Five Simple Gmail Tips

gmail_alertBelow are five simple tips that will help you make the most of your Gmail account:

1. Pluses Give You Infinite Gmail Addresses

You can append a plus (“+”) along with any arbitrary string to your email address, and Gmail will simply ignore it. For example, if your email address is john.smith@gmail.com, you can send email to john.smith+spam@gmail.com, and it will be delivered as usual. The only difference is that the “to” address will retain the additional string, allowing you to filter on any token you want. I’ve found this is useful for two primary reasons:

  1. If you need to create a second account on a site that requires an email address, you can enter a unique email address without having to actually create another email account.
  2. You can filter on the additional string which allows you to keep your inbox better organized.

2. Dots are Ignored

Gmail actually ignores all dots (“.”) in your email address. For instance, if your email address is john.smith@gmail.com, you can log in or send email to john.smith@gmail.com, johnsmith@gmail.com, or even j.o.h.n.s.m.i.t.h@gmail.com. Again, this technique can allow you to link a few different email addresses to a single account, or to simply change your email address without actually having to change it.

3. Enable “Undo Send”

Have you ever sent an email, then skimmed it again only to find a typo or realize you forgot a key piece of information? If so, go to Settings, then check “Enable Undo Send.” You can specify a period of 5, 10, 20, or 30 seconds during which you can undo sending an email should you change your mind. Truly a brilliant feature.

4. Use the Word “Attachment”

Get in the habit of using the word “attachment” in emails where you intend to send an attachment. If your email contains the word “attachment” but you haven’t actually attached anything, Gmail will alert you and give you a chance to attach a file before sending the email. We’ve all sent and received plenty of emails referring to nonexistent attachments, haven’t we?

5. Filter on “Unsubscribe”

(This one isn’t specific to Gmail, but I thought I’d throw it in anyway.)

The other day, I posted to Twitter that I wanted a Gmail plug-in which searches for links containing the word “unsubscribe” in all my email and automatically clicks on them. Of course, in practice, this could actually do more harm than good. But a useful alternative is to create an “unsubscribe” filter in order to keep unwanted mail out of your inbox. You can check the label occasionally, read the one or two emails that you actually wanted to get, and decide for yourself which ones from which to manually unsubscribe.

 

Gmail is frequently updated with all kinds of very cool new features, so check your settings regularly to make sure you’re not missing out on something that can make your life easier, or make you more productive.

Update: If you use email as a way to send yourself reminders, here’s another great email tip for you.

How to Read EPUB Files on Your Amazon Kindle

I'm a big fan of the Amazon Kindle, but one of the issues I've had with it is that it doesn't support EPUB files natively. Fortunately, there's a free and relatively easy way to convert EPUB files into the Kindle's native Mobipocket file format.

The easiest way I've found to read EPUB files on the Kindle is to use Amazon's free tool, KindleGen, to convert EPUB files into the Mobipocket format. KindleGen is a tool for publishers designed to convert existing HTML and EPUB files into the Kindle's native file format. You can download it for free from Amazon and use it yourself to convert EPUB files into a Kindle-friendly format.

To read EPUB files on your Kindle, follow these steps:

  1. Download KindleGen for your platform (available for Windows, Mac, and Linux — thank you, Amazon, for cross-platform support).
  2. Follow the instructions for converting your EPUB files into the Mobipocket format.
  3. Connect your Kindle to your computer via USB. It should appear as a mounted drive or volume.
  4. Drag your new EPUB files into your Kindle's "documents" directory.
  5. Eject or unmount your Kindle, and you should find your books available in your library.

There are several other EPUB readers out there that support EPUB files natively and don't require you to go through a conversion process, but I really like the Kindle platform for other reasons, so it's worth the additional step for me.

Tour of My New Home Office

Here’s a quick tour of the home office I recently finished building. If you’re thinking of designing your own office, hopefully this will give you some ideas and inspiration.

A quick summary of things I did right:

  • Lots of light switches meaning very flexible task lighting (including dimmers).
  • Very large closet (with its own light).
  • Wire shelving that is both strong and configurable. Additionally, the light can easily penetrate the openings in order to reach lower shelves. (Use foam core board on any shelves that hold straps or other small items that you don’t want to fall through.)
  • Two workstations configured for different kinds of tasks. My primary workstation also raises and lowers.
  • Liberal amounts of insulation, especially in the ceiling. Insulation obviously helps keep the temperature comfortable, but it also keeps the noise down.
  • Bamboo flooring. It’s cheap, durable, environmentally friendly, and looks as good as more expensive hardwoods, in my opinion.
  • Reading chair. Sometimes it’s nice to get away from the computer and relax in a nice comfortable chair.
  • Isolated circuit. My office is on its own electrical circuit, so if something else in the house trips a breaker, it won’t shut off power in my office.
  • Coaxial and network jacks. My wireless signal is pretty strong down here, but I went ahead and ran a network cable anyway for the additional bandwidth.

Things I did wrong:

  • No power outlets at desk-height. I put in a lot of power outlets (12 in a relatively small room), but I didn’t install any at desk height. Unfortunately it didn’t occur to me until after the drywall was in.
  • No track lighting. I used recessed lighting rather than track lighting. Tracks would have given me some additional configurability, and the ceilings are probably high enough.

Two Office Hacks I Can’t Live Without

Both my home and my work offices tend to get cluttered by things like cables, peripherals, devices, accessories, etc. Below are two simple and cheap office “hacks” I use to help keep my desks somewhat manageable.

The Cord Clip

cord_clipI keep a couple of these big binder clips attached to the back of my desk in order to hold cords and cables that I want to make sure don’t slide back behind my desk when they’re not attached to something. Since I’m frequently switching between laptops — disconnecting then reconnecting multiple cables — this technique has saved me a huge amount of time and frustration. No more grabbing at cables as they slip away behind the desk, then trying to fish them back up.

I use another one of these clips with my nightstand since I have several cables secured there, as well (phone charger, Kindle charger, and laptop cord).

The Headphone Hook

headphone_holderI don’t know what this thing is called, so I call it the “banana noose” though I suppose it could just as correctly be called the “banana gallows”. It’s simply a device that suspends bunches of bananas in order to keep them from pressing against the kitchen counter and getting prematurely mushy.

An equally good use of the banana noose is a headphone hook. I regularly use two sets of headphones: Audio-Technica QuietPoint noise-canceling headphones for music, and a Logitech Premium Notebook Headset for Skype and audio recording. In order to keep them both close at hand, but also keep them from getting tangled up among the other USB, audio, and power cables on my desk, I simply hang them from a nice chrome banana noose which I stole from the kitchen. Problem solved.

Got any good office hacks you want to share?

Google Doesn’t Need More Products — It Needs to Combine What it Already Has

The introduction of Google Buzz has inspired me to write something up that I've been thinking for a long time: Google needs to stop inventing new things, and start focusing on integrating what they already have.

Imagine a single application that combines all the following into a single interface:

  • Gmail
  • Google Talk
  • Google Voice
  • Google Wave
  • Google Latitude
  • Google Contacts
  • Google Buzz

I call it Google Communicator, and I think it could be one of the most influential applications Google could possibly build.

Google Communicator could allow people to stop thinking in terms of communication protocols (email, IM, Wave, SMS, etc.) and start thinking in terms of contacts. In other words, rather than me thinking about wanting to send my friend an email or an IM or start a new wave with him, I can just start with the desire to communicate. Google Communicator would worry about (and suggest) the right protocol. If my friend happens to be online, maybe I send an IM. If he's accepting incoming calls, maybe I use Google Voice. If he's out somewhere and doesn't want calls, maybe I send him an SMS. If I don't need to communicate instantly, maybe I decide to send an email. All of this can (and should) happen from one integrated user interface.

Not only would something like Google Communicator revolutionize outgoing communication, but it would completely change incoming communication, as well. Imagine having full control over all incoming communication. When your phone senses you're on the move, for instance, maybe it automatically turns off incoming calls. When you're not at your computer, maybe all communications are rerouted as SMS messages. If you're on a plane and completely inaccessible, maybe all communication goes to voicemail or email.

Having all communications go through one central hub means everything can be archived, indexed, and searched all in one location. Imagine never deleting a single email, SMS, voicemail, IM, or wave — and being able to access and search all of them from a single interface.

What's really interesting about this concept is that it's entirely doable right now. Google not only has all the infrastructure in place for this, but they also have the UI technology to easily combine it into one experience. All Google needs to build the most powerful communication hub in the history of computing is a little cross-team collaboration, a few people willing to dedicated their 20% project time, and a cool new Google Communicator logo.

How to Maximize Safari

Short Answer

To “maximize” Safari (to make the window fill up the entire monitor rather than resize to fit the current content), drag the link below into your bookmark bar, then click it. Note that it only works when you have a single document open, so use it before opening additional tabs.

Maximize

Longer Answer (With More Background)

Mac users know how unpredictable the “zoom” button (green “+” button in the top left-hand corner) can be. In iTunes, it toggles between a mini-player mode, and a standard display mode; in Safari, it resizes the window to fit the content in the current tab; in Mail.app, it operates just like the maximize button on Windows. Rather than being consistent across applications, the behavior of the zoom button is determined by the application developer.

I use both Firefox and Safari frequently, and I often find it annoying that the zoom button works differently across the two browsers (in Firefox, zoom maximizes the window as it would on Windows). I find that I seldom need Safari automatically resized to fit the content I’m viewing, and would much rather it maximize the window to the full size of the monitor, so I created a bookmarklet to do just that.

A bookmarklet is a link that can be dragged into your bookmark menu. Rather than going to a website when clicked, however, it will execute a line of JavaScript to perform some simple function. For instance, I use a bookmarklet for adding links to delicious, and for searching Wikipedia. And now I have a bookmarklet for maximizing Safari.

To use this bookmarklet, simply drag the link below into your bookmark menu:

Maximize

The only limitation of the maximize bookmarklet is that it won’t work if Safari has more than one tab open in the current window. Therefore, you should use it as soon as you open Safari, or open a new additional window before using it.

The Free Market Paradox

I realized recently that there’s an inherent paradox in the free market system: left to its own devices, the free market will create as little freedom as it possibly can.

The most obvious examples are the big famous monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T, but this happens in much more subtle ways all the time. Here are just a few examples:

  • Cell phone companies. Why is it that all carriers require two year contracts? Why doesn’t one company gain a competitive advantage over another by offering a one-year contract, or a six-month contract, or no contract at all? The answer is collusion. Maybe not the kind where men in expensive suits sit around smoking cigars and plotting, but there is clearly some kind of an "understanding" in the industry (which seems to have come about in response to number portability). As choices become more limited (exclusive handset deals, consolidation), I wouldn’t be surprised to see three-year contracts become the standard like in Canada. Carriers get away with this because the costs of anyone new getting into the industry are prohibitively high. No single mobile phone service provider can act as a monopoly, but acting in collusion, they can very easily limit consumers’ options, and apparently get away with it.
  • Television providers. Not only do you have very little control over who provides your television/internet/phone service, but at least where I live, they are all starting to require contracts just like mobile phone carriers. As in the case of phone contracts, customers are expected to sign agreements with penalties before it’s even possible to know how good the hardware and services are, and how they compare with the (limited) competition. Often the only recourse consumers have is switching to another product or service which these contracts are explicitly designed to prohibit.
  • Alarm companies. Same story. Every one of them in my area requires a three year contract. If you want wireless equipment (which is all anyone wants to install anymore), they also want to charge extra per month rather than a higher up-front cost. If you call them on the length of their contracts, they simply respond with something like "it’s the industry standard." In this case, "industry standard" is synonymous with collusion.
  • The software industry. There are just too many examples to name in the world of software. Customer lock-in is standard operating procedure. Think about how difficult it is just switching to a new computer with the same operating system, and now imagine switching to a different operating system, or migrating years of data from one software package to another, or converting an entire company from one internal workflow to another. These challenges often aren’t accidental. In most cases, it’s easier and cheaper to put up with what you have than to switch to something better.
  • The medical industry. Regardless of where you stand on the healthcare debate, unless you’re a highly paid specialist or an insurance executive, it’s hard to argue that the system isn’t out of control. Doctors and hospitals charge way too much because they know that individuals usually aren’t paying their own bills, and insurance companies therefore charge as much as they can for coverage and pay for as little treatment as they can get away with. The victims are the insured and uninsured alike who are locked into a system that doesn’t work and which doesn’t provide any better options.

The reality is that it’s cheaper and easier to lock customers in, stifle competition, and apply "leverage" than it is to truly innovate and compete on a level playing field. Even if it’s not good for the industry or for consumers in the long run, it’s better for next quarter’s earnings which, as we all know, is what leads to higher stock prices (aka executive compensation) and better bonuses.

All of this takes place in a free market system, and all of it is either perfectly legal, or at least legal enough that nothing is being done about it. All of these limitations and constraints and miserable experiences that we are all stuck with are actually rewarded by the free market which, in many cases, isn’t free at all. The only way to create a truly free market is to constantly regulate it — sort of like the government itself.

So what can be done about it? First and foremost, multi-year agreements should be illegal, plain and simple. If a company can’t provide a service which is valuable enough to keep you from switching to another service, you should be allowed to switch without penalty. Second, in any instance where the huge majority of dominant companies in an industry begin to adopt the same sets of practices, the government needs to investigate. I don’t like the idea of the government getting involved in private industry any more than anyone else, but the reality is that private industry has proven over and over again that it will not regulate itself, so the only entity with the power to do it for them is the federal government. And finally, wherever competition is lacking in a particular industry (or a particular industry which is strategic to the country is failing to prosper), the government should offer incentives to private industry through low interest loans, tax breaks, etc. This does not mean giving failing car companies who have a long history of mismanagement more money to mismanage; rather, it means giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to compete against the status quo.

It’s easy to argue that these kinds of solutions are unfair, but if businesses are offering quality products and controlling costs (i.e. executive compensation), nobody should have anything to worry about.

Update: Judging from the comments, I feel I should clarify some points in this post. By no means am I unconditionally in favor of more government and regulation, nor am I in favor of nationalizing private industry in any way. I believe we need the right amount of government which means less in some areas and more in others. And, of course, we need government that works. Often the assumption is that everything the government attempts to do will inevitably fail miserably. Obviously that’s not acceptable. Just as we should be able to drop our mobile phone carrier if their service is not what it should be, we need to vote out politicians who can’t ensure that government programs are run effectively.

Although I know this post could come across as sounding like I want a market that is less free, the irony is that I want just the opposite. That’s the paradox. I only want to see regulations placed on private industry where that industry is trying to limit freedom, choice, and innovation. I want freer markets. Maybe government regulation isn’t the best way to get there, but as I said above, these markets don’t appear to be willing to regulate themselves, so who else is going to do it?

The Apple tablet can save comic books

As I was reading V for Vendetta the other night, it occurred to me that if this Apple tablet device is real, it could reinvigorate comics and graphic novels even more than all the recent film adaptations. Imagine reading Watchmen and other graphic novels on a big, bright, interactive screen, and having new issues of comics automatically and wirelessly delivered (like newspapers on your Amazon Kindle). Imagine zooming in on panels, listening to voice-overs, and reading comments left by other readers.

Hopefully both Apple and the comic book industry are pursuing this opportunity without any of the obsolete preconceptions of traditional media. I believe if this is done right, the Apple tablet can revolutionize comics every bit as much as the iPod revolutionized digital music.

Although the last thing the internet needs are more rumors of what Apple is going to release, while I'm on the topic, I might as well present my predictions:

  • 10" – 13" multi-touch screen.
  • iPhone OS.
  • App Store, naturally (which, as a side note, I expect to come to the desktop eventually).
  • Focus on music, video, magazines, newspapers, hopefully comics, web browsing, and gaming (both 3D and simple virtual multi-player board games).
  • Nice "page-flip" animations and gestures to make you feel like you're reading physical media.
  • Wireless delivery, probably through Verizon rather than AT&T.
  • On-screen keyboard and voice commands.
  • No optical media, and perhaps no way to connect a keyboard (after all, Apple can't allow it to replace your MacBook).
  • Remote control for your iTV, perhaps.
  • Accelerometer, GPS, and camera (although these could come as upgrades in later models).
  • 64GB of storage capacity (must be bigger than the iPod Touch, but not so big that they can't sell you higher-capacity models in the future).
  • Non-removable battery (naturally — now that they've gotten away with it, why go back?).
  • Name: the Apple iPad.
  • Price: $800.

Anything I left out?

Mirrors make great whiteboards

The other day, a friend of mine and I were plotting to take over the world when one of us suddenly had the need to diagram something. I have a whiteboard in my closet which I’ve been meaning to hang for the last 9 months, but the problem is that I never think to hang it when I don’t need it, and when I do need it, I don’t want to stop what I’m doing long enough to hang it. My friend had the idea of using the whiteboard marker directly on the mirrored doors of the closet in my office. I never liked those doors, so I figured the worst that could happen is that we would ruin them, and then I could replace them. We discovered, however, that mirrors make great whiteboards, and both doors have been covered with diagrams and various scribbles ever since. It turns out I had two huge, almost floor-to-ceiling whiteboards sitting right behind me all this time.

How mobile phone ringers should work

While sitting in front of my computer at 9:00 PM in my completely silent office, I was scared half out of my wits by my Sidekick’s email alert. It’s even worse when I have it sitting out and it not only chimes, but also vibrates against my desktop like some old door buzzer. Of course there are other times — in loud, crowded restaurants, or outside among the din of the city — when I can’t hear my phone ring at all, and since I keep it in a dorky leather holster attached to my belt instead of in my pocket (who wants to risk cancer down there?), I often can’t feel it vibrate, either.

So I started wondering why mobile phone ringers aren’t smarter. Just like my PowerBook will dim my screen based on a sampling of ambient light, why can’t a phone sample ambient noise in order to decide how it should alert you? If you’re sitting in your office and it’s dead quite, a soft, pleasant chime should do the trick, but if you’re having a drink in a loud bar or walking down a busy street, it should blare and vibrate.

I know some phones have the ability to gradually increase the volume of the ringer the longer a call goes unanswered which is a nice low-tech solution, however I’ve found that if you’re in a noisy environment, by the time you realize your phone is ringing, you’re not likely to be able to recover it from wherever you have it stashed before the caller is forward to voicemail (and you already know how I feel about voicemail).

Another low-tech solution I’ve noticed is keeping your phone out in front of you on the bar. Of course, problems with that approach include: spilling beer on it, other people spilling beer on it, and getting drunk and leaving it behind. Besides, why throw a low-tech solution at a problem when it’s so much fun to over-engineer one.