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What is this Twitter thing all about?

August 31st, 2009 No comments

Unless you’ve been living in a cave that is protected from wireless internet access, own a tin foil hat, wear that tin foil hat with the shiny side facing out, and haven’t been talking to the hermit living in the cave two down from yours, you have probably heard mention of Twitter.

My friend Dave first mentioned Twitter about two years back.  On the surface, Twitter seems like a remarkably useless service.  “It’s basically like having nothing but Facebook status updates, all the time, and you follow a whole bunch of people and stay updated with them via those”.
This is the most common description that I’ve heard, and it’s a reasonably accurate one.  However, one of my projects before school was to start using Twitter myself, and see what it meant to me and my own set of use cases.
The main reason I had set this as a goal to accomplish was because the more I have heard about Twitter, the less it sounded like something that I could effectively evaluate from the outside.  Sometimes you simply need to immerse yourself in something in order to get a feel for whether or not it presents a piece of technology that could benefit you.  This is often the case for technology, as it often enables you to do something you had previously not even realized would be of value to you.  Since, up until this point, I never had the capability to broadcast a message to a large number of friends instantaneously, it would be very difficult for me to objectively evaluate whether or not being able to do so would provide any tangible benefit.  How could I know for sure if I’d never had that capability in the past?
One of the things that I took away from Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody (a recommended read) was that as people tend to age, we typically lose our ability to jump on board something new, oftentimes making the determination that it is a fad and a waste of time without ever giving ourself the time to really evaluate it.  By the time it’s caught on in a big way and we realize that we need to learn this thing to get by in the modern world, we are considerably far behind and have a significant amount of catching up to do.
Although it is inevitable that as we age, we lose our agility and ability to adapt as quickly as we once did, I believe that I can take steps to minimize the scale and speed at which this happens to myself.  One of the ways for me to slow this inevitability is to do things like set aside time to evaluate new pieces of technology.
An important thing to mention is that I am not suggesting the choices are binary, and that you can either adapt and start using Twitter, or not adapat and become extinct.  However, by taking the time to actually evaluate a new piece of technology like this, I can determine whether or not it is something that I will actually find use for in the future (in which case it is worth my time getting to know it now).
This project was a fairly small one.  My goals were to create a Twitter account and use it over the course of the next week.  I didn’t have any stipulations as to how I used Twitter, just that I actually make use of it in some capacity – even if that meant updating about something as meaningless as eating dinner at Boston Pizza.  While some people would deem this a waste of time, I think that part of immersing myself in something like Twitter means that I don’t set boundaries for how I use it.  The real point is just that I use it.  Legitimate use cases may grow out of that usage organically and serendipitously over time.  If they don’t, then I’m no worse off than I began, except perhaps for the two hours of time that this project cost me (and investing two hours of time now, to determine if this is something that may have legs later on, seems like a pretty good deal to me).
So, how did things go?  Well, they went about as you would expect.  My tasks were:
  • Talk to Davin about Twitter
  • Search Lifehacker for any resources related to Twitter
  • Sign up for a Twitter account
  • Find some people to follow
  • Use Twitter (tweet) for a week
I wanted to talk to Davin about Twitter because he has been using the service for a while as part of his role as the main blogger for the GDC (The Graphic Designers of Canada, or something like that – Davin, please correct me if I got that wrong).  As he is using the service in a semi-professional capacity, I was pretty sure that he would have some good insights.
In fact, his insights were much like everything else I’ve tried to track down on Twitter.  He told me about how it affects him on a daily basis, but not really what it provides him in terms of real benefits or use cases.  This wasn’t his fault, but it did confirm to me that I really need to try this out to determine if it’s something worth my time.
For things like Twitter, I often check in with Lifehacker to see if they have put together any tutorials or posts related to the application.  Lifehacker’s goals, direction and thrust align very closely with my own, and so they provide an excellent proxy through which I can glimpse hidden opportunities that may be relevant to my own process.  Lifehacker had a few decent articles, but the main benefit I took away from them was a number of people to follow once I’d signed up.
Following someone on Twitter is basically like adding them to your friendfeed in Facebook – whenever they make an update, it shows up on your main screen and you can see what they have to say.  The real point of using Twitter is to follow a number of people that will expose you to new ideas, links, etc., in line with the kind of content that you want to see.  Once I’d signed up for my account, I searched for and added as many of my friends that I could find, and a large number of people that are involved in GTD.
So the last step was just to get out there and actually use Twitter.  This isn’t very complicated, and was certainly made easier by installing an application called Tweetdeck on my iPhone.  This allows me to get a complete view of all of the tweets from people that I’m following, and allows me to tweet quickly from my phone.  You can also use SMS to send and receive tweets, which operates in much the same manner.
Twitter is kind of a funny social space.  Unlike Facebook where you maintain a tight rein on who you are friends with, and what those people can see, Twitter operates on a pretty open forum kind of mentality.  Random people I had never heard of have started following me, usually because I’ve either re-tweeted something that someone else they follow has said (essentially just repeating what someone else has already tweeted), or because I happened to mention a topic that they are following or have a passing fancy in.
Initially I would get an e-mail letting me know that someone had started following me, and I would look them up trying to figure out who the heck these people were and why they were interested in what I had to say.  But I quickly got over that and realized that:
  • They’re not really that interested in what I have to say
  • It’s just part of the Twitter experience
Once you see that most people are following upwards of a thousand people, you realize that it’s just the way things are done in this social sphere.
Despite the way it sounds on the surface, Twitter obviously presents a number of valuable use cases, because it’s user base is quite large, and it has been put to use in some very diverse, very powerful situations.  The election protests in Iran, and the Olympic demonst
rations/protests in China were both made possible in part due to Twitter’s ability to enable people to communicate quickly and effectively to a large number of people in a very short amount of time.
I don’t feel that a week has been long enough for me to effectively evaluate where Twitter sits in my existing set of use cases, nor whether or not it will fill a niche that exists somewhere between Google Reader and Facebook.  
Some of my goals in using social media such as Facebook and Google Reader are to publish and increase the exposure that people have to skepticism, critical thinking, and scientific attitudes about the many junk claims that exist – this goal can really be summarized as an attempt to increase the education that people have, quixotic as the goal itself may be.  I’m also obviously hoping to increase exposure and interest in the things that matter to me – I would love to see Popping and the other urban styles I’m into gain a greater foothold here on the island.  In addition to those things, I want to provide content that people find interesting and engaging, and at the very top of the pyramid, I want to establish myself as an interesting person, and an expert in the things that I choose to pursue, be they professional (law, project management, productivity coaching), or leisure (squash, dancing, etc.).
For Twitter to have continual value to me, I would anticipate that there be specific items that I would publish or comment on in Twitter, but not Facebook or Google Reader, and likewise, I would anticipate there being items that I publish in those mediums, but not on Twitter.  So far, most of what I have published on Twitter has been redundantly published on one of those other two sites, and so a distinct value exclusive to Twitter has not yet emerged.  Time will tell if there is new value that arises from this service, or if it becomes a passing fad that I leave off to do its own thing.
Next up is my second week of journals related to my experiment with biphasic sleep.  I will publish this tomorrow.  Worth noting is that this past weekend I went away to Hornby with Bay, Ben, and Ashley.  Although I had originally intended to maintain a biphasic sleeping habit, I quickly determined that this would be obnoxious to our hosts, potentially waking them up at ungodly hours, and disrupting our plans in order to allow myself 90 minute naps in the afternoon.  Stay tuned for more details.
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The small things

June 1st, 2009 No comments

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of little things that increase the efficiency of things that I do frequently.

Below are a few programs that I have installed on my machine at work that enable this for me.  The machine that I have to use at work runs Windows XP, which sucks, because I truly believe that OS X is a vastly superior operating system when you care about efficiency and productivity.  However, without further ado:

  • AltDrag

This is a simple, low memory-footprint program that does one function on Windows:
Hold down the Alt key, then click anywhere on a window to move it around
your screen.  Seems unnecessary, but it adds a little bit of efficiency
when you don’t have to go hunting for a title bar.

Once you’ve used this application, you’ll be annoyed every time you have to sit down at a computer that doesn’t have it installed.  You can download AltDrag here.

  • WizMouse

Same idea as above.  A low memory-footprint that does one function on
Windows: Whenever you use your scroll wheel, that event is drilled down
to whatever window is directly beneath your mouse, rather than sending
the event to the active window.  This doesn’t change the focus or Z-order of
your Windows. 

This is very handy, especially when doing things that require
having something like an Excel spreadsheet and a web browser both open, both requiring scrolling.  WizMouse can be downloaded here.

  • KeePass

This guy is a really tight password manager that I came across on Lifehacker.  KeePass allows you to keep strong and unique passwords for everything you need, and ensure that you never encounter a situation where you arrive at a website knowing you have a login, but unable to remember what it is.  KeePass creates an encrypted database file that you can also sync this across all of
your computers using Dropbox, which means you just need to
remember one strong password for KeePass, and one strong password for
Dropbox.  Once you’ve got that, you can ensure that you maintain strong
and unique passwords for everything you sign up for. You can download KeePass here.

  • TopDesk

A simple application that allows Windows to mimic the expose functionality that exists in OS X (Macintosh’s operating system).  Once you start using expose, you will rarely alt-tab again (although it’s still the best way to quickly bounce back and forth between two applications).  You can download TopDesk in evaluation format to try it out, but it’s worth paying for the full version.  You can download Topdesk here.

These programs will need to stay resident in your memory in order to function (with the exception of KeePass), but all of them are very low in terms of memory-footprint, and should not cause any significant problems.  Give them a shot and see if you like any of them.  I have gone as far as to install each of these on my thumb drive so that I can run them when I’m helping out a friend with their computer – they’ve become such a convenient part of my daily work that I can’t stand having to work without them.

Evolution of a system, and some other minor updates

June 1st, 2009 No comments

It’s been around two months since I started leveraging Macintosh’s Stickies
to act as my digital task management system.  As all good processes
should do, my system has evolved over time in order to better
accommodate the things that I find necessary, and to prune out any
unnecessary parts.

Up to this point, my system has evolved as follows:

  • Attempt to implement a paper tickler system, similar to what I use at the office

This attempt failed fairly quickly.  I don’t enjoy amassing
large amounts of paper around the house, I don’t have a convenient
place to put a tickler file that isn’t ugly (I don’t spend a lot of
time in our office, preferring to do most of my work in our dining and
living rooms), and I wasn’t checking it on a very frequent basis.

  • Implement a rough system using Terminal windows

This step represented my change from a paper-based system
to a digital one.  Not a bad start, but a long way to go.  You can read
about this step and the one following here.

  • Change over to using Stickies to manage tasks

This marks the start of my system actually becoming fluid
and working well with my own tasks.  It is within this framework that
the majority of the rest of my tweaking will occur.

The last step looked like this:

StickySystem.png

The latest evolution looks like this:

System_Step_4.png

The changes I have made are not massive ones, but the little things make a difference over time.  A quick summary:

  • Only the TODO window is fully expanded

The old system had four windows expanded by default – TODO, Blog, To Buy, and Projects.  However, this creates four windows that demand my attention by default.  By changing to a paradigm where I start and finish with just the TODO window being expanded, my eyes are immediately drawn to this location whenever I load up my system.

There wasn’t really a need to have the other windows open either – if I want to make sure that I blog soon, I simply put “Blog” as a todo item on my list.  When it comes time to actually write, I just expand my blog window and look over the potential topics that I’ve recorded, choose one that interests me, and get writing.

Likewise, items under projects simply require my review from time to time.  Whenever I feel like I have enough time on my hands that I can begin to tackle one of them, I open up the window and choose one of them.  Items that I need to purchase, can simply act as a list that I reference when Bay and I head out the door on the weekend to run errands and possibly spend some money.

As an aside, I highly recommend maintaining a list of items that you intend to buy.  Having those items written down and made tangible really makes it easier for you to focus on what you will be sacrificing when you spend your money frivolously.  If I check this list before heading out the door on a Saturday, it just makes it that easier to think “Hmm, this thing is cool, but if I get this, I’ll have to wait even longer to get those bike gloves I wanted”.

  • Location Tickler has been expanded

I’m still trying to figure out the best way for this tickler to work.  The location tickler started to accrue a number of items that were related specifically to people, rather than locations.  Tasks that require another person are generally a little easier to act on than a specific location, as I can complete an item marked “Lend book to Davin” when I either go to Davin’s place, or when he comes to my place.  On the other hand, a task marked “Drop clothes off at Salvation Army” requires that I physically be at the Salvation Army.

It is possible that over time these two items will merge back together.  For now, I maintain the two ticklers separately (though physically close to one another on my screen) because I want to be able to check only the People Tickler when I have people over, and both the Location and People Ticklers whenever I’m leaving the house.  The goal here is to make the process of reviewing the ticklers as efficient as possible, in order to encourage myself to actually use them.

Don’t underestimate this last point – I’m still working to develop the habit of actually checking the ticklers whenever Bay or I leave the house.  I have an active item for Vancouver that says Bay and I need to return some items to Ikea.  However, Bay left the house to head over to the mainland this Friday, only to realize that we’d both forgotten this needed to be done.  That’s okay, it’s just another aspect of working to learn a new habit.

  • List section

The list section just holds a number of lists that I maintain.  Ideas for dates, gifts, vacations, and other things that I think up, want to remember, but haven’t had a place to store them up until now.  Whenever I have an idea that falls into one of these categories, I capture it wherever I am, and then add it to one of these lists when I get home.  If I don’t yet have a list for this particular idea, I create one and add it to that.  Easy.

  • Dance Lessons

Writing ongoing lessons means that I need to keep a stock of fresh ideas and techniques to teach my classes.  The process by which I do this usually involves jamming at the studio, Steve’s place, or my kitchen when cooking, and playing around with various techniques.  Whenever I do something that strikes me as worth pursuing, I make a note in the appropriate sticky.  There are a number of different stickies under the dance heading, because there are a number of different techniques that all fall under the Popping umbrella.

When teaching a class, I find that it’s better usually to stick to one or two of these techniques, in order to get people familiar with a couple of different ways of moving throughout the class, rather than jumping all over the place.  Having these stickies makes it easy for me to sit down during the week and say “What do I want to teach the class this week”.  I can review the items that I’ve captured, grab a couple from each list, and then put together a lesson plan based on that.

  • More meaningful use of color

When I initially put together the sticky system, my use of different coloured notes was more whimsical than anything.  I tried to apply colors that helped separate the open windows from one another, and to denote headers for various lists, such as the Location Tickler.

This time, I’ve updated the use of color to follow a more specific pattern.  Headers are generally coloured green to make them stand out a little more.  Beneath these headers sit the actual contents of each category, such as the names of people I need to talk to, specific locations, etc.

Any person or location under a tickler that has active items associated with them/it is colored red so that I can quickly get a feel for where I have tasks with just a glance.  This is in addition to updating the sticky itself to note how many active tasks I have.  So, for example, I have one active task with my friend Rob.  His sticky is coloured Red to indicate this, and there are also the words (1 ACTIVE) beside his name.  At a glance I can quickly determine where tasks are piling up.

That’s the bulk of the changes that I’ve made so far.  As always this is an iterative process, so the more I use the system, the more refined I anticipate it will become.  Eventually I will get things to the point that I no longer really need to make changes in order to have it function in a manner that is most efficient for me on a daily basis.

A final note about the mobile counterpart to this system.  This is the voice-recording application that I’ve been using on my iPhone.  It was one of the first applications that I came across when I searched the app store on iTunes for voice recorder, but fortunately it’s fit the bill perfectly.  Here is a screenshot of the application:

AudioMemo.png

You can see advertisements at the bottom of the application, because I haven’t paid to upgrade to the full version.  I’m not opposed to paying for applications, especially if they’re as valuable to me as this one is.  However, the free version works fine, and having ads there doesn’t bother me in the slightest (I almost never visually interact with the application, so it’s not distracting).

The application is extremely simple to use, which is ideal.  When I have a new idea, I click the big red Record button and a new recording is started.  Speak into the microphone, click Done, and you’re finished.  You can do fancier things like name the recording if you want, but I find this unnecessary.  I capture the idea quickly, get home, and just listen through each recording, transcribing as I go.

Playing the recording is as simple as clicking on the words “New recording”.  You can click the arrow at the right for more options, but again, this is unnecessary.  To delete, you either click the arrow, or swipe your thumb from left to right along the name – this brings up a Delete button which you can click to erase the recording.

As you can see, most of the recordings I make are usually between 3 and 10 seconds in length.  My initial thought was that it would be quite tedious to transcribe each memo, but when I’m only listening for 3 seconds, it takes me no more than five minutes to copy everything across (and that’s if I’ve let them pile up).

The application is called Audio Memos Free, and I highly recommend it if you want to give this approach a try.

If anyone has any questions about the system as it currently stands, please post a comment and let me know.  I always relish the opportunity to consider different perspective and points-of-view on what I’ve got set up, especially if it means I can glean a new way to increase my own efficiency.

Happy New Year

January 3rd, 2009 No comments

Just a quick desktop update for the New Year. I know these may be dull entries for some people, but I like tinkering with OS X’s various eye-candy and posting the results, so suck it.
This holiday season has been extremely busy, but good, and productive. I have lots of stuff to write about, but a lot of it can’t be posted for a while yet. More updates to come, no doubt about it!
My desktop so blurry

Some background on my current desktop setup:
The terminal windows I have are saved as window group that is automatically open whenever I start Terminal. The TODO list is automatically loaded up, and I find this a convenient place holder to store anything that mentally pops up and needs to be dealt with. The windows are made transparent using the native controls for Mac, and is saved for each window. I use a slightly dark background, and have also installed a program called “Deeper”, which allows me to set a gaussian blur for the transparency. As you can see, this allows transparency to still be used, but slightly blurs the background and makes transparency actually functional eye-candy, instead of mostly a distraction. In a pinch, I can still read the page directly beneath the terminal, so I can make use of transparency the way it works best.
I also run Safari and Mail.app, simply because they are native to OS X, meaning they are well integrated with the OS, and also allow me to adjust their transparency on the fly using a program called Afloat. Afloat allows me to dynamically adjust transparency by clicking control and alt, and scrolling up or down. I can also move the application from anywhere within the window (as opposed to just from the title bar) by clicking the same keys and dragging with the mouse. When I’m working directly with Safari or Mail, I generally reduce the transparency, then turn it back on when I’m finished so that it blends into the background.
You can see Adium (my MSN/ICQ/etc. client) in the background, in the upper-right, but I have since moved away from this list layout to the “Concise” skin provided by the application. This skin allows me to simply list all of the contacts as a vertical list, without any window decorations other than their buddy icon. It makes for a nice clear look.
I think this looks pretty good, and it’s really pleasing to work within. One thing I would really like to be able to do is hide the menu bar and the scrollbar for the terminals. I could still drag them around using Afloat, but the unnecessary bars really take away from the true beauty of what I think I could achieve. I’ve got google alerts set up for “terminal without menubar”, but haven’t had any results show up yet that achieve what I want. If anyone knows of anything, please let me know.
Okay, well, that’s all for now. I’ve actually just updated my desktop, so this screenshot is a little dated – I’ll post a new one in a month or so. The other thing I’d really like is to be able to apply a gaussian blur to Safari and Mail, so that their transparency can be left on more often, rather than having to adjust it whenever I need the app.
To some people all of this may seem frivolous – why not just turn off transparency and deal with it. In truth, I actually find that my layout is very practical – being able to see through the current app to the other windows open beneath helps make it easier to keep in mind exactly what I’ve got open and what I’m working on.
, a program that allows you to drag your windows from anywhere by holding down control and alt, and also allows you to adjust the transparency on the fly (if needed)

Radtastic Desktop

November 1st, 2008 No comments

Check out my fly desktop and work area.  Kneel before my awesomeness:

My desktop so fly

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Google gets scooped..

September 11th, 2008 3 comments

Wow, I’m astonished. I came across DropBox today, and if you don’t already use it, I recommend you immediately kick yourself in the head and then download it.
Dropbox is a small application that sits on your computer, and upon install, creates a new directory for you called your DropBox. Anything that you put into this folder is automatically synced up over the web, and backed up on their servers. Any other computer that you use that also has Dropbox running will automatically (and almost instantly) sync up its own Dropbox with those same files.
Does this sound awesome yet? Let’s use an example. You’re at work, and you’ve just installed a little program that is extremely useful. With it you can write a script to automatically update your mail (or something similar). You know that you want to have the same thing when you get home, so you write yourself a todo item to remember to download this when you get home, and you also e-mail yourself the script that you wrote today. Now you’ve got to go home, remember to download the application, then remember to check your e-mail, and basically grab everything from a whole bunch of different places. And remember, this is just a simple operation.
Now the same scenario with Dropbox. You copy the .exe installer that you download at work, along with the script you wrote today, into your Dropbox directory. You get home, and turn on your computer. Its Dropbox syncs up, and you’ve got both files available. Done!
Dropbox is free, and allows you to sync up to 2GB worth of space.
If that sounds cool, there’s one more thing Dropbox can do for you. In your Dropbox folder, you have a folder named “Public”. Anything that you put into this folder can be right-clicked, and you can choose “Copy public link to clipboard”. Once you’ve done this, you can just send any one of your friends this public link (it’s in the clipboard now, so just hit Ctrl-V to paste it into your e-mail, IM, SMS text message, etc.), and they can click the link and download it, without even having to install Dropbox.
The only question I have is… Why didn’t Google think of this?
Get it!

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