An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…

Post-travel to-dos

Cards and card

I’m through the worst of what I’m not-so-fondly calling Conference Month, and all of this travel is reminding me of the tasks that await each time I come home and finish unpacking.

Let’s see:

  • Do laundry.
  • Catch up on other household chores: sweep the floors, do the dishes, bake bread, reaffirm my earlier decision that the late-summer lawn is a lost cause.
  • Go over my e-mail to see which messages I should have answered three to five days ago.
  • Tag and categorize business expenses in Mint, then verify that I didn’t forget to record any cash transactions in the Google Docs spreadsheet I use for that purpose.
  • Send LinkedIn invitations to people I met on the trip, assuming their profiles show signs of recent life. (Go ahead, call me a tool now.)
  • Throw the latest set of press-kit USB flash drives onto the pile.
  • Scan business cards into Evernote.
  • Download, edit, geotag and caption photos, then post them to Flickr (for public viewing) or Facebook (for friends).
  • Make sure I got the proper frequent-flyer credit for the last round of flights.
  • There’s probably some other chore that should be on this list but that I will only remember when I’m on my way to National or Dulles.

As I write this, there’s a stack of business cards on my desk and several dozen pictures in iPhoto that have not been edited, geotagged, captioned or shared. And I only have five days before my next work trip, the Online News Association’s conference in Los Angeles, so you can imagine how well this is going.

Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?


One place I don’t mind paying for Internet access by the hour

For years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon about inflight WiFi. A seat on a plane was a refuge from an interrupt-driven lifestyle, a place where I could monotask for a change.

Engine nacelle over mountainsAnd besides, most first-generation, air-to-ground WiFi systems became unusably slow once enough people got on. In my limited experience, at best Gogo’s cellular technology yielded download speeds below 1 million bits per second–unacceptably slow 3G service on the ground. So why would I want to pay $16 or more for a flight’s worth of that?

Satellite-based WiFi can run much faster and works over oceans but is usually no cheaper over the duration of a flight.

(JetBlue offers free satellite WiFi but isn’t convenient for most of my usual destinations. Southwest charges only $8 a day for satellite WiFi but has its own route-map issues.)

Hourly pricing can make this a better proposition–I have paid Gogo’s $5 hourly rate on short flights, though I no longer do since I discovered that my phone’s Google apps work for free on its WiFi. But on its 737s, United Airlines offers hourly prices with a tweak that makes them more valuable to me: a pause button.

I can pay $3.99 for an hour of LiveTV’s satellite-delivered WiFi that actually works–download speeds have exceeded 24 Mbps in my tests–and then stretch out those 60 minutes by pausing it while I eat, nap, read, squeeze myself into the lav or take a moment to appreciate the wonder of occupying a chair in the sky. I can further extend my online time by opening up a batch of pages in new tabs, then pausing the connection to read them as if I were trying to save costs on a dial-up connection.

I can’t do that with Gogo, where you only buy a continuous hour of use. But I also haven’t seen this purchase option on United’s other WiFi-equipped aircraft; this airline’s inconsistent service (its A319s and A320s got WiFi before its 737s but still don’t have in-seat power) extends to a confusing mix of WiFi providers and pricing. I worry the company will “fix” this problem by taking away the pause button–but for now, that has me spending money I might otherwise not ante up.

Installing Windows 10 on an old, slow ThinkPad: success, mostly

I asked for trouble Thursday night and didn’t get it: I installed Windows 10 without first backing up the PC, then I blithely accepted every default setting during the setup, and things pretty much worked out.
Windows 10 desktop with notificationsThe machine in question was the ThinkPad X120e I bought in the spring of 2011. It got me through my first year of freelancing, but I’ve since relegated it to fact-checking duties when I cover a Windows topic. Its cut-rate AMD processor is too slow, and the SSD I put in place of its original hard drive–mostly as a research project–is short on space after I reserved a partition for a Linux install I have yet to undertake.
(I should have spent extra on a more robust configuration. In my defense, I was unemployed at the time.)
But even a slow, wheezing laptop running Windows 10 had to be an upgrade over a slow, wheezing laptop running Windows 8. So after waiting a day for Microsoft to deliver the free Win 10 upgrade I’d reserved, I used Whitson Gordon’s tip at Lifehacker to download it myself. The Get Windows 10 app had already confirmed my ThinkPad was compatible, leaving my only required pre-install chore clearing out room on the SSD. The disk-cleanup wizard got maybe a quarter of the job done, and I took care of the rest by moving out some old videos.
After the installer checked for and downloaded some updates, I went ahead with the installation at 10:36 p.m. Here’s my log of what happened next:
• Step one: yet another round of checking for updates.
• Actual install, in which I went with the default of keeping personal files and apps, began 10:42.
• 11:16: First reboot.
• 11:18: “Upgrading Windows: Your PC will restart several times. Sit back and relax.”
• After being seemingly stuck at 88% of the copying-files stage, another reboot at 12:04 a.m. put me at 30% complete overall and in the “Installing features and drivers” phase.
• 12:22: One more reboot.
• 12:36: After another reboot, the machine welcomed by name and asked if I wanted to use Microsoft’s “Express Settings.” Sure, why not?
• 12:39: “Hi. We’re setting things up for you. This won’t take long.”
• My one moment of anxiety: “It’s taking a bit longer than usual, but it should be ready soon.” Below it, in smaller type: “Don’t turn off your PC.”
• 12:47: Voila, the computer booted into the Windows 10 desktop!
Windows 10 storage settingsThis was nothing like my nightmarish experiences loading the preview version of Windows 8 and the insanely prolonged installation of the final build–I feel tired just reading my notes about that ordeal. This upgrade also went by faster than Windows 8.1’s installation, which somehow dragged on for two hours and 35 minutes.

Two days later, the ThinkPad seems to be running fine and is unquestionably more pleasant to be around than when it ran Win 8. The only real issue I’ve seen is that Cortana is slow to respond and hasn’t talked me to except when I was adjusting a few of her settings. I don’t know why that is but am not inclined to work too hard to fix it, since this laptop is overdue for an upgrade anyway.

On the other hand, I only see a few Windows 10 laptops with USB-C power inputs. (Have I mentioned I don’t like proprietary AC adapters?) So maybe I’ll be spending a little more seeing how Windows 10 runs on this old thing. I suppose this also means I should finally pick a Linux distribution to put on that spare partition.

It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

The fine art of viewing fireworks in D.C.

It’s July 4th, and if you’re in the nation’s capital you (or at least, those of you without small children in tow) have one job: Find a way to see the fireworks that doesn’t involve dealing with the hordes on or near the Mall and the transportation chaos before and after.

Fireworks from rooftopThe single best option I’ve found is either the roof of somebody’s house or the balcony of somebody’s apartment. Either way, you’ve got a maximum of personal space with food, beverages and a bathroom close by–and you’ll be with friends or at least friends of friends. And if you’re really lucky, some pyro a few doors down will be setting off fireworks from his own roof, a sight my wife and I were treated to in 2009 atop one pal’s Logan Circle row house.

Second comes the roof deck of an apartment or office. That was our go-to solution for a few years when friends of ours lived in a high-rise a few blocks away from our abode, and I’m sure people who work in buildings downtown with roof decks become a lot more popular this time of year.

But buildings aren’t the only way to see the fireworks. In 2006, we rented a canoe with two friends of ours from the late, great Jack’s Boathouse, then watched the pyrotechnics from the Potomac as we shared a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese. This required a few compromises (like having no bathroom option short of paddling over to Theodore Roosevelt Island and running into the woods, something nobody had to do) but was pretty great overall.

These days, though, having an almost five-year-old means we have to look for simpler solutions. Like our front porch, from where we can sort of see the fireworks through the trees across the street. Or even falling back to watching them on TV. And that’s okay too; the important thing about America’s birthday is to take a minute to appreciate this good country we live in.

How to survive walking around in D.C. during the summer

There are a lot of things I love about living in the D.C. area, but weather like today’s is not among them. It’s only just now dipped below 90 degrees and the humidity’s been stuck at about 50 percent–and neither number is even that bad compared to how things can get in July and August.

Seersucker fabricBut I have to venture out of the house eventually, and most of the time that does not involve walking a few feet to the air-conditioned confines of my car. These are how I try to make the experience a little less ghastly.

Walk slowly. There is no point to running to catch a bus, a train or a taxi when you’ll wind up sweating through your shirt. Because I am habitually late to everything, this has been hard advice for me to follow.

Or don’t walk and take Bikeshare. Capital Bikeshare is better than walking for many short trips in the summer heat, because even lazy cycling generates a slight breeze.

Nix no-iron shirts. I usually pack no-iron shirts when I’ve traveling to someplace where the summer weather is actually nice, like San Francisco. At home, they stay in the closet most days between Memorial Day and Labor Day, because that fabric breathes so poorly. Until they start making business-casual long-sleeve shirts out of Dri-Fit, I’m going to be wearing a lot of seersucker and (when I let myself forget about all the required ironing) linen.

Carry a handkerchief. As if walking slowly and wearing seersucker shirts doesn’t make me look like enough of a fake Southern gentleman, I’ve also taken to carrying around a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off my face.

Stash the phone in a pocket screen-side out. I don’t quite know how this works–maybe it’s just my phone’s age showing?–but when it’s humid and I drop my phone in a pants pocket with its screen facing in, the touchscreen sensors seem more likely to think my leg is my fingertip, then register random bumps of the phone as me drawing the unlock pattern. Only my dumb luck can explain why that has not resulted in me posting complete gibberish on Facebook or Twitter, so I have to remember to stow the phone with the screen facing out until it cools off.