Emails I actually look forward to

I’ve been meaning to write a post for the past few months on the select group of things I actually enjoy over email. I still go through 100 or so messages every day and most of them are either things I ignore or things that require attention and work from me, leaving very few that I look forward to and enjoy. I put this post off for so long that Jason Kottke already wrote about one of those beloved emails, the weekly Quora email.

Just to build on what Jason already wrote, by a fluke of weird Facebook integration, I have two separate accounts at Quora (I asked, but they can’t be merged) listed as Matt Haughey and Matthew Haughey, one of those having more of my personal hobbies in the profile. I get two weekly emails instead of one and as a result, I can kind of see what is happening behind the scenes. At least half of the email contents are identical. I suspect they are plucking questions from their popular pile and they’re almost always intriguing. The rest stick to personal subjects and here’s where I am continually impressed. One of my accounts has “cycling” attached to it and I get really niche questions about bike racing, training, and equipment, sometimes with only 1-2 answers and they are fascinating and I’m amazed at how well they are at digging up niche content I want to read about. My other account skews more towards technical web development questions and those are often quite good as well. I’m kind of in awe about how they do so well with an automated message each week, I’d be curious to know what kind of technology and workflow they’ve built to make the weekly emails so good.

The other email I look forward to is a daily digest of links culled from my Twitter followers by Percolate. Here’s what a typical day’s email looks like. I follow about 500 people on Twitter, and this site automatically figures out not just what links my friends talked about the most, but also the most interesting links that only 1 or 2 people linked to from Twitter. I don’t know how they’re doing this on the backend, but since most days I don’t have time to read an entire 24hrs of my timeline at Twitter, this is a nice fall back of interesting links shared by my friends.

Lastly, I like getting Dave Pell’s NextDraft each afternoon. It’s basically a general interest blog (that doesn’t exist as a blog online) delivered by email and it’s a good overview of what the internet is currently interested in and/or freaking out about. There’s also a dose of pop culture stuff I would completely miss otherwise.

Those are the three emails I love getting every so often. I haven’t yet subscribed to Evening Edition or The Brief, even though I’ve heard good things about both summaries-via-email services.

Auto uploads of data to Strava from a Garmin Edge 510

image from static.garmincdn.comThis is a pretty niche trick, but I recently figured out how to finally upload activities to Strava wirelessly using the latest Garmin Edge 510.

The newest Garmin Edge computers offer bluetooth sync to your phone, which is then used for real-time mapping of your rides, weather alerts, and when you’re done with a ride, automatic uploads of data to the Garmin Connect site. It’s very handy to just press “Save” at the end of your ride and have your data uploaded to their site but the only problem is the Garmin Connect site pales in comparison to the fitness site Strava, which offers more tools for analysis as well as a ton of social features. The problem with getting data to Strava is you have to sync your Edge bike computer with a USB cable after every ride, even though you can go a week or two without needing a charge.

Ever since I got the Edge 510, I’ve wondered how to easily transfer ride files from Garmin Connect to Strava so I could skip the cable-required-sync, and after a bunch of research I found a fairly odd little hack is available at GarminSync.com. The downside is that Strava doesn’t currently offer an API, so you have to store your username/password at GarminSync, but once linked up, it does exactly what I wanted. You hit “Save” on your bike computer, it uploads to Garmin Connect, and a few minutes later that ride is also posted to your Strava account. It’s great and does exactly what I wanted.

I suspect Garmin’s running watches will soon share smartphone features as well, so this auto-upload-to-Strava thing may come in handy there too someday.

How to make your own Fusion drive

I’ve got a previous generation iMac, the first that came with a 256Gb SSD drive as an option, and I also had a 2Tb hard drive added to it, for longer term storage of things like photos, music, and movies that didn’t fit on the first drive. It has worked well since I bought it a couple summers ago, the OS and applications reside on the SSD and are lightning fast, totally worth the expense of adding SSD as an option, while archived stuff and media still work well on the larger hard drive.

The downside to this setup was that it required lots of hacks to do things like symlink home folders to the larger drive and I had to tell every app to store data in a custom location on the bigger hard drive (apps always defaulted to storage on the SSD). It was a pain to manage and when my storage needs exceeded the 256Gb+2Tb capacity, I recently bought a new iMac featuring a 3Tb Fusion drive.

Last Fall, the newest iMac debuted with a Fusion drive, based on a combination SSD/HD setup that puts most frequently used files on the SSD to speed up operations while automatically moving larger files and seldom used files to the hard drive. It “cloaks” the two disks into appearing as a single disk, making file management among your apps and OS much easier.

As I recently found out, if you have the dual SSD/HD setup in a mac, you can also create a Fusion drive, combining the two. I found loads of conflicting information about this online but wanted to write up what worked for me.

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1. This will require erasing your drives eventually, so it works best when you’re setting things up from scratch or when you’re ready to start over. Be sure to backup all your old data to external disks before proceeding. I suggest Carbon Copy Cloner to backup both existing drives in your iMac to a single external large drive.

2. Download the OS X Recovery tool and install it onto a USB key. This lets you boot to a USB thumb drive and run a minimal set of tools like disk utility and the terminal, both necessary for the operation. You must do this on the machine you intend to turn into a Fusion drive.

3. Boot up your mac with the option key held down to boot to your recovery drive. Select the orange USB drive option and it should say “Recovery Disk” on it.

4. Follow the instructions here at cnet. It starts with making new single partitions on each drive, both your SSD and your hard drive. Then you close Disk Utility and go to the menu bar to run Terminal. Do the set of commands listed at cnet. My commands to create the combined drive used disk0 and disk1s2.

5. When complete, quit Terminal and the main utilities menu will pop up again. You can double-check your work by seeing only one physical disk in the Disk Utility app, and when you’re done simply run the  “Reinstall OS X” option and let it do its thing.

Thoughts surrounding Google Reader’s demise

First off, I'm sad to see Google Reader is closing up soon (why so soon when other Google apps came with 12-18 months of notice?). I know some people that developed and worked on the product and to this day I use it several times a day to keep up on a few hundred blogs I follow (as well as weirder feed things like like recent comments in specific posts I'm interested in, obscure search results at ebay for items I'm tracking, and of course, mentions of my name or sites across blogs). I use the service almost as much as I use Twitter and it wasn't easy news to take, since I thought it'd always be around like water or electricity, run by the largest technology company on earth. Now I'm left second guessing using any Google product that doesn't clearly carry advertising on it, knowing the plug can be pulled at any time. I thought I'd write up some thoughts below and some quick reviews of alternates in the hopes others in the same boat can figure out what to do next.

Why is RSS interesting?

I admit the world of RSS is a pretty geeky circle to run in (if you know what RSS stands for, you're officially in the club). You've got a mix of web technologists, nerds, and news junkies that are all so busy that they no longer want to browse the web, they'd rather check a stream of updates that were fetched for them. RSS is basically TiVo for the web, and like TiVo in say, the year 1999, only the hardest core nerds are interested in it. Most web users love it and find it useful once you explain how it works (sites publish a file that gets periodically checked and fetched, to be reposted in your client of choice for reading updates) but like TiVo, it's a huge hurdle to get over, to explain to people why this technology is worth it and saves so much time.

Why should anyone care about Google Reader?

Google Reader was the best of breed. It started around 2005 and became one of the first few web-based services for reading RSS. Up until then most people used a desktop app to read RSS feeds from sites, but I personally liked the flexibility of using a web browser on any computer to stay up to date on what I'd read (it's a lot like the old days of POP email, if your unread counts get out of sync across devices, email was harder to use). Around 2007, Google Reader started adding more features and getting easier to use, by 2010 Google Reader was getting fairly amazing, notifying you of new posts within seconds of them going up (relying on the global network of Googlebots scouring the web) and being able to provide feeds for pages without RSS

My favorite time is around mid-2011, by then Google Reader was fast, easy to use, reliable, available on my mobile devices natively in a browser or also in a client like Reeder, and there was also a hidden social network of other news junkies and nerds. You could share items to the public or just your friends, you could comment on articles just among friends you'd connected with. I used to follow random people I didn't know in any other context but knew them through their amazing shared items. Most all the social stuff was stripped in late 2011 to make way for Google+ share buttons, but they didn't work the same and took your shared items away from Reader into an entirely other site so few people used them.

Google Reader announcing they are going away soon is a huge problem. It means the loss of a beloved app for a lot of nerds and news junkies, including a great number of journalists, not only those working in the technology field. It means a lot of tiny blogs won't get noticed as easily if we won't be able to easily monitor infrequently updated blogs written by experts. I'm convinced we'll see some effects of this closure on journalism, until writers scramble to find alternate ways to monitor thousands of contacts and researchers writing online.

While Google was innovating on Reader from 2005-2013, pretty much every competitor slipped away. Desktop clients were waning, web-based locally hosted readers gave up development as Google surpassed what a few small developers worth of resources could create and eventually many apps simply tied into a centralized Feed API Google launched so you could basically use Google Reader in different clients and interfaces, always keeping your sync/read numbers correct. Recently I noticed quite of lot of filtering has found its way into Google Reader, where I'm only presented with new posts from my most favorite sources at the top when my unread counts are high, which is a nice touch and points to some interesting AI happening in the background to figure those out for me.

The thorny problems of writing your own

Everyone I know is scrambling for alternative services and there are a handful around and many more being built. Seeing these new smaller outfits with their servers being slammed by a few thousand new users indicates just how big and reliable the Google infrastructure behind Reader is. There are a lot of thorny issues to solve for anyone planning to make a successor to Google Reader:

1. The update bot – Google had the advantage of having not only thousands of server farms across the world but many thousands of bots running constantly across millions of sites every day checking for updates. Building a bot isn't the hardest thing in the world, but building one that can quickly scan through hundreds of thousands of sites a day is non-trivial and is a major endeavor. Keeping one running is more than a full time job.

2. Feed APIs – The central brain of any RSS reading app is often available via programming interfaces so your UI can stay in sync with your website view and mobile apps. A lot of current RSS readers rely on the Google Feed API that is likely going away, so it'll be a fairly big project for anyone to rebuild this for their app. I have heard talk of people trying to share resources here, attempting to make a centralized service others can use, but I don't have high hopes of that coming together in the very short time frame we have.

3. Search – I recall someone formerly at Google once telling me that providing custom search across all your feeds was a huge undertaking that basically requires a service to keep a copy of every blog post in every blog ever tracked in the entire system, and provide that indefinitely. I don't use search much in Google Reader but I hear that's a killer feature for many others. The feature obviously ramps up your storage needs for any project.

4. Economics – The toughest problem to solve is in the end, how many people would pay for building and maintaining a service? How many users did Google Reader ever have, and what small number would pay someone else to try and make something as good? This is the tough part and beyond a few thousand nerds, I'm not sure if you can convince a larger casual web audience that your product is worth paying for. A lot of outfits are trying to create magazine-like applications that suggest interesting articles from their system and that may be the way to lure the "normals" to a news reading service, but it's tough to say even after building the immense hardware and software required to run a reader-type app, if it's possible to support more than a tiny team of 2-3 programmers on the revenue from users. That said, I'm actually wary of RSS reading apps that don't charge. I want anything replacing Google Reader to stick around.

Quick reviews of existing readers

Since the announcement, I've been playing with alternatives to Google Reader. I didn't try out any desktop or self-installed applications since I move from computer to computer fairly often and need everything to be centralized and web-based. Here's some quick thoughts on each service currently out there:

Feedbin: This is a nice simple reader interface, clean and doesn't get in the way. I'd describe it as feeling like 2007-era Google Reader before they added social features to the app. It costs $12/yr which is good to hear, but so far I've found myself having to click every headline to see a post, as it doesn't seem to offer the low-friction "river of news" showing all new posts from all the blogs you follow in a single stream that automatically marks themselves as read as you scroll. This also required an uploaded backup of my Google Reader blog list, causing it to think every single blog I follow had all new items. This meant I had to hit "mark as read" for all and start over.

Newsblur: A popular suggested service to me was this one, which is normally free up until I think 100 feeds then it is $24/yr and I saw a $36/yr option for the heaviest users. This service is slammed and took me a day to even sign up, but once on their development server, I was really happy with this. I could import my blogs directly from Google Reader and it maintained read/unread status for me. The feature set is really close to maybe 2010-era Google Reader, with a social component including sharing and comments from friends, but I also noticed comments on posts from random readers which could be kind of annoying. There are some attempts to filter items towards stuff you like most, but so far this one is the big champ for a reader replacement.

Feedly: Feedly is slick looking, but annoying in ways. It requires the use of a Chrome extension in my browser that also inserts a little ghosted share icon/feature into the lower right corner of every web page you view, which bugged me. The default views are trying to look like the Flipboard iPad app, but you can get a Reader-like view if you jump deeper into it. I gave up on this shortly after I imported my blogs from Google Reader as it seemed the service was also built on the Google Feed API and would need to transition off that soon. The service seems free so I'd be wary of jumping on board long-term as a replacement.

The Old Reader: This is something I dabbled with last year and coming back to it again I noticed it's pretty close to the way Google Reader looked and worked in 2010-11. They built it to bring back the sharing and commenting aspects, but the service is fairly slow since the Google Reader announcement and I didn't notice a way to pay for an account, so I'm not sure what the future prospects are for it.

There are a lot more options out there and since I tweeted what was essentially meant as a "I volunteer as Tribute to help build a new RSS reader"  I've heard from another half-dozen or so developers and companies working on a Google Reader replacement, so expect to see many more options soon in the coming months.

The Veronica Mars Kickstarter is going to be a huge success

I've never watched an episode of Veronica Mars, but I can already tell this Kickstarter is going to be huge, wildly surpass their goals, and become a film fans will love. How do I know? Because: Hit and Run.

 

This was a little movie written, directed, and starring Kristen Bell's husband Dax Shepard. It's a goofy little movie, part road-trip, part who-done-it, but very funny with smart dialogue. I rented it a few weeks ago on AppleTV not expecting much and was surprised by how much I liked this goofy little film. It has a look of a film that says "anyone can do this, you too can make an entertaining little picture."

I did a little research (read the IMDB page) and realized why I loved it so much: it only cost $2M to make. Comic book movie blockbusters are now costing in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars, and this little two million dollar movie has done over fourteen million dollars in business, I'm sure making it quite the successful project for everyone involved. There was something about the movie that reminded me of the first time I went online in the mid-1990s and saw the web as one giant "anyone can do this, you too can make a great website" message.

So I have a feeling Kristen Bell can make a wonderful little $2M movie that people will love since she already did it last summer.

LinkedIn is a Virus

So today this happened:

 

And I feel like I should explain how this went down, because the event and the aftermath have been interesting.

It started when I was responding to a friend asking me to connect on LinkedIn, via the automated emails. I get about 4-5 a week and I usually ignore 90% of them since I don’t recognize the name of the person asking me, but this one was different. I clicked the “connect” button in the HTML email, and got a page saying we were connected and by the way, do you want to import your address book to find more people?

I’d known the person that asked me to connect for about 8 years, so I figured I should try their Gmail connection tool to see who else I’ve known for years that I’ve missed. I clicked a button, it started importing, then it gave me a page showing six people with check boxes by each (everyone auto-checked) with a button to send an invite. I didn’t recognize 5 of the 6 people so I unchecked those, and hit the big connect button, not knowing that it was auto-selecting 1,138 other names I had to scroll down to see. I realized this mistake soon after clicking, and closed my browser tab hoping that would halt the process.

It didn’t.

The aftermath has been annoying, fun, interesting, and illuminating. Responses started coming back in at the rate of about 10-12 per minute for the first 15 minutes. A few people wrote personal notes back, which was nice. Two people called me, both people I barely exchanged email with for business reasons years ago.

After they started slowing down, I began reading them all and realized a few things:

  • There are a lot of social media manager type jobs
  • A heck of a lot of people work at Facebook now
  • Gmail treats subject lines as duplicates on first names and the clear winner of most responed-to LinkedIn requests are from other people named Matt and Matthew. There must be a reason for this.
  • People work at a lot of weird startups I’ve never heard of
  • It emailed every person I’ve ever interacted with over Gmail, I got one response from someone that works at a trucking company, probably because I fixed a typo of theirs on MetaFilter years ago

It’s unfortunate that LinkedIn works the way it does and that this happened, most people that responded to me with messages thought I was making a concerted gesture and trying to reconnect, and/or about to look for a job. I think of business contacts as a pretty serious thing, I don’t hand out business cards readily unless I really want to be called up by someone, and yet, LinkedIn just pushed out connections to over a thousand people on my behalf without me knowing what it was really doing.