Jun 08

How to view full WSJ articles for free

The Wall Street Journal is a pretty good resource for business news. I say “pretty good” because it has an annoying pay wall and it’s now owned by Rupert Murdoch, who I find tacky (Fox News, regardless of its politics, is lowest common denominator viewing). I do have to wonder about the profit margins on newspaper advertising if a business like the WSJ can’t reliably make enough money selling advertising on its own site that is relies on a subscription model. Maybe this is just a testament to the success of its subscription model?

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Jun 08

Free books for the Kindle

A while back I broke down and bought the Amazon Kindle, which I love. I have been waiting for a perfect ebook reader since I would like to get rid of any material possessions that are not necessary. Let’s face it, books are pretty useless unless you’re actively reading them. Books are an inefficient medium in that they are heavy and take up a lot of space.

One of my goals is to reduce my material possessions to the absolute minimum. Like many people I no longer own CD’s for music (having sold them several years ago), but I have also been scanning in all paper records and photos and have sold a lot of furniture and junk on Craigslist. I would eventually like to get to the point where my possessions consist of: a car, some clothing, computing tools, and a few personal effects.

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May 08

No more Exchange: MilkSync for Blackberry

Remember the Milk!A while back I ditched Microsoft Exchange to save some money, which made it more difficult to sync my PIM between my desktop and handheld. Even though I liked having everything synced through Exchange, the cost was annoying for something so simple. With basic Blackberry service you get your email quickly, so it seemed like overkill to pay $20 extra a month just to sync tasks, calendars, contacts, etc. Shortly thereafter, Google released a nice Blackberry app to sync Google Calendar to the Blackberry Calendar, which replaced the Exchange calendar syncing for free. After that, the only thing missing from Exchange was synced contacts and synced tasks.

A few weeks ago, the folks at Remember the Milk were nice enough to build a new Blackberry app to sync your RtM tasks with your Blackberry. MilkSync effectively costs $25 a year since you have to have a pro membership to use the app. It’s worth it.

Now the only thing missing is Exchange-less over-the-air syncing of your Blackberry contacts. You can get contact data if your contacts are in Gmail using the Gmail mobile app, but it doesn’t sync with the Blackberry Address Book. Hopefully, Google will release a tool to do this.

Google will sell a lot of phones if they release similar tools for the Android platform.

Mar 08

Google Book Search a joy for antiquarians

Google Book Search is a project that exemplifies Google’s vision for information. For the past few years they’ve worked with various libraries and universities to digitize books, periodicals, and journals that might otherwise have remained untouched in their collections. Each resource is scanned by hand and rendered into indexable text. For older works whose copyrights have lapsed, you may read the entire thing online. Even for books under copyright, Google Book Search is a good way to search the contents of published works and is a great supplement to the usual search engine results for many research topics. Over the past few months, I’ve come across several books I might have paid for available online via Google Book Search. For any older books, this is now the first place I check. Here are a couple good books you may read online. They’re mostly aphorisms or concise wisdom, so it should be good for casual reading:

  1. The Maxims of Cháṇákya: The Maxims of Cháṇákya are an interesting record of thought by an early Indian statesman.
  2. The Maxims of Francis Guicciardini by Francesco Guicciardini. Practical and political philosophy by a contemporary of Machiavelli, the historian Guicciardini.
  3. The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus, a Roman Slave: From the Latin
  4. Maxims and Moral Reflections by François La Rochefoucauld

Feb 08

Quick tip: Cheap unlimited cellphone plan

I’m with T-mobile, so your mileage may vary.

Step 1: Sign up for T-mobile’s MyFaves plan. This allows you unlimited calling to five telephone numbers. These numbers may be in-network or out-of-network. In other words, they can be any five phone numbers.

Step 2: Sign-up for a free Google Grand Central Account and phone number. Grand Central allows you to receive calls at any phone via one number. It’s basically a free hosted PBX system with some nice extras.

Step 3: Forward all your inbound Grand Central calls to your MyFaves phone. In the Grand Central settings have all your inbound calls routed to your cell.

Step 4: Add your Grand Central number to your MyFaves plan as a “fave”. Any calls to and from your Grand Central number will fall under your MyFaves unlimited calling plan. With Grand Central you can make outbound calls by clicking a link in Grand Central, which will initiate the call and then will ring your phone to connect you.

Step 5: Give your Grand Central number to friends and family. Any calls to your Grand Central number will forward to your cellphone and will be calculated as unlimited calls.

Step 6: Profit!! (Well, not profit, but savings.)

Feb 08

Using AdWords for Keyword Monitoring

Keyword monitoringOne thing that’s difficult in search engine marketing is finding good data on search traffic: how often a keyword phrase is searched, how one keyword phrase compares to another in total search volume, how well your competitor is doing relative to you, etc. There’s no real way to get this from the search engines in any usable form as this is essentially their secret sauce. Google has a service called Google Trends where you can compare the relative strength of one keyword to another, but, as far as I know, Google does not provide the public with exact data on the number of searches for say, “hot tamale” or “Chris Sivori” (that’s me).

However, if you’re willing to risk a little money, you can use AdWords to monitor particular search phrases. For example, a while back I started an AdWords campaign to monitor searches for both “chris sivori” and “sivori”. I was curious as to how many times my name popped up in a search. Obviously, it wouldn’t be that often as I’m far from notable, but this made it an even more compelling idea as I would be likely to know whoever would be searching.

Here’s what you do to start monitoring your desired search terms:

  1. Create your campaign. Create an AdWords campaign and uninteresting ads (remember, you don’t necessarily want clickthroughs) for the search terms you want to monitor. Be advised, that popular search terms could result in you losing some money.
  2. Set an acceptable budget. Set your daily budget low enough to where if you suddenly get tons of clickthroughs you won’t lose a lot of money. My daily budget is $1.00 (the lowest you can budget), so the worst I can lose is $30 a month. Usually, it comes out to around $2.00 or so a month.
  3. Check the results. After a few days, log in to your AdWords account and view the impressions for every keyword your tracking. In this case, an impression is any time your ad appears. If your ad bid is competitive it is likely to appear for every instance of a search for your keyword phrases, so the number of impressions will give you a good idea of the total search volume for the keyword phrases you would like to track.

Keyword monitoring with this method will obviously work best with unpopular phrases. Obviously, if you wanted to track a popular keyword, you could spend a lot of money and burn through impressions pretty quickly without necessarily getting an idea of the total search volume. Another complication is that Google seems to mess with the default bids to keep people from using AdWords purely for this purpose. I’ve noticed that two equally inconsequential keyword phrases can have wildly different default bids. If I remember correctly, Google has a certain threshold for bids if the keyword is unlikely to be searched to prevent people from placing a bunch of five cent bids on long-tail keywords.

Other applications of this method:

  1. Track the competition. Imagine you’re working for the McCain campaign, for example, and you want to stay abreast of interest in Mike Huckabee. You could place an ad luring Huckabee supporters to your site from searches for “mike huckabee”, “huckabee”, etc. while also using the impressions data to gauge changes in interest in this candidate. If you monitored your AdWords impressions, you might be able to see a sudden peak in searches, which might indicate growing interest. If you used this method with geographically targeted PPC ads, you could monitor interest levels over time in various battleground states, for instance.
  2. See who’s clicking the ads. If you Google Analytics and add campaign tracking variables to the URL’s in your ads, you should be able to tie a particular ad clickthrough to a specific IP address, which will allow you to further drill down into the source of your clickthroughs and will provide information as to the time of day and specific information about the user including browser type, OS, screen resolution, ISP, company name, etc.
  3. Reverse stalking. Monitoring your own name can be useful in certain situations. If your name is Google-able, you might see a pick up in searches following job interviews, client meetings, conferences, etc. It can be eye opening to see how many times someone Googles you. I welcome the transparency, although I hope I never do anything I have to worry about showing up online.

Got any other ideas? Suggestions? Leave a comment and let me know.

Feb 08

Knowing when to cut your losses

I’ve noticed a fair amount of traffic coming in on the search phrase “NCSoft layoffs”. The destination is a post I wrote a while back about the last NCSoft layoff on the back of a disappointing Auto Assault launch.

Regular layoffs are a fact of life in the hit-or-miss world of video game development, and I wondered if people in the company were worried about head cutting as this typically happens in the spring and fall. Curious, I searched around and found a report by the Korea Times (later repudiated by the company as inaccurate) that alleges that serious changes are in store for NCSoft’s Austin development studio as a result of the disappointing performance of Tabula Rasa, a game that took over three years to produce. To give you some idea, the typical development cycle for a large scale video game is eighteen months. So, to have a game slip repeatedly and then disappoint in the marketplace is a certain justification for trimming the budget.

It would be easy to play armchair quarterback and second guess decisions made, but since I’ve never been responsible for a large-scale project it’s not my place. I have a lot of respect for anyone that can spearhead a game development project of the scale required for a successful MMO (for example, World of Warcraft has 10 million subscribers). It does bring up an interesting question for companies and investors, however. When a project starts missing deadlines, runs over budget, requires multiple trips “back to the drawing board”, how do you know when to cut your losses? Is it a good idea to give project leaders a second chance or is it more effective to bring in new leadership?

Dec 07

Google makes for a better Blackberry

Research in Motion (the company that makes the Blackberry) should stay on its toes. While I think there is room for multiple companies and I love the Blackberry, they need to keep innovating in order to compete in a market that now includes Apple’s iPhone and eventually some Google Android-based products. I hope every company who makes smartphones is losing sleep over the competition. That fear will drive innovation.

Both Apple and Google represent a new breed of competitor far different from Microsoft, Nokia, Palm, or any of the other incumbents in the field. They are companies with Vision and, more importantly, companies with the resources to realize their Vision. Everyone can dream up radical ideas and strategies, but few can execute them.

While Apple is making serious inroads with the iPhone, Google is the company everyone should worry about because they can touch everyone else without trying to get a slice of the same highly-contested pie. Leaving aside their Android project (a free smartphone OS), let’s look at what they do.

Even though the iPhone is closed to other third-party applications, Google provides native software for the iPhone (Google maps and a special YouTube-viewing application). They also provide downloadable apps for every other smartphone platform. On my Blackberry for example, I regularly use five different Google applications: the Google Maps for Mobile app with My Location (instead of Blackberry Maps or GPS), the Google Talk IM client, the Gmail app, Google Mobile Sync (which syncs the Blackberry Calendar and the Google Calendar. I use this now instead of Blackberry Enterprise Server and Microsoft Exchange, which has saved me $30 a month), and Google Mobile Updater (which checks for new versions of Google Software). This is not including the website I visit the most via the Blackberry web browser: Google Reader.

The truth is, Google improves my Blackberry experience. I don’t know if that should make Research in Motion or Apple nervous, but it is definitely significant.

Leaving aside any speculation on their plans for the 700 Mhz spectrum auction or the potential success of Android, it is not difficult to imagine that Google might eventually be the most important company in the smartphone universe by continuing to provide better and better tools to as many people as possible.

Dec 07

Google Calendar as memory

I’ve been attending to my finances in my typical feast or famine fashion. I sat down and looked through my records after ignoring everything for a few weeks… checked my accounts, analyzed earning / spending and tried to see where I can cut costs. I have two checking accounts (one business and one personal), two savings accounts, and a handful of different brokerage accounts (partly due to having a few different 401k plans over the years and partly from chasing after the lowest commissions). As a result, the process can get complicated.

One thing I discovered is that I had some additional charges on my cellphone bill due to receiving a bunch of text messages from a few people I’ve been following in Twitter. (This was a case of poetic justice as I unfairly maligned Twitter in the past.)

To avoid future surprises, I signed up for a bulk messaging package ($5 a month). Then I called to have the plan applied retroactively so I could save forty bucks on my past bill. Many people would not have done this, but I enjoy negotiating.

The whole point of this is that I found another nice use for Google Calendar. Normally after such a conversation, I might make a note of who I talked to and what was the outcome, so I could safely forget all about it. This time I dropped an entry into Google Calendar and included all the relevant information. If I need to reference the event down the line, I can use Google Calendar’s search function. As Ron Popeil might say, “Set it and forget it.”

Dec 07

You don’t need GPS

If I made a list of all the things I wanted for Christmas, it would include two items. A new laptop and a GPS receiver. Unfortunately, the laptop is a little more necessary.

There was some good news last week that made everything better. Google released a really cool update to Google Maps. Now that Google has released a new version of Google Maps for mobile devices (with My Location), I can do 70% of what I would do with a standard GPS receiver (Garmin, TomTom, etc.) on my Blackberry, which, unlike most other gadgets, I always have with me. Using this new version of Google Maps I can determine my position to within a few hundred meters; close enough for things like driving directions and finding the nearest Starbucks. The Google Maps application does this by using your cellphone to figure out where you are in relation to the nearest cell towers. It works very similar to GPS in that instead of determining position by triangulation against orbital satellites, it just asks your phone where the nearest cell towers are and figures it out from there.

Google was nice enough to put together an informative video about how it works: