Archive for the ‘Personal Productivity’ Category
“Agglom’s basic function is that you can publish your current browser session to the web, requiring little more than a single click…. The saved session then becomes available in three formats: as a web page that displays the links, as a URL slideshow, and as an RSS feed.”
Every couple of weeks I scan Mozilla’s Firefox Add-on site for new additions. I’m especially attracted to the ones that affect browser tab behavior. Last week, while I was actually looking for a Firefox 3.0 compatible alternative to SessionSaver, a little gem popped up that I hadn’t come across before: Agglomerator. Contrary to many browser add-ons that I only keep enabled on my system for a few hours, I’m finding Agglomerator and accompanying service Agglom.com promising enough to stay.
Agglom’s basic function is that you can publish your current browser session to the web, requiring little more than a single mouse click. Shared links can be multi-media or just plain web pages. I created a simple one from Chris Brogan’s personal-branding posts. An even richer example of what Agglom is capable of doing is this Agglom set I found, with videos, photos, links and other resources about Olympic ‘pool shark’ Michael Phelps.
If you’d like to experience hands-on what Agglom can do for you, just read this paragraph. Start by signing up for an account on the Agglom service. Then, install the Agglomerator add-on and restart your browser. Now a new, modest toolbar button becomes available, labeled “Share session”.
Next, make sure you have a bunch of tabs open that you’d like to save as an organized set. Press the Agglom button to save any or all of the tabs you currently have open, then label this custom tab set with a title of your choosing, assign tags as you see fit and lastly publish the set as a private or public list. The saved session then becomes available in three formats: as a web page that displays the links, as a URL slideshow, and as an RSS feed.
Besides the ease with which you can publish collections of URLs, I am particularly impressed with how slideshows are implemented in Agglom. Any set you create on Agglom automatically has a slideshow attached to it that uses the original URLs. At the moment Agglom slideshows are not progressing automatically. From what I understand the Agglom developer is planning to add this feature, depending on user feedback. Here’s what the Agglom slideshow interface looks like:
Agglom sessions can be easily changed: you can change the sort order of the links by drag and drop, you can add new links and remove old ones, change their title and URL and adjust the privacy settings.
Public Agglom session links can be accessed through their URL by anyone—no Agglom account is required. Agglom users can leave comments on the lists that you share and even submit suggestions for improvements to the owner of any list. Here’s what an Agglom page looks like in edit mode, in this case for an Agglom set I created from David Tebbutt’s series of posts on how to handle the press, Media Skills 101:
Agglom is the prodigy brainchild of 23-yr old Enrico Foschi, an Italian web developer living in Bray, a town close to Dublin, Ireland. Enrico launched the first version of Agglom just over a month ago and has improved the service at an amazing pace since then. Here’s a 3-minute video from Agglom’s early days, in which Enrico explains what the service does:
Today Enrico launched Agglom Beta 3.1 with the blog post Agglom.com adds URL slideshows, RSS and easy link suggestion.
Realizing Agglom was only launched fairly recently, I am already much impressed by its current feature set. In the past few days Agglom developer Enrico displayed a remarkable flexibility in not just listening to and rephrasing the suggestions I made, but even more so by implementing the majority of the improvement ideas we generated together. Yet, there are a few aspects of Agglom that deserve attention:
- Unclutter the web site. Agglom offers lots of functionality. New users might be overwhelmed by the many links, icons and other pieces of information.
- Leave out the advertisement for the Agglomerator add-on when a user has already got that add-on installed.
- Replace the current list of bookmarking service in the sidebar by one generic link to a service like ShareThis.
Apparently the TypePad people liked my implementation of AnswerTips (see my earlier story Instant On-site Facts: AnswerTips from Dec 22nd 2006) so much that they’ve now approved this Answers.com service as an official TypePad widget.
To add AnswerTips to your own TypePad blog, follow the wizard at I Want AnswerTips Too! Note that —rather contradictorily if you ask me—TypePad widgets can only be implemented on TypePad blogs without advanced templates.
Recent mentions of AnswerTips through a Google Blog Search, displayed in a Grazr widget:
Leon Ho, the Brisbane-based editor of A-list productivity blog LifeHack.org, sparked my inspiration today with a post on his personal blog, titled 0 to 12,000 RSS Subscribers. As his post title reveals, Leon shares several tips that might help you reach a larger readership on your blog within a relatively short amount of time.
First I bookmarked Leon’s post on del.icio.us (direct link to all bookmarks for Leon’s post), then I turned on coComment tracking so that I could follow the conversation. Still, I had some ideas of my own that would fit in nicely with Leon’s and I thought I’d submit a comment myself to add my own 2 cents to the story.
Unfortunately, Leon’s blog comment form seems to lack any basic kind of formatting so I decided I might as well devote an entire blog post to my take on increasing your subscriber base, although I realized all too well my subscriber count is at a mere 1% of his.
Summarizing Leon’s tips: use full feeds, give the RSS icon a prominent
position, provide consistent, high-quality content, offer email
subscriptions and make it easy for people to share your posts with their friends.
I’d like to a couple more tips to the mix that seemed to make a huge difference for me:
- Use large, attractive feed icons, preferably the ones that by now have become the defacto standard. They are freely available for download from FeedIcons. Host the icons yourself.
- Obvious to some: offer a browser-friendly version of your feed with FeedBurner and display the number of subscribers by embedding a FeedBurner FeedCount chicklet into your page, if you dare.
- Let people browse your feeds live from your pages by embedding a piece of code in the sidebar of your site. Really it’s not that difficult. Pick any of the many excellent tools so diligently demonstrated by David Rothman on his current and comprehensive, hands-on review page here: RSS to Web Page: Tool Output Examples.
- Make your feeds auto-discoverable and double-check that they are auto-discoverable indeed. Most blog hosting services take care of this already. If not: make sure the header of your pages contains code like this:
<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml"
title="Blog Posts Feed"
- Stick to a certain average posting frequency. To be totally honest I personally need to apply this principle to my own working discipline. When people first add your feed to their aggregator, the feed is likely to be included in a group called Probation or something similar. While your feed is there it has the attention from your subscriber. Your goal is to convince that reader to move your feed to a more permanent group, preferably the one named High Priority. So it’s ok if you don’t blog every day, as only a few people would be able to keep up anyway—just don’t drop the frequency to below once every two weeks. People lose interest or even get annoyed and bounce you off their list.
- Validate your feeds. Paste your feed URLs at feed a validator, such as FeedValidator. Fix errors.
- Consider offering email subscriptions through R|Mail. I’ve noticed a 20% increase since I signed up with Randy Morin’s service. Recipients are apparently very satisifed with how the posts are delivered. R|Mail is free.
- Subscribe to your own feed, both as a feed and by email, so that you know what your subscribers are receiving. Open the email version through web mail: sometimes the plain-text version looks awful. Switch to a different RSS-to-email service if this happens.
I’m not just a computer addict, I’m foremost addicted to finding stuff on the web: facts, feeds and friends. I’m told that I show severe signs of withdrawal when I’m without a computer for more than a day. Of course it had to happen: some external incident forced me to disconnect from the web. This post is about the activities I’ve listed should I ever find
myself forced again to spend several hours offline. I also point to the desktop and
productivity tools that I use on a regular basis.
Because of workmen cutting through my phone lines at the beginning of November, I was inadvertently offline for several days. The first part of that first day I spent negotiating in vain with the Dutch phone company about the cause and possible fix of this interruption of my precious DSL service. The remainder of that day I subdued to the phone company’s spurious problem solving techniques and decided to make the most of the offline time that was imposed on me.
Outages such as these don’t always come unexpected: these weeks I spent two times fifteen hours on planes to and from the US, which also forced me to think of things I could do on my PC while offline.
Switching from Desktop to Laptop
When I anticipate to be away from my desktop, I start preparing my laptop a couple of days ahead of time. I synchronize any notes, documents, contacts and any other files I might need from my Desktop. I backup my Firefox profile, preferences and extensions. I synchronize my feed subscriptions and I copy my entire email folder.
Then, about two days before I head out, I start using my laptop as if it were my main system. Given this grace period it is likely that any file that I work on on a daily basis will show missing in the case that I would have forgotten to copy it. Of course I also make sure that I have a spare, fully charged laptop battery with me.
The remainder of this post is about the activities I’ve listed should I ever find
myself forced again to spend time offline. I also point to the desktop and
productivity tools that I use on a regular basis. If you use any online flavor of these tools (Google Reader, Rojo, Bloglines, Newsgator Online, GMail, web mail), then you might as well skip these sections.
First Thing: Open Your Note Taker
Although this post tries to inspire you of thinking in the opposite direction, you’ll still likely run into things you just can’t do while you are offline. I suggest you open a digital notepad document or a task assignment page so that you can jot those to-do items down while they come up in your brain.
Compose Offline E-mail and IM Messages
Being offline doesn’t mean you can’t prepare messages to send off later. This is obvious of course for e-mail messages that you compose in your desktop e-mail client. But did you know that even IM chat sessions can be initiated offline from the networks Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and Windows Live Messenger?
Note that each network has its own way of delivering messages:
If Google Talk recipients are offline, they’ll receive their IM message delivered through the GMail web mail service.
Although Skype allows you to compose text chat messages offline, it does require sender and receiver to be online before these chat messages are actually delivered. Skype messages are never stored on a remote server: they remain on the sender’s computer until both parties are online.
Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and Windows Live Messenger are capable of remotely storing a copy of sent out messages until the recipient gets online, independent of the sender’s online status at the time of delivery.
As far as I know AIM ignores offline messages completely.
When offline I try to catch up with unread posts from the feeds that I care about most. My desktop feed reader BlogBridge fetches new feed items every 30 minutes, so from the moment that I get disconnected from the web I’m not more than half an hour behind the news. Then I go through my list of feeds and prune the ones that seem defunct and the ones that are no longer of interest to me. If you’re the scary type thinking you might miss important stuff: just as you could define an Evaluate category or tag for feeds that you intend to add to your list, you could also define a Purge category for feeds that you intend to remove after a certain time. More RSS housekeeping tips in my post 9 RSS Reader Housekeeping Secrets.
Whether you’re a professional in your particular field of interest, or someone with a list of feeds related
to personal hobbies, your feed subscriptions most likely reflect your attention stream. Whatever your profile, this may be a good time to make a backup of your feeds by exporting your feedsthem to an OPML file on your hard drive. If you haven’t backed up your feeds before: most RSS readers offer this functionality, usually from the File or Tools menu. Now that you’ve got a local copy of your blog roll, you might consider sharing your reading list with your web site visitors by presenting it in an OPML browser, such as Grazr or Bitty, as soon as your connectivity is restored.
Tag Your Interests—Outlining a News Radar
Talking about attention and interests: if you would like to stay informed about things that are important to you, you may consider to start building the foundation of your personal news radar by collecting key words that describe you and your interests best. No surprise, my own news radars all relate to RSS and, yes, I’ve got some ego-trackers in place too. Consisting of a combination of several custom search queries, news radars grow organically and gradually become more complex over time. Once you get started, you’ll finetune the way you filter the news and most likely you will add new topics and remove obsolete interests as well.
My approach to building a news radar is that I constantly keep a text editor open (Boxer has been my preferred one for years) with my own list of keywords so that I can add new ones as soon as they come up. You could start out with the name of your blog, your own name, your profession, the topics that trigger your curiosity and anything else that you search for often. Put each keyword on a line of its own and make sure you surround word combinations such as your full name with double quotes: "Marjolein
Hoekstra". Include names of products and services that you like to stay informed about. Group your keywords if you consider that useful, otherwise leave everything in one group and order your keywords alphabetically so that it becomes easier to check for duplicates.
Once you become connected again, you can easily refer to your keyword list to create RSS-enabled queries in search engines such as Google Blog Search, IceRocket Blog Search and Technorati, simply by pasting the keywords into the query input box, if needed separated by the boolean search operator ‘ OR ‘, and pressing Enter. The resulting search feeds are then combined into a news radar (by some called a superfeed, by others a feed bundle, or a River-of-News feed if you’re really a geek) using feed manipulation services such as mySyndicaat, FeedDigest or any other feed blending service.
E-mail Inbox Clean-Up
Offline time offers the perfect opportunity to clean up your e-mail inbox. In the past my own inbox used to get cluttered with a couple of hundred messages all looking alike and without any importance flags, categorization, font color or font size variations that might have been indicators of the relevance of these messages. I was so annoyed by this recurring problem that over the years I developed a set of coherent rules and tricks to organize my stream of incoming messages, especially the ones from recurring senders. I initially intended to open my email trick box right here in this blog post, but, seeing how lengthy that section alone would become, I eventually decided to devote a separate post to it that I will publish right after this one (and insert the link to it here).
At times I reach the stage where I can no longer oversee my list of installed Firefox add-ons well. That’s when I need to decide which extensions stay, which ones go in ‘purge (= disable)’ state and which ones definitely get uninstalled. To give you an idea: I try to not have more than 20 extensions installed simultaneously, but that’s hard given my curiosity and the work that I happen to do. Sometimes I install a bunch of them at a time and forget why I ever downloaded them in the first place. As far as your add-ons do not explicitly require internet access, being offline needn’t keep you from evaluating their usefulness and exploring their Options settings.
And if, like me, you’d like to create a backup of your extensions and user profiles so that you can even transfer your configuration to another computer or share your preferred add-ons with your friends, then do read Lifehacker Adam Pash’ recommendation for FEBE + CLEO (whose download, of course, does require an internet connection 😉 in the blog post Download of the Day: FEBE and CLEO.
My Windows Desktop is a pretty accurate mirror of my daily working procedure: I evaluate software that I download from the web (.exe, .msi, .zip files on my Desktop), I temporarily store screenshots, photos and other files that I receive through IM file transfers or e-mail attachments (all end up on my precious Desktop real estate), and I create my own daily bunch of work documents and screenshots. Every couple of weeks I scrutinize this mess of assorted icons, something that of course can also easily be done while offline: I run the executables that I haven’t installed yet, evaluate if they deserve further exploration and possibly blog coverage. I determine whether I want to preserve the download files in their appropriate subfolders or whether I might as well erase them altogether (as you may know, install files happen to become obsolete as soon as an update is released).
Usually I run other system optimization procedures too while I’m offline: I run a series of different spyware scanners (my preferred ones consistently varying between Webroot Spy Sweeper, Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy), a registry cleaner (AMUST Registry Cleaner getting my highest marks) and a drive defragmentation tool (Diskeeper 2007 Pro Premier). Lastly, I get rid of temp files in my Windows folder and any other files I no longer need.
By following these procedures every so often (honestly you could just fake being disconnected if you think they’re any good), you save yourself from getting stuck in a disorganized computer system. As for me: they are going to save me from any more panic attacks when my router shows signs of disconnection 😉
I had seen a couple of mentions of Xdrive on technology blogs in September, but never bothered to check it out myself—until there was a need for it today. I had passed on my old Palm PDA to an online friend of mine last week and now figured I might as well send him the CodeWarrior for Palm OS software development kit too since there wasn’t much incentive left to play with it myself. So, how was I going to get that 108 MB zip file to him? I’m not going to bore you with the numerous file-sharing solutions I’ve tried in the past. I can honestly say that Xdrive is by far the most well designed personal online filesystem that I’ve come across so far. I’m describing my experiences on my Windows system. The web version of Xdrive also runs on Mac OS X and Linux/Unix operating systems.
Xdrive is developed by AOL and is available for free to people who have signed up for an AIM screen name. This means that if you use an AIM instant messaging account, then you are ready to benefit from AOL’s free offer. If you don’t have an AIM screen name yet, then just use this AIM Screen Name Registration page. There’s no need to download or install any AOL or AIM software.
To give you an executive summary of the Xdrive benefits I’ve experienced them today, apart from the facts that you get 5 GB of online data storage space for free, that its navigation is a breeze and that the whole service looks totally awesome, Xdrive lets you
- choose between a browser interface (see screenshot) and a desktop interface
- keep folders private or share them with any particular person (email) or with the whole Internet community (through a web link)
- assign granular file access permissions to each folder that you share: read content, add items, change items, delete items or any mix of those
- use Xdrive Desktop as a network drive: operate it from Windows Explorer or from your preferred file manager (mine is Total Commander) and it fully supports drag and drop mouse operations.
As you can see in the screenshot I assigned drive letter M to my Xdrive. Note the hilite that I placed on the Xdrive Downloads folder: this is another smart courtesy from the Xdrive development team: this folder contains the executable files that you need if you want to run the Xdrive desktop client.
Note that you need to reboot your system after installing the desktop software. This is because the software needs to adapt your file system so that you can hook up a drive letter to your online storage space.
Xdrive Desktop looks different from its web counterpart, but the functions are the same: you can access the major ones through the system tray icon:
During setup of the Xdrive desktop client the installer silently adds an Internet Explorer plug-that allows you to save all your web downloads immediately to your Xdrive. This function is referred to as "Skip the Download" on the Xdrive website. "Skip the Download" is accessible from any hyperlink context menu in IE by clicking on the "Save to Xdrive" option. This is incredibly useful if you often try out new software or if you regularly switch between machines.
Besides being a personal online filesystem, Xdrive also allows you to make scheduled backups. You can quickly select predefined groups of files that often change, such as those that reside in your Documents and Settings folder, or you can define your own file sets using the "Backup Set Creation Wizard". Of course the software also lets you restore your files.
Before you install Xdrive, you can test your browser to see if it is capable of running Xdrive.
Although the core of the Xdrive service works just fine from Firefox, the Xdrive "Skip the Download" plug-in is only available for Internet Explorer. A Firefox add-on is dearly missed for this convenient feature. There is no mention on the Xdrive website that such an add-on is being developed. I’ll post an update here if I’m notified of one.
It may be an incident, but at some stage during the 108 MB file transfer that I did today the desktop client reported to me that my Xdrive was full. This could not be true. Since then I’ve had difficulty accessing my Xdrive through the desktop client. I probably need to reboot my machine to fix this.
Download Page (Windows only)