Archive for the ‘cool tools’ Category


YouTube’s Added Value

13 May 2009

I’ve been using YouTube quite a bit lately to host shareable videos. It’s so easy, a child can use it (and clearly they do, for better or worse). But it’s also maturing into what could become an enterprise-level tool that is a lot more meaningful than videos of kittens falling asleep.

It’s important to me to ensure that as much video as possible is captioned. We’ve captioned many of our YouTube videos already, and we’re hard at work captioning more. The goal is that all of the videos we publish will be closed captioned. Why is this important? Well, certainly for accessibility. Someone who can’t hear the audio track of a video needs to know what’s being said. But also, people in offices who don’t turn up their volume, people in noisy places who can’t quite make out what’s being said through their speakers — they too can use closed captions to ‘hear’ what’s going on.

That’s enough reason for me. But it wasn’t enough for Google. They’ve added the killer-app feature that makes it critical for all thinking people to add captions to their videos — SUBTITLES. That’s right, if you caption your video, the user viewing it has the option to translate those captions into any of approximately 40 different languages. (The thumbnails below will link you to screen shots of just how it works on the user end.)

First there was YouTube EDU, and now captioned *and* subtitled videos — a suite of remarkable tools rising from a pool of skateboarding dogs and angsty teens.


When social networks die…

7 March 2008

I found myself saying to a colleague this morning, “Orkut has gone the way of Friendster.” We were mulling over the reasons why certain social networks last, while others go the way of the summer fling.

I’ll admit it, I join every social network I see, more or less. If there’s anything particularly intriguing about a site, I’ll throw my hat into the ring. And I’ve found that the networks that I continue to use are the ones that offer me something other than social networking as a primary draw. Why do I still use Flickr? Because no matter what computer I’m on, no matter where in the world I am, I can find my pictures. While I’m not a knitter, I have learned from Ravelry members that it’s the bees knees, not primarily because of the other people, but because it offers tools to knitters that they’ve not had before — at least not at this level. The fact that there are other people in the Ravelry world to share with is just the proverbial icing.

Having things in common isn’t enough to sustain a social networking relationship. Perhaps it is in the real world — you can sit down over coffee and talk about the finale of The Wire, or the silly Olympics logo. But asynchronous relationships based on two-dimensional interactions are transient. There’s not much to hold your interest, and plenty of other shiny things to distract you.

For a social network to be really meaningful, it has to first be in service to the individual member somehow. It has to draw the user to it for a reason other than connecting with other people. Interest in Facebook (or is it facebook?) is waning, but it hasn’t tanked as quickly as Friendster (or mySpace) because someone is always sending you a new app, or a Zombie Bite, or an invitation to a game of Scrabble. But I sense even that will lose its appeal soon enough.

So, what explains the popularity and sustained success of LinkedIn? I’m still not sure how it fits into the paradigm. LinkedIn is different things for different people. For me, it’s a place to keep a skeleton copy of my c.v., and a place to keep track of people I am not regularly in touch with — so if someone’s email address changes, I’ll still be able to find her. For recruiters, it has very little to do with the social networking, and a lot about the résumé. Perhaps that’s the answer, then — it’s the Flickr of résumés. It’s a place for me to maintain a pointer to me, in case anyone’s looking for me. My relationships with others on LinkedIn are less important to me than my own details…but it sure is fun to find old friends from high school, and see where they ended up.

I guess the lesson learned here is, social networking for the sake of it, simply to exploit similarities in relationships, will always be short-lived. Anticipation, then excitement, then early adoption, then critical mass, then waning. It’s the relationships based on more than just proximity (even virtual proximity) that really seem to last.


Another awesome service

11 January 2008

I like Macs. I really do. And I need a .Mac account for syncing my calendar and Yojimbo. But .Mac stinks. I try to keep three computers synced, and it always seems that one or more of them doesn’t sync properly. All the machines are up to date, all software on the same version, but I regularly have to delete my sync data or perform some other magic trick to get syncing to work.

I have some workarounds for that. I’ve started using Sandy (UPDATE: Sandy’s now gone. 😦 )to track my calendar entries, and I just have all my iCals subscribe to her syndicated version of my calendar. I try to make sure that I massage my .Mac periodically so my Yojimbo entries sync. I don’t worry about bookmarks, and Address Book contacts seem to sync eventually, so I’m usually OK.

But files. OH FILES. I hate carrying a thumb drive. I fear losing them. I worry I’ll forget them. But whenever I am connected to my iDisk and try to save something on my MacBookPro, the machine hangs. DotMac is just not my friend.

Enter Jungle Disk. On the one hand, it’s so simple, I shouldn’t have to pay for it. On the other hand, $20 for a lifetime of software support and upgrades as an interface to the gignormous Amazon S3 servers is kind of a no-brainer. I could spend a few hours figuring out how to tap into S3 myself, sure. I know I’d be able to do it eventually. But my time is worth more than $20 an hour, so why not outsource that? I did. I bought a Jungle Disk client license.

I used the service for a month. I took everything off of my .Mac account and moved it onto my Jungle Disk. At 10-cents-per-gig download and 18-cents-per-gig upload, it wasn’t a budget breaker. My first month’s bill from Amazon was 21 cents. I can work on Mechanical Turk for about five minutes and make that back.

Jungle Disk works just like a regular WebDav connection. It’s a bit slower than write-to-disk, but not so much so that it is annoying or anything. And today, Jungle Disk 1.5 was released. For $1 a month (first 12 months free), you can have web access to your files, encrypted or not (you decide).

If only there were a way to sync my Yojimbo data reliably, I’d be dumping that $99 annual .Mac fee.


Web services that work

20 November 2007

Remember years ago, that neat service that got a lot of press, Wildfire? It was one of those services that you could call, and it did voice recognition — a woman’s voice responded, and she was your personal assistant. But it was expensive and complicated, and the company went for enterprise-level. On the other hand, enter Jott. Free (at least for now) service that you can call — it transcribes and then forwards your voice messages to anyone else’s email or SMS. Now, that’s just dandy, and I probably wouldn’t use it just for that…I’m rarely away from my email for so long that I can’t wait to get someone a message, and if it’s that important, I’ll just call.

But now imagine if that service could send your messages not to other humans, but to other SERVICES. That’s where IWantSandy comes in. Sandy is your personal assistant, and to get her to do stuff or remember stuff, you just send her an email, or even cc: her on an email to someone else. Any date/time/event/contact information is extracted from the email, and added to your Sandy repository. Which is fine and dandy, except I already use iCal. Well. Sandy also syndicates your Sandy calendar, so you can subscribe to it in iCal, and then the events in your Sandy calendar show up as events in your everyday calendar — even syncing to your iPod or iPhone or other PDA that speaks iCal.

The other day, I had Sandy remember stuff about Thanksgiving. I even told her what I was going to need from the grocery store. Now, when I get to the store, I can drop Sandy a quick note (or call her through Jott) asking her for my grocery list, and she’ll email my grocery list to my phone.

When I started using these services, I wanted to dive in and figure out how they work, so that I could tweak them to within an inch of their lives. I started reading the developer API doc. Then Sandy sent me a reminder about an upcoming event, and I stopped reading. I have a basic enough understanding of how it works. But what’s more important is THAT it works. As Ben Schneiderman said at World Usability Day New England 2007, it’s not about what computers can do, it’s about what you can do with computers.

I was telling a colleague about these services this morning. He thought the confluence of these services was pretty cool, and then he asked if any of our ‘clients’ had been asking for this kind of support. I explained that, no, these are bleeding-edge kinds of uses, and only the earliest of adopters would be using them — and those folks can generally support themselves. But what if we set up Jott/Sandy accounts FOR them, and just told them how to use the services? Not how they work, not the ins and outs, just, “Call this number, say these things, and then in five minutes, sync your iPod, and it’ll show up.” We could even create our own wrapper around the services, so as to not make them scary and intimidating or disjointed, or even make them not seem Web 2.0 (which some folks DO find scary). Just, hey, here’s a cool thing. Call, wait, sync. Period.

I’m going to have to play with these some more.


Repurposing the Wii — check your car’s performance

31 July 2007

Why not use the wiimote’s built in 3-axis accelerometers to measue g-forces, acceleration and even calculate my own 0-60mph times?



23 July 2007

No, I don’t have an iPhone. Yes, iPhones are great and cool. I have a T-Mobile Dash which, believe it or not, is also great and cool, just in some different ways. 🙂

Lots of people I know are surprised that I don’t have an iPhone yet. After having played with one a bit, I didn’t need to run out and buy one. Here are the primary reasons.

  • I don’t need a new phone.
  • Visual voicemail is very cool and useful, but it doesn’t trump SlingPlayer for Windows Mobile.
  • I type on my Dash’s keyboard without looking. Can’t do that on an iPhone.
  • I type on my Dash’s keyboard with these. I tried typing on the iPhone with them. I can’t. Tapping with the tip of a fingernail doesn’t work — you need skin-to-screen contact. I thumb-type, primarily with the inside corners of my thumbnails. That doesn’t work on the iPhone. And while I have quite small fingers, the pads of my fingers are, apparently, larger than the input expected.
  • I already use an EDGE network. 3G would have been tempting.
  • I was confused by the web interface. Yes, perhaps it’s just that I’m an idiot, but I couldn’t figure out how to get to the screen where you type in a URL…there were several missteps in my first attempt. Does that mean that the iPhone’s interface is necessarily BAD or not worth using? No. Is it a reason to not get an iPhone? No, so I don’t know why I actually added it to the list. But I personally didn’t find it as intuitive as I’d expected for an Apple product.
  • Really surprised that there’s no IM. Of course, you can use the IM-to-SMS gateway codes and such (I’m pretty sure AT&T has them), or use email, but meh. I’ve got my buddies, Buddy.

I have to admit, though, it’s great fun to take a picture of someone, blow it up, and then PINCH HIS HEAD with your fingers. And the convergence of the two devices (iPod and phone) will probably make it worth it to me, eventually, to get one. Especially as I get older and my fingernails become more brittle. 😉 By that time, maybe iPhones will work on a network other than AT&T Wireless.



31 May 2007

Is this what Yahoo! Pipes was supposed to be? If so, it’s already better.