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Getting confused by email notifications

Topics/tags: Email, absentminded professors

Recently, I was having trouble with my new laptop [1] and needed to switch back to my old laptop. Switching to my old laptop means running on the old laptop for the first time in a few months, which means waiting a bit for the mail to update [2]. I never quite understand the order in which it loads the new email. It’s not newest-to-oldest; it’s not oldest-to-newest.

I don’t know your experience with on a Mac, but when I use it, I get notifications of some new messages when they arrive. When I’m using actively, that can be helpful. Often, I can answer new messages quickly, or at least decide at a glance whether they are something that I need to address immediately [3].

While I was working during the update, a message from my chair popped up. As is the norm for messages from the chair, I read it and responded. But I wasn’t thinking about the fact that my email was updating and therefore didn’t check the date on the message. I assumed it had just arrived.

The message was about the predicted enrollments in spring. We had asked every CS student to enter their expected spring courses in WebAdvisor/SelfService [4]. The Registrar’s office can run scripts to gather the data and tell us about potential issues, such as 48 students planning to enroll in a 24-person class in the spring [5].

If I recall correctly, the message indicated that not every major had entered their information and it encouraged us to chat with our advisees about some of the pressure points for spring.

As you might expect, I dutifully went through the schedules of the 39 CS advisees I currently have [6]. Only two had not entered their spring 2019 courses and I could figure out what those were. I also noted some other things that might be of interest. And I recorded the info on all of the students in a text file so that I could find it more easily next time [7].

Then I started to reply to the message. But I couldn’t find it in my recent messages. So I searched. Then I realized that had misled me. It wasn’t a new message from my chair. It was an old message from my chair, from a little more than a month ago. I’m not sure why it appeared on my screen. I think it’s that noted that the message was new to that computer, it probably has a log that says That Rebelsky fellow always reads messages from his chair immediately, and, putting the two together, it decided, Let’s tell him about this important message. Since only posts messages for new mail in the inbox, I’m reminded once again of why I should strive to achieve and maintain inbox zero.

Let’s see … 39 advisees; between two and five minutes per advisee, depending on how much work I needed to do. I spent around two hours on what is essentially a meaningless task. I should pay better attention to the dates on messages. Or maybe I shouldn’t be on my computer when I’m tired and not thinking clearly enough. Oh well, at least I have notes on what CS courses my advisees plan to take in the spring.

[1] In this case, new means that I bought it used about a year and a half ago. I think it’s about five years old now. My old laptop I bought new about five years ago. So they are of similar vintage. The old laptop has less memory (8 gb vs 16 gb) and a slightly slower processor. I notice the former more than the latter.

[2] For some reason, seems to get very upset if I have two copies running simultaneously on two different computers.

[3] Yes, there are the occasional messages that I should address immediately.

[4] Most of us refer to it as WebAdvisor. It’s used for planning. But when I talk to the folks in ITS who maintain the software, they call it SelfService. And the URLs are all of the form

[5] In an ideal world, we would find an appropriate way to shift classes around. In a less ideal world, we suggest that some students switch to open slots in the fall and warn others that they may have to wait until the following year to take the course.

[6] 34 in the class of 2019; 5 in the class of 2020.

[7] For those who have not used SelfService, it takes about thirty seconds to load a student record. It also takes a long time to load the list of advisees; I’m not sure how long because I got so fed up at waiting that I found a way to bypass the list of advisees [8].

[8] Amazingly enough, SelfService URLs are well-formed and consistent. That makes it easy to create bookmarks or links. I have a Web page on my laptop that has a link to each advisee. And now it also has a note about what they are doing in the spring.

Version 1.0 of 2018-07-11.