Archive for the ‘Productivity’ Category

Apple Mail: 8 Tips

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Like a lot of folks, I receive and send a lot of email. Lately, I’ve been digging myself out from the avalanche of email that fell upon my Inbox while I was in Knoxville for a month of prep and production. Surprisingly, the “dig-out” hasn’t been that bad, and I think I can attribute it to some email productivity tips and plug-ins I’ve picked up over the last year.

These tips mainly work with Apple Mail. For years I used Eudora, and then Thunderbird. But after Apple’s 2.0 version of Mail was released (2005?) I switched to it and haven’t regretted it. If you use something other than Mail, some of these may work and some are Mail-specific. Sorry.

Secondly, as a word of background, aside from spam, I keep virtually every email I receive. Email takes up very little memory and it serves as an effective history of work done, contacts, and so on. And everytime I think I don’t need to save it all, I end up going back and searching for an email from 1999. Seriously.

Tip 1: Eliminate Spam
Well, sure. No one actually wants spam. The trick is figuring out how to eliminate it.

One reason I switched to Apple Mail a few years ago was because its junk mail filter seemed to work pretty well. I don’t know if just I started getting more spam, the Junk filter reached it’s limitation for how much it could “learn”, or if the spam started getting smarter (and by smarter I mean “dumber”)… but regardless, my Inbox over the last year started seeing more and more of the stuff.

The solution is SpamSieve. For $30 (and a few minutes of set-up time) you get a clean Inbox. I get maybe one or two spam messages in my Inbox a week these days. I didn’t believe the testimonials, but I downloaded the trial and used it for a few days. Now I’m a convert.

Tip 2: Process faster.
Now that I’m not having to spend my time sorting out the spam, I can spend my energy processing the real emails sent to me. Though in some ways I’m a skeptic of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I appreciate his theory about tasks like email: If you can reply in 2 minutes or less, do it. If not, figure out what needs to happen next so you can act on it. Approaching my Inbox this way really does increase my efficiency.

Tip 3: Stop manually sorting emails.
After replying to an email, I used to file it away. To do this I maintained between a dozen and twenty folders based on various contexts or friends — my latest project, for example, or “Virginia Tech”, or “parents”, etc.

No longer. Yes, I still keep almost all my emails, but here’s how I do it, inspired by Merlin Mann’s sage email advice:

Beyond my “Inbox” (email to which I need to reply) and “Sent”, I only maintain three or four folders now:

– The current mission critical project gets its own folder.

– If something catches my attention but there’s NO urgency to it (say, an email with a link to an article that I might write about for SRF), I put it in a folder called “Someday?

– I also maintain a “Waiting On” folder, primarily for email receipts of items I’ve purchased online. It’s my reminder box to make sure something I’ve purchased actually gets sent to me. I don’t check the Waiting folder often enough to put anything of great (ie., work-related) importance in it.

Everything else goes in a folder I’ve created called “Archive”.

Other folders: If I still want to maintain folders related to people (say, my accountant), all I have to do is set up a smart folder in Mail using my accountant’s email address as the filter. All mail stil gets filed to my “Archive”, but relevant emails will show up in the smart folder. Voila — no more time spent manually sorting!

Tip 4: Use MailActOn
Probably the thing that I miss the most about Eurdora and Thunderbird is the ease with which you can color-code emails. It’s a great way to visually sort the emails in your Inbox — either by priority or context or whatever.

Mail, unfortunately, still lags in this area: To color-code emails one has to open the color palette (Shift-Apple-C) then use the mouse to click on a color, all the while keeping Apple’s rather large color-wheel window open. Clumsy, to say the least.

MailActOn, a donation-ware plug-in for Apple Mail, solves this problem — and more. Aside from allowing you to assign keystrokes for color-coding, MailActOn also lets you to use keystrokes to sort your mail. Now, when I want to send an email to a specific folder (say, “Archive”) all hit is is the keystroke I’ve defined (in my case, Ctrl-A).

And, of course, Merlin at 43Folders has figured out the way to squeeze every bit of functionality out of the thing by remapping the Caps Lock key. Brilliant!

Tip 5: Speed up Mail
Saving a lot of email (as I do) can impact Apple Mail’s performance. Mail gets bloated, as it were, and slows down. If you’re not careful, the database that stores information about your emails can even get corrupted.

Luckily, there’s a simple solution. The Hawk Wings website has links to two different scripts (one, AppleScript, and the other an Automator script) that will “vacuum” the bloat out of Mail.app.

The Applescript version worked like a charm for me without incident, but you should ALWAYS backup your Mail.app files before trying something like this. (See below.)

Tip 6: Back-up Mail Files
This is the most basic tip of all, and I know I say it again and again on this site, but ask yourself these two questions:

How much of my life is somehow stored in the emails I have sent and received?

When was the last time I backed up my email files?

So, though you should probably be using something like ChronoSync or whatever to backup ALL your files, if you need to backup just your Mail files they can be found in your system here:

users/[home directory]/Library/Mail
users/[home directory]/Library/Mail Downloads

Tip 7: If you use multiple computers, consider using Portable Mail

I have two computers — a tower and a laptop. All other things being equal, I prefer working on the tower, but the laptop obviously has its advantages. Mail is one application I want to access no matter which computer I’m on, and I’ve found syncing the application to be a bit of a pain at times. As a solution, I sometimes use a portable version of Mail, which I can run off of a flash drive.

The premise of Portable Mail is this: Instead of trying to sync your Mail from one computer to the next, you instead keep Mail — your preferences, mailboxes, and downloads — on a flash drive. Launching Portable Mail launches the Mail.app application of the host computer, but uses all of your preferences, which are on the flash drive.

If your email accounts have better than adequate webmail interfaces that you can access you might not need this, but I have a few accounts that have lousy webmail, so I’ve found it to be quite handy during days when I know I’m going back and forth between computers a lot.

You’ll probably want a 1GB flash drive or larger if you have a lot of email.

Tip 8: Use Plug-ins (if you need ’em)

I’m obviously a fan of MailActOn and SpamSieve. They’re two plug-ins that help me customize Apple’s Mail to be the application I need. But I draw the line there — adding on too many plug-ins increases clutter, decreases productivity, and invites conflicts that cause applications to crash.

But maybe you need something more, or something different. If so, the Hawk Wings website has made an excellent catalog of Plug-ins for Apple Mail.

Use ’em if you need ’em. And if you don’t, don’t.

DIY Underwater Camcorder Housing

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Last summer I linked to a DIY underwater camcorder housing that could be built for $70.

Since Summer is now officially upon us it’s only appropriate that I share another design for an underwater camcorder housing. If you have a Dremel, this one’s even cheaper to build than the one from last year. The downside? You’ll only be able to use smaller handheld camcorders. Still, I’m sure some enterprising souls will be able to come up with something that will fit larger prosumer video cameras.

A Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking at William & Mary: Pt. 2

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Saturday morning at William & Mary began with Troy Davis giving Ashley and me a tour around the William & Mary’s Swem Library Media Center. The Director of the Media Center, Troy was my host for the weekend and one of the primary organizers of the Media Center’s Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking.

The Media Center is several things in one — an equipment training center, an equipment check-out center, a recording studio for music and podcasts. It’s anything and everything that students want and Troy makes himself, and his assistants, available to students to teach them anything from iMovie to Logic Pro.

Troy has been the Director of the Media Center for a year and a half, and it’s impressive what he’s accomplished. On a technical level, he’s helped secure some superb editing facilities (several Mac tower stations with Final Cut, Logic Pro, and the rest of the works, each in its own sound controlled environment). For a guy who describes himself as a “dabbler” when it comes to film, I was impressed with all the smart technology purchases he has been making, not to mention his ability to talk in depth about the subtle differences between various pieces of equipment they own.

Since there are, no doubt, places like this at universities across the country, the biggest accomplishment isn’t the equipment and stations he’s amassed — it’s the sense of community generates out from this media hub. A lot of that, no doubt, is due to Troy’s vision for the Media Center as a place that is accessible and inviting (as opposed to exclusive and intimidating). The Media Center, in fact, is littered with Troy’s self-desribed “propaganda” — humorous, well-designed posters — that invite students into the space and use the equipment.

After the tour, Troy and I recorded a podcast that covered making and teaching film. He had thought a lot about my work and had some great questions, which is really flattering. (The podcast will be posted at some point on Media Center site. I’ll link to it when it’s available.)

The podcast led into a “self-reliant filmmaking” workshop that I conducted with some of William & Mary’s film students and faculty.

I began by discussing the work I do on this blog, including my reasons for starting it, and how it’s transformed my own film practice. I then opened things up for discussion, which led to a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from what video camera to purchase to some simple strategies for first-time documentarians. Ashley threw in some good advice during the conversation, to boot; I was happy she had joined me.

Our workshop group talked for nearly two hours, so Ashley and I had a quick break for lunch before I ran off to a screening of some of my own short films at the historic Kimball Theatre. The films looked good in this classy venue, I was happy with the turnout, and the questions the audience asked were, again, really good. (I even received some email from audience members after the screening thanking me for sharing my work.) There was a little reception in the theater lobby afterwards, and I enjoyed talking with some of the William & Mary faculty members that had come to the screening. That conversation led to a coffeehouse where Sharon Zuber, who teaches W&M’s production courses, and I compared notes about how to teach film production.

We closed out the day by stopping by the premiere of the Cans Film Festival (pun intended), a student-organized screening of films produced at a variety of Virginia universities. (There weren’t any entries from Virginia Tech — maybe next year?) Ashley and I weren’t able to stay for long — I was beat and we had a long drive back in the morning. We did manage to catch one zombie flick before we left.

Before we left on Sunday morning, Troy treated us to breakfast at one of Williamsburg’s many pancake houses. Ashley and I had seen a number of pancake houses on our drive in, and I suppose they reflect the fact that Williamsburg is a haven for retirees and a magnet for tourists (motto: “Where History Lives”). The three of us had one last movie-saturated conversation, and Troy told us about his next dream for the Media Center — restoring an unused auditorium in the William & Mary library and making into a screening facility/microcinema.

As we drove out of town, past a few more pancake houses, I thought about a place like Wiliamsburg. Even with the occasional major production (like Malick’s The New World) coming to town, it would still be surprising to see Williamsburg develop into the next Austin. Williamsburg’s a town of 12,000 people, and a lot of the people are transient (whether they’re tourists, college students, or retirees). That’s a tough place to build a film culture. Of course these things don’t only apply to Williamsburg. If this sounds like your town, too, well, so be it. It sounds like mine.

The thing is, something is happening in Williamsburg. Things like the Kimball Theatre, and the William & Mary Media Center are part of the puzzle. The “corner pieces” of that puzzle, though, are a dedicated group of people with vision, passion, and resourcefulness. That’s the real lifeblood of regional filmmaking and film culture. Some places don’t have this, or have enough of it. Luckily, for Williamsburg, it has Troy Davis, Sharon Zuber, Arthur Knight (coordinator of Film Studies at W&M), and a host of student filmmakers. Something tells me that their numbers will only continue to grow.

A Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking at William & Mary: Pt. 1

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

The College of William & Mary brought me to Williamsburg, Virginia this weekend to participate in a “long weekend of short filmmaking.” It’s been a busy, and rewarding, weekend.

Friday, after arriving to town, I was a judge at 24Speed, William & Mary’s variation on those twenty-four hour filmmaking contests that have grown in popularity throughout the country.

In this case, eight teams of six filmmakers each were provided the same line of dialogue (a line from one of last year’s videos: “I’m not taking you out, I’m taking you down”) and a 1920s yearbook from the college’s archives, which they had to use as a prop. After a drawing in which they received two film genres at random each team had to choose one genre in which to work. They then had 24 hours to produce a three-to-five minute video.

By the time of the screening the place was packed. Each of the eight videos had their charms and their share of cleverness. Of course, all of them had their rough spots, too — what video produced in 24 hours wouldn’t? It’s funny, though, how those “rough spots” (some out of sync dialogue, say, or let’s-roll-with-the-first-and-only-take-performances) become charming in and of themselves when you consider the context of how quickly these things were produced.

After watching all the videos, the two other judges and I had a healthy debate about the merits of the eight videos. Every video, to its credit, managed to produce at least a handful of laughs, jolts, or cringes.

Speaking only for myself, as a judge I was looking for videos that had adequate craft, for starters. Beyond that, though, I wasn’t necessarily looking for the best shot or best edited video. I was looking for videos that gave me a fresh take on the genre instead of merely rehashing it. That might sound like a tall order, but there were more than a couple that did this.

Ultimately, after forty-five minutes, the other two judges and I had settled on the prize winners. The winner was a mockumentary that used consistently smart deep-focus cinematography to execute its jokes with a lot of subtlety; an honorable mention was awarded to some ambitious students that came this close to nailing their chosen genre, the musical. That’s right, in 24 hours they wrote, scored, shot and edited a musical. It was rough around the edges, sure, but it definitely had me eager to see what these guys could accomplish in 48 hours, and that’s worth something.

***

That night, after the screening was over, I realized that I had experienced a change of heart about competitions like 24Speed. In the past, to be perfectly frank, I’ve had some reservations about the benefits of such competitions. I guess I feared that the 24 hour time constraint reinforced bad habits (mainly, thinking that making a film is something you can rush through) and emphasized competition over collaboration. I see, now, that I’ve been wrong.

First, the competitive nature (at least at this one) was entirely overshadowed by the fun everyone was having. That was great to see. Competition can push people to do better work, even (especially?) with art. You just can’t take it too seriously.

Secondly, and even more importantly, I see now that what these competitions can do is remind us that there are times when it’s better to make something as quickly as possible just to do it.

More than anything else, watching these videos (and meeting the students that produced them so quickly) I was reminded of the collaborations I have undertaken in the past with friends on videos for Termite TV. To an outsider, such projects might seem “insignificant,” but I always learned something by making them, even if the final product sometimes ended up being kinda rough.

This afternoon, browsing Termite TV’s website, I ran across a quote from Manny Farber‘s “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art” essay, which reads as a kind of found poem for what I saw at 24Speed:

a peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art
is that it moves always forward,
eating its own boundaries, and
likely as not, leaves nothing in its path
but evidence of eager, industrious, unkempt activities

***

Part 2 of W&M’s Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking coming soon…

ADDENDUM:All of the entries for the contest are now online for viewing by the general public.

Cool Tool: Gage-It

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

While at Home Depot the other day I ran across a nifty little all-in-one measurement tool called Gage-It. It allows you to measure screws and bolts; nuts; steel, brass & PVC pipe; wire size; and nails. It also has a couple of rulers (metric and standard) and a conversions table for weights and measurements. I feel like I’m always going to the hardware store trying to find a screw that’s the right size for this or that thing around my house, plus it seemed like a useful thing to have with you on a film set, so I picked one up. The thing cost something like $1.99.

Gage-It

I can’t even seem to find the manufacturer (“Armour Technologies, Inc.”) online, much less the item itself. The only other mention I could find was at Toolmonger, from whom I grabbed the pic above. But if you’re looking for one, try Home Depot. I ran across mine in the screws/nails aisle.

Finally, as an aside, writing this post made me realize that I’ve become so conditioned to finding products on the internet (and the internet has become so synonymous with shopping) that, when I run across something that can’t be found for sale anywhere online, it seems… well, it seems weird. And by “weird” I mean conspiratorially weird, even creepy. It’s like the thing doesn’t exist, even though I have one right in my hands. Am I alone on this one?