Thursday, December 28, 2006

15 Houseplants Can Reduce Indoor Pollution

Practical Tips Dept. (Green desk)

"As few as 15 houseplants in an average-size home can offer a significant reduction in the number of indoor contaminants.

"Look for plants such as philodendrons, spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), and golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) -- all have long been appreciated as houseplants for their decorative qualities and are highly effective in removing molecules of formaldehyde. This contaminant is present in many household items, including particleboard, carpet backings, some grocery bags, facial tissues, paper towels, and permanent-press clothing.

"Flowering plants such as gerbera daisies and chrysanthemums are excellent choices for removing benzene -- frequently present in gasoline, inks, oils, paints, plastics, and rubber -- from the atmosphere.

From "Ask Martha" in the Boston Globe, December 28, 2006
This is according to -- Gack!! -- Martha Stewart! Maybe she learned this in "that place where I was." (I'll admit I never thought I'd find occasion to quote this insufferably hyperactive housekeeper, and convicted abuser of market insider information. But she shore do know her houseplants, I guess.)

I might add that Pothos, mentioned here, are very hardy, tolerant plants that will not faint dead away if you forget to water them for a few days, or even a week. Just the thing for those of us whose thumbs are a pale green at best.

Unmentioned in this article is the fact that living with plants has an unmistakeably soothing effect on one's nerves, too.

The article also reminds us that, "Plants produce oxygen." That's good: scientists are beginning to suspect that oxygen might have some role in respiration, perhaps even some beneficial effects on the brain.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Web 2.0 and "Rational" VC Investing

Couldn't resist a quick (snarky) comment here: the Wall St. Journal, in "Today's Free Feature" of this date, created an e-mail discussion between two venture capitalists on the dodgy subject, "Is 'Web 2.0' Another Bubble?" (via Techmeme)

Saying he saw no bubble forming, one of the gentlemen, David Hornik (a partner at August Capital), made the following astonishing statement:

"Venture capitalists will rationally stop investing in ideas that don't bear fruit."
As an editor, I yearned to append, "...once the bubble bursts."

Back during the dot-bomb days, I understood that VCs' M.O. was to fund 20 companies in a sector that could support one or two, in the hopes that one of theirs makes it. I may be a rube where high finance is concerned, but that sounds intrinsically bubbly to me.

Mr. Hornik seems to confirm this track record by later referring to, "...the irrationality of the Web 1.0 ascendancy." Yet he also states, "While many Web 2.0 companies will fail, they will not likely fail in significantly greater proportions than has been the case with other venture investments historically."

So was there or was there not an Internet bubble? Was the the year 2000 that long ago?
Winky Dept.
This could well be considered a risky post on my part, since I'm still hoping some angelic or partnerized investor will be interested in funding my own Breakthrough E-Commerce idea!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Season's Greetings!

(and/or Happy Holidays)!

Wishing you the best of all

An Exchange About GPS Monitoring of Kids

I just got involved in a fun exchange in David "Pogue's Posts" at*, still in progress as of this writing, on the serious subject of parents electronically monitoring their older children.

I happened to see a new post before anyone had added a comment, so I sallied forth, and got an intriguing response a few comments later. (Mine was #2, it turned out, then #9 is where I replied to #7's objection to my first one, while saluting #4's input. "Martha" makes a useful point at #20, among numerous other interesting windows on the topic, including pleas from creeped-out teens. I'm done, though, 'cuz like Stan Lee used to caption, "Nuff Said!")

The "net" consensus: In the long term, a trusting relationship will result in a healthier, happier person. Fear Strikes Out.

(Yet one more thing I'd like to do a search on, sometime: At what age do children generally start to become aware of themselves as individual entities, and to develop self pride?)

* -- "Wordsy" tangent:

Traditionally, something was "in" the New York Times. But in the current environment, no one says "in" a website, it's either "on" (that's old techie style,) or "at" (the marketing way). I might as easily used one or the other there.

Seems like people often refer to a site that supports a company's products as "on," but a destination site like a newspaper, where the site itself is the offering, as "at." On the other hand, doesn't everyone say "on AOL"? Funny how language evolves.

("So what?" -- Hey, I clearly labelled this a tangent!)

Speaking of which:

...that would be Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel Comics, the guy who created the first superheroes with human problems and senses of humor (...who doesn't appear to have his own site, so we're giving you the Wikipedia page).

(Note: This is what you'd have to call a real holiday-style, freely tangential post, hm?)

Friday, December 15, 2006

TNT's NBA broadcast focuses on New Orleans today

Kudos to TNT to devote all their between- and after-game airtime to bring the still-broken condition of New Orleans to the forefront. This was on the occasion of the first game played in New Orleans by the itinerant "New Orleans/Oklahoma City-nee-Charlotte Hornets" since Katrina hit the criminally weak levies to remodel the city.

And a heartfelt shout-out to Ernie Johnson, the longtime host of Turner's NBA halftime show -- hang in there, Ernie! Great to see you back. I've always enjoyed your considerable wit, the smooth way you literally "moderate" the show, your always evident humanity, and now your courage.

I was one who was really annoyed when the bull, Barkley, first joined your fine china shop, since I really enjoyed you and Kenny Smith before he and his great big mouth arrived. But now the youngster's calmed down and settled in, and the three of you are a clever, relaxed, enjoyable ride on the subject of professional basketball.
What a contrast with how ESPN handles its NBA share, the much larger one, unfortunately. I like a lot of the individual on-air personalities, but they're clearly being conducted to deliver all opinions at a high pitch, with that constant, macho hurling of challenges.

Don't you hate those ESPN shoutfests? On one of their regular shows, we're invited to watch as those two guys -- I'm not going to name it or them, because we shouldn't encourage them to carry in the manner they do -- argue and yell at each other as they sprint through a tightly timed series of the day's hot topics. It's exhausting, but even better, it leaves you in a cross, contentious mood. Just what we need more of in our world today.

It's "Crossfire" on sports, and it was an advance of civilization when that CNN show went off the air, sunk, it seemed, by John Stewart's gutsy appearance on their show to beg them to stop.
-- See, now, here's a great example: Barkley says he could compete in the Eastern Conference today, Reggie Miller says if you can run up and down those stairs (the lower bowl of the arena) in 20 seconds, I'll believe you -- and the next thing you know, Charles is charging up the stairs. The camerapeople are quick and zoom back to catch it, and he arrives back in a respectable time, but clearly winded, to the merriment of all.

This kind of spontaneous fun happens so seldom on television these days; it makes you wonder why.
(Note: I wrote this last night while watching the basketball post-game show, after which it was just too late to do any more with.)

Related (satire), here:
"Dance vs. Hoops"

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The "Greenest" Cities

The Green Guide, an environmental newsletter, has ranked Eugene, Oregon, at the top of its survey of America's most eco-friendly cities in 2006, "cities whose green achievements set the standard for others." The ranking is based on eleven criteria, including air quality, recycling, green space and transportation. Austin, Texas, was runner up and Portland, Oregon, came third. Boston was ranked a fairly respectable 11th.

Eugene is “well known as a powerhouse of green industry, clustering sustainable businesses like an environmentally minded Silicon Valley. …Residents enjoy numerous bike trails, clean air and water, parkland and outlying wilderness areas.

“Hydroelectric and wind power contribute over 85 percent of Eugene's power, reducing greenhouse gas emissions considerably. A little over 16 percent of Eugene is green space, including athletic fields, city parks, public gardens, trails and waterfront. The city has over 2,500 acres of publicly owned wetlands.”
Reuters’ story on the survey was headlined, "’Greenest' U.S. city faces same problems as others," as if to reassure us that we shouldn't bother going to all that trouble to act cooperatively with our home environment, because it makes no real difference.

The article, as you might expect, has a much more positive tone. But problems still sell better at the newsstand than solutions.
The city of Eugene has adopted aggressive environmental policies aimed at conserving energy, using alternative fuels and fostering an industry of green businesses. By 2020, Eugene aims to be carbon neutral in its buildings and operations... Eugene's entire fleet of diesel vehicles including heavy machinery and fire trucks run on a biodiesel blend. (Now at two-thirds, soon the entire fleet of its 400 automobiles will be hybrids...)

Nonetheless, Eugene struggles with many of the same problems facing other growing U.S. cities: urban sprawl, congested roadways and limited public transportation.

Eugene's vision is to transform the city's downtown into a more vibrant area with mixed commercial- and residential-use buildings to stem city sprawl, while buying up land for new parks and bike paths. Voters approved a $27.5 million bond in November to purchase land to build new parks, upgrade existing ones and expand hiking trails.

Connecting it all will be the city's new rapid transit system of large hybrid-electric buses that run in dedicated lanes with special traffic signals to guarantee consistent commuter times similar to train travel.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy says business and the environment are no longer in opposing corners. "People used to say you can't be good for business and protect the environment at the same time," said Piercy, a former state lawmaker who became mayor in 2005. "That is absolutely not the truth."

(By Daisuke Wakabayashi, publ. Dec. 11, 2006)

(Related, here:)
- Cambridge to ban or regulate leaf blowers

- Dell Starts Recycling Program with Free Home Pickup

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Easily Jazz Up Your Site with Embedded Video Clips

'Don't know about you, but this year I sensed the conclusive sea change to video as The fundamental medium of communication. (I can just hear the incredulous cries: "Dude! Like, get with it, man -- that's really old news!" But, look, I'm a writer -- what do you expect?)

Obviously, most people have long turned to TV for most of their information input, as sad but true as that is. But what's really tipped the scales this year is Internet video: YouTube and all its clones, where we can now be the Producers instead of just the prodigious swallowers of footage.

Why "sad" but true? Because movies are naturally superior at conveying emotional information, but a far smaller pipe where thoughts and ideas are concerned. We may live by the former, being the "feeling machines" we are, but we need the latter to build things.

But I digress. YouTube's wonderful, genius stroke is to allow you to embed a video on your site, where viewers can watch it without leaving your page even though it's stored on YT. Like this:

(This is something I just put together for Dodge Street, a music club in nearby Salem, Mass., adding it to their site -- which is not otherwise my work, thank you! -- after first getting their video "ingested" from an older analog camcorder. I will post something more erudite as soon as such becomes available.)

There's nothing like moving pictures with sound to make an impression on humans. This YouTubian technique just makes it so easy, and you don't have to store bulky video files on your own server, or send those coveted eyeballs to another site to see your clips.

(Related, here:)
"What will make the Web universal is video"

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Classical Radio Lives To Tell The Tale

We are pleased and relieved to note that the expected demise of round-the-clock classical radio here in Boston has been averted, at least for the time being. On December 1st, WCRB will begin to broadcast from 99.5 FM, because its present 102.5 will undergo a remarkable personality change into a country music station.

(These days we have to specify that’s “terrestrial” radio, although that’s a misnomer, since you don’t pick up broadcast radio waves by sticking an antenna in the ground, right? Their medium is usually referred to as the “airwaves.”)
Classical stations around the country have been falling like so many decrescendi in these past years, presumably as the generations that were more attuned to it have moved on. Over and over, classical stations have been sold to fill the gaping need for more pop/rock/dance music on the dial.

The reason this is such a big deal to me (besides the fact that I spent a few years as a weekly and frequent pinch-hit announcer on Miami’s former classical station, WTMI, since dance-popped,) is that WCRB is the only consistently quieter, more relaxed sound that’s always available on the public airwaves around here.

Concerned about road rage? As thousands of monitored plants from dozens of studies will tell you, classical music is soothing, calming, gently supportive, and all those similar qualities so frighteningly missing from Storrow Drive, Route 128, et al, for at least six hours each weekday.

We must duly note that public radio WGBH (89.7) programs classical weekdays from 9-4, after and before the invisible talking heads take over with their “All Things Confounded” and so on.

‘GBH has always played a much wider selection of music and composers, with the relative freedom of a listener supported, not-very-commercial station, while WCRB has always seemed to have a three-composer rotation: Mozart, Beethoven, then one of the others. (And there were only a handful of the others; but now it’s clear that they were fishing in a slowly drying pond, and were feeling considerable pressure to popularize.)
This blogger at Perfect Fifths, for “violin, viola, and cello players and fans,” reports that the signal on Lowell-based 99.5 is “much worse.” “I tested out the signal tonight from my home in Watertown, and unless they boost the signal, it’s pretty bad.”
= = =
UPDATE December 4th:
We're pleased to report that WCRB's signal is coming in loud and clear at 99.5 FM, at least up here on Boston's North Shore.

The Channel Getting Cleared?

Since the topic is Radio In The News; and we are all for a tilt back towards greater local ownership of media, for all the reasons stated in this bulletin of Nov. 17th:

“Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold has weighed in on the announced Clear Channel buyout and divestment of nearly 450 radio stations, and count him among the crowd that is happy to see the break-up of the media giant's reign on American radio.

"’Clear Channel has been the poster child for rapid consolidation in the radio industry, which has severely damaged the diversity, local flavor, and popularity of radio,’ said Feingold. ‘I hope the recently announced sale and divestment of around 450 stations marks an end to this ill-conceived experiment. And I urge the FCC to start taking more seriously its obligation to ensure the greatest benefit to the radio listener through increased localism and competition."

From FMQB (Friday Morning Quarterback), a radio industry magazine begun in 1968.
Senator Feingold might be celebrating a little early, though, since Clear Channel is only selling those stations that are not in the top 100 markets. In those city-states, they often own quite a few stations, meaning we're hearing a much smaller number of editorial voices than we realize.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hey, NYT: What about Fair Use?

I was amused at a dialog that just popped up as I read one of David Pogue's columns in the New York Times. (I was going to add, "online," but then a dialog wouldn't have bluudy-well popped up out of the print edition, would it?)

From the NYT and “Powered by Rightslink, the copyright clearance center,” it offered to give me a “Quick Price Estimate for reproducing the article to use in your own materials."

By stating via pull-down menus that I was inquiring about republishing an “excerpt (max. 250 words)” on “a non-profit internet site” for three months, I was invited to pay $200 dollars, or $400 for a year. Oh, sure; I’m eager to pay for a quote that clearly would be covered under Fair Use.

That would be the “Fair use… doctrine in United States copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders, such as use for scholarship or review. It provides for the legal, non-licensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor balancing test.”

(That’s in the words of the faceless, numberless contributors to the Wikipedia’s page on Fair Use.)

This is going to influence me to stop quoting the New York Times, who can perhaps be forgiven for trying to find additional ways to save the newspaper business but are making an unfortunate choice here. What has fueled the nearly universal adoption of the Internet is exactly the reasonable application of appropriating other people's material.

That's assuming, of course, that we're talking logically here, about quoting a small chunk of someone's work with proper linking/attribution. (As we know, unreasonable out-and-out theft of other people's intellectual property has also been rumored to occur; but that's not what we're talking about.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dear David Stern: how about "One, two, three, T"

I'm watching the Celtics game -- as I write this they're up 78-70 at the end of the 3rd quarter vs. the Bobcats (the who?) at the new Garden -- flipping to the Suns-Spurs game, and watching as players are promptly called for fouls for even thinking about scowling at the ref's.

They got some new rules this year, see? David Stern says no more whining and complaining, no more temper, no more emotion directed at the referees.

Dear Mr. Stern,
You've done a great, in fact exemplary job of shaping and promoting the NBA. There must be an ample supply of marketing books based on what you've done. But the thing about emotions, especially some of the most intense type brought on by physical exertion and battle, is that they have got to go somewhere. They do not dissipate just because they are not not permitted.

How about a simple system of 1, 2, 3? If he counts to three, he pops the T. It sure worked great in my family, growing up.

It gives the guy, his breath heaving, sweat dripping liberally from a body that's been literally crashing into other athletes all game, a decent chance to vent a little. But it clearly draws a line, institutes a clear discipline, and everybody's happy.

= = = = =

Wow! Paul Pierce just aced a beauty after taking the hit from an airborne Bobcat, fortunately with no claws extended. Big foul for that.

The Celts have dancers this year for the first time, which for the tradition-soaked Celtics is a very big deal whenever it rarely happens.


During the game, sideline reporter Eric Dickerson contributed, "As Red Auerbach used to say, "Keep it simple, fellas."

Oh, geez, it's going right down to the wire. Final possession, Celtics need a stop...

Nope -- tie game. But they've got the ball with a short clock.

Five seconds on the clock, Pierce has the ball...

Overtime! "Free basketball," as the expression goes. But will Sczerbiak still have the hot hand?

...Delonte West! For the game! And, in fact, their first win of the season. And you were there!
; - )

(10:28 pm)

Another Long-Overdue Wrong To Be Righted: Leaf Blowers

In what has already been a very good news day ; - ) ,
this heartening item appeared in the Boston Herald*:

"Leaf blowers may have to take leave: Cambridge mulls ban"
By Laura Crimaldi, 11/8/06

"Cambridge city officials this week established a Leaf Blowers Advisory Committee to determine whether the noisy lawn and garden machines should be muffled for good or least regulated.

"Last year, Palo Alto, Calif., banned use of the cacophonous gas-powered deleafing devices in residential zones, joining more than a dozen of California communities that have outlawed high-octane leaf blasting or limited the hours that the turbo garden contraptions can be in use.

"The yard-clearing conundrum isn’t just about neighborhood racket, leaf blower naysayers said. It’s also about health risks and actually robbing your lawn of the nutrients needed to stay healthy.

“'Everybody has this idea that it’s important to get the leaves up,' said Karen Carmean, co-chairwoman of the Cambridge Public Planting Committee. (But,) 'it is the best thing for trees to have leaves on the ground around them because it creates leaf mulch.

"The leaf blowers also kick up dust particles that pose a health threat, Carmean said. 'Particulate matter is more dangerous than we thought it was a few years ago.'”
Okay, it isn't known as The People's Republic of Cambridge for nothing. And yes, the price of not cutting your own lawn will go up along with the extra time it'll take to rake.

But I was particularly happy to see this possibility being considered, because them dang things are a pet peeve of mine, and I hadn't even considered the issues of mulch and free-flying particles. Just the damn noise!

Such a peeve, in fact, that i was moved a few years back to vent into my keyboard on the subject; to wit:
It's a Loud, Loud World
Here's a piece of technology that has all the nerve-shredding abilities that we've outlined, but absolutely none of the usefulness, the practical value, of tools that at least accomplish something. The leaf blower just moves unwanted material from one place to the other, where it is equally unappreciated. Its slogan? "Let them clean it up."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Happy Basketball Season!

In honor of the start of the season:

Let's go Cel-tics! (They say that was Red Auerbach's favorite cheer, and the fans present at last night's Goodbye and Hello game really put their hearts into it.)

Too bad we're in the same conference as,

"Okay, check it in..."

(Logos courtesy of Chris Creamer's SportsLogos.Net.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"What will make the Web universal is video"

Virginia Heffernan unfortunately chose her New York TimesScreens” blog Tuesday to make what I thought were some excellent observations about YouTube’s most popular videos, and Web video overall -- and I do mean "over all."

I say unfortunately only because the NYT requires a "free" (in return for your e-mail) subscription to read, which makes linking awkward. But that's carping, isn't it? I mean, you used to have to pay 50 cents a day for the paper. And only today we see again that "Ad Sales Continue to Sag at Major Newspapers." (According to them, it's all Craig's fault.)
Now, if what she proposes is true, it’s not exactly good news around here, because as you’ve no doubt noticed I consider myself, ahem, a writer, and this could easily be seen as implying that there ain’t no big need for me or my kind in the brave new video Webworld.

But though we writers will probably still have something to do for a while yet, I think she’s right, in what reads like a loud manifesto, about where it’s mainly going.
The Breakthrough of That Dance Video, the Future of YouTube and the Wisdom of Google
NYT, October 17, 2006

"Why is an overlong mollycoddle mime dancing sketch, 'The Evolution of Dance,' YouTube’s top-viewed video?

"It’s hokey and did I say long and it’s like a chumpy cousin at a family reunion, which is to say — so I’m relenting a little — not entirely without corny charm, but far from groundbreaking or bellwether or cool or Web 2.0. ...

" 'The Evolution of Dance' has drawn more than 34 million views, nearly double the number of the runner-up, because it’s . . .

" . . . not in English. That’s all. No talking. No dialogue, no voice-over, no monologue. No language but lyrics.

"...blogs are not the form that makes the web universal. Neither are news sites, or databases, or Wikipedia, or anything else that’s restricted by language. What will make the web universal, what will turn us into one magical networked planet, what will blow our minds with how much can be said in icons and images and film — and, above all, why Google didn’t overpay for YouTube — is video.”
Just for the record, we are not at all sure about the "magical networked planet" invocation there, just so you don't think including it was an endorsement of the dream.

That's a great, swinging paragraph, and we didn't want to risk disturbing the music.

We know it's coming, to some degree or another. The question is, what type of magic will it be?

Monday, October 16, 2006

"H.P. Names Ethics Officer"

(This was just too funny:)

...Because, uh, well, it's kinda complicated, see? We guess what happened was,

"PALO ALTO, Calif., Oct. 12 (AP) — Hewlett-Packard said Thursday that it had named Jon Hoak, former general counsel for the NCR Corporation, as its vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer.

"Mr. Hoak, 57, replaces Kevin T. Hunsaker, who was ousted after his involvement in a boardroom spying inquiry was disclosed last month. Mr. Hunsaker was charged with several felonies in the case..."
Oh, but we're sure we've got a ethical Ethics Officer this time, for real!

(This phrase will forever remind me of a little girl named Janet I once knew, at the time she had just discovered those magic words. She was so thrilled with the tool of "for real" that she used it as the suffix for every statement she made, including the plainly false -- which, bless her heart, accounted for the lion's share of her expression. But we're sure the new New HP will do much better -- for real!)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Armstrong Quote Scores Some More Points

Having paraphrased and commented around a month back on the usage in Neil Armstrong's justly famed Moon-landing quote, it was funny to see his score for grammar improve only the other day with the news that they found his missing "a."

It turns out that Armstrong always intended to say, " small step for a man," but the recording said otherwise. Ah-ha, until some restless Australian programmer went hunting for this legendary beast in the sonic outback, and brought back at least some pictures.

And it only took about 37 years to find out.

One small word is one giant sigh of relief for Armstrong

Times Online, UK - Oct 1, 2006

Software proves Armstrong’s moon quote was grammatically correct

Mumbai Mirror, India - Oct 1, 2006

= = =

In here on Aug. 30, commenting on the second part of the statement, in "Another Giant Leap For Humankind... (TV-B-Gone)" --

Note on the title:
We’ve tweaked an historic quote there, but are sure that if Neil Armstrong had first set foot up yonder in recent times, he’d have put it that way. Kudos and appreciations to Mr. Armstrong, btw, for realizing that was a hugely historical moment, and rising to the occasion. He could have just said, "Roger, Houston, that's a big 10-4, we have touch-down," or something equally dull and functional.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Dell Starts Recycling Program with Free Home Pickup

Since I recall making some snarky comments in here recently about the need for a greater sense of social responsibility from tech companies (and we're currently on a theme of giving credit where due), it's only fair to point out Dell Computer's news, this time for something other than flaming laptops or incomprehensible customer support.*

On Friday (9/29), Dell began a U.S. recycling program that features free home pickup of any Dell computer or peripheral. The program was announced in June. "Unlike recycling programs offered by many other manufacturers, the Dell program does not require people to purchase a new product," CNet's story explained.

Here's the Dell site's page on the program, where you can sign up, and they further explain that if you do buy a new computer from them, they'll take anybody's boxes to recycle.

“Among tech companies, environmental advocacy group Greenpeace has singled out Dell and mobile-phone maker Nokia for their ecologically conscientious policies,” CNet said.

Excellent! I’d add that it’s about time a computer manufacturer offered this, but since this is a congratulatory announcement, let's hold off on that for now. (Apple will take your old stuff, too, but only when you bring it in and buy a new machine from them.)

These companies have made fortunes filling the land and landfills with boxes that contain a good dose of toxic substances, poisons that are seeping into the earth under the dumps they’ve been thrown upon. It only seems fair that they pick up their garbage.

CNet: "Dell's no-excuse recycling program begins"

...via the Boston Globe's Business Filter, with links to a number of related stories, notably including:

Where computers go to die...and kill

"30 million U.S. computers become obsolete each year and yet we have no nationally-coordinated recycling policy."

Full story from:
* - (But you should have heard me own Mum's distress and frustration at trying to understand what the Indian gentleman was trying to tell her about fixing something on her Dell -- which was probably to reinstall Windows. Apparently it was a very trying experience for all involved).

Monday, October 02, 2006

"Giving Credit Where It’s Due" Dept.

One spirit which I've always found sadly missing from the Internet in general, from smaller, personal websites and pages to the e-mail output of the general populace, is of giving credit for things. Ever notice how few of those eternally popular e-mail collections of witticisms, the ones that thousands of people find just right and send around again and again, are absent any credit for authorship?

It's an odd psychology; I’ve always imagined it was the original senders fearfully thinking, 'If we take out the name of the person who wrote this, then we won't get caught for using it.' Not that this makes any sense, but why else?

So we've decided to start a series on the theme of Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due. (But don't worry, not in the common sense of, “Giving Credit Where We Reserve The Right To Jack Up The Rate Later.") The first subject:

The “Washington Post Style (not ‘Mensa’) Invitational”

No sooner had a friend reminded me recently of this highly witty collection of original words, which I remembered seeing a few years back, than a fresh copy of the same bit arrived from a family member. It was titled “The Washington Post Mensa Invitational,” where readers were invited to change just one letter of a word and supply a new meaning. Chances are you’ve seen these:

Intaxification: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize that it was your money to start with.”

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.”

Decafalon: The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.”

Bozone: The substance surrounding slow-witted people that stops bright ideas from penetrating.”
But as funny as they were again, they were familiar; so since I’ve got the World’s Library plugged into my fingertips here, I got curious and decided to look into it a little further. Maybe I could find some editions from other years with more such clever nuggets. I did a search (I know, you’re supposed to say, “Googled it,” but do they really need any further endorsements?), and sure enough one of the first few entries noted some anomalies.

"The fact is, there is no such thing as a Washington Post Mensa Invitational. But a Factiva search shows that a few of these words appeared in a ‘Washington Post Style Invitational’ back in August 2, 1998,” some since-delinked commenter claimed. Further digging eventually revealed that this had indeed been one instalment in the regular Post feature, the Style Invitational (recent archives), which was begun and conducted at the time by one Gene Weingarten.

When I found this, I kept looking at his name, thinking it looked familiar. Well, sure enough, Gene used to be the editor of the Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine, and as a former, unintentionally longtime Miami resident, I was very familiar with his name and photo.

It turns out that the Gene was the clever man, you might even say visionary, who got Dave Barry hired by the Herald, having discovered him "toiling in obscurity" for a small paper in an even smaller Pennsylvania town. (More twinned words: people never simply "work" in obscurity, they always "toil.")

Together, if I remember correctly, Weingarten, Barry and Tom Schroder also brainstormed and put on the Tropic Hunt, an annual scavenger hunt that savagely taxed the brains of the couple thousand people who would turn out every year, to spend a comical, frenzied afternoon racing around trying to interpret sheets of riddles for clues to a master puzzle. People would howl, with some mix of mock indignation and astonishment, when the unimaginably intricate solutions to each step were read out loud by Barry at the end.

So, Gene Weingarten, This Is Your Life (according to the Wikipedia). Thanks for facilitating all that fun, and glad to see you're still at it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

iTunes Playlist Trick - Upgrade

After a year and a half using iTunes on my “home computer” on an almost daily basis, I just saw the simplest, quickest way by far to come up with a custom playlist. (This one allows more programming control than the earlier iTunes Trick, 5/30/06).

Since my computing slab has also become the central piece of the home stereo system, and I’m a natural-born dj (in the original sense of the term), personally this is very big news. I’ll bet you anything some Mac whiz, power-user type columnist or author has already published these findings, but just in case:

All’s you gots to do is* --

  • within a playlist, command-click to highlight the songs you want to hear (that must be control-click in Windows),
  • click on the up/down Arrow at the top of the number column at left, so you can freely order tracks,
  • then grab on any one song, slide them as a unit to the top of the list song, and presto change-o, they now appear together in sequence, the lonely space that was once between them having been magically removed.
Once they’re all together, you can shuffle the order, and of course this is also the convenient time to Check all the boxes, too, for those songs to play.
Note: the earlier approach took place in the Library, which gave you multi-genre selecting on the fly, but didn't allow ordering the tracks other than using the column headers (name/artist/etc., selected in EDIT/View Options).
(* -- this is a real Saturday-style post. Please be assured that during the work week we strictly observe correct grammatical usage : - )

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

“How to Hack an Election in One Minute”

September 13: Princeton researchers release a study and video detailing their successful attempt to hack the widely-used Diebold AccuVote-TS electronic voting machine. (Oops.)

“The University's Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) is not the first group to demonstrate the vulnerability of Diebold's machines,” says the article in MIT’s Technology Review. “, Open Voting Foundation, and Johns Hopkins professor Avi Rubin have all published accounts of security compromises in Diebold products. wrote about their successful guerrilla project to swap out a Diebold voting machine's memory card using $12 worth of tools in four minutes (the Princeton team says it can execute its hack in one minute).”

They had three main findings: “First, the CITP group discovered that not only could it install malicious code on the voting machine, but also that the code could easily be configured to ‘disappear’ once its work was done,” leaving no trace of tampering.

Second, it was easy to physically hack into the machine to get at the removable memory card that stores vote counts.

Third, "By planting a virus far enough in advance, [a hacker] can ensure that a significant number of machines can steal votes on election day" even if the criminal had access to only one voting machine.
(“Criminal”? That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? They'd probably prefer the term, “political operative.”)

That’s the thing about relying on technological solutions – you can always flip a couple strategic bits and come up with an opposite effect ('"A Working Simple System').
'Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine'
By Feldman, Halderman, and Felten of Princeton's CITP

Technology Review is owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The oldest technology magazine in the world (est. 1899), Technology Review aims to promote the understanding of emerging technologies and to analyze their commercial, social, and political impacts.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

WSJ Tech Innovation Awards

The Wall Street Journal, on the rare 'Today's Free Features' page, announced their 2006 Technology Innovation Awards yesterday. They gave the Gold star to Sun Microsystems for a hot new debugger, which we're sure programmers -- excuse me, they like to be called "engineers" or "developers," however that translates into Hindustani -- are, rrreally, verry excited about.

But since writing a piece early this year suggesting an award for the best “Green” Invention, I was more interested to find one here: WSJ gave their Silver award to a company that's developed a thin-film solar material that can be applied to glass or other building materials, HelioVolt of Austin, Texas. The full story is here (assuming they haven’t since removed it from their free content):

Innovation Awards: The Winners Are...

They also named, as their winner in the Environment category, ET Water Systems, of Corte Madera, Calif., for a landscape-irrigation system that reduces water use "by gauging the precise watering needs of a home or business based on the location's plants, soil types and rainfall," using Web-based controls. Cooool.

Unfortunately, in my wistful view, they gave their Materials award to a company that’s using nanotechnology to make a electrically conductive coating for solar cells, etc. That's ironic. Creating active ingredients that can't be seen except with fantastically specialized and hence expensive equipment, and small enough to invisibly penetrate our bodies and wreak who-knows-what kind of havoc? Sorry, that just doesn't sound like a very wise idea.

Could they instead focus on manufacturing some additional common sense and social responsibility for technologists? Then I'd be impressed.

How about an Award for The Best New “Green” Technology?

Ever notice that “havoc” is almost always said to have been “wreaked”? Have you ever seen those words used independently?)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

TV commercial breaks reach The Outer Limits

Call me a starry eyed innocent, but I made an honestly shocking discovery recently. Now, I don’t generally watch a lot of TV, but it was vacation, I was tired of being glued to the computer, already took a walk, yatta yatta, so I decided to see if there was anything on. (“Yeah, yeah, alright, get on with it.”)

…Okay, I’ll admit that during basketball season, you will find me plunked down in front of the tube many evenings, for at least the second half. But it’s the off-season; this is a whole different ballgame.

Anyway, with no games on – and even the Red Sox back in the traditional wait-til-next-year mode – what sounded good that night was an early John Cusack film, “The Sure Thing,” which was showing on WE – that’s right, the chick-flick channel.

(Directed by Rob Reiner, it’s a cute one when or if you’re in the mood for a witty romantic comedy. I was coming in around the last half of the movie, and quickly remembered that I’d seen it before with my lady because of one scene. It’s when the female lead’s painfully-perfect Ivy League boyfriend offers her a cup of tea, and smugly starts to tick through his long list of choices. “…English Breakfast -- but that’s more of a ‘studying’ tea, isn’t it?” Funny the things you remember.)
But what I noticed this time was that the commercials just seemed to go on and on, and on… Every time my attention rose in expectation of the film resuming, yet another commercial started. Even with the sacred Mute button armed – don’t watch without it! – it was exhausting and frustrating. So, after spending the next break in the kitchen, I started timing the breaks. I was dumbfounded to discover that the commercial break was eight minutes long. Eight minutes!

But Wait, There’s More: in between these stupifyingly long series of ads, they generously screened 12 minutes of the film.

One gropes for a word that would begin to do justice to this: impossible? Absurd? Grotesque? I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen and measured it myself.

Equally as astonishing as the length of these assaults was a mind-numbing phenomenon which we are all sadly accustomed to: at each break, they show you all the same commercials! On this channel, the same ones they hurled at you just twelve minutes before. It's relentlessly mind-numbing, insulting, and makes me angry at the companies pushing them at me. Put that in your focus group and smoke it.

Do you mean to tell me that anybody is sitting there and watching all, or most, or any significant percentage of those commmercials? Hel-lo, TV advertisers – they couldn’t possibly be. Nobody could even take in all that so-called information: if those were 15-second spots, that’s 32 commercials in a row. You’re letting that station make fools of you if you think anyone’s even capable of recognizing your message in the middle of all that, no matter how many times it’s shot at them, I don’t care what kind of stats they’re claiming.

You are wasting your money.

Being a longtime believer in Proactive Television Watching (TM), I did hit my friend and ally the Mute button (as usual), and literally pulled out a book and read during the next couple commercial breaks, because I didn’t remember how the movie ended. So yes, I kept watching the film, but decisively tuned out the ads – and that’ll be the last time I watch that channel.

O how we long for the return of the original “Outer Limits” show – because at the end they used to say, “We now return control of your television set to you…”
I did have a similar experience a couple years back – although it wasn’t this bad – when I tried to watch the film “Rudy” on ESPN Classic. I was literally exhausted by the end of it, and that’s the last time I watched a film on that station, either.
To be fair, I just saw “9 to 5”, with Tomlin, Fonda and Parton, on AMC last night, and they’ve kept their heads at that channel; they ran the old fashioned two-minutes’ worth of ads, which seems reasonable.
We're not anti-advertising types, by any means -- we have a pantheon of favorite ads, too. Just be clever about it, and we'll watch and even tell friends about them. But if you can't attain the heights of Cleverness, jeez, at least be intelligent about it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Quoted again in Boston Globe's "Business Filter"

We are, unsurprisingly, happy to have been quoted once again in the Boston Globe's "business blog," this time on last Friday, Sept. 1st. (It's about two page-downs, right under both Katie Couric's.)

"Bill Ross doesn't think that paying $10,000 to $12,000 for personal windpower when you save an average of $500 to $800 per year is a good return on investment.

"'Take the high figure on cost there, and the low on savings - usually a pretty safe assumption - and that's 24 years, not exactly the ROI/price point that's going to move many people to dig in to put one up.'"
(I'd also written, since we're on the subject,)
Doesn't that sound like an awfully long time to payoff... given how everything's going to change dramatically between now and then, and we don't know how? Especially when you would think that if there's anything that technology could do for us, we could expect almost Moore's Law type increases in energy-generation efficiency.
The Business Filter is assembled and written by Maura Welch, who we naturally feel is doing a great job. (For the record, though, we thought so before ever being quoted.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Another "Giant Leap For Humankind": TV-B-Gone!

All it does is turn television sets off (and now, optionally, on).

Techies like to talk about designing simplified software or devices that only do one thing, really well, despite the fact that consumers evidently prefer to buy clumsy, uneven products that promise to do everything you’ll ever need (
SUVs, the “cell phone/music player/camera/web browser/micro-movie theater/GPS tracker,” MS Office...) But here’s the device that fairly defines simplicity, and in an added Thoreavian kick, offers to return a little peace and quiet to your harried life:

“Your TV-B-Gone® universal remote control resembles other TV remote controls, but is different in two important ways. First, it only has a power button that allows you to switch a TV on or off.”

“You can use TV-B-Gone® to control access to television for philosophical or practical reasons, or simply to have fun!“

—Mitch Altman, Inventor of TV-B-Gone®
Ever turned off a television that no one around was watching, and noticed that nobody noticed? But you actually did those people a favor. Subtly but definitely you helped reduce the amount of noise in their environment, with its attendant stress and drain on their biophysical components.

You see, unlike even the most insistent conversationalists you know – the ones who never seem to stop – the television does not even have to pause for a quick breath; in fact, they even edit the breaths out of the announcers' spiels. A TV never needs to sleep, either; it requires only that lifeline of electrical connection to literally continue to yell at you, vocally and visually, 24/7/365.25 (accounting for leap years).

Stress, the professional health and medical fields agree, is the number one cause of physical malfunction in "advanced" societies. Television run wild is not merely a proven source of stress, it’s practically the poster child of stress-sources! So, by putting the TV-B-Gone to prudent use -- "Click Responsibly" – you may actually be doing a significant service towards promoting the general public health.

(And we’re only half kidding.)

Trying to figure out what to get me for Christmas this year? (This question is addressed to a very small of group of people, some of which I share a last name with.) This is it. A TV-B-Gone would let me feel like Robin Hood; it'd be my bow and arrow.

And I'll really find it handy for some of the restaurants I otherwise like.

Note on the title:
(We’ve tweaked an historic quote there, but are sure that if Neil Armstrong had first set foot up yonder in recent times, he’d have put it that way. Kudos and appreciations to Mr. Armstrong, btw, for realizing that was a hugely historical moment, and rising to the occasion. He could have just said, "Roger, Houston, that's a big 10-4, we have touch-down," or something equally dull and functional.)
Related, on
"It's a Loud, Loud World"

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Public Web Surfing Advisory

Since we're on the subject of personal digital security, here’s another tip to consider. The New York Times ran a piece on the wide open Web surfing that’s available at your local wireless hotspot. That is, all your communications and actions on the net wide are potentially open to whoever has the inclination and the equipment.

“Although obsessing about computer security is a bit like worrying about a toddler — potential hazards lurk everywhere and you can drive yourself crazy trying to avoid them — the fact is, business travelers take certain risks with the things they do on most trips.”
(Thought that was a great quote.)
“’Where I’d draw the line is putting in your bank account information or credit card number,’ said Robert Vamosi, a senior editor with CNET, adding that ‘checking e-mail messages probably is not that risky,' and you can always change your e-mail password later.

"Wireless networks at airports, hotels or cafes are not as secure as most people think. 'Someone may have software on their computer that allows them to look at all the wireless transactions going on around them, and capture packets floating between the laptop and wireless access point,' he said.

"Last fall, InfoWorld magazine published an article about a security researcher who managed to collect more than 100 passwords, per stay, at hotels with lax security (about half the hotels she tested).

"…Access to your corporate network through a V.P.N., or virtual private network, (is) safer than using public hot spots. There are services you can subscribe to for about $10 a month that do the same thing."

"Web Surfing in Public Places Is a Way to Court Trouble"
(This may require free registration to read)

Published August 22, 2006
But in a show of faith in the medium, I am boldly posting this from a public wi-fi spot. Go, Tech!

A good little wireless hotspot
…although I chanced across a place yesterday that didn’t turn up in their listings, your traditional, Mom ‘n’ Pop Internet café along Fort Salonga Road. On balance, though, very useful.
(Editor's note: oh, how that headline yearned to be, “Web Surfing Naked in Public” or the like, but that would be a cheap shot, wouldn’t it? Just wanted to let you know what we didn’t do, so you could congratulate us on our great dignity and reserve.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Getting Closer to Microsoft (for purely defensive purposes)

“Deluge of flaws” being found in Office

You are not going to see much in here that’s all warm and fuzzy on the subject of Microsoft, or even particularly friendly. But let’s be practical, everybody uses their stuff. And it’s because of that fact that this is bulletin is important, nay, crucial.

Ziff-Davis’s E-Week reports that:

"What started as an amusing eBay listing of an Excel vulnerability for sale has developed into an all-out hacker assault on Microsoft Office applications.

"Security researchers and malicious hackers have zeroed in on the desktop productivity suite, using specialized 'fuzzing' tools to find a wide range of critical vulnerabilities in Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats."
("Fuzzing tools”? You mean, marketing? No, eWeek explains,)
"Fuzzing, or fuzz testing, is an automated technique used by researchers to find software bugs."
The article points out that as Microsoft (belatedly) got serious about security vulnerabilities in Windows, hackers and hence security researchers have moved up the software ecosystem to go after “the low-hanging fruit” in applications. Well, there ain’t any bigger trees in the orchard than Word, Excel and Powerpoint, which were originally put together with the same oblivious attitude to security as the OS.

In short, what this means is that in order to keep our lives simple, we’d all better keep in touch with all the bug fixes, "service packs," etc., for Office from the E-Empire. (That “E-“ is for “electronic” – no, honest! ; - )

(…half an hour later:) Oooh, boy, is my head spinning. Well, try this, bravely found by starting at, Gawd help us:
Security and Office: Find out how to help protect your data

This page was obtained by clicking Office under Product Families in the navigation column at left, then typing “security” into the search box. (I’m specifying all this as a disclaimer, since there’s an awful lot of stuff there, and who knows what’s the most recent and comprehensive.) There are, naturally, thousands of rabbit holes there you could disappear down, so if you’re a masochist with a week or two to spare, have at it!

Here's a case where you really might be better off hiring a professional to at least get you set up with this. (No, we don't do that; this is not a subtle sales pitch.) It'll cost you, true, but it beats the hell out of having your computer taken over by zombies, spending long hours trying to get it exorcised, and losing all your data (because few are those who back theirs up).

Just a sec -- here we need to say, BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER! This weekend! At least just copy all your own files onto CDs, preferably rewritable CD-RWs. (There, now you can't say nobody warned you, okay? And we've done our duty as digital citizens.)

How much do I hear for a hole in Excel?

That Excel vulnerability for sale on eBay was indeed pretty funny. eWeek's story on that explains,

The seller openly taunts the software giant, poking fun at the company's delays in providing fixes for known security bugs. "It can be assumed that no patch addressing this vulnerability will be available within the next few months. So, since I was unable to find any use for this by-product of Microsoft developers, it is now available for you at the low starting price of $0.01 (a fair value estimation for any Microsoft product)," the listing read.

"Microsoft representatives get 10 percent off the final price. To qualify, you MUST provide e-mail address and MUST mention discount code LINUXRULZ during checkout," it added.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Even More on 'More about Great Customer Service'

In the reader comments on Pogue's Post on Crutchfield we discussed yesterday/below, a number of people got in the spirit of it all to recommend other companies they found notable for their service and attention to customers -- which would be us.

Canon, for their cameras, IBM/Lenovo for the Thinkpad, (downloadable audio books), and Apple Computer -- especially for the free, detailed advice at the Genius Bars at Apple Stores -- were applauded. And seemingly everyone who wrote chimed in affirmatively about Crutchfield.

I can echo the experience of Apple and their Genius Bar -- although, to be "fair and balanced" about the company overall, they were inexcusably slow to offer a replacement option for iPod batteries, and it's still an expensive pain, apparently. You can’t just go down to the drugstore or wherever and buy some batteries from the Bunny, like with pretty much everything else.

Then there's the whole question of DRM, or CRAP, or even DAM; but that's a subject for later -- or maybe earlier. (Since if it's later enough, in the odd, upside-down world of 'blogs, you've already been there. Just can't get used to that, at least so far. I'll stop now with that, since I can just hear someone saying, "Oh, get over it!" But as of this date, it's later, alright?)
But more to the point, I wanted to toss in a vote for MacConnection/PC Connection. In many years of dealing with them, they too deserve the gold star for responsiveness, patient help, sending you a replacement without waiting for the defective or wrong product to be returned, etc.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More on the crazy new concept called "Customer Service"

The witty and perceptive David Pogue, the New York Times’ personal technology columnist, has given us another excuse (Ding!) to write about the idea of really, truly focusing on taking care of your customers.

He had posed a question in his blog asking if any readers knew of a trusty website that catalogued third-party auto parts, and wrote last week that, “No fewer than 25 people… all responded the same way: ‘What you want is Crutchfield.’” He then goes on to detail the incredible attention to detail and eager helpfulness he encountered from Crutchfield, both on the Web and on the phone, since,

“When the package arrived, there was Crutchfield’s installation manual, with the company’s “we’re here to help you” toll-free number printed in 60-point type on the first page.

What are they, nuts!? They are actually *inviting* people to call them for free technical support? Don’t they have any idea how that idea will kill their revenue stream? Haven’t they learned anything from the computer industry?

I can't help wondering why nobody else has questioned the wisdom of the current "go away, customer" attitude that prevails in the penny-pinching computer and software industries. That attitude will never generate repeat customers, will never build a cult of fans and will never turn a company into the Crutchfield of its industry."
David Pogue:
A New Business Model
Business 101: Quality Customer Service Breeds Customer Loyalty
(“Pogue’s Posts” is only one corner of the far-flung Pogue publishing empire, which also includes being the creator of the Missing Manual series of computer books; this is one of those hyper-productive people who you figure there must actually be at least three or four of. )

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"The New Type Writer" (ad circa 1860's)

(Just for fun, and perspective...)

"Weight 10 pounds. Price $60. First Class in Every Respect.
For Professors and Students the Type Writer is especially valuable as it saves drudgery and aids composition.
Send for Circulars."
(An ad from an issue of the Atlantic Monthly from the 1860's, the magazine that at that time was publishing Ralph Waldo Emerson and all the New England Transcendentalists.
Courtesy of the collection of Ted and Susan Sillars.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

No YouTube On Panera Bread’s Menu

I’ve just stumbled upon the strange fact that Panera Bread’s content filter will not let you see anything from YouTube, the homemade-video site, among other things. My laptop and I were having lunch there yesterday – I ordered their turkey artichoke sandwich, while Mac fed on the nutritious free WiFi -- and we noticed that what was supposed to be an embedded YouTube video on another site showed up as a blank space.

Well, shoot happens, and sometimes shoots don’t happen; the Internet is very much a work in progress, and video is still in the pre-standard phase. But with the URL available, curiousity drove us to slap it into the command line, and this rather creepy warning appeared:

“The SonicWALL Content Filter Has Blocked this site.
“Reason for restriction: Forbidden Category"
Sure enough, today we checked back from another i-café (this free wireless thing having freed us from our electronic cave at home), and bada-boom: there was the verboten yet entirely non-controversial video.

Panera is obviously keen on protecting their diners from any unappetizing content -- more likely, protecting themselves from lawsuits from parents whose teens might be tempted to go to there for a bagel and Suzy Creamcheese.

But all of YouTube?

SonicWall can be quite Church-Lady about the content they allow through. Some friends have a completely innocent site about "sound healing," which nonetheless was blocked in the Forbidden Category of "Cult/Occult," a classification which of course does not play in Peoria. To be fair, which I’m frankly not inspired to be in this case, they invite you to submit a rating review “if you feel this site has been blocked in error.” Just don't go to Panera expecting to find anything spicy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Fire-Breathing Radical!

Here’s a terrifying claim that has the potential to undermine our very (driven) way of life.

"Imperfections in the accounting system make quarterly earnings numbers meaningless, former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson said Tuesday.
"'The real issue is to stop managing a company for the quarterly results. Thanks to assumptions allowed under accounting standards, quarterly earnings numbers 'are so vague,' Donaldson said.
"Instead of a quarterly earnings number, he suggested companies post a range representing their earnings and tell investors what assumptions they used to compute that number. 'There ought to be more qualitative reporting,' he said.
"Donaldson chaired the SEC from 2002 to 2005."

(By Ellen Simon, AP - July 25, 2006)
Forget about quarterly earnings!? Not a chance. Net, the wise men and women of the investment community will look right past this wild theorizing and keep flogging their portfolio companies for ever-increasing quarterly profit growth, mathematical impossibilities be damned.

I mean, take a big enough corporation and insist on steady double-digit growth every three months, and soon that company will need to have assets on the scale of China’s. By the next year they’ll need to look at the acquisition of some planets. So of course they've got to cook the books every so often; once your multiples really start mulitplying you’re looking at some b-i-g numbers, and the shareholders must be kept happy.

Of course, we all heard quite a while back that the Japanese weren't focused on quarterly results, but instead planned far ahead and were patient, and would soon own not just L.A. but the entire western half of the U.S. -- and look what happened to their economy. So let's dispense with this old-fashioned nonsense about long-term thinking, building a company on a solid value proposition and all that rot, shall we?
(Come to think of it, you used to hear a lot about "the patience of Persian rug weavers," too; don't hear much about that anymore, either. Maybe because Persia is now named "Iran." I've noticed that all those dealers now advertise only "Oriental" rugs.)
But don’t worry about society becoming destabilized by this anarchist’s ravings – soon we’ll no doubt hear that he suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack or something, like they took care of Dustin Hoffman’s character. (Don’t accept any lunch invitations from Secret Service guys, Mr. Donaldson!)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Last night's Web Innovators Group event; Swaptree

Back to the Web Innovators Group demo-and-networking event last night in Cambridge. Founder David Beisel has provided a growing forum that makes obvious the rising pitch of enthusiasm for new tech ventures -- for the first time in over five years. Wow; who'd have ever guessed?

The standout presentation to the SRO crowd of maybe almost 200 (wild estimate), from my point of view, was of Swaptree, which you could describe as an online marketplace for trading stuff, focused on books, CDs, and video games. They say they've been working on it for two years, and it shows: what made it look so good is the admirable thoroughness of their design and plans. It's currently in a private beta, which their site invites viewers to write and ask to join.

They seem to have thought of everything: you enter the ISBN number of the item you want to trade, and their database knows what it's worth, how much it weighs and will therefore cost to ship, and who is looking for one. You mail it to them using the shipping label provided on the site, just print it out, and mail it in the groovy, "like Netflix"-but-green logoed envelope they'll send you. They're working on a third-party deal to provide the postage, too.

Naturally, they've included a role for Google Maps (because if your business plan doesn't somehow include or at least refer to Google this year, then you "just don't get it"), but for the clever use of showing where the closest person is geographically who wants what you've got. "Then you can arrange to meet them at Starbucks," the presenter said -- very fast. Maybe he'd just been there, or it could have been from trying to shoehorn two years of development into the six minutes alloted each speed-talking entrepreneur.

You can even do trades involving three or four people: like when...

-- Tangent Alert! --
...the Celtics sent Antoine Walker to the Heat last year (good for you, 'Toine) in a five team deal, receiving in return a dizzying combination of players, draft picks and parking spaces from the Grizzlies, Jazz and Hornets.

That was in fact the largest trade in NBA history, with thirteen players, many of whom were "thrown in just to make the numbers work," given the salary cap. Just for the record, we would happily accept being thrown into any deal "just to make the numbers work" if the portion due us of those numbers ended with five or six zeroes, as it does for all those NBA ballers.

(Now, don't start in again about players' salaries -- how come nobody ever seems to complain equally about the owners' profits? And aren't the latter free to refuse to pay those salaries? ...Okay, we're done -- sorry.)
Oh, and Swaptree, yes... very cool. The next WebInno party is soft-scheduled for September.

The fellows over at the BostonWTF Web Technology Forum were there, too; here's their much more erudite take on it, with analysis of the business models, competition "in that space," etc. (But guys, do you have to make your logo look like Dunkin' Donuts'? It's cute, yeah, but somehow it gives me that faint reminder of indigestion, like...)

Techjots covered it, too, with a similarly healthy dose of VC-speak.

But does it require a high tech solution?

Another example of the tendency to look for a “promising new technology” to solve a problem that, it turns out, is already solved but simply lacks funding.

Granted this story is in CNet's, a tech news site, where it wouldn't appear without an e-angle. So the headline is,

"High tech's slow march in land mine campaign
- The humble metal detector is finally getting an upgrade...”

But when you get into the story, you find this telling quote:

"We need more of what we know works, rather than new technologies," said Noel Mulliner, technology coordinator for the U.N. Mine Action Service. "New technology is not going to get into the field fast enough. We want more of the simple stuff."

"The best estimate” is that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are killed or injured each year; "in the 2004-2005 reporting period, those injuries occurred in 58 countries." But they’re in countries both poor and recovering from wars, not exactly your "attractive investment opportunities" or "emerging markets" with hot quarterly growth prospects.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Quoted again on Boston Globe's site, on 'Web 2.0' & American Idol

We are right pleased to have been quoted again in the Business Filter, the Boston Globe's online business blog. Columnist Maura Welch wrote:

Bill Ross admits he's a 'wicked music snob,' and writes with a great little rant about my post about Bix, the soon to launch site that will let advertisers sponsor contests like American Idol online.
"The 'Web 2.0 version of American Idol' says it perfectly about where, IMHO, all the social networking sites are ultimately headed. And that's to the place called 'The Lowest Common Denominator,' a plane where I have seldom if ever found anything of value."
(Ooh -- sure does sound like a wicked snob, hm?) I'd written her about the Bix post, and since I'd recently written the lengthy rant you see below (7/20) on the same general subject, it enabled me to "repurpose" a little of it.

(Here's the rest of what I wrote to Maura, for that extra bit of context:)
Now, I'm speaking solely as a Consumer of Content here; maybe somebody can indeed make big bucks off this. But if I was starting a venture, I'd want to base it on something that I felt had inherent quality, as opposed to starting out knowing I was going to be creating and living with a junk generator.

Let me admit that I've yet to watch more than one minute of AI (there's an overused acronym for you: Artificial Intelligence, Allen Iverson, neither of whom I look forward to seeing play for the Celtics,), because it immediately seemed evident that,

a) it was just "Star Search" reborn, with all these people who had obviously been painfully coached to act like stars, with all the old gestures and cheap tricks,

b) most of what I heard about Idol was about the nasty things that guy Simon would say to those poor contestants. Like the bumper sticker tells us, "Mean People S(tin)k." Plus, I'd be shocked to discover that it wasn't fixed.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Thing About "User-Generated' Sites - YGWYPF?

You hear an awful lot these days about the miracle of User-Generated Content on the Web, from all these startups and companies who believe they’ve found a way to create content-rich sites in no time, and at no cost.

You put up a wall, thousands of people presumably throw, uh, “material” up on it, and presto! You’ve got a bona fide content-driven website that attracts millions of visitors – mostly the immediate friends and family of the ones who threw all that compost up there – and you sell billions of dollars worth of contextual ads.

And it’s Free; it costs you mothing to create all those pages of what-all. It’s hard to argue with that… except by invoking YGWYPF, the timeless axiom that holds, “You Get What You Pay For.”

It reminds me of the pre-Internet, AOL days, when “chat rooms” were all the rage. But when I first joined, all I found was what I've heard people say MySpace is now full of: teens, or the teen-like, just mindlessly blabbing away. After a few visits, I was outta there.

CNET's Music section recently went through a redesign that now emphasizes commercially promoted bands over the user contributed music that they established the site with, because, as one of the staffers confided in their artists’ forum, 'Let’s be honest, most of it is awful.'

That's who usually shows up for these parties. If you’re lucky, you attract the kind of Early Adopters who enthusiastically add stuff that people do want to look at or listen to. But with success and increased visibility come the unseen throngs of those who, and how to put this gently, have less to offer.

Some have not yet developed their talent, let’s say, but either no one’s told them or they’re just not listening. Then there are the poor souls whose level of enjoyment is so limited that they can only delight in trashing things.

They’ll all dive in there and fill your site with junk, Because It’s There, and they can. There’s an old saying that, some people have nothing to say – but it takes a long time to find that out. So user-built sites may have a decent shot at a run, but it’s usually relatively short-term, and many such ventures wind up as ghost sites where the visitor soon realizes nobody's home anymore, it's all on auto-pilot, and they leave.

Not that there haven't been big successes, and it is pretty cool that you can throw some software out there and thousands of people will fill it up, potentially creating a new community from like-minded but widely distributed people who wouldn't have connected any other way. (See? We're not being totally Grinchy here.) But it ain't as easy at it looks to maintain and react to a site like that; it requires some strong editorial input and management, too, unless you're fine with site whose between-the-lines motto is, "The Lowest Common Denominator!"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"A Working Simple System"

(orig. posted 7/6/06)

(About our concept of "news"...)

One thing I'm not going to do is limit the subjects of this inverted column to "news," in the sense of only throwing items in here that relate to what happened or was published within the last 24 hours. Especially when we only plan to update this maybe a couple times a week.

Like with this following bit -- what is timely about this is, however, is that I remembered it today; which technically makes it news, doesn't it?

= = =

"A Working Simple System"

Here's an idea so profound, so fundamental, that I can't tell you how many times I've quoted it; even before the time I had it on my old site ( in "the Serious Part," now enshrined here, along with everything else in the Internet Archive). A lot of system designers of all kinds would do well to contemplate this principle.

It's from a book by John Gall, famously named "Systemantics, The Underground Text of Systems Lore." (With the typical feverishness of Web publishing, I'm going to slap this up here now, then do some searching later to see if I can find anything about it online, or in print, or at least a bread crumb trail. Originally found this in print, in the old Whole Earth Review when I believe Kevin Kelly was editing it, before he went on to Wired.)

Some essential statements:

"Complex systems exhibit unexpected behavior.

"The system always kicks back - systems get in the way - or, in slightly more elegant language: Systems tend to oppose their own functions.

"A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.

"The parallel proposition also appears to be true: a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system."

General Systemantics Press, Pub. Date 2nd Ed.: November 1990

(Shortly afterwards:)

...Sure enough, there are ample references to Mr. Gall's book all over the Web.

"General Systemantics Press was established in the 1970s to publish Dr. John Gall's book, 'Systemantics™ - How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail.'
This was the First Edition of what is now 'The Systems Bible™,' which they proclaim includes, "three new chapters, new AXIOMS, THEOREMS AND RULES OF THUMB, and many new Horrible Examples..."

Of course there are a number of entries about it in the Wikipedia;
the main page for Systemantics contains these additional, comforting Laws:

"The Functional Indeterminacy Theorem (F.I.T.):
In complex systems, malfunction and even total non-function may not be detectable for long periods, if ever.

"Systems develop goals of their own the instant they come into being."

The “Do the Right Thing” Business People: Craig(slist) Newmark

(orig. posted 6/29/06)

Craig Newmark of Craigslist
from CNET, June 28, 2006, by Greg Sandoval

"Considered by many to be one of the most benign of Silicon Valley's top innovators, Newmark has shown a feistier side recently. When he's not verbally jousting with knights, the mastermind behind the Web's top classifieds publication can be found beating a drum for Net neutrality or defending his namesake network of sites against claims that it allows people to post discriminatory housing ads."

"'If you want to be successful, try to do the right thing,' he said. 'In the short term you can succeed by screwing people, but it doesn't work too well long term.'"

"Few companies have fostered as much customer loyalty. That's largely due to Newmark's almost fanatical attention to customers. He started the list in 1995 as a way to inform friends about special events... the list grew into a company, and Newmark found that he enjoyed working with the public more than overseeing day-to-day operations.

Thus, he turned those duties over to someone else, and now carries the unusual dual titles of chairman and customer service representative."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Pre-Blogger Blog entries, March-July '06

Like we said earlier, except you haven't seen it yet -- this "latest is first and earlier is later" characteristic of blogs can be kind of odd -- we've had this blog going for several months now. So here's a linky index to all those already-archival bits:

How About an iTunes "Pro"?

! (at Trader Joe's)

again on

"The whole problem with the world..."

Quoted in WebInno Podcast


We're quoted on

Web Innovators Group "WebInno" event

Pogue's Favorite Tools

1st Let's Get Web 1.0 Right

Dean Kamen's Energy Inventions

Award for Best Green Invention?

= = = = = = =

the "Pre-Blog"
(For all those great ideas from before we started.)