Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Archeology of HTML

Repost | 11/01/2011

I was helping Vanguard Technology (VT) migrate content from a small association's Website to a content-managed redesign. VT is using the Telerik Sitefinity CMS, which has really impressed me. I was given a step-by-step procedure and pretty much am following it in "robot mode." I have Sitefinity and the Website open in Chrome and the spreadsheet matrix of all the pages I'm working on open in Explorer via Google Docs, arranging the windows to click from one to the other. Underneath them all I'm running Spotify and listening to music as I have always done throughout my career. I think it's my ADD solution for concentration: overwhelm senses and focus ... something like that.

My big question: whatever happened to macros? Word allows you to create macros but it's so much smarter than me. I load an HTML file into it and without my consent it "value adds" more than two cents' worth of absolutely unnecessary code when my project calls for refining the code to bare essentials. Give me the pre-Windows WordPerfect, where back in the day, this ability to create macros meant in mere seconds you have a transformed file exactly the way you wanted it rather than Microsoft's idea of "what you really wanted." So it goes, and so I have a routine using Notepad deleting all the unwanted formatting codes.

I load the html content into Notepad and from the bottom use the up key to view the left-hand margin for the various abuses of p-breaks or no-breaking spaces between p-breaks (thank you Word Press for not letting me use codes here) to create line spacing. Need to find span for underlining and other abuses before I can whack the span breaks and so on.

As I go through year 2003 to the present, it's interesting to see the code getting less exasperating, for the most part, and I wonder if the early versions of these newsletters suffered from being done in Word with all the erratic coding that it often introduced. Example: the presence of extensive style codes and color designations tells me Word has been fussy about fonts. Just Saying. The association's Web editors seemed to tumble to the excesses of Word and in so doing, the files get cleaner as we near the present day. (One of the last ones I worked on took a half hour because almost every p-break was formatted, requiring a hunt of every instance of "span" and "style=" I could find.) Of course, we're migrating the content, the final shakedown in repurposing old text-based documents, kicking and screaming into the new age of electronic publications.

I'm not going to say it was fun, but it beat the hell out of filling my day scanning Indeed.com for work.

Note added 11-2-11: I decided to see if Codelobster had macro capabilities. It does not, but it saves all the items I've searched for so I can use a dropdown rather than type them in, and also serving as a reminder of what I need to hunt down. It highlights search items in yellow and gives me a count of replaced items, so I know that if I get rid of a specific span item (they used underline alot), and nuke the end-span codes, if the numbers don't match, I need to go after more spans. I also don't have to worry about word wrap issues that Notepad presents. Big thumbs up for Codelobster and a head scratch for why it took me so long to tumble to using it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Counter-Intuitive Conferencing

Repost | 08/08/2011

During this prolonged period of unemployment, I began using Weight Watchers Online (WWO) and have dropped 20 pounds since April. It's really important to have positive things going on when you're in my spot career-wise.

One thing I've noticed about WWO is that McDonalds has a vast listing of their food on the WWO database. You type in McDonalds and you will find what the points are for almost everything on their menu. It's my understanding that they have to pay to have these entries listed. And you have to wonder why the red and yellow target of so many who descry fast foods as the enemy of good dietary practice would willingly submit their products to this kind of scrutiny and pay for it. A double cheeseburger alone is a third of my daily alloted points.

Why do they do this? Because if I so choose, I know what it's going to cost to indulge myself and on a rare occasion, stop at McDonalds. What this indicates to me is that the folks at Mickey D have done their homework. They understand the WW philosophy: you don't have to go cold turkey on fast food, only be aware of the cost when you indulge yourself. I have no idea of what the ROI is on that investment but I'm impressed.

I'm going to change gears now and try to apply this approach to nonprofits and conferences. A superficial analysis of the conference experience might lead one to think that the keys to raising conference attendance is to promote high-profile keynote speakers, provide engaging programming, entice popular exhibitors to attend, and find great cities and services to draw in attendees. All well and good. But the foundation of the conference experience is social and professional networking.

This conclusion is not drawn from polling attendees because I wonder if this foundation is even part of their consciousness. From my experience as a facilitator at many conferences and meetings, my observation is that the interaction of people at conferences is what brings them back even when the keynoter is not on one's personal A-list, the programming or the schedule sucks (sorry for the use of technical language there), and going to exhibits is an obligation one would rather avoid. I think the underlying driving force is people wanting to see the people on the other end of their emails or phone calls.

Let's go one step further, because right now most conferences and meetings are hurting big time. Is it because of keynotes, programs, exhibits, or location? Yes, it's due to the economy ... but again, the underlying factor is the absence of that core network of people who take the conference as an opportunity to reconnect. If colleagues A, C, F, and J aren't going, I'm not compelled to go unless one of those other "superficial" assets is an almost once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

If you're with me on this, then it's entirely possible you'll jump ship when I return to my usual theme of how Second Life is the Next Big Thing for handling conferences and meetings. If face to face networking is so important, why would virtual conferences even be considered as some kind of alternative? As you read this (August, 2011), the Second Life Community Convention is going on and people from around the country are converging on San Francisco to attend both in actual and virtual forms. You will walk through the host hotel and see people online inworld. Two things are going on here: we are social creatures and the face-to-face experience is second to none in fulfilling that need. But when you've experienced colleagues in the virtual world, the face-to-face is compelling. It's the next best thing.

Oh yeah? What about Skype? you may ask. Well, I can see the actual person and hear him or her. Speaking from experience in talking to my son overseas and attending business meetings, the video portion of Skype grows old in minutes! I am observing the person (or people) on the other end. Even if the camera is wheeled through an exhibit hall or aimed at some kind of demonstration of a product, I am detached from the event, as an observer. This is true for just about any kind of virtual meeting format where video is thrown in. You know I'm right, there's a huge difference.

What happens in Second Life is immersive. You are not an observer, you are a participant. You may be chatting via text or speaking via voice, but more than that, you are doing something together with the other avatars.

When you understand how significantly different this experience is from observing something via Skype or other conferencing tools, then you can realize that virtual conferences via Second Life provide a compelling alternative to the face-to-face experience when someone cannot afford to attend the face-to-face version. An alternative, not a replacement.

I have heard this several times now that the hotels around O'Hare Airport do great business because of the central US location. People can fly in from around the country just to meet for a day and discuss business. The NFL Owners did it a month ago. And I suppose when you're talking about billions of dollars' worth of business, a round-trip flight in and out of Chicago is just a blip on the expense account. But it could have been done in Second Life for a lot less.

Second Life is not a huge investment. It does require investments of time for the participants to get oriented to the way it works. (Ask me how, I can help you.) But the cost of tickets for a dozen people to fly to Chicago pretty much covers the cost of a very simple parcel or sim in SL and my services to make it work. It's a hedge investment. Kinda like what McDonald's has done in spending money in a territory that on the surface seems quite hostile to McDonalds' business plan.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I feel so much better! (Uncanny Valleys)

Repost | 04/05/2011 with updated links and revisions

I've never really been bothered that my avatar doesn't look like me and because of the present technology of Second Life, cannot look like my actual person. Nonetheless, I've read articles that bemoan the "retro" appearance of SL avatars and that people are looking for a better, more realistic platform. But it's now possible that when they find that realism, they may be ... um ... creeped out:
A theory called the "uncanny valley" says we tend to feel attracted to inanimate objects with human traits, the way a teddy bear or a rag doll seems cute. Our affection grows as an object looks more human. But if it looks too human, we suddenly become repulsed.
Instead of seeing what's similar, we notice the flaws — and the motionless eyes or awkward movements suddenly make us uncomfortable. (See AP article "Too real means too creepy in new Disney animation" and more recently, a review of the new Tin-Tin movie)
What a relief! (Although, looking at some of the things that mesh technology is allowing creators to do, we may get some first-hand experience with the uncanny valley!)

I was in a conversation with a good friend the other night who felt that avatars cannot duplicate the authenticity of face-to-face discourse. For his side of the debate, he posited that eighty percent of communication comes from the unconscious, non-verbal gestures and facial "language" occurring in a face-to-face situation. My response, having experienced avatar-to-avatar discourse on a near-daily basis for the past four years, seems weak in comparison: I know authenticity when I experience it and it happens in SL.

I tried to counter his main point by stating that the avatar is an abstract expression of the actual person's unconscious as well as conscious attempt to create a virtual self. When you see my avatar, you won't see a middle-aged man with double chin, receding hair, buddha paunch and all the prejudgments that unconsciously creep into someone confronted by that appearance. My avatar is neutral in that regard. Perhaps that is an advantage rather than a disadvantage in communicating. It takes into account that "uncanny valley" by avoiding realism as well as unconscious prejudices.

Maybe, when all that unconscious verbiage of facial expression and body language is set aside, words become a more important part of the conversation. Even if a person is struggling to get his or her text to say what he or she wants, you, the listener/reader, aren't distracted by interpreting unconscious baggage but actually struggling to understand on the basis of creating a relationship free of the "thin slicing" of our own unconscious prejudices. In a situation where Voice is used, you have the vocal subtleties without the visual baggage.

On that basis, I say score another point for the power of presence in Second Life to create powerful relationships in a superb virtual social networking framework.