Next writing project announced!

July 8, 2009

Okay, so the next step in my new writing project is the other new blog:

Thoughts You Can Think About (or not)

I’m treating it similarly to this blog, but I’m trying much harder to keep a conversational, not a broadcast, tone.

It may split into two blogs later, one for short-form thoughts and another for longer-form essays. It might not.

Anyway, go check it out. I’ve been posting consistently there recently, and it’s already becoming a part of my work habits.

What I’ve been working on

June 29, 2009

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed (*cough*), but I’ve been away for a while. A number of things have taken my attention away from Two Notes Ahead, and I’m not entirely sure I want to even attempt to put the genie back in the bottle.

For that reason, if you still care about my writing, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m starting a whole new, slightly more personal, writing outlet over at

The first part is up: Music You’d Better Listen To (or, in short form, MyBLT). Expect more in the near future, all aggregated at And you’ll hear about it here first. Or maybe second, after my Twitter feed…

Thanks for the fun and conversation this past year-and-a-bit! I’ve relished every moment of it.

The power of being nice

April 18, 2009

You’ve heard it before, you’ll hear it again. This time with (new, personal) examples.

I’m in Seattle right now with my mother, visiting my little brother. Neither of them are “tea people”. But I am (somewhat). So when I saw a sign advertising a “free tea tasting” at a small shop, I had to drag them in by the ear.

We sat down at the Vital Tea Leaf counter, and Bonnie poured us some tea made with chrysanthemum flowers and stevia (a natural sweetener). My mom’s eyes lit up, and my brother was excited. It was good stuff.

The experience didn’t end there: we drank some ginseng oolong tea, a rose-and-some-other-flower one, a jasmine tea, a black tea with litchi, some tea made with the hibiscus flower, a variety of pu’erh, and what they called “Smoke Tea”, which was the Chinese version of one of my Japanese favourites, lapsang souchong.

No joke, my mom spent about $100 on two teapots (one for me, as a “thank you” for bringing her), three teas, and a bag of stevia.

This, to me, seems normal for tea shops. My favourite one in Toronto, Davidstea, has the nicest girls behind the counter, all of whom are excited about tea. But that’s the least they do. They bring you a free sample as you walk in the door, and they act as your own personal concierge, pulling down tin after tin of their teas for you to smell. Your thumbs-up/thumbs-down then guides their decisions in a Pandora-like process to find the tea that’s right for you.

I have also spent, on occasion, upwards of $80 on a single visit. And I keep going back.

Now, compare that to your favourite coffee shop. I have yet to find one that cultivates its customers, getting them as excited about what they’re about to drink. I also haven’t seen anyone spend $100 or so in a single visit.

It’s so much easier to buy in when you’re excited about something. How can you excite and delight every day?

On the Associated Press, Google, and your local newspaper

April 8, 2009

It’s old news that the AP is gearing up to sue aggregators. But ever since the story broke (two days ago? Really?), I’ve been quietly laughing about why this seems to be happening. And, now that I’m not studying for an exam… well, it’s time to blog about it.

Again, it’s nothing new that newspaper readership is declining, that newspapers are folding, etc. Now, it looks like the AP is taking a stance for the newspapers, right? With decreased paid readership, somebody needs to take a stand to protect the newspapers’ quality content from the likes of aggregators!

If that’s what you’re thinking, I suggest trying on a new pair of lenses.

Think, for a second, back to the heyday of the newspaper. When you got your fill of local, national, and global news… before the internet. Hell, even before AP/Reuters started standardizing the content. Articles were written by authors you recognized and trusted… maybe even knew. They were, without a doubt, written by a member of the community you were a part of — after all, your community was reading and writing the same newspaper you held in your hands.

Then the AP/Reuters/other syndication services came along. And they made everything a lot cheaper and a lot simpler: if a story broke, they’d have the facts and they could quickly get the news to your paper’s (and a boatload of other papers’) editor(s).

Your local newspaper suddenly had a quality story without having to fact-check the article. You, up in Toronto, were reading the same stuff as your cousin in Boston and your nephew in London.

But the individualized, local flavour your paper once had when reporting these events? Gone.

Now, aggregators are being blamed for harvesting and unfairly using content. But imagine using Google, or any other web service, to compare the differences between local reactions to a story. These aggregating tools, all of a sudden, are providing a unique service that our current news-making (and news-serving) model could really take advantage of.

But instead, we have countless copies of syndicated articles clogging up our inter-tubes.

Call me a child of the information age, but I’ve never thought of a newspaper as simply a way to get the news. I’ve always thought the Montreal Gazette should be the Montreal Gazette. The Toronto Star should be the Toronto Star.

If all I wanted was a universal report on current affairs, I wouldn’t open either of these… or any other local paper.

On Twitter and Google

April 6, 2009

Pardon the semi-link-bait of the title, but I finally have something to say about this whole “Twitter is a Google Killer!” or “Google is merging/buying Twitter” news-meme that’s plaguing us all. And it all comes from (finally!) listening to David Weinberger’s talk about “knowledge at the end of the Information Age”.

In the hour-long podcast (originally broadcast on TV, I imagine), Weinberger speaks about the triumphs and weirdness of the internet have done for knowledge. One of his key insights is that the internet really opened up meta-data: when search can be ubiquitous, we don’t need to limit ourselves to three (or five, or any arbitrary number of) tags or categories to fit a piece into, unlike the Library of Congress.

That got me thinking: Google’s PageRank is, admittedly, a really useful system. But I think Google really won because they found a clean and efficient way to sort through the meta-data before any of their competitors did. And yes, I remember Altavista’s ability to search a database of MP3s or images, and I imagine other search engines had it too. But Google made it both intuitive and relevant (more often than not).

That, dear readers, is why I believe that Twitter’s real-time search won’t be a Google Killer yet: before it can be, it needs to be able to sort through the meta-data, to fit its real-time results into the mold that its users aren’t asking for, but are hoping to see.

And no, Tweefind, an attempt to apply PageRank to Twitter just ain’t gonna cut it.

Middle seats don’t have to be terrible

March 24, 2009

But they are. Nobody wants them, as Hugh brought to the blogosphere’s attention.

So why do they exist? Are they a relic of some sort of archaic system when they were necessary? Well, yes. But is that all they could be?

A friend of mine ran an experiment last year, just for fun. He put signs in the elevators at UofT’s biggest library, prompting people to talk. Then he rode the elevator a bunch. And people talked. They seemed to have a good time, too… at least they weren’t standing in uncomfortable silence, right?

Why haven’t airlines with middle seats turned them into something appealing? Windows have a view and an easy-to-nap “corner”; aisles are just plain easier to use and let you feel less guilty if you need to get up.

Middle seats could:

  • come with cards prompting discussion with (willing) neighbours
  • be given free travel-related sample products to share with one of the people sitting beside them
  • be a little bit wider than the other seats next to them, compensating for the squished-ness that might occur
  • have their own little on-board chatroom with other middle seaters on the plane, letting them whine about the arsehole sitting next to them — or brag that they’ve been randomly placed next to their favourite hockey player
  • come decked out with office supplies they might need to get some work done (branding it as “the business seat”, as opposed to the “nappers’ window” or the “escape artist aisle”) — thanks to @thetiniest for inspiring this one

And that’s just 5 or 6 minutes of highly-distracted brainstorming. I’m sure you can think of better. Let’s hear ‘em in the comments!

My point, though, is that if you’re offering up middle seats, either lose them or use them. Doing otherwise is hurting you in the long run.

A swift kick in the ass

March 24, 2009

Sometimes that’s all you really need.

I sent a document I was working on to Jeff Widman last week, asking for some quick feedback. His comments boiled down to:

“You’ve done really well on these two things, but you’re slacking with this other one. You can do better.”

And then he prompted me with a quick example.

After working on something for long enough, it’s really easy to fall into the “wow, this is amazing!” trap. After all, you’ve been working on it for hours, if not days! It’s come so far from the blank page it used to be.

Still, you’re missing something. Guaranteed. You’re almost there, but you need a swift kick in the ass to cross the finish line.


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