Monday, May 31, 2004

So what is that little laptop in The New York Times article?

Last Thursday, The New York Times ran an article by Katie Hafner under the headline:

For Some, the Blogging Never Stops

The article featured me and my blogging habits, including a photo of me blogging by the pool in Key West. Since the article came out, I've received a number of queries from friends and strangers. Let me try to address them.

-- What the heck is that little laptop?

It's a Sony Picturebook. I bought it in October 2001, right after 9/11, because I had a speaking gig in the Netherlands (in Maastricht, conference by First Monday) and didn't want to haul a lot of hardware with me.

-- So if I want a really portable laptop, is that what I should buy?

That's a really hard question. First off, I love my Picturebook. I think it represents outstanding engineering. But I don't think Sony markets it in the US anymore. And I think today the Picturebook and Sony's followons may not be the best choice, though the logical heir, the VAIO TR3AP3, is a damn sexy looking critter.

If I were buying today, I'd look seriously at IBM's Thinkpad X series. I've always loved the keyboards on the Thinkpads I've had -- wow, can it be, I've had four Thinkpads? And the newest X series offering, the X40, gets weight down to the 3 pound range, which is barely a heavier than my little Picturebook. That pound buys a lot, including a 12.1 inch screen and a full size keyboard. I've never met a laptop keyboard that equals what I've found on Thinkpads.

-- How the heck did this article come about? Did the reporter find you blogging by the pool in Key West?

Um, no. It was the other way around. I had contacted the reporter, Katie Hafner, to give her a news tip. She asked, as any good reporter would, if I'd told anyone else about it. I told her no, that it was in my blog, but no one reads my blog. She thought that was pretty strange. I told her "It's worse than that; I write for money for Searcher and my editor caught me blogging instead of meeting deadlines."

So Katie's article is about why one blogs for no personal benefit. The article mushroomed into a piece about obsessive blogging. Somehow the piece migrated to above the fold on the Circuits page, and they decided they wanted a photo to tell the story. The Times hired the main photographer for the Key West Citizen, who came up with the idea of a geek typing away madly poolside while everyone else relaxes -- and you should be relaxing during a Key West vacation.

-- Wait a minute! I blog a lot more than you do! Why does the article paint you as obsessive? I'm much more obsessive!

First off, congratulations on your obsessive blogging. I once tormented a friend by telling him he was the second most competitive person I know.

Again, the genesis of the article was the idea of someone wasting time blogging for no audience and for no money, when he could write for real recompense. I am not competing for the most obsessive blogger title -- though the fact remains that I think about what to post in my blog when I could be doing much more profitable things.

-- Were you really on the toilet blogging the morning of your anniversary?

Sigh. I knew The Times piece about blogging was coming out soon, and I woke up with an idea for a blog entry. I tried typing on my Picturebook in the darkness, but that wasn't gonna work. I thought of turning the lights on, but I didn't want to wake my wife up. This was a simple (but nice) motel room in Key West, not a suite. So I went into the bathroom so I'd have enough light to see the keyboard.


Thursday, May 27, 2004

Memo to Sony: How to Create a Photo Marketplace a la Ebay

Johnny Carson once joked about an all-you-can-eat Italian restaurant. Sure, the joint is all-you-can-eat, but if you order too much, a big tough guy named Vito comes over and tells you "OK, buddy, that's all you can eat!" Sony's Imagestation Web site offers an all-you-can-store archive for your digital photos. I now store over three gigabytes of digital photos on, and I dread the moment when a Sony storage enforcer grabs me by the nape of my digital neck and says "OK, buddy, that's all you can store!"

But that day hasn't come yet. My three gigs of online storage don't cost me a single red cent. To be precise, Imagestation now graciously hosts 3233 megabytes, and 2446 images, for me -- at zero cost.

Well, actually, not exactly. Sony doesn't charge to store photos on Imagestation, and they say the storage quota is unlimited. Still, I have spent a fair amount of money ordering my own artwork from Sony. They sell physical manifestations of your digital images, and I've ordered prints, enlargements, mousepads, and even a photo cake.

That's Imagestation's bread and butter: you sit at home -- or on the road -- and snap digital photos; you upload for free, and Sony hopes you and your pals will order physical photos in various formats.

All well and good. But Sony's missing the boat in a very important way.

Every time you post images to Imagestation, they ask if you want to allow others to order prints from your collection. The choice is binary: either strangers can order prints of your photos, or they can't. Wrong! Instead of "yes or no" the question should be "How much?"

In the business world, if you need an image of a person using wireless Internet access, or a photo of a cat eating tuna, you turn to a stock photography site. I first learned about stock photography back in the 70s when I encountered Image Bank. The late 80s brought CD-ROMs of cheap stock photos. The 90s brought stock photography Web sites such as

Today, millions of people have digital images to share. Sure, most of those photos are junk. But digital cameras are wonderful gadgets, and not every casual photographer is a tyro. Millions of people possess digital photos that millions of others might covet.

Sony has tried to make Imagestation a sort of community of photographers. You file your photo albums by categories that others can search and browse, and you can enter photo contests.

What's missing is the ability to sell your photos. Maybe that shot of a sunset in Key West or that foggy day at Hearst Castle is exactly what someone else seeks. They might want the image as a personal mememto, or perhaps they need an image for an industrial application.

So here's the idea, Sony: let me set a price for each photo. You want a copy of that photo of Yahoo advertising in Times Square? OK, you can have a 4 X 6 print for $10 or you can use it in your annual report or on the Web for $100.

The idea is simple, but incredibly powerful: build a marketplace for millions of photographs. Democratize the world of stock photography. Let everyone who has images that might someday be useful or desirable to someone else sell 'em online.

Think like Ebay: it's not just millions of people, it's a marketplace. Think like Amazon: when someone looks at one person's photos, toss in a sidebar that says "People who looked at
Rich's photos of springtime at Michigan State
also liked these other photo albums."

Sony's Imagestation is at once wonderful and awful. It's a great way to share your photos with friends and the world at large, but its interface is clunky and at times its performance is poor. Most importantly, Sony doesn't understand how to build not just a photographic community, but a photographic marketplace.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Gmail gives me 1,000,000 megabytes of storage -- for a day

Yesterday, while checking my Gmail at a public terminal at the Tiki bar at the Southernmost Motel in Key West, I was shocked to see that my Gmail quota had grown by a factor of 1000 (red commas added for emphasis):

Wow, the folks at Google are really getting generous! Maybe the Gmail team was thanking me for strongly praising Gmail's client functionality on the local NPR station? Maybe I had too much sun. Maybe that mango daiquiri was a tad strong?

No matter how many times I blinked, Gmail told me I was using 0% of my 1,000,000 MB of storage. That's 1000 * 1000 megabytes -- a terabyte. The correct numbers should be 8% of my 1 gigabyte quota.

Google rocked the world by offering a gig of free mailbox space -- Yahoo is still bragging about a paltry 4 megabyte mailbox as if it leads the free Webmail industry -- but, contrary to Google's claims, 1 gig will hold only about a year's worth of my mail. Between large PowerPoint presentations and 5 megapixel photos, I can fill a gig pronto. (Another free service, Sony's, graciously hosts about 3 gigs of my digital photos.)

But maybe they goofed, and I am now set for life with a terabyte of mail storage? As a sanity check, I called my buddy Mike Zakhem. His quota was the same. Alas, by this morning the Gmail folks had discovered their goof; right now Gmail tells me:

You are currently using 86 MB (9%) of your 1000 MB.

Even at "only" one gigabyte per mailbox, I still think Google faces a major flaw in the Gmail business plan. I can't figure out how Google will keep everyone from signing up for 20 mailboxes, yielding 20 gigabytes of free, reliable, fast, globally accessible online storage.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

New York Times Article: "For Some, the Blogging Never Stops"

May 27, 2004

For Some, the Blogging Never Stops

TO celebrate four years of marriage, Richard Wiggins and his wife, Judy Matthews, recently spent a week in Key West, Fla. Early on the morning of their anniversary, Ms. Matthews heard her husband get up and go into the bathroom. He stayed there for a long time.

"I didn't hear any water running, so I wondered what was going on," Ms. Matthews said. When she knocked on the door, she found him seated with his laptop balanced on his knees, typing into his Web log, a collection of observations about the technical world, over a wireless link.

Blogging is a pastime for many, even a livelihood for a few. For some, it becomes an obsession. Such bloggers often feel compelled to write several times daily and feel anxious if they don't keep up. As they spend more time hunkered over their computers, they neglect family, friends and jobs. They blog at home, at work and on the road. They blog openly or sometimes, like Mr. Wiggins, quietly so as not to call attention to their habit.

"It seems as if his laptop is glued to his legs 24/7," Ms. Matthews said of her husband.

The number of bloggers has grown quickly, thanks to sites like, which makes it easy to set up a blog. Technorati, a blog-tracking service, has counted some 2.5 million blogs.

Of course, most of those millions are abandoned or, at best, maintained infrequently. For many bloggers, the novelty soon wears off and their persistence fades.

Sometimes, too, the realization that no one is reading sets in. A few blogs have thousands of readers, but never have so many people written so much to be read by so few. By Jupiter Research's estimate, only 4 percent of online users read blogs.

Indeed, if a blog is likened to a conversation between a writer and readers, bloggers like Mr. Wiggins are having conversations largely with themselves.

Mr. Wiggins, 48, a senior information technologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, does not know how many readers he has; he suspects it's not many. But that does not seem to bother him.

"I'm just getting something off my chest," he said.

Nor is he deterred by the fact that he toils for hours at a time on his blog for no money. He gets satisfaction in other ways. "Sometimes there's an 'I told you so' aspect to it," he said. Recent ruminations on have focused on Gmail, Google's new e-mail service. Mr. Wiggins points with pride to Wigblog posts that voiced early privacy concerns about Gmail.

Perhaps a chronically small audience is a blessing. For it seems that the more popular a blog becomes, the more some bloggers feel the need to post.

Tony Pierce started his blog three years ago while in search of a distraction after breaking up with a girlfriend. "In three years, I don't think I've missed a day," he said. Now Mr. Pierce's blog (, a chatty diary of Hollywood, writing and women in which truth sometimes mingles with fiction, averages 1,000 visitors a day.

Where some frequent bloggers might label themselves merely ardent, Mr. Pierce is more realistic. "I wouldn't call it dedicated, I would call it a problem," he said. "If this were beer, I'd be an alcoholic."

Mr. Pierce, who lives in Hollywood and works as a scheduler in the entertainment industry, said blogging began to feel like an addiction when he noticed that he would rather be with his computer than with his girlfriend - for technical reasons.

"She's got an iMac, and I don't like her computer," Mr. Pierce said. When he is at his girlfriend's house, he feels "antsy." "We have little fights because I want to go home and write my thing," he said.

Mr. Pierce described the rush he gets from what he called "the fix" provided by his blog. "The pleasure response is twofold," he said. "You can have instant gratification; you're going to hear about something really good or bad instantly. And if I feel like I've written something good, it's enjoyable to go back and read it."

And, he said, "like most addictions, those feelings go away quickly. So I have to do it again and again."

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, 26, a graduate student at the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied bloggers, said that for some people blogging has supplanted e-mail as a way to procrastinate at work.

People like Mr. Pierce, who devote much of their free time to the care and feeding of their own blogs and posting to other blogs, do so largely because it makes them feel productive even if it is not a paying job.

The procrastination, said Scott Lederer, 31, a fellow graduate student with Mr. Hall, has a collective feel to it. "You feel like you're participating in something important, because we're all doing it together," he said.

Jeff Jarvis, president of, a company that builds Web sites for newspapers and magazines, and a blogging enthusiast, defended what he called one's "obligation to the blog."

"The addictive part is not so much extreme narcissism," Mr. Jarvis said. "It's that you're involved in a conversation. You have a connection to people through the blog."

Some compulsive bloggers take their obligation to extremes, blogging at the expense of more financially rewarding tasks.

Mr. Wiggins has missed deadline after deadline at Searcher, an online periodical for which he is a paid contributor.

Barbara Quint, the editor of the magazine, said she did all she could to get him to deliver his columns on time. Then she discovered that Mr. Wiggins was busily posting articles to his blog instead of sending her the ones he had promised, she said. "Here he is working all night on something read by five second cousins and a dog, and I'm willing to pay him," she said.

Ms. Quint has grown more understanding of his reasons, if not entirely sympathetic. "The Web's illusion of immortality is sometimes more attractive than actual cash," she said.

Jocelyn Wang, a 27-year-old marketing manager in Los Angeles, started her blog, a chronicle of whatever happens to pop into her head (, 18 months ago as an outlet for boredom.

Now she spends at least four hours a day posting to her blog and reading other blogs. Ms. Wang's online journal is now her life. And the people she has met through the blog are a large part of her core of friends.

"There is no real separation in my life," she said. Like Mr. Wiggins, Ms. Wang blogs while on vacation. She stays on floors at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco with access to a free Internet connection. ("So I can blog," she explains.)

Blogging for a cause can take on a special urgency. Richard Khoe, a political consultant in Washington who in his spare time helps run a pro-John Kerry group called Run Against Bush, posts constantly to the blog embedded in the group's Web site ( He blogs late into the night, although he knows that the site still attracts relatively few visitors.

"Sometimes you get really particular with the kind of link you want, so you search a little more, then a little more, then you want to see what other people are saying about that link you chose," he said. "And before you know it, some real time has passed."

Others find they are distracted to the point of neglectfulness. Tom Lewis, 35, a project manager for a software firm in western Massachusetts who has a photo blog (, has occasionally shown up "considerably late" for events and has put off more than a few work-related calls to tend to his blog.

Mr. Jarvis characterizes the blogging way of life as a routine rather than an obsession. "It's a habit," he said. "What you're really doing is telling people about something that they might find interesting. When that becomes part of your life, when you start thinking in blog, it becomes part of you."

The constant search for bloggable moments is what led Gregor J. Rothfuss, a programmer in Zurich, to blog to the point of near-despair. Bored by his job, Mr. Rothfuss, 27, started a blog that focused on technical topics.

"I was trying to record all thoughts and speculations I deemed interesting," he said. "Sort of creating a digital alter ego. The obsession came from trying to capture as much as possible of the good stuff in my head in as high fidelity as possible."

For months, Mr. Rothfuss said, he blogged at work, at home, late into the night, day in and day out until it all became a blur - all the while knowing, he added, "that no one was necessarily reading it, except for myself."

When traffic to the blog, started to rise, he began devoting half a day every day and much of the weekend to it. Mr. Rothfuss said he has few memories of that period in his life aside from the compulsive blogging.

He was saved from the rut of his online chronicle when he traveled to Asia. The blog became more of a travelogue. Then Mr. Rothfuss switched jobs, finding one he enjoyed, and his blogging grew more moderate.

He still has the blog, but posts to it just twice a week, he said, "as opposed to twice an hour." He feels healthier now. "It's part of what I do now, it's not what I do," he said.

Suffering from a similar form of "blog fatigue," Bill Barol, a freelance writer in Santa Monica, Calif., simply stopped altogether after four years of nearly constant blogging.

"It was starting to feel like work, and it was never supposed to be a job," Mr. Barol said. "It was supposed to be an anti-job."

Even with some 200 visitors to his blog each day, he has not posted to his blog since returning from a month of travel.

Still, Mr. Barol said, he does not rule out a return to blogging someday.

"There is this seductive thing that happens, this kind of snowball-rolling-down-a-hill thing, where the sheer momentum of several years' posting becomes very keenly felt," he said. "And the absence of posting feels like - I don't know, laziness or something."

Tim Gnatek contributed reporting for this article.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Gmail lacks basic privacy protections: missing timeout and multiple IP detection

The privacy community and legislators continue to miss two basic design flaws in Gmail: It doesn't have a session timeout, and it does not detect it when you log in from more than one computer.

Scenario one: you log into a public terminal -- say in a public library or a cybercafe. You forget to click the Sign Out button, and you get up and leave.

The next person who walks up to that terminal now has your entire life at her fingertips -- years of e-mail, efficiently searchable. Your life history remains exposed as long as that computer is turned on and the Web browser remains open. The session never expires.

Scenario two: you visit your boss or a colleague and quickly check your Gmail for that report you mailed last week. You forget to sign out. When you go back into your own office, you sign back into Gmail. Everything seems perfectly fine. But the other Gmail session is still active. In fact, it's automatically updating your Inbox listing. Your boss can read your new mail, search your old mail, or even send new messages from your mailbox -- indefinitely. You have no way to close his view into your life, and, if he doesn't send or delete, you have no way to detect it.

Gmail's rivals figured these exposures out eons ago, and implemented session timeouts and multiple login detections as remedies. While the privacy community wails over a robot serving up relevant ads, they're missing the entire point.

As a Gmail beta tester, I dutifully reported these flaws to Google. They haven't responded. These flaws shouldn't be hard to fix. Because Gmail can expose years of your life, Gmail should "time out" aggressively -- maybe after only 15 minutes of inactivity. If you time out, Gmail should prompt for your ID and password, and resume your session. (It should not log you out and send you back to a fresh login.

It should be easy for Gmail to detect when you log into a second session. How should the Gmail system react? At a minimum, it should log out the first session -- the one you left logged in for the boss to read.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Gmail really wants you to not delete your old mail

Check out the message Gmail emits when you empty your mailbox.

Without becoming a conspiracy nut, I think Gmail goes out of its way to encourage you to leave old messages in your All Mail folder. My guess is they continue to data mine the messages long after you've forgotten them.