The sentences approach to email

E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

I often wonder how much time I’ve spent writing and responding to emails over the years. Perhaps five.sentenc.es may have a solution to reducing the amount of time spent in my inbox.

I got my very first email address in 1997 when I started my MTh in Ministry at the University of Edinburgh. It was g.j.m.saunders@sms.ed.ac.uk. Other than my fellow students, most of whom I saw on a day-to-day basis at New College, I only knew about four or five other people who had email back then.

Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to reduce how much email I receive. I’ve unsubscribed from all but the essential email newsletters (and even then I could reduce things further, or move those to a different email account) and I now have a folder called “Action” in Outlook/Exchange where I store the emails that I need to reply to.

I quite like this ‘… sentences’ approach to writing emails, however. It offers four options:

According to these sites, the problem is that “email takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.”

Their solution: “treat all email responses like SMS text messages, using a set number of letters per response. Since it’s too hard to count letters, we count sentences instead.”

It’s certainly an interesting solution. I’m sure there are some situations where it won’t work, where you simply need to write more, where telephone or face-to-face conversations are not convenient (which may be a better forums for lengthier discussions).

I’m going to give this a go for the next month or so and see how I get on. Choose your weapon: two, three, four or five sentences.

Hello Ruby — teaching children to write code

Ruby, with a wise penguins, a green robot, and lonely snow leopard. Drawing by Linda Liukas.

Ruby, with a wise penguin, a green robot, and lonely snow leopard. Drawing by Linda Liukas.

A few years ago I remember reading a book advocating that all school children should be taught to program computers. It’s a great discipline for anyone, the author argued, especially children. It teaches patience, persistence, problem-solving, the importance of planning; it can help children improve their maths and logical thinking, and it’s hugely rewarding to see something that you’ve been working on suddenly come to life and work as expected. I wish I still had that book.

A couple of stories about teaching children to write code have caught my eye over the last few weeks.

Year of code

On Newsnight, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesday 5 February 2014, Jeremy Paxman presented an article about the Year of Code campaign, an independent, non-profit campaign to encourage people across the country to get coding for the first time.

One of my first experiences of using a computer was in primary 7 when the headteacher brought in a Commodore VIC-20. I took computer studies in high school through to higher level, and half of my university application form was to study computer science (the other half to study divinity, which is what I ended up doing).

I loved coding as a kid. My friends and I would gather around each others home computers, whether a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, or BBC B, and we’d design or amend games and programs together.

People are often amazed when I say that I taught myself the web skills that I use now in my day-to-day job in the web team at the University of St Andrews. Except, that’s not entirely true: I do have the experience of those seven or eight years of coding on 8-bit computers as a child and as a teenager. That was a brilliant headstart.

It seems that today ‘computer studies’ in school is more about learning how to be a consumer and user of existing software (how to use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint) rather than creating your own software.

I was appalled to learn how some youngsters are being ‘taught’ to code in schools today. A couple of months ago a friend of mine phoned me asking for my help. Her daughter is studying computer studies and she is being ‘taught’ to code using… Adobe Flash!? And I say ‘taught’ because it sounds like she and her classmates were essentially shown the application, given a book and told to get on with it. It sounded like the teacher didn’t know to code either.

Compare that with my own experience in the mid-80s. I had three years of hands-on coding BASIC and machine code by someone who understood how computers worked and what the programs were being asked to do, who could tell a CPU from an ALU from a RAM. And then in my sixth year a group of six of us took ourselves off and taught ourselves Pascal in what would otherwise have been free periods for us in our timetable.

We need to be teaching our children to code so that they can contribute to the next generation of computer applications. Technology has never been more exciting than it is now. I remember my dad (who worked in the electronics and communications industry, who delivered the Faraday lecture on fibre optic communications) telling me in the early 80s that one day televisions would be so thin we could hang them on our walls. It seemed like a space-age dream, it is now reality.

My main concern about that Newsnight piece, however, is the interview with Lottie Dexter, the executive director of Year of Code (at 5′ 32″ on the video).

It’s not her admission that she herself cannot code—good on her for admitting that straight away, and even better that she is committing herself to learning this year, alongside those she is encouraging to take it up. No, it’s comments like,

“You can do very little in a short space of time. For example, you can actually build a website in an hour [...] completely from scratch.”

Well, you know. That’s true. But it’s not going to be a particularly good one, if this is your first. Erm… practice?

Paxman then asks her, “How long does it take to teach to code?”

“Well, I think, you can pick it up in a day.”

My heart sank. I was speechless. In trying to make coding sound more accessible she immediately undervalued programmers everywhere. It really isn’t quite that simple. I’m going to be bold here and state: you simply cannot learn enough about programming in one day to be competent enough to teach it. Is it not comments like that that result in school pupils being ‘taught’ how to program using Adobe Flash?

Hello Ruby

Hello Ruby, a Kickstarter project by Linda Liukas

Hello Ruby, a Kickstarter project by Linda Liukas

Which is why projects such as Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby are so exciting.

Linda, a founder of Rails Girls, wants to create a children’s book that teaches programming fundamentals through stories and child-friendly activities.

She asked for US $10,000, as I write her total is at US $336,203. (There are currently three days left to get involved.)

I think it’s a hugely exciting project. This is what Linda has to say about it:

Ruby is a small girl with a huge imagination. She stomps and stumbles around her own little world while her dad is traveling. On her adventures, Ruby makes friends with the lonely Snow Leopard, visits castles made of windows, and solves problems with the wise penguins. She bakes gingerbreads with the green robots and throws a garden party with… well, if you like to hear the rest of the story, I need your help.

Ruby’s world is an extension of the way I’ve learned to see technology. It goes far beyond the bits and bytes inside the computer. This is the story of what happens between the ones and zeros, before the arrays and the if/else statements. The book and workbook are aimed for four to seven year olds.

I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. Everyone has a book that made the world seem beautiful and full of possibility. My book is about little Ruby.

It’s due out in August. I’ll report back when I receive my copy, and we’ll see how Reuben, Joshua and Isaac engage with it.

Simple categories in Feedly

Screenshot of Feedly, showing categories in left-hand sidebar

Screenshot of Feedly, showing categories in left-hand sidebar

There’s something about this time of year that makes me look back on the past twelve months, reorganise things and generally try to simplify life for the year ahead. This evening I turned my attention to my RSS feed reader Feedly.

When Google closed down its Google Reader service in July 2013 I moved over to Feedly. Their migration process was flawless:

  1. Log in to Feedly using your Google account.
  2. Give Feedly permission to read your Google Reader subscriptions.
  3. Er…
  4. That’s it!

In the last five months I’ve been using Feedly on both a desktop browser and the Android app. It’s been a really useful way of keeping up with the sites I want to follow, and it also confirms recent research about how people are using the web these days: on multiple devices.

The old way

I have a problem with the way I categorise my feeds. Until this evening I’ve grouped them by topic:

  • People
  • Web
  • Web tools
  • Browsers
  • Music

The problem

The problem is: there are some feeds that I read more than others and this way of organising the feeds doesn’t allow me to find those feeds quickly.

A few feeds I try to read every post, such as A List Apart and Zenhabits. I take my time with these articles.

Some feeds I subscribe to simply to keep up with what certain people are saying, such as Steve Lawson, Robert Wright and Tom G Fischer. I try to read most posts.

Other feeds I follow to look out for important updates. These are mostly software or web development blogs such as jQuery, Google Chrome, Firefox, IE, Opera, etc. I tend to glance at the headlines and read only those posts that I think will impact me.

The new way

So, after understanding my own user behaviour, I now have simplified this to three categories:

  1. Must read
  2. Regular
  3. Occasional

I’ve also removed quite a few feeds this evening. Some feeds I realised I wasn’t reading anyway; others were a distraction.

I’m going to run with this way of organising things for the next few months to see if it helps.

Update: After a few months of trying this, I’m finding it really helpful to have my feeds organised this way. The only change I’ve made is to rename the first category from “Favourites” to “Must read”. I found that I was questioning whether “Favourites” was my own category or an auto-generated one by Feedly.

Ironically, Feedly does have an auto-generated category called “Must reads” but I’m finding this much less confusing. Your mileage may vary.

Postcards of old Edinburgh (in 1824 and 1845)

This afternoon I came across these few postcards of old Edinburgh.

Edinburgh from the West End

1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824. Aquatint by T Sutherland, after J Gendall

I thought it would be fun to compare that image with the same view captured in Google StreetView.

2008

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

St John’s, Princes Street

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

There wasn’t much to see in the Google StreetView of the image above: mostly trees.

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east

Edinburgh from the Castle looking East. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

The thing I find most astonishing about this view from Edinburgh Castle is the space once occupied by the Nor Loch, to the left of the picture. The Nor Loch was filled in and the land reclaimed to create Princes Street Gardens. The road up The Mound, and the Waverley Bridge are quite prominent in the absence of other buildings, particularly the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland. And how few buildings to the south-east of the castle, south of the Old Town.

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street, looking West. Coloured aquatint by I. Clark after A. Kay, c.1814

I got a mention in .net magazine (issue 228)

Tweet feed from dot net magazine

Tweet feed from .net magazine (issue 228 June 2012)

Shortly after last month’s issue of .net magazine dropped through the door—I’ve been subscribing to it for the last few years—I tweeted about a keyboard that I spotted in their regular “latest gear this month” feature:

It’s not often I see something in @netmag‘s gear reviews that makes me think “I really want that”. But today: @LogitechUK K750 solar kbd :) — Source

What a very pleasant surprise this morning to discover that I’d been quoted in .net magazine’s Tweet feed round-up on page 12 of the latest edition (issue 228, June 2012) which dropped through my letterbox this morning.

And it’s true. I’d just bought a new keyboard (the Logitech K360) and then I spotted the larger K750 solar keyboard and I have to confess that I coveted it. During Lent.

“It will be mine,” I thought. “Oh yes, it will be mine.”

And a month later it is, and I have a keyboard up for sale on eBay. But that, I suspect, will be the subject of another post, another evening.

The stupid EU cookie law

In May 2011 a new law came into effect across the European Union that affects probably around 90% of all websites. The UK government has given UK website owners a year (so, until May 2012) to get up to speed with the legislation and do something about it. The law is to do with how cookies are used.

What is a cookie?

In Web-speak, a cookie is a simple text file that stores information about websites you’ve visited. They can be used for lots of thing, such as for the browser to remember that you are already logged into that website, to store items in a shopping cart on a commerce website, or user preferences on another site.

My main browser (Google Chrome) reports that it has stored 3722 cookies from 1374 web domains.

A cookie for a particular site can only be written to and read by that website. So, Facebook cannot read cookies created by Google websites, and Google websites cannot read cookies created by Facebook.

The worry is, however, that spyware software could potentially access these cookies—they are simple, easily read text files after all—and gain all sorts of information about you, such as browsing habits, personal details, etc. And it seems to be this that the legislation is aiming to address.

The issue

Over the next few months I’m going to have to get my head around this legislation, both for my own websites and for the University of St Andrews website. There has been some interesting and useful discussions about it on various JISC-run inter-university email discussion groups.

My main concern is that this doesn’t ruin the user experience. It’s going to be very, very annoying if you require to give consent to every single website before you can meaningfully use it. My fear is that it’s going to become the Web equivalent of the User Account Control (UAC) nightmare that Windows Vista introduced.

Update

Thursday 5 January

Last night’s post was a bit rushed. I didn’t expand it quite as much as I’d have liked but I was tired and I just wanted to get to bed!

Ironically, I kept waking up during the night thinking about it. At one point Jane was awake so I talked it through with her. She has to put up with that kind of thing from me all the time, poor girl!

Anyway, this morning I got three replies on Twitter:

  1. Surely new cookie guidelines are sensible? Happy to chat about this.
  2. The sad fact is, it puts EU based sites/companies at a disadvantage vs those in the rest of the world.
  3. In intent, sensible. In execution, I’m with @garethjms – stupid. Can only see negatives for UX.

And a couple of comments below (which I’ve only just approved). A nice balance of for and against. I look forward to getting my head around this and posting more about it, here and on my professional blogs.

My top free Windows 7 add-ons

These are my current top free Windows 7 add-ons (they will all work with Windows XP and Windows Vista too).

allSnap

http://ivanheckman.com/allsnap/

allsnap

allSnap is a small system tray app that makes all top level windows automatically align like they do in programs such as Winamp or Photoshop. Makes your windows feel slightly magnetic.

On 64-bit applications you have to run both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions but you can hide them from displaying in the notification area/system tray; apparently they are working on a version that will work with both 32- and 64-bit PCs.

There is no installer, just drag a shortcut to your Start > Programs > Startup folder.


Classic Shell

http://classicshell.sourceforge.net/

classicshell

Add the “Up” button back on Windows 7 Explorer. They’re bringing it back to Windows 8, I believe. Classic Shell has other features, but I just use the Up button, mostly.

Update: It’s worth pointing out that Classic Shell is dependent on Internet Explorer. I did a reset of IE9 and disabled all the add-ons and extensions, which resulted in the Up button disappearing from Windows Explorer. Thankfully there is documentation on the Classic Shell website to address this.


Dexpot

http://www.dexpot.de/

dexpot

Advertised as “the tool Windows lacks”, Dexpot is a virtual desktop application enabling you to create up to 20 virtual desktops: one desktop might be for email, another for editing graphics, another for writing, etc.

So, rather than switching between multiple applications, just switch to the appropriate desktop. It supports Windows Gadgets and in multiple-monitor setups you can choose to create virtual desktops on any of your monitors (e.g. only switch monitor 1).

The effects (found under Plugins and Extras) are attractive offering sliding desktops or cube-like effects.


Dropbox

http://www.dropbox.com/

dropbox

It would have been remiss of me to not include Dropbox. 2GB of free space, drop your files into a directory and they are accessible everywhere: on your laptop, on your mobile phone, via a Web browser. You can also share folders with other users or with the public.

And if you start inviting others to use it, Dropbox will give you 250MB more space for each new user who joins (up to a certain limit).


Fences

http://www.stardock.com/products/fences/

fences

Organise your desktop icons into groups that you can label.


Microsoft Security Essentials

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials

microsoftsecurityessentials

The anti-annoying, anti-expensive, anti-virus application. I now use it on my desktop and both laptops, replacing AVG Free and Symantec Norton AntiVirus 2011.


Mouse without borders

Microsoft Garage

mousewithoutborders

Move your mouse between computers attached to your network (e.g. desktop and laptop), drag-and-drop files from one PC to the next, copy and paste between machines, and share the keyboard too.


PrintFolder

http://no-nonsense-software.com/freeware/

printfolder

A really handy utility to print or save a list of files located in any folder. Right-click any folder in Windows Explorer and select “PrintFolder” in the popup menu.


PureText

http://www.stevemiller.net/puretext/

puretext

Windows + V will paste your clipboard text as plain text — great for pasting from Word or webpages and stripping out formatting.


RocketDock

http://rocketdock.com/

RocketDock

A customizable, hide-able application launcher. I have it hidden beneath my main toolbar and it contains my most-used application shortcuts — those that are not pinned to my main Windows 7 toolbar.


Switcher

http://insentient.net/

switcher

Like the Mac exposé feature, but on Windows. Shows you all the currently open windows.


TreeSize Free

http://www.jam-software.com/treesize_free/

treesize

Right-click a folder, select TreeSize and it will tell you how big that folder and all its sub-folders are. Great for checking to see if stuff will fit onto CD-R or USB drives.


Winsplit Revolution

http://winsplit-revolution.com/

winsplit-revolution

Does magic with windows: reorganise windows to 33%, 50% or 66% (or define your own) with keyboard shortcuts. Windows 7 comes with the ability to quickly show two windows side-by-side, well this does it too and a whole lot more.

I’ve mapped my keyboard number pad to the monitor so that I can easily resize windows with just a few key presses.


What are your favourites?

What are your favourite, free Windows applications let me know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll post my favourites on this blog too.