Monday, October 15, 2012

RIP, Michael O'Connor-Clarke

A good friend of mine died on Saturday. For those who didn’t have the opportunity to meet this man, I feel compelled to tell you a bit about him.

I first met Michael O’Connor-Clarke at the Hilton New York in 1999 when we were in marketing for competing software companies. He at Hummingbird, the industry-leading document management software company, and I at iManage, the upstart nipping at Humminbird’s heels. I remember thinking it must have annoyed him that I was invited to share the stage with him; his company, after all, had more than 70% of the market, and iManage had been none too subtle in painting their product as yesterday’s technology.

But he wasn’t annoyed. No sooner had our panel wrapped up that he invited me to lunch. We hit it off, though we lost touch as our careers went in different directions. I stumbled across his blog several years later, and got reintroduced to what a cool guy he was.

And our paths crossed once again in New York, at another conference, this time in 2005. I was with FeedBurner, and Michael was at a tech company that was complementary to what we were doing. We reconnected over another lunch, and resolved that this time we'd stay in touch. We did.

We never went more than a few months over the last seven years without some e-mail exchange, and though we didn’t see each other too often, our lunch at SXSW a couple years ago was a highlight of that conference for me. By then I was at Google and he’d returned to agency life after some time with a tech firm, and we spent a good 90 minutes comparing notes about our families, our careers, and life in general.

Michael loved his job, and loved PR. He reveled in finding the story worth telling, and anyone who spends more than a few minutes browsing some of his blog posts will see a man who even loved those who practiced bad PR. (“Loved” might not quite be the right word: adored, maybe? Enjoyed? He took a perverse delight in their ineptitude, because even in their poorly targeted e-mail blasts, their terrible turn of phrase, their poor choice in tactics, there was a story there, too. Here’s but one example of countless exchanges he and I had over the years documenting this.)

This past July 4, I was driving my family north for a long vacation weekend. Early in the drive I got a call from one of my best friends, who was calling to tell me his wife had cancer. It hit me hard, and I spent much of that six hour drive predictably thinking about what’s important. Family. Friends. Legacy. As we neared our destination, it was dinner time. Rather than try to cook in the house we’d rented after a long drive, we found a local pizza joint that was open on the holiday. While I waited for our pizza to be finished, I checked my e-mail.

I didn’t recognize the name of the sender of the latest e-mail received, but I recognized the name in the subject line: Michael O’Connor-Clarke. The sender was Michael’s boss, sending to contacts in his address book, letting his extended network know that Michael was battling esophageal cancer.

Michael died Saturday, 48 years old, leaving behind a wife and three children, and an online and offline community of thousands whose lives he touched.

Last fall he and I were e-mailing about a YouTube problem a client of his was having. I asked how his family was doing, and his reply spoke volumes about who he was:
Things here are utterly wonderful, thanks. Actually in love with my job ... Great team, fantastic clients, and we're kicking 31 flavours of arse every single day. Family growing like weeds and eating us out of house and home, but all happy, healthy and (even more important) the kids all still like each other. La vita e bella.
It seems simplistic to reflect on a friend’s passing and say that we should cherish every moment, treasure the time we get with those we love. But the story of Michael’s life is, in the end, actually rather simple: love your family, find your passion, apply that passion to making others’ lives better while you can, and know that joy isn’t hard to find if you know where to look. I liked Michael the day I met him, and over the years grew to admire that here was a man who had his priorities firmly set.

Another of Michael’s friends recounted that Eamonn Clarke posted this on Michael’s Facebook page earlier today:

Enjoy life.
Hug your loved ones tight.
Be happy that he lived.
and raise a glass to him tonight
I’m raising a glass right now. Here’s to Michael, a man whose story I’ll remember for many years to come.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A family photo server

Earlier this year I asked for suggestions on Google+ about dealing with increasingly large image collections. In our house, we have two DSLRs, four phones that take pictures, and two point and shoot cameras. The images from these are scattered across several hard drives and online backup accounts; over the past several years they've been inconsistently backed up. We have a network attached storage device that houses all images, but due to poor backup processes in the past, we have several cases of duplicate images.

Adding to the complexity, we paid Scandigital to scan years of print photos – everything from our honeymoon to our first cross-country drive to our first house. This added several thousand images to our archive – a good thing, to be sure, as we now had electronic copies of pictures we hadn't looked at in years. But the challenge of managing those images – now numbering close to 50,000 – was getting insurmountable.

I hadn't gotten around to actually implementing a solution – we had a busy summer and I wasn't convinced I really wanted to tackle this. Then my son had a school assignment last week requiring him to find a dozen pictures to share with classmates from his childhood... and actually finding pictures for him was a nightmare. After more than an hour of poking through our archive, we hadn't found more than 5 he was happy with. I was frustrated, he was annoyed, and it became clear this wasn't sustainable. It was time to dive in.

The solution I more or less settled on was what I documented this summer: dedicate one desktop computer to organizing the image catalog. This past weekend, I picked up a computer at Best Buy, and I'm already happy with the progress (though I expect it'll be months before I will feel like I'm done). Here's what I did:

The computer

Bought a Gateway desktop with a dual core Intel processor and a 1TB hard drive. Total cost? $350. (Twenty years-ago me will stare at that line for a long, long time. It's OK, me-from-the-past; computers are commodities but gas is now $5/gallon.) It features an HDMI port, so I parked the computer behind the television in our family room and plugged it into one of the TV's available HDMI connections; when I want to display photo albums easily, I can just pull them up on the TV. (Note: when I first connected the computer to the TV, the computer's display extended beyond the boundaries of the screen. This blog post helped me figure out the problem: I had to adjust the TV's settings to stop zooming in; once I did that, I was all set.)

I added a Logitech wireless keyboard to the computer so I could operate the computer from the couch; it includes an integrated trackpad, and so far I'm pretty happy with it.

The images

Copied over all of the images from the NAS drive to the PC. Installed Picasa, and let it find all of the pictures. All told, there are slightly over 50,000 images taking up 200 gigs of disk space (I think there might be more, actually, but I haven't finished confirming that everything made it over yet). Thanks to the fast processor, indexing these images took Picasa just a few minutes; last time I tried this with a laptop it took hours and didn't complete. Hardware matters!

The faces

This is where it started getting magical: after just a couple hours, Picasa had found thousands of faces across our images, and grouped them very accurately. All of a sudden, I could see photos of my six year-old daughter, from her birth to this past summer vacation. There's my twelve year-old son – at his third birthday party, on his first day of kindergarten, leaving for his first overnight Scout camp – in one place. And my ten year-old son – the day he was born, his first airplane ride, the day he learned to ride a two-wheeler. It wasn't just the kids: my wife and I are there too, as are the grandparents (including my grandparents, both of whom have died), extended family, and friends.

What's next

Like I said, I'm nowhere near done. This is a solid foundation, but I have a long way to go. Here's what I think I need to do to get this under control:

  • De-dupe the catalog. Picasa has a nice "show duplicates" feature, but since it shows both copies of the picture that's duplicated, removing the dupes while leaving one copy is a time-consuming affair. This article from Digital Inspiration looks like it'll help; according to Picasa I have more than 4,000 duplicates.
  • Confirm I have all the pictures. I haven't done a full audit of where all of the family's pictures are hiding; in my Picasa account, in my wife's, on the kids' SD cards, etc.
  • Simplify synchronization from those sources. Once I have all of the images, the next step is to ensure that going forward the new images will get included in the master Picasa collection. Crashplan on the Mac will likely satisfy this for both my wife and I; I'm looking into solutions for Android (Dropbox with its instant-upload option may be a good go-between here, though I haven't started looking at how best to do this across several devices).
  • Install VNC on the photo server. While I'm able to operate the computer from the couch, that's not the most useful way to do actual work. It's great for lean-back viewing of the pictures, but doing lots of manipulation can get tedious. I'm going to install VNC so that I can access the computer from my laptop when I'm at home, which should make it easier to do the heavy lifting when needed.
  • Turn on cloud sync. I've got a lot of unused disk space on my Google Drive account, so once I have the local catalog in a good place, I'm going to enable Picasa's cloud synchronization, which will not only give me reliable backup of all images, it'll also give me an easy way to share all of these images. For the most part that means sharing with my wife, but I'll probably also share with family who may like the ability to browse through all of our images.
PS: The assignment

Even without all of that yet-to-be-done work completed, when it came time to find pictures for my son's assignment, it took all of about 10 minutes. The combination of a fast computer, large display, reliable face-tagging, and simple interface meant that we were able to very quickly find a handful of pictures from nearly 10 years in a matter of minutes. I'm encouraged, and feel like I've got a pretty good path forward.