A Very Special Day!

She was a bit nervous, but today Fei let her beauty shine through for Homecoming!

#Homecoming2019

#FeiStrong

#AllenThisTogether

Inbox Zero Is REAL!

GMail

When I was still in college pursuing my Network Engineering degree, I was required to take a Database Management class. The professor who taught the class, Mary (I cannot for the life of me remember her last name because she INSISTED we refer to her by her first name!) was one of those oddly goofy, eccentric types. Simply put, she was a stereotypical Nerd, who absolutely loved everything about the course she was teaching, with a pleasantly refreshing sense of humor.

Like all other professors, Mary laid out course expectations as well as best practices for achieving course objectives. One thing she said has stuck with me for all of these years:

“When you are working on your projects, make sure you’re not working while you’re distracted. And don’t fool yourself – there is no such thing as ‘multitasking’. Either consciously or subconsciously, you are actually ignoring something else. With Database Administration, this can have disastrous results!”  

That same principle Mary laid out about multitasking seems to also echo across the email landscape – specifically as far as Inbox Zero is concerned.

Although there are ample tips, tricks, and suggested best practices for managing one’s email, Inbox Zero quite often feels like the most impossible goal to reach. But I’m here to tell you there is a subtle, simple, automated trick for Gmail that can actually accomplish this seemingly lofty goal!

It Starts With A Change Of Mindset

One important thing to consider about email is to remember that email shouldn’t be used as a file storage solution. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but think about this: for some time now, I had email in my inbox dating back as far as 2006. Gmail launched in 2004. The vast majority of these emails were those I had told myself I would get to later, or that I felt I needed to hold onto “just in case”. However, upon reviewing many of them later on, I realized a truth about my email behavior and decided on a simple rule – if I don’t read or act on any email within x amount of time, then I’m not going to so it might as well be deleted.

One thing I’ve always been somewhat of a fanatic about is organizing emails into folders, directing incoming into their respective folders with the use of inbox filters. Since I handle all bills online, this helps me keep notices and communications with each service provider organized. As such, I have multiple email folders. And as one might imagine, these had also become over-filled as the years have gone by.

Establish A Time Frame

Ultimately I decided on some simple constructs regarding my general inbox, the folders I have setup for different bills, and the folders I have setup of other notifications from other services newsletters. You will need to come up with time frames that work best for you, but in general mine is as follows:

Inbox – 30 Days.  Any “general” emails I receive in my inbox that aren’t filtered into specific folders. I’ve allowed myself 30 days to read, review, and/or respond. In my opinion, if I haven’t done so after 30 days, I’m not going to and there really is no need for these emails to simply sit in my inbox.

Bill Payment Due Notifications – 7 Days. As mentioned, I have multiple folders for these – everything from utility bills, to car payment reminders. Since I’m disciplined at adding these to my calendar (and Google helps make this super easy as it is), I have no need for these emails to linger beyond 7 days at most. I’ve even considered shortening this to maybe 2 days, but a week is ample time.

I have a few other miscellaneous folders that handle things like service and performance notifications that I set up to be sent to me from my Plex Server , which I don’t keep longer than a day. As such, I think you get the general idea.

So How Does It Work?

Other than realizing I had literally thousands of emails over a decade old just lying dormant in my inbox that I would physically never be able to address, I had also begun some spring cleaning of my Google Drive and realized the amount of space I was wasting on these old emails. Yes, if you’re not aware, email counts towards your Drive storage.

My initial approach was to find or come up with some sort of IFTTT recipe. But with the changes to the GMail API that Google implemented earlier this year, I simply couldn’t accomplish what I was looking for with IFTTT. But with determination (and some frustration) I finally found what I was looking for with the use of a tool that I had forgotten Google actually makes available to all – Google Apps Script.

Specifically, I came across this 2013 article from a very useful blog known as Skipser. In the article, Arun provides detailed instruction on how to use a very simple Apps Script that runs silently in the background, and immediately begins cleaning up your inbox and any other inbox folders you may have (if you’re like me). You can copy and create multiple scripts for each folder you may have in your GMail account.

There is one small suggestion I would add if you plan on applying this to multiple folders. The scripts themselves will be stored in your Google Drive. Again, if you’re an organizing freak like me, you may want to create a specific folder to house them in. For example, I created a folder and simply named it Email Scripts. For the first script you create, move it into that folder. Then, as you copy the script to adjust the parameters to apply to other folders, do so and move each of them there. Otherwise, Google will just automatically dump them into the general “My Drive” folder. If not having them in a folder doesn’t bother you, just leave as-is. In either case, the scripts will still run.

For those of you ready to jump right in without heading over to Skipser, here is the overview of the setup:

  1. First open this Google Script and select File -> Make a copy. This will create a copy of the script in your Google drive and open it.
  2. Set the value of “LABEL_TO_DELETE” with the label you want to enable auto-delete and “DELETE_AFTER_DAYS” with the age of an email in days after which it should get deleted.
  3. Select Run -> Initialize. Google will ask you to grant required permissions. The script will be running for only your personal account, so nobody else will have access to your data.
  4. Select Run -> Install. This will install and start the script for your account.

You are now all set. The emails in the label you specified will now get deleted automatically once they age out with the number of days you chose. Just make sure you don’t delete the script from your Google Drive. Also, if you want to stop purging mails any time, just open the script once again from your Google drive and select Run -> Uninstall.

You will note that it’s as simple as two lines of code:

var LABEL_TO_DELETE = “crapmail”;

and

var DELETE_AFTER_DAYS = “10”;

For your own personal use, simply change the values within the quotes. For example, I mentioned that I set emails to auto delete from within my general inbox after 30 days. Thus my values are as follows:

var LABEL_TO_DELETE = “inbox”;

var DELETE_AFTER_DAYS = “30”;

I simply copied this script into the designated folder and changed the label value to reflect specific bill folders that I mentioned earlier and the days value respectively.

If you have a lot of email like I did, you will need to simply give it time – the script isn’t an instant fix. You will notice the total count of emails you have start to decline as time goes by. You can also check “Trash” to be pleasantly surprised to see that you too had emails you were holding onto since 2006.

It is that simple! As you can see, with the use of this simple 2-lined script, you can conceivably reach the all-so-coveted  Inbox Zero! Simply make a couple of tweaks to fit your needs.

Horror Review – Ma

Ma

Sometimes, some of our favorite actors and/or entertainers surprise us with roles that seem so far out of left field that we’re left speechless. One such role that always comes to mind is Robin Williams’ performance as Seymour Parrish in One Hour Photo.

As such, I went in with high expectations of Octavia Spencer in Ma. Unfortunately I ended up disappointed.

I don’t know what disappointed me more – the fact that the movie simply fell flat, or that it had so much potential that it simply didn’t live up to. There are so many points in this movie that start to lead up to something, but then end up being nothing. In fact, I’m not really sure why this movie has the Horror category tacked onto it because there simply isn’t anything scary about it all. And the only mild spine tingle occurs when an almost incidental character (Ma’s daughter Genie, played by Tanyell Waivers) is seen creeping around in the background when two of the teen-aged leads wonder into a part of the house that Ma told them not to go into. And for that to make sense to you, I suppose I should explain the plot.

Erica (Juliette Lewis) has to return to her Ohio hometown with her teen aged daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) because of a failed career out west. Maggie quickly befriends a small group of party-loving teenagers whose biggest challenge is hanging outside of a convenience store trying to convince adults to buy alcohol for them. Fortunately for them, along comes lowly Sue Ann (who is later affectionately nicknamed “Ma” by one of the kids – a name that quickly catches on with the reset). Not only does Ma help them out the first time, but upon subsequent visits she convinces them to hang out at her house as opposed to the local teen hang-out-and-drink spot.

Along the way, we learn some of Ma’s dark secrets – from her Veterinarian boss who treats her like a dog (pun intended), to her damaged adolescence that has lead her to this longing to want to fit in with what she views as an “in crowd” of teens.

But again – there is simply no “horror” in this movie. It simply plods along aimlessly from cliche to cliche until it reaches its overly predictable climatic end. There is perhaps but one other slightly chilling moment to mention, in which Ma has drugged the core group of teens and sews the lips of Haley (McKaley Miller) shut because earlier Haley told Ma that she “needed to get a man!”

To be honest, this movie seems to blatantly borrow so much from other movies that it appears writer Scotty Landes was merely trying to create some sort of a mockery mash-up. Perhaps that’s truly the point, and I overlooked it somehow. Maybe this movie isn’t intended to be taken seriously? In either case, this movie is simply as I described earlier – a story that is filled with what it could be, but never becomes.

He Did It! Pt. 2 – First Test Run

After bed leveling (which was a lot easier that I initially thought), Bryson and I were finally ready to make a test run. We decided to run one of the pre-loaded projects that came on the SD card included with the Comgrow Creality Ender 3 Pro

And we were pleasantly impressed with the results:

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We had watched a video that indicated printing this little dog would take 5 hours. However, our’s only took about 2. We the realized that the video we watched was of a run on a previous model.

Next we’ll try a custom design run. We’ll start off using Ultimaker Cura since that’s the default software used with the printer. We may move on to something else later on, but for now – so far so good!

He Did It!

About 2 months ago, Bryson and I were having breakfast at our favorite local spot, Cherry Street Cafe, chit-chatting as we often do about tech and such. I had been struggling with coming up with new ideas about something he and I could do together (some new project or hobby), so on the ride home I asked him to come up with something.

About a week later he came to me and said, “Dad, I have an idea. A 3D printer.”

We had toyed with this idea before, but at that time prices were far outside of anything I was willing to spend. Back then I had told him, “We’ll wait because you know how tech works – when it first comes out it can be expensive. But as it catches on, prices will drop and a lot of the bugs will be worked out with the process.” He had remembered this conversation over the years, and during this week in question, he had combed the internet looking for value priced units, (but not cheap, as I’ve taught our children to be careful about buying things that are priced too low since you simply get what you pay for) and watching more review videos than I care to imagine!

I gave it a little thought, then replied, “Ok – what do you have in mind?”

“Come here. I have it pulled up on the office computer”, he said.

What he had found was the Comgrow Creality Ender 3 Pro 3D Printer. He also proceeded to show me a great, honest review video and then pitched his proposal –

“I’ll save up half and you cover the other half.”

Shook hands, and we had a deal!

For the weeks to follow, he worked and saved – asking for extra chores to make some cash, saving every penny. Finally he came to me and proclaimed, “Well Dad, I’ve got my half!”

Fast forward to Friday, August 9th 2019, and it arrived – he did it!

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Not only am I proud of him for his hard work, and focusing on his goal until completion, I’m also proud of his patience. As you can imagine, he was jumping out of his skin with excitement for he and I to get it assembled, but he patiently waited without complaining as I first had to build an add-on to our project bench in the basement for it to sit. But even that had to wait as I had a scheduled podcast interview before hand, as well as other weekend “busyness” such as his little bother’s football game, and a family dinner. But with each spare moment, we slowly but surely got it all together (about 1 1/2 hour total assembly time).

 

To top it off, he knows much more about it than I do. Once assembled, he told me about “bed leveling” – I had no clue, but turns out this must be done before we can start our first project.

Good job, Bryson!

#BrainiacBryson

#AllenThisTogether

 

Bare Bones Cord Cutting

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Nowadays there appears to be an over abundance of streaming channels and services for Cord Cutters to choose from. Though competition historically means more choice for consumers, it can also lead to confusion for those considering cord cutting. From choices like Sling, YouTube TV, and Playstation VUE to the flurry of newcomers like the much anticipated Disney+, it can all get to be overwhelming and quite frankly expensive for those who are unsure of what their best options are. This has also lead to the continued stream of misinformation from networks and cable providers alike telling consumers that cord cutting is actually more expensive than simply sticking with cable. See Cord Cutters News’ recent rebuttal to NBC’s recent anti – cord cutting story here.

But what if you truly want to break free from pay TV altogether? Let’s face it – almost all streaming services that are in use today are nothing short of pay TV. And the fact that so many networks are breaking free and pulling their content from the likes of Netflix in favor of launching their own pay to stream services has even lead some to believe that this is all part of a clever tactic by the networks and cable providers to scare consumers back to cable or, worse yet, to set the cable providers up for future offerings of “bundled” streaming content much like standard cable packages.

So is there truly a way to still enjoy quality content without paying for any streaming service? The answer is OF COURSE YOU CAN!!

Start With The Basics

I’m sure by now you’ve heard it time and time again, from myself or any number of online sources, that the very foundation of your cord cutting setup should be an antenna. There are many to choose from, and what you buy depends primarily on your location, as well as simple cosmetics. Check out Channel Master’s extensive list of antennas here. Another recourse I like to suggest is this handy tool from Antenna Web that helps you pinpoint signal strengths of the over-the-air channels closest to you, thus giving you a general idea of the number of channels you can expect to receive. I personally receive 42 over the air channels with my antenna.

Expect Change

Back when I first decided to end our ties with cable, one of the first things my wife and I considered was the fact that we would be willingly giving up on some shows and specials that we had become accustomed to watching – primarily those on premium channels like HBO. We asked ourselves, “do we absolutely HAVE TO have those shows?” as well as, “are these shows worth it?” Obviously the answer for us was ultimately “no”. Moreover, we also wanted to change TV viewing habits in our household overall – from reducing the amount of TV consumed overall, to the type of content available in our home. Simply put, we wanted change. As such, if you want to take on a bare-bones, free approach to Cord Cutting, be ready for change. I believe that you will find it to be a refreshing (and of course cheaper) change!

And Now, Without Further Ado…

Here is my list of what I consider to be some of the best free options available today. Keep in mind, these aren’t the only free streaming channels available, and results will vary. However, I suggest anyone who hasn’t tried them yet should at least give them a test drive.

PlutoTV

Up first is considered by many to be the champion of free streaming services – Pluto Tv.

Pluto Tv offers a traditional, grid style guide setup with 100+ channels available, including some of your own local channels (my Pluto includes 6 local channels). There are also hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows available. Although its interface is pretty straight-forward, it can be a bit clunky at times but folks at Pluto TV keep a very regular update cycle so the app continues to improve. One other notable criticism is the sometimes ill-placed ads (commercials) but Pluto seems to be getting better with that over time as well.

SonyCrackle

I surprise myself including Sony Crackle on this list, but the fact is it has done nothing but get better over time. Before it’s re-branding, I had used Crackle before but found it to be simply atrocious. Poor content offerings and HORRIBLY ill-placed ads while viewing were my major reasons for hating it. But since Sony’s acquisition in 2006, it has seen some much needed improvements on both of those fronts as well as others. However, it is worth noting that it has been sold off once again, this time to Popcornflix owners CSS Entertainment, with an announced re-branding to “Crackle Plus”. It’s not clear at the moment if the “Plus” will mean “no longer free”, but for the time being it’s still a worthy free option to consider. You will also find many reviewers still rank Sony Crackle anywhere from “poor” to “don’t even bother”. Perhaps I’m a bit more forgiving by considering the fact that it’s FREE, it is at least worth having.

XumoTV

What would happen if Panasonic and MySpace had a baby, you may wonder? It would be Xumo. Dad jokes aside, that’s truly what Xumo is – a joint venture between MySpace parent company Viant and Panasonic, started in 2011. Xumo offers over 160 live streaming and on-demand channels (my personal favorite being the “This Old House” channel). It also offers the ability to create favorite channels, so that you don’t have to keep going back to the guide to find the channels you watch most. The interface itself is clean and well laid out, although I find it to have a very sluggish response time. Hopefully that will continue to improve with subsequent updates.

tubi

Launched in 2014, tubitv is nothing short of a “must-have” in any Cord Cutter’s arsenal of free streamers. With lucrative deals with the likes of NBC Universal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Lionsgate, Warner Brothers, and Paramount Pictures, it touts a hefty library of over 7,500 movies and TV shows. The interface is well organized, and the app itself streams well without sluggishness or buffering.

STIRR

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s streaming offering STIRR is more of a local-focused service, with a focus on local news and sports. with additions such as Dove Channel , Dust Anthology and Cheddar News sprinkled in. Its most interesting feature is Stirr City, from which you can select the primary city you want to view content from. Select your closest metro location (if available) to view content from that area. These cities are divided geographically by East, West, Midwest and South with major cities in each area being added over time.

kanopy

Lastly, and certainly not least, is kanopy. Kanopy is an on-demand streaming video platform for public libraries and universities that offers viewers a large collection of award-winning films and documentaries. Kanopy includes children’s programming with its subdivision Kanopy Kids. To use Kanopy, you simply need a library card. Once you setup your account, you will have access to thousands of titles available at your local participating library. If your local library isn’t a participant, chances are a library near you is. You can change libraries from within the Kanopy account setup page to a participating library near you. For the most part, all libraries have the same content because Kanopy licenses the films for distribution directly from the owners. Sometimes the distribution rights differ in markets so that public libraries may have access to fewer or more titles than the academic libraries. Kanopy currently touts a selection of a whopping 30,000 titles. What sets it apart from the other free streamers is the lack of ads. The service is dependent on libraries subscribing on behalf of their members, so library members are not charged directly for using the service. The libraries provide the service through tax dollars or tuition.

And Finally….

As I mentioned earlier, these are of course not the only free streaming services available. Rather, I believe these are good starting points for those looking for free alternatives to the continued onslaught of pay services.

One important factor to keep in mind is the old axiom of finance – “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. As such, these content providers have to pay licensing fees in some way, so as one might imagine it boils down to advertising. Yep, commercials.

And finally, don’t forget to check the channel store of your streaming device of choice for your local news and weather stations’ own streaming channels. On my Roku TVs, each of my local providers offer their own streaming channels with on-demand news content as well as live streaming during their respective broadcast time slots.

If you’ve decided to go all-in with free services only, let me know what you think about these choices once you’ve tried them out. Or, if you have others you believe deserve mentioning, please feel free to comment below!

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