Tagged: Google

Why I finally gave in and gave google all my email

It doesn’t matter how careful you are, if you’re the last human in a world of zombies, you’re going to get eaten sooner or later. You may not have noticed, but one of the last humans not using gmail – that’s me – recently joined the brain-seeking horde.

I didn’t set out to be That Guy Who’s Not Using Gmail. It sort of happened by accident. When Gmail came along, I was already using a hosted webmail service and at the time I thought that it was a more mature product. Maybe I was right at the time, but probably not for long after.

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Then I became aware of of the unsettling facts around Google reading all your email: the creepily invasive “helping” apps, the probable selling of my data and likely use of it for ad targeting or who knows what else. I was deep in the Google ecosystem but I resisted letting them have my email. That was too close to home, too personal.

Then somebody clued me in. It doesn’t matter if I don’t use gmail; if most of the people I correspond with are using it, then the googles already have most of my email. It’s sort of the opposite of herd immunity. I folded like a cheap lawn chair: reluctantly and with a squeak.

Complementary assets (app ecosystem, android integration, etc.) and oceans of cheap storage got me in the end.

Buying British Books from my couch by way of Porter Square and Google

I noticed a while back that local indie bookseller Porter Square Books sold ebooks on their website.  When I tried to buy one, I ended up with a format not readable on my Android phone, but the Porter Square crew did something I did not expect and promptly refunded me in full.  Win, except that I haven’t bought any ebooks from them since.

Now, some time later, I’ve learned that Porter Square Books now “carries” Google ebooks, which means you can buy a Google ebook on Porter Square Books’ website (not yet in their store unless you bring your own computer) and have that book appear magically in your Google books application on your phone, computer, tablet, whatever.  And just now I have done just that.  Big win, and I was rewarded with the 10-point thank you memo at right.

I’m not really sure I (5) nurtured any community since I did it at home and alone, or (6) conserved any tax dollars since I didn’t pay any sales tax so MA missed out there, or (8) used much of PSB expertise, but I am otherwise quite glad I did it.

For those keeping track, I picked up David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which is listed in PSB/Google’s catalog as “Blackswangreen” in case you want to read along with my book club.  I paid $12 for the ebook, compared to $15 for the trade paperback at PSB.  The paperback was $10.20 on Amazon so I guess localism has its price.

How does Google’s ebook reader software, Books, stack up on Android against Kindle and Nook?  The big difference in Google’s favor I see is the “original pages” function which can switch you from simple text to a scan of the original book and back.  Pretty cool with older and illustrated books but of questionable use with the latest Tom Clancy.  What Google Books lacks – and it seems really odd to me that Google would leave this out – is search.  At least on the Android app, you cannot (at least I cannot) search for text inside a book.  I figured that would be a slam-dunk for the Googles, but I’m sure it’ll be in an update soon enough.

So I urge you to support your local booksellers and your not-that-local ostentatiously-not-evil giant corporations next time you feel ebook fever coming on.

Goog line extension

I was excited to hear that Google maps had finally added Boston’s public transit system.  Now you can get directions around Boston for driving, walking, and public transit.  Of course, the MBTA website has been providing a trip planning service for some time.  So I figured I would compare the two services recommendations.  Too lazy to do anything particularly scientific, I asked both to tell me how to get from limeduck world headquarters (a secure undisclosed location in Central Square) to Modern Pastry in the North End at 8:30pm tomorrow.  The variance is shocking.

Another kind of Green Line Extension, seen at North Station

The defending champ, the MBTA Trip planner coughed up two suggestions:

  • Red line to Orange line to Haymarket in 23 minutes
  • Red line to Green line to Haymarket in 28 minutes

This pretty conclusively reinforced my preference for the Orange line to the Green, even if it means an extra stop on the Red.

The contender, Google Maps, brought four different routes, although two of them are essentially identical.

  • Red line to Green line to Haymarket in 19 minutes
  • Red line to Downtown Crossing, then walk the rest of the way in 22 minutes (duplicated with different Red line departures)
  • Red line to Green E line (at Symphony) to Haymarket in 37 minutes

Both sets of times include the walking time on each end.  I don’t know which of these plans is more accurate.  I have to believe that the MBTA should know the schedule better, but I also believe that Google might be reporting more realistic data.  Both systems agree that the Red line departing Central at 8:33 will arrive at Park Street at 8:39, but it all goes haywire after that, with a whopping nine minute difference in estimating the same trip, with Google saying it’s quicker to hoof it than to take either of MBTA’s Green or Orange legs.

I checked, the Orange line does show up in some Google routes at different times, but it looks like it doesn’t arrive very often, which might skew things.  Google’s last suggestion is so off the wall that it makes me doubt the whole system – take the #1 bus down Mass ave past the B C & D Green line station at Hynes and the Orange line station at Mass Ave to get on the E branch of the Green line at Symphony??  Feh.

Poor Google, has Boston’s beany maze bested your mapping mojo?

Try to parry the sword of data and you might get your pixels sliced off

Last week somebody who should have been working tipped me off to the story of Douglas Bowman, a lead designer at Google, quitting at least in part because his design decisions were being second-guessed and subjected to minute quantitative analysis.  Quantitative analysis at Google?  Who knew? Bowman wrote in his blog,

I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

That certainly does sound a bit soul-killing for a creative person.  I hope he was able to tackle some of the more exciting problems too.  He also recounts a story of Google engineers testing over 40 different shades of blue to determine the optimal one.  Bowman sums up his departure with this: “…I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.

Time to zip up my flame suit.  I like design and designers.  Some of my best friends are designers.  I think this story is another example of a terrible and corrosive attitude that has infected many members of the design profession.  (That’s not to say it’s anywhere near restricted to that profession, but let me piss off one group at a time here.) One of the important differences between being an artist and being a designer is that designers make products or parts of products for customers, and they are answerable to the wants and requirements of those customers. An artist – and only an artist – is allowed to say that the critics are fools and follow his or her creative destiny wherever it leads.

Inspiration and creativity have a vital place.  I don’t think anybody wants to lose those things, but nobody’s inspiration is above questioning, testing and probably incremental improvement.  Google is a profit-making company and they have an obligation to their stockholders to measure any employee’s work and its contribution to the bottom line.  Google sells advertising so they have a very clear interest in making sure that their ads are the most clickable they can be.  Designers are right to want to tackle “more exciting” design problems, but shouldn’t they also have a more open-minded attitude to analytic solutions to the “miniscule” decisions?  Don’t auto manufacturers stick a designer’s work of art into a wind tunnel and subject it to materials cost analysis, safety checks and ergonomic factors?

This story reminds me of some of the less attractive practices of the marketing and consulting professions.  I’ve met plenty of marketers and consultants who tell their customers that their work is the product of genius and cannot – indeed must not – be subjected to testing or measurement.  “You can’t test brand” “you can’t measure PR” and the like.  Accountable marketers call bullshit on this attitude and so should responsible designers if you ask me.

Lest I come off as (more of) a curmudgeon here, let me suggest a possible innovation.   More and more smart marketing departments include a marketing analyst, somebody responsible for counting the beans, measuring the programs, and generally helping keep the whole function accountable to the realities of business.  What if design departments had design analysts?  The fancy pants creative directors could work on the big problems, and when somebody asks, “how many pixels wide should that be?” the designer could shrug and say, “how am I supposed to know? Ask the analyst!”

A simplistic solution, perhaps.  But until designers and marketers accept that their work is part of a complex ecosystem that also includes customers and metrics, they will continue to frustrate themselves creatively and frustrate their employers financially.

Goog is my copilot

Ever seen the bumper sticker that proclaims, “God is my copilot” or maybe the one that says, “Dog is my copilot“? I don’t think you see as many bumper stickers as you used to, but these days I think if a car has one, it’s as likely to have ten. And I definitely see a lot more evidence that dogs are peoples copilots – if not their actual primary drivers – than that their deities are. On the other hand, it might be pretty cool to have Kali as your copilot, with her head out the passenger window, tongue flapping in the breeze as your car blazes a path of destruction across nine lanes of commuter hell.

OK, enough of my road-rage-fueled commuting fantasies. And my apologies to anyone who feels offended on behalf of Kali. In the interest of full disclosure, my car is protected by a traffic safety talisman I purchased at the Golden Temple in Kyoto. At least that’s what they told me it was.

My point, such as it is, is that I had several appointments in different places today, and in most cases enough time in between that I needed to find a place to kill some time, or if possible, get some work done. GPS and web applications both played big roles. In the morning, a trip to the dentist, just a block away, then hot cider (I was scolded – and scaled – for my coffee intake by the hygienist) with C at 1369, just another block along. Then it got tricky with lunch in Framingham, meeting in West Concord, and dinner in Watertown. As it turned out, two Starbucks with wifi were waypoints and workpoints in between.

I no longer bother to ask anybody for directions when setting up a meeting as long as I get an address. I then depend on my car-mounted GPS or Google Maps on a nearby computer or on my Windows Mobile “smart”phone. Maybe my toys or my skills are a bit out of date, but I find that no single one of these devices or methods quite does the trick on its own, and I use a weird combination of all of them to get around.

The GPS can’t be beat for actually getting there.  Suction cup mount, voice directions and live location information.  But the maps in your average GPS are never as up to date as the ones online, and their POIs (that’s GPS lingo for “Points Of Interest”) are even less so.  My smart phone’s google maps implementaiton is fantastic, but it can’t actually tell me where I am.  And none of these devices seems to have a more complicated itinerary in mind than simple “I need to get from here to there.”

What I need is something that can solve this problem:  I need to get from point A to point B in N hours, but it takes much less time to get there, so I also need to find a location  near point B where I can goof off or work productively (usually defined as a cafe or bookstore with free wifi) until closer to when I need to be there.  And I sometimes need to do this several times in a single trip.  And don’t forget to account for parking time and all.  There’s nothing worse than being late when you’ve had lots of extra time to get there.

Oh, and while I’m at it, I want to get there making the fewest left turns possible.

GOOG, where's my car?

Google Maps’ Street View feature – wherein they send car-mounted cameras tooling around the streets of an area and use whiz-bang technology to stitch the photos together into an eye-level view of everything along the streets – has come to Boston. So, naturally I poked around, looking at my home, my friends’ homes, places of personal note, and so forth. The images are obviously not live, but I still got a strange feeling when I was able to spot my own car parked across the street from my home.


I can see by the shadows that the picture was taken mid-day and by the foliage that it was in a more temperate season. The fact that I’m parked near my home not at work suggests a weekend or holiday.  The whole thing summons up creepy echoes of Rear Window or Blow Up or some other paranoid story in which a crime is revealed through some form of semi-illicit surveillance – or is it?

If you seek what you sought, you’ll find what you found.

I’m going back to work tomorrow after a two-week vacation, during which – uncharacteristically – I read work email just twice, once at the beginning, just briefly, and again today, much more thoroughly to prepare for re-entry tomorrow.

Here’s a redacted summary of one message I received. For the purpose of illustration, please assume that “Citrusy Canard” is the name of a company that competes with mine.

Subj: FW: Google Alert for Citrusy Canard

Citrusy is all over the news. Everything they do shows up in my Google alerts. They joined [industry organization] and are getting written up for it, but we were a founding member.
Google Alert for Citrusy Canard
[link to Canard’s press release on joining industry organization]

Can you spot the sloppy thinking here? And for extra credit, can you spot the disturbing reality exposed for all marketing and PR professionals?

My colleague is worried because Citrusy Canard is all over the news and we’re not. No, that’s not quite it. He’s worried because CC is all over his news and we’re not. And that’s because he has instructed Google to bring him all the news about CC but not about his own company. Note that he has asked for alerts on the name of the company, not on keywords around what they do – this filter will show all kinds of “news” relevant or not about the company, but will miss news about the industry that doesn’t include that company.

As a PR guy, I said he was barking up the wrong tree. I said that this press release matters only if it gets picked up and read by actual customers, and the Google alert merely says that it got put up on the company’s site, and you’re only getting it because you set up an alert on the company name. I thought it was like when you start thinking about getting a new car and suddenly you notice your intended model all over town – it’s just an illusion based on what you’re attuned to, not the actual prevalence or importance of the thing you’re seeking.

But then I felt it. That funny feeling you get when somebody innocent or foolish, like a child or a sales guy, says something that actually cuts to the heart of the matter in a way that you – the alleged elder or professional – had missed. It wasn’t the uncomfortable digestive readjustment to American food, it was the gassy gurgle of truth.

Fewer and fewer people are reading any regular media, and by that I sweepingly include pretty much all news sites, blogs and company sites. What they are doing is using aggregators, bots, and feeds to create their own personalized metamedia and consuming that. You don’t open the New York Times (paper or web) to learn what’s going on, you get fed selected headlines by the robots you’ve tasked to collect your news. So getting a press release picked up by a news media outlet is nice, but it matters less and less as long as your PR is getting picked up by the newsbots. Makes you think…

So I’m doing an experiment – I’m setting up a Google alert for the uncommon phrase, “Citrusy Canard,” which I will sprinkle throughout this post, to see if I get an alert about it when I publish. For what it’s worth, even such nonsense as Citrusy Canard pulls 461 results on Google, soon to be 462, I hope.

If you put a press release on your website and nobody reads it, does it make a difference? Yes, because Google reads it. Nobody reads anything anymore, but everybody reads Google, and Google reads everything, capisce?

Stand by for the update – will I receive a Google Alert on Citrusy Canard when I publish? How long will it take?