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Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Nicole Simon Interviewed

Nicole Simon of Lübeck, Germany, is active in the world of blogs, podcasting, and sharing ideas. I interviewed her on podcasting, RSS, and her thoughts on the strange new web world we’re living in. You can find Nicole online at her podcast Useful Sounds, her German Beissholz, and a variety of other channels.

What are you doing in the Real World?

Going by the classic definition, “real life” to me means working in the controlling department of a bigger company. I’m also a freelance coach/consultant, and in my spare time, I do blogs and podcasting. Some might think of me as living in three separate worlds, but I feel the synergy is working out well.

I consider it to be my special talent to be able to structure content into a more logical flow and bring to light ideas not even the client saw. “Wow! I never thought of that / I never saw it that way” with an astonished expression on the customer’s face indicates to me: mission accomplished. You want me to be the devil’s advocate on your business concept, presentation, web site, flyer, CV, or even software before your boss or your customers get their hands on it.

Actually, I’m just a playful, creative, and curious person. So my job interests extend into my private life as well. To me, there’s no strict separation between the job world and my private life. For some people, that may be the case, but I couldn’t live like that.

You are writing a German blog, and you produce an English and a German podcast. What’s your current focus?

Actually, it’s four blogs and two podcasts. I’m covering a wide variety of topics, so I want to make it easy for my readers and listeners to choose just what they’re interested in.

Like everybody else, I started with a regular homepage several years ago. Two and a half years ago, I discovered weblogs. With almost a decade of Usenet, mailing-list, and chat experience, blogging looked like worth trying. After a short testing period (Do I really want to do this? Yes, most certainly!), I started my private blog Beissholz.

But many of my customers expect a more formal, less personal presentation, with a stronger focus on the business side. That’s why I started my business-only blog Ideengeberin. My sound files didn’t really fit either blog, and that’s how Useful Sounds came about. Then, just when I thought I had it all sorted out, podcasting came along, and I had to reconsider my approach...

When did you first hear about podcasting? What does “podcasting” actually mean?

Podcasting enables you to send media files, which then make their way over the Internet onto your computer or even mobile players, like iPods, of people. As a podcaster, you can announce media files with special entries in your web feed. When I think of podcasting, I think of audio only; otherwise, it’s videocasting to me. The key here is ease-of-use in receiving the content.

The Engadget blog was my first contact with podcasting. Once you’ve tried, you can’t stop – I’m now hooked on podcasting. I also produce my own podcasts, helping spread the addiction to others!

What do you feel are the biggest differences between these two media, podcasting and blogging (besides the obvious one that one is written and the other is spoken)?

They’re different ways of communicating content and establishing relationships: Some topics lend themselves to being presented in a blog, others to a podcast. I’m not just a blogger or just a podcaster. I love to work with like-minded people, putting my talents to good use. Blogs or podcasts are just means to that end.

Why am I looking for like-minded people? I find it much more inspiring to talk to people with the same mindset and similar interests, such as actively exchanging ideas.

Metaphorically speaking, I’d rather talk to people who like caffe latte like I do; I don’t feel like discussing whether or not coffee without milk is better, let alone listening to someone reciting the merits of tea. I want to look into the happy face of someone telling me, “Right! I know a great coffee bar just across the street, and you’ll love the cake there, too...”

How do you get to know good podcasts, and where do you listen to them?

Mostly, I discover new podcasts when people announce them in their blogs. Also, people tip off each other about other podcasts, and so it’s the same like with blogs. You go to that other site, you listen to its podcast, browse the site some more, possibly find more interesting blogs and podcasts along the way. Every once in a while, I check out fresh links over at

I find myself test driving a lot of podcasts and blogs, but only rarely do I subscribe. In general, I prefer intelligent discourse, food for thought, as opposed to music podcasts.

Most of these podcasts I listen to on my computer. Some of the shorter ones I listen to on my way to work or when I do house work. Suddenly, you’re even entertained waiting in the queue when you pick up groceries. (Shopping for last New Year’s Eve took a full episode of Slusher and G’day World.) I heard that in the US it often takes people one hour to drive to work, one direction, while I only need ten minutes, front door to desk.

Do you have an iPod? Are you in some way aggregating podcasts using iTunes and RSS?

I have a mobile MP3 player with a removable card and battery, plus my Tungsten, and – as of recently – my Iriver. I’m not one of those obsequious followers of Apple’s shiny toys, so this hype is not for me.

I love the recording features of my Iriver 320, both the quality itself and that it already comes with a good microphone. These are things an iPod lacks; with the Iriver, you’re instantly entering the world of quality mobile recording.

I’m using iTunes for one reason only: to keep track of unplayed podcast. It’s the only software to implement a usable play count and to offer somewhat smart playlists. (An audio track’s play count is incremented only once I have listened to it completely, not upon its start.)

Possibly, I’ll be implementing my own solution using existing tools, though: not only because I have different players and media, which I need to keep in sync if I want to listen to new podcasts, but also – even though I do like the Windows GUI approach – because I’d rather be able to export data such as play counts to have script access to them.

Why do you think of Apple’s products as “shiny toys"?

Apple’s hardware sells like hot cakes, because Apple realized early on that most humans enjoy beautiful things. Excuse the sarcasm, but ugly hardware won’t sell to creative people aiming to be “hip”. I’m sure once you’ve started to be an Apple fan, you will buy pretty much everything offered by them, even if you have to beg, steal, or borrow to be able to do so.

You want more and more, which is why the Apple stores are so incredibly successful. An Apple USB stick going by the name of “iPod” is selling like crazy for two reasons: first, it’s a shiny toy, and second, it’s sold by Apple!

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Apple fans in any way (at least not in a way that would stop them)... I just want them to understand that attempts to convert me are futile.

“But it’s so much easier to use!” Keep this in mind: many people not being able to use Windows doesn’t mean nobody is. People telling you “Once I’ve started using Apple, I just got it” simply didn’t “get” their Windows system in the first place. If I switched from a car with manual gear to one with automatic, and I never managed to get along with the former, then, of course, everything feels easier now... but this is only natural.

I never had any formal training for Windows or MS Office, yet using them simply seemed natural to me (the same is true of search engines). What is often missing in the Windows world is programs employing established design and usability standards. When I press F12, I expect to see the “Save as...” dialog, and heck, when I press Ctrl+A, I want everything to be marked. If a program fails to meet these elementary needs of mine, this often indicates even worse design errors in other parts of the program.

Let me give you another example: Any dialog should have a default action triggered by hitting Enter. The default for nondestructive actions, like printing, is always to start the action. For destructive actions, like deleting, the default should always be cancel. So if you you hit Enter, nothing dramatically bad can happen. And Escape should always cancel the dialog. Now compare this to your average piece of shareware, and try Escape on any dialog... One can work efficiently with Windows so long as programs adhere to these standards.

Today, every nerd thinks he is able to program by simply dragging together some VBA controls. That’s why I expect to see screenshots of programs – this helps me judge whether or not I should even try them.

Do you have some favorite podcasts?

Sure. My definite favorite is G’day World – not so much the actual podcast, but the two creators behind it: Mick Stanic and Cameron Reilly are interesting personalities. They cover everything from Napoleon to gadgets, and they have a business-oriented approach towards blogs, podcasting, and life in general, which is just what I’m interested in, too. Besides the two moderators being on the same wavelength, one of them likes caffe latte and dark chocolate, they’re blogging too, and they have this charming Australian accent...

There are some others podcasts in my priority queue. For example, Croncast or The Bitterest Pill, both of which I’m enjoying immensely.

To me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s face-to-face communication or communication via telephone, Usenet, mailing-lists, chat, blogging, or podcasting: it’s always about conversation between people. We share ideas and inspire each other to new ideas. Podcasting added a new level for me, because I’m really responsive to audio. This has its good and bad sides, because if I don’t like a voice, I can’t get myself to listen to the actual content either.

Do you often find yourself explaining blogs or podcasting in your “offline” environment? How do you explain this to people, and what are some of the problems you face?

Being a woman who spends time voluntarily in front of a computer is enough for most people to think of me as weird, so blogs and podcasting is not going to irritate them in this regard. It’s just another “geeky occupation” to them. On the other hand, I’m an acknowledged authority for “those weird things” – people do follow my advice.

But I gave up on evangelizing everyone and their brother and instead take a different route now: I feed them a little here and there, sending out pointers to specific blogs and podcasts. Most of the time, people will then just look at that page, and that’s it. But sometimes, people will start to realize what’s available: comments, other posts, further links. They are the kind of people who will come back to me to ask questions.

Does podcasting and blogging enable you to explore drastic new ways of communication?

What alternatives do I have? I could talk to myself or go to a bar and talk to people there, slowly finding out if there are some common interests. Online, however, I’m talking specifically to people sharing my interests and not just anybody.

I’m a confident woman with strong opinions and a special sense of humor, and the web allows me to find like-minded people – and not just on a weekly basis, like when you meet a friend over dinner. I need a constant stream of fresh impulses, and that’s what the net is able to give to me, from people almost all over the globe.

What important ingredients do you find missing in Web 2.0 communication – the world of wikis, blogs, podcasting, RSS, and so on?

I would be quite satisfied to find more people using their brain and common sense. Often, we find ourselves spending all energy to bring tools to the lowest common denominator, just so everybody is able to grasp them – even if this turns the tool designer’s original intentions upside down. This can put a stop to technological evolution by unnecessarily binding our resources, and it’s one of the reasons why many projects in the realm of knowledge management fail.

It’s not that the tools are bad (well, sometimes they are); it’s more that the humans who should use those tools don’t know how to. They just aren’t there yet. And what’s the use of a sophisticated tool no user understands, just because they don’t grasp the basic idea behind it? You need to meet users at the level they’re at.

“Make it easy for the customer to spend money.” “Money” might as well mean time or attention, too. So, for example, ask yourself: is your product description sexy enough? Will people who read it think this is something they just shouldn’t miss out on? Does it arouse their curiosity? Does it make people want to find out more about it?

Applied to podcasting, this means we shouldn’t say “Podcasting is great: Via the use of RSS enclosure, media files can...”.
Instead, we should say: “Imagine there being radio shows of interest to you, for you to listen to wherever and whenever you want to!”

I think it was in one of your podcasts where you mentioned you like to check your server log files for interesting occurrences of search-engine queries. What kind of tools do you use for that, and what do you find?

Call me curious, but I just love log files! All of my domains get their share of attention. Currently, Useful Sounds is the most interesting to me.

Most tools don’t understand how feed readers work, and also, they aren’t real-time. With feeds, you can’t equate one access to one hit. With podcasts, things have become even harder. That’s why I always have an open SSH session to watch my current log-file activity, and I wrote my own script to ignore multiple accesses to the same podcast by the same host, for instance.

I’m particulary amused by search-engine queries attracted by my Beissholz site, and I find myself ranking well in the strangest result pages. But search-engine optimization isn’t magic... it’s all about finding out what you and your customers actually want, and that’s what you optimize for. You don’t need to spam or cloak to achieve that.

What’s interesting is that many of my most popular entries (judging by search-engine referrers) are those I almost didn’t blog: like cigarette-pack stickers, online obituaries, the blue ICQ flower, and T-shirt folding – this was a video showing how to successfully fold a shirt the Japanese way. Whenever the video was shown on TV, I could see my traffic explode.

RSS, podcasting, wikis, etc. certainly are interesting fresh forms of communication. But are there still technologies you miss, or occasions when you think “If only there’d be a way to do this thing I have in mind"?

The opposite is true. Let’s take computer games, for example. Some time ago, the programmer would have taken advantage of every single register and made the most of the existing hardware. Nowadays, there’s a little sticker on the package of every computer game basically telling you to “buy a new computer and throw your six-month-old PC into the trash where it belongs – our game won’t work on it.”

We are presented with more and more options without even having made the best use of what’s already there. Podcasting is not really a new invention, but a great counter-example: you take something already established like RSS, add some enclosures to your feed, grab a microphone, record something, and use FTP to upload the result to your server. And that’s all there is to it, and these are all technologies that have been around for many years.

Strictly speaking, even RSS isn’t anything new, but a rather crude and stripped-down reinvention of NNTP for the web.

Often, “new technologies” don’t arise because there is an inherent need for them, but because of the big ego of a developer who says “I won’t use anything I didn’t make myself.” – the Not Invented Here syndrome. Typically, this comes with an attitude that he should now be praised for that “great invention” of his. I simply do not believe in constantly reinventing the wheel.

Are there things I wish for? Certainly. I want to be able to pass on telepathically a full set of impressions associated with an idea, or a thought, or something else to another person. While this is not possible, speech recognition might be a good step forward – I do type fast, but I speak even faster.


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