Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Microsoft’s Office Space under Attack!

When was the last time you felt elated about using Microsoft Word, or Microsoft Outlook, or any of the products in the Microsoft Office Space? Never.

Cue classic Office Space printer demolition scene

All of these products were built with an utter disregard to the user experience, much like printers, much like phones in the pre-iPhone era. All of these products have widespread usage within the enterprise but much like the DMV, don’t seem to give a crap about their users’ experience. But that was before the iPhone. The iPhone taught us was that if we build an exceptional product for users, the enterprise is within reach. Focus on the user and the rest will follow.

Into this new dynamic, we find two new extremely buzzy mobile entrants: Slack and Quip.

  • Both Slack and Quip are meant to operate in a Post-PC world.
  • Both Slack and Quip are mobile-first, making their usage on iPhones and iPads as efficient as using them on the desktop.
  • Both Slack and Quip will eventually take on Microsoft Office if they execute well – Quip, by recreating the killer apps (Word and now spreadsheet) as well as the newsfeed (collaboration) while Slack started with messaging and is now moving to own killer apps like document editing and in the future “calendars and task management.”

Jessica Lessin at The Information, seems to think that Slack and messaging apps’ hype is overrated. But I think she’s missing the bigger picture that Slack and Quip are both not just about messaging.

Be leery of products that tout their better messaging experiences. As Arjun Sethi, co-founder of MessageMe who just joined Yahoo told me: “Messaging is secondary. The primary use case cannot be messaging.”

Agreed. But I think in both cases, Slack and Quip, it’d be inaccurate to think their ambitions are relegated to messaging. Office made Bill Gates the richest man on the planet because of the platform they created.

A platform whose crown jewels thus far remain:

  • Killer apps
    • Documents and spreadsheets (Word and Excel)
    • Presentation (Powerpoint)
  • the dots that connect them
    • Email / collaboration (Outlook and OneNote)

That is all there is to this cash cow, the killer apps and the dots that connect them. For Facebook it’s photos and the feed; for LinkedIn, it’s jobs and their enterprise product; and for Apple it’s the Camera and the Phone.

Interesting to see that all of Microsoft’s office products hinged on the ability for people within an organization to collaborate and I believe this fundamental secret sauce is under attack with products like Quip, Slack and Evernote.

Both Slack and Quip, aim to recreate that dynamic from the ground up in a mobile future that Microsoft frankly does not own nor lead anymore. Quip has created the post-PC version of killer apps that drives work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they built the rest of the killer apps mentioned above (they just launched spreadsheets as a premium feature), should they find a demand for it. And once they create the suite, the superior product experience will drive large teams and enterprises to ask for “Quip Inside” to their IT teams, the same way we bugged our IT teams about switching us from Blackberries to iPhones. And we saw how that played out.

What do you think is Slack and Quip’s potential? Are they overhyped?

Postscript: There are others who are also jostling within this space, like Asana (which aims at collaboration from to-dos) and Evernote (which aims at it from note taking), and as someone who has tried the product I find Quip extremely addictive for an Enterprise product and I’ve heard the same about Slack from startups and friends who have been using them. Box and Dropbox are two other pieces to this puzzle from a server side, with Box playing the LinkedIn to Dropbox’s Facebook.

But make no mistake, what we are seeing right now is the Unbundling of Microsoft.

Filed under: New Products, Quip, Slack

The Secret about Secrets

Dreams are a window to the human soul. So are secrets.


There really is no place to be truly honest on the web today. There’s no place to scream like no one’s watching. Sadly, this is especially true on issues that matter to you, on issues that make you, or issues that break you.

Yesterday’s news that Facebook is dabbling in the creation of an “anonymous” app has Om Malik seeing red. Facebook has owned the market for your identity on the web and now seems to also gravitate towards the opposite end of the spectrum, ostensibly to alter perception on their approach to privacy?

Facebook’s DNA is about mapping people, their relationships and booming their online identity. In fact, online identity is their most killer feature. It is what we all use to log into various websites to leave comments, or sign-in to new apps and services. It is how many Pinterest. Facebook identity is Facebook. So that is why it is hard for me to take any attempts at anonymity seriously!

Is this a PR move? Let’s give Facebook the benefit of doubt in that all of their successes (as driven by advertising) is also driven by an acute sense of how social works. That and given the lengthy product roadmaps that dictate the creation of products, I think anonymity on the web is something Facebook is giving a lot of consideration and this just might be their initial foray into that space. There might be more than meets the eye and I bet there’s a simple answer to all these hyperactive rumors. Here’s where my heads at in this space.

1. Contextual anonymity is empowering, transformational

Relationships matter. Always have, always will. Just ask Facebook and LinkedIn.

But as psychologists will tell you even within the concentric circles of our life (partner, family, work, neighbors, industry, etc.) we employ varying degrees of straight talk (think “fake it till you make it” resumes) for varying reasons. What if we added anonymity to these different concentric circles?

Google + tried creating these circles (minus the anonymity) to provide different slices of news feeds for different communities within your network.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 1.20.04 PM

Facebook did the same when it allowed you to share different content to different slices of your life.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 1.21.43 PM

And Branch tried the same mix of generating conversations within communities (experts, journalists, etc.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 1.23.21 PM

Given that Facebook acqui-hired the team at Branch and Josh Miller from Branch currently leads Project Anonymous, it’s not a stretch to imagine the much rumored product being an extension of the DNA that powered Facebook Groups and Branch.

And since Facebook owns the social graph, it’ll be very easy for them to anonymize conversations within groups already created. For example: I’ve a group for my closest friends (10 people), people I worked with while at LinkedIn (30 people), etc. There are so many ways to slice and dice sub-communities within your Facebook graph and just toggle pseudo / anonymity into the mix.

But what’s the benefit of anonymity, you ask…

2. Corporate Dens: When Communities *talk *

Enter Secret.

I became a recent convert to Secret after stumbling upon the concept of “contextual anonymity;” see a Secret experiment called “Dens” which allows for honest feedback within the filter of anonymity in your workplace. Dens seems like a powerful device to enable people at companies to speak up, be playful, and share their daily thoughts that others can follow within the community / company. Even the 360 degree feedback finds in confidentiality, its Achilles Heel:

People who have never gone through the 360 process before are usually initially worried about how the data will be used and if it will remain confidential. You need to ensure you assure them up-front that it is a confidential process and won’t come back to haunt them at performance review time.

The benefits for safe, anonymous comments in similar settings should be pretty obvious to Facebook. Granted there’s room for slander but I’m sure product driven updates will mitigate just that.

3. When Honesty Matters

Take Quora, a content network that allows anonymity for a slew of reasons. Here are a few reasons why this works:

Besides the reason you included, sharing life experience, other reasons include, but are not limited to:

• political/religious views where those views might be persecuted by a strong majority: Falun Dafa, pro-democracy in Hong Kong, Muslims in India, Christians in Iraq, etc…
• Experiences with drugs, and mental illness, or any other taboo subject
• Simply wanting to hide your content from being explicitly pushed out to people who follow you
• Asking questions that you are not able to fully, or clearly enunciate, which feel like they might appear trolly, but aren’t

As I’ve become more active on Secret, I find many heartwarming snippets of humanity show up. And this is just the tip of the iceberg since the network hasn’t hit critical mass yet. But the opportunity to leverage anonymity for its goodness vs. the acts we’re used to seeing on the web, is an untapped market.

Goodness.

Kindness.

Controversy.

And more

Can we scale this kind of a network is all that’s left to be seen. And if Facebook is going to bring a billion people into the world of anonymity, it could tip the scales.

Time will tell.

Filed under: Branch, Facebook, New Products, Secret

Hacking Time and To dos

To dos, like New Year’s resolutions, are a Herculean challenge that most of us have tried and failed. Nothing works. Paul Ford), former editor Harper’s Magazine, thinks we repeatedly waste time building to-do applications with no serious solution in sight:

One of the systems Victor talks about is in that speech is Doug Engelbart’s NLS system of 1968, which pioneered a ton of things—collaborative software, hypertext, the mouse—but deep, deep down was a to-do list manager. Since then the world of technology has never hurt for personal productivity tools.

Every year or two there seems to be a new hotness: it was Remember the Milk for a while, and OmniFocus, and TaskPaper, and Asana. Asana’s tagline is “Teamwork without email.” And of course there are tons of productivity technologies that don’t involve a computer, including the “Getting Things Done” system, which tore through the Internet like wildfire for a few years—Inbox Zero is its legacy.

That said, I believe we are at the cusp of upcoming technologies like speech recognition, the evolution of notifications, and a renewed focus on what I’d like to call “life management” (think wearables) that will finally put a dent in the way we manage our lives, to dos included. A couple of examples that have attacked this problem with some level of success have been “Mailbox” and “Google Now” to cite a couple of examples. Sure, these are early attempts at fixing email and to-dos, but I see this as a harbinger of the future.

The Challenge with To-dos

The biggest challenge with time management apps is the fluid requirements of To do apps. They have to scale from the micro (staying focused on the immediate task at hand) to the macro (that needs perspective with other apps like the calendar, ideally with notifications); the simple to the complex, the one-time to the repetitive (like habit tracker @liftapp); the important & urgent to the trivial; and so far we’ve just had blunt instruments with which we’ve been trying to hack away at this complexity called life.

All this complexity also has to be handled with little input from the user, or you risk losing them at the get-go should you try to gather much information from them. And the input medium has to be as simple as possible, not forcing the user to be typing away with difficulty on their smartphones. That’s where Google Now becomes more and more magical, as they delight their users by surfacing information users might have missed. This will be the future of To-dos. Read through Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan’s post comparing predictive search to digital assistants:

However, there’s no question that Google Now has proven that there are some search needs that can be predicted. These are often especially tied to location. That’s why — in retrospect — it’s not surprising that predictive search has emerged as more a smartphone feature rather than a search engine feature. We got Google Now for our phones long before we got it for our desktops.

Indeed, predictive search may even develop into an essential smartphone feature. We may come to expect every phone to have it, just as we expect our phones to have cameras or notification areas. And just as people might not buy a phone deemed to have a bad camera, they might also pass over a phone with poor predictive search in favor of one offering better.

The other major challenge with to-dos is handing off some of their actions to apps like email and calendar. Like some to-dos, that are important or urgent, could very well be a unit on your calendar. Now how does one hand that off across apps?

[Update: Since the writing of the post, Khosla VenturesTimeful App launched on iOS this past week, and seems to do a terrific job thus far. More on that in an upcoming post]

Now if only there was a way to dumb down this process to its fundamental basics, where the user does none of the heavy lifting but experiences the benefits of (feedback loop) of such a system, we might have a start. Granted we do not have a single solution that is cross-application and cross-platform, yet.

Hacking To-dos with Siri

This past weekend, upon transitioning to Apple’s latest OS X Yosemite, I feel I may have a quick fix, at least for now that might ease my time management. [This post was written before the launch of Timeful, so expect a sequel shortly.] Two of the biggest improvements in Yosemite, besides the mobile iOS influenced look-and-feel are Notifications (at a swipe) and Reminders that (finally!) syncs across mobile and desktop.

And the secret sauce to make this time management hack work is Siri. In its most recent avatar, Siri is a pretty good note taker, transcriber, and so removes the biggest obstacle with Reminders, which is the act of opening an app to type in your to-do, now all you’ve to do is say it out loud and it’s integrated into a giant catch-all. Let’s call that folder: “Do.”

In addition, I’ve created a bunch of often repeated categories, which range from Groceries (which I turn to when I shop at Google Shopping Express or Instacart), to Chores, which I’d rather not turn to, but gotta. At the end of each day, I review the “Do” folder and either assign a time / date for completion, either / or a folder that I can turn to “Later.”

The missing piece to all To-dos is Timing. Notifications (across mobile and desktop) can really make this work, unlike all past attempts at To-do apps. The good news with the new Mac OS’s is that Notifications are integrated cross-platform and a cursory viewing is just a swipe away under the newly redesigned OS X on the right hand of the desktop.

Frankly, this is as good as Reminders are gonna get for now, but I bet there are ways to further do the thinking for us, as Google Now has shown.

The Future is Brighter

With my experience with Timeful these past 24 hours, it’s clear that time management can be hacked on mobile and desktop in a way we haven’t been able to do thus far. And with increasing tie-ins with the mobile OS and the world of notifications (check out Naveen‘s (Partner, Expa) essay on how “notifications are becoming the app itself”) and predictive search, we just might be able to crack this case.

Also, notifications will allow time management apps to interact with the user on a project to project basis in a way that task managers haven’t been able to in the past. The benefits of such one-click incremental interactions (task done or task moved forward) in future OS’s will bring about a sea change in the efficiency of to-do apps.

When we can interact with our data in short bursts via notifications, we make remarkable efficiency gains, especially on tasks that we perform again and again. Apps will become more about information and communications; we’re going to think of them as services instead of as windows onto our data. The things that can make best use of single click efficiency will soar. A whole new world is up there waiting for us at the top of the screen. We just need to pull it down.

Finally, one of the time management fads talked about in Paul Ford’s piece was David Allen and his until recently ubiquitous Getting Things Done (GTD) craze in the nerd community. Even comedian Drew Carey outsourced his time management to Allen to fix this problem and learned this:

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan.

And that plan needs to be made in concert with the big picture, without which the minute next steps mean nothing. Curious what David Allen thinks of the new wave of time management?

How do you track time in your life? Curious if any of your time hacks beat the version I outline above. Tweet me @mariosundar or just leave a comment below.

Filed under: HOW-TO Use Social Media, New Products, What's New in Social Media

Time has come to change how we read

Google Reader is dead. Long live reading.

If you are from the real world and happened upon posts from any-and-every tech blog, you wouldn’t be mistaken in assuming that today marks the demise of the written word, now that Google’s offed Google Reader.

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Image Source: Business Week

But as Joe Coscarelli of New York Magazine, notes, most people don’t know Google Reader from Google Currents, less so care about its disappearance:

As a blogger this might be blasphemy, but the online echo chamber when beloved products, however esoteric, change or shut down is out of control. Worse, it might convince us, through repetition, that these things matter. Regardless of what your social media circles might indicate, the universe will not mourn Reader because the amount of people whose job (or even hobby) it is to consume and process news is actually minuscule. Thankfully.

As a matter of fact, in their rush to tease out the minutiae, I fear we have missed the big picture. There is a fundamental disruption happening in how news is consumed.

Many apps (Digg, Aol, Feedly) are scrambling to jump on the RSS bandwagon by touting their next Google Reader but fact is we are already seeing attempts at more efficient ways to consume news.

And RSS is only part of that story.

What’s the New TiVo of News?

Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker, writes of the problem that ailed Google Reader:

But a feed reader still represents a fundamentally different vision of gathering information than the social model that has gripped the Web. It is largely a single-user enterprise—a digital monk diligently scanning feeds. And it is intensely focussed on the Web sites most important to the user, rather than the omnivorous grazing that characterizes scanning news on social media, as links are surfaced by the people the user follows.

Fact is most of the sites I recommend below have moved away from the RSS-only model while curating social content, in many cases with a lil help from an expert – a trait most successfully used by Gabe Rivera and his trinity of popular news aggregation insider sites Techmeme (Technology), Memeorandum (Politics), and Wesmirch (Celebrity).

As Matt says:

Everybody consumes the Web differently, so it’s hard to imagine a single reading service that works for every person. But it seems reasonable to think that one combining a person’s deep and abiding interests with the serendipity of social media could work for most.

But the future for news readers is brighter than ever and here’s not one, not two, but five different reasons why:

1. Flipboard

The one news app I cannot live without today would have to be – without doubt – my Flipboard.

Flipboard pulls together the disparate threads of news that course through our ubiquitous social media world and makes gorgeous sense of it. Everything from your LinkedIn to Facebook updates, YouTube to Instagram (even SoundCloud), and most importantly, your Twitter followings are displayed in an elegant magazine like format. It’s the kind of design one normally expects from Apple, and Flipboard’s attention-to-detail here is impressive (Follow their designer, @craigmod).

The important distinction to make here is that Flipboard is primarily a consumption device. Though it provides you options to tweet or update your status on any of your social accounts, the beauty of Flipboard is its visual clarity and the ability to on-board you with great news right away.

2. Feedly

For those hard-core Google Reader users who fret-and-fumed since the announcement-to-shutter was made, Feedly has been a god-send. Not only has Feedly invested the most in making this a smooth transition for users, they have also made the most gains among the same user base (up to 3 million users now). In addition, they now support lost RSS reader tools (like @reeder and @newsify) stay alive.

From a user perspective, what feedly has done is provide a quick replacement for Google Reader with a blazing fast cloud service, which you can find at Feedly Cloud. What’s most shocking to me in this whole scenario is why Google didn’t transition those influential Google Reader users to Google Currents – their Flipboard wannabe – the same way Flipboard did!

What Feedly does with its aggressive push into the Google Reader space remains to be seen, but I’d watch out for what they have up their sleeve next.

3. Newsify

All great news consumption apps start on mobile. Flipboard set the standard and, believe it or not, Newsify and Reeder are two similar apps with similar credentials.

RSS subscriptions, unlike the real-time ephemeral nature of social, add up pretty fast in an inbox and what you found is that you had to declare news bankruptcy pretty soon, deleting days worth of RSS content.

What you need is a pictorial, almost Pinterest-like, visualization that allows you to skim through hundreds of posts while picking out the ones that seem most interesting. If it’s 4.5 star app rating is any indication, Newsify seems to have nailed that experience for the iPhone and the iPad.

4. The Modern Op-ed: Quora and Medium

What Huffington Post successfully started, Quora and Medium have tried to emulate. The goal: to find and amplify excellent sources of authoritative analysis, with topics ranging from breaking news to expertise across varying categories.

While Quora is focused on news-via-experience, Medium seems to have perfected the art of the modern op-ed, democratized it while still maintaining its quality.

But what all these sites do is take the traditional news model and flip it on its head by finding commenters, whose comments are the starting point to creating worthwhile reading, and giving these individuals a platform to write and a community to pontificate.

5. Social News: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Finally, the elephant in the room. Social.

Let’s not forget that all of the above innovation rests on social.

What would Flipboard do without Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn feeds. Would their pages be as interesting or even exist?

Most of what I follow on Flipboard are Twitter lists I’ve created. Most of what most people follow on Flipboard are also built around links shared on social sites. With LinkedIn already showing how a successful social news product should be built around relevance and Facebook clearly showing its cards with what could potentially be a social news engine, we can see the direction that social news is gonna take in the coming years. And it’s gonna be a game changer.

So let me leave you with a question:

How do you get your news today? Is it on Yahoo News or Flipboard or Twitter? Do you read news primarily on your phone as you are boarding the train or on your desktop once you get to work or with a New York Times subscription while you drink coffee in the morning.

Leave me a comment.

Filed under: Curation, Facebook, Journalism, Medium, Quora, Social Media Tools, Tumblr, What's New in Social Media

Quora’s Vision, Competition

Quora’s Adam D’Angelo penned an interesting year-end post where he articulates Quora’s mission better than they’ve ever done before. As a huge fan of the site and a disappointee with some of their recent work (Quora boards anyone?) I’m glad to see Quora returning to its roots.

Quora’s mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge.

LIBRARY-OF-ALEXANDRIA

Much of Adam’s thoughts reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, which predicts the beauty of Quora and it’s goals many years ago.

I read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through church and state.

Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.

Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

That to me, was and is, Quora’s highest ambition: to educate, organize and share the world’s knowledge  from the sublime to the mundane (which is very different from Google’s “organize the world’s information.”) And, it was refreshing to read echoes of that in Adam’s recent post:

We hope to become an internet-scale Library of Alexandria, a place where hundreds of millions of people go to learn about anything and share everything they know.

Or as Emerson said from the users point-of-view:

The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges.

Matthew Ingram over at GigaOm suggests this pits Quora with Wikipedia, while Owen Thomas is more like Google v. Quora. Frankly, it’s neither of them.

The battle lines are drawn. Its knowledge platforms that Quora will find itself facing off.

1. Knowledge Platforms: The Old Guard

WordPress, Typepad, etc.

Frankly, any site or service that dabbles in knowledge dissemination is competition to Quora, the only difference here being Quora could be both the platform (like WordPress) and the connector (like Google). I’d have counted Answers sites in this mix but they’re either too niche (Stack Overflow) or dead (Yahoo! Answers and LinkedIn Answers).

So, blogs. There are close to 150 million blogs in the world with Google doing a pretty decent job of corralling that information, sometimes connecting the highest bidder with the rest of us with questions. But that’s not the market Quora is going after. It’s knowledge; a higher quality of information. And where do people share the knowledge they have – mostly on blogs and niche social networks. Think about this: the biggest drawback of most blogs is the ability to build an audience (the more influential, the better) but Quora is great at helping you find that audience and helps you connect with those who seek that knowledge (like Quora credits?)

But before they get there they need to scale their knowledge platform; hence, I’d guess, the push away from Q&A to everything that constitutes knowledge.

2. Knowledge Platforms: The New Wave

Svbtle, Medium & Branch.

Increasingly I’m seeing sites that aim to one-up the WordPresses of the world with “a curated collection of great people who have things to say, “a new way to talk to each other,” or “the sharing of ideas and experiences.”

Oddly enough, two of the above come from the House of Obvious Corp. (the brainchild of Twitter co-founders, Ev and Biz), both of whom “would rather build the next Wikipedia, than Zynga.” Guess who’s building the next Wikipedia – Quora.

While Branch forces us to take a second look at commenting systems, cryptic Medium seems to be aimed at publishers and media companies or something like that. Either way, all of the above are aimed at scaling the quality of knowledge that’s distributed on the internet. And by doing so they aim to become the Google at connecting knowledge with those who seek it.

You may notice I didn’t mention Tumblr because I feel they’ve carved out a unique niche for themselves far from either “quality” or “knowledge” by becoming a social entertainment platform with a specific audience (teenagers and time-wasters?), much like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post both of whom feed off of Tumblr.

3. Social Platforms: News and Blog Niche

LinkedIn Blogs, Facebook News

Much like Tumblr and Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn too have a distinct purpose that immunizes them against Quora. But increasingly, both of these social networking giants, especially LinkedIn seem to making subtle inroads into knowledge sharing. Heck, LinkedIn even recently launched a curated blogging platform. As LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, says in his recent post “It’s Not Just Who You Know, It’s What They Know.”

I’m also personally looking forward to posting on a number of subjects I’ve grown passionate about during the course of my career: how to scale a company; the most valuable management lessons I’ve learned; thoughts about the future of work; how to close the skills gap; and many others.

Topics that you can find answers to on Quora along with the more mundane questions that professionals across various spectrum have asked questions on, but LinkedIn’s scale makes this an interesting one to follow.

Granted, this is but a hobby for LinkedIn; their very own “Apple TV” but as I see it, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of knowledge networks.

Filed under: Branch, Knowledge Networks, Linkedin, Medium, Quora, , , , , , , , ,

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