Posts tagged ‘computers’

April 22, 2015

#91) A kiss before email

We’ve all heard it before, or at least some version of it: “Don’t check your email the first thing in the morning.” Logically, we know we shouldn’t; that it sets us up for a day of distractions, but like eating in front of the TV, texting while driving, joining parenting debates on Facebook and watching “The Voice” it’s something that we do anyways. I’ve found that forcing myself to stay away from my phone is a cure that can be often as bad as the disease; what’s the point in vowing not to look until a certain hour if you spend the last few minutes before that hour watching the clock? (My poison isn’t so much email as  blog readership stats and stock photo downloads but the principle is the same.) Thus, I’ve made a deal with myself. Before I do any of the above I kiss my wife. It’s my way of acknowledging that while resisting the allure of information may be futile, I also happen to be married to a human being, not to a collection of photos, blogs or Instagram followers. That is my contribution to the debate about how early one should look at their phone.

Not everyone reading this, I realize, has a wife, a husband or a significant other. If this is you, find some ritual for yourself that takes priority over your phone. Do a Tai Chi form. Knock out a kakuro (but do it with pencil and paper, don’t cheat by using an app). Get the neighbor kid to change your pass code by promising him to pay him to change it back. Get really drunk the night before, hide your phone somewhere and try to find it in the morning. One could argue that even self-love is no less productive than sifting through a night’s worth of spam (wait, a former Army contractor discovered an abandoned metal trunk box at LAX holding an undisclosed sum of money that was supposed to be delivered to me and now he needs my name, phone number, email and mailing address? This changes everything!)

March 23, 2014

#75) Book review: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

This is an unusual biography, not just because of the unique story of its subject.  It is a biography by a writer who had nearly unlimited access to his subject, whom he interviewed forty times in preparation for the book.  It’s also a rare example of a biography that was written with the knowledge that the subject was near the end of his life.  As Jobs tells Isaacson near the end of the narrative, “I wanted my kids to know me…when I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died…[t]hey’d get it all wrong.  So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say.”

Isaccson and Jobs knew each other but it was only when Jobs realized his cancer was potentially terminal that he enlisted Isaacson to write his story.  Isaacson points out an interesting irony: while Jobs was known as, for lack of a better term, a control freak, he specifically declined authority on what went into this book or stayed out of it; he didn’t want the bio to “seem like an in-house book.”

The result is an overall positive, inspiring reading experience.  Isaacson takes us into Jobs’s childhood and youth in Silicon Valley, where the personal computer revolution was beginning.  Seen historically as the property of institutions and corporations, computers were being used by members of the counter-culture as a means of personal expression.  With Steve Wozniak, Jobs quickly makes Apple into a success, but pays the price with his own ego and arrogance, leading to his banishment from the company in 1985.  In the ’90s, Jobs discovers a digital imaging company called Pixar and helps them merge with Disney to create computer-generated animation before returning to Apple and spearheading the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Isaacson’s in-depth interviews with Jobs provide insight.  Apple products have a reputation as being particularly intuitive and an early pilgrimage to India instilled in Jobs the value of intuition.  “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.  Intuition is a very powerful thing…[t]hat’s had a big impact on my work.”

We also get a sense of how Jobs viewed electronics as having human characteristics.  For example, the handle on the iMac is described as “approachable.  It’s intuitive.  It gives you permission to touch.  It gives a sense of deference to you.”  One sees the roots of the Pixar mentality of giving inanimate objects human souls, such as in “Wall-E” and “Toy Story.”

Yet there are a few flaws that hold the book back from being truly great.  Isaacson tends to go into a lot of technical detail about the computer designs, the various business deals between Apple, Pixar, Disney and Microsoft and other less-exciting subjects without making them seem particularly interesting.  Some of the visits to the bargaining table are rendered vividly; Isaacson doesn’t hold back when describing Jobs’s various tantrums or his “hero/shithead dichotomy”.  For the most part though, Isaacson failed to get me too excited about whether Jobs received 4 or 5 points on a Pixar deal or the difference between the circuit boards of the Apple II or the Lisa.  Isaacson also doesn’t elaborate in areas that could probably use more detail. In describing the unveiling of the iPhone, he says, “In a career of dazzling product presentations, this may have been the best.”  Yet he spends only half a page describing the event.  (Isaacson devotes a whole chapter to the launch of the Macintosh, describing the seminal “1984” commercial and the unveiling of the computer; here, he is at his strongest as a narrator, artfully building up the level of excitement throughout the chapter.)

The book also could have been more detail oriented.  Usually details bore the crap out of me; I prefer to be enjoy the big picture than to fuss over i’s being dotted and t’s crossed. That said, this is a biography of someone whose attention to detail was extreme.  Isaacson’s writing style is frequently awkward and lacks the type of flow that Jobs would have wanted.  The most notable example is that many sentences often start with “but” or “so”; in the index, the Beatles’ album “Abbey Road” is misspelled “Abby.” Is it forgivable to make a few mistakes in a nearly 600-page book? Almost everyone would say yes–but Jobs, at least the man portrayed by Isaacson, would have noticed and said something.

Needless to say, a book about a figure as influential as Steve Jobs shouldn’t just be a sketch and on the whole Isaacson’s tome does the man justice.  Readers who are deeply interested in the details of Jobs’s life and perhaps have an interest in computer technology, business and other subjects covered in detail will find everything they want here.  Those who are more casually interested in Jobs and want to learn more about the broader aspects of his life might be better served with Wikipedia.  For my part my experience with this book – which lasted almost three months, including three trans-continental plane trips – was hit or miss.  At times it resembled the bulky, awkward feel of the PCs that Jobs saw as the enemy throughout his career.  At times Isaacson hits the nail on the head and reading the book was the intuitive, Zen, naturally flowing experience Jobs desired all of his products to deliver.

February 27, 2014

#74) Ten reasons why nobody’s reading your blog (and the fact that it might just kind of suck is #6)

Does having made a little over thousand dollars from blogging qualify me as an expert on the subject?  No?  Didn’t think so.  Oh well, I’ve never let that stop me before.  Here goes.

If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you write at least one blog yourself.  According to Brandon Gaille of wpvirtuoso, there are about 152 million blogs in existence – plenty to go around.  There’s also a pretty good chance, unfortunately, that you are not getting the type of traffic you want.  Here’s why.

#1) You do it too infrequently.  In the early stages of a blog, quantity can sometimes be more important than quality.  Getting your content out there – even if you end up revising it later – is important and if you do it consistently, you will start seeing better results sooner.  According to Gaille, blogs that are updated 20 or more times per month receive an average of 5 times as much traffic as those that only post 4 or fewer times per month.  Of course once you establish a base of readers, you don’t want to over saturate them, but cross that bridge when you come to it.

#2) You have too many opinions.  Expunge me!? You might be thinking.  A blogger telling people not to express their opinions on his site where he does nothing BUT express his opinions?  What gives?  I’m not trying to discourage your freedom of speech, but in my experience, information-oriented blogs tend to rank higher in search engines than those centering around the opinions of the author.   Most of my success (and I do use the term loosely) as a blogger has come from www.nobodyhikesinla.com, in which I provide information about hiking trails in the L.A. area.  NHLA typically gets more traffic in a day than this blog gets in a year and I’m OK with that; it comes with the territory.  Your opinions may be well thought out and skilfully articulated, but nobody cares about them, at least not yet.  You yourself probably google search for information/fact oriented items more often than you do others’ opinions on issues.  If you do actively seek out someone’s opinion, it’s likely because they’ve established themselves as a credible source and have probably paid their dues to get to that point.  You have to be a journalist before you can be a columnist.  You have to be a line cook before you can be a chef.  You have to be a bottom before you can be a….never mind, on to #3.

#3) You aren’t reading enough other blogs.  Reading other peoples’ blogs serves two purposes: it can give you ideas for your own blog and by commenting on, following or “liking” someone else’s blog you increase the chances that they may reciprocate.  Of course you don’t want to be too shameless about plugging your own blog, but if you provide thoughtful, encouraging comments on someone else’s work it’s not unreasonable to expect a little kickback.

#4) You haven’t exchanged enough links.  This can be a great you-scratch-my-back type of situation.  Think about it: most blogs you’ve read probably have a list of links to related sites.  (NHLA does.)  This is not only a valuable resource to your readers but if can funnel traffic to other bloggers, who in turn might see fit to throw a bone back to you by including a link to YOUR site on theirs.  Email bloggers who write about similar subject matter and offer to exchange links.  Most bloggers don’t want their site to be too cluttered with links but if your blog hits home with them, they just might include you.

#4.5) You haven’t embedded enough links.  This can be a good one to keep in mind if your attempts to exchange links with other bloggers aren’t successful.  You can always link to their blogs through your actual posts.  According to www.bluecorona.com, “Google ultimately wants its users to find what they are searching, so when you link to other authoritative and relevant websites, you are providing a great service to Google’s users. This makes your website a more valuable resource, in Google’s beautiful, primary-colored eyes.”

#5) You haven’t registered your domain name.  First things first: I realize that since this blog does not have a registered domain name, I’m not practicing what I preach, but I basically just do this blog for the fun of it.  Most serious blogs have a registered domain name.  Doing so through WordPress is cheap and easy; I’d imagine the process isn’t too difficult for other platforms such as Blogger.  Your own domain name makes your site easier to describe at cocktail parties; it fits better on a business card.  It also appeases the beautiful, primary-colored eyes of Google; since most domain names last for at least a year, it shows that you are committed and Google likes commitment.

#5.5) Google also likes boldface.

#6) Your blog might just kind of suck.  No one likes to hear that they have an ugly baby, but sometimes it just needs to be said.  How are your punctuation, grammar and spelling?  Do you read your blog out loud to yourself before you post?  How well thought out and substantiated are your opinions?  I don’t mean to sound like a middle school teacher but if you’re going to expect people to take you seriously, you have to take your work seriously.  Don’t be like the state of California which recently informed a friend of mine that his business address was invalid by sending a letter to his business address.

#7) You haven’t found the right subject matter.  This is easier said than done: it’s a balancing act.  Blog about the Kardashians and you’ll have a lot of competition; blog about Taylor Grey Meyer and your audience may be a little more limited.  Topical subjects might give your traffic a short term bump but not much else.  It takes a while to figure out which topics are the best match between your writing style and your audience (I’ll let you know when I get there myself.)

#8) Excessive monetization attempts.  While there’s no precise rule regarding this, it’s generally understood that the amount of advertising/donation solicitations/product pitches/etc readers will accept on a website is commensurate with the quality of the content on said site.  To put it in English, if readers find your blog to be valuable and enjoyable they won’t mind  if you’re trying to make a buck or two from it; they may even contribute.  If, however, they just get bombarded by ads, they’ll stay clear.  Learn from the rise and fall of Myspace, which as Wesley Verhoeve eloquently put it, “monetized [itself] into oblivion.”

#9) It doesn’t look good on a mobile device.   How does your blog look on an iPhone, iPad or Droid?  Are the pictures formatted correctly?  Are the links visible and easily accessible?  It’s been often said that people have plenty of information and not enough time to absorb it.  Mobile devices allow readers to catch up on their favorite blogs while they’re on the run.  You never know who your readers might be: busy salespeople in between (or during) meetings; customers battling checkout lines at Costco; funeral guests stuck at an endless eulogy.  Hell, according to a recent survey, 12 percent of moms use their phone during sex.

#10) There’s no story.  You probably tell stories on your blog but does the blog itself tell a story?  Does the blog as a whole, as a brand if you will, provide a reason for readers to return?  When Julie Powell started the blog that would eventually become the book and movie “Julie & Julia”, her goal was to cook every recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” within a year.  Would she do it?  You had to read her blog to find out.  My fellow hiking blogger Jeremy Jacobus did a similar thing with his hiking blog–in which he set a goal of hiking a thousand trails in a thousand days.  “Meta” stories such as these can be compelling to a reader and make them want to come back – and tell friends.

That’s all for now – happy blogging and may your traffic be good and plentiful.

texting during sex

February 13, 2014

#71) How do you know?

How do you know?

I mean, seriously, how the fuck do you know?

This simple, timeless question was recently brought home to me by a TV commercial.  Like any good commercial, it failed to actually instill the name of the product in my head, but its message resonated with me nevertheless.  An adult is shown some fancy new product he’s supposed to buy and hesitates.  During his hesitation we see him flash black to junior high, when he dumps a tubby blonde girl: “Sorry, Brooklyn, it’s just not working out.”  In another flashback, now at college age, he declines investing in his friend’s startup: “What can you do with just 140 characters?” Which brings us to the present; the implication being that he doesn’t want to pass on yet another thing that will end up being huge.

Apart from its amusing storyline, the commercial has hit home for me on a personal level.  Since starting my hiking blog, www.nobodyhikesinla.com, I have been fortunate to keep the company of dozens of blogging experts.  Counsel that has been given to me about how to successfully monetize the blog includes T-shirts and other swag; creating a mobile phone application; eBooks about the hikes, branching out to other cities (coming soon: http://www.nobodyhikesinwichita.com).

With demeanor ranging from polite to borderline hostile, depending on the intensity of my expert’s pitch to me, I have invariably rejected most of these ideas, not because I want to be difficult, stubborn or ungrateful, but just because in most cases, I don’t feel that the potential for revenue justifies the effort and expense of, say, hiring an app developer or handling (gulp!) physical inventory, that bane of the existence of anyone who has ever tried to develop an online revenue stream.  My hesitation to endorse these ideas is based on information I’ve gathered about my site traffic, link clicks, etc (I have been known to spend hours a few minutes here and there perusing statistics related to my blogs).  While the revenue the site has earned – mainly through advertising; also through affiliation sales, the Nobody Hikes in LA Guidebook and donations – is a little bit short of Fortune 500 status, by breaking the three-digit income threshold, NHLA stands apart from at least 81% of the blogs out there, according to Infographic.

That being said, a part of me has to ask: what if I am wrong?  Are eBooks based on hike writeups the wave of the future?  By passing on these opportunities, will I become the next Nolan Bushnell?  (In the mid ’70s, after founding Atari, Busnhell had an opportunity to invest in a startup created by one of his employees: a certain Steven Paul Jobs.)

History abounds, of course, with stories like this: numerous record producers rejecting the Beatles; board game makers  passing on Monopoly; the Portland Trailblazers drafting Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan.  Hell, there’s even one from my own family: in the mid 1960s in New York, my dad and uncle Joe were involved with the city’s thriving folk music scene.  One of the misfits hanging around the fringes was a scruffy kid from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman, whose presence was a nuisance to everyone, be they veteran musicians who didn’t want him fucking up the songs or young women whom he was trying to bed.  One of the latter category was waiting for my uncle Joe to meet her at a cafe and when he showed up, she was laughing.  “This homeless looking kid tried to hit on me,” she said.  “When I brushed him off, he said, ‘But I’m Bob Dylan!’  I said, ‘Well, I’m here waiting for Joe Lockeretz.'”

To bring it back to my original question, strictly speaking, no, you DON’T know.  You can, however, make sound decisions based on odds and information.  I consider the fear of passing on a great opportunity to be the converse of fears such as being struck by lightning, being attacked by a shark or being in a plane crash.  Just as plane crashes make the news because of how rare they are, stories such as the Beatles’ early rejections make history because of their infrequency.  Yes, it’s inspirational to hear these kinds of tales and their positive messages shouldn’t just be dismissed.  It should just be noted, however, that these events are the exception and should have limited influence on your decisions, investment and otherwise.  And if you do end up on the wrong side of history?  At least you’ll have some good stories for the grandkids.

August 1, 2011

#19) Selling It Old School

A New York Times commercial shows people relaxing, enjoying the Sunday crossword puzzle; listening to the crinkle of the pages as they spread them out.  A telephone land line commercial shows a family, all talking on their own extensions, listening to their soldier son calling from the Middle East, allowing them to share the conversation in a way that a cellular phone wouldn’t allow.

I normally ignore or fast forward (thanks, Tivo!) over commercials, but I liked these two: they’re taking print media and land line telephones, two things that many people think are doomed, and finding new meaning in them.  They’re not necessarily saying that the traditional products are better than their modern counterparts.  They’re just reminding us that while modern inventions can make our life easier, sometimes the older way can have its place too.

Of course, singing the praises of the “good old days” isn’t exactly a new concept, but these ads place a new twist on it.  Often, the subject of a “good old days” take is something very obsolete, but here, we see them in their decline, not in their extinction.  I’m sure the makers of these ads know that, despite their best efforts, in this day, far fewer people will ever read the Times in its print form than online, and that mobile phones will be more popular than land lines.  But still, these ads aren’t letting their products go down without a fight, and I like that.