Preview Pane: New Gmail Feature

Gmail labs has rolled out a new feature called Preview Pane.

It’s similar to the preview panes in other email programs; e.g., Yahoo Mail, so I’m not terribly impressed. I’m not a fan of Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, or Hotmail, though I was a user of all of them for years. It’s not good to be similar; Google needs to be dissimilar, forward-thinking, to impress me. I especially loath Yahoo Mail because the premium version is included in the bill for my Yahoo web site account. And I don’t care what anyone says, it’s crap. But that’s another post.

First of all, this is not a preview pane, it’s a reading pane. A preview pane implies that the email you’re viewing can be opened further after previewing, in a normal reading mode. In Gmail’s new feature, there’s no intuitive method of opening the resulting email further. You can open it in a new tab or new window if you know how, but that’s not a normal reading mode for Gmail. You cannot then, for example, move to the next conversation.

As a side note, does anybody know why the Gmail icons for opening an email in a new window and creating a document from it in G-Docs are exactly the same?

Since the layout of the page in Gmail with Preview Pane is different than other layouts for Gmail, the code for Webmail Ad Blocker doesn’t work yet. That would make it better.

I’ve always thought Gmail should be one of the places where Google just sets aside the whole ad-supported free stuff paradigm. I understand we are the product not the customer, but they’ve got our eyeballs on a lot of other places. And e-mail is such a personally critical interface, where one often needs to work without distraction. (Yes, I sometimes use IMAP with Thunderbird or Outlook, but prefer the Web interface.)

If you follow the link above and read about Preview Pane, you’ll see a very nice screen shot. There are no ads visible, which makes the example disingenuous; a prevarication, let’s say. And it was done on a Mac. I have nothing against Mac except the price. But as a technical documentation matter, unless the topic pertains to use of a Mac, the screen shot should be done with a Windows PC, not Mac OS or Linux. Windows is the most common platform.

Like other preview pane layouts, there’s a toggle for putting the pane on the right or across the bottom, which is nice. But when you toggle the Preview function off, you find that the feature disables Multiple Inboxes, another useful Gmail Labs feature. The only way around that is to go back to Gmail Labs and disable Preview Pane.

I’m always happy to see new Gmail features, and appreciative of Google’s innovations in the tools I use every day. I’ve been a Gmail fan since the day I got my Beta invitation and first logged in. Threaded conversations may have saved my sanity. And I realize improvements are probably underway to Preview Pane, but so far there’s very little there yet to say Wow about.

Captain’s Blog Stardate 20110727


"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."*

As a little kid I imagined future technology: cars without steering wheels, computers that spoke with us out of thin air. Humans would be different, all the same basic size and shape, carrying little communicators and wearing comfortable clothes.

Well, I was partly right. We’re getting the communicator thing down so well that I even the Sci-Fi writers of my youth didn’t imagine their power and ubiquity. And I don’t think the touchless, voice-controlled computer is very far off. (Our cell phones have voice commands, but they’re more reactive than interactive. Like the government.) We still have to steer the car, though Google is working on a Driverless Car right now; in fact, it already works for their engineers. I don’t think clothes have really changed very much.

I got one thing about future tech very wrong: I imagined that future being farther away that it turned out to be. I imagined the new world without me or you still in it. I thought the world of my childhood – in terms of our tools and toys – would be basically the same in my middle age, that technology would advance more slowly. I – we – would be long gone before cars looked like this.

2009 Cadillac Converj Concept

That’s a 2012 Cadillac. Click to enlarge.

They say that one sign of intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory concepts in the mind at one type time, and accept them both as possibly valid. So I give you a couple of concepts to ponder: A typewriter and an Apple iPad. (The latter, you’ll notice is just a screen with keys, no keyboard at all.)

royal ipad 

Click to enlarge.

Who would have thought that in a short time we would type without buttons or keys, and publish without paper? But if you sent out today to buy either a 1937 Royal desk typewriter or an Apple iPad, which would be easier to find? And easier to use? I’ve used a Royal typewriter and it was hard to make it work! People who did it for a living were called typists. It was a hard job for low pay and it no longer exists in the world, as far as I know.

Do any companies still have people who do word processing – transcribing dictation? I don’t know. That was common in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Guys like me would dictate memos, letters, etc., with recorders, then take the little tapes to be transcribed. Then we got our work back printed on thinly pressed slices of tree.

Which reminds me of one Fail in the future tech that’s here so far: The paperless office we were promised 15 or 20 years ago. I’ve been trying to accomplish it for years but I can’t get other people to cooperate. I guess that can be a rant for another day.

I guess one of the most compelling ways in which computer technology has changed our lives so far is that anyone who wants to do it can be a writer and a publisher. For example, you’re looking at a page of a digital periodical, an occasional publication for which I do the writing and publish using a free medium. And over the years, Metaphor has been read over 20,000 times. That’s right, over twenty thousand deliveries. Not too shabby for a little blog with one frequently complacent writer, no paper, no costs, no charges, no advertising, and a very passive delivery system. And anyone can do it.

What do you suppose would have been required for Benjamin Franklin to put his Poor Richard’s Almanac into the hands of 20,000 citizens? A lot of money, time and effort. A lot of trees, too.

So here we are, the same bunch of primates who thought push button phones, the TV remote and the CB radio were pretty cool. And we’re blogging and using VOIP and feeling thankful that the VCR went the way of the Dodo before we had to take an adult ed class to program that sunofabitch.

It occurs to me, though, that it’s all teetering on a house of cards. I have a copy of Leaves of Grass that was printed before the Great Depression, and it survived on shelf somewhere because no special system was required to sustain its existence there. Not so with the Great Terra of Infinite Terabytes of human thought that we now have suspended around the planet in vast server farms and countless hard drives. All of that requires an economy to keep it going. What would it take to make all the stuff we know as modern life online just go blip and disappear? Not much. 

planetoftheapesendingIf Congress and the President fail to keep the lights of our tenuous, practically fictional economy burning next week, how far is it from default of the US to all the whirring drives of the Internet falling silent and blank? I mean we’re talking chain reaction, global economic meltdown, am I wrong?

I worry more about things like that, than whether Google+ is better than Facebook; more about America without Social Security and Medicare than about keyboards without keys.

New prime directive: the cloud must be sustained.


*Quote: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

It’s So Fluffy!

Hey, who knew about the new Note Links feature in Evernote and didn’t tell me?

I was just sitting down to write one of my mildly snarky software I hate to love posts. Tonight it was going to be about Evernote, and what I hated most about loving it. But I discovered that my complaint is no longer relevant. I couldn’t be happier. … Well, I could be happier. I could be a hell of a lot happier, but not about Evernote.

For those not familiar, Evernote is a note-taking and organizing platform. Wikipedia says, “Evernote is a suite of software and services designed for notetaking and archiving. A "note" can be a piece of formatted text, a full webpage or webpage excerpt, a photograph, a voice memo, or a handwritten "ink" note. Notes can also have file attachments. Notes can be sorted into folders, then tagged, annotated, edited, given comments, and searched.”

Pretty cool, right? But until recently, notes could not be linked-to from other kinds of software. The only way to find, see, and use ones notes was to open and use Evernote. For example, if I was working on a document and I knew that I had a note about it in my Evernote program, I just had to remember it and go find it. I could make a note in the document. “See note about this in Evernote,” and that’s it. Evernote was a walled garden, a function unto itself. I was frequently creating notes then exporting them to Word, Notepad, Photoshop, etc., so that they could be part of projects that existed in those other formats. Extra work!

So I was going to say there needs to be a way to create a link in another program – such as Word – that opens a particular note in my Evernote program. It dawned on me to Google it first. Viola! The feature arrived last month and nobody told me. Well, Evernote probably did and I didn’t read all the specs on the latest version. It was mentioned on their site and I missed that too.

Here’s a page on the Evernote blog that explains the new feature and how to create links. It’s extremely easy and quick.

I left a note on the Evernote blog to say thanks for the feature. We should do that, you know, say thanks for free tools and toys.

Anyhoo, leave us celebrate with a wee clip from Despicable Me, about another way to get what you want and what you’ve got coming to you. Ever since I saw that movie, whenever I get something cool, I think “It’s So Fluffy!” 

Yeah. Sometimes I like animated movies for kids. I’m not sitting around watching Waiting for Godot over and Over and worrying about Schrödinger’s cat. (Not advisible, since the cat just might be me.)

I’m erudite, but I’m whimsical. Shut up. Smile

Alright, just for that, here’s the whole story about the darn cat. No fault of mine.

New Blogger

Blogger has a new interface for composing posts. It’s pretty cool. PC Magazine calls it “airy,” which seems right. Here’s their complete review, and they have screen shots so you can take a look at the new product. 

I’ve been using Microsoft Live Writer, a free desktop-based program, for quite a while. That’s because the Blogger writing interface was basically crap. It felt more like leaving a comment on a post than actually composing one. This new one seems much better.

You’ll notice the editor has been moved away from a box on the left, to a page view in the center of your screen. I hate typing in little squares of screen space. The post settings are on the right where you can get to them, instead of at the bottom. And all the formatting tools are conveniently arranged across the top.

Blogger automatically saves your work frequently, so you can relax.

There is still a problem entering a paragraph break, and that’s a significant concern. When you reach the end of a paragraph and press Enter to move down, nothing happens. You have to click your mouse button the current cursor location, or press the arrow key on your keyboard, then press Enter again. And I have to tell you, that in itself – if it’s not remedied – could become a reason to keep using more stable software. 

The new blogger is in Beta and not rolling out automatically to users right now. PC Magazine says that will happen this month or next. To try it now, go to I think is well worth a look.

In Which I Save Money on the Phone Bill

I think it’s ridiculous that we’re still paying what I presume many of us are paying to have a telephone in our home. You’d think after 100 years, the price would come down, as it does with much of technology. Seems like the phone company is betting that we’re just used to paying what we pay, and they’re probably right.

Do we really even need a phone in the house, now that we have cell phones with unlimited long distance? Well, I think it’s a good idea. If you call 911 on your cell, you have to be feeling well enough to enunciate your exact location. If you’ve got The World’s Largest Gummy Bear lodged in your trachea, I guess we’ll see you on the other side. With a landline, they know where you are instantly. And here in California, 911 cell calls go to the CHP, not your local emergency dispatcher.

Yes, I know, there’s GPS. But that takes time. And it only gives them a general idea of where you are. They won’t find you in a condo complex; at least, not in time. And by then, their method will be more olfactory than electronic.

I’ll admit a sentimental attachment to my landline too. My Mom & Dad gave me a phone and my own line on my 17th birthday in 1978. I still have the phone and the same number, though the phone doesn’t work very well anymore. I enjoy keeping things for a lot longer than most people do, when it makes sense. Obviously, I’m not using my college typewriter to post these thoughts to Metaphor.

I looked at my home phone bill the other day. $50 a month. Wooly crap. I was paying for unlimited local calling, long distance, call forwarding, caller ID, and wiring maintenance. That’s just too much.

Now I’m paying $20 + tax per month for the home phone. Soon, it will go down to down to $12 + tax. … From $50 to $12, just by getting rid of stuff I don’t need. I’ll tell you how I did it.

I called Verizon today and cut my local plan back to measured instead of unlimited. So my local connection will be a lot cheaper. Outgoing local calls will be 3 cents a minute for the first minute, 1 cent for each additional minute, but with a $3/month credit. I doubt I’ll ever spend anything for local calls.

People who call me, take note: Incoming calls are still unlimited, free gratis.

I canceled all long distance on my home phone. And all the calling features except caller ID, which I’ll keep another week or two, while I transition to using Google Voice. That will make it drop from $20 to $12 + tax.

What’s Google Voice? It’s pretty cool, that’s what. It’s a free service from Google, which provides a phone number you can give to people. When they call it, all of your phones – home, office, cell – ring at once. You decide which phone to take the call on. So you can use the Caller ID on your cell phone to see who’s calling, but pick up the home phone to answer. That’s why I won’t need Caller ID on the home phone anymore.

Google Voice also provides an Internet-based voicemail, which you can listen to on your PC or by phone, or read the voicemail as text in your email. Plus, free nationwide long distance over the Internet, using your PC. That’s why, along with my cell phone, I really don’t need long distance on the landline anymore.

I hope this gives you some ideas for cutting back on the old school tech in your house. 

My next step is to decide whether I should add more minutes to my cell phone. If I do, I give back part of the savings. But I’ll get Friends & Family, which makes all calls with my family members unlimited without using cell minutes. So that’s something to ponder.

Before you go, you did click the link above and check out The World’s Largest Gummy Bear, right? I’m not making that up. And I’m pretty sure, one way or another, it could kill you.

Fixed It

I think I finally fixed my computer. As you may recall from previous posts, my desktop PC started crashing a little over a month ago.  I started getting the Blue Screen of Death, or Doom, and it took several days to reach a probable diagnosis: the graphics processor on the motherboard was overheating and going out.

There are only 2 ways to fix this, that I know of; either replace the motherboard or install a new graphics card to replace the one that lives on the motherboard. The latter is far less work and money, so there you go. It took about 10 days of research to decide which one to buy. And it took Amazon 2 weeks to get it here.

I’m not normally a patient person when it comes to not being able to use my stuff, or waiting to get stuff once I absolutely decide it’s needful. So brownie points to me for that. The desktop has been on sick leave, and I’ve been using my laptop. There was a benefit there, in that it motivated me to learn why the laptop was getting so slow, and get it running better.

The new GPU finally arrived yesterday around lunchtime, and I called my brother Joe. He has installed things like this before, so he was able to walk me through it. We got it finished today. It wasn’t exactly easy, but Joe helped me out by phone. Thanks Joe!

Want to see some photos of the inside of the PC, before and after the repair? Of course, here you go.

So it’s all installed, seems to be working OK. I’m glad to have my PC back online. I’m also pleased that I’ve finally conquered my fear – or mild and highly defensible anxiety – of messing around inside the computer case, except to clean it.

Let Us Repair

What an interesting word, repair. It means to fix something, of course. But also:

Move, travel, or proceed toward some place; "He repaired to his cabin in the woods."

Let us repair to the kitchen and repair the sink, for I have a sinking feeling it won’t drain. Not really, I’m making stuff up.

I have ordered the new graphics card my PC needs to continue its useful existence. It’s coming from, eventually, on sale at $33.94, which is 36% off. And free shipping.

I’m a pretty good shopper, huh?

Don’t know what a graphics card looks like? It looks like this.


I say it’s coming eventually because it might not be here for 3 or 4 weeks. That’s annoying. I didn’t notice until I was placing the order that the page said “in stock,” sold by Amazon directly and “usually ships in 1-3 weeks.”

And I wonder why it is that Amazon can ship books it has in stock in the warehouse the next day, but not other things it claims to have in stock in the warehouse. Smells like something in the fridge is suspicious to me.


It’s been one of those weeks, and blogging hasn’t been on my mind. My very nice desktop computer started crashing several days ago, and figuring that out has been giving me fits. I’ve checked it for viruses and driver glitches, memory failure, registry errors, and fan fubar.

Since I’ve done a little tinkering and tuning, it’s running great, except when it crashes, a few times a day. It’s pretty frustrating. The whole problem was preceded, over the past couple of weeks, but the PC acting funky when I try to watch any kind of videos. YouTube, Netflix, little movies I’ve made or saved, all looked wrong. So with that in mind, research suggests the display driver is going bad. And if it goes all the way bad, the computer will have no display at all.

Display drivers aren’t expensive, unless you’re into power-gaming, which I’m not. About the price of a couple of nice hardback books. Which is a better thing to spend money on. But graphics cards are very complicated. You think choosing a computer is hard, try buying a part to go inside. Whew.

To top it off, the weather has been too beautiful lately, so I’m not wanting to sit indoors during the day. So I’ve been trying to figure this out and fix it during the evening, with the TV on, while I’m getting tired and cranky. … I’m taking the night off. The desktop is shut down, I’m using the laptop, and tomorrow night’s another night for geeky struggles. 

PDF Documents Not Pictures Please

Here’s the problem: You get an email. Attached is a file that’s supposed to be a document. You want to print it on paper. But it’s a JPG or a TIF or a BMP, a photo of the document (we’ll just call it JPG). You open it, it’s looks OK. You try to print, and encounter calamity.

Printing a JPG photo image onto paper is complicated. It’s not the same as printing a Word document or a PDF.

(Regular readers of my blog may recall previous rants to the effect that PDF is the world’s standard for sharing documents. Word is for documents you are still working on, never for finished stuff. JPG is one of many formats for storing and sharing photos, not documents.)

Word and PDF have standard printer settings. 8.5×11 inch, plain paper. You hit print, it prints. Easy.

With a JPG, you have to program the settings first. It needs to know – How big you want the photo to be on the paper? Portrait or landscape? Color or not? Glossy or plain paper? And so forth. 

So scanning a document and saving it as a JPG for someone else to use is not a good idea. And it’s too bad that most scanner software assumes you are scanning photos, not documents, so a photo is what you get back by default.

There are 2 easy ways for the sender to prevent this.

  1. When you scan a document, just tell the computer you want PDF instead of JPG. Here’s how I do that:

    I scan the photo with Photoshop, click File > Save As… and change JPG option to Photoshop PDF. What comes out is a PDF document, which anybody can print.

    Click this photo to enlarge.

    photoshop save as

  2. If you use a scanner software that does not have the option to save as PDF, all you need is a PDF maker. They’re free. My favorite is bullzip.

    You download it, install it, and it acts just like a printer connected to your computer.

    After you scan the document, you Print it, but change the printer from your paper printer to Bullzip, and a PDF is created in seconds.


If you are the recipient of the JPG “document,” believe it or not you do the same thing. If you have Photoshop, open the JPG with that program, click File > Save As …  and save it as a PDF.

Or install a free PDF maker and you can make PDF files with whatever program you prefer to use to view photos on your PC.

Bonus Tips

Why does Photoshop make PDFs? Because Photoshop is made by Adobe, which makes Acrobat, which makes PDFs.

How do you scan a photo or a document with Photoshop?

  1. Place the image or document on your scanner – usually face down.
  2. In Photoshop, select File > Import. A list will appear.
  3. Select the device into which you placed the image; i.e., your scanner or printer/scanner. (You should see your scanner’s name listed, or the words, “Twain Acquire,” or similar.)
  4. Follow the instructions on the screen – they are different for every scanner.

I hope this helps.

Talk Is Cheap

I learned to do something new this week. I learned how to make an audio file for a podcast, with my computer. I guess it’s no big deal but I’d never gotten around to it before.

I got a microphone for Christmas, you see. And it’s pretty cool what can be done with a mic that cost less than 10 biscuits, and software that I downloaded for free.

My actual plan for the mic is to use it to re-learn Spanish online. In the mean time, I recorded a couple of poems. You never know, I might be the next Garrison Keillor. “It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegone Carpinteria, my home town.” Except, it’s not really all that quiet around here. I’ll have to find a more fitting adjective. 

Anyway, sometime soon I’ll figure out how to get one of those Mp3 files onto the Net, and subject you to it, mercilessly. Fair warning.

Docs Rat

I love Google Docs. It’s a nice little free word processor, built right in to my web browser and my Google account. I know some of you writers use it. You can create simply–formatted documents. Not just text documents, but spreadsheets, presentations, forms, and drawings. And if you want to, you can export to Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc., for further work. You can even create a PDF directly from Google Docs.

Now I’ve spotted a new feature, drag and drop uploading of documents. Instead of clicking Browse to upload a document and navigating to the correct folder and file, I can click Upload, then drag-drop the document file over a magical spot. Presto, it uploads. It looks like this (click to enlarge).

gdocs upload1

Take note of the conversion options, and be sure to check them. Otherwise, you’re just storing a copy of your original file – in its original format, such as Word. That takes up space in your Google Docs account, and you can’t edit the file as a Google Doc. I guess some people use this as backup storage, but I’m interested in actual editing + storage. I have several hundred documents there, but I’m using 0% of my storage. That’s because if it’s in Google Doc format, it doesn’t count against your 1GB storage limit.

Don’t bother selecting a Destination folder at this point. That feature simply doesn’t work. Bummer. Instead, once you get back to your Google Docs main list, drag your new document into the appropriate folder.

Incidentally, if you don’t see the Drag and drop area, it might be because you’re using an older browser or something. I’m using Firefox 3.6.12 and Google Chrome 7.0.517.44. I have not tried Internet Exploder, because I don’t use that. But in any case, the traditional Select File to Upload link is still there for you.

Bonus Lyrics

Old man down, way down down,
down by the docks of the city.
Blind and dirty, asked me for a dime,
a dime for a cup of coffee.
I got no dime, but I got some time to hear his story
[der link]