Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Adding a "Best of" page to Blogger

Visitors to the site will now see a new tab towards the top called "Best of" and I thought I'd document how I'm doing it in case others want to do the same.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a blog have a link to a "best of this blog" page, which I thought was a great idea. For new or infrequent visitors, it was a great way to introduce the visitor to the content that the blogger was particularly proud of. I've been thinking about that periodically, and today decided to take a crack at implementing something similar on Blogger. Here's what I did:

Identify my favorite posts: I have posted nearly 3,000 posts in the last 8+ years, so there's a lot of content to weed through. Rather than manually sort through, I used a short-cut: Google Analytics can tell me which pages have been viewed the most over the last three years. That was a good starting point:
Google Analytics - most popular posts
I also used the Blogger post editor to navigate through a few of the categories where I tend to do more thoughtful posts:

Blogger - posts labeled Business Strategy
Add the "Best of" label to all selected posts: Once I found the posts I wanted to share, I added a new label to the posts through the Blogger post editor:
Blogger - add label
Get the feed for the "Best of" label: Every feed on Blogger has associated Atom and RSS feeds (here's the help page that shows you how to find them). I grabbed the feed from the "Best of" label, and added it to FeedBurner.

Enable BuzzBoost for the feed: For those that don't know, I worked at FeedBurner for several years (our acquisition by Google is how I came to join Google). I remain a fan, and love when I have an excuse to use one of my favorite FeedBurner features. (I've written about it several times, here's one example.) BuzzBoost takes an RSS or Atom feed and converts it to JavaScript - perfect for what I needed. I turned BuzzBoost on and configured it to show all items:
BuzzBoost configuration
Once on, BuzzBoost gives you a line of JavaScript that you can insert on any HTML page. So I took that over to Blogger, where we put it all together:

Create a "Best of" page on Blogger: Click "Posting | Edit Pages" and then create your new page; once in the post editor, click "edit HTML" and paste in the JavaScript from FeedBurner:
Add in BuzzBoost to new page

Click "Publish page" and you're all done. Since our Pages widget (if added to your layout) auto-creates tabs on your blog, you'll now have a new tab that points to your "Best of" posts... and as you add the label "Best of" to other posts, they'll automatically show up in this page.

A few notes about the process:
  • Yeah, this is a bit of a kludge. I'm happy enough with the results, but it sure would be nice to have this be a native feature in Blogger. Will see if I stick with it, and if enough other users ask for something similar to add it as a feature down the road.
  • You can do multiple pages like this, whether it's for specific labels or combinations of labels (there's nothing to prevent you from putting multiple chunks of JavaScript on the page). But note: every bit of code you put on the page risks slowing things down, so be judicious here.
  • The new photo uploader in Draft is righteous.

Let me know what you think!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Livescribe Pulse Pen: Pure Awesome

Livescribe 4 GB Pulse SmartpenLast summer, a former co-worker at Google joined Livescribe and sent me one of their Pulse smartpens. I was instantly in love with the pen, but then two minor issues sidelined it: 1) the notepad that came with the pen was a bit big for my taste making it a tad bulky to tote to meetings, and 2) the pre-release Mac desktop software had become corrupted. I kept meaning to get back to the pen, but other things kept getting in the way.

Fast forward a few months. We got to know a couple through my kids' elementary school, and it turns out he's one of the Livescribe founders. He was out of town for this weekend's auction to raise money for the school ed fund, so I was on the hook for the demo of the pen at last night's gala event. Friday night I sat down to fix the corrupt desktop issue (took less than ten minutes, thanks to a quick response from Ross Belmont on Twitter!); once back up and running, I fell in love with the pen all over again.

A quick summary, for those that don't know what the Livescribe Pulse pen is: part audio recorder, part transcription device, the Pulse pen captures your handwriting as you write it and optionally records audio (lectures, meetings, etc.) as you're writing. At any point, you can tap the notepad and hear the recorded audio played back.

When you sync the pen to your computer, the handwriting and audio is transferred, Livescribe even OCRs your handwriting so that you can do full-text searches over your notes. (And listen to the recording of whatever you were taking notes from, if you want to refresh your memory.)

There's no doubt that this is a killer app for students - lectures, study groups, etc. - but I'm going to experiment with using it exclusively for meetings unless I'm presenting off of my laptop. Not only will it help me avoid IM chats and responding to e-mails during meetings (!), it'll also capture more complete records of the meetings themselves.

Don't know how recently they came out with this feature, but now when you transfer your notebooks/recordings to livescribe.com, they even convert the whole deal into an embeddable Flash file, making your notes and audio shareable with whomever you want. Here's the demo I did for last night's auction, the first few minutes of Steve Jobs's iPad announcement:

Now imagine these notes shared inside the firewall - how much more informed would people be after getting a chance to listen to the actual meeting? Or in a school setting, how amazing would it be for students to listen to a teacher's lecture again, with the aid of notes? (This is exactly how one teacher is helping her students, using what Livescribe has dubbed "pencasts" - see here.) Only downside I see to their current approach is that for files to be shared via Flash, they need to be set to public. Obviously I won't be sharing confidential Google notes with a third party service, making them public, and then embedding back. This is a long-time corporate feature request, I'll see if I can find out an update on how/if they encourage my use case. In the mean-time, I can share static files (PDFs) of the notes.

Included with the Pro version of the pen is "MyScript for Livescribe", which takes the OCR capability one step further and converts your handwriting to text, for inclusion in a Word doc or an e-mail. (If you don't get the Pro version, you can buy MyScript for $30.)

I'll experiment with using the Livescribe exclusively for the next several weeks and see how it goes. The pen looks a bit bulky at first glance, but is surprisingly comfortable (and quite light, considering the tech packed inside). Battery charges last forever (or so it seems), and the two versions of the pen - 2GB and 4GB - have plenty of memory to store audio and notes from 200-400 hours of meetings.

For more thoughts on the Livescribe setup, see my friend Ernie's great write-up from September here. One quote from that review:
This is an amazing tool for lawyers. Or students, or anyone one who needs to capture spoken information accurately. I have one and have used it in a variety of setting and it’s performed flawlessly. I bought one for my new paralegal as a welcome gift, and I know she’ll be very happy. But, the truth is, it’s a no-brainer. She’ll be doing client interviews and I want to make sure that she’s able to capture information accurately and easily.
Disclosure: I received my Pulse pen for free, as mentioned, from a friend who works at Livescribe. They didn't ask, and I didn't offer, that I'd write about it. But as you might be able to tell from this post, I'm kind of head-over-heels for it. So they'll just have to put up with me raving about it. :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Right hand lead

Back when President Obama secured the Democratic nomination, I posted a pic of him from his 2004 Senate campaign. Here it is again:
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
Notice the poster hanging on the wall? It's from the famous Ali/Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" fight in 1974, also known as the rope-a-dope fight. If you haven't seen the phenomenal "When We Were Kings" documentary about that fight, you're missing out. This snippet is from the film, and captures the brilliance  of Ali in that fight:

More than anything else that stuck with me from that fight is Norman Mailer explaining the right hand lead. Ali walked into that ring terrified of Foreman. But the first real punch he landed (at 3:02 if you want to skip ahead) was a right hand lead.

He lands another (3:19), and then the film cuts to Mailer explaining why this is such a big deal (3:28). In all, Ali threw 12 right hand leads in the first round. And this so enraged Foreman -- the right hand lead, among other things, was the boxing equivalent of a playground insult: you're so slow I can hit you from a mile away -- that Foreman dropped all pretense of boxing and tried to destroy Ali.

That's when the next phase of the strategy kicked in: the rope-a-dope. But it's important to note that the rope-a-dope only worked because Foreman had abandoned his game plan, stopped boxing and started fighting. By the middle of the fifth round, he had nothing left. In the eighth, well, that's the photo hanging above then-Illinois State Senator Obama's head. Update: A correspondent informs me that the photo is not, in fact, from the Ali/Foreman fight, but from the 1965 Ali/Liston rematch. (Confirmed.) Doesn't alter my overall analysis, but it does make this a slightly less useful anecdote. Oh well. 

Why am I writing about this now? In passing health care reform yesterday, President Obama showed the same strategy, patience, and timing to get the deal done. Saturday's New York Times has a terrific article about the legislative journey for both President Obama and Speaker Pelosi; and Bush appointee David Frum has an excellent conservative analysis for how the GOP played the part of Foreman to a T.

And once you're done watching When We Were Kings, do yourself a favor and watch last year's HBO documentary Thrilla in Manila. Just as good, it tells the story of the 1975 Ali/Frazier fight, mostly from Frazier's point of view. Among other things, it's the first time that Joe Frazier watched the fight from beginning to end. Ever. And the details that emerge -- about Ali, about boxing in the 70s, about Frazier -- are fascinating.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

S. 1744 moving forward - thank you!

A couple weeks ago I asked for your help on behalf of a friend. At the time, the important next step was securing a couple Republican co-sponsors for the legislation introduced by Sen. Schumer. Many of you called Sen. Brown's office, as he'd indicated he was open to the idea.

Great news: Sen. Brown is indeed a co-sponsor of the bill, and though a hold had been placed on the legislation, a compromise was reached and the bill appears ready to move ahead. The bill is now moving forward, and appears likely to be passed.

Thanks to all of you for your help.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New blog designer on Blogger

A year in the making, we just released the new template designer on Blogger. The announcement is at the Official Google Blog, and additional posts at Blogger Buzz and the Blogger in Draft blog provide more detail about what's up. I've just updated my design, so if you haven't been to the site in a while, go take a peek.

This is a huge step forward for Blogger, and is something we've been dying to release. Unlike past efforts, this isn't a rigid set of default (ugly) templates which are hard to customize. You get sliders to update the column widths, point and click ability to select the number and location of your columns (some columns even have their own columns! Shiny!), and one-click ability to adjust things like fonts and colors.

Perhaps the biggest step up is the inclusion of hundreds of free background images licensed from iStockPhoto. We don't support the ability to upload your own (not yet, but on the roadmap), but with some CSS tweaking (which is natively supported in the new template designer by clicking on "advanced | add CSS") you can point to your own image. The images that are already included are beautiful - coupled with font choices, color palette switching and column widths, there are tens of thousands of variants that are available immediately. And did I mention that none of this costs Blogger users a penny?

Sample iStockPhoto background images
The video shows how easy it is to bounce between variations before picking one you're happy with:

Very proud of the team who put this together (note: I was a cheerleader on this, can take no credit for the awesome results). Siobhan, Pete, Talin, Sean, Jerry, Noah, David, Wongoo and Jungshik: kudos. If you're a Blogger user, head on over to Blogger in Draft to get started.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hello Technorati, old friend

Last fall, I spoke at the Internet Summit on a panel with Richard Jalichindra, the CEO at Technorati. They had recently relaunched Technorati, and his continuation of founder David Sifry's "state of the blogosphere" was a good take on what was new on blogs. His data mirrored what we see at Blogger: there are more blogs than ever, we're growing faster than ever, and there are more people reading blogs than ever before. It's a vibrant medium, and it's an exciting time to be in the space.

I told Richard then that I had been a long time fan of Technorati - as an early blogger, it was the first tool to emerge that seemed to understand the value of real-time search. But over time Technorati shifted focus (a few times), was challenged by spam blogs infesting its index, and with their relaunch they shifted to topically organizing "top" blogs. I'd fallen out of the habit of checking Technorati.

Last night, I spoke at Blog Out Loud, a terrific event that ended up being a lot of fun. (More on that later.) On the panel with me was Technorati VP Dave White, who talked a bit more about what Technorati aims to do for bloggers. After hearing that they aim to help users find topically focused, authoritative blogs, I figured it was a good idea to give the site another look and poke around.

So... this is my post to "claim" the blog, which establishes that yes, I am the guy who updates this blog. Will see what that does for me, and will circle back once I've knocked around a bit.

Claim: VEA8VSN5FWHP. Whee.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

YouTube Captions: This is Big.

I don't upload a lot of video to YouTube, but that's going to change. Two nights ago, as we were preparing to launch the FTP Migration Tool, I wanted to do a quick video walk-through to show users how it would work. The video's 8 minutes long, and I was excited to get it done and up ahead of the actual launch so people could get a sense of things before diving in:

I announced it on Buzz, and almost immediately one of our users (someone I've corresponded with on several occasions about Blogger) complained. I was expecting complaints - people aren't thrilled that we've made this decision - but not Rob's. "arrrgh no captions on that video? *sigh"

And suddenly my excitement turned to frustration: yet another thing to tackle. (There've been lots of "yet another thing" when it comes to the FTP shut-down.)

Editing YouTube captions in a text editor

But wait! YouTube announced today that they can now do auto-captioning for all English language videos (with other languages to come). I turned it on for the screencast, and given the technical nature of the words, it wasn't perfect. YouTube lets me download the captions file, however, so all I had to do was open that up in a text editor, and 30 minutes later I had an error-free transcript of the talk (with the timestamps embedded to ensure everything synched up). Uploaded that into YouTube - and bingo: perfect captions, completely synched to my speaking.

It gets better. I noticed that the Captions interface included the ability to upload a transcript, which made me think about the commencement address I gave last year. Unlike other speeches I've given, I wrote this one out in its entirety - and posted it to my blog. I took the text from that blog post, uploaded it, and after just a couple minutes, YouTube converted the transcript into closed captions for the video.

Other than a hiccup with the first few minutes (my transcript begins with my remarks, but the video starts with Rob's introduction of me), the text matches my delivery perfectly. Just like with the screencast's captions, the words can now be translated into any of the dozens of languages YouTube supports.

Here's me in English:

And in French:

This is big. For Blogger, it means that help videos - previously all but impossible to use scalably (we offer Blogger in 42 languages) - can now be more tightly integrated into how we communicate new features. For users, content across languages becomes more accessible. There's no doubt bound to be tremendous search implications (we are Google, after all). And to all the Robs of the world, for whom YouTube was a silent, ever-growing archive of video, I imagine this is indeed huge news.

MA friends, I need your help today

Kevin Kuwik, one of my brother's best friends from Notre Dame, is a remarkable guy. He's currently a basketball coach at Ohio State who served in Iraq (more on that here), but that's not what I'm writing about today.

Last year, on the day before his brother's wedding in Buffalo, Kevin's girlfriend was flying to Buffalo to join the celebration. She was on flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo. The plane crashed, killing all aboard.

In the year that's followed, Kevin has devoted his free time to lobbying Congress to pass common-sense legislation concerning commuter flight training. It's really staggering how senseless Lorin's death and those of the other 49 passengers (and one person on the ground) was. Simple things - like ensuring pilots know what to do in cold weather, knowing not to sleep overnight in chairs at airport lounges - could have easily avoided two inexperienced pilots flying into sub-zero temperatures late at night and taking 50 lives.

ESPN covered Kevin's work last month, talking about a moving pre-game speech he gave after head coach Thad Natta made patches for the team to wear honoring Lorin Maurer's memory:

Kevin and several families of the survivors met with Sen. Chuck Schumer yesterday, who's about to send a bill to the floor of the Senate (details). Sen. Scott Brown is a possible co-sponsor, and any help you can give to showing Sen. Brown what this bill would mean could help convince him to sign on as a co-sponsor.

This is not a partisan bill. This is common sense legislation, and would help prevent additional senseless loss of life of future air travelers.

If you live in Massachusetts, here's what you can do:

  1. Call Scott Brown's DC office 202-224-4543, identify yourself as a Massachusetts resident (they'll ask for your ZIP code), and say "I am calling for the Families of Flight 3407, and am asking Senator Brown to please co-sponsor S.1744, Senator Schumer's bill that would raise minimum pilot qualifications.  250 hours is not enough - you have to have more experience to be a licensed hairstylist."
  2. Call Scott Brown's Boston office 617-565-3170, identify yourself as a Massachusetts resident (they'll ask for your ZIP code), and say "I am calling for the Families of Flight 3407, and am asking Senator Brown to please co-sponsor S.1744, Senator Schumer's bill that would raise minimum pilot qualifications.  250 hours is not enough - you have to have more experience to be a licensed hairstylist."
  3. Email Scott Brown's staff at comments@scottbrown.senate.gov, identify yourself as a Massachusetts resident (include your address at the end), and write "I am emailing on behalf of the Families of Flight 3407, and am asking Senator Brown to please co-sponsor S.1744, Senator Schumer's bill that would raise minimum pilot qualifications.  250 hours is not enough - you have to have more experience to be a licensed hairstylist"

Thank you.