30 day challenge: record a second of video every day

For June 2013, my 30 day challenge was to record a second of video every day. I was inspired by Cesar Kuriyama’s wonderful TED talk about how he records a second of video every day. There’s a couple things Cesar said in his talk that really resonated with me:

- “[A]s the days and weeks and months go by, time just seems to start blurring and blending into each other and, you know, I hated that“. Totally agree. One of the reasons I started doing 30 day challenges was that I was alarmed at how quickly time was passing and I wanted to make my time more memorable.
- “This has really invigorated me day-to-day, when I wake up, to try and do something interesting with my day“. Recording a second of video a day has definitely made me keep my eyes peeled for noticeable sights. That also happened when I took a picture every day for a different 30 day challenge.

Okay, enough talk. Why don’t I show you my video montage for June 2013? (I missed three days, so I added three seconds from May to make it a full 30 days.) Here’s my video:

To make this video, I used Cesar’s 1 Second EveryDay app. The app is available for iPhone and iOS devices now, and Cesar let me beta test the Android app. The Android version of the app just went live, so you can give it a try.

I really enjoyed this challenge. I definitely did more interesting things, and the video is like a diary of travel and events from June 2013. Even on boring days, there’s probably at least one fun second you can save. The video makes my life look more exciting than it actually is, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

If you’re new to 30 day challenges, recording a second of video every day is a great way to start.

30 day challenge: Chromebook Pixel

For May 2013 I decided to try making a Chromebook Pixel my primary laptop. So how did it go? Well, the short version is that I’m still a happy Pixel user, almost three months after my one month challenge started.

Previously, I was using a Thinkpad 420s running Goobuntu. In fact, I’ve been using Thinkpads since 1998, when I got my first one in grad school. Before I talk about the Pixel, here’s what I like about Thinkpads:
- Thinkpad keyboards have been the best in the industry. Great depth and just-right resistance. I especially liked the Thinkpad’s dedicated back/forward buttons for web browsing, located right near the arrow keys. Unfortunately, Lenovo has moved to “chiclet” style keyboards and dropped the back/forward buttons in newer Thinkpads.
- Thinkpads have a red rubber TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard. TrackPoint pointers are faster and more precise than trackpads or even mice for me, since you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard. I didn’t think I could use a laptop without a TrackPoint.
- Thinkpads have a consistent power connector that doesn’t change very often. Most Google conference rooms have Thinkpad and Mac power connectors, so you don’t have to haul a power cord around with you.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a black magnesium case that’s not as cold on your lap when it wakes up as aluminum.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a 1600 x 900 widescreen. Until retina-type displays came out, that was one of the highest-resolution laptops you could get.

Okay, Thinkpads are great machines. But what’s not to like?
- Battery life. When I kept my screen pretty bright, I only got 2-3 hours of battery life.
- Heavy. I didn’t notice until I started using the Pixel, but my Thinkpad 420s was 5.2 pounds. That’s pretty darn hefty for a laptop these days.

Overall though, I was very pleased with my Thinkpad and expected to return to it after the 30 day challenge was up. After all, I’ve been using Thinkpads for 15 years.

Then the Chromebook Pixel surprised me. The main thing you need to know about the Chromebook Pixel is that the screen is phenomenal. The resolution is 2560 x 1700 and 239 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 227 ppi for a Macbook Pro with retina display. To demonstrate the screen, the Pixel comes with an app called TimeScapes which is drop dead gorgeous. The screen is also a 3:2 aspect ratio, which seems weird for a few days but is actually much better for web browsing than a widescreen display because more of a web page fits on the screen.

The Pixel also comes with a terabyte of Google Drive storage for three years and 12 free Gogo wifi passes for airplane trips. And if you’re worried about the Chrome-only, cloud-only aspect of a Pixel, you can install Linux on it. Even Linus Torvalds likes it.

Okay, but how did it work over 30 days? Better than I expected. I was 12 days in when I realized I’d probably keep using the Pixel after the challenge was over. Let’s run down what’s good and bad:

Good:
- The screen. So nice. Although I don’t understand why they made it so glossy. Screens should be matte, in my opinion.
- Incredibly easy to set up. I use Chrome Sync to sign into Chrome, so basically I just logged in and all my settings, bookmarks, and extensions showed up like magic.
- No configuration. I spent most of this past January reconfiguring several new computers, so “no muss, no fuss” is a big plus.
- The battery life is better. More like five hours, so I’m not constantly looking for a power adapter. If Google puts a Haswell chip in the Pixel, the sucker should go practically all day.
- The trackpad works great. The physical texture of it is silky-smooth, and I never saw any of the glitches that affected the CR-48. Sometimes I do accidentally click when I’m touching the trackpad just to move the cursor, but that’s hard to get right.

There were a few times I missed a regular laptop though:
- John Dvorak’s blog got hacked, and I wanted to send Dvorak a snippet of code that I fetched from his server, but the Pixel doesn’t have wget installed of course. You can do SSH, so I could have SSH’ed into another computer to fetch the page, but I didn’t bother.
- At one point I was trying to download a list of my books from Good Reads in comma separated value (CSV) form so I could upload the file to My Library on Google Books. The Pixel didn’t know what to do with a .csv file, which surprised me since Gmail and Google Drive seem to handle them fine. I suspect that this is a temporary “slip between the cracks” sort of thing, since it looks like Google is working on editing Office docs on Chrome OS. There have been a few times that I’ve downloaded a file and just wanted a simple text editor to tweak 2-3 characters in the file though.
- When you have a ton of tabs open using a lot of memory, clicking back on a tab that had been unused for a long time could cause the tab to reload. If you had unsaved work in the tab, you might lose it. This got better (but not perfect) over time. I’m not sure if Chrome OS got better, or I just got more careful with my tab management though.

One thing that annoyed me (selecting large blocks of text was slow when you had to scroll) was fixed when Chrome OS updated to a newer version. I have faith that other tiny annoyances–scrolling a page with two fingers doesn’t work for some reason when your cursor is over a tab instead of a web page, for example–will also be fixed. At the same time, I haven’t fully adapted to the touch screen and dedicated search button and don’t use either as much I could. But in general, the Pixel seems like it will just continue to get faster and better over time, not slower and cruftier like most machines.

So is the Pixel perfect? Not completely, but most of that (glossy screen vs. matte, trackpad vs. TrackPoint, chiclet vs. regular laptop keyboard) is a matter of personal preference. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, I understand the decision to get a MacBook Pro with Retina display so you can run native apps. But I’m not in the Apple ecosystem, and I actually like a machine that discourages me from keeping too much data locally.

A lot of people poke fun at Chromebooks saying that they’re not much use without a WiFi connection. Personally, I believe that practically any computer is not much use without a network connection. Chromebooks are getting better at working well offline, but I have to say: the Pixel I’m using has an LTE option for when WiFi isn’t available, and I didn’t need to use the LTE connection on the Pixel any time in the last three months. Especially when you take the Google Drive storage and 12 internet passes into account, the Pixel is quite a good deal for a premium laptop. I’m going to keep using it.

This is getting long, so I’ll close with an anecdote. My Dad visited earlier this month. I gave him a Samsung Chromebook as a loaner for his visit and he’s been using it happily. He logged into his Gmail account in Chrome and his bookmarks and other Chrome settings just showed up. Dad’s laptop back home is about 5 years old, so we stopped by the Apple store. I was going to outfit him with a top-of-the-line MacBook; since he goes for years between upgrades, I wanted him to have a laptop that would last as long as possible. But after noticing the price, he balked. “Matt, we can buy ten Chromebooks for that much money,” he told me. We’re still discussing it, but the $250 Samsung Chromebook does everything he needs. I think more and more people will discover that’s true for them as well. I’ve been surprised how well the Chromebook Pixel works for me.

30 day challenge: no social media, no news

I realized that I didn’t mention this widely: my current 30 day challenge (July 2013) is not to read any news or social media. So no Twitter, Google News, Techmeme, Google+, Hacker News, Reddit, Imgur, etc. So if you’re wondering why I haven’t replied to a question, that’s the reason. I might still share a link if I run across something interesting, but I’m trying not to read any social media or news.

Why am I doing this? I find it to be a useful challenge. I’m crunching on a bunch of stuff and really wanted to get my head down and focus on some projects. I did this challenge in January 2013 and got a ton of stuff done. After the no-news challenge in January, I started surfing Twitter less often. I’d still check in every 3-4 days to read the tweets that people were sending my way, but otherwise I’d hit Nuzzel to skim just the most important tweets.

Longer-term, I’m trying to find a healthier approach to news and social media. On the spectrum of books to magazines to newspapers to social media with its second-by-second focus, I’d like to shift my media consumption more toward books and research. I’d also like to spend less time consuming media and more time doing things. See Clay Johnson’s Information Diet book for more about those kinds of ideas.

The heart of a computer is now the network connection

Back in the 90s, the heart of a computer was the CPU. The faster the CPU, the better the computer was–you could do more, and the speed of the CPU directly affected your productivity. People upgraded their computers or bought new ones whenever they could to take advantage of faster CPU speeds.

I remember the point when computers got “fast enough” though. Around 1997 or 1998, computers started hitting 166 MHz or 200 MHz and you could feel the returns diminishing. At some point, the heart of a computer switched from being a CPU to the hard drive. What mattered wasn’t the speed of your Intel or AMD chip, but the data that you had stored on your computer.

The era of the hard drive lasted for a decade or so. Now I think we’re shifting away from the hard drive to the network connection. Or at least the heart of a computer has shifted for me. In 2006 I contemplated a future where “documents sat in a magic Writely [note: now Google Docs] cloud where I could get to them from anywhere.” Sure enough, I keep all my important files in Google Docs now. At this point, if I have a file that sits only on a local hard drive, I get really nervous. I’ve had local hard drives fail. By 2008, I was spending 98% of my time in a web browser.

Don’t get me wrong. Local hard drives are great for caching things. Plus sometimes you want to run apps locally. But for most people, the heart of a computer will soon be its network connection. Ask yourself: could you get by with a minimal hard drive? Sure. Plenty of people store their files on Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud, or SkyDrive. Or they back up their data with CrashPlan, SpiderOak, Carbonite, or Mozy. But would you want a computer that couldn’t browse the web, do email, or watch YouTube videos? Not likely.

Funny SEO emails, part 6

Folks at Google get cold-call emails out of the blue just like everybody else. Here’s an email that a colleague of mine got recently:

I was on your website www.google.com and wanted to shoot you a quick note. I think I can make a few changes (aesthetically and/or SEO – wise) to make your site convert more visitors into leads and to get it placed higher in the organic search results, for a few of the select terms.

This is NOT like one of those foreign emails you probably get in your inbox every day. Just to be upfront I have 3 agents that work with me for development /SEO.

I would just need to know which (if not both) services you’re open to checking out information about, either web design or SEO. Would you be open to seeing more brief info / quote for what I would like to accomplish?

Regards,
XXXXXX XXXXX

So this person is offering help to convert Google visitors into leads. Or, you know, to improve Google’s rankings in organic search results. Sigh.

Earlier this week, I got a different email that said

I would like to extend our knowledge to your audience in the form of a uest post [sic]. This post will be written by a college educated writer fluent in English.

To recap we will provide-
- 100% original guest post with statical [sic] data and studies from professional writers.

Here’s my rule of thumb: if someone sends you an email with an SEO offer out of the blue, be skeptical. For example, check out some other fun SEO emails that I’ve gotten in the past.

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