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Happy Accidents

If you visit eFuse.com, (which you should do, since you're signed up for the FuseLetter, but I digress), then you know one of our stages is "Plan," and I'm a firm believer in planning. You have to know what you want and create a plan for how your web site is going to achieve that goal. But recently, a "happy accident" reminded of "The joy of the unexpected."

My long-time friend, www.BruceEckel.com (well, his name doesn't have the "www." or ".com" but I'd be surprised if people haven't started naming their kids "Dub" "or "www" and you know eFuse.com has own very own correspondent named Dot Com, but once again, I digress), asked me to design his latest book cover.

Bruce is one of the best-selling and most well-known (and, his publisher adds, loved), C++ and Java experts in the world. He's working on a new book, and I'm designing the book cover (as I have on virtually all his books, which is nice, since I've known him since I was 12. So kids, start cultivating those future business associates right there in Junior High!).

We started working on a concept for his book cover, and we both had preconceived notions (this is usually a mistake, but also usually inevitable). He wanted something "Maxfield Parrish-like having to do with machines." I wanted something art deco (I'm a big fan of the New York World's Fair from 1939 and I love art deco and WPA murals), featuring tools.

We spent hours trying to figure out what to do, but everything we came up with looked like junk. Yes, even I do stuff that looks like junk—the trick is, I never have to show it to anyone (and you don't have to show anyone your junk, either)!

I was getting frustrated, so as a kind of mental break, I told him to put his face on the scanner and I scanned his face. (Hey, I hear what you're thinking, but this was the only body part we scanned!) He said, "What are you going to do with this?" and I said, "I don't have the faintest idea," and I didn't. I just wanted to try something different.

So then I put the scan into my graphics program of choice, CorelXara, (http://xaraxone.i-us.com) and I had the program "autotrace" the scan of his face. Autotracing is the computer's way to turning a picture into the kinds of lines and curves it really likes (trust me, computers go gaga over lines and curves, they get practically giddy with excitement).

scan and watercolor of Bruce's faceThe result was interesting, looking kind of like a bad paint-by-numbers picture. Then I started playing. Yes, playing (a teenage friend once told me that "it isn't work if you enjoy it."). I removed all the color fills, and made all the outlines simple black lines. Now I had something that looked like a topographic map of Bruce's face. Fascinating. Kind of the way a computer might see people. And it struck me that this was a really good metaphor for the book-because it was a "computer inter-face," it was a computer's view of people, and the computer's way of making art. So it really was artwork produced by software, which was created by a programming language, which was created by people. Isn't that deep? I know people won't think of that background when they look at the cover, they'll just think, "Hmm, intriguing, not at all like a boring computer book, I wonder what's inside," and that's the point.

It wasn't at all what either of us had imagined. It wasn't at all what I could have thought of if I hadn't just "played" around. And that's the "joy of the unexpected."

You've probably read how many great inventions were discovered because of an accident, but it takes a person's intuition, knowledge, willingness to let go and accept the unexpected and the ability to be able to tell a happy accident from a mess.

bruce eckel thinking in C book coverLater Bruce painted over the lines, with watercolors, and the final cover looks like this:

Sometimes when you let go of your preconceived notions of what you think things should be (perhaps because you feel totally stumped and your back is to the wall), only then can you come up with something really new, unexpected, and often better than you had imagined you could do. (So sometimes it makes sense to digress!)

So try it. Forget what you think your site or content "should" be like, and play around to see if you can "accidentally" figure out what it "can" be like.

Nobody knows what you can come up with, until you try.

Daniel Will-Harris, editor, http://www.eFuse.com

 

YOU BETTER LOOK AROUND :
how interactive panoramas can add life to your site

Still pictures. That's what most web sites have. And they're fine. People have gotten by with still pictures since caveman days. But in caveman days, if someone wanted to see something, they went to see it, and when they got there, unless they had a really stiff neck from using a rock as a pillow, they were able to look around.

And yet now, as we travel the world while never leaving our desks, our view is like looking out a small window. We can only see a small slice of what's all around us. Now all that changes with panorama images that let us look to the left, right, or sometimes even up and down. While still small and two dimensional, these come closer to "the next best thing to being there" for real estate, travel and other uses. Bob Weibel, the nicest possible tech guy you could ever possibly imagine, tells all. Well, maybe not all, but certainly enough!

FEEDBACK LOOP : You asked for it, you got it, now what do you do with it?

As much as we all would like to pretend we are perfect and never need any advice, we all do. Well, maybe I don't, but I am the exception. OK, I'm not the exception, I was just seeing if you were paying attention. Anyway, all of us, yes, myself included, have to ask people for feedback on the stuff we do, be it writing, web site design, or the ever popular "does my rear end look big in these pants?"

Well, Christopher Meeks, our "Write Away" columnist can't tell you how you look in your pants (unless you send him a picture, and I have this feeling he wouldn't really appreciate that), but after years of being a writer and having other people tell him what they think of his work, he can tell you the most productive ways to give and take criticism. It's not always easy, but it can be extremely valuable. Learn how to give it effectively, and take it without having a hissy fit.

SITESEEING:
Bells & Whistles, Dogs & Ponies, Tools 'n Toys

Take a gander at this collection of tools, toys and other titillations to add to your site, from news headlines to community builders to games and more. All are guaranteed to spice things up, and most are free, I tells ya, free!

 

THE ART OF SELF-PROMOTION:

if you don't do it, who will? Ilise Benun loves self promotion and she is on a mission is to teach people to promote themselves and their services painlessly. Her emphasis is on the human element of marketing and she writes about this in her quarterly newsletter, The Art of Self Promotion. Benun is also the author of two marketing handbooks, including 133 Tips to Promote Yourself and Your Business. Benun is also a national speaker whose programs include How To Promote Yourself Without Being A Pest, Give 'Em Your Story-Not Your Spiel, and The 7 Secrets of Marketing Yourself Online. You can find more of her practical, cost-you-almost-nothing marketing tips at http://www.artofselfpromotion.com

WHO'S MINDING YOUR VISITORS?

When you add new stuff to your site, you want people to come see it, right, I mean, at least you're mom should give you a click or two. But adding new stuff can make you so tired you _forget_ to tell people. Well, there's a way that people can be alerted to new stuff without you ever having to click the mouse (well, you have to click it a few times now, but then never again).

NetMind is a free service where your site visitors can enter their e-mail address and get a message every time a specific page changes on your site. I use this on my own site, and each time I change that page, the people who have signed up there get an e-mail (that also contains ads) telling them there's something new. I chose it a while back when it was much harder than it is now to manage a mailing list (see our story.)

This service is very easy to use, and it does work as advertised. But there are two reasons why you might want to consider having a mailing list instead. The first is that if you keep your own mailing list, you _own_ your own mailing list. Netmind will _not_ give you the list of people who subscribed to a page. The second is that a mailing list (like this FuseLetter) is more personal, and you can customize what you want to say (you can add messages to the NetMind mailing, but you can't write the whole thing), add all the links you want, and create a closer relationship with your readers.

IF THESE E-MAILS COULD TALK

I don't know about you, but I tend to use e-mail more than the phone these days. So when I can't get to my e-mail for whatever reason (the ISP is down or I'm traveling and can't connect), it's frustrating. Of course, to me it's frustrating to be in the car and not have e-mail, and I know this is a sickness, so we'll just move on.

Now there's MyTalk, a free service that read your e-mail to you over any phone. You call a toll-free number (from anywhere in the US) and you're greeted by a happy sounding virtual woman who responds to voice commands (I'll bet money that women who use the service would pay just have to have a man who'd respond to voice commands :), who turns you over to the more usual robotic-sounding-man who reads your e-mail. You can reply to your e-mail by talking. It doesn't type it up for you, instead, it records your voice and sends it as an e-mail attachment.

I tried it and it works pretty well. The voice replies aren't that big (a 15 second reply was about 80K) and the whole system is voice activated. It's easy to use, and it's free. You can also use this as a web-based e-mail service, just as you'd use ExciteMail, YahooMail or WhateverMail (please don't e-mail me if you can't find whatevermail.com). You can even place free two-minute calls to anywhere within the US (though it hangs up without warning).

Mytalk will even check your existing "POP3" (that's the kind most people use) mail account, so you can have it read your regular mail, as well as mail going to your @mytalk.com address. Or it can page you when you receive mail.

So how's all this free? Well, you guessed it-ads. And not just ads on the site, since it's reading your mail, of course it's also going to read the ads. This isn't so bad, really, it's kind of like listening to the radio. The ads are generally under 30 seconds.

I've tried it and it's interesting, and would be really useful for people who travel a lot (I set up an account for my niece, the flight attendant). I like the idea of having my e-mail read to me (like when I'm too lazy to actually open my eyes), and I even used this to have it proof-read an article by e-mailing it to myself, then hearing the robo-voice read it to me. So try it-it may not be perfect, but it does look like a preview of things to come.

WEB MIRACLE
FEED THE HUNGRY WITH JUST A CLICK

Here's a great idea. All you have to do is visit this site and click on the "Donate Free Food" button. When you do, a sponsoring corporation will make a donation to feed a starving person for one day. You can do this once a day, and it costs nothing to you personally.

This is a form of public relations for the sponsoring company. It gets their name in front of you and associates it with a good cause. It does not cost you anything to make this donation. So bookmark it, email all your friends about it, and visit it once a day!

One Final Word

Nap.

(I said it was just one final word, didn't I?)

DwH

 

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The SchoomozeLetter is ©1998-2005, Daniel Will-Harris, all rights reserved. If you'd like to use any article on the web or in print, please ask for permission. If you're an agent or publisher looking to publish these pieces, just drop me a note.