Collection of quick computer tips

This is a list of tips for improving your experience working with your computer. I focus on things that are quick to implement (say, 5 minutes to half an hour). Spending 5 minutes on something becomes worthwhile as soon as it saves you 5 seconds per month over 5 years, and I think all the tips here easily clear that bar. I’m not mentioning some things that are extremely valuable but take more time to do, stuff like “learn vim keybindings”. That’s not because those aren’t important – they might even be more important than these quick hacks. But they don’t fit well into this format because I would need to give a lot more context: who they are useful for, why it’s worth investing time in them etc.

I’ve grouped these tips and tried to sort them by descending usefulness inside each category, but that’s of course quite subjective. As a final caveat, I don’t explain in detail how to set all of this up. If you’ve played around with configuration files before, the pointers I give are hopefully enough. If you haven’t, this might not be the easiest place to start.

General

Make use of your Caps Lock key
The Caps Lock key takes up extremely valuable keyboard real estate, even though most people never use it. I suggest mapping it to Control for non-vim users. If you use vim keybindings, you’ve probably already remapped it to Escape; in that case I would suggest using it as an Escape key when pressed and as Control when held down while pressing another key. How that works depends on your OS (I’m using caps2esc on Archlinux).
Fuzzy finder for opening files
Opening files using a file browser or by first opening an application and then using the “Open file” dialog is really slow. Instead, you can use a launcher that you can invoke with a keyboard shortcut. You then type in part of the path or filename and once you confirm your selection, the file is opened. On Linux, you can install for example Alfred or ULauncher (which also have additional functionality rather than just opening files). Or you can use rofi, which is extremely flexible but will require a bit more setup.
Adjust your typematic delay and rate
If you hold a key down, this simulates pressing that key a bunch of times at a high frequency. The typematic rate is this frequency and the typematic delay is the time delay before this effect kicks in. You can adjust these values to your liking, how that works depends on your OS/Desktop environment. On Linux with X, you can use xset r rate <delay in ms> <rate in Hz> (this is temporary, so put this in a script that will be executed on startup).
Redshift
Use redshift or f.lux to automatically adjust the color temperature of your screen according to the time of day. This will gradually make your screen look warmer during the evening.
Dotfiles
Put your dotfiles in a git repository. This page contains a few ideas as inspiration on how to best set this up. Personally, I use Dotbot, which means I can put all my configuration files into one directory and they will be symlinked to the right places. You can also do something similar for your /etc files using etckeeper.
sshfs
This lets you mount a remote directory inside your local file system, after which you can edit, create, move and delete files there using whichever tools you like to use for that on your local machine. It’s in the package repositories of most Linux distributions and using it is as simple as
            $ sshfs [user@]hostname:[directory] mountpoint

Shell

Use vim keybindings everywhere
There are extensions for most browsers that let you browse web pages with vim keybindings. You can also use them in zsh (add bindkey -v to you ~/.zshrc or use this extension for some improved features). In fish, you can use fish_vi_key_bindings inside your config, and for bash it’s set -o vi. You can even enable them for all readline programs, such as the Python REPL, by adding
          set editing-mode vi
          set keymap vi

to your ~/.inputrc.

Ctrl-R history search
Pressing Ctrl-R inside your terminal will let you search through your history of commands and paste the one you select to your prompt, after which you can edit it.
Aliases
Pay attention to commands you’re using frequently and create aliases for them. Using this command, you can also show your most common commands, maybe that gives some ideas (though what we really care about is closer to “most common long prefixes of commands”; might be worth it to write a script for that instead).
fzf
fzf is a general purpose fuzzy finder and you can use it for all kinds of things. But more importantly, for this list, it comes with three pre-defined shell-keybindings: Ctrl-R is replaced with an improved history search, and Alt-C lets you fuzzy search the directories on your machine and will cd to the chosen one. Finally, Ctrl-T lets you search files inside the current directory (recursively) and pastes the selected path into the prompt, which is much faster for typing long paths than the usual TAB completion.
Autosuggestions
Autosuggestions in your shell mean that the shell always tries to guess which command you’re entering, typically based on the TAB completions as well as your history. It shows this guess and you can hit a keybinding to complete it. Make sure to remap this to something sensible (for example, zsh uses the right arrow key, which is way too far away, I use Ctrl-Space insted). fish has these built in, and there is an extension for zsh. As far as I know, bash doesn’t have autosuggestions at the moment.
autojump
autojump watches the directories you visit in your shell and maintains a database of which ones you use the most. Then you can type $ j <part of directory path> and autojump will try to guess which directory you want to go to and cd there. A couple of letters from the directory name are usually enough for that. This is a good alternative to fzf’s Alt-C search.
Syntax highlighting
This just means different parts of your command are colored differently, much more pleasant to work with. Again, fish has this built in, for zsh you can use another extension, and I don’t think there’s an easy way to do this in bash.
!!
!! expands to the previous command. So for example, $ sudo !! reruns your previous command as a super user.
Output coloring
Many shell commands can color their output but have this disabled by default. In particular:
  • alias ls='ls --color=auto' to always have colored ls output
  • bat is a cat replacement with syntax highlighting among other things. It can also be used to color man pages
  • The ArchWiki contains many more cases (most of them not specific to Arch)
Color theme
Most terminal emulators allow choosing your own color theme, and there are configurations online for most pairs of terminal emulator and popular color theme. So you can for example use the same theme you use inside your editor for your terminal as well.

Zathura

Zathura is a lightweight PDF viewer with vim keybindings. I’m a big fan; in case you are as well, here are two tips to make it even better:

  • When you’re on e.g. page 10 of a PDF but the page number in the footer is 1 (because of title pages etc.), type :offset 9 to tell Zathura about this mismatch. Whenever you type <page number> G later, Zathura will subtract this offset and you will be on the page with <page number> in the footer. Extremely useful if the PDF has no hyperlinked table of contents. Zathura remembers this setting for each file.

  • Recoloring allows you to give PDFs a custom foreground and background color. For example, you could display PDFs as light text on a dark background. Or use the following in your zathurarc, which displays PDFs in a Solarized light color scheme:

        set recolor
        set recolor-darkcolor "#586e75"
        set recolor-lightcolor "#fdf6e3"
        set recolor-keephue
    

    The last line means that the colors of images should be preserved (though they’ll be less vibrant). This works for all pdfs, even scanned images! Ctrl-R will toggle recolorization on and off, in case you want to switch back to the original. For the ideal visual experience, you can also set the color of all the GUI elements, see https://github.com/lennonwoo/zathura-solarized for a Solarized version.

Erik Jenner
Erik Jenner
CS PhD student

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