Claudia’s Comment

Years ago, we visited Enrico’s cousins in Montecchio Maggiore, a small town near Verona. We went to see the local attractions, the castles of Romeo and Juliet (yes, the original Romeo and Juliet), up on two small hills above the town. Riding in the car with us was Claudia, a very intelligent ten-year-old, who had noticed that lots of Americans come to Italy as tourists.

“Why do they come here?” she asked. “What do they get here that they can’t get at home?”

“Well,” I explained, “America is a very young country. They don’t have the millennia of history, the buildings, art, and so on, that you have in Italy. So they like to come and see it here.”

“Ah,” said Claudia thoughtfully. “You mean they come here because of a lack of culture in their own country?”

Online Marketing

… if that’s the right term. I’ve been doing something online for about years now, but I’m not sure what to call it. Is it marketing? Customer service? Tech support? It’s hard to define because it partakes of all of these – and that’s a clue to what makes it effective. My resumé lists the details of what I’ve been doing; more explanations and thoughts are here, and on the other pages in this section (links on the left).

The Making of an Online Career

Riding the Cluetrain

I first heard about the Cluetrain Manifesto from a customer who thought my style a good example of how a company could put the manifesto into practice. Which is a great compliment, since I had evolved this style based on what I felt was right for the company and comfortable for me personally. But, from a corporate point of view, what’s the ROI in riding the Cluetrain? The Cluetrain site doesn’t provide any case studies.

What the Gurus Are Saying

Brand New Branding: “Forget what you knew about branding. The Web changes everything. Four experts explain how and why” – Darwin magazine, July 2001

scott bedbury: “The Web has increased the consuming public’s ability to rant or rave about a company or service. Smart companies now recognize the necessity of being responsive to the criticisms, in real-time, and of making sure the brand is consistent€”and is as good as it can be€”wherever it shows up, and even after the sale has been made. The tools the salespeople use to sell it, public relations efforts and follow-up customer service all must reflect brand values and impart a consistent brand image. ”

regis mckenna: “The Internet is not a broadcast medium like television. It is much more of a service medium in which you allow people to interact and exchange information with you.

john hagel: “…they’d think, ‘No product is perfect. You mean my customers are going to talk with each other about my product’s flaws?’ Then I would say, ‘I’ll go on the Web and find at least five discussion forums where people are actively discussing your products and services.’ The point is, this is not a choice. It is going to happen. The only choice you have is how to participate in that discussion.

© 2001 Darwin magazine


Unless you’re a horsey type, you may never have heard of this sport, though it’s now an Olympic event (in most countries it’s hard to get full TV coverage of equestrian events even at the Olympic level). Classic dressage is so quiet and dignified that you don’t realize how hard it is: the horse walks, trots, and canters precise figures, and shows off fancy paces, while the rider doesn’t appear to be doing much at all.

Dressage to music is an update for our stimulus-craving age. The movements and figures are the same, but are choreographed to music. Choosing the music turns out to be a complicated business: as explained on a site I found (no longer available), you have to find pieces that suit your horse’s paces and your own style, without getting on the judges’ nerves. And you have to put together a medley to cover at least the three basic tempos of walk, trot, and canter. This should ideally be done with some musical judgement and skill, and I found several sites offering to do it as a service. One site comments: “I now do all the mixing on computer and output to CD, which is 100 times easier [than tape] – don’t quite know how I managed before.”

I would love to see a live competition of dressage to music, but so far I have only seen the video of last year’s world championship finals. The athleticism and grace of the pairs was exhilarating to watch, but I was disappointed in the music: mostly tinkly versions of soft pop music (Neil Diamond must make a fortune every year in royalties from sporting events). It’s the kind of music so calculated to offend nobody that it grates considerably on my nerves, and must irritate the judges as well, if they have any musical sensibility at all.

After a number of these irritations, it was the turn of a pair from Germany: a robust gentleman with an impressive mustache, and his muscular stallion. As they entered the arena, a very different music swelled out: Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath”. I would have given them the prize on musical taste alone. The judges, alas, didn’t see it my way: second place went to a jarring mishmash of pseudo-Greek movie tunes (Zorba, Never on Sunday), and the music the first-place winners used was so unmemorable that I’ve completely forgotten what it was!

Exact Change Required

One thing that baffles me about Italy is the inability of retail establishments – or anyone who has to take cash payment – to make change. This in a society where most store purchases are made in cash! Automatic teller machines give out 50,000 and 100,000 lire notes (NB: At current exchange rates, one US dollar is worth about 2100 lire), but this isn’t a factor; no matter what size bill you’ve got or what your total is, shopkeepers somehow never have enough coins and or smaller bills, or, when they have them, they don’t want you to use up the whole supply! You pull out your “large” note, and watch the cashier’s face fall as she or he plaintively asks: “You don’t have anything else?”

Lack of change usually isn’t a disaster – if one shopkeeper can’t do it, he or she will run and get change from a neighboring shop. Or, if you’re in a shop where they know you, they’ll say: “Pay me next time.” Amounts up to 200 lire are simply shrugged off by either party. (There were 10 and 20 lire coins – made of aluminum – in circulation when I first came to Italy, but no longer.) It can get problematic, however, if you take a taxi late at night (pay a taxi by credit card? Unheard of!) or are shopping in an unfamiliar place.

I have grown so accustomed to this that I routinely count out exact change, or as close as I can get, everywhere I shop. Italian shopkeepers are always grateful, and don’t flinch at the extra math involved in figuring out the difference between what I gave them and what I owe. But this behavior causes cashiers in the US to stare at me in resentful bafflement: they rarely deal in cash at all, and some have a hard time figuring out how much change to give.

Back in Italy, just think what fun we’ll have in January, when we all have to start using euros! The transition from lire to euros is supposed to take two months, but no one seems to know yet how it will occur. If I pay in lire, do I get euros in change? If so, some fancy calculating will be involved – the lire-to-euro rate is not a nice, round number (it’s 1936.27 lire to the euro). The wheels of commerce are likely to grind very slowly for a while…

Mar 15, 2007

As I revisit this topic, six years and a new currency later, not much has changed.We now pay in euros, and there’s been a huge upsurge in the popularity of credit cards, but making change is still a problem.

Just today I stopped at a small supermarket near the office to buy a few items, for a total of 6.87 euros. I’m always happy to clear heavy coins out of my purse, so, standing there right in front of the cashier, I opened my wallet, pulled out a five-euro note, and then opened the coin flap to see if I had enough change to make up the remaining 1.87. I didn’t – I was about 40 cents short. I shrugged apologetically, put the five away, and pulled out the next-smallest bill I had, which was a twenty.

The cashier’s face fell.

“Don’t you have anything else?” she asked mournfully. “Two euros? I’ve been making change all afternoon.”

Sweetie, you’re a cashier – surely that’s part of the job description?

Unreliable Rewritable Media

I admit it: working in the CD-R industry spoiled me. For the last eight years, I’ve gotten all my recordable media – and recorders – for free. So I didn’t have a personal stake when software bugs or system problems caused me to burn “coasters” which went straight from the recorder into the trash (no, not all those bugs were in released software – I frequently tested alphas and betas). I had been given some CD-RW (rewritable) discs for testing, but never used them much; my habits were formed before MultiRead, when very few CD-ROM drives or car audio players would reliably read CD-RW.

But now I’m paying for my own media, and I’ve been having system problems causing discs to be eaten at an alarming rate, so it was time to be a little more cautious and try some test runs with discs that I wouldn’t have to throw away if the burn went wrong. Also, I was burning MPEGs to VideoCDs to be viewed in the DVD player, and I’d heard that at least some DVD players like CD-RW better than plain CD-R.

I had on hand eight CD-RW discs, accumulated over the last four years, most of which I had written to once or twice, then never touched again. I burned the VideoCDs on those, using VideoCD Creator in Easy CD Creator 5 and 4 (that component of the software is identical in both versions). No problem; the DVD player played them without a hiccup.

But I was getting new MPEGs in at a rate which would eat up 2-3 discs a week. (No, I am not confessing to a major pornography habit; this is all family viewing.) We want to keep this stuff around to watch again (until the same is available on DVD or VHS, when we’ll buy it), but it would be expensive to store it all on CD-RW. So I figured I’d copy the same VideoCDs to CD-R discs, and see if the DVD player liked those all right.

I copied the first disc (using CD Copier from ECDC 4) and tested it immediately on the DVD player. No problem. So I copied the remaining shows onto CD-R, then erased the CD-RWs so I could use them to transfer the original (450 MB) MPEGs from my laptop to my desktop computer for safekeeping. It seemed logical to re-use the same couple of CD-RWs over and over for this process, erasing each time.

Surprise, surprise! I was only able to re-use each CD-RW once or twice. After that, the CDs burned in one recorder became difficult to read in the other recorder (on the desktop), and then they all became unerasable. I tried three different brands of CD-RW, on two different systems, with three different recorders. On the advice of my elite gang of CD-R experts, I tried SuperBlank, a blanking utility from the makers of WinZip. “If SuperBlank can’t do it, give up.” It did manage on one or two, but the rest I had to give up for dead.

Eventually I came to the conclusion (backed by my expert witnesses, Mike Richterand Aldo Bazan), that, except maybe for some old slow-rated discs written in non-high-speed recorders, CD-RWs simply die after a few months. Mike says: “Every time I’ve written about this in the newsgroups, I’ve expected someone to come along with a contrary story, but so far all I’ve had is a few saying that they last long enough for their needs – say, a month or two.”

So… CD-RW may have its place as a short-term form of sneakernet (to transfer large quantities of data between two machines). But if you have anything important stored on CD-RW, copy it off to hard disk or CD-R right now! Otherwise you may find that it’s gone forever.

Pop Quiz

Q: How is CD-R related to a Mel Brooks movie?

Edward Idell answered: Well, there’s always “High Anxiety” as to whether the disc will burn or be a coaster. So, you’re always wondering if the disc is “To Be or Not to Be”.

We’ll give him an “A” for sense of humor and familiarity with Mel Brooks’ movies! But the real answer is that Rock Ridge was the name of a committee formed in the early 1990s to create an extension to the ISO 9660 file system standard for CD-ROM which would better support UNIX by allowing longer filenames and greater directory depth.

This committee named itself after the fictional town in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. A later committee, aimed at created a standard format for bootable CDs, called itself “El Torito” after the chain Tex-Mex restaurant in which the idea was first discussed over lunch.

Software Poetry

Shakespeare updated by a friend in the software business:

Th’ expense of software in a waste of time
Is bugged in action; makes users savage, bloody, murderous, extreme, rude, cruel;
Used, software is perjur’d, not to trust, full of blame,
Enjoy’d no sooner, but despised straight;
Past reason purchased or pirated; and no sooner licensed,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose developed to make the user mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof,–and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a solution propos’d; behind, a corrupted data stream:
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the software that leads users to this hell.

 –  By William Shakespeare (1564-1616), (revised 2001)

Deirdré Straughan on Italy, India, the Internet, the world, and now Australia