Archive for the ‘Random’ Category

The Tyranny of E-Mail Subject Lines

December 18, 2012

This blog post was cross-posted on as “Hey”:

That’s right, Hey. As my grandmother used to say, “Hay is for horses”.

A recent businessweek article titled “The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign Emails”, detailed how casual and even profanity-laced subject lines delivered crucial fundraising performance. In the article, Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, is quoted as saying “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people… ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”

Butchering of the English language began well before Obama campaign email subject lines; our online proclivities for brevity and casualness have seeped into and contaminated virtually everything, watering down our thinking and making clarity a rarity indeed. I have long believed that power is directly derived from purpose. If you have clarity of purpose, you will have power. This is a crucial element in successful online strategy work: you must know your purpose, and pursue it with a focused intensity. The problem is that the casual nature of our online culture can dilute purpose to a drab subject line.

We’re guilty of it at EchoDitto; our email last week had the inspiring subject line “December newsletter”. We all get so much email — better to say something interesting, something valuable, something with purpose and focus. The Obama campaign could resort to casual email subject lines, posing as intimate friends, because of the larger narrative context of the campaign. Every day, every news outlet in the world was focused on the presidential campaign. Many of your friends on social media were focused on the presidential campaign. You were not receiving these “Hey” subject line emails in a vacuum; there was a larger cultural context provided by the presidential campaign.

So what do you do when your cause, your work, your purpose is not embodied in the culture, the way the overpowering, all-encompassing presidential campaign consumed the country and I daresay the world for the last six months? The great challenge of email, from an online strategy point of view, is the tension between test-driven messages designed to boost performance (See Micah White’s clicktivism critique) and the need to give your work a narrative arc, one that inspires and compels your audience to action (See Dave Karpf’s response to Micah) White’s clicktivism critique.

In general, I preach (and worry myself) that we simply don’t spend enough time writing our emails, and thinking about their relationship to each other. Two crucial lessons I learned from Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign:

First, use your email list to break news. It will help the list grow (because people will sign up to get the next round of breaking news you release to the list first) but also communicate to the list that you value the people there, that they are your primary constituency and your first loyalty.

Second, use your email list to tell a story over time. Build a narrative arc to your emails that leads your online community to a moment of action with building intensity and engagement. (“Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.” writes the poet Jim Harrison in “27” from “Letters to Yesenin”). Too often the emails I read aren’t building towards anything; they have no “story of us” and are instead one-off emails, written without any larger context: no cultural context, no context even within the prior and future emails we’re sending to the list.

Yes, we have to do it all: write beautiful, compelling emails, in a sequence that builds towards engagement and action like installments in a Dickens novel, with incredible subject lines that bring the campaign to life — while also A/B testing and seeking to maximize performance, keeping the core purpose in mind. The environment of a presidential campaign is highly unusual, and incentives tactics that won’t succeed for most organizations.

P.S. Yesterday is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death a few years back, and her exquisite sense of language and grammar inspired this post.

Real ultimate power

January 7, 2010

Your life depends on technology. Not just machines but digital technology. Things that are not mechanical; things that have no moving parts but are essential to your living. These things just work, lubricating your life in ways you could not have imagined just months ago, until suddenly they stop working, and then you are left frustrated and miserable. Nerds are the high priests of the magnificent magic of it all, hoarding knowledge and smiling down their beneficence upon you when it suits them; alternately they may treat you with scorn and annoyance, a sense that you are too stupid to deserve their attention, which is in such high demand.

I am here to tell you that it is not magic. You do not require a ponytail and a long experience of video games to master and resolve the technological complications that confront you; you can control and manage the digital things that seem to control and manage (and occasionally mock) you.

Remember this: it’s just electricity. Everything in the digital world gets converted down to zeros and ones, to binary, to electricity or no electricity. The only thing your mouse really understands, the only thing your phone really understands, and (increasingly) the only thing your car really understands is electricity or no electricity — and so ultimately you can decide to plug it in or unplug it, and the power (literally) resides in your hands.

I have a long love affair with electricity. It probably started when I was five years old and living in Surabaya, Indonesia (the largest city you’ve never heard of) while my father was a part of the US consulate there. Indonesia’s electric grid in the early 80s was unreliable to say the least; the construction and wiring of its buildings even more suspect. I was an enterprising and curious five year old with a fascination with all things mechanical and electrical. My father had a reel-to-reel musical device — it feels painful to call it a stereo, and ludicrously ancient to call it a hi-fi — and I loved listening to music on this reel-to-reel machine, in part because of my father’s eclectic taste in music. But occasionally the reel-to-reel simply wouldn’t work, and I discovered after much observation that this was related to electricity, and helped to explain the gigantic and alluring diesel generator that sat in its own building in our back yard.

One afternoon my parents were absent and I was under the caring but not particularly careful care of our nightwatchman-cum-gardner, Ishmael. Sometime after lunch, while Ishmael was taking his siesta from the scorching afternoon heat, I decided to attempt operation of the reel-to-reel, that oh-so-alluring machine, without the consent or presence of my parents. This seemed like a brilliant idea and one that did not need any further debate or review.

After a fair bit of experimentation and consternation, I managed to get the reel-to-reel operational — only to have it suddenly screech to halt as one of Surabaya’s rolling brownouts hit our house. Occasionally these brownouts would only affect certain phases of the house for inexplicable reasons relating to its original construction; consequently I procured a flathead metal screwdriver and proceeded to try to identify a live outlet in our house that would lead to the resumption of the reel-to-reel’s operation.

This was a very bad idea.

I did find a live outlet, and managed to shock my hand so badly that my entire arm shook violent and went floppy for several hours. My left hand shook uncontrollably for hours. Motor control gradually returned to me but even when my parents arrived back late in the evening, six or seven or even eight hours later, my hand was somewhat calmed but still moving occasionally of its own volition.

Rather than terrify me, this was exciting. I had discovered true, ultimate power: the power of electricity. The possibilities seemed endless. The story of Frankenstein seemed so promising and so shallow, only scratching the surface of what was possible. Years later on an ill-advised collegiate summer visit to the Jersey Shore I discovered in a badly decaying boardwalk arcade a machine called the Adams Family Shocker. The machine consisted of a giant plastic head of Uncle Fester accompanied by two large metal poles. The idea was that you grasped one pole in each hand, and the Giant Head of Fester sent something — not quite electricity but referencing electricity with its intensity of vibration — through the poles. Over approximately five minutes, Uncle Fester increased the intensity of the “shock” in an effort to establish how long you might endure (a metaphor for something else perhaps?). Could you hold on as the dial moved up into the maximum shock zone?

This was sweeter than any candy to me. I played it multiple times, absolutely giddy as I reached the maximum “shock” each time. When you started to notice steam coming out of the ears of the Giant Head of Uncle Fester, then you knew you were in the end stage, and if you could just hold on a while longer, just tolerate the shock for a few more seconds, the lightbulb in Uncle Fester’s mouth would light up, and you would triumph.

This machine, the Adams Family Shocker, was the Single Greatest Machine I had ever encountered. The memory of it stayed with me for weeks until I finally decided I must own one myself. Imagine if instead of consuming half a pot of coffee each morning, I simply shocked myself awake? This was brilliant. Think of the money I’d save on coffee alone!

After some searching aided by the early days of Google, I discovered that the Adams Family Shocker was somewhat difficult to come across, quite expensive, and had astronomical shipping fees associated with it. I still aspire to own one — the dream shall never die.


April 23, 2009

I was named after my father’s father, my paternal grandfather, Nicholas Angelo Mele. He died when I was 5. I have a few hazy memories of him – but mostly I have the stories that everyone in the family told (and still tell!) about him. I love him intensely – most from these stories – and he is a powerful figure for me. I share his name, I carry on his legacy, and I feel a deep intimate connection with him, even though I hardly knew him. I am proud to be named after him.

Morra and I decided to give Asa the middle name “Archibald” in a large part because of the stories I remember my grandmother telling me about her grandfather, Archibald Joseph McPhee. He was my maternal grandmother’s grandfather. I think that makes him my great-great-grandfather and Asa’s great-great-great-grandfather. I wanted to collect some family stories about Archibald before they faded off into distant memory. My mother helped me – putting down the stories she remembers, and getting stories directly from my great-aunt Gina and my great-uncle John.

The full stories are below, but he sounds like a warm, generous wonderful man who was truly loved. I remember the way my grandmother told stories about him, I could tell she loved him. He had a handlebar mustache and was quite “dapper” even in his old age. He loved corned beef hash, dried codfish, and snuff. He was from Bear River, Prince Edward Island, and seems to have missed it after he moved to California. He clearly loved teaching – a passion that has persisted in our family through the generations. The stories recorded here conjure up a lost era – it makes me wonder what Asa will remember about his grandparents when he is in his 80s.

From my great-aunt Gina, February, 2009

I know that Archie and Grandma were married on Prince Edward Island. About 15 years ago Aunt Anne, Glenn Anne and I think Maureen went back there. The little church they were married in had burned, but they found the book of wedding records. When they [Archie and Annie McPhee] moved to NY I am not sure, but they were living in Brooklyn at the time their three young little boys died within about a week of each other. Dad [Wallace McPhee] was the youngest and they had shipped him out of the city to relatives in upper state NY. Can you imagine how Grandpa and Grandma must have suffered? Archie worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance…not sure what he did. After Dad and Mom [Wallace and Anna] got married they all lived together in an apartment over Dad\’s shoe store in Brooklyn. Dad was afraid of germs and always washing his hands with that awful smelling red soap and I think that must have come from Archie. I remember him as saying; did you wash your hands? I don’t know when Dad moved Archie and Grandma to California, but they were here quite a while before Mom died in 1939, they lived in an upstairs apartment near town. I would go over there quite often with Mom for tea. Tea was very important. Archie boiled the water, but not to a full boil and poured it in a warm tea pot. Real tea leaves not a tea bag…ever. Then milk and sugar in the tea in a pretty cup, I loved it. After Mom died Dad moved them to our house on Denton Way. Mary and Joey took care of them. Archie had a handlebar mustache, but was clean shaven. During the summer of, I think, 1940 Wally and John and a carpenter friend built a little four room house in our backyard. Grandma died before the house was completed, but Grandpa [Archie] moved into one room. They built a porch and a door outside his bedroom and a ramp that he could get a little exercise. Dad got a young fireman and his wife to move into the other bedroom. I think they kinda looked out for him. He was independent and really didn’t need much help. He loved to listen to the radio. By this time he was completely blind, and the radio was his lifeline. His favorite program was a daytime serial Stella Dallas. He also told me that he had a date with Mae West. I hadn’t a clue who Mae West was, but I thought it must be something wonderful, because Archie would sure laugh about it. Now the curious thing is I don’t remember him every coming into the house for dinner or meals. Joey or Mary would take a tray out to him. Lunch he loved canned corned beef hash. I remember it, because I thought it was so evil looking. He also loved dried codfish. I remember my mother getting it in a long tan wooden box. She would soak it in cold water then mix it with mashed potatoes, egg and fry it. He loved it. Joey and Mary continued to fix it for him, and I thought it was pretty good too. Every Sunday Dad would clean his room, help him shower, and probably change his sheets. I don\’t know who did the laundry, but we had a cleaning lady, and she probably did his laundry too. He loved to dance, and even in his 90s he was pretty darn agile. He could tap. He was so cheerful. I loved to sit on his lap and read to him. I couldn’t read until I was in 2nd grade, but I memorized the picture books and would read to him. Every month he got a check for $50. That was quite a sum. He gave me fifty cents…movies were a dime and all the candy you could rot you teeth was a nickel so that fifty cents was quite a fortune. Now this is strange…I never remember him going to church. Dad never took him. And I don’t remember any priests coming to visit him. Our house was loaded with priests visiting all the time…Mary making vegetable soup for Fr. Tappe, but not a priest around Archie. I don’t remember any statues in his room, but our house looked like the inside of a church. Dad had friends who had a chicken farm in Cotati. They were originally from PEI..they would visit with Archie and he loved it. He loved to snuff tobacco. I think he probably gave Dad his $50 for his care. Don’t really know. He was immaculate…never old man spots on his clothes, and his room was clean. At his funeral his friends from PEI said he would love to have gotten up and had a toast and a good shot of bourbon. It is funny the little things i remember. I think he must have loved to read before he lost his sight, because he sure wanted me to learn to read. That is about all I remember, but if I think of anything else I’ll write to you.

From my mother, Mary Helene, February, 2009

This is what I remember from my mother about AJ (Archibald Joseph. My own theory was that was why my mother was named Josephine, to make up for not naming John Archibald. She said that wasn’t the case; she was named after Sister Illuminata, whose baptismal name was Josephine.) Anyway, I remember Mom telling me how he lived with his wife and “Aunt Annie” who was a maiden aunt from her mother’s side of the family (her mother, Anna Holmes, had no relatives on the Holmes side and her mother had been raised by Aunt Annie and a bachelor uncle and not by her mother, who seems to have been a bit …wayward, shall we say.) Anyway, Aunt Annie lived with them and they got along well, although Archie’s wife had dementia early. Aunt Annie and AJ would walk to church together every morning. I distinctly remember my mother saying this, but then it would have been before Gina was old enough to know. I remember that AJ was a school teacher and we have his teacher’s credential. He might have worked from Met Life as well, but he loved to teach and he taught my mother to read before she went to school, and to play Pinochle. He’d have play school for John and Josie and when he got tired he’d have them spell some impossible word which I forget…and which I regret forgetting. My mother said she was shocked in later years to discover it really was a word. They never could, and so then they had to go home.

She did say he was dapper. Jo would take him on walks around the neighborhood when he was blind (but Aunt Annie walked him to church.) While they were walking, and passed someone on the street or on their porch, Archie would ask “How do they look?” and she would describe them in detail for him.

He used to live in Bear River, Prince Edward Island, and for many years folks wrote him, but as his friends died off, my mother would pretend there was a letter and she’d read him the news from Prince Edward Island, making it up.

It’s funny how the memory of someone is so colored by who we are and at what point in our lives we experience someone and how selective our memories are. I have vivid memories of stories of AJ (and how my mother loved her grandfather) and her own father.

Dictation to Mary Helene from my great-uncle John, February 2009

Archibald Joseph was his name, known as AJ. Medium height and stayed the same weight until he died. Walking every day, he was blind the last 10 years of his life from cataracts.

AJ was a schoolteacher; taught at Bear River on Prince Edward Island, where he was born. St. Catherine’s of Scotland was the church. Graveyard has mostly McPhees there.

AJ taught Joey and John to read. He was very patient and a great man. Uncle Wally was another good teacher. AJ was just…couldn’t resist himself. He’d take a deck of cards and have us pick out all the 10s, things like that. As he got older and blind, I was so fond of him that I used to go 3 or 4 times a week on Washington St. In Santa Rosa and we’d go to certain bakery and he’d reach in his pocket and bring out a little purse to pay for the bread.

Annie McGowan and Annie McCoughlin and AJ — they all 3 lived together and made rugs out of old material which people saved for them. They’d have wooden stretchers to stretch them out to the right size. They all had their own bedroom. My mother was the #1 caretaker during her life; my dad or Mary later.

When he first arrived in California by train when I was 6 or 7…I went to Sacramento to meet AJ and Nana. I remember being on the platform as they pulled in. They lived next door in a rented house until they got the apartment on Washington St.

He had a little moustache that he was very proud of. He did snuff. That didn’t seem to bother anyone. My grandmother used a little bit of it herself. They didn’t smoke. We built that little house behind Denton Way. Rosemary lived back there with her girlfriend when I was overseas. Wally and I built that house. We did a pretty good job of it. I don’t think my grandmother lived there very long, but AJ lived there quite awhile. I’d take him out an ounce in a snifter. He’d drink it all at once. He’d grab his moustache and say, “OH! That’s good for a man.”

He and I’d be the first ones down at the shoe store. We’d start a fire in the little Franklin stove in that store on 4th str. By the time the customers came it was warm. Old shoe boxes we used to start it. I don’t know how we survived the depression. I was thinking about my dad the other day. We didn’t know there was a depression.

AJ would help anybody. Wally, Anne…he really wanted to be a teacher. A delightful part of our family. Almost every Sunday we went for a ride, with the jump seats, over to the ocean or to Sebastopol for ice-cream. We included Nana and AJ in everything.

New Year's Day – still waiting!

January 1, 2009

No baby yet. So I’ve been going through some old photos and videos and posting them online, trying to recall my own early years. I just uploaded a set named Nicco Growing Up to Flickr. And earlier this morning I uploaded to YouTube some old family videos – Super8s – that I got from my folks a while back. There is no sound – because in the olden days there was no sound with Super8 videos:

More to come…

Year-end Considerations

December 23, 2008

Years ago I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and discovered Wolfgang Laib. It was an odd exhibition, one that at the time I did not care for, but a single work of art has lingered with me across almost a decade from that exhibition – “Milkstone”. It’s best to quote the Sperone Westwater gallery in describing it:

A nearly square, shallow marble basin that is filled with three quarts of milk, it uses surface tension to redouble as a signifier for the apparent incompatibility of its materials. Milk is soft, liquid, perishable; marble, durable, solid, eternal. But in looking at a milkstone, the viewer is hard put to distinguish one from the other.

The work of art stands out now in my memory. It has surprising depth and resilience. I remember a docent explaining that every morning the stone is cleaned and the milk re-poured. I love that detail.

As I consider the last twelve months, and the next twelve, it has particular resonance. My life is taking shape, becoming rooted, cast in a stone. In 36 months I have gone from single with no real possessions to married with child and mortgage (and little white dog). At the same time, my life is taking on an mysterious, immediate fragility, a complete vulnerability with the birth of our first child, a willful gift of the rest of my lifetime to the unknown future of this baby. And yet – my life remains coherent, complete.

There is more that might be said, but the asethetic of the milkstone encourages a contemplative silence, a drawing inward.

Pinsky's Jacket

November 22, 2008

In early October, the Massachusetts Poetry Festival happened. It was the first one – and I was proud to have been a part of making it happen. But a few days after the last reading, an email went out to the conference organizers: Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate, was missing his jacket. Had anyone seen it?

Inexplicably a poem came to my fingers, fully formed, like Athena sprouting from Zeus’ head. This is an unusual occurrence. I have written perilously few poems in my life, and only three that really qualify for me as true Poems. And here appeared a fourth! A little clumsy, perhaps. Lacking a certain grace. But undeniable a poem, effortless in its own way. Which was both a delight and a disappointment. Shouldn’t poems require effort? Without further ado:

Pinsky’s Jacket

It fits fine,
although there is a slight tightness under the armpit,
and I might add some sequins to its broad shoulders,
perhaps spelling out POET or just WARRIOR,
and when I put it on I pat the pockets
looking for something to surprise me,
a delightful surprise, a poetry-infected pen in the
left breast inside pocket, or a few crumbs of
inspired prosody left behind in the right front side,
a slight scent of a muse of fire left high on the lapel;
although all in all it squeezes my frame,
maybe not such a fine fit after all,
more of a pot-bellied pig in biker’s spandex,
people glance at me on the street and avert their eyes,
aware i am uncomfortable
wearing a poet’s jacket.

– nicco mele –

Catching Up

September 15, 2008

My last blog post was two months ago; what gives? Well, in the aforementioned blog post I talked about my bike trip through the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On that bike trip, I fractured several bones in my hand and ended up in a cast for two months (but I finished the bike trip!). In the last 10 days I’ve come out of the cast and begun my rehabilitation. For a serious nerd like me, returning to typing was a genuine relief and the return to the Xbox was rapturous.

In the mean time I have tried not to take up any new projects – but my instinct towards excitement has led me to the organizing committee of the Massachussetts Poetry Festival, not to mention starting my term as a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

NewsJunk on Facebook

June 18, 2008

A few days ago I wrote about, and now there is an eighth way to follow NewsJunk: on Facebook!

Add “John Newsjunk” as a friend on Facebook. (You do this by searching for “John Newsjunk” then clicking “add as friend”). We’ll approve all friend requests, and then you can follow NewsJunk through status updates on Facebook via Twitter.

The eight ways to follow NewsJunk:

1. Refresh the home page periodically.

2. Subscribe to the RSS feed.

3. Follow it on Twitter.

4. Read it on your iPhone.

5. Befriend it on FriendFeed.

6. Receive emails through Google Groups.

7. Add it as a friend on Facebook.

8. Watch for developments on the NewsJunk weblog.

Any other ways we’re missing?

PS: You can include NewsJunk headlines on your blog or site.

Against whatever it is that's encroaching.

January 9, 2008

It’s dark, overcast day. And my dog is acting very strange. He’s looking around a lot like he’s uncomfortable with someone in the room. And he is uncharacteristically mellow and low-energy, sleeping a lot, getting up and nervously poking around the room and then going back to sleep. It makes me think of a nature film I saw as a child that talked about how animals know right before an earthquake or volcano eruption. It makes me think that at any time hot molten lava could come flowing down the streets of Medford. Unlikely but not impossible. Against whatever it is that’s encroaching.


November 9, 2007

From today’s Writer’s Almanac:

It was on this day in 1906 that Teddy Roosevelt went against more than a century of tradition and became the first American president ever to leave the country while in office. He went to view the construction site of the Panama Canal, and when he saw a steam shovel for the first time, he stopped his train and hiked through the mud to take a turn at the controls.

Steam shovels are cool.