Monday, July 25, 2005

Help create and implement new "microformats" for the web

The Wharton Business School blog has a fascinating interview up right now with Tantek Celik, senior technologist at Technorati and one of the co-founders of a new website called Microformats.org. (I'm misspelling Mr. Celik's name, by the way, and for that I apologize - damn those international characters!) And what are microformats, you might ask? Well, they're an attempt to add what's called "semantic" information to websites, without having to get rid of the existing structure or coding altogether. And what exactly is semantic information, you might ask? Well, that's an attempt to present certain types of information so that it can be of more use besides just to human eyeballs that are reading it on a computer screen. Think of an existing standard like vCard to get an idea of what I'm talking about; such a standard not only displays a person's contact information on a computer screen, so that you as a human can read it with your eyes, but also as a downloadable data packet, so that anyone using address-book software with vCard capabilities (like Microsoft's Outlook and Hotmail, for example) can simply click on the link and have that contact info automatically added to their particular address book, without having to type it in themselves. There are all kinds of semantic information like this, according to Celik, that could be of immense help to the average user - events that could be added to your calendar with one click, book information embedded within a review that could be added to your bookstore shopping cart, etc.

Granted, this is not exactly a new idea, not to mention that Tim Berners-Lee (the guy who invented the World Wide Web in the first place) has been hard at work for years on inventing "the Semantic Web," a brand-new technology that would do exactly what we're talking about. What's different about microformats, though, is that the emphasis is on using the technology that already exists (like supplementary tags in XHTML, for example) to present this information, both so that such formats can be immediately adopted by the entire planet, and so that amateur programmers like you and me can use such formats without too much of a learning curve. Anyway, the new website hopes to create a community of such microformat enthusiasts, both commercial developers and simple bloggers, in an attempt to develop new microformats without the formalized committee-and-report system you see at places like the W3C. (For example, already on board are the programmers at Upcoming.org, one of the more popular calendar services out there for hipsters and artists.) It's one of the more intriguing new web projects I've heard of in a long time, and definitely worth looking into more. (Thanks to the TP Wire Service for pointing this out.)

"Happy News" is looking for your stories

There's a new Austin-based website online called HappyNews.com, which is exactly what its name suggests: a real news site, full of real stories, but ones reporting only positive things going on in the world these days. (And my five-word editorial: "Man, what a great idea.") Anyway, the site is actively seeking stories from citizen journalists right now - which could be a great opportunity for artists, philanthropies and entrepreneurs, all of whom are having an incredibly tough time these days getting noticed by those in the mainstream media. Know of a charity that recently got a big grant? Know of an artist who recently got a big break? Write it up and submit it! (Thanks to BusinessWeek for pointing this out.)

DIY MBA

Are you thinking of opening a new small business (like me), but don't have the time or money to actually attend business school (like...er, me)? Why not just teach yourself? Even most MBA holders will admit that the majority of things they learned in business school can be learned by reading books instead - and in the age we live in, blogs, wikis and discussion boards can provide a cheap substitute for the interaction a typical business student might have with their fellow students and professors. (Now, granted, a self-taught MBA doesn't hold nearly the cache of, say, having Harvard Business School listed on your resume. But we're talking here specifically about small-business owners who want to learn the things that will allow them to actually open and run a small business - not 24-year-olds who are looking to impress potential employers at job interviews.) Anyway, a guy named Josh Kaufman has been noodling for the last six months with what he calls the "Personal MBA 40," a list of what he considers the most important 40 books in existence for such "DIY MBAers" to read, and finally has his official list finished and online. (Regular readers will of course know that this is exactly what I'm doing myself these days [that is, giving myself a self-taught business degree], and I was tickled to see that I've actually read seven books from the list on my own, before actually seeing the list itself.) This is just step one for Mr. Kaufman, frankly; he's also started up a Personal MBA website, which needless to say I will be watching this year with great interest. (Thanks to Slacker Manager for pointing this out; and if I haven't mentioned this recently, Brandon, I love your blog!)

It cannot be denied: Beth Lisick is an "alterna-MILF"

My good friend Beth Lisick, an extraordinary author and musician out of San Francisco, has a new book out called Everybody into the Pool, which was recently reviewed by Jarret Keene at Las Vegas City Life. Now, such a thing would normally not warrant a mention here at my blog - but Mr. Keene also coined a new phrase to describe Beth, "alterna-MILF," which had me laughing so damn hard that I simply had to mention it. "MILF," for those who don't know, is a term from the porn industry which stands for "Moms I'd Like to F**k;" and man, if Beth isn't the textbook example of an "alterna-MILF," I don't know who is. Needless to say, you should go out and buy the book right this second! (Many thanks to Bookslut.com for bringing this to my attention.)

BBC Mobile updated

For any mobile-device owners who haven't yet heard, the BBC recently updated the look and feel of their mobile edition. For many of us (myself included), this long-running and award-winning site was the first regular destination for us when we originally got our PDAs, so I'm glad to see that their commitment to a smart, cutting-edge experience for mobile readers is still so strong. (Thanks to PalmAddict for pointing this out.)

PR exec: "Let's stop writing press releases"

Public-relations provocateur Amy Gahran is suggesting something interesting at her blog these days - that PR execs should simply do away with press releases altogether. For those who don't know, a "press release" is a highly formalized document, in use in the business world for decades upon decades now, in which a company basically writes a fake news story trumpeting some new feature or product by that company; that document then gets shipped out like chemical warfare to thousands upon thousands of media outlets, in the hopes that they will run the release as an actual news item. The problem, of course, is that media outlets receive thousands upon thousands of these press releases on a monthly basis, most of which can and rightly should be ignored by them, leading to the power of any one particular release being diminished profoundly in the times we now live. Ms. Gahran argues that the standardized press release has simply become a dead format in our modern times, and that PR execs are basically wasting a lot of time and money sending them out anymore; she encourages the PR industry to instead do what a lot of business people are being urged to do these days, which is to build a legitimate relationship with the media outlets they are trying to manipulate. It's an intiguing concept to be sure, and worth your attention if you are a fellow business person. (Thanks to Steve Rubel for bringing this to my attention.)

The latest from MAKE

As is typical here at [metafeed], MAKE magazine recently had a whole bunch of items I felt like mentioning; so, I'm running them all as one uber-entry, to save both you and me some time and trouble. Click the appropriate links below to learn...

...how to change the color of your glowy little Apple logo on the front of your iBook;

...how to turn your Gmail account into an online hard drive, accessible both on the web and directly from your home computer via proprietary software;

...more about the world's first camera tripod specifically for cellphones;

...and more about a rare Apple I computer (one of only 150 left in existence) that recently went on sale at eBay. Only $20,000, people!

A long-copy case study: Moleskine notebooks

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One of the new advertising theories floating around that is starting to get attention these days concerns the idea of "copy," or the text found in ads; in short, the theory says that extremely long, informative and intelligent copy can actually be a lot more effective than anyone in the industry had previously thought. Well, I just came across an excellent example of this last weekend, when I ended up buying a Moleskine notebook as part of implementing the "Getting Things Done" time-management system in my life. (Yes, dear readers, I have become one of those GTD freaks. God help us all.) Along with the actual notebook, Moleskine also inserts a rather long history of the product into the packaging; I'm going to retype it in its entirety here, because you need to read the whole thing to understand the point I want to make:

"Moleskine is the legendary notebook, used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries, from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Ernest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin. This trusty, pocket-size travel companion held sketches, notes, stories and ideas before they were turned into famous images or pages of beloved books.

"Originally produced by small French bookbinders who supplied the Parisian stationary shops frequented by the international avant-garde, by the end of the twentieth century the Moleskine notebook was no longer available. In 1986, the last manufacturer of Moleskine, a family operation in Tours, closed its shutters forever. "Le vrai Moleskine n'est plus" were the lapidary words of the owner of the stationary shop in Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie where Chatwin stocked up on the notebooks. The English writer had ordered a hundred of them before leaving for Australia: he bought up all the Moleskines that he could find, but they were not enough.

"In 1998, a small Milanese publisher bought Moleskine back again. As the self-effacing keeper of an extraordinary tradition, Moleskine once again began to travel the globe. To capture reality on the move, pin down details, impress upon paper unique aspects of experience: Moleskine is a reservoir of ideas and feelings, a battery that stores discoveries and perceptions, and whose energy can be tapped over time.

"The legendary black notebook is once again being passed from one pocket to the next; with its various different page styles it accompanies the creative professions and the imagination of our time. The adventure of Moleskine continues, and its still-blank pages will tell the rest."

Man, talk about some of the most exciting ad copy I've read in my entire life! I mean, just look at all the brand-centric lessons these four paragraphs convey to the customer: that you are joining a long line of famous artists and intellectuals by using a Moleskine yourself; that Moleskines are worth the few extra dollars you pay (US$10 for me, for example, compared to $6 or 7 for their competitors), because such extra care is taken to make them sturdy and long-lasting; that you of course want your Moleskine to be sturdy and long-lasting, because you are of course a brilliant thinker yourself whose thoughts deserve to be stored in permanent form; that Moleskines are still conservative enough to be used by business professionals in an office environment without getting laughed out of the room; that there are certain things in life (travel notes, poetry, sketches, random thoughts) that are simply captured better in an old-fashioned paper notebook than all these newfangled electronic devices; that it's okay for you to get obsessive over your Moleskine, because artists a lot more famous than you have already done so themselves; and that Modo e Modo (the new owners of Moleskine) deserve to be celebrated, for providing the "public service" of saving a much-loved brand.

This, I think, is a perfect example of this long-copy theory that is gaining popularity; and perhaps most importantly, the Moleskine people understand that this long copy is entirely appropriate in this situation, because Moleskine purchasers by their very definition are profoundly more literate and intellectual than the average world citizen (else why are you spending ten bucks on a notebook in the first place?). You should keep an eye out yourself during future purchases in your life; you never know when some excellent long copy might be popping up.