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Archive for May, 2017

Inbox Infinite

It’s May 9th, and I struggle under the weight 2389 unread messages, out of 5694 total, in my Georgia Tech e-mail inbox. The earliest unread message is from March 10th.

I’ve barely paid any attention to my e-mail at all for the past four weeks. There’s been stretches of three, four, or even five days where I haven’t looked at e-mail at all, and when I did, I either skimmed subject headings as I gave my iPhone screen one solid flick, or I searched specifically for a subject keyword I told my students to include.

The Culprits

Although I certainly get behind on e-mail here and there — just like everyone else — I’ve been unusually bad at it lately. I suspect that five things conspired:

1) Georgia Tech added two-factor authentication in order to log into the VPN. A while back they added a requirement that faculty be logged into the VPN to access e-mail through something like Apple Mail. Having to take the extra 30 seconds to log into the VPN was annoying, but not too bad. But requiring two-factor added a lot of annoyance to the process. I have to start a specific app on my phone called Duo, and hit the approve button in a limited amount of time for my laptop to connect to the VPN. I don’t always keep my phone with me when I’m working at the house, so to check my e-mail, I have to get up and hunt for my phone. I realize this seems like a small annoyance, but the net effect is it encourages me to put off checking e-mail. That said, I do see the wisdom of two-factor authentication; I’m pretty sure John Podesta wishes he had used it. (Of course, I can read and send e-mail on my phone, but I dislike reading any e-mail longer than two sentences on my phone, and I despise trying to compose e-mails on my phone).

2) The effective signal to noise ratio of e-mail is asymptotically approaching zero, and I’m not just referring to the battle against in spam. Even e-mails ostensibly of value — confirmations of a book order on Amazon, an announcement of a show by a band you love that doesn’t play out very often, etc. — merge into an e-cacophony. In the early 90s, few outside academia had email, and even when AOL’s dial-up service opened up e-mail to a wider audience, most of the e-mail you received came from people you knew and generally wanted to converse with. Even when companies started having websites to show their wares, you generally had to call and give them a credit card number the old-fashioned way, so most of your e-mail came from individuals, not companies. There was a time when starting your e-mail software (I used the unix “mail” throughout school, switching to the more sophisticated “pine” when I started my postdoc; I switched from “vi” to “emacs” at the same time) sometimes induced tingly anticipation. Now, starting an e-mail client generally fills people with a combination of disgust and dread.

This is analogous to your U.S. Postal Service mailbox. How often do you receive letters in your physical mailbox that you truly desire? Nowadays it’s pretty much bills and advertisements. As e-mail has gone the same way, communication with people you want to communicate with has moved to other venues like Facebook Messenger. I confess I’ve had colleagues ping me on Facebook to double-check that I received some e-mail. On one occasion, an associate editor of a journal messaged me on Twitter during a similar epoch when I was running so behind on e-mail that I was walking backwards. It seems like every new form of communication eventually gets jammed up with junk. People flee to a new medium, only to slowly realize that the junk followed them.

3) This semester was the maiden voyage of my senior-level special topics class “Guitar Amplification and Effects,” which included a laboratory component. Lab assignment are much more time consuming to create than pen-and-pencil homeworks. During the semester, I’d often run into road blocks while formulating a new lab, and I’d wind up deciding to put off the lab and just move on to the next bit of lecture material. Then, one day, I ran out of lecture material. The net effect was that all of the labs wound up scheduled near the end of the semester, and when I was waist deep in 400 volt power supplies and vacuum tubes, I wasn’t looking at e-mail.

4) I spent the Spring 2014 semester teaching at Georgia Tech Lorraine, our remote campus in Metz, France. Half way through that semester, I had a similar realization that I had fallen epically behind on e-mail. It occurred to me that I had previously developed a habit of using my phone to “clear out’’ obviously unneeded e-mail whenever I had a spare moment standing in line somewhere, so when I finally sat down at my laptop and pulled up my e-mail program, I had a reasonable set of e-mails to respond to. When we were in France, my wife and I bought cheap prepaid SIM cards with just voice and text messaging, so I didn’t have internet access on my cell phone. Hence, when I started up my mail client, I’d see a hundred messages instead of a few dozen, and I’d just shut it down and go on with whatever else I was working on.

Of course, I have internet access on my cell phone now, but I’m generally trying to spend less time fiddling with my phone and more time paying attention the world around me.

5) In past eras when I’ve found myself behind on e-mail, I’ve avoided starting my e-mail client out of a sense of shame. But I recently discovered that I’m just overall happier on those days when I don’t look at e-mail at all. I’m overall more productive when I dive into the deepest end of whatever I’m working on.

Taming the e-mail beast

In spite of my realization in point (5) above, avoiding e-mail entirely is unsustainable. I clearly need to get my inbox under control, and I need to set up some specific tools to do so. There’s always a tradeoff with such schemes. For instance, if you have to convert some data files from one format to another, you have to weigh the effort required to script such operations vs. the effort required to do the conversions “manually.” If you only have a few files to convert, it may be more time efficient to just do it the brute force way. But if you have a ton of them to convert, the time invested in scripting the operations reclassifies itself as time wisely spent.

The most obvious first step is to make a folder specifically for messages from the two heavy-traffic mailing lists I’m on: Synth DIY and Analogue Heaven. It seems that such e-mails already in my inbox need to be moved manually — doing so brought me down to 4268 messages, 1136 unread.

As a first cut, I created a “Smart Mailbox” called “GaTech Senders,” with the rule “from contains gatech.edu.” Smart Mailboxes don’t actually move e-mails out of your inbox; they’re basically search presets. This should allow me to quickly see e-mails from students, faculty, and staff. Some students and faculty use gmail instead of their official GaTech e-mail, so this would miss those, but I figure if any come up that are important I can add them to the rules somehow. (This might be tricky, since without digging in and mucking about with XML files, Apple Mail doesn’t have a way to mix “any” and “all” operations — i.e., you get logical “and” or logical “or,” but can’t create nested combinations of both without cluttering things up with “helper” mailboxes.) “GaTech Senders” shows 2148 messages, with 307 unread.

What I really want is to distinguish between e-mails that were specifically composed for me (or me and a small group of specific people) and broad announcements. If my School Chair or my Dean or someone in their administration writes a note to me as Aaron, I want that to pop up as higher priority than an e-mail announcing that a professor or student received an award. (This isn’t to say that the broad announcements aren’t important; they often contain changes to or clarifications of policies that I need to pay attention to.) Actually, that’s something that would be useful for all of my e-mail, not just e-mails from ramblin’ wrecks. So, I created a “To Me” mailbox with the rule “any recipient contains lanterma” (this covers my core eight-letter e-mail name as well as aaron.lanterman), as well as a “To Masses” smart mailbox with “any recipient does not contain lanterma”). “To Me” has 3145 messages, 809 unread, and “To Masses” has “1201 messages, 327 unread.”

Actually, “To Me” in its raw form misses a few; there’s another e-mail address for me that consists of “al” followed by 3 randomly chosen digits. There’s no way to add that to the “To Me” rules without giving up the inbox-only rule, because you have set the rule combination operation to “any” or “all.” But, I get very little mail at that address; almost everything I receive there is an automated message from our IT department, telling me that my password is expiring or providing a summary of what fell into a spam trap. So I’ll make a separate smart folder for that weird e-mail address, and add an “any recipient does not contain” line to cut it out of the “To Masses” list.

Now I can make two new smart mailboxes, “GaTech To Me” and “GaTech To Masses,” that contain appropriate intersections. “GaTech To Me” contains 1174 messages, 67 unread, and “GaTech To Masses” contains 974 messages, 240 unread.

It looks like “GaTech To Me” contains a lot of “false positives.” For instance, event announcements from Georgia Tech Professional Education, the School of Music, and the Center for Teaching and Learning appear with a “To: lanterma@ece.gatech.edu” field, so they appear in “GaTech To Me” even though they were broadcast to a wide list. So my new strategy still needs work, but it’s a start.

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