HuffDuffer – The best tool that probably nobody knows

If you like podcasts, keep reading. If you don’t, you can stop here – the rest is probably not interesting for you.

Have you ever received a YouTube link to a talk that you wanted to watch, but never got around to it? Or did somebody recommend you this one episode of a podcast, but you didn’t want to subscribe to the entire podcast? HuffDuffer is a service that let’s you pinpoint interesting MP3 files so that they are automatically downloaded with your normal podcasting app. Here’s how it works:

  1. You find a link to the episode or YouTube talk that you’d like to listen to at a later time.
  2. You use a handy bookmarklet to pinpoint HuffDuffer to the file.
  3. That file is now added to your podcast and will be automatically downloaded by your podcasting app.

The service does a lot more and it does take a bit of time to set it up, but it is well worth the time investment. By the way, once you have set it up, here are the instructions to add the audio tracks of YouTube or Vimeo videos.

Give it a go here.

Tech Shabbat – Going offline for a day

Short disclaimer: I’m not a religious person and I’m not Jewish. So, I hope I don’t offend anybody with this post. But I think the concept is so good that I’d like to share it.

A couple of months ago, I listened to an OnBeing episode where Krista Tippet interviewed Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards. In that episode Tiffany mentioned something she calls Tech Shabbat. It applies the concept of Shabbat as the day of rest for technology. It’s pretty simple: on Friday at sunset you turn off all your devices and only turn them on at sunset on Saturday. For our purposes we defined devices as phones, computers, tablets and TV. We allowed  kindles without wifi and old-school iPods.

This arrangement creates some interesting constraints on your life:

  • You’re suddenly disconnected, i.e. if somebody wants to reach you, they have to come around to your house – no email, no phone, no Snapchat, no WhatsApp. You are only available to the people around you, which removes the feature of your brain that is constantly scanning whether somebody wants to reach you.
  • You don’t have access to an abundant world where everything is available at your fingertips. No more 30 million songs on Spotify, 40 million articles on Wikipedia or billions of interesting articles on the Internet.
  • You have to plan ahead and get creative. Since you are no longer able to coordinate with other people as you go, you have to arrange time in advance and then stick to the plan – no last minute changes.

We greatly enjoy tech Shabbat whenever we commit to it. Time suddenly expands. All those little moments that are sucked up by a quick check of email or Twitter, are suddenly empty. You mind slows down and takes a well-deserved rest. It’s like a day-long mindfulness meditation. A Jewish friend recently described Shabbat as a block at the of the week that allows you to slow down, take rest and reflect. It prevents life from becoming a constant blur, where everything flows and becomes indistinguishable. Tech Shabbat seems like the light version of it, as I noticed that I’m definitely more present during those 24 hours.

The other aspect I greatly enjoy are the constraints that tech Shabbat imposes. To listen to music, I had to dig up my old iPod and connect it to a pair of speakers. It was nice to rediscover old playlists and albums. When we met with friends, we had to print out the map in advance. Normally I’m totally reliant on Google Maps navigating me through the world. Reading a paper map was a nice challenge. Uber is no longer an option and I had to figure out the public bus system for certain trips. People often say that creativity thrives on constraints and I can say that I get a lot more ideas on Tech Shabbat.

Most people I’ve told about this experiment are intrigued, but also commented that they wouldn’t be able to do it. We don’t do it every week, but I can highly recommend it and encourage anybody to at least give it a try. It’s only 24 hours and  afterwards you get back into the connected world.

Tiffany produced a short video explaining Tech Shabbats in more detail. Have a look and find your courage to give it a try. It’s worth it.

Photo credit: Andrew Huff via / CC BY-NC

The Internet History Podcast

What an amazing treasure trove of goodness. The Internet History Podast is dedicated to telling the story of the Internet, organised in chapters like Netscape and the start of the Internet era, Microsoft gets the Internet, Online services, … The episodes are a mix of narrative (similar to audio books) and interviews with people of the era. 

I started somewhere in the middle with an interview with Jan Brandt, the lady who led AOL’s marketing. She came up with the idea to spread first floppy discs and later CDs to promote AOL. It’s an amazing interview giving insights into how difficult it was to convince non-tech people in the 90ies how amazing the Internet was. Little fun fact: At some point AOL used 50% of the global CD production capacity for their CDs. 

While I found it weird that I haven’t heard of this podcast before, I’m happy to be able to binge on more than 100+ episodes and I’m very much looking forward to it. 

AI, Apple and Google

Ben Evans writing a highly insightful piece on the current state of artificial intelligence, machine learning and how Google and Apple approach the topic. Evans offers a definition of the term  “technology”, that I find most helpful:

“That is, technology is in a sense anything that hasn’t been working for very long. We don’t call electricity technology, nor a washing machine a robot, and you could replace “is that AI or just computation?” with “is that technology or just engineering?””

It’s a very good read with and I recommend it to anybody interested in the field. If you don’t want to invest the time, just skip to the last paragraph, which offers a good summary.

Keep calm and carry on

If you haven’t spent the last 24 hours under a rock, you know by now that the UK voted to leave the European Union. Living in Australia, it was easy to follow the vote count live. At the beginning it was a nail-biter, but early in the afternoon it was clear that ‘Leave’ got the majority.

Born and raised in Germany, the European Union was always a given for me. I can barely remember ever using my passport for inner-continental travel. My first full-time pay-check was in Euros. While I’ve never been in business, directly benefiting from EU trade reliefs, I always assumed and felt that it was a good thing. Working together across countries makes everybody better off. Even celebrations like the Eurovision Song Contest were part of bringing nations closer together creating solidarity.

Beyond free travel, I tremendously benefited from the EU. I was raised by two loving parents, my father a policeman, my mother a nurse. We’ve never been wealthy, but there was always more than enough. Given free education in Germany, I was able to go to university and by means of an Erasmus grant I was able to study free of charge for a year in London. It was an amazing year that allowed me to live in the middle of London and immerse myself not only in the British culture, but even more in the mixed company of other Erasmus students from France, Denmark, Spain, Italy and many other countries.

My parents were especially very grateful for this year. They’ve told me many times that in this one year I became more open to other people’s opinions and matured into a much more positive human being, more friendly and kinder.

So, while I saw the results coming in yesterday, I became sadder and sadder. I will probably be able to let my children spend time abroad and experience foreign cultures, but I’m worried that other people might no longer be able to afford the privileges I enjoyed.

It just seems paradoxical to me. Technology makes it easier to connect with people across borders and continents. Out of Australia I can call my parents in Germany using FaceTime virtually free of charge anytime I want to. I can send them messages and pictures and let them participate in my life. Distance and borders become less and less of an issue to stay in touch. However, at the same time in many countries, both East and West of the Atlantic, voices become louder to protect borders and national interests, to no longer work together, but rather use tactics of fear, uncertainty and doubt. I still don’t understand why.

Yesterday, the world grew a little smaller and at some point I just had to stop reading Twitter and news sites. I’m sad for the European Union and hope that the UK’s example will be a wake up call for the rest of the EU to not take the EU’s privileges for granted, but rather nurture the idea of collaboration, openness and understanding.

But for now, I’m going to follow the British motto to “keep calm and carry on”, still believing in the idea of the European Union that working together is better than working alone.

Photo credit: Free Grunge Textures – via DIYlovin / CC BY

Writing well, often

I very much believe in the power of good writing. As such I admire the good work of companies like Mailchimp and Slack to promote good writing that is more approachable. Hence I was delighted when Anna Pickard started publishing some of Slack’s content style guide and writing principles. They follow Mailchimp’s great work, who published their voice and tone style guide already last year.

At work me and my team started writing a monthly newsletter. It started out as a mailing just for the broader team to help us understand what everybody else is working on. However, people enjoyed reading it and started sharing. Now we have a group of family and friends throughout the organisation that loves reading this newsletter every month. Although it might seem insignificant, it is one of the highlights of my job. It is a chance to connect with people, find out what they are working on and spread the good news. The newsletter is very different from other corporate emails, as we aim to write it in very accessible language (thank you Mailchimp and Slack for setting such good examples). We spend a good amount of time to get it right, and people appreciate it.

When I saw Anna speak earlier this year at Webstock, it clicked with me, why it was so hard and how we can make our job easier: Each month we were trying to figure out how to write a good newsletter from scratch, based on our experience. And even worse, we all did it individually. As a result, writing the newsletter took a lot of time and effort to make it sound right with good content and a consistent voice. We needed to reflect on what people love about the newsletter, why they read it despite their own email overload and write it down. This helps February-Michael be as good as January-Michael, and James write with the same passion as Elizabeth and vice versa.

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