Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Designing a homepage: Magnatune

Magnatune, an Open Music Experiment | Linux Journal

I keep coming back to this article in the Linux journal. Not only is it an interesting and motiviational piece about starting a music label (not something I'd normally be interested in, but they make it sound so cool) but it's also a terrific description of what should go into a home page.

This article gives you a nice checklist of things that should be on the landing page of any site. Sure, you can add or remove elements suggested, but I consistently turn to this list as a good first start.

The items are:

  1. Where am I? - a graphic logo on the top left or top right does the trick. It's even better if you have a catchy line. For Magnatune, it's "We are not evil".
  2. Why should I care? - a one-line description of what you do and, if possible, why someone should be interested. For Magnatune, it's "Internet music without the guilt" followed by "Magnatune, the Open Music Record Label".
  3. What do you want me to do? - for first-time visitors, it should be clear what the next step is. For Magnatune, I want people to listen to the music immediately, so it says "Explore a music genre: Classical, Electronica, Metal & Punk, New Age, Rock, World, Others".
  4. Why is this cool? - there are way too many sites on the Internet, and people have a limited amount of time. You've got the visitor's attention for a few seconds, so you need to explain quickly why this is something he or she wants to support. If you're doing e-commerce, expect that your visitors are jaded. If you answered the second question well, you've got another 30 seconds of their attention. Magnatune starts with: "We're a record label. But we're not evil. We call it 'try before you buy.' It's the shareware model applied to music." The concepts of record label, not evil and shareware are an odd combination, so now they're interested.
  5. What's new? - give people an incentive to come back to your site by making it easy to see what's changed. There's a lot of new stuff at Magnatune (new press coverage, for example), but most people care only about our new artists and albums, so that's what's on the home page.
  6. Newsletter signup - every Web site should have a newsletter. If you put the signup on the home page, you can expect 2% to 5% of Web site visitors to sign up.
  7. I want to know more - an "about" section also is crucial. The founders should explain why they created the site, project or company.
  8. I want to steer - despite all these hints on what to do next, visitors often want to decide for themselves where to go. On Magnatune, 15% of people coming to the home page click on the Artists tab. Make the major site navigation options clear.

Is there anything you would add or change about this list?

One Bag (all about packing, luggage, and travelling light)

One Bag (all about packing, luggage, and travelling light)

While Shira's out actually travling, I can stay home and read about it. This particular travel site is dedicated to packing light. I mean really light. The author proposes that one list items can suffice for any trip. Sounds a bit to extreme for me -- but probably still educational.

I'll read it. Dream of packing ultra light. And then travel with Shira, where fashion-preparedness, not bag weight, is most critical. Still, a guy can dream.

Caption Me - Again

Backstory: getting the new coffee grinder to perform.

Can you add a caption?

--Ben

Monday, February 27, 2006

Marketing Chutzpah

I saw this fine example of marketing chutzpah at Cost Co. the other day

I love the tagline: "Transforms water into a healthy energy and performance drink."

As if water is somehow this bad for you substance that they have cracked the code on making healthy.

What's next? "Air, so pure and clean you can breathe it!"

Or "Chocolate, now with a delicious taste!"

--Ben

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Aerial View

A few weeks back I flew to Boston. While in the air, I snapped a few shots out my window. I thought they would be worth posting, but T-mobile was having issues that day. To make matters worse, I thought the images were totally deleted.

Well, it turns out that things did recover and I ended up having the images.

So, what the heck. I'm posting them here and now.

I recall thinking that it was a lot harder than I expected to get a descent aerial shot.

--Ben

A new family member

After a mere 3 hours of time spent at the Acura dealer, Shira and I are now proud owners of an Acura TSX. I know people who have given birth faster than this.

Yes, it's blue. And yes, I'll be allowed to drive it (this is especially useful, as it was bought to replace the car I drove to work). No, we haven't decided on a name (the TL is named Zee Zee).

We are now an Acura family.

Have a suggestion for the name?

--Ben

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Rocket comes in for a landing

Well folks, it's an end of an era. On Friday I officially turned over The Rocket (aka Mini, aka My Cavalier) to GMAC, so they could count it as totaled.

We are no longer a two car family. And we no longer own a Chevy. These are firsts for us.

Some final pics...

- The Rocket from the side. See, she can still look good.

- My final view from the cockpit

- My last bit of car maintenance; removing the license plates using my Swiss Army Knife.

- The interior with airbags blown. Wow.

- The final shot, bumper missing and all, as I got ready to drive away.

--Ben

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dual Zone

I never thought dual zone heating in the car could be so useful. On our way back from the doctor Shira's feeling too warm, while I have the chills.

Good news, we don't have the flu. Just your run of the mill virus.

--Ben

Misery Loves Company

Shira and I timed our sickness well - we are both hold up in bed trying to get over flu like symptoms.

We have all the essentials: laptops, pretty colored pills, and a big ol' collection of kleenexes.

Now I think we just need to wait this out.

--Ben

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Gift from the heart

What kind of wife buys her husband a PCI Ethernet card? One who's a super-wife, that's who.

This is the hardware needed to turn my old series 1 Tivo into a network capabale device.

And the reason for the gift? None. She just wanted to make me happy (and perhaps be able to access her tivo from a remote location).

Wow, I'm nearly speechless.

--Ben

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Saying Goodbye

Today we said goodbye to Igor - one our developers. He'll be greatly missed, as he was a sharp programmer, has an excellent sense of humor, and most importantly, knows the root passwords to all our databases.

I'll miss his Russian accent telling me: "No problem, 5 minutes," for any task ranging from adding an index to a column to rewriting an entire subsystem.

The two photos:

- Igor's near vacant desk. He has his trademark cigarettes out as usual - for easy access. It's quite possible that he survived mainly on nicotine.

- Igor shaking the now world famous Beamer (the one who's in the Caption Me photo).

Ahhh, comrade you'll be missed. And next time I find code of yours that swallows exceptions, I'm calling you.

--Ben

Shira in Simpsons Form


shira
Originally uploaded by benjisimon.
Shia in Simpsons form. Make your own here.

Ben in Simpsons Form


ben
Originally uploaded by benjisimon.
Me in Simpsons form. Make your own here.

Seth's Blog: Categories and the short head

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/02/categories_and_.html

I keep meaning to blog this article because I found it so interesting. Seth makes three points:

(1) Your business/product/organization is part of a category. You can be a fine dining restaurant, a hip place to eat, fast food, a chain or a local hangout.

(2) This category is important. It says how many competitors you have and how often they change.

(3) You can choose the category you belong in.

I find this to be a powerful notion. If you are the 5th Thai restaurant in the area - don't be a Thai restaurant. Be a local hangout. Be authentic dining at it's best. Be the quickest way to get a good dinner in town. But, as Seth points out, just know that you are deciding to be something (even by not deciding).

He, naturally, puts it way more elgantly than I (and with fewer references to food!).

--Ben

Flash MX: Creating Components

Creating Components

It's been a while since I have created any Flash UI components, and I wanted to create one tonight. I was a bit rusty on the details so I googled around and found this tutorial. It turned out to be the ideal refresher course.

The tutorial goes beyond a trivial Hello World example and actually shows you how real-life code might work. Also, each step is documented well (including before and after code.). Not much more I could ask for.

Gosh, I love the internet.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Lining up the shot

Ari and I are entertaining ourselves while the ladies have a bridal shower.

I suggested we play pool, and Ari agreed. Turns out, he grew up with his dad teaching him pool in his basement.

I'm a bit out of my league here. Though it is fun to watch someone who knows what he's doing.

--Ben

Prep Time

Shira's mom is visiting for the weekend. Rather than take her touring, we've put her to work. Shira's hosting a bridal shower for our good friend Vera, and there was plenty to do.

Somehow we managed to construct a 15 person table. My Mom and Dad hold parties like this nearly weekly, but for us, this took all our resources (and our friend's too - thanks G&T for the chairs!).

It's 10 minutes till official party start time, and it appears all is complete. Whew.

--Ben

Friday, February 17, 2006

Caption Me

Here's the backstory: my team's heading back into the office from lunch.

Now, what should the caption be?

--Ben

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Nifty Theft deterent

Here's an interesting theft deterent mechanism.

When I buy gas at this station with a Visa card, I'm prompted to enter my card's billing zipcode. I suppose if I didn't know this value, I would be unable to use the card. Simple enough. Yet, I can imagine that this one step goes a long way to preventing people using stolen cards here.

Sure, you can get around the system (have name on card, do google search, find address, etc.), but why bother? Why not just try somewhere easier? This, I believe is how The Club works to deter auto theft. It's not that the The Club is unbeatable technology, it's that it raises the threshold just enough to get the criminal to look elsewhere.

I had two thoughts about this while I was filling up my car's tank:

(1) When desinging security facilities, can I learn a lesson from this and design in checks that are easy for the good guys, and sufficiently frustrating for the bad guys?

(2) What the heck kind of neighborhood am I in that the pumps need an extra level of lockdown? Oy.

--Ben

Mini Howto: Gnus for Mail, Outlook for Calendar

I'm a user of Gnus (why this is, would make a great post -- but I don't have time today). My organization allows me to use whatever e-mail client I want. This is a good thing. However, they coordinate their meetings using Outlook's calendar feature, which works over e-mail.

I poked around on the web for the best way to integrate Gnus in with these Calendar requests. I found a few packages out there that add the calendar requests to your emacs diary, which is neat -- but not quite what I was looking for. I wanted a way to respond to the meeting, not to mention, schedule my own meetings.

Last night, I finally came up with a simple way to accomplish this. I had our system adminstrator make me another POP3 account, besides my standard e-mail address the world mails me at. Say, ben-foo. Then, in my procmailrc on the mail server I added:

 LOCKFILE=/home/ben/.procmail.lock
 LOGFILE=/home/ben/.procmail.log

 :0 Bc:cal
 * ^BEGIN:VCALENDAR
 ! ben-foo@mycompany.com

The result, any email that comes in and looks like a calandar request, is routed to both my regular inbox and to my special pop3 account.

I then setup Outlook to poll the special account and not my regular e-mail account. It will only ever get e-mails for calendars, which is exactly the goal.

I also setup Outlook so that it had a from email address of my standard e-mail address, so any calendar invitations I send out, will have the right From address.

It's simple, but should be effective.

Kinda too bad for the rest of the people in my organization, as I now have the power to easily call meetings :-).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Review: Never Have Your Dog Stuffed

I'm pretty much all the way through "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed", the biography of Alan Alda. I must say, I'm enjoying it. Alan has plenty of highs and lows in his story to give you a nice balance.

Overall, the story is a good one and seems well written.

One sentance in the entire book has made it worth reading. It is as follows:

"Real listening is letting other people change you."

Wow, is that a powerful, and truthful statement. It simply is true. Next time you are arguing with someone, ask yourself if you are following Alan's advice.

I'd still suggest reading the book, even though I gave away the best line. It's fun and Alan is a very likeable guy.

I give it a 7/10 for being an enjoyable read, with an excellent takeaway.

--Ben

Zoom-Zoom

Tonight we test drove a couple of possible replacements for The Rocket (aka Mini, aka my red 98 Cavalier).

We started with the Mazda3. The Mazda3 is consistently ranked by folks like Edmunds as the top car in its class - which is compact sedans that don't cost an arm and a leg. At first I was skeptical because the front seat was way to cramped. But, once I figured how to move things around, I learned it was quite comfortable.

And the Mazda3 did indeed live up to its claims. It's affordable and doesn't feel underpowered. It doesn't have too much of a cheap-plasticy feel to it. It was roomy enough for my purposes. So I was pretty much sold on it making the short list.

The shopping experience was a good one. The only "trick" they used was to send us out in the most decked out version of the car they had, so it was hard to tell which features were standard, and which were extras. With that said, the sales person was nice and zero pressure. The manager talked to us for just a few minutes, and strangly, I felt like I was talking to a person and not some slimeball. He was actually really nice.

From the Mazda dealer we drove over to our Acura dealer (where Shira got her car). We were both so impressed with Shira's Acura that we thought it would be a bad idea to not consider them. So, for the first time tonight, we drove an Acura TSX.

It was nice. Very nice. It had everything the Mazda3 had, plus more - including $10k in the price tag. But still, it has such a smooth ride, and the interior seems so well done.

We also like Acuras because they only have two choices: with navigation system and without. That's it. It makes shopping and buying so much easier because cars are so interchangeable.

I'm not sure what we'll drive next. Any suggestions?

--Ben

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reading the instructions

Shira getting a knitting lesson from Mom. I'm impressed at how well she's taking this all in.

--Ben

A day at the office: Cupid's Heart

Today I had my first experience playing Cupid's Heart at work. The idea is that every employee has a tag with the name of someone else. If the person whose tag you have is not in a safe zone, you tag them out. A safe zone is their chair, the conference room and the bathroom.

The game lasts about 24hours, and turns out to be quite a bit of fun.

I lasted about 35 minutes in the game, and had a precious dazed and confused look on my face as the CFO tagged me with a big red heart.

Next year, there's always next year.

--Ben

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Aged to perfection

Here's my mom, who has a bit of a reputation for having food from the '80s still in cupboard, holding some diet soda she found in our house. The date? 9/6/2004.

I think 2004 was a good year for soda, right?

Help, I'm turning into my mother!

--Ben

More to learn

My father still has important wisdom to pass on to me. For example: ice cream frozen solid? Stick in the microwave for 1 minute on defrost. The result: soft, yet frozen ice cream.

Brilliant.

--Ben

Winter Wonderland

Well, they called for 8" - 12" of snow. And sure enough, we got a nice blanketing of white stuff. Probably not nearly 8 inches, but significant for the DC area none the less.

Flights have been cancled (Delta airlines specifically), and there's a Snow Emergency in DC proper and no doubt there's a general sense that the city is shut down.

To bad this didn't happen on a weekday, or lots of kiddies (and maybe even my wife) would have gotten a snowday.

--Ben

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dental Adventure: Root canal

Me, taking an impression of my tooth after getting a root canal. I look pleased, don't I?

I went in for a cap or crown. And the dentist turns to me: "looks like we need to take out that nerve." Hmm, I think. That nerve doesn't look too big on the x-ray.

Guess what a crown + nerve removal is? A root canal of course. I love how the Dr.'s euphemisms put me at ease.

All went well, and the only discomfort I felt was minimal. I got to see them use a whole new set of power tools on my mouth (love the drill with the extra long bit).

Well, I survived. And so far, no discomfort.

--Ben

Coolest dad ever

Here's my dad, playing on his newish cell phone. He's got video and mp3 content. And, as I type this he's accessing his bloglines account using the phone's browser.

I'm actually very impressed, he's using Verizon's network, and the browser appears to be wicked fast. Maybe it's Edge?

If only he was a 13 year old girl, then he could type 60 words a minute on the keypad. For now, he'll hunt and peck.

As I said, coolest dad ever.

--Ben

Friday, February 10, 2006

True Love

Curious what true love actually looks like? Well there ya go, it looks like the attached image.

See, my wife and I have a few minor differences. One of them is our choice of pizza crust. I'm a thick cruster, while Shira likes her's thin.

Tonight, on my way home Shira offered to order pizza while I was still commuting. She confirmed my toppings and then asked if thin crust is OK. She knows perfectly well I didn't want thin crust, but of course, I said that would be perfect (and it would have been).

30 minutes later the pizza shows up. Not only is it not thin crust, but it's extra thick with cheese inside!

She knew I would like it, so she took one for the team.

As I said, true love.

--Ben

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Useful site: Mail Big File

Mail Big File.com

I came across this site on LifeHacker. I'm not sure it'll be as useful a utility as say TinyURL, but it certainly seems worth knowing about.

I really think these small, single service sites, are so cool. They show that you can solve a real problem, and get a lot of attention, all with a minimal amount of effort.

No accounts. No ads. No communities. No content. Just a free service that you learn to rely on. The simplicity and elegance of this model can't be beat.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fun and Games

The rise of indie games

I'm not a gamer. The last computer game I played seriously was Super Mario Brothers. That was also the first computer game I played seriously. I also played a bit of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, but that was mostly because as a kid we had this family come over to our house for dinner, and there was this cute girl who liked to play said game. And if the girl wants to play, you play. (Incidently, I married that cute girl).

So, I don't play computer games.

But maybe you do? Clive Thompson has a neat article about some independent games that you can play for free. They are wacky, good for getting the creative juices flowing, and may even be fun.

So play them, and let me know which one you like the most.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Photoshop Web Design Tips

Good-Tutorials.com: Web design photoshop tips

Thanks to the designers at Amazing Media (Paul and Cuong) I learned to appreciate the power of Photoshop to help out with web design. By using Photoshop, plus the print screen function, you can quickly mockup, cleanup, or polish up a UI.

The above tutorial expands on this theme by giving you some additional ideas for how you can make certain web design activities painless by using photoshop.

I wish I could say that I find The Gimp just as useful as Photoshop, but alas, I'm unable to do so. Yes, the Gimp is free and will do in a pinch. But Photoshop is just so smooth and mature, that it's hard to beat. In fact, it's by far my favorite windows application (after the Windows version of emacs and cygwin, of course).

Seriously, I could live just fine without Word and Excel. But Photoshop, that's a keeper.

Competing against the best

Church of the Customer Blog: Competing against the best

The above blog entry tells the story of how one of the country's best restaurants maintains it's success. I'll give you a hint, it's not by lower prices.

The 5 observations that the author made could very easily apply to a web application. Consider #3:

3. Do something buzzworthy in the first few minutes. As the Cyrus hostess leads you from the bar/reception area, she stops just inside the dining room. There, she picks up a white Zsa-Zsa telephone and says into it: "Chef, the McConnell party is here for table 42. Please send someone out to greet them." It's startling and unexpected. Who calls the chef to say a guest has arrived? It was great theater. Restaurant reviewers can't help but talk about it.

A good web application should offer some feature which simply blows you away, and makes you wonder, how'd they do that?!.

Very good food for thought. (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun).

Crown progress

I just got a shot of novacaine for the crown they are installing.

Wow, drugs are amazing. In like 3 seconds I went from squirming as I was stuck with a needle, to being almost completely numb. I even have that "fat lip" feeling.

I suppose if all goes well, this will be the worst part of the procedure. Things rarely go well for me at the dentist.

(I just love the drilling sound in the background...)

--Ben

Mobile blogging blues

So it looks like my Sidekick is yet again having an issue where I can't send photos via e-mail. This is such a frustrating issue. In theory, at some point things will be fixed and the messages in the queue will be sent. But when?

Normally, with a device like this, this kind of issue would lead to me wanting to switch providers/devices.

But what could I switch to? I don't know of any device with this size form factor, a nice keyboard, a usable browser, POP e-mail, AIM and automagic web backup. Not to mention, a data plan which is $20.00/mo for unlimited data.

So, patiently I'll wait. Perhaps I'll give a call to the customer service line. Though I can't say I have much in the way of hopes.

Anybody know of another type of device I should consider switching to?

-Ben

-- Ben Simon My blog: http://benjisimon.blogspot.com Got a software idea? http://i2x.blogspot.com

Mobile blogging blues

So it looks like my Sidekick is yet again having an issue where I can't send photos via e-mail. This is such a frustrating issue. In theory, at some point things will be fixed and the messages in the queue will be sent. But when?

Normally, with a device like this, this kind of issue would lead to me wanting to switch providers/devices.

But what could I switch to? I don't know of any device with this size form factor, a nice keyboard, a usable browser, POP e-mail, AIM and automagic web backup. Not to mention, a data plan which is $20.00/mo for unlimited data.

So, patiently I'll wait. Perhaps I'll give a call to the customer service line. Though I can't say I have much in the way of hopes.

Anybody know of another type of device I should consider switching to?

--Ben

Testing...

T-mobile's network seems to be acting up again. Or is it Danger's servers? Who knows. Who cares.

--Ben

Monday, February 06, 2006

Does blogging work?

Does blogging work? Well, specifically, does blogging work for spreading messages?

The answer of course is, yes. Take a look at some proof:

Let the Good Times Roll--by Guy Kawasaki: Total BS (Blog Statistics)

My favorite stat is:

My Amazon sales rank for The Art of the Start (go ahead, I dare you to click on this link) hovered between #1,500 and #2,000 prior to the start of my blog. Currently, the sales rank hovers between #500 and #750.

The thing is, Guy hasn't been pushing his book at all. He's just been acting like a blogger should be. Providing useful content mixed with fun stuff. He doesn't try to be some one he isn't.

The result? A blog that you consistently want to read, link to, and talk about.

So focus on doing good work, and the rest will follow.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Boston Trip 2/3 Complete

Turns out, the day in boston has been a pleasent one. From all perspectives, including the weather.

It didn't hurt that we had a yummy Kosher Chinese lunch (who knew PuPu platter in Chinese meant deep fried goodness?).

Now the final phase our trip is to make it back to DC. We managed to get free Wifi at the airport, so even a delay shouldn't bother us much.

--Ben

Marketing at Work

Why is it that I need to spend 10 minutes on the phone talking to my wife, getting advice on which type of laundry detergent to buy . I even know the brand I want. Yet, you'd think I was doing brain surgery over the phone.

Do I want original color safe, or the dark formula? And what will the dark formula do to my whites? And what exactly is linen scent? Do the other ones have some sort of putrid odor that would make them a mistake? What's the most cost effective size to buy? And why does the other target we go to carry a totally different combination of Cheer products?

The answer to all this is one word: Marketing.

My guess is that all of the Cheer products are the same, with a different story they are telling.

This is all well and good. But if they are going to make so many products, why can't they make: "Cheer Hubby, The safe one to buy when your wife sends you to the store."

--Ben

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Review: How to start a conversation

I write reviews for books I read/listen to for a few reasons. First, and foremost, I am always frustrated when I read/listen to an interesting book, get an opinion or learn something new, and within a few months forget it all. Putting a review on my blog lets me remeber what I was thinking at the time. Secondly, I suppose my reviews could be useful for someone reading or consider reading a book that I've finished. Though, to my knowledge, this has never happened.

Why do I mention this? Because I just finished a book, and I'm not sure I have anything to report. But I'm going to try anyway.

The book is a single tape on how to start a conversation. This is your basic advice, ranging from smiling and making eye contact, to making sure you let the other person get a word in edgewise.

The first example is the author showing how to talk to a girl at a sports club. Yes, he ends up getting a date. Though the rest of the book is pretty plain.

One interesting suggestion for starting a conversation is to start with a comment, followed by an easy to answer question.

Something like: 'I saw your blog today, how cool! Why did you decide to start blogging?'

Not a bad formula, I guess.

The author also makes it clear that you have to use smalltalk as a device to learn enough information, so you can have a real conversation. So, during smalltalk, listen to clues about what you can really talk about.

If you've never heard any formal advice on starting conversations, I guess this would be a painless place to start.

Now look at that, will you? I guess I did learn something after all!

Total score: 4/10 - it does no harm, and is short.

--Ben

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Quiz time...

I'm in the middle of quizzing my ITD students. One of the questions: how could you improve this monstrosity of a website.

--Ben

Low Expectations

You know you live in DC when a 30ish mile commute takes you an hour, and you are overjoyed. Last week the same commute to me an hour and 45 minutes, so this really was an improvement.

It didn't hurt that last night I spent some quality time researching the route, made annotations, and used a GPS. All to avoid anything resembling a highway.

I did more planning for this commute than I did for my own wedding.

But it paid off (the planning and the wedding) and I made it here.

And, the guards even let me into the building without a strip search.

Could my luck continue?

--Ben

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