Archive for January, 2012

Free Blogging Platforms, Starring You as the Guinea Pig

As you’ve probably noticed, this is a WordPress blog. (I really hope you’ve noticed that this is a WordPress blog. It’s very hard to miss.)

As such, the content is provided by yours truly, but the hosting and in fact the site itself all belongs to WordPress. They own it; I borrow it and use the space for vaguely entertaining or edifying purposes. Sometimes.

One downside of this generally equitable arrangement is that from time to time WordPress likes to play around with its own internal architecture. I expect this has a lot of benefits for the software wonks working on making WordPress a better all around engine, and I will freely admit that I’m reaping the benefits, as well as getting a free space to host my ramblings. Don’t mistake me as someone who is not down with the pressers of words.

But it does mean that, from time to time, I will go to some old familiar page like the one for a “New Post,” expecting to be greeted by roughly the same interface I’ve been using all these years:

…and instead I will find the “New Post” window crammed into a teeny-tiny little corner of a larger screen, most of which is white space. Whoops.

Now, there are solutions to this. I can “Go Pro” (as the toolbar urges me to every day) and get considerably more control over the back end (hur hur hur) of the site, allowing me to muck about with frames and interfaces to my heart’s content. I can also abandon entirely and launch an independent site, using or not using the software as I please.

In this case, I also just had to change which “New Post” button I was clicking on — some get you the functional big-screen version and others get you the non-fuctional, teeny-tiny little screen.

But for the casual blogger with no real incentive to spend more money on a “pro” version, or time on editing the website itself, welcome to the gerbil wheel. Your blog is a testing ground and will occasionally be used as such.

Have fun!

BONUS CHALLENGE: Long-time readers (very anal-retentive ones, at least) might have noticed a formatting change in today’s post. I’m trying to teach myself a new habit. Any observant readers have a hunch as to what it is?

The Importance of Asking for Favors

I’m bad at asking for favors.

Always have been.  I tend to hedge and hold off until the last minute even on things I know I can’t do alone.  But while there’s a nice self-sufficient sort of ethos in there somewhere, it turns out not to be the best business strategy.

This one’s counter-intuitive for people raised to be politely self-effacing.  No one likes a demanding friend, or client, or partner, or whatever, right?

Mostly right.  Turns out “demanding” is bad, but occasionally needy is a good thing.  I accidentally offended a previous employer by not asking him to go out of his way and call in a recommendation when I applied for a new job; apparently he felt that he had some pull there and could have been useful to me.  Which is probably true, but not the sort of thing I feel comfortable asking for.  My mistake.

This is one of those “makes sense when you think about it” lessons that you’ll eventually hit in any business.  I mean, you like doing people favors, right?  Feels nice.  The warm fuzzy of selfless generosity, or alternatively the adrenaline rush of power over someone else — depends on how cynically you want to interpret generosity.  (I assume most of you fall on the in-favor side, since I’ve already offended any Ayn Rand fans away long ago.)

So it’s maybe time to stop being shy with your vast social network of bloggers, tweeters, friends-of-friends, etc.  Rather than putting out a general call for help (beta-reading a manuscript, say, or putting you in touch with a good agent), why not approach someone specifically?  Send a personalized e-mail to someone who has the skill/contacts you need.  Be polite and tell them how much you admire their aforementioned skill/contact.

Not only are you likely to get the help you need, you’ll actually be strengthening your relationship with that person.

And yes, you can ask me if you like.  Though I can’t imagine what for.  Need a good dick joke?  This post was getting too serious anyway; what am I, some kind of self-help site?

A Tale of Two Twitters

I spent at least five minutes trying to decide whether I liked “tale of two twitters” or ‘tale of two twittees” better, because that’s just the sort of writer I am (terrible).  But that choice to go with a cutsey title rather than something very literal and keyword-loaded like “Managing Your Twitter Feed When You Have Both Professional and Creative Networking Responsibilities” gets us right to the heart of today’s issue, and how’s that for a segue?

I used to think "segue" was a type of fondue. No idea why.

Twitter feeds are, increasingly, a very self-defining medium.  Five years ago your biggest public-persona worry was what turned up when someone Googled you, three years ago it was that plus what the public could see on your Facebook page; now it’s those plus Twitter and all the other micro-blogging-hyper-feeding-this-that-and-the-other-thing social networks you use.  Someone who wants to know more about Geoffrey Cubbage is going to take a look at my Twitter feed.  It’s a given.

Most people (Congressman Wiener excepted, obviously) know this.  So you get an interesting mix of approaches to Twitter.  Or more specifically I get an interesting mix, because about half the people I’m following are fellow writers and artists, while the other half are a mix of politicians local and national and the journalists who cover them.

I have a theory — and it is just a theory — that you can determine how “professional” someone’s Twitter usage is based on the percentage of their characters used that are contained in links rather than written text.

By “professional” I mean used explicitly for career purposes, not necessarily to sell something directly but at least to communicate about The Job rather than The Personal Life.

Another useful measure with slightly less exacting numbers might simply be the ratio link-containing tweets to non-link-containing tweets — high link usage seems, in my experience, to point toward professional usage, directing people to your website or Facebook page, articles about you, etc.

So I’ll be tracking this for the next few weeks and I’ll let you all know what I discover.  But for now, you might take a look back at your own Twitter feed and see how much of it is your own original content and how much is links to external content.  Be interesting to think about why your ratio is where it is!

The Freelancer’s Toolkit

If things have been quiet around here lately (they have in my head, but I can never tell how obvious it is to readers) it’s because life sort of shifted into overdrive on me this week.  I applied for, got, and started a job at the state capitol (which is very exciting), and at the same time I helped someone I’ve done quite a bit of writing for edit and finalize an audiobook version of a men’s style guide we’d worked on together.

The big news in there is probably the capitol job, but the interesting news as far as this blog goes might actually be the audiobook.

I’ve never done audio editing before, although I did a bit of video editing back when I worked for Northwestern magazine (you can still find oddball interviews with me scattered around YouTube, in fact).  This wasn’t anything fancy, just smoothing out some rough edges with a free program called Audacity (which is very novice-friendly, if you’re ever in the same boat), but it was very different from my usual freelance writing work, and took some adjusting of schedule and attitude.

But this is how it’s going for freelancers.  You can’t just sell yourself as a writer anymore.  People want a writer who can get that writing out into other media, and over time you’re going to amass a very odd toolkit of skills.  I think the last few writing-related jobs I’ve applied for have all wanted to know what my other media experience was like, and how good I was with a whole laundry list of technologies:

  • video editing
  • sound editing
  • web design & web page management
  • search engine optimization
  • social media

…and occasionally really in-depth, oddball stuff like the bowels of YouTube tagging mechanics.  What’s conspicuously absent from the list, of course, is actual writing.

Yes, people want good writers.  In some cases they can even recognize and value a really good writer as opposed to a competent but dull one, though in just as many cases the competent but dull one is all the job requires.  But most people out there these days are willing to settle for a less impressive writer who can also do all the work of promoting the finished piece.  Why hire a writer and a media specialist when you can get them all in one package, after all?

I wish I had more optimistic advice than “get used to it,” but I’m afraid that’s where we’re at.  Keep banging that wordcount out every day — it does matter — but be ready to do some serious self-teaching of other skills on demand.

It’s good for us, right?

Your Guide to Suburban Acronyms – Everything You Need to Survive the Land of White Picket Fences

Every once in a while in the course of my “research” for MA101 (research for MA101 consists of flipping through oddball newsfeeds and looking to see if anyone’s done anything really dumb lately) I find an op-ed or a blog or some other personal missive loaded down with enough categories and categorizations to make Carl Linnaeus proud.

The good life, it seems, is all about knowing who’s not leading the good life.  I feel there’s a linguist’s master’s thesis waiting to be written on suburban acronyms, but for those of you who occasionally stray into the land of un-dinged curbs and stop signs with little blinking LEDs around the edges, here’s a brief guide to the simple basics you’ll need to pass as One Of Them in conversation:

  • DINK – Dual Income, No Kids.  It’s what former yuppies call current yuppies, and it’s generally assumed to be a Slightly Bad Thing.
  • NIMBY – A “Not In My Backyarder.”  Opposed to local improvements, or really any kind of change at all.  These are the people you see standing up at local board meetings and asking if this is really the character we want our neighborhood to have.  No one wants to admit to being one but most people secretly are one, making it an overall Neutral Thing.
  • SEMV – “Self-Employed, Mini-Van.”  Refers to the parent who works from home and has a massive car, i.e., the one you can always rely on to give your kid and his/her friends a lift.  Everyone wants to have one as a friend, making it a Good Thing.
  • JAP – “Jewish American Princess,” used to describe any spoiled female child of even vaguely Jewish heritage, whether practicing or non-.  A particularly entertaining one from my point of view since it’s offensive regardless of whether people recognize the acronym or not. A Bad Thing.
  • PAP, CAP, etc. – Variations on “JAP” meant to show how clever you are, that you’ve taken the old acronym and re-applied it to someone’s daughter who’s a textbook spoiled brat but happens not to have any Hebrew claims.  If you can’t figure out what they stand for you probably need more help than this guide can give you.  Still a Bad Thing to be, obviously.
  • MOTA – “Monster of the Assembly.”  The really, really awful one at PTA meetings.  You know who I mean.  Usage “She’s a real MOTA,” etc.  This is a Bad Thing.
  • ABCs – “Always Bring Cookies.”  The people who show up at every event with baked goods, regardless of whether they were requested or not, and politely judge other people for not bothering.  A Slightly Bad Thing to be, but at least you brought cookies.
  • RFR – “Ready For Retirement,” a catty way of describing someone as irritatingly old and feeble/confused/generally difficult to deal with (but protected from open criticism by age.”  Used with a little emphasis and that know-what-I-mean head tilt, e.g., “Oh she’s so sweet, but my god, RFR?”  Clearly a Bad Thing.
  • “Fiver” – Not an acronym.  Nickname for the person who’s inevitably late to all soccer practices, field trips, etc.  Comes from “right on time, five minutes late.” A Bad Thing.

Now, this is a work in progress.  I only rarely venture into suburban events to restock my store of acronyms.  Readers should feel free to contribute their own below.  Who knows…maybe they’ll catch on.

Geoffrey’s part of the democratic process and I’m thinking about sloths


Geoffrey is starting a new job at the capitol today but he’ll be back this evening.  In the mean time you are stuck with me.  Geoffrey writes all sorts of interesting things like blog posts, fashion advice, novels,  and now political letters and press releases (at least that’s what I think he’s doing up there).  I write really boring things, like endless computer programs that don’t work.  While waiting for my program to run today I came across Molly Backes’s description of her backup plan if writing doesn’t work out.   Baby sloth rescue does seem like an attractive life option doesn’t it?  Believe me,  I’ve spent a lot of time considering it this morning.

I should get back to finding missing semi-colons.  Geoffrey will be back this evening.

Peace, Love, and Hibiscus flowers (they’re like sloth chocolate!)


Fotoshop by Adobe

One of the joys of managing your own blog is that from time to time you can use it to promote totally unrelated things because you just thought they were cool.  It’s like a Facebook status update with  more authority behind it.

(Ha!  I am, of course, only kidding.  Most of my Facebook updates are just links back to this blog anyway.)

But regardless, today you get a link to Jesse Rosten’s stunning Fotoshop by Adobe video.  It’s not my content or in any way affiliated with MA101, and as far as I know I’ve never met Ms(?) Rosten, but it is cool and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll talk a little about constructive Facebook usage, huh?

Periodically Speaking

I almost named this post “The Elemental Table of Periodicals,” but then I decided that idea was way cooler than a blog post deserved.  Some day I will make a full interactive table, scaled (as the periodic table of elements is, kinda) from the least reactive to the most.  Associated Press wire service on the left, Chicago Tribune somewhere in the middle, Mother Jones way out on the fringey bits…

Anyway.  That’s not what today’s post was supposed to be about, so we’ll just file it under cool ideas for later.  But today is about periodicals, so let’s talk newsprint.

If you’re not a subscriber to any kind of print periodical you may not know that they — subscriptions, not periodicals — reproduce like fungi.  You subscribe to one magazine or newspaper, it takes root, and eventually it releases your contact information, spore-like, in a cloud that drifts down over various other Circulation Offices across the country.

Soon, little mailers start arriving in your box along with the thing you actually subscribed to.  When you finally break down and add another one the process starts all over again.

You can usually measure the progress of your infection by which publications are soliciting you — local newspapers are mild case, national politically-affiliated rags are a real warning sign, and by the time the Columbia Journalism Review is sending you leaflets someone out there has decided that you’re in this business professionally and if you aren’t it’s probably time to cut back.

O Best Beloved made me promise to upload a picture of one of the magazine stacks so that you could all join her in telling me I'm a hoarder.

We are at that point.  I got hit up by The Atlantic the other day too, but I told ‘em I already subscribed to The New Yorker and thought it covered all their bases pretty solidly.  ZING!

Oh periodicals humor.

Anyway.  I can’t tell who the spore-cloud of leaflet-senders thinks lives here, because our subscriptions range so far from left to right, to say nothing of literary to shallow, that we must seem like either a very large household or a very small one of schizophrenics:

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The New Yorker
  • Esquire
  • The Progressive
  • Mother Jones
  • Details

I don’t think it’s all that many, really.  Everyone else out there has a list that looks something like this one, right?  But mostly OBB just wanted me to write this one so you could all leave comments chiming in and agreeing with her that it’s time to throw some New Yorkers out.  We only have two or three of those stacks, I swear…

BONUS:  Just for fun today, I’ve left a couple of errors in here that a good fact-checker would have flagged and checked.  See if you can pick them out!, as Featured in the Wall Street Journal

Either that title grabbed your attention or you’re not familiar with, a giant in the highly-technical “LOLS” sector of web publishing.  Full disclosure:  they’ve run a few of my pieces, so I know exactly what kind of idiots are writing over there.

But imagine my surprise when I turned to the funnies section of the Wall Street Journal (which says “Opinion” at the top, but savvy readers know that’s just an ironic joke by the humor writers on their staff) and found a column that would have looked right at home on the not-actually-pages of Cracked.

It’s paywall protected, but all you really need is the headline anyway.  Let’s compare that, “Four Deficit Myths and a Frightening Fact,” with some recent headlines off Cracked:

  • 6 Absurd Movie Scenes (That Actually Happened)
  • 5 Badass Movie Heroes (Who Were Actually Just Really Lucky)
  • 5 Mundane Objects That Saved Important Lives

And so on and so forth.  There’s a formula here, and it’s one that’s been working well for Cracked for years now.

Now, they’re not the first people to think of using lists.  They’re also not unwilling to deviate from the formula, though the majority of the articles follow it.

But it’s hard to see “[number] [objects] [expectation about objects] [reversal of expectations that will startle you!]“ as anything but the humor site’s subconscious effect on some poor columnist’s (well, some well-known economist’s, in this case) internet-saturated brain.  No doubt he just picked it up from skimming his idiot friends’ Facebook updates.

Or maybe it’s entirely coincidence.  But for humor through absurdity, just remember — you can’t beat The Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page.

You heard it here first.

Stop SOPA – Web Blackout Day

If this is really the first site you’ve checked today that was “blacked out” to protest SOPA you’ve got me way too high up on your list of priorities.

Click the ribbon in the top-right corner to learn more about why MA101 (and many, many other, vastly more important sites) are shut down today.

Or, you know, just Google “SOPA” or something like that. Assuming Google still works.

This is actually important stuff if you use the internet on a regular basis. Please don’t just shrug it off as some political cause you don’t quite understand, or as a cheap way for bloggers to take the day off.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some shots to start doing at 10 AM. Woo!


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