Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Google+ Killer Feature?

I thought I would share my initial thoughts on Google+ along with the rest of the web. If you don't know what it is, here's a introduction video created by Google:

I think the best way it's been described is this: "It's not Facebook, but shares many similar features to Facebook." This xkcd comic sums it up pretty nicely:

My first experience would agree with this. Google+ is like Facebook in that you can give an update, share photos, videos and chat with friends. Google+ does some of those things better too: video group chat looks awesome for example. It also has a couple features missing in Facebook: Sparks, which let you create your own stream of interesting content from the web (really nice right now since I don't have 100's of friends on Google+ yet). The UI also looks nice - a blend of Facebook and Friendfeed (which is now owned by Facebook).

So I've been using it for a day and like it, but that's probably because it's something new and shinny. Is it something that must be incorporated into my life? Not yet. I mean, the big thing missing is the critical mass of friends to make sharing worth while. Duh. If I have something I want to share, I'm going to go where my friends are at... and currently they're on Facebook. The only way most people are going to switch is if Google can offer them something better.

What is that something better? That killer feature?

One of the big features Google is touting is "Circles" - friends list with fancy animations. The idea is to make "creating friends lists" so easy that people will actually do it. I'm probably not a great person to talk about this because I actually maintain lists within Facebook and filter with them regularly. But, from what I hear, the "average" user doesn't do it. The benefit of having "Circles" is that you'll be able to selectively share with only people who you know will care (or on the flip side, NOT share with people who you don't want to know about your exploits).

So here's the rub for me: When I decide to publicly share something, I go everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, Buzz (yeah, I'm THAT guy), and LinkedIn. I will also email it to people I know are not on any of those services (like my dad). If I want to selectively share something with a small group, I email it. Did you catch the subtly of the situation? "Circles" is actually competing against email - not Facebook. Email: no character limits, multimedia, BCC, CC, notification systems, on every device, checked regularly.

In the end, I'm going to use "Circles", but that's because I'm THAT guy who organizes everything (even my Google Contacts are sorted into groups). I think the default for most people will be to share publicly only.

Another potentially cool feature is the Group Chat. You can start up your camera and be available to chat - then others can join you at will. This, in theory, means you don't need to schedule out every single chat. I'm interested to see how well it performs with multiple people because all other options I've tried have horrible lags.

That's a couple of the highlights.

Here's my biggest question: What is Google+'s killer feature? What would make me want to come back and use the service? What is Google+ offering that no other social network is offering? How can Google incorporate all their other services to create something truly sticky?

One example I saw is with Google's +1 button: you can now filter you Google Analytics by +1 visitors. This gives site owners more data to make better site decisions. Every site owner should be excited about this! I'm still not sure what the value is to the visitor clicking the +1 button, but I'm willing to bet there will be a lot more +1's now. Perhaps the +1 buttons will be more tightly integrated with Google+ stream: For example, I +1 a page and friends can comment & +1 the page.... of course, which "Circle" does this get shared with?... oh boy, this got complicated fast...

Is it good enough for Google to merely mirror Facebook's features while marginally improving each part? Probably not. Facebook already has all my friends, and so I'll put up with a lot of Facebook shenanigans before moving on. Perhaps, they can co-exist like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, though it's unclear which group this would be for. Selective sharing? Again, email works pretty well. Google needs to clearly identify who would benefits from using their service.

Google claims this is just the first step of Google+. That over time they will be incorporating more and more of their products. Perhaps they'll be able to weave in enough of their products that it won't necessarily be one killer feature (like... being able to share on behalf of others... Or the ability to easily search past updates), but it's a whole system that has at least a little bit of value for everyone. Not just additional traffic for site owners, but stats, SEO recommendations (G+O?),  social adwords (+1's = credits and/or discounts; display friends who've like it within Adwords). For users, not just sharing into a huge stream - smart filtering, smart discovery, smart ads.

Google also needs to find a feature (or two) that can only be done on Google+: share gDocs, gCals, search results? Something with Youtube and Picasa is a must. Incorporating Reader to make sharing easy: see +1's and comments right in Reader.

Google+ could also become available to Google Apps users to create a Yammer-like service for organizations.

Knowing Google, all of these, plus more, have been thought of. Now it's a matter of engineering resources and paying attention to customer's demands. Google+ isn't perfect, but it stands a chance of becoming a big part of the web.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Music Library Stats

For the fun of it, I tried copy & pasting my iTunes library into Excel. In wonderful delight, I found that it sort of worked. Well, I couldn't stop there. I created a pivot table and whipped up these views. First, here are some stats:

Timeframe: September 2010 - Yesterday (basically, since I switched to Mac)
Number of Songs in library: 829
Total number of songs played: 9,084
Total play time in library: 2.2 days
Total Computer Storage required: 4.25 GB
Average Times a song is played: 11

Cool. Let's check out a distribution:
(PS. This is my first time using Excel on my mac for something like this. It was a fun experience.)

First, every song has been played at least once, with most number of plays being 56. Second, there's a huge spike at 10. That isn't random - let me explain. iTunes has a feature called "iTunes DJ" where it loads in songs automatically, semi-randomly, playing "popular" songs more. Popularity is determined, as far as I can tell, by the rating you give it (stars) and by how many plays it has. What this means is that if you play a song a lot, it'll get played more and more and more. Furthermore, a rating of 1 star is more "popular" than not being rated at all (0 stars).

So here's what I do: First, I rank every song as 3 stars, and then change it over time. This way 1 star really is the worst.

Second, I created a smart playlist that only contains songs that have less than 10 plays. That means, when a song hits 10 plays, it leaves the playlist. I choose this playlist all the time when using iTunes DJ (which is a majority of the time). As a result, I have a huge spike at 10 because the song exits the playlist and doesn't get played again for a while. Once all my songs are at 10, I'll probably move up to 20 and capture a significant chunk of my songs again.

Next, lets look at genres:

The majority of my library is Christian and soundtrack (which if there were sub-categories, Disney would be the largest). Pop/Rock, Rock & Holiday also make a good showing. I also have one genre named "genre". Clearly a tagging mistake I should fix.

Finally, let's look at some specific artists. The first table is sorted by the number of songs in my library by that artist. The second table is sorted by the number of times I've played a song by that artist.

Well, my mom would be proud to see Kenny Loggins in the #1 slot. There also appears to be a pretty high correlation between the number of songs in my library and the number of times played - only 2 from each list (the *) are not in the other list. Also notable, Hillsong United is a recent addition to my library, so I'm not surprised to see the low play count.

That's it. There's your Monday morning stats. :)

By the way, my #1 played song is "I Will Follow" by Chris Tomlin at 56 times.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Secret To Reaching Zero Inbox Email

Email is the bane of many people's lives. Not because it's inherently bad, but because inboxes tend to get overwhelmingly filled in a never-ending battle of communication. I used to be in that camp - it seemed no matter how often I checked my email, I could never get ahead of the game.

Today is much different. My personal email inbox rarely gets above 10 and most days finishes at 0. My work email inbox isn't as clean, usually hovering around 10-15 emails, peaking around 25 and reaching 0 once a month. Often when I share this stat, most people ask how I do it, and I thought I'd share my response. It's a 3-prong approach that works well for me.

Less Frequently, For Longer Periods of Time
I stumbled across this trick when I did my media fast inspired by the 4-hour work week. I used to have my email open all the time. You'd think that would help, but it's actually counter productive. Here's what would happen: I would flip to my email, look for 2 seconds, and flip away. I'd flip back, look for 30 seconds to read something and then flip away. I was never actually focused on my email long enough to digest and respond properly. As a result, I really only gave myself time to quickly read the email and then "come back later" to respond. My work email uses Outlook and every time I got a pop-up notification I would click on it, read it, and decide and needed to do something about it later... or never in reality.

Here's what I do now: First, I turned off all email notifications (desktop, phone, etc). I even shut down my email programs/sites so there's a slight barrier to just quickly looking. When I first started, I would set a timer and dedicate 15-30 minutes, only twice a day to checking email. I had to do that for a whole week. First, knowing I had limited time encouraged me to focus on replying. Second, it confirmed that I really don't have to be up to the second on email. Now that my email is under control, I spend at most 5 minutes checking, which I do about every other hour. That's enough time to digest/reply to any new email.

OK. Stop for half a second and realize that what I just shared is HUGE. Turn off all email notifications so you're not distracted to quickly check. Then, when YOU decide to check, commit to spending more than 30 seconds. Then close it down and go on with your life.

Your Email Inbox is NOT Your Task List
Most people make this mistake. The don't archive/delete an email because there's something that needs to be done. OK. I get that, so put it where it belongs: on a task list. I use Remember The Milk (multiple lists, mobile access, notes), but there are lots of good options. Move your task over to the proper place. If you really must keep it in one place, create a new folder called ".Task" (or ".Todo") - notice the "."; that will push the folder to the top of your list. Now, actually completing tasks... that's a different problem, but the point is now that email is out of your inbox. Archive it and you can look it up later if needed to complete the task. For advice on completing your new burgeoning task list, recommend reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. I incorporate about 75% of his recommendations (BTW, one secret is to simplify your life and do less things, that'll also reduce stress too - a double bonus.).

Sweet. You're now being more efficient during your email checking time. You're also taking the appropriate action during that time: replying/archiving/deleting. Now it's time to lessen the inflow. There are, in general, 3 types of email: Personal email that you actually read/respond to, newsletters you signed up for, and spam.

  1. Personal email. There's not much you can do here other than becoming less involved (which isn't the worst choice, really). In fact, this is the point of email in my opinion. You want to reduce everything down to this so that you can communicate effectively with these people.
  2. Newsletters: We all have these. At one time we thought we'd want to read this, but we never seem to have time anymore. BUT WAIT! There might be something SUPER important in there. Here's my advice: unsubscribe. There's a link at the bottom of every email giving you the opportunity - do it. You can always re-subscribe later if it genuinely leaves a void in your life. That's what I did. It was magical. BUT WAIT! There is 1 or 2 that I'd actually like to keep. Fine, and I suggest instead that you follow them on Facebook/Twitter or subscribe to their blog's RSS feed. Trust me, if it's good content, they'll be sharing it as often as possible. That's what I do - all product/news items are in my RSS Reader. If they don't have this, try turning the email into an RSS feed with a tool like Emails to RSS Forwarding. Set up a rule to automatically forward and archive the email.
  3. Spam: I hate these emails because if you "unsubscribe" they just capture your email and sell it to hundreds of others. Instead, flag as spam and let it die there. I actually check/purge my spam folder once a day, but you don't have to. Sometimes I find a newsletter hidden in there that I can unsubscribe from.
This last one is more critical to personal email than work, but I still have a couple rules set up in my work inbox to delete auto-generated emails. Most of the time I just delete them without reading (I really don't need a top HP news digest each week. The HP twitter feed gives me that and more).


So that's it. My 3 step process to reducing email overload: check less frequently for longer periods of time (take it out of your multi-tasking circuit), create a separate task list (and manage that properly), and reduce the overall inflow. As one more proof point: I helped Jessi apply these steps and she too has regained control of her personal inbox. Shed used to have hundreds of emails and now at most has 50, and often less than 20.

None of these steps are hard, it just takes discipline. Decide that you're in control of your email and only check when you have time. If it time sensitive, they'll call/IM you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Duplex Mini-Remodel Finished

Jessi and I have been working hard the last few weeks (OK, the last month) fixing up the other side of our duplex. Our previous tenants decided to move on, so we took the opportunity to make some needed improvements. The original plan was to take a bunch of pictures and create a video tour which we would link to in our craigslist advertisement. That way prospective tenants could get a really good feel of what the place looks like beyond the 4 pictures that craigslist allows.

As it turned out, our new tenants sought us out before we even finished the improvements. So, we no longer had a need to create the virtual tour. We did, however, still need to document what everything looked like for when they eventually move out. From the 200 or so pictures I took, I put together a quick slideshow showing off some of the many improvements we made. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New URL:

I started this blog in October of 2006 with 9 whole posts.
6 in November
0 in December (yikes!) and
2 in January

Since then I became slightly more regular - posting a couple times a month, but nothing super high in volume.

I had a resurgence at the beginning of 2009, but then fell off during the summer.

Then in 2010 I made a commitment to have at least as many posts as weeks in the year, and squeaked out 54.

This year I'm hoping to keep that trend going: post at least once a week, and twice if I have time - one which is longer, one which can be much shorter. I don't think I'll ever break 100 in a single year, but I'm definitely on track to hit at least 52 and might even push out 70 this year.

Given that I've proven to myself I'm willing to make the commitment, I decided it was time to spend a small amount of money on it. So, if you haven't noticed yet, the url is now officially without the tacked onto the end. Why? No particular reason. I happened to be dong url research for a friend and just for kicks looked this one up and was shocked to find it still available. What's cool about this, is that everything should continue to work without you having to update anything. It'll also make my life slightly easier if I decide to shun Google some day in favor of another host. Plus, there's some SEO advantages which I only passingly care about - it'll really just make it easier to share the url with friends.

Finally, three questions you probably didn't ask, but I'd like to give an answer to anyways:

Why have a blog?
Honestly, it's just as much about documenting my life as it is about sharing it with others. I can imagine a day when my future kids will want to read about some of the things their parents did. For example, they'll be able to see Vinnie when he was just a little trouble making puppy. It's also a space to share events/thoughts with my family and have control over pretty much everything.

What's with the focus on the number of posts?
I completely agree that it's not about numbers, but about quality. However, you gain quality by posting frequently, like practice on a sports team. By setting post goals, it encourages me to be creative and pay attention to events/thoughts going on during the week. Also, I read a report once (of which I don't remember where) that stated that all the "top" blogs posted at least 3 times a day, any many of the top 10 at least once an hour. Given that frequency, visitors will come back often because they can trust there will be new content. Even though I'll never be that frequent, I'd at least like to be dependable for a weekly visit.

I'm going to defer to my "About This Blog" section on the side to answer this question:

The Rat Race is a term used for an endless, self-defeating or pointless pursuit. Think of the futile efforts of a lab rat trying to escape while running around a maze or in a wheel - it expends a lot of effort, but ultimately achieves nothing meaningful.

We attempt to live our lives outside this rat race, by being purposeful and meaningful, and celebrate those successes on this blog. There are many aspects to living life outside the rat race: Spiritually, socially, and financially. Also with our family, work, play and health. You'll find all of that here.

So yes, this is a personal blog and is full of random ideas and thoughts. But, hopefully it's also great entertainment and inspirational on occasion. We're glad you decided to share in a piece of our success and story.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Vinnie The Escape Artist

One of the joys of having a smart dog is that he's able to figure out how to do things pretty fast. Of course, it's also a bad thing when he's trying to figure out how to do something you don't want him to do. We were so amazed by his latest stunt we had to capture it on video. Not just to share, but to figure out how he was getting over our gate.

So, enjoy this video of our crafty little puppy: Vinnie The Escape Artist

Monday, June 06, 2011

How To Pick A Computer

Since I work for a technology company (read computers & printers), I get asked 2 questions all the time.

1) "My printer is broken, how do I fix it?" OK. Yes, I do happen to work in the printer division, but I'm in the laserjet toner group. Furthermore, I'm an analyst which means I never actually work with any physical printers. So my typical advice is to suggest a couple search terms like "[printer model #] is't working" or "[printer model #] is broken". Those always seem to point me in the right direction to searching for the correct type of "broken-ness". This must be how Apple Store employees feel all them time: yes, they work for Apple, but no they don't have any insider secrets.

So, I have little advice on fixing printers. Next.

2) "I'm thinking about getting a new computer, do you have any suggestions?" OK. This question I actually have an opinion on. Furthermore, I actually think they're asking me because I seem to understand, and like technology, not just because I work for a tech company. Usually I give a flippant answer like "Get an HP computer." Laugh, and then actually answer their question with a few questions.
  1. What kinds of things do you currently do, or want to do, on your computer?
    1. Surf the web? Check email? Check Facebook?
    2. What about games?
    3. Will you be writing a lot? Using spreadsheets? What type of spreadsheet work?
    4. Will you be watching movies (DVDs, streaming, etc)? What about Music?
    5. As a general rule, if someone is asking me, they're a casual computer user, but it's good to get them thinking about activities instead of features.
  2. Do you think you'll be taking it with you places, or keeping it at home on a desk?
    1. No need to spend extra money on a laptop if it's stationary. Most people think they want the flexibility to take it places.
  3. Have you considered getting a Mac?
    1. This is a fun question because people tend to be Windows users and tend to have strong feelings about Apple (ie. too confusing and/or too expensive).
It's at this point in time I share the decisions Jessi and I made:
We both got macs. I got an iMac because I wanted the extra memory, speed and larger screen. My last laptop sat on my desk 99% of the time (and was hooked up to an external screen, keyboard, mouse & hard drive). Plus, I have my work laptop just in case I need to be mobile.

Jessi got a MacBook, and almost went for an iPad, because she wanted to be mobile, and does mostly casual things (email, facebook, movies, music). Of course, we don't have a TV, so being able to play DVDs was necessary. She also has to take online classes and write documents every once in a while.

Now, given their answers, I usually reassure them that any computer they choose will generally work for their purposes (remember, most of the time these are people who are not power users). I tell them to look at 4 things first:
  1. You want as much RAM as possible. At least 2 gigs, probably 4 if you can afford it.
  2. You want at least 300 gigs of hard drive space. That's enough where you'll never have to worry about storage.
  3. Look for something cool, which you'll be proud to have around. This might sound crazy, but if you like the way it looks, you'll enjoy using it more.
  4. If it's a laptop, it must have a camera. Given today's communication trends this is essential. Almost all laptop have cameras, so this isn't that big of a deal.
I do often suggest checking out HP. Well, Compaq actually. The internal guts tend to be the same, but "Compaqs" are always a little cheaper than "HP".

I also set their price expectations: You can find computers under $500; however, you'll thank yourself in the long-run for not being completely cheap. Think about how much time you're going to spend on the machine and invest accordingly. For $1,000 you can get a good computer that will run great for 5-7 years. If you only spend $500, it'll probably conk out after 3 years, and the last 6 months won't be any fun.

Finally, I suggest they go visit a couple stores and play with some laptops. Once they narrow it down to a few models, I offer to look more in-depth and make a more concrete suggestion.