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.