Twitter: How Many Times Have You Deleted It?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve just reinstalled it for the third time in six months. That’s my love-hate relationship with the social media company whose little birdie icon can be found on 99% of websites and many products. Even our jar of sunflower seed butter has a Twitter account (do gluten free Sunbutter stuffed banana fudge bars sound good?).

Believe it or not, POTUS is not even in the top 10 of largest user accounts. Katy Perry has that well deserved distinction. Twitter’s introduction line is “See what’s happening in the world right now.” This seems to be in conflict with recent headlines like “Is Twitter Censoring Free Speech” and the constant barrage of horrible tweets often featured on “Late Night” shows.

So why do I keep coming back to a place that seems to be full of time wasting, junkfoody verbal hate cookies? Because it’s a window into a world of communication more casually interactive than Facebook, more real-time than email newsletters, and more succinct than blog posts. Some of my favorite people not only share their thoughts as they have them, but I can also join the conversation.

The silly video below can help you get started. I only follow a few people, otherwise the stream of tweets gets overwhelming. My list includes @SteveMartinToGo (Steve Martin the comedian), @taylorswift13 (Tay Tay), @tim_cook (Apple CEO), @ElonMusk, @kottke (a wonderful blogger), @AppleEDU (Apple Education), @Firefox (Google Chrome alternative), and a few others.

So why doesn’t ElephantTech have a Twitter page…? There certainly is a dark side to Twitter as this writer explains beautifully in his post “WTF Twitter” (warning: he uses a bad word in the title), but like visiting a large city, just try to stay away from the dark alleys at night. You might find that the little blue “t” represents a better way to communicate than the little blue “f.”

Taming Email Courtesy of ArsTechnica

The last post, “The Taming of the Emails,” ended with a preview of a few techniques that might be helpful in taming an unruly email inbox. In a strange coincidence, the techie website ArsTechnica published the post, “Zeroed Out: Five Steps Toward Restoring Inbox Sanity” two days later.

Besides having a better headline, their article provides a detailed series of steps starting with the smart suggestion to set aside a few uninterrupted hours to tackle the project to using advanced features such as rules to prioritize certain people and topics. If you use Gmail, it can do some of the work for you with its “Important” folder and “Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums” Inbox tabs, but it is still good to know about advanced tools.

Personally, “Filters” are my favorite feature. For example, we used to take dance classes and subscribed to several dance mailing lists. Years later, we were still receiving weekly emails about events. As small lists, there was no unsubscribe button and while hitting delete a couple times a week isn’t really a huge burden, creating a filter to delete these messages automatically was a relief. It took all of 10 seconds:

  • Click on the message
  • Click “Filter messages like this,”
  • Confirm the search criteria, and
  • Check the box “Delete it.” Bam. Done.

An added bonus is that this is a very satisfying project similar to cleaning out a stuffed closet or garage, but with less heavy lifting. The author went from 2,500 emails to 50 in “a couple hours.” A little more work and you may end up “Zeroed Out” and greeted with that magical Gmail message, “No new mail!”

The Taming of the Emails

Lately the tech news has been filled with security articles on issues with ominous names such as Meltdown and Spectre. Yes, these are serious problems that need to be addressed by updating to the latest versions of Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, but if you want a real chill, think about what will happen when your email inbox reaches its size limit!

For Gmail, that’s 15 GB which can fill up fast with 100 MB cat videos pouring in from friends every day. Worse still are the tens of thousands of small messages that sit in that tiny folder called “Inbox.” Department store ads, the latest airfare sales, Netflix, PBS, that cute restaurant in San Diego that has weekly specials, all collect there like leaves on a pond soon to sink to the bottom. A couple days later, they are buried under a new deluge of email and only surface when searching for something else, like an email from your friend Diego, and you find 175 weekly specials from that cute restaurant in San Diego that you haven’t visited in ages.

Four years ago, I wrote the post “Inbox Zero, Gmail, and Mobile Collaboration Tools” that discussed a product called Mailbox which no longer exists, but the idea of “Inbox Zero” is still a good one. At the moment, my email inbox has ZERO messages in it. Can you believe it? Am I some sort of OCD superhuman?! I’ll let you in on my secret over the next few posts, but here’s a preview of how to get there from the commonly overflowing email inbox.

  • Create a new email address for “important emails” and begin to give it out to family and friends. A more private address can also be used for bank logins and other secure websites. Making it a little harder for hackers to access critical accounts is always a good idea.
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters that you don’t read as they come in. In a couple of months, it will make a big difference
  • Learn to use Gmail’s “Archive” button. An email inbox is the most effective when only items that require immediate attention show up.
  • For particularly unruly Gmail accounts (like work accounts), try a tool like “Drag” that gives more control over the behavior of the inbox by transforming it into organized Task Lists. Drag and drop your emails between lists/stages and customize them. It makes the hours spent in your inbox a whole lot easier and more organized.
  • Clean out large and repetitive messages from your current email account. Did you know you can search Gmail for messages larger than a certain size so they can be deleted?

It might take work upfront, but the beginning of the year is often good time to do this kind of housecleaning. A long, snowy morning could result in reaching that paradise of “Inbox Zero.”

Happy New Year!

A Tiny Bit of Bitcoin

While there are hundreds of articles about the recent crazy speculation in Bitcoin (over $20,000 per Bitcoin as I write this), this one from Ars Technica, “Bitcoin: Seven questions you were too embarrassed to ask” seems to sum it up best. It has enough technical information to explain the basics accurately while still being readable by the non-techie reader.

Despite this, here is a TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) version.

  1. Bitcoin is a completely “virtual” currency with no basis in physical reality.
  2. “Owning” Bitcoin means that a 32 digit Bitcoin account number (1AzGguw… etc.) has an entry in the database of the Bitcoin network that associates it with a certain amount of “Bitcoin.”
  3. A person who has the password for this account (hopefully the owner) has access to this Bitcoin. Hackers like stealing Bitcoin because once the Bitcoin “wallet” is hacked, they can transfer it and disappear without a trace.
  4. The Bitcoin database is called the “Blockchain” and the Bitcoin network synchronizes it across many computers across the globe. No one person, country, company, etc. owns or controls it.
  5. The database is called the Blockchain because it is a chain of blocks of Bitcoin transaction data. Each block can be validated mathematically as belonging to the chain of blocks that preceded it so no one can cheat the system by creating a fake transaction.
  6. Bitcoin is created by a digital “mining” system where an increasingly complex math problem is solved to create a new Bitcoin. It is so complex that the computers mining Bitcoin (and processing transactions) are estimated to be using the same amount of energy as the entire country of Denmark.
  7. Outside the miners, others get Bitcoin like any other form of currency. They can take it as payment or transfer standard currency to somebody who then transfers Bitcoin back to them.
  8. It is hard to spend Bitcoin. There are a few Bitcoin “ATMs” as well as a few businesses that take it. The most well known are Tesla and Virgin Atlantic. The rest are mostly tech companies. Also, there are significant transaction fees for Bitcoin, up to around 15%.

In my opinion, the current price of Bitcoin is a bubble. At least with the “Tulip Mania” bubble of the 17th century, people ended up with tulips. Bitcoin certainly has its place in some parts of the world with significant financial uncertainly, but probably not a good investment and definitely not practical for daily use.


Equifax Illustrates WHY Certain Information Is Sensitive

There have been thousands of articles about the Equifax breach recently, but very few have discussed the deeper reasons why information that used to be common knowledge has become so critical to online safety and security. This blog post from AgileBits, makers of 1Password, is a great primer on why certain information is now considered sensitive. It all boils down to the fact that banks have adopted identifiers (such as Social Security Numbers) as secrets and “identifiers are bad secrets.” To illustrate the point, the author includes a fun clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the famous “Bruces Sketch.”

There might be a lot of Bruce’s in the room, but there are probably not two with the same birthday and definitely not two with the same Social Security Number (SSN). So the name Bruce can’t be used as an identifier. Bruce + SSN used to be ok, but became a secret when banks began to use them for telephone banking. Bruce + birthday is not great, but add Bruce’s address and that should be unique. However, it is not a secret because Bruce’s birthday can be found on his Facebook page and his address is probably 1,000 places online. Identifiers are clearly bad secrets.

The Equifax breach has brought the problem to a head by speeding up the process of demonstrating that identifiers are bad secrets because for hundreds of thousands of people those identifiers are now public information (for hackers). The solutions are complicated and while many people think they don’t have any “secrets” and ask themselves “Why would a hacker possibly be interested in my boring family photos?” The deeper issue is the increasing interconnectedness of online and physical identities. For a deep dive into how to protect yourself online, see my recent series, “Online Security.”

AgileBits is certainly doing their part to help people keep track of the real secrets: passwords, credit card numbers, driver’s licenses, passports, etc., but a kept secret is only as good as the privacy of the place it is stored such as a smartphone or computer. For more information on this part of the problem, take a look at Apple’s excellent new website on privacy. It presents a clear picture of  how closely related secrecy and  privacy really are.