Tooting My Own Horn

I honestly have no idea why it’s so difficult for me to want to share my successes, especially here on my own website. I was told once many, many years ago that I was arrogant, which offended and befuddled me and probably made me even less eager to toot my own horn. I’ve learned over the years, though, that if you don’t toot it, few others will feel compelled to do so for you. So if you think I’m arrogant by mentioning this, well… go to hell, you plebian simpleton. You are not worthy to breathe the same air as I.

I’m currently the first place winner of the Sun Valley 998 club, Area B23 and Division B Toastmasters “Table Topics” speech competitions. I’ll be representing my whole division (representing most of the East Bay) at the District 57 competition in Novato on May 13th. “Table Topics”, by the way, is a competition where contestants are given a topic (for Area it was “What time in history would you like to visit? What would you wear?/What would you do?”; for Division it was just the word “Balance”. I don’t remember what it was for club-level) and asked to speak on it for 1 to 2 minutes, completely unprepared and off the cuff. You’re only given about 30 seconds to come up with your peech, organize it, etc. I’m fairly impressed with myself.

So, toot-toot. Yay me.

Thinking About Authenticity

Seth Godin mused about Tom’s of Maine “selling out” to Colgate today. I sort of want to expand on it and bring up a point about how you can be ubiquitous and still maintain some authenticity.

Over the weekend, I went down to Orange County to take care of some estate stuff for my mom. The Saint Patrick’s Day holiday was a fairly special one in my household – even more so now that Mom’s no longer with us – as it’s the one time of year she could talk me into eschewing my Basque/Hispanic ethnic identification, which is constantly reinforced by my last name, and recognize my Irish heritage. How do we do this? Greeting cards, shamrock pins and good ol’ McDonalds Shamrock Shakes. Good Lord do I love me some frozen minty green goo.

Down in Orange (a city in Orange County) on Chapman Avenue there’s a McDonalds that is, of all things, themed like a cartoon Hollywood – Hollytoon, they call it. Off the 80 on the way up to Tahoe, there’s another McDonalds owned by a former Oakland Raider that’s styled in all silver and black. Now, a majority of McDonalds restaurants have the exact same cookie-cutter red and yellow look and feel, which helps maintain their brand and all that, but makes each McDonalds even less special than the last. Find one of these themed McDonalds, though, and it stands out. I haven’t been to the Raiders McDonalds in almost a decade and I still remember it clearly.

Even though these themed places sell the exact same Big Macs, fries and, thanks begorrah, Shamrock Shakes as every other McDonalds, they stand out. Their uniqueness adds some authenticity, makes them a bit more fun and more of an experience. And, really, how difficult is that to accomplish? Throw up some memorabilia, use a different paint scheme, decide on an idea and apply it throughout and you stand out, even though you’re ultimately the same as every other one of your type.

Another way to make the ubiquitous authentic is to regionalize. In the Bay Area there are two Pyramid Breweries with at least one more in Seattle. The one in Berkeley and the one in Walnut Creek server the same food and same beer and have relatively similar decor, all probably based on the master up north. In addition to the coterie of normal and seasonal brews they carry, they also have region-specific beers part of the year. The Walnut Creek brewery used to carry an ale named after local landmark Mt. Diablo. There was another beer – a porter, I believe – named after the street on which the brewery is located. Since you go to Pyramid for the beer (though the food is excellent too) these locally-named beers are sort of a way of saying, “We may be a chain, but we’re you’re neighborhood brewery.” Starbucks has capitalized on this by promoting their local community, showcasing their customers and training their baristas to remember names, faces and drink preferences to make the experience feel more personal, despite the fact there’s a Starbucks on every street corner.

Certainly, the folks Seth refers to who turn tail the second a company “Sells out” won;t be impressed by this, and the folks who just want their Big Mac and don;t care how they get it won’t be swayed either way, but there’s still that middle ground of folks who desire some amount of corporate conformity but want to experience something new, unique and, dare I say, authentic once in a while. It makes the Starbucks on that particular street corner “their” Starbucks, or the McDonalds with the cartoon theme “their” McDonalds. You can be unique and maintain some authenticity without sacrificing all of the efficiency that comes with being a franchise.

Pat Robertson: SHUT UP!

Good lord, I got to stop reading the news… Robertson Finds Radical Muslims ‘Satanic’.

Here’s the funniest snip:

Robertson also said that “the goal of Islam, ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, is world domination.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that also the stated goal of Christianity? Is it not right there in the Gospels, Christ’s mission statement?

Seriously, do some reading up on the Quran. I’m not muslim, but it’s rather unfortunate that a religion whose holy scripture explicitly preaches peace and tolerance is being portrayed as a religion of hate and violence because of a misguided extreme few. The same could be said about Christianity.

That’s Intolerant, Children!

Wow. Isaac “Chef” Hayes quit South Park because he feels the show has crossed a line. Which of these episodes do you suppose it was that did it? (no peeking at the article):

  • The one where a statue of the Virgin Mary is bleeding out its anus?
  • The one where the sweet little forest animals ask Stan to kill a ferocious lion that threatens the birth of their savior, who turns out to be the anti-Christ and is celebrated by a rabid blood orgy?
  • The one where the story of Joseph Smith and the formation of the Mormon Church is told to a chorus of “Dumb dumb dumb”?
  • The one where Cartman schemes to make a million dollars by forming a Christian pop band whose hit song refers to Jesus ejecting his glory all over the young boy’s face?

If you answered any of the above, you’d be wrong. Hayes is miffed with the show’s episode covering Scientology, in which Stan is hailed as the second coming of L. Ron Hubbard and Tom Cruise proceeds to spend the episode hiding in a closet. Compare that episode to any of the ones previously mentioned, and you can see that the Scientologists got off remarkably light.

It’s not that I disagree with Hayes when he tells AP, “There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins.” It’s just that I also don’t disgaree with co-creator Matt Stone when he tells the reporter, “This is 100 percent having to do with his faith of Scientology… He has no problem – and he’s cashed plenty of checks – with our show making fun of Christians.”

I’m all for slaughtering sacred cows (they make the best burgers) but if you’re going to wink and nod at the skewering of everyone else’s beliefs, you’re going to have to have a better sense of humor when it’s your turn. South Park went too far for me with the Virgin Mary episode, not so much because I was offended because they made fun of my religion (I’m a recovering catholic – I’m on the 11th step), but because they chose the most distasteful way imaginable to present their satire. It doesn’t matter who was bleeding out of the anus – Mary mother of Jesus or Mary the gal at the downtown deli – I really, really, really didn’t need to see a whole episode dedicated to it. It was just generally tasteless. with very little real satire.

In comparison to that story line, the Scientology episode was tame. And I have to say that, in the end of these episodes, the final message is often one of tolerance and understanding. After spending an entire episode making fun of the foundation of all Mormon belief, the Mormon character who was the target of all this made a persuasive appeal about the modern Mormon church that almost sounded like an endorsement. Even at the end of the Virgin Mary episode there was a message of where real miracles happen and where to find the strength to overcome adversity. Lame as these attempts often are to dismiss the vulgarities of the previous 20 minutes, they’re still rather positive.

So I feel it’s fine for Chef to quit. If he’s offended that they dare attack his most holy of holy beliefs (the best religion to come out of sci-fi next to Jedi-ism) and is uncomfortable working with the SP folks, fine. But don’t spend almost 10 years being part of something that skewered every major belief and slaughtered every sacred cow known to American culture and claim that you have to stick to you civil rights roots. It’s not civil rights for blacks or civil rights for Scientologists that matter – it’s civil rights for everyone. You waited too long to speak out and not come across looking like an ass. Scientology is rapidly showing itself to be the religion of the ass.

One more side note on this – Back in the early days of Christianity, followers were thrown to lions for Roman entertainment. Every religion needs its lions. Scientology is working overtime to show us theirs. So far, though, they all just look like paper tigers to me.

How Did E-Mail Get So Complicated?

I’m working with a client to set up an email account so she can receive the results generated by an online contact form. She’s currently using the Yahoo web client for her Yahoo/SBC account and, since she’s not all that technically proficient, I’m not too eager to take her off of it and put her on something like Outlook. If I need to, however, I’ll have to go through the whole process with her over the phone on how to configure Outlook to get and send her email from this new account. The process goes like this:

  1. Go to Tools->Email Accounts in the menu at the top of the page
  2. Select “Add a new e-mail account” and press “Next”
  3. Select “POP3” for your server type.
  4. Fill in the text boxes as appropriate with your name, email address, username and password. For your incoming mail server and outgoing mail server, use the server URLs I have provided. When done, click “Test Account Settings”. If everything is OK, click “Next” and you’re done.

Now, here’s my complaint – why do we need so many steps to set up a new account? Why do I need to provide the server names? Outlook is usually smart enough to divine the user name for the account from the email address I provide (in most cases it’s everything before the @ symbol) so why can’t it also divine the server names? Most servers are named either mail.domain.com (replace “domain.com” with whatever appears after the @ symbol), smtp.domain.com, pop3.domain.com or, in some rare cases, imap.domain.com. If one is setting up an email account, one can assume the person is connected to the internet and can, therefore, do a quick MX record search on the domain to figure out the SMTP server and, potentially, the POP3 or IMAP servers as well.

You may argue that Microsoft, in an effort to push its Exchange server (which, by the way, has caused more trouble for me than it has ever helped) they don;t spend too much time on other email technologies like POP3 and IMAP. Fine. Then explain Thunderbird’s awful setup process. It’s almost exactly the same only a bit more complicated. In the name of flexibility, they’ve sacrificed ease of use. What’s worse, if you have multiple email accounts from different domains and providers, you have to explicitly set up separate SMTP outgoing accounts after you’ve already setup the incoming accounts, otherwise you’re stuck using just the SMTP server you set it up with initially. This is not typically a problem, but if the Sender Policy Framework ever takes off, this could easily mark some of your messages as spam.

Email has been publicly available for more than 10 years and has been around in one incarnation or another for more than 30. So why do we still need IT professionals to come in and set up the clients? Why has no one figured out a way to make this more accessible and easy to configure? In the cases where the standards mentioned above aren’t adhered to, there should be some kind of “Advanced” button to remedy the situation, but that stuff could probably be ignored in 80 percent of the situations. Email is so unbelieveably complex to put together for the unbelieveably simple thing it does. It’s the backbone of the Internet and yet it’s also it’s red-headed stepchild. When you hook a computer up to a network running DHCP, you don’t need to take any additional steps to surf the web – just open your browser and click on a link. All of the handshaking, IP and DNS assigning, authentication, etc. happens behind the scenes without any intervention. Why hasn’t email, a considerably easier process than establishing an Internet connection, followed suit?

Tech entrepreneurs, I’m looking at you here. This one’s a money maker, I can feel it.

Unbelievable Corporate Transparency

Stop reading this right now and go read the first page of The Re-Imagineering Blog, then come back and we’ll talk about.

Back? This is a blog maintained by folks at Disney and Pixar – the “Imagineers” who put the magic in the Magic Kingdom. If you’ve ever been through a Disney park and said to yourself, “That was INCREDIBLE” you can thank an Imagineer.

Unfortunately, as time has progressed and the need to maintain profitability has overshadowed the creative process, some of the magic has died. Clearly, this has not gone unnoticed within the company and is actually mourned by the folks who bring the creative spark to the Disney experience. Hence this blog.

Not that this thing is not hosted on the Disney servers. It is, instead, hosted on Blogger. Something tells me that the higher-ups in the Disney corporation are none too thrilled about their employees publicly ripping apart their parks. Take this gem about Epcot’s Imagination Pavilion:

… Epcot’s current Imagination Pavilion is a failure on nearly every level. The ride inside is an embarrassment. It’s boring, slow, disjointed, unclear, unimaginative and often just plain ugly. (And that’s coming from someone who worked on it, although my involvement was a few versions ago.)

Now, here’s the big thing about this – they’re not just ripping on the parks, they’re publicly discussing ways to improve upon them and pointing out what works and what doesn’t. Most corporations would no doubt feel that this type of brutal honesty is best kept behind closed doors, but, in the words of one author on the blog when discussing the failure of California Adventure, “Please, no more fancy executive brainstorming retreats, that’s what got us into trouble in the first place.”

These imagineers have invited us into their conversation. Comments are open and available. If I think DCA (which, by the way, I’ve never visited) is actually quite a great park, I can point out right there why I feel this way. I’m talking directly to the guys and gals who actually make the decisions that make these things work and the chances are good that they’ll listen to what I have to say. This is phenomenal.

So, yeah, it also sucks that Disney employees are ripping on the parks, especially employees so highly regarded. That doesn’t do too much to help Disney’s image. This, however, is a short-term problem provided they actually do something about it. There’s really nothing like the Disney experience anywhere in the world, but even the most diehard fans have witnessed a decline in recent years. Everyone has a stake in bringing back the magic – the Disney folks want to make money, the fans want to be wowed. Involving everyone in this process, opening it up so that all of the stakeholders – employees, owners and customers – can have their say is only going to help improve the situation provided, again, that Disney listens.

So, will the Disney execs do the right thing and watch and learn from this exchange? Or will they try to clamp this experiment down? It seems to me that, lately, the Disney/Pixar folks have been making some smart moves by involving the intensely creative Pixar folks in more of the end-user experience. History holds that they’ll shut this sucker down. Hopefully, with the new blood in the company, they’ll learn to move past their history.

Leonard Pitts Needs a Fact Checker

There’s an old adage amongst newspaper folk: “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”

Leonard Pitts over at the Miami Herald should have taken that advice. In a recent column, he discussed the chilling effect of having members of the Department of Homeland Security come in to a public library, loudly announce that surfing for pornography on the library’s public terminals is illegal then singling out one individual who was looking at said material for a little talking to.

This actually happened in Bethesda, MD. I confirmed this by doing a Google News search using the library’s name. I found an article referencing the incident about four links down headlined “Guards reassigned in library porn case“.

Guards?

Turns out the two DHL officers were actually county officers for the county Department of Homeland Security. Questions as to why a county needs officers for such a department aside, the point here is that the federal government had absolutely nothing to do with this. Which pretty much blows Pitts’ column right out of the water.

We tend to trust newspapers and news agencies over blogs and such for a reason – they have a well-established editorial system in place. A writer submits their story idea to an editor who then approves it. Once the article is written, the editor looks it over and, well, edits it. In most large organizations (of which the Miami Herald is one) the article is then sent to a fact-checker for accuracy. Once everyone has given it the OK, it’s pasted into the newspaper layout, sent to the printer then tossed on your doorstep. This is the way it’s been done for decades.

So how did such an erroneous article get into the paper? Worse, how did it get syndicated? If you look at the link above, it’s not from the Herald at all – it’s from the Buffalo News.

Once could argue that, because it’s a column and, therefore, an opinion piece it didn’t really need to be fact-checked. Anyone who has ever survived a libel suit, however, can tell you that’s hogwash.

Given the current political climate, I’d think these types of mistakes would be avoided at all costs. The argument that, in a fast-paced 24-hour news cycle, not everything that hits the streets can be perfect could be made here if this was a news article. But it wasn’t. It was an opinion piece remarking on an event that took place more than a week previous to the date the article appeared. And the pressure of maintaining a daily column deadline doesn’t cut it for me – I spent two years in a news room ofting submitting multiple un-related daily news stories for publication in the same day. Columnists have it easy.

I do believe the media has a responsibility to report the facts to us. I believe they have a responsibility to show us the truth to things. When news agencies have a 24-hour outlet, like a cable news channel or a website, I can accept a certain level of innacuracy, provided they correct it as quickly as they learn the truth and own up to the mistake. When a fairly well-known columnist at a daily newspaper prints a column based entirely on the clear misinterpretation of the facts, though, it indicates an internal failure that calls into question the veracity of everything they print. I don’t think that’s hyperbolic – if they can’t properly fact-check a regular column about a week-old story, how can we expect them to get the breaking news right? Pitts did screw up, but there’s an entire chain of responsibility at fault here and, thanks to syndication, its effects ripple throughout the country and the industry.