Thursday, June 28, 2007

Internet Radio is a Timemachine

Listening to Pandora Radio today, as I do every day, I was warped back in time to one of the first mp3s I ever "obtained" from a friend's Hotline server, "Peaches" by the Presidents of the United States. Pandora is awesome.

Speaking of how awesome Pandora (and internet radio is), did you know that internet radio is on its way to being shut off? Why don't you save internet radio? It's so easy!

I buy a lot of music I hear on the internet (especially Pandora). In fact, Pandora is my music shopping list. What about you? Post a comment and let me and our readers know.

Economics of Zooomr and Stock Photography

Zooomr got a lot of news after their service started having all those problems. And now it sounds like they're going to have a really interesting business model in stock photography, for both photographers and for consumers. And Thomas Hawk has a nice economic argument for what he's doing. I like economics :)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Drink like a hipster

I must say, I'm very pleased with the direction in which the beverage industry is headed these days. When I was little, we all just drank soda and that was the way it was (my teeth cringe at the thought). The "healthy alternative" was that nasty Minute Maid faux lemonade (only 3% juice, yum), or—gods forbid—Hawaiian punch and SunnyD.

Then there was the whole "energy drink" phase, in which someone decided that the only thing more desirable than [caffeine + sugar-rush in a can] had to be [5x as much caffeine + sugar-rush in a can]. But I doubt we're in danger of energy drinks taking over the market (any beverage that can kill me in 25 cups is automatically limiting its own market share), so I'm not too worried if they want to peacefully coexist in the drink cooler. What I'm excited about is the wave of new ideas I've seen springing up in the last few years: finally there are some worthwhile alternatives to oversweetened teas and sodas, marketed to the "young and adventurous", each with some quirky flavor or packaging or reason why they're healthier than soda and cooler than tapwater. Here's a rundown of some of the best I've seen in the past month:

  • Honest Tea
    It all started with Honest Tea. At least, that's the one I first noticed, right around the time I was getting damn tired of Snapple and its high-fructose corn syrup overload (not that I'm some big organic health nut—far from it—but sometimes I just want to drink something refreshing, not pour a bottle of syrup down my throat!). Honest Tea bottles lightly sweetened, natural-tasting iced tea (a much-needed alternative to Nestea, which doesn't even taste remotely like tea) in a variety of flavors (greens, blacks, reds, whites and herbals). Highly recommended if you like Snapple but think it's about 3x too sweet.
  • VitaminWater & SmartWater
    [Note that I have to review these two together since Glacéau decided to do their whole website in Flash in a way that prevents me from linking in to the product-level pages for either of these brands... though that's a story for another day.] VitaminWater is another excellent less-sweet alternative. Not really a soda, not really a juice, they've gone after the hipster/cool-nerd market with their bright colors, minimalist branding, and tongue-in-cheek little blurbs about each flavor ("Each one of our 15 grab-health-by-the-horns varieties offers a unique blend of nutrients to help you shine on those gods-have-forsaken-you days, yada-yada-yada conference calls, wind-sucking workouts and chasers-are-for-weenies nights."). You get the picture. Drink VitaminWater if you're cooler than everybody else around you (the very definition of hipsterism, no?).

    In the less-sweetener-is-more vein, SmartWater is great for anyone who's been drinking Gatorade during workouts and feeling like it leaves a sugary film in your mouth. SmartWater = water + electrolytes, end of story. It looks like water, it tastes like water. And (thanks to the hipsters at Glacéau) it even informs you that you're better than your spring-water-drinking peers, because SmartWater is "vapor-distilled from clouds" and therefore not full of rocks or fish pee like those "other" bottled waters.
  • Metromint
    While we're talking waters, Metromint makes a great mint-flavored water. Again, no sweeteners, so it's refreshing like water, but with a minty twist. Caveat emptor: while the spearmint flavor is excellent, trusted sources tell me that the orangemint tastes like dentistry.
  • Jones Soda
    Just so you don't think I hate sugar, here's some good old-fashioned soda. But they make the list because their brand image is very new wave: you can vote on new flavors they should add, submit your own photos to go on their bottle labels, or create your own custom 12-pack of soda (labels, flavors, etc.). They even featured RCRG on one of their bottle labels!
  • Dry Soda
    Currently only available on the West coast, these folks are pushing the envelope of what soda could be. Their flavors are very subtle, barely sweetened, and totally weird: lavender, lemongrass, kumquat?? Their website also recommends cocktail recipes and food pairings for each flavor (lemongrass goes best with goat cheese, kumquat with duck or risotto). Any soda that recommends serving in a champagne flute is a must-have.
  • Hint
    Hint : VitaminWater :: VitaminWater : Snapple. Once you've started to find even the drinks above too sweet, it's time to graduate to Hint. It's so minimalist that they don't even call it 'water', 'juice' or 'soda'... just drink. (It took me a few tries to find a search query that would trigger any relevant results.)
  • Vignette Wine Country Soda
    Yes, that's right: wine soda. Right now they have pinot noir and chardonnay versions. I haven't actually tried either one, and my sources tell me it's basically just grape juice in a fancy bottle, but I had to throw it in for the novelty factor.

All this of course begs the question: what other drinks belong on this list?

Seattle Conference on Scalability

Databases are dinosaurs. This is what Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, had to say. And I think those three words do a great job of summing up the Seattle Conference on Scalability, which I attended last weekend.

The conference started off with a keynote by Jeff Dean of Google, giving a nice overview of the Google File System, MapReduce, and BigTable. Marissa Mayer also gave an brief history of some of the many challenges Google has faced in the last five or so years. I won't recap everything, check out the agenda for details. All the sessions should also be on YouTube by now.

"Databases are Dinosaurs". Vogels put this statement on the screen, and my first thought was that I had made a bad decision by skipping the YouTube session. But I was pleasantly surprised. You can read the details of Dynamo in an upcoming paper, it's going under the name "HASS" academically. A quick search indicates it's not out yet.

"You can't have high availability and high consistency at the same time." This statement is what really opened my eyes to one of the biggest challenges in web scale data management. Coming from Werner Vogels—CTO of Amazon, and a highly respected academic to boot—this is a strong statement. Conventional data management systems guarantee consistency and, following from the above statement, can never make strong high availability guarantees. I believe this to be the essence of Web Scalability.

Do you have an opinion on web scalability? Leave a comment and let me and our readers know.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

LOL overload

I'm sure I'll get over it in a few weeks, but right now I can't get enough of these freaking lolcats. So imagine how hard I laughed when I looked at my grocery receipt this week:


Peoplewatching at the Googleplex

My report from my week in Mountain View wouldn't be complete without a big Hullo! to the folks who showed me such a great time while I was down there—so thanks to Ben (my mentor-for-a-week), Greg (for letting me lurk in his office), Brian & Katina for starting to clue me in to the landscape of search quality, Matt C for making me feel welcome, and an extra-special thanks to Matt S and Adam for, well, keeping me out of trouble. :-)

The timing of SMX couldn't have been better, in that I got to meet a bunch of Mountain Viewglers in Seattle the week before I went down to California for my training, so I had some familiar faces to look for. Between the champagne breakfast, the outdoor movie, and the evening of waltz and polka (most exhausting dance ever!), I'm definitely looking forward to the next time I have an excuse to go back.

I'm probably going to start sounding like a broken record saying this, but the coolest part of Google so far has definitely been the people I've met. Everyone has some surprising hidden talent (or two... or ten). Everyone has some endearing personality trait or quirk or interesting personal history. Those that blog always leave me wanting to read more. Like everyone else, I love hearing Matt's insights on search and technology; but I'm equally fascinated by how Adam writes so directly from the heart. Some Googlers blog so engagingly it's as if they were right there talking to you; others have gorgeous grammar and beautiful sentence structure (yes, I'm a language nerd!).

I'm still trying to figure out what kind of blogger I need to be. Obviously I'd like to contribute unique and useful content to the internet (goodness knows there's enough trash out there already!). But my best writing always tends to come out in informal media—journaling, letter-writing, etc. Perhaps I should just straw-poll you guys: would you rather read something affective or analytic? Quantitative or qualitative? "Life as a Googler" or "Life as a rollergirl-in-training"? :-)

Monday, June 18, 2007

My first week as a Googler

As many of you have heard already, after 9 months working as a contractor in internationalization testing at Google Kirkland, I've joined the Webmaster Central team as a Webmaster Trends Analyst. I've been doing i18n testing for Webmaster Tools for awhile, but I'm really excited to join the team full-time and to take on a role that lets me interact directly with our users and webmasters. My mission (should I choose to accept it) is basically to facilitate communication between Google and webmasters: to make sure that we're hearing what webmasters have to say (about search quality, Webmaster Tools, you name it), and to communicate out as much as possible so that Google doesn't feel as impenetrable as it used to.

As I make my way around the blogosphere I see a fair amount of posts on interviewing at Google, so I probably don't need to rehash that whole process (quick synopsis: I actually enjoyed most of my interviews for this position, which probably means it will be a good fit).

My first week was an interesting romp. One's first week as a full-timer is spent at the main Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, going through various trainings and learning about some of what makes Google tick. Having already been around for awhile, some of this was interesting to me and some was old news. The best part, I thought, was meeting new people down in Mountain View and seeing what the campus feels like. It certainly has a different feel from the Kirkland office: more collegiate, more bustling, more people working late, more people randomly wandering the halls or playing pool. Just more, I guess. Kirkland is a great location for anyone who wants to strike a sane balance between work + home life, but Mountain View certainly has that famous Googley feeling that everyone loves to talk about (ball pit, anyone?).

In Kirkland there are banks of snack bins in the hallways—cookies, chips, gum, etc.—free for the taking. In Mountain View they've left the healthy stuff out (fruits, granola bars, carrots + hummus) and put all the really good goodies in a vending machine in which the prices are based on how unhealthy each snack is for you: 1¢ for each gram of sugar, 2¢ for each gram of fat, etc. How clever is that?? It's like a double-deterrent from eating trash (it costs you, and it makes you conscious of how unhealthy what you're about to eat is).

I continue to be seriously impressed with my colleagues, especially those running the webmaster communications circuit (conferences, blogging, forums, etc.). And I'm talking about the Googlers you've never heard of, as well as those who have become mini-celebrities in the community. Most of them are just as amazing offline, if not moreso: they're engaged, they're thoughtful, they're smart, and they seriously care about what we're doing and about the impact that we (as a team) and they (individually) can have on people. I just hope that I can help continue to convey this to the outside world. How can a handful of people make hundreds of thousands of webmasters feel like we're listening and responding to each of them? (For anyone with an answer, by the way, that's not entirely a rhetorical question.) It's a big challenge and an incredibly important one.

Final note: unfortunately, my tenure w/ Webmaster Central begins just as Vanessa leaves us; but we'll be carrying on with the things that were important to her, and have big plans to continue growing the Tools and contributing to the community in ways that I'm sure she'd be proud of. Best luck, Vanessa, I hope you find what you're looking for at Zillow!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

eBay Developer Conference 2007, Boston

CNet News has some nice videos of Max Mancini, eBay's "Senior Director of Platform and Disruptive Innovation", speaking at the eBay developer conference in Boston.

It's always nice to see a successful company focusing on its core competency and working on improving access to that competency. And embracing developers at the same time. Lots of companies are trying to do this, the Facebook Platform comes to mind most recently. But let's not forget the Flickr Services API, Amazon AWS, Google Code, among many others.

It's pretty compelling to think that a business can focus on core architecture and let a distributed, unaffiliated developer community drive functionality, not to mention added value. And that's value for the core business, those distributed developers, and of course users too.

Now I just need to develop that killer mashup that combines eBay and Facebook. And I'll lay it on a map using Google Maplets. As long as it's on a map, I can throw in some data from the Trulia API, a la the slick, and much touted Trulia Hindsight. And run it all from Amazon AWS. Maybe I can plug into Everyscape too. Hmm... this all might be a little bit heavy weight. Perhaps I should start with a Pipes or Popfly lite edition first. And don't worry Google, once you open the Google Mashup Editor I'll be all over it :)

Have an opinion on open platforms, APIs, and distributed development? Want to share your killer idea? Post a comment, and let us and our readers know.