Monthly Archives: January 2013

RLST Post #6: Ten Things Google Knows to be True


I’ll be examining the ways in which Google’s philosophy focuses on the users’ identity and self, using the 10 “truths” that google professes.

With my experience working at start-ups and technology companies, I’ll also be looking at how Google’s “truths” have come to revolutionize the way that start-ups are made, and companies become successful.

1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.

Not only at the top of the list, this is also the #1 tenant for any modern successful company. Any start-up these days has to focus on the user, which has led to the adaptation of user-centric, “agile” development techniques, which focus on responding to users’ needs as fast as the developers can push code.

From the “Agile Manifesto”:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer
through early and continuous delivery
of valuable software.

Customer satisfaction is important because happy customers are more likely to “be loyal and make repeat orders” (source), which leads to higher revenue for the company. The old style is caring about the money. The new style is caring about the people.

2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

People might think of Google as a mail, maps, phone, video, and search company, but the company professes otherwise:

 Our dedication to improving search helps us apply what we’ve learned to new products, like Gmail and Google Maps. Our hope is to bring the power of search to previously unexplored areas, and to help people access and use even more of the ever-expanding information in their lives.

Even in the area of Google Mail, the real focus is making mail quickly searchable, and gaining insight on users to make their searches more relevant. Amazon does the same thing for sales. Apple does the same thing for personal computing. Each of the modern behemoths has a focus on one sector or technology that they’ve decided to excel at, and that’s what pushes them above the competition.

But this is really about catering to the user. If a company can do something better than before, the real winner here is the consumer, who suddenly has more, cheaper, faster technology to be satisfied with.

3. Fast is better than slow.

What is more satisfying than going fast? Americans are all about speed. Look at our pizza, our obsession with cars, planes, and the fact that “time is money”. Code, whether on our computers or in our browsers, reflects this.

According to that last link (which is according to Google), 400 milliseconds is long enough for a user to become impatient with a website., for my machine, takes 271ms to start loading content, and a full 853ms to show all of the content. Google, on the other hand, takes just 97ms to start loading content, and less than a millisecond to be done. Google utilizes some interesting tricks to accomplish this feat.

This is, again, a reflection of the first point. The user’s experience is priority #1.

4. Democracy on the web works.

Having a lot of users to make happy means that a company can quickly learn how to make a lot of users happy.

On that note, data mining is king. According to that source:

A May 2011 study by McKinsey Global Institute suggests that retailers analyzing large data sets to their fullest could increase operating margins by 60 percent and the health care industry could reduce annual costs by 8 percent or $200 billion.

And if you want to get a piece of that:

According to the report, a shortfall of about 140,000 to 190,000 individuals with analytical expertise is projected by 2018.

How better to teach a machine to make users happy than to look through data, something that machines are really, really good at.

5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.

How better to make your customers happy than to make sure you’re with them 24 hours a day?

With this, google tracks traffic:

Google tracks your voice.

Google tracks you, and it uses that data to focus on you and make you happy. Customer satisfaction, 24 hours a day.

6. You can make money without doing evil.

“Don’t be evil”, Google’s unofficial motto, is something that permeates their company to this day. Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and even Google have been accused of unsavory business practices, but Google is the only one of those that has been declared “pure of heart” by the US Government.

Americans are so into feeling good about our purchases that we’ve invented words to describe it. We don’t want to buy from an evil company. So to make a user satisfied (rule #1!), the company itself must be “good”. Mistrust only breeds mistrust.

7. There’s always more information out there.

I’ve already posted about this.

8. The need for information crosses all borders.

What better goal than utopia? Although our fictions often show them going awry, we seem to hold out hope that one day all peoples will be united. Technology is helping do this.

9. You can be serious without a suit.

The startup community has known this for years. Happy workers = more productivity = happy users. Gone are the days of dress codes and uniforms.

10. Great just isn’t good enough.

Because what user wants a great product when it can be better. Looking back on studying apple, we know that

You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. (source)

User satisfaction is king, and the only companies that survive are the ones that know this. Look at how long Facebook refused their IPO. The new wave is to keep control as long as possible, so that a company doesn’t have to deal with shareholder pressure. That means unhappy customers, and in today’s world, that means death.

RLST Post #5: Five Sites That Drive the Internet

If you really want to understand the world of the internet, the best way is to jump in and experience the daily craziness. Here are five sites that (in my opinion) have their finger on the pulse of the web.


Although mainstream Reddit is becoming less of an internet-news site and more of a meme factory, there are still quite a few places on the site that are incredibly interesting and showcase the power of the internet.

Reddit is a link-sharing site. That is, people post links to media hosted elsewhere, and Reddit provides a platform to comment on and share that media. Posts are organized by votes, so that the community decides what is important and interesting on any given day.

The “frontpage” of Reddit, which you see when you visit, is actually a conglomeration of various “Sub-Reddits”, which are focused communities of interest, centered around a hobby or common trait. It doesn’t matter if you’re into photography, videogames, or even My Little Pony, there’s a Sub-Reddit for your interest. There are even quite a few meta-Sub-Reddits, which deal with issues on Reddit itself. is one of the most community-centered sites I have ever been on, with kindness (as well as cruelty) escaping the bounds of the internet. If you want to know what media is hot on the internet today, just visit Reddit and click away.

2 & 3. and DeviantArt




Although it may take you some time to create a well-curated list of tumblr blogs to follow, Tumblr is another internet community that is right now going strong.

Meanwhile, DeviantArt is a repository of original content creation, the hangout for many, many aspiring artists. The main draw of these sites is the immense amount of art uploaded to them every day.

Just like other social media sites, Tumblr allows you to follow whatever interests you, so you’ll have to find your own way on the site. DeviantArt does have a firehose stream, but you can also choose artists to follow to have your own curated list.

4. 4chan


I’m not going to link to 4chan from here, since it has a bit of a bad reputation, but the site still maintains somewhat of a high pedestal for knowing what’s what on the internet.

Despite 4chan’s reputation, there are a few SFW boards that maintain a solid stream of content creation and creative output.

I can’t advocate going on 4chan (and I don’t myself), but a list of popular internet sites without 4chan is quite incomplete.

5. Hacker News


Hacker News is Silicon Valley’s Reddit. A media sharing site for startups, innovators, and content creators. If you’re looking to really have a feel for what people who run the tech companies of the world are talking about, spend some time on Hacker News.

Hacker News has no sub-genres, although it does split off “Show HN” for content and “HN Jobs” for finding employment. That means that all ~35K users see whatever is on the front page. But among those 35K users are some of the best and brightest technology and social leaders of our time.

Among all of these sites, Hacker News is easily the best place for news and internet content, since it holds its posts to a very high standard. It’s often faster than Reddit for tech news as well, often about a day ahead of the rest of the internet.

RLST Post #4: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Buddhist Mind

When I was in high school, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks visited our campus for a week, bringing with them bags of colored sand and an assortment of brass tools. School administrators marked off an area of the great room with ropes, and provided a large flat board to the monks. Over the next several days, the team of monks created a very large sand mandala using just a few simple tools. The mandala was complex, it was beautiful, and even three-dimensional, tiny spiral stacks of sand grains poking out of the floor, ready to collapse at a breath.

The idea of the mandala was focus and craft – the creation of something beautiful and complex by applying techniques learned over a lifetime. The concentration of the monks was ultimate. Each movement was deliberate and meditated, no pun indented.

The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear. — Neurotribes‘ Steve Silberman

Although the appearance of the orange-clad, bald men was interesting, it was the ceremony at the end of the ordeal that fascinated me and changed the way I appraised material possessions: they dumped the entire thing in a lake. The ceremony had little pomp, a ten-minute event in which the monks walked the result of their weeks’ work down to the water, collected some of the sand in plastic baggies to give to onlookers to distribute elsewhere, and dumped the rest in the lake. All of us stood on the sideline, taking pictures.

Beginner’s Mind

I find the picture-taking quite humorous now. The entire point of the ceremony is to demonstrate the fleeting nature of life – the mandala, complex and beautiful, is limited in time no matter what we do. A human, no matter how important, only has a finite amount of time, and will eventually become like the mandala, broken into component parts and recycled.

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.” –Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech

We were not supposed to take the sand as souvenirs, a practice which attempts to make the moment permanent. Some people did, including myself. The purpose was to spread the sand at a favorite place, and have our own moment of zen. And yet many of us did not get that message. I still have the sand somewhere in my room at home, cluttering the space. The same with pictures. We – the modern Americans – felt that the moment would be lost if we didn’t record it, take something from it. The Buddhist monks were happy to live in the moment, and required nothing from it except practice, experience, and time to meditate.

I reflected on this last year when the Lawrence Gaming Club was trying to decide whether or not to start a new world in Minecraft. Club members had spent hours and hours building extensive houses, mining chests full of resources, interconnecting the continents with a massive rail system. And yet the server was unstable and liable to crash, and people were becoming bored without things to do. Even I was attached to the work I had done, but then I remembered the monks and their mandala. How was it different from the work we had put into the Minecraft world. Both were transient. We wiped the digital world clean and started fresh, which ended up being the right decision.

A sand mandala of our own, by myself, SIB, and Picone

A sand mandala of our own, by myself, SIB, and Picone. The monks gave us the sand for this. Also: Firefox 😀

Also: Apparently there is a comic about Steve Jobs and zen, a preview of which is available online.

RLST Post #3: Be Observant

My homeroom teacher for all of middle school was a man named Mr. Martin. As I remember him, he was of average height and stature, and wore a kind beard. He was the kind of man who had eyes that twinkled when he smiled, and betrayed the depth of his mind. He taught English, History, Math, Shop, and other general life skills to our class of about fifteen.

There are only a few moments I remember from that era of my life as vividly as a lecture he once gave to our class. I don’t recall the purpose of the lecture, but I do remember the message: “Be Observant”.

I bring this up because I add it to the list of things that Steve Jobs’ Commencement Speech invites us to do: Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, Be Observant.


“Be observant” works on several levels. To me, it means to never stop seeking knowledge. There is no knowledge that is not worth knowing. Learn from everyone. The now-famous calligraphy class is a perfect example of this. Jobs was observant – he knew that even though he was probably never going to become a calligrapher, the class’ knowledge would be worth it someday. And it was. If you are not observant, you will find that when it comes time to connect the dots, you will not have enough dots to connect.

According to the records I’ve read, Jobs was observant: he saw with his senses and his gut. Even if he didn’t know something, he knew how he felt about it and he would tell people that. And so he saw what other people did and emulated it. That is what being observant is.


“I don’t care how it works,” is a phrase I abhor. Learn everything. If you don’t know how something works, ask around. Google. Take it apart and put it back together. I urge everyone to learn how things work. Observe the entrails of your computer. Eviscerate your television. Stick your fingers into the guts of a cell phone.

I cannot pretend that I know everything about electronics. Far from it. But the important thing for me is to never stop learning about them. That is staying hungry. That is being observant.

If I am hungry and observant, I can be foolish – I have the prerequisites to experiment.

An unwillingness to learn will only leave you frustrated. Knowledge is power. Veritas est lux.


Mr. Martin worked as a melon-picker one summer. According to his tale, he hitchhiked around the southwest, and took a job digging up melons with short-handled shovels, which is brutal work – bent over all day in the sun. Even this is knowledge: knowledge of the human capacity, the source of food, the feeling of exhaustion. Knowledge is not only book knowledge, technological knowledge. Jobs trekked around India, knowing the feeling of starvation and disease.

We are the sum of our experiences: never stop seeking new ones out, or you will stagnate:

“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, “Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.” And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently. (Steve Jobs, 1985 Playboy Interview)”

So stay observant, and you will learn new things that will help connect the dots later in life. Stay hungry, stay foolish, stay observant.


RLST Post #2: Aaron Swartz

I cannot pretend that I knew Aaron Swartz except through the articles written about him, as well as the fruits of his labor: YCombinator, Reddit, the RSS specification. And yet when he took his own life on Jan 11, It only took a moment for me to realize that the world had lost yet another contributor to computing and technology far before their time.

Probably the most infamous version of this was Alan Turing, who at 41 took his own life through a cyanide-laced apple. His crime was being homosexual during a time at which it was not okay to be so, and we can only wonder – like Pythagoras, Galois, Abel, Ramanujan, Boltzmann, Jobs, et cetera, what wonderful and driving creations he may have discovered if only the world had not been cruel to him. So it is with Swartz.

Aaron Swartz, American Hero (Washington Post)

Remembering Aaron Swartz (TorrentFreak)

Aaron Swartz’ Electronic Will (

As the TorrentFreak article says, it is not yet time to enter debate about the circumstances of his death. At the time, Swartz was in trouble with the government for copying electronic articles from paywalled sites like JSTOR. Either way, and whether you think his punishment was too harsh or not, his suicide only cut off what could have been a long and even more productive life.

I am proud to use RSS, read, and browse YCombinator’s news, and remind myself that thinking differently is a gift, not a crime. From Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” campaign:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Take a little time to thank the different people in your life. As strange as they might be, remember that they’re the ones that make dents in the universe.

Senior Project: Introduction

Since I have one of these blog-type-things, I’ll be not only making my posts about RLST 245: “Apple, Google, Facebook” here, but also posting weekly updates about my Senior project, which is to build a blogging platform.

“But Erty, there are a lot of blogging platforms already! Why make another?” –You

I feel that there is an open niche for an extremely lightweight blog platform. I have seen a lot of instances of people wanting to have a blog on their site, but not knowing (or wanting to deal with) MySQL, a 14MB wordpress installation (often larger than the rest of the site!), or an external blog like Tumblr or Blogspot.

My goal is to write a blogging platform that:

  1. Requires nothing except a webserver
  2. Is entirely self-contained (no external database)
  3. Is, at time of installation, less than 1MB, uncompressed
  4. Requires less than 5 minutes for a non-tech to set up

I feel that my Yoctoblog will meet all of these requirements. I’ll be working in PHP, but keeping an eye out for ways to remove even the dependency on the PHP parser, perhaps by using Facebook’s HipHop. Whether or not this will require compilation on the target system is a topic for further research.

I have a working prototype of Yoctoblog, which is available in a Github repository. However, I feel that there are some fundamental issues with the current architecture, so I will be restarting from scratch in order to make an even more efficient and portable blog platform.

Some decisions I need to make about the project:

  1. Do I want to include a WYSIWIG, BBCode, or other text editor?
  2. What is the scope of the project that I feel I can complete within my time and space requirements?
  3. What level of optimization should I do, and what tools should I use to do that optimization?
  4. How do I want the posts to be structured in the database?

I will also be focused on security and modularity throughout the project, attempting to make the project both open for modding (probably required, considering the restricted feature set), and secure (required to be on the playing field).

One of the things I’ve noticed in web development is that you must write programs for someone who is simultaneously an infamous hacker and a complete idiot. Hopefully Yoctoblog will be useful for both.

RLST Post #1: Lifehacking with Hotkeys

[Editor’s Note: These blog posts are from a class at Lawrence University, RLST 245: Apple, Google, Facebook, which examined those companies from a religious studies viewpoint. We were required to keep a blog for the class. The class was taught by Martyn Smith, and I highly recommend it to any Lawrence student.]

“Similarly, the relatively affluent twentieth-century American could reorganize habits and styles of life experimentally to achieve a more gratifying private life.” –R. Bellah et al. “Habits of the Heart”, pg. 46.


I consider myself a nerd, born and bred. I grew up alongside the internet, tottering along as a child to the buzz and beeps of a dial-up modem, and had my parents called into a meeting with my preschool teachers because all I talked about on the playground was a computer game. Perhaps I don’t have as much “cred” as, say, a child of the 80’s, what with the BBSs and the phreaking and the old protocols, but as far as our modern internet goes, I think I can safely say that I’ve lived with it for all of my life. As a hacker (white-hat, of course) and programmer, the internet and I are integrated far more than your average surfer.

(As a side note, I actually offer computer consulting as a business, so if you want to learn how to use a computer more efficiently, contact me.)

Growing up alongside this global monstrosity, and integrating myself into it and the culture surrounding it, through sites like reddit, google code, github, stackoverflow, etc., I have over time picked up a lot of “best practices”, hints, and most importantly, comfort with technology. Which brings me to my (*cough*assigned*cough*) topic for this first blog post: lifehacking.

“Lifehacking”. What a Web-2.0™ word. I prefer to think of it as mundane transhumanism – augmenting your life with technology to achieve more than a normal person can. But “Lifehacking” is much more user friendly, and so it persists. And yet it really is hacking. It’s beating the system in ways that most people don’t know how to use.

Did you know that according to Google, 90% of people don’t know that you can use “ctrl+f” to find text on a page? If you didn’t, I won’t blame you – reading manuals (known affectionately among the tech crowd as “RTFM”) is becoming a lost art. And yet that’s thousands of hours wasted by people who didn’t know a simple shortcut.


So for today I want to talk about lifehacking through hotkeys. Take a moment to read this comic by /u/neonnoodle (click to enlarge):

watching someone else use a computer



How did you get back here? Did you hit backspace? Did you hit alt + left arrow? Do you have a macro on your mouse (my preferred method)? Did you actually move your mouse cursor all the way to the top left of the page, and laboriously click the back arrow.

Edit: You could also have a plugin installed that allows you to hover over images and make them larger, saving the time of opening a new tab and coming back!

Did you know to hold control while clicking the image so that it opened in a new tab? Did you middle click on it, which accomplishes the same thing? But I digress.

We already covered ctrl+f, which on mac is the little mac loopy thing + f, which allows you to search for text on a page. This works in most applications. You can also hit f3 to do exactly the same thing.

If you’re using any sort of modern browser, try ctrl+t (mac+t), which opens a new tab. Knew that one? Close the tab, then hit ctrl+shift+t (mac+shift+t) and watch your last closed tab reappear. Really handy when you accidentally hit ctrl+w. You can also middle-click on tabs to close them, removing the need to hunt down that tiny x.

Meanwhile in windows, experiment with the windows key. If you’ve never used it before, you’re really missing out on some great functionality. Hit it in combination with: d (desktop), p (projector settings), l (lock), x (laptop mobility center), and especially e (open windows explorer). Try windows + tab if you’ve got a high-end graphics card, for a fancy version of alt+tab. Just hitting the windows key opens your start menu, which can then be navigated with the arrow keys + enter.

Don’t hit alt+f4 until you’re done reading this article!

Edit: You can also use ctrl+c (copy), ctrl+x (cut) and ctrl+v (paste) to save yourself time when moving around text. These are probably my most used hotkeys outside of the browser. Mac users can just replace “ctrl” with the little loopy mac thing.


What I’m really saying here is that there are tons of ways to speed up your experience with something as everyday as your web browser.

(Oh! Try tap-holding on the left and right sides of the top bar on your android device for a quick way to switch screen brightness!)

If you pay attention to your devices, they try to tell you these things – Open up any menu and you’ll most likely see the hotkeys “Ctrl + P for print, Ctrl + H for history”, in unassuming grey text next to or under the command. Learn these, and you’ll find your experience with any technology improve. It now bends to your will quickly and effortlessly. Or at least it should, if the programming is any good.

Tying this to religious studies

I mentioned up top a word that describes something I subscribe to, which is the idea that humans can use technology to better themselves: Transhumanism. When Prof. Smith asked the class, “who wants Google Glass?”, I was the only one to enthusiastically raise my hand, which honestly surprised me. Perhaps my techological liberalism has made me more apt to enjoy this kind of human augmentation, AR-type stuff.

There are plenty of other people like me (and someday I hope to have a magnet implant as well). Yet many are repulsed at the idea of augmentation. It seems to go against the natural human idea, and yet I say it goes exactly along with the natural human idea – innovation, creativity, adaptability, and striving to be better. We don’t balk when people pierce their ears, and I hope that it is only a few years until people can replace parts of themselves with technology that makes us better, stronger, faster.

What do hotkeys have to do with bionics? For me, it’s learning to become familiar with technology. That way if you have your eye replaced, you’ll be comfortable with it, instead of struggling to figure out something that has become part of you.


In my humble opinion, learning how to properly and efficiently use the technology you already have is one of the greatest lifehacks you can accomplish. Plus it looks really sweet and your friends will all be impressed by how you can switch tools in photoshop without having to move your mouse.

And who doesn’t want that?

Further Reading

Comprehensive List of Windows Hotkeys

Comprehensive List of Mac Hotkeys

(For linux, you’ll have to find a list for your specific flavor)