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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.