Inbox by Google : Great and Annoying

I like many aspects of Inbox on iOS. It is Google’s own app so it can presumably harness the email data in ways that third party apps cannot, or at least the direct access it has to email data must give it a reliability and speed edge. Snooze to location is good. Built in actionable reminders. Google’s summary cards for standard emails. These are all great things, however the app does has some very annoying limitations.
1. No text formatting options. Five years ago this wouldn’t have been problem as most people would have been happy to be able to email whilst mobile. But these days it should be possible to add bold, italics and underline to your emails. This is all the more problematic given that even WhatsApp and Slack allow for some formatting – WhatsApp only handles bold but Slack has a range of options. If instant messengers can offer text formatting an email app absolutely should be able to do so. At times Inbox has had support for text formatting, but it is there one update and gone the next. Presently it is available, but who knows for how long?

2. No file attachments outside of Photos / Drive. Sure you can browse your file storage app and attach from there, but is it really too hard for Google to add a proper file picker? Furthermore this is no good for replying to emails; you have to start a new thread (not helpful).

3. Lack of draft saving from share sheet. When sharing files from other apps to email from Inbox, if the email fails to send or you stop composing the email you lose the email. Whereas when sharing into other apps (i.e. Spark or Outlook) the file is opened in the email app itself and attached to a new email. If you then stop composing the email you are given the option to save a draft. Inbox’s behaviour is nice in that it doesn’t switch you into the Inbox app; it overlays Inbox’s interface into the app you are sharing from. But as outlined above it is annoying if you start and email and aren’t able to complete it in one go as you’ll lose the entire email. A common problem here is that if you start composing from the share window and then need to check something in the document you’re trying to share (or another document in the same app for that matter) then there is no way to open the document without closing and losing your email. 

4. No printing! If you want to print emails you’ll need a different app. Even attachments can’t be printed unless they are a PDF. I don’t often need to print emails but when I occasionally do this is a major limitation. More often it is the need to turn an email into a PDF that I notice this lack of feature. In iOS you can turn any document / file into a PDF if it can be printed (find out how here). So the fact that I cannot print an email means that I cannot turn it into a PDF.
I hope that these lack of features will be addressed soon. Does anyone have thoughts about their favourite email app?

Google’s Rapid 2 Step Authentication Option

Google Prompt is a fast second step authentication option on iOS and Android.  Whenever a login attempt is made on your Google account Google Prompt sends a login confirmation to the Google app on your  phone.  You open the app (via push notification) and tap “Yes” to confirm a login attempt is valid (or “No” to deny a login attempt).
This login method is quite a bit faster than using an authenticator app.  I use Authy which even with its widget in the notification centre takes some time to copy the number into the field.  I like Google Prompt for its speed and simplicity.  The slight downside is that it requires your phone to have a live internet connection to use.  This is only a slight downside because if you are signing into a Google service somewhere chances are that you have an internet connection available; with some exceptions.  But Google Prompt works parallel to the other second step options available including an authenticator app, so in the absence of an internet connection on your phone you still have offline options to fall back on.  Head into your Google 2 step verification settings to set it up.
Google 2 Step Authentication Options.png
Google 2 Step Verification Options


From a security perspective it is hard for me to say whether this is a better or worse method than an authenticator app.  I understand the methodology behind authenticator apps, but not this one.  That said, I trust Google with my information and I trust them to have built a reliable and safe second step with Google Prompt.  Furthermore I trust that they will be on the ball enough to keep it safe.  I say this because of the numerous articles and security updates that are the result of contributions that Google has made to tech security worldwide.
In summary Google Prompt is a system I am prepared to trust and it makes my login process a great deal more streamlined whilst maintaining its integrity.  I recommend this for anyone wanting the benefits of 2 step authentication with a bit of a faster workflow.

The SD Card Slot

Most discussions I’ve read of Apple’s move to only USB-C on MacBook Pros fail to include a key benefit of the SD Card slot.  Sure a lot of non-photographers probably don’t use the slot much, if at all.  But there is a usage scenario that would probably benefit everybody: storage expansion.

SSD storage is expensive, so most people probably have to compromise on what they keep on internal storage.  Therefore any extra storage that is easy to carry with your laptop is undoubtedly going to be useful.  Micro SD cards are available in a huge 128 GB and they are not overly expensive.  Also available are short SD to Micro SD converters.  This means it is possible to keep a high capacity Micro SD permanently attached to a laptop without worrying about it snapping off.


Let’s put that 128 GB size in context.  The entry level storage size for a MacBook or MacBook Pro is 256 GB.  Adding 128 GB to that increases storage by 50%.  That’s a tremendous gain.  Of course the speed is dramatically slower than soldered SSD, but it is fine for storage of files that are not accessed daily.

In the discussions I have read about the move to only USB-C I havent seen anyone discuss the removal of this expansion option.  Discussions have tended to focus on the advantages of USB-C over USB-A, Thunderbolt and/or HDMI.  I completely agree that USB-C is much better than all of these.  In particular the move from a proprietary port (Thunderbolt) to open standard (USB-C) is to be lauded.  So in general I am in agreement with the move to USB-C.  But I view the removal of the SD slot differently based on how I and others use it in practice.

Whilst it is possible to still connect an SD card with a dongle, that isn’t good enough if for an always attached storage option – it’s going to stick out of the laptop and be liable to break.  I have a 500 GB hard drive on my Mac.  That’s big, but I still find it useful to be able to offload large files to an always available 128 GB archive.  This helps a lot to maintain a minimum amount of free storage on my internal hard drive.  In general I thought the introduction of USB-C was a great idea but I do think that it could have been done whilst retaining the SD card slot.

Anyone else got thoughts on the removal of the SD Card slot or the introduction of USB-C?

Use the macron natively on iOS and macOS with text replacement

By far and away the most popular post I’ve ever written on this blog is how to type math and science symbols (pretty much) natively on iOS.  The method is to use the text replacement feature built into iOS and macOS which will receive unicode symbols you can paste into it.  Whilst it isn’t a perfect solution, it does greatly enhance the potential for productivity on a mobile device.  And then, every now and again, it produces a result above and beyond my expectations.

I’ve recently been designing decks of flip cards for a new app called Tinycards (it’s a great app that you should check out especially if you’re a teacher).  The deck I’m working on currently is about subatomic particles, which include antiparticles.  The symbols for just about every antiparticle require a bar across the top of the symbol (like this or this ).  Unicode includes a modifying macron (this ➝  ̄ is a macron in case you’re wondering), which puts a bar across symbols.  So I created a text replacement “shortcut” for the macron and got to work seeing if I could get it to modify my symbols on iOS (otherwise I’d need to use my Mac).

Lo and behold it worked!  I set up #macron as the “shortcut” for the macron in text replacement.  I then found that if I typed this: u#macron iOS would replace it with: .  It’s a beautiful solution.

To set this up yourself you’ll need a copy of the macron unicode symbol (I’ve included one below).  Copy it and paste into the Phrase field.  Then type the Shortcut you want to use.  I used #macron, but you might want to use something else like #bar.


If the macron listed below doesn’t work properly you should be able to get a working copy of it from my list of symbols in this Evernote note.  When you copy the macron the selection extends slightly beyond the visible symbol itself, I think that is due to the fact it is a modifying macron.


macron symbol to copy:   ̄

Convert IFTTT Timestamps into Date and Time Values You Can Use

If you use IFTTT to log data in Google Sheets then you might have wondered if you can make any functional use of the timestamp that goes in the first column by default.  In order to use the actual date from the timestamp I have in the past used formulae in a separate sheet (I call it the Interpreter) to duplicate the raw input data and then to extract the date and time.  The reason for needing the separate sheet is that if you include a formula in IFTTT, e.g. =LEFT(A2,LEN(A2)-11) which will give you the date from a timestamp, the cell reference A2 will become invalid after the recipe first runs.  It isn’t possible for IFTTT to compute the correct cell reference to input each time the recipe runs. But the problem with the Interpreter sheet is that you have to keep filling all the formulae down to accommodate new data, or occasionally fill down formulae a couple hundred rows in advance.  So it’s far from ideal.

The ideal situation is to design a formula that can correctly reference the cell with the time stamp without needing to enter an actual cell reference.  That way IFTTT can input it automatically every time the recipe runs.  Well here is a formula that will return the value of a cell itself:

That will give you a circular reference error, so don’t use that!  We can use the OFFSET() function to reference the cell to the left of itself:
Or the cell to the left of that:
So how can this be used to extract the date and time?  If you examine IFTTT timestamps they are all different lengths but the time part of the stamp is a constant number of characters.  Here are a couple of examples:
• February 04, 2016 at 04:09PM
• April 27, 2016 at 09:24AM
The dates are obviously different lengths but the time part is always seven characters long, e.g. “04:09PM”, they can be extracted to provide the time.  To extract the date from the timestamp we just need to cut off the time and the preceding ” at ” part of the string (that’s the last eleven characters of the string).  So the spreadsheet formulae to use are:
• Date:
• Time: 

If you want to set this up in an IFTTT recipe you would have something like this, where {{OccurredAt}} is the marker for where IFTTT will insert the timestamp, and ||| is the marker for a cell division:

{{OccurredAt}} ||| =LEFT(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1),LEN(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1))-11) ||| =RIGHT(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-2),7) |||
Hope that’s of help to some of you wanting to work with IFTTT timestamps.
Update 12/10/16
An alternative to the above formulae is to use the IFTTT timestamp string directly in the formula, e.g.
I’ve had trouble with Google Sheets interpreting the output as a true date value (it interprets it as a string).  To get around that use DATEVALUE(), like this:

Good Bye Numerous, you will be Missed

Since the announcement that the fantastic app Numerous would cease to be on the 1 May I and many other Numerous users have been wanting to find something that could replace it.  The ever so slightly quirky app excelled at displaying important numbers in a clean and clear way that helped us keep track of numbers that meant something to us.  Some people, like me, started out dubious that we would find much use for the app.  But it quickly proved its worth.  It will leave a big dent in the routines of many people when it shuts down.  Well done Numerous team you made something truly excellent and many, many of us will be sad to see you go.

Despite the best efforts of many nothing has been found that can adequately replace Numerous.  So as the deadline for Numerous’ end drew nearer I put my mind to work about how I could hack together something to simply display useful numbers. The rest of this post is about a spreadsheet (Google Sheet) I’ve designed that can do just that.

Let me start by outlining the main aspects of functionality of Numerous that this spreadsheet does not replace and its limitations in comparison to Numerous.
1. It can only display numbers that are already in a Google Sheet (this might change in the future but the procedure won’t be as straight forward).
2. There is no social aspect. You can’t browse a catalogue of numbers and individually select numbers from a community to follow. But if you have friends tracking numbers in Google Sheets you can give each other access to each other’s spreadsheets on a case by case basis.
3. All numbers are technically public; no private numbers.
4. No value history or graph.

But, that said, a potential benefit to some people will be the ability to display dynamic text and not numbers only.

Now onto how to use the spreadsheet for your own numbers. You must first appreciate the nature of this spreadsheet. It doesn’t actually do any computation of your numbers, it simply hooks into the spreadsheets you already have to display those numbers in a way much like Numerous: clear and nicely contextualised. Also it will display those numbers in a web browser so you can get faster access to your numbers wihtout having to search through your spreadsheet directories.

The spreadsheet is published here: Number Dashboard. Follow the link to the spreadsheet and save a copy to your Google Drive so that you can edit your own copy.

In the spreadsheet there are two sheets: “Dashboard” and “Data”. Dashboard displays your numbers and Data is where you input information so that the spreadsheet can collect your numbers from your other spreadsheets.
Number Dashboard - Dashboard.png

Each Google Sheet has a unique URL. In the URL is a unique spreadsheet key. You will need to copy the keys of the spreadsheets that have any numbers you want displayed in the Dashboard. Below is a screenshot of a Google Sheet URL with the spreadsheet key indicated. The format of the URL is: key/edit#gid…
Google Sheet URL

Paste the key into the relevant column in the Data sheet. Next you need to input the address of the cell containing the number you want to display. For example, if I had a spreadsheet with a sheet called “Fuel Log” and the car mileage was in cell “D5” then the address I would need to write in the Data sheet would be: Fuel Log!D5. Include all spaces as spaces and you don’t need to include any extra quotation marks.

Once you do this the spreadsheet will begin the process of trying to look up the value. But you will need to give permission to link the spreadsheet with the number with the Number Dashboard. To do that hover the mouse over the cell in column E that displays the #REF! error. Then a pop over wil show that has a button that says “Allow access”, click that and the value will display.
Number Dashboard - Permission to link spreadsheets.png

In the table in the Data sheet don’t overwrite anything in columns A, E or H. The value and image are automatically inserted based on the information you put in (instructions included below for inserting your own images).  For best results use square images.  Everything else in the table in the Data sheet should be pretty self explanatory. Annotated screenshot below.
Number Dashboard - Data

All your numbers by now will show up in the Dashboard sheet. The next stage to get your numbers accessible without having to open up a spreadsheet app and then navigating to the spreadsheet is to publish the Dashboard to the web. I’ve included some annotated screenshots below showing the steps to do this. At the end of the (very short) process you will be provided with a link to the published Dashboard. Bookmark the link, or even better save it to your smartphone homescreen. Now your numbers are accessible with a tap from the homescreen.

Other features / limitations:
1. Inserting your own images. To insert an image you need it to be available on the internet. If you want to use your own image you need to insert it into a website or cloud storage and copy the link to the image, then paste that link into the Data sheet. I have used Google Photos for my images. I upload the image to G Photos, then navigate to view the image there and right click it to copy the image address.
2. If you know your way around Google Sheets you can customise info in the Data sheet further. For example you can have a dynamic name for a number. In my Data table I link to a number that counts down to the next school holiday. But also on that spreadsheet there is a cell that displays the name of the next holiday (e.g. “May Half Term” or “Christmas Holidays”). So I used the IMPORTRANGE() function in the Data table to reference that cell and have a dynamic name for that number.
2. Countdowns are/were a great feature of Numerous. They can be created in Google Sheets. But remember that this spreadsheet just displays your numbers. You will need a standalone spreadsheet to do the countdowns. Lucky for you I have one, you can get it here. My one is designed for counting down to college / school holidays. So when one holiday is reached it automatically updates to the next holiday. But it can be used to track just one date too.
3. Customising the size to fit your smartphone. If you find that the published dashboard is not the right size for your smartphone then open the spreadsheet in Google Sheets and resize the columns on Dashbaord so that you get a suitable fit. Note that it takes several minutes for the display to update so be patient as you see what works for you.
4. The layout is fixed. Numerous would give you a different view in landscape and portrait; that won’t happen with this spreadsheet.

This is clearly an inferior setup compared to Numerous, but I do hope that it will be of some use in Numerous’ absence. If you have any questions or tips to share please leave a comment here or on Google Plus or reach me on Twitter.

All the best tracking your numbers.

Fast HTML Table Creation and Editing with a Spreadsheet

If you are designing a table in html there is a lot of tedious repetitive typing to do. A spreadsheet can be used to take a lot of the tedium out of the process. Previoulsy I have used spreadsheets to generate repetitive text and html in what I think was a relatively efficient way. I also thought that it was a very quirky method unlikley to appeal to other people. Until, that was, I read this blog post on the Zapier blog. Then I realised perhaps my quirky method might be of some interest to the mark up community.

So here is my contribution, it builds on Matthew’s post on the Zapier blog by showing how I would use Google Sheets to build a html table. The method is different to Matthew’s as it avoids the very long concatenate formula and makes it easier to make quick edits to the table formatting. It is more complex to set up, but much easier to work with once it’s done.

What follows are the steps to make the key parts of a html generating spreadsheet from scratch, but I have published a spreadsheet here which is based on the table that Matthew shared in his blog post. You can download and tweak it for your own use.

Step 1. Create a spreadsheet

Create the spreadsheet with two sheets: “Templates & Output” and “Row Details”

Step 2. Set up your templates in the “Templates & Output” sheet

In one cell set up a template of the html for the whole table, using a text placeholder (e.g. [rows]) for where you want the rows to go. I put my placeholders in square brackets but you can customise this to your own preferred style, just make sure they won’t be mistaken for html.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 21.02.55


In another cell set up a template for the table rows, using text placeholders (e.g. [Name], [Description], [Link] etc) for the specific details of each row.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 21.03.58


html creator - Templates and Output
Templates on the left.  Output (explained later) on the right.

Step 3. Make a table for the unique details in the Row Details Sheet

Make a table with a header row, the header items are the placeholders in the templates. Each row of the table here will provide the unique details for each row in the html table. So if you were producing a table with details about a range of apps, each row will include the details of one app.

html creator - Row Details

Step 4. Write a formula to replace the placeholders in the row template

In a column to the right of all the details write a formula using SUBSTITUTE(). This formula requires three arguments SUBSTITUTE(arg1,arg2,arg3).
* For argument one point to the template for table rows, this will form the base text of SUBSTITUTE(). This reference should be absolute because the layout of all rows is based on the same template (“A1” is a relative cell reference and “$A$1” is an absolute cell reference).
* Then use the formula to replace a placeholder with the detail from the table. Argument two should point to the placeholder text, i.e. the header of the table column. This argument should use an absolute row reference (“B$1” for example) because the placeholder text is a constant for all rows in the table.

* Argument three points to the detail in the table that the placeholder should be replaced with (e.g. “B2”).

Nest multiple SUBSTITUTE() formulae for as many placeholders as you have. If you had five unique details to place into your template for each row then you would need five nested SUBSTITUTE() formulae. E.g.
Where the absolute row references point to the headers of the table. Fill that formula down the length of the table.[1]

Step 5. Concatenate the html for all rows

In one cell, can be anywhere I put mine in the Templates & Output sheet, concatenate all the html that your spreadsheet has generated for the rows. You can manually write a CONCATENATE() formula, or use ampersands “&”, or my favourite is to use JOIN() with an OFFSET() formula. The beauty of JOIN() is twofold:
1. I can easily concatenate all the html with a line break as a delimiter which gives me a tidier html output. You can certainly add a line break with CONCATENATE() but it requires a lot more work. NB Add a line break in a formula by typing CRTL+Return.
2. I can pass in a dynamically resizing array of items with OFFSET(). In my spreadsheet the OFFSET() formula only picks up the number of html items that correspond to a table row that I have actually filled in. If I used CONCATENATE() I would have to go into and edit the formula everytime I wanted to add or subtract rows from my table. But with JOIN() I can add five new rows to my Row Detail table and the html creator will automatically accomodate those extra additions – it is beautiful!

I know I haven’t fully explained how to use JOIN() or OFFSET() here – I didn’t want to add a lot more information than necessary. If you check out my shared spreadsheet hopefully you will be able to work out how I did it. If not and you really want to know more then add a comment to this post and I will add an update with an explanation of my method.

Step 6. Compile the html for the table

In a cell in the “Templates and Output” sheet use SUBSTITUTE() again to replace the [rows] placeholder with the concatenated html for the rows.  That cell then provides the html for your table. Copy and paste it into your website / blog.

Setting everything up was a lengthy process but now your hard work will pay off.  Should you need to tweak the formatting of the html table it is now really, really easy and fast to do.  All you have to do is update the relevant code in your template. For example, if you wanted to make all of the columns a little wider you can simply change the width value in the row template and your html output will automatically update – no need to adjust a concatenate function and re-fill.  And when you come to design your next html table you will already have a spreadsheet ready, needing only a few minor tweaks before it can be used.

Below you can see the output for one of my tables[2]. The full table can be seen live on my website here. I hope that you found this method useful. If you need further clarification on setting this up let me know in the comments.

  1. With some logic formulae, such as IF(B2=“”,“”,SUBSTITUTE(…)), you can automatically hide irrelevant data from the concatenation stages. A formula like the one above checks to see if you entered anything in cell B2, if you didn’t it returns a blank cell, if you did it will return the output from the SUBSTITUTE() formula.  ↩
  2. HTML table ouput.
    Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 21.07.02.png