The Most Useless Machine. Ever.

A few weeks ago I came across a video on Tumblr entitled “The Most Useless Machine Ever” – as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have one, and thankfully the guy who posted the video, “SaskView” also posted an Instructables page with instructions for the circuit and assembly. This struck me as a perfect basic electronics project to take on with my son, Oliver.

The finished product

Assembly & Tweaks

Assembly took place over a couple of weekends as I got my rusty soldering skills back in shape and finally learned how to read circuit diagrams properly. In the end, we fell back to a simplified circuit (that someone had posted in the comments of the Instructable) that turned it from a relatively complex circuit (for my current skill level) to a basic two-switch, one-motor affair. We did have to lobotomize the servo motor so it was free spinning & wired directly to power (basically turning it into a plain old motor”) but I don’t plan on pulling this apart so I wasn’t too worried about it.

It was a fun little project and surprisingly, it never gets old, even a week later I can’t help but flick the switch whenever I walk by it :)

Speaking at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ “Innovate News” conference

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This upcoming weekend, on January 30th, I’ll be speaking at the Innovate News conference at MaRS. The conference is put on by Canadian Association of Journalists and the CAJ Education Fund.

“The Canadian Association of Journalists and the CAJ Education Foundation are kicking off the decade with a groundbreaking conference where news staff and management can learn about emerging techniques, technologies and models to transform journalism for the 21st century. The conference focuses on skills, strategies and tactics that journalists and their organizations can start implementing immediately.”

I’m quite excited as they’ve got a few visually oriented people on the speaker list. Personally, I’ll be talking about visual thinking techniques that can be used to help gather and organize information, develop the story, and even tips on recognizing opportunities where using a visual or information graphic as the final product will improve the effectiveness, or clarity of a story.

Other speakers include:

  • Jim Brady, president, digital strategy, Allbritton Communications; former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com
  • Bill Buxton, principal researcher, Microsoft Research
  • John Cruickshank, publisher, Toronto Star
  • Michael Lee, chief strategy officer, Rogers
  • Patrick Lor, president, Fotolia North America
  • Rachel Nixon, director of digital media, CBC News
  • Kenny Yum, editor, GlobeandMail.com

Full details for the conference can be found here, it looks like a really interesting day of content.

In a disaster, the real-time, social web wins again

morel haiti on Twitpic
@photomorel on Twitpic

By now, I’m sure just about everyone knows about the earthquake that hit Haiti late yesterday afternoon. Personally, I learned about it within a minute or two of the USGS announcing it through a tweet. Out of old habits I flipped over to CNN.com to get details, there was of course nothing there yet, and wouldn’t be for 5-10 minutes.

I was personally concerned as I had a friend who was in Haiti this past week and was due to leave yesterday. I checked his twitter stream but all his feed said was that he was getting ready to head home – nothing about actually catching a flight or leaving. I, of course, wanted to know more.

The quest for information led me to a few interesting features, or rather interesting uses of existing features, on Facebook and Twitter that I hadn’t considered before:

  1. Geofenced Twitter Search
  2. Automatic Translation of Search Results
  3. The Facebook Wall as a rallying point

Geofenced Twitter Search

Now that everyone has search enabled either in their Twitter web interface or third-party app of choice I think many have just plain forgotten about Twitter Search at http://search.twitter.com. The problem with Twitter’s basic search yesterday was it was initially just everybody and their uncle retweeting the basic USGS earthquake notification. Literally page after page of the same words being tweeted by people around the world.
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But, over on search.twitter.com you can drop into Advanced Search and then a whole suite of new tools become available to you – most importantly, in this case, the ability to limit your search geographically.

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Now, with one quick search you’re able to filter out much of the noise and start to get a sense of who’s online down there and what they’re seeing/experiencing. Interestingly enough there appeared to be some level of connectivity down there, even amongst the chaos, as last night there were several twitter accounts that were providing updates on themselves and what they were seeing.

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Automatic Translation of Search Results

FliD76AAnd here’s where another challenge popped up. As with anything international, many tweets weren’t in English. It’s actually quite easy to forget online that not everything is in English. I’ve blogged before about how language is the final barrier that we need to overcome for us to be able to seamlessly share all of our information with everyone else.

Now the premise of this feature isn’t anything new. Google Translate, and before that Babelfish, have been around for ages and you could easily feed your content to it and get it translated. What was new to me though, was a link right in the twitter search that let me set Google Translate loose on the page – and it was implemented perfectly. Many may not realize but Google can actually detect the source language in many cases now, so even though there was a mix of languages (i.e. English, French and Spanish) on the page, it could pick out what wasn’t in English, detect which language it was and then provide me with a translated result right in the Twitter Search page.

For example:
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became
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The Facebook Wall as a Rallying Point

Now, both of the features above, while excellent for getting some idea about what is going on in a specific area, gave me no info on the friend who I was concerned about. That’s where I turned to Facebook. Knowing he was also on Facebook and tended to update it in addition to twitter I thought there might be some additional information there.  While it did provide me clues as to where abouts in the country he might be (previous status messages mentioned where he was volunteering etc.), there was no further updates beyond the same “getting ready to head home” message.

I didn’t really think anything of it as I left a “hope you’re ok” message on his wall but in reality what was happening was the wall was turning into a small rallying point for anyone who was concerned about him. This is interesting as the Facebook wall is one of those few places where people who have no connection to a person, other than the person themselves can find each other and share information.

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As you can see by the image above, my friend Patrick was thankfully wheels-up on his flight home and safe when the quake happened but I have no doubt that in a worst-case situation this thread would quickly have turned into a much more significant place for people to get information and offer help/resources. And of course by commenting on the wall it also turned on email notifications for it so I even got real-time updates on my blackberry so while I was sitting in an condo board meeting I got the last message you see posted there, that my friend was safe.

In Conclusion

Many of these features are nothing new, what struck me as interesting though was how quickly there uses quickly shifted in the context of a real-time evolving event. There’s absolutely no question that the real-time web is changing the relationship between us and the media. Before this would have been a worrisome evening in front of the TV while waiting for CNN to get additional information.

Oh yeah, about the same time I got the message from the wall that my friend was safe, CNN had it’s first images from Haiti. The source? Facebook.

(but I’d already seen them ~15 minutes earlier on twitter)

Visually Exploring the Personal Brand – Part 2: Taking Inventory

As a follow-up to my original post I’ve been working on other ideas around the notion of personal brand. I’ve got a few other visuals & ideas I’m working on and will publish them as I think they’re at a point that they’re ready to share. This next visual is, I think, a bit of a no-brainer, but I thought i’d throw it out there. I’ll admit there’s currently one catch: I’m still working out how best to fill this chart out, I’ve included a section about that at the bottom of this post but just a caveat that there’s no “magic bullet” solution here :) – that said I’ve outlined what I think is an effective process for using this chart to help you start authentically correcting and refining how you’re perceived by others.

Taking Inventory

Part of defining and refining your personal brand is stepping back and considering what your baseline is – how are you currently perceived out there “in the wild”? I wanted a quick and easy way to map out these impressions and perceptions and pretty quickly turned to a 2×2 format chart :

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The intention is to create a chart when you can map out your traits, adjectives that would describe you, experiences, and other qualities to help create your baseline.

The Axes

If you recall my previous graphic, Facts & Fictions formed the foundation of what helps make up peoples impressions and perceptions of you. I think the idea of authenticity is single-handedly the key element when it comes to presenting yourself to the outside world and wanted to make that a key part of the inventory map so the X-axis is based on a spectrum Fictional & Factual.

In a perfect world, Fact & Fiction would be as clear as night & day but it’s the real world and admittedly it can be a bit of a murky area and part of this process should be about taking a good hard look at what your true baseline is. At the furthest extremes you’re either flat out lying (I invented fire) or it’s something completely objective and unquestionably true (I’m 32) everything else is somewhere in between.

On the Y-Axis I’ve included the spectrum of Positive & Negative. Are these facts or fictions good things or bad things?  This starts to bring in the reputation factor – have you burned bridges in the past? Do people consider you trustworthy?  Rating your facts and fictions on this scale really starts to help you get a sense of just how solid your reputation is out there, and how authentic you’re being day-to-day.

Another angle for the Positive vs. Negative is to consider whether an item positively contributes to presenting the image, or ‘brand’ that you want people to see. Maybe you have a dominating experience or past career that people still think of being an integral part of who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. You may want to place that in the negative range even though the outside world perceives it as a positive as it may be hurting your overall goals.

The Quadrants

Obviously, what you really want to present and embrace are your positive, factual traits. As I’ve indicated in the image the other three quadrants all bear their own risks:

Positive Fictional – Congratulations, you’re been a great bullshitter so far. It’s not going to last, if someone corrects these before you can  they’ve only got one place to go, the bottom right corner and then you’re done.

Negative Fictional – Unlike above, no one deliberately creates these types of items (I hope) but they can emerge. Maybe someone is spreading rumours, or there’s been a misunderstanding -there’s many ways these can get created. The important thing is to identify them early and get on correcting them because even though you know they’re fiction, someone else considers them facts.

Negative Factual – Have you considered a career change? Sure, with enough time and effort you could probably remedy these but if anything ends up down here and it’s a key item or trait you need to succeed the deck is most certainly stacked against you.

Positive Factual – The holy grail. Get all your dots up here and you’ve got a good baseline to work from.

Fixing Your Map

Invariably, we’re all going to have a dots in all of the quadrants – none of us are perfect. So how do we start correcting it?

Moving Fictions to Facts

Don’t worry about the positives/negatives at first. What you really want to do is get yourself to a factual baseline as quickly as possible. Fictions are ticking time bombs, whether you’ve created them or now. Get them off your plate first, then you can worry about the true picture is positive or not.

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1. Cut the Bullshit – Take a good look at what you’re putting out there – Look at each of the fictions, determine where the truth lies and reevaluate how you speak about it – If it’s a flat out lie just cut it, now. If it’s something fuzzier (i.e. adding an extra few years experience as a professional web designer because you once built a one-page ‘website’ in high school) then you need to step back and ask yourself “What would happen if someone asked me to elaborate on this?” bring your presentation in line with how you’d truthfully answer that question. It’s okay to reach but make sure you can always truthfully back it up.

2. Clean up the Messes – This may be a bit trickier, but if you’ve got negative things out there about you that are just plain wrong (or at least, not entirely truthful) you need to find the source and solve the problem. Maybe it was a misunderstanding and a simple conversation will correct things. Be careful here though, you don’t want to take some tiny little misconception that few people have noticed and blow it up to a big problem by pointing it out to everyone (i.e. publicly renouncing it on your blog).  Choose your ‘battles’, when cleaning up these messes do it as discreetly as possible.

Moving to the Positive

Now you can turn your focus to cleaning up your image – hopefully this is not a big undertaking for most people

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1. Make Things Right – Alright you really screwed something up, we all do it at one point or another. You may never be able to correct it, but you can make an effort to show that you’ve learned from the experience. Apologize, talk it out, make it right as best you can – nothing will change until you make the first step. Again, the key here is to be authentic – you can’t just declare this to be in your past and have everyone shrug and say “okay”. The only way anything is getting off the bottom of this chart is if other people move it.

2. Spin It – Now, when I say spin I don’t mean take your major cock-up from above and try and put some rosy paint on it. This is more in reference to those items that are in your past, are considered positive by many people but are getting in your way of advancing your current goals. Step back and look for the positive angles that you can take from that experience and apply to your current goals – i.e. how does that experience give you a unique edge in your current space?  If you can’t find something (and I’d be surprised if you don’t), move to step 3. Hell, move to step 3 anyways.

3. Be Explicit – Sometimes we just need to say it out loud and make it very clear – we all carry baggage with us from the past, afraid to let it go lest we offend or disappoint someone . Write a blog post, send an email out to your network, get the message out that explicitly states “This is what I’m doing now. I loved doing xxxx, but it’s no longer what I do”. If there are individuals you’re worried about offending or disappointing then reach out to them 1-on-1 BEFORE you send out any mass communication efforts or else you risk just piling new stuff in the negative areas.

Now the Question: How to fill out this chart?

So here’s the catch, and the part I’m struggling with – How best to fill this chart out.

Certainly there’s a lot of work to be done just personally reflecting and putting in anything you can think of, but the point is to gauge what others think of you. I’ve got a couple of ideas but I’ve love in any of you metric minded people out there had other suggestions.

My two outside influence ideas:

1. Twitter lists – on twitter? Check out what lists you’ve been added to. How people name the lists can be quite telling (what they’re not named can be a big clue) – also go to accounts of the people who have put you on lists and look at what other lists they’ve made. Are you on the “funny people” list but not on the “industryexperts” list?

2. Ask People – Use a service like Rypple, or a Google Doc form and ask people what they think

My concern with both of these is they’ll skew to the positive – I’d be open to other people’s ideas and suggestions on how to collect this information so you can get the truest picture possible.

Feedback Welcome

Am I on to something? Off my rocker? I’d love your feedback and thought in the comments below.

– Ryan

A Return to Blogging? A Prediction for 2010

Over the holidays I spent a lot of time thinking about what 2010 was going to look like both for me, the ‘industry’ and the world as a whole. Overall I’m optimistic and on some levels, it be pretty hard to be worse than 2009. As I dug through my overflowing feedreader queue I noticed a trend starting to emerge, a whole bunch of voices were back in there – the once regular bloggers who almost vanished12-18 months  ago had unread items in my queue and the posts were actually of some length, well thought out  and made for good reading.

Blogging Has Never Been Dead, Twitter isn’t Dying

Image: newton64 on Flickr

First off, I should say, I don’t think Blogging has ever truly been dead, but I think Twitter effectively killed it for some people (myself included). It became really easy to put ideas out in a tweet or two, rather than spending a hour or two cranking out a blog post (not to mention the hours of head time leading up to the actual writing). As a result a lot of people, people who up until that point had been blogging as often as daily, essentially abandoned long-form blogging and suddenly started posting weekly, then monthly and eventually “whenever”.

Also, while the next little bit of this post may seem to indicate I think Twitter is over and done with, I don’t – I just think it’s moving into it’s next stage. And that’s a good thing.

Twitter Has it’s Limits.

Blasphemy I know, but as I’ve thought more and more about how I push content out onto the web, I’ve started to see the cracks in Twitter’s shell. Twitter serves an awesome purpose and it has its uses, but it makes a really crappy substitute for blogging. I’ll take it a step further and say Twitter is a really bad tool for sharing ideas beyond simply throwing them out there  and doesn’t actually create effective, lasting dialog.

This should have been obvious: 140-character limited messages vs. free-form, put as many words in as you want, which do you think lets you better outline your ideas – but I think a lot of us fell into the hype and the real-time exchange of ideas and conversation were awfully tempting (especially for those of us with smaller ‘audiences’ – hi Mom!).

Twitter’s biggest problem is also it’s biggest strength.

This isn’t to say twitter is fundamentally flawed or otherwise “wrong” – on the flip side I think we’ve been using the right tool the wrong way. Twitter is great for easily pushing out snippets of information and engaging in the rapid exchange of basic ideas.  If we think of content as water twitter rates somewhere between a stream or a raging river depending on how many people you’re following.

If you’re standing at the water you’re seeing what flows by, but if you walk away that water is gone – and it’s not coming back. This is great for the inconsequential, real-time events or proximity/location based updates. When I check twitter at 2pm it’s no longer relevant that you were at Starbucks three hours ago, or that you forgot your Macbook Pro adapter this morning.

Through the web interface my first page in the tweet stream spans 17 minutes but that’s at 8 in the morning on the first Monday after the holidays. I’ve seen that span get as low as 1-3 minutes. At that point you can’t even look at all the water rushing past you. Sure apps like Tweetdeck help you reduce the noise, but the reality is the shelf life of a tweet is probably minutes, at most a day or two.

No one goes looking for old tweets.

That’s the reality, chances are if someone doesn’t see your tweet as it flows past, they never will – it’s gone.

The Blog as a Pond

To parallel the twitter “stream” analogy I consider blogging more like a pond. Each time you create a piece of content you fill it up a little more, gradually building a larger and larger body of water.   If you don’t put fresh “water” in it will get stagnant but a little top up now and again keeps it healthy. The important thing is the water is always there for people to see they can stop and stare at it for a while, taking in all its nuances or just look at what’s interesting to them and just move on.

Here’s the key thing to remember: Ponds can feed streams, and that makes a nice segue into the next part of this thought.

A Re-balancing of Effort. Awareness of Content Flow

“A return to blogging” is actually over-simplifying what I see as the next trend emerging. There’s two components. The first, as I’ve discussed above, is the realization that twitter is not a wildcard publishing tool but rather has specific uses and there are better tools to create content on if you want it to have a lasting presence. The second I’ve touched on it in the past, but I can see it starting to take hold. It’s the idea of being aware of what content you’re creating, where you create and publish it, and how it gets syndicated out. The latter will become an issue for everyone going forward as more and more sites give you the option to publish/retrieve content from one application to another.

How to get your house in order

  1. Take Inventory of Your Content Production
    Ask yourself: What are you (or should you be) producing? Is it long format, short snippets, something in between?
  2. Evaluate your Publishing Tools
    Take a look at the tools you’re using, are you currently publishing to them? What content are you putting on each service? Step back and think about whether that tool is the best place for each piece of content you’re putting out there, if not, what should you be using?
  3. Map the Flow of Content
    Lay all the services or apps you use out on a piece of paper, now draw lines between them to show where content syndicates out to other services. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who consumes your content, are they getting the kind of content they expect at each point? Are there more efficient ways to get it to them (or to reduce your noise to them)? As an example here’s a flow I made when considering my own content flow:

Personal Content Flow

My Rules for Content Flow

While you go through the process above I’d suggest you keep a few key rules in mind:

  1. Add Value
    When syndicating your content across services, ensure the viewer gets additional value when they click through from one site to another. I personally view twitter solely as an end-point for just this reason – if I put it somewhere else, there’s no value to be had by clicking through to it.*
  2. Reduce/Avoid Duplication
    Think about your network. Are your twitter followers also your Facebook or Tumblr friends? These days some duplication is inevitable but do what you can to reduce it wherever possible. If people have to see content twice make sure one of the two instances adds value (i.e. where one is a tweet and one is the blog post the tweet was linking to)
  3. Allow people to Focus
    We’re all people but also professionals, family members, friends, colleagues etc. – We can roll our relationships up any number of ways. Think about how people can opt-in or out of your content depending on their contextual relationship to you. This may mean multiple blogs, different tools all together, or something in between – but ensure you give people options so they don’t have to drink from the firehose (if not, they’ll likely just choose not to follow/subscribe to your feed)

A Return to Blogging

So how does this tie back to a return to blogging? I think as people start to step back and consider their content more carefully, and what kind of return they get on their effort invested they’ll likely find that blogging is still a killer way to share your ideas and put them out there in a lasting form. I know I’ve had the sense of having lost something since I’ve stopped blogging regularly, both in how satisfied I feel with getting my ideas out there but also in how engaged I feel with people and even how I’m perceived by others.

I’m looking forward to making another go of it in 2010 – I hope you do too… I’d be keen to hear your thoughts in the comments below (or as an @ reply on twitter)

– Ryan

(For the record, an hour later, my front page on twitter spans only 6 minutes now.)


*Admittedly my Twitter feed does republish to Facebook as status updates and into Friendfeed, the former is just laziness as I’d largely put the same content there if they weren’t sync’d the latter is an app that has the sole goal of being a content feed dumping ground.