Why I am an atheist
February 2nd, 2012

The details differ, but the story arc of how Mark Jaquith became an atheist mirrors my own. Raised in a traditional Roman Catholic household, on the best days my religion bored me, on the worst, it made me feel like a terrible sinner. Every day, its contradictions and lack of fact-based logic troubled me. I felt no connection to or appreciation for the culture or community of the Church, especially its patriarchy, homophobia, and focus on sin and repentance. My parents were very religious, so I endured 12 years of Catholic school wearing a pleated plaid skirt and fearing the nuns who were my teachers. Dad was an usher, Mom a Communion minister, my brothers altar boys. In addition to Sundays, I daydreamed through morning Mass every weekday before school with Mom. I studied Latin (the only part I don't regret).

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Good Tools Have Verb-Based Interfaces

February 1st, 2012

I've switched to an iPhone as my primary mobile device because I'm dogfooding my new iOS app. Coming off of three straight years of Android, one of the toughest parts of the transition was losing the applications drawer. My new iPhone had so many screens of icons, all perfectly aligned in a grid, every one with rounded corners, all equal visual weight, nary a widget in site! I got dizzy swiping across the carousel of apps trying to find the one I needed. I decided to get all my apps onto 1 or 2 homescreens using folders that made it obvious what was where.

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Google Going Evil is the Godwin’s Law of Tech Commentary

January 30th, 2012

Google going evil has become the Godwin’s Law of tech commentary: "As an online discussion tech commentary about Google grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler calling it evil approaches 1." Let's move beyond the sensationalist "evil" headlines and get clear on what's actually been going on recently.

The privacy policy consolidation was not as big a deal as everyone made it out to be. The Mocality fiasco was terrible, and Google was rightly mortified. We may all agree that Search Plus Your World smacks of AOL and/or Facebook, and that perhaps Google is having its Microsoft Moment, but please stop publishing "turning evil" headlines. It's an overused, scare-mongering hook, people. Instead, criticize what you don't like about what Google's doing using specific examples, and even better, code. If you're not a coder, then just take the time to educate readers about the specific disadvantages of what Google is doing and what the alternatives to their services are really like. We'll all be a lot smarter for it.

Related: The glut of hackneyed zingers about how Android isn't really "open."

One Year at My Standing Desk

January 23rd, 2012

Last January I took apart my computer desk and rebuilt it at standing height. I've been standing at my desk every workday since. Just in my 2011 travels, I've seen standing desks everywhere from the offices of San Francisco startups to the White House.

Over the past 12 months, standing desks went from popular life hacks meme to eyeroll-inducing sign of a certain type of tightly-wound techie, similar to emptying your email inbox. Several people have asked me if I'm still standing. The answer is yes. Here's what I've learned from 365 days of being a professional stander.

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The Week We Stopped SOPA
January 20th, 2012

Anil sums up the history and future of web protest as we wrap up the week we stopped SOPA. I had chills on Wednesday, the day the web went black in protest of SOPA, because we were all witnessing—and more importantly, participating in—history in the making. I'm so very glad to be alive during these exciting times.

The Flip Side of a Big Audience

January 13th, 2012

"Bloggers are famous enough to have stalkers, but not famous enough to have bodyguards." —Danny O'Brien

Everyone thinks they want a million Twitter followers and a million pageviews a day on their blog and the incredible high that it must be to walk around in the world knowing you're "internet famous." Yes, being famous among dozens has its privileges, but it also has a flip side netizens rarely discuss.

I passed 200,000 followers on Twitter this week. I'm not a celebrity. I've written books and made apps, but I've never been on primetime TV and I wasn't on Twitter's suggested user list during its heyday. I am an early adopter, a dedicated self-promoter, a daily user, and a leader in two large internet communities. All these things translated into an outsized follower count on both Twitter and Google+. Nowadays, when someone notices my follower count—and many people do, because it's a status symbol which indicates which echelon of web society you belong to—they get wide-eyed. "Wow, you're famous," they say.

Reality check: Lady Gaga is famous. Bloggers are not famous.

I'm not famous, but I have an outsized audience. I can ask a question and get hundreds of replies, reshares, and favorites in a matter of hours. If I want a lot of people to see something, I can make that happen in a few keystrokes without any help from a PR firm or media outlet. I've mentioned my follower counts and blog stats in book deal and paycheck negotiations, because people who hire me are often buying my ability to market my book or project.

But you know what else happens when you have an outsized audience?

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Stop Looking Like a Phisher in Gmail

January 12th, 2012

If you're sending Gmail messages from anywhere other than Gmail itself, they may look like they're phishing attempts. Up until today, whenever I sent messages using my Google Apps account with the From: address set to my vanilla Gmail address, my Gmail-using recipients got an alarming, bright red message at the top which said "This message may not have been sent by [who it appears to be from]. Learn more Report phishing." Make sure this doesn't happen to you.

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On Buying and Selling Apps

January 8th, 2012

There's a vast difference between software you can use for free and apps you pay to use: different customers, different business model, different commitment for developer and user.

When you price your mobile app, for example, it doesn't really matter whether you make it cost $1 or $2. The majority of people who want your app and are prepared to pay something for it won't balk at two bucks versus one. But making your app cost anything at all puts up a hurdle much greater than 100 pennies, especially in new markets.

Android Market users have paid for significantly fewer apps than iOS/iTunes Store users. My own numbers confirm this. This isn't because Android users are inherently freeloaders, it's because they're not prepared to buy apps, psychologically and practically.

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Todo.txt Touch for iOS Now Available

January 6th, 2012

After a year of starts and stops and some flailing and nail-biting, we finally shipped. The Todo.txt mobile app is now available for iOS. Get it for your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad in the iTunes Store now.

Just like the Android app, Todo.txt for iOS is open source and built by a community of contributors. It's priced at $1.99 to defray the costs of running the project and help me fund its continued development.

Making this app was a whole new experience for me across several axes. As a Java developer and full-time Android user, I was a stranger in a strange land, learning a new language and a new culture. I wasn't familiar with iOS usage conventions, not to mention its technical aspects. As such, I did more directing others who know much more than I do than I did actual coding. We modeled the UI after the existing Android app, and added in a few iOS specific features where UI conventions didn't align. (For example, iOS doesn't have an ever-present search button like Android does, so you pull down your to-do list to reveal a search box.)

The app has been live in the iTunes Store for just over 24 hours, and it's gotten 11 five-star ratings and one one-star rating, and eight reviews, all positive with one exception. But what about sales compared to the Android app's launch day?

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Why Learn How to Code

January 4th, 2012

Codecademy's Code Year is a weekly lesson for people who want to learn how to program. Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo explains a few good reasons why you might want to do that at all, with a quick quote from me. When Manjoo emailed, he asked, "What are some good reasons for people to be more familiar with programming?" I replied:

First and foremost, learning to code demystifies tech in a way that empowers and enlightens. When you start coding you realize that every digital tool you have ever used involved lines of code just like the ones you're writing, and that if you want to make an existing app better, you can do just that with the same foreach and if-then constructs every coder has ever used. Learning how to code also makes you respect the incredible accomplishments of all the engineers who came before you, the importance of good data, and the systems and services we all take for granted every day, even mundane things like the software that runs an elevator or processes a credit card.

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The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment
January 3rd, 2012

Jeffrey Zeldman:

The first thing I got about the web was its ability to empower the maker. I say “it made me” but I made it, too. You get the power by using it. Nobody confers it on you.

What Google Should Do in 2012

January 3rd, 2012

I missed last Wednesday's 2011 Year in Review episode of This Week in Google because I was on an airplane somewhere over New Mexico. That doesn't mean I don't have a list of things I'd like to see Google do in 2012.

In no particular order:

Release a killer tablet. Price this tablet head-turningly less than the iPad, make it run Ice Cream Sandwich flawlessly, and offer completely sandwiched-out apps that absolutely scream for the big screen. Forget trying too hard not to offend other Android device manufacturers. Googorola should get this tablet exactly right, down to every last ever-loving detail, with the hardware and the software teams living, breathing, eating, and sleeping together on it. Get at least a few third parties who make apps that cover the major categories of things people do on tablets (news browsing, gaming, social media) to play along before launch, like the NY Times, Twitter, Angry Birds. Google has their core apps covered: Gmail, Calendar, and Maps already appear to be upgraded for ICS and therefore should look fantastic when they unfold on a tablet screen. Don't use chase scenes and explosions or even robots in the advertising. Cash in on Google's brand loyalty and recognition and market it simply as "the Google tablet." The messaging should be: If you use and love Google, this is your tablet.

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2011 Year in Review: Never Boring

December 31st, 2011

As a teenager, my biggest fear about becoming a grown-up was less that I wouldn't get a job and more that I'd get a boring job. With the notable exception of my mother, most of the adults in my life modeled my worst-case scenario. They got up before dawn, put on a suit, and trudged off to a soul-crushing, paper-pushing black hole, every day, every year. The idea of that being what you got post-graduation absolutely terrified me.

Looking back at the last 12 months, I know that 16-year-old me would be pretty psyched about the kind of stuff 36-year-old me gets to do. 2011 was mostly great, at times I-must-be-dreaming fantastic, and at others deeply difficult. One thing it sure never was: boring.

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ThinkUp Archives and Analyzes Your Social Media Life

November 15th, 2011, 3 comments

The software I've been building for the past two years, ThinkUp, left beta today. Download ThinkUp 1.0 to install on your web server, or launch ThinkUp on Amazon EC2 in under 60 seconds. Here's a rundown of what ThinkUp is, what it does, and why it's important.

Every day, internet companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google mine your online social life to advertise to you more effectively. Those companies host and control your data, and you don't. Case in point: if you've tweeted more than 3,200 times, you can't page back to your earliest tweets on Twitter.

The conversations you have online are worth capturing, keeping, and referring back to over time. In fact, the things you share and the conversations you have about them gain weight, perspective, and importance over time, not just the moment you post them. Think about the time you announced you were getting married, or posted a photo of your newborn, or launched a project that changed your life on a social network and the conversations that ensued. That's content you want to keep.

I've spent the last six years publishing observations, inquiries, and just bits and pieces of my life on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, and now Google+, and having conversations with my friends and readers about them. That's why I built ThinkUp.

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Clay Johnson’s Information Diet
October 31st, 2011

My information diet consists of a cap of 6 hours a day of total, proactive information consumption. That means everything that requires my explicit attention that doesn't involve another person—television, movies, the Internet, email, social networks—if it involves a URL, a mouse, or a remote control, that goes into that 6 hours. It doesn't mean anything physically social or stuff I have no control over, like advertisements on the subway, or music in the grocery store.

Of that six hours, I spend 2 hours on entertainment and 4 hours on work related research and communication. Sometimes that changes—on weekends, for instance, I spend the full 6 hours doing whatever the heck I want, as long as it's not more than 6 hours. By capping it at 6 hours, it also forces me to do things like go for a long walk with my wife, or cooking a good dinner, or producing information. That's been a heck of an improvement not only on my productivity, but in my marriage and on my overall health.

I've read the manuscript of Clay's upcoming book on this topic, and I wholeheartedly recommend preordering it.