Turn Around

Last week I read something that has challenged my thinking. I have had a pamphlet called How to be Free From Bitterness for at least 15 years. A friend called me last week, we were talking about forgiveness so I decided to review this to see if it would be worth sharing. The entire pamphlet is awesome. It covers general forgiveness, relationships with parents, controlling your tongue, and more. I definitely recommend it if you’re struggling with forgiveness. One aspect of it has stuck with me.

Several times through the material, the author (Jim Wilson) encourages the reader to confess their behavior and/or attitude, then forsake the pattern. He paints this as an event. You have confessed and forsaken that, now you’re done with it.

My life is so much more complicated than that. Which strikes me as very lame.

I wouldn’t characterize myself as a bitter person (but, really, who would say that about himself?). I do gripe about day in & day out annoyances. I do get frustrated with the people that I’m close to. I don’t carry grudges and I do strive to keep short accounts with people. Having said that, there are a couple of long standing grievances that I haven’t shaken in years. I don’t mean that I haven’t forgiven (I have). Quite the opposite. I forgive. Something reminds me of the injustice, so I forgive again. Years later they repeat the behavior, so I forgive again.

I have spoken to the parties involved. I have prayed. I have read books. I have forgiven. Then something will trigger this and I start the process over. This has been going on for years. Now, sometimes I bring it up and sometimes I don’t. This has definitely had an impact on those specific relationships. It’s probably fair to say that this has colored my view of relationships in general.

Wilson invites the reader to a clean slate. Confess then forsake and be free. Turn around and take a new path. I want that.

So the question that I’m wrestling with is, have I allowed my life to become too complicated to recognize freedom that’s available to me?

Parenting

My wife & I are having our first child, our little girl is due soon. We’re both pretty excited. I feel pretty fortunate to be a parent after a few years in adulthood. I’ve been around long enough to learn a few things that make life easier or more enjoyable. For the past few weeks I’ve been journaling what I’d like to teach her, and I look forward to passing these nuggets along. By the way, these are as much reminders for myself as they are things to pass on. Here they are, in no particular order.

  • Choose Your Path - You don’t have to settle for where life takes you, you can pick where you want to go and make that happen. That certainly applies to large things like career path and where you live and social circles, but its also true in the day to day. You can choose things that make your life easier, like living within a budget, or that make your life more difficult, like dating a psycho. And the great thing is that if you don’t like the path you’re on, you can change it.
  • You Can Do It – We all struggle with things that are new to us. Its not always fun to be challenged, but the only way to get better is to do it. There’s no shortcut here, confidence and skill only come through practice. The good part is that majority of the time you can do it. Even if you think you can’t. Even if you’re scared.
  • Life is Not Fair – This one is tough, but I think its universally true and as soon as you accept it life becomes easier. The good guy doesn’t always win. We don’t always get our way. Sometimes we get less than the other guy, or even less than we deserve. I don’t want to be harsh, at all, but I also don’t want to pass on rose colored glasses.
  • Freedom Comes Through Discipline – Its always so tempting to believe that raw talent is all we need. When we see success we’re quick to say that skill or talent is the reason. The truth is that skill or talent need to be cultivated through practice and dedication. If you want the freedom to run a marathon, you need the discipline of regular exercise. If you want financial freedom you need the discipline of managing your money. And if you want the freedom of a successful career you need the discipline of marketable skills.
  • Character will Take You Farther than Skill – This is another universal truth. There are so many examples of people with don’t have the integrity or probity to keep up with their skill. Sports, academia, business, politics, I could come up with a list for each. The bottom line is that skill without character leads to downfall.
  • Debt is Slavery – This last one is a bit different than the others, its the only negative on my list. Equally important though. Debt is not analogous to slavery, I don’t see this as a metaphor or allegory or hyperbole. If you’re in debt to another then you are not free. I don’t mean to say that debt is bad, there are appropriate uses for debt. This one took me a long time to learn (but I DID learn it!). I hope to spare my children from the hazards of irresponsible debt.

I wrote all of the above about a month ago. Since then I’ve been thinking about how to convey these axioms. The thing I keep coming back to is that in order to succeed I’ll need to be truly living these things out. When I started this process my goal was to think through the type of parent that I’d like to be, somehow I’ve ended up writing a credo or mission statement for my own life. I do believe that these are truths and that my daughter’s life will be better if she understands them,

Parents, what are you trying to teach your children? And have you had any success?

I Hate Google

I have a love-hate relationship with Google. This is a continuation of a blog thread that I started a few years ago. The first part was I Love Google. While some of the products have changed, I still stand by those notes. These notes are true as well. I’ll finish this series with a part 3 on my takaways from these viewpoints within the next few months.

The Google-Plex

The Google-Plex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My issue with Google comes down to data collection. Most of Google’s services are free, which means that the product being sold is you. They collect everything that they can about you, and use that information to put together effective marketing campaigns. My issue is that they know a TON about all of us. All of their clever services are designed to keep us using their products so that they can market to us. But, actually, you don’t have to use their services in order to be known by them.

We all know about search, Gmail, maps, drive (aka documents), and their other popular servers. But even if you never used any of those, they have a whole slew of services that they can use to track you. Lets take a look at a few of them. I’ll give a brief description of each, because my point is not to introduce to you new products. I plan to tell you how these collect data about you.

Analytics – Tracks visitors to any website.

Fonts – Quick & easy way for you to include stylish fonts on any web page.

AdSense – Contextual advertising on your website.

Maps – Mapping tool.

DNS – Public DNS servers.

There are literally dozens of others, but this is enough to make my point. Each of these services makes it possible for Google to track you without you ever having to visit their website. Millions of website owners use Google Analytics. If you visit one of those sites, Google sees your visit. They don’t literally know its YOU, but the fact that someone on your computer, from your city, at this time gets recorded. Google Fonts and AdSense are the same, if you visit a site using one of those tools, Google tracks your visit.

So why should you care?

A public company, accountable to shareholders, is collecting data about you, building a profile on you and your habits. If you ever create a Google account (Gmail, Google+, AdWords, etc.) they tie your search history and surfing patterns together in your profile. They can connect all of the sites you’ve visited with all of the searches you’ve made. How do we know? In the spring of 2012 they updated their privacy policy and terms of service to make this possible. From their blog:

…if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services…

Let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the sites you’ve visited over the past six or eight years. This profile, combining your search history and all of the sites you’ve visited, definitely is uniquely identifiable. This idea actually came from Steve Jobs, while he was an adviser to Google executives. With this much data in a single profile, it is absolutely possible to distinguish you from your neighbor. Think about all of the searches that you’ve made. What story does that tell about you?

Your profile says a lot about you, which makes it pretty valuable. And it can be used in all sorts of ways that you never intended. First, your profile is a target for the Government. This is not new at all. In fact, Google has fought this fight long enough that they have a well defined process for handling government subpoenas. This actually came up again this week, Google is one of several internet companies being mined for data by the NSA and FBI.

The government isn’t the only party interested in your profile though. In 2010 a Google engineer used his permissions to access user accounts and spy on teens. Talk about creepy! Google even issued a statement acknowledging this. And what was the outcome? He was fired.

Google has also been hacked. In December of 2009 a Chinese group hacked into Google to gain access to the Gmail accounts of human activists, as well as companies in the technology, financial and defense sectors. I can’t tell what the outcome of this attack was, but the investigation is apparently ongoing.

To be fair, Google isn’t the only company collecting data about us. Indeed, that would be a long list. Facebook, Yahoo!, Bing and Twitter come to mind instantly. Those are all big companies, there are certainly dozens (if not hundreds) of small companies doing the same thing. Google stands out.

6am

A few weeks ago I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The book is great, Duhigg explains the how habits impact the patterns and choices within our lives, as well as providing several practical examples. I’m a little surprised to say it, but I actually love this book. Duhigg’s writing style is easy to follow, and the stories that he uses to illustrate his points are genuinely entertaining.

I picked this book with the intent of developing a couple of habits. I’d like to be in better shape, and I’m also interested in continual learning. My intent was to read the book then apply it directly to these two areas. Duhigg’s process is very helpful, but it’s different than I expected. He walks through changing habits by identifying a reward that you can begin to crave, and then completing a routine to get the reward. In this way, you can create some powerful patterns in your life.

Duhigg also provides a number of examples of people achieving a wholesale change of their lives through altering a “keystone” habit. In other words, changing one small habit can be relatively easy, and by making this change you can begin more substantive habits. Finding this keystone habit is helpful.

After completing the book I have spent a few weeks thinking through the patterns in my life, what I might like to change, and trying to identify a keystone habit to begin with. Last weekend I made a choice and have been practicing this week. After a lifetime of staying up into the wee hours and sleeping in, I am starting the habit of getting up at 6am each morning.

Last weekend I spent time thinking through my patterns, triggers and how I might change this habit. I wrote out how I’d handle difficult situations (insomnia, traveling or having visitors). I’ve begun setting the timer on our coffee maker each night, and I timed the coffee to be ready exactly one minute after my alarm so that I’d hear the beeps of fresh coffee just after waking up. Finally, Monday morning I began.

I’m proud to report that I woke up at 6am every day this week. In fact, I’m surprised to say this but I find myself so eager to wake up to coffee that several times I have woken at 3:30 or 4:30, the going back to sleep after checking the clock.

I did have trouble going to sleep a couple of nights, but that didn’t affect me waking up. We also happen to be traveling this week, but I haven’t had any trouble following the plan that I laid out.

Here’s the great part, and what I’m discovering is the real reward. Instead of spending my “extra hours” watching TV late at night, I have more energy during my free time so I’m enjoying working on personal projects and reading books. Exercise wasn’t practical this week, but next week I’m going for a run or heading to the gym for a few minutes. In other words, I’m really glad I chose this as a place to start, and so far I’m loving the results.

Today is Saturday and I was awake and out of bed at 6:02. Believe me when I tell you that this is a change for me. Pretty fun new habit, and I hope it leads to others.

Call Spam Solutions

Since my last post on call spam earlier this year I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching this issue and possible solutions. Since I’m getting several robocalls per week (sometimes several per day), I’ve also tried a handful of different strategies for dealing with them.

Why They’re Calling

I think I’ve figured out how they’re profiting from calling me. Apparently phone companies pay a small fee for access to caller ID information for numbers outside of their network. The robocall companies have partnered with a utility company that gets paid every time they place a call, and the two of them share the profit. Once a number (any number) shows up on caller ID, they’ve achieved their goal. This is why they can hang up as soon as you start asking questions.

I don’t know that this is true. I found this in a random blog by searching forums for phone numbers that have dialed me. The story seems viable but the blog is sketchy (not good enough to warrant a link from me). So, while I believe its true, I haven’t proved it. Indeed, I don’t know how to prove it. But, its the only thing that makes any since. Why else would a company call dozens of times per month without closing any business?

This Does Not Work

Knowing that they don’t care if they sell you anything, it then doesn’t matter if you talk to them or not. For a while I tried to talk to the reps and waste their time. This only proved to be a waste of my time. Not only did they not stop calling me, I had proven that my number was valid so the number of calls actually increased.

It also does absolutely no good to ask them to stop calling. The average citizen cannot track them, so you can’t report them, and they don’t care if they irritate you. They made their money as soon as your phone rang, so it doesn’t matter to them if they talk to you or not. I once tried to get contact info from the rep (phone number, website, company name, etc) and he wouldn’t answer any of my questions at all. All I accomplished was proving to them that my phone number is legitimate.

At this point I was pretty tempted to give up and get a new phone number. That would be quite a hassle, and there’s no guarantee that the new number I receive isn’t already on some robocaller’s list.

How to Stop Them

For the past 3 weeks I’ve found that it works to answer the call and then immediately hanging up. If you press 1 to speak with an operator, they know you’re number is real. If you press 3 to be removed from the calling list, they know you’re real. And if the call rolls to voicemail, they hear your voice and know that the number is valid. If you answer then immediately hang up without saying anything, they have no confirmation that the call went through.

In just a few short weeks, this strategy has cut the number of calls down to once or twice per week. I’ll concede that this is still too much, but its less than half of what I was receiving. I’m thankful for the reprieve.

Long Term Solutions

The FTC has been getting flooded with complaints, and last fall they held a competition for solutions. They announced the winners earlier this week, and I think they have ideas that could work. If email providers can accurately filter out spam then phone providers can filter out robocalls. And that’s exactly the idea that won. A handful of people from Google devised a system of identifying legitimate phone numbers from robo-dialers.

I hope the technology to end this is implemented soon, and I hope it works.

Call Spam

Credit card

Credit card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the past couple of years I’ve had a problem with call spam. I don’t know how or why I ended up on the call list, but my frustration level is increasing and I currently don’t see a way to stop this nonsense. I’m posting this here in hopes that someone in a similar situation will comment with their experience.

The message is always the same. The call starts with a recording stating that because of my good credit rating a credit card company is offering to lower my APR. I can press 1 to speak with a representative. If I don’t press 1 the call drops before they can leave a message.

If I do press 1, I’m on hold for a few seconds, then a pushy representative comes on the line asking questions about my debt (how much, number of open lines of credit, etc). If I say I don’t want to share, they answer by saying that they already have all of this info, they’re just asking me to verify.

There are a couple of tricky parts to this. If I even start the phrase “remove me from your calling list”, or any variant of it, they hang up. That’s right, they hang up before I can ask them to stop calling me. And, they’ve called me enough for me to know that they’re very twitchy about this. I don’t know how they make any money because they’re so quick to hang up on you.

The second tricky thing is that they call from a wide variety of numbers. Very rarely do they call from the same number more than twice. This means that blocking a particular number does nothing. They have a bank of numbers that they’re using, so if I block one they’ve got dozens of others to use.

Here’s a list of the numbers that they’ve used to contact me.

  • 701-671-9224
  • 479-274-1769
  • 508-475-1388
  • 971-220-1781
  • 402-982-0422
  • 775-410-1104
  • 250-448-7574
  • 616-216-2172
  • 251-725-1770
  • 263-989-7373
  • 773-340-4844

These are just the recent ones. I didn’t start keeping track of this until around Thanksgiving of last year (yes, they’ve called me from each of these numbers within the past two months!).

I’m beside myself trying to figure out how to stop this. They call at all hours of the day & night (I’ve gotten these calls as late as 11pm), and they just don’t stop. I can’t even find out the name of the company, so how am I supposed to make them stop?

Hopefully someone will find this via a phone number search and leave a comment. Maybe if they’re blasting you with this nonsense we can put our heads together and figure out how to end this.

Feb 27th Edit: More numbers they’re using:

  • 312-340-5580
  • 402-982-0721
  • 234-542-5932
  • 712-357-3090
  • 403-905-8000

Polar Star Inn

Last weekend I went to Colorado with a group of old friends to do some hiking in the mountains. This was my first time to ever hike in the snow with snowshoes. It was both hard and awesome.

pano2

The hike itself was pretty intense. From the car to the cabin was 6 miles with a 2,000′ elevation gain. The fortunate thing is that since we were staying in a cabin we didn’t need to carry tents, and since there was snow to melt we didn’t need to carry much water. I think this was the first time in my life that I hiked with a pack weight of less than 30 pounds. Even so, I was completely spent by the time we got to the cabin.

The Polar Star Inn (in map below) is on New York mountain, just outside of Edwards, CO. Its surrounded by trees which so you really feel secluded, but there isn’t much of a view. There are a couple of nearby clearings though, and since you’re above 11,000′ elevation you can see for miles. We did hike further up the mountain the following day and the view is stunning.


View Larger Map

The weather was absolutely amazing throughout our entire trip. Highs were in the mid 30′s and lows were in the mid 20′s. On the way up the sky was cloudy but we didn’t mind. While we were there we got 3 to 4 inches of snow. On our hike out the sky opened up and the sun came out. Hiking through fresh white powder with a bright blue sky above was absolutely amazing.

The group was the best part. Six dudes, all married. Some of these guys I’ve known for years (though haven’t seen recently), and two of them were new to me. We all got along great.

I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to go back, but I definitely want to. The 10th Mountain Division huts (cabins) are pretty amazing, and all are in stunning locations (some are easier to get to than others). If I get to go back, next time I think I’ll skip the snowshoes and rent Alpine touring skis instead. They look like maybe a little more work on the way up, and WAY more fun on the way down. I totally enjoyed snowshoeing and wouldn’t mind doing it again, but the spot that we went was prime skiing country.

I took a handful of pictures and uploaded them to flickr. Normal mountain photo disclaimer though, they look absolutely stupid in comparison to the real thing.

Competition

Many of my friends already know that in January I made a bet with a buddy to compete in four events this year, two triathlons, a10k trail run and an off road duathlon. We’ve made bets in the past, which was motivation for a month or two, this year we were more ambitious. We wanted the bet to encourage us to get in, and stay in shape. So far its working for me. Here’s are the events.

This has motivated me to make some pretty substantial changes in my lifestyle. I’m already reaping the benefits.

Exercise: I’m working out about three times each week. Lots of swimming, cycling and running. I’ve already made significant advances in my overall endurance, and I’m looking forward to increasing even further. Swimming is the hardest for me, by far. I’ve never done it before so I’m woefully inefficient and way uncomfortable. I can swim, I’m just not very good at getting anywhere fast. Running is work, but I can do it. Cycling is just fun. Reminds me of being a kid. I do a bit of core training and yoga every once in a while, too, but am not focused on these.

I have found that I like competing in events much more than training for them. It takes quite a bit of discipline to work out just because I know that I need to. Events are more like a game, I have a target, pass THAT guy (the person in front of me). Plus, there are a bunch of people cheering, water stations, and a clock that’s running. In each of the events that I’ve competed in so far, I’ve realized when I was done that I could have pushed myself harder, that I was too easy on myself. This is encouraging.

Diet: In February Liz & I decided to try being vegans for 30 days, following Rip Esselstyn’s Engine 2 diet. Once the 30 days were complete, we agreed to continue. We aren’t strict, when we eat with friends or family we eat what everyone else is having. We’re social people so this means that we “cheat” about once a week. We get some pretty dramatic reactions when we tell people about this, but the bottom line is that we like the food we’re eating, and we can definitely see results. This is worth a blog post of its own, so I’ll stay focused on how this applies to my contest.

Results: So far I’m behind in our competition by about 15 minutes. I wouldn’t consider myself out of the running though. And, the personal benefits are pretty fantastic.

  • Endurance: When I started this in January, running for 20 minutes was excruciating. Yesterday I ran 6 miles non-stop and could have kept going.
  • Health: I haven’t gotten sick once this year, in spite of being around sick/recovering friends, family & coworkers. Normally I would have caught a cold at least once by now.
  • Toughness: I can’t easily quantify this, but I’m learning that I’m too easy on myself while training and competing. I can push myself harder than I have. It is VERY difficult to keep this in mind while in the moment. I need to have this tattooed on my arm or something.
  • Weight: I’ve lost almost 35 pounds since Christmas. If shedding almost 20% of your weight isn’t freaking awesome then I don’t know what is.

Look at those results. Heck, even if I lose the bet I’ll count this year as a victory. I haven’t lost yet though, the bet isn’t over. We’ve only completed two of the four events, the shortest & easiest events at that. I’m still in this.

Home Theater PC

When Liz & I got married, one of her best friend’s from college bought us the TV that we registered for as a wedding gift. Having this fantastic 42″ TV is just awesome, but we agreed that we didn’t want to pay for satellite or cable, so we’re using a regular rabbit antenna to receive local over-the-air stations. Generally speaking its great (caught every college football game that I wanted to see, in HD quality, no problem), but I missed being able to record shows and pause live TV. So we determined a budget and I started plotting to get a home theater PC.

I ended up researching this for more than two months. I had to stay within a budget of $500, and the completed solution had to handle four things:

  • DVR to record TV (preferably with dual tuners)
  • Play DVD’s (and eventually Blu-ray)
  • Netflix streaming
  • Internet TV (YouTube, Hulu, Boxee, etc)
  • One single remote to handle everything

In other words, I want it all. If I’m going through the expense and trouble of setting this up, I want one box (and one remote) that handles everything.

Armed with my list of requirements, I started researching. I looked at everything, and I mean everything: a homebuilt PC running Linux and MythTV, a Mac Mini with Front Row and eyeTV, hacking an XBox 360 or PS3 to act as a DVR, Tivo, Windows running Sage TV or Windows Media Center… For each of these, I looked at capabilities and limitations, new and used prices, searching forums for common problems. My spreadsheet to keep track of all of this was becoming increasingly complex, and I was losing hope that this was possible.

For Christmas I got a gift certificate and a little bit of money, which made my budget a little higher. I’ve now ordered the components, put it all together, and it works. It. Is. Amazing. Here’s my setup.

The total cost of the hardware was $618 shipped, but the gift certificates and cash that we got for Christmas kept our out of pocket expenses below our $500 mark.

Installing the TV tuner was a snap, literally 20 minutes from start to watching TV via my computer. Add another 10 minutes to get Netflix downloaded and configured, and the entire process is done in less than an hour. Everything works.

Over the air TV: comes in HD quality, strong signal, no issues at all. We get 9 channels and they’re all great quality. Once in a while the screen gets pixelated while decoding the signal, but I haven’t seen this last more than 2 seconds, and its happening less than once a week. Recording one show while watching another, or recording two things at one time works perfectly. Media center handles the guide for us, so we can always see the show that we’re watching, what’s on next, etc.

Play DVDs: nothing to say here really, it works better than my 10 year old DVD player. Its flawless.

Netflix streaming: this is my favorite so far. We’re on the $16/mo plan, for which we get 2 DVD’s at a time, and we can watch all the streamed movies we want. I have about 75 movies or TV shows in our instant queue, which means that within 2 minutes I could be watching any one of them. The image quality and sound are excellent, and pause/forward/rewind works just as you’d expect. I love it. LOVE IT!

Internet TV: Hulu & YouTube work great, just as they do on your computer. I haven’t set up Boxee yet, but I plan to at some point.

Transitions: It is super easy to switch between live or recorded TV, Netflix or a DVD. The remote control makes it a snap. The menus are intuitive and the interface is attractive and easy to read.

I have to say, this project has turned out better than I expected. I have everything that I want, I haven’t sacrificed anything, other than a high cable or satellite bill.

I Love Google

This is the first of a three part series on my thoughts about the search giant Google. I definitely have a love/hate thing going on with them. I thought it was appropriate to start with love. Parts two and three will be published within the next couple of weeks.

My first experience with Google came in 1999 or 2000. I was working at Dell and one of my coworkers made the statement “Just Google it” in response to a question, and I didn’t know what that meant so I searched Yahoo!. It took several more years for them to become my primary search engine because at that point I was already very familiar with Yahoo!. Now they ARE my primary search engine.

In fact, there are a number of Google products that I use on a daily basis.

Search. This is what got them started, and its still their salient product. The search results found within Google are still better than those of the other major players, in my opinion. I also love the simplicity and white space. I never use the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button because I like seeing all the options and selecting myself. I don’t really know what else to say about search, it’s been my home page for years now, and I use it at least 30 times a day. Seriously. And even I don’t know all of the commands that can be used to make their search results more targeted. Define, site, omit, and, or… I know there’s a list, but I’m not sure I’d use them all so I never look them all up. And did you know that Google is also a calculator? 32,874 divided by 4.

Mobile. How often have you been out and wanted to know the start time of a movie, but couldn’t get to a computer? Or wanted the answer to a question right away? If you have a smart phone that’s no trouble. If you don’t there’s Google Mobile. Send a text message to their servers with your search query and they’ll reply via SMS with your answer. This is awesome. I don’t use it every day, but I do use it, and it works exactly as you expect.

Gmail. When Gmail was announced my feathers were ruffled because the media played up the fact that Google servers scan your inbox for keywords that prompt advertisements. Then the service was launched and you couldn’t get an account unless you were invited. I think I bought my invite on eBay for $1. I’ve never looked back. There is no other email application that can compare with Gmail. Threaded email history, categorizing via labels instead of folders, filters, IMAP/POP/SMTP support, ever increasing storage capacity, fantastic search capabilities, easy archival, excellent spam detection… no one else can hold a candle to Gmail. My Gmail account has been my primary email address since the summer of 2005, I very rarely delete anything (and I send myself files all the time), and today I’m only at 20% of my total storage capacity. And, every once in a while I learn of another feature that I’ve never heard of. This is definitely the product that sold me, I may have never become a Google fanboy were it not for this product.

Maps. Before Google Maps I used MapQuest. At first I didn’t think that there was a significant difference between the map providers, it was just a matter of who you were familiar with. Then I realized that you could switch between map, satellite and terrain views. And you can email maps to people as a link. Then they published their APIs and you can embed their maps in your own web pages. Their directions are super easy to work with, they give you a couple of routes to work with, and if you want to alter one (to avoid a toll road, for instance) you just drag the route and the travel time and distance update automatically. Whoa! With street view came the ability to look at the buildings you’ll see when you arrive, before you even leave. Just a month ago I realized that you can search within Maps and it’ll show businesses in your area. Type in Austin, TX pizza and you’ll get a number of dots on the map. I’m not a map expert by any means, but if anyone else has brought in this many features without bloating the application, I don’t know about it.

Reader. If you like reading blogs, there are a couple of services that make it a snap to handle the RSS feeds of all your favorite publishers. I used Bloglines for years, and then finally succombed to Google Reader. I can’t say that Reader is hands above any of the other online RSS readers, but the truth is that it works perfectly and is very easy to use.

Goog-411. Do you ever have to dial information? If you call the phone company it costs. If you call Google its free. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and there have maybe been only two times that it couldn’t find the number that I was looking for. Just like the phone company, once you find the number it’ll dial and connect you, and you even have the option of having the info texted to you.

Voice. This service is newer, but man did they get it right. Once you have a number (currently by invite only, and not all areas are being served) you can easily forward that number to any or all of your other numbers, home, office or cell. You can also send or receive text messages using that number. Here comes the good part, you can arrange your contacts just as you would with your email addresses, work, family, friends, etc, and route them accordingly. Want all work contacts sent to your work number and all friends sent to your cell? No problem, either way, they all dial the same number. This service also converts your voice messages to text, and you can either listen to them or read them (or both) online. Phone companies, please pay attention.

Analytics. If you have a website, and you like monitoring the traffic that it receives, Google Analytics is a fantastic service. How many visitors, how long they spend on your site, how they found your site, their geographic location, etc. Its advanced features allow you to filter out your own visits, create and track campaigns, segment the traffic any way you choose and more. I have tried many other traffic monitoring tools, and I would recommend this over all of the others, free or otherwise.

Documents. Ten years ago it was pretty tough to get by without having a copy of Microsoft Office on your computer. As much as I hate the way Microsoft treats their customers, Word and Excel are some of the most useful programs available, I use them daily for work and in my personal life. Today there are plenty of free options. Google Documents is one of the best. Through this tool you can create letters, spreadsheets and presentations. They don’t offer the same amount of features as their Microsoft counterparts, but that’s one of its salient points, they’re generally much easier to work with because they aren’t bloated with options that you never use. Plus, you can use this service to create PDF files. If you used Microsoft Office you should at least check this service out.

Calendar. When Google launched their calendar service in 2006 I thought it was janky at first. Now I like it very much. The only reason that I don’t use it on a daily basis is that I’m required to use Exchange at work and its just easier to handle everything there. When I had a Blackberry, Google Calendar was my main calendar. Its a snap to create appointments or recurring meetings and invite anyone. You can share your entire calendar or just certain portions of it, and you can even publish portions of it on the web. Its very easy to use.

I haven’t even covered all of the tools that I wanted to talk about and I’ve already gone longer than I thought I would. I’ve also used and recommend Picasa, Google Earth, Google Finance, Google Desktop, Android, SketchUp and others that elude me at the moment. I’m also very excited to play with Google Wave when it launches.

Each of the services that I’ve mentioned above isn’t just great, they’re best of class. I don’t want to handle email without Gmail anymore. Phone companies, I’m paying you, please give me all of the features that Voice gives me for free. Is there anyone on the planet that still prefers MapQuest to Google Maps? Google doesn’t offer services, each time they launch something new it changes the way people think about the service. When you bring them all together in one account, it changes the way you use the web. Seriously. Sergey and Larry certainly don’t get all the credit, but their commitment to excellence shines through in everything this company touches.

Dear Google, I love you. Keep giving us the good stuff.