Paris Peace

To Strike At Paris is to Strike at Civilization

There comes a time in the life of every young person, if they’re very lucky, when they are struck by the thunderbolt that is Paris. The beauty, the style, the intellectual life, the boulevards, the croissants, the scarves, the cafes, the intensity of the natives … if you’re not even a little seduced by Paris, you are not human.

When violence comes to any corner of the globe it is despicable. And when it comes to Paris … it strikes at the heart of civilization. It hits at Voltaire, de Toqueville, Descartes, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Escoffier, Monet, Matisse … the list goes on.

Paris PeacePerhaps France and the US are like siblings who squabble at the holiday table, but in the end their bond is profound and, hopefully, unbreakable. And I hope the people of Paris know how much the world values them and their city.

Merci, Paris. For everything. And may there be peace in your future.

Find a Web Designer

How do I find a web designer?

So you’ve decided that you need a website.

Maybe you’ve just started a new business. Or perhaps you’ve realized that your current website is a bit long in the tooth and needs an overhaul. But you’re not a web designer, and you’re not a developer. For that matter, you’re not a techie at all. What do you do? In brief, here’s how to get started on your search.

  • Go local, that’s just my preference. Local designers know your market; they may know the competition, have local resources and — most importantly — they can actually meet with you to go over details. It is definitely possible to do massive projects over the phone and via email. I’ve done it. You just have to decide if that’s your thing.
  • Get references. Do you have a neighbor or friend or colleague who has a website you like? Ask them who they worked with and if they were happy with the results.
  • Check out the websites of competitors (of similar size). Very often there’s a link to the design firm at the bottom of the page
  • Check your local Chamber of Commerce or Better Business  Bureau for reliable providers in your area.

There is nothing wrong with doing a web search for a local web design firm. Your chief problem will be an overwhelming number of choices.

First, look for a portfolio.

  • Do you like the firm’s work? Do they work in a style that meshes with yours?
  • Does their portfolio have examples of the kind of functionality you’re looking for? Like shopping carts, or animation, or blogs?
  • Many companies (but not all) now put pricing plans on line. This can be very helpful in finding out if you can afford their work, and if they work on projects like yours. But just because the pricing is not posted, doesn’t mean you can’t afford it. Contact them with a brief description of your project and ask for a typical price range for projects like yours. Whoever you work with, be sure to talk to them in detail about your work and get it in writing. The bigger and more complicated the project, the bigger and more complicated will be the written agreement between you and your design firm.

Things to beware of:

  • A portfolio with hundreds and hundreds of websites. Real companies only put their best work online. Hundreds of websites = webfarm. Don’t expect too much.
  • A portfolio that is full of errors: spelling, grammar, pages that don’t load, images that are over there when they should be over here. Your site will not be any better than what is in the portfolio.
  • A firm that gives you a price without asking for any information about your project.

Things that you may be surprised about, but shouldn’t be:

  • Most of the best design firms will not do work ‘on spec’. That is, they will not not provide free sample pages and then hope you choose them to design your site. Students or companies who are just starting out may do this in order to build their portfolios … but the business relationship will not be there.
  • Most professional design firms require installment payments once a mutual agreement has been reached to start a project. A typical arrangement might be xx% up front, xx% midway, and xx% on completion. Scope of work and payment can be a challenging area to navigate, and it is always advisable to clearly explain the what is provided and what is expected.

No matter what kind of project you’ve got, there is a web designer for you. From the one page “Get to Know Me” site, to the next amazon.com, there’s a firm out there who can do the work. And if you take a couple of wrong turns while you’re looking for them, that is life. As they say, education is never a waste.

When you speak with potential designers, ask them what kind of work they do best, and beware of folks that only seem to be paying lip service. You’ll have a more productive relationship with a designer who will be honest about what your expectations should be, gently but firmly push you out of your comfort zone, and who will be forthcoming about areas in which they are not an expert.

You should always look for a vendor who asks lots of questions about your business and — even if they are not an expert in your field — understands your overall mission and goals. Trust me, the designer wants you to be happy with their work. They want to add your site to their portfolio, and they want you to tell all your friends! They have lots of incentive to do great work for you.  You’re the expert on your business, and they’re the experts on web design. As long as everyone keeps that in mind, your project will be  golden.

orioles notebook

Cover for my next handcrafted notebook

notebook orioles notebook

I make little notebooks sometimes for friends — and for myself, natch. They will never be mistaken for store-bought, or even for the work of an expert, but they do have a crafty charm, if you can handle that sort of thing. And for me, they are the perfect notebook: spiral binding (lays flat), pen holder, place marker, and pockets to tuck away other papers.

I can choose the size, the interior stock, the images on the front and back, and refill or file when it’s filled up. For those rare pixel-free times when the analog act of putting pen to paper is the only thing that will do.

This one’s for an Orioles fan :)
sandbucket

Happy Fourth of July Y’all!

Hard to believe it’s been 237 years since John, Ben, Thom, George, James and all the rest started their little experiment in constitutional democracy. Not that long in the grand scheme of things, but in the wake of recent global turmoil, can’t help but be glad it’s lasted as long as it has. So, all due thanks to you gents (and probably your wives and moms, too). Now let’s go to the beach and burn some burgers!

cake-stencil2

Are you not great at cake writing? Like me? Idea!

Try a simple stencil, instead. They’re sold in kitchen supply and in craft stores, but if you care to, you can make your own. Just print out a design, symbol, or short phrase, and cut it out with an exacto knife or super sharp scissor. Keep your design on the large and simple side … cutting out the shape can be a bit painstaking. Place your stencil on your cake — or meat loaf if that’s more your style — and sift some confectioners sugar over top. You can use cocoa if you’re decorating a light surface. Don’t sift too much, just a light dusting. Make sure the surface isn’t soggy, or the sugar will melt into it. Sometimes putting the cake in the frig for a bit is all you need to get a usable surface.

And voila, no more “Happy Birthday” that looks like it was written by a drunken kangaroo.

Sleigh Ride Crazy?

There’s something about the frenetic, jolly pace of “Sleigh Ride” that keeps it upbeat, no matter how mellow the genre. Here’s a brief compilation » Ella Fitzgerald, Squirrel Nut Zippers (manic!), She and Him, Reliant K, Diana Krall, and a little bit of Barenaked Ladies — all doing their version of the aforementioned song. But I promise, you won’t be bored.

Maybe it’s a latent expression of OCD, or maybe just another holiday obsession (I watch every version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that I can get my hands on … ), but I’m still searching for noteworthy versions of this tune. Msg me, please!

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

The coffee-creamer-based workplace rating system

They say unemployment’s up, then they say it’s down. Then they say it depends. But if you ask me, at least in the tech and web design field, the job market is getting better. When times are rough it’s tempting to take a job, any job. The employers are in the driver’s seat. (“What’s that you say, I have to have eight years’ experience with Ruby on Rails and C#, be an expert in Drupal, Photoshop, SEO and a certified Microsoft Systems Engineer? And the pay is $4 an hour, with no benefits? Sign me up!”) But now that the balance of power is being restored — ever so slowly, it’s a good idea to remember that the employee also gets to evaluate the employer. Are they right for you? Will you be happy there? Is the place full of deranged lunatics and/or mindless drones? It’s hard to determine these things in a one hour interview.

But I have a little-known technique that may give you some insight into your future with a potential employer. I call it the Coffee Creamer Workplace Rating System and it works as follows:

Zero Coffee Creamers

The only circumstance in which “no coffee creamers” could be awarded is if the workplace has no coffee. It seems unimaginable that a modern workplace would not offer at least a watery, caffeine-laced, productivity-enhancing beverage to the staff, but I am here to testify that such workplaces do exist. Because I worked in one. Summer job: engineering firm-slash-sweatshop. I was a temporary secretary. The owner was the cheapest person I have ever worked for. If you wanted coffee, you could bring your own — which was allowed. At 5:00 on the dot, every single engineer in the joint dropped his drafting pencil on his (shared) drafting table and ran silently screaming to his car.

Mitigating Factor — Straight shooter. You knew what you were getting with this guy. Nothing.

One Coffee Creamer

This is the case of a workplace that has a couple of glass-and-plastic coffee pots on a warming plate. Maybe a crusty “Mr Coffee” with several foil bags of “Gold Mountain Blend” scattered about. It may not be the best coffee ever, but it’s free and plentiful. In terms of creamer, you get the white powder in the cardboard canister, and –if you’re lucky– some of those red and white plastic sticks with which you can attempt to break up the creamer clumps. Interestingly, the Fortune 100 company for which I once worked only earned a one-coffee-creamer rating.

Mitigating Factor: there was a Starbucks in the lobby.

Two Coffee Creamers

See above, except the coffee creamer is of a slightly higher caliber. Now we’re talking about those little plastic cups containing a spoonful or so of milky liquid. You might know them as “Mini Moo’s”. The label may say ‘half-and-half’, but that is questionable since these things never seem to go bad.

Mitigating factor: even though many two-creamer-rated offices store the little cups in the office frig (vegetable crisper usually), refrigeration is completely unnecessary.

Three Coffee Creamers

At this level, the office has a coffee machine that makes a decent brew. “Decent” could mean providing grounds from branded manufacturers that shall remain unmentioned here (ahem! — doughnuts). Or it could mean providing pre-made coffee paks, the ones that drop into the machine without any scooping, tearing, pouring or measuring. And, it goes without saying, decent coffee includes anything made in an espresso or latte machine. As far as creamer goes, we are talking freshly purchased cartons of milk or half-and-half. Seriously, if you find yourself in a work/coffee situation like this, you have struck gold.

Mitigating factor: Management may make workers feel guilty about the expense and effort it takes to earn a three-creamer-rating.

Four Coffee Creamers

Research reveals that the four-creamer rating can only be found at the highest level of executive privilege, as it involves coffee that is made just for you, by someone else. Not poured for you by an administrative assistant (does that even happen anymore?) out of the communal swill, but actually made fresh for you, by the cup, to your individual liking.  If this is your life, you are probably the owner of a multinational corporation or a small country. Congratulations. You have reached workplace coffee nirvana! Never leave.

Mitigating factor: you are working in a place where no one in charge ever feels guilty.

So the next time you’re out on an interview, think of it as a reconnaissance mission, and check out the coffee room before you make up your mind.

The Shy Person’s Guide to Blogging

Not too long ago I was asked an eternal question. “If a blog entry falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?” In other words, how do you get people to read and comment on your blog?

Contrary to what Google and other internet search authorities would have you believe, the answer is not as simple as “Just build good content.” The internet is filled with awesome content that no one reads. And it’s also jammed with worthless garbage that millions of people see. You know what I mean. Search for “Job Interview Tips” and the first two pages of search results are  robot-written “about” pages that  offer brilliant advice like, “Bring a resume that you printed out a peace of paper.” Ugh.  Then somewhere on the twentieth page of search results is a really useful article from a former HR professional with practical advice on how to tell an interviewer about your salary expectations or explain your so-called “weak” points. Now why isn’t that article on page one? Why does it have no guest comments? Why does it say, “You are the 17th visitor to this page”? Unfair interwebs. Unfair, I tell you!

In my personal life, I am not a great success as a blog traffic generator. So take that as fair warning about any advice I may give. However, in my professional life, where I occasionally blog for others, I have had more success. What is the difference? Besides time and the financial incentive? It may have something to do with personality. If, like me, you’re shy in real life, you may be shy online, too. When I write professionally, I’ve got another persona, and I’m more comfortable putting my stuff out there and doing things that generate blog traffic.

What do many shy people have in common? We over-think things. For example, when you’re at a party, do you find yourself thinking along these lines: “Oh, no one is really interested in what I have to say. They don’t want to be bothered. They’ve got their own thing going on. I’ll just stand here quietly and wait ’til they come over to me?” Then, my friend, you are probably a shy person. The naturally gregarious dude doesn’t operate that way.  He is not thinking about what other people are thinking about him. Or about what an oddball he is. He just walks over to someone and says, “Hey,  here’s words that are shooting out of my mouth. By the way, you seem cool. Want to go over there and get some shrimp?”

Which brings me to my first guildeline for the shy-person blogger:

Make like a gregarious dude and start reading and commenting on other people’s blogs.

In the words of the Beatles, “The love you make is equal to the love you take.” Seek out other  bloggers who are into the same topics you are, read their articles and comment on them.  For traffic generating purposes, it’s best to comment on blogs that allow you to leave a link back  to your own blog in the signature area. (But don’t get married to the link back. It’s ok if it’s not on offer.)  Don’t leave a comment like “Nice post.” That’s what robots do. Say something that indicates you’ve actually read the article.

Which brings me to my next point:

Be kind when commenting.

That doesn’t mean agree with everything all the time. If you do disagree with something a blogger has written, do it respectfully. It won’t take much blog surfing to find examples of commenters who are great at disagreeing without being offensive. Don’t insult the blogger; indicate that your opinion is just that, and be open to further discussion. Lively discussion is one of the essential components of blog popularity, so you have to get comfortable with it.

Which brings me to another topic that makes shy people uncomfortable:

Use your other social networks to publicize your blog .

Use your twitter, facebook, linkedin, pinterest, google+, whatever, accounts to tell your followers that you’ve just written a new article. Yeah, this can be a tough one for the truly shy. But just tell yourself that not that many people are paying attention to your google plus account anyway.

In addition to your personal networks, there are some other effective ways to get your articles out there in the public eye. Services like digg, reddit, technorati, and delicious, will make your blog more easily findable for folks who are searching on your topic. While it probably won’t hurt to use all of them, these services tend to fluctuate in terms of hotness. You may want to research which services the most popular blogs in your field are using. And, like everything else in the “getting readership” game, you’ve got to give a little to get a little. When you’re using these services, it helps to read other people’s articles, promote them, comment on them.  Or you get relegated to  no-link-juice purgatory.

My next point, Be yourself, if you can.

My personal recommendation is for bloggers to blog as themselves. Readers like to know that there’s a real person behind the blog. “About” pages are extremely popular. And people do want to see photos. You don’t have to publish your phone number and address (in fact, don’t.) but a reasonably accurate avatar is a real plus.

If for some reason you don’t want your family or your coworkers to know that you’re really into, say, birdwatching, then it’s fine to blog under an online persona that preserves some anonymity. But base your persona on the real you, and be advised that a truly motivated individual (such as the FBI) will be able to uncover your true identity in no time flat.

Whatever name you blog under, for traffic reasons, your blog will benefit from having a unifying theme and a distinctive voice.  Do you blog mostly about vintage cars, or astrophysics, or water sports, or cute outfits? That’s excellent. Your “About” page should tell your readers how you got interested in that subject  and what qualifies you to write about it. If your blog is a potpourri of subjects, it can still have a unifying theme, like “The Adventures of High-School Sophomore” or “Funny Things that Happen in Cleveland.” For search-engine-related reasons, your blog entries should contain words and phrases that relate to that unifying theme. Most popular blogging platforms like wordpress and blogger include features like “categories” and “tags”. Use them to highlight those key words and phrases.

And lastly:

Don’t over-think it.

Seriously, most people are not that  into your blog. They are not dissecting your every phrase and punctuation mark.  Or questioning your expertise and judging you. Most folks are just interested in themselves when web surfing. We’re all just looking for useful or entertaining content– for our own selfish purposes.  Is this a good restaurant? How do you paint a fence? Wow, that’s a funny hamster! We get our information and we move on.

And now my last point — it’s good to blog regularly.

If you blog, like I do, twice a year (scrapes toe on floor), that is probably not often enough. Once a day: you are a rock star! Once a week is awesome. Once or twice a month — depending on your topic — passable.  Now hear the advice I am repeating for myself: don’t overthink it. Blog entries do not have to be masterpieces. That’s one of the great things about the interwebs. There’s plenty of room to do it all over again. Shy brothers and sisters, the internet was invented (in part) for us and by us, so let’s enjoy it!