I am always and forever tweaking how I use Gmail.Read More
In iTunes, I have assigned the genre "Christmas" to all my Yuletide music, albums and singletons alike. This makes it relatively easy to add them to my iPod or remove them at once with the click of a button. (Some sequester their Christmas music to a different iTunes library, but I haven't gone that far yet.)I have a few static playlists that group a series of albums together, for example, all of the Windham Hill Winter Solstice albums. My friend Bob has a static playlist containing only instrumental songs, for when he just wants background music.
My own quixotic contribution to the world of Christmas playlists is a smart playlist that collects and sorts all of my Christmas songs in alphabetical order.
Liz prefers hearing her Christmas music by album; each album has its own personality, sound, and emotion that she enjoys. For myself, I rather like the randomness and juxtaposition of so many different songs in one place. I get a kick out of hearing nine different versions of "Joy to the World" -- community chorale, solo vocal, piano instrumental, surf guitar -- one after another. Or picking a letter of the alphabet and starting my listening there, just to see what comes next.
Here's a screenshot of settings for this playlist:
When iTunes creates the playlist, make sure you click the Name column header to ensure they're sorted alphabetically. Then sync the playlist to your iDevice.
I traveled with Liz to Denver CO for a few days while she attended a conference while I cavorted. For this brief trip, I carried a Chromebook, a Kindle Paperwhite, an iPod Touch 5g, a retro Tracfone-powered flip phone, a digital camera, multiple chargers, and 2 paperbacks.
This agglomeration of tech accumulated bit by bit over the years. It all works, it doesn't take up much room in the suitcase, it all does what I need it to do. I wish I didn't need a separate checklist to help me remember whether I've packed everything!
Am I on the road to being one of those old duffers who has drawers and closets full of perfectly good stuff that all sensible consumers have discarded? If this blog is still trundling on in 20 years, I hope to let you know.
I spent the last week doing some intensive research on two potential tech purchases: an iPhone for me and Liz, and replacing this WordPress site with Squarespace. I decided to stay with WordPress and we both decided to keep our current "dumb phones."
The major lesson from this exercise was one I've seen pop up in various coaching and self-help articles: if it's not a hell-yes, it's a no.
Details follow, if'n you want to read them.
Liz and I have both been using pay-as-you-go Tracfones of one sort or another for so many years I can't count them. We use them only for the basics -- voicemail, calling a few people close to us, texting, sometimes an alarm. I can use my Bluetooth headset and set simple alarms. We can't surf the web with them, check email, take pictures, or any other wonderful stuff iPhone and Android owners take for granted. (Well, the product specs and Tracfone say you can, and we were able to for a while, but it's too cumbersome.)
Tracfone support is not great, and transitioning to a new model was always rocky. But once it was set up, it just worked.
What we like about them is they are cheap to buy and cheap to add minutes to. Liz uses hers so rarely she has something like 2,000+ minutes. As far as Tracfone is concerned, those minutes are for voice and text. (Texts cost, I think, a third of a minute.)
I have fewer minutes than Liz, since I use my Tracfone for hour-long conference calls. That said, I've been calling in to one or two conference calls per week for the last 2 months, and have not needed to add any minutes yet. Also, my particular Tracfone model is pretty indestructible. I've dropped it twice; both times, I popped the battery back in, snapped the cover in place, and I was back in bidness.
So for our minimal needs, the Tracfones have served us well. But lately, they have been showing their technological age. Our friends with the fancy phones can't share pictures or links with us. My phone's keyboard has been sticking. We often don't know or can't tell that our phones are ringing or even that there's a voicemail waiting. They look increasingly old-fashioned. They are, to misappropriate Michael Leddy's word, dowdy.
I thought, it would be nice to have a single device to take the place of my camera, my iPod Touch, and my Tracfone. Why not upgrade these increasingly inconvenient phones and modernize?
Since we're an iMac/iPad/iPod family, iPhones are the way to go. I researched pre-owned phones, the reseller market, Apple's current line-up, and the newly announced SE. But that research was trivial compared to looking for an affordable carrier: one of the Big 4, or maybe an alternate carrier like Ting or Consumer Cellular, or even Cricket or MetroPCS.
For about an hour, we decided we'd each buy an SE and go with Verizon. But then the fever broke and we started calculating how much money we'd be shelling out to both pay for new iPhones (+ Applecare!) and pay for the ongoing service. My co-workers all complained they paid too much for cell phone service, but they are also on family plans, with kids who text and video chat a lot, and they are all hooked on the conveniences of smartphones.
Liz and I took a step back from the cliff, breathed in and out slowly, and decided to soldier on with our current phones. Yes, they are sometimes frustrating to use and not terribly fashionable. Yes, it would be nice to upgrade. But it's also nice to have paid-for, basic phones that we keep mainly for emergencies and to check in with family, and whose service has cost us about $20 total this year. As the saying goes, a luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For us, now, smartphones are a luxury we can afford but do not want to pay for.
Squarespace vs WordPress
My first blog was on Blogger. After I had issues with Google's handling of my site, I opted to buy my own domain and purchase a hosting service through InMotion Hosting that supported WordPress. I was about to enter a master's program in information science and thought it would be useful to get familiar with these kinds of techy things.
That was in 2007. As the years went on, though, I had my ups and downs with the site. WordPress is pretty solid unless you add too many plugins that may conflict with each other or slow down your site. I also had to manage the domain stuff, which meant fiddling with CPanel, the File Manager, and lots of other site-related maintenance duties I had to figure out through InMotion's then quite basic online documentation, support forums, and occasional tech support questions. And I always got the passwords confused for my WordPress site, my domain site, and InMotion support forum.
WordPress is a popular target of hacker attacks and, more than once, inMotion has locked me out of my site due to such attacks. Last year there was a particularly nasty set of attacks. So I spent several nights with InMotion's list of 20 or so WordPress security items to check, plugins to load, plugins to uninstall, WordPress configuration tweaks, edits to text-based configuration files deep in the bowels of the WordPress directory infrastructure, and so on. I bought a Genesis framework to provide more stability and some design choices I could not implement otherwise; WordPress is notoriously finicky if you color outside its lines and don't know CSS or PHP. I have Google Calendar reminders to back up the SQL database and I use Site Sucker as a secondary backup.
All in all, this site now ticks along pretty well with minimal care on my part. But when my friend Mike wanted to start his own web site a few years ago, I instead suggested he look into Squarespace. No fiddling with CPanel or managing a server. Limited templates but rock-solid. No need to update plugins or manage security since Squarespace handles that. Easy to add a blog or a picture gallery page. Mike took that suggestion and ran with it; he enjoys playing with his site and loves how easy it is to update and manage. He never stops singing its praises.
It's hard for me to praise WordPress's complexity in the same way.
Recently, an acquaintance who had been a long-time WordPress user switched to Squarespace. She wanted to create a portfolio page for her samples and finding a way to bend WordPress to her will (WP is mainly a blog-platform, after all, not an everything-platform) was too much trouble. She had her Squarespace portfolio page up in a few hours.
This was all turning my head. WordPress has its place, of course. When properly set up and maintained, it's a rock-solid and dependable content management system. That complexity is necessary to handle big, complex sites. In the hands of a skilled designer or developer, WordPress can do whatever you want. There's a deep ecosystem of plugins, themes, support, how-tos, and so on.
But. As a hobbyist with now only mild curiosity in how all this stuff works, WordPress is overkill for my minimal blogging needs. And as I think about the next steps of my career, I also wonder how easy/hard it will be to set up a portfolio page or make other adjustments to this site. At that point, we'll see how easy Genesis is to use.
For now, though, this site isn't broken. No security alerts, no plugin conflicts, no crashes. I log in every couple of weeks to empty the spam comments and update plugins as needed. The Squarespace dashboard looks, at first glance, at least as complicated as WP's. It's also about the same cost per year as I'm paying now. (Am I suffering from a sunk costs fallacy? Maybe.)
Perhaps most important to me personally, changing platforms would not materially change my motivation to write and blog. I do not now have good low-level systems for creating blog posts anyway. Switching to Squarespace would only be a diversion from the real issue of me not writing. It would be activity, not productivity.
So I decided to make better use of what I have now and simply use it more by writing more.
Triggers and Deadlines
Having done all this research, though, I decided on what may I may want to do in the future.
With this blog, for example, I've set a few mental tripwires that will trigger me moving this site from WordPress to Squarespace:
- If I need to create a portfolio page and WordPress/Genesis proves too difficult, then move to Squarespace.
- If this site gets hit with another major hack attack and InMotion locks me out, or I have to do more hacking on the site to secure it, then I'll move to SS.
Until that happens, I'll keep using WordPress and InMotion.
With the iPhone, I decided that on July 4 -- if I really want to -- I will purchase a 64GB 5s from a reseller (probably on eBay), open a cell account with Ting.com, and start playing with the smartphone as a hobby. I do feel I've missed out on the conversations happening around me for years, and I would like to be a part of them. The 5s should be plentiful on the resale market as its owners upgrade to the SE. A 64GB 5s would replace my current phone and iPod Touch.
By having a real smartphone, albeit an outdated model, I would also get a sense of how much or how little I would actually use it. If I use it a lot, then maybe I would upgrade to a more modern phone later. If I use it only a little, I could stick with the 5s and enjoy what it does for me.
The long-anticipated conclusion to this endless essay
As I said a hundred years ago at the start of this post, if it's not a hell-yes, it's a NO. As I researched these two decisions, I could feel anxiety in my stomach that something was not right here. I was not looking forward to getting either a smartphone or a new web site. I could feel myself trying to convince myself that these were good, sensible purchases.
That's the lesson. When I don't feel clarity around a decision, it's OK to wait. When I really want something, I don't need to make pro/con lists or do extensive research or dither about this or that criterion. I'll know it's the right thing to do. When a decision has to be made now NOW NOW then, of course, make the best decision with the information you have. But if I'm not under deadline, then the decision can wait.
As my first coach said, I don't have to motivate myself to eat the cake. If I want the cake, eat it. If I don't, leave it.
I switched from Yahoo Mail to Gmail back in 2006 or 2007; it took awhile to come to grips with it, but I loved some of its conveniences and never switched back. I kept the old Yahoo Mail account as a backup just-in-case account, but I only check it every week or so. I'm always hesitant when trying new Google products. I didn't try Google's Wave product when it was introduced (and which died a relatively quick death). The company's offhand attitude and abandonment of its Google Reader users really set the warning flag. I don't plan on keeping any notes in Google Keep. And as for Google Play's takeover of my beloved Songza service -- well, I'm not holding out any hopes for that. Songza did exactly what I wanted from it and I'd have cheerfully paid them for the service. I simply don't trust Google to do anything I expect, even if I did pay them.
But I have been trying out Inbox by Google for a month or so and I'm liking it. Based on what I've read, Google really wants to push users to Inbox and I thought, well, let's try it. They may one day turn off Gmail and users will wake up with Inbox. So it makes sense to start coming to grips with it now.
What I Like
- Inbox's guiding philosophy is to view the email inbox as a to-do list. For any item in the Inbox, you must Do, Delete, or Defer. Viewing emails, newsletters, promotions, Facebook notifications, listserv digests, etc. as tasks has been a standard tenet of productivity literature since David Allen's first book. But while email clients helped me move emails around and write them or reply to them, they didn't really provide a framework to help me process them more quickly. Inbox, as I've been using it, is really helping me process (that is, delete or archive) emails in a more sane manner.
- Inbox groups emails into pre-defined bins like Promos, Updates, Purchases, and so on. Their groupings are pretty accurate and it's easy to move an email from one group to another. What I like best about the groups is that it's easy to scan them and delete them all in a single stroke; this bulk management of emails saves me a good deal of time.
- It's also easy to define my own group (in Gmail-speak, a label or tag).
- I love the feature that lets me create reminders to myself right there in the Inbox and then set them to appear at any date/time or to recur. In the past, I'd have used the FollowUpThen email reminder service (which I pay for) or SaneLater (which I stopped paying for) or Google Calendar or GQueues. (Geez, do I think I need a lot of help in my life or what?) Instead, the Reminders are quick and easy to set, they appear in my iPod's Google app and Notifications, and my inbox is clear of any emails I used to keep there as reminders.
- It's dead easy to snooze emails so I can deal with them later. Snoozing an email is like setting a reminder. It makes keeping a clean Inbox a breeze. Previously, I'd have forwarded the email to FollowUpThen and archived the original mail. Inbox's Snooze feature is much neater and more convenient.
- Inbox delivers the grouped email once a day -- 7am. So if I get any new Facebook notices or Promos or Updates, then Inbox holds them back from appearing till the next morning. I have found that rather authoritarian management of my email to be liberating. I'm one of those sad people who likes to check his inbox every 5 minutes. But knowing that these bulk emails are by default not urgent, and that they'll show up in tomorrow morning's email anyway, means my Inbox stays mostly empty. Personal emails from Liz or friends appear instantly and so I don't need to plow through other emails to get to them. So during the day, I'm more likely to receive only emails that will be of immediate interest to me.
- (You can, of course, look inside Inbox's Social, Promos, Updates, etc. folders and see the emails that have arrived and that are being held for the next day. I prefer, in most cases, to let Inbox deliver them to me in a batch at 7am.)
- You can set three default snooze times for a reminder or an email; I use 7am, 2pm, and 7pm. When I open up Inbox in the evening -- BAM -- I'll see all the reminders and snoozed emails that I couldn't deal with earlier in the day. At this point, I deal with them by reading them, taking action, or deleting them. The Inbox becomes my to-do list -- which is the way I've always used it.
What I Wish Were Better
- Google's material design of Inbox looks nice in the browser, but the performance is not as snappy as in Gmail. Even on my Chromebook, Inbox is a visually stuttering application. However, using Inbox on my iPod is a treat and cements the idea for me that Inbox is optimized for mobile rather than the browser.
- Still haven't figured out how to filter an email so Inbox can automatically send it to the Trash. I still have to create those filters in Gmail. I also had saved searches in Gmail; the search facility in Inbox never seems to work as I expect.
- Some operations are simply easier in Gmail for me. I am taking part in an online course, so I'm receiving a ton of notifications throughout the day on new posts to the course's Facebook group. Processing 20 of these messages in Inbox just takes too many clicks. It's far quicker for me to zip into Gmail and process the emails rapid-fire.
I went all-in on Inbox over the Christmas break, avoided Gmail, and it was the best way to learn Inbox quickly. I also recommend reading Computerworld's JR Raphael's post on adopting Inbox. The second half of his post, where he talks about workflow, convinced me to give Inbox a try.
Today, I still access Gmail when I need to process a big batch of emails quickly. But Inbox rules the roost for the moment. Until Google says otherwise.
Update, January 11, 2017
I've gone back to using Gmail plain. Inbox's best feature was the scheduling function, but I have already duplicated that with FollowupThen. Inbox was just too slow, even when using it in Chrome on my iMac, even when using it on my flipping Chromebook. I often had to click on a mail two or three times for it to display as the clicks never seemed to register; Google's Material Design took so much time to load I got impatient. The only time Inbox performed at an acceptable speed was when I started using Kiwi for Gmail Lite; even so, I found myself flipping over to Gmail to process mails more quickly. Inbox by Google will have to offer much faster performance before I'm willing to switch again.
The new Kindle Unlimited campaign is smoking out new opinions on Amazon's strategy . I liked this comparison of the Kindle to the iPod's early days, and the evolution from buying single songs to streaming music services (Songza is my favorite). The lack of privacy is of concern to the writer, though buying a Kindle or even having an Amazon account means you have opted for convenience over privacy. The local public library (funded by your tax dollars) may offer a little more in the way of privacy and choice (thanks to librarians, not the government) -- some observers are not all that excited by the books on offer via the Kindle lending library or Kindle Unlimited. Of course, paying with cash at your local new or used bookstore may circumvent privacy and choice concerns.
Austin Kleon (via his marvelous weekly mailing) pointed me to this critique of the Kindle by a new reader. Pierce makes some sharp observations about the Kindle, especially how the designers chose to glorify the device over the book you're reading. He also has reservations about the shared-passages feature of Kindle e-books; it's as if someone is reading over your shoulder and turns what has traditionally been a private experience into an unasked-for shared one.
And I also have the sense he describes of the Kindle separating me from the traditional reading experience. Many books on my shelves double as physical objects I formed a relationship with -- they're signed by the authors, I read this one during that long week in Anaheim, I read this one when I was unemployed and it led me to read these other books, etc. The reading experience is different on a Kindle; my memories of a book will now be associated to a device rather than a book. Instead of forming a relationship to the book I'm devising a relationship to the device.
For example, if I'm going on a trip and I only have room to carry two books in my bag, then I'm making a commitment to give these books a chance. There are physical consequences of weight and comfort to consider, but I'm also promising myself that I will put in the time to read them. With the Kindle, though, I have maybe 50 or so books and collections I've downloaded. Which do I read first, which do I commit to? Does it really matter, since I can choose to flip in a moment from this essay collection to that novel to that e-book written by a friend? No one book will have my full committed attention unless I delete all the others from the device, because it's the device I've committed to, rather than the e-book.
Or such is my current improvised line of thinking on this sunny and beautiful Sunday afternoon, where I am skimming web pages and writing blog posts rather than sitting down to read a book.
 I do not plan to sign up for the service at this time. I already have more books than I can eat on my Kindle. And I have more movies in my Netflix queue than I could see if I had a week off. ^