Truth and Consequences

It’s fascinating to see how the escalation of social media is driving so much of our public conversation. A cursory walk through some of today’s lead stories illustrates how dumb people can be and how quickly social media can facilitate retribution. The best recent example has to be from our favorite group of Islamic terrorists Al Qaeda. A week or so back they released footage of their spring jamboree complete with AK47s and death to the US chanting. At the time there was a great hue and cry about how weak this made the US look etc…the blog sphere lit up and nearly burnt down. My reaction was “wow…it’s like they have never heard of drone strikes.” Sure enough a week later hell fire and damnation was rained down on them. Whether we actually hit any of the same bad guys isn’t mentioned in any of the reports I’ve seen, but as a very public rejoinder to the very public nose thumbing it’s pretty near perfect. I’ll lay you dimes to donuts that at some point someone in or very near the White House picked up the phone and complained about the mockery they were getting on Twitter. Interestingly the US government has recently been reaching out to members and supporters of terrorist groups through their online presences. It’s a kind of virtuous trolling where although we don’t negotiate with terrorists we will engage in hearts and mind wars on Twitter and Facebook.

At a much smaller scale but at an even more monumental level of stupidity a mother who was pretty mad at her 11 year old for claiming gangster status on Facebook went to the trouble of recording the 60 stroke 6 minute belt beating she administered to discourage that kind of claim….then posted it to her Facebook….no I couldn’t believe it either. Social services and the police descended in close to real time.

Last week a 14 year old Dutch girl thought it would be hilarious to issue a bomb hoax to American airline via Twitter, which of course prompted phalanxes of knuckleheads to do likewise…all of which received the proverbial knock on the door from the men in black. The lunatic (or performance artist….you choose) who staged “a performance event” in Boston on the anniversary of the Boston bombing was identified and arrested the moment the people who observed his art posted the videos online.

It’s not widely appreciated that what we think of anonymous social media is actually far from that. Although Twitter has a policy of not sharing information unless served with the appropriate legal docs the Airlines have no such qualms…nor do any governmental organizations who might be targets for such pranks. In the general swim of things you are pretty free to complain about flights, airline food or your government online behind which ever handle or username you care to.  You can be mocking snide or offensive…on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog. However the moment you diverge from the norm and start issuing threats or home videos of child beating or an Al Qaeda rally you can be reasonably confident that the same security forces who would otherwise be hard pressed to find their assembly instructions in the dark with a flashlight and both hands, with the help of social media, will show up with a search warrant or drone strike. It’s both slightly terrifying and almost poetic.

Google’s Morning After

Yesterday Google announced results which weren’t quite as pant splittingly fabulous as the markets may have hoped and were pounded into dust accordingly…well slipped 3%…but who’s counting?  We can imagine the brilliant young things in Mountain View sobbing into their organic margaritas as they commiserate about the vagaries of the Markets. Their profits remain fabulous and growing but they are having to work harder to keep ahead. The received wisdom is that the revenue they make for every click continues to slide because we the end users have migrated to mobile devices much quicker than the the advertisers have been able to move their technology and their ad budgets to mobile.

That’s clearly true, what’s also happening is the continuing trend against advertising in general. As an advertising guy who fundamentally doesn’t like advertising  I have raged against the hand that feeds me for years. I was raised by the BBC which continues to be a gloriously a- free zone. I pay the premiums to get HBO, Starz, Hulu+, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sirius and now Podcasting….you name it….any platform which will deliver quality content without stupefying interruption I’m there. Mobile devices are practically much harder to slather with advertising than desktop and the advertising on them can be splendidly easy to ignore….so we do.

What’s interesting is that for advertisers looking to reach buyers who have a time crunch or some kind of local need mobile advertising outperforms desktop by orders of magnitude.  Google has recognized this by quickly taking away our ability to target mobile only and requiring that we pay a 300% premium if we want mobile only clicks. So ironically mobile advertising is both cheaper than the norm for the big box advertisers like Amazon or BestBuy who would rather talk to the end user on larger real estate where they can lead them through their typical buying process (fill this out…click here…add credit card here etc) and super expensive for folks trying to reach customers who need a tow, a plumber or want to speak to someone about a replacement roof. The problem Google is experiencing is that there are many more large advertisers spending millions a month who haven’t yet transitioned to a fully mobile deployed solution.
Googles Chief Revenue Officer recently stated that Google sees mobile and local click prices rising dramatically as more advertisers get mobile. Until that happens they will continue to suffer a mobile hangover.

Excuse Me As My Blood Boils


Yesterday I was babbling on about Google’s recent acquisition of a drone company…which is a bit of a diversion from their traditional online advertising world which is where their actual revenue still comes from. Their recent forays into everything from modular cell phones to self driving cars (which are causing some concerns among financial pundits about their fiscal profligacy) prove that they have a strong appetite for both the long game and tech baubles. Meanwhile back on the farm where the sausage and the money actually gets made they continue to conduct trench warfare against their real enemy…their advertisers.
This rant is more than a little inside baseball…so you have my permission to move on to your next agenda item…but just because I can I’m going to rant. What makes me perhaps most mad is the sheer disingenuousness of this most recent development. Here’s what’s up:
For the longest time if your web page or search ad was clicked on Google would tell you two very interesting bits of data; the search term which led to the click and for ads, the exact keyword which drove the click you paid for. That was helpful for website writers (ie SEO) as it allowed insights into who is searching for what. It was doubly useful for advertisers because we could better target search terms which led to clicks which led to conversion. It’s been an open secret for a long while that Google is not a huge fan of SEO and does as little as it can to give SEO folks anything to work with so taking that that away from them made a grim kind of sense. However given that we the advertisers who actually pay the cash which lets them buy cool stuff like robot companies and drone manufacturers used that information to help us plan campaigns and spend money on Google you might think that sharing information which lets us spend more efficiently (and thus probably more over the long term) might be seen as a good thing. Not so fast there hos!
Nearly two years ago Big G started encrypting the search terms from anyone logged into to any Google product under the guise of protecting searchers privacy. At that point they were still passing the search term and key word…coz…hey money is money.
The other day Google announced that they are now encrypting the search term for paid clicks also.  They will allow you to get an overall list of search terms which overall drove the clicks you paid for but where the end user is logged onto any Google service or using a Google Chrome browser we have now lost the ability to attribute the search term to the click which drove the conversion. The fig leaf they hide this act of aggression against their life blood of advertisers is that it helps ensure end user privacy.  The same end users who are essentially anonymous anyway.
What this really does is make the job of the advertiser who is attempting to spend marketing dollars on search terms and keywords which do convert that much harder.  Fortunately we still have data from the non logged in minority and Bing isn’t playing these sorts of games….but it’s still super annoying. I get that Google is under pressure to keep the revenue solid even as the average per click price slips and the desktop, but doing it by simply making life even harder than it has to be for the people who are actually paying the bills seems a little short sighted.

Droning On

Drones are definitely the new black. In addition to them presenting a considerable increase in the tension levels at Al Qaeda pep rallies  Amazon is threatening to use them to deliver stuff we can’t wait an extra day to receive our stuff and now Google is buying into the game. Today they announced that they are buying Titan Aerospace.  You have to wonder why give the enormous tasks still to be completed at home why the Big G is laying out big bucks on drones. The answer is simple….poor people. Pretty much everyone in the “civilized” world has a phone (increasingly a smartphone) and the number of searches served on mobile devices has already outstripped desktops in the US chasing the same searchers in the eternal quest to squeeze the last cent out of an already saturated market is problematic. A solar-powered drone by Titan Aerospace. (Titan Aerospace photo)

It’s increasingly looking like the desktop PC may go the way of the copper landline.  We in the west carefully navigated the entire history of the telephone, it took us a century or more to suffer through the technology until we could just dispense with it altogether and go permanently mobile, I haven’t had a landline in five years. The emerging world has largely skipped copper altogether and gone wireless from day one.  In the same way we are rapidly and permanently abandoning the desktop. Tablets and smartphones do the majority of what we used to do on beige boxes, large parts of the world may get to be fully mobile, online and most importantly shopping without ever seeing a wired phone or a traditional PC.

Delivering the infrastructure to make this a reality explains the recent forays by the likes of Google and Facebook into wireless infrastructure. Whether it’s a balloon or an enormous drone covered in solar panels circling high above the earth the big players in our markets have big plans for the third world. As economies become strong enough to support ecommerce Google will be there providing the network to facilitate it. Yes, Google is of course positioning this a humanitarian initiative to bring a better life to millions.

It’s encouraging to think that one day all of humanity will be able to search on Google, exchange cat pics on Facebook and shop on Amazon. However one could be forgiven for posing the question Bill Gates did recently…if you are so focused on doing the greatest good for the greatest number…why aren’t you helping cure malaria? 

Google Glass Turning 2….But Still Sucking

About a million years ago (actually June 2004) I was invited by a dude I knew at Google to join an upstart email system called Gmail. It was in its infancy and 56 thousand emails later I’m still using that account. Of course now everybody has a Gmail account and Google reads our mail to target us with advertising.

Back then Google was a fraction of the behemoth it has become and it was kinda neat having an email address which was exactly what I wanted…no need to add a year of birth or similar to make the name unique.  Over the next couple of years they opened up the program to everyone and the rest is history. 

Google Glass turns two this week and it has been a quite different story. Even tho Google launched it two years ago it’s still in its “Ambassador” stage. That’s not entirely surprising as Google famously keeps products in “Beta” mode for much longer than most.  It does get tons of press (most of it controversial if not actively bad) sightings are rare and noteworthy and the prevailing opinion seems to be that Glass wearers are pretty much pariahs….I had a better word which rhymes with “brick head” Google themselves coined the term “Glasshole” for users without the social smarts to use the product appropriately.There are several things counting against Google Glass which are keeping it in Beta and may even doom it entirely.

Privacy:  Aside from the idiots who actually wore it in the locker room it is creepy to think that the guy over there with the Brooklyn hipster beard may be filming or photographing you without even the needing to pretend not to be.

Price: At $1,500 and holding it’s completely out of reach of all but the wealthiest of nerds and at least initially was only available to those invited to become “ambassadors” by Google. The result is that the only folks you ever see wearing them are early 30 somethings in silicon valley….as sub group who are rapidly becoming as popular are timeshare sales people at the airport in Mexico. We get it…you are rich and well connected.

Features: Put simply Glass is essentially an extension of your smart phone.  The battery life is pretty miserable and although there are cool thing it can do it’s tough to trade instant pariah status for those limited features.  Wearables at a much lower price point are rapidly becoming the new norm. At about $100 and available from Amazon you don’t need to be a founding member of SnapChat to join the game.

Although Google is amazingly wealthy and powerful the products it makes its money from are essentially both egalitarian and empowering…most folk don’t hate Google. Glass is a clear departure from that norm. Google’s other recent adventure into hardware the ChromeCast TV plugin priced at a very approachable $35 has been a huge hit and has sold millions.  The message is clear, cool and affordable beats cool and elitist every time.

The Philadelphia Fiasco

It’s tough to run an airline and the continuing merger between US Airways and American to form the worlds largest (and worst?) airline clearly isn’t helping. Here’s a few “teachable moments” from our recent trip from San Diego to New York’s Newark airport.

We arrived in Philly in horrible weather hoping to make our connection to Newark. It was delayed and delayed then cancelled and we were reliably informed that there would be no more flights to Newark that day owing to the weather and air traffic problems. The good news was US Air was convinced that they could get us to Laguardia instead and in plenty of time. After what felt like twenty minutes of typing the service rep told me she had stood us by for the 6:05 but we were confirmed onto the 9:15 just in case that didn’t pan out. We had a bag checked and that was (we were told) rerouted to Laguardia accordingly. We jumped back on the shuttle bus (our second trip) and made it to the gate to find we had missed the flight…so we started waiting for the 9:15.
When we arrived (again via shuttle in the pouring rain) to the gate we were informed that we had not infact been confirmed onto the 9:15…in fact we were in limbo. We attempted to get on the 9:15 without success but we were confirmed on to the 10:50. Back to the shuttle! The 10;50 was delayed…and I was concerned about the fate of our bags, so I waited in line for 45 minutes to check with customer service on our bags.  Our bags were confirmed as definitely in Newark…they had left on the flight which had been cancelled but was then reinstated. I pleaded with the customer service person to have them forwarded it to LAguardia or  even better our hotel so it would be there ahead of us…but no go…we had to resolve this in Laguardia.
We finally made it to Laguardia about 1.00 AM having wasted about 6 hours in Philly. The baggage guy assured us our bags should make it to our hotel by some time after lunch the same day.  They didn’t, they in fact arrived some time in the wee small hours the following day over 24 hrs later. Nothing beats arriving exhausted without luggage. Both the online and telephone baggage enquiry services were both unhelpful.
Here’s the teachable moments from that Fiasco
  1. When standing a passenger by always give them physical proof in the form of a standby boarding pass for each flight. Hopefully that will force the system to complete the change.
  2. In situations where a bag has misrouted and you can clearly see the problem and the resolution own it by taking the effort to get it corrected ASAP. Don’t make it your passengers problem to be resolved at their final destination.
  3. When you know a bag will take 24 hours to forward 10 miles to a local hotel, be honest; it will help us plan…it would have been cheaper to get a taxi there and collect it than re-buy the essentials we ended up buying.
  4. When your oversights or mistakes have caused a frequent flier the travel day from hell….apologize….even if it’s not that person’s actual fault attempt to appear that you care. 
The level of incompetence and evident lack of concern demonstrated at every interaction was disappointing if not surprising.  We were offered neither apology nor any kind of compensation for inconvenience at any point….just another day in the air. Our biggest mistake (aside from flying US Air) was to hold check a bag with a connection through Philadelphia. It’s been so long since I last checked a bag I guess I had forgotten.

The Amazing Hedwig

I appreciate that the protocol is that nobody reviews a Broadway show until it officially opens…but permit to break with tradition and give you my 2c on the reboot of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neal Patrick Harris which is currently in Previews “Broadway Adjacent” at the Belasco theater New York. Given that the original run has already sold out and the extended run through the end of June is also pretty much also fully sold I could officially declare the show a heap of garbage and not impact the ticket sale one iota….but I won’t.  The show is brilliant…nothing more or less…just brilliant. We saw what had to be the fourth or fifth night of previews. The show was was technically pretty much perfect, nothing needing apparent work anywhere.  Hedwig is one of my most favorite shows.  I saw the original production maybe three or four times back in the late 90s as it was on the way to cult status. The show is essentially a one man act backed by a four part rock band. I loved it then, I love the new version more. Musically this performance is faster, louder and more punk than the original. Although the original was also pretty punky, it leaned more towards Bowie than the Sex Pistols. This version is straight out punk rock. At a couple of points Hedwig even spits at the audience which in of itself is a very punk throwback idea. The show has updated perhaps ten minutes of content amounting to a dozen or so jokes and most of them work really well. They have added half a song which is related to the new “venue” which doesn’t really work…and imagine may not make it into the post preview version.

The audience cheered every song and seemed to get most the jokes….they missed the “I love a good Scrim Job” line probably because almost nobody outside of the theater would know what a “scrim” is. Clearly a lot of the audience were there for NPH rather than Hedwig, some of the older audience members may well have thought that they were actually in the wrong show…but everyone seemed to enjoy the production none the less.  NPH takes the role on full tilt and absolutely destroys.  He doesn’t chew the scenery, he’s appropriately over the top without being self-indulgent or mawkish. If I could be so bold as to criticize anything I wasn’t completely sold on the performance of his sidekick. She just isn’t that convincing as a guy and the transformation/reveal at the end feels a bit forced. That may not be her fault though, I always thought that part of the original plot was a little patchy.  It’s hard to pull off a funny, camp, dramatic musical and sustain for a full 100 minutes….Rocky Horror falls apart after 20 minutes. These are micro nits which I probably shouldn’t pick at all…and might well be fixed by the time the show opens for real. All in all this is a fabulous powerhouse performance illustrating once again what an amazing talent NPH is. I hear that the creator of the original show is now working on Hedwig II the sequel…I’m not convinced that’s a great idea…but we shall see.

Privacy ain’t what it used to be

I don’t recall the exact number but as I recall Google is perhaps surprisingly one of the biggest lobbyist in DC. I know for a fact that Google fights every legal attack from every angle to the bitter end…and in the occasional cases where it loses a claim or dispute because it was clearly mistaken or in the wrong their revenge is mighty and awful. You will never do business with them again…which is tough if your business is based around search. It’s also interesting to note that with the exception of the EU regulators who clearly hate, hate, hates Google and will stop at nothing to pin them down on something all attempts to assault any perceived monopolistic practices by the mighty G are routinely and predictably unsuccessful.

So it was perhaps not much of a surprise to read that yesterday Google successfully fought off potentially millions of Gmail users who were attempting to claim that by programmatically analyzing email within and between Gmail and other email systems for the purposes of ad targeting.  They were claiming that Google was essentially guilty of something between illegal wiretapping and racketeering. The plaintiffs were looking for $100 per day for the period Google has been doing that. In my case I’d be looking to collect upwards of $350,000. The judge refused to allow the various complainers to combine to a massive class action in part because the published T&Cs allow for that practice and in part because the various complaints were apparently too disparate to be lumped together. The Judge left the window open for them to bring individual complaints but the reality is having lost this push it’s going to be hard to rope attorneys in to what looks like a lost cause from day one.

The sad fact is that the majority of Gmail users could neither know nor care if Googles computers are scanning mail for targetable keywords.  The nuances of whether Google opens and scans deleted mail or mail which hasn’t even been opened yet are even further down the path to don’t understand/don’t care.

The last year or so has seen revelation after revelation that those knights in shining armor at the NSA have been reading our mail and texts for years. I suspect that most folk have come to terms with living in what amounts to a goldfish bowl.  A week or so back 60 Minutes covered this whole area of privacy and marketing. It was fascinating to see Morley Safer (a sweet old man who appears to be suffering from terminally long earlobe syndrome) was shocked, shocked to discover that pretty much anything we post on line is being mined for commercial purposes by the online giants. Is anybody honestly surprised by this stuff anymore?  We are surrounded by amazingly useful and powerful online tools and services the vast majority of which are delivered to us users for absolutely free…at the point of use. It made me want to yell at the screen…”Why on earth do you think they are giving us all this terrific stuff?”

The bottom line is that Google, Amazon and the other online giants who create and enable or online world are not charities…we trade privacy for facility routinely. Trying to squeeze that genie back into the bottle is a lost cause. Big brother is watching us….and we don’t really care.


The Weirdly Beardly Situation

Beards are back…they are even doing beard transplants on Bronx hipsters putting chest hair in formerly wispy faces. I’ve had a beard more or less all my adult life…all I can grow is exactly what Lenin had…but I can grow that in a week. What’s weird is the whole beard color thing. I regularly see guys with apparently authentic dark head hair but their beard runs from black to pure white often through some version of brown or red. So what’s a guy to do?  If you don’t want to have a premature Santa Clause look you have to head on over to the beard aisle at CVS and get busy with the bead dye. There is typically exactly one choice of bead dye to be had. Just as a side question how many products which might be used by potentially half of the adult population are served by exactly one product? That alone strikes me as weird…is there some kind of beard dye OPEC maintaining a retail monopoly?  Anyway if bead dye is in your future …that’s where this gets weird.

My beard started going really grey in my early 40s.  In spite of the fact that my mother insists that I dye my head hair (I swear I don’t) I started to dye my beard. I have many years wasted in amateur dramatics and I’ve done a fair amount of stage makeup so I perfected a technique which beat the grey back without looking too fake…I hope.  The problem I always had was that I’d go through a vicious cycle of grow the beard, color the beard break out in annoying little sores which I couldn’t get rid of whilst keeping the beard, shave the bead, cure the sore spots….and repeat. I’d itch and worry at the sore spots like an insane person much to the annoyance of my lovely wife who was convinced that I was some flavor of OCD or just plain nuts.

The other day my lovely wife was yelling at me for once again shaving off my bead to fix the OCD induced sores. This time she also jumped online and did some poking around and it turns out that what I had been experiencing is actually far from rare. I’m not nuts I’m allergic. Tons of guys reported similar cycles of irritation and accusations of OCD bead scratching.  A little more poking around revealed an alternate solution. I’ll plug the brand because I think these guys are heroes. It’s called WolfsHead bead dye. It’s essentially a henna based dye which you apply in vanishingly small amounts every day after the shower to subtly and undetectably take out as much of the grey as you want to in a few seconds. No breakouts no, itching no, OCD madness.  I started using it and have never looked back.  You can’t get it in your local pharmacy (no idea why) but it’s readily available on line.

So guys (and I know I have a bunch of guys in my age range who follow my insane ramblings) if this is an issue for you there is a cure…now back to search.

Dogs Chewing Toffee

I have an American Bulldog who will eat absolutely anything…there is nothing funnier than watch her chew a toffee….it’s a lot like watching politicians trying to do technology.

I was reminded of this when looking at the efforts of one of our local politicians Mayor of LA Eric Garcetti. In tech terms he’s far ahead of the crowd in many ways, he has a tech background, he’s generally tech friendly and God bless he’s really trying to get the nuts and bolts of local government in his part of California. Having lived and worked in both the North East and now California I’d say he has an uphill task. I saw a recent terrific example where the LA Cops are now going to crack down on “road safety” which is code for more and more BS tickets for us poor SoCal residents. You can bet that the Cops will be using absolute state of the art technology to ding the poor tax payers on LA. It’s ironic that in LA the actual roads are literally falling apart under our cars but the parking meters are fully automated and you can pay by debit card….and if your meter expires it could cost you $300 for going 25 cents over time. California is a nightmare…it’s very sunny and has great views….but a nightmare none the less. Technology seems to be applied aggressively against the citizens for the purposes of taxation or enforcement but where it could make our lives easier or make those same politicians more accountable tech adoption seems less enthusiastic.  

Mr. Garcetti will be speaking this week at the Democratic Municipal Officials conference in DC.  DMO’s goal is to create visibility and elective success for local Democratic officials of all stripes #NationalDMO. They are pretty adept at using new media to drive their campaign machine, much as did the national DNC and RNC in 2012. Clearly politicians have embraced many aspects of new media to target and get out the vote.  The broader question I believe is will they be as aggressive in the adoption of technology which makes their constituents lives less stressful and more fulfilling…we will see.