Category Archives: Technology

The End of Being Organized

Software is getting better and better at helping manage your life, so that you don’t need stay as organized as you used to. In fact, this article from one tech journalist is even titled “stay disorganized.” In the abstract, this is a good thing. Why should people have to remember stuff, or spend time organizing their lives, when computers can do it for them? Isn’t that one of the reasons we have computers…to do the boring stuff for us? But for people who are really organized, like me, this means that technology is taking away one of our comparative advantages. Historically I have been more productive than average, since I was really organized about my work. Now technology has reduced that advantage.

I think the first step in this direction was when Google introduced Desktop in 2004. It searched your PC much faster than the old Windows Explorer search, so that you could find files (word docs, spreadsheets, etc.) even if you couldn’t remember where you saved them or what you named them. That was awesome, except that I already knew where all my files were, because I was an aggressive user of folders and subfolders (sharp-eyed readers know that I have previously commented on folder people vs. non-folder people). Thanks to Desktop, the five minutes I spent working while someone else was searching for a spreadsheet was reduced to five seconds. My productivity advantage disappeared.

Then Google brought that functionality to email (no folders at all when Gmail launched), again eliminating the advantage of my clever folder systems. And now we are seeing apps that apply that same computerized organization to your entire life. What if you forgot to print a travel itinerary, or even write down your flight number? No problem, Google Now will do all that for you. So much for my advantage of having a detailed itinerary prepared, breezing me to my destination ahead of everyone else. EasilyDo and its competitors will help manage your duplicate contacts, remind you of your mom’s birthday, and even buzz you when you haven’t returned your CEO’s phone call.

For society, this is great, freeing up space in people’s brains to write, or cure cancer, or develop more organizational apps. For me, it’s a disaster. I had one claim to fame – being organized – and now it’s gone. I guess I need to find an old has-been app.

Native Advertising: Creative is King

In the internet media world, “native advertising” is all the rage. Native ads are ads that have enough content to be interesting to readers, and are more organically embedded in the content of the website. In other words, advertorials rather than intrusive banner ads. Some people complain that native advertising breaches the editorial wall, and others say that such breaches are the only way for publishers to make money online. There is truth to both sides of that argument.

But editorial purity is not the point of this post. Instead, I want to focus on how the success of native advertising shows that, yet again, content is king. When you read about how and why native advertising is working (like here and here), you’ll see it constantly described as great content you want to read, as adding value to consumers, etc. Native advertising works to the extent that the content is actually good. Because what consumers care about is content.

Or, in the context of an advertising agency, creative is king. If you want to produce good content, you have to have good creative people doing the producing. I think that the real development here is not native vs. non-native, but rather that marketers and their ad agencies are finally putting serious creativity into online advertising.

Since the beginning of the online era, I’ve felt that the main problem with banner ads was not that they were intrusive, but that they sucked. Nobody put any creativity into them. Partly that was driven by size – there just isn’t enough real estate to do much with them – but partly it’s because online campaigns aren’t the glory campaigns in an agency. TV is where the glory is earned for ad execs. TV commercials win awards and get talked about. Online, on the other hand, is boring. It’s basically direct mail, for god’s sake.

Native ads, however, are larger and have a variety of possible formats. There is room for far more creativity than you have in banners. It’s still not a super bowl TV spot, but it’s a much broader canvas than a banner ad. Moreover, with so much of advertising budgets shifting to online, web advertising is getting more respect within agencies, and so top people are working on the web ads.

Yes, native ads are in the middle of the content, but that isn’t their innovation. Their innovation is in size and flexibility, which enables creativity. Thus, the real key to native is that it gives marketers room to focus on quality. And when quality work is done, people pay attention.

Technology, Hubris and Lunch

As you may know, here in Silicon Valley the latest thing is for companies to provide all their employees with free lunches (and often breakfast and dinner too). I think Google was the first to do this, and Facebook followed them, and now even small startups bring in a catered lunch every day, or even hire their own chef. This week the WSJ reported that the IRS is looking into whether this perk should be taxed like most employee perks are. After all, the IRS thinking goes, this is effectively compensation.

I’m no expert on tax law, so I can’t really say whether these lunches should be taxed or not. The way the WSJ laid out the issue, it certainly seems like taxation is the legal path, but the article may have not framed the issue properly.

But one of the arguments that tech companies are making is that the lunches aren’t compensation, but an essential part of the collaborative culture of Silicon Valley. As one tax attorney put it, “there are real benefits for knowledge workers in having unplanned, face to face interaction.” This is complete crap.

Can anyone say with a straight face that it’s essential for an engineer to run into a marketer at Facebook, but that doesn’t matter at Procter & Gamble, or at Caterpillar? That somehow cooperation is more impactful at technology companies than other companies? Sheer idiocy. Having interaction between various constituents of a company is valuable no matter what the company does. To claim that somehow it’s different in Silicon Valley is just the height of hubris.

Spamming Your Friends on Facebook

There are many great things about social media, but there are definitely some pretty crappy elements too.

One of those crappy elements is the tendency of people to use their news feeds to promote their business. You see this on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter – someone puts into their feed a blurb about their company or their professional life:

  • My store was just mentioned in People magazine!
  • Vote for my tech company in this best-startup competition
  • Check out my interview on CNN regarding spamming your friends

It takes the self-glorification that already pervades social media – “look how great my life is!” – and adds a professional component. Seeing these items in a friend’s news feed, where I can’t avoid them, is sort of like the friend giving my email address to a spammer, but instead of some stranger peddling me Viagra, it’s my own friend doing the spamming.

When you bring money and career into the news feed glory wall, it commercializes friendships; people are turning friends into customers. And I’m not sure that transformation is reversible. Once you’ve monetized our relationship, can I ever see you as just a friend again?

Y Combinator: Living the Bubble Dream

Two of the higher profile technology incubator programs – Y Combinator and Tech Stars – recently announced their graduating classes (read about them here and here), and in looking at the companies, I saw, yet again, some reminders of the 1999-like frenzy that the technology industry is currently experiencing.

A few thoughts:

  • Not everything needs to happen online; some things (eg. grocery shopping) satisfy a ton of people in their offline incarnation
  • Lots of things are already online and don’t need a new vendor. Just because you call yourself the Airbnb of vacation rentals doesn’t mean that VRBO, the very successful existing vacation rental website, needs to be “disrupte.”
  • Vertical slicing doesn’t work online. It turns out that the Yelp for contractors is Yelp.

We saw this back in 1999: remember “vertical portals?” Yahoo for gays was PlanetOut, and that didn’t work out too well at all. Vertical slices sound good on paper, but they just don’t work; online it’s just too easy to move from site to site to get what you want. We also saw in 1999 the dot-coming of everything. “We’re going to take your garden online!” Umm, no, you aren’t.

The article about the Y Combinator class even admitted that these companies aren’t world changers, but “perhaps they’ll save a headache or two.” When this is the best that a boosterish tech reporter can come up with, you’ve got problems.

Is Gun Culture Just As Bad As Hollywood?

When Wayne LaPierre of the NRA held his famous press conference after the Sandy Hook massacre, he criticized and cast blame on Hollywood and the videogame industry and their violent products. This is a common trope of the NRA and certain elements of the gun crowd: that our society’s media products glorify violence and create a culture where massacres are bound to happen.  According to LaPierre, the videogame industry is “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people” and thus we have “killers, robbers, rapists, gang members who have spread like cancer in every community across our nation.”

And here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree. The data from studies of this are inconclusive, including a new study that just came out: see more here and here. But to me it seems hard to believe that a person, especially a malleable teenager, can keep watching grotesquely violent movies like the Saw series, or playing shoot ‘em up games like Doom or Killzone, and not become slightly inured to violence. Maybe more violent, maybe not, but certainly with a greater tolerance for violence.

But if you buy into the concept that violent memes in culture could play a role, then the NRA itself, and those same certain elements of the gun crowd, are just as culpable as Hollywood and videogame makers.  I mean, look at the NRA’s favorite saying: “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” Kind of violent, right? Or another quote from LaPierre at his press conference: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” How is that statement less glorifying of violence than Killzone? Or remember Sharron Angle and her call for “2nd amendment remedies” to government decisions she didn’t like? That sounds like a glorification of violence to me. How about the claim of gun rights activists that the 2nd amendment is all about fighting tyranny by enabling armed revolt against the government; that too sounds like promoting violence against laws you don’t like. [Note: I am not versed in the history of the 2nd amendment, so I have no idea if this claim is right or not; I only point out that it tends to be expressed in a way that glorifies violence.]

There is a ton to be said about gun rights and gun safety, and I’m not saying any of it, although I did recently point out that stupidity + guns = badness. But I am saying that if you want to talk about how culture breeds violence, you better be careful about your own words, because they too might breed violence. In my opinion, the gun crowd isn’t careful, and their cultural contributions are as violence-tinged as anything out of Hollywood.

By the way, has anyone ever noticed that LaPierre sort of looks like the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right before the Ark of the Covenant melts his face away?

Wayne LaPierre

Wayne LaPierre

Villain With Face Melting

Villain With Face Melting

Emerging Diseases and Forest Fires

I have been interested in emerging diseases ever since reading The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which was so intense that it kept me awake during an entire overnight train ride from Boston to Washington DC. So I was very psyched at Christmas to receive a copy of Spillover by David Quammen. I just finished it, and know a lot more now about how diseases jump from animals to humans.

Scary cover, great book!

Scary cover, great book!

Quammen uses the book to explore theories about why there seem to be more frequent incidents of humans being infected by animal diseases (think SARS, Ebola, Hendra, Avian Flu, etc.). One of the theories he discusses concerns how increased human development is breaking up large contiguous ecosytems into smaller ecosystems separated by cities, farms, etc.

For example, a large forest might be full of bats that could be carriers of some nasty virus. This forest contains metapopulation of bats, or a series of smaller populations that meet and mingle at their edges. In a metapopulation an infection is likely to be constantly present, but at a low level of incidence. If each smaller population becomes isolated, however, that population will likely go through a boom and bust cycle of infection, with periodic epidemics infecting most members of the population.

If that highly infected population runs into humans, there is increased likelihood of the infection passing to the humans. In other words, if 90% of bats are infected, then there is a higher probability of bats passing their disease to humans than if only 10% of bats are infected.

As development has broken up formerly vast forests into smaller forest segments surrounded by cities and suburbs, we have seen metapopulations of natural disease reservoirs (bats, rats, mice, etc.) broken up into the isolated populations that are more likely to transfer diseases. Hence the increasing number of obscure infections jumping into humans.

What struck me about this theory is the parallel to forest fires. Current wildfire thinking holds that if you put out wildfires, fuel loads will build up and eventually you will get a catastrophic fire that can’t be controlled (like the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, which burned nearly 500,000 acres; I drove through the edge of that fire, and the smoke turned day into night). But if you let natural fires burn, they will clear out the fuel load and not turn into conflagrations.

So you can have small, more frequent fires, or rare, catastrophic fires. Much like you can have frequent, low levels of infection in your animals, or rare, but massive levels of infection. And in both cases, human intervention in the environment is what moves things from low-level balance to a high-level cyclic system.