Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tracking Your Time with RescueTime

Attention data junkies: you use Quicken to see where your dollars and cents go, Google Analytics to see who visits your blog, and got the upgraded package in your car just to get the trip computer. Now, you can track how you spend your time on your computer and the internet with RescueTime.com. It keeps track of how much time you spend in various desktop apps, but it also tracks time on websites. You can see how much time you spend in GMail ("personal" time) vs. Google AdWords ("work" time).

I've been using it for a couple of weeks and it's been fun to see where my time goes. I was surprised that I don't actually spend much time during the day goofing off or reading industry news. Most of my time is spent in Outlook reading and sending email, with a lot of time spent in Excel as well.

The key to making RescueTime useful is the ability to tag sites so that you can see how your time is spent. Outlook might be tagged with "work" and "email" while GMail might be "personal" and "email". Add up all the different tasks marked as "work" and you can start to see how you spend your day.

The product is new and is being enhanced rapidly. Nevertheless, it's easy to think of features I wish it had: auto tagging of various websites using regular expression,, track computer idle time/screensaver time as a separate entry in the logs, be able to enable/disable automatically during various times so you can only track work hours, for example.

As for me, of the 5 hours I've spent in the office today, I've spent 40 minutes in Outlook, 35 minutes on Google, and 35 minutes working on AdWords campaigns in AdWords Editor. The hourly graph has a big dip where I went for a workout (and the computer was idle). Nice.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Running Route

Been playing with Google Maps, and created a route of the run I've been doing the last week or so. I want to run the 5 mile Gallop and Gorge race Thanksgiving morning, and needed to go on a couple of training runs. It's a good 3.8 mile loop, pretty well lit, with sidewalks on the entire path. That's useful since much of it is through downtown Carrboro, and I've been running at night.

View Larger Map
For those not running (that would be the other person reading this blog), I hope you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Much Ado About Click Fraud?

I just uploaded a post to ChannelAdvisor's blog about click fraud in paid search marketing; what it is, where it comes from, and what to do about it. Here's an excerpt but check out the full post for all the details.

Fraudulent clicks can kill a search engine marketing program. Costs can skyrocket, and for the on-line retailer, revenue goes nowhere. Most of my clients worry about it, and it's tough to impossible to get a complete understanding of the size or scope of the actual problem.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Liberals are More Smarter

According to a recently published study, liberals are now definitely conclusively and obviously smarter than conservatives. I read it in the newspaper. It must be true.

Unfortunately, the actual study in question was so narrow in scope as to be practically meaningless. According to the LA Times, liberals were more likely to do the Right Thing (that is, a politically correct, and therefore, liberal thing) when confronted by a "W" on a computer screen. Strange, considering that it is the conservatives who are so infatuated with the letter that they put a "W" sticker on their cars.

I'm all for believing that liberals have smarter brains than conservatives. Now the question is, are we smart enough to win back the Oval Office?


Friday, September 07, 2007

Parenting Advice from Burke, Hobbes, Sowell, and Woodlief

My buddy Tony Woodlief has been productive since our college days, having produced a PhD and 4 boys with his wife Celeste. He also writes about life as a parent in the modern age while quoting great thinkers and philosophers. Though his tone is quite critical of many modern parenting theories, he's also quite well read and funny to boot. I bought his short pamphlet, "Raising Wild Boys into Men" and enjoyed that. Today, he made the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, where he waxes thusly on parental permissiveness:
Many parents in the unconstrained camp adhere to Rousseau's sentiment: "Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains." They not only fail to punish bad behavior but snarl at anyone who rebukes their precious darlings. In our house we have reversed Rousseau's theory: You are born in bondage and should be darn grateful for the free room and board. Besides, if you want to talk about restrictions on liberty you can take it up with your mother, who hasn't had an uninterrupted trip to the bathroom since 2001.

Worth a read!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

What He Did Last Summer

My brother Brett was involved in a cool art project at Burning Man this year. He spent much of the summer helping to disassemble, then weld, machine, grind, and generally construct a large installation of two tanker trucks.

I visited the American Steel building in Oakland where the construction was taking place. It was noisy and dusty, but sculpture artist Mike Ross and crew were close to completion and planning the trip to the desert:

You could also climb through the structures.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Book Review: The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil

Interesting prognostications from a great inventor and thinker. In Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, he argues that by the year 2030, we will have computers that are as smart as humans, nanobots that can cure disease and eliminate aging, and we will transcend biology to mesh with technology. His evidence essentially stems from what he perceives as the accelerating pace of computation and knowledge until we reach the Singularity, the point where our creations are smarter than us and can enhance our abilities. While the evidence that the development of some technologies and knowledge are accelerating, it seems that we are really at the beginning of our pursuit of nano technology, manipulating genetics, and robotics. Further, it appears that our current understanding of these advanced technologies is so crude that it will be quite awhile before we can do some of the things that Kurzweil imagines.

Reading the book, you get the sense that some of Kurzweil's optimism stems from his fear of death and aging. He pops more than 250 supplements a day to try to slow the aging process so his baby boomer body will survive until the advances he predicts are available.

He also has a section devoted to the Singulitarian movement, which feels like a neo New Age, post-theology view of the utopia of the technology future. After a few pages, I gave the rest of it a miss.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Uncle Bruce, 1939 - 2007

My Uncle Bruce was my father's little brother, and as kids they were thick as thieves. If there was mischief to get into, they found a way to get into it. They grew up in a different era, where toughness and friendship were king. Bruce was the smaller of the two, but the way my dad tells it, the one you didn't want to mess with. The two of them always stuck together and when Bruce did manage to get in over his head, he pulled my dad in. Those two were very close growing up. It's for this reason that I know it has been really hard on my father to watch his little brother struggle with cancer the last four years.

He was a tough guy who sometimes had a short fuse. But I never saw that side of him. You didn't want to cross him, but he had patience of a sort for me and my brother, even when we were little kids.

Not everyone fared so well and he'd be quick to let you know when you stepped over the line. Bruce was married once or twice, and had a lot of female companions over the years. About a year ago, while he was still feeling pretty good, one of them had been staying over at his house on a regular basis. Now my Uncle Bruce never slept much, and he would wake up and start work very early; he was often out the door by 4am. One day he came home to discover that his new friend had moved some of her clothes into one of his closets. Bruce did not take to this. When she came home from work, all of her clothes had been dumped in the yard. The message was clear - you can be a part of my life, but not all of my life.

And Bruce had a lot of friends and spent a lot of time with them, whether it was ice fishing in the winter in the Adirondacks, or hanging out in his favorite bars. My father and he saw things differently that way. My dad has always put family first, but Bruce never had time for a family. He did, however, have quite a lot of friends.

Bruce talked fast. He didn't tell long stories, and didn't much want to reminisce, even at the end. He liked to get to the point, and move on. He wanted to know how you were doing and what you were up to. After that, it was time for another beer. He kept his struggles to himself mostly; even my dad didn't know that he had cancer until several years after Bruce was diagnosed, and the exact type of cancer and the fact that it was incurable and terminal was not known until about a year ago.

Uncle Bruce passed away last night in his sleep. He was 67.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Affordable Modern Housing

Modern home design is unfortunately, usually a high-end affair for the rich and posh amongst us. Take a magazine like Dwell, for example. They feature some really great design and innovative techniques and technology. Unfortunately, it's really more of a Architecture Digest for the modern crowd than anything useful for designing or building your own home. The ads, typically one of the most useful parts of a design mag, feature high-end designer Italian kitchens, and $4000 sofas. No thanks. Dwell will occasionally stoop to writing an article about "affordable" home design, but it's pretty clear their hearts aren't in it. The affordable modern home is typically extremely small and built/designed by the owner. Or they might just suggest that $200/sq ft is affordable in someplace that isn't L.A. In another one of their stories, the happy homeowners had spent thousands on stainless steel appliances from Viking or Wolf or similar. But they professed the need to watch their budget, and they were so proud of themselves for saving money by buying $20 bar stools.

Affordable modern furnishings can be had from a few places, and as I've mentioned before, two of my favorite haunts are IKEA and Target. But what to do about the actual home?

It was with great interest that I read recently about IKEA's partnership to build affordable modern homes, called BoKlok (pronounced BOO klook). They've been doing it in Scandinavia for some years, and have recently expanded to the English language world by partnering with LiveSmart@Home in the UK. The homes have a Scandinavian style, and are of course loaded up with IKEA furnishing and fixtures, but more importantly, they are AFFORDABLE. In the UK, they are targeting familes in the $35K to $70K income range. That's middle income America, if the homes were ever to make it here. There are several different styles, like the single family home pictured above, but also apartment buildings and townhouses.

They all feature many of the hallmarks of modern design: clean lines, natural materials, energy efficiency, and multi-use spaces.

One aspect of Boklok that makes it affordable doing some of the construction in a factory, that is pre-fab. Pre-fab is not the same as a manufactured home, such as a mobile home. The pieces of a pre-fab home are built in a factory, then shipped to the home site where they are assembled. A pre-fab home minimizes waste, takes advantage of assembly line techniques, and eliminates exposure to the weather. But the construction materials and specs can be the same as with a site built home.

All I want to know now is, when can I get one?


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

On Home Construction

This project is wrapping up. I'm living in the house now.

Periodically someone asks me if being the general contractor on this renovation has been hard. Well, it's not hard like quantum physics is hard. And it isn't hard like running a marathon. And it definitely isn't as hard as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It's more that it is time-consuming. And it requires organization. And lots of patience. And perseverance. Coming from the IT industry, the speed at which I get things done at work is more or less limited by the speed at which I work. In construction, you spend a lot of time waiting around. It's not necessarily someone's fault, though sometimes it is. Sometimes you are waiting in the car as you drive to the local DIY big box store. Or you are on the phone on hold. Or you are waiting on contractors. Whoever said patience is a virtue was thinking of home construction.

The actual process is very well known and for the most part well documented. Check out a good book from the library and you'll have the basics down in an evening. Most of the contractors I've worked with know what their role is, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of tasks where everyone points fingers and says it is someone else's job. The rub is when the contractors don't hold up their end of the bargain. I looked around and tried to find good subs, just like all the books tell you to. And for the most part it worked out pretty well. But when you get a bad apple, or just a disorganized, poor planning, late arriving apple, it makes things a lot less fun. And it really sucks if you get someone incompetent. That's infuriating. So check references. Or better yet, hire someone who has worked with someone you know and trust.

If you are just going to be the general contractor, and not do any of the work yourself, figure you're going to need to spend an hour or so a day working on the project. I typically went by the house every morning, and frequently in the evenings. Many of my lunch breaks were spent calling contractors, surfing home construction sites, or shopping. Lowe's and Home Depot really love me. There was some weekend work, and the trips to IKEA took some time.

I suppose my biggest mistake of doing this myself and for the first time was an inability to properly gauge the cost of the renovation. I did create a spreadsheet at the beginning to scope out my costs. But in large part because the scope of the project expanded so rapidly in the early months, but also because I didn't have the experience to accurately estimate all the little things that add up to a whole lot, the budget expanded quite a bit.

Here are just a few examples of things I didn't put in the original budget: dumpster rental and waste disposal fees, shoe moldings, new interior and exterior doors, and a couple of new windows. There's more, but it gives me a stomachache if I think about it too much. If this had been a new construction, the costs would have been much, much, more predictable. The variables in a renovation are caused by deciding what exactly needs to be renovated.

There were some disappointments too. I had to tear down the old fireplace and chimney. It was too unstable to leave up. There were things that didn't fit the budget such as an intricately patterned wood floor or an energy recycling ventilator. The book Freakonomics tells us that houses with the words "granite countertop" in the real estate listings sell for more money. So that would have been nice too.

There are also a few things left to complete. Luis is installing gutters this week. The exterior still needs to be painted. And I'd like to get a deck built too. But for all practical purposes, the renovation is complete. The rest is just icing. Now is a great time to go back and see what it all looked like when I started. It's kind of an amazing transformation. Follow this link. I'll wait.

In the end, I'm really happy with how things turned out. The house is completely new on the inside, everything was done the way I wanted it, and I've turned a well worn old bungalow into an up-to-date house with a modern twist.

I'd do it again.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Much Has Changed

Again, I haven't blogged about the house in awhile, and much has changed. The kitchen is largely done now and you can see the high-tech high-gloss red cabinets and white appliances. Just don't touch cause they smudge and scratch. The plumbing, electrical, and HVAC finals are complete.

The family room even has a TV, though it only has one chair, no curtains, and cardboard on the floor protecting the bamboo from the remaining construction activities. Sounds low rent, but before there was a chair, there was only a paint bucket! Yeah, we stood up and cheered for the Heels during basketball games. Needless to say, it was a small crowd.

And there is the master bathroom. It's sporting the latest in fashion colors and materials. The fashionistas in Paris are all "Ooh la la".

The house is now dangerously close to being completed. It's kind of ready to be lived in, if it wasn't for the incredible amounts of dust and dirt and tools everywhere.