The mystical comfort of music

Immediately following the 2016 US presidential election, the very last place I wanted to go to for comfort was my church.  I’m not alone in this.  I attend a fairly-conservative, mostly-white Republican Evangelical church in a similarly populated town.  As a registered Democrat, I suddenly felt politically and ideologically “naked” among my fellow parishioners like never before.

Weeks before the election, while explaining to my first grader the simple first-grade ethics of mutual self-respect, gender equality, compassion for the indigent, I was struck by how these ideals have somehow been lost on a host of the very people that espouse such virtues from the pews.  The mantras of “build a wall”, “lock her up”, “grab them by the pussy” and other patently anti-Christian bully sentiments surely are at odds with the core beliefs of my fellow churchgoers.

But alas, that’s not what the election results tell us.  70-80% of my church voted for this monster.

I haven’t yet made peace with my tenuous relationship to Church (capital ‘C’); even less so with Evangelicalism as a model for modern church organization and outreach. But it’s inside of this chaos that I felt the most curious bit of solace: choir.

I’ve talked about my membership in our church choir before.  It’s no mystery that music can have incredibly calming and healing effects on people.  So it was in choir rehearsal recently that — despite not having any conscious clarity about the election — the music of Gustav Holst moved me to some modicum of peace.

Here is a sample of another choir’s performance of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in his hand
Christ our Lord to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of Kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of Lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads his vanguard on the way,
As the light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six wing’d seraph;
Cherubim with sleepless eye
Veil their faces to the presence
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord most high.
Amen.

Customizing Chrome’s “new” tab

Ever bore of the new tab screen in Chrome?  It’s what you’re presented with after doing a CTRL + T.

The drab new tab
The drab new tab

Well, with the magic that is extensions, you’re free to change this.  There are a host of replacements available on the Chrome Web Store.  But I’ve always appreciated a low-tech, unobtrusive approach.  I’ve used the Google Art Project screen, which puts a new great work of art on your new tab.  For days that I feel overstimulated, I’ve opted for simply a blank tab.

But recently I found the Google Earth new tab, and I’m in love with it.

Google Earth new tab
Google Earth new tab

It’s mesmerizing, yet subtle somehow. It doesn’t take over my screen, it just invites me to take a moment before racing off to the next website, and simply gaze upon our planet’s beauty. That may only be one or two beats, but at least it’s a bit of pause in a busy online life.

previous Google Earth images
previous Google Earth images

Email, the new Todo

Shockingly, over a year has elapsed since I last spoke about my digital life-hacking.  That’s a pretty terrible commitment to the discipline of writing and contemplation.  I can blame that on so many things: raising small, needy humans; steadily growing home-improvement lists; active social calendars; too many screens and not enough books.  But the truth is, writing is hard.  And everything else can be easy or more immediately fulfilling.

But here I am again, ready to get back into the work of expressing myself… and getting more organized.  The upshot of the rather long hiatus in this series of articles on productivity management is that I have this nice big data-set from which to draw my conclusions.  Which is rather rare for me.  Typically, when I find some “new solution” to an old problem, I’m too quick to conclude that the new is better.

Well, this time I can pretty highly recommend my new take on the old way.  And what is this new way?

Inbox by Gmail

Once again, I’m hardly cutting edge on this bit of software.  It’s been around for a while now.  It rather obviously back-engineered some of the coolest features of the competitor email app known as Mailbox 1.  Inbox is a novel take on its existing email platform, Gmail.  It re-imagines your email as possible “todos”, allowing you to set reminders to your email workflow.  Each email can have an associated task date.  If you add a reminder to an email, these will show up over on your Google Calendar as well, or in Google Now as a card (for mobile users).  So there’s very good cross-product integration.

Setting reminders on an email.
Setting reminders on an email.

Marking an email “done” in Inbox translates to applying the Archive tag over in Gmail.  The genius of Google’s approach here is that you don’t have to sacrifice your Gmail experience and commitment to use Inbox.  You can fluidly go back and forth if you want to.  Although what I found in the past 12 months is that by month 2 or so, I was fully using Inbox exclusively.

And of course, Google has baked in very good keyboard shortcuts so that your workflow can be as fast as you want it to be.  On mobile devices, each email or Reminder 2 can be swiped right for completion and left for rescheduling.  It’s a powerful and fast workflow.  And when you’ve conquered your tasks/emails — which is to say, addressed all the stuff that’s in your inbox — Inbox presents you with the most pleasing trophy you could want: virtual sunshine.

Happy inbox
Happy inbox

Conclusion

Obviously, having all these features integrated tightly into Inbox (and Calendar, and Keep, and Drive, etc.) makes for a great overall user experience.  Gone are the days of buying 3rd party plugins to a Mac OS-only mail client just to set a reminder on an email.  I couldn’t really be much happier 3 with this solution, since it’s all right there at my various fingertips (whether on desktop or mobile).  And the fact that such powerful software is essentially (troublingly?) free makes it all the more compelling.

Looking back, I’m amazed that I ever did email differently.  I had a set of pretty good solutions, cobbled together with 3rd party tools and utilities.  It all got infinitely better when switching to Gmail.  But now with Inbox, I’m in organization nirvana.

The king is dead, long live the king.

 

The tensest political handshake in modern times.
The tensest political handshake in modern times.

What I’m reading a lot on social media is a very determined effort to falsely equivocate either Obama or Hillary Clinton with Trump (whether their characters, their campaigns, or their future presidencies).  In my view, this is particularly disingenuous.  To put Obama’s presence and stature or Clinton’s experience and dignity up against Trump’s impulsiveness and braggadocio and call them basically the same thing just isn’t being honest with one’s self.

This, I think, is probably the most insidious choice that voters made because it assumes a “pick your poison” baseline, that both are bad.  Further, a vote for what is “lesser of two evils” excuses all the other bad traits about Trump.  It essentially doesn’t matter how bad Trump was, is, or will be: at least he’s not as evil as “that nasty woman.”

But the Hillary-evil narrative painted so well during the campaign got more and more thin as it wore on.  What evil are we really talking about?  That she and staffers made the tragic misstep of putting a private email server in use?  This was a decision that I’m sure Clinton will rue for a long time, but as the FBI has repeatedly cleared her of treasonous intent, it’s hardly evil.  That the Benghazi attacks were bungled?  Absolutely.  It was tragic and security lapses were made.  Mistakes happen, even at the highest level.  Is she evil in her mishandling?  I don’t think so.  She’s worked hard to establish stability in the area since and her tone has been proved to be one of calm in the face of calamity.

The Trump image we’ve all seen during the campaign itself (forget 10-15 years prior) has shown itself to be frightening.  What I can’t wrap my brain around is why so many Christians, children of the Reagan GOP, would turn a blind eye to his enabling of very bad behavior.  Here’s a man that can’t lose gracefully.  He sues the press when he doesn’t like how they cover him in the headlines.  He lashes out publicly at women and minorities.  He has no sense of decorum befitting of the office.

And yet still I hear how basically they’re all the same.  That one choice is just as bad as another.  That’s just not true, and you know it, no matter how badly you want that square peg to fit.

The lack of file tags in Windows

So, I’m supposed to be working on this month-long challenge.  But hey!  I found some other project to work on.  It’s in service of my recent computer switcheroo, with which I’m a little obsessed lately.

Since recently switching from OS X on an iMac to Windows 10 on a laptop, I sorely miss file tagging. I’ll admit, this is one feature that I had not given much thought when I was preparing for the big leap to another operating system.

Though I’m happy with my switch, I’m also trying not to live in denial.  This is still Microsoft we’re talking about.  They have made incredible advancements as of late with their Windows 10 version.  And yet, in some areas they are very much behind in innovation compared to Apple.

File tagging is a glaring example.

tags in OS X
tags in OS X

If you’re at all interested in the Getting Things Done ethos, then you probably know all about this computer software feature.  On an Apple computer, you can tag a file or folder with a color and/or keyword.  These tags are then searchable.  They can help your workflow dramatically.

For instance, in a folder of downloaded bank statements, it would be incredibly handy to know which ones I’ve balanced against my personal finance software, and which still need to be done.  Tag the files accordingly!

But after my switch, I can’t do this on Windows 10.  And I use Google Drive to be able to do my personal work anywhere, so a file-tagging solution that is platform independent is pretty necessary.

Hence, I began looking for a solution, 3rd party or homemade.

Allegedly, Microsoft pays lip service to file tags, but these aren’t compatible with all filetypes.  So that’s a non-starter.

But then I found this 3rd party solution which sounds very promising.  But it’s not platform universal, so apparently your tags get vaporized when you email them or open the files on some other OS.  You can apparently export your tagging database as an XML file for importing on another computer, but that’s not very intrinsic a solution.  I do like how this solution plugs itself into Windows Explorer and the context shell menu!

File Metadata integration with Windows Explorer
File Metadata integration with Windows Explorer

But ultimately, I think that this won’t be a future-proof solution for my needs.

So instead, I built my own workaround.  And I did it with scripting:  AHK 1 to be exact.  It’s a really fun, easy-to-use scripting language that runs exclusively on Windows.  Don’t even get me started on my frustrations with the native scripting on OS X.  I always intended on learning it one day… until the day I got out of the Mac world altogether.

Requirements

  1. Platform independent.  This means I could use the files that I tag both on Windows and OS X (I don’t happen to ever use Linux, so that wasn’t a priority for me).  Their tags won’t become lost when opened on another platform, though the actual tagging process will only be conducted on a Windows computer.
  2. Transferable.  This is a slightly different requirement than platform independence.  The tags shouldn’t get lost when files are emailed, messaged, or synced across cloud services.
  3. Searchable. The tagging architecture must be plainly identifiable in some way, such that they can be searched easily.
  4. Non-destructible.  The tags must not interfere with the files’ usability.
  5. Extensible.  The tags and tokens should be configurable, such that the user can setup their own tagging schemes and change them over time.

I came up with the following:

File renaming

It’s as inelegant a solution as I am old.  But the longer I thought about it, it’s the easiest to implement, the quickest to set up, and meets all the above requirements.  In the scheme that works for me, I have three tags:

  • untagged files
  • tagged with some sort of “todo” keyword
  • tagged with a “done” keyword

Sample output

original: bank_statement_07232015.pdf

tagged: bank_statement_07232015 @TODO.pdf

retagged: bank_statement_07232015 @Done.pdf

Implementation

For this script to work as painlessly as possible, I used global shortcut keys to tag the files one way or the other.  One or more files can be tagged or untagged simultaneously.  Alternatively, you can bring up a GUI to do the tagging.

wtf

You can find the source code on my GitHub.  Here is the source…

Code sample

Platform Interchange

I suppose that the “Slippery Slope” phenomenon applies to me right now.  A chink in my Apple armor developed some time ago.  Then I got out of the iPhone world all together, which amazed me as much as it did my friends.

The recent maturity of Google’s cloud services (Photos, Drive, Music, etc.) had a considerable hand of this transition.  It’s very hard to argue with free, no matter who you are.

But then you do pay for free.  You pay with your time investment and commitment to the new platform.  For me, that cost has been relatively low.

That brings me to the next big hurdle to topple: OS X and my iMac.

It just suddenly made sense to me to consider the possibility of changing that hardware platform too.  Why not?  When literally all of my documents are cloud-based, I’m free to experiment with any kind of computer.

I’ve been a faithful Apple guy for the better part of 2 decades.  I’ve owned these machines in this order:

  1. PowerMac G4
  2. iMac 24″
  3. Mac Mini Duo
  4. MacBook Pro
  5. MacBook Air

They’ve all been pretty awesome.  But times have changed for me, my interests morphed.  And now?  I changed to an Asus 15″ hybrid laptop.  It’s a beautiful machine.

  • i7 64-bit CPU
  • 8GB RAM
  • nVidia video
  • 1TB hard drive
  • Windows 10.

That last spec is what finally made this all possible.  The Windows 8 debacle proved to be a non-starter for switching from the beautiful, consistent OS X.  But Windows 10 was finally showing itself to be ready to handle my needs.

I’m about a month into this big switch.  So far, I’m loving the choice.  It’s different, but good.  Not everything has been perfectly smooth, but no computer platforms are.

In particular, I really really miss filesystem tagging.  If you use those on OS X, you’ll be sorely disappointed with its lack on NTFS and Windows.  There are of course third party software solutions for this, but I don’t think they will work with Google Drive or Dropbox across other filesystems and operating systems.  For instance, I still work sometimes on my wife’s MacBook, so I need file tagging / coloring to work across them both.

The only solution I can think of is to simply make subfolders for my files.  The layout could look like this:

\Folder\Statements\2015\

…and then inside here, I could put:

\TODO

..and

\DONE

Then I get full syncing across platforms, and most importantly, visibility on where I left off.

Details aside, I’m the first to admit that there’s a certain polish lacking over here on this side of the computer and phone fences.  I miss that homogeneous sheen that OS X and iOS seem to exude.

And yet, for sheer horsepower and agility, I’m really appreciating what Windows 10 and Android devices offer.

Modernizing my email

A few months ago, I did an overhaul of my digital life.  Those posts were all about switching smartphone platforms from Apple iOS to Android.  What was most revealing to me was not the hardware and software differences, but just how I get things done now.

In the end, I’m not unhappy with my switch.  I tend to get things done better on Android.  That’s not a light admission, as I’m a longtime Apple product user.  So to begin the switch away from the Apple ecosystem is somewhat shocking to me.

The next target in my lifehacking experiment?  Email.  It’s a corner of my digital life that is kind of scary.  There’s old chests full of dusty “hello”s and “newsletters” and “for sale”s that I haven’t been able to get rid of.  I have email from my college days (when I first started emailing… when everyone first starting emailing).

And for just about as many moons, I’ve had this here domain name, ElectroLund.com.  Along with it, I’ve been using self-hosted domain email (youknowwho@electrolund.com).  But the price of vanity email is quite high in this modern age of ubiquitous cloud communication.  In other words, a self-hosted address isn’t exactly portable.

Not exactly.  There is IMAP, which sort of worked for me for a time.  But there are costly storage constraints when considering 10 years of email to keep on a server.  And I’ve switched hosts many, many times.  Relocation is exhausting, and simply takes away from what I really should be doing here: writing, soldering, and writing about soldering.

Yeah, so back to the whole thinking smarter and not harder…  I’ve never been known for early adoption of technology, though I follow it obsessively.  Case in point is this whole cloud revolution.  So the next 600-700 words will sound positively adorable to all of you who are on the bleeding edge.

I just discovered gmail.

Not really, but kind of definitely.  I mean, I’ve had a gmail account attached to my google login for, like, ever.  But I hadn’t been utilizing its full potential at all.  So as I further pondered how I get stuff done with my digital life (with regard to my phone, my music, my photo library), it made sense to reexamine how my email could benefit as well.

Enter gmail.  It immediately made better sense to me to use one more product of Google’s.  After some research, I discovered that they support downloading of external email accounts — like my electrolund.com account!  This was a revelation.  Because I could do 100% of my email management from one tool, rather than two.

But it doesn’t just stop there.  It’s not that I simply needed a better email client.  What I could benefit from even further was the extended power of Google’s ecosystem.  Let’s dive in.

Server stability

Google might very well be the most stable network of servers on the planet.  They have server farm after farm, acres of redundant machines all keeping my content up at 99.999999999% of the time.  That’s a metric that I’ll never be able to touch with my self-hosted email.  So migrating my email through their servers just makes good sense.  And that I did.  All ~5,000 of them transferred up onto the cloud pretty painlessly.

Search

Google is search.  So it would make sense that searching your email inside Gmail is pretty fantastic.  And fast!  I’ve been amazed at the speed of the results.  Also, there are a wealth of complex search tokens you can use, like AND and OR and others.  I get consistently faster, better results from searching gmail that I have in any local email client on a computer.

Spam filtering

For my self-hosted email, I was relying on a third-party filter product called MXGuarddog.  It’s pretty awesome and they give you free filtering with an ad placed on your website.  I was very happy with it.

But let’s face it, why not just let Google do it.  They’re really good at the algorithm business.  And besides, all that is integrated in the same tool (gmail), along with my gmail mail account.  One stop shopping.

Cloud access

I’m restating the obvious here.  “Clouds” are so ubiquitous now that we take them for granted.  But not until I began to use Google’s cloud for actually getting stuff done in my life that I saw how truly awesome it was.  To have access to all of my email, dating back to ~1999, is pretty amazing. I’m no longer hamstrung by size limitations.  Only the limitation of my free Google account, which currently weighs in at 17GB.  Gigabytes!  That’s incredible.

Connected cloud applications

Here’s where you begin to see some GTD power coming through.

  • Google Photos
  • Google Drive

Being able to compose a new email, or reply to a received email, and attach any photo I’ve ever taken on my phone, by simply clicking the Photos attachment is mind boggling to me.  Gmail is inherently connected to the Photos product, which lately has been making waves for its intelligence.  That’s power.  Keep in mind that I’m at no time ever connecting a cable to my phone to get these photos up into the cloud.  They just magically appear there within seconds, at the ready for later use in other products like gmail.

gmail attachment managment
gmail attachment managment

Now onto Google Drive.  Here’s a little gem of a connected feature.  When you receive email with attachments, let’s say a bill or invoice PDF, you have some interesting options.  In my case, I have various family records in my Google Drive.

Now in the old days of my antiquated email workflow, I would need to be at my desktop computer, download the attachment, and then place the attachment in some local hard drive (from which I did all manual periodic backups).

But now… Drive. In gmail, there is an option to save any attachment to your Drive.  Did you get that?  Here’s what’s happening behind the digital scenes: an email attachment’s link in Gmail can be relocated to a new reference in the Drive product.  In so doing, Google’s bread and butter (extremely intelligent indexing) gets you free storage, in that you don’t have this file in two locations.  You now only have it in one: where you want it, filed away in your Drive.  Back in Gmail, in the original email message, is only a reference to the Drive location.  Genius.

Shortcomings

So far, I haven’t quite completed the transition for my GTD uses.

For instance, I’ve been a longtime paid user of the wonderful products Mail Act On and MailTags by Indev Software, both tools that plug into Mac OS X’s mail client.  They extend the functionality of Mail by allowing you to tag your mail, and to sort the mail with shortcut keys.

Now in switching my mail to Gmail, the above tools don’t get obsoleted.  They simply change a little.  I use them differently.  Obviously, they can only be used from Mac computers.  So when I’m on my work Windows machine or my Android phone, I don’t have access to them.

There are other oddities between platforms that are annoying, but not deal breakers.  In Gmail, the concept of “stars” and “importance” isn’t compatible with OS X’s Mail client.  That’s been frustrating, as I relied on both for my GTD workflow when I was working exclusively on my Mac.

So some of those details aren’t quite ironed out yet.  But I think I’m nearly in the 21st century now… along with nearly the rest of the civilized world.