Productivity Note: Three Tools, and a Funeral

I don’t often talk about tools and productivity stuff here, but I thought a quick digression would be in order. I consume a lot — okay, an awful lot — of information on a daily basis. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, and I’ll come back to that, but I thought I’d first mention a few tools that have become indispensable to me in the last year:

  • Launchy. Command-line app launcher on Windows. Lots of other versions for Mac and elsewhere, but this is the best for Windows. Lets me do things at hyperspeed without lifting a finger from the keyboard.
  • Twhirl. The best desktop Twitter client, bar none. And for those of you that don’t use Twitter, it’s sort of an experiment in open semi-synchronous chat over the Net. I use it as a kind of realtime information filtering system, and it has become crucial. Send me a note if you have questions, because it’s admittedly a baffling service when approached cold.
  • Windows Live Writer. I do all my blog posts writing & editing via … a Microsoft product. Yes, it’s true. But Windows Live Writer is all the things most Microsoft products aren’t: Fast, appropriately-featured, extensible, standards-based  and free.

And now some notes on the funeral. It has, in essence to do with Google Reader, my primary RSS reading tool. As recently as a few months ago I subscribed to something like 600 news feeds. As of today I’m down to about 150, so a host of feeds have been unceremoniously dumped.

Why? Not because of anything to do with Google Reader, per se. It has much more to do with the info-clutter. I had largely stopped going, mostly because I didn’t have time and wasn’t finding enough interesting stuff. I like TechCrunch, for example, as well as a host of blogs, but I don’t need more feeds/services telling me to go read article XYZ "your friends & colleagues are reading article XYZ". No thanks. Because if my friends and colleagues are, then there is no urgency for me to do it: The news will find me (pace Brian Stelter). Nor do I need more marginalia, with people adding fractionally to other articles without really moving the info ball, giving me investable information, or changing my worldview.

So I stopped reading most of it. I don’t want volume or comprehensiveness; I want surprise and interestingness. And to be even more clear, I don’t want surprise or interestingness in a Digg sense of the word, with naked nonagenarians or raccoons with their tongues stuck to metal poles, etc. I don’t want an information freak-show. I want things that I would have normally read, but wouldn’t have found, nor would have most people that I read. Something that changes the way I think.

It is all about interestingness, and algorithmic detection of interestingness remains one of the big unsolved problems out there. It’s a combination of recency, intelligence, and freshness of perspective, and it’s badly needed — and nowhere near here.


  1. Have you tried AideRSS’s (a Canadian startup) new Google reader plugin — it attempts to show interestingness algorithmically, and works seamlessly with your current google reader experience:

  2. My main gripe about Twitter is that you can’t really “talk” to people who don’t follow you. I know you can reply to anyone, but you never really know if those who don’t follow you actually saw your reply since you have to check manually for those kinds of replies. I can understand why this might be a good thing, but it’s still frustrating nonetheless. I guess I’ll just have to bombard you folks with email messages, instead.
    I’ll second the Launchy and Twhirl recommendations. I used to be an, uh, active user of ActiveWords but I’ve found Launchy to be more than adequate without getting in the way.

  3. Interestingness, hmm?
    When you say something you wouldn’t normally read or find, that’s a hard part to tackle.
    Inputs: take the data you’ve already provided regarding your interests. So you could start with a scrape of someone’s rss reader for feeds by topic (assuming tags), cross reference that with sites and stories which come up in the feeds, add keyword weighting for content from starred/bookmarked posts, scrape blogrolls on those feeds for context (and further queries), add in negative filters (some of my favorite writers have interests i do not share, i.e. LOLcatz, etc).
    Then, taking the keywords which come up in the stories you have bookmarked, and possibly a keyword list you have supplied, use an engine like persai (once it goes live) to find appropriate content along those lines.
    Difficult part to tackle would be filtering out the stories that are already on everyone’s sites, such as common news rather than research, etc. Aggregating by news item or topic to give an easily parsed feed can be a bit of a mess.
    Other more social filters would include maybe screen for stories with comments by people you also favorite (on post), and pick stories which receive either more than normal amounts of comments/trackbacks (or less, depending on your tastes, and always norm-referenced for that particular feed)
    Doable, I suppose. ping me if anyone offers to tackle that beast.

  4. paul, try pinging the guys at Persai (formerly of Uncov fame). They are all about uncovering “interestingness” in an over reported world.

  5. Sweet, that’s the second time I’ve seen the word “marginalia” today (and the only two sightings ever). Leo Laporte used it over on TWiT (admittedly, it was in regard to Mad Magazine, but still a high degree of interestingness)

  6. What about the “Friends’ shared items” in Google Reader? Or subscribing to the shared items feed from other people who read a lot and let them act as a filter. I’ve gotten a lot of interesting news that way, without having to follow all those obscure feeds.