Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Taming the Wild EMail!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love information. Doing research and figuring things out is FUN! The problem is, how does one cope with an overabundance of information? Specifically, way too much email? I receive several hundred email messages a day (no, I won't admit in public how many), besides the multiples of hundreds of messages from the RSS feeds I follow. Every few weeks I archive my email as my mailbox is getting too large for our system, and in six months the email I've kept ends up as a file of about 3 gigabytes. There's a lot of great information in there, but how is one to get at it?

Here's what I'm now doing, and I must say it's working phenomenally well. You need to know that I am doing this on a Mac. I would imagine there may be similar solutions for the PC (and the first part of my process works on PC, Mac, or Linux), but I'm not aware of them - if you are, please share these in a comment.

I have 14 years  worth of stored .PST files. My first task was getting these into some format that was open and not proprietary. The most standard format is probably the .mbox or .mbx (mailbox) format, which is used by quite a few mail programs. What I found is a treasure called Emailchemy from Weird Kid Software. It takes many different proprietary email formats and converts them into many other more open formats. (It runs best, from what I see, on Mac, but Windows and Linux versions are available - they simply require Sun Java 1.5 or higher to be installed.) That was a pretty painless process - I pointed the software at a folder of .PST files, and it created another folder with .MBOX files. At $30 for a single user (and if you ask nicely, you might qualify for an education discount, as I did) it was a steal! Yes, there's a demo version available.

Then comes the heavy lifting: creating easily searched, fully accessible databases of all those emails. The tool for this is something called MailSteward. There's a demo version of this as well (limited to 15k emails), along with $20, $50, and $100 versions, the last of which requires you to set up a MySQL database. I went for the $50 version (alas, no discounts...) and it's serving me superbly. I fed it my individual converted PST chunks, created searches that let me extract all the info on bikes, scanners, photo gear, bass guitars, etc. that I had been collecting, and created much more easily manageable files from which I can now retrieve the specific info I need. It keeps the message format pretty well intact, and can either keep or discard attachments, depending on your preference. MailSteward also can be set to archive current email from Mac Mail, so that your mailbox doesn't bulge too much and choke your system. It can do this automatically, delete the original after it's been archived, and a bunch of other stuff.

Yep, I'm an info geek, and maybe this doesn't thrill you at all. That's okay: this has made me so very happy, to quote Blood Sweat and Tears, one of my favorite bands in my teens. Maybe it'll be of use to you as well...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Great Information!

I've mentioned RSS feeds a number of times on this blog - I thought it might be useful to explain a bit more and provide some more resources. RSS stands for "really simple syndication", and is basically a system for subscribing to blogs, much as you might use iTunes to subscribe to podcasts. Rather than having to use a browser (IE, FireFox, Safari, Chrome, etc.) to go to individual blogs and see if something is new, you can use feed reader software (also called a feed or news aggregator) to subscribe to any number of blogs, and have these served up for you to view and do more - much more.

So, first things first: which reader software to use? You can use Google Reader (www.google.com/reader) directly in a web browser window, as it's become one of the major ways of organizing, saving, and sharing your subscriptions. You'll probably find, however, that using a stand-alone program will offer benefits, even though I'll sometimes go into Google Reader itself. Opinions will of course vary, but I really like Feeddler Pro on my iPhone and Reeder on my iPad (these are my main devices for following all the blogs I track), and before that I used NetNewsWire on my Mac. Here are some suggested readers for the Mac and some suggested readers for PC.

Next, the question is what to subscribe to? I've provided for you my lists of tech blogs I follow at the right side of this blog (they're called "bundles"). You can click on the names of the individual blogs to visit these, click on preview to see the collection, or subscribe on a bundle, which is the easiest way to get a quick start. I've organized my tech blog bundles in terms of iPhone/iPad related blogs, and then more generally tech-related blogs. (If you're interested in my church-related bundles, check them out at my church-related blog: communiocate.blogspot.com.)

How did I create these bundles? That's a function within Google Reader - if you'd like to know more about how to do that, let me know in a comment.

I have also marked a number of blog entries as starred (items I think will be of future use to me) and as shared (items I think will be of interest to my tech friends). My shared list is pretty large, but there are some incredible bits of information in there, more quickly accessible than reading through the thousands of blog entries I've read through (I read, on average, about 500-700 blog entries a day). To see my shared items, see http://www.google.com/reader/shared/06701517268185061680. To subscribe to my shared items as a feed, click on http://www.google.com/reader/public/atom/user/06701517268185061680/state/com.google/broadcast. This would in essence let you subscribe to a special feed of only those blog entries I've found of interest.

If you have further questions, or if I'm not being clear in what I'm saying, please let me know! This is an incredible source of information, and I'd love more people to have access to it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Keeping Data Available and Synced

Remember (if you’re old enough) how exciting it was to be able to put big chunks of data on a USB memory stick, or more accurately, flash drive (the “Jump Drive” was an early model from Lexar). So much better than floppies, and who uses floppy drives any more?! The problem is, though, that these are easily misplaced (especially a problem if you have any sort of sensitive data on the drive), they can cost a fair bit, and they can fail – a colleague recently discovered the danger of relying on a USB flash drive when it failed just when she needed it for preaching a sermon in chapel!

There are a number of excellent methods now available for making data broadly and safely available, and even keeping things in sync. I’m going to highlight two quite similar services that may well be entirely free to use, depending on how much space you need, and fill related but distinct roles in my use. A disclaimer here: I will give you a link for the services. If you use this link both you and I will get extra free space, so I do benefit by your use of the link. If you have a friend that you know is also on one of these, by all means use their referral link to benefit them. You definitely will want to take the referral path, though, as it gives you extra space as well as me or your other friend. Now to the services!

The first one I became aware of and put to use was Dropbox (referral link at http://db.tt/D2QRwTf). Offering 2 gigabytes of space free (and more via referrals or on a paid plan) this was a fabulous, free, accessible replacement for my USB drive. If I could get to the internet, I could simply log in to the Dropbox site and access my files. I could also put files in a folder (photos, music, documents, whatever) and send a link to that folder to someone via email, and they could then retrieve those files. Besides that, I could also install the free Dropbox software on my PCs (of whatever sort: PC, Mac, Linux, and mobile devices) and have the files automatically replicated on all the PCs. (Dropbox also now allows you to select which portions you replicate, so that you don’t overwhelm a computer with low capacity.) The only glitch, and it was by no means a deal-breaker, was that Dropbox set up a folder on each PC which was the place everything was stored, so I had to put a copy of my class notes in there to get them from one machine to the other. (Yes, there are ways of setting up linkages and doing all sorts of exotic maneuvers, but that goes well beyond the basic stuff.) Dropbox was, and continues to be for me, an incredible and excellent alternative to USB drives for transferring and sharing files.

Another issue, which I had also originally solved with a USB drive, was keeping my files in sync. I generally did most of the work on my academic class notes on my home laptop (currently a Macbook), and taught from a tablet PC in the classroom (currently a Lenovo). Keeping my files in sync was a pain: I tried multiple software programs and used a 16gig USB drive to transfer the synced files from one to the other. It took time and had dangers of over-writing files where I’d made changes in both locations between syncs. It was a pain! Then I discovered Sugarsync (referral link at https://www.sugarsync.com/referral?rf=dw9857q0vd78j). This excellent service offers 5 gigabytes free to start with, is very reasonable for larger sizes, and also gives extra space for referrals. It runs on the same types of gear as Dropbox, but differs in that Sugarsync makes it very easy to sync files between various computers. After you install the free Sugarsync manager program, you can designate any folder(s) on your computer(s) to be synced to each other. I chose, for instance, to sync my class notes from my home laptop to my class tablet, as well as being available to me on my iPhone and iPad. Now, when I change a file (as I did in our Bible study class this morning on Hebrews – link at http://communiocate.blogspot.com/) on one computer, even on my iPhone or iPad, that change is propagated to all the linked computers without me doing anything else! Very cool! I’ve since created sync linkages between a number of different computers, linking different data between them all, and Sugarsync has never let me down.

Is it safe and secure? About as much as anything is on the internet – make sure you choose a good password (and I plan to do a blog posting on that soon). In some other important ways, though, it is VERY safe.
·      Think about it – both services back your data up to multiple locations. It’s available to you on the internet, as well as locally on whatever machines you’ve enabled for replication. If the internet is down, the information is still on those local machines. If you’re working away from the office and can connect at an internet café or library, even from the other side of the world, your data is backed up. If a machine is stolen or lost, that data is still on the other machines as well as the internet.
·      What happens if you accidentally make an unintended change? Won’t the syncing/replicating mess you up? Yes, it can, but fortunately both services offer versioning. I used this just last week. I was editing a file and changing some information, but absentmindedly hit “save” rather than selecting “save as”. I needed both the original file and the new one (it was an exam for my students, and they would have been heartbroken at being deprived of this evaluative learning exercise!). Fortunately, all I had to do was log in to the Sugarsync website, find the file (which had already synced to my other machines), and select “more” on the dropdown menu to find the “versions” tab, and a few seconds later I had both versions of the file, just as originally intended. What a relief!

Well, these services provide a terrific deal! You may well decide, as several friends have, that it’s worth paying for a paid plan and extra space. Even if you don’t, they offer useful tools and a safety net, and I recommend them highly.

Planned future information here on the blog: safe and easy password creation, management, and deployment tools, as well as backup and high availability strategies to make sure that when things go really wrong, you can keep on working. Stay tuned! And do spread the word: I intend to become more regular and frequent in updating this site!