Dan Conover Takes On The Newspapers

As someone who as seen the “journalists vs bloggers” debate iterated a few dozen times more than I really care to, I’m interested when new factors are put in either side of that equation. One thing I have noticed from the journalist side of this is that they tend to mention virtues of professional journalists that I don’t really see much in practice. They talk about how how good it is to “be fact checked.” However whenever I’ve seen major articles on topics I’m deeply familiar with, they always contain egregious errors of fact. It’s the same thing with the idea of being professionally edited. If that’s the case, why are so many modern articles written in that florid, overwrought prose that is strong on “story” and light on fact? Is that really what that are edited to?

This brings me to Dan Conover. He’s been the editor of a newsroom and up until very recently he was a working reporter. He’s also been a blogger for a goodly long while, and groks the online world quite well. When he starts refactoring this equation, I pay attention. Here is Dan’s take on one of those unexamined sacred virtues of the newspaper world, the fact that they do investigative journalism. It’s really an interesting read.

Note to Online Retailers

If you have an online store with a shopping cart, it might make sense to do the work to make that shopping cart persistent. If someone spends 15 minutes filling that cart and then gets interrupted before they can finish up, comes back to it and finds the cart empty, they might just get pissed off enough to not spend that money with you. Bonus double shame points if the potential customer created an account and logged in first just to make this cart persistent, but that had no effect. Isn’t incoming business important enough to you to make this happen?

Dear CVS Pharamacy

If you are going to lock up the colognes and perfume, and then have a sale on them, it should be predictable by you that people might want to buy some of them. When I went to the store at 38th Avenue and Highway 17 Bypass in Myrtle Beach at lunch today, and stood at the case pressing the red button every 2 minutes for 15 minutes, until I finally gave up and wrangled a person to come and unlock it for me, it did not make me happy. In fact, it might have convinced me that Rite Aid or Walgreens might be more committed to actually selling me the products in their store. Also, please don’t have a red button for requesting assistance if no one in the store actually pays attention to the “Customer assistance needed in cosmetics” announcements it played. At the fifteen minute mark I considered just pressing it non-stop until someone came as an exercise to see if anyone would.

In short, if you lock up merchandise to keep it from being stolen and you ignore messages that people want to buy it, you absolutely deserve to never sell any again. Get rid of that case and use the space to stock more Valentine candy, because you aren’t good with high margin items.

Saul Griffith on the Wattage of a Lifestyle and Energy Literacy

Perhaps my favorite presentation ever on IT Conversations is this session from ETech with Saul Griffith (presentation hardcopy here). He discusses some assumptions on how carbon dioxide levels could be stabilized at non-catastrophic levels and then what the energy requirements of the maximum average lifestyle would be. Interestingly, he analyzes his own lifestyle in terms of the wattage it requires to sustain it, which is a unit I’ve never really thought about for applying to ones life. For example, if you have a drink and discard one 20 oz plastic bottle every day, that works out to 90 watts sustained when you take the amount of energy in the bottle divided by seconds in a day. It’s a really interesting analysis.

In the latter part of the presentation, he discusses the amount of new clean energy that would need to come online to meet his projected energy budget. He talks about the distressingly large but not impossible capacity that needs to be built. For example in terms of wind, he says that a dozen 3 megawatt wind turbines will need to go online every hour for the next 25 years, which is one 100 meter turbine every 5 minutes. He points out that such a creation may be beyond our government, but it is not beyond GM + Ford + Chrysler. I heard this a few weeks ago at the height of discussion of bailouts of the same big three automakers. All I could think was “hell, let’s not have the American public bail out the big three – let’s buy them and retool them into wind turbine and solar thermal turbine factories.” How much industrial capacity in the USA is sitting idle right now? Hell, about 30 miles from me in South Carolina there are factories upon factories sitting dark with unemployed workforces ready to be rehired if someone were to light them back up.

My hero Buckminster Fuller did much of his work in the 40s and 50s with an eye towards solving housing shortages with excess capacity of the American WW II era aircraft factories. HIs Wichita house was designed using the idea of being able to built by aircraft factories with the minimal amount of retooling. This same type of thinking is needed today. We have multiple problems in our economy and our environment and they can all fix each other at the same time. Let’s put people back to work, let’s put our tax money to work, create new energy sources with less environmental impact. Everyone — and I mean everyone — wins on this.

This needs vision and leadership. I pray to R. Buckminster Fuller every night that John Holdren and the Obama administration will see this truth and make this happen. If we don’t do this now, my backup hope is that disaster holds off just long enough so that society doesn’t completely fall apart until after I’m dead. That’s not much of a hope, so let’s do the other thing, please, America.

US Airways Explores New Ways to Annoy

One of the big downsides of residing in the Myrtle Beach area is that most of the air flight out of MYR is handled by US Airways. This flight, at least, we left on time and so far have been without incident. However, I’m not particularly happy about paying for a ticket for a flight that is in the high 3 digits, and then getting charged $5 to pick my seat to Charlotte, $15 to pick my seat to San Francisco and then another $20 to check my bag. Then, when you get on the plane they charge your $7 for a cardboard sandwich and $2 for a coke.

I’ve already dropped a fairly large amount for this flight, and I really hate getting nickled and dimed. If the flight was $50 more, it wouldn’t really matter at this point. Making me pay 3 separate transactions just to get on the plane and charging me for every little bit of food and drink begins to wear on me. Really, what happens over time isn’t that they pick up lost revenue on these transactions but that the airlines convince me not to make trips I can’t drive to.

How I Would Have Merged Twitter and I Want Sandy

I’m not a brilliant internet entrepreneur or much of any kind of entrepreneur, really. I’m not a strategist or business expert or pundit or guru. All I have is guesswork and barely healed stubbed toes and a general feeling around of my way in this online world. However, even with my lack of chops it is hard to imagine a worse way to deal with the purchase of Values of N by Twitter and how they dealt with the aftermath.

I can understand that mostly what Twitter wanted out of the deal was Rael Dornfest. I have been part of acquisitions where one company bought another mostly to get an in-place development team. However, this was at the height of the dot-com boom when hiring was difficult and people were expensive. I sure don’t understand how that makes sense when there are a lot of people looking for jobs, the labor cost is under downward pressure.

What really fails to make sense for me though is why Twitter would acquire a company with working, extant and deployed products and get zero value out of them. Sure, they bought Values of N to integrate the team into Twitter but I Want Sandy and Stikkit are already out there. How does just shutting them down help anything? It creates a lack of trust in cloud based services in general, if a solid and useful service like I Want Sandy can just disappear with a few weeks notice. I’ve already posted about how the only defense ever offered is that the service was free, which I think is insufficient a defense. Being a free service does not relieve a company of its responsibilities in being stewards of their users, particularly when like Sandy they asked to be an essential portion of the workflow of ones life. To say “Hey it was free, what do you expect?” is exactly akin to saying “Hey, you were stupid enough to trust us. What do you expect?”

Assume I was somehow involved with either Twitter or Values of N. This is what I would have wanted to happen with the acquisition:

Step 1: Before announcing the situation, I would have set up an exit path for the users. Dornfest put together some export tools only after public outcry and 1 week into the original 2 week notice. That’s weak tea.

Step 2: I would have informed the users before the general public about the situation. I would have sent it down the actual paths of notification, rather than posting it on the company blog. It should be noted that only today, 3 days before the original shutdown date, has any notification been sent to the users. That’s worse than weak tea.

Step 3: I would have said that effective January 1st 2009 there would be no more free versions of I Want Sandy. New users would get a 30 day trial, all users would effectively be on a trial until Jan 1. After that point, the service would be subscription only. Let’s say $10/month, $100 if you prepay for a year. That could be more or less, but within that general range.

Step 4: For any paid up I Want Sandy users who have a Twitter account enabled, I would turn back on IM access and track for that Twitter account. Both I Want Sandy and Twitter were more valuable when those features were in Twitter, so if you are a paid up user then you get those features back. This gives both Sandy and Twitter a basic revenue model. It might not be huge, but for every 10,000 users of Sandy flipped to paid users that’s $1M/year. I don’t know the user base of Sandy but because of the nature of the service, I’d suspect a higher than usual percentage of users would flip to paid, maybe something on the order of 30-50%. If Sandy had 100K users, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see 50K pay up. Rael cites the cost of maintenance of Sandy as rationale for the shut down, even if they do no further development. If it had paid users, you could hire cheaper admins and let them baby sit the site.

At that point, the conjunction of Twitter and I Want Sandy would have value above what either has alone. That’s synergy, used appropriately for the actual Buckminster Fuller definition, not the business wonk BS version that has been watered down to mean “anything I like”. The ecosystem of the two services would provide things the components do not. It would be monetized at the point of value creation. It would make Twitter more valuable even when not using Sandy. It would have prevented the hordes of angry users such as myself. I’m ceasing to use Twitter as protest of this stupidity. Once they’ve proven that they don’t care about the users and stewarding their data, I cannot trust them as any part of my communications infrastructure.

As I said, I’m not a business guru but it seems like all of this provides more value to everyone, keeps a valuable service alive in the Web 2.0 ecosystem, increases user satisfaction, and avoids buying a company and keeping the people but disposing of all its value creating assets. Am I just too stupid to see why scrapping I Want Sandy was a better move?

Dan Conover on the Media Interregnum

My friend Dan Conover took a buyout at his job at the Charleston Post and Courier last month. His final assignment was to write a piece on the present day values of mass media journalism. Fittingly for the situation, they opted not to print it and gave it back to him to do what he wanted to. He opted to publish it at his group blog Xark. I occasionally shoot off my mouth about journalism (like I did the other day) but I’m an outsider who doesn’t really know what I’m talking about. Dan’s a career journalist, so when you read his assessment of the current state of journalism, bear that in mind.

Update: While I’m linking to Dan, I should also include this piece he posted about our congressman Henry Brown. This is the kind of politics we deal with here in coastal South Carolina.

Microfinance Podcast Coincidence

This morning in my podcast queue I listened to two shows in a row that discussed microfinance. The first was more technical, the Ruby on Rails podcast interview with the MicroPlace developers. The second was the “My Needs/Your Needs” episode of the Heather Gold show, which included microfinance expert April Rinne. What’s interesting to me is the tension between the two discussions and how they fit in with my thinking. When MicroPlace began getting press, I thought that it had a definite possibility to do more good than Kiva. My reasoning was that because Kiva pays no interest, the money they could get from me would be what I can afford to give philanthropically. Since MicroPlace pays interest in the 3.0% neighborhood it means that rather than using what I can give, it could be what I have to invest at that rate. These two amounts differ by orders of magnitude.

What I thought was really odd was in the Heather Gold Show discussion they seemed to suggest that Kiva is more pure because it is pure philanthropy rather than interest bearing. I think the opposite, that MicroPlace is situated to do much more good. If via either site the investments have the same benefits but you can afford to put more money in, then the interest bearing system makes much more sense to me. This is a clear case of idealism versus pragmatism. The San Franciscans dismissed making interest as somehow slimy whereas doing it for the sheer desire to do good is superior. I just don’t see it that way. If by charging a few percentage points annually they can make it so that people can put in orders of magnitudes more cash into the system then many more people can be helped. Bring on the interest, no matter what the hippies think!

Project Wonderful Arbitrage

I’ve been experimenting with Project Wonderful ads on AmigoFish for some time. It’s never made that much money and what it brings in I just spend back out in placing ads myself. I mostly just like the idea of it and the purity of their mechanism even though now the distribution of advertisers skews heavily to the goofy end of webcomics people.

The other day I got a bid on my ad box that in retrospect was probably inevitable. Some third party was bidding on my box with a Dell ad that was certainly some kind of CPA affiliation situation. It makes perfect rational economic sense. If you have a CPA ad that generates you $50 in referral fees per customer acquired, and you can acquire a customer by placing $5 or $10 worth of inexpensive ads via Project Wonderful, why not? I rejected the bid because why I am going to let him do that on my site for $0.03/day? If the bids are going that cheap, I’d rather it be some smalltime knucklehead like me placing the ad than some HP or Dell ad. Still, I figure that unless Project Wonderful specifically bans it on the terms of service, you’ll see more of this. I don’t mind them doing the arbitrage play as long is it pulls up the ad prices from the demand side. I’m not letting them place through me, though.

The Beancounter Bubble

Here’s a sad article but one that seems true to me about how our country and economy has been sucked dry by beancounters.

The American ship is sinking from the weight of its own economic narcissism. Our accountants and finance professionals have been richly rewarded for squeezing the last microscopic drop of profitability out of every other profession. That’s why American newsrooms don’t bother with news. That’s why American old age homes imprison their residents as cheaply as possible. That’s why American insurance companies refuse to pay out claims for sick people or destroyed homes. That’s why we’ve proven that America is massively incapable of nationbuilding in Iraq or in Afghanistan or even in Louisiana.

So, thanks to the beancounters who know what things cost but not how to actually do anything, American is accelerating toward becoming a third world nation. And no one in the rest of the world will give a shit, and rightfully so, thanks to our cavalier attitudes toward Iraqi civilians, toward Sudanese refugees, toward the Chinese children who sew our clothing, toward the immigrants who work on our farms and in our hotels and hospitals and in those extremely profitable old-age homes, and toward anyone who isn’t white and speaks English.

This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Are you more worried about getting blown up or watching your house, savings and job disappear into the nothingness?

Buy Nothing Day

So in principle I support Buy Nothing Day. It’s the same message I’ve been preaching on here and in my podcast for years. No TV or goodie is as nice as the feeling of being out of debt. However, I’m buying something today. There’s an item we’ve been talking about getting for six months, is much easier to get in the holiday season and is 30 to 50% cheaper if we buy it today than another time. So, are we getting played by the man or playing the man?

US Airways, Purveyors of Service

Sounds like US Airways and America West really made a hash of combining their reservation systems. US Airways is one of the common carriers out of Myrtle Beach and often these United tickets are cross-booked with them. I think they are the most consistently sucky airline I’ve ever flown. It’s not one thing, it is a pervasive culture of unhelpfulness and hostility that permeates the entire business.

For me, the moment that crystallized it was coming back from Oregon last fall and not getting my suitcase back. When I was 10 minutes out from the airport they called my cell and told me they found my bag and it was behind the ticket counter. An hour later I went back to the ticket counter and the woman there told me they didn’t have it and sent me to baggage claim. The baggage handler walked me back up to the ticket counter, where my bag was two feet from the woman who told me they didn’t have it. I don’t generally raise my voice at airline people but this was clearly a case of rampant laziness and sorriness. She couldn’t be bothered to bend her neck enough to lower her gaze 20 degrees to see, yes there is a suitcase right next to her. If that was an isolate incident, I’d write it off but that pretty much defines how every interaction with US Air feels. They don’t really care about your experience. If they get your money and get you there within 24 hours of when they were supposed to arrive, mission accomplished. Whether or not you were miserable means little to them.

I have heard the story of how Allegheny was the worst airline in the country and that after the name change people said US Air is an acronym for Unfortunately Still Allegheny In Reality. This is a business that has sucked for a long time, is known to suck and has built up and solidified a culture of suck. Why is it still in business when others fail? I’m now building my travel itineraries around making sure I don’t have to fly it, which is a pain because they usually have the best flight times out of here. We need more tourists coming to Myrtle Beach, so we can have more and better flights for me when I need them!

Keep Your Enemies Closer

Over at 37Signals, Matt blogs an article about how competition creates market niches, focusing specifically on the jockeying amongst Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Starbucks for your caffeine and sugar dollar.

I’ve seen way too much wussiness about competition in the tech world, up to and including a CEO of a startup I worked at shutting down the company at FUD that Microsoft was entering their space. It was 18 months before they shipped a product while we were weeks away, and their product never was close to the quality of ours. Today, that product is essentially gone and it never did equal the quality of what we had in 1999.

Mix it up a little or don’t start, for gods sake! Be prepared to compete and do it well or don’t waste our time.

Timeline of Firing Sprint

I cancelled my new Sprint PCS service tonight. I’d had it for less than two weeks, and over the course of the evening decided I don’t want to be their customer. Here’s the timeline.

January 9 – We order new phones from Sprint
January 11 – We receive the phones. I test it out, and the microSD card doesn’t work right.
January 12 – I take it to a Sprint store. They send me to a place near the beach that repairs Motorola phones. The Motorola place tells me it needs to be sent back. We try to take it to the Sprint company store on Kings Highway. They tell us since we ordered it on the web we can’t return it via them.
January 13 – I call to order a replacement phone.
January 17 – 20 Every day, I think that will be the day I get the phone
January 22 – I get tired of waiting so I call for a status on the replacment

8:45 PM – I start the call by dialing *2 from the phone in question
9:00 PM – I talk to my first person. They ask for my cell number and password. They tell me something I never quite got about how the order for a replacement was cancelled until I pay. Since the initial order was covered with a credit card, I never understand this. This person transfers me to another person. They ask for my cell number and password. I go through about the same thing again. This person transfers me to another person. They ask for my cell number and password. I still don’t know where my phone is, what the status is, or what it is I’m supposed to owe.
9:17 PM – My cell phone drops the call. Around this time, we decide this is way too much trouble to try to be some company’s customer when they don’t seem to want my business
9:20 PM – I call back from the landline, straight to the Sprint Online Return line
9:35 PM – I talk to my first person of the second call. They ask for my cell number and password. I explain that the phone was defective out of the box and I want to invoke my 30 day guarantee. This person promises to send me a return label via email and transfers me to account services.
9:45 PM – I am connected to a guy with a Texas drawl. He asks for my cell number and password. He is the only person in both calls whose accent is easily understandable to me. I don’t want to sound ethnocentric, but at this point I’m relieved that I’m at least talking to someone on the same continent as myself. He asks why I want to cancel, and I give him about the same story I’ve typed up here. He asks what they can do to keep us with Sprint. I say that at 8:45 PM they had a shot but in the subsequent hour they’ve set about systematically making sure I don’t want the phone or their service anymore. This guy also promises to send us a return kit.

I had high hopes for both the Motorola RAZR and for Sprint. Now I have zero desire to have anything to do with the company. We’ll stick with Cingular a little while longer and possibly upgrade to new phone models later. Nice job Sprint, in under two weeks you turned me from an excited new customer to a sworn enemy of your company. The cell phone industry is an amazing place, populated by choices that are the least sucky. No one is ever delighted, we are all just trying to minimize our frustration and dissatisfaction. I am now staying with a provider that for calls made from our house over 20 minutes in duration drops 75% of them. Talk about damning with faint praise.

Bitpass Shutting the Doors

Here’s another startup in the act of biting dust. Micropayment company Bitpass is shutting the doors. The only thing that ever gave me the slightest reason to want to use them is that Scott McCloud’s online comics and Telltale Weekly both used them. In fact, McCloud was involved in the company as an advisor. I guess the closing of Bitpass kind of cuts the legs out from under this argument.

There was a time that I thought micropayments were a pretty good way to go for online content. I’ve since flipped. I know think that rather than aggregating together lots of little payments from most or all of your fans, better to aggregate all your fans into one excited group that occasionally buys bigger ticket items. Rather than having every listener pay $0.10 per show, having 1% of them buy your t-shirt or paper collection of your webcomic or whatever may make you more money overall.

Socks Ain’t Business

There needs to be a better convention for blogging all the chain of a story as it reaches you. It always bugs me when everyone cites BoingBoing for things and ignore all the ways that they got the story. Let’s try this:

Yarn Harlot blogged this story which begat Majikthise which begat Teresa which begat Avedon where I read it. It’s a pretty shocking story to be reading in 2007. Blue Moon Fiber Arts has a sock club where a subscription gets you first a shipment of some schwag and then quarterly shipments of yarn particularly good for socks and patterns to knit. I know diddly squat about knitting but apparently this yarn changes color at a distance such that it automatically makes patterns in the sock as you knit it. This club costs $210 up front for all this, and was full to the point of having a wait list. So far so good, and it sounds like a good old American capitalist success story, no?

Well, the bank that accepts the credit card payments for Blue Moon decided this couldn’t possibly be real. They had a meeting where they sat down, had the business model explained and still decided the whole thing is a scam. All the women in the blogging chain note the element of misogyny in this. This woman owned company couldn’t possibly be generating all this revenue for this silly interest so they revoked their credit processing account and refunded all the already cleared payments! I’m not sure the size of the club, but imagine you are a small business and your bank decides over your objections and despite the evidence you present that your business is a fraud and thus gives back tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars you have already been paid. Un-fricking-believable.

I personally already understood the Crafter impulse. It’s the same as the Maker impulse, with scarves instead of robots. OReilly noticed both of these trends, that’s why they publish both Make and Craft. If I hadn’t I would have learned when I noticed dozens of people signing up with AmigoFish and then rating many of the dozens of knitting and crafting podcasts. Previously, I hadn’t noticed that any of them existed and I was surprised at exactly how many such shows there were. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that where there is such interest, there is money to be made.

Luckily, Blue Moon Fiber Arts seems to be able to survive this fiasco. They’ve moved their money to a different bank that is willing to accept it. Be careful kids, make your money in masculine ways or the good old boys at the bank won’t believe that you really made it!

Update: I missed the first step on the blogging chain. Sorry, how could I shortchange a blog named “The Yarn Harlot”?

No Change for Fish

In Myrtle Beach, there is a big touristy open air mall called Broadway at the Beach. It has a lot of boardwalks over a pond, and there are these big creepy koi in it. At many places, there are little vending machines for fish food – drop in a quarter and get a handful of kibble to throw to the fish. They have also opened up a new section of the mall, and over the weekend we saw some stores that we had never seen before. One of them was a scrapbooking store.

The very first thing I saw when we approached the store was a big handlettered sign hanging in the center of the door. It said “NO CHANGE for fish!” That, my friends at the scrapbooking store, is what you call a tactical mistake. I don’t care about scrapbooking and wasn’t in any danger of browsing, but some day in the right situation and the right whim I might. However, if the first thing I encounter is a big sign in the negative, if the single most important thing for them to tell me is what they won’t do for me, who needs them? There are 200 other stores to browse. This is not at all uncommon. I see signs like this all the time, most commonly from mom and pop retailers that one presumes could use all the business they can drum up.

Suppose now you took the exactly opposite approach. What if you as the store manager keep a special section in the cash drawer with an extra $100 in quarters specifically earmarked for fish food change. You don’t cut into the operation of your business, when that runs out its out, but until then you happily make change for anyone that asks. In addition, you make up a one page sheet with information about scrapbooking, why you would do it, the store hours and phone number and website. When they ask for change, you give them the sheet. Then, you rip down the negative sign and put one up that says “Of course we have change for fish! Come on in!”

You’ve got a hook bringing people into your store that wouldn’t naturally set foot inside and you are blowing it. Don’t fight it, go with it. I’m amazed at small retailers that consistently blow their first impressions on trivia, on things that are irrelevant to customers or that actively discourage people from interacting with you. In a big box world, the thing you have to offer as a tiny story owner is that personal relationship. Don’t work so hard to avoid that.