I’ve read Seth Godin’s book on “Tribes”. It’s not as airy-fairy as the associated literature has led me to believe. Getting a “Tribe” is not just about finding like-minded people. It’s about giving something of yourself to help people. Notice I did not say “establish yourself as an expert”, another phrase I keep hearing on marketing blogs. To those bloggers, a “Tribe” is just a cool word for self-promotion. They don’t give something of themselves. They just want an echo chamber to tell them how brilliant they are. When you actually do the work that is worthy of attracting a “tribe”, whether it’s an e-book, a video, or some handy piece of open source programming, that work stands on its own. It will get people talking, listening, and even criticizing, but it’s not about your name, it’s about the work. There’s no fame or fortune to be had, just a symbol of your gifts and abilities. Believe me, that’s plenty.
No one tells you how hard it is to write content. People think that just because you speak English and type using the home row, you should be able to dash off post upon post without breaking a sweat. Not so. Even if you have something to say, you need to undo years of academic conditioning. University will tell you how to write for the professor and how to make everything “correct”, but says almost nothing about writing honest, human communication. That kind of writing takes training. When I need training, I head over to 750words.com.
750word.com was started by Buster Benson, a developer living in Seattle, WA. It’s a writing challenge where you sit down and write 750 words of free associative writing, a practice inspired by writing exercises and psychotherapy. Only you can access your words (although you can export them), so you don’t have to worry about taking down bad ideas. It’s a great way to experiment with your writing, and leaves you open to those “happy accidents” that are the soul of true creativity.
The site also takes down statistics about your word use and tries to figure out how you are feeling at the time of your writing. You can learn a lot about yourself by just letting your fingers fly across the keyboard. When I decided to show Sara what I had written, she was surprised learn exactly what was going on in my head. I mostly wrote about the move, getting my business going, and all the stress associated with it. I find it difficult to just talk about this stuff verbally. If I write it down, I don’t have to worry about stuttering or messing the words up. Correction is only a backspace key away. I used to think that writing about yourself was kind of narcissistic. While it’s true that having no filter can make people uncomfortable, attention is not the only reason to reflect. Your own advice has more power when you write it down. Your words don’t just stay inside your head. You can catch yourself in a lie, or better yet, you can catch yourself speaking the truth. That truth, once etched in letters, can blossom until your life is changed forever.
“Specialize!” You hear that word so often on copyblogger and other blog monetization sites. They tell you to find your focus, your core audience, your tribe, and sponsors will beat a bloody path to your door. Big media has spent so much time trying to be all things to all people that the only thing that sells in this media-saturated wasteland is a qualified case of mono-mania. People even tell me, “James, baby, you’re a great writer, but you got to find your specialty here.” I’d like to cite them my favorite Robert Heinlein quote: “Specialization is for insects.”
Don’t get me wrong. You might have seen google ads on this site at one time or another. I would love to make $10,000 a month putting out 250 words a day. But what would i be doing to keep that money coming? Could I labour over the right metaphor for my conclusion? Could I write about things that interest me rather than sacrifice all my mental energy on the alter of “my passion”?
I admit I have a little bit of intellectual ADD. I graduated university four courses shy of a BA in English along with my full Bachelor of Computer Information Systems. I believe both disciplines inform each other and make me more well-rounded. This obsession with specialization makes us forget that our greatest ideas come from combinations of many ideas, not ivory tower isolation. It robs us of our potential as human beings.
But why am I writing a blog if I am making sure that not many people will read it? They may be few in number, but this blog does have readers. They are my friends and family. People I want to connect and share my ideas with, but whom I don’t want to bother with a 10:30pm phone call to discuss my latest brainstorm. If this blog is to have a focus, let it be this: It is about me, James Strocel, talking to you. Pleased to meet you.
I saw District 9 last Friday knowing only that it had aliens, a power suit, and no connections to movie, toy, or restaurant franchises. I saw aliens, and I saw a wicked power suit, but I also saw something profound. Consider this your spoiler warning.
For a while I subscribed to the documentary podcast by the BBC world service. I was sure that in-depth tales of far off places spoken in the Queen’s English would drown out distractions at work. However, the more episodes I listened to, the more I heard things that put me in the mood for a beat down. Chinese citizens we’re getting hit with nightsticks simply for filing a complaint. African immigrants were crossing the Sahara to Europe only to get robbed and left for dead. Iranian girls were being raped and then sentenced to death for adultery. I thought to myself, when does it get fun to do that kind of stuff to other people? Since I found I couldn’t do any work while angrily pacing the room, I stopped downloading the podcast.
When I saw the documentary-style presentation of District 9, I was reminded of the more grim episodes of the BBC podcast. The Aliens’ situation seemed no different than the plight of any transient population anywhere in the world. The film was also different from the podcast and other sci-fi fables about race in that the Aliens weren’t simply this noble race of “other”. They had problems just like any other large group of people. They were depicted as dirty, lazy, violent, and quite possibly high on catfood, their favorite narcotic. At the start of the film, they were not getting evicted because a bunch of bureaucrats woke up one day and thought “hmm, I’m not doing anything today, let’s go put some prawns in a concentration camp”. There was a genuine, but misguided sense of self-preservation involved here.
In places like BC we tend to think of racism in terms of slogans like “Save Darfur”, “Free Tibet”, and “Don’t say that n-word”. When you’re from a place like South Africa, like District 9 director and writer Neill Blomkamp, you are aware that overcoming racism is more complicated than that. It’s important to maintain that kind of perspective especially when we look at history. If we simply write off things like the Japanese internment or the Chinese Head Tax as simply the acts of some dirty racists, we lose the context that came with those events. Without it, we won’t be able to recognize such lines of thinking until we are entertaining them ourselves, and by then it may be too late to prevent something monstrous from happening.
District 9 is a triumph in that it steers clear of easy answers and logical straw men. It does everything a science fiction film is supposed to do. It takes reality, removes the political baggage, and allows us to see how we truly are, warts and all.
Here’s a video by Clay Shirky, author of the recent bestseller “Here comes Everybody”. He gives a little more detail to the kind of changes that are happening to mass media. I love it when he describes the Great Fire Wall of China as the Maginot line of the digital age. If you think about it, any countermeasures against transmitting or processing data are ultimately just as avoidable as the Maginot Line was. It goes against the basic tenets of what a computer is supposed to do, kind of like trying to stop an internal combustion engine using a fire extinguisher. It’s especially ironic considering that China manufactures most of the devices that it’s so desperately trying to hobble.
Let’s face it, commenting is the very soul of the blogging business. If it’s on your own site, it provides you with direct access to your readers. On other people’s websites, it offers you an opportunity to promote your website while adding value to the articles you comment on. But what if you have a thought that is simply too small to make a full blog post, yet is too good to be relegated to the bowels of another site’s comment section?
Backtype fills the gap between blogs and the twitter search engine. It keeps a record of your comments using a combination of your name and site URL. You can even log into the site and claim comments that match your identity criteria. While it is a little spooky that your comments can be tracked this way, it’s important to keep in mind that the Internet is a public forum. If we live in a free society, and we deign to voice our opinion on that forum, shouldn’t that opinion be as public as possible?
#iranelection was for many people the top news source for the aftermath of incumbent President Mahmoud Amedinejad’s so-called victory over reformer candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi last Friday. It’s not a new cable news channel, or even a news website. It’s what is known on twitter.com as a “trending topic”, a self-declared association of posts on the micro-blogging site. Every post with the word “#iranelection” self-identifies as having something to do with the Iran situation, be it opinions, links to mainstream news articles, or even first hand reports. It’s a new form of primary historical document, one that combines the intimacy of personal letters, the immediacy of video or sound recordings, and the openness of a mass media broadcast.
Twitter is by no means new technology. I find it very similar the web-based chat rooms I myself used in highschool. What is different about it is that it has repurposed current technology to be used in a unique way. Where other systems wanted to emphasize privacy and security, Twitter emphasizes publicity and openness. Most of the 140 character “tweets” are meant for the rest of the Twitter community and the internet at large. It’s easy to write it off as some kind of narcissistic toy, I’m guilty of that myself. However, Twitter’s status as a toy rather than a serious social networking site probably kept it from being blocked in Iran within the first few hours of the protests. Other aspects of the site, like the 140 character limit and interoperable architecture have allowed bloggers in Iran to deal with shoddy connectivity and the government’s attempts to block communication from within the country.
The result is a riveting stream of human emotion, rumor, and anonymous people from across the globe communicating like they never could before. Take a look at this feed from @Change_in_Iran
from the looks of it they are waiting to arrest all the students! it’s also explains the vans9:14 PM Jun 13th from web
some people are now parking their cars in middle of the street trying to block the vans. #iranelection9:16 PM Jun 13th from web
Police is trying to stop people from gathering around while Intel guys still holding a line in front of the gates #iranelection9:05 PM Jun 13th from web
police demanding people to move their cars and start crashing car windows. more people are coming. I will try to get a better view9:18 PM Jun 13th from web
Down with the dictator! Mousavi, Karoubi; support us! #iranelection9:30 PM Jun 13th from web
my eyes are burning hard to keep them open #iranelection9:46 PM Jun 13th from web
I’m dizzy but ok. some people are getting shelter in the nearby unfinished bank building. police arresting a middle aged man10:11 PM Jun 13th from web
it’s 9:54 AM -Amirabad street near Pasargad bank and to be honest I don’t have the courage to leave the roof right now #iranelection10:27 PM Jun 13th from web
There are more accounts like this on #iranelection interspersed with rumors of riot police stings disguised as Moussavi rallies and burning ballot boxes. Some tweets supply the Iranians with lists of proxies to get around the government’s internet filters. A hacker’s toolkit of programs to shut down Iranian propaganda websites is making the rounds. From the rest of the world, there are notes praying for the safety of the protesters, “retweets” of some of the more vital bits of news for fellow bloggers, and criticism of mainstream media outlets for their lack of coverage on the events. To see people communicate like this on such a personal level, the future of totalitarian regimes is doubtful. Any government that oppresses its own people on the basis of the threat of an external enemy cannot survive like this. The Great Satan has no horns or pointed tail, and he’s able to send a twitpic to prove it.
This is not to say that Twitter and services like it are going to replace more mainstream froms of news gathering. CNN doesn’t deserve its own #CNNfail channel for the coverage of the Iran Election. The network has to tread carefully to get the kind of access it has. President Obama had just recognized the USA’s involvement in the 1953 installment of the Shah only a week before. The US would do well to keep its distance and establish that it has nothing to do with the current unrest. Besides, it doesn’t matter whether True Blood is the higher trending topic or the mainstream media has to wait a few dozen hours to report on what it finds. That’s not what this is about. We all have an opportunity now to witness history. If we can’t take to the streets, if we can’t tend to the wounded, if can’t tweet from our laptops on the roof, the very least we can do is watch and pray that freedom wins out.
As a twenty-something married slacker, I can only observe this parenting thing from the outside, but what I see appears to be a mirror image of high school. It’s subject to the cliques, the cults of personality, and the pecking orders we associate with high school. There is a constant cycle of judgment and criticism over if you have the correct cycles of breast-feeding, sleeping, eating, the right stroller, the right crib, the right stool consistency! Everyone just seems to be in this mad race to be the crowned the most attentive, most awesome parent on the block. Indeed, the author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, the non-fiction book that eventually became the movie Mean Girls, felt it necessary to also pen a guide-book for parents specifically on dealing with other parents.
I find disconcerting the existence of people like Jenny McCarthy, who want to replace routine immunization with gluten-free diets. There was a recent case of a mother kidnapping her son to avoid the chemotherapy that would allow him to live. What’s actually terrifying about these stories is the amount of controversy among parents over whether the parents are doing the right thing. There shouldn’t be any controversy! This isn’t a clash between a mother’s love and the harsh establishment of experts. Kids have actually died from this kind of monkeying around in the face of hard medical facts. However, it’s tough to find a source of parenting info on the internet that doesn’t discredit medical professionals, or professionals of any kind because apparently years of study in a subject can’t hold a candle to women’s intuition. If you love science and you love your kids, where do you go for off-the-cuff parenting advice?
Mainstream Parenting Resources may sound a little non-descript, but who needs a cute name when you’re trying to supply actual information? My wife found it while surfing on Kirtsy. The author, Estherar, is a part-time family physician from Israel who is also the proud parent of 3 children. I love how she takes to task some of the assumptions we make on what’s good for children. One post called “Evolution is not an excuse” picks apart the argument that so-called “natural” forms of parenting are the best because they’ve been developed over thousands of generations by our ape ancestors.
“…our environment today is radically different: most of us live in well-protected houses, many live in climates colder than the African Savanna and use soft beds and heavy covers. The chance of a baby dying of SIDS/SUDI is now greater than being carried off by wolves. Furthermore, the evolution of human medicine and ethics means we no longer tolerate babies dying for preventable reasons. What once was the fittest solution may no longer be the case”
Of course, you can’t attack the columns of modern parenting without some criticism. Estherar responds to many of the comments on her blog, even the ones with profanity. Some people might consider her a little cheeky, but that’s what happens when you bring your knife of anecdotal evidence to peer-reviewed study gun-fight. I realize that no one can be completely prepared for parenting. There’s always something that’ll throw you a curveball. But if you like to take your advice from someone who has an actual degree and can save your life in an airplane at 50,000 feet, look no further than Mainstream Parenting Resources.
Intramuros, or literally “within the walls”, is the oldest district in all of Manila. It was constructed in 1571 over the remnants of an older Islamic settlement. For over 300 years, it was the cultural center of the city before it was almost destroyed at the end of World War II. The city was rebuilt in the 1980s under Imelda Marcos in an attempt to restore the Philippines’ history and national pride. If one wanted to explore the history of Manila, there was no better place. Whereas the rest of the city had the modern sheen of the 21st century, Intramuros retained the ornate trappings of Spanish colonialism with a few Chinese stone lions for a little Asian flavour. The buildings are beautiful enough on their own, but if you want to experience the history fully, you must employ the flamboyant story-telling of Carlos Celdran.
Carlos is Filipino by birth, but went to graduate school in America and spent some time on Broadway. His tour of Intramuros is, in effect, a one man show about the history of the Philippines. Aided by a boom box, a large binder of photos, and a small but effective collection of props, Carlos crafts the story of a country built out of a mish-mash of foreign influences into something unique and beautiful. The tone was irreverent and light-hearted. Almost all of the Philippine historical figures get a good roasting. He called Douglas MacArthur a “Drama Queen” in reference to the good General’s penchant for catch-phrases, photo-ops, and political grand-standing.
I was fascinated with the way Carlos described the darker moments in the city’s history during WWII. In the battle to take back Manila, 6 of the 7 Spanish cathedrals that had stood for centuries were reduced to rubble. Some were destroyed by the Americans as “collateral damage”. Others were destroyed by the Japanese to break the spirit of the Philippine people. In some ways, it had that very effect. This was puzzling. How could such places built by foreign conquerors mean so much to the people they were imposed upon? As the tour went on, Carlos gave us the answer. It didn’t matter which culture was there first or who had stayed the longest. All sorts of bits of culture from Spain, America, China and the Philippines itself had come together to create a place like no other in the world. So, why shouldn’t the Filipinos take pride in things on their land that have beauty and majesty? The Philippines is what is, no matter who had the idea for it first.
I think that every country needs a Carlos Celdran. Every country needs a person or set of people that can take a look at that nation, warts and all, and use their love and resourcefulness to introduce that one country to the world like a member of the family. People like that make the world all the more worth exploring.
It turns out there wasn’t much time for blogging out in Asia. I’ve witnessed the solemn beauty of Corregidor Island, and made my way through the shining backstreets of Akihabara. Now that I’m back and jet-lag free, I’ll be spending the next few posts talking about the trip. While I had a blast out there, I think I learned a few things as well. There are lots of pictures, and I even got to see a monkey.