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Tag: Google Reader

My Google Reader Substitute

Its hard to believe that Google Reader has only been “dead” for a few weeks. I use the quotes because while the core RSS reader functionality is still going, the reason it was all-consuming for me (and, frankly, one of the biggest sources of my goodwill towards Google) – the social functionality – is dead and gone.

I tried using Google+ as a means of sharing for two weeks – I really did. But it didn’t stick. First, the sharing from within Google Reader was clunky at best – I had to hit the “+1” or the new “G+ share” button, then select the Reader circle I had made, and then do another click to share – awkward process. Secondly, Google+ just didn’t cut it with what I used Google Reader’s social functionality for. I use Google Reader to read. Google+ is great for sharing snippets and pictures and thoughts – but its not a reading platform, so treating it like a replacement for Google Reader’s sharing functionality was never going to make it. Lastly, the point I brought up from my previous post on different levels of interest on different types of content still rings true – the people who I shared with on Google Reader were opting in to my content shares – most of my friends on Google+ are opting in to my personal shares. The two aren’t always the same.

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So, ultimately, I threw in the towel and decided to use Tumblr as an alternative. As you may know, Tumblr is a popular and fairly versatile mini-blogging tool – it lies somewhere between Twitter (where you are limited to 140 characters) and WordPress in terms of simplicity. But, it packs a ton of cool features to make it, from what I can tell, an okay substitute for Google Reader’s sharing functionality:

  • a full-length RSS feed so that folks can subscribe to my “shares” from a reading platform like Google Reader
  • packs a lot of compelling sharing features (liking, “re-blogging”)
  • a browser bookmarklet pretty similar to what Google Reader had (so I can share things as I go)
  • support for custom domain (so my Tumblr is now officially http://tumblr.benjamintseng.com/)
  • support for Disqus (so it can do comments)
  • pretty versatile HTML/CSS templating system so I can do further customizations later

Its not perfect. Its not integrated into Google Reader anymore – so all sharing/interaction will need to be done using the bookmarklet or on the site directly. But, the full-length RSS feed means we can keep reading and the sharing/Disqus functionality means we still can like, re-share, and comment.

I’m hoping my friends who once used Google Reader will join me on Tumblr, and I’m hoping my friends who were using Tumblr all along will welcome me to their world :-). I just started with the integration, but I am hoping to play around with the templating system to more tightly integrate the two sites in the near future.

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Google Reader Blues

grlogoIf it hasn’t been clear from posts on this blog or from my huge shared posts activity feed, I am a huge fan of Google Reader. My reliance/use of the RSS reader tool from Google is second only to my use of Gmail. Its my main primary source of information and analysis on the world and, because a group of my close friends are actively sharing and commenting on the service, it is my most important social network.

Yes, that’s right. I’d give up Facebook and Twitter before I’d give up Google Reader.

I’ve always been disappointed by Google’s lack of attention to the product, so you would think that after announcing that they would find a way to better integrate the product with Google+ that I would be jumping for joy.

However, I am not. And, I am not the only one. E. D. Kain from Forbes says it best when he writes:

[A]fter reading Sarah Perez and Austin Frakt and after thinking about just how much I use Google Reader every day, I’m beginning to revise my initial forecast. Stay calm is quickly shifting toward full-bore Panic Mode.

(bolding and underlining from me)

Now, for the record, I can definitely see the value of integrating Google+ with Google Reader well. I think the key to doing that is finding a way to replace the not-really-used-at-all Sparks feature (which seems to have been replaced by a saved searches feature) in Google+ with Google Reader to make it easier to share high quality blog posts/content. So why am I so anxious? Well, looking at the existing products, there are two big things:

  • Google+ is not designed to share posts/content – its designed to share snippets. Yes, there are quite a few folks (i.e. Steve Yegge who made the now-famous-accidentally-public rant about Google’s approach to platforms vs Amazon/Facebook/Apple’s on products) who make very long posts on Google+ using it almost as a mini-blog platform. And, yes, one can share videos and photos on the site. However, what the platform has not proven to be able to share (and is, fundamentally, one of the best uses/features for Google Reader) is a rich site with embedded video, photos, rich text, and links. This blog post that you’re reading for instance? I can’t share this on Google+. All I can share is a text excerpt and an image – that reduces the utility of the service as a reading/sharing/posting platform.
  • Google Reader is not just “another circle” for Google+, it’s a different type of online social behavior. I gave Google props earlier this year for thinking through online social behavior when building their Circles and Hangouts features, but it slipped my mind then that my use of Google Reader was yet another way to do online social interaction that Google+ did not capture. What do I mean by that? Well, when you put friends in a circle, it means you have grouped that set of friends into one category and think of them as similar enough to want to receive their updates/shared items together and to send them updates/shared items, together. Now, this feels more natural to me than the original Facebook concept (where every friend is equal) and Twitter concept (where the idea is to just broadcast everything to everybody), but it misses one dynamic: followers may have different levels of interest in different types of sharing. When I share an article on Google Reader, I want to do it publicly (hence the public share page), but only to people who are interested in what I am reading/thinking. If I wanted to share it with all of my friends, I would’ve long ago integrated Google Reader shares into Facebook and Twitter. On the flip side, whether or not I feel socially close to the people I follow on Google Reader is irrelevant: I follow them on Google Reader because I’m interested in their shares/comments. With Google+, this sort of “public, but only for folks who are interested” sharing and reading mode is not present at all – and it strikes me as worrisome because the idea behind the Google Reader change is to replace its social dynamics with Google+

Now, of course, Google could address these concerns by implementing additional features – and if that were the case, that would be great. But, putting my realist hat on and looking at the tone of the Google Reader blog post and the way that Google+ has been developed, I am skeptical. Or, to sum it up, in the words of Austin Frakt at the Incidental Economist (again bolding/underlining is by me)

I will be entering next week with some trepidation. I’m a big fan of Google and its products, in general. (Love the Droid. Love the Gmail. Etc.) However, today, I’ve never been more frightened of the company. I sure hope they don’t blow this one!

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Droid 2 vs iPhone

If this is the first time you’ve visited my blog, thank you for coming. Feel free to subscribe to this blog with the buttons on the right. You may also be interested in my comparison of Firefox vs Chrome.

imageI recently came out very positive on Google in a comparison of Google’s and Apple’s respective business models and product philosophies, but the post itself was very high-level and theoretical. So, I decided to write another post: this time on how the differences I mentioned before translate when comparing products?

I recently dropped my Blackberry and got Motorola’s new Droid 2 phone (on Verizon). Earlier this month, my company also happened to provide me with Apple’s iPhone 4 (on AT&T). Having played around with the devices and relied on them heavily for over a week, I decided to make a comparison of the two, not only to help myself think through how I’d use the devices, but also to help anyone out there considering a smartphone (warning: this post is LOOOONG):

  1. Neither phone is better, they’re different. In the same way that there is no one “best” car or one “best” significant other for all people, I would have to say the “best” phone for a person is the phone that has the right features/attributes for that person and makes the appropriate tradeoffs. In the case of DROID 2 vs. iPhone 4, each has their share of weaknesses, and each has their share of strengths and they will match different people’s needs and preferences.
  2. There’s still plenty of room for both products to improve. I think the “fanboys” on both sides seem to have missed out on this point – in their desire to tout one as superior to the other, they seem to have forgotten that both devices have more than their fair share of weaknesses. In fact, I’d say my dominant impression of both devices is more around “this needs to improve” rather than “this is awesome”.
  3. I’ve got a lot of more detailed commentary below, but my basic  impression of Android vs iPhone is very much like the comparison I drew in my post on Google vs Apple: the DROID 2 feels like a device where a bunch of engineers decided to cram a ton of “cool features” into a phone whereas the iPhone 4 feels like a device that was architected to support one particular user experience (but not others) as seamlessly as possible. What does that mean in terms of a direct comparison? In order of importance (to how I use the phone):
    1. Typing – Typing is extremely important to me as my main goal for smartphone is to let me write and respond to emails on the go. Given my years with the Blackberry’s famous high-quality keyboard, I was expecting to hate the iPhone 4’s soft keyboard. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I actually got to be quick enough with it that speed did not become an issue. However, a few things plagued me. First, I absolutely hate the placement of the backspace key – its not where I expect it to be (having been trained by QWERTY computer keyboards) and is just close enough to the “m” that I hit it when I’m typing quickly. Secondly, the iPhone interface doesn’t actually support a landscape interface mode in all applications (i.e. the App Store) – which forces me to use a much more constrained portrait keyboard which slows me down. Finally, as good as the iPhone soft keyboard is, because there’s no good way to position your fingers or to “feel” when keys have been pushed, soft keyboards intrinsically force you to think more about how to type than a hard keyboard than otherwise. Enter the DROID 2. It has a hard keyboard which although not quite as good as a Blackberry’s (the keys seem oddly spaced to me, and they are more stiff than “springy”), still lets me position my fingers and type without thinking so much about how I’m typing.
      imageIn addition to the hard keyboard, the DROID 2 also supports Swype, a very cool (and fast) way to type on a soft keyboard where, instead of typing keys consecutively, you simply drag your fingers to the letters that you’re trying to type. There’s a little bit of a learning curve (in terms of learning how to punctuate and do double-letters), but once you get over that initial hump, I think the average person can get to a faster speed with Swype than they can just pecking at keys. In my mind, the DROID 2 wins hands down on typing.
    2. Exchange support – If you want a smartphone that can function as a work device, you need to support Exchange and you need to support it well. Both the iPhone and Android claim support for Microsoft Exchange with push synchronization. While I have some quibbles with the iPhone’s mail interface, there’s no denying that the iPhone’s Exchange support is seamless and fast. I have never had to think about it. And, on occasion, the iPhone would even notify me of emails before my computer received them! The DROID 2, on the other hand, is a different story. While the Exchange sync works most of the time, there have already been two occasions where the sync was broken and the device would think that a message I had already read was a new message. The sync is also significantly slower – requiring me to wait (sometimes up to 10 minutes) before an email that has already showed up on the iPhone and the desktop shows up through the DROID 2’s sync feature. I don’t know if this is because Motorola/Google introduced some intermediate layer in between the Exchange and the phone, but the iPhone 4 wins hands down on Exchange support.
    3. Google integration – I use a ton of Google services (Gmail, Google Calendar, Picasa, Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Maps, etc.) so integration with Google services is a key criteria when picking a phone. While the iPhone has an excellent interface to Google Maps (which puts the Android’s standard maps interface to shame in terms of smoothness and speed), its inability to do very much beyond basic synchronization with Gmail and Google Calendar and only webapp access to Google Voice makes its integration with Google on par with the Blackberry’s. On the other hand, is it  any surprise that Google services integration works best on a phone which runs a Google operating system? You can make calls using Google Voice as if it weren’t even there. You can easily apply and remove labels on and search through your Gmail seamlessly (without the semi-awkward IMAP interface). You can even access your personal online search history through Google Maps and Google Search. DROID 2 wins this one by a wide margin.
    4. image Attachment file format support – its not enough to be able to access email, a good work device should be able to handle the PDFs, Powerpoints, Word documents, and images that are likely embedded. Motorola had a stroke of genius by preloading the Quick Office application onto each DROID 2. But, while this app does a very good job of opening files, it not being integrated into the DROID 2’s email applications gives it a disadvantage compared to the iPhone’s in-line and integrated attachment viewer. Combine this with the DROID 2’s inexplicable inability to open certain image types in email and there is a distinct, albeit slight, advantage on file format support for the iPhone 4.
    5. Customization – I’m very particular about how I use my devices. As a result, I want to be able to customize the heck out of something. While the iPhone gives you some basic customization options (i.e., do you want to hear a sound when a new email comes in?), it doesn’t give you much beyond that (i.e., what sound do you want to hear when a new email comes in? would you only like to hear a sound if its gmail rather than exchange? would you like to hear a different sound for gmail and exchange?) On the other hand, the DROID 2 provides remarkable customization capability. Granted, some of the choices can be difficult to find, but the ability to customize so many things (including the ability to embed live, functional widgets on your home screen and not just functionless shortcuts) and to install apps like Tasker which let you customize even deeper is a big differentiator for the Android platform.
    6. UI responsiveness/slickness – Smartphones are expensive. They consume a lot of battery power. So when a device feels sluggish, I can get annoyed. The iPhone is, simply put, amazingly slick. No choppiness when you scroll or swipe. Great responsiveness. No odd user interface defects. While Google’s Android has made remarkable strides since its earliest incarnation, it still doesn’t come close to matching Apple’s user interface polish – the most shameful example of which, in my opinion, is the Android Google Maps’ sluggish multitouch support when compared to Apple’s. Come on guys, ITS YOUR OWN APP!
    7. Notifications – I don’t know a single person who likes the iPhone’s primitive notification system. Its overly intrusive. It can only display one particular message at a time. And, there’s no way for someone to get the history of all their recent notifications. And, as a Blackberry user who used to rely on a small LED indicator to unobtrusively inform him when something new happened, the iPhone’s lack of any way of notifying its owner that something has happened without activating the screen just strikes me as stupid. The DROID 2 is FAR ahead of Apple here.
    8. Network – I have mixed feelings here. On the one hand, I would  say that the call quality I’ve experienced on the DROID 2 has lagged what I experienced on the iPhone 4. Furthermore, my DROID 2 seems to have schizophrenic reception – I sometimes amuse myself by watching my signal indicator go from full bars to just one bar, all while sitting on my desk leaving the phone completely alone. The other side to this story, though, is that this experience quality has been primarily driven by an odd pocket of bad Verizon coverage in my girlfriend’s apartment – our calls from almost everywhere else have been very good. Also, despite my DROID 2’s signal indicator fluctuations, I have not yet observed any actual impact on my connection speed or call quality. When you combine this with the fact that my iPhone struggles to get signal where I work and in Napa (where I just came back from a wedding) but my DROID 2 had minimal issues, I have to say that DROID 2/Verizon beats out iPhone 4/AT&T.
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    9. Ability to turn off 3G – The two main things that burn out a smartphone’s battery are the display and the wireless connection. While its a pain to reach that particular menu item on the iPhone 4, Apple’s product does make it possible to turn off the 3G connection. Shockingly, despite all the customization, the DROID 2 does not provide this option. The iPhone 4 wins here.
    10. Turn-by-turn navigationThe DROID 2 has it. The iPhone doesn’t. And, believe me when I say this is: it is an AMAZING feature and completely displaces the need for a GPS device. I don’t drive places I’m unfamiliar with often enough for this to be higher in the priority list, but lets just say it saved my butt on my recent trip to Napa. DROID 2 wins here.
    11. Access to Bluetooth – In California, you cannot talk on a cell phone while driving without a Bluetooth headset. So, quick-and-easy access to Bluetooth settings is a feature of considerable importance to me. With the iPhone, the ability to turn Bluetooth on and off and change settings is buried beneath several layers of settings. The DROID 2’s pairing process is not only faster (although this is only by ~10-20 seconds), the ability to customize the home screen means I can embed widgets/links to quickly and easily toggle Bluetooth without diving through settings. DROID 2 wins here.
    12. image Chrome-to-Phone – DROID 2 has it. iPhone 4 doesn’t. This is a very cool browser extension which lets you send links, text messages, and maps to your phone straight from Chrome (or the Firefox clone of it). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t especially impressed, but its become a very useful tool which lets me send things which would be useful while on-the-go (especially directions). DROID 2 wins here.
    13. Absence of pre-loaded bloat – This is something where Apple’s philosophy of getting full control over the user experience pays off. The iPhone 4 does not come with any of the bloatware that we’ve come to see in new PCs. That means that the apps that run on my iPhone 4 are either well-designed Apple utilities or apps I have chosen to install. My DROID 2? Full of crapware which I neither want nor am I able to install. Thankfully, I’m able to remove them from my homescreen, but it annoys me that Verizon and Motorola have decided that preloading phones is a great way to generate additional revenue. The iPhone wins hands down here.
    14. Camera – To be perfectly honest, I hate both the DROID 2 and the iPhone 4’s cameras. With the iPhone 4, I find it pretty awkward to shoot a picture using the soft keyboard to both zoom in and out and take the shot. While the DROID 2 has obvious physical buttons to use for zoom and to take the shot, it has a lackluster flash and I found it more difficult to take steady pictures than I did with the iPhone 4. It also captures video at a lower resolution than the iPhone 4. In the end, though, I’d have to say that awkward use of the camera trumps bad flash photography and poorer video resolution: iPhone wins here.
    15. image Flash support – DROID 2 has it. iPhone doesn’t. This means no more stupid boxes on web pages which haven’t made the plunge into HTML5 video (because Firefox and IE don’t support it yet) or activating another application to watch YouTube videos. Does it burn battery? Yes. But its not like I’m watching it non-stop, and there are definitely some sites which you can’t visit without Flash. DROID 2 wins here.
    16. Voice control – Google recently unveiled its Voice Actions for Android application which allows you to perform all sorts of commands without ever typing a thing. While the Google search app on iPhone and apps like Siri have supported voice-based web searches, they don’t provide access to the wealth and depth of functions like email, text messaging (although, sadly, it does not yet seem to support Google Voice-based-SMS), calling up the map application, or controlling the music player that Google’s does. Granted, Google seems to still have issues understanding my girlfriend’s name is “Sophia” and not “Cynthia”, but the DROID 2’s voice-control functionality is way ahead of the iPhone 4’s and adds a lot of convenience when you are on-the-go.
    17. File management – Apple’s iTunes software works great as an MP3 player. I’m not so sure how I feel about it as the ultimate gateway to my mobile phone for pictures and applications. It also irks me that, because of iTunes, there is no obvious way to access or modify the directory structure on an iPhone 4. The DROID 2, however, looks and acts just like a USB drive when its connected to a computer. It even comes with a file manager app with which you can use to go through its file system innards from within the phone. If you are fine with the inability to specify your own organization structure or to use a phone as portable storage, then this is wash. But, if you value any of those things, then the DROID 2 has Apple’s iPhone 4 beat.
    18. Not proprietary hardware – You cannot remove/upgrade an iPhone’s internal storage. You cannot charge or sync with an iPhone without using its proprietary cable. This is great if you never want to upgrade your device’s storage capabilities, never want to slot its memory into another device, and never lose cables. But, if you ever want to do any of the first two or inadvertently do the last, then you’re better off with DROID 2.
    19. Display – One of the features I was most impressed with during the iPhone 4 announcement was the Retina Display: a screen with a resolution so high it was said to be at/near the limit of human detection. I can honestly say it works as advertised – the resolution on an iPhone screen is incredible. However, as I rarely use applications/websites where that resolution is actually necessary, its value to me is not that high (although the increased contrast is a nice touch). With that said, though, it is a nice (and very noticeable) touch and is definitely something where the iPhone 4 beats out the DROID 2.
    20. Device “feel” – The two devices have comparable screen sizes, but the DROID 2 has significantly greater thickness. The iPhone feels like a crafted piece of art. It feels metallic. Substantial. The DROID 2 feels like a thick piece of plastic. This doesn’t really impact the functioning of the device, but the iPhone 4 is definitely nicer to hold and look at and feels a lot sturdier.

    So where does that leave us? If you’re keeping score, I noted 12 things which (in my opinion) favor DROID 2 and 8 things which favor iPhone 4. As I mentioned before, which device you would prefer strongly depends on how you weight the different things mentioned here. If you value work-horse text entry, customization, and Google integration a lot (like I do), then the DROID 2 is probably the phone that you’ll want. If you value the Exchange/attachment support and UI slickness more, then the iPhone 4 is a better bet. And, there’s definitely room for disagreement here. If you think my assessment of Bluetooth support and notifications are off, then that could be ample reason to pick Apple.

Hopefully this was informative for any reader deciding what phone to get (even if they’re considering something which isn’t even on the list!). I’ll probably follow this post with a few thoughts on where I’d like to see the Apple and Google platforms go next – but until then, happy smartphone-ing!

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Suggestion to Major Blogs and Websites

If I can make a suggestion to American TV studios to move towards a miniseries system, why not more?

image I recently spent a couple of hours organizing and pruning the many feeds that I follow in Google Reader. It’s become something of a necessity as my interests and information needs (and the amount of time I have to pursue them) change. But, this time as I found myself trying to figure out which news sites to follow, I found it easier to drop websites which didn’t have sub-feeds.

Most major blogs and websites today use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to let subscribers know when the site’s been updated without having to check the site constantly. While this is extremely convenient, the enormous number of updates that major websites like the New York Times issue per day make subscribing to their RSS feed an exercise in drinking from the firehose.

So, what to do? Thankfully, some major websites (the New York Times included) figured this out and now provide sub-feeds which provide only a fraction of the total content so that a subscriber can not only avoid RSS information overload but get a focused feed on the information that matters to him/her. The New York Times, for instance, allows you to only get RSS updates from their tech column, the Bits Blog, or even just the Venture Capital section of the New York Times’ Dealbook coverage.

Sadly, not every website is as forward-looking as the New York Times. Many sites don’t offer any sort of sub-feed at all (much to my dismay). Many sites who do offer it, offer a very paltry selection with very limited options.

And, given the choice between an information deluge which I mostly don’t want vs an alternative information source which gives me only the information I do want, I think the answer is obvious. As a result, with the exception of two feeds, I dropped from Google Reader every blog which posted more than once a day which didn’t give me a targeted sub-feed option.

In a world where its getting harder and harder for publications to hold on to readers, you’d think these sites would learn to offer more flexibility (especially when such flexibility is practically free to support if you have even a half-decent web content management system) in how their content is pushed.

But, I guess those sites weren’t interested in keeping me as a reader…

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Reading for value

My buddy Bill shared an article on Google Reader about the demise of Newsweek which linked to this New York Times article (does anyone else find it ironic that one newspaper experiencing financial problems is calling out another publication’s financial problems?):

American newsweeklies were built on original reporting of Large Events, helping readers make sense of a complicated world, but it is a costly endeavor with diminishing returns during an era of commodified and chewed-over news. Both The Economist and The Week were built, rather Web-like, to “borrow” the reporting and then spread analysis on top, thereby making a sundae without having to crank the ice cream maker.

And in this instance, the foreignness of the brands gives the reader an intellectual sheen that once Olympian domestic brands can’t. The Economist and The Week not only make you smarter at cocktail parties by giving you a brief on the week events, but name-checking them will make you sound in the know. Mention Newsweek and people will wonder whether you’ve been going to the dentist a lot lately.

Don’t you love British wit? 🙂

I’m an avid reader of The Economist, and Bill’s shared article got me thinking of why it is that I read The Economist (and many of the other things in my reading list) rather than the numerous other publications out there:

  1. It makes me look smarter. Okay, lets cover the least important (albeit still true) reason first, so I can get it out of the way and focus on the more substantive stuff :-).
  2. It’s analytical. I’m an analytical guy. If there’s one thing consulting has taught me, its that a reasoned conclusion requires both quantitative and qualitative analysis. I’m not satisfied with soundbytes, and I’m not satisfied with superficial reasoning. But, I probably don’t have the time to follow each thread/claim to its origin, nor do I have the time to crunch through all the numbers. Enter The Economist. How many other publications do you know who’ve created an index for measuring purchasing-power parity based on McDonald’s Big Mac? Or run their own quantitative models on the Greek economy to project how the Greek debt situation might look 5 years from now? Or are even in the business of selling macroeconomic analytical data?
  3. It’s opinionated, but still balanced and rigorous. A lot of newspapers strive to be “unbiased.” I think that’s the wrong approach. There are few articles in The Economist which I would say are truly unbiased. And much to its benefit, I might add. When done correctly, having an opinion means doing the necessary research and analysis and thinking. It means carefully considering opposing views. What distinguishes The Economist’s approach is, even if I disagree with the opinion they conclude with, I am given plenty of the background needed to disagree. What newspapers should focus on is not to provide “unbiased” coverage, but balanced (as in carefully presenting all sides of an issue) and rigorous (going beneath the soundbytes).
  4. It’s timely enough. As a weekly, The Economist can’t exactly provide the up-to-the-minute coverage that cable news networks provide (although a lot of that can be remedied if you just check their website). But, frankly, unless you’re a day-trader or a diplomat, I fail to see why you would ever need to know everything on a “as-it-happens” basis. And, if the tradeoff for not getting the news “as-it-happens” is missing out on hours of repeated soundbytes and the very trite cable news network commentary, then I am more than happy to make that tradeoff.
  5. Original content/coverage. Related to the previous point, although it may not be as timely as a cable news network, the Economist also goes places most cable news networks don’t go. It’s the one place I know I can go to get decent analysis of happenings in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia – parts of the world that the cable news networks and major newspapers ignore in favor of endlessly hyping up soundbyte-ridden coverage of more “popular” news items. Also unlike many news sources, they’re also one of the few I can reliably turn to who provide decent science coverage in a way which is respectful of scientists and what they actually found rather than what the newspaper thinks the public is interested in the scientists finding.
  6. It’s witty/doesn’t take itself too seriously. Let’s forget, just for a moment, the witty phrasings/titles that are all over The Economist. Take a look at these covers, and tell me that this is a magazine that takes itself too seriously:

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The interesting thing is, without even thinking about it, the list of news-y blogs/web feeds I follow (right-hand-side column of my Links page) has steadily fallen more in line with the 6 reasons I mentioned above. Of course, the list could always use some pruning/adjusting (and as anyone who’s seen how much I share over Google Reader or on Twitter, they can tell I have a lot that I could cut from my list), but I think this set of 6 criteria is as good as any for helping people to manage their information sources.

What other criteria do people use in finding good sources of information/news to follow?

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Google Reader Analytics

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion my love for Google Reader. And here’s another reason to throw into the mix: analytics. While this is a feature I don’t use very often, it’s nevertheless very interesting to look at (translation: I spent an hour looking at it, and feel like if I don’t blog about it, then it was a waste of an hour). You can access it by clicking on the “Trends” link in the Google Reader navigation box, or by typing “g” and then “[shift] t”.

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The trends feature gives you a snapshot of two things: (1) your Google Reader browsing habits and (2) details on the blogs and RSS feeds that you subscribe to.

There is a block dedicated to showing how many items you read on a daily basis (I apparently read most of my posts around noon-time with an odd spike around 3-4 PM, and the number of posts I read on a typical weekend is less than half that I would read on a typical weekday):

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The analytics also gives me an analysis of which feeds I read the most (I had no idea I read that much VentureBeat):

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As well as an analysis of how often certain feeds update, as well as which of my feeds are the most “obscure” (as measured by how few Google Reader subscribers each feed has):

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So, who cares? Good question. In terms of how I’ve used the feature, I’ve used it to cull subscriptions from my list — by singling out feeds which updated too frequently but which didn’t have consistently high quality content or by singling out feeds which I never read — and also to encourage me to post encouragements to the more “obscure” blogs that I follow, so as to encourage them to keep posting.

But, really, it’s just cool.

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The Third Coming …. of Firefox

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For those of you not as interested in developments in the “interwebz” and not currently reading my Google Reader share feed, today marks the release of the third incarnation of Firefox. I’ve posted before on why Firefox is my favorite browser, and this latest version improves on what was already a pretty good thing.

Although the race to make this into some type of Guinness World Record (downloads in a day) led to some server issues, by mid-day, most of the issues were resolved.

Anyways, without further ado, reasons why you should switch:

  • Speed – Firefox 3 is now MUCH faster than it used to be. You can see it in the smoother scrolling, the more rapid handling of Javascript (which helps with the loading of web pages AND extensions)
  • Memory – As much as I used to love Firefox, the one thing I absolutely detested about it was its inability to reduce its memory footprint. This was especially a problem for me given the sheer number of extensions that I have loaded. Thanks to an improved cycle collector, you can now run Firefox 3 for hours without worrying about it slowly taking up more and more memory.
  • The “Awesome” Bar – Most browsers have fairly ho-hum location bars – about all you can do is type in URL’s and hit ENTER to visit the appropriate page. Not so in Firefox 3 – the location bar (or “Awesome Bar” as some have called it) is now your interface to all of your bookmarks and even your history. Just by typing in words, Firefox 3 will search its built-in SQLite database for any bookmarks you have or websites that you just visited who’s titles or URL’s match the words that you just typed. Just visited a CNET article on the iPhone and want to go back to it? Just start typing in the Awesome Bar “iPhone” and it will highlight all the most recent pages you’ve visited or any bookmarks you have that have the word “iPhone” in it.

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  • Awesome Bar continued – Firefox 3’s Awesome Bar also gives you rapid access to your bookmarks and to a new tagging feature which lets you quickly bookmark the current page you’re on just by clicking on the little star icon. Click a second time to either store the bookmark in the right folder or to tag the page you’re bookmarking with a description which also becomes searchable when you use the Awesome Bar!
  • Security – Every time you visit a secure site (i.e. your bank, your investment account, etc.), Firefox 3 now displays an icon in the Awesome Bar which gives additional information about the identity of the site in question (so you avoid being scammed) as well as additional information about the site so that you can be 100% confident that the information you’re passing on is safe and secure.
  • Password Manager – This isn’t your dad’s password manager (aka from Firefox 2) – this is a smart password manager. One of my pet peeves about most browsers is that after entering a password and hitting enter, the browser will ask you if you want it to remember the password – but, they don’t let you see if the password you entered is the right one before you say “yes” – Firefox 2 has now fixed this problem with a very sleek and minimalist password remember-er feature which fits as a small bar at the top of the screen.
  • Select text that’s not next to each other – This would require 1000 words to describe… or just a picture (just use Ctrl to select the pieces of text):

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  • Extensions – Not only does Firefox 3 have a new and better integrated Addons manager, but almost all of the major extensions have been updated (and those that haven’t are probably now obsolete thanks to a UI or performance enhancement made in the upgrade). And, as in my previous Firefox oriented posts, I will explain my current selection of extensions:
  • Adblock Plus – This is an extension which actually blocks advertisements from my site (I think the only internet ads I’ve seen since Firefox 1.5 are the Gmail ones).
  • Better GCal and Better Gmail 2 – These two extensions are compiled by Gina Trapani of LifeHacker fame and are collections of Greasemonkey scripts which enhance the user interface for Google Calendar and GMail, the former letting me see multi-line events in calendar-view and the latter giving me access to a Launchy/Quicksilver-like interface so that I can use my keyboard to completely control Gmail.
  • dragdropupload – This extension is Windows only, but basically allows you to side-step the awkwardness of using the “browse…” button to find whatever file you’re attempting to upload or select by letting you drag and drop the file from a Windows Explorer window. Sounds kinda useless, but saves me a lot of time. The other day when I was at a friend’s place who lacked the extension, I found myself completely flabbergasted, as I had gotten so used to just dragging-and-dropping!
  • Firebug – Hands down, the best web developer tool of all time.
  • ForecastFox – An old favorite of mine, it lets me see a constantly updated weather status and forecast so I always know what I can wear tomorrow and how warm/cold it is once I leave my overly air conditioned/heated room.
  • Google Gears – Google’s answer to growing demand for offline capability in web application support – I use it as it gives me the ability to read my beloved Google Reader offline and support offline work in Google Docs.
  • Greasemonkey – I’ve waxed lyrical over this extension before – basically it allows users to use simple Javascript to alter or extend the functionality of a site. Case in point, I use the Greasemonkey script “Advanced Google Keys” to provide me a keyboard interface with which to navigate through Google Search results with. Instead of scrolling up and down and clicking on the next or previous links to get to the next page or using the middle mouse button to open a link in the next page, I use the up and down arrow keys to navigate through the search results, left and right arrow keys to move to the next or previous page, and using the ‘t’ key, I can switch between opening links when I hit enter in new tabs or in the current window. And this is only the beginning of what these Greasemonkey scripts can do!
  • Link Alert – This is a slightly newer extension for me, but what it does is provide me a visual cue in the form of a small icon which shows up next to the cursor which describes to me when a link I’m about to click will open in a new window, or is a PDF, or is a picture, or an RSS feed, or a Word document, etc. etc. Very useful in doing web design and in saving bandwidth when I know that I don’t have the connection speed to load up a massive PDF.
  • Scrapbook – A very useful extension which lets you save/store and even annotate web pages that you find online so that you can see them later. I’ve not only used this to store important pages (e.g. airplane tickets, hotel bookings) but also to assist me in research by providing a library for me to store web pages which I can annotate in.
  • Mozilla Weave – I was saddened to discover that Google was no longer updating their Browser Synch extension which had helped get me through the period of senior year when my laptop was broken, requiring me to eke out time on my lab computers and on my roommate Eric’s spare computer. Thankfully, it turns out Mozilla is beta-ing a new service called Weave to perform essentially the same task. It’s still in its infancy, so I’m not willing to entrust it to store my passwords and more sensitive information like cookies, but it is currently helping me synchronize bookmarks and history between the various computers which I’m currently running Firefox on.

So, what are you waiting for? Go get Firefox 3!

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Google Reader Upgrades

My favorite feed reader just got three long overdue updates:

  1. It can now count to 1000. Back before this Google Reader update (during the wild, young days of the internet), on days when I couldn’t check Google Reader, the unread post count would build up rather quickly. However, instead of being told precisely how many blog posts I had, Google would only tell me that I had “100+” unread posts. Not particularly informative for a company that prides itself on being the organizer of the world’s information. Today, it can go to 1000. I have yet to reach the point where I have that many posts unread, but at this rate, I think in another year or two, Google may update the reader so that it can count to 10,000. But right now, our technology just can’t handle numbers that big 🙂
  2. You can use “back” and “forward”. Given that Google Reader is on a webpage, you might expect that the back and forward arrows on your toolbar should work like they do on a regular webpage. But, Google Reader is no ordinary webpage: it’s an AJAX application, which means that movement from page to page is not so clear cut. Implementing “forward” and “back” has actually been a challenge for a lot of online Web developers who create AJAX applications, so it’s very nice (and quite a feat for some hapless programmer who probably had to do a lot of unappreciated behind-the-scene work) that they were able to implement this.
  3. Search. Why a company renowned for search expertise create a product without search is beyond me, but its great that Google has finally gotten around to implementing it in Google Reader, allowing me to dig through every post I’ve ever read.
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Google Reader > Bloglines

lifehacker gives a review on the new Google Reader that I’ve been touting for some time. For you Bloglines people:

  1. Google Reader lacks hideous Bloglines teal bar (although you can remove that with a Greasemonkey script)
  2. Google Reader on “startup” shows summaries of the most recent/new posts (as opposed to Bloglines which shows you random stuff)
  3. Google Reader lacks Bloglines’ 200 unread per feed limit (after you hit 200, it doesn’t store any more)
  4. Google Reader pre-fetches posts so the reading is a lot smoother
  5. Google Reader has a gmail-inspired body preview
  6. Google Reader has built-in support for tags (as opposed to folders)

Not to mention the other benefits I’ve been advocating

  1. Google Reader integrates with all the other world of Google (using the Personalized Gmail extension for Firefox, I put a Google Reader control in my gmail so I can quickly jump to my feeds from within gmail)
  2. Quicksilver-like keyboard shortcut interface
  3. Easy publicizing/sharing/aggregation scheme
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Google Reader

I use a lot of Google products/services.

Not all of them are equally worthwhile, to be frank. But, there are several that I use regularly. One which many of you are already aware of is my Blogger account, which yes, is now owned by Google (what better way to search people’s blogs than to start a blog service?).

One that I’ve been particularly impressed with is Google Reader. It, like all other google services, requires a google account (but lets face it, how many of you DON’T have one?). Up until recently, I’ve been using Sage, the RSS reader extension for Firefox to aggregate my RSS feeds. One of the reasons that I really liked Sage was that it used my Firefox browser history to point out which feed items I’ve already read (ie if I visited Jane’s LJ, Sage would know, and it wouldn’t tell me that Jane had a new post that I hadn’t seen before). The problem with that, of course, is that if I visit Jane’s LJ while I was waiting for my next class at the computer lab (and come on, who doesn’t visit Jane’s page like… every chance they get?) and I read her latest post about wine glasses, then my Sage extension at home wouldn’t know, because — well, its at home.

Enter Google Reader. It is, like Sage, a RSS feed aggregator. It is also, like my.yahoo and livejournal friends page, completely online. But, it has a few distinguishing features. Not only does it aggregate feeds for me, so that I can read the latest posts on Jane’s LJ and Greg Mankiw’s blog, but unlike my.yahoo and Sage, it does not separate them into separate lists or groups of articles, but groups them all together in one big list for me to read. Moreover, it also notes which posts I’ve already read and since its online, it means that the stuff I read when away from my laptop is still marked as read!

You can also attach tags/labels to different feeds and even different posts. For instance, I put the Sinfest, Dilbert, and PhD Comics feeds under a label called “humor” and, if all I want to do is look at humorous stuff, I use Google Reader to show me only all feeds tagged “humor”.

Google Reader also lets you publicize your feeds. If anyone’s interested, I can give the feed URLs for some of my tags so that, if you wanted, you could be reading the same stuff I’m reading when I’m on break. On the sidebar of this site, for example, is a list of articles that I’ve found and clipped as “noteworthy”.

The thing I like the most about Google Reader’s interface, however, is the keyboard shortcuts. I’m not really a big mouse guy — blame my old HP laptop for having mouse buttons which didn’t work properly, so its good to be able to navigate the interface without having to use the mouse (even though I’m now a proud owner of a VAIO with functioning mousepad). On any article that I find to be interesting, I hit “L” and I can label it as “noteworthy”. If I want to read a specific feed, I hit “g” and then “u” and it takes me to a menu of the feeds that I subscribe to, and I can then choose it. If I want to read a specific label, I hit “g” and then “l” and then I get to a menu of labels that I’ve defined. On the main interface, I can move forward and backwards through any list I’m reading by hitting “j” or “k”, and if I want view the original website where the article came from, I only have to hit “v”. And, the interface is pretty mouse-intuitive as well (scrolling on your mousewheel does what you would expect it to), for those of you who are more into the mouse thing.

About the only complaint I have is that there is no way (at least not yet) to search all the feeds that I have read for stuff. I can only search for new feeds.

Anyways, if you started getting into the whole blogosphere/feed thing, I’d definitely recommend Google Reader as a way to keep track of things. And, if someone from Google is reading this, I’d like to get paid commission :-).

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