Jan 29, 2010

Apple enters its 4th dimension

The iPad hits, now what do we make of it?

Remember: the $$ were in the blades, not the razors

I’ve always had a schizoid view of Apple: I’ve always liked Apple the company but disliked Apple the computer. But then again, Apple's really not in the computer business anymore, are they?

How can one not be a fan of the legend: a couple of west coast Second Wave boomers hook up for the usual 70’s slacking and start dabbling in mischief with the long distance phone-hacking devices that were the brief rage of that era. One drags the other to a meeting of a bunch of guys that built computers from kits, and the die was cast for a pioneer of the desktop revolution, with a company named as tribute to The Beatles.

But the real hook to this story is not only how the company is still standing thirty years later, but how it also made a couple detours – namely into music distribution and wireless devices -- each of which revolutionized their respective industries. Steve Jobs is already treated as an equal to Henry Ford in B-schools around the globe, and rightfully so. I buy into the whole thing.

But the hardware always left me with a different aftertaste. At its essence, the Apple II, Lisa, Mac or whatever was a closed system: a proprietary architecture with a proprietary operating system. Yes, such an approach makes for reliability and an easy to navigate --- if unremarkable --- upgrade, support and user environment.

But I thought this people’s revolution was about openness, collaboration, horizontally-integrated firms and user-generated innovation? After all, the early dogma of tearing down the private domains of the evil gatekeepers (Big Blue and its ilk) was pretty much contrary to what Apple seemed to be doing within its own chosen space. There lay my discomfort: hype vs. reality.

Which brings us to the Cult of the Mac, first cousins to the Trekkies. You know the rap: “I love my Mac, I hate Windows” and “it’s just sooooo much easier to use and it doesn’t crash” and so on. Of course, the closed architecture will generally deliver such advantages, but doesn’t anyone care about the downside to it? To that dedicated core, apparently not.

The result was a semi niche offering, which became a very good solution for media creation; be it in graphical, audio or visual forms. Just don’t try to use the Apple platform to toss those elements around the networks. Adoptees — the believers — then were the grinders that produced such media elements, while the hardcore developers, engineers and code jockeys dove into the Windows and (later) Open Source worlds, where men were men. Apple’s user base was easily satisfied by the spin and the image, which brings us back to the brilliance of Apple the company.

But that can’t really tee up a long-term, sustainable business, can it? No, it can’t; and it didn’t. Depending on the source, the figs report that Apple’s market penetration never hit double figures from ’90 onward; and its corporate penetration usually hovered in the two to four percent range.

But Jobs came to the rescue, although not with new and improved Macs. Instead, he went off the grid with a pure consumer play, and an unapologetic one at that. The iPod was launched, but while the world initially looked at it as an over-the-counter retail product (literally: go buy this thing at Target), the real vig flowed on the back end, via iTunes. Talk about printing money in the basement, here it was. V2.0 of Apple was born, and as a completely different animal. The transition was so extreme and redefining that investment analysts were often asking why they even bothered with the Mac business anymore.

Then along came v3.0, the iPhone Age. Another seismic shift, heralding another round of “oh yeah, this sure changes things.” Better still was the fact that v3.0 didn’t replace v2.0; it ran both in parallel and in conjunction with it. Want some tunes for that phone? Apple was suddenly something more than a comeback kid; it’s now a world power.

So here we are now, staring at the iPad. Launched this week with his usual rock star buzz and fanfare, Jobs describes the ultra-thin, tablet-sized device as the biggest surprise ever from his bag of magic tricks. Now here the rest of the universe sits, a few days later, still pondering whether he’s right again or if maybe the King of the Hill has finally tossed a pitch into the dirt.

The consensus that seems to have emerged is one that paints the new device as something akin to an “iPhone on steroids”. But the opinion here is that such a view is missing the real thinking that is at work here from Mr. Jobs and his team.

First, let’s consider what it is not. It’s not a replacement for your phone; you’re not going to carry around an iPad to make a call as opposed to that iPhone in your shirt pocket or purse. So while there might be some application convergence (apps), there won’t be any device convergence at this level.

How about as a replacement for one’s computer? Specifically, is the iPad now the counter product to netbooks, especially given its display size and on-screen keyboard? Not likely, even if one buys the cloudy future, where little horsepower or data storage is required on the earth-dweller’s end. Sure, the IPhone apps model will see a new variation here feeding the iPad, but the heavy duty world of heavy duty web apps has never been one where Apple (and its architecture) has played well in. Here we are well into the cloud era, yet it is still very common to see “No Macs Here” when encountering SaaS solutions. For this and other reasons, I don’t agree with a few fortune tellers who are heralding the iPad as Apple’s long-sought key into the corporate enterprise.

Now that we know what it isn’t, then what is it? That answer becomes clear by simply looking at Apple’s recent modus operandi for that answer. In other words, follow the money and ask where it’s being made. The answer there is the aforementioned back end.

Again: where is Apple’s music business making money, selling the iPods at the mall or 99 cents each for the downloads? Same thing on the iPhone side: compare the one time margins on the device sales compared to the perpetual cash machine that device becomes from that point onward. It’s the same thing with the iPad.

Jobs himself defined and proved the business model for digital music commerce. But what’s next on the plate? Video, of course: not only movies, television shows, cartoons, training and other pre-made titles, but also live and on the fly conferences, concerts, speeches, location cams and yes: one-on-one interactions. Granted, desktop monitors deliver those products, but not in a mobile or convenient manner. Smart phones are mobile and convenient, but insufficient and limited. Enter the iPad with one simple mission: to split that space.

Add to the mix the e-reader capability. One would guess that Mr. Jobs thinks that Mr. Bezos and Amazon is on to something with the Kindle, and has taken dead aim. Bring it on. Further add the IPhone apps that are crying for a larger screen and what you have is Apple basically saying “yeah we call it a tablet or whatever, but it’s really just a better way of displaying all this stuff y’all are showing us you want on a mobile platform.”

I’ll bet there are many, many Valley geeks that were involved in the 90’s versions of these things, banging their heads against their refrigerators this week while screaming "this is exactly what we were talking about!”

So yes, the iPad is basically a portal; a portal to a full selection of songs, apps, videos and eBooks. Now guess where all those goodies will come from. Yes, the iStore and iTunes and associated spin offs. Yes, in near of full proprietary formats with limited transferability and digitally watermarked to keep them in the tight and closed Apple universe. It might be time for someone to turn that classic Apple 1984 ad on its head and have that woman toss her rage at an image of Steve Jobs. Better yet, have her son or daughter do it. Did you get that one, Google marketing?

Taking inventory then, here is where we stand today’s Brave New (Apple) world: you’ll still need your phone (smart or otherwise) and you’ll still need your desktop or net/notebook. The question then is whether you have room in that tote for a new toy that nicely accommodates your desire for a new-gen media player of the highly mobile sort.

If yes, the logical next and more important question becomes one of just how many of you are out there and whether you all are something beyond the likely early adopters of gear heads, trendoids and teenage girls?

The jury’s out on just how earth shaking this announcement was. From here, it looks like a good read on market demand with a resulting product earmarked to better support that demand.

But I think I was looking for a little more of that convergence thing, like the way the iPod is melding into the iPhone. I was hoping to chuck another piece of hardware or two, instead of needing to add one more.


Jan 27, 2010

This guy truly walks the walk

Whether hockey stays in Albany or not, the time is right to salute the River Rats' owner

Let us all hail the Capital Region's Super Hero, Mr Walter Robb.

Here's a gentleman who made his fortune with GE, so you know he's sitting on a lot of GE stock. You should also know that GE stock has been pretty much a disaster in the past few years, so he undoubtedly took a hit. You might also surmise that he invested other sums in the equities markets, which despite the '09 comeback, have still been troubling. Furthmore, Mr Robb's generous financial backing of many a local tech startup has tossed a few clunkers in the recent past as well.

The bottom line: here is a guy who doesn't need to be tossing his money away on frivilous endeavors. At least not the REAL frivilous variety.

But then there is his most high profile "investment", the Albany River Rats hockey club. Although being generally unfamiliar with this tough-guy sport of the Great White North, Mr Robb stepped in years ago when the local franchise was on the brink of disaster. Why? Because the gentleman buys-into the argument that quality-of-life attractions make a community stronger, and therefore become a necessary ingredient in forward-thinking regional economic development practices. In this case, Albany needs a high level professional hockey team because it makes the larger area a more attractive place to live and work.

Throughout all these years, he has kept to that mission. This despite the fact that the operation bleeds six figures of red ink each year, right out of his personal pocket. But he hangs in there, absorbing it for the greater good like a loyal soldier in the battlefield.

Yes, he has no doubt been approached over that time with offers to sell or move the franchise to sunnier locales, but the answer has always been "we really need to keep them in Albany, so any deal must include that arrangement." That clause seems to have chased all such suitors away.

Now, we have the Rats' affilation deal with the NHL parent Carolina Hurricanes expiring, and they appear committed to moving their AHL club closer to their home base of Releigh-Durham. That decision is out of Mr Robb's hands. But you know it is most likely driving him bat-crazy, and he is no doubt pulling all stops to fill the hole and getting another NHL team to move their operation into the Pepsi Arena, be it with or without him.

But as he is quoted as saying to the local media: "I'm in my 80's, I can't go on forever." He is absolutely correct.

Tell you what, Walter: let it go. This community knows and appreciates just what you did with this team; and why you did it. Consider it a job extremely well done. But you've done enough, we can't -- and shouldn't -- ask for any more from you on this. You are hereby relieved of your duty.

Now is the time for some others to take the baton from Mr Robb. If that somehow happens and Albany keeps a team, hopefully thay will name the ice or something after him as tribute.

How about the Green Bay Packers model of a community-owned team, complete with tradeable shares?


Random blips

* Of my 50 most recent business-related (although at times such a distinction is a fuzzy one) communications (phone and email), 48 of them are with people with whom I previously interacted with beforehand. Of those 48, 28 are people I have never met, in a physical, real world sense.

That's all on that: no deep thoughts, heady analysis or profound conclusions. Just keeping you up to speed on my life.

* You've got to hand it to Apple. What other company (or nation, for that matter) could slow the interent to a crawl with a product announcement, resulting in a couple billion people tuning in for its live webcast? They don't need to advertise on the Super Bowl; they can produce their own Super Bowl.

* The Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee looks like they are at it again. The small band of activists that have controlled the party's operating structure for a few years -- and driven it into the ground as a result -- are reportedly turning on one another.

The view from here: too much idle time can be a dangerous thing, espcially in the wrong hands.

* Obama is being advised to back off his "if they want a fight, they'll get a fight" posturing towards the big-banking cartel. Why? What are they going to do, crash the world economy or something? On second thought...Nah, let's rumble.

Jan 26, 2010

The Big Stink is smelling worse

Maybe we should outsource Congress to India?

Something just ain't running right here

Cunning or insane? The GOP always keeps you guessing

The most interesting aspect of my frequent travels to NYC is the opportunity to casually talk with foreigners. Heck, anyone that's been to Manhattan lately knows that they seem to be the only ones down there nowadays.

Talk they do, especially about the current fortunes of the good old USA. The typical spin: we love you, we root for you, we're with you, but we think you're all fucked up right now and we're concerned--very concerned. Well, it's always nice to know that someone is worrying about you, that's for sure. The discourse that normally follows is more enlightened, passionate and informed than one usually has with homegrown, card carrying Americans themselves. Often times, a remote POV is the clearest.

Events of recent days certainly add ammo to that "you guys just ain't quite running on all eight cylinders" perspective. Namely:

Exhibit A: The Massachusetts thing:

Let me get this one straight. Thirty years of basically conservative rule -- complete with a laissez faire execution of deregulation, consolidation and loose money for favored industries --- has resulted in our current pickle of a disappearing middle class and manufacturing base, urban cores resembling war zones, a bankrupt treasury and a near apocalyptic money crisis resulting from a financial sector that was encouraged to take their B-School training at Las Vegas casinos. The last ten years alone has seen personal incomes fall greater than anytime in national history, the poverty rate rose by 17% and the uninsured increased 20 percent to an all-time high (including a 157% increase of those 65+).

But it's all the new guy's fault. Yeah, him and those other big spending liberals.

So what we get from this rational cause & effect logic is a Senate race where a somewhat efficient (yet boring) bureaucrat is defeated by an empty suit without a single original idea in his vest pocket, but filled with all the right slogans ("it's the people's seat!") and a campaign strategy of hitting the trail with Cliff the Mail Man by his side. All of this in the Bay State mind you: the Commonwealth with the perpetual bragging right of having voted against the Gipper in '84 and the home of MIT and Harvard.

Go figure that one out. You have my email when you do --- and please do.

Exhibit B: Campaign Finance

The current "we're not an activist court" version of the US Supreme Court sure decided to go activist at a convenient time, didn't it? Here, the robed ones lifted the heavy burden of campaign limits from the broad shoulders of corporations and labor unions. In essence, the Court deemed these entities as having the same standing as individuals (as in live human beings), therefore they are entitled to the same freedoms when tossing their time and efforts at the political world.

Yes, we have long extended this legal-standing aspect to corporations. But what seems to have been overlooked here is that we have also long made differentiations between the two classes, even after such an extension (example: taxation). The result of this ruling: the corporate checkbooks are now in play at a greater role than prior, if one can imagine such a world.

Exhibit C: Live Nation/TicketMaster OK'd

The proposed merger of these two behemoths --- 1/2 of the Evil Empire of the music world, along with Clear Channel and the RIAA --- now frees them to continue with the near monopolistic domination of the entertainment industry, after merger approval by the US Dept of Justice. This one gives me a real headache, so I think I will hold off on a full discussion in an upcoming slot.

Exhibit D: Deficit Reduction

This just in: "..the Senate rejected a plan by President Obama to create a bipartisan task force to tackle the federal deficit this year despite glaring new figures showing the enormity of the red-ink threat. The panel would have produced a plan combining tax cuts and spending curbs. The measure went down because anti-tax Republicans joined with Democrats who were wary of being railroaded into cutting Social Security and Medicare..."

Again, I could use some help here. The supposed 'anti-tax' (Tea Bagger) party is against the ONLY significant means of reducing federal spending (i.e., cutting entitlement programs). Now, I can at least understand the logic of the idiot Democrats wing that is against it for the stated reasons, but this certainly is a new strategy for the GOP: define budget cuts as tax hikes. Brilliant? Or just S-O-P from the Party of No?

Regardless, such sanity of entitlement-reduction will never fly. As soon as the idea of, let's say, raising the retirement age by a year is floated, the AARP will hire elderly actors to pose in landfills with a caption of "this will happen if Washington has its way" soon thereafer making the commercial airwaves during American Idol reruns.


Obama isn't viewed as blameless in this corner now, so don't anyone conclude me to be a pro-Democrat apologist: I consider myself to be much more fervent anti-Republican than a pro-Democrat. I just wish I had another real choice, that's all.

But the President has certainly booked a first year that, at best, rates a Gentleman's C -- with a special notation of "student seems at times to be unfocused and inconsistent in his approach to work assignments." The bad news here is that he's handed an opening to the not-so-loyal opposition; the good news is that all one needs to do is look at the Reagan and Clinton presidencies to see that they, too, were in similar troubled waters in Y1 of their terms.

But as any good boxing coach teaches, it's not how you start a round but how you finish a round. We'll see if Obama has found his legs by then.


Jan 25, 2010

Multi-nationals to the rescue? Local author says 'yes' in new book

Book Review: The Surprising Solution
Author: Bruce Piasecki (Saratoga Springs, NY)
Reviewer: Robert Millis

“I now believe the best path to that common goal of a better world resides in the rising role of large firms to develop better products.”
- Bruce Piasecki

How does a corporation best position itself to succeed in the 21st century’s global realities and opportunities? The answer: by abandoning its traditional focus on certain age-old assumptions and instead taking steps to enhance the value of its so-called social brands, that’s how.

So goes the advice from Bruce Piasecki in his latest book The Surprising Solution – Creating Possibility in a Swift and Severe World. The author is principal of the AHC Group in Saratoga Springs, NY --- a consultancy with a stated mission of improving the energy, environmental and product appeal of very large & complex companies.

From Piasecki’s perch, there is a sea change occurring in the way the big fish of the global economy — the multinationals – view the world’s major social problems. Whereas in the past, such pressing issues as crime, poverty, environmental destruction or conflict were looked at as being inconvenient but risk-manageable impediments to corporate missions, enlightened leaders now accept the need to actually address those issues with corporate resources. Google’s pledge to “Do No Evil” isn’t enough, Piasecki would advise; now is the time to unleash the private sector’s muscle into the actual problem solving.

Why? Because it is in their economic interests, he argues. The new world order of commerce comes complete with what he calls a “a new trinity” of price, quality and social response. If a company can successfully build an image that is a mirrored reflection of the larger society’s (or market’s) value system, it will be rewarded with long running loyalty, which in turn rings the register. In a brand driven world, up pops this concept of Social Brand.

There is gold to be had in those far flung hills: an enterprise profits as it addresses social needs and thereby adds to that brand’s value. Indeed, this is not a philanthropic exercise with investments in the greater good being driven not by the community relations department but as an outcome of big-picture boardroom strategy retreats.

The How to this goal of value-creation is a clear, straight line: build it into one’s product strategy. After all, developing and delivering products is what corporate behemoths do the best, right? Piasecki argues that we should play to those strengths and get ‘er done. Sometimes the simplest answer causes the biggest surprise, thus the Surprising Solution offered here.

This new paradigm becomes labeled ‘Social Response Capitalism’: global good thru better products. Build products that reflect your company’s social values; while taking care to ensure that those values are accurate reflections of the larger community. The loop ends nicely with a promised carrot of $$$ rewards: despite the initial reluctance, such a culture shift will actually (eventually) ADD to the corporate bottom line.

The immediate reaction one has when working thru the logic and case studies (with such examples as the Toyota Motor Company) is to ask if this exercise is nothing more than an overly complex view of another rather simple concept: Supply and Demand. Is the Toyota success of the past few decades primarily due to the intricate social brand development strategy described in these pages or what is just good old fashioned demand forecasting?

Here, Mr. Piasecki straddles between such a basic marketplace reaction and an almost neo-supply side model that would make Mr. Freidman and Mr. Laffer proud. And yes, such a macro analysis can be applied to multinationals, given their size and scope: as the book points out, 51 of the top 100 world economies are corporations.

But there can be no denying that brands have value, or that an image of Social Good is a more positive currency than is Social Bad. The question becomes one of quantifying that value, especially in determining its effect and influence on the millions of micro buying decisions that take place every day. For there lies the final proof is in the pudding test.

This review is being written on a new notebook, purchased in recent weeks. Its manufacturer, HP, is a firm that apparently buys into the Social Response Capitalism model, as evidenced by it being highlighted in the Surprising Solution. I now find myself asking “how much did HP’s high marks on the social value report card play into my buying decision?”

In my case, I would conclude that HP's brand panache DID play a role, but that my own personal connection to (and image of) that particular brand is more related to the “two guys in a garage spark the PC revolution” view of HP that has been hard wired into me since the 80s than it is to anything else. But do I stand alone with such a reaction? Am I the norm? Or is that “two guys...” thing actually just another manifestation of social branding in its own right?

Going further, we then find the proverbial rub: quantification. Because this really comes down to a question of goodwill value (a phrase that is curiously missing from the book): how much is this social brand development contributing to the overall soft-asset value of any given organization? For while Mr. Piasecki argues that is the key component moving forward, it is but one single component. Any given corporate decision maker needs more than that to go on with: he needs to determine whether the $200 million in retained earnings gets plowed back into such options as expanding capacity, improving productivity or this new fangled concept of social brand value creation.

In other words, Mr Executive needs numbers. Granted, the vogue-ish VCI (Value Creation Index) has been making the rounds for a decade now, but it seems insufficient to meet the demands of your typical Chief Bean Counters at Fortune500ville. Drawing such lines in the sand – providing hard numbers on both the demand assumptions and on the social capital value of that $2000 HP notebook in front of me– is the hoped for next act of Mr Piasecki and his think tank colleagues.

Other equally fascinating questions percolate from a motivated reader of this book. What about what might be called the Half-Assed Solutions, or the WalMart-styled green-washing initiatives? We know that many such shortcuts to value will be explored, exploited and undertaken; so how do we differentiate the real and the noble from the fluff and the head fakes?

Another is the aspect of location: how it plays into the notion of social brand value. A McDonald’s might conclude that it could gain such traction by an initiative that places healthy salad bars in its restaurants. Such a move might, in fact, meet its goal in a developed nation filled with people fortunate enough to have the time and energy to be concerned about such issues, but it won’t in a third world nation where starving natives are lurking in the parking lot. There lies a need for a new application of the “think global, act local” proverb, possibly?

Many such topics arise from reading The Surprising Solution. But that is exactly what Mr. Piasecki was seeking, as shown on page five where he states his initial desire as being nothing more than “to start a conversation about the powers and responsibilities of multinational corporations.:

Mission accomplished. Join that conversation by picking up a copy.


Jan 23, 2010

Birds and airplanes: not a good combo

Question: What is the #1 cause of airline crashes?
Answer: Birds

Yes, that is what brought down the Miracle on the Hudson flight and countless others over the years. One such incident nearly happended yesterday at Dulles; fortunately, the plane was able to get back on the ground before disaster struck.

While I don't profess to be an expert on airplane design or the complex science of aerodynamics, I still need to ask: isn't the solution to this problem a rather simple one? Namely:

Why can't ordinary wire mesh be placed on the engine openings?

Yes, a small amount of airflow will be sacrificed; but is can't be enough to trash the whole idea, can it? What am I missing here?

Jan 22, 2010

Would you like a beer with that order?

Breaking news just in from AP:

Burger King is opening a restaurant in Miami Beach that will serve beer along with burgers and fries, the chain's first U.S. location with alcohol. Guests can pair a Whopper sandwich with Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors brews. With fries, the combo will run $7.99.

Three questions:

1) How big are the beers?

2) Can I upgade and pay an extra 50 cents for a real beer?

3) Is this offer available at the Drive-Thru window? Because that sure would be REAL convenient.

Jan 20, 2010

A little (table) tennis, anyone?

Time to move this operation out of the garage

Any ping pong fans out there in the city of Saratoga? Excuse me: table tennis.

Momentum is building for the formation of a local club devoted to that glorious recreational activity. Yes, it will likley also involve drinking as well.

The goal (at this stage at least): a monthly get together. A great venue is secured.

If interested, say so via an email to: bob.millis at @ that service called gmail.com. He'll pass it on.

Saratoga Springs: a miracle, revisionist history or simply a missing conversation?

Buy an ad; create your own myths

Any given Chamber of Commerce has as its primary function that of being a cheerleader; boosting the local community as a good place to live, work and visit. Promotion and marketing are keys to making things happen; hence there is nothing sinister with such a function.

So it should come as no surprise that this past Thursday found an insert titled “Saratoga Springs: Transformation by the Passion of a Community” within that city’s daily newspaper, The Saratogian. Published and paid for (one assumes) by the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, this collection of essays harkens on the supposed not-so-good old days of the Spa City’s downtown commercial district and Broadway epicenter. Historical images and recollections of abandoned storefronts and dilapidated structures are juxtaposed with the current streetscape of tidy facades and smiling shiny faces; a miracle turnaround, if you will.

Of special personal interest was the piece on the genesis of the Holiday Inn Hotel on the southern end of the street. In a quest to solve the gaping hole in the town’s inventory of lodging space (this is a tourist destination, after all), enlightened citizens came up with an innovative scheme as a means of attracting a development partner into the solving of that problem.

That solution was to demonstrate the community’s financial commitment through a stock offering of foundation shares, which were purchased at $50 each by everyone that gave a hoot. It worked, as the Memphis based Holiday Inn chain bought into the vision, constructing the first combo hotel & convention facility in their history in Saratoga.

My parents were two of those very stakeholders, buying a share each; as did most of their friends and neighbors. As a children, my brother and I would always shout out “can you show us which two bricks we own?” each and every time the family sedan drove by the facility, for that’s what we were told was the family’s ownership portion of such. Furthermore, the investment return on that $100 was very healthy, deemed as the “best financial investment we ever made” by our family treasurer.

Indeed, bricks and mortar are an important part of the mix of a community’s economic well being, and that’s what the Chamber is celebrating with such a document. Granted, some argue that the publication is more a celebration of the Chamber than it is of downtown, but either way, it still serves that aforementioned booster function quite adequately.

The point to remember, however, is that part part; as in “part of the mix.” Is a pleasant looking downtown a good asset? Yes; granted. Did a group effort by this city’s forward-thinking leadership and citizenry make that pleasant downtown happen? Yes, again! Now, did all of that lead to a thriving downtown economy and quality of life experience? Well, not so fast there.

Yes; downtown Saratoga rings the cash registers at a comparatively impressive clip – and that’s a good thing. But should that be the Report Card of a community’s health and well-being, or should it be but one line item (or subject matter) in such an analysis? The Chamber (and its willing partner The Saratogian) both seem to opt for the former; I’ll argue for the latter.

But the conversation never seems to get into that territory, and for that I blame the newspaper more than the Chamber. Again, the Chamber’s job is to promote; and a good promoter highlight’s its client’s primary assets. In the case of Saratoga, that asset is its downtown. The Saratogian cannot be let off the hook so easily, especially when its front page hype of the enclosed insert proclaims a “rise to glory” from “20 years of progress” and so on. Missing, not surprisingly, is an in-depth analysis of the community’s overall health and quality of life compared to the past. Instead, the reader is left with a given that Then was a shit hole; Now is Nirvana; nothing more.

But that more seems to be beyond the reach of the city’s daily --- just another sign of the continuing decline of this paper as a resource for thoughtful ideas and commentary on local dynamics. In this case, missing from the puzzle is a conversation that might raise these points:

• The downtown commercial district is dominated by a tourist economy, with precious little local-to-local commerce. The result is that very few resident citizens ever venture into this district as part of their economic (and social) life. Wouldn’t this be considered as a bad thing?

• Furthermore, the city’s livelihood seems to rely more and more heavily on it being the “bar district of the Capital Region.” Need proof: wander down Caroline Street on a Friday night (wear a helmet). Is this desirable?

• The city is devoid of a ‘high tech” or “creative class” economy; especially downtown. Few such businesses are created locally, further resulting in a brain drain worse than Appalachia’s. Need proof here as well? OK, how many of you or your neighbor’s kids returned home after getting their advanced degrees? Uh-huh: the waitress job at Lillian’s helped with the tuition, but it’s not a career path, is it?

• The city feels more and more like a combination retirement village and bedroom community. A discussion, please?

On and on we could go, but there lies the missing ingredient of the local fabric: that discussion. Who’s ready, willing and able to lead such a discussion? The Chamber of Commerce won’t and the Saratogian can’t. There lies what we would refer to as a VOIDin the community.

An old school buddy of mine made an interesting comment the other day when he said “I was probably the happiest back when I was living in a drafty rat hole of an apartment with lawn chairs and milk crates for furniture.” This coming from a guy who W2’s at least a mil each year and lives in a house that would make a Tudor prince jealous, mind you.

Those left standing on the battle field are the ones that get to write the war's history. That’s why the few childhood friends of mine that still remain in the city are those that have succeeded in the locally endorsed religions of tourism and housing/real estate or their allied sects. Those pursuing other interests in technology, high finance, software, research or whatever (including myself) needed to look elsewhere.

That’s fine: a town cannot be all things to all people. Just don’t tell me that it’s a miracle for Broadway to now have more barrooms than it does internet companies or that the demographics of the type of people likely to create those very internet companies are priced out of being able to live or work there. Yes, give me a bohemian ghetto and some interesting people to tell me stories around town now and then.

Personally, if push came to shove and I had to make a mutually-exclusive choice between: a) a pretty downtown filled with tourists and skyrocketing property values fueled by in-migration; or: b) a community of deep-routed neighborhoods complete with slew of locally-centric venues where everyone knows my name; I’ll opt for the Cheers scenario. But that’s just a personal preference; I can at least recognize there are varying perspectives and opinions on the matter.

But meanwhile, those holding the ropes go about perpetuating the myths and denying the collateral damage. Thursday’s offering was simply Exhibit #875771.



Jan 14, 2010

Haitian Relief

"Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
- Ryunosuke Satoro

The Haitian people -- our own Western Hempsipher neighbors and fellow citizens of Planet Earth -- are in trouble and need our help. Do so: NOW! It's real easy...

Text "HAITI" to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross. OR Text "YELE" to 501501 to donate $5 to Wyclef Jean's Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund.

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
- Carl Jung


Jan 8, 2010

What's the word? Shovelware!

"Bullshit, huh? That's a good word. I like it."
- Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond

"They've got the internet on computers now."
- Homer J Simpson

My new favorite (or favorite new) word: shovelware.

Rough translation: the result of re-deploying content (news stories, videos) that was initially utilized in traditional broaadcast mediums (television, newspapers) to the internet.

This process and strategy is but one more example of old media's not quite getting it.

For examples of shovelware, simply visit the web site of any local newspaper or television station.

Equally embarrasing are the blogs found in those same places, which fall into one of two camps:

* "Look at me, I'm blogging" -- the work of in-house staff or management. SOS and BFD.

* The outlet's take on (so-called) community journalism -- posts offered by outside contributors. Typical subject matter here might include an ongoing anlaysis and debate on a random celebrity's new haircut, the best place to get your nails done or the proper etiquestte for asking a co-worker on a date.

The shotgun or LCD (lowest common denominator) business model of the long-running broadcast era succeeded for all that time because there wasn't a valid alternatve. That is as true of their content-carrot as it is their value proposition to advertisers.

Sorry to tell you folks, but your gig is up.


Jan 6, 2010

Worst business, but best story

A great quote, from one of the better observers on the raging media / new media firestorm:

"However, we face a tough time, a disruptive period, a wild west of sorts. A very interesting time. Paradoxically, media is the worst business to be in right now but media is the best story around."

You can read Tom Foremski's Silicon Vally Watcher here. I recommend doing so!


Jan 1, 2010

The Last Man Standing (Part One)

A tribute to a lost New York

For days, I anxiously looked forward to getting down to New York for my much needed (and long overdue) city fix. Too much time spent upstate clogs the brain cells the way bad cholesterol clogs the arteries; and the recent Boston action wasn’t quite enough to take care of the problem. Scrub the sidewalks and restock the saloons, Bloomberg: I’m coming to town.

This trip promised to be especially good, for I would look up my old pal John, or JD as he was known back in the day. That day was one in which the big guy ruled Manhattan, at least in the eyes of his wide circle of friends and colleagues to whom he acted as the ringleader of a gypsy band that wore out a merry and drunken path from the West Side to the Village to Newport to Saratoga to Hunter Mountain and back again. This was the 80’s; New York’s return from the abyss, where a sense of renewed spirit was palpable —- and Guiliani’s nightmare vision of gentrification was still a decade away.

JD wormed his way nicely right into the middle of the action. With a unique blend of schooling and smarts in both high finance and high art, his namesake creative shop was perfectly suited and timed to offer branding and positioning magic to the downtown crowd as that Den of Thieves cranked up Act I of the Grand Scam. Many recognizable “we’re you friends now give us your money” campaigns that came out of Wall Street during that period had JD’s touch on them. I recall seeing a TV commercial for a brokerage house, and making a note to ask JD if that was his work. It was.

Yes, it was his task to paint a crafty picture of Mr. Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. He hated the bastards with a passion, yet thoroughly enjoyed dressing them up and teaching them to behave in public. I think his way of making internal peace with that conflict was that he never socialized with any of them. Indeed, you’d never see any Superior Beasts among his posse.

Instead, inclusion was mostly restricted to the crazed band of incredibly talented and sometime off-the-rails cast of characters from his extended work circle—employees, freelancers, allied partners and other co-conspirators that helped deliver the JD magic to the paying clientele. The work hard/party hard cliché might apply to this bunch, except for the fact that they really didn’t work that hard. The top-level ideas and solutions came easily, and an army of monkeys (his term) would push the projects out the door. Then it was time to party.

A typical Wednesday might include 3PM warmup drinks, dinner uptown, a Yankee game in the Bronx and late night shots at a midtown piano bar. People would enter and exit the train all night long, but JD was always the conductor; on duty from start to finish. On Thursday, he’d hit the repeat button.

I was on-board for a brief flash, the result of my hooking up with his firm by providing some multimedia presentation content expertise for his investor relations projects. In other words, I designed some PowerPoint slides. But mine had embedded video clips! I think I was paid handsomely for this nonsense; but it was the extracurricular benefits that would have me in gleeful anticipation on the monthly Amtrak journey.

As I was this past week, looking ahead to my first visit with JD in over ten years.

(Part II, upcoming this week)