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A 11 post collection


My Alternatives to Google

 •  Filed under Google, Tools, FastMail, DuckDuckGo, Email, Dropbox, Heroku, Articles

Ever since going Google free, I've tried a number of different services to cover my needs. In this post I'll highlight seven alternatives to Google's own products.

Search Engine - DuckDuckGo

It's been two years now since I stopped using Google for searching needs and started using DuckDuckGo. Overtime I used DuckDuckGo's bang methods to redirect search queries to Google if DuckDuckGo didn't have what I was looking for, but overtime I've had to do that less and less. I'm not sure if DuckDuckGo's search results are improving or my searching needs have lessened over time. Either way, I'll be sticking with DuckDuckGo for the foreseeable future.

Email - FastMail

This is another service that I started using two years ago and I continue to use today. FastMail's email service isn't free for those with a moderate sized email archive, but paying for a service helps ensure that it stays around for a long time. Gmail is free, but with an email client that integrated a whole bunch of other Google services, it started to feel less like an email client and more like a communication centre. Gmail's spam filtering was also once the best spam filter in the field, but I'm glad to say that FastMail's own spam filtering is great and I've no complaints.

Cloud Storage - Dropbox

I never used Google's own cloud storage product, Google Drive. I've been a user of Dropbox since it first came out. What I like the most about Dropbox though isn't its pricing, or it's synchronisation across devices. I like the fact it isn't part of something bigger. I think if Google or Microsoft were to buy Dropbox then I would have to look at another cloud storage solution. I don't like the idea of having all my Internet eggs in the one company basket.

Document Management - Pages, Numbers & Keynote

Desktop apps can be just as efficient as cloud solutions like Google Docs. In fact maybe even more. I use Pages, Numbers & Keynote for all my document needs. I usually have my MacBook with me most days when I am working so using these native apps is a no brainer. If I needed remote access to my documents to edit them I would maybe consider using something else, but for my needs this is sufficient.

Analytics - Gauges

I was a long term user of Google Analytics for various websites over the years, but after a while I simply got overwhelmed by all the metrics and stats that Google provided. My needs were simple. I wanted to see how much activity my website was getting in terms of clicks and people. At the time Gaug.es was a product of GitHub, but the service has changed hands. It's still the same service that GitHub made and nothing has changed much over the time since the handover. Gauges isn't the only alternative though, there are a number of alternatives that serve different needs.

Blogging - Heroku & Jekyll

Who says you need to replace one service with another. What about combining products? My blog has been through lots of different iterations but since 2013 I've been using Octopress which is just a nice layer over Jekyll. Recently I switched to just using Jekyll. I didn't need the extra layer of functionality that Octopress provided.

With my blog catered for I needed a host as well for it. Given my website is static, I could use Amazon's S3 storage, but I wanted to be able to extend my site with Sinatra if needed. In the past I've used Linode to host my blog, but with Heroku's recent pricing change towards cheaper dynos, I'm now hosting my blog there. It also means that when I commit my changes to GitHub, my blog is automatically deployed to Heroku.

Rolling your own blog isn't difficult to do but for those that want a simpler way to publish, there's a number of good alternatives.

Calendar - iCloud & Fantastical

Lastly it's the turn of the calendar. I used Google's calendar service a lot. Probably second in line in terms of daily use to Gmail. I use Apple's Calendar app to keep my calendar synced between my laptop and my phone, but I also use Fantastical to manage my calendar on a day to day basis.

Going Googe free is a big move if you have heavily invested your time and needs in Google's own line or products and tools. I was fortunate in that I used mostly Gmail and Google Calendar and they required minimal effort to move across. Two years later, I'm still happy with my own chosen stack of apps that are outside of Google's borders.

The Problem with Petition Services

 •  Filed under Internet, Articles

Before the Internet, the best way to make a group of people heard was to have those people sign a petition. Under a common goal, a group of people would sign a petition and have it sent to a person in authority or government. This person is most likely seen as the one person with the power to exercise the changes requested in the petition. It doesn't always work, but when enough people make their views heard in the form of a petition, it is hard to ignore.

Today the Internet provides an easily accessible global platform that makes being heard even easier. Services like 38 Degrees and Change.org aim to make the process of petitioning even easier by allowing people to sign up to petitions regardless of their location in the world. My view of such services when they first appeared was that they would be a great benefit. People could make their views clearer and more people could get behind petitions from the comfort of their own home. Overtime though, I've become less enthusiastic about petition services.

Misplaced Importance on Petitions

While petition services have been used to highlight and push for change in a number of topics that affect society they also have been used for questionable aims.

Over the years of petition services being available there have been a number of petitions started that you have to wonder what significance they have and their importance.

Asking Death to bring back Terry Pratchett? I would love to be reading new books from Terry but we all know that no amount of petitioning is going to make this change happen.

Demanding the BBC re-instate Jeremy Clarkson? After a number of run ins with the BBC it seems that Jeremy's luck has run out. I would love to see Jeremy back on Top Gear but I'm pretty sure that a petition is not going to make him a Top Gear presenter again.

Petitions like these may have started out as harmless fun, but the problem with them is the misplaced importance put on them. While Clarkson's petition to be re-instated has reached just over the one million mark, another petition calling for people to be automatically registered into the organ donor list has only attracted just over sixty thousand signatures. What's more important?

The Empty Gesture

Petition services make signing a petition easy. Fill in the form on the page and you're done. That's it. You never have to see that petition again or even have to follow up to it to see what happens. So, is signing these petitions an empty gesture or do they genuinely make a difference?

I've signed petitions like these in the past, but not even thirty seconds after signing the form am I doing something else and I quickly forget I even signed it. That's not to say though that the petition hasn't made a difference. In time petitions have brought about change and made a difference. The question is, if you didn't sign the petition would it still have made a difference? Also, is there weight behind the number of signatures that a petition contains?

Maybe signing a petition should involve more than just signing the petition and sharing your support on social networks, but what else is there to do? Fund the petition with money from your own pocket? Attend a rally in support of the petition. These are definitely options, but for most people signing the petition, just signing it is all they want to do.

Another Digital Distraction

The big drawback to petition services is that they are digital tools and therefore suffer from the same single fault that all digital tools and services suffer from. They are a distraction.

When I walk through the centre of town there are usually people hanging about with clipboards asking for a few minutes of your time. Be honest, when faced with people with clipboards, do you usually skirt past them or reply quickly, "You don't have the time."?

I usually do one or the other and I'm guessing I'm not alone based on the number of people I see stopping to chat. While most of the time I probably could spare a few minutes, there are times when I am trying to be somewhere at a specific time. So no time for distractions.

The same can be said for petition services. When you sign up for one petition, you could end up being put on the mailing list for other petitions or you could sign up to be notified about what happens to petitions after you have signed them. For a couple of weeks there it seemed I was getting an email every other day from these petition services. I started unsubscribing from the various petitions I had signed as well as unsubscribing from the petition services themselves.

What started as a tool for bringing about change simply became another digital distraction. It had lost it's value for me.

Petition Still Require Action

Petition services are a great tool for bringing about change, but I think more needs to be done for a petition than simply signing it. Physical presence is a great show of support, so attending a rally may make more of an impression than a simple signature would. The defeats the purpose of digital petitions though.

I also think that petitions could benefit from a scale of importance or relevance for petitions. While most petitions fall under the category of politics or society, a further breakdown of petitions based on their topic and their importance could allow people to follow a more select group of petitions.

My Seven Essential Daily Tools

 •  Filed under Tools, Articles

I'm always reviewing the tools I'm using on a daily basis, and last week I wondered what tools I was using that I used the most on a daily basis. This wasn't compiled from a list of measured interactions with all my tools, but simply an informed guess at the tools that I use daily.

Safari

The web browser. Every web developers main application for running and testing their applications. For me as well though, it's a window to the Internet. Having previously ditched Chrome, I used Firefox for about six months. As web browsers go I couldn't complain about it's speed, features and developer tools.

I tried Safari for a week just as an experiment about a month ago and found that there was nothing in Safari I couldn't do in Firefox. Since then it's been Safari all the way.

One good thing to come out of it was that I also dropped my Instapaper account in favour of Safari's built in reading list that also syncs to my iPhone. Not only am I always looking for new services to use and try, I also like to keep the number of applications and services I'm using down to a minimum. By using Safari I was able to delete Firefox and also my Instapaper account.

Mail

Apple's Mail client isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the way I see it is that if it does everything for me that I need it to do then why not? It supports multiple accounts, interacts with my contacts list and works well with FastMail.

Trello

Project management tools are a rare thing for web developers that practice agile methods like stand ups. Agile methodologies like Extreme Programming and Kanban will rely on index cards and boards as the main point of interaction for a team with a project. Until Trello was launched, applications that tried to replicate this in code didn't always get it right.

Working on my own means that communicating with others on the project remotely is more important than practices such as stand ups. Every day I enjoy using Trello for the needs of my clients and for the needs of my own projects. It's flexible layout means that it can be tailored to lots of different workflows.

Evernote

I've only been using Evernote for a week now but it has become a growing part of my day to day work flow. With a tool like this I now have a place that I can put information that I might need at a later date. I've found so many uses for it in the last few days.

First there's interaction. There's just so many ways of interacting with Evernote such as the web clipper, by email and of course there are a number of other apps in the Evernote marketplace that make getting information you have from one app to Evernote easy.

Then there's accessibility. With apps for the desktop, phone and tablet, I can access my Evernote stuff from anywhere. My iPad has now become more of a day to day writing tool again thanks to the access I have to Evernote on it.

Evernote fills the gap of a knowledge management tool for me nicely now. All the information I need is now in one place and easy to access and search.

iTerm 2

iTerm2 is my terminal of choice. Having used it for a few years now, I'm familiar with most of the keyboard shortcuts and it just works.

Sublime Text

Sublime Text has worked well for me over the last few years. I'm still discovering some of the keyboard shortcuts and I'm have to admit that I am not using all of it's features on a day to day basis, but for writing code it serves me well.

Notebook

A list of daily tools wouldn't be complete without a notebook or two. I have two on the go at the moment.

The first notebook was initially used for tracking client work, but this has evolved into a task journal for all my work using the dash plus system. Where as Trello is used for mostly tracking progress on projects, my task journal is for tasks that come from features in Trello, ad-hoc client tasks or tasks from my own master list.

The second notebook is mostly for the initial capture of ideas, thoughts, posts and sketches. I use it maybe once or twice a week, but it's always sitting on my desk within easy reach. When I'm tired of sitting at my desk, I'll move to a more comfortable chair and review my capture notebook or simply do some writing straight into it.

As brilliant as technology is, sometimes you can think better with just pen and paper.

Settling for Defaults

One thing that's clear from my list is that if there's a default tool on my MacBook that is adequate for the job then I will use it. I dislike having my MacBook cluttered with different tools and applications that serve the same purpose.

The one exception here is my choice of terminal. Apple's default application Terminal still doesn't allow vertical split panes whereas iTerm2 does. A small feature, but given that I always have two panes open side by side, it makes sense to use iTerm2 over Terminal.

Skipping the Support Apps

A few of might be wondering about apps such as Alfred, PopClip or even Fantastical. Well, while I use these as well on a daily basis, I tend to view them as support applications to my seven above. They're still bloody useful tools to have but sitting in the background there's always open and frequently support the seven tools that I have listed above.

There we have it, my seven essential daily tools. I put forth the question to you now. What's your seven essential daily tools and how do they make you work better?

The App.net Newsletter: An Update

 •  Filed under Articles, App.net

It's been a couple of weeks now since I first presented the idea of a newsletter for App.net. A lot has happened in the last couple of weeks, so here's a recap.

Initial feedback was good

Based on poll taken by a number of App.net members, there was very positive feedback on the idea of a newsletter. A number of ideas and suggestions were sent to myself regarding content for the newsletter. A second poll asking if user's would like to see personalised content wasn't as popular.

Using the App.net API

Another thing that came out of this was the possibility of using App.net so that users could authorise their accounts so that we use the user's email address to send them the newsletter. Once this was done I had another idea to personalise the newsletter based on posts from each user's timeline. I would read the user's timeline for the week and include highlighted posts from the past week in the newsletter. There were two problems with this.

The first is that the App.net API does not include a user's email address in their profile when you ask for it. Understandable really given that this email could be used in other ways by an application that has access to the API.

Secondly the original idea was for a newsletter. At the time I hadn't considered a personalised newsletter until a few days later. Now that I've had a chance to access the API, reading user's timelines for highlighted posts is a major task that would require more time than I currently have available.

The idea of building a full application to support personalised content for the newsletter is a large undertaking and one that I wouldn't be prepared to undertake unless I had a number of sign ups already interested in this. Based on the light feedback I had it simply wasn't enough to warrant my time at the moment.

So what's the plan with the newsletter then?

Well, the plan is to still provide a premium newsletter for App.net members who can sign up with any email address they choose. I am not going to be using the App.net API in anyway for the newsletter, as I'm still essentially testing the validity of this idea. Yes people voted on it and said it was a good idea, but when it comes to getting paid subscriptions will people still be so positive about it?

In order fully test this idea, I will be moving ahead with publishing a newsletter for the App.net community but it will be limited to a number of editions in order to test whether the idea has enough subscribers to carry forward.

I've still got a number of questions about sign ups, cost of the newsletter and hopefully the possibility of making the newsletter free until the number of sign ups has reached a set limit.

This week I'll be announcing the account that will act as a contact point for the newsletter and where people can submit ideas or content for the newsletter. I'll also hopefully be releasing the sign up page for the newsletter next week. A couple of weeks after this I'll be releasing the first edition of the newsletter.

Idea: An App.net Newsletter

 •  Filed under App.net, Articles

Last night I posted to App.net an idea for a premium newsletter that aggregates and reports on activities and news happening within the App.net community. The response I got back from people was very positive. A lot of people expressed interest in the newsletter.

Why a newsletter?

It's a question I asked myself a few times while writing this blog post. App.net members can already find out this information on App.net itself, the only problem is that they might not know the correct hashtag or account to follow to get that information. The newsletter is not just a way of letting you know what's happening on App.net but also as a way of bringing App.net members together.

I'm trying to foster a better way of brining people together on App.net.
Since signing up for App.net I've enjoyed being here and I want to continue enjoying that experience. That's why I thought about introducing a newsletter for App.net members. A unified way of getting up to date information in one place. You can still use your own methods if you prefer, e.g. searching for the right hashtag for the book club or finding out when the next writers challenge is. The newsletter isn't compulsory, it's optional. It's your decision how you want to interact with App.net.

Why premium?

When I say premium, I mean a newsletter you pay for. Why would you pay for it? Well why wouldn't you? It takes time to collate, write and edit newsletters and while most free newsletters rely on ads, I don't think that ads are what people want to see in the newsletter, although I haven't validated this yet.

App.net started out as a premium service that indicated right from the start, no ads. I was hoping that the newsletter would follow the same path.

On the other hand I can appreciate those that wouldn't pay for such a newsletter and would want to receive it for free. If you're not paying for an App.net account then why would you pay for an App.net newsletter? Also we're trying to foster participation in this community and many people have free accounts. Why would they want to pay for information that they can get that information through other means?

Then there is those who are already paid members. Do they really want to pay for a monthly subscription on top of their membership? To bo honest, I would. The newsletter would have to deliver value though.

I've been thinking about this and while I can see the benefit of a free newsletter for one and all, I see little reward for those that could be contributing to the newsletter. That fluffy feeling you get from doing something for free for someone can only get you so far. What if the newsletter takes off and demands more of my time?

I started a poll last night (thanks @abraham), to get feedback on whether people would sign up for a premium newsletter on what's happening in App.net. For me the number of responses are too small to definitely say that yes most people would be interested in a paid newsletter. At 9am (GMT) this morning the responses were as follows:

  • 61% (11 votes) of respondents indicated that they would be interested in a premium newsletter.
  • 33% (6 votes) would be interested in a newsletter if it was free.
  • 6% (1 vote) said they wouldn't be interested in a newsletter at all.

Clearly there is demand for a newsletter, but a premium one? I'm not sure on that yet.

What's in it then?

Here's the good part. I've been able to get a lot of great feedback from people with very interesting ideas for content for the newsletter. Here's some of the suggestions so far:

  • App.net meet ups across the world - Really just a list of where App.net members are meeting in the next couple of weeks. Usually I hear of these things through App.net itself, but having these delivered to your inbox is a better way of finding out when they are happening.
  • Community calendar of events and activities happening on the network - Really what I think we have in mind here is dates for events like #thememonday, #wedc as well as book clubs or movie nights that are happening across App.net.
  • New apps and services - Got a new app that you want everyone to know about? Then why not spread the word through the newsletter. We'll also let you know when apps and services get important updates as well.
  • New interesting users - I'm not talking about celebs. I'm talking about writers, photographers, thought leaders, musicians. If anyone important joins App.net we can let you know through the newsletter.
  • Tips and suggestions - Did you know that Alpha supports the Markdown syntax for embedding links in your post? Not a lot of people know that, but wouldn't it be great to see tips like this and getting more from App.net with other titbits like this.
  • Featured photo - Every week a photo taken by an App.net user will be featured in the header of the newsletter with a link to credit that user.
  • Member profiles - Every week we could feature a user in the newsletter and do a small Q&A session with them. This could include the ADN staff as well if people wanted this. The point to this is that everyone in the community is important so featuring users in the newsletters would be great to foster connections between people.

What's the next step?

Providing I get enough positive feedback from App.net members then I think a simple first edition of the newsletter is required. Something for everyone to enjoy. What I also need is actual content as well and a structure for that content that will make up the newsletter. I've created a patter room for the ADN newsletter as well as an account on App.net for the newsletter.