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Funny Story

Our delivery man always talks sports:

“We had softball playoffs last week. Church League, not the Adult Men’s League.”

So you don’t get to drink beer at Church League?

“We still drink beer. We just have to do it quietly. One guy was sitting in the dugout and got out a beer and just as he cracked the top, there was a lull in the noise. PISSH, real loud. So the ump stops, puts his hands on his hips and turns and looks at him.”

“‘I could throw you out for that’ he says. And my buddy with the beer says, ‘You’re just mad because you want one.'”

“And you would not believe this Church League. The Adult Men’s League, we just have fun, you know? But these Church League people fight over every stinking call.”

Does every player think God must be on his side?

“Maybe that’s it but I have never heard such language.”

OK, not my site. My site shows up well. Do a search for “photographer Camden Maine” to find out.

A friend asked why her site wasn’t showing up in a Google search. The first thing to ask about this is “What search terms were you using?” She was using the terms that best summed up what she does (let’s say it’s “widget design”), plus “Maine” which is where she is. And she was nowhere in Google’s results, which is bad.

“Search Engine Optimization” is a whole field, separate from web design, and I don’t claim to be an expert. The basic steps as I understand and practice them are:

1. figure out your keywords

What is some stranger who does not know your name or business name typing into Google to find you? This will include all permutations of your products or services and possibly your geographic location. So it might be “Maine widget design” but there are bound to be other words that will lead those customers to you.

2. sprinkle said keywords on your website

Anywhere will do, at least it’s better than not having them there. But to do it right, put them in a. the page title and b. the h1 tag. Then maybe here and there in other places. More than anything, make sure that the page you are sprinkling with these keywords is actually ABOUT those keywords. Don’t sprinkle “lobster” on a page about boatbuilding. Avoid using images that are “pictures of words” as Google doesn’t recognize them. This bears repeating and emphasizing: those pages that are completely made up of pictures (even if they look like words to human eyes) cannot really be seen by Google. Put TEXT on your pages and make sure it’s relevant to searches. Most of this page is text but the logo at the top (JimDugan.com photography and web design in Maine) is an image, just pixels, and Google doesn’t really see it.

3. get people to link to you

Google considers incoming links hugely important, because a link is essentially a recommendation from someone.

4. wait

It’s hard but waiting is important several reasons. Google isn’t automatic, it takes time. And Google prefers sites that have a track record, so the longer a site’s been around, the better it ranks. Lots of sites do well largely because they’ve been around for years (that’s certainly the case with my site, at least in part; see below for another reason).

5. change your site often

Google likes fresh content, so keep changing things on a regular basis. This is one reason why blogging has exploded; it gives you fresh content as often as you feel like writing something.

6. check your ranking and adjust

Go back to number 1 and figure out what’s working or not working. Add or delete keywords, make sure your page is actually about the things it claims (in the title and h1) that it’s about.

There’s a LOT more to it than that but this is a beginning. Most people who have web sites don’t even think about this and it’s to their detriment.

The crucial thing to know about Google searches is: they are trying to deliver the most relevant page every time. So they like pages that are really about what they say they’re about. Don’t try to fool Google. Just try to describe the contents of the page as clearly as possible and make the content as satisfying for the end user as possible.

Perhaps most important of all: Deliver content that is fascinating, important and relevant. Do that and web surfers will like your pages and then Google will send more of them your way. (This, by the way, is another reason my site does well in search engines: I offer more than just a sales pitch. I also have the Maine Photographers’ Directory, and have had it for years. If you’re looking for a photographer in Maine, Google will show you that page because a. it’s been around a while, b. it has lots of content, c. lots of people have linked to it.)

In real estate, the three most important things are: location, location, location.

On the web, it’s: content, content, content.

Glacial Erratic

I mentioned to my friend Ann Marie the other day that I’d paddled to Mark Island.

“What’s that rock?” she asked me.

I asked her which rock, but I sort of knew. I had stopped to photograph the rock. It’s so obvious because it’s stark white against a bunch of darker rock around it. Seems out of place, and it is, sorta.

Here’s a picture.

erratic_7246.jpg

That’s a “glacial erratic” and we see them all the time in Maine. Not all of them are so obvious.

It’s a kind of rock that is not indigenous, not part of the local bedrock, “from away” as we say in Maine.

Thousands of years ago, it was broken off some mountain to the north by a glacier. It tumbled around under the glacier for a while, being smoothed and ground down. Then the glacier melted and this was left where it lay, on top of a hump that, eventually, became Mark Island in the middle of Penobscot Bay.

Maine’s geology constantly fascinates me and I told Ann Marie about it. It can be roughly summarized by three processes, each taking considerable lengths of time:

  1. 400 million years ago (or thereabouts) silt and diatoms settled out of an ocean onto the ocean floor, creating mud. This happened for a long time and made a really thick bunch of mud and sand that eventually compressed into rock. This “sedimentary” rock was then slid westward until it bumped into what would become North America. Under pressure and heat, it buckled and smushed, all the while keeping its layers mostly intact. This is our “sedimentary metamorphic” rock. It started its life as sediment and has layers to prove it, but the layers go in all different directions, are curved and mashed, with intrusions of quartz (where things got really hot). This is pretty typical in places like Casco Bay and Muscongus Bay. But the sedimentary rock also explains the limestone around Rockland and Rockport (both named for the “limerock” found there).
  2. Then much later, some earthly indigestion got going. Great gobs of molten magma bubbled up from within the earth in huge domes called “plutons.” The plutons pushed the other rock out of the way in some places and hardened into what are now mountains and islands, mostly granite with, here and there, a bit of basalt. Monhegan is mostly basalt, as is Mark Island and some of the islands of western Penobscot Bay. The Camden Hills and Acadia are various granites.
  3. Then even later, it got cold. Snow fell and fell and fell, until Maine was covered with a layer of ice a mile thick. And the ice was moving, crushing everything under it and pushing great piles of rock. All that stuff acted like sandpaper, smoothing the bedrock below and scraping away millions of tons of rock. When the glaciers finally melted, they left behind fairly smooth mountains and islands and loads of stuff that had been dragged many miles from where it started.

That’s the ten-cent, seat-of-the-pants, amateur summary of Maine geology but it explains the vast majority of what you see here. Knowing the above, you can usually decode what kind of rock you are walking on. And you’ll start to see things differently. Hiking up Cadillac a few weeks ago, I could clearly see the scratches of rocks being dragged over the mountain by glaciers.

Loon blur

Loon flapping its wings

Loon flapping its wings

I guess I should not confess that this is a mistake. I did not intend for the shutter speed to be so slow. But there’s something to be said for realizing that a mistake can make something nice, too.

Walking in the Street

OK, maybe I was a bit, um, brutish. But…

I was driving north on Rockland Main St. Friday when a nicely dressed pedestrian couple crossed the street in mid-block, forcing me and others to stop and wait for them to cross.

“Please use the crosswalk next time,” I yelled out the window. Yes, I said “please” but yes, my tone was a bit demanding and maybe an epithet was implied.

But an SUV with New York plates pulled up next to me and the guy yelled something like, “Oh, so you wanted to be on that guy’s bumper so much quicker?” (pointing to the van in front of me).

As if I was the jerk here.

OK, he has a point. What’s my hurry? And why be a jerk, which I have to admit, maybe I was.

But the real point regarding jaywalking in Maine for me is:

  • We have a law that cars must stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. It’s mostly respected and sometimes even enforced.
  • The crosswalks are clearly marked and plentiful.
  • If everyone crosses as the designated crosswalks, traffic flows smoothly and nobody gets mad.
  • I don’t come to your state and walk in the street. Please reciprocate.

But I also see the other point: yelling at clueless tourists is also not entirely nice and should be avoided.

“Should I Tweet?”

In a word, no.

I gave Twitter a good solid month. I followed some people. I posted my own Tweets.

And at the end of it, all I had to show for it was a few good jokes. I found David Pogue of the New York Times the best of the tweeters but even he was rarely wise or witty or informative. Reading his blog provided a filtered and edited version that saved me loads of time.

What’s right with Twitter:

  • The ability to post a quick thought without spending hours sweating that your prose is perfect
  • The ability to reach lots of people (potentially) immediately.
  • The ability to initiate and participate in conversations between lots of people. Post a question and all your followers can jump in with a response.

What’s wrong with Twitter:

  • There really aren’t that many people using it.
  • Of those that are using it, it’s almost impossible to get the people that matter to follow your tweets
  • It’s really tough to get much thought or wisdom in 140 characters so 99% of all tweets are completely useless.

There’s a constant flood of new technologies that we each have to assess and ask ourselves: Is this worth my time? Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, podcasts, blogs, Flikr and on and on.

If you’re online for business, you can use a simple time-in, dollars-out yardstick. Though it’s often hard to keep track of all the time spent and which dollars it produces.

There’s more to it than that, of course.

Twitter does not pass any test of mine. I could see no potential for joy or profit and the time spent was something I’ll never get back.

I predict it will die. I won’t say when.

“Do you ever use film anymore?”

Golly, I sure wish I could say yes. But that’s really only a nostalgic response, not a practical one. I haven’t shot any film in, probably, two years, and I don’t plan to anytime soon.

I loved film, I really did, especially formats larger than 35mm. Every now and then, I put a 4×5 inch transparency on a light table and put a loupe on it and I’m astonished by the quality.

The problem is that it’s more quality than I ever need. My commercial photography is almost entirely for either web sites (where high resolution is completely wasted) and printed materials where 15 megapixels is almost always way more than is needed.

Working with a digital camera makes it possible to see exactly what you have as you shoot and deliver the finished job the day of the shoot, in a form that the client can just plug into a page without developing, shipping, and scanning. It’s faster and more efficient for everyone involved. Add to that the expense and the karma of dealing with all that icky chemistry and trying to find a good way to get rid of it.

I have friends and clients who continue to shoot film and I applaud them for that, mostly. Tillman Crane is shooting very large format black-and-white and printing on platinum and palladium paper. It’s gorgeous work that never gets run through a digital filter (until it gets scanned for the web site). There are some (you know who you are) who are just dragging their feet, resisting the digital world out of fear, laziness, inertia. Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of fear, laziness and inertia myself and they’re not entirely bad. Just make sure you choose your medium for the right reasons.

Against the Grain

I’ve gotten to the point where film grain looks bad to me. Old-fashioned in a not-good way. Lumpy, bumpy textures where there should be none.

I have another friend (anonymous unless she wants to fess up in the comments) who loves the grain of Kodak’s Tri-X film. She’s been resistant to shooting digital because the tones are too smooth for her. Finally, someone showed her the Photoshop filters that approximate various film grains. One of them was even called “Tri-X.” It worked. Then she found a place that prints digital files to silver paper (black-and-white prints used to be printed on a paper coated with silver halide salts). So now she shoots digitally and makes it look like Tri-X. People think she’s still shooting film. It’s great.

Why WordPress?

I’ve been creating WordPress sites for clients for a while now and I become more impressed all the time with the many options in this open-source blogging software. “Blogging software” is really selling it a little short.

Yes, it started as simple blogging software and its transformation into a content-management system (CMS) has at times been a bit kludgy. But I’d maintain that the WordPress community has elevated it above the rest, making a system that balances ease of use with a reasonable feature set.

More elaborate systems (Drupal comes to mind) are arguably much more powerful but I’ve found that their interfaces are intimidating, especially for new users. And most users don’t need all the features, so are better off with a simpler solution.

So I decided to spend a bit of time on my own site, converting it to WordPress to make it:

  • more consistent
  • easier to update
  • more search-engine friendly
  • more modern

Why a pre-packaged theme?

First an explanation of themes. WordPress (like other CMSs) uses a database and a series of files to determine how content gets delivered. This is, mostly, not modifiable. But how the content looks on the page is largely determined by a modifiable set of files called a theme. The theme can contain images and stylesheets and HTML code, all of it designed to determine layout, color, type treatment, etc.

I’ve built WordPress themes from scratch and done it well. I’ve modified other people’s themes just fine too. What I had never done is bought a theme. This is the exception. When I saw the theme Atlantica from Brandon Jones, I thought it had the elements I needed: good basic arrangement of information with a solid set of gallery functions (mostly for my photography).

For only $30, I got a theme where most of the work was done, allowing me to concentrate on design and content. I still have complete control but I’ve saved myself lots of time by letting someone else build the basics for me.

And, to be honest, I wanted to be able to look under the hood and see how a “premium theme” (one that costs money) is built and maybe how it differs from the free ones I’ve worked with.

One of the best things is tech support. I’ve been exchanging emails with the designer, suggesting changes and corrections. I promise I haven’t been a nuisance and I won’t be. He’s been receptive and complimentary. I’m not sure I’d expect that from someone I didn’t send money to.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how we are coming to expect things being free. And I’m as guilty as the next person. But we all know the value of paying for something.

Someone once asked me why they should hire a web designer when they could “just download some free software and do it myself?” I think the real answer is that we hire professionals not for the tools they have but for the mistakes they’ve made and learned from. You own scissors; do you cut your own hair?