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.

Lavers on The Simple Life

My previous post Fred Stutzman and Facebook reminded me of an essay from the May/August 2000 issue of North American Review. The essay I tore out and kept in my "Essays" folder lo these many years was by the writer Norman Lavers, now retired from teaching English and enthusiastically maintaining a site on The Robber Flies of Crowley's Ridge, Arkansas. If you want to know all there is to know about these vicious critters, that's the site for you.

The essay he wrote, titled "On the Simple Life," is a fine personal essay that sweeps over the course of his life, the choices he made, and the choices he continues to make. It's a cranky, curmudgeonly view of the modern world. He preaches about retiring early in your life and then going to work, being frugal with your time, money, and attention ("kill your TV" advice), and generally simplifying your life by letting go of the things that aren't needed in favor of the essentials that honor you.

The reason I kept the essay, I think, was that he put into words something I'd not seen up to that point. I've seen it since (Stutzman mentions it in my previous post) but I've come back to it so much in my mind that I thought I'd put the passages here.

He compares the bombardment of TV images to the Web's bombardment of opinion, flash, etc. You can guess his opinion.

Get off the internet. Oh, how can I? It's got everything on it. Exactly, and you're letting it all into your house and into your mind. Be more selective...[O]n the net, I have my privacy. You don't, you've let the whole world in. You've let everybody in, and yet no one's there. Virtual people have invaded your privacy. They're god-awful boring, but you're too mesmerized to respond by turning them off...

An essential part of getting off the web is: Don't do e-mail. But it's so convenient, so cheap, you will tell me. That's the problem. ..I inveighed against e-mail in one of my classes and a girl said, "Oh, but this is how I've been able to keep in touch with all my friends from high school. Without e-mail I couldn't have done it." I was too polite, of course, to say, You should be leaving those kids behind and getting on with your life. If you wouldn't have kept in touch without e-mail, it means you probably shouldn't be keeping in touch now. They are getting in the way of your maturing.

If someone distant wants to get in touch with me, he's going to have to sit down and write me a letter. It takes time, it costs the price of a stamp. He's going to have to say something that will still be valid several days later when I receive his letter. If I'm not worth it to him, then his emailed Have a nice day! is not worth my receiving...If I had e-mail, I would have a sort of obligation to checked to see what I had each day, and 99% of it (to judge by what my friends say) would be trash, another invasion of privacy. With letters, they come in the box, you can open them when you're ready, read them a few times, answer at your leisure, It's a more humane rhythm. Letters can approach to literature. Can you imagine wanting to read Keats's collected e-mail notes? E-mail is like television: you do it because it is free and easy--but in return it takes away your time, and for one good thing you get from it, you get 99 things of dross. If you are actively doing literary or scientific research, where real information is being exchanged, or if it's part of your job, okay, yes. For communication with people, no.

Lavers' preferred mode of engagement is to grow one's own creative projects, having to do with art or with nature, activities that take you out of yourself and place you in a state of meditation. Hence his enthusiasm with the Robber Flies.

Yes, it's over the top, but I like his firm this-is-how-it-is tone, which is what makes reading essays fun. Certainly, junk mail is an invasion of privacy, and one is not ever obligated to return an email immediately after it's been received.

But I was struck by Lavers' point about e-mail keeping alive relationships that should probably die a natural death and Fred's point about middle-aged Facebook users reconnecting with people from their high school and college days 20 or more years before. There is the warm flush of remembering what we used to be like, and there's a pleasing nostalgia that's surely fine to experience now and then, if only to remind us that maybe those old days weren't so bad. But we aren't those people anymore, and I don't wish to go back to that foreign country anymore. (A no-prize for whoever gets that literary reference!) And the economics of energy, time, and attention are such that we only have resources for the immediate, not the distant.

When I entered NCSU in 1979, I kept in touch with a few friends from high school (some of whom were in my freshman classes) but by my sophomore year, I was in a new world with new friends. When I left college, it took longer to separate myself from that comfortable world, but I eventually landed in Rocky Mount and started a new life there. I left in 1988 and brought no one with me from my 4 years there. If email had been around then, how long would I have stayed attuned to the local gossip, the dramas? I don't know. Given my state of mind and emotions at the time, I would probably have kept up an unhealthy level of attachment. It was good for me that email and FB weren't around back then.

Instead, I did (and still do) as Lavers suggested: I wrote letters. Letters to friends served as my journal, my writing practice, my meditation time. These days, with so little time available to me to get into the mindset that letter-writing demands, I send cards instead. I even send them to friends to who live nearby. There's something just more special and personal to me when I see an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address. I think it's special enough to send to dear friends and I do it simply because I enjoy it. I don't expect reciprocity or obligation--that's not the reason to write to friends who've stood the test of time. One does it because of love and attachment and, I think, creative expression. Selfish reasons, ultimately, but delightful ones, as well.

How is it possible? More on email

The readings that prompted these postings were:

Lehikoinen, Juha, Antti Aaltonen, Pertti Huuskonen, and Ilkka Salminen. Personal Content Experience: Managing Digital Life in the Mobile Age. Chichester, England: John Wiley, 2007. [48-51, 84-94, 127-157]

Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

The following response was to a question about whether a high number of emails are seen as a sign of prestige or importance.

Both of my managers receive upwards of 50-100 emails a day, depending on the crisis du jour. It's more a sign that their world is probably wider than mine and that they have more responsibilities (and more corporate spam to filter out). Both would love to have fewer emails to plow through; sometimes the job feels like it's managing email rather than getting work done.

Piles of unprocessed emails stresses both of them out. So it's not a badge of manhood for them.

One of my managers has been there for 10+ years, and he's a filer; his folder hierarchy is like baroque stained-glass in its intricacy. But for our clients and others on the team who don't file, they know that he *does* file; hence, he's usually the go-to guy for "do you have a copy of that email?" His ability to file and find stuff means they don't have to (and he now has this reputation to live up to, so that adds to his stress). [Update: after backing up his emails to a CD, he deleted about 10,000 emails from his account, some dating back to 2004. And remember, he deleted lots of email too.]

I remember reading somewhere that our brains have a 'doing' function and a 'thinking' function. The trick is, that they don't work at the same time. Reacting to email is a satisfying 'doing' activity, so most people probably don't think too much about how to file something so they can find it later; they're too concerned with taking care of business now. Sometimes we'll think ahead and plan an elaborate system to process our emails, but when we start doing it, the system is awkward or cumbersome; I'd class making folders and filing as a system that some people find cumbersome.

Another part of the issue may be the just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality. A lot of us filers and packrats like to hold on to things just in case we'll need them; but 80% of our files are never seen again. 20% I'll access regularly, but that 20% is different for every user, which is why filing still winds up becoming a personal matter, even in a business setting.

I wonder if things would be different if we asked people to create their own filing systems as if someone else would be using them next year. Would they then take a little more time to create folders, to make life a little easier for the next person? They may be able to create just enough metadata for us to get by.


In what ways are your own personal information management practices similar to or different from those described in the two readings?I'm one of those unfortunates who believes there must be one true way to do anything; as a result, I keep shifting things around and never have a stable setup. My wife, OTOH, doesn't seem to have this problem.re email: My email strategies for work and personal are different. In general, I'm more organized than the article subjects, partly because my role in the team is be the unofficial archivist and because experience with our customers has shown that I'm better at keeping these records than they are.

At work, my strategies shift and vary based on the work I'm doing and the tools I'm using. I used Outlook differently from Lotus Notes, for example. In general, I find myself dumbing down the email interfaces so they're as simple to use as possible. I tend to create folders for each project I'm involved with and emails go there. Because we have storage restrictions, I will archive emails (usually emails with big attachments) to a separate database on my hard drive; I have an agent set up to archive mails over 6 months old. For the database on my hard drive, I have full-text indexing turned on as this lets me search inside PDFs, Word files, etc. (Can't do this with my active email database.)

After attempting to segregate mails by project AND fiscal year, I decided last year to keep all project-related emails in one project folder and be done with it. (Notes lets you keep a file in more than one folder, basically a shortcut to the email, but I rarely use that.) I rarely think about metadata or context; like the article subjects, I'm concerned with the next deadline or commitment and long-term storage and access isn't part of my everyday thinking.

We've found that it's best after a project is over or some disaster has happened, to draft a Word file that summarizes the incident, what we did, our rationale, important facts, etc. It helps to draw everything together in one place in a coherent narrative. Often, important meetings or phone calls are not documented elsewhere, and they sometimes need to be captured. I then email it to as many people as request to see it (safety in numbers; in case I delete my copy, someone else may have it); I also save it to our Notes document database on the network where it's backed up and available for others to see.

[Aside: It strikes me that the Notes article is all about jumbled collections of individual items--call them 'words.' The Symbian developers are creating a framework to turn individual words into 'phrases' with simple grammar -- "is part of," "was taken on," "is used by," and so on. But there's no technological way to turn those phrases into any meaningful sentences or a narrative, except in the mind of the user.]

My personal mail is kept in Gmail, with minimal labels (I don't use multiple tags). I find the searches powerful enough that I only use labels for short-term personal projects.

Previously, I used Yahoo mail for several years; I archived all of that mail to my hard drive in 2006, and have gone back to it less than 10 times, I'd say. I just haven't needed to. I use Copernic Desktop Search to scour files for keywords if I can't find a particular document.

My files are organized primarily by directory name, but I have duplicates that have built up over time, and haven't figured out a strategy to deal with them. I depend on the directory and file names to provide whatever context I need to figure out what they are. I may append keywords to filenames, but not often.

My photos are organized in directory folders by year, then by month, then by subjects. Music files are organized in directory folders by genre, artist, etc. I don't really trust Picasa or iTunes or MediaMonkey to organize these things for me because their organization tends to be proprietary and require much organizational fiddling by myself, whereas they can all read the files in my directories, which I can arrange once and then forget about it.

I tend to think hierarchically and alphabetically, so that's how I tend to arrange my files on disk; I fall back to Copernic when I just can't find it by scanning folder and file names.

Emails as a Game of Life?

Academic Productivity has another great post, this time on the work of Carolin Horn at the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art (a visual designer, BTW, not an information visualization specialist) and her coder Florian Jenett. Using her Apple inbox as her petrie dish, her web page contains wonderful animations of species of hairy microbes that reflect the state of her inbox; spam and email from friends look totally different, while newer, more urgent mail is hairier and quicker. She also describes a grouping function of her project, titled Anymails, and the chains of microbes begin to look like early wormy life forms.

It puts me in mind of John Conway's Game of Life, an artificial life simulation that obeys only a small set of rules yet can exhibit surprisingly varied behaviors. It would be strange to not see rows of text but instead colorful wriggling lifeforms in my inbox. You could make it a game to clear the inbox, or take a cue from the Game of Life, and have a squirming microbe spawn an instant reply.

Carolin has a fascination with the natural world and its possibilities over static user interfaces: one of her other projects is an encyclopedia of the arts represented by different classes of jellyfish.