Thursday, October 20, 2011

Theme: Personal Automation

This is the first in a series of posts about technology themes that I outlined in my last post.  This post is about Personal Automation.

To begin, what is personal automation?  When I first think about personal automation, the first thing that pops into my mind were the "intelligent agents" people spoke about when the Internet was just coming into vogue.  People would wake up and the news tailored to them would be delivered to them by programmatic agents that gathered things of interest to them. 

Today there are no shortage of services that offer features like that, but when I think about personal automation I think about it at a more nuts and bolts level.  By that I think of it as a fairly straightforward combination of programs, rules, notifications and web services.  I will explain that more, but I think that this way of thinking about it is fairly broad and allows for personal automation on a broad scale and this also highlights how big the opportunity is.  I plan on walking through a number of examples and services to illustrate the point. 

Why does personal automation matter or more specifically what is the benefit?  To me there are 3 key benefits of using personal automation.  The first one is that you can adjust your technology or delivery of information based on context.  Examples of that might be "turn my phone on silent between 10 PM and 6 AM", or "If I am home or at work turn on the wifi of my phone on and turn it off when I leave" or "If there is any new information about my fantasy football roster send me an instant message."  Context is huge.  At work or at certain times of the day I may want things sent to me or blocked based on the work context. 

The second benefit to me is that you are able to shift off work into the background and allow your technology to work for you.  I don't need to scour blogs for information on a topic.  I can have them sent to me.  I don't have to wonder what the weather is going to be like today, I can have my phone read my the forecast when I wake up.

The final benefit which is closely related to the 2nd is the benefit of set and forget.  If I am willing to do some work on the front end, I can enable a variety of services to perform in the background and know that they will continue on unless I intervene to stop them.  While that may not seem like a big deal to some, using these types of technology allows you to structure how you work and also allows you to protect yourself by giving you self imposed "time outs".

Ok, so lots of jargon speak.  What EXACTLY are you talking about.  I think the best way to do that is to walk through the services I use as an example.  In general I am going to discuss this as it relates to web services, mobile devices and other devices.

Web Services - A couple of my friends who are some of my favorite entrepreneurs started a service called that unfortunately they recently shuttered.  I was an advisor to the company and I totally got the value proposition but unfortunately they didn't come to a clear business model and other projects ultimately led them to the conclusion that it was better to shutter it and refer users to other services.  When it was up I used almost every day over a 2 year period.  The basic service allowed users to subscribe to a feed or some information source and then direct information to some communication output.  The output could be email, SMS or instant messaging.  In my case I used instant messaging which allowed me to not get text messages around the clock, only when I was at my computer working.

My three main use cases were A. Realtime fanatsy football news, B. Hacker News updates and C. Updates to a wide variety of music blogs I follow.  In each case there was a different value proposition to me.  Recency of information is an advantage in fantasy football.  Hacker News is a good way to monitor real time tech stories and the music blog subscriptions was a serendipitous way to remember some great sources of music that I rarely visit.  For other users certain use cases were stock prices, ebay bidding, craigslist postings and system administration notifications.

While I am bummed for the guys that it didn't work out, it was a great inspiration for me in thinking about how this sort of automation is valuable. - When went dark, they directed users to two different services, one which wasn't live yet and which stands for If This Then That.  The scope of what they are trying to accomplish is much broader than what set out to do.  On the one hand, I think that makes the tool more powerful, it also creates a slightly higher bar for users to get up and running.  To me this is driven primarily by the  fact that the sources of data and output are so broad that it may be difficult for a casual user to get their head around it.  One way that the founders address this problem is that they allow users to create recipes that are a blueprint for others to use the service.  If you have any interest in the topic of this post then I highly encourage you to check out the service, it is super cool and very useful and the investment of time has a great payoff.

For me, I sue the service primarily to replace the fantasy football aspect that I used with  It covers off the exact same feed with the only difference being that the output is directed to a Google Talk client and not a generalized jabber client.  Because it is Google Talk and I have an android phone, I get the messages on my phone 24/7 and not only when my computer is on.  I am sure I can figure out a way around this but hopefully there will be a general solution that I can use later on my iChat or Adium client on my Mac.

Several other examples of tasks I have created are as follows:

If the forecast for my home is rain tomorrow I get a text message

If I send a text message to a certain phone number provided by IFTTT, a google calendar event is created on my schedule.  In this case I can say things like lunch tomorrow at noon with Shawn and it works flawlessly.  I also use Google voice recognition to send the text, sort of like what has been demonstrated with SIRI.

If the temperature at home tomorrow is going to be above 75 degrees I get a text message telling me that tomorrow will be a warm day.

If anyone I follow on Twitter posts a link to an article, the article is saved to Instapaper for reading later.  I have to turn this one off alot and I also have been unfollowing some folks who overshare.

Finally if anyone new follows me on Twitter, I get a phone call to my cell telling me.

While not all of these are entirely important to me, the breadth of what they are doing is really impressive and if they can get the user up to speed quickly I think they will have success although I think a lot of the business model issues that faced will be similar but hopefully scale helps to solve that problem.

Originally I had intended to address several other services but in the interest in not rambling on I will just mention that I use Google alerts almost daily to track specific news items and topics and I also use both to chronicle what I am listening to but also to check out what my friends are listening to as well.

Mobile Services

The advent of smartphones has had a transforming effect on mobility from simple communication to full blown computing in the palm of your hand.  In terms of personal automation the intersection of this computing combined with GPS and other device capabilities has created some interesting services and opportunities.  I'd like to mention a couple of the services that I have found useful in this regard.

Locale - When Android debuted with the G1, Locale was without question the coolest application on my phone.  While I have a Macbook Pro, and Ipad2 and an Ipad Touch, the ability for Android to run things like Locale in the background has kept me a die hard Android user since the beginning. 

Locale has changed a bunch since I first started using it, but the first couple of use cases for me were to post a message to Twitter every time I arrived at an airport.  This was pretty cool when you think about it because Locale would use the GPS to determine my location and then use the Twitter application to send a pre set message based on the airport I was near.

Locale events are triggered off of conditions.  Default conditions include Battery level, a contact interaction, location, device orientation and time.  Based on those conditions you can change settings for Bluetooth, screen brightness, ringtone, screen timeout, volume, wallpaper and wifi settings.

Currently I have a couple of settings enabled.  My primary one is to turn wifi on at home and work and then turn it off when I am  not in those locations.  This saves my battery and also enables wifi calling for me at home as my reception with the carrier is not that good at home.  The other main setting I use is that when my phone is face down on a desk, the phone turns to silent.  When I set it face up it turns on again.

This is simple out of the box Locale.  Locale also created a developer framework that has resulted in several hundred plugins for Locale to do things like send messages on Twitter, integrate with email programs, integrate with productivity software and do some cool stuff with a variety of the phones device capabilities.  Bottom line with Locale though is that it is really simple and easy to use.

Tasker - Tasker and Locale share many of the same types of features and in fact support a lot of the same plugins.  The big difference with Tasker and Locale is that Locale is like a Mac and Tasker is like Unix.  You can do almost anything to your phone without a plugin if you can learn to program with the Tasker scripting UI.  It is super powerful and really hard to use if you don't spend the time with it.  It is, without a doubt, bad ass.

I have spent some time with Tasker and currently use it for the following:

My phone turns off the ringer, wifi and bluetooth everynight at 10 PM and turns them all back on at 6 AM.

At 7AM each morning, my phone speaks the weather forecast for my home.

I had Tasker doing some more of the wifi stuff but found that for some reason the GPS setting are more responsive on Locale.  For the less technically inclined, Tasker has "profiles" which are like IFTTT recipes but you can download them to your phone and configure them.  A ton of the coolest ones like turn on my bluetooth and go into car phone mode when driving (using your speed as the variable) were disabled by Gingerbread which made it impossible for non rooted devices to switch the GPS receiver on and off.

There are other cool mobile personal automation applications but these are by far the most noteworthy to me at this time.

Other devices

There are a grab bag of other devices that I would consider personal automation and will briefly highlight a few of them including our chumby devices.

chumby - Why not start with my most familiar?  ;-)  I would argue that chumby is one of the most awesome personal automation devices in that it brings stuff to you like the "intelligent assistant" example at the beginning.  More directly though I think there are some clever ways I use my chumby.  My sister in law is a rock star and one of the ways we keep track of her is to subscribe to all the Flickr photos that are tagged with her name MNDR.  At my desk at work and in my kitchen at home we periodically get to see new pictures of her when she is out on tour.

I also subscribe to things like Foursquare on chumby which keeps me notified when people happen to be around in San Diego and it is a reminder to reach out.  Others use chumby to wake up to Pandora or in some cases run things that monitor their home power consumption!

Eyefi - My friend Mike who is a professional photographer turned me on to Eyefi a while back.  Eyefi is essentially a wifi enabled SD card for your camera.  No more forgetting to transfer pcitures.  Whenever my caemra is on and in wifi range, it starts automatically uploading the images to my computer.  How sweet is that?

Time Capsule - After one near epic photo-apocalypse, I became a devoted backup fan.  Unfortunately until I had a time machine backing up actually meant remembering to back up.  With Time Machine I have a hard drive at home and a hard drive at work that automatically keeps an up to date image of my laptop at all times.

Two last mentions to conclude.  One is X10.  I have three unopened boxes of X10 home automation devices that I can't wait to install in the house.  Unfortunately I have had them for over 6 months and I can't seem to find the time to break them open.  One day soon. 

The last one is Google Power Meter / SDGE smart meter.  My home has a smart meter and I apparently am the only person who used this service so Google has shut it down.  the biggest drawback thus far has been that all of the data come to you several days later which sucks.  You need the information real time if you want to get people to conserve power.  Show me burning money on a bonfire pile and I will turn off the dishwasher.  Let me do it from my smartphone on the road?  Even better.  There is still a long ways to go on smart energy but at least companies like SDGE are laying the foundations to make it possible.


This is only the tip of the ice berg.  As computing becomes ubiquitous and embedded in all of our devices, we will be able to do some amazing things.  Many of the sci fi scenarios from old movies won't just be possible, they will be a daily part of our lives.  As a consumer I will continue to keep a close eye on this and keep on the front end of seeing how this develops.  I would welcome any tips or pointers for other great services I might be missing in the comments.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Themes in Technology

A friend the other day asked me what sort of stuff is interesting to me in technology right now. I said a ton of stuff and started rattling off a lot of things I use or things I am interested in. As I thought about it more it sounded like a scattered list of things but fundamentally there are some commonality and classification if I spent some time thinking about it. Actually one of the most articulate ways I have seen this sort of classification presented is on the Foundry Group VC website where they talk about what they look at from an investment standpoint. Other VCs refer to this as their "investment thesis" in certain categories but I think Foundry does a great job laying things out and giving good examples of what the theme means and a selection of companies that represent the theme.

In addition to the conversation with my friend, I also realized that when Google + launched that I had some boiler plate about me stuff that represented what I was interested in back in 2004 and not necessarily what I am interested in in 2011. That is not to say that I am not still interested in those things, which in many cases I still am, it is just that with time and the change in technology I think a lot of those things have either been refined or have changed substantially. In any case, I have sort of hit the wall with the social networking sites and miss my blog so I thought it would be fun to share the themes that occupy my free thoughts and share some of the things that I either purchase or use on a frequent basis that are examples of those themes for me.

So going back to that old profile stuff from 2004, I think a recap is a good place to start.  My blog description says "regarding things like user generated content, content in general, technology and media."  Nice and broad I suppose.  At the time there was an explosion of things like blogs and photosharing sites and the early SNS sites like Friendster and Ryze and Linkedin.  I was certainly interested in those things and still find that with the exception of my blog, these things are still big powerful forces where I use the products or consume information from sites like that.  Having worked in digital media and both the music and film business, I still find content very interesting and certainly am still very interested in media, both in the sense of media as something a consumer watches, sees, reads, etc. as well as media in the way of advertising and advertising technology.

With that said, at chumby there is a lot of work that has been done with getting content onto interesting CE devices and also working with TV and TV related products.  We are also working to create advertising opportunities for our partners and think that there are some novel and interesting ways to do that.  In hindsight then, I really have spent a lot of time on the things I thought I would and hope to continue to do so.

When I stop though and look at what else I am interested in today, I see things grouped into a couple of categories that I think are worth sharing with my friends and others who might be interested.  I hope over the next several weeks to write a couple of posts that walk through these in detail but for now I would like to highlight these themes that occupy my waking hours when I am not busy at work.

The following is a brief classification and explanation of those areas for me:

Personal Automation - There are a number of services and products that automate tasks and make my life easier.  They range from online services like, to mobile applications like Tasker for Android, to actual hardware devices like Eyefi SD cards and X.10 devices.  Some of these are extremely powerful and I think that there will be an increase in new developments in this area as connectivity becomes more pervasive and computing becomes ubiquitous in devices below the traditional computing platforms.

Quantified Self - Not really sure how to describe this category other than to pay homage to the website that hits the crux of this category.  I have been using Nike+ since July of 2009.  I love this service and even though I am not a fan of Nike shoes it has converted me into a repeat buyer.  Other items like scales from Withings, hear rate monitors with web integration and devices like Fitbit are all at the front end of a wave of personal measurement for health and exercise related activities.  As a power user I see a lot of opportunity in this category.

Smart Parsing - The proliferation of developer platforms and API access has created amazing opportunities for people to integrate on top of existing data-sets and social graph information.  While gaming is huge, I am very interested in what I would refer to as "smart parsing".  Examples of this  are products like Tripit, which integrate Linkedin with an awesome tool that ingests information from a variety of sources, or Expensify that takes credit card data and integrates receipt gathering from smartphones or Instapaper which takes articles and cleans them for reading on devices like tablets.  I think that there is an infinite amount of opportunity for people to create exciting and interesting derivatives that results from the free flow of data between applications and that the critical piece is how you use parsing to create a good end user experience.

Post PC devices - You could say tablets but I think that is a part of it.  I use my Ipad every day.  I also use a smartphone every day.  I use an Ipod touch most days.  As we move to using these devices more frequently, or also start using things like Chrome netbooks, there are a number of problems that need to be addressed that are created by theses devices.  A big chunk of it falls into the "cloud" bucket, and I think that there is a lot to be done there, but there are also a lot of things that need to be dealt with around user experience and UI.  Computing beyond the desktop is a huge opportunity.

Productivity - There are so many awesome services that I use every day that make me more productive.  I use almost all of the Omni Applications products daily.  People on my teams have used 37 signals products at the last three companies I have been at.  I use Pogoplug, Dropbox and Evernote almost every day.  As we increase the amount of information we consume and increase the various ways we consume it, relying on productivity tools to manage the flow is going to become more critical for more people and that seems like a big opportunity to me.

There are several other areas that are of interest to me, but I think that they are a bit more nebulous to me in terms of how I define them so I am going to skip writing something long about them them for now but will share what I think they are.

Sports and technology - As a fantasy sports addict there are a number of tools that make my life easier and yet them still generally suck.  Lots of upside there.  Also, with kids in sports there are some amazing tools like Hudl that allow us to go through gam film with my son that re really cool but really rudimentary at this point.

Identity and Privacy - This is huge, very difficult, and  one of the biggest challenges the tech community faces.  It is also still early days and one could write on this forever.  It certainly is something I think about all the time but can't say that there are a lot of awesome services or products I am happy with right now.

Startup of 1 - This is really a mix of a lot of the things in the other categories but bottom line a person with a great idea has so many tools at their disposal that it is become increasingly easy to literally be a 1 man (or woman) show.  Probably worth a post at some time, but not in this series.

Ok, so that is a start.  Excited to start blogging again and can't wait to get going on the five areas outlined above.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Randy Lofgren, R.I.P.

I just got back from a trip of the lifetime, rowing down the Grand Canyon for 6 days. While the trip was amazing, I climbed out of the Grand Canyon to get the news that my Uncle Randy has passed away while I was gone. It was sort of uncanny to me as we hadn't talked in a while but had a good long chat the day before I left on my vacation.

My Uncle was always around throughout my childhood. There were a bunch of years where he lived with us and with my real father divorced and usually out of state, and my step father almost always overseas, my Uncle was certainly a big impact on me as a father figure. He was a giant of a man around 6'4", who was liked by all and extremely friendly and outgoing. I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about my Uncle.

As a child I remember driving with my mom to pick him up from his Navy ship in Long Beach.

I remember the time when he had a full face cast from a bad motorcycle accident and he would scare the living shit out of me pretending to be the Gila monster. I must have been 4 or 5 back then.

He took me on my first camping trip up in Big Bear near the gold mines.

He took me on my first fishing trips.

He took me on my first motorcycle ride.

He was probably the first person to take me out shooting guns, and if he wasn't the first, we certainly did it a lot together.

He would discipline me when I was just about to enter my teens and my mom would try to spank me and I would laugh at her.

He took me to Vegas for the first time on a "fishing trip" to Lake Mead and my brother and I stayed up pretty much all night playing video games while he gambled.

I will never be able to listen to The Eagles, The Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys without thinking about times driving around in his muscle cars through the desert.

Simply put, he was a good man who meant a lot to me and even though I spent very little time with him over the last 20 years, his influence and impact on me has been with me through all of my years. My uncle was a big part in helping to make me who I am today.

I will miss him dearly, and will always hold those memories we shared deep in my heart.

Rest in peace dear Uncle.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The last one at the party

Techcrunch just posted this article here. The headline says amazingly that the Myspace decline is accelerating.

This absolutely isn't surprising and in fact makes total sense. One of the dynamics of community sites is the "empty room" problem at startup. Nobody wants to be the first one to the party and would be happening places have to figure out how to address that issue. Once you gain the "cool" factor then it is a race to the top. That is until you aren't cool anymore. Then it is a race to the bottom as nobody wants to be the last one at the party when the party is over. There was a good article about this I read several years ago that actually showed this with math and I think they used Friendster as the example. If I find it I will post.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The chumby8 is getting ready to ship!

Did a blog post on the corporate website here.

Tech docs can be found here.

You can pre-order the new chumby8 here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cookbooks 2011

At the end of the year each year I like to sample all the new music and spend time keeping myself current on "what the kids are listening to". In addition to this I also like to pick up a couple of new cookbooks that are either critically acclaimed or are in an area that I am trying to learn. I wanted to share the 4 cookbooks I picked up around the end of last year and the beginning of this one.

The first book I am in love with is "Around my French Table". You can find the Amazon link here. This book was at the top of most of the food blogger lists this last year and having spent a month or two reading throughout the book, I can only say that this is the best French cookbook in my collection by far. While there are a lot of the crazy complicated French recipes, I would say that the vast majority are straightforward and very accessible.

The second book I grabbed this year from the food bloggers was "Stir-Frying to the sky's edge". Amazon link here. I decided this year that I was going to master wok cooking as I have become a master at seasoning pans and I am excited by doing fun things with vegetables. I received a very nice electric wok for Christmas so the whole seasoning a pan went out the window but I have had some fun getting ready to dig into the book in a big way. The book covers a great range of things you can do with Asian inspired foods in the stir fry tradition.

The other two books were not blogging inspired but were actually the cookbooks of two of my favorite restaurants over the last year.

The first book was from London based Wagamama. The cookbook I picked up was "The Wagamama Cookbook" and the link is here. This book was a best of cookbook selection from 2007. My office in London was right next to the Covent Garden Wagamama and I was always pumped to eat their spicy chili mein. As soon as I bough the book I cooked this recipe back to back over two days. This book is awesome and was a great companion to my other stir fry book, although this is less about stri fry and more about noodles and other things.

The last book I picked up was "Kokkari: Contemporary Greek Flavors". The book is not available yet but you can pre-order it here. I bought the book directly at the restaurant as I believe it is by far the best restaurant in San Francisco right now and I try to eat there whenever I get the chance. I generally eat at the bar and usually eat a variety of mezes, which are Greek tapas style dishes. Their Gigantes, Asparagus, and Brussels sprouts dishes are to die for. I like it so much that this morning I cooked the sprouts dish for breakfast this morning as I am trying to perfect the dish. If you get to SF, eat here and if you don't get the chance, get this book when it comes out.