2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to read my writing. Happy New Year — and here’s to a fantastic 2015.

Don’t forget to watch your back so you don’t get run over by a speeding DeLorean on Oct. 21… ¬†ūüôā

Back to the Future date

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,600 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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In the battle of streaming devices, the viewer wins

Through various deals I couldn’t refuse, I’ve ended up with three different streaming media players. A family member asked me to choose the “best one” and, honestly, I can’t really say for certain, but I’m leaning toward the Roku system. They all have pluses and minuses and it really comes down to what ecosystem you prefer to be in.

apple tvFirst, let me point out the one major player I don’t own is Apple TV, although I’ve been around when family members have used it. If you want something simple that you can hook up to a TV to sling the content from your iPhone or iPad to the big screen, it seems like a slick system. And, since Apple doesn’t play all that well with Google or Amazon, it may be your best choice for an iHousehold, although it is by far the most expensive option at around $100.

Second, let me note that I am probably biased in my criticism because as I mentioned, I landed all three devices with good deals that cut my final cost down. Certainly, if you pay the full price for anything you’re going to be a little more harsh in your analysis than if you find it at a great discount.

Now, for the reviews:

Roku LT ~ $55

Roku LTI’ve owned and used this¬†Roku for several years now. It was the first streaming device I purchased and I’ve been happy with it since day one. It was the entry-level box but I’ve never found a reason to upgrade. It does what I want and the number of “channels” available is constantly increasing. I use it for a variety of streaming options, including: Amazon Prime Instant Video, Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, PBS, NASA TV, Google Play Movies and,¬†finally HBO GO. (I say finally because for a long time, Comcast had its customer service head buried in the sand and wouldn’t let its paying subscribers use HBO GO.) There is now a stick version available and there are fancier models that do more, but for basic connect and go usability at a reasonable cost you can’t beat the Roku LT.

Google Chromecast ~ $35

Google ChromecastI purchased the Chromecast¬†when I found it on sale, and recently bought a second one when I was able to get it for a significantly reduced price during a holiday promotion. Set up is reasonably simple, although it seems to be a little wonkier in finding and maintaining a wi-fi signal than the Roku. I use it for slinging stuff wirelessly from my phone and Chromebook up to the TV screen. That “stuff” generally involves HBO GO, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, YouTube and Google+ Photos. The ability to cast my Android phone’s screen up to a TV is a huge plus, as well. (That will come in handy when I want to screencast my Google Glass to my phone and then cast my phone screen to a larger monitor when¬†doing demonstrations.) I also have found the screensaver¬†you can post to your TV via the Chromecast when not streaming something is great.

Amazon fireTV Stick ~ $39

fireTV stickI wrote a blog post about the fireTV stick when I first bought it so you can read more¬†details there. I’ve used it a lot for Amazon Prime Video and a weather app. We’ve used it to view pictures and it will even play some games that you can download. I suspect I would use if more if it was on our main TV in the house and not a secondary one. But it’s very handy having it in the family room where the workout bike sits. It seems to hold a wi-fi signal very well, although in all fairness to the Chromecast, the fireTV stick resides a lot closer to the router than the Google CC does. If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber, however, I see no point in owning this device. The majority of benefits come from its ability to stream Prime movies and music.

My Recommendations

As I wrote early on in this post, what ecosystem you live in is probably going to be the best determiner for you when considering whether to go with Amazon or Google for your streaming sticks. If you dabble in all of them, I’d recommend a Roku device. You can access nearly everything that the Amazon and Google sticks can — and certainly the bulk of what you would want to stream in terms of videos and music. (I will give the nod to the Google CC if you have all-access music on Google Play. Casting that to an Amazon stick isn’t possible and on Roku it requires a third-party app that isn’t great.)

If you’re heavily invested in the walled Apple garden, of course, then you’ll probably want to take a closer look at Apple TV. But for the rest of us “free-range streamers,” start with the Roku,¬†then add a Google Chromecast or an Amazon fireTV stick depending on whether you’re a more frequent visitor to the Google or Amazon universe. I’d argue that with the costs ranging from only $35 to $55 — if you pay full price — you can’t really go all that wrong with any of them.

Or be like me — buy all three and establish a beachhead for the day when you finally convince your spouse you don’t need to pay for 500 cable channels when we only watch half a dozen of them. I’ve heard HBO is looking at offering a¬†standalone¬†subscription¬†service, which means my wife and I could¬†catch Game of Thrones without paying a monthly cable bill.¬†I can’t wait…

winter comcast meme

Farewell to the House

After four years of service as the Press Secretary for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, my time in the Legislature has come to an end. Due to term limits, my boss could not run for re-election. The new Speaker decided to “go in a different direction” with the next press secretary and so I’m saying farewell to the House.

The last full session day was Thursday, Dec. 18, which went past midnight and so we technically had a bonus session day that went from midnight on Friday, Dec. 19, until about 6:45 a.m.

My wife, Jessi, was around the chamber for most of the night and helped me document my last real session day. (I will be returning to the House floor on Dec. 30 to take part in Sine Die — when the Legislature adjourns “without day” — but that doesn’t really count as a real session day.)

It’s a bittersweet time in my career, when all the crazy hours, incredible social media frustrations and triumphant media relations moments cascade down around me and swirl about¬†among¬†my memories. But that aside, here is a collection of photos and videos shot by Jessi and I during those last hours, with some commentary to help provide context. (You can click on each picture to enlarge it if you so desire.)

Speaker Bolger office

This is the hallway outside the Speaker’s Office. When I got to work on Thursday, Dec. 18, I decided to document a few things that had become routine — something that we all risk no matter where we work. I used to always tell new employees to stop and look around from time to time – that no matter how busy they were, they should take a minute to revel in the amazing building where they were privileged to work.

Speaker Bolger office sign

The main hallway inside the Speaker's Office suite.

The main hallway inside the Speaker’s Office suite.

The actual Speaker's office - the place Jase Bolger always thanked visitors for allowing him to borrow. That sentiment is part of what made him a great public servant. I spent a lot of hours at that big table during strategy meetings.

The actual Speaker’s office – the place Jase Bolger always thanked visitors for allowing him to borrow. That sentiment is part of what made him a great public servant. I spent a lot of hours at that big table during strategy meetings.

The Speaker's desk is at the end by the window; this is an angle shot while standing at the table in the previous photo.

The Speaker’s desk is at the end by the window; this is an angle shot while standing at the table in the previous photo.

This is an old Speaker's chair - at one time it actually sat at the rostrum on the House floor but has since been replaced. Many of us have memories of sitting in this chair waiting to see Speaker Bolger; it seemed a fitting place to pass the time.

This is an old Speaker’s chair – at one time it actually sat at the rostrum on the House floor but has since been replaced. Many of us have memories of sitting in this chair waiting to see Speaker Bolger; it seemed a fitting place to pass the time.

This was the last press conference I helped Speaker Bolger with. He was speaking about the roads deal reached between the legislative leaders and Gov. Snyder. The press conference was held in the Governor's Capitol Office Parlor. If you take the Capitol tour, there are times when this room is open for viewing.

This was the last press conference I helped Speaker Bolger with. He was speaking about the roads deal reached on Thursday between the legislative leaders and Gov. Snyder. The press conference was held in the Governor’s Capitol Office Parlor. If you take the Capitol tour, there are times when this room is open for viewing.

I lost track a long time ago how many times I've gone running up and down these steps before, during and after session. This is the back stairwell that leads up to the House chamber. It's behind a "No Visitors Beyond This  Point" sign in the main Capitol hallway. I guess that will be me now.  :/

I lost track a long time ago how many times I’ve gone running up and down these steps before, during and after session. This is the back stairwell that leads up to the House chamber. It’s behind a “No Visitors Beyond This Point” sign in the main Capitol hallway. I guess that will be me now.

Here is a video of¬†the last time I said the Pledge of Allegiance on the House floor for a regular session, which was shortly after midnight on Dec. 19 when we started a “new” session day. I will always remember saying this for opening every session, but especially when we had a school group in the gallery watching us. Few groups can say the Pledge as loud and proud as a group of elementary schoolkids!

This is a very private place behind the scenes, as it is the House Republican Caucus Room. The House Democrats have one, too. It is a well-heeded rule in our caucus that what is said in this room stays in this room. It's a place where I saw Republicans spend many hours debating policies and issues with fervor but always ending with their friendship and camaraderie intact.

This is a very private place behind the scenes, as it is the House Republican Caucus Room. The House Democrats have one, too. It is a well-heeded rule in our caucus that what is said in this room stays in this room. It’s a place where I saw Republicans spend many hours debating policies and issues with fervor but always ending with their friendship and camaraderie intact.

The House Press Desk, where the Capitol Press Corps sits during session. I spent a lot of hours standing at this desk providing information and cajoling reporters, not to mention taking a few good-natured hits in return.

The House Press Desk, where the Capitol Press Corps sits during session. I spent a lot of hours standing at this desk providing information and cajoling reporters, not to mention taking a few good-natured hits in return.

Jessi took this shot, so I'm not sure what was happening. It appears I was watching a vote go up on the board. She has several shots of me standing like this throughout the night. I never realized how much I cross my arms while observing things!

Jessi took this shot, so I’m not sure what was happening. It appears I was watching a vote go up on the board. She has several shots of me standing like this throughout the night. I never realized how much I cross my arms while observing things!

Jessi took this picture, too, of Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey. I don't know what he was watching or what he was thinking; since he lost his primary election and won't be returning, I can't even imagine it. In his farewell speech, Foster told the House that we need "more politicians who are bad at politics." He is absolutely correct, and will be sorely missed in the GOP Caucus next year.

Jessi took this picture, too, of Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey. I don’t know what he was watching or what he was thinking; since he lost his primary election and won’t be returning, I can’t even imagine it. In his farewell speech, Foster told the House that we need “more politicians who are bad at politics.” He is absolutely correct, and will be sorely missed in the GOP Caucus next year.

The Speaker's job is so intense and so stressful; people have no idea how much a legislative leader and his family must endure. I love this shot that Jessi took though, because it shows Jase Bolger sharing a laugh with a colleague on the floor. Often, no matter how stressful things had gotten, Jase would let others lighten the mood with a joke and then laugh right along with them. It helped us all relieve some stress.

The Speaker’s job is so intense and so stressful; people have no idea how much a legislative leader and his family must endure. I love this shot that Jessi took though, because it shows Jase Bolger sharing a laugh with a colleague on the floor. Often, no matter how stressful things had gotten, Jase would let others lighten the mood with a joke and then laugh right along with them. It helped us all relieve some stress.

This was a chance shot that I took with Google Glass as everyone was leaving the House floor after session adjourned on Friday. I happen to glance over and catch Speaker Bolger wishing Speaker-Elect Kevin Cotter well as he prepares to take over next year.

This was a chance shot that I took with Google Glass as everyone was leaving the House floor after session adjourned on Friday. I happen to glance over and catch Speaker Bolger wishing Speaker-Elect Kevin Cotter well as he prepares to take over next year.

I didn't know Jessi had taken this picture until days later. It was on my last trip down the back stairs after session ended on Friday morning. A classic shot that I'm so glad she took.

I didn’t know Jessi had taken this picture until days later. It was on my last trip down the back stairs after session ended on Friday morning. A classic shot that I’m so glad she took.

It was just after 8 a.m. on Friday and we'd all been at work well over 24 hours. But that didn't stop Speaker Bolger from agreeing to do an interview with Frank Beckman for his radio show. It's a testament to Jase and his willingness to be open with the media right up to the very end. It also documents that even while talking on a phone, he has to use his hands to explain concepts to people. :)

It was just after 8 a.m. on Friday and we’d all been at work well over 24 hours. But that didn’t stop Speaker Bolger from agreeing to do an interview with Frank Beckman for his radio show. It’s a testament to Jase and his willingness to work¬†with the media right up to the end. It also documents that even while talking on a phone, he has to use his hands to explain concepts to people. ūüôā

The previous picture was shot on my Google Glass, and unbeknownst to me, Jessi was taking a picture of me taking that picture! This angle also shows how the Speaker's office was already being torn down and boxed up, but he and I were still working, because there was still work to be done.

The previous picture was shot on my Google Glass, and unbeknownst to me, Jessi was taking a picture of me taking that picture! This angle also shows how the Speaker’s office was already being torn down and boxed up, but he and I were still working, because there was still work to be done.

The last shot of me in my empty Capitol office before I left. Maybe it was best that I ended my work day about 27 hours after it ended, because by then I was ready to leave.

The last shot of me in my empty Capitol office before I left. Maybe it was best that I ended my work day about 27 hours after it started, because by then I was ready to leave!

This is a video I shot on the House floor with my Google Glass. It was of Speaker Bolger’s final time at the rostrum for a regular session day. It includes his farewell to the chamber and the last time he says, “The House will stand at ease at the call of the chair.”

And that’s all folks!

Chrome books it to the cloud and never looks back

Acer Chromebook 11.6I recently purchased an Acer 11.6-inch Chromebook computer as what I thought was going to be a part-time device to help me speed through a lot of the web-based work and social media activities I do. Little did I know a few weeks ago that I would be reaching for it more than anything else.¬†I’m writing this post on it now, although honestly, I’ve written blog posts on a mobile¬†phone before, so basically the best device you can use for writing is the one you have available when inspiration strikes. ūüôā

I had thought about such a purchase recently as the job I have was ending and, with it, my access to an iPad. Also, my MacBook from 2009 has been showing its age. So I started thinking about what device to get next that wasn’t a laptop (because I wanted better portability, despite how¬†2014 that sounds), and I didn’t want to spend a small fortune¬†like I would to get my own personal iPad.

To each his own, that’s what I generally say when people ask me about “the best device for doing¬†x.”¬†I’ve used Apple and Android phones, Kindles, Kindle Fires, iPads, PCs, Macs and, now, a Chromebook. I’ve also used the major devices available for streaming video and music content, but those should¬†be in a separate blog post all their own¬†(coming soon).

I also was recently contacted by SingleHop, a private cloud-hosting company, about sharing my experiences with cloud computing. Full disclosure: I was not compensated in any way to mention them, other than their providing the cloud computer graphic posted at the end of this post for reference. It was just a nicely worded email that asked me to write something and, sometimes, niceness and professionalism pay off.

So, anyway…cloud computing has become a big part of my life and it’s only getting bigger, as I suspect it will for many people. Chromebooks are nearly as powerful as many laptops now. Think about your computer use for a minute. Many things that you do are actually being done on the Internet, not on your local hard drive. Think about the social media activities, photo editing and storage, file storage and — if you’re a Google Drive user instead of a Microsoft slave — your writing, spreadsheets and presentations. All of that is done¬†via your browser instead of your computer’s operating system. In my case, the browser of choice is Google Chrome.

The folks at SingleHop sent me a list of questions to prompt some ideas for this blog post, but I thought they were more useful for me to tweak and let others use as a checklist for determining how much you actually do online:

  • Do you stream music or videos?

  • Do you coordinate with coworkers or associates to collaborate on documents and presentations?

  • Do you use¬†social media, email or instant messaging to stay in touch with friends and family?

  • Do you use apps on your mobile phone or tablet that are synced across devices?

If you answer yes to most or all of those, you’re spending a lot of time in the computing cloud whether you knew it or not.

When I looked at my computer use, I realized at least 90 percent of my activities were on the Chrome browser, so it made a lot of sense for me to make Chrome my operating system, which is what happens when you run a Chromebook. With a solid state drive and no true operating system, a Chromebook starts almost instantly.

I can open and close the lid all day to take it from wake to sleep and back again in a couple¬†blinks of an eye. There is no fan, so there’s no noise, and it’s incredibly lightweight. I can rotate the screen vertically and hold it sideways to read a magazine article or book with no fatigue. (Essentially, it’s like holding a lightweight hardcover book, with the screen on one side and the keyboard on the other. It works a lot better than it probably sounds.)

My books are almost entirely in the cloud now, as are my documents, my photos, my music, my movies and most everything else I interact with. The advantage is that I have them all available on whatever device I’m using at the moment, from laptop to Chromebook, from Kindle Fire to mobile phone. The downside, of course, is that if wireless goes down or the Internet goes dark for any reason, I lose the ability to stream things. I can, however, work with items I have stored for offline use — books, movies, music, documents — pretty much anything I have room to store on my Chromebook or an SD memory card. Even Google Drive is now built so that you can work on things offline and then let them update to the cloud later when you have an Internet connection.

Cloud computing and the epitome of such — Chromebooks — may not be for everyone. But the ease of use and access, plus the ability for others to interact with what you have in the cloud when invited is incredibly appealing to and useful for me. I’m certain the gang over at Single Hop would agree since that’s how they’re making a living.

I’m thrilled with my Chromebook purchase and the way it took me to the cloud and never looked back.

There is a lot I could have written about cloud computing, Chromebooks or my new Acer in particular, but I didn’t want this post to become exceedingly long. So if you have any questions about anything mentioned here, just post them in the comments section and I’ll reply with¬†an answer for you ASAP.

Life_in_the_Cloud

1 year later…

My one-year anniversary status post about being a Google Glass Explorer is available here on Google Plus.

My best of #throughglass in 2014

Google Glass recently asked its Glass Explorers to share their favorite #throughglass pictures from 2014 so they could share what everyone has been up to.

I had a tough time narrowing down some of the great shots afforded to me because I was wearing Glass this past year, and I don’t think I could choose just one. So, here were the three choices I submitted:

A shot taken on St. John, USVI, during a family vacation. It symbolizes a favorite memory and a window onto the world that Glass provides all of its users.

A shot taken on St. John, USVI, during a family vacation. It symbolizes a favorite memory and a window onto the world that Glass provides all of its users.

A shot of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, which demonstrates Glass' ability to capture a spur-of-the moment picture with its wide-angle lens and great clarity, plus the ability to create a vignette with information about what is in the photo. I use that all the time to help document places where pictures are taken, as a sort of "place stamp."

A shot of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, which demonstrates Glass’ ability to capture a spur-of-the moment picture with its wide-angle lens and great clarity, plus the ability to create a vignette with information about what is in the photo. I use that all the time to help document places where pictures are taken, as a sort of “place stamp.”

A shot of my wife, Jessi, atop a frozen Grand Haven Lighthouse in Grand Haven, Michigan last winter. Due to the extreme cold and the very slippery conditions, this is a picture I probably would not have attempted with a camera or even a mobile phone. It is a great example of Glass' hands-free capabilities for documenting a moment in time.

A shot of my wife, Jessi, atop a frozen Grand Haven Lighthouse in Grand Haven, Michigan last winter. Due to the extreme cold and the very slippery conditions, this is a picture I probably would not have attempted with a camera or even a mobile phone. It is a great example of Glass’ hands-free capabilities for documenting a moment in time.

Set your TV on Fire with Amazon’s new stick

Amazon FireTV Stick boxI pre-ordered the new Amazon fireTV¬†stick when it first became available and it arrived about two weeks ahead of schedule. I took the opportunity to use my Google Glass to¬†produce an unboxing, setup and operational overview video. It’s presented here in three parts so people can¬†choose to watch only sections they are most interested in or all three if they so wish, as I shot them¬†assuming you would move from one chapter to the next.

One of the key things to keep in mind is that this device is really going to shine only if you are an Amazon Prime member. What is the point of having a device that can stream hundreds of thousands of movies, TV shows and music tracks at your command unless you have that library available to you?

Amazon FireTV Stick box contents

As you’ll note in the first video, the contents of the box include the stick, a power cable, a power block and an HDMI extender dongle. Note that unlike Google’s Chromecast¬†(which I also own), Amazon strongly recommends that you use the power block to power your¬†fireTV¬†stick¬†instead of using the USB power port on the back of your TV.

In the first video, I unbox the fireTV stick and give an overview of the box contents and offer some commentary about the device compared to a Google Chromecast:

In the second video, I show part of the set up of the fireTV stick:

In the third video, I get into the final installation and set up, as well as sharing the Amazon cartoon that runs when you first install and then some of my initial operations of the fireTV stick:

Note that at the end of the third video, I mentioned I was going to check out the smartphone app. I did and it worked very well as a remote and for voice searches. I just didn’t think it was compelling enough to shoot a video about.

A few other things are worth¬†mentioning here that did not come up while I was shooting the videos because I found them buried deeper in the¬†personal settings¬†area of the menus. I mention them here because I was excited to find them and I don’t think they are all that obvious when you first look into the fireTV stick’s¬†capabilities.

Amazon Fire TV Stick screenshotThe first is that the stick lets you use a selection of built-in photos as a screen saver or — even better — you can select albums you have in your Amazon Cloud Drive and pull your own pictures up to act as the screen saver.

Amazon FireTV Stick screenshot

The second thing is that the¬†fireTV stick¬†will serve as a Miracast device so that if you have a smartphone capable of using this technology, you can mirror your phone’s screen to your TV to share it with an audience. That has some great potential for holiday gatherings when you want to share a collection of photos or videos with the family all at once instead of waiting while they pass your phone around.

Because I just started using the¬†fireTV stick¬†today, I can’t offer any long-term, objective reviews of how it works or how it will hold up after a period of constant use. But my initial impressions are positive. The price is $39, compared with $35 for the Google Chromecast — so the choice may very well come down to which of the two universes you are more deeply embedded in. For various reasons, I have one foot in both the Amazon and Google universes, and both feet are at levels deep enough to be in over my ankles. So, for the cost, having the flexibility of providing both operating systems in my house made it well worth the investment, and I’d probably say that even if I had not received the¬†fireTV stick¬†half off by pre-ordering.

No matter what you decide to do though, never lose sight of the fact that for less than $50, you have a technological device your great-grandparents could have never imagined becoming commonplace plugged into the back of a TV that our parents and grandparents probably never imagined would be in every home. “Mind-blowing” might not even cover it.

The media’s coverage of low voter turnout is a self-fulfilling prophecy

dickerson columnThe Detroit Free Press’ Brian Dickerson has it¬†mostly wrong in his recent column about why such a small percentage of voters voted in last week’s election.

People who do not vote should not be held up as “the new normal” or the people who are making the best decision because they don’t like the choices they are given. Democracy isn’t meant to be easy and freedom isn’t free. If you fail to show up and vote, you have no right to complain about who got elected. If you fail to fight and try to make a difference in the things you want to see changed, you have no right to complain that things aren’t the way you want them.

Voters today are part of a society driven by Hollywood’s and TV’s interpretation of the world, biased cable TV news networks, bloggers with no professional standards held up as real journalists, and real journalists hog-tied by shrinking budgets and corporate management intent on web clicks and social media likes instead of credibility.

Admittedly, I haven’t done any exhaustive research on this. But when you review the political coverage of the recent elections, I suspect you will find a vastly larger number of articles based on polling results that are questionable at best, a focus on who is funding candidates, reviews of what the latest blistering negative TV ads are spewing, and the supposedly campaign-ending scandals that aren’t nearly as evil as the media and election ads portray them. And, let’s not forget the large number of articles focused on how difficult it supposedly is to vote in the Unites States.

What’s missing is in-depth reporting on candidates, their credentials, the issues they care about, what they would actually do if elected and why people need to vote to have their voices heard. And the rest of the year, when electioneering isn’t driving the news coverage, it would be nice if the media reported on the day-to-day activities of elected officials. The Capitol Press Corps in Michigan has shrunk dramatically over the years, and many reporters have shied away from “process stories,” because editors (in those newsrooms where they still exist) don’t think the public will click on them. But the process is where all the interesting news happens. The final votes taken on the floor of the House and Senate are a very small part of all the work that has gone into a law being crafted. Floor speeches, while great for soundbites for a media driven by sensationalism, rarely have any real impact on how a person’s colleagues will vote. That’s because all the true debate, the hashing out of ideas, and the bipartisan compromise happened weeks and¬†months prior¬†in a committee process deemed “too boring” for the public to be told about.

Is it any wonder then that the public is feeling disenfranchised and wondering why they should bother to vote? Instead of being given a manual on democracy to study they are being fed the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. In an ever-growing and concerning trend, we may not even receive that version anymore but instead the equivalent of a movie trailer.

My 18-year-old daughter voted in her first general election this year. She texted me one day while reviewing her absentee ballot (provided to her because she is away at college).

“This is difficult. How do you choose? There are so many people and none of their websites make sense. The troubles of a teenage voter.”

I was so proud of her for actually doing research on the candidates and not just listening to her dad’s opinion! I responded with the best advice I could think of that wouldn’t drive her to just do what I suggested.

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy and I applaud you for trying to research the candidates!”

If only more voters cared as much as my daughter, post-Election Day news coverage wouldn’t be all about the hand wringing over low voter turn out. And if only more media outlets understood¬†their post-Election Day¬†news coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then we might actually get some true news coverage of government instead of sensationalistic, half-baked reports designed to increase computer clicks instead of voter intellect.

Burn your ships, Inbox by Gmail is here

hernado cortesThere’s an oft-debated historical reference made about Hernado Cortes burning his ships after they landed in the New World to encourage his men to fight and survive there rather than giving in too easily and sailing home. It’s how I’ve handled the conversion to Inbox by Gmail and, if you receive an invite, it’s what you should do, too, if you want to be successful with it.

The reason the Cortes story is debated is because now historians believe he didn’t order the ships burned but rather run aground and stripped of materials. Potato, pot-ah-to — either way there wasn’t an easy escape route when things got tough.

Those who follow me on social media or read this blog know that I’m a big fan of Google. It’s not a blind infatuation, I actually like their products and their methods, even when they destroy products I enjoyed using, like Google Reader. I have long enjoyed living deep within the Google universe because of the ways they find to integrate everything. Automation or at least quick manual access to my online life through various programs and apps usually makes my life easier and simpler. And I’m all for that, as I suspect most people are. But at times there are things with promise that come along that attract my attention, even if they aren’t within the Google universe.

The latest example of this was Mailbox, a self-standing startup that was eventually acquired by Dropbox. The beauty of the app, which started as mobile and then became a beta desktop app, was that it allowed you to swipe through, deal with or snooze email very efficiently. There were many times when I longed for GMail’s integration with attaching files from Google Drive or interacting directly with Google+ posts from within the email notification. But when I had a stack of emails flooding in, I went to Mailbox to quickly sort, swipe, snooze and delete them to get my head above water again. I should note here that the concept of Inbox Zero is paramount to me. I see my email inbox as a running to do list and as long as an email is sitting in there – read or unread – I have something I need to do. So by the end of each day, and sometimes by early evening, I have achieved Inbox Zero. That doesn’t mean everything is done, but it has at least been addressed, even if that means scheduling it to handle tomorrow.

Oh, how I longed for the functionality of Gmail and the efficiency of Mailbox to become one. I often wondered why Dropbox had to acquire Mailbox before Google could. I needed the two apps to marry so I could enjoy their companionship.

inboxSo, along comes Inbox by Gmail. It’s odd that it’s not Inbox by Google, but maybe they’re trying to show commitment to potential users, those of us who have been there done that with Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Reader, etc. If they say it’s “by Gmail,” maybe we will believe that this time they won’t abandon it just as it’s starting to get good.

But I digress. Let’s focus on Inbox. Aside from its silly name (couldn’t they have come up with something less confusing than making us yet again use a common word as proper noun?) it’s a winner in my book, albeit in need of some tweaking. I suppose I should be happy that Google didn’t follow the other naming trend these days of obliterating random¬†vowels and call it “Inbx.”

inbox feedbackI’ve been taking notes for this blog post as I’ve provided feedback to Google, or Gmail, or whomever is on the other end of the line. Sending feedback is easy, and they’ve even set it up so that it can automatically include a screen shot, highlight what you’re referring to, and black out personal information. It’s a feedback system that instills confidence.

So here are my notes so far, after having used Inbox on mobile and desktop for about three days now:

  • As I said earlier, you need to go all in. I’ve seen complaints from early adopters saying that what they do on the Inbox mobile app doesn’t transfer well to their Gmail inbox on the web. Well, duh, then go to your Inbox inbox (sigh) on the web and everything will be right with the world. Yes, many of us have invested time and energy in Gmail labels and folders, and those are still available to you under Inbox. But you now have a system of “bundling” available that seems to work well, so find a way to merge the two concepts and you’ll be singing a happy tune.
  • Speaking of bundling, one of the things you have to do is be a little patient with the technology. The initial bundles for Promos, Travel, Updates, etc. are pretty good. After all, Google has scanned your email surreptitiously for years, so they should have a handle on sorting it by now. But you can make your own “bundles,” and you can adjust which emails go into the standard ones or your personal ones on the fly. I say be patient because it may take a few days for Inbox to learn what you like and how you like it. But it seems to be picking up on my changes quickly and accurately.
  • One of the key features of Inbox is swiping and snoozing. That means you can select an email, or a group of emails, to go away and magically reappear at a later time or date or, because Google has this advantage over¬†Dropbox as the mother ship, you can have them appear when you reach a certain location. That’s handy if you want to snooze an email until you get home after work, for example. One tweak that needs to be made to Inbox is the ability to adjust the default snoozes. On Mailbox, I could adjust what “later today” meant or what time “tomorrow” the reappearance would trigger. While you can manually select a custom date and time in Inbox, your defaults are their defaults, at least for now.
  • I also have discovered that when a snoozed item reappears, it is automatically unbundled and pinned. Unbundled means it just appears in your inbox, and not returning to the bundled group you had it in originally. Just because I want to look at something later doesn’t mean I want the category removed. And the concept of pinning emails by sticking a virtual stick pin in it is handy. It protects those emails by saving them to your inbox no matter what you try to do to it. That helps protect you from mistakes as you start to swipe, snooze and trash things with speed. But snoozed items don’t necessarily have to be pinned. If Google is listening to my feedback, they’ll know that I just want my email to pop back up, in the place I had it, and without a pin.
  • As for trashing items, Google has again opted to focus on archiving emails instead of deleting them. This happened with the Gmail mobile app initially until enough people hollered and they gave us the option of “trashing” meaning delete instead of archive. It’s an important difference and one that users should be allowed to toggle. Hopefully, that will happen soon. I’ve started using keyboard shortcuts in Inbox a lot more than in Gmail because I discovered the one for delete that actually means “delete.”
  • Formatting can still be a little tricky at times, too, as sometimes I’m finding things I’m cutting and pasting from the web into the body of the email being smashed together instead of formatted with paragraphs. I’m hoping that’s just a glitch that Google will address¬†soon. I do like that there is a “speed dial” function hidden under the compose button. It populates with a few of your most-used recipients so you can address an email with two clicks and no typing.
  • The biggest letdown¬†I’ve run into so far is the lack of proper integration. Sometimes it’s more efficient for me to reply to a Google+ post via the email notification instead of actually going to G+. In Gmail, I can do that and you’d never be able to tell I did it. With Inbox, my reply shows up, but so does a truncated header about who sent the¬†response that I’m replying to. That’s unnecessary clutter and needs to be addressed. And, Inbox is not yet fully integrated with Google Drive as Gmail is. That means there is no easy way to attach or embed files and pictures from Drive. Sure, you can easily attach files that are on your computer, but unless they’re in a Drive folder you sync to your hard drive, that means you have to go get it first. That is soooo¬†2013! Google owns all of this, so it might be in the next iteration without much coding needed (says the guy who knows nothing about coding).
  • One thing that is integrated is Google Reminders, which is going to take some getting used to but may be something worthwhile. I use Reminders through Google Now, and having them populate in my inbox may be a nice time saver. It’s weird to see them there, but since I use my inbox as a to do list, maybe Google knows something about me that I don’t?

All-in-all, I’m happy with it. Is it perfect? Of course not, and maybe it never will be because we always want more than we can have when it comes to apps and software. Oh, and we want it free. And we want it handed to us for free with no ads, and without giving up any¬†privacy, and we want it to never go down, never let us down and never make us wish we hadn’t switched email programs. But, that’s not real life and eventually all of us as consumers will need to start learning that.

Of course, we all have one major advantage Cortes and his men didn’t. If we decide to “unburn the ships,” all we have to do is make a few keystrokes and, voil√†, we’re sailing home. But for now, I’ve deleted Mailbox because¬†this New World inbox¬†has a lot of promise.

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Image courtesy of http://kurtkoontz.com/

There is a greater challenge than dumping a bucket of ice over your head – are you up for it?

A few weeks ago, you couldn’t get away from it no matter how hard you tried. Friends, family and celebrities were getting in on the viral publicity stunt known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It was on the news and it was in your news feeds on every social media outlet you frequent. But this isn’t just a rant about that viral maelstrom, so bear with me.

ALSA logoThe ALS Association notes on its website that since July 29, they have received $115 million in donations, mostly due to the publicity of the viral video challenges and responses.

That’s great, but one of the things I found frustrating about the Ice Bucket Challenge was how many times I saw people doing the challenge and challenging others, but not really connecting with the reason for it. I saw many videos where ALS wasn’t even included in the video or posting — just Ice Bucket Challenge, as if buckets of ice water had become the new fraternity initiation tool. Too many people didn’t know why they were dumping ice water on their heads or what ALS is really all about.

Most commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” because of the famed baseball player who died from it,¬†Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease. According to the ALS Association, the disease “affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons¬† die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.”

It all sounds very¬†clinical and I wouldn’t expect people to have cited¬†all of the details in their videos. But I would have liked¬†people to remember more about why they took the challenge. They needed to remember the people and the families affected by this horrific disease. They needed, for once, to not¬†let a viral video be just another flash in the pan. They needed to think about what they can do to help with ALS patients and families now and in the future.

IceBucket_Staff_0814_18I participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge along with a number of coworkers and colleagues. I made it a priority for us to produce a video at work that did more than just showing legislators and employees getting ice dumped over us, although¬†I’m sure that made some people happy just on its own. We talked about why we were doing the challenge, what the disease involves and encouraged people to stay connected with the cause well into the future.

For us, it was personal. Our chief of staff at the Michigan House of Representatives is Norm Saari. His son, Eric, was our inspiration as he was battling ALS and we wanted to do what we could to honor his challenge in life with our challenge to raise funds and awareness. We did well, raising more than $5,000 with our efforts.

I can only hope we raised awareness, as well, which is part of the reason I’m doing this blog post, too. As I wrote earlier, this isn’t just a rant. Sure, there are plenty of things I could write about what happened with this campaign from a public relations perspective or as a review of social media activities for fundraising.

But, instead, I’m writing this to urge you to find out more about ALS. To keep folks like the Saari family in mind. And as a tribute to Eric Saari.

Because Eric died on Sept 18. I never met him and now I never will. But I will always remember him. Not because he was the reason I had a bucket of ice water dumped over my head to become part of a viral video sensation. But because any time someone asks me to give to a disease-fighting cause, I will be thinking less about the disease and the tax write-off and a lot more about the affected people and their families.

So, thank you, Eric, for showing me something I never realized I needed to see. Rest in peace; challenge accepted.