Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Jumpstarting a Market

I’ve written in the past about what market leaders do to build categories, and frequently I cite Google as the best example of these strategies. Their approach with laying down fiber and providing really cheap, super fast internet in Kansas City is no exception. Like it did with Chrome (at least at the beginning), Google is trying to jumpstart a stagnant market:

If you are one of the lucky few Kansas City natives to have already signed up for Google Fiber, I don’t begrudge you one megabit; your ancestors had to deal with the Dust Bowl, you deserve a little extra bandwidth. But at its heart, Google’s attempt at being its own ISP is much more about forcing the entrenched service providers — the Verizon’s and Time Warner’s and AT&T’s of this world — to step up their games than it is about making this particular business a raving financial success. When I asked the Google spokeswoman what the ultimate goal of all this was, she replied that Google wants “to make the web better and faster for all users.” The implication is that they don’t necessarily want to do it all by themselves.

December 16, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Two random thoughts about London

Just got back from a few days in London and there were two random thoughts I’ve wanted to share. Neither are new, but they popped into my head during this trip and I thought, “maybe I should blog about those,” so here we are.

Thing # 1: We all know they drive on the left side of the road in the UK. This isn’t surprising anymore. What is surprising, to me at least, is every time you encounter a situation where pedestrian traffic is routed to the right. For instance, on all the escalators in the tubes it tells you to stand to the right and pass on the left. This is what we do in the US which makes it seem very wrong in the UK. Also, when you walk the streets in New York it’s a fairly standard rule that traffic stays right. In the UK I feel like you constantly see people on both sides of the sidewalk walking both directions. All of this makes me think that people naturally want to stay to the right (probably because most are right-handed). I have no idea whether this is true or not (I’m also not sure whether British folks will find this offensive, in which case I apologize). I just think you’ve got to pick one and stick to it. You wouldn’t find a random escalator or walkway in a high-traffic zone in the US where there are signs directing traffic to stay left.

Thing # 2: One of the things I really like about London is how much ground floor commercial space there is. In New York City the ground floor is almost entirely retail and office work happens somewhere between the 2nd and 100th floor. I’m not sure why I like looking in at people working, but there’s something really interesting about walking past an office window during the day. It’s just not a view you really get in New York. (I’d say this has something to do with the fact that we’re looking for a new office so I’m especially keen to see how other’s deal with their space, but this has fascinated me since well before I started a company.)

Alright, that’s it. Two very random observations.

December 15, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

The Humming Timestamp

Apparently electrical outlets give off an inaudible hum, which isn’t all that interesting in and of itself. Except that that hum changes frequency in minute ways constantly based on the supply and demand of electricity. Scientists in the UK have discovered that the hum is unique, which means it can be used to timestamp recordings. The gist:

Recordings made close to electrical power sources pick up a hum. Comparing the unique pattern of the frequencies on an audio recording with a database that has been logging these changes for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year provides a digital watermark: a date and time stamp on the recording. Philip Harrison, from JP French Associates, another forensic audio laboratory that has been logging the hum for several years, says: “Even if [the hum] is picked up at a very low level that you cannot hear, we can extract this information.”

Science is pretty crazy sometimes.

December 12, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Everything Communicates

Excuse this bit of bragging, but this makes me incredibly proud. Today, Christa Carone, CMO of Xerox, wrote this about Percolate on Forbes.com:

As an active Twitter user and scanner, I’m constantly prowling for Tweet-worthy articles and insights to share with my followers.  But, like every multi-tasker, over-committed, “not-enough-time-in-the-day” person I know, there are always competing demands for time that keep me from heeding the call of the little blue bird.

Thank goodness for Percolate, a small but fast-growing company that recognizes that marketing on the “social scale” requires content, content and more content, but only if it passes the relevancy test. Through algorithms, filters and other tools, Percolate scours the web and serves up content tailored to my specific areas of focus that I can review and easily share.

I’m grateful for and a tiny bit envious of this start-up. I marvel at how its founders quickly spotted a need and last year created a company that has scored a slew of clients and, in November, $9 million in funding. Besides that, everything this company does is on-brand, from its business cards and its Daily Brew email to the—yes–perkiness of its staffers.

One of my resolutions for 2013 is to spend more time learning from small companies like Percolate. Big organizations can be great marketers but often find it hard to act fast.  Frankly, “seize” isn’t something that is easily said or done.  But there are lessons that Goliaths like Xerox can learn from more nimble David-sized enterprises.

Beyond it being incredibly flattering, there are two things that make me especially happy reading this: First, it’s just the recognition around the brand. I spent a lot of time working with large companies with unbelievable brands and its fun to get a shot at building your own. I still believe deeply that there’s an opportunity within tech, especially on the enterprise side, to take advantage of the lack of thoughtful brands in the space. Second, and more importantly, it’s the recognition of people as part of the brand. When I worked for Naked Communications the tagline (or whatever you want to call it) was “everything communicates.” Brands aren’t built with collateral and style guides, they’re built through interactions and, for us and many other companies, those interactions are with people just as much as they’re with software. Your brand is the total of all those parts and interactions and the responsibility for it sits with everyone in the organization, whether they’re on the front lines dealing with clients or they’re just out at a bar talking about their jobs.

It makes me incredibly proud to read something like this.

December 11, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Blind Spots

Bill Simmons has a good article about Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant and leadership. I found the first paragraph especially interesting:

I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.

The idea of scouting your own teammates is really interesting and clearly has business implications. We tend to spend a lot of time looking at the landscape and understanding our customers, but there’s always an opportunity to better understand the people around us. We sort of do it with reviews and goals inside organizations, but this seems like a different lens on the idea of management and leadership. Instead of just trying to look at people and understand how to help them grow, you look at how competition would exploit your team and use that to try to identity your blind spots.

December 10, 2012 // This post is about: , , , , ,

The Other 1%?

Fortune posted this 1992 article about the Hells Angels. In general it’s a bit of a boring factual account of how the group came to be and how it makes money, but I really liked the fact they used to call them the one-percenters:

What makes the Angels and the lesser outlaws so distinctive among criminal enterprises — and adds to the frustration of law enforcement officials — is that many Americans celebrate them and identify with them. Back in the 1950s, the American Motorcyclist Association, the voice of legitimate riders, pronounced that ”only 1%” of all riders were troublemakers. The outlaws gleefully accepted the label, and many still call themselves one-percenters. (The actual percentage is much smaller — counting the hangers-on police call associates, only about 0.2% of the estimated nine million motorcyclists in the U.S.) And plenty of people — including many who have never even sat on a motorcycle — like their style and applaud them for defying convention and authority.

Can’t imaging they’re still calling themselves that …

December 9, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

How Superman came to wear his underwear on the outside

Not exactly something I had ever thought about, but io9 has an interesting post about how comic book characters came to have their underwear on the outside and why the industry shouldn’t bail on the innovation now. The money quote:

Underpants on tights were signifiers of extra-masculine strength and endurance in 1938. The cape, showman-like boots, belt and skintight spandex were all derived from circus outfits and helped to emphasize the performative, even freak-show-esque, aspect of Superman’s adventures. Lifting bridges, stopping trains with his bare hands, wrestling elephants: these were superstrongman feats that benefited from the carnival flair implied by skintight spandex. [Artist Joe] Shuster had dressed the first superhero as his culture’s most prominent exemplar of the strongman ideal, unwittingly setting him up as the butt of ten thousand jokes.

December 8, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

What Blog?

An interesting statement by Bruce Sterling on memory and blogs and media more generally:

As people get more comfortable with the metamedium of software which underlies all digital media, they get less and less concerned with whatever “new media” may call themselves. When weblogs are finally gone, people will say that there was never really such a thing as a “weblog” in the first place.

I think he’s right and we’re already seeing it. I wonder if there’s a media law somewhere in there where we create new media and then when we make them extinct we actually erase them from our collective memories.

December 6, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

NYC Christmas Trees

If you have been around NYC during December you’ve definitely seen the Christmas trees lined up in front of stores. I was walking past some this morning and wondered out loud on Twitter whether the sellers needed permits. Not surprisingly, Justin Kalifowitz knew the answer and pointed me to this New York Times story from 2003:

But Christmas tree vendors need neither permits nor First Amendment protection to spread their holiday cheer. They are entitled to what might be called the ”coniferous tree” exception, adopted by the City Council in 1938 over the veto of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. The city’s administrative code allows that ”storekeepers and peddlers may sell and display coniferous trees during the month of December” on a city sidewalk without a permit, as long as they have the permission of owners fronting the sidewalk and keep a corridor open for pedestrians. (The law originally cited Christmas trees, but the religious reference was removed in 1984.)

December 3, 2012 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Stocks as a Hobby

Unfortunately he ends up going in a bit of a different direction, but I think the idea that picking stocks is a hobby is an intriguing notion from Felix Salmon:

I had a fascinating lunch, a couple of weeks ago, which lodged in my mind the idea that stock picking, at least when practiced by individuals, is best analyzed as an upper-middle-class hobby rather than as purely profit-focused investing activity. Once you start looking at it that way, suddenly a lot of behavior, which looks irrational under most lights, starts making a lot of sense.

November 29, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Why is Android different?

There’s lot of talk about the numbers from Black Friday. Twitter and Facebook didn’t fare well, mobile was up and iphone destroyed Android. Horace at Asymco asks the obvious question about the last stat: Why?

This I consider to be a paradox: Why is Android attracting late adopters (or at least late adopter behavior) when the market is still emergent? We’ve become accustomed to thinking that platforms that look similar are used in a similar fashion. But this is clearly not the case. The shopping data is only one proxy but there are others: developers and publishers have been reporting distinct differences in consumption on iOS vs. Android and, although anecdotal, the examples continue to pile up.

He’s not satisfied with the idea that android has a different demographic profile because of how many people own them now. So what could it be?

November 28, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Genericide

Slate has a relatively interesting article about a trademark dispute over the Emeco Navy Chair, but what I liked more is the word “genericide”:

Let’s turn to the dispute itself. First, Emeco’s claim to a trademark on the term “Navy chair” is weak. Why? Because over the years that has become a generic label for this type of all-metal, 1940s-style chair, rather than a name that immediately conjures up a Pennsylvania company named Emeco. And in American law, if a product’s name becomes generic—such as aspirin, linoleum, thermos, or zipper—it can no longer be trademarked. Lawyers call this “genericide,” and the fear of becoming generic is one reason Kleenex is always reminding you that they sell “Kleenex-brand tissues.” The makers of Kleenex are trying to save their brand from genericide by reminding you that Kleenex is a particular brand of tissues, not a generic name for tissues.

November 26, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

The Value of Shots

After last year’s NBA playoffs I got really into the NBA. I attribute it to two big things: First, the busier I am at work the more I want to just go home and veg out and the NBA makes it easy with things to watch every night and second, this season (and last year’s playoffs) is just good basketball.

Anyway, there’s a movement in the NBA (and every sports league at this point) about “advanced metrics”. It’s each league’s attempt to apply Moneyball principles to their sport. In basketball a big part of the point of these type of metrics is to answer the question of how much points are really worth. This is because the public gives an outsized amount of attention to guys that score a lot and not to how they actually get their scoring done (in other words, is someone who scores 30 points on 10 of 15 shooting better than someone who scores 40 points on 15 of 35 shooting). (If you’re bored of this now you can drop off, I won’t be offended.)

A site I enjoyed called The NBA Geek put together a nice primer on this question (and the point of advanced metrics generally). The point he makes is that each missed shot has a price and we need to take that into account in the same way we count the made ones. Regardless of the method of counting you use, you’ve got to be able to accept that basic idea. He sums it up like this:

But one thing is clear, to me at least: just because a player has great talent and is clearly capable of creating easy scoring opportunities, this does not make their bad shots “valuable”. The simple fact is, Carmelo Anthony would be a more productive player if he simply stopped taking shit shots; so would Russell Westbrook. The idea that the bad shots that these players take create value for their team has no basis in evidence at all (nor is there any evidence that these players are reluctant shooters who are shooting so much because “someone has to take the shots”). You can choose to disagree with me on that, but it’s rather like disagreeing with me about evolution and creationism — as far as I’m concerned, prove it or move it. 

November 26, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

A Car with an API

Ars Technica has a great piece about how the Chevy Volt came to have an open API and what it means for the future of the car. Here’s a snippet:

Schwinke said OnStar was already working with a number of other partners to leverage ATOMS’ cloud interface—among them electric companies who were looking to extend their “smart grid” services to Volt vehicles. “We’ve been doing some demonstrations and prototyping with public utility companies for smart grid command and response,” he said. “The utility companies can send instructions to the car to control when it charges and when it doesn’t. It can save the car owner money, and flatten electrical demand curves.”

On the topic of “internet of things” (aka spimes aka stuff that can communicate with the web), there was also a good piece in the Times last week about GE’s efforts in what it’s calling the “industrial internet.” A snippet from that:
Smarter machines, for example, can alert their human handlers when they will need maintenance, before a breakdown. It is the equivalent of preventive and personalized care for equipment, with less downtime and more output.

November 26, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Highway House

This is pretty crazy:

Homeowners Luo Baogen and his wife refused to allow the government to demolish their home in Wenling, Zhejiang province, China, claiming the relocation compensation offered would not be enough to cover the cost of rebuilding. So, adjacent neighboring homes were dismantled, and, bizarrely, the road was built around the intact home, leaving it as an island in a river of new asphalt.

Crazy. Be sure to check out the pictures.

Related (sort of): If you’re interested in China, driving and highways you should check out the book Country Driving. It’s by a New Yorker writer who has lived in China for some time and chronicles the ever-expanding driving culture. Here’s a little snippet:

Many traffic patterns come directly from pedestrian life—people drive the way they walk. They like to move in packs, and they tailgate whenever possible. They rarely use turn signals. Instead they rely on automobile body language: if a car edges to the left, you can guess that he’s about to make a turn. And they are brilliant at improvising. They convert sidewalks into passing lanes, and they’ll approach a roundabout in reverse direction if it seems faster. If they miss an exit on a highway, they simply pull onto the shoulder, shift into reverse, and get it right the second time. They curb-sneak in traffic jams, the same way Chinese people do in ticket lines. Tollbooths can be hazardous, because a history of long queues has conditioned people into quickly evaluating options and making snap decisions. When approaching a toll, drivers like to switch lanes at the last possible instant; it’s common to see an accident right in front of a booth. Drivers rarely check their rearview mirrors. Windshield wipers are considered a distraction, and so are headlights.

November 23, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

How hard is it to be in the NBA if you’re 7 feet tall?

I’m not sure this fits into the regular topics around here, but I found this too unbelievable to not share:

Certainly it doesn’t take statistical analysis to conclude that NBA players are freakishly tall. (Although some stats help put the freakishness into perspective: Seven-footers are routine in the NBA but so rare in the rest of the country that of American men ages 20 to 40 who stand seven feet tall, an estimated 17% are in the NBA right now, according to analysis of data from the NBA and the Centers for Disease Control.) But NBA players are also outlandishly long—even the “short” ones. At 6’2¾”, Wizards guard John Wall might not be able to see the very top shelf at the grocery store, but with 6’9¼” worth of arms, no doubt he can reach it.

17 percent! That’s madness.

November 19, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years

For whatever reason I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. One of my favorites is Planet Money from NPR. Their latest episode is a really interesting look at why Coca-Cola stayed 5 cents for 70 years. Turns out there are two primary reasons: First, the company got into a crazy deal with the bottlers where it was selling syrup at a fixed price of 90 cents a gallon. Because it was a dumb deal and Coke knew it they realized they needed a way to keep the price from spiraling out of control. Their solution was advertising. Because they couldn’t control the sale price they just went out to the market and told everyone it was 5 cents a bottle, meaning retailers were left with no choice but to sell it for the price consumers expected. The second reason is a little less exciting, but still interesting. Apparently Coca-Cola had an insane amount of vending machines around and they were all 5 cents. After getting out of their contract they could raise the price, but they didn’t want to double it and the machine couldn’t take anything but nickels. They tried (and failed) to lobby the government for a 7.5 cent coin, but eventually just kept the price as it was (with a brief period of giving every eighth consumer an empty bottle to artificially raise the price in a crazy way).

Go check out the whole thing.

November 15, 2012 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Hiring

I know I post these every so often, but today we announced that we’ve raised a $9 million Series A. This is a big number and what it means most is that Percolate is very much hiring. We’re pretty much hiring across the board, but here’s a quick rundown of the current open positions on the site:

  • Account Executive: This is the title we have for our more senior sellers. The job is about getting in front of Fortune 500 brands and helping them understand the value of Percolate.
  • Engineer: We’re hiring for both Jr. & Sr. engineers (as well as frontend). We are a technology company first-and-foremost and hiring the best engineers is part of what we need to do to succeed.
  • Designer: We have a top-notch design team here and really believe that the product is dependent on keeping that quality as high as possible.

We’re hiring for some other positions as well and you should check out the whole list, but those are some of the more pressing ones. If you know someone who would be awesome please send them our way.

Thanks.

November 14, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

On Facebook, Brands and Reach

I was going to write something in response to the post about Mark Cuban leaving Facebook for MySpace (he doesn’t like that you have to pay to reach 100% of your audience), but Dalton Caldwell beat me to the punch with a well-put take:

We can expect to see Facebook deemphasizing traditional advertising units in favor of promoted news stories in your stream. The reason is that the very best advertising is content. Blurring the lines between advertising and content is one of the most ambitious goals a marketer could have.
Bringing earnings expectations into this, the key to Facebook “fixing” their mobile advertising problem is not to create a new ad-unit that performs better on mobile. Rather, it is for them to sell the placement of stories in the omnipresent single column newsfeed. If they are able to nail end-to-end promoted stories system, then their current monetization issues on mobile disappear.

The only thing I’d add to this (which I tweeted yesterday) is why would brands be treated differently than people on Facebook? If any of us post something to FB it will only reach a portion of our friends, so why should a brand be able to reach 100% of their fans? It’s a filtered platform and that’s what makes it different than Twitter and Tumblr.

November 14, 2012 // This post is about: ,

The More You Send, The More You Receive

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, seems like a really smart guy. The NYTimes has a nice little interview with him that includes a couple really great nuggets about leadership. I especially liked his take on email, though:

Like any other tool, e-mail is what you make it . It’s an incredible tool of productivity, collaboration and knowledge-sharing for me. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled with it like everybody else. But one thing I realized is that if you want to reduce the amount of e-mail in your in-box, it’s actually very simple: you need to send fewer e-mails. I know it’s kind of a self-evident truth. Because every time you send an e-mail, what’s going to happen? It’s going to trigger a response, and then you’re going to have to respond to that response, and then they’re going to add some people on the “cc” line, and then those people are going to respond. You have to respond to those people, and someone’s going to misinterpret something. That’s going to start a telephone game, and then you’re going to have to clarify that stuff. Then you have someone in a time zone who didn’t get the clarification, so you’re going to have to clarify that clarification.

November 11, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

What Made Nate Silver so Popular?

Felix Salmon gives his take on what really made Nate Silver such a phenomenom: First, he can explain complicated math simply and second, he gave people fodder for conversation. Felix explains:

The thing that Silver and the Obama campaign have in common, then, is that they used their databases to tell stories. Or, more to the point, their databases and models were used so that Americans could tell stories to each other. Silver’s site became a virtual watercooler, especially towards the end of the campaign — a place where people would gather to talk about what was possible and what was likely. Nate’s voice helped to guide the discussions, but the real reason that he got such astonishing traffic was not that people wanted to read what he was writing, so much as that people were using his model as a framework within which to hold their own idiosyncratic discussions.

Now I’m not sure that this is really unique. People consume, at least in part, to talk about what they read. This is especially true in the realm of politics as evidenced by the nonstop conversation over the last three months. But I still think Felix is very right and it’s interesting to think about the role of statistics here. Are statistics actually better conversational fodder than punditry because they still allow the reader to make observations and decisions? Not sure, but I like the thought.

November 8, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Why Sponsor NASCAR?

I’m going to write about NASCAR and marketing, if you don’t care about either of those things, you can quit reading now. I’m writing this for three reasons:

  1. I’m a big NASCAR fan (it’s more than just going around in circles, I’m happy to explain it sometime)
  2. I spent some time working with a NASCAR team and learned a lot about how the business side of the sport operates
  3. The New York Times had a story yesterday about how the NBA can learn something from NASCAR in regards to it’s thought about adding sponsors to jerseys. This article almost entirely missed the real point of NASCAR sponsorships. (I can’t say I find this shocking as NASCAR is hardly the number one beat for the Times.)

For some reason the article focused on how sponsors can affect the behavior of the athletes. This is sort of interesting, but pretty far from the real story of NASCAR sponsorships. While the business of NASCAR is struggling for a bunch of reasons (financial meltdown, arms race in technology raising the cost of fielding competitive teams, more competition than ever for ad dollars), what makes it work has not changed. When a brand buys into a NASCAR sponsorship (which goes for ~$20 million for a full season), they are buying two big things: Loyalty and activation opportunities.

Let’s start with loyalty. This is what the article really misses. When brands sponsor NASCAR they get a real understanding from the fans that they are responsible for the car on the track. The drivers get it, the teams get and the fans get it. This is hugely different from slapping your logo on something (whether it’s soccer where it’s displayed in giant form on the player’s belly or basketball, where they seem to be thinking about some little sponsorship patch). People in those sports think the sponsor is responsible for the team in the same way no one will ever walk into a Brooklyn Nets game and say “thank you Barclays for making this possible.”

The numbers in NASCAR back this up. I used to have them, but the league and teams generally trot around a number of 80%+ loyalty of a fan to its driver’s sponsor. If Jimmie Johnson is your guy you go to Lowe’s not Home Depot. That’s just how it works.

Okay, onto activation. Take a look at the official sponsors of NASCAR teams and you see a few different kinds of companies: Car-related companies (NAPA, Shell, Mobil 1), CPG (Budweiser, Mars, Miller Lite) and a lot of retail/franchise businesses (Burger King, Target, GEICO, Farmers Insurance, Home Depot, Lowes, Office Depot). The first set is obvious, the average NASCAR fan likes cars and car-related stuff. The second is about audience as NASCAR skews heavily male and sometimes guys are hard to reach. The last, though, is the most interesting to me.

What all these companies have in common is lots of employees (you could throw FedEx in this group too and UPS was a long-time sponsor of the sport). One of the more interesting things about how brands actually utilize their sponsorship is that they do fully integrated program where they use a sponsorship to reach not just consumers, but also employees. Target, Home Depot and Lowes have 900,000 combined employees (365, 331 and 204). That’s a lot of people to keep happy. One of the ways they do it is give them something to root for. It’s not shocking, or even all that interesting, it just sort of makes sense and means that the investment is offset into a few different departments.

Anyway, I don’t have a real conclusion to all this, just felt like writing a little bit about what I know about NASCAR. Hopefully it was relatively interesting.

October 22, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Everything you ever wanted to know about pallets

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m a sucker for thousand-word stories on things like shipping pallets. Luckily for me, Slate has gone ahead and written one (or rather they wrote one back in August). Here’s a little taste:

Pallet history is both humble and dramatic. As Pallet Enterprise (“For 30 years the leading pallet and sawmill magazine”) recounts, pallets grew out of simple wooden “skids”, which had been used to help transport goods from shore to ship and were, essentially, pallets without a bottom set of boards, hand-loaded by longshoremen and then, typically, hoisted by winch into a ship’s cargo hold. Both skids and pallets allowed shippers to “unitize” goods, with clear efficiency benefits: “According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.”

If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will.

October 22, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

How Lance Happened

I’ve been a little obsessed with this Lance Armstrong story over the past few months. I devoured The Secret Race and have been reading everything I can since. With today’s announcement that Armstrong will be stripped of his Tour wins I’m sure we’ll see another round. The two questions I was left with through all my reading have been: First, what long-term effects do these drugs have on a person? (For those that haven’t dug deep, most of the doping revolves around EPO which, in my non-medical understanding, raises your blood oxygen level.) Second, how did it all happen? The latter question is a common one after a house of cards crumbled (how many financial meltdown books and stories did we read).

While lots of people have gone through how it happened from an athlete perspective, it’s interesting to read this piece by Steve Madden, former editor of Bicycling Magazine, on how he was complicit in the whole thing. Here’s a snippet:

Armstrong exerted a Corleone-like influence in the cycling industry. Through his various sponsorship and endorsement deals, he could make an advertiser disappear from our pages with the same flick of an elbow that one rider uses to silently tell another to pass him. Helmets, sunglasses, wheels, bikes, all of these companies’ ads were the lifeblood of the magazine, the one that paid my salary and that of my staff. If we couldn’t make money during the boom years, when could we? Besides, dirty or not, it was a thrill to watch a cyclist, one of us, assume what we all knew was the rightful place among the sports world’s elite. Cycling is populated with misfits and loners. Very few of us sat at the cool kids’ table in the high school cafeteria, and none of us was a homecoming king or queen. And all of a sudden, there’s Lance, Sportsman of the Year on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hanging with Bono, dating Sheryl Crow and having a building named for him at Nike headquarters. A cyclist! One of us leg-shaving geeks, right up there with Michael Jordan. Finally! Now our sport would break out!

October 22, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

No One Ever Bought Something on an Elevator

A small but important distinction from Seth Godin:

The best elevator pitch doesn’t pitch your project. It pitches the meeting about your project. The best elevator pitch is true, stunning, brief and it leaves the listener eager (no, desperate) to hear the rest of it. It’s not a practiced, polished turd of prose that pleases everyone on the board and your marketing team, it’s a little fractal of the entire story, something real.

Well put.

October 22, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Helping People Discover

I’ve been saying the ability to build awareness is the biggest strength of Facebook (and more broadly social). Intent is great and Google has built an incredible advertising machine, but most brands need to create intent, not harvest it. Interesting to see that Fab agrees with me:

Forbes says retail site Fab it’s spending $25 million in Facebook ads this year.  CEO Jason Goldberg is adamant on his company’s “digital ads” preference according to Forbes. “Facebook ads are  more effective than Google search or display ads, because Google ads are based on intent, while Fab is designed for people to discover new items they aren’t searching for. Fab is designed to be a site people sign up for and browse around and eventually make purchases, Goldberg says.”

October 19, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Nobody Goes Online Anymore

AllThingsD has an interesting little story about some recent Forrester research on internet usage. The gist is that Forrester asked people how much time they spend online and the number went down from 2011 instead of up. This would be shocking if it were true, but it’s not, and presents an interesting case of the problem with self-reporting in research. The article sums it up like this:

“Despite the fact that they always have connected devices and are always online, they don’t really realize they’re online,” said Forrester analyst Gina Sverdlov. “They’re using Google Maps or checking in on Facebook, but that’s not considered online because it has become such a part of everyday life.”

It’s actually amazing to me we don’t spend more time talking about the issues with self-reporting because this stuff happens all the time. People classically overreport the good things about themselves and underreport the bad stuff (if you compared the number of New Yorkers who say they read the times with the traffic/newspaper sales something doesn’t add up). On top of that, though, we ask seemingly innocuous questions that actually turn out to be confusing for regular folks (I don’t know how I’d answer how much time I spend “using” the internet either).

There is something important here as the web continues to shift to an ambient medium that is just tied into our lives. I think for those of us that have been living online for awhile now it’s no surprise, but it’s interesting to see others catching up to that way of thinking.

October 18, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Stalked Redux

A few years ago I had a story written about me. The premise was a journalist went and did a bunch of research about me and then approached me with all she had collected to get my reaction. Unfortunately, the publication she wrote it in is now defunct and so she reposted it over at Forbes today with the following intro:

I wrote this magazine piece back in 2009 when I was first delving into privacy issues in the digital age. It was published in 2010 in the Assembly Journal. However, a Twitter user recently pointed out to me that the piece is no longer online… which is rather sad for a piece about online privacy. “Confessions of an Online Stalker” was the headline my editors chose. I would have named it “Confessions of a Digital Lurker.” Here it is in all of its dated glory.

At the time I actually wrote a response to her piece which was also published in the magazine, and thus is also now missing from the web. Since Kashmir, the author, has reposted her piece I thought it might also be a good idea to repost my response:

The last issue of the magazine featured a piece titled Confessions of an Online Stalker. Its author, Kashmir Hill, “stalked” me, collecting all the information publicly available on the web about my life and presenting me with my dossier over a cup of coffee in Soho. Included were some basic facts (age and address), interests (most-listened to songs and books on my Amazon wish-list) and the occasional tidbit that was unknown to me (the value of my parents’ house, for instance).

When I was asked to write a response, I wasn’t sure one was warranted. The article actually captures my reaction fairly well. I wasn’t all that surprised about any of the information the author dug up, as I could identify the source of almost all her data points. And while it certainly is a bit uncomfortable to see them (or hear them) together, given the motive of the exercise, it was not all that frightening. But there is a bit of context I’d like to add: it’s the sort of story that raw data doesn’t always tell.

I work and live on the web. I play with just about every new site I can get my hands on and post a fair amount of information that I don’t consider to be particularly personal about myself. I started a blog six years ago because I was writing for a magazine and found I had more to say than could fit in my 2,500-word monthly limit. I explored the medium and posted things that I now look back on and smack myself in the head over because of their asininity. But back then, as well as now, my job was to understand, or at least to have an opinion on, the state of digital media, on how and why people use the web.

But all of that sounds much more clinical than the reality of the situation. It’s been my opinion for some time that by putting things out into the world for public view, I’ve made my life more interesting (mostly by the friends that content has connected me to). In fact, I met my wife because of my blog. Let me explain.

On July 12, 2006 I wrote an entry asking if anyone from my blog world wanted to meet up in New York and have coffee. I got one response from a guy named Piers who ran (and still runs) a trend blog called PSFK. From there we developed an idea for a coffee meetup we decided to call likemind. About a month later, after holding two likeminds, a blogger in London named Russell Davies wrote a post praising the idea. In the comments to that post, a woman named Johanna mentioned that she was moving to New York City and was excited to go to likemind. Attached to her comment was her url, which I followed to an email address that I used to welcome her to the city and invite her to likemind. Three months later, when I was on the hunt for a new job, I mentioned it to Johanna, who had since moved north, attended a few likeminds and become a friend. She suggested that I come speak to the folks at the company she worked for: Naked Communications, a marketing strategy firm that was started in London. I went for it and two months later (it’s February, 2007 at this point) I announced I was joining the company as a strategist. I became friends with, and later started dating, Leila Fernandes, another strategist at the company. Two months ago we were married in Queens. Johanna helped us celebrate.

All of that is a long way of saying I see a lot of value in the sharing of information online. I am not in the camp that believes technology is pulling us apart, but rather that it offers us never-before-possible opportunities to come together and meet people you’d otherwise never have a chance to meet. I also don’t reside on the side that argues privacy is dead. While the author was able to collect a lot of information on me, there wasn’t much in there I hadn’t chosen to post myself with an understanding of the implications (not to mention the vast majority of it could have been collected in the pre-web days, albeit in a much more time-consuming manner).

One of my favorite digital thinkers, Danah Boyd, recently had this to say on the subject:

Privacy isn’t a technological binary that you turn off and on. Privacy is about having control of a situation. It’s about controlling what information flows where and adjusting measures of trust when things flow in unexpected ways. It’s about creating certainty so that we can act appropriately. People still care about privacy because they care about control. Sure, many teens repeatedly tell me “public by default, private when necessary” but this doesn’t suggest that privacy is declining; it suggests that publicity has value and, more importantly, that folks are very conscious about when something is private and want it to remain so. When the default is private, you have to think about making something public. When the default is public, you become very aware of privacy. And thus, I would suspect, people are more conscious of privacy now than ever. Because not everyone wants to share everything to everyone else all the time.

The control Boyd was referring to is probably slightly easier for me than most. When something happens like Facebook’s latest changes to their privacy settings, about thirty of the hundreds of blogs and other new sources I subscribe to write in-depth stories on the implications. Within hours of the changes I had been to the new settings page and tweaked everything to my liking, including deciding to keep certain information out of the public eye. I recognize this is not the norm, but it’s this kind of awareness that shapes my views on the sharing of information.

At the end of the day a breach of privacy requires some reasonable expectation that something would be kept private. Not only did I not have that expectation, but for much of the information I put on the web I hope for exactly the opposite.

October 8, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

On NFL Films, The Sabols and War

I could have easily read another 10,000 words on Ed & Steve Sabol and the legacy they’ve created in NFL films. The Atlantic had a really nice profile of how the company came to be and ultimately what it meant to (and how it changed) the game titled “The Taught America How to Watch Football“.  Go read the whole thing, but in the meantime, here are two nuggets I found especially interesting. First, on how recording the game changed it:

There’s a degree of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in all this: by observing the game, the Sabols changed it. Their movies taught a generation of kids who became players how to behave onscreen. It made them self-conscious. “I remember the first player who looked into the lens and said ‘Hi, Mom.’ I thought it was the end of everything,” Steve told me. “ ‘We can’t capture it anymore. The players are thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them.’ But I was wrong. In the end, the performance became another part of the game.” If you want to understand football, don’t look at Jim Brown or John Elway or Tom Brady, Steve explained. Look at Homer Jones, a receiver for the Giants in the 1960s. Players used to hand the ball to the referee after scoring, or toss it to the fans. Jones, wanting to distinguish himself, whipped it into the turf instead. The first spike. You can go from there to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s end-zone dance, Ickey Woods’s shuffle, Terrell Owens’s Sharpie, Rob Gronkowski’s antics. In the modern game, the camera is the 12th man, another participant in the unfolding drama.

Next, a theory on why football ultimately surpassed baseball as America’s sport (this one comes in the conclusion):

Why did football surpass baseball? Because football is perfect for the TV screen, which is actually shaped like a football field; because football is at once the most intellectual and the most brutal game in the world, in which the coaches think while the players bleed; because we love to see people knocked silly. But also, perhaps even primarily, because football mints the kind of uniquely vivid images that the Sabols could spin, over and over, into a Kip­ling poem about war.

October 6, 2012 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Hungry Hungry Hippos: The Movie

Back in April we got into a conversation around the office about the possibility of a Hungry Hungry Hippos movie. This, of course, was a joke …

Until it wasn’t:

The L.A. Times has reported that Hasbro, the toy company that specializes in spawning movies based on its products, has partnered with an independent production company called Emmett/Furla to turn three of its diversions into films: Hungry Hungry Hippos, Monopoly and Action Man. Monopoly has been in the works for a while, and Action Man sort of sounds like a movie, or at least no more ridiculous than “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” But Hungry Hungry Hippos? What could the plot possibly be, and how will it not dovetail with the parody trailers for a Hungry Hungry Hippos movie that already exist on YouTube?

October 6, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

The Economics of Games

Two interesting nuggets in Ezra Klein’s story about studying economics in video games. First, a question I’ve asked myself many times about Facebook and currency:

“Just for example,” Castronova says, “Facebook has an entire currency system that isn’t taxed or regulated. At what point does that threaten what the Federal Reserve does?”

Next it’s a broader point about what effect video games have on the economy-at-large:

There’s also a question of whether actions in online worlds count as real-life economic activity. “Say someone is playing Eve Online for a whole week and not providing services in real life,” Guðmundsson says. “That would hurt GDP [the measure of real-life economic growth], but it would increase the Gross User Product in the virtual world. So did overall value creation really decline?”

September 30, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Did blowing on your Nintendo game actually help?

Mental Floss answers the most important question of our time: Does blowing in your Nintendo game actually help?

The answer: No. It actually can hurt the game and cause the connections to rust. So how, then, did blowing in your game spread? Their experts weigh in:

It was very much a hive-mind kind of thing, something that all kids did, and many still do on modern cartridge based systems. Prior to the NES I don’t recall people blowing into Atari or any other cartridge-based hardware that predated the NES (though that likely spoke to the general reliability of that hardware versus the dreaded front-loading Nintendo 72 Pin connectors). I suppose it has a lot to do with the placebo effect. US NES hardware required, on most games, optimal connection across up to 72 pins as well as communication with a security lock-out chip. The theory that ‘dust’ could be a legitimate inhibitor and that ‘blowing it out’ was the solution, still sounds silly to me when I say it out loud.

[Via Reverend Dave]

September 24, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Focus on the road not the wall

I was recently rereading Ben Horowitz’s advice for managing your own psychology as a CEO and I especially liked this nugget:

When they train racecar drivers, one of the first lessons is when you are going around a curve at 200 MPH, do not focus on the wall; focus on the road. If you focus on the wall, you will drive right into it. If you focus on the road, you will follow the road. Running a company is like that. There are always a thousand things that can go wrong and sink the ship. If you focus too much on them, you will drive yourself nuts and likely capsize your company. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.

September 24, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Williams x 2

Brian Phillips (of Football Manager fame) has a good piece over at Grantland about the Williams sisters’ impact on tennis. I thought this observation about their matches against each other was especially interesting:

There was another aspect to my Venus love, however: the family-psychology trap. When the sisters started playing each other in majors — they met in four straight Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003, the only time two women have done that in the Open Era — the Williamses gave a lot of weirdly unselfconscious interviews in which they talked openly about how Serena, as the youngest, had always been the princess of the family, and how, growing up, it had always been Venus’s job to make sure Serena was OK. (Venus is 15 months older.) The now-adult Williamses all somehow seemed to broadcast that not only was this still the case, it was, moreover, totally aboveboard and natural. And you could see it, I thought, in the awkward, occasionally unnerving matches the sisters played against each other. Serena spent those matches looking like she uncomplicatedly wanted to win. Venus spent them looking trapped in some excruciating psycho-emotional cross-current between wanting to win and wanting Serena to be happy. When Serena won, she would celebrate. When Venus won, she would kind of half-celebrate and half-console Serena. This middle-child plight of Venus’s, so ingrained that she wasn’t even fully aware of it, struck me as wickedly unjust. I wanted her to break out of the trap, crush Serena 6-1 6-2, and smile so wide the seasons changed.

September 13, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

What’s College Worth?

Felix makes some interesting points on the value of a college education in response to a recent Newsweek piece. As more and more people question the value, I’ve been wondering about where they’re getting their math from on the fact that a degree is not worth it anymore. Felix responds:

But the math is complicated: the only thing which has been rising faster than college tuition costs is the wage premium that college graduates receive over those without a degree. A degree is becoming more important, not less, in our digital economy. And so while the cost of going to college is rising, the cost of not going to college is, arguably, rising even faster.

September 11, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

What if everyone on earth jumped at once?

A little Friday fun: The long answer to what would happen if everyone on the planet jumped at the same time. XKCD has a special take and chooses Rhode Island as the location:

A cell phone comes out of a pocket. Within seconds, the rest of the world’s five billion phones follow. All of them—even those compatible with the region’s towers—are displaying some version of “NO SIGNAL”. The cell networks have all collapsed under the unprecedented load. 

Outside Rhode Island, abandoned machinery begins grinding to a halt.

I’ll let you read the rest.

September 7, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Surface versus iPad

The most interesting part of this interview with Horace of Asymco about the Surface is his take on the difference between how Apple and Microsoft view tablets:

I have some guesses but I don’t think it’s something that is defensible. Too many things can change. Fundamentally I believe Microsoft sees the tablet as a PC and intends to migrate a substantial portion of would-be PC customers to tablet forms. If they are successful then they preserve the existing PC user base and allow it to grow a bit.

In contrast Apple sees the iPad as a new type of device that is used for things not directly related to PC style computing. In that sense the iPad competes with PC non-consumption. It means people may own both a PC and an iPad and some will own only an iPad. The iPad will expand the market while taking share from the PC. Windows tablets will try to hold the Windows share steady.

September 3, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,