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 bob.dobbs@gmail.com and bobdobbs@gmail.com and bo.b….d.obb.s@gmail.com  will all get to you, whichever is the “real” one
    • Better yet, gmail will also ignore anything after a “+” sign in your address. So, bob.dobbs+spam@gmail.com still gets to you. Or bob.dobbs+somethingelse@gmail.com, 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. http://notsharingmy.info/  was news to me, but seems like a brilliant idea. It basically gives you a sjhfg245@notsharingmy.info 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. https://protonmail.com/ 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.

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.

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.

Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?

There was a debate in 2009, hosted by Intelligence Squared UK, and available in full on YouTube. The topic was “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?” and the debaters were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry (against) and Ann Widdecombe, M.P. and John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja (for). It can’t have surprised anyone that Hitchens and Fry (and arguably mostly Fry) completely overwhelmed the opposition, resulting in a landslide against the proposition. To be fair, the opening survey was pretty overwhelmingly against anyway, but the closing survey was even more strongly polarized.

Still, I was disappointed with some of the arguments put forward, and thought I would chip in with a few “moves” that should have been made, and which would have resulted in a much more interesting debate. Now, obviously, I’m coming to this a bit late, but I somehow missed this one … maybe 2009 was especially busy or something.

Hitchens and Fry both took the traditional and obvious route of recounting the horrible mis-steps and failures the Catholic Church has made in the past (sexual abuse, supporting or at least not strongly denouncing the Holocaust, building enormous churches on the metaphorical backs of the poor, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and so forth). None of this was a surprise, and wasn’t informative either. There can’t have been anyone in the audience (live or via the interwebs) who didn’t know all this going in.

More than that, and to bring up the first move I would have hoped to see, the question is in the present tense (“Is the Catholic Church”). It would have been easy for Hitchens (who led off) to emphasize this, and to restrict his comments to the present. There is no doubt that the Church has done some horrible things, but they are not strictly relevant to the question. If the debate had been restricted to the present day, it would have avoided a lot of oft-repeated grievance listing, and allowed for the possibility of talking about things that might actually have a direct influence on those attending the debate (in whatever format). Not to say that history isn’t important, or doesn’t inform the current Church, but none of that content was to the point – it was basically a long list of red herrings.

That also isn’t to say that no current issues were discussed – they were. Fry’s points on condoms and aid in Africa, as well as on issues of sexuality and/or sexual preference were well taken. These are almost certainly issues that Church will be forced to apologize for in the future. I am merely pointing out that most of the commentary on the debate (especially from Catholics who found the con arguments impressive) relates to these points – to the present. The past is there, and much of it is pretty ugly, but that can be said for almost any group large enough, and influential enough, to still be around.

The next move is to take note of the final part of the question: “in the World“, assuming we can agree that the idea of being a force for good is pretty self-explanatory. “In the World” would have fixed the debate on the tangible (or dare I say “real”) as opposed to the spiritual activities of the Church. One argument about the institution being a force for good would have been to argue that people’s spiritual health is important (though points about this being a much lower priority in contrast to actual physical health are pretty easy to make). If that is the case – if the Church can argue that money spent this way is just as well-spent as money that does a more tangible “Good” – then the debate gets sidetracked into one about religion in general, and away from our final move – defining what is meant by “the Catholic Church“.

It is incredibly important to distinguish the Catholic Church (the organization) from individuals who belong to the Church. A fair amount of time was lost discussing the fact that individual Catholics donate a great deal of their money, time, effort, and so on to good (and often Church-organized) causes. There is no question that this is true, but it isn’t really relevant. A great number of non-catholics also donate money, time, and so on to causes they find valuable. Charity (or empathy, possibly) is a recognizable human trait (and isn’t even restricted to humanity).

Anyhow, the point is that individual humans are often charitable. The question might have been explicitly pointed in the direction of the Catholic Church as an institution, which would have been really interesting. In this frame, the question would basically be asking how the Church measures up against other charitable organizations. In this frame, the “religious” activities of the Church could be discounted (or rather, be looked at as overhead – costs that secular organizations don’t have to pay) as discussed above in “move 2”. “Regular” charities regularly post figures showing how much of each dollar donated actually get to the targets of those donations (as opposed to being “lost” to administrative costs and so forth). In this sense, and when dealing with the question of the Church as an organization that does “good works”, a great deal of what the Church actually does would have to be considered “lost” – all the wealth, vestments, artworks, the Vatican City, and so on, and so on. I don’t imaging anybody has a figure (or would ever let it see the light of day if they did) but i would be really interested to know how much of the donations of the billions of Catholics around the world actually make it outside the “doors” of the Church.

To sum up:

The debate should have led off with an examination of the exact question being asked (strange – that sounds like something a little to obvious to be pointing out). The question clearly deals with the present, but con arguments would have been much stronger if they were also targeted directly at tangible benefits and at the the institution. In this context, I think it would be relatively easy to convince almost any thinking audience that donations to the Catholic Church – assuming the donator wants to actually help people who need charity, to be a “force for good” in other words – would be much more effective if given to some other organization without the institutional baggage the Church supports. Many secular charities manage to get by with sub-5% admin costs. It would surprise me, to say the least, if the Catholic Church could match that performance.

Now, there is no question that Catholics give money to the Church to do with as it pleases, and that they merely hope that the money will do something useful (as opposed to buying funny hats or whatever). I am not arguing that the Church is ripping off its parishioners, but rather that if they want to really do some good, maybe they should look at how their money, time, and efforts are being used – maybe there’s somewhere else where they could get more bang for their buck.

Celebrating Death

I realize that this is likely to offend some Americans, and maybe other people as well, but it’s been running around my head for some time. My intention isn’t really to offend, no matter what you might think, but I think the topic could use some airing.

What I’m talking about is the parallel between two groups of people celebrating a death or deaths.

There were well-publicized celebrations in some parts of the world after 9/11. People danced in the streets, happy about the fact that America (and individual Americans, one supposes) were killed in this way. These celebrations were (quite rightly) denounced in the Western press as being barbaric, savage, unconscionable, and so on. And, as I said, rightly so. The idea of having public celebrations about any event as tragic as 9/11 certainly should strike any modern ethically aware human being as deeply wrong.

Given all the anger, bile, and condescension demonstrated by the press in particular and the media at large, not to mention individuals, it still didn’t seem to strike anyone as strange when Americans were shown celebrating in the streets at the news of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination. Somehow, that wasn’t shocking at all.

It also didn’t stop Aaron Sorkin from centering an episode of The Newsroom this past season on the same event. Now, I thought the first season of the show was great, and Jeff Daniels in particular was surprisingly effective. But, at the same time, the tone of this episode struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

The fact that this hasn’t come up more often leads me to believe that maybe I’m one of the few people who thinks so.

Now, I don’t deny that there are differences. The 9/11 victims were civilians, and Bin Laden was a terrorist/freedom fighter who in some sense had opted into the “war”. Many many people versus one guy. Massive collateral damage versus none (maybe; little, in any case).

However, the bottom line is: do you want to be the kind of person who celebrates death, in the street, like it’s your team winning a football game? Never mind that I personally would tend to steer clear of celebrations in the street for whatever reason; if something was going to get me out there, it certainly wouldn’t be to whoop and cheer about somebody’s – anybody’s – death.

Restless Legs

I just had a discussion with a friend about restless leg syndrome (or something like it) being brought on by sleeping pills. We’ve all (maybe) had that feeling when you’re drowsing off, not quite asleep, and you get jolted by some dream-motivated movement, even though you weren’t quite dreaming yet.

I’m aware that this isn’t the strict clinical symptomology of restless leg syndrome, but it’s pretty similar, and something we’re more likely to have experienced. Talking about it made me realize that there are a lot of other potential “leg syndromes,” each with their own set of symptoms, that might be usefully labeled and brought in to the light of day, if not the light of modern pharmacology. I offer this list as a starting point, and welcome your non-R-rated contributions.

  • Irritable leg syndrome: while sleeping, your leg will, of its own accord, haul off and kick the person who has been irritating you. You may or may not be consciously aware of said irritation – the continual kicking may, in fact, be what brings this subconscious feeling to your attention. Repeated occurrences should be viewed as a warning that the end of a relationship may be approaching (if for no other reason than that your partner may not enjoy being kicked into awakeness every time you fall asleep, whatever your protestations of innocence).
  • Stealth leg syndrome: One or the other of your legs will, without conscious control, end up somewhere other than where you thought it would be, without your noticing it has gone. This usually happens while you are in motion, resulting in your falling down/up the stairs, falling on your face, falling on your butt; generally, falling. It’s not easy when you go to step onto a leg only to find out it’s now behind you.
  • Hollow leg syndrome: Big eaters and drinkers of the world are familiar with this one. It’s what allows you to put away that additional couple of pounds of food or liters of liquid without apparent effects. This syndrome can mistakenly be diagnosed as a fast metabolism, so be on the lookout.
  • Bashful leg syndrome: In a standing position, this manifests itself when one leg hides behind the other, without your conscious control. Typically, it is the same leg that does the hiding. This can also be seen in the bedroom, where one leg slings itself off the side of the bed, and remains “hidden” there. This may or may not be the same leg that is bashful in public.
  • Jittery leg syndrome: You know, the one that never stops bouncing, kicking, tapping, moving, etc. On yourself, usually not noticed. On others, potentially a cause of irritable leg syndrome.
  • Cold leg syndrome: Can be merely a matter of general body temperature, with some people being generally warmer than others. People with this syndrome, though, often have one leg that is markedly colder than the other. The leg will feel colder to the sufferer, and also to other people.
  • Friendly leg syndrome: The one that ends up pressed against someone else’s leg with no conscious thought on your part. Often happens while sleeping, which, when combined with cold leg syndrome, could almost be considered assault. When not sleeping, and when exhibited against a stranger and observed by one’s partner, another possible cause for irritable leg syndrome.

I’m not at all sure that this list is exhaustive. I would appreciate any suggestions you might have.

Facebook “friends”

Anybody who knows me knows that I am not an avid facebook fan / user / whatever. I have an account which I check every six months or so, on the off chance that something important will have happened. Usually, not the case.

Anyhow, I do have a suggestion that would make facebook a lot less lame. My main issue with the system is that it allows only one category of association: “friend”. The reality of the situation, of course, is that few of the people you’re linked to on facebook could actually be described as friends. Maybe people just don’t understand what “friend” actually means, but I think it’s more likely that people just don’t have any choice. I propose that a whole series of new categories be added:

  • acquaintance
  • somebody I was friends with 10 years ago
  • somebody I met once who thinks we’re friends
  • friends of a friend who I don’t really know
  • somebody I went to school with but don’t remember
  • and so on …

You get the idea. If I didn’t have to respond to friends requests from people who belong in one of the categories above with “Yes” or “No” – if I had more choices – I would probably be a little less creeped out by the idea. And think of the additional layers of drama that could ensue from people sending friend requests and getting approval for “somebody I went to school with and don’t remember” instead. Would they accept? Burst into tears? Get a grip on their lives and stop trying to befriend people they don’t even know?

Dream the dream, facebook aficionados!