Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.

Writing emails that won’t be clutter

We’re all deluged with email; it’s a problem of the digital age. Noting this, how do you ensure your email is considered worthy of attention, and not seen as just more inbox clutter?

Be concise

Sometimes your email involves sharing a story with friends, and messages like that don’t always need to be succinct. But, if you’re writing to someone because you want some sort of reply — you’re asking for information, trying to set up an appointment, etc. — make it as easy as possible for the recipient. Don’t make someone wade through a long story to find out what you want.

But don’t be too brief; do include all the information needed for the other person to provide a meaningful response. I’ve seen many people asking for help about some computer-related problem without providing key information, such as what type of computer they’re using, what version of the software they are running, the specific error messages they are seeing, etc. Provide as much as necessary and little or nothing more.

Follow the policies of the group

Are you part of any mailing list, like a Yahoo Group or something else? Many of these groups have guidelines about how members should structure their messages; if your group has such guidelines, be sure to read them and follow them.

Since I’m a moderator of a freecycle group, this is a continual issue for me. We have specific subject line formats, a policy about how often things may be re-offered, etc. It causes more time and work (and frustration) for everyone when the policies are not followed.

Address the email properly

Do you want to reply, or reply all? Think about your recipient list, and whether everyone on that list really needs to see the message.

If you’re sending a message to a group of people, other than in a work situation, please respect everyone’s privacy and do not put all the email addresses in the To: field, where all the recipients can see them. Rather, put those email addresses in the Bcc: field.

Watch what you forward

I’ve seen many a well-intentioned person forward on a message alerting me to some horrifying problem, when a quick check of Snopes.com would show that the information simply isn’t true. If something sounds at all suspicious, please check it out before forwarding.

Also, make sure the people you’re sending those messages with cute animal photos or jokes really want to get them. People are often reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings by asking to get removed from such lists, even if they don’t want the emails — so you might add a note letting your recipients know that you want them to tell you if they’d prefer not to get such emails.

Avoid long signature files

There is certain information people usually want to see in your signature file, and your contact information is at the top of the list. But many people would prefer you skip your favorite quote, a list of every award you’ve ever won, and an admonishment to not print the email.

Consider that not all emails need the same signature. A reply might not need as much information as the email where you’re initiating a conversation. If you’re going back and forth in an email exchange, and you included your long signature file the first time, you don’t need to include it on every message in the chain.

It also looks a bit silly when you send a two-line message and have a 20-line signature file.

Be considerate with attachments

People might be reading email on a slow connection, so maybe it’s best not to include a 5 MB photo.

Review emails for problematic wording

For casual emails between friends, you can skip this step. But for others, I’d recommend reviewing your emails for points of possible ambiguity. Also, look for anything that might be taken the wrong way; humor and sarcasm often don’t work well in email, and snarky comments might come back to haunt you later.

Remember, too, that if crafting an email might take you 20 minutes, but a phone call only five, picking up the phone could be the least cluttered option available to you.

Organize podcasts with easy-to-use mobile apps

Several years ago, I described a podcast as a radio show that’s delivered to your iPod. That is still an acceptable definition, only the number of devices that can receive the show has grown. Computers, smartphones, some car stereos, Internet radios, and more all grab podcasts for you.

As the format’s popularity has increased, the technology behind it became simpler to use. Today, people around the world produce and share podcasts on all manner of styles and topics. The more shows you subscribe to, the greater the need for good software to keep it all organized. In this post, I’ll discuss two solutions for mobile devices: one for the iPhone and one for Android. There are several others, of course, but these are two standouts to help you get started.

Apple — Podcasts (Free)

I use Apple’s own Podcasts app on my iPhone. It ships with the iPhone, is free, and is easy to use. When Podcasts was introduced in June of 2012, it was divisive to say the least. Apple was in a playful design phase back then, which manifested itself in the Podcasts app with an animated reel-to-reel tape player that was supposedly inspired by a real unit from Braun. (Sure.) Many fans liked it, and many did not. About a year later, Apple nixed the design, and today we have a nice, clean presentation.

The aesthetic shift was accompanied by additional features that are still in place today.

Finding and subscribing to shows

Apple provides three ways to find shows you’ll like — they are Features, Top Charts and Search.

Features. Tap the star icon at the bottom of the screen to browse the podcasts that Apple has deemed worth showing off. Purple buttons at the top of the screen let you view just audio shows, just video shows, or the whole lot at once.

A “New and Noteworthy” section is a grab-bag of shows that are performing well in iTunes. Beyond that, you’ll find shows that fit in rotating themes. As of this writing, Apple is highlighting the great outdoors and the financial markets, as well as featured providers like Slate, Nerdist and Revision3. Finally, you can tap Categories in the upper left to fine-tune your search.

Top Charts. Here you’ll find the most downloaded shows in each category. Again, you can opt to see audio video podcasts.

Search Finally, you can cut to the chase and search for the name of the show you’re seeking. Podcasts lists show titles and episodes that mention your search term.

Once you’ve found a show you’re interested in, tap the Subscribe button. Podcasts will download the latest episode for you. Note that you’ll see two buttons once you tap on a show’s image: My Episodes and Feed. My Episodes lists the episode(s) that have been downloaded to your device. Feed lists the show’s archive of older episodes, which are not on your device. You can download any of these older shows by tapping the cloud icon to the right of its title.

Organization

Apple makes it easy to keep things organized. To begin with, you can choose between a list view, which shows a small thumbnail of each show’s art, its title, the date of the most recent download, and the number of episodes available. Meanwhile, the album view eschews all that information and instead shows big, bold cover art and a number representing the episodes you haven’t heard.

By default, Podcasts lists shows in the order that you subscribed to them. Fortunately, you can change that. Here’s how:

  1. Tap the Edit button in the upper right.
  2. A three-lined “handle” appears next to each show’s title.
  3. Tap and hold on that handle, then drag the shows into your preferred order.
  4. When you’re finished, tap Done.

Finally, you can create what the app calls Stations. Essentially this is like a playlist in a music app. Simply start a new station by tapping Stations at the bottom of the screen and add any shows you like. I have a sci-fi station and an audio drama station. As each episode is played through, it disappears from the station. New ones are added automatically. This saves a lot of scrolling if you have a many subscriptions.

Pocket Casts by ShiftyJelly ($3.99)

On the Android side, I recommend Pocket Casts. This great-looking app is easy to use and, like Apple’s Podcasts, offers nice options for keeping things organized.

Finding and subscribing to shows

ShiftyJelly recently released version 4.0 with a great-looking new user interface. Unlike Apple’s offering, which puts buttons at the bottom of the screen, Pocket Casts has all controls “behind” the main screen, so your shows are front-and-center. It’s a clean look that I appreciate.

To find shows, swipe finger to the right to move the main screen and reveal the controls. Again, Shifty Jelly’s developers did a good job here because the controls are clear and legible. At the top of the screen you’ll see the Discover button. Tap it to view featured shows. Tap any title to get a description and the option to subscribe.

The search works great, too. Just enter a keyword or name of a show and you’re presented with several options.

Organization

Downloaded episodes are presented in a list with the title and description. There’s a playlist option, too, similar to Podcasts. You can view a list of just unplayed episodes across all of your shows, audio podcasts, or video podcasts.

It’s true that you can obtain, listen to, and organize podcasts with a computer. I happen to listen to podcasts almost exclusively while I’m in the car, and that means I’m using my smartphone. Many developers recognize this trend and build strong organization features into their mobile apps. The fact that I can arrange things to my liking on my phone without having to sync or otherwise communicate with my laptop is a huge benefit.

Picking a podcasting app is a personal thing. As I said, there are many worthy options out there. If you have a favorite, let me know. I’m always willing to try something new if it might be better than what I’m already using.

A Kickstarter project to help music-makers get organized

Today, our parent company launched an exciting Kickstarter campaign for an online platform for music education, practice, and collaboration.

It’s called MusicFol.io and it’s designed to help people keep all aspects of their musical lives organized.

There’s a second video on the Kickstarter page that shows a detailed demo of how the site will work.

If you think you might find this useful, please consider backing the project. And please share it with any music students, teachers or performers you know who could benefit from a suite of online organization and collaboration tools like this.

A simple solution to digital photo management

I recently had a bit of a meltdown regarding the state of my digital photo management. Fortunately, a photographer friend set me straight with advice so obvious I never saw it. First, let me describe my meltdown.

I became unhappy when a photo management service that I loved, that I went all-in on, shut its doors. When I retrieved the 14,000 photos I had uploaded to it, I found that all of the EXIF data had been stripped (EXIF data includes metadata and tags that make images searchable), and I had been left with the digital equivalent of a box full of 14,000 photos in random order.

Like I said, I was not happy.

But really, the problem wasn’t with someone’s failed business. The issue was (and continues to be) the sheer number of photos we take. When I was younger, we had up to 32 opportunities to get a decent picture with a single roll of film. I emphasize decent because that dictated the care with which we shot photos. We didn’t want to waste a single frame.

Today, I’ll take the kids to the park and shoot 150 pictures in less than three hours.

This behavior spawns two problems. The first problem is digital clutter. How many of those 150 photos are worth keeping? Maybe a dozen, if I’m lucky. The second problem is backups. What is the best way to preserve the photographs worth keeping? These are modern problems with, I’ve learned, an old-school solution.

My friend CJ Chilvers is a very talented photographer and, I must say, an insightful guy. He responded to my rant (warning: there’s one mildly not-safe-for-work word in my rant) with a brilliant solution: books.

“The best solution I’ve found for all this is the humble book. Making a collection of photos into a book (even if it’s just a year book of miscellaneous shots) solves several problems,” he said. He went on to list the benefits of the good old photo book:

It’s archival. Nothing digital is archival. Even some photographic prints are not archival. But a well-made book will last for as long as anyone could possibly care about your photos and then some … It tells a better story. Instead of relying on fleeting metadata, in a book, you can actually write about what’s going on in the picture … A book doesn’t care if you took your photos with a phone or a DSLR. The resolution of the photo need only be enough for the size you’d like it printed in the book.

Photo books also solve our problem of backing up the keepers, as they’re the ones that make the cut into the photo book.

There are several companies that let you make great-looking, inexpensive photo books. A handful:

Also, books aren’t going to crash, go out of business, run out of battery life, or otherwise be inaccessible. CJ’s final point is probably my favorite: “Fun. It’s more fun holding a book of your own art, than opening a database. That should be enough reason alone.”

Printing books isn’t for everyone, but it’s the organized and archival solution that we have found works for us. I also like handing someone a book of pictures instead of seating them in front of my computer to share in our experiences.

Organizing your Twitter stream

Like some people, I use Twitter to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. I also use Twitter to keep up with news, current events, and exciting changes in the world of technology and sci-fi. I hope to think that now (after the changes I describe in this post) I use it wisely and in such a way that doesn’t clutter up my time.

I had already taken some steps to declutter my Twitter stream, but I felt I hadn’t maximized Twitter’s full potential and that I was missing out on some really great information from fellow users and getting stuff I didn’t always want. I created lists but found it frustrating to go through all of the people I was following one by one, look at their profiles, determine if they were still active Twitter users, then finally add them to a specific list. It didn’t seem like a very good use of my time and I started looking for other ways to make the process more effective.

First, I used the service justunfollow. This helped me identify who was not tweeting regularly any longer. I decided I would unfollow anyone who hadn’t tweeted in more than three months. Then, I looked at who was following me and decided whether or not I should follow them in return. I decided out of my followers, I would not follow anyone who only tweeted spam or sales pitches. I chose not to follow anyone with protected tweets and users without photographs or biographies.

There were some people I was following who were not following me back. I guess I don’t really expect Leonard Nimoy or Sir Patrick Stewart to follow me, but I’m going to keep following them because I’m a fan.

Once I had determined who to follow, I created a few new lists based on area of expertise of Twitter users. I also created some lists based on geographical area. My lists include:

  • Family and friends
  • Business builders
  • Technology experts
  • Organizing and productivity experts
  • Cool people from different areas in which I have lived
  • The famous and the infamous

I used TwitList Manager to find who was not already on a list. It allowed me to add users to specific lists in seconds. I could see who was on more than one list and easily move people to my preferred list. Overall, it took me less than an hour to completely re-organize my Twitter stream. By using justunfollow and Twitlist Manager every few weeks, I’m able to easily maintain this level of organization and get all the information I want in a timely, uncluttered manner.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you use Twitter, consider following us at @Unclutterer.

Uncluttering old cell phones

A recent survey conducted by Kelton Research for ecoATM reported that 57 percent of American device owners have idle cell phones in their homes, and 39 percent have at least two cell phones collecting dust at home.

If you (or someone you know) has an unused cell phone, the following is a simple, two-step process for getting rid of it:

Step 1: Remove all the data

You don’t want the next owner to get all the data stored on your phone: addresses and phone numbers, calendar appointments, messages, etc. After you’ve backed up all that data, you’ll want to remove it from your phone. You can find out how to remove it —

Step 2: Determine where you want to sell, donate, or recycle the phone

Newer phones can often be sold, even if they are broken or cracked. If your phone can’t be sold, it can certainly be recycled. You have a lot of choices, including:

  • Sell or give away to a friend or relative.
  • Sell in a general marketplace, such as eBay or craigslist.
  • Sell to one of the many online companies buying cell phones for a set price. You may not make as much money as you would selling in eBay, but it’s less hassle. I’ve used both GreenCitizen and Gazelle, and both worked out fine. (Suggestion: Don’t send Gazelle two phones in the same prepaid box, as I once did; it’s too easy for the paperwork to get mixed up.)
  • Sell at an ecoATM.
  • Use the trade-in/buyback program from your cell phone manufacturer or service provider: Apple, AT&T, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc. Note that these will give you gift cards (or billing credits) for their own products and services, rather than cash.
  • Use the Amazon.com Trade-In Store.
  • Donate to one of the many groups that collect phones for good causes. These groups usually don’t give the phones away; rather, the phones are sold to a third party for reuse or recycling, and the proceeds are used to support the organization’s work. For example, Cell Phones for Soldiers says: “The money received from the recycling of cell phones is used to purchase international calling cards for active-duty military deployed overseas to connect with their friends and family back home.”
  • Donate to Goodwill
  • Recycle with cell phone manufacturers, cell phone service providers, retail outlets, etc. Most (if not all) of these will accept any phones for recycling, not just their own. You can find recycling sites through Call2Recycle, which has signed the e-Steward Pledge not to export e-waste to developing countries.

If you can’t erase the data

If you don’t have the charger for your phone, and can’t power it up to remove the data, you may want to go to your cell phone provider and see if that company can help.

Otherwise, you could use a service that will handle that for you, for a fee. For example, I’ve used GreenCitizen, located in the San Francisco Bay Area; I see that Green Tech Recycling does the same thing in Cleveland.

Dropbox gets serious about digital photos

I’ve written about Dropbox before on Unclutterer and how to use it to keep your digital data more organized and safe. It’s a company that offers web-based or “cloud” storage that is nearly ubiquitous. Now, the company is getting serious about your digital photos and, in my opinion, that is a very good thing.

About Dropbox

Dropbox is a storage service that lets you store files online easily and securely. There’s an app for almost every platform — Mac, Windows, iOS, Android and Linux — plus a browser-based web app for data transfer. You can also mark your favorite or other important files for offline access.

By default, you start off with 2 GB of storage for free. A pro level bumps the limit up to 100 GB for $9.99 per month, and a business account gives you as much space as you want for $15 per user (minimum five users). For many home users, the free level is sufficient.

Using Dropbox

The various Dropbox applications work seamlessly with your device’s operating system, so much so that it feels like it’s been there all along. On the Mac and Windows machines, it acts like any other folder on your computer. Move items in and out and the app automatically makes a copy on Dropbox’s remote servers. You can create as many files, folders, and nested folders that your plan can handle. If local storage is an issue, Dropbox has you covered. You can tell the application to back up certain folders and not others. Things are even easier as far as photos are concerned.

Grabbing photos from your smartphone

The Dropbox app for iPhone and Android features an option called “Auto Upload.” Once enabled (it’s set to off by default), it sends a copy of each photo you shoot to the “Photos” folder in your Dropbox account. You can opt to restrict photo upload to when Wi-Fi is available, if you’re concerned about data usage, or just let it run. Either way, the process is totally hands-off, and you can shoot knowing that a backup of every photo you shoot is being made instantly.

How do you view these photos? Well, that’s been the problem. Rooting through a folder of photos is less than ideal since it has been going into an everything bucket, where all the pictures are thrown in a heap. I do not like everything buckets. Fortunately, the company has recently gone all in on photos. As of a few weeks ago, Dropbox sorts your photos and video by creation date. You can even make custom albums, and share them with family and friends.

They’ve also introduced Carousel, a free mobile app for the iPhone and Android. It saves your images in full resolution and sorts them by date and location taken. Your photos are very easy to share and you can start a conversation of comments around an image, similar to how services like Instagram work.

What I like with Dropbox’s changes are the automatic backup and the really convenient Carousel app. Managing and backing up digital photos can be a real bear. Dropbox is working to make it a little bit easier.

An April Fools’ Day reminder: backup your digital data

World Backup Day was yesterday, and the day’s motto is: “Don’t be an April Fool. Be prepared. Back up your files on March 31.”

This is good advice, but, of course, you should back up your files all year round, not just on March 31. Hard drives fail. Computers (and smartphones and tablets) get stolen. Phones get dropped into water and become unusable.

If I lost everything on my computer, I’d be awfully unhappy about that. My computer has precious photos, lots of contact information, my calendar, a monstrous collection of website bookmarks, lots of documents I’ve scanned and shredded, etc. But I’m not worried about losing these valuable items, because I’m protected.

The following is what I do for backup, just to give you some ideas about how you might want to backup your digital life.

Incidental backups

My contacts and calendar are synched to my smartphone and tablet, so I have a backup of sorts there. I have some photos on Flickr, but these are just a select few I’ve chosen to share publicly. I also have some files in Dropbox, so I can access them from everywhere. While these are all fine duplications, I also wanted some true backup solutions.

Backups to hard drives

I have a MacBook, and I use SuperDuper to create a bootable hard drive with all my files. This is a Mac-only solution, and for Mac users I think it’s terrific. I’ve restored my entire computer from a SuperDuper backup, when Apple needed to replace a bad hard drive, and everything went just fine. There are plenty of other backup programs for both the Mac and the PC, but I don’t know if they provide quite the same functionality. If you’re a PC user, please leave a comment about your favorite SuperDuper equivalent.

I use LaCie rugged hard discs (with a Firewire connection) for my backups, and I’ve been happy with them, but there are certainly many other choices. I like the LaCie products because I often carry a hard drive in my purse, and so I appreciate the external protection built into these hard drives. It’s also one of the drives tested for compatibility with SuperDuper. I rotate through three different drives, so if one of these fails, I’m still protected.

Why carry one in my purse? It’s a form of off-site backup, and it’s easier to put one in my purse than to take one over to my safe deposit box. If my house were robbed, or if there were a fire, I wouldn’t want to lose both my computer and my back-up. (Yes, I know this may be a bit over the top.)

Backup to the cloud

I also wanted automated, all-the-time backups — and I believe in what organizer Margaret Lukens calls the “belt and suspenders” approach of having multiple types of backups, so you know you’re covered.

My choice for cloud backups is CrashPlan, but, again, there are many such services to choose from. I picked CrashPlan because people I knew used it and successfully restored files when they needed to, and they were very happy with the service.

CrashPlan and other cloud backups are great in that they run continually, and they provide off-site storage. But, if I needed to restore a computer drive quickly, my cloud backup wouldn’t be nearly as useful as my SuperDuper backup.

What about you? If you’re not doing backups, I highly recommend you start — you don’t want to be an April Fool and lose your valuable data. If you are backing up your data, I’d be interested in hearing your backup strategy in the comments.

Cloud storage makes new computer setup simple and organized

Earlier this week, I set up a new computer and it wasn’t completely horrible, thanks to “cloud storage.” Nearly all of my important information — contacts, photos, music, and more — isn’t stored on my computer. Therefore, once I got the new laptop connected to the Internet, all I had to do was log into the various services I subscribe to and I was back in business.

Years ago, buying a new computer was a bittersweet process. It’s always exciting to get a shiny, new machine, but the process of transferring your data from the old one to the new one was painful. I can remember emailing stuff to myself, using a USB flash drive over and over and even connecting two computers with a cable. Not to mention the hours and hours of time spent waiting for huge collections of photos and music to transfer, and the stress of getting emails and contacts in place.

Today, things have changed.

Photos

For me, the answer is Flickr. I love that it has:

  1. A terabyte of storage for free. If you’re shooting 7 megapixel photos, that’s 499,000 individual, full-resolution shots.
  2. Privacy. It’s easy to determine who gets access to which photo.
  3. Browse and share photos in full resolution.
  4. Mobile apps. There’s a Flickr app for the iPhone and Google Play. I haven’t used the Google Play app, but the iPhone version features auto-upload, meaning every photo you shoot is sent to Flickr automatically (and set to private by default). It’s instant, hands-off backup.

Contacts

Who you stay in touch with is another extremely important set of data. I use Apple’s iCloud for storing all of my contact information. Whenever I add, update, or organize information for a person or business, it’s backed up to Apple’s servers. (And shares that information with all of my Apple iCloud-connected devices.) When I get a new computer, I simply log in and it’s downloaded instantly. If you don’t use Mac products, you can have similar functionality with Google’s Gmail, Yahoo mail, and others.

Calendars

Again, this is mission-critical data that can’t be lost. I can’t imagine the horror of having my calendar information deleted. Fortunately, I needn’t perform any data transfer dark magic because everything lives on Google Calendar. Google Calendar, or Gcal as I call it, works with my Mac and iPhone seamlessly. It’s super easy to share information with others and integrates with other apps that I love. Gcal works on all major operating systems.

Documents

There are several ways to keep almost every other kind of document off your computer and in the cloud. Dropbox is an obvious choice (this is what Erin uses). The company offers 2 GB of online storage for free, and more if you’re interested in paying for it. It works with Macs, Windows machines, iOS, Android and nearly any modern web browser.

Box.net is another popular choice, with much the same functionality. I rely heavily on iCloud again here. Most of my writing is done in a Mac app called Byword, which will automatically upload any document I write to iCloud. When I set up my new computer, all I had to do was install Byword, launch it, sign in, and all of my documents were ready to go.

3-D printing: For better or for worse?

You may remember Erin mentioning that I recently attended a Star Trek Convention. One thing I enjoy about Star Trek is that it provides an interesting view into the future. For example, on the original series (1966-1969) the crew of the Enterprise used communicators that resembled cell phones of the mid-1990s. The Enterprise crew of The Next Generation (1987-1994) used tablets that resemble iPads (2010).

On Star Trek, because of the limitations in deep space travel, food and other items such as clothing and tools were created using a device called a “replicator”. Replicators use recycled items and transforms them into new items. Today, this technology is available to us in a limited form — the 3-D printer.

3-D printers are very useful. Dentists can create crowns for teeth without the need for dental moulds. Custom orthotics can be created faster and more easily. 3-D printing allows developing countries to produce everyday items we take for granted using recycled materials readily available, thereby avoiding the costs of production and shipping.

Over the next decade, the cost of 3-D printers will steadily decline and become affordable for the average North American. Owning a 3-D printer could be beneficial as it would be easy to create replacement parts for objects that have broken. This could lead to fewer items being sent to landfill, as it would be easy to make repairs. Also, items could be customized to function better for your specific situation. For example, if you cannot find a shelf at the store to fit your uniquely sized space, a customized shelf could be built with a 3-D printer and that would allow you to become better organized.

However, 3-D printing is a double-edged sword. The cost for raw material is relatively low. Would consumers spend time building items that would create even more clutter in their homes and offices? (Custom bobble-head doll anyone?) Would even more items end up in landfills because it will be too easy for people to create items they don’t really need?

In the Star Trek series Voyager, Captain Janeway refused to share replicator technology with certain alien species because she felt they were not ready to use it wisely. Are we ready to use 3-D printing to reduce clutter and improve our lives?

Unclutter your tech with the Rule of One

From time-to-time, I’ll think about this post I read on Apartment Therapy back in 2010. For whatever reason, the post stuck with me. The advice in the post espouses The Rule of One, which breaks down like this:

Keep the things you own (especially technology) down to only one.

I like the idea, but am still trying to figure out if I can apply it to everything in my life. I certainly need to have more than one shirt, for instance. But, in other areas, could it make sense for me? I especially like this insight:

Listening to music? One iPod. One speaker set … Hold on to that one item for as long as possible.

Like I said, it’s impractical for me to apply the Rule of One to all aspects of my possessions. I have several baseball hats and I like to wear them all, so I don’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of all but one of them. But, a quick glance at my iPhone reveals a problem. I have seven weather applications. I’ve also got four note-taking apps and four camera apps. Yes, each does something unique, but honestly none of them is markedly different than the other. I don’t need all four camera apps, for instance, and should decide on one “keeper.” The rest are clutter in that they consume precious storage space on my iPhone and clutter my mind, as I must stop and choose one every time I want to take a picture.

I also like Nguyen’s advice to “hold on to that item for as long as possible.” My Internet buddy Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac has written about this topic several times. In an article called “The Season of Stuff,” he gives good, pre-emptive uncluttering advice for the holiday season:

You can pledge to get rid of an amount of stuff equal to the amount you receive. You can let those who love you know that you do not want more stuff but want something less tangible instead (breakfast in bed, money for a favorite charity, etc.). Ask for specific stuff you really truly need that will add years of value to your life on a daily basis.

Now, if you have superfluous tech that you’d like to get rid of, don’t just bring it to the dump. There are several ways to recycle it responsibly:

  • Donation. Is there a group, organization or school nearby that would love to have it? Give them a call.
  • Best Buy. This American big box store will accept three electronic items per household per day for responsible recycling. It’s free, and no-questions-asked. You didn’t have to buy the item there to recycle it there.
  • Seek a local alternative. For example, Free Geek is an Oregon-based service that takes your electronics, similar to Best Buy’s program. Search around to find something similar in your area.

Look at the tech you use every day and decide, is any of this superfluous? Can I follow the Rule of One in this area of my life? If so, unclutter the extraneous items and enjoy having fewer distractions.