Friday, August 11, 2017

Amazon KDP survey: the improvements I suggested

So I received an email from Amazon's KDP program, asking me to take a short survey about the program. I've been using KDP for years, but in the past few months the Amazon self-publishing program has gotten a lot of grief from participants for rampant scams, ranging from ebook box set trickery to make money and establish "bestseller" status to bogus borrows and fishy promotions  gaming rank and revenue. The scams take money from readers as well as honest authors trying to play by the rules and publish good books.

But those aren't the only problems. When I was prompted with the following question, I had five specific suggestions:

Survey question: What would you like us to work on next that would improve your KDP experience?

My response:
  1. Get rid of transmission fees. This made sense when people downloaded books to their Kindles over 3G. Now that most downloads are wifi, it's a bogus charge that cheats authors and publishers.
  2. Stop using a misleading UI that tricks people into signing up for KDP Select.
  3. Please stop constant needling to lower prices.
  4. Please do a better job of screening out bogus authors using Wikipedia, Fiverr, or illegally copied sources to "write" books.
  5. Please find and punish people who are outright ripping off readers and other authors with scams and other tricks. It's not enough to remove their ranking. Kill their account and prevent them from opening up a new account tied to the same bank account. Money spent on these scams is not fair to readers or authors who are playing by the rules.
Did I miss anything?

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Visiting Taipei with kids: 4 places to go/things to see

A friend recently asked me about places to go in Taipei during a family visit. Here are my recommendations based on my own experience living in Taipei with my kids a few summers ago:

Taipei Maokong Gondola

Maokong Gondola (貓空纜車) -This is a fun little trip, a small cable car that goes up some hills with the last stop being a place where you get tea or some refreshments. Getting tickets they have English speaking people to help. Go on a weekday as the weekend it's packed. There's also one day it is closed for maintainence every week (maybe Monday or Tuesday) so check before you go. It's located at the last stop of the Taipei Muzha line, which is also where the Taipei Zoo is located (that's better for little kids, but this zoo also has a panda which may be interesting to adults as they are so rare). An image from the inside of the cable car is shown above.

Ximending (西門町): This is kind of the outdoor shopping area that a lot of young people go to. They have shops for hats, cute tchotchkes, souvenirs from Taiwan, and other stuff. There's also a very interesting minimall in Ximending at the Wannian Building (70 Xiníng South Road), close to Exit 6 of Ximen Station. It's 5 stories tall, and it's a warren of weird little shops selling everything from puzzles to military surplus to Japanese robot toys. The top floor is an arcade which is a good place for a 12 year old to kill an hour — the games are mostly Japanese, which are seldom seen outside of Japan.

Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) - this is a fantastic dumping restaurant, world famous! They have English menus. It really deserves its reputation. There are a bunch of them in Taipei, the ones I recommend are the original on Xinyi Rd or the Nanxi branch in the basement of the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store. There's also one in the Taipei 101 building (tallest building in Taiwan). Addresses are on the Din Tai Fung website.

Traditional night market - there are a bunch of them accessible from the subway or taxi. It's a great place to try different food or get cheap clothes although I have to admit if you don't have a Chinese-speaker with you it may be tough! A small one that is easier to walk around and has a small temple to visit is Raohe Street Night Market (饒河街觀光夜市) - directions here.

My Quick Taipei video from 10 years ago, introducing people to the city and surrounding hills:

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Henry Rollins on creativity and writing

There's an interview with Henry Rollins that writers and other creative people should read right now. If you were into punk and underground rock in the 1980s and early 1990s, you know Rollins from Black Flag and Rollins Band. Others might recognize him from a string of bit parts in TV shows and movies including Heat, The Chase, Johnny Mnemonic, and Sons of Anarchy.

In this interview, he mainly talks about writing. He has produced poetry, spoken word, and a memoir in the past, but it's not the content he's talking about, but rather the process of getting it out. It's very inspiring, and worth quoting here:

Rollins on writer's block:
if somebody ever says, “Well, what do you do about writer’s block?” I’m like, “I don’t think I’m a writer.” I don’t put any of those titles on myself, so I don’t acknowledge those pressures. Some days I got stuff, some days I don’t, and some days I write about the fact I got nothing to write about. But, I do try to write 1,000 words a day. It’s just like going to the gym. Some workouts are better than others. I think the less pressure you put on yourself, the better. In my opinion, it’d be hard to sit in a room and go, “Okay, damnit. Be creative.”
On sleep:
The power nap is very instrumental in what I do. I take like one or two four to seven minute naps a day. I can sit in the chair in my office right in front of my computer and knock out for a solid four to six minutes and then wake up like “boom!”… Usually at the end of the day, I’ll do another one of those right before I work out. I can skip it, but I feel groggy on the treadmill if I don’t.

On distractions:

if I’m awake, I need to be doing something. Even if it’s nothing, I’m working in that nothingness. I usually have a notepad on any flat surface where I am because there’s always a note to take down, an idea to come up with, a thing to do later. I’m rarely doing nothing.

That’s why I don’t have a TV. Because I will watch it. I know I’m susceptible....
I think it’s important if you’re a creative person, or aspire to be, that you don’t spend too much time aspiring or asking advice. Just get going and address what’s roaring inside you.

On his own work:
When something’s done, I’ll go, “Okay, cool,” and I’ll shelve it, and I’ll rejoice that the damn thing is done and my desktop is empty so I can fill it with the next project. I’m a shipbuilder. I don’t want to sail in them. I want you to sail in them. I’m just happy that they leave the harbor so I can have an empty workplace. And the glee of getting the component parts and starting from scratch starts all over again, and we build the next ark.

On aging and output:

Someone once said that when you buy a book, you’re not really buying the book—you’re buying the time you think you’ll have to read it. It’s like all those records you say you’ll listen to some day, but that day never comes. 50 finds you real fast. Like, you’re 28, and all of a sudden, you’re 50. It happens so fast. And that “woulda, coulda, shoulda”? You better do it while you still have knees. You better do it before you start getting up and everything pops and clicks because, man, it changes....

I always have like five books going at once. That anyone will read them, that’d be cool. But I’m not making them to get read; I’m making them to get them out of me. You gotta do something with your life. You can watch TV. You can inhale cocaine. Or you can sit down and write, or sing, or jump up and down, whatever it is. It’s all just choices. So much of this is just committing to the time and the discipline and the agony of creativity—because it turns on you all the time.
What a great interview. It's long, but it's worth reading through and savoring. I especially like that "shipbuilder" quote. But I hate to say that I don't know much of Rollins recent work. My main touch points for Rollins are his music and some of his spoken word stuff from the 1980s; I did not know he has continued his high rate of creative output to the present time (I had a vague idea he does radio stuff but I don't follow it). I will try to make a point of reading some of his books in the near future (if I can make the time ...) (Edited to add: He has literally scores of books on Amazon. Incredible!)

One point of context that's worth mentioning: In the early 1980s he was part of one of the most prolific small teams that ever existed in the music industry: Black Flag (Rollins, guitarist Ginn, drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Kira Roessler) and their producer "Spot." From 1984-85 they released four full-length albums and toured incessantly. Even after the band broke up the individual members continued to produce, produce, produce. Rollins started Rollins Band and did poetry books and spoken word tours as well. Ginn ran SST records and did some other bands. There's a documentary about Bill Stevenson which shows how he kept up this crazy pace with ALL and Descendents and other recording projects to the present day. Roessler was part of a sound editing team that won an Oscar for their work on Mad Max: Fury Road. These people are incredibly prolific and creative in their own right, and when they came together it was a very intense period of output.

Anyone who is interested in the history of Black Flag and other seminal creative teams of the alternative/underground music scene of the 1980s (Minor Threat, Mission of Burma, The Replacements, Fugazi, Minutemen, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Butthole Surfers ...) should read Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. He conducted some solid research and got many of the key players to talk to him, and the book is a great read. He made an observation that these bands were in many respects entrepreneurial ventures, albeit operating with only creative capital and bootstrapped energy. Quoting from Azzerad's interview with The Paris Review:
The most lasting significance of the eighties American indie scene might have been the way these bands conducted their careers. The point wasn’t to play loud and fast; the point was to make the music they wanted to make, without compromise, to find and cultivate an audience for it, and to live within their means so they could continue to do exactly what they wanted to do and not be beholden to anyone but themselves. That’s really what the best indie bands today are emulating.

Also, much of what the bands in this book did was to make very unconventional music that attracted unconventional people—or maybe even showed conventional people a different mode of thinking. Not necessarily because of anything in the lyrics, but just because of how challenging and unorthodox the music was."

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Generation guitar fades away

Bloomberg has a story about Fender guitars that contained an interesting statistic: 90% of people who pick up a guitar abandon it within a year. The article suggests that people don't have the stamina to stick with it, even pointing out that "Steel strings hurt delicate hands."

I think there's something else going on. I heard an interesting theory from a friend in the music business, who said that high-quality PC and console videogames caused a seismic shift beginning in the 1990s, as teens gravitated to an immersive, often collaborative indoor activity.

If gaming (or apps, social media, whatever) are drawing away a large population of teens, not only are fewer people picking up a guitar or drumsticks but the number of available local bandmates declines, further weakening the allure of playing music. It makes a big difference if you have friends who also play. If your peers aren't doing it, music is more likely to be a solo activity which is not as much fun.

Another factor: from the 1950s to the early 2000s pop music heroes more often than not could also play guitar. I grew up in the 80s, and learned to play bass starting at age 16 by intently listening to cassettes of The Beatles, Who, Led Zep, U2, REM and the Sex Pistols so I could play with my friends and explore a new dimension of the music I loved.

I was never a hotshot player, but was competent at both the bass and rhythm guitar and played in lots of cover and original bands through my late teens and 20s in Boston and Taipei including The Fit (1986-87), The Dudes (1988-1990), Uckfay (1989-1990), Mr. O (1989-1990), The Librarianz (1993-1994), The Von Stainz and Swampus (1994-1996), Vine (1995), The M-9s (1995-1996), Feiwu/廢物樂隊 (1997-1999), Three-Ten (2000), and (briefly) Ambush at Junction Rock (2000). Some of my best friends today are people I played with decades ago, and one band, Feiwu, had two reunion shows in 2013.

My tween & teen kids have almost no interest in guitar-based pop music, although my daughter's middle school music curriculum included a segment on "90s music" which later prompted her to ask me, "Dad, did you know there was a song about a sweater unraveling?" (man, that made me feel old). They do listen to modern-day pop music, though, and sometimes to pop from previous decades that is not guitar-centric (Michael Jackson, etc.)

On the other hand, the apps and other tools that are now available to everyone--not to mention the ability to connect with like-minded people--can spark different types of musical creativity, collaboration, and insights. I did a double take a few months ago while listening to a radio interview with Philip Glass and my son casually remarked that one of his pieces from the late 1960s "sounds like 'My Singing Monsters'." I hope my kids do get interested in creating music and find an opportunity to collaborate, but I accept that it may not involve rock music.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The new MIT Sloan logo and the alumni #nogologo campaign

(Updated with "final" logo in July 2016, see details at the bottom of the post) In late March, alumni of the MIT Sloan School of Management received an email from the school about the new branding. It included a logo sample. While the school obviously spent a lot of time and effort on this, the reaction I have seen from alumni has been mostly negative. There is even a social media campaign to get it changed (more on #nogologo below).

Before I get into the logo issue, I would like to point out that I have been blogging about MIT/MIT Sloan-related matters for years. I generally try to give a balanced, reasoned appraisal of the issues at hand, which you can see in some of my earlier posts such as MIT Sloan Fellows: One semester down, two to go and MIT Executive MBA gets a name change and An encounter with Tim Berners-Lee and the Semantic Web. I have tried to do the same with the following post, even though there is a fair amount of frustration in some quarters.

To start, I think it would be helpful to take a look at the old logo (sorry, I don't have anything bigger) to understand what Sloan used to have for branding:

Old MIT Sloan logo
Old logo

Here's the new logo:
New MIT Sloan logo and the #nogologo campaign
New MIT Sloan logo

Here's what the announcement to alumni said:
Three years ago, we kicked off a branding effort to tell our story, and clarify what makes MIT Sloan unique. We began by gathering quantitative and qualitative insights from our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. We then surveyed the global business community to understand their perceptions of MIT Sloan. Articulations as to our difference ranged across respondents. But what became clear across the board was that being the management school of MIT was a point of distinction—inextricable from our leaders and our work.

From this data, we were inspired to celebrate how our community lives our mission statement as leaders who improve the world, generate ideas that advance management practice—and, true to the Institute’s motto of “mens et manus”—translate thinking into action. We demonstrate that smart is our baseline. Collaboration is our cultural norm. And that solving the world’s toughest problems isn’t a lofty ideal, but our preferred reality.

Our new brand embraces this momentum and difference as MIT’s management school. Our logo illustrates the connection between the School and Institute as the fuel for innovation. Our message elevates ideas made to matter—the inventions of our brilliant minds and nimble hands working out in the world, and for it.

As we’ve started sharing the brand concepts and pillars, many of which are reflected in this brief note, we've heard that they resonate with our community's experience of MIT Sloan, and with our feelings about our School. Who we are, what we do, and how we lead continues to be what the world needs and wants. We are everywhere the future is being made, and everywhere ideas are made to matter.

We wanted you to be among the first to see our new brand. You’ll see it represented in upcoming communications and events. But more than that, we hope you’ll see yourself in it. We certainly do.
It was signed by MIT Sloan's Senior Associate Dean for External Relations and International Programs.

My take:

I believe it is time for a change to the branding of MIT Sloan. The old logo looked conservative, like a stately stone monument (the domed building is part of MIT's classic campus, built in the early 1900s). It looked appropriate for a top business school going up against Harvard Business School, the traditional powerhouse a few miles upriver.

But Sloan is not a monument. It's a dynamic business school that is part of the greatest institute of learning and building and innovation and discovery that the world has ever known. The branding should reflect this reality!

To that end, the new MIT Sloan logo got one thing right: The "MIT" graphic element looks more futuristic and forward-looking. Indeed, I think the new MIT Sloan logo better reflects MIT's core identity, rather than a conservative "business school" identity that is separate from the institute. That's a pretty important distinction, although I have to acknowledge that not all Sloanies agree with me (check the comments below the petition, linked further down the page).

There is also a major problem with the new MIT Sloan logo: the text below the graphic logo.  MANAGEMENT/SLOAN SCHOOL is awkward and reads poorly. It looks like of mishmash of concepts and words that a design committee insisted be shoehorned into the new identity, rather than a message or brand that is focused. 

For what it's worth, MIT has its own logo that looks very different from the old Sloan logo. Here's the version of the MIT logo that was used when I was a student there (and is still used today):
MIT logo
There were other MIT logos that used to be rotated on the homepage -- I am not sure if they were experiments, or just something special for the home page, but they were interesting. All were nonstandard, bright, suggesting science or digital or data or a new way of looking at the world. I liked them. Similarly, I like the top part of the new MIT Sloan logo, which follows this model.

What do other alumni think of the new MIT Sloan logo?

The response I have seen on Facebook has been savage. Lots of people think that the graphic element looks like M/T rather than MIT. Many people in my class say they preferred the old logo. On Facebook and Twitter, there is now a #nogologo campaign to get the new MIT Sloan logo changed.

Someone even created a petition to Dean Schmittlein (whose background is marketing) calling for the new logo to be amended. Here are the objections:
Key critiques are (1) logo represents M/T rather than MIT, (2) grammatically wrong "M/T Management Sloan School" and (3) distances us from M.I.T. brand which is a crucial part of our heritage. The logo does not reflect the true Sloan nature.
It's up to nearly 400 1,000 signatures so far.

However, I have seen some comments by current Sloan students who indicate that they accept the new logo, awkward phrasing and all. Someone in the comments section of this blog post also said that many alumni like the new logo.

Regardless, if the outrage continues, the controversy promises to become a negative distraction.  Alumni clearly want a brand identity to rally around, and the current iteration of the new logo isn't it for a large number of us.

Update: July 7 2016

Sloan sent out a message two days ago with the email subject line "MIT Sloan Branding Initiative: Final Logo." In it, a new version of the logo was included:

The message included with the final logo said:

I am writing to you with an update on MIT Sloan’s Branding Initiative and share with you the final version of one element of the School’s branding work. After a year of experimentation and input, the School feels strongly that this version highlights core elements of a broad and bold strategy for MIT Sloan that focuses on amplifying our point of true distinction and differentiation: the School’ connection to the world’s greatest research institution.

For those of you who have shared your input along the way, thank you.  As we move forward with our work, we look forward to your continued partnership in advancing the mission and visibility of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Notification of this logo update will be shared with the broader alumni community in ENews, our online alumni publication, and on our website shortly.  

Clearly, the school took the "M/T" criticism seriously, but the wording still looks strange and people who preferred the old logo will not be satisfied.

Feel free to leave your comments below.