mrmerlot.com is now evercurious

After much debate, mrmerlot.com has moved to its new home here at evercurious. All posts have been ported over and visitors are encouraged to update their bookmarks.

The decision to move is not very glamorous. Mrmerlot.com was set up as a site to offer musings, insights, and repostings from various domains. The moniker “mrmerlot” was originally chosen as a Twitter username and was a convenient domain name. It reflected both the “blend” of topics on the site (as merlot grapes are often blended with other grapes) and as a reflection of the bourgeois nature of the site (as merlot is often sneered at by wine snobs).

However, the name also seemed to erroneously attract Googlers and others looking for a site about wine. This confusion cannot be placed on the user, obviously, so an effort was made to identify a new domain name.

evercurious came out of the realization that the topics posted to the site are a reflection of, and encouragement toward, a curiosity of the world we live in. From technology to education, health to art, entertainment to science, posts steer readers toward things that are changing our world or are being changed by it.

Hopefully this transition goes smoothly. There is no site logo or theme setup as of yet and since there’s no SEO or Google ranking to speak of, there won’t be much that falls through the cracks. Please provide comments or feedback (on this post) about the new site name or what you’d like to see more/less of moving forward.

And, as always, stay curious!

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As one social bookmarking service fades away, another gladly takes up the reins!

Read a follow-up post outlining the advantages of Diigo over Delicious.

This past week, many tech media outlets reported that the social bookmarking service delicious.com was going away (see here for example). They based the story on a leaked internal Yahoo! presentation showing delicious in a “sunset” column (sunset is the IT project management term for retiring a technology). After a huge outcry from loyal delicious users, the delicious blog posted the following:

…we are not shutting down Delicious. While we have determined that there is not a strategic fit at Yahoo!, we believe there is a ideal home for Delicious outside of the company where it can be resourced to the level where it can be competitive…

This seems like a paltry attempt to try and retain users in the hopes they can salvage some market worth for whomever is considering acquiring the service. On the other hand, since Yahoo! acquired the service, no real innovation has been made, so sticking with the site may be good for users.

Unfortunately, I don’t think many will stay around.

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“Flip-thinking” movie production: engage the fans, build the funds

I’m watching and participating in a fascinating experiment unfold in the movie industry. The main character in this case is Donald Miller, author of a number of best-selling books on life and nontraditional Christian faith.

The first book I read by Miller was Blue Like Jazz. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. BLJ instantly hooked me on his take of the modern church and his journey of faith. In a series of essays, Miller discusses events from his life and how they impacted, or were impacted by, his faith and involvement with church. His journey is, at times, thoughtful, funny, sad, and inspiring. Occasionally, all at the same time.

But this story is about more than just a great book being transformed into a movie. It’s about witnessing what might be the next major shift in the film industry. A shift that includes putting fans back at the center of the process and flipping the way they interact with films.

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“Flip thinking”: Turning business and education models upside-down

In an Telegraph article from 12 September titled Think Tank: Flip-thinking – the new buzz word sweeping the US, Dan Pink tells the story of Karl Fisch, a math teacher-turned school district technologist-turned math teacher again (due to budget cuts). In the article, Pink tells the story of how Fisch is taking a novel approach to teaching in his public school classroom. Pink certainly wastes no words in this article, packing it full of ideas for a wide range of industries.

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Best web apps for Internet Neophytes? [your help needed!]

Picture this: You’re in a room filled with very smart, very talented, very knowledgeable individuals. You’re teaching them about the latest in Enteprise 2.0 tools – wikis, blogs, RSS, social bookmarking, social networking. You’re explaining the advent of “Web 2.0,” the rise of the prosumer, and how all these tools have changed the way people interact and the way we capture and retrieve knowledge. You get head nods, some skeptical looks, and some glassy-eyed individuals who, as you get into the technical how-to of the first tool asks…

“What’s a URL?”

Oh, OK, so you’re not familiar with web technology (that’s over a decade old)… I can explain that…

“Exactly what does a ‘web browser’ do?”

Hmm, now I’m getting a bit worried. You’re not familiar with what a web browser is? OK, deep breaths, we’ll get through this together...

“What’s a right-click?”

<groan> Uh-oh. Better step back and take this a little more s-l-o-w-l-y.

That’s the position I was in recently. Working with obviously smart folks who had been so consumed by their areas of of expertise (or management), that the world of technology had passed them going 100MPH. For some, that happened five years ago, for others, ten. These are folks who still think one wrong keystroke is going to crash their computer, that computers are “scary” and fragile, and hard to use. These is the digital immigrant crowd which is a far cry from the four digital natives I come home to (ages 8 mos to 6 yrs) who, in a matter of minutes, learned how to use my iPod Touch as well as me.

I’ve watched as the browser has become the key (or only) “application” you need to launch, as more applications move to the web, and as user interfaces for these various systems becomes more intuitive, friendly, and consistent. But I’ve been watching. The students in my classes haven’t.

And so it was with relief when the lightbulb went off that I needed to create an 3 hour introductory hands-on web workshop to help students become familiar with what many of those reading this post would consider mainstream or even passe. This would help them understand the nature and capabilities of the collaborative tools on the intranet.

Because the very nature of the Web is that of an ebb and flow, deciding which sites to highlight is difficult and has changed frequently in the short time I’ve taught the class. So I need your input…

What are the absolute, essential, can-not-miss web sites/applications you feel an “Internet N00b” should be familiar with? I’m not talking the latest-and-greatest (though services like Google’s Buzz could be considered). Below, I’ve listed the ones we currently teach to, but I encourage you to critique this list in the comments.

Social and Collaborative Web Sites for the Internet Neophyte

  • Gmail. Arguably, the most popular and best email service on the web.
    • Key points: ISP-independent email address; integration with other Google Apps (one account, many sites); lightweight
  • Google Maps. Once a rival to Mapquest, has become the de facto standard for getting directions.
    • Key points: Free maps, integrated with Android mobile operating system, allows users to add photos, create custom maps, and recommend changes.
  • Google Docs. Online creation and storage of common files. Don’t worry, we’re just getting warmed up with this Google fan-boy love.
    • Key points: Creating sharable documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; work collaboratively with other authors; create web-based forms that feed data in Excel-exportable spreadsheets.
  • Wikipedia. Accuracy arguments notwithstanding, this pinnacle of crowdsourcing is still enviable.
    • Key points: Anyone can edit, uses MediaWiki which is open sourced, grew bigger and faster than its predecessor Nupedia.
  • Flickr. The go-to photo sharing site for many.
    • Key points: Anyone can upload photos; tags link photos with similar photos; users can subscribe to get updates from users or albums.
  • YouTube. Like Flickr, but for videos…
    • Key points: Similar to Flickr, anyone can upload; tags help you find similar videos; users can subscribe to other users, tags, channels; videos can be embedded in blog posts.
  • Google Reader. The power of RSS and subscribing to web content so it “comes to you.”
    • Key points: So much new content, RSS helps you filter and “dial in” the information you want to get; integrated with Google Translate, which automatically translates web sites in foreign languages.
  • Twitter. Still the king of microblogging/messaging.
    • Key points: Used to transmit links, thoughts, “lifestreaming”; unlike Facebook, Twitter is asymmetrical; can use GPS location data; integrated with Google Translate to convert “tweets” into your language; URL shorteners are handy, but you need to exercise caution lest a rogue user (or hacked account) links to a malware site.
  • Facebook. The monster of social networking sites for the US, despite changing privacy settings recently and removing…privacy.
    • Key points: A quick way to connect and maintain “weak ties”; set your privacy settings appropriately; be careful of what you share and who you friend.
  • Delicious. Store all your web bookmarks on a web site instead of inside your browser.
    • Key points: Allows you to access from work, home, anywhere!; tags provide more flexibility than folders; tags provide for maximum discovery; use RSS to keep track of all new bookmarks saved by  another user or saved to a tag.

Your turn! Which of these should I dump or replace and which ones need to go on the agenda?

ebooks: price + DRM = piracy + waste

amazon_kindle_2As the recent owner of an amazon Kindle ebook reader , I’m thrilled with the ability to carry and read thousands of books in a tiny little device. The screen is crystal clear and easy on the eyes. The wireless and note-taking capabilities are handy features, too.

Yet while ebook readers and electronic distribution of books and other published material offers convenience and environmental advantages, ebook DRM irresponsibly encourages both piracy and waste.

Falling costs

book costs

According to general estimates, most of the costs traditionally associated with the publishing industry vaporize in the digital age. Notice how all of the various components are nullified with ebooks except for author royalties and retailer profit. If we assume $10 for a paperback, this means about $2.00 ends up going to the author, publisher, and retailer as profit. Everything else is to cover the costs.

If eliminating production and distribution costs of printed materials means reduced costs (as well as a greener earth), why aren’t these savings passed along to consumers? Like the music, software, and gaming industries, piracy will be the natural alternative to those who balk at the illogically high prices of ebooks.

Ownership

Digital ownership has plagued every industry in recent years. Music, movies, software, and games have all experimented unsuccessfully with digital rights management (DRM) to control the distribution of digital goods. But all of these models are inherently flawed.

Think about it: many current ebooks cost about $10. This may seem reasonable until you realize that for $10, you’re purchasing a book that you don’t really own. Like iTunes songs, an amazon ebook includes DRM which ties it to your account and your Kindle. This means that when I buy a book on amazon, I’m stuck with it. Unlike the $15 paper book I could purchase and then give awayresell, or even loan to a friend, my digital copy is mine forever. Heaven forbid I decide to switch ebook readers in the future and have to abandon (or repurchase) all of my ebooks (which would likely be equally locked to the new reader).

Remember the library?

I honestly find very few books worth purchasing, simply because I don’t tend to re-read many tomes (Lord of the Rings trilogy notwithstanding). Why hasn’t anyone figured out a secure and convenient way to connect with public libraries to borrow books (that people actually want to read) on a Kindle?

The current model for ebooks encourages waste in an already disposable-focused society. When I buy a physical book, I try to get it used rather than new, both for cost savings and to contribute to “reuse” over waste. From both the buyer’s and seller’s perspective, the used book economy is equally wonderful: I buy a book, enjoy it, then sell it to someone else for a discount (good for them) and recoup some of my investment (good for me). However, with the Kindle, once I’m done reading the latest Grisham novel, my only option is to delete it from my device.

The Inevitable Solution

Barnes & Noble’s announcement this week of their new ebook reader, the nook, encouraged me. The nook matches most of the capabilities of the Kindle, but raises the stakes with the option to lend ebooks to other nook and iPhone/iPod Touch users. This, I feel, is a step forward for ebook users, but there is still much ground to cover. For example, you can only lend an ebook for 14 days. Why? Why can’t I set my own timeframe?

One thing I’ve pondered is, “Why don’t I have the same problem with digital music?” The simple answer is that I just don’t want to get rid of music like I used to. Back when I bought full albums just to enjoy two tracks, I quickly tired of it and sold it used. By purchasing individual tracks from iTunes or amazon, however, I’ve found that I’m much more satisfied with my collection.

Until the book industry figures out a better model of digital ownership, I can only imagine that users will turn to one of two methods:

  1. Skirting legitimacy by hacking the DRM out of their ebooks, or
  2. Avoiding legitimacy through outright piracy.

I would hope that with the brilliant technological minds of the 21st century, someone can invent a non-evil DRM method with which I can legally and easily transfer ownership to someone else.

Change your stories, challenge your stereotypes [TED talk]

In a TED talk, novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells her story of growing up in middle-class Nigeria and confronting her own stereotypes. She talks about how the “stories” she grew up with impacted her perception of the world and how she’s seen similar biases in people and cultures around the world.

Her story challenged me to expand my own story collection and examine my stereotypes. Too often, the media bombards us with a single perspective that begins to form a picture of a country or people group that is lopsided. Recently my church launched an initiative called “Greater Things.” Part of this initiative is to launch the Hope Partnership to partner our church with four organizations that are targeting the issues of HIV/AIDS and the plight of orphans and widows in the countries of Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya. This is a beautiful and admirable goal and I’m excited to see the impact it has.

Yet, as with many other stories of Africa, this continues to reinforce my image of that continent as one plagued with poverty, disease, and destitution. Yet there is so much more to Africa than just those in dire straits!

In fact, I’m challenged by my public school education and its focus on an Americentric/Eurocentric take on world history. As my wife and I homeschool our kids, we’re purposefully seeking out resources and curriculum that provide a more balanced view of history and the events that have shaped the world.

Chimamanda’s talk is engaging, humorous, and often convicting. Enjoy!

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Stop “rewarding” me and just leave me alone!

In a TED talk that is very persuasive, Washington, D.C. author and speaker Dan Pink explains why traditional forms of reward and punishment do not actually improve productivity for the modern organization. Citing scientific studies, Pink illustrates how rewards improve only the most basic and repetitive of task output; tasks which are typically automated or outsourced to low-skilled labor. High thought work, on the other hand, is negatively impacted when rewards for performance are introduced.

This should – but probably won’t – have a big impact on recent pushes for “pay for performance” in both the U.S. government and the public school systems. What do you think? Do you find yourself nodding along as you hear Pink’s research and analytic conclusions? Or are you comfortable and satisfied with your current compensation structure?

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

SharePoint is not enterprise 2.0 [a zen moment]

Update 9 Sept: This post refers to the out of the box version of SharePoint. It does not apply to highly customized deployments which basically use SharePoint as the content management system backend.

That’s right. No bolding. No ALL CAPS. Just a simple statement of fact: SharePoint is not enterprise 2.0. I reached this zen moment and it only took six hours of exploring a test site alongside a SharePoint expert for me to get there. At hour six, I realized two things:

  1. The structure of SharePoint is based on the fact that people within an organization inherently do not trust one another.
  2. SharePoint plays by the Vegas mantra: What goes on in SharePoint stays in SharePoint.

While it is fine for some types of file management and communication, organizations wanting to evolve to more efficient knowledge management processes should not use SharePoint as the primary platform. “Enterprise 2.0” is supposed to be different from its “1.0” predecessor. It should help transform and evolve the way an organization’s approach to knowledge management and collaboration. Instead, SharePoint enables the old and broken ways of doing business.

It’s not that I don’t trust you…oh wait, yes it is.

It took two hours for me to fully explore and understand the convoluted permissions structure. I’m tech savvy and have worked with a number of platforms that include permissions management, but none have offered as robust a way to micromanage an individual’s every move in the space. There’s something wrong with the design of a supposed enterprise 2.0 application if that much time is devoted to teaching how to keep people out.

Back in March, Thomas Vander Wal wrote about how SharePoint is a “Gateway Drug to Enterprise Social Tools” in which he pointed out

SharePoint does some things rather well, but it is not a great tool (or even passable tool) for broad social interaction inside enterprise related to the focus of Enterprise 2.0. SharePoint works well for organization prescribed groups that live in hierarchies…this is not where organizations are moving to and trying to get to with Enterprise 2.0 mindsets and tools. The new approach is toward embracing the shift toward horizontal organizations, open sharing, self-organizing groups around subjects that matter to individuals as well as the organization.

SharePoint typifies the conundrum many organizations face when looking to improve their knowledge management sharing across groups: Do you want to harness the collective wisdom of your organization OR do you want to keep your information locked down? Logically, you can’t have both.

One size fits…none.

Dion Hinchcliff, in a 2007 post on the state of enterprise 2.0 states, “Enterprise 2.0 is more a state of mind than a product you can purchase” and emphasizes that a solid strategy can include but not be limited to the use of SharePoint.

Microsoft markets SharePoint as a “one stop shop”  for the social enterprise needs. Like other one stop shops, this one promises more than it can deliver. Far from being everything to everyone, the standard out-of-the-box SharePoint is nothing more than a file manager, calendar, workflow manager, and discussion board. Where’s the wiki? The blogs (yes, plural)? (Update 10 September: I have since re-discovered the suboptimal wiki and blog functionality that is prepackaged with SharePoint.) Since the plugins are expensive and cumbersome to integrate, you’d think it would be easy to create links to knowledge in other collaborative platforms. But no,  SharePoint…

penaltyDoesn’t play well with others.

Beyond this human approach to choosing and using a knowledge platform, however, is the technical limitations of SharePoint. Because it works only within its own ecosystem, SharePoint essentially keeps your data hostage. This alone can’t discredit it as being non-2.0 since other commercial platforms like Traction TeamPage do the same thing. Heck, even Facebook is an all-in-nothing-out kind of site, but there’s no way the Facebook isn’t 2.0, right? (right?)

This is antithetical to the way the web works and the way intranet should work. I should be allowed to create interdependencies between various social enterprise tools rather than have to only choose from a limited menu of plugins.

Again, Vander Wal pointed out that

…information is locked in SharePoint micro-silos and it is nearly impossible to easily reuse that information and share it. Not only is the information difficult to get at by people desiring to collaborate … it is not easily unlocked so that it can benefit from found in search.

As SP began as a web-based file manager, it shocked me to learn that when you edit or move a document loaded onto a SP site, the links are only updated from within SharePoint. Any links to documents from outside the SP site – say, from a blog, wiki page, or even an email – will be broken the first time the document is edited.

Microsoft – as is it’s style – even engages in monopolistic behavior since SharePoint is all but useless when using any web browser besides Internet Explorer. Gone are the days when proprietary standards were in vogue (were they ever, really?). Microsoft doesn’t seem to get that browser interoperability is what is needed and wanted, even at the enterprise level.

Let’s review, shall we?

To avoid seeming like I’m bashing poor SharePoint, let me quickly review what I’ve learned about the platform and compare it against what many still point to as the standards for judging enterprise 2.0 options: Andrew McAfee’s SLATES model:

  • Search. Good for local sites but fail enterprise-wide. Since SP excels at establishing (or maintaining) stovepipes, even discovering that the information exists is near to completely impossible.
  • Links. Nope, not from outside the SP site anyway.
  • Authorship. Nuh-uh. The key words here are “every” and “easy,” neither of which apply to working with SP.
  • Tags. Complete fail. SP is hierarchical and rigid when it comes to putting data in. And since the SP admins dictate the structure, if you’re a user, you’re stuck.
  • Extensions. Hmm, sort of, but only within your SP fiefdom.
  • Signals. Again, if you’re in, you’re in. Notifications are sent to other users of the same SP site.

So here’s your challenge: prove me wrong. Explain why SharePoint in your organization is the best thing since sliced bread. Tell me how it has transformed knowledge sharing, expert finding, reduced redundancy, increased creativity, and generally jazzes your workforce about using it.

<crickets>

I thought so.

Throwing Money away [personal finance]

trash_moneyNo, not throwing away money as in cash, tossing Microsoft Money as my financial software. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that they would discontinue the popular software Money after June 30, 2009.

I’ve used Money for many years but lately I’ve been increasingly frustrated with it, so I’m not sorry to see it go. Furthermore, this is finally getting me to move to a fully online solution – a decision I’ve putting off but which will offer me much more flexibility for how, when, and where I can access my account information.

But what options do I have for web-based financial management? A financially-minded (and savvy) colleague of mine recommended yodlee.com and mint.com. Others, like Geezeo, are still too immature for me to invest much time in.

I had tried Mint about a year ago and I found the interface clean and easy-to-use. But I was ultimately dissatisfied by several of its features – or, more appropriately, lack of features. Mint wouldn’t let me create my own categories and subcategories, it wouldn’t let me split transactions into multiple categories (like those from Target or Costco), and it wouldn’t let me add accounts such as my mortgage, 401(k), and IRA. A year or so later, most of these discrepancies are still there. The one feature I thought was clever about Mint was that it analyzed your spending and suggested ways to save money. Unfortunately, all of the suggestions it provided me were useless, so I’m not too upset to forego that feature. Pass.

Yodlee, as it turns out, has been around since at least 2002 and serves as the “data layer” for Mint and many of the major online banking sites (like Bank of America). This means that all of Mint’s data goes through and comes from Yodlee – saying you’re secure and having a customer base to prove it are very different. I’m confident, in fact, that my data is safer on Yodlee than on my home PC (which has succumbed to numerous crashes). While not as pretty as Mint, it’s functionality more than makes up for it.

The main area that Yodlee trumps Mint on is the variety of accounts it keeps track of. Mint can manage bank accounts and credit cards, whereas Yodlee literally keeps track of everything – banks, credit cards, investments (stocks, 401k, etc…), frequent flier/loyalty accounts and very, very usefully billing accounts – that is, companies that you need to pay off like utilities, cable and cellphone companies. It shows you all in one convenient place all the bills that you need to pay, how much you owe and when it’s due. The budgeting and automated weekly and monthly reporting by email features are also outstanding.

After the initial setup (like finding records for an audit, gathering all the usernames and passwords for the various web sites was painful), Yodlee has worked flawlessly for me save for one missing feature: the ability to reconcile my accounts with my receipts. I have found a workaround and provided feedback to Yodlee, but this discrepancy will not keep me from staying with the service.

What do you use to manage your finances? Do you trust the online banking services or do you prefer a desktop application (it would seem Quicken would be one of your only choices now)?