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The Rural Alberta Advantage (special thanks to Songkick)

A couple weeks ago I became a die-hard fan of an awesome Canadian band: The Rural Alberta Advantage. How did it happen? I heard that they were playing in London, thanks to Songkick, and it was simply a brilliant show. You should all buy their album NOW.

The Rural Alberta Advantage

I first heard of them on Fred Wilson’s blog: AVC.com. (If you haven’t heard of him, Fred is a famous venture capitalist who blogs on startups, venture capital and music.) The band ended up hearing about making his top records of 2008 list, and ended up inviting him to a show in New York, which sounded awesome. Links to his posts here:
http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2008/12/top-10-records.html
http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/01/the-joys-of-mus.html
http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/01/the-avc-music-meetup.html
http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/06/kickstarting-a-7.html

So when I heard they were going to be in town, I bought tickets, and put their album into heavy rotation the week or so beforehand to really get a sense of what they were about. The album was really good, but that doesn’t mean they were great live.

Well, it was a tiny club where I saw them, and the band is only three people, but they completely filled up the room with their sound and energy. Each song was different and distinctive, partly because the singer (Nils) explained briefly some of the more obscure Canadian stories and landmarks that are behind the songs. (ie, a tragic landslide that buried Frank, AB; the lyrics then make more sense and the song has a lot more soul.)

I find it tough to explain how awesome it is to see a great band in a small venue. But I did find a few videos on YouTube that have decent sound, so I posted them here so you can check them out.

Frank, AB

Edmonton

Eye of the Tiger

Please, go and buy The Rural Alberta Advantage’s album “Hometowns” NOW. (Click here for Amazon MP3 link.)

Songkick

I’d be remiss in this story if I didn’t tell you about Songkick. I’ve been a member since they were just coming out of beta. If you love seeing live music, don’t walk but RUN to register on Songkick.

Seriously… do it now.

It’s simple, but brutally awesome. You tell it what music you like and listen to (either through connecting it to iTunes or selecting manually), and then Songkick lets you know when those bands are going to be in your city. Most importantly, they only tell you about the bands you’re interested, and they tell you before tickets go on sale.

Before Songkick I had to subscribe to a bunch of mailing lists just so I had a *chance* of hearing about when bands I like were coming to town, let alone getting tickets. Now I just check my e-mail, figure out what I’m going to and when tickets go on sale, and GO.

Plus, for live music nerds like me there’s stuff like setlist archives, photos, videos and a whole bunch of other stuff for each concert that people can upload. You can also learn more about specific venues, specific bands, festivals and more.

If you want to see what I uploaded and wrote about The Rural Alberta Advantage concert above, just check out this link and explore Songkick:

http://www.songkick.com/concerts/4417566-rural-alberta-advantage-at-lexington

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From Moscow to London in 60 Hours… my journey on planes, trains and automobiles

This is my story…

I was one of the thousands of people that was impacted by the volcano in Iceland. (It’s safe to say I never thought I’d end up typing that in my lifetime.) Enough people have asked me about it that I thought I’d write my story down.

Thursday, April 15th (in Moscow) –

Reports of the volcano and the ash impacting flights. I check my flights (to London via Dusseldorf) but they’re all listed as “On Schedule.” I’m hopeful but don’t really believe it. Set my alarm clock to wake up a little earlier to check in the morning.

Friday, April 16th (in Moscow) –

I’m scheduled to fly back to London today, and first thing in the morning I check my flights on Lufthansa. A number of the flights to Germany have been cancelled, but mine is still “On Schedule.” At this point I’m feeling pretty lucky and close my computer to start getting ready.

Less than a minute later, I get a text from Lufthansa telling me my flight has been cancelled. I immediately log back into Lufthansa and find out in the two minutes since I last checked the flight has indeed been cancelled. (I’m VERY thankful to Lufthansa for this!)

I figure I need to head south, and to a place where I can start booking train tickets back home. I looked into Italy, but no luck. But I quickly found a flight on Air Berlin from Moscow to Vienna, and book it immediately. From there I figured that I would sort it out.

(The business bit of Friday is a bit of a blur. I had a meeting but spend most of the time worrying about getting home.)

Friday afternoon my colleague and I made it to Moscow’s DME airport. I managed to get there about five minutes before checkin opened for my flight, so even managed to get an exit row seat for the flight! For the next couple of hours I shared a laptop 3G connection with my colleague, and managed to book a train from Vienna to Koln and *tried* to book a Eurostar ticket for the end of the day Saturday, without success.

The flight to Vienna was fine, and found out from my cab driver later that our plane was one of the last to land… the airport closed just a few minutes later!

My biggest worry once I was in Vienna was boredom on Saturday. My train was scheduled to leave at 6:40am, and I didn’t have anything to read for the 10 hour train ride! Despite looking all over Vienna that night, I couldn’t find anything and was a little worried for the morning.

The other VERY lucky thing that happened was that I managed to book a Eurostar ticket for Sunday the 18th! I think that I Eurostar had added extra trains, and I managed to get a ticket on one of them. Needless to say I was pretty happy about that!

Saturday, April 17th (in Vienna) –

I made it to Vienna’s Westbahnhof at around 6am. Got in line at the ticket office to get my tickets.

This was the lowest point in the whole journey… When I got to the ticket agent it turned out that I *didn’t* have a ticket on the 6:40am train, and there were no other tickets available on the 6:40am train.

Or the 8:40 train.

Or the 10:40 train.

Or the 12:40 train.

Luckily, there was a ticket available on the 14:40 train, getting into Koln nearly 10 hours later at 00:05. I bought it, kicking myself. (I hadn’t gotten an e-mail confirmation of my ticket, so I must have f**ked up when I thought I booked the original train while sitting in the Moscow airport.)

Three important things came out of this, however.

1) I was able to find an English language bookstore (literally, the British Bookshop) and buy books for the train.
2) I got some quality time at Starbucks on a WiFi connection to catch up on work e-mails. (And the weather in Vienna was incredible, which helped, too.)
3) The new train meant I wasn’t going to be able to visit my friend in Aachen, Germany. That really sucked, but at least I had a great phone call with him to catch up.

Finally, I made it back to Westbahnhof and got on the train. On this I need to make an important point:

I LOVE DEUTSCHE BAHN. (German national rail system.)

Sure the train was 10 hours long, but it was such a pleasant journey. Seats had plenty of room, the ride was comfortable, and the scenery was gorgeous. There was a bit of delay, but we pulled into Koln around 00:30 that morning and made it to the hotel, which was about a 2 minute walk away.

Sunday, April 18th (in Koln) –

My the time I checked in, got settled, checked e-mail and went to sleep… I didn’t get much sleep. Woke up early to make sure I was able to get breakfast and back to the station in time for my 7:40am Thalys train to Brussels. The train wasn’t as nice as the Deutsche Bahn Inter-City Express (ICE), but it got me there.

As soon as I made it into Brussels I got in the queue to pick up my Eurostar ticket. The Eurostar office was a mess… they only had two electronic machines to check in, and one of those was broken! It was probably a queue of 40-50 people just to print out tickets that we had purchased online. A TV station was there video-ing everyone and interviewing a few passengers.

After managing to find a bar to see the end of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix, I got lunch and then it was time to queue for the train. Again, the station is small so the check-in queue was crowded and a bit of a mess, but moved quickly enough.

Finally, I was on the train and we started moving. Not many memories after that… I was so exhausted I slept nearly the entire way home.

By 3pm on Sunday I was home in London.

Summary

While it was certainly a bit of an adventure, I really came out of this whole thing relatively unscathed. I was lucky to get a flight from Moscow to Vienna, and lucky to get a Eurostar ticket. Between was a very straightforward train ride. It helped that I was on a business trip, so I could use a corporate credit card and sort it all out later. (Not that anyone was really ripping people off, even Eurostar wasn’t ridiculously expensive…)

I do feel bad for people that were caught in much worse situations (sleeping in airports for days, etc.). When stuff like this happens, a WiFi or 3G connection and good communications (from Lufthansa!) are like gold dust.

Total flight time: ~2.5 hours (Russia, Austria)
Total train time: ~14 hours (Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, UK)

Here’s my journey (from Vienna onward) on a map:

View Larger Map

Postscript – My colleague

I was in Moscow with a colleague that was (and still is) trying to get back to Dublin. By the time his flights were officially cancelled there weren’t any others leaving. He managed to catch an overnight sleeper train from Moscow to Helsinki, which I understand was filled with drunken Russians playing dance music all night long. He’s still in Helsinki, but happy to at least be in a city where lots of people speak English and the Euro is the currency! Hopefully he’ll be coming back soon….

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Switching from the iPhone 3G to the Nexus One and Android – my story

I was lucky enough to have joined Google in enough time to receive a Nexus One as the company’s holiday gift to employees. Though it has been written about extensively, I wanted to share my perspectives as someone that switched from my previous iPhone 3G to the Nexus One.

(Note that enough though I got the Nexus One, the experience will be very similar for anyone switching to a modern Android phone, such as a Droid or any of the cool new HTC phones that have come out recently.)

The wicked awesome

Power widget / battery management – When I first saw the power widget on my phone’s home screen, I honestly didn’t know what it did. There were five icons, which seemed to toggle on/off. But this widget is fantastic, and allows you to quickly turn battery hogs (such as GPS, WiFi, push notifications, etc) on and off. Compared to digging in a variety of various iPhone menus in the “Settings” app, I can quickly change how much power my phone is using.

And it might be my usage patterns, but I get a LOT more use out of my Nexus One battery than I got out of my iPhone. It was getting to the point where my iPhone would barely last until after lunch, where my Nexus One can easily last all day and my commute home. Not only that, but when my Nexus One battery degrades, I can replace it myself!

Google Maps – This app is just amazing. It’s even got StreetView, and I personally think that the StreetView interface on the phone is superior to the interface on the desktop. I find it hard to describe exactly how fantastic this app is, and how useful it can be. Every time I go somewhere I haven’t been before I use this app.

Flexibility – I love the flexibility of the Android platform. Just the concept of adding widgets to your homescreens is awesome. I’ve been traveling quite a bit recently, and I have little 1×1 widgets on my homescreens that constantly update with the latest exchange rates. There are built in widgets to control music, to search (big surprise there), see news headlines, twitter, etc. Fundamentally there is so much more flexibility in what you can do with an Android phone, and I love it.

Multiple apps – The biggest feature I love is that multiple apps can be running at the same time. This didn’t seem to matter that much when I first switched from the iPhone, but I’ve slowly come to realize how brilliant this is for users. I can click on a link in my Twitter client (I use Seesmic; it’s awesome), open it in a browser, get a notification that I’ve got a new e-mail and open the Gmail client, and then switch back and forth with little or no wait since all the apps are running at the same time. It just makes the experience of using the phone so much faster, particularly for “power” users.

The really good

Unlocked – The Nexus One doesn’t come locked to a carrier. While you may or may not have a contract with that carrier which could be expensive to break, the phone itself is unlocked. I really like that.

Form factor & display – The display is amazing, and really vivid. It’s got an 800 x 400 pixel display, which is over twice the iPhone (which has a 480 x 320 pixel display). It feels great in your hand, and it amazingly thin. While I don’t see the need for a trackball, it’s there and has occasionally been useful to select/edit within a paragraph of small text. It’s just a really solid phone.

Speed – The Nexus One is fast. I switched from an iPhone 3G, and the 3GS is probably a better comparison, but I love the speed of my new phone.

Google integration – I’ve been a Google user since it was still hosted on the Stanford servers. I’ve been a Gmail user since 2004, and have since switched to Google Calendar and Google Contacts. If you use *any* of these products, the Nexus One is amazing. The apps just simply work, and work the way you want them to. Any changes sync back immediately, and you can be much more productive. (Certainly much more productive than I was with my iPhone.)

The needs improvement

The Nexus One and Android isn’t exactly a “Jesus” phone… there are some things I wish it did better.

App Market – Searching and purchasing in the App Market is great. Browsing, however, isn’t. I personally feel that browsing for new apps is something best done on the desktop, and that’s not possible with the App Market as it stands. Hopefully it’ll be something that will change someday.

Sync music – So far I’ve been using DoubleTwist, and certainly recommend it. (And highly recommend getting the DoubleTwist app for your Android phone- it eliminates some annoying steps you would otherwise have to do manually when you plug your phone into your computer.) But it’s not perfect and not quite as slick as iTunes is for the iPhone. That said, I think there’s a lot more I can learn and get configured within DoubleTwist, so I don’t want to be too harsh.

Sound/Vibrate – When I first drafted this list, I wanted to point out that there’s no “silent” switch like there is on the iPhone. However, I’ve since learned about the “Ringer Toggle Widget” which is now on my homescreen. It lets you quickly toggle between normal ringer, silent ringer, and vibrate modes. And even though it’s on the home screen, with multiple apps it means you don’t have to quit out of an app to get to it. With all that said, I do like having a physical switch so I can reach into my pocket in a meeting to make sure the ringer is off!

Summary

I love my Nexus One, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new smartphone.

But more broadly, I’m now a convert to the Android platform. As the iPhone becomes more of a walled garden, I’m really loving the openness and flexibility of the Android platform. Where there are certainly some user experience things I find a little annoying, overall I love the sense that I can make my phone do what I want it to do, and not what Apple thinks I should do with it. Now clearly I’m biased, not least because I work with a team of engineers who also do Android development and work with the community of Android developers. But the trend toward openness and flexibility is something I really look forward to experiencing in the coming years.

PS

For an example of a video I created/uploaded to YouTube directly from my Nexus One, see below. (It’s MGMT in concert in London this last week… on a side note their next album “Congratulations” should be awesome!)

(Not too bad considering how close I was to the speakers.)

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As if on cue… (Checklists, round 2)

Yesterday, I wrote about an absolute must-read book: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

It has been shown in an extensive world-wide study that a simple checklist used in surgery cuts infection rates, cuts death rates, and saves costs. It does all of these by substantial margins, everywhere they’ve been implemented. But so far only a minority of hospitals (Dr. Gawande mentioned 10 percent) have started using the safe surgery checklist, or any others, for that matter.

Yet today, the New York Times has an article titled “Results Unproven, Robotic Surgery Wins Converts.” Here are the most important quotes:

But robot-assisted prostate surgery costs more — about $1,500 to $2,000 more per patient. And it is not clear whether its outcomes are better, worse or the same.

[…]

Last year, 73,000 American men — 86 percent of the 85,000 who had prostate cancer surgery — had robot-assisted operations, according to the robot’s maker, Intuitive Surgical, the only official source of such data. Eight years ago there were fewer than 5,000, Intuitive says.

[…]

[O]nce a hospital invests in a robot — $1.39 million for the machine and $140,000 a year for the service contract, according to Intuitive — it has an incentive to use it. Doctors and patients become passionate advocates, assuming that newer means better.

[…]

And the robot is slow; it typically takes three and a half hours for a prostate operation, according to Intuitive, twice as long as traditional surgery.

So in this particular kind of surgery, a majority of surgeons quickly take up a new technology that has yet to show it can provide any sort of benefit! The same procedure is now slower and much more expensive. And the same doctors are resisting adopting a simple checklist (for little to no cost) that conclusively show improved results.

Not to make too much of a political situation here, but our health care system is clearly a mess. Doctors clearly don’t always know what’s truly important for their patients. I’m not saying surgeons shouldn’t use robots, but exhaust the easy, cheap, and conclusively better tools first! Use a damn checklist!