// Internet Duct Tape

The World’s Stupidest Productivity Tip: Open All in Tabs

Lifehacks and Productivity

Here’s a stupidly easy tip for web browsing that can be a real time saver. It works in Firefox or Internet Explorer (and maybe even Safari). The trick is to bookmark all of the websites you commonly visit as one group so that you can open them all at once when it comes time for your daily maintenance.

For me, the list is:

Step 1: Open your favorite sites in tabs

Keep using Ctrl-T or middle-click to open sites in a new tab until you have a list of all the sites you normally visit at the start of a day.

Step 2: Bookmark the open tabs as a group.

This is where the magic happens. Instead of individually saving the bookmarks, you save them as a group/folder so that you can open them all at once.

In Firefox, use Bookmarks >> Bookmark All Tabs (Ctrl-Shift-D)

Hot Tip: Save to group under Bookmarks Toolbar so that they’ll be accessible from your Firefox toolbar.

In Internet Explorer, use Favorites >> Add Tab Group to Favorites

Step 3: Organize your bookmarks

If you want to remove a link from your group (because Facebook is a timesink) then you can use the organize feature of your web browser to add or delete bookmarks, or to reorder them.

In Firefox, use Bookmarks >> Organize Boomarks (Ctrl-Shift-B)

In Internet Explorer, use Favorites >> Organize Favorites

Step 4: Opening the group all at once

In Firefox, you can navigate to your bookmarks using the toolbar or the Bookmarks drop-down menu (depending on where you saved them in step 2) and choose Open All in Tabs.

In Internet Explorer, it’s a bit more complicated.

  • Click on the Star (for favorites)
  • Click on the arrow beside the tab group you just created

After that’s all done, you’ve probably saved yourself a few minutes a day of having to switch between sites you check out very often. Because they all start loading at the same time, it’s pretty quick to jump between them and grab the information you need.

To Jott or Not To Jott

In my efforts to actually get off my ass and get things done, the Remember the Milk (RTM) to-do list software has been a life saver. Two weeks ago I decided to try out a bunch of 3rd party extensions to RTM like Jott.

Jott is a speech to text service. You call up a phone number, say something, and what you say will be emailed back to you (along with the voice message), send to a contact, or send to another service like Twitter or Remember the Milk.

My first experience testing the RTM integration blew my mind. I could call the number and say “job interview tomorrow at 9am” and it would show up in my Remember the Milk todo list as “job interview” with the due date set as tomorrow at 9am.


But all good things must come to an end, and after less than a week of trying out the free service (that admittedly, had been around for over a year before I tried it) Jott switched to a pay service. You can still record 15 second voice mails for free, but to get the Remember the Milk intergration will cost $4 a month (well, $3 a month if you were using the service while it was in beta).

Is it worth $40 to $50 a year worth it to be able to Jott my to-do list to Remember the Milk?

Judging by the way my girlfriend rolls her eyes every time I try to Jott something, the answer is no. When you add to the fact that I’m likely paying airtime fees when I Jott from my cellphone [1], then we’re talking around $150 a year for a service that isn’t even my main to-do list application.

It might be my cellphones fault, but often Jott would have trouble understanding me. Having to prefix my messages with “me” or “remember the milk” gets old fast when I have to say “remember the milk” five times before I can start recording. Why can we set up a speed dial hotkey for services so we can hit a number instead of saying a name?

One of my non-tech friends summed it up well when I tried to explain Jott to him over breakfast: “isn’t that something you can just do with an app running on your cellphone?” Yeah, or with a pen and a piece of paper.

Simple and Secure Computer Access While Traveling

Posted in Firefox and Greasemonkey, Lifehacks, Technology by engtech on July 28, 2008

Lifehacks and Productivity

There are no great solutions for accessing the Internet while travelling. Bringing a laptop has the convience that it is much easier to find free wi-fi than it is to find a computer with Internet access, but then you have the pain of bringing a laptop with you.

One solution is to use a USB key (USB thumb drive) to store your commonly used applications. So long as you have access to a computer with Internet you’ll be able to access the net with the applications, passwords and settings you’re comfortable with even if it’s at a pay-by-the-minute café, the business center at your hotel, or dial-up at a relative’s house. You don’t have to worry about your login information getting stolen because you aren’t leaving anything behind — everything is stored on your USB key.

You may even want to do this for any personal computer in a corporate environment. Lay offs could be around the corner, and you’ll be secure in the knowledge that your work PC won’t have any personal traces left behind after you’ve left the company because there was nothing personal on it in the first place.

This guide will show you how to:

  • Build an Encrypted PortableApps Drive
  • Download Portable Apps on to Your Encrypted USB Drive
  • Installing Firefox on your Encryped USB Drive
  • Installing a Live USB Linux Distro
  • Portable iTunes on Your iPod
  • Portable Remote Desktop Using LogMeIn

USB-Flash-Drive by _ES.
Photo by endlessstudio


Really Simple Syndication

Lifehacks and Productivity

What is RSS and what can it do for you?


What Have You Done For You Lately?

Posted in Digital Culture, Lifehacks, Technology by engtech on April 24, 2008

Lifehacks and Productivity

For Earth Day this year I decided I was going to try to make a real change by commuting to work under my own power instead of using my car. I’ve been riding a wave of endorphin high as my body goes through the shock of experiencing exercise again for the first time in a long while. I can feel the winter doldrums lifting [1], and I asked myself: when was the last time I did something that makes a positive change in my life?


Delete It – Tips for Managing Information Overload

Lifehacks and Productivity

We’re deep into the beginning of the Information Age, as you can see from the propagation of information aggregators like Google Reader and the meta-aggregators like Friend Feed. There’s only one tip for handling information saturation that has any success: delete it.


Battery Charged or Not

Posted in Lifehacks, Technology by engtech on April 03, 2008

Lifehacks and Productivity

The problem: It’s 3am and the wireless mouse has run out of juice. Scrounging through the battery drawer shows 13 double-A’s, but none of them have a charge. Maybe they were charged at some point, but rechargeable batteries don’t hold their charge if they aren’t being used.

All rechargeable battery manufacturers love to boast about their product’s current capacity (mAh). But there is a dirty little secret that they don’t want you to hear: self-discharge rate. Simply put: a fully charged NiCd of NiMH cell will gradually lose its stored energy over time. Technical papers I have researched typically put the self-discharge rate at 10-20% per month for NiCd cells, and 20-30% per month for NiMH cells. This kind of self-discharge rate is usually acceptable in applications such as digital cameras. via: Jeff

The solution: A social website for keeping track of:

  • how many batteries you have charged
  • which brands you use
  • which devices used charged batteries
  • when you last changed the batteries
  • Collect stats will recommend the best batteries available in your area
  • Monetized by referrer micropayments from all the battery sales

It can even have a local component for finding people who have the same interest in rechargeable batteries as you!


Tagged with: , ,

Controlling Your Privacy

Posted in Online Privacy and Reputation Management, Technology by engtech on April 03, 2008

Privacy and Rights

Today I tried out a new service by one of the smartest guys I know, Michael Geist. It’s called iOptOut and it’s a gateway for Canadians to voluntarily put themselves on do-not-call lists *before* the company contacts you, as well as giving you a legal recourse for when they call you anyways (those bastards). Within hours of signing up for the service I got 8 calls from 1-480-543-1171. Spooky coincidence.

Customer service representative indicated they worked for Fido. Trying to acquire different identification information, such as passport, drivers license, citizenship number, SIN number. Agent was rude the whole time and started asking if any of the information was fake.

They had the nerve to call us back again. Fido has confirmed they are not legitimate for selling Fido phone service. Ottawa Police (Canada) are now launching a fraud investigation. — Jeremy

(1-800 Notes is a great site for looking up the telemarketers before you give them any information — I’m glad I did)


V-Day Alert

Posted in Asides, Lifehacks, Technology by engtech on February 07, 2008

This is your friendly neighbourhood geek reminder that Valentine’s Day is only a week away and that now is the time to make restaurant reservations and/or go gift shopping.

Some links from this time last year that might help:

How to Play Downloaded Videos on Your iPod, Xbox 360, or DVD Player

Posted in Group Writing Projects, How I Use, Software, Technology by engtech on January 27, 2008


I’ve been slumming through the support forums at answers.yahoo.com lately and this is a question I see come up often: how do I download a video and put it on my electronic device? More and more consumer electronics devices that can play videos, but that means we have to learn more about the big, bad scary world of video codecs.

The steps are simple:

  1. Find a video source (source)
    • video from your camera/phone, off the Internet, or from a DVD you own
  2. Get the video on to your computer (source/download)
  3. Convert the format of the video to something your portable media player can play (convert)
  4. Copy the video to your portable media player (destination)

…but the devil is in the details.

What is a Codec?

Codec stands for coder-decoder. It’s a mathematical algorithm that stores the video into a file. It’s like VHS vs beta or HD-DVD vs Blu-ray — different codecs have different formats and they aren’t interchangeable. There are many different video codecs, and that’s where the headache with downloaded content comes from. Your computer can play many more codec formats that your iPod, Xbox 360 or DVD player.

What Codecs Can My iPod, Xbox 360 or DVD Player Play?

This is the hardest part, especially when you aren’t familiar with video codecs. You’re going to have to do some research and find out what your portable media player supports. This is how I find information for any electronic device I’m having problems with:

Once you’ve found the information make sure to save it somewhere you can find it again. I keep a folder on my computer with PDFs of the manuals for all my electronic devices so that I can quickly find the information again later.

Here’s a list of codecs for popular devices to get you started.

Sample of documentation on supported video codecs
From my DVD player manual

How to Copy a DVD to Your Computer

These guides will show you how to copy a DVD to your computer’s hard drive so that you can work on it with other software to change the format to something you can play on your portable media device.

How to Download Videos

I’m not going to go into detail because of the questionable legality. There are videos out there that you can legitimately download but there are even more where you would be breaking the law if you downloaded them. I’ll let my friends at Lifehacker give you the skinny on downloading videos instead:

How to Watch Any Video Format on your Computer

If you’re downloading videos from unknown sources, quite often you’re going to end up with a file that your computer doesn’t know how to play back. The solution is to use the free VLC Media Player that is available for Windows, Mac, Linux and a million other operating systems you’ve never heard of.

Quick tip: always test playing a file with VLC before you do anything else with it. If it doesn’t play in VLC, chances are you won’t be able to convert it to work with your portable media player.

When VLC doesn’t work, there’s the Combined Community Codec Pack to the rescue.

How to Tell Which Codec Format the Video Uses

The best advice I can give anyone who is downloading content from unknown sources is do not trust the file extension. Just because the file says .divx or .mp4 doesn’t mean it’s is. Use the free GSpot software to find out the real details of what codec format the file you downloaded is.

I’m not going to lie to you — GSpot isn’t the most userfriendly application I’ve ever seen. But it gives you the two pieces of essential information you need: the video codec and audio codec the file is using.

Using GSpot to analyze video codec information

How to Convert Codec Formats

The world of video codecs is very confusing, with lots of formats that sound similar but have minor differences that will prevent them with playing on different devices. I use Any Video Converter when I need to change codec formats of a file. It has a very simple interface that requires only three clicks to convert a file:

  1. Add a file
  2. Choose the profile for the output format I want
  3. Encode

Any Video ConverterAny Video Converter also has pay versions with added features like easy converting to iPod, Zune, PSP. But the free version works well for converting if you set up the profile for the output file format correctly. The free version also supports YouTube.

It is often easier to find specialty software that supports the electronic device you want to play videos on. When looking for how to specific software for converting video the first thing I do is go to lifehacker.com and do a search. They often discuss free software for video converting, and the comments are full of excellent information.

Specialty Software for Converting Video

Here are some examples of software that converts specifically to the file formats you need. I haven’t tried all of them, and some of them are pay software with trial versions while others are freeware and available for multiple operating systems.

This was written as part of the Daily Blog Tips tutorials group writing project.

CoinStar — Is It Worth It To Convert Your Spare Change?

Posted in Increasing Productivity and Simplifying Your Life, Technology by engtech on January 25, 2008

Lifehacks and Productivity

When I was a kid rolling up the spare change to take in the bank, I always wondered why there wasn’t a machine that would do it for you in bulk. Sorting coins mechanically isn’t rocket science; all you need is holes of different sizes. Now we’re in the 21st centuary. We might not have jetpacks but I see these CoinStar sorting machines in every supermarket I go to. According to their website they are free if you use them to buy prepaid gift certificates for sites like Amazon.com (US only) or there is a small service fee of 8.9% US or 9.8% CDN to get cash.

They say it can count coins at a rate of 600 coins per minute. It’ll definitely save you time (provided you’re going to the grocery store already). But is it still worth it with that service fee that us Canucks are stuck with? It’s pretty easy to figure out on the back of an envelope.

How Much Is Your Time Worth?

I’ve said before that one of the best ways to gauge productivity is to know the net value of your time.

  • If your net time is worth is $6/hour then the 9.8% fee is worth it if you roll less than $1 worth of coins a minute. (100 pennies, 20 nickels, 10 dimes, or 4 quarters a minute)
  • If your net time is worth is $12/hour then the 9.8% fee is worth it if you roll less than $2 worth of coins a minute. (200 pennies, 40 nickels or 20 dimes, or 8 quarters a minute)
  • If your net time is worth is $24/hour then the 9.8% fee is worth it if you roll less than $4 worth of coins a minute. (400 pennies, 80 nickels or 40 dimes, or 16 quarters a minute)

So using CoinStar with larger coins (quarters, loonies, twoonies — yeah, we have weird money up here) isn’t worth it at all. Even the nickels and dimes aren’t that good a deal. But the pennies? For sure. It’s a different story if you can use CoinStar to get gift certificates without the hefty service fee, but that isn’t an option in the Great White North.

The good news: your bank might already have a coin counter that is free for use of its members. Give them a call to find out.

Photo by superrabbit

Online Survival Guide: 9 Tips for Dealing with Idiots on the Internet

Social Software and You

My first experience with online communication was bulletin board systems in the early 90s. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The experience of running a blog is almost exactly the same as it was running a BBS 15 years ago. The only difference is the sheer number of channels available for communication.

Where there was once up to 100 to 200 local BBSes there are now so many online forums for communication that it might as well be infinite., New forums for communication are being created all the time. Mainstream sites like the New York Times let you comment on articles, and each person has their own discussion forum thanks to sites like Facebook and MySpace.

“When I was involved in the BBS/IRC scene as a teenager I was surrounded by flame wars; one-upmanship was part of the attraction. I thought it was because of the immaturity of the participants, but now I think it is a natural offshoot of digital communication. We lose all the visual and auditory cues that are a normal part of human dialog and instead focus on words that can be easy to misinterpret (especially if looking for a reason to fight).” quoting myself

Winter is one of the worst for flame wars because environmental conditions make people more irritable and more likely to spend more time online. Here are some tips for navigating online discussions from someone who has been participating and managing public forums for over 15 years.

Tips for Administrators

Tip #1: Disemvowel

From Wikipedia: “In the fields of Internet discussion and forum moderation, disemvoweling is the removal of vowels from text either as a method of self-censorship, or as a technique by forum moderators to censor Internet trolling and other unwanted posting. When used by a forum moderator, the net effect of disemvowelling text is to render it illegible or legible only through significant cognitive effort.

Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing says of the practice, “the dialogue stays, but the misanthrope looks ridiculous, and the emotional sting is neutralized.”

This original sentence:

In the fields of Internet discussion and forum moderation, disemvoweling (also spelled disemvowelling) is the removal of vowels from text.

would be disemvowelled to look like this:

n th flds f ntrnt dscssn nd frm mdrtn, Dsmvwlng (ls splld dsmvwllng) s th rmvl f vwls frm txt.”

You can disemvowel any text using this tool. There is also a Firefox extension that lets you disemvowel comments if you’re a WordPress administrator. The same guy has a Firefox extension for handling religious trolls.

Tip #2: Temporarily disable comments for that post

This works well if you’ve been linked to from another site and it’s bringing a lot of tolls (IE: Digg, Slashdot). You can turn the comments on after a day or two without having to wade through the 100+ comments telling you how much of an idiot you are because they don’t agree with some minor minutiae of your argument.

Tip #3: Take the discussion to email

Nothing kills a flame war like removing the audience.

Quoting myself: “There is a different between scrawling messages on a public site and having a one on one conversation. The flame wars that are routine on some sites rarely exist in personal email. People stop being disembodied words and ideas and you remember that there is a person behind all of that typing.”

Comment Ninja is a handy Firefox extension for WordPress blog administrators that makes it easy to respond to commenters on your blog by email.

Tip #4: Never post personal information

Because you are an administrator, you have access to a commenters email address and their IP address. This information is usually enough to find out anything else you want to about who they are. (IE: put their email address into Facebook to find their real name, use their IP address to find out where they work)

It can be tempting to deal with a troll by removing their anonymity, but making it personal can change a one time nuisance into someone with a grudge that won’t go away.

Tips for Anyone

Tip #5: Let it stew

If something really gets your goat, then sit on it. Come back and re-read what bothered you later on and you may find that you were reading between the lines and interpreting an emotional undertone that isn’t there. The human mind is great at adding missing context, but it can also trick you into reading what you want to believe.

Revisiting something that filled you with rage days latter can leave you scratching your head trying to find what it was that pulled your chain.

Tip #6: Leave it where you found it

As I said earlier, it is ridiculously easy to collect personal identifying information about someone and find other parts of their online identity. Other than bringing a public argument to a private means of communication, you should leave the argument where you found it. Letting it spill over to other websites, or worse, following the person on to other aspects of their online identity makes you look like a stalker or a crazy person.

It doesn’t matter how justified you feel your actions are, the simple act of not being able to let go of things hurts your credibility.

Tip #7: Social proof is important

No matter how well reasoned your argument is, trying to convince someone of something they vehemently disbelieve in is next to impossible when they don’t know you from a hole in the wall.

From Wikipedia: “Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.”

Every online forum is an ambiguous social situation because you don’t know who you are communicating with. The social proof of who you are in that community will play a bigger role than your actual argument.

Tip #8: Always let a fool have the last word

Slant Six Creative covers this in depth: “Healthy argument and debate only work when everyone’s a willing participant, and no amount of reason or good sense is going to convince someone whose only goal is to throw a monkey wrench. At the same time, trying to dismiss that person or shut him up will usually just make him go that much harder. That and it makes you look like a dictator, which you never want to be.

So, give him the last word on the point and move on. Doing so might mean a short-term hit to your pride, but in the long run it helps you build credibility with the people you’re really trying to talk to.”

Tip #9: Walk away

Communicating online has some clear benefits because you can take as much time as you want to develop your arguments and it is easy to re-read past points without falling into a rehashing of who said what. But it can also be time consuming and pointless when there is no resolution in sight. There’s a big difference between debating a subject and a flame war in the emotional response you feel and the benefit you get from the discussion. The only way you can win a flame war is by turning off the computer and getting on with your life.

Online discussion is easily archived and searchable, so who knows if this discussion will be dredged up years later. Is it really worth it?

Fat Blogging 101 – Weight Loss Tips

Posted in Lifehacks, Technology by engtech on January 03, 2008

Lifehacks and Productivity

It’s a New Year, and like most of you I’m looking at my waistline and wondering how reality and my perception of reality have come to such a disagreement. It’s easy enough to blame it on having to walk past the candy machine several times a day, or various injuries that have kept me from being active in 2007. But like everything that is wrong in your life, the problem always lies at your own feet.

I am not a doctor, I’m just a computer obsessed geek who spends too much time doing everything but being healthy. However, I have lost 12 lbs in 6 weeks by following these tips.

21 Tips for Losing Weight

  1. It’s all math. 1 lb is 3500 calories. That is a *LOT*.
  2. Learn the Weight Watchers formula so that can compare foods properly (although I never joined their program). Once you can compare apples to oranges (literally) it really helps you make healthier choices. The best thing you can get from Weight Watchers is learning how to read nutritional labels.
  3. Watch out for nutritional label hijinx with serving size. Is serving size eight chips, or one slice of bread? They play lots of tricks to make it harder to compare products.
  4. Don’t eat blind. Read those labels!
  5. Your regular metabolism burns much more calories per day than most exercises, so do everything you can to boost your metabolism (drink water + eat fiber + gain muscle).
  6. Building muscle and cutting calories is often counter productive. That’s why body builders have bulking and cutting phases. You might want to alternate between them.
  7. Get sleep. I’m an insomniac and lack of sleep always leads to overeating, not to mention a deadening my sense of smell or sense of taste (which leads to less enjoyment of food). Listen to your body. Exercise really helps with insomnia as well.
  8. Always eat breakfast. Your metabolism is higher when you aren’t running on empty.
  9. Eat slower. I gulp my food down like someone is going to steal it, so I have to eat more in order to enjoy it.
  10. Don’t eat the same caloric amount every day. That’s the easiest way to plateau. Mix it up with big calorie days followed by two low calorie days.
  11. Buy a digital scale. Weigh yourself regularly and journal it. A notebook and a pen is good enough, those online journals promote spending more time on the computer.
  12. Keep track of eating out. I don’t like to cook so I will get into cycles where I eat out between 5-10 times a week. Restaurant food has higher calories than something you made yourself.
  13. Penthouse Letters were right, raw vegetables are your friend.
  14. Pick your meat carefully. Turkey < Chicken < Cow < Pork. (Can’t remember where different fish and lamb fit). Learn from religions, and avoid pork.
  15. Pick your condiments carefully. Cheese, mayo, bacon and peanut butter are much higher in calories compared to mustard, ketchup, or salsa.
  16. Don’t drink your calories! No soft drinks, no juice, cut out the milk and sugar from tea or coffee.
  17. Sober up. Alcohol slows down your metabolism, and is high in calories. If you do drink, something like vodka + lemon juice + club soda is the way to go.
  18. Reduce your stress. Stress can lead to binge eating, problems sleeping, and there is evidence that it changes the way your body stores food.
  19. Make exercise part of your life. Incorporating exercise into your commute is the easiest way.
  20. Join a team sport. The camaraderie and competitiveness can help give you more reasons to be in shape.
  21. Travel. Other countries have countless intestinal parasites that can completely turn you off of food.
Fat Bastard

People Are Computers Too – How Improving Applications Can Improve Your Life

Lifehacks and Productivity

This week I’ve been talking about code profiling and how if you want to analyze the performance of your application you need to work with large sets of data. Application efficiency isn’t free, it requires measurement, analysis and change. Unsurprisingly, performance analysis for a software application and performance analysis for aspects of your life have a lot in common.

Memory Management

When people ask me how to make their computers faster, my answer is always “more RAM”. The biggest reason why software applications run slowly is because they don’t have enough memory to operate efficiently. People work the same way. You can improve your memory by getting enough sleep at night and by mind-dumping.

Mind-dumping means write things down instead of trying to keep it in your head. Human memory works like computer RAM where it needs constant refreshes of remembering something to keep it from becoming forgotten. By writing down lists of what you have to do in the future you free up your mind and your attention to focus on the present.


Another reason why computer programs run slowly is because there are too many other things going on at the same time. When I’m trying to figure out why a Windows is so slow the first thing I do is look at the task manager or system tray to see what is running at the same time. Context switching between multiple programs adds additional overhead of saving and restoring state information, and if too many things are happening at the same time then nothing gets done.

Like how a computer program will run faster if it’s the only program running, you’ll be able to complete tasks faster if you are focused on only one at a time. Maintaining a list of what you want to accomplish means that when you’re done one task you’ll easily be able to check your list to find something else to work on. Having a list of everything you want to do also makes it easier to prioritize and focus on what’s most important to you.

Profiling and Measurement

It’s easy to read advice on what to improve, but unless you look at your own life and where your time goes you don’t have a clear idea of how your time is wasted. There are several ways to track how your time is used. David Seah’s Printable CEO has print templates that let you easily measure where you are spending your time. I like to use GTDWannabe’s version.

There are a few tools out there that will automatically monitor your computer usage and generate reports about how you spend your time on the computer: TimeSnapper and RescueTime. I’ve been a RescueTime beta tester for a month now and I have to say that I really like the service.

Rescue Time time management screenshot

You can see from my chart that I wasted about 2.5 hrs on personal tasks at work that week. There may be a correlation between working too much overtime and goofing off. Because I know where I’ve spent my time, I know what I can stop doing to free up more time.

Heavy Load

“If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” Nothing makes you more aware of how you are spending your time like when you have no free time at all. Testing your application in a worst case scenario where it has to deal with large sets of data will help you find performance problems. It works the same way with other aspects of your life.

Coming back from a vacation where you haven’t checked mail, email or RSS feeds for two weeks will help you identify the chaff. It’s a great opportunity to unsubscribe from newsletters and set up filters for the major time offenders. You can turn off email notifications when you get messages from Facebook. That relative who always emails you jokes can get their own special folder that you’ll never check. When you have to deal with handling a lot of data it forces you to get rid of the unimportant information.

Do Less

As you measure how your software application performs, you’ll find features that seemed like a good idea but drastically consume resources.  Quite often it is easier to cut those features out rather than spend time improving them. As you measure where you spend time in your life, you’ll find that at their are time consuming activities that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don’t contribute to any of your goals. Don’t spend time on activities with no benefit.

Idle Time

Efficiency for efficiencies’ sake is one of the worst trends of the 20th century. But efficiency in the tasks you have to do frees up time for the tasks you want to do. Every thing you spend time on has an opportunity cost for other things you could be doing with that time. Having idle time in your life frees up room for the unplanned and unexpected.

Avoid Prime Real Estate for Live.com Email Address Landrush

Microsoft’s live.com is offering email addresses, and the usual land grab rush is on to “secure” your identity on the service. What most people don’t realize is that securing a “prime real estate” email address is probably the LAST thing you want to do.

An obvious email address suffers from an insidious kind of spam you’ll never be able to properly filter or get rid of: I’m talking about wrongly addressed email.

(photo by planeta)

As a gmail beta tester I was lucky enough to grab several firstname@gmail.com accounts and a couple of firstinitiallastname@gmail.com accounts. It was fine for the first year, but it has rapidly gone downhill as Gmail has risen in popularity. Now when I check my primary email account I’m lucky if one in four emails were intended for me.

I’ll get university class mailing lists, church lists, hotel bookings, and account signups by the handful. [1] It’s the digital equivalent to rifling through the magazine rack for subscription cards to sign up your ex. Except there’s no malice behind it; only ignorance and carelessness.



jqpublic@live.com john@live.com
jpublic77@live.com jpublic@live.com
johnqpublic@live.com johnpublic@live.com

Possible email address for John Q Public

What makes it doubly-worse is that with many email programs automatically collecting any correspondence to your address book means that telling someone they have the wrong address might be enough to get you added to their address book forever. If you choose an email address with your last name, chances are that the people emailing you might have the same last name — automatic address collection means that you’ll be on the receiving end of each other’s Christmas newsletters for who knows how long.

I know I sound ridiculous, but you really can’t appreciate the number of similar email accounts on services like @gmail, @hotmail, @yahoo and now @live until you get a popular email address and start seeing the effect of several people who give out the wrong account name — yours.

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[1] And out of all those wrongly addressed emails there was only one mis-sent dirty letter.

Overtime Considered Harmful

Posted in Getting to Done, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on October 29, 2007

(or I’m Too Lazy to Think of a Better Title)

Time Management

In the past month I’ve worked over 100 hours of overtime to ensure that a project deadline was met when unforeseen issues put the entire project at risk. When you’re a high tech worker then this can happen often enough that it feels like a way of life. What I find strange is that I’ve caught myself bragging about the hours I’ve spent tied to my job. In what sick world should living off of food from Styrofoam containers and an intravenous espresso drip be considered an admirable accomplishment?

If anything it’s a sign of monumental failure in project scheduling, design, delegation or personal time management. Spending two thirds of my waking hours at work isn’t a sign of dedication, it’s a sign of screwed up priorities where I’m willing to push everything else in my life to the side to satisfy the SNAFU I find myself in. The sensible decision would be to get my resume in order and find a way out of this mess.

But like bad movies and bad relationships there’s a sickening desire to stick it out until the end. The sunk cost of time invested seems more valuable than the future cost of staying in this downward spiral. Despite having a university education with a strong background in numbers I can’t do the math and see that the grindstone of a doomed project damages my health and completely destroys my ability to respond to new opportunities. If I’m going to spend a significant portion of my life on work, shouldn’t it be something where that time has a chance at being rewarded?

If the project success depends on a Hail Mary pass to the end zone then chances are slim that things will turn out well for the project in the end. There is no room for heroes on large multi-team projects. For large projects success comes from putting in consistent effort over time and crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s. One last hard push to get it out the door isn’t a valid project management strategy. There is no doctor waiting in the sidelines with a chemical cocktail to induce labour.

I’m lucky that I don’t have children, because this isn’t a life blueprint I’d want to pass on to them. Success that comes from time stolen from the other aspects of your life isn’t success at all.

Interesting Links

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How I Use Google Reader

Posted in Google Calendar and Gmail, How I Use, Software by engtech on October 18, 2007


“How I Use” is a new series I’m starting about the software I use on a day-to-day basis. I want share tips and tricks and to learn tips and tricks from readers sharing with me in the comments.

Google Reader is a web-based RSS reader. Because it’s web-based I can access my Google Reader from multiple places (home PC, home laptop, work PC, visiting family, etc) and all of my information is stored and updated in one place. I use the Firefox web-browser with the Greasemonkey extension.

Google Reader is an RSS reader

RSS can be best described as a stream of news. Instead of visiting different websites at a time, you subscribe to them and you get all of the updates from the websites you follow in one place. For me that one place is Google Reader. This video will describe RSS and why you would want to subscribe to an RSS feed.

Subscribing to a Feed

I subscribe to feeds either by clicking on the feed link directly or by using the autodiscovery feed option in Firefox.

rss feed auto-discovery

The first time you subscribe to a feed, Firefox will display the feed in a nice, human readable way, with a yellow box asking you what you want to use to subscribe to this feed. Choose the Google option and chose the option to always use Google to subscribe to feeds.

always use google reader to subscribe to rss

Unfortunately, Google isn’t smart enough to remember your preference between Google Reader and Google Homepage — so you have to always chose the red pill or the blue pill. There is a handy Greasemonkey script to fix that though: always subscribe to Google Reader.

Accessing Google Reader

I access Google Reader by typing reader.google.com into my address bar or by clicking on the Google Reader icon in the Google Toolbar.

  1. Install Google Toolbar
  2. Install Google Reader button for Google Toolbar

Setting Up My View

Google Reader lets you save your view settings which ever way you like them. I like to view all items at a time instead of sorting them by tags (I’ll switch to tag view if I don’t have time to read all my feeds and I want to focus on a specific subject).

google reader all items

I click on the Expanded view tab in the top right hand so that I can see titles and the body of each item.

google reader expanded view

I turn off the left sidebar by clicking the left margin or pressing ‘u’ on the keyboard.

google reader remove sidebar

Then I click on the View Settings drop-down and choose sort by newest and set as start page.

google reader save settings

Now Google Reader will remember these settings every time I log in.

Navigating Feeds

I read feeds by

  • using the middle mouse wheel to scroll down the page with my right hand
  • my left hand hovers over the ‘j’ and ‘k’ keys on my keyboard
  • ‘j’ jumps past a post that I don’t find interesting enough to read completely
  • ‘k’ jumps back to the previous post if I decide that I do want to read it

I find quickly scanning through full posts like this lets me read many more feeds than if I have to click on the titles I find interesting.

Opening Links

I open links I want to read by

  • clicking on the link with my middle mouse button to open it in a background tab

When I get around 10 links I take a break from reading feeds and go through all of those open tabs, closing them as I’m done with them.

Read a Post Later

If I come across a blog post that’s too dense to read at the moment I’ll use the Readeroo extension to save it to delicious with the toread tag. Readroo will let me fetch it later, and mark it as read.

Leaving a Blog Comment

When I find a blog post I want to comment on

  • I hit the ‘v’ key to jump to the post on the blog
  • hit the ‘end’ key on my keyboard to go the bottom of the post
  • press ‘alt+c’ to fill in my name / email address / blog url thanks to the handy prefill comments Greasemonkey script
  • write my comment and click send
  • press ‘ctrl+w’ to close the tab and return to my Google Reader tab

Bookmarking a Blog Post

When I find a blog post I want to save for my ‘Best of Feeds’ series

  • I hit the ‘v’ key to jump to the post on the blog
  • click on the ‘TAG’ button in my toolbar to save it to delicious

Google Reader has it’s own mechanism for sharing and bookmarking posts but I don’t find it nearly as useful or as fast as delicious. That might change with time.

I’ve seen a Greasemonkey script that lets you bookmark the post from within Google Reader, but I prefer using the official delicious extension to bookmark posts because of other enhancements I’ve made to it.

How Do You Use Google Reader?

The reason for writing a post like this isn’t only because I want to share how I do something, but because I also want to learn tricks I might not know about. Got a trick I’m missing out on? Please leave it in the comments, or write your own blog post about it and send a trackback.

Coworkers Considered Harmful

Posted in Lifehacks, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on October 15, 2007


I hit a realization this weekend that I’ve hit many times before. There’s an inordinate number of times when I’m in the office late not because of my own time management failures but because of the people I work with.

Common coworker induced workplace failures:

  • Checking in code that doesn’t work at all
  • Checking in code that introduces subtle bugs somewhere else in existing code
  • Trivial interruptions when I’m in a state of flow
  • Playing vacation snafu where they schedule a trip immediately after a deliverable
  • Playing priority snafu when a manager or team leader side swipes you with fixing someone else’s problems that really aren’t that urgent compared to what you’re already working on
  • Telling me something I’m responsible for is broken, when it’s really because of an error with the way they’re using it
  • Letting someone convince me of their interpretation of a spec because they are more experienced and more confident in their opinion
  • Following their implementation recipe (that doesn’t work — particularly from managers who aren’t in the trenches anymore)
  • Assuming their code does what the comments describes
  • Assuming that because a manager asked me for it directly it falls into the 20% of what’s important, not in the 80% of what can be ignored

One of the best lessons you can learn in life is that you can’t change anyone else, you can only change yourself. The minute you put the blame on someone else you’ve switch things from being a problem you can control to a problem outside of your control. Up until this point I’ve put the blame at their feet, but it’s really my fault because of how I interact with them. It all comes down to a case of trust, and with coworkers trust should be earned, not given (at least when it comes to their assumptions). Here are some things I can do differently to avoid those situations.

  • Always keep my manager informed of my current priorities and to-do list
  • Put on the headphones when I’m in flow and turn off phone/email
  • Never, ever check out coworker code when I’m in the middle of debugging my own code
  • Always check out a stable version of other coworker code that’s been show to be sane so I don’t spend my time fixing their problems
  • Read code, use comments as annotations
  • Always create interface assertions when integrating with other people’s code to easily flag when they’re not behaving the way they’re supposed to be
  • Regressable unit tests for my own code so that I’m confident that the problem isn’t on my end, and I’m confident I can introduce changes in my own code without have side effects
  • Don’t believe a bug exists without seeing it reproduced and seeing the error message
  • Don’t believe my interpretation of spec is wrong without digging into it for myself
  • Always be mindful, never follow instructions without thinking it through for myself

How have your coworkers unintentionally made your life hell lately?

(To make it clear — put your trust and faith into your coworkers, because your relationships with them will get you farther in life than putting your trust into your company ever will. But there’s a difference between trusting them and blindly trusting their assumptions.)

The Holiday Spread – Group Weight Loss Game

Posted in Lifehacks by engtech on October 10, 2007

Lifehacks and Productivity

This past weekend was Thanksgiving (aka Turkey Day) in Canada, which means seeing your family and eating a lot of food together. One of the favourite pastimes at any holiday is pointing out who’s gained weight and who hasn’t. This got me thinking: one of the principals of successful dieting is public accountability. Could we use these family get-togethers as a way to motivate each other to lose weight? So I’ve invented a game I like to call the Holiday Spread.

Family holidays are usually spaced two to three months apart, so that’s long enough to make a noticeable dent in the waistline without being so long that you’ll lose motivation to keep playing.

The Weight In – Holiday #1 (eg: Thanksgiving)

The reason why this has holidays as the start and end is that you can get everyone together in one spot and publicly weigh each other with the Official Scale. Since everyone will be weighed at the same time, in the same place, with the same scale then there will be no whining about variation. Write down the weights on two pieces of paper and have everyone sign or initial beside their weight. You’ll be repeating this process at the next holiday to determine your weight spread.

The Stakes

Have everyone put money into the pot as an incentive to keep playing. The real prize is the lost weight, but if that was motivator enough then there wouldn’t be any point in playing this game in the first place. You want to find the sweet spot where there’s enough of a buy-in that people will want to participate, but not so much that they’ll turn into sore losers if they don’t win. The overall pot should be high enough that the players can visualize something special they want to buy if they win. You’re aiming for a significant amount of cash for motivation and to engage the competitive spirit, but not so much that it can cause hardship and stress. Make sure the game coordinator gets the buy-in as close as possible to the initial weigh-in. This is family we’re talking about, so chances are people will opt-out if you wait too long and they don’t think they can win.

2 ppl 3 ppl 4 ppl 5 ppl 6 ppl 7 ppl
$20 $40 $60 $80 $100 $120 $140
$25 $50 $75 $100 $125 $150 $175
$50 $100 $150 $200 $250 $300 $350
$75 $150 $225 $300 $375 $450 $525
$100 $200 $300 $400 $500 $600 $700
$125 $250 $375 $500 $625 $750 $875
$150 $300 $450 $600 $750 $900 $1,050
$200 $400 $600 $800 $1,000 $1,200 $1,400

Individual Buy-in versus Number of Players gives Size of Pot

Rule Variation – Weight Loss for Christmas

I’m not a big fan of Christmas, so you can try to convince everyone to put the money they would have spent on Christmas gifts into the pot instead. Good luck with that.

Rule Variation – Multiple Winners

If the pot is big enough then you can have 1st and 2nd place winners to increase the chance of winning something.

The Scoring – Holiday #2 (eg: Christmas)

At the next holiday you repeat the same process of weighing each other. You’re again weighing everyone at the same time, in the same place, with the same scale so that should accounts for all variation. There are a couple of different ways you can score it.

Scoring Method #1 – Pounds Lost

This has the advantage of being dead simple: take what the scale said in October and subtract it from what the scale said in December. That’s your spread. It gives a slight advantage to the more obese (but you could also argue that they’re the ones who need to lose the weight most so any incentive helps).

If you’re 6’0″ and go from 190 lbs to 180 lbs that gives a score of 10.0 (tie)

If you’re 5’10” and go from 220 lbs to 210 lbs that gives a score of 10.0 (tie)

If you’re 5’6″ and go from 180 lbs to 170 lbs that gives a score of 10.0 (tie)

Scoring Method #2 – Percentage Body Weight Lost

One way to try and make things more “fair” is to use the percentage of body weight lost instead of the absolute number of pounds. This gives a big disadvantage to the more heavy set.

1 lb 2 lbs 3 lbs 5 lbs 7 lbs 10 lbs 15 lbs
100 lbs 1.00 2.00 3.00 5.00 7.00 10.00 15.00
110 lbs 0.91 1.82 2.73 4.55 6.36 9.09 13.64
120 lbs 0.83 1.67 2.50 4.17 5.83 8.33 12.50
130 lbs 0.77 1.54 2.31 3.85 5.38 7.69 11.54
140 lbs 0.71 1.43 2.14 3.57 5.00 7.14 10.71
150 lbs 0.67 1.33 2.00 3.33 4.67 6.67 10.00
160 lbs 0.63 1.25 1.88 3.13 4.38 6.25 9.38
170 lbs 0.59 1.18 1.76 2.94 4.12 5.88 8.82
180 lbs 0.56 1.11 1.67 2.78 3.89 5.56 8.33
190 lbs 0.53 1.05 1.58 2.63 3.68 5.26 7.89
200 lbs 0.50 1.00 1.50 2.50 3.50 5.00 7.50
210 lbs 0.48 0.95 1.43 2.38 3.33 4.76 7.14
220 lbs 0.45 0.91 1.36 2.27 3.18 4.55 6.82
230 lbs 0.43 0.87 1.30 2.17 3.04 4.35 6.52
240 lbs 0.42 0.83 1.25 2.08 2.92 4.17 6.25
250 lbs 0.40 0.80 1.20 2.00 2.80 4.00 6.00

Initial Weight versus Pounds Lost gives Percentage Loss

If you’re 6’0″ and go from 190 lbs to 180 lbs that gives a score of 5.26

If you’re 5’10” and go from 220 lbs to 210 lbs that gives a score of 4.55

If you’re 5’6″ and go from 180 lbs to 170 lbs that gives a score of 5.56 (winner)

Scoring Method #3 – Body Mass Index (BMI)

The fairest way to measure the weight loss that is still easily calculable without getting callipers and a health professional is to use height and weight by calculating your changing in body mass index (BMI).

  • BMI = ( Weight in Pounds / ( Height in inches ) x ( Height in inches ) ) x 703
60 (5’0″) 62 (5’2″) 64 (5’4″) 66 (5’6″) 68 (5’8″) 70(5’10”) 72 (6’0″)
100 lbs 19.53 18.29 17.16 16.14 15.20 14.35 13.56
110 lbs 21.48 20.12 18.88 17.75 16.72 15.78 14.92
120 lbs 23.43 21.95 20.60 19.37 18.24 17.22 16.27
130 lbs 25.39 23.77 22.31 20.98 19.76 18.65 17.63
140 lbs 27.34 25.60 24.03 22.59 21.28 20.09 18.99
150 lbs 29.29 27.43 25.74 24.21 22.80 21.52 20.34
160 lbs 31.24 29.26 27.46 25.82 24.33 22.96 21.70
170 lbs 33.20 31.09 29.18 27.44 25.85 24.39 23.05
180 lbs 35.15 32.92 30.89 29.05 27.37 25.82 24.41
190 lbs 37.10 34.75 32.61 30.66 28.89 27.26 25.77
200 lbs 39.06 36.58 34.33 32.28 30.41 28.69 27.12
210 lbs 41.01 38.41 36.04 33.89 31.93 30.13 28.48
220 lbs 42.96 40.23 37.76 35.51 33.45 31.56 29.83
230 lbs 44.91 42.06 39.48 37.12 34.97 33.00 31.19
240 lbs 46.87 43.89 41.19 38.73 36.49 34.43 32.55
250 lbs 48.82 45.72 42.91 40.35 38.01 35.87 33.90

Weight versus Height gives BMI for that Weigh-in

If you’re 6’0″ and go from 190 lbs to 180 lbs that gives a score of 1.36

If you’re 5’10” and go from 220 lbs to 210 lbs that gives a score of 1.43

If you’re 5’6″ and go from 180 lbs to 170 lbs that gives a score of 1.61 (winner)

Rule Variation – Weekly Weigh-ins

One variation to the rules could be forcing a weekly weight check-in with the coordinator in order to keep being a contender for the pot of money. Another principal of successful dieting is weekly weigh-ins to keep on track, so this rule is there to promote that habit. It doesn’t have to be done publicly like the initial and final weigh-ins, it can be an email or a phone call to the coordinator. The goal is to keep people on the weight loss wagon, and if people do drop out then it increases the odds / motivation for the people who are still in the running. Successful weight loss is gradual over time, not a cottage cheese crash at the end.

The Holiday Spread

Put down a spread of money, and lose the spread of your belly by the next time you sit down for a huge spread of food.

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Distraction Free GTD: 32 Todo List Web Applications

Web Browser Tips & Tricks

The fine folks at LifeHacker have forced me to tip my hand with their post on using Web Runner as a distraction free browser. Web Runner is a tiny site-specific web application that runs using less resources than Firefox or Internet Explorer.

The whole idea behind a site specific web browser is that you want to access a web application without being tempted to access other sites. You want to access a site without being distracted by the rest of the Internet. A good example is an online todo list or GTD application. You want to be able to quickly access your todo list to add or checkoff items without getting caught in an Internet black-hole.

internet is a big distraction

(via Coding Horror)

To make things easier for everyone I’ve created a huge bundle of Web Runner web applications centered around accessing ToDo/GTD web sites. This is a list of the supported sites.

Want more sites added? Leave a comment.

Step #1: Install Web Runner

  1. Go to this page on the Mozilla Wiki
  2. Choose the Windows, Linux, or Mac installer
  3. Run the installer

Step #2: Download My “Distraction Free GTD” Web Bundle

  1. Download this zip file (Update 2007/10/10)
  2. Unzip the contents to a folder
  3. Click on a .webapp file to launch the web application you want

Every web app has hotkey history navigation (ALT+LEFT, ALT+RIGHT and ALT+HOME).

Leave a comment if you have any problems.