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  • Robert Sanek 17:57 on September 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    High-Quality Cross-Platform Software 

    Have you ever gotten used to a piece of software so much that when it shuts down, you’re left scrambling to find a replacement? Or, have you recently switched from Windows to Mac, perhaps even Linux, only to find that most of your programs aren’t available on the new platform? It’s happened to me many times, and I’ve now gotten frustrated enough that I want to spend some time calling out high-quality software that doesn’t suffer from these drawbacks.

    In this list, I aim to give software solutions to common needs that have a few different properties:

    • Minimize dependence on one company. Often, when you ‘buy’ software (and even hardware), you’re really just renting it for a few months. This allows a party to arbitrarily pull the rug out from under you, which is what we’d like to avoid.
    • Maximize platform-agnosticism. Ideally, your software solutions shouldn’t tie you to one platform – be it Windows, Mac, or Linux.
    • Minimize cost. Obviously, something that is free is more sustainable over the long term than something that has a cost. One must be careful, however, because the software producer (typically) needs to be compensated somehow, particularly if it is not open-source. For example, Facebook is free but its customers are advertisers, not the users, since the revenue does not come from users.
    • Allow for portability of data. When it’s hard to get data out of a system, it artificially keeps people using it simply because of sunk costs. If you can get a CSV of all your data, however, you can probably do some transformation and get it into another system pretty easily.

    It turns out that FOSS software typically fares well in all of these areas. Cost is minimized by default. Since development is happening in the open, your dependence is on the community of maintainers and not on one company[1]. FOSS projects also typically have a higher degree of focus on cross-platform compatibility; perhaps this is because maintainers of such projects have felt the same pain that spurred me to put this list together. Finally, FOSS projects have no reason to put up barriers to data portability, since they have no need to protect revenues. Even if no export capabilities exist, you can look at the code and build such a tool yourself.

    This list is meant to be a living document; I will update it as time goes on with my most recent recommendations.

    CategorySoftwareFOSS?windows_logo_-_2012-svgapple-logo-blacktuxDeveloped ByComment
    Web BrowserFirefoxMozilla Foundation, 501(c)(3) nonprofitFoundation receives most funding from Google and Yahoo.
    Office SuiteLibreOfficeThe Document Foundation, non-profit in Germany
    Text EditorAtomGitHub, Inc., private
    Graphics EditorGIMPGNU Project
    Flashcard ProgramAnkiCommunnityMost contributions from 2 contributors.
    Java IDEIntelliJ Idea✔*JetBrains, private*Community Edition is FOSS, Ultimate version with additional functionality is not.
    R IDERStudioRStudio, Inc., private
    Time TrackingRescueTimeRescueTimeNo FOSS products that provide similar functionality exist.
    Display Utilityf.luxFlux Software LLC, private
    Torrent ClientqBittorrentCommunityMost contributions from ~10 contributors.
    Window ManagerDivvyMizage, LLC, privateNearly all window managers are single-platform.
    E-book Reader/ManagerCalibreKovid GoyalMost contributions from Goyal.
    Media PlayerVLCVideoLAN project
    Git GUIgit-colaDavid AguilarMost contributions from Aguilar.
    Git Repo HostingGitLab✔*GitLab Inc., private*Community Edition is FOSS, Enterprise Edition with additional functionality is not.
    FTP ClientFileZillaTim Kosse
    SQLite BrowserDB Browser for SQLiteCommunityMost contributions from 3 contributors.

    [1] Obviously, if the community is small enough, you run into the same problem. Still, you can take up development of a FOSS project yourself if you have a strong enough need for it.

  • Robert Sanek 21:08 on August 14, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Fitbit Surge vs. Polar H7 + Nexus 6 + Strava: Comparing Heart Rate Sensors 

    Runner with Fitness Tracker and Heart Rate Strap

    This was me. Design credit Aly Weir.

    Last week I bought the Fitbit Surge fitness tracker, hoping to get some data on my heart rate throughout the day. I read some reviews and figured the Surge was the best currently available, especially since my last tracker, the Basis Peak, was recently recalled. But how accurate is the heart rate sensor, really?

    A coworker confronted me with this question this Friday and I realized I didn’t really have any hard data. The only thing that came close to giving information on precision/accuracy was DC Rainmaker’s excellent review, but the information there left me wanting. Since DC wasn’t able to export the data, he could only look at the graphs that were shown in the respective UIs (with different scales) and try to approximate if the information matched up visually. Not ideal.

    So as I laced up for a short run this Sunday, I decided to run a test. I’d have the Surge on ‘Free Run’ mode, where it tracks heart rate and distance through its own GPS, and I’d also bring my phone (Motorola Nexus 6) for GPS and a chest-strap heart rate sensor (Polar H7). In the past, chest straps have been found to be more accurate than optical heart rate readings, so I’m using the chest strap as my ‘true’ value. Hopefully, I’ll be able to export the data from both and see more precisely how the information differs.

    I was in luck. I was able to export both runs in easy-to-parse tcx format. A few lines of R code (source here) and I had the information in a nice data frame. Here’s a graph of the two runs:

    heartRateComparisonAs you can see, the data matches up very closely, especially considering the chest strap has a much greater area for its electrode to detect heart rate. The full run took 35 minutes and covered 3.2 miles (see strava log). From the graph, we can see that the Surge does poorly in two areas:

    1. In the beginning, when heart rate is increasing fairly rapidly, it significantly lags behind the H7.
    2. Throughout the run, the Surge consistently takes longer to adjust to changes in heart rate. You can see this particularly well around 17:55-18:00 in the graph; in the case of rapid heart rate increase or decrease, the Surge lags the H7.

    The average difference between the Surge vs. the H7 was 1.5; that is, the Surge, on average, gave a reading 1.5bpm lower than what the H7 reported.

    To me, these drawbacks are fairly minor. Save for the first 5 minutes of the run, the Surge mimics the chest strap very closely, much more than I would expect. And for a novice runner like myself, 1.5bpm makes no difference.

    Happy running!

  • Robert Sanek 16:46 on December 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    Most-Valuable Android Apps 

    Sometimes I come across an Android app that’s been out for ages and immediately regret that I hadn’t heard of it earlier. This is about when I start cursing those top-lists that I’ve read that somehow failed to mention this piece of gold. I’ve ascertained that the only solution to this is more top-lists; mine is below.

    I’ve ordered apps by perceived usefulness; apps that give the biggest payoff for the least amount of work are first, and those requiring more setup/acclimation are further down. I haven’t really considered whether or not apps are free or paid (unless the cost is substantial).

    1. 500 Firepaper, Free: Released by developer Chainfire that’s behind projects like SuperSU and CF-Auto-Root, this app is a simple background changer. It pulls high-quality images from 500px and changes your background every x hours. These sorts of apps can be battery hogs, but I’ve found it to be remarkably efficient and really love the kinds of backgrounds it downloads. There’s a fair amount of customization available too. There’s a free version and an pro upgrade in-app, with no significant differences.
    2. Power Toggles, Free: The simplest app I’ve found to keep a quick settings bar at the top of your notification pull-down. Although Android now includes quick settings if you swipe left/right on the notification window (or pull down with 2 fingers), that’s still an extra swipe/finger and it’s not really that customizable. Power Toggles has tie-ins to Tasker and includes the ability to open any apps, which I find really useful. As an added bonus, you can set it to use the date as the notification icon, which tends to come in handy. The shortcuts I have are for WiFi, Location, Brightness, Device Rotation, Flashlight, Battery, Airplane Mode, and Full Settings.
    3. Hangouts, Free: Anytime I see someone using the OEM’s stock messaging application, I’m baffled at how they put up with such a poor product. The latest updates to Hangouts have made this app by Google a must-have, especially considering its integration with Google Voice. Finally, you can use GTalk/GVoice and stock SMS in the same app.
    4. Lux Auto Brightness, $4: Lux bills itself as a better brightness manager, but i use it as a mobile equivalent of f.lux on desktops. The idea behind these apps is that the blue glow from screens can make it harder to get to sleep at night. To combat this, you can tint your screen to a warmer color as the day progresses. So when you’re in bed responding to emails right before going to sleep, you won’t be compromising your ability to get to sleep quickly. When you download this, be sure to enable ‘Night Mode’ in the settings.
    5. Nova Launcher Prime, $4: If you haven’t heard of a launcher, read this brief intro. Although launchers have been around for a while, not everyone is familiar with how much they can improve your phone experience, particularly with Samsung devices. And if you’re as sick of TouchWiz as I am, you’ll welcome Nova. My personal favorites are the easy back-up of home screens and endless customization options allowed for icon sizes and the grid.
    6. Simple Calender Widget, Free: I don’t know about you, but I consider space on my home screens scarce and don’t want unnecessary chrome and spacing from widgets crowding out content. SCW does a great job of getting those out of the way and presenting you with a minimalistic view of your events. Although you can easily get lost in the confusing settings, setting it up once and backing up the setup you like is well worth it.
    7. PushBullet, Free: Recent updates made by the PushBullet team allow you to respond to texts and receive notifications from your phone on your computer. I generally just use it for pushing links/notes/small files to my devices. A solid application that has never failed me.
    8. LastPass, Free: If you’re not using a password management system like LastPass, you should switch as soon as possible. In short, passwords that you can remember are usually bad, and if you’re a heavy internet user, there’s too many sites to remember unique passwords for each. The mobile app makes it alot easier to input passwords into application; it will pre-fill the data and all you have to do is login. Full features do require a premium account, currently at $12/year.
    9. Google Authenticator, Free: With security breaches happening all the time, you should really be using 2-step verification for your accounts whenever you can. Every implementation I’ve seen is supported by this app. A no-brainer.
    10. Feedly, Free: when Google Reader shut down, there was significant uncertainty as to who would take its place. Feedly has stepped in and continued to put out updates that improve the reading experience, all while matching Google Reader’s price of $0.
    11. reddit is fun, $2: Still the best reddit client around. Frequent updates and an ad-free pro version make this my top pick for reading news on reddit.
    12. StrongLifts 5×5, Free: The basic goal of StrongLifts is to quickly gain as much strength as possible. It is aimed at strength-training beginners. This companion app to the program is just so well-designed. There’s timers for when you complete your sets, automatic tracking and adjusting of your lifts, and upgrades within the app that aren’t necessary but help support the dev. Very nicely done.
    13. Titanium Backup, Free: Taking the time to set up backup services is useless… except when you lose/break your phone and you kick yourself for not taking the hour properly preparing for this moment. Titanium Backup is awesome; switching phones with it will be a breeze and you’ll feel like you’re back home in no time.
    14. Sleep as Android, Free: If you’re ready to hop onto the recent fitness tracking trend but don’t want to drop hundreds on some random extra device, try giving this app a try across a few nights. It’s constantly updated with new features and improvements to current capabilities. It’s impressive how much information you can glean about your sleep just from your smartphone’s microphones and accelerometer. And if you do have a smartwatch, they’ve recently introduced integrations with most major smartwatch platforms.
    15. DGT GTD, Free: In the same vein as Simple Calendar Widget, this todo app’s widgets are on point. Minimum chrome with plenty of information displayed. Syncs with the Toodledo online todo service, which is one of the most full-featured around. It has been in ‘alpha’ for forever, but I haven’t had any issues with it personally.
    16. AnkiDroid, Free: This app is the holy grail for memorization. It requires a fair bit of discipline and trust, but once you’re sold, you’ll never try to retain information in any other way. For those unfamiliar with Spaced Repetition Systems, read this short introduction and/or this well-researched review. Then download the desktop application and sync your information with your phone through AnkiDroid.
    17. Textdroider DPI, Free: Although this app requires root, I am always reminded of how useful DPI changes are when using another person’s phone. Generally, I find that DPI settings on devices are too low; that is, I would rather have text and other things appear smaller and see more information on screen. Although you could set this up in each app individually by hunting through settings, changing the phone-wide DPI is much easier and works for all apps. A simple app that does the job well.
  • Robert Sanek 19:05 on March 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    Working your way through college 

    I recently ran across a blog post that showed how much more difficult it is for college students today to pay for school compared to just 15 years ago. The blog post discusses tuition at Michigan State, so I decided to crunch the same numbers for my own Auburn University. You can find the data here.

    Taking tuition costs from this page and matching it with the minimum wage numbers, we can see a graph that mirrors what is happening at MSU:

    Hours Worked on Minimum Wage Necessary to Cover Auburn Tuition for Alabama Residents

    In 1980, a student could cover one year of tuition with a 10-week part-time job during the summer (~213 hours). But today, a student would have to work 34 weeks (1359 hours) at a full-time job to be able to cover their tuition. Of course, this sort of set-up is unreasonable for anyone going to a college full-time. The only other solution is to work full-time during the summer (14 weeks, ~560 hours total) and part-time during the entire school year (40 weeks, ~800 hours total). Either option is unreasonable.

    We’ve long known that college costs have been going up, but this elucidation of the data really brings into question the assertion that “you can do it if you set your mind to it.” In this case, working throughout the year will still only be enough to cover tuition, and that’s if we ignore all other costs.

    • Deron R. Pope 12:04 on April 1, 2014 Permalink

      I’ve done a similar study that takes into account working full-time during school breaks. Things have changed a lot in 40 years.

  • Robert Sanek 12:55 on February 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    Microsoft will pay you $60 per year to use Bing 

    Have you looked into Bing’s rewards program? Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t either. Why change search engines when Google is just fine?

    Microsoft is betting that they can bribe you to switch through Bing rewards. Once you sign up for the service through a Microsoft account, you accumulate “points” that can later be exchanged for rewards, such as gift cards. Usually, gift cards are a poor approximation of money, but gift cards to Amazon are offered as well – and cash you can spend at The Everything Store is a close enough approximation to real cash for most people.

    You get 0.5 points for every search you do for up to 15 points per day. Plus, Microsoft has a few extra suggested searches that let you get points on top of that, usually around 2-3. That means that you can claim 17-18 points every day. Over the month, that works out to (coincidentally?) exactly how much you need to get one of these gift cards. Over the entire year, you’ll accumulate $60 in gift cards to Amazon, or any other retailer that they offer gift cards to. Of course, this assumes you’ll be doing at least 30 searches every day, but I imagine that most people at white collar jobs already do this.

    Normally, I see these kinds of point systems as falling into either the “scam” or “not worth the effort” categories, but all you have to do in this case is sign up and switch your default search to Bing. And the search results don’t really seem much different. Although the Bing It On challenge didn’t convince me, $60 and a week with good-enough search results did. Maybe it’ll convince you too.

    • Wiseass 02:08 on February 13, 2014 Permalink

      Seems like a very ripe opportunity for someone to write a script that opens a command line Firefox and racks up amazon gift cards without having to use the trainwreck that is Bing. I assume this comment will be deleted because this is shill astroturfing for MS, but I could be wrong!

    • samir 02:27 on February 13, 2014 Permalink

      Bing Rewards isn’t available yet in your country or region.

    • Robert Sanek 07:40 on February 13, 2014 Permalink

      @Wiseass – That would probably work, though I wonder if they have any kind of fraud-detection to prevent something like that. I’ve found that Bing results aren’t materially different, though. The only thing I don’t like is the way they display video results – everything else is pretty much a copy of Google.

  • Robert Sanek 21:16 on July 25, 2013 Permalink | Reply  

    Combining Reddit with Yahoo Pipes Makes for a Great Reading Experience 

    Like many, I have a small fear of missing out. Not specifically in social media, but in news. If I don’t stay current with tech headlines, I might miss a big story! A somewhat ridiculous concern, but a concern nonetheless.

    I’ve been struggling with a solution to this problem, specifically when dealing with Reddit, for a while now. On most websites, I am able to subscribe to a relevant RSS feed and can manage the incoming posts. And even though Google itself recently shut down Reader, Feedly has replaced it quite nicely. But there’s not a solution like this for Reddit, or at least one that I was able to find when I did a quick Google search.

    It’s not simply a concern of grabbing everything on my front page each day and posting it to RSS. I don’t want to include those posts that Reddit adds to your front page that have very small numbers of upvotes, and I don’t necessarily want the same mix of subreddit posts as their algorithms give me. I want to be able to grab the first x links from the ‘top posts’ of each subreddit for each week, and have them all combine into one RSS feed that I can simply subscribe to.adding feed, truncating

    I had heard of Yahoo Pipes doing something like this, so I decided to try it out. To my surprise, it was (reasonably) easy to set up and has been a huge success! The solution I’ll describe is actually fairly robust; other than RSS, you can get your data as JSON, via email/phone, and even as php. Talk about awesome Yahoo products. Here’s what I did.

    1. Go to Reddit and add each of the subreddits you subscribe to as a ‘fetch feed’ source in Yahoo Pipes. You can either use a service for this or the reddit RSS API itself. Each subreddit needs to be its individual source, because otherwise the following options won’t work.
    2. Establish how many posts you’d like to read per week from this subreddit. 2? 10? It’s really up to the individual. Here’s where you get to decide what’s on your reddit front page, in extremely specific terms. Add a ‘truncate’ operator, and use this number as the input. Make a link between the fetch feed the operator. Of course, you can use other operators to limit your posts in other ways too.
    3. Use as many 5-to-1 Unions (also under operators) as you need to connect each outgoing truncate to a Union incoming port. I personally had 9 Union ports (you may have to link up unions to create unions-of-unions). The point here is to tie all of the sources together into one output.union-of-union
    4. Connect the final ‘union’ output to the ‘pipe output’ input.

    pipe-overviewThat’s it! Admittedly, it takes some time to add each individual subreddit as its own source and to determine how many posts you want to see for it. But even if you have quite a few subscriptions (I have 35), it will take you a maximum of 30 minutes or so to set it all up. After that, you’re done! It’s fairly simple to go back into Pipes to add a new subscription too. Plus, no coding necessary 🙂

  • Robert Sanek 20:06 on June 5, 2013 Permalink | Reply  

    Why Decoupling Core Apps from Android Isn’t Viable Long-Term 

    From the early days of Android, Google has had a problem of device fragmentation. Manufacturers would release handsets running a recent Android release but then never bother to update it. If the device ever did get updated, the lag between release and consumer availability was significant. Indeed, this was one of the big motivations for starting Google’s own Nexus program. Devices Google – not manufacturers or carriers – completely controlled could get updates within days of announcement.

    But this didn’t really solve fragmentation at all; Google simply introduced a new set of devices that could take full advantage of Android without attempting to do anything to solve the cause of the problem. The well-documented failure of the Android Update Alliance meant that most Android users were still stranded on version 2.3.

    Now, Google is using a different strategy. Instead of putting their efforts into persuading manufacturers to update their own devices, Google is starting to take action themselves by breaking off apps from the OS release cycle. This “decoupling” of Android features started in 2010 with the Google Maps app, and now includes almost all the standard applications that a stock Android device carries. You can download Gmail, Maps, Search, Music, Chrome, Google+, and tens of other apps directly from Google Play. There are now very few apps that ship with Android that aren’t available as separate downloads. Most recently, even a feature as basic as the keyboard has been moved to a separate app.

    On the one hand, this is a brilliant move. By breaking off key features of a phone, Google gains the ability to update most consumer-facing apps without having to negotiate with a device manufacturer. The consumer also gets more mileage out of their older device. It almost seems like Google has cured their problem of fragmentation by, ironically, fragmenting the OS itself into a collection of apps.

    But there are a few problems with this switch in update mechanisms. Since most apps are now able to update without the OS, manufacturers have even less of an incentive to put work into making sure their devices carry more recent Android releases. And while the apps may be new, consumers won’t get access to things that are actually tied to the OS itself – like 4.0’s major design overhaul, 4.1’s Project Butter & Google Now, or 4.2’s Camera Photosphere. The lowered incentive also puts consumers at risk if exploits are found in older versions of Android.

    Overall, though, these are not problems for power users, those Android fanatics that are active in downloading apps and frequently interact with Google Play. In fact, power users aren’t really causing the fragmentation problem in the first place – in April, when Google switched its version tracking from devices “checked-in” to Google servers to a measure “based on the number of Android devices that have accessed the Play Store within a 14-day period”, recent Android versions experienced a big jump. It’s impossible to know what exactly “checked-in” means, but it’s safe to say that the numbers currently reported online significantly overstate market share of recent Android versions. It makes sense that users with newer devices are simply more likely to actively seek out new apps by accessing the Play Store. The problem isn’t among users on current devices, it’s an issue for phones that haven’t even made it to Ice Cream Sandwich (which was released in late 2011).

    Android isn’t just for people who want all the latest apps – in fact, Android is strongest in areas that may not even have access to Google Play at all. Market share in the United States has been slightly ahead of iOS, but overseas (especially in Asia) Android is definitely king. For example, Android has been reported to have a market share as high as 90% in China. Ironically, though, Google Play isn’t preinstalled on many Chinese phones (internet forums are littered with users trying to install it on their devices), and it’s impossible to download paid apps from China. Frequently, core Android services like YouTube, Google+, or Google Drive are completely blocked. This isn’t the case across all of Asia, but many manufacturers opt to exclude Google Play from their handset releases.

    In other words, the strategy that Google has adopted to improve the fragmentation problem isn’t helping those who need it the most. It’s true that many consumers here in the US welcome newer apps on their older devices, but users in the US update their phones more frequently than those in other countries. Fragmentation is less of a problem in a country where your average consumer gets a new phone every 18 months.

    Google’s current strategy certainly isn’t hurting the ecosystem, and it’s helping at least part of its user base. Decoupling apps from the OS was a great idea that cut through slow-moving manufacturers. But the difficult problem of fragmentation and device updates still isn’t solved, and decoupling seems more like a compromise than a solution.

  • Robert Sanek 00:47 on February 10, 2013 Permalink | Reply  

    Email & the unwillingness to make decisions 

    I was just on Reddit looking through some links when I came across TNW’s post about a “‘frighteningly ambitious’ way to improve email”.

    Save for the dramatic headline, you see posts about improving email management all the time. Indeed, the writer was inspired by Paul Graham’s list of startup ideas, so attempting to change email is certainly not new. But why do we keep seeing these posts go up? Is there still no solution to an overflowing inbox?

    In my opinion, there already is. It’s not ideal, and I believe there eventually needs to be a replacement to email with ambitions the size of ill-fated Google Wave. But let me return to the TNW article first.

    Inbox Pro

    TNW’s proposed solution is not ideal, in my opinion. You can read the description in the article, but in short “Inbox Pro” (the name of the suggested solution) seeks to “bring structure to email” by sending out more email. Whenever an email is received by person A from person B, Inbox Pro sends person B an email back asking them to categorize what kind of email it is – does it require a long or short response? The email also includes stats on how quickly person A usually responds to emails of different types. After a certain date, another email is sent if person A still hasn’t responded to you, rubbing in the fact that you’re not going to get a response and your email isn’t important enough. That person can then choose more options on how to bug person A, again by replying to the email.

    To me, this causes more problems than it fixes. If you are the only person using this system, it’s great: you’re essentially getting other people to organize your email for you. That sounds like a sweet deal, but how many people will actually respond to these questions? If I got such an email from somebody right after I sent it to them, I would be very unlikely to respond. It’s not my job to organize your email because you don’t want to.

    Additionally, this system doesn’t actually solve the key problem of too much email, it only shifts the burden from the recipient to the sender. To me, that doesn’t really seem like a fix. True, people who send the most email will now be penalized, but the total amount of work spent on email hasn’t decreased.

    Inbox Zero

    In my opinion, the best current alternative – Inbox Zero – works just fine if implemented correctly. The majority of those who have tried inbox zero and decided it does not work seem to describe it as a to-do list more than as an inbox management system. Indeed, the Inbox Pro site describes it as “[spending] the evening answering mail to finally reach Inbox Zero”; a high-profile article in the New Yorker specifically says it “treats my inbox like a to-do list”. I think that this approach is misguided, however. The original inbox zero methodology wasn’t to treat it as a to-do list, but rather to choose from one of five actions: delete, delegate, respond, defer, or do. Notice, do is last in that list.[1]

    There are 4 other actions before ‘doing’, three of which handle the email so that you don’t have to deal with it again. Why don’t people utilize them more often before jumping to the last one? It’s much easier to archive/delete an email than trying to respond to it, so you’d think people would use it the most. Not so, apparently.

    The Real Problem

    I believe that the real problem in email isn’t that we can’t get control of it, but rather that we are unwilling to make quick decisions based on it. There’s nothing inherently ominous about email. What scares us is the amount of time and effort making a decision on each email requires. When we let our inbox overflow, we’re really just procrastinating (which never helps). Eventually, we’re going to have to handle important issues raised through email.

    The counter-argument to this is that not all email is urgent/important and much of it doesn’t warrant a response.[2] This is absolutely true, but pose yourself this question: how long does that decision take to make? In other words, how quickly can you ascertain if a specific email in your inbox merits a response or not? For me, it is usually 1-2 seconds. Remember, I’m no talking about actually responding or doing anything at this point; I’m simply categorizing email as important vs. unimportant. In fact, many of us are already utilizing this: Google’s Priority Inbox and Apple’s VIP Mailbox both try to make this decision for you algorithmically.

    But does categorizing email really take an “entire evening”? It shouldn’t, unless you’re getting thousands of emails per day (if so, unsubscribe from those newsletters; it rarely takes more than 10 seconds). E-mails that require action are eventually going to take your attention away anyway, because someone will either call you about the issue or contact you in other ways. E-mail that isn’t important can be taken care of in literally seconds, and it will never bother you again.

    E-mail is unique from other avenues of contact in the sense that the recipient gets to decide on when the reply – a call or in-person meeting doesn’t afford this kind of flexibility because the sender is deciding when they interrupt your work. Why would you let someone interrupt you and take away at least half an hour from your usable time when they are giving you the opportunity to respond to them at your convenience?


    • [1] In fact, Merlin Mann specifically tells you not to treat your inbox as a to-do list in the original video.
    • [2] With email filters and a bit of effort, you can reduce the number of these that actually reach you by a substantial amount before even processing anything.
  • Robert Sanek 22:38 on January 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply  

    Dental Care, Researched 

    Quick Summary: You should brush your teeth twice and floss once every day. Search for ADA Seal of Acceptance on dental care products. Mouth wash does not replace brushing and daily usage is not recommended.

    Yesterday, as I was brushing my teeth and aimlessly morning-dreaming about the day that lay ahead of me, I realized that I knew shockingly little about dental hygiene. Of course, I was instructed like most others to brush my teeth in the morning and evening by my parents, and told that flossing was probably good too, but I realized that my knowledge was more empirical than scientific.  This needed changing, so let’s get right into it.

    1. Brushing your Teeth

    You should brush your teeth at least twice a day, according to most experts. As with most health concerns, you’re better off asking your personal dentist if you’d benefit from more frequent brushing. Toothbrushes and toothpaste has become commonplace these days, but with such selection in both areas, how can you pick?

    Toothbrush Selection

    When selecting your toothbrush, there are surprisingly quite a few specifics you must consider.

    Bristle Softness: Almost every article I read emphasized the importance of buying a soft-bristled brush, since it is most effective at removing plaque and debris from your teeth. [1,2,3] Additionally, hard bristles can result in gum bleeding [1] and are generally worse at cleaning your mouth than their soft-bristled cousins.

    Head Size: Another point of concern is the size of the head of the toothbrush, the part of the brush that is doing the actual cleaning. The main issue here is to match the size of the brush to the size of your mouth; if you have a smaller mouth, you probably shouldn’t go for a larger head size. [1,3] In fact, ImmediaDent even encourages purchasing children’s brushes for abnormally small mouths.

    Handle Designs: Although not crucial specifically to your teeth, a bad handle can really ruin your technique. Try selecting a handle that just feels right in your hand; this is more of a personal choice than a definite science. [1,2]

    ADA Seal of Acceptance

    ADA-recommended: Even though most toothbrushes today have the ADA Seal of Acceptance, it’s still a good idea to check and make sure that your selection has it as well. The American Dental Association has definite guidelines before they slap their seal on a toothbrush, requiring manufacturers to use safe components for use in the mouth and maintain quality standards for bristles. [4]

    Electric Brushes: Recently to enter the field are powered toothbrushes that take much of the manual work out of tooth brushing. Both manual and powered toothbrushes are capable of cleaning your teeth well. Electric brushes are recommended for people struggling with their manual toothbrush or that have physical ailments that prevent them from using a traditional toothbrush effectively. Again, this selection is based more on personal preference. [3,4]

    Replacement: Most of us are aware of the 3-month suggested lifetime for a toothbrush [2], but I’ve never been too successful at keeping to that schedule. Basically, if you notice bristles that are not as rigid or straight as they used to be, it’s a good idea to change the toothbrush out. [3] Colgate also recommends changing after recovering from a cold, since “bristles can collect germs that can lead to reinfection.”

    Technique: The way you brush your teeth is more important than what toothpaste or toothbrush you’re using. This is an often-overlooked area that I myself learned the most about, since most of the other suggestions are largely common sense. has an excellent slideshow on technique with images, summarized below: (The ADA has a similar recommendation in this pdf)

    1. Start in the back, moving clockwise in a circular pattern with the brush at 45 degrees.
    2. Roll the brush away from the gumline on the outside and inside, ending on the opposite side that you started on. Repeat on your lower molars.
    3. Flick your toothbrush from the inside front teeth out, both on the upper and lower molars.
    4. Brush the biting surface of your teeth, starting with your upper molars. Use a circular motion.
    5. Brush your tongue and inside if your cheeks.

    What surprised me was the optional flicking of the toothbrush on your front teeth as well as the suggested length of brushing your tongue and cheeks: 30 seconds. I almost never brush my tongue and I don’t think I’ve ever even tried to brush my cheeks.

    You should brush your teeth at least twice a day, in the morning and evening after meals. [4]

    Toothpaste selection

    The answer to the selection of toothpaste is actually fairly simple. With the variation in price and manufacturer claims, you’d think that there are wide differences between the effectiveness of individual toothpaste options. But the fact is that most toothpastes perform the same, regardless of what is on the package. [5]

    General Suggestions: In general, as long as your toothpaste contains fluorine, you should be fine. The ADA seal is a good sign as well, since the ADA has guidelines on safety and effectiveness for toothpastes (as it does with toothbrushes). [6] If you want to whiten your teeth while you brush them, look for carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide.

    Check the Further Reading section if you have special needs concerns about sensitive teeth, tartar control, abrasiveness, or dentures.

    2. Flossing

    Flossing and brushing your teeth go hand-in-hand. It makes no difference if you brush first or floss first, as long as you remove the plaque everything is A-ok. The ADA suggests that flossing before may make it easier for fluorine to reach the area between your teeth. [9] Anyway, much as with toothpaste, your specific brand/type of dental floss doesn’t really matter.  In fact, “results from a recent study published in the Journal of Periodontology showed that there was no difference in the plaque-removing ability of four different types of flossing products.” [7]

    General Suggesions: Here, your choice will depend upon personal preference. As with other dental hygienics, you should look for the ADA seal of approval to ensure safety and effectiveness whichever type of dental floss you select. There are a few different types of flosses:

    1. Electric Floss – This selection makes the most sense for people who have difficulty with traditional flossing techniques, such as older adults.
    2. Conventional Dental Floss – This is the most common flossing type, where you purchase a string wound up in a small box. “If you decide to use regular dental floss, tear off a piece at least 18 inches long and wind it around your two index fingers. Hold the floss tightly between your index fingers and thumbs and guide the floss softly in between your teeth.” [10]
    3. Dental Flosser – This is basically like a toothbrush with a string instead of bristles. Same effectiveness as conventional dental floss, but may be easier to use for some people.

    Although flossing technique is does not need as much explanation as brushing, it’s still crucially important you get it right. See a detailed description with images at

    You should floss at least once a day. Usually, people floss before going to sleep. [9]

    3. Mouth Wash

    From what I’ve read about mouth washes, there’s not really a consensus about when you should use mouth wash or if it should be a part of your dental hygiene at all. Although mouth wash does not pose health risks [11], its effectiveness is questionable. Strictly speaking about its ability to increase your dental health, mouth wash is nowhere near as good as flossing or brushing. [13] You should speak with your individual dental care provider if you could benefit from using mouthwash daily. [14]

    Unlike with flossing or brushing, the ADA does not recommend a specific number of times per day that you should use a mouth wash. [13]

    Further Reading

    ADA Resources: The American Dental Association’s website is very clear and well-designed for all dental hygiene concerns: ToothbrushesToothpastesFloss, and Mouthwash. Dental Product Selection has many suggestions and facts about choosing all kinds of things dental-related.

    Toothpaste Selection: if you have special needs, an article over at Delta Dental describes considerations you should take when selecting toothpaste.


    [1] 1-800 Dentist: How to Pick a Toothbrush

    [2] Colgate: Choosing the Right Toothbrush

    [3] ImmediaDent: How to Pick a Toothbrush

    [4] ADA: Toothbrushes

    [5] Straight Dope: What’s the best toothpaste?

    [6] Better Homes & Gardens: Choosing a Toothpaste

    [7] How to Brush Your Teeth- Step By Step Instructions

    [8] Oral-B: Choosing the best dental floss for you

    [9] ADA: Floss & Other Interdental Cleaners

    [10] Tips for Choosing the right Dental Products

    [11] Wikipedia: Health Risks of Mouthwash

    [12] Know Your Teeth: What are Mouth Rinses?

    [13] ADA: Mouthrinses

    [14] MSN: Open Wide: Your Oral Hygiene

  • Robert Sanek 10:10 on December 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply  

    Drinking Enough Water & Staying Hydrated 

    Quick Summary: As long as your urine is colorless or a very light yellow, you’re probably drinking enough water.

    I’ve wondered many times how much water I should be drinking, especially because I’ve heard many people say that drinking more is healthy. I’ve also heard about water intoxication, although that always seemed a little exaggerated to me. What’s the real story behind water, and how much should you be drinking on a daily basis? The real answer is not what I expected at all.

    Average Daily Water Intake

    U.S. Institute of Medicine

    We’ve all heard the classic “eight 8-ounce glasses every day” suggestion, but the simple truth is that this isn’t true. Every persons’ water intake is different and 64 ounces is below the Institute of Medicine’s estimates even for pre-teens, let alone adults. There isn’t a single number that can take into account all of the variables for each person; there are many factors that make your daily consumption different from your co-worker’s.

    When I was trying research all of these factors, I was imagining writing an article describing each one, figuring out how it would contribute to everyone’s personal intake. However, I feel like trying to track all of these different variables every day and adjusting your drinking habits accordingly would take too much time and would ultimately end up in a failed attempt at drinking the right amount. has a calculator that is supposed to take into account many of these variables, but as I was going through the questionnaire myself, I saw multiple factors in the prediction that could change every month or even every week. Certainly, I’m not going to be re-doing the quiz that frequently just to find out how much I need to drink.

    So I set out to find a factor that could simplify the process. That factor exists, and it’s your urine color. [1,2,3,4] MayoClinic sums up the whole topic in one sentence:

    Generally if you drink enough fluid so that you rarely feel thirsty and produce 1.5 liters (6.3 cups) or more of colorless or light yellow urine a day, your fluid intake is probably adequate.

    The main problem is that this form of water regulation is more reactive than it is proactive: if you find out that your urine is not the right color, you know you should drink more water, but it’s already too late for that period of time. Overall, you should monitor the color each time you visit the restroom and adjust accordingly. With time, you’ll be able to know how much fluid you need to drink based on your efforts.

    It’s important to at least mention that some factors, such as heavy exercise and pregnancy, will alter your intake where you might want to drink more or at different times than you normally would. The Further Reading section has some websites that contain suggestions. And about that water intoxication – all of the articles that I read made it clear that this isn’t much of a possibility unless you’re in a water drinking contest. Your body is able to process plenty of water without a hitch.

    Further Reading

    Factors that influence water needs: MayoClinic | health24


    [1] MayoClinic: “Water: How much should you drink every day?”

    [2] “How Much Water Should I Drink?”

    [3] ScienceDaily: How Much Water Should You Drink? It Depends

    [4] WebMD: Drinking Enough Water

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