Using Outlook Emails for ToDo lists

Here’s a simple productivity tip that I came up with recently…

At work I basically live in Outlook, so I’m not interested in introducing another application to handle my “ToDo” list. However, I’ve never been particularly fond of the Task List that Outlook provides. So I’ve come up with a simpler approach: On Friday afternoons, I email myself a list of the things I want to accomplish the following week.

One thing that this approach misses, however, is a convenient way to “check off” the individual tasks. So I set up a simple way to do this with a few easy clicks, using built-in features in Outlook. My customization makes use of the AutoCorrect feature.

1. First, I entered the following two AutoCorrect entries:

  – Two square brackets (“[]”) get replaced with an empty box.

  – Right-bracket + backslash (“]\”) get replaced with a “checked” box.

2. So now, if I type brackets+tab, I get a checkbox. (By pressing tab rather than spacebar, the checkbox is transformed into a list bullet, so subsequent lines automatically get added to the checklist with their own checkbox.)

3. To check off an item, click on the item, hit Home twice, then type R-Bracket + slash + tab (which sounds complicated, but it only requires a simple roll of the fingers; you don’t even have to hit Delete). Note: Since the items are now list items, hitting Home twice will display formatting that makes it look like your change will apply to the whole list, but only the box with the cursor will get “checked off”.

 

If you haven’t used customized Autocorrect entries before, here’s the step-by-step instructions for setting one up in Outlook 2013 (instructions work in earlier versions too):

1. In an email, use Insert->Symbol, to select and enter the symbol you want to use. (I chose Wingdings, character 168 for the empty box.)

2. Now in the email, select the symbol you just added. Then open the Autocorrect feature by navigating here:

         FILE -> Options -> Spelling and AutoCorrect… (button) -> AutoCorrect Options… (button)

3. Now notice that the symbol you selected in step 2, has been automatically placed in the “With” field, and the radio button should default to “Formatted Text”. In the “Replace” field, type the characters that you want to use to trigger the action (open & close square brackets, in my case). Hit the “Add” button, and then OK.

4. Repeat these steps for the marked checkbox. (I use Wingdings, character 254.)

5. One last thing I have to do before using this method: Since I have emailed this list to myself, it is not automatically editable. To make it so I can check the boxes off, I must open the email in its own window (not in the Reading Pane), then in the MESSAGE tab I click Actions -> “Edit Message”.

And now, voilà! you have a very convenient way of making and using ToDo list checkboxes in emails. Here’s a snippet from my morning list:

Now I can go check off that second box. (I love checking off boxes!)

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Resume Tips (Not that I am Preparing One at the Moment)

Just read this helpful suggestion from Yvan Rodrigues over in CodeProject. I particularly like his description of a “skills grid”:

My resume is 13 pages. As ridiculous as that sounds, I get a very high interview rate and usually before I show up they know if they want me or not. I did it that way because I have been a hiring manager for many positions and you have so little to go on from a 1 page resume and cover letter. With mine, what they see is what they get. I use a skills grid to indicate my level of knowledge for various technologies using this key:

Basic knowledge: I have researched this topic; or I haven’t used this technology, but I’d like an opportunity to; or I have used this for less than 6 months; or I could discuss it at a cocktail party.
Applied knowledge: I have used this in one or more projects; or I have used this for less than 2 years.
Advanced knowledge: I use this regularly in projects; or I have been using this for 2–5 years; or with some preparation, I would feel comfortable speaking about this topic to a general audience.
Expert knowledge: This is a core technology in my projects; or I have been using this for 5+ years; or I have written or spoken to this topic; or with some preparation, I would feel comfortable speaking about this to an audience of my peers.

While I think a thirteen page resume is excessive*, Yvan’s Skills’ Key seems useful. I have used used a Skills Grid myself for years, but I just liked his wording, so I am preserving it here as a reference, in case I need to re-do my resume someday.

*Personally, I pride myself on maintaining a dense ONE-page resume. It requires exacting discipline to strip out every un-necessary word in order to keep it short and concise. But I try to treat my resume exactly like an elevator speech: Make every syllable count. (Unlike my blog, which conforms more to the Pascalian adage, “I would have written a shorter post, but I didn’t have the time.”)

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Visual Studio 2014: A Taste of Things to Come…

While I’m not ready to jump ship from VS2012 just yet, the just-released VS2014 CTP3 has some pretty cool features (Expand the DetailsgTechnology Improvements items on that page). Some highlights*:

· Custom Layouts to make it easy for you to save custom layouts. In CTP 3, these Custom Layouts roam: any custom layouts you create will synchronize across machines that have the CTP 3 installed when you sign into the IDE with the same account.

· “PerfTips” – now see how long code took to execute directly in the editor when code execution exceeds a threshold. (More details here).

· “Lightbulbs” – If you have an issue in your code, placing your editor caret on the line where the issue is shown or hovering over the issue will present a light bulb that shows helpful actions you can take to resolve the problem together with a preview of the results of each action.

· C# refactoring support has been completely revamped. There are two new core refactorings: Inline Temporary Variable and Introduce Explaining Variable. Additionally, refactoring support for Visual Basic has been added for the first time.

* Note: Some of these features are from earlier releases of VS2014 (i.e., CTP1 & CTP2).

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Forecasting for IEEE

PREDICTIONS

IEEE Spectrum invited me to contribute to their “Survey of the Future”, prognosticating what I expect the future will look like technologically over the next two decades. For the record, here are my predictions:

In 10 years:

Ubiquitous computing: internet of Things + cloud + wearables = SMOG. (“sensory manipulation overload grief”)

In 20 years:

Implantables: digital tatoos; optic-/aural-nerve interfaces; natural language interfaces

Details:

Over the next 10-20 years:

  1. Desktop workstations will be disappear, along with:
  2. The “internet” (as we now know it). It will no longer refer to a collection of websites; websites will no longer be monolithic, static “destinations”; the data (images, text, media) currently housed in individual websites will coalesce into an amorphous “Sea” of information (navigated, perhaps, by semi-intelligent virtual-guides). We will access this Sea via:
  3. Wearables: glasses/contacts will provide hi-def 3D VR screens; nano-sized wireless ear-buds will be “tatooed” in the ear canal. We will interact with these interfaces via:
  4. Natural language (i.e., conversational interfaces; including inaudible voice recognition through direct vocal muscle detection). People won’t be talking to “the computer”; they will be conversing directly with the Sea. Early adopters will be experimenting with:
  5. Implantables: digital tattoos and neural implants allowing thought-driven interfaces (primitive at first), and direct-sensory stimulators (“sharable emotions”). All of these innovations will give rise to:
  6. Virtual Presence: the ability to interact with anybody instantaneously, in 3D VR environments.

Other changes to expect by 2040:

  1. Drones will be as ubiquitous as cars.
  2. Passwords will be obsolete, along with email, Facebook, and Google.
  3. Shopping centers will vanish, replaced by holographic VR-shopping, automated drone delivery, and nano-scale 3D printers.
  4. Offices and school buildings will empty out, deemed unnecessary with the rise of “virtual presence”.
  5. Clubs, gyms, churches, and bars will increase in popularity, satisfying people’s continuing need to connect, exercise and fellowship.
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Hidden Brain Stuff

In a recent Vanderbilt study, researchers determined that we might not know what we think we know. Or perhaps we know what we don’t really know. Or something like that. Anyways, here’s the case in point: even though you may be a skilled typist, you probably can’t label more than about 17 keys on a blank keyboard in under 80 seconds. Here’s a blank keyboard to test yourself with. Print it out and give it a try:

(Personally, I got 19 correct, and my bottom row was basically all off by one letter. BUT, I could only do it by actually fake-typing on the page; I’m not sure if that’s cheating.)

Try it and tell me how you did!

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Just A Little Visual Studio Time Saver


If you use the Visual Studio wizard for the UnitTest framework, you’ll find your test code littered with these helpful reminders:

// TODO: Initialize to an appropriate value

And by “littered” I mean there are hundreds, if not thousands, of these comments cluttering your code – several on every test method. I quickly tired of manually removing them one by one, but they are useful reminders so I don’t want to do a global search-and-delete. Instead, I wrote a macro to to make it a one-click job. Unfortunately, this will only work on VS2010 or earlier, since the Microsoft boys decided to remove macros from 2012 & 2013. :(

Here’s the script:

Sub Delete_TODO_Text()
  'save the current location, to return here if text not found
  Dim objActive As VirtualPoint = DTE.ActiveDocument.Selection.ActivePoint
  Dim iCol As Integer = objActive.DisplayColumn
  Dim iLine As Integer = objActive.Line

  'search for text on current line only
  DTE.ActiveDocument.Selection.EndOfLine(True)
  DTE.Find.FindWhat = "// TODO: Initialize to an appropriate value"
  DTE.Find.Action = vsFindAction.vsFindActionFind
  DTE.Find.Target = vsFindTarget.vsFindTargetCurrentDocumentSelection
  If (DTE.Find.Execute() = vsFindResult.vsFindResultNotFound) Then
    DTE.ActiveDocument.Selection.Collapse()
    DTE.ActiveDocument.Selection.MoveTo(iLine, iCol, False) 'return to original position
  Else
    DTE.ActiveDocument.Selection.Delete()
  End If
  DTE.StatusBar.Clear()
End Sub

After adding the script to a module in MyMacros, I assigned it to a keyboard shortcut. Now all I have to do is navigate to each line on which the comment appears, initialize the corresponding object appropriately, then click my keyboard shortcut to activate the macro, deleting the comment from the end of the line. (The macro has some additional logic to avoid any side-effects if I accidentally activate it while on a line that doesn’t contain the comment. I had to do some selection trickery to search for the comment text only on the current line.)

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Runnable: The next Library of Alexandria, or just another Lycos?

Styling themselves as the “YouTube of Code”, the new kid on the code-block has some lofty aspirations. Runnable is the latest in a long line of public code repositories. Their stated aim: “to become the central repository for developers to find code”… “to become the default place for developer-oriented projects to store and share code examples.” Clearly, this grand ambition, if achieved, might produce a resource as renowned as the Library of Alexandria (the Stack Overflow of the 2nd century BC). But the road to that pinnacle is littered with the debris from dozens of other websites with similar dreams. How will this site flourish where so many before have floundered? Well, judging by a cursory look at their freshly launched website, I think they’ve got a steep climb ahead of them.

I don’t intend to provide a full review of their site here. Check out TechCrunch or Forbes Tech for that. Instead, I just want to point out a few critiques regarding as-yet missing features that I consider to be critical shortcomings. (I will refrain from mentioning all the little UI quirks and glitches that I encountered; such flaws are to be expected on such a green site…. And big props for launching a full-featured support site to be able to report such bugs.) I understand that this is just their second day live, and many more features may be rolled out soon, but I think it was a mistake to launch without some of these fundamental pieces already in place. IMO, the boys on the dev team better fill these holes quickly if Runnable is ever going to be Viable.

1. Votes/Ratings

There needs to be a way for the community to bring the best gems to the top. This is probably the most glaring omission, in my opinion. They only have 1000 snippets in their repository so far, but if they actually realize their goal of increasing that number 10x in the first few months, there simply must be a way to distinguish the jewels from the cruft. What social site doesn’t provide a way for users to voice their Likes or Dislikes with a simple ThumbsUp/Down?

2. Comments/Discussions

One of the main things that the Agile movement has taught us in the last decade is that Peer Review is one of the key essentials to quality code. Currently the Runnable code pages don’t provide any mechanism for peers to add their comments (critiques, suggestions, etc), or for the community to weigh in on issues such as efficiency, readability, elegance, and maintainability. These discussion streams should emulate those at Stack Exchange (or SlashDot before them): allow each comment to be ranked by the community so the best ones rise to the top.

3. Edits (with version control)

I understand that in-page edits are supposed to be available. That functionality didn’t seem to work for me (on Firefox or IE9). But even more important than the ability to edit and run the code on the page itself is the ability for the community to change/refine the code permanently. These code snippets should evolve over time (incorporating new language features or industry-standard design patterns). But of course, in order for such incremental refactoring to be viable, each snippet must be version controlled! Each snippet should be protected with such common safeguards such as version-history, diffing, rollback, and perhaps even merge with conflict resolution. In short, there needs to be a safe way for the community to shape and refine these gems.

4. Reputation

If we have learned anything about successful community sites: gamification is critical. Why are people motivated to go out of their way to accumulate meaningless points on a random website? I have no idea. But they are. Give people credit for their code and comments and the upvotes they receive. It would be particularly useful (albeit somewhat cumbersome) to differentiate contributors’ reputation based on language (or at least User Profile pages that clearly display what realm(s) a user’s points were derived in).

5. FAQ

I was quite surprised to not find more information about the goals and objectives of the site. This seems to be a glaring omission. The site needs to provide a page clearly stating the rules and standards governing the functionality described above. There ought to be clearly-thought-out policies regarding moderation, edits, etc. I would also like to see a discussion of coding standards (or at least a justification of the lack there-of).

~~~~

This project is a good idea, and I think it could really go a long ways for providing the interchangable building blocks of the next industrial revolution. But without implementing some of these fundamental changes, I don’t think Runnable will ever differentiate itself from its undistinguished competitors.

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