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!

A Tiny Bit of Bitcoin

While there are hundreds of articles about the recent crazy speculation in Bitcoin (over $20,000 per Bitcoin as I write this), this one from Ars Technica, “Bitcoin: Seven questions you were too embarrassed to ask” seems to sum it up best. It has enough technical information to explain the basics accurately while still being readable by the non-techie reader.

Despite this, here is a TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) version.

  1. Bitcoin is a completely “virtual” currency with no basis in physical reality.
  2. “Owning” Bitcoin means that a 32 digit Bitcoin account number (1AzGguw… etc.) has an entry in the database of the Bitcoin network that associates it with a certain amount of “Bitcoin.”
  3. A person who has the password for this account (hopefully the owner) has access to this Bitcoin. Hackers like stealing Bitcoin because once the Bitcoin “wallet” is hacked, they can transfer it and disappear without a trace.
  4. The Bitcoin database is called the “Blockchain” and the Bitcoin network synchronizes it across many computers across the globe. No one person, country, company, etc. owns or controls it.
  5. The database is called the Blockchain because it is a chain of blocks of Bitcoin transaction data. Each block can be validated mathematically as belonging to the chain of blocks that preceded it so no one can cheat the system by creating a fake transaction.
  6. Bitcoin is created by a digital “mining” system where an increasingly complex math problem is solved to create a new Bitcoin. It is so complex that the computers mining Bitcoin (and processing transactions) are estimated to be using the same amount of energy as the entire country of Denmark.
  7. Outside the miners, others get Bitcoin like any other form of currency. They can take it as payment or transfer standard currency to somebody who then transfers Bitcoin back to them.
  8. It is hard to spend Bitcoin. There are a few Bitcoin “ATMs” as well as a few businesses that take it. The most well known are Tesla and Virgin Atlantic. The rest are mostly tech companies. Also, there are significant transaction fees for Bitcoin, up to around 15%.

In my opinion, the current price of Bitcoin is a bubble. At least with the “Tulip Mania” bubble of the 17th century, people ended up with tulips. Bitcoin certainly has its place in some parts of the world with significant financial uncertainly, but probably not a good investment and definitely not practical for daily use.

 

iOS Grows Up Part 1

In a few short years, mobile operating systems have transformed modern society. The younger generations have for the most part skipped laptop and desktop computers and rely on mobile devices for all their online activities. From social media to messaging to watching hours of video, the small screen is the focus of their attention. Of course, voice calling is reserved for parents and emergencies while, depending on the country, SMS Messaging (and iMessage), Facebook (and Messenger), WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat, Instagram, Kik, etc. dominate their online lives. Written words replace spoken conversations, photos (selfies) convey more complex emotions, and short ephemeral videos entertain and inform. On a larger scale, YouTube has replaced network television, streaming music has replaced radio, and personalized recommendations from “influencers” trumps traditional advertising.

In this brave new world, the debate between iOS and Android rages on. How can Apple survive when 80% of the smartphone market is Android? It’s a classic question asked of every premium brand that exists successfully in the marketplace. Why buy a BMW when a Camry is excellent, reliable transportation? Why buy designer clothes when Target has great styles for less? It boils down to a few things that Apple does extremely well. First is excellent hardware, especially the iPhone camera. The second is a fanatical attention to software details including usability, security, a constant stream of innovations, and a massive, high quality App Store. They are also able to appeal a wide range of users. Millennials love advanced iMessage features such as group messaging, stickers, apps, emoji, and now the animated Animoji feature of the iPhoneX. Casual users find the default iPhone setup out of the box easy to adapt to. Add the Facebook app and email account information and they are happy. Photos (and the iPhone in general) get backed up to iCloud, messaging just works, and emailing is painless. To be fair, these features of Android are also easy to setup, but the experience is tainted by a wide variety of strange problems even with the most popular phones. Samsung phones ($849 for the S8) have the controversial “TouchWiz” user interface, Google Pixel ($949 for the XL 2) features a “clean, bloat-free experience with no unwanted apps” (a feature?!, a reaction to Samsung?), and even flagship phones like LG V30 ($800) get released with major flaws (a bad screen).

So to answer the question posed at the end of the last post, “How can Apple possibly survive giving something this valuable away for free?” The answer is simple, free iOS upgrades are one of the primary reasons people choose iOS over Android. It’s like getting a new phone every year without the cost of purchasing new hardware.

iOS users can rely on the fact that their product will be supported at no extra charge for at least three years. That means new features, security updates, and compatibility with other Apple products as soon as the update is released. By contrast, even flagship Android phones cannot be upgraded until the carrier “approves” the update which is sometimes several months later (if ever). Google Pixel phones are guaranteed to get updates immediately, but that’s a small part of the Android world.

So what did iOS users get with iOS 11 that demonstrates that it is growing up? Hang tight, that’s the topic of the next post and it straddles a different line, the blurring line between the desktop and mobile worlds.

My First Week Not Using the New iPhone X

Nope, that is not a typo. I’m really not using the new iPhone X and it really is an unusual event because I’ve purchased a new iPhone every year since the 3G. I remember it like it was yesterday. In 2008, while waiting in line at the Apple Store in Santa Monica for hours to buy my first iPhone, I spoke to several people near me. One was a neurosurgeon, another was a musician covered in tattoos, and a couple were computer science students from nearby UCLA. Despite our differences, we all agreed that the iPhone was going to conquer the mobile world which then consisted of horrible phones like the Blackberry and Windows Mobile based devices. At the time I was using a state of the art Samsung “Blackjack” which I nicknamed the “Crapjack” because it was so bad.

Then, like now, the release of a new iPhone’s was met with immediate criticism. Blackberry wrote it off as an “expensive toy” and Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer laughed at the $500 price tag. The video of him laughing out loud almost has three million views on YouTube.

Fast forward almost 10 years and the iPhone has been a great ride for Apple. It has transformed computing, spawned numerous imitators such as Android, and has brought the Internet to the masses around the world. Personally, working with Apple catapulted my career and transformed the company I worked for. It was certainly no fun visiting them before Steve Jobs returned, but afterwards it was a high octane trip in the Silicon’s Valley’s version of the Autobahn. Each new iPhone model added irresistible features: better cameras, better (and bigger) displays, faster processors, better industrial design, higher WiFi speeds, better security through TouchID, etc.

So why didn’t I buy the biggest and baddest iPhone ever when it was released this week? It has a bigger, better display (OLED!), FaceID, a faster processor, two cameras that are both optically image stabilized, and a whole host of other improvements including a special “image signal processor” in the main A11 CPU that creates special effects like the one below. I took this with an iPhone X in the Apple Store in Phoenix. No special lighting, no special background, in broad daylight just using Apple’s “Stage Light” effect.

The answer is complex. Part of it has to do with the idea that at some point, the iPhone 7+ is “good enough” for 90% of the tasks I use it for. In fact, my phone sometimes sits on my desk the whole day lonely and neglected because the Apple Watch has taken over some tasks and the iPad others. Also, TouchID is still great, the camera is excellent, it has not slowed down with iOS 11, and is not too big for my pockets. It’s a similar story as to why I only recently upgraded my 2012 MacBook Pro (explained at the end of this post). Other reasons include the price. While 64GB for $999 is not unreasonable, it is not enough storage for me, but the next step up is 256 GB for $1,149 which feels like a waste of money because it is definitely too much space. Like Goldilocks, 128 GB is “just right.”

In general, the iPhone X seems to be made for a slightly different use case than mine and the iPhone 8 doesn’t seem like enough of an upgrade to justify the cost either so here I sit for the first time in 10 years without the latest greatest from Apple. Is Apple in trouble? No way! FaceID and other enhancements will probably get me to upgrade my iPad next year and there will certainly be something to lure me into the iPhone 11 eventually. In the meantime, it’s all about the software at the moment and iOS 11 is a major breakthrough for mobile operating systems. How can Apple possibly survive giving something this valuable away for free? Well, that sounds a topic for the next post. Stay tuned!