Showing posts with label marketing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label marketing. Show all posts

Dorking Out to Checklists

A few weeks ago one of my colleagues mentioned 'The Checklist Manifesto ' by Atul Gawande. I've just gone from a very pared down life of travel to a complicated existence of living between two cities (Vancouver and San Francisco), trying to furnish an entire apartment and taking on a job that is both exciting and complex.

I've always liked making lists. There's something incredibly satisfying about writing out goals and then checking them off one by one. Gawande is a surgeon and one of the ways he manages the complexities of surgery is to create simple checklists that remind him of the simple and complex tasks he needs to perform.

Instead of being about micromanaging process, Gawande sees the checklist as a way to decentralize control. Checklists give people the tools they need to go out and do their jobs - it enables organizations to decentralize power and leaves people with the freedom to make progress doing good work.

Some of my bookmarks:
Checklists remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.  p. 36
You push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. p. 73
The real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity -- where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns -- efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either -- that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation -- expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.  p. 79
Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided -- and even enhanced -- by procedure.  p.79

Image: A Checklist for Checklists by Atul Gawande. Download the PDF

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Oh No You Dint Pepsi!

Can we chat about the new Pepsi 'skinny' can that was just launched as part of New York Fashion week?

In the past few years Pepsi has been trying to differentiate itself from Coke (who we all know is eeevil) by doing nice things like the Pepsi Refresh Project. Yeah okay, like when McDonald's is the official sponsor of the Olympic games there is something a little bit disingenuous about this, but even so the effort has seen millions of dollars go into the hands of people working at community level to make a difference in their cities and towns. Big companies are almost always going to have a public image, publicity-driven motive for doing these kinds of things, but that's generally something most consumers are willing to overlook if the results are good.

The slogan for the Refresh Project is: "This year what will you refresh?" Well Pepsi, for starters:
  • I would like to see more realistic looking body types (male and female) in the fashion and entertainment industry so the rest of us aren't continually bombarded by the ridiculous notion that our ability to disappear when turning sideways is more important than our health. 
  • I would like healthy, fresh food to be as readily available and affordable to low income communities as sugar and chemical laden convenience options that have become the cornerstone of the Western diet.
  • I would like the FDA to actually ban products like Aspartame that have been demonstrated to cause brain tumors in rats and were only approved for human consumption in the first place because of shady back room deals.
  • I would like you to fire the horribly confused executive who thought to create the 'Skinny Can' and launch it during a cornerstone event for an industry in which women regularly starve themselves (many have died) to fit this odd ideal that is meant to make us want to buy clothes (and drink zero calorie drinks apparently). 
  • I would like you to revisit the content strategy that made you think it was okay to use terms like 'Get the Skinny' and the assertion that this idiotic PR stunt has anything to do with the "celebration of beautiful, confident women." 'Get the skinny' is so cliche that it hurts, never mind the hypocrisy and falseness of the message.
I can only imagine how much money Pepsi spends on marketing and on employing clever people to build their brand. And I wonder, who their target audience is for this campaign? What mass demographic of your consumers are you trying to speak to with this?

Is Pepsi getting attention for this? Yes. Is it the kind of attention that will endear them to their consumers or help to move their brand forward - further differentiating them from the Coke monster? No.

What the eff Pepsi? This campaign is like bad plastic surgery. It just makes you look ... weird.

Image Credits: Pepsi Can from Grist, Skeletor Model from Hanistan, Donatella Versace from Pictures Chat

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Note to Russell Smith: Start Thinking, Stop Generalizing

I am mildly annoyed by Globe and Mail writer Russell Smith's latest column, Note to Canadian Writers: Stop Tweeting, Start Writing for a bunch of reasons:

  1. The title of his piece is click bait at its most obvious - controversial just for the sake of it, not because he has anything particularly enlightening to add to the conversation. 
  2. He's used my friend Dianne's picture at the top of his post, which infers that she somehow shares his perspective. Dianne doesn't Tweet or Facebook, but I suspect that her reasons for not doing so are quite a bit more thoughtful and considerate than the ones Smith presents. Also, Dianne did do an extensive 'blog tour' of her book when it first came out, which is pretty social media clued-in. I don't like that he associated his column with her just because she doesn't tweet (but note: I don't speak for Dianne in any way here).
  3. The column doesn't say anything valuable or new and offers no indication that he's done even a tiny bit of research to back up his assertions.
It's not so much the basic premise of his assertions that bugs me (although some do) as the condescending tone and implication with which he tries to make his point. You can read the article yourself, but here are the basics:  

Publishers are increasingly putting the responsibility of self-promotion on writers because they believe that writers with a greater profile and relationship with an audience might sell more books.

I'm sure this is true and there and it makes pretty good sense. Canada isn't unique in the reality that the arts are underfunded, that old publishing models aren't making money anymore, that large bookstores have taken the place of small local shops (which means they buy huge quantities of books in bulk to sell cheaply - and everyone on the food chain makes less money) and with the advent of digital technologies such as E-Readers, the entire trade is changing much like it did in the music industry when MP3s first became popular. 

Writers, even writers with award winning books, usually can't make a good living off of writing. They can teach, take on freelancing writing gigs to supplement their income, give talks, act as consultants ... but they generally can't make a living off of writing alone - this is especially true of short story writers and poets. I wonder how many writers in Canada can actually say, "I live off of my writing alone to a standard where I'm not worried about paying the bills and have some money in a savings account". Probably not many. Even Dave Eggers, who Smith refers to as an impresario of self-branding, runs a range of businesses to make ends meet and by his own estimation, is still pretty broke. In a March 2010 interview with The Guardian Eggers says, "Vendela [his wife, author and editor of one of their publications] doesn't get paid. If we are genius tastemakers we wouldn't be running this broke company. I mean, we're not going to fold any time soon but I wish we were what you say." Dave Eggers was on the New York Times Bestseller list and was a finalist for a Pulitzer for A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius . Dave Eggers is not living off his writing.

Smith writes for The Globe and Mail, which is itself still figuring out how to monetize in a new world that wants its content online and wants it free. Despite this, surely even he realizes that traditional modes of promoting the work of writers are not as relevant anymore. Print advertising is dead, the new mega book store is really only interested in promoting the latest bestseller by big names like Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks and fewer people have cable or listen to radio because they get to pick and choose what they want to listen to online. Pretty or not, social media is increasingly a place where people get their content and where they find interesting links to books, authors or music to check out. It is one of the only surefire places left to reach potential consumers.

Publishers increasingly want writers to do some of the marketing legwork on Twitter and Facebook. This could be because they are lazy or underfunded, or it could be because they understand the medium and know that people are less interested in receiving marketing tweets from a monolithic, impersonal publishing house than from the unique, individual voices of the artists themselves. I probably wouldn't pay attention to tweets by Random House but I would definitely want to hear more from any number of its writers. Russell Smith might not realize this. When looking at the Twitter feed for the online men's magazine he co-founded, The DailyXY, it's obvious that whoever is managing it thinks that Twitter is for broadcasting, not for conversations. Captain, we have a problem.

Unpublished writers in particular are taking this advice from publishers to heart and are spending time building up a following even before they have a book deal, in some cases, even before they have a book.

If you want write a novel, it probably won't pay off to spend all your time on Twitter or Facebook. But does he think writers, even the great unwashed, unpaid and unpublished, are stupid? The people who are really serious about writing will find time to write, whether they are doing it while Tweeting, Facebooking, working two full time jobs or raising a family. It's always been this way and will always be so. Others will have all the time in the universe and will never get down to business. Participating in self-promotion via social media and the act of producing brilliant writing are not mutually exclusive. 

Given how hard it is to get an agent and a publishing deal even with a range of great work in your wake, many young writers likely see self-promotion as one way they are able to potentially by-pass the traditional publishing bureaucracy. Self-publishing has come a long way and although it will certainly result in a lot more junk than you get through the traditional system with all of its gatekeepers and mediators (though anyone who's read a Harlequin or a Danielle Steele novel may disagree with me), there are occasionally big successes through alternative modes of publishing. Although now published by HarperVoyager, Canadian writer (now residing in the UK) Cory Doctorow has seen huge success through self-publishing and making his work available using the Internet. Even now, with a big publisher backing him, Doctorow releases free e-book versions of his work and encourages people to repurpose his content for educational or artistic uses. 

In the non-fiction world there are lots of examples of people who have built up a relationship with followers using social media tools and then have gone on to sell a book to a publisher that has seen huge sales. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project and Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It are two examples from the last year that have been on the New YorkTimes Bestseller List. 

Many writers who are signed with publishers will tell you that when their book comes out, there is almost no attention given to marketing or promoting it. Just because a publisher signs you, does not mean they are going to invest any money in making your book a success. If you're someone who has the inclination to take on social media so that you are not completely at the mercy of other people to see your book properly marketed, I think that's great. And it doesn't have to happen at the expense of your writing.

Canadian bestsellers are determined by prize juries (like the Giller and Governor General's awards) and many of the writers who win these awards have not been participants in self-promotion using social media. 

Yep, probably true. But let's be honest, as much as they are talented and deserving, the writers who have won the prestigious awards are lucky. Fucking lucky! There are plenty of really wonderful books out there that will never win an award because awards are based on a jury system and juries are a crap shoot. Do you want to base your future success on roulette?  

For five years I worked for an arts funding agency in Saskatchewan and for some of that time I handled the administration of grants. I organized applications, I sat in on juries, I recorded their findings and I found that the results varied wildly depending on the composition of the jury. An application could come before one jury and it would be criticized and ranked incredibly low, six months later the exact same application would be put before a different jury and would be lauded and receive funding. Unfortunately, writers hoping for a big literary prize have it even harder because their book will only go before each jury one time - there is no re-submitting it to a different set of jurors a few months later.

Jurors are human beings and even with strict adjudication criteria as their framework, they bring their own set of biases to the table. I think it's an intelligent writer who decides to not put all her eggs into that one extremely unreliable basket. Telling a writer to replace self-promotion with hoping for a high profile prize is like telling someone to quit their job in the hope of winning the lottery. It's stupid advice.

Self-promotion won't make any difference to the success of your book so just focus on writing a good book and hope for the best.

If this were just about telling people who wish to become writers that they should write first for love because it's highly unlikely that they will ever make a living from the sales of their books, I wouldn't disagree. People who are driven to write because they believe that they are going to be the next JK Rowling are sentencing themselves to a path of disappointment and likely poverty. First off, write because you love it and accept that you'll be lucky to get paid. 

But Smith's column is all about book sales not about the motivation to write. He says that writers should "stop wasting their time on self-promotion because it has not been proven to make any difference whatsoever to one's sales." Smith's proof? His research? Well, if he's done any, he doesn't mention it. 

I would love to see formal research done to really examine what the impact of social media promotion is on book sales, but I suspect it would be difficult because unlike the centralized model of traditional book marketing and publishing, social media is all over the place. It exists on blogs that are all created on different platforms, twitter accounts, Facebook, Tumblr memes and reblogs ... It isn't neat and tidy, which makes it an easy target for someone like Smith who seems to have discounted these tools just for the sake of being contrary.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, there are lots of anecdotal examples of how social media has helped sell books. Last month Edan Lepucki released her novella called You're Not Yet Like Me via a teeny publisher called Flatmancrooked. Many people 'know' Edan by following her Tumblr, which is only writerly in that she occasionally talks about books and literary things but mostly it is just about little daily happenings in her life. I suspect that a lot of us found her blog because she writes for The Millions, a popular online literary journal. The Millions does not come out in hard copy print and promotes itself mostly via social media channels yet they have thousands of visitors and actually pay money to real published writers - like Emily St. John Mendel who wrote the critically lauded piece of Canadian fiction Last Night in Montreal - to contribute interesting criticism and reviews. I wonder whether Smith's social media bias is applicable to publications like The Millions - are they wasting their time with social media despite the fact that it has enabled to them publish literary content that some might argue is more arresting and unique then what's published in papers like The Globe and Mail? As traditional, stodgy literary journals falter, the web and social media has enabled a bit of a renaissance of literary criticism and online journals that publish new work - for the first time in a long while, people (under the age of 40!) are excited about reading work by new authors and are engaging with literature in a critical way. 

Back to Edan. Is her novella on the New York Times bestseller list? No, but why should aspiring to sit at the head of old school hierarchies be the only yardstick for measuring success? Using social media, Flatmancrooked and Edan sold out the first edition of 400 copies of her book in only a few days. They did this by Tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, Tumbling and by promoting the book using a movie-trailer style video uploaded to Youtube. DIY culture is back baby and it applies to more than knitting socks. 

I doubt that the sales of Edan's novella are making anyone rich, but they've helped to fund a small independent press, have given Edan some monetary compensation for her time (more than many writers receive) and if you consider that these books were not created with the philosophy of mass production but instead with the principals of "low run, high quality collectibles" at heart, I would say that social media has helped to make Edan's little novella a smashing success. 

If you tweet or twit, you aren't smart enough to write.

The above was one of the comments left on Smith's article and I think it sums up my biggest problem with the entire premise - although Smith isn't as obvious as the anonymous commenter, his underlying message is that writers who are self-promoting on social media are somehow less serious. 

Social media has taken down some of the barriers that used to exist between artistic producers and consumers. Although there is still a role for the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing industry, increasingly that industry is being forced to work out how to remain relevant as a generation of people who have never known life without the Internet begin to force changes to this decades old model. Change makes people feel uncomfortable - particularly the self-appointed arbiters of taste who find themselves increasingly irrelevant to a world filled with people that continue to put greater emphasis on trusting people with a connection - even a tenuous one via social media - instead of so-called expert critics. 

People like Smith can continue to preach the luddite view that social media is a waste of time but he's really only talking to other luddites who are feeling just as threatened about their role in the new publishing economy. The establishment has an interest in protecting its boundaries and one way of doing this is by trying to make the people who feel like they can do it themselves feel lesser. 

Meanwhile, people like Edan Lepucki know better and are quietly building their careers outside of the system using social media. I'm sure the goal is still to someday win the lottery, but like my grandmother always told me - clever people always have a plan b. For artists with talent and drive, social media isn't a bad place to start. 

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Clearing Out the Clutter

I've been reading Leo Babauta's new e-book Focus. Leo is the person behind the wildly popular website The Power of Less, which is essentially about how to be more productive by doing fewer things and with a particular focus on disconnecting from technology-driven noise. Although I subscribe to his website, I've always been quite skeptical about his premise; I am someone who works and makes a living primarily in the online space. It might be fine to tell a bank manager to disconnect from technology every now and again, but how can I possibly do it when almost all of my networking and work-related activities occur online. As a small business owner, it is even more challenging to disconnect because the more I put in, the more I get back. And I want a lot back.

This all means that I spend an incredible amount of time online. Seriously, I can't even really bring myself tell you how much time because it's embarrasing. I'm talking double digits. And I am always multi-tasking. At any given time I am simultaneously checking two emails address, following about two hundred people via Tweetdeck, checking in with Facebook every 15 minutes, replying to threads and networking on LinkedIn, responding to requests through a network of travel bloggers I belong to, connecting with people on Digg, Friendfeed, following dozens of blogs and websites via my RSS feeder .... This goes on all day long and even though I enjoy a lot of it, it is exhausting. This is in addition to creating content for four plus websites and doing the occasional stint as a guest blogger, taking and editing photos for iStock, and then there's the consulting work. Contrary to how it sounds, I'm really not complaining (at least not much). This is the life I wanted and I love the incredible diversity of my job. I love that I get paid to do the things I want to do and that because of these long days I am able live a location independent lifestyle. Right now I am staying in a lovely apartment in the middle of Shinjuku in Tokyo. How cool is that?

Knowing all of this and feeling the way I do about my life and my career path, I wasn't expecting to find much of value in Focus. Last night after spending a huge chunk of my day flitting around online, I picked up my Kindle and started reading. While I read my mind wandered: had I responded to that email, did I remember to write that Alexa site review, had so-and-so responded to me on Twitter? I kept looking over at my lap top, nearly picking it up once about every two minutes but telling myself, "just get to the end of this first chapter, then you can check in..." And then I read this:
Here's a little excercise that might prove useful: as you read this chapter, how many times were you distracted or tempted to switch to another task? How many times did you think of something you wanted to do, or check your email or other favorite distractions? How many times did you want to switch, but resisted? ... In an ideal world, the answers to all those questions would be "zero" - you'd be able to read with no distractions, and completely focus on your task. Most of us, however, have distractions coming from all sides, and the answers to this little exercise will probably prove illuminating.
He was completely right. Here I was, disconnected from my media devices for all of 15 minutes and instead of focusing on the book in front of me, my brain wouldn't stop firing, wouldn't stop obsessing about checking in. It wasn't a choice; I wasn't feeling the need to check Twitter, Facebook and email out of some real business need. I wanted to check these things because I've actually become addicted to them and that's a bad thing.

A really good example of where I see this behavior in a damaging light is my absolute OCD-like relationship with my Google Reader. For those of you who don't use a feedreader, it's something that allows you to import feeds from websites. When a website you follow gets updated, it shows in your feedreader and you can read the new content right there - all your websites in one place. It's a useful tool that allows me to keep up with what's going on without having to actually visit a bunch of websites. But I've become nuts about the thing. It's grown from a few dozen sites to close to 500 and every time I see a little dark number indicating that someone has added new content, I feel like I *need* to read it immediately. Some mornings I'll sit down in front of my computer and say to myself, "Okay, you only get half an hour with the RSS," and I'll still be sifting through it hours later. In a way that I can't really account for, I feel a bit like I've failed if I've got too many unread items - and yet I keep adding sites to it so that it is virtually impossible to clear it all out. Sometimes I feel actual anxiety about this.

So yeah, something had to give. Just because my career relies on me engaging with social media and keeping on top of what's going on in the online space doesn't mean that it has to consume my life and give me nightmares. Sometimes I have anxiety dreams about Twitter - the kind I used to have when I was a waitress ... All of a suddent the restaurant was really busy and I had a hundred impatient angry patrons to serve, oh, and I was naked! But I'm not a waitress anymore and I work for myself and part of building a practice that I love and find fulfilling means learning how to balance all of these things in a way that doesn't make my heart beat wildly. And although I consider myself to be productive - I mean, some credit please, we've built a lucrative location independent business in about six months and that's no small thing - I could be so much more productive if I could only learn how to focus a bit more on the things that matter, learn how to filter out the noise and stop treating social media like its heroin.

To address some of these things, I'm going to go on an online consumption diet of sorts. I'm not going cold turkey because it's simply not realistic given my lifestyle and profession; plus I think social media is valuable and exciting and I want to remain a part of it. But here's what I am going to do/have already started doing to be less of a junky and regain some control over my time:

  • Unless we have a big launch or client need at play (this happens rarely) I am going to limit my email checking to twice a day: once when I begin my work in the morning and once in the evening. I have also already configured my email inbox to filter certain content related to a lot of the networking I do to folders so that I don't have to see it until I am ready to deal with it - once a day during that second email check in.
  • I have spent a few hours today de-cluttering my RSS reader. I've still got a lot more in there then I probably should, but I've elminated about 100 sites from my regular stream. It was strangely similar to what I've experienced when moving house - at the beginning you get rid of things you don't need with a great deal of hesitation because you imagine that you'll miss them. As the process wears on you are madly throwing things out. I've never missed anything I've gotten rid of during these kinds of cullings and I'm certain that I won't miss the sites I've removed. I've also sorted my remaining items into folders that allow me to better regiment how and when I'm allowed to look at certain content. Instead of sorting feeds by topic, they are now divided into folders called: daily, weekly, monthly, blue moon and networking-related. I will allow myself 45 minutes every day to check the daily folder, one hour once a week to check the weekly folder, one hour once a month to check the monthly folder, I will rarely check the blue moon feed but it mostly consists of sites I couldn't quite bear to part with yet (yes, I'm this crazy), and the networking feed are sites that I don't really enjoy reading but are important to keep up with for other professional reasons. I'll check these once every few weeks or so. So my new schedule will allow me to open my Google Reader for about 45 minutes once a day. That's it. When I'm not actively using my allocated time, the Google Reader will remain closed.
  • I'm going to be a little less regimented about Twitter and Facebook, because in some ways I feel like these channels are the way I connect with people in the day - in the same way that other people work in offices and get to occasionally look up from their work and chat to a colleague. I've started using this free bit of Mac software called Slife that tracks the programmes you use throughout the day and tells you how long you've spent on them. Because I use Tweetdeck for Twitter, this should give me a pretty good idea of much time I'm spending there. If it starts to look like too much, I'll come up with a plan B. Facebook isn't as easy to track because it just counts as Internet browsing, but I also don't feel like it eats up too much of my time and I don't feel the same kind of anxiety about it that I've felt about my RSS feed and other time suck activities.
  • In order to really focus when I'm writing, I've started using Ommwriter, another free bit of software for Mac. It's a very basic word processing program that fills your entire screen with just a writing background and your text. Because it covers the entire screen, there are less distractions and therefore (hopefully) I'll feel less inclined to jump inbetween programs and tasks as much as I have been. I've written this in Ommwriter and will just copy and paste it into Blogger once I'm done. So far, so good.
  • When Dan and I decided to take this journey, he bought me a Kindle so that I could surround myself with books but not have to deal with the weight of lugging them around. There's a really great tool that can be used in conjunction with my Kindle called Instapaper. I have a little button installed on my browser and when I run into a longer article that I really want to read but don't have the time or inclination to focus on, I can click on it and it gets stored away. Once a week or whenever I choose, I can visit the Instapaper site and download the articles I've saved in my queue and put them on my Kindle. Then when I actually have a block of time to read, I can lay back and focus on what I'm doing. 

Those are the biggest changes I can manage at the moment, but I'm hoping they will make a big difference in having me feel a little bit more in control of what I choose to consume and where I choose to invest my time. I want to feel connected but I want to feel like I control the impulse - not as though I'm driven by some addiction to constantly be checking in with things, most of which are probably not where my focus is best directed.

Although I'm not done reading it yet, I do recommend Leo Babauta's Focus if you're trying to gain a bit more control over the priorities in your life. So far it's not at an an airy-fairy bit of self-help but actually has some really practical suggestions for how to understand and shift negative behaviours. He also links to practical tools and programmes you can use to make all this a bit easier. It's available on his website here as a free PDF download or if you want the Premium version with a bunch of additional features you can purchase it here.

Photo by me. 

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More Maggie


I know, I know... I've been talking, blogging, Facebooking and Tweeting a lot about her lately. But that's because the girl has completely transformed my life. About a month back I happened upon her Do Lecture talk (thanks @MrsPBoutique!) and watched it about five times. It made me cry, smile, laugh and mostly it woke up this bit of me that had been sleeping.

From the time I was a child, I was interested in doing volunteer work. I can remember having my grandparents drive me to the edge of town on Sunday mornings at 6 am where I volunteered at the local animal shelter, mucking out cages, feeding animals and then eventually bathing them and playing with them. When I was 16 or so I saw a documentary about the Aids infected orphans of Romania and I remember writing to a Catholic organization who was working to help care for them. I wanted to go there so badly, I wanted to help. Somewhere along the way, I lost this drive. I've always cared and maintained a strong sense of what I like to think of as justice but I didn't see a way into making anything really happen. I guess a kind of helplessness sunk in.

Then I watched Maggie's talk and she just totally woke me up. Here's this 19 year old girl from Jersey (she's 23 now) who ends up in Nepal founding and running a home for orphans and a school. No one told her how to do it or gave her permission, she just did it. And my goodness! She does it with humility, grace and despite seeing some heart-wrenching things, she does it with almost a childlike sense of optimism. And she makes me want to do things too!

Over the past few weeks, Dan and I have had the privilege of working with Maggie and her wonderful friend, activist, inspirational colleague and brilliant writer Megan to help refine some small bits of the website as they've prepared for the inevitable traffic and response the NY Times pieces were bound to bring them. We've received so many thank yous from these ladies, but the secret is that it's me who is completely overflowing with gratitude. These two amazing women have made me reconnect to that part of myself that believes that the world can be better and that we can be better in it. That all of these tiny moments, encounters and acts are serendipitous. And Dan, well, he's just the most supportive man in the world and over the past few weeks he did so much of his technical magic because he wants to make good things happen and because I think he sees how passionate I am about these ladies and what they're doing.

I really look forward to continuing to work with Maggie and Megan and who knows, maybe I'll find my way to Surkhet over the coming year, get my hands dirty and meet some of the lovely people Blinknow is working to support.

You can read the New York Times here: The D.I.Y Foreign Aid Revolution, view some stunning images of Kopila Valley Home and School on the Times Magazine slideshow and read more about how to change the world on Nicholas Kristof's NY Times Blog. I've put my favorite image from the slideshow below. Those beautiful girls remind me of an outtake from a Sophia Coppola film!

Picture 9

(Photo by Alessandra Petin for the NY Times)

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Print Is Not Dead

Print Is Not Dead from Anthology Magazine on Vimeo.

And if the new quarterly magazine Anthology has anything to say about it, it's also getting a really friggin' cute makeover. I'm a sucker for a catchy song and some vintage duds.

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You've Been Schooled

I am in love with The School of One. A girl from Cleveland, who graduated from university in 2001, has decided that in the face of a shitty economy and lack of inspiring prospects, she will spend her time learning about all the things she never had a chance to during her formal education. As a way of formalizing the process and sticking to her plan, she's created a syllabus, the above schedule and a blog to document her experiences and help her keep on track.

I think it's a beautiful idea and it makes me realize that maybe I should try to formalize some of the little projects and interests I'm cultivating during this year of travel. For so many people, the response to joblessness is to go back to school and spend a crap load more money. But it seems to me that the success of the endeavor really depends on what you're trying to get out of it. If the intention is to follow your interests and explore the world with curiosity, you don't need a professor or a piece of paper at the end; a library card, an Internet connection and a comfortable pair of shoes can be enough. The concept is totally non-elitist and it elevates a personal investment in learning into something tangible and meaningful. Creating and scheduling time for something makes it a priority, not just another hobby.

Formal education can be a wonderful thing if you are able to afford it, and it can provide the basis for a great community of people who are interested in similar subjects. But unless you have a specific vocation in mind that requires a certificate to prove your knowledge, I wonder if the bureaucracy of 'School' really feeds the desire to know and learn or whether it just stifles and tricks us into thinking that there's only one right way to understand the world, one 'valued' way of accumulating knowledge.

There's no one-size-fits-all answer. But I am already working on my own syllabus. :)

Image Credit: The School of One

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Public Discourse and the Arts in Saskatchewan

Recently I had a short but heated exchange on Twitter about the Mendel's plans to change its name to the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. I said: The Mendel will always be the Mendel. I find the title 'Art Gallery of SK' insulting to all the other museums in the province. I also discussed it briefly with another artsy type on Twitter who mentioned that at the recent Arts Congress there was some heated conversation about it to which I replied:That would have been an interesting discussion! I don't think the Mendel has thought through the PR implications.

No doubt my tweets weren't terribly enlightened but it's hard to get deep into the heart of a political argument in 140 characters, especially for someone like me who always errs on the side of using way too many words to express a point. I have strong feelings about the name change, which are rooted deeply in my history of working in the arts in Saskatchewan - close to five years at the Saskatchewan Arts Board first in grants administration and then in communications, nearly three years leading the PR effort at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and two years of volunteering on the board of the Arts Alliance (note that I am not speaking for these institutions in this post - the opinions expressed are completely my own). This does not even begin to run through the arts organizations I worked for on a part time or casual basis while in university. Despite moving to the United Kingdom a few years ago, I have continued to foster a deep appreciation of the arts community in Saskatchewan and am all too familiar with the important advocacy work that goes on behind the scenes to secure even the modicum of funding stability needed to keep things running. So imagine my surprise when someone I've never heard of or met tweeted this at me a day later:
@amythibodeau: Is the University of Saskatchewan insulting to all other provincial schools?

followed one minute later by: People who don't understand art galleries should not have an opinion about the Art Gallery of SK.
Yikes! Really?

My reasons for not supporting the Mendel's name change are fairly complex and have to do with them making the decision without consultation or even fair warning to the other museums in the province. When I worked at the MacKenzie, it felt like people were often trying to pit us against the Mendel - it was the Saskatchewan arts scene version of the 'feud' between Lady Gaga and Katy Perry - it was a fiction but one that people seemed to want to believe in. Whenever something controversial would happen at the Mendel, I would inevitably get calls from journalists wanting to know our position, which was always: we love the Mendel, we support the arts in Saskatchewan as a whole and we work together (and with other Saskatchewan museums) to do everything we can to ensure that the arts are widely supported. I often spoke to the marketing person at the Mendel and on a few occasions we even worked together to issue joint press releases. With very few exceptions, this collegiality was my experience while working in the incredibly vibrant arts community in Saskatchewan. We always tried to work together because we realized that fighting over funding scraps like rabid dogs only fueled the mojo behind the people who think that the arts should not be publicly funded.

So this is essentially why the name change bothers me. It was done without consultation (or with very little) and with little strategic consideration for how it would impact the wider provincial community. The name implies that there is only one premier art museum in Saskatchewan and it is located in Saskatoon and that disregards the nuanced history of the visual arts community throughout the province and the different roles institutions of varying sizes have played and continue to play in its development. The fact that the University of Saskatchewan has its name is, to my mind, pretty irrelevant to this discussion. The change sends a message to decision-makers that there is a clear funding hierarchy; by name the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan sounds like it has provincial status and value above and beyond what the other institutions in the province have and that simply isn't true - and if it is, it shouldn't be. The museum community is in a difficult situation here because to publicly speak out against the name change is to display instability and fissures to the provincial government in an environment where the arts are already the first thing on the chopping block.

I have yet to read anything from the Mendel that justifies the name change. It seems like more than anything it was a political move made to bolster the public's perception of the institution in the face of a massive capital campaign to build a new facility.

I could go on, but I suspect most of you are bored already. I think the Mendel is a great institution and that it should be supported but I think they've made a grave mistake not only in their new name choice but in the insensitive way they've gone about doing it.

Back to the Twitter comment: People who don't understand art galleries should not have an opinion about the Art Gallery of SK, which has played over in my head more than a few times over the past few days - and I should note, was directed at me by a Saskatoon-based artist. Whether you agree with my opinion about the Mendel or not, this kind of reactive nastiness does nothing to further the important dialogue that needs to continue about the state of the arts in Saskatchewan. Whether or not I fully understand or have the proper credentials should be irrelevant to my right to an opinion expressed respectfully and in the interest of conversation - in fact, shouldn't we be trying to expand the debate so that people outside of our circle feel welcomed to become engaged and passionate supporters of the arts? It is this kind of elitist reaction that gives those who don't think the arts should be publicly funded the tools they need to divide and conquer. Social media can be a great facilitator of dialogue; if supporters of the Mendel name change see a comment, even if they disagree with it, wouldn't it make sense to engage that person, bring them into the fold a little, make them feel like their voice matters, their concerns heard? If arts supporters cannot even be respectful with one another when discussing issues publicly then how can we ever hope to mount a strong advocacy campaign should those cuts come? And don't kid yourself, they are coming.

We are never going to agree on everything, but fostering a wider public discourse and activism around the arts is key to expanding support for the arts community. And it should be fostered at every opportunity in Saskatchewan and elsewhere if we ever hope to gain a foothold on stable funding.

Image Credit: Mendel - This One's For Hope by er1danus

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And now on a lighter note...

Pretty good marketing gimmick.

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New Project - A Tramp Abroad

I've been toying with the idea of launching a travel website for awhile now; there are so many things that I learn every day, so many moments that remind me how far from home I am in both good and bad ways. There are a lot of travel websites out there, but most of them are either quite commercial or very personal. I am really excited for the new site,  A Tramp Abroad, to focus on helpful, quirky tips but also feature really outstanding longer form travel writing. Oh, and our tag line is 'Inspiring wanderlust." Perfect, no?

I'll still be writing here - this will always be the place I feel like I can unload about all the more personal experiences and feelings that are niggling at me and on occasion I'll post links to any longer form pieces I write on the other website.

We've got some shorter news pieces up already along with a few bits of original content that I hope you'll check out -

It's still very much a work in progress but feedback is very much welcome. Also, we're looking for guest bloggers so if you have any ideas, please let me know.

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The Linguistic Battleground is Alive and Well - My Post on the Guardian

Today the Guardian's Mind Your Language Blog published a piece I wrote called Canada - a linguistic battle ground between the US and Britain . People are passionate about language and politics as is evidenced by over 130 comments on the site. Most of them are quite interesting - people debating additional distinctions in language - some rightly correct a few errors I've made and some are a little bit mean and personal, but that's what you get with the web. As Dan says, "You should never read the comments." He should know as he caused the occasional shit storm when writing for O'Reilly.

I'm really happy to have been given the opportunity to contribute. Despite a few objections to my premise, with 60 shares, over 30 retweets and well over 100 comments, I would say it's been a success.

Image: Everybody Needs a Hero (isn't it lovely?!)

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Introducing Contentini!

 Over the past few weeks, Dan and I have been working on a site to formalise some of the freelance work we've become involved in. We've called our venture Contentini because our focus is really on content strategy and enabling people to create really exciting, on point online content for their websites.

Our four offerings fall into the categories of: Website Content Analysis, Web Content Strategy, Copywriting and Social Media Services. We aren't taking on a lot of clients and it's lovely to be able to make a decision to work with companies that we feel passionate about. It just feels like a new day and I can't wait to see what happens over the next six months to one year.

We are currently working on creating interesting content for our own site and have begun the slow process of building up our page rank; if people can't find us when they search for our services, we're not going to be terribly successful. This morning we posted a fairly extensive blog item called An Analysis of UK Parliamentary Language: 1935-2010 and were lucky enough to get a shout-out from Boing Boing, which is always great because they send through lots of engaged visitors. We posted the item about six hours ago and we're nearing the 1,000 visitors mark. Of course, it isn't all a numbers game, but it is gratifying to see that many people clicking through to read your post - especially as this one was fairly labour intensive.

Alright chickens, I'm heading to the pool to sit out this hundred degree heat.

PS: Our blog is going to be good - you can subscribe to it here. We're also on Twitter and would love some followers :)

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Exuberant Motherhood

I've been working with the lovely team over at Exuberance Beauty on a special mother's day feature for their website. We've been lucky enough to have the participation of some wonderful writers who have shared their experiences and the result is a pretty inspiring group of posts - you can read them all here. (PS: for UK readers, North American Mother's Day is this Sunday)

I struggled a bit with my post, because I am not a mother and cannot claim to understand what that experience means. Initially when I sat down to write, I thought I would pull together something more political about how women and mothers in particular still struggle (I've been very inspired by J K Rowling's Single Mother's Manifesto). But instead of being clever, I kept coming back to the memory of a particularly difficult summer my mother and I had with my sister Jennifer (pictured above at her graduation), who suffers from a number of physical challenges in addition to being sensory deprived and autistic.

If you want to read the entire piece, you can do so here. Also, Exuberance is a pretty great company - they make healthy, organic, lotions and potions you can feel good about using. And, importantly, they give back to their community. If you are still struggling to find something to buy your mother for the holiday this weekend, you might want to check them out.


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Draw Stuff and Share it with Penolo

My industrious other half Dan has created a nifty new creativity app called Penolo that allows people to draw and share their sketches on Twitter or by embedding them onto your blog or website.

It's still in beta, so there are some kinks to iron out, but it is a pretty great little tool. One of my favourite things about it is that it enables collaboration by allowing users to create hybrid sketches by adapting what others have created (the original also stays in tact).

You don't need an account and it's free to use - so give it a go!

Here are some of my favourite sketches from the last few weeks:
(for those of you viewing this on a reader - I'm sorry but you'll need to click through to the actual post to see the images... as I said, still working out some glitches.)

By studiobrazley

By bkcl

By bkcl

By Caro Wallis1

By Mearso

By Sianz

By Handy Bite Size

By Rich_R

By Speak Criptic

By Mark Turner

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Beautiful Sketches of Productivity

I can't completely articulate why I like this but I think it's related to the part of me that enjoys lists - especially the part where I get to see things crossed off at the end of the day.

IOGraphica is free to download. You turn it on in the morning, minimise the little window and forget about it. While you're working, it tracks your mouse movements, showing larger spotches when your mouse has stayed over one place for a prolonged period of time. If you are especially pedantic, you can pause the program when you leave your desk or during lunch breaks - but I tend to let it run. At the end of the day, you have a record of your mouse movements - a beautiful imprint of your productivity.

As Dan says, I'm sure I'll get tired of looking at these, but for now I think they're lovely. Click on any of the images below to enlarge them.

Day 1 - 3.5 Hours

Day 2 - 6.5 Hours

Day 3 - 7.7 Hours

Day 4 - 7.9 Hours

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UPDATE: Are Amazon Seller Ratings Trustworthy?

 If you haven't read the original post about my experience with posting a negative Amazon Seller Review, you might want to check it out.

Apparently Jeff Bezos does care. I just got off the phone with one of his assistants, she read my blog entry and here is roughly what she had to say:
  1. The person who originally took down my review shouldn't have done so. He is a newer employee and was unfamiliar with Amazon's Feedback Removal Policy. She apologised for this and took full responsibility that, as a company, this shouldn't happen. The rep in question will receive additional training to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. She was very clear that, except in the cases outlined in their policy, Amazon does not remove consumer feedback, whether positive or negative.
  2. When I called yesterday and was told my feedback violated their policy, the Seller Department did not actually look into the specifics of my file, despite being asked to do so by my customer service representative. They looked at the notes written by the person who had removed the feedback and assumed he'd done everything by the book. She was very clear that they should have looked into things in greater detail, she said that they intend to address the issue and will do their best to ensure that processes are reiterated so that this kind of situation is avoided in the future.
  3. They were already aware that there was a glitch in the system and that instead of receiving an accurate message saying "Amazon has removed your feedback" it currently implies that the customer has done it, which is what made me think that my account had been hacked. They have now escalated the issue and hope to have it resolved quickly.
Because I've never had a bad customer service experience with Amazon before, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this really was a calamity of errors and that Amazon is acting in good faith. If nothing else, the power of the Internet (and the fact that my original blog entry about it has had nearly 2,000 page views in less than 24 hours) makes me think there is some security in knowing that if they are misrepresenting their policy, people will speak up and call them out on it.

So despite absolutely and utterly flubbing my case, here's what Amazon did right in the end:
  • They paid attention to social media and took my complaint seriously. They took the time to read about my experience and they had someone personally respond to me who was actually in a position to speak with authority about the situation. 
  • They apologised and admitted they were in error and hadn't followed their own policies and procedures. Although they gave a few reasons for the errors, it didn't feel like they were making excuses. They also told me that they are taking steps to correct the problem with their process and that my unfortunate experience was being used as a learning opportunity.
  • They clearly stood behind the importance of consumer reviews, particularly of third party sellers. The person I spoke to understood the policy inside and out and spoke passionately about how important it is to Amazon. 
Maybe I'm naive, but I believed her. Hopefully Amazon doesn't prove me wrong.

Thanks to everyone who commented, shared the original post and Tweeted about this. It was heartening to get such a supportive response.

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Are Amazon Seller Ratings Trustworthy?

I Bought the Wrong Product
Last month I bought a case for my Kindle via a third party retailer on Amazon. When the case arrived it was too small - in their advertisement they referred to the large size Kindle 2 and apparently mine is a 9 inch Kindle DX.

I contacted the Seller about returning my product, which they told me I could do although I was still responsible for all the shipping costs. First they asked me to mail the item to their warehouse, then they asked me to ship it directly to a private address in Canterbury. I agreed to all their terms and in addition to posting it to the private address, I also sent the Seller a copy of my invoice and of our email correspondence, highlighting where the product had been shipped.

Beware the Negative Seller Review!
Three weeks passed and I still hadn't heard back from the Seller nor had I received a refund, but I did receive about three emails from Amazon asking me to log onto their site and review the seller. Frustrated, I logged on and left a negative feedback score (2/5) and a comment along the lines of, "When the case arrived it was too small. The refund process was convoluted and to date (weeks later) I still haven't received my refund."

Within hours I had an email from the Seller berating me for leaving negative feedback. Instead of being concerned about a misunderstanding or customer service gaffe, they complain that I was ruining their business, shouted at me in all-caps and then gave me instructions about how to remove my negative feedback from Amazon. Some of the highlights:
  • "I am so upset that you have left a NEGATIVE FEEDBACK on our Amazon listing. I am not sure you are aware that a negative can have our account suspended. This is our family business and our source of income."
  • "I am simply without words to see the FIRST NEGATIVE customer feedback in almost 500 trading days of business. This is no way to treat a good seller."
  • "Are you aware that the entire Amazon network and customers see these reviews and this can cause of seller rating to drop and cause a suspension. We are very stressed about this and need this issue resolved quickly before our image on Amazon is ruined. I am still cannot belive this is happening to us..why ??? I am so upset about this!"
  • "I would appreciate if you could remove this as we have been a very very good seller. I remember my wife asking me to sign a cheque weeks ago, so either it was lost or there is a communication issue. Could you be polite and remove this negative feedback .... please remove this before our sales are hurt even more."
Right - so instead of addressing my valid customer service concern and then politely asking me if I would consider removing my negative feedback once they dealt with it (which I would have done, by the way), the Seller tried to guilt me into removing a review that I considered to be valid and even-handed.

Negative Feedback .... Disappears
Shortly after this email exchange, I logged onto my Amazon account to find that my feedback had been removed.

There had been no email from Amazon and I knew I hadn't removed the feedback. Immediately, I began to worry that the Seller who sent me an inappropriate email had found a way of accessing my account. I looked into Amazon's Feedback Removal Policy and was confident that my review didn't meet any of their criteria for removal. I also wrongly assumed that they would not remove my feedback without at least notifying me. Also suspect was the message (screenshot above) saying that I had removed the feedback, when I hadn't.

After changing my password, I called Amazon and was put through to a very helpful customer service person. After some digging, it was determined that the Amazon department representing Sellers removed my feedback in response to a complaint from the Seller. They apologised for not having sent me an email that informed me of the removal of my feedback - apparently that should have happened.

After a bit more questioning they told me that the review was removed because I mentioned the product, which, I was told, violates their feedback policy. The only Amazon feedback removal policy that references product mentions says, a review will be removed if:
The entire feedback comment is a product review, such as "The Acme Super-Widget lacks the sharpness and speed of the Acme Ultra Widget." However, if the feedback comment is only partly a product review but ALSO contains feedback about the seller's service, such as "Seller's shipping service was very slow, and the Acme Super-Widget lacks the sharpness and speed of the Acme Ultra Widget," then the feedback would NOT be removed. 
When I pointed out to Amazon that, although I referenced the size of the product, the majority of my review was about the seller and their policy clearly allows for this, I was told that they would need to get back to me because the very nice man I was speaking to was unfamiliar with the actual wording of the feedback policy. Again, he needed to speak to the Seller department to get more information.

15 minutes later the same representative called me back to apologise and say that my review would be reinstated within two hours. After more digging, it seems that it was "accidentally" deleted by someone at Amazon and that there were no grounds for removing it. This conversation happened at noon today.

About six hours later my review was still not up so I called Amazon. Again, I was greeted by a very pleasant customer service person. I explained the entire situation to her (as she didn't seem to have any record of it) and put me on hold (again) as she spoke to the Seller department. When she came back, she told me that she would need to speak to my original customer service representative (I had his name) and that only he could deal with my problem. I am supposed to hear back from him sometime tomorrow about whether or not my feedback will actually be reinstated.

If my situation represents the typical way Amazon deals with negative feedback, then as a company, they are far more concerned with keeping their Sellers happy then their customers. My Seller didn't like my negative feedback, complained to Amazon and, in contravention of their own policy, they removed my review. They didn't contact me to tell me and, in fact, misrepresented the situation with a message on my account inferring that I had removed the feedback myself. If the seller hadn't sent me such a crazy email, I probably would never have logged into my account to re-read my feedback, which is buried deep within my profile, and as a result, I would never have known it was removed.

Moreover, if I hadn't made myself familiar with Amazon's Feedback Removal Policy, I would have accepted the word of the customer service representative and assumed that I'd done something wrong. They seem to be counting on the ignorance of customers. Finally, after all of the above, if I wasn't annoyed enough to check back, deep into my account, six hours later, I would not have called back and again, would not have noticed my feedback hadn't been reinstated.

It makes me wonder whether I can trust the Seller reviews on Amazon or whether they are fixed to benefit Sellers. The benefit for Amazon in having high Seller ratings is presumably that people tend to buy more from Sellers they trust, and Amazon sees a share of this profit. The downside, which Amazon should really consider, is that as a regular online consumer, I no longer trust these ratings nor do I trust that Amazon is handing reviews in a transparent way. Are Sellers with mostly positive reviews really trust worthy, or are they just the ones who take the time out to complain to Amazon? The result of this kind of practice is that genuinely good sellers may be penalised because consumers no longer have faith in positive reviews.

At the present time, my review has still not been re-posted and although I've been told my concern will be dealt with quickly, my faith in Amazon has been shaken. Next time you buy from a third-party on Amazon, you might want to rethink whether you can really trust their feedback score and if you've left a negative review, you might want to check that Amazon hasn't secretly removed it.

Update - Tuesday 16th March, 10 a.m.
When I got up this morning, I logged into Amazon to see that my review had been reinstated, so that's good. I am still concerned about this process and whether it is the typical way that the Amazon Seller Department handles negative complains from customers. There seems to be a bit of conflict between the department that represents the interest of customers and the one that looks after Sellers. At this point Amazon hasn't really explained to me what happened to get this entire process so off track.

I originally posted my Amazon review on Friday night and now that it's been reinstated, because it is nearly five days old, it is no longer showing up on the front page of the Seller's shop, which is where it would have been for at least a few days if it had not been taken down. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but again, I wonder about whether this was intentional.

The other point of concern is that it seemed relatively easy for the Seller to have negative reviews removed (my review was removed within eight hours of me putting it up) but it's taken me much more time and effort (and a blog post) to have it reinstated. After all of this, I am still left with the question - are third party Seller ratings on Amazon trustworthy? Is this just a wild example of everything falling apart or is this something that happens a lot at Amazon? I have more answers than questions.

I welcome anyone from Amazon to weigh in and provide an explanation. Jeff Bezos ... are you out there? Do you care?

Update 2: I've heard from the office of Jeff Bezos, apparently he does care. Here's what they had to say

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If Palin is the Prick Tease, Then Who Are the Pricks?

I really don't like Sarah Palin. I think she is dangerously arrogant for a person who has spent most of her life living in Alaska, a place that is geographically, environmentally and otherwise fundamentally disconnected from the rest of her country. In most of her appearances, I've found her snide and  condescending, especially for someone who needs to write the word "energy" on the palm of her hand before an interview to remember to talk about it.

Recently, a fairly left wing online journal called the Daily Kos published an article by Michael Stinson, of the website Symbolman. According to his Twitter bio, he is an "activist, writer, Hollywood award winning animator, film maker, political commentator, musician, sculptor." He also seems to have had something to do with Going Rouge, the colouring book parody of Palin's book Going Rogue.

The Stinson article on the Daily Kos is about Palin's recent appearance on the Jay Leno show. Stinson and his wife were in attendance and according to them, the audience was not receptive to Palin and in fact, there was a definite sense that people didn't take to her. Stinson says that a laugh track was put over top of the broadcast to give the appearance that the audience thought Palin was funny and engaging. 

No surprise there. By default I would have made the assumption that most feel-good talk shows do this kind of thing. Yes, it is a bit dishonest, but is anyone really surprised?

Here's where it gets messy. The Daily Kos post moves into a place that is, well, very ugly:
And while NBC Sold Palin, she sold her body, jiggling, teasing, pushing the cutesy-pie, what we used to call in the military, a "prick tease". She short circuits brains, deflects the fact that most of what she says is nonsense or hateful, as lizard layers of right wing men's brains hum a sexual fantasy tune, and women who have thrown all sense of propriety to the wind, watching her strip, want to be just like her. Rich. Stupid. The sweet "Bite Me" bitch attitude she's honed to an art form. No, she doesn't just "wink" - she uses her whole body to sell the package. Turn off the sound, just watch her body language. I find it whorish, repulsive, and I'm no prude.
Can I just say, ew?!! This kind of disgusting hyperbole has no place in politics - right or left. The fact that this comes from someone who is purported to be squarely on the left bothers me even more because this is not something I want to be associated with in any way. It isn't clever and the only insight it provides is to remind us that individuals on all sides of the political fence can be absolutely wrong-minded. This over-sexed focus on Palin's body language and appearance does nothing but discredit genuine, thoughtful criticism about why Palin is a political nightmare. Also, it makes Stinson look like a Neanderthal. 

The 'she's a whore' argument is so dumb, so old-fashioned and so unnecessary, right up there the Photoshopped images of Palin's head onto bodies with big boobs that are all over the Internet. It's the stuff of grade school bullies. It should be noted that this kind of critique is foisted almost exclusively against women, usually by men who can't think of anything more clever to say. 

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike Sarah Palin and all that she stands for, so why sink to these murky waters? It's embarrassing and it makes Stinson and the Daily Kos seem more like the bad guys from the film The Accused than contemporary, insightful political pundits. And people, that film came out in 1988!

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Gratitude - Ignite London and More Pictory Goodness

I've had a pretty good few days.

Yesterday we held the second ever Ignite London event (thanks to committee members Dan, Richard, Craig and Andy). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Ignite concept, it is a very community-spirited event featuring a series of talks that follow a rigid format: each speaker has 20 slides, which are auto-timed to advance every 15 seconds. As a result, every talk is exactly 5 minutes long.

We had a capacity crowd at a really lovely venue in Kilburn, London called The Luminaire but more important than the numbers, everyone was really positive, engaged and genuinely excited to be there. The speakers were great - some funny, some serious and I genuinely learned something from each one of them. We were really lucky to have a few 'celebrity' speakers in the mix, including Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing and Russell Davies of the Interesting Conference and Newspaper Club.

The other very cool thing is that our event was held as part of Global Ignite Week. Thousands of Ignite talks are happening around the world - from New York and Sydney to Anchorage, Bangalore and Morocco. It's wonderful to be a part of something with such a global reach.

We're in the process of uploading the talks from last night but in the meantime, you can check out the new O'Reilly website devoted to broadcasting and in some cases live streaming the events. We've also created a Tweet doc to aggregate all the Twitter action (well over 200 tweets) from last night, which you download here (PDF). My favourite Tweet:
@mahemoff: Ignite is TED, only cool ;) Thanks #igniteLDN2 organisers for a night of superb presentations.

In more great news, another one of my photographs has been featured on the wonderful Pictory. This particular story is about Neighbourhood Treasures and my photo is of The Water Rats Theatre bar near Kings Cross in London (number 18 on the list). It's especially cool because this particular photo story was curated by Good. For those of you unfamiliar with them:
GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward. Since 2006 we've been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn.
And the cherry on top is that the Neighbourhoods feature on Pictory has also just been covered on Boing Boing. Ah, the magic of the web - it all really is connected!

So, despite the fact that I am physically exhausted I am also brimming with gratitude directed at pretty much everyone I've come in contact with over the past few days - whether in the 'real' world or online. The encouragement and support is lovely and truly appreciated. x

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The Etymology of Nerd and Geek ... And A Bit of Love

There are a lovely group of people in London who occasionally organise fun networking events around town. Networking can be scary. It can be difficult to feel OK approaching and making conversation with strangers, so instead of just arranging more boring meet-ups, they take it a step further and arrange activity-based get togethers. Recently, Dan and I went to the Geek Foosball meet-up at Bar Kick in Shoreditch.

Some people don't like the terms 'geek' and 'nerd' and I suppose many of those feelings of discomfort probably hearken back to when they were used like barbs by meanies in school. Until about a year and a half ago, I worked in the Canadian arts sector and have always been arty and into things like writing, photography, going to museums ... I was even in choir in high school. Think Rachel from Glee without the fantastic voice. Even so, I don't remember people using those words - geek or nerd - to cause me pain in school. Maybe they did, but if it was preceded by the word 'art' or 'choir' (as in "art nerd" or "choir geek") I don't think it would have bothered me, or at least not enough to remember.

The etymology of the words nerd and geek are indisputably negative. According to the book Word Origins: The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z by John Ayto, nerd "is a term for a dull, socially inept or otherwise obnoxious person." It was actually invented by the popular children's author Dr. Seuss in his book If I Ran to the Zoo (1950):
And then, just to show them
I'll sail to Ka-Troo
And bring back an It-Kutch,
A Preep and a Proo,
A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!
Geek, which is not covered in Word Origins, is much older. According to Answer Bag, "it is a variant of geck, a term of German/Dutch origin that dates in English to 1511. It means fool, simpleton, or dupe." Later on, the word was assigned to mean "a carnival performer who does disgusting acts" and eventually just was used generically to describe and "eccentric, oddball or someone with an unusual or odd personality."

I find it interesting that when these words were most socially damaging was in the 1950s in America, a time after the war when the country was clamoring to rebuild the 'big dream'. Homogeneity was important - everyone was expected to fall in line and fulfill their roles in the same way. People who were different were a threat and words were used as a nasty way to identify non-conformists. The strange oppression of 1950s America ushered in the 1960s, where everything changed and being odd and different was ok, even encouraged. Angry words that had been used to punish difference became somewhat less potent.

All this is a very long introduction to where we are now - 2010 in London, at a very hip bar in Shoreditch, surrounded by a genuinely diverse and friendly group of people, none of whom were carnival freaks or simpletons. Everyone I met was a young(ish) professional - some of them worked in technology companies (developers, techies and such tend to be most closely associated with the terms geek and nerd these days), some worked in film studios, some were photographers and one is even a popular food blogger. Nobody fit into a stereotype.

I like the reclamation of words like 'geek' and 'nerd' by people who are proud to be a little bit obsessive, a little bit manic and completely, unabashedly passionate about what they do. I guess that's how I would separate the nerds and geeks from everyone else - for the most part, they are enthusiastic and head-over-heels in love with something - technology, food, film, photography, even choir ... and they are not afraid to wear their excitement on their sleeve.

Everyone should be so lucky.

To see more pictures from Geek Foosball, click here.

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