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.)

1st post on Blogger

Greetings. I've already been at this for a few months now, posting items "manually" to my site (seems funny to use that word to describe computer coding, but those were my hands on the keyboard and moose).

I think what we'll do here is start with this intro from when I first started to (we)blog in March, and add a few of most recent items to get things started. Then I'll start adding the new items here. If anyone's interested enough, you can click over to today's other post to read the previous opinions and what-all.

(Yes, that was "moose" -- which, looking at it now, seems a lost naming opportunity. Phonetically speaking, wouldn't that one have been better used for cows?)

But here's the original introduction, so everything sorta begins at the same beginning:
= = = = = = =

We begin...

Alright, I give up, I'll blog, already! Having a weblog on a site has moved from accepted to expected. (Plus, it just occurred to us, it's a demonstration of commitment to the site -- it shows it's not a Ghost Site, that there's somebody home, always tinkering away and adding to it.)
I just had to figure out the subject and the mode: which is, as of this writing, an awkward, maybe slightly schizophrenic blend of light, Cool Electronic/Internet Stuff links with the somewhat heavier topics, like What's Going On, and we don't just mean Marvin Gaye's musical plea.

Things like the present and near-future implications of our lives becoming so thoroughly digitized, and the preservation of the natural world against the mass destructiveness, both made possible at that scale by technology.

However, we believe it's best to focus on solutions, even just building blocks, because there're already enough other people ringing the four-alarm bells, aren't there? Please tell me something I can do about it... or at least tell me about people who are.


I'll tell you the truth, I find most blogs to be blah, a big, unending deposit of unedited blah, blah, blah. But it is a medium that has its appeal and advantages -- it's a conversation, isn't it? And we're all attuned to that, and people kind of expect it of a site these days, so why not? It's just pouring the same juice into a different shaped glass.

It's not like I have any shortage of opinions on what's interesting and worthy of attention, of all the phenomena that stream by in the e-news and the real world. So, I'll occasionally pitch in paragraphs and links here to Cool, Crucial, or Useful Stuff that catches my eye.