Results tagged “web” from kwc blog

Google App Engine: Some early tips

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appengine_lowres.jpgI'm not an advanced user of Google App Engine, but I did make some mistakes at the start that I had to pay for later on. All of these mistakes are simple and easy to avoid, so I thought I'd share some tips for others looking to wade into App Engine waters (thanks to bp for rescuing me from early mistakes).

Use memcache from day 1

With most apps you can write first, optimize later. Google App Engine's quotas including quotas for high CPU usage, which you can go over very quickly. Right after my site deployed I started getting some hits from StumbleUpon -- it was sad seeing my site disabled so soon after its birth.

The Memcache API is ridiculously easy to use, so thankfully optimizing is not difficult. It's basically just a string dictionary. Build your code to make as much use of this API as possible.

Limit your query result sizes

Big query results will hammer your quotas, so do whatever you can to make sure you work on small result sizes.

Take the time to watch the tutorials

You'll be productive quickly enough, so take some time to watch the tutorial videos to get a better understanding of how App Engine and Big Table work. It can help you figure out how to design your model better. For example, learn what entity groups are early on so you can decide whether or not you should use them.

Use source code management

You'll be up and running in no time with App Engine, so you have to be even more careful with your source code. Early on I found it far too easy to start hacking in a new feature into my code and breaking it -- which meant that I couldn't make any other updates to my site until I got it working again.

Keep your queries in a few places

App Engine's APIs make it really easy to do queries, in fact, too easy. It also automatically creates indexes for you based on your queries. You'll soon find queries scattered in every bit of your code and you'll be wondering why you suddenly have so many indexes.

Your better off consolidating your queries in a few places so you can keep track of what sort of queries you're doing and possibly eliminating some in order to reduce your indexes. This will also make it easier to invisibly throw memcache on top so that your higher-level code doesn't have to know if its dealing with the datastore or the cache.

Movabletype 4.2 upgrade soon

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movabletypeSixapart has released MovableType 4.2 with its promised performance improvements (100x faster search, 33-45% faster publishing). I'll probably be upgrading kwc.org tonight, so if you see any outages, you'll know why. I should be re-enabling search/tags now that this update is available.

MovableTypo users: this may be the release that I finally do an upgrade with. Certain things got a bit more complicated (e.g. templates) with MT 4.x, but they claim to have improved those as well.

Also as promised, the reasons for the delayed release have become clear: Typepad Antispam was also announced and is included in the new release. Antispam is Sixapart's dropin replacement for the popular Akismet service. Both a centralized services that snarf in comments and can the spam.

Cordurl

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Cordurl mapPaul launched with a new toy I like: Cordurl. It's like tinyurl for geographical locations. For example, http://cordurl.com/M9G-6E 'links' to a NASA Shuttle Landing Facility. Paul even integrated it with geonames so that links to related Wikipedia articles show up.

Woah Flickr, Thanks

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flickr.gift.gif

Flickr just handed out an awesome gift to its pro users: unlimited uploads and increasing the limit for free accounts from 20MB to 100MB per month. I never ran into the 2GB limit myself, but it was always part of my internal metering. Now when I go on a 2-week vacation, I really can post all my photos instead of in bunches.

And just think: now you can store all your photos on Flickr. Every. Single. One. No more worrying about losing your photos when your hard drive crashes. This is the type of thing that changes workflows -- you can upload your photos from your camera directly to Flickr and then download them onto whatever computer you want to work on them. This really is incredible.

Thanks Flickr! (For $25/year, you can get yourself or someone else the gift of Flickr)

Testing out blip.tv

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blip.tv has a faster uploads, less limits, cleaner UI, and more geeky bells and whistles than YouTube or Google Video, but it seems to be heavily Microsoftian in video format -- that may just cancel the rest out. I'm giving it a test above to see how it works out.

A9 drops a bunch of stuff

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A9 has launched a redesign which features a nice continuous scrolling feature, but their redesign always comes with heavy cutting: bye-bye A9 Maps with street photos, Amazon discount, yellow pages, history, bookmarks, diary, and toolbar. Where other services like Google and Yahoo are racing to add more, A9 has opted for less, which would be admirable if I didn't happen to like what they dropped. The A9 maps and Amazon discount were the only two reasons I ever went to a9.com. The A9 maps were a bit under featured to be killer -- they could never tell me what I was looking at -- but it did make it a useful service distinct from other mapping sites. It's difficult now to look at a9.com and see what they offer that's unique other than their own fancy UI widgets.

A9: What's New

Firefox 2 Beta 2

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I'm testing out the new Firefox 2 Beta 2. Back in the Phoenix/Firebird days, I used to download nearly every update to test out, but I've been so darn happy with the 1.x series of Firefox builds that I haven't had much reason to (except for a crashy Firefox 1.5.0 release). I find the updated look a little cramped looking, even though everything is about the same size as before, but otherwise I'm very happy with the release. I wrote the most of this review a week and a half ago, but I wanted to sit on it until I had some time to judge the stability of the release: I'm used their their betas crashing daily, but I've only had a crash or two out of this one.

There's nothing in Firefox 2 that's really ground breaking, but it does bring the best of the plugins out there and makes them part of the default browser. Although I think this may anger a plugin developer or two, overall I think it's a great model for a software application: don't bloat your releases with new features; instead, have a good plugin model that makes it possible to test new features out in the wild and select the best to become part of your next major release. Firefox 2 represents the best of Firefox 1.x plus the best Firefox 1.x plugin features, which makes for a great browser.

  • Phishing detection: I love the fact that they are making this built in. I haven't had any trouble with phishing, but I know other members of my family do, and I'm always excited to be able to give them software that eliminates a hassle. The phishing detection puts a big 'ole warning sign on top of the page and should save many people from having to cancel their credit cards.

  • Built in session saver: My browsing habits changed the day I got the first SessionSaver plugin. I could keep a lot more tabs open without having to spend part of everyday bookmarking or clearing them off because I was worried that my browser was going to crash. Or I would have to do the same because some stupid Windows Update was requiring that I reboot my computer, so I would have to close Firefox. Firefox recognized that session saving was just too darn good to not be part of the standard browser.

  • RSS/Atom feed enhancements: Firefox 2 has a new built in viewer for RSS and atom feeds that makes the feed more human-readable and also makes it very easy to subscribe using Firefox's Live Bookmarks, Bloglines, My Yahoo, or Google Reader. One possible complaint is that it overrides Feedburner's fancy feed display which does effectively the same thing. There is a case to be made for uniformity, but with this version of the Firefox implementation I think that Feedburner's still looks nicer -- Firefox's is better for actually subscribing, as it can remember which feed reader you prefer.

  • Spell checking as you type: I've always found the Firefox SpellChecker plugin a bit annoying to use. It was always a more difficult plugin to install and it didn't survive Firefox upgrades very well. It also didn't do spell checking as you typed; you had to select it from a right-click menu. I hope to have many less spelling errors in my blog entries now that Firefox 2 adds the familiar squiggly red underlines to its text fields.

  • Autocomplete from the search box: Firefox will pop down some suggested search queries as you type into the upper-right search box. This only works when you have the answers.com, Yahoo, or Google search engines selected; there are no suggestions for Amazon, eBay, or Creative Commons. Previously I had only seen this as a plugin from Google for Google searches.

  • Opens new windows in tabs by default: I hate it when a link pops open a new window on my screen and disrupts my carefully organized tabs and now Firefox embraces tabs fully with this new default functionality.

With the exception of the fact that most of your plugins won't work with the release -- though you won't need many of them with the new builtin features -- I give the 2.0 beta a thumbs up. It doesn't seem the future of Web browsing -- Flock is much more of a preview in that area -- but it does represent a selection of the best current Web browsing trends.

Google Pages on my domain

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At the very sparse pages.kwc.org you can see the start of a my new Google-hosted Pages site. It's much like their GMail for your domain product -- they share the same administration controls -- but with this particular port of their product, you get 100MB for your entire domain and only domain adminstrators are allowed to make edits. I hope that they open this up more in the future -- it would be nice if you could hand out individual Pages accounts to your users as well as setup collaborative Web spaces on your domain, although I personally don't have a need for that right now.

Those of us who already had hosted GMail got the upgrade to the "Google Apps" suite automatically. In addition to Pages I can now hand out kwc.org accounts for Google Talk and Google Calendar. I'm not a big fan of either of those products, so not a big deal right now. I'm wondering how long it will be until Writely and Spreadsheets join the suite.

Sharpcast Beta review

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sharpcast.gifI've spent several hours checking out Sharpcast Photos and thought I'd post my initial thoughts. Sharpcast has a great syncing technology, which they've chosen to showcase by deploying a photo-sharing solution with both Web and Windows clients. You can install Sharpcast on multiple machines in order to easily share your photos between them, and you can also share albums with specific people.

This isn't quite a review because I believe that utility of Sharpcast will largely depend on business model decisions that haven't been made yet: Sharpcast is more alpha than beta, as you are limited to 2GB of storage and the future pricing and limits are unclear. Case in point, Flickr offers me 2GB/month of photo upload (at a price), which guarantees its long-term usefulness for me; Sharpcast's 2GB total is nothing more than a toy to play with for a couple of months. I understand the need to not have to build up a massive storage farm just yet, but I take over 2GB of photos at a single wedding.

"Sharpcast Photos is optimized for accessing, sharing, and backing up photos." I kept this in mind when checking it out so that my comments would be contexted to the intended product. I also kept in mind my dad and my sister, because if I'm going to share, I should be able to share with my family (Flickr is not so strong in this regard).

So, going on the three activities that Sharpcast does list -- accessing, sharing, and backing up -- I've recorded my thoughts, followed up with a list of some peeves I had with the UI along the way.

Google Sitemap upgraded

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I'm not sure when Google did this, but the Google Sitemap pages offer far more specific stats than they used to. You can now filter what search terms are popular for your site by type of search (Web/Images/Mobile) and you can also view stats for each sitemap on your site, instead of just the whole site in aggregate. You can now also rate each tool to give Google feedback on what you like.

I found out some surprising things, like the fact that spare cycles was the #2 search result for 'phonak landis' and the 14th most popular click for this site is an image search for 'ugly.'

Vox is great, no more crap

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My first 'review' of Vox was titled, "Vox: It's great! It's crap!", which wasn't really a review of Vox as much as an meta review of the Vox beta program, which had these odd Starter-level stalker accounts that you had to wait through. Well, SixApart started pumping out the full-level invites soon thereafter and now my Vox neighborhood is looking a lot more like my LiveJournal neighborhood; this has given much more opportunity to truly sample Vox.

I like it a lot. The Flickr, YouTube, and Amazon integration surpass what I have tried to achieve with a various MovableType plugins over time, and, as this integration is builtin, no troubles about thirdparty developer abandonment of plugins. The Vox-style gives photos, video, and products equal footing with your blog entries, which elevates it to the level of a media-management system, rather than just the blog-management system that MovableType and LiveJournal are -- I don't have a TypePad account to compare. I see it as a more multimedia-aware LiveJournal, and it also should inherit another useful trait of LiveJournal: no spam. Spam continues to be the bane of the MovableType platform, though hopefully MT 3.3 will offer more protection on this front.

MovableType remains the platform of choice if you need a customizable publishing platform. I have a great deal of control over page layout, site layout, and content that isn't possible with Vox or LJ, but neither of those latter sites is supposed to compete: they are meant to be effective through simplicity, and that they are.

I have three Vox full invites for anyone that wishes to try.

co.mments.com: lots of love for SixApart

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Assaf of co.mments.com has to be the most responsive developer I've ever dealt with. Awhile back I posted about liking co.mments.com, but wishing it supported MovableType 2.x blogs. Assaf stopped by saying he would have MT 2.x covered shortly, and did. This made co.mments.com useful for 99% of the blogs I visited, until SixApart launched Vox. Unsurprisingly, co.mments.com didn't work with the brand new service, but I e-mailed Assaf, and now he's implemented support for both Vox and LiveJournal. So whether I'm commenting on MovableType, Vox, LiveJournal, or Blogger, co.mments.com is letting me follow the conversation. That's great for me -- maybe not great for you ;).

Vox: It's great! It's crap!

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davextreme has posted his early review of the Vox service, and seeing as I got my invite from him I thought I should follow with a review of my own. I agree with what davextreme says -- Vox looks great, has great features, but I won't say more because I can't actually use them yet as I'm still stuck in a "Starter level" account. So, instead I'll talk about how "starter level" accounts + a brand new service is a crack-smoking way to run a beta.

A "Starter level" account only lets you leave comments and add friends. Vox doesn't have many users with full accounts and most of them are prominent bloggers and SixApart employees. Put the two together and you get a beta experience that consists of adding a bunch of SixApart employees to your neighborhood and watching them have a conversation about their family tree -- you can comment if you like. As a beta user, it just feels creepy.

If Vox wanted to impress me, it would have to demonstrate that it is as capable as LiveJournal in building and supporting communities. The only impression right now is that it's a great tool for being a wallflower in the SixApart corporate community. Wait to give out "starter level" accounts when people can at least lurk in their own communities.

Vox (thanks davextreme)

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davextreme passed along one of his invites to Vox for me to try out. I've been curious to try out Vox, which would appear to be SixApart's mind-meld of LiveJournal's community features with TypePad aesthetics. I was a bit confused when I first logged in as apparently I'm only "starter level" right now, which means that I can't actually blog. I searched page after page fruitlessly for a link to post a new blog entry until I figured this little tidbit out, but now that I get it I guess I'll let the account gather some Vox-karma so that I can really test it out.

Note to Vox team: the notion that www.vox.com/home is my 'home' and not kwc.vox.com seems counter-intuitive, especially when your "Hi kwc" link takes me to http://kwc.vox.com/profile/

30boxes: it's all coming together

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30boxes.gifLast month, 30boxes added e-mail integration to their online calendar tool. You forward the e-mail to their add [at] 30boxes.com address and whatever is in the subject line is used as the "one box" event information (e.g. "Birthday Party May31 5:30pm tag birthday"). Handy and essential, but not much of a "Wow!" factor for me.

More recently, 30boxes added event mapping support. If you add a location to an event, which they make pretty easy, it will mark it on a Google Map and display the weather forecast. The map nerd in my scores this with a wow factor, even if it isn't as useful as e-mail integration. Between the two it means that you can pull up a calendar event, check the e-mail that started it, look at where the event is, and even find out what the weather will be like when you get there -- pretty much everything that I might want to check prior to an event. You can even get the same mapping support with events from your upcoming.org calendar that have location data.

30boxes has worked with upcoming.org from the start and they keep coming up with more and more features between the two that increase my usage of both. I've signed up for a Google Calendar but 30boxes has held my attention. Google Calendar is a good Google product, but it does things the Google way. In order to support public calendars, Google crawls the entire Web and gathers every calendar it can find. That's great if I quickly want to find the Redskins' football schedule, but the Google way precludes great synergistic integrations like 30boxes and upcoming.org. I'm sure the GCal + GMail integration will be fantastic, but with 30boxes is better targeted at a Web-savvy audience.

Why relate?

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Google recently launched Google related links to compete with Yahoo's Y!Q for publishers. Both provide you an automated mechanism for inserting "related" links into your own Web site. I don't get it. Let me start off with an example of a human-authored attempt to incorporate related links (from Wikipedia's April 1, 2006 article, but just about any Wikipedia article will do):

Slashdot incorporated a pink "OMG!!! Ponies!!!" theme [1] at 00:00 UTC. This girlish theme is in stark contrast for a techie website believed to be mostly frequented by male nerds.

The only related links in that sentence important to understanding the subject (link "[1]") were Slashdot and OMG, but there are plenty of other 'related' links to Wikipedia entries about pink, girlish, male, nerds, contrast and Web sites -- great if your goal is to spend three hours on Wikipedia exploring the interconnectedness of entries, but not much more.

A link is a way for someone to leave your page. With either Google Related or Y!Q, you, as a publisher, are saying that you want to insert more ways for a visitor to get the heck out, that the fire marshal has directed visitors to proceed to the nearest related link safety exit in a calm and collected manner.

I use a more profitable system for saying, "Get the heck out": ads. A large percentage of the entries on this site are crap or have only short-term relevance. My entry about Bootcamp won't matter for long, but many more people will read it a year from now because of search engines. I'm too lazy to keep older blog entries relevant and I don't want to delete part of my historical record, so I review older entries from time to time and place my ad exit signs if I think that the entry won't age well... or if I think I can make a buck :).

Ads are just as crappy as related links, but older entries are mostly compost and you can't really crap on crap. At least Google is better incentivized to make ads more relevant. As a publisher, masking the smell with a Google Adsense check helps and there is one good that comes of it all: you can buy fancy new toys to blog about ;).

More on hosted GMail

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Update: more screenshots

Here's a screenshot of my customized kwc.org gmail, slightly altered to block out some visible names (yes, that is my e-mail address if you wish to contact me). There's not much to review here that hasn't been said before: it's GMail. It feels a little cooler because it's my GMail (notice my little custom graphic at the top), but otherwise it's plain-old GMail: 2GB, chat, etc... My account has been 'verified' so I'm now sending and receiving e-mail with no problems other than the slight GMail slowdowns that I've noticed on both of my accounts today (@kwc.org and @gmail.com).

I'm still waiting for the day when we can get rid of our corporate IMAP mail servers and replace them with GMail boxes or something similar. I'm tired of slow search and trying to keep things filed in folders.

kwc.gm.screenshot.jpg

At last, @kwc.org e-mail (Gmail hosted)

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Update: screenshots and more screenshots

I've never had @kwc.org e-mail addresses before. I'm just too lazy. I also prefer Web e-mail and very few options exist that would be superior to my regular GMail account. Now, in a couple short minutes -- short enough to do lazily -- I have a GMail-hosted @kwc.org account. I'm still in the setup process. I can receive, but not send e-mail (they are verifying my account or something).

The details I've gleaned so far: * you can login to both your @gmail and your own hosted account simultaneously * you get up to 10 e-mail accounts free * 2GB (I don't know if this is per address or total yet) * you can set your own logo to replace the GMail logo * you can enable/disable chat across accounts * you can customize the sign-in box color

I've always wondered why other free-mail services (hotmail, yahoo) haven't made similar moves. There is a wretched land grab that occurs with any of these services where everyone scrambles to get their screenname of choice; the late-comers are left with bob1230923x@atleastitwasfree.com . About once a month I get mis-sent e-mail for a Kimberly or a Kevin or some other poor soul would probably has some meaningless digit appended to their account name.

With domain-hosted e-mail, GMail now has effectively infinite screennames for its users. I get to have a screenname that makes sense (guess my e-mail, it's really, really easy), no one else accidentally gets my e-mail, and other people should hopefully be able to easily remember the address.

I scored a 33

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Web 2.0 or Star Wars is almost as hard as Serial Killer or Programming Language Inventor. I forget what my serial killer quiz score was, but I got 33/43 on the Web 2.0 quiz -- most of the ones I missed were because I thought they names were so dumb that they had to have been invented by George Lucas. I guess I should have visited the Museum of Modern Betas to study beforehand.

Google Drive?

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If GDrive (Google's online storage technology) launches, we'll be one step closer to addressing two of my biggest pet peeves about computer technology: data synchronization and data loss. I find it archaic that we still think of data living on a physical computer. Why should I have to take an extra step to make sure that a CD I ripped is on all three of my computers? Why should I risk losing all of the data on a computer when the hard drive fails? Why do I have to make backups of my computer? My ideal solution would be that all my computers talk to each other and provide one unified storage area -- I retain control over my data. Another solution that has it's own benefits is for a company like Google to provide free online storage.

I imagine that personal data storage is a bit of a holy grail for an information company like Google. One of the main criteria I use when evaluating a new startup is whether or not it makes more information accessible as well as the value of the information being provided. FlySpy and Zillow evaluate well by this criteria because both enable users to access valuable information that was previously thought inaccessible. Now imagine if your company could store all of your personal data. Your personal data is the most valuable data a company could present to you. Making your personal data available to me anywhere would also solve data synchronization and backup headaches while also enabling an entire new breed of Web applications that directly interface to your online storage.

The main impediment to controlling this data is the obvious costs associated with storing hundreds of gigabytes of data per user. Google has to index billions of Web pages, but it can share the cost of that index across all of it's users. Personal data must only be shared with one person. Desktop search technologies are a cheaper approach, but they don't offer the same control; I can always install multiple desktop search technologies or switch from one to the other. Desktop search solutions also get the EFF to raise red flags when they try to assert a bit more control over your personal data -- it's better to be explicit about what it is you're trying to do, especially when walking the grey areas of privacy.

GDrive will be entering a crowded space. There are many other competitors and it's not clear that Google will even have the leading product in the field. However, Google is a more interesting player in the space because (a) it is offering to store 100% of your data and (b) the variety of other Google services. GDrive, GMail, and the rumored Google Calendar could interact seamlessly. You could publish to Google Video with a single click. You could save copies of searches and Web pages directly into your online storage. It's these new types of interactions between Web applications that I think will be the major factor in the next generation of Web applications -- they are the ones necessary to facilitate a greater transition to an online mode of interaction with a more diverse ecosystem of devices (personal computers, handheld devices, cellphones, etc...).

Behold the awesome knowledge of Google

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Google had me more than a bit disappointed with GMail + Chat and the whole China censorship issue, but Paul@Icarus Diving gives me warm fuzzy Google feelings once more with this screenshot of all the useful knowledge contained within the Google Suggest search box:

googlesuggest.jpg

No wonder people are trying to wire up their bathrooms with Web terminals -- Google really needs to add "How to use a Japanese toilet" to that list. Try it yourself if you wish to discover what other knowledge may lie within the magical textfield.

via apophenia

Neat Gmail feature, never noticed it

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Turns out that there is a 'Map This' link that appears in the right-column of Gmail if you're reading an e-mail with an address in it. There's also similar links like "Track USPS package." I found out about it here, but according to their help documentation this feature may have been there since last August. Nice feature, but the ad column isn't the best place to get me to notice it.

Old links to clear out 2005

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PXN8, free online photo editing

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I've had this problem a lot -- I want to make a quick tweak to an image I've uploaded to Flickr, but I don't have Photoshop on the computer I'm using and I have to wait until I'm home to make my quick tweak. I've always wished that Flickr would add in some simple photo tools like crop, but until that day you can try out PXN8. You can crop, rotate, sepia tone, lomo, blur, resize, correct red eye, whiten, modify hue/saturation/brightness/contrast, or add round corners to your images. It's designed to work with Flickr, which should also help you save a bit of time. The Flickr integration could be a little better, but I'm sure there is (or will be) a Greasemonkey script -- there's already a bookmarklet.

Quick thoughts

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No time, no time, some rapid fire rants and praise:

The good

Zimbra: I just check out their demo of their Web-based e-mail/calendar suite and it has some great stuff that makes me think, "why haven't more companies done that?" If there's an address in an e-mail you can mouse over and it pulls up a Google Map and if you mouse over a date reference ('tomorrow', 'Aug 20') it shows your schedule for that day. It's all about saving that extra step. The rest of the UI is pretty fancy and desktop-like, but I'm no longer sure why desktop-like is a plus.

Microsoft Max: A Microsoft product that I actually had fun with, though I have no idea why I would use it on a regular basis and the UI is confusing in all its modalities. I can't think of any other Microsoft product that I thought of as fun -- most just cause me to break DVDs (others agree). The feature I most enjoyed was the mantle, which arranges your photos in 3D space. (Examples: my nephew, Pinnacles, Red Bull). It looks great and it also lets you view more photos in less space. You can rearrange the clusters that it creates, but the ones it chose seemed intereresting. Side note: are the clusters in the mantle view randomly assigned? Some of their clusters are great, some make little sense, but overall it's a nice new spin on things.

iPod nano: strap one of those to the back of my cellphone and another to the back of my PSP. Slide another into my Elph case and ... oh, now I'm getting greedy.

Lost: is there anyone in the 18-35 demographic not watching this show? Everyone at the wedding was either watching the new episodes or catching up with the DVDs.

The maybe good

PSP + TV: The head of Sony says that soon you'll be able to watch video using the wireless capabilities of the PSP and sync with your DVR. Sounds pretty cool but I won't jump for joy unless I hear "TiVo."

The almost good

Google Desktop ate my CPU: I had to uninstall because the new Google Desktop decided that 99% of my CPU was quite nice to utilize, even when instructed to pause indexing. Rather unfortunate as there were some aspects of the sidebar I liked, even if it was ugly. You can tell that it's paying attention to what you're doing and trying to help and with a couple iterations I could imagine it becoming a great product, but not quite yet.

The probably ugly

Google Reader: davextreme pulled me aside during the wedding reception to let me know that Google had released a feed reader, news that I have been waiting to hear for a long time. Less than 24 hours is not enough to evaluate a feed reader properly -- for now I'll say that it's slick, but who wants to read through your feeds one entry at a time. BoingBoing alone has 20-40 entries a day -- even with keyboard shortcuts that means I have to hit 'j' 20-40 times to read just one site, at which point I want to rent a helper monkey to break up the monotony.

The ugly

iTunes 5.0 (Windows): can't seem to play a song without skipping and the 'streamlined' UI makes me wish for ole' big and bulky.

Flickr + Yahoo: the extra year of service plus two free giveaway accounts were nice presents, but Flickr still goes out for massages all the time and I don't want my Flickr ID linked to my Yahoo! ID.

TiVo: what the hell are they up to? I love my three TiVos, but their current directions have been entirely pro-broadcasters and anti-consumer. It's a very capable platform that they try to do less and less with every day. Why can't I play shows on my PSP? Why can't I share episodes with friends? Why is TiVo Desktop so buggy? Why why why?

Rzoto beta

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Josh Tyler, creator of Helio-Courier and ChameleonReader (nice RSS reader layered on top of Bloglines that I use) has taken another stab at RSS reading with his latest project, Rzoto. Rzoto is a Firefox plugin that examines the sites you read to see whether or not there are feeds associated with them. It builds a page that lists the discovered feeds and does some smart sorting. Rzoto is now in its beta phase and Josh needs some users to get feedback.

For those of you that don't understand RSS/ feeds/Atom/aggregators, or just don't like the process of tracking down a feed and manually subscribing to it, you might want to give it a shot to see if it can save you time checking Web sites for updates.

You should give it a shot even if already have a reader setup -- Rzoto does all the work for you so it doesn't require any extra effort. You'll probably find some feeds that you didn't realize existed before.

Link roundup

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Tag clouds are teh suck

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Zeldman discusses several of the problems with tag clouds, but I thought I'd hit on a couple of more from a different viewpoint.

First, as a primer, a tag cloud (as seen on my Flickr account, but also seen on sites like del.icio.us (experimental) and 43things):

 700   animal   ape2005   architecture   armstrong   beach   bike   bird   blue   boulders   bridge   buddha   bunny   cacti   california   castro   cave   chaparral   child   christinethornburg   christmas   cliff   condor   contrail   cute   cycling   deyoung   ekimov   endangered   evil   flight   flower   football   gate   gehry   getty   goldengatepark   green   halloween   herzog   house   incredibles   iris   japanesemaple   japaneseteagarden   lamb   lancearmstrong   landscape   leaves   licenseplate   lights   lizard   losangeles   maple   metaldetector   meuron   momiji   moon   morganhill   mountain   nationalpark   nerd   orange   pagoda   paulmccartney   peligro   pinnacles   pipes   rabbit   race   railing   red   richardmeier   robonexus   rock   sanfrancisco   sanfransciscograndprix   santamonica   sfmoma   sidewalk   sign   silhouette   sonoma   spiderman   spire   spires   stonelantern   stones   sunset   tattoo   teagarden   tmobile   tonybennett   tree 

Tag clouds follow a very basic principle: the font size of the word is scales linearly with the number of times the tag has been used.

At first glance, there appear to be several things right with this sort of display. You can see, for example, that I have a ton of photos tagged "Richard Meier", and that I have a lot more "architecture" photos than "ape2005" photos. IMHO, however, this is all fluff -- it's has the appearance of being a statistical visualization but instead conveys information crudely and inaccurately. For example, for each of these pairs, answer the question, "Which do I have more photos tagged with?"

  • japaneseteagarden or goldengatepark?
  • richardmeier or architecture?
  • sanfranciscograndprix or house?

With close examination you will probably get these right, but my point is that it takes a bit of thought (and you have the chance of getting it wrong). One of the fundamental problems is that the "tag cloud" display is using the size of the word to convey how many tags are associated with it. However, the size of the word is related to (a) the number of characters in the word (sanfranciscograndprix vs. house) and (b) the font size of the word, which grows in two-dimensions. Instead of trying to convey:

size of word ~= (# of tagged items)

we instead have the relation

size of word ~= (# of tagged items * length of word)2

So as a statistical display, it's bunk -- appearing to help you understand relative tag distribution, but not in an accurate manner.

Aesthetically, in order to try and convey this pseudo-statistical information, it completely throws the list out-of-whack: lines grow to arbitrary heights, one's ability to scan quickly across the entire list is lost, large words are constantly drawing your attention from smaller words, etc..., and, to borrow from Zeldman, navigation skews towards popularity rather than findability.

The fact that "richardmeier" is one of my most prominent tags entirely relates to the fact that (a) I took a ton of photos of the Getty one day, and (b) I was testing out my new Flickr Pro upload limits. They are not my "best" category of photos, I don't frequently take "richardmeier" photos, and they are not the photos I most want people to see. But the tag cloud design dictates that visitors will forever feel "richardmeier"'s gravitational force (that is, until I go crazy with another photo upload).

My own tag/category display could use some work, but I offer it here as a comparison (feel free to critique in the comments):

histogram

Got my backpack

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update 2 (5/3/05): I (still) like Backpack -- it's a well designed technology, with a diverse set of potential applications. However, I think their page limit is whack (i.e. it eliminates many of those potential uses by making them unaffordable). My extended gripe is here.


I got my Backpack account today and I'm pretty excited. I've been bastardizing 37signal's project management software, but Backpack should do away with that as it makes it easy to build pages with lists, links, notes, images, files, etc... that you can share with friends. All of it can be edited quickly and directly in the browser.

While I was at PARC I worked on Sparrow Web, which was a technology for making easily-writable Web pages, and I've been missing that technology ever since I left, so it's nice to have what appears to be a good, fast, free, easy-to-use writable Web page system.

I'll write more once I have a chance to really test drive it.

Update: here's our Fred Steak Planning Page that honeyfields and I put together. They're not opening Backpack up to the public until Tuesday, so until then I won't be able to give anyone the ability to edit the page, which makes the Fred Steak page rather pointless right now.

Tombstones 'R Us

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Peter Norvig, Google

Updated to my transit511 rant

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After my previous rant about how Transit 511 took over Caltrain's schedule and made it completely unusable, there's finally been some improvements. I claim no causality between my rant and the change, but I would like to believe that a chorus of similarly peeved individuals led to the change.

You can once again select and start and end station and view the schedule for just those two stations, a feature that existed on the Caltrain site before Transit 511 took over.
[Here's an example with Mountain View and San Mateo][sched].

<newrant>From the example, you can see that they are still really stupid and stick the schedule inside of an embedded frame, which makes it really hard to print. Interestingly enough, if you click on "accessible version" or "printable version," it gets rid of this stupid embedded frame. It's not that they don't have a usable version, it's just that you have to request it specially.

They also don't have the old feature that allowed you to select a start/end time so that you don't have to view the schedule for the 5am trains you'll be sleeping during.</newrant> [sched]: http://transit.511.org/schedules/detail.asp?cid=CT&rte=5081&day=1&dir=NO&fst=12%2CCALTRAIN STATION - MOUNTAIN VIEW&mc=stops&tst=23%2CCALTRAIN STATION - SAN MATEO&image1.x=15&image1.y=9

Nooooo!

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I was really excited today to get my free Caltrain train and parking pass from work. My excitement quickly disappeared when I clicked on my bookmark for the Caltrain schedule and got a 404 not found page from a site called 511 Transit Info. I thought this was odd so I went to the Caltrain site and clicked on their schedule link, only to discover they've transferred all the schedule information to the 511 site, which sucks!

<rant>
Here's what it used to be like to get the Caltrain schedule:
1. Click on interactive schedule
2. Click on Mountain View
3. Click on Menlo Park
Result: a nice listing of the departure and arrival times for the train. It was so nice and succinct that I could have it load in the sidebar of my browser and stay open while I surfed other sites.

Here's what it's like to use the 511 site:
(version 1)
1. Click on Trip Planner
2. Type in address that you are leaving from. If you click on "map" you get a zoomed out map of the entire Bay Area that it expects you to navigate by repeated zooming (which is very slow to load).
3. Repeat step 2 for the address you are going to.
4. Enter in specific time that you are leaving
Result: it tells me the time of the next two Caltrains, nothing more. After all that effort it didn't even tell me anything about the bus route to get to the station.

(version 2)
1. Click on Schedules
2. Select Caltrain
3. Select Northbound/Southbound
4. Click on Weekdays (the only option listed)
Result: table embedded inside of another Web page. You have to click on scrollbars to find the appropriate column. If you are travelling far it is unlikely that you can see the station you are leaving from and the station you are arriving at on the same page. (If you click on printable version you get a Web page that is wider than my 20" LCD monitor).
</rant>

I didn't like this talk enough to actually transcribe the notes. Luckily, heerforce has already transcribed his notes/outline, and they're probably better than I would have done anyway.

In short, I expected a lot more from the chief scientist at Altavista. His talk was so vague compared to Eric Schmidt's Google Forum - most of the stuff Pedersen put up was general knowledge. Also, if you notice from heer's notes, his "Future" section of his talk was very vague (though he was rushed).

Forum: Google

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Eric Schmidt of Google gave a very interesting talk at PARC. The first half of his talk was about information movements and the second half was anecdotes/information about Google. Schmidt started off with a comparison to electricity: it started off as a big boom, then it became a utility. Similarly, it started off with thousands of companies, and then became very few. Schmidt argues that all big bubbles have followed the model of thousands then few: railroads, auto, dot com. To me at least, this seemed hand-wavy: the auto industry, for example, has a huge parts and support industry around it, and railroad/electricity are inhibited by infrastructure - a company doesn't have to own Internet backbone to produce a product or service.

The funniest anecdote he gave was about the "bias" of Google News. He was giving a talk and someone in the audience asked him what Google's slant was when it displayed articles. Schmidt tried to explain that a computer selected the articles, and thus there was no slant, but the audience member insisted that every news source has a slant. As Schmidt tells the story, he went to the researchers/engineers that were responsible for Google News and asked them if it were possible that Google News had a slant. As it turns out, the researcher that created the program is Indian and put in two biases: (1) International news is favored, and (2) cricket. I had actually noticed (2), because it seemed improbable to me that there would be a cricket sports link everyday on the front page.

Another funny anecdote he had was when he was making a point that cost drives everything. When Google was still at Stanford, they needed to build server casings. What did they use: legos or duplos? Duplos, because they are cheaper.

More stuff below and in the extended comments.

Abstract:
Eric Schmidt, Google Talk
- "Scarcity to Abundance Drives Everthing Tech"