Tagged: email

There’s Cheap, and then There’s Cheap and Ugly

A market research firm based in New York sent an email soliciting participants for a focus group on consumer electronics. To adorn their communique, the author of the message included an illustration of a notebook computer, a tablet, and a smartphone, suggesting that this workshop would be on personal computing devices.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

The image, however, looks really cheap for a few reasons. In fact, the image offended me to the point that I did not even sign up for the focus group and have taken to write this post.

First, the devices in the photo are pretty obvious knockoffs of Apple devices. The notebook looks a lot like a MacBook Pro, complete with the silver aluminum unibody case, the off-color trackpad, the black keycaps, and the black bezel surrounding the display. The mobile devices look different enough from an iPad and iPhone, mostly because they each bear three marked buttons below the display, whereas Apple mobile devices stubbornly have only one slightly recessed button.

iPad has only one button.

iPad has only one button.

Second, the desktop backgrounds of each of these devices bear a pretty striking resemblance to an old version of iOS. The scattered water droplets look a lot like what Apple used to market iOS 5, back in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011. Way to keep it current, guys!

The devices depicted in the illustration reminded me of Engadget’s Keeping it Real Fake series on clones and imposters of more popular and expensive products.

Ceci n’est pas iPhone

Third, the watermark identifying the stock photo agency on the illustration made the email communique look even more cheap and ugly than the knockoff devices depicted therein. The image is available for purchase from Dreamstime. Had this market-research firm paid the photo agency for the image, which seems like a justifiable business expense, the image would not have had the watermark, and it would have been of higher resolution. In short, it would have looked less ugly.

Despite being overly educated in film, I would hardly call myself an aesthete, but this solicitation offended me to the point where I felt compelled to shame the author. I regularly encounter this with students who don’t give much thought to the look of their papers. Why do they all have to be written in Times New Roman or Calibri (you know, the Times New Roman of Google Docs)? Why not take a few minutes and make your paper look nice and distinct from the others? The same goes for stock art. It’s bad enough when generic looking stock images infiltrate emails, newsletters, or webpages because rather than enhancing the work, the stock images taint the message with corporate blandness. And in the case of this particular email, it also looks sloppy because the author apparently just did a quick Google Image search, ripped the image off the web, and stuck it in the email composer.1

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the linked survey is done in a garish orange and blue color combination, accented with lime-green buttons. This medley of colors shouldn’t be a legal combination in HTML and CSS: browsers should instead render the colors in black and white.

Screenshot 2015-03-18 20.33.15

I wonder if this is what the kids today mean by Internet Ugly. Or is just ugly?

  1. I have no way to prove this, of course, but it appears that this was likely the artist’s workflow. 

The Case for an Email Appliance

Two things occurred to me a few weeks ago.

  1. I’ve been using email for 20 years.
  2. I’ve been using email for more than half my life.

I also learned that my birth is closer to World War II than it is to today. Or put another way: New Wave is chronologically closer to Big Band than it is to anything released today.

To most everyone I know, email is an intrinsic part of modern life, but it’s one that overwhelms us daily. As a result, there’s a lot of good advice for managing email. Back in “the day,” it used to be pretty easy to manage email when you had to sit at a computer, dial-in to a modem pool, connect to the “information superhighway“, and download your email to read it offline.1 It really was like checking a postal box: you did it on your time, only about once a day, and it didn’t overwhelm us.

But, of course, that’s not how we check email today. Email is always with us, and some of us are always on it. People in advertising and public relations, for example, seem to respond within nanoseconds to any message I send, and they get grumpy when I don’t reply for several minutes. That’s probably why the people I know in those fields seem perpetually burned out. Living and working that way would burn me out too because I get a decent volume of email. I would struggle to get any actual work done if I had to treat email like a telephone conversation without moments of silence. That’s why I turn off any notification alerts, push, and in some cases, even the unread-message badge in my mail client.

Fortunately, my work is of the nature where no one expects an immediate response over email. A few hours or even a day in responding is acceptable. Part of it is, I suspect, because in academic environments, stocked with aging faculty who refuse to retire, our institutional culture considers it a miracle that the old-school professors even check their email in the first place. A timely response is treated like a bonus.

That is why I’m advocating for a dedicated email appliance. I currently have four devices where I can check email, and at least one of those is always with me. Not only is the ability to check email always there, so is the temptation. And guess what? I check it constantly, even if I don’t have to. But if email were offloaded to a dedicated appliance or device, I would only check it when I had access to it.

Think about how you use an appliance or a single-purpose device. For example, you may own a dishwasher or a toenail clipper, and you probably use those regularly. But because you don’t have always those one-trick ponies with you, you’re not constantly washing your dishes or clipping your toenails (or at least you shouldn’t be). You wait to do those things, even if you have always have dishes to wash and regularly have a bothersome nail to clip. At the same, you probably don’t neglect the essential duties of washing dishes or trimming your nails. You just do it when you have the necessary tools and when it’s an opportune time. Email should be the same.

Getting an “email appliance” doesn’t require you to buy any new hardware, and you probably don’t even have to add or remove any software. All you have to do is treat email as something you do at a good place and certainly at the right time:

  • Is it time to write a paper? Shut down all your other apps, maybe turn off WiFI, and write.
  • Is it time for class? Shut down all your other apps, definitely turn off WiFI, and take notes.
  • Is it time to prepare a spreadsheet? Ingest your data and start writing some VLOOKUPs and SUMIFs.
  • Is it time to manage your task list? Yes, do that, and then get back to work.
  • Is it time to check email? Yes, go ahead. Quit all your other apps, do your email, and only do your email.

By putting email at the end of this list, I’m not suggesting that email should be last thing you do when you have nothing else to do. (Sitting a bar and drinking by yourself is the last thing you should do after you’ve exhausted all other responsibilities and possible activities.)2 Instead, think of email as a thing you do, like washing dishes and trimming your nails, not a thing you always do.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. If you buy something that link, I will earn a commission fee.

  1. Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, First Edition (New York: OR Books, 2010), 25–26. 
  2. Unless you’re expecting to meet someone. Or you are on vacation… because shirking your responsibilities is exactly what you should be doing. 

Thirteen Fewer Tips for Emailing Your Professor

My good friends at Queens College IT have started a blog on Tumblr with a series of well-meaning tips for students. The blog is a barely a few weeks old, but there are already a number of posts and links with titles heavy with clickbait-speak:

My favorite post on the blog is a link to “18 Tips for Emailing Your Professor,” an article on US News and World Report. Most of the tips are sound, but they should be considered guidelines for any professional correspondence, email or otherwise. For example, the article urges you to be mindful of your recipient: send it to the correct address, maintain a professional tone, check your spelling, avoid slang, use a proper salutation and closing, and keep it concise. Any boss, co-worker, or client will appreciate this as much as your professor.

But do we really need eighteen tips? Some of these tips unfairly caricature students and professors: not all students write in leetspeak and emoticons, and not all professors are technophobes. Most of my students are very cordial and professional with email. Likewise, even the oldest and stodgiest college professors have been using email for at least 20 years, and the younger ones have likely been using their entire professional lives. It’s 2014: most of us “get” email.

Aside from guidelines that apply to any professional correspondence, here are five tips for your professor when I’m your professor.

  1. Email me at the address I provided you. I use the university-issued address because I can ignore those accounts on weekends and after the semester ends. As part-time faculty, I should only correspond with you when the meter’s running.
  2. Email me from an address where I can identify you. AOL email addresses used to not include real names so I would see messages from greekchick69@aol.com. Make it easy to figure out who you are. If your email account doesn’t support real names, at least sign your message with your full name. Or get a different email provider.
  3. Use the subject line. I don’t understand why anyone wastes the subject line with “Hi Professor,” or “From Bryan.” Years ago, I read an article recommending you use the subject line as the message as much as possible. For example, ask me, “Can you meet on Wednesday at 5:30?” in the subject line and leave the message blank. That way, I can reply without even opening the message.
  4. Compose a New Message. Speaking of subject lines, it really bugs me when a message lands in my inbox with an old subject. That happens when someone replies to an old message instead of composing a new one. That not only messes with the threading feature of my email client, it also wastes the valuable subject line: the topic on this new message will be different than the old one. Composing a new email costs as much as replying to an old one, and who doesn’t prefer a shiny new message to an crusty old one?
  5. Don’t attach anything. Email attachments are the worst. But even worse are attachments in a proprietary format. The US News article pokes fun at .odt (Open Office) files, but those aren’t any worse than Word (.docx) or Pages files. It doesn’t matter because those files require specific programs to open. I’ll admit that with enough time and effort, I can open just about anything, but that’s a lot of wasted time. Sending a PDF will ensure that your document will look exactly as what you sent me. But instead of emailing me an attachment of any sort, print it and hand it to me. Or better yet, share it using a cloud service.

It’s possible that I’m asking too much. After all, I’m an unreasonable ogre. However, managing email is one of those things that has become less of a work tool than a obstacle to getting things done. Let’s all work to minimize its impact on our productivity.

Eviction via Spam?

I thought I had seen every possible genre of spam, but being evicted by email is a new one. It came to my iCloud email account, which could probably use some better spam protection.

Eviction Notification,

Please be advised that you are obliged to
vacate the living space you occupy until March 7, 2014, 11 a.m.

If you do not vacate it in the specified terms,
the court will have to assign the forcible eviction for April 27, 2014, 11 a.m.
If nobody is home we will not be responsible for safe keeping of your belongings.
Besides, if you fail to comply with the requirements of the court bailiff
you will be fined for up to 200 minimum wage amounts
with a subsequent doubling of the penalty amount
and can be made criminally or administratively liable.

The details of the circumstances that caused the judicial decision
of eviction are attached herewith.

Of course, there’s a fishy Zip file attached.

Less Attractive to Marketers

Until I read about Google’s recent decision to preload all images automatically in all Gmail messages, I never thought about what happens when I read a message with images. Apparently, almost any message from a marketer will load those images from a remote server. Because of the nature of HTTP, when each message is loaded, your email client communicates a great deal of “analytic data” about you. It reveals your computing platform (mobile vs. desktop), your operating system, your IP address, and even your geographic location.

Email Remote Image.001

For years, you’ve been able to tell your email client to not load remote images. It’s a matter of setting a preference. For example, in Mac OS Mail, you just go to Preferences > Viewing and uncheck the “Display remote images in HTML messages.”

Screenshot 2013 12 14 17 41 44

In iOS, go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendar, and turn off the setting for “Load Remote Images” to do the same.

2013 12 14 17 43 49

I thought the only purpose of this preference was to speed up downloads, but since I’ve had high-speed Internet for years, I never considered activating it.

Once you stop loading remote images, many email messages look terrible. Many image-rich email messages require using the very worst principles of web design, such as tables and single-pixel invisible images, and all you see is a lot of blank space.

There is some upside to this: all those barebones messages load really fast. And they make us less attractive to marketers.

Inbox Zero

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 12_01_19 AM

I don’t know how long this will last, but I managed over the last few weeks to get my email inbox to zero messages. That means that I have responded to, completed, filed, or deleted every message in my email inbox. Did someone invite to an event? It’s now in my calendar. Did you ask me to do something? It’s now in my task manager of choice OmniFocus. Did I get a marketing message or invitation to a conference I can’t afford to attend? It’s the trash for you.

Speaking of OmniFocus, it now shows a ton of items I have to complete. I better get cracking.