Demystifying the Digital World – Part 1 – Introduction

In the last few years, our digital lifestyles have become a major part of modern living. For example, getting a message online used to mean email and “Instant Messages” (aka IMs). Now they flood in through email, text messages, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other sources. These messages used to be accessed from a desktop computer, but not any more. Today most of us have at least a computer and a smartphone while some are “lucky enough” to have a computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, and maybe even a smart watch.

Digital photos are another good example. While valuable, they end up stored on computers old and new, hard drives, smartphones, The Cloud, and sometimes combinations of these, creating messy duplicates and lost photos. Other examples include music, digital calendars, digital receipts, bank statements, and the classic problem of keeping track of important digital files. Most of these activities require software, website access, and also have apps for phones, all of which have different user interfaces.

Even when well organized, complexity can lead to things going wrong from time to time. Devices fail, software gets updated, passwords are forgotten, hackers can wreck havoc, or we can simply forget how a certain device works, especially if it is not used often. I’ll bet that 90% of homes have the WiFi password on a sticky note somewhere near the router.

Still not convinced, how about these nagging questions?

  • Television: Why are remotes so complex? Why do we need a list of procedures that looks like the checklist from Boeing 747 to use them? 
  • Computers: Why are they updated so frequently, often “automatically,” and often right when some critical task needs to be done? (Smart phones and tablets fall into the same category.)
  • Printers: Why do they beg for ink for weeks, but keep printing? Or they stop printing for no apparent reason, then spew dozens of pages of gibberish. Ours has a particularly endearing habit waiting ten minutes, then making a loud noise when it “goes to sleep,” scaring us every time.
  • Internet: Why can’t we stay online reliably? WiFi has been around for almost 20 years and routers still look like alien spacecraft.  Here’s an interesting side-note, the term WiFi actually stands for absolutely nothing (which might explain a few things). Other issues include malware and the fact we now need to keep track of passwords for dozens of websites.

After millions of years of evolution during which the most complicated problems humans wrestled with involved agriculture and animal husbandry, how have we so quickly transitioned into a world where complexity seems to be spiraling out of control?

However, grappling with complexity is not new. Confucius was quoted in the 1st century as saying “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The famous concept of Occam’s Razor is the basis for the “preference for simplicity” in the scientific method. This sounds modern but is actually attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan friar. Some people like to quote Einstein as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” because it sounds like something he would say. It’s a great quote, but it’s not from Einstein (and the source is much more complex). Even the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) was coined by Kelly Johnson, the lead engineer who helped create some of the most complex aircraft ever built such as Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among others.

Of course, reasonable complexity is welcome, but too much can be crippling. Therefore this series of posts will focus on providing suggestions for resolving common problems quickly and efficiently by balancing complexity and simplicity. Along the way, there will be discussions about a variety of topics from the complexity inherent in modern technology systems (for example, what is “The Cloud”) to the scholarly work being done in the field by groups such as Santa Fe Institute’s “Complexity Explorer.”

If you have a particular topic of interest, please let me know. In the meantime as a teaser, the next post will start with a couple of “digital housecleaning tips” that will help you get a jump start on doing some Spring cleaning in your digital life. Until then, if you are not backing up your computer, your homework is to read this article and do it! Remember, “To Go Forward You Must Backup!”

The Firefox Browser, Internet Freedom, Web Literacy, (yawn…)

But it’s really not a boring story at all. Back in the early days of the Internet, the first browser, called NCSA Mosaic, was born out of the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Mosaic eventually became Netscape Navigator which spawned a not-for-profit organization founded in 1998 called Mozilla. Amazingly, 20 years later, this company is still around  and is one of the leaders in the fight to keep the Internet free and open.

Hardly anybody but techies know about it, but Mozilla makes Firefox which has recently received a major upgrade into a fast, powerful, safe, modern browser than can comfortably replace Google Chrome or Apple Safari. In fact, I’m typing this article using Firefox right now and, with the addition of an Ad Blocker, it seems even faster than Safari.

However, it is their mission that really sets them apart. Their recent email “Goodbye corporate domination” starts with the question “All browsers are the same, right?” Their response to their own question is fascinating:

Not quite. Firefox is on a mission — to be faster and leaner than ever, always respectful of your privacy and open like no other browser out there. Because it’s built for people, not profit. Firefox is part of Mozilla’s mission to keep you in control of your online experience and ensure that the web stays weird, healthy and inviting to all.

This sent me down a rabbit hole of learning about the many, many ways they are working to fulfill this mission. Everything from teaching “Web Literacy” to “The Mozilla Manifesto: Principles that guide our mission to promote openness, innovation & opportunity on the Web.”

In a world where the basic health of the Internet is in jeopardy from the repeal of Net Neutrality, the wide range of online security threats, and violations of the most basic issues of privacy, Mozilla is doing an incredible job addressing these threats and educating the public.

So even if you love Safari, Chrome, or (gasp) Edge, give Firefox a try (again, an Adblocker makes online life much nicer too!). You might like it or just give them a few bucks (and Wikipedia too). They even have a handy guide to switching that takes less than a minute.

We get so much for free from “the Internet,” it feels nice to give back a bit to the people to keep it that way.

Twitter: How Many Times Have You Deleted It?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve just reinstalled it for the third time in six months. That’s my love-hate relationship with the social media company whose little birdie icon can be found on 99% of websites and many products. Even our jar of sunflower seed butter has a Twitter account (do gluten free Sunbutter stuffed banana fudge bars sound good?).

Believe it or not, POTUS is not even in the top 10 of largest user accounts. Katy Perry has that well deserved distinction. Twitter’s introduction line is “See what’s happening in the world right now.” This seems to be in conflict with recent headlines like “Is Twitter Censoring Free Speech” and the constant barrage of horrible tweets often featured on “Late Night” shows.

So why do I keep coming back to a place that seems to be full of time wasting, junkfoody verbal hate cookies? Because it’s a window into a world of communication more casually interactive than Facebook, more real-time than email newsletters, and more succinct than blog posts. Some of my favorite people not only share their thoughts as they have them, but I can also join the conversation.

The silly video below can help you get started. I only follow a few people, otherwise the stream of tweets gets overwhelming. My list includes @SteveMartinToGo (Steve Martin the comedian), @taylorswift13 (Tay Tay), @tim_cook (Apple CEO), @ElonMusk, @kottke (a wonderful blogger), @AppleEDU (Apple Education), @Firefox (Google Chrome alternative), and a few others.

So why doesn’t ElephantTech have a Twitter page…? There certainly is a dark side to Twitter as this writer explains beautifully in his post “WTF Twitter” (warning: he uses a bad word in the title), but like visiting a large city, just try to stay away from the dark alleys at night. You might find that the little blue “t” represents a better way to communicate than the little blue “f.”

Taming Email Courtesy of ArsTechnica

The last post, “The Taming of the Emails,” ended with a preview of a few techniques that might be helpful in taming an unruly email inbox. In a strange coincidence, the techie website ArsTechnica published the post, “Zeroed Out: Five Steps Toward Restoring Inbox Sanity” two days later.

Besides having a better headline, their article provides a detailed series of steps starting with the smart suggestion to set aside a few uninterrupted hours to tackle the project to using advanced features such as rules to prioritize certain people and topics. If you use Gmail, it can do some of the work for you with its “Important” folder and “Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums” Inbox tabs, but it is still good to know about advanced tools.

Personally, “Filters” are my favorite feature. For example, we used to take dance classes and subscribed to several dance mailing lists. Years later, we were still receiving weekly emails about events. As small lists, there was no unsubscribe button and while hitting delete a couple times a week isn’t really a huge burden, creating a filter to delete these messages automatically was a relief. It took all of 10 seconds:

  • Click on the message
  • Click “Filter messages like this,”
  • Confirm the search criteria, and
  • Check the box “Delete it.” Bam. Done.

An added bonus is that this is a very satisfying project similar to cleaning out a stuffed closet or garage, but with less heavy lifting. The author went from 2,500 emails to 50 in “a couple hours.” A little more work and you may end up “Zeroed Out” and greeted with that magical Gmail message, “No new mail!”

The Taming of the Emails

Lately the tech news has been filled with security articles on issues with ominous names such as Meltdown and Spectre. Yes, these are serious problems that need to be addressed by updating to the latest versions of Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, but if you want a real chill, think about what will happen when your email inbox reaches its size limit!

For Gmail, that’s 15 GB which can fill up fast with 100 MB cat videos pouring in from friends every day. Worse still are the tens of thousands of small messages that sit in that tiny folder called “Inbox.” Department store ads, the latest airfare sales, Netflix, PBS, that cute restaurant in San Diego that has weekly specials, all collect there like leaves on a pond soon to sink to the bottom. A couple days later, they are buried under a new deluge of email and only surface when searching for something else, like an email from your friend Diego, and you find 175 weekly specials from that cute restaurant in San Diego that you haven’t visited in ages.

Four years ago, I wrote the post “Inbox Zero, Gmail, and Mobile Collaboration Tools” that discussed a product called Mailbox which no longer exists, but the idea of “Inbox Zero” is still a good one. At the moment, my email inbox has ZERO messages in it. Can you believe it? Am I some sort of OCD superhuman?! I’ll let you in on my secret over the next few posts, but here’s a preview of how to get there from the commonly overflowing email inbox.

  • Create a new email address for “important emails” and begin to give it out to family and friends. A more private address can also be used for bank logins and other secure websites. Making it a little harder for hackers to access critical accounts is always a good idea.
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters that you don’t read as they come in. In a couple of months, it will make a big difference
  • Learn to use Gmail’s “Archive” button. An email inbox is the most effective when only items that require immediate attention show up.
  • For particularly unruly Gmail accounts (like work accounts), try a tool like “Drag” that gives more control over the behavior of the inbox by transforming it into organized Task Lists. Drag and drop your emails between lists/stages and customize them. It makes the hours spent in your inbox a whole lot easier and more organized.
  • Clean out large and repetitive messages from your current email account. Did you know you can search Gmail for messages larger than a certain size so they can be deleted?

It might take work upfront, but the beginning of the year is often good time to do this kind of housecleaning. A long, snowy morning could result in reaching that paradise of “Inbox Zero.”

Happy New Year!