Friday, March 28, 2014 Thursday, March 20, 2014 Wednesday, February 19, 2014

True Linux Confessions: Leaving Gmail for <gasp>

screeshot of Outlook

I sometimes feel a little bit over-invested in the Google ecosystem. Google is a double-edged sword, because the more invested I am in their products, the easier so many things are, but the downside is that I’m at their mercy whenever they decide to make changes, UI or otherwise. Plus, the more Google products I use, the more information they have about me, which doesn’t always feel ideal from a privacy perspective (although The New York Times is surprisingly OK with the idea). With that in mind, a few months ago I decided to get myself off of Gmail. To my surprise, I wound up switching to

I’d heard a lot of surprisingly positive things about Plus, when I was writing my book, I was surprised (shocked, even) how well so many Microsoft services compared to the Google versions (Microsoft does lose points for naming products, though). As you might guess, I’ve never been a huge Microsoft fan. I’ve always resented their monopoly and for a long time, they released subpar products because of that monopoly. For a long time, Microsoft didn’t innovate because they didn’t need to. But with Google and Apple coming at Microsoft all the time on all kinds of fronts, I no longer see Microsoft as a dominant force. Instead, I see it as more a broken boxer trying to make one final run at a belt. Where Hotmail always felt like Microsoft had been sentenced to run it, is much more cohesive and thoughtful. It allows you to send through a domain for free, via their domains tool. The web interface is great, with a true desktop client feel. For instance, pressing the delete key actually deletes a message. The spam filtering is also great. I’ve been reviewing the spam folder each day, and misfires are extremely rare. Plus, like most spam filters, it learns as you mark things as spam and not spam.

As I mentioned above, I have configured for my domain, but it also allows me to send messages through other accounts. It also has a great aliasing concept, where I can create Outlook accounts and associate them with my master account. It’s not something I use, but it’s a smart way to handle multiple identities.

The IMAP implementation is also fantastic, in that it’s standard. Google’s IMAP always felt like it played by its own rules, what with the weird way it displayed labels and the fact that delete didn’t really delete but runs flawlessly through Thunderbird and K9 (my phone email client, although the Android app also works well). I’m not making due with — I actively prefer it to Gmail. Where Gmail often made me feel like I was working the way the Gmail team wanted me to, provides the flexibility to work the way I want to. Just about every time I’ve thought “I wish let me do X,” I’ve gone into the settings and found a way to make it happen.

Now to be clear, I am in no way Google-free. I still use Google Calendar because my wife and I share events (and because I fear my calendar is too big and complicated to export). I still use Google Hangouts to chat with people, although now that I’m not using Gmail, I’m using the Hangouts Chrome extension ( also supports Hangouts). I also didn’t bother to move my old Gmail over to Outlook, because it seemed unnecessary. I rarely need to go back through my email and if I do, I know where the Gmail messages are. However, Google recently made moving mail fairly simple.

Before settling on, I spent a fair amount of time researching services (I knew I didn’t want to be responsible for my own server) on EmailDiscussions and decided to start my exploration with Fastmail, which is very highly-rated and recommended pretty much everywhere.

Fastmail is robust, with great support for multiple accounts. They’re also considered very strong from a privacy perspective, but the spam filtering was just prohibitively bad. I have a few accounts that have been public for a decade or more, so I get hit with spam pretty hard. I also wasn’t able to get two-step authentication working. In general, the documentation wasn’t great and after a couple of weeks, I decided to explore other options.

My next stop was hosted Exchange. Exchange is an industry standard and the price was ridiculously low ($4/month). I got Exchange up and running but it was way, way, way more than I needed in some ways (especially for a single user), and not enough in others (like it didn’t offer a convenient way to handle multiple email accounts).

In terms of leaving Google, this is, admittedly, not a huge victory. But it did help me to diversify a bit. To a certain extent, Android users need to be invested in Google or your phones become useless. That’s the price of convenience and I’m OK with it. But moving off of Gmail, even if the move is to a Microsoft product, feels good. is solid, with a nice interface, and great IMAP support. I’m shocked that given a choice between a Google product and a Microsoft one, the Microsoft one is ultimately the one that provides more freedom in how I use it. If you’re no longer interested in Gmail and you’re OK with US-hosted servers, and all that that implies, is a great option — even for Linux users.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Writing a Book with Linux

cover of The Librarian's Guide to Academic Research in the Cloud

I spent the past year writing The Librarian’s Guide to Academic Research in the Cloud, a book which focuses on using and thinking about cloud services in an academic research context. I’m fortunate enough to belong to a union that negotiated research leave for new faculty, and that leave made the book possible.

The content of the book might be interesting to Linux users (here is an excerpt), but I wanted to talk about the process for writing the book, which was very Linux-intensive.

Before starting the book, I had heard a lot of horror stories about people forced to use crazy Word stylesheets and templates from publishers. I was very glad that my publisher didn’t use anything like that, which might have forced me to spend more time in Windows. I decided to work with RTF files and used LibreOffice to write the whole thing.

Working with LibreOffice as much as I did was an interesting process. At work, I use Word for word processing and at home I use gedit until I absolutely need to format something. So I hadn’t spent very much time with LibreOffice. It was fine, but there were some rough edges that made it feel a few iterations behind Word. For instance, I wasn’t able to get a running word count going, even though there’s supposed to be an extension to do that. Fonts seemed to change between opening and closing a file. And one file kept getting wiped because I had an HTML link at the start of the file. Nothing cataclysmic happened, but using LibreOffice was not as smooth as using Word. Word is crazy and convoluted, but for the most part, it’s stable and stays out of your way. LibreOffice occasionally acted up and while nothing completely wrecked my project, I don’t find myself suddenly writing in it now that I no longer need to.

screenshot of text in LibreOffice

Despite some of its limitations, one LibreOffice feature I love is the ability to generate a PDF of a document in one click. I had to deal with permissions, so I just created a permission template that let me easily turn permissions forms into PDFs, which I then emailed out. This was much easier in LibreOffice than it would have been in Word, where I would have needed to convert the files to PDFs using Save As, or that weird Adobe button that takes forever to export the PDF. The Gmail canned message option (available in Labs) was also very helpful when it came time to send out the permissions. The whole permissions process required very little typing, which is always nice.

I’ve recently heard good things about XMLmind, which is used, among other things, to generate DocBook. It’s something I want to further explore for long-form writing. And I’m also curious to see if pandoc, recently mentioned by Bryan Behrenshausen, might be a good option for me.

In terms of images, I did as much as I could with GIMP and the default GNOME Screenshot tool and that was super simple. I know some people hate GIMP, but once you get used to it (and it took me quite a while to get used to it), it’s powerful and effective. I don’t know if I’ll ever find it easy to use, but it can be conquered.

I was terrified of losing work, so I used SpiderOak as my main backup tool, but then also manually uploaded files into Dropbox every time they were updated. One of the things I like about SpiderOak is that it can be configured to run on demand, only backing up files when I ask it to. That keeps my machine running pretty quickly, where I find the Dropbox client often slows things down. Uploading files into the web interface was painless, though.

I tried to focus the book on cross-platform tools as much as I could, but the reality is that there’s an awful lot of stuff that doesn’t run on Linux. For those situations, I had a virtual machine running XP (via VirtualBox) and it proved to be a life-saver in terms of testing Windows-only tools. It also turned out to be very helpful for installing software I knew I didn’t want on my Linux install. Rather than installing and uninstalling and then cleaning up files, I used the XP image as my sandbox. Toward the end of my book, I had an RTF file (my index) LibreOffice couldn’t open and WordPad on the XP partition saved my bacon, allowing me to open the document and copy-and-paste the text into something LibreOffice could edit. Even with the book completed, the XP partition has come in handy a few times. It’s a nice little safety net for those very rare times there’s something that can only be done in Windows (or when I want to quickly check something on a second machine).

My organizational system wasn’t super cohesive, but it worked for me. I used a combination of SimpleNote and Google Docs/Drive. SimpleNote was used for general notes to myself about what needed to be changed, added, or removed from each chapter (the challenge of writing a print book about web tools is that everything is constantly shifting on you). Google Docs was used for tracking the book’s glossary, plus a spreadsheet of what was going on in each chapter, in terms of the pronoun used (I alternated between he and she), the word count, and any notes that weren’t in SimpleNote. I’m now pretty into Evernote (more on that in a future post), so any future projects will probably be tracked entirely in there, but this system worked very well for me. Having said that, I would love to see Evernote have some kind of native table feature in its web interface because I like seeing information in grids. Especially since I recently discovered Evernote’s table-formatting button.

Once the book was typeset, proofing was handled via the annotation tools within Adobe Reader. I wound up having to install the Linux version of Reader (I had no idea such a thing even existed), and while it didn’t render as well as it does on Windows, I was able to successfully input my changes without any drama. I did double-check the file on a Windows machine to make sure everything made it in, though.

Writing a more complex, long-form work using desktop Linux was remarkably simple. The tools all worked, plus I didn’t have to deal with crashes or lags. One of the central points of my book is that web-based tools free us up in terms of the operating system we can work with. OpenSUSE 12.1 and GNOME 3 made for a fantastic work environment. Linux is great for checking email and Facebook, but it’s also great for serious knowledge work, too. Anyone on the fence about a long-form project in Linux should give it a shot. I’d be shocked if they left disappointed.

The Librarian’s Guide to Academic Research in the Cloud is available from Chandos Publishing. It is also available as an e-book on Chandos Publishing Online.

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Backup Your Gmail Now…Please

I’ve been a little nervous because some people around me have had their Gmail accounts hacked.

I’m not sure if the hackings were preventable, but it was making me slightly nervous.

And then, James Fallows had a series of posts about the hacking of his wife’s Gmail account, complete with tales of other Gmail users losing all of their data after getting their accounts hacked.

And that made me really nervous.

I had been thinking I should backup my Gmail for a while, but the Fallows posts pushed me to finally sit down and do it.

NOTE: I know about the Google two-step verification process, but that just feels like a lot of work, just to check email. Plus, I hate the idea of being locked out of my email if I don’t have my phone with me and I’m not near a landline I registered with Google. Situations like that are probably when I’d want my email most. So for now, it’s off of the table for me.

There are a few ways to approach the backup, but I decided to use POP to download all of my messages. It took a couple of hours to download everything, but other than that, it was a painless process. There are lots of articles and tutorials online about backing up your Gmail, but there weren’t any that gave me a workflow for the entire process, which is why I’m documenting it here:

  1. Download and install Thunderbird, but don’t configure it
  2. Enable POP on your Gmail account
  3. Configure Thunderbird. Thunderbird is great with Gmail. Once you put in your address and password, it’ll set everything up for you. Make sure you tell Thunderbird to use the Gmail POP account, though
  4. Download all of your email. This will take a while because you can only download it in batches. You can leave Thunderbird to handle this on its own, or you can keep it running in the background while you do something else, and manually get your mail every time it announces it has finished a batch. I chose the latter
  5. Now that you have all of your mail held locally, you can leave it in Thunderbird. That seemed like a pain to me, though, so I downloaded a Thunderbird plugin (ImportExportTools) that let me export the messages as .eml files. ImportExportTools gives you a number of export format options, but .eml keeps attachments with the files. Plus, it can be read with a text editor.
  6. Save your email someplace safe and you’re all set! At this point, you can turn off POP in your email and remove Thunderbird, if you’re so inclined.

I’m not sure how easy it would be to work with email in this format, but at least I could search through the files for specific messages I needed. Hopefully, I’ll never need to use this archive, but I feel better knowing that it’s there.

Now I just need to remember to do this at regular intervals. I wish Gmail would let you POP email as of a certain date, so I could just regularly top off my local archive, rather than re-downloading everything.

But the backup process is really pretty simple. Especially now that I know all of the steps to take (and the order in which to take them).