Dirty Dave’s Poweruser Tips
I don’t want you to think this is just another listicle to mark as spam or ignore completely – though it technically is, I suppose. I know how it looks… because I’ve run into many of them and have been just as irritated as you. In fact, I would be so bold as to presume I’ve run into many many more than you have simply because a primary hobby of mine has always been Just Trying to Do Things On The Computer without any academic authority or hands-on training. This is a way of life for my generation and those proceeding it, yes, but I promise you that I have gone far, far deeper than the vast majority of anyone you know. What I’m ultimately trying to do here is to spare you the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of hours I have had to spend mulling through shitty workflows throughout my childhood and adulthood before I stumbled upon Good Practices (i.e. Better Ways to Do Things.)
I want you to come away from this list feeling as liberated and powerful as I do now when I’m On My Computer without any condescension or tedium. Unfortunately, there’s probably going to be some of both, so please stick with me and don’t take it personally. I do a lot of online reading, writing, and fiddling. I’ve been compelled to do these things in one form or another since very early childhood, and what follows could be described as a list of my favorite tools to accomplish things. Almost all of them are entirely free to use and the vast majority of them are easily and beautifully functional as well. They are what I suggest for my own mother to use, for what that’s worth, and I would argue sincerely for their extreme importance. Don’t waste your life on bad software.
You Need a Password Manager
In 2020, password managers are no longer optional for digital life. They are mandatory. If you only ever heed a single piece of my advice, ever, please make it this one. Most password managers available are secure, cross-platform, optionally cloud-synced tools that help you generate, store, and organize digital credentials. More likely than not, you’re already using one in your favorite browser. On MacOS and iOS, Safari is linked to a service called Keychain, which is – functionally – a robust password manager. On signup for a given website or service, Safari should prompt you to automatically generate secure, complex passwords to store in Keychain. Generally, it’s pretty smart about knowing when it’s time to retrieve the credentials with Touch-ID, but for when it isn’t, you should know how to manually retrieve passwords from Keychain. If you’re deeply enough embedded into the Mac ecosystem, you can feel free to continue to rely on this process as long as you know how to help yourself when it fails. I’m not going to tell you who to trust, but I do almost actually believe in Apple’s commitment to securing user data, if only because of the way their incentives are aligned (in contrast with those in front of data-funded organizations like Google.)
If you’re using a Windows Home Machine and/or an Android smartphone, I believe it’s more urgent that you find a standalone password management solution immediately. I use a gorgeous app called Enpass to store all of my passwords as well as my bank credentials, credit cards, driver’s license information, and anything else I might need to keep handy, securely. I can use virtually any cloud or file-sharing service to keep my “vaults” synced between all of my devices: Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Box, etc, and I also regularly create encrypted local backups just in case. I can even share end-to-end encrypted credentials with another device or Enpass installation. I migrated to Enpass two years ago after using 1Password for nearly 10. It was intuitive and virtually seamless, as such things in software tend to be these days, and as a result, I haven’t had to memorize a single password since my adolescence. Enpass allows me to create custom login templates for quick differentiation when creating new entries as well as picturized categories and tags. With one click, even the icon can be pulled from a given URL’s favicon to help keep my vault looking visually itemized. It also includes presets for a hundred services or so – from Google to Wix to Yahoo! Japan.
Total Recall with a Clipboard Manager
Imagine if everything you had ever copied (as in Ctrl-C) were listed in linear order, easily and instantly searchable via a single global keyboard shortcut (Alt-`) and navigable with the arrow keys. Imagine if you could then export an archive of your clipboard so nothing could ever be lost. Imagine clipboard tabs that are easily switchable. CopyQ – an “advanced clipboard manager” – is one of my favorite software discoveries of all time. Some workdays, I use it literally hundreds of instances in my workflow. It is difficult to describe how much more useful it makes the clipboard feature – something we’ve all been using for decades, now. For someone like me who copies a ridiculous amount of links every day, CopyQ’s functionality has truly become life-changing.
Alt-D and Other Keyboard Shortcuts
Somehow, I did not discover Alt-D until 2018, which means that I had spent the entirety of my 24 years since triple-clicking to select every single URL I’d ever copied. I built a media company this way, and I can’t believe nobody told me about this shortcut. Open any given web browser, use Alt-D, and your selection will move to the URL in the address bar on top of the page. It’s very possible this will be of little use to you, but anyone who regularly shares or copies links will save themselves so much time. I felt the same way when I discovered text navigation with Alt, Shift, Ctrl + the arrow keys. Most of these are cross-platform, but I am specifically focusing on Windows shortcuts for this piece because that’s what I’m currently using.
Arrow key-related shortcuts
· Shift in conjunction with the arrow keys selects text in a document surrounding the cursor.
· Alt in conjunction with the arrow keys allows one to go forward or backward in a browser.
· Ctrl in conjunction with the arrow keys allows one to navigate text by word.
Virtually all of the “Windows logo key” shortcuts are usable in day-to-day workflows. I use Win-D to immediately minimize all windows and show the desktop on the regular. Microsoft is currently testing a feature like MacOS’ spotlight which is triggered with this key.
Designed to replace the existing Win + R shortcut, the new launcher will include options to quickly search apps and files across Windows and support for plugins like calculators, dictionaries, and search engines.
We can only hope this feature will be as useful as spotlight (which is triggered with ⌘-Spacebar for you Mac users,) and will be implemented as standard as soon as possible. If you’re not already using basic shortcuts for functions like closing tabs/windows and cut/copy/pasting text, I’d advise you to begin as soon as possible. It can be hard to commit, but I promise it’ll make your life better. Try printing out a list of shortcuts for your particular operating system to keep by your workspace and/or find or create an image of the list to set as your desktop background for a while.
Learn Markdown Immediately
While we’re on the subject of text – and hopefully without finding ourselves exploring the entire history of word processing – I’d like to evangelize what very well might be the Ultimate Formatting Language for digital text. It’s called Markdown, and it’s something you’ve likely already used in one form or another. Technically, Markdown is “a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers,” but – more importantly – it’s a method of stylizing text which is as simple as possible, easy to universalize, and already quite popular. While Vice argues that Markdown is a “power-user tool,” I’d suggest that it’s one everybody should make use of. Though I am currently writing this in Word (for the first time in a good while,) I’m going to pay for it later.
A Word file is the story-fax of the early 21st century: cumbersome, inefficient, and a relic of obsolete assumptions about technology.
“[Markdown] has all the advantages of plain text, but with the organizational power of a word processor,” says Lifehacker. From Ian Lurie:
I once had to convert a Word document to a web page.
After spending hours deleting mso-style blocks and cleaning up thousands of lines of crap, I swore (and swore, and swore) that I’d never do that again.
So I moved to Markdown. For a writer who publishes mostly to the web, it’s perfect.
Before I committed to writing in Markdown and moved Extratone to Write.As – a wonderfully simple, open-source web CMS entirely based on Markdown – I really struggled with text formatting on our old WordPress-based site, spending hours cleaning up text from Word, Apple Notes, Dropbox Paper, and Google Docs. Now, WordPress natively supports Markdown along with Ghost, Slack, Discord, Tumblr, and more.
Mashable published a formidable list of Markdown editors in 2013, but many are since significantly out of date. Instead, I’d refer you to @awwsmm’s “State of Markdown Editors 2019,” which suggests Joplin as the winning pick. Joplin is open-source and syncs across devices using your preferred cloud service, but it requires that all notes be written in a monospace typeface, which I do not prefer. If you have a MacOS-running machine and/or an iOS-running smartphone, you must download and try an application called Bear. It is quite simply the most beautiful piece of software – aesthetically and functionally – that I have ever seen, and therefore the most beautiful possible execution of a Markdown Editor. From The Verge’s Dieter Bohn:
OKAY, YOU GUYS WERE RIGHT ABOUT BEAR...— David Blue (@NeoYokel) November 16, 2018
the whole world was right about Bear...
I'm not sure if I've ever seen a more beautiful text editor and I've seen A LOT. pic.twitter.com/8SzGiBgoYt
Bear uses a simple three-paned design. The largest column is devoted to your current note. A smaller column to the left contains your notes in reverse-chronological order, topped by a search bar. The left-most column contains notes that you’ve pinned, as well as any tags you’ve created to organize your notes — #recipes, for example. I spent years trying to sort my notes into notebooks in Evernote, only to learn that what I really needed was a faster search box.
As much as I despise the term “seamless,” everything about Bear is its definition. For someone like me, it, alone, almost warrants a reversion to MacOS. If you have the correct platforms, I require you to try it. Unfortunately, there can be no true Windows or Linux equivalent without the work Shiny Frog has done to streamline Bear’s near-instantaneous iCloud integration, but there is one application that can literally simulate its functionality in every other way. Typora is an infinitely-customizable alternative that spans all three platforms with a well-populated themes gallery (including an actual copy of my favorite Bear theme.) My installation is not nearly as smooth as Bear, but it’s technically more powerful – bad news for users like me who can’t resist fiddling. I’ve downloaded (and attempted to author/modify) a billion themes for Typora. Bear, by contrast, allows just enough stylistic modification (color theme, a choice list of 7 beautiful typefaces, and sliders for font size, line height, paragraph spacing,) without any access to its internal workings. In this way, it provides the perfect blend of customizability and minimalism. If you tend toward the latter, try an ultra-slim solution like WordPress’ Simplenote.
I ran a poll on both Twitter and Mastodon yesterday asking “do you still email things to yourself?” Overwhelmingly, my “audience” responded “yes,” which is awfully surprising considering their demographic – young, techish early adopters. Though email is not yet “obsolete” – as envisioned by Inc’s John Brandon in 2015 – it has indeed been replaced by other software in many of its functions, especially the old Mail-to-Self practice. I cannot remember the last time I emailed myself anything – even to transfer photos from my cellular to my computer, as I used to do often. Instead, I use a private Telegram channel to send myself photos, videos, links, text, and any other file up to 1.5GB! There’ve always been plenty of reasons to use the messaging app for general communication – especially since Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014. Though press coverage of the application has all but dried up, I would argue there are now more reasons than ever to make use of Telegram in your day-to-day life.
As of 2016, Telegram had 100 million active users, but it’s certainly experienced its fair share of controversies. I see no reason to be worried about encryption or privacy at all, for that matter, for the vast majority of Mail-to-Self cases. If the files you’re sending yourself are sensitive enough to worry about, you shouldn’t be emailing them, anyway.
If you’re the sort of person who regularly types out 500+ word text messages (or have to do homework/any real writing) on your smartphone, I have a secret to reveal to you: most smartphones still have Bluetooth keyboard support. It may look strange, but yes, you can use a full qwerty keyboard with your phone. Those of us who’ve livestreamed or used screenrecording software know that OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) is an absolute gift from Gourd, but these days, it’s also easy enough for most computer users to make use of. I’d encourage everybody who can think of a reason to record their screen – to show somebody how to do something, for instance – to download and install it. Finally, I think every Windows user should look into compacting their operating system into just the essentials. “Compact OS” is really just a Windows 10 install without bloatware: the shit you almost certainly don’t need. If you do find yourself in need of default Microsoft apps, you’ll be able to redownload them instantly from the Windows Store.
I’d been meaning to write something like this for a very long time, so I hope you or someone you know has found it useful. I’m not an authority in the technical sense, but I’ve used every one of these suggestions in my own computing life for years, now, to great benefit. If you have any comments/suggestions/feedback/petty insults, please do contact me via email, Twitter, Mastodon, or Discord.