Category Archives: Computing

A better briefcase

A couple of months ago I took the plunge and moved back to using an Apple Mac computer at home after seven years using various machines running Microsoft Windows (notwithstanding a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the 1980s, a funky blue PowerMac G3 was my first ‘proper’ home computer). In the main, this has been a positive experience and I’ve more often found myself grumbling about handy Mac features I miss when using Windows than the other way around. However one tool I’ve really missed is the Windows briefcase. My professional life is such that I’m sometime working at home, sometimes working at my University desk and sometimes working on the move. Windows briefcase allowed me to keep copies of all my work folders on a USB stick that then synchronised with folders on my home computer. But briefcase only works with Windows and there didn’t appear to be a viable Mac alternative, until I discovered an even better way of doing things. Continue reading

Pesky PDFs: preserving Word bookmarks

I recently uploaded my PhD thesis as a single PDF file. I wanted to make this electronic copy as accessible and usable as possible. For such a large document (250 pages plus), this meant including bookmarks so that cross-references and table of contents are ‘clickable’ – they take you directly to the referred-to section. It also means that the document can be viewed as a hierarchy of section and subsection headings in PDF viewers such as Adobe Reader. Creating basic PDFs is easy, Mac OS X has a built-in “Save as PDF” option within print menus and there is freeware such as Cute PDF available for Windows, but this only creates simple PDFs that are effectively the output to a printer and include no bookmark information. Creating navigable PDFs is possible (there are some useful guides here and here), but turned out to be a bit more of a minefield than I expected. Continue reading

It’s all computers’ fault

We sit rapt in front of them, our entire attention focussed on one small rectangle of flickering light [1], our only movements the sliding of a mouse or the tapping of keys. The result: headaches, eye strain, back ache and even obesity – how many calories do you burn clicking a mouse? And isn’t it striking that most of us hadn’t heard of RSI until computers came along?

The problem is that computers make us operate in their world, which is a much reduced and abstracted form of the real world. We’re set up to get stuff done in the real world using our physical bodies as well as our brains: moving it and ourselves, perceiving it, being aware of ourselves and those around us. Computers handicap us by making us use our brains (mainly) to decipher their ‘version’ of our world. Not only does this mean we need to concentrate more to use them (doing the deciphering), we’re also not using all the intuitive capabilities of our physical bodies. We need computers to operate in our world, the real world.

This isn’t a new idea. The concept of ubiquitous computing was first developed in the late 1980s. Yet it’s understandable why we’ve ended up with this problem. The form and function of computers have been limited by technology. But now we have pervasive wireless networks, fast microprocessors and cheap data storage. So perhaps it’s time the manufacturers put more effort into ubiquitous computing?

[1] Okay, so you can go out and buy some pretty large monitors or even use your computer via vast plasma screens. But in comparison to the size of your entire environment, that which you can perceive around you and interact with, they’re rather small.