Friday, January 26, 2007

The bad guys are hackers, too

The world has reached a certain fascinating state when the New York Times, the gray lady herself, writes a bemused and almost laudatory article (no, wait, it's a blog post!!) about a pseudonymous hacker who's broken the content industry's latest quixotic attempt at copy protection. I can think of no better proof that the hacker culture of freedom has deeply affected our modern culture.

Unfortunately, a lot of innovation is done by bad guys, too. Spam, phishing, and box cutters + airliners = -skyscrapers are all great examples of brilliant hacks, and they've made our lives measurably worse. The latest example comes from John Robb -- apparently some guerilla hacker has figured out how to block GPS signals with readily available, cheap tech. This does not bode well for the maintenance of structure and order that is so important for the fragile capitalist economy.

Every time you celebrate innovation, the open-source spirit, and radical change, ask yourself, "do I disproportionately benefit from the status quo, and am I at risk?" Much more often than you realize, the answer is yes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Monday, January 22, 2007

Coming Soon: The American Democratic Revolution

From today's New York Times:
Illinois Is Putting Lottery on Block for Quick Payoff
The state of Illinois yesterday took the first steps in selling its state lottery system, hoping to attract as much as $10 billion from investors who, in return, would own a monopoly that could turn out to be the biggest jackpot yet.
The first thing that sprang to my mind was the pre-Revolutionary practice in France of the Fermiers. According to this convenient website, "The fermiƩrs paid a fixed sum of money every year to the King. It was then their responsibility to collect the taxes for their region - taxes on the tobacco, the salt, the materials that come and go from each city."

Needless to say, if you've paid a fixed sum for something from which you can derive variable income, your motivation is to squeeze every last nickel from your franchise.

Needless to say, this can be hard on the populace, when your authority is backed up by the state.

And pointedly, fermiers were among the significant causes of the revolt that became the French Revolution, and many of them ended up under the guillotine.

Lotteries are demonstrably a disproportionate tax on the less-well-educated, less-well-off members of society. That they are voluntary is no excuse. State involvement in gambling has always been papered over with false moral rebates like "it will be used for education" or other nonsense.

Now, Illinois is skipping past all the fake morality, and simply grabbing cash to pay its operating deficit while casually mortgaging its residents' future expenses.

It terrifies me that every possible measure of indebtedness in this country is rising, while every possible future income is being packaged and peddled. After we're done mortgaging our last remaining free cash flows and fully selling our souls to the false twin gods of excess consumption and no new taxes, maybe it will be time, again, for the American Democratic Revolution.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Owning local search results - and avoiding the "Google back button tax"

Don Dodge has a great post on the big gap in local -- newspapers, yellow pages, and the big search portals have thus far all failed to own local search results. I think that Don is right that papers need to do a much better job of exposing (largely through SEO) their content to the major engines; but they have an equally important task, which is to retain the user through value once the user arrives at their sites, by offering them parallel navigation, related content, useful search tools, and appealing options to explore and expand on the initial query that brought them to the site.

While papers have to live in a world that starts with Google first, they have to maximize their value in that world -- which means attempting to avoid the "Google back button tax" of the user clicking back to Google after every search that lands them on a newspaper content page, to give Google first crack at the targeted ad dollars on each subsequent search.

This requires serious product thinking, user testing, and technology on behalf of newspapers and other local content owners. It will hopefully surprise no one that Zvents, my company, is heavily engaged in all three. We're going to be at the NAA conference in Las Vegas, and I'd be delighted to speak with papers about how they can not just compete, but win, in the local search market.