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Time for Computer Housecleaning

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
January 2009 Issue
December 8, 2008

Time for Computer Housecleaning

Blurry digital photos I will not print, mediocre music I will not listen to, documents I will not read again, and software I haven’t used in a year. It is time for these wasted bits to go.

When a terabyte hard drive costs $100, it is tempting to fill the trillion bytes with every digital picture I have taken and every song I might want to hear at least once. I could also store every assignment I have written as a student — and every paper I have received as a teacher. If it can be stored, why not store it?

There are several reasons to not store everything, despite the temptation to do so. Organization is important to me. Keeping everything makes it hard to locate anything of value, even with the help of software. Also, old files might have been created in an application that’s discontinued or incompatible with a newer version.

My annual cleaning ritual lets me remove old documents while converting important files to the latest formats. Plus, it feels good to see the free space increase.

I like photo albums and scrapbooks. What makes these “old fashioned” storage devices so wonderful is that we select the best images and documents, crafting stories about our lives that can be shared for generations. Most photos don’t make it into scrapbooks. Honestly, we edit our lives to focus on the good, which makes sense.

My digital photographs are no different. I use iPhoto and Kodak’s EasyShare to organize photos into virtual albums, complete with captions and notes. I want these photos to be easy to search, like my scrapbooks, not dumped into virtual heaps like photos I have stored in shoeboxes.

After the holidays, I go through my pictures and delete images that are flawed. Even with a great digital camera, I manage to take blurry pictures. In fact, the mistakes I make never cease to amaze me.

I keep about a third of my digital pictures.

A few hundred photos are nothing when compared to thousands of music files.

I recently came to the realization that half the consumed space on my laptop belonged to my iTunes library. Portable music players, like the iPod and Zune, can easily accommodate massive libraries, but do I really like all 12,000 tracks?

It turns out “File, Show Duplicates” led to the removal of a couple hundred tracks. Seriously. I had imported every CD I own, including the “Best of” and “Greatest Hits” discs. Maybe six copies of Sinatra’s “My Way” was a bit much. Of course, I did keep different live and studio versions.

Sorting by track name, I found versions of songs that should never have been recorded. By the time I removed any track I never wanted to hear again, my iTunes collection was a slightly more reasonable 8,000 tracks. I recovered nearly 10 gigabytes of hard drive space, too.

Scrolling through my music list is somewhat faster with a third fewer choices. Also, I find I skip tracks less often when listening in “shuffle” mode.

My next task is the removal of applications that are collecting virtual cobwebs. I test a lot of applications during the year. It’s an eclectic mix of creativity applications and programming tools, most of which are tested and then forgotten.

I had five screenwriting tools on my laptop, but use only two. Because different programs save documents in their own formats, I made sure to convert all my documents into a single format. Only after converting the documents did I delete the three unnecessary writing applications.

I repeated this process for dozens of categories, upgrading documents along the way. It was time to convert PageMaker files to InDesign. CorelDraw and Freehand files were converted to Illustrator. After testing my documents, away went some once-favored applications.

My data documents are, at least for another year, compatible with the most recent Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple file formats. I learned this process after dozens of WordStar and WordPerfect files became useless to me. I even had Microsoft Works documents that would not load in Microsoft Word. I was upset that Microsoft would make their word processors incompatible, but that’s software for you. I used my parent’s computer to convert the data, thankfully, but I vowed to update important files on a regular basis.

Even with the removal of more than two dozen applications, some duplication of purpose is inevitable. I use both Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote, for example. I happen to like Keynote, but my students use PowerPoint.

What is amazing is how many useless documents I located. I am never going to need a map to my old college apartment. I definitely don’t need a grocery list from 2001. How these documents were missed in previous cleanings, I’ll never know.

Before the annual cleaning, I had just under 160 applications on my laptop. I still have more than 100 applications, not counting small utilities. I know I could remove a few more applications, but I am extremely cautious.

My last cleaning task is to archive student papers. My university students e-mail a lot of files to me during the semester. I organize each semester into a folder, with each class taught in its own folder. This year, a single class created nearly 2 gigabytes of documents, from PowerPoint presentations to CAD illustrations. I have to keep the data for at least two years, according to the university, and my grade data for up to seven.

I backup the student data to a DVD and store the disc, along with any printed work, in a plastic storage bin. A second backup is made to an external hard drive that contains only my class files. I keep a copy of my grade book on my laptop, but delete the student projects.

With only grades and a few great example projects, my teaching folder is again a reasonable size for the new semester.

The entire annual clean up takes about two weeks.

Is it worth all the hassle to organize and clean a computer’s hard drive? It’s a lot easier than cleaning the garage and almost as rewarding. You stumble into some great finds while dumping a lot of trash.


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