Permission marketing gets stale when it's overused.

I'd like to talk about the old-fashioned concept of "overstaying your welcome". If you and I chat and exchange business cards, maybe we'll become friends on Facebook. I'm giving you permission to contact me, on either a personal or a professional basis. But not indefinitely.

Seth Godin talks a lot about permission marketing, the idea that a brand like Apple has its customers' permission to send them information about new products. Contrast this with how you'd feel if, say, Toshiba sent you an uninvited email about their new laptop: you'd call it spam. The same principle works face-to-face, too. As co-organizer of a blogging group, member of a Social Media Club, and frequenter of a sort of permanent monthly cocktail party, I meet a lot of people. I even made up personal business cards so I wouldn't have to hand out my company's cards. I've made good friends this way, made peripheral contact with several social networks I otherwise never would have known about, and from time to time I'm asked to support a cause or attend a fundraiser or some such thing. That's all fine.

Here's the thing. If I only met you once, you may not hammer my inbox with weekly inspirational quotes until the next Ice Age. If I've never RSVP'd yes, or even responded in any way shape or form, to one of your event invitations, you should quit sending them.

When does my permission expire? When I can no longer recall what our last conversation was about, when I see your name and remember only your marketing ledes and what you want from me, then I don't want to hear from you. How can you keep that from happening? If we meet in person, talk to me and try to learn what interests me, what I'd like to hear more about, and use it. If we don't meet often, then put me in a Facebook list of people you don't send promotions to until you have, yes you guessed it, had a conversation with me and found out what I want to hear.

It's entirely possible that we have nothing to offer each other, and that's OK. But if you overstay your welcome, don't be surprised if I retract my permission for you to contact me.

Sound quality falls as video tech improves, sort of

A recent New York Times article argued that sound quality hasn't benefited from the same kinds of technological progress that video has. (Think of flat panel TVs, High Definition, and 3D movies; then try to imagine what a living room stereo with fancy new technology would look like.) But then the website Create Digital Music published a rebuttal, reminding us of High Definition Compact Disc, DVD-Audio, and various cinema-grade surround formats. They tore apart pretty much every point in the Times article, and their criticisms are mostly right. Unfortunately they were a little too busy attacking the lazy Big Media journalist and polishing their righteous indignation to identify and address the reason the Times wrote the article in the first place: people have stopped buying stereos.

It used to be common to have two large speakers in a big room for listening to music. Today I can only think of one person outside my family who has anything that qualifies, and he uses it mainly for videogames. I won't exclude him because of that; what I'm talking about here is listening carefully to music on a system chosen to reveal audio detail, and he does that sometimes. I'll bet even audiophiles do most of their listening passively, while multitasking. The thing is, over the last 30 years, most of the rest of us went from occasionally listening carefully to never doing it. So we no longer devote the space in our living rooms to it.

Why are Blu-Ray players selling so much better than, say, SACD players? Something has changed in our patterns of consumption. On the surface, video content is more immersive than audio-only content, simply because it engages an additional sense. I've always thought that actively listening to music was a more contemplative pastime than watching television or movies, simply because there is less in the media to distract me from my thoughts. It's been said that America needs to work on its mindfulness, so perhaps the trend towards more immersive media is part of that.

What else could America have been?

Everybody knows that the United States could easily have been a monarchy or a theocracy, but what if something else had influenced the founding fathers? Might they have founded the United States of Confucianism? Or Machiavellianism?

The Founding Fathers drafted our Constitution and our country as an experiment in applied rationalism. Everywhere else, superstitions and class favoritisms were explicitly spelled out in the law. Those who created the government here decided to try doing without all that, relying instead on clearheaded empiricism. That set of ideas came along at the right time to influence the birth of a nation.

Philosophical systems are created and developed by groups of intellectuals corresponding with one another. By contrast, governments are usually formed by a conqueror or they coalesce out of smaller city-states. The United States became independent in an unusually self-aware way. It provided an opportunity to build a good government from scratch - to learn from previous mistakes. The form of "good government" the founding fathers chose was democracy, because it was the idea that was in vogue at the time. But it could easily have been different.

How to make sure an old wine cork doesn't fall apart

We had a special dinner last week and opened a 1998 Bordeaux we'd been saving. As I drove my Waiter's Friend corkscrew into the cork, I felt very little resistance. Then, tragedy: what came out was the top half of the cork and the crumbled core of the bottom half. I spent the next fifteen minutes failing to extract the cork, then filtering the wine through a fine mesh strainer. We still had bits of cork in our glasses. That cork disintegrated.

Sometimes you're just unlucky, right? And there's nothing you can do about it? Not so. You can tell when you're dealing with a weak cork and use a different tool: the two-pronged opener known as the Butler's Friend or Ah-So. Polling my friends with more experience in old wines, I learned that that lack of resistance as you drive in the corkscrew is the telltale sign of a weak cork. I drink mostly young wines, so I'm used to really having to twist. In fact, I can't recall ever having a cork crumble on me. So here's what you do.
  • If you're opening a bottle 10 or more years old, pay attention.
  • If the conventional corkscrew goes in too easy, unscrew it back out again.
  • Open it with the two-pronged cork puller.
Here's how to use it: push in one prong a little bit, then the other, rocking the tool back and forth until both prong tips are past the bottom of the cork. (Don't try to push both prongs down at the same time or you may push the cork into the bottle.) Once the tool is far enough in, twist and pull without rocking to break loose the cork from the glass and extract it.

This short YouTube video demonstrates the technique. Enjoy your well aged wine!

Layout change

I went into Blogger In Draft and changed the layout of this site. Those of you subscribing via RSS won't notice, but how's the readability at the site itself? I went to a three-column layout and added a "tabs" widget below the title. Several things that used to be in the right-hand column are now on their own tabs. I think it looks less cluttered this way.

Each tab is a "page" in Blogger. My blog posts appear in the "Home" tab and the "About" tab is self-explanatory. The "Shared Readings" tab is things that I've shared in Google Reader and the "Shared Links" tab is things that I've shared on Delicious. "CLEblogs" is a subset of my Delicious feed, just the Cleveland bloggers.

I'm not 100% happy with the layout of the Shared pages. I'd like the Readings to look more like the shared items page itself, with multiple posts instead of a single post consisting of a list of previews. I'd also like the Links page to include everything in my Delicious feed except CLEblogs, since the CLEblogs links now appear on a fifth tab to serve as a blogroll. I'm sure there's a way to do that, but I'm short on time.

Car geekery part 3: automatic transmissions with clutches

As much as I like cars, there aren't too many technical innovations in them that I'd be willing to pay for. An exception is what I'll call an automated manual transmission. Once a rarity (think Ferrari F1 cars and BMW M3s), they have slowly approached my price range (Audi/VW DSG, still not there). But lo and behold: this year we get a dual clutch automatic transmission in the 2011 Ford Fiesta ... for about $14k. This is a car I'd actually consider buying.

What is an automated manual transmission? You can think of it as a stick-shifter with the addition of a computer that can shift for you. How is this different from a conventional automatic transmision? In a car with a stick, there's a solid mechanical connection (through a clutch plate) between the engine and the wheels. In contrast, a conventional automatic puts the engine's power through a fluid connection (the torque converter). They're called "slushboxes". Think of sticking a spoon in a jar of honey and twisting the spoon to spin the jar. The drawbacks are delays, inefficiency, and less sense of being connected to the road.

Inefficiency, yes. Fuel economy is everything these days. Everybody knows manuals get better gas mileage than automatics--they're lighter, they don't waste power churning fluids, and they have more gears to choose from. Nonetheless I was startled to see the EPA estimates for the Fiesta:
Manual: 29 city/38 highway
Automatic: 30 city/40 highway
Um, what? The automatic gets BETTER mileage than the manual? Yes - it's doubtless heavier but it has one more gear.

On the downside, apparently you cannot choose what gear to be in, so you can't downshift in preparation for a passing maneuver. I think I'm OK with that. What I really want is the immediate response. I hate pushing the accelerator and waiting for my car's automatic to raise the engine revs and tighten the torque converter before I start to accelerate.

Jalopnik thinks very highly of this car, despite it only having 120 horsepower. It's light and has a great suspension, which is actually a lot more important to me than the powertrain. I know from experience that having more power just makes me drive like a jerk. What I enjoy is being able to go around corners without slowing down. This could be my next car.

Previous car geekery: part 1 and part 2.

That's not good.

I'm curating a little flickr photoset of found images I've tagged "not good". In a nutshell:
A collection of internet photos that made me say, "ouch", or "someone's having a bad day", or just "that's not good".
They're not my photos; I don't mean to make any judgements about the events depicted; I can't even say they're not photoshopped. This is just part of my effort to be more conscious and active while I'm cruising the web. Enjoy.

iPhone engineer: a case study in personal branding

The backstory: a phone was found on a barstool and turned out to be a prototype next-generation iPhone. The finder sold it to a website, which told the world all about it ... and all about the engineer who lost it. This unfortunate young man's public Internet presence was put under intense scrutiny. It's a good occasion to think about your own personal brand.

Put yourself in the engineer's place. What if you made a high-profile mistake and people who had never met you began to make inferences about your character from your Internet presence? Their conclusions could affect your career and even your love life. This worst-case scenario gives people--not just executives and entrepreneurs--a reason to think twice about how everything they make public might look to a stranger. What do you do about it?
Option one: Alarmists will try to erase all traces of themselves. I'm a huge user, and we have a few people coming to our events who refuse to join the group or provide an email address; they just watch the website and show up at the same time we do. I'm personally offended by their lack of trust in me, and furthermore it makes me distrust them. In any case, if you don't manage your online presence, someone will do it for you. If all your next potential employer can find about you is your buddy's hilarious picture of you in a pink tutu throwing up in the bushes in 1995, then, well, that's your online presence.

Option two: To go too far in the other direction is also a mistake. Lifeblogging, the practice of putting it all out there, does serve to give a complete and accurate picture of a person. Anything really bad done by a person of typical morality would be lost in the tide of mundanities. But the problem isn't what's out there, it's the sheer absence of filters. Would you hire someone who didn't know when to shut up?

Option three: Ask what's reasonable and what's humanizing. There will be always be someone who will dislike you without giving you a chance - maybe because you eat fast food or drive a big car - so you can't please everyone. You make compromises based on your preferences, and as long as what you do is understandable in context, it serves to help an anonymous viewer understand you.
It would probably help to think about your life and your interests and look for gaps in what's presented online about you. Maybe your Internet presence is all work and no play. Put up some of your photography or poetry, or join a forum to discuss your car restoration projects. Paint a picture of yourself - selectively of course. You're cultivating an image, not fertilizing it!

"Buy American" echoes through the decades as "Buy Local"

I've always had a vague distaste for calls to "buy American", but in the 2010s, "buy local" feels more like a hip, spunky way to strike back at the Wal-Marts of the world. What's changed - the details? Or me? Or are these two movements not really fundamentally the same like they appear to be? When I was a child in the 1970s, Japanese cars were becoming more and more common on American roads. They were more fuel efficient in a time of escalating emissions controls and gas prices, and they were far more reliable. I remember my mother complaining that she would love to buy a Honda, but only a GM dealer would take her awful GM car in trade. The backlash--imported cars being scratched with keys and hounded in traffic--sounded hollow. It was the petulance of labor unions who had abused their power and finally had real competition. It was asking for permission not to improve in the face of clearly superior alternatives. I had little sympathy.

Thirty years on, we're coming to realize that something is lost in global trade. With our eyes on global warming, it seems irresponsible to ship fresh strawberries across the ocean so we can dip them in chocolate with Champagne on Valentine's Day. People are thinking about reducing their carbon footprints. Those strawberries are dissatisfying anyway - hard and tasteless, they're like decorated styrofoam replicas of the produce I enjoyed as a child. Today's grocery store tomatoes, too, are engineered for travel and yield rather than taste and nutrition. The local food movement points out that buying heirloom varietals closer to home gives you fresher food and keeps your money circulating in the local economy.There's that word: economy. Wasn't that what the "made in the USA" thing was all about too? Well, yes, on a different scale with different competition. Choosing an American-made car in 1980 did help the US economy: it preserved jobs and kept profits within the country. (Longer. Eventually the money leaves, for example when one of the dealership employees buys an imported television.) And unfortunately buying American cars was not always in the economic best interests of individual consumers. For my young mind, the argument was also a little too abstract. "Buy local" is more intimate: these are your neighbors. You may meet the farmer in person, or have acquaintances in common. The owner of the coffeeshop on the corner lives in your city, his children attend the same schools as yours. And the benefits are palpable. Try those juicy, perfumey strawberries.

Much of the difference is attitude. American-car zealots were self-entitled bullies thirty years ago. Localist movements win converts with energy and enthusiasm. With "time management" giving way to "energy management" strategies, consumers are looking to do business with people who energize them. It's personal.