Putting the recipient last… With Let.ter

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Email is one of the most important ways people communicate in the contemporary world, yet it is one that is often frought with problems, most of which seem to stem from a lack of attention to detail before hitting the send button.

Over at MacDrifter, Gabe Weatherhead discusses a simple concept:

The last thing you write is the recipient address

Gabe discusses writing using non-email apps like Drafts on iOS and nvAlt on OSX.

I also use Drafts to prepare up new emails on iOS (both iPhone and iPad), but have found what I think is an ideal for preparing new emails on the Mac – the wonderful Let.ter app.

Let.ter starts with a simple blank screen, with four easy steps.

  1. Enter a subject
  2. Write the body in plain text / Markdown
  3. Enter the recipient(s) email address(es)
  4. Preview and then send

In both Let.ter and Drafts I extensively use TextExpander so they are both powerful yet simple apps for sending email.

I think that the utility behind Let.ter is that it is truly minimalist, and that it allows the use of Markdown. But since reading Gabe’s post, I am also thinking that leaving the recipient address until last before previewing is part of what makes the app useful.

Siri Performance Improvements

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MacRumors has today reported on a study by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster showing improvements in performance of the iOS virtual assistant Siri.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who has regularly assessed Siri’s accuracy in terms of correctly interpreting and answering queries, has issued the latest version of his Siri report card, noting that Siri has continued to improve under iOS 7, particularly in terms of being able to properly interpret questions being asked.

My anecdotal feeling corresponds with this view – not only is Siri (I service I use daily) getting better in terms of the range of information being sourced, but it is doing a far better job of interpreting my inputs. When I previously asked it to call my colleague Mike Davey I would get a response along the lines of “Des, I don’t understand. What do you mean by call my baby?”. Now it gets Mike Davey everytime.[1]

Marco Armant (@marco) isn’t quite so enamoured:

This is good, but the biggest problem I always have with Siri is reliability, not quality of answers.

For a while I got a lot of responses indicating Siri’s apology for being down. I haven’t had that experience now in several months. My experience is more like that of Federico Viticci (@viticci):[2]

It’s still far from perfect, but I’ve been using Siri on a daily basis for phone calls, directions, and Wikipedia integration. I particularly appreciate how iOS 7 made Siri smarter in understanding pronouns, indirect speech, and verb conjugations.

Anyway, Siri is an important part of my daily iOS usage, and I generally find it to be reliable and constantly improving. And I still love finding Easter Eggs.[3].


  1. I know I could’ve trained it to interpret that name better, but I had never got around to it.  ↩

  2. Maybe the Australian Siri and the Italian Siri share the same servers, or at least use different servers than American Siri…  ↩

  3. If you’ve never asked Siri about the plot of the movie Inception give it a try.  ↩

David and KatieFloyd Talk Email on MacPower Users

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I’ve been away on work related stuff for the last few weeks, and am catching up on lots of things.

This morning I listened to the MacPower Users podcast episode on Email, which was a really good indepth study on the state of play of best practice in email management. Well worth a listen.

Prior to listening to that episode, I started reading David Sparks’ latest book: Email – A MacSparky Field Guide[1]

I plan to review this book, but I want to finish reading it first. First impressions are fantastic. In the meantime, go listen to Episode 165 of MacPower Users where David and KatieFloyd talk about the ins, outs and best practices of the email beast!


  1. Affiliate link. Thanks in advance!  ↩

Sanebox – Sanity for your email experience

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Like most people who have been around the internet for a while, I get a lot of email. Much of it is spam – and most of this never makes it to my inbox due to spam filters in place. But even after taking out the spam there is still a lot of low priority/importance email that really doesn’t need to interrupt me when it arrives.

For the last year or so, I have enjoyed a significantly reduced load of email in my inbox, largely due to having adopted Sanebox [1]. Sanebox is a service which:

“filters out and summarizes unimportant emails – not spam, but legitimate messages that just don’t need to interrupt your day and can be processed in bulk.”

Sanebox works brilliantly, and behind the scenes by quietly analysing your email habits, and sorting the emails you receive so that those from your key contacts go into your inbox, and other emails go into a “SaneLater” folder. This pre-sorting means that a small volume of messages go straight to your inbox, leaving the bulk of low priority email for later review.

This triage takes a lot of interference out of email. When I am out and about accessing email through my iPhone or iPad, or in the office focused on core work, I can simply ignore the low priority stuff. Sanebox makes it easy to “train” contacts so that they appear in the correct folder.

Sanebox has additional features that allow you to defer emails until a later date. For example, placing an email in the “SaneTomorrow” folder will take it out of your current view, but place it back in the folder from which it came (Inbox, SaneLater or other) the next day. There are also options for handling mailing list or bulk emails, and reminder services to ensure that you don’t lose track of important messages you send and need a reply on.

Sanebox works with any IMAP, WebDav or Outlook Web Access email service, including services like Fastmail, GMail, Yahoo! Mail, iCloud and Exchange. It is a very versatile service

Sanebox has been around since 2010. Since then other providers have launched similar functionality, most notably Apple with their VIP mail in iCloud, and Google with their Priority Inbox feature. Sanebox has continued to offer a paid service against these powerful newcomers.

The ability for Sanebox to meet its goal of brining sanity to your email is perhaps demonstrated best by what happens when it has brief, unfortunate, outages. For only the second time I can recall in the year or so I’ve been with Sanebox, yesterday there was a significant downtime – about 10 hours. The Sanebox team communicated through Twitter and today followed up with a blog apology for the Sanebox outage and an email from the CEO.

I am an advocate for the concept that the true test of a service is not what happens when everything is plain sailing, but how issues are dealt with when faced. In this regard, there are two thoughts I want to share.

Firstly, my experience during the outage was not a loss of my email, but a loss of the behind-the-scenes filtering. Thus I lost no email, but had a much fuller inbox. It was a significant reminder of just how much of an incredible difference Sanebox makes to my email experience.

Secondly, the Sanebox response was great, with the blog post and an email from the CEO that:

  1. Admitted the problem
  2. Discussed the caused
  3. Outlined actions to avoid future occurences
  4. Provided compensation in the way of a free week of service to Sanebox users.

Two major outages in a year, totalling less than 20 hours, equates to an uptime of around 99.8%. Problems do happen, and providers need to learn from them and improve, just as Sanebox appears to be doing.

My annual renewal for Sanebox is a few weeks away. I’ll have no hesitation in renewing, based on the awesome difference Sanebox makes in my email experience, as well as the way they handle issues.


  1. Affiliate link. Thanks in advance ;-)  ↩

Apps for Fever Update

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Last week I published a post on the State of Play for Fever RSS and Apps, providing an overview of the iOS and OSX apps available to support Shaun Inman’s brilliant, self-hosted, RSS system Fever.

After a long period of little development on the app front, this last week has seen some exciting developments. I hope these new developments are a sign of things to come. I plan to review each of these separately over the next week or so, but thought a quick update would be worthwhile.

Fever Apps for Mac OSX

ReadKit – OSX (US$4.99)


ReadKit is a wonderful tool for Mac OSX, providing support for browser based reading and sharing services like Instapaper, Pocket, Pinboard and more, in a native app. It has already been an important part of my workflow for sometime, and the addition of support Fever in the beta of version 2 is an exciting development.

Whether you’re a Fever user or not, ReadKit should be a part of your reading workflow.

Fever Apps for iOS

Sunstroke – iOS Universal (US$4.99)


Sunstroke has displaced Reeder as my go-to Fever RSS app on iPhone, and since the release of version 1.4 last week, on iPad. Sunstroke has support for a wide range of social sharing and read later services (almost as wide as Reeder), and it has a gorgeous UI and a UX (user experience) that works best with my workflow.

At US$4.99 (A$5.49), Sunstroke is well priced as a universal app [1] and I suggest that this is the one iOS app for Fever, at this time. The developer is extremely responsive on App.net and Twitter.

Ashes – iOS Universal (US$5.99)


The Ashes app has been (re-) released as a universal app for iOS devices at an introductory price of US$5.99 (A$6.49). According to the website, it will increase to US$8.99 from 9 May. Ashes fully supports all native features of Fever, and has an elegant design. It is visually pleasing to use, and seems very stable.

At US$5.99 Ashes is appropriately priced for a niche product that supports both iPhone and iPad, and makes a good choice for someone wanting an all round app for Fever. The developer is actively talking to users on Twitter and App.net.

Reeder – iPhone (US$2.99)


Version 3.1 of Reeder for iPhone was released during the last week. This added support to the iPhone version of the app (which already supports Fever) for Feedbin.

Clearly the developer is focused on iPhone and Feedbin at this time, and so we will have to wait a while longer for iPad and OSX support for Fever. With apps like ReadKit and Sunstroke, this is no longer the problem it was only a week or so back.


  1. In the State of Play article, I mentioned that I thought Sunstroke was overpriced. Compared to Reeder as an iPhone only app, that stood. But for a universal app for iOS, the price is just fine!  ↩

Notetaking Symbology

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Note Taking Symbology

Patrick Rhone today posted about his Dash/Plus System for taking notes. It is an elegant approach to capturing ideas, discussions and other items that might come up, and then working out whether they are an action (open or closed), a “waiting for” item, a delegated item, etc. I suggest you take a look at his post.


Patrick’s system is not unlike an approach I use when in meetings, or otherwise taking notes. Particularly “back in the day” when I managed a diverse group of people, it was important for me to quickly move from meeting to meeting, capture items that I needed to action, or that my people needed to action (because I was ultimately accountable for their action completion), and swiftly ensure those were “in a trusted system” and move on.

It’s important in these situations to ensure that your notetaking system is leakproof (as much as possible), and that you can quickly reference back to check on the status of an item.

In my case, I use(d) the following:

  • Square – a next action
  • Triangle – a project (in the GTD sense)
  • Inverted triange – a someday/maybe type of future project
  • Circle – a waiting for item (i.e. something that someone else might be responsible for delivering)

Any of the above with a cross through it simply means that it is “done”. Of course, it is important to capture who is responsible for a waiting for (delegated) item, and when they might need to deliver it.

I post this as a bit of a quick response to Patrick’s Dash/Plus System, but you may have noticed that I stated that “I use(d) the following” above. I think Dash/Plus is a little more elegant, and I think I’ll give that a go. There are two things I like about it

  1. First and foremost, separate items can be “captured” without “processing” on the fly. This means you can come back to the items at the end of a meeting, or at the end of the day, and process them into your organisation system.
  2. The separation of “waiting for” and “delegated” items. My first response was why, but I quickly realised the power of this. Waiting for means others are wholely responsible to deliver. Delegated means your team is responsible, which means that you continue to hold ultimate responsibility.

I’d be interested to know if anyone else has a system for note taking symbology, like what I used, or the Dash/Plus System.

Backing Up – Securing Your Files for the Present and the Future

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Backing Up – Securing Your Files for the Present and the Future

In an increasingly paperless world more and more of our data is being digitised. While offering many opportunities, there are (at least) three challenges presented by this:

  1. Backup of data in case of loss or destruction of the host system;
  2. Accessibility of the data by others in the event of your inability to do so yourself; and,
  3. Usability of the data into the future (i.e. future-proofing).

Every inhabitant of the digital world needs to consider ensuring they maintain their data for now and into the future. This article addresses some of how I approach these tasks.

Over on SimplicityBliss, Sven Fechner recently outlined his comprehensive backup and emergency data access strategy for Mac.

Today I have not one, but effectively four different backups of my data. Three of them are always up-to-date, while the fourth one is the ‘nuclear event’ offsite contingency.

Sven has very ably outlined an approach that addresses the first two points in detail, and I’d suggest you read his article and digest his approach.

My own approach is not dissimilar, at least for three of the four levels described:

  1. Onsite backups with Time Machine (I use Time Capsule for MacBooks and an old Drobo for my iMac);
  2. Data in Dropbox (aff) and Evernote, protected with strong passwords and 2 factor authentication (Dropbox only for now). I am also playing with the Transporter for having my own distributed data.
  3. Cloud backup using Crashplan.

As for the third consideration – future-proofing – we need to think very seriously about whether the masses of data we’re producing daily today will be readable into the future. We have an unprecedented opportunity to capture data for future generations, but we have a responsibility to ensure they will be able to read it.

There are two aspects to this problem – the storage media and the format the data is stored in.

Try listening to an old mixtape you made on an actual cassette tape. I’d bet that most people couldn’t find a (working) cassette player in their house, so unless you drive an old car, you’re quite likely out of luck! Having as much stuff in the cloud as possible deals with at least the media part of the problem, as most cloud solutions will incrementally migrate their storage media, progressively over time. You should do the same at home.

As for the format, this is an equally important consideration. While it might be inconceivable that your current .doc, .jpg or .xls files might not be readable in decades to come, try opening an early 1990’s WordPerfect document. I dare you.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and have no idea as to what formats will be readable in the future. But my gut feel tells me this:

Storing your data in the most raw form possible gives you the best chance of being able to read it into the future

In other words, applying as few photographic enhancements as possible, or using little or no rich text formating is your best strategy for future proofing your data. If you’ve tried to “restore” an old photo, you’ll know you have more chance if you can use the original film (or negative) than if you use a print. If you’ve tried to scan old, heck, even read old text, you’ll know that the simpler the font the better.

My two main forms of data that I want to preserve are my photos and my writing.

I capture all photos in RAW format, and I keep the raw files of the keepers. Backed up.

This is also one of the benefits of having made the decision to write in plain text, using Markdown. Seriously, if you write and you don’t write in Markdown, go and learn more about it. It’s not difficult, and there’s even a great book to help you learn Markdown.

I only wish that I had started writing in plain text sooner. Some of my old writing is literally locked up on on 5.25" floppy disks in WordPerfect format. I have a project to do something about that.

We are in the digital era. Being productive in this era means backing, ensuring others can access if and when needed, and ensuring your data is available now and into the future. I urge everyone to consider an appropropriate backup startegy, including an offsite solution like Crashplan. I also suggest that you learn more about future proofing your data by using the simplest possible formats for storage, including Markdown for plaintext.

How do you backup? And how do you future proof your data?

Ulysses III: Slick new text editor from The Soulmen

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Great new text editor from The Soulmen: Ulysses III

As anyone who reads this site regularly knows, I love writing in Markdown. It’s a writing syntax that is best described as a tool that allows me to focus on the writing, not the formatting.

For Markdown, there are a number of text editors and other tools to support. On OSX, I rely on nvALT for capturing ideas on the go, and starting an initial draft of something. I love Byword for the actual writing process, supported by Brett Terpstra’s Marked app to have live previews of the rendered code. I also like the excellent MultiMarkdown Composer, thought I do prefer the simple, clean layout of Byword.

On iOS I use Drafts and Notesy in a similar way to nvALT on OSX, and Byword as my main editor.

A new OSX app in this class called Ulysses III was released this week, and since its on sale and has had good reviews, I decided to grab a copy from the Mac App Store (A$20.99).

Right from the start it’s clear that this is an app built from the ground up for Markdown. Although it is the third generation of a very successful family of Mac based text editors, the developers warn existing users to treat this as a completely new app.

They are quite confident in their product, stating the following in one of the introductory “sheets” loaded into the app:

If you’re new to this, then please enjoy what we believe is the greatest text editor the world has ever seen. A blank slate powered by a toolset of endless possibilities, limited only by your imagination as a writer.

Like Byword (and similar apps such as iA Writer), Ulysses III presents a powerful distraction free writing environment. A blank sheet that is sorted in groups of sheets kept in a library. You can show/hide columns showing the Group or the Library+Group using hotkeys or menu commands.

Writing is straightforward, and the user interface is best characterised as described by MacSparky:

Ulysses III is gorgeous. The way it renders text and iterates on the three pane view is truly remarkable.

Essentially, the app gets out of your way and allows you to focus on the writing.

iCloud support is built in and even somewhat emphasised. I am sure that Dropbox support would be straightforward, but it wasn’t presented to me as an easy option in the setup phase.

Although I’ve long loved the promise of iCloud, it hasn’t really taken hold for me. I tend to agree with David Sparks that iCloud is at its best with plain text type apps, but since I tend to work across several different apps (Byword, Multimarkdown Composer, nvAlt, Notesy, etc), I need Dropbox to allow files to move easily between apps.

Of course, the creators of Ulysses III, the Soulmen, also have an iOS app called Daedelus Touch. This app, for both iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad, integrates with Ulysses III.

This article is the first thing I’ve written in Ulysses III, and the following are my initial impressions:

Pro’s

  • Beautiful, distraction free, writing environment
  • Variety of HUDs to bring up stats, export options, links to favourites, navigation (within the sheet) and even syntax assistance
  • Simple exports (“sixport”) to txt, RTF and PDF formats
  • Ability to copy HTML, Markdown or plain text to the clipboard
  • iCloud integration (with iOS Daedelus Touch app)
  • Quick rendering of Markdown syntax, showing you most of the syntax but de-emphasised
  • Choice of style sheets to work with
  • Dark or light background options
  • The name: Ulysses Paroz was my ancestor who first brought the Paroz family to Australia!

Con’s

  • When adding links, the Markdown way of adding inline or reference links is hidden away. This makes it one step more for me to see my link, and also makes it hard for me to re-use a link
  • When doing lists (like this one), I have to type a new “-” followed by a space for each line[1]
  • No obvious Dropbox support, particularly with Daedelus Touch[2]
  • Not sure how I can get Drafts on iOS to work into the system[3]
  • Expensive

Initial thoughts

I’ll personally keep playing with Ulysses III / Daedelus Touch for some stuff to see how it goes. It grabs me as a great repository and editor, with a lot of great features. It has much promise, and if I didn’t already have Byword, nvALT, Marked and Drafts it might be a great one stop app.

But it won’t be my core app at the moment, because it’s Markdown behaviour (e.g. for links) is a little quirky, and because it would require me to change my workflow.


  1. Hitting Alt+Enter automatically brings up the next bullet point. See comment from Nicholas below  ↩

  2. Dropbox integration for Ulysses III and Daedelus Touch is quite do-able. See detailed explanation in the comment from daedalicious below  ↩

  3. As daedalicious mentioned in the comments, if Dropbox works as described, Drafts support should be straightforward.  ↩

Concussion diagnosis: There’s an app for that

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The whole quantified self movement gains momentum with every new app and gadget that allows us to track our own health and that of others. Via Gizmodo Australia comes news that scientists have now found a way of diagnosing concussion in sports players:

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have developed a voice-recognition iPad app that listens for signs of a brain injury in someone’s speech, providing an almost instant diagnosis

As an instructor of a contact activity[1] I can see that it would be very useful to be able to quickly make such a diagnosis. At this stage, it seems that the app requires each player to be baselined before a match, and it will be interesting to see if one day the technology expands to cover non-baselined individuals.


  1. I teach Shorinjiryu Koshinkai karate at the Kengokan Dojo in Sydney  ↩

Keeping Your Phone on Silent

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Have you ever been waiting in a queue for service for some time, only to have to wait a bit longer because the assistant stops to take a phone call? When I’ve experienced this I’ve often been frustrated, and I think this is because I wonder why the person on the phone gets priority over those waiting in person.

Following a link from John Gruber I saw this article at Vanity Fair about the iPhone of Dave Morin, the founder of Path.

When asked about his ring tone, Morin replied:

I don’t use a ring of any kind on my phone. This is so that I am always on offense and never defense

I gather that Gruber was not impressed with Morin’s opinion. Personally I thought that the statement about always being on offense was a bit dicky. It kind of felt like he tries to always be offensive….

With that said, I keep my iPhone in the silent mode 95%+ of the time.

One of the key things in personal productivity is managing interuptions. In many respects, we live in an attention deficit society. Mobile phones ring, email alerts pop and alerts twirp incessantly. And we all tend to allow ourselves to be interupted.

When I present, conduct training, chair a meeting or act as an MC, I ask people to put their phones in silent mode or turn them off altogether. Sometimes I joke that I offer a half day training course in how to do this. Or a week long residenetial off-site course for managers and executives…

The “interuptitis” epidemic is a key barrier to real productivity in the 21st century. One popular suggestion is, as described by Leo Babuata of Zen Habits, to

Turn off all notifications. Trying to focus while something is notifying you of an incoming email or tweet or Facebook update is impossible.

I think this applies just as much to the phone as it does to other notifications.

When I advocate this, people ask what happens if I miss a call. There are three options:

  1. If the caller leaves a message (with a clear, relevant purpose that has value to me), I’ll call back;
  2. If they don’t leave a message, then they will probably call back; or,
  3. If they don’t leave a message and they don’t call back, it probably wasn’t important.

Although my phone is on silent I do leave the vibrate function on. As my phone sits near me on my desk, I hear it vibrate if I am close enough. If I don’t hear it, or if I am focused on something else, then the above three options kick in.

When I am on-the-go, my phone is generally in my pocket. I’ll feel the vibrations, and will take the call if I am in a position to do so. When I am presenting or conducting training the phone is usually in Airplane mode to avoid interuptions altogether.

Now I occasionally I do switch the silent mode off. That’s generally reserved for when I am expecting an important call. If I am with other people, I explain this up front, if possible, and I will leave the room or the immediate area if the call comes in. For the sake of the other people, and the important call coming in, I will quickly silence any calls from other parties.

Phones, email, text messaging, RSS feeds and social media are all tools that can be important parts of our productivity setup. And they can all very easily become time sinks, or what I call productivity sink holes. Use notifications, ring tones and alerts wisely, and never be afraid to turn them off.