Starting with Inbox Zero

As part of joining Cornell I have had a shiny new Cornell email address for a few weeks now. Cornell uses Gmail for its email service (along with Calendar, Docs, Sites, Groups and a few more). I’m not sure if I entirely approve with Universities and large organizations using Gmail for their mail, I do love Gmail as a mail client and interface.

Previously, Lafayette used Zimbra and I would forward all my Lafayette email to my personal Gmail accont so that I could use the Gmail interface. While it meant that all my email was in one place, it also meant that it was a bit of a mess. I’d regularly end up sending relatives email from my school account and professors email from my personal account even though I wanted to keep them separate.

Since my Cornell account gets sa Gmail interface, I’m going to keep it separate from my personal email completely. And since it’s a brand new, empty inbox I’m going to try to keep it to Inbox Zero. The basic of idea of Inbox Zero is that you use a combination of automated filtering and quick, decisive action to stay on top of email. By having all email get sorted automatically and manually processing only the things that need human intervention you can end each day with a clean inbox (a state of Inbox Zero).

I don’t really have a problem with email because I barely get a dozen emails a day (even on the busiest of days). However I do have problems replying to emails. Sometimes I’ll let things sit for days on end, lose them in the pile of things sitting (even though everything else has been read) and eventually follow up days later much to the annoyance of the sender.

The tenets of my Inbox Zero mission for my new inbox are simple. For starters, my email address is precious. It only goes out for reasons that are directly related to me being a graduate student at Cornell. As much as I can, I’m going to avoid using it to sign up for services. I’m not going to provide it as an alternate for any of my existing email accounts. How much will this work? I don’t know, but I’m hoping it’ll keep out at least some of the useless not-quite-but-almost spam that I get for my personal account.

Next step is automated processing. Whatever can be automatically filed away using Gmail’s filters and labels gets filed away, within limits. I already have labels for 2 project mailing lists and one for automated mail from the University. What I keep in mind while I set up these filters is that I don’t want to splinter my inbox into a dozen different places. Whatever doesn’t get into my inbox I can deal with later. Later here is defined as: I’ll look at it at some point in the next 24 hours and respond to it if necessary. The email that does make it to my inbox is stuff that requires my attention quickly or needs to spawn a filter so that similar stuff doesn’t come back to my inbox. Once I have read and responded to (or filtered) all incoming email, everything gets archived. Since everything is labeled I can use the labels to come back to something later (or just use the powerful search tools).

The final piece of the puzzle uses Gmail’s support for multiple inboxes. Besides the normal inbox I have two more. One is for high priority mail that hasn’t been filed away (using Gmail’s automated Important tag which seems to work pretty well for me). The other is for email that I have to respond to, marked with a blue star. This leaves the normal inbox to contain only unread email that is not high-priority. This way I can see important things that I should look at right now, things that I need to respond to as well as unread, probably unimportant things that might need to be filtered.

This is the same organizational system I’ve been using with my personal inbox which I wrote about a few months ago. However, the fatal flaw was that I didn’t actually clear out my inbox, I just made sure I read and marked everthing with some label. Unfortunately a “clean” inbox doesn’t have the same psychological effect as Inbox Zero. It’s easy to lose stuff in a sea of “read”. So this time around no compromises: Zero or bust.

The real test of my resolve (and system) won’t come until things start gearing up again in late August. The one tweak that I will need to make is when I check my mail. Right now I leave the tab open all day, but I think that’ll be far too distracting if I’m going to get email every few minutes. Ill probably adopt some kind of “check every few hours” policy, but what hours remain to be seen.

As I’ve been writing this I’ve been thinking that I should go back and revisit the system I use for my personal mail. I need to clear the inbox all the way down to zero for it to work, but that pile of 11000+ mostly answered email doesn’t look too appealing. Maybe someday in the not too distant future. But I’ve learned some lessons (I think) and it’s good to be able to make a clean start.

An ebook dilemma

As much as I love the idea of a digital book and the implementation of the Kindle, I can’t quite convince myself to go all ebook for future purchases. There is the DRM question, but that’s not the main issue. I suppose in the future Amazon could go the way of the dinosaur leaving all my precious Kindle books to bitrot. But I’m pretty confident that someone will find a way to break the DRM before that happens.

No, my current dilemma is far less technical. There are two books I really want to buy right now: Seth Godin’s Poke the Box and the just-released Anything You
by Derek Sivers. Both of them are available on Amazon in Kindle and hardcover, dead-tree form. The problem is that for both of them the ebook version is just about a dollar less than the hardcover version. For the Poke the Box, it’s just 30c.

From an author’s or publisher’s perspective I can understand why you’d want that kind of pricing. Perhaps you don’t want readers to feel like either version is a
second-class citizen. Perhaps you don’t want readers without a Kindle to be put off buying. Perhaps you want to tell your readers that either choice is fine and you, as publisher, are ambivalent on the subject of print versus digital. I think all of them are perfectly valid decisions. But as someone who isn’t pre-decided one way or the other, it makes the decision harder, not easier.

Here’s a (probably incomplete list) of all the things that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days regarding my choices, not in strict order: Oooh.. look Kindle versions! Now I can take them with wherever I go. But wait, the hardcover is less than a dollar more. If I get the hardcover I’ll have something nice and physical and DRM-free to keep on my bookshelf. And I don’t randomly start reading on my Kindle so I could probably just plan ahead and carry the book when I think I’ll read it. But the hardcover is probably going to be heavy and I have to move on a fairly regular basis. I don’t want to move too much heavy stuff, but then again I move once a year at most. The rest of the time it’ll sit on my bookshelf and I do like the look of a well-filled bookshelf. And if it’s in plain view instead of tucked inside the Kindle I’ll
probably reread it again at some point. But paper books are so last century and the Kindle is just gorgeous.

So on and so forth. You get the point.

In general I agree with Craig Mod: the future of books is digital and paper books will move closer and closer towards Collectors Item status. Instead of being cheap, mass produced blocks of paper, they’ll become careful, hand-crafted works of art. And I for one am quite happy with that. The problem is that there is this awkward growing-up phase as digital book technology matures. That phase is now. One of the results of that awkwardness is the indecision I’m currently facing. If these were mass market paperbacks that I’m going to read on a plane flight and never again I would get the Kindle versions in a heartback. But they’re not. They’re both books I think I’ll like, would want to keep and can see myself rereading. If the reading experience on the Kindle wasn’t as top-notch as it is, I would get the hardcovers. But the argument in favor of ebooks and ereaders has gotten good enough that the choice between the two is not an easy one by any measure.

For me the idea of books is intimately connected with the idea of libraries. I don’t just want to read the books and absorb them, I want to have a growing library of my reading as well. And though I could make some kind of digital “have read” list, there is something about a physical library that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s the idea of having a set of books that in some way is a reflection of myself. They contain words and ideas that are now a part of me. Not all books I read would go into this library (most textbooks would not make the cut), but hopefully anything that I willimingly buy would. In an ideal world I’d be able to “rent” the ebook version for an absurdly low price (say 50c a day). Then I could read it and if I decided it was a “keeper” I would buy the dead-tree version for my library.

At this point I officially hand this question to the wisdom of the Internets. For a $1 difference, which version would you buy and why?

(And no, I am not going to scrounge around for a “free” PDF copy. That defeats the point of everything I just said. I want to give the authors my money, but I want to make a good investment myself as well. The two purposes can be aligned, I’m just not sure how.)

What does your software do?

In the last few weeks a Mac and iPad app called iA Writer has been doing the rounds on the Internet and garnering rave reviews. Since my Mac Mini is currently disconnected and Apple doesn’t seem to be in the mood to refresh the Air, I haven’t had the chance to try it out. But based on what I can see on their website, it looks like an exquisitely designed app. However there seems to be one problem: it doesn’t do very much.

Given my personal preference for minimalism, it is a bit odd that I’d critique an app for doing too little. But I’m coming to realize that pure minimalism is the wrong approach to take towards modern software. We live in an era of incredibly powerful, well-connected machines. And yet most of our day-to-day software does little more than the equivalent software of years past. It’s one thing to say that our software should do a small number of things well instead of bombarding the user with lots of unused features. But it’s another thing to say that we shouldn’t be trying to press the boundaries of what our software is genuinely and usefully capable of.

iAWriter strikes me as a particular example of this trend. It may be a very well designed (and perhaps even beautiful) text editor, but at the end of the day it’s still just a text editor. Sure it has some plus points: it supports live Markdown rendering, but the implementation is personally unsatisfying — if you’re going to render Markdown, why keep the plaintext Markdown characters? It also ignores the fact that most of the text we seem to be writing nowadays is for sharing. All the bloggers going crazy over it seem to miss the fact that it doesn’t connect to their blogs in any way, leaving them to manually copy-paste or come up with some elaborate (if clever) hack job to go from editor to web page. Let me reiterate: iA Writer is a beautiful text editor, but that’s all that it is. And that’s a shame because I’d like to see great engineering and designing talent go into helping me do my job better rather than just making me drool. The one part of that I feel genuinely makes it a better editor is focus mode: that’s something I’d like to see get into other text-based applications.

In contrast to iAWriter is Instapaper. It’s admired by a lot of the people who seem to have taken a liking to iAWriter. But the big difference is that Instapaper actually moves consumer computing forward. I can click a little bookmarklet on any text-heavy page on the web and instantly the text gets extracted and sent to a variety of reading devices. It fundamentally changes the way I do reading on the web, it’s not an incremental upgrade or an aesthetic redesign. It actually does more and better than any software tool before it. That’s the direction I would like to see our software going.

As I think about more about the state of consumer software it becomes abundantly clear that I am very much a power user. Ben Brooks loves iAWriter because it helps him focus on writing instead of being distracted by things like tweaking the user interface. He says that the end product of that focus — better articles — is what matters even if he has to do a whole lot of copy/pasting and manual editing to get there. All he cares about is the end product, not how he got there. For me, that’s not enough. I want a good, polished end product, but as a creator I want a great workflow, tuned to my specific needs. That’s why I use Emacs, Jekyll and LaTeX for a lot of my longform writing. (I’m considering sitting down and integrating WordPress into the flow too.)

In a more general sense, we don’t want to be making separate programs for power users and non-power users. We shouldn’t have Emacs for me and iAWriter for Ben Brooks. What we need is for everyone to be a power user. Not in the sense that they all use Emacs and Linux, that’s superficial. But users need to be able to tune their workflow and tools to their specific needs. Ben should have an editor that has beautiful fonts and focus mode and let’s him one-click publish to the web using whatever platform he likes. But to do that users need both the tools that facilitate such power use and the skills and mentality to make their customizations. Unfortunately I’m not very optimistic about either, not at the moment anyway. Feel free to make me feel more hopeful in the comments.

Blogging is dead you say

The Internet seems to have a fascination with publishing the premature obituaries of all manner of things. The latest group of things seems to be blogs. They’re dead because we’d rather send out 140 characters updates on what we had for dinner than write a few hundred angsty words on the state of our lives. They’re dead because our conversations would rather occur around our low-res pictures uploaded to Facebook rather than around our ruminations on the latest teen vampire novel. They’re dead because writers don’t write and readers don’t read. They’re dead because tl;dr has become the order of the day.

Blogging is dead you say. Good riddance I say.

You see, the rise of self-publishing has brought with it a curious dilemma. Now that everyone can publish, we have been hoping that everyone would publish. There was the hope that the World Wide Web would become humanity’s common forum. A living, evolving and simultaneously permanent record of billions of voices, all saying something worth listening to. But caught up in the euphoria of being able to give every person a voice we failed to stop and ask ourselves — who was going to sit and listen to all the voices? Who would pay attention to all the words? Was everything even worth giving an ear to?

And somewhere along the road we grew tired of all the voices. What was supposed to be a beautiful song sung by an enormous choir turned out to be just a raucous cacophony. Sure, there were some heart-wrenching diaries, some journals of hard-earned wisdom, some chronicles of advice worth listening to. But by and large, we didn’t get what we were looking for. Blogs became corporate mouthpieces. They became lists of pointers to other blogs. They become endless collections  of bullet points as if there were always “5 ways” of doing something or “7 tips” that would make life better. As Twitter drove the upper limit for expression down to 140 characters and people lamented the death of print, we were ready to throw up our hands and say that humanity’s attention span (for both reading and writing) had been permanently truncated. The blog was dead, because what we wanted wasn’t to pour our heart out to the Internet. What we wanted was just brief banter with groups of “friends”. Along with print, blogs were the other great casualty of 21st century social media.

But like all sweeping generalizations, we know that isn’t quite true. As Brent Simmons asks, “If blogs are dead, what are we reading in Instapaper?” If blogs are dead, why does Jekyll exist? If blogs are dead, then why the hell am I spending 2-3 hours a day, 3 days a week typing at a keyboard when I could be reading in coffee shops and looking all erudite? (That last one was a rhetorical question, don’t answer it)

Blogs are dead. And they’ve already been reborn.

What died is the idea of all human voices singing together in a chorus. Because we don’t all sing well and even if we did, it would be terribly boring to sing the same song. Instead we’re now partaking in a million different conversations on a dozen different platforms — blogs, tumblelogs, linkrolls, Facebook, Twitter, Github. The blog is being redefined as just one of a myriad number and types of platforms. The blog is a becoming platform for longform text — for ideas and expressions that can’t (and shouldn’t) be compressed into 140 characters. They’re becoming thought platforms, not just voice platforms. Blogs are turning to good writing, good design, great ideas expressed in hundreds of long words rather than short bullet points.

Blogging is dead, because writing something worth reading is hard. Blogging is dead, but self-expression isn’t. So if you have something to say, by all means say it. Just remember that you’ll have to say it well and loud if you want to be heard. Good luck.

On being a critic

I don’t like criticising software, even when the criticisms seem justified. There is a two-fold reason for this. As a programmer I can understand first hand the effort, both in terms of time and energy that goes into making a complex software product. Even though I understand at a logical level that the critique is about the end product, not the creator, the process or the invested effort, I would really be bummed if someone had ill to say of something I’d made. At the same time, having not built anything of comparable complexity to the things I would be criticising, I feel rather unjustified in making comments (even if it’s meant to be positive criticism).

It’s not that I have a general aversion to being a critic. I have no problems telling people what I think of their writing. I think I’ve done enough writing in the last few years (both online and offline, in various forms) that I think I’ve earned both an eye for what works and doesn’t, and the experience to make genuinely useful comments. I try to be polite (but stay away from sugar coating) and I try to stay on point.

Over the last few months I’ve started to have more solid opinions about the tools and software I use on a daily basis. I’ve held back from actually saying anything because I didn’t think it was my place. Who was I to critique the hard work of more talented and experienced programmers and designers? I have no intention of being a “technology blogger” full time and I really don’t want to be publishing link bait posts. However, as much as I didn’t want to come off as a jerk there are things that do legitimately worry me, things that I am concerned about and would like to see fixed. I’ve filed bug reports for libraries I’ve used before and I’d like to start thinking of software critiques as “soft bug reports”. The reason they’re “soft” is that a lot of the things I take issue with aren’t bugs or errors. They’re things that could be considered design choices with legitimate reasons. However I do consider them to be the wrong (or at least suboptimal) choice and I honestly think the software would be better if a different choice were made.

As users of modern software we are in a difficult position. A lot of the tools and services that we’re using we get for absolutely free. Sure, we trust them with our content, our creations, our time and energy. But we haven’t paid for their development and we probably never will. In many cases we would vote to not use them at all rather than pay a fee. You could say it would be rather rude for us to speak ill of what we invested in. But at the same time, these products won’t improve without our help. They won’t get better unless we, the users, tell the developers what we’d like to see get fixed. In fact, you could make the case that we’re bound to give feedback in exchange for free use of these services.

For me, I’m going to try the more vocal route for once. In addition to filing bug reports, I want to start writing about the deficiencies I find in software I use on a regular basis but under some constraints. First off, I’m only going to write about stuff I use (or want to use) on a regular basis. I’m going to avoid broad, sweeping reviews and instead focus on specifics as much as I can. That’s not to say that general reviews aren’t useful, but mostly I find that my issues are with specific points of otherwise good software. As with my writing, I’m going to limit myself to criticisms that could actually be useful. Just saying “this sucks” is rarely useful and there are already enough rants on the Internet.

As always, I’d love to hear comments and responses. The point isn’t for me to just vent steam — at the end of the day I genuinely want the tools I use to get better. I don’t have the time or energy to contribute code to every project I make use of, but I can be a conscientious user who gives good feedback.