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March 08, 2011

Predicting Patience

Noticed something interesting today...

If you have an Android phone, you may have noticed that Google updated their Navigation application to include routing around traffic using predicted traffic patterns.  Having this information fed into the routing algorithms is very powerful, particularly if you trust it!

I'm a daily commuter on a painful trip from Bedford, MA to downtown Boston. It's about 21 miles and typically takes me an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes.  The fastest trip at normal commuting hours was 45 minutes, and the worst was 2 hours plus (not counting blizzards).  Bedford is located so that I have a few choices of major highways to get to Boston, and each of these highway routes gives me the options of augmenting the highway with back roads.  I generally take back roads because I prefer to keep moving rather than sit still on the highway. 

Now, Google will figure out which is faster.  I tried it out this morning, and, while sitting in my driveway, Google predicted that its route would get me to work in 58 minutes.  Not bad.  I checked out the route, and it had me staying on the highway almost all the way, but getting off the highway one exit before you would if there was no traffic at all.  I was skeptical, but decided to try it out.

As I went, I kept checking its predicted time of arrival, and it didn't waver by more than one or two minute in either direction.  I arrived at work within one minute of when it was predicted!  And, as I sat in traffic or moved very slowly, I found that I was much more patient than usual.  Being confident of when you'll arrive makes it much easier to take sitting in traffic.  Google won't make the traffic go away, but I'll sit on the highway if I know that I'll get there as predicted.  That confidence of arrival time made me much more patient.

Pretty impressive application, and good for my blood pressure.  I'll keep testing it out and will report any further observations.


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November 07, 2010

The View From Afar

My blogging has fallen off of a cliff.  Work at Digital Lumens has been very hectic, with lots of travel.  Lots of sales activity will do that to you.  And, we’ve been busy at home with long-term houseguests from Central Asia, a son applying to college, a daughter’s first year in high school, Patriots and Celtics games, and planning an overdue family vacation!  Before I knew it, almost two months has gone by since my last post.

For the first time in more than 5 years, I took an international business trip this week.  I went to a conference in Lisbon, Portugal (life could be a lot worse), and I had a chance to talk to Europeans in the energy efficiency business.  It was very interesting to compare notes with others in a fledgling industry on a difference continent.

There is a lot of government-mandated momentum around energy efficiency.  They take reduction of carbon footprint very seriously.  Portugal is positioning itself as a clean-tech testing ground, with the government sponsoring all sorts of projects and industries as a way to solve high unemployment in the wake of the global financial meltdown.  Their stimulus was in the form of subsidies for solar and wind power, as well as tax credits to enable solar panel assembly for export to the rest of Europe.  Although there is the threat that the subsidies will soon end, it seems clear that they were really focused on creating jobs that they hope will somehow outlast the government sponsorship.

Is the kind of job creation that we should be doing the US?  Clearly, some of the stimulus dollars went to high-flying clean tech companies to help them build factories and infrastructure.  It’s probably too early to tell if they are creating enough sustaining jobs.  In general, I don’t think that you can justify this type of investment on a $/job basis.  What the government hopes to do is to get some sort of flywheel affect going that allows a new industry to start to create its own jobs, or at least start fully paying for the subsidized ones.  I’m skeptical of subsidizing a business where the core business premise is uneconomic, but maybe some economies of scale will kick in to solve that.

There was a great deal of interest in US politics.  I don’t think we realize how much a large part of the world looks to us to lead.  They want us to lead in foreign policy and in economic policy.  The prospect of the US failing to get things done in the light of post-midterm election gridlock was very disappointing to everyone.  And, the US’s shift to the right over the past 15 years has really been surprising to even the most conservative people I talked to.  European conservatives would almost be considered communists in today’s US political discourse.  And, as they pointed out, so would Nixon and Reagan.

The most embarrassing was trying to explain how people like Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Rand Paul could get so much support while seeming to take positions that are so much against the types of freedom that most Europeans associate with America.  Our image in Europe is still one of real freedom.  And, despite their cries of “freedom”, most Europeans associate the tea partiers with a loss of freedom – less tolerance, less help for those in need, and a harsher government.  They are worried that the hard shift to the left for the US will be bad for the rest of the world.  I just hope that the left and right can work together in the coming two years rather than having strongly entrenched views without compromise.


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July 15, 2010

TEDtalk on power of commerce

Don't let the title of this talk throw you off.  It's safe for work.  Matt Ridley discusses the power of trade and commerce and explains how we will only see an increase in innovation and our standard of living due to social networking and crowdsourcing of ideas.

One of the best TEDtalks I've listened to in a while.

 


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June 09, 2010

Support the Bedford Climbing Wall

Pepsi did something interesting this year.  Rather than advertise at the Super Bowl, they decided to put the money into grants for great ideas in education, health, the arts, and more.

Online voting determines who wins the grant.  My town, Bedford, is in the running this month for a grant to fund a middle school climbing wall that is aimed at improving social skills as part of our comprehensive anti-bullying campaign.

Bedford is a small town, so we could use your help.  Voting is free and easy, and something you can do every day this month!  We're already #24 out of more than 330 projects, but we need to be in the top 10 to win.

Please take a moment each day this month to vote to support our climbing wall project.  You can also vote for up to 9 other projects you like every day.

To vote for the Bedford climbing wall, you can click here.

Thanks for your support.


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May 28, 2010

Johnny Baseball Audience Reaction

The official opening of Johnny Baseball at the ART is next week.  I wrote my review of one of the preview performances here.

The ART released a video with some audience reactions.  You can see that this show will appeal to a wide range of people -- baseball people who are new to theater, theater people who don't care about baseball, and the gloriously happy people like me who love both baseball and theater!  Ticket sales are strong, so I suggest you buy some now if you want to catch this show.

 


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May 19, 2010

Johnny Baseball - A Grand Slam of a Musical

My 14-year old daughter and I saw Johnny Baseball tonight at the ART.  The show is still in 'previews' and officially opens on June 2.  Until then, you can get some nice discounts on tickets.

Johnny Baseball is a new musical about the Boston Red Sox.  But, it's not all baseball.  It mixes a love story, humor, baseball, and the injustice of racism into a fantastic show.  And, wonderful original songs with stellar singing from a Broadway-caliber cast.

The show starts with the Red Sox on the verge of losing the 2004 American League Championship Series to the Yankees in Game 4.  The fans lament the Sox curse, and the show then reveals what could have been the true source of the Curse -- racism.  It's no secret that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.  The show takes some literary license with a bit of the history, but that's all acknowledged in the program for purists.  You don't have to know a lot of Red Sox history to enjoy the show, but the key factors of Red Sox history are also listed in the program.

I won't give away the plot as there are some surprises.  But, the story moves quickly, with lots of humorous elements.  You'll laugh at the characters and their antics.  The acting is fantastic, particularly the lead characters of Johnny O'Brien, Daisy Wyatt, and Babe Ruth. And the singing is first rate.  All of the cast members have Broadway experience, and it shows.  You rarely have a chance to see this quality production in such a small theater.  Every seat is a good one.

My daughter isn't much of a sports fan, but does appreciate musicals.  She really enjoyed the show, too.  And, the ART brings the flavor of Fenway to Brattle Street in Cambridge -- a sausage vendor, beer in plastic cups, cotton candy (in a Red Sox cup!), ushers in Red Sox attire, and signs reminiscent of Fenway pointing you to the restroom!

I'd definitely recommend Johnny Baseball for anyone who enjoys baseball and/or musicals.  It's suitable for families, but some subject matter and language (Bucky "f-ing" Dent) won't be right for younger kids.  My daughter said she thought it was PG-13.  Absent the one f-bomb, I'd say it's closer to PG.

And, Bob Lobel likes it, too!

Disclaimer: I'm on the ART's Board of Trustees and have been a subscriber since 1982.


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February 22, 2010

Authority is the key to freedom(?)

I really enjoyed this TED Talk from Phillip K. Howard about overhauling the US legal system.  A key point was the authority doesn't abridge freedom but actually enables it.  It sounds counterintuitive, but in Howard's context, I agree.  I certainly agree that our legal system has smothered itself with laws that are now almost impossible to internalize.  Let me know in the comments what you think.

 


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February 15, 2010

Next Up at the ART - Paradise Lost

I've blogged a lot this year on the season at the ART.  It's been fantastic, with several of the productions selling out night after night.  Right now, the only thing still running is The Donkey Show, which has been extended into the summer.  Despite having some regular attendees who have seen it as many as 20 times or more (!), the Donkey Show is still exciting for first time visitors.  If you haven't seen it yet, you're missing a fun and unique night out.

Later this month, the next production starts at the ART, Clifford Odets's Paradise Lost.  This looks to be a timely production as it is focuses on the Great Depression.  It should have some applicability to today, of course.  I want to pass on a special offer for those of you willing to try the production of Paradise Lost in its early days.  The offer is to get 2 tickets for the price of one.  Buy your ticktes online using code LOST241B.  You must buy tickets by 2/21/10 and this is only good for shows between 2/27-3/5/10.

Here's some background on Paradise Lost.  Also, check out some of the ART teaser videos, including this one.  Hope to see you at the theater!


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January 17, 2010

Gatz - A Worthy Marathon

Last night, we saw Gatz at the American Repertory Theater.  When you hear about Gatz, your first reaction may be "Huh?"  Other than a few murmurs and mumbles, the only spoken words during Gatz consist of the complete text of F. Scot Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  Most of it is read by Nick, the narrator of the novel.  But, the other characters speak their lines and act out their parts as it gets going.

What's interesting is that the play takes place in an office.  Nick finds a copy of the book and, when his computer doesn't work, starts reading the book aloud.  His coworkers barely seem to notice, but in short order start to join in by speaking the dialogue of their characters and acting out the descriptions in the text.  There really isn't a plot to the office portion of the play, but by their dress and actions, you figure out whos the boss, who's the IT guy, who's the maintenance guy, etc.

Gatz is performed in two parts, each with a separate admission.  You can see it all in one day, or break it into two days.  We saw it all in one day yesterday, but it was a marathon.  Part 1 started at 3 PM.  Part 2 didn't end until 10:50 PM!  There was an intermission during each part, and a one hour break for dinner.  The longest segment is the first half of Part 1, which is 2 hours long.  After that, the sections are between 1:10 and 1:25 long.

Despite the challenge of sitting in a theater for 6 1/2 hours out of an almost 8 hour stretch, the time zipped by.  You might tihnk that listening to a book being read would be tedious.  But, like the best audio books, the reading is done with fantastic expression.  Some of the language used to describe the characters is ironic, and this often gets laughs from the audience.  But, while listening to the text, you gain an incredible appreciation for the language used by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.  I hadn't read it since high school, but I enjoyed hearing every word.  In fact, as my friend commented, you wouldn't have wanted it edited at all.  It's a great piece of literature, and, since it is written as a narrative, it works very well to have a character read it aloud, even with the "he said" and "she said" descriptives.

We all agreed that it was better to see it all in one marathon rather than splitting it up between two days.  But, many people can't carve out this much time, or don't want to sit so much in one day.  So, I think it would still work when split up.  One thing you get by seeing the marathon is an appreciation for the hard work put in by the cast, particularly Scott Shepherd who plays Nick.  Shepherd reads the large majority of the book while also acting out the character of Nick.    Incredible effort.

A word on logistics:  The schedule is very tight.    The 10 minute intermission isn't sufficient for everyone to use the rest room, despite the best efforts of the staff and the repurposing of one men's room as a ladies room to accomodate the audience.  Make sure you use the rest room before the show starts and don't drink a liter of water on the way over to the show as my wife did!  If you need to use the rest room, and you will at some point, don't linger.  With such a long show, it's good that the ART staff keeps things on schedule.

Also, if you see both parts back to back, there is an hour break for dinner.  You can pre-order a box dinner at the theater, or make a special Gatz reservation at Upstairs on the Square.  We opted for the latter.  It was good to get out and stretch our legs.  But, the one hour is very tight to walk, eat, and walk back.  We were the first to make it to the restaurtant, the first to leave, and still only made it back with seconds to spare. 

Like every other production this season at the ART, Gatz is a must see.  You won't see anything else like it.  The novelty carries you into the flow of the show, and the strength of the plot and wonderful language of the work keeps you going all the way through.  At the end, we were tired, which you would expect from being intellectually engaged for hours and hours.  But, it was certainly worth the effort to really dig into one of the most important works of literature of the 20th century.

Check out this Gatz video which gives you a sense of the action.


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December 31, 2009

Gatz: Get the jump on New York

Although shows are selling out quickly, it's not too late to go see each of the shows of the ART's Shakespeare Exploded festival: Best of Both Worlds (closing January 3, 2010), Sleep No More (closing February 7, 2010), and The Donkey Show (continued through the summer, 2010).  All three of these shows have received fantastic audience and critical acclaim.  The ART web site has lots of links to reviews of each of these shows.

Starting right on the heels of Shakespeare Exploded is our next festival, America: Boom, Bust, and Baseball:

America: Boom, Bust and Baseball explores the hopes, disappointments, and triumphs of the past American century from the roaring twenties to the Great Depression to the Boston Red Sox's stunning 2004 World Series victory. We begin with the boom - Gatz brings every word of Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby to life in this once-in-a-lifetime marathon theatrical experience. The bust is Clifford Odets' Paradise Lost, a powerful drama about an American family that loses everything in the throes of economic crisis. Spring is baseball season, and we'll be staging the world premiere of JOHNNY BASEBALL, The New Red Sox Musical, an exhilarating new musical that explores the source of the infamous Curse and the secret to its end by blending fiction, fact, and the mystical power of the game.

Gatz is up first, starting on January 7.  It's a big deal as there have been some issues around having the rights to perform it.  It will end up in NYC, but this is a chance to see it first.  Gatz is a theater marathon -- six hours, split into two parts, each with its own intermission.  I'll see both parts on January 16th and will post a review after that.  You can see the two parts on different days if you prefer.  Reviews of previous productions of Gatz are here.  The ART is partnering with Elevator Repair Service on this production, too.

Gatz sounds really interesting:

One morning in the low-rent office of a mysterious small business, one employee finds a ragged old copy of The Great Gatsby in the clutter of his desk and starts to read it out loud. And doesn't stop.

At first his coworkers hardly seem to notice, but then weird coincidences start happening in the office, one after another, until it's no longer clear whether he's reading the book or the book is doing something to him. . . .

We all know that Boston beats NY on most things (except in baseball this year).  So, beat all your New York friends and go see Gatz during its run in Cambridge.

PS - If you are Twitterer, you can read The Great Gatsby 140 characters at a time.


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December 15, 2009

Givin' Time

For better or worse, my family is on an annual giving schedule for the charitable organizations that we support the most.  Each year, we mail off checks to these organizations, and I tend to do all of this in December.  And, this year, today's the day.  Which makes me think about giving.

How much will you and your family spend on your holiday giving this year?  $250?  $500? $1000?  $2000 or more?  Don't forget to include the money for nice holiday parties and holiday travel.  Not to mention those crazy holiday clothes that some people buy.  We should all be thankful that we can afford to spend money to celebrate the season and to give gifts to those we know and love.

How about spending a bit less this year and giving some money to those who have nothing?  It's hard for me to enjoy the holidays unless I know that I have done something to give a little holiday cheer to those who would otherwise have no holiday celebration at all.  And, the ones most affected by this are children who aren't at fault for their family's troubles and don't understand why they don't get a few toys when they see and hear about all the gifts being given this year.

My favorite charity for this is Boston Globe Santa.  Long time friends and Fein Line readers will know that I support Globe Santa because they spend all the money they receive giving toys to children whose families face hardship.  All the recipients are vetted to make sure they are worthy.  All the administrative costs are borne by the Globe.  And, all of your donation goes to where it should -- giving children a bit of holiday cheer to help them maintain some hope for their future.

As I flip through the envelopes about to be mailed to our various charities, I see some themes -- support for education, the advancement of culture to keep our lives enriched, keeping the world peaceful and disease-free, and help for the very poorest who have no way to help themselves.  Each of you have your own giving priorities, shaped by your own interests and experiences. 

In the past I have done a Globe Santa match, but this year I'd just like to invite you all to think about your giving priorities and find some organizations that you feel are worthy of your regular support.  There are so many worthy causes that I don't think it's productive for me to try to convince you to support Globe Santa at the expense of something else that's important to you.

If you agree with me that Globe Santa is worthy of your support, give here.  If you've got other priorities, I'd like to invite you to cut back a bit on the spending you are doing for yourselves and give a bit more to your favorite organizations that need your support.  I'm on the Board of several non-profits, both local and national.  I can tell you that the economic environment is having a big impact on their ability to achieve their mission.  You can do something about it.  So, get into the giving habit, even if you primarily give in December as I do when I think about the holidays.

As has been said many times -- Don't give until it hurts; give until it feels good!

Happy holidays!

PS - If you want to promote your favorite charities, you can list them in the comments as I've done.


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December 11, 2009

Best of Both Worlds 2-for-1 offer

I've really enjoyed all of the ART's Shakespeare Exploded productions, having seen each of them more than once (and some 3 or 4 times!).  The last production, Best of Both Worlds, has the shortest run.  But, it boasts some of the strongest performances.

And, for all my blog readers and online friends, I can make available a special 2-for-1 ticket offer.  When you purchase your tickets for Best of Both Worlds, use the promotional code BBWFRIEND to buy one ticket and get one free (Advance sales only, subject to availability, valid through 12/23/09).

My last post was on Best of Both Worlds and includes my thoughts on the show.  I've had some things going on which have kept me from posting for a while, but I'll get back to regular posting soon.  But, Best of Both Worlds is really worth seeing, and it is closing on January 3, 2010.  So, you should take advantage of this special offer and get some tickets for a great show at a great price.

Best of Both Worlds has received great reviews from The Boston Globe, Boston Metro, and Boston Theater Review.  Also, check out this video from WGBH that includes some exceprts from Best of Both Worlds among their holiday theater reviews.

Check out Best of Both Worlds before it's too late.  You'll have a great time and will end up out of your seats clapping and dancing, guaranteed!

 


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November 29, 2009

Best of Both Worlds at the ART

We went to the third production of the American Repertory Theater's Shakespeare Exploded festival last night -- Best of Both Worlds.  I wrote up some thoughts on the ART web site, but will expand on a few things here.

First, an overall summary -- Best of Both Worlds is a retelling of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with two R&B "kings" taking the place of the two kings in the original.  There isn't a lot of Shakespearean text in the production and the entire show, including the narration, is set to music.  The narration was almost too detailed for my taste, but I made a point of becoming familiar with the plot of the original before I went.  That may not really be necessary with this level of narration.

The highlight of the show is the singing.  All of the leads are fantastically talented singers and actors.  The emotional high-points of the show, both positive and negative, were driven home by great performances.  And, the overall use of R&B and gospel music was great.  Even during the depressing first act, the music was enjoyable.

There is a stark contrast with the second act which is humorous, campy, and, ultimately uplifting.  The show is pitched as a family show, but I don't think so.  There are themes of adultery, prostitution, abandoning your children, etc., which I wouldn't want to expose to kids younger than their mid-teens.  Kids of all ages wuold enjoy the humor and music, but parents of young kids would cringe too many times at the adult themes.

On the ART site, there were several comments that the play was racially insensitive.  One commenter draw a comparison to the 19th century Minstrel Shakespeare which demoralized African Americans of the day.  I am not familiar with that, but I didn't find anything offensive at the show.  And, there were a good number of African American audience members, a real rarity for the ART.  They seemed to enjoy the show as well.  As my friend pointed out, some people feel that the only way to avoid racism is to hide the differences between the cultures of different races.  I feel exactly the opposite -- we should all appreciate, accept, revel in, and even be able to laugh at all that makes us who we are.

Overall, I thought this was fantastic musical theater.  The plot is interesting, the Shakespearean links are pretty tight, and the singing and acting are world class.  The show mixes a wide range of emotions with an uplifting and redemptive ending.  It's not realistic, but, then again, neither is much of Shakespeare.  The show is much more about the themes of trust and realizing your own errors of judgment.  With that, the R&B and gospel music will open it up to a much wider audience than a typical Shakespeare play.


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November 24, 2009

If you're thankful, give back

I was inspired by Denise Palmieri's column on peHUB about giving back to her local community.  She described a vote in her small community about funding the library.  There was overwhelming opposition to funding the tax increase for the library from the people who didn't use the library.  This brings up a key factor in democracy:  Do you want to fund things that your town should have, or only the things you personally use?  I try to make decisions about what I think the government should pay for by thinking about how I think the world should be, not what government services do I use.

Thanksgiving is a time of year when we should not only be thankful for what we have, but also try to make the world the place we all want it to be.  Get past the selfish view of "what's in it for me" and think about "what's in it for us".  Put yourself in the other person's position before you make a decision.  Don't criticize someone if you wouldn't trade your position in life with theirs.  Instead, try to make the world better so that we're all happy with the position we have.

Don't take what we all have for granted.  Give back with your time and your money to build a better world for all of us.  Feed the poor, heal the sick, and enrich our lives with education, music, theater, and the arts.  Spend a little less time on you and a little more time on us.

If we all do this, we'll all have a lot more to be thankful for next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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November 17, 2009

ART One Day Sale

Readers of this blog know of my support for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.  I am on the Board of Trustees and am a 27-year subscriber.  The new Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, is extremly talented, dynamic, and innovative.  Here's a great chance to check-out the rest of the ART season.

Today only, the ART is having a one-day sale.  You can buy tickets using the promotional code ONEDAY.  This will reveal $25 prices for the opening week performances of our three upcoming productions -- Best of Both Worlds, Gatz, and Paradise Lost.  Stay tuned for a separate one-day sale of our final production, Red Sox Nation.

This promotional code is only good today, November 17th, from 9 AM until midnight.  These tickets make great holiday gifts, or a special treat for you!

Also, while there, be sure to buy tickets for one of the remaining performances of The Donkey Show and Sleep No More.  Both of these only run through January 3, 2010.  They've met with critical acclaim and are unique experiences.  And, they've been selling out.  Don't miss your chance to see these.

If you are from outside the Boston area, consider coming for a weekend to see all three Shakespeare Exploded productions -- The Donkey Show, Sleep No More, and Best of Both Worlds.  For those who want a complete, turnkey weekend, choose December 4-6 with a package that includes hotel and meals.  Make it a theater weekend in Boston!


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November 11, 2009

First thoughts on the Droid

I've been trying out the new Motorola Droid from Verizon Wireless for the past few days.  Although I love gadgets, I didn't try it just to test out the newest thing.  I had a few reasons to give it a try:

  • I've been living with two cell phones for a while.  Our family has our plan on Verizon Wireless, and we've generally been happy with it.  I've used a simple flip phone that is my main cell phone number and is small and convenient.
  • My second cell phone has been a Windows Mobile Samsung Blackjack II on AT&T.  I've generally been happy with it, although I don't generally use it as a phone.  It was great on my Japan trip, and AT&T has been a good provider.  I need a smartphone of some sort to do email and for mobile web access while traveling.
  • I was intrigued by the iPhone, but couldn't get comfortable with the touch-only keypad.  I couldn't type on it very well.  I needed a keyboard.
  • The Droid had everything I was looking for -- reasonable form factor, large touch screen, decent keyboard, music player, GPS, open operating system with lots of applications, etc.
  • I decided to get rid of my AT&T account, the separate smart phone, my add-on GPS service on AT&T, and the multitude of chargers to consolidate in one device.

So far, I've been happy,  It's not perfect, but with the open operating system and application ecosystem, I expect things to get better and better.  There are already some software updates planned for the Droid, and some applications I've tried have also already issued updates.  The update process if automatic and painless (so far).

Here's what I like about the Droid so far:

  • Very fast
  • Beautiful and bright screen
  • Rich user interface with lots of shortcuts -- I still haven't figured out all of the quickest ways to do things
  • Many useful apps already available
  • Can run lots of apps at once without performance hits
  • Full featured web browser
  • The GPS navigation application is outstanding.  It uses Google Maps, including satellite view and Street View, with traffic information.
  • All the functionality I've tried has worked without any real issues

Here's what's only OK:

  • The keyboard has good tactile feedback, but the smooth surface could have the keys a bit more differentiated.  But, like any other keyboard on these kinds of things, I've adapted fast.  I can certainly live with it.
  • Outlook/Exchange synchronization works fine, but lacks some key features for me -- moving emails to folders, responding to appointment requests, sync'ing tasks and notes.  I'm testing out a replacement program that solves some of these problems.
  • Some programs have temporarily frozen, although they restart automatically and no data has been lost.
  • Battery life could be better, although I've been using it intensively to test things out, download applications, etc.  I think that it will be OK in more normal use as it was when I was traveling over the weekend.  Face it, battery life on these things can always be better.
  • The three screen desktop doesn't give you enough room for all the shortcuts and widgets you'd like.  I tested out one replacement that expands this, but it wasn't reliable enough (although they promise to have an update soon that fixes this).

Overall, I think that this device is a winner.  All the software shortcomings should get addressed through various updates.  It's a very impressive first Android device for Motorola, first Android 2.0 device in the market, and first open device for Verizon Wireless.  After suffering through the lack of Bluetooth transfer functionality in my old Verizon cell phone, it's impressive to see this with Wifi, easy file transfer to PC, Bluetooth, application market, etc.

For those who are curious, here is a list of some of the apps I've been using so far:

GPS navigation with special car dock, multimedia dock/alarm clock, ASTRO file manager, browser, calculator, camera (two different apps, including one add-on), Facebook, Photo Gallery, Google Voice, LinkedIn, Listen (podcast player), Messaging (Texting), Music Player, NewsRob (offline Google RSS Reader), OpenTable, Pandora, Ringdroid (makes ringtones from song snippets you edit on the phone), ScanLife (barcode reader -- much more useful than I expected), SportsTap (sports portal), Sudoku, TouchDown (testing this Email/Calendar/Contacts replacement for better Exchange/Outlook synchronization), Twidroid (Twitter app), Weather, Where, Where Did We Park? (remembers where your car is parked and uses GPS to get you back there!), and YouTube.


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Holiday Party at The Donkey Show

If you've been to The Donkey Show at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, then you know that it's a blast.  The combination of Shakespeare and disco is an unlikely way to have a great time. 

Whether you've already gone or not, you may want to have a very unique holiday party this year at The Donkey Show.  Special accomodations can be made for groups of 20 or more for this unique way to celebrate the season.  Check out more information here.


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November 04, 2009

An example of leading by example

Some people are natural leaders.  It might even be true that the best leaders are natural leaders.  I always have respect for people who take on tough problems and can motivate others to join them.  Here's an example:

One of my favorite television shows was The Wire.  It was a very compelling story of what goes on behind the scenes in Baltimore, a city with plenty of troubles.  There were plenty of people in leadership positions in the show, but few real leaders.  In fact, almost all the characters were a realistic mix of good and bad.  Well worth watching the series from start to finish on DVD if you haven't already.

Much more interesting is a real-life story that is similar -- Brick City, the story of urban renewal in Newark, NJ.  This story has a real leader, mayor Cory Booker of Newark.  Maybe you saw him on the Colbert Report in 2008 and 2009 (2009 interview embedded below, along with a Brick City promo video).

In watching Brick City, I found Cory Booker to be inspiring.  He leads by example and builds a strong team which he needs to solve the city's very tough problems.  My favorite scenes are of his police director being very tough on the cops when they aren't doing strong investigations or reporting their crime statistics accurately.  These have direct parallels to The Wire.

The very best leaders have 'it' -- that special quality that makes you want to follow them.  They are intelligent, articulate, and totally committed visionaries.  They can connect with people at all levels but never lose sight of their overall goal.  They sacrifice to get the job done and inspire others to sacrifice as well.

I've met a quite a few people in my life who have this quality in various degress, but none more than President Jimmy Carter.  His post-presidency work at The Carter Center is an amazing example of dedication to helping make the world a better place.  In the very brief time I've spent with him, I came away inspired to commit more time to volunteering for causes I believe in.  He lives this every day, even into his mid-80s.  If he has time to do this, I'm sure I do, too.

I think you can teach people leadership skills, but those can only complement the innate qualities that make someone a strong leader.  Just watching Brick City makes me realize how much we can each do in order to be better leaders and make a difference.

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October 15, 2009

Sleep No More - Beyond Words

I went to the opening of the American Repertory Theater's Sleep No More last night.  This show is set at an abandoned school in Brookline, MA.  The show is a representation of (not a production of) Macbeth.  It's put on by the UK's Punchdrunk company.

Those are the facts.  However, the production goes way beyond the facts.  If you like your theater spoonfed to you one line at a time while you sit and watch, Sleep No More may not be for you.  But, it may also be just what you need to wake up and explore.

This is a show that you go and find.  You are dropped off on your own on one of four floors of the school.  The environment has been changed to an incredibly detailed series of almost 50 rooms that you wander between.  Every audience member is wearing a mask.  You can examine and touch the sets.  You can wander through any open door.  You can walk right up to the actors.  And, you are not allowed to talk.  That's OK, because the actors barely talk, too.  There's some murmuring between the characters, and some crying, laughing, yelling, etc.  But, no lines of Shakespeare or any dialogue at all.

However, if you stay close to the actors, they'll whisper to you.  I had several characters whisper things to me that indicated what they were thinking about.  And, I had one 'private encounter' with one character who brought me into a small room and told me a story about their dreams.  We didn't talk, but it was like being in a dream myself.

I identified some of the major characters, like Macbeth, Macduff, Lady Macbeth, and Duncan.  But, I never figured out who some of the characters where.  And, I figured out what many of the rooms were, but not all of them.  I witnessed some of the major scenes in Macbeth, such as when Lady Macbeth tries to wash the blood off of her hands.  But, I also never saw some of the others.  And, I wasn't sure how some things I did see fit into the story.

However, despite my confusion, I didn't want it to end.  I wanted to keep going and to try to put it together.  Some scenes are put on more than once.  I saw the major banquet scene twice.  You could go to this show multiple times and still not see it all.  I already have plans to return in a couple of days.

Despite the lack of dialogue, the show is anything but quiet.  There is a constant soundtrack that varies by room.  It's like the climactic music from a Hitchcock movie.  The costumes and sets are out of the 1920s, as is the Manderley bar where you can take a break or hang out after the show. Some of the rooms where downright spooky, and the lighting and soundtrack created a haunting experience.

When my journey started, I wandered around trying to look at all the rooms.  That was interesting, but next time I'll focus more on following the characters around right from the start.  Of course, you don't know when you'll encounter a character or who they are.  But, you quickly figure out who the major characters are.  And, they develop entourages of audience members following them around.  When they dart from one room to the next, you race down the hallway to keep up with them.

I'd strongly suggest brushing up on Macbeth before going.  I read the synopsis on Wikipedia, but I'll try to find something even more detailed.  I think it might help.  But, the adventurer in me wants to keep going back to see it all and put all the pieces together.  I can't imagine that it would be the same experience twice.

This was one of the most unique theater experiences I have ever had.  Even when I was wandering around on my own, I was never bored.  I can't wait to go back.

 


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October 05, 2009

Dilbert explains using Twitter for business

Dilbert.com
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September 23, 2009

Sleep No More

I've seen something really different.  I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the site being used for the production of Sleep No More, put on by the American Repertory Theater.  Sleep No More is an inside-out version of Macbeth with a Hitchcock aesthetic.  I'm sworn to secrecy on the details, but I'll try to give a taste of what to expect.

First of all, why did I have to tour a site?  Isn't a play put on in a theater?  Maybe so, but not this one.  The site of the production is the Old Lincoln School in Brookline.  And not the auditorium in the school.  THE WHOLE SCHOOL.  The entire building is transformed into a 50-room immersive landscape where the characters of Macbeth live their lives.  The lines of the play aren't Shakespeare's text.  Instead, there is an explosion of material to fill in gaps so that each character has something to do and say the whole time.

Audience members can come and go throughout the whole site as they wish.  You can touch the sets and get close to the actors.  You can explore as you wish, and I imagine that different people will have different strategies for experiencing the production.  Although I've seen the location, I still don't know exactly what to expect.  It's all very hush hush.

You can get an idea of what to expect by reading about the London production that was smaller and simpler in 2003.  This production is put on by the same company, Punchdrunk, that specializes in these immersive theater experiences.

Here are some quotes from an interview with the director, Felix Barrett:

RH: What is the role of audience members in Punchdrunk’s work?

FB: Punchdrunk’s core belief is that the audience is the center of the action. In most theaters, you switch off your body and it’s just your brain watching. With Punchdrunk we flip this notion. We bring the body back to life. The audience can’t be passive. They have to go out there and find the action for themselves. The audience enters into the building in small groups. It’s up to them to decide where to go. No one tells them what to do. They have complete power to decide which journey they take, so each audience member has a different experience.  And each audience member is also given a prop that makes them anonymous – they become ghosts, haunting the space and the story.

RH: If there were one thing you would want audiences to know about Punchdrunk or Sleep No More,what would it be?

FB: We’re asking audiences to come with a sense of adventure. The more curious you are, the more you’ll discover. There are many secrets hidden within the building. We need our audience to go hunting. You may arrive with a group of friends, but once everyone’s inside, it’s better to go hunting alone. How often do you have the chance to be a solitary audience member with one performer? It’s a magical moment. The more courageous you are, the more delights you will find.

Here's something else to both whet your appetite or confuse you.  To see how this relates to the show, you'll have to come see Sleep No More (October 8, 2009 - January 3, 2010).


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August 28, 2009

Person-to-person communications

I wrote yesterday about how the personal touch (exemplified by the late Senator Kennedy) is an essential part of building relationships with people.

According to today's Wall Street Journal, this is becoming a lost art with today's youth.  Call me a curmudgeonly old man (why not, my family does), but I think that it is essential to put down our digital appliances and just talk to other people once in a while.  If you don't get your kids into the habit of doing this, they'll never learn.

I am a pretty avid computer user and blog (of course), use Facebook, Twitter, and spend plenty of time on email.  I'm not against any of these services and find them very valuable.  But, there is also a place for personal connection.  Losing the ability to read non-verbal cues is a major disadvantage in life.  It will hurt you in job interviews and in business dealings (at least until everyone loses the ability to read non-verbal cues).

We try to have a family dinner most nights of the week.  Texting and cell phones aren't allowed.  We actually try to have conversations.  With two teenage kids, it's not always easy.  But, we're all better off for it.

My biggest pet peeve in business is having someone look away from a conversation to check their email or text messages.  Why not just hold up a sign that says "There must be something in there that is more important than you"?!  The worst example of this I have seen was during a company pitch.  There were three people in the room -- the CEO, the VP of Engineering, and me, the VC.  When the CEO was finished with the intro, he turned the presentation over to the VP of Engineering for the technical portion.  And then, THE CEO CHECKED HIS EMAIL!  I am sure he had heard the pitch before, but if he wasn't interested, why should I be?  And, I wasn't.  In fact, I stared at the CEO for a good five minutes before he realized that I wasn't paying attention to the VP of Engineering, who was getting increasingly nervous.  Needless to say, the company didn't get very far.

Don't get so immersed in social media that you forget how to just be social.  And, in business, it's very valuable to understand the Science of Schmooze.


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August 22, 2009

It's the Future

After all my invitations to The Donkey Show, I have to provide a review after the show.  See also this piece in Sunday's Boston Globe describing the production.

My friend, Kevin, said it best as we were boogieing on stage at the end of the show.  I asked him if he liked The Donkey Show.  He said "It's the future."  And, I think that Diane Paulus has shown us what the future of theater is like.  It's more of an experience than just a play.  At a play, you sit quietly in your seats and applaud politely at the end of each act.  Maybe you stand and clap at the end.  And, it's all very nice.

That has nothing in common with The Donkey Show.  The show starts out on the street where the characters give you a glimpse of what will go on inside Club Oberon while you wait in line to get in.  When you enter the night club, you can do some disco dancing with more of the cast while you have a drink or two.  At some point, it segues into the start of the show.  Although the plot isn't very heavy, it parallels Midsummer Night's Dream.  But, it isn't Shakespeare.  Most of the lines are straight out of disco song lyrics.

The place to see the show is from the dance floor.  These are 'standing room' tickets, but no one stands still.  Not only do you end up dancing along to the disco standards, but you have to move around as the show happens around you.  The actual play was probably only 75 minutes long, but everyone stayed to dance with cast for quite a while afterwards.  I'm probably the last guy you'd expect to be disco dancing on stage, but, since there is photographic evidence somewhere, I'll have to admit to it.

The Donkey Show is something you experience.  It's more like a concert than a play, although there is very good acting.  The characters keep it going, from before the show starts to the dancing afterwards.  I'm definitely going back, and I'm bringing more friends with me.  Don't forget to bring your camera.  Taking pictures is encouraged!

Tonight I was on the dance floor.  And, although we have reserved seats for another date, I'm going to exchange them for dance floor tickets.  Like a good club, the action doesn't stop on the dance floor.  You won't want to miss it.


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August 20, 2009

One more reminder about The Donkey Show

One more reminder about the special offer I have going for The Donkey Show at the American Repertory Theater's OBERON (2 Arrow Street in Cambridge) Saturday, August 22, at 8 PM.  If you email me, I can send you a special discount code that will let you buy dance floor tickets for half-price for this performance.  We've got a nice group going, and the more the merrier!


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August 19, 2009

Tax holiday, not math holiday

For the first time since I was a kid, I wrote a letter (or email) to the newspaper today.  Today's Boston Globe had an editorial entitled "Let retailers host tax holiday."  Although I agree with the general sentiment that the state should allow retailers to pay the tax on the part of consumers if they want to, the editorial got the math wrong.  As a long-time math geek, I couldn't let this one pass.  My email to the Globe:

In today’s editorial, “Let retailers host tax holiday”, the Globe got the policy right but the math wrong.  I am in favor of allowing retailers to pay the sales tax on the part of the consumer.  But, for this to be revenue neutral to the state and the consumer, the math doesn’t work.

 

If an item is sold for $100, there would normally be a $6.25 tax charged by the retailer and sent to the state.  The consumer is out $106.25, the retailer makes $100, and the state gets $6.25.  If the retailer wants to ‘pay the tax’ on the part of the consumer, they would charge the consumer $100, but what do they send to the state?

 

If they send the state $6.25, that implies that the item cost, without the tax, was $93.75 (a 6.25% discount).  That would normally mean that $5.86 in tax would be charged, for a total consumer cost of $99.61.  So, the retailer would be overcharging the consumer 39 cents and passing this on, in full to the state.  That keeps the state revenue neutral, but overcharges the consumer.  And, the consumer would pay a total of $100 vs. $106.25, a 5.88% discount (not 6.25% as was incorrectly calculated in the editorial).

 

An alternative would be to charge the consumer $100 and send the state $5.88.  This reflects an underlying item cost of $94.12.  The $5.88 is 6.25% of this.  This is neutral to the consumer and would reflect a 5.88% discount.  However, the state loses $0.37 or 5.92% of the original tax revenue.  This is probably what you meant when you said ‘have the retailer pay the tax’, but will cost the state some money (but nowhere near as much as a state tax holiday).  In these tough times, the state probably can’t even afford this.

 

To keep the state and consumer neutral and have the whole thing funded by the retailers, the best idea would be to keep the item price at $100, charge the consumer $106.25 total, including the $6.25 sales tax, and do an after-the-fact rebate of $6.25 to the consumer.  The state gets their full $6.25, the consumer only pays $100 net, and the retailer ends up with $93.75.  No law needs to be changed or passed for this to happen.  It’s not clear that a 6.25% rebate would be attractive to consumers, but that’s the one that makes the math work.

 

The bottom line to all of this is that to undo a 6.25% mark-up (our sales tax), you only need to take a 5.88% discount.  Perhaps it’s this confusion that caused our elected representatives to take a voting holiday on this issue.  Let’s hope they spent the time studying arithmetic.

 

Sincerely,

 

Mike Feinstein

 

 

It's a fine point, but somehow or another, retailers have to report their sales and tax payments to the state.  So, the math has to be right.  And, basic math seems to elude even well-educated editorial writers at times.


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August 18, 2009

Join us at The Donkey Show

Yesterday I announced my special offer to join me at The Donkey Show at the ART's OBERON in Cambridge this Saturday.  We've got about 10 responses so far, so come join usEmail me for details.
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August 17, 2009

Blogging our way to the theater

I've been a subscriber to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA since 1982.  As a long-time supporter, I recently joined the Board of Trustees.  In honor of that, I'm making a special discount available to readers of this blog (as well as my Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and LinkedIn Connections).

I'm very excited about the first show of the season, The Donkey Show.  I've been to rehearsal, and it's going to be wild.  Think Midsummer Night's Dream set at Studio 54 at the height of the disco era.  It's playing in a night club setting at OBERON (formerly Zero Arrow Theater, Cambridge).  Based on the success of the six-year run in New York City as well stops in London and Seoul, this is guaranteed to be a unique and enjoyable time.

Here's the special offer for readers of The Fein Line.  I'm hosting the performance on this Saturday, August 22, 2009, at 8 PM.  If you want to join me at this performance, email me for a special discount code that will let you buy 2 dance floor tickets for $25 (that's half-price!).  And, you'll be in the middle of all the action.  Tickets for other dates are always available at the box office.

If we get a good response, I'll organize an informal meetup before the show, near the theater.  See you then!

This video will give you a sense of the show:

 


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July 23, 2009

What's So Hard About Saying You're Sorry?

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by the Cambridge police has turned into a much bigger story than I expected.  Even President Obama weighed in.  I think that was ill-advised as he almost certainly did not have all the facts in this case.

I'm very sympathetic to minorities being targeted by police.  I'm sure it happens, and we shouldn't tolerate it.  But, just because it does happen doesn't mean that it happened in this case.  We need to have an open mind.  It would be great if both participants in the case did, too.

There's an interview with the Cambridge police sargeant on Boston's WEEI this morning.  The interviewers are very sympathetic to Sgt. Crowley, and he does most of the talking.  He certainly sounds like a reasonable guy.  But, he refuses to apologize as he thinks he did nothing wrong.

Professor Gates undoubtedly feels vindicated as charges against him were dropped.  He certainly won't apologize for anything he did that day, either.  And, for me, the lack of apology from both of them is an indicator of a problem in our society right now.

From everything I have read and heard about this, my sense is that both people were at fault at some level.  That's almost always the case in these types of situations.  Professor Gates probably jumped to conclusions about the motives of Sgt. Crowley.  He may have not been as composed and cooperative as he could have been.  And, it's likely that Sgt. Crowley should have shown even more restraint before arresting Professor Gates for disorderly conduct.  Once Sgt. Crowley determined that a crime was not occurring and that Prof. Gates wasn't going to cooperate, he could just turn his back and walk away, despite any verbal harrassment he may have been receiving. 

We should all treat police officers with respect, but, unfortunately, they have to have very thick skin to deal with those of us who don't.  However, given Professor Gates's age and physical condition, he probably didn't represent anything other than a verbal nuisance to Sgt. Crowley.  It must have been clear pretty quickly that a crime was not occurring.  If, as Sgt. Crowley says, he was also concerned that Professor Gates may encounter a criminal in the house, he could have told that to Professor Gates.  Who would refuse help from a police officer in that situation?  But, if he does, then Sgt. Crowley could just leave.

What disappoints me most is that one of these men should approach the other and say "let's both agree that this situation got out of control and that we both share at least some of the blame.  Why don't we shake hands and mutually apologize.  Getting this incident behind us is in everyone's interest and actually sends a stronger message of tolerance than any hardened position that either of us would take."

Instead, neither one wants to back down.  They are 'right' and so the other person has to be 'wrong'.  And, you'd never apologize if you thought you were right.  I don't buy that.  The better person is willing to put their ego in their pocket and look for higher ground.  How powerful would it be in calming race relations to have a press conference where they mutually apologize and shake hands?  Both can admit some level of fault, without having to argue about whether it was 50/50 or 99/1.

Things have become very polarized in our world.  Obama gets attacked when he says he's willing to talk to some of our enemies (even attacked by his now Secretary of State Clinton).  Politicians view every issue as a winner-take-all moment.  Admitting some level of fault, even 1%, is perceived as a sign of weakness.  But, this type of intransigence makes it almost impossible to resolve issues.  Whether it is a personnel issue, a business dispute, a civil matter, or a diplomatic issue, there is much to be gained by taking the high ground.  Suprisingly, we usually admire those who have the courage to do so.  We call them leaders.


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July 15, 2009

Xobni Goes Pro

I infrequently write about products on this blog.  I don't want to get inundated by PR people hoping that I mention their product.  I get enough of that already.  But, there is a product I have been using that I do want to mention.  I've got no connection to the company other than as a user and, now, a paying customer.

Xobni (that's the word 'inbox' backwards) is an add-on for Microsoft Outlook.  If you use Outlook to read your email, Xobni is pretty much essential.  The free version has a ton of features and they just announced a Pro version, which I purchased today.

So, what is Xobni?  Xobni integrates with Outlook and indexes all of your email messages.  It pulls out all of the email addresses and lets you search your email by any of the words in the messages or the names or email address of the senders or recipients.  It can also do this with your online Yahoo mail, integrating those results with your Outlook search results.  It shows you who all the people are who are in email exchanges with any of your contacts.  And, it lets you pull up all the email threads or attachments from these search results.  In addition, it integrates with Facebook and LinkedIn to show you the profiles of any of your email contacts.  It's super fast and very reliable.  I've been using it since its Beta period, and have had a couple of technical issues along the way.  The product includes extensive diagnostics that allow their support staff to resolve problems very quickly.  The current version is 1.8.

The Pro version is worth the price if you live in your Outlook email as I do.  It adds several new features, but the two that got me to buy it are 1) using all the email addresses in the Xobni index in the auto complete feature that Outlook uses to guess the email address you want when compsing a message, and 2) indexing your calendar appointments in addition to everything else.  It costs $25.95 for your first machine and just $9.95 for each additional machine.  If you have multiple users, they have volume user discounts, too.

Xobni is for you if you often find yourself trying to dig up that old email that you can't quite remember when it was sent or who sent it.  Or, if you want to come up with the older emails that form the conversation thread with the message you just received.  Or, you want to find all the documents that you and another user have exchanged.  Once I started using it, it just became part of how I work with my email.  Frankly, I'm surprised that Microsft hasn't bought these guys yet.

Xobni seems to be the kind of company I like.  Their product is full of features, integrates and installs cleanly, is very reliable, and has great support.  The free version is really great and useful on its own.  If you use Outlook, you really should give it a try.


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June 23, 2009

AT&T - Good customer service

Taking a brief break from my Japan trip to give some kudos to AT&T Mobility's customer service.  I'm using an AT&T PDA (Blackjack II) as my phone and wireless data device on this trip.  I did know that international roaming was expensive, and I have been trying to not use it too much to keep the costs down.

This morning I got both a text and an email from AT&T telling me that I could save money if I called them and changed my international calling plan.  I called the number (a free international call from my phone) and learned that I could switch to an international calling and data plan which would save money over what I had already spent on international calls and data.  So, they let me change and backdated the change to the start of my billing cycle, giving themselves a revenue cut over my ad hoc usage.  And, they said I could call when I returned to the US and turn off the service (which has a fixed monthly cost).

I was impressed that they proactively contacted me as soon as I had spent enough money to justify adding the international plan.  And, they backdated the plan change to minimize my costs.  All while knowing that I plan to turn this off as soon as I return to the US when my international data and calling goes away.  Very nice customer service.

Even nicer, my call to them dropped in the middle of the transaction (the vagaries of international roaming -- the call was dropped by the local Japanes carrier).  They called me back a few minutes later to confirm that everything was all set.

The credit card companies could take a lesson from this.  Rather than taking advantage of a customer's inadvertant misuse of their current plan, they proactively contacted me to get me onto a plan that they offered that minimized my costs.  I'll be loyal to AT&T for this!


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June 18, 2009

Good-bye for now

今のところグッバイ

If Google is correct, that's Japanese for good-bye for now.  Heading to Tokyo for vacation.  Track our trip at Japan-demonium.


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June 14, 2009

Upcoming trip to Japan

My daughter and I are leaving soon for a two week vacation in Japan.  Follow our exploits on our Japan-demonium blog.  If you like RSS, here's the RSS feed for Japan-demonium.
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May 21, 2009

Technology is the answer, not the problem

On today's PE Hub, guest columnist Joe Weisenthal wrote about how Internet start-ups will accelerate deflation, which is a bad thing for the government, and, ultimately the country.  I don't know Joe, so I don't know if this is tongue-in-cheek.  If it is, I didn't get it.

But, there are economists who are worried about deflation, and they should be.  Although the idea of prices dropping sounds good, it can have a crippling effect on the economy.  For a short period, deflation is fine.  Everyone likes it when prices drop and their dollar goes further.  But, what if deflation becomes systemic?  What if you knew that prices would drop over the coming year?  Wouldn't you wait to buy things you didn't really need today?  After all, they would cost less in six months.  This mindset brings an economy to its knees.

In the technology sector, prices have dropped while performance has gone up.  This has hollowed out some markets, but it has also expanded them.  When PCs cost thousands of dollars, you'd live with your old one for a while.  There was a pace of change of technology, but it didn't seem as fast as it is today. 

Now, when PCs cost hundreds of dollars (and these are dollars that are worth less), it's not as significant of a purchase.  You know that in a year your PC will be outclassed by the next wave of technology.  But, since the investment isn't as significant, you live with this obsolescence.  Chances are, the PC you buy today is so much faster and better than the one it is replacing, you get your few hundred dollars of utility out of it, despite the fact that it becomes obsolete so fast.

Since PC technology moves so fast and has come down in cost so fast, the market has gotten a lot bigger.  Sure, it's ultra-competitive, and margins are thin.  That happens in any large commodity market.  But, it still is a bigger business, and creates bigger industries around it (semiconductors, software, services, Internet applications, etc.).  To Joe's point about tax revenues, I'm willing to bet that the overall tax revenues on the bigger, more commoditized PC business are higher than in the smaller, higher-margin PC business.  Don't forget to count all the forms of taxes -- payroll taxes, sales tax, and corporate income tax.

In general, I think that Internet applications will do the same thing.  We can't and won't suck all the money out of all these industries.  If we do, no one will earn a salary.  And, without salaries, no one will do the work.  Now, there have clearly been missteps that have hollowed out industries quickly, such as the music industry not paying attention to music downloads, causing a whole generation to get used to paying nothing for music.  Or, the newspapers giving away all their content for free without figuring out how they would pay for it.  But, there are also companies like Apple that make a lot of money on downloaded legal music.  And, there are media sites that have a lot of traffic (driving advertising dollars) that sell value-added services (a model that the newspapers could follow for their large online traffic).

So, I don't worry about the acceleration of technology causing deflation and leading to the collapse of our government and economy.  In general, our economy has been propped up by expansion of productivity (the positive way of looking at getting more for less).  In fact, this type of technology innovation is critical for us to get back on track.  We need to continue to press ahead with Internet businesses that have real revenue (no government support required).  We also need to develop a wide range of green energy businesses that lead to products we can build here and export.  This does require some government help in the short-term as the capital markets aren't ready to fund this fast enough, and some basic research for longer-term gains is best funded by the government.

I share Joe's concern about the size of our systemic government debt.  The short-term stimulus part of the debt doesn't worry me.  But, the debts for the coming 5-10 years are terrifying.  We need to find things that the government does not do and drop them, and we need to be realistic about taxing ourselves to pay for what we need.  We can't grow out of a large deficit.  And, inflation won't solve our systemic deficit.  It devalues our old debt, but drives up the interest costs of carrying our new debt.

Economies seem stable with very modest inflation.  When we can keep that under control, we can focus on building new industries that expand and restructure markets, leading to goods we can build and export.  And, technology advancement, including Internet applications, is the key to that.


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May 14, 2009

Hilarious, but not for the Politically Correct

Last night I went to the opening of David Mamet's Romance at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge (disclaimer:  I am on the ART's Advisory Board).

This play made me laugh more than I have at the theater in a long time.  It was an outrageous depiction of a court room.  There isn't much of a story, more like an evolving situation.  But, the play makes fun of some of our institutions as well as our own biases and tendency to try to be politically correct.  If you take pride in being politically correct, you'll be offended.  The play goes out of its way to offend just about everyone.  And, that's the point.  We all have aspects of our life that aren't totally correct.  So, we should be careful before we criticize others.

The acting was fantastic.  Wll LeBow plays the judge.  His comedic timing was excellent.  He got the most laughs.  If you are a fan of The Wire on HBO, you'll recognize Jim True-Frost, who played Prez on that series.  Overall, the show really highlights the strength of the ART's acting company.

If you want to spend 90 minutes laughing at our society's political correctness, you'll enjoy Romance.  Laughing at the ethnic jokes is a guilty pleasure.  Luckily, just about everyone gets theirs during the show.


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April 30, 2009

Support the March For Babies

If you are like me, you get hit up a lot with various charitable pitches from friends and family.  I've made a few appeals here, too.

But, a couple of days ago, I got an email from an old friend that really struck me.  I knew she had been pregnant, but didn't realize what she had been through with the birth of her second child.  It turns out that Tracy Burman's second child was born 3 1/2 months early and only weighed 2 lbs.  No one knew why this happened, but now they needed significant care for their baby, Millie.  That's where the March of Dimes came in.

I'd always heard of the March of Dimes, but didn't really know what they focused on these days.  Well, this is it.  They fund research on premature birth and birth defects, and provide care for those who go through this.  And, they March for Babies is a fund raising event for this organization.

You can watch a video of Tracy's family, including Millie, from their local TV station in Seattle.

I met Tracy Burman when she was an entrepreneur right out of Harvard.  She co-founded a company and we learned a lot together through the process.  She's moved away, and her situation took me by surprise.  You never know when you, or a friend or family member, will go through this difficult situation.  Please give to the March for Babies to help this worthy cause.


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April 20, 2009

Making money at 35,000 feet

Today is the first time I have flown Virgin America from Boston to San Francisco.  In fact, I am flying right now as I post this.  Virgin offers Wifi on their flight for $12.95.  It's not cheap, but it's worth it if you really want to surf the web for the 5+ hours on the plane.  And, it's good incremental revenue for the airlines.

With the airlines and so many other industries, struggling now for revenue, Virgin has the right model that others should follow.  Instead of racing to the bottom by cutting prices and services, they offer a nice experience at a reasonable price.  My ticket cost $380 round trip  (booked pretty far in advance).  That's a good value for a cross-country flight.

And, the plane's entertainment system is pretty nice -- TV, music, movies, seat-to-seat chat, and food ordering whenever you want.  And, I had to test the wifi service.  It's a little slow (you won't want to do any big downloads).  But, it works pretty well.  For web surfing and email, it's great.

Virgin has a mix of free services and things you have to pay for.  But, when they deliver it well, I am sure that they sell quite a bit.  As my traveling companion pointed out, they need to figure out a way to sell things to people while they are waiting to board the plane.  But, whatever they sell incrementally is probably pretty high margin.  That should help their profitability.  And, the plane was totally full, which is always good for the bottom line.

I'm glad to see some companies try to make money by deliverying more at a good value rather than cutting everything and somehow hoping they can make it up in volume.  There is a place for the cheapest option, but I bet that a lot of people will pay more for a good experience.

Virgin is my new favorite way to go across the country.


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April 16, 2009

Understanding the Financial Mess

If you are like most people, you don't really understand the financial mess that we are all in.  If you have been trying to understand it, chances are you've heard an interview with Simon Johnson.  Simon is really smart, but is able to explain things in very clear terms.

He has a website (Baseline Scenario) dedicated to the financial crisis that explains it all in as much or little detail as you'd like.  And, yesterday Simon was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross again, talking about what to do about banks that are too big to fail.  Here's a quote:

"We face at least two major, interrelated problems," Johnson writes. "The first is a desperately ill banking sector that threatens to choke off any incipient recovery that the fiscal stimulus might generate. The second is a political balance of power that gives the financial sector a veto over public policy, even as that sector loses popular support."

Johnson talks about how Goldman Sachs, now that it is doing better financially, can really challenge the Fed and Treasury.  If a bank like Goldman gets healthy in advance of others, they can operate independently and take advantage of weaker competitors.  That sounds like good ol' capitalism, but Johnson describes why that may not be good for us all until the whole sector gets stronger.  I don't know if I agree with his call to nationalize all the banks for the short-term, but his description of Goldman standing up to the Fed and Treasury is a little scary in light of how fragile our situation is.


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March 27, 2009

We're still the same company we've always been...

Click through for a funny cartoon (I didn't want to steal it from The New Yorker):

“We’re still the same, great company we’ve always been, only we’ve ceased to exist.” (The head of a company speaks to a large group of employees gathered in his office.)


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March 25, 2009

Maybe we need to quiet the angry mob

I've been as mad as anyone about the AIG mess and the bonuses paid to executives there.  Clearly, without our bailout money, there would be no money paid to anyone there, bonus or otherwise.

But, an op-ed in today's New York Times is giving me second thoughts.  The op-ed is a resignation letter from Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president in AIG's infamous Financial Products Unit to Edward Liddy, CEO of AIG.  In the letter, Mr. DeSantis describes his work in AIG's commodity division which had nothing to do with credit default swaps.  In fact, he says that "no more than a handful of the 400 current employees of AIG Financial Products were involved in credit default swaps and that most of those who were involved had already left the company.

Where Mr. DeSantis's letter gave me pause is when he described agreeing to work for a salary of $1 in addition to the promised bonuses, while turning down other more stable jobs.  It sounds like he's been working hard to sell off a division to UBS to generate cash needed to repay us taxpayers.  Although it's staggering to read that Mr. DeSantis's bonus, after taxes, was $742,000, it's also hard for me to say that he wasn't entitled to something that he had been promised multiple times and had given up his fixed salary for.  Certainly, this guy doesn't sound like someone who should be villified.  Perhaps we're just envious that someone who graduated from MIT in 1992 can make so much money at his job.  Never forget the value of a technical education!

The problem is that paying Mr. DeSantis to help raise cash for AIG is a sound business decision, but a poor political one.  In politics, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater on a routine basis.  The media hype drowns out the details and subtleties of a story.  Unfortunately, Mr. Liddy, the CEO of AIG, didn't have the ability to do what Mr. DeSantis did -- tell an individual story that changes how you look at a situation.  The only people at AIG that we really should be mad at are the ones who built up their credit default swap business, or others who took similar risks.  If we believe in capitalism, we have to let the rest of AIG run their business in the way they see fit so they can try to return some or all of our money.  Let's just send the angry mob after the bad guys, if we can figure out who they are.

Speaking of angry mob, Jon Stewart unleashed them last week.

 

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
The Notorious AIG - Scorn in the USA
comedycentral.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesEconomic CrisisPolitical Humor

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March 15, 2009

This could be you!

Update - these tickets have been claimed.  Thanks to everyone for your interest. 

Whenever I don't want to use my Celtics tickets, I usually don't have trouble finding someone who wants to buy them from me at face value.  But, for some reason, the game on Monday, March 23rd at 7:30 PM vs. the LA Clippers is the exception.  So far, I don't have any takers.  If you want to sit where I was during Game 6 of The Finals last year vs, the Lakers, let me know.  The seats are in Loge Section 22, Row 1.  Face value, including prepaid premium parking, is $349.


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March 13, 2009

Who Do I Blame?

There was a lot of hype this week about the 'battle' between Jon Stewart (of the Daily Show) and Jim Cramer (of CNBC's Mad Money)Jon Stewart had been pointing out that CNBC was a cheerleader for Wall Street on the way up and failed to point out the risks that led to the bubble bursting.  In particular, he picked on Cramer for recommending that people buy Bear Stearns stock before the company went bust.  Like everyone, Stewart is looking for someone to blame for our economic mess.  He wasnt' saying the Cramer and CNBC were primarily responsible, but they had a chance to point out the risks and didn't.

You can watch the unedited interview here.  This is the link to part 1, and parts 2 and 3 follow.  I don't recall any previous Daily Show guest getting so much time.  And, although very interesting, this isn't as funny as most Daily Show interviews.

To Cramer's credit, he mostly agreed that CNBC could have done a much better job.  In today's 'who do I blame?' environment, I fully expected Cramer to blame someone else for missing the risks (he did point out that some CEOs lied to him).  There are so many people at fault in this economic mess -- Democrats, Republicans, Bernanke, Paulson, Phil Gramm, the SEC, the banks, Wall Street traders, AIG, and on and on.  We can't focus on whose fault it was, unless you can find people who broke the law.  Instead, we have to focus on how we are going to change to make sure it doesn't happen again.

We need a culture of transparency.  If we add regulations, they should be in the area of forcing people to open their books and show what they are holding and how it's valued.  I don't want to limit what kind of deals people can strike.  I just want all investment firms to have to show what they're holding.  If the level of risk is clear with an investment, you can judge whether the firm holding it has sufficient capital to weather that risk.

We also need a culture of responsibility.  The Boards of all the big banks and AIG should be holding the executive teams accountable for putting the company at risk.  If that's not an offense worthy of being fired, I don't know what is.  And yet, most of them are all still in place.  I guess they blamed someone else for the mess.  And, the shareholders should hold those directors responsible and consider voting them out at the next shareholder meeting.

Joe Nocera's column in today's New York Times covers the same subject.  He writes about the Madoff scandal and that the victims want some sort of compensation.  If Madoff can't come up with the money, some want a government bailout.  What a minute!

Surely Madoff was the master liar.  He fooled a lot of people, and managed to hold off or fool the SEC, too.  But, there are also many examples of people who actually tried to do some diligence on Madoff and walked away.  Quickly.  In fact, people's own greed is the reason why they were wiped out by Madoff.

I still tend to believe that many of his investors had an inkling that he was doing something wrong.  But, as long as it was working in their favor, they didn't ask questoins.  I am sure that none of them suspected that it was a gigantic fraud.  But, perhaps he was front-running the trades of his other customers to benefit these select customers.  In any event, it was 'don't ask, don't tell.'  As long as the returns (seemed) to keep coming, they left well enough alone.

But, that doesn't excuse people from giving Madoff most or all of their money.  Even the most inexperienced investor understands that you have to diversify.  Why?  Because you don't know for sure what investments will perform well in the future.  And, you don't want to lose too much if one of your investments is a total failure.  So, as Nocera points out, the victims who were wiped out because they gave Madoff all of their money, can only blame themselves.  Surely Madoff is at fault for losing the money they gave him.  But, they are at fault for giving Madoff all of their money.  And, it was only greed that led them to do so.  They assigned zero risk to the Madoff investment, which justified giving him everything.  Shame on them.

I've made plenty of mistakes in my investment career.  I have been wrong on technology, on markets, and on people.  But, in each case I was the one who gathered the inputs and made the decision.  So, I have no one to blame but myself.  And, I wish that we could develop a culture where we stop trying to blame others for our decisions and try to understand how we got it wrong ourselves.


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March 05, 2009

The value of work

I enjoy the talks on TED.com.  Here's one from Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs.  He talks about the value of work.  He knows first hand about people who do real, honest to goodness work.  Work with their hands.  The beginning of the talk may gross you out, but carry on if you can.  I like one of his sentiments:  Innovation isn't worth anything without imitation.  It doesn't matter if you invent something if you can't get it built and deployed into the market.  He cites the iPhone -- you had to be smart to design it, and to design all of the components in it.  But, without the people working in the factories, the delivery trucks, etc., you couldn't have one.

I started my work life long ago with menial jobs.  I delivered newspapers.  I worked in a grocery store.  This kind of job made me appreciate the opportunity I had to go to college and work with my mind instead.  But, I've never forgotten the hard work that most people do every day.

 


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March 03, 2009

MP3 Deal of the Day - U2

I've long been a fan of Amazon's MP3 download service.  They have DRM-free MP3s at attractive prices.  And, their downloader makes is seamless to add these downloaded tracks to iTunes.

Today (and today only) they are offering the new U2 album, No Line On The Horizon, for just $3.99.  I haven't heard it yet, but, at that price, it was worth it for me to buy it since I'm a U2 fan.

Here's the link to buy it today.


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January 27, 2009

I like living in Boston

It's good to live in a part of the country where this is true -- we have smart and engaged people here!

The fall Arbitron radio ratings arrived this week and reported that WBUR is Boston's number one station in afternoon drive time, among 25-54-year-old listeners and number three in morning drive in that same demographic. We’re also number one in the 35-64 age group for full week listening. In addition, WBUR was five among 18-49-year- old listeners. These are all remarkable achievements for a public radio station.

These may very well be the strongest numbers in the station's history. Virtually every program and time period performed strongly - Morning Edition, All Things Considered, On Point, Here and Now, Radio Boston, Only a Game, and the Saturday and Sunday morning and mid-day hours. In fact, the evening rebroadcast—when everyone’s home from work—of On Point is number one in the M-F, 7-9pm time slot.

This comes from an email from public radio station WBUR in Boston.


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January 15, 2009

Service Nation

I think that the election of Barack Obama has the potential be a real turning point for the country.  He's got a huge number of problems to address, and we all hope that he's successful in getting our economy back on solid footing, resolving the wars we are involved in, and re-establishing a positive image for the US in the world.

But, we also need to invest back in the US.  I am not talking about financial investment.  Some of us have the means of doing that, and some of us don't.  But, almost all of us has the potential to invest some time volunteering for a cause to make someone else's life better.  Doing this won't solve all of our domestic problems, but it would make a big difference.

We all honor the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  They are making a sacrifice, and perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, to help keep us safe.  I don't always agree when our politicians have deployed our troops, but I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the serice to our country that the members of military give to all of us.

We also need to honor volunteers who pitch in to help local charities that impact those worse off than us.  Even better, we should all dedicate some of our time to volunteer ourselves.  Almost all of us dedicate a pretty significant chunk of our time to recreation.  I won't get into a discussion of the realtive merits of various types of recreation, but why not dedicate 10% of your recreation time to a cause you support?  You may find it to be just as relaxing and much more rewarding.

Service Nation is an effort to turn Martin Luther King Day into a national day of service.  Not all of us can volunteer on that day, but why not spend some time that day to investigate and commit to a volunteer opportunity that fits your schedule and interests?  I've got commitments to several charities and causes.  Although it is sometimes difficult to juggle the time, it is always rewarding to do the work and see the impact it has on others.  Check out the voluteer opportunities on the Service Nation site or at my personal favorite, good2gether.  You'll find that volunteering is fun!

Also, see the head of Service Nation on last night's Colbert Report:


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January 13, 2009

The Industry Conference or the Cocktail Party

In the past few months, I've seen more of my over-40 friends and colleagues get active on Facebook.  At the same time, activity on LinkedIn still continues to be very high.  Many of my less-connected friends ask me "should I sign up for these?", "what's the difference?", and "isn't Facebook really for kids?"  So, if you wonder whether or not you should use these services, here's my take on the answers.

LinkedIn is like walking the halls of a huge industry conference.  It's aimed at business people, with most of the data structured around jobs you've held, education you have, and skills you have.  It's great for trying to hire people as you can easily search for people with certain jobs from certain companies and in certain geographies.  There are ways to recomend the work of others and industry groups to join.  The main purpose of LinkedIn is to expand your professional network.  The site makes it easy for you to leverage your existing contacts to make new ones.  And, if you join a networking group, it's easy to reach out to others in the group.  There is a very good search function that let's you identify people you want to get connected to.

Personal membership in LinkedIn is free, but they sell business memberships that are mostly aimed at recruiting.  I am a personal member, so I am not well versed in the business membership benefits.  If you are doing a lot of hiring, you should check it out.  One nice thing about LinkedIn is that despite having so many people in there, I receive almost no spam.  The messages I get are either from people who know me who want to connect with me on LinkedIn or from those who are leveraging a mutual connection of ours to get to know me.  I may or may not be interested in all of these requests, but none of them are a waste of time.  If you join LinkedIn, you should be ready to expand your network and to help others expand theirs.

There is some amount of social interaction on LinkedIn, but not much.  There is a way to ask questions of your network, and the content of those questions vary.  And, you can post your individual status so that others in your network can see what you're doing.

My analogy for LinkedIn is walking the halls of a big industry conference with your name badge on.  You interact with business contacts you know, and there are a lot of other people around.  You can get introduced to your friends' friends, and most people can see at least your name.  It's a pretty safe environment and very professional.

An example of how I used LinkedIn:  Let's say that I am working with a semiconductor company that wants to hire a new VP of Marketing in Dallas, TX.  It's very easy to search for all of the VPs of Marketing in the semiconductor industry that are in or near Dallas.  If there are names that come up that look interesting, I can quickly see how my network extends to this person.  If I don't know them directly, I can see if they are connected to one of my contacts, or to one of my contacts' contacts.  This indirect network expands quickly.  Currently, I have 1487 direct connections on LinkedIn.  The extended network of my contacts, their contacts, and their contacts' contacts is over 7.5M people.  So, that's a large database to mine when I want to make a new business contact.  Some may say that I am too promiscuous on LinkedIn!

If LinkedIn is the industry conference, Facebook is the cocktail party afterwards (which spills out into the city streets).  As you might know, Facebook started as a way for college students to get in touch, keep in touch with their former high school classmates, and maintain contact after college.  It is very social, and I am sure that the killer app that drove initial adoption was dating.

Facebook is all about people posting what they are doing, what they like doing, how they express themselves, and sharing all of that with their friends.  You can expand your friend network pretty easily, but I find that Facebook has more 'noise' than LinkedIn for business use.  There are still lots of students on Facebook, but more and more of us 'old folks' have been joining.  And, more of my industry contacts are active on Facebook.  My own set of Facebook 'friends' has family, friends, business contacts, high school students (my son and some of his friends), college students (from work I do in and around MIT and elsewhere), high school classmates, and more.  It would be scary if they all met one day!

The subject of the chatter on Facebook is much more like what you'd talk about at a cocktail party -- what are you doing, where are you going, what do you like (music, art, food), what's newsworthy, etc.  It's really easy to jump in and comment on anything that your friends are talking about.  But, you won't find many deep discussions.  There is a lot of photo sharing on Facebook, which is nice if you are keeping up with family and friends.

After playing around with Facebook on and off for the past few years, I've come back to it again recently.  As more of my friends and business contacts are on there, it's a nice way to stay connected.  There is more value than you think in saying "I'm on my way to Texas" and having some people I know in Texas say "Stop by for a drink!"  Or, saying that you don't feel well today and having many people you know wish you well.  I don't find it a substitute for being a friend, but it can make do in a pinch.

As I said, Facebook is like a cocktail party.  There is lots of chit chat, and you can definitely meet new people or just stick to your old friends.  There is probably a wilder side than what you have seen, but you can ignore it if you wish.  It's still a pretty safe environment as you can control who can communicate with you.  But, I still get more random invites that I would consider spam on Facebook than I do on LinkedIn.  Nevertheless, I haven't received anything that I would consider inappropriate or in poor taste.

I had a debate with a colleague of mine today about which one would win in the long-term -- LinkedIn or Facebook.  Quite honestly, I don't see one as a substitute for another.  Ideally, I'd like them to merge, but with a way for me to keep business and personal contacts separate.  That separation is important.  I don't see a need for me to keep my business background a secret from anyone, but I am sure that there are things in my Facebook profile that are best kept to just my friends and cocktail party buddies.

If you haven't joined either one, you are probably missing something.  I'm willing to bet that some of your friends and/or business contacts are already on there.


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January 08, 2009

ART One Day Sale

The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge is having an unprecedented one-day sale tomorrow, January 9, 2009 from 9 AM to 6 PM.

With this sale, you can purchase tickets for $25 each to the first week of any of the spring 2009 productions:

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov

Endgame by Samuel Beckett

Trojan Barbie (world premiere) by Christine Evans

Romance by David Mamet

You can buy tickets online, over the phone at 617-547-8300, or in person at 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.

The $25 ticket is a great deal for world-class theater.  Ticket prices are normally anywhere from $39-79, depending on the show and seat location.  This is an opportunity you don't want to miss, and a great chance to get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with the ART.

Disclaimer: I am on the Advisory Board for the ART and have been a subscriber since 1982.  I think that even then the tickets were more than $25!


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January 07, 2009

As long as we're bailing...

CNN reports on the latest industry to request a government bailout.

I don't know which is funnier -- the fact that the porn industry is poking fun at the government by requesting the bailout or that anyone takes this as being anything close to serious.

I can't avoid the obvious pun about the government screwing up the porn industry with a bailout...


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January 04, 2009

Oldies but really goodies

After taking quite a bit of time off from work and from posting, I'm back....I wanted to let 2008 go quietly into the night.  Now that we're into 2009, I'm back to being an optimist.  Happy New Year!

I don't write about my musical tastes.  If an artist is still alive, there's a pretty good chance I'm not a fan.  My tastes haven't changed much since college.  I realize that makes me an old man, but there's a lot of comfort in those classic rock tunes.

Today's Boston Globe had an article about the great music released in 1968 and whether 2008's music would stand the test of time as well.  The music business was different in 1968, and the country was going through major cultural shifts, partly fueled by innovative music and it's impact on the young generation.  I was only 7 in 1968, but as I grew older, I became a fan of most of the music listed in this article.  You can compare the 1968 list with the Globe's picks in 2008.

One big difference between the 1968 list and the 2008 list is the concept of the 'album' vs. the 'hit song.'  Very few of the 2008 CD's are really great albums, even if they have some great songs.  But, on the 1968 list, the quality seems very deep and consistent.  Again, this is a reflection of the change in the music business.  I remember 'album-oriented rock' stations near where I grew up (WCCC in Hartford, CT!).  That station wouldn't hesitate to play one-half of an album, or even a whole album all the way through.  This made the job easier for the DJ's, but also exposed the listeners to all the work of an artist rather than just the hits.  The lack of a CD or iPod where you could more easily select individual tracks led us to listen to album sides all the way through.

As I looked through the 1968 list, I realize that two of my favorite groups from that era didn't have anything on the list.  The Who were preparing Tommy for a 1969 release.  The Grateful Dead released Anthem of the Sun, probably mostly for their die-hard fans these days.  Also, Traffic's second album, "Traffic", is briefly mentioned in the article but was a very strong effort in its own right.

Well, that's enough musing from the memories of an old man...I hope my kids can look back on their favorite music in 40 years and feel the same way I do about 1968.


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December 13, 2008

Dilbert's take on the mortgage mess

Today's Dilbert shows a version of the thinking that got us into the mortgage mess.

 

Dilbert.com
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December 06, 2008

Looks like every bank can get a bailout

According to BailoutSleuth.com, my friends at Silicon Valley Bank are recipients of some bailout money.  Silicon Valley Bank is a great partner for many start-up companies.  They provide banking services as well as venture debt.  Silicon Valley bank is also our bank at Sempre Management.

But, I don't understand why we (as taxpayers) are investing in Silicon Valley Bank.  BailoutSleuth says that SVB has received $235M despite having $27M in profits (the $21.3M that BailoutSleuth mentions is from the prior quarter, Q2).  After a quick look at their financials, it seems that the biggest difference is that they are not making as much money from investment gains as they did a year ago (no surprise in this environment).  Their balance sheet looks as strong as ever.  And, since they are primarily a business bank, I don't think they got involved in any mortgage backed securities.

According to the company's press release on the receipt of this bailout (TARP) money:

SVB Financial Group's Tier 1 capital ratio of 9.94% at September 30, 2008, already exceeds that of a "well-capitalized" institution. On a pro forma basis, the new capital would have increased the Company's Tier 1 capital ratio on that date to approximately 12.79%.

It's great that SVB is in such good shape.  But, why does the government have to invest in them to make them stronger and to fund their growth (as their announcement says)? 

I think that the bailout is going way too far.  SVB isn't going to collapse.  And, if it did, I have a hard time believing that our banking system would go down with it.  It just seems now that we are in the business of investing in just about every bank.  Since I'm an owner now, I guess I can order around our account rep!


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December 04, 2008

Battle of the Tech Bands 2

My friends at Xconomy are sponsoring a tech networking event that is also raising money for some good causes.  Check out Battle of the Tech Bands 2:

A tech networking event that really rocks. Musicians from New England’s most innovative companies play their geeky hearts out—you pick the winners!

Date: Thursday, January 22, 2009.

Location: Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, 472 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA.

Time: Doors open at 7:00 pm.

Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door.
Half of all ticket proceeds will be donated to
Science Club for Girls and Community Music Center of Boston.
Snacks are included, and we’ll even buy you a drink or two.

And, for those of you ready to play your hearts out:

INFORMATION FOR BANDS

Who’s eligible: At least one member of your band must work for a New England-area technology or life sciences company or a venture-capital or private-equity firm that invests in technology. All levels of bands are welcome—from club veterans to garage hackers. All musical styles are welcome. Bands that entered Xconomy’s first Battle of the Bands in January 2008 are eligible for Battle of the Bands 2.

Prizes: Prizes will be awarded to the Audience Favorite band and the Most Innovative band. Prizes include: Free retail service from Nimbit, a Framingham, MA-based direct-to-fan sales and marketing platform. Additional prizes to be announced.

Logistics: Up to six bands will compete for the prizes. Each band will get 15 minutes of play time. Bands can perform as many songs as they like within this 15 minute period.

How to Enter: If you and your band want to join the battle, please send an e-mail to techbands@xconomy.com including following:

  • The name of your band
  • The name(s) of the technology, life sciences, or investment firms at which your members work
  • Names of all band personnel and their instruments
  • Band leader e-mail and phone contact information
  • At least one MP3 demo recording of a song performed by your band
  • URLs for your band’s website and/or MySpace page

Deadline: We must receive your entry by midnight on Friday, December 12, 2008.

Sounds like a great time, for a great cause!


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December 02, 2008

It's Globe Santa season

 

Those who have known me for a while know that I am a big supporter of Globe Santa.  It's one of my favorite charities because it focuses on children and all of the money you donate goes directly to buy toys for needy kids.  The Boston Globe pays for all of the administrative costs.

I'm sure that many of you have seen the joy in a child's eyes when they receive a gift during the holiday season.  Now, imagine how crushing it is for a child who has to miss this.  They know that others are getting gifts.  But, due to their family's misfortune, these children will get nothing.  That's where Globe Santa comes in.  They receive applications from needy families (vetted by social workers or clergy) and deliver toys to those kids in time for the holidays.  Each year they help over 29,000 families and 57,000 children in 167 communities around Boston.  These children get some holiday joy and the knowledge that someone cares about helping them.

Please join me in giving to Globe Santa this year.  The economic troubles make it more important than ever.


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November 25, 2008

I guess the Fed is doing their job

By this measure, liquidity has greatly improved....The Fed must be doing a good job...


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November 17, 2008

Who should we bail out next?

When I first heard that the FDIC was going to insure retailer gift card balances, I was pretty upset.  I know that gift cards represent a major retail purchase these days, particularly at holiday time.  But, if a retailer squanders their cash, I didn't think that the government should bail them out.

After I read the position, it makes some more sense to me.  If the retailer keeps the gift card cash in an insured deposit institution, the insurance coverages passes through to the owner of the gift card, rather than to just the retailer.

Will a struggling retailer have the discipline to keep their gift card receipts in a separate insured account?  Probably not as the pressure on them builds.  If they don't, there isn't coverage (as I read the rule).

But, the press doesn't cover this nuance.  In fact, I think that there is a growing pressure to keep bailing out industries and consumers.  It's got to stop.  If we use our precious tax dollars for a bailout, it must be on terms that represent us all as investors of the last resort.  We should get our money back first, with a preferred return.  And, we should be able to dictate that companies can't pay dividends or current and past sky high compensation.  In other words, the kinds of terms that any private equity fund would impose on a distressed investment.

With this in mind, I am very concerned about two things:

1) An auto industry bailout.  The unions are saying that they don't want to give up anything as part of a bailout.  Luckily, that position doesn't seem to have support among Obama's advisors.  In fact, the only way we should put up money to help the auto industry is if the business is restructured, with new management, a different equation with the unions, and a commitment to R&D on more energy efficient cars.  Maybe we should focus on loan guarantees once these are in place, rather than an equity infusion.  Unfortunately, the auto industry is in such trouble that I worry that a bailout will be too expensive.  Clearly, all stakeholders have to feel pain in order for the taxpayers to cut a check.

2) A bailout of consumer mortgages.  I don't see how this can work.  Every consumer is a different situation.  Some have been thrifty but are still unfortunate.  Others have leveraged themselves to the hilt and now are in too deep.  Most are somewhere in between.  Who is going to sort out who gets saved and who doesn't?  And, how can you restructure these mortgages once they've been securitized?  Changes to a mortgage can impact hundreds and thousands of investors who may have profited during this mess but didn't necessarily take unusual risks (knowingly).  Instead, I'd like to see this sort of bailout aimed at giving the mortgage companies an incentive to restructure mortgages to more reasonable terms and giving homeowners some time to move out of homes that they can't really afford.

And, it seems that the Bush administration is content to run out the clock and let the Obama team try to figure out the next steps.  Maybe this is a good thing.  With all the moves the government has made, I think we should take a breath and let the markets settle out and seek its level.  We need to stop the expectation that each day they'll be someone new receiving a bailout.


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October 31, 2008

Shareholder discussion: Deferred Bank Executive Bonuses

OK, we're all shareholders now in some large banks (through the US Treasury investment).  As a shareholder, what do you think of the article in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required, excerpts below) on the more than $40B owed to executives at these banks for prior years pay and pensions?

The article opens with:

Financial giants getting injections of federal cash owed their executives more than $40 billion for past years' pay and pensions as of the end of 2007, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.

The government is seeking to rein in executive pay at banks getting federal money, and a leading congressman and a state official have demanded that some of them make clear how much they intend to pay in bonuses this year.

But overlooked in these efforts is the total size of debts that financial firms receiving taxpayer assistance previously incurred to their executives, which at some firms exceed what they owe in pensions to their entire work forces.

The sums are mostly for special executive pensions and deferred compensation, including bonuses, for prior years. Because the liabilities include stock, they are subject to market fluctuation. Given the stock-market decline of this year, some may have fallen substantially.

Some examples: $11.8 billion at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., $8.5 billion at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and $10 billion to $12 billion at Morgan Stanley.

Few firms report the size of these debts to their executives. (Goldman is an exception.) In most cases, the Journal calculated them by extrapolating from figures that the firms do have to disclose.

Most firms haven't set aside cash or stock for these IOUs. They are a drag on current earnings and when the executives depart, employers have to pay them out of corporate coffers.

The practice of incurring corporate IOUs for executives' pensions and past pay is perfectly legal and is common in big business, not limited to financial firms. But liabilities grew especially high in the financial industry, with its tradition of lavish pay.

Deferring compensation appeals both to employers, which save cash in the near term, and to executives, who delay taxes and see their deferred-pay accounts grow, sometimes aided by matching contributions. In some cases, firms give top executives high guaranteed returns on these accounts.

The liabilities are an essentially hidden obligation. Even when the debts to their executives total in the billions, most companies lump them into "other liabilities"; only a few then identify amounts attributable to deferred pay.

The article describes how they estimated these amounts and that sources confirmed their calculations (but not on the record).  These are big numbers, but they aren't all payable in one year.  However, the obligations seem to be generally unfunded on the banks balance sheet, unlike their 'rank and file' pension obligations:

Obligations for executive pay are large for a number of reasons. Even as companies have complained about the cost of retiree benefits, they have been awarding larger pay and pensions to executives. At Goldman, for example, the $11.8 billion obligation primarily for deferred executive compensation dwarfed the liability for its broad-based pension plan for all employees. That was just $399 million, and fully funded with set-aside assets.

The deferred-compensation programs for executives are like 401(k) plans on steroids. They create hypothetical "accounts" into which executives can defer salaries, bonuses and restricted stock awards. For top officers, employers often enhance the deferred pay with matching contributions, and even assign an interest rate at which the hypothetical account grows.

Often, it is a generous rate. At Freddie Mac, executives earned 9.25% on their deferred-pay accounts in 2007, regulatory filings show -- a better deal than regular employees of the mortgage buyer could get in a 401(k). Since all this money is tax-deferred, the Treasury, and by extension the U.S. taxpayer, subsidizes the accounts.

Although the banks who have taken the US Treasury investment have agreed to limit executive golden parachutes in the future and have lowering the deductibility of high executive salaries, none of these rules apply to past obligations.  So, fellow shareholders, do you want your money being used to pay these past obligations that aren't reflected on the balance sheets of these banks?  I don't.

I think we (ok, Congress) should order the companies to put a moratorium on any deferred compensation payments to executives while the US Treasury is a shareholder.  They should also be forced to reflect these obligations on their balance sheets, lowering their short term profitability.  Of course, they are also welcome to renegotiate these obligations in order to lower them in the future.

Once the US Treasury is no longer a shareholder, their Boards can decide what to do with this deferred compensation.  But, in no way should they be able to avoid reflecting the costs of these deferred compensation plans on their balance sheets.  And, accounting rules should be clarified to make sure that they are required to disclose this in the future.

I've got no problem with high executive compensation, particularly for a company which performs well.  But, in public companies, that compensation needs to be clearly disclosed, including any deferred commitments.  If it can stand public and shareholder scrutiny, it's OK with me.


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October 29, 2008

We got flocked!

Some friends of ours "flocked" our house recently as part of a fund raiser for the Bedford project of Habitat for Humanity.  They paid to have Habitat deploy a flock of pink flamingos on our front lawn for a few days.  That, of course, motivates us to pay to have flocks set up on some of our other friends' lawns.  It was done anonymously, but we have our suspicions.

This is a great idea for a viral fund raiser.  It's visible (but mysterious) to our neighbors, and certainly had us guessing as to who decided to target us.  We'll get our revenge by passing it on to others, all for the good cause of affordable housing in our town.

There's nothing on the web site that describes how you can get in on the flocking.  But, you may want to contact them via email if you'd like to flock some people you know to support Habitat for Humanity.


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October 13, 2008

In the Globe again

In today's Globe, Scott Kirsner was nice enough to quote The Fein Line again, this time on my response to McCain's plan to bail out homeowners and mortgage lenders by repurchasing mortgages that are under water.

The quote in the paper focuses on my criticism of McCain's plan because it really gets the lender off the hook as well as the homeowner.  I also proposed some solutions that would require the lender to write down the mortgage and provide them some incentive to restructure the terms of the loan to make it more affordable for the homeowner.  I think that any resolution to this problem is going to be incredibly complicated due to the varying terms of home mortgages and each person's situation.  Should you treat the homeowner who saved up to buy the nicer house that they couldn't really afford and sacrificed right and left to make the payments the same way you treat the person who mortgaged their house to the hilt in order to buy a fancier car and take a nice vacation?  Both homeowners are in over their head, but I've got more sympathy for the former.  Who is going to decide which ones get help?

Fundamentally, I have a problem helping out companies who knew that they were taking inordinate risks just because the market let them.  And, I have a problem with homeowners who bought a house (or refinanced to the hilt) because they could and not because they could really afford it.  The majority of us live within our means (I hope!) and shouldn't have to bail out those who didn't.  We need to rescue our economy and the credit market, not the risk takers and profligate spenders.  These aren't just Wall Street fat cats.  They could also be your neighbor who spent way beyond their means, fueled by easy mortgage lending.

Over the weekend I learned of a friend of mine who is a small business owner (not high tech) who got in way over his head.  Fundamentally, he had two problems:  1) He expanded too quickly without getting to profitability first and 2) he had raised money from friends and family and could not face telling them that he was struggling.  So, he kept up the appearance of success as long as he could, which only led to him digging a deeper hole.  There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, but that shouldn't mean building a bigger house of cards.  Instead, focus on getting the foundation solid and building from there.


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October 08, 2008

Please make this ride stop

This is like one of the roller coasters I love.


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October 04, 2008

Peace, Love and Understanding

Can't get this song out of my head today.  The sentiment is as great now as when the song first came out in the 1970s.

 


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October 01, 2008

No Matter What, You Gotta Vote

Time is running out to register to vote.  In Massachusetts, you have to be registered by October 15.  In New Hampshire, you can register on Election Day (great!).  With all of the things going on in the world today, this election is certain to be extremely important.  No matter where you come out on the issues, please be sure to register and to vote.  Google has a nice site with voter information here.

So many people decide not to vote for many reasons (apathy, laziness, busy schedule, etc.).  With more and more states offering absentee and early voting options, your schedule on November 4 isn't a viable excuse.  Please be sure to register and vote, and get your friends to do so, too!


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September 26, 2008

Listen to the front-liners

At any company I've been involved with, the front-line people always know what is really going on.  Executives have varying degress of knowledge, but no one fools the people on the front-line.  When a strategy change is announced or someone is fired, you can usually hear people on the front-line saying "FINALLY!"  If people at the company know what should be done, why does it sometimes take the executives so long to figure it out?

The most common reason is that no one listens to the front-line people.  Maybe top executives don't spend time with people on the front-lines.  Maybe they hear things, but their top managers dismiss this feedback in order to deliver their own message.  In any event, if you aren't listening to people on the front-line, you are missing what is really going on.

If you are a CEO, you have to be careful when you try to get this feedback directly.  Employees have to feel safe in bringing up issues with you.  They can't fear reprisal, from you or anyone else.  Also, you have to be careful in how you react.  If you say "we shouldn't do that" when you hear about an issue, that becomes a directive.  I remember a company I worked at once where the CEO (Frank) did a good job talking to people on the front-line.  But, "Frank said" became the way that someone could cut through normal decision-making.  And, "Frank said" usually meant that Frank was empathetic, not making a decision on the spot.  Instead, try "I'll look into it" (only if you mean it).

Here's a current example of top leaders ignoring feedback from the front-lines.  In today's column by Steven Syre in the Boston Globe, he writes about Sheila Bair, head of the FDIC since 2006.  She was trying to raise an early alarm on sub-prime mortgages:

Bair was working in Washington as assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions until 2002. She already didn't like what she was seeing in the mortgage market then.

"In 2002, she had tried to get the Federal Reserve to pay attention to subprime loans," says Tom O'Brien, former dean of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass. "She was worried there was fraud being perpetrated, and she was sure this was going to cause tremendous problems for people taking out the loans. But none of us saw the systemic risk and how it mushroomed. But we used to talk about the fact that she couldn't get the Federal Reserve to take that seriously."

Ben Branch, a UMass finance professor and friend of Bair's, recalls similar conversations in Amherst.

"She was way ahead of the curve on all these problems and trying to get people's attention. Unfortunately, people didn't listen to her so much."

I didn't know anything about Bair until this morning, but it sounds like we have the right person in charge of the FDIC, which insures bank deposits.  The FDIC will be under alot of pressure as some banks fail, but hopefully she'll make the right calls (and listen to people in her front lines).


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At what cost?

It's hard to avoid talking about the big proposed government bailout of the financial markets.  As Fred wrote, we need some liquidity in the system where private companies don't feel comfortable providing that to each other.  Having a credit gridlock stall the economy isn't in anyone's interest.

But, if the government is going to be the investor of last resort, then the government (us) should get the lion's share of the upside.  The AIG deal seems like a good blueprint -- an $85B loan at a higher than market interest rate, secured by $1 trillion in assets with an 80% equity stake in the company to capture the upside.  This could turn out to be a pretty good deal for the taxpayers, who could make a profit.  In fact, this is probably a good buyer's market for private equity investors with the guts (Warren Buffett investing in Goldman Sachs) or the deep pockets (us, again) to invest now when others won't.

To me, the big challenge is figuring out what these assets are worth.  If the government is going to take bad loans and other investments off the balance sheets of financial institutions in order to shore them up, then the government needs to get a great deal on the value of those assets.  We're talking cents on the dollar.  This may cause the financial institutions to do some further write downs, but will at least let them signal the markets that this write down is the last one.  And, it will give the taxpayers some upside potential.  I don't know who is going to decide what these assets are worth, but it has to be a VERY conservative estimate.  Maybe this is a good job for Mitt Romney?

If you've ever been at a company that has gone through a recap investment round, you know that the terms can get pretty draconian.  That's what we need to enforce on Wall Street.  That's their punishment for getting in way over their heads and toppling the house of cards.


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September 18, 2008

Maybe I'm Old Fashioned

I've spent some time trying to learn some of the reasons behind the recent Wall Street meltdown.  Here are some good things to check out:

Fresh Air interview with Prof. Michael Greenburger 9/17/08

The Giant Pool of Money from This American Life 5/9/08

Definition of Credit Default Swap

My conclusion is that the fundamental problem is that financial institutions were not required to truly represent or report the value of their holdings, the level of risk represented in their holdings, or to ensure that they had sufficient capital behind the leverage they were utilizing.  This isn't new news.  Excessive leverage and speculation was on of the major reasons for the Wall Street Crash of 1929.  In fact, as I was reminded last night when I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room that complicated financial structures that defy transparancy have led to problems just in the last few years.  Enron and their auditors continued to obscure the fact that the company was losing huge amounts of money, right until it collapsed.  In many ways, many of the investment banks have done the same thing with credit default swaps.

I think that deregulation has gone too far, but I am not at all in favor of having the government restrict the type business transactions.  I think people should be able to do whatever kind of crazy financial structures they like.  But, where the government and the SEC can be very helpful is in ensuring that these transactions are accurately reflected on various firms balance sheets in terms of true underlying value, level of risk, concentration of risk, liquidity, and capital reserves.  This will make over-leveraged companies stand out and be more fairly valued in the market.  As it was, companies were rewarded for taking big risks because they could report higher profits, which led to big bonuses and higher stock prices.  And, as in the mortgage crisis, you can't count on independent rating agencies to figure it out.  Such a house of cards was erected that we are still seeing it topple long after the subprime mortgage mess first became visible.

An interesting contrast I see -- after Enron, Worldcom, etc., Sarbanes Oxley was passed with the intent of making companies have more accurate and transparent financials.  And FASB and the IRS (see 409A) have gotten stricter and stricter with the recommended accounting practices you have to follow to get a clean audit.  Where were these guys when the financial institutions were making credit default swap deals to inflate their profits and hide their risks?

I guess I am just an old fashioned guy.  As an entrepreneur and VC, many people may have thought that I was a risk taker.  But, those risks are nothing compared to these complicated financial transactions.  At least I understood the risks I have taken.  And, I prefer a transaction where people's interests are aligned -- I buy stock, company grows and performance improves, stock goes up, I sell my stock.  It's not as simple as it sounds.  But, it's easy to understand and straight-forward to value!


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September 16, 2008

Taking the Medicine

The difficulties on Wall Street this week are a reminder that from time to time we have to take our medicine.  Many entrepreneurs felt this after the Internet bubble burst.  We all knew of the excesses of the Internet boom, but very few people were able to resist diving in and trying to capitalize.  When things burst, we had to radically change our approach and rationalize our investments.  Although incredibly painful, particularly for those who lost their jobs, this is an important part of capitalism.

This type of U-turn is important feedback to remind investors about irrational exuberance in the future.  Investors got religion on capital efficiency and more coherent business models.  Over time, they will get less disciplined as the sting wears off and, eventually, market strength returns.  But, corrections come which reminds people to stick to the fundamentals.

Homeowners who knew that they couldn't afford the loans that they were taking out and investment bankers who knew that they were overextending themselves with excessive leverage are both like crazy Internet entrepreneurs in the bubble.  They may have known that what they were trying to do didn't make sense, but the market was letting them do it.  It wasn't illegal or unethical (although I am sure that there were unethical dealings in some of each of these types of deals).  Maybe things would hold up long enough for them to take advantage of it.  But, when it doesn't, I don't have much sympathy.  They took a chance, and it didn't pay off.  Unless someone lied to them about the risks, they generally have to be responsible for their own actions.  That's taking the medicine, and it will make them think twice before they do it again.

I am generally not a big believer in government bailouts in these situations.  I guess that some of these situations are so big that the government has to guarantee some aspect of the deal to get it done.  But, I would be more in favor of cutting the price to the bone and having no guarantees.  If that means that the stocks of the investment banks are worth nothing or that someone loses the house that they couldn't really afford, so be it.  If the government helps anyone, it should try to make sure that unknowing customers are protected and that there isn't a run on financial institutions that is unjustified.  And, the government should insist on more transparency to limit the risk of this type of thing in the future.  I like transparency much more than regulation.  Regulators will inevitably get it wrong (see Sarbanes Oxley).  But, quantifying the risks of all of a banks holdings is a good thing.

Lessons for all: Don't live beyond your means.  Don't over leverage your business.  Don't take on much debt.  All of these things may feel good in the short term, but the medicine you will inevitably have to take won't taste very good in the end.


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August 05, 2008

Cannonball!

As someone who has often done a cannonball into the deep end of the pool (literally and figuratively), I couldn't resist today's F Minus comic.


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July 21, 2008

Farewell, Yardley

My friend, Yardley Chittick, MIT '22, died over the weekend.  Yardley was 107 and lived an incredible life.  He was the oldest living alum of MIT and the oldest living member of my college fraternity, Beta Theta Pi.  He was also the oldest living patent attorney.

I met Yardley while in college.  I thought he was old then, but he was only 80!  To the end, his mind was incredible sharp.  He could tell stories about his life (some of them are mentioned in this rememberance) that would keep you mesmerized.  Who else did you know who turned down a job from Thomas Edison and got into a fist fight with Humphrey Bogart?

In the circles he traveled in, Yardley was a celebrity.  Despite his declining health, he reveled in the attention.  He wouldn't hesitate to sing an old MIT fight song, "Back to Tech".  But, my favorite memory of Yardley was a talk we had on a personal visit I made to him.  I had brought my digital camera.  Yardley had heard of digital cameras, but didn't know how they worked.  Although I'm no expert, I had a general idea and explained it to him.  It was clear that his patent attorney mind was in full gear.  Although he wasn't up on the latest technology, you could tell that he had a keen understanding of how things worked.  It was great to see his curiousity, even at more than 100 years of age!

Although it is hardly a shock when a 107-year old man dies, Yardley will still be missed at events that he would normally attend.  He enjoyed meeting new people, and loved telling stories.  We should all hope to live as long and achieve as much as Yardley Chittick.


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July 11, 2008

Diversity

I listened to an interview with Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us ApartThis reinforced my belief that one of America's greatest strength is that we are a melting pot.  But, if we all gravitate to communities and social circles where everyone is just like us, we will all miss out on the benefits of the diversity.

When I think about entrepreneurship, I always associate it with new ideas, high energy, and commitment.  This is exactly what you get with new immigrants who come to the US to make their lives better.  My grandparents were immigrants, and my paternal grandfather was an entrepreneur.  He built up a pretty big wholesale and retail grocery business after coming the country with very little.  While there is nothing stopping native-born Americans from being just as entrepreneurial, our privileged upbringing probably removes some of the inner hunger that an immigrant who has to overcome large obstacles probably has.

But, even more important than making sure we continue to have a steady stream of immigrants coming into the US with new ideas and new energy, we all need to continue to expose ourselves to new people and new ideas to avoid complacency.  We tend to settle into our comfort zones where life is predictable and less challenging.  That's a recipe for stagnation.  Instead, we need to force ourselves to meet new people, from different backgrounds, and embrace new ideas.

Unfortunately, it seems that too many people are pulling back into a comfortable cocoon of familiarity.  Even our news sources are reinforcing this, with opinion and news being all mixed together so that our minds are made up for us.  You have to work hard to get multiple points of view on an issue.

The more we learn about other people, other cultures, and other ideas, the better we will be able to deal with the world's problems.  The more innovative we will be.  The better our solutions will be.  So, fight the tendency to stay with your comfort zone and push out of it once in a while.  Travel to really different places and countries.  Push into social circles with people of different backgrounds -- ethnic and financial.  And, make sure your kids do the same.  You'll understand the world in different ways.

This brings me to Barack Obama.  Despite my real disappointment that he zig zagged on the FISA/telco immunity issue, I still think that he is the rare candidate that can pull the different parts of the country together.  He's not perfect, and he's not as experienced as some people would like.  But, I think that we are all going to have to sacrifice somewhat to solve the big problems facing the US.  It will be easier to sacrifice with someone who really unites us at the helm.  I think that one reason Bush won in 2000 was his 'uniter, not a divider' line.  If only it were true. 

(PS - read the Salon article from the last link.  Is that really the same person who has been President for the past seven years?)


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July 02, 2008

Did That Really Just Happen?

I still shake my head when I think about it.  Yesterday, my partners and I were in New York City.  We were taking a cab from one meeting to the next, and the cab driver was dealing with typical New York City traffic.

As the cab driver was trying to squeeze through an intersection, he ended up blocking a crosswalk.  Definintely not a good thing, but if you've walked through New York, you know that this happens all the time.  One man who started to cross the street yelled an unbelievable string of epithets to the cab driver which included two of the "George Carlin 7 Words you can't say on TV" (both forms of the 'f-word') as well as "towel head".  My partner and I were stunned.  We just don't hear hate speech like that.  Maybe the cab driver could have been called an idiot for blocking the crosswalk, but not this.

As you can imagine, the cab driver was wearing a turban.  I'd guess that he was a Sikh.  I know from other Sikh friends I have that they are often targeted by discrimination, particularly after September 11.  Ignorant people confuse them with Muslims, although I would have no problem being confused with a Muslim.  In the aftermath of September 11, we have demonized so many people, instead of just the radicals who are the real problems.

I'm lucky that I don't hear such hatred daily, aimed at me or anyone else.  Although we made a comment to the cab driver when it happened, I wish we had something even stronger (or better yet, called out the window to the moron who insulted the cab driver).

One reason why the 'Barack Obama is a secret Muslim' rumor persists is that people believe that it would be bad (or unacceptable to the American people) to be a Muslim.  Of course, everyone prefers to be identified correctly, but it would great of Obama said something like "I don't happen to be a Muslim, but so what if I was?"  He's done a great job of deftly discussing race, and I think one thing that excites so many people about Obama is that he seems capable of bringing so many taboo issues to the fore.  That won't solve them, but discussing them in the open, clearly and rationally, is critical.

That's one reason why I like the show 30 Days on FX.  Check out this episode called Muslims & America from Season 1.  If you have negative feelings about Muslims, this will help you learn more and break down some barriers.

This is probably the first Biblical reference I have made in my life:

Proverbs 4:7 - ...get wisdom and with all thy getting, get understanding


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June 23, 2008

George Carlin

George Carlin just passed away.  He had a big impact on me.  I first heard George Carlin was I was very young.  He was the first person who showed me you could question authority and didn't have to follow the rules.

This is one of my favorite George Carlin sketches, comparing baseball to football.  His use of tone of voice and facial expressions to make his point is awesome.

I'm sure George is safe at home now.

 


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June 16, 2008

Great Bike Ride

Bike Route 6-14-08.JPG

With the advent of warmer weather, I went on a great bike ride on Saturday.  This ride was mostly on roads, with one significant trail ride near Great Meadows in Concord after circling Great Meadows in Sudbury.  The hills weren't too bad.  This route is almost 34 miles, which is longer than my usual rides.  I really felt it when I got home.


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June 12, 2008

30 Days in a Wheelchair

One of my favorite TV shows is 30 Days on FX.  It's a documentary show by Morgan Spurlock, in the same vein as his movie, Super Size Me.  On every show, someone sees what it is like to live someone else's life for 30 days.  There have been some excellent episodes, such as the one where Morgan Spurlock spent 30 days living on minimum wage, or the one where someone whose job was outsourced to India went there to try to get his job back.  I like the show because its goal is to break down barriers and increase understanding among people.

This week's episode had former NFL player Ray Crockett spending 30 days in a wheelchair as if he was a paraplegic.  The show is sad, funny, and uplifting.  Here's an excerpt:

Hulu has several full episodes and a bunch of clips from 30 Days.  The full wheelchair episode is not yet posted there, but I imagine it will be soon.


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May 21, 2008

Cardenio is worth a trip to the theater

Full disclosure:  I am on the Advisory Board of the American Repertory Theatre and have been a subscriber for more than 25 years.

I recently attended a performance of Cardenio at the ART.  It was one of the funniest and most enjoyable evenings I've had at the theater in a long time.  The idea is that Cardenio is a lost Shakespeare play.  Based on the rumors of what the play included (it was performed a few times, but the manuscript is lost), the playwrights have created what the play could have been.  They didn't attempt Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, but they have many, many Shakespearean devices in the play.  The modern language makes the play very accessible for all audiences, even those who are not Shakespeare fans.

The play was incredibly funny, with many subtle jokes.  I was really impressed with the facial expressions and body language of the acting company, which helped deliver many subtle messages.  Although the play was 2 1/2 hours long, including an intermission, it moved along nicely and had no slow spots.  And, like many Shakespeare plays, there are many vignettes, such as a funny dance scene, an incredible pasta dinner, and some operatic singing.

Although I enjoy almost all the work at the ART, this is one that I can strongly recommend to everyone.  Go see it!


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April 07, 2008

Spring!

Although Spring arrived officially on March 21, today is the first day that feels like Spring to me.  I have suffered with an early Spring flu for the past 11 days, and today is the first day that I feel almost all better.  I was even able to exercise!  Thanks to all of you who put up with me coughing, sneezing, and feeling out of it.

Also, the gigantic snow bank at the end of our driveway is down to this:

snow

I expect this snow to be gone today.  And, our perennial flowers are coming up in our front yard:

Flowers

Between that and the start of the baseball season, I know that Spring is finally here!


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April 05, 2008

Can't the government get anything right?

It's been frustrating to me that there seems to be news almost every day about our government's ineptitude.  Katrina, poor execution in post-war Iraq, the FAA not taking action against Southwest's lack of maintainence, and now this:

5th-Grader Finds Mistake at Smithsonian

It turns out that an exhibit at the Smithsonian has been wrong since 1981 -- spanning several administrations.  Luckily, a 5th grader spotted the problem and received a nice letter from the Smithsonian.

Unfortunately, the letter got the boy's last name and hometown wrong...


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April 01, 2008

Beauty and the Geek -- relief!

Man, am I relieved.  As I wrote earlier, my next-door neighbor, Jim Babcock, has been on Beauty and the Geek.  If by some chance you are watching this show and didn't see the episode tonight, April 1, read no further.  I am going to reveal the outcome...

OK, spoiler alert is over.

Although we wanted Jim to make it as far as possible, I am glad that he was eliminated tonight.  Watching this show is painful.  I've never watched a reality show before.  I can understand how people get sucked in, but the 'reality' is so staged.  This isn't real.  Real is turning this stuff off and doing something yourself rather than watch other people engage in staged competitions.  When I see Jim, I'm going to ask him how much of the interactions were staged.  But, it certainly didn't seem real to me.  Or, even close.

Sadly, my daughter really wants to watch the series through to the end...

 


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March 26, 2008

Clifford Stoll is crazy...

...and really smart...and fun to listen to.  Another great TED Talk.

 


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Amazon has better music

This article in VentureBeat reminded me to post something about Amazon Digital Music.  I've totally stopped buying music from iTunes.  Amazon has a great selection of totally DRM-free MP3 files.  You can easily move files to multiple devices, including non-iPod devices.  Their pricing is the same as iTunes and oftentimes better.  And, they have a downloading app that easily adds your downloaded music to your iTunes library so it is easy to get the files onto your iPod.  The files are all encoded at 256kbps, so the quality is great.

You should definitely try it the next time you are tempted to browse the iTunes store.  It looks like more and more people are going with Amazon.  And, I think it is important that Apple not have a virtual monopoly on digital music.


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March 23, 2008

Walking the Greenway

I walked the Rose Kennedy Greenway today in Boston.  This is the park that sits atop the submerged Route 93.  It's the 'big win' from the Big Dig.  The idea is to have a park that runs through the city, stiching together neighborhoods that were separated by the elevated highway that had been up for decades.

It's pretty much complete, but not as green as the above picture suggests.  The trees are still very small.  It feels like a narrow wasteland through the city.  There were a few other walkers, but not a lot of activity.  Maybe it will be nicer in the warmer weather.

I think that the Greenway needs some small scale buildings and kiosks to draw people into it.  It's a thin series of block-wide parks.  There are plenty of benches, but people aren't used to hanging out there.  Many of the buildings are turned away from the Greenway because they didn't want to look out over the old ugly elevated highway.  Some nice cafes and small shops would be nice, but I don't know where they plan to put such things.

I walked this path to really see the new city vistas.  After having lived in Boston for so many years with the old elevated highway, it looks much more open now.  The skyline is beautiful while walking through the park or sitting on one of the many benches.  I hope people get into the habit of taking advantage of it.


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March 08, 2008

For some, MIT for free

I was happy to read about this today:

MIT announces need-based financial aid plan - The Boston Globe

As a donor to MIT, I am happy to see them using their endowment to make MIT more affordable for more students.  MIT isn't the first to do this, but they are as aggressive as anyone in raising the maximum income for a student to attend free ($75K), in not counting home equity in the calculation, and in eliminating loans as part of the financing package for lower income students.  There is more information in this letter from President Susan Hockfield to the MIT Community.  There are some interesting facts in here:

  • Average net tuition for MIT students was only $8,100.  Of course, about 10% pay in full and more than one-quarter now will pay zero.
  • Median debt for MIT graduates is only $11,500.  This is very low for a top-tier school.
  • More than half of the class of 2007 graduated debt free.

Of course, there are self-serving reasons for doing this.  Harvard, Yale, Stanford and others have made similar moves, and MIT has to compete.  Also, Congress has been pressing many universities to use their large endowments for just this purpose.  But, as I have kept in touch with some of today's MIT undergraduates, I know how significant the financial strain of going to MIT is.  This type of move should provide some welcome relief.

It's great to see the donations of the alumni being used to lighten the load of those who come afterwards.  The only thing missing is a reminder to today's undergraduates that they will have a responsibility to do the same after they graduate and are successful.


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March 05, 2008

Guilty of Relaxation

For the first time in years, I took the Acela to New York City from Boston today.  I had to get down to NY for some early meetings and get back to Boston in time for a Board dinner.  Long day.
But, traveling on Acela was a breeze.  I strongly recommend it for anyone going to NY on business, particularly if you live in Boston or near the station in Westwood.  I don’t live near either, and I still thought it was a good trip.


I was on the 5:20 AM train from Back Bay Station.  Being used to arriving early before flights, I got to the station at 4:45 AM (after parking my car).  I was too early.  The station was locked!  There is no need to get there that early.  They opened the station at 5 AM, plenty of time for everyone to get on the 5:20 AM train.  Next time I’ll get the extra 15 minutes of sleep.


The ride itself was incredibly pleasant.  After being harried on so many shuttle flights and scrambling between planes, taxis, and traffic, I almost felt guilty just sitting at my seat, snacking on a bagel and coffee, and catching up on my email.  My laptop was plugged into the outlet, and the Verizon broadband wireless was doing a decent job keeping me connected.  I happened to see an old friend on the train, and we had a nice chat.  The 3 ½ hours passed pretty quickly as we were comfortable and productive.  Door to door, from my house to the parking garage to the train station to Penn Station in NY was 4 hours and 45 minutes.  That’s probably about 30-45 minutes longer than a typical trip to the airport for the shuttle, depending on traffic to Logan and from La Guardia to midtown Manhattan.


Even with the extra time, it was worth it.  I got a lot done, much more than I could do on a plane trip.  And, I arrived very relaxed, rather than stressed out.  As I said, I almost felt guilty enjoying the travel.  Business travel isn’t usually like that!


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February 28, 2008

Beauty And The Geek, Bedford Style

My next door neighbor, Jim Babcock, is going to be on the next series of Beauty and the Geek, starting March 11.  Jim seems to be proud to be a geek, so I am sure he won't mind me calling him one.  I don't generally watch these shows, but I can't resist this one.  He certainly looks like he can win!

 


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February 15, 2008

ART Auction is Now Open

The American Repertory Theatre online auction is open.  They have a lot of great items available, ranging from Celtics and Red Sox tickets to unique arts experiences.

Here is some information from their email announcing the event:

Don't wait -- start bidding on over 30 items now!

Place Your Bid.
Whether you're looking for something unique for yourself, searching for a gift for someone special, or looking to add a little adventure to your life, you're sure to find something in our auction catalog. Every bid helps support our theatre.

Tell Your Friends.
The success of this online auction depends on all of us spreading the word to as many people as possible. We need your help. Please Refer a friend and encourage them to participate so they don't miss a single moment of the fun and excitement.cause.

Check back often.
Keep your place as the top bidder on your favorite items!  Check back often and follow the progress of A.R.T.’s auction.

A.R.T.’s online auction runs from Thursday, February 14 to Sunday, March 9. 

View All Auction Items


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Cheered Me Up

I found out yesterday that a relative of mine is very ill.  So, I am still very sad today.  Watching this video cheered me up for a few minutes.

Love in a Backward World

 


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February 06, 2008

ART Auction

A few months ago, I joined the Advisory Board of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA.  I've always enjoyed live theatre, and the ART is very innovative.  They don't put on standard Broadway-type musicals, but offer a wide-ranging line-up of shows that make you think.  The acting and productions are world-class.  And, the thetre itself is small enough that everyone gets a great seat.

The ART is having an online auction in advance of their annual fund-raiser party.  The auction is in preview from now until February 14.  Bidding begins at 9 AM on February 14th and continues until 11 AM on Sunday, March 9.  Items listed range from great Red Sox tickets to unique items like lunch with Boston Globe Magazine fashion writer Tina Sutton.

Check out the auction and make a bid for something that strikes your fancy.  You'll buy something great, and support a great local arts institution.


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February 05, 2008

Vote today!

Today is Super Tuesday, including a Presidential Primary in Massachusetts.  No matter who you support, don't forget to vote today.  We shouldn't take this right for granted.  Like so many things, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

To find out where you can vote in Massachusetts, click here.


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January 30, 2008

U23D

I saw the U23D movie tonight.  I loved it.

I am not a huge U2 fan, but I have always liked them.  I remember hearing them for the first time in my freshman year in college in 1980.  One thing I like about them is the clean sound with just the four band members.

The movie is a 3D version of a concert in a huge venue (looks like a soccer stadium in Buenos Aries, Argentina).  The 3D effect is used very well.  It makes you feel like you are there, but there are very few gratuitous 3D things reaching out to you from the screen.

The sound at the IMAX theater was fantastic.  The bass was thumping through the theater seats the whole time.  It was pretty loud, but certainly not as loud as a real concert.

My favorite songs from the film were New Year's Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pride (In the Name of Love), and With or Without You.  If you like U2, you should really see it.  It's only playing in IMAX theaters and there are no plans for a DVD release.

 


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January 24, 2008

Freecycle.org

As a good consumer, my family and I buy lots of stuff.  And, we end up with old stuff that we don't need.  We've given lots of stuff away over the years, either donating to local charities who need it or giving it to strangers we contact via Craigslist.

I recently discovered Freecycle.org.  Their mission is simple.  It's a local non-profit network of users who exchange items for free.  If you can give away something to someone who needs it, that item will be kept out of the local landfill.  Not really recycling, Freecycle is more in the realm of 'reduce and reuse.'  By giving away something, you not only keep it from taking up space in the trash, but you also allow someone else to benefit from this item without consuming additional resources to build something new.

Of course, there are lots of ways to swap things on the Web.  I recently met the President of Swaptree.  Swaptree is nice if you want to get something back when you give away a book, CD, or DVD.  But, you have to set it up with what you have an what you want in order for it to figure out what you need to give up to get the item you want.

When you just want to clean out the basement of unused stuff that you would otherwise throw away, try Freecycle.


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January 21, 2008

MLK

Today is Martin Luther King Day, our most recently adopted national holiday.

To me, Dr. King's legacy is the inspirational way he spurred change through non-violent means.  That's a fundamental principle of America and a key liberty that we must maintain.  Obviously, racism still exists in our society, but the protests and efforts of Dr. King led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was the first real effort to break down some do the institutional racial barriers.

It takes a strong leader to harness forces for change without having it lead to violence.  I've often felt that the Palestinians would have a much better chance to pressure Israel for a permanent homeland if they had a leader like Dr. King who could lead them in non-violent protests.  The Israelis would be less threatened and international pressure to solve the problem would really build.  And, many fewer lives would be lost.

I found it ironic today when I read about the plan for a 'designated protest area' in Washington, DC.  On a day when we should be honoring how Dr. King had the patience and determination to create change within our system, we are also considering putting protesters in a convenient compartment that doesn't cause us too much trouble.  This is a bad idea, no matter what the protesters are fighting for.  Washington, DC needs to be a place where those who aren't happy can show their displeasure.  The residents and municipal works should be proud to be inconvenienced in the name of our freedom.

For more on inconveniences that occur for Washington, DC residents, check out this video from the Daily Show last week.

 


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January 18, 2008

The End of an Ice Cream Era?

tosci 

One thing that kept my spirits up during tough days at MIT was walking up Mass Ave to Toscanini's ice cream.  As the New York Times said, it's the "best ice cream in the world".  They have unique flavors.  I loved the Belgian Chocolate and Hazelnut.  The ice cream was smooth and very flavorful.  The inside was funky and fit in perfectly in a college scene.

They also sold ice cream at Whole Foods and other local supermarkets. 

Unfortunately, it appears that the state has shut down Toscanini's due to non-payment of taxes.  The Globe also has an article on this with more details.  The Globe article was more pessimistic about Toscanini's re-opening, but hopefully the Bostonist is more accurate.

I hope Toscanini's stays in business.  The guy may not know how to run his business well, but he makes some damn good ice cream.

 

Updated 1/19/2008 with correct link to Globe article.


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January 15, 2008

Critical Patriot

When I wrote recently about personal liberties, I got an email comment from a friend of mine who brought up an additional point.

In addition to the constraint on our freedoms that our government has been imposing lately with things like the USA PATRIOT Act, there has been a tone in the country against criticism of the government, and particularly the President.  If you criticize, you are seen as being unpatriotic.  Now, in times of crisis, we rally around our government and our President.  After September 11, 2001, I was one of many Americans who supported the actions that the government took and was sympathetic to some of the initial responses by President Bush.  But I never wanted a significant long-term infringement of our liberty.

But, dissent is what makes our country great.  Dissent is what is patriotic, not quashing dissent.  We were founded by dissenters, and we need to give dissenters their proper forum and hearing.  Stifling dissent is what kept us from questioning the rationale behind invading Iraq.  Even the mainstream press has pulled back from critical commentary, although Internet media is making up for it.

This famous quote is often attributed to Voltaire:

'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,'

If you don't like what the government is doing, be a patriotic dissenter.  We should all come to your defense.


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January 07, 2008

Politics - Liberty and Tolerance

If you read your kids' American History text books, they will describe how America was so different from other countries at the time of its founding because of its commitment to personal liberty.  Yes, it was flawed as the original personal liberty applied primarily to white men.  But, over 230 years, liberty has been extended to all Americans.  There are surely still inequalities, but those are now news items that receive debate rather than prejudices that are taken for granted.

The scariest change for me over the past seven years has been the erosion of our personal liberty and reducton of our tolerance.  The most glaring has been the USA PATRIOT Act.  In response to the September 11 attacks, many Americans were willing to give up personal liberties in exchange for safety.  But, we have seen that this has been just the tip of the iceberg, with strong evidence that the Bush Administration has been circumventing the FISA Court to obtain wiretaps on US citizens since 2002.

I have two big problems with these types of actions:

  1. The blatant reduction in our personal liberty and privacy by US government action, and
  2. That so few people seem to be up in arms about it.

I think that the theme of invasive government is one reason why Ron Paul has attracted a hard core of support among people of various political stripes.  His Libertarian philosophy is too much for me, but I can certainly appreciate his immediate reaction that the US government has gotten too big for its britches.  Ironically, this problem has accelerated during a time period of strong Republican leadership in the Executive and Legislative branches.  Is this really the party of Ronald Reagan?

I would like to see all the candidates commit to restoring some of our personal liberties, even as we fight terrorism.  Today's NY Times has a story that shows that we are now vulnerable to having our laptops scanned when we enter the country.  Now, we are all ready to be checked out when we cross into the US.  And, I have no problem with searching all of the possessions of someone who gives border agents probable cause.  As much as I detest the child pornography that was found on the laptops of the people searched in the story, I don't want the US government checking out my laptop to see what's in my email, what web sites I visited, or what type of music I listen to.  It's a small step to this sort of electronic eavesdropping being extended inside of our borders, and we shouldn't stand for it.

Another aspect of personal liberty is allowing people to live their lives as long as they don't harm others.  For all the people who tout their family values, we seem to have lost the value of tolerance for those who are different than we are.  Gay marriage is a great example.  Although I am sure that there are some people who are disgusted by homosexuality, that doesn't give them the right to stop other people from living their life the way they want to.  I'm happy to live in Massachusetts where we can show the country that our society has not fallen apart since the advent of gay marriage.  In fact, it's a non-issue and, I believe, our divorce rate is actually one of the lowest in the country.  I know that my marriage isn't under siege. 

As you think about who to vote for this year, consider who will protect our personal liberties.  It's up to all of us to protect everyone's liberty, not just our own.  This includes being tolerant of those who are different than we are.  Who knows, you might be the 'different' one on the next issue.  Then, you'll appreciate tolerance on the part of others.


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January 04, 2008

Politics - Open Up

With the Iowa Caucuses behind us, the Presidential season is well underway.  And, it has been for about two years.  I have hesitated at times to discuss politics on this blog, but I think it is time to talk about some things I hope can happen with a new President and new Congress in 2009.

Although the focus is on the Presidential race, Congress will also change quite a bit in the 2008 election.  Quite a few incumbents (mostly Republicans) are retiring.  I think that Congress will shift further in whatever direction the Presidential election goes.

The first thing I want to see is more openness and transparancy in our government.  At Gettysburg, Lincoln called our system a government "of the people, by the people, for the people."  I am not naive enough to think that we are purely populist.  Of course, corporations and special interests have their sway.  But, I think that the decline of transparancy  and checks and balances in our government has been scary.

I think that this has come from both the increasing power of special interests and misplaced national security concerns.  Anyone who tries to get a special deal from government has a great interest in not having this become widely known.  It's in all of our interest that we make everything in our government as transparent as possible.  If a 'special deal' has some level of public interest behind it, it should stand up to scrutiny.  Even special interests need to keep in mind that there is probably some other special deal in the government that is going against them.  The best thing is to make it all open and subject to review.

National security has also been claimed as a reason to keep things secret.  What a crock.  There certainly are some things that need to be kept secret for national security purposes.   But, these are probably in a fairly narrow area and cover a fairly small range of information.  More and more government information has been classified as Top Secret in the name of national security when it is more likely to be in the name of obfuscation.  This is a direct infringement on our freedom.  We've fought and won many wars with much more openness than we have now.

Congress has lost a lot of its oversight capability, perhaps because one party controlled the Executive and Legislative branch.   But I think that even some Republicans realize now that they have suffered by ceding their independence to the President.  With Bush's drop in popularity, Congress has dropped, too.

My sympathies may be pretty transparent here, but I am trying to be objective.  I think that one reason for the 'change' theme to be so strong in the 2008 election is a reaction to a lack of transparency and openness.  No matter what your political leanings are, you should be in favor of getting back to a higher level of openness.  It's your government, after all.  Act like an owner.


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January 02, 2008

New Years Hopes

As we head back to work to start 2008, I've been thinking about what I want to accomplish this year.  I don't usually make New Years Resolutions, but this year really feels like the start of a new phase of my life and is worth some reflection.

  1. I am in the process of starting a new investment firm with three other people.  More details will follow soon, but I can say that it is something different than the early-stage venture capital investing I have done for the past nine years.  There are market segments that are less efficient and less crowded than VC, and I plan to take my skills there.  My top business goal for the year is to get this new firm off the ground successfully.
  2. I have found that the Internet has become a great source of distraction.  Email, RSS feeds, social networks, podcasts, and more take up a great deal of time.  I'm going to be more disciplined as to when each day I pay attention to these things and manage the time I spend on them more effectively.  I have to put more time into things that are important rather than just interesting.
  3. A side-effect of the problem in #2 is that I am reading fewer books.  I'm going to be sure to at least do some reading before bed every night, and hopefully more than that.  I think that overall I am reading more than ever before, but the content has shifted to shorter form Internet content.  Good stuff, but not a substitute for books.
  4. I need to get more sleep.  I have always needed less sleep than the average person.  I typically get six hours per night, maybe seven on the weekends.  But, as I get older, I think that my body needs more than this.  Getting plenty of sleep this past week has refreshed me, and I am going to get more sleep each night.
  5. One reason I only sleep six hours per night is that I get up early to exercise.  I love working out first thing in the morning.  It gets my exercise in, and gets me fully awake.  If I get busy or have a late night commitment, I've sacrificed sleep in favor of getting my work-out in.  In 2008, I'll make this trade-off in the opposite direction, but still making sure I get 4 workouts in a week.  Since I generally haven't worked out on the weekends, I'll probably change that so I can get enough sleep during the week.
  6. OK, like a lot of people, I need to lose (at least) 15 pounds.  More like 25 really.  I'll start with having a salad for lunch every day...Boring, but necessary.

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December 21, 2007

Globe Santa - All-Time High!

As we wind down the week before Christmas, we have exceeded all my goals for Globe Santa this year!  Thanks to everyone for their support.  The totals (insert drum roll here):

Facebook donations: $1435
GlobeSanta.org donations: $3400
GrandBanks Capital/Otto Club fund-raiser: $5560 -- Thanks to FAST for their $1000 contribution!
My matching contribution: $5000

Total: $15,395

My all-time high!  Happy holidays!  It's not too late for you to support Globe Santa.  Donate directly on Facebook or on the Globe Santa site.

PS - This is more than 1.5% of all the money that GlobeSanta will raise this year.  We should all be thrilled that we have made a big difference for over 800 of Globe Santa's 54,000 kids.


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December 15, 2007

Globe Santa - Home Stretch

Thanks to all of you, we have raised $3985 total toward my goal of $5000 for Globe Santa.  There is at least one fund-raising event to go, thanks to Charley Lax at Grand Banks Capital.  Wow!

Please join use in supporting Globe Santa either via this Facebook Cause or by emailing me your confirmation from a donation directly on the Globe Santa site.


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December 14, 2007

Energy independence is free

This TED talk by Amory Lovins gives you a fast-paced overview on how investments in alternative energy and US energy independence provides such economic benefits that it becomes free (as well as our best form of homeland defense).  Although this talk was recorded in 2005, I think that it is even more true today (and oil is even more expensive).

I think that this path is one of the most important things for a new president to pursue.  The US would lower its dependence on foreign oil, would develop innovative products that we can manufacture here and export to the world, and would have positive environmental impacts against global warming.

I think that this is worthy of a 'space race' level of investment, or at least a 'DARPA/Internet' level.  I don't want the government to own it, but I want to government to sponsor the basic research in our universities, fostering an awareness of this in our young people and providing a starting point for a host of new energy innovations and businesses.


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Perfect Storm

Big snowstorm in Boston yesterday.  The snow started falling around Noon.  By 1 PM there was such a mass exodus from work that traffic was snarled everywhere.  In our office in Waltham, we can see the driveway down to Winter Street and the road around the reservoir.  Traffic was backed up from Route 95 all the way around the reservoir and well up the driveway into the Bay Colony Office Park.  People sat on that driveway for hours waiting to get out.  Not sure why.  If it was me, I would have turned around and gone back inside.

We had visitors from out of town in our office, so we decided to keep working with them and wait out the traffic jam.  Our visitors had their return flight cancelled, so they were going to stay over in Waltham.  We worked and waited, but the traffic jam on Winter Street never abated.  Cars waited so long in traffic that they ran out of gas.

Most of the people from our group left around 9, but the traffic still seemed bad to me.  I waited until 10 PM, and then headed home.  Other than dodging abandoned cars in the road that had run out of gas, I made it home in 30 minutes.  Then, of course, I got stuck in my driveway which hadn't yet been plowed.  After waking up my wife and enlisting her help, our snow plow guy came by.  They were nice enough to help get me unstuck and then plowed our driveway.  If you live near Bedford, MA, I'd definitely recommend Anderson Associates for driveway plowing.  They were real helpful!


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December 10, 2007

Globe Santa - Keep It Coming!

Here's the latest update on your generosity to Globe Santa:

On Facebook, we have raised a total of $1175.  Offline contributions to the Globe Santa web site (with email confirmations to me) have totaled $2000.  Make Mike Pay -- I'll match all donations, up to $5000 total.

I want to give special thanks to Charley Lax from Grand Banks Capital.  Charley has graciously offered to dedicate his private holiday fundraiser to Globe Santa this year.  Although I am not one for a lot of cigars and bourbon, I'll be there in my Santa hat to mkae my Globe Santa pitch.

As you probably know, Globe Santa provides holiday toys to Boston area children who would otherwise have nothing.  All of your donations go to purchasing toys and delivering them to children.  The Boston Globe pays all the administrative costs.

You can join the Cause on Facebook to support Globe Santa.  Invite your Facebook friends to join, too.  Or, you can give on the Globe Santa web site.  When you do, email me the confirmation, and I'll include it in my matching calculation.


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December 03, 2007

No Child

I recently joined the Advisory Board of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.  I've been a subscriber for a long time and have always enjoyed the theater.  That started when I was a kid.  My parents brought us to shows at a local theater company in Western Massachusetts.  Although I have no ability to act myself (and have some stage fright), I have always loved watching a great production.  I really appreciate what the actors do in a live production where there is no margin for error.

The ART is staging No Child this month.  We saw it on Saturday night and really enjoyed it.  It's a one woman show with Nilaja Sun playing all the roles, swtiching in rapid fire fashion to do all sides of a conversation.  She physically transforms her body, face, and voice to do one character after another.  That effect itself is worth seeing.

But, the subject matter of the play is also interesting.  It's about an inner city school where Nilaja is brought in to put on a play as a student activity.  The No Child refers to the No Child Left Behind Act.  That's the backdrop of the production, where you can see that this law has very little impact on a school in a tough neighborhood and few resources.  The Boston Globe wrote an editorial on the show and this connection a couple of days ago.

The ART prides itself on being innovative.  Sometimes that may go too far for a broad audience.  But, they have had a series of great productions over the past 12 months, including No Child.  If you are in the Boston area, I suggest you give it a try.


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Your support of Globe Santa is awesome!

Regular readers know of my support for Globe Santa.  It's a great cause with a simple idea -- give holiday toys to kids who would otherwise have none, spreading hope and happiness.  And, misfortune can hit any of us.  Today's Globe has a story of a single mom from north of Boston whose husband died.  She's struggling to make ends meet and, without Gobe Santa, she couldn't buy her kids anything for Christmas.

I'm matching all gifts to Globe Santa from my network of friends and contacts (and their friends and contacts -- so invite your friends to join the cause!).  I'm very optimistic about hitting my $5000 goal.  Make Mike Pay!

As of right now, there is $1000 donated on the Facebook Cause and another $1550 that friends have donated directly on the Globe Santa site.  Please join by either donating on the Facebook site or by giving directly to Globe Santa and emailing me a copy of your donation confirmation.

Thanks, and Happy Holidays!


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November 28, 2007

Globe Santa Update

As of today, there has been $650 donated on Facebook and $600 donated directly on Globesanta.org as part of this fundraising effort.  Thanks to everyone for your support and generosity.  Please don't hesitate to inveite your friends to join the cause on Facebook, either.  Just click here.

Or, you can donate on the Globe Santa web site and forward me the confirmation of your donation.  I'll match all the donations from my network made on Facebook or directly to Globe Santa, up to $5000.

$1250 down, another $3750 to go (at least!).


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November 25, 2007

Horror Show

If you want to get real scared, check out these videos and presentations on the growing federal deficit.

I first heard about the Fiscal Wakeup Tour on NPR.  There is a traveling group of economists from across the ideological spectrum who agree that the federal deficit is going to mushroom out of control over the next 40+ years.  They are doing a series of talks about what is causing this.  The only solutions are some combination of tax increases and spending cuts.  The amount of each depends on your political point of view.  All of them agree that there is no 'free lunch' solution like growing out of the deficits.

The deficits are based on the aging population and the growth of medical costs vs. GDP growth.  These issues compound to make Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid grow to become huge unless they are structurally changed.  The main goal of these talks is to educate voters so that they can insist that Presidential candidates address this in the current election cycle.

For a short form of the problem, you can check out the Fiscal Wakeup Tour web site.  There you can check out some of the videos and presentations from one tour stop at Georgia State.  My favorite talk is this one from David Walker (slides, video), Comptroller General of the United States.  Here is one slide from his presentation that shows that the government has committed $50 TRILLION in long-term expenditures, which is about equal to the total household net worth of the country.  In other words, as individuals, we're technically broke.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you can't put your head in the sand on this one.  It's clear to me that we have to come up with a way to cut the growth of medical costs, which is the overall driver in this problem.  That will probably mean that care will have to be managed and that expensive new treatments may not be available to everyone without some level of control.  That may be tough to swallow, but having taxes grow to unprecedented levels doesn't sound very palatable, either.

Think about this problem when you are deciding who to back for President in 2008.


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Globe Santa Update

It took a while, but I finally got all of my "invitations" out to Globe Santa.  I invited people on Facebook, LinkedIn, and via email.  It's hard to do mass invites on these things as they all have various mechanisms to avoid spam.  It's understandable, but it made it more work than I reckoned for.

So far, my Facebook Cause has 11 members and $275 donated.  Another offline donor (thanks, Dad!) gave $25.  So, $300 total, and we're just getting started.

You can join the Cause on Facebook here.  Or, give directly to Globe Santa and email me the receipt.  I am going to match all donations, up to $5000.

There's some history of Globe Santa in today's Boston Globe.  It's a simple idea -- provide toys for poor children who would otherwise get nothing during the holiday season.  It spreads hope and good cheer.  Most of us have so much that we can easily spare something for someone who has so little.

Happy holidays, and thanks for your support.


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November 19, 2007

What a Weekend!

Pretty busy weekend for me:

  • Went to the Celtics-Heat game on Friday.  The Celtics have been flat lately (and finally lost yesterday to the Orlando Magic).  But, they pulled this game out at the end.  On the way to the Garden, my son said "the Celtics games are getting boring because they win by so much.  I'd love to see a close game."  He got what we wanted!  Glad to see Paul Pierce as the go-to guy at the end.  He's done that for so many years now for the Celtics.
  • On Saturday, I brought my daughter to Splash at MIT.  This is a great program run by MIT students that is aimed at teaching something fun to kids age 11-17.  They have some serious academic enrichment courses, but most of them are just fun.  My daughter learned how to bake pies, how to draw shiny objects (and deal with reflecting light), card tricks, and the history of dark chocolate.  She had a great time, and got some exposure to what it is like walking around a college campus.  Our son has participated in years past, too.  This program is inexpensive and open to the public.  If you live in the Boston area and have kids in middle school or high school, I suggest you check it out next November.
  • Sunday night I went to the Bruce Springsteen concert at the Garden in Boston.  What a fantastic show!  I hadn't seen Springsteen in a while.  I am amazed at the amount of energy he expends in a 2 hour 15 minute show that does not stop.  Bruce and his band go from one song to the next with nary a breath.  Lots of energy in the Garden, too, with the audience singing along to every word.  He puts on a great show.
  • While at the concert, I was getting text message updates to the Celtics (who lost their first game) and the Patriots (who killed the Bills).

Needless to say, I am pretty tired today.  I normally catch up on my sleep on the weekends, but not this time.  Early to bed for me tonight.,..


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November 15, 2007

Email - Social Networking for the Masses

If you are plugged into the blogosphere, you may have read a bunch of stuff recently about email really being the big social network that most people aren't paying attention to.  Here are a few recent posts from bloggers I follow:

Tom Evslin

Om Malik

Brad Feld

Fred Wilson

Don Dodge

and, the New York Times

What all this means to me is that the new social networks (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) really only capture a fraction of the population.  And, I am skeptical that this style of social networking will rapidly expand beyond the younger generation and technically savvy users.  It will happen eventually, but I don't see a lot of people my age actively jumping into social networking, other than those in the industry like me.

Instead, email is the digital communications means that almost everyone has adopted.  Email contact lists show who are 'friends' are, although there isn't mutual permission to 'friend' someone like you have in Facebook.  There are also some new tools, like Xobni, that help you understand and manage email connections.  I used LinkedIn a lot to manage business contacts, and I find that their Outlook plug in helps me capture the social connections from my emails as well as remind me whom I might need to follow-up with and whom I haven't connected with for a while.

The only way that these types of social networking capabilities get adopted by the masses is if it is transparent and easy.  Leveraging the wealth of data in our own email is the easiest way to get started.  Whether the existing email providers find a way to do this or whether some entrepreneurs come up with the best way to do this remains to be seen.  I think that there are great opportunities here, both on the client side and the server side.


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November 14, 2007

Globe Santa

As I have in the past, I am supporting and raising money for Globe Santa.  This is one of my favorite charities.  What is Globe Santa?

Since 1956, Globe Santa has been The Boston Globe's annual appeal for needy children in Greater Boston. The Globe Santa Fund collects donations from readers and advertisers to purchase holiday gifts for underprivileged children. The Globe pays administrative costs and provides space in the newspaper during the holiday season to publish stories about family needs and list the names of people who give. In recent years, Globe Santa has received more than $1 million dollars in contributions annually. The program helps brighten the holiday season for more than 28,000 families and 55,000 children in 167 communities every year.

*Families request toys by writing to Globe Santa, stating their family size and need. This need must be verified and countersigned by a social service or religious agency that has previously registered with Globe Santa Fund. The agency must have documented records of the particular family's situation. The deadline for family letters this year is December 7, 2007.
*Agencies that can verify requests include welfare offices, hospitals, churches and clergy, halfway houses, AFDC office and similar social service organizations.
*Agencies must register with Globe Santa each year. The registration procedure is announced in the Boston Globe and by mail to agencies that registered in the previous year. The deadline for agency registration this year is October 31.
*Families apply for assistance during October and November. The application procedure is published in detail in ads in the Globe that run from October 1 through December 7, 2007.
*Toys are delivered to family households beginning the first week in December right up to two days before Christmas.

I like Globe Santa because it is a simple concept, the Globe picks up all the administrative costs, and there is something special about giving a kid a happy holiday season when they otherwise would get nothing.  We all have so much (relatively), and even small donations add up.  If you read the Globe when they start publishing their donations, you'll see that they take all donations, large and small. 

I set up a Cause in Facebook to capture donations.  You can also donate directly at the Globe Santa web site.  I plan to match all the donations from my audience, up to a maximum of $5000.  If you go through Facebook, I can track this directly.  If you give directly on the Globe Santa site, forward me your email receipt so I can keep track.  I'll post periodic updates on my progress.

Some people enjoy having me write a big check when I match this.  So, please, Make Mike Pay!


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November 13, 2007

Rock Band is Comin'

My friends at Harmonix are about to release their long awaited game, Rock Band (make sure your speakers are on!).  The Globe has a nice article about it here.

I play Guitar Hero (I and II) regularly.  I'm not very good at it, but I have a good time.  Rock Band takes it to another level.  There are multiple instruments and vocals.  I love that Harmonix games get you up off the couch to play.  And, it's fun to either cooperate or compete with your friends.

Here's a Rock Band demo.

 

 


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November 08, 2007

For my friends in NYC - Mike Daisey

For my friends who live in or near NY:

You should go see Mike Daisey perform.  I wrote about Mike a while back when he was at the ART in Cambridge (video review from WGBH here -- gives you a sense of Mike's style).  Mike is an amazing monologuist.  You would never believe how engaging a guy sitting at a table and just talking can be.  He's intelligent, expressive, and very funny.

Mike is performing his show Great Men of Genius.  Tickets are here.  Audio sample is here.

 


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November 06, 2007

TED Video: Great discussion of creative freedom

I really enjoyed this video from the TED conference of Stanford professor Larry Lessig discussing creative freedom.  He draws some analogies from the impact of other technological changes on the law.  It makes a good case that we need to change how we look at copyright law, both in terms of making sure we harness creative freedom while not trampling on the rights owners.  And, it's entertaining.  Definitely worth watching.

 


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November 02, 2007

Down the DirecTV Rabbit Hole

It all started when we wanted to upgrade our last couple of TVs to HD.  I knew that DirecTV was about to roll out a bunch of new HD channels by year-end.  My old Tivos were grinding to a halt after years of service (and some swapped hard drives).  DirecTV's new HD channels would be in MPEG-4 format, and the only way to get them was to get new receivers and new HD DVRs.

But, when my installers got all this new stuff set up, we had some problems.  We have a complicated setup, and I won't go into the details.  But, the complexity of everything we wanted to do required me to do some research on how other people had solved problems similar to mine.  A quick search brought me to DBStalk.

This online community of DBS (direct broadcast satellite) devotees was a treasure trove of information.  I got sucked in and wanted to learn everything I could about my new HD equipment, how to get OTA (over the air) HD signals, and how to share all this between the various TVs in my house. 

I wish that the information in these forums was more accessible.  There is some basic search, but you have to do a lot of poking around to find some real information.  Luckily, some dedicated participants maintain some FAQ documents that compile a lot of the best tips and tricks.

But, the thing that blew me away was the Cutting Edge program.  As is detailed in this article from HDTV magazine that covers the evolution of the HR20-700 HD DVR over its first year of deployment, the Cutting Edge program is a beta test program run by people outside of DirecTV.  It's run by the lead participants of the DBStalk site.

DirecTV cooperates with thes users for the deployment and support of beta software releases that unlock new features of their products.  They have beta versions of software for all of their current receivers.  This has led to them bringing out new general releases about once every two months with lots of new features rolling out over the past year.

Most recently, I downloaded a beta test version of a new DirecTV On Demand video on demand capability.  This service works great and will be rolling out nationally soon.  But, I am blown away that a big company like DirecTV can be so aggressive in embracing its user base and its most committed customers.  This is helping DirecTV get more functionality out faster and keeps me even more loyal.  I can't imagine Comcast doing this (or Verizon).

The lesson for any company, big or small, is to get close to your customers, encourage them to communicate with each other, and listen carefully.  Find a way to harness their enthusiasm so you can continue to improve your product.


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October 27, 2007

For my holiday shopping list

Courtesy of Engadget:

 


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October 23, 2007

Good review of PCmover

I've written about customer experience from time to time.  I recently had an interesting experience with PCmover from Laplink.  This product allows you to move files and applications between Windows PCs.  It is invaluable when you buy a new PC and want it set up just like your old one (only faster).  I bought a couple of new PCs for our house and had to move data around between three machines (my wife got the hand-me-down).  My full review of PCmover is on Amazon.

The bottom line is that PCmover did a great job of moving the files and applications to my new machines.  Moving Windows applications from one machine to another is very tricky -- there are all kinds of files and registry settings to be updated.  The fact that it worked seems amazing to me.  It was almost flawless, with only very minor tweaks required.

As I mention in my review, I had some issues with the purchasing process which Laplink outsources to Element 5.  In hindsight, these were not such a big deal.  But, when you buy software to download, you want to use it now!  Element 5 randomly selected my order for manual processing on a Sunday afternoon, which was going to take 12-24 hours.  I didn't want to wait that long and got frustrated.  This got resolved relatively quickly in the end.

Along the way to resolving this, I emailed Thomas Koll, Laplink's CEO.  I don't know Thomas, but I guessed his email address.  Thomas got back to me right away (on Sunday) and was very helpful.  I was impressed that the CEO of the company, even a small company, would be this responsive and open to customer input from someone who spent about $130 on his products.  Kudos to Thomas for listening to his customers.

If you buy a new PC and want to move everything off your old PC to a new one, give PCmover a try.


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October 19, 2007

Daily Show Video Site

The Daily Show has launched a new site with EVERY video from the history of the show.  It's searchable, and it's fantastic.  It also has a Wayback Randomizer that picks a clip at random.  I could spend hours doing that, but here's the first one I got.  One of my favorites with Demetri Martin.  Get your video resume ready.
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October 08, 2007

Brad Feld on Staying Organized

Brad Feld had a nice post today on Staying Organized.  I admire how disciplined Brad is.  That's one of the keys to staying organized.  I wrote a couple of posts long ago (here and here).  There is a lot in common between my thoughts and Brad's.

As I re-read all of this today, it struck me that discipline is really the key.  Most people can't be as disciplined as Brad is.  I think you have to start small and find the level of structure that you are comfortable with.

If you are still reading this after reading the posts I linked to, perhaps there is some time management or organizational issue that is bugging you.  I'd suggest finding the one fundamental task you need to get to and make sure you get that done.  Schedule an appointment with yourself and put it in your calendar.  Don't let yourself get interrupted by the phone or email (unless your goal is to get caught up on email).  But, don't spend more than one hour of focused effort in trying to do this task.  You don't want to torture yourself.

I have always found that when I finally get a long overdue task done, it feels great.  So, give yourself a chance to feel great about getting that nagging task done.  Like so many things, breaking down the big problem into a small one is the first step to making progress.


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October 01, 2007

Good old days of video games

Techcrunch had a post today that reminded me that this month is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Atari 2600.

I worked at a company, GCC Technologies (now GCC Printers), that developed games for Atari.  I worked on a bunch of 2600 games, including Phoenix, Jungle Hunt, Battlezone, and Joust.  This all happened between 1982 and 1984.

The most satisfying thing about that is that these games still have appeal today.  I tihnk that it is the casual nature of these games -- they are easy to learn and control, they are not intimidating to start, they are not too intense, and they don't take that long to play (unless you are really good!).  Too many of today's games, particularly the action games, are too intense for a lot of kids.  I have found that a lot of kids enjoy these casual games, which is one reason why they have been continuously popular.  Also, adults love playing the games of their youth.

I still remember the first time that one of my CEOs, who was just the right age, found out that I had worked on 2600 Joust.  He was the neighborhood champion and looked at me like I was a god!  Unfortunately, celebrity is fleeting.


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September 28, 2007

Sling Customer Service Doing Something Right

I wrote recently about my recent customer experience hassles with DirecTV and Dell.  Bruce Temkin of Forrester is leading the charge on improving customer experience, but I am an ardent follower.

I wish I had more positive experiences to point out.  Unfortunately, I couldn't think of much.  The best customer experience I have had recently was when I was dealing with a technical issue with my original Slingbox Classic from Sling Media.

I had upgraded satellite receiver and found that the Slingbox couldn't control this new box properly.  I consulted the active Slingbox online community, but my first problem didn't seem to match anything there.  I called Sling support.  The person on the phone was pretty junior, but did help me identify that my infrared cable was bad.  Although this unit was years out of the warranty period, they sent me a new one for free.

When I got the new cable, I still had problems.  The online community included information about someone else having the same problem I did.  They had a very old Slingbox, like mine.  They were told that these original units had an IR chip problem that was changed.  This problem kept it from controlling the new sat receiver.  I called Sling support.  I had to struggle for a bit to convince the tech that I knew what I was talking about.  I got the support person to go onto the Sling community site and showed him the post about my issue.  He had never heard of this, but could now check very quickly.  They ended up swapping out my old Slingbox for a new one, again at no charge.

I liked the fact that the Sling techs actively accessed the online community, and sometimes participated directly.  This made them more efficient in solving my problem.  And, the no charge swaps were very much appreciated.

Sling was recently bought by Echostar, the owners of the Dish Network.  I hope that their responsive support doesn't get diluted in the future.

What vendors have done a great (or poor) job with customer experience for you?


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September 27, 2007

How do these companies hold onto customers?

I wrote a couple of weeks back about the positive impact that providing great customer experience has on your business.  That just seems obvious.  But, so few companies do it well.

I have had some recent experiences with Dell and DirecTV.  Both did a poor job, which cost them some money and my long-term loyalty.

With Dell, whom I have bought many PCs from over the years, I wanted to order two new desktop PCs for my home.  I found what I liked and got them configured.  When I was ready to check out, I got a message saying that Dell was offering 12 month financing with no interest.  Hard to turn that down.  I filled out the credit application.  I got approved for $5,000.  Great.  Except my 2 PCs and software added up to $5500.

At the suggestion of the message on the Dell shopping cart, I called their credit department and asked them to review my application to see if they could approve a higher credit line for me.  My credit history is very good, and I have minimal debt.  I figured that if someone took a look at my credit report, it would be a no-brainer.  But, I was told that company policy was that $5K was the max for an inital line.  And, I couldn't put the extra $500 on my credit card in order to finance the remaining $5000.  I had to reduce my total order size to $5000 or less.

So, I took a bunch off stuff off my order and thought I had it right.  Unfortunately, the total came to $5009.55.  I got another notice during checkout saying that I should ask to have my credit line increased to cover the difference.  So, I called again.  Again, I was turned down.  For just $9.55.

I reconfigured what I was buying so that it cost $4998.76.  And, put through the order.  But, if I had more time, I would have shopped elsewhere.  I was too far down the process to turn back.  And, I have been happy with their machines.

The lack of letting a human being make a policy exception cost them about $500 in revenue as well as two calls to live humans who were just going to tell me 'No.'  And, it was their web site that said I should call to check on getting a higher credit limit!  I'll say that was probably $175 in gross margin and another $175 in costs for my calls.  $350 out the door.  On an order where their margin was probably only about $1250 anyway.  Bad business.

DirecTV was worse.  I upgraded to their newer equipment to get their new HD channels.  It took 4 truck rolls for them to get it right.  Their customer service reps don't know anything.  They outsource they field techs to a company that also isn't up to speed.  I learned more about how to make the stuff work through great online forums run by users.  Their own people don't even read these forums and claim that they are 'all wrong.'  Completely off base.  Their four truck rolls (due to poorly trained staff) probably consumed months and months of their profit from me.  Bad business.

However, I stayed with these vendors.  I stayed with Dell out of inertia.  I stayed with DirecTV because they have the best HD selection, including NFL Sunday Ticket.  But, I am ripe for the picking for someone new who can meet my needs.

Hopefully soon I'll be able to write about a vendor who gets it right.


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September 22, 2007

Very Cool Facebook Marketing

Saw this first on Techcrunch.

In order to promote a new Bob Dylan album, you can add a movie to your Facebook profile with a modified video of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues.  Techcrunch has the original video on their page.

The Facebook app is here.

If you want to send a stand-alone video to a friend via email, you can do it from DylanMessaging.com, which also promotes the new album.

If you're on Facebook, you can see my current video on my profile here.

This is one of the best web marketing campaigns I have seen because you can customize the message, the result looks professional, it leverages known content, and it is very viral.  Plus, I love Bob Dylan music.

May all your messages be Dylan messages today!

I sent the video below to some friends who don't read my blog...


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September 17, 2007

Wireless data not for the masses

Last night I was at the Patriots-Chargers football game.  As was the case with most of the fans there, I also wanted to keep track of the Red Sox-Yankees baseball game at the same time.  You don't often get two sporting events of such magnitude going on at the same time in the same city.

With almost 70,000 people there checking their cell phones (mostly through Web or WAP access), the wireless data network ground to a halt.  I had Cingular, which, in an informal poll of the fans around me, seemed to be the worst.  Verizon was working better, but was still pretty slow.  I don't have enough data points to talk about Sprint or T-Mobile, but I think that it was interesting that the two largest carriers had capacity problems in a spot with so many people.

Granted that these situations are unusual.  You don't often have so many people all accessing the Internet on the cell phones at the same time in such a small geographic area.  But, when it does happen, the carrier networks didn't seem capable of handling the crush of data requests.

After seeing business plans for people who want to power wireless services that are focused at large events like concerts and sporting venues, it makes me wonder if the carriers' networks are really ready for this.  The carriers build for normal usage rates and some level of peak capacity.  The Patriots play in their venue about 10-11 times per year, counting pre-season and playoff games.  And, there aren't usually that many people on their phone checking other scores.  So, the capacity in Foxborough is fine for almost every day of the year.

But, last night was a chance for the data network to shine.  And, it didn't.


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September 14, 2007

Great Dilbert

Dilbert91307.gif

I really liked yesterday's Dilbert.  Sorry to rip off the graphic, but they should have an embed.

I remember the dark days of a start-up where it really felt like fraud was all we had.  I quit the next day.  I was, indeed, in Marketing at the time.


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September 12, 2007

Barack is LinkedIn

There are lots of examples of Web 2.0 having a big impact in the 2008 Presidential race.  The latest I noticed today is Barack Obama asking a question on LinkedIn.  He asks "How can the next president better help small business and entrepreneurs thrive?"  In 10 hours he has more than 800 answers, including mine.

I think that this is a great strategy.  I even figured out how I was linked to Barack through his LinkedIn profile.  Getting to hear from people directly is a great research tool.  I think that Barack also build support just be being 'out there' in cyberspace.  I am sure he's got staffers who are doing this for him, but it's good PR.

I'd encourage you to interact with the campaigns through these mechanisms.  I am not ready to decide who I am going to vote for based on their Facebook profile, but I think that some people will.

 


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September 04, 2007

The End of Two Summers

Today is the first day of school in our family.  As such, it marks the end of summer.  By 7:15 AM, both of our kids were out of the house.  As our kids are now both out of elementary school, this was the first year that we didn't bring anyone to a bus stop.  They insist on walking there themselves now.  So, it was awfully quiet at 7:15 AM.

Rather than the end of one summer, this felt like the end of two summers.  During the summer, I stick mostly to a regular work schedule, of course.  I continue to get up at 5 AM to work out before my morning meetings and phone calls.  However, my wife and kids sleep late.  They have summer activities, but generally nothing that starts too early.  And, my kids have become night owls, often staying up later than my wife and I.  My wife and kids were having one summer, with a very flexible schedule.  I had my own summer, on a more typical schedule, with a bit more free time.

There were many days this summer when I was up at 5 and my family would be up at 9:30, 10 or 11 (ah, being a teenager).  I ended up getting an office outside my house so I wouldn't bother my family while I worked in the morning.  Since I was up early, I was also tired before everyone else at night.  I have had a great summer and played much more tennis and went on more bike rides than previous years.  But, I was still working.  And, my family was mostly on a vacation schedule.

During the past week (and through the Labor Day weekend), my family started to shift their schedule.  They were dreading having to get up a 6 AM today to be ready in time to go to school at 6:45 and 7:15 AM.  We all ended up getting up early through the weekend so that today wouldn't be such a shock to the system.  It didn't seem too bad to me, but it was tough on them.  It worked, however.  They made it up and out today without incident.

Now, my wife is out early, too, gearing up her usual school year volunteering.  And, I'm working at home where it is empty and quiet.


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August 28, 2007

Business Social Networking

A few days ago, I wrote about being a Social Networking Stowaway, particularly on sites like Facebook.  I find that most social networking sites are interesting, but not necessarily useful.  LinkedIn is an exception, which is indispensible for business connections.

In today's Wall Street Journal, there is an article on vertical social networks in various business categories.  They use an example of a Boston company, Sermo, that is a social network for doctors to exchange information about patient diagnoses in a confidential environment.

Inmobile is an online community for wireless executives and investors that I have participated in.  There are very useful discussions about industry and technology trends in the wireless space.  The site is open by invitation only.

It seems like one business context for social networking is the closed networking function where you can interact with colleagues and counterparts.  These sites have to be moderated and closed to keep the quality of the participants up and the discourse on track.  Also, they have to be on subject matters where users feel they can share ideas without giving away secrets to competitors or violating company privacy rules.

The WSJ suggests that these sites are useful in industries where people work alone much of the time, such as medicine.  That may be true, but I find that technology forums, such as Inmobile, are also interesting to hear people's views on trends.  I have also made some professional contacts through Inmobile that I wouldn't have made so easily in a pure offline setting.

I am not yet convinced on the business models for these businesses.  Sermo has an interesting model where they charge hedge funds and drug companies for access to sanitized versions of the discussions between doctors.  Inmobile charges some money for promotion to their users.  Neither of these sites can scale to be a huge size without jeopardizing the quality of the interactions.  So, I think that they can be very useful, but wonder if they have to be a labor of love, rather than money.

What other business social networking sites do you like?


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August 24, 2007

OK, Cheney isn't right too often

Earlier this month, I blogged about a video where Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense in 1994, correctly assessed all the problems that would occur in Iraq if we had invaded during the first Gulf War.  If he had stuck to such sound analysis, we would not have started the second Gulf War.

Last night, the Colbert Report showed a video of Cheney in 2002, describing how sure he was about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.  The phrase "No Doubt" was hammered home.  Why is it that only Comedy Central has the guts to us how our politicians said one thing before and now say something else?  This seems to be the easiest, most unbiased type of news analysis you can do.  And yet, you rarely hear that in the news media.  They are always onto the next new story, with a short attention span.  I'll take my news from "fake news" any day.


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August 23, 2007

Social Networking Stowaway

I've spent quite a bit of time on various social networks over the past few months.  I've been trying to figure out if they are interesting, useful, or both.  Of course, I've got the perspective of a 46 year old business person whose musical taste hasn't changed much in 20 years.

LinkedIn:  This has been by far the most useful.  It's really a business network much more than a social network.  I use it to both capture my contacts as well as to leverage their contacts.  By seeing who knows whom I have been able to extend my own network and introduce people to entrepreneurial teams.  During 2007 LinkedIn reached some sort of critical mass where many skeptics, including me, started to see the value.  I think that LinkedIn is essential for any business person who needs to network with others.  You can use it for background checking, sales prospecting, recruiting, and other research.

MySpace:  I haven't spent much time on MySpace.  I think that it is really great for independent music artists, but I haven't been too focused on that.  A couple of start-ups I know do some marketing on MySpace because their target market includes MySpace users.  But, overall, MySpace is all about hooking up.  It's very seamy to my 46-year old eyes.  I would only keep a MySpace account to keep an eye on my kids if they have one.  For me, it's neither interesting or useful.

Twitter:  Twitter is the most interesting (but not necessarily useful) of all these services.  It's a blog of 140 character posts.  You can easily post to it from your cell phone.  People use it to comment on what they are doing right now, what they had for lunch, where they are, and how they feel.  I've really tried to get into it, but I can't believe that the few people who follow my posts really get much out of it.  And, nothing personal to the people I follow, but I don't get much out of their posts.  I feel very current by using Twitter, but it is squarely in the interesting category, rather than useful.  If you want to get a sense of Twitter, check out TwitterVision.  You can see the random things that strangers post.  If you are really bored, you can follow me on Twitter here.

Facebook:  On Facebook, I feel like a social networking stowaway.  Facebook started off as a social network for college students, first at Harvard and then nationwide.  I set up a Facebook page as soon as they opened it up to university alumni (through my @alum.mit.edu email address).  High school students started to use it, too.  If you go to a Facebook page, you can see multiple modes of self-expression, photos, links to friends, messages, etc.  If all your friends are on Facebook, it's a great way to keep in touch.  If you go to college, you can easily keep in touch with your high school friends who are elsewhere.  The content and discussions are generally very social and light.

College students have felt safe on Safebook because they felt that only students at their university or their friends friends could contact them.  It's nowhere near as seamy as MySpace.  But, there is still plenty of content inappropriate for younger kids.  And, too many college students portray themselves in ways that they would hate to have their future employers see.

Some of my adult contacts are on Facebook.  And, I have had several activities that have brought me in touch with college students.  So, we are all 'Friends' on Facebook.  But, other than tracking some of their daily comings and goings, or seeing what videos they are interested in, I don't find a lot of use for Facebook.  There are hundreds of new applications, but nothing that has really caught my interest beyond self-expression.

I think that I must seem like a 'spy' to these college students.  I don't fit into their social interactions, but I am privvy to all of it.  I am committed to continue to use Facebook because 1) this type of social interaction is the future and 2) my young teenage kids will be on there before I know it.  So, I try to act like a kid, joining Facebook groups, posting videos I like, posting graphics of my favorite sports teams, tagging people in photos, updating my status regularly, and actively 'Friending' new people I meet.  Very, very interesting.  So far, not useful.

Maybe more of my adult friends will join Facebook, and we'll use it as a true social network.  If this continues to happen, the kids may move on to something else.  Kids like being separate from adults, and once adults adopt something, it's no longer cool.  Maybe, in a few years, my friends and I will be using Eons, a social network for people over 50.  I have to say that I am skeptical.  I think that social interaction styles are formed when we are young and change slowly.  Some people can change, but the masses change VERY slowly.  50 year olds aren't likely to quickly adopt social networking vs. phone and email (and email was already a change).

I met someone today who was 30 years old.  He told me that he was too old to understand Facebook.  Wow.  How does that make me feel?


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August 20, 2007

Rove's first appearance on CBS News

Thanks to the Very Short List, here's a video of a young Karl Rove on the CBS news in January, 1972.  Rove was working to re-elect Nixon (remember CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President?).  His focus then was on college students, but he clearly had some keen insights then.  I don't like the guy, but he's damn good at what he does.

PS - Do you also remember when the news would have 5 minute long feature pieces like this?  Our news coverage on TV suffers from short-attention span problems, just like most of the viewers.

 


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August 12, 2007

More Misuse of Power

Regular readers of mine know that I am very concerned about the government trampling our rights.  I don't buy the anti-terrorism argument for widespread infringements on our liberties.

I also think that the US needs to be a beacon for ethics and human rights throughout the world.  This doesn't mean that we have to be soft on our enemies.  I think that we can lead with peace, human rights, and ethics, and then come down hard when us or our allies are attacked or aggressively threatened.  Something like "speak softly and carry a big stick."  An old-time Republican said that (although he also ran for President as a third-party candidate).

Today's Globe has a story about how the US imprisoned an Afghani warlord in Guantanamo because he wouldn't cooperate with us, after being a supporter of our Afghani invasion.  I am not saying that this warlord is a good guy.  He sounded corrupt and was removed by the Afghani government.  But, why imprison him in Guantanamo?  Why not just try him in Afghanistan?

Guantanamo was defended as being for enemy combatants who were so dangerous that they couldn't enjoy the Geneva Conventions.  Instead, it is just a bad place for us to put people we don't like.  This type of abuse of power makes it impossible for us to build an international coalition to get ourselves out of this mess in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This type of activity fuels the insurgency, and it's hard not to blame them.  We are bullies.

I'd love to vote for the first candidate in this election who convinces me that they will lead with peace, human rights, and ethics.  It seems to run against the tide of the electoral momentum, but I think that the right message, coupled with a commitment to running an efficient government and strong security, would be a winner.


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August 10, 2007

Would You Put Up With This?

From today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required, some excerpts below), this article describes a man who is so obsessed with Second Life that he often spends 6-10 hours PER DAY in his virtual world, including having sex with his virtual wife (much to the chagrin of his real wife!).  I think she should throw him out on the street.  She's obviously enabling his addictive behavior.

I have some first hand experience with the effect of addiction, having lost one of my closest friends to alcoholism.  I learned that you have to stop enabling addicts to let them hit rock bottom.  Sometimes, that's what it will take to get them to turn themselves around.  You can't do this for them.

Obviously, virtual worlds like Second Life can be a fine distraction from the real world, in moderation.  But, as they become more immersive and realistic, it may be hard for a lot of people to pull themselves away.  That sort of addictive behavior is as bad as alcoholism or drug abuse and needs to be treated.

Some scary excerpts from the article:

A burly man with a long gray ponytail, thick sideburns and a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache, Mr. Hoogestraat looks like the cross between a techie and the Grateful Dead fan that he is. He drives a motorcycle and wears faded black Harley-Davidson T-shirts around the house. A former college computer graphics teacher, Mr. Hoogestraat was never much of a game enthusiast before he discovered Second Life. But since February, he's been spending six hours a night and often 14 hours at a stretch on weekends as Dutch Hoorenbeek, his six-foot-nine, muscular, motorcycle-riding cyber-self. The character looks like a younger, physically enhanced version of him: a biker with a long black ponytail, strong jaw and thick handlebar mustache.

In the virtual world, he's a successful entrepreneur with a net worth of about $1.5 million in the site's currency, the linden, which can be earned or purchased through Second Life's Web site at a rate of about 250 lindens per U.S. dollar. He owns a mall, a private beach club, a dance club and a strip club. He has 25 employees, online persons known as avatars who are operated by other players, including a security guard, a mall concierge, a manager and assistant manager, and the "exotic dancers" at his club. He designs bikinis and lingerie, and sells them through his chain store, Red Headed Lovers.

........

Mr. Hoogestraat's real-life wife is losing patience with her husband's second life. "It's sad; it's a waste of human life," says Mrs. Hoogestraat, who is dark-haired and heavy-set with smooth, pale skin. "Everybody has their hobbies, but when it's from six in the morning until two in the morning, that's not a hobby, that's your life."

The real Mrs. Hoogestraat is no stranger to online communities -- she met her husband in a computer chat room three years ago. Both were divorced and had adult children from previous marriages, and Mrs. Hoogestraat says she was relieved to find someone educated and adventurous after years of failed relationships. Now, as she pays household bills, cooks, does laundry, takes care of their three dogs and empties ashtrays around the house while her husband spends hours designing outfits for virtual strippers and creating labels for virtual coffee cups, she wonders what happened to the person she married.

............

By 4 p.m., he's been in Second Life for 10 hours, pausing only to go to the bathroom. His wrists and fingers ache from manipulating the mouse to draw logos for his virtual coffee cups. His back hurts. He feels it's worth the effort. "If I work a little harder and make it a little nicer, it's more rewarding," he says.

Sitting alone in the living room in front of the television, Mrs. Hoogestraat says she worries it will be years before her husband realizes that he's traded his real life for a pixilated fantasy existence, one that doesn't include her.

"Basically, the other person is widowed," she says. "This other life is so wonderful; it's better than real life. Nobody gets fat, nobody gets gray. The person that's left can't compete with that."

 


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August 06, 2007

Texting to converge with email (not replacing it)

I don't agree with Fred Wilson on his post today on texting beating email.  There is no question that short messages (texting, Twitter, etc.) are a big change in communications over the past few years, I don't see them replacing email.  Instead, I see a convergence.

Email is still far bigger than texting and has many advantages, including:

  • Complete interoperability across all carriers and platforms
  • Support for long and short messages, attachments, rich formatting, archiving, and access from all types of platforms
  • The ability for companies to have private messaging platforms for broader security while still connecting to the outside world
  • Far broader usage than texting

Instead, I see a convergence between texting and email.  Most texting users have an email address from their carrier (for example, if you have a Verizon cell phone, your email address is cellnumber@vtext.com).  I think that users will still prefer to have their messages in one place, and a 12 button cell phone isn't the right platform for retrieving and managing all your email.  So, I see email as the backbone, but much more intelligent clients coming out that allow better access to and integration with texting.

For example, you could direct or mirror your text messages to email for archiving, if you prefer.  And, you could forward your emails (or the first 140 characters) to a texting client.  Your email client will make it much easier for you to send text messages via an email UI.  And, texting could be expanded to include some email-like features on richer client platforms.

Fred cites that texting doesn't have a lot of noise today.  That's because it isn't widely used compared to email.  But, if texting 'beats' email, you can expect it to get as noisy.  Instead, texting should remain a way to keep in closer touch with your closer contacts.  And, it should integrate with email for better overall messaging management.


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August 01, 2007

Scott Kirsner Makes My Point

I wrote previously about how the iPhone was over-hyped.  I thought it was a cool product, but not a must-have.  Today, Scott Kirsner writes about how Cool People have iPhones.  To quote Scott after he lists his iPhone who's who:

None of these people say that the iPhone is very good as a phone, or an e-mail device, or as a Web access device when connected to AT&T's 0.005 G data network. But it's good for two things: surfing the Web when connected to a WiFi network, and showing off to jealous people who don't have an iPhone.

The iPhone is clearly the Rolex watch for techies.

I agree that the Web browser is very cool on the iPhone, making it easy to zoom in and out on Web pages and letting you do landscape or portrait views seamlessly.  But, I can't get used to the keyboard for real mobile email.  Two other things I don't like -- the slow data network and the hard-wired battery.

I am sure that Apple will continue to improve the product, and I may get one eventually.  But, I don't think that it is the 'second coming' type of product that people claim.


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July 26, 2007

Daily Show was on fire last night

The Daily Show had several great segments last night, including pointing out how ridiculous Alberto Gonzales's testimony is:

Report

Rob Riggle 

And joining in my disgust at the current state of sports (gotta love Lewis Black):

Enjoy the videos.


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July 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Ben!

Cake

Denise made a wonderful cake!  Yum!


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Do newspapers have a chance on the web?

Thanks to Greg McHale of Good2gether, I saw this article on the share of Internet users who visit newspaper sites.  A staggering 37% of Internet users visited a newspaper site during Q2 2007.  Although there are many sources of news on the Internet, newspapers are uniquely positioned for the hyper-local content that you can't get anywhere else.

The problem is that the revenue model for newspapers has to change.  The online revenue they are generating doesn't make up for the loss of print subscribers that has been their bread and butter.  Online revenue is growing fast, but not fast enough.

I am a newspaper junkie.  I read the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal every day.  I also scan articles in the New York Times regularly.  But, my kids don't even think of reading the paper.  They get their news from the Web, to the extent that they pay attention to news at all (other than my son's love of sports!).

Newspapers have to focus where they have unique content -- hyper-local.  Someone on the Web has to provide the local news that only someone local can generate.  This is the natural advantage that local papers have.  It seems like users are looking to them for this content.  Now, they just have to figure out how to make money supplying it.

By the way, Good2gether is going to be taking advantage of this hyper-local content on local newspaper sites.  Stay tuned.


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July 20, 2007

Brad Paisley

I'm not a fan of country music, but I happened to run across the video of Brad Paisley's song Online.  It's on his web site, or you can download it from iTunes.  Funny, and with an all-star cast!


Brad Paisley - Online lyrics
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Google slowing down?

GigaOm has a nice opinion piece on Google's recent investor conference call.  It's inevitable that Google's rate of growth will slow down.  They are going to start to face the challenges of other businesses where they have to figure out where their revenue growth will come from.  In the past, it has seemed that they would have rapid organic growth that would power them for years.  However, they are facing competition and, although Google is still a great company, now is the time when we will see if they have great management.  There are many times when Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco have dealt with strategic challenges and bumps in the road on Wall Street.  This may be the first time for Google.


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Good joke from Bessemer

I liked this joke that I read this morning from Dave Cowan of Bessemer.  It's paraphrased below:

A CEO was forced to leave his job unexpectedly for personal reasons.  As he was departing, he left his successor three sealed envelopes to open each time she found herself at a complete loss as to what to do.

In the first envelope, the note reads, "Blame me."

In the second envelope: "Cut your burn and re-structure."

In the third envelope: "Prepare three envelopes."


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July 17, 2007

What Do You Do All Day?

Today's Wall Street Journal had a good article on explaining to our kids what we do all day (subscription required).  The main point of the article is that many of us spend all day talking on the phone, staring at a screen, and maybe in meetings.  What the heck do we really do?

I remember trying to explain what a VC does to my kids.  When they were very young, I told them that "I work with different companies to help them grow".  As they got older, I introduced the shareholder dynamic, explaining that I "invested money (mostly not mine) into a company and worked with the company to help them build their business so that my investment would be worth more".  What my kids saw was playing with my computer, talking on the phone, and lots of meetings.

I guess this reinforces that our daily tasks are sometimes pretty far from the big outputs of our job.  I am sure we all could cut some of this out so that we spend more time on what really matters most.

I like some of these quotes from the WSJ article:

The way Ms. Kelly's 6-year-old daughter sees it, her mother travels to a big building, sits in her office and fools around at a computer.

...

Because kids' impressions aren't wrong, technically, it can cause a little introspection. George Reinhart is the director of associate service for New England at the Conference Board, a business-research and peer-networking organization. That means he sells information and, like any salesman, makes lots of phone calls, not all of which go as planned.

It also means, as his 14-year-old told him so succinctly two years ago, "You're always rejected and you always have to apologize," he recalls. "You could take away from that, God, what a loser you are. But I don't think she meant it that way -- at least I hope she didn't mean it that way."

...

Mr. Keith explained to his boys that his job is to "make money" for food and shelter. So, when they drove four hours last year to visit Washington's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, his son noted, "That's why you're so grumpy -- because you have to drive all this way to work."

...

Chelsea Clinton reportedly used to describe her father, the former Commander in Chief this way: "He gives speeches, drinks coffee, and talks on the telephone." Yo-Yo Ma's son thought his father worked at the airport because the world-renowned cellist was always rushing to one.

...

Gary Grote's six-year-old daughter has figured out the skills required for a bank vice president of corporate lending: typing, talking and going to lunch a lot.

Mr. Grote can't argue with that. "When you boil it down, that's pretty much the deal," he says. He, too, could understand his father's job, grain-elevator owner, easier than his kids can understand his. "You could see and touch the grain moving through the elevator," he says. "I've worked at the bank for 15 years. It's been 14 years since I touched a bit of currency other than getting it out of my own account."


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July 16, 2007

Facebook for business

Facebook is huge.  There has been a lot written lately about the explosion of Facebook activity, particularly in light of their API which has led to a lot of new applications being written.  My Facebook profile is here.

But, many of my contacts don't use Facebook.  They lump it together with MySpace, and, as parents, we've been told by our kids' schools that MySpace is evil.  I don't think that MySpace is evil, but I do think that it is trashy.  I have a MySpace page, but I never use it.

The evilness comes from people using the Internet for nefarious purposes.  They could use MySpace, Facebook, email, spam, spyware, chat rooms, etc.  Kids need to understand how to use the Internet safely, what to post about themselves, who to communicate with, etc.  The problem I have with MySpace is that it doesn't do much for me.  I'm not that interested in indie bands who use MySpace for promotion.  And, I have no interest in hooking up with strangers.

The social network I use the most is LinkedIn.  It really captures business interactions, relationships, and makes it easy to search your extended business network.  Since early 2007, I've seen a huge number of my business contacts get active on LinkedIn.  And, I use it to track my contacts and find and meet new people.  My LinkedIn profile is here.

But, in the past two months, a lot of my contacts have been using Facebook, too.  Facebook really captures social interactions.  It lacks the richness of business relationships that LinkedIn has.  But, it is fun to see what people are doing throughout the day.  There are a bunch of Facebook groups I have joined, but I can't say that I have gotten alot out of the content.  Facebook could become a great business collaboration platform over time, but it isn't there yet.

For now, I think that Facebook is 'interesting' for business.  I am not sure that it is 'useful'.  There are so many new applications out there that I have not been able to try very many.  Most of them are still in the vein of showing people what you are interested in, sharing that, and finding others with a common interest.  That has an analog in the business world, but I still mostly see business people playing with this rather than relying on it.  We'll see how this looks within 12 months.  In the meantime, I like tracking what my Facebook-savvy friends are doing, to the extent they want to broadcast that to their network of friends.


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Five days of leadership

Institute Logo

The main reason that I have been offline for the past week or so is that I participated as a facilitator at the Wooden Institute for Men of Principle on behalf of my college fraterntiy, Beta Theta Pi.

Now, I know that some of you are snickering about fraternities.  And, there is no doubt that the Animal House image of fraternities has a kernel of truth to it.  But, today's kids are different than the people I went to college with in the late 70s and early 80s.  At that time, there was still a reverb from the anti-Vietnam War/Free Love/Drug Experimentation culture of the 70s.  We were at the beginning of what has become a more conservative shift in the country, but there was still an expectation that 'boys will be boys', even at MIT fraternities.

Today, young men and women are more conservative, more academically oriented, and more independently minded when it comes to partying.  Beta has tried to focus on the values that our fraternity was based on when founded in 1839.  And, we've been public about those values since 1879.  I'm not naive enough to think that today's kids don't party.  But, I also believe that many of today's kids don't form all of their social relationships and base their values on partying.

I'm proud to say that my experience at the Institute for Men of Principle was extremely satisfying.  I co-led a group of 11 men out of a total session of about 75.  These guys were serious, thoughtful, fun, and dedicated.  We had a blast, including all sorts of activities, community service projects, and discussions of improving their fraternity chapters.  You get pretty close to people when you spend about 17 hours each day with them for five days...

I got a lot out of my college fraternity experience, beyond the social activities.  I made great friends that I had a lot in common with.  And, I got valuable experience in leadership roles as we ran our own show in our house.  That's some of the best aspects of this experience, and it is as applicable today as it ever was.  In fact, based on the men I met, they view this as a key part of a fulfilling college experience.

This experience was all consuming.  It kept me from my email and other communications for the better part of a week, counting travel.  So, if I have been slow in getting back to you, I apologize.  I should be caught up by today.


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Congratulations, Craig!

My nephew, Craig Powers, graduated from the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program on Friday.  If you click through and read more about it, you'll learn about how demanding this program is.  There is a combination of both grueling physical training and simulated rescues at sea.  Craig was one of only 3 graduates from his class of 11.  And, there are only about 330 rescue swimmers active right now.  These people save lives when there are accidents at sea.  Thousands of people have been saved to date.  If you are ever unlucky enough to be in distress at sea, you'd be lucky to have someone like Craig there to rescue you.

Here's an article on Craig's graduation from The Daily Advance.

There's an article featuring Craig in the August 2007 issue of Motor Boating magazine.  This is available for sale now, but the articles aren't yet on their Web site.  This article has some awesome photos Craig in action during his rescue swimmer training.  When the article is online, I'll post an update.


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July 05, 2007

iPhone apathy

Several people have expressed surprise that I wasn't one of the first people to buy an iPhone.  I'm certainly interested in the platform, but I'll wait before I buy one.

First, I already have two cell phones.  I have a RAZR on Verizon Wireless that is my primary cell phone.  It's small, works well, and has a decent browser to access information and email.  Unfortunately, Verizon Wireless doesn't have an open network, so I can only access things that Verizon lets me.  This doesn't constrain me too much, but hurts when I want to try out new things.  I mostly keep this phone out of inertia and due to its small form factor.

When I struck out on my own, I decided to buy a Samsung Blackjack on Cingular to have a smartphone which would let me get better email access.  I wanted Cingular in order to have some network diversity and because Cingular has a much more open network than Verizon.  And, I wanted to play with Windows Mobile, which is a highly functional, although quirky, platform.  And, Cingular's XPressMail works pretty well, but is also quirky when using it without a Microsoft Exchange server (it uses software from Seven, which is OK, but not great).

With these two phones, I didn't want a 3rd phone.  I like the idea of the iPhone to integrate the phone and iPod, and I may end up getting one eventually.  But, I also don't like buying the version 1.0 of anything.  There are bound to be bugs, and I'll wait for at least one software update.  I don't have more time to figure out why things don't work.  I also wonder if the iPhone will be good enough for me to get rid of one or both of my existing phones, and/or my iPod.  It has lots of memory, but not as much as my video iPod.  So, it just may be another device to drag around.  I'm not ready for that...


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That didn't take long

I've been offline in terms of blogging for the past few days due to some travel, lots of work, and the 4th of July.  So, I'll try to catch up on a few things today.

In the Wall Street Journal on July 3rd (link here, behind their subscription wall), there is an interesting article on the second thoughts about outsourcing technology jobs to India.  In short, wages in India have escalated dramatically, in many cases eliminating the cost difference between India and Silicon Valley.  Here are a couple of quotes:

Silicon Valley has helped power India's outsourcing boom by shifting technology jobs to that country. Three months ago, Munjal Shah reversed a bit of that shift.

Mr. Shah, who leads a California start-up called Riya Inc., had opened an office in India's technology capital of Bangalore in 2005, hiring about 20 skilled software developers. The lure was the wage level: just a quarter of what experienced Silicon Valley computer engineers make.

Then Indian salaries soared. Last year, Mr. Shah paid his engineers in India about half of Silicon Valley levels. By early this year, it was 75%. "Taking into account the time difference with India," he says, "we weren't saving any money by being there anymore." In April, Mr. Shah shut down the Bangalore office and offered half of its engineers a chance to move to San Mateo, Calif., with work visas.

And,

Several years on, the forces of globalization are starting to even things out between the U.S. and India, in sophisticated technology work. As more U.S. tech companies poured in, they soaked up the pool of high-end engineers qualified to work at global companies, belying the notion of an unlimited supply of top Indian engineering talent. In a 2005 study, McKinsey & Co. estimated that just a quarter of India's computer engineers had the language proficiency, cultural fit and practical skills to work at multinational companies.

The result is increasing competition for the most skilled Indian computer engineers and a narrowing U.S.-India gap in their compensation. India's software-and-service association puts wage inflation in its industry at 10% to 15% a year. Some tech executives say it's closer to 50%. In the U.S., wage inflation in the software sector is under 3%, according to Moody's Economy.com.

Rafiq Dossani, a scholar at Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center who recently studied the Indian market, found that while most Indian technology workers' wages remain low -- an average $5,000 a year for a new engineer with little experience -- the experienced engineers Silicon Valley companies covet can now cost $60,000 to $100,000 a year. "For the top-level talent, there's an equalization," he says.

That means that for a large swath of Silicon Valley -- start-ups and midsize companies that do sophisticated tech work -- India is no longer the premier outsourcing destination. While such companies make up just a fraction of India's outsourcing work, they had been an early catalyst for the growth of India's information-technology business and helped the country attract other outsourcing clients.

So, the market forces work quickly.  I was never overly concerned about outsourcing to India because I expected this sort of normalization to occur.  In my personal experience, start-ups haven't gained real advantage from outsourcing unless they could identify a team with a specific talent, had a pre-existing relationship with a team that gave them some loyalty, or managed to find a team in a market that was not growing quickly.  For example, one company I work with has an outsourced development team in Russia that has very specific technology skills.  This team is loyal to the US entrepreneur and probably has few options for other jobs.  So, the market for their talents is more constrained.

Everyone rushed to India, and competition for talent became fierce.  Also, turnover in Indian outsourcing firms can be very high.  An investment in training can be wasted as the people will switch jobs for a large increase in salary.

Bottom line: Don't blindly outsource.  Instead, develop a relationship with a unique team that will stick with you and are not as likely to be poached by others.  Make them part of your team.  And, don't be surprised if their wages have to go up faster than their US counterparts.  Also, expect to spend some significant time and travel in managing this remote relationship to ensure you continue to get value from your up-front commitment.

 


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June 29, 2007

Dun Dun Good

I happened to be in Central Square, Cambridge, MA today around lunch time with a little bit of time between meetings.  I decided to go to Mary Chung's for some Dun Dun Noodles with Shredded Chicken. 

dun dun

I hadn't had this spicy, peanutty dish in about 20 years, since I worked at a Cambridge start-up.  Just tasting it brought back memories of my first job at GCC.  Mary Chung's has moved across the street from the original location, but it still seems just as popular.

Yummy!


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June 25, 2007

First LinkedIn, now Facebook

A while back, I wrote about my re-engagement with LinkedIn.  It's become a key aspect of how I work, leveraging my contact network to make new contacts and keeping tabs on my network of business contacts.  LinkedIn is designed for business contacts and is a great way to map how your network of contacts are linked.  You can use it for evil (or spam), but I have been careful not to.  Now, whenever I get someone's contact info, I put it into Outlook and check to see if they are on LinkedIn.  I'm not pushing LinkedIn on those who don't use it, but I want to leverage it to the max for those who do.

In the last month or so, I have seen a huge increase in activity on Facebook among my business contacts.  Facebook started off as a social network to help college students keep track of their old friends from high school while they meet more people on their campus.  As a college alum, I was able to get onto Facebook early on, but I didn't use it much.  Most of my use was in my role as an alumni advisor to my college fraternity at MIT.  It reinforced how much social dynamics have changed in the 25 years since I graduated college.

Now, Facebook is open to all, and more business contacts are using it to keep in touch on what they do every day.  And, Facebook has opened up an API to allow developers to add applications.  These applications are growing rapidly, making Facebook a huge force on the Internet going forward.

I decided to dive in to Facebook head (or face?) first and see how it goes.  The content of who is doing what when is not as useful to me as LinkedIn, but it is fun to see what people post about themselves each day, who has met whom, what events they go to, etc.  It's interesting, but I am not sure how useful it is.  If business users are a target for Facebook, they probably need to reorganize it and restructure it to capture business relationships (which are different than social relationships).  There are many ways to describe how you met a social contact, but 'worked with' is about the only way to describe a business contact.  And 'worked with' is really meant to describe when you worked at the same company.

[One humorous note -- I connected with one of my neighbors on Facebook.  There is no way to describe this relationship.  'Lived with' isn't right (and would definitely concern my wife).  The next most applicable is 'met randomly' which I guess describes how much control you have over your neighbors.]

Some companies, like Geezeo, use Facebook to market to college students.  That's a different kind of business relationship than the relationship between me and an LP from one of my former funds.  What do I want the LP to know about my weekend activities?  I'd better be careful...Of course, I wouldn't hesitate to connect to them on LinkedIn where we share contact information and work experience.

Business readers, let me know what you find useful (and not just interesting) about using Facebook for your business contacts.  Maybe I'm just tool old...But, I'm trying to think young!


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June 18, 2007

TED Talk on the Military

I enjoy listening to the talks from the TED conference.  Here's one from Thomas Barnett on national security and the military.  The summary is:

Strategic planner Thomas P.M. Barnett has advised US leaders on national security since the end of the Cold War. In this bracingly honest -- and very funny -- talk, Barnett outlines a solution for the foundering US military: Break it in two. One half makes war, and the other half builds the peace that follows.

 


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June 05, 2007

Iraq ain't Korea

The Bush administrations latest attempt at finding positive spin on Iraq is to compare it to Korea.  Great, that means we'll be there for 50 years and counting...

I agree with TIME magazine that this analogy doesn't hold.  The biggest differences are that 1) Our forces in Korea are enforcing a peace that has been in place since the cease fire at the end of the Korean War, 2) The South Koreans want us there and manage domestic security in their country just fine, 3) our regional allies (like Japan) also want us there and 4) our presence in Korea is relatively small and safe.

Will Iraq turn into Korea?  If it is going to do that, we'd have to sign a peach treaty with someone.  Who will sign with us?  We'd have to engage deeply with regional powers, including Iran, to lower the tensions.  That's just starting to happen.  And, we'd have to be welcome by the Iraqis and Iraq's neighbors.  Not likely.  And, time won't change that.

Let's be honest with ourselves -- we broke it, and we own it.  Now, we have to be proactive to fix it.  That will take a combination of a military presence which ramps down over time and strong diplomacy with the Iraqi government and all the countries in the region.


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June 04, 2007

Steely Dan Day

I saw Steely Dan recently in Boston.  They are great in concert.  It's hard to believe that they didn't tour after 1974 despite their popularity.  With the lousy weather in Boston today, their music fits the scene.  Great music for getting caught up on some work.

Pretzel Logic: With A Gun


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May 30, 2007

Coolest Thing I've Seen In a While

In watching the videos from the recent TED conference, I found this talk from a guy at Microsoft about a technology they have called Photsynth.

The video is definitely worth watching as it gives you a great overview of this breathtaking technology.  The idea of stitching together the world's photos automatically and automatically propogating tags to related photos is very cool.  This can really change the user interface for navigating through information.

Check it out.

 


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May 19, 2007

Two from the Globe

Two items caught my eye from today's Boston Globe:

This ad was in the Boston Globe magazine.  It's very subtle, but definitely made me laugh.

Second, I noticed that there is a growing movement of Guitar Hero competitions in bars in NY and Boston.  I love how the Harmonix game is becoming a real phenomenon.  I love playing Guitar Hero I and II, but I can't keep up with these guys.  And, there are many videos on YouTube of people playing better than them (but not having as much fun!).  Look for their new game, Rock Band, for Christmas this year.


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May 18, 2007

Alice Cooper and Terry Gross

This morning, I listened to a podcast of Fresh Air from NPR featuring Alice Cooper.  If you aren't familiar with Terry Gross and her show, Fresh Air, you should check it out.  Terry has been on the air for 20 years and is one of the best interviewers I have every heard.

I was a big Alice Cooper fan as a kid.  I still remember my 7th grade research report on a 'famous person'.  When I told my teacher that I was going to write about Alice Cooper, my teacher said "Who's she?"  That's exactly the reaction Alice was after, of course.  I dutifully researched magazine articles and cut pictures off my copy of the Billion Dollar Babies album.  Alice was huge during the 70s.

In the interview, Alice is amazingly realistic and coherent.  Not bad for an old rocker (and long time sober rocker).  Supposedly, Alice Cooper is now addicted to golf.  Hard to believe.

School's Out!


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May 14, 2007

The War That Keeps on Costing

Although I don't know of a good solution now that we are into the mess in Iraq, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this war is costing us a fortune, bound to drive up our national debt for decades to come and crowd out other priorities.  Of course, there are also thousands of dead and wounded, too.  In my opinion, there isn't enough backlash against the Bush administration for getting us into this war of choice.

 

Cost of the War in Iraq
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Mom for a Day

Yesterday was Mother's Day.  I gave my wife the usual gift -- I do everything that needs to be done around the house, and she gets to lounge around and do exactly whatever she pleases.  My work started with planning a menu and doing the grocery shopping on Saturday.  On Mother's Day, I made a fancy brunch and dinner.  Luckily the kids helped out.  It was a ton of work.  I like to cook, but I rarely have the time to do it right.

There is something to be said for trading places with someone.  Now, my wife is a great cook, but even she doesn't make elaborate meals every day.  But, I am sure there are many days where she is as tired as I was at the end of the day.  Really appreciating what she does every day is a great gift that we all share.


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April 28, 2007

The Carter Center

For the past couple of days I have attended an Executive Briefing at The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA.  I've been a long-timer supporter of The Carter Center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

I started supporting the Carter Center shortly after it began.  I was inspired by the fact that President Carter was willing to work on behalf of those less fortunate.  At that time, the ex-Presidents I knew of (Nixon, Ford) mostly played golf.

I continue to support the Carter Center because I am in total agreement with its mission -- Wage Peace, Fight Disease, Build Hope.  On the Peace Front, President Carter has a long history of mediating disputes and monitoring elections.  I am happy to see that they are working closely with the Chinese government to help them figure out how to transition to a democracy.  I see this area as one with long-term risk to the world.

On the health front, the results are stunning.  They started by tackling some of the Woirld Health Organization's Neglected Diseases.  These diseases were not tackled previously because they were considered very difficult to combat.  The biggest issue is that treatments have to be brought to the most remote villages of Africa.  The progress has been fantastic.  Check out this video, Carter vs. the worms.

The Carter Center is very efficient.  89% of the funds they raise go to programs, with only 5% for administration and 6% for fund-raising.  And, the staff are very dedicated.

Regardless of what you thought of Carter as a President, take a look at what the Carter Center has done.  Both President and Mrs. Carter have been absolutely inspirational in their commitment to making the world a better place, particularly for those who have it the worst.

If you are inclined to support The Carter Center, you can donate online here.  By the way, if you were upset about President Carter's last book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, you may be interested in this discussion with Madeline Albright.  I think that President Carter caught a lot of flack for the choice of the word Apartheid in the title, but his description of what the Israeli government is doing in the Palestinian territories is accurate.


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April 26, 2007

Final Word on Mike Daisey

The Globe wrote an article on the Mike Daisey incident (which I wrote about here and here).  I guess that the principal of the school apologized, which was the least he could do.  The whole thing was pretty weird.
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April 24, 2007

Update from Mike Daisey

I wrote about The Mike Daisey Incident earlier today.  Mike just posted an update on his blog, including an encounter with the person who poured water on his notes from the show.

Based on Mike's comments, I doubt I'll hear back from the high school principal.  Too bad for his students.


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Mike Daisey Protest

I've spent some time thinking about an incident that happened on April 19th at the Zero Arrow Theater in Cambridge.  A performer, Mike Daisey, was doing a monologue called Invincible Summer.  By the way, see this if you can before Mike leaves town.  It's great.

As captured on this video, students and teachers on a field trip to Boston walked out of the show en masse.  One of the chaperones defaced Mike's script by pouring water on it.  Watch the video to see Mike's reaction.  He was incredibly mature and tried to engage them in a discussion, to no avail. Note that this video contains some significant profanity.

In reading news reports of this incident, particularly this one on Backstage, it seems that this was a school trip where the organizers decided to attend this show.  They were told by the ART that the show included profanity and adult subject matter.  They decided to attend anyway, but the chaperones became uncomfortable and decided to leave.  How do 87 people leave a performance in a 300 person theater without causing a scene?

What weighed on me was how to educate these students about the right way to handle this situation.  Leaving en masse is their choice.  Defacing the hand written notes of the performer is not acceptable.  An apology or a response is in order.

I wrote the following email to the principal of the school in southern CA.  We'll see if he responds.

Principal Johnson,

I’m a subscriber to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA and have seen Mike Daisey’s Invincible Summer (and enjoyed it).  I was quite disturbed by the recent walkout your teachers and students did during the show on April 19th.  I’m guessing that you’ve been inundated with all sorts of hostile emails and phone calls relating to this.

I think that if you are committed that your students “make the most of his/her life through education” [Note: from the school web site], you should turn this situation into a learning opportunity.

I believe that your teachers and students have every right to leave a play if they are offended by (or just not enjoying) the show.  However, as citizens, we should not disrupt the experience of others.  And, pouring water on the hand-written notes in dramatic fashion is a sign of protest that is over the line in such a forum (no one made them buy tickets to this show).

No matter what your opinion is on this action, I think that you should take this opportunity to teach your students something about citizenship and leadership.

If you believe that the teachers and students’ actions were a justifiable protest against objectionable material, then you should encourage them to make a public statement which describes their protest and justifies their actions.  If they feel strongly about their position, they should make their position known so that it will have more of an impact.  Perhaps their thoughts will educate Mr. Daisey or other audience members.

If you or they believe that this was a big mistake and their simple act of leaving has been blown out of proportion, you should encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and apologize.  Again, they could explain why they decided to leave but, in this case, also take responsibility for disturbing the performance for the rest of the audience and damaging Mr. Daisey’s manuscript.

Remaining silent and avoiding commentary may make this situation go away, but your students and teachers will be worse off than if they take responsibility for what they did.  Too often today people try to blame others for their actions.  Taking personal responsibility is a key aspect of citizenship and leadership.

Best regards,

Mike Feinstein


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March 27, 2007

Endgame?

Dealing with illegal immigration is something that has been on my mind lately.  It started with the raids in New Bedford.  What bothered me most was the treatment of families and children when their parents were detained.  Despite an attempt at coordinating with the state of Massachusetts, in the end, children were separated from their parents and left without care.  This could have been prevented without compromising the goal of the raid.

I recently found out about Endgame, the Department of Homeland Security's plan to remove ALL the illegal immigrants from the US by 2012 (or, as an update (see page 10) to the plan states, 2009).  This is somewhere between 8 and 12 million people removed from the country!  Do we really want to spend our tax dollars on this?

I am all in favor of enforcing our laws, but this is closing the barn door after all the animals have left.  We have US citizens that are the children of many of these immigrants.  They are mostly hard working people who are not threats to our country.  Endgame has nothing to do with terrorism (although preventing terrorist attacks is listed as the number one goal).  We have to deal with the reality of the situation, not some posture we wished was true.

I find it ridiculous that nothing in Endgame has anything to do with punishing the employers who provide jobs (and motivation) for illegal immigrants.  We should be putting these people out of business.  If employers stop offering jobs to illegal immigrants, many fewer will come.

We can't do a sudden crackdown after years and years of lax enforcement.  We have to have a more sane and humane way of dealing with the law abiding illegal immigrants who are here.  They should have some way to earn legal status.  It doesn't have to be easy or be amnesty.  But, it should be able to be accomplished without disrupting communities and families.  We also need to crackdown on employers and continue to have tight enforcement on the border.  We'll never eliminate all the illegal immigrants or totally stop their entry into the US.   But, we should be able to peaceably make a big dent.


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March 17, 2007

The power of openness and community

I'm a believer that even a proprietary system can benefit from opening up their technology to an interested community.  A small example that I witnessed provides an illustration.

It's been pretty well documented about the minor problems that the recent daylight savings time (DST) change caused computer systems, cellphones etc.  It also caused an issue for Tivo.  As an owner of an old, Series 1 Tivo, I was subject to the cosmetic problem that for three weeks the time on my Tivo and the guide data would be off by one hour.

As I first started investigating this problem, I was monitoring various discussions on the Tivo online community.  Like many online communities, this site is full of zealots and enthusiasts whose energy and interest never ceases to amaze me.  But, as a casual traveler who is looking for an answer, you can find out an awful lot with some searches.  You do have to wade through lots of noise to find the good stuff, but that's a subject for a future post.

One good thing about the TivoCommunity is that support and marketing people from Tivo actually monitor the forums and weigh in from time to time.  This is great for both Tivo and for the users who can hear the truth from their vendor.  On the DST issue, the offical Tivo statement came out that Series 1 Tivos couldn't be fixed to avoid the DST cosmetic issue.  Of course, as this is only software, it really meant that Tivo wasn't going to invest the resources to update the software for an older platform as they did for their newer ones.  Some users were annoyed, but most, like me, were resigned to the realities of diminishing support for older products.

But, Tivos run Linux.  There is a very active Tivo hacking community.  Although not officially sanctioned or supported by Tivo, it is tolerated.  It turns out that one Tivo hacker came up with a very simple, elegant way to run some scripts on a Series 1 Tivo that fixed the cosmetic issue of the clocks being off by an hour.  The scripts were posted, debated, tested, and modified by the community.  They worked, and the Tivo hackers were happy.  But, only a small percentage of Tivo users are willing to download special software into their Tivo.

Luckily, Tivo monitors this activity and their engineers liked this fix.  They tested it, made some changes of their own, and made it available to their customers in an official, supported version.  It's great that a vendor would be open-minded enough to incorporate the suggestions from their user community so quickly.  And, without having a system capable of being opened up and an active community of users who can extend the system, this fix wouldn't have been made.

Every system can benefit from opening up the code and letting the user community play around with it.  This doesn't have to mean losing control of the technology or having to support unstable systems.  It just means that your bugs get fixed faster and new features come online more quickly.


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March 15, 2007

Immigration crimes and victims

I've been tracking the story about the immigration raid in New Bedford, MA on March 6.  The short summary is that the federal government planned a raid on a factory in New Bedford that had hired many illegal immigrants.  This factory, ironically, was making backbacks for the Department of Defense.  However, many of the people arrested had dependent children at home who were left behind as the illegals were sent to Texas for processing. 

I strongly believe that we need to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.  If it is hard to get a job here as an illegal immigrant, fewer illegal immigrants will come.

I also think that illegal immigrants run the risk of being prosecuted.  We have been so lax for the past 20 years or more that it's hard to crack down now.  But, the mood of the country has stiffened on this front, and illegal immigrants know that they could be deported if caught.  My personal feeling is that we should be very tolerant of hard working immigrants as they generally add more to our society than they cost us.  The US was strengthened by the big wave if (legal) immigration in the late 1800s through early 1900s.  But, until the laws are changed, illegal is illegal.

Two things happened here that shouldn't have:  First, but less importantly, the factory was still in business the day after the raid, making their backpacks for the Department of Defense.  The federal government should have put this guy out of business, or at least cancelled all his federal contracts.  The employer committed the much more significant crime than the employees, in my opinion.

But, the real crime was how the federal government treated the immigrants, particularly those with small children.  According to the Massachusetts officials, the state had coordinated with the federal government to have social services people involved with those arrested to ensure that any dependent children were taken care of as the illegal immigrants were processed.  At the last minute, it appears that the federal government did not allow this and went ahead with the raid.  Mothers, including those who were nursing their babies, were arrested and sent to Texas.  No access was given to them by social services.  One seven year old child at home called a hotline to report that his mother never came home.  Some of these children are US citizens as they were born here (that's also a law!). 

This wasn't a national security matter.  Other than a flight risk, these people didn't represent any threat to the community or to others.  There was no reason to whisk them off to Texas before making sure that their children were taken care of.  The children are not criminals.  The federal government of course, called the factory a 'crime scene', which is the reason why the social services people were not allowed there.  They never apologized or acknowledged that their handling of the matter was wrong.

As a society, we need to protect our children and those who can't take care of themselves.  To leave these children scared, hungry, and unattended was the real immigration crime here.  Shame on us all if we let this happen again.


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March 13, 2007

Counting on Charlie

I've spent quite a bit of time lately moving around Boston and Cambridge during the business day.  Not having an office means that you get to go to everyone else's office for all the meetings.  Certain days, like today, work out such that taking the T makes sense.  Parking in Boston is expensive, and today's Globe has an article that describes the latest parking rates where you get to the full day rate after about an hour.  The worst is the frustration of driving around Boston and looking for places to park.  If you have 4-5 meetings in the city, as I did today, it's not worth moving around.

So, I've started taking the T into Boston and around Boston more often.  Having a Charlie Card makes it easier.  Surprisingly to this suburbanite, it has worked well.  It's pretty efficient and convenient.  And, I'm saving a bit of greenhouse gas as my car sits in the Alewife garage.  The best part on a nice spring day like today is that you get to walk around the city and enjoy it.


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March 09, 2007

Re-LinkedIn

If you're in my Outlook Contacts list and also have an account on LinkedIn, you know that I recently decided to try using LinkedIn again.

If you don't know, LinkedIn is a web service where you can monitor your contacts and their contacts.  It let's you search your extended network and, in theory, see if you really are six degrees away from Kevin Bacon (or anyone else).

Like many people in high-tech, I gave LinkedIn a try when I first heard about it.  It was easy to set up an account, and over the years, about 75 people who use LinkedIn and found me on there and have 'connected' to me.  I never used LinkedIn to network with anyone.  And, I refused any and all connection requests from people I did not know well.  In general, I thought that LinkedIn was a waste of time and didn't like the fact that people were 'spamming' me with requests.  I may have responded once or twice to networking requests via people I know well.  But, I was very wary of putting my contacts up on LinkedIn as I didn't want to be bothered by a lot of people who wanted introductions to my contacts.

In the past few weeks, several entrepreneurs had told me that they were using LinkedIn extensively to network with other people and to find interesting contacts.  So, I decided to give LinkedIn another try.  I used LinkedIn's Outlook tool to upload my contacts.  It seemed to mine not only my Contact list in Outlook, but also all the email addresses on any messages I had in my Inbox or in my Sent folder.  Tricky.

Once it put up the list of these 5000 email addresses, I had it select out only those that already had LinkedIn accounts.  I didn't want to foist LinkedIn onto anyone who hadn't already set up an account.  Given how broad LinkedIn is, I figured that someone who didn't already have an account probably wouldn't set one up just for me.

About 1500 of these contacts were already on LinkedIn.  I sent connection requests to those, and about 700 have accepted.  Many people told me that they had forgotten that they had a LinkedIn account or that they never use it.  Only a couple of people told me that they weren't going to say Yes to the connection because they don't trust LinkedIn.  Of course, the rest of the connection requests will probably never be answered because those people, as I used to do, don't reply to LinkedIn emails.

I haven't started trolling through my extended network of contacts, but my 700+ connections lead to 50,000+ people through one level of indirection and 1.5M people through two levels.  How many of these people ignore LinkedIn requests or are dormant?  Who knows.  But, I will try to use it to see who my contacts know that can be helpful to me.

The range of responses I got was quite amazing.  Some people absolutely love LinkedIn and couldn't do their jobs without it.  Others think it is worthless.  Some hate it.  Others just ignore it.  But, it's a social network you can navigate, and that seems to always generate some sort of reaction.


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March 08, 2007

Do You Need Live?

I've been thinking lately about the value of consuming live content.  Live means that you consume it as it is created or initially distributed.  I'm not talking about where you consume it, just the time factor.

Examples of live content that seem to be unlikely to be displaced by time shifting are:

  • Attending a concert or live theater event
  • Something like talk radio where the consumer participates as the content is created
  • Speaking to someone in person or on the phone

There are some cases where these experiences are time shifted, but they don't have the impact of being there in person.  I've watched concert DVDs or listened to recorded conference calls.  It's not the same as participating live and, in the case of concerts, in person.  Talking to someone on a live basis could be displaced by email, IM, and online social networking interactions.  But, I don't see live speech going away altogether.

Television is certainly shifting away from 'live.'  Fewer and fewer people watch TV as it is broadcast, although the masses still watch TV live.  I watch a few TV shows regularly and watch a lot of sports on TV.  But, even with sports, I tend to record the shows on my Tivo and watch them at some time later than live.  For sports, I certainly watch it on a current basis.  With some practice, you can figure out what time to start watching a sporting event so that as you fast forward through the commercials you can catch up just as the event ends.  That way you find out the result in pretty much a real-time basis, but you can shave 90 minutes or more out of the content consumption time.

For other shows, I like to watch them on a current basis.  I don't like plots to be spoiled, and I like to talk about the shows with friends.  If you are too far behind, you are out of the loop.  So, I try to stay up to date on the shows I like.  But, of course, I can manage my time schedule to watch the shows when it is more convenient for me.  What's the benefit of watching the show as it is first broadcast?

Whether something needs to be consumed live or not has an implication on how it is distributed, both physically and financially.  More and more content is being distributed in some mode other than live.  It's more accessible, it can be consumed in smaller chunks, and it needs to be monetized in a different mode than broadcast.  Perhaps only live concerts and theater are safe.  Everything else needs to continue to adapt to a non-live world.


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February 26, 2007

Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty.jpg

We spent most of the past week in New York City.  I visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for the first time.  Although the boat ride out there was extremely cold at this time of year, I was in awe of the level of commitment that the immigrants had.  They were willing to carry a small amount of wordly possessions and establish a new, and hopefully better, life in the US.  The country was welcoming, and only 2% of those who passed through Ellis Island were turned away.

I think that the spirit of hard work shown by these people hasn't changed with today's immigrants.  They put up with lifestyles and working conditions that most of us wouldn't tolerate.  The country is much less welcoming, with many fewer legal paths to US residency and citizenship.

What would happen if we set up new Ellis Island-like facilities at our borders, screened everyone, and took the healthy, non-criminal immigrants who had a modest amount of means ($25 in 1912, the equivalent of $522 today)?  By screening everyone, we could deal with our terrorist concerns.  We could more effectively collect taxes from these workers.  And, we could dedicate more resources to things other than chasing illegal immigrants.

The words of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus on the pedestal of the statue don't reflect today's view of immigration:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I remember being proud of these words when I learned them in elementary school.  Could we continue to productively absorb large numbers of immigrants now as we did in the past?


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February 20, 2007

OK, now I'm old

We all have those moments when we realize that we are older than our self-image.  Beyond life's mileposts (graduation, marriage, parenthood), there are times when we figure out that people who were always younger than us who are now older.

Today I realized that, for the first time, a serious Presidential contender is younger than I am.  Barack Obama is almost exactly three months younger than me.  I don't know if he'll win, and I don't know if I would vote for him.  But, he's a contender.  And, I am no longer as young as I always thought I was.


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February 15, 2007

Local Help for New Orleans

As my friend Mike Rosenberg writes in the Bedford Minuteman, there is a group of people from Bedford going down to New Orleans to help out some schools there.  They raised money from Bedford parents to buy 5 pallets worth of books to replenish some school libraries.  Someone also donated gift cards from Office Depot to buy school supplies.

This kind of in-person local support speaks volumes.  Having people from Bedford go down to deliver the goods and work with their counterparts in New Orleans will make it a great experience.  And, this shows the power of what a small team can do.  It's much more effective than what a big government program can do, but it takes initiative to pull it off.  Kudos to all involved!


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February 14, 2007

Weird Day

It's Valentine's Day.  It's snowing.  I have lost my voice due to a cold.  The weather and my laryngitis caused me to cancel my meetings today.  I'm home with my family, but can barely talk to them as I try to restore my voice for tomorrow.  Very weird day as I otherwise feel fine.  Guess I'll get some office work done and maybe watch a movie...
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February 09, 2007

Pet Peeve II - No attention span

I wrote an earlier post about my number 1 pet peeve, being late without calling ahead.  Here's my number 2 pet peeve -- lack of attention span.

Fred and others have written about whether or not VCs and entrepreneurs have some form of ADD that is beneficial.  I think that the ability to deal with a constant stream of interruptions can be very helpful.  The world is a very noisy and distracting place.  And, there is nothing wrong with being curious and going where your curiousity leads you.  But, that's not the same as having no attention span.

What really bugs me are people who can't pay attention to the task at hand because they are compelled to pull out their Blackberry and check their email.  Now, maybe the meeting or presentation is boring.  And, I am not talking about a large meeting room or lecture setting where any one person can not pay attention without sending a disturbing message to the speaker or other participants.  But, here are some situations where I thought people were downright rude:

  • In a meeting where a company was pitching to me for potential funding, the CEO pulled out his Blackberry and checked his email when the VP of Engineering began doing his part of the presentation.
  • At a networking dinner, someone pulls out their Blackberry whenever they are not talking in the conversation and then puts it down when they want to speak.
  • When an entrepreneur is presenting to a venture firm over a video conference, the VCs at the other end are checking their Blackberry, reading their email, or coming in and going out of the room frequently.
  • On a Board conference call, someone has their phone on mute and is asked a question.  It takes them way too long to realize that the question is aimed at them and, when they come off mute, it's clear that they never heard the question in the first place.

In each of these situations, why not just wear a big sign that says "I DON'T CARE"?  We don't wear those signs because it would be rude, and not paying attention more subtly is just as rude.

I worry a little bit about the short attention span that many kids seem to have.  Will they really be able to focus and concentrate when they need to?  But, I get real mad when the person I am with not fully present.  If you need to deal with an interruption or need to monitor your email, excuse yourself briefly and take care of it.  But, don't make it so clear that you just aren't interested in the subject at hand.  If you really feel that way, just don't show up.


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February 01, 2007

The sound of teamwork

After writing a couple of very serious posts today, I need some humor.  Nothing like Dilbert, and today's is particularly good.
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Trying to take this seriously

I've spent a lot of time thinking about the bomb scare/hoax/marketing ploy in Boston yesterday.  It was quite a story and had a big impact in Boston.  I really think that the police and public safety people did what they had to do.  These were suspicious looking packages, and there is nothing to say that a cute looking flashing thing couldn't also be a bomb.  Given the number of them and the locations where they were placed, you'd want the police to assume the worst and deal with it accordingly.  Better to be safe than sorry.

However, this story is an interesting confluence of guerrilla marketing and homeland security.  The marketeers want an interesting, mysterious item to be discovered to get people talking.  And, the bloggers have known about these things for a few weeks.  However, the mysterious item can easily be confused for something dangerous as these days people are always on edge.  Once that happens, you want the public safety people to act.  However, this 'action' cost Boston about $750K and caused untold people to be delayed due to closed roads and subways.

Do you think that this guy was scared when he was removing this 'bomb'?

Is this scary?

I saw this picture in the Globe today and had a hard time keeping a smile off my face.  It's such a weird story that went from terror to anger to stunned chuckling.

What should Turner have done?  They are clearly apologetic now.  But, we can't stop people from creative marketing.  And, should they have realized that these flashing signs would be confused for bombs?  If that's not a reasonable expectation, how can we arrest or penalize the people responsible.  Clearly the two individuals who hung these up in Boston shouldn't be prosecuted once we think clearly about what really happened.  It's ridiculous to go after them and not Turner and their ad agency.  Do you really think that Turner thought "let's do something reckless?"

But, we might just have to write this off as a situation that's unavoidable in our confusing times.  Turner couldn't have foreseen this confusion.  The police had no choice but to take these things seriously at first.  But, we have to avoid penalizing Turner and others for not having the foresight that none of us would have had in their shoes...at least until now.

Just try not to smile when you look at that picture again...

 


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January 29, 2007

Pet Peeves, Part I

Maybe I am old and set in my ways, but there are some things people do that really bother me.  I guess everyone has some of these, and it certainly helps if you understand that a VC has particular pet peeves before you go pitch your company.

This pet peeve probably shows that I am not just getting old but am also old fashioned.  I hate when people are late and don't call to give me a heads up.  Running late isn't a problem.  We've all been late, and in today's fast paced world, it's hard not to run late once in a while.  But, today is also a very connected world.  Anyone in business has a cell phone.  If you are running late for a meeting with me, please call to let me know.  I won't be mad.  In fact, I'll be happy that you respect my time as much as I respect yours.

If you don't call and are more than 10 minutes late, I'll probably cancel our meeting.  If you don't call and are more than 20 minutes late, I probably will be very hesitant to meet with you again.  If you call to let me know, I'll give you as much flexibility as you need.

20 years ago when I was in sales, it was very tough when you were running late.  You had to find a pay phone and make a call to tell someone that you were late.  I did a lot of international sales, and I soon learned the vagaries of various international pay phone systems.  But, I was never late without calling ahead first.

Of course, over the years, you get a lot of creative excuses for someone being late.  Here's the all-time champ:  A few years ago, I was stewing in my office waiting for someone who was 20 minutes late for a meteing.  My assistant finally tracked them down, and they said that they were "on their way."  When my assistant said that I would cancel the meeting because they were too late, they said that they were so late and couldn't call because they had been in a building that had a forced evacuation due to an anthrax scare and their cell phone had been trapped inside the building until the evacuation was over!  I still cancelled the meeting, but get a laugh about that one every time.


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January 26, 2007

Don't Program Your Kids

I've had a lot of experience working with young professionals, both as young Associates at venture firms as well as working with business school students in various projects, such as an i-Team at MIT's Deshpande Center.  These are smart, high-achieving individuals who have great potential to do a lot in the future.

However, I have been frustrated and amazed sometimes when I see that many of these people have a hard time making decisions on their own.  In many cases, these people have followed a program from the time they were young.  Their parents, teachers, and advisors have laid out a plan for them, have given them lots of additional resources, and have shown them the recipe for success.  I often have been asked by them "tell me exactly what I have to do to get promoted or to get the project done."  My reaction was that I wanted to throw them into the deep end of the pool and say "swim".

I think that it is critical for entrepreneurs to figure out what to do on their own and to not be afraid of making mistakes.  Many of these young people have never faced a setback.  They are terrified of failing and think that the consequences are monumental.  They need to learn that failing is part of learning.  Also, you can ask for advice and integrate that into a strategy without having someone tell you exactly what to do.

As a Board member, I try to do the same thing.  I advise the CEO and rarely, if ever, tell them what to do.  Most CEOs want to gather input from many sources and insist on finding conflicting inputs so they can understand all sides of an issue before they make a final decision.  As an investor, I need to trust the CEO to make an intelligent decision based on understanding all sides of an issue.  If I lose that trust, it's probably time to make a CEO change.

As a parent, I am conscious of this with my young kids.  I want to give them access to every resource and opportunity, but I don't want to dictate what they do.  I'll keep them from making really big mistakes, but they need to learn to blaze their own path and make their own decisions about what is important to them.  I certainly don't want to insist that they follow a program that meets my needs (but probably not theirs).  Instead, I'll throw them into the deep end of the pool (but will watch to make sure they figure out how to swim).


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January 25, 2007

Go Bedford!

I just found out that my town, Bedford, MA, has been named one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People in the USA.  One aspect that was highlighted is the new Peer Mentoring program in Bedford High School where juniors help incoming freshmen get acclimated to the school and integrated into the various clubs and activities.  Very cool!


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Avvenu - Music Remote Access

After reading about it on TechCrunch, I am trying out Avvenu.  It's a service that lets you remotely access your iTunes library from any Web browser, including a Windows Mobile phone.  You can't share files with DRM, like those bought from iTunes.  But, most of my music is ripped from CDs I own, so it's accessible.  You can also share playlists with friends, etc.  The feature I really want to try is the ability to play your iTunes music from a Windows Mobile phone, like my Samsung Blackjack.

Unfortunatley, the Windows Mobile player isn't quite ready.  When it is, I will try it out and report on the results here.


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January 14, 2007

Doesn't anyone ever try these things?

I wrote recently on customer service.  Another aspect of treating customers well is to give them products that work well and work as expected.  As a "product guy" in several start-ups, I spent lots of time trying to figure out what customers really want and would want from a new product.

Many times, users can't describe exactly how they want a product to work and exactly what problem they need a product to solve.  You can interview them, watch them, run focus groups, and do lots of research.  But, watching doesn't always give you what they want.  Sometimes, a new product is like pornography -- you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it.

Marketeers need to get inside a customer's head.  They need to learn to think like a customer and to understand the world the customer lives in.  This requires first hand experience, not second or third hand.  The worst thing is "zero" hand -- having a product designer do something because they can, because they think it is cool, or because it makes sense to them.

I recently helped my parents set up a digital photo frame.  It should have been an easy experience.  This is a limited function product, has software running on a PC where it should be simple to make a nice interface, and is aimed at a mass market.  Instead, the software was clunky, there was no tutorial, the documentation was sketchy and incomplete.  It wasn't obvious for me how to use this thing.  You can imagine how frustrated the average user gets.  Doesn't this lead to a lot of support calls that ruin the profitability of these products?  Didn't they actually try to use this thing first?

There is an article in today's Boston Globe on how much a company should spend on marketing vs. engineering.  Although interesting, I think that this article misses the point.  You can't solve these problems with money.  I actually think that most companies, particularly small companies, should spend more on engineering than on marketing and product management.  However, every company and product needs one or two visionaries who really get inside the customer's head and understand how the product will be used.  These couple of people can have a huge impact on a product design and can influence the work of a whole engineering team.  They are worth a lot if they are good.

Apple particularly does a great job with this.  The iPod revolutionized digital musice by creating an easy end-to-end customer experience.  No other vendor had done this.  Perhaps they will do the same thing with the iPhone, but I am skeptical.  They are still working with one of the carriers (Cingular), and they have rarely made complicated products simple.  I recently bought a Samsung Blackjack.  The actual device is great, but it is running Windows Mobile.  Windows Mobile has tons of capability and is almost easy.  But, there are little quirks that aren't documented, and synching it with some music on your PC is downright unintuitive.  Didn't anyone try this out?  What is their image of a user if they thought that this was the right way for the product to work?  I don't think that hiring even more marketeers would solve the problem.


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January 10, 2007

ABC saves me from George Bush

I enjoyed last week's premiere of a new show on ABC, The Knights of Prosperity.  Unfortunately (on so many levels), President Bush made a speech tonight at 9 PM, which is when the show airs.  Luckily, ABC.com streams the full episode starting Thursday morning at 2 AM PST.  So, tomorrow I can watch the episode that my Tivo missed most of because of the speech.  Now, if only video streaming on the Web could get us out of Iraq...
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January 09, 2007

Colbert and O'Reilly

Thanks to Rob Tunick for this one:

A colossal media event a year-and-a-half in the making will unfold when Stephen Colbert ventures into the "No Spin Zone" to make his debut guest appearance on FOX News Channel's (FNC) The O'Reilly Factor on Thursday, January 18th at 8:00 PM. Later that evening Bill O'Reilly will grab his American passport and head over to "Colbert Nation" for his debut appearance on COMEDY CENTRAL's The Colbert Report airing at 11:30 PM.

 Set up your Tivo!


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