Thursday, December 06, 2007

The power of traditional media: NPR and Kipling

I've gotten several phone calls from friends who heard my comment read on NPR's All Things Considered this evening. I was upset with their Tuesday story on a new Rudyard Kipling museum in Mumbai, and dashed off an email to the comment form on their site.

A few observations:

* I write on this blog at least weekly, and rarely hear from friends about its contents. The reach of traditional media and its broadcast/push format still have incredible power to communicate and persuade.

* I can write whatever I want on this blog, and yet I'm thrilled to get 30 seconds of airtime, edited and second-hand, on NPR. I can't quite express why that is; perhaps because it feels like I've passed some test.

* "Passing a test" is a very useful metric for writing. I actually crafted my comment carefully to be succinct and punchy, knowing that if I rambled I wouldn't get air time. Editors may sometimes be wrong, but they're direct; whereas if your audience doesn't like what or how you write, they just go away, typically without telling you.

* Don't offer up shallow interpretations of Kipling when I'm around, unless you've read a lot more of him and about him than I have, and are rhetorically fast on your feet.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Giga, Tera, Peta: Om on Google's Infrastructure

Om writes that Google's infrastructure is its strategic advantage. He lists "fiber networks, data centers, switches, servers and storage devices" as key components. He correctly identifies "Relevancy of results, Speed of search, and Cost of executing a search query" as key benefits of this infrastructure.

All true (and better ad targeting is a fourth key benefit).

My only beef: Where's the software?

A huge portion of Google's opex is people, and many of those people are the systems guys who built fundamental software infrastructure like UNIX, C, and TCP/IP. Those guys aren't there for their halo effect - they're there, despite Google's youth bias, to build software infrastructure.

Scan this Bell Labs alumni list, and see how many times Google comes up as a current gig. Answer: 21.

As Steve Jobs continues to demonstrate in the consumer device sphere, custom hardware + genius software yields magic. Google is the server-side doppelganger to Apple, and their platforms like GFS, BigTable, MapReduce, and Sawzall are core to their competitive advantage. For a great overview of how software and hardware work together at Google, check out this great 2006 presentation on Google internals by Toby DiPasquale.

Zvents also believes in great software infrastructure. More soon on that front.

Update: If you're showing up from TechMeme and you find this post interesting, there are plenty more on related topics. It's been a bit rich about Google here on the blog lately, but they are the dominant technological force of our times. Just click here and hit page down.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

What Google hates and loves: Why Wikipedia is taking over search results

John Battelle recently posted a report which states that Wikipedia pages are taking over the organic search results of the major search engines: "Today 27% of Google’s results on the first link alone come from Wikipedia, as do 31% of Yahoo’s."

What magic power causes a free site like Wikipedia to own between a quarter and a third of results for the single most powerful page position at the world's two largest search engines?

It's simple. Money.

Google and Yahoo make more money by putting Wikipedia and sites like it first in their results.

Let's look at a scenario that Google hates. Christmas is coming, and a searcher puts a broad but valuable query term like HDTV into Google. The results that come back are clearly delineated between organic content and paid ads:

But here's what drives Google (and Yahoo) absolutely crazy. There in the third link position is CNET, with a feature called HDTV World. CNET is a media company which creates great, rich content about tech topics like HTDV. Google can hardly ignore them. But boy, do they wish they could! Because in two short clicks, a user goes from the organic results on Google to a highly monetized buying guide and store for Samsung HDTVs on CNET -- and Google makes exactly $0.

It's enough to cause heartburn at the 'plex.

Now let's walk through that scenario with a similar search for hearing aids. In passing, it's interesting to note that Google has no top-line ads for 'HDTV' (which I presume young, savvy people search for) and it displays three top-line ads for 'hearing aid' - which I presume older, less savvy searchers tend to type in. Nothing to see here, they're still not evil, just as long as they keep it below 49%.

Ahem. Back to our topic at hand, Wikipedia love.

Here's the paid/unpaid split for hearing aids:

We can see that like the HDTV search, Wikipedia is the first organic result, which means that it will collect the bulk of the clicks for unpaid traffic on the page. This delights Google, because there are no ads on Wikipedia. By displaying Wikipedia links in the most prominent free position, not only can they deliver a useful result to a searcher, they can't get into the CNET/HDTV situation which they hate - letting a searcher with strong commercial intent escape without the lucky advertiser paying the Google tax.

There's a further benefit to Google in promoting Wikipedia in organic results. Even within the context of a buying decision, searchers strongly type for commercial and non-commercial intent of a particular query. When a searcher is in the exploration and research phase of a hearing-aid buying decision, they want information, overview, context. When they have found out what they want, they switch to a transactional mode, and are ready to be marketed to. Over time, Google can use free, non-commercial content like Wikipedia to actively train searchers that they won't find commercial offers in the organic results:

...and over time, encourage them to look first in the paid ad positions when they want to buy something. Commercial nirvana.

That commercial nirvana is why Google and Yahoo love Wikipedia, and you'll continue to see more Wikipedia links in high organic positions over time.

Unless Jimmy Wales allows ads.

Update: I've just noticed Matt Cutts' new post on Google's efforts to nuke people who sell links with PageRank. Matt asks, rather piously, "Now, think about how you would feel if your medical search was influenced by pages like this," and points to a paid content page about the Gamma Knife, which is apparently a cancer treatment.

Hmm, Matt, I'd feel about the same as I do when Google influences my search by prominently showing a Gamma Knife ad on the first SERP:

Let's be clear - piety aside, Google isn't worried about your finding out about the Gamma Knife - they just want someone to pay them. That's why they are happy to prominently feature it in their ads at the same time that Matt is finger-wagging about it in his blog.

This battle is all about searcher differentiation, and paying the Google Tax on the way to commercial nirvana.

Note: For more on query-type differentiation, see my previous post, "Why Google owns your lunch."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why Google owns your lunch: The "I'm feeling lucky" button

Google is a force of nature in global business today, in the same way that the Velociraptors ate everything in Jurassic Park, and Napoleon conquered everything non-frozen in Europe.

So I am bemused at Valleywags's credulous acceptance of Sergey Brin's statement that the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button costs Google $100+ million a year because they miss out on the advertising on the subsidiary pages when users click that button.

Yeah, right. Aren't you Valleywag guys supposed to be snarky?

News flash, Silicon Valley: Google is composed of some of the smartest machine-learning dudes to ever walk the planet. They have transcended their humble beginnings in web graph analysis to meet their true calling, which is to capture and analyze every single bloody user click, everywhere, ever, that they can get their hands on.

Within that context, if you think that the "I'm feeling lucky" button still exists because of some avatistic non-commercial motive within Google, get a clue. While a friendly grad-student impulse may have been the original source of the button, that button has long since proven its worth on a simple, highly commercial scale: query term type differentiation.

There are, broadly, three classes of queries on the Internet: discovery/information, navigation, and transaction. "Navigation" is of the type: "I need to know the URL for IBM, please take me there." A considerable amount of query-response and relevance angst is expended by most search engines on differentiating the three types of user intent, because users in each mode have vastly different expectations. Google, unlike others, gets at least half of this differentiation for free, because of that magic, friendly, 'Lucky' button.

Sergey, that's worth $110 million and more, and you know it.

That crucial differentiation makes Google search better; and better = more profitable. Scoreboard!

How and why does this work?

Because there is a strong predominance of searchers with navigational intent who click the 'Lucky' button. Users with informational (discovery) or transactional intent, on the other hand, tend to click the 'search' button. That distinction allows Google to build a dictionary which correlates a certain set of search terms with likely navigational intent -- for free, in machine learning terms. Voila! Google take a set of searchers with inherent low monetization potential -- after all, they only wanted to find their way to IBM's website -- and makes its insanely profitable search engine even better.


Sergey may pitch this as some charitable instinct on Google's part, but we know better.

Rock On, Google Borg!

Footnote: I talk a good game, but I only vaguely understand this stuff, and I am thrilled and humbled on a daily basis by the brilliance of the people who work with me and help me understand how much this sort of science and engineering matters. Thanks, Z Team!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Waiting for Virgin America...

I tried three times to do a flight search on Virgin America.


No dice.

JetBlue just got over $1000 of my business, because their web site works.

Web sites matter, people. Site performance and search performance are two of the most critical customer-service metrics you can measure, across an incredibly wide range of retail and commercial endeavors. They're hard to do well. Which is why they matter even more than you think -- because you can differentiate from your competitors, and delight your customers.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Higher-Performance Computing: Improving the Google File System

For those of you interested in high-performance computing, Doug Judd, our principal search architect at Zvents, has an awesome new post on the Zvents developers blog called "The Google File System - and How It Can Be Improved." Doug is leading our forthcoming Hypertable open-source project, which builds on top of distributed file systems like GFS, HDFS, and Kosmos, and he's got plenty of interesting thoughts on why GFS works well, and where it can be made better.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The market is winning: Google's ranking is under strain

It's an interesting philosophy question: When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, what happens?

Google has invested billions in computing and commercial infrastructure in order to secure its immovable dominance in search, which is fundamentally based upon parsing the web graph of links better than anyone else. It has a gigantic $210 billion market cap that is also fundamentally based upon its continued ability to generate reality-defying free cash flow from that search dominance.

That free cash flow creates an irresistible force -- the market, in all its insane brilliance, attempting to reverse engineer Google's map of the Web and modify the link domain to suit the commercial desires of thousands, millions, of individual participants.

Unless Google had an endless bag of tricks up its sleeve, this was never going to end well. And indications are increasing that it's going to end badly. As Peter suggests, fighting paid links is like fighting terrorism. I've got an even more terrifying analogy than that: Fighting paid links is like fighting spam. At best the forces of order are at stalemate in the spam war, and there "we" benefit from the fact that there's no single obvious beneficiary from the current borked email system, and so every major Internet company is motivated to work together to stem the tide. In search, MSN and Yahoo and Facebook are perfectly happy to see Google go down... so defeat is even more likely than what we've seen on the spam front, not less.

I am seriously unhappy with the extent of Google's current dominance... but the prospect of a chaos without center may actually be worse.

This is going to be fascinating to watch. Google has incredible resources to bring to bear, and as I've said before, they haven't even really been tested yet. But... my money is on the market. I'm not short Google, but I'm not long, either. They're priced to perfection, and there are plenty of signs that all is not perfect out there.

Facebook: Options pricing is no hiring hurdle

The Wall Street Journal has a lurking-schadenfreude story which suggests that the imputed $15 billion valuation of Facebook after the Microsoft investment will cause them hiring problems. I think not.

Firstly, I'd be shocked if the clever guys at Facebook haven't structured this deal so that part of the money that Microsoft is paying doesn't accrete to an imputed valuation - instead, it's payment for ad rights, or something similar. If the accounting only puts half of the $240m against the stock purchase, then Facebook's value for options purposes is more like $7.5 billion.

Secondly, the rule of thumb in the Valley is to grant common options at a strike price of about 10% of the preferred, since these shares have less rights which can theoretically decrease their future value in many downside scenarios. That handily locks in a 10X gain in the all's-well-that-ends-well scenario.

Thirdly, most option-motivated employees are looking for a 10X gain in the enterprise value while they work there -- given the built-in 10X from the strike price rule of thumb, that nets out to about 100X in actual return on options for four years of sweat, toil, and tears. On the scale that FB is playing (high stakes, win or lose) that 100X translates to millions in any 'win' case. Can FB get to $75 billion in enterprise value over the next four years? It will be hard, but it's not impossible.

But there's another factor at work. Given the scale of what FB is trying to accomplish, they're looking to hire successful, smart people who have done it before. And it's in this context that the M$ money is a huge win. At this point in the evolution of the web, there's a very large class of professionals - engineers, product people, managers, BD and marketing people - who have mortgages, kids in school, and gold-plated resumes loaded with relevant experience for building great companies. People who, say, went from Netscape '95 to CommerceOne '98 to PayPal '01, just to make up one arc. Hiring those people is tough for an under-funded startup, because they're at a clearly different point on the options-vs-salary & benefits curve, favoring the latter. Google has accelerated its business by being able to pay top dollar for people at this stage of life -- the cream of the crop of HP, Sun, Oracle, and a dozen other companies -- and Facebook can now go toe to toe in compensation package for both upside-motivated and cashflow-driven superstars. As Google has demonstrated, when you join the young, hungry and brilliant with the wiser, experienced and brilliant, seismic events can happen.

The schadenfreude may yet play out, but not this time.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Want to talk local at Web 2.0? Email me

I will be at Web 2.0 for most of the conference. If you are going to be there and want to talk about local, email me myfirstname at If there's enough interest, I might try to put together a dinner on Thursday night. We could go to one of the 732 restaurants within half a mile of the conference.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Internet Retail: Painfully slow still nets you $100K per hour

I'm buying some birthday presents for my nieces and nephews, so I did separate orders on Lands' End today - one package per kid. My first order, ID number xxx1398, went through at 12:31pm; my second order, xxx2206, went through at 12:51pm. That's one order every 1.4 seconds. If you assume an average order size of 40 bucks, mid-day on this particular Saturday, Lands' End has an Internet cashflow of about $100,000 per hour.

If their site didn't suck, they might be doing 5X that.

The reason I'm on the Lands' End site at all is that my sister (bless her) directed me there for appropriate gifties, and it's alluringly easy for a time-swamped entrepreneur to follow through on such highly targeted suggestions. I'm not there because the LE brand springs first to my mind; I'm not there because they show up highly in a Google search; and I'm certainly not there because the shopping experience is pleasant.

I would rate the functionality of their site as 'high' -- for the particular gift I got (monogrammed bath towels) they have a highly interactive AJAX configurator that shows the particular color, pattern, monogram, etc. But the responsiveness is HORRIBLE - so much so that I read several New York Times articles in another Firefox tab while waiting for basic tasks like the switch from the item page to the shopping cart to.... load. And it's no coincidence that it took 20 minutes between my orders -- that is the total start-to-finish time I went through on executing the second order. 20 minutes!! I could drive downtown and buy something in that time... and if I were buying for myself, I just might.

They've got to be losing customers in huge volume, who either abandon during the search process, or abandon during the ordering process, simply because they get frustrated with the lag. It genuinely feels like dial-up.

As GigaOm noted earlier today, Silicon Valley is all excited about Web 2.0 and consumer, advertising-focused businesses right now, but there's a fortune to be made by some smart new startups building modern, effective Internet software for enterprises like Land's End.

Update: Lands' End actually owns the #1 organic spot for 'embroidered towel' on Google, apparently thanks to smart use of GoogleBase catalog upload. That kind of prime distribution makes their execution even more frustrating -- all those people showing up, and each one having a crappy experience.

Monday, October 08, 2007

More on Google / IBM 'cloud computing' initiative: Tech journalism stinks

The New York Times has a near-verbatim repeat of the story. Mention of IBM's open-source tools is added:
"The centers will run an open-source version of Google’s data center software, and I.B.M. is contributing open-source tools to help students write Internet programs and data center management software."

I particularly enjoyed this Palmasino quote, given my observation last night:
Mr. Palmisano noted that cooperation between the two companies was easier because Google is mainly a consumer company, while I.B.M. concentrates on the corporate market. “We’re more complementary than anything else,” Mr. Palmisano said. “We don’t really collide in the marketplace.”

The Wall Street Journal actually adds a little journalistic merit to its piece, mentioning Sun, HP, and Microsoft as other players in the massive datacenter business; and laid out Google and IBM's open-source rationale as an anti-Microsoft differentiator:
"Frank Gens, an analyst with market-research concern IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the companies also are united by a rivalry with Microsoft, and "they'd like to influence the future of online business before Microsoft extends its influence." IBM and Google stressed that much of the infrastructure will be open-source programs that are freely available, rather than proprietary software programs such as those sold by Microsoft."

There are a number of commentaries visible on Techmeme, none of which goes any deeper than the source articles; Donna Bogatin questions the neat "consumer/business split" but that's all the analysis I see. And none of the commentaries or source articles mention Amazon, who's done more in this area with EC2 and S3 than anyone.

Hopefully someone will start asking some useful questions soon.

UPDATE: The Google press release has key details:
"For this project, the two companies have dedicated a large cluster of several hundred computers (a combination of Google machines and IBM BladeCenter and System x servers) that is planned to grow to more than 1,600 processors. Students will access the cluster via the Internet to test their parallel programming course projects. The servers will run open source software including the Linux operating system, XEN systems virtualization and Apache's Hadoop project, an open source implementation of Google's published computing infrastructure, specifically MapReduce and the Google File System (GFS)."

Key questions answered:
* No Google code open-sourced
* No advanced functionality (BigTable) -- just MapReduce/GFS as implemented in Hadoop.
* Yes, Kevin was wrong (sorry, Kevin :-)

This all fits quite nicely -- IBM gets a great new Open Source Java/Eclipse program to promote (Hadoop is all written in Java), and Google gets to promote its world-view without going through the hassle of open-sourcing any of its own code.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Google, IBM to fund 'cloud computing' data centers for open research

So says this article in Clearly, IBM and Google have agreed to divide the Microsoft universe between them -- IBM wants to own B2B, and Google wants to own B2C. We'll see whether Microsoft acquiesces to this plan

I'll be very curious to see if Kevin Burton was right about the open-source release of GFS, MapReduce, and BigTable. If he was, I'm never playing poker with him :-)

* Is this just an open service, or open-source software?
* Is it separate storage and processing (like S3 and EC2) or linked processing and storage?
* Does it include advanced functionality (BigTable) or just lower-level components (MapReduce)

Looking forward to finding out more...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Nokia + Navteq: Local, meet mobile

Today's announcement that Nokia is buying Navteq at a $2 billion premium to its market cap is a very big deal. Winning the next generation of the Web is all about owning data, and Navteq is the clear leader in local data. As the second use case for local emerges -- mobile users with immediate contextual questions, as opposed to deskbound users planning for the future -- Nokia's mobile platform technologies and devices will play more and more central a role in user's access to information. Navteq's data underpins both of those use cases, both today and in the future.

When Google is building phones, Nokia is buying data service companies, and Apple is gleefully playing up and down the stack, it's time to recognize that the mobile/web, phone/computer convergence that we've been talking about for at least 10 years is finally arriving.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why the Kosmos open-source file system matters

Congratulations to Sriram, Anand, and our other friends over at Kosmix on the release of the Kosmos distributed file system.

This is important stuff. Why? Google. Google has built up a platform advantage for doing web-scale computing that puts them in a different league than everyone else. Their hundreds of thousands of servers are old news, but what's regularly ignored is the superb software engineering layer that makes it possible to run large analytic processes -- like search crawling, search relevance, and ad targeting -- seamlessly across those many boxes. GFS, Google's distributed file system, is part of what makes that possible, and this Kosmix open source release is the next big step, after the Hadoop project, for this critical technology to be available to the Rest of Us.

In the same way that widely available technology like Linux and MySQL made what we now call Web 2.0 possible, layers like KFS will enable major companies (hello, Facebook and the social graph) to scale and compete better today, and allow the next generation of startups to flourish.

I'll be writing more about this area -- a lot more -- as Zvents is at play in the same sandbox. In the meantime, Rich Skrenta is on the story, too.

Uncov on Zlango: Ruder than Onotech.

Uncov has a great piece on Zlango, which is appropriately rude. I think I was too nice when I wrote about them in 2006. (page down after click because blogspot's permalinking sux)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

CEO conversation: Startup personalities

I had a great strategy discussion about the immediate future of the Internet with a couple other CEOs and a VC partner this past Saturday. Most of what we talked about can't see the light of day, but one snippet is shareable and worth sharing:

"There are three kinds of startup employees: People who want to win, people who want to be right, and people who want to make money. You can hire all three, but especially in senior management, you have to understand what kind of personality each person has; because they'll be motivated by different things, and under stress, they'll react (and fail) in different ways."

My CEO friend went on to say that his A-round backer told him that he'd decided to fund the company because the CEO is a "want to win" kind of guy, and the VC believed that the biggest startup successes are founded by "want to win" CEOs. I am sure that other VCs would strongly prefer "want to make money" founders; and some of your core engineers (particularly the ones in scaling and operations) had better be "want to be right" guys.

I think I'm somewhere in between "want to win" and "want to be right". I'm definitely not a "want to make money" guy -- I assume that will be a considerable artifact of the other two, and in the meantime, I've got a nice garden, a nice woodshop, and a nice view -- none of which I get to appreciate as much as I should, because I spend all my time working on winning and on being right :-)

Startup life.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

2191 days later -- September 11th, 2001

Six years ago, I lived in London, and September 11th unfolded on a beautiful fall afternoon. This is the essay I wrote and sent to dozens of friends that day. Six years later, I stand by every word.


An English friend called me on my cell phone. "I thought you should know...," he began. A hijacked plane had been crashed into the World Trade Center, he related, "...and one of the towers has collapsed." He was concerned, for me, for America, for his friends in New York, for this world as we know it. As I sat there on the bus, I was sure, in my heart, that it was a rhetorical flight of fancy. A hijacking, certainly. A bomb, a crash even, an explosion. But, a tower collapsed? These things, these most awful of nightmares, do not happen in our world. Or, at least, they had never yet happened in mine. Well, youth is fleeting.

Within two minutes of his call, I'd received the same information from two other sources -- a startled man entered the bus, Walkman radio earphone tight in one ear, and announced to us all, the passengers of Bus 88 assembled, that two planes, not one, had hit the building. He told the driver first, as if that man's status as a government employee somehow made his prior notification an important duty. This was, he said, bad for world peace. For the United States must retaliate, surely. At the next stop, a woman walked along the sidewalk, talking so loudly on her cell phone that, through the window of the bus, I had no trouble hearing, "...bombed the World Trade Center...!" before we moved off. The news was spreading.

I sat on the bus, as it slowly wended its way northward though London traffic and remembered a pale foreshadowing. In the spring of 1995, I was sitting in a corporate classroom in Plano, Texas. Our head instructor walked in, interrupting the lesson. He said, "I thought you should know...a bomb has exploded in Oklahoma City at the federal building. They think it was terrorists." Sitting there in Texas, I *knew* that it was Islamic terrorists. This was retribution, for America had just bombed someone, or done something, somewhere Over There, as we tend to do -- as the long historical record of military somethings, somewheres, that we have written as a nation over the past century testifies. I knew this, but I was wrong. It was instead an American, who felt betrayed by America, betrayed by the very system that earlier freedom fighters and founding fathers had created to govern the free, by the just.

My immediate reaction was to think of who I knew in New York, to see how closely this touched me. As it happened, two friends from London are there, both of them working in the financial district, one for Chase Manhattan, one for Salomon Smith Barney. Were they all right? I tried to call one, a quixotic impulse at best. Not surprisingly, the connection of one UK cell phone to another in New York was not deemed a high priority by the overwhelmed telecoms network.

My second reaction was to gather all news, any news, obsessively hunting scraps of news, furtively collecting small mental piles of the scraps, and playing with, puzzling over, and piecing them together to make sense of this tragedy. What of the fourth plane? What of the fighter jets sent to intercept it? The reports of car bombs at the State Department? The mysterious plane crash in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles from the coast, where there is little of value save the local inhabitants, including my grandmother, fifteen cousins of varying magnitude, and about thirty thousand white-tail deer? Sometimes, impersonal tragedies work in mocking ways, giving me a vague personal connection when, in truth, I desire none.

My third reaction brought me more peace. I need no personal connection, because I will rise above the solipsism of this age, this self-centered, individual-obsessed era, and weep for the many, cry for the lost, for the spirit of society, the dreams of the nation, the ideal of the masses who yearn still to be free. Thousands are dead, and we will never know them. They were not heroes, cast in bronze. They were not perfect. They were human, they were ordinary, and they have died not by choice, but by coincidence, and died not for a cause, but for a crime.

What do we believe in? Do we, America, deserve better than this, this crematory pall of ash over Manhattan? Will we, the many, take away from this great conflagration only some sound bites, only some collected tales of heroism and shattered normalcy, only some ephemeral connection to the reconstructed media shadows of the fallen few, or will we take away something more?

In this terrible time I find clarity, and in my clarity, I find belief.

I believe in justice.

America must act with restraint before knowledge, and with righteous anger when knowledge is obtained. We cannot allow this monstrous act to go unanswered, but most certainly we cannot allow ourselves to be sullied with the same taint of slaughter that these criminals have brought upon themselves.

I believe in freedom.

America must change its practices and, perhaps, its laws, so that this does not happen again. But America cannot, it must not, sacrifice its ideals in that pursuit. Freedom lost is too high a price to pay for peace of mind renewed, and Pyrrhic victories serve no one. We must not give up what we seek.

I believe in leadership.

America has led the free world for over fifty years. We have not always been wise, but our actions have largely been of good intentions, and, despite the difficult path that good intentions tread in this uncertain world, largely of good result. We must not take this devastation as a sign that leadership is a burden no longer worth bearing, and we must redouble our efforts to lead through wisdom, and to lead through justice. Let us lead the law-abiding, let us lead the angry and dispossessed of foreign lands, let us even look within and lead the doubters of our own America. Let us lead by example, an example of justice, and of freedom.

I believe in peace.

The world has known little enough of peace, across the globe, and throughout history. Some would claim that the day will never come when all lay down their arms, and I say, that day will come, and may it come soon. I see countries and peoples consumed by anger, laying waste to the land, poisoning the minds and the lives of their children, and bringing down death and destruction upon their neighbors. Rarely do I see this where I see justice, freedom, and leadership. Peace is the fragile child of all these three, and may it be borne of them again.

I believe in humanity.

When I look at us, I see no ideal, no shining vision, of what we could become, what we should become, of what is 'best' in us. I see who we are, we grubby, smelly, apes, and I love us. May we live our silly lives in happiness, may we pursue our plebian dreams, may we bounce our grandchildren on our knees, argue with our annoying relatives, drink our nasty potables, and watch yet another rerun of classic television. In that ordinary society I see happiness, I see beauty, and I see dignity, of friends and family known and loved, of work well done, of Sunday afternoon naps well taken, and I say, let it be so.

Let us all be human, and let us all one day soon, weep only for the tragedies of the past, and no more the tragedies of today. Let there never be another September 11th, I pray.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Google's highly dynamic indexing

For a while, my friend Prabal Dutta has been in the #1 spot on a Google search for his first name. Recently, I checked to see if he was holding his spot. Nope! Some other dude had it, instead, and Prabal had dropped to #2. I sent him a teasing email, "Dude, you lost 'Prabal!"

He wrote me back from Japan, where he is attending a conference, "I seem to have won it back," and enclosed a screenshot showing him in the first position.

I immediately checked on my end. Nope! Still some other dude in the first position.
While his location (Japan) might be at play here, it's even more likely that with him logged in, Google is blending some personalization in to the results. That itself is quite interesting, but not the most interesting discovery to come from our exchange. After we swapped screen shots, I clicked on the link to his page for whatever behavioral boost it might give to him, and went off to have a fine dinner party.

Tonight, 10 hours later, I checked again. I'll be damned. Not only is (my friend) Prabal Dutta back to #1 in my search results, but Prabal Gadh has absolutely vanished. I am not logged in for any of these searches, though I am almost certainly cookied.

The big news here is that not only is Google crawling and integrating new content incredibly rapidly (as I mentioned in my recent Scoble post) but they are re-indexing and modifying ranking incredibly rapidly, too. It's a highly dynamic index -- vastly different from the once-every-three-months crawls and refreshes of 2002, and worlds away from the crawling and indexing policies of trailing quasi-competitors like Yahoo.

It's as if they had the world's best distributed computing platform, or something.

I'll have more to say about that platform soon.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

All search begins and ends with people AND algorithms

OK. This is genuinely beginning to drive me nuts. This whole "people vs. algorithms" thing. This whole "social vs. search" thing. News flash, blogosphere -- it has always taken both people and algorithms. It has always taken both social and search. Google is much more like Facebook than it is different.

What does Google do? They:
a) analyze links on the web. Who put those links there? People. What are those links equivalent to? Recommendations.
b) analyze user behavior (clicks) within Google, which is a lot of clicks. Who does the clicking? People. What are those clicks equivalent to? Recommendations.

Here is the singular brilliance of Google: Unlike all the great data-driven marketing companies that had come before them, they figured out how to bootstrap this giant people-driven recommendation system using someone else's data. Free data. Public data. It was all just Out There on the Web, and they went and examined it, and said, "Hey! All these people are implicitly making recommendations with their hyperlinking habits! We could USE that!"

Previously, you had to have inside information to assess what people thought, what they wanted, what they recommended. You had to work hard and spend money to collect that information. On a small scale, like Zagat. On a big scale, like Nielsen. On a giant scale, like FICO. Do you think Proctor and Gamble wasn't driven by the preferences and recommendations of people in 1950? Of course they were. But they weren't sharing. Google grabbed the brass ring of the web, leveraged it up into their own highly trafficked search engine (and its highly proprietary set of consumer data) and now, they sit at the center of a set of human recommendations -- clicks, blog posts, hyperlinks, ad buys, domain name purchases, etc. -- the breadth and richness of which boggles the mind, and turns Facebook green with envy, their considerable bravado notwithstanding.

Two years ago, I wrote a post about the different ways that users express their preferences. Then Nivi said it better than I did. Nothing has changed here -- and search and social are still much more similar than different, and Google remains the greatest and most profitable people-driven recommendations company on the planet.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mahalo, Techmeme, Facebook, Google, Scoble

Which of these is not like the other?

Trick question, actually. All of these are very much like each other -- they are social relevance mechanisms. They just use different data to assess social relevance. As I discussed in a post about social search relevance in 2005 (which inspired Nivi to write his awesome Trillion Dollar Matrix post) all relevance calculations rely upon people, because we're the only thing that matters when it comes to assessing relevance. And in whatever form we assess relevance, contrary to Robert's assertion, we're susceptible to "SEO".

Here are the relevance mechanisms:

Mahalo - perceived prestige and accuracy of sites -- gathered by many social mechanisms
Techmeme - blog link graph and textual correlation
Facebook - 'social graph' of friends' interests, links, activity
Google - web graph of hyperlinks, and increasingly textual correlation -- links made by people!
Scoble - "ear to the ground" in Silicon valley -- via phone, email, twitter, the center of a social graph all his own

And here are the SEO mechanisms:

Mahalo - Persuade an editor that your site is important - PR or payola
Techmeme - Persuade three bloggers that your site is important - again, PR
Facebook - Persuade a cluster of friends to use your site and drive newsfeed items - marketing
Google - Persuade (or fake) a bunch of hyperlinks from important sites to yours - SEO
Scoble - Persuade him that what you're doing matters - PR

So I must respectfully disagree with Robert's assertion that these mechanisms are SEO resistant -- they are just as susceptible to persuasion as Google is, and possibly even moreso, since the scale of effort required to game Google is fairly monumental.

Now, to Robert's second claim:

"Oh, and the only way you’ll watch these videos is if someone tells you to watch them. No Google."

Here are screenshots I took a few minutes ago for some Google searches:

Mahalo, Techmeme, Facebook, Google, Scoble: Nails it.


Mahalo, Techmeme, Facebook, Google: Nails it.


Mahalo, Techmeme, Facebook: Nails it.


Mahalo, Techmeme: Nails it.


Note that these Google searches are from 12:10pm on Sunday -- 20 minutes after Scoble wrote that post. Ye Gods. Anyone looking for information about social search mechanisms is going to find that post, and those videos, just fine using Google. Google is scarily good right now -- they are indexing phenomenally fast, and extremely well, across most of the high-value portions of the web. We see crawl logs at Zvents that demonstrate that their crawling capacity, accuracy, and cycle time blow away everyone else in the industry. I will be as delighted as the next guy to see Google's dominance reduced -- it's part of our mission at Zvents, in fact -- but I can't see that they are fundamentally disadvantaged vs. these other social relevance mechanisms. Quite the opposite, in fact -- are Mahalo's editors reading this in bloglines yet? Are they working on Sunday? The Googlebot is.

Scoble is more fun to party with
than the Googlebot, though. :-)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Yelp launches local events. 230 of them, anyway

Earlier today, Josh Lowensohn at Webware posted an article on Yelp's new events feature. Josh compares the nascent service to Yahoo's, and correctly notes that Yelp's integration is better. He then writes,
For instance, say you want to catch the Beastie Boys show at the Greek Theater tomorrow night in Berkeley. Upcoming can tell you about the venue, but first it'll have to spit you out to Yahoo Local. Yelp on the other hand has their review ratings integrated, so you can quickly tell if the venue is hot or not (sometimes literally) without making you feel like you're being jettisoned to a different Web service.
I'm not surprised that Yelp is adding local events. We believe that events are the pivot point of local search and local commerce, and anyone with serious local aspirations needs to do them well. And while I applaud Yelp's social model for restaurant reviews, their new event service is pretty raw. How many events do they list in San Francisco? 230.

Zvents has 43,000 events in San Francisco. Granted, that's one of our better metros -- in Boston we have a mere 47,000 events, in Detroit we have a bare 13,000 events, and in Chicago, a snip at 7,900 events. Sigh. Gotta work on Chicago.

It's also worth noting that 'search' is a fairly important part of local search. If you click on that link to Zvents' open search for San Francisco between now and noon Saturday, you'll see that the Beastie Boys show in Berkeley that Josh mentions comes up first. Why? Because one of the several flavors of secret sauce that our dynamite search team has baked in the Zvents relevance algorithms is popularity, including both click and search query factors. So if you didn't know that the Beastie Boys were playing this weekend in Berkeley (I know, it happens to even the most-informed of us) Zvents will help you discover it -- and many other events besides. And if events aren't your cup of tea? How about a quarter-million restaurants, or over a million movie showtimes?

Social sites like Yelp -- and like Eventful, Attendio, and Going -- have an important role to play in finding, communicating and coordinating local things to do with your friends. Social networks and good old fashioned email are critical, too. But at the heart of local discovery lies local search, and I'm proud to say that Zvents is doing local event search better than anyone else -- both for our own site at, and for over 70 local newspaper partners, ranging from the biggest local city site in America to local community papers.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hedge funds hate taxes, but love big government

A couple months ago, those titans of hypercapitalism, those steely-eyed creators of economic value, were spending all their time arguing that paying income tax like everyone else Just Wasn't Fair.

Now that their Ponzi scheme built on pretending that sub-prime mortgages were safe investments is collapsing, what does Wall Street do?

Sit around and wait for the Fed to intervene. Wow, that's great risk-taking and value-creating behavior, guys.

This kind of hypocrisy makes me sick. Creative capitalism -- the Silicon Valley way -- is as different from this nonsense as night and day.

Update: A NYT article today entitled, "Investors Say That Fed Must Do More to for Markets" contains this great quote from that captain of capitalism, Richard Berner, chief United States economist at Morgan Stanley: “If the money markets are still in disarray a few days from now, I would think the Fed is going to have to take additional steps.”

"Markets in disarray"? I thought markets were perfect?! I thought that markets were efficient?! Can it be true that markets need regulation and intervention? Nah. Couldn't possibly be true.

Funny how when the big bonuses are replaced by the big abyss, all the Wall Street capitalists get religion. Maybe they should pay their taxes, so there's a government to protect them when they need and beg for it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ethan's two iPhone annoyances, and two from everyone

In the spirit of collective product feedback, and inspired by Rich's post, I'll throw out two things that drive me nuts about the iPhone, and two things that drive *everyone* nuts about the iPhone:

1) When you're on a call, you can't look up a number out of the 'recent' list. You can look up contacts; you can use the keypad; but there's no way to get to 'recent'. There are a couple key use cases for this -- I'll give two examples.

a) Often when an emergency occurs, a new unfamiliar number enters your life. My dad went in to the hospital, and a series of calls went around the family with his room extension. When I called my brother, I couldn't jump over to 'recent' to give him the number. I had to hang up and call him back.


b) When you're planning around a new destination, you are again using an unfamiliar number. Restaurant, hotel, whatever it might be; if you are coordinating with another person, you often need to tell them a number that you just called, which is only in your 'recent' tab.

And no, you cannot even go out to the main screen and delve in to it -- the magic 'phone' function that gets you there defaults to your ongoing call, not the the standard phone menu which includes 'recent'. Dumb.

2) Path dependency on contact UI. Normally, when you go to a contact, you can edit it:

However, if you go to a contact via 'recent', you can't edit it:

Here's the case for this one: Someone calls me via a new phone number, and tells me that this is his new cell. From 'recent,' I select "add to existing contact" and add his new number in. I now want to delete his old cell number -- but I've got no edit button!! I have to go the whole way out to the main screen and dig down again to remove his old cell. Dumb.

Universal iPhone gripes

3) You are being mocked because we all want some key punctuation characters on the main keyboard. Please. Maybe even numbers, too. Typing addresses into Google Maps is just a PITA. Some people have been driven to outright rudeness.

4) Everyone would like cut and paste. Please. Just add it.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Facebook: The 'viral marketplace'

Perry Evans has a fantastic post on Facebook:

Adsense is a brilliant machine, designed to optimize and extract the “transactional lead value” out of every consumer search.

FB app distribution should become a brilliant machine, designed to optimize and extract the “viral network value” out of every social connection they facilitate.

Transactional revenue model - meet your match - it’s the viral network marketplace model. If FB evolves to create the “must be in” marketplace for viral distribution of consumer applications, it will become a really, really important company.

I think that Perry has this exactly right. I'd just add two words to his key point:

"If Facebook evolves to create the “must be in” marketplace for viral distribution of consumer applications and content, it will become a really, really important company."

Why are these two words really important? Check this out:

* "Google is the “must be in” marketplace for search distribution of consumer applications and content."
* "Windows is the “must be in” marketplace for PC-based distribution of consumer applications and content."
* "IBM was the “must be in” marketplace for mainframe distribution of enterprise applications and content."

Yeah, there's gold in them thar hills.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

I just said "thank you" to a computer

I just got off the phone with the customer support number at UPS, which I had called in order to modify delivery arrangements for a package.

I talked to no one but a computer, a pleasant and articulate young woman who neglected to tell me her name. After about 90 seconds of her asking the right questions, telling me what I needed to know, and listening politely when I gave her more information, I said, "thank you" and hung up. The only bobble in the entire call was the ending sequence -- when she asked if there was anything else she could help me with, she didn't pause and listen for me to say "yes" or "no,thank you", but immediately launched in to a list of options.


I keep saying "she" because it was much more a "she" experience than an "it" experience. That's a first for me talking to a VRU, and I wanted to properly timestamp it. These computer thingies... they're going to be big.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

My Data Smog: Email Stats

I just read this Slate article on the 1997 book 'Data Smog' and was amused by the following passage from its author, David Shenk:
Ten years and about 50,000 inbox e-mails later, it's pretty obvious to me that smart filters have a vital role to play.

Hah. I just checked my email inbox. It goes back to February 7, 2007 -- 168 days. It contains no spam, and almost no newsletter type email -- I delete all that stuff. I have 14,145 items in there, an average of 84 per day.

Startup life.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


I caved in and bought an iPhone. I am not, I repeat not, an early adopter. I bought my last cell phone in 2004, and that was the first time I'd ever had a phone that could do anything besides make calls.

At the time, I was working on a big project about the future of mobile for NTT, and I thought, "time to give this stuff a try". So I bought the Nokia 6600 'Pandaphone' from T-Mobile with the unlimited data plan. Bluetooth, color screen, cameraphone, web browser, email... yeah baby.

I actually got the bluetooth modem trick to work, a few times. Slow as molasses. I never, ever figured out how to email a photo from the cameraphone, despite hours and hours spent online and on the phone with their tech support. As for web browsing? Give me a break.

So it turned into a phone for... making phone calls. And I stayed stuck in the 90s.

Then came the iPhone.

You know the drill. You know the hype. Well, my friend Jason Zien bought one, standing in line on the weekend to get it. On Sunday, he came up to Redwood City to show it off.

Jason and Andrea

Jason's iPhone was a revelation. The touch screen, as everyone says, is magical. No other word for it. The screen resolution and sharpness is amazing. It's gorgeous and clear. It... just... works. I instantly fell in love - not because it's an object of desire, but simply because it is... useful.

I took a picture of him and Andrea. And emailed it to myself. It showed up.

Hey, T-Mobile and Nokia! Are you listening?

So I decided to buy one. This, you recall, after the "They didn't sell out, nothing to see here, move along" weekend.

Well, actually, in Northern California, they did sell out. On Monday at lunchtime, none to be had at the Burlingame store -- and none had arrived that day. Monday night, I checked the 'locator' on Sigh. None were going to arrive on Tuesday. Now, I am not the kind who has to have things Right Now -- but what i hate is the incremental process of getting something. If I could have just ordered one to show up in two weeks, that would have been fine, but this Chinese water torture approach was not going to work. So I checked the locator for Columbus Ohio, where lo and behold, there were plenty of iPhones. I got my friend Craig to buy me one at 9am the next morning. Which he did (thanks Craig!!) with no muss, no fuss, no line.

His critical addendum to the iPhone,you can see in the photo yourself -- click for detail.


I love it. It's still not entirely set up, and I love it. I've only found one problem, which I will note here in detail.

Apple, you are morons for how you handle wifi passwords.
Maybe this is in a manual somewhere -- but the device is so damn easy to use, I haven't cracked the manual, and I don't want to. If you have a hex or ASCII WEP password to your wifi hub (doesn't everyone?), you have to go into Settings and change the settings (under wifi, other, security) to "WEP hex or ASCII". Then, when you enter said password, if it's hex, you have to precede the hex with a $ sign like this: $4B42C7 and if it's ASCII you need to put it in quotes like this: "password". Otherwise it Will Not Work. Aargh. Jason bailed me out on this -- thanks Jason !! -- I'm not sure if it was due to his PhD in computer science or his slavish fanboy devotion to Apple :-) -- it *couldn't* have been that he RTFM, nah -- but he saved me in the one pinch I've had thus far.

Tomorrow, life will go on more or less as before.

Today, well, cool.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

PowerSet: Let's Re-Invent Everything

I drove up to San Francisco for the inaugural PowerLabs open house. Nearly four hours later when it was all over, I gave three PowerSet people who had missed their train a ride down the Peninsula. "What's great about this company is the business people," said one, a PhD. "They really seem to know what they're doing."

Yeah. There are a lot of smart tech guys who've been in too many dumb companies. This certainly isn't one of those.

Cover Slide

The big knocks on PowerSet -- 'PowerHype,' etc. -- can be broken out into three categories:

1) Can they build it?
2) Will anyone care / do they have a business?
3) What will Google do in response?

I've not been worried about 1) for quite a while. While there are many real technical challenges to bringing up a web-scale search service, there are many real technical guys at PowerSet who've done it before and can do it again. Since modern search is far more heterogeneous than most people realize -- a spaghetti ball of models, features, and evidence driving every instance of ranking and retrieval -- PowerSet doesn't have to climb all the way to the top of some brand-new semantic mountain to launch *something* decent. What they're trying to do is technically hard and thus quite risky, but they've certainly got the right team to try.

Scott presents demo search results

To my surprise, they made a very impressive stab at persuading me about 2) 'Will anyone care' tonight. Though they compared it to World of Warcraft several times, the PowerLabs concept bears the most resemblance to an open source project in general, and the Slashdot community as a particular instantiation. Submissions, votes, feedback, and all the other communal goodies of the open source way, wrapped in a slick interface and presented to prosumers who will give feedback and product advice, tell their friends, blog incessantly, and create a large nucleus of interest and buzz about their new service when it emerges. It's smart. It's also, take 2, very risky. It can fail in a lot of peculiar ways, and it's a brand-new innovation to the company launch problem. We'll see if they celebrate or curse this decision years from now.

I am compelled to add that it's not just the concept that's impressive about the business side of this company. Their PR has been impeccable since launch, their fund-raising was also eyebrow-raising, and this whole evening was handled very well. Steve Newcomb, COO and founder, was calm and impressive in presenting the vision, answering nearly every question, and conveying an absolute sense that this company stands for something, and is striving to do something great. I dare say it's almost impossible to fake that sort of sincerity; I admire them greatly for making this huge bet, and am intrigued to watch whether they can pull it off.

Steve discussing a query

3) remains to be determined. WWGD is a (the?) key Valley question, ignored by any technology company at their peril. The big G is not infallible, but no one has even stressed them yet. Microsoft managed at least two really outstanding strategic pivots (Office in response to Borland, and Explorer in response to Netscape) and web search is Google's game. Tonight, Steve and I had a spirited exchange about whether Google can emulate the results of natural language using statistical methods. While I concede his point that there are edge and corner cases that can't be done by any other method, I maintain that enough core cases can be derived from query behavior analysis to really limit PowerSet's perceived advantage to end-users, and thus their motivation to switch. Steve's ultimate response was, "in any case, we'll have moved search technology forward"; a good answer for the world, regardless of what that might mean for PowerSet's option-holders.

I got laugh line of the night, so I've gotta blog that. Steve revealed some numbers about their indexing time per sentence; he played the crowd well, with repeated, "I don't know if I should tell you... Barney [CEO Barney Pell] might kill me..." before the big reveal. When a minute or two later he said again, "Barney might kill me," I called out, "Who killed Steve?" in best PowerSet query style. Laughs all around.

Summary: This is still incredibly early. The core of their technology just came out of a LAB, for God's sake; they won't have a real search engine for half a year at least, if not longer; and any speculation about whether they'll be better than some multi-billion dollar competitor is kind of like wondering whether Greg Oden will break any of Wilt Chamberlain's records.

They've put together an impressive bet; they're making all the right noises; they could become General Magic, or they could become great. In any case, it'll be fun to watch.

Startup life.

Update: Dan Farber at CNET and Kevin Burton also have commentary.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Close your eyes and make cyberwar go away

The New York Times today published an incredibly bad piece on cyberwar. Entitled 'When Computers Attack,' its entire purpose seems to be to allow reporter John Schwartz to wave his hands, make vague assertions, and explain how there's nothing to see here.

I am a big fan of the writing of military expert John Robb, so perhaps I am particularly sensitive to the fragility of complex technical systems and the real risk of their disruption. But even with that discount factored in, the Pollyanna attitude of the piece is incredible. Here's an early paragraph:
"But how bad would a cyberwar really be — especially when compared with the blood-and-guts genuine article? And is there really a chance it would happen at all?"
I'm just guessing here, but it appears that the two main claims of the piece will be, "It won't happen," and "If it does, it won't be bad." Hmmm. Kind of reminds me of our government response to a certain famous memo.

Yes, Virginia, terrorism happens, and yes, it can be bad.

The meat of the article supports the possibility of cyberwar being a big deal:
* "China, security experts believe, has long probed United States networks."
* "The United States is arming up, as well. Robert Elder, commander of the Air Force Cyberspace Command, told reporters"
* "An all-out cyberconflict could “could have huge impacts,” said Danny McPherson, an expert with Arbor Networks."
Sounds pretty serious, right? But that's before Schwartz dismisses the experts.
"Whatever form cyberwar might take, most experts have concluded that what happened in Estonia earlier this month was not an example."
Wait a minute! Estonia is a particularly wired place, and pissed-off persons unknown brought key infrastructure of the country to its knees by blocking access -- to banks, to government websites, to overseas consulting gigs. How is this not cyberwar? A blockade is an act of war. This was a blockade. Just because the harbors and ports are digital doesn't make it any less harmful, or any less aggressive.

Schwartz then makes assertions that net out to, "it wasn't cyberwar because the Russian government wasn't involved, just sympathetic Russian hackers." Come on. When the United States was funding the Contras in Nicaragua, using convenient irregulars to mask our role, was it any less warlike of us?

Then we get to the most breathtaking dismissal of all, especially for a writer in New York:
...the technologies and techniques used in the attacks were hardly new, nor were they the kind of thing that only a powerful government would have in its digital armamentarium.
Perhaps Schwartz's clever uses of obscure synonyms for 'arsenal' dazzled him so much that he forgot a certain incident carried out by a non-powerful-government with non-new-technology that had some slight consequences for world history:

I'm afraid it may be worse than bad memory -- other parts of Schwartz's brain also appear to be functioning poorly. Next, he argues that since war bears risks, no one will enter into it:
In fact, an attack would have borne real risks for Russia, or any aggressor nation, said Ross Stapleton-Gray, a security consultant in Berkeley, Calif. “The downside consequence of getting caught doing something more could well be a military escalation,” he said. That’s too great a risk for a government to want to engage in what amounts to high-tech harassment, Mr. Lewis said. “The Russians are not dumb,” he said.
Yeah, right. Those attacks that result in escalation never happen.

So Schwartz doesn't understand war. But he can still go out with a bang: he doesn't understand economics, either!
...Kevin Poulsen, a writer on security issues at Wired News, said that he had difficulty envisioning the threat that others see from an overseas attack by electrons and photons alone. “They unleash their deadly viruses and then they land on the beaches and sweep across our country without resistance because we’re rebooting our P.C.’s?” he asked...
...Down on earth, by comparison, this correspondent found himself near the Kennedy Space Center in a convenience store without cash and with the credit card network unavailable. “The satellite’s down,” the clerk said. “It’s the rain.” And so the purchase of jerky and soda had to wait. At the center’s visitor complex, a sales clerk dealt with the same problem by pulling out paper sales slips.

People, after all, are not computers. When something goes wrong, we do not crash. Instead, we find another way: we improvise; we fix. We pull out the slips.
This is breathtakingly bad fluff.

Does Schwartz not understand why we bombed the crap out of Germany and firebombed Japan during WWII? It wasn't because the Germans couldn't "pull out the slips" and build airplanes underground. It wasn't because the Japanese couldn't "pull out the slips" and rebuild their small workshop factories. It's because total war is economic war, and a good way to win an economic war is destroying the efficiency of your competitor.

No silly "Red Dawn" style invasion is necessary. Economic blackmail -- or economic destruction -- is plenty good enough.

Our entire society rests on fragile, difficult-to-defend infrastructure. At a basic level, our survival depends on systems of distribution for food, water, and energy which might easily be disrupted. At a more elevated level, our prosperity and happiness as a nation depends on those systems, and others -- such as international trade, the media, the financial markets -- not just working, but working flawlessly and efficiently. Any attack which reduces that efficiency has real economic consequences to us, whether we "pull out the slips" or not.

Cyberwar can impact those systems, and thus it is a real threat, a real risk, and something that deserves being taken seriously. Bin Laden understood this. It's a shame that John Schwartz doesn't.

Who are the heroes? And why do we ignore them?

There were endless news stories about the tragic death of nine South Carolina firefighters in the media last week. Driving to and from work the day of their funeral, I caught at least three distinct references on NPR, including a brief clip of the mayor speaking in somber tones about what heroes they were. The coverage was hagiographic, everywhere -- as in this piece, Firefighters pay tribute to those who answered 'death's call' -- in a small-town paper in Massachusetts. Or this piece, 'Brotherhood of Honor,' from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts!! It's a long way from South Carolina.

Firefighting is a hard, dangerous job. I believe that those who choose to become firefighters do so partially out of a sense of duty and service, and I am sure that they are brave. Their death was tragic, and their remembrance worthwhile.

But their incredibly public death and remembrance starkly demonstrated what is utterly, totally missing from our public discourse today -- and the echo of its absence rang loud to me all that day, and still.

The day after the South Carolina fire, nine soldiers and Marines died in Iraq.

Where were their two thousand news stories?

Every day, our soldiers and Marines are dying in Iraq. Eighty-six have died thus far in June -- four every day, day after day. Their job is harder and more dangerous than any firefighter's. They too serve out of a sense of duty and service, and their bravery is beyond question.

But their death is doubly tragic, and their lack of remembrance doubly stark. They are dying not in an attempt to extinguish a blazing warehouse. They are giving their lives in a futile attempt to temporarily bank the raging fires of sectarian collapse in Iraq, so that the failed policies and cynical policy-makers of the Bush administration can escape part of the blame they so richly deserve.

Meanwhile, we, and our media, sit silent, our gaze awkwardly averted; or we throw ourselves into frenzied ceremonies around some other, smaller, but at least meaningful tragedy. How can we let one small sadness overwhelm our sense of the greatest tragedy of our times? Why does no one make this point? Silence, here, is complicity.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Event search drives traffic; Zvents expands partnerships

The incredibly exciting opportunity that drove me to start Zvents is that one third of local search -- "discover things to do" -- is an untapped market. I define local search as three major areas:

* What to buy: Yellow pages & merchant search
* What to do: Events, movies, restaurants, activities
* What happened: News

Zvents:  Events are the untapped 1/3 of local search

Of these three, "what to do" is completely untapped, whereas the other two have seen significant efforts, both by traditional media and by Internet companies.

There's a simple reason that "What to do" is untapped - it's hard to do well. Events expire rapidly, events are highly structured (think repeating series of plays, with different times on weekends) and events are very fragmented -- in a major metro area, there are tens of thousands of events in a given week, across a vast range of categories like sports, music, performing arts, classes, politics, community, clubs... the list is endless.

So it's very gratifying to see the positive response that our local search engine for things to do has garnered -- both among users, where we've seen huge growth in traffic; and partners, where we've been signing up media firms at a steady clip, with the New York Times Regional Media Group being our latest relationship.

Local analysts Pete Krasilovsky and Greg Sterling both wrote about our latest news this morning, and I encourage you to check out their pieces. "Discover things to do" is a great opportunity and a fun place to be, and across the market of Zvents and the others chasing it, I look forward to huge advances and lots of fun.

Startup life!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Props to Google: Users *Create* Content!

I was looking up the upstate New York church where my cousin Greg is getting married Saturday, and lo and behold, there's a new feature on Google Maps:
User-Created content -- not user-generated!

There in the lower left, it says, "New! User-Created Content"

I can hardly express how this warms my heart. The big G realizes that users are people, and that they are creative! Too bad that most of the Web 2.0 community is so far behind. If I could choose one phrase to have a stake driven through its soulless, MBA-mouthed, PowerPoint-printed heart, it would be "User Generated Content". I have blogged in the past about using human words for human deeds (see note at the end of the post). Machines generate. Humans create. Nice one, Google.

Google Street View: Brin's Transparent Society

I just read all the comments over at BoingBoing about Google's Street view.

All these people need to buy and read David Brin's excellent essay, "The Transparent Society".

Welcome back to the village, humanity.

Startup CEO: Three kinds of serious conversations

There are three kinds of serious conversations that the leader of a startup can have with his team. The first kind is, "We're in deep trouble here, and we have to fix it."

Six weeks ago, I had one of those conversations with our engineering team at Zvents. As our traffic and partner network really started to grow, we were having scaling issues, uptime issues, and process issues, and after a few wobbles, there was a real possibility that we were going to fall over hard. The team responded magnificently. We've completely reworked our release and QA processes, and we've fixed some glaring issues in the code base, and I no longer stay awake at night worrying about what will break next.

The second type of serious conversation is, "We've got an incredible opportunity here, and we have to focus the particle beam and make it happen."

I had that conversation with the engineering team yesterday, and we'll be talking about it with the whole company in the next few days. In a startup environment, it's just as important to succeed at upside tasks as it is to respond to downside risks -- and we've got some really great prizes in clear view that we need to achieve. The reason that we're all in a startup is the joy of running absolutely flat out to grab those prizes, and we're going to have a fun -- but deadly serious -- couple of months of sprinting to take Zvents to the next level.

The third type of serious conversation is, "We just accomplished something important and amazing. Now, what do we do next?"

We've had that talk a few times at Zvents already. As a startup, you don't last two years without a few amazing victories along the way. The first time was when we successfully launched at Web 2.0 on about $50K in total funding, and there have been several others since. I look forward to having that conversation again -- both soon, and many times more.

Startup life.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Kawasaki's Web 2.0: But Weren't Websites Always Cheap?!

Guy Kawasaki is very smug about how cheap it was to launch a moderately useless site like Truemors.

As I recall Bubble 1.0, one of the big problems was that people confused the following:
* ideas vs. businesses
* web sites vs. software

Nothing has really changed. In 1999, it was cheap and easy to turn an idea into a web site. In 2007, (shock!) it's still easy to turn an idea into a web site -- though now with open source and open APIs, you can get a more functional one for your trouble.

It's always been hard and expensive to write software, and it's always been hard and expensive to create a real business. Even in 2007, it's still hard and expensive to build a real software-driven business. There are always exceptions; but their rarity proves the rule.

If this is link-bait to make Guy $150 per month, and to garner a few hundred thousand page views from users who will never come back, then fine. It costs me nothing, and it benefits Guy hardly at all.

Meanwhile, the real business of building Internet-focused, software-based businesses goes on. And at Zvents, it's going really well.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why is Facebook hiding platform application user numbers?

Facebook's launch of their new platform has been the hot story of Silicon Valley for nearly a week now. An initial rollout of 80 apps on an open platform created a wave of buzz and adoption that has been impressive to behold. But the hot story hasn't been just about Facebook. It's been about Jeff Jarvis' teenage son Jake creating a app that garnered over 15,000 users. And most notably, it's been about iLike's astonishing rise to over 750K users in less than a week.

Are stories like this one on VentureBeat -- all about iLike, and not about Facebook -- the reason that, with the rollout of their new "most recent" and "most popular" functionality for finding apps:

facebook apps detail

Facebook appears to have hidden the number of users for a particular app? I can still see the friends, I can still see the reviews, but I can no longer see the number of users:


Whassup? Hey, Facebook! Doesn't open mean open?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Zvents answers Eric Schmidt's question; John Battelle worried

On Searchblog, John Battelle writes,

"The Day I Ask a Search Engine 'What Shall I Do Tomorrow' the day one of you, please, should put me out of my misery... once I can have that kind of a conversation with a search engine, it's entirely arguable if the search engine is anything other than a human being, right?

John, Zvents has been built to answer exactly this question. Here's your answer to, "What shall I do tomorrow in San Rafael?".

And since Eric Schmidt asked the question in the first place, here's the answer to "What shall I do tomorrow in Mountain View?"

It's not human. But it's pretty smart!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hey, Scoble: It was a B-24, not a B-17

Robert writes: "Oh, heck, I just posted some photos of a B-17 that’s been buzzing Silicon Valley, too."

That was a B-24, not a B-17. Twin tails. Four engines. Passed over my house about six times this weekend, at about a thousand feet.

At one point I thought I saw a B-25 as well (twin engines, twin tails) but I may have been mistaken.

I had a thoroughly mis-spent youth as a WWII airplane geek, and occasionally it pops through. How mis-spent, you might ask? How many nine-year-olds do you know that listened to their record player on an original B-26 pilot's flight helmet instead of earphones?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Steve Ballmer: Market Capitalism Doesn't Work

I found this quote on Donna Bogatin's Digital Markets blog. Regarding Google:
“I don’t really know that anyone has proven that a random collection of people doing their own thing actually creates value,” [said] Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.

Um... free markets? Invisible hand? Hello, Steve.

I don't want to beat on Mr. Ballmer too hard, because it's always been a peculiar tension of capitalism and a thorn for its most fervent (market fundamentalist) adherents that the macrofauna and apex predators of capitalism, public companies, work nothing like free markets internally, and in fact strongly resemble the command-and-control economies that capitalism is supposed to supersede.

Nonetheless, a very funny quote.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

No wonder the country is a mess

The NY Times notes some interesting results of financial disclosure forms by presidential candidates:

Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, reported assets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars but also said he owed more than $30,000 in car loans and more than $75,000 in credit card debt.

There are two ways to read this:

a) for a decade Congress has been run by people like Duncan Hunter who are too dumb to understand that $75K in credit card debt is a financial disaster, and equally too dumb to understand that pile-driving the budget into the ground by combining an expensive war, a moronic new Medicare benefit, and giant tax cuts is a financial disaster.

b) is even more depressing. For a decade Congress has been run by people who don't care about running debts up while in office, because they know their special-interest buddies will lavish them with rewards for their toadying once they've done their duty and graduate to the private sector.

The Times being the Times, of course they focused the article on the fact that some of the candidates are rich.