The Report Of Blogging’s Death Was An Exaggeration

I’ve been blogging for a long time now: on pre-blogging sites where I kept a travel journal 10 years ago, then starting here in 2004 and my business blog in 2005. I know that blogging isn’t for everyone, but it is for a lot of people, and I take a lot of pleasure in helping those who want to blog but just don’t know how to get started.

Two blogging protégés of whom I am particularly proud are two professional writers, both of whom I helped technically, but also provided encouragement through the early days of “but what will I blog about?” For those of you who blog, you know exactly what I mean: that feeling that you can’t possibly have anything interesting enough to say that people will want to read. To you, I say two things: first, everything is interesting to someone, and Google will be the matchmaker; and second, the half-life of a blog post is about one day, so if you say something stupid, just keep writing tomorrow’s post and today’s will be forgotten.

My friend Ingrid has a business based on making business writing understandable. With a background in both law and journalism, she writes, edits and coaches businesses on creating business communications – both internal and external – more readable and clear. She has done some business blogging on her site, but her real blogging treasure is her semi-monthly On Being column. On Being started as an email newsletter of sorts, and I finally convinced her that it would be perfect in a blog format, since that’s what it essentially was already, although distributed to only her email list. One of her concerns was that she wanted to monetize these articles, possibly selling them to a magazine, and she was concerned both that they would no longer be saleable once published online, and that other people might steal her ideas. I hear the same arguments from many people: why give away ideas if I can charge people for them? What if someone else copies my work? As Cory Doctorow often points out (apparently quoting Tim O’Reilly), the biggest issue with most authors isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity: if you give away some of what you do for free, the money will follow. To that, I add my own view: if all you have to sell is what you’ve already written, then your business model is not sustainable. Think of your blog as marketing, a sort of online portfolio of your work and ideas. I’ve written 730,00 words on my business blog in the past 6+ years, and I consider every one of them an investment: almost all of my business now comes to me because someone reads something on my blog.

My friend and neighbour Doug is a retired history teacher who writes books about the history of Toronto. In his 70’s, he might seem like an unlikely candidate for blogging, but he has grabbed it with both hands and seems to be loving every minute of it. It started a few months back when he was bemoaning that all of the material that he had gathered for his latest book just couldn’t make it into the book due to space constraints. I suggested the blog as a supplement to his books as well as a creative outlet, got him set up on WordPress, and he was off. After the initial setup, he maintains his entire site and blog himself using Windows Live Writer, poking into the WordPress web interface only to check site statistics. He has a page for each of his books, but I especially enjoy his almost-daily updates with historical perspectives on neighbourhood happenings, such as his recent series on a historical building close to us being moved to another location, which were inspired in part by a conversation that we had at a coffee shop one day when he spontaneously described the entire history of the building (a former iron works) to me as we sipped. He even bought a new camera to add a little colour to his posts (although the language is often colourful enough). He’s getting started on Twitter and Facebook, although those are still works in progress.

Blogging is not, as many insist, dead. It’s just being left to the professionals.

Chicken Farmers host a Toronto food blogger meetup

I knew that I would like the people behind the Chicken Farmers of Canada social media the minute that I saw their Twitter bio:

Chicken Farmers of Canada Twitter identity

And how can you not like a group that organizes a free Toronto Food Bloggers Meetup with an interesting panel of speakers at Edward Levesque’s Kitchen, complete with tasty chicken appetizers and free-flowing wine?

The topic of the evening was the decline of home cooking: hosted by Theresa Albert, nutritionist and cookbook author, and including Anna Withrow, food writer and founder of the LIVERight awards,  Amanda Laird, food blogger, and Ryan Anderson, Web strategist and PR blogger. Theresa started by passing around a copy of the recent NYT article by Michael Pollan (author of several books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma), “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”, contrasting the rise of food-related TV shows that fetishize cooking with the decline of anyone actually doing it. His article points out that the average American spends 27 minutes per day on food preparation, which is less than half the time required to watch one episode of most of the hugely popular shows on the Food Network; what’s wrong with this picture? Even the word “cooking” these days can mean opening a few cans and heating something in the microwave, rather than actual cooking from scratch: food researcher Henry Balzer said that washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it is considered cooking by most Americans (and probably Canadians) these days. Food TV has jump-started interest in food and cooking, but also created has fearfulness about the complexity: if someone can’t even figure out what the ingredients are or where to buy them, it stifles any adventurous nature that they might have had. And how do movies like “Julie and Julia” impact our popular culture around food? Cooking has shifted from being a matter of survival to an art form.

This shift to more prepared and processed foods has a health impact, too: typically, you’ll find more bad stuff such as fat, salt and weird chemicals in processed foods, and less good stuff such as fiber and vitamins. A few years ago, Damir and I switched to a mostly macrobiotic diet – which eschews processed foods – for several months, and I never felt so good: I lost some weight (which was not my primary goal) and had a lot more energy. Some of those eating habits stayed with us, resulting in almost no processed foods at home, lots of whole grains and raw vegetables, and semi-vegetarian eating habits; today for lunch, for example, we had brown rice with toasted sesame seeds and raw sunflower shoots, which was delicious. People on non-standard diets, whether macrobiotic, vegetarian or vegan, tend to cook more and eat better, although there always exceptions, like one vegetarian I know who lives on take-out cheese pizza.

Getting back to last night’s panel, Theresa opened with some words about food as the “center of our universe”, related to both health and culture. She realizes that what she shows to an audience is limited as a Food Network chef; as she put it, “I stand up there and chop shit…the producers decide what you see”, and related a story of the producers cutting out a segment because you could hear the bone crunching when she spatchcocked a chicken: an indication of how disconnected we have become from how food is created. Anna agreed, saying that we need to recreate that connection with the nutrients, and how packaged and fast food has separated us from that. Unlike the research shown in the NYT article, she doesn’t consider mixing fresh ingredients into prepared food to be “cooking”, but admits that it’s better than just using prepared food. She has canning parties with her friends, which shows a greater dedication to being aware of what you eat than many of us have.

Ryan and his girlfriend have embarked on an interesting culinary experiment: for a month (which they are halfway through), they are cooking everything from scratch. And by “scratch”, he means making everything from tortillas to butter. He said that he didn’t realize that he was that good of a cook until he started cooking with friends, and contrasted his skills with theirs; what we might consider basics such as making a chicken stock or a roux is intimidating to others.

Amanda discussed the influence of coming from a family where there was a home-cooked meal on the table every night: she follows recipes fairly religiously, and plans ahead for meals five nights each week to avoid becoming overwhelmed and ending up eating take-out junk. I’m not nearly that organized, but I also rarely use recipes so my cooking can usually accommodate whatever happens to be in the fridge. She also mentioned some good starter cooking tips on Pretty Savvy, including her suggestion to make YouTube your sous chef.

The three competing factors in food today are cost, health and time: you’re usually trading off on at least one of these, whether you’re eating at McDonalds (bad for your health), buying gourmet prepared foods at Whole Foods (your pocketbook suffers), or cooking meals from scratch at home (if you have the time). With a greater awareness of health issues – thanks to Super Size Me and a raft of other information sources – many of us are only making the cost/time tradeoff, and with the economy in the toilet, lots of people are okay with spending more time if it costs less. Theresa pointed out that there are a lot of ways to save a lot of time while still cooking good food from scratch. For one, start using your oven again; food TV is biased towards stovetop cooking, which typically takes constant attention, but most things cooked in the oven are tossed in there are left on their own for a while, freeing you up for other activities. The same is true of slow cookers: she suggested that a student heading off to university could be equipped with a slow cooker, a rice cooker and a few basic recipes, and eat healthily all semester without spending a lot of time in preparation.

The panel seemed in agreement that if we lose the ability to cook, we become dysfunctional in many ways in our life. I also concur: in my experience, cooking what we eat isn’t just about eating better, it’s about making a house into a home.

WordPress 2.7

I’ve just installed WordPress 2.7 Beta 3 on this site, as a test before I roll it out to my business blog. If you see any weirdness with it, please let me know by adding a comment.

New Theme

You may have noticed (if you don’t read this via RSS) that I’m playing around with a new theme on this blog — I decided that it needed something a bit more colourful and whimsical. This is a free WordPress theme called Notepad Chaos from Smashing Magazine. No widget support, and I had to dick around a bit to get the About and Archives links working properly, but otherwise seems to be working.

Blogging course

There’s an online course on blogging that’s available for free if you blog about it (which might seem counter-intuitive). Anyway, you have to give it a plug in order to get free access, which is what this post is about.

I’m evaluating a multi-media course on blogging from the folks at Simpleology. For a while, they’re letting you snag it for free if you post about it on your blog.

It covers:

  • The best blogging techniques.
  • How to get traffic to your blog.
  • How to turn your blog into money.

I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve had a chance to check it out. Meanwhile, go grab yours while it’s still free.

Comment trolls

I have a comment troll over on my business blog, and it’s painfully hard to do the right thing, which is to ignore them. Feeding the trolls only ever results in more insulting comments; luckily, as the blog owner, I can “unapprove” the comments instead so that they are hidden to all but me.

They must not realize that I can see their IP address when they post a comment, since it exposes them as being on the network of a vendor in the technology space that I write about. That leaves me with the deliciously wicked alternative of outing them if they become too annoying: although they’re not using their real name or email address, it’s a relatively small company location (although owned by a larger company that will be concerned about having its employees seen as acting unprofessionally), and they should be able to track down the offender internally.

The funny part is that after I blocked the offender the first time from further comments, he began posting under another name and email address; a bit of googling showed the addresses to be recognized pseudonyms for the same troll on some internet forums related to our industry.

I continue to be amazed at the things people will say when they think that they’re anonymous.

A social media convert

Damir, my other half, is a much more traditional engineer than I: he likes to ponder over new technology for a while, while I’m leaping about in it, shouting “c’mon in, the water’s great!” and trying not to get eaten by the sharks. When he does jump in, however, it’s with both feet.

In the past 3 weeks, he learned WordPress and MediaWiki, and last weekend relaunched his website using WordPress for the site content and MediaWiki for a knowledge base. He’s working on getting 100 articles into his wiki, both for general interest (that is, if you’re interested in getting data out of PLCs and into Excel or SQL Server for data analysis) and as a support reference for his customers. A lot of the material is pretty basic, but consider that his audience is the electrical and mechanical maintenance staff at automotive manufacturing plants.

I’ve been talking about moving my corporate website, small as it is, onto WordPress for about a year now, ever since I converted the site for my wine club, but somehow never seem to find the time. Obviously, the bar for websites in our household has been raised, and I have some catching up to do.

Repatriating my business blog

A year and a half ago, I was invited to move my blog over to a site that was more of an old media site, but covered the technology space that I do: business process management, service-oriented architecture, business intelligence and other integration technologies. However, I’m blogging about all sorts of other things now, so have decided to move my business blog back to my own domain (actually, I had that domain redirected to where it was hosted, but you get the picture).

I’ll likely put a lot of my technology-related blogging over on my business blog now, and I need to see how things settle out in the next month or so in terms of what content goes where. I still believe that I need a “professional” blog and this “off topic” blog; not because I’m trying hide this blog, but because there’s people reading the other blog who aren’t interested in this one, and vice versa.

Some things I’ll post on both sites, like the daily auto-post of links from [I’ve decided to post the links only on my business blog, to reduce confusion]

Instructional comments

I realize that Akismet can’t catch all the spam comments in a blog, and my wine club site gets hit pretty hard with spam comments (over 110,000 since I moved it to WordPress), but how could any filter think that a comment entitled “instructional blow job” is not spam?