Fixing Gmail’s UI (a bit)

OK, this is pretty specific, but the new Gmail interface has one “feature” that really annoys me. The “status” display is a large black bar at the bottom of the screen, showing “Message archived” or “Message sent” or whatever. That bar floats on top of the other content, and it’s right over the “Send” button for your next email – and it sits there for a long time!

I’m not sure whose brilliant idea this was, and yes, I did submit a suggestion about changing it (by moving it to the right side of the screen), but I don’t imagine the turnaround time on those suggestions is anything to be amazed by, if there’s any response at all.

Luckily, it turns out there’s a solution on the browser end of things. There’s an extension called “Stylus” that is available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera (and on github). You can just install it, then “manage” your rules, and create a new rule with the following CSS in it:

.bAp.b8.UC .vh {
right: 0 !important;
left: auto !important;

The end result looks like this:

I think that’s a pretty clear improvement.

If you don’t like adding extensions, or can’t for whatever reason, you can also create a user style sheet (in Firefox and its derivatives, but not in Chrome any longer, apparently). That’s a little more involved, and you have to find and then add some stuff to your user profile, but it’s completely do-able. For anybody who, like me, mostly uses portable Waterfox, this doesn’t even mean digging into the “hidden” stuff in the main user profile on your C:\ drive, as opposed to editing the data for the portable app.

Now, of course, I’m keeping an eye out for other annoying “features” that can be fixed this way. Between this and uBlock, there are ways to get rid of many irritating things.

Now if I can only find a way to stop those modals that open with the page (or when you scroll, or after a time delay) to ask if you want to subscribe to whatever. Does anybody ever do that because they were prompted this way? I’m way more likely not to subscribe because of being hassled about it, but maybe I just have a lower threshold for being annoyed, and being blocked from seeing the content for this kind of thing definitely tops that bar.

Clean up your Inbox

OK, so a couple of ideas that are relatively new to me, and might be to other folks as well.

  1. Gmail will accept email addresses that are slightly different from your “real” address. You can add filters for any of the above, sending incoming emails to those specific addresses to specific labels, or the trash, or marking them read, or whatever.
    • Gmail ignores periods (dots), so and and bo.b…  will all get to you, whichever is the “real” one
    • Better yet, gmail will also ignore anything after a “+” sign in your address. So, still gets to you. Or, if you’re doing something other than trying to reduce spam.
    • Both of these options, though, still expose your gmail account login name, so there is a case for replacing these with a more anonymous service that doesn’t show your gmail/google account info.
  2.  was news to me, but seems like a brilliant idea. It basically gives you a email address that forwards to your “real” address, permanently, for free.  After being forwarded to gmail, they still show as being “to” the notsharingmyinfo address, so you can create (and filter on arrival) two anonymous addresses:
    • The first would be for stuff where you just didn’t want to give out your address, but still consider the incoming email to be legitimate. So, an account somplace that you’re a member of and want communications from, but don’t need tied to “you” specifically.
    • The second would be for stuff where you’re forced to use an email to sign in, but have no interest in ever hearing from. Plenty of sites force an email address as your account “name,” which is pretty annoying when they’re not of long-term interest, because you just know they’re going to keep using that email.

Once you’ve set up a filter to catch any emails to your notsharingmyinfo addresses (again, they still show as the “to” in the incoming emails) you should send a tester to the address and make sure they’re doing what you think they should (being sent straight to the trash, for example).

Once you’ve verified this, you can start using the appropriate anonymous email wherever you like. I would suggest using the real (non-anonymous) email address anywhere where you’re spending money (amazon, say) but there may not be that many other places where your main gmail/google account needs to be out there.

You can also add these emails to your contacts, maybe as “Anonymous Email” and “Anonymous Spam Email” because they’re not very memorable, and this gives you an easy way to look them up later on (either in contacts, or by composing an email and typing “anon” into the address field).

Finally, there are other email services than gmail. gives you a limited but perfectly adequate free encrypted email account that would be really, really separate from your other stuff, and they have an app for your phone as well. I’m not sure yet if this is going to be useful (checking two inboxes, using their app, etc) and I don’t need the encryption, but I like the idea.

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?

The title of the post is taken from the title of a book (and online course, etc). The book is interesting enough, is well-written, and is similar in general content to other compilations of similar material from other sources, though with a little more discussion of tangentially-relevant experiments run by the author on students from years past. “Happiness” has had a publishing boom over the past few years, and generally the push has been toward a less ephemeral understanding of happiness as being more in line with contentment, satisfaction, and lack of discord than with “being happy” in the moment. All to the good.

My issue with the book is that, like many others of this ilk, it recommends a number of things that are not compatible. I’ll give one example, because it’s something that has come up a number of times in my own reading, as well as being an example of a situation where I would like to “fix” both things, but can’t.

The author does a good job of summarizing some 40-year-old research on flow (and the research that has followed from it), basically concluding that engaging in activities where you can achieve a flow state is conductive to happiness. For me, I’m lucky enough to work at a job where that is easy to do – I regularly sit down to code, and later find myself having missed lunch or dinner (or both) without ever noticing the hours had passed. So, I’m lucky in my work, and this “flowy” lost-in-the-work state is very productive. Standard advice to help achieve and prolong this state of flow is to reduce interruptions (phone off the hook, email notifiers muted, etc). Many people advise only answering email (or texts, or whatever) at specific times of day (like the last hour of work so you’re set for tomorrow), and keeping the door closed if and when you can.

The catch comes on the health side of things. The book recommends eating healthier, moving more, and sleeping well as the cornerstones of health. Pretty hard to disagree with that, providing that definitions of each of these things make sense, which they do, in general. The author does refer to what has now become standard advice, that sitting is like smoking, and that sitting for more than 6 hours a day is incredibly unhealthy. One piece of advice, therefore, is to set an alarm so that you’re reminded to get up and move around every 20 minutes. The research on all this is quite new, so it’s had the usual journalistic over-hype for the past couple of years.

Still, did anybody catch the conflict there? Flow is good (even necessary, and certainly beneficial), so minimize interruptions. Sitting for long periods is unhealthy, so interrupt yourself every 20 minutes. Brilliant! Tough for those of us whose flow experiences are sedentary, though.

People commonly recommend a standing or even walking desk as a way around this problem. I’ve tried a standing desk for a few days, and it sucked. There are studies showing that standing has a positive effect on performance (easily googleable) but other reviews showing that these studies were mostly poorly designed and/or run. And as I say, for me, this was a no-go; couldn’t get anything done at all. It might be that it’s like learning to type properly (which I don’t at all – fast but ugly) and that it would just take some low-productivity adjustment time after which my stand-and-work ability (or my typing speed) would magically kick in.

Or, it’s possible that standing desks are better for some tasks. Anecdotal evidence (like comments sections on articles on this subject) certainly give mixed responses, and it’s possible that some of these standing fans aren’t doing any deep/flow work in the first place.

I would have to prioritize flow over debatable health benefits both in terms of happiness generation and generally living my life successfully. My ability to zone in (as opposed to zoning out) is much more important to me in the short to medium term than possible health risks. I’d like to think that I can alleviate those by being active in the usually recommended way (X number of hours per week, and so on).

Of course, I can also bear the whole “not sitting” thing in mind, and use times when I’m interrupted anyway as an excuse/reminder to get up and move.

Anyhow, back to my original issue, with the advice to prioritize flow and then to interrupt yourself every 20 minutes, within a few pages of each other. While I can come up with ways to make this information useful, it feels like I’m doing a lot of justifying and/or filling in for the author. On the other hand, maybe this is inevitable when your book covers such a wide swath of what anyone would be doing in their lives.



Well, the Wil Wheaton Project is only three episodes old, and they’ve already ripped off

Episode three included a bit about the overuse of the “Bwaaang” sound effect, which seemed pretty familiar to me. Turns out that’s because it had been done before, as part of Cracked’s “5 Bizarrely Specific Ways Every Movie Trailer Looks the Same“. The bit was just over halfway through “Project”, and the corresponding section of the Cracked video starts at 5:00, referring to the Bwaaang sound as “explosiondrums” and “drumsplosions”.

The segment is linked from the Project home page, but I’m told it’s currently unavailable. This may well be because I’m not in the USA, and the clip hasn’t been ported to Youtube (yet) so you may be forced to take my word for it.

Anyhow, this can’t be considered a good thing. To be pulling 5-month-old content from Cracked this early in the game doesn’t bode well. I don’t expect this kind of show to be sidesplittingly hilarious in anything more than very brief bursts, but plagiarism’s a pretty solid buzz kill.

Title Sequences

Some TV shows have little or no title sequence. The first one I remember doing this was Lost. Just a spooky noise, and then on with the show. There are others with really minimal titles, though none pop into mind at the moment. I love the approach – I obviously know what I’m watching.

Hannibal’s is a little longer, but at least it’s got suitable creepifying music, is graphically interesting, and is still pretty short.

There are others, though, that have just gone nuts. Game of Thrones and House of Cards spring to mind. Both of them have some cool music, which is fine and everything, but who needs to sit through two minutes or more of the same thing every week? Both sequences were cool the first time, but after that, who needs them? Maybe do the full one once, and then do the 10-15 second version after that.

I can understand having title sequences back in the day, when who played the second kid from the left might have been of interest, and there was no other way to get that information. But now, what with IMDB and everything, you can find out who the grip’s cousin was with a little type-and-click. All the title sequences provide is motivation to grab the mouse/remote/whatever and skip them.

I guess the other function would have been to give people time to get settled, and to let Aunt Maude finish up in the bathroom, and get little Jimmy his glass of milk or whatever. But I don’t know anybody who watches TV “live” anymore, unless they have no choice. And then they do (because it’s a game or an awards ceremony or something where the perception is that something important in being revealed in real time) it quickly becomes obvious just how annoying commercials really are. Especially when you have the privilege of seeing the same one several times during the same show – I have several times caught the same one twice in a row! Definitely enough to get that company on my never-buy list. Anyhow, the “get in here, Dallas is starting” motivation has largely disappeared, and even back in the day it only mattered to somebody who couldn’t read a clock.

It’s actually even more impressive that House of Cards has gone this direction, given that they’re all-online and it’s got to be pretty obvious that whoever’s watching it is doing so digitally and with the ability to jump around in the file, not to mention starting it whenever they want.

Similarly, it’s annoying to sit through the little Dreamworks (or whatever) mini-film at the beginning of a movie (usually for two or three or more companies these days) , and then to sit through the text versions as well. Whose bright idea was that? As if, having just seen a kid run and jump into a lake followed by a logo, I need to see the name in plain text in order to figure out who I’m supposed to be feeling grateful to. Does anybody even care about this stuff? I’ve never heard anybody say “Oh, I thought this was a Dreamworks picture. I’m out of here!” Not to pick on Dreamworks – they just popped into mind (ironically, because of their logo). But that’s not a positive connotation, unless it’s still “any advertising is good advertising”.

The same could obviously be said for credits at the end of the show or movie. Seriously, this can only matter to people actually being listed, and maybe their grandparents or somebody. And if you do care, it’s easy to find the info online. Given that we’re already down to 40 minutes of actual show per hour (commercials don’t count), why not claw back a few minutes for real content instead of all the dead space?

I’ve seen a few networks that do the preview of another show (or next week’s show, or whatever) split-screen with the credits; the credits are then much too small to read, but given that nobody cares about them, this doesn’t really matter. Now, granted, I don’t care about the previews either, but at least this puts the credits in their place. Sometimes, these credits are even rolled at super-speed.

Putting additional movie content during or after the credits is particularly interesting – now we’re rewarding people for sitting through an otherwise singularly unrewarding 10 minutes of scrolling names of people they (very probably) don’t know and never will.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Now that we can jump around in the shows/movies, not to speak of watching them whenever we want, maybe I should just be glad I never need to sit through a title or credit sequence again. Those fond memories of just drumming my fingers while waiting for the real show (or waiting for the next one) are over.

Turns out I didn’t know how to tie my own shoes

I had a very odd experience last night. I’ve started running, and my shoes have untied themselves twice now while I’ve been on a run. It occurred to me that somebody might have some advice or a cheap product to improve this situation, so I did a little surfing. And what did I discover? Turns out I’ve been tying my shoes – for my whole life, I presume – with the wrong knot.

The knot I have been (inadvertently) using is the “granny knot” which is apparently “the most common reason for shoelaces coming undone“. (Note: this link, and others to follow, should be recognized as my first entry into a whole subculture of people who care deeply about shoelaces – I don’t claim to belong to or represent this group, but they did provide some interesting info.)

Anyhow, the granny knot unties itself as it’s put under stress. Something to do with being unbalanced and so on – I don’t really care about its motivations or emotional baggage, I just want a knot that stays tied.

That one is the “reef knot“. Basically, if you’re a granny-knotter, just reverse the direction that you cross the laces at the very beginning of the knot, and then proceed as usual. Directions get confusing pretty quickly, because the left-hand lace becomes the right-hand one, and which way is “behind” anyway. I found it easier to just switch that first “one lace over the other” – which felt almost morally wrong, by the way – and then do the loops part of the knot the way my hands do it on their own.

You can test the result, of you’re sitting with a shoe in your lap as I was at about 1 in the morning, by pulling on the laces “beneath” the knot (where they’re coming out of the shoe, where they would be stressed by normal wear). If you’ve grannied, the knot will come undone. If you’ve reefed, the knot will tighten itself.

There are other options – “Ian’s Secure Knot” is the highest rated of these, on a site with more information about tying shoes than I could believe. I’m going to give the reef knot a try first, but the “both ears through the hole” advanced approach does sound like a ton of fun.

The unsettling part about this is that I’ve clearly been doing it wrong for as long as I’ve been tying my own shoes. Aside from dalliances with Crocs and sandals and boat shoes and the like, that’s been my whole life. And my whole life, I’ve been doing an extra knot with the loops, in an effort to keep my laces tied. This raises the uncomfortable spectre of other unwitting errors. There are a lot of things in my daily life, and I presume in the lives of others, that could be done wrong without those around us even noticing. Just little annoyances that we assume are part of the background noise of our lives.

For the next while, I’m pretty sure I’ll frequently be wondering, “Am I doing that wrong?” Maybe I’ll find the cure to life’s ills – or at least notice something that might be dealt with more gracefully, and then google that cure.

Does anybody in Hollywood actually walk anywhere?

There have been several abnormal walking statements or descriptions in (relatively) recent movies, and I’m wondering if I’m missing something. I walk quite a bit, and an 11 minute mile is really pushing it in terms of pace. 15 minutes per mile is a fast walk, 20 minutes per mile is a stroll … just to provide some numbers for comparison.

In Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise (as Reacher himself) says “There’s a bus station three miles away; I can walk there in 24 minutes.” That’s 8 minutes per mile. That’s a decent jogging pace. So, there’s the problem that this is simply a stupid statement. Then there’s the additional problem for people who’ve actually read the Lee Child books: Reacher walks a lot, and he’s not an idiot, so this isn’t something he’d ever say. Needless to say, it certainly isn’t in the book the movie was based on.

My bigger problem is that this line made it through however many writers, editors, actors, and so on, and nobody seems to have noticed that the math just doesn’t work.

Then we move on to The Book of Eli. This is quite a bit more complicated, as the man doing the walking is blind, so there’s some question about his ability to walk in one direction consistently. He does say he’s walking West, and that he’s led in that direction by God, but the watcher has to wonder about his ability to interpret God’s compass.

In any case, we’re told that he’s been walking for 30 years. Wikipedia has an article listing people who have walked across the US. Looking briefly over this list, it’s pretty clear that the walk has been done in three months by a number of people, and faster by many (though some of these were running at least some of the time as opposed to walking). Another guy actually did a TED talk about doing the walk in 8 months. Granted, none of these people were blind (as far as I know) and they weren’t walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, even a blind Denzel should have been able to go coast to coast fifteen times or so in thirty years. Call it 10 times to allow for apocalyptic issues – at some point, shouldn’t he have had cause to find a braille compass or something? That’s more blind faith than even a willing suspension of disbelief can support.

In reviews of the movie, many people mentioned other plot issues, many about the movie’s ending. I haven’t yet seen anybody mention the walking issue, though. It’s like people just think about a map and say, “Walk? That must take forever!”

So, I guess my bigger question is whether these people just don’t ever walk anywhere. I live in the city, and I walk everywhere. I’m within 2-3 miles of anywhere I go regularly, so it’s pretty easy to sustain a car-free lifestyle. I’ve read about plenty of people who do the same. I’m guessing, though, that not many of us are in the movie business.

The Rules of Golf – Amendments for Seniors

  1. Advertisements proclaim that golf scores can be lowered by purchasing new clubs, balls, shoes. etc. Since this is financially impossible for the average senior golfer, one stroke per hole may be subtracted for using old equipment.
  2. A ball sliced or hooked into the rough shall be lifted and placed on the fairway at a point equal to the distance it carried into the rough, with no penalty. Senior players should not be penalized for inexplicable physical phenomena.
  3. A ball which hits a tree shall be deemed not to have hit the tree. This is simply bad luck, which has no place in a scientific game. The player hitting such ball must estimate the distance it would have traveled had it not hit the tree and play the ball from that point.
  4. There shall be no such thing as a lost ball. The missing ball is on or near the golf course and will eventually be found and pocketed by someone else, making it a stolen ball. The player is not to compound the felony by charging him or herself with a penalty stroke.
  5. There shall be no penalty for so-called “out of bounds”. If penny-pinching golf club owners bought sufficient land, this would not be an issue. The golfer deserves an apology, not a penalty.
  6. There shall be no penalty for a ball being hit into a water hazard, because cleverly designed golf balls should float. That they do not is a technical fault which manufacturers have yet to overcome, and for which the senior golfer should not be held responsible.
  7. Occasionally it might appear that the golfer swings at his/her ball and misses. Clearly, the observer has experienced an optical illusion and should simply shut up and let the golfer play.
  8. Some golf courses, especially the more expensive ones, have defects wherein large holes filled with sand appear at odd places where grass should be. Seniors should not be forced to risk injury by playing from such areas, which would not exist if the grounds superintendent was doing a proper job. A senior finding his/her ball in such a hazardous location is allowed to lift said ball and move it to the nearest decent grass, or to have as many whacks at the ball as necessary to remove it from sand to grass – in either case, without penalty.
  9. On the putting green, a ball which passes over a hole without dropping in is deemed to have dropped. The law of gravity supersedes the laws of golf.
  10. Putts which stop close enough to the hole to be blown in, may be blown in. This does not apply to balls more than three inches from the hole. No one wants to make a travesty of the game.

I found these “rules” in a golf bag I bought this summer, and thought they were worth posting, since they don’t seem to be online anywhere. There is a note on the back of the page telling “Sandra and Ralph” that these amendments may have great appeal to the Stittsville community, which is signed, but not legibly. I’m happy to add a source if anybody knows what it is.

I should note too that I’m not a senior, but could definitely use the help of these amendments!

Why doesn’t somebody develop a “shuffle” that works?

I have an android phone, an ipod, and itunes (and several other mp3-playing-capable programs) installed on various computers. None of them can shuffle songs worth beans, and it’s easy to see why.

Shuffle, as it now exists on every platform I’ve seem, just puts the songs in random order. On some platforms (like my stupid phone) this is done after the first song starts playing, so your randomly-ordered playlist is actually the same first song every time, and then the rest in random order. So I fast-forward past the first song, every time. There’s just no excuse for that.

However, random isn’t really what you want either. I often get, randomly, songs I just heard the day before, or even earlier that day. And this is on a playlist with 750+ songs. Well, with a random order generated a few times per day (whenever I’m walking a reasonable distance, or stuck at my desk, for example) you’d expect that to happen. It’s expected, but it’s also annoying and it’s not really what I wanted when I selected to shuffle instead of playing the songs in order.

What I wanted could be phrased this way: “Play me stuff I haven’t heard recently, in some random order”.

The “stuff I haven’t heard recently” would seem, to me, to be the key here. And it’s not like it’s hard – itunes and the ipod (at least) keep track of the “last played” date.

Can’t we please, please, have a shuffle (or call it something else) that starts with putting songs into groups by how many days ago they were last played, and then randomizes within those groups, and then plays the list? Build the list first, and then start playing it (so you don’t start with the same one EVERY TIME), and I would always be hearing a shuffled list of songs I hadn’t heard recently (unless I listen to all 700+).

Or, if you want to get really funky, allow a “custom shuffle” based on whatever criteria people want to use. This could look like the advanced sort in Excel, where you sort ascending or descending based on one column first, and then a second column after that, and so on, and can re-order the criteria at will. I’m not sure what else I’d want other than played date, but I’m sure somebody else will have something, and as long as it has the played date I’ll be more than happy.

While we’re at it, why is “shuffle” a setting that applies to the device as a whole? It makes no sense at all that you have to turn shuffle on and off globally. Actually, it does make sense if you’re playing everything you have, or by genre or something. But if you go to the trouble to create a playlist, you should be able to save a shuffle setting with that playlist. Some things should be played in order (classical music, musicals, playlists for running that start with a warmup and end with a cooldown, and so on) and the rest should probably be shuffled. So, we should be able to save that preference with the list when we make it.

So who do I talk to about this? Anyone?

Dolphins and PR

The general opinion of dolphins is pretty positive. There are certainly exceptions, but that’s certainly the “usual” view – seen, for example, as opposed to the typical view of sharks. Now, I’m not saying I love sharks, but I do think it’s possible that dolphins are just more PR/media conscious than sharks are.

For example, there are a host of lovely stories of how dolphins have saved swimmers from drowning. That’s all well and good, but it’s not like they save everybody – people still drown. And it’s just possible that the dolphins are out there savagely attacking and killing people – they’re just smart enough to do it when nobody’s filming them, and they’re smart enough to spare one now and then. The dolphins could cleanly kill ninety-nine out of a hundred drowning people, and still come out of it smelling like roses; well, they probably smell like fish or something, but you know what I mean.

I’m not sure what this means, exactly, or what good this realization does for me (aside from probably making me more nervous on my next visit to Marine-Super-Fun-Park or whatever. Maybe I can get in touch with some kind of shark spokesperson (spokes-shark?) and hire myself on as a consultant. If you see footage of a shark gently carrying somebody to shore, and of that person’s tearful reunion with their photogenic offspring, think of me.