We think of “hackers” as cyber bad guys who break into websites and wreak havoc on legitimate infrastructures or spread computer viruses. But the word was not always a pejorative. Back in computing’s salad days, when the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were still in college, a hacker was simply someone capable of producing an elegant workaround to an electronics or technological problem (i.e., a “good hack”).
In the mid-1980s, stories of cyber crimes, like the electronic “break-in” at Security Pacific Bank, and films like WarGames had hit the mass media, and “hacker” became entrenched in the vernacular as a shady online criminal who just happened to prefer a laptop to a .38 special.
But many techies want to restore the term's past glory. Veteran programmer and computing historian Eric S. Raymond says the hallmark of a great hacker is someone who has the ability to find inventive solutions to tricky problems and who has “an appropriate application of ingenuity.” This applies as much to the "analog" world as to techology. So, one wonders, how can this kind of thinking be used to improve an individual’s life? And, more important, can non-geeks benefit from these clever tricks, too?
British technology writer Danny O'Brien coined the term “life hack” in 2004, when he noticed that several of his colleagues were writing short bits of computer code that could automate some aspect of their daily routine, like filtering out inconsequential emails or automatically backing up work.
Life hacking struck a nerve in the tech community, and people began posting their tips and tricks. Sites, blogs and books devoted to life hacking sprouted like mushrooms, and nerds the world over were sharing advice — and not just programming codes — on everything from optimizing to-do lists to making coffee.
Even if you're not a code monkey, you probably still appreciate cleverness and mental flexibility. By adopting the hacker's way of looking at the world (if not his technological prowesss), you can create "hacks" that will save you time and effort or allow you to do things that would otherwise be too difficult or costly.
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Improving Life, One Hack at a Time
Perhaps the most popular site dedicated to the pursuit of time- and energy-saving techno-solutions is the aptly named Lifehacker.com. Explaining his passion for the subject, the site editor Adam Pash says: “I'd always been interested in shortcuts, timesavers and clever tricks. So when Gina Trapani created the site in 2005, I was instantly in love with it. I identified with almost every post, whether I was nodding along, thinking "Yes! I do this!" or excited about some jaw-dropping solution I'd never considered."
Lifehacker.com started out skewed toward busy professionals and heavy Internet users, offering readers advice on how to maximize their working day by using structured lists and methods for managing an avalanche of email.
As readers’ appetites for hacks grew, the site added health advice, often focusing on ways to get the most benefit with the least effort, as well as a section called “Clever Uses” that offered DIY projects and unusual uses for common items.
Finding alternate uses for things is another life-hacking staple. TV's jack-of-all-trades MacGyver is the patron saint of this community, with his ability to improvise anything from a parachute to a neutron bomb with some shoe polish, a Rubik's cube and a moist towelette.
There is a difference between the kind of clever uses a life hacker might favor and the kind of household tips you might find in a local newspaper column, however. As Adam Pash says: "I tell my writers if there's nothing interesting or clever about something, we don't need to talk about it. People can read about how to jump-start a car anywhere. We want to help you when all you've got is a gum wrapper, a magnet and a toothpick."
Six 'Hacks' That Can Improve or Simplify Your Life
Here are a few of my personal favorite life hacks, plus one of Adam Pash's (which uses his favorite office supply for something for which it was never intended).
1. Open a banana like a chimp. If I handed you a banana to open, chances are you would grip the fruit in one hand and yank the stalk at the top. Because … that's how bananas open, right?
Wrong. If you turn the banana upside-down and pinch the tip between the thumb and index fingers of both hands, you can easily slide the banana open like you are opening a bag of chips. This is so simple that it almost doesn't seem like an actual tip, but it illustrates a basic tenet of life-hacking: Learned behavior is not always the most efficient way to approach a task.
2. Improve your memory. Have you ever seen a professional “memory man” flip through 10 decks of cards then recite each card in order? It seems like a superhuman feat, and, to be fair, at that level it kind of is. Yet it’s based on a fairly simple trick that you can use to boost your memory for more mundane tasks.
The human memory is associative: We remember things by how they relate to other things. The “memory palace" is a technique that dates back as least as far as ancient Rome (where it was known as the Method of Loci).
To recall a group of items (a shopping list, deck of cards or to-do list), imagine yourself in a place you know well, like your home or office. Now visualize a route around the “palace.” Try to picture it as vividly as you can, noting distinct features like bulletin boards, the drawer with a broken lock, the sink in the bathroom with the chipped enamel. Revisit it several times in your mind — you might want to go to the physical place and walk it for real.
Now mentally walk the route again and assign each item you want to recall to specific locations in the "palace." If you are remembering cards, for example, see the queen of diamonds checking her tiara by that sink, the three of hearts as jealous lovers arguing over a girl by the stairs. …
When you need to remember what's on the list, just walk through "the palace" in your head and you'll be able to summon up the items. It takes a little practice, but the results can be astounding.
3. See better at night. Some piratologists (probably not a word, but should be) claim that the reason buccaneers wore eye patches wasn’t because eye injuries were way more common in the 17th century, but to take advantage of a natural form of night vision. Keeping one eye covered meant that they could see well in lamplight but would gain an instant advantage in darkness when they removed the patch.
Whether or not that’s true, keeping one eye closed for a few minutes before you step from a light place into darkness — like into a movie theater — will allow one of your eyes to adjust to low light conditions. And while you’re not likely to engage in any sword fights, better safe than sorry.
4. Cut down on caffeine naturally. You may want to cut down on your caffeine intake for health reasons, or just to help you sleep better. If you can't find a decaf version of your favorite roast, do not despair. By simply changing the way you brew coffee to a faster and lower temperature method, you will extract less caffeine from your roast without sacrificing any flavor. French press or Vietnamese filter brewing is fast and has a slightly lower average temperature than regular brewing. This extracts less caffeine than a regular brew, while keeping the taste of your favorite bean.
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5. Jerry-rig a hands-free GPS. Pash freely admits that he has a slightly strange obsession. "I have a reputation among my writers for being particularly excitable regarding binder clips," he says. Lifehacker's archives are practically groaning under the weight of posts that detail how to use this most humble of office supplies in ways that would make Jack Bauer (the fictional counter-terrorism agent on the old Fox show 24 and a modern-day MacGyver) do a spit-take.
Pash's personal favorite requires a large binder clip, some duct tape, rubber bands and string. With these ingredients you can make a clippable mount to attach your smartphone to your car dash and use it as a sat-nav.
6. Make your food more flavorful. Sous-Vide cooking is a popular method of slowly cooking food at relatively low temperatures to maximize flavor and tenderness. A professional Sous Vide set can cost hundreds of dollars, but you can recreate the same effect with just a beer cooler, a kettle, a meat thermometer and a Ziploc bag.
The cooler's insulation is just as adept at keeping water hot as it is keeping beer cold. Fill it up with water heated to a suitable temperature (some experts recommend 125º F for steak), put the meat in a sealed baggie and immerse in the water for about an hour.
Keep the temperature constant (hence the thermometer) and top off with more hot water as required. Your result: a perfectly cooked and wonderfully tender steak, which you can brown off by flash-cooking in a hot pan.
These are just some personal favorites and illustrative of the breadth of topics and situations that lend themselves to a little life hacking. Sites like Lifehacker.com, LifeHack.org and Cool Tools offer a daily stream of new ideas. Converts to life hacking may find that their monthly expenditure on duct tape, binder clips and baggies sees a marked uptick. All that is really required to be a life hacker, however, is an open mind and a little ingenuity.
Stuart Houghton is the former U.K. editor at Kotaku.com and a freelance tech writer with more than 15 years' experience covering science, computing and gaming for British newspapers and the Web.