Category Archives: opinion

Tools for Running Your Small Business

7494837030_4595747d3e_zGenerally, in this blog, I write about culture and politics. Today we’re taking a detour. I make my living online. As a freelance web content developer and project manager, my whole professional world is contained in my tiny little Macbook Air. I rely on web-based tools – very few of which I pay for – to organize content, communicate with clients efficiently, and track my productivity.

About once a week I find myself demoing one of my favorite tools for a friend or colleague. To save time, I’ve collected my favorite free tools – the ones I use daily – in one convenient post. Whether you’re just getting your small business of the ground or if you’re looking for the right tool to help you solve a problem, try my list of essential tools to decrease your budget and increase your productivity.

  • Evernote – This is the bibliography of my life. I use Evernote to organize research into separate virtual notebooks – including to-do lists, audio recordings, photos, text and website clippings. I keep my life, personal and professional, squirreled away in hundreds of notes that I search by keyword or tag to find what I need in an instant. 100% free, unless you want to explore sharing notes and some of their other robust business features.
  • Google – Everyone knows about Gmail and Google Maps, but there are a variety of less appreciated Google tools – and tips and tricks for using them.
    • Calendar – Sure, you know you can make multiple calendars, sync them with your phone and manage your schedule with them. But do you make public calendars you can share with your clients displaying your availability for meetings or projects? Or you can elect to share just your free/busy information from your primary calendar, to keep things simple.
    • Voice – Stop using multiple phone numbers (home, home office, cell) right now with Google Voice. Set up one phone number that can be answered anywhere and forwarded to more than one phone number. Make calls from within your Gmail window. Basic services are free, calling internationally costs money.
    • Drive –  You’ve probably experimented with using Drive (perhaps better known as Google Docs) for creating and collaborating on documents, spreadsheets and perhaps presentations. But Drive is also great as a rudimentary file sharing system – you can upload PDFs, images and other files to share with colleagues or clients. Organize content into separate folders, designating some for sharing with specific people.
    • Now – Google Now is a new and little-known app for your phone – once you configure it for your needs, it will send you notifications about traffic on your way to work, scores for your favorite teams, reminders about tasks, flight on-time status and points of interest in your surroundings. While I enjoy Now for travel, it is also very convenient to know if there’s unusual traffic on my way to a meeting.
  • Mailchimp – If your distribution list is under 2,000 subscribers, it’s free to create templates and signup forms, manage your list and send regular mail. Keep your clients up-to-date, share information with your network and publicize your efforts with clean and professional looking emails.
  • Dropbox – If you are creating, managing or sharing a large number of files, Dropbox is your go-to tool to share, store and organize your files. To keep yourself in the “free” limits of Dropbox, move files in and out of your Dropbox folders as you need them.
  • Rapportive – This is a great tool you can add to Gmail so that you can view snippets from your contact’s social network profiles as you are viewing your correspondence with them. Excellent for helping you tailor your email to the audience.
  • Boomerang – Statistics show that there are good and bad times of the day to send emails, depending on your goals and audience. If you want to make sure your emails reach your clients at the best time, use Boomerang to schedule your “send” times.
  • Doodle – Do you feel a little bit dead inside everytime you get an email asking you for your availability for a group meeting or conference call? Train your colleagues and clients to use Doodle to take a poll of participants to determine an optimal meeting time among a large group of people.
  • – If you need to share your screen with a client (or vice versa) to demo an app or discuss images, will get your screen in their browser in seconds. You can switch presenters, pass control back and forth and either use their conference line or their VOIP app. The free tool is relatively full-featured.
  • Screenr – Interested in quickly making screen capture videos with voice narration? Screenr is a web-based tool that enables you to make five minute videos and publish them to YouTube instantly. This is a super simple way to capture and share your ideas.
  • Lastpass – Never again waste an iota of your brainspace on passwords. Let Lastpass catalog all of your passwords, and use the browser extension to enter usernames and passwords for all the different sites you use. For extra security, let Lastpass generate super-complex passwords for your accounts as you set them up.

Surely I’ve forgotten some great apps and ideas – please share your favorites and I’ll wait for that “shattering glass” moment as I discover the tool I didn’t even know I needed.

Image credit: eduArd on Flickr


What Happened to Electability?

Where did “electability” go as a top criterion for primary voters?

Last night, Rick Santorum won three primaries (although one was a beauty contest, apparently). This is a fascinating shift from primary voters – some from just a few weeks ago – who viewed electability as a compelling concern.

Perhaps this is because Romney supporters thought he had it in the bag? Or because only the far-to-one-side voters show up when the election appears to be in the bag?

At this stage, Republican candidates are focused on appealing to the base, and that base is fractured. With Santorum appealing to evangelical voters, Ron Paul bringing libertarian and Tea Party supporters to the table and Gingrich appealing to … someone, the most centrist (and most electable) candidate – Romney –  is appealing to voters who aren’t listening.

Recent skirmishes about abortion, birth control and foreign policy issues (like Iran) are airing Republicans’ dirty laundry to a gawking public. The evangelical and Tea Party voters turning up for the primaries don’t represent most of American voters’ views – and for both the GOP and for civil society at large, that’s a pity.

This race to the base – a battle of extremes – is destructive to either party’s ability to lead real change. It sets unrealistic expectations, hampers representatives’ ability to negotiate compromise and belies a rich American history of the politics of the middle. Where do we go from here?  More broken politics and dying discourse.

Rupert Murdoch & Other Great Thinkers on SOPA

For opponents of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) front, yesterday was a big day. The Obama administration released a statement opposing the proposed regulations and bill sponsor Lamar Smith weakened the bill, removing the provision regarding Domain Name System (DNS) blocking.

Both developments are excellent news for bill opponents, demonstrating that pressure from technology companies, civil rights activists and consumers is chipping away at the bill’s support and at some of the most extreme provisions. DNS blocking, in particular, would have allowed the U.S. to block foreign websites with illegal content.

The Obama administration outlined concerns about the broad provisions of the bill and the potential for exploitation by both private companies and regulatory bodies. This is cheering after the bill’s so-far bipartisan political support and broad corporate patronage.

By opposing SOPA the administration is not only making a stand in favor of free expression but is protecting the open regulatory space in which the technology sector thrives.  – ensuring that marketplace and the bill is a strong statement in favor of the growing technology sector and for online expression.

SOPA’s intended purpose –  protecting copyrighted content through stringent regulations targeting web communications companies – has begotten a proposed regulatory regime enabling copyright holders to attack the sites, companies and services that connect people, like Google, Craig’s List and YouTube. New tweeter Rupert Murdoch shares his insight into SOPA:

This is sort of like saying, “Hey, people in China sure do pirate a lot of Hollywood movies. Let’s shut China down!” SOPA would force Google to be responsible for filtering every single site it linked to – making web search onerously complicated and reducing space for new innovation in digital commerce.

More importantly, creating the processes for filtering and shutting down digital intermediaries (like Google) to block some bad actors is ripe for exploitation by much more serious bad actors. Who’s the benevolent oversight body here? The federal government? This is big government, at its most appalling.

Could Civil Unrest Happen Here?

rioting and civil unrestCivil unrest seems contagious. Civil unrest in Tunisia instigated civil unrest in Egypt and Libya and Bahrain and Yemen. All unrest directed at oppressive governments, dictatorial regimes, that sort of thing. London’s civil unrest seems a little different – focused on destroying the community itself, destroying small businesses, shared spaces, their neighbors’ homes.There are factors common between London and the U.S. – factors that drive civil unrest:

  1. Unemployment or underemployment.
  2. Poverty, stagnant economies & concentration of wealth.
  3. Nonrepresentative government.
(For data on England and these factors, see the last post.)To summarize this unhopeful picture, people are unhappy because they can’t find jobs, feel pushed out of their neighborhoods, live next to increasingly wealthy groups and, in a final coup de grace, see that the government is not acting in their interests. Of course, the stagnant world economy, with collapsing economies in nearby Greece and Spain, means there’s not a lot of hope to counterbalance the bleak picture. New jobs aren’t emerging.So the real question is, what’s different between England and the United States?

What’s past is prologue

Certainly the first two conditions are true in the U.S. 9.1% of American people are unemployed and another 10 million people have given up looking for jobs or are working part time against their preference. The country’s wealth is becoming more concentrated: “As of 2007, the top decile of American earners pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages.”

The only point up for discussion is whether our government is acting in the the people’s best interest. While I would argue not, it probably doesn’t matter. What matters is how people perceive the government is acting. Clearly, satisfaction with the federal government is pretty damn low. We agree on that!

So what’s standing between us and civil unrest?

Until a year or so ago, I would have said that the American public was so distracted by wars (heroism, sacrifice), social issues (abortion, gay marriage), false dichotomies in patriotism (civil liberties, security), and social divisiveness (racism, anti-immigrant sentiment) that they were blind to the increasing inequality in our society. That we were so distracted by social issues that we didn’t notice how bad the governance was – or maybe we didn’t care.

It feels different lately. People are focused on the issues of governance- spending, budgeting, priorities – but our discourse is so distinctly uncivil, so horribly without empathy, that the histrionics prevent solutions. So the situation deteriorates, the rhetoric escalates and sensible people walk away from the discussion.

If there is civil unrest here, I predict it will be an uprising of strange bedfellows: The first, people who have been abandoned by their government. People who are poor, unemployed and disenfranchised. The second, people who believe government is inherently undesirable.Today, the second group is doing all the talking. The violence may come when the first group finds its voice.
Image credit: cyphunk on Flickr

London Isn’t Full of Criminals: The Enraged & Disenfranchised

This afternoon, when asked about the cause of the London riots, the Deputy Mayor of London said:

“[There has been] an awful lot of rationalization of criminal activity. I think that’s fundamentally what it is. It is criminal activity, pure and simple. It’s driven by greed, avarice and a desire to just grab other people’s property,” he said.
“I think you can try and confect some kind of complicated sociological argument about people’s motivations for that criminality, but I think that’s getting them off the hook. There is no excuse for it, absolutely none whatsoever.”

That’s a little bit like saying that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda planned and executed 9/11  because they are evil. To be clear, evil was definitely a prerequisite for the 9/11 attacks, but it certainly wasn’t the only necessary condition.

To perpetrate mass atrocity, you need a group of people who are dissatisfied enough with their lives to endorse and take part in evil behavior on a broad scale. Thousands of young British people didn’t get up one morning last week and decide to void the social contract with their neighbors because they became spontaneously criminal.

Drain the Swamp

Just as terrorism has broader social causes – a swamp of unhappy, unemployed, disaffected angry young men living in undemocratic societies – the riots in London have social causes, including poverty, unemployment (and underemployment) and disaffection with government.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone argues that “We are in danger of losing a generation of young people. [This is] the first time in our history when children have less prospects than their parents did. That’s what’s fueling this anger.”

The numbers support his analyis. London suffers from unemployment as high as 30%, concentrated in youth ages 16-24. In addition to the completely unemployed, the “inactive” population (young people who are not employed or actively seeking a job), is at 3 million. Analysis from the UK Office of National Statistics indicates that 2 of those 3 million are pursuing higher education because they can’t find a job.

No Hope or Change Either

And these young people will not find hope for the future in a booming economy: The United Kingdom’s economy is stagnating, with very slow job growth since 2008. This, combined with inflation and a corresponding rise in the cost of living, means that poor British people are being forced out of neighborhoods they can no longer afford.

Meanwhile, the Cameron-Clegg administration recently raised tuition fees in response to the UK’s own economic challenges, leading to significant protests in December 2010, some of which became violent. I’m not done yet. The UK government has also recently decreased welfare payments.

Wealth in the London area in particular is becoming more and more concentrated, ensuring that the poor are living with the constant juxtaposition of what they live without.

To summarize: the British poor are experiencing unemployment – without hope of new jobs on the horizon – while education is less accessible and their decreasing incomes represent ever-decreasing purchasing power. So what do they have to be excited about?

This feeling of disconnection from their communities, coupled with an apparently poor view of the government, means there’s little incentive not to riot when the situation is set alight with a violent incident like the Marc Duggan shooting.

Certainly I do not advocate violence, in any form. And the reckless destruction of their own communities is pointless, criminal and terrible. But those who would keep the peace should remember that resentment simmers, runs deep, and is rarely mollified by police action.

Ending these riots is not the same thing as preventing them from happening again. The former can be accomplished with guns, truncheons and tear gas – the latter will require building community, adding jobs and creating a growing economy.

Image credit: Some of this post is taken from answers I wrote on Quora.

A Deficit “Deal” Is Too Late

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The debt talks are the last hurrah of a dysfunctional Congress. (It’s difficult, incidentally, to write a blog that commits to talking civilly about difficult issues when the primary actors themselves are so uncivil.)

As we fritter away the last few minutes before the debt ceiling deadline, it looks like a last minute McConnell-Boehner-Obama deal will fall into place. Frankly, it’s too late. We have spent a month playing at brinkmanship with the full faith and credit of the American people.

Whether or not we come up with some absurd deal today, we have already said our word is no good. The federal debt – already authorized by Congress and incurred under a different president – represents the American people’s implicit endorsement of the government’s right to govern. A default is a default on our implied contract. If we cannot keep our word, we should not bother giving it.

Room for Solutions: Americans Love Social Security, Don’t Love Paying for It

As of this morning it looks like a “compromise”  is emerging with no increase in revenues and $2 trillion in cuts. But it’s pretty much too late.

Here’s the biggest laugh of it all: This is an argument between a moderate president and a very conservative House of Representatives. President Obama showed himself willing to make billions of dollars in cuts to entitlement programs – that’s a compromise. Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans are unwilling to accept any revenue increases. That’s not a compromise. This is not to question the validity of their positions – merely to characterize their willingness (or perhaps ability) to compromise.

Our system of governance is based on an oppositional model, with the assumption that differing sides will broker deals that are in the best interests of the American people. Checks and balances between different branches and different groups are the lifeblood of real democracy that represents a diverse population.

Our representatives are stuck to their parties and their campaign promises – with no ability to exercise good judgement, broker deals or recognize the validity of others’ views.

The American people are reaping the consequences of dysfunctional leadership and go-go-go spending in both our individual lives and our country’s lives. We take out mortgages on homes we can’t afford and we want social security, medicare and military dominance. If you want services, you will have to pay for them. I expect the American people will not like the consequences of $2 trillion in spending cuts, even if they say they want them.

Image Credit: Aidan Jones on Flickr

Why isn’t this a deal?

As of right now (7/24/11), per Politico, Democratic leaders are putting together a medium deficit reduction package ($2.7 trillion) with no revenue increases. From my external perspective, it looks like they’re rolling over on their insistence on revenue increases in order to try to put together a compromise package that will be broadly acceptable (I welcome alternative interpretations).

This seems like a big deal to me – giving up on the revenue increases but still achieving a large scale deficit reduction – but the size of the font of the headline on does not seem to reinforce my interpretation. Republican leaders are working on putting together a shorter term package.

Isn’t this a serious effort at a deal? If not, why not? As an idealist (but not an ideologue!), I am losing faith in Congress’ capacity to function at all.