My tablet, not ready for prime time…

Don’t get me wrong. I really love my Nexus 10. It is great for web- or social network-surfing at the breakfast table, on the couch or wherever. I like the Kindle app for reading color comics and children’s books that aren’t compatible with my Kindle Touch. And it’s a nifty portable stereo, accessing my music from where Google magically placed it somewhere in the cloud. But can it replace the computer? Not even close.

It’s not the awkward keyboard, although that is part of it. I got a wireless keyboard to help with that, and it’s only a little cumbersome to set up. However, I don’t break it out much, because it’s not as convenient as going upstairs and using the desktop.

Here are the issues bugging me:

a) Apps don’t work well or consistently. The New York Times app is gloriously beautiful one day, gloriously broken the next. All apps seem to have these issues. But they are still better than…

b) Web site viewing, which ranges from fine to completely unintelligible. That’s just in the browser. When an app, like Feedly, tries to display websites, behavior gets even worse. And the apps won’t let me switch to the browser when they get overwhelmed. Web browsing is the primary function of the tablet, and it should work very well always.

c) Constant crashing. I can’t figure out what causes it. It’s inconsistent. But it happens all. the. time.

What does my tablet get right? Google Now is awesome. Right now, I use it to check the weather, my calendar, shipped packages, nearby events, driving times, winter olympics standings, college basketball scores, TV show recaps, book reviews. It knows what I like based on my Google searches and Gmail usage. Spooky, right? But here is an example of all that data mining being put to good use, i.e., to a use that directly and immediately benefits me.

I’m not ready to give up the desktop just yet. The tablet will have to get a lot more reliable before I am. But will I give up my tablet? Not likely.

On privacy…




The Circle by Dave Eggers

One of the ideas explored in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is the loss, and even voluntary relinquishing, of privacy in a world where everything is filmed and nothing is ever deleted. Considering the revelations this year about the NSA’s electronic snooping, and the knowledge that big companies like Facebook and Google are monetizing our personal information, we should be asking whether privacy is dying or dead. And if it’s not, how can we protect it?

Given the advances in technologies like information storage and retrieval and facial recognition, it almost seems inevitable that anonymity will go away. Rather than struggle against this reality, it might make more sense to figure out how we can best live within it. David Brin suggests that total transparency is the best way to do this–no more secrets for anybody, including corporations and governments. The emerging dystopia portrayed in The Circle also advocated this, except of course, there were ways to circumvent even total transparency, if someone was powerful enough.

In The Circle, most people opted in to the emerging system. They willingly went transparent in exchange for the benefits they were offered: convenience, simplicity, security, popularity. In this dystopia and similar ones like Feed by M.T. Anderson, it is easy enough to see that privacy may become an anachronism, something the young folks shrug off as “not such a big deal.”

In order to remain truly anonymous, you must turn into something of an electronic hermit, or even a literal one. But with face recognition software, cameras installed in every convenience store and stoplight, and private drones manning the skies — all technologies that are either here or coming soon — even that might not be enough.

I think the issue is more about control over our own information. People always have, and always will, demand agency over their own lives. Who has the control now: corporations and governments, or individuals? Right now, the balance is tipping toward the former. But this is a fight we could wage, and quite possibly win. It’s not a question of never posting anything to Facebook or Google or a blog ever again, although if that is your choice, it’s a valid one. But we should still be able to participate in the positive aspects of these new technologies without sacrificing our agency over our own lives in return.

For further reading: David Brin on the transparent society; A World Without Privacy (NYT opinion piece on The Circle); or just Google “is privacy dead” for about a million opinions on the subject.

Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

Will you use Google Keep?

Following right on the announcement of the demise of our beloved Google Reader, Google announces Google Keep, a note-taking app. I haven’t tried it because I already use Springpad, and I’m reluctant to move everything over to a new app. Springpad also organizes my notes nicely into virtual notebooks; I’m not sure if Keep does this or if it’s more like sticky notes, which, quite frankly, fails to wow me.

A bigger question for me is what if I do start using Google Keep and grow to depend on it, and then Google kills it off? Many others have had similar thoughts, and an article at the Guardian predicts, based on an analysis of the average lifespan of Google products that are eventually killed off, that Google Keep will last about 4 years. “And then either your data will die, or it will have to be collected and then toted around like an old sofa, which will then have to be pushed up the stairs into a new service.”

Many of us can remember Google Notebook, which wasn’t the greatest note-taking application, but which I used because it integrated with all my other Google things. Where is it now? In the Google Graveyard, where Reader will soon  be laid to rest.

Freedom from email…

I recently turned off all the email notifications on my mobile devices. Pretty much all of the email I get is non-urgent, so why do I need to be notified right away whenever I get a message? Actually, I don’t. It feels like I cut the electronic umbilical cord. I am only checking email two or three times a day, on my schedule.

Like the telephone, email has become almost useless but still necessary. I still do quite a lot of work on email, and it’s important that people be able to get in touch with me easily that way. But I get so many unnecessary emails each day, so many social-network updates and newsletters and notifications of “deals,” that the noise of it overwhelms me. By turning off that little email notification icon on my phone and tablet, I turn off the perceived urgency of email. Rather than email ruling me, demanding that I read and respond when it comes in, I can now manage it, on my own terms.

So how do people get a hold of me? Surprisingly, Google+ has become the best way. Many of the people who I want and need to talk to on a regular basis use Google+, and there is very little noise (so far). Pretty much every conversation initiated on Google+ is a conversation I want to have. So I have left the Google+ notifications on. A phone call or a text are also effective if a quick response is needed.

Notifications from other social networks or from my blogs are generally non-urgent, so I deal with them when I read my email–once or twice daily. It’s such a simple thing, but turning off non-urgent notifications on the devices I always have with me has removed a big stressor from my life. Would you consider turning off your email or social network notifications, or would you miss not being immediately informed?

Walking the world wide web…

I published my first book 17 years ago. It was called Walking the World Wide Web, and it was an edited selection of all the best websites out there, with detailed reviews. It’s hard to believe now, but the web was so young in the mid-90s that it was possible to list a large percentage of the available websites in a book, and not a very thick one at that.

I remember that one of the sites I reviewed in my book was Boing Boing. It’s one of the oldest sites on the web, and it’s still going strong. Back then, it was a catalog of wonderful things — meaning things on the Internet — and that’s essentially what it still is today. But it remains immensely popular because it’s very good at helping people find good stuff to read and look at on the web, which has become an increasingly difficult job for any casual web surfer.

Sometimes I wonder what my career would have been like if I had built on the success of my first book and become a web curator like Boing Boing or Kottke. Who would have guessed back then that such a thing as website curation could be a career, and a lucrative one at that?

I think we are going to need good curators more than ever in the near future. I have read that Google will be making some changes to its search algorithms so that websites can no longer rely on SEO and keywords to get to the top of search results. Instead, links and social networking shares will be major factors in determining which sites float to the top. This is good news for all of us web surfers, because our Google search results will be more likely to show us quality content, rather than all that search engine-optimized filler. But it means there will be a need for more curators who are finding good sites, writing about them and sharing the links with a broad audience.

And I suspect — or maybe I hope? — that busy people will be more willing to pay for good curation.

A circling strategy for Google+…

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to deal with the firehose on Google+ while discovering new and interesting people to follow. I got myself down to 6 circles, and I think this will work fairly well.

My top 3 circles are Family, Friends and Following. Following is for people I have engaged with or find particularly interesting. (The others are self-explanatory.) I see everything from these circles in my stream and all 3 are fairly small.

Then I have a Circled Me and an Interesting circle. The first one is for people I don’t know who circled me. The second is for people I think might be interesting to follow who didn’t circle me. I’ve turned the volume down on those circles and occasionally, I check them directly. If someone from one of those circles engages with me or posts consistently interesting content, they get moved to Following.

Finally, there’s a circle of people who are relevant to my work, which I can direct certain on-topic posts to.

Simplicity seems to be the way to go in Google+. If you like what I post here, you’ll probably like what I post there as well.

Tips for managing your Google+ stream…

Over the past few months, I have moved most of my social networking from Twitter to Google+. I like the longer, more graphical posts provided by the Google+ format, and while people are sharing a lot of links, they are also writing extended commentary on those links that the Twitter character limit doesn’t allow. Because the comments are right underneath the post, it is also possible to have extended conversations about a post. But Google+ doesn’t seem to have the detritus, the meaningless conversations or the commercial flotsam of Facebook (at least not yet). You can follow me on Google+ here.

However, as more people have joined the network, I have noticed how much harder it is to keep up with all the content flowing in. You can add people to circles divided by subjects of interest, but all that content is still pumped into your main stream. If you follow any particularly prolific posters, it can soon become overwhelming.

That’s why I was glad I discovered the Plus Minus extension for Google Chrome. This handy tool lets me control via simple checkboxes which circles contribute content to my main stream. Whenever I log onto Google+, only the posts that come from the people who are most important to me show up on the main page. Another useful tool provided by Plus Minus is the ability to “shrink” posts, so that I can hide what I’ve already read or what I’m not interested in just by clicking an arrow.

Now that I can control the firehose of posts going into my main stream, I found that it was also necessary to control my reading. Otherwise, I’d browse Google+ all day and never do anything else. I created circles around my primary interests, such as news, geeky stuff, cooking, politics and books. I assigned each circle a day of the week, and on that day, I only pick posts from its corresponding circle to read. This helps me focus on the reading rather than feeling like I have to wade through an ocean of content.

As for posting, I try to post one or two public items per day so that potential followers know what kind of content I’m sharing. For the rest, I try to confine posting to that circle of interest. Personal posts typically are limited to friends and family. This takes advantage of Google+’s most powerful feature: circles. If you are in my Geeks circle, you’ll only see my science and tech posts; you won’t be bothered by cooking or political content. Of course, many people occupy multiple circles. Fortunately, when I shrink a post in one circle using the Plus Minus extension, it stays closed across all circles, so I don’t see it multiple times.

With Plus Minus, Google+ has become more fun and more manageable. I definitely prefer the content I’m seeing there to what can be found on Twitter, which isn’t meaty enough, or Facebook, which usually isn’t relevant to me. Of course, if I still want to share on other networks, there is a service for that: Plusist. It automates posting of public Google+ items to either Facebook or Twitter, or both.

Tips for using Google+ smarter…

Every time I play with Google+, I seem to discover another neat new feature. Here are some quick tips for improving your Google+ experience.

Notice the Share button in the upper right corner of some of your (not all) Google apps, like Reader and Gmail. This enables you to post a quick share from other Google windows. Pretty nice! It would be even nicer if it were integrated with Reader and Documents, i.e., if I could share what I was reading or writing right now.

There is also a Notifications button up there that turns red when you receive a new notification (someone comments on your post, tags you or adds you to a circle). Since this is so easy to track, you can turn off sending notifications to your email if you find that annoying (I did). Click the little wheel icon in the upper right corner and choose Google+ Settings to change your notifications-to-email settings.

When you see someone’s name in your stream, you can hover your mouse over the name to quickly see which of your circles they are in or to add them to a circle, and to see who else you have in common in your circles.

If you want to share with just one person, add their name in the post with @ or + in front. Then remove all circles. To make it completely private, disable resharing by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Check the Incoming area. This shows you what people are saying if they have added you to their circles, but you haven’t added them. These posts don’t go into your main stream. This is a useful way of keeping up with your followers even if you don’t want to put them in your circles.

(I do wish we could exclude certain circles from posting to our main stream. Some circles definitely produce more noise than others. Seems like an easy enough feature to add.)

And remember:

  •  +1 is the same thing as like.
  • Someone adding you to a circle does not mean you’ve added them.
  • When you post something, you control which circles see it.

I’m still having fun with Google+. I hope to see even more folks there.

Thoughts on Google+…

I was lucky enough to get into Google+ today. Here are my initial thoughts.

My first reaction: Whoa, I like this! Google+ looks a lot like Facebook’s more mature older brother, the one with a real job. It is a clean interface, not cluttered with all the garbage that comes with Facebook, and everything is very easy and intuitive to use. It’s a pleasure to browse.

What I specifically like:

  • Circles are great! Circles are Google’s metaphor for different groups of people you want to network with. It is so easy to drag and drop any contact into a circle. Then, you can choose which circle to share with when you post a link, photo, video or note. For instance, I can share photos of my kid being adorable just with my Friends and Family circles, arrange playgroups with my Neighbors circle, and trade interesting links with my Net Friends circle. Circles are not only intuitive, they mimic the way we interact socially in real life better than any other social network I’ve seen.
  • Hangouts are just cool! Hangouts provide a way to video chat with any circle of contacts. It is so easy to use. I was able to set this up and start chatting in less than a minute. You just open up a hangout and wait for others from your circle to join you. This is a great tool for virtual teams or for far-flung friends and family.

Now, here’s what I want:

  • Google Buzz no longer seems necessary. I want Google+ to replace Buzz and do what Buzz does. Specifically, I want to be able to easily share items from Google Reader to my circles.
  • Since I now use so many Google tools, I would love to make Google+ my hub on the Internet. But I know that not all of my contacts are going to migrate over. So I need an easy way to broadcast what I share on Google+ to Twitter, Facebook and my blogs. (There is an extension for Chrome that allows me to send posts to Twitter and Facebook, but I’d like to see it built in so it’s less awkward.)
  • I’m not yet sure what value Sparks adds. Sparks are items pulled from the web on subjects of interest, but right now, there doesn’t seem to be any good way to refine or customize this list. Maybe I need to play with it more.
  • I’d like more people from Facebook/Twitter to join! Once Google+ opens up to a wider group of users, I’d love it if they’d make it easy for me to invite my contacts from other social networking sites. Right now, you can only easily add your Google Contacts to circles.
  • By default, I think there are too many email notifications, but this is easily remedied. To turn off any of the notifications, click the little wheel in the top right corner and choose Google+ Settings.
  • Oh, one more thing: Real-time updating of my stream would be real, real nice. Come on, Google! (Done!)

All in all, I’m very excited about the possibilities of Google+. So, when can I drop my Facebook account for good?

Google doesn’t seem to be sending out invitations right now for Google+, due to insane demand. If you happen to get on and want to invite your friends, here is a sneaky way to do it (and this is how I got in).