Where are we going again?
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Here I Am Again 3 comments

It was 1990, late summer/early fall. First L-T love and I were living in a gorgeous, quirky apartment over a tailor shop on Church St. in St. Catharines. I had a rather fun job with a steel distribution company that included bookkeeping on a new-fangled computer program called "Gem", making inside sales calls, and using a forklift to load and unload steel from the trucks as they arrived at the warehouse. I was the only "worker", other than the outside sales people – all men. There were four – count'em four – senior managers, only two of whom were actively involved in the day to day running of the joint. It was a cool little entrepreneurial venture launched by a bunch of senior execs from Toronto who were tired of living in the big city and wanted a taste of small town life. Basically, I got to do everything including, on occasion, accompany them on their negotiation trips with the larger steel suppliers.

Things were going ok, for the most part. Computers as integral parts of our lives were not yet present and, yet, this small exposure at work intrigued me. Through a family connection, I had an opportunity to buy a "real" computer for a vastly reduced – at the time – price. I remember it clearly: $2,500 got you a 386 Pentium and a 14" monitor, a dot matrix printer and Windows 3.0, running over MS DOS 5.1. Actually, it was a brief flirtation with something IBM called "PC DOS" round about then as they were feeling a wee bit pissy with Mr. Gates. Anyway, at the time, I didn't know anything about all that. Based on the stability of my job, I went and got a line of credit at the bank and invested in the computer as, at this price, at the time, it was a steal. We hauled the very large boxes home, took an entire day to set it up, and stared at it for a long time. Figured out how to turn it on and watched with frustration as Windows revealed its penchant for the blue screen of death.

Almost immediately after making this investment, I got laid off. The senior execs had a falling out amongst themselves, much legal wrangling, and the whole operation was being moved to a new location, far away.

Because the special opportunity to buy the computer was through an employee program, there was no returning it for a refund. I now had debt and a big plaster-coloured monster on my desk that I had no idea what to do with. Or what it could do.

It came with something called a 2600 baud modem and a phone cable. I plugged it in.

What followed was three months, the better part of a winter, of me getting up, kissing my partner good-bye after making coffee and having breakfast, and heading upstairs to sit in front of this … thing … for eight to ten hours a day, figuring it out. It wasn't like I was forcing myself to do it. I was drawn to it. I learned all about MS/PC DOS (same diff), learned how Windows "sat on top" of it, learned command lines, learned the limitations of Windows as an "operating system", learned how to use the modem (uh oh), and learned about Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). Me and my coffee, pre-Internet, pouring over books, cranking up the long distance bills, and learning almost strictly and entirely by trial and error.

I learned a lot. I sat with my L-T partner's brother, someone who passed for a computer geek at the time, and would listen to his lively explanations of the internal workings of the computer and that really helped. I tried to ask intelligent questions but, not being formally trained, I felt really quite inadequate and in awe of anyone who actually Knew How These Things Worked.

By the end of the winter self-directed tutorial, I had started two businesses, one of which I sold 20 months later after starting it from nothing. (That business taught me the basics of databases.) The other lives on, after several morphs, as my consulting practice.

Flash forward – wow – eighteen years. In some respects, I'm still sitting here, pointing and clicking and wondering what will happen next. But, this week especially, it feels like I'm back at square one.

See, I'm branching out my creative and business online activities. I'm in the process of moving this blog, The HandBasket, to TypePad. I have plans for an additional five, count'em five, blogs that will also be on TypePad. Here on Vox, we are all producing content and driving traffic to vox.com from which they benefit enormously in terms of ad revenues. One could be resentful of this, but it isn't until one has tried to set up a blog, including domain mapping and advertising, from scratch, in the still quite buggy TypePad interface that one appreciates the slickness and cozy-cushy comfort of Vox.

Of course, Vox and TypePad are part of the same company, so many elements feel somewhat familiar. But the experience of "blogging" is quite different in the TypePad world. First – and this is what I'm working on now – the creation of a visually-attractive look/feel for the blog is trickier for those of us who are not particularly design-oriented. I'm thanking my lucky stars that I have retained some sense and basic "hunt/peck" skill about HTML and CSS. Still, I'm never sure what is possible or desirable, design-wise. It is – as it was eighteen years ago – all trial and error. I keep trying stuff and thinking, oh, I like that or euw that sucks. This will take a while.

Then there are crazy bugs, like trying to put one's blog on FeedBurner and being told that the feed is not verifiable. Then going through the verification process to slice out, line by line, the orphan/stray code that has been inserted but will not pass the feed test. Ref. my gratitude at having a passing familiarity with HTML.

Then there are "widgets". I've inserted about a dozen of them into the new HandBasket, only to find that they don't actually work without significant tweaking, some of which require a fair amount of fiddly concentration and not a small amount of frustration.

There is the interaction, selection and placement of ads which, in TypePad , will be entirely under my control. According to the stats monitor I've been keeping, The HandBasket (at Vox) has drawn an oddly consistent and ever-growing flow of traffic however I have NO expectation that it will be a money-maker for me. I'm using this blog as my sandbox at TypePad to figure out how it all works and what works best in terms of layout and types of ads. As with my experience eighteen years ago, it is a matter of trial and error. I feel that once I get this process in place and under my belt with The HandBasket, even with no expected revenues, the creation of several "real" revenue-generating blogs will be much easier.

There seems to be a myriad of tools out there promising great things in terms of keeping track of stats, providing search functionality, feeds, hits, bounces, referrers, etc. etc. Again, trial and error … good solid learning that also takes the most time.

Then, there is the domain-mapping issue. TypePad makes this seem fairly straight-forward but, in reality, something has screwed up in their folder structure that has made it impossible for me to map my totally cool new domain names to anything in my TypePad account. They have acknowledged this and are working on the problem, apparently. I think it is only a matter of aligning the folders properly.  (Cut to visual of me drumming my fingers on the table.)

Oh, and for reasons not yet known to me, I can't upload files through the upload button on the toolbar. Control panel, yes. Upload button, no. (More finger drumming.)

See, here at Vox, this is all pre-fab. When it is time to write, one logs in, clicks create, and away you go. Wanna change your design? Click on "design" and click on a template. Boom, done. Wanna upload something? No problem. I'm trying to create a similarly cosy environment for myself as a creative sort of person at TypePad. I want to log in, understand the shortest, clearest route to expressing myself, and have it done. Afterall, there is a huge relationship between form and content. If I don't find the process or the results pleasing, I won't keep at it. This learning curve has given me a new appreciation for the effort that has gone into creating Vox and I feel less resentful for the lack of ad revenue sharing.

It sure reminds me of that intense learning time, oh so long ago, when I had to force myself to channel my creativity through a technological interface I did not completely understand. Let's hope my results yield something pleasing to both me and you, dear readers.

Watch my work-in-progress at the not-yet-launched new HandBasket. Stay tuned for the new domain name which I'll announce at the point in time when I'm ready to fully switch from Vox. Which is not yet. The search thingy doesn't work, the ads aren't quite right, and I'm not happy with the lay-out yet. But I'll get there … 🙂

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