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Archive for the ‘Product Reviews’ Category


Optimizing Amazon Accounts

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Huge problem with Amazon: Sharing accounts between people on a Kindle. For example, if a husband and wife want to share a book, that is basically a non-starter.

The answer: You have to roll with a joint Kindle account and keep Whispersync turned off.


Questions? Comments? Would love to learn more best practices here.

Top 5 WordPress Plugins for the Easily Frightened

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

I use Media Temple, which means people try to hack my WordPress installation basically all the time.

Here are some key plugins I have used to really improve the situation:

  1. Block Bad Queries: – This prevents people from trying to do things maliciously with URLs.
  2. Akismet: – Duh. Slam dunk.
  3. Limit Login Attempts: – This prevents brute force login attacks.
  4. WordPress File Monitor: – This is unmaintained at this point, but it does what it does well, which is preventing general Media Temple hackers from hiding files in my file space. Critical stuff.
  5. WP SpamFree: – Another unmaintained library, but it supplements Akismet well.

How Attention Was Destroyed By The Internet

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Everyone talks about how the Internet is mucking up people’s ability to focus and pay attention. To whit:

I actually recently figured out the problem: Bad writing. I have blogged at length about the collapse of journalism in the face of new media aggregation.

However, I have realized that even scanning the RSS feed headlines of Alley Insider is no longer enough to keep me from giving them untoward attention. Essentially, virtually all of these organizations pay writers by the page view. The result is that writers are incented to reblog things left and right (Note the rreblogging of the Verge’s commentary on this unfunny ad that they prop up anyway) – in particular, reblogging their own stories with new headlines in a transparent attempt to drive additional traffic. This is something we are seeing more and more on alley insider and it does nothing but diminish the value proposition of the site.

Here are two clusters of alley insider articles. These articles came out, in most instances, within hours of each other:

Or how about this:

Why can’t we just have one well-written article with a link? Instead, these are all a paragraph, with two paragraphs of interlinking to the other articles driving them. This is woeful.


Tim Ferris Stole My Breakfast

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

The Minimum Effective Dose not only delivers the most dramatic results, but it does so in the least time possible… These are the types of prescriptions you should seek and these are the kinds of prescriptions I will offer.”

– Tim Ferris, The Four Hour Body

I have historically been a Tim Ferris fan. I blog about him all the time. I wrote an endorsement of his new book before it even came out and bought five copies of his book when it was released.

But now I am in a snit. I am trying to adopt the Tim Ferris philosophy regarding diet and it is sub-optimal. He outlines at the start of the book that he is looking for little changes that make a big difference. At the start of the diet chapter, he characterizes his diet thusly:

“Let me explain exactly how Chris and I reach and maintain sub-12% body-fat, often sub-10%, by strategically eating like pigs”

That is all well and good to say, but what he outlines is a diet where you can eat like a pig one day per week and the other six days you must follow a draconian diet plan that crushes my soul. Here are the things you are not allowed to eat on Tim’s diet plan:

  • No bread
  • No rice
  • No cereal
  • No oatmeal
  • No potatoes
  • No pasta
  • No fried foods
  • No dairy
  • No fruit

Tim further comments in a recent blog post:

“The following will address 99%+ of those who are confused:

– If you have to ask, don’t eat it.
– If you haven’t had blood tests done, I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you aren’t measuring inches or haven’t measured bodyfat % with an accurate tool (BodPod, etc. and NOT bodyfat scales), I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you’re a woman and taking measurements within 10 days prior to menstruation (which I advise against in the book), I don’t want to hear about the lack of progress.”

So much for taking the easy way out. My failure to do extensive blood testing and get access to tools like a BodPod mean I have no recourse to complain, yet my complaint is that I have to do all this stuff in the first place.

Enjoy meats, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, and plenty of beans.

I have to tell you, if that is the minimum effective dose to drop fat, then I am a monkey’s uncle. Am I losing weight? Some, not as much as I would like. Of course, I am basically getting there via caloric restriction: Egg whites are low calorie. Vegetables are low calorie. Chicken, etc. I don’t eat beans every meal.

Does this feel easy? Is this how I enjoy the holidays without the weight gain? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for holiday fun.

As I reflect on this, it seems like just playing the weight watchers game would be a more “Occam’s Protocol” than this plan. Or that thing that home delivers meals.

Google Tasks Crowdsources to Victory

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Peter Bessman, my partner in crime in the glorious and wholely unexpected victory at the inaugural Baltimore Hackathon has hacked some more, much to my delight.

After reading my in-depth breakdown of task management products, he has hacked a sweet Google extension that makes opening Google Canvas more fun than bookmarks. Try it now!

Etacts Sells Out, Proves Something

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Etacts should send me some schwag for all the good love I gave them that they did not give back.

After my post lauding their service, within days acquired them. As always, we are on the bleeding edge of technology here at Cogblog. The comments in the TechCrunch post lead one to believe that Etacts was acquired for $6m. Nice exit for Y Combinator and Ron Conway and further proof regarding my long standing theory that raising a lot of money makes it hard to do a small exit. It is nice that a company with great products and poor traction can find a way out that leaves investors “not unhappy” and is ok for the employees as well.

Congratulations to Etacts, now I have to find a new technology to use since I didn’t like the others.

Task Management 101 – Theories and Practice of To-Do Lists Plus Product Reviews

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

This is going to be a monster post. Great post to start a great year.

Let’s put an end to suspense: I am using Google Tasks today for To-Do lists. Here is the story of how I got there:

Different people have different needs in Task Management and To-Do Lists and an understanding of your needs is important in aligning expectations and picking appropriate tools to support your work. Quick example that illustrates the point: believed in Franklin Covey. They were bananas for Franklin Covey and it was fairly obvious why: They were an organization driven by delivery managers. Delivery managers at had incredibly transactional jobs: They would come in every morning, look at the 30 campaigns they were managing, and take away from it a list if 50 things that had to get done that day. They probably had a few meetings that day with product management or sales, but that was it. They had to get those 50 things done. And then they did it again tomorrow. Franklin Covey is fantastic for this kind of transactional environment. It focuses on daily to-do lists and the intra-day prioritization of those lists.

Franklin Covey typically doesn’t work well for engineering jobs. Engineering jobs daily to-do list typically looks like:


  • Code Feature X

A hard core Franklin Covey lover might say, “Decompose that”, but then it simply looks like:


  • Think About Feature X
  • Code Part X of Feature X
  • Code Part Y of Feature X

Bottom-line, these jobs are not heavily transactional so the intra-day prioritization of to-do’s loses importance.

I had used a nice leather binder and it had worked well previously, but I became a Franklin Covey guy at I used a Franklin Covey for three years, then I switched rather abruptly. When I took over New Product Development at AOL Advertising, I suddenly realized that Franklin Covey was no longer working: I was in so many meetings that I never sat still for 10 minutes. Also, I had transitioned from executing to leading. I have always found it hard to be both a leader and clipboard guy. Any project manager will tell you that leading a meeting and taking notes on the meeting is an exercise in folly, so I generally made sure that I had someone following me around with a clipboard as we went from place to place. Now they were taking the actions and following up on them and as long as I had a couple of those people to alternate meetings with me, stuff got done.

At this point, I went paperless and it worked incredibly well. I used Remember The Milk and any to-do that I had went into it. I chose RTM at the time because it appeared they had the best combination of iPhone and desktop platform (in their case, the web app) that I could find. I used RTM for two years to take relentless to-do’s in meetings and it was great.

Last year, I left AOL to start my own company. I quickly realized that I had to bring Covey back, but not for why you think: My job didn’t become transactional. I could have continued to use RTM, but I found that meeting with customers works better with paper. It annoys the crap out of clients if you are mucking with your phone while they talk to you. They assume you are playing brickbreaker. It is that simple. So for a year I was a Covey guy.

Now I am going digital again and I thought it was a good time to re-survey the market. Here were my requirements:

  • The ability to make multiple to-do lists
  • The ability to associate a note with a to-do
  • iPhone && (Mac Desktop || Web) && (optionally iPad)— Syncing + off-line iPhone
  • I wanted it to be free. I had used RTM Pro to get iPhone syncing, but they just made 1 sync per day free and I actually thought that was enough for me. And I knew RTM was good enough to meet my needs, so unless a product was mind-bogglingly over the top, no point paying.

I don’t need to schedule to-dos: I have always simply put those in my calendar and it works fine. I don’t need to prioritize to-dos. If I can rank order them that is fine. One of the things that always annoyed me about RTM was that I couldn’t drag and drop to-dos, I had to use priority to set the order I wanted. Okay, but a little annoying. Many of my to-do lists are not really to-do’s in a classic sense, but rather lists: A list of feature ideas for Application X, a list of ideas of new companies I could start, a list of potential gifts for my wife. Things I keep track of in to-do form, but I don’t need to schedule them, just prioritize them and maybe hide a note with them (requirements for the feature).

On to the showdown; I looked at a few products. Let me talk about some popular products I dismissed out of hand:


Evernote is a note-taking product. I am actually excited about using Evernote to fill the gap in my toolset for recording meeting notes electronically. Alas, they are not technically a to-do list and this is manifested in how the product works. They suggest that people that want a to-do list should make a note called to-do list and keep their list in it. A text file is not good enough for my to-do list.


Things looks awesome. It is a Mac desktop app with an iPhone app that looks great. It costs money both for the desktop app and the iPhone app (and the iPad app). Didn’t look great enough to justify shelling out for it. There you go.

Ta-Da Lists (from 37signals)

No offline support for iPhone, end of story.

Now let’s talk about the finalists:

THE WINNER: Google Tasks

Google Tasks started out as a to-do list that I saw whenever I was looking at my gmail. That worked surprisingly well for me as I started to use it. Then I wanted to take it to my iPhone. Google doesn’t have an official iPhone app for tasks, despite the friendly mobile web interface, but because it is Google there are APIs and many people have built iPhone apps. This allows you to take Google tasks offline, which is great. I tried about 4 different Google Tasks iPhone Apps and the one that was hands down the best was GoTasks. I am not going to rehash that process, just trust me on this one. Or don’t and go try yourself. Whatever.

GoTasks was the best for three reasons:

  1. Easy to add new tasks
  2. Easy to access notes associated with a task
  3. Easy to reorder tasks and check off completed tasks

GoTasks Screen

“But that web interface sucks!”, you say. There is a secret interface to Google Tasks that makes it much more awesome: The Canvas interface. Give it a try. I found it met my needs as well as Remember The Milks web interface.

Google Tasks Canvas Interface

Remember The Milk

One of the most popular task management systems, I felt like it had jumped the shark a bit for me.

As you can see from the web interface, they make it really easy to access the notes, which I like, and easy to add a new task, but it seemed like the focus in how they evolved the platform was scheduling to-dos. If I wanted to-dos scheduled, I wanted it integrated with my calendar. I lose a lot of screen real estate on the iPhone to the ability to view completed tasks (never used it, never will), and look at scheduled tasks (don’t have any). Also, they had focused on things like priorities and location-awareness and these features never helped me. My priorities are all relative: I like re-ordering, not re-prioritizing.

Also, I tried all the desktop widgets people had written for RTM and didn’t like any of them. FWIW.


Wunderlist is the new hotness right now, but I found the product quite 1.0. I liked that it was a Mac Desktop app and that it had a lot of sex appeal, but there were problems. The iPhone app made it really hard to re-organize lists. You had to go to a separate screen after you had made a task to re-order it. I might have been able to live with that, but the real crime was this: The app did not support notes, it just kept to-dos. Of course, 3 weeks later, it supports notes. So yay for them. I think this app is really evolving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, I decided that all the sexiness of this app was not a completely good thing. GoTasks UI is incredibly utilitarian. Screen space is utilized in a very iPhone way to help me read things more easily and interact with things quicker.

Wunderlist iPhone Screenshot

And I don’t want to hit “Edit” to re-order, don’t want to waste space on the stuff at the bottom.

I will definitely check back with Wunderlist in a year, but I felt like Google has a ton of room to grow in this area and they don’t care about the money. They will just invest crazy resources until they are the default to-do list manager for everyone. Seems like a no-brainer idea for them.

So there you go, the to-do list showdown of 2010 and how it all worked out.

How To Put Twitter Into Your Email

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

A review of Gist, Rapportive, and Etacts

Everybody wants their email to be better. I recently tested a variety of email plugins that focus on bringing social data into gmail. The short answer is: Use Etacts. Here is what I saw:

Three companies are the market leaders in the space:

  • Rapportive
  • Etacts
  • Gist

Rapportive has raised $1m from an impressive group of angels: Dharmesh Shah, Jason Calcanis, Paul Buchheit, Dave McClure, David Cancel, CRV, etc..

Etacts has raised $650k from Y Combinator and Ron Conway.

Gist has raised $10m+ from Foundry and Vulcan Capital.

Interestingly, I think this explains why Gist has seemingly much better marketing, but it fails to explain why Gist’s product seemed not as good.

Disclaimer: I was looking for a specific kind of added value. It could be that these products do other things that I just fail to appreciate. Most specifically: I am not interested in spending any time on other web sites, I just want my gmail to be better. Caveat emptor.


Anyway, here was the Gist UI in my gmail inbox.

I was looking at an email thread with my lawyer, so it shows his latest tweet and my latest tweet. Links to our facebook and twitter.

It also put the whole thing in an iframe out to the side. It felt like it loaded a lot slower than other things. While I bet owning an iframe is a lot easier from a backend support perspective – you don’t break when they change gmail, it felt a lot more web 1.0 than the other solutions.


Rapportive was well implemented, but had no features. It successfully found that I am LinkedIn to Mike, but didn’t include tweets. All it really lets me do is easily click through to Twitter/LinkedIn/Facebook and record a note about a person – kind of CRM-ish.

Both Etacts and Rapportive integrate neatly into the gmail pane so I barely notice they are there unless I want data.


Etacts is the easy winner, hands down. It identifies that we are LinkedIn and shows me shared connections. It shows me several of his last tweets, and it shows me other related threads. Finally, they offer me the “Remind me to contact” feature (a note feature similar to Rapportive was below the fold here), which I am actually intrigued by – I should stay in contact with people better than I do.