Code Is Currency

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Find your superpower

Unearthing the hidden features of the tools you use every day

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Have you ever searched Google and been unable to find the answer to your question or got frustrated by a website error message? Have you wondered why a file wouldn't download from your email or almost fallen asleep from manually writing or entering values into a spreadsheet? Don’t worry you are not alone, technology has been moving at an exponential rate with new services and features appearing almost daily. It has been hard to keep up and these tool work well enough but sometimes, enough isn't good enough.

Wouldn't it be nice, even helpful if you could find the answer to your question on Google with the first search or easily track your flight delay or understand how spreadsheets work so that manual task goes from hours to minutes or even seconds. Now I can’t explain how all online services work in the world in one chapter (Though this would be nice). What I can do, is explain and demystify how the digital services you use day in and day out work and how you can find the advanced/hidden features of these services. This knowledge and mindset to investigate and discover will improve your productivity more than 100%.

Let’s start with something billions of people like yourself use almost every day and that is Google. In the UK like in many countries Google controls the search engine market with over 90% market share, but how does Google actually work?

Google scans the whole internet every month (some sites daily) and ranks the relevance of each page to different topics. It takes into account geographic relevance, language, speed, security, who is accessing it, who your friends are and what they are searching and what you recently bought amongst many other factors.

All this happens in less than a second and is presented back to you as 10 search results on a page for you to scroll through and hopefully find your answer. Google then adds 1-3 adverts at the top of the page with equal-ish relevance also based on the above factors and that is how they make most of their money.

This is how most of the world sees Google.

If you can take a step back and think of Google less like a library and more as a brain with the world's knowledge embedded within itself. A brain that is also being asked questions every second of every hour of every day by people across the globe and it has been doing this for over a decade. The result is trillions of pieces of information ready to be accessed in new and interesting ways. Most people just don't know it!

For example, if I wanted to see the really bad exchange rate of the British pound currently I could type into Google:

"convert 20,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah to Great British Pounds"

This will give me the answer of 1,103.30 GBP as of 3rd July 2022 and I got this answer without even leaving the Google webpage. That is great but this isn’t how I or almost anybody would search for this question. People will spell Rupiah wrong, maybe use a different word instead of "convert". Google though has learnt all the different ways people ask this question, enabling anyone to write more informally. By trying different patterns you can see what works and what doesn’t, below shows different ways you can ask the same question and they all give the same and correct answer.

  1. convert 20,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah to Great British Pounds
  2. convert 20,000,000 IDR to GBP
  3. 20,000,000 IDR to GBP
  4. 20 million IDR to GBP
  5. 20 mil IDR to GBP
  6. 20 mil IDR GBP

  7. If Google can handle currencies in this way you start to think about what else it can do? Distances, weights, languages, weather, this list continues. But what about more context-specific questions, can Google understand these? For example, if you have a meeting with a friend in another country online, you can ask Google "what is the time in NYC when it is 4pm in Bangkok" and it will return 5am. You can also shorten the question similar to the currency conversions and it still works.

    1. what is the time in NYC when it is 4pm in Bangkok
    2. time in NYC when it is 4pm in Bangkok
    3. time in NYC 4pm Bangkok

    Though a question like this could be misinterpreted without basic grammar even to a human?

    "Time in NYC 4pm Bangkok" could mean

    "the time in NYC is 4pm what time is it in Bangkok" which would be 3am in Bangkok


    "What is the time in NYC when it is 4pm in Bangkok" which would be 5am in NYC

    Understanding how to ask the question matters, Google reads and adds weight to the first things you say. In this case,

    the question is "time in NYC"
    and the context is "4pm Bangkok"

    If you spend some time understanding these patterns and contexts by asking the same questions in several different ways, you will start to understand the format Google and most importantly get to your answer quicker. By having this skill and practising it you will naturally start to enhance the way you word questions so that the computer understand your request better.

    You can practise this on a host of widgets on the Google website for weather, dictionary, translations, stocks, delivery packages, tracking a flight and sports results to name a few. If you are getting the idea of this you should start to think "I can probably ask Google the question 'what advanced widget exists on Google'".

    These hidden features appear in most online services but they are hidden or obfuscated. This is usually due to being intended for internal use, developers, testing or the service doesn’t want to have to explain them. For example, when you do a Google search you can write:

    "potato AROUND(3) salad"

    which will find all the web pages where the word potato appears on a page within 3 words of the word salad. This is a hard feature to explain to people in the context of just "Google it" but is an amazing feature for those who are looking for meal recipes or looking to exclude items due to allergies.

    Once you know that you can extract the information you want from these services it doesn't stop there. There are also more advanced ways to get the information to you. For example, the Abu Dhabi Timeout website releases a "things to do this weekend" page every week. This page lists interesting places to visit or eat in Abu Dhabi. Though Timeout has a newsletter, it doesn't specifically focus on this weekly information I wanted to get alerted too.

    I could just set a reminder for me to manually check out the website every monday, and search for the post each time but a few times I forgot and didn't track when the page went live. Though this is also a drain on my time and can be solved with a developer mindset, what if I could get that information delivered to me like a newsletter. Google has a feature called Google Alerts, when a new website page is published into the Google search results you can be alerted by email. You can also filter these alerts with a key term, so when there is a new release of the "what to do this weekend in Abu Dhabi" page I get an email. You could also use this approach to monitor your name, company name and even filter the alerts to particular publications. Giving you time and making information come to you.

    As the internet doesn't all exist or revolve around Google, having the ability to link up different services would enable even more workflows. What if I could get alerted when someone tweeted my name or a Facebook post mentioned my company I could get a notification or even auto-reply with a message. Luckily there are tools such as Zapier that enable you to connect these online services together with no code and just a mindset of what is possible.

    I use Zapier in many parts of my work and personal life and our global travels have been no exception. In the first half of our world trip, we decided to fully homeschool our children, it was hard to keep track of the UK curriculum and eventually, we found a UK tutor who would provide us with worksheets and materials. These worksheets were emailed a few times a week but occasionally in bulk. Searching email threads for the right document became a nightmare after a few weeks. But similar to seeing Google as a brain I saw my email inbox as a source of messages and documents, I used Zapier to monitor our email account for any emails from the tutor. Anytime an email would arrive it would take any attachments and copy them to a shared folder on Dropbox into a folder labelled for that week. Our other devices then have access to this folder including the children's tablets so they could access the files to complete the work on their device. So now no more searching through emails to find the right document.

    We also set up a similar system for flight tickets, hotel confirmations and visa/entry forms. There is nothing more stressful at an airport than trying to find the right form. All these documents that get emailed to me are now accessible to my wife and family in the UK in case we are without devices for any reason. Both these "Zaps" as Zapier calls them took less than an hour to set up and come under their free plan.

    There are so many amazing things you could create when seeing your online services this way. A good way to get deeper into this mindset is to find relatable triggers. Such as in your home, you have devices like light switches, thermostats and smart speakers and if you plug them together you can do thing like "Alexa, turn off the kitchen light" or "Alexa, heat the lounge if outside temp is below 10c" or "play Adele in the kitchen". Now replace light switch with 'work spreadsheet' or thermostat with 'start car' and you can see the power connecting these services together can have.

    Even simple tasks such as wanting to create multiple accounts on a website but only having one email address can be solved. If you think "developers must have had this problem" and then search "multiple email accounts with 1 email address" you would find results that explain how [email protected] can be turned into also [email protected] since anything after the + sign is ignored for emails but accepted by website signup forms, giving you an unlimited number of email addresses via just one email account.

    Can you break your problem down to if-then-that logic?
    The possibilities are endless.

    Some examples in the context of travel

    1. When temperature and UV are high, add an event in my calendar for the day at 7am to apply sun lotion
    2. When the exchange rate is more than 0.22 between GBP and USD transfer money from the GBP account to the USD account
    3. When my email gets a flight ticket, add to the calendar 3 days before the flight date a reminder to check-in
    4. Monitor flights we need to take and alert me when the price is low

    5. The next time you use an online service at home or work, I hope you now see the service as a repository of data and don't take for granted how things work but think about how you want them to work. Then use advanced Google search skills and tools like Zapier to turn those repetitive/frustrating tasks into automated workflows or more relevant answers to your questions. This then has the potential to free up some of your time to use it doing things you want to be doing - you're welcome.

      If you do come up with any I would love to hear about them [email protected].

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