Thursday, March 30, 2006

Don't just "present" your ideas... sell them

Good post at Librarian in Black on the perils of Ego Centric Presentations.

First of all... love the <rant>, </rant> tags. I am going to steal that outright and not give credit. Sorry. I'm in marketing, and that's what we do. 

Most presenters aren't professional speakers, teachers, actors, jugglers, entertainers, magicians, etc. They don't know the #1 rule about performing, which Sarah has stated very well here in terms of a conference context -- the audience is the most important person in the room, not the chuckle-head on stage. No offense to the chuckle-head, said role having been one I've played a couple hundred times. Often, in retrospect, not as well as I'd've liked/hoped to.

Sometimes it's because of nervousness, usually it's lack of experience or training. In only a very few cases, IMO, it's lack of talent or ego-centrism. Most people who get up in front of a group of people really *DO* want to help that group understand something and go away informed or enlightened or amused or entertained or some combination thereof. But because they haven't been trained in how to sell their ideas (which is what Sarah is asking for, essentially), they merely present. Which is what they've been conditioned to do by many things, including the very verb that describes what they've been asked to do: "presentation."

A "presentation" is very, very passive. "Here's my stuff." Thump. You put it on a table or a screen and there it is. "Selling," with all it's negative connotations when done wrong or in a sleezy manner, is highly active when done well and appropriately. It is a relationship model activity. It relies on knowledge of your audience and a desire to affect a change in their behavior, not just in their state-of-mind. At the end of a sales process, you want your customer to have done something differently, to have made a "buy" decision.

To all "presenters" out there, I challenge you to think about your next presentation in this way -- are you asking your audience to buy something? Are you asking them to take an action? Are you expecting a change in behavior based on the materials you've provided? If the answer is "no" to all of those questions, you're not really making a meaningful presentation. You're telling a story. The best you can hope for is to be entertaining.

The art of good salesmanship is a career in and of itself. So taking you from a flat, static "presentation" to a great, interactive, action-oriented "sales pitch" style is not a one blog post. But there's one thing you can do to shift your attitude in that direction better than any other single action -- listen.

One of the ballsiest moves I ever saw at a conference was when the presenter started his routine with the Q&A. He said (approximately), "The rest of my talk doesn't matter if I don't answer your questions on this subject. So rather than give 10 or 15 minutes out of the hour to your questions, let's start with them. If we use up the whole hour on a good discussion, that's way better than listening to me prattle on for 45 minutes." He took a few questions (about 5), the answers to which lasted about 20 minutes. During the course of his presentation, then, he was able to skim some slides very quickly, as he'd already gone over them in the "pre-Q&A," and he was also able to personalize
the presentation at several points by referring to questions people had asked. It spiced up the whole thing very nicely. And he still left another 15 minutes at the end for more questions. It took guts... but good selling does.

This is a good topic. I may come back to it later in more depth.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Why 2006 is 1986 and maybe 1984 for Apple... again

The first reviewed item on Wired's Gaget Labs this week is the Zen Vision:M Media Player from Creative Labs. I own an older model Zen (with no video support), but similar in other specs, and am very pleased with it. But that's not the point.

There are a couple lines in this very short review that should make Steve Jobs et al stop and smell the marketing strategy. I quote (emphases mine):

  • My iPod's hard drive kicked the bucket a mere week after its warranty ran out. Talk about rotten fruit. To get my life back in tune -- and to spite Apple -- I picked up this Creative media player.

  • mounted on my PC as a hard drive, so I could add files by just dragging and dropping -- no more iTunes nightmares.

  • ... without iTunes Store compatibility, I have to get most of my video via BitTorrent. But that's a small price to pay to escape Steve Jobs' stranglehold on my music collection.

To spite apple? iTunes nightmares? Escape Steve Job's stranglehold? Vos is los? I thought Steve Jobs was Jesus! Or at least some tasty combination of Jerry Garcia and Ghandi. Right? And Apple does no wrong, according to my artist-intellectual-musician-aging-hippy-technoscenti friends. Friends who have been making excuses for the iTunes proprietary format restrictions for quite some time... "Apple is just trying to protect itself from the big bad Microsoft-Intel Axis!"

Well, Apple is going to protect itself right into the same spot it went into with the Macintosh; a nice, little 15% marketshare of a growing business in which it could have been a major player... perhaps the dominant player. All by not buying into its own marketing Word.

The 1984 Apple MacIntosh TV spot is widely considered the single most successful commercial in the history of television advertising. The not-too-subtle implication of the ad (beautifully written and directed by Ridley Scott) is that the Mac will help save us from a Big-Brother-ish future, controlled (one imagines) by hulking, overbearing forces... like IBM and other monolithic computer companies who would keep you from realizing your own personal PC dreams.

The problem, in and around 1986, was that while Apple played "Happy Happy Earthy Crunchy Friend to Babies, Friend to You and Me" on the interface level and the marketing level and the design level... they didn't do it on the macro-level. They didn't do what IBM did. They kept the hardware and much of the OS for Mac propritary, so that only Apple could develop and sell Macs. Which doomed the Mac to about a 15% marketshare of the PC biz. Because, when other players couldn't play... well, they didn't want to. And when other hardware makers couldn't play, other software publishers didn't have the incentive to publish. And you ended up in a vicious circle. And when the PC market went through the roof, in the late 80's through mid 90's, and everybody's mama wanted a new computer, and they walked into Best Buy, and the Mac section of the software aisle had nine titles vs. 900 in the PC section... well, game over for Mr. and Mrs. America.

Those who don't learn from the past...

The iPod and iTunes are fantastic. They have introduced millions of people to some great new products, services and features and even lifestyle changes. But if Steve thinks that they are addicted to Apple, he's high. The percentage of people who love-love-love Apple because Apple is Apple will stay at around 15%. People who think that the dancing-shadow ads and the pure-white hipness of the iPod and the design-for-design-sake are "too cool to not rule." The other 85% of the people want products that work, hard-drives that don't crash right after the warranty is up, and formats that are compatible across media.

You don't own the idea of MP3 player, Steve. You don't own the idea of downloadable music store. You don't own the idea of headphones, music-to-go, hipness, $1/song, etc. Yes, you own your brand. And I teach my students time and time again that brand is more precious than gold, more powerful than features, more worthy than market-cap and price-to-earnings ratio because other companies can't copy your brand. But guess what, Steve...

You're soiling your brand. You're ruining it.

Because your mouth (your advertising and packaging) says, "Open" and "Free" and "Easy" and "Uncomplicated" and "Friendly" and "Hip" and "Cool." But your heart (your actual service practices) says, "I am Big Brother. I am in control of your music. You will do it my way. Or not at all."

The one thing worse than a bad brand image is a great brand image that fails to deliver. Or... even worse still... contradicts the brand promise. Those neat dancing -shadow ads show people all happy-go-lucky, without a care in the world... tethered only to their iPods with a slim, white cord. If the ads were more accurate, they'd show people tethered to their iTunes accounts with a slim, white chain.

The marketing says, "Not Big Brother." The reality says, "Big Brother." In the late 80's, their marketshare reflected reality.

Unless Apple changes their practices to match their marketing, my money's on reality... again.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Blogs + Tags = AnthroSpime 0.10

My co-worker and co-blogger from OCLC, Alane Wilson, posted two entries today on the fabulous "It's All Good" blog she co-authors with a couple other OCLCers:

The first is about the concept of objects that are embedded with a high-degree of "networkable" data. I don't want to get into the whole definition of spimes or blogjets here... see Alane's post for some good links, or all spime tags.

Basically, though... imagine objects with RFID tags or similar technology that know everything about themselves, their relationships to the systems in which they operate, the other objects with which they come into contact and, of course, the people they interact with. There are all kinds of applications and scenarios for this technology, some of which is available and in application now, in early stages. We've had bar codes for years, for example. And RFID has been around for awhile, too. But, at this point, those two techs mostly tell us what something is and, in some cases, where, and where it came from.

We can get into the practical and sci-fi, the potentially cool and possibly evil uses of spimes (or whatever they end up being called) at some point in the future. But in Alane's second post, there was something that made me leap back to the first in my wee think bone:

My session, "Scanning for Planning" was blogged by Jenica at Thinking Out Loud who makes me sound a lot more coherent that I thought I was, and in a later post she mentions the silver necklace I was wearing, approvingly. Thank goodness. Perhaps I am exposing my Digital Immigrantness, but it is just odd to read little bits and pieces about yourself all over the blogosphere. And it is a reminder that the Panopticon is here and that our words and actions become part of the observed world very quickly.

Well... blogs and tags are performing, for many folks, some of the functions of spimes right now, albeit highly selectively and very manually. As Alane found out, the information about what necklace she was wearing (data on one aspect of her physical manifestation) in terms of her location (at the CIL conference) was recorded by a blogger. Perhaps for all eternity.

That blog entry is, of course, just one data point. But it's one of a type that was unavailable even five years ago.

Tagging makes it easier for all of us to decide which data points we want to measure in terms of our own space in the dataverse. Blogging is the data creation; tagging (of all sorts) is the fixing of data on grids of our choosing.

So, for example, if Alane is an "anthro spime" in whom I have an interest, I tag her blog (with an RSS reader, or a tag, or a simple browser bookmark) and "spoing!" I've got a data lock on Alane's trail as she moves across the infonet.

As more and more of what we do is done online and in shared, network spaces, more of our work/fun product will be "networkable" as data, and "tagable" in this manner.

We are the first "things" on the "Internet of Things." Kinda gives me a chill up and down my spime. Har-de-har-har.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Open Creativity: super long post part three -- the pay off

Recap: So... in part one we established that, over time, value (which is another way of saying wealth) often moves "up the chain" from the individual to the group. And that, as systems become more complex, value begins to accrue at the group level more efficiently than at the individual level. EG, it's easier for a nation to fix interstate highway systems for everyone than it is for you to fix just the four miles you drive everyday to work.

In part deux, we talked about how "meta" activities are necessary in order for this glomming of value to take place. You need to have enough wealth (in the form of excess food) to allow "meta farmers" (planners, civil engineers, potters, builders, architects, mathmeticians... even if you call them priests) the chance to develop even better methods of developing excess food. Virtuous cycle.

We are now, I believe, in a phase of economic and intellectual history I refer to as The Age of Content. I won't go into great detail on that theory. You can read a bunch more of my thoughts on this subject in an essay I wrote if you like. It's geared mainly toward marketing, but it makes the main point that needs to be made here: right now, content is king. We've moved from real estate as the main source of wealth, to "stuff," to the transporation of stuff, to energy and communications... to... content. I'll pull one short section from the essay to define and give examples.

Content is: Information that is manipulated, arranged, categorized, crafted, and tweaked in order to provoke in participants a sense of value received from original, created meaning. Examples include:

  • News: all kinds, depending on what you value

  • Sports: both the playing of sports and the viewing and the news of it

  • Music: lyrics, songs, arrangements, covers, concerts, recordings

  • Art: all kinds; from the fine arts to industrial design to advertising to performance

  • Opinion: essays, letters to the editor

  • Spectacle: the circus, reality TV, game shows, magic, politics

  • Stories: dramatic or comedic, on film, in books and plays or on TV

  • Character: the details and actions of personalities in fiction or the public eye

  • Consultative services: doctors, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, publicists, marketers

  • Research: all sciences, hard and soft

  • New technology: the development of new products and services based on research

  • Metadata: the services that connect users to content and vice-versa

That's my own definition. And I get a lot of crap about it, but that's OK. I'm sticking to my guns. We can argue that definition some other day. For now, please just accept that content is important and that producing it is a great way to make lots of money.

If you don't believe me, take a look at a report from the Online Publishers Association that says that consumers spent $987 million for online content in the first half of 2005.  That'd be about $2 billion for the whole year. Just for online content. And that doesn't count the online content they outright didn't pay for and that had no economic intent (fun, free, fabulous blogs like this), the online content (advertising and editorial) that drove consciously drove offline purchasing behavior, the freely available online content (entertainment) that housed advertising and the freely available online content (entertainment samples) that drove offline purchase of like media.

Content is huge. Content is mind food. When less than 1% of the people are needed to feed the rest of us, what do we do with all that time and energy? And when we finally have cheap (relatively) computing and communications? When the cost of those efforts (content efforts) is dramatically less (and has fallen dramatically quicker) than costs in other areas of recreation and infrastucture improvement like transportation and packaging improvements?

Put it this way -- if you could put 10 "units of effort" into a "content solution" for raising profits for your company, or 10 of those same units into a non-content solution... which do you think would be more likely to pay higher dividends these days? Look at the list above...  Suppose you want (like many companies) to make more money. Content-related efforts might include:

  • PR: generating news and buzz; blogging

  • Marketing: new, funky campaigns; better brand strategy

  • Knowledge management: understanding your customer-supplier chain better

  • Training: Getting better at your key strengths

All of these efforts rely on the creation or consumption of content. And no matter what your product or service, they will (if done well) leverage your efforts with little regard for geographic barriers. Which is neat. Let's contrast that to non-content (more "worldly," I guess... traditional? I don't have a good word for "non-content") business improvement efforts:

  • Shave time off a business process or time-to-market

  • Buy more of something to get scale savings

  • Open additional outlets in order to reach more customers

You get the point. "Real world stuff." Yes, these things are hugely important. And, yes, you'll often need to do them. But if you have a choice... if you can beat the other guy on content... take that route 100% of the time. Why?

Because you can then leverage that benefit across any number of "real world" factors. The reverse does not necessarily hold true.

And -- content creation is often less replicable than "meat world" benefits. You can't copyright speed-to-market. You can't trademark scale savings. You can copyright and trademark your content creations.

And -- content is almost infintely replicable in scale. If an ad works well in one market, it often will in others (not always, but often). If a book sells well in print, you may be able to make a movie, a game, etc.

So... content is king. What's that got to do with Open Source?

Well, content is to our current age as corn and beef were to the time when 97% of us worked in agriculture. Those things (meta ag) which allowed all the farmers to improve crop yields brought benefits to society as a whole, and allowed for the vast improvements in wealth creation we've seen since then. They allowed intellectual capital to be freed up; moving from behind a plow to behind books, to behind computers.

Now, in the Age of Content, those efforts that move us, collectively, from behind the technology to in front of audiences will be the most valuable. From "futzers with software" to "reachers of minds." From manipulators of mice to creators of content.

And the Open Source movement enables that to happen in two very important ways that don't in more, fixed, "capitalistic" systems.

First, the creation of whatever "Open Source" stuff itself is, inherently and explicitly, more creative than doing things in a more closed environment. So the Open Source content itself (whether software, music, writing... whatever) will be more creative, by definition.

Second, Open Source allows for more participants to progress up the "value chain" of content creation at a lower cost of entry. This is the "content equivalent" of being able to use an iron plow... for free. Of being told about crop rotation. Of being given access to engineering plans for irrigation. You get it.

Now... As my friend David Leslie recently reminded me in an email on this subject --  TANSTAAFL. "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." That is, "free" software isn't really "free." Somebody pays. Obviously, the authors pay in time and effort, sometimes in money. If their choice is to release the fruits of their work for recompense other than those pecuniary... that's their choice. But they have, indeed paid.

End-users pay, too. In many cases, there are hidden costs associated with the widespread use of Open Source content that are not, at first apparent to those users. The two most often sited by opponents of Open Source are support and ongoing maintentance. That is, when you adopt an Open Source solution, how are you going to take care of it, and will it be around for the long run?

The good answer -- as in so many complex topics, there is no "right" answer -- is one of balance. This argument is very like the ones I mentioned earlier between conservatives and liberals about where to draw the line between "too much government" and  "not enough social service."

In the case of Open Source, it is a question -- I believe -- of balancing goals vs. risks. Which is, at its heart, a question that businesses (and, to a less formal extent) individuals make when choosing any solution.

For example, if you are a brain surgeon, I would not necessarily recommend an Open Source piece of software that is absolutely key for the delivery of your service at the dramatic moments of incision. That operation (pun intended) is absolutely vital (still intended) to what you do for a living and any "fuzziness" in the program could mean death for your patient, and real trouble for you in terms of excess paperwork and guilt.

On the other hand... if you're a brain surgeon, how about Open Source for your blogging software? Or for software to help you track your family tree? Or for your word processing and spreadsheeting? Or even for keeping your small practice's appointments and bills? Ask youself (Dr. Brainsurgeon), "What are the potential risks of using this Open Source solution, vs. the gains of not paying for it... "

The bigger your application, the more carefully you need to weigh the balance.

Another example from my life. I manage a team of eight designers, writers, translators and project manager type folks. For us, Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, Dreamweaver, etc. are incredibly important tools. So are (to a lesser extent) the Microsoft Office Suite of applications. I would sooner cut off my left hand than ask my crew to give up Photoshop. Photoshop is God. There are a few very decent Open Source alternatives out there (that I mentioned in the first part of this post), that are great for students, small businesses, individuals just getting started in design, etc. etc. That's their choice, on their "balance line." But for a decent sized design shop that lives and dies by the JPG... give me Photoshop or give me death.

Now... Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice 2.0? My gang is probably also the "hardest hitters" of Word and Powerpoint. We do some funkyanna hoo-hah in Word in order to make "customziable" stuff for the field. And we do lotsa lotsa Powerpoint work. But if our VP of finance told us that the comp'ny could save $XXX,XXX every year by switching to OpenOffice, and we think that we can get just as good service, and any problems will have to be taken in stride because of the savings and blah blah blah.... you know what? I could probably live with that.

But I'm not an Excel freak. And I don't know that there isn't somebody in Research or Planning or Finance itself for whom the idea of moving from Excel elicits the same kind of cold-sweat fear that the thought of losing Photoshop does for me. They might have a different balance point for their value judgement of benefit vs. risk.

But... and this is a big but.. (I like bit buts, and I cannot lie...) the huge question still remains:

Is the Open Source movement good in the aggregate, on the whole for the planet. Or is it a bad idea that happens to have some minor, granular, happy bits that sparkle and shine for folks on a limited, short-sighted, personal basis?

I say the former. It's really, really good for the planet. Because it moves the "balance point" way down the scale for many more "creatives" than otherwise would have had the chance to participate in the Age of Content. And when more people are creating, you get more and better ideas. We may think that the "Open" in "Open Source" is an adjective -- "the source code is open." But I have begun to think of it as a verb. It "Opens" up possibilities for more and more people.

We have finally (on a large, large scale) personalized and internalized (or socialized... I'm not sure what the right word) the reasons why we have public schools and libraries. It's why we have roads that aren't all private toll roads. It's why we pay taxes to fund pure medical research. We understand that "sharing is good" in many cases. No, not always. Again -- I love capitalism. It works really well for some things. Competition is good.

But for for those things that will help a vast majority of people move into areas where they can participate more fully in the competitions that create wealth for all of us -- sharing is best. Open is best.

That last sentence is the whole point of this giant, three part, god-awful-long post.

Sorry it took so long to get there, but the path to a (hopefully) good idea is sometimes strewn with... many... bloggy... rocks?

Anyway. Go share. Go compete. Do both. They're not in conflict. Really. I promise. They are brother and sister in a happy, effective economy where more people get to do more and better stuff than plow all day long.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Tag. We interrupt the long post...

...for a post that's not going to be as interruptive as a bunch of future posts would be if I used a particular blog hack mentioned below, because I refuse to be as annoying as I could be just to make it look like I'm blogging more than I actuall am. That was a long sentence. Sorry.

We know that people will come to a blog, and that search engines will rate it better, when you update your content more often. Which is great. But there are various ways (hacks) to make it look like you're updating your blog more than you actually are. Back when I was blogging in order to attract SEO and, thus (hopefully) clients to my consulting practice, I might have given the idea a bit more leeway. Now? I guess I find the idea of artifically added blogalia a bit... boorish.

Anyway... this post has instructions for how your tags can be added to your blog, automatically, as a daily post. You go about your Webusiness, tagging merrily along, and, at night, your tags from the last 24-hours will appear as a new post on your blog titled, "My tags for DATE."

Now, I'm as vain as the next... well... I don't know. Walrus? Egg-man? Anyway... I like to think that the folks who read this blog read it because I have something to say that is vaguely interesting and maybe funny from time to time. But I have no dellusions that every one of my bookmarks is of vital importance to the rest of the world.

On the flip side, I like the convenience of having my tags on my blog. And I do like to share. But not in a way that might make you think I'm blogging, when really, I'm just bookmarking/tagging. If I like something enough to make a comment on it, I'll write a post. And we'll call that "blogging."

So... my compromise is this: I'm adding a new "Tags" page that you can get to from the top menu of the blog. It will be updated every time I add a tag. If you have any interest in seeing what I'm tagging, knock yourself out. But I'm not going to clutter up the main blog page with it. OK?

Open Source, etc: Part Deux

Right. Now we move on to the part of the program related to socialism, flattening, wealth creation and (I promise) creativity. But the creativity part is at the end. It's the pay-off. So stay tuned. And I'll try to be brief and bullet-like. And if you believe that...

OK. Wealth. Economically, that's what we all strive for. It is fashionable to talk about "creating value" and being "productive," but what it all boils down to is creating wealth; economic power. And what is wealth?

Wealth is, at its base, a the ability to do stuff above and beyond simple survival. Or, as I like to quip to my marketing students: wealth is a measure of excess food.

If you have to hunt and gather all your waking hours to survive, well... that sucks. And you have no wealth. Period. In order to free up some time to do other stuff  -- sleep, paint on cave walls, dance, bowl, play Xbox -- you need to be able, either individually or as a society, to produce food (and other necessities) more efficiently. Makes sense, right? If you invent a spear thrower that allows you to shave an hour a day off your hunting, you can work on improving your cave. A better cave equals... wealth.

A better way to look at this might be Colonial America vs. Modern America, now that I look back and think about how bad that caveman analogy is. Sorry.

As late as the early 19th century, more than 90% of the country's total productive efforts were spent on agriculture. In the 1780's, it was around 95%. Which meant it took 95% of the country's workforce to keep everyone barely fed, because malnutrition was still a huge problem and modern food storage, transportation and other technologocial improvements hadn't begun to kick in. By 1870, the number was down to 50%.

As of 2006, that number is down to less than 1%.

Think about that for a sec. From 1850 to 2006, about 50 years, almost half the people in this country stopped working on producing food, and started working on other stuff. What was that other stuff? Wealth. Or the beginnings of it.

This whole thing started in Egypt. I know, this is another digression, but it's a wee, fun one. In order to produce enough (and more than enough) food for the country, you needed to understand the Nile, since the seasonal flooding of the Nile river basin is what really contributed to the agricultural productivity of the area. To grok when to plant (i.e., when the Nile was going to flood and receed), how to build the various watering and drainage systems, how to store grain for the off-season, etc., you need people who aren't "just" farmers.

You need "meta-farmers." People who can "think about farming stuff" rather than just doing it. To do that, you need wealth. Why? Because wealth (excess food) is necessary to have any time at all to think about stuff. In Egypt, the priest caste became the ones that "thought about stuff," and their thoughts about seasonality, math, building, etc., became inextricably woven into their thoughts of religion. Which sounds weird to "modern us," because our engineering and scientist castes are the ones who are "paid" to "think about stuff."

But it's not such a weird idea, having priests/God-servants be the ones who create wealth. Why? Well, if you believe (as almost all religions do), that God created everything, then those who provide a means for the increase of the fruits of the earth are... well... God-like, eh?

Management guru Peter Drucker (who died last year), once said: "Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship... the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth." Well, the priest caste in Egypt:

  • endowed resources -- agricultural

  • with new capacities -- astronomical understanding of seasons for better crop yields; pottery for grain storage that defied pests and time; irrigation to extend growing periods

  • to create wealth -- more food for less effort

Because of them, Egypt grew to be the strongest and wealthiest civilization of its time. You can't build pyramids, armies, art and culture if all your people are farmers. You have to free a few up to "meta-farm." They, in turn, enable fewer farmers to feed more people, freeing up even more people to do "wealth" stuff. Virtuous cycle continues. Hopefully. Until Rome comes along and kicks your ass. Oh, well.

So... to create wealth (or value or productivity or efficiency) in any sector, you need ways to move more (or at least some) effort into the "meta"  arena from the "mundane" arena. From the "doing it" portion of the program to the "thinking about it" sector.

You have to do this stuff to create wealth. It's a law. How you do it, though, is the study of economics and politics. And, often, sociology, psychology, morality, ethics, law, military science, religion, art and other crap (I get tired of saying "etc." all the time).

Various political systems define the government's role in the creation of wealth and how much it will interfere (the bad word) or encourage (the good word) private enterprise. Economic systems define how individuals and groups work together to move things up the wealth mountain. Governments usually choose the economics of the countries they govern. Or try to.

The nice thing about wealth (vs. morality, happiness or how good a dancer you are), is that it's easy (or easier) to measure how well you're doing. If you got more of the goods, you're winning.

What's America got that makes it so wealthy? Well, we've done very well with our mix of political and economic systems. We're a (ready for this, kids) representative democratic repupublic venture capitalist system with multi-jurisdictional socialist tendencies. Yeah, I know. You probably thought we were just a "democracy," with "capitalism" tacked on. If that long piece of hooey gives you a, "What the...?" moment, don't fret. It's complex. And part of the reason it works so well is the complexity. And the cracks between the bits are what many of our arguments over "coservative" and "liberal" are all about.

This will be a three-parter, it seems, as I'm late for "Chronicles of Narnia." And if you haven't seen "Chronic of Narnia," do that, too. But before we go, let's parse out that last, enormous definition of "The American political and economic system:"

  • Representative democracy -- We don't vote directly for most stuff, especially at the state and federal levels. We vote for representatives and they do stuff.

  • Republic -- "And to the Republic, for which it stands..." We're not a "pure" democracy, either. We're a republic. And that means that we are governed not just by the idea that "majority rules," but the idea that individuals have sovereign rights. See "Bill of Rights." The "majority" can't vote to take away the rights of specific individuals in a republic, unless they take those rights away from everyone.

  • Venture capitalism -- People investing in businesses in which they don't do the actual work. Stock markets, etc. It seems natural to us (doesn't everything we do?), but it didn't really start until relatively recently in history. The first company to issue stock was the Dutch East India company in 1602. So this idea of having an economic system (supported, encouraged and regulated by the government) based on "group ownership" of businesses (hmmm... "meta management...") isn't a foregone conclusion historically. But it works real nice.

  • Multi-jurisdictional socialist tendencies -- This is the tough one, and the one that will (in part 3) end up beign about (I promise) Open Source and creativity.  Socialsm, in its purest form, means that "the means of production are collectively owned and democratically administered by society as a whole." Yes, Virginia, socialism and democracy should go hand-in-hand. In a moderated form, however, social programs are ones in which some subset of the "means" (chosen programs) are administered by some subset of "the whole" (government workers). Any work done by the government for the benefit of its citizens is, technically, a socialist program. Because in a purely democratic, capitalist society (often called "libertarian"), the government does little or nothing. Individuals are responsible for their own well-being. If they want to get together on their own and contribute time, effort or money to build roads, hospitals, armies, etc.... great. But when the government collects taxes and does stuff with 'em (roads, hospitals, armies, schools, etc.), that's a form of socialism.

Usually, "liberals" and "conservatives" when they argue about "small government" vs. "big government" are arguing about where to draw the line between capitalism and socialism, or between democracy and repulicanism. What's good for "the group" vs. "the individual?" How much of "the means" should be controlled directly by the venture networks? How much should be influenced by consumers in the form of their voting/taxes? It's a good way to spend an evening, arguing over that line.

So... Open Source... it's "free" software. But not really. Because someone is paying for it, either in time, attention or effort. But it does provide value to those people using it. And we're now (as I say again and again) in "The Age of Content," where the tools of creativity are those that most deeply influence the growth of wealth.

What does all this mean? Is it good? Bad? Why won't I just stop yammering about political and economic models and finish the damned post?

Pipe down. I spent a long time finding all those links to Open Source software so you'd have something to play with... I'll finish the thing when I'm good and ready. Go look at Blurbhalla while you're waiting.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Open Source, Flattening, Wealth, Socialism/Liberalism, Creative Balance and Overly Long Blog Posts &Titles

OK. First of all, I have this idea that more of my posts should contain some useful information and not just long-winded, pyscho-babble rants. As popular as those are with the kinder. So we're going to start off with the useful stuff and then do the long-winded psycho-babble rant later.

Open Source stuff (aka usually, for most purposes, totally free), is picking up big speed. We've had shareware and freeware software for some time, and public domain content for centuries... but Open Source, per se... it's starting to freak me out... In a good way.

The highly useful, "free software"
portion of this really long post

Open Blogging: For example, this blog is created with WordPress, which is an Open Source blog engine, and beats (IMHO) TypePad, hands-down. And I know whereof I speak; I created and ran several blogs on TypePad for more than a year-and-a-half. And, while not a coder, I power-spanked 'em and jimmied the heck out of what you can do with a "Dummy-book" level of expertise. TypePad has some really nice features -- don't get me wrong. But WordPress has a couple hundred people who write add-ons for it, develop themes, etc. And it's free. You can host freely at, too. And, BTW... It beats the PICKLES out of Blogger. Don't even go there with me. I'm comparing WordPress favorably with TypePad, the top PAID-FOR service, for Bahamut's sake... Blogger? Yeesh.

So. Free blogging. Great. Who blogs? Some fonging large number of people that still doesn't approach "who cares?" as far as mom and pop are concerned. They just want a good word processor. OK. Try OpenOffice.

Open Write, Calc, Draw, Present, etc. OpenOffice is a suite of Open Source office products that work together much like... er... well... very much like... Microsoft Office. In fact, so much like MS Office that, well... you can stop using MS Office. OpenOffice also reads/writes to the same file types as MSO, too... so you can share files with them what's still using MSO. OpenOffice has modules for Writing, Presentation (think Powerpoint), math equations, drawing (think Visio), spreadsheeting (think Excel) and databases.

In a recent article at eWeek, some Microsoft flack said that OpenOffice is 10 years behind MSO. First of all, I remember MSO from 1996, and that's a lie. Powerpoint sucked ass in 1996, Word hadn't figured out how to integrate fonts properly and Visio had disappeared into some weird Land-of-Nod between the nice, small charting program it had been and the giant chunk of expensive code it is now.

I've used every OpenOffice module except the math editor and the database module; i.e., everything most normal people would use -- word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software and drawing package. They are all very, very fine. They lack about 10% of the "features" of MSO and about 15% of the polish. And it lacks 100% the price. They also have some features that MSO doesn't have, so there you go. And many of the features they don't have, are big old "who cares?" stuff for many people.

But do you know anybody for whom a $200-$500 per seat price tag (plus upgrades) is a "who cares" feature?
Early pedagogical warning: Not necessarily useful and yet really important information alert! Recently, the international standards body, OASIS, came up with a standardized OpenDocument Format (ODF) that is both official (as much as any international standards body can make anything official) and vendor neutral. Read: it applies equally to OpenOffice and Microsoft. [Shout out, by the way, to my company, OCLC -- ODF makes use of the Dublin Core metadata structure that was born in Dublin, home of OCLC, with the help of several OCLCers]. Why is this "really important?" Because it means that an "open" format is being chosen over a "popular" format. Get it? We'll come back later in the rant... In the meantime, if you want to read how Microsoft is responding, check this out...

[Updated 3/19 -- Another Open Source word processor; AbiWord.]

Open CMS. Content Management Software (CMS) allows you to manage Web site content on-the-fly, as it were. Once you've installed the CMS engine, you manage the content on the site itself, rather than using a program like FrontPage or Fusion. There are, literally, dozens of great, Open Source CMS engines out there. You'll need a host, as they need to be loaded on a server. You can get hosting, in some cases, for as little as $5-$10/month. I've tried a number of CMS packages and would recommend checking out tikiwiki, Mambo, Drupal, and Joomla. There's lots more. And some site hosts will do the initial install for you as part of the price, saving you that headache. So... for $10/month, you get a sophisticated CMS thrown in on-top-of your hosting package. Sometimes you can get multiple, different "scripts" (as the different enginges are called) installed, so you can try a couple out.

Open Wiki. There are a bunch of good Open Source wiki options. If you have a Web host already, it can be similar to the Open CMS option above. In fact, CMS and wiki run together in some cases. Tikiwiki's base content entry mode is a wiki... but it has modules for articles, polls, bulletin boards, etc., and so has "graduated" to be a full-blown CMS. If you have a host, and want to use an Open Source wiki engine, and don't mind using wiki syntax (a fairly simple "tag" bassed syntax), I recommend either MediaWiki (the engine used for the WikiPedia), PMWiki (incredibly simple install and good feature-set) or TiddlyWiki (a relative newcomer... but verrry interesting). Note: you can do a free version of MediaWiki at EditThisDotInfo.

If you don't have a host, and if you'd prefer to use a wiki with a WYSIWYG editor... funny thing, they both go together. Seedwiki has both free and paid hosting wiki levels, and a good visual editor that doesn't need weird codes. Same with Xwiki. Same with JotSpot. Of the three, I like the free version of Seedwiki best. Why are they free? Because they'd like you to upgrade to the higher-level, more feature-rich versions. We'll get into that in the "rant" section below. Keep your pants on.

Open Graphics. You want to be an artist, eh? Good for you. Start drawing with Inkscape, an Open Source program very similar to Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator. For bitmap image manipulation, there's The GIMP. GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. And while double-embedded acronyms make me itch, the program itself is worth a look. Windows users should go here for the installer. I'd also be terribly remiss not to mention IrfanView, the single best graphics utility program ever made... and free since the day it began. It's the Swiss Army Knife of graphics utilities, and if you work with images, you need it. Go get it. I'll wait.... Cool, hunh? Irfan, you're a Bosnian code god! Long may you rock. I would love this program if it did nothing else but create on-the-fly thumbnails from giant piles of clip-art. Which it does fast and logically, with a menu tree. It also lets you create self-running, single executable file slide-shows from any number of images. Thank you Irfan! Why doesn't Powerpoint do that? I have no idea...

[updated 3/19 -- Paint.NET. Another Open Source PhotoShop-ish program]

Open 3D. For a long time, if you wanted to create sophisticated, funky, 3D, shadowy, light-bouncing graphics, you needed to spend a couple thousand bucks on a rendering package. Then a few good programs came along and lowered the price barrier significantly. I use TrueSpace, which is around $600, and rocks very hard. But that's still a bucket o' dough for students, people who want to experiment with the idea of 3D, cheapskates, anybody just starting out, many small companies, many non-US companies, etc. So... what're the odds that anybody would come up with Open Source software in such a narrow category. Check out either Art of Illusion or Blender. While not as sophisticated as TrueSpace or the (still) thousands-dollars alternatives... you can get great results. For free. The image at the top of this post was created using Blender; click on it for a high-res version.

Open Music/Sounds. No, this isn't about the new Napster. If you want free tunes, though, there are plenty of places to go. This is about making and messing with audio. Start with Audacity, an audio file manipulation program that, with a few, free add-ins, is as good as many store-bought alternatives. Then there's iabc, a sheet-music helper program. OrDrumbox is a drum-beat/drum-fill track creator. There may be more... I'm sure there are. I've been more heavily involved in the draw/design world, though... if anybody wants to ping me with additional music resources, I'll be glad to update this section.

Getting slightly preachy, now. Still about "free stuff," but with a slight twist and funky aftertaste

OK... I've hit you with a good double-handful of links to free software, arguably worth over $10,000 if you made up a number and wrote it down and that number was $10,000. In return for that Open Source information (this blog post), I ask that you read a bit further...

I know tons of people (my wife included) who use Yahoo mail. I have an account, myself. It's my backup email account. Only about eight people know about it... and 7,209 of the Spamtichrists (may they rot in the bowels of Shiva's dog, Fitz). I have it for when I can't get to my main email, which isn't very often anymore, but what the heck. And it's free. And I need one to have a MyYahoo page, which I use as my RSS aggregator. I also use Yahoo's Instant Messaging (IM) and Yahoo Music, all of which run off of... my free email account name. All of those services, save one, are free. Yahoo Music. I pay $60/year for unlimited access to some stupid (a million? I have no idea...) number of songs, which I can play on my home computer, my work computer, and download onto my MP3 player. I can also stream any song in the library, and listen to even more songs on a couple hundred LAUNCHcast Radio sites. If I sound like a fan, I am. I love music, and I get to listen to more of it, legally, and for less money with Yahoo Music than I ever did in the past. For about the price of 5 CD's a year, I've listend to about 50 CDs, and stream radio at work and at home pretty much all the time. With no commercials. Way, way cool.

Now, you are saying, this is not Open Source. No, it ain't. And neither is Yahoo!, which is advertising sponsored.
As is Google, which also offers free email and a bunch of other services. This model is very familiar to anyone who watched TV before there was a cable to plug in, or who still listens to radio. You get a free service (content of some kind), and, in return, you subject yourself to advertising. The advertisers suspect (rightfully) that some subset of the public will purchase their fine products, and so provide the content. A good deal all around. That's how it worked with me and Yahoo!. I used the ad sponsored email, was exposed to Yahoo Music, and bought it. Perfect.

But, wait, you are STILL saying... this has nothing to do with Open Source. This is not "free." It's advertising supported. Producers pay publishers/programmers to make the content and we get to watch/listen. Money changes hands. And, if consumers complete the circle and buy one of the sponsor's products, even more money changes hands. No Open Source there, you great bearded loon.

Pipe down for a sec and back off of your narrow definition of "money," and your narrow definitions of "producers" and "consumers." Because what we see, throughout the entire history of value creation, economics and commerce, is that, eventually, as systems mature, benefits that accrue based on an individual principle, eventually "bubble up" to become benefits at larger levels.

What the hey-nonny-nonny am I talking about now? OK. People learn stuff. Individual people. Fun things, helpful things, interesting things. These things are, initially, applicable at the "me" level. I can use this stick to hit animals on the head. Eventually, learning "moves out" and becomes available to groups: we can use these sticks to hunt bigger animals together; we can use these sticks to build Fenway Park. You never ever -- you simply can't -- start with the more complex, wide-level version of an idea. That's not how ideas are born.

Example: when it comes to commerce, the initial idea of, "You have popcorn, we have beer... we can make a deal," is very "low level." I trade my stuff for your stuff. Then comes money. Right? Slightly more complex. Symbolic value. Next comes the idea of trading for possible future value; temporal value shifting. At this level we get stocks, bonds, credit cards and... advertising. Because all of these concepts are based on the idea that something we're investing in now (stock in a company, the thing we're buing with a credit card, the advertising time in front of an audience) is worth more in the future than right now.

All of these things are great and have proved to be fantastic engines of economic growth. When people trust each other enough to say, "OK. I'll take your coin instead of a goat," it makes commerce much easier. Barter systems just suck. Systems like venture capitalism -- that bet on good ideas and a brighter future -- have built the modern economic world. When you take out a loan with interest, you are betting that "tomorrow will be a better day." Why? Because you're betting that you'll have the money to pay back the principle... with the interest.

These improvements -- advancements, if you will -- in economic management are great and add value to both the societies that use them, and the individuals who partake. Yay for capitalism and my mortgage. Seriously.

The same type of advancement, I believe, is what is happening in the arena of "value for participation." At an individual level, that's what advertising is. The advertiser provides funding for the content, and I reciprocate by adding value as a consumer. I may not buy every product whose add I see (who could?), but, in the aggregate, the proposition works. In the aggregate.... the aggregate...

And now, the socialist/liberal portion of our program

[Crap... this is a really, really long post. I'm going to make an executive decision (since I'm the only one who cares), and call this at least a 2-parter, and trust that you'll come back for a future installment sometime soon. I promise this all hangs together.]

Monday, March 6, 2006

Blurbhalla, ahoy!

Surprise, surprise… I’ve started another blog project: Blurbhalla.

Let’s count… there was the original legal marketing blog (that Larry’s now taken over), the now-defunct Indian legal outsourcing blog, my stint as a guest blogger at ChurchMarketingSucks, the (now defunct) SaneBlogs Project, a try at a blog/podcast about kids stories in the public doman, TinkerX… and now, Blurbhalla.

Apparently I get a kick out of starting new blogs. And, I mean… what the heck. I can register new domain names for $6/year with my web host, and blogging is free and wonderfully fun with the best Open Source blog engine in the world, WordPress. The latest version (2.0) is like butter and you can host a blog there for free, or build a multitude of them on your own web host with a minimum of fuss and muss. As long as you have a web host with FTP access and at least one SQL database, it literally takes about 5 minutes to launch a new WordPress blog. And you can have as many blogs on one database as there is room on your server, since WordPress supports multiple blogs per databse. And there are so many cool WordPress themes and plugins available for free, I can’t even begin to say. The new version also supports static pages (the "About," "Writing" and other pages on the bar at the top of this page are examples of static pages), so you can use WordPress as a basic web site builder (or CMS — Content Management System) as well as a blog engine. There’s a couple plugins that let you set up a static page as your home page, too, so that stuff stays put there as well, if that’s what you want. Folks would then navigate to posts by categories from your menus, or by clicking on embedded links; your call. Other plugins allow for multiple bloggers to have rights to managed categories, various permission levels, etc. There are plugins for wiki tasks, WYSIWYG editors, calendars, tags, spam prevention, all kinds of stuff. Funky, tasty, bloggy goodness.

Anyway… just a quick shout-out (or does that amount of fanfare count as heavy pimping?) to WordPress, because I love it so.

So… What the hey-nonny-nonny is Blurbhalla?

In brief, it’s brief descriptions of stories that don’t exist. It’s the "blurbs" from the backs of fictional books. That’s not "fiction books," or "books of fiction," but fictional books; i.e., books that are not.

How did this realtively odd idea for a blog come to pass? Well, you can either read the relatively odd about page on the site itself, or you can read more down below about the writer’s process that led to it. Or both. It’s your life to live.

If you’re a writer, you hopefully have some "writer buddies." Writer buddies read each other’s stuff, provide comments, and generally keep poking each other into writing more and better things. Without writer buddies, we write less. And writing less is bad. I think that one of the reasons blogs have been so popular is that they help people find audiences of writer buddies, or at least semi-buddies. If you're a writer, and don't have such a buddy, go get one. There are places for finding/connecting with such on the Internet. I like myself.

Anyway, Jen (such a buddy) and I were talking about why some books are popular. She went to the NYT Bestseller List and kind of boiled down the plot dribbles left there into, more or less, the following structure:

  • Something traumatic happens to the main character(s)

  • Based on that trauma, the main character(s) now have a stake in something

Of course you can complicate or complexify or add detail to that analysis. But the point of many writing exercises is to start simple. So, as a writing buddy, she hit me with this funky one:

Let’s plan a game called, "Spin this Story." Gimme 25 traumatic events (any scale, any translation of "traumatic" goes), 25 character names and 25 personal stakes.

25? That’s a lot. Right? Well… One of the problems with conditions like "writers block" or "creative constipation" or whatever you want to call it, is that you get fixated on finding THE ONE. You circle and come back and edit and re-edit and censor yourself and scribble out and write a little and start over and go days and weeks and months searching for the PERFECT… whatever. Story idea. Plot. Outline. Character name. Adverb.

Setting a number — and a pretty big one, at that — takes the curse off. If you’re going to come up with 25 plot ideas, you can’t afford to spend 2 weeks on each. You get, probably… what? 10 minutes for each? An hour? A day? The writing buddy must eventually stick a pen in your ribs and say, "Hey! It’s been a week… where are those 25 damn story ideas I asked you for? What number are you on? When do I get ‘em? Well?"

If, when that question comes down the pike, you’re only on number three… you’re in trouble with your buddy. So get to work, Mister!

I did 21 "blurbs" or "spins" or whatever you want to call them in about three days. Partly I was able to go that fast because, once I got started, I was excited about it. Partly it was because I was home, sick, from work. I stopped at 21 because I was anxious for Jen to see what I’d done, and because I started to really lock up on 22-25. And 21 is pretty close to 25. Really, it is. And a good writing buddy won’t get all Pharisitical on your ass about 16%. Those last four will get done, now… oh, yes they will. One of those four is already up and out there, eh?

When I got done with the 21 and sent them to Jen, her next task was to pick three that we’d then work on. Maybe as short stories or flash fiction or, who knows, a novel. I had "veto" power, in case she picked one I really didn’t like, or two that seemed too similar (which is what ended up happening). But what about the other 18?

Some of them were really, really cute. There were some neat story ideas in there. What to do with those.

Well, in this day and age (where nobody really says "day and age" anymore), there is no reason to waste words. Not when you can register a domain name for $6 and have a weekend’s worth of fun designing and posting a new blog for free using Open Source software as good as Word Press.

And so, Blurbhalla was born.

Is it a good idea to have a blog that’s dedicated to "teasing glimpses into stories that don’t exist"? I have no idea. Would it, at times, make me crazy to read a really compelling "blurb" for a story… only to find out that there is no story to go with the blurb? Hell, yes! But is it also a way to share story ideas with folks who might want to take them to the next level? Or people looking for a quick, funny read? Sure. That, too.

Mostly, to be frank, the whole idea just appeals to me on a number of "meta" levels. It cracks me up. And there’s really no better reason to blog that that, is there?

So if you’d like to read some blurbs, welcome. If you’d like to write some, let me know by email. If you think the whole idea is stupid… I’m not sure I entirely disagree with you. But stupid doesn’t necessarily mean "bad" or "not worth doing" or "unprofitable."

Friday, March 3, 2006

Blatant self poemotion

Sibley Hall, home to the Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and PlanningIt's almost spring... which is nice. I guess. I like winter. Having grown up in Boston and gone to school in Ithaca, NY, I understand winter. The picture at left, btw, is Sibley Hall, home to the Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning Pretty.

Now in Columbus, OH... winter is less wintery... but I still like it. Spring is fine. Autumn is actually my favorite season. Summer... not so much. As a kid, sure. Vacation. Great. As an adult, I think I resent that I don't get the whole summer off to go to camp, the beach, the pool, etc.

My point? A group of three of my poems, "Winter Triptych," has been published at the online ezine, Elixer Magazine. So, if like me, you enjoy winter, here's a way to glimpse it once more as it gasps its last.