Everything is a Remix

Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson, a New York-based filmmaker.

Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson, a New York-based filmmaker.

Everything is a Remix is a series of four short documentaries by New York-based filmmaker Kirby Ferguson about how so many new things (music, technology, ideas) are actually inspired and influenced by what has happened before it.

I’ve had this on my “Must blog about this…” list for the last few years. I kept meaning to blog about it after part four was released and… well, I forgot. Sorry.

The Song Remains the Same

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same (7′ 17″) examines Led Zeppelin. Did they just rip off other people’s material, admittedly within legal bounds, and remix it to their own ends and success or was there more going on there? It’s a nice introduction, with plenty of examples, to the series.

Remix Inc.

Part 2: Remix Inc. (9′ 47″) looks at movies. In the last ten years of the 100 most popular films 74 are either sequels, remakes of earlier films or adaptations of comic books, novels, video games, etc. “Transforming the old into the new is Holywood’s greatest talent,” Ferguson notes. Standard elements are appropriated, transformed and subverted to create something new. And yes, Star Wars is in there. A lot.

“Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives, and the lives of others”
—Kirby Ferguson

After the credits roll Ferguson goes on to briefly look at Quentin Tarantino, and in particular Kill Bill.

The Elements of Creativity

Part 3: The Elements of Creativity (11′ 16″) opens with the words, “the act of creation is surrounded with a fog of myths [...] but creativity isn’t magic.” Ferguson talks about copying and emulation. The greats, whether in music, literature or comedy, started by copying others and then slowly tinkering with them to create something new. The most creative leaps are when different ideas are combined.

“The basic elements of creativity are:
copy, transform, and combine
.”
—Kirby Ferguson

To explore this Ferguson looks at computers, begins with the kings of copying: Xerox and its role in bringing the Apple Macintosh to the mass market as a home appliance.

Following the credits Ferguson asks the question: if some of these great inventions, such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee creating the World Wide Web, hadn’t happened then would the world be a vastly different place today? He argues not. Often when something amazing is created there are often others working on something very similar at the same time.

System Failure

Part 4: System Failure (15′ 26″) is the final part of the series. It begins with Luca (the Last Universal Common Ancestor) which is a core element in understanding evolution’s work of copying, transforming and combining. Culture does something similar, not through genes but memes (ideas, behaviours, skills).

Ferguson looks at the legal aspect of ideas. The law seems to think that ideas can be protected, that the boundaries around them are tidy. But in reality they are tangled and interdependent. For most of our history ideas were free. They could be copied and built upon but the market economy changed that. Our ideas could be bought and sold.

When we copy we justify;
when others copy we vilify.”
—Kirby Ferguson

Having briefly looked at issues surrounding intellectual property and copyright laws he goes on to explore the fuzziness of software patents and litigation that has led to conflict rather than creativity and progress.

Ferguson ends with the challenge that to address the problems of today we (not corporations or governments) need to come up with the best ideas, we need them now and we need to spread them. Maybe this focus on over-protecting our ideas isn’t the best way forward, and given the evidence perhaps it’s not even accurate to say that anyone’s idea is unique and original: after all everything is a remix.

It’s an interesting idea. It certainly holds a lot of weight in my experience. Something to explore further I think, in many areas of life perhaps: web development, writing, politics, music…

Using eM Client with Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts

eM Client

A few weeks ago I blogged about moving from Microsoft Outlook (and an Exchange account) to eM Client using Google’s productivity tools Gmail, Calendar and Contacts. These are my reflections on using eM Client for the last month or so, having been a faithful Outlook user for the last 14 years.

Why move?

My reasons for moving were three-fold:

  1. Simplify—I was using at least three email accounts, as well as trying to synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts with Google. This way I could keep everything in one place.
  2. Share—I needed a more robust way of sharing my calendar with (my wife) Jane, and she uses Gmail as her primary account, so it made sense to move.
  3. Cost—Though they do offer a terrific service, buying an Exchange account from Simply Mail Services was costing me about £70 per year. I could put that money to better use.

My hesitations in moving were two-fold:

  1. Email address—I really wanted to keep my gareth@garethjmsaunders.co.uk email address, and for email to send as that. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that was just vanity. So long as all mail sent that address was forwarded to me it didn’t really matter what email address I was sending from; besides some people were emailing me there anyway. (As it is I can configure Gmail to send as my own domain, I just haven’t done it yet.)
  2. Email client—I’ve enjoyed using Outlook because I like having everything in the same place: email, calendar, contacts and tasks. I’ve adapted my workflow around this set up. and it works for me. I knew that Outlook wasn’t suitable but didn’t know of an alternative. eM Client proved to be a near perfect replacement.

Setup

Setting up eM Client was so simple. Upon installing the application I was asked to enter my account details. I typed in my Gmail email address and password, and eM Client did the rest.

Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.

Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.

The free version of eM Client allows you to connect a maximum of two accounts, the pro version (£29.95 GBP) allows unlimited accounts. I’m currently on the free version but I intend to upgrade to pro at some point, simply to support the company.

IMAP

During the setup eM Client alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t enabled my Gmail account to use IMAP. This was easy to do within Gmail settings.

IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.

IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.

IMAP enables two-way communication between eM Client and Gmail, so any changes made in one client are immediately made in the others. This makes it really useful when trying to access your email from multiple devices, e.g. Windows and Android.

Once connected to my Gmail account eM Client took only a few minutes to download my email messages, calendar and contacts data.

I also connected my Facebook account which allows me to use eM Client as a chat client, and to update contact details and avatars from Facebook.

Review of eM Client

The following is a summary of my experience of using eM Client over the last few weeks.

Bear in mind that I am using eM Client only for Email, Calendar and Contacts. eM Client also supports Tasks and what it calls Widgets, which are plugins like an RSS reader.

I discovered, quite by accident, that if you right-click the left-hand panel you can decide which modules to display.

Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.

Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.

This also affects the shortcut keys to quickly navigate to these modules. With Tasks and Widgets removed these are now, for me:

  • Ctrl + F1 Mail
  • Ctrl + F2 Calendar
  • Ctrl + F3 Contacts

The full list of shortcut keys can be viewed at Tools > Settings > General > Shortcuts.

Using Gmail with eM Client

Email view within eM Client. Four columns, from the left: folders, messages, message details, chat

Email view within eM Client

The email client looked very similar to Outlook, albeit with a simpler, cleaner look. The screen shows four columns (from the left):

  1. Folders (Gmail labels)
  2. Mail received
  3. Message (full text of the currently selected message)
  4. Sidebar (showing contact details, agenda or chat)

Themes

eM Client comes with a number of built-in themes. I’m using a light blue theme called Arctic which is very clean looking. It clearly distinguishes the different areas of the screen: menu bar, mail folders, message, sidebar allowing me to get on and work undistracted.

Folders and labels

One feature I used a lot in Outlook mail was folders. Gmail doesn’t use folders. Instead it uses labels.

For many years I have used the following primary folders:

  • Action
  • Archive
  • Hold
  • Mailing lists
  • Projects
  • Waiting for

I tend to create sub-folders for Projects and Waiting for to make it easier to find emails. Then when the project is finished, or the item I’m waiting for (e.g. Amazon – CD order) has arrived I destroy the folder and either delete the emails or move them into the Archive folder.

In Gmail email can be categorised with more than one label. I have decided to use only one label per email. This matches the way that I used folders in Outlook. I find it simpler this way.

Something else I had to learn about Gmail is that “Inbox” is a label too. If an email doesn’t have the “Inbox” label then it is regarded as archived and appears under the “All Mail” label.

In eM Client Gmail labels appear as folders. So if I drag and drop an email into a folder in eM Client, it applies that label in the Gmail web client.

Once I understood these subtle differences between Outlook and Gmail I was happy to explore setting up rules to automatically filter my email.

Rules

Something that I relied on a lot within Outlook were rules. I created a lot of rules to filter all my regular newsletter and mailing list emails into a sub-folder called ‘Mailing lists’ (who would have thought?).

I’ve found this prevents my inbox from clogging up with ‘noise’, enabling me to see the more important emails from friends and family.

Gmail calls these rules filters. But unlike in Outlook, you cannot set up these filters within the eM Client. They must be done using the Gmail web interface.

Initially I thought that I might find this a bother, but in reality I’ve just accepted that this is the way it is. And besides, for each newsletter I only need to do it once.

It has also allowed me to review.all the mail I’m getting and decide whether I should cancel the subscription or not.

Filtering an email within Gmail.

Filtering an email within Gmail.

I tend to use the same rules for each message:

  • Skip the Inbox (Archive it).
  • Apply the label: Gareth/Mailing lists.
  • Never send it to Spam.
  • Also apply filter to X matching conversations.

Categories

As well as labels/folders, eM Client supports categories.

List of categories for email.

List of categories for email.

There are four contexts in which categories can be used: contacts, emails, calendar events or tasks. Categories can be unique to a context or shared across any of the four contexts.

You may set the context when editing the category.

Computer category is used only for emails.

When editing a category you may choose where it is used.

I have still to finalise the categories, but I tend to use these only for grouping items within my “Action” folder/label. These are emails that I have identified that I need to do something with: reply to, read, or follow a link to download something, for example.

Standard replies

Something I used quite a lot in Outlook was “Quick Parts” where you could store standard replies to certain questions. I used these a lot for replying about Psion repairs or certain mahjong questions.

eM Client doesn’t support this feature. However, you can create a number of custom signatures and using the “Insert signature on caret position” option to can use this to insert these standard replies into your text. And unlike Outlook 2010 you may add more than one signature to an email.

If your reply is longer then you could opt to use templates. As far as I can see, however, you cannot insert template text into a reply. You may only use it to create a new email. So if you don’t mind a bit of copying and pasting then you may choose to do this. Otherwise, stick with the signature workaround.

Spam

When I used Outlook with a standard (POP3) account I needed an add-in to filter out spam emails; I used Cloudmark DesktopOne, which I found excellent.

After I moved to Microsoft Exchange I paid extra for a Postini server-side spam filter to be activated on my account, which I found gobbled up more than a few genuine mailing list emails.

Having moved to Gmail, only a few rogue messages have got through to my inbox, and I’ve had maybe only four or five false positives.

Right-clicking the Junk E-mail folder in eM Client allows me to empty my Gmail junk mail.

Conclusion

On the whole I have been able to use eM Client in exactly the same way that I used Outlook. In other words, my familiar workflow hasn’t really been upset.

The only real difference is needing to go to Gmail itself to set up mail filters.

I am actually surprised at how easily and seamlessly I’ve made the transition from Outlook to eM Client, after 14 years of using the former, but I suspect that reflects the quality and flexibility of the software.

Using Google Calendar with Em Client

eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.

eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.

As sharing calendars was one of the drivers for moving from Outlook I reckoned that this had better work seamlessly. And I’m delighted to report that it is.

I have five Google calendars that I display:

  1. My default calendar (green)
  2. Children (orange)
  3. Home (grey)
  4. Jane (violet)
  5. Scottish Episcopal Church saints days (rose)

Colours

Regardless of the device (web, eM Client, or Android) Jane and I have synchronised the colours of the calendars. So my calendar is always green, Jane’s is always violet, children is always orange, etc. That way we don’t need to think twice about what we’re looking at.

eM Client draws its colours from Google Calendar itself. On our Android devices (Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini) you have to set the colours on the device itself.

Categories

I used to use a lot of colours and categories when using the Outlook calendar to denote different activities, e.g. coding, writing documentation, meeting in the office, meeting in St Andrews, meeting/conference outwith St Andrews, etc.

I expected to miss that when I moved to a mono-colour calendar but again I’ve surprised myself. The clarity offered by colour equals person has been really valuable.

I don’t use any categories now for events. eM Client comes with four built-in (vacation, must attend, needs preparation, birthday) but I don’t use any of them; you cannot delete these four.

Sharing calendars

Another decision we made was to give each other full read and write access to each other’s diaries. That way we can add appointments directly to each other’s calendar without having to go through the rigmarole of inviting each other to events.

Calendar for home events

Another innovation was to add a generic, shared calendar for home events such as which recycling bins go out and when, gas boiler service dates, car tax, etc.

I chose grey for that calendar which makes it neutral but helps it stand out enough to notice it.

Google Calendar’s recurring event feature was ideal for this calendar.

Performance

Like eM Client’s handling of Gmail, the lag between adding an event within eM Client and it appearing either on the Google Calendar web interface or on our Android device is minimal. It is almost instant.

While eM Client displays an Agenda view in the sidebar, I have not found myself using it and tend to leave the sidebar set to viewing Facebook chat contacts.

Tasks and calendar

One feature of Outlook that I used a lot was to drag and drop tasks from the sidebar onto the calendar.As it’s not possible to do this in eM Client I am now using Todoist to manage my tasks.

I now either manage the dates within Todoist itself or simply copy and paste tasks into my calendar. It’s a little overhead but really not that much.

Conclusion

As this was one of the primary functions that we needed to get right (sharing multiple calendars) I have been quite delighted not only with what Google Calendar itself offers but also how eM Client handles the management of these calendars.

Unlike Gmail there is very little that I have needed to do using the Google Calendar web interface, once we got the calendars created, shared and set to the right colours.

Using Google Contacts with eM Client

Google Contacts within eM Client

Google Contacts within eM Client

Google Contacts is yet another area where eM Client excels.

When I used Outlook (either standalone or connected to Exchange) I would every now and then import my Outlook contacts into Google in the vain hope of keeping them backed-up and synchronised. It was an overhead that I didn’t need and it’s been quite a relief, actually, to have them all in one place for a change.

Views

There are five ways to view your contacts, as well as a couple of ways to filter them. The five views are:

  1. Phone list
  2. By Company
  3. By Location
  4. Custom View (which by default shows you every contact card field in a spreadsheet-like table)
  5. Business cards

The default view is Business cards, and this is generally the view that I prefer. Each tile shows you the person’s name, email address, telephone numbers and/or company:

Contact card showing my details

Contact card showing my details

The coloured blocks on the left-hand side represent categories.

Categories

In Outlook I used to categorize almost all my contacts, but I used the Company field for that. I used this field to record where I met the person, e.g. National Youth Choir of Great Britain, School, Family, etc. I can use the “By Company” view to display contacts in this way; although it displays them by default as First name, Surname.

I have also created a number of key categories, e.g. colleagues, family, home-related contacts (plumber, joiner, etc.) so that I can filter my contacts by these categories.

These categories also come in handy when viewing contacts on my Android phone.

One thing that I discovered was that for contacts to appear in Google Contacts they seem to need to be categorized as “My Contacts”,

The other way to filter, of course, is by search. I would have found it handy if the search updated the list as you were typing but you have to hit Enter before the search begins.

Navigating contacts

Using a combination of categories, search and the scroll bar you can quickly locate the contact you are looking for.

Something I really miss from Outlook 2010, however, is the A-Z list down the right-hand side of the contacts cards view. This allowed you to very quickly navigate within your contact cards. I do hope eM Client adds this to a future version.

A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.

A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.

Contact photographs

One neat feature, once you’ve connected your Facebook account to eM Client is the ability to have your contacts’ profile photographs imported into Google Contacts.

That obviously requires your contacts to be using Facebook, and for them to have used the email address that you have for them to be registered in their Facebook account.

Duplicates and conflicts

Occasionally things can go wrong. When I used a Psion to sync with Outlook on two PCs (home and work) I was forever needing to remove duplicate entries. This isn’t as big a problem with eM Client as it is in Outlook.

eM Client comes with its own built-in duplicate remover (Tools > Deduplicator…).

eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.

eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.

I found it pretty effective, to be honest. It found a number of duplicates and where possible it combined information very effectively and deleted the rest.

A couple of times while updating contact cards I found that I made too many changes in a short space of time. In these cases eM Client asked me which data I wanted to keep and which I wanted to overwrite: local or remote.

Conclusion

Another win. To be honest, I can’t see myself needing to use the Google Contacts web interface terribly much. More or less everything is handled very nicely within eM Client.

Final observations

All in all, I am pretty delighted with eM Client. It does exactly what I needL which is to manage Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts in one place. I really couldn’t ask for much more.

Sure there are a few niggles, like the lack of A-Z navigation in Contacts, and needing to set Filters in the Gmail web interface, but really these are minor issues.

If you are looking for an Outlook replacement (and eM Client does support Exchange, Gmail, iCloud, Outlook, as well as other standard POP3 and IMAP email accounts etc.) then I can thoroughly and warmly recommend eM Client.

If I was to score it for its integration with Google services then I would need to give it a full 5/5.

In which Isaac tells a story about the sun and renames the days of the week

A very serious looking Isaac, aged 3 wearing a striped rugby shirt.

A very serious, but grown-up, looking Isaac (3).

The sun

Last night while putting Isaac (3) to bed he told me a bedtime story. It was about the sun. The sun, he told me, one day fell out of the sky into our garden.

“Please help me get back into the sky,” said the sun.

So Isaac got his small orange trampoline and the sun bounced and bounced on it until he was high enough to reach the sky again. And then he went to sleep. The end.

I think there’s a message there for all of us.

Days of the week

At bedtime this evening Isaac decided that he should rename all the days of the week. This began when he was lying in bed and said “The day after Thursday,” he said, “should be called Milksday!” I asked why and he told me that it was because he likes to have milk after he is thirsty. So Milksday should come after Thursday!

I had already told him that Thursday is named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. So he decided that all the days of the week should have super hero names. Apart from Milksday, obviously.

Here’s his full list of days, starting with not-Sunday:

  • Batmansday
  • Hulksday
  • Ironmansday
  • Hawkeyesday
  • Thorsday
  • Milksday
  • Spidermanday (which he said could just be shortened to Spidey!)

I shall be submitting my suggestions to diary manufacturer Letts in the morning.

Focus on one thing, not everything

Richard St John's 8 secrets of success on TED

Richard St John’s 8 secrets of success on TED

I spotted an interesting article on Lifehacker last week about the eight most common traits of successful people.

The article references Richard St John’s book The 8 Traits Successful People Have in Common that documents what he learned after spending seven years travelling around the world interviewing 500 of the most successful people in all kinds of fields.

You can watch his very short presentation on TED: 8 secrets of success.

He learned that their success was not down to simply being smart, lucky, talented, beautiful, privileged, confident, popularity but rather down to eight traits:

  1. Passion—love what you do.
  2. Work—work really hard.
  3. Focus—focus on one thing, not everything.
  4. Push—keep on pushing yourself.
  5. Ideas—come up with some good ones.
  6. Improve—keep improving yourself and what you do.
  7. Serve—serve others something of value.
  8. Persist—keep on going, because there is no overnight success.

What I find encouraging is the simplicity of this list.

What I find most challenging is number three: focus on one thing, not everything. That’s the one thing that I struggle with most. In the words of Queen, I want it all. I want to develop websites, write books, write music, play guitar, cycle, play mahjong, play chess, read. And that’s all after spending quality time with my family, praying, and going to work.

Perhaps this could be my challenge for the rest of this year: focus on one thing, not everything. Richard St John has a downloadable sheet where you can rate yourself on the 8 traits: Rate your 8 traits (PDF, 173 KB).

Once I get my eyesight back, of course, At the moment focusing isn’t exactly my strong point! In the meantime, I’m going to continue to spend quality time with my three amazing boys, who are definitely my biggest successes to date.

Documentary about Jeffrey Zeldman

Still of Jeffrey Zeldman video on Vimeo

Jeffrey Zeldman: 20 years of Web Design and Community from Lynda.com

Like probably thousands of other web professionals I owe a lot to Jeffrey Zeldman.

I remember spending hours sitting on a balcony in Tenerife, while Jane and her parents were out exploring the island and enjoying the sunshine, reading the first edition of his book Designing with Web Standards.

That book changed how I looked at the web and how I began to develop websites.

This is an excellent 40 minutes documentary, from Lynda.com, about Zeldman’s 20 years of “designing, organizing, and most of all sharing on the web”.

If you are interested in web development, you should watch it.

Brian May’s guitar setup and bass guitars

I’m a sucker for articles or videos about Brian May’s handmade guitar, the Red Special. Premier Guitar has both, and is one of the best and most thorough that I’ve seen.

Something I didn’t realise was that in May’s original design for the guitar, which he built with his father, he had included an ‘F-hole’, like a violin. The article shows an arch top guitar that Andrew Guyton from Guyton Guitars built for him featuring that F-hole.

What is not featured on the video is that Brian May Guitars now make a large number of variations of his iconic guitar, including the original (in a variety of finishes), a mini guitar, an acoustic and now a bass.

I remember as a teenager making sketches of a bass guitar version of the Red May Special. I wonder if I still have them? I dreamed that one day I would build my own… maybe one day. Now I see that both Brian May Guitars and Guyton Guitars have built bass versions and they are quite beautiful pieces of craftsmanship.

There’s a new book scheduled to be published by Hal Leonard next month with the snappy title Brian May’s Red Special: the story behind the home-made guitar that rocked Queen and the world. More information on the Queen website.

What is at the heart of being Christian?

Marcus J Borg

Marcus J Borg

During my six days’ stay in hospital last month I listened to two audio books (using Audible from Amazon on my Android smartphone) as my eyesight was too poor to be able to read anything.

The first book I listened to was Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (HarperOne, 2012) by the American Episcopalian theologian Marcus J Borg.

In the book Borg examines a number of words that have been historically important to Christianity (such as salvation, mercy, righteousness, sin, forgiveness and repentance) and explores what they meant at the time the New Testament was written, compared with how they have been interpreted using modern frameworks of understanding, and the tools of post-Enlightenment thought.

I found the book really encouraging and in places challenging, although I would have much preferred to read the book rather than listen to it, not least because the (American) narrator mispronounces a number of theological terms.

In much of the book Borg attempts to get back to the heart of Christianity: what is Christianity all about? I found this article by Borg published last November on the Patheos website an interesting companion: What is a Christian?

In the article, as in his book, Borg argues that Christianity is categorically not about believing the right things. He argues that the focus is not on believing God but beloving God: committing yourself to “a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness”.

The two ancient creeds of the Christian church (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) he says we should begin with an understand of “I give my heart to…” rather than simply “I believe…”

Believing in itself does not lead to a changed life. But beloving God, giving our heart in commitment and fidelity to God does.

At the centre of being a Christian is:

  • A passion for Jesus, the decisive revelation of God.
  • Compassion (love).
  • A passion for the transformation of this world; participating in God’s passion for a world of justice and peace.

I love the simplicity of Borg’s writing and thoughts. I love the simplicity of this core of Christianity. It pushes away all that is unimportant and returns it to Jesus’s response to the question “which is the greatest commandment in the Law”: Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [...] And [...] love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 38 ff.)