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February 23, 2015

YouTube Kids: Smart, Mobile First, and Child Sized.


In December, I wrote about viewing technology through the eyes of a child. As much as I think of myself as an early adopter and 'with it' net citizen, I'm equally amused and amazed at the activities my own kids rapidly learn and partake in when it comes to technology and the Web, how things and concepts once considered the future are commonplace. And their eyes, unvarnished by the way things have always been, highlight shortcomings in our software and websites that historically have been designed for fully literate adults on the desktop.

I've been particularly excited to watch (and trial) YouTube Kids as it has been developed, and have been eager to see it launch today, the collective effort of sharp colleagues like +Shimrit Ben-Yair+Pavni Diwanji+Jonathan Terleski and many more. As they wrote in today's blog post, the new YouTube Kids is "the first Google product built from the ground up with little ones in mind." As a dad of three kids six and under, two of whom who read fairly well and a third just trying to keep up, it's exciting to see them become the focal point for an entirely new interface.

The YouTube Kids Music channel.

My children, from a young age, have been surrounded by touch-enabled tablets. They expect my laptop (and in the case of my Chromebook Pixel, accurately) to be touch-enabled. They use voice search constantly to find what they're looking for, and they essentially expect the world's content to be immediately available. But they tire quickly when apps and sites don't do what they want. That can result in complaints to me, or even a thrown tablet or two from a tantrum.

Without sounding too much like PR-speak, from my own experience, I've seen the YouTube Kids app to reduce any surprises from me in terms of what my kids are watching, they more easily navigate the app, find channels and shows they want, and generally are pleased to have something made just for them.

Browsing shows on YouTube Kids

If you haven't yet tried it out (download on Google Play or iTunes), the app features curated channels, a music area, a learning section, exploration, and the always handy search button. So the colors are bright, the buttons are bigger, and there's no noise in the way.

Browsing the PBS KIDS channel on YouTube Kids

The true measure of whether an app for kids is working is whether the kids ask for it by name, or keep using it instead of getting bored and trying something else. My four year old boy is quick to use the app on my Nexus 9 or Nexus 6, and the twin six year olds are quickly getting used to the new app after lots of their own experience on the standard YouTube app we've all used.

Searching for Minecraft on YouTube Kids

Lucky for us parents who do our best to stay on top of their digital explorations without trying to be overbearing, YouTube Kids makes searching less of a risk. My kids won't go from a G rated topic to an R rated one in a few clicks. Searching for Minecraft (which happens in my house) turns up solid results. And I can even set up the app to run for a certain amount of time before closing, to be used for incentives, or a late evening treat before bed.

Setting YouTube for Kids' timer for 30 minutes

At the risk of my once more vibrant blog to be turned into a daddy blog, the quick summary is that this app is a welcome addition to our tablets and phones. Netflix's Kids only channel is smart. YouTube Kids is smart. The next generation is growing up with smart devices everywhere. What they do with them is largely prodded by what we make possible. Thanks YouTube!

Disclosures: I work for Google, and YouTube is a Google subsidiary.

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