James Brown

Check out CNN’s web coverage of James Brown’s career, combining documentary video, photo gallery, and an excellent broadcast story by Sibila Vargas.

I found it intriguing that Brown died on Christmas Day, because he’d written and performed quite a bit of holiday music, including a slow blues, “Santa Claus, Santa Claus.” (Note that the 2005 album “A James Brown Christmas” is pretty awful; “James Brown’s Funky Christmas” (1995, with tracks drawn from as far back as 1966) is the one to get.)

Yes, no, and maybe

As someone who writes frequently about online technology and user experience, I feel both entitled and obligated to try out all the new stuff.

Speaking of new stuff, Blogger is now officially out of beta. (There’s a great “out-of-beta” logo on the log-in page.)

After starting out blogging six years ago with Dave Winer’s ground-breaking Manila software, I began using Blogger in 2003. It’s a balanced mix of attractive design, friendly user interface, and innovative features, including complete freedom to edit your own template code. It grabbed me the way Mac OS software does. I’ve since flirted with other well-known blogging apps, and while each one has elements I liked better than Blogger’s, each one turned out to be unacceptably lame in at least one major area. Blogger, bless its soul, is all-around adequate.

I mention my Blogger experience because it’s typical of the way I relate to new software, online or off. If it doesn’t grab me in the first 15 minutes, I am, as they say, so out of there.

Flickr grabbed me; Webshots didn’t, thanks to some of the tackiest, most outdated visuals on the web. And Flickr has kept me via new features and clever, to-the-point communication (greeting me in foreign languages, etc.).

Side Job Track grabbed me. Despite narrow options and a bit of a fussy user interface, it does what it does (keep track of freelance hours and billing) brilliantly. In a word: convenience.

Second Life
grabbed me. World of Warcraft didn’t; WoW was like meeting an interesting but intense and overpowering person at a party.

Currently I’m re-exploring Pandora Internet Radio, Twitter, and (maybe) Saft.

Pandora starts with a recording artist you enjoy and creates a radio channel of similar material, allowing you to tailor the channel content with yes and no votes. I’m not sure if this is going to fit into my life because I listen to music on the iPod rather than on the computer. (Computer = work, iPod = workouts and travel.) But, nice idea.

Saft is a Safari add-on that provides a searchable history and full-screen browsing, among other features. But some of the VersionTracker user reviews blame Saft for screwing up Safari. That sort of thing is a dealbreaker for me. I don’t install “improvements” that can make a key piece of software (that currently works adequately) not work at all!

Twitter, as its name suggests, is social software. In a sense, it’s an extension of the little tagline you get in the iChat (and presumably also in the AIM) interface, that lets you see what your friends are doing. But Twitter takes it further, integrating the information into blogs, and making it accessible via cell phones. At the moment, I’m seeing Twitter as just another piece of desktop clutter, but I’m quite sure I’m not the target audience. I mean, do you think of me as someone who twitters, or someone who blogs?

What software is on your current evaluation list? (And can anyone reassure me about installing Saft?)


I’ve been using Writer Way to blog about writing, freelancing, web content, and working in the technology field. Today I’m just going to…write.

This time of year, the radio and the newspapers (and likely the TV as well, though I don’t watch it) are full of stories about gift giving.

An article in the Wall Street Journal today echoed a meme that’s being going around online. Both ask the question “What was the most memorable gift you’ve ever received?”

For me, it was the Smith-Corona electric typewriter my parents gave me when I was in high school. It signified to me that at some level they were sympathetic to my interest in writing — even though they kept pointing out that no one we knew ever made a living as a writer.

Reading the Journal article, I realized that I have much stronger memories of gifts I’ve given than of gifts I’ve received.

In the 1980s, when I was doing a lot of quilting, I made my parents a small New England-style quilted wall hanging that showed the house they’d designed and built in East Sandwich. My mother-in-law (this was at the time of my first marriage) admired the quilt, so I took pictures of her beloved Winnebago and made a similar wall hanging. We were headed overseas for a year, so I wrapped the quilt for Christmas and sent it to my then-sister-in-law so she could put it under the tree. A week before Christmas we received a letter from my mother-in-law that struck fear into my heart. It began “I’m writing this letter in the supermarket parking lot because I’m so mad at (name of father-in-law) I don’t want to drive home.” Without consulting her, he’d made a unilateral decision that one cross-country trip was enough for him and he’d sold her Winnebago to a golf buddy.

I remember making a hasty international call to my sister-in-law, asking her to buy a tablecloth, wrap it, and substitute it for the Winnebago quilt. My father-in-law had not been particularly fond of me to begin with, and I was afraid he’d think I’d whipped up the quilt just to fan the flames in the RV dispute!

While going through old photos earlier this month, I came across a picture of a gift I’d made in the 1970s that I’d thought had gone completely undocumented. It was a men’s Western-style denim shirt, and I’d embroidered the yoke with an elaborate gold-and-green swirled design based on Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night.” The recipient, a lacrosse player I dated at college, is now an Orthodox rabbi. He couldn’t possible still have it…could he?

After much organized (and some disorganized) ordering and shopping and wrapping and shipping this year I realized that only one gift was particularly memorable. I’d gotten the idea for it from a crafts magazine. The magazine article showed 16 fancy vintage buttons, wired to a mat board and displayed in an elegant shadow box frame. I decided to make it for my mother. She has a huge button collection, and many of her buttons have made their way to me on blouses and skirts and sweaters she’s made.

As I worked on it, the button project evolved from a grid of 16 into something considerably more thematic. In addition to arranging the buttons as a bouquet with floral wire stems, I found that layering the buttons, and adding a tiny colored glass bead to the center of each flower as I wired it to the mat board, increased the three-dimensional aspect of the bouquet. I also chose buttons that would harmonize with the pastels in my mother’s house in Florida. The finished piece got expressions of real astonishment from my husband (who saw it on the table) and my mother (who received it for Hanukkah).

Was the present memorable because I enjoyed the process of designing and making it? Or was it memorable because of the significance of the materials I used? Or was it memorable because my mother likes it? There’s a temptation to make more of these button shadow boxes, but I don’t think I’ll give in to it. Something tells me it’s memorable because it only happens once.

Newspapers are yesterday’s news

This story by Paul Gillen states the plain truth about why newspapers are toast. In short, online sites handle breaking news and classified ads far more efficiently and cheaply.

The problem, of course, is that online sites have not been shown to handle long-range investigative reporting of the “follow the money” nature particularly well. They’re best at telling you when things have finally blown up, not at figuring out that corporate or political bad guys are quietly cooking the books or systematically granting building permits to their cronies.

Freed of traditional newspaper scrutiny, mid-level bad guys (in city government and business) will soon be free to embezzle, rezone, pollute, and more — as long as they don’t piss off some partner in crime who outs them to a blogger.

It would be nice, but unduly optimistic, to think that local websites and bloggers devoted to watchdogging local businesses and government will spring up to take on this work (which newspapers have nearly abandoned already). We’ll see.

Going on a trip? Let the credit card company know

These tips from Productive Strategies for planning international travel are outstanding, and in the post-9/11 world many are relevent for US travel as well. Such as this one:

Make sure you call your credit card company and let them know you plan to be out of the country. Otherwise they may shut down your card thinking it has been stolen. Also be aware that some stores process cards differently, so it is possible that your card might be rejected. Make sure you have other means of payment available.

I used to think that my credit card was good anywhere. But two years in a row I had a credit card frozen on the first day of the MacWorld trade show in San Francisco — with no attempt in either instance to notify me by phone or by email. (I found out when the credit card was refused for a subsequent purchase — inconvenient and embarrassing.)

When I caught up with the credit card company, they were unapologetic. A $49 piece of astronomy software from a Danish company? Clearly my card had been stolen and taken to Denmark. A camera purchased outside of Seattle? Suspicious.

In these days of frequent business travel, I was shocked to discover that buying something on a trip, other than food and a hotel room, can trigger a freeze on your card. While I had previously left most of my cards at home (to minimize damage from theft) I now take at least two on the road to protect myself from the credit card company. And, as the Productive Strategies folks suggest, I call the credit card company nannies in advance to let them know I will be going shopping.

Tips for writing a holiday letter

Holiday letters occupy a position just below fruitcake on the top ten list of Things to Dampen the Holiday Spirit.

This need not be so.

While fruitcakes are pretty much victims of their own cloying recipe of heavy and sweet ingredients, you have complete control over what goes in your holiday letter. Really, you do.

Each year we receive a few dozen holiday letters. Some have me yawning with boredom or rolling my eyes with incredulity by the second sentence. Others have moved me to tears, or had me eagerly reading them out loud to other family members.

Here are a few tips for creating letters that fall into the second group:

1. Write for your recipients, not for the senders. If two of your kids made the dean’s list and one was in juvenile court three times last year, don’t feel you need to go into detail about any of it, or invent something for the black sheep to balance out the other kids’ accolades. “Janie is a junior at Oregon State, Pete is in his freshman year at Reed, and Susie is in her last year of high school. We look forward to having the whole family together for the holidays in Aspen,” is just fine to keep old neighbors and college friends up-to-date (many of them can’t remember the kids’ names, anyway).

2. Keep it short, and focused. While you will probably start by drawing up a list of the key things that happened to your family during the year, select just two or three to highlight in the letter. Professional and scholastic achievements can be boring and off-putting. Travel and hobbies are almost always a better choice, as they give people not only news about what you’ve been doing but an insight into another region or field of interest.

3. Make it clear who’s writing the letter — that being you. It’s difficult and a bit weird to have everyone in the family referred to in the third person as if a reporter were profiling your family. And it’s even weirder to use “we” and then try to talk about things you did as individuals. Don’t go there. It really is OK to begin the letter “Elizabeth and I opened a new bookstore in July…” and at the end sign it “Frank and Elizabeth.” People will get it. (When I include stories from other family members describing their activities in first person, I set their words off from the body of the letter as indented paragraphs.)

4. Talk briefly about why you’re writing the letter. “It’s wonderful to take a few minutes to reflect about the year and share some highlights with friends,” is the type of opening you’re looking for. Don’t apologize. If you feel compelled to open with something like “We hate to bore you all with another long, stilted holiday missive,” you shouldn’t be writing one.

5. Drop names. Not names of famous people, but names of mutual friends and acquaintances. This is a even good time to gossip, as long as you keep it positive. “We ran into Mark and Sandy Connors, our old neighbors from Denver, and discovered Mark left his job at Microsoft and is playing with a heavy metal group. Check out his new album…” This makes your letter a valuable source of genuine news, not just a brag sheet.

5. Keep in mind that the holiday letter isn’t meant to be sent to everyone. Send holiday letters to people you see once a year (or less often) and with whom you genuinely like to keep in touch. Don’t send personal holidays letters to people who are (or were) purely business associates. As far as the people you see on a regular basis — they know this stuff anyway.

6. What about the people only one of you knows? Our increasingly mobile society, significant otherships, late marriages, and re-marriages, mean that quite a few people on your holiday list know one member of a couple extremely well and the other member hardly at all. These people are rarely ideal recipients for the holiday letter. The spouse or partner who knows the person should write a personal note instead, or put a personal note at the foot of the letter.

I’ll be the first to admit that while some of my holiday letters have been great, other years they have been merely pro forma. I can always use tips and inspiration. Please feel free to add your comments and ideas!

A tourist in a strange land

“Literary authors sometimes like to take holidays in the shabby Third World genres like romance, thrillers and fantasy.”

So begins Crawford Kilian’s audacious review of Cormac McCarthy’s new book, The Road, in which the acclaimed author takes a junket in to the realm of science fiction. McCarthy turns out to be “a tourist” who “can’t hold his mescal,” according to Kilian, but the book’s more serious problem would seem to transcend genres:

“McCarthy’s fatal flaw is that he can’t go for two paragraphs without reminding us that he’s a hell of a good writer, and that makes him a terrible writer.”

Every sentence of Kilian’s review in the Tyee is a gem. I don’t think I’ve read such a fine review since the era of Peter Prescott at Newsweek.

Hot off the press: Vanishing Seattle

The Blogger site has been a bit recalcitrant today, but I’ve believe it’s going to let me make this important announcement:

Clark Humphrey‘s new non-fiction book Vanishing Seattle (Arcadia Publishing) will be released Monday. The official release party is at Epilogue Books Tuesday, Dec. 19, 6:30 – 8 p.m.

I saw a proof of the book this fall, and it’s a great combo of rare photos and Clark’s wry and incisive commentary. I’ve only lived in Seattle for 22 years, but it is shocking to realize how many of the charming places that played a key roles in the city in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are gone forever (most of them replaced by Euro-style condos with 500-square-foot studio units selling for $500,000). Clark, editor of the Belltown Messenger and former staff writer for The Stranger, is a leading authority on popular culture of the Pacific Northwest.

Vanishing Seattle should be available at all the major Seattle bookshops next week; you can also order it on Amazon.

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