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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Great Email Winnowing

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Today and yesterday I tackled my Gmail inbox: at least 6600 messages from the past eight years.

Most mornings when I wake up, I am met by four to ten mass emails. Most of them are from mailing lists, scheduled to be sent at midnight somewhere in the world. These are things that I've signed up for, that I want to be aware of (programming news, social network digests), but that I don't need with any sort of urgency. I can skim through in batches once every week or so without missing anything. So I set up filters to review them at my leisure.

A vast majority of the work entailed purging old mailing lists, followed by labeling and archiving emails with "Friends" or "Family", "School" or "Jobs", among others. My taxonomy evolved as I sorted, and eventually I was left with a solid core of emails that were more difficult to categorize. Some of them prompted new labels (or the broader application of an existing label), while others simply didn't belong in Gmail. The most numerous of these were assorted messages to myself. I moved a few links to Evernote. I typed up a scan of a passage from a book that I liked. I merged a couple college essays into my school archive directory.

All but three emails have been either archived or deleted. Success!

e-Books and the Future

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Much as the concept of e-readers appeals to me, I haven't bought one. One of my biggest complaints about them is that they lack the crispness of the printed page. Fonts that look reasonable on a backlit screen because we expect it seem harsh and ragged on a Kindle. Perhaps by the time e-ink can achieve "retina" resolutions and reasonable redraw speeds they'll have smoothed out some of the other edges, such as clunky UI and ugly keyboards. Then I will gladly give in.

What else do you lose in the transition from the printed page to the digital page? Professional typesetters cannot apply many techniques they relied upon when the dimensions of the page were known. Perhaps they'll be able to fall back on responsive design or its successors. Typography has gained a lot of traction in the web design world in recent years, so this could mean a lot more crossover between the two disciplines.

In any event, printed books will be around for a long time yet — there's too much momentum there for them to fizzle out in an evening, even if the competing formats were entirely mature. e-books are harder to sell in your brick-and-mortar store. You can lend your paperback copy of Dune a friend, or donate it to a library, or even burn it if you're so inclined. There are many tangible benefits, so to speak.

As for me, I only buy books that I plan to re-read, or that I want to refer to later. If I can't find a package that pleases me (well-designed cover, reasonable condition, no "Now a major motion picture" blurbs) I tend to postpone buying even my favorite books. If I find a better version, I'm very tempted to upgrade. My shelves, though extensive, are a slim selection of the books I've enjoyed reading and would recommend to others. I hope that small press editions like those of Subterranean Press will remain popular even as e-books consume more of the market, so that my gradual accumulation of my favorite books can continue long into the future.

Note that these are all my thoughts as a web designer and a lover of books; I possess only a passing familiarity with typography and that whole industry.

Living with an iPhone

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I was really excited when Mark, the CEO of our startup, asked me to get an iPhone and start delving into the mindset of a smartphone user — the company would pay for it. I have often wondered what it would be like, and now I get to experiment without having to commit myself to a 2-year contract. Here are my thoughts after the first month (I got it on December 30).

The iPhone has changed my habits somewhat. It is a phone, an mp3 player, a camera. It is a browser with a small form factor. It is a wizard-worthy map with a built-in compass (you still have to pull over to use it when driving). This multiplicity of function is perhaps transformative: it becomes more than the sum of its functions. A camera that can place your photos on a map? A phone that takes pictures of your contacts, or saves a link to that restaurant's web site? An oracle which can tell you what popular restaurants are open nearby, no matter where you are? I have known about all of these things conceptually for years, but experiencing them myself is really cool.

The most trite observation about camera phones, and one that I feel obliged to repeat, is that the best camera is the one that is with you. Last night I took a video of dry ice steaming in the rain. Last weekend we went to the zoo and all I brought was my iPhone. After a fancy dinner a couple weeks ago we stopped by Kerry Park on the way home, where I was able to take a picture of the Space Needle with its head in the clouds (the picture isn't that great due to the low light and inadequate zoom, but it's a good memory-jogger). My d90, while truly beautiful and amazing, was not ideal for any of those trips (though if I hadn't had a smartphone I would have brought it on the walk). I will enjoy seeing how far improvements of lens and CCD technology can go in eliminating the need for mid-range cameras (cf. Olympus Stylus, my old digital camera).

It is a great thing to have at hand while reading a book — unlike a laptop, I don't have to set my book aside when I look up a term on the iPhone. I reach for my laptop less often these days. In addition, I have actually started using Twitter. Previously it was a pain to get on Twitter to see updates; now I can check multiple times a day in a brief bored moment. I don't know that this is entirely a good thing, though. Perhaps I would instead have started thinking about something interesting, or started in on a creative endeavor. Then again, maybe I would just have been bored and unproductive for a few minutes. In any event, it's a habit that deserves to be questioned, and reigned in if it proves detrimental.

There are a few limitations of the device that I find frustrating. One is the number of steps required to do anything on a screen this small. Menus are sparse: if you want a slightly less common function, you have to go to a "More" menu or hint for it. It is decidedly non-obvious what features a phone will support. Features exposed by gestures such as click-and-hold are non-standardized and spotty. Apple has done a lot to standardize their UI conventions, but developers do not always follow these recommendations (and when they do, they do not do so either perfectly or uniformly).

The second limitation is typing. Typing makes browsing on an iPhone a less pleasant experience. I am used to popping open new tabs to look up a term, keeping a queue of things to read, and easily searching the current page for words. It makes passwords a pain-and-a-half, because strong passwords require a good mix of characters from different keyboards (for the uninitiated, iPhones have different keyboards optimized for words, numbers, punctuation, even email addresses and urls; the phone cannot fit a full keyboard at anything like a usable size). If I need to do anything involving serious browsing or content creation, I switch to my laptop.

That's the first round. I'm still forming my conclusions, so expect more updates as the months go by.

Want Google Wave?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

I have some Google Wave invites left. I'm happy to present the opportunity for 7 of them to be given out to friends via this blog. The first 7 comments left by people I know will receive them.