University of Death reviewed in Metal Hammer magazine

30 August 2008

Metal Hammer September 2008 coverThe new issue of Metal Hammer magazine (dated September 2008) includes a review of my novel 'University of Death' on p91. The review says the book is:
"A fun novel about the problems faced by musicians in making their mark on a music industry that's falling apart. A bitter satire that works its way up to a memorable finale."
The full review makes reference to my non-fiction book 'Small Business Websites That Work' and says I'm letting my hair down here and having some fun. It's a comical observation in some ways, although there's no reason why someone shouldn't be an expert on website building and a passionate music fan. My press backgrounder for UoD mentions my non-fiction books as a way to establish my credibility as a published author. It's one way to differentiate myself from the many self-publishers out there, some of whom (whisper it now) aren't very readable.

For independent publishers, reviews are a valuable way of demonstrating credibility and publicising books, and I'm delighted to receive such a positive endorsement from Metal Hammer magazine. I'll be updating the book cover with this review quote. Although the book isn't available in the shops, each copy that's lying around in somebody's house or workplace is also an advert and good cover copy can help others to take an interest in the book and start reading.

The editor kindly published my website address with the review, although the exact URL published was unfortunately wrong. I've fixed it on the server so it redirects, but I'm also going to count the number of visits originating from that review, which will be an interesting experiment. It's difficult to attribute any sales or website traffic to particular coverage, but I do have an opportunity here to tie up the review with the resulting website visits (even if I can't follow that through to sales at the moment).

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Wild Mood Swings updated

22 August 2008

One of my other websites, Wild Mood Swings has just had a major update, incorporating lots of new moods and weeding out some sites that don't offer a great experience any more.

Wild Mood Swings enables 'mood surfing' - you pick a mood and the site whisks you away to a website appropriate for that mood. Sometimes the sites you're shown will reinforce your mood and sometimes they will attempt to change it, but the hope is that each visit provides a fun or satisfying user experience.

The site was originally hosted here at and will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. I'm hoping to raise its profile - it gets lots of positive reviews on social networking sites but that hasn't translated into many organic links or blog posts about it.

Any feedback on the site or how to promote it appreciated.

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Garfield Minus Garfield: The book

14 August 2008

You might already have heard of Garfield Minus Garfield, a cartoon strip created by Dan Walsh by editing Garfield out of the original cartoon strips. You're left with Jon, a lonely man who appears to be slowly cracking up. The empty frames create a sense of time crawling along.

Creative projects like that are risky - it's not uncommon for the original artists and writers to stamp out unauthorised derivative works. Jim Davis, though, has been supportive. He told The Washington Post (and much kudos to Walsh for getting his site covered there) that the site was "an inspired thing to do" and he wanted to thank Walsh for "enabling him to see another side of Garfield".

Now, there's going to be a book that puts the original Garfield strips alongside Walsh's edited strips. This seems like a great way for Davis to celebrate Garfield's 30th birthday, and it's a nice model for how cartoon strip writers can involve readers and package user generated content commercially.

I'm curious about how Walsh's creative input is being recognised - I doubt he's getting a half share as co-author, but I hope that his creativity is being compensated fairly. Particularly since a lot of people who have never bought a Garfield book might be inspired to do so because of the 'Minus Garfield' juxtaposition.

Scott Adams has mashups on his Dilbert site, which enable readers to replace his final frame with their own punchlines. Visitors can vote on which jokes they like best. This could make for a great book too, although the main value is the way that it involves the readers with the work and inspires them to visit Adams' site every day.

I have heard a conspiracy theory that the Fred Bassett cartoons are all missing a final frame which contains the punchline, which is why they're mostly unfunny. Perhaps that could be the next candidate for a writer-reader mashup?

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Javascript string compression tutorial, including search and replace

12 August 2008

When I created my Writing Wisdom widget, which is available to embed in any blog or website, I spent some time working on string compression. Using a simple search and replace script that substitutes short symbols for frequently used character sequences, I was able to cut about 15% off my filesize. I've written a tutorial to explain Javascript string handling, including take-away scripts for search and replace and text compression in Javascript.

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The trouble with adult education

09 August 2008

The trouble with adult education is that it's typically run by institutions that usually cater for school-leavers. Universities might need to treat full time students like cattle to cope with the vast numbers of them they have, but people who have left full time education and moved into the workforce expect more respect than that. When people are paying money, they expect something that resembles customer service.

I've been to three different places offering courses to adults in the last couple of years. After I'd cleared three consecutive Saturdays for a course at one of them, the tutor said 90 minutes into the first session that she couldn't make the third session. At that institution, it took months longer than promised to get test results back. Needless to say, if I missed deadlines and meetings like that in my job, I'd be out of work.

At two other places, lessons have been cancelled without me being notified in advance, leaving me with a wasted journey.

I do understand that things change. But as a customer, buying a service, I expect to be told when there's a problem in advance so that I don't waste my time.

The signal that universities send to their students (both full time and part time) is that it's okay to be disorganised; it's okay to miss deadlines; our time is more valuable than yours is; you need us more than we need you.

That's not true, of course. I value my time highly and when institutions waste it, they lose my lifetime value as a customer. At a time when most universities and colleges are trying to get more money in from the private sector, they need to be more business-like. If you're selling a service, you behave like a service industry. You follow the benchmarks for communications set by organisations like Amazon. When things go wrong, you say sorry and make sure it doesn't happen again. You don't just shrug your shoulders and say 'that's just how it is today. Live with it.'

I am strongly opposed to tuition fees, but if anything good can come from them, it will be that students will start to demand a better service from their educational institutions. They'll start to expect the kind of customer service they deserve if they're investing thousands of pounds in an institution.

(For more on customer service, see The Customer Service Pocketbook.)


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Swap your books with other readers

07 August 2008

Here's a website recommendation I've been meaning to make for a while: Readitswapit (site no longer live as at July 2018). You upload a list of books you're prepared to swap. You can then find people who have books you want and ask them if they want to trade. If so, they get the pick from your list. You both post the books at your own expense, within two days, and then leave feedback on each other.

The system works very well, drawing in book descriptions and artwork automatically from Amazon. The process assumes every book is equally valuable, which you could argue is a flawed assumption. But if you're parting with a book you don't need any more, it doesn't really matter.

I've made a few successful swaps on there, releasing old books that were cluttering up the place and replacing them with new books I really want to read. I should confess I have cheated, though: I have swapped books I never got around to reading, which seems to go against the site's ethic as expressed in its title (assuming it is read that rhymes with red). Still, if you don't tell anyone, I think I'll get away with it.

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Nintendo News: Korg DS-10 and Guitar Hero

05 August 2008

I've read a few reviews online of Guitar Hero on Tour and the new Korg DS-10 synthesizer for the DS, and there have been several uncertainties, which I can clear up.

Guitar Hero on Tour for the DS is great, first of all. The medium difficulty level is perhaps not challenging enough - I've only got through the first 12 or so songs, but I've completed them all on the first attempt. The hard level is a whole league more difficult, so the game levels aren't quite pitched right. But gameplay feels natural and the songs I've played so far are all good fun. I was surprised that I did know some of the songs although I didn't recognise them from the titles in the song list. The fret buttons plug into the GBA socket. One review I read said that it keeps falling out and is too small for adult fans, but when the support strap is properly tightened, I've had no problems at all and the buttons are the right size for my grown-up fingers. Playing with two hands (the other hand strums on the touch screen with the plectrum provided) feels natural and more engaging than simple two-handed button-based gameplay. If you've enjoyed the previous incarnations of the game, this feels like a home from home. If not, it's as good a place as any to start.

Secondly, Korg DS-10 does indeed support English by default. In fact, it doesn't appear to support any other languages. It's only available in Japan at the moment, and reportedly only available through Amazon in Japan, which is making it quite expensive to import. The manual is only in Japanese, but you should be able to muddle through okay - I've had no problems understanding the basics of the interface, although I still need to work out how to use the sequencer. So if you're up for some DS music making, you can import it with confidence. I previously previewed the Korg DS-10 here.

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Kylie Minogue at the O2

03 August 2008

There was a good family atmosphere at this week's Kylie Minogue concerts at the O2. Before she came on stage, the cameras were pointed at the audience, prompting the kids to giggle at their faces on the giant screen and the twentysomethings to flash their gold hotpants. With the mix tape playing before the show, and the crowd involved from their arrival, it felt more more like a baseball game than a concert. Perhaps that's because I usually go to rock concerts, and this was the best in pop music.

If any proof were needed of Kylie's broad appeal, you only needed to visit the merchandise stand. Goodies ranged from sticker sheets at a pocket-money friendly £2, up to signed coffee table books weighing in at £250. Every purchase came with a 1.2ml sample bottle of her latest perfume. She isn't just a singer, she's a brand.

Kylie on stage at the 02

Kylie at the O2. Photo ©Ian White. Used with permission

And she's always been an actress, of course. There are brief moments where you see a flicker of something in her face that quickly fades, and you're left wondering how much of the real Kylie came out to play tonight.

I've seen Kylie before, back in 1997 when she was writing songs with the Manic Street Preachers and lost her core audience for a while. That was at the Shepherds Bush Empire, and a very different production to tonight's show.

At the O2, the scale of the show was much bigger. There were dancers and acrobats, glitter cannons, and balloons falling from the ceiling with Kylie's name on each one. Video screens behind the performers and under their feet across the whole stage made each mini-set look different. There were seven costume changes, including Kylie as a cheerleader while the dancers were American Footballers, and Kylie flying in on a giant silver skull wearing a red uniform.

The setlist concentrated on her latest album X, which is no bad thing. It's a strong album, with the opening track Speakerphone, the singles Wow and 2 Hearts, and the album tracks Like A Drug and In My Arms being as strong as anything she's released before. The track Nudity didn't quite work, but it was the only misfire. The rest of the songs were drawn mainly from the albums of the noughties, which made for a consistent disco-led set. When the drums kicked in on an extended version of Slow, it was particularly powerful and I enjoyed hearing Love Boat, Can't Get You Out Of My Head, and Love At First Sight.

The unaccompanied introduction to Step Back In Time reminded us all she can really sing. This show was a proper live gig, with the exception of a playback rap on Shocked which masked a costume change while Kylie was backstage. Shocked and I Should Be So Lucky were rare concessions to the past, and the Deconstruction years were overlooked. I had hoped to hear Confide In Me, which would have brought a nice contrast to the set.

For all the show-womanship, the production was really about live music. The band was tight (including Kim Wilde's niece on backing vocals, trivia fans), and Kylie focused on the vocals. Her own dance moves were relatively limited to avoid exhaustion, where others before her have often chosen to mime instead. The whole show was uplifting and positive. Good, honest, family fun.


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