Archive for the 'Blogging' Category

April 4th, 2007

Further Thoughts on ITotD’s 4th Anniversary

As I discussed in The Fourth Anniversary of ITotD, Interesting Thing of the Day turned 4 on Sunday. That must be 28 in blog years, but then, when I started the site I had no idea I was becoming a blogger. (I still sort of don’t believe that, but the fact that I’m making that claim here, on yet another blog, suggests that I’m just in denial.)

I know of professional bloggers who do nothing but crank out posts all day long, sometimes by the dozens, on several different blogs. Some of them even make a handsome living doing so. For me, though, quality has always been much more important than quantity. I can type as many words per day as they next guy, but the actual writing isn’t where I spend the bulk of my time. Regardless of the subject matter I’m dealing with, I typically spend about half my time doing research, a quarter of my time writing, and another quarter editing and rewriting. The majority of what I read on the Web was written with very little research and even less editing. And I understand that this approach works well for a lot of people—writers and readers alike. It’s just not my thing. Maybe I’m too old-school, and maybe it’s not the path to rapid riches, but I prefer to take my time.

Because of these predilections, and because Interesting Thing of the Day has steadfastly resisted categorization, it didn’t go quite according to my initial plan. But four years later, it’s starting to get there.

A (Not-So-) Brief History of Interesting Thing of the Day My very first article for Interesting Thing of the Day1 was full of optimism about how I’d found my true calling as a Curator of Interesting Things, how I intended to make a full-time job out of writing these articles, and how I wasn’t particularly concerned about the site’s ability to make money. Looking back now, I don’t know how I thought I could produce a new article of up to 1,500 words every single day (weekends and holidays included), or how I imagined that without any ads or overt selling, the site could make enough money for me to live on. For more than seven solid months I did pull off the article-every-day feat (with the help of a few articles from guest authors). The site had attracted a small but loyal group of regular readers, but it also made barely any money—and after all that work with so little reward, I was completely burned out. I decided to go on a hiatus, during which time I focused on my technical writing, which at least paid the bills reliably.

Version 2.0: A couple of months into my recuperation, I heard about this groovy new thing called Google AdSense. I figured I had nothing to lose by putting the code on the site to display contextual ads, so I did. Much to my amazement, all those articles that had just been sitting there on the site for months suddenly started making money. Not a lot, at first, but enough to make me think there might be something to this whole enterprise after all. So I retooled the site, committing myself to another year of daily articles—some of which were recycled and updated versions of those from the first run, and the rest of which were new. I also jumped on the podcast bandwagon, producing audio recordings of every article, and began offering paid subscriptions that entitled readers to get, among other things, the full text of each daily article by email.

That year, from June 2004 to May 2005, was more difficult than I’d expected. Readership increased, and a nontrivial number of people purchased subscriptions. Since I was writing fewer new articles than I had during that first stretch, the work was a bit less grueling. But by the end of that year, I realized I couldn’t afford to be spending so much of my time—often 30–40 hours per week—doing something that wasn’t contributing meaningfully to paying the rent. I decided to take more time off, with the intention of giving the site a complete makeover and coming up with ways to make it less labor-intensive. In the meantime, I again ran articles from the archives, but in a change from my previous schedule, skipped weekends and holidays. I thought that break might last a few months, but it stretched to an entire year.

Version 3.0: In May 2006, Interesting Thing of the Day had its second grand re-opening. We had a new logo and a completely redesigned site. I changed lots of features in an attempt to make the site more modern, efficient, and user-friendly. And I announced that I was adopting a burnout-resistant schedule: new articles would appear, on average, about twice a week, but with no particular guarantees; recycled articles would fill in some of the off days to keep the content reasonably dynamic. I can’t tell you how much I struggled with that decision, because it meant that Interesting Thing of the Day was no longer literally of-the-day, something I’d considered of central importance from the beginning. But I felt it was the only way I could potentially keep the site going indefinitely.

And now, even the site’s income is finally beginning to think about edging into a somewhat interesting region. By “interesting,” I mean that I can now conceive of the possibility that, if current trends continue, I might actually be able to make Interesting Thing of the Day my full-time job after all in a year or two. Working on nothing but ITotD was what I envisioned when we started on April 1, 2003, and at the time, I thought it might take about six months. So maybe it takes six years instead. But I can just start to see the faint suggestion of a dim light at the distant end of a long tunnel. (I hope that’s enough qualifiers!) To help the process along, I’m officially asking for donations. Perhaps I’ll even turn it into an annual membership drive, à  la PBS or Daring Fireball. But we’ll see what happens.

Famous for Being Famous If I’ve learned one lesson from Interesting Thing of the Day in the last year, it’s that popularity is self-reinforcing. That should have been obvious, but it seems that the site had to very slowly work its way up to a certain threshold, a certain reasonably high number of readers, before the rate of popularity began to increase significantly. Today, in addition to all those FeedBurner readers, the site is getting vastly more “ordinary” visitors than it did a year ago, and the number is trending ever more sharply upward. The site is essentially the same as it always was, but more people knowing about it led to more people knowing about it, and all of a sudden lots and lots of people know about it.

I started out thinking, naively, that all I had to do was to build a quality site and the word would spread like wildfire. What I really had to do was build a quality site, wait for several years, redesign it a few times, and experience a bit of luck. But sure enough, it’s finally getting getting close to what I envisioned all those years ago.

1That article is no longer online, I’m afraid; it got recycled during one of the site’s overhauls. Just as well: it’s a bit embarrassing to read nowadays.

March 25th, 2007

Feed Readers A-Plenty

For some time now, Interesting Thing of the Day has used FeedBurner for its free, public RSS feeds. (Since we authenticate paid subscribers individually with usernames and passwords, they use a different URL that we serve directly.) Among its many excellent features, FeedBurner helpfully reports how many readers your feed has, but I never paid close attention to those figures because they always seemed to hover around 1,000–1,200. Then one day, about a month ago, the number suddenly jumped to over 83,000! That was the day FeedBurner began reporting how many people were reading feeds via Google Reader and the Google Personalized Homepage; previously Google hadn’t made those statistics available.

I assumed the new Google Reader stats would indicate some small increase, but I was completely unprepared for the jump of nearly two orders of magnitude. (Of course, it wasn’t really an immediate jump, it was simply an immediate clarification in the reporting of people who were already readers.) And in the last month, that number has continued to grow steadily. As I write this, the figure is 98,053 99,007, and I’m sure it’ll cross the 100k mark in a day or two.

A full 99% of those 98,000+ readers are coming through Google Reader, while other subscribers have barely increased at all. I have no explanation for the site’s seemingly over-the-top popularity for Google Reader users. I am utterly astonished that Interesting Thing of the Day could be among the top 10 most popular RSS feeds, if this post at franticindustries is correct (they currently have us at #4—wow).

Being a good capitalist, one of my first thoughts on learning this news was that I should figure out how I can leverage all those extra pairs of eyes to make more money. On average, the Web version of ITotD has been getting just shy of 7,000 visits per day recently. A certain percentage of those visitors click on ads, and that’s what generates the majority of the site’s income. Although the RSS feed contains ads too, they produce far less income than those on the site. So I thought: I should stop including the full text of each article in the feeds, because that gives readers no reason at all to click through to the site, where the higher-value ads are.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago, I changed the free feeds from full text to excerpts, and also removed the podcasts. Full text and podcasts are still available in the paid feeds, for which there’s an ad in the free feeds. I assumed this move would have one or more of the following effects:

  • More people would click through from the excerpts to read the full articles
  • We’d lose some subscribers from the free feeds because they were irritated at having to click through
  • We’d get more paid subscribers to the full feeds

In fact, none of that happened. Since the change, the average number of page views on the site has remained steady. The numbers of subscribers to the free feeds has continued its climb. Exactly one person complained about the change, and his complaint was essentially that the free feeds contained too long of an excerpt! And we’ve had only two new paid subscribers, which I can’t attribute to the change.

I truly don’t know how it is that nearly 100,000 people are seemingly very interested in reading the first two paragraphs of every ITotD article, but not at all interested in the rest. Not that I mind the exposure, but it’s weird. So I’m thinking about decreasing the excerpt to one paragraph and seeing what happens. If I get no results, I’ll scale it back further to just the synopsis—which is what it used to be, way back when. And if even that neither increases the number of click-throughs nor decreases the number of feed subscribers, I’ll be completely baffled.

But perhaps I’m missing something obvious. It wouldn’t be the first time! If you have any theories or wisdom to share, please do so in the comments.

February 28th, 2007

Space Pens with Purple Ink: A Sad Tale

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for Interesting Thing of the Day about Fisher Space Pens, those wonders of modern technology that can write upside-down, in zero gravity, in a vacuum, or underwater. I mentioned my happy discovery that Space Pen refills were available in purple, my favorite color. A few months later, Fisher sent me a prototype of a new pen model for testing, including a purple refill. And I was cautiously optimistic that I’d discovered the ultimate pen for my needs.

I was reminded of all this when writing my article about Non-Newtonian Fluids, because the thixotropic ink in Space Pens happens to be such a fluid. And I thought it was high time I posted a follow-up about my purple-ink Space Pen experience, because it turned out to be an unhappy one.

Whatever else you can say about Space Pens, I discovered that those with purple ink have one huge and unforgivable flaw: the ink isn’t waterproof. Sure, you can write on greasy paper in a snowstorm, but if you later try to read what you wrote, you might have problems.

To illustrate, I took an index card and wrote on it in both black and purple Space Pen ink, and then dunked it in room-temperature water for 30 seconds. Only the lower half of the writing was submerged, and I think you can see pretty clearly what happened (click the photos for larger versions):

Smeary_Space_Pen.jpeg

The black ink bled a bit, but the purple bled a lot. I actually discovered this when a piece of paper in my pocket, inscribed with the purple ink, got a bit damp from sweat. And it turns out that it’s just as bad as I feared.

But wait: aren’t you supposed to be able to write underwater with these pens? I tried that too, and the results were interesting:

Underwater_Space_Pen.jpeg

As you can see, the purple again runs much more than the black. A half hour later, the purple ink had faded to a very light, almost illegible hue, while the black (though very slightly runny) was still nice and dark.

So now, if I want the Space Pen benefits, I have to choose which trade-off I prefer: ink color or smeariness. Ack. I don’t know whether the same problem affects the other colors of Space Pen ink (there are quite a few), but I do know that in at least this respect, the pens don’t live up to their advertising.

On a cheerier and somewhat related note, have a look at 8 YouTube Videos Featuring Non-Newtonian Fluid Experiments at SenseList, none of which involves Space Pens.

February 8th, 2007

While I Was Out

Morgen and I have been back from our vacation to Indonesia and Hong Kong for more than a week now. We spent the first few days getting caught up with email and bills and struggling with jet lag. Now, life is more or less back to normal, which for us means far more work than time in which to do it. However, we’re also very happy to be home and quite excited about several new things on the horizon.

A lot happened during our absence. Some things readers may be wondering about:

How was your trip? It was mixed. There were wonderful parts and awful parts. I think that, in all, it sort of leaned slightly toward the unpleasant end of the scale. Which is, you know, just one of those things when you travel. On the plus side: I successfully turned 40. We saw some really cool things (still sorting through bazillions of pictures). We ate well. We avoided at least 13 disasters. We didn’t get sick (other than the usual minor digestive disturbances). We have some interesting stories. On the minus side: we ran into significant logistical problems. We couldn’t afford to do some of the things we were planning to do. We found the heat, the pollution, the noise, and the crowds oppressive. We experienced many frustrating cultural differences. We have some interesting stories.

What’s going on with Interesting Thing of the Day, SenseList, and The Geeky Gourmet? Progress is occurring!

  • ITotD: There haven’t been any new articles on Interesting Thing of the Day since December; older articles from the archives have been appearing three times a week. Although we would have liked to keep new content going before, during, and after our trip, there just wasn’t time to make it happen. We hope to start publishing new articles next week, and later this month we’ll be fiddling with the format of the site a bit in ways that I think will benefit everyone. Interestingly—and not for the first time—we noticed that the site’s revenues actually increased significantly during the time we were away. Seriously: we didn’t lift a finger the entire month, and it turned out that January produced our highest AdSense income ever. Go figure. Maybe if we just forget about it entirely, the income will skyrocket. (But we won’t!)
  • SenseList: We’re ramping back up. Look for all new, daily lists starting on Monday, along with a few site tweaks and an increased marketing and publicity effort. Our plan is to test some new approaches over the next four weeks and see if we can increase the site’s effectiveness dramatically.
  • The Geeky Gourmet: I haven’t forgotten about it! I can only type so fast, though, and it’s just a lower priority for the moment. During a brainstorming session on our trip, we came up with an idea that might make it easier to infuse it (and our other sites) with new life without requiring too much effort. Stay tuned.

Your recent update of Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac doesn’t cover VMware Fusion, which went into public beta in late December. What’s your take on it? The beta looks reasonably good: better than Parallels Desktop in some respects, not as spiffy in other respects. I expect the final product will be pretty hot, but that the competition between the two for the ultimate feature set will be pretty intense for the foreseeable future. One thing VMware still has to do is provide support for running copies of Windows installed under Boot Camp, as the new betas of Parallels can do. One thing Parallels still has to do is match the performance and device support of Fusion. The next major update of Running Windows will cover Fusion, as well as the Leopard implementation of Boot Camp, in detail (meaning it won’t be released until after Leopard ships, and I’m not yet sure how long after).

Your recent update of Take Control of Mac OS X Backups doesn’t cover CrashPlan, which was introduced at Macworld Expo. What’s your take on it? (And is there an echo in here?) I’m testing it right now, and I’m in contact with the developers to discuss my impressions and suggestions for future development. CrashPlan is certainly a cool idea, and the best implementation I’ve seen so far of peer-to-peer backups. For automatic offsite archives, I can hardly imagine a simpler or more foolproof approach. However, I have some interface concerns, and a few essential pieces of basic functionality are currently missing, such as the capability to back up to local volumes and to create bootable duplicates. It also remains to be seen how it will stack up against Time Machine in Leopard. But look for a detailed review in the near future. The next major update of Backups will cover CrashPlan, as well as Time Machine, in detail (meaning it won’t be released until after Leopard ships—I’m not yet sure how long after—and yes, there’s definitely an echo in here).

In your review of backup software for Macworld (February 2007 issue), you gave Prosoft’s Data Backup a higher rating than Retrospect, which you’ve always recommended in the past. What gives? I got a few letters about this. Some wanted to know why Data Backup got such a high rating, since the version reviewed didn’t even support direct recording to optical discs. Others wanted to know if I’ve decided I no longer like Retrospect or am changing my recommendations.

Both are good programs, and both can accomplish the majority of backup tasks most people need. Data Backup has a much better interface and is actively under development. Retrospect has far better network support and scheduling options, and offers a long list of features that no other Mac backup program has—along with a sucky interface, bugs, expensive tech support, and updates that are very slow in appearing. (Also, there’s now a credible rumor afoot that EMC Insignia, having laid off a large percentage of the Retrospect team, is effectively putting the product into “life support” mode, or will soon.)

So it depends on what you need. For an individual backing up a single machine to a hard disk, Data Backup will be way easier to use, and is a better choice overall. But if you have more than one computer or are using optical or tape drives, the balance tips in Retrospect’s favor, despite the interface, bugs, and costly tech support. In addition, if you’ve purchased my Backups book, you have at your disposal a Retrospect primer that can take the edge off the interface, so I’m more likely to recommend Retrospect to someone reading my book than someone reading Macworld. Of course, the whole backup landscape could change with Leopard’s release, and I’ll revise my recommendations accordingly.

What other Take Control stuff are you working on? Egad. Lots of stuff. To wit:

  • Take Control of Upgrading to Leopard is pretty much my top priority; it’ll be somewhat like Take Control of Upgrading to Tiger and Take Control of Upgrading to Panther, but will contain tons of new information, such as more detail about preparing your system for an upgrade, dealing with the peculiarities of external USB and FireWire drives on Intel vs. PowerPC machines, upgrading various Windows-on-Mac installations, and much more. As usual, we plan to release the ebook at the exact moment Leopard goes on sale in the U.S., whenever that turns out to be.
  • An update to Take Control of .Mac, primarily to cover the new & improved Webmail interface. Not sure when this will ship, but it shouldn’t be too far in the future.
  • Take Control of Apple Mail in Leopard, which will of course follow in the footsteps of Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger and Take Control of Email with Apple Mail. This, obviously, will also have to wait for Leopard, but I don’t know how soon thereafter it will appear.
  • Smaller updates to several other ebooks are under consideration.

What do you think about the iPhone? It looks cool. I’m not thrilled with the 2-year Cingular contract in the U.S., the lack of 3G support, the closed operating system, and the fact that it won’t be available until late this year in Europe and next year in Asia. But I want to reserve judgment until I see the final product. I am looking to buy both a new cell phone and a new iPod this year, so I’m going to defer those purchases until I see whether the iPhone can meet my needs. It might, and that would be groovy.