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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Attracting Comments

I had fully planned to write a post on blog comments this week. By coincidence (I swear) this weekend brought some of the strongest feedback I’ve received so far. A recent post on a woman who searches for cars illegally parked in spots reserved for people with disabilities attracted a couple of angry violators.

I've never garnered much feedback with my writing, although the only other time I had the opportunity to attract any was with my disability-related articles at the Inquirer. Evoking response seems critical to a good blog, and important to good writing in general. (Traffic helps too, but that's another issue.)

As I mentioned, both folks commenting over the weekend were rather pissed. So, is that the secret? Tick folks off, and have an active blog! Nah. There must be more to it than that.

A recent scan of my comments revealed a few more real comments than I thought I’d received. There were a few thoughtful comments on a book or two that I’ve reviewed, which are always welcome. Then, of course, there are the weak attempts to post links to other blogs, which I delete. Look, I don’t mind subtle efforts to garner traffic, but commenters with their own traffic hit counter in mind should offer up more than this typical spam:

Hey :)
You have a great blog here, keep up the great work! I'll definitely bookmark you.
Do you wanna check out The Coolest Guy On The Planet's website?
Check it out if you get some time, and I'll be sure to check back here regularly!

I mean, at least act like you read the post you’re commenting on. By the way, I removed the link encoded in “The Coolest Guy On The Planet’s.”

My favorite comment so far? My review of Maze received this reply:

i can tell by your review that you must be a white guy,its not uncommand for some races dont get(not understanding or not feeling the music) some of our best music. i was at that concert in new orleans when it was recorded,and his slower songs,well you have to feel what he is singing as well as listening to it, then you might get it. but it is almost impossible to to even think that he has never won any type of award, but yet all of his concerts sell out of tickets,and just about every black person 38-39 and above owns atleast one copy and in some cases the entire collection. those who really know r&b knows that he is amoung the greatest,smoothess soul singers that is still alive today. to get it you might have to listen to (look at california,the golden time of day, oh well the entire antholgy 2 disc set). better yet see if you can find a concert that he is doing,and when you do,then you might get it.scott

I love that — honest and heartfelt, without attacking. Plus, he’s right . . . I am a white guy . . . and, he’s probably right . . . maybe I don’t “get” Maze enough to offer a better review.

But the question remains: What gets people to take that step to actually go to the trouble to add a blog comment? Steve can’t be the only black guy to have read my Maze review who thought I’d missed something. What got him to comment, when others just moved on?

I read a lot of blogs, and I’m guilty of commenting in the hope of attracting traffic to my site (though I at least make my comments relevant). It also takes a lot to get me to post. Usually I have to feel knowledgeable about a topic, have a very strong opinion on it, and, generally, disagree with the blogger.

That seems to be the key for evoking posts — generating disagreement. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, because that would seem to be just one more indictment of the internet, if not society.

Hopefully, a commenter or two can shed some light on the topic for me.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

‘Salem’s Lot — Book Review

The recent re-release of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot finally got me to pull my copy off the shelf. I bought it years ago as part of a three-in-one volume, which included Carrie (the book this aspiring author wanted to read after learning it was King’s first) and The Shining. Carrie and most of King’s short story collection Everything's Eventual : 14 Dark Tales had convinced me that I’d read enough of King. While Lot was a little better than the rest, my opinion of the horror writer only changed minimally.

Ben Mears returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot to conquer the nightmares that have persisted since he entered the storied Marsten House on a childhood dare. Instead, Mears learns that something truly sinister is going on in the town, and ends up becoming part of the last line of defense for the small town in Maine against a vampire.

Unlike most of what I’ve read from King, Lot presents a decent story — assuming the reader doesn’t minding suspending disbelief — that is given a full ending. My experience with the stories (of which I did not read all) in Everything’s Eventual was that the “king of horror” would take a promising story and ruin it with out-of-nowhere violence that merely ended as opposed to concluding the tale.

Horror fans will not be disappointed, though. While my copy lost what I’m sure was a particularly gruesome and apparently symbolic killing of a dog to poor production, there was plenty other chances for me to be horrified and reviled. This, of course, is a compliment to King. At least once or twice while reading late at night with no one else home, I’ll admit to hearing a few more house-settling noises than usual.

The story, after a mildly slow start, keeps you reading at a good rate. It’s more event-driven than literary folks looking for character development might want, but it works.

Unfortunately, King’s overzealous storytelling and desire to be a literary author trips him up every now and then. For example, at one point a member of Mears’ vampire-killing-crew must escape being tied up. King oozes with childlike excitement describing a technique for escaping such predicaments the kid (and no doubt King, as a kid) had read about in a book. At another stage, and this might be too picky, Mears is said to shrug in the midst of an otherwise horrifying scene. I just felt like there were moments, even within this solidly entertaining story, that I was tolerating a story from an energetic kid looking to impress.

The main reason it takes some effort to get into the story is that King’s attempt to give his readers a real sense of the town is overdone. He almost loses the reader as the main characters take forever to emerge. His use of fictional newspaper clippings, which is also found in Carrie, doesn’t work well either.

Even if you’re not a horror fan, ‘Salem’s Lot merits, just barely, being worth the read. It has at least boosted my opinion of King enough to know that I will pull the volume off the shelf again to finish the set with The Shining, though I admit the performance of Jack Nicholson in the film — which is apparently vastly different from the book — has a lot to do with that. (I do not recommend the three-books-in-one publication; it’s bulky as hell, and the production at least on mine was poor.)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Crusader for Accessibility Banned

Yesterday’s South Jersey section of the Philadelphia Inquirer had a story on Maryann Cottrell, who spends her free time searching for people who park illegally in spots designated for people with disabilities. Cottrell, the mother of an autistic daughter, takes digital photos of offending vehicles and takes the evidence to municipal court. In three months, according to the story, she estimates she’s been responsible for more than 300 tickets, including citations given to Philadelphia Eagles Donovan McNabb and Jeremiah Trotter. Both are fighting their tickets.

Cottrell may be going a bit overboard with her efforts, but the open disdain showed for her activities is outrageous. Lawrence DiVerto, a business owner caught in his own lot, called it “undue harassment.” The Glassboro Police Chief, Alex J. Fanfarillo, said, “I don’t know if it’s worthwhile.” Worst of all, the story said public schools in the area and Rowan University have banned her from their respective properties.

Let’s be clear on this: Rowan University, a supposed institution of higher learning, has banned a woman from their property for her nonconfrontational efforts to enforce a law on her own time.

This is absolutely absurd. I don’t care how much you want to roll your eyes at her efforts. Personally, I mostly just glare at the lazy able-bodied morons who are hustling in and out of their illegally parked cars while I lower my ramp for my wheelchair. It seems to go right over their heads, but I really don’t expect much more from these people.

But it is flat out wrong for public institutions to take a blatant stand against this woman. Ignore her? Fine. Wish she’d go away? Ok. Ban her? No way!

We all loved it when Jerry Seinfeld made fun of handicapped parking spots. My family and I laughed at the line that went something like, “Do handicapped people drive?” for all the same reasons others did . . . and because I’d just started driving.

Hopefully, Seinfeld was poking fun at the generally accepted ignorance on the subject. Clearly, officials in South Jersey missed the subtle aspect of the humor.

The fact is that with their actions, Rowan and the others have clearly stated that accessibility for people with disabilities is a nice, politically correct notion but little else. They are essentially taking measures to protect people who are choosing to violate the rights of people with disabilities to have equal access. Instead of trying to enforce the law, they’ve chosen to protect dumb, lazy, ignorant elitists who think the extra effort to either find an open legal spot or walk a few extra feet is beneath honoring the small concession to accessibility spots designated for the disabled represent.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Blogging for Dollars

If you read a lot of blogs, you have likely noticed a “tip jar” link or two. I want to say it’s the latest way for bloggers to make cash from their blogs, but I’m sure someone out there has had a “tip jar” for years. (It seems everything uncovered on the internet has been around for years, or at least someone who claims it has been.)

Apparently, readers can now tip their favorite blogger through PayPal or other systems. It’s the modern equivalent of the glass on the piano of lounge acts, I presume, or the brash cousin of Google AdSense.

AdSense was the final lure that got me into blogging. The program seemed easy enough — place Google-generated advertisements on your site, and earn money if readers click on the ads to check them out. Of course, you can’t click on your own ads for obvious reasons. You also cannot put blatantly obvious suggestions that folks click on your ads — no bouncing arrows pointing to the ads saying “Click here to support your favorite blogger.”

Fair enough, I thought. And while I didn’t expect to make tons of money, nor am I about to add a tip jar to my blog, I’ve been curious about how I stacked up against other AdSense users. Google prohibits you from discussing profits — at least that’s what I read somewhere — but let’s just say I won’t be going anywhere on my profits any time soon. At this point I’d like to note that I’m not criticizing the AdSense program. There are two very important reasons for that: a) I genuinely have no complaints, and b) after what I’ve been reading, if I was criticizing the program, I’d expect two goons to knock on my door and snap my neck minutes after publishing this post.

The first thing I found in my efforts to size-up my fellow Google ad participants was that there’s plenty of people out there who want to sell you their idea for maximizing profits from the program. Googling “adsense” revealed:

AdSense Ready Web Sites: 150 Content Rich Web Sites; Instant Download & Easy Setup

Earn $1000 a day on-line: Amazing Internet Earning packages; Very low cost of ownership!

Amazing Adsense Secrets: If you can copy & paste, you can make $1000 per day in your pajamas

AdSense Ready Web Sites: 300 Content Rich Web Sites; Instant download now

AdSense Pays Me Too Much: I Make $16,768 Monthly With AdSense; I'll Show You How In Free Video

Own an Adsense Ready Site: Instantly build your own Adsense Empire - Only $99.95

AdSense Secret Tool: Adsense Tycoon reveals his Secret Tool for making Tons of Cash online

$100,000/month guaranteed: Start earning within 15 minutes! Step-by-step instructions - $39.90

Anyone want to bet these promises are a bit hollow?

Eventually, after wading through techy after techy discussing the ins and outs of the algorithms, clickfraud, etc., I found a little bit of what I was looking for. From

I hear from a lot of different Google AdSense participants about their results with the program, and it's surprising to me how many say that they're quite dissatisfied with their ability to monetize their traffic. Some will share comments like "I earned $18 last month, so I've decided to just drop out of the program entirely." It's their decision, but I have to say that a little bit of effort put into customizing your AdSense ad blocks and learning about how to fine tune your use of the AdSense system can really pay big benefits in terms of you truly understanding what is and isn't working on your site.

Eighteen bucks a month? I’d be doing cartwheels if I was in that range! Ok, maybe I’m a lightweight. But I kept looking, and offered:

I had the privilege to interview a regular guy (not a well-known ‘Guru’) who claims [he is] making more than $200 a day with Google AdSense Program.

C’mon. This is depressing. Then I found this at

OKAY...I can testify that Google Adsense is for real! I received my first check from Google today, and I am really excited. . . . I was skeptical at first when I signed up for the program because I had tried [many] other affiliate programs and never saw any money! I started with Google on July 15th last year. I design websites and figured I could place the Google ads on all of my own personal websites and blogs and at least some of my client's sites as well.

This seemed a bit more reasonable. Tons of work for little reward. I won’t bore you with the rest of what I found, but it was pretty much more of the same.

I learned a while back that writers better love the process of writing, because the odds of making a lot of money at it are slim to none. It seems the same should be told to future bloggers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Two for the Money — DVD Review

I waited so long to see Two For The Money that it may have had little chance to live up to my expectations. Unfortunately, I really don’t think elevated expectations were the real problem with the film.

I couldn’t figure out why it was in and out of theaters so quick. The promise of getting some real insight into the world of high-stakes sports betting seemed like it would draw every guy that ever dropped twenty bucks on an NFL game. Add Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, and Rene Russo, and this seemed like a hit waiting to happen. While releasing the DVD during the build-up for the Super Bowl gave it a boost, the answer to my quandry seems to be that the film didn’t deliver insights or even a hint of the “rush” gamblers seek.

McConaughey portrayed Brandon Lang, the real-life college quarterback who suffered a career-ending knee injury before ever reaching the pros. He becomes a sports handicapper, and the fun-loving, small town boy soon finds himself working for Walter Abraham (Pacino), head of one of the biggest sports betting consulting firms in the country. Lang becomes the stud of the firm, looks to Abraham as the father figure he never had, and let’s success go to his head.

There’s an attempt to make the film about more than Lang being hot then cold, but it just never goes anywhere. Abraham and his wife, Toni (Russo), battle different addictions, Abraham is suffering from poor health that’s never really explained, and a relationship between Toni and Lang becomes a lot of nothing.

The only insight offered into the gambling world seems to be that the so-called experts don’t really have more of a chance to beat the spread than anyone else. If your expectations aren’t too high, Two For the Money might be worth watching for fun while looking for something better.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Unicorn — Book Review

Looking for something new to read that fit the budget — free — I rummaged through the box of novels I was forced to buy for college that professors (or I)never got to. Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn didn’t seem like something I’d normally choose to read, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Murdoch brings her readers to a fantasy world that is nonetheless grounded in the familiar in The Unicorn. I’ve seen it characterized as sophisticated gothic and a modernized fairy tale, but it seems more like an anti-fairy tale that examines the way people can literally be trapped by their own thoughts. Though a little difficult to get into, the uniqueness of the story makes it worth the effort.

Hannah lives in a castle surrounded by well-meaning folks, living what most would consider a rather strange life. Her husband insists that she live there against her will for an incident in which she is accused of trying to kill him. Her innocence is presumed by those her husband has apparently arranged to live with her, and he hasn’t lived there in years, yet she remains. The ongoing question surrounds the issue of why she doesn’t simply leave.

The symbolism of the title is the basis of my anti-fairy tale categorization. Hannah, clearly “the unicorn,” is less than pure even from the unquestioned facts. She has a lover out of wedlock, and there’s the suggestion of at least one other. Eventually, without giving too much away, her innocence from her husband’s allegations becomes murky at best. In other words, she’s not exactly upholding the purity of the mythological unicorn.

Murdoch does a great job of creating the fictional setting. It’s truly a world all its own, yet doesn’t merely leave reality in the dust. The landscape blends with the awkward, strange people living in the fairly isolated place that is described in less than inviting terms.

The book opens through the eyes of Marian — the latest servant, in this case a tutor, hired to essentially be company for Hannah. As the strangeness of the Gaze castle unfolds for her, she is sufficiently, though just barely, shocked. Set up as the every day person entering this strange world, her reactions seemed just a touch too tame for me.

A switch in point of view from Marian to Effingham, Hannah’s lover, adds to the author’s ability to keep the reader unsettled. Normally that’s not exactly a compliment, but I think it was intentional here. The author subtly never allows the reader to do exactly what the characters have done — settle into an incredibly odd circumstance.

The exploration of the idea that Hannah and, in some ways, the others were trapped by nothing more than their own thoughts never truly got off the ground. However, there are a few plot twists that will keep you guessing and interested enough to keep reading.

It’s tough to place this one on The Casual Critic scale. I would say it’s somewhere between worth reading and just entertaining.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Information Overload

I was doing my half-hour on the bike the other day at the gym, and a feeling I've been having for quite some time returned. As satelite radio blared in my ears and I stared at an expert on one subject or another on Oprah, CNN, ESPN, and at least one other channel, trying to tell me what I should know, or should be doing, or who, as a matter of fact, was going to win on Sunday, I wanted to make it all go away.

Just make all the noise stop. All the advice be silent. Hush all the experts. Have all the opinions be held. The cliches, the infomercials, and, yes, even the blogs, all take a day off.

The irony of writing this in a blog is by no means lost on me. And, no, I’m not suggesting I should be the one heard above the endless hum of the world. God help us all should that day ever come.

But I began wondering how and/or why it was determined that we needed opinion, after opinion…after opinion…on every piece of news. Just like everything else, the concept of expert analysis has been bastardized into sticking a microphone on to the lapel of anybody with an opinion. In fact, we’re often treated to panels of these so-called experts.

Even worse, I think, is the ferocity with which every opinion seems to be offered. It’s no longer Sunday morning discussion on the key issues of the week; it’s daily, heated debate on whatever’s hot that hour. Viewers and radio listeners and blog readers are generally screamed at, berated, and supposed to feel stupid if we disagree with what’s being said, while being bombarded with information, opinion, the latest controversy, disaster, urgent yet relatively unknown impending planetary disaster – ok, I’m exxaggerating, but only a little – or whatever else the young producer looking to climb up the network corporate chart comes up with.

There’s so many daily shows “discussing issues” it’s absurd. One show on ESPN literally has a host that gives points for good comments, and the commentater with the lowest total is eliminated as the show goes on. If that’s not a sign that we’ve crossed a line somewhere, we’re just not getting one.

As I pedaled, I wished I was trapsing through some lost trail out in the woods somewhere hearing nothing but my own breathing, tires crunching the dirt, and maybe a bird or two that skipped the flight south after hearing predictions about our mild winter. For years now I’ve had this idea of living in a log cabin somewhere, away from the world where my true genius as a writer could escape. Not exactly original, I know, and, being a guy that gets around the outside world in a motorized chair, not real feasible either. But lately this feeling of being overloaded by opinions has me wanting to pull the plug on the information highway.

For now, I don’t have any spiffy ending for this post. But, if you’re not too busy listening to someone you never heard of before tell you why your life isn’t all it should be, feel free to offer your suggestions.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Flashing Before My Eyes — Book Review

Despite swearing off sports-related books after reading a number of them last year, Dick Schaap’s autobiography, Flashing Before My Eyes, had taunted me from the bookshelf long enough. Luckily for me, the recently deceased sportswriter who devoted his life to his craft, left us with a view of the last half of the 20th century’s sports scene, and at times just the last half of the 20th century, through the stories of his acquaintances with those who made the headlines of the period — seemingly all of them.

It’s a coincidence that I finished the book during Super Bowl week, but incredibly fitting. Sports’ biggest party will again be without the guy who could have introduced just about any celebrity gathering in Detroit to any other celebrity in the place to be seen. Schaap, no doubt, would have made some sort of quip about Detroit, of all places, being the place to be seen, and done so without offending even the most devoted resident of Motown.

“Name dropper” is usually not a flattering moniker, but Schaap accepted it with pride. He didn’t really know everyone, but while reading this book you’ll think he did. From President Bill Clinton, Norman Mailer, Bobby Kennedy, Wilt Chamberlain, Joe Namath, to Muhammed Ali, Billy Crystal, Bo Jackson . . . I could go on, but as Schaap admits, the list is almost as long as the book . . . the lifelong reporter either covered, befriended, or wrote a book about them. Sometimes all three. He even covered the Son of Sam, and likely resisted the urge to offer to ghost write his book based on his ethics, smothering his pursuit og a good story.

Schaap proves to be a master storyteller, crafting tales which entertain, inform, and never bore. My favorite was his recollection of his wife meeting Chamberlain, who claimed to have had sex with thousands of women. After shaking hands with the basketball legend, she asked if that “counted.”

Schaap covers a half century of sports without ever detailing a game, which just never works in a book, yet makes readers feel as though they’ve been there for it all. Having watched him on ESPN’s Sports Reporters until he passed, I do think his frequent punchlines are as telegraphed in writing as they were on the air. That minor flaw does little to detract from insights he offers into people and the many jobs he’s held, including that of broadway critic, which I found especially interesting. At times I felt a bit overwhelmed reading about all he had done in his career — his first 10 years constitute my dream career for the rest of my life — but a bump on my ego was more than worth reading the book.

Sports fans can’t ask for more from Flashing Before My Eyes, and others may want to make a point to read it.