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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Math, Science, and Nerdiness




The Social Network, Mythbusters, Barack Obama - in 2011 nerds have won the hearts and minds of people everywhere.  The pied piper of nerdiness, Weird Al Yankovic, has been entertaining crowds for over three decades.  The song "White and Nerdy" (released in 2006) went platinum and became the biggest hit of his career thus far.  Weird Al's Twitter account currently has around two million followers.  Back when Weird Al first gained popularity, a listener may have kept their closet fandom a secret.  Now 18-34 year old males flock to Cartoon Network to watch Adult Swim TV shows with characters like Weird Al on a daily basis.

Shows such as Mythbusters, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory make math and science relevant to young viewers.  Whereas older generations had precious few science fiction outlets (mainly books and movies), children today have an endless amount of scientific and technological entertainment at their fingertips - computers, cell phones, tablets, video games, etc.  Gamers view World of Warcraft (WoW) as a way of life rather than merely a game.  Players of WoW can spend years developing their characters, community and even conducting virtual business transactions in game - all chronic habits parodied on the Web Series "The Guild."

Since "nerd" is the new mainstream, "hipster" seems to be the 2010s word to describe adolescents who wish to convey intellectual superiority.   According to Urban Dictionary, hipsters are "a subculture of men and women typically in their 20's and 30's that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter."  Hipster may sound like a new concept, except that in the 90s that definition meant "grunge," in the 80s "punk," and in the 70s "hippie."

Unfortunately, much like the preceding groups promoting counter-cultural ideas, most hipsters do not seem to be trending towards the math, science, and engineering fields.  While young generations today have access to the world's information in their hand with their smartphones, many spend way more time updating Facebook photos than on learning the computer programming languages used to create the community in the first place.  The world continues to drown in a financial crisis engineered my mathematicians on Wall Street creating derivative markets that many people refuse to try and understand.
The field of robotics continues to produce machines which outperform workers across the globe.  How long can society remain content to watch an elite group of scientists and engineers produce a future beyond our collective intellect?

We no longer have excuses.  It is no longer uncool to learn.  The information is right here.  Let's do the work.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Profanity in blogging: "Sh*t My Dad Says" and "F My Life"




Pain and profanity can be very funny.  What may start out as simply distressing can often be turned into humor as a way to relieve tension.  Thanks to the web, pain is now viral.  Two examples of websites using pain and profanity to create a market for their amusing stories are "Sh*t My Dad Says" and "F My Life."

Sh*t My Dad SaysSh*t My Dad Says is a Twitter feed based on author Justin Halpern's musings from his endearingly profane father.  While his dad swears in most of the quotes, he also shows genuine concern for his son.  Here are some of his words of wisdom:

"Don't focus on the one guy who hates you. You don't go to the park and set your picnic down next to the only pile of dog shit."

"YOU, a published writer?..Internet don't count. Any asshole can throw shit up on there."

"Pressure? Get married when you want. Your wedding's just one more day in my life I can't wear sweat pants."

Justin started posting these witticisms after his girlfriend dumped him and he moved back in with his parents at age 28.  He writes in the book, "The more time I spent with my dad in those first couple of months back home, the more grateful I started to feel for the mixture of honesty and insanity that characterized his comments and personality."  Clearly, the honesty appealed to his readers as well - his twitter feed currently has over two million followers and his book went on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller.  The reader's disbelief at the level of sincerity in the relationship between father and son makes the stories so compelling and brutally funny.

F My LifeF My Life is a blog fueled by authentic stories of misery submitted by users.  All posts start with "Today" and end with "FML," and generally remain only a few sentences long.  The following posts from the website are about unbelievable circumstances:

"Today, while at the Golden Gate Bridge, I spotted a large group of Asians trying to take a picture. Trying to be a diplomat, I slowly say "You... want me... take picture?" while using hand motions. The man looks at me and says 'No thanks asshole, I got it,' in plain English. FML"

"Today, I was at McDonald's and I was going through the drive-thru. As I was driving away, I checked my food and the lady had given me a Night at the Museum Happy Meal toy by mistake. I got so excited that I crashed the car into a pole.  I'm 36. FML"

"Today, I went out with my family and boyfriend for dinner. We were all having a good time, and suddenly at the end of dinner he decides to kneel down on one knee, take out an engagement ring, and say 'I choose you, Pikachu,' with a straight face. He was serious.  FML"

The FML website explains: "This is a space where you can let it all out and unwind by sharing the little things that screw with your day, and maybe realize that you are not alone in experiencing day-to-day crap.  There now, don't you feel better?"  As you can see, the creators of the website are not telling users to use profanity just for the sake of cursing.  Instead, they created a safe space to share your story with a group of equally pain-riddled listeners and find comfort in shared experiences.

Readers would probably not follow websites entitled "Stuff My Dad Has Mentioned" or "My Life Kind of Sucked Today."  Authors often use extreme language to make stories more honest and intense.  The writing will not appeal to everyone and censorship works to lessen the raw emotion conveyed by severe speech.  However, when the stories genuinely work to relieve tension instead of create it, I find it hard to argue with the use of any particular words.



Now, if you're worried about your children repeating upsetting curse words found online, perhaps you can take the advice given in this YouTube video:


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Knowing What You're Worth: Monetary Edition



Welcome to Promoting Yourself 101.

Today's Lesson: Jackie the Violin Teacher.

Now, to some of you, Jackie and her violin may sound like a snooze fest.  We don't all love Mozart.  So, how did Jackie turn what may be perceived as a classical yawn-a-thon into an amazing violin rockin' performance like Dave Matthews Band playing "Ants Marching" in Central Park?

Jackie needed to learn how to develop her self worth and promote her work to potential clients.  She decided to try Ramit Sethi's Earn1K program which offered her consultation on financial and business plans.  Ramit Sethi is the New York Times bestselling author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, who described himself at one point in the book as "a weird twentysomething Indian who chooses a four-door Accord for his dream car and prides himself on his credit score."  He also knows how to promote himself as you can see on his website, Wikipedia article, Twitter feed, and LinkedIn profile.

In the beginning, Jackie successfully negotiated down her cell phone, car insurance, and utility bills.  She started to get comfortable asking for more than what she was getting.  Turning her focus onto her studio, she decided to raise her hourly rate for teaching.  The reason why she didn't raise her rate beforehand was psychological.  Essentially, she didn't know how to ask for it.  Now, given her newly-formed negotiation skills, she realized she was worth more both psychologically and monetarily.

During the course, she corresponded with Ramit to keep him up-to-date on her accomplishments.  Prior to Earn1K she was already freelancing, comforted in the knowledge that she was a "awesome musician and instructor."  However, she worried about not having any business experience.  She never "pitched or actively sought clients," instead she came by new students passively.  By the time she finished the program, she had completely changed her mindset.  She realized that the best way to get noticed was to become more noticeable.

One modern idea she used to promote her business included sending out a monthly e-newsletter with YouTube videos, student performances, achievements, free music and MP3s.  She sent it out to family members of the performers and possible clients.  Both her students and her studio benefited from this sharing of media that was personal and powerful.  The newsletter created a connection to her audience and gave the performers recognition for their efforts.

Once she became known as the "high-end violin shop," as opposed to the "cheapskate know-nothing instrument shack," as she colorfully wrote in one e-mail, Jackie's studio name and reputation turned into a source of pride.  She no longer felt like she had to convince others of her worth, in fact, most people approached her based on the enthusiastic reviews of her clients.  The extra money received from her new clientele boosted her confidence, and she realized the value in owning and marketing her own business.  As a result, she encouraged her students to "busk" (play music outside for cash) in order to experience those same feelings of independence.

Now, Jackie is making $81,000+ for the year and closing in on $90K.  She wrote, "I didn't think I would ever make 6 figures, due to being in the arts.  Now, I am confident that I will do at LEAST that much."

So...you...sitting out there on the bench waiting for an invisible coach to put you in this game of life, what is an hour of your time worth?

This article was written as an "application" to work for Ramit Sethi.  His post about hiring a Case Study Writer can be found here.  I thought it worked just as well as a blog post on Echo Bounce.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vulnerability and Blogging: "My Secret Public Journal"

 
Stand-up comedians are wide open to receive verbal abuse of all kinds.  Basically, one person stands on a stage in a room full of strangers with different expectations and tries to elicit a positive response of acceptance (laughter) from everybody.  Public humiliation is constantly at stake.  Comedians may be "licensed fools" but they walk a fine line between providing the jokes and becoming just a fool.  When the stories told on stage are personal and carry emotional weight, the performer needs to be completely comfortable with being vulnerable.  One comedian that embraces his vulnerability and makes a strong connection with the audience is Mike Birbiglia.

Mike also writes a blog called "My Secret Public Journal."  In the video above, Mike explains why he started writing personal thoughts publicly on the internet.  His therapist recommended that he write down his most intimate stories and painful memories to help put things into perspective.  He then decided to start journaling on the blog, which gave him material for the CD - My Secret Public Journal Live, which was followed by the DVD - Mike Birbiglia: What I Should Have Said Was Nothing - Tales From My Secret Public Journal, most recently the book, Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories, and upcoming Off-Broadway show, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend.  I think we can all agree the blog was a lucrative idea.

He also tells his stories on NPR.  Painfully true stories.  Stories we can probably all relate to because we've experienced many of them growing up - a first kiss, starting to date, sleepwalking out of a second story window... Those stories would be hard to talk about in candid detail for most of us.  Mike somehow overcomes his anxiety for retelling life's awkward personal moments in an extremely funny way.

On October 29th, 2010, Mike posted a journal entry about releasing his book, Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories, in it he writes:

 "I was having deep anxiety for the month leading up to the book release because there was only one early review in August.  It was from Kirkus, which I had heard of.  And it completely panned the book.  It said, 'He delivers predictable material on gluttony, bodily functions and sleepwalking.'  It was a really difficult thing to resolve because on the one hand I want criticism but on the other hand, this person clearly didn't read the book.  How could you possibly describe jumping through a second story window in your sleep as 'predictable?'

Then I started second-guessing the whole book, thinking maybe I accidentally added in 65 pages on bodily functions and 'gluttony' in my sleep!  Or that I had forgotten to mention that I jumped out a second story window and kept in only the predictable sleepwalking stories.  Then I realized that Kirkus just didn't read the book and the person didn't know or care who I was and had to do it as an assignment and decided instead to write their best guess of what a book called "Sleepwalk With Me" might be like.  Good try, Kirkus!"

If you check Amazon reviews now, you'll see the book received an average of 4.5 stars with 93 reviews.  Clearly, the book resonated with actual readers.  Most reviews are glowing.  A few are not so encouraging.  The point is not whether the book is worth reading (BTW- it is worth reading twice actually, first for the hilarity, second for the poignancy), it is about putting your thoughts out there for the world to see even with all the instant criticism.  We all second-guess ourselves and our work, but when you can overcome the anxiety and hit the publish button (in the case of a blog), you just never know how many good things may come of it.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Three Inspiring Websites



Three websites that inspire me:

1) Xtranormal.com

We all know xtranormal.com because of the Geico commercials. The site provides a movie-making service for the masses. I spent a large part of my day today creating the video seen above. If you enjoy it, great! If not, well then I wasted several hours. Fun times though. I suppose I could have written this post without making the video, but people believe what you do, not what you say.

According to their mission as stated on the site: "Movie-making, short and long, online and on-screen, private and public, will be the most important communications process of the 21st century." Agreed. Now you can make movies from your living room with your keyboard.

2) Modcloth.com

Modcloth.com is the most beautiful, simply designed, and addictive shopping site I have ever visited. They sell vintage and retro clothing, accessories, and decor. The "New Arrivals" are updated several times throughout the day with limited quantities. If you are like me, the "newness" of the merchandise will inspire you to visit daily and dream about pretty new outfits. The uniqueness of the items will enliven your fashion sense.

3) Ted Talks

TED started in 1984 as a conference about Technology, Entertainment and Design. Since then, the conference has spread to inspire speakers around the world to gather and give talks about ideas that can change the world. Hundreds of Ted Talks are available on the website to watch for free, most of them 15 minutes or less in length. I encourage everyone to watch as many as possible, one short video in particular I love is Jake Shimabukuro playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the Hawaiian ukulele.


On the internet especially, a picture is worth a thousand words. A video is probably worth closer to 10,000. Honestly, no matter how many words, we would all probably still enjoy a picture.

Words, written or said aloud, can inspire. When accompanied by pictures or videos, the experience becomes infinitely more dynamic. President John F. Kennedy made a national goal of putting a man on the moon with a speech. The speech was inspiring. However, the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon completely transfixed the nation. Everyone watching realized the impossible was possible.

These three websites allow me to dream, to stretch my imagination beyond what I previously thought possible.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Corporate Blogging...zzz...but wait...

When corporations think about blogging they shouldn't think about revenue, acquisitions, and liabilities.  To make a connection with their audience, they should think of their company like a family and their blog posts like conversations around the dinner table.  The best dinner table moments happen when you feel full and satisfied like your time wasn't wasted.  Topics can range from interesting things you saw that day to what you learned in school, but while your story may be educational, it should not be boring.  And if you're lucky, you might say something humorous enough that someone shoots milk out of their nose.

The following three company blogs make me feel at home:

1) Whole Story: The Official Whole Foods Market Blog

Visiting Whole Story is kind of like talking to the owner of Whole Foods while he sets out the produce and you rummage through the cucumbers. He give you some suggestions for snacks while you watch the big game, tells you about a movie he watched recently, and lets you know about his recent involvement in the community.  He asks you "how are things?"  Finally, he wishes you well and tells you he hopes to see you back again real soon.

2) Salty Caramel: Jeni's Spendid Ice Cream Blog

Jeni's Ice Cream is a local Columbus, Ohio establishment delivering interesting and unique ice cream flavors.  Trying Jeni's ice cream is like going on a first date.  Even if you are just starting out and you like some things, but you're not sure about other things, the relationship is still full of potential.  Some of the new flavors currently featured on the blog include: Corn Syrup with Whiskey & Pecans, Kir Sorbet, and Ugandan Vanilla Bean.

3) The Ikea Blog


This isn't actually Ikea's corporate blog, but it should be!  Most of the posts on this blog praise the sleek designs and products available at Ikea, with a few insults thrown in to make sure their head doesn't get too big.  This blog is like your mom telling you how proud she is of your accomplishments while your older brother gives you a charlie horse with a punch to the thigh.  It would be very refreshing if corporate blogs could make fun of themselves, or at least didn't take themselves so seriously.

Invite your readers to come to the dinner table and hear your stories.  Create a delicious meal.  But remember, the reader doesn't have to sit politely through the whole meal, in fact, they will probably leave as soon as you ask them to eat their vegetables.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blogs, Reading Habits, and Our Future

Blogs will drive the majority of our collective reading habits for the next few years.  Not apps (unless they link to blogs), not magazines, books, newspapers, general websites (without a blog), etc.  While people will continue to read books, published reports, and Facebook status updates, their main source of up-to-the-minute searchable news and personal musings will remain the blog.  Facebook status updates will come in as a close second, however, it is hard to cover the enormity of a story like the tsunami in Japan with 420-characters.

Most Americans don't have the time, inclination, or attention span to read an entire book from cover to cover. According to a study done by The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2007, Americans spend two hours a day watching television and seven minutes reading, on average.  The chairman for the NEA when the study was published, Dana Gioia, told NPR News that the "deciding factor in who reads and who doesn't is not socioeconomic status," but rather, "how many books can be found in a family's home."  In 2011 and beyond, that factor is likely to change to the amount of computers, tablets, eReaders, and smartphones found in a family's home.

Technorati, the search engine for searching blogs, issues an annual report with the latest being The State of the Blogosphere 2010 (SOTB).  The results from the survey of bloggers found that "compared with other media, blogs outpace other social media and many traditional media in terms of generating consumer recommendations and purchases," which was reflected by "the steady increasing levels of brands engaging with the blogosphere." As we all know from television commercials to classified ads, advertising pays for media content.  If consumers look to blogs before making purchases, companies will pay bloggers to generate content with advertising revenue.  The study also found that more bloggers than ever are making money from their blogs.

Blogs are generating curated, current and searchable content around conversations.  Businesses are finally participating in the new medium.  If you consider yourself a professional, public figure, or expert in your field, a blog is the best way to become known as a thought leader.  While many professionals worry that blogging may lead to liability issues or employee termination, ultimately, the future of your field depends on your participation in these online conversations.

Deep Thoughts about Social Networking

Mark Zuckerburg's estimated net worth: $13.5 billion.  Twitter's estimated valuation: between $8-$10 billion.  Social networking is a huge deal in 2011.  What used to be really difficult - reaching out to a complete stranger and striking up a conversation - can now be accomplished with a click of the "Add as Friend" or "Follow" button.  We can easily end a romantic relationship by changing our Facebook status to "Single" which sends a little broken heart icon to the news feed of all of our friends. The dreaded phone call to a stranger, loved one, or the credit card company can in many cases be avoided altogether with a Facebook message, text, or email.

From my earliest memories to my first full-time job, I remember being afraid not of strangers in general but of people older and seemingly wiser than me (i.e. teachers, bosses, and public figures).  There were rules to follow everywhere that the adults in the room enforced at every turn.  Making a phone call or raising a hand to ask a question of anyone older than me seemed like an exercise in humiliation.  Seniority meant authority.

Today, Facebook, Twitter, and the web of ideas shared along the internet are changing the rules.  To the people growing up in this digital age, the power and ease of creating relationships will seem natural.  For those of us born in the 80s and decades before, we are entering new relationship-building territory inhabited by adolescents. In many ways they are better communicators, even if they write "r" instead of "are" and "2" instead of "two or to or too."  Children born today have a cell phone in their hand when they start to crawl.  Their fingers know the keypad for sending text messages like we would type in our favorite channels on the television remote or tune into our favorite radio stations without thinking, except the tv and radio personalities couldn't hold a two-way conversation with us instantaneously.

Teachers, bosses and public figures used to have all the power, answers, and attention.  No longer.  Attention is now given to the relationship builders, to the sharers of information.  What does power and attention mean in a 140-character, youtube video, camera-ridden world?  It means the end of 45-minute lectures in school.  The end of private board room meetings.  The end of hierarchy and the destruction of ideological borders.  Not a superficial undertaking by any means, even if it is largely being driven by cat videos and live streams of 140-character thoughts about local sports teams.  Schools, companies, and governments will have to completely restructure their networks to include everyone in conversation.  The power and attention now lies in the hands of the many, not the few.