Reduce key chain clutter with Key Ring

In the world of retail, customer loyalty programs are designed to keep shoppers going back to the same store over and over. They often employ those little plastic “loyalty cards” that many of us have dangling from our key chains and cluttering up our wallets and purses. While the rewards can be nice, the cards are just one more thing to keep track of, carry around, or simply lose — unless you make them digital.

Key Ring is an app for iPhone and Android devices that lets you store all of your loyalty cards on your phone. I’ve been using it on my Pixel and I have to say, it’s pretty darn handy. Plus, it let me seriously reduce the amount of clutter on my key chain and in my wallet, which I appreciate very much. Here’s a look at this clever little app.

I’ve been using Key Ring on an Android device. The iPhone version, while generally the same, might have slight variations in functioning that are unique to iOS.

Setup

Setup is simple. After installing the app, you’ll be prompted to create an account by adding your email address and a password. That’s it. From there, you can start adding loyalty card information.

Adding a new card is just as easy. You’ll find a “+” at the top of the screen. Tap it, give the app permission to access your phone’s camera and take a picture of the bar code on your card. The app will recognize it right away and it’s ready to go.

My hesitation with solutions like this is always the same. I’m always afraid that when asked for a loyalty card and I present my phone, I’ll get a confused look from the cashier. Or, the equipment the cashier has access to won’t accept a bar code that’s on my phone’s display. Fortunately, that has not been the case. I’ve had success at the grocery store, electronics store and elsewhere.

More than loyalty cards

Key Ring offers even more benefits than just storing cards and reducing key chain/wallet/purse clutter. If you allow the app to have access to your location, it can find sales in the area, let you identify favorite sales for later reference, and even create shopping lists. You can browse store coupons and even have the cashier scan them, right from your phone. There’s no need to fumble with flyers and slips of paper.

In the weeks that I’ve been using Key Ring, I’ve grown to love it. It’s well laid-out, simple and effective. Plus, it does exactly what it says on the label. My key chain can attest to that.

Can a digital assistant help you stay organized?

There comes a point in your life when you think, “I could really use an assistant.” School, work, kids, and a myriad of other things demand more and more of your attention. I don’t know about you, but the luxury of a personal assistant is not in my budget. With that in mind (and my wallet firmly in my pocket), I turn to artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant .

These technologies, and others, are the so-called “digital assistants” that their respective creators hope will become the hub of our future lives. Today they’re good at streaming music, setting kitchen timers, and performing a few other mediocre tricks, but can a digital assistant help you stay organized?

For me, the answer is a qualified “no.” Before I explain that qualifier, let’s look at the “big three” of digital assistants.

Siri

Apple purchased the digital assistant “Siri” in 2010, and has since integrated the service with its iPhones, Apple TVs, and Macintosh computers. As for productivity and organization, Siri is great at setting calendar events, creating to-dos, and reading and composing texts and emails. When connected to smart home devices like Wemo Switch wall sockets and Hue lights, Siri offers a bit of control over household products as well.

Google Assistant

Google’s Assistant, made a splash last year as the marquee feature on the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones. Today, Assistant can be found on Google Home and elsewhere. It’s helpful for many of the same tasks that Siri handles.

Alexa

Amazon’s Alexa currently resides on the Amazon Echo and Dot. While very useful, it is restricted to your home. Alexa can play music, play games, set timers, read off your calendar, provide news updates, control “smart” devices like Hue lights and so on. Unfortunately, Alexa can’t find you a hotel or help you drive to your Aunt Tilley’s house. She can — and this should not be a surprise — buy products from Amazon.

It’s not as fun as the computer on Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise, but it’s still fun.

And brings me to the qualified “no.” All of these technologies have nailed one aspect of artificial intelligence in our daily lives: fun. It’s cool to talk to a gadget in your home or your phone and have it follow your commands. My kids are delighted every time they use our Echo to add an item to a shopping list or to turn the kitchen lights on.

Fun yes, but “helpful” is pushing it.

I can usually complete the same task with my computer or smartphone, and often faster. But that’s not the real hang-up here. When you look at these three, really look, you see them for what they are – middle-men.

Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant don’t really get things done for you, they provide information that helps you get things done. That’s helpful in its own way, but it is also what prevents me from recommending these technologies as true organizers. Siri can locate a hotel on a map, for example, but it won’t make reservations. Alexa can read my calendar, but it won’t tell people attending my 2:00 meeting that I’m going to be late.

Speaking of calendars, here’s my next point.

To use digital assistants effectively, you’ve got to hand over a lot of information including your calendar, contacts, and certain preferences. Some people may be uncomfortable sharing all of that. All of this leads me to my favorite digital assistant, and it doesn’t even talk!

Google Now

Google Now (or “Google” as the iPhone app is called) doesn’t have a personality like the others. It offers no jokes or quips like its companions. However, backed by the power of Google, it excels at providing information.

On my phone, Google Now notices where I am (I’ve enabled location services) and it lets me know when to start driving to appointments, what local traffic is like, where to find good restaurants, where the car is parked, and so much more. It has me saying, “Wow,” much more often than the others do.

None of these are truly “assistants,” but they’re on the right track. In a few years voice-controlled assistants will be true organizers. For for the time being, stick with Google Now.

Get your email organized in 2017

We closed last week with a post about how to get a jump-start on uncluttering and organizing. Today, I’m going to look at how to get email sorted out in 2017. From cleaning out your inbox to setting up best practices, this is how to tame the email dragon for the new year.

Clean out your inbox

I’ll never forget an experience I had several years ago when a co-worker wanted to show me a certain email message and I stood by her desk while she scrolled through literally 5,000 messages. The experience was a time-wasting exercise in frustration. If you’ve been using your email inbox as a filing cabinet (a practice I rallied against in my first post for Unclutterer in 2012), follow these steps.

First, create a new folder called “2016,” and then sort your existing messages by date. Place any emails from 2016 into this new folder. You aren’t deleting or archiving anything yet, just getting them out of the way. You can then sort them later, when it is more convenient for you.

With that done, take control of what actually arrives in your inbox with SaneBox. I wrote about SaneBox before and in 2017 I will gladly renew my membership. SaneBox learns what you consider high-priority messages and automatically moves the rest to a folder called SaneLater. Once a week you can review those results, and correct any instances of important email being moved to SaneLater (Sanebox remembers this correction for the future). I save literally hours per month thanks to SaneBox and sing its praises at every turn.

Deal with unwanted newsletters

While you’re sorting through email, take the time to unsubscribe from all of those unwanted newsletters, digital catalogs and other mailings that sounded good at the time. As they come in over the next month or so, look for the “Unsubscribe” link. It’s usually at the bottom of the message and deliberately hard to find, so take a minute to scroll through and click on that unsubscribe link.

If you’re using SaneBox, you can train it to move certain messages to a folder called “SaneBlackHole,” never to be seen again. Goodbye, persistent spam!

Best practices for 2017

Now, let’s adopt a new practice to prevent a cluttered accumulation of email in 2017. When a new message arrives, ask yourself the question, “What do I need to do with this?”

There are three possible answers:

  • It requires action. Put the action items on your to-do list. I use Todoist but there are a number of good project management tools available.
  • It is reference material. No action is necessary, but it is useful information. I keep these emails in what I call, “cold storage.” Evernote works for me but you may wish to save it on your hard drive.
  • It is trash. Unsubscribe (if necessary) and delete the email.

If you can, you may delete original emails but be aware that your job, and/or legal requirements may prevent you from doing so.

With these practices in place, you’ll have a tidy, clutter-free inbox for 2017.

Family tech support

Happy holidays! Everyone at Unclutterer hopes you’re enjoying some time off work, to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends – and for many of you, helping them figure out how to use a new gadget. Nothing says “holiday” like family tech support. With a little planning and organization, it can be a pleasure to help family members and friends enjoy their new electronic devices or answer questions they’ve compiled since the last get together. Here’s how to prepare for family holiday tech support.

The list

password notebookMaintain a list of pertinent information regarding your family’s devices. You can create a simple text document, enter the information in a spreadsheet, or use a notebook dedicated for this purpose.

Information about the devices should include make, model and year of release. For example, if dad owns an iPhone 5, you will know where to look for troubleshooting tips, help with updates, etc.

You should also include details about any services they’re using such as iCloud, Office 365, Dropbox and so on. You should also be aware of their backup systems. This makes it easy to retrieve something if you need to do a restoration.

When you assist your family members, you will most likely need them to enter their passwords to authorize software installations or on certain websites. You should encourage people to keep track of their own passwords and ensure they have access to the passwords during their “tech support visit.” To help my parents, I gave them a notebook designed for recording their passwords. It is easy to use and lets us avoid the frustrating experience of trying to remember usernames and passwords before we can start to solve a problem.

The sit-down

When mom and dad visit, we find a few hours of quiet time to sit down with their iPhones, iPads or computers and go through questions they’ve noted over the past year. Some require a quick fix while others take some time to figure out. The list I compiled earlier makes this a lot easier, as do the following tools I always have with me:

  • A notebook and a pen. Sure, we troubleshooting tech gadgets but you can’t beat a notebook and a pen for jotting things down. I use it as my short-term memory when I need to quickly store a password, setting or URL.
  • An internet-connected device of my own. When I come across a problem that I can’t solve on my own. I rely on an internet search for answers.

With these tools in place, I’m ready to tackle almost any problem. It’s satisfying and I’m happy to do it. With the list of questions complete, I move on to my own to-check list, which follows.

Updates

One thing I always do is make sure their devices are running the most recent version of the appropriate operating system. I’ll also check to make sure that apps and software are up-to-date or at least running the most appropriate version for their device. For example, an iPhone 4 probably shouldn’t run the latest version of iOS. This is why creating a list of hardware make, model, and year is so important. Many devices “max out” at a certain version of an operating system and function best with that version.

Backing up

It is crucial is to ensure that the software, apps, and documents on their devices are being backed up regularly and successfully. I recommend a “set-it-and-forget-it” system such as Backblaze. For just a few dollars per month, you get everything on your computer backed up without having to lift a finger. If you need to retrieve something, it’s there.

I also recommend people keep certain documents in a Cloud storage service such as a Dropbox folder or Google Docs. Photos can be stored via Apple’s iCloud or Google Photos. iPhones and many Android phones have built-in backup solutions that, once set up, do their job without any prompting.

It’s easy to bemoan the responsibility of family tech-support manager, but taking the time to prepare and organize information ahead of time will remove much if not all of the headache. And remember, when you finally resolve that one annoying problem, you’re the hero of the holiday!

Last second holiday shopping: software

Many people love to receive tech-related gifts during the holidays. Phones, computers and tablets are sure to make the gadget-friendly name on your shopping list very happy, myself included. The neat thing is that in 2016, software is a valid gift option for techies and unclutterers alike. Here’s how to gift apps and software this holiday season.

Apple App Store

Gift cards

Apple’s App Store has been providing software to iPad and iPhone owners since July, 2008. Since then, it has delivered apps to customers more than 130 billion times. That’s a lot of software on a lot of devices.

If you’d like to give that perfect app as a gift, it’s easy to do. You’ve got two choices. The easiest is to simply buy a gift card that is redeemed by the recipient. You can send buy a physical card like the one linked above from Amazon or from your local grocery store.

The other method is to buy a digital gift card. It’s a little more involved, but still not difficult. Here’s what to do.

  1. Open the App Store either on your iOS device or Mac.
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.
  3. Tap Send Gift.
  4. Enter your lucky recipient’s email address.
  5. Enter the amount you’d like to give.

By default, your gift is delivered immediately. However, you can opt to have it show up on a certain date. To make that happen, tap Today and then select your custom delivery date.

Gift specific apps

If you know the exact app you’d like to give as a gift, you can do that, too. Once you’ve found the app you’re after, tap the Share button (it looks like an arrow jumping out of a box) and then follow these steps:

  1. Tap Gift.
  2. Enter the recipient’s email address and if you’d like, a custom message.

Again, the app will be delivered by default. You can change that by tapping Today, and then selecting your own date.

Google Play Store

Let’s say the techie on your list uses an Android device. You can easily buy a Google Play gift card just about anywhere (grocery stores, shopping malls, etc.). You can also buy a digital gift card by following these simple steps.

First, visit the Google Play Store in any web browser, select the amount you’d like to gift, enter the details and off it goes. Unfortunately, as of this writing, you cannot gift individual apps from the Google Play store. It’s a bit disappointing but the recipient can use the gift cards to buy his/her favorite apps.

Some would argue that a gift card isn’t the most personal gift in the world, but because it lets someone choose precisely what he/she loves, gift cards are fine with me. Happy digital shopping.

The best apps to track holiday packages

’Tis the season to track packages.

When I was young, making a purchase via what we called “mail order” went something like this:

  • Find the perfect gift in a catalog
  • Make your purchase by either sending in your billing information or talking on the phone
  • Two to six weeks of crossing your fingers in hopes that your gift actually arrives

It was an act of faith, plain and simple. Today, we can monitor every twist and turn in a package’s journey from distributor to doorstop. I’ve found two apps that do just that very well. Here are my favorite smartphone apps for tracking a package.

The criteria

Before I name my picks, let me share my criteria. First, any app worth considering must support multiple carriers. Sure, UPS, FedEx and others have their own dedicated solutions. I’m sure they’re great too, but unitaskers aren’t allowed, even when it comes to apps.

Next, and this goes without saying, it must be easy to add package info. Those numbers are typically long and complex, and the smarter an app is about managing them, the better.

I also want push notifications. That is, a little alert to pop up, triggered by criteria I define: change in status, arrival in a new state, scanned at a certain facility, etc.

Finally beautiful presentation is essential. While not crucial to functioning, I do have to look at the thing, and it should look nice. With that said, let’s get to my picks.

For iPhone: Deliveries

For me, Deliveries ($4.99) is the package-tracking app I want on my iPhone. I used it for years across many iterations and iPhones. While I’ve tried others, I’ve always come back to Deliveries. It meets all of my criteria and more.

Adding package information to Deliveries is so easy it’s ridiculous. The app automatically notices when a tracking number is on your phone’s clipboard and offers to create a new entry for it. So all you have to do is copy it from the confirmation email and then launch Deliveries. It notices the number as well as the correct carrier all on its own. Just hit the confirmation when it asks if you’d like to create a new entry and that’s it!

One thing to be aware of is that Deliveries won’t always pull the name of the item that’s being delivered. As far as I can tell, that depends on the site of origin. If it can’t see it, you can easily tap the edit button and fill it in yourself. Still, the app does the bulk of the work for you.

Deliveries also supports many carriers, and color-codes entries for easy, at-a-glance reference. For example, packages being delivered by UPS are brown, those from FedEx are purple and so on.

And yes, there is support for push notifications. You can set these up however you like. If you’re a real “Type A,” you can get an alert whenever the package status changes. Otherwise, you can simply get a ping when it leaves the distributor and another when it’s waiting at home.

Lastly, this app looks pretty. Not just pretty, but useful. The color-coding is very helpful and the built-in map support lets you track the journey. In short, Deliveries is absolutely worth every penny of its $4.99 price tag.

Android – ParcelTrack

If you’re on the Android side of things, go and pick up ParcelTrack (free with optional in-app purchases). While it’s not as pretty as Deliveries, it is just as useful, easy-to-use, and reliable. Just like its iOS counterpart, it meets all of my criteria.

As for carrier support, ParcelTrack covers over 20 across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., including UPS, USPS, DHL (Express), FedEx, TNT and more.

As for entering package info, ParcelTrack takes a different approach. When you install the app you’ll receive a special, private email address. Then, when you receive shipping confirmation via email, simply forward it to that special address. ParcelTrack extracts all of the information it needs and creates an entry for you. It works quite well and takes very little time. Also, much like Deliveries, ParcelTrack offers automatic carrier detection.

As your package travels from Point A to Point B, C, D….you get the idea, ParcelTrack sends free push notifications on a schedule that you define. And here’s what else is cool — scan the bar code of a package that you’re shipping and stay informed as it meets your intended recipient.

There you have two great apps for tracking your holiday packages. Whether they’re headed your way our if they’re out to family and friends, you’ll be right there with them.

Being productive with Nextdoor, for uncluttering and more

About a year ago I joined my local Nextdoor community. For those who aren’t aware of Nextdoor, it’s a “private social network for your neighborhood.” Nextdoor is currently available in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

As a locally focused network, Nextdoor won’t have messages about national politics. The following are the kinds of messages I usually see:

  • Lost and found pets: dogs, cats, and chickens
  • Other lost and found items, including keys, phones, and jewelry
  • Items for sale (or items being given away for free)
  • Items people are looking for (usually free or inexpensive)
  • Requests for a good painter, plumber, handyperson, house cleaner, etc.
  • Notices about local events
  • Notices about local road closures

As with any such network, taking time to use it effectively will pay off. If you’re using Nextdoor (or considering such use in the future), please keep the following suggestions in mind.

Choose your notification options carefully

Nextdoor lets you choose to get emails about every post from your neighborhood (and top posts from nearby neighborhoods), no emails at all, or something in between. You can also choose to get a daily digest, and the contents of that digest can be customized a bit. You can also select which “nearby neighborhoods” you want to see messages from, whether that’s via email or on the Nextdoor website or mobile app.

You can also choose to get mobile alerts about urgent items: missing children, natural disasters, etc.

You may not be sure which messages you want to get at first, so just make your best guess and then adjust as necessary after you’ve been in the network for a while.

Use good subject lines

Just as with email, you will make everyone’s life a bit easier if the subject line makes it obvious what your message is about. I get a lot of Nextdoor emails every day, and I want to be able to quickly scan to see which ones may be of interest.

I saw a message this week with the subject line “Hi all” — which wound up being someone who was looking for a vacuum cleaner. A subject line saying “Wanted: vacuum cleaner” or “Need a vacuum cleaner” would have been a whole lot better.

Similarly, a lost and found message entitled “Lost bracelet at or around Farmers Market” is much better than one that just says “bracelet.”

Include good photos when relevant

Just as you would with Craigslist, be sure to include good photos if you’re offering something for sale (or even for free). Even if it’s something where the looks don’t matter (such as tickets to an event) or something pretty standard (like a Kindle), a photo can help because the message will look better in the online listings.

This is one area where I want to commend my neighbors, who have generally done a good job of this. One person even included a picture of the “free clean dirt” being offered — which got taken pretty quickly!

Also consider photos when posting about lost or found items or pets.

I haven’t yet used Nextdoor to give things away, since my local freecycle group usually works fine for that. But I have some china to get rid of, and I just might try selling it on Nextdoor.

Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Buying a laptop for school

2016 gift giving guideWhen I was a high school and college student, computers only existed in the school’s library or in the computer lab. Today, they’re as ubiquitous as group projects and starchy cafeteria meals. Elementary school students will be introduced to computers, and by the time they’re in junior high, kids will receive, complete and turn in homework assignments digitally. As such, a laptop makes a great gift for many students. In this article, I’ll go over how to approach this shopping task. The first thing to determine is what type of computer they’re going to need. The best source for an answer is the school itself.

Ask the school

My first bit of advice applies to buying any school supplies: check with the school. The IT department at your student’s school — junior high, high school or university — has probably published minimum requirement guidelines. For example, something like these recommendations from my alma mater. They’ll include the preferred operating system, hardware requirements, security concerns and so on.

You’ll notice that the guidelines I linked above are for architecture students. Those studying different disciplines will have their own requirements. Again, checking with the IT department is the best way to start. For example, my kids’ school uses Google Classroom extensively, and therefore suggests that students use Chromebooks.

The specifics

The school’s guidelines are a good starting point, but there is always a little leeway. If the school is suggesting a Chromebook but you would prefer to buy a Windows machine or a Mac, you may be able to do so.

Consider how your student will use his or her machine. For instance, should you buy a bigger/heavier or smaller/lighter machine? Will it be carried from class to class or sit in a cart between assignments? Perhaps it will stay home and not travel to school at all.

Next, look at internal storage. A solid state drive (SSD) will perform much better than a traditional, mechanical hard drive because it is fast with super snappy search and retrieval. But if the student will mostly do word processing, a less expensive hard drive is just fine.

Lastly, look at peripherals that you’ll need. A sturdy, ergonomic mouse is a good idea, as is a good laptop stand. A simple bag is useful as well, especially if the computer will be traveling to and from class.

What to buy

With all that said, here are my picks — one of each operating system.

Chromebook

11282016_delll13chromebook

 

The Dell Chromebook 13 is a fantastic little computer. At $430, it feels like a laptop that cost hundreds more. It’s got a fantastic keyboard, a solid, quality trackpad and enough “oomph” to get kids through their assignments with ease. The eleven-hour battery life is a bonus, as is the 16 GB solid state drive and 4 GB of RAM. This is the Chromebook I would buy if I were in the market.

PC

11282016_dellwindowslaptop

If you prefer a Windows operating system, consider the DELL XPS 13.3″ Ultrabook. It offers a great-looking display and has small, portable body. It’s perfect for any coursework assignment. The aluminum body will take minor bumps and scrapes (let’s face it, kids aren’t always kind to their things).

Mac

11282016_macbookair

For most students, a MacBook Air will serve their needs. I recommend an Apple-certified refurbished model like this one. The Air is ultra portable, features startup times that are incredibly fast and has access to Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services. Plus, Apple laptops retain their resale value very well.

A laptop makes a very nice gift indeed, and hopefully this guide helps you choose the very right one. Happy shopping.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Convenient tech

2016 gift giving guideTechnology offers the promise of convenience and ease. These awesome tech gift ideas deliver on that promise. From taking notes to the ultimate bedside charging cable, we’ve collected the best tech gifts that add convenience to your day – or night. Let’s get started with those who work in both the digital and analog world.

The Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad is a clever and useful device that marries hand-written and digital note taking. On the right, it’s pen and paper. Take notes, write text, plan world domination. When the planning is complete, simply hit a button and the information is transferred to your iPad, iPhone or Android device where you can share, enhance or continue your work digitally. The final product can be shared as JPG, PNG, PDF or WILL file formats. As for the Cloud, you can export directly to Dropbox, Evernote, and OneNote.wacom smartpad

The Tile Slim is a treasure for the wanna-be organizer who is prone to misplacing certain items (I’m raising my hand here). Once attached to smartphone, keys or whatever else you’re likely to lose, simply pair it with the mobile app and you’re a tap away from finding that pesky wallet. It’s not flashy but it is very useful.

The Amazon Echo Dot is a tiny device that takes online shopping to a very convenient and handy place. When connected to external speakers, the Dot listens for your voice to issue commands. It can play music, make purchases, control smart home devices and so much more. What’s even better is how easily it can be tucked away. Since it doesn’t need to “see” a remote of any kind, you can put it neatly on a shelf, behind a house plant or a stack of books. At $50, it’s affordable convenience that geeks and non-geeks will enjoy.

night cableThe Night Cable. I use my smartphone as an alarm clock, which means it spends the night charging up on my night stand. Unfortunately, the wall socket is kind of far away, so I needed a charging cable longer than what’s in the box. The Night Cable is a full 10 feet long, made of very durable material and, best of all, features a weighted knot just a few inches from the end. That way, I never have to silently shake my fist as it falls – once again – behind the table.

All of these gifts will please the convenience-loving techie on your list. Here’s hoping you find something great, and enjoy your holiday.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Being organized about computer security

Decision fatigue is always a potential problem when you’re uncluttering. You can get to the point where you’ve made so many decisions that making any more seems like more than you can handle. When you find yourself at that point, it’s time to take a break.

While I’ve often read about (and had experiences with) decision fatigue over the years, I recently read about a somewhat related concept: security fatigue, defined as “a weariness or reluctance to deal with computer security.”

After updating your password for the umpteenth time, have you resorted to using one you know you’ll remember because you’ve used it before? Have you ever given up on an online purchase because you just didn’t feel like creating a new account?

If you have done any of those things, it might be the result of “security fatigue.” …

A new study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that a majority of the typical computer users they interviewed experienced security fatigue that often leads users to risky computing behavior at work and in their personal lives.

If you give into security fatigue, you really do put your information at risk. The following are some ways to make it a bit easier to use good security:

Prioritize your important accounts

You may have heard the advice that you should never reuse passwords. But in a 2010 interview with Ben Rooney of Tech Europe, security expert Bruce Schneier indicated that might be going a bit overboard:

“I have some very secure passwords for things that matter — like online banking”, he says. “But then I use the same password for all sorts of sites that don’t matter. People say you shouldn’t use the same password. That is wrong.”

Don’t try to remember all your passwords

There are two ways to avoid relying on your memory. The first is to use a password management program. I use 1Password, but other people like LastPass, KeePass, or one of the other available choices. A password manager can store your passwords (and your answers to security questions) so you don’t need to remember them all.

If you don’t want to use a password manager, writing your passwords down can be okay, too — Schneier has actually recommended that. I’ve had my wallet stolen, so I wouldn’t feel good about keeping my list of passwords there (as he recommends) unless I did something to obscure the password, as suggested by Paul Theodoropoulos in a blog post.

But keeping a list of passwords in a file folder with an innocuous name might be fine. Or you could write them inside a random book, as another blogger suggested.

Find an easy way to choose secure passwords

There’s no total agreement on the best formula for secure passwords, but two common approaches are:

  • A long string of random characters including letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols
  • A set of randomly chosen unrelated words

The first type of password is easily created using a password manager. LastPass even has a random password generator anyone can use.

The second type is created using an approach known as Diceware, which is fairly tedious. But there’s at least one website that provides a Diceware app, making it extremely simple to generate these passwords. A Diceware password like doodle-aroma-equinox-spouse-unbolted might be odd, but it’s easier to remember than something like 831M5L17vY*F. (Of course, you can just cut and paste your passwords in many cases, but sometimes you really do want one you can remember.) However, Diceware won’t work on sites that set character limits that are too short.

Treat security questions just like additional passwords

Do you provide your pet’s name as an answer to a security question? On a banking site, you might want that name to be something like Z8#3!dP47#Hx or grill-anthem-tinderbox-baguette-cosmetics. On a less important site you don’t need to be as cautious, but using your pet’s real name is still a poor idea.

Organize your Google Drive

1610_google_drive_logoFor online document editing and collaboration, Google Drive is still king. Last month, Bradley Chambers said the following while writing for The Sweet Setup:

“When it comes to needing an easy way to share a document with someone, Google is still the standard choice for me and most people I work with. The fact that they were always a web-first platform has given them a head start in the interface and syncing technology.”

That’s exactly why I continue to use it: free, web-based (which means nearly ubiquitous access to your files), easy and accessible.

But just like any tool, your Google Drive can become disorganized.

Here, I’ll describe some best practices you can adopt to organize the files you’ve got stored in Google Drive. Let’s begin with something simple: sorting.

Get sorted

Once you’ve got a lot of files on your Drive, it can be tricky to find the one you’re looking for. Fortunately, you can quickly sort the list. First, click the button on the top right to toggle between List View and Grid View. Both sort folders from files, and list view lets your further sort by title or creation date.

Powerful search tools

Google is synonymous with “search” (how many times have you heard someone say, “Google it”?), and as such you’d expect robust search options in its products, like Drive. A simple click reveals that they are in place.

To begin, simply click the search field to perform a search by type: PDF, text, spreadsheet, presentations, photos & images and videos. That’s helpful, but it’s just the start. Click “More search tools” (or the disclosure triangle at the right of the search field) to access a slew of useful features. From there, you can search by:

  1. File type
  2. Date
  3. Title
  4. Words found in the body of the document
  5. The owner (if you’re sharing files with a collaborator)
  6. Who it’s shared with
  7. What folder it’s in
  8. Any “follow up” actions — again, if you’re collaborating

All of this makes it very easy to find the file you need.

Select many files at once

Occasionally you’ll want to move, share or otherwise interact with several files at once. You could click them one at a time, or hold down Shift as you click to select in bulk. This tiny tip can be a huge time-saver.

Look to the stars

You can add a star to any file or folder in Google Drive by right-clicking on it and then selecting the star from the resulting contextual menu. All starred items are immediately accessible from the star menu in the left toolbar. Just don’t go too crazy with this feature, or you’ll have a list of starred items that just as unwieldy as the “un-starred” masses!

Quick preview

You can quickly preview a document without opening it to save a lot of time. Simply click once to select it, and then hit the “eye” icon that appears in the toolbar above to get a peek at what that document contains.

Add-ons

Finally, consider the huge library of add-ons that are constantly being released and refined for Google Drive users. These easily-installed tidbits address all aspects of using the service, with the focus on making it more efficient. PC World recently published a nice round-up of great Google Drive add-ons, including Consistency Checker, which scans your docs for incorrect hyphens and other such errors, as well as Data Everywhere, which makes it easy to share across platforms (Google, Excel, etc.).

I hope this was helpful. As I said, Google Drive is a fantastic collaboration tool. With a little effort, you can make it an efficient, organized experience as well.

Every day carry: weekend getaway

phone watch wipesI’m packing for a weekend getaway as I type this, which has inspired me to write an “Every Day Carry” (EDC) tech guide for weekend getaways. You don’t need to carry a lot in order to be prepared for a weekend away. In fact, pocket clutter is real and should be avoided. My “getaway” EDC varies a little from what’s typically on me, but not by much. Let’s take a look.

Mophie Juice Pack

I use my phone frequently when I’m away, particularly to find directions and taking pictures. That puts a hit on the battery, especially when a map app is receiving GPS data. For that matter, I always have a Mophie Juice Pack charged and ready to go. The Juice Pack is an iPhone case with a built-in battery. When my phone’s battery hits 20%, I flick on the Juice Pack and it’s back at 100% in no time.

iPhone

This goes with out saying, but the pocket computer called “iPhone” is completely essential. From finding directions and taking photos to calling hotels, restaurants and family, it’s my go-to gadget.

Apple Watch

My Apple Watch isn’t as essential as my iPhone, but it’s maturing into the useful accessory that Apple wants it to be (the same can be said of most smart watches). My favorite feature, however, really shines when I’m in a new place: walking directions. The first step, of course, is to get your destination’s address onto the Apple Watch. There are several ways to do this, and the fastest are these:

  1. Ask Siri for directions. The virtual personal assistant will automatically open Apple Maps with the directions ready to go.
  2. Start on Apple Maps on your iPhone. The app will automatically sync with Apple Watch.
  3. After you’ve entered the information on the iPhone app, open the watch app to view the directions.

Following a route Once you’re ready to get moving, just tap Start. The Watch will guide you along, via clever use of Apple’s Taptic Engine:

  1. A series of 12 taps means turn right at the next intersection.
  2. Three pairs of two taps mean turn left.
  3. A steady vibration means you’re at the last direction change.
  4. A more urgent vibration (which I call “the freakout”) indicates your arrival at your destination.

Imagine walking from, say, the train station to a hotel in a city you aren’t familiar with. You’ve got a bag in your hand and a million things on your mind, like check-in, getting settled and whatever brought you there in the first place. Now you can walk with your eyes front and your head up. Perhaps you’ll even note a few landmarks along the way, to make the return stroll easier.

Ursa Major face wipes

I used a face wipe from Ursa Major for the first time a few years ago. I was in NYC visiting family. After a sweaty day of walking through Manhattan, I was given one of these to use.

It was amazing.

The wipe is cool, smells great and not greasy at all. It evaporates quickly and let’s me “wash my face,” if you will, when I can’t do so properly. It seems like a small thing but I really like these things.

That’s the gear I carry when I’m away. It’s a short list, but all very useful. Do you have a special EDC for certain situations? Let me know.