Monday, November 30, 2009

Updates for My Web Brain: Timezones, Topics and Bling

This Friday just past I released the latest changes and improvements for My Web Brain, my GTD web application.

Timezone support has been added for both action due dates and Someday/Maybe item tickle dates. You can now nominate your timezone under General Preferences. This change means that My Web Brain will know your current timezone and properly flag your actions as 'due today' and also properly calculate what you really mean when you say an action is due 'tomorrow'. Update: There are some edge cases where dates are still displaying incorrectly. These instances will be fixed the next iteration.

The concept of Topics has also been added the web application. A topic provides a way for you to categorise your actions independently of context. Part of the genius of the GTD methodology is divided actions between the contexts you can perform them in. This is excellent for actually performing the tasks efficiently, but oftentimes you wish to group your actions around a topic. This change is intended to provide that facility. You can create or delete topics within your user preferences, and you can select your topic when you process your thoughts into an action or edit it later.

In the future I will add topic associations to thoughts, reference items and someday/maybe items. The intention is to also make it easier to create a topic on the fly and view all your information by topic.  Topics are not the only organisational tool to be added; Down the track I intend projects and goals to be form an essential tool for organising your information within My Web Brain.

Finally, My Web Brain has a new logo and banner graphic. Prior to my holiday to Canada and the United States in October I ran a logo design competition through the SitePoint service 99designs. I was awed by the number and quality of the submissions and in this last release I am happy to apply the winning logo design to the website. I hope you like it (I do).

As always, feedback and comments are welcome. The application is currently free for use and and can be found at To leave feedback or a comment, use the My Web Brain Google Group.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More updates to My Web Brain

I have made some new updates to My Web Brain. My Web Brain is a GTD ('Get Things Done') web application I have been developing across the past several months.

Many of the changes were not be visible to you as a user. Some of the updates you may notice are:
  • You can now register interest on the welcome screen if you would like to be informed when the service officially launches.
  • The Setting tab has been moved to the utility menu at the topmost right of the page. 
  • A first pass of the terms of service are now available.
  • Action URLs have been migrated across to the new, shorter versions.
  • The space where enter the title of your thoughts, actions, reference items and someday/maybe items has been expanded. 
  • From the settings page you can now nominate whether you naturally use month- or day-first short date formats.
  • You can now elect to process and reprocess individual thoughts from the thought detail screen.
  • When processing thoughts, the new action, reference item or someday/maybe item now has the thought's title by default.
  • Numerous other stylistic or ease of use changes.
There is still a lot of capability to be provided for this application, including the addition of topics, projects, search, RSS feeds and other exciting features. This set of updates was designed to focus on the ease of use of the existing features. Many of the changes were directly inspired by my own daily use of the tool.

There will a brief hiatus to the updates across the next month while I am in holiday in North America.  Try out My Web Brain when you get an opportunity and let me know your problems, suggestions or feedback in our My Web Brain Google Group.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Eating your own dog food

Last week was a big deal for My Web Brain. At the end of week we released some updates to the product (see this post). But the updates were not what made it a significant week. What was important - and heartening for me- is that I started using it for both personal and professional use and have now used it continuously for more than a week. 

Yes, I used the product prior, but that was largely borne of a professional interest in ensuring the quality of the web application as it developed. Nearly immediately after our iteration 3 (version 0.3) release I started using the application more naturally and with fewer roadblocks. 

While My Web Brain still requires a lot polish to round off its features, as well as exciting features that users would be willing to pay for, it is very satisfying just to have a new tool at my disposal to help me manage my time and efforts (and feel in control). 

It is very educational to use My Web Brain in a realistic way as well, as you start to notice where the pain points of the experience are. You also notice which features are important. For example:

  • The implementation of due dates (for actions) and tickle dates (for someday/maybe items) does not respect user timezones. I was content to let this feature slip to the next iteration but in hindsight it has a very detrimental affect on the tool. 
  • Currently when you process your thoughts you need to type your complete action name; you are not given any sort of default based on the thought you are processing. Surprisingly enough there are many times when the thought is sufficient detailed that this would be very useful and decrease the friction generated when processing thoughts.
These and other observation are surprising in their immediacy. I have many other features on the docket to implement but it is clear from my own use that tackling these basic issues will enhance my experience, and hopefully the experience of other users nearly every time they interact with the application. 

Using my own product is also inspiring. If I can provide value to myself, I can provide value to others. As each update is completed I  get excited about what changes are coming next; Even though it will be myself working hard to create them. 

Go ahead and try My Web Brain if you have not already. You only need a Google account, and if you do not have one you can create an account through the application. 

Friday, September 25, 2009

Updates to My Web Brain

I am happy to let you know I have just made some updates to My Web Brain, the GTD (Get Things Done) web application I have been developing. The update includes the following:


  • A bug that was preventing access to other pages in the unprocessed thoughts listing has been resolved. Unfortunately I had to disable the priority sorting on this list which would normally float priority thoughts to the top. Google is expected to release updates to the environment shortly which will make paging simpler. Currently, effective paging is somewhat of a black art for all but simple queries. I plan to restore priority (and other) sorting to the unprocessed thoughts listing as soon as possible. Note that when processing thoughts urgent thoughts are still prioritised. 
  • Some formatting has been fixed on the contact us page.
New and Changed Features
  • Support for Someday/Maybe items has been added. Someday / Maybe items can be managed independent via their own section on the website. As per GTD, you can choose to create a someday/maybe item when processing your thoughts. Each someday/maybe item has a tickle date, which will eventually be used to proactively remind the user of when they wanted to reconsider them.
  • URLs for thoughts have been made more readable and search engine friendly. Contexts, Reference Items and now Someday / Maybe items all use the improved scheme, with only Actions now remaining to migrate. 
  • You can now mark complete multiple next actions directly from the Today page's list of Next Actions without individually editing each action.
  • The Quick Thought form on the Today and Thoughts pages has been enhanced for users with Javascript enabled. This form no longer completely refreshes the page when it is submitted, allowing users to continue collecting thoughts without interruption. 
  • A few other stylistic enhancements have been made. 
The release includes a large increase in the JavaScript used by application pages. I expect the amount of JavaScript to continue to rise. However, the site does not require JavaScript and runs fine without it.

You might notice that I am no longer referring to number releases (this would be iteration 4, version 0.40) . Internally I will still number releases as they are made but I would like to avoid preconceptions about where the application is on the path to launch.

You should try out the new features and the remainder of the application if you have not already. Feedback, suggestions or questions are very welcome and can be made in the Google Group for My Web Brain or in the comments to this post. Have fun.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Web Brain 0.3 available for testing

My Web Brain release 0.30 has just been made live. My Web Brain is Get Things Done (GTD) web application currently being previewed throughout its early development.

This iteration (from release 0.20) took longer than expected but there are a number of user-facing changes you might notice:
  • You can now create reference items, either directly or when processing your thoughts. Eventually I would like the reference section to be a searchable journal that can pull in information from other services while recording your activities on the site.
  • All the data tables, including next actions, thoughts, etc received are somewhat more formatted and ideally easier to read and work with. I consider all style and web design to be a work in progress.
  • Thoughts now have a priority field that you can check while entering them. A priority thought will be processed first, sorted higher and visually distinct in the thoughts listing.
  • Actions now have a due date. At some point in the future you will have the assistance of a calendar widget to select the correct date, but for the moment text field allows a variety of date formats and even words like 'tomorrow', 'today', 'Monday', etc.
  • You can now view the originating thoughts that became an action or reference item. Currently there is no way to view an already processed thought except via the resulting action or reference item.
  • The Quick thought collection form on the Today page now supports a number of shortcut directives that can be appended to the entered thought:
    • A exclamation mark (!) will mark the thought as priority
    • A colon (:) will take you to the detailed thought collection form
    • A greater-than symbol (>) will let you process the thought immediately, and
    • Two greater-than symbols (>>) will automatically create an action in the current context using the thought text.
My Web Brain is still in active development but I invite anyone to try it out. You only require a Google account to sign in. Feedback is always welcome at the My Web Brain Google Group.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Web Brain 0.20 available for testing

Release 0.20 of My Web Brain is now available for testing. There are not a lot of user visible changes in this release. Of note:
  • Session cookies are now user specific
  • The HTML markup is now validated (HTML 4.01 Strict) and in content-first markup order for users with screen-readers
  • A draft privacy policy has been added
  • URLs that include the context, like the Today page, are more readable
  • Basic paging has been added to action lists
  • The default form field on a page automatically receives the focus without being selected
  • New actions have the current context assigned by default
  • There have been a few small stylistic changes

There are still a lot of features and polish to add to the web application. I hope to post the next release in two weeks.

If you have any feedback or comments please go ahead and leave them at the My Web Brain Google Group. If you want to be kept informed of developments, you can subscribe to the My Web Brain news feed.

Visit My Web Brain now

Company Closedown October 10 to November 6

Hi everyone. Helium 3 IT Solutions will not be operating from October 11th to November 5th 2009. I am going on holiday to North America, visiting the West Coast of Canada and the United States. Should be a lot of fun.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Web Brain now on Custom Domain

Last night I set up a custom domain for My Web Brain - You can still access the application at the * address. I blog about the process of setting up a custom domain for Google App Engine on my other blog here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Web Brain 0.11 available for testing

It is with some excitement and trepidation that I announce that My Web Brain, a GTD flavored task manager and mental appliance, is available on the web for anyone who is interested to take a look.

As per my previous post this release (I am calling it 0.11) is limited in size, scope and functionality and will certainly not be winning any awards. It is however something to talk about, discuss, and get feedback on.

You are welcome to try it out by going over to its temporary URL at All you need is a Google login to get started. Knock yourself out, but remember this is an application in the very early stages of development and you should not record any irreplaceable information there.

If you have any feedback, or want to report a bug you can do so at the My Web Brain Google group.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Status update on the Alpha 1 My Web Brain Release

I have had a busy week putting time into the development of My Web Brain. I was optimistically hoping to be able to release the Alpha 1 version of the web application today, but time was against me and I now think it will likely be early next week.

To ensure I am in a position to release something soon I have been pruning the planned functionality down. My intention is to ensure that - as much as possible with an Alpha release - enough time gets dedicated to non-functional concerns, such as markup validation, accessibility and to a lesser extent, performance.

The good news is that I now have a pretty accurate idea of what this initial release will provide:
  • Users will be able to manage thoughts, actions and contexts (sorry, no someday/maybe, reference or project items in this release).
  • The design of the web application is relatively simple and uncluttered
  • User interactions are through basic, scriptless forms
  • A solid technical basis for further development is in place, including CSS layout, validated pages ans semantic markup, RESTFUL design.
After this release there will be a small mountain of features to develop and integrate, but my focus has initially been on implementing the smallest possible feature required to make the application useful.

As always if you have any feedback you can post it as a comment on this blog or, even better, at the My Web Brain Google Group.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Google Group for My Web Brain discussion

I have created a My Web Brain Google Group for the discussion of the development and operation of the My Web Brain website. The group will discuss features, releases, problems and anything remotely related to the project. Anyone is welcome to contribute or ask whatever they wish. See you there?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Web Brain in development, making progress

My Web Brain, my company's upcoming web-based GTD application, is in development and progressing well. Click here for existing blog posts about the project.

The initial application structure is in place and around 50% of the core functionality has been implemented in some form or another.

'implemented' is a relative word, since I am intentionally keeping many functions more simplistic than I eventually envisage in order to release something quickly to the internet community for feedback (and also to prove to myself there are no hidden gotchas in the Google App Engine hosting experience).

The aesthetic and artistic component of the design is a work in progress. I quickly determined I could easily spend too much time tweaking the design prior to having an application to host it, so I created an initial basic design and moved on to functionality. At the moment the design is very simple, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

This development has avoided writing any Javascript or incorporating any AJAX techniques so far. I want to ensure the application is workable in script-less browser environments, such as those encountered by screen-readers and the security conscious.

This is my first major experience with Python and I am enjoying it immensely. As I run into problems whose resolution I believe might be useful to others, I am blogging about them in my personal blog, You can also find other technical information there which probably came to my attention from working on this project.

I am a firm believer in web development through iteration and feedback, so I am keen to release shortly a very early version of My Web Brain to the public Google App Engine *.Appspot servers. Expect this to happen sometime in the next week. This release will be a development release only, and not for general use.

The first litmus test following that release will be when I attempt to use it for my private and professional use, which I am sure will highlight many issues that will help me prioritise the most important features for further development.

If you want to know anything else about the project, please let me know.

Getting Real: A Guide to Web Development

37 Signals is a web development company that produces popular online web applications such as Basecamp, Backpack, Highrise and Ta-Da List. In the past I have been a paying subscriber of Basecamp, a project collaboration tool, and Backpack, a page based collaboration tool, so I have some familiarity with their web applications.

37 Signals impress me for a number of reasons. The company is unashamably opinionated about what makes for a great web application. The conviction they hold in their beliefs shines through in all of their web-based tools, which are uniformly simple, focused and very successful. They even released a book, free on the web or paid in PDF or printed formats, to talk about what they believe is a winning recipe for developing web applications.

The book is called Getting Real and I would encourage any web entrepreneur to read it. It is a collection of very short essays, grouped into 16 chapters which traverse the entire web application life cycle, from conception to end user support.

Just as a teaser, some of the interesting essay titles and tag lines include:
  • Build Less - Underdo your competition
  • Have an Enemy - Pick a Fight
  • Embrace Constraints - Let limitations guide you to creative solutions
  • Be Yourself - Differentiate yourself from bigger companies by being personal and friendly
  • Scale Later - You don't have a scaling problem yet
  • Start with No - Make features work hard to be implemented
  • Avoid Preferences - Decide the little details so your customers don't have to
  • Meetings are Toxic - Don't have meetings
... and so on. Hopefully those titles are intriguing enough that you want to read more.

Writing an entry mentioning this book is not simply blog-filler. I want to the adhere to many of the principles they outline in the book as I continue to develop my current project, My Web Brain (click here for earlier posts). The topics they discuss will provide a productive lens through which to examine and challenge my own approaches. And I will share with you how that goes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Using Google App Engine for MyWebBrain

One thing that I have known for a while about the MyWebBrain project is that I want to use Google App Engine. Google App Engine is a service from Google that allows web application developers to publish applications to a Google managed environment.

There are a number of positives from putting your application in Google's hands. The alternatives are: hosting the web application yourself, using a hosting provider or using another cloud infrastructure such as Amazon EC2 services.

Some positives are:
  1. You do not need to worry about your server side infrastructure
  2. Google's infrastructure scales a lot better. In so much as they can, the available APIs force you to use that scalable infrastructure.
  3. Only pay for bandwidth, CPU and storage when your website is successful. And not a lot even then. You get a lot of resources without spending a cent, and therefore by the time you need to pay you know your website is being successful.
  4. Plug in to a excellent application infrastructure. Google takes care or your monitoring, logging , data storage (using an Object Relational Model) and even authentication/log in system (if you wish, you can roll your own). Google provides a neat web application framework of their own as well, but you can use Django if that is your thing.
  5. The downloadable SDK is excellent, automatically updates and is a pretty impressive attempt to provide a local environment to mimic the production environment.
Some possible negatives:
  1. You do not have control of your infrastructure. But all I want my infrastructure to do is work and I would trust Google's infrastructure over my own or a hosting server account anywhere.
  2. Google App Engine applications need to 'play fair' with the environment and are restricted to limited request timeouts of 30 seconds. I'm pretty sure if you did anything that might undermine other applications in whatever datacenter(s) your application is being hosted from, your application would be penalised.
  3. The available API reflects the limitation above, and still requires some maturation. There are some things you could do on your own server that Google has not (and may never) release the APIs to achieve. Managing files, or opening sockets, for example, are not allowed. Some of these restrictions reflect 'play safe' rules, others to limit possible abuses (such as using the service to send spam), and others I am sure simply have not been completed yet.
On balance, assuming the Google App Engine can implement the functionality you want, it seems like a very good service. Currently I am a one-man band; If I can pass off my infrastructure and server-side concerns and focus on writing a good application I am sure I will make much better progress.

Why does Google provide this service at such a low cost? Google says it is trying to promote innovation on the net by providing an application hosting service with a low barrier to entry. It certainly has. Perhaps:
  • Google is trying to monetise their spare datacenter capacity (which would otherwise be wasted), or
  • Reuse the software environment (with many additional limitations) that their own staff need to use to write applications for their complex infrastructure. What better way to test it than throw it open to the world?
It is hard to predict Google making tremendous amounts of money for Google App Engine. I have no insight into the mind of Google but while they are prepared to offer a good deal, I am quite prepared to take it.

MyWebBrain will therefore live on Google App Engine. Let me know if you have any comments or thoughts on Google App Engine or anything else related to hosting (in the cloud especially).

A Name for the GTD Project: My Web Brain

In a previous post I talked about my new project: creating a new GTD web application. I guess it needs a name. I can be indecisive about names, and I have sat on the fence about this one for a while.

One name I considered was 'Mental Appliance' and While this describes more or less exactly what I wanted to do I thought the domain name was a bit of a mouthful. Also, it makes perfect sense to me, but maybe others from different backgrounds would struggle.

It is the right time to ask - how important is the name? The only thing relevant that I have read lately is from the Getting Real book from the smart people at 37 Signals. In Chapter 13 they talk about using a simple, catchy, and non-ultradescriptive name. And not worrying about whether the right domain name is free.

That was one piece of reading that convinced me to move away from 'Mental Appliance'. For a start:
  1. It is not catchy; and
  2. I kept mispelling it myself whenever I typed fast. I do not want to build a usability flaw right into the name!
So I went back to the drawing board.

I have now settled (I think) on 'My Web Brain' at This does not sound as impressively technical to me but I think it is name which will more easily lend an understanding about what the web application is about:

  1. It is personal - I am not building an artificially intelligent 'Skynet' here. This is something that is to be useful for the user, and not necessarily a social networking collective (ah.. but the possibilities...). It is a tool for personal use.
  2. It is on the web. This might at first glance seem obvious but now anything and everything is on the internet it is probably useful to differentiate it from the users' other (somewhat more capable, for the moment) brain. It also implies the service is 'in the cloud' and available anywhere you can connect to the internet.
  3. It is a tool that thinks - a brain. Obviously 'thinking' is meant pretty loosely and shallowly, but the application is designed to supplement or assist the brain in doing its normal function, namely capturing and remembering thoughts and planned actions.
Right now, especially after thinking it through above, I quite like the name. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Or if you have any comments about the art of naming a web application.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A new project: A GTD Web Application

I've written before about GTD (Getting Things Done), a methodology for time management and personal organisation from David Allen. I am still in love in the concept but lately I have been frustrated by the lack of great tools for GTD that are simple and frictionless.

So I am going to create one.

I am not working in a vaccum. A similiarly purposed GTD specialist web application is There is a lot to admire about Nozbe, including its maturity, polish, device support and copious help about the GTD methodology. In terms of quality I would say it competes in the same in the same field as the 37 Signals applications (Backpack, Basecamp, etc). The remarkable thing is that it looks like the work (and personal achievement) of one man - Michael Sliwinski.

There are other GTD tools around. In particular, I really worked well with Thinking Rock GTD from Thinking Rock, but since this is a desktop tool I found it hard to create a mobile resource that followed me (and could help me) at home, at the shops or otherwise away from my work desktop PC.

Other task list (or Todo list) applications from around the web claim to be 'GTD friendly' (some are: Toodledo, Remember the Milk and Hiveminder) but it is very hard to create a web application which is primarily about task lists into a GTD tool, since GTD is process that extends outside a list of things to do. When I have tried to use them, GTD went out the window, and I only had a task list.

(Getting Things Done is a process. It is methodology that collects thoughts and processes them into next actions, someday and reference items. It a trusted system that you can dependably find your next action from with minimal thought overhead. This is something that understands, but Toodledo misses).

For even more GTD applications and tools have a look on this comparison list.

I am creating another online GTD tool in this space for three reasons.

Firstly, to help myself. I enjoy GTD and I think I am more effcient when I use it effectively. None of the existing tools is what I believe I need to use GTD most effectively, so I will build a tool that I can use myself, for my own benefit.

Secondly, others may like my approach too. If so, I would like to help them out at the same time.

Thirdly, GTD as a formalised time management methodology captures a thought process and set of thought infrastructure and for that reason I think it is a very interesting starting point for Helium 3's new vision of bringing thought and awareness to the web. This is only a small step towards that vision (which I need to write more about) but I think the grandness of the vision requires small, practical steps. And this is one.

When I investigated creating my own GTD web application I was dissappointed about the extent and quality of other GTD tools available on the internet. in particular is a strong competitor. But I have since realised that the other tools are actually excellent signposts guiding me toward my ideal web application. I do not want people to use my GTD web application because it is the only one available, but because it does best job for those people. No one tool is perfect and in adding to the GTD ecosystem I hope to both bring my own ideas and understand what else works and does not work.

Whats next?

I want to bring my audience along for the ride, so in the coming weeks you will hear more from me as I develop and evolve my thinking about my next GTD web application. I want to be very open about the process and the end result. If you have any comments please go ahead. I am looking for ideas, feedback, community and constructive criticism. So please, join the conversation about creating a better GTD tool if you want to.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Learing Google Scripts

Over at my other blog 'Learning Technical Stuff' I am starting to investigate Google Scripts:
Google Web Scripts gives users a new level of control over Google products. Now you can access and control Google Spreadsheets and other products via JavaScript scripts you can write yourself and share with others. Unlike browser-based JavaScript, the scripts you write run directly on Google servers in order to provide direct access to the products they control. [from here]
Google Scripts is essentially to Google Docs what VBA is to the Microsoft Office suite - a mechanism to automate functionality previously available through manual interaction. Like VBA, Google App Script is probably going to find a niche use among power users. Unlike VBA though, your Google Scripts live and execute 'in the cloud', making them an interesting service from my perspective.

By extending the Google platform into Google Scripts I think Google is reaching farther than ever into the user space with a programmable platform. Scripting or automating interactions with our own data in the cloud is probably one of the first stepping stones to bringing thought and awareness to the web as I talk about in my previous post.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A New Vision for Helium 3

I run a small company - Helium 3 IT Solutions -and lately I have been quesitoning the guiding vision behind its formation. It was targeted at the Enterprise and making the Enterprise a more efficient, open and transparent place throught the power of information.

As I end another contract though I must admit the mostly conventional world of enterprises - and their frequently traditional Enterprise 1.0 constraints - is not as exciting as it once was. Or rather, I think Helium 3 IT Solutions needs a muse, a driving vision, a narrower niche. Something to drive the internal projects.

I take some inspiration from Google. Their vision, 'to organise the world's information' is a simple and powerful vision which not only brings direction to their many projects but is the rationale for many more. Make no mistake, Google is essentially an advertising company; But it is an advertising company that turns a profit by benevolently opening up and delivering the information of the world to the world and creating value around that information.

And here is a disclosure I need to make: I am now a confirmed Google fanboy.

My new vision for Helium 3 is to bring awareness and thought to the web -or to be on the cutting edge of that movement. In the far future humankind may one day immortalise itself by not only extending human life through technological innovation but also by changing the meaning of what it is to be human. In the shorter term, I see the continual improvements in information technology as not only mastering the collection, distribution and storage of information but also begin to capture human knowledge as it is exists in our thought processes. Gradually, slowly, we will automate everything practical that was previously considered unique in human cognition.

So Helium 3 will work to bring thought and intelligence to the web. It is a lofty goal but one that I think provides a healthy direction and focus to the company.

Certainly the above needs to be codified and clarified. I will concentrate on expressing the above intent better. But I am putting this out there so anyone can let me know what they think about this vision for my company.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Google News Web Elements

On the first day of the Google I/O keynote, Google launched Web Elements.

The Washington Post wonders whether Google Web Elements hold the key to a brighter future for old media newspapers.

"There are no ads in the "Web Elements" (that I see) so news organizations aren't getting direct money from this for now?but they are getting greater exposure for their content and brands, courtesy of Google."

What an amazingly enlightened viewpoint. 2009 has already been an extremely challenging year for some newspapers and the incumbents appear desperate to find an online business process that might actually work. My gut instinct (informed through such people as @JeffJarvis) is that walled garden approaches, fed by micro-payments or subscriptions in return for access to restricted content, are fundamentally the wrong model. Businesses should be determining how to distribute themselves across the internet, not walling themselves off.

Enough about that - What about this Google News Web Element? Google Web Elements are embeddable widgets from google that can be added to any webpage. Web Elements can be constructed direct from Javascript, or more easily using an IFRAME tag. You can specify a size (banner or rectangle), topic (section), query, language and Google News edition. Google has a page that allows you to experiment easily with the different options.

The News Web Element above is a Rectangle showing news items about Google. Inserting it into my blog page was easy as going the Google Web Element page for the News, setting the options and pasting in the HTML it gave me. Easy - I think we will quickly see a lot of these.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Good Post on Printing from Blogger

I just found this Blogger Buster post about using some CSS and template hackery to improve nicely the printability of Blogger pages.

TODO: Implement this!

Starring Items in Google Reader for Productivity

Google Reader is a free RSS/atom news feed reader from, well, Google. Fans of Google will certainly already know about it, more casual web surfers might not.

I like many things about Reader. I like that I can collect and read all of my News Feeds in one website. I like that I can easily add additional subscriptions as I surf the web. I especially like that the mobile version of the Reader website makes filling in a spare minute or two with a news story on the go with my IPhone easy.

There are a couple of things I do not like. For example, the concept of Shared News Items - news items that you, the user, specifically share or un-share with your 'reader friends' - does not seem practical to me. I do not have limitless amounts of time for managing how I share the news items I have consumed. Therefore the feature and its options seems to take away from the interface and make it more noisy and less useful.

Likewise I thought the same thing about 'starring' news items (clicking on a star icon to toggle a 'starred property'), but in the past week I think I can spot a virtuous work process forming that is putting the feature to good use.


One aspect of both normal and mobile versions of the reader website that is useful is the way that, by default, read news items are thereafter hidden from view. The logic is simple - if you did not hide news items you had already consumed, managing the number of news items to read would become unworkable.

A negative side-effect of hiding read news items is that often (for me at least) I feel I would like to investigate the substance of the news item story. For example, one of the news feeds I commonly get is the Google Code blog, which frequently has stories discussing new features that I want to investigate further. Since I am frequently reading news items on my IPhone or in situations where I can not immediately investigate further, hiding my newly read news item which I want to investigate further places the responsibility on me to remember what I need to follow up.

On the other hand, if I kept the story unread (a feature available on individual news items) I would end up re-reading the story again and wanting the follow up the story later (again).

'Starring' a news item is a good way for me to mark on a news item that I would like to take a later action on the contents of the news item. I star the news item when I am finished reading it - which is very easy on the mobile interface - and it then gets marked read and is hidden from me. For me to see which news stories I need to follow-up, I can open Reader and view only my Starred stories.

Once I have done the necessary follow-up on a news item I can un-star it.

Starred is the new Shared

It struck me that while I might not want to manage a separate list of news items I am sharing, maybe it makes sense to share those news items I have starred? It might not be a perfect correspondence but - by and large - the starred news items that I wish to follow-up on are also the interesting stories that I am actively thinking about. In fact, my starred stories neatly describe a 'news status', describing my status by showing which news I am reacting to. There is something in that.

How should I share this 'news-status'?

So how do you make your starred News items shareable? By default Google Reader shares your Shared items (strangely enough). That is, Reader exposes a URL that has a feed listing of the news items you have marked as shared. Luckily you can expose the same style page showing your 'Starred' news items by turning Sharing on.

To do that, log into Reader, go into Settings and click on the Folders and Tags tab. On the 'Starred Items' line, click on the symbol next the word 'Private' to toggle the line to Public. Once it has been made public a link to the public page containing the shared, starred stories will appear. Your can distribute this link or URL however you want to share the list of stories you have starred (AKA your news-status). You could post it on your blog, in your Google profile or anywhere else you have web real-estate.

Spreading the news around

Obviously distributing or posting a link to your news items of interest will not necessarily create a stampede of readers, friends or family to your Starred Items page. If you could insert a list of the news items into your blog or status page (without making the user care about your news stories enough to click a link) you would have a better chance of interesting the reader or at least letting them see news item titles.

Google makes this easy to by providing a snippet of HTML and javascript you can add to your website, blog or other internet space. This is available right next to link to your newly public page mentioned above on the settings page for Google Reader. Clicking the link 'Add a clip to your site' opens a window with the HTML and javascript you will need. For Blogger users the job is even easier since an install badge is provided.

Clean Up

If you use Google profiles you will note that your Reader account created a Shared Items link. If you are using the approach above (or Simply not using Shared Items) you will want to remove or change this link. Luckily Google Profiles are flexible enough to allow you to do this. I simply changed the link on my profile to show my shared starred items.

I will also need to be on the lookout for other areas where a Google service might assume that any news items I will want to share are 'Shared'. For the moment I am feeling productive reading news items, starring those that are interesting and worthy of further time, and sharing that changing list with anyone that goes to my blog or reads my Google profile.

Future thoughts

Is a 'News-Status' a concept with legs? Clearly Google thought it was at least worthy of any experiment by including so many Sharing options in Google Reader. I think that even if saying 'I am thinking about new story X' does not say much about which thoughts I am having, it does invite you to read that same story and think about it for yourself. If you have read the story, we are closer since we have had a shared experience that we might discuss, debate or disagree on in the future. It finds us something in common. Which is useful.

Adding a Site Map to a Blogger Account

To add a site map usable by the Google indexing bot for your blog, log in to Google Webmaster Tools, and, assuming your site is already verified (mine was automatically, I guess this is the benefit of running a blog on Google's own platform), you can specify a site map in the site maps section of the site.

Since Blogger does not allow you to create an upload a file to use as a site map, you need to the point the Google indexer to at your ATOM full posts feed. This can normally be found at

For example:


I worked this out from this blog post, which was a bit dated but still allowed me to get the gist of the procedure despite seemingly massive changes in website naming.

This CuteWriting blog post was more up to date (and has a lot of great background information) but added up to the same thing, with an extra proviso if you are using RSS feedburner for your site's feeds (which I will not dwell on here).

Log in over TLS / HTTPS Only

This is just a note for the security conscious. Always log into websites and services using TLS -Transport Layer Security, formally known as SSL (secure sockets layer). Using one of these services means you have a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and the web site in question.

How do you know you are on a secure connection? You can normally tell from the web browser address bar. If the address starts with 'https://' instead of 'http://' (an additional 's' character) your browser has a secured connection. Modern browser often highlight this fact with icons of padlocks and green shading.

Getting a secure connection means that only the holder of SSL certificate used to create the connection can read the contents of your traffic at the far end. The holder of the certificate is therefore certified.

It is very important that users take the time to ensure their sensitive informaiton is protected by TLS. Otherwise your internet traffic can be sniffed at any number of places between your computer and the servers you think you are talking to. Many sites only use TLS security for the purpose of users logging into their accounts to protect their username and password information. The rest of the information is sent in plain text, and can be intercepted.

Be wary of sites that provide login from an unsecured home page. The form element might post your login credentials to a secure https connection, but without examining the HTML, you can not be sure. Their dedicated login page (normally reachable by providing incorrect credentials on the home page) will normally be secured by TLS. If a dedicated login screen is not secured by TLS, do not use the service.

Other sites providing very sensitive information - such as internet banking services, should maintiain a secure conneciton for the entire session, ensuring all parts of the conversation - your bank balances, account numbers, etc, remain private.

Be aware of when you are and are not using a secure transport layer for your internet use. Always ask yourself whether you would mind a third-party eavesdropping on your conversations. Without TLS security, they might be.

Twitter on Blogger - Easy

One of the things I put on my TODO list for today was to get my Twitter updates showing on my new Blogger blog. I new it was possible but I had experienced some frustration using Blogger's own Gadget configuration screens, which had several twitter gadgets, of which none seems to work.

So I Googled 'Twitter on Blogger' today and got winning results straight away. I found this Blogger Buzz blog post and the official Twitter Blogger Gadget Badge page, which got me working very fast.

Once again though, it is sometimes harder to use Google services inside of a Google service. Google has provided a platform for these Gadgets whose success means that assets built on that platform are all over the web. Just as well we have Google (the Search service), but I might try to let the blogger team know about this particular issue anyway.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Import from WordPress completed!

Yesterday I was casting about for a way to import Wordpress blog entries into Blogger. After continued research I concluded that the tool by Zeaster was the only hope. I had some concerns about running random executables on my hardware so I spun up a separate VM as a (very) basic level of protection.

The good news is that after some fiddling with the settings and restarting the application (which seems to be required for the settings to be read correctly) I managed to perform my blog post imports.

Here are my notes about non-obvious parts of the settings:

WordPress Account

WP URL: This is the address of your blog (and your xmlrpc.php file) including the protocol (http) like so:

Blogger Account

Username: This is your full blogger/google username, in my case consisting of my full gmail email address including the ''.

BlogId: As Zeaster comments on his page, this is the ID of the blog that can be seen in the address of a specific blog's admin pages after 'blogID='

For the curious, here is a picture of the main interface of this import/export tool:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

No Easy Road from WordPress to Blogger

There is no easy road from WordPress to Blogger. But maybe there is a goat trail. A feature to migrate from the very popular WordPress to the popular Blogger platform is an often repeated request but for now your hope must lie in third party tools.

  • purports to convert WordPress export format to Blogger import/export format. When I tried this tool the conversion was apparently successful, but I had problems on the import of the newly converted file.
  • Zeaster provides a java program that allows you to selectively migrate your WordPress posts. I did not try this option since I prefer not run random code on my machines :)
It looks like I am out of luck for the moment. Does anyone else know of an easy way to migrate from WordPress to Blogger?

A new day, new blogging platform

As any reader can probably tell, I am writing this on the Blogger platform, which is currently owned by Google. My presence here is an experiment after a having hosted an unloved Wordpress blog (whose URL will eventually be redirected). I want to see where the blogger platform is at, and more importantly, how it might take a few options out of my hands and allow me to focus on feeding this blog content.

What are my first impressions? Firstly from visual perspective I am happy given my expectations. I have been reading a lot of Google blogs lately which - being hosted on Blogger - let me to believe the range of Blogger's expressiveness was pretty limited. It actually is quite limited but I was expecting worse. Your allowed to pick a theme and then customise the colour and the layout of the page.

On first brush there appears a large amount of flexibility on the components you can place on your blog as well. Blogger supports Google Gadgets (which work on iGoogle as well) so there are many potential ready-made add-ons you can choose from. Possible too much, given the trouble I have just had finding a working twitter component!

TODO: Investigate Google Gadgets! I figure if in the course of posting a blog entry I think about doing something I may as well note it inline :)

Being an avid Google Reader user I thought to add a component to the side bar to show some feeds I currently have starred (a convention I use to signal to myself that I want to make a followup action). It is interesting that I did not find out how to do this from within Blogger, but within Reader. You can imagine that this decentralisation of some of the (potential) Blogger features might effectively conceal them from inidividual users for a while - Lucky I found it!

TODO: Blog how I added the starred feeds.

Using the blog itself for posting is very simple, as you might expect. As I type this I am not being overwhelmed with options about how this post should look and how it should behave. Rightly so I think. The concept of operating blogs should not be hugely complicated.

That covers off some of my initial comments. Overall Blogger looks like a simple blogging tool. It is not as pretty as some other platforms (such as SquareSpace or but with some effort could be reasonably flexible. Being free is also a bonus.

That is it. I will add additional comments about the Blogger platform when they occur to me. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First post - Testing!

This is a test post. I do not know how many first posts I have written during my time. Welcome to my blog.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Your Outlook Calendar on your IPhone

In my previous post I explained how I use the Nuevasync service to synchronise my Iphone to my Google Calendar and Contacts. This technique is all very well when you manage to maintain all of your schedule information in your Google Calendar. But what about on the client site where every desktop and laptop is running outlook and exchange?

Of course the IPhone is compatible with MS Exchange, so you might be browsing your Outlook Calendar on your IPhone in no time. Or so you might assume.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Use NuevaSync to Sync Iphone, Gmail and Gcal

If you use Google contacts or Calendar, check out Exchange Spoofing through services such NuevaSync. For me it made my Iphone that much easier and useful.

A few months ago I switched to Google's Gmail as my primary email client. I have been very happy with the outcome. Using Gmail I have been able to centralise my management of emails, contacts and calendars (the latter using Google's gCal). Prior to Gmail I handled my personal emails using Windows Live.

Soon after switching to GMail I switched from a regular Windows Mobile PDA (a HTC Touch) to an IPhone 3G- and have not looked back. Part of the my satisfaction with both has been how seamlessly I can work with emails, contacts and calendar appointments from home, work, iPhone or any internet connected terminal.

Synchronising Calendar events from gCal to the Iphone was initially a challange. Apple has not provided access to the native Calendar application via the API, and out of the box the Calendar will not sync with anything apart from Exchange and MobileMe services. The lack of API support makes (for the moment) 3rd party applications useless in this regard, since they can not trigger alarms and 'wake' the Iphone.

Luckily I found the Nuevasync service.

UPDATE 29-May-2009: Google now offers this service directly

Despite an unusual web-site the Nuevasync service works flawlessly and reliably to spoof an Exchange server serving your Calendar details from gCal. In this way Nuevasync provides 2 way synchronisation which works surprisingly effectively. Of course the service polls Gcal as required, so Calendar items are not exactly pushed from the Gcal to your Iphone - expect to wait a couple of minutes. This completely satisfies me - now I can use the native Calendar application on my Iphone to great effect.

When I plan an event on the go I can easily enter it into my Iphone and view it later on the Gcal site. Similarly, if I am at my desk I can use the google web application directly and trust it will nearly instantly make its way to my iphone. Because Neuvasync simply does its job - without spam, or ads or even cost (and I would pay something for this service) you can very quickly forget it is even there. And you never need to think about Syncing your Calendar again.

Neuvasync solved my Calendar problem very well but I found I was still struggling with Contact information. I would mostly add contact information at work, away from the my Itunes installation ay home which was set up to synch my Google contacts. I would need to wait until my next iphone dock before my contacts made it to my phone or vice versa. Worse, I had some problems with the quality of the synchronisation provided in Itunes, frequently losing the odd Contact and experience duplicates.

Then I remembered NuevaSync also handled contacts. Again, my experience has been excellent. As soon as update contact details either in Gmail or on my Iphone, the other was updated within minutes. The removal of this pain point was very noticable - now I only Itunes-dock my iphone to change the music library (and back-up the Iphone, flash new Iphone firmware, etc).

If you use Google contacts or Calendar, check out Exchange Spoofing through services such NuevaSync. For me it made my Iphone that much easier and useful.