Archive for the 'Raves' category

 | September 26, 2011 8:48 pm

Erick-Larson-DevilFor the past several months, I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s wonderful book, “The Devil in the White City,” which tells the story of the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. (More properly called the World’s Columbian Exposition.) It’s been a marvelous experience.

Actually, that doesn’t go quite far enough in its praise. Devil is a magical book in almost every way that matters. It’s the sort of thing that (if you’re not careful) can swallow you up and send you into other worlds.

Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that I’ve spent so long reading it (eight months and counting). Larson keeps enchanting me down some of the 19th century’s most scenic, semi-forgotten by-ways. It can take some time to come back.

For example, I’ve learned about the sordid history of the Whitechapel Club, the polite hazing of women architects (with attendant nervous breakdowns) by prim society women, and a failed expedition to retrieve a tribe of Pygmies for public exhibition.

While these side stories only tangentially touch on Larson’s main narrative, the building of a world’s fair, they make the book. They help to flesh out the world and time in which the  Exposition took place and to place its events in context.

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 | December 18, 2010 7:57 pm

Note: Still working on the book.

You don’t pretend to be a writer without enjoying a well turned phrase, or a clever and subtle joke.  It’s part and parcel to the identity.

Nor do you discriminate.  A true creative understands that insight can be found anywhere.  But, to be honest, there’s a bit of hierarchy.  (Stereotypes usually come from somewhere).  It’s generally true that an editorial piece published in Time will be more insightful than one published in the Daily Banana, or, that a novel published from a major publishing house has less typos then one from a vanity press.

While we might quibble about the various rankings of different sources, it’s generally agreed that at the bottom of the quality scale is ad-copy. Well … that and fan-fiction.

Most ad-copy is garbage.  It’s disposable, temporary, and exists to make the design look good.  Every once in a while, though, you come across a spectacular exception, such as the material below from ItyBiz,.

This marketing blurb, which is promoting a series of free courses, is awesome.  It’s clever and funny (though not necessarily subtle). Most importantly, though, it’s effective.  Because it’s interesting, it grabs your attention and leaves you breathlessly waiting for me.

It got me to sign up for the free course, mostly because I wanted to see more.  If there had been an option to pay, I would have even put down money for it.  It is, in a word, great writing.

Note: I’ve edited the copy slightly. The full version can be found here.

Free Marketing Courses

Well hello there. Didn’t you come at a good time? Clever person.

We are delighted to announce the much talked about (and, frankly, much procrastinated) FREE MARKETING COURSES!! (I’m a little excited. Can you tell? All of my normal jaded cynicism is disintegrating as I type.)

So, right. Yes. Free marketing courses. Back on topic. We have a five part email course custom made for YOU, in YOUR industry. Whatever your crazy thing is, we have a crazy marketing course for you.

Marketing for Touchy Feely Airy Fairy Woo Woo Service Providers

I am guessing that you would like to close your office door, put on some soothing music, and softly hum until the clients come to you. Then they’ll tell their friends about you and their friends will send you some money as well, and you will never actually have to utter what you do for a living out loud. Am I right? Have I got it so far?

Marketing for Bloggers: How to Get More Asses in the Seats

You’re reading the blogs. You know the ones. The ones that tell you how you can make six figure Adsense checks? And how to recommend a few products and you can make a few grand a month in affiliate payments? But the part they didn’t get around to mentioning was how to get the people to your blog in the first place. Yeah. We hate that.

Marketing for Coaches and Consultants

Do you remember when you first got into the business of helping people, and you heard about the other guys in your industry making an hourly wage that would pay off your mortgage? And you look back at it and give a little rueful chuckle and think, “I’ll settle for half of that if I can just get some damn clients!” Mmm hmm. Yeah, you’re not the only one.

Marketing for Designers and Other Artsy Fartsy Types

Maybe you went to art school or design school. Maybe you just hang out with people who did. Either way, you’ll know how weird it gets when money comes up. Somewhere along the line, you were quietly promised a life of loft apartments and filterless cigarettes and never having to think about, God help us, SELLING this stuff. Eew.

Marketing for Writers and Wordsmiths

When you were younger, you imagined what writing would be like. Maybe you imagined ink stained fingers, maybe the whirr and click of an IBM Selectric. Maybe — holy banoli! — the orange glow of a 486. You knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride. You knew it would be tough. You just didn’t know it would be THIS tough.

Marketing for Geeks and Techie Types

You like code. And numbers. And things that make sense. You dig databases and back ends and compiling stuff. You do not dig things that seem wildly illogical and emotional and impractical like how to make people feel nice when they’re sending you money. This one’s for people who speak Geek.

 | December 9, 2010 1:46 am

I’ve got this thing against mushrooms and fungus.  I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and we don’t get along at all (in the shock inducing, “I’m going to kill you” sort of way).  Regardless, just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean that I don’t respect them.  This video from BBC Planet Earth shows why you should respect them, too.

I think that the bits about cordyceps fungus (a parasitic specimen that takes over your brain before killing you) tends to justify my overall feelings toward the little brutes.  Check out what it does to a group of bullet ants about 4 minutes in.

Get the Flash Player to see this video.

Via Boing Boing.

 | December 1, 2010 7:22 pm

Note: Still working on the book.

In my readings in typography, I’ve come across two distinct schools of thought about what typography “should” be.  Hermann Zapf succinctly summarizes the position of the first school:

Typographic design [has been] misconstrued as a form of private self-expression for designers. But as Bringhurst puts it: “Good typography is like bread: ready to be admired, appraised and dissected before it is consumed.”

In the first school of thought, typography is seen as a way to enhance a message by conveying it clearly. To a member of this group, personal eccentricities are dangerous because they detract from the spirit of the text.  To quote from Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style):

In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must draw attention to itself before it will be read.  Yet, in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn.  Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency.  Its other traditional goal is durability: not immunity to change, but a clear superiority to fashion.  Typography at its best is a visual form of language linking timeless and time.

The second school, in contrast, sees typography as a form of self-expression.  Amongst proponents of this way of thinking, what the typographer wishes to convey is at least as important as the message of the author.

Personally, I think that both schools have their place.  Moreover, there may even be a third school in the middle which combines elements of the two.  It is possible to both clearly communicates the message while still providing room for personal expression.  For example, consider this book design beauty from Behance, which consists of interpretations of Bob  Brown’s essay, The Readies.

Clearly, the typographer has something to say, but I would hardly argue that he usurps Brown’s message.

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The book was created by Jihad Lahham.  More examples from his portfolio can be found here.  Again, this looks like a portfolio piece, which means that copies are nowhere to be had.

 | November 18, 2010 10:00 pm

Note: Still working on the book, but some things are simply awesome and must be shared.

One of the great things about working on this book project has been the opportunity to immerse myself in the world of print design.  It’s a fascinating and beautiful world, and though web design has improved enormously, the best stuff still happens in print.

While combing examples on Behance, a showcase site for designers and other creatives, I came across a spectacular example of typography.  It’s a medium size pamphlet (about 60 pages in length) that was designed by Steven Acres, an upcoming designer who just graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The book design incorporates a lot of design ideas from the golden era of printing and shows how classical book layout (with a few modern touches), can produce a truly spectacular volume.

(More images can be found on the project page at Behance.)

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Though I don’t know the history behind the project, it looks as though the book was produced as part of Mr. Acre’s student portfolio, and for that reason, isn’t available for purchase.  Which is a true pity, this is a book I would love to leaf through and explore.

 | August 10, 2010 5:47 pm

ThunderbirdI’m a software whore.  I love to play with new programs and experiment with new features.  I think it’s exciting and interesting to try new stuff.

However, there is also a side-effect of my little liaisons.  Because I’m not faithful to any one program, I have very little loyalty to either operating systems or applications.  If there is something new and shiny, I’m going to play with it.

It also means that I get frustrated with limitations.  Because I move between different programs so frequently, there’s little incentive for me to stay with one over another; unless, that is, it works really well.

This is the reason that, about a year ago, I decided to move from Thunderbird (my email client at the time) to Evolution (an alternative that comes with the Gnome desktop).  At the time, I was frustrated with how Thunderbird handled schedules and calendars.

Local calendaring was more or less acceptable, but it was really hard to work with remote services such as Microsoft Exchange or Google Calendar.  The support could (at best) be called “experimental”.  Task and appointments didn’t update reliably, and it would only worked when you had a connection to the internet.  The net effect was that your calendar in Thunderbird wasn’t really able to talk to your cell phone.

Now, for some people, this might not be a big deal.  For me, however, it was an enormous problem and I simply could not find a workaround.  So, I left Thunderbird behind and decided to use Evolution instead.

For the past year, I’ve been very happy with Evolution.  After it’s been configured to have a unified inbox, Evolution is imminently useable.  It handles calendars, tasks, contacts and email; all the things that a collaboration program is supposed to do.  It might not have all of the bells and whistles of other clients like Thunderbird, Mail.app (Mac OS X) or Microsoft Outlook, but it works well and I’ve had few complaints.

Until the past few weeks, that is.

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 | July 20, 2010 4:45 pm

imageOpen Source is unique in that much of it arises from a desire to scratch one’s own itches.  Or at least the very best Open Source does.  It’s written by the very people who will use it, and as a result, meets a real rather than perceived need.  This lets it bypass any inane stupidity associated with Average Joe User.

Unfortunately, there is also a downside.  A great deal of open source software is only developed to the point of being “Good Enough.”  The program’s authors know exactly what they need to accomplish and do not extend the capabilities of the code much beyond their own front doors, which is a true shame.

I certainly understand their rationale.  “Going the last mile” to a fully polished utility is a hell of a lot of work.  In fact, the last mile may account for up to 60% of the man-hours (based on an unscientific survey of my work on LyX-Outline and Time Drive).  It involves tracking down bugs, optimizing/refactoring code, and extensive testing.  Underestimating challenges associated with the “last mile” have lead to delays in my projects, and I’ve heard the same thing from other developers.

What this often means is that the testing, polishing, and the other fine-tuning needed for superb software doesn’t happen.  Even worse, many of the minor annoyances and inconsistencies never get addressed and are subsequently passed downstream to other projects and users.

Of course, what is a minor annoyance to upstream becomes a major headache to those downstream.  After all, such projects (like Linux distributions) not only have to deal with the “minor” problems of one upstream source, but of thousands.  Moreover, the annoyances build upon one another until they become paralyzing and impede forward progress.

The Ubuntu project has a term for these annoyances/inconsistencies that I quite like.  It refers to them as “paper cuts”.  In the real world, a paper cut is a trivial wound that hurts far more than it should.  Ditto for the software equivalent.  In the big picture, the problem shouldn’t be a big deal; but it is, and whenever you run into it, it stings.

Here’s Ubuntu’s formal definition:

A paper cut is a trivially fixable bug.  They may be an unintended problem occurring within an existing piece of software, the presence of which makes a computer more difficult or less pleasant to use, that is easy to fix [and really shouldn’t be there].

As you can probably tell, I think that resolving these annoyances is important.

To users, Paper Cuts influence their perception of the platform, and may be responsible for driving people away from Linux; and overcoming a first impression is ludicrously difficult.  If someone has had a poor experience with Linux (or Open Source) in the past, it is not only likely to influence their own future choices, but also what recommendations they make to friends and colleagues.  Put another way, the effect of poor impressions (such as those created by paper cuts) isn’t linear, it’s exponential, and far out of proportion to their overall severity.  For this reason, the resolution of paper cuts might be the most important contribution that Ubuntu has made to the world of Open Source.

Now, before someone takes me task, let me explain.  I’m not talking about the actual bug fixes themselves – even together, the fixes are trivial.  I’m talking about the culture that has begun to permeate the Ubuntu project.  You’ve probably run into evidence of it.  It’s the culture that prompted to Mark Shuttleworth to get on stage at OSCON 2008 and encourage developers to out-prettify Apple within two years; the culture that values a highly polished product and says that we should refine existing functionality before piling on new features; and the culture that has caused Linux to hit its stride as an operating system.

And it’s a spectacularly Good Thing.  Due to the culture shifts that Ubuntu (and related projects) have caused, there is finally some impetus for up-stream developers (like me) to polish our releases and create superb software.  With impetus comes incentive, and incentive has the ability to actually change behavior.

(Which reminds me, I should probably get back to work on LyX-Outline.)

 | October 18, 2009 11:24 pm

Time Machine As much as I love Apple’s Time Machine, it’s a hard drive pig.  If not carefully watched, the little porker will use every spare byte of free space it can.  What is particularly obnoxious, however, is that you might not realize you have a problem until it is too late and you’re backup drive is filled to capacity.

Take my situation as an example.  I have a single MacBook Pro notebook with a 250 GB hard drive.  Most of my files are text based and on the smallish side.  In comparison, my networked backup  is a hefty 1.5 terabytes.  The combination of small hard drive and large backup drive had  me thoroughly convinced that I wouldn’t have to worry about free up space for years.

I was wrong.

Because of the size of the backup drive, I like to keep other files on it – mostly music and video files – so that I have a duplicate copy.  But earlier this week, I got a nasty surprise while trying to add an album I had just downloaded from Amazon Mp3.  The Mac informed me the backup drive was full.

As you might guess, I found this to be very confusing.  How could the drive be full?  Sure … I had three or four hundred gigabytes of music and video files on it, but there was no way that the Time Machine backup could be over a terabyte in size … Could it?

This situation didn’t smell right, so I decided to investigate.  I mounted the backup drive and tracked down the Time Machine sparsebundle and confirmed the impossible.  My Time Machine Backup was a whopping 1.15 terabytes worth of disk space.  “How in the world could the backup be so large?”, I asked myself.  “Time Machine is supposed to be an incremental system.  1.15 terabytes  is big enough to hold every bit and byte on my computer four and a half times over!”

First, I got annoyed; then, I got angry.  What really tipped the scale toward seething fury, however, was failing to find any straightforward way of getting the space back.  Yet another spectacular example of Apple’s “simple over useful” approach to computer design!

After the first bout of obscenities, I came to a simple conclusion: I could publicly express my dissatisfaction with Apple’s product line or I could go about trying to find a solution.  Publicly spouting off was unlikely to help much, so I opted for the latter option.  What follows is a brief summary of what I learned.

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 | August 14, 2009 11:19 am

Lifehacker induced change in web traffic.  Looks like move to exponential decay.It’s been an interesting couple of days.  I was rather honored to see that Lifehacker did a short highlight of Time Drive, which I thought was pretty cool.  It’s always been one of my goals to have something featured in Lifehacker or Gizmodo, and now I’m going to have to scratch that off the list of goals.  But that’s okay, I’ve got other things to fill the void.  Like … how exactly does one get invited to present at TED?

On another note … while I knew that I would see some kind of traffic bump due to the article in Lifehacker, I wasn’t necessarily prepared for the magnitude.  In mathematics, there is this thing called a step function.  It’s where you move from one value to another more or less instantaneously.  It looks like a step, hence the name.  Sure, It may not actually exist, since even very dramatic shifts still have a non vertical slope; but even so, the change in my traffic might as well be a step-function.  Between yesterday and today, I’ve had more visits to this site than I’ve had in much of the rest of the year combined.  I think that’s kind of cool, though it probably won’t last.

(This might be a good time to say that I am actually rather proud of my “lackluster” web traffic.  Though it might not necessarily be that impressive, it is, nevertheless, mine. I’ve worked hard for it, and I revel in the fact that some 40 to 50 people each day find the unorganized garbage of my mind intoxicating.  Some of them even come back!)

But as interesting as that might be, traffic stats is probably not why you’re here.  Good thing, since I’ve got announcements.

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 | July 10, 2009 3:45 pm

An On Elephant Walkabout

Seven or eight years ago, I remember seeing a print advertisement for Apple’s latest computer: the MacBook.   Like most Apple ads, it hyped the benefits of a connected digital lifestyle promising things like “Web design for the rest of us,” and “Access to the ‘Podcast Revolution.’”  At the time, I remember thinking, “Why would I ever want to have a connected digital lifestyle?  I like my anonymity.  That just seems like a privacy violation ready to happen!”

And while I still hold many of those same opinions, I probably should mention that I have thoroughly changed my ideas on the necessity of the digital lifestyle.  And, ironically, it wasn’t the promises of convenience, understanding or creativity which resulted in my change of heart.  Not at all.  Rather, I came to realize that I should embrace digital existence for one simple reason: necessity.

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