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January 12, 2015

Adult Problems Stink. I Blame Drew's Cancer. #BlameDrewsCancer


I quickly glossed over it during my first post of the year, when I said "Adult problems can be a real pain," but I'd be skirting around some big issues if I didn't go deeper on some very real drama that in years past would see me aggressively pounding the drum to draw attention to their pain, hoping to rally others to their cause. But as I get older, and, as a result, my friends do too, struggles with health, family, work or finance are hardly isolated - making it somewhat selfish to choose one cause against another. And that sucks.

Nearly five years ago, +Drew Olanoff, one of the best friends my family has ever had, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He, along with +Mike Demers and others, launched the #BlameDrewsCancer phenomenon, blaming all the world's ills on his cancer. A year after, we were delighted to learn Drew had been declared cancer free. We'd always expected a full recovery, and it was a relief to hear the doctors say so.

My best buddy Drew with my kids in late 2008 and 2009.

But, as most of you who follow my social streams know, Drew's cancer is back. And while I'm hopefully optimistic again (as is he), I'd be lying if I didn't say we're both worried. Cancer is no joke. This time around, Drew is older, and a bit more fatigued. He needs to use his energy to fight the cancer (again) and doesn't need the weight on his back of every cancer story that doesn't have a happy ending.

Before Christmas, I took my two boys up to San Francisco to see Drew in the hospital, where he was getting ready for a round of chemotherapy. The trip was done quietly, as Drew, at the time, hadn't told the world his cancer was back. But my kids gave Drew their handmade cards, exchanged hugs, and we did what we could to let Drew know how important he is to our family, and that we're on the same team.

Matthew and Braden in SF after seeing Drew in December.

But Drew's not the only one with a challenge and raising the rally flag for him does something of a disservice to other friends who are fighting their own demons, cancer included. +Adam Singer and I visited +Justin Levy at Citrix before the end of the year, seeing how he's progressing after being diagnosed with a brain tumor and two broken shoulders, fractured in a dramatic seizure. Search marketing and analytics blogger +AJ Kohn is also undergoing chemotherapy treatment, and +Sid Burgess has had his own round with cancer. 

Summary: Cancer sucks and it isn't just picking on one guy and I hate it.

And cancer's not the only demon working to make friends' lives unhappy. My colleague +Julia Ferraioli has been sacked with an array of issues over the last year plus that have turned her life upside down. My colleague Ken Norton lost his son to childhood heart disease, and in June, when I read Eric Meyer's story about losing his daughter, I was nearly in tears, dumbly staring at my Nexus 7 and going through her Flickr archive to better know the life that was cut short too soon.

Comparatively, my life is pretty darn good. Family is healthy. So far, the bills are getting paid (even though it's not easy), and most of our struggles are simply getting the kids to be obedient, or dealing with car and tech issues. But I'm thinking about it. Don't get me wrong. I am worried about Drew this time, and he is scared too. He should be.

But every time I see a friend, be it Drew or Sid or Julia or Justin, ask the world for help, I see the world answer strongly with a Yes. And that's what's so impressive about our hyperconnected planet now. I feel I really know these friends who I don't see every day. I can feel their pains and champion their successes, root for their wins and console them on losses. When Drew put the weight of the world on his back in 2009, he didn't take enough time to take care of himself. As his friend (and a friend to many of you), I can say if you are struggling, you should know you're not the only one. Ask others to help distribute the pain. We can't make it go away, but you can know we care and we will help you fight.

If you want to help Drew, consider signing up as a bone marrow donor with BeTheMatch or Blame Drew's Cancer for your own issues. And if your heart was broken by the loss of Riley Norton, as mine was, you can donate to Camp Taylor, as we did with our FitBit100k challenge. Good luck to all of us in 2015.

January 01, 2015

10 New Year's Resolutions (for you) for the Year 2015

A new year is a somewhat arbitrary point in time to mark change. But tradition has it that we do two things when the calendar turns from December to January. We look back on the previous year, either with pride over accomplishments, or dismissal of bad experiences, and we optimistically expect the best for the coming twelve months.

In years past I've put forth fun predictions for the world in tech. And trust me, I have some predictions, but I'll hold those close to the vest. Working at Google makes predicting the future like cheating. And I won't bore you with a list of my own resolutions for 2015. Instead, I'll suggest (with bias) ten resolutions each of you (and often us too) should take this year to make our online and offline lives even better.

1. Protect yourself and your data from the bad guys.

Seemingly every week, we are seeing news about security breaches at major retail stores, or finding online databases have been impacted. And outside the headlines, bad actors are out there trying to harvest your online information. I recommend protecting yourself by using two-factor authentication wherever possible, trying to avoid the reuse of passwords, and setting up automatic alerts that tell you if your credit cards are being used anywhere, or over a certain dollar amount.

In 2014, I managed nearly 6 million steps on Fitbit.

2. Use intelligent data to make yourself a better person.

Seemingly everyone's New Year's resolution is to go to the gym more or lose weight. But those resolutions tend to fade out after a strong month or so. Instead, find a fitness tracker or application that makes sense to track what you already do, and find a way to increase those numbers. My adoption of Fitbit two and a half years ago helped me lose more than 20 pounds, encouraged me to buy a treadmill, and find the way to walk just about everywhere.

3. Use intelligent data to make your home a smarter one.

Once you know to count your data with services like Fitbit, running your home without data is kind of dumb. By adopting Nest and Sunrun to handle our energy costs, and Rachio to manage our smart sprinkler system, we've not only set ourselves up to save money each month, but we can better predict our use, and make changes when necessary.

Our Solar powered home saves money and saves the air too.

4. If you have money, put it in places with long term benefits.

In 2010, we bought our home, putting out more money than I've ever done. But with rising Silicon Valley real estate prices, that looks like a good investment. In 2011, we refinanced. In 2012, we paid off our cars and, with the exception of our home, were debt free. In 2013, we bought a treadmill, to keep us active, even if not leaving the house. And in 2014, we made two big expenditures: The first being our Sunrun solar system, which will save us more than $65,000 in the lifetime of the 20 year contract, and the second, paying off a home equity line of credit, which was taking $300 a month, every month. We paid it off 28 years early. This year, we're hoping to get rid of our external storage unit, and continuing to take costs off the top.


5. Reduce clutter, be it of physical things or your time.

One of our 'first world problems' is the accumulation of stuff that takes up space. But many of things that occupy space where we live are for temporary enjoyment. I made a choice to ditch physical items for digital ones years ago, and I don't have books or DVDs following me around. Similarly, it makes sense to cut out activities, networks, people or habits that are a time suck for you and may have stopped adding value long ago. Whether it's closing accounts, unfriending, unsubscribing, or just walking away... if you truly miss it, you can always add those things back.

6. See things from another person's perspective.

It's easy, especially online, to divide into two directly opposing camps. What you like is amazing, and what the other person likes stinks. But it's often very interesting to see why someone has made a choice, be it where they choose to spend their time, what hobbies they enjoy, what apps they use or what mobile or computer operating system they've selected. It can't hurt to ask and understand before overwhelming them with your bias.

7. Recognize a lack of diversity hurts everyone, and work to solve it.

There is bias everywhere, obvious or unconscious. The results of generations of bias have led to dramatically skewed workplaces, city makeups, perceptions and manufactured realities. 2014 saw many tech companies open up about their own diverse makeups. Recognizing the issue is just the first step, and being comfortable with the status quo isn't acceptable.

8. Don't read the comments. And if you do, don't respond.

There's a bell curve when it comes to quality commentary, and the fringes of that curve are in charge of most active conversations, be it on mainstream media sites, popular discussion boards, or video networks. Practically every time, you lose brain cells by reading them, and engaging just makes you part of the mess.

9. Do something good for people who need the help more than you do.

Not everyone feels like they can give money to charity, but practically everyone has time. 2014 saw many of my friends get cancer. Another friend lost his 11 year old son to heart disease. Close friends suffered job losses, divorces and messy breakups. The world got Ebola. Adult problems can be a real pain. Find a cause or lend an ear to a friend that needs the help and always be there. The time you give is better than money.

10. Evaluate what you've always been taught and consider whether its true.

Much like bias can be taught from one generation to the next, so can half-truths and pure make believe, from pseudoscience to religion, political leanings and the latest version of history, depending on the author. Put two people in a room and ask them a direct question on a challenging topic, and you'll get wildly different answers. Find out why you'd state yours, and see if a little research could make you update your story.

Starting here, even if you can't get to them all, will have a big impact on you - online and offline, with health, with finance, and well being. You could give yourself a crazy goal that sets you up for disappointment, or you could just start with these. I'm working on each one and have a lot more to do. Good luck to you in 2015.

December 25, 2014

A Successful 100k Steps Leads to a Sore, Yet Happy, Christmas

Monday's personal record setting Fitbit dashboard

Last week, I introduced a crazy and audacious goal, of knocking out 100,000 steps (as measured by Fitbit), in the name of personal achievement and to raise money for Camp Taylor, a summer camp for children with heart disease, in honor of colleague Ken Norton's son, Riley. And I'm beyond happy to say our adventure was a success.

As chronicled on all the social channels (Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for starters), +Stephen Mack and I passed the 100,000 mark shortly before 10 pm Monday night, after 16 hours of pavement pounding fun that covered more than 46 miles - seeing us start before dawn, and keep pressing forward until daylight was a distant memory. And better yet, our efforts were not in vain as many of you were eager to support us through nearly $5,000 in donations to Camp Taylor, beating our target of $4,500.

Our fundraising goal for Camp Taylor: Achieved!

As I set out in our planning, Stephen and I got nearly all our walking in through three trips along the Stevens Creek Trail, which connects Sunnyvale to the San Francisco Bay through Mountain View, just past the Google campus. We grabbed backpacks with essential snacks and fluids, multiple phone chargers for guaranteed power, and thought ahead - bringing bandaids and Advil for inevitable pain, and head-mounted lamps to break through darkness.


Some scenes from early morning Monday, before the pain.

Our initial pace was quick, as I'm accustomed, and Stephen did a solid job adjusting, as we maintained strides through most of the day, even beyond the 10, 20 and 30 mile marks. And we were lucky enough to be joined for much of the journey by friends, each of whom did a lap with us, meaning we were marching in a group of three for about 80 percent of our trek, sharing new pains, stories and sights with one another.

Having walked greater than 50,000 steps a few times myself, I knew I could hit the 100k as a stretch goal, so long as life didn't get in the way, but as our mark neared, I absolutely felt the fatigues and aches that threatened to make finishing difficult. We were each battling aches in practically every part below our waist, and our feet were a mess of blisters and soreness that wouldn't be solved until we were done.

By the 92,000 mark, just an hour and a half away from the proverbial finish line, I was nearly overcome with dizziness and a slight spell where I was a bit concerned I'd pass out and fall short. Whether I was dehydrated or had just hit a wall, I'm not sure, but with water and about 10 minutes rest, we were able to continue marching, and eventually things settled back to where they were at a good rhythm through the end.


Hitting 100,000 Fitbit steps just before 10 p.m. Monday night.

As my math had planned, we made it back to my house the final time with 99,000 steps complete. We dropped off our heavy bags, and took one last victory lap around the block, reaching 100,000 steps at 9:52 p.m., after a momentary scare that Fitbit couldn't handle six digits and our walk would have been mocked at the very end. My tracker had stuck at 99,999 steps and then jolted forward to 100,007, so no pictures of perfection exist, but we had done it. We wearily high fived one another and then trudged home to call the event a success.

As I told Ken, I promised I would do the full 100,000 steps, and we had done it. Our promise to Camp Taylor, and those supporting us with their donations, or words of encouragement in the streams, was that we would make our full effort, despite fatigue or soreness. And of course, our momentary strains that are nearly gone a few days later are nothing like the prospect of heart disease the youth we were walking for live with each day. So we had pressed on.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw little walking at all, as you can imagine. I completed the Christmas shopping Tuesday and walked around a bit Wednesday, but didn't even crack 10,000 on Fitbit. I hope you'll understand. But I wanted to thank Stephen, and his sister Joanna, our friends Roger and Ken for walking with us, and the more than fifty people who donated to Camp Taylor and really had our back. What we did was hard and fun, and it was made easier with a real and virtual team. This is the experience I'll most remember from this year's Christmas season.

If you haven't yet made your donation to Camp Taylor count, our page is open for one full year. They need all the help they can get. https://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/louisgray/fitbit100k

December 18, 2014

Taking the 100k Steps Fitbit Challenge and Raising Money for Charity

On Monday, I have a crazy plan to set a new personal record for Fitbit steps. The goal? 100,000 steps in a single day, blowing away my previous personal best by more than 50 percent, and coming close to fifty miles walked - while also helping raise money for Camp Taylor, a free summer camp for children with heart disease, in memory of Riley Norton, the son of my friend and colleague Ken Norton.

Ever since getting my Fitbit and being hooked on challenging myself to walk further and compete with friends, I've seen the allure of reaching new marks. I had my first 50,000+ step day in December of 2012, and managed more than 60,000 this September, even when I stopped pounding the pavement around 10:30 that night. I've walked 40,000 steps pushing three kids in a stroller, managed more than 200 flights of stairs in an evening in my house, and know that each personal record simply put the bar higher to make the next mark even more difficult.

But as I've seen my numbers increase, the math has a strong magnetic pull toward one-tenth of a million steps in a single day. If one averages 100 steps a minute at a good walking pace, it's fairly easy to hit 6,000 steps in an hour. Given there are 24 hours in a day, managing 16 hours of walking (plus a bit) to reach 100k is absolutely doable, assuming I can push myself to keep going.

So I've been eyeing this 100k mark with some anticipation - looking for a day where I'm out of the office, where my kids are taken care of, and I can just go, walking in a straight line until the day is finished.

This week, as I told my friend (and TiVo employee +Stephen Mack) of my plan, he said he wanted to join in the adventure as well. Stephen, who I profiled on the blog more than five years ago, has been among my most consistent Fitbit competitors for the last two years, and has yet to see a fun contest that he'll turn down - especially if it can keep you in good shape. So we've made plans to set off early in the morning Monday and achieve this goal together.

My comparatively bumpy activity from September's 60k day.

To be clear, walking at a normal pace for most of a day is by no means the toughest endurance challenge one's ever seen. It's harder to run a marathon or a 50 mile or 100 mile endurance challenge. There's no swimming or biking. No weight lifting, beyond our feet. But it requires the will to keep going even if the effort seems monotonous or never-ending. And having a second person there will make the challenge more fun.


The ideal course  will allow for us to keep walking all day without crazy hills or interruptions, even as small as traffic lights. We should be close enough to food so we can refuel beyond what we can carry, and have proper rest stops where they make sense. So I've sketched out a plan for us to navigate the Stevens Creek Trail between Sunnyvale and Mountain View, all the way to the San Francisco Baylands beyond Google's Mountain View campus. With three laps of this trail, we should be more than on our way to the 100,000 mark, and if not, we'll find a way to get there.


So you might ask... why do this? Are your egos so big that you have to take the whole day for a silly hobby of virtual badges? Are you raising money for charity or something? Well, the first answer is "because we can." The math says it's possible, and data exists so we can measure it. And the second answer is also yes. While I'm doing this no matter what, it's also great to have the wind at our backs by doing this for a good cause. So I've started a page to support Camp Taylor, and extension, Riley, who passed away in October far too young after a lifelong battle.

Our walk toward inevitable soreness and personal achievement starts in the dark hours on Monday. I'll be posting our progress as often as I can, batteries depending, with the #fitbit100k hashtag on Twitter, Google+ and all our streams. Good luck to us.