08 February 2010


Choosing disposable books

For Christmas, my longtime friend Sebastien bought me an Amazon Kindle ebook reader. It's been great—while it has its flaws, it's a convenient and non-fatiguing way to read electronic documents, much more pleasant than the backlit screens of my laptop or iPhone (or, probably, the iPad). But I find it has also influenced my reading choices in an interesting way.

I first read a few ebooks that I had kicking around on my hard drive, mostly in plain-text format. I honestly don't remember where I got them, since I've had them so long. They're almost all science fiction titles, and judging by the oddball typos, most of them were obviously illegitimately scanned and OCRed years ago. But the Kindle does a good job with plain text, so I was impressed.

Next, I moved on to buying a few books at Amazon's Kindle Store. And it's the store that altered my choices. So far I've only bought three ebooks there, but the ones I've sampled without buying have been similar, and uncharacteristic for me.

Kindle books, like most ebooks these days, are locked down by DRM, making then significantly less portable and shareable than plain-text or other open formats, or than traditional paper books, and more likely to suffer digital rot, likely making them inaccessible years down the line. So the ebooks I have bought and read aren't the type I would previously have kept on my bookshelf. All of them, oddly enough, have been memoirs, not a genre I've previously chosen much:

I recommend all three, by the way, though Infidel is the best if you choose just one. But I consider memoirs generally disposable: I can read them once and not have much interest in re-reading them in the future. Maybe that's why my mom has always been a reader of memoirs and biographies. For decades, she has picked them up second-hand and breezed through them in a few days.

My gut feeling is that DRM-protected ebooks should cost less than they do: $5 to $7 feels about right, while the current $11 to $15 range for many mainstream titles (like the three I read) is too much—though I might regularly pay the higher price for unlocked ebooks. I don't think I'm alone in this: notice that many of Amazon's Kindle bestsellers are in the cheaper price range. Also notice that many of those books are old enough to be public domain, so no one has to pay the authors anymore. You can even get them for free, and unlocked, elsewhere.

Ebook prices can be more flexible than traditional hard-copy paper book prices, though. Publishers seem to want to charge $15 and up for in-demand new titles, and then lower prices to pick up more price-sensitive readers later—and they seem willing to fight to be able to do that. I'm willing to wait, so I guess that sort of arrangement would be okay with me.

I'd still prefer they ditched the DRM. And I'd still pay a bit more for that if they did.

Labels: , , , , ,

16 December 2009


Lululemon's clever retail satire

toque, toque and toque at Flickr.comLast year, Old Navy tried making some unofficial Olympic clothing, but Vancouver's Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) and the International Olympic Committee shut that down because the jackets were too close to official trademarks for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Now Vancouver yoga retailer Lululemon has tried a cheekier approach, releasing a line of clothes pushing the line of Olympic trademark infringement, without quite crossing it. The line is called the "Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011 Edition," which gave me a laugh.

I like the sporting events of the Winter Olympics, but VANOC and the IOC have been overzealous in emphasizing the business aspects of the event, rather than the sport. So I appreciate Lululemon's retail satire. The stuff looks good too, so I might buy some.

I wonder if it will be hard to get into Olympic events wearing the Lululemon clothes in February?

Labels: , , , , , , ,

03 June 2009


The rise and fall of General Motors

There's a lot of talk about why General Motors slid into bankruptcy protection this week, but I think you can summarize the situation with two of the company's old cars (photos from the 2009 New York Times GM Timeline):

The fall of GM in two cars

Top left, the amazing and beautiful 1938 Buick Y-Job concept car prototype (not a beautiful name, but still...), driven by GM design head Harvey J. Earl. That car appeared as the world's first concept vehicle, as GM was ascending to its all-time high U.S. market share, which reached 54% in 1954. It heralded the beginning of artistic design in automobiles, which through the 1920s had looked purely functional and utilitarian.

Bottom right, the 1980 Chevrolet Citation, a front-wheel-drive response to smaller Japanese cars from Toyota, Honda, and Datsun. The Citation was a big red hunk of meh, which drove poorly and lost sales in each of its five years on the market. The 1980s saw GM and other American car makers creating poor imitations of more successful foreign design ideas. GM was by then descending into its current state.

Labels: , , ,

09 February 2009


Shine your own shoes

Just slightly over a year ago, I tried to answer a question realistically, not for myself, but for numerous people who ask me. The question was: can you make money from blogging and podcasting? I've been blogging a long time, so some people think I might have an insight there. Who knows, really?

I answered anyway. My answer, in short, was that yes, blogging and podcasting can be your job, just like being a musician can be a job. But for most people, "making money" has to mean making a modest living, working hard (sometimes to the point of burnout), having some luck, and treating it as a small business like any other.

If you expect sudden riches, that's like expecting your garage band to become Coldplay, or your basketball skills to take you to the NBA. Yeah, a miniscule few manage that sort of thing, but it's not wise to bet on being one of them. Even Dan Lyons, who ran the immensely popular (and stingingly funny) Fake Steve Jobs blog for a couple of years, acknowledges that: "I never made enough to quit my day job."

Jason Kottke has a good response to that:

As businesses go, blogging is a lot like shining shoes. There are going to be very few folks who own chains of shoe shining places which make a lot of money and a bunch of other people who can (maybe) make a living at it if they bust their ass 24/7/365. But for many, shining shoes is something that will be done at home for themselves because it feels good to walk around with a shiny pair of shoes.

That's regardless of whether the economy is good or bad. Oddly enough, before I even read that, I shined up a pair of my shoes today. Personally, I have no plans to start a shoe-shining business.

UPDATE: Dave Winer makes an interesting point on this topic.

Labels: , , ,

29 January 2009


BC Liberals and Northern Voice? Ew.

Northern Voice 2009, Feb 20-21

I love the Northern Voice conference. I've been part of it every year since it started in 2005. But while my wife Air and I were among the first to register for the conference itself this year, and while she put together one of the panels, neither of us will be attending the February 19 opening-night dinner (tickets for that go on sale tomorrow) because it's sponsored by the BC Liberal Party.

UPDATE: This has turned into an interesting discussion in the comments below, at the blogs of Jen Watkiss, Duane Storey, and Tris Hussey, and on Facebook and Twitter.

The sponsorship makes us uncomfortable. I'd like to think that we'd feel this way if it were any political party, but it's hard to know. That it is the BC Liberals, for whom neither of us has never voted, and that there is an election coming right up this spring, both add to our discomfort. When my wife mentioned the sponsorship to me, my immediate verbal reaction was a simple, "Ew."

I know almost everyone on the Northern Voice organizing committee, and I think they do a great job, but I also think that accepting this sponsorship was a poor choice, regardless of whether (or maybe especially because of) the current economic circumstances, which make sponsorships hard to find right now. And had it been a provincial or federal government ministry, or the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Committee, or some other government organization rather than a political party, I think I would have been fine with it.

Sponsors are supposed to promote themselves, but a political party sponsorship in advance of an election feels like an attempt to buy my vote, and seems cynical, especially from a party that hasn't been at the vanguard of blogging and podcasting up to now. So Air and I will be at UBC for the main conference, but we'll skip the dinner. If there are others who feel similarly, as I expect there are, maybe some of us will go out for beer elsewhere that night.

Labels: , , , ,

28 November 2008


Practical extravagance

D700 1/4 view at Flickr.comIf money were no object, I wouldn't be one to buy a fancy car or a mansion—I'd get something good in each case, but also something practical. It's the same with cameras.

I've used Nikon's top-end D3, and it's a fine instrument, but far more camera than I'd need. The D3x, just mistakenly announced today, would be even further overkill. Never mind the various medium format cameras and the upcoming ultra-luxe Leica S2.

So, if I were suddenly independently wealthy, I'd still get myself a new Nikon, but it would be the D700, which packs most of the power of the D3, including its wonderful low-noise, high-sensitivity full-frame sensor, into a smaller (we're talking relatively smaller here) package. I've also tried the similarly sized D300, so I think the D700 would fit better in my hand.

And I'd buy some great lenses too, of course, because that's where money is best worth spending. I'm still using an inexpensive but quality lens I bought in 1995, while the camera it went with is long, long gone.

Finally, I'd travel to beautiful places with my family, to make photos with them.

Labels: , , , ,

27 October 2008


The doom of the American car company

Via Brian Chin, the Wall Street Journal's "How Detroit Drove Into a Ditch" is a succinct history of why General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are fumbling towards bankruptcy while the 16 U.S.-based vehicle factories run by foreign firms like Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen are profitable and prosperous:

...to thrive, instead of just survive, Detroit will have to use the brains of its workers instead of just their bodies, and the [United Auto Workers] will have to allow it. Two weeks ago some automation equipment broke down at the Honda factory in Marysville, Ohio, but employees rushed to the scene and devised a temporary solution. There were no negotiations with shop stewards, no parsing of job descriptions. Instead of losing an entire shift of production, Honda lost just 150 cars.

I don't think many people of my generation favour American brands when considering a new car. For me, GMs, Fords, and Chryslers are far from the top of the list: generally, when I sit in a new car built by one of those companies, something about it often feels cheap, which isn't the case with their Asian or European competitors' vehicles. Our Ford Focus has been a decent station wagon over the past seven years, but our Toyota Echo, which was much cheaper, has needed far fewer repairs.

Seeing one or more of the Detroit Three collapse would be sad, but personally I'd have no reason to miss them.

Labels: , ,

20 October 2008


Links of interest (2008-10-20):

Labels: , , , ,

17 October 2008


Links of interest (2008-10-17):

Sorry, I'm not keeping very good track of my sources for these:

  • Eighty-four variations of the iconic Obama "HOPE" poster.
  • "...incentive plans based on measuring performance always backfire. Not sometimes. Always."
  • "If I have grown more cynical in recent years, it is travel, I think, that has pushed me in this direction. Exploring other parts of the world is beneficial in all the ways it is typically given credit for [...] But traveling can also burn you out, suck away your faith in humanity. You will see, right there in front of you, how the world is falling to pieces."
  • A $15 USB controller shaped like the classic Atari 2600 joystick.
  • Fabulous video of the recent SpaceX launch—the first successful commercial orbital rocket launch ever. If you're interested, here's a Google Maps satellite photo of the launch facility in the South Pacific, midway between Hawaii and New Guinea.
  • Why we can't imagine what it's like to be dead.
  • Blues guitar legend Robert Johnson died 70 years ago. Someone might have recently discovered a new photograph of him, one of at most a handful existing.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

07 October 2008


London this morning

London This Morning at Flickr.comWhen I was a kid, financial news was perhaps the most boring thing in the whole world, except maybe the TV farm report that frustratingly preceded early-morning cartoons. (That farm news seems to have disappeared here in Vancouver. Even the telephone weather line I used to check, pre-web, before bicycling to university each day, no longer reports hay drying conditions in the summer.)

I can't say that my opinion of money and business news has changed much in the intervening decades. It's usually a snore-fest of inscrutable numbers, impenetrable market analysis, and a parade of old guys in dark suits and ties. (Yeah, I hire an accountant to sort out my taxes after my perfunctory sorting of income and expenses each year.) Despite the impacts of global markets on everyone's ability to get a job, buy things, use credit, and so on, it always seemed so disconnected from my daily life that I just couldn't get interested.

Well, these past few weeks have certainly removed world financial news from the "boring" category, but I still can't pretend to understand what's going on very well. If you're like me, I strongly recommend This American Life's recent audio episode "Another Frightening Show About the Economy." Before you listen to that, however, I suggest you check out its predecessor from May 2008, "The Giant Pool of Money," which dissects the American sub-prime mortgage disaster that preceded the current credit crisis.

Both shows do an amazing job of explaining terminology such as "commercial paper," "credit default swaps," "leverage," "financial instruments," and other stuff I never bothered to learn about, and of putting together the chain of insanity that led to today's bizarro state of affairs, where supposedly laissez-faire conservative governments around the world are desperately spending hundreds of billions of dollars to nationalize banks and insurance companies. Even if you work in the finance industry, are a savvy investor, or otherwise have a handle on this stuff, check out the two shows. You'll likely learn something anyway.

UPDATE: Here's an even more direct explanation (via Kottke).

Labels: , , , , ,

26 May 2008


Not always buying from China

[Made in China]I've developed a habit recently (which my wife pointed out to me) of checking the labels on clothing and other products to see if I can find anything not made in China. That's especially difficult with men's casual shirts, and shoes of any kind. Even venerable British bootmaker Doc Martens moved its production to China more than five years ago. (My three pairs of Docs are from the '90s, and were assembled in the U.K., while my Blundstone boots are from Tasmania.) Sadly, nearly all of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics goods I've seen for sale are made in China too, not Canada.

There are a few reasons for my label-reading effort. One is that I'm not fond of the People's Republic's internal and external politics, with respect to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the death penalty, Sudanese oil, policy reactions to disease outbreaks, Taiwan, North Korea, and so on. I prefer acting on that economically, rather than with symbolic gestures such as urging Canada to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Second is a combination of experiences I've had with poorly-made inexpensive Chinese goods, and concern about various quality problems that have posed health hazards—from contaminated pet food to tainted children's toys to poisonous food products coming out of the country.

Finally, I'm giving a small bit of pushback to the economic behemoth of Chinese manufacturing. I'd like to give other countries at least a fighting chance of getting my dollar. So, of some of our recent purchases, our vacuum cleaner was made in Mexico, my newest camera lens is from Thailand, my guitars are from South Korea and Japan and Canada (!), my video camera and other electronics came from Japan and Taiwan, the two pairs of sandals I bought today are from Thailand and Italy, and—following in the bare-calfed footsteps of my doppelgänger Darren Barefoot—my new summer man capris were sewn in Bangladesh. (Of course, the Bangladeshi government is no great shakes either.)

Still, it's tricky to avoid Chinese-made goods altogether. Nor is it necessarily desirable. Try finding a reasonably-priced small appliance or a spendy Apple MacBook or iPod made elsewhere, for instance. (In 1993, I was delighted to find that my Macintosh Centris 660AV had been made in Ireland.) Years ago, my friend Tara tried to avoid buying Chinese-made anything, and it was difficult. That was before the massive expansion of manufacturing and exports there in the past decade or so—now such an attempt would be nearly impossible.

I don't think that Chinese workers deserve jobs any less than anyone else. Victims of the recent Sichuan earthquake deserve as much help as those of the Burmese monsoon or the 2004 tsunami too. But it's also worth at least looking to see where your purchases are made, and maybe considering whether something created in another part of the world might be better worth your money.

Alas, those comfy Italian-made sandals turn out to be extremely slippery on the bottom, and I nearly hurt myself badly this evening when they caused me to slip and fall down the hardwood stairs in our front hall. Just because something is made outside China doesn't make it automatically better either.

Labels: , , ,

25 April 2008


I still think profit beats market share

Way back last decade, in 1999, before this website was even a blog, I wrote an article for MyMac magazine called "Why the Obsession With Market Share?" that said, in part:

Market share alone is pretty meaningless. If Apple can manufacture, market, and sell each of its computers at a profit, then whether it has 2% of 15% of the market doesn't matter at all to whether the company is financially healthy.


Increased market share is a symptom of those results, not the result itself. Keep that in mind the next time a pundit spouts off about Apple's market share -- whether it's rising or dropping -- or when you're tempted to talk about it yourself.

What counts is selling computers and making money doing it, so that Apple Computer will still be around -- to give us Mac users something to buy, and make money doing it -- years down the road.

This week John Gruber makes a similar point. Replace my old mentions of IBM, Compaq, Power Mac G3s, and iBooks with Dell, Motorola, iPods, iPhones, and MacBooks, and you can say plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Labels: , , , ,

05 April 2008


Crazy crazy Steinway Lyngdorf speakers

Steinway Lyngdorf speakers at Flickr.comThese seven-foot-high, 500-pound Steinway Lyngdorf speakers apparently sound pretty amazing. They look cool too.

They'd better, for $150,000. They remind me a bit of an advertisement I saw perhaps 25 years ago in one of my mom's copies of Architectural Digest magazine. I still remember the ad copy almost perfectly:

When your neighbor asks where he can get an Aston Martin Lagonda like yours, tell him he probably can't.

(Coincidentally, back in 1976 when that particularly ugly Aston Martin model was introduced, it also cost $150,000.)

Anyway, the same Steinway magazine in which I read about the speakers featured pianos, of course, but also luxury wooden boats, high-end Swiss watches, and even (in an ad my wife spotted) custom-bred dogs.

I wonder what percentage of people who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Steinway piano actually play it very often?

Labels: , , , ,

04 April 2008


Chevron's gas pumps piss me off

This has bothered me for years. A couple of days ago I fueled up one of our cars at a Chevron station. Here is their self-serve gas pump:

Gas pumps designed to trick you into expensive fuel

I'd like you to notice something—Chevron is trying to trick you. The lowest-priced fuel (87 octane) is on the far right. The price gets higher as you go left, with the highest-priced Supreme Plus fuel (94 octane) having its own separate nozzle, which is coloured bright red, on the far left side of the payment console. (The nozzle for the other grades is a subtle blue.)

I can think of only one reason for that, and it's one that's hostile to Chevron's customers. In a society where we read left to right, and would normally expect prices to go from low on the left to high on the right, this pump is designed to bamboozle drivers who are in a hurry and not paying close attention. In a rush, they press what they intuitively assume would be a lower-priced button (on the left), but actually get a higher-priced blend instead. That happened to me a few times when Chevron first introduced this style of pump a decade or two ago.

Worse, if you're particularly distracted, the pump for Supreme Plus can look like a separate single nozzle, and it's possible to pick the most expensive fuel without realizing it until it's too late. Up on the big price sign next to the station, we generally only see the price for the lowest-cost fuel, but the pumps themselves conspire to fool you into buying something that costs more. It's not a big thing to pay attention to if you want to avoid the ruse, but I notice a bit of a cognitive load when I encounter it. And of course, the digital price indicators have the smallest print in each section; you can hardly even see them in my photo.

Most modern economy cars—which is what most Canadians, like my family, drive—don't require anything more than the basic grade fuel. I fully expect that gas stations sell far more of that standard grade than their higher-priced varieties, so the design of pumps ideally should make it easy for the majority of people to find what they want. It might make the most sense for standard 87-octane blend to be the one with its own nozzle, and for the price to go up left to right overall. But that's not what's happening here.

Overall, Chevron is no more or less controversial than other oil companies. I like their claymation commercials and their Town Pantry convenience stores. But because of this pump design problem, I usually don't buy my gas at their stations.

Labels: , , , ,

11 March 2008


Why I'm itching to get back to work eventually

Navarik BuoyIt's been fascinating, if frustrating, to watch from the sidelines as the company I work for, Navarik, has done some amazing stuff over the past year. Most recently, they launched a new version of Navarik Inspection, our web-based application that helps petroleum companies keep a handle on the oil they're moving around the world.

That sounds like a pretty big deal for a small Vancouver company. It is. When people ask me what Navarik does, I use part of Navarik Inspection as an example. Here are the basics:

  1. When an oil tanker pulls up to a terminal to load, the company shipping the oil wants to know, (a) how much oil gets pumped in, and (b) what the qualities of that oil are.
  2. To confirm that, they hire a third-party cargo inspector who works near that terminal to check the various pumping measurements, and to take samples of the oil and analyze its properties, such as sulphur content, etc.—as well as to assess the state of the ship's tank, including (for instance) how much accumulated sludge is at the bottom.
  3. Another inspector performs similar measurements and analyses several weeks later at the discharge port, where the oil is unloaded.
  4. The information reported by the inspectors goes back not only to the shipper of the oil, but also potentially to a whole mess of other companies and people, often including the terminals, the ship's crew, the ship owner and operating company (which can be different), both the buyer and seller of the oil, various others involved in the transaction, and possibly government and regulatory agencies as well.
  5. Each company receiving that information might do a bunch of stuff with it, such as passing it among various departments and through a bunch of computer systems for accounting, payment, analysis, and so on.
  6. Especially with oil at record high prices, having that quantity and quality information be accurate is pretty important.
  7. Until rather recently, a lot of the inspection reporting involved somewhat ad hoc systems of fax transmissions, emails, phone calls, courier shipments, and typing of the same information several times over into different computers at different places by different people—which risks delays and errors.

So, again, when people ask what Navarik does, I can go through the rigamarole above, and then explain how we've built a web-based software program that inspectors can sign into securely from any web browser on any computer (just like an online bank, or Gmail, or Amazon) and find out what shipments they've been hired to inspect. Then they can head down to the terminal, do their work, and come back and use that same computer (or a totally different one) to enter the reporting information, which goes directly over the Internet to the people who need to use it.

There's a lot more to it than that, obviously—mechanisms for other people to put together the lists of tests to be performed, procedures for nominating and contacting inspectors, information about ports and terminals around the world, thresholds for alerting people when inspection results are out of spec, and so on—but the overall result is that the whole cargo inspection process can go more smoothly. Information moves more efficiently and is more accurate, and people get paid quicker. And we have other web software solving similar problems for other companies too.

What I'm talking about here is a real web business—not one with a high profile and a shiny 3D glistening logo and a gazillion page views for a beta application with a questionable revenue model. Instead, Navarik is an under-the-radar company turning eight this year, with a few dozen very talented employees in a nondescript light industrial Vancouver building, adding a little bit of extra efficiency to the energy industry that keeps the modern world functioning.

For a business, that's a pretty good place to be. Navarik's founder, my friend Bill Dobie, will be speaking at the eLiberatica open-source conference in Romania this spring about it, and about how we use open technologies and standards that were built over the past decade for the Internet to make it happen.

I'm also hoping to be well enough again sometime later this year to help move it all along.

Labels: , , , ,

04 February 2008


Can you make money from blogging and podcasting?

Cancer Treatment: Day 62 (in Studio 31)As someone who's been a Vancouver blogger for more than seven years, and podcasting here for almost three, I often hear the question in the title of this post. But that's not what the questioners usually mean. What they want to ask is: Can you make a living from blogging and podcasting?

The short answer is yes, but don't go and quit your day job just yet. I didn't say that just anyone should try to pay for your food, lodging, and transportation needs (plus those for your spouse and kids) from blogs and podcasts, or that you could make a huge living from them. It's possible, but I don't do it, and haven't even tried. You should be aware that, just like anything else, making a living online would be a job, not some sort of free-money fantasy life.

My wife, who's also a blogger and podcaster, and I were talking about it this morning before she went to work (she's had the same stable, rewarding, good-paying professional day job for more than 15 years, and isn't planning on quitting that anytime soon). For us, our online activities are hobbies. They bring in a little money from ads and sponsorships, usually enough to cover their costs and maybe buy the occasional dinner.

Blogging for money

Arieanna and groovy lightsThe people I know who work as bloggers, like Arieanna, work hard. She writes at least five different work blogs (plus others) all day, every day, sometimes until late at night. (If I had to scour the news for links about Mischa Barton all day, I'd probably go batty. And that's just one blog.)

If you look at blogs that are popular enough to pay people's salaries—like Arieanna's and the others at b5media, or the Weblogs Inc. network that includes Engadget and its siblings, or successful independent blogs like Daring Fireball—they tend to be very focused and updated many times a day.

They often attract lots of comments, which require moderation and feedback, and their posts tend to be well sourced or individually researched, and also well written and concise. In many cases, the words are carefully crafted to attract search engine traffic, and the blogger may spend quite a bit of time writing about things he or she isn't all that interested in, or at least (as in any job) may have days where the job is just a slog, rather than a joy. Money-generating blogs take a lot of effort, skill, and time to maintain. They're work.

In other words, don't expect to dash off a paragraph every couple of days about what your kids ate for breakfast and have the ad revenue pour in.

Now, if you can find a day job where you spend a significant part of your time blogging, that's another matter. If I weren't on medical leave right now, I'd be doing that over here (notice that the "Daily Blog" isn't very daily while I'm absent). But that blog—and private internal blogs and wikis the company runs behind a firewall—is just a slice of my day job, not the whole thing, so I don't think it counts either.

Podcasting for money

Leo, Amber & Tod 06Podcasting, as an even newer medium than blogging, has an even less-established income stream. Search engine optimization and contextual advertising don't work as well for podcasts, audio or video. Like most bloggers (and like me), the vast majority of podcasters do what they do as a hobby. They (like me) might bring in a bit of cash from sponsors and podcast network advertising and so on. But podcast production is even more labour-intensive than blogging, and unless you put out shows quite frequently and build a significant audience on an appropriate topic (or topics, if you can manage several shows), it will be pretty hard to pay a mortgage.

Even Leo Laporte, whose This Week in Tech (TWiT) network attracts some of the biggest audiences in podcasting (numbering the hundreds of thousands each week), and who runs an extremely efficient podcasting operation largely by himself, still has a day job. Several, in fact. He remains a widely syndicated radio host, as he has been for decades, and also helms a cable TV show on which I've appeared (as a guest paid only in exposure and with a free take-out lunch) a few times.

Leo probably could make his podcasts a full-time gig, but presumably chooses instead to funnel what money he gets back into the network and to honoraria for his guest hosts. Others, like podcast pioneer Adam Curry, have used venture funding to create a buffer while they try to build businesses like PodShow into something large and viable.

Individual podcasters who work hard can also make a job of it. No one I know well does that, but among the tens of thousands of podcasts out there, a small number can keep their hosts fed, clothed, and housed. Again, those tend to be focused, well produced, frequent—and lucky. If you got into the game early, or happened to hit a certain niche at just the right time, or worked hard on a concept that struck a chord with the (still relatively small) podcasting audience, and then hustle like hell, you might be able to quit that day job, if that's what you want.

It used to be about the music, man...

Neurotics-Mop Tops 1In many ways, being a podcaster or blogger is like being a musician. Far more people play music, or blog, or podcast, for fun than make a living at it. I was a full-time musician for awhile in the early '90s, and it was tough work, with long hours, lots of low-budget travel (not a requirement online, fortunately), and crappy pay. I quit after I got married, because that life wasn't what I wanted long term.

The people I know who have made a career of music—and several of the guys in my band do just that, even though I haven't—aren't Rock Stars. They're working professionals. They do a lot of different things: they teach music, work as studio sidemen, tour with established acts, make instructional videos, play at casinos, entertain at weddings and corporate meetings, compose soundtracks, produce and engineer other acts, give seminars, and record jingles. They keep accounts, pay taxes, save money for retirement, buy health insurance, and run their careers as businesses.

I think anyone looking to work in blogging in podcasting is going to have to do something similar. Be professional, work hard. Use your online activities as leverage to do other things. Even in my blog's early days, it didn't make me any direct money at all, but it brought in plenty of work when I was a freelance technical writer and editor. Similarly, being an expert blogger or podcaster (or even better, both) can help you make money in other ways—such as helping other people and organizations make blogging and podcasting part of what they do.

It's not magic, it's work

miss604 shirts?If you're going to make money online, you'll need an entrepreneurial impulse, or you'll need to work with others who do. You need to know how these new media work, and how to promote and take advantage of them in all sorts of ways.

The Web and its technologies are still a frontier, and you'll probably have to bust your butt to succeed. You need to flexible and see opportunities you might not expect—selling cool T-shirts and mugs and stuff might make you more dough than any kind of sponsorship or advertising, for instance.

Or, if you're like me, you might prefer to let your blogs and podcasts be fun things that you do on the side, not something that you have to do every day, and which might burn you out after awhile.

The Internet is pretty damn cool, but it's not magic. Those who succeed on it are the same ones who succeed anywhere: they're smart, skilled, and have good ideas. They make realistic plans and knuckle down to put them in action. They hustle. And sometimes they fail and have to try again with a wiser view.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

02 February 2008


Subprime mortgages were always insane

I've never run a business any larger than my own solo writer-editor endeavour, and didn't enjoy the paperwork of that very much. I don't like reading business magazines, I don't play the stock market at all, and most financial analysts on TV, radio, the Web, and newspapers give me the heebie-jeebies. So I'm no financial expert.

Still, in the past few years, I couldn't understand why anyone in the U.S. could think a subprime mortgage (better called a "high-risk mortgage" or a "poorly qualified mortgage") would be a good idea for anybody. I heard some stories about them, but it wasn't really an issue in Canada, so I thought these mortgages were a silly, fringe thing and pretty much forgot about them.

People borrowing from banks and mortgage brokers and other finance companies who offered these mortgages were betting that house prices would keep going up indefinitely and interest rates would stay low, no matter what. The firms and financial analysts were, insanely, betting the same. Sometimes the companies loaned people more money than their houses were worth at the time on that assumption—and didn't check on their customers' ability to pay either!

I'm only 38 years old, but I've seen several economic booms, busts, and recessions in my lifetime. I remember when interest rates were 17% and higher in the early '80s, and my junior high school classmates and I—barely comprehending teenagers at the time—laughed out loud when our teachers said loan interest used to be 4% and lower. We never thought that would happen again. And if it did, we knew that could change. The dot-com boom and bust are less than a decade old too.

So I agree completely with Daniel Gross when he writes at Slate that bankers and financiers, now getting pounded in the markets because the subprime mortgage situation (which is vaster than I could have imagined anyone letting it get) is now shooting holes in the U.S. economy, are acting like a bunch of spoiled toddlers:

Children typically display an unwillingness to reckon with the consequences of their own actions. They look to parents to pick them up when they fall, and spare them from responsibility for their misbehavior. And parents will go to great lengths to insulate their offspring from the jolts the world can deliver.

The same might be said about Washington's current economic ministrations. The nation is now nursing a seriously skinned knee because of reckless housing and credit practices. But rather than force consumers, borrowers, and bankers to face the consequences of their own actions, Washington is functioning as a helicopter parent.

As we face another recessionary slump (maybe insulated a bit here in Canada), we're all going to pay for that childishness, because governments don't have enough money to do anything but cushion the blow a little. Steven Pearlstein put it even more simply in the Wall Street Journal almost a year ago:

Bankers shouldn't make—or be allowed to make—mortgage loans that require no money down and no documentation of income to people who won't be able to afford the monthly payments if interest rates rise, house prices fall or the roof springs a leak. It's not a whole lot more complicated than that.

What I do wonder is, when people are losing or walking away from homes they shouldn't have been able to buy in the first place, and also losing jobs as the economy weakens, why do the well-paid supposed mavens of Wall Street, and other finance types around the world who bought into this scheme, still have jobs?

And why do investors continue believe them when they're wrong more often than weather forecasters used to be before we had satellites?

Labels: , ,

01 February 2008


Microsoft + Yahoo! = Um, Well...

I summarized my opinion of the proposed $45 billion takeover of Yahoo! by Microsoft in my comment on Robert Scoble's post:

I think if the merger happens, it will take ages to bring the two companies together, Yahoo!’s best people will bail out, and by the time the smoke clears, Google will have lapped Yahoosoft/Microhoo several times. Bad for both sides, and in the end for users, in my opinion.

Then again, I know nothing about running a business. These are just my instincts.

Here's what some other people had to say:

Labels: , , , , ,

18 December 2007


The new world of shopping

I've ordered several of this year's Christmas presents online from the U.S., although none of them has arrived yet, which is a bit worrisome. Nevertheless, the current U.S.-Canadian dollar parity means waiting for Customs clearance is usually worth it.

For instance, I was looking for a particular present that I wanted to pick up today in town. No one had it in stock, despite several stores listing it on their websites. So I went to the manufacturer's online store in the U.S., and they were happy to take my order and ship it expedited to Canada, so that it may very well arrive before Christmas (no guarantees, though). And even with rush shipping and taxes, it was still several dollars cheaper than if I'd found it locally at retail.

My podcast co-host Paul has a post office box just across the border in Washington state (he lives in Cloverdale, B.C., about 15 minutes north of the line) which simplifies things even further: he can order from stores that don't normally ship to Canada at all, then pick up the stuff and deal with Customs himself. That saves him quite a bit of time and money—even when the dollar isn't as strong as it is now.

He does seem to be spending an awful lot more than he might otherwise on gadgets and gizmos across the border these days, though. I don't know if we're saving money in the end, or simply spending on more stuff.

Labels: , , , , , ,

06 November 2007


American Express blew it too

Plastic payment methods at Flickr.comI've been an American Express customer for close to 20 years. Yesterday, I called them up to see if they might reduce the 18.5% interest rate (!) on my current card—I explained that I'm currently on long-term disability coverage and that I'm trying to reduce my expenses.

Any financial planner will generally advise calling your creditors and asking them to reduce your interest rate. It's in their interest to do so if you're likely to switch to another provider. So that's what I was doing—my wife and I, like everyone, routinely get offers for lower-interest credit cards in the mail. Even if those low 3% or 3.9% rates generally bump up again after a few months, I've checked, and they usually end up at a similar rate to what Amex has been charging me anyway. So those few months could save us quite a bit of money.

But no dice. Amex wouldn't offer me any kind of lower rate, nor a balance transfer. Nothing. So I cancelled my American Express card. (Gotta follow through.)

I still have to pay off the balance, of course, but I won't be making any further purchases with it. As with Telus a couple of years ago, Amex appears more interested in making attractive offers to new customers than on keeping current ones, which doesn't seem smart to me.

Maybe my other credit card provider will be more interested in keeping my business?

Labels: , , ,