How to build a recyclable laptop stand for under $1

February 12, 2011

We’ve just moved in to an apartment in Chiang Mai for one month. The work desk is a little narrow, so after unsuccessfully scouring the local stores for a laptop stand, I improvised. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves (but in case you can’t make it out, it’s three rolls of toilet paper).

Toilet Roll Laptop Stand (side angle)

Toilet roll laptop stand

The gradual Americanization of my personal British language

February 10, 2011

The stunning Arizona landscape at twilight

On my first trip to the US, I stored some luggage at Newark airport. The security guard asked my name for the label, and as I started my surname, “Zed… Ay… Em…”, he interrupted: “Wah?”. I tried again, ‘Zed, Ay…”. “Huh?”. I mumble at the best of times, but I was fairly sure I enunciated clearly on the second repetition. Eventually, as I resorted to “You know, the last letter of the alphabet”, I finally got “Ah! Zee! ZEE!”, with much bewilderment as to why I’d been calling it something completely foreign.

I couldn’t comprehend how an American didn’t understand what “Zed” was, yet I’d guess that most Britons would know what letter “Zee” was. Over the last 10 years, though, I’ve slowly realized that the American language has become the de-facto English standard of the world, and how – as I’ve traveled outside of the UK for the past year – I’ve slowly become an American speaker.

We started our year of travel in Arizona, which I was a little hesitant about, due to the political unrest that was stirring at the time regarding illegal immigration. As it turns out, I quickly fell in love with the place: the Arizona desert at dawn and dusk has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we met more liberal, open-minded residents than the media would have you believe exist in a Republican state.

We stayed a few miles down the road from Cave Creek, a small cowboy town whose most famous resident writes exceedingly poor popular books about vampires and werewolves. It’s easy to dismiss the “cowboy” part of the description of many places (“just because they have a bar with ‘saloon’ in the name, doesn’t mean it’s a cowboy town!”), but I think it’s fair to use it for Cave Creek. The first bar we visited had a large, working rodeo area at the back, and locals came to the bar on horseback; arrive on any given night and you’ll see a row of horses tied up-front, or being drunk-rode home.

Three of us walked in, maneuvering between the older, weathered, bulky locals dressed in denim and leather chaps. I was driving, so decided to order lemonade.

Now… In the UK, if you order lemonade at a bar, you’ll get a Sprite, 7-Up or some soft-drink derivative. It’s not the most masculine option, but it’s not embarrassing. In the US, as I quickly discovered, this isn’t always the case. I was presented with a large – and I mean LARGE – glass full of still, pink liquid. PINK. P.I.N.K. In a bar full of cowboys.

At that moment, I decided I should probably start to consider cultural differences more carefully before making any decisions.

A few months later, when we arrived in Vancouver (Canada), I quietly chuckled at the numerous Mr. Lube signs. Sure, lube is also slang in North America for sexual lubricants, but in the UK there’s NO WAY a company would call itself Mr. Lube; it would be the equivalent of a supermarket chain being called Mr. Dildo. The same holds for fanny; the British have such a crude, rudimentary (and hilarious!) sense of humor that if a word can have a sexual connotation, then that’s it’s primary meaning.

There are exceptions, of course: the famous example of British people “bumming a fag” (being given a cigarette for free) is actually fairly commonplace, and said without any hint of double-entendre.

Talking of literal terms, I previously used to ask for directions to the “toilet”: in a British restaurant, I’d ask “where is the toilet, please?”. Traveling, however, has taught me to be slightly more obtuse; I now ask where the “washroom” is. Sure, it’s the actual toilet that I’m usually interested in, but the word “toilet” seems to have an uncouth or downright rude meaning in the US and elsewhere.

This holds true in Mexico, Laos, and most other non-European countries where American English is the “proper” school-taught English. Our two months in Japan did as much to influence the Americanization of my language as our two months in the US, as I became accustomed to talking about “sidewalks” and “movie theaters”, not pavements and cinemas. And, maybe because I spend nearly every waking hour with Amy, I now also say the North Americanized “ten after three” rather than “ten past three”.

The proliferation of American culture extends to currency too; having spent months in Vietnam and other South-East Asian countries where prices are often double-quoted in local and US currencies, I’m now accustomed to using US dollars as my base currency by which I compare prices. The Great British Pound Sterling is a distant memory.

Vietnam, in particular, has a fixation with US dollars. As we walked around Hanoi and Hoi An we witnessed dozens of people crouched on the side of the street, burning fake bank notes. We were told that these notes would be transferred to their dead relatives who could use the money to buy houses and other mundane possessions in the afterlife. Of course, most of these bank notes were US dollars – not Vietnamese Dong – because US dollars are accepted everywhere, including the afterlife!

We’ve also been working as we travel, which has influenced my language. In particular, I’ve become accustomed to Americanizing most of my online writing – not just for our clients, the majority of which are based in North America – but also for Search Engine Optimization purposes (notice how I spelled that with a Zee?). Google and other search engines have got better at de-localizing search queries and online content, but I’m always mindful about using the spelling and language that makes sense to the largest group of online users, i.e. Americanized

Even with these conscious changes to my vocabulary, I still cling to some remnants of my native language. I downright refuse to say “gotten”, which I think is an absolutely ugly, old-fashioned word. I also have a fondness for “autumn”, “full stop”, “whilst”, “petrol”, and many other British terms that I refuse to let go of, at least for the moment. But some things just sound better the American way.

Have a nice day.

On Kristina Halvorson and Gary Vaynerchuck

November 27, 2010

If you spend a lot of time online, it’s easy to become disillusioned and bitter. You only have to start reading the comments on a Techcrunch article to think that everyone on the planet is an angry, opinionated buffoon. The web is a mess of criticism and negativity with everyone vying for their little patch of virtual turf.

To counter this situation, I thought I’d write a positive post that extols the virtues of a couple of people who deserve praise.

This isn’t a puff-piece though; by interacting with these people even indirectly, I’ve noticed a common pattern that I’ve learned from. That lesson is: be open, be encouraging, and do everything you can to help other people be great. I’m the least spiritual person on the planet (now that George Carlin is sadly no longer with us), but it does seem like there’s some virtual karma that comes back tenfold to those who treat others well, even at possible detriment to themselves.

My goal is to behave more like these people.

Kristina Halvorson

Kristina is arguably the world leader in Content Strategy, having written the industry standard book on the subject. Her content strategy agency, Brain Traffic, is established and well respected. As one of the original leaders of the ‘content strategy movement’, she has every right – and reason – to lay down the law and promote her agency as the only authentic option.

But she doesn’t. Kristina doesn’t spend all day protecting her throne and undermining the competition. She does the exact opposite.

In May 2010, Amy and I set up a content strategy agency: Contentini. We’ve both been working on-and-off around the subject for over a decade, so it felt like a natural fit. Even so, we felt a little like we were ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ of the trendy content strategy term, and probably deserved a little fun-poking from the establishment.

Over the last six months, Kristina has done nothing but encourage us with thoughtful comments on some of our blog posts and in the occasional tweet to her followers. These aren’t just re-tweets, but come with accompanying comments like, “The best article on the subject”. We’ve never met, and she stands to gain nothing from highlighting the work of a potential competitor, but she’s been collegial and encouraging with consistency and consideration.

And it’s not just us; when necessary she defends her subject matter, colleagues and competitors on negative blog posts, and acts more like an ambassador than a consultant.

But this is what makes her the best in her profession: she does what is best for the whole, not for the individual. She is nourishing and growing a community and a discipline rather than focusing on her personal image. This makes her a real leader.

Gary Vaynerchuck

Gary has made his name by being a brash, loud video blogger – who also happens to have built some very successful companies. On the surface, he is something of a dichotomy: opinionated, fast-talking and self-assured, yet cautious and careful to reply individually to his thousands of social media fans and followers. There aren’t many who can successfully pull off the fast-paced plus meticulous combination like Gary does.

Having watched his boisterous video blog, it was with some trepidation that Amy and I met with him last year, as part of an iPhone project we were working on. True to his ‘hustle’, he had been working late into the evening, and we eventually met in his office around 8:30 or 9pm. I think we were both expecting a quick “Oh, hi, it’s really late – thanks for dropping by, I’ve got to get home.”

It turns out that he couldn’t have been more courteous or attentive. He graciously welcomed us and, for someone who makes his living through social media, surprisingly closed his laptop immediately. It was obvious from the environment that he had a lot going on, but not once did he imply that he was at all pressed for time or that he had somewhere else to be – in fact, the opposite. He not only gave us his full attention, but repeatedly asked us what else he could do for us. If we hadn’t known any better, it would have been easy to believe that we were the most important people to him and his business during those 30 minutes or so that we talked with him.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound particularly special to you – a business acquaintance treating you with respect – but the point is that, like Kristina, Gary has reached a position where he really doesn’t need to, and a more selfish person (some would mistakenly call this ‘astute’) may have spent the same time on more self-aggrandizing tasks.

Before I met him, I thought that Gary had achieved success through confidence, hard work and self-promotion. That is a large part of it, but now I realize that it’s subtler than that, and must also be attributed to his respect and decency for others, no matter what their ‘status’ or business potential.

In Summary

As we spend more time online, it becomes easy to think that open criticism and ego-fueled commentary are not only acceptable, but are the new way of conducting business. My goal is to try to filter this out, and instead focus on – and learn from – those who are successful because of how they’ve supported their community, not because they’ve publicly ruined the competition.

What the Web Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.

“The Minimum” and “Minimal” != A Small Amount

November 10, 2010

As usual, my work schedule prevents me from writing a comprehensive post, but I wanted to quickly jot down a couple of “thoughts in progress”.

  • Minimum Viable Product“. This is an extremely useful pattern to follow – develop and design only what you need to test and deliver the first version of your idea. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get this wrong, and misconstrue “minimum” as “the smallest amount of features and effort needed to launch”. My problem with this interpretation is that the word “viable” is forgotten; to be viable, you sometimes need a lot more than bare-bones. Some, put in charge of the initial iPhone product, might have just developed a touch-screen phone. This could be a “minimum viable product”. But the actual minimum VIABLE product, to separate it from the crowd and to give it a unique proposition, is actually a lot of hard work: at minimum, it had to have a beautifully sexy interface, a standards-compliant web browser, and much more. Remove any one of these, and perhaps the success story might be different. In summary: the minimum “viable” product is often much more than one or two features; test the wrong “minimum” and you may mistakenly think that your idea is a dud. Sometimes the minimum is actually fairly close to the maximum.
  • User Experience“. Along a similar train-of-thought, the word “experience” is easy to miss. Focus purely on usability and you end up with square blocks and character-less aesthetics (what I like to call the “37 Signals” approach). I’m not saying this doesn’t work (37 Signals make extremely lucrative products with this technique, and this blog uses a dull blocky WordPress template), but it might not necessarily work for you, especially as good usability gradually becomes less of a differentiator. It’s not that difficult for a developer to pick-up the basics of good interface design; adding character and a real “experience” is a challenge that, when it pays off, can really add value to your apps, that is difficult to imitate (I’m not talking about rotating globes and splash screens; the “experience” and personality of an app should never detract from usability).

That’s all for now; apologies if this is obviousness-dressed-up-as-insight (though it doesn’t seem to have harmed Seth Godin’s career); I’ll try my best to post some cool developer-y code-y things in the next month or so.

Edit: Removed “App Store” from list of features that the iPhone launched with because… it didn’t, thus invalidating my entire argument.

Toilet-Roll Holder Design

October 20, 2010

We’re still snowed-under with work, but we’ve just moved into a new apartment in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where we’ll be for the next 6 weeks.

I wouldn’t normally post anything about toilet-roll holders… but I love the simplicity of the one in our apartment. Simple, robust and fast to change. Great design.