Friday, December 31, 2010

And... breathe.

A year ago, I set myself a bunch of goals for 2010. Overall, I think I exceeded them by quite some margin. I didn't get to Hawaii or buy a motorcycle, but in the circumstances, I can live with that. After all, we bought the jungle house, and that changed everything. I also managed to (deep breath) start two companies, see spaceships and pirate ships, watch an eclipse at solstice, have the best damn birthday party since I was five, see a mermaid show, watch some unforgettable classic movies in the cinema, go to an Indian reservation, take my daughter to Disney World, blow shit up on the Fourth of July, go to a demolition derby and a roller derby, attend nearly 100 art exhibitions, see some great live bands, swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico (pre-spill), eat some great meals, go to a bunch of burlesque shows, see white alligators, acquire two manic kittens and still have time to help Anna put on a bunch of outrageous events... (whew!)

And, most important of all, I met some wonderful new people. I've never felt such a sense of belonging as I do now. Thanks to all of you, for being the best bunch of friends ever. You made 2010 the best year of my life.


Anyway, here's my goals for 2011. They're not as extensive as last year. 2010 was all about settling in here. Next year will be about consolidating everything we've achieved, and just weathering it through to the end of this recession.

  • Get Carrie over here. She wants to live with us, so we're going to do whatever it takes to make that happen for her. More lawyers. Sigh.
  • See my other kids. It's been nearly 18 months since I saw Rhys or Yo. That needs sorting out. I'm looking forward to seeing my mum too; she's visiting in a few weeks.
  • Sort out the finances. 2010 was an unexpectedly expensive year, what with the new house and Carrie's visit, and the household income also took a noticeable drop. I'd like to see it start to creep up again, and then we can start clearing some of the debts. The publishing business should start to pay off by mid-year, and we're aiming for Draco Felis to bring in a little more.
  • Make a will. It's easy, and it needs doing. Simple.
  • Sort out my diet. My digestive system is getting middle-aged, and I just can't eat what i used to. I still love food, and now that I go to the gym I'm not as fat and unfit as I was, but I'm going to have to figure out what I can and can't eat. It looks like I'm going to have to cut out most dairy foods, eat less fat, and generally avoid too much of the rich stuff. Still, it's a great excuse to get creative and experimental in the kitchen.
  • Get my first tattoo. Well, why not? I've got to have something in here that's just for me!
  • Spend more time with Anna. We probably go out about four times a week, but it's almost always something to do with work, or it's a big event for the tribe. It's fun, but it's not the same as just spending time together. What I really want is just once a month for the two of us to go somewhere together. As it said in the fortune cookie I got on Christmas Eve: "Put aside your business and attend to your love life." Sound advice. I'll take it.
And on that note, I'm now going to put the laptop aside, and spend what remains of 2010 with my family. Happy New Year, everyone!

[Edited 1.1.11 to add in the bit about the will.]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Twitter - what's it for?

What role does Twitter play these days? A year or so ago, I twittered a lot. These days, I check the Moviestorm Twitter feed more often than I check my own, and most days I don't tweet at all. Facebook, for all its faults, seems to have completely supplanted Twitter in almost every respect.

There are two clear signs that Twitter is losing ground, not just in numbers, but in the way it's being used. Most obviously, it's no longer a place for conversations. In 2009, you could tweet a comment, and people would tweet back. To be sure, they were awkward, stilted conversations, but they happened. Nowadays, very few tweets elicit any reply at all. By contrast, almost every post I make on Facebook gets a response, and often several. It's not just what's being said, it's that Twitter simply isn't a good medium for conversation. If you look at those people who link their FB and Twitter feeds, you can quickly see the different reactions they get to the same posts on each. Twitter's not threaded, so you have to keep track of the conversations the old way. And there's no simple mechanism for replying to everyone who's interested in that thread; all your tweets are either completely public or directed at specific individuals. What's more, Twitter has no equivalent of the much derided "like" button. This simple interaction is a remarkably useful piece of social structure. It's the equivalent of a smile; a non-verbal way to show that you appreciate what's being said. It doesn't necessarily advance the conversation, but it does give people social standing and allow people to be involved in a passive, but overt way.

The second, less obvious symptom is the huge downturn in retweets and sharing on Twitter. I recently read a piece by Seth Godin in which he noted that only about 1 in 6 tweets gets retweeted. That was written in early 2010. Looking at my feed now, I'd say it was more like 1 in 30. Most of what gets put on Twitter goes no further. Most of what I see retweeted is from celebrities like Stephen Fry or Warren Ellis, which is strange when you think about it for a moment - they have millions of followers, and everyone who's interested in them follows them anyway, so who are these retweets aimed at?

A Twitter link: it's almost like reading code, and I have to open a browser to see what's at the other end.

Compare that with Facebook, where sharing is common. Again, it's not the content, it's the medium. Part of it is that Facebook is a much richer experience. If I want to link to a video, you can see a thumbnail, read a description, and then watch that video right in your browser. The same link in Twitter consists of a shortened URL (which tells you nothing) and a few words, then you have to go somewhere else to see what I'm showing you. Then, if you like it, go back to Twitter, find the post, and retweet, probably trimming 16 more characters off the description to allow room for RT @MattKelland: at the beginning. Tweets are almost like little ciphers, filled with strange hashes, disemvowelled words, bizarre characters, and geeky things that look like code. Facebook, by contrast, is more like the language we speak.

A Facebook link: useful information, immediate feeling of community from the likes and comments, easy ways to interact and share, and I can watch it right there.

It feels as if Twitter has outlived its usefulness. It went from the preserve of a few tech addicts to a vehicle for celebrities and brands to push out robotic marketing messages. Tweet about visiting a friend in Chandler's Ford, and you'll find yourself followed by Ford dealerships wanting to tell you about their special offers. Say you're moving your Web site to a new server, and you'll get bombarded by removal companies, software companies, and Web designers. Sure, it's a great way for the Governator to tell millions of people what he's doing, but everyone else is lost in the noise. And there's a lot of noise. Twitter never did have a very good signal to noise ratio, but it's gone from the gossip of a coffee shop to the hubbub of a giant mall.

There's a lot wrong with Facebook, but it seems to provide a far better communication medium than Twitter. And, of course, they have a proven, successful business model, which Twitter doesn't. I'll be interested to see whether Twitter turns into the MySpace of 2011.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Subtitles - on!

Over the last few months, I've found myself watching fewer and fewer British and American movies. Or, more accurately, I'm enjoying fewer and fewer of them. With a few exceptions (Inception, for example), I keep finding them formulaic, predictable, and unsatisfying. Instead, I've been watching more and more foreign films, including a few from some unexpected places. Looking back through my Netflix queue, in the last six weeks alone I've seen films from:
  • Bhutan
  • Peru
  • Iran
  • Mongolia
  • Turkey
  • France
  • Germany
  • Korea
  • Japan
  • India
  • China
  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Mexico
What's really interesting is that most of them - though not all, I will admit - are getting 3 and 4 star ratings from us. It's actually quite refreshing to settle into a film and not know anything about the director or the stars, and just watch the stories. Along the way, I've discovered a real love for the films of Catherine Breillat, and I've found that most of the "great" Italian films of the 60s are overrated nonsense.

By contrast, the British and American films are mostly getting 2s and 3s, with the occasional 1 star in there. I'm not entirely sure why this is. We're watching a wide variety of movies, but the only domestic ones that seem to be grabbing us are the classics. It could just be Netflix's selection, but here's another data point. I saw just one current American movie in the cinema in 2010 (Tim Burton's Alice). I might go and see True Grit, Tron and Black Swan before New Year, but I'm not counting on it. Everything else I saw was an old movie, such as Metropolis, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or a foreign film like Jean Genet's wonderful Mic Macs. I read the Hollywood and indie movie news religiously, but I just don't get excited about any of it. I'm more excited by movies like Iron Sky or whatever Iain Friar's going to make next.

Another possibility is that when I'm watvhing a foreign film, I have to devote my full attention to it. I can't get distracted by the laptop, the phone, the cats, the kitchen, or whatever. It's easy not to engage with something that can slip easily into the background. When I watch a foreign film, I'm making a conscious decision to stop everything else and focus on the film for the next couple of hours. That fundamentally changes my relationship with it.

Even more interesting, though, I've found myself watching and enjoying more British and American TV shows. I haven't watched television in about 3 years, largely because I couldn't find anything I enjoyed, but there seems to be plenty on Netflix to keep me entertained. I'm watching series I never saw on TV. Some never made it to the UK (at least not on any channel I had). Some I came in part-way through and wanted to start at the beginning. Some I'm introducing Anna to and enjoying them second time around. Many I've never heard of. Netflix means I can start at Series One, and watch at my own pace - perhaps an episode here or there, perhaps a marathon session of an evening.

It's clear that there's no shortage of creativity and quality content in Britain and America, but it seems to have gravitated towards television rather than films. In other countries, film still seems to attract the best talent. I suspect it's because Hollywood has such an emphasis on the blockbuster, which relies on special effects, star power, formula stories and expensive marketing to make maximum box office return at the expense of originality, while the independent film-makers in Britain and America have found a niche for low-budget drama and comedy that also comes with its own set of crowd-pleasing rules.

It's good to look outside what Britain and America are producing. There's a whole world of movies out there, and I'm looking forward to exploring much more of it from the comfort of my sofa next year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Radio Freefall

My Christmas read (on paper, not a Kindle, amazingly) was Matthew Jarpe's debut novel Radio Freefall from 2007. It's labelled cyberpunk, but it's really more cyberprogrock. The lead character, after all, is named after a Jethro Tull song, Aqualung, and it's filled with references to all sorts of music.

Locus described it as "rollicking", and that's pretty dead on. It involves everything you want from this kind of novel; rich corporations trying to take over the world, sentient computer viruses, long-dead rock stars, hackers, mobsters and lunar colonies seeking independence. Jarpe also throws in some political comment with remarkable relevance to recent headlines. At one point, a bunch of kids are protesting. Our protagonist grabs a camera and microphone and talks to them, pointing out that "people don't throw bottles of gasoline if you let them speak, but just one person in power telling them that their voices don't matter is enough to turn them ugly."

My favourite ingredient in the mix is what they call The Machine. It's a device designed to manipulate an audience's emotions, and they use it as the best warm-up band ever. Personally, I think of it as "what would have happened if Hawkwind had been able to get their hands on alpha wave generators and the Internet". A truly scary, but entertaining prospect. Lemmy and Dave Brock with that kind of technology?

I ripped through it in two sittings, and only put it down because it was Christmas Day and the family demanded my presence. Well worth reading. Here's the first chapter for you, free.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Business head vs business heart

The hardest part of making any business plan is always when you know you've got a cool idea, you know how to make it work, but you can't make the numbers come out right for it to be a viable business. You're left with three options.
  1. Walk away. This is obviously the logical thing to do. After all, it's why you do a business plan, so you can find out before you start whether it's going to be worth while. The down side is that you'll never get to do your cool idea. And if it was that cool, you're going to be really pissed off when someone else does it, and even more pissed off when they make money at it. I've lost count of the number of ideas I've walked away from, only to see someone else be successful at them years later. So, the answer is clearly to...
  2. Do it anyway and hope the rewards come later. Perhaps you screwed up your planning, perhaps it'll pay better than you think, or maybe circumstances will change. Or maybe it will lead on to something else that pays off. Think of it as an investment. Except that of course not all investments pay off. You might think your idea is cool, but nobody else does, and you're just pouring money down the drain. But that's okay, because you can...
  3. Do it anyway and just accept the losses. If it's fun, and you can afford it, treat it as a hobby. If it makes some money back, so much the better. Of course, if you end up spending more than you can afford, and it turns out not to be as much fun as you thought, that's a real downer, so obviously it's more sensible just to walk away. But then... yeah, we're right back where we started.
The thing is, loss-making businesses are not necessarily bad. Some of the world's most successful businesses spent years losing money before becoming profitable, and the big win didn't always come from where they expected it. They just had to stick around and keep the faith long enough to reap the rewards.

And sometimes, it's perfectly OK for a business never to make a profit. Look at people creating little niche products: specialist magazines, custom artwork, small bands, amateur theatre groups, and so on. It costs them money to make that stuff, and they rarely get back as much as they spend. But they enjoy doing what they do, and by getting something back, they can afford to keep doing it and making people happy.

Yes, business is first and foremost about making money, but the bottom line needn't be the bottom line.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Marvelous Mayhem

People know me through all sorts of different routes. Many of you know me as a machinima guy. Others know me as a foodie. Some of you are people I've known for a while.

Something you may not know about me, however, is that Anna and I run sort-of-monthly shows in a local restaurant. Here's what the Orlando Weekly had to say about the last one (scroll down about half-way to the bit about Draco Felis). Here's a summary for those who can't be bothered to click the link:
On the first Friday of each month, Draco Felis Inc., a local media and online marketing outfit, presents Friday Ferox, a potpourri of semi-scandalous art, performance and live music. December’s Marvelous Mayhem show, sponsored by A Comic Shop, sported a superheroes and villains theme that drew a full house of fellow freaks and fanboys... The art inside, if you could fight through the crowd to see it, ranged from comic-inspired Day of the Dead masks to fetishistic femme fatale centerfolds and everything in between... The audience’s rowdy reception proves Orlando still has plenty of patrons eager for a little playful perversion – especially when super-powered spandex is involved.
In case you hadn't noticed, that Joker costume isn't a costume. It's paint, by the awesome Evil Twin FX. Throw in a couple of burlesque troupes, and you get the idea. "Semi-scandalous playful perversion" sums it up pretty well.

Photo by Jim Carchidi: more of this album on Facebook

We have a lot of fun doing these events. The next one's right after New Year, so we're already working on it now. It's called Flesh: The Body Altar, and it's themed around body art. We're aiming to stream it live online (the last show seemed to work OK from a technical point of view, so we're going to ramp it up another notch now), so even if you can't get to Orlando, you can still enjoy the show.



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Assorted food-related observations

  • I love making my own stock with chicken carcasses, ham bones, and so on. It seems pointless, given how cheap and easy it is to buy the stuff, but I find it satisfying to use as much as I can from the animal. I also enjoy the bit where I pick the bones as clean as they can get.
  • On a similar note, I get immense satisfaction from cooking with left-overs, odds and ends, and whatever I can find in the back of the kitchen cupboards. It feels like I'm getting something for nothing.
  • I can taste a spicy dish and tell you exactly what spices are in it, but I cannot, for the life of me, identify the grape variety in a glass of wine.
  • Of all coffees, I enjoy African coffees the most. And I think Hawaiian Kona is overrated.
  • I really like going to the Mexican market and loading up on tomatilloes and assorted chile peppers. I think I have ten different varieties of chiles in my kitchen right now, none of which is habanero or jalapeno.
  • My favourite meat is venison, preferably slow cooked in either port or brandy. Or both.
  • My slow cooker is my favourite kitchen utensil. It feels good to cook while I make breakfast and then know I'll have a delicious meal on demand later that night.
  • I cannot cook omelettes. I can't make scrambled eggs in a frying pan either.
  • I'm lousy at cooking steak.
  • I rarely eat deep fried food.
  • I pride myself on being able to cook food from around the world, but my knowledge of French cuisine is practically nil. I can probably cook more Iraqi, Nigerian, or Polish dishes than French dishes.
  • My favourite pizza topping is pepperoni, mushrooms, anchovies and jalapeno, with extra mozzarella. These days I prefer thin crispy pizzas to deep thick ones, and I like to eat the crusts, as long as they're properly crunchy.
  • I prefer tawny to ruby port. And I'm partial to a good sherry. On the other hand, I never drink Scotch whisky.
  • My favourite fruit is mango.
  • I loathe raw tomatoes, except in salsa with plenty of lime and chilli.
  • I almost never cook desserts or cakes, but I make a totally kick-ass baklava.
  • The combination of meat and fruit is something I love experimenting with.
  • I often make vegetarian meals, even though I'm not a veggie. I just like the variety and don't feel the need to include meat.
  • I find cooking aubergines (eggplants) really tricky, especially the big Greek ones.
  • I cannot eat seafood (but fish is OK) or tofu.
  • I had a very satisfying moment a few years ago in a restaurant, when I realised that I was no longer choosing food because I hadn't tried it before; instead, I was choosing dishes which I couldn't make at home because I can't get the ingredients or I don't have the utensils. Now, I tend to choose food based on the restaurant's recommendation.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Buzz!

One of those commonplaces of modern marketing is that overnight successes take a hell of a long time to manufacture. It's only the punters who think they're spontaneous. Seth Godin, however, takes a slightly different view, and puts his finger on what makes an idea viral.
No-one sends an idea unless:
  1. they get it (see below)
  2. they want it to spread
  3. they believe that spreading it will enhance their status
  4. the effort necessary to spread the idea is less than the benefits.
No-one "gets" an idea unless:
  1. the first impression demands further investigation
  2. they understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea
  3. they trust the sender
That's why viral marketing and internet memes are so shallow. And, most importantly, ideas never spread because they're important to the originator.
From Small is the New Big, by Seth Godin.

If you don't want to read the whole book, just read this one blog post. Really, do. It'll take you three minutes.

What Every Good Marketer Knows


Here's a few of my favourites from that post.
  • People don’t buy what they need. They buy what they want.
  • You’re not in charge. And your prospects don’t care about you.
  • Good marketers tell a story.
  • Effective stories match the worldview of the people you are telling the story to.
  • Choose your customers. Fire the ones that hurt your ability to deliver the right story to the others.