Archive for January, 2009

Here’s a wonderful photo of my grandfather that really lends itself to studying it, and thinking about the time and place that it was taken.  It’s a photo that was in my grandfather’s collection.

My grandfather was Ted (Edward Thomas) Sexton (1902-1980).  Ted grew up in Bemidji, MN, one of twelve siblings.  As a young man, he moved “down” to St. Paul to get a job as a printer.  It was in St. Paul that he met my grandmother, Marie Wolters, whose family had a farm in West St. Paul.

Here’s the photo.  Click on the photo to see a larger version.

Ted Sexton on road rally, 1920s

I love studying this photo.  There are so many things to notice, which can help tell the story of when and where it was taken.  I also look forward to taking more time and learning even more.

To my knowledge, my grandfather never mentioned anything about this particular event.  So all I have to go on is the photo itself.  Ted is the boy on the far left, in the dark shirt.  I don’t know anything about the other boys in the photo.

Clearly this was some sort of road rally that the boys went on, driving from St. Paul to Canada.  One of the boys is clearly wearing a University of Minnesota sweater.  (My grandfather did not attend the university).

I haven’t yet identified the type of car, but it seems likely to be a Model “T”, given the time period.  If you look closely, you can see the number “23” on the license plate, under the letter “B”.  You’ll see “MINN” down the right side of the plate, so this is clearly a car that was registered in Minnesota.  And the date on the plate puts the picture at 1923, or at least within a year or two.  If it was 1923, Grandpa would have been 21, which seems about right.  You can also see a plate below the main one which reads “Bemidji”, where Ted was from.  So perhaps these are friends of Ted’s from “back home” in Bemidji.

I’ve also thought a bit about when this photo may have been taken.  If the boys participated in a road rally, we’d assume that they’d have their picture taken either at the start or at the end of the rally.  It’s hard to say which one of these two this photo would have been, but I’d lean towards saying it was taken at the end.  The boys and the car are located on some sort of wooden plank bridge over what looks to be a small stream.  Given the rustic nature of the bridge (note the hewn log handrails), it seems more likely that it’s up North near the Canadian border, rather than down in St. Paul.  Had the boys taken a picture at the start of the rally, they’d likely be in the city and we’d probably see other drivers and cars.

It’s hard to say much about the time of day.  The shadow of the car appears to be directly under the car, so the photo appears to have been taken near midday.  We can also think a little bit about how long the drive must have taken.  The Model “T” had a top speed of about 45 mph, and the distance between St. Paul and the Canadian border is something like 300 miles.  If they drove straight through, at 40 mph, it would have taken them 7.5 hrs.  But given the state of the roads in the 1920s, they wouldn’t likely be near top speed much of the way.  So it seems like it would have required more than a single day for the trip.  If the trip started in the morning in St. Paul, it may well be that they completed the rally around midday on the next day.  But it’s hard to say.

That’s a good start at thinking about the photo.  I’d be eager to get more information and thoughts from other people.  Some of the next things to look at are:

  • Talk to older relative to see if Ted ever mentioned this trip
  • Try to determine the exact make and model of the car
  • Find out if vehicle registration records for MN are kept anywhere
  • Look at newspapers of the time to see if they mention a road rally
  • Try to date the photo by getting more info on the University of MN letter sweater shown in the photo
  • Look through other photos of Ted’s to see if I can identify his friends
  • Take a look at maps of that time, to guess at possible routes/distances

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Words are powerful.  A well chosen word can serve to make an entire line of reasoning clear to someone that you’re communicating with.  They can also be incredibly evocative.  A single word can connect the listener with long forgotten memories or tap into deep emotions.

As I listened to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, I found myself really focusing on the individual words, more than the actual message.  This was no ordinary everyday speech, but an inaugural address—the vehicle that a new president uses to project his most central beliefs and values.  So the speech was filled with very powerful words like:  Nation.  People.  Generation.  Work.  Hope.

It occurred to me that maybe I’d be hearing the same words, even had the other candidate won.  The message may well be quite different, but I started thinking that I’d hear many of the same powerful words being used.

I decided to do a little experiment and actually analyze which words President Obama was using in his speech.  There are web pages out there that could do this for me, not only making a list of which words were present in the speech, but keeping track of which words appeared most frequently.

What I created for the speech is known as a “tag cloud”.  You often see them along the side of a blog, depicting the most common topics that the author has blogged about.  The distinctive thing about tag clouds is that the size of the words in the “cloud” is proportional to how many posts are about that topic.  Below is an example—a fragment of the tag cloud from my blog post.

Tag Cloud

You can do a similar sort of thing with any arbitrary chunk of text.  Run it through a piece of software that analyzes the individual words and then generates a tag cloud, with the words used most often showing up the largest.

I couldn’t wait to try this on Obama’s speech.  I quickly found the TagCrowd web site, which lets you input any arbitrary text and generates a tag cloud for you.  Here’s a fragment of the cloud that I got for Obama’s inaugural speech:

Obama's Inaugural

This was incredibly cool.  You can see that the tag cloud is way of depicting the speech visually, with the most used words the most noticeable, because of their size.  This illustrates the particular power of these words in a very compelling way.

I immediately started wondering what some of the other inaugural addresses would look like, when depicted this way.  So I plugged in President Bush’s 2nd inaugural address, from Jan, 2005.  Here’s a chunk of that tag cloud:

Bush Cloud

This was also sort of amazing.  Some of the same words showed up again—common themes between both men.  But there are also some big differences, based on which words are central to the message being delivered.  Somehow, it seemed like just looking at the tag cloud was imparting a true sense of each man and the message being delivered.

I can never really do things in half measures, so I decided to put together a web page that included tag clouds for every single inaugural address—from Washington to Obama.  I also included links back to the full text of each inaugural address.

You can see the end result at: http://www.seans.com/tags

You’ll see that I also added one more very interesting piece of information.  On the main page, where I list each president and their inaugural address(es), I also list the three most common words from that particular address.

This makes for some very interesting reading, just reading the list of presidents, without going to the tag clouds.  Somehow, even with just three words, you can get a sense of the man and the times during which he was speaking.

Here are a few examples:

  • Thomas Jefferson:  government, fellow-citizens, man
  • Abraham Lincoln:  constitution, states, people
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt:  national, people, helped
  • John F. Kennedy:  sides, world, pledge

In the end, this was a fascinating exercise.  It really highlights the raw power of the words being used in these speeches.  Even when we break the speech up into words, the individual words still have great power, as the core concepts and beliefs jump out at us.

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Out of all of my family history artifacts, the few audio recordings that I have are among my most cherished.  My paternal grandfather had an early tape recorder that he carted around to family events in the 1960s.  He’d pull out the microphone and create a little variety show, asking various family members to “come up” and say a few words–or even sing a song.  So our family now has these wonderful recordings featuring various family members, long gone, singing old Irish ballads.  In the world of genealogy and family history, this is pure gold.

Because of how precious these audio memories are to me, I think a lot about how important it is to capture and preserve snippets of audio from my own time and place.  It may seem like nothing special right now, to record a conversation with a family member, but I’m convinced that even the most mundane things that we capture will be treasured by our children and their descendants.

I had a great-aunt who died this past Fall, the last surviving sibling from my grandpa’s family of twelve kids.  I was lucky enough to have been able to visit her back in 2007.  She lived in California and I’m living in Minnesota, but I took a special trip to just go out and visit with her.  And because I’d traveled so far, I made sure to spend a number of days with her.

The best part about visiting Aunt Alice was that I didn’t go empty-handed.  I brought all of my family notes and was ready with a number of questions that I wanted to ask her.  But the best thing that I brought with me was a little digital recorder.  (Something like this).  This little device was incredible.  I left it turned on for the entire 4 days that I spent with Alice and I collected many, many hours of wonderful stories.  The best part is that everything was recorded digitally–so all of the content is already transfered to my PC and (of course) automatically being backed up.  I can go back through the audio content and pull out interesting bits of family history data at my leisure.  The important thing is that I spoke with Alice before she was gone and, even more precious, I captured many hours of her talking about her life.

We should all make an effort to do this with older relatives.  We know that we need to start with the oldest generation first, when looking for information about the family.  So we go out and interview them to check our facts, or glean new information.  But we should also be recording all of these conversations, just to capture these relatives’ stories in their own voices.

Stories are powerful.  But they are so much more powerful when recorded as audio.  If you haven’t already heard of them, take a look at StoryCorps.  They are a non-profit who has been traveling around, letting people tell their personal stories in their own words, recording everything and then preserving it at the Library of Congress.  The stories are wonderful: moving, heart-warming, sad, tragic and exuberant.  Basically a reflection of life itself.

Capturing someone’s voice in an audio format is also very different from capturing video.  It’s much more than just some subset of a video recording, but something much richer.  When recording audio, people tend to sit closer to the microphone and just talk–so they aren’t moving around or doing something else and you get their full attention.  Listening to an audio recording is different, too.  Somehow, when there’s nothing to look at and you just listen to the person’s voice, their stories and history enter your psyche and affect you in a way that video never does.

The Lucy Show

After hearing about the StoryCorps and after collecting such wonderful stories from my Aunt Alice, I’m more motivated than ever to really make an effort to capture stories from other family members.  I do intend to do this.  It just takes a little bit of time and energy.

But I have a slight more immediate goal.  I very much want to preserve my kids’ voices.  My daughter is 4 years old and the most loquacious member of the family by far.  My son is only 13 months old, so for the moment he’s limited to saying “uh-oh” after he throws his bottle on the floor.

I really treasure the conversations that I have with my daughter Lucy.  We have an incredibly long commute and we spend much of it just talking about everything under the sun.  It’s absolutely a no-brainer for me to try to capture some of this in an audio format.  I know that whatever I record and preserve today will one day be a real treasure to her and to her kids.

In the past, I’ve recorded Lucy once in a while, when it occurred to me.  I used the same little digital voice recorder that I bought for my trip to California, and just had a little conversation with Lucy.  But I always seem to forget about it.  Somehow, reaching for the voice recorder isn’t as obvious as reaching for the digital camera or the camcorder.

So I decided about a year ago to do something different to capture Lucy in an audio format.  Instead of just recording her, I decided to create an audio podcast that featured some of our conversations.  I’m an iPod addict and a huge fan of podcasts, so it seemed an obvious choice.

Capturing audio as a podcast has a couple of benefits.  For starters, we’d actually have an audience.  If we recorded a regular chat and then published our recording as a podcast, family members could just subscribe to that podcast using a “podcatcher” like iTunes.  As soon as I published a new “episode”, they would just get it the next time that they synched their iPod.  Also, because most people listen to podcasts on portable devices like iPods, they could bring our audio chats with them wherever they went, as opposed to having to go to a web site to find the recordings.

The other benefit of having an audience is that there’s a tiny bit more pressure to keep up the habit of recording Lucy regularly.  Once grandma has gotten a couple podcasts automatically transfered to her iPod, she’ll be bugging me for the next one.  And being gently bugged is a good thing, because it will just remind me how important these recordings are.

Finally, you can think of podcasts as a way of ensuring that your recordings won’t get lost.  To publish the podcast, you’ll end up uploading the recording to a server somewhere.  We do this so that people can then download the podcast using a tool like iTunes.  But it has the happy side benefit of forcing you to have a copy stored somewhere other than just on your PC.  Secondly, because other people will be downloading your recording, they all have their own copies.  One of the best ways to ensure that your family information is preserved is to disseminate it as broadly as possible.

The Lucy Show

So this past weekend, I finally got around to publishing the first two episodes of The Lucy Show.  If you go to this web site, you can listen to the two episodes right in your web browser.  But if you know just a little bit about iTunes, you can also click on the Subscribe link and paste the resulting “feed” into iTunes, becoming a regular subscriber of “The Lucy Show”.

I’m very happy about what we put together.  I was also very surprised at how easy this was.  I spent just a little time finding some “theme music” and learning how to do a little bit of editing to create the podcast.  But this was all easy enough that I’d recommend it to anyone who is thinking about a unique way to preserve recordings of their family members.  Most of all, I’m excited to make this a regular habit so that these recordings just become something that Lucy has when she’s older.

I’ll share more details, in a future post, of how I actually created and published these podcasts.  Maybe once you see how easy it is, you’ll be inspired to create your own podcasts and capture a little bit of family history.

P.S.  Let me know what you think of the theme music that opens and closes The Lucy Show.  It’s Lucy’s favorite part.

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Here’s a modest proposal for Ancestry.com on a little trick that they could use to get new subscribers.  (With all apologies to Johnathan Swift and only a slightly intentional reference to eating your young).

I recently got a short e-mail from a cousin who was interested in starting to do some research into one of her ancestral lines.  (Her father’s line, which I know nothing about, since I’m related to her mother).

I immediately volunteered to do some looking around on ancestry.com to see what I could find.  Of course I’m very conscious of not wanting to cheat ancestry.com out of a potential future customer.  So I wouldn’t plan on making a habit of doing free searches for friends.  But my thinking is that I can find a few snippets for my cousin and then, if she becomes excited enough about what’s out there, she may become a paid subscriber.

But I wondered how ancestry.com thinks about approaching people like my cousin and winning them over as a paying customer.  To start with, a potential customer has to find out about the product.  That’s what all of the advertising is geared towards.  But my cousin wasn’t approaching this because she knew anything about ancestry.com.  She just came to the family member who knew something about researching records online and asked me.  So ancestry.com should be thinking about prospects that they pick up through word-of-mouth, rather than through normal advertising channels.

Once a potential customer knows about ancestry.com as a possible place to go look for information on their ancestors, they should definitely have a chance to try out the service before making any commitments.

I know that ancestry.com offers a free 14-day trial for potential customers.  And my cousin could sign up that way.  But I have a couple of problems with the typical trial membership.

For starters, my cousin would have to enter credit card information, in order to get her 14-day trial membership.  That’s just big enough of a barrier to entry to block quite a few people who might otherwise be interested in quickly exploring what ancestry.com has to offer.  It’s just too much trouble.

Secondly, I’m fairly certain that the trial membership auto-converts into a full membership if you don’t explicitly cancel it.  Ok, right there, I know I won’t recommend it to my cousin.  That sort of marketing technique just smacks too much of typical bait-and-switch schemes.  Granted, canceling is probably pretty easy.  But still, it’s something that the prospect has to remember to do, which means that there is risk involved—risk that they end up paying for a membership that they don’t want.

The whole mission behind the idea of try-before-you-buy is to make the barrier to entry so low that lots of people can try your product, and do so in the easiest manner possible.  You also want to make sure to give them a complete/full product experience, i.e. they should have access to everything that paying members do.

The Proposal

So here’s my thought on this.  How about we make it easier for potential new customers to try out ancestry.com through a referral system?  Here’s how it would work:

  • I decide to refer my cousin, so I click a button in my account and get a new trial account auto-generated, after entering my cousin’s e-mail address
  • Ancestry e-mails the login info to my cousin, who logs in
  • No credit card information is required
  • This subscription does not auto-convert into a payed subscription
  • My cousin automatically has access to my family tree, as well as all databases that I pay for
  • The account/subscription lasts only for 14-days (or for 5 sessions, or whatever)
  • At the end of the trial period
    • My cousin’s account automatically is locked out
    • She automatically gets an e-mail giving her a chance to subscribe “for real”
  • If my cousin does sign up at the end of the trial period
    • She gets a slight discount
    • I get a small kickback, in the form of a discount for next year’s renewal

The bottom line?  A simple piggyback trial subscription mechanism that would make it very easy to refer other family members and grow the ancestry.com community.

How about it, ancestry.com ?

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I like Randy Seaver’s idea of occasionally posting a photo from his personal collection, so I’m going to start doing that as well.  Here’s one of my favorites.

This is a photo that a family member got from the Minnesota Historical Society, entitled “A lively crowd of old time lumberjacks at Gus Sexton’s camp”.  My great-grandpa Bill Sexton (1870-1960) appears in this photo, along with three of his brothers (he came from a family of fourteen).  Please take the time to load the higher-resolution version of this photo, so that you can enjoy the details.  The photo is dated in the collection as 1903, but I suspect that it may have been taken earlier, given the age of family members here–maybe in the mid-1890s.

Gus Sexton's Lumber Camp

A lively crowd of old time lumberjacks at Gus Sexton’s camp. (click for high-res or medium-res versions).

The basic story is as follows.  Great-grandpa Bill was born in 1870 in a little village in Quebec, on the Gaspe Peninsula.  The town was Maria, also known as “Irishtown” because of the large number of Irish immigrants.  Making a living in Maria was tough and Bill’s oldest brother Gus eventually moved away to look elsewhere for work.  Gus landed in Minnesota in the early 1870s and found work as a lumberjack.  He did quite well, eventually running his own lumber camp.

Several of Gus’ family members eventually followed him to Minnesota, including my great-grandpa Bill, who worked as a lumberjack in his brother Gus’ lumber camp.

My great-grandpa Bill is towards the center of the photo, standing next to two of his brothers.  Here’s Bill:

Bill Sexton

To Bill’s immediate left are his older brothers Jim (sparring with the cook) and Gus:

Jim and Gus Sexton

And towards the left of the photo, we find Bill’s brother Chris (Chrystostome) Sexton:

Chris Sexton

What I love most about this photo of the lumber camp is just looking at the higher resolution version and spending some time looking at some of the details.  The first things that jumped out for me were:

  • The diameter of the logs used to build the camp building.  Old-growth White Pine in MN could be as large as 40″ in diameter
  • How everyone is goofing around, with their fists raised.  (One guy even brandishes his hammer at a neighbor).  What did the photographer say, just before taking the photo?  I imagine something like “All right everybody, pretend like you’re going to fight with the guy next to you”.
  • The clothing.  Lumberjacks wore “Mackinaw” pants and shirts.  After the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, members of this same lumber camp, when reporting their personal losses, only applied for replacement Mackinaw outfits.
  • It’s Winter.  Lumber camps like this operated during the Winter months, because the logs were hauled out on horse-drawn sledges or rollers
  • No women.  My great-aunt Alice (Bill’s daughter) talked about how all these guys would go out and live in the lumber camps for months on end, only coming back to visit family and women friends when the season ended.
  • The tools.  I see what I think is a long two-man saw, leaning up against the building.  The two men in the front have what looks like a tong that might be some sort of a log lifter, as well as a couple of rope loops that may have been used for climbing
  • Men who aren’t smiling.  Despite the clowning going around, some men are merely posing, but a couple look like they are the types who never smile.  Tough characters.

These are the kind of photos that I really love having in my collection.  They show relatives or ancestors, but also give a great glimpse into some aspect of the times that our family members lived in.  Just staring at this picture makes me want to invest some time in learning more about lumbering in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the late 1800s.  I’d love to learn more about the time period and how these men lived.  And having a direct ancestor as part of this history just makes it come to life for me.

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99 Things Meme

These memes are a little addicting.  In this case, no one tagged me.  I just liked this meme, so I wrote it up for myself.  (And I’m lazy, not tagging anyone else).  So if the mood strikes and you blog, go ahead and pass this one on.  And then post a comment here, linking to your own list.

The 99 Things Meme

Things you’ve already done: bold
Things you want to do: italicize
Things you haven’t done and don’t want to – leave in plain font

1. Started your own blog.
2. Slept under the stars.
3. Played in a band.
4. Visited Hawaii.
5. Watched a meteor shower.
6. Given more than you can afford to charity.
7. Been to Disneyland/world.
8. Climbed a mountain.
9. Held a praying mantis.
10. Sang a solo.
11. Bungee jumped.
12. Visited Paris.
13. Watched a lightning storm at sea.
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch.
15. Adopted a child.
16. Had food poisoning.
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty.
18. Grown your own vegetables.
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France.
20. Slept on an overnight train.
21. Had a pillow fight.
22. Hitch hiked.
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill.
24. Built a snow fort.
25. Held a lamb.
26. Gone skinny dipping.
27. Run a marathon.
28. Ridden a gondola in Venice.
29. Seen a total eclipse.
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset.
31. Hit a home run.
32. Been on a cruise.
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person.
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors.
35. Seen an Amish community.
36. Taught yourself a new language.
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied.
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person.
39. Gone rock climbing.
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David in person.
41. Sung Karaoke.
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt.
43. Bought a stranger a meal in a restaurant.
44. Visited Africa.
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight.
46. Been transported in an ambulance.
47. Had your portrait painted.
48. Gone deep sea fishing.
49. Seen the Sistine chapel in person.
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkelling.
52. Kissed in the rain.
53. Played in the mud.
54. Gone to a drive-in theatre.
55. Been in a movie.
56. Visited the Great Wall of China.
57. Started a business.
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia.
60. Served at a soup kitchen.
61. Sold Girl Scout cookies.
62. Gone whale watching.
63. Gotten flowers for no reason.
64. Donated blood.
65. Gone sky diving.
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp.
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter.
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy.
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial.
71. Eaten Caviar.
72. Pieced a quilt.
73. Stood in Times Square.
74. Toured the Everglades.
75. Been fired from a job.
76. Seen the Changing of the Guard in London.
77. Broken a bone.
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle.
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person.
80. Published a book.
81. Visited the Vatican.
82. Bought a brand new car.
83. Walked in Jerusalem.
84. Had your picture in the newspaper.
85. Read the entire Bible.
86. Visited the White House.
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating.
88. Had chickenpox.
89. Saved someone’s life.
90. Sat on a jury.
91. Met someone famous.
92. Joined a book club.
93. Lost a loved one.
94. Had a baby.
95. Seen the Alamo in person.
96. Swum in the Great Salt Lake.
97. Been involved in a law suit.
98. Owned a cell phone.
99. Been stung by a bee.

Already done – 49
Want to do – 27
Haven’t done, no interest – 23

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Short Form or Long Form?

This will be another unusual post for me—merely a ramble of sorts.  I generally think quite a bit, prior to writing a new blog entry and I try to create something of real value.  This generally means that I write pretty long posts.  It also means that I spend a huge amount of time either researching/preparing the content for the post, or in just writing it and then later editing it.

But as I read other blogs, I notice how many bloggers write regular, or even daily, posts.  As a reader of those blogs, there is something very comforting about hearing from a blogger at regular intervals.  And it doesn’t bother me that many of the posts are things that I’ll quickly skip over.  Eventually they write something that catches my attention in a deeper way and I read that particular post more attentively.

So it’s not true that a blog post has to be 2,000 words long to be of value, or has to be the product of some project that has taken a number of weeks to complete.  I would still like to work on those project and write those posts.  But I think I’ll also try to mix it up with shorter posts that are merely  miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings.  I might even manage to talk myself out of editing and rewriting these shorter posts.

In the end, I guess I have several goals when it comes to blogging.  One is to provide some information, or tools, that are of lasting value to family historians and genealogists.  But also important is my goal to just have a conversation with the genealogical community.  I know that I really appreciate seeing regular posts written by my favorite bloggers.  It makes me feel like I have an ongoing connection with them, whether or not I read every post.  And I’d like to be on the other side of that equation occasionally.  It also matches my real-life personality.  I like to talk.

One final comment before this post becomes an example of irony, as it gets longer and longer.  There is great value in both the long form—huge 2,000 word articles that teach—and the short form—several paragraph posts that lay out a quick set of thoughts.  But there is even value in the shortest form imaginable.  I’m a huge fan of Twitter (www.twitter.com/spsexton) and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see that I “publish” many tiny little thoughts throughout the day.  Twitter enforces a message length of something like 140 characters and I find it quite easy to present a little thought in even so few characters.

So if I have any sort of New Year’s resolution at all (I normally make my resolutions in April, on my birthday), it would be this—to embrace not only the super-short form of Twitter and the super-long form of well-planned blog posts, but to also write some shorter blog posts over the next year.  I look forward to the ongoing conversation on the blog.  And I hope that I’ll also see some of you on Twitter.

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