Meta: What Do You Want to See Here?

September 4th, 2013 by Potato

I tend to write long blog posts, using as many words as I need to get my point across. Sometimes more than that just for the sake of a non sequitur. This verbosity is in part because this is something I do in my spare time when I should be sleeping, so I don’t take the time to make them shorter, in part because I tackle a lot of complex multifaced issues with much to say or explain, and in part because I know for a fact deep down inside that the internet doesn’t have a word limit. But mostly because I trust that my audience contains smart, well-read (and attractive, did I mention attractive?) people with attention spans that are up to the challenge I present to them. If I post a 1,200 word article once a week, and they prefer a daily 250-word snippet, well, they can spread it out and make it last at their own pace. If I don’t post every day, I’m sure they’ll find something else to occupy their time and that doing so doesn’t mean they won’t read what I have to say three days hence.

This goes against the advice of a lot of studies on reading habits and ess eee ooo1, which say that articles should be short (~250 words), skimmable with bullet points, key points highlighted in bold (or random sentences if you don’t know what your key ones are, or just alternate bolding sentences if you hate eyeballs2), liberally sprinkled with keywords, and posted on a regular schedule (preferably 5 days a week). Even better if you can intersperse unrelated3 text links with the body; the more like your ads you can make your text the more likely it is a reader will get confused and click. At this point every time I see one of these robot-generated top X ways to Y posts I just skip right on by. I simply have no interest in posts written by robots for robots. So little effort and expertise is put into those things that they’re often worse than useless.

Yet this is the majority of what you’ll find out there because that’s what makes money: the reason ess eee ooo is so important is because by and large your loyal daily readers don’t click on ads, it’s the visitor deposited from a web search that tends to traffic the advertisers (whether on purpose or because they haven’t yet mastered the confusing layout to parse content from ads has not been determined). However, they also don’t tend to scroll — seriously, research from other sites finds that the majority of viewers will only read what fits on the screen when they first land (in our case, that would be about 300 words), if that much. I write for many reasons, but maximizing revenue4 isn’t one of them. If I’m going to say something that you’ll enjoy (or you’ll at least walk away from a little wiser) then you’re going to have to scroll with me a bit. Put your head under, explore the depths with me. It could be fun.

One thing I’ve never understood is the use of completely unrelated photographs. Many sites (including almost every online story for a newspaper) have an image box that must be filled, even though 99% of the time it’s a completely unhelpful unenlightening bit of clip art or a stock photo. Yet even where I work — writing science stories for lay and non-specialist audiences — we always include a figure (which ~50% of the time is some unrelated bit of stock photography and ~40% of the time is some only loosely-related bit of general anatomy/technology), and target our stories to <250 words. I don’t understand why this is such a universal requirement (the photos moreso than the word limit) — indeed, I’ll note that Sandi provided one when linking to my last post5. I’ve come up with a quick mnemonic to help myself: at work I primarily edit, write succinctly and avoid Oxford commas or talking to myself while wearing pants and a button-up shirt; at home I mostly write without editing, use proper punctuation, talk things out with my cat whilst in my skivvies, and I only use figures when they actually add information or enlighten.

Another trend is the disappearing paragraph. It is partly due to the deteriorating writing skills in our civilization: structuring a post/essay into paragraphs of related sentences with a logical flow isn’t a priority when texting and twitter preclude even multiple sentences. It’s also partly because of the nasty influence of newspaper editors: when laying out a story to fit the newspaper page editors will often need to crop an article to fit at any point. So they encourage their writers/reporters to compose articles as single-sentence paragraphs, often with no relationship between any of the ones near the end so that the article can be cut at any given point from about the halfway point on and still make some kind of sense (even if inelegantly) to the reader. Now, I don’t think the dying newspaper industry is one bloggers should want to ape, but the reality is that some of the more commercially successful bloggers have gone on to get columnist gigs (e.g. in personal finance see Robb and Krystal), which allowed them to learn such habits directly from the newspaper editors. And from there to the PF bloggers who are inspired by their success, follow them, and mimic their style.

But as annoying as this style is to sit down and read as a coherent story, it’s moderately good for skimming, as when skimming we tend to go topic sentence to topic sentence (though with next to no paragraphs they’re almost all topic sentences). And skimming, of course, is what the big-money search engine visitor is looking to do before going back to read the context of their sought-after term. Plus it’s easier to blend in the often single-line referral links since the body text starts to look more like them (though again, I don’t think modifying your writing to come off as ad copy is really a virtue to pursue, said the guy who spends money on his blog).

As much as I disdain writing for search engines, if it also improves readability I’ll give it a whirl — though I’m doubtful on that point. It’s hard (for me) to tell a coherent story in 200 words, harder still to limit myself to 6 bullet points. But if my actual, human readers of whom I am fond think that my writing style is too academic/mental patient fusiony then I’ll consider change. For a little while.

There has also been some discussion on the value of comments lately. John Scalzi (as usual) has some good things to say on comments: “In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.” That comment about the default did make me think, and personally, I love the comments. They did definitely start because of the WordPress default to have comments — I never thought about it on the old notepad site.

At this point, I get about 1000 spam comments for every legitimate one (partly a function of my decreased posting frequency since graduating and reproducing, which brought down the comment signal as you all have fewer opportunities to respond). That’s a pretty low signal-to-noise, but it doesn’t take me that long to clean out the spam bin, and I do love your (few) comments. I have been slowly deactivating commenting in posts older than about 3 months, as really no human comments much on a post much older than a few weeks (and I can always add a comment from email if someone does). I’ve also stepped up the blacklist threshold — putting more comments directly into the trash without ever having to double-check the filtering (I sure hope no one legitimately wants to talk about a Zune — those 4 letters instantly delete your comment with no hope of recovery). So far no one has complained of a comment disappearing (though many of you do get comments stuck in the grey list for a few hours). I think this is a decent way to go: I find registering to comment too restrictive, and though the comment volume is low I can’t imagine turning it off completely on you guys.

I had one other set of pressing questions to ask, but this is already at 1200 words so it’ll wait for another post (I’m doing it already!).

Now my question to you, dear readers, is what do you want to see here? Does the style work for you, or would you prefer I arbitrarily cut posts off at 300/500/1000 words and make you wait a day for the (usually not very) thrilling conclusion? Are you confused when you come across a period and it’s not followed by a line break? What topics would you like to read about (in particular any I’m not hitting on now)? What do you want to ask of me or find out that you haven’t thought to ask before this incredibly open and unexpected question floated in front of your eyes? Do unrelated stock photos actually make you want to read an article?

I don’t know how much I can (or want to) change my style, but if you guys seriously groan every time you have to [gasp!] scroll then I can start breaking my rants into subposts/chapters. Likewise, I’ll probably write about finances and cats in the proportion that they capture my attention anyway, but can throw in some more on other topics if you’re missing them.

1 – I don’t even want to spell that term out for the spam magnet that it is, but for those who don’t know it’s search engine optimization, the black art of trying to drive more people to your page in ways other than being legitimately awesome and popular.
2 – fuck eyeballs amiright?
3 – saying “related:” does not make it so.
4 – here, at least. Freelancing/professionally it’s all dolla dolla bills.
5 – and against all earlier ranting, the post was about sampling, and the totally apropos photo appears to be of someone sampling a population of potatoes.

Book Now in Kobo

November 12th, 2012 by Potato

Please note that PSGtDIYI has been superceded by The Value of Simple

Kobo has changed the way authors can self-publish, streamlining the process to be more like the Amazon Kindle store. As a result, Potato’s Short Guide to DIY Investing is now available in the Kobo store. From my point of view, it’s better if you buy the book directly from me as I get to keep more of the gross, but for you the price is the same whether you buy from Amazon, Kobo, or me: choose what’s most convenient for you.

And speaking of my book, I got some great heart-warming fan mail recently. One of the first people to read my book and switch over to do-it-yourself investing with TD e-series has reported back a year later that things are still on track and that she did her first annual re-balancing all on her own.

A more recent reader wrote in the very same day she bought a copy:

I just bought & looked through your book Potato’s Short Guide to DIY Investing after signing up for a TD Waterhouse Discount Brokerage account and being confused by the interface. The walkthrough for buying the e-Series funds helped me out a lot. Thanks!

I’m very happy that people are finding the book useful, and I’m thrilled that they took the time to send me such wonderful emails!

Finally, I’d like to thank Ellen Roseman for mentioning the book (and the associated coaching service) in her recent column on investment coaches.

Post #1000

May 9th, 2012 by Potato

There is no special significance to seeing the digits roll over and all those zeroes line up on a milestone post like this one, number 1000 here at BbtP. It’s particularly meaningless because the URL doesn’t even have 1000 in it: it’s up there as 1125 — an artifact of having 125 posts/pages that didn’t become part of the post timeline. And the starting point isn’t the starting point of the website, just the point in 2005 when I switched over to WordPress.

But we’re (mostly) humans: we’re not strictly rational, and we do like to take time to reflect.

So woo-hoo, post #1000!

When I first got the idea for this site, I was a sleep-deprived high school student. When a less-awesome and significantly less-popular version than I had in my mind’s eye first launched, I was a sleep-deprived undergrad. When I switched over to WordPress and a more codified blog format (and “blog” became a word), I was a sleep-deprived master’s student. Now look at me: a sleep-deprived dad!

I’ve blogged about whatever happened to be on my mind, with primary focuses shifting over the years from video games to the environment, internet throttling to hybrid cars, and my now most-popular category: personal finance.

I’ve never pretended to have a schedule, so the frequency of blog posts has waxed and waned, anywhere from several long ones in a row as I pounded on the keyboard, to periods of relative quiet (like now — one of the few times I’ve posted less than once a week). I’ve had some good feedback to be sure, which is to be expected with such high-quality readership, but less back-and-forth in the comments than I expected: most posts have zero comments, and over-all I have more posts than comments from people who are not me. I can only assume that it implies that my posts and logic are perfect, since the primary function of comment sections is to point out errors and disagreements.

There’s no telling what the next thousand posts will bring. Likely more stories of my daughter, since that’s new. Maybe I’ll continue to average just one post a week vs. the three per week I was running at for much of the last 6 years. Or maybe having a hellishly long commute will lead to a lot of time to write — though likely with pen & paper or on my blackberry rather than on a computer.

I have no idea what will be coming down life’s road, but odds are good I’ll be writing and ranting about it here, and I hope you follow along with me.

New Year’s Day, 2012

December 31st, 2011 by Potato

I was going through my archives, trying to find out exactly when I started BbtP, since it’s been lost to the fog of memory. I know when I first got the holypotato.com domain (November 2001), and when I first got the current incarnation running on WordPress (October 2005)… but all I could remember was that I started working on something approximating the current blog format — with regular updates — sometime in early undergrad (back then, it was all done in Notepad), and that the title dated back a year or two before then (the original concept involved more humour & creative writing and fewer parentheses). Well, I’ve found the answer: Potatomas break, 1998 is my oldest site backup. So this would be my 13th anniversary (or 14th, depending on how long the site languished with just a few html files and no backups). Let’s say 13th anyway. Hurray!

Now for a little retrospective.

What a hell of a year 2011 was.

I started off by looking at some alleged stock frauds, then by the middle of the year got caught up in one myself, losing a fair bit of money. We fought UBB and won. I realized that the internet is far more interested in a 1-minute photoshop filter of a panda bear than a year’s worth of thoughtful short-form writing. Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami, but it’s the nuclear accident we remember. I wrote a book, and a guide for TD e-series. I wrote a lot more about real estate than I ever thought I could fit into one year. I had my first problem with the Prius.

I got my doctorate.

2012 will likely be even bigger, as I’m going to have to find a new job. And we’re expecting our first child in the spring!!!!11one!!

So you know that of course, things are going to change around here. I’m going to have to round off and pad all the sharp corners on the theme, and all future posts are going to become exclusively about cleaning up puke, stroller reviews, and complaining about sleep deprivation. Which is fitting, seeing as how the site started as a result of (and complaining about) severe sleep deprivation.

Here’s to a great 2012, everyone!

The Story Behind The Book

November 24th, 2011 by Potato

Note: the book discussed below has been superseded by The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing.

In case you forgot, I wrote a short book about investing on your own, and now it’s time to contrive all sorts of ways to oh-so-casually talk about it.

What inspired you to write a book?

Wow, that is a surprisingly long story, but the short answer is that it happened quite by accident.

You see, I was helping a couple friends out with their investments, guiding them towards a do-it-yourself approach with index funds. On several occassions I sat down with someone and went through a little hour-or-two long tutorial session, after which they would know enough about index funds to get going, and perhaps read one of the many existing books on investing. The problem was, when I’d check in weeks or months later, these guys wouldn’t have changed anything about their investment approach.

They might fully agree that they wanted to save fees, that they wanted to do index investing, and that they weren’t necessarily thrilled with the value-for-money they were getting from their “advisors” (or worse, bank branch mutual fund salescritters). The problem was, they didn’t need a 300-page book explaining why index investing was a smarter approach, they needed someone to hold their hand and guide them towards taking the first few steps on their own. Less theory, more practical how-to. One huge “service” provided by the advisors and the 2.5%-MER mutual funds was that all they had to do was walk in with a cheque on “RRSP day” and that was it. Someone was there to hold their hand and say that they were going to make it so terribly easy and painless to go through the process. My friends were getting hung up on taking that first leap towards setting up an account, and needed someone to show them how to make a trade, what a limit vs market order was, all that sort of thing.

So I helped guide them, standing over their shoulder, or on the phone, or even just available by email if they had a question so that they could take that first step to becoming a DIY-er in confidence. At that point I realized that there might be a call for just such a service: not necessarily an ongoing relationship, but someone to bounce ideas off of, to help reconcile conflicting information they may be getting from their “how to invest now” books (which get especially confusing for Canadians reading books from American authors telling them that the first thing they absolutely must do is set up a 401k, and no idea how to do that in Canada…), and to help show them how to execute transactions on their own.

Not a financial planner, or a sales position: I didn’t want to touch their money (except for a small fee for myself), I wanted them to have full-control. More like tech support and education. And that’s exactly the service I went and set up: investment education & support services.

I was in the process of setting up my new website for this little education & support service side-business when I decided I should have a robust and helpful resources section. So, largely cut-off from the world at the cottage, hot off handing in my PhD thesis, I started to write those resource articles. And write, and write… until pretty soon I was looking at a book.

And that’s the story of where the inspiration for writing a book came from: helping my friend out who “had a guy” and didn’t really want to keep paying “his guy” hundreds of dollars a year to do the investment stuff for him, but just didn’t know how to do it himself. And me realizing that his story was absolutely typical, and that lots of people could use exactly the same kind of helping hand to boostrap themselves towards full self-directed status.

Why isn’t the book available on the Kobo store?

You may recall when I first announced the project that the Kobo store was at the top of the list of where I wanted to sell the book. I’m still working on that, though maybe not all that hard at the moment. Basically, Amazon’s self-publishing route with Kindle was really straightforward and automated: once I had the book written and converted into the proper format (ironically, ePub, though the Kindle itself doesn’t read ePub), I just had to sign up online with them and upload my file. Within a day or so, I was live on the Kindle store.

For Kobo, it’s a manual process, and they’d prefer to only deal with people with more books. They said they would be willing to host me if I could help streamline things by providing them with a properly formatted XML file with all the meta data for the book, which I’m happy to do… except they don’t have a template to work from. They did refer me to the standard, but after about an hour of trying to understand how to create a file from scratch I gave up. They recommended that I use one of their publishing partners to get my book into the Kobo store, but all of them charged a not-insignificant fee to get listed, and so far I have no idea if my book will ever make that much, and I’d prefer to not be out-of-pocket trying to get this thing out (especially with recent budget issues here). Now, these partners do have some value-added services, notably getting the book into a bunch of different online stores (like Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, etc., etc.) and converting the book from a Word doc to an ePub file. Except my market is Canada only — if it was a novel or something more universal, those might be useful features, but they’re not. I was mostly interested in the Kobo store because the major Canadian bookstore owns Kobo, so it has good penetration here (whereas the Nook and Sony e-reader, not so much). And, I had already done all the hard work of converting the book to ePub, including tracking down and stomping most of the inevitable bugs. I didn’t want to pay someone else to repeat the work, and possibly have to go through the bug-stomping exercise again. So for now, I’m not worrying about Kobo, though I would eventually like to be available there, as well. If you have a Kobo, you can buy directly from me and included in the package is both a PDF that’s formatted for a 6″ e-reader, and an ePub file.

Note that Kobo changed their practices, and PSGtDIYI did appear in the Kobo store, as will The Value of Simple.

How’s it going so far?

In absolute numbers, the book sales haven’t been stunning — I’m not exactly positioned to quit my job or even pay my hosting bill from them (and indeed, if I had paid to get an ePub created and get into the Kobo store, I’d still be underwater). But considering I haven’t really started promoting on other sites at all, I’d say that’s pretty good. Really the only mention of it at all was here, and at the 3 link-round-ups at CC, MSB, and FU. What’s interesting is that I spent so much time learning an open-source e-commerce thingamajig so that people could go through the checkout themselves and get instant digital download, and so far nobody has chosen that option: all sales have been through Amazon (~40%) or through the one-step PayPal buy now button (where I then email the files later, ~60% of sales). More importantly, so far all the feedback has been really positive, some of which I’ve been allowed to share. Of course, most people don’t provide feedback spontaneously (and even those I asked haven’t all replied). Perhaps it would be fair to assume that some of those that didn’t like the book just didn’t want to say so, but so far I’m really feeling good about the fact that people are liking it and finding it useful, even if it’s not making me rich in the process :)

The cover image to the book