to remotely access and manipulate your data from anywhere in the world is priceless. It has plenty of uses too! You can access your files from anywhere (that’s the obvious one). You can debug applications or even your failing router. You can have two people connect to one computer and run tutorial sessions, or do Extreme Programming (a style which involves two programmers working at the same time).

A word of warning though, please learn how to secure these connections, you don’t want random people poking through your stuff.

Well, that’s it for this part of the series. I realise it’s turned ever so slightly more geeky, so I promise the next part will be a lot simpler. If you aren’t of the technologically savvy type and you are reading this, you have a huge amount of research to do before you can find out how to accomplish all these things. However, repeat after me: “It’s worth it.”