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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What's Twitter, and why I love it

If you work in an environment filled with friendly, fascinating people, where you continually hear about exciting news (local, online, and around the world), and you are encouraged to be witty and playful, then you don't need Twitter.

However, I work in a cubicle in my house (really -- I had a surplus Herman Miller cubicle installed here) and the cats have their limitations as colleagues.

Thus, five or six times a day, I Twitter. I take a look at what people are saying, throw in some of my own teasers, check "@" replies, answer publicly posted questions, and look at private "direct mail" I receive. My Twitter breaks correspond to the pattern I followed when I worked in a traditional office: Greet people on arrival, mid-morning coffee break, lunch, mid-afternoon break, and departure in the evening. The one addition is that I'm likely to check Twitter once or twice in the evening -- by which time most of us are talking about what we're cooking for dinner or what activities we're up to (shopping, yoga, classes, crafts, dealing with the kids, etc.)

Who, you might ask, are these people I'm Twittering with? Well, unlike the real office where you are usually stuck with a few folks you don't want to deal with, on Twitter you hear only from the people you want to hear from -- you select the individuals you follow.

I've selected colleagues from my past jobs in tech, clients and colleagues from my current SEO work, leaders in the Seattle social media and blogging field, some bellydance, yoga, and fitness folks, and -- here's the twist -- their friends. This "second tier" of Twitter is where it gets really interesting. I see my friends commenting on other people's remarks, and I get curious about the other people, who often get curious about me, and the next thing I know we're exchanging tips on everything from cooking to software. Or meeting in Ballard for lunch.

Twitter is also a great way of keeping up on what's going on with friends from out of town. This way you don't end up finding out, months after the fact, that they've changed jobs, moved, or split up with their significant others. You pick it up on Twitter, and can jump in with an appropriate private direct message.

I most often use Twitter from a web browser, but there are a variety of third party apps that let you read and post Tweets from a smart phone. (This list includes desktop widgets and smart phone apps.) I use PocketTweets but also use Twinkle, an app that lets me see other Twitter/Twinkle users within 1 mile, 2 miles, 5 miles (you get it) from wherever I am. It's fun during an event (such as Folklife) or when you're traveling. Or during a snowstorm, when you want to know what's open in the neighborhood.

Yes, some people do take Twitter a bit too seriously. Some try to game it as a social networking tool, posting a bunch of marketing messages thinly disguised as clever repartee. (It's like having a colleague at work suddenly launch into an attempt to recruit you into their religion, or sell you Amway products.) Fortunately, Twitter makes it very easy to "unfollow" these folks. And I do. (I'm not selective about who follows me, but Twitter offers a blocking tool for people who are.)

The competitive types get all excited about Twitter Grader, which ranks your influence within the Twitter community. I don't know what the grading algorithm is, but I suspect it looks primarily at the quality of your followers (how long they've been on Twitter, how often they post, and how many followers they have).

There's a trend towards merging all your online communications into one dashboard, so you'll see people having their Tweets appear on their blogs, or on Facebook. That's too large, and too uncontrolled an audience for me. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Warm wishes for the holidays

The winter holidays are pretty much contiguous this year, which means we can light our menorahs, Christmas trees, and Yule logs all at the same time.

I like it — this feeling of everything all together.

In the 60s people talked about "integration." In the 80s, it was "celebrating the differences." Now you hear words like "transparency," "remix," and "mashup." Whether it's done carefully and intentionally, or it just happens, it's all about the blurring of what once were differences — differences between our work lives and home lives, our public activities and our private activities, and even elements of our identities, such as race, ethnicity, and age.

Of course there's are frightening aspects associated with this feeling of everything coming together. People of my generation were educated to think that things were better off clearly defined, categorized, and controlled. This wasn't the best preparation for a world that now prizes the abilities to perceive connections, to keep moving forward despite ambiguity, and to monitor fast-moving, continuous feedback loops. Problem-solving has become more important than problem-prevention.

Interestingly, the new ways of thinking, and the new technologies inextricably mixed with them, are leading people to revisit older ways of doing things. Many of these old ways pre-date my generation and pertain more to my grandparents' lives: eating locally grown food, and appreciating the aesthetics of handmade crafts. Many of the younger people I work with in the tech field are enthusiastic gardeners, knitters, cooks, musicians, and do-it-yourselfers.

The more I explore the new, and revisit the old, the more I enjoy myself! I can't always control the long-term outcomes, but I can, each day, control the steps I take toward my goals. I think often of Steve Jobs' assertion that "the journey is, and will continue to be, the reward."

My best wishes to you for a happy and healthy year; one in which the rewards of the journey are many.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Web content: We're (probably) doin' it wrong

This piece by Kristina Halvorson on A List Apart raises some excellent issues about web content strategy. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it unflinchingly describes some of the problems with the content a lot of us are involved in producing. And it reminds us of the tools we could employ to do it better.

That said, the sites that I find produce outstanding content (, LinkedIn, FaceBook) don't seem to be doing it by systematically leveraging the content-related disciplines this article describes. They're doing it by first breaking a lot of rules to create a unique web service, and then evolving based on the way that users and third parties make use of their innovative structures.

Of course, very few of us are developing content for a or a LinkedIn. We're working on more traditional sites we'd like to see do a better job for both organizations and users. For us, Halvorson has an important message:

"But until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests. We’ll keep trying to fit words, audio, graphics, and video into page templates that weren’t truly designed with our business’s real-world content requirements in mind. Our customers still won’t find what they’re looking for. And we’ll keep failing to publish useful, usable content that people actually care about."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bad Apple on the family tree?

Oh, Steve, you're in trouble now: "Mom" reprimands Apple for its decision pull out of future Macworld Expos.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Losing sight of the fax? Not yet.

When was the last time you faxed something?

I quit struggling with the blankety-blank cheap fax machine in the den a couple of years ago, and finally unplugged it last summer when it began making strange grumbling sounds. The convenience of sending something out (after the machine had grabbed and mangled multiple pages a few times) was offset by a constant, noisy, influx of junk faxes. I doubt had received a legitimate fax on the machine in more than five years.

But now I have a corporate client whose client base doesn't use email. I needed to send drafts of text to some of those folks for their approvals, and the 20-something-degree weather did not encourage me to go tripping off to the local fax place.

So...hello RingCentral.

I checked various Mac forums for info on Mac-friendly online fax services (I do not want another piece of anything requiring a cable anywhere near my desk, thank you) and RingCentral got the nod from as being the most friendly for sending faxes. (It also receives them, but I hope I won't have to deal with that; the approvals get faxed back to my corporate client.)

MyOnlineFaxMachine provides a  30-day free trial of RingCentral (and some of the other services), after which the plan is $10 a month. I am very happy to report that setting up the service and sending the faxes was painless.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

There are days when things happen

And today is one of them.

I was so caught off-balance by the news that Macworld 2009 will be the last Macworld with Apple involved that I checked the website to make sure this wasn't a hoax. It wasn't. (Though a subsequent press release someone Twittered that had Apple canceling its involvement in Christmas was.)

Dori Smith quickly predicted that Macworld 2009 will be "a wake." If so, it's likely to be a wake of the Irish variety, as it may well be the last time that those of us from the far corners of the country see each other in person. (I have a standing lunch date at Mel's Diner with a friend from Tennessee, a breakfast gathering of Seattle and ex-Seattle folks, and coffee dates with several folks from my days with .Mac and iTunes at Apple.)

In spite of my history of sublime-to-ridiculous experiences with hotels during Macworld, I love attending this event. This will be my 8th or 9th Macworld, and I can't believe it's going to be my last. Sure, there may still be a Macworld...but without Apple? Hmmm.

On to the next bit of news...this one a good friend Dave Howell has been chosen to design the base for the coveted Hugo science fiction awards, to be presented at the 2009 Worldcon in Montréal. Alors! Dave is a designer, artist, and vocalist who designed, among other things, the scarily official Wolfram & Hart parking sticker that currently adorns my Honda Fit.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Amusing advice to people who aren't listening

I've been known to dish out advice (no, really!) and I'm aware that the people it's aimed likely aren't listening. And those who are listening are probably the folks who don't need it. But, at least, they share my mixture of amusement and righteous indignation.

I'm sure Mighty Girl doesn't harbor any delusions that the coffee shop troll hogging the four-person table and nursing a latte for three hours while he downloads gargantuan files over the cafe's WiFi is paying attention. (Of course he's not; he's too busy loudly yammering on his cell phone.) But she's written some advice for him you might find amusing. Particularly if he's been hogging the wall outlet you'd like to get at with your laptop charger.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I can dream, can't I?

Not only would I like this bookcase, I think the cats would enjoy it as well. They have promised to buy it for me when they win the LOLcat lottery.

That was then, and this is now

I am putting my indispensable Harvest timesheet clock on "unbillable" for a few minutes to talk about what's been flooding our email inboxes for the past few days: Requests for money, from both business enterprises and charities.

Like the current economic situation (dare I use the R-word?), it's only going to get worse.

So, I'm sitting here thinking about what I hope things will look like two years down the road, when the bad times begin to recede.

And the answer is: Different. A lot of these businesses and non-profits will be gone. Which ones will remain will be determined, in large part, by their ability to adapt to reality. Starting right now.

To all those organizations asking me to fund your efforts to keep presenting the same type and level of services you did during the boom years, the answer is: Absolutely no. Sure, I liked the plays you presented last year. But perhaps next year you need to consider ones with lower production costs?

Come back to me with a plan for how you are going to be leaner and meaner during the next two years, and I'll give long, hard thought to what I can contribute to help you survive.

To all those businesses asking me to pay $110 for a sweater with a trendy label (that will be discounted to $29.99 in January): Fat chance. If I really need a sweater, I'll be buying it from the local consignment shop.

I regret that people spent so much effort during my childhood teaching me to say "Please" and "Thank You" without bothering to teach me how to say "No." I'm told that now that I've learned to say it, I'm a bit too emphatic and harsh. But something tells me I'll be getting plenty of practice in the coming months refining my delivery.

Perhaps I'll try softening "No" with a phrase my friend Charlotte Goldstein, a child of the Depression, uses to great effect: "That was then — and this is now."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

How to write a holiday letter (2008 Remix)

It's that time of year again. If the sales and the Christmas tree lots weren't already giving me hints, I'd know because StatCounter indicates a surge of hits to my 2006 post, Tips for Writing a Holiday Letter.

Here's a quick tip from it:

#4. Talk briefly about why you're writing the letter. "It's wonderful to take a few minutes to reflect about the year and share some highlights with friends," is the type of opening you're looking for. Don't apologize. If you feel compelled to open with something like "We hate to bore you all with another long, stilted holiday missive," you shouldn't be writing one.

Want more inspiration? Go for it!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sorry I couldn't be two places at once

Some of us who usually attend Seattle Mind Camp were lured down to Portland over the weekend for Orycon. Orycon was great. However, this spoof video of Mind Camp, produced by Monica Guzman and Jason Preston, made me just a tad homesick!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Using a blog to promote and organize a conference

This excellent article on the Commoncraft blog does a good job of answering the questions I'm often asked by clients and prospective clients about using a blog to promote and organize a conference.

One-way blogging of conference announcements is low effort — and low return. Lee Lefever recommends creating a conference blog that enlists the talents of key presenters and invites discussion via comments. It's a sure-fire way to attract attention, and to energize the audience in advance of the actual event.

But, as his post points out, conference organizers need to be willing to deal with the controversies that can emerge.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Should you redesign your website?

If you are considering redesigning your website, you may want to employ Website Optimizer to test the effectiveness of your changes before you commit to them. 80/20 Internet Marketing explains how this works.

Quick reads

Just as many social networkers enjoy the challenge of compressing their observations into a 140-word tweet, many writers have become intrigued with the power of a story told in just a few words. While flash fiction can be as short as a sentence, as a rule it tops out at 1,000 words.

This blog post, "A Flash of Inspiration," provides a good guide to the flash fiction genre.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I preferred the topless meeting

The Oxford University Press's choice for 2008 word of the year, hypermiling, left me cold, but I sure liked some of the finalists and shortlisted words:

frugalista – person who leads a frugal lifestyle, but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying second-hand, growing own produce, etc.

topless meeting – a meeting in which the participants are barred from using their laptops, Blackberries, cellphones, etc.

and the more familiar

link bait – content on a website that encourages [baits] a user to place links to it from other websites

tweet – a short message sent via the Twitter service, using a cellphone or other mobile device.

Twitter: Beware the long tail and what it's attached to

There's no question but that journalism has in recent decades shifted its focus from news (chosen for news value) to "infotainment" (chosen for entertainment value). And the journalism world made this questionable move awkwardly, trying to handle fast-paced, sexy content via a creaky, stiff medium.

Then along came websites, blogs, and other social media communications platforms to show them how it should be done. One of the beauties of social media is that the "infotainment" is being provided by extremely clever and articulate infotainers. (You know who you are, folks.)

Everyone wants to get in the game now, and the web abounds with articles and posts about "how to" do great social media writing. Not surprisingly, some of this online literature is aimed at journalists trying to catch up with and get onto the bandwagon. An excellent addition to this genre is "Twitter to journalists: Here's how it's done" posted on the site eat sleep publish. The post collects "tips for journalists using social media" that blogger Monica Guzman solicited from her online colleagues. The tips (Twittered, of course) were short and to the point.

I'm honored to have been one of the people whose advice appears in the collection. And now I want to "out" myself as the contributer who offered up the most hard-line, old-time, journalistic advice. I wrote:

"NEVER relax the traditional standards you used for verifying facts and getting both sides’ points of view!"

It was a bit embarrassing to see all the other Twitterers' tips about savvy use of the latest social media sites when there I stood, effectively pounding my oh-so-sensible shoe on the digital desktop. (Yes, I know what era that reference comes from.)

But I want to stand by my stodgy comment, and expand on it a bit here. Particularly because I just spent some time arguing the other side this morning, urging a client with a business blog to cast off the stilted, detailed, boring language of press releases and adopt a reader-focused tone.

Blogging and Twittering are infotainment. As infotainment, they only need to present one side of the picture. Many great posts (and Tweets) are unabashed pieces of advocacy. These pieces are great because they're full of new information (or bring together information in a new and provocative way).'ll notice that the bloggers and Twitterers who consistently write great stuff have a reputation for accuracy (because they're verifying facts). And, if you get into a discussion with them via comments or email, you soon discover that they research not only the side of the issue they choose to present, but the other side as well. They know what they're up against before they hit "Publish."

By knowing both sides of the issue before you write, you not only occupy the moral high ground — you also prevent yourself from sounding like a horse's ass. (And I don't mean the political blog, which is rather wonderful.) In the world of Twitter, horses' asses tend to lose followers; it can get very messy if you follow too closely behind a horse.

So, I stand by my advice for journalists aspiring to Twitterificness, and hope that the social media darlings who haven't already figured it out will consider giving it a try as well — if just to keep their Manolo Blahniks and Skechers pristine.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Take control of your Mac, your WiFi — and your turkey

Take Control ebooks is giving away a copy of Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner with every technology title sold.

The sale is on from now through Thanksgiving Day — since it's an ebook, you can download it at the last minute if you need to figure out how to make great gravy (or consult Appendix C: Last-Minute Thanksgiving). But it's worth getting it a week or two in advance to take advantage of all of Joe Kissell's great advice on planning Thanksgiving, from brining a turkey to making creamy mashed potatoes.

Not just chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers

I will never thing of social media, or s'mores, quite the same way after reading this Guy Kawasaki guide on how to attract more followers on Twitter.

Meet the geek

Tyler Pruitt, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Geek of the Week, is all about why geekiness is cool.

Now I have to go up to B.C. and find out what a Wunderbar is! But I've already downloaded Feedwhip.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Twitter goes mainstream

Colbert explains Twitter to Stewart.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Smart negotiating in tough times

I'm going to be doing some writing soon about ways I'm tightening up my business practices to deal with the tough economy.

One of my inspirations has been Seattle business entrepreneur Chris Rugh. His article "Negotiating with Contractors During Tough Times" is featured at Entrepreneurs' Organization. Well worth reading -- his advice on the mindset to use for successful negotiation has already saved me more than $1,000 on the repainting of the house interior!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On reading and health

At my annual checkup today, my doctor asked me if I watched TV. I said my TV isn't even hooked up to broadcast sources -- I only use it to watch DVDs when friends come over to visit.

He laughed, admitted that he doesn't watch broadcast TV, either, and commented that he sees a direct correlation between lots of of TV watching and poor health among his patients, particularly the elderly. He said the problem isn't just sitting and watching TV instead of exercising; it's letting the mind slip into passivity instead of engaging with games, discussions, puzzles, writing, and reading.

I love reading, but recently have been spending what used to be my reading time writing instead. And instead of reading new books, I've been working my way through science fiction classics (such as Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia) to get a better understanding of that genre.

Thus, I have yet to read any of the books on Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year list. But, seeing the list made me realize how much I want to get to some of these, particularly Michael Connelly's latest, The Brass Verdict, Donald Ray's Knockemstiff, and Greg Bear's City at the End of Time.

(cross-posted on Food, Fitness, Fashion)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why the invoice is (not) in the email

For the past three years I've been using a wonderful online app for simple project tracking and billing for my writing business. I can access it from either of my computers, even when I'm on the road, and I don't have to worry about backups.

Or so I thought.

A year ago the app developer, who had been working on a pro version of the app, got a job with Facebook and stopped updating the free app. However, since the app was quite stable, she left the site up and running for the "legacy" users like me.

Today the site wouldn't load, and I discovered that the phone number (obtained from a Who Is lookup) is out of date.

Is this a temporary server glitch or The End of the app? If it's the end, it means this month's project tracking records are inaccessible — ironic, because, when I visited the site last night, I noticed that October is the best month my business has ever had.

I've spent the past hour researching tracking and billing apps. The apparent winner? A paid online service, Harvest, which offers a good monthly rate for a one-person business and provides the first month free.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What we say, what they hear

Canadian author and blogger Crawford Kilian has put together a guide for Canadians trying to grok American political English. Sample: "Pundit: High-functioning moron who can log on to Blogger or TypePad."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Meet the "corporate newsfeed"

R.I.P.: The "corporate blog."

Meet the "corporate newsfeed."

I owe a big debt to a senior product manager at a meeting I attended earlier this week. When the presentation about search engine optimization techniques turned to my role in creating a corporate blog, I got a good look at her expression. It started with incredulous and progressed to annoyed. Her face told me that "blogging" is something she associates with an 18-year-old with a Facebook account, not with a major corporation's marketing strategy.

She has a point.

Yes, yes, I went on to explain the effect that blogs have in terms of Google rankings; the algorithms reward getting a steady stream of fresh, keyworded information onto a business website. And pretty soon she came around to embrace the concept to the point where she wanted to discuss topics for the blog posts.

But I decided right then and there that one of the dumbest things I've ever done is to repeatedly sell skeptical managers and executives on the benefits of a "corporate blog." Why beat my head against the wall, when I could get immediate comprehension and endorsement (and likely, a better hourly rate) for offering them a "corporate newsfeed?"

I'm still an advocate of blogging for small business sites where a personal tone, or the owner's identity, is key to branding. That sort of writing is, in fact, quite close to what we think of as traditional blogging.

But, quite frankly, the concept of the corporate blogs has always been awkward. Most CEOs and marketing directors are too busy to blog consistantly, so the posts are either ghost-written under their names or, weirdly, anonymous. A corporate newsfeed, written by a team and edited by a communications professional (yes, that would be me), is quite a bit more honest and direct. And, to come full circle, isn't that what blogging is all about?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Big Conversation at BigFoot

Yesterday the Twitterverse live-blogged the BigFoot Blogging Conference. Today the blogs are weighing in with some in-depth analyses.

Baconismyenemy provides a newcomer's take on the day-long event at UW. "People are excited and energized about what they are doing. This attitude is infectious. People are doing good work that they love doing. Who doesn’t want to be around that?!?" she notes.

Nerdseyeview gives...well, just that. "It was more conversational than educational for me, but that in itself says a lot about the wildly social direction blogging is going," she writes. Her post captured the tenor of the event perfectly.

And Mary Pat Whaley made a sharp mini-video at the event. Wow!

Friday, October 10, 2008

BigFoot URLS

URLs for some of the sites I'll be citing tomorrow at the BigFoot Blogging Conference.

The History of Weblogs

The Register (on blog conferences)

The Register (on teenage girls blogging)

Anne Kilkenny email (repost of)

Guy Kawasaki's blog "How to Change the World"

Seth Godin's blog

iStock — photos, artwork, video, etc.

Cute Overload

Unmoderated comments:
Making Light

Immoderate comments:
Horse's Ass

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Professional recognition

You can control how you go about seeking professional recognition but you can't control how or when it comes — or what you'll be doing when it arrives.

The news of the biggest and most exciting contract I ever won came just minutes before one of my best friends called to report a horrible family tragedy that ended with his mother's death. My teammates went out to celebrate getting the contract; I went to my friend's house and stayed sat him through a long, sleepless night.

Yesterday morning I sat down to eat my Cheerios and read the Wall Street Journal and was thrilled to find in the Journal an extensive article by jazz critic Nat Hentoff praising Yizkor, the new album by David Chevan and Afro-Semitic Experience with cantor Alberto Mizrahi. A old friend from New Haven, Stacy Phillips, plays in the group. Stacy, a teacher, writer, and performer, is a "musician's musician" — renowned in the upper echelons of bluegrass, Western swing, and klezmer, but (despite a Grammy and 40 years of professional work) not a "name" who could sell out a venue like the Triple Door or the Moore Theatre.

"Never before have I heard this lyrically powerful a fusion of Jewish and jazz souls on fire," Hentoff kvelled over the group's performance. At last! I thought.

Sometimes recognition comes and you're so sure you won't get it that you fail completely to react. That happened to me yesterday. I've recently begun writing short speculative fiction; the SF field is replete with contests and small magazines for the beginning writer, and I submitted stories to two contests. My goal was to place in one of the two contests.

The first contest, part of Fencon V in Dallas, had the results announced at the convention last weekend. However, I wasn't at the convention, and had no way of finding out how I'd done. Tuesday evening I contacted a Twitter friend who had attended Fencon and asked him to check the convention program for the contest results. He wrote back:

"The 1st place short story winner was "Dark Running" by Justin Macumber; 2nd place "Undying Love" by K. G. Anderson (you, congrats); 3rd place 'The Color of Midnight" by Dan Hiestand. Alas, only the winner's tale was published in the Fencon V booklet. I don't know if they will post them online."

I found out in such a roundabout way that it didn't really sink in. All I could think was: OK, it didn't get published, all rights remain with the author, so I should workshop this, rewrite it, and submit it to some small 'zines.

It was only after I told a friend about the contest results and he replied "What shall we do to celebrate?" that it sunk in: A story I'd created had placed in a contest, and I'd met my (admittedly modest) writing goal for the year.

I celebrated by harvesting the basil and making pesto. So there.

BigFoot Blogging Conference this Saturday

The first BigFoot Blogging Conference, featuring ubergeek Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome and Gnomedex fame, is this Saturday at the University of Washington.

The conference, sponsored by and the University of Washington's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, is intended as an opportunity for bloggers to get together, exchange information, and hear from speakers on a variety of blogging topics. Monica Guzman, of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Big Blog and Tracy Record, of West Seattle Blog, will talk about news blogging (from two very different perspectives); Andru Edwards of Gear Live Media will talk about technology news blogging; I'll be talking about the principals of blogging in general and corporate ghost-blogging in particular; and Pirillo will likely be talking about how he's used vlogging to build Lockergnome into one of the highest-traffic sites on the web.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Putting it on paper

Writers, artists, and fans gather next weekend in Redmond for Foolscap X — a literary convention devoted to "flat stuff; funny hats." The "flat stuff" is written and/or illustrated science fiction, fantasy and related-genre works.

Small and focused, Foolscap is an excellent way to check out the thriving and complex Northwest science fiction community and meet out-of-state guests of honor like author Esther Friesner and illustrator Michael Kaluta.

While more structured than an "unconference," Foolscap is very much a participants' event; come prepared to meet people and get involved in lively discussions, impromptu dining adventures, and an auction of one-of-a-kind original artworks and genre collectibles.

The conference's new location (the Marriott in the midst of the pedestrian-friendly Redmond Town Center) is likely to attract public interest. While most of the activities require conference membership ($45), there are two open-to-the-public panels:

"About Science Fiction Cons," in the hotel lobby, 5-6 p.m. Friday
"Why Science Fiction & Fantasy," in the hotel lobby, 4:30-6 p.m. Saturday

High recommended attendees-only panels include:

"Urban Fantasy" (2:30-3:30 p.m. Sunday)
"Stories that Shouldn't Be Written" (4-5 p.m. Friday)

I'm scheduled to be on a late-night panel discussion of "Vampire Romances: Jumped the shark?" If you plan to attend, please get all the "teeth" jokes out of your system first.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Getting your head on straight

The Office Rat blog, written by massage therapist Larry Swanson, offers tips for reversing the damage done to us daily by our office chairs, desks, and computer set-ups.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Do you dare try Browsershots?

One of the reasons I try to get my budget clients to use "canned" templates on their brochure websites is that the templates are generally coded to look good on a variety of browsers. They don't break, even if the person viewing them is using an old version of Internet Explorer or the latest version of Safari for the Mac.

And I'm astonished by the number of times I've been writing content for the site of corporate client and have discovered that their professionally done custom-designed websites break in a standard browser — usually because their designer didn't bother to test the code.

Browsershots is an online web development tool that lets you submit a web address and get back screenshots that show how your page renders in a variety of browsers and browser versions.

And you don't need to be a developer to do this — you can use Browsershots to check out your own existing website. But be prepared for the ugly truth. I wasn't, and was appalled by the way the typefaces on my iWeb-created web pages appeared in some of the Windows browsers. Back to the drawing board...

Friday, September 5, 2008

The 11 deadly sins of web design

"Don't annoy users," the Internet Marketing Blog reminds us, and goes on to list 11 frustrating website behaviors.

My vote goes to #2, "Sound or music when the page loads." For every instance in which I've enjoyed unsolicited music on a web page, there are 99 others when I've simply clicked away from the offending site.

Nothing on the list would surprise most web users, but apparently it would be news to many expensive web designers — since they keep designing sites that actively drive user traffic away from their customers' businesses.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Back from vacation

The Writer Way blog enjoyed a vacation but I didn't; I was busy...writing. And soon I'm going to be busy putting together a presentation for an upcoming Seattle blogging conference. More on that later.

Meanwhile, check out these insights from the Samurai Radiologist on "Jazz and the Art of Medical Presentations." They apply nicely to non-medical presentations as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Web 1 Marketing's top SEO tips

How could I not like these "10 free SEO tips" from the experts at Web 1 Marketing when so many of them are about writing good, substantive content? 

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Book promotion will never be the same

The novel itself sounds pretty good, too.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mobile email readers: "A captive audience"

Steve Smith, writing for MediaPosts Mobile Insider (subscription required), quotes Ion CEO Justin Talerico about the behavior of consumers who come to a site from phone-platform email (rather than desktop email). It's intriguing, though I'm not wild about the term "psychographically."

Generally, Talerico says, people coming through a mobile email link are highly focused. "They are a great captive audience," he says. Unlike the Web environment, mobile is not conducive to multitasking, and because of the relative slowness and unpredictability of browsing here, most of us don't click on links as liberally. In other words, we click through on the things we really want to see. "You have a more committed person," he thinks. "You apply the same landing page principles but it is a smaller canvas. The interesting thing in our opinion is that psychographically you have a more focused person."

Usability-testing gorilla

If you thinking "usability testing" is something that only big companies do, think again. Just about anyone doing website or application design should conduct user research to see how users interact with a beta version of their product. But until recently, this has been a difficult (and expensive) step for developers using Macs.

According to Nick Finck at Blue Flavor, a new $50 program called Silverback by Clearleft solves the problem. Install it on your computer, set up a session, and it will record a user session (screen activity and voice) and transform it into a QuickTime video.

I'm considering installing it and inviting a few of my clients to record themselves using their own websites. There's a 30-day trial version available.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Putting the science in science fiction

David Levine's blog posts about what he's learning at an astronomy retreat for science fiction writers are a good reminder: One of the best ways to inspire and power your writing is a massive dose of new information.

This is pushing me to fit in a bit of travel and exploration in before this summer ends.

Monday, July 21, 2008

When good bloggers get lost

I don't know if blogging has "jumped the shark," but I do know that quite a few good bloggers are moving away from blogging. Some are doing this consciously, and stating their reasons. Others just find themselves doing other things and allowing their blogs to go cold.

I think I know why.

In his post "Blog Pimping, or: Who Do You Want to Delight?" Merlin Mann of 43 Folders talks at length about pressure in the blogosphere to blog "smart" — to be so audience-conscious, so link-conscious, so Digg-conscious that you end up satisfying a big audience but boring yourself to tears the process. Mann observes:

But, ultimately, our most important decision may be deciding who we want to please, and what we’re willing to do, allow, insert, or put up with that potentially will make those people love, hate, or even feel indifferent toward our sites and our work. Not only must we contend with the institution, we also have to figure out who we want to delight and how. That’s where the art is, and it’s arguably the turning point for whether a young blog will get noticed or won’t.

Pandering kills passion. Formulas kill spontaniety. And writing what people want to hear, instead of what you want to say, will eventually catch up with you. You don't necessarily lose your audience, but you do start to lose yourself — and you'll surely lose the love you once had for your blog.

If you're one of the bloggers who started out full of fire and now find yourself sitting down twice a week and flogging some book you wrote, or product you endorse, or censoring your heart-felt opinions because they might offend a prospective client, take a few minutes to consider the costs and benefits of going back to your blogging roots. Look at your original posts — was your writing more distinctive and more compelling then?

Let me know what you find — even if you have to post your comments anonymously!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Summer reading: Beyond the bestsellers

I'd like to (belatedly) call attention to two delightful online projects that spotlight older or obscure books that are simply too good to be forgotten. You'll find "You're Still the One" (in several parts) on The Rap Sheet, the January Magazine crime fiction site run by J. Kingston Pierce. (What book did I nominate for the project? Check here. )

Over at Pattinase, Patti Abbott blogs every Friday about "forgotten books" and has challenged other crime fiction reviewers and bloggers to follow her lead.

If you're looking for great summer reads, start with these sites and then head to your local used book store -- or, where out-of-print books from affiliate stores are often available for a few pennies, plus shipping.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Changing the way we think about change

If there's any hallmark of this era, it's change — the unprecedented speed of change and the growing need for organizations and individuals to keep pace with it.

And yet, as organizations and individuals, we seem to be more comfortable getting into and staying in ruts — even when they are dangerous to our health and imperil our survival.

The problem, according to author Alan Deutschman, is that we often approach change in exactly the wrong way. My friend Tom Whitmore, a small business owner in the midst of his own changes, offers this review of Deutschman's thought-provoking book Change or Die. (Thanks, Tom, for sharing this via Writer Way!)

Deutschman, Alan: CHANGE OR DIE
(Collins, NY, 2008; 246 pp, $14.95, ISBN-13 978-0-06-137367-1)

One of the more fascinating statistics in this book is that 90 percent of the people with serious heart disease who are prescribed statins stop taking them within a year. Statins have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks significantly. Why, if these people are facing a life-and-death situation, are they unwilling to change their lifestyles even to the extent of taking a pill or two a day for the rest of their lives? Just as few follow through on changing diet, exercise patterns, and taking up meditation. In Deutschman's view, it's because these patients are being approached in entirely the wrong way by their health care providers.

Health care providers, like our prison system and most of the CEOs of large companies, approach people with what Deutschman calls the Three Fs: facts, fears, and force. These are strong motivators for a short period. They don't, however, lead to long-term change. Facts aren't enough; fears are good for a while, but fatigue sets in, taking away fear's power; and force generates rebellion. Anyone who uses these to try to motivate someone is very likely to get exactly the opposite result from what s/he seeks.

Instead of going for the head, Deutschman recommends going for the heart and using positive reinforcement. He puts forward three Rs instead: Relate, Repeat, and Reframe. Relating involves creating a new relationship, with an emotional component, with (generally) a new person -- developing a reason for actually wanting the change. Repeating involves practicing what one wants to develop -- "Fake it 'till you make it" is a standard way of saying this, used by Alcoholics Anonymous and others. Reframing involves changing the way one looks at a problem completely. Using long examples including the heart patients, convicted felons (at Delancey Street in San Francisco) and large corporations (GM and Toyota at the NUMMI plant), he demonstrates how well this approach can work. And he has lots of shorter anecdotes: these include how Microsoft engineers got Bill Gates to be a philanthropist and why AA works as well as it does for the people it works for.

It's a simple and useful model. I can see how it's been useful in my life, and how it describes why some of the changes I've made have worked well and others haven't. It's not a quick fix, and it's going to work differently for each person who tries it. It doesn't make the change any easier, and it probably doesn't make it any faster. At least, now I have a model that I can check back against when I feel the change isn't happening, and recalibrate my own reactions. I can recognize the people I'm Relating to, get myself over the hump of thinking I'm doing things badly as I Repeat them the first few times, and be open to recognizing when I've Reframed my world. And Deutschman gives me reasons to do that in my own way, which is very important to me.

If the book has a flaw, it's that it doesn't go far enough. Deutschman claims that his model is intended only for use when someone is seeking change and it isn't happening, or isn't happening quickly enough. And I think he misses a generalization: that this method of change may not be the only one, but it works powerfully in many more situations than the one he describes. It's used subtly all the time we're growing up: a good teacher is one who engages a student and builds a relationship, in school or in college. When someone starts a new job, he or she needs all three Rs to become a very useful part of the particular company he or she is working for. And there's a darker side: these same techniques can be used subtly to initiate someone into what other people might think is a cult. Rotary International, the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and the Weather Underground all use or used these techniques, sometimes consciously, to recruit members. Knowing about the dark side of these techniques gives me a chance to be conscious of when they're being used to manipulate me. That's a tool I want to have in my mental toolbox. Now I get to practice using it.

--Tom Whitmore

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Home, again

I've been haunted by the significance of home ever since I left for college and my parents sold the house in Virginia where I'd grown up. They moved to away to Massachusetts, and I lost touch with both our old house and the community I'd known all my life. I felt oddly adrift, living in a series of dorms, group houses, and apartments, and didn't completely regain my footing until the mid-1980s, when I bought a bungalow in Seattle.

This year I found myself thinking about the idea of home again. Plymouth Housing in Seattle contracted with me to help write the client profiles for their 2007 annual report. The assignment took me back to a journalistic style of feature writing that I hadn't practiced in some years (though it had once been my favorite work). It also invited me to revisit some of my own feelings about home.

I interviewed five clients for Plymouth (and one for another housing agency, on a related project). After each interview, and in the middle of one or two of them, I found myself in tears.

For each of the people I interviewed reminded me of one of my close friends. As they told their life stories (most with some glorious high points, all with heart-wrenching low points) I could pretty much see where my friends' own paths could easily have led them to homelessness. (And, since writing the articles, I've become aware that a few of my friends have indeed been homeless for brief periods.)

I invite you to take a look at the 2007 annual report (click "2007") and read some of these stories. Another reason to check out the PDF is the beautiful photography by Doug Plummer.

Finally, a few words about the folks at Plymouth Housing and their extraordinary work. Plymouth does not focus on housing for working class families caught in the economic crunch; they focus on housing for individuals — the longterm homeless, the elderly homeless, and the homeless with complex health problems, often associated with substance abuse.

Plymouth is committed to the philosophy that secure housing is the essential first step in addressing the problem of homelessness at both the individual and community level. Think about it: Once you have a safe apartment where you can sleep, wash, cook, store your medications and have clean clothing, suddenly all else becomes at least possible. Plymouth's buildings all have onsite staff whose jobs involve helping residents move to the next steps: Getting health care, detoxing from drugs and alcohol, addressing financial problems, expressing themselves through art and volunteer community service, and seeking employment.

At Plymouth, I met residents who had served in the military, guarded a U.S. embassy, performed with a symphony, and created award-winning paintings and artwork. It was wonderful to discover that in Seattle, thanks to Plymouth, these people have found a home.

Juicy ideas

Thanks to Guy Kawasaki for pointing out Dave Knox's post on The Lessons of the Square Watermelon — case where out-of-the-box thinking led to an in-the-box solution.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Can you solve this web marketing disconnect?

A number of the clients that hire me to do web writing are small web-based businesses. They ask me to write web copy to boost their search engine rankings and get people to click through from the search results to the site.

But I'm learning that for many of them, the train stops there...quite a distance from the station.

All the emphasis is on getting people to the site. It's as if the conversion from site visitor to paying customer (or donor) will then occur by magic once visitors see what the business has to offer.

Unfortunately, it doesn't generally work that way, and I don't want any clients or prospective clients to think that it does. While a small fraction of site visitors make a purchase on their first visit, in the majority of cases conversion of a site visitor to a business customer requires getting that visitor to take at least one or two of several small but highly significant intermediate steps. Steps such as:

• Signing up to receive emails or subscribing to newsletters or blog feeds
• Calling a phone number, writing to an email address or filling out a form to receive more information
• Acting immediately to take advantage of a limited-time special offer or coupon
• Using an interactive section of the site to create or complete something (contest, quiz) that involves either signing up for something or inviting friends to visit the site
• Making a small initial purchase of a break-even or loss-leader product/service)

When I suggest that prospective clients consider developing some of these web features to create an ongoing marketing relationship with their visitors, they look discouraged and mumble something about not having any database capabilities to manage the electronic mailing list some of this work this would generate, and not knowing how to send out mass emails to a mailing list if they had one. Many say they don't have time to blog, and others say they don't want to get a lot of email. In many cases, it turns out they aren't doing email/newsletter communication with existing customers, either.

Digging deeper it becomes apparent that often the only person who can do anything at all with their website is a web designer they talk with a few times a year. Simply putting up a weekly coupon or blog post would be a major (and costly) operation. And while the designer can create forms, and set up "mailto" addresses so someone in the organization can receive emails from the site, few web designers are in the database management business.

As the title of this post suggests, I can describe the problem, and posit a theoretical solution to it, but when it comes to identifying website-powered database marketing systems affordable for small businesses, I'm way out of my comfort zone. So if someone can tell me about a solution I can pass long to my clients, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Just the text, please

I don't read Hemingway online. Or e.e. cummings. In other words, I don't read online for an intellectual or spiritual experience. I read for information, and sometimes it's damned hard do that with all the white-text-on-black-background and 9-point-text troweled on the page by some designer who thinks words make pretty wallpaper.

So, unlike Slate's Michael Aggar, I don't have my undies in a bundle about visually effective online communication making readers "lazy." (Or making writers condescending.)

However, I did enjoy reading his July 13 piece, "Lazy Bastards." You'll see why.

(Thank you to Anita for calling my attention to it.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Listening with our mouths full

Are we so busy taking advantage of our new abilities to customize our own experiences that we're missing important opportunities to listen to other people?

There are only so many hours in the day. And there is no question that technology and culture are giving us easier and more entertaining ways to do what we want with those hours. But, whether we're using our time to text message, shop online, blog, Twitter, knit, or write the great American novel, the key factor is that we can now do it any where, any time. And we do — with less and less regard for what might be going on around us.

The paradigm reminds me of eating -- if you engage in constant snacking, you never find yourself with enough of an appetite to enjoy real sit-down meals. And it's not that the new ways of spending our time are inherently bad; it's simply that they are being employed so that they compete with and shut out valuable traditional forms of learning.

In this post on SmartMobs, social networking authority and college professor Howard Rheingold ponders the challenge of helping students "train their attention" to appreciate a variety of learning experiences—even (gasp) non-interactive ones.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Bye .Mac, hello MobileMe

Opal (who left a comment on my previous post) was right: .Mac has mutated into MobileMe, though as of the moment the (login required) version of the .Mac site is still up and probably will be around for a while changes are announced to the .Mac membership.

The non-member page, however, says ".Mac will soon be MobileMe."

The message to current .Mac members is:

• You keep your .Mac services.

• The new web address is instead of

• You will have a choice of keeping your email address or getting your same email name for (Oooh, tough choice. Go with the legacy address or the trendy one?)

What I'm not seeing is any mention of how iWeb web publishing and hosting will work with MobileMe. Will my current web resume address ("") have to be changed? I've put in some questions to iWeb authority Steve Sande.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Whither .Mac in the age of Twitter?

If the real estate mantra is "location, location, location" the tech mantra is surely "timing, timing, timing."

For no company has timing been as bittersweet an issue as for Apple, which is so often early to the game.

Apple products like the initial, expensive, GUI desktops and the Newton handheld were simply so far before their time that the marketplace scratched its head in confusion while a few nerdy early adopters worked themselves into a froth.

And then, there's .Mac ("DotMac").

Launched just as the gel-colored iMacs were making Apple a true household name, .Mac internet services foreshadowed the Google/Yahoo suites of goodies we now find essential to our daily lives: Easy-to-use web-based email; easy-to-access online storage and backups, including simple file sharing; online photo albums; and web hosting of web page and photo album templates (and your own coded pages). In short, "your life, online."

A .Mac subscription runs about $100 a year, which left Apple in a hard-to-defend position as soon as Google turned up with free gmail, Yahoo put real power behind its still-unsurpassed Yahoo Groups, and Flickr photo sharing appeared on the scene. None of these are as sleek and complete as .Mac, for sure, but they're plenty powerful, dependable, easy to use -- and cross-platform.

While Apple has continued to make enhancements to .Mac, most of them are closely tied to Mac OS X and iLife applications such as iPhoto and iWeb. Meanwhile, the rest of the online world has been getting deliciously loud and messy with wikis, MySpace, and blogging software, essentially offering people free online "performance space." Amazon, Zazzle, and CafePress make possible the creation of "instant" online stores, complete with checkout systems.

Loud, messy, and commercial? That just isn't the .Mac style.

Rumors have it that a major re-vamp of .Mac (including a new name) will be announced at WWDC Monday. I'm trying to imagine .Mac in the age of Twitter. Some are speculating that Apple will merely transfer the back end of the service to a company like Google. Others are hoping for a richer, trendier suite of services. Still others are recommending more competitive pricing, with a free year of .Mac service to be bundled with the purchase of a new Mac. The most tantalizing rumors have .Mac playing a big role for the next iPhones.

As a long-time .Mac user (and former .Mac employee), I'm ready for the new incarnation.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I need your suggestions

I've just signed up for Seattle BarCamp, and am playing around with ideas for a session.

Guy Kawasaki always impresses me with the way he asks friends and readers for suggestions in situations like this. So I'm turning to you — my readers, browsers, lurkers and casual visitors. What should I unleash on my fellow campers? A few thoughts:

• Smart about tech, stupid about money
• Does your brain need your body?
• Post-SEO: Your site visitors are here — now what you do with them?
• Permission-based email marketing: One-night stand, or longterm relationship?
• (Your flash of brilliance here)

Email your vote or suggestions to karenwrites (at)

Best in-town suggestion gets lunch, best out-of-town suggestion gets cookies, and if you're going to BarCamp and would like to co-offer a session with me, you're really in for a treat!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Nervous laughter

Iain Rowan's guide to egregious book-reviewing clichés (the second comment on this post at Detectives Beyond Borders) had me laughing hysterically. I'm sure I've used at least one of those clichés, but will be less likely to slip up in the future.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Digital détente

My 20-something friend (let's call her Jayne) has quite a temper. The term "feisty" comes to mind. She's articulate, she's gutsy, and she rarely bites her tongue.

So, yes, she's a born blogger.

For the past week or so I've been following her blog posts about the new upstairs neighbor in her apartment building. The woman's noisy, and has two very noisy accoutrements: an African djembe drum and new and enthusiastic boyfriend — both of which she likes playing with late at night and early in the morning.

The racket is driving Jayne nuts. And Jayne is a girl who values her beauty sleep.

The apartment building in question is just a few blocks from my office, and I actually started listening for sirens after Jayne's post in which she informed us she was going upstairs to confront the Loud Lady. (She'd already left a scathing, but apparently ineffective, note earlier in the week.)

What does this juicy story have to do with online social networking? Bear with me.

It turns out that Jayne never went upstairs, but the noise has mysteriously stopped. Jayne now suspects that the Loud Lady came across Jayne's blog (which isn't hard to find if you know her name). And, it gets better. Jayne Googled the Loud Lady and  found a MySpace page. It revealed so many details of the Loud Lady's personal life that resonate with Jayne (I suspect a recently breakup of a long-term relationship is one of the shared elements) that Jayne's now willing to cut the Loud Lady quite a bit of slack.

So, without exchanging a word, these two have apparently reached digital détente. Surely somebody out there is writing a sitcom and can use this script? Contact me if  you want me to send you along to Jayne. She never disappoints.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What's next for blogging?

I overcame my aversion to vlogging and watched Darren Rowse's post "5 Emerging Trends in Blogging." It's pure talking head interspersed with screenshots, but it's packed with good observations and nicely organized.

As a long-time personal blogger, I'm discouraged by the increasing technological requirements of blogging (widgets, feeds, and elements that cut into the spontaneity of blogging, such as high quality video and audio) because many of my favorite blogs are strong personal voices with simple photo illustrations. But as a professional blogger, I'm fascinated by the developments Rowse notes in multi-person blogs and blogs integrated into other types of sites.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Giving out professional advice

When people come up to me at parties and say "I want to you look at my website and tell me what you think," I view it as an opportunity to educate them about the costs/benefits of fussing with websites. Bottom line: As long as your site isn't fluorescent pink type on a bright green background (a la MySpace) and doesn't greet unwary visitors with loud music or disconcerting pictures of your recent medical procedure, you're likely on the right track. If you'd like to make improvements, your best bet is to find a website of the same genre (blog, small business, family site, etc.) that you like, and then move your design in that direction.

You'd be surprised how much business I get from people who hear me handling these inquiries at social events.

My friend the Samurai Radiologist gets requests for professional advice all the time, of course, most of them from people with far more urgent concerns than the appearance of their websites. He's devised some cutting-edge on-the-spot treatments using his handy iPhone.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Blogging for profit and visibility

Bloggers run the gamut—from writers who just love a personalized platform from which to hold forth to entrepreneurs who use blogging as a key promotional strategy for their businesses and causes.

The Seattle Weblogger Meetup attracts both types, and plenty of bloggers in between.

The first half hour of the monthly meetup (at Ralph's Grocery and Deli in Belltown) focuses on a topic (this month it's "Blogging for Profit and Visibility") and the rest of evening is chat about everything from the state of local news reporting to online identity to the fine points of HTML coding. Ralph's has wifi, so people bring along laptops and call up web pages to illustrate the discussions. You're also likely to get a peek at some cutting edge tech gadgets.

Interested? The next meeting is May 21. Find out more.

Monday, May 5, 2008

êtes vous britannique?

No matter what your nationality, if you appreciate creative, entertaining online marketing, you'll like this website. (CAUTION: Content is not office-friendly. Though that might depend on your office.)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

We miss Molly

The tech mavens over at Backup Brain join the chorus asking to drop tiresome shock jockess Camille Paglia, and refer to the late Molly Ivins' 1991 Mother Jones article about Paglia.

I could care less whether (or where) Paglia goes, but was delighted to read the Ivins piece, which I'd missed on the first go-round. What magnificent writing! An inspiration to start off the week.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Election 2008 will be a landmark referendum

To my mind, the upcoming presidential election is less about the candidates than it is about the American voting (and non-voting) public.

I know that many people vehemently disagree with me when I say that all three of the presidential candidates would make quite decent chief executives. I can get a bit of traction for my stand when I point out that none of the three candidates is closely affiliated with a hidebound party structure. The good-old-boy Republications are putting on a stiff upper lip about McCain, while the career Democrats are maintaining fixed social smiles as they back either Obama or Clinton.

Oh, I like the discomfort of the party hacks.

To my view, all three of the candidates are decent people and seasoned public servants, perfectly willing and capable when it comes to doing the hard work required take the high road to the White House over the next six months.

The question is: Do the voters (and our neighbors the non-voters) want them to?

Or would the American public rather be entertained by six months of mud-slinging, mud-wrestling, and racist, sexist, and ageist trash talk? Be assured that the U.S. infotainment industry is just dying to do its worst if anyone shows the slightest interest. And the candidates will be sorely tempted to take the bait if that's the only way to win the election.

The rest of the world is watching—not just to see if we can do better than Bush, but to see if we deserve better.

Creative outlet

Tired of working with words?

Refresh your creativity here. (Click any key to get started; click again to change colors.)

I feel so much better...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three sentences

Mystery writer Linda L. Richards (Death Was the Other Woman) tagged me for a meme that involves quoting from the nearest book.

And what am I to do with said book? The meme directs:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Here goes:

"It was a part of town where stories about the mob circulated like the latest jokes. One of the new residents, out walking her dog, had let it crap on the sidewalk and, in a hurry to meet her date, failed to clean it up. Unfortunately the sidewalk fronted the home of a mobster's mother."

This is from James Sallis' Drive, which made the Washington Post's Best Book of the Year list, but probably not PETA's.

And now we'd like to hear from Jim Benson (will it be a book on social media?); photographer Doug Plummer; free-range troublemaker Geoff Duncan; food critic Ron Holden; and mystery writer April Henry. Consider yourselves tagged.

Writing about politics

If you think the media is giving Hillary Clinton unduly tough treatment because she's female, you might be interested in Robin Morgan's passionate essay "Goodbye to All That (#2)." I saw it mentioned in this week's New Yorker magazine, and, after reading it, was surprised it hasn't received more attention.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Take Control ebook sale — 50% off

Could you be doing oh-so-much more with iPhoto? Are you putting off the installation of Mac OS X Leopard? Are you wondering about investing in an Airport wifi setup?

With a 50% discount on all Take Control and Macworld Superguide instant-download ebooks through April 29, the tech info you need can be yours for as little as $5 of $10 per title.

To celebrate the 18th anniversary of their TidBITS electronic newsletter, the folks over at Take Control are offering a 50% discount on all their ebooks through April 29. The half-off sale includes their newest and most recently updated titles:

• Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac"
• Steve Sande's "Take Control of iWeb: iLife '08 Edition"
• Ted Landau's "Take Control of Your iPhone"
• Brian Tanaka's "Take Control of Permissions in Leopard"
• Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Easy Backups in Leopard"
• Matt Neuburg's "Take Control of Customizing Leopard"
• "Macworld Mac OS X Hints Superguide, Leopard Edition"
• "Macworld Total Leopard Superguide"

You'll also find ebooks on wireless Internet security, switching from PC to Mac, and getting the most out of your iPod. (There are even ebooks on booking a cheap plane ticket and planning and cooking Thanksgiving dinner.)

• Take Control of Upgrading to Leopard
• Take Control of Users & Accounts in Leopard
• Take Control of Sharing Files in Leopard
• Take Control of Fonts in Leopard
• Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac
• Take Control of Mac OS X Backups
• Take Control: The Mac OS X Lexicon
• Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac
• Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac
• Macworld Mac Basics Superguide
• Take Control of Buying a Mac
• Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac
• Take Control of Switching to the Mac
• iPhoto 08: Visual QuickStart Guide
• Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger
• Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail
• Take Control of .Mac
• Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Extreme Network
• Take Control of Your Wi-Fi Security
• Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music
• Take Control of Digital TV
• Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket
• Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner

Sunday, April 20, 2008

For one brief, shining moment

Twitter is at its best right now.

An odd and wonderful little web-based application, Twitter allows you to follow your friends and be followed (or not) by others. What you see are the comments of people you want to hear from. And those comments are limited to 140 characters, making it an enviroment that favors the informed, the playful, and the articulate.

While there are Twitter users who want to follow or be followed by hundreds of people for marketing reasons, the majority of Twitter users seem to be viewing fewer than 100 people. In my case, I'm following about 40 friends, another 20 friends of those friends, and a dozen or so people who are either famous or interesting.

Twitter isn't for everyone, at least not at the moment—and that's a big part of its current charm. No one is talking about celebrities, few people are trash talking, and when someone complains about have to block "spammers," all they're referring to are some thick-skinned over-energetic social networking types who who've deluded themselves into thinking people want to hear about some "me-too" app their clients' have developed.

Currently, Twitter has no ads, no deafening MySpace music clips, and no annoying pop-ups.

It's all wonderfully reminiscent of the early days of the World Wide Web, and the early days of blogging. And it's attracting some of the same people.

If this sort of thing interests you, I encourage you to check out Twitter now. If you wait, and it jumps the shark, you'll wonder what on earth the attraction was.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Twitter tools

For those of you wanting to take Twitter to a new level, David Berkowitz at Search Insider has posted descriptions of four tools for the online water cooler.

Some of the tools help users filter out the marketing chatter; others help marketers horn in on the conversation between friends and colleagues. Well, that's evolution for you.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Five quick tips for great blogging

1. Get in, and get out. Lead with a provocative statement, make your point quickly, use a sentence or two to anticipate and answer criticisms/questions, and end by giving the reader some context (via a link). The master of this type of blogging is Seth Godin.

2. Be yourself, but don't be lazy. If you feel like blogging about something that has you fired up, instead of a topic you "should" be writing about, go for the topic that has you inspired. It's OK to get a bit off track if the result is a strong, interesting piece of writing. But if you find yourself wanting to get off track frequently...perhaps your blog needs a different focus?

3. Go topical. If you track your blog stats, you'll notice that a post about a hot or controversial topic (a just-released book, a celebrity scandal, or a conference in progress) will boost traffic. So, if you have something to say that relates to a hot issue, go for it. But go for it right away. Wait, and you'll find it's been done to death.

4. Lists rule. Yes, it's true. Nothing gets traffic like lists and "how-to" articles. And ones with good, substantive content get something better than traffic: They get links from other blogs.

5. Use graphics and photos. Many readers have visual memories. A good illustration will keep your post in their minds for the few seconds it takes to link to it or comment.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Loving what you do

I love people who love what they do. I love listening them talk.

Here's a great little video clip of Steve Wozniak, the ultimate engineer, talking about creating the first good personal computer. Listen for his comments about the idea of using computers for social networking.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Orchard Remote: A new kind of tech support

A writer friend of mine used Software Update to install the latest version of QuickTime on his ancient iBook and got a strange and worrisome message that not all files could be installed. And that was just the beginning. Not only did he not get the new version of QuickTime, he now had a computer that, no matter what app he tried working in, interrupted what he was doing by bringing the Finder to the foreground. He tried describing this to me by email and over the phone. He tried rebooting. We tried rebuilding the desktop. I tried explaining how to use Activity Monitor to see what was going on. He found Activity Monitor, but couldn't get it to work. This went on over a period of a few hours. My last message to him was, I'm afraid, along the lines of, "Er, good luck."

If you've spent a of couple hours on either end of a discussion like this recently, you need to know about Orchard Remote.

What's Orchard Remote? Imagine that the tech support person at the other end of the phone line could actually see the problem you're trying to calm down enough to describe. Then imagine you could just turn over control of the machine to him/her and sit back and watch while they diagnosed and fixed it.

With Orchard Remote, you can.

"He's was right there on my computer and could literally move the cursor!" is the way Kim Bamberg describes it.

No, she's is not hallucinating. Kim, a Seattle wedding planner, is sold on Orchard Remote. (And so's her husband, Adam Bamberg, a wedding photographer who no longer has to double as in-house tech support.)

Created by Jeff Hopkins, a former Apple Store "genius," Orchard Remote provides remote tech support service via the internet, logging into and literally taking control of a client's ailing computer while the client watches. Usually the Orchard Remote tech support person talks with the client by telephone or VOIP while the repairs are underway onscreen.

Jon Troxel, who runs a nautical charts company from a remote island in Puget Sound, is one of Orchard Remote's larger clients. Instead of relying on phone-based tech support for the wide variety of hardware and software he employs, Jon uses Orchard Remote to troubleshoot everything from his website to his networking. Stuck while trying to modify a PDF, he simply logged into the Orchard Remote website and filled out a request for help. "Within minutes Jeff was on the phone and showing me how to make an adjustments in Preferences," Jon said.

Based in Seattle, Orchard Remote serves clients just about anywhere—as long as they are connected to the internet. The support person accesses the client's machine using Virtual Network Computing (VNC) software similar to that in Apple's iChat application; it works on Macs running the most recent versions of Mac OS X (Leopard or Tiger).

"As long as you can get to our website, you can give us remote control of your machine," Jeff said. He works with clients who use cable or DSL, and even has one customer on dial-up.

Service is available seven days a week, 12 hours a day. (Or more. I was amused to note that every time I emailed a question for this article, I got back a reply in just a few minutes.)

What problems bring people to Orchard Remote? Not surprisingly, many of the same ones that have friends who use Macs phoning me at odd hours! Glitches with email and calendars are right at the top of the list. But Jeff is game to assist with things as exotic as performance issues in Adobe Lightroom.

"Even if it's software I don't use, I know how to research it," he said.

Orchard Remote clients run the gamut from Mac-savvy business owners who don't have time to deal with technical glitches to non-technical types who get queasy just hearing words like "reboot" "system preferences" and "software upgrade."

Orchard Remote currently offers unlimited support for six months for $99. The fee covers one household computer or one user with a couple of computers. Businesses, with more users and more complex systems, will pay higher rates. (Full disclosure: I have an account with Orchard Remote, and Jeff is a client for my writing services.)

I asked Jeff if he has any advice for clients, thinking he might recommend that we read a particular Mac book, or suggest that we get in the habit of consulting our applications' Help files. But his suggestion was far more basic and practical:

"Get as much RAM in your computer as you can afford," he said. "It makes your computer so much more responsive across the board."

During the two days I spent researching this post about Orchard Remote, I received calls and emails from no fewer than three friends in need of Mac technical support. (Now if only Orchard Remote offered a "friends and family" plan, like the cell phone carriers...)

What happened to my writer friend? He eventually got his ancient iBook under control by downloading the QuickTime update and installing it manually instead of using Software Update. The first install failed, but the second one took, and he was able to get the machine to stop summoning the Finder every few seconds. Time elapsed? Several hours. Fortunately he wasn't on deadline.

A different kind of writing

In the days before web content writing, I wrote newsletter articles, annual reports, and brochures for research, healthcare, and social service organizations; for a while I edited a regional health and wellness magazine.

Recently I got an assignment that has taken me back to those days: I'm working on a series of client profiles for Plymouth Housing in Seattle, a highly innovative organization that specializes in housing for urban homeless adults.

The first profile, of a Vietnam-era veteran who moved into Plymouth's new senior housing for the homeless, has been posted. Click on the hypertext "Spring 2008" and you can view the story online without triggering a PDF download.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Identity issues

At the March meeting of the Seattle Weblogger Meetup Group, we talked about online identity issues as they pertain to blogging. At least half of the people at the table said they were blogging anonymously. Some of them were convinced their identities were completely secure; others suspected they were vulnerable to being outed.

The issue of blogging and online identity comes up quite often in my work. Last year I was asked to copy edit text for a corporate website and was concerned when I saw bios for the company's multi-millionaire executives that included the names of their young children, and way too much information about the families' neighborhoods and hobbies.

More recently, a writer friend of mine found out that a reader had complained to his publisher about a political opinion he'd expressed in a photo caption. It turned out that the reader had found the captioned photo not in his published work, but fairly deep in the author's personal website.

As an arts critic and essayist long before I'd ever heard of blogging, I've written a number of pieces that refer to my personal life. I suppose that some of the things I've revealed could offend some potential client and, in that sense, come back to bite me. But I don't think it would be much more than a gentle nibble.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easy Mac websites and podcasts

I'm sitting here listening to MacVoices' Chuck Joiner interview Steve Sande about Steve's new ebook, Take Control of iWeb: iLife '08 Edition.

I had the privilege of being the editor on this project for Take Control Ebooks. Steve's got a wonderful way of explaining things, and he did a particularly good job of pointing out some powerful hidden features in iWeb, a part of Apple's iLife '08 software suite.

Let me start by saying that iWeb has nowhere near the power of full-fledged web design software like Dreamweaver and GoLive. You absolutely cannot muck with the HTML code (though you can paste "HTML snippets" into the templates). But iWeb virtually guarantees that, using its attractive templates and themes and taking advantage of its tight integration with iPhoto, you'll have an impressive-looking site. (That's why, though I blog with Google's Blogger, I did my professional resume with iWeb.)

After working with Steve on his book, I was inspired to put some audio and video pieces online with iWeb. It turns out that putting up videocast files from iMovie or podcast files from GarageBand can be done in a matter of seconds with iWeb. Steve also shows you a variety of ways to put iPhoto content onto the web, and has some downright amazing ways to edit images for the web using iWeb's Instant Alpha feature.

Previously, iWeb required you to publish your website on Apple's membership service, .Mac. Now, though it still requires .Mac membership, you can publish an iWeb-designed site seamlessly through .Mac so that it appears at your personal web domain (i.e.,

Taking a cue from Google's Blogger, the new iWeb allows you to add widgets with RSS feeds, forms, e-commerce—it's quite slick. Interested? Steve explains it all, with tons of great screenshots to illustrate the processes.

Deep messaging

1990 Civic station wagon

2009 Fit

The best marketing communication doesn't come from the marketing department.

It comes from the customer. The language can be eloquent, or unvarnished. Sometimes the communication is non-verbal.

Like the fellow who drove up to our house Saturday to look at the 1990 Honda Civic station wagon I'd posted for sale on Craig's List.

He was driving a 1990 Honda Civic station wagon with 240,000 miles on it. Mine, with a mere 80,000 miles, was going to be an upgrade.

As it happened, he didn't get the car. He'd wanted a few days to get an inspection, but I had so  many good prospects, I was able to get a substantial cash down-payment from the second fellow who saw the car.

To my astonishment, by the time I removed the car from Craig's List (less than 48 hours after the initial posting), I'd received more than 30 calls. 

A few were from folks simply looking for a low-mileage car for less than $2,000. But most were from people who wanted a low-mileage circa-1990 Honda Civic station wagon. When the fellow called from Eureka, California, and wanted to drive up and pay cash, I was a bit surprised. But then I got similar calls from Masschusetts, Texas, and Pennsylvania. 

And then there were the local folks who offered to pay as much as $150 more than the asking price if I'd return the down payment and sell to them instead. As I chatted with these folks, and put a couple of them into the "back-up offer" category, I discovered they had one thing in common: They all owned, or had owned, a 1990 Honda Civic station wagon.

The phone rang as I was writing this, and it was one more prospective buyer, Jim Kerr from Florida. After telling him the sad news that the car had gone on to its next home, I said I just had to ask why on earth he was looking at a car all the way out in Seattle.

"Because I have one just like it," he said. "If my car was to get destroyed, it's gone. There's no way to replace it. So what I'm looking for is a replacement." 

Oh, and the Honda Civic he's got now? He'd flown out to Phoenix to buy it, driving it back to Florida.

Honda could certainly sell a lot of those Civics if they ever made them again. The Civic itself is the second-longest continuously-running nameplate from a Japanese manufacturer. Interestingly, Honda stopped making a Civic station wagon in 1991, rendering the fourth generation (1988-1991) station wagons like mine instant classics.

One of the reasons I'd clung all these years to a car that lacked air bags, lavishing frequent checkups and annual full detailing on it, was that I simply could not find a small, inexpensive car that combined great visibility, proven reliability, station wagon access, and tons of configurable cargo room. 

The reason I was finally able to let go? The 2009 Fit. Of course, it's by Honda. While I wait for my Fit to be delivered this summer, I've been fortunately to be able to borrow my mom's car—a 2005 Honda Civic sedan.

Can we say "brand loyalty?"