Inbox by Google

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.intro-logo 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.

Review: Elf, a reminder service to avoid overdue library fees

The Durham Country Library -- which is a great organization I support with patronage and donations of both books and money --  does not notify me when books are either coming due or are overdue. This can be inconvenient when life gets hectic or I forget that the checkout period for DVDs is different from that for books. If you don't have a system set up to remind you about such things, then it's all to easy to forget when they're due. library card found in pittsburgh pennsylvania

Enter Elf (from its About page):

Elf is a web-based and email tool for library users to keep track of their library borrowings. Elf is like a personal assistant, whose task is to help with keeping track of what one has on loan from the library.

Designed with the busy or avid library user in mind, Elf is ideal for families with multiple library cards or for individuals (writers, researchers, students, readers, etc.) who have cards from different libraries.

Elf makes it easier to keep track of what's due, overdue or ready for pickup from one or more library accounts. Users have the option to consolidate their library accounts into one account if they wish. This account is checked everyday and email notices are sent when items are coming due, overdue or when holds are ready for pickup. As well, get up-to-date realtime information by browser.

How many people knew about Elf before I did? Probably everybody, I bet. And not a word from any of you! I only discovered it by happenstance, through the weekly Back to Work newsletter. 

Durham happened to be in its list of libraries, and I eagerly signed up. I set the level of advance notice I want to receive (3 days) and provided my cell number so I could be texted also. Elf also offers RSS and iCal feeds if you prefer to be notified that-a-way.

It's a terrific service, it's free, and it's simple to figure out. If you use your library card a lot, you should check out (heh) Elf.

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Software: Audiobook Builder

Audiobook Collection Back in the days of iron men and wooden computers, I listened to audiobooks on cassette.

In 2001, I joined Audible.com and listened to digitized audiobooks using my trusty yet problematic Digisette Duo-Aria; for years, my secondhand cars only had cassette players so the Digisette served me well. I preferred listening to audiobooks over music whilst commuting, traveling, or just motoring about. The other great thing about digital audiobooks was that I could listen to them anywhere, while raking the leaves or working out. Carrying my books everywhere was as important to me as carrying music everywhere was to other people. I also subscribed to Audible’s various monthly or weekly audio programs, like NPR’s Science Friday, in those dark days before podcasts.

After my second Digisette bit the dust and I entered a fraught period of unemployment, I stopped subscribing to Audible. My cars now had CD drives so I recorded BBC radio programs, burned them to CD, and listened to them in the car.

In 2009 or so, I bought an orange iPod nano as a birthday present for myself. I then began delving into the bizarre world of iTunes, how it manages music files, how it loads and plays podcasts on my iPod, etc. Audible-encoded files play very well in iTunes and with iPods of all kinds, so with my podcasts and Audible books now playable anywhere, and with a more dependable gadget, I was even happier.

Now, when I download an Audible file, it comes usually as one or up to three large files. But when I bought a few of the Doctor Who Big Finish productions via digital download, each track arrived as a separate file. Since they were originally published on CDs, and some of the productions are 2-CD sets, there could be upwards of 40-odd separate audio files to be managed. I can categorize the files as Media Kind “Audiobook” and they’ll show up with my other audiobooks. They would transfer to the iPod just fine, but the order-out-of-chaos maniac in me hated that they existed as individual files — I really wanted them to be in one or two big files, as the Audible books are.

Over the years, I had also collected many other MP3 files: stray podcasts or interviews not available from iTunes, audio programs I had bought, or coaching programs where the instruction arrived as lots of MP3 files. I had also recorded things off the web, such as this BBC2 radio documentary on the history of British comedy — four hour-long programs. It offended my sense of order to have all these files scattered in separate directories and not snugly nestled in iTunes where I could control them a little better. The iTunes interface really doesn’t handle these kinds of rogue files very well, in my experience, and I thought the whole operation could be made much easier.

To consolidate these separate files into a few merged files, I had been using the Join Together script from the amazing Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes site. It combined individual files into audiobook files and worked fine, but I wanted more of a standalone app.

After poking around, I tried out and bought Audiobook Builder from the App Store (link). It’s a great little app that takes all those separate audio files, merges them into iTunes audiobook files (.aab files), and deposits them into iTunes’ Books area, where they belong — NOT with the music! This makes the files much easier to manage.

One of the things I like about the app is that I can throw a ginormous amount of files at it — such as a directory of 36 MP3 files totaling 1.1 GB — and it will not crash or fall over. In this example, it will process all those files to produce three large audiobook files, each suffixed with “Part 1, Part 2,” and so on. The largest files will run about 11 hours each. Now, the process is slow on my 2007-era MacBook, I’ll grant you. It can take up to 45 minutes for it to chew through a gigabyte of audio files. That’s OK for me if I get the files I want.

I can then delete or archive or offload those original files to other media so they don’t take up room on my hard drive. Order! Contained chaos!

If you have have audiobook CDs, it’s simplicity itself to have Audiobook Builder compile them into proper iTunes audiobook files. The help file is good and, after experimenting with some small jobs — particularly when it comes to creating and naming chapters (if you want to do that) — its mysteries are soon revealed.

One tip: I like having an image of the book or speaker or interview subject as part of the file. The simplest way to get that image applied to your new audiobook is to do this:

  1. Go to Google Images and enter the name of the book or person.
  2. Select and copy the image from your browser.
  3. In Audiobook Builder, after you’ve created the project file, left-click in the box that says “Drag Cover Artwork Here.”
  4. Press Command-V to paste the image from the clipboard.

You can also use this method to copy images from your existing audiobooks to new ones you create. Easy-peasy.

Update: I should have added another important reason why I prefer the audiobook format over separate files: you can stop anywhere in the file and pick up later where you left off. With audiobooks, I can interrupt the recording, listen to other stuff while I work, go back to the audiobook when it's time to commute home, select "Resume", and I carry on listening from the previous stopping point. To do that with individual tracks categorized as Music, you have to manually select the files and activate the bookmarking capability.

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How I rate songs in iTunes

I never fiddled with iTunes before I bought my iPod 5G in 2010 as my birthday present to myself. I found -- and still find -- iTunes to be both useful and maddening. Kirk McElhearn's Take Control of iTunes ebook is a great resource for the music fan who just wants to get things done in iTunes and I recommend it. But I daresay that one of the things within the ken of even the most novice user are rating music tracks. You can rate an album or each track of an album from 1 to 5 stars. Ratings are most useful in conjunction with smart playlists, where you can specify that only 5-star rated songs can be included or exclude any 2-star songs, and so on.

Given my mania for wanting to do things "right" (yeesh) I scoured the web for advice on different ratings systems. Most of the advice follows the standard "more stars=higher quality" pattern, like star ratings for movies. Yet I thought that too simplistic and too labor-intensive. Why would I want to rate every song in my iTunes collection? Why even bother rating tracks I dislike or am indifferent about? And -- why keep them in iTunes if I don't like them, anyway?

Jason Guthrie had the best selection of non-standard advice, with two ideas that I began using right away: use one-stars for punishment and rate tracks by intensity. So here's how I rate my tracks:

  • One-star tracks are songs I don't want to hear at all, ever again. One-star tracks are excluded from my smart playlists. And though I haven't done this yet, I could view all one-star tracks and simply delete them from iTunes so they never darken my earbuds again.
  • Two-star tracks are slow, haunting, somewhat melancholy songs -- Barber's Adagio for Strings comes to mind. These tracks evoke a  reflective mood. I tend to listen to this smart playlist in the morning, drinking my first coffee of the day, when the rest of the world is quiet.
  • Three-star tracks are a little more upbeat but medium tempo; the pace of a relaxed heartbeat, perhaps. Not surprisingly, most of the tunes I rate fall into this bucket and I can listen to this at any time; it's like a personal radio station of easy listening music and includes classical, pop, world, lounge, and other genres.
  • Four-star tracks are the upbeat, fast-paced tracks with a driving beat that put a silly grin on my face. "Jaan Pehechan-Ho" is the go-to example here, but so is "The Intro and the Outro." I tend to play this late in the day when my energy flags and I want a pick-me-up.
  • Five-stars ... I haven't come up with a need for five star ratings yet. So I'm reserving this classification until a great idea comes my way.

I don't rate absolutely every track in iTunes, as that way lies madness. I only rate those tunes I like well enough to want to listen to again. So my 2-, 3-, and 4-star playlists hold only a fraction of all the music I've recorded or downloaded so far, yet they're the tracks that give me the most pleasure.

The ratings by intensity reminds me of a tip I read from Michael Neill, I think, where he recommended creating playlists based on your mood. So when you're in a bad mood and want to feel better, create a ladder of playlists that take you from low to high. Start by listening  to the playlist with songs that resonate with your sad or angry mood. Then, move to a playlist with songs that are less dark, more bright. Then, move to a playlist of songs with happier associations. In this way, you can use your iPod to make yourself feel better just by listening to music.

And if you don't want to go to all the trouble of creating moody playlists, well, there's an app for that.

How to unwrap a CD

When I first saw an Asheville CD store saleskid flip open the hinges of a CD case to remove that annoying sticker from across the top of the lid, I was gobsmacked. Once I saw it, it seemed so simple -- why had no one ever shown me this before? Why had I not been able to figure it out on my own? (Part of my surprise being that I'm a notorious rules-follower and it's obvious, isn't it, that you don't take something apart unless someone told you it was OK?) The Proper Discord blog posted a great little video tutorial on how to unwrap the cellophane packaging from various types of CD cases. It's little bits of knowledge like this which makes life on the Interwebz worth living.

Hat tip to Kirkville

Draining my MacBook battery

My 2007-era black MacBook uses a battery that needs to be regularly calibrated; that is, once a month, it needs to run down to zero and then charged back up. One of the Genius Bar guys told me that the worst thing to do to a battery is to leave it plugged in all of the time. The battery needs to run for some periods of time on its own; if the laptop is plugged in all of the time, the battery's life and functionality can be impaired.

A black Apple MacBook, photographed on the pro...

Or something like that. Many people in my orbit think of me as a tech whiz, but I'm really not. I just have time and spend it playing with stuff, reading the documentation, and learning as I go.

Anyway, my MacBook often stays on my desk and doesn't travel with me to work or school as often as it used to. So it's a good idea for me to cycle the battery by running it down to zero once a month and recharging it. Apple calls this process calibrating the battery, enabling the menubar readout to more accurately reflect the battery's charge state. You can read Apple's recommendations for battery calibration here.

To ensure I do this monthly, I've set up the following process:

  1. I have Memotome fire off an email to me on the third Saturday of each month. The notice contains Apple's instructions on calibrating the battery and a link to its web page.
  2. Before I go to bed that night, I unplug the MacBook. I turn up the screen brightness to maximum.
  3. I run an app called Caffeine (free at the App Store), which keeps the display from going to sleep. I set it to run for 5 hours, which is far longer than my fully charged battery will last. Caffeine is also useful if you're watching a video and don't want the screensaver to kick in.
  4. I start playing a ripped DVD movie or a long video podcast in iTunes (Kevin Pollak's Chat Show or MacBreak Weekly are usually good for at least 90 minutes). Playing a video requires more juice from the battery.
  5. I close the door to my office so the Mac can go to sleep in peace.

At some point during the playback, the Mac will start to complain that it's running low on power and it will eventually go to sleep. If I'm around, I can shut down the Mac or force it to keep playing the video till it collapses; usually, I let it go to sleep on its own. Apple recommends that the MacBook sleep in that state for at least 5 hours. When I go into the office the next morning, I plug the power cord back in and wake up the computer.

This is a pretty simple reminder process that I've used for years. If only reminding myself to cut the grass were so simple.

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The Splurge List

I don't remember where I got this idea, but it's one I've been using more lately. The idea uses wishlists and a form of timeboxing to help me reduce my impulse spending, especially online. It's so, so easy to buy a Kindle ebook or an MP3 album on Amazon, especially when the items are priced in the cheap single-digits. The downside of this is that by the end of the month, I may have bought lots of little stuff and their total is in the double-digits.

Money

So, as I run across these little gems I put them into my Amazon wishlist. The  Amazon wishlist browser extension lets me put stuff on the list that Amazon doesn't sell (like shareware or recordings/books from small publishers). I also have a "splurge" tag in my Pinboard bookmarks, which is mainly a holdover from before I used the Amazon extension.

So when the impulse to buy something online strikes, I just click the button in my browser and, bah-dah-boom, that item is out of sight and, for a little while, out of mind. I can then move on to the next shiny object.

On the last day of the month, I get an email from Memotome.com that says, "Congratulations! You can now redeem an item or items from your splurge list for $25. Have fun!" I then spend a happy few minutes considering the items I might want to buy for myself. I also cull the list of stuff that I'm not interested in anymore.

I now can decide whether to blow the $25 on a single book, or two CDs, or a mix of cheaply priced ebooks and MP3s, whatever I like. The key, though, is that what I buy has to be fun or frivolous. That's the carrot and it's what makes this process doable for me. (It's similar to the idea of a cheat day or reward meal for dieters.)

This trick may not banish all impulse purchases, but it's been working for me this year. I believe the grown-ups refer to this practice as "delayed gratification," but I am only a recent and reluctant member of that grim tribe, so I cannot say for sure.

 

 

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Using Keyboard Maestro to fix Safari 5.1 keyboard dumbnesses

Part of a keyboard containing Insert, Home, Pa...

The MikeBook has been receiving tons of app upgrades due to Lion (haven't upgraded yet; waiting a few months for the bugs to shake out).

In general, the app upgrades have caused no problem except for Safari, which disabled the Page Up, Page Down, Home and End keys. I mean...what?? Sorry, Apple, but I don't have a Magic Trackpad, and I still use my quaint little keyboard to navigate through my web pages.

Fortunately, a poster to this thread on the Apple support forum provided the secret handshake:

  • COMMAND UP ARROW takes you to top of page
  • COMMAND DOWNARROW takes you to bottom of page
  • OPTION UPARROW takes you up a page
  • OPTION DOWNARROW takes you down a page

So, using the wonderfulness that is Keyboard Maestro, I remapped my Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys to the above keystrokes. Now, I can use my keyboard the way God (and not Apple) intended.

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Assorted links

  • "The truth is dancers and musicians live in two different worlds."
  • For academic writers, the Rule of 200. Writing 200 words/day is rather like writing for 15 minutes/day -- it sets an objective, emotionally neutral goal. Getting that first draft squeezed out is most important; quality can be layered in later. Also, this raises the task from a "special project" (I only write when I'm inspired or when I think I have time) to a routine that one doesn't have to think about doing -- you just sit down to do it. I would like to find a similar metric for editing a document, but maybe minutes per day is the best metric there.


Readability and toread.cc bookmarklets

Here are two bookmarklets I use every day. (Bookmarklets, you ask? What are they? More here.) The beautiful thing about bookmarklets is they should work from within IE, Firefox, Safari, or any web browser that lets you put a bookmark in its Links bar.

Because I read lots of articles and blogs online, I click the Readability bookmarklet a lot. (In fact, it's the rightmost link on my Links bar in both my work and home browsers.) Lifehacker has a good mini-explanation with video of what it does, but essentially the Readability bookmarklet strips out all the page and font formatting and presents just the text, sans background, affiliate links, banner ads, etc. Select the settings you want on the Readability site, drag the bookmarklet to your Links bar, and away you go. As Lifehacker notes, it's not perfect, but it gets the formatting right for me about 98% of the time.

Yes, some web sites like NY Times or New Yorker have printer-friendly pages, but they're not always reader-friendly pages. With the Readability-formatted page in the browser, I can quickly read a narrower column of text on a gray background, which my eyes find more restful than glaring white.

I can also print the reformatted page, which looks great, or save it to PDF. I generally prefer the Readability version over any web site's printer-friendly version.

I also like using the Readability bookmarklet with my toread bookmarklet. The toread.cc site bills itself as an "email-based free bookmark service." Which is accurate but sounds klunky. Delicious, which I use heavily, is also a free bookmark service. (I don't use browser bookmarks anymore; it feels so '90s.) But Delicious doesn't let me search the contents of the pages I've saved, so I should make good notes or provide good tags that will enable me to find the link again later.

What I use toread.cc for is as a way to archive web-page receipts, web pages with information I may want to access again someday, or web pages I may want to read later. When I'm on a page that has text I want to keep, I click the toread bookmarklet, and the entire page is emailed to my Gmail account. (I specified my Gmail address when I signed up for the service.)

Because I use Gmail, I can now search the full text of these saved pages and generally find what I want pretty quickly--which is the chief advantage of using this method over Delicious. Using toread is a way to build up a personal web archive in a painless fashion.

I don't store everything I read online using toread and Gmail, only stuff that I think I'd like to hold on to "just in case" (which is the clutterer's curse). If I'm doing lots of web-based research on a topic, then I'll use Delicious to group a large number of sites under a single tag and harvest the sites later. More likely, if I read a poem from Poetry Daily or an essay I particularly like or a computer tip I want to have on hand, then I'll use toread.

When used with Readability, the toread service helps me to archive clean-looking pages that don't have billboard/classified-ad clutter that permeates web and blog design these days. (And my toread bookmarklet is on the leftmost side of my Links bar, so I don't accidentally click it when I really want to click the Readability bookmarklet.) (Do I like to complicate my life with these rules, or what?)

I don't trust that pictures or graphics are saved via toread; I think they're included as links in the email. If the original site goes down, then it would take the graphics or pictures with it. So I tend to focus on text-based material.

Incidentally, I sometimes find that when I go back to read pages I emailed to myself, I've sometimes lost interest in them and wondered why I thought I wanted to read them. These tend to be deep-dish think-pieces from Arts & Letters Daily. So, using toread provides cooling-off time between "Ooh! New thing! Must read! Must distract myself!" and "Hmpf. Why did I save that?"

Another reasonable objection to using toread could be, "Aren't you just junking up your Gmail?" Maybe. I have a filter that labels every email from toread.cc as "Later." So, yes, there are many to-be-read emails in the "Later" bin, but they can be filtered out of searches or I can search only within the "Later" bin; both options allow me to narrow my focus as needed.

I also feel that, geez, don't we already know how to delete, sort, or file emails? Could it be any easier? Try sorting and deleting Delicious bookmarks; it's better these days but not as easy as email. Email, for better or worse, is the world's most oft-used app (no matter the application nor whether it's web-based or computer-based) that, presumably, most people already know how to use. Why not push the stuff I want to read or do through my email application? It prevents me from having to learn a new application and, filing-wise, I now have one place to search for that needle in the haystack, instead of several different services (or the whole web, for that matter).

Note: I see that toread also offers a service called news.toread.cc, that uses data collected from the toread.cc service to show what people are bookmarking. It's rather like Delicious's home page showing what people are bookmarking. Just pointing this out if security is an issue.