2014-02-06

Celebrate 48 -- The Seahawks Victory Parade


I started writing here the last time the Seahawks were in the Superbowl.  For someone who really does not follow the sport it seem strange that two of my earliest posts were about the Seahawks:
Things felt very different this year. The 12th Man really came into its own over the past couple of years, and the enthusiasm for the team was at an all time high.  How high?

For the welcome home parade (really more of a processional) for the Superbowl 48 Champions, 700,000 people lined 4th AVE through downtown Seattle.

700,000.

That's astounding.  There are only 630,000 people that live in Seattle.

And it was cold. Not in the way that a Seattle winter is cold and dreary. It was legitimately cold (sure, it's no Polar Vortex, but still...).  And people waited for hours. Some camped out the the night before. And did I mention it was cold?

This was all to get a glimpse of the team as the rode down the street in Ride-The-Duck vehicles and Humvees. The Seattle PI has more details here.

It was only a short walk so I headed down there to be part of the experience. Here are some photos I captured from my little scrap of asphalt at 4th AVE and University.




The parade got off to a late start, but this fan made productive use of her time.
Children and some adults scaled trees for a chance to see the team and would occasionally be chased down by the authorities.

This gentleman had some struggled to shimmy up the tree, but the crowd noticed and began cheering, "Climb! Climb! Climb!" He made it. I'm not sure how he got down.

Many members of the crowd got annoyed when the first vehicles came through. There were tour buses with tinted windows, and, of course you couldn't see inside. Apparently that was front office staff, though, rather than players. And even they didn't like the buses as the climbed out the emergency exits to ride on the roofs of the buses through the streets.

Marshawn Lynch rode the hood of the Seagals Duck and through Skittles at the crowd.
The rest of the team followed in other vehicles.
And if you look really carefully through hundreds of arms and between all the other cameras, you can even catch a glimpse of the Heisman Trophy.
It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by that much positive energy. The parade ended with not fights and no arrests.  That's 700,000 well behaved, very cold, well-caffeinated, high energy fans who caused no major trouble.

How often does that happen?


2014-01-23

"I don't want to go on the cart," said Cromely's World

Today marks 8 years since I first started my blog.  I hesitate to call it a blogaversary this year because I don’t really think 2 posts in a year let’s me count it as a strong continuing effort.  No matter, I am not one to leave well enough alone and let beloved projects die. The blog may have a DNR in place, but I’m going to toss that aside like on some crazed medical procedural show, and scream, “Live DAMMIT” as a pound away at its chest with a Shatner-style two-handed punch.  

Anyway, here are my thoughts on closing out 2013 and launching into 2014 (I didn't say it was a timely Shatner-style two-handed punch).

2013 was a different kind of year.  I managed to have a lot of fun and do some awesome stuff (often accompanied by The Shoebox Chef), but it still feels mostly like it was a year of preparation. It’s almost like I was building a foundation from which bigger things can happen.

This past year saw my workload and professional life change dramatically, my office layout finally start to make sense, and several years’ backlog of posters jump onto my walls.  There were some lowlights, but there were more highlights. Some of them include:

  1. A fun CES wrapped up with a great night at 5 O’clock Somewhere
  2. My first cruise in February as part of the awesome JoCo Cruise Crazy program
  3. A very pleasant chat with Walter Koenig at Emerald City Comicon
  4. Seeing the Doubleclicks live on at least 3 separate occasions
  5. Seeing Chris Hardwick perform twice
  6. Travelling to Bend, OR, to see Cake and Sigur Ros perform and enjoy some amazing microbrews over a long weekend
  7. Standing under an actual Saturn V rocket
  8. Guesting on the Caffeinated Comics podcast several times
  9. Combining a work trip to check check out a Blake Shelton concert with a weekend getaway in San Francisco and experiencing the Tonga Room in all its Tiki glory.
  10. Some conversations with recruiters about my  earning potential
  11. My first ever Star Trek convention where I got to chat with George Takei and Gary Graham and briefly meet Gates McFadden, Robert Picardo, Kate Mulgrew, Avery Brooks, and, of course, William Shatner
  12. Finally dealing with a busted Keurig
  13. Attending the premiere of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and catching the panel discussion
  14. Learning basic audio editing
  15. An appearance on air on QVC
  16. Seeing Macklemore perform
  17. Seeing John Hodgeman perform
  18. Upgrading the TV
  19. Meeting Marian Call
  20. Learning to appreciate Scotch, Whiskey,and Bourbon

And that’s the funny thing about the brain. That list of 20 items probably represents at least 45 days of awesome things that happened, since many were multi-day. That meant that something awesome was happening almost every week. That makes for a pretty exciting year.  And I need 2014 to be even better? Is that greedy?

No. It’s not. Unless the singularity happens in the coming decades, I’ve only got another 150-200 years on this planet to look forward to. There are so many things I want to do that I’ll never have time to get to.  But I’m going to try. And each subsequent year needs to be just a little bit better than the one before.

I do believe my brain is lying to me about 2013 and other years being dull and having nothing happen. It’s interesting how blogging impacts that. For years I had an intense chronicle of the things I was thinking/doing.  Those hundreds of posts stared back at me as a stark reminder of what I’d done and thought.  

The past couple years, it got away from me. I posted less text. I uploaded fewer pictures.  A lot of what I was doing made it’s way over to Facebook in an abbreviated form. Many others made it to the drafts folder.

In general, I wrote less. I think major changes at work, and an increase in workload sapped more of my energy away from personal writing.  Will work have less of an impact as I settle into the new normal? I have my doubts.

As is often the case, I became my own impediment to creating content. The more I blogged, the better I had to be at it. Writing simple, short posts was no longer cutting it. Doing it right mattered, but there was no time and no energy for that.

And that brings us to today, 8 years since I started this project. Perhaps I’ll finish off those drafts this year.  Perhaps I’ll just throw more stuff up here more quickly.

Or maybe I’ll just be too busy having adventures to chronicle them all.



2013-05-05

Book Review 73: Social Marketing to the Business Customer

The new world of B2B marketing is fraught with chaos, peril, uncertainty, and unprecedented opportunity. How lucky you are to be part of it!

Page 222
I picked up this book at SXSW in 2011, and didn’t read it until 2012. And now it’s 2013.

One problem with trends in the world of the Internet is that books can sometimes become outdated before
you can even crack the cover. “Social Marketing to the Business Customer: Listen to you B2B Market, Generate Major Account Leads, and Build Client Relationships” by Paul Gillin and Eric Schwartzman mostly holds up despite the tens of months that have passed since publication. The references to Google Buzz and Ping seem quaint, but the core material of the book is still worth reading. And what’s almost as interesting as the number of tools that are now irrelevant, is the discussion of tools that still remain relevant.

These days, you can use a free tool like Twitterfeed to automatically convert your blog headlines into tweets. You can also use applications like Seesmic, Ping.fm, Posterous, TweetDeck, TubeMogul, blip.tv, FriendFeed, and Google Buzz to move messages from one social media network to another.

Page 19


Authors, consultants and more have explored the relationship between businesses and consumers (B2C) in social media for several years now. At this point, it seems the industry has established best practices, and most of the growth in the space is about nuance and execution. We’ve come a long way in the past 5-7 years in that space.

The role of social media in the B2B (Business-to-Business) space is still fresh territory. Or at least it seems to be. Many of the tools Gillin and Schwartzman describe actually predate our modern understanding of social media as a Facebook/Twitter centric tool. The tools they describe are more basic.

One of the things I came to understand better from reading this book is that while B2C social media is most about post-sales support and error resolution, B2B social media is all about prospecting, presales support and trust building. Companies can use the tools to find new customers and customers can use the tools to research potential vendors.

While they discuss using Facebook and Twitter for recruiting and understanding trends, the tools the authors focus on most are LinkedIn, Company Blogs/Websites, and Company Forums.

Platforms that perform best in business-to-consumer (B2C) environments are not necessarily the ones favored by business-to-business (B2B) marketers. In addition, we believe that companies should make it a goal to drive visitors to their own websites, where they can engage in richer conversations, showcase their products and content and own a record of interactions. These days, though, most conversations start in public spaces.

Page 103


Before we dive deeper into that, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind. There may be perception in the market that social media doesn’t have much of a role in B2B marketing. It can be hard to measure. Many people prefer to keep their social media life separate from their professional life. Others may think that it’s irrelevant because “Business” customers don’t do social media.

Ultimately what many people forget is that whether you’re selling to enterprise, government, education or SMB customers, you are still talking to individuals who are making purchasing decisions. A company doesn't buy a product. A person at that company buys products on behalf of that company. It’s important to talk to those people whether you are selling in a traditional environment or the newer social environment. It’s always ultimately about people.

I think what stops a lot of companies from embracing online communities is the CEO saying, 'What's the ROI?' To that I say, 'What's the ROI of bringing your wife flowers on your anniversary?' Even if there's no positive ROI, there can be a negative one for not taking action.

People buy stuff from people. They gravitate to business relationships that mirror personal relationships. If the CEO responds to me in 10 minutes, I want to do business with a company like that.

Page 199


Customers expect their vendors to be part of the social media world. When dealing with a new vendor, how many people are reluctant to do business with an entity without a presence in this space? What does it say about a company that lacks a robust website or Twitter feed?

Buyers want their suppliers to use these channels. Cone Inc.'s 2009 Social Media in Business study found that 93 percent of business buyers believe all companies should have a presence in social media and 85 percent believe social media should be used to interact and become more engaged with them.

Page 8


By now, the scale of social media should surprise no one. A couple years ago, the explosive growth was still news.

Facebook gets more weekly visits in the United States than Google and has a population larger than all but two countries.

The Internet took four years to reach 50 million users; In contrast, Facebook added 200 million users in less than a year. Eighty percent of companies use social media for recruitment.

Seventy-eight percent of consumers trust peer recommendations online; only 14 percent trust advertisements.

Page 33


The authors do site some specific ways to take advantage of this resource. Some of their most practical advice is about how to monitor Twitter. The recommend carefully crafted and always running searches of the Tweet stream to find new customers and monitor the industry.

Your overarching goal is to come up with a list of the popular words or phrases that your customers use to find and discuss your business. These may not be the same words you would use. Businesses tend to speak in terms of solutions while customers speak in terms of problems. The onus is on marketers to identify the search behaviors that lead people to a web site. Your keywords must be accurate, but accuracy doesn't always yield the best results. For example, if you're blogging about "solar cells" but your customers are searching for "solar power," you're speaking two different languages. There are dozens of data points to consider, and just as many online tools to apply. We can't cover them all, but we will provide an overview of how to create an effective business-to-business (B2B) keyword strategy.

Page 88


Search and monitoring is a valuable tool with social media, but to make a sale, you still have to engage the customer. Here, social media continues to help. It gives businesses the opportunity to research and understand their customers better than ever before.

If you were able to capture any more information, perhaps during the webinar pressentation, you could research this prospect even for ther. For example, a personal or company name might unearth a web site or Twitter account with valuable background information. It may also point to the prospect's profile on Linkedln. If you use Linkedln's premium services, you can generate leads by sending messages directly to other users. Following that reasoning a little further, you may discover that the person heads the Denver chapter of a professional association. This makes the prospect a particularly valuable lead, because a group leaders is in a position to influence others.

Page 169


Some might say this is creepy. The advantage is that the sales cycle can be more efficient. A lot of new business relationships are about getting to know the people you’ll be working with. Social media resources can help speed that process along. These tools also speed up the process of finding out just who the right person to talk to is.

As a culture, we’re still refining our social norms around the use of this material. When I’m dealing with a new vendor, should I feel flattered that they’ve already looked me on on LinkedIn and that they are familiar with my last 5-10 Tweets? If it’s publicly available information, it should be fine, but using such information does require some nuance.

Whoever is sent in to close the sale should be made aware of this information. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the rep should disclose that knowledge to the prospect. The creepiness factor is an important consideration in sales contacts these days because it's possible to scare a prospect away if you reveal having too much background knowledge. People-finder services like Zoomlnfo, Spokeo, Wink, and Jigsaw, which assemble background and contact information through a variety of both public and private means, enable sales professionals to compile an unprecedented amount of information about prospects.

Page 170

However, be judicious in how much of this information you reveal. There can be a fine line between prospecting and stalking, and most customers don't want to be isolated in making a decision. "One to-one marketing was supposed to be the holy grail of customer relationship management. The problem is that we are hyper-social beings who prefer to operate within our tribes," write Francois Gossieaux and Ed Moran in their 2010 book The Hyper-Social Organization. 'We do not want to be isolated from our group so that salespeople who know more about us than we feel comfortable with can give us the hard sell."

Page 170


With all power and flexibility of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, the authors continue to come back to the blog as one of the most important elements of Social Media marketing. A blog can establish expertise and credibility. It can help bring in new prospects via Search Engine Optimization. It allows voluntary interaction with the community through comments and other interactions.

Perhaps most importantly, though, a blog on a company’s website is its own. The company can own the platform and ensure the content remains there for a long time. Content on Twitter is entirely transitory. Content on Facebook is always subject to the whims of Facebook. It’s the same with Google+. But a company blog can exist at the primary source for information that then gets fed into the other networks. An organization that trust a third party with maintaining its content puts that content at long term risk due to sometimes fickle nature of social media users.

The authors also like them for their depth.

Blogs are the Swiss Army knife of social media. Simple to create and easy to update, they deftly accommodate multiple media types such as audio, video, and widgets, and they have excellent search engine performance. As truly social media they fall short because discussions are limited to a simple post-and-respond metaphor. Think of them as the online equivalent of a business presentation. The blogger is the speaker and the person who controls the microphone. The audience mostly listens and has a chance to challenge and respond at the end.

B2B marketers cited blogs as the most effective social platform in research conducted by BtoB magazine and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in early 2010. The principal advantage of blogs for B2B purposes is their depth. Entries can be of any length, and graphics and multimedia can be incorporated to illustrate a point. In the technical realm in which many B2B professionals dwell biogs a the best way to explain complex concepts and engage in audience discussions of equal depth. It's not surprising that technology companies have swarmed to blogging platforms as a way to connect developers with information-hungry constituents.

Their search engine performance shouldn't be underestimated, Search engines are hardwired to favor websites that they, in their algorithmic wisdom, considered to be useful. For example, type "buy a PC" into Google and note that the search results are much heavier on hlog content than marketing come-ons. That's because Google's finely tuned engine favors how-to advice over salesmanship.

Page 104-105


It all comes back to people wanting to do business with people they trust. Blogs help establish the expertise and credibility that trust can be built on.

Podcasts are another interesting tool the authors cite. I’m a big fan of them, too. To create a podcast, you create and audio file and publish it through some mechanism, usually on a regular basis. People can subscribe and automatically get the latest update.

Media hype elevated podcasts to prominence before they were ready. Once seen as a replacement for terrestrial radio, podcasts never lived up to their potential in consumer markets. What is often overlooked is their remarkable B2B success.

Page 109

Podcasts are one of the hidden success stories of B2B marketing. The audio format is extremely time efficient; it allows busy professionals to consume information when they are occupied with routine tasks like commuting, exercising or mowing the lawn. They're an excellent way to capture presentations, speeches, and even meetings for playback to people who couldn't be there. When combined with PowerPoint in a package called a "slidecast," they can also be self-contained presentations.

Page 110


With all the advantages of social media, why isn’t it a broader part of B2B marketing? There are lots of reasons. Change is one of those. Change in processes take longer in the B2B space. Selling prices and sales cycles are both much higher and longer than in B2C marketing. To cost of making a mistake is higher. When organizations have done things the same way for years, they need a good reason to change. And the tools of social media can mean big changes for the sales cycle. Different organizations end up with more responsibility, and that can potentially mean internal turf battles take place.

But this change of direction requires a change in mind-set, one that is far more dependent on listening than talking. Traditional marketing presented a clear cause-and-effect scenario: a campaign delivered a measurable number of prospects within a defined period, which made performance reasonably easy to measure. Social marketing, though, builds on relationships and dialogs that may not generate results for months or even years. Search engines care less about time than they do about relevance, so the blog entry you posted back in 2007 may draw a qualified lead today if the content is still on the mark. This archival quality is one reason social marketing is difficult to measure. The impact is cumulative and effectiveness improves with time and persistence.

Page 158-159

Social marketing requires a complete inversion of conventional tactics. The focus must be on the buying process rather than the sales cycle. Traditional marketing is push; social marketing is pull. Traditional marketing is message; social marketing is conversation. Leads may come quickly, particularly when a buyer is toward the end of the buying process and a solution is matched to the right keywords, but they may also require lengthy cultivation and a lot of giving on the seller's part as he leads an early-stage buyer carefully toward a decision.

Social marketing also shifts more responsibility for managing up the funnel. "A lot of the sales cycle has moved back into marketing," observes Jeff Ogden, a technology marketing veteran who now runs Find New Customers, a lead-generation consultancy. He notes that the sales organization has traditionally played an important educational role in customer engagements, but "now prospects look up information online and avoid contact with sales people." Marketing is usually the department that curates that information. If you buy Ogden's premise, marketers should be growing their budgets at the expense of sales departments.

Page 160-161


There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the book and some great stories about Dell’s social media efforts, the IEEE’s efforts, and Cree, Inc.s efforts to name just a few. But if the book has a flaw it’s that it spends too much time talking about B2C social media efforts. One channel for success the authors cite is the success of social media in recruiting new employees.

B2B companies have found Facebook to be an effective vehicle for recruiting. Ernst & Young, Deloitte, and Sodexo are among the firms that have had success there. In a novel twist, copper producer TVI has also adopted Facebook as a way to communicate with investors.

Page 106


The IEEE was recruiting members, rather than employees, but that still seems to be more of a B2C success story.
"The more niche the audience, the better Linkedln works," says Danielle Leitch, an executive vice president at Peter Nasca Associates, the marketing communications firm that coordinated the campaign. Results more than justified the higher cost per lead. Two months into the campaign, the conversion rate for visitors from Linkedln was three times that of other venues, and bounce rates were 10 percent lowers. Bounce rates are an important factor in pay-per-dick campaigns because advertisers pay for the dick and not the conversion. Visitors who click through to the landing page and then leave are wasted money. Bottom line: "The quality of the lead was orders of magnitude better on Linkedln," Leitch said.

Page 135-136


In the early part of the book, the authors focus a lot on the B2C aspects of social media. In fact much of the early part of the book involves explaining just what those tools are and what they do. It’s written for the novice social media user, rather than the more experienced social media guru. And much of that discussion is about individuals and B2C efforts.

That points to the broader issue I touched on earlier. Ultimately all of sales is about communicating with people. It’s about the trust between them. It’s about understanding what they want. It’s about understanding what they need. It’s about helping the customer solve their problem. Whether it’s cash coming from the customer’s wallet, or a multi-million dollar purchase order, at the most basically level the goals are the same.

Trying to clearly define the role and best practices of social media in the B2B, without making it a B2C discussion is an inherently messy process.

As for the book, it’s definitely worth reading. There are some great insights in there, and suggestions that focus on recruiting, monitoring, researching, and supporting customers. Perhaps it’s best role, however, is to prompt a company specific look at how to improve the sales and marketing processes within an organization, rather than providing a text-book style step-by-step procedure for success.

2013-01-27

Chris Hardwick in Tacoma

On Friday night, The GF and I did something unusual. We started our evening adventures at 9:00 PM by hitting the road for Tacoma.  We had 10:30 Tickets for the Chris Hardwick show at the Tacoma Comedy Club.  It was a blast.

When we got there, I knew we were in the right place because there was a Storm Trooper standing in the parking garage. "These are our people," I said to The GF.  "These are your people," she said with a slight smile and roll of the eyes.  But I knew she appreciated the presence of an aspiring member of the 501st as much as I did. She's used to me by now.

We would later see another member of the Storm Trooper's party. It was Codex, which was awesome (and which another club attendee mistook for Kotex, but that's another matter).

Most attendees weren't in full costumer, but there were a fair amount of people sporting Doctor Who paraphernalia, video game themed items, and more. I was fairly confident no one would give me a hard time about my Captain Kirk T-Shirt or my Portal "Test Candidate"  hoodie (both gifts from The GF -- see? She is used to me).

Our favorite @Nerdist did sell out all the shows apparently, so we got to share a table with Eric and Erica, a lovely couple from Tacoma with excellent taste in beer.

After a host and two openers, Chris Hardwick took the stage wearing a Muppet Pantone shirt. He quickly borrowed a pair of blue, plaid, finger-less gloves from an audience member, and then began his set.

Chris Hardwick (@Nerdist) at the Tacoma Comedy Club with gloves
(Blue, plaid, knit, finger-less gloves help this Californian adapt to the frigid Pacific Northwest)

Since Comedy Central recently released his special, Mandroid, he retired his existing set and is rebuilding. That's pretty standard for a stand-up. One thing that sets Hardwick apart, though, is his crowdwork. It seems half his set was built around asking the folks in the first row what they do and making humorous remarks about them that didn't belittle members of the audience. It was all good-natured, if still NSFW.

What I find interesting is how well he manages that spontaneous portion of the set. I imagine he has a mental bag of comments and reactions that he can pull from. After a few thousand shows, he probably doesn't encounter too many new reactions.  Still, it means that big chunks of his act can't be memorized, and he has to more aware of his environment.

And that plays well into Hardwick's strength. He's a host. That's why he does so well with the Nerdist podcast and facilitating conversations with his guests. That's why he takes a lot of hosting gigs. And when it comes to his stand-up, even as a headliner, he's still a friendly host. He doesn't tell jokes; he tells stories. He doesn't mock the crowd, he engages it. It makes the entire set feel like you're hanging out with someone funny rather than hearing a prepped presentation.  There's nothing wrong with the latter; it's just not a Hardwick show. And a Hardwick show is a treat.

Most of his prepared material wasn't geeky or nerdy in nature. If you don't know Star Wars from Star Crash, you can still appreciate most of his act. I think. It seemed like it could appeal to all groups that were willing to hear about the impact of decades on male anatomy or about adventures with blow up dolls. His material is definitely more "adult." If you are looking for a family-friendly performance, this is not it. Not in the least.

This isn't the first time I saw Hardwick perform. I also saw him at SXSW in 2011.  The highlight of his set was when he walked out into the audience, hugged a woman, and creepily stroked her hair while quietly reciting the digits of Pi. It was awesome. The rest of the set was a more traditional set, though.  It was entertaining, but not as entertaining as Friday's performance. That seems to reflect his growth as a performer and increasing comfort level in his own skin.

I picked up a copy of his book earlier in the week. The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick is a self-help book for nerds that is intended to help folks focus their nerdy, obsessive behavior in ways that can help them succeed in life. I brought it with me.

Chris Hardwick -- The Nerdist Way

About 10-15 minutes after the show, Chris came out to greet a line of fans. Before I could even ask, he offered to autograph my copy of his book. I know, it wasn't much of a stretch for him to think that's what I wanted, but still, it was cool.  He opened the book, asked my name, and when I said, "Cromely," he said, "Great name!" Since it's my chosen Internet name, I get to take some credit for that.

Chris Hardwick autograph

He took also took the time to get his picture with us. This was after midnight and after his second show of the night, so it's all the more awesome that he spent the time to great his fans.

Chris Hardwick (Muppet Pantone Shirt), Shoebox Chef, and Cromely

After all that, we headed back to the car and did the only thing you can do at that time of the night when you've got a 45 minute drive ahead of you. Denny's. It was a great way to balance out the evening.


(No, we didn't finish it all)

All in all, it was a great way to start the weekend and to warm up for further geeky and social adventures in February.

2012-09-16

Book Review 72: Ready Player One

Going outside is highly overrated.
-Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 17, Verse 32 Ready Player One

One day last fall, I glanced over at my Twitter feed and saw that Wil Wheaton (@WilW) was in Seattle that evening for a reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company. He would join author Ernie Cline (@erniecline)  to talk about Cline’s first novel -- Ready Player One. I  had to go.

It was fun evening. The author Q&A was awesome.Wil did the reading and was also awesome. I bought my copy of the book and got in line for the signing at the end of the event. I chatted with Wil and Ernie about my Atari shirt and their dealings with ThinkGeek. If you get the chance to see them, I highly recommend it. And by “them” I mean Wil and Ernie. Or ThinkGeek.  Either way.

Eventually, I worked through my reading queue and cracked open Ready Player One while having dinner at the Nine Fine Irishmen in Las Vegas during CES 2012. The book was quite good, but not quite as good as I hoped.  There are lots of things to love about it, but the book does have some flaws. That’s even more disappointing because, given the subject matter and the author’s presence at the reading, I wanted this to be the most awesome-est book I’d seen in years. It’s not. It’s still good, just not as awesome as I had hoped.

Still, if you’re a fan of 80s Geek Culture, you’ll likely enjoy the book.

The story takes place in a dystopian future where the Earth has suffered major environmental collapse.  The divide between the rich and poor is wider than ever. The most popular form of entertainment is the virtual world of the OASIS.  That basic setup is nothing new; we’ve seen it from William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Melissa Scott, Richard Morgan, and more. While the basic scene may be familiar, Cline takes it in a different way.

The OASIS is the heart of the story. It is a virtual land, not unlike Second Life or World of Warcraft on a much larger scale.  You have an avatar that you design, buy clothes for, equip with weapons and special gear, and then you interact with other characters on different planets and virtual locations in the OASIS. Where you are in the real world is irrelevant.  You put on your goggles, headphones, gloves, and sometimes your special suit, login, and you’re walking and flying around the OASIS.

The story kicks of with the death of James Halliday, a game programmer, entrepreneur, inventory of the OASIS world, and child of the 80s.  

At first, I couldn’t understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire’s death. After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars. You know: “dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!” Normally, the newsfeeds didn’t interrupt everyone’s interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major had happened. Like the outbreak of some new killer virus, or another major city vanishing in a mushroom cloud. Big stuff like that. As famous as he was, Halliday’s death should have warranted only a brief segment on the evening news, so the unwashed masses could shake their heads in envy when the newscasters announced the obscenely large amount of money that would be doled out to the rich man’s heirs.

Page 1

Halliday’s death is momentous because of his will. He leaves his company shares and all his wealth to a gamer who finds the Easter Egg. Basically, he hid puzzles throughout the virtual world. The player who solves the puzzles and wins the game gets everything.

This draws individuals, teams, and organizations who all want to win the prize and control the OASIS for their own purposes.  One of those egg hunters, or “Gunters” is Wade Watts (AKA Parzival) our narrator -- a poor, orphaned teenager who’d long been an OASIS denizen and is obsessed with the 80s.  Halliday is his hero. He lives through the crushing depression that many teenagers face.  But he takes on the quest.

He’s got the background for it because he identifies so much with Halliday.  When a reporter ask Halliday’s former friend and business partner for tips, he offers this advice.

“As the person who knew James Halliday the best, do you have any advice for the millions of people who are now searching for his Easter egg? Where do you think people should start looking for it?”

“I think Jim made that pretty obvious,” Morrow replied, tapping a finger against his temple, just as Halliday had in the Anorak’s Invitation video. “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.”

Page 122

As is often the case, completing the quest isn’t what the character needs. The quest itself matters. That was certainly the case for our narrator.

Then the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began. That was what saved me, I think. Suddenly I’d found something worth doing. A dream worth chasing. For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning. Something to look forward to.

The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.

Page 19

Our narrator pursue the challenge like many geeky teenage boys shyly falls for a girl and rival.

This is an interesting story bit. Cline writes about these feelings in way that feels really familiar from back in those days.

I didn’t, of course. My whole relationship with Art3mis was in defiance of all common sense. But I couldn’t help falling for her. Somehow, without my realizing it, my obsession with finding Halliday’s Easter egg was gradually being supplanted by my obsession with Art3mis.

Page 178

I’d heard all the cliched warnings about the perils of falling for someone you only knew online, but I ignored them. I decided that whoever Art3mis really was, I was in love with her. I could feel it, deep in the soft. chewy caramel center of my being.

And then one night, like a complete idiot, I told her how I felt.

Page 179

I especially like that last line.  It feels right in that context.  The other interesting thing here is the way Cline tells the story. The whole book is told in flashback.  Parzival tells us he’s going to tell Art3mis how he feels and that it will go badly several pages before we actually see that encounter.  Going into many sections of the book, we already have a sense of what is going to happen, but Cline still builds a feeling of suspense around it.

Why does he finally tell her?  Well, Cyndi Lauper has a little something to do with it.

Her avatar lost its human form and dissolved into a pulsing amorphous blob that changed its size and color in synch with the music. I selected the mirror partner option on my dance software and began to do the same. My avatar’s limbs and torso began to flow and spin like taffy, encircling Art3mis, while strange color patterns flowed and shifted across my skin. I looked like Plastic Man, if he were tripping out of his mind on LSD. Then everyone else on the dance floor also began to shape-shift, melting into prismatic blobs of light. Soon, the center of the club looked like some otherworldly lava lamp.

When the song ended, Og took a bow, then queued up a slow song. “Time after Time” by Cyndi Lauper. All around us, avatars began to pair up.

Page 185

This section of the book is revealing in a number of ways. I’ve ready criticism of the book that says Cline is an immature writer and that when he writes about emotions and feelings, it all comes across as juvenile and immature. I do get that sense throughout most of the book, but I’m not sure if that a limitation of Clines skill or an example of it. The book should sound like a teenager wrote it because it’s told from a teenager’s first person point-of-view. 

This section is also interesting because it plays with the OASIS world a bit.  In the passage, Cline shows us just some of the things that are possible in the digital world.  You can defy gravity. You’re form can convert into blobs of light. Avatars can interact in ways that would be completely impossible in the physical world.  And if your avatar doesn’t know how to dance, just  add some software.

The huge open space in the center of the sphere served as the club’s zero-gravity “dance floor.” You reached it simply by jumping off the ground, like Superman taking flight, and then swimming through the air, into the spherical zero-g “groove zone.”

Page 183

SInce the OASIS is only 1s and 0s on servers, it can be infinitely big. Adding more space is as simple as writing some code.

Early in the Facebook days, you may remember friends giving on another virtual sheep and other goods.  Users could pay for fancier ones. Games like Farmville and Pet Society let you pay real cash to get fancier farm equipment and furniture.  And what do you actually get for your money? Nothing but an automated entry in a database.  “Items” are simply conjured out of code, and if the game goes away so does all that merchandise.  

The virtual world of the OASIS works in much the same way, and Haliday’s GSS made a fortune on it.

In addition to the billions of dollars that GSS raked in selling land that didn’t actually exist, they made a killing selling virtual objects and hides. The OASIS became such an integral part of people’s day-to-day social lives that users were more than willing to shell out real money to buy accessories for their avatars: clothing, furniture, houses, flying cars. magic swords and machine guns. These items were nothing but ones and zeros stored on the OASIS servers, but they were also status symbols. Most items only cost a few credits, but since they cost nothing for GSS to manufacture, it was all profit. Even in the throes of an ongoing economic recession, the OASIS allowed Americans to continue engaging in their favorite pastime: shopping.

Page 59

There are thousands of worlds in the OASIS. The world where Parzival confesses his feeling to Art3mis is called Neo Noir.

There were hundreds of cyberpunk-themed worlds spread throughout the OASIS, but Neo Noir was one of the largest and oldest. Seen from orbit, the planet was a shiny onyx marble covered in overlapping spider- webs of pulsating light. It was always night on Neo Noir, the world over, and its surface was an uninterrupted grid of interconnected cities packed with impossibly large skyscrapers. Its skies were filled with a continuous stream of flying vehicles whirring through the vertical cityscapes, and the streets below teemed with leather-clad NPCs and mirror-shaded avatars, all sporting high-tech weaponry and subcutaneous implants as they spouted city-speak straight out of Neuromancer.

Page 181-182

Because of the ability to equip avatars and the scope of the universe, there are still differences between the Haves and Have Nots, even in the OASIS. And early challenge for Parzival is simply to figure out how to get to different parts of the OASIS without any money.

The kids who didn’t own ships would either hitch a ride with a friend or stampede to the nearest transport terminal, headed for some offworld dance club, gaming arena, or rock concert. But not me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stranded on Ludus, the most boring planet in the entire OASIS.

The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation was a big place.

Page 48

So I remained stuck at school. I felt like a kid standing in the world’s greatest video arcade without any quarters, unable to do anything but walk around and watch the other kids play.

Page 51

As Parzival figures out ways around the limitations, he devotes himself full time to hunting the egg.  He spends more and more time in the OASIS.  Aside from basic biological needs, why leave?  Everything he needs can be delivered to his home. All his friends are on the OASIS, and he can even earn money there.

My apartment was on the forty-second floor, number 4211. The security lock mounted outside required another retinal scan. Then the door slid open and the interior lights switched on. There was no furniture in the cube-shaped room, and only one window. I stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it behind me. Then I made a silent vow not to go outside again until I had completed my quest. I would abandon the real world altogether until I found the egg.

Page 166

Capitalism would inch forward, without my actually having to interact face-to-face with another human being. Which was exactly how I preferred it, thank you.

Page 191

Cline opens one of the chapters with Groucho Marx prescient thoughts on the matter:

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.

Groucho Marx

Page 167

One of the most popular features of the book is all the 80s and pop-culture references.  Parzival has a series of videos running on his “channel” within the OASIS for others to watch.

I pulled up my programming grid and made a few changes to my evening lineup. I cleared away the episodes of Riptide and Misfits of Science I’d programmed and dropped in a few back-to-back flicks starring Gamera, my favorite giant flying turtle. I thought they should be real crowd pleasers. Then, to finish off the broadcast day, I added a few episodes of Silver spoons.

Page 202

That stuff really resonates with me. Misfits of Science is where I developed my crush on Courtney Cox. I was never an A-Team fan, but I loved Riptide with its pink helicopters. I like the show even more when they added June Chadwick to the caste in the last season (I developed my crush on her during V: The Series).  Gamera was always my favorite Godzilla monster. I mean, come on, he flies by pulling his legs into his shell and turning his leg holes into jet engines. That’s awesome. I was a regular Silver Spoons viewer, too, but there were no crushes involved in that.

There are other references that amused me.

I watched a lot of YouTube videos of cute geeky girls playing ‘80s cover tunes on ukuleles. Technically, this wasn’t part of my research, but I had a serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles fetish that I can neither explain nor defend.

Page 63

The only cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles that I’m familiar with are of course Molly Lewis and Kate Micucci, but I haven’t delved deeply enough into their back catalogs to know if they’re the ones Cline is referring to.

The whole book is built on 80s references and deep descriptions of the movies, video games, music, games of the era. It’s clear that Cline loves this stuff, and who can blame him? They 80s were an awesome time.

Sometime the references got to be a little too much for me, though. It wasn’t their volume that got to me. It was the way Cline explained all of them in a little too much detail. I’m undecided if I consider this a flaw of the book. It may have gotten to me because it feels like he was explaining stuff that was completely obvious.  The reason it’s obvious, though, is because I grew up with all this stuff.  Perhaps that level of explanation is important for those who were not children of the 80s. The deep dive did take me out and make me roll my eyes a few times.

While the book may not have been as awesome as The Empire Strikes Back, is at least as awesome as Return of the Jedi. It’s a great book to read, with a few flaws, and I look forward to Cline’s next book. I also look forward to the “Ready Player One” movie, should it come out.  If you’re a fan of light CyberPunk, or of 80s references, don’t miss this book.

2012-07-30

Book Review 71: A Dirty Job

"Sometimes," he said to Lazarus, the steadfast golden retriever, "a man must muster all of his courage to simply sit still. How much humanity has been spoiled for the confusion of movement with progress, my friend? How much?"

Page 252dirtyjob

In “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore, Beta-Male Charlie  becomes a grim reaper, charged by mystical forces with collecting people souls when then die in parts of San Francisco. Several characters from other Moore books, including Jody and the Emperor from Blood Sucking Fiends and Minty Fresh from Coyote Blue put in in an appearance. This ties the book into the broader Moore-iverse of favorite characters.

This book has the weird zaniness all Moore books have, but it gets deeper. It’s a comical and sophisticated book.  One of the problems I had in writing this book is that there are fewer quotable phrases and line than there were in “Blood Sucking Fiends.” Many of the jokes just don’t have as much punch outside their paragraphs. That feels like a more mature style than we’ve seen in the past from Moore. The novel is less joke-y, but it’s no less funny. And that’s one of the things I like about it.

An example of this is Moore’s page-and-a-half description of the definition of can challenges faced by the beta-male.  Here is just a small part of it:

Charlie's problem was that the trailing edge of his Beta Male imagination was digging at him like bamboo splinters under the fingernails. While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes—size, strength, speed, good looks—selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta  Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing  proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows. When Alpha Males set out to conquer neighboring tribes, to count coups and take heads, Beta Males could see in advance that in the event of a victory, the influx of female slaves was going to leave a surplus of mateless women cast out for younger trophy models, with nothing to do but salt down the heads and file the uncounted coups, and some would find solace in the arms of any Beta Male smart enough to survive. In the case of defeat, well, there was that widows thing again. The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male.

 

The problem (Charlie's problem) is that the Beta Male imagination has become superfluous in the face of modern society. Like the saber-toothed tiger's fangs, or the Alpha Male's testosterone, there's just more Beta Male imagination than can really be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games.

 

Page 31

It goes on from there.

The book isn’t entirely devoid of jokes. Moore uses this structure in several places:

Audrey was showing them around the Buddhist center, which, except for the office in the front, and a living room that had been turned into a meditation room, looked very much like any other sprawling Victorian home. Austere and Oriental in its decor, yes, and perhaps the smell of incense permeating it, but still, just a big old house.

"It's just a big old house, really," she said, leading them into the kitchen.

 

Page 340

And he does play with names, such as the fireworks merchant who lost two fingers that Charlie patronizes.

"The White Devil has finally gone around the bend," said Three Fingered Hu's eleventh grandchild, Cindy Lou Hu, who stood at the counter next to her venerated and digitally challenged ancestor.

'His money not crazy," said Three.

 

Page 117

The story starts with Charlie’s wife dying in the hospital after giving birth to their daughter. While Charlie is in her room in her final moments, a grim reaper comes into the hospital room to collect and object and is shocked when Charlie can seem him. No one else can see the reaper and neither can the security cameras.

Charlie goes home to deal with his grief, raise his new daughter as a single parent, and deal the quirky employees that work at his second hand shop. They start to question Charlie’s sanity as he claims certain objects in the store may be radioactive because they glow red in a way that only he can see.

Meanwhile, he can’t seem to keep any of his daughter’s pets alive.

Before long, strange notes appear at his bedside, in his own handwriting, and he is hearing voices come up from the sewer grates around the city.

In many ways, Charlie feels like a more grown up and more fully drawn version of Moore’s earlier San Francisco beta-male -- Tommy, from “Blood Sucking fiends.”  I mentioned “A Dirty Job” several times in my review of that book, because I find the comparison between the two fascinating. This book is not a sequel to the other, but they do exist in the same universe. Several of the characters cross over between the two, but you do not need to read one to appreciate the other. Putting them both side-by-side, though is a great way to look at the author’s growth.

I don’t want to go into any further detail, lest I spoil a surprise.  I do recommend this book, especially if you enjoy humorous novels about the supernatural. It’s a got a nice story, some great storytelling, and several really interesting characters. It’s definitely worth the reading time.

More of my book reviews are available here

2012-07-29

Radiolab and Bolero

I stood in the middle off the G-Terminal at ORD the other day listening to podcasts.

Contrasting with the bustle of busy, annoyed, stressed, and sweaty travelers, RadioLab podcasts explore deep concepts and have some of the most creative uses of sound I hear in my day-to-day life.

Unraveling Bolero is a great example. While it is typical in most respect, certain elements came together and it struck me as one of the most beautiful and terrifying episodes I've heard.

2012-07-06

Book Review 70: Blood Sucking Fiends

‘I’ve seen him,” the Emperor whispered. “It’s a vampire.”

Tommy recoiled as if he’d been spit on. “A vampire florist?”

‘Well, once you accept the vampire part, the florist part is a pretty easy leap, don’t you think?’

Page 37
Blood Sucking Fiends is an early Christopher Moore novel. Jody, a redhead in San Francisco becomes a vampire and relies on newly arrived, aspiring writer Tommy to take care of her needs during the day.

This is the second time I’ve read it. The first time was years ago, before I startedwriting my own reviews. It was also the first Christopher Moore novel I read. The reason I read it the first time was that it seemed like an interesting take on the vampire mythology and that it would also be funny. It was. The second time I read it was because I had just finished reading Moore’s more recent “A Dirty Job” where a couple of the characters make an appearance (review coming shortly). Reading it the second time, after reading other more novels, made the experience richer.

It’s an entertaining book, but it is not nearly as good as his later novels. Over the course of his career Moore improved as a story teller and humorist. That’s not to say Blood Sucking Fiends isn’t good -- it is. It’s just not as mature as his later books. Which makes sense. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone to be better at their job after 15 years of doing it.

The strength of the book is in its flashes of awesome paragraphs. Moore sketches out memorable characters and gives them some common voices. Among the common themes is that women are much stronger than men.
She thought, There must be a hundred thousand dollars here. A man attacked me, choked me, bit my neck, burned my hand. then stuffed my shirt full of money and put a dumpster on me and now I can see heat and hear fog. I’ve won Satan’s lottery.

Page 16


‘Is there something wrong with your food?”

“No, I’m just not very hungry.’

“You’re going to break my heart, aren’t you?”

Page 60


“Me too,” he said. He hung up and thought: She’s evil. Evil, evil, evil. I want to see her naked.

Page 78


Why in the hell was she being so mysterious? He opened the envelope and took out a stack of hundred-dollar bills, counted them, then put them back in the envelope. Four thousand dol-lars. He had never seen that much money in one place. Where did she get that kind of money? Certainly not filling out claims at an insurance company. Maybe she was a drug dealer. A smuggler Maybe she embezzled it. Maybe it was all a trap. Maybe when he got to the impound lot to pick up her car, the police would arrest him. She had a lot of nerve signing her note “Love.” What would the next one say? “Sorry you have to do hard time in the big house for me. Love, Jody.” But she did sign it that way: “Love. What did that mean? Did she mean it, or was it habit? She probably signed all of her letters with “Love.’

Page 83


The vampire let go of Jody’s arm, reached across to put his hand on Hair Plugs’s shoulder, and held him fast to his seat. The drunk’s eyes went wide. The vampire smiled. “She’ll rip out your throat and drink your blood as you die. Is that what you want?”

Hair Plugs shook his head violently. “No, I already have an ex- wife.”

Page 214
Moore’s male main characters often appear at one of two poles -- the overconfident, macho character or the insecure, obsessive, and not-too-bright character represented by Tommy in several of these passages. Moore’s jokes, entertaining phrasing, and absurd situations keep me interested in reading.

It’s not just the supernatural and aspiring writers that Moore takes on. What book about San Francisco would be complete without the obligatory digs at Oakland? He’s able to comment on Oakland while giving us a vivid sensation of the enhanced senses a new vampire experiences.

She spotted a pay phone; a red chimney of heat rose from the lamp above it. She looked up and down the empty street. Above each streetlight she could see heat rising in red waves. She could hear the buzzing of the electric bus wires above her, the steady stream of the sewers running under the street. She could smell dead fish and diesel fuel in the fog, the decay of the Oakland mudflats across the bay, old French fries, cigarette butts, bread crusts and fetid pastrami from a nearby trash can, and the residual odor of Aramis wafting under the doors of the brokerage houses and banks. She could hear wisps of fog brushing against the buildings like wet velvet.. It was as if her senses, like her strength, had been turned up by adrenaline.

Page 15-16

Ah, but I must be strong for the troops. It could be worse, I suppose. I could be the Emperor of Oakland.

Page 12
The Emperor of San Francisco is a favorite recurring character in Moore novels. He’s an apparently homeless man with two dogs who sees himself at the emperor of the city. He’s well-known to many of the random citizens who appear to humor and defer to him. He offers many the wisdom of a benevolent king and the street-level intelligence of someone who hears and sees things on the street that most other people never notice. The Emperor, for example, worries about business people going about their days, and how for many, there is no future:
“They have to look right or their peers will turn on them like starving dogs. They are the fallen gods. The new gods are producers, creators, doers. The new gods are the chinless techno-children who would rather eat white sugar and watch science-fiction films than worry about what shoes they wear. And these poor souls desperately push papers around hoping that a mystical message will appear to save them from the new awkward, brilliant gods and their silicon-chip reality. Some of them will survive, of course, but most will fall. Uncreative thinking is done better by machines. Poor souls, you can almost hear them sweating.”

Tommy looked at the well-dressed stream of businesspeople. Then at the Emperor’s tattered overcoat, then at his own sneakers, then at the Emperor again. For some reason, he felt better than he had a few minutes before. “You really worry about these people, don’t you?’

‘It is my lot.”

Page 91-92
Make no mistake; this is a good book. It’s weakness is more evident, however, in comparison to later Moore novels. Unlike later books, this one feels like a series of interesting characters and scenes attached to an internal structure or outline. There’s a certain shallowness about it. It’s less of a funny book and more of a book with great jokes. In addition to other books in the same universe Moore also wrote a couple sequels to this book, and they’re sitting on my shelf right now. I can’t wait to read them.

More of my book reviews are available here


2012-05-24

Life in the Garden Part 47: Trading Beer for Beans

Oh, the sacrifices we make for our gardens. For three days, I have surrendered beer for my pole beans.

I planted the starters 10 days ago, and all was well. Last year, the pole beans were one of my easiest crops. All I had to do was plant the seeds and they took off.  I had snacks available every time I stepped onto the deck.

Late last week, it looked like my arch nemesis, the aphid, was back. Those little green suckers have chomped way too many leaves on me in the past. I rushed out to the nursery and grabbed a bottle of Neem Oil and was ready to go to battle the next day.

But the holes in the leaves seemed a lot bigger than they should have been. I doubled down on the spray in the daylight. On Sunday evening, as it got a little darker, I realized the aphids were a mere distraction.  

My attacker this time was bigger.

Slimmier.  

Sluggier.

Slugs. I founds a slug on a leaf.  

In damp, dark Seattle, slugs are as common as Thai food and coffee. But I don’t have ordinary slugs. I have industrious slugs.

Caffeinated slugs.

These slug in my pole beans didn’t just crawl over from the neighbor’s yard or the nearest salmon run.  My pole beans are planted in a big container. On a rubber covered deck.  60 feet in the air.

And they got up there.

I don’t know if they hitched a ride on a bird, snuck in with the plants from the nursery, or scaled the side of the building.

Fortunately, if there’s one thing we learned from The Simpsons, it’s that beer is the perfect solution to any problem.

Slugs like beer, and slugs are dumb. I built slug traps.

To deal with slugs,  you can dig a small hole in the dirt, and bury a small yogurt container up to the rim, and pour in some beer about a quarter or half way and leave it overnight.  The scent of beer will attract the slugs. The slimy bastards will wiggle their way over to feast on the beer. They’ll slither down the side for a sip, reach the beer, dive in, and drown.  The beer gorging is like 1:00 AM at a Capitol Hill bar with cheap pitchers and unlimited chicken wings. Only most bar goers don’t drown in their meal. Most.

My new nightly ritual involves dumping the previous night’s flat beer and dead slugs into a zip lock bag, which I then drop drown the trash chute. Then I open another beer and [sob] refill the container.  Then I drink the rest of the beer.

Tonight I took it another step. I added a small, formerly-juiced-filled bottle on its side with more beer bait.  I have to get more creative with these slugs.

Because I think the slugs are getting bigger. They’re starting to level up. Again.