Monday, 22 November 2010

Gmail Priority Inbox - review & wishlist

This post gives thoughts, tips and suggestions on Gmail's newish Priority Inbox feature.

Google have provided a "Priority Inbox" feature for Gmail since they launched it in the late summer of 2010, clearly with their sights set on wooing over enterprise and SMB users (and educational institutions) to Google Apps, trumpeting the potential time savings and productivity gains - to some external coverage, and even available to a limited extent on Android phones.

It was highlighted as a new feature when you logged in to Gmail for a while, but not any more. From my experiences of using it, it's generally helpful - even though normally I'm a control freak who doesn't like anyone else, least of all software, automatically making decisions for me.

If you're a new Gmail user, or you didn't activate it when it was featured, this post gives an overview of this feature.

What does Priority Inbox do?

If you activate "Priority Inbox", you get a new Priority Inbox view which splits your incoming Gmail email into 3 sections:

  • "Important and unread",
  • "Starred" and
  • "Everything else".

The idea is that Gmail sorts and prioritises your email - the important stuff goes at the top so that you see it first. (See the Google video promo at the top of this blog post.)

At first, it guesses what to "file" under "Important" and what to put in "Everything else".

You "train" it by clicking icons to indicate an email is Important ("Mark as Important" has a + sign) or "Mark as not important" (- sign), so that over time it should learn and improve. There are icons both at the top of the Inbox (outlined in purple below) and also (outlined in red below) of the individual email, so you can "promote" or "demote" a single email or a selected batch in one go.

When you've read an Important email it goes into the "Everything else" section. Unless you starred it, in which case it goes into the Starred section. Or unless you archived it, in which case it disappears from the Inbox altogether.

How to activate Priority Inbox

Go to Settings (top right) and the Priority Inbox tab (or while you're logged into Gmail click this link).

Then select "Show Priority Inbox" at the bottom and click the "Save Changes" button.


The Gmail help pages have some further help and tips. Google have also blogged some specific tips.

Especially in the early days, be sure to check the "Everything else" section in case important emails get shunted there by Google. If an important email gets put in that section, use the "Mark as Important" icon to tell Google (and hopefully it'll do better next time with similar email).

Note that if you star an email it appears in the Starred section, but if you then archive it, it won't be shown there. Useful for keeping just the "star starred" items there and preventing less important starred items from cluttering up that section.

It's worth checking out your Gmail Settings for Priority Inbox (click that link only after you've logged into Gmail).

Do you find Gmail sometimes goes to the Priority Inbox, other times to the "normal" Inbox? Probably that's happening because "Default inbox" is set to "The last inbox I used". Really confusing and bad for usability. If people choose to turn on Priority Inbox, then this setting should default to "Priority Inbox". Change it to that, and click "Save changes" at the bottom.

For keyboard shortcuts fans - the g then i combo takes you to whatever Inbox has been set in the Default inbox section. So if you change it to "Priority Inbox" the combo will always go to that page, rather than sometimes one and sometimes the other.

Another tip - the Priority Inbox sections' Options let you choose how many emails you want to see in each section, and other options. For "Starred" I personally use "Show up to 10 items" so that the "Everything else" emails don't disappear too far off my radar.

Still too many starred emails in the Starred section? (even though only the latest 10 are displayed). Just archive the ones you don't need or want to see in that section.

Observations / suggestions

Personally, perhaps for cultural "left to right" reasons, I found it a bit confusing that the "Mark as Important" icon is on the left and "Mark as not important" is on the right. I keep expecting the one with the + sign to be on the right and the one with the - sign to be on the left, and had to stop myself from clicking the wrong icon to mark emails as important (or not) at first! I'd find it easier if they swapped the order of the icons.

A more important suggestion - I think that when you have read an email that's in the "Important and unread"section, it should NOT go to the "Everything else" section but should be automatically archived, so as not to clutter up the "Everything else" section and get in the way when you try to scan the emails in "Everything else". You've read it, you don't need to see it again.

So I wish Google would add an option in the Settings which you can select, something like:

When I read an email in the Important and Unread section:

  • archive it
  • put it in "Everything else".

But those are relatively minor, all in all I find Priority Inbox pretty useful to help me manage my email. I've even been able to use it to produce an "All unread email" view, which doesn't exist with Gmail. I'll blog about how to do that in a separate post.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Bloggers / tweeters - and libel / defamation

For anyone who writes a blog or posts to message boards or forums, or who tweets on Twitter etc - the Libel Reform Campaign have just published a new guide "So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?" - a guide for bloggers (English law only, but of interest given that libel lawsuits tend to be brought in England even against non-Brits…).

I mentioned "or post to message boards" etc because the guide may be of use not just to bloggers but also to forum posters and Twitter users who get threatened with defamation actions.

However, the guide only deals with the situation where someone has complained or threatened legal action over a blog post you made or something else that you wrote yourself.

The guide doesn't deal fully with -

  • what if you just run a blog or message board, and the complaint is about someone else's post - not one you personally posted (then, issues about editorial control etc may come into it) - it happened to Mr Hilton and his site.
  • what if someone posts a defamatory comment on your blog - defamatory about you (self-help: delete it, or don't publish it!), or about someone else?
  • should you moderate posts on a team blog, or moderate comments on your blog, if so how? (probably not, in order to reduce the risk of being done for manually letting a libellous comment or post through - though I admit I myself do moderate for spam).

For more info you might want to see this post on defamation and other legal risks for bloggers (including on posting links to possibly defamatory material someone else wrote) - but be warned that while that post was up to date when it was written, some of it may have been superseded by later events.

If you want to defend your libel case (and bearing in mind that you can't get legal aid), see a note Legal help: where to go and how to pay - meant for MPs so it's worded quite simply! ;D

Like the guide, this post isn't legal advice etc either, of course.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Thunderbird: draft message "lost", or saved in or sent from a different email account ("from" address)? - possible fix

If you use the free Thunderbird email software, you may have found that a previously-saved draft email gets saved into a different account when you edit it, ie under the wrong "From" email address (so you can't find the saved draft at first, because it's in the wrong place).

Worse still, a draft email may even get sent to recipients "from" the wrong email address.

This annoyance (and possibly embarrassment, if work email gets sent from your personal email address) happens because:

  • you've set up several different email accounts on Thunderbird, eg one for personal email, one for work email
  • you open a draft email you'd previously saved into one of your accounts
  • meanwhile you selected a different account on the left, eg clicked on the Inbox for a different account than the one for the draft you just opened, to check emails for that different account
  • later on, you go back to the opened draft email and then you edit it and save it as a draft or else you send it - and it gets saved or sent under the currently selected email address, not the original one you composed the email under!

One fix that has been suggested is to add all your identities to all your email accounts in Thunderbird (here's how, see under "How to add another identity"), but if you have lots of accounts it's a bit tedious.

In my view, the easiest solution to this problem (noted briefly on the same page as the previous link) is the following tip or trick. Below I include a step by step for non-techies.

This fix should hopefully ensure that a draft email you're editing gets re-saved or sent from the original email address you created it under, and not some random email account that happens to have been highlighted on the left when you eventually save or send the draft.

  1. In Thunderbird go to the menu Tools, select Options, then click the Advanced button (with the cogwheel) at the top.

  2. Under Advanced click the General sub-tab if it's not already on that page, then click the Config Editor button

  3. In the about:config box that comes up, type or paste (without the quotes) in the Filter box "mailnews.reply_to_self_check_all_ident".

  4. It should now look like this - it will say "false" under "Value" in the "mailnews.reply_to_self_check_all_ident" preference (if it was set to "true", you shouldn't be having this issue!)

  5. What you need to do is to set it to "true". The easiest way to do that is just to doubleclick on the * line, and check that it now reads "true":

You can now close out of that box. Hit OK if you want in the Options window, but from what I can see it seems to save even if you hit Cancel.

From now on, Thunderbird should check when you save an edited draft email or send a draft email, and hopefully save or send it under the original email address! If it still glitches, raise it with Mozilla

Monday, 15 November 2010

Gmail: "Loading", can't reply or compose email, chat not working in Firefox? - possible solution

Is your Gmail stuck or hanging on "Loading…" in Firefox? Gmail chat not working either? The issue of Gmail freezing in Firefox seems fairly easy to find the solution to online, but given its huge annoyance factor here's step by step answers to help non-technical users to fix the problem.

The Firefox browser and Gmail don't always work well together. I've had previous experiences of Gmail being unusable for a while on Firefox after an upgrade to either, until the other caught up.

This particular problem seemed to persist however. (I used Internet Explorer or other browsers for Gmail, in the meantime.)

If you started getting this problem after upgrading Firefox recently (probably to version 3.6.12), one possible tip to solve the issue is this (it certainly worked for me!):

  1. In Firefox, go to the address bar and type "about:config" without the quote marks and hit Enter.

  2. You'll get the warning below, just click "I'll be careful.."

  3. Now you'll get a window that looks something like this:

  4. In the Filter box, type (again without the quotes) "" and you'll see something like this; note the enabled line which I've outlined in red:

  5. Now doubleclick on the "" line, outlined in red above, so that under the "Value" column it now reads "true", like so:

  6. You can now close out of that tab, and try Gmail again.
If it still doesn't work I'm afraid the problem is something else and you'll have to try more troubleshooting. But it might well work - it has for lots of people.

Clearly Google are now using DOM storage for Gmail in Firefox - and you have no choice but to enable it if you want your Gmail to work properly. A stage on the way to full HTML 5, I suspect.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Telephone banking, NatWest and fraud

In these days of increasing fraud and theft, it's very worrying that - in perhaps a misguided attempt to be "friendly"? - a major UK bank should stupidly make it much easier for criminals to snaffle its customers' bank account details.

Take this (nearly word for word) transcript of a call which a friend made to NatWest:

Ring ring.
Hello? Hello? Who is this? Is this NatWest Private Banking?
Yes it is. May I have your bank account number?

What's wrong with that picture? Here's what it used to sound like:

Ring ring.
NatWest Private Banking, John Smith speaking, how may I help you?
Hello, I'd like to make a payment please.
Yes. May I have your customer number?

So if you dial a wrong number and a bad guy answers, you're stuffed basically. They can get all sorts of info out of you and you'll be none the wiser.

My friend said, "Never in my life have I encountered a business or professional firm which tells its staff to answer the phone by saying 'Hello'! Surely it is good commercial practice as well as common sense to identify yourself and the organisation you represent. Too much informality doesn't improve customer service but rather damages it." (Aside - I don't like companies that presume to call me by my first name without asking me if they can, either. Maybe I'm old fashioned but it smacks of disrepect. I'm the client, I'm the customer.)

UPDATE TO CLARIFY: Flabbergasted at the phone call being answered in this manner, my friend ask if their procedures for answering calls had been changed and was told that they had. On subsequent calls, unfortunately the experience was little different. My friend ranted to me first, hence this blog post; the next time, it's going to be a request to talk to a supervisor to ask them to change their procedures back.

Why on earth should the customer be forced to take steps to check with their bank that it is indeed their bank that they are speaking to? What's worse is, on different occasions subsequently different NatWest staff were found to answer in different ways too.

Not identifying yourself and not being consistent in how you deal with customer phone calls is not just disconcerting for customers, but creates unnecessary risks of fraud and theft.

Banks shouldn't be creating risks. Banks, of all institutions, should make it very very clear who they are. It should be banks' responsibility to do all they can to minimise fraud and crime.

This sort of thing isn't helping. In fact, quite the opposite. I trust no banks other than National Westminster Bank are doing it, and let's hope that NatWest sees the error of its ways soon and goes back to the old "script".

Of course, banks have a history of not doing the most sensible things when it comes to technology, to put it tactfully (and yes I count telephones as technology). Though it's usually consumers rather than banks who end up paying the price. So maybe we'll be hoping in vain.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Tech journalism, science journalism - tips & thoughts from London Girl Geek Dinner

The recent London Girl Geek Dinner on tech journalism was one of the best and most useful ever, for anyone who writes or broadcasts video or audio - whether or not as a professional journalist - eg tips on how to shoot professional looking video. Thanks as always to Judith Lewis and the team for organising this practical and interesting event, I think the first I've been to since the Regent Street shopping event.

Journalism is still very much a male dominated profession, about 60% male, and in technology and science journalism the percentage is the same if not worse.

Equally bad is the fact that, as the attendees agreed, far too many technology magazines and journals are seemingly aimed just at men (see my rant on tech magazine sexism in GirlyGeekdom - about T3 magazine, which I don't subscribe to anymore, quelle surprise. And, while I'm at it, much stuff aimed at women seems to be designed by men too, like pyjamas. Humph.)

Even Wired UK, who provided for the event free copies of their mag and some discounted subs, received some criticism for being written almost exclusively from a male perspective.

It seems that the market is nicheing or fragmenting. There is probably room for a magazine which caters for (or at least doesn't ignore) the growing female appetite for technology - indeed it's likely to be welcomed with open arms, at least by the attendees!

Now on to the individual talks.

The 3 journalists / broadcasters, who kindly gave their time to share their experiences and tips with us, were (in order of appearance) Angela Saini, Connie St Louis and Ramaa Sharma, and all of them have been or still are connected with the BBC.

Angela Saini - tips on being a journalist

Angela Saini, now a freelance journalist and author (blog), gave some practical tips on how to be a technology journalist or science journalist (her own background is engineering).

She doesn't seem to have put her slides online. I didn't make many notes as most of her points although very good and helpful seemed to be common sense to me.

Interestingly she was quite firm in her views on the distinction between bloggers and journalists. If you just sit in front of a keyboard, you're not a journalist. You have to go out there, collar and interview people, get exclusives.

See more on her blog post after the event, which also repeated her argument that the quality of media and news generally is going downhill as journalism is being devalued, both by "churnalists" who just copy and paste official or corporate press releases, and by people willing to work for free - interns as well as bloggers.

She thinks that journalists should demand to be paid, and paid fairly, for their work. (Apparently tech journalists generally get paid about 40 or 50p a word in the UK; more in the US.)

Surely editors and readers are partly to blame as well, for putting up with things like churnalism?

Connie St Louis - journalism qualification

Connie St Louis (blog), while still producing radio programmes for the BBC etc, is in charge of the Science Journalism MA at City University's highly regarded Department of Journalism. She too has a science background, in biology.

These days it's getting harder and harder to get a job in journalism, and having a formal qualification like a postgrad degree in journalism is one way to get your foot in the door.

The National Union of Journalists also offers training (it seems a bit chicken and egg to me though, if you have to have a journalism job before you can be an NUJ member, rather like trying to get an Equity card - not that I have one of those either).

Connie's Department also does research on journalism and media. One fascinating current project of hers is looking at the prevalence of churnalism by running plagiarism detection software on "news articles", as the source news releases are usually published online. The results will be published probably next year.

I'm looking forward to seeing them. I must say I had noticed the phenomenon myself, as I now subscribe to science / tech related news releases where I can, and had spotted the striking resemblances between many so-called news articles and the official news releases.

I don't read press releases so that I can copy them into blog posts - I don't hold with that, and never have. Too many people do it, bloggers as well as some professional journalists. In my view, either be the first to break the news, or else produce thoughtful reasoned analysis about it (which takes time and research). Don't just play "follow the leader" and repeat the press release or the first person who wrote about it.

I subscribe to news releases because I believe in getting the info straight from the horse's mouth as it's more likely to be accurate and reliable (assuming the body issuing the release isn't lying of course!), and more importantly it's less likely to be garbled or taken out of context - unlike in many secondhand reports, I have to say.

When blog posts or news stories don't provide links to the full original source, I really don't like it - there's no excuse for it, especially on the web (so what if "a government paper said…" - what's the full title of the paper, what department issued it, where can I get a copy?).

I often try to track the sources down for myself. In my own blog posts I certainly always try to link to the source where possible, so people can check the original if they wish, and hopefully see that they can trust my rendition.

Of course, it now seems obvious why many media articles don't link to the original - maybe they're worried readers will spot that they've just been copying press releases wholesale!

Ramaa Sharma - gadgets for multi-media journalism

Ramaa Sharma, who now teaches journalism internally at the BBC, is living proof that you don't always need a science background to get into tech journalism.

These days journalists have to be able to do stories for the web as well as TV, radio and print; and they not only are expected to write the stories but also to shoot the videos, record the audio and do the editing and uploading.

Ramaa gave us some very useful tips on multimedia journalism, including tools which don't cost the earth and won't break your back lugging them around.

In my view the latter is a big factor, not just for people who've done their back in like me, but also because making the gear that you need for the job too huge or heavy can be a deterrent to women, as we're simply not built like men.

Her recommended equipment included:
  1. Benk tripod - brolly sized and lightweight, yet opens out (to oohs and aahs, virtually) to quite a decent length. She said she got it from Maplins but I can't tell if it was this or this or indeed neither, as neither says "Benk" in the photo or description and they both cost the same, just £19.99).
  2. Gorillapod - a range of tripods for cameras as well as video cameras; basically a small tripod whose legs can be wrapped round almost anything. (If I were T3 I'd probably be making a "joke" about that.)
  3. Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera - relatively cheap at under £100, very portable, now used by the BBC following her comparative review of this camcorder, the Flip and the iPhone. It even has a socket for a separate mic which the others don't. BBC WorldWide's poignant video about the Afghanistan dancing boys was shot using one. The only con with this kit is, you can't monitor the volume or quality of the audio live as you're recording it, for audio limiting; but she wouldn't be surprised if the next model had this feature too.
  4. Mic - most microphones will work with the Kodak, the one she had with her was a BeyerDynamic MCE 58. And from my own experience, don't forget that all important microphone shield or cover to minimise wind noise etc.

Her tips on shooting video that looks professional include:

  1. Keep the camera steady - don't be tempted to follow the subject around if they move, frame it carefully and then hold still. And shaky video is a no no! Hence it's important to use tripods, as to which see below.
  2. Take a mix of shots - at least one long distance shot, a medium distance shot and a close up shot, each one for about 10 seconds minimum; they can be used in your edits.
  3. Should be an obvious one, this - but don't have the light behind the subject (eg shooting in front of a window), have the light behind you.
  4. Video editing tools - when people asked for recommendations she suggested Final Cut for Mac, Adobe Premiere Pro (eek at the price, I say!) or Adobe Premiere Elements for Windows. (And here's me wiv Windows Movie Maker…)

You can hear these tips and more on Ramaa Sharma's video on pocket-sized video journalism.

Future Girl Geek events

The best way to find out about future LGGD events, which are generally free thanks to the generous sponsors, is to sign up for the London Girl Geek Dinners mailing list.

If you're male you can still go, as long as you're accompanied by a responsible female ;D (who signed you up for the event). I'm open to suitable bribes…

There are Girl Geek Dinners all over the world, just search to see if you have one locally.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Phone, mobile, internet, pay TV provider - get your refund, never mind ways to leave 'em!

It's bad but sadly not surprising to hear that when UK consumers change their mobile phone, fixed line telephone or broadband or even pay TV (eg cable TV and presumably satellite TV) service, the comms service provider doesn't always repay the customer for any credit amount due - eg advance line rental payments, or promotional credits.

In fact the total unclaimed money owed to UK consumers was at least £10 million over the last 2 years, according to UK comms regulator Ofcom.

All this is because you can get stung for two lots of fees (from old and new provider) at once, during the "overlap" period when your contract with your new provider has started but the one with the old provider is still within its termination period, usually 1 month.

An example may help. Say you pay BadProvider £30 in advance monthly on the 1st of the month for use of their service during that month. If you terminate with BadProvider on the 2nd of the month and start using ShinyNewProvider's service, you're obviously not using BadProvider's service after the 1st, but you've already paid BadProvider for it in advance.

So from the 2nd to the end of the first month you move to ShinyNewProvider, you're paying BadProvider for rental for the 2nd to the end of the month (even though you've stopped using it), and you're paying ShinyNewProvider rental for their service for the same period too.

You're paying twice over, unless BadProvider refunds you for the advance payment you made on the 1st, for the period from the 2nd to the end of the month ie 29/30 (assuming 30 day month) of the amount you paid on the 1st of that last month, or £29 in this case - which can be a lot when you add up the customers who don't get a refund!

Obviously the amount of credit due will be less if you terminated later in the month, etc, and some people may actually owe money to BadProvider at the end of the contract, depending on their usage, but this is just to illustrate with a concrete example.

(I'm ignoring any possible twists from the monthly payment date being on a different date from the "contract month" that the payment is for!)

After Ofcom's intervention, the good news is that they've produced a guide to help you claim your outstanding credit when you move to another communications service provider.

The guide has a handy table showing some big providers and what you need to do. Just to summarise (please check the guide for full details), the current position on outstanding credits is:

BT Automatic refund of any credit, whatever the amount.
O2 Automatically credits amounts over £20; you have to ask for it if less.

Post Office
Automatic refund of credit, whatever the amount.


TalkTalk (including AOL and Tiscali)


You have to contact them directly to arrange a refund, but they should now be giving you "improved information" about your outstanding credits.

T-Mobile Will now automatically refund all outstanding credit. This suggests they didn't use to!
Vodafone Automatic refund of any credits "for all customers who pay by direct debit" only. If you paid Voda by another method, you won't get a refund unless you specifically request it from them.
Virgin Media

Virgin Mobile
The press release contradicts the guide so I'm going by the guide. I wish Ofcom were clearer about this, it's not going to help consumer confusion.

Virgin Media - automatic refund for amounts over £1. It doesn't seem to matter when you terminate the contract.

Virgin Mobile - for amounts over £1:
- if you terminate before 28 days, automatic refund
- if you terminate after 28 days, you have to request a refund (but from December 2010 the refund will be automatic).
I guess you need to contact Virgin Mobile to get a refund of any credit under £1 - the paper doesn't say.

The bad news? There isn't mention of lots of other providers include broadband internet providers.

"Ofcom thinks that industry best practice should mean that all providers refund customers the outstanding credit they are owed automatically, and without any further action needed by the consumer."

Well frankly that should be legally compulsory for all providers, not just "best practice".

More help on termination process?

To help customers with switching providers another area, Ofcom should look at and maybe provide a guide on the termination / cancellation process.

Asking for your MAC or PAC number does NOT always automatically terminate your contract (broadband internet and mobile, respectively).

If they are given a MAC or PAC number by your new provider some providers seem to take that as notice of termination, but others don't, and may keep on charging or debiting you unless you actually contact them as well to say you're ending the contract.

I repeat, asking for a MAC or PAC isn't enough. You need to check with your provider as to their termination or cancellation procedure and at the right time tell them officially that you're cancelling their service, and (if they're not listed in the table above) also find out what is their procedure for reimbursing any credits to you and follow it.

And you might also try (if possible) to time when you give them formal notice of termination such that you minimise the period of "advance rental" anyway.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Firefox / Thunderbird: forced to enter master password multiple times?

If "Please enter the master password for the Software Security Device" is driving you mad because you have to enter your master password several times whenever you launch Mozilla's free Firefox browser or Thunderbird email software, the easiest solution to the "too many master password boxes" problem (or annoyance!) is the following tip.

Simply install the StartupMaster add-on / extension for Firefox and, separately (if you use Thunderbird) also the StartupMaster extension for Thunderbird (if necessary see how to install a Thunderbird extension - you don't just click on the link unlike in Firefox).

Restart Firefox or Thunderbird (whichever you need to sort out), and thereafter you shouldn't have to enter your master password more than once for Firefox and once for Thunderbird.

Background - you may have to type the master password several times in Firefox or Thunderbird if you've set a master password (which is a good idea for security reasons) and you've also set Firefox's home page to open in tabs more than one web page with login for which you've stored passwords - or if you've set up Thunderbird for more than one email account.

You'll get one password box, which you have to fill in and OK, for each Firefox tab with saved password or each email account you've set up in Thunderbird.

You may also have to keep clicking Retry (after entering the password in every single popup box) if you didn't enter the master password very shortly after Thunderbird opened, eg you left the computer for a few minutes then came back to it.

In some earlier versions of Firefox you didn't have to tediously enter the same master password many times in this situation, but sadly you do now. Unless you get the add-on I suggested.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Google Reader: how to de-duplicate feed entries / items

Duplicate posts or stories in Google Reader feeds are a pain to have to skim through - they take up space and time unnecessarily. Many people have been frustrated about this problem for a while - it's not just me.

Until Google fix Google Reader to get rid of duplicate feed items, here's how to deduplicate feeds in Google Reader - this method greys out duplicate articles. It's just what I'm doing myself - if anyone knows of a better way please let me know (I find it easier than fiddling with Yahoo Pipes and the like, personally):

  1. Use Google's free Chrome browser (download Chrome).
  2. In Chrome, install the Reader Plus extension.
    How to install a Chrome extension?
    1. In Chrome, visit the extension page eg for Reader Plus, and click the Install button.
    2. If you get more popups with "Install", click 'em.
    3. If you get a warning at the bottom of the screen about Extensions, apps and themes, click Continue.
    4. That's it, no need to restart Chrome or the computer.
  3. In the Chrome toolbar, click the spanner icon, choose the Tools menu, then select Extensions:

  4. In the Extensions tab that opens up, find Reader Plus and click Options under it:

  5. In the Reader Plus options, click on Layout to expand it, and make sure "Filter entries" is ticked. (I'm not sure if you then need to click Save at the top right (not shown in the screenshot), but best to just in case.)

  6. Now login to Google Reader in Chrome, and you'll see a new "Filter settings" button, top right (illustrated towards the bottom of this post). Click that button and make sure "Hide Duplicates" is ticked, then click the Update button below it.

  7. Reload Google Reader for luck (it may work without refreshing it, but y'know...), and duplicate feed items should now be greyed out (see below) - however, note that sometimes I've found that UNticking "Hide Duplicates" and updating and refreshing the Google Reader page is necessary, especially if I've tried to change any of the the other Filter settings. Go figure. Kept alternating one or other till it worked.
  8. "Excludes" also works as far as I can see, though I don't use it myself. Type a word you want to exclude in the Exclude box, tick Hide Excludes and click Update, and feed items which contain that word will be greyed out. And so on. Just play with it, but bear in mind point 7 above, that this feature can be erratic and sometimes it doesn't work, but refreshing Google Reader usually fixes that for me.

What about Google Reader in Firefox?

The Google Reader Filter add-on for Firefox is a Greasemonkey userscript (direct link to Google Reader Filter) which is supposed to be able to remove duplicates from Google Reader, but sadly it doesn't (on my system anyway).

Compare the following.

The first screenshot is of Chrome with Reader Plus - see how the duplicate item is greyed out? - and the second, of Firefox with Google Reader Filter (the same duplicate entry is unfortunately not greyed out).(Ignore the blocked out woody bits, that's just me hiding my Google Alert search from the world!)

Chrome with Reader Plus

Firefox with Google Reader Filter

Both the extension and the userscript add a "Filter settings" button to the top right of Google Reader, outlined in red in the two pics above, but I just couldn't get Google Reader Filter to hide or grey out duplicate items no matter what filter settings I tried.

I still prefer to view actual webpages in Firefox with TabMixPlus, due to Google's (to me) inexplicable and frustrating refusal to allow navigation of tabs in "most recently used" within Chrome. But that's another blog post…

Thursday, 30 September 2010

iPhone 4 free case: last chance TODAY to get one!

TODAY 30 Sept 2010 is your last chance to order a free iPhone case from Apple - see the Apple iPhone 4 Case Program - if you got yourself an iPhone 4, which I recently did.

The point of course is that the iPhone 4 suffered from signal problems if you held it in the way that most people hold their phones when talking, so in an attempt to firefight the resulting PR disaster Apple started offering free cases which solve the antenna issue.

These blogs have reviews and pics of some of the cases available.

To get your free case, on your iPhone 4 go to the App Store and search for "iPhone 4 case", you may have to scroll a bit in the results to find it. You order the case through the iPhone 4 Case Program app.

Personally, I went for the black Speck PixelSkin HD case (see photos) and I'm very happy with it. Smart, unobtrusive, and it seems pretty tough and hard-wearing.

Only downside is there is no screen protector (but most of the cases don't seem to offer any), and if like me you have feeble fingers, turning the iPhone on and off takes a bit more doing as you have to press it very firmly through the case for it to register.

I wasn't sure from the pic whether dirt might get trapped in the grid lines but luckily the design is such that the grooves are too wide and shallow for that to happen.

Monday, 20 September 2010

iPhone 4 & iTunes: minimising iTunes; & iPhone experience part 1

(iPhone 4 photo by Yutaka Tsutano)

I just got an iPhone 4. No I didn't go for the cheapest possible or even cheap iPhone deal, I went with Three. Partly because from their involving me in their various consumer trials, I've been impressed with them (I ain't never going back to T-Mobile again, not unless they pay me. Lots).

I'm not an Apple fan due to their closedness, but I finally thought I'd see what all the fuss was about, on both the shininess and usability fronts.

However, I'm going to try to use the iPhone with as little Apple stuff as possible.

I wasn't best pleased about having to:

- before I could even use the iPhone as a basic phone that you can just make or receive phone calls on!

So it's timely that Broadstuff recently (in iTunes Bloatware - and its antidote) pointed to a post on how to install iTunes with minimal components.

I know with Android phones you have to have a Google account and enter that, but at least you don't have to get to a computer and install stuff you don't want before you can use the phone as a simple phone.

There's probably a way to activate the iPhone 4 without iTunes, but I didn't have time to try looking for it.

I'll be blogging about my Apple newbie experiences from time to time. (I did once have the use of a MacBook for a while, but I hardly turned it on as I couldn't get used to the lack of the keyboard shortcuts I'm so accustomed to in Windows. On Linux I've even change the hotkeys to Windows ones).

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Track updates to existing blog posts

This post gives tips on how to monitor and track updates or edits to existing blog posts on blogs which use Blogger /, with Google's official blogs as an example. 

Many of us subscribe to various Google blogs via feed readers / RSS readers in order to keep up with what's going on at Google. (For beginners: see RSS / feeds primer).

Unfortunately, Google sometimes just edits an old post to provide updates on certain issues, instead of publishing a brand new blog post. And they don't often publish a new post with a pointer to the updated post, either. So, unless you happened to be keeping an eye on the old post, you won't notice the update.

This has happened with Google blog posts about eg encrypted Google search, and also the Street View wifi data collection kerfuffle.

Fortunately, there's a workaround. Instead of subscribing to the standard feed, subscribe to the "updated" feed instead. See how to subscribe to updated Blogger feeds and more for full details (note the examples in the second half of that blog post).

The trick is this: just subscribe using a slightly enhanced URL which catches updates to posts. 

So, if the blog's URL is, the feed URL you should use in your newfeed reader is:

- ie add the bit in bold italics.

"orderby=updated" is what gets you blog posts that have been most recently updated/published, and not just newly published posts only.

"&max-results=1000000" or something similar is needed because if you don't add it in (and just use, it'll only give you the last X blog posts, not all of them (X is currently 25). 10000000 is probably overkill because Google limits the maximum number of blog posts it'll give you from Blogger / Blogspot blogs - the current limit seems to be 500, so you could probably use "&max-results=500" instead.

A twist to note is that if you subscribe using Google Reader, when you search it'll often search a greater number of blog posts than that if anyone has subscribed using the same URL previously, as it'll have indexed the posts they received. If you want to be able to search over older posts from that blog, then you could subscribe to the basic standard feed URL as well, eg

Here's another example. To get a feed of new and updated posts on Google's public policy blog, use:

(or just make it 500 instead of 1000000). You get the drift.

This tip only works for Blogger / blogs, not blogs using other blogging platforms like WordPress etc.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

To be retweeted: use URLs & hashtags? (PARC research)

Add URLs as well as hashtags to your tweets to increase chances of being retweeted, the Xerox Parc team suggests (the full research paper doesn’t seem to be available online yet but should be here when it is).

They also found that, of the 74 million tweets they analysed over a 7-week period, fully 11.1% were retweets.

Here’s their top 10 most retweeted domains:

(full details in their blog post).

Of course the most retweeted tweets may happen to contain certain URLs, but it seems to me that (as with tweeting or blathering online more often to increase popularity) it’s perhaps too simplistic to say, “Include more URLs and you’ll be retweeted more”. Correlation is not always causation, to coin a phrase.

Twitlonger URLs for instance only mean that the person who was retweeted has written a nice long tweet, which is in itself interesting and seems more indicative of the fact that it’s the longer tweets (even if you have to click thru to read them) which garner the most attention! Which may say more about the limitations of Twitter’s 140 character limit than anything else.

And most of the other top domains indicate that people like pics, location of people / events, and videos… and shortening long links to fit!

Still, it’s interesting to see their research. More info, stats, graphs etc in the blog post.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Zyb closing TODAY - save your contacts

Online contacts backup & sync service Zyb is closing down today.

Zyb were taken over by Vodafone and unfortunately on their home page the URL of the new service is obscured in some browsers in some resolutions, see top right below! (nor is the info shown after you login):

So if you want to continue with Zyb here's the URL you need to register on (for free): (actually See Vodafone note on this.

If you don't want to sign up with Vodafone, here's a tip: as the zyb-import people (whose software enables Zyb contacts to be imported to Android mobile phones) kindly pointed out, my previous blog post has instructions on how to get your contacts into and, more importantly now, out of Zyb. My method's phone-agnostic, it's not just for Android cellphones.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Secure your computer against Windows .lnk shortcut zero day vulnerability

If you use Windows, you should install anti-malware vendor Sophos's free Windows Shortcut Exploit Protection Tool ASAP - so called because a recently discovered "zero day exploit" enables attackers to use Windows shortcut link files (.lnk files) to run malicious code on your computer when you visit a dodgy website, open a dodgy document, plug in a dodgy USB stick (or open an infected folder on your network, load a dodgy DVD or CD - you get the drift, anything that gets Windows to display the icon of a manipulated file).

You don't even have to click anything to get infected. Bad guys have been having a field day with this security vulnerability but unfortunately Microsoft haven't issued a full fix yet (their suggested workaround blanks out your Start menu shortcut icons), so kudos to Sophos for announcing the provision of their free tool to block the exploit from running on your computer.

Just check your computer for malware first (there are free tools to do that, e.g. NOD32 ESET and Microsoft's Security Essentials), then download the Sophos tool and run it (or click the link and click Run) to install Sophos's blocking tool. Sophos say it won't interfere with any existing anti virus software.

Here's a Sophos video with more info about the problem.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Sit less, live longer - try online timer?

No matter how much you exercise, the more time you spend sitting, the higher your risk of dying prematurely. Sitting for long periods is seriously bad for your health.

It seems that if you want to live longer, not only should you do physical exercise, but you also need to cut down on how much time you spend sitting down. Even just getting out of your chair for a short stretch or brief walk, or just standing up for a change, can make a difference. Indeed sitting for 3 or 4 hours continuously can trigger negative physiological changes in your body. See e.g. articles in New York Times ("a study of people who sit for many hours found that those who took frequent small breaks — standing up to stretch or walk down the corridor — had smaller waists and better profiles for sugar and fat metabolism than those who did their sitting in long, uninterrupted chunks"), USA Today, Daily Mail, and ThomasNet (with more links).

I'm blogging this because further research in the US has just confirmed the same thing recently - "If you sit all day, you are in real trouble even if you exercise regularly". "Researchers say time spent sitting was independently associated with total mortality, regardless of physical activity level. They conclude that public health messages should promote both being physically active and reducing time spent sitting."

That means you, office workers, coders, gamers and inveterate surfers and film / video or TV addicts alike! And that means me too, of course.

So what to do?

Suggestion - use online timer

To help make us get up from our chairs from time to time, here's a tip: try using an online timer alarm. It'll be better for the back as well as health generally.

I've surveyed a few free online countdown timers, and my personal choice is (go straight to Timeme review and howto):

  1. Set your browser to autostart (how to add it to Startup folder) so it launches automatically when you turn your computer on, and
  2. Set Timeme (or other online timer of your choice) to be your browser's home page. (How to set home page: navigate to the site you want, then click "Use current" in your settings - in Internet Explorer it's Tools > Internet Options > Home Page; Firefox Tools > Options > General > Home Page; Opera Tools > Preferences > General > Home Page; if you do this with a blank page already open in a separate tab, your browser will open automatically on both a timer page and a blank page you can surf in.)
  3. Then, just remember to restart the countdown when you get back to your desk, if you've left the room while it was still counting down. And remember to pause it or stop it if you're leaving your desk at work or it may annoy your coworkers if it goes off when you're not there to shut it up!

You can install a timer application on your computer instead, if you prefer - but lots of us spend more time sitting at a computer at work, and most workplaces I know of won't let you install any software on their computers, so a browser-based solution seems to be the best (assuming the computer is connected to the internet, of course). I do briefly mention some downloadable software later, just for completeness.

Online timers - review

So, here is a round up and short reviews of the online timers I've found which seem most suitable for regularly prompting us to get out of our chairs.

For all of these, you just have to:

  1. have your web browser open on the right page (even better, set it as your browser's start page see below), and
  2. where appropriate (this is with all of them except TimeMe), click the Start or similar button on the webpage to get it going for the day.

To hear the timer alarm go off, with the services I've picked you don't need to be viewing the browser tab displaying that page. You could be browsing in another tab.

You don't even need to be in the same application - e.g. you could be doing some word processing or reading your email, or even surfing using a different browser; the timer alarm will still go off, just as long as you've left the timer tab open in your browser in the background.

Of course you won't hear it if you're not in the room, so I repeat, if you leave the room (which means you've gone and got up out of your chair, pat on the back), when you come and sit back down you need to remember to re-start or reset the timer again.

None of the online services I found is perfect for what I have in mind, but I'll give the pros and cons of each.

Here are my criteria. To remind me not to stay seated for too long, what I really really want is an online Web timer which:

  1. webpage, with autoload - comprises a webpage you can set as your browser home page, so that it loads automatically when you first open your browser, and which you can save as a bookmark or favourite too
  2. alarm - plays a sound every say 30 or 45 minutes, to remind you to get up and move around, stretch, have a short walk etc (a popup window that takes focus even if you're in another application would be a bonus)
  3. makes you get up! - plays the sound continuously until you manually stop it, so that even if you're engrossed it forces you to get up off your butt and do something about it. Maybe with a backstop at 2 minutes so that it doesn't go on forever if you're not at your desk, like car alarms are supposed to have at 20 minutes (but sometimes don't!)
  4. restarts count automatically - when you click (or, I wish, press a key?) to shut it up, it should automatically start the timer countdown running again, so it'll sound again in another 30 or 45 minutes or whatever. One button to do it all. You shouldn't have to stop it and then click Start again, otherwise people will forget to click Start again.
  5. choice of interval - lets you choose the interval you want between timer alarms, e.g. 30 or 45 minutes, but won't let you choose more than 1 hour (maybe 2 hours? Don't know medically what the recommended longest time you should spend sitting still is). Choosing 7 hours would defeat the object!
  6. pause and restart functions - lets you pause the cycle and resume it again, or even restart it from scratch, e.g. after you've popped out to the little room.
  7. choice of alarm sound - lets you select the sound you want - horn, siren, horses neighing, whatever…. Ideally either on the site or, for those who prefer it, a sound file from your their computer e.g. MP3 or WAV.

So here's my shortlist of free online timers that come close to what I want for this sort of use.

Remember, none of them meet all 7 of my criteria. So if anyone builds or knows of something which does, please let me know!



Alarm won't stop until you manually click "Alarm Off". Which is what we want to make us get up!


  1. After it goes off and you click Alarm Off, you also have to (1) click "Back to Timer" and then (2) select the countdown time afresh, to start it going again. Extra steps which some may forget.
  2. No choice of which sound to use.
  3. Sounding till you manually turn it off can be a con if you're not at your desk when it goes off - it could drive your co-workers crazy. So remember to set it to Off via the dropdown if you get up from your desk while it's still counting down, and then to restart it when you get back.

Try Online Clock timer. The developer has kindly said he'll look into making the cycle repeat automatically on clicking "Alarm Off", when he has time.

2. Java timer

Click "Count Down", choose hours/minutes/seconds, then click Start.

Tip: if you don't like the label "Tea Timer", click on that label and type what title you like instead, then hit Enter or Return (or click anywhere outside that area). If you mistype you can't backspace, but just click on the name again and re-type it.

The code is from and is available online on various websites such as (click one of these links to try it, it's the same on each):


  1. It remembers your previous setting e.g. x minutes, as long as the browser remains open, so (unlike the previous service) you don't have to re-select the countdown time, so after the alarm sounds you can just click Start to restart the timer (and stop the alarm sounding).
  2. Alarm sounds for a decent length of time too.


  1. Every day, the first time you go to the webpage you have to click "Count Down" and then choose the number of minutes afresh, to get it going. Some may forget to do that. Similarly the "Tea Timer" title - your changes aren't saved.
  2. You have to click Start to restart it each time after it goes off. Again, some may forget to do that.
  3. The alarm stops after a few seconds so you might ignore it and forget to stand up.

3. TimeMe (via Vicki Blackwell)

  1. Click the Timer Stopwatch Settings link, then (see pic above):
    1. Choose your Alarm sound. Tips:
      1. go for Horn (sounds for longer and is the most insistent, to me) or Beep (loud-ish, but too short in my view)
      2. don't use "Pop Up" - that only plays a sound if you're still viewing that tab, or are in another application; if you're in another tab of the same browser, the alarm won't go off. Also you have to OK the popup before the timer will restart the loop.
    2. Tick Auto Start (so the timer automatically starts counting down whenever your browser opens that webpage e.g. on startup)
    3. Tick Loop to repeat the timer automatically; choose Sound (you can preview them) then
    4. click Save.
  2. It goes back to the main page (see pic below). Just click Stop if necessary first, then for Start Time enter 00:30:00 or 00:45:00 (for 30 or 45 minutes respectively) or whatever timer interval you prefer (you can leave the Stop time at 00:00:00), then click Set. That automatically starts the timer going as well.
  3. Note that:
    1. The "Stop" button actually pauses it (and you can click Start again to continue).
    2. "Reset" button restarts the countdown from scratch, e.g. if you've got up for a cuppa, you can give yourself a pat on the back and start the 30 minute (or whatever) countdown from 00:30:00 afresh when you get back to your seat.
  4. Every time you visit that page (unless you've deleted your cookie) it'll remember your settings.


  1. Very customisable, including Loop to repeat the cycle automatically (hooray!).
  2. Your settings are remembered on the computer with a cookie. If you delete cookies, this'll go unless you remember to preserve the cookie for this site. But you can always redo your settings.
  3. Choice of different alarm sounds which you can preview.
  4. "Stop" button to pause is good, as is having a "Reset" button to restart the cycle
  5. Decent help page.


  1. Alarm only plays once through, not continuously until you stop it. Good for your colleagues, not so good to make you get up!
  2. If you use a different computer you have to set up your settings afresh on it. A very minor disadvantage considering most of the others won't save any settings at all.
  3. The alarm options are mostly too short (Drums) or too soothing (like Clarinet and Sonata) to make you get up! Phone is too confusing. Which is why I think Horn is best, it's the loudest and plays for the longest time.
  4. With browsers other than Internet Explorer you'll have to install QuickTime plugin in order to hear the alarm - e.g. for Firefox.
  5. It seems to have paused itself once, in my testing. Maybe it was me, but the button should have read Start after a manual pause, and it didn't, yet it wasn't counting down..

Try TimeMe.

4. Online Stopwatch/Countdown

Quite sophisticated when using the Custom option. And certainly the most Web 2.0, with the ability to add their widgets to your blog or website, Facebook, gadgets for iGoogle etc.

The settings I suggest are as follows (you can test it by picking a short countdown).

  1. See pic above - just select "Just the Countdown Timer", pick your alarm sound, pick "Ring until canceled", and I'd go for "Always start the timer at" and enter e.g. 30 minutes (00:30:00) or 45 minutes (00:45:00).
  2. Then click "Get Link to Countdown Timer", and click or save the link in the blue box that appears - that's the link you want to use for your home page or favorites in future, which goes to the custom webpage they'll set up.
  3. If you've chosen "I will set the time each use", after clicking the link to the timer webpage you'll have to click the number buttons to set the time, then click Set and Start. And each time you go back to that webpage you have to do that too. Which is why I prefer


  1. Sets up a special webpage you can access from any computer over the internet, with your chosen settings.
  2. Alarm will keep going until you click "Clear" (if you use "Ring until canceled" as I suggest), so you'll have to pay attention!
  3. Good selection of sounds, which again you can preview. The alarms are good and loud too (though "Siren" may cause a real stampede. I like Submarine, Air raid siren and Original bell for being insistent without being too piercing, although Horse race bugle call is rather fun, and "Applause" may reward you for being a good healthy thing and getting out of your seat for a bit!)
  4. Pause button available (Start becomes Pause after you click it), which becomes Cont when pressed.


  1. You have to remember to click Start when you first open your browser, to get it going every day.
  2. Every time it goes off and you click Clear, you then have to click Start again afresh for the next time.
  3. There's a Pause option but no Reset (unlike TimeMe). Tip: just click Clear and Start to reset.
  4. As with Online Clock, the fact that it won't shut up till you manually click Clear is great if you're at your desk, but bad if you left and forgot to turn it off as it may annoy your colleagues, so you need to remember to turn it off if you get up! And restart it when you get back.

Here are some pages I made earlier, if you want to use them - remember you have to click Start each time after you click Clear, as it won't repeat the cycle automatically (if you try the links below, on this occasion please ignore the arrows, don't click on them, just click the links; and use the Back button on your browser to get back to this page, not the Back button on the webpage):

Try Custom Countdown.

Desktop alternatives?

Online Stopwatch also offer a free basic Windows download which will "stay on top" of your other apps, plus other more customisable SWF downloads for Windows and Mac, all of which hopefully you can download and run stand-alone on your work computer even if your IT department won't let you install software generally.

You just doubleclick the downloaded file to run it, and you're not installing anything, so hopefully your IT department won't come and wag their finger at naughty you - but it's best to check with them first.

Note that the SWF files need Adobe Flash Player installed to run, which you may or may not have on your work computer; the "stay on top" doesn't, but it's Windows only, and is not very customisable.

XNote Timer (again via Vicki Blackwell, NB it's the Timer not the Stopwatch) for Windows also runs stand alone, again without needing to install anything; it's free to try though they ask for payment if you use it, it lets you use your own sound files, you can tick "Restart the timer" to keep it going round and round, you can even set hotkeys to start, stop or reset it, yay.

But, there's no Pause, and more importantly you can either get your sound file to keep playing continuously (which is what the Loop option here does, confusingly) till you hit Stop, or you can have the cycle automatically restart - but you can't have both. So either tick Loop to keep the alarm playing, then click both Reset and Start each time it goes off; or else, use "Restart the timer" and remember it'll go off once but it won't nag you continuously till you deal with it. Tip: click More, pick Timer; to change the options e.g. sound file, interval, you should change to Stopwatch then change back to Timer.


I'm lazy, so I like TimeMe - it's got good options which involve zero work once you've set up your options and browser home page; then you just have to remember to launch your browser (not even that if you autostart your browser on startup). None of the other online timers will restart the countdown cycle automatically when you stop the alarm sounding.

I just wish TimeMe also had an option to make the sound keep on playing continuously till you shut it up (while still repeating the timer cycle). Then it would be perfect for making me get up out of my seat! I guess one loud honk will have to do me for now.

The TimeMe people told me they do have that option, but not for the free version. You have to get the paid version if you want that.

One day maybe we'll have chairs that'll give us a good prod (or electric shock?!) and physically tip us out of them at regular intervals. 'ealth & safety, innit? But not for some time yet, I suspect. (Meanwhile, if you're looking for a decent chair to try to save your back, see my computer /office chairs review.)