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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.

December 17, 2014

Tablets, Touch and Talk: Technology Through the Eyes of a Child

Braden With my Nexus 5, Watching the MLB At Bat app.

My children have never known a world without high speed Internet, streaming movies on demand, and a seemingly all-knowing personal assistant, available to answer their every question when asked. They've grown accustomed to concepts which once seemed fanciful, like the ability to order all sorts of items on your tablet and have them delivered in the same day, having every photo you've ever taken available to you from any device, or having video chats with just about anyone instantly. For them, there is no such thing as technology. There's just the real world, which is directly impacted by pervasive Internet.

As the major enabler of this, and someone who largely has converted from analog to digital at every opportunity, I've been especially excited to see how this impacts the way they interact with each other, what they choose to learn, and how quickly they grasp ideas - even when, to them, there is no user manual. I'm naturally curious to see what they choose to do and choose not to do, and what simply proves too hard.

My twins are now six years old, and Braden (pictured) is four. The twins are in first grade, and Braden is in preschool. The older two can read well, and do some writing, but while Braden recognizes letters, it's not as if he's sitting down with a good book yet. Despite the mild illiteracy, all three can breeze through tablet usage - from memorizing a pin or lockscreen, to finding applications, launching apps, moving them to folders, and even downloading new ones from the Google Play store. And it's not far-fetched to say Braden is actively learning to read from applications you'd never expect, like Major League Baseball's At Bat, where he's working hard to memorize stats and names of players I've never even heard of. (See also: Wired: How Videogames Like Minecraft Actually Help Kids Learn to Read)

Braden Seeing Baseball Highlights from the Majors on my Nexus 7

Given my kids' capabilities, it should come as no surprise that their primary interaction with the Web is through touch on tablet or phones. They were exposed to iPads and Android tablets early on, and have grown familiar with the practice of touching an icon to launch and app and how to navigate the apps - including the always important ability to hit the small X in a corner to close ads. And when the app isn't what they are looking for, they just ask Google. Depending on how well they ask, Google should find them what they want, whether they are looking for "videos of cupcakes", "pictures of beagles" or whatever strikes their fancy that day.

It'd be easy to say kids, like us, use technology to be entertained. They each have favorite games, and frequently open Netflix or YouTube to watch videos - or, as Braden does, the MLB At Bat app, to see highlights from all of the previous days' games. But they also use applications to draw, or for education, whether they are matching games, flashcards, or adventures that teach them language or math. And on more than one occasion, I've found my Google Express shopping cart full, with hundreds of dollars of items, from everything to do with Disney's Frozen or Minecraft, to books, toys and food. Luckily, they haven't yet figured out the last steps of the purchase, so I've always been able to clear the cart before having to explain away crazy charges.

Sarah posts to YouTube, complete with titles and emoji.

They've each also figured out the tablets and phones are capable of creative work as well. I was recently surprised with an email notifying me that I'd successfully uploaded three new videos to YouTube. After momentarily thinking I'd been hacked, I realized my daughter had not only filmed three new videos, but correctly titled them and uploaded them to my account. Meanwhile, the automatic backup capabilities of Google+ come in handy when we want to see pictures the kids have taken with our devices, from their perspective. Sarah has also been known to tell me to take a photo of something she's proud of, with the intent of my sharing it on Google+ or Facebook, saying "Daddy, take my picture and put it on the Internet."

"My" invite to Brian to join Ingress, sent by Braden.

Last week, just before I wrote my post about Ingress, I got a note from my friend Brian Fitzpatrick, thanking me for inviting him to the game. But I hadn't. Braden did. While I was at the office, Braden had opened up Ingress, sent off a dozen or so invitations to people in my address book, and unhelpfully, dropped some of my equipment into the front yard, for me to reacquire when I got home. That was amusing, and luckily for me, he didn't mess up my account any further. And this Sunday, Braden jacked up our thermostat to 82 degrees, using the Nest app, before I realized things were more than a bit toasty.

On Sunday, we were a comfortable 80 degrees in our house. Thanks, Braden.

Just as important as seeing what they're doing with my devices is seeing what they aren't doing. Aside from the Ingress invites, I've never seen the kids interested in opening up Gmail, or posting to any of my social networks. No fun tweets or posts to delete. No mass apologies to coworkers for toddler missives to internal mailing lists, and no inadvertent likes of odd posts in the stream. They're not interested in Google Drive or browsing the Web, and they've only fired up Sonos to blast music in our house a couple times. For them, the tablets are purpose driven. They have a short time to delivery of the content they're looking for, and if they can't find it, they'll ask Google in a different way, or go back to what they know works.

Just like many of us find we struggle with handwriting after years of regular typing, I'm interested to see how my kids are going to operate with analog assignments that may require pencil and paper, or if textbooks might be the rule, instead of downloadable equivalents. I'm curious to see if they'll master speed typing at a faster age than I did, thanks to the availability of computers, or if touch and voice will rule the day so they might not have to make it a priority. But for now, they're especially handy on the tablet - be it a 5 inch phone, or my Nexus 9, which Braden calls my "big tablet", as opposed to my "medium tablet" Nexus 7. And as Google Now improves, time between what they want and what they find should even further decrease. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Disclosures: I work at Google and enjoy products of ours I mentioned in the post, from Android to YouTube, Gooogle Drive, Gmail and Ingress. So do my kids.

December 09, 2014

Ingress: The Incredible & Addictive Covert Game Being Played All Around You

A little over two years ago, a small team within Google called Niantic Labs introduced Ingress, a game that adds a virtual reality layer on top of the entire world, which you can claim, defend or destroy for your cause - depending on which side you've chosen. And while I tested early versions of the game while it was developing at Google, and dabbled with it just after launch, I put it aside before jumping back in with both feet two months ago, when a pair of colleagues on my new team couldn't stop talking about it. And now I won't stop talking about it either.

Simply put, in my view, it's the most well-designed, intelligently deployed concept I've ever seen for an immersive experience on mobile, which encourages you to get off your butt, explore the world around you, and find new people to help you achieve goals together. Every facet of the application, even while it seems mysterious, is designed to help you get out of house, to explore new crannies of your neighborhood (and beyond) and discover people on your faction who need your help to achieve what would be impossible alone. I've never seen anything like it.

Some shots of Ingress badges and live portals.

As you know, I've been an avid wearables and personal fitness tracking nut for the better part of more than two years. Fitbit has been counting my steps and Moves has been showing where I go. But while Fitbit only counts my activity, it doesn't provide direction or give me a specific mission. Ingress does - making my steps matter, as they are pulled toward each new destination, and seemingly every turn provides yet another opportunity to take down an opponent, power up or build on my own space, or hack away and get new equipment to make me stronger. This combination has accelerated my near-constant walking and movement into personal record highs, consistent leaderboard domination, and I've fallen way behind in any regular TV watching.

There are many other sites dedicated to the gameplay of Ingress, so I won't go too deep, but at its heart, Ingress is a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. In the storyline, the Earth has been seeded with exotic matter (XM), and you either believe this XM will enlighten us all, or you will resist it. So from the very begining, you choose a side: The Resistance (blue) or The Enlightened (green).

The Two Factions of Ingress: Enlightened and Resistance

Once you pick a side, you then have three primary functions, much like other multi-player games. You can build sites for your faction, you can destroy the opposition, or you can continually farm for new equipment to make you stronger. This is done by visiting sites, known as portals, which consist largely of landmarks across the world, from water fountains to murals, sculptures, churches and standing structures. If it is something that can shape your mind and appears exotic, there's a good chance it's a portal.

Ingress is played globally as teams battle for position.

As one friend of mine tastefully said, you can't play Ingress "from the comfort of your own toilet." You have to move. And in especially dense places with plenty of landmarks, the next portal can be just another block or less away. So if you find yourself out to build, farm, destroy or explore, the only limit to how much you participate is your own time, and how long your phone can hold a charge. That's led to something of a cottage industry for Ingress players lugging around external phone battery charges so playing doesn't stop short at the worst time.

Now that Ingress has you out of your house, and walking with specific destinations, with the next stop just a little bit further away, you're being stretched. Stretched to find new places in your community you hadn't previously seen, new spots in other cities you've never visited, and it sets you up to be territorial, knowing that particular portals are valuable to you or your side.

The Denver, Colorado Ingress Scene: A Mess of Blue and Green

But if you really want to have an impact, you can't just go it alone. Even the most experienced Ingress player can't build a portal up much more than halfway to full strength, thanks to features in the game that limit your ability to power up portals. It takes two players to take a portal to 75%, three can take it to just over 80%, and in order for a portal to reach 100% strength, it take contributions from eight individual players. So you can deploy and hope, or you need to find people on your side who are often more than eager to help and build, destroy or hack together - spurred on by built-in communications in the app, or augmented through dedicated communities on Google+, Hangouts and other chat tools. There, people will arrange times to meet, secret build or teardown events, or provide updates about activity in their neighborhood.

One Los Altos portal in our neighborhood.

I recently heard somebody say you either go deep into Ingress or you don't go at all. And it's probably true. I originally didn't get the attraction, as a low level player. But now I've seen things I build at midnight before heading home get taken down at 1:30 in the morning, or by six a.m. the next day. I've started to recognize and greet players on both teams, and you learn the patterns of the game, as one faction gains control over a geography, or specific people just refuse to ever give up, and seemingly play around the clock. And once you go deep, it really becomes a numbers game, as every activity is counted. Every hack. Every deployment. Every link from portal to portal. Every field. Every destroyed opponent portal. The more numbers you get, the more abilities you have and the stronger you are against the competition, and the more they need to be prepared for you.

Joining the Enlightened on Ingress has brought destinations, goals and missions to the activity I was already doing with Fitbit. It's dramatically reduced (even further) my idle sitting time, it's made me see and enjoy experiences I hadn't yet gotten to around town and in neighboring cities, and I'm getting new relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds, who all hold at least one thing in common - that we're playing Ingress, and working to expand the minds of humanity. It's more than a game. It's the true reality. I hope you do check the game out, and see what it does to your daily routine. And while I don't mind more competition, it'd be awesome if you saw the world in a new light by joining the Enlightened.

Grab Ingress on Google Play for Android and on iTunes.

Disclosure: I work at Google, and the Niantic team works within Google.

November 25, 2014

You Can't Achieve Equality by Expecting Everyone to be the Same

There's not much a fairly privileged white guy who hails from the suburbs can say about diversity or racism without being questioned. Compared to many other people who don't hail from WASP backgrounds, most of my challenges are pretty easy. I don't come into life fighting against a biased expectation of who I am or what I'm capable of. I don't immediately find that people assume I'm not smart enough, or honest enough, or trusted enough to participate in their workplace and their communities. Things are remarkably comfortable.

Speaking up or talking about hard issues like racial bias or diversity, or calling for attentiton to inherent problems, makes it possible I'll misspeak and say something quotable where I don't want it. It's instead much easier to sit quiet and let other people fight their battles - to watch big conflicts and flareups remotely, trivializing someone else's experience, as something that's not happening here. But even in the 'burbs, and in our corporate offices, there are issues. We may not see unarmed men shot 12 times and killed in our hallways, but there are opportunities to bring down or build up our peers daily, and most of us aren't doing much to aid their quiet struggles.

Earlier this month, one of my best friends, +Erica Joy, who works with me here at +Google, talked about how bias has worked against her, as a black woman, in a predominantly white and east Asian world. Her piece "The Other Side of Diversity" removes the abstract anonymity of company statistics and tells you the direct reality of what it's like as someone who walks into a position where people may have already made their mind up about you, where your mere presence may make them uncomfortable, and where artificial limits are put on your potential.

Lunch With +Erica Joy in 2013 #throughglass
(And she'll hate that I shared this photo...)

I've known Erica for about seven years, and have been colleagues with her for the last three plus. She's the kind of person who I've always felt free to open up to and tell her just about anything. She's clever, insightful and hilarious - if you take the opportunity to know her. She's also especially thoughtful. She can be a sharp critic when our products don't work well, and she can push back on me if I say something daft that needs revision or clarification. And yet I know not everyone is open to finding out her personality, and as she spells out in her piece, as well as the follow-on "No Solution", her professional career (and personal no doubt) has been impacted, multiple times, by the shortsightedness of others.

While I may comfortably sit on the side where I don't have to fight for inclusion, it's incredibly frustrating to see this happen time and again, whether people are strong enough, like Erica, to speak up about it, or they remain in silence. For no matter how you carve up the numbers being shared from our workplaces, we have some obvious gaps in our nurturing, recruiting, hiring and retention practices - which extend a gulf in our representation of women and minorities in tech. This is a systemic issue at all levels, and while I know companies (including mine) honestly are working hard to improve things, the day to day realities can't be glossed over with an expectation of prettier futures.

Sometimes when Erica and I get together, we joke about seeing if we can hit a quota of spotting more people like her (namely black women) on campus - like the proverbial unicorn. If we can find two more (not including her) over a standard lunch visit, we've done pretty well. Sometimes, depending where we walk or where we're eating, we see more. Other times, none, as streams of geeky white guys (like me), and assorted people from all other directions walk by.

But it shouldn't be a numbers game. One shouldn't have to try and play "Where's Waldo?" to find peers who share their same background. One shouldn't have to try and mask their identity to be included, or assimilate as to not draw attention. As I read Erica's first post pre-publishing, as a friendly editor, what struck me the most from her experience was one of her last bullet points:
"I feel like I’ve lost my entire cultural identity in effort to be part of the culture I’ve spent the majority of the last decade in." -- "The Other Side of Diversity"
If you have to change who you are to fit into the culture, maybe it's the culture that needs changing. I've been lucky enough, even as a dumb white guy from the burbs, to have had some experiences in fairly open communities. I'm glad I attended UC Berkeley, which was even more diverse when I attended school there in the late 1990s than it is now, and for all its continued challenges, I believe Google has its heart in the right place to empower people from all different backgrounds, and is working on it from multiple directions. While my neighborhood isn't the picture of diversity, I've always followed and engaged with stimulating people online, no matter their racial makeup.

As a numbers exercise, I did a quick count a week-plus ago of those whom I'm connected to online. Of the 246 people I'm mutual friends with on Facebook, for example, only eight are black. That's 3.5%. If I edit the count to remove immediate family members, or colleagues, to only include friends I've hand selected as acquaintances, that goes up to 4.5%, ahead of the Santa Clara County percentage of 2.9%, but behind the California percentage of 6.6% and the national census of 13.5% or so who self identify as black. And really, what constitutes a good number anyway? I can't look at my social networks, pick a few dozen black avatars, add them to my circles and call it a day. There's no seal of approval that clarifies whether I'm part of the problem or part of the solution.

The Ferguson incident and its ongoing echoes has the topic of race back in the headlines again. And eventually our short attention spans will migrate on to some other hot issue of the day, while the family and community suffers permanent scarring. But for many of our friends and peers, this is not a one day, one week, one summer type of challenge - but a lifetime.

We can abstract the Valley's diversity issues into sets of percents, charts and graphs, and cite our efforts with dollars spent or scholarships awarded, but whatever we do, we have to keep pushing and it starts with a recognition that something is broken, and we need to be aware of it. We need to encourage people who run into these trials daily to speak up, and to please be themselves. We are better because of our differences.