Sunday, 27 February 2005

Picky Customer or Circling Vulture

Jen and I went to a mall on Saturday. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a mall on a Saturday afternoon. I left buying nothing and feeling extremely uninspired to shop.

I now know why Target sold Marshall Field’s last year to May Department Stores and why May Department Stores is praying to be bought by Federated.

Like advertising, commercial radio, and the airline industry, the entire department store model is broken. It’s no longer useful to customers like you and me. Every store looks exactly the same. Each store offers the same products under the same brands, in the same colors, at the same price, with the same reason offered to buy from them – none.

Perhaps, like in commercial radio, this homogeneity is a result of consolidation. That may be. I submit consolidation itself is a result of:

  1. a business unable to be successful on its own,
  2. the belief sustainable margins could be reached with enough volume.

Even if stores aren’t sharing inventory, they’re striving for blandness by stocking the few items that move at competitors and dumping the unique items – the ones that don’t sell. Leaving me, and I suspect, you, with a strong sense of blah.

As we walked through Marshall Fields (or was it Herbergers or was it J.C. Pennys?) the majority of the customer activity was in the inter-aisle sale racks. 50% off jewelry, 60% off menswear, racks and racks of stale inventory clogging up the aisles. That’s where the customers were. The full-price stuff getting no attention. The scene reminded me of my mom – doing the bulk of her furniture shopping at Going Out of Business sales.

Retail stores traditionally mark up their products 100%. That covers things like: the staff, the building, and the products that aren’t selling. Things that keep the business running, that keep the jobs in your neighborhood. If stores get the bulk of their business when they run sales (going out of business or otherwise),

    what incentive to the have to:

  • stock things worth buying not on sale?
  • differentiate themselves from their competitors?
  • stay in business?

This relationship is like that mean, yet popular high school girl telling the infatuated A/V club president, “We can be best friends as long as we never see each other.” Yes, we’re the popular high school girl and the stores are the geeky boys.

A handful of questions come to mind:

  • Is this Wal-Mart’s fault for teaching us that stores should strive to squeeze the livable-wages out of margins?
  • Is this the fault of stores like TJ Maxx where the department store’s unsold inventory lands a season later? Thereby reinforcing the ‘if you wait, the price will be lower’ lesson taught to us by the frequent sales.
  • Is this the result of a society so plush with potential options we need the threat of something being gone tomorrow to make a purchase decision?
  • One last question: If turning customers into circling vultures is the only way to make them buy, are the products worth selling?

Friday, 25 February 2005

Fact Checking My Own Ass

Google alerted me to MarketWatch’s Bloggers won’t keep a secret article where my mis-quote of Dan Gillmor got a mention.

Some bloggers are almost proud of making a mistake. It gives them a chance to make a correction and appear oh, so humble and honest. Garrick Van Buren, who blogged about a showing of “Blogumentary” at the University of Minnesota last week, made a typo in his report of the event. He wrote that Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media,” said blogs are “an early and still cruel tool,” but that things would change. What the author really said, Gillmor wrote in an e-mail to Van Buren and me, was “crude.” Certainly more in keeping with Gillmor’s view of the future of blogging.

This paragraph brings out the core difference between internet publishing (or weblogs) and traditional newspaper, book, or magazine publishing, or any kind of big media publishing.

Traditional publishing is hard, expensive, and time-consuming. It costs piles of money for press time and distribution. Because of that, publishers need to make sure everything is juuuust right – so, there’s layers of proof-readers, editors, typesetters, and other QA people between the author and the reader. Each layer adding more money to the pile, compounding the problem.

When mistakes are made, typographical or otherwise, it might be found in the ‘Corrections’ section of some future issue. Here in the dub-dub-dub, each story is a living breathing, growing entity with links, comments, corrections, additions, all inline and all published immediately and transparently. Operating under Joy’s Laws states (“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”). Bloggers and readers alike aren’t just fact checking the ass of traditional media, they’re fact checking their own ass.

Pick any post at slashdot or 37 Signals’ Signal vs Noise to see this on a huge scale. This is also why Wikipedia has the most comprehensive coverage of anything in a single site.

In the Dan Gillmore quote, I could have quietly swapped “crude” out for “cruel”. Doing so felt a little too 1984 Memory Hole-esque. Instead, showing both the correction and Dan’s message inline seemed more transparent, and yes, honest to you.

Plus, if I made the change quietly, the section in the MarketWatch article wouldn’t have existed.

Thursday, 24 February 2005

Introducing the gFeed

The other morning I was looking for an easy way to test all my feeds. After a few minutes of tracking down the latest magpierss and some lunchtime programming, I’m happy to present the gFeed.

The gFeed pulls all my posts at, the First Crack Podcast,, the Work Better Weblog, and my Flickr Gallery into a single site and single RSS.

Currently it’s a straight text and image feed, no mp3 enclosures (i.e. podcasts) or links in the post’s body. For now, you’ll have to click over to the original post for that stuff.

I’m not sure if the gFeed will be useful to anyone but myself, let me know either way.

If you’re interested in how I modified magpierss to aggregate the sites, continue reading.

  1. Open up a magpie_simple.php and create an array (I put it at line 3) with all the sites you want to aggregate:
    $urls = array (
  2. After that, create an array for all the posts to live in.

    $allitems = array();
  3. Now replace magpie’s existing ‘if ($url)’ with ‘foreach($urls as $url)’ like this

    Change this:

    if ( $url ) {
    	$rss = fetch_rss($url);

    To This:

    foreach ($urls as $url) {
    	$rss = fetch_rss($url);
  4. Next, I grab the title and link from each of the specified feeds and parse through each of the items in the feeds. For each item in the feed, I grab the title, link, description, publication date, guid, and timestamp.
    	$channel = $rss->channel['title'];
    	$channellink = $rss->channel['link'];
             foreach ($rss->items as $item) {
    		$title = $item['title'];
    		$href = $item['link'];
    		$desc = $item['description'];
    		$date = $item['pubdate'];
    		$guid = $item['guid'];
    		$ts = $item['date_timestamp'];
  5. Before closing out the ‘foreach()’ function, I add all that data to the $allitems array.
        array_push($allitems, array($ts,
              "channel" =>$channel,
              "channellink" => $channellink,
              "title" => $title,
              "href" =>$href,
              "pubdate" =>$date,
  6. Now, sort all the items by their timestamp
  7. Finally, we spit out the items:
    foreach ($allitems as $item) {
    	echo $item['href'];
    	echo $item['title'];
    	echo $item['desc'];
    	echo $item['channellink'];
    	echo $item['channel'];

Hope this is helpful in creating your own personal gFeed, or jFeed, or cFeed, or whathaveyou.

Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Get Paid to Do What You Love

I'm a micropatron.

Jason Kottke is making the biggest decision of his life. He’s testing a hypothesis I’ve had since I started podcasting. I believe the business model of the future is the one public television and public radio have been using for years:

If your customers like what you do, they’ll pay you to continue.

Dean Allen did the same back in 2004 with TextDrive, he raised $40,000 in 4 days. Offering people hosting for the lifetime of TextDrive for a mere $200.


I predict we’ll see more and more people pursuing this model. As they do, the traditional concepts of media, employer, and job will look archaic and clumsy.

And yes, I’m supporting both Kottke and Textdrive.

UPDATE: I sitting here listening to Dave Slusher’s latest podcast and realized I need to add Evil Genius Chronicles and Chuck Olsen to this Asking for Support to Do What You Love list.

“You should be fired if you do a marketing site without an RSS feed.”

(originally published at

What the internet does really, really well is connect things through hyperlinks. The outcome of hyperlinks is connecting people. When people are connected, there’s a relationship.

Websites are an excellent marketing tool. Like any tool, they need to be used correctly. To do so, they need to build a relationship between the company and it’s customers.

This is a nice way to say what Microsoft’s resident weblogger Robert Scoble said:

“You should be fired if you do a marketing site without an RSS feed.”

Why are weblogs addictive and marketing sites not? Authenticity, reality. and relationships.

It still surprises me how many websites aren’t weblogs. There are mechanisms with most weblog systems you get the following for free:

  • Easy to maintain content management system
  • RSS feeds
  • Categories and sections
  • Searching
  • Permalinks
  • Commenting systems
  • and they’re Google-friendly

This means, these things don’t need to be build from scratch and it’s a fertile ground to build a relationship with customers.

Maybe like the old Tootsie Roll commercial, everything looks like a weblog to me. Then again, maybe weblogs are the most mature, effective mechanism to communicate news quickly to everyone that cares.

UPDATE: Dave Winer says not having RSS is like not having business cards. I completely agree. Considering the high percentage of my correspondance is through email, I’m frequently well into a working relationship before there’s an opportunity to exchange business cards.

The first thing I do before I meet someone, Google them. If a website with an RSS feed doesn’t come up, or worse – they can’t be found – I always hesitate.

Stowe Boyd over at Cornate’s Get Real blog, confirms my hesitation in his More Egosurfing post:

“…Google Juice is about people ‘voting’ on your relevance to the issues you have decided to wrestle with, and represents the degree to which you’d be missed if you stopped blogging.”

“…as an indicator of the karma that bloggers have built up, by crafting posts that make people think, link, and comment, Google Juice means something important.”

Monday, 21 February 2005

You Really Won’t Know Until You Build It

I caught Charlie Lazor, talking about building furniture and houses at the University of Minnesota this evening.

I found this quote on prototyping invaluable:

“We spent so much time arguing whether or not it work, and when we prototyped it, it worked remarkably well. We could have saved so much time, if we had just built it sooner.”

My full write-up on his talk can be found at: Your House as Furniture.

Fortune Cookie Actually Relevant

At today’s MNteractive PowerLunch I received the following fortune cookie message:

“Explore the backroads of the north with a new friend.”

It seemed fantastically relevant to last weekend’s journey.

If you haven’t been to the Sawatadee in St. Paul, the service is fantastic. I haven’t been there for months and the waitress recognized me, remembered what I ordered last time (pad thai chicken), and how spicy I liked it (5). Rock on.

Sunday, 20 February 2005

A Weekend in the Northwoods

Bayfield Ice Road Photos

Jen and I headed up to Bayfield this weekend for an enjoyable, off-season Northwoods weekend.

The moment we merged onto Highway 2 in Wisconsin, our mobile phones declared ‘No Network’. It took a moment for ‘No Network’ to sink in:

  1. No using the phone’s bluetooth as a dial-up modem.
  2. No calling people you’re meeting to say, “we’re running late”.
  3. No calling for help from the side of the road when Something Bad Happens. (i.e. the car starts making odd sounds in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest)

Though, we missed ‘Book across the Bay’, the cross-country ski race across the frozen Chequamegon Bay between Ashland and Washburn, we still took advantage of the winter-only real estate.

During the winter months, the State of Wisconsin plows a two-lane, pine tree-lined, road on frozen Lake Superior connecting Bayfield to Madeline Island.

After some difficulty with a small patch of ice outside the B&B, the Neon performed excellently on the Ice Road and had enough zip left for a full tour of the yet-to-be-fully-plowed island.

As isolated as I felt without T-Mobile service, I found the lack of TV and phone in the room refreshing. It made watching Anchorman off the PowerBook‘s DVD player that much more enjoyable.

We’d like to thank Sharon & Craig Locey, proprietors of the Thimbleberry Inn for a quiet, comfortable stay. Sharon’s enthusiastic hospitality, her apple bars, and her restaurant recommendations – all flawless.

She sent us to the Deep Water Grille, next to the South Shore Brewery in Ashland and Maggies in Bayfield. Both are islands of culinary joy in the Northwoods. At Deep Water, Jen enjoyed the black bean veggie burger and I’d go back for half a mushroom, spinach, and gorgonzola sandwich. If they’re out of whitefish livers at the pink flamingo-covered Maggie’s, get the spicy Thai peanut noodles.

After we got out of the lake-effect snow storm, the drive back went very quickly.

Thursday, 17 February 2005

A Mac Mini in the Living Room

Since the release of the Mac Mini, I’ve been looking for reasons to pick one up. Currently, there’s a G4 tower in my basement and I’d like to return it to the 20th Century.


Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. Plug the Mac Mini into my TV, and use either the El Gato EyeTV Wonder or Plextor ConvertX as a personal video recorder.
  2. Use the KeySpan Remote Control to control the PVR, the Mini’s DVD player, iTunes, iPhoto, and Skype from the couch
  3. Use the Mini as a file server and WiFi base station to the rest of the computers on the network

In theory, it sounds pretty slick, a true Digital Hub. In practice, I’m less optimistic. I’d rather not have to navigate the Mac OS from the couch.

Two things require further investigation:

  1. Can a specific key on the KeySpan can be mapped to each of the applications?
  2. Are the PVRs reliable with broadcast, over-the-air TV?

Has anyone tried something like this in their own home?