About a blog: How to increase your hits

In the scale of navel gazing this has got to be right up there, but over the past few days I have been thinking about this blog and what I have found out over the past 15 months. So I am now going to create a blog post all about creating blog posts.

When I started to write this blog I had no clear idea what I wanted to make it into. I saw it as a forum for mainly technical items that would be a work in progress before uploading to a permanent location on another site. I also realised that there is an example of the type of entry I wished to create: It shouldn’t be a random comment on something I have seen or read, but rather should contain some original thought and try to reach a logical and sensible conclusion. As I thought about more and more I realised that I was, in a very small way, creating my version of Alistair Cooke’s venerable and much missed ‘Letter from America’

Of course the original intention of a technical forum was now pushed to the back and I posted on the vagiaries of the world. And as I posted I monitored the hits and watched what people were reading. Here is what I have learnt:

  1. Most recommendations say that you need to create decent sized postings to keep people coming back. This appears to be true
  2. You will create many, many postings but most visitors will only read 1 or 2 really popular posts. And you probably won’t know which post that will be until after the stats come in
  3. Almost no-one clicks on the hyperlinks in a post (even when you completely expose the URL)
  4. If you really want to increase your traffic then create a post with certain key words in it

This last point requires some explanation. In April 2008 I created a post that attempted to discuss the nature of art, photography and whether a photograph on a magazine cover should be an accurate representation of the image recorded by the camera. All heady stuff, except it was inspired by a TV show called ‘Dawn Gets Naked’ and considered the examples of photo manipulation performed on Faith Hill and Kate Winslet on the cover of Redbook and GQ.

So, at various points in the post there are the words “naked”, “Kate Winslet” and “Faith Hill”. Oh boy, do I get a lot of hits on that post. And I am guessing, but it is only a guess, that most people who have typed ‘faith hill naked’ into Google were not expecting to read a blog posting that discusses the evolution of painting techniques and creating accurate oil colours to depict an english monarch from 900 years ago.

My only hope is that a small number of people who arrive at the site looking for Kate or Faith read the article and stay for the thought and comment. Although, saying that, do I really want someone interested in naked pictures of Kate reading this? Well that is the beauty and terror of a blog- you have no idea who the vast majority of readers are. So welcome, one and all: Batblog is still here and still growing. I’ll keep posting, I hope you keep reading

When did walking become a Driving Offence?

As part of moving house I had to update the address on my driving licence. And the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency kindly sent me a new licence and some information about my licence including a section describing the penalty point codes that I will accrue if I commit an offence. Most of these point codes are exactly what you expect, apart from this one

Code Accident Offence Penalty Points
DR60 Failure to provide a specimen for analysis in circumstances other than driving or attempting to drive 10 points

If I read this correctly then I am extremely worried. Imagine the following scenario: I decide, as an adult that I wish to go out and drink a vast quantity of alcohol. I am a sensible (?) and law abiding citizen so I decide not to take my car with me and so after consuming said vast quantity of alcohol I am staggering home. At which point a policeman stops me and wishes to breathalyze me. As I have done nothing illegal I refuse to provide the sample.

According to the information above I will now accrue 10 points on my driving licence as I “failed to provide a specimen”.  I was nowhere near my car so I am clearly “in circumstances other than driving or attempting to drive”. In fact I had conciously decided to not drive my car and yet I am still have the potential to be penalised.

Surely I have got this wrong?

The Difference is Day and Night

The nature of modern living means that we are frequently forced to do the same task over and over  again. One of the great things about the world is the way things subtlety and imperceptibly change but ultimately thoses changes are quite significant. So although we are doing the same thing as we did yesterday the experience is wholly different.

I recently had to drive from the UK to the Netherlands. I had made the same journey about a year ago when I moved into my apartment there, and now it was time to move out. Of course, there is often more excitement about moving into somewhere new than moving out of it; and in my case this was more so given that the apartment I lived in for a year was in the heart of old town Delft, overlooking a canal and quite simply stunning. I had decided that I wanted to live there, not because it made any financial sense, but because I needed to feel as though I had a ‘home’ whilst I was away at work. In this respect it ultimately performed magnificently, although there was a period when I was sleeping on the floor and had nowhere to sit down that I doubted the sanity of the decision.

And so, unlike a year ago when the world seemed full of promise and the excitement of living in a a fantastic apartment, it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I drove across southern England, northern France and Belgium. I had the added disadvantage of the fact that last year I made the journey is a really rather spangly car, whilst this year the journey was in that ultimate ‘white van man’ vehicle; a Ford Transit. But with all of these differences what really hit me about the two journeys, and how one was so much more pleasant than the other was the time of day I drove.

Last year I left my house early in the morning, drove off into the rising sunlight and cruised through France and Belgium around lunch time. It was glorious- my car seemed to hug the road and although I got lost around Antwerp (thank heavens for Sat Nav this year) and got stuck in traffic jams on the way back, the whole trip  (there and back again) was a fantastic journey. Although I wouldn’t want to do it every week I was quite happy to do it again.

This year I left my house in drizzling rain as dusk fell: The rest of the journey was to be in the dark. Due to my usual combination of appalling planning and preparation I was forced to eat at a typically grim motorway service station before, just like last year, tunnelling under the English Channel and emerging into France. And as I emerged the fog came down. I had never used a sat nav in 3D mode to guide me along a road and tell me when to turn, but I did that night; I spent as much time looking at the road layout on the screen as I did looking out the window. Obviously from the fact that I am writing this I didn’t crash and die, but I would not recommend it as a sensible way to drive. Somewhat effective in fog, but not sensible.

Later the fog lifted and the sat nav managed to take me the right way around Antwerp. As it was now well after midnight the roads were clear and the driving was easy, but it just wasn’t pleasant. It was functional, it was necessary but it was not enjoyable.

And it was only slightly different on the way back; I managed to leave earlier in the day so I was able to drive in that beautiful half light that occurs as the sun slowly sets out of a clear sky. I have heard that film directors call that time of day the ‘magical time’ because people have been working all day and are a little prone to mistakes- it makes for wonderful film-making and I think it is probably my favourite time of the day. It was certainly more pleasant than the five hour drive that I still had to do after darkness had fallen.

And it was at this moment that I realised that it wasn’t the car/ van difference that was critical to the experience, nor was it moving in or out of the apartment: The difference in the experience was almost entirely due to the fact that one journey was in daylight and the other in darkness.

I have had this experience once before: I was working on a seismic crew in southern England and we worked from 7am to 5pm, 7 days a week all winter. This meant that, wherever we were staying, we would leave it before the sun came up and come home after the sun had set. Apparently we were living in holiday homes that people would pay good money to come and stay in, but to me the houses were cold, unpleasant and nothing that I would want to visit ever again. Until one day I had to go back to the house where we were staying at lunch time. Instead of the usual dark, gloomy driveway suddenly I saw a beautiful garden, with an orchard behind it and in the distance a view across the rolling southern hills that was quite stunning. Had I never gone back to that house in the daylight, it would have remained a grim, foreboding place. Instead, although much of my time there was indeed grim I was able to see it in a far happier light.

And so it was with the drive to and from the Netherlands; had I only made that journey in the dark I would have resented the time it took, despised the inefficiencies of the route and disliked the whole experience. Because I had done it in daylight I can recognise the pleasure that driving across a continent can bring, the feeling of elation as a car powers along a road and the ultimate joy of seeing the world around us.

Keeping Fit

I have a passionate dislike of gyms and fitness centres in general. But put me on a field, a pool or a court and tell me to run around after a ball, a disc or a shuttle and I will keep going all day. Which tends to result in a mismatch between my aspiration to play and the actual fitness level I possess.

As often as possible I try to simply incorporate a better lifestyle; so I walk or cycle to work (not across the ocean, obviously, that would just be silly) whatever the weather and use the stairs instead of an elevator for anything up to 5 storeys etc etc. But there is also nothing like a little incentive to make you more enthusiastic about actually doing something about it, and the Fitness Challenge is really good for that.

The premise is simple: In each 24 hour period starting at midnight you have to do 100 situps and 20 pressups (pushups). You get 1 day off a week and just keep going as long as possible. It is great and I have attempted to convince many people to get involved. Sure, normally I have had more than a couple of beers when I try to convince them so I may not be the most persuasive advocate at the time; hence this approach.

Oh, and the final cool thing about it: You are doing a ‘worthy’ thing and most of the $15 it costs to join goes to charity. Well there is nothing like a little cash involvement to keep you  committed. Anway, sign up for it by sending an e-mail to thefitnesschallenge@gmail.com and tell Fred that you know me.

Quo Vadimus

Like all good stories this one is about a girl. And like too many of them the road has highs and lows and may not end with a ‘happy ever after’. But life is bigger, more fantastic and holds more possibilities than any one girl, so although I tell this story now, who knows what the future will hold. To some this posting may seem a little too personal, but I have never had a problem telling people about myself (I like to think it is the one subject that I can talk on with some authority) and who knows, this process may be cathartic.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will have noticed a fantastically optimistic posting towards the end of 2008 and a distinct lack of anything new for much of January 2009. Now we find ourselves in February and I am back posting. Guess what? All three things were somewhat related as the optimism in the post resulted in the possibility of a relationship, only for it to be crushed as January turned to February.

The story of how we met is a good one: a chance meeting on a plane and a joyous grasp of life. It evolved into fairly deep conversations and a total wonder as to whether or not this could possibly be really happening. At the time I was assured that this sort of thing did happen, I guess with hindsight that the chance meeting on a plane and disappearing off into the sunset is a dream that struggles to stand up the harsh test of reality. I told a number of people about the girl & how we met and pretty much unanimously they advised to be slow, cautious or guarded. But I am afraid that it is not in my nature to hold back; I fall deep and hard, full in the knowledge that it most likely will end badly, but the risk in my approach to grasp life in its entirety is that I experience the lows to go along with the fantastic highs. It is the price I pay for being so optimistic, so open and quite possibly being somewhat naive.

Even as we embarked on the journey it was obvious to see the many, significant challenges ahead: her personal situation, our geographical location and our entirely different professional lives. But she seemed to be happy to overcome the travel & logistics, the difference in professional lives just meant that there was a whole new world to learn about and the personal situation was going to become clearer as time went by.

And I guess that the personal situation did indeed become clearer. Unfortunately for me the clarification to the picture involved the removal of me from it. So, as I posted once before, I find myself contemplating diving into the heady world of dating and who knows what adventures will come of it. Of course there is a possibility to short cut this somewhat terrifying prospect: If you are a single woman or know of any single women who are open to something new, please feel free to get in touch. Maybe 2009 will be as great as the portents held; and wishing for a whole year of wonderful things happening is naive in the extreme. So I look forward to what the future holds; we live in interesting times and although I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone I recognise it is a necessary component of life.

In fact, to put a positive spin on things, this is an opportunity to fully implement one of my philosophies of life. The motto is simply “Quo Vadimus” which I am reliably informed translates as “Where do we go from here?”. I am entirely unable to claim any originality in the motto- I first came across it in an episode of a truly wonderful TV show called SportsNight. In the episode a stranger explains that although he is a “phenomenally successful man” he has failed much more than he has succeeded. And each time he fails he gathers all the people who are important to him and asks the question “Where are we going?”. The point being that it is not possible to change the past, all we can do is work out how to move forward with the all the information available to us now. And by looking forward the situation gets better.

I do not presuppose myself to be anything like phenomenally successful, in fact a few years ago I realised that by many measures one is a nicer person if the drive to succeed is curtailed. Of course, given the evidence presented in the story about the girl then maybe I should just stick to trying to be successful because it sure does appear as though I am not succeeding with women, but let’s gloss over that for now. So despite not being like the stranger, I thought that looking forward after a failure was a fantastic approach to life. And at times like these, such as when a relationship has not worked out, using a philosophy like Quo Vadimus forces us to focus on those things that we can still control, those things that are a constant truth and the things that are genuinely important to us. The recriminations, the remorse and the regret have their place, but not for long. By focussing on the future, the past becomes a lesson to guide us and improve us- it doesn’t dominate our lives and it doesn’t paralyse us into not taking the chance again, should it ever come up. I hope the chance of another story involving a girl occurs, but then I am still an eternal optimist.

I know I shouldn’t laugh

Normally I try to make a point with each post, but this one just deserves to be seen by as many people as possible:

It is the tale of a skier who suffered a ‘wardrobe malfunction’. Oh go on, just read it
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7816336.stm

and if you are really masochistic then there is slightly larger version of the picture

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/08/americas_enl_1231348412/html/1.stm

Frequent Travellers and Possibilities for the New Year

Most weeks of the year I catch a plane from Birmingham to Amsterdam; and a lot of those weeks I come back again too. Yes this does result in a carbon footprint the size of a small 3rd world country and from an ethical viewpoint I struggle to justify the choice in terms of better career, more money, the fact that as a divorced father I don’t get to see my kids every night or simply the fact that this is the only life I have ever known. But the truth is if I have to stay in one place and live a ‘normal’ life I get bored rigid; so I keep traveling. What makes this all the more ironic is the fact that I suffer from motion sickness; I have barfed on boats and ships that were still tied to the dock; cars, coaches and buses on just about any kind of road and aeroplanes even before they doors have closed (though that may have had something to do with the vast amount of Guinness I had consumed the night before). And yet I still travel on the same flight every week.

You may think that I would be the only person on the plane making the journey on such a regular basis but there is probably somewhere between a dozen and twenty people all flying the same route and always the same flight-times. Over the weeks we start to recognise each other- not only the faces but the look on the faces. It is a world weary look, a look that has been through the check-in so many times, a look that knows exactly what to take out of a bag at security but mostly a look that simply wants to get onto the plane, open a book or close a pair of eyes and have the next few minutes of life pass as quickly and painlessly as possible. For those unable to sleep the look can be described as bored or possibly simply exhausted but it is a haunted look found on just about anyone who travels a lot, particularly those who travel for business.

My own personal routine, particularly on the 6am flight from Birmingham to Amsterdam involves a window seat, a sleep mask and a pair of Bose QuietComfort headphones (incidently I cannot rave highly enough about them- anyone who flies a lot, or even those who fly a little but like to hear the dialogue on an in-flight movie, should have something similar). On numerous occasions I have been able to fall asleep before we take off. Sure, I know I should listen to the safety announcement, but that means losing 10 minutes sleep and it is not as if there is going to be anything happen that I haven’t seen a hundred times before.

Except that every now and then some different does happen. And this is the point of this post: On my last flight of 2009 I was sat next to someone who so totally grasped life that it was just impossible, for me at least, not to get sucked into a wondrous experience for all of the 55 minutes of the flight from Amsterdam to Birmingham. Sure I tried to avoid getting involved- the Quiet Comfort headphones went straight onto my head and my laptop came out: I was going to inhabit my own world of peace and quiet and write a blog entry (the first part of this blog entry in fact). But then I allowed myself to open a little to the possibilities- for example it is just possible to gain a greater experience by interacting with people, rather than just writing about observing them. So I joined the conversation and the wonder began: we swapped silly stories and we laughed; we shared experiences and offered sympathy and understanding. I like to think that all three people sat in that row got off the plane with a slightly richer life. I know for sure that it is unusual to hear that amount of fun and laughter on a plane; we received several ‘looks’ from the passengers on the other side of the curtain in business class (to this day I do not know if the looks were of disapproval or envy, but I like to think the latter). And none of it would have happened had I remained closed to the possibility the world offers or if my fellow passengers had decided to just try to pass the time as painlessly as possible.

When I tell people about the journeys they I take they often look a little envious at a glamorous lifestyle of flying around the world, a notion I am often quick to dispels. The novelty and excitement of catching a flight soon pales; but it shouldn’t fade because even though it happens thousands of time every day the mechanical act of getting several hundred tonnes of twisted metal into the air is truly spectacular. Even more than that, and on a human level, if we are open to the wondrous possibilities out there, even if ‘out there’ is sat right next to us, then the world has the chance of being a brighter place, a better place, a place with more fun, laughter happiness and joy in it than we could ever have conceived.

And won’t it be a great thing if just a few more people open their ears, eyes and hearts as a new year beckons. There is beauty in the world. And fun and laughter. And sadness and sympathy. But it is the whole of the world that makes it the truly fantastic place it is: Sometimes we look around and become very complacent. We become inward looking. We lose the ability to grasp the world and see it for all that it is. Whatever the new year brings to you, I know that I will try to enjoy life more deeply and whatever  it brings. And all because of a chance meeting with a stranger on a plane.

The meaning of ‘broadcaster’

I have commented before on the fact that I tend to prefer to receive my news and entertainment from publicly funded sources such as the BBC or CBC or PBS. I don’t believe that this is due to wanting to follow the official line but rather the fact that when I listen to the radio in particular, but also when I watch television I don’t always want to hear or see the familiar, expected or normal. Fortunately, there are presenters who epitomise these ideals, unfortunately, they appear to be getting rarer.

Two presenters in the UK who truly represented the ideal of a broadcaster were Humphrey Lyttleton and John Peel. I am expressing nothing new to anyone who listened to either of them to say that they were legends of their respective genres, bringing new music to at least 2 generations of people who would hide a radio under the bed sheets late at night and listen in to new and wonderful sounds.

Humph presented ‘The Best of Jazz’ for 40 years; each week his 1 hour show would introduce something new to even the most hardened jazz fan, whilst to me as the jazz neophyte it was all new. But the authority in his voice and the history of his playing meant that I wanted to listen and I wanted to like the music. Now, admittedly I didn’t like it all, but then that is the point of the broadcaster and it brings me neatly onto John Peel.

John Peel presented a show that towered over the independent music scene in the UK for three and a half decades. As he himself once put it “If there is an ‘up-and-coming band’ that I haven’t heard of; they aren’t”. He famously championed the Smiths, the Undertones and the Fall. But he also played a significant part in the development of the following:

  • Pink Floyd
  • David Bowie
  • Joy Division/ New Order
  • Billy Bragg
  • Blur

I could go on, but you get the idea- it is not a bad resume to have. The thing that staggers me is that not only was his influence immense, but the length of time he held it for was truly mind boggling. Especially when you listen to some of the, quite frankly, dross that he played. But the entire ethos of John Peel, and I like to thing of Humphrey Lyttleton too, was that presenters on a broadcaster should “not give people what they want but what they didn’t know they wanted”

And that to me is the beauty of radio and the ultimate downfall of the iPod. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am, unlike Alan Sugar, in no way saying that the iPod is dead or even likely to go away any time soon, in fact I have just seen a lovely little MP3 dream machine that I would love to find under a Christmas tree (preferably paired with a nice set of headphones too). But, here is the thing, unless I have been doing it very very wrong with my iPod you will never suddenly hear a track that you have never heard before, but that blows your mind, causes you sit down and just lose yourself in music for the first time. There are many songs that have the same effect even after repeated listenings (Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ makes me cry every time I hear it on a decent stereo system), but I propose that there is still something just incredible about hearing a song for the first time.

Unfortunately, the majority of my praise for Humprey Lyttleton and John Peel is written in the past tense as they have both passed away. And in this era of fragmentation, market segmentation and focussing on the customer we are in danger of losing their like. There are radio stations and presenters who continue the tradition, and just as Humph and Peel were, they are shoe-horned into the late night slots, the out of the way schedule and the hard to listen to radio stations. But for people who like to hear something new, with absolutely no guarantee that they will like it, I suggest 6Music (available on digital radio in the UK and via the interweb throughout the world) and in particular Guy Garvey and Clare McDonnel or Alex Lester on Radio 2 (you might want to be a bit careful with the rest of Radio 2 though- it gets a bit cardigan cuddly middle of the road most of the time).

Reasons to live where we live

This is not a big post, nor is it particularly insightful. But as I receive the weather reports for Calgary (oh the joy of customising the feed of information into your own browser) I realise that I know what is the 3rd most important reason for not living in Calgary:

Calgary Weather Forecast

And people in England complain when the temperatue drops into single digits. Ha! They know nothing

Airbrush Outrage (again)

If you are going to make a point and convince people of the validity of it, then you need to be

  1. Correct
  2. Succinct
  3. Provide irrefutable evidence to backup your point

I learnt this when I was 17 and studying geography and admit that I need to remember #2 more frequently when I blog, but then I am not a professional writer with an editor to whip my words into shape. Unlike, say the Daily Mail. Which attempts to make the point that Jessica was airbrushed to look thinner on a calendar for Campari. And the evidence they provide is this photograph:

Jessica Alba before and after photo manipulation

Jessica Alba before and after photo manipulation

We can all agree that the image on the right is different from the one on the left is different, ergo it has been manipulated. Check for requirement #1. Also, presentation of the offending images is certainly the most effective way of explaining the problem. Check for requirement #2.

The problem with the Daily Mail’s outrage is that they have not presented evidence to justify their position. A brief look at the image on the right shows that it in no way resembles the  photo on the left, even a child can see the background is completely different. Furthermore, closer examination of Jessica Alba shows that this is almost certainly not the same before image used to create the after (her hair is different, her knees are in different positions, her head is held at a  different angle etc) So to agree with the Daily Mail we need to accept that the pool background can be changed and no-one should care, but because there is a person in the front it must be a truthful representation and we have to accept their (possibly flawed) evidence as proof.

Sorry, but the image on the right is art. Just as van Gogh, Picasso, Francis Bacon or Turner created images that were based on what they saw, so have Campari.In the case of the Jessica Alba she has provided the muse, the inspiration and the source material to create something that will adorn the walls of thousands of people. And Campari have even tried to head off the criticism by providing a behind the scenes look at the photo shoot– in fact, it looks as if the Daily Mail have taken one of the behind the scenes shots (i.e. not a photo taken by the photographer) and used that as the photo on the left. Now, if the behind the scenes photos have been retouched, then we have a problem. Otherwise, can’t we just look at Jessica Alba?

I have already commented on the practice of photo manipulation and wondered whether an image that is considered ‘photo realistic’ needs to resemble the source material and therefore convey the truth. For the record, I don’t think it does, but that is for a different discussion. My concern here is more that an established media outlet has expressed outrage, without presenting evidence for it. And, here comes the kicker in this connected age, other sites such as the Huffington Post and now Batblog itself are further perpetrating the distribution of the error. Hey, this is the way invasions can be justified…