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December 30th, 2012
This article originally published in issue 2 of The Magazine.
Choosing a sperm donor is a little bit like setting up an Xbox avatar. You begin by deciding on the ethnicity, hair color, and eye color of the fellow whose sperm you’d like to combine with your egg to make your baby. Then you enter that criteria into a sperm-bank search engine, which returns a list of matching anonymous males who passed rigorous genetic tests and filled out detailed questionnaires. Finally, you pore through each donor profile, considering things like his height, weight, build, SAT scores, family medical history, sexual orientation, whether or not he has moles, the shape of his nose and mouth, and in some cases, his baby photo or voice sample.
Our sperm bank has a web-based form to search their database. As a developer, when I use tools like this, I can’t help but think about the coders behind it. Did the people who wrote this HTML really consider their end-users? Did they visualize the lesbians, the single women, the aspiring parents who had everything lined up except viable sperm? Did they imagine the tension, the hope, the bizarre feeling of picking out the genetic material to make your baby online, the same way you’d shop for computer parts?
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March 26th, 2012
I've got some exciting news on the ThinkUp front. Our team is rebooting the project's non-profit funding organization Expert Labs into a commercial entity. Anil and I are co-founding the new ThinkUp company, and Andy and Clay will advise us. Our goal remains the same: to help users get more meaning out of their social network interactions. We plan to evolve ThinkUp above and beyond the current open source app to include an easy-to-use product with mainstream appeal. Update: To be clear, the existing ThinkUp application will remain open source.
As we get started, we need your help. One initial avenue of funding we're pursuing is via the Knight Foundation's News Challenge, a prestigious, international media contest which awards grants to its winners. The competition is fierce, and the applications are numerous. Our News Challenge application lays out details of our plans. If you've got a Tumblr account, please like (and even reblog!) our application to increase our chances. Just click on the heart next to the post. Thanks.
In the meantime, work on ThinkUp continues apace. Today's release includes gorgeous new charts and graphs, an web-based application upgrader, and lots of bugfixes. In the coming weeks, new features like Foursquare support and Facebook domain stats will be ready to test.
I'm deeply grateful to the AAAS and The MacArthur Foundation for funding Expert Labs over the past two years. Looking forward, I'm very excited to focus on the ThinkUp product and make it more useful, accessible, and meaningful. This is gonna be a fun ride.
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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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.
Related: The glut of hackneyed zingers about how Android isn't really "open."
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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Out of Curiosity Comes Everything
October 5th, 2011, 1 comment
“I’m a big believer in boredom,” [Steve Jobs] told me. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, he explained, and “out of curiosity comes everything.” The man who popularized personal computers and smartphones — machines that would draw our attention like a flame attracts gnats — worried about the future of boredom. “All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.”
—Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011
August 12th, 2011, 2 comments
Open source software culture and development can be difficult for tech enthusiasts without experience with it to grok, so I was thrilled to run a discussion on the basics of open source at Refresh SD this week. Check out my slides above.
I'm actively working on becoming a better speaker, so I'm testing different preparation techniques. For my CodeConf talk, I wrote my entire transcript word for word and basically memorized it, rehearsing it full-through several times. This time, my audience was a smaller, less specialized group, and I reserved half of my 45 minutes for Q&A and discussion, so I tried a more casual approach—just put together the slides, an outline, and went for it. It worked. I'm happy with my SpeakerRate reviews, even though I still have to learn to slow down and relax. So, while this isn't a straight transcript, here's a brief overview of what the talk covered.
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FAQ: What headset do you use on TWiG?
July 28th, 2011, 5 comments
Viewers often ask what headset I wear on This Week in Google; here's a complete list of all the gear I use for the show with handy-dandy links.
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iTerm2 Hits Version 1.0
July 7th, 2011, 2 comments
Awesome, free, open source Mac OS X Terminal replacement offers a bunch of features over Terminal.app. Worth mouseless copy, paste history, and instant replay alone. (via)
July 5th, 2011, 15 comments
Apologies to those of you following me on Google+: this post is a rehash of conversations I had this weekend on the service.
The original conception of the Facebook "Wall" was based on the whiteboard college students hang on their dorm room door. Students who lived in your dorm could walk down the hallway and jot messages for the room residents on those whiteboards. ("Ultimate frisbee on the quad at 4pm today" or "Dinner tonight?") Any student who walked down the hallway could see those messages. When you're 22 and your most significant life experience is college, your dorm room hallway is your main community of neighbors and friends. As an adult who has graduated from a few schools and had a few jobs, you've got multiple hallways. That's the problem Google+ Circles attempts to address: letting users define their "hallways."
Now, a student would write something much differently on her best friend's dorm door whiteboard than she would on a flyer she plastered on every public corkboard on campus. The way we talk and what we share differs based on who we think can see and hear those things. From what I can see so far, Google's doing its best to recreate that sense of who-can-see-what-here in Google+.
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Steven Levy on Google+’s Apple-esque Design
June 29th, 2011, 1 comment
[Larry] Page seems to recognize that this project in some ways requires a different approach from the Google norm. One variation that users will notice comes in interface design — conspicuously, in Circles. With colorful animations, drag-and-drop magic and whimsical interface touches, Circles looks more like a classic Apple program than the typically bland Google app. That’s no surprise since the key interface designer was legendary software artist Andy Herzfeld.
The former Macintosh wizard now works at Google — though he loves the company, he had previously felt constrained because its design standards didn’t allow for individual creativity. But with [Google+], he had a go-ahead to flex his creative muscles. “It wasn’t a given that anyone would like what I was doing, but they did,” he says.
Traditionally, Larry Page has been a blood foe of “swooshy” designs and animations geared to delight users. He feels that it such frills slow things down. But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle: It drops to the bottom of the screen, bounces and sinks to oblivion. That animation adds a few hundred milliseconds to the task; in the speed-obsessed Google world that’s like dropping “War and Peace” on a reading list. “I’ve heard in the past that Larry Page he didn’t like animations but that didn’t stop me from putting in a lot of animations in, and Larry told me he loves it.” says Hertzfeld. “Maybe Apple’s resurgence had a little bit to do with it.”
June 29th, 2011, 32 comments
After a half day of using Google+ with the limited number of people I know in the field test so far, I like it a lot. I will love Google+ when and if all my friends show up and stick around.
I've been been watching Google flail around social web apps for a few years now, so what I appreciate most about Google+ is that it's a well-thought out product informed by past experience. The more I use Google+, the more I see just how many lessons Google learned from Wave and Buzz, such as:
Don't even test a social product without email notifications. One of Wave's first mistakes is that it went out to test users without email notifications about new activity. New users would receive an invite, jump in, send waves, leave, and then when others responded to those waves after they left, those new users had no idea. If they didn't return to Wave (many didn't), the replies went unacknowledged, creating a lonely experience for the people who did come back.
G+'s email notification handling is particularly elegant. It gives you the choice—on by default—to let your friends who aren't on yet know there's something going on.
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June 23rd, 2011, 3 comments
Generally I find "distraction-free text editors" precious and unnecessary, but iA Writer is changing my mind. The typography and the sentence-by-sentence focus are fantastic. "Reading time" is interesting. I have mixed feelings about using Markdown in my text files—I platform-hop, and Markdown just doesn't look great in editors which don't support it—but otherwise enjoying iA Writer for drafting blog posts, cheat sheets, and notes to self on the Mac. It's 18 bucks in the Mac App Store.
June 21st, 2011, 13 comments
Tomorrow afternoon Leo, Jeff, and I will record the 100th episode of This Week in Google. 100 episodes! When we started the show almost two years ago, I had no idea it would be such an education in conversation, critical thinking, and performance.
I always try to play up, or work with people who are more skilled and experienced than I am. Leo and Jeff have not only been great co-hosts, friends, and heroes, they've been incredible mentors and teachers to me. Here are three lessons I've learned in the past 99 episodes of TWiG.
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Why Not Tumblr
June 20th, 2011, 28 comments
I love Tumblr, somewhat for its social features, but mostly for its ease of publishing. A good blogging tool gets out of your way, and makes it so easy for you to publish your ideas and discoveries on the web that you don't even have to think about it. Tumblr does this well. I was one of the first people to write a rave review of Tumblr on Lifehacker in March of 2007, a month after it went live. One of Tumblr's co-founders said that my piece "effectively launched the site." I take pride in that, not only because Tumblr's a great tool, but because its team is located in my hometown of New York City. I've been tumblelogging at scribbling.net for four years now.
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