Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Android Apps I Used in 2013

Shamelessly aping MG Siegler, here's a list of apps I used most in 2013. This is from my Android-centric view of the world, and leaving out the obvious ones like Gmail, Play, Maps and Calendar. I'm going for a categorized approach.


Foursquare — love seeing the world as my friends travel through it
Google+ — unsurprisingly
Instagram — I have some very talented friends
Path — it's a weirdly compelling life-journaling experience
Twitter — has gotten steadily worse this year, alas


Any.do — though I spent most of the year with Todoist, liking Any.do's lightweight approach
Evernote — my outboard brain
Google Keep — shopping lists!
Google Now — the most useful app of all 2013
LastPass — lifesaver, repeatedly
Todoist — a fan over many years
Tripit — still useful, though Google Now is eating away at this


Hue — not the greatest app, but the lights have been a great discovery
UP — this device has been a big part of me getting in shape this year
Wiithings — love the Wiithings scales
Netatmo — crazy eccentric app, but fascinating monitoring my environment


RunKeeper — very well designed app that works well
LoseIt — one of the earliest fitness apps on Android and still working great


Amazon — it's bad to have shopping as a hobby, right?
Netflix — winning when together with Chromecast
Plasma Sky — polished and addictive casual shoot'em'up
Reddit — a guilty secret: not sure it even counts as a pleasure
WordOn — nicely balanced word game

Finally, a word about iOS. I still have and use an iPad, but for one thing only: FiftyThree's most excellent Paper app.

Geek On The Go: Staying Fueled And Healthy

I'm a relentless optimizer and a gadget nut. If something sticks for more than a few months, then it's likely to be a decent fit for my lifestyle. The idea behind the "Geek On The Go" blog posts is to share the best equipment and habits I've found for travel as a technophile: check out the other articles in this series.

The best way to look after your health is to have the default and easiest choice be the most healthy one, and when you're traveling this can be hard. The chief enemy is running out of fuel, then being tired when it comes to deciding what or where to eat.

Here are a couple of ways I've found of making better choices that help me keep going.

First up are Kind Bars. These things are amazing. They provide 180-210 calories of energy that's released slowly, and they taste great. By that I mean, they don't taste like cardboard. As Kind advertise, you can both recognize and pronounce the ingredients. Being gluten-free helps a lot too for me. I buy boxes of the things and keep two or three as a permanent fixture in my laptop bag, as well as keeping a couple in the car's glove box.

For long journeys, cross-country or international, I also take a packet or two of beef jerky. In the worst of all worlds you can fool yourself into thinking that makes a meal. It can be a lot better for you than the 24-hour club sandwich your destination hotel offers!

The second thing my travel bag always has is a water bottle. Staying hydrated is a great way to avoid headaches and make better eating choices. Specifically, I'd recommend one with a built-in filter. It's not that the filters sterilize water, but they can help manage the taste if all that's available is hotel tap water. Some airports these days also have fill-up stations for bottles too, though I'm still often doing the awkward practice of filling these up at drinking fountains. I've used both these bottles successfully in the past, the Brita hard-sided filtering bottle, and the squashier Bobble bottles. The Brita tends to leak a bit on airplanes, though, so be warned. If you're flying, get into the habit of visiting the bathroom before going through security and emptying your water bottle out.

The trick to these is to buy a bunch: at least one for the car and one for your travel bag. Even better, have one extra in the kitchen to fill up and take with you.

Finally, get to know the signs your body is sending you. If you're getting grumpy, you probably need to take a bite to eat!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Self Importance of Registered Trademarks

My first memory of encountering trademarks is on cereal boxes as a kid. Over breakfast I would read the box, do whatever puzzle is on the back, and notice the sprinkling of ® and ™ symbols over "Nabisco", "Shreddies" and the like. I imagine it fueled my lifelong interest in typography, as an eight year old I certainly had no clue what they were actually for!

Sadly, today I mostly encounter these marks as a symbol of ignorant self-importance. The proud display of trademark symbols proclaims a belief that success is a matter of legal procedure and large commercial deals: the way things used to be. And more often, it reeks of a tone-deaf self importance.

I think most of us are perfectly smart enough to understand that the Academy Awards, that is, the Oscars®, are a thing because they're a movie industry institution. Furthermore, the institution long pre-dates the obsession with protecting the brand. Rendering "Oscars" all the time with the ® serves only to underline the massive commercial interests behind the entertainment industry, and distance them from the customers. Ironically, the same people without whom they wouldn't have an industry at all.

The situation gets even worse in the world of enterprise software. Check out the screenshot I took of the TIBCO home page, and these guys aren't even the worst offenders.

There are legal reasons to protect one's trademarks, but there are ways and means to do it. Companies with a deal more self confidence don't feel the need to sprinkle them everywhere, see Oracle or Microsoft's home pages, for instance.

Marketing is a conversation. I always think of it as a dinner party. Nobody wants to talk to the person who can only talk about themselves, especially when their first move is to proclaim how important they are. At the end of the day, sprinkling your page with ® and ™ is just that. Another case of "if you have to say it, it probably isn't true."

Monday, December 23, 2013

Geek On The Go: Mini Jambox

I'm a relentless optimizer and a gadget nut. If something sticks for more than a few months, then it's likely to be a decent fit for my lifestyle. The idea behind the "Geek On The Go" blog posts is to share the best equipment and habits I've found for travel as a technophile: check out the other articles in this series.

Mini Jambox and Jambox together
When you travel a lot, you want to find a way to make whichever room you're in feel a bit more like home. Music, podcasts or Netflix help a lot. I can never be bothered to battle with the TV remotes in hotel rooms, and even if I do, there's only garbage on most of the time.

Unless you want to wear headphones—not something I would even try in the shower—you'll have to make do with the tinny sound of your tablet, phone or laptop. Enter Jambox: a small box that makes a pretty big sound. Although there are imitators around, Jawbone's Jambox was early on the scene and sets the standard for Bluetooth speakers.

Unfortunately the original Jambox was also just a little bulky and heavy. The new Mini Jambox fixes those problems, and retains the same great sound. Pictured, for comparison, are the two together. As well as being smaller, the Mini has a refined industrial design with a pleasing aluminum enclosure.

All the Mini's other features work like you'd expect. The new Mini has a much improved physical interface, and great battery life. A big bonus for me is the speakerphone mode, letting you turn pretty much any room into a good place to have a conference call.

Throw one in your bag and make your next hotel room feel a little more like your own space.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Geek On The Go: Mophie Powerstation Duo Power Block

I'm an expensive combination: a relentless optimizer and a gadget nut. If something sticks for more than a few months, then it's likely to be a decent fit for my lifestyle. The idea behind the "Geek On The Go" blog posts is to share the best equipment and habits I've found for travel as a technophile, and perhaps save the dear reader some expense.

In the bay area, we live by the availability of three things: coffee, internet access and power. Starbucks of course completes the trifecta, but there's plenty of times you can't find one or the other. In this post, I will share the reason I've stopped worrying about power.

The Mophie Powerstation Duo is a power block that's worth spending the money on. You charge it up via USB, and then it's able to charge up to two other USB-connected devices. It has enough power in it to manage both a smartphone and a tablet. If you have an HP Chromebook 11, it can manage charging that too.

My routine for the Mophie block is simple: ensure it's fully charged before a journey, and then just plug it in to charge overnight. The output from a laptop's USB is usually enough to return the Powerstation to full before the next day starts, given my typical usage.

The 6000mAh capacity means I've never managed to run the Powerstation to empty yet. It holds its charge well enough that it sits permanently in my bag, and is enough to charge my phone, even when I've not thought ahead to top up the Powerstation's juice. Two charging ports means you can also offer help to a friend in need.

The footprint of the Powerstation block is about the same as a smartphone. If you are in a crunch situation, it's possible to hold both the block and the phone together in one hand so you can use your phone while it's charging.

Finally, and important to me at least, the Powerstation Duo looks good. The external LEDs make it easy to see when it's charged, and the finish is visually appealing.

Pick up one of these and you'll never buy a lame powerpack in an airport store again.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Google Glass: The Interface To Everything

Well, I did it. Joined the ranks of Google Glass Explorers. Not without some pause either.

Who wants to be a "glasshole", or even just be pegged as breathlessly credulous? I have no enthusiasm for being stopped on the street every other step and quizzed, or to be thrown out of coffee shops.

But what's the point of living in the bay area if you don't get a little dizzy over new technology? And having spent my whole life doing so, I wasn't about to stop now.

Hoping hard that by adding a retro camera filter I won't look so damn stupid

So, what have I discovered in my first hours with Glass?

Glass is a great step towards realizing a future where you have one data and computation cloud, but multiple contextual interfaces. Phone, Glass, TV, and I guess even a computer. The missing interface that I think will be the killer app: your house itself.

Glass has great aesthetics. Large sans serif fonts are really, really, cool*. There's a wonderful feel to glowing neon suspended in space above your eyes, and Glass has it. Liberal use of images and photos works wonderfully.

Glass exists in symbiosis with Google Now. Although they aren't locked in sync yet, Google Search on Glass interprets search "result cards" in a similar way to Google Now and Google Search. This is a good thing, I don't want to learn new interactions purely for using Glass. I can't wait for tighter integration: there's little reason that Google Now and my Glass Timeline oughtn't to be the same thing, or close.

Glass is the future for real estate agents. Seriously. That wide-angle lens takes in the whole of a small room and makes it look great.

Glass makes voice an effective UI. I'm happy to have a context-aware device that does most of the hard work in guiding choices, and the practical affordance of combining voice with touch gestures gives Glass a very human and expedient interface.

Glass' constant availability is its key feature. When you don't even have to take it out of your pocket, Glass becomes number one choice for casual interactions. I research a bunch using the Glass' Google search, and the mobile versions of web sites render well on Glass. Remember how phone cameras took over the digital camera market because of their constant availability? Glass has that same potential. In an Internet of Things world, the UI you have with you is the one you'll use.

Anything not so good? Apparently my nose is thin at the top, and Glass only just fits me. The key is sitting it high enough in your vision. Also, it's early days in terms of some of the applications. Glass has some catching up to do with Google Now. The biggest thing Glass lacks from Now is the ability to add reminders.

Overall, my first impressions of Glass are way more favorable than I expected them to be. Having it available all the time is fantastic. If I can get over how goofy I look in public, I might wear them more. I'm certainly keen to see what apps I can create.

Glass is a fabulous piece of engineering, and a wonderful testing ground for the computing environments of the future. I admire Google for having the confidence to press forward with it.


* Glass is cool. This means, dear +Timothy Jordan, you don't need to keep saying it in your talks. We get it. Truly.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Making a loss on Bitcoin

So, my little experiment in bitcoin mining is going to end up making a loss.

Seven months after purchase, a Butterfly Labs Bitforce 5GH/s Bitcoin miner arrived.

With the explosion in ASIC based miners, the difficulty level of mining bitcoin is doing a hockey stick, and hence the return on investment is declining radically. If Butterfly Labs had shipped their devices anything like on schedule, it would have been easier to make a small profit. I suppose this is a stark confirmation of the common wisdom that the people who make money from a gold rush are those who make picks and shovels.

I've ended up with a block of metal with more significance as a historical footnote than anything else.

As the 9-month difficulty chart below from BitcoinWisdom shows, difficulty is rising at an exponential rate. Difficulty is a measure of how many hashes-per-second it will take to solve a block, and hence earn bitcoin. Checking out the Bitcoin Calculator on that site shows that most dedicated bitcoin hardware will not break even, never mind make any return on investment.

By contrast, the hundred or so dollars I spent on buying bitcoin a few months ago looks like a decent speculation, as bitcoin is currently at around the $200 mark.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My last OSCON as program chair

In 2008, I took over from the inimitable Nat Torkington as a program chair of OSCON, O'Reilly's Open Source Convention. As is wise when replacing someone who is a noted personality, I determined to bring my own style to OSCON. It only took four years for people to stop asking where Nat went!

Six years later, I've just finished hosting my last OSCON as a chair. Over the years I've shared that honor with Allison Randall and Sarah Novotny, and this year with new hosts Matthew McCullough and Simon St.Laurent.

OSCON has become something much larger than the sum of its parts. Though O'Reilly started it, after fifteen years it is very much its own creature. I'm proud to say 2013's conference was the biggest, and most definitely one of the best.

Pre-show meeting. Photo: Matthew McCullough.

What did I bring to OSCON? Most of all, I think I've helped in steering it through open source's transition from disruptive notion to the new default way that many in the software industry collaborate and build. One of the biggest challenges is that what used to be the core of OSCON—language oriented tracks such as Python, Perl—now have their own grassroots homes in many excellent conferences. Neither are we fighting a war for open source any more, but in the post-victory learning stage.

OSCON is a place where the new polyglot stack of technologies finds its home. I've aimed not only to serve the audience with what they need and expect, but to inject new ideas, challenges and technologies that they might not have considered before: from hardware hacking to improv skills and involving kids with technology. OSCON's a conference for the whole geek. And, though we've a long way to go, it's getting more diverse and inclusive every year.

It's been consistently humbling and always thrilling to lead the parade of 3,500 people pioneering open source, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity.

I'll end this post with a couple of extracts from write-ups of OSCON that I saw. More than anything, these articles please me, because they tell me that I've achieved the thing I set out to do.
Open source continues to permeate every day life and while OSCON has long ago solidified it’s place on the tech conference circuit, it’s importance has amplified over time.  Next year’s 16th annual gathering promises to be a must attend event for anybody who codes on a regular basis.  As we saw with this edition, though, that base is broadening to include more than just the folks who play around with compilers and interpreters and feature a wider variety of participants. — Pete Johnson
OSCON (Open Source Convention) was inspiring this year, as it was last... a great way to get motivated and step back and see and talk and listen to others on how they do things. … These days modern computer systems are more assemblages of discrete components than integrated pieces of software, and OSCON is one place where I can get a feel for new trends that are emerging and discover new ways of doing and thinking about things. — Dan Marmot
The mantle for OSCON at O'Reilly will pass to respected editor, and my long-time friend, Simon St.Laurent. I couldn't be happier that he's taking over. There's still so much to do. There are two things in particular I'd like to see, and regret not having yet achieved. Firstly, I know that OSCON can be much more involved in tying together and helping other open source communities. Secondly, for those in the broader world consuming open source, we don't make it easy enough yet. We've created an "open platform" for software developers that's just not as accessible as it could be, and OSCON can play a part in ensuring that open source hasn't just won the right to exist, but permeates as far as it can.

As for me, my days in open source are far from done. I'm looking forward to the new ways I will contribute, and hope to be presenting at OSCON 2014!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I've joined Silicon Valley Data Science

I'm happy to announce that I've joined Silicon Valley Data Science as VP of Strategy.

I'm excited as we build an all-star team of data scientists and data engineers to take on interesting and difficult problems. It's all about using data in a smart way to create new capabilities and amplify existing ones.

I'll also be continuing as chair of Strata and Editor in Chief of Big Data.

Why the new gig?

Because being a part of inventing the future is irresistible.

My career with technology has always been about helping people do more and better. In tech, we're at a time of such phenomenally exciting change, for both people as individuals and businesses. Smart use of data, more than anything, has the ability to focus and multiply our potential as humans.

It's also hard to resist the chance to work with a great team. John Akred, our CTO, has always had a deeply perceptive view of how big data is changing the way we build information systems. Stephen O'Sullivan built what I consider to be the prototypical data platform while at Walmart Labs, as well as being one of the best engineering leaders in the business. CEO Sanjay Mathur has deep management experience, and our chairman Jim Sims brings everything he learned in building Cambridge Technology Partners.

There are more incredible people I can talk about shortly. In a time when finding data talent is tough, I'm proud that we've got the team, the interesting problems, and the career opportunities to be a beacon for the best.

(Needless to say, if you're a data person at the top of your game, I'd love to talk.)

Taken from my first strategy meeting. Think I could get used to this.

On leaving O'Reilly

One never truly leaves O'Reilly, for which I'm glad. I'm hugely grateful to Tim O'Reilly for the opportunities I've had and the lessons I've learned working for him. The amazing conferences team has been my home for four years, and I'm very proud of how Strata has grown to be the central big data event, and that OSCON has continued to thrive as open source moves from disruptor to default. Now I get to be a "GOO"—a graduate of O'Reilly—a contributor to Radar, and continue as part of the wider family.

I'm going to relish this opportunity to take the data message I've been spreading through Strata into the reality of solving tough and important problems.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A memento of the Data Sensing Lab

I was happy to receive this wonderful reminder of the +Data Sensing Lab's amazing project at Google I/O this year.