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.  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 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 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 Promising Future of Artificial Intelligence

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a hot topic in the tech and innovation world as of late.  It has fueled the stuff of great sci-fi movies for generations, but only now is gaining traction in real, marketable products and services.

Continue reading “The Promising Future of Artificial Intelligence”

Mishandling errors

For the past 3 years, I’ve been working full-time as a software engineer.  This has been a substantial, if not calculated, change for me.  I’d been an hardware engineer for longer than I care to think about.

Perhaps the biggest, while subtlest difference between the two career paths that I didn’t see coming is this: determinism.  I simply love the relative absolute nature of software.  I’m sure some might argue me on that one.  But, you get my point.  For the most, the outputs of any software project can be clearly predicted; the inputs can be nicely quantized, packaged, and displayed in automated fashions.

I love going to work.

Even on the tedious days of making error handling code, it’s still all fun.  Exception handling is one of those topics that is grossly underestimated.  It’s hard work, it’s time-consuming (and no one appreciates that investment), and it’s rewards are always deferred.

I’m reminded of all of those points when I witness — virtually everywhere in “real life” —  examples of horrendous error handling.

Case in point

While attempting to post a mobile deposit to my bank account, I got an error.  The transaction didn’t post, for whatever reason.  This was on my Android phone, from which I’ve made dozens of successful deposits in the past to the same bank with the same app.

Fair enough, errors happen.

But the error message I was greeted with was the following:

Not much help there, huh?

The point of error handling is twofold:

  1. Assist the user in resolving the problem
  2. Provide the developer with the conditions prior to the error from which to find a solution to the problem

From the above screenshot, there’s next to nothing for the bank’s engineering team to go on.  The tech support tips I got amounted to, “Have you tried uninstalling?”

It’s no wonder that most people’s relationship with software is terrible.  And I’m a software engineer (now)!

Day 30+: a postlude

(Copyright Vectorbelly Webcomics)

While the rest of the world is preparing for super sportsing, I’m taking the opportunity to tinker. This post is a continuation of the GaSiProMo challenge I took part in a while ago.

Today’s update brings in the next stage of that project with my OsRAM LED display: better packaging.

The goal here is to reduce the amount of “rat’s nest” wiring from the prototype to a more manageable amount of cabling for better display of the pretty blinky lights.

So I harvested an old Shuttle micro PC for its hard drive cables, which are nicely bundled.  The first step was to make a breadboard carrier for the OsRAM.

breadboard layout
breadboard layout

I chose sockets for wire-wrapping.  I’m a big fan of wire wrap.  It’s old school, but very rapid for prototyping.

wire wrap pins
wire wrap pins
finished wire wrap
finished wire wrap

Next up was to make a mapping of the pins from my Arduino to a breadboard.  This took a while to derive the most optimal routing of wires.

Pin mapping for translation cable
Pin mapping for translation cable

No to my surprise, the HDD housing has one pin blocked.  So I had to Dremel this out.

recovered pin
recovered pin

 

I have a serial port terminal working so that I can type in any message from the PC and have it show up on the OsRAM:

20160207_131515

terminal port

terminal port

Hello, world!

Hello, world!

 

Day 30: final day

This post is part of the GaSiProMo challenge.   You can read more about this here.

I’ve got most of the bugs ironed out in my display interface, but not all have been squashed in the driver portion.  In other words, the method in which I can input text into the OsRAM is working nicely (I’m using a serial port console), but the nuts and bolts of how strings are sent to the display — arguably the most important part of this project — remains broken slightly.

OsRAM write timing
OsRAM write timing

The problem is that I was lazy.  I should have paid more attention to the WR and CE lines for proper data latching into the display at the right times.

Oh well, what can I say?   I got distracted by another project.  So I can show you what I have so far:

But this challenge has been fun.  It’s always fun to work under a deadline to see what you can do.  This forced me to learn more about Arduino.  And despite my first impression, I’ve come to see that it’s pretty great.  I especially love the C++ class support.  For instance, its string and bitwise libraries are awesome.  There are things that aren’t so great, like the editor.  I had consistent undo (CTRL+Z) wonkiness that scared me (I was afraid of code-eating), so I switched quickly to Notepad++ with a good syntax language profile.

Until next year.

 

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