My computer geography

Before I get into the series of “How I manage my files” that people seem to be interested in, I thought it might be a good idea to talk a bit about some very general structure of how I use my computer. Geography is really sort of the right word, except that this geography, I get to move things around, at least within broad limits.

On Thursday, I wrote a (fairly lengthy) background post about this. Next morning – poof! It’s gone! Totally gone, not just lurking in my drafts folder or anything. And yet, the three other drafts I set up at the same time are there, and so are the image files I uploaded for it. Most curious indeed. (My best guess is that I somehow managed to move it to the trash without noticing I was doing that – my ‘Net’s been a little wonky, so I might not have seen the “Are you sure?” reminder as I normally would.)

So, let me try and recreate what I said the first time, though perhaps a little more briefly this time. (However, since I had to redo this anyway, I tried for some slightly easier to read screenshots. You can click through the image to get a larger image, too.)

The basics:

My computer is a 13″ MacBook, approaching its second birthday. Aluminum case, running Snow Leopard. I’ve been a Mac user since .. well, before there were Macs, as my first computer was an Apple IIc. (I will use Windows machines at work, and I’ve spent a fair bit of time on Unix boxes in the past, but for home use, the Apple approach of ‘use it to get things done without much necessary fiddling’ fits my style well.)

I use my laptop for pretty much everything. Blogging, writing, and all sorts of other things like that, obviously. But I also use it as my music player (iTunes), my TV/DVD player (Netflix, Hulu, and so on), my alarm clock (via a program called Aurora), and much more. Also, my task management tool.

Because it does all of that (and more!) it’s really important to me to keep my files organised and structured so I can find things quickly. Having a Time Capsule makes backing up trivial (I do mine manually: I found that hourly backups slowed down other ‘Net things enough for me to be annoying – so now I just remember to back it up at intervals, and use Dropbox for immediate file changes I couldn’t restore from another location).

One curious thing for me is that while I’m not primarily a visual learner, I do find color and spatial relationship very important to me in computer organisation – so I’m sort of picky about my preferred desktop image and icons, when I have the choice. (As I can on my own machine, naturally.) I’m also very idiosyncratic with my trackpad gestures, so anyone else trying to use my computer tends to blink at it – for example, I have the contextual menu button in the bottom left corner, which is not what most people seem to expect.

In visual terms, I tend to go through different modes with icons and desktops – something I’ll talk about a bit below. My color preferences run heavily to blues, greens, and purples, but two of my desktops run to warm pinks, dark reds, salmon, and so on. My desktops rotate every 15 minutes, and I usually only see a brief edge of them (what with other stuff open on the screen), so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.

I go through phases with desktop image and icon choices, though I suspect I’ll be sticking with this one for a while.

My desktop:

So, what does my desktop actually look like? Pretty clean and clear, actually: I don’t keep files there. (Well, not for very long, anyway: we’ll get to that.)

Image of my desktop: icons and dock described in text.

my desktop

This desktop wallpaper was designed by Max Rudberg (download your own over on the MacThemes forum thread). As he mentions, it’s got some similarity in style to VladStudio, whose work I also like a whole lot. (And the iteration of desktop choices before my current one was pretty much all VladStudio desktops. My all time favorite there is the Google Library one, but there are lots of other fascinating ones.)

My current desktop rotation uses a number from Kate England’s work at Marmalade Moon including a couple of blue ones she no longer seems to have up. (I mostly prefer her more abstract/softer edged stuff for my own use.) Sometimes I set up a folder of desktops that are all seasonal (I like Digital Blasphemy‘s work for that, or photographs I’ve taken)

Anyway, down at the bottom, for the non-Mac readership, is the dock, which holds application icons on the left, and folders on the right. You can position the dock on the bottom or either side of the screen, and you can resize it (and do some other stuff with settings.) I keep my relatively small (screen real estate is precious on a laptop) but big enough I’m not constantly clicking the wrong icon by accident.


As with my desktop, I’m picky about the icons on the dock: I want things that have the right color and spatial relationship to make my eyes happy. (I spend a lot of time on the computer: might as well make it as enjoyable to the senses as I can.)

Most of my current system icons are from a set called Litho, created by Anthony Piraino. He also did a series of Indiana Jones based icons that I’ve used pieces from elsewhere, including the red-bound journal on the right side of the dock here. Previously, I was using Flurry, which is an iPhone-icon style set.

You can change many Mac icons just by copying and pasting the new image you want into the icon on the info window for the application/folder, but Icon Factory makes a piece of software called Candy Bar that makes it easy to change system icons, or things like the default new folder icon. (It has a fairly generous trial period based on uses, not calendar days, if you only use it rarely.) There are some other options out there too.

Most people who make icons offer either an .ico file (which Candy Bar reads) or a folder with all of the icons in there, each one saved as the icon for a folder (making it easy to copy/paste from that folder’s info box onto whatever application/folder you want to use instead.) The trickiest icons are for things that change: the date on iCal, the number of unread messages/tasks to do on the mail and task programs you can see in my dock. Candy Bar will also let you change the dock image.

I poke around on various sites when I’m looking for something relaxing and non-demanding to do: these include the Icon Factory and Iconpaper.

The dock:

image of the left side of my dock: applications described in post.

the left side of my dock

What you can see here is (from left to right):

Finder: the Mac operating system, so always there. (Litho icon)

iTunes: Music, podcasts, some movies, and much more. Always there, though I usually run the window in the small minimalist mode in the bottom left hand corner of the screen (next to the dock, also the Litho icon).

Firefox is my webbrowser of choice (Litho icon)

Postbox is an alternative to Apple’s Mail program. I love it because it handles multiple email accounts smoothly, and has some other things that make email organisation much easier for me. (application icon)

Things is my task management program. I’ll write some more about that one of these days. It’s flexible and adaptable. (Litho icon)

Aurora would be my alarm clock. I’ve found it more reliable than Awaken, which I’d tried in the past, but which would periodically not work for no apparent reason: not what you want in an alarm clock. Both require that you leave a laptop open (sleeping is fine, closed is not, because the speakers won’t work) so I set my computer (plugged in) on the bookshelf by the wall at the end of my bed when I go to sleep. Aurora makes it easy to set multiple alarms with a variety of options (fade in/out, timing, etc.) and to choose a playlist or other options as the audio alarm. (application icon)

And you can see the System Preferences application (because I’d just changed the background to the one in the picture), and Grab, which I used to take the screenshots. The first six icons I listed above are the ones that live on my dock all the time, in part because they’re almost always open. (I’m playing with turning off my mail most of the time, to see how it affects what I get done, but even then, I open it up three or four times a day.) Everything else I use regularly (daily to weekly, or want handy) lives in my Useful apps folder.

the right side of my dock, showing several folders. (Icons and contents described in text)

right side of my doc

The icons on the right side of my dock are a little more idiosyncratic. Most of them are from Marmalade Moon. The red-bound book is from the Indiana Jones set I linked to earlier, and the blue book is from a set by someone named Nicolai, via his DeviantArt account.

Large gear: My Useful apps folder. We’ll come back to this one in a minute.

Green folder shading to beige: This is my ‘jobs to apply for’ folder. When I review postings, I print each posting I’m interested in to PDF, and save it to the desktop. I then rename the file in a particular format – I’ll talk about this more in the file organisation post to come – and drop it in here. That means I can see in an instant if anything’s approaching a deadline, and what I need to work on.

Potted plant with a couple of leaves: This is my job hunting folder: each job I apply for gets a subfolder, into which I drop the PDF of the job listing, and save my copies of the cover letter, resume, etc. (since I edit the resume a bit to highlight specific skills). I also save any other materials they wanted to see. I also have folders in here for things like resume and reference copies, sample materials,  certificates and other materials from workshops and courses, scans of my transcripts, and other things I might need. This means that when I get a call for an interview, or a follow-up email, exactly what I sent is right at my fingertips.

When I get that wonderful job, these folders will get moved off the dock, and into my regular documents folder archives.

Notebook with red spine: This is my reference folder, where I drop or alias files that I access regularly, but not usually from within a specific application. Right now, that includes the PDF of the lap pool hours for the YWCA, some current smaller writing projects that are mostly notes or nascent blog posts, and a few other things.

Blue notebook with black spine and clasp: This is the folder for projects related to personal interests and writing, including my religious community commitments. It’s on the dock so it’s easy for me to get at, because I’m often referring to some document quickly to answer a question for someone.

Wooden in box with papers: This is one of the keys of my system: I hate having a messy desktop, so at some point most days I drop any files downloaded to the desktop into this folder. Every so often (every couple of weeks), I put something amusing on as a movie that doesn’t take too much attention, and spend an hour or two sorting through it. I like this because I can find recent files very quickly (they’re probably in there), and it means that I don’t spend a lot of time filing documents I needed very briefly (an invitation to something that’s over, a map somewhere I won’t need to go again, etc.)

Trash can: Where stuff goes that’s getting deleted. This is also a Litho icon.

What’s not on here? Oddly enough, I don’t keep a direct link to my Documents folder on here. I can get there quickly from either the References folder or the Religious stuff. I found when I put a direct link on the dock, I wanted to dump files in it (like I do with my “To Sort” folder, and then it’d be hard to figure out what I really needed.

What’s in the Useful folder?

image of a grid view of an Apple OSX dock folder, showing four folders and 11 application icons. (Applications described in text)

my useful applications folder

As I said, my useful applications folder is for the applications I use most frequently, or need to open quickly. The four folders at the top hold subgroups I don’t need as often, but like having handy. Most of the icons, as you can probably guess, are also from the Litho set. In order, they are:

  • (communication): Adium (IM) and Skype applications.
  • (games): Variety of game applications.
  • (info): Applications for storing information: Address Book, Voodoo Pad (which is like a on-your-computer wiki), things like that.)
  • (utilities): my FTP program, DVD Player, Time Machine, ebook software to prep or transfer files to the iPod, etc.
  • Aurora: ok, I could take this out, really, since it’s on the dock.
  • Concentrate: lets me limit what online sites or other programs I can open to help with focus and concentration on longer projects.
  • iCal: Calendar program
  • Keynote: iWork’s presentation software. Also good for making image slides for various other kinds of use.
  • MacGourmet: recipe program
  • Numbers: iWork’s spreadsheet. It makes aesthetically pleasing (well, to me anyway) graphs. I like that.
  • Pages: iWork’s wordprocessing program.
  • Preview: Apple’s PDF viewer. Will also allow you to save one common image file into another format (for example, these screenshots started as TIFF files, and I used Preview to save them as JPGs.
  • Scrivener: A most excellent piece of software for longer writing.
  • Text Edit: A very simple text editor, and what I use for quick notes, rough drafts, saving a copy of something if my ‘net connection is being difficult (as it sometimes is in bad weather), etc.
  • YNAB: My budget program.

(One of these days, I may expand more on Scrivener and YNAB, but their websites will give you a good idea.)

It’s probably pretty easy to see why those would be relatively frequent use items. Some I use a lot more than others, but they’re all things where having them handy is nice. You don’t see Microsoft Office there because I don’t have it on this computer (iWork saves into the equivalent file types, and I have Open Office to open files if I need to.)

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1 comment to My computer geography

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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