Uncluttering your machine

From Gender and Tech Resources

Is your desktop a shining example of neatness and cleanliness? Or is it a big heap of icons only fit to be sorted in some manner? How many files are in your Documents folder? What does your directory structure look like? Easy to work with and a natural fit for you and what you do? Can you easily find what you are looking for or does the way you organise suck totally and drain your energy?

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are helpful for many tasks, but they box you in in the tasks the designer designed the GUI for. M$ systems come with a preset set of directories, and so does Linux (if it isn't stripped). Like beliefs and rules, such predefined organisations can act like post hypnotic suggestions (spell casting) and filter our experience of reality and affect us in undesirable ways. Not only that, standard default folders tend to fill up with junk files and folders that are not at all important.

Case study: Uncluttering your machine

There is so much written about cluttering and uncluttering your machine, about (re)organising your files and directories [1], some of it may be useful for you, some of it may not. Just use what you need. Here I describe steps for reorganising your machine in highly generalised form that worked for me for building a resilient machine that allows me to focus on what I want to do with it and quickly recover from intrusions and crashes.


  • Step 1 Make a decision to unclutter your machine

Cluttered systems are reflections of cluttered lives. From having chosen to unclutter your life, you can choose to also unclutter your machine.

  • Step 2 Create your own file system from scratch!

Our personal data (documents, photographs, emails, etc...) is the most valuable component in our interaction with computers, because it can be irreplaceable if lost. The most minimalist and safe implementation is putting all files you wish to keep and all files containing personal data on an external harddrive that you only mount when you need access to it. In a public space put the machine offline before mounting any external disk (preferably do not connect in public spaces at all).

You can turn old harddrives into external harddrives by taking them out of an old PC and putting them in a portable HDD USB storage kit (alias harddrive enclosure). These "DIY" kits are available for 2.5 inch and 3.5 inch HDD using either IDE or SATA connections and cost way less than a manufactured USB HDD.

If on Linux, you may have a permission problem: change the group of /media/[external_disk] to storage, change permissions to 775 and add users that need to be able to write to disk to the storage group (you need to log out and log in that users before changes are visible).

As root do:

# chgrp storage /media/[external_disk]

# chmod 775 /media/[external_disk]

# gpasswd -a [user_name] storage

This way everyone will be able to read the disk, but only root and users in storage group will be able to write to it. If you want everyone to be able to read/write, use chmod 777 [2]. If the operation isn't permitted while running it as root you probably need to add support for the NTFS file system first:

# apt-get update

# apt-get install ntfs-3g

Create your "real" filesystem on the external harddrive and design fake directory structures and files for your multiple, fake, anonymous or pseudonymous identities.

It makes little sense to organise files based on the program that created them. Create your sub-directories and naming of directories and files based on the purpose of the files, and don't worry about width or depth of your tree.

  • Step 3 Separate application files from data files

On a Linux system this is already the case. Most applications make directories with a dot in front of its name that are default not visible (you have to set "Show Hidden Files" in your "View" menu when using a GUI).

Apparently, in M$ there is no such separation and the My Document directory gets a lot of junk added to it by just about everything. Remove your icons/links to “My Documents” in your menus and desktop (everywhere) and replace them with links to the folders you created and you care about, fake or not!

  • Step 4 Customise and accessorise

Having unique icons for each folder does allow you to more quickly visually identify which folder is which, and thus saves you time when you’re finding files. You can get some beautifying stuff for Linux from gnome-look, kde-look, xfce-look and many more sites.

  • Step 5 Regular backups

Data backup is something that everybody should do, but unfortunately, few people do it on a regular basis.

You can make a backup of your entire system with rsync or with unison. Rsync, which stands for "remote sync", is a remote and local file synchronisation tool. It uses an algorithm that minimises the amount of data copied by only moving the portions of files that have changed. It operates in a way similar to ssh, scp, and cp.

# rsync -a [directory_name]/ /media/[external_disk]/[directory_name]

The -a option is a combination flag. It stands for "archive" and syncs recursively and preserves symbolic links, special and device files, modification times, group, owner, and permissions. Rsync can be used for a lot more in many different ways.

Unison allows for accessing the same set of files from any computer (running Mac OS X, M$ Windows XP, or UNIX/Linux) and keeps these files up-to-date by always maintaining the most recently-modified version of each file during synchronization. The great benefit of using Unison to replicate files across different computers is that your backups are alive [4].


Focus on your priorities, make efficient use of your time on this planet, choose a design for your life that allows for relaxing and replenishment, and make it so.


[1] Zen and the Art of File and Folder Organization http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/15677/zen-and-the-art-of-file-and-folder-organization/

[2] Permissions http://linuxcommand.org/lc3_lts0090.php

[3] How to Backup Linux? 15 rsync Command Examples http://www.thegeekstuff.com/2010/09/rsync-command-examples/

[4] Unison http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~bcpierce/unison/