replacing stuff

So I seem to have wound up replacing a bunch of stuff this week. It started with my landlord coming in to replace my air conditioning unit on Monday. They’ve needed to do that for quite a while now. That’s kind of a long story, but suffice it to say that, after around four hours of work, they managed to replace my A/C unit and thermostat. The A/C unit seems to be working fine. I can’t really say much about that, other than that it’s keeping the apartment cool and making less noise than the old one was. I’m curious to see whether the new unit has any effect on my electric bill. I can’t imagine that the old one was very efficient. I’ll look at my electric bill next month, but it’s getting into autumn now, so the bill would be going down anyway.

The thermostat is kind of interesting. The old one was a very old analog thermostat. The new one is a fairly low-end Honeywell digital thermostat. It’s programmable, but doesn’t have wifi support or any of that stuff, so you have to program it by pressing buttons on the unit itself, which is pretty annoying and time-consuming. I’ve got it running under a program, for now, but I may give up on that and go back to just nudging it up or down occasionally, like I used to do with the old thermostat.

Having the new thermostat and A/C unit has gotten me mildly interested in maybe getting a fancy thermostat with HomeKit support. But then I remind myself that I’m a single person in a one-bedroom apartment, which I almost never leave these days. So I really don’t need a smart thermostat.

The landlord was kind enough to leave the manual for the thermostat behind, so, as I normally do with these things, I wanted to put it in a folder, label the folder, and file it in my filing cabinet. I bought a Brother PT-1950 label maker in 2007, when I first got on my GTD kick, and I’ve been using it to label stuff since. But when I tried to use it to label my new “thermostat” folder, it didn’t work. I first thought that the batteries were dead, so I hopped on Amazon and ordered some new AA batteries. Then I remembered that I had an A/C adapter for the label maker, and tried that. I got an “EEPROM error”, which, according to the internet, means that I need to get the label maker serviced. Given that it’s more than ten years old, I decided to just trash it and get a new one instead. I looked at the Wirecutter reviews for label makers, but rejected their recommendations and bought a Brother P-Touch PT-D210 instead. It was only $35 from Amazon, and I was pretty sure that it used the same cartridges and A/C adapter as my old one.

It arrived today, along with the AA batteries I’d bought. The first problem was that I hadn’t noticed that this label maker uses 6 AAA batteries rather than the 6 AA batteries required for the old one. So I had to run over to ShopRite for AAA batteries. The second issue is that it uses slightly different tapes from the old one, so the half-used tape in the old one will have to get tossed. The new one came with a starter cartridge. Also, I have a spare cartridge from the old one that’s new enough to be compatible with both old & new label makers, so I have a full cartridge ready for when the starter one runs out.

So that was a long digression, all caused by wanting to print a label for a file folder. But now I have a fancy modern label maker, and I’m all set to start labeling stuff again.

Meanwhile, at work, we were notified recently that our company will no longer allow removable storage to be used on work computers. This isn’t a big problem, since I don’t normally have to use removable storage. But I do have a USB drive hooked up to my desktop that I was using for File History backups in Windows 10. (I’ve never needed to go back and pull anything from history, but I liked having it.) So now I need to give that up. Since I can’t use the drive at work anymore, I briefly though about bringing it home and using it to replace the drive I’m using for File History on my home PC. But of course it’s company property (even thought it’ll probably get recycled when I hand it back to help desk). And it’s a few years old. And a new 2 TB drive is only $60 from Amazon. So I went ahead ordered one of those yesterday. And that showed up in the mail today too.

The old drive I was using for File History at home had been acting up. It was still working, but I’d have to unplug it and plug it back in regularly to get it going. And it was almost full. It was a 640 GB drive that I bought from NewEgg in 2011, for $35. (I think it might have been refurbished.) Anyway, I guess I’ve gotten enough use out of it.

I had a second external drive hooked up to my home PC. That one was a 1 TB drive that was more than 10 years old. The only thing I had on it was a Macrium Reflect backup from 2018. I’d been wanted to do a new full image backup, with Macrium or something else, but every time I’ve tried that with my current PC, something went wrong. So I gave up on the idea at some point. I now rely on Bvckup, running daily backups to a second internal HD, which I started using in 2019, and the File History backup mentioned above. I hadn’t been having any issues with that 1 TB drive. Of course, I wasn’t actively using it, but it was recognized by Windows, and I could see the files on it. But, after I disconnected the old 640 GB drive, the 1 TB drive also stopped working. All I can think of is that I somehow shorted something out when I was removing the 640 GB drive. I spent some time troubleshooting it, but eventually gave up.

So now I just have a single 2 TB backup drive, which I haven’t hooked up yet, since it only showed up about 30 minutes ago. I’ll try to hook that up tomorrow, and hope it works.

I’ve got a box with two dead hard drives and a dead label maker in it, ready for the next Somerset County electronics recycling day, which will probably be Oct 2. And now I’m seeing other stuff around the apartment that I should probably replace. But I’m holding off, since replacing one thing seems to lead to a domino effect where I have to replace other things and buy other accessories and so on. So I guess I’ll keep using my 30-year-old toaster over for a while longer.

managing distractions

Working from home for the last year has presented a number of challenges. One of them, of course, is managing distractions. It’s hard to stay focused on work when I’m home, in my own apartment, with nobody watching me. It’s easy to pick up my phone and check Twitter, or open a web browser on my desktop PC and check the news, or wander into the living room and turn on the TV. In a regular office environment, it’s a little easier to stay focused, since you have some peer pressure from other people sitting near you, and fewer available distractions. (I could still get pretty distracted in the office, honestly. But it’s a lot worse at home.)

And, beyond the change in work environment, there’s also the additional mental load of living through a pandemic. It’s easy to let my thoughts wander into worries about that. And there’s a lot to worry about.

At some point early in the pandemic, maybe around April, I started messing around with pomodoro timers. The general idea there is to do a focused burst of work, for about 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. There are a number of apps that support this, though you really don’t need anything special. I tried two: Focus Keeper and Be Focused. (I also looked at Focus List, but didn’t actually try it.) I tried using the pomodoro technique for a few days, but I didn’t stick with it. There was nothing wrong with the apps I was using, but it just wasn’t helping me much.

I think that, after a few months of working from home and living through the pandemic, I managed to get into enough of a groove that I could be reasonably productive. I really haven’t pushed myself to be super-productive though. I’ve decided that it’s OK to take some breaks when I need them, as long as I’m mindful and aware of how I’m spending my time, and as long as I’m being responsive at work.

Recently, though, I’ve found myself having trouble making any headway on some longer-term projects that require sustained, focused, work. And I was poking around on LinkedIn Learning, and noticed a course called Becoming Indistractable. So I decided to watch it. There honestly wasn’t much new in it. But there was a brief mention of an app called Forest which looked mildly interesting. It’s basically a pomodoro timer with some extra bells and whistles to gamify the challenge of staying focused. It grows a little virtual tree while the timer is running. And it also has a feature that will “kill” the tree if you exit the app before the timer finishes. That’s supposed to help motivate you to stay off the phone while the timer is going. It’s pretty silly, but it’s kind of cute.

I think this app could really backfire for some people, as you can get maybe a little too wrapped up in the whole “growing your forest” thing, and waste as much time on that as you would otherwise have been wasting on Twitter. But I guess at least the forest thing would be less stressful than doomscrolling Twitter. Anyway, I tried it today, and I think that doing the pomodoro thing was helping me make some progress. Up until a few problems arose that required me to drop what I was doing to put out fires. Oh yeah, I guess the reason I’m not making progress on the long-term stuff is because there’s too much short-term stuff taking up my time. And the reason I’m not able to sustain focus for long enough to make progress on some of this stuff is because I have too many interruptions, not because I can’t concentrate. (Well, maybe it’s a little of both. But today it felt like it was mostly the “putting out fires” stuff.)

This post has mostly been a rant, I guess, but maybe there’s a link or two in here that someone else might find interesting or useful. And, hey, I’m allowed to rant a little.

managing long-term reminders, take three

Back in November, I had a problem at work, where all of my long-term reminders in Outlook were unexpectedly deleted. The details on that can be found here, with some follow-up here. I’d managed to move all of the tasks to Planner, but I wasn’t really happy with it. At the beginning of this year, I revisited things and decided to delete them from Planner and re-create them in To Do. I still wasn’t 100% happy, but To Do was close enough that it would be workable.

Well, today, I launched To Do and got a message saying “Your account is incompatible with To Do”. Apparently, Microsoft has decided to no longer support using To Do in an environment with on-premises Exchange. Some detail on that can be found here. So I had to print my To Do list to PDF, then re-enter it back into Planner. I’m not real happy about that, and I still don’t really like Planner.

I’d like to switch to Todoist, but that’s now officially on the forbidden list at my company, for some reason. Trello is allowed, but that’s not quite what I’m looking for. Remember The Milk isn’t on either the approved or forbidden lists, so maybe I could try that?

I generally resist combining personal and work stuff into a single account/system, but maybe for this I should consider it. I won’t be storing any proprietary or sensitive data in my reminders system, just basic notes like “renew this SSL cert by this date.” I use Evernote for all of my personal reminders, and that’s probably good enough for the work stuff too, though I’m not really comfortable with the idea. Oh well. I’ve spent too much time on this stuff today, so I should really just stop. Planner is good enough for now, even if I don’t really like it.


more on long-term reminders

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post about losing all of my long-term reminders. Since I wrote that post, I found out that I can use Microsoft To Do at work. I just can’t use the web-based version. And the desktop software had to be pushed down to my machine; it isn’t generally available unless you ask for it. So here’s my observations about using MS To Do in our environment.

When I first launched To Do, it prompted me to pull in my Planner tasks and my flagged emails. It did fine with the Planner tasks, so I guess I can now use Planner and To Do together, if I want. It did not actually pull in my flagged emails from Outlook though, probably because we’re still using on-prem Exchange. That’s a bummer, since I do use those flags a lot.

For tasks that I create directly in To Do, I can set up both due dates and reminders, and the reminders don’t have to be on the same day as the due date, so that’s nice. For my long-term tasks, I generally want to surface them a few days before I actually have to do them. So if an SSL cert expires on a Friday, I want to get the reminder about it on Monday, so I can do it at some point during the week. To Do also supports recurring items, which might be useful for me. I haven’t tried those yet though.

To Do and Planner both share one slightly annoying weakness: While both support a free-form notes field on a task, it’s only a plain text field. That might not seem like a big deal, but it makes it hard to, for instance, paste in a link to a OneNote item the same way you can in an Outlook task.

I’ve also noticed that To Do doesn’t have a calendar view, and doesn’t integrate with Outlook’s calendar. (Maybe it does, if you’re not using on-prem Exchange. I’m not sure.)

So, putting this all together, I guess I can decide to use either Planner or To Do, or use them in combination. I think Planner is really supposed to be a group project management tool, and To Do is supposed to be an individual task management tool, so I should probably just use To Do. (But of course I’ve already created my tasks in Planner, so I’d need to redo all that work in To Do, if I was going to abandon Planner.) Regardless of what I do there, I’m going to wind up with a more complicated system than I used to have, since it’ll now be a combination of Outlook (for calendar and flagged emails) and at least one other system, or both.

I kind of want to go rogue and find a third-party service or piece of software that’ll be better than Planner and/or To Do, but of course then I’d be risking the wrath of the security folks who don’t like that kind of thing. And I’m still entertaining the idea of going low-tech and just creating a 43-folders system in OneNote. I should probably spend less time thinking about this stuff and more time actually working, huh?

managing long-term reminders

At work, I need to keep track of a number of tasks that need to be done infrequently, such as replacing app secrets or renewing SSL certificates. Depending on the task, it might need to get done once every three months, once a year, or once every two years.

For the last few years, I’ve been using regular old Outlook tasks for this. That’s worked fine, up until today. We recently starting archiving our mail with Mimecast, which removes any mail items from Outlook if they’re more than a year old. And, as I realized today, that includes task entries too! And it goes based on creation date, not modify date, so even in cases where I’ve modified the task in the last year, if it was created more than a year ago, it’s gone now. Oh well. (The archived emails are searchable in Mimecast, but if the deleted tasks are in there somewhere, I haven’t been able to figure out how to surface them.)

So I spent a bunch of time today trying to recreate my long-term task list. I managed to get a screenshot of the tasks that were deleted by going into Outlook on a different computer, jumping right over to task list and taking a screenshot, before Outlook could fully update itself from the server. (The tasks disappeared just a few seconds after I took the screenshot, so I got lucky there.) Of course the screenshot only gave me the subject line for each task, and not the due dates or the notes that were inside each task item. But it was enough of a start.

At home, I use Evernote to track long-term reminders, and it’s always worked great for me. I get email notifications on the reminder due date. And I can easily go into Evernote and pull up a list of just the notes that have reminders on them, if I ever want to review them. It’s not perfect: There’s no calendar view, for instance, and there’s only the one date. (Other systems often have both a start date and due date.) But it’s good enough.

I can’t use Evernote at work though. (It’s blocked.) We don’t seem to have any approved apps for to-do’s or reminders in our Windows 10 app catalog. We do, of course, all have O365, so I should be able to use Microsoft To-Do. But it doesn’t work, for some reason. I do have access to Microsoft Planner though. Planner is kind of like Trello, which I’ve played around with a bit in the past. I’m not really a big fan of the kanban board thing, but a lot of people really like it. So, for now, I guess I’m using Planner.

This whole thing got me to thinking about what exactly it is I was trying to do, at a high level, and I realized that I was basically looking for a good 43 folders / tickler file system. It occurs to me that I could just create that in OneNote, with a single tab with 43 notes under it. It would be a bit of a kludge, but I could definitely make it work. Or heck, I could just do a 12 folder system (one for each month), and create short-term Outlook tasks for all of a given month’s to-do items on the first of the month. Either of those ideas is probably more manual labor that I want to do though.

I’m not entirely happy using Planner, since it’s not integrated with Outlook or OneNote at all, and there’s no desktop app for it, so I need to use the web site to manage tasks. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but, for long-term tasks, it means that I need to trust that the email reminders are getting sent out, since I won’t actually ever see the task list unless I purposely go looking for it. So I’m still going to think about this a bit more, but Planner is probably my best option for now.

Evernote changes

Evernote has been going through some changes lately. They’ve introduced new client software for iOS, Windows, and Mac. I haven’t updated to any of the new programs yet though. I assume the iOS one will get pushed down automatically at some point. For the Windows and Mac clients, I don’t think they’re pushing them out automatically, so I can probably keep using the old software until they’ve worked out the bugs in the new stuff.

The new Windows and Mac clients have gotten a lot of bad reviews, from what I’m seeing on reddit and elsewhere, so I’m a little afraid to try them. I’ve been actively using Evernote since 2014, and I’ve got a lot of notes in there. I realize that the folks complaining on reddit are probably a small subset of total Evernote users, and the new clients are probably fine, but I want to be careful.

Evernote’s CEO, Ian Small, has been doing a bunch of interviews with productivity YouTubers recently, to promote the new clients and to answer questions and concerns about Evernote’s direction. Here are links to three recent interviews:

It’s kind of interesting to see how much effort he’s putting into this, and how he’s approaching it. Evernote is big enough that he could probably be giving interviews to (for lack of a better term) more mainstream tech journalists, but he’s going with random productivity YouTubers instead. It seems like he’s trying to really reach out to the serious productivity nerds.

One thing he’s had to defend is his choice to rewrite the clients in Java Script, using Electron. That’s actually a pretty safe choice for a cross-platform app right now, but it does leave you with an app that’s probably going to be slower than an app written in, say, C# on Windows or Swift on Mac, using native libraries on each platform. But Electron apps don’t have to be slow.

With all the uncertainty around Evernote, I spent a little time recently looking at the possibility of moving to OneNote. Microsoft has an importer that you can use to make the move. I haven’t tried it, but it’s good to know that it exists. I use OneNote at work (since that’s our standard), and it’s fine, but I like Evernote a lot more.

So hopefully, they’ll keep iterating on the Windows and Mac clients, and by the time I switch over to them, they’ll be fast and reliable.

New Year’s Day 2018

It’s New Year’s Day morning, and it’s 5 degrees out, with a wind chill making it feel a few degrees colder. So I guess it’s a good morning to stay inside and write my annual year in review / new year’s goals blog post. As I get older, I’m finding these little reviews to be pretty helpful.

Here are links to the last few:

2017 was a challenging year, on many fronts, most of them related (at least tangentially) to Donald Trump. Andy Zaltzman has a great 2017 year in review article up on the Guardian web site, and a very funny 2018 year in review article at iNews. It’s stuff like Zaltzman’s Bugle podcast that has kept me sane though the last year.

Weight and General Heath
Last year, I mentioned that I’d transitioned from losing weight to maintaining my weight. Well, I guess that’s not entirely correct, since I weighed 150 at the start of 2016, 146 at the  start of 2017, and 140 today. So I actually still seem to be losing around five pounds per year. It seems like I’m going to have to level off at some point and I honestly think that 140 is going to be it. I can’t see myself dropping to 135, but we’ll see. I’m still using LoseIt every day, and logging all my meals and snacks.

On the general health front, I had blood work done last month, and everything is looking pretty good. No major health crises in 2017, so that’s something, at least.

In terms of exercise, I’m doing pretty good. I got my Apple Watch in April 2016, and I’ve been wearing it every day. My move goal has been set at 400 calories for probably all of last year, and I’ll hit that 3-5 times a week on average, I think (more often when the weather’s nice, and less often when it’s ridiculously cold, like right now).

As to sleep, that’s been a mixed bag this year. I mentioned last year that I might toss my mattress and get a new one, despite the fact that it’s not really that old. I didn’t do that, but I might do it this year. I had a run going for a while where I would wake up at 2am or 4am every night, for no obvious reason. I think it was due to some noise outside or something like that. I’m still generally waking up at 4am or 5am for no reason, looking at my phone to see what time it is, then rolling over and going back to sleep. I blogged about sleep back in October. I’m still using the Sleep Cycle app.

Blogging and Journaling
I wanted to check and see how many blog posts I’d written this year, but then realized that I can’t figure out how to get that number easily. (It’s probably somewhere in the site stats, but I can’t find it.) So I just counted then up on the 2017 archive page, and it looks like about 128. (I could probably write a SQL query to get that number, but it’s not worth the time.)

I didn’t write a ton of programming-related blog posts in 2017, but I’m trying to correct that with my “12 Days of .NET” series of posts.

As to journaling, I finished a five-year journal in 2016, and used Day One exclusively in 2017. Day One is working out OK for me. From their Mac app, I can see that I’ve written 363 entries in 2017, which is almost one per day. Most entries are very short; I’m keeping track of things like books, comics, and movies that I’ve read/seen in Day One. (I might have more to write on that subject later.)

Professional / Education
I will be hitting my five-year mark at SHI this month. I don’t think that gets me an extra week of vacation in 2018; I think that comes in 2019, when I start the year with more than five years on the job. (I could be wrong though.) I’m a little jealous of my brother in this area: he gets a lot more vacation time than I do. (But I’m sure he gets paid a lot less, since he’s working for a non-profit.)

My year-end performance review was very good. Interestingly, my boss told me that I rated myself lower on my self-review than anyone else in the department. Part of that, I guess, is humility. Part of it is probably imposter syndrome. But most of it is that I rushed through my self-review without thinking about it too much and just hit “3” on a lot of stuff (on a scale of 1-5). I also got a slight promotion in July, so I’m now a “Senior Application Developer.” So overall I’m doing fine at work, from my boss’ point of view.

Near the end of 2017, I started a new project that’s allowed me to do a good amount of .NET programming, using modern tools and techniques (for the most part), so I’m happy about that. I still do a lot of Dynamics AX work, and I’m a little worried about that, since Microsoft has really been pushing people into the cloud version of AX. (Which is annoyingly now called Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations, Enterprise Edition. Seriously. I wrote a whole essay on how annoyed I am about that name, but didn’t post it. But I digress.) We’re not likely to upgrade our on-premise install of AX anytime soon, so I have a little bit of worry about becoming a “legacy system” programmer. But my boss is aware of that, and has gone out of her way to try to get me involved in general .NET projects, whenever possible.

On the education front, I’m still subscribing to Pluralsight, and watched a handful of courses in 2017. I have a blog post on that scheduled as part of my “12 Days of .NET,” so I won’t say any more here.

Looking at my Goodreads history, I see that I managed to read several programming-related books this past year, including:

So I’ve really got nothing to be ashamed of there. A bunch of these were read via the Safari subscription that I get via ACM. That’s turned out to be a really useful benefit. I have a bunch of books in my queue there, and I hope I’ll be able to read a few of them in 2018.

Organization / Finance
Not much to say here. I’m still using Evernote for nearly all of my personal organizational needs. And I’m still on their premium plan, which should renew in about a week at $70/year. For me, it’s worth it. It’s still my best option for an organizational tool that works well across Windows, Mac, and iOS.

On the Finance front, I did a quick year-end review yesterday, and I’m looking pretty good. The stock market has been crazy this year. I’ve done well, but I’m a little worried about the possibility of a crash in 2018. I haven’t really done much in the way of review this year; I’ve mostly just kept everything where it is and let it ride. I feel like maybe I should move some money out of stocks this year and into bonds.

And I still have to figure out what to do about the fiduciary duty rule. I have a document from Merrill somewhere listing the options I have on my various retirement accounts. But I’m not sure where any of this stuff even stands now, since this is one of many things that Trump and the Republicans want to roll back. There was a lot of talk about it back in February (see here and here), and a little in May (here), but I haven’t heard much lately. The whole thing is giving me a headache.

Comics and Books
I set a fifty-book goal in Goodreads for 2017, and read 115 books total, according to my year in review page. Some of those are short stories, and a lot of them are graphic novels, so that’s a highly-exaggerated number, but I still feel like I got a lot of reading done this past year. Highlights would probably include finishing Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, re-reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and reading Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

On the comic book front, I’m still visiting my local comic book store once a week and picking up a handful of new comics. I started doing that in mid-2016, when DC’s Rebirth started. I’m still reading a number of the titles that started up then, though I’ve dropped a few. And I’m not really reading any Marvel books right now, though I picked up Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design, which looks really amazing. (Marvel has had a pretty bad year, overall.)

I’ll probably keep going into the comic shop every week, if DC keeps publishing a few good books. But if they go off the rails at some point this year, then I’ll probably stop and go back to just reading an occasional trade paperback and random stuff from Comixology.

Art and Entertainment
I’ve gotten a good bit of use out of my Met and MoMA memberships in 2017. But I haven’t been to either in a while, largely due to the cold weather.  I did see the Rodin exhibit at the Met, but I haven’t seen the Hockney, Munch, Michelangelo, or Leonardo to Matisse exhibits. I’d like to go next weekend, but it looks like we’ll have a high of 11 on Saturday and 21 on Sunday, so that’s not looking too good. There’s less going on at MoMA; I’d like to get in and see The Long Run, but that’s going to be there until November, so I’ve got plenty of time.

I got out and saw a few good concerts in 2017, including Paul McCartney in Newark. I went to NYCC. And I went to the Star Trek set tour in Ticonderoga with a couple of friends!

I have a pretty full schedule for 2018 already, including U2, Weird Al, the Harry Potter Cursed Child play, and a repeat visit to the Star Trek tour (with a William Shatner appearance). I’m actually wondering if I’m going to make it to all of these. I hope my health holds up, but I do have a tendency to get sick at the most inopportune times. (I’m still mad that I had to miss the Spinal Tap Unwigged concert back in 2009.)

I started writing this post just after breakfast, and now it’s almost lunch time. And the word count on this post is almost at 2000, which is pretty darn lengthy, for a self-indulgent year-in-review post. But I think these posts are really helpful for me, and if they’re interesting to anybody else, great. (If not, I’m not forcing anybody else to read them.) The temperature outside is crawling upward, and is now at 14 degrees. That’s better than the 5 degree reading when I started writing, but still not warm enough for me to want to go out for a walk or anything like that. (And I’d really like to be able to go out for a walk right now. I may bundle up and force myself to. At least as far as Starbucks and back.)

more on FastMail, and playing catch-up

I’m still working on migrating from Gmail to FastMail. Since the last time I blogged about this, I’ve migrated nearly all of my online accounts over, and have converted from a trial to a paid subscription.

I have several problem accounts that I haven’t switched over yet, including some that don’t provide any way to change your email address, and some that do, but where it doesn’t seem to work. So I have to write some emails to various support addresses and see what I can do to straighten those ones out.

I’m keeping the inbox of the new account pretty clean. I’ve set up rules to move most incoming messages directly into folders, where I can more easily manage them. I just counted, and I have a little over 50 rules set up so far. (I could probably cut that number down if I got a little clever about it.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to catch up on the backlog of stuff in my Gmail “read/review” folder. I file certain newsletters away into that folder automatically, and I’ve let myself fall way behind. Here are a few notes on a few of my favorite newsletters.

I’ve really been enjoying Warren Ellis’ Orbital Operations newsletter. He puts it out once a week, usually, and it contains a lot of stuff about his own writing projects, plus little reviews and pointers to other people’s books, comics, and music. I’ve added a bunch of books to my Amazon wish list based on his recommendations.

I’ve been subscribing to TidBITS for a long time. It’s been around for more than 25 years. It’s a weekly newsletter about all things Apple. There are plenty of Apple news blogs, and some of them are very good, but TidBITS is a great resource and has some great in-depth articles that you won’t find anywhere else.

The newsletter is another one of my favorites. A lot of their articles are fluff, honestly, but they publish one or two new pieces of fiction each week, and some of those are really good.

I also subscribe to several NY Times and New Yorker newsletters, and I pick up a lot of good articles from those. David Allen’s GTD newsletter is pretty good too.

As I work my way through my “read/review” backlog, I save longer articles to Instapaper to read later. Which means that, to some extent, I’m just shifting my backlog from email to Instapaper. But at least I’m separating wheat from chaff and saving only the “good stuff” to Instapaper.

I’m down to about 250 messages left in read/review in Gmail. But the read/review folder in FastMail is starting to fill up now, and will likely hit 100 messages by the end of this week. I think I may need to cut back on the number of NY Times and New Yorker newsletters I’m getting.

Organizer and email follow-up

This is a follow-up to my post about OtherInbox Organizer from a few weeks back. They finally acknowledged that they’d made changes, via an email they sent about a week ago. Their main point was that the service is now much faster. I can’t dispute that; under the old version, emails would generally sit in my inbox for a few minutes before being filed. They were, I assume, running some kind of batch process that could only check once every few minutes. Now, it seems like emails are instantly filed. I’m not familiar with Google’s APIs for accessing Gmail, but I’d guess that they’ve switched to an API that’s more event-driven, where maybe they have a callback that gets called every time a new email comes in. Either that, or they just tossed more computing power at their old process, so it runs more often.

The one big annoyance from the recent change is that they stopped applying the general “OIB” tag to every organized email. (I mentioned this in the previous post.) Well, they fixed that as of last night, so I’m happy about that.

They don’t seem to have made any effort to restore some of the other related functionality, like applying a “receipt” tag to emails that look like receipts, or “shipping notice” to emails that look like shipping notices. But those functions weren’t working real well anyway, and I never really relied on them at all, so that’s fine.

In a nutshell, now that they’ve restored applying the general “OIB” tag, I’m pretty happy with them overall and will likely stick with them for now.

On a related subject, ProtonMail just announced some new features. They still don’t have IMAP/SMTP support, but they’re testing it and will probably roll it out before the end of the year. I’ve been messing around with ProtonMail a bit over the last couple of weeks, including installing their iOS app on my iPhone and iPad. It’s a pretty good app. Sometimes, apps for services like this are an afterthought, farmed out to a third-party developer, and the end result isn’t very good. But ProtonMail’s app is quite nice. Visually, it’s well-designed and looks good on both iPhone and iPad. It works well, and includes support for Touch ID. I haven’t quite talked myself into switching over to ProtonMail, but I like what they’re doing and they’ve made a ton of progress since they launched a few years ago.

Organizing Email (and related privacy issues)

I’ve been using OtherInbox Organizer to keep my Gmail inbox clean since 2011. it’s a service that scans your Gmail inbox and moves commercial email into various folders under a main “OIB” folder, for example “OIB/Shopping” or “OIB/Finance”. It’s a good service and it’s free. I’ve had some concerns with it over the years, partly because of it being free. Obviously, they’re doing something with the data from their users to make money. I don’t necessarily mind that, if they’re just using aggregate data and not telling people which brand of underwear I’m buying or which books I’m reading or anything like that.

I hadn’t given them much thought recently, but, yesterday, some stuff changed, so I did some digging. Part of their service is a daily review email that summarizes all the emails they’ve organized in the past 24 hours. That email has looked the same since I first signed up for an account, but the design on it changed yesterday, along with a couple of other minor things. And, previously, they’ve always applied two labels to each email: the main “OIB” label and the more specific folder label, like “OIB/Shopping”. Now, they’re only applying the specific label and not the general “OIB” one. (Gmail, of course, doesn’t really have folders, just labels, which can be nested to look like folders.) So I was wondering if they’d been acquired recently or if the service had been sold from one company to another.

Surprisingly, I didn’t find much information via Google. I did discover that they’d been acquired by Return Path, but that happened back in 2012. I might have read about that previously, but I don’t remember it. Up until yesterday, Return Path wasn’t mentioned in the summary email, but that changed with the redesign; the copyright notice at the bottom of the email now says Return Path instead of OtherInbox. Nothing about the changes has shown up on either the OtherInbox or Return Path Twitter feeds. And I couldn’t find any recent reviews or news about the service, other than seeing it included in some typical clickbait “top five ways to organize your email” articles, but none of those were that recent either.

Reviewing Return Path’s privacy policy, it sounds like they’re only sharing aggregate and/or anonymized data with their (business) customers, not personally identifiable data, so that’s good. If I was worried about that, I’d probably switch to SaneBox. Their service costs money, so their users are actually their customers; they’re not selling the data at all. But they charge $7 per month for their service, for their low-end accounts. (It goes up to $36 per month for their high-end accounts.)

Or, I could just use Gmail tabs. They were introduced in 2013, after I started using OtherInbox, so I’ve never really tried them. I think I did notice at one point that they only work with the regular Gmail client and don’t affect the view of the inbox through a third-party client like the mail client on iOS. (And I really want to have a clean inbox on iOS, so that could be an issue for me.)

Of course, if I’m worried about privacy, and being the product rather than the customer, I could probably switch from Gmail to a paid email provider also. I’ve considered switching to FastMail in the past. Their standard account is $5 per month, which is pretty reasonable. Combining FastMail and SaneBox would give me an email account with great organizing tools and no obvious privacy issues. (I’m pretty sure SaneBox would work with FastMail.)

For now, though, I’m going to stick with Gmail and OtherInbox Organizer, and just keep an eye on the Organizer product and see if anything weird is going on with it. The recent changes may just be the result of some long overdue maintenance work. Or they could be related to some further changes that could compromise privacy and/or make the service less useful.