Thursday, April 27, 2006

My Cobbler's Child

Scott Ginsberg (the guy with the nametag), commented recently in one of his blog posts that it wasn't enough just to have a website anymore -- you must have a web presence. In that entry, he had a number of suggestions on how to attain that lofty goal. For many of us, though, even getting the website part right is a task of epic proportions in and of itself.

I am a web programmer and, up until a few years ago, I didn't even have a website. Yes, I know, I know. It was heartily embarrassing to hand people my business card and to have to tell them not to look at my website. Come to think of it, that would explain some of the odd looks I got back then.

Now this gaping hole in my web presence had many underlying causes. It was partly, of course, that my website was a true cobbler's child. I spent so much time working on other people's web projects, that I had little time for my own. A larger part of it, however, was just trying to answer the question of how I wanted to present myself. Tied in with that was my full awareness that, while I was a fairly competent programmer, designing a decent site, complete with original layout and graphics, was a task I wasn't quite ready to attack. Fortunately for me, my subcontractor and longtime friend, Kristin Mead, helped me come up with a nice, clean look for my site. "All" I had to do then was fill in the content.

Yeah, that's "all".

The problem with content on the web is that it has to change and evolve or no one will ever care to look at it twice. This is part of the process of turning that website into a web presence and something with which I continually struggle. One reason that I have started this blog is to create some changing content for my site -- and the other, with any luck, is to provide some interesting or useful information along the way.

I'm just starting to look at some of the other technologies which have been popping up over the last couple of years -- the so-called Web 2.0. How can I use these things? Do I even want to? Some of the pointers I've seen recently mention Squidoo, MySpace, Flickr, and I figure the best way to investigate is just to dive right in. I'm looking forward to the exploration. I'll report back with anything interesting that I find.

What sort of cool web technologies have you played with recently? Anything that you'd care to recommend?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Another Unexpected Pleasure

I've written a few posts now about customer service, both good and bad. I've decided that it is just too easy to come up with the bad. Look on any site which talks about one company or another and inevitably someone will post a hair-raising tail about the horrors they experienced at the uncaring or incompetent hands of that company.

Yep, that's way too easy.

So, instead, I think I will only write about the very best customer service -- the kind that surprises me and gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling. I challenge you, dear readers (both of you), to come up with better stories. Let's reward the good we find with the same enthusiasm that we lambast the bad.

I had a surprisingly good experience just the other day. I have been in the process of moving to a new web hosting service for my company's website,, for about the last month. It always takes a while to go through this process, what with moving all the content and testing it on the new service. The final step, prior to canceling the old website, is to tell your Domain Name Registrar that the site has moved. Most of these services actually have online facilities to make these changes. Mine, Network Solutions, Inc., was no exception.

The trick with online procedures is, though, that you need to have a username and password in order to make those changes. I had originally created this website about ten years ago, so my account name and password had long since fled the drafty corridors of my brain. They did have a procedure where the username and password could be sent to you via the email address under which you registered. Of course, that was ten years old, too, and had long since been terminated. To deal with this, they had a form I could fill out which, when faxed to them, would allow them to change the email address, which would allow me to follow the other procedures to eventually get in contact with my account.

So far, so good, they seemed to have thought of everything. I filled out that form and faxed it to them. Then I waited.

And waited.

I suddenly realized that I had no clue how long this would take. So, I resolved to call them.

I got in relatively quickly (about a 3 minute wait) -- finally, a company which actually staffs its help line with enough people! When Maria came on the line, I quickly described the situation and asked simply how long it would take to make the change. She was able to tell me immediately that it would take one business day. Wow! A help line person with the information immediately at hand!

"But, Mr. Peters, if you would like, I can ask your security question and if you can answer it, I can take care of everything right now."

Great! Give it to me!

She asked the question and I got the answer wrong. As I recall, when I originally set up the question, it had been meant to remind me of the password (which it didn't). Sometimes I am too clever by half. Oh, well, I guess I'll have to wait for the faxed sheet to be processed. No big deal.

"Actually, Mr. Peters. If I may call you back at the number registered for the account, we can still process the changes."

What? A company that has actually thought out all of the issues that their customers might face? I'm shocked!

Well, needless to say, the process worked like a charm. I was able to make all the necessary changes without letting a single day go by. Kudos to Network Solutions, Inc!

So, tell me your story of good customer service. Does it beat mine?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Pride and Prejudice

My wife, Lisa, and I watched the A&E presentation of "Pride and Prejudice" tonight (the one with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy). Don't laugh! It's a very manly show to watch. Right up there with "Die Hard" and "The Terminator"!

Anyway, It is a delightful story. The one thing is, you have to tune your ear a bit to follow the dialog. The language of the time (at least as portrayed in this particular instance) feels a bit round about. The cadences of speech can catch you off guard.

It occurred to me that this is a problem that we in the technical realms can cause without intending it. Often the language we use devolves into jargon and needless technical verbiage. Unless the poor victims of our communication happen to have "tuned their ears" they are rapidly lost in a sea of confusion and frustration. Unlike the amusing antics of the Bennett family, however, our descriptions of the latest in client-server technology can, at best, bring on a glazed look in the eyes.

We need to remember that, in addition to the skills with keyboard and CPU, we must also develop the skills in communication to first understand the needs of our clients and then to make ourselves understood. Personally, I've found that analogy and illustration tend to help quite a bit. Your methods may vary.

Have you ever had a hard time speaking with a technologist? What happened? If you are a technologist how do you communicate what you do to a non-techie?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Memory Gardens

I wouldn't call myself an avid gardener, but I do enjoy getting out and working in the beds around our house occasionally. There is something about preparing the way for the beauty of Spring that re-energizes me. Sometimes, if I don't have a lot of time, I'll just mosey around the yard for a few minutes and say hello to everyone and see how they are growing.

It's funny, though. Each bed has its batch of memories that come with it. Looking at the perennial bed in front of our house, I remember when my mom and my wife (then still my girlfriend) played hooky so they could come up and tear up my front lawn. Many of the plants in that bed are divisions from my mom's giant gardens down in Toledo. We laughed a lot that day, as I recall, and tearing up sod never seemed so easy.

The garage-side garden was the first flower bed that I designed. It started out as a very regular two-foot wide plot, planted by some prior resident, that ran the length of the garage. By the time I was done, it had grown considerably and had taken on a much more free-form shape. Now it also houses a large selection of tulips planted in memory of a good friend whom we lost not long ago. We planted the first batch of bulbs on the day on which he passed away and I'm sure a tear or two nourished those blooms.

The bed behind the house is our Japanese garden. The granite pagoda was the result of a day of shopping at Ann Arbor Home and Garden. The dwarf Japanese maple (whom we call "Ace") was the result of a day shopping at Home Depot. It's a serene place. We have a bench pulled up alongside to allow us to sit and rest from our labors. We've spent many a pleasant hour there, planning out our next garden project -- planning our future.

This year, my wife wants to start a moon garden at the back of our property. I expect that there will be memories associated with it, too. The thing is, whether those memories are of joy or sorrow, of hope or disappointment, the garden will transmute those emotions into things of beauty and tranquility. I don't know how, but it always seems to work that way.

What memories have you grown in your garden?

Monday, April 17, 2006

A Great Read

I just finished a super book called "The Power of Approachability" by Scott Ginsberg.

I'm going to have to read it again.

This book is so chock-a-block full of good information that it was like drinking from the firehose. Scott has ideas on presenting yourself in email, on the phone, and in person with the goal to be more approachable and to create unforgettable first impressions (and that's unforgettable in a good way -- not like the time that guy at the office party smeared potato salad in the boss's hair).

Scott is somewhat famous as "that guy with the nametag". For the last five years he has worn a nametag 24/7. He wrote about the experience in his first book called "HELLO, My Name is Scott" -- a book I fully intend to buy. I am also listening to one of his audio programs, "How to become a Networking Superhero", from which I have gotten several great ideas on how better to meet and build better mutually beneficial relationships in the business networking environment. I'm really looking forward to using some of his ideas in the area of building relationships via the Internet.

If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend picking up "The Power of Approachability". Even if you don't think you require it in the context of your business life, the tips on starting conversations alone will more than pay for the price of the book.

What books are you reading right now? Would you recommend them?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Going to the Movies?

I read an interesting article tonight about the difficulties that the concession suppliers for the movie industry are going through. With the three-year decline in movie attendance revenue, there has been a similar three-year decline in concession sales (not very surprising, I know). Reading this article led me to examine my own movie attendance behavior.

First off, let me tell you: I love movies. A few years ago, if I had had the money, I probably would have gone to the movies every week. As it was, I usually went at least once a month. I rarely bought concessions -- way too expensive. Besides, my buddies and I would often just go out for a quick pizza or a burger beforehand, so it wasn't like I was hungry or anything.

Now? I might see two or three movies in the theater in any given year. Maybe. I see more movies than ever, but now I watch at home. My wife, when we first got married, convinced me to get a nice home theater system. I've got a fairly high quality surround sound system, a nice 65" widescreen HD-ready television, a good DVD player, and a NetFlix subscription. I also have the Ann Arbor District Library with its wide selection of movies on DVD. I get the full "big screen" experience. I do not have the experience of: sticky floors, commercials before the movie, people talking near me, someone kicking the back of my chair, cell phones ringing, and high ticket and concession prices.

Is there any reason to go to the actual theater anymore? Well, on the few times I do go, I tend to go on opening weekend, when there is likely to be a big crowd. There is something about being part of that crowd that intensifies the emotions and images. Thrillers seem that much more exciting. Comedies are so much funnier. Why else? Well, sometimes there is a movie that I just want to see without having to wait a few months before it comes out on DVD. The various "Lord of the Rings" movies were like that for me. Sometimes its also fun just to have a shared experience with friends of "going out".

All that being said, it makes me wonder what will become of the movie industry. Can the existing model survive? There is a lot of competition now for our entertainment dollars. How will the local cinemas provide an experience which will encourage us to keep showing up? Or, are the movie houses doomed to eventual failure?

Do you still go to the movies? How often? What makes it worth your hard-earned money?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

So I was Wrong!

One more post on good customer service. Check out the previous posts in this series.

A few months ago, I was visiting my mom at her place down in Toledo. She had recently purchased an HP scanner/fax/copier/printer. I don't remember the exact model, but it was middling high end. They had recently had a thunderstorm and since that time, the printer wouldn't turn on. She asked me to take a look at it.

Now, I'm really more of a software kind of guy, but I'm not too bad with the hardware either. I fiddled with it, tried unplugging it and plugging it back in. Heck, I even violated the code of men everywhere and consulted the manual! Nothing. Hating to admit defeat, I decided to make one last-ditch effort. I called customer service. I figured they would either be able to help (yeah, right!) or could at least tell me how to get it replaced under warranty.

So, I got on the phone and in short order I'm chatting with a gentleman whom we'll call "Chris". I'm guessing Chris was actually somewhere in India. That doesn't bother me, so long as he could be of help. I knew I was in trouble by the way he kept repeating everything I said. "This guy will be following the script. I know it." I thought to myself. This boded to be a long and agonizing call.

After the initial pleasantries, Chris suggested that I try to hold down on one of the buttons while I unplugged the power from the back of the machine and then plugged it back in. I was to hold down on this button for thirty seconds. OK, not one that I thought of doing, but also not in the manual as far as I had found. Thirty seconds came and went. The printer was still dead as the proverbial doornail.

Then came the "idiot" suggestion. This is the one that I swear they make up to make you look like an idiot.

"Mr. Peters, is the printer plugged into a powerstrip?"
"Would you please unplug it from the powerstrip and plug it directly into the wall?"
"Um, OK. I'm assuming this is to test if the powerstrip is dead, right? It isn't, there are other things plugged into the same strip which are running right now."
"Yes, sir, but sometimes this makes a difference."

Of course, the only free outlet is across the room. I have to unplug the printer, wrestle the stupid thing across the room, all the while doing my best impression of Yosemite Sam. Ratsen-fratzen, stupid idea, ratzen-fratzen. Never going to work. Oh, my achin' back. Where's the stupid plug. Jeez, could this be more lame? I'm going to have to escalate this soon. Ratzen-fratzen guy obviously doesn't know what he's doing. There! It's plugged in...


"Hi, Chris? That did the trick."

OK, so I'm not as smart as I think I am sometimes. Don't ask me why it worked. It just did. In fact, after it started working, I was able to plug it back into the same powerstrip and it continued to work. Bizarre.

Hat's off to Chris for putting up with people like me.

When was the last time you had truly great service, even if it was in spite of yourself?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Recording Your Life, Redux

Last month I posted an entry about writing in a journal. I had just started a new journal, this one purchased on a trip to Italy with my wife. It's a nice journal. The pages open wide, the paper is smooth, and it has that feeling of elegance that almost inspires me to be truly profound. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little on that last one.

Since that time, I've had a few new insights into the nature of journaling and the reasons that one might keep a journal and thought I would share a few with you.

I asked you, at the end of that post to comment and let me know how you keep your journal, whether it be fountain pen and parchment or crayon and construction paper. Now, since there are only a few of you reading my blog right now, I wasn't too surprised when I didn't get any response. Don't worry, you didn't hurt my feelings. ;-) Anyway, shortly afterward, I was having a networking lunch with Aimee VonBoken, the artist and web designer who is in charge of Vee Bee Studios. She showed me her diary. Each page had one or more watercolor pictures on it with very little text. Despite the lack of text, though, each page told the story of the ideas and events that she wished to convey.

For many of us, these online venues are journals, too. Now, maybe we don't put our deepest, darkest secrets here (though I'm sure there are a few out there), but we often do capture the errant thoughts, concepts, and themes which inform our lives. Chuck Rozanski, the president of Mile-High Comics sends out a newsletter twice a week which include not only the most recent deep discount comics specials, but also snippets of his day-to-day life. I've never met the man, but I feel like he and his family are dear friends. I look forward to hearing about the seasons of planting and harvest on their organic farm and his search for Native American pottery to add to his collection. I've heard that some criticize him for including this personal information, wanting only their comics news. A vast majority of us, however, love that personal touch which, in this sometimes cold and impersonal world of technology, makes us want to read every word of these letters from a friend whom we may never have met.

So why do you journal? Is it to record your ideas and feelings? Do you write about the goals you have for your life -- your dreams and desires? Do you use your journal to work through problems or difficult times in your life? Or is your journal a way to make contact with others?

Could it be a little of all of these? Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Free Books and Audio Books

When I was very young, my favorite books in the whole world were the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. My mom bought me the first seven books of the series when I was still in elementary school. I read them at least five times. I could tell you the names of all the characters and all of their cultural behaviors. At that tender age I fantasized about adventures with John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Tars Tarkas on the planet of Barsoom (what the Martians called their planet). You can still order these books through (what can't you order through Amazon?), but if you would like to sample them before you buy, head over to Project Gutenberg. There, you can read "A Princess of Mars", "Gods of Mars", and many more. You could even check out some of ERB's Tarzan novels. They are all a great deal of pure escapist fun.

I mention Project Gutenberg because they now house over 19,000 literary works which have passed into the public domain. Would you like to read a little "Treasure Island"? It's there! ... Along with about 70 other works of Robert Louis Stevenson. They have about 20 works by Louisa May Alcott, including, of course, "Little Women". Don't even get me started on the Jane Austin collection!

Now, if you prefer to get your classics through audio means, PG does have some of the books in audio format. Unfortunately, they are largely computer generated and un-listenable. If you want to listen to your books, you should check out LibriVox. What PG is to the written word, LibriVox is to the spoken word.

Now, as any parent will tell you, reading a book aloud can take a while. Add to this the time to edit and re-read where necessary, and you will understand why the selection from LibriVox is significantly more limited. At present there are only 48 completed books in English. Also, many of these are performed by groups, as opposed to soloists. Still they are fun to listen to. Warning though: The audio files are rather large, so you'll probably need a high-speed connection to really enjoy them.

Both of these services also give you the opportunity to contribute. You can scan or proofread books for PG, or join a group of voice actors to bring one of your favorite classics to life for LibriVox. Both have instructions and support for how you can help.

Check them out and let me what your favorites are.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Soundtrack for Your Life

I don't know about you, but I like to have a little music playing while I work. Not usually anything with lyrics, but I often enjoy classical or even just some quiet piano music. Unfortunately, the local radio stations don't always agree with my preferences and my CD collection is limited at best. What is a poor information technologist to do?

Fortunately for me, I do spend a great deal of time in front of the computer and on the Internet. Not long ago, I discovered a wonderful service called "Live365" (at, where else, This site houses literally thousands of "stations" with music for all tastes. You can even do a search for your preferred music types and, with a free account, register your favorites. Now, when I say these stations cover the whole gamut of the musical world, I am serious. The other day, I did a search on "piano" and, amongst the 450 results was the "all Rachmaninoff" station. Talk about your niche market!

I also have, among my other favorites, a couple that I like to listen to when I'm working out. I've got a fun, "clean" comedy station, with riffs from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, and Bill Cosby. I also found a more thought-provoking station called It's full of motivational and business-oriented audio tracks which can turn my 30-minute ride on the stationary bike into my personal business seminar.

Now, listening to Internet Radio does have its limitations, of course. After all, you do need to have a computer connected to the Internet. You can't transfer the songs to your iPod or other MP3 music player, though they do have podcasts you can download. If you have the free service, you might not be able to access your favorite channels (precedence is given to VIP, i.e. paying, members). Also, using the free account, you have to put up with advertising -- not too annoying, but still something of which to be aware.

Assuming you can tolerate these minor issues, though, this service may be everything you could want in adding a soundtrack to your life. Try it out!

How do you prefer to get your music? Radio? CD? Whistle While You Work? Let me know!