Math as Your Wingman: Mail Goggles

As many of you with Gmail accounts may already know, Google launched a feature last week that aims to put arithmetic squarely in the shoes of your most trusted wingman. The feature, dubbed Mail Goggles, is explained in the Official Gmail Blog.

In summary, the Mail Goggles feature allows you to make Gmail aware of certain hours during the week when you should not be sending e-mail (due to exhaustion, inebriation, or the side effects of whatever other illicit things you do in your personal life). Once these hours are set, should you decide to send an e-mail during one of these highlighted times, you will first be prompted to answer a series of math questions, in an attempt to prove to Gmail that you have sufficient mental faculties to be sending e-mail.

A noble pursuit, to be sure. A trustworthy internet wingman may be just the thing for those among us who may enjoy their night life a bit too much, only to make decisions they regret in the morning. And while a wingman tied to your e-mail can't help talk you down from every form of debauchery, there are certainly situations in which such a feature could be useful.

Unfortunately, Mail Goggles is kind of a fair weather wingman. He'll check in on you every once in a while, but if you tell him you're fine, he'll leave you alone. He might tiptoe around the issue of whether or not you've had enough to drink, but talk forcefully enough and he'll back down. That may sound ok, but sometimes you need a wingman who has the resolve to set boundaries for you when you're not in a condition to set them yourself. Sadly, Mail Goggles is a bit too much of a pushover.

Maybe Mail Goggles could learn the laws of Wingmandom if it
watched more VH1. Or if it bought a big poofy hat.

I have reached this conclusion after experiencing firsthand what the Mail Goggles system has to offer. Today I went in and warned my e-mail that between the hours of 3 and 4 pm on Wednesdays, I was not to be trusted with the "Send" button. I then attempted to send an e-mail to myself, and sure enough was prompted with a list of math questions.

Now, you can tell Mail Goggles how difficult to make the questions, by setting the difficulty to be a number between 1 and 5, 1 being the easiest, and 5 being, well, the less easiest. Not wanting to peak too soon, I asked for the easiest questions, and so was not surprised when the following problems greeted me:

10 x 6 =
32 + 18 =
85 - 10 =
10 + 10 =
95 - 85 =

I was slightly more surprised by the amount of time I had to solve these questions: 60 seconds. With a whopping 12 seconds allotted per question, even someone with minimal computational ability could easily plug and chug these answers through a calculator within the allotted time - and when you're already at the computer, the thought certainly must be tempting.

And let's be honest - you'd have to be pretty far gone not to know what 10 + 10 is.

Itching for more of a challenge, I went back into the settings and ratcheted up the difficult to level 5. Ready to get those synapses firing, I tried another test e-mail, and was given the following questions:

477 - 138 =
72 / 9 =
8 x 8 =
242 - 98 =
30 / 10 =

Again, Mail Goggles saw fit to give me 60 seconds to answer these questions.

Seriously? This is the difference between level 1 and level 5? You give me a couple of three digit numbers, and introduce the concept of division? Is this really the best we can do? Not to mention the fact that the calculator would still function as a perfectly good cheat sheet.

With a desire to test my limits, I answered one of the above questions in error, and stuck my hand out, waiting for retribution. But did any come? Sadly, no. Instead I was just given another 5 problems, and a full 60 seconds on the clock! Come on, Mail Goggles, where's the accountability? If you can't divide 30 by 10, maybe you should sleep on that email to your boss telling him how attractive you find his wife. But instead, Mail Goggles says to you, "Hey buddy, it's ok. Just try again! You'll get to that e-mail eventually, I know it!"

There are other issues I have with this innovation from Google Labs as well, but I don't want this to turn into a negative tirade. The idea is quite inspired, but it leaves much to be desired, especially if you really want some checks in place before you do something you may not really want to do.

In the spirit of keeping things positive, to the designer of this feature, Jon Perlow, I humbly submit some suggestions for future improvements to Mail Goggles:

  1. Make questions that aren't so easy to answer with a calculator. How about more critical thinking questions? You can use calculators on the SAT, and because of that the questions are specifically designed so that the calculator may or may not be an asset.
  2. How about some significant gradation between difficulties? If you're going to differentiate between levels of mathematics, you might as well make the problems worthwhile to people with all kinds of backgrounds. I don't think some calculus would be too much to ask in the higher levels, even dare I say it some linear algebra. At the very least, can we get a smidgen of long division?
  3. How about instead of 5 really easy problems, you just give one or two problems that require more critical thinking? This will better test mental faculties - you can test me once with a hard problem, rather than testing the same thing 5 times with simple questions.

I know you mean well, Mail Goggles, but you're really not looking out for people when they need you. For now, ladies and gentlemen, I suggest that you stay with your flesh and blood wingmen. They will make sure to keep you away from the computer as long as you are in their sight. They will protect you, watch over you, and make sure you do nothing unsightly.

Unless they secretly hate you, in which case they will probably take incriminating photos of you and post them on the internet. In this respect, Mail Goggles offers much more protection. For now.

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