Category Archives: Computers

How to best use Zoom, Hangouts, Meet, Skype, and so on

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This is not a complete guide to how to use Zoom or similar face to face on line conferencing software. Rather, this is a list of pointers, many of which you would not get from the software’s manual (were there a manual). As far as I can tell, most people don’t know many of the things I cover here, but these are things that will make you a better Zoomer, Skyper, Meeter, Hangouter, or whateverer.

Give permission so you don’t need forgiveness later

When you start a meeting, you are often asked to give permission for the software to use your video and your audio. Some people get annoyed at this, but you need to know that this is feature, not a bug. You really do not want to grant permanent permission to any entity to have access to your video and audio.

Now that I think about it, you should probably be covering your camera with a Post-It Note between uses. But don’t forget to remove it when it is time to use it.

Massive muting avoids mutiny

The single biggest problem with multi-person on line conferencing is that people have no idea what sorts of noises they are making, and transmitting sometimes way too efficiently, over the microphone. Gentle tapping on the keyboard becomes pounding like the proverbial feet of the Russian Army. Moving something around on your desk can sound like the Concord take off. That one last time. And, most annoyingly, consider the times you turn your attention to the person in your room — your spouse, your kid, even your pet — and have a lengthy conversation with them about how you are out of toilet paper, or whether or not that last cookie is yours, or whatever. The entire group can hear you, mainly you, they stop, and they listen, and they wait and figuratively tap their feet. Because you forgot about the meeting and so you forgot to mute your mic.

A partial solution to this is to always have your mute on, until you need to speak (for more guidance see below). But then, remember to turn your mute back on when you do want to speak. Else, you’ll be yammering on and on and others will be interrupting you and acting like you are not even there and totally ignoring you! Then by the time you realize your mic was off the whole time, the conversation has moved on to the next inane thing. A YouTube video of that happening could be funny, though.

If you are running a meeting, pre-mute everyone, and remind them about their mic and what kinds of noises they make, unknowingly. Then, when someone joins the meeting late, take a moment to remind them as well (but see below for more information on that). Also, make sure to tell them how to unmute themselves. I had a recent meeting where one of the participants, a Zoom first timer, sent me an email asking to be unmuted near the end so he could add his two cents.

Consider getting an external microphone and using headphones. A good set of earbuds with a microphone, or if you like the DJ look, must go all the way and get a set of YouTuber headphones. Generally speaking, using headphones or earbuds will reduce the potential for feedback and other bad noises.*

You’re not going to like the way you look

I have a collection of screenshots of people Zooming that is totally hysterical but that I can’t show you our I’d lose friends and relatives. Just how many nose hairs does Aunt Betty have? I didn’t realize that Emanuel’s forehead was so interesting, but good thing it is because that is all I can see of him. My colleague Jane in Indiana is a demigod, I can tell because of the huge halo surround her body. Or is that just the giant window with the sun blaring through it in front of which she is sitting? I had no idea Ahmed’s face was so freaking big!

Lighting should be shining on you from your front, not from behind you. You want your camera positioned at your eye level or slightly above, pointing at your face, not some other thing in the room. Not just the top of your head. You don’t want the camera shooting up towards you with your head bent down looking at it. Just do that and look at yourself. See the quadruple chin? That is because your head has sunk into your neck because your laptop is on your lap, your screen pointing up at a steep angle so your built-in camera can get your face, but you are looking down your nose (nice nose hairs, by the way). Just stop that.

Sit in a chair. Have your laptop on a desk or table in front of you, probably on a book or two so that the camera is eye to eye with you. Make sure there is a gap between the top of your head and the top of the visible image of you in the software, and make sure your shoulders are visible, at least. Make sure the background is dark, foreground is light, and that what can be seen in the background is not something you don’t want people to see. Or maybe it is something funny or apropos, just not something that ruins either the image or your reputation.

Take a shower, comb your hear, wear a clean shirt. And, just in case you have to stand up for a moment, wear pants. Please.

Consider getting a separate free-standing camera (a web cam) that can be placed somewhere other than on the front of your laptop. You want a small tripod perhaps like this or similar. I suggest a Logitech Webcam, but DON’T BUY IT NOW. With everyone using Zoom all at once, webcams are the new toilet paper. They are sold out, but you can get a $50 one for $300 if you want. Just wait on that, but later consider it.

What did you say, Private? It wasn’t private!

In Zoom, and this may be true in other software, there is a chat function that includes a “private” chat that is person to person. The point of this feature is to allow you to have a side-bar conversation with someone else and not distract the larger group. The point of this feature is NOT to have an actual private chat. It turns out anyone can see this private chat of yours, and this is a feature, not a bug. If anyone clicks on “save” in the chat box, both the “To everyone” conversation and the private conversations are now saved, and visible in that saved document. This is great for keeping meeting minutes. Or, blackmailing your friends and co-workers.

You shouldn’t be saying anything privately that you can’t say publicly anyway, but especially using the Zoom “private” chat.

Be like a Boyscout, but in a good way

Before using any meeting software, be prepared. Have a pre-meeting, and try to get everyone to join in. Maybe two meetings. And don’t expect your first meeting to go well, or to give everyone a fair chance to participate.

I have an analogy. For the longest time, only a few people knew how to drive, or ever wanted or needed to drive. Then, one day, everybody had to drive, so everybody got a car and a learners permit more or less on the same day. Chaos. There are some of us who have been using on line conferencing software on a regular basis, for years. To the rest of you: Welcome to our world!

Get a wing-person, or be a wing-person

For larger, or more complex, or more important meetings I recommend a two-leader approach. One person (in your organization this can be the secretary or communications committee chief, perhaps, whoever takes minutes) initiates the Zoom meeting (meaning, does the invites, sets it up, and acts as “host”). A second person chairs the meeting. The host is in charge of making sure that participants’ names are showing (if someone calls in, that has to be fixed by replacing their phone number with their name), and that everyone is muted, and that people are reminded to unmute and remute. The host force-mutes or throws off the meeting any participate who, probably through no fault of their own, is disrupting the meeting. Yes, folks, if suddenly you are talking to your spouse about the day’s plans and can’t manage to mute yourself, you should be bounced off the meeting, get an email from the host telling you why and welcoming you back.

There is another thing I think the people running the meeting can do, but I’ve not done this, so I can’t advise in detail. In Zoom there is a lobby, or waiting room that you can force people to wait in before being allowed into the meeting. It is very common for people to show up at a meeting late. They should be forced to wait in the meeting room until they have been given the guidelines and norms for the meeting. Otherwise you’ll have 80% of the participants doing everything right, and a too-large number (which is 1 or more) of participants talking to their dog and writing their thesis on a loud keyboard as they pretend to be in the meeting. Or sending scurrilous private notes to others. Or whatever.

Norms and Guidelines

By now this should be obvious, but in case not: At the beginning of each meeting, take a minute to go over a few norms and guidelines. Like, how to get permission to speak, if that is necessary, the muting rules, etc. Ideally, a five or six bullet point text file can be on hand and transmitted along with the meeting invite, and then also put on the chat box. But you will have to tell people that the chat box exists and how to get it. And, much of this can be done in the waiting room.

I hope this helps you, and I hope you add in the comments your own tips and tricks.

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Automate The Boring Stuff with Python Coding

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If everyone in the world understood and had a working command of regular expressions, everything would run smoothly. Especially if all of our interfaces to text allowed for their use. This has been pointed out. And, Automate the Boring Stuff with Python, 2nd Edition: Practical Programming for Total Beginners has a whole chapter on this.

What is a regular expression? We can talk about that in detail some other time. Briefly, it is a string of symbols that is designed to match a specified set of symbols, or a range of a set of symbols, in a larger body or stream of text. For example, if you pass a stream of information (say, all your emails) through a filter with the regular expression:


then any part of that stream of information that looks like a phone number (not using parens), such as 636-555-3226, will be isolated.

Automate the Boring Stuff with Python is a book that teaches beginning Python computer Augean programming focusing on examples from day to day life, including but well beyond REs.

The new edition includes pattern matching with regular expressions, input validation, reading and writing files, organizing files, web scraping, manipulating Excel spreadsheets and Google Sheets, PDF and Word documents, CSV and JSON files, email, images, and automating your keyboard and mouse.

The great benefit of a book like this is that you learn Python (the first part of the book gives you all you need to know to program in Python) in the context of things you actually want to do with Python. If you are interested in learning Python, or coding in general, this can be your first book.

The book is well done, as all in this series are, and fun. There are strong on line resources including all the code, and that information is regularly updated. Generally, “No Starch” press books are great, and this is one of those!

I would like to have seen at least sidebars on manipulating things using Libreoffice software, but note that the book focuses on documents, and OpenSource software does work with normal Excel and Word documents, so it is there.

The second edition adds a new chapter on input validation. The Gmail and Google Sheets sections, and the information on CSV files is also new. I plan on using the software tips and tricks to develop my own highly specialized and targeted search software. I’m often looking for files that have specific extensions, and certain kinds of content, in certain locations. Just the ability to hard-wire where to search for files will save me a lot of time and trouble.

Author Al Sweigart is a professional software developer who teaches programming to kids and adults, and who is author of Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python, Cracking Codes with Python, and Coding with Minecraft, all of which are quite nice. We need a new edition of Coding with Minecraft, by the way, that looks at a wider range of coding options and keeps up with the major advances in that software environment! So, get to work, Al!

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How to share keyboard and mouse between two computers?

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I use two different computers, each with a different operating system, to do my stuff. Actually, I use five, but only two where I would ideally like to switch between them while I’m using them. I’ve experimented with some solutions, so I can offer some advice. Continue reading How to share keyboard and mouse between two computers?

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Kids coding and technology advance

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Over recent months, there has been an important advance in opportunities for kids to learn to code and mess around with technology.

The Scratch programming language is a project set at MIT. Scratch programming involves moving images, called blocks, from a pallet into a work area, hooking them together and maybe changing some values attached to them, in order to develop programs that mainly, but not exclusively, manipulate sprites. (See example of code blokcks above.) The project is located HERE. This is a full object oriented programming language with quite a few features that make it very powerful, for a kid’s toy. Continue reading Kids coding and technology advance

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How to recover from a failed Linux upgrade

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Ahem. I followed my own advice from yesterday, and went ahead and upgraded to Ubuntu 17.10, and it did not go well.

I can’t explain exactly what went wrong, but eventually I ended up with a dialog that required that I click “OK” followed by the same dialog, again and again, long enough that I figured it was infinity time.

I eventually followed a procedure that I’ve found to work sometimes. First, I turned the computer off and the back on again (always a last resort) and the desktop never loaded, so I knew something was pretty messed up. Continue reading How to recover from a failed Linux upgrade

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Updating Ubuntu 17.04 to 17.10 the easy way

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Go to Software and Updates (in your control panel or system area, depending on your flavor). Go to the tap for “updates” and set the “notify me of a new Ubuntu version” to “For any new version.”

(See picture above.)

Then, in either a terminal or in the box you get when you hit Alt-F4, type the following and hit enter:

update-manager -cd

You might get something that looks like this, and you can hit the upgrade button and follow instructions. Good luck. Have a backup. Should work fine.

If things don’t work fine, try THIS.

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What is New in Ubuntu 17.10, the Artful Aardvark

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The next release of Ubuntu, the most commonly used and thought of by normal people and a few others version of Linux, is set to be released on Thursday, October 19th. The exact set of changes and improvements is not known, but a few key ones are, and some can be guessed at from the multiple pre-release releases.

This is a momentous occasion because this will be the first version of Ubuntu’s main flavor that does NOT include Unity as its default desktop.

If you don’t know, Unity was a menu and control system for the desktop, your main interface when working with the computer other than, obviously, while using a particular application. It was the look and feel, the essence, of the operating system. Unity was supposed to unify things, like diverse features of a typical desktop, like Ubuntu running on a cell phone, a desktop, a laptop, a whatever.

Unity used a modus operendus that many other interfaces were shifting towards. I hear there are versions of Windows that looked a bit like this, and Gnome from version 3.0 onwards had this basic approach. Continue reading What is New in Ubuntu 17.10, the Artful Aardvark

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Reset Ubuntu Mate, Unity, and Gnome

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As you know (if you are reading this) Ubuntu Linux was until recently saddled with, er, came with, the Unity desktop, a system of menus and such. All along it has been possible to get a Gnome version of Ubuntu, but now, Unity has been tossed out (told you so!) and Gnome is the default desktop for this distribution now. But, for people who prefer Gnome before it too jumped the shark, there is Mate (pronounced Mah teh, like the plant), which I’m pretty sure is an increasingly preferred desktop.

Anyway, if you are messing around with any of these three “flavors” of Ubuntu, you might find yourself in a situation where you’ve not just messed around but you’ve also messed up. And, maybe you want to return the distribution to its default state.

Doing so will undo whatever customization you’ve done to panels, launchers, or docs, including indicators. It will rediscover and reset the default monitor resoution settings. It will put the fonts back to what they were by default and, for some of us most dramatically, it will reset the keyboard shortcuts. Themes will be returned to default as well, including all the details of your windows and such.

Some applications will have their settings restored to default as well.

Go see this post at OMG Ubuntu for an example of before and after for someone who had tweaked the heck out of their box and reset.

This reset only affects setting stored in dconf. You can “dconf dump” to get the current settings from that place before and maybe that will suffice as a backup. Good luck with that. This should not affect other desktops you’ve got installed, or affect drviers and other deep system level stuff. Probably.

Anyway, here’s the command:

dconf reset -f /

Good luck and may the force be with you.

You can find out what dconf is and does here.

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What computer mouse is best?

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I did some research on mice, and I thought I’d pass it on. First, though, let me suggest that you get some of this stuff. Use it to paint a symbol on each of your wireless mice that matches a symbol on each of your mice dongles. It will help keep you sane. You’ll still find yourself constantly in possession of mice and dongles that do not match, but at least they will have these pretty little symbols you drew all over them.

There is some interesting and exciting stuff going on with mice.

Best but most expensive small mouse for general mobile use

The Logitech MX Anywhere 2 Wireless Mobile Mouse, Long Range Wireless Mouse is over fifty bucks, but it has some excellent features. It is small and portable and normative in shape and design. It works on any surface, is highly precise, nice to use, all that. It is a Laser tracking mouse. It has an internal rechargeable battery.

This mouse uses a small USB dongle or bluetgooth (Bluetooth Smart Ready). You can pair up to three different devices. It has hyper-speed scrolling.

The Most Magical of Mice: Flow technology

There are several mice in this category ranging across price. One of them is the Logitech MX Anywhere 2S Wireless Mouse with FLOW Cross-Computer Control and File Sharing for PC and Mac – 910-005132, which is close to 80 bucks, and is like the MX Anywhere 2, but has the additional magical capability of controlling multiple devices, including managing a cross-device clipboard. You pair the mouse up with each computer, then you tie it into the same local network both computers are on. Here’s a video from Logitech:

This supposedly works on Linux, Macs and Windows.

Super Ergonomic

I am suspicious of the whole ergonomic thing. Ergonomic, in mice and similar devices, seems to be “we fit your hand so well you will only move one or two muscles ever,” which seems a bad idea. I think a mouse should require more movement and adjustment by the hand in order to Not cause repetitive motion syndrome. Note that this is entirely my non-expert opinion and I may be quite wrong.

Anyway, one of the top rated and coolest Ergonomic mice is probably the Anker 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse which is extreme in its design and intended to minimize RSS. The same company makes a variety of products, and note, these are generally not expensive.

General all round mouse

The affordable Logitech M720 Triathalon Multi-Device Wireless Mouse pairs with multiple devices, has fancy buttons, has hyper fast scrolling capability, and uses a single AA battery. It uses bluetooth.

Glows in the dark

I have a keyboard that glows in the dark. Maybe I need the ASUS ROG Gladius II Aura Sync USB Wired Optical Ergonomic Gaming Mouse with DPI target button. This $100 computer critter is a high end gaming mouse, and note that the interface is a wire. Proof that new technology (in this case, wireless interface to mouse) is sometimes inferior, and the old technology gets you more.

Other mice

The Logitech M330 Silent Plus Wireless Large Mouse is a large size mouse that makes no noise and is inexpensive (and wireless, but not bluetooth)
The super accruate, wired, Corsair Gaming M65 Pro RGB FPS Gaming Mouse, Backlit RGB LED, 12000 DPI, Optical is for gamers and has lots of buttons.

The mouse I need is probably the one I hope to find over at Goodwill; I need a plug in USB mouse to allow quick access to any computer any time without needing a dongle dangling off the back of something.

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