Computers and their Programs by Lydia K. '14, MEng '16
Anecdotes and advice about owning a laptop at MIT
The day after Valentine’s Day is a good time to talk about computers, since my boyfriend’s Dell recently toppled off a desk in building 56. It was fine, but then yesterday it died. It wasn’t romantic. We were sad.
Snively blogged about laptops almost four years ago, comparing the three laptops that MIT recommends: Macs, Dells, and Thinkpads. I’ve seen MIT students with all variety of these and more. I’ve had all three.
My first computer was an IBM Thinkpad T27 and my second computer was an IBM ThinkPad R31. ThinkPads are very durable. I’ve dropped them from desk height. I’ve dropped them from standing height. Once, I dropped the T27 onto a hardwood floor and its pieces flew across the room under different couches, as if to hide from me. I put them back where I thought they might belong and the computer worked as though nothing had happened. Magic.
My next computer was my dad’s old Dell, which ran Windows XP. The system gets slower with age, which seems like bad programming. I don’t particularly like Windows. Unfortunately if you’re course 2 (Mechanical Engineering) you’ll need a Windows machine to run SolidWorks, a 3D mechanical design program.
My parents gave me my MacBook Pro as a gift before I left for MIT. It follows me everywhere. It’s pretty. It’s light. It might even be beautiful. My only qualm is that it occasionally gives me a kernel panic, and I desperately hope that if it dies, it dies before its warranty runs out. Other than that it’s great. I like being able to switch between the Unix terminal and the Apple GUI depending on what I need to do. I also like the trackpad, and I like that my computer does not become airborne every time I trip over the power cord.
I’m a klutz. It’s important to me that my computer not suffer on my behalf. Here are some things you should buy for your computer, once you buy your computer:
- A padded laptop bag with an extra division for your notebooks and things. I’ve seen people stow laptops in their book bags or purses, exposed to the elements. The thought of my MacBook Pro scraping against a doorframe when I miscalculate the force I should apply through my legs to get me where I think I thought I wanted to go is terrifying. Worse yet, think how much more traumatic tripping up the stairs would be if you lost your laptop, and not just your dignity.
- A waterproof laptop sleeve for your laptop to hide in when you’re not using it. One evening I was chilling with some friends in the kitchen. Another friend came in with some apple cider, and leaned dangerously close to my laptop.
“Please don’t spill that on my laptop,” I said.
“Of course I won’t,” he said.
And then he did. But it was okay, because my laptop was in its sleeve. Phew.
- A laptop lock. MIT dorms are very safe. I leave my door unlocked and sometimes even open when I’m not there. Sometimes I leave my laptop alone (in its waterproof sleeve) on a table in a common area for the night. However, common areas on campus and in labs are not as safe. It’s a good idea to lock your laptop for bathroom or lunch breaks.
- A distinctive laptop sticker to identify your computer. So you don’t have to play musical laptops at airport security.
(If your computer does disappear at airport security or die, there are at least 20 computer clusters scattered throughout the main campus, not including the dorms.)
Once you have a shiny, padlocked computer, here are some programs and web sites that have been useful to me at MIT:
- F.lux. If sleep is not already important to you, it will become important to you. F.lux adjusts your computer’s display so that after sundown it emits red, instead of blue, light, and stops tricking you into thinking it’s daytime.
- Sleepyti.me tells you when and how much to sleep so that you feel rested in the morning, whenever morning is.
- iCal, Google Calendar, or another form of electronic calendar. Time management. ‘Nuff said.
- Thesaurus.com, so you use the right words in your essays and Facebook posts. I like to browse through synonyms until I find the perfect one. It’s like a treasure hunt.
- Fitocracy. Like Facebook, but for workouts.
- WolframAlpha. An amazing online calculator. It can calculate anything I’ve ever needed to calculate.
- LaTeX. A typesetting program that makes the documents you write look pretty. If you are course 6 (Computer Science and Electrical Engineering), you will have to submit your 6.006 (Introduction to Algorithms) problem sets using LaTeX. If you want to go into computer science, it would be even more useful to become familiar with Python and Unix/Linux. You might want to install Linux on your computer and start using it for practice.
- TextWrangler. A text editor that syntax colors your code. It works for every programming language I’ve heard of.
- Shirt.woot. Nerdy shirts.
- GIMP. A photo-editing program. Like Photoshop, but free.
- Hugin. A photo-stitching program, for making panoramas like these.
And some more, from my friends:
- Cockatrice, recommended by several people in Random Hall. Software for playing Magic: The Gathering online for free.
- Awesome Window Manager, recommended by Alex ‘15. Alex says that other tiling window managers are also good, such as bug.n for Windows; Athena, MIT’s computing environment, uses xmonad.
- Evernote, recommended by Fangfei ‘11. “It’s a remember things thing.” It keeps track of recipes, finances, the research you’re doing for a paper, and almost anything else.
- Vim, a popular text editor that is useful for editing code fast, and according to Bobby ’14 has been useful at all of his internships. An alternative is emacs, but my friend, a fellow Randomite whom I will only call Deep Vim, argues that vim is better because it uses fewer commands, takes up less memory, and doesn’t hurt your pinky from pressing the control key for everything. Deep Vim actually started off using emacs, but his girlfriend at the time used vim. They got into a huge fight. Threats were made. They almost broke up. And then Deep Vim realized that his girlfriend was right, and vim was better.
There you have it. Add some speakers and you’re electronically prepared for MIT. I leave you with three miscellaneous bytes of advice.
Label your power cord. A lot of people have power cords. It’s hard to remember which one is yours. An indiscreet dot in purple permanent marker can make tracking it down at least possible.
If you have a MacBook Pro, the power cord can get trapped between the screen and the keyboard and get chopped in half. Don’t let this happen to you.
Finally, back up your files. Bad things can happen if you don’t. Two weeks ago I copy/pasted a MySpace survey into a Word document containing 9026 words of unpublished blog material. The length went from 36 pages to several hundred. It was drenched in MySpace survey. Each line was a word more painful than the one before it. For example:
Did you beleive
Did you beleive in
Did you beleive in cotties?
and so on for several hundred pages. Luckily TextWrangler was able to resuscitate the text of the file sans images and cotties. But things could have been ugly.