Testing a free tool for improving headlines

Scientific? Spiritual? Not even a little bit.

The headline for this post registers relatively high — 57.14% — on the Emotional Marketing Value scale, a measure calculated by the Advanced Marketing Institute. (Most copywriter headlines register between 30% and 40%, says the AMI.)

Intriguingly, the AMI promises that its algorithm parses headlines using years of research to predict which words appeal to specific audiences. At least, that’s what it says on the website — last updated in 2008.

According to the EMV calculator, the post headline appeals to a reader’s spiritual side. Does that mean people feel religious about improvement? Or that free stuff gets people closer to a higher being?

I am skeptical, but I do get a thrill from free stuff, especially nifty little online calculators.

Give it a try here: http://www.aminstitute.com/headline/index.htm.



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Papa’s advice to writers

HemingwayMatador-300“Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.”

– Ernest Hemingway, from “By Line” in Hemingway on Writing. More tidbits from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.

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Gaming my goals

Marti's avatar on HabitRPG

Marti in her kelp-wrapped hat and blue mouse ears. With her pet bear cub!

For me, one of the most satisfying things about completing a task is checking it off my list. (“Ha! Another!”) I’ve tried a handful of productivity apps – merely so I could experience the pleasure of creating lists and checking off the items, which somehow quantifies my efficiency and all around amazingness.

Sadly, I tended to get bogged down in list-writing. I’d have subtasks. And then I’d have to order and re-order list items. Even if I checked off an item, I’d still want to edit and refine it. Or maybe the completed item would disappear, as if it had never existed! I eventually got bored and gave up on Outlook and Evernote. I didn’t need something to manage my workload; I wanted something to make the workload enjoyable.

About 6 months ago I happened upon the perfect list-making application for me. It is called HabitRPG. Although the gamey interface put me off at first, I soon became a devoted user of this free online tool.

Here’s why I think HabitRPG is brilliant: it separates tasks into three incredibly intuitive categorizes:

  • Habits — the things you’re training yourself to accomplish regularly, like writing a blog post, memorizing a poem, or calling your Mom.
  • Dailies – tasks you must complete every day, like exercising, checking job boards, and taking vitamins.
  • To-dos — your running task list, the assignments you must complete, like finishing a report, taking clothes to the dry cleaner, running the anti-virus software.

For completing tasks, naturally you get points. It is a game after all! But more useful and charming than game points is Habit’s way of quantifying, on one screen, all the things I should be doing to improve myself — my writing, my health, my job performance. I score myself, and I don’t cheat.

In another post I’ll detail the interesting ways HabitRPG motivates users to improve their lives. It’s more than kelp-wrapped hats!

In the meantime, here’s a fun fact: HabitRPG was fully funded by Kickstarter in February 2013.

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4 reasons why email is still a killer app

atSign The internet’s original killer app, email has outlasted operating systems, online services, and local area networks. But why has email lasted, when modern communication modes so obviously seem superior? Especially given the scourge of spam?

Here are four reasons why email remains a killer app.

 1. Email is standard. It’s easy to use and supported ubiquitously. Phone, laptop, desktop or tablet – all have email apps that transparently send and receive messages from other apps. Furthermore, precisely because email has been around so long, the interface itself has become standard.

2. Email is a foolproof way to send files. Email is by far the easiest way to share a file or two. Sure you can send files to a cloud service like Dropbox, but often that’s overkill. Plus, cloud services have finicky and proprietary notification methods. Why use a middle step when you can send most files as attachments?

3. Email reaches groups.  To convey one message to many people, email is the simplest, most direct method. Pack the Send field with email addresses — often public and readily discoverable — and you’re set.  The venerable email list still enables effective mass communications, for marketing, for news, or for special purposes like emergency alerts.

4. The inbox is an archive. Unlike social media communications, email isn’t a stream of messages. It’s a pool. (Okay, so sometimes it’s a deep pool!) Nevertheless, it’s a cache of messages we’ve sent and received that we can save, organize, and search.

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Another view of Alec Baldwin: a cautionary tale — with a twist

I whine about tabloid journalism, but I often end up reading the stuff anyway. Ah well! And yet I recently discovered how easily I am manipulated by the sensational stories and headlines I consume.

Until recently, I admired the actor Alec Baldwin. Everything I knew about him I learned from the film, Glengarry Glen Ross. In it, he plays a small but terrifically nasty role as the slick tough guy from “Mitch and Murray” coming to knock some salemen’s heads. He gives a motivational speech with lines like:

“As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

He finishes the scene by brandishing a pair of brass balls and swinging them below his belt.

“You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes BRASS BALLS to sell real estate. Go and do likewise gents.”

Yah! It’s a classic scene. Check it!

So, a few weeks ago when I read a linkbait headline screaming Alec Baldwin was quitting New York City (whoa! he’s in NYC not LA?), of course I clicked. I skim-read the whole New York Magazine piece, which was basically a very long, very specific rant, spoken or written (hard to tell) by Alec Baldwin detailing ways he gets no respect. Like Rodney! Except Baldwin was totally serious. He itemized all the ways he tries to be a caring public figure but is, for various unfair reasons, by various unfair people, shat upon and accused of evil — and false! — ill-liberal behavior.

Yah! It was embarrassing . (You will have to Google it. I’m not linking.)

The next thing I knew, I had a completely different view of Alec Baldwin. Oh, I believed he was vilified unfairly; anyway, I was too lazy to check the facts. Heck, I didn’t even know he HAD a television show. Even so, after reading his rage against vicious public perception, I immediately stopped thinking of Alec Baldwin as an actor. Suddenly he’d become a goofy celebrity with a gift for terrible PR.

Okay, so what’s the point? From actor to moron in 15 minutes: public media has a sadly insidious effect. Who cares, you ask? Here’s the kicker: Real life trumps “the media.”

Soon after reading Baldwin’s ridiculous rant, I was listening to public radio, as I am wont to do on weekday evenings. My boys and I tuned in, once again, to an hour with the New York Philharmonic, hosted by Alec Baldwin. I had heard the host’s very smooth,  deliberate, intelligent-sounding voice many times, and I assumed it was some-classical-music-DJ Alec Baldwin, not THE Alec Baldwin. And as they’ve asked before, the boys wanted to know: “Is that Alec Baldwin the actor?” This time, I Googled it.


Alec Baldwin in the WFMT studio. Photo: Todd Heisler, New York Times, 2009.

Well! Sure enough, Baldwin’s been the voice for the New York “Phil” since 2008, a serious personal commitment. Plus, he recently donated $1M to the orchestra.

Immediately, my view of the man flipped – again. Now that I know he’s an individual who spends his time and money where he sees true value, I view him as a bonafide public figure, not merely an actor, and certainly not merely a tabloid clown.

The tasks for me remain: resist the tabloid linkbait. Think more kindly of strangers. Keep listening to Alec Baldwin and the New York Phil. . .

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Sporting the Quora fleece

I’m pleased to say I was selected for the second year in a row as a Top Writer at Quora, a social site for writing questions and answers about anything crossing your mind, from how to use an abacus to whether zebras can be domesticated.  I’ve been a Quoran since December 2010.


(Yes, that’s me in the Quora fleece!)

I write answers about cooking, movies, literature, and parenting. I also keep several micro-blogs on Quora, including a red wine review.

At the moment, I’m working on an answer about James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s taking some enjoyable research and thought.

As for questions, I’ve asked more than 400 of them. For instance, I want to know what sorts of music ancient Romans listened to and which of Italy’s ancient monuments are being left to decay.

Sadly, many of my queries languish. So far, no one can tell me what it’s like to be a gangster in a post-Soviet republic or what the primary arguments are (for and against) the Hawking-Hartle no-boundary proposal. Can you?

Meantime, it’s back to Ulysses. . .



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Woes of a content manager

wrench-smOne of the most troublesome aspects of managing a multi-user website is ensuring the structural integrity and editorial quality of the site’s content. Here’s why:

  • When it comes to content appearance  – unless your content creators are web developers — managing page layout can be a nightmare.
  • Font-proliferation and poor image placement are two basic problems.
  • If the site enables users <shudder> to use forms or polls or other applets, there’s sure to be trouble.
  • Even good writers need editors.

As a web manager, I’ve tried and witnessed multiple approaches to preserving structural and editorial integrity. Several techniques almost worked, but not quite:

  • Become a “site Nazi.”  Yes, build an environment that tightly controls user behavior. On  the plus side, this solution works pretty well on sites with relatively uniform content types. On the downside, no one likes Nazis. Content providers desert in droves.
  • Train users.  Ah, yes, “teach a man to fish,” etc. The truth is: for most people, web design training is a black hole. You simply can’t do enough of it. Arguably, becoming proficient at page layout and design requires immersion. It’s not for the dabblers.
  • Channel content through the web team. With a team of web professionals adding the content, you take those users out of the equation — sort of. No longer posting their own content, they will have plenty of time to hound you, now known as the content bottleneck, about the ways you’re screwing up their stuff.

So, what are viable solutions for managing content on a multi-user site? That’s my next post. . .

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