Friday, September 29, 2006

Afternoon delights and sweet showers of sorrow

There are a thousand things I need to do but I spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening (Thursday) working on a new Web site for Xenite.Org. It's a feature article titled Seattle Afternoon: How not to find your way home in Seattle.... I wrote it for my (mostly ex-) girlfriend, who appreciated all the pictures I sent to her on my cell phone, but she really didn't get to see Seattle through my eyes.

I wanted to leave her with a memory that we could both share. And, to be honest, we've got lots of memories. We spent $20 on an Image Shots session. The pictures came out pretty well, except for one where I have a goofy expression on my face because I was talking to the photographer (in fact, we were joking about it in the car and I kept emulating the voice of Disney's Goofy). That will, of course, be her favorite picture in the bunch, but I made sure we got a different pose for the larger pictures.

The past few weeks could have been a really difficult time for me, but I've been unbelievably happy. And when I walked around Seattle Monday afternoon, I did my best to show her what my new home would look like. I don't know where in Seattle I'll live, but my home is really wherever I am, wherever I go. She was able to share my first experience in Seattle thanks to the magic of cell phone technology.

One could say we'll be bound together by that technology, but she wants us to let each other go and move on. It's for the best.

So, Seattle Afternoon is my parting gift. It's a memory that will always be there for her, as long as Xenite.Org is there.

This whole week has been hectic and insane. The last thing I should have been doing was creating a new Web site on Xenite.Org, but it was important.

And I also went down to the dance studio to help Gloria Jones with two more Salsa clases before saying good-bye. We've been teacher and student for so long, I'm not sure if I said a proper good-bye. I left Houston once before, but it was under entirely different circumstances. And I came back for a variety of reasons.

While I hope to come back for occasional visits, I don't expect to return to Houston or Texas to live any time in the near future. I've made many friends here, had many great times and adventures, learned many things. How do you say good-bye to a city that has shaped a corner of your life? I just don't think I can do that.

I'll have to come back eventually.

There were other things I wanted to say, but it's getting late and I should get some sleep. I still have to pack books and things and move them out of my apartment. And I have two evenings of saying "good-bye" to friends and loved ones.

This will probably be my last blog post for at least 10 days, maybe 2 weeks. I have seen other people say, "I won't be blogging for a while now" and they disappear for months on end. I'm not ready to let the blog go without comment that long. I still have things to say. In fact, I will have many things to say about my new home.

I'm looking forward to what lies ahead. But I'll always remember what I leave behind. J.R.R. Tolkien said it best, when he wrote these words for Gandalf at the end of The Lord of the Rings: "Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."

Rain can be a beautiful thing, when beheld by loving eyes. I will miss you, Houston.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And the interview resulted in...

A job offer. Yes, I've accepted a position with a reputable firm engaged in Internet Marketing and Promotion.

I'll be leaving Houston and all my friends here and moving cross-country. I have so much to do this week, that I don't know how much I'll be able to blog.

Of all things, Maggie called me yesterday and asked if I could join her for dancing tonight. How could I say "No"?

When I leave Houston, I'll stop and visit some relatives in New Mexico, and then I'll head for the great Northwest. While I'm traveling, I doubt I'll have much if any opportunity to post here.

But once I get settled in Seattle, I'll get back online ASAP.

Thanks to everyone for your positive words, and for just being here for me.

I had a blast in Seattle and will try to post some pictures before I leave Houston.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The last Cha Cha

There are three reasons why you may not see a blog post from me at any given time:
  • I don't have anything to say

  • I don't have access to the Internet

  • I'm too busy to sit down and share my thoughts with my reading public

On a rare day, all three reasons may fall together. Over the next couple of days, I'll be traveling and won't have access to the Internet. The travel is related to my current unemployed situation, so I certainly hope to come back with some good news. And much though I appreciate all the encouragement I have received from people for my stepped-up search engine consulting, I just wasn't prepared to go full-time.

I'll keep doing whatever I have to do to bring in an income, but I'd rather have a job for now than be an entrepreneur. I suppose that is a good reason for preparing oneself for the worst of circumstances. Not that being without a job is the worst of circumstances for me. But I'm usually ready for the transition (or think I am) when it comes. This time around, it was so unexpected I was just glad to have a part-time consultancy already going.

But as I was doing a little research on what may become my new home earlier today, it occurred to me that I often move right before or during the holiday season. Three of the last four months I've moved were October, November, and December. The December move was not of my choosing. The man who owned the complex where I lived sold the property and gave all the residents 6 weeks to vacate (state law requires only a 30-day notice, so he was actually being generous). By the time the announcemnt came, maybe half the residents (who suspected something was up) had already moved. Out of stubborness, and because I liked where I was living, I waited until the last day to move out. I think I was the last resident to leave. A few days later, the buildings were gone, bull-dozed.

What is most sad about that event is that the people who worked at that community had to stay and watch everyone go. I don't know if they had jobs lined up or not. They certainly had a fair amount of warning, but the Houston rental market has been devastated by the housing boom. Even this year, in the wake of Katrina and Rita, where thousands of families have moved in to fill some vacancies, and with the housing boom now officially over in most parts of the country, I see rental communities being bulldozed. New construction is not focused on rental housing.

Whole neighborhoods are vanishing in the space of a few days. New neighborhoods continue to rise on the outskirts of the city. The highways in Houston are becoming more jam-packed than ever before as people move farther and farther out, extending their commutes. Houston's ongoing highway projects, where they build a little extension here and there to buy time for building larger extensions and widenings, cannot really keep up. However, for the first time since I moved to Houston in 2001, sometime this summer I was finally able to drive around the northwest corner of I-610 without having to stop and wait for traffic to decongest.

There are some sections of road that have been dug up and rebuilt at least 3 times since I came to Houston in June 2001, right after Tropical Storm Alison flooded the city. I'll never understand why Houston has to rebuild the same section of road over and over again. This year I watched them rebuild the crossunder intersection of Richmond and I-610 4 times in the space of 3 months. The safety signs shifted from left to right, lane to lane, twice as they dug up road and put new road back down.

Houston never changes, but it is ever-changing. And as the fourth largest city in the United States its most common complainnt is that it is often ignored by multi-city programming in favor of Dallas-Fort Worth. Conventions, special movie extravaganzas, special media tours all bypass Houston like it was some backwater not worth spending money on. The nation only sat up and took notice of us when hurricanes disrupted the flow of goods and gasoline to the rest of the country.

I say "us" after having lived here only a few years -- and that with a brief interlude where I returned to Florida. Now I am contemplating a move cross-country to a state I have only visited once, to a lattitude I have often sworn I would never live at again, to a region where I hardly know anyone.

And if I make the move, I'll be going by myself. That girlfriend I have so happily hinted and finally blogged just a little about will be staying in Texas. She is Miss Cute Reluctant in so many ways, not because she won't go with me (we haven't seriously considered the idea). But because of things I suppose are too private to share. Life is like that. You find someone you want to be with and the floodwaters of change sweep you apart.

If I don't get this job (she is convinced I will), then I'll most likely head back to Florida and see what I can do with the Internet on my own. People want me to write more but there are bills to pay. Writing takes time, and there is no guarantee the next book will sell well.

I'll miss the dancing, little though I have danced since my surgery. I've only just started going back to the advanced Salsa classes. And my stamina has been so low that yesterday was the first day I was able to get all the way through a class without collapsing or nearly collapsing.

I'll miss the friends I have made in Houston. I'll miss the dinner parties, the group outings, the quiet afternoons and evenings spent with good friends. I'll miss dropping in on Maggie and telling her my woes and joys. She is a new grandma now, anyway, and she's excited about having a baby in the family to help take care of. The last time we danced a Cha Cha (a few weeks ago), as we were walking off the floor, she said, "Michael, that was really good! I think that was the best Cha Cha we ever danced."

It was good. And whatever happens, wherever I go, I'm glad the last Cha Cha was the best.

That's the way it should end, if it must end at all.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

And now for the news...

Well, I've been very busy lately and that is why I'm not posting on the blog as regularly as I used to. It takes time to sit and think about what I'm going to say, even though I do seem like I ramble all over the place. And I just haven't had time to think much.

One of my biggest distractions this week is that I got into a huge debate about search engine optimization fundamentals -- more specifically, how the Google algorithm works -- over at SEO Refugee's Forums. As I understand it, SEO Refugee was started up by some former members of the SEOChat forum, which sort of exploded in many different directions when the admins at SEOChat instituted some changes.

Now, I've been familiar with some of the people at SEORefugee for some time and when I was invited to follow up to a discussion there earlier this year I forgot to bookmark the site. A couple months later, I decided to check back in and couldn't find the URL. There are many SEO forums on the Web, and it took a random reference to it somewhere to prompt me to return there.

So now I know where the forum is and I've been visiting daily, but I found myself drawn into a huge back-and-forth discussion that began with comments on Matt Cutts' explanation of how you can use content for SEO (that is, use content to achieve good rankings in search engine results). People became upset with Matt because he was poking one of their favorite myths in the eye, and his blog entry hit the top ten for "seo" for a while (in part, perhaps, because a lot of people linked to it).

Well, the content-versus-linking debate won't die down any time soon. But, to be blunt, I judge the depth of SEOs by how much they acknowledge the importance of content with Google. The less they acknowledge that importance, the more they have to learn about the way Google really works. What misleads so many SEOs is that Google's algorithm is fluid -- you can overwhelm it in many ways, but because it's easier to be caught by ramming a page full of spam keywords than by ramming a thousand inbound links full of spam keywords, most SEOs prefer to achieve their rankings through links.

And a lot of them complain about how difficult it is to get good rankings. Duh! That's because you're doing it the slow, hard way, folks. It works, but as Google filters out more and more links, it will take even more time and effort than before.

In other news, I've been talking to companies about where I'll be working next. No job offers yet but I haven't given up.

I've been using much of my time to clean up the mess Xenite.Org had become. Although many people may not agree with my basic page layout choices, they are pretty effective: simple, usually clean, and easy-to-read for most people (although I am concerned about how screen readers interpret all my bold fonts). My goal is to get as many pages fixed as possible so that Dixie and I can devise a plan for converting the content to a CMS system. The less junk I have on the pages, the more uniform I can make them, I think the easier it will be to grab the content and put it into a CMS.

Maybe. We'll see.

I've also been restoring old content that was lost in server crashes (in some cases, several years ago). For example, I have now restored The History of Xena: Warrior Princess, A Norton Companion: Glossary for the Witch World, and my old Dragon*Con reports (among other content). It's been a long tedious process, and most of my work has been under the hood, so to speak, updating HTML formats, restoring or repairing broken links, etc.

And I've created some new content sites, too. For example, I have an experimental Celebrity News site, but I'm not happy with it. It's too cumbersome and needs to be reworked. Also, I'm dinking around with Google Site search again, and they have now made it possible for us to return search results on our own search page. So as I add more Google search boxes to Xenite, they'll resolve to that page. But the search tool is not limited to my domains, and only allows me to specific three domains, and only searches on domain (or the entire Web) at one time. I don't like that. I'd prefer a "network search" interface that ties all the Xenite domains together.

And today I wrote an essay on mesothelioma. The short version is that people who have worked around asbestos develop this cancer about 20-40 years after exposure, but so far only 2-3000 cases are diagnosed per year. I was curious about why so many law firms mention it on their Web sites. I guess there's just a lot of money to be made from mesothelioma lawsuits. And people wonder why insurance costs so much money....

Have been dancing some but I'm not really ready to say much about the dancing. To be honest, the classes have either been even enough that Gloria doesn't need me in the rotation, or else I've spent most of my time working with people who need a little extra help. I don't feel it's right to write up current beginning students, since I often go for the humorous angle. Since I'm no longer allowed to flirt with girls (well, not seriously flirt), I've been paying less attention to who may want to flirt, so that angle is done for now, too.


Miss Cute Reluctant and I talk every day now (guess who the new girlfriend is). We're still figuring out where we want to go and where we'll be, but I'm having a blast with her.

And I have not forgotten the IMPs, but when I became unemployed my priorities changed. I wanted to really clean up Xenite.Org before adding the IMP feature section. I still have a ways to go, but I'll be back in touch with the IMPs soon. I just have a lot of stuff left to work on.

Oh, and I have also been doing some consulting and SEO for other people. That takes up time, too. But keep those inquiries coming. I'm having fun, and as long as I enjoy doing this, I'll have a passion for it that should keep things interesting.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sootle Web Directory Interview

The Sootle Web Directory has been publishing a series of interviews with SEOs, asking them each six questions about SEO.

I was pleased to be invited to participate in the series and mine is SEO Interview Part Five.

Other interviewees so far have beedn Bill Slawski, Michael Grey, Dave Davies, and Joe Balestrino. If you're not familiar with the search engine optimization industry, these are some of the most well-known names in the field. It's an honor to be included in the group, and I look forward to reading interviews with more SEOs.

Thanks to Darren and Sootle Web Directory for a great series of articles. Darren is showing people how you can spice up any resource site with supplemental content. That is really what good SEO does.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is this your child?

There is a proud parent out there somewhere who took this digital image and passed it on to a friend, who passed it on to a friend, who passed it on....

My sister-in-law and my girlfriend both sent me this picture. I can only imagine how many millions of people have viewed it by now. This poor baby will grow up in the shadow of having been the child who kissed/licked a pig snout.

Mothers are so cruel to their children. They save pictures of you playing in your underwear, wearing soup bowls, poking your silly, goofy eyes through a pair of scissors, and doing a million other things that kids think are funny but grow up to regret when Mom brings out the photo album to show your new girlfriend how "cute" you were when you were little.

What did mothers do before cameras were invented? How did they humliate their children throughout life? Did they save every blanket and diaper, every sleeping gown, every ribbon, and say, "This is from when Litte Johnny ate too much pumpkin pie for his third Halloween"?

Maybe that explains why there are so many wars. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, and Osama Bin Laden probably did not bring their girlfriends home to Mom. They weren't humiliated, given the "he's so cute" treatment, and shown what it means to be human. Maybe they resented not being loved by their mothers so much they had to just go out and conquer as much of the world as possible (of course, Bin Laden is a pretty sad world-conquerer -- at least Sadam Hussein got to terrorize an entire nation for 20+ years before slinking off to his underground hideaway).

Well, psychologists may conclude thaht this picture is harmless, but I think it may be the difference between a young child growing up curious and the next mad dictator growing up furious.

Instead of villainizing the United States and playing cozy with the world's barbarians and mad dictators, maybe Hugo Chavez should call home and say, "Mom, I've got a new girl I want you to meet. Do you still have the family photo album?"

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Weekly recap and special offer for small businesses needing SEO

It's been a fun, crazy week. I've fixed and restored many Web pages on Xenite.Org that I had long despaired of finding time to fix. I've worked long hours on some search engine optimization projects. I've attended some huge dance classes. And I've had fun with friends and a special someone.

I'm going to make it an official announcement now: I have a new girlfriend. She is fantastic. She's fun to be with and laughs at my jokes. Some of the time. Anyway, I'm taken, not looking, happy, and lucky to have met someone when I wasn't looking or expecting to meet anyone. Isn't that the way "they" say it always happens? But enough about me.

Ed Schipul asked me to rework my blog report about the NetSquared Houston meeting and post it at the NetSquared Web site. So if you don't mind a sense of Deja Vu, check out Tuesday at the Pub With Netsquared Houston.

I was also asked to do an interview for an SEO news resource. I waited a couple days longer than I should have to send in my informaton, but I'm hoping the interview will still be published. I wasn't trying to be fashionably late. I just ran out of time earlier in the week to do everything.

Mine is not the most popular voice in the search engine optimization community. I feel like the babysitter who went off to change the baby's diaper, saying, "Okay kids, be good until I finish this." Well, changing that diaper took a year or two and when I came back the kids had trashed the house. Sense and sensibility have been replaced by maniacal theories and outright gibberish. So, yes, I've been ruffling feathers since starting to speak out again on various SEO forums early last year. A lot of really stupid ideas have been adopted and passed around as good, reasonable search optimization practices.

Let me put this as delicately as possible: If you approach an SEO specialist who says your new content-rich Web site won't hit the top ten search results in less than a year, you need to find another SEO specialist. That's just irresponsible laziness. Low-content sites, bad content sites, boring sites -- yeah, they'll need a long, long time to rank. But the average business Web site that says, "This is our company, this is what we do, this is where we came from, this is who we are, this is how to contact us" -- that kind of Web site doesn't need to wait six months, twelve years, or a two years.

I don't care if you're in insurance, real estate, and travel. If you're not just creating another affiliate link spam site, but are honestly creating a Web site about a brick-and-mortar business, you can rank well for various competitive queries in 2-6 months. Any idiot SEO guru can claim it will take longer based on experience. I claim it takes no longer than 2-6 months based on experience.

So, enough about SEOs.

We went dancing Saturday night. Wait...I've been dancing all week. I can't remember as far back as Monday, except that I think I just registered a lot of student. Dance-Passion is now offering Hip Hop, Country Western, Ballroom Dancing, and Salsa dance classes. I registered 50 people for one class and Gloria had to bring in 8 guys from another class to help balance out the mix. There are so many women who want to learn how to dance, guys need to stop wondering what they will do with their lives and get down to a dance studio and take six months' worth of classes.

It doesn't matter what dance style you choose (well, I strongly recommend a partner dance, rather than something freestyle). What matters is that you become good enough to lead a beginning dancer so that the women think you're a good dancer. They'll ask you to dance if they know you are better than they are. Trust me. I've been there. It happens. And it happens to other guys, too.

I put together an SEO resume. I don't really do the resume thing. I've more often gotten jobs because people knew what I could do. When I worked for Basis International, Ltd. writing technical papers, articles for their magazine, offering advice and second-tier support, and doing technical presentations on road shows, on-site consulting, and at conferences, I usually got 1-2 job offers a week. Unfortunately, many of Basis' customers have moved on to other programming languages. I no longer look for Business Basic jobs because the industry is, in my opinion, dying. Companies are tired of losing vendors. And the great innovators of Business Basic have pretty much retired. A new generation of innovators are focusing on other languages.

So I put together an SEO resume. I had to wonder how good it would look, since most of of what I do is confidential or (to be bluntly honest) pro bono. Yes, I do free search engine optimization analysis. If someone contacts me and says, "Michael, why do you think my Web site isn't ranking?", I'm more likely than not to share an opinion.

Of course, most of my pro bono opinions are not written up in 50-page reports. But I don't keep track of the people who write back to say, "Michael, thanks to your advice, my Web site rankings have improved!"

I should have, but I've always done the consulting on the side to augment my income and just enjoy helping people. When I worked for Basis I didn't have to track billable hours or figure out where the next project would come from (although if they had listened to me and paid more attention to the customers they were losing, maybe I would have been more inclined to stay around).

I don't know what the future will bring. I've been unhappy in the insurance field. Every time I did research on a potential prospect I would look at their Web site and think, "Ew. I could improve that with my eyes closed." I've been wondering if I shouldn't start calling local businesses and saying, "Hey, I had to find your Web site for a previous job and you just really don't know how to be found. Let me help you for $200.00".

A $200.00 special on Basic Business site SEO. If I could interest enough companies, I could hold a half-day seminar and show them how to instantly improve their performance. Maybe if 100 people show up I'll have something left out of the $20,000.00 to pay my bills.

Small business Web sites are typically so badly designed from an SEO point of view that I could spend a year earning just $200 a day and not hit the same industry (much less the same region) more than once.

But telemarketing SEOs have pretty much made it difficult for small business operators to trust the next phone calls. I've read many a horror story on SEO forums about people who received phone calls where they've been promised the moon.

Look, for $200.00 I'm not going to make your site the most famous in the world, but if you sell lug nuts to people in Tacoma, WA and want to be found on the Internet, I can tell you how to do that for $200. Throw in another $200 and I'll even get you some trusted links on related content pages (but don't mistake that for an offer to buy or sell links -- I don't do that).

Offer ends September 30. Let me know if you're interested in SEO Services. To get the $200 rate, you have to mention this blog.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dear AT&T: Please tell me your phone number...

This goes out to all the businesses who send out emails telling people to contact them through their Web site. If you have a telephone number that your customers may use to reach you, include it in your emails. That's not a request. It's a demand from someone who, as one former employer told me (and anyone who asked him for a reference), "has no tolerance for idiots and fools".

You see, a while back I was walking down the yellow brick road ....

Wait, wrong movie.

Okay, I'm an AT&T customer. I signed up with SBC before they rejoined the AT&T family of phone companies (I feel like I've come full circle, but AT&T isn't as consumer friendly as it was before the breakup, in my opinion).

I don't actually use my land line for anything but DSL access. On a good month, I remember to pay the bill. Occasionally I've paid the bill late because I get busy and forget. Paying bills online is easy and convenient and I love the concept, but now that many of my vendors make it possible for me to stop killing trees by going with email-notices only, I do the green thing and ask to have my paper bills stopped wherever possible.

And I turn off the ringers on my house telephones because I only use my land line for DSL access (besides which, I'm embarrassed about losing the Nielsen TV diary before I could mail it back). I'm so afraid that Nielsen is going to call, asking for their dollar back. After all, I didn't really earn it. And I feel personally responsible for the failure of Stargate-SG1 because it was to be one of the only three shows I would have put in the diary. But I digress....

So, the ringers are turned off. If there are any bill-collectors trying to reach me, my voicemail box may be full (I'm not sure if I have voicemail for the land line -- I went with the cheapest option possible). If AT&T had tried to call me to ask where their payment was, I never got the call.

So I was sitting here a while ago, thinking, "I need to do some research for this contract I have to finish up this week" and decided to go back to Google for a moment (not that I don't use other search engines, but this contract requires Google research). At the same time, I was struggling to heat up a frozen meat loaf a very wonderful, gracious friend made for me so I could have a protein-laden lunch. I love meat loaf. I grew up on it. It's the food that is nearest and dearest to my heart. After white cheese dip....And Three Musketeers Bars. But I digress....

The meat loaf was fighting me, steadfastly remaining frozen. I know you're not supposed to turn the oven way up high when you reheat a frozen meal, but I wasn't sure how low I could go without growing old and dying of starvation. So, as I worried about the meat loaf, I tried to log onto Google.

Nothing happened.

"Hm," I thought. "Maybe I can get by with a little search on Yahoo! after all."

Nothing happened.

With a sudden, sinking feeling I jumped up and rushed over to a land line (well, actually, I let the cool little SBC Self Help Tool start up and tell me to check for a dial tone). No dial tone. Maybe the wire was loose. Nope. Phones were properly hung up, too. Ohmygodiforgottopaythephonebill!

I looked in my email but there were no desperate pleas for cash to save the poor investors in one of America's largest companies. And that is where things went sour.

I don't know my own phone number. I never use it. I never give it out. How do you call up customer service and ask for help with your phone line if you don't know your phone number? So I frantically rooted through all the paper bills that have been piling up (I tend to not open my mail since I pay most bills online). I couldn't find a phone bill. Oh, yes. AT&T is green. They love trees (or maybe they just want to save the trees for more telephone poles -- I don't know). I don't get paper phone bills any more.

But maybe they can look me up by social security number or something. I thought, "Hm. That might work." So I opened up one of my emails to look for their customer service phone number.

Only they don't have the intelligence to include their phone number in their email. They tell you to go to their Web site.

"Hey, dudes at AT&T. I have no phone service, so my DSL is out! How am I supposed to go to your Web site?"

So I ran around the place looking for a phone bill. Couldn't find one. Eventually it dawned upon me that I have stacked my laundry detergent upon those door-stops the phone companies send to me every few months: telephone books (thank God for Switchboard and Smart Pages because I wouldn't know how to use a phone book if my DSL service depended on it).

After some frenzied fumbling and not-quite-so-righteous commentary on how stupid it is not to put your customer service numbers on the front cover of the directory (wait, did I look there?), I found the phone number on page 3 or something. Breathing heavy sighs of relief I dialed the number and got the automated login system.

"Just enter your telephone number...."

But I don't know my telephone number. So I spent 3 minutes (while my meat loaf finally started to juice up in the oven -- mmmm) asking the automated system to give me access to a real live person. Finally, it decided without my help that maybe I needed to speak to a real live person. So while I waited, I found an early snail mail from SBC from right after I started my service. Never opened it up. Yes, it had my phone number.

Naturally, as I celebrated the fact that I now know my phone number, the customer service rep I no longer needed came on the line. "Thank you for calling AT&T. May I have your phone number, please, and how may I help you?"

So I gave her my phone number and explained that I forgot to pay my phone bill.

"I'm seeing that you're paid up, Mr. Martinez."

"I am?"

"Yes, sir. You last paid your bill on XXXX and you're current with us."

"But my phone service was disconnected..." I whimpered.

"Are you sure?"

So I did the amazingly natural thing and picked up the handset to prove it to her. And there was that old familiar dial tone (BTW -- I was using my cell phone to make this call, in case that isn't apparent).

Boydidifeelstupid. Thanking the lady for her time and wishing her a happy life, I got off the line after a little more nervous chit chat. I forgot to pass on one request, though: please tell the bosses to include your telephone number in your emails.

Ah, well. At least now I can go online again. And while some people may say I could just drive down to an Internet cafe to sign on to their site and pay my bill, the only former such business in my area that I know of now has a sign that says something about erotic stuff. I could get into serious trouble if I walk into that place.

At least the meat loaf tastes good. Mmmm....

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lou Dobbs: Armchair-commander-in-chief orders generals to deliver

Lou Dobbs must be looking for link love, so here it is, Lou.

Once again Mr. Dobbs has gone off into LalaLand, informing the American people that President Bush is under some moral obligation to explain exactly how we're going to end the conflict in Iraq. Everyone set your watches now, because if Mr. Bush doesn't deliver, Armchair-commander-in-chief Dobbs undoubtedly has the plan that the generals have all been waiting for.

Clearly, the oft-stated goal of building up the Iraqi security forces to a point where they can sustain themselves before we pull out has made no impression on the indelible Mr. Dobbs. How does one make a game plan more clear than that? "We'll leave when the Iraqi security forces can fight the war without us," is a pretty definitive plan.

We know that new Iraqi battalions are entering the fight every month.

We know that Iraqi security forces are taking control of more and more provinces.

We know that we are consolidating our forces in the most unstable areas of Iraq because they are no longer needed in other regions.

And though most people don't say it, quite a few of us expect a large part of the Iraqi insurgency to die down as soon we start seriously dropping troop levels. The idiot insurgents will take to the streets, dance and proclaim a victory against the Americans, and every literate person on Earth will know they are bald-faced liars who just want to look good on Arabic television for the illiterate masses.

But that isn't good enough for Mr. Dobbs. He wants an accountability we never demanded of Franklin Roosevelt and Ike Eisenhauer. Presidents are supposed to fight wars on crisp timetables, with clearly predictable body counts, and we have to have a specific day on which we can declare victory.

It didn't take the news media long to rework President Bush's "end of major hostilities but not end of war" speech into a declaration of peace and victory. But after a couple of years of misconstruing that speech, Mr. Dobbs and his professional peers are now intent upon rewriting the history of "We don't know when we'll be able to pull our troops out of Iraq, but we intend to leave just as soon as the Iraqis can defend themselves".

Truth be told, if the Iraqi insurgents had sense enough to shut up and stop killing other Iraqis, we probably couldn't leave any sooner because it still takes time to train and equip soldiers and police battalions. But they're not doing anything to make us leave faster when they go out slaughtering every Iraqi man, woman, and child they can shoot.

We Americans only have to care about the Iraqi situation because we morally indebted ourselves to the Iraqi people. Bad as it was, evil as it was, we toppled and disassembled the former Iraqi government and we have to stay in Iraq until the current Iraqi government is strong enough to man the streets.

The real question Mr. Dobbs and his fellow armchair warriors should be asking is, what are we going to do when Al-Qaeda In Iraq is left to face only Iraqi soldiers and police? How long does anyone really expect the foreign terrorists who have flocked to Iraq to hang around there? They have to realize that they'll start losing allies as soon as the American troops leave. And they aren't very popular now.

Those terrorists are going to find a new land to terrorize. What's the gameplan for that next step in the war, Mr. Dobbs?

Or are you not prepared to give us a clearly defined time table with delivery dates and accurate body counts?

Oh, I feel guilty...

I should point out that all my off-site links open in new browser windows. I do this because browsers can hang if you try to pull up unavailable pages. If a server is down, your browser becomes unresponsive for up to 1 minute. I hate that.

Anyway, I attended the monthly meeting of Houston NetSquared last night. The event is organized/hosted by Ed Schipul of Schipul Web Marketing (he's sort of a competitor, I suppose, but he's a really nice guy). The purpose of Net Squared is to "re-engineer the Web for social change".

What does that mean? Does it mean to make the Web a better place for all? Not really. It's about putting the influencing powers of Web mongers like me to work for the greater good -- online, offline, wherever.

Last month I wrote When The Soldiers Come Home here on this blog after attending my first Houston NetSequared dinner. I'm now using the Xenite.Org network to help increase awareness of and promote the Wounded Warriors Web site, a non-profit organization that helps to improve the lives of soldiers who have lost limbs or otherwise become disabled because of their service to our country.

That's an example of how a NetSquared meeting can produce some positive results. You can move people to take action.

This month's guest speaker was Sharron Rush, the Executive Director of Knowbility, a Houston-based Accessibility Consulting and Training firm. Sharron's mission is to help make the Web more accessible to the approximately 250 million people around the world who must rely upon screen readers and other accessibility tools to browse the Internet. Are all 250 million of those people online? I don't know. I doubt it. But Sharron made the point that even from a business point of view, that's a huge segment to be ignoring.

Ed played Devil's Advocate at the meeting to help underscore some of the issues that the accessibility movement struggles with. For example, the least expensive (but moderately reliable) program people have available costs about $1300. You and I can download a Web browser for free. If you cannot see, you have to pay $1300 for a decent Web browser, or visit your local library or community center and hope they have the software installed. Many schools and large corporations do make the software available to their students and employees, but Ed really touched home with his point. There is a severe economic barrier to making the Web accessible.

But let's say that good browsing software is made available to everyone who needs it for free. Does that mean that people who rely on specialized browsers have equal access to the Web as those of us who can see? Absolutely not. And that is where I feel guilty.

Most Web sites do not comply with accessibility standards. In designing many of my own Web sites, I have never given any thought to accessibility. I've had no training in accessibility design. The good news for me is that most Web pages that are optimized for search engine positioning tend to be accessible. On-page optimization -- when done properly -- means that if you were to strip out all of your HTML code and leave all your indexable text in place, you'd have a fairly readable block of text.

Many Web pages rely upon non-indexable text to convey their messages: they embed text in images, in Flash, in Javascript, in Java, and fail to include descriptive text in alt= attributes for images. Pages that use tables for positioning (Web page layout) often break up text and scatter it across multiple elements. When you linearize these tables, strip out the HTML code, they look pretty bad.

My tables linearize very well. I use as little table code as possible for my layout. I don't use DIVS and CSS because it takes too long to produce a layout that looks nice. I code by hand so that my HTML code is as lean as possible (well, as lean as I think it should be -- lately I have been stripping superfluous HTML code from older pages to make them even more lean).

The less HTML code you use on a page (and that includes all CSS code), the less time it takes to render the page. Page rendering is usually responsible for most of the delay you experience when you bring up a Web page. Heavy use of tables, images, and CSS really slows down rendering time. New browser software and faster computers compensate for rendering slowdown, but a lot of people still leave Web pages that don't show something within the first 5-10 seconds.

So my pages in general probably rate somewhere in the middle of the scale of accessibility. If you score pages from 1 to 100, with 100 being the best, I'd probably average between 40 and 60 for many pages. Some of my pages are completely accessible even though they use table layouts. But some of my pages would just annoyingly scream at you. They are experimental pages and let's just say that I have occasionally used more H1 tags than are really necessary. When you reverse engineer search engine algorithms, you have to make some bizarre pages just to see what happens.

But I also make liberal use of the bold HTML tag in my pages. I do that to make the text more readable. I hate having to squint at a screen when I read online text, and most Web sites use truly awful faint fonts (mostly light greys in this Web 2.0 world) that just make me want to strangle the 20-something Web designers who rely on them. Maybe my choice of font could be improved, but I don't have control over what fonts your computer supports.

So my pages probably force people to turn down the volume on their screen readers. I'm sorry about that. I wish I had the means to tell your reader to tone it down for you, but I don't know of any way to do that. Accessibility is not just an issue for people who cannot see. It's also an issue for people like me who need to be able to see the friggin' letters.

Web 2.0 is not very accessible, but it can be. Many Web 2.0 designers take no thought for accessibility issues at all. What's ironic is that there are indeed Web designers who cannot see. There are artists who cannot see. There are writers who cannot see. If there is a job that you can do from a desk, odds are pretty good there are blind people doing that job.

Well, I'm not going to be adding any special links or advertisements to the Xenite.Org network, but after last night I'll be thinking about accessibility more often. I'll also devote some time to studying the issues. As I continue to experiment with new page concepts, I'll strive to keep accessibility in mind. I do actually prefer simpler page layouts because they are generally easier to read and deinitely are easier to get ranked in search engines.

Ed mentioned a tool that I'll be trying out. It's called Fangs, and is a FireFox add-on. I don't like FireFox. I think it's an awful browser, but I use it on occasion. So, if you design Web pages and want to test how accessible they are (without spending any money), try Fangs for FireFox and see what your work looks like to a screen reader.

And that is why, if you have a NetSquared group in your city, you should join it and share in the experience of helping to use the Web for social change. We really can all work together to make some improvements in a lot of small places.

Monday, September 11, 2006

I have decided to offer a premium SEO service

Today I added a page to my SEO site introducing SEO TurboBoost. The SEO TurboBoost program reflects what I can really do for most Web sites. Anyone can go out and build links. Anyone can slap together a Web page.

What I do better than most people is figure out why sites get stuck in the search results. And I devise methodologies for those sites to rank better. I've been doing exactly this with my own sites for years, but I've also been helping other people get their sites to start moving up the search results.

I've found that charging a minimal fee for this kind of service doesn't really help. The less money people invest in a turboboosting campaign, the less effort they put into it. I can certainly do all the work, but that is a time-consuming process and it's not what I enjoy doing.

On the other hand, turboboosting Web sites doesn't usually take a long time. I can usually achieve spectacular results (if I may say so myself)in 2-3 months. There are SEOs who ask for a year to achieve results.

The SEO TurboBoost program runs on top of an average SEO campaign. That is, you have to lay the groundwork by creating optimized content and getting about 100 non-spammy links. You need SEO TurboBoost if you cannot rank with 100 non-spammy links. You don't need it if you are ranking well with those 100 links.

This is the Secret Michael Sauce, if you will. What I'm offering is the very best SEO service that I know how to provide. I don't flood you with keyword reports and optimizing strategy worksheets. You should be past that point when you turn to SEO TurboBoost. You should already know where the traffic is. You just need to jump ahead of the crowd.

I don't talk about how I achieve these kinds of results in SEO forums or on blogs. That's why the service is a premium service. You get access to my deepest secrets and my newest innovative techniques (some of which may still be more experimental than others).

People who think they need to just find one more Web directory, one more article archive, one more reciprocal link and all their problems will be solved just don't get it. Sometimes, you really do have to bring in a big gun to blow a whole in the massed ranks opposing you.

That's what I'm good at.

My calendar is fulleth, this week...

Tonight I'll be helping (I think) with some Ballroom Dance Classes for Gloria Jones, give or take.

Tomorrow evening I'll be attending NetSquared in Houston, hosted by Ed Schipul, who seems like a pretty neat guy.

Wednesday, I'm not sure.

Thursday, I would normally be going to the Inklings Roundtable of Houston at the Hobbit Cafe, but this month I committed to helping Gloria with her Thursday night Salsa dance classes.

Friday -- well, Friday I'll be checking out a Salsa group at Azteca's Margarita Bar and Grill in Houston. They may or may not have great music, but they definitely have some of the best White Cheese dip in Texas. Some people say it's even better than Berry Hill's white cheese dip. I like them both.

And then I have to do other things, I'm sure....

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Damn the truth, full elections ahead!

With apologies to Admiral Farragut, I have to say I don't have much love for either Damnocrats nor Ratpublicans. Never really could stand either political party. All of the members of Congress seem willing to sacrifice the needs of the U.S. people and allies for the advancement of their parties' political ends.

The best solution to all the lies that the Democrats are throwing around at the Bush Administration over the war in Iraq is to vote every last member of Congress out of office this fall in favor any independent candidates who are on the ballots. (NOTE: Regrettably we can only cleanse 1/3 of the Senate, but the sooner we get those lying partisan propagandists out of office, the better.)

I realize there are millions of Americans who are blindly and stupidly tied to both the Democratic and Republican parties. We can't do anything about those poor saps, but the rest of us can take action and vote independent this Fall. The government won't collapse just because we vote all the liars out of office.

Do it.

I'm sick of their political agendas. It's time the U.S. Congress work for the American people. All political parties should be outlawed. We'd be far better off without them and their endless, stupid, childish bickering.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Forty years of boldly going where no one has gone before...

The original words in the opening credits, spoken by William Shatner, were:
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Of course, it took a while to get there.

Standard Opening Narration. Is that really Hollywood-speak for "voice-over used in the opening credits"? It sounds almost military.

And one of the oddest things about Star Trek is that it's a show about a futuristic military organization (Starfleet) that bears little resemblance to a military organization. They never had any overprecise jargon such as the U.S. Army's infamous manually operated high impact delivery system (what we civilian folk would call a hammer).

Instead, it was always, "Scottie. Four to beam up." Or, "Uhura, open a hailing frequency." Even Jean-Luc Picard (who violated the prime directive more often than Kirk and fired first more often than Kirk) seldom sounded like a military officer. "Number One, why is that asteroid circling our ship?"

Real military crews, at least in our modern professional western civilization forces, speak with a drilled precision that is as meaningful as it sounds meaningless. The elocution of army-speak is a science waiting to be explored by Hollywood and the television industry. I think it works well enough in movies like "Soldier". You almost hear the jargon in Stargate-SG1 (and I don't mean, "Colonel Mitchell, congratulations on getting the band back together").

Nonetheless, despite its lack of a true militarisic air, Star Trek shaped a generation's imagination. And in ways we never imagined. Today we're more likely to tell people to boldly go where no man has ever gone before when we're angry, or when we're trying to motivate underpaid overbullied corporate workers to be innovative and caring of their bosses' jobs and bonus schedules.

Modern hospitals now have vital sign monitoring stations that, if not quite as cool as those we saw in McCoy's sick bay, at least serve similar purposes. We're using robotic surgical instruments cased in housings placed over patients' bodies, just as McCoy's surgical unit was. And we're approaching a tricorder-like technology where doctors and their assistants can quickly scan our bodies for signs of deteriorating health. Blood sugar and body temperature can both now be checked in a matter of seconds with only the barest of invasive technology.

And that's what it was all about for many of us: the cool technology. The phasers, tricorders, sensors, gadgets, and the oh-so-cool computers and holodecks (which were introduced in the second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation -- which actually occurred several generations after Kirk's day).

But is that what it was about for the people who made the show? One could easily get the impression that it's all about money. But that's not wholly so. In the early days, it was also about passion.

Passion is what makes great things great and bad things evil. You put enough passion into a cookie, and the memory of that delicious savoricious moment will stay with you forever. You fill your soul with enough hatred and you become as memorable as Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, two of the most evil men in human history. They will be forgotten, in time, but for now we remember them for their godless crimes and sins because they really, really enjoy(ed) being evil.

If Star Trek is to continue, Paramount needs to understand that it will make more money by not caring about money. It has to care about discovering the impact of technology and new ideas upon the human experience. Star Trek has to struggle with moral questions. It has to ask why we're in Iraq without mentioning Iraq, and it has to make the explanation sound as plausible as the rebuttal.

Star Trek has to resonate with the generation that grows up with it. The Viet Nam War is over. Kirk and Spock no longer have to agonize over whether to give weapons to one side or the other. And while we may be in danger of losing ourselves to global warming or other human-influenced traumas of the environment, we need to find new voices to ask whether playing with the DNA is an acceptable risk.

Star Trek thrives as it moves forward. I hear a new ST movie about young Kirk and Spock is in the works. Maybe I'll go see it. Maybe not. At this point, it sounds about as interesting as dustballs under the bed. Looking at the young Kirk and Spock is hardly a step forward. Maybe that is why Enterprise only lasted four seasons. Instead of looking forward, it looked back.

In my opinion, it's time to move on. We've spent 40 years in the desert. We don't need to go for 50. We can see the promised land. Have we not yet purged ourselves of past sins, so that we can all go down into the land of milk and honey?

Star Trek needs to boldly go where nothing (in the human experience) has gone before.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Dancing the night away...

I decided to try going back into Gloria's advanced Salsa class for the first time since my surgery over the Memorial Day Weekend.

I like to died in there.

Last year a doctor told me your body loses its muscle tone after three days of inactivity. Imagine what it's like after three months of relative inactivity. I've got my work cut out for me.

Saw a lot of old friends in the class: Terri Alcala, Rosalia Vasquez, and several other folks. I actually didn't do badly for all that I nearly burned out (low blood sugar). I cut out about 10 minutes early because I didn't want people to see I was getting the shakes. Well, at least I know now what I can do at that level. I'm almost there but not quite.

Advanced Salsa dancing is strenuous for a number of reasons. A couple of doctors have told me that two hours of vigorous Latin dancing is equivalent to running a marathon. I believe them. You can dehydrate quickly and go through several bottles of water. You can also burn through your energy reserves quickly. It's not a good idea to eat a heavy meal before dancing, but a protein-rich meal is helpful. Does this sound like a tutorial for body-building? For any physical activity, you need to make sure your body can handle the demand on its system.

The move Gloria is teaching this month is pretty cool. The ladies are starting out with a fair nubmer of twists and turns, but they are going into a windmill maneuver I have never seen before. That is so, so cool to watch. I know they'll all want to dance it in the clubs in a couple of weeks. The timing is pretty critical. Sometimes you can draw out an advanced move by throwing in an extra basic until you get the timing down, but that isn't really feasible with this move. Timing is everything, and it takes me a while to get my timing back.

Gloria and I have discussed briefly whether I'll formally help out with the club nights again. I went to the Tropicana Nite Club Saturday because Gloria had sent out an invitation. Through a mixup (I think because of a large reservation they got) the Dance Passion table reservation was not properly booked (though I know that Lan talked to the club in advance). Anyway, we got the tables worked out and had 15-20 people show up. It was a great night, I think. I was a bit worse for the wear because several ladies wanted to dance and there weren't enough dancing guys to go around.

I'll be helping to register some of the classes again this week and over the weekend. I'm not sure yet of where I'll be helping out, but I'll probably be working with one or both Pre-Intermediate classes again. Mostly I'm there to help the guys work on their footwork. I don't dance as much as I used to, but it really depends on what the mix in the classes is and how I am feeling at the time.

In other news, I've also been launching my search engine optimization consulting practice. Among other things I've had to do is clean up some of the mess that Xenite.Org has become. People look at your work and judge how well you can do by what you are actually doing.

I've also had to out one of my better performing commercial search expressions. I took the top spot for a highly competitive expression this year and have to say that it doesn't produce a whole lot of traffic. And most of the inquiries, unfortunately, come from people who don't yet know where they are going with their online businesses. You need a clear goal in mind before I can help you.

And you need to give me your telephone number. Believe it or not, I've received inquiries from people who say they need help but they munge their email addresses and don't provide any contact information. Um, yeah, okay, maybe you need help, but I cannot do SEO by osmosis or telepathy.

And I have permission to write about Miss Cute Reluctant again. She was, earlier this year, the most popular topic on my blog. I yanked all the references to her out of concern for her privacy. After I did that, my blog traffic dropped by 40% and it's just now getting back to where it was when I stopped writing about her.

We've been talking and she has said a couple of times that I can write about her again. But I'm not sure what to say, at this point. I think people would enjoy reading about our adventures, but it would be incredibly difficult to maintain the level of privacy that I feel would be appropriate.

Well, suffice it to say that I'm occasionally spending time with someone I find to be extremely interesting. Maybe one day I can write a book about her or something. Just my luck, it will become a best-seller and she'll say, "Why didn't you write that book years ago?"

Hey, timing is everything.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Superhero Rites of Passage and Other Momentous Ramblings

I watched "The Incredibles" again a couple of weeks ago...or maybe last week...sometime recently. I don't have much movie-watching time these days so which flick I pick for my personal viewing pleasure becomes a hard choice. If you have read my review of 'The Incredibles' on Epinions, you know I like the movie. One of the scenes that stands out is where Helen (Elastigirl) hands masks over to her children, Violet (Invisigirl?) and Dash (Speedy Dashales?).

Up until this point in the movie, Helen has been careful to teach her children not to use their super powers. Not even for good, because the government has forbidden the Supers from being super. The only times you see the kids really use their powers is when they misbehave. The movie clearly shows that any use of super powers is a bad thing because it's illegal.

But once the family passes into real danger (not coincidentally becase Daddy Incredible has been breaking the law by using his super powers), things change. It's now imperative that the children learn to use their powers for good and not for selfish reasons. Violet has already failed to perform once by this scene, whereas Dash did okay in getting himself, Violet, and Helen to safety.

Helen explains to the kids that play time is over. They are now in the real world where super-villains kill children who get in the way. It's time for the kids to grow up and use their super powers for good. She concludes the lecture by handing masks to the children. They've already stolen their costumes and put them on. The message is that anyone can put on a costume. You're not really a super hero until you have earned the recognition of being heroic (or at least capable of being heroic). The kids are put on a sort of probation status by Mom.

This reflects on the sub-story of Syndrome, Mr. Incredible's nemesis. Syndrome's diabolocal plot is to make himself super by killing off all the real super heroes and using his inventions to wow and amaze people. He never quite realized that being a super hero is not about wowing and amazing people; it's about saving the world when the world is in danger. In their own ways, both Mr. Incredible and Syndrome underscore just how dangerous super powers really are. Mr. Incredible endangers the public with his rash, self-centered thinking; and Syndrome literally threatens the public in order to advance his career.

Mr. Incredible does a little (late) growing up in the movie as he realizes that there are more important and valuable things than simply wowing and amazing the public. He may have earned his mask once before when he left super hero school, but he forgot the most important lessons he had been taught. He had to be stripped of his mask and thus had to earn it once again.

The movie implies that only two of the original super heroes were morally just: Frozone and Elastigirl. Neither one was sued by anyone at the end of the Golden Age of Super Heroes (the movie implies at least a couple other supers were sued besides Mr. Incredible). And neither Frozone nor Elastigirl wanted to use their super powers again (Syndrome was able to entice most of the Supers out of retirement with the hope of reliving past glories, and they paid for that desire with their lives). Frozone only uses his powers reluctantly because of his friendship with Bob (Mr. Incredible). Helen does so only out of necessity as she tries to keep her family from becoming Federal inmates.

It is thus appropriate that Helen confers the mask upon Violet and Dash. She has remained pure of purpose. It is also appropriate that Frozone survive Syndrome's nefarious scheme. He really does understand what the greater good is all about (and it's not always about his wife).

It is very symbolic that Mr. Incredible, when he resumes his super hero career in full, cannot fit well into his costume. It's not that he has outgrown the costume so much that he has failed to maintain the high moral standards for which he earned the costume in the first place. And he only reluctantly accepts a new costume. He doesn't feel like he needs a new costume because he has already earned and trademarked a costume. But he's tarnished that costume. He has even damaged it. The costume represents his reputation, and he has ripped his own reputation by illegally using his super powers.

Mr. Incredible only earns the right to wear his new costume (and mask) when Helen forgives him. I think that moment comes at the end of the movie, when she truly realizes that it is no longer all about Bob, it's about Bob protecting others (his family first, and the public second). He comes full circle. He has been purified by his humiliating defeat at the hands of Syndrome, by his heart-felt remorse for his own stupidity, and by his newly regained sense of sacrifice. He would rather die than see other people get hurt.

These are moral lessons we learn and forget every day. We don't have to be super heroes to earn the right to wear the mask. The mask represents an adult's moral responsibility to society, to make a contribution without seeking personal gain and glory. Millions of people earn the mask every day. Millions of people are stripped of the mask every day.

The best that we can do is try to show that we deserve to wear the mask, and not to give up if it is taken away from us. You only lose the mask for good reason, and you only get it back for good reason. The choice is yours to make.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The freedom to be stupid, or, how to become an American billionaire

A friend of mine called me up this week and asked if I was going to attend Dragon*Con. Man, I wish I were, but I had taken so much time off my job this year that I didn't feel I could afford to take an extra day. So I made no plans to attend the convention, which is just as well, since losing my job on Monday has made me a little more cost-conscious for now.

Although I still have an income from my Internet consulting, every day is a new day for me. I wasn't planning on joining the ranks of the self-employed this year. I have been down this road before and it's as rocky today as it ever was. The challenges are often rewarding, but having to drum up business for myself is kind of a drag. When I was living on gambling, if I needed money I'd go down to a local casino and hit the slots.

That worked well for about 2-1/2 years, until the week I lost $3,000 and then I decided maybe I'd better get a real job.

As a writer I've made some money from books, articles, and work-for-hire projects. For the longest time, the most money I made from writing came from work-for-hire. I had to put up with hooty-snooty authors who supported themselves under their own names telling me I wasn't a real writer. Maybe not by their standards, but a check in the mail is worth the cash I can get for it. Some work-for-hire projects pay very, very well.

I have made money off my books (more off Visualizing Middle-earth than off Understanding Middle-earth, oddly enough. I'm not sure what it says about an author whose self-published reprint of previously published essays outsells a vetted, editorially chosen book (that is admittedly an update on mostly previously published essays). Understanding Middle-earth is, in my opinion, the far better book. It is certainly larger, but the essays were all revised and updated, and there is one essay in the book that you won't (legally) find elsewhere.

Well, the book sales have fallen off and I suppose I could write another book. I actually sent a manuscript to my agent last year but she asked me to find four others like it for comparison. At the time, there were no other books like it, so I let the project drop. Last fall, about six similar books came out....

I could, in theory, just get in the car and drive to Atlanta and show up for part of Dragon*Con. Maybe I could still buy a plane ticket, but the cost of airfare these days is outrageous. While I'm glad that the airlines are becoming profitable, I'm not glad to fly. Not only is it more expensive than it used to be, it is a great deal more inconvenient. The security measures we have to put up with are just not worth the hassle -- which, of course, is why many people insist on flying. They don't want to give in to Osama Bin Laden's terrorism. Me, I was never really a fan of flying anyway.

Now that I have the freedom to do what I want, go where I want, I'm still really not free. I have a responsibility to myself to keep paying my bills. So, it would be nice if I could win the lottery, but the chances of that happening are zilch. I don't buy lottery tickets.

People used to say to me, "Michael, you're a programmer. You should be able to get a programming job. There are lots of them." Yeah, lots of jobs programming in languages I never heard of. Most companies want to hire programmers who are at least aware of the basic syntax of their chosen programming languages. I was an expert in Business Basic, a language developed for mini-computers.

I used to work for Basis International, Ltd., one of the leading providers of Business Basic. Things went sour there when they brought in a new president who decided he wanted the company to go in an entirely different direction. He dropped their most profitable product (it brought in $600,000 in revenue in 1996 with virtually no support costs), fired over half the staff, and launched not one but two redesigns of the flagship programming language they offer -- redesigns which have driven most of their old customer base to a competitive product that was in many ways inferior to Basis' offering at the time Mr. Marketing Genius took over.

My Web design skills have never been more than adequate. It takes too long to design snappy, glitzy sites. I would never have built Xenite.Org into a huge mega site if I had stopped to make things look pretty. Now programmers, Web designers, and search engine optimization specialists snicker at my ugly pages. But I get more visitors than they do. And if I want a top ranking for a query, I can pretty much get it faster than most other people.

So, snicker away, dudes. You may have pretty products, but you're still looking to me for advice and analysis. What does that say about who is freer than whom?

We're all bound to each other. We're like slaves in a galley, chained to the oars of progress, forcing each other to keep rowing because none of us can really get ahead of the others.

Maybe it's just because I don't have much of the kind of savvy that makes a Bill Gates or Larry Page a billionaire. These guys are not particularly brilliant in a technical sense. In fact, their flagship products (PageRank and DOS) leave a lot to be desired from a technical point of view. But their marketing savvy is unquestionably outstanding. Anyone who can take an inferior product and sell it to an unwitting public for billions of dollars has to be smart in some way.

Or just really, really lucky.

Maybe my problem is that I haven't come up with enough stupid ideas. If I can just devise the next Really Stupid Thing, people will buy it and make me rich.

And then I'll be able to buy my own plane and fly anywhere I want to. I'll be free at last, free at last, free at last.

So, stay tuned, keep coming back, and cross your fingers. I'll do my best to come up with something really stupid for you to spend your money on. You're always free to buy some other idiot's dumb idea, so what have you got to lose?