Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Well, that's one way to put the desert to good use

I live in a semi-desert area, although sometimes it's hard to tell because we have water sprinklers running everywhere. But it is a semi-desert area, and as such it gets a lot of sun. This has proved useful to people who like to make movies, but desert areas can be put to other uses. For example, the deserts in Africa can be used to power Europe:

[Desertec] aims to harvest the sun’s energy — using a method known as concentrating solar power, or C.S.P. — from the vast North African desert and deliver it as electricity, via high-voltage transmission lines, to markets in Europe. Eventually, its backers say, it could satisfy as much as 15 percent of the European Union’s power needs.

One of the persons quoted in the New York Times article put it this way:

Europeans need energy and have cash. Africans have sun and territory. It is quite logical to combine all this.

Of course, one person noted that Europe would therefore be dependent upon a power source that it doesn't control. Sound familiar?

If this project is built, Europe will shortly become dependent on it, and the Islamic world will have a second, and much tighter, noose to add to the oil one.

More here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

All the fat cats went home. Happy now?

Part of the reaction to the recession has been a definite anti-rich attitude. It began with concern that companies receiving U.S. government aid were still holding fancy events in exotic locations, but then graduated to attacks on business practices in general, whether companies were receiving government aid or not. Recently I saw that one of my technical publications was warning its readers that CIO pay would be capped.

Well, those who are worried about the so-called excesses of business can take heart that their dreams came true at the recent U.S. Open:

The sun was shining and the temperature was around 70 degrees at Bethpage State Park on Tuesday afternoon, perfect for watching golfers prepare for the United States Open this week. Indeed, tens of thousands of fans who paid $40 were walking the course.

Few fans, though, seemed to be in the 50 or so hospitality tents, some of which cost $230,000 to rent for the week. Several tents lining the first fairway had signs on their doors that read, “Tent Closed.”

Their absence, although early in the week, was another reminder that corporate spending on sports — even at premier events like the Open — is continuing to sag as the recession wears on....

To help make ends meet, the U.S.G.A. has trimmed spending this year. The tents for the news media and others are less ornate, for instance, and silverware in the dining areas has been replaced with biodegradable plastic forks and knives.

That will only partly offset the decline in revenue from the hospitality tents. Some companies that agreed to rent them before the financial crisis took hold are not using them to avoid having to pay for food and beverages, or to steer clear of unwanted scrutiny....

The more muted atmosphere at the event...could trim hopes of an economic windfall for the municipalities near the golf course. In 2002, when the event was also at Bethpage, security was so tight that fans could not stop in nearby areas. Business dried up.

Of course, this only affects isolated municipalities. A few months ago, an entire state was targeted.

Hawaii has suffered one of the worst winters for tourism in recent years....

Hotel occupancy rates in the winter were the lowest in at least five years, and in February -- traditionally the state's busiest month -- the rate dropped to 75%. That was the lowest level since 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, when it fell to 69.7%, according to Smith Travel Research.

The firm said today that the rates for February have ranged from about 80% to 88% over the last five years. The average daily room rate -- another key measure of the industry's health -- dropped 12.4% in February from the same month in 2008....

Hawaii's problems are compounded by an increasingly hostile attitude toward business travel, particularly when major corporations are laying off hundreds of workers and accepting government bailouts.

In 2008, business travel, such as conferences, conventions and business incentive programs, accounted for about 7% of all tourism in the state, or 442,000 visitors, according to state officials....

132 meetings and business trips have been canceled so far this year and next year, representing a loss of 87,003 room nights. The cancellations amount to a loss of $58.8 million in direct revenue and the loss of 694 full- and part-time jobs in the state's tourism industry....

So who gets the blame for this precarious state of affairs in vacation destinations?

Obama himself may have contributed to what many tourism officials see as the vilification of business travel during an Indiana town hall meeting in February.

Asked about corporate spending and the federal bailout, the president said: "You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime."

Later, the White House tried to clarify the statement, saying the president encouraged travel, except for companies accepting government bailout money.

However, one forgets that imposition of these restrictions on government beneficiaries puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Think of it; you're a top salesperson, and you have a choice between working a Firm A, which sends its top performers to Hawaii, and Firm B, which caps sales incentives to five times the minimum wage in response to political demands. Where are the good salespeople going to work? And where will the bad salespeople end up?

That is, of course, assuming that people can get jobs. I don't think that cities near prestige golf courses are hiring a lot of people right now. I don't think that Hawaiian travel firms are hiring a lot of people right now.

But I assume that this is what the fat cat condemners wanted. Not only are the fat cats staying away, but now their absence is throwing other people out of work.

Happy now?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Empoprise-BI News - 28 June 2009

Empoprise-BI News

The news letter for Empoprise-BI - An Empoprises vertical information service for business news.

Welcome to Empoprise-BI News

This is a weekly (so far) newsletter devoted to my business blog, Empoprise-BI.

Behind the Scenes

I promised last week that I would get into some behind-the-scenes stuff this week. Well, as you probably figured out at some point in the week, I was out of town. I left southern California early Sunday morning to head to the Police Security Expo in Atlantic City, New Jersey, returning back here on Thursday.

It was a successful show for my employer and for me personally, although the casinos didn't get any of my business (having gone to Vegas frequently, I had no compelling desire to lose money at the Atlantic City casinos).

I shared some pictures from my one walk down to the Boardwalk (did you catch my Monopoly joke in my first post)?).

And, of course, on my trip back I shared an additional observation on the insanity of Jim Koch, as discussed previously in this blog.

Ironically, Ed McMahon died this past week, and McMahon actually got his selling start hawking things on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

Special Features

When I wasn't talking about Atlantic City, I was having my delayed realization about parallels between today's Facebook and the AOL of the 1990s. If you missed it, here's a quote:

Although derided today, AOL used to have a HUGE mindshare. When people thought of online, they thought of AOL. In the same way that ESPN and others have a Facebook page today, companies in the 1990s made sure to have their AOL keyword....

Scoble schmoble. Oprah schmoprah. Hollywood made a whole dang MOVIE about AOL. Top that, Ev, Jack, and Biz.

I noted that this idea was unoriginal with me, and referenced a 2007 post from Jason Kottke. I didn't dig into it at the time, but Kottke focused on the proprietary nature of the environment used to create Facebook apps.

I've no doubt that Facebook is excited about their new platform (their userbase is big enough that companies feel like they have to develop for it) and it's a savvy move on their part, but I'm not so sure everyone else should be happy about it. What happens when Flickr and LinkedIn and Google and Microsoft and MySpace and YouTube and MetaFilter and Vimeo and Last.fm launch their platforms that you need to develop apps for in some proprietary language that's different for each platform? That gets expensive, time-consuming, and irritating. It's difficult enough to develop for OS X, Windows, and Linux simultaneously...imagine if you had 30 different platforms to develop for.

Kottke also noted that the Internet is "more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007." But is it?

And after I wrote my Facebook post, I ran across Rob Diana's Facebook post and Jake Kuramoto's Facebook post. Remember how Steven Hodson and I previously talked about the wall that prevents people from seeing inside Facebook-land? Well, that's changing. Rob Diana:

Some people may complain that “Facebook is too closed” or “walled gardens will fail”. There was even a good conversation on FriendFeed about this. There is a very strong feeling from developers that a closed system like Facebook can not succeed. While I tend to agree that a completely closed system will have difficulties, Facebook has slowly opened up little by little to a decently open system. They still have some work to do before they become as open as Twitter, but the foundation has been started.

Kuramoto looks at this from the perspective of the Facebook user:

The Facebook experience has always been one of a controlled environment, where the symmetric follow model protected you from outsiders. Plus, they’ve always been the anti-MySpace, more private, less noisy.

So while some people want to see Facebook more open and searchable, there are some who will resist this idea and want to keep their private stuff private. It will be interesting to see how these competing philosophies war it out.


You know how some have worried about business executives making obscene amounts of money, and businesses staging obscenely lavish events? What happens when businesses listen to the criticism and the lavishness stops? I'll discuss who gets hurt in this scenario, and it's not just the executives.

The Twitter Book

Or "I'm on Twitter - now what?"

New arrivals, 2nd floor, Barnes & Noble, Costa Mesa, California.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Smooting export markets in China

One of my favorite books is Dave Barry Slept Here, Barry's late-1980s version of a U.S. history text. By the time Barry had reached the Great Depression, he derived great joy from constant repetition of references to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, the 1930 Act that is often cited by free-traders and Hoover-haters alike as an example of all that is wrong with the world. In reality, Smoot-Hawley (formally the Tariff Act of 1930) was not exactly what President Hoover ordered. Wikipedia:

When campaigning for president during 1928, one of Herbert Hoover's many campaign promises to help beleaguered farmers had been to increase tariffs of agricultural products. Hoover won, and Republicans obtained comfortable majorities in the House and the Senate during 1928. Hoover then asked Congress for an increase of tariff rates for agricultural goods and a decrease of rates for industrial goods.

The House passed a version of the act in May 1929, increasing tariffs on agricultural and industrial goods alike.

Economists spoke with one hand on this one, warning that an increase in U.S. tariffs would harm the country. They were joined in their opposition by key industrialists such as Henry Ford, to no avail. Hoover personally opposed the bill, but was convinced to sign it.

Afterward, it appeared that the economists were right, since exports from the United States to Europe declined sharply, but there is not universal agreement regarding whether Smoot-Hawley was the primarily cause of this decline, or just the inability of Depression-ravaged Europe to afford American products regardless of the tariff rate. The eventual response to Smoot-Hawley was Bretton Woods and GATT, designed to lessen tariffs between nations.

Smoot-Hawley still appears in political discourse, although sometimes the facts are somewhat confused, as when a Republican House member blamed FDR for the "Hoot-Smalley Act." (Presumably she exercised her power to...um..."revise" her remarks in the Congressional Record.)

John Foley and Jeff Segal touched upon the act in an article on China in the New York Times:

A request from Beijing that local governments “Buy China” is worrying — and hypocritical. Even as President Hu Jintao joined leaders of Brazil, Russia and India at a summit meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in calling for an end to protectionism, a diktat from several Chinese ministries suggested that government projects should favor domestic suppliers in spending some $586 billion of fiscal stimulus money. Such doublespeak is dangerous. Countries with bloated export sectors shouldn’t throw stones....

Recall the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, in which the United States raised tariffs against imports to protect domestic industries and shore up employment. At first it worked. But when other countries retaliated, unemployment in the nation more than doubled. China might face a similar problem. And with civil unrest Beijing’s greatest worry, such a price looks too high.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jim Koch, pleasantly insane

He even has special GLASSES for his beer.

Atlantic City International Airport.

Will Wal-Mart revolutionize clinics in the same way they have revolutionized prescriptions?

While Washington talks about controlling health care costs, Wal-Mart is actually doing something about it. Its low-cost prescriptions, which have been matched by some other pharmacies, have had a major impact on health care costs for many Americans.

But another health care effort by Wal-Mart has met more rocky ground:

Two years ago, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) announced plans to have retail medical clinics in 400 of its stores by 2010 and said it saw the potential for as many as 2,000. By February 2008, the retailer had 78 clinics. But now,—after failed venture-capital collaborations, a few faulty partnerships, and a reassessment of the business model—it has only 31.

So what happened? According to BusinessWeek, the status of one of Wal-Mart's competitors tells the story:

Retail clinics need customer traffic to cover their $500,000 to $600,000 yearly operating costs....Walgreens (WAG) subsidiary Take Care Health Systems, for example, operates more than 345 offices and sees patients as young as 18 months. By expanding its hours and services, Take Care Health had estimated sales of $450,000 per location in 2008

Until you get more traffic, this will be a money-losing operation. And Wal-Mart's clinics are not owned by Wal-Mart, but by third parties who may not have the deep pockets to build a client base. And they may have problems getting investment:

Wal-Mart requires its independent operators to hire health professionals to deliver care, says Mary Kate Scott, founder and CEO of Scott & Co., a health-care consultancy. For venture capitalists looking to invest in a rapidly profitable business, running a co-branded clinic with two partners is a difficult proposition. "When you don't deliver the service or own the brand or own the space, you have almost nothing," Scott says. "Essentially, the investors lost with the Wal-Mart strategy."

In January 2008, nascent clinic operator CheckUps closed its 23 Wal-Mart locations across the South after failing to raise enough money. Then in June, Colorado-based SmartCare Family Medical Centers shuttered all 15 of its in-store businesses. RediClinic, whose largest investor is AOL (AOL) co-founder Steve Case's Revolution Health Group, parted ways with Wal-Mart in December, shelving plans for 200 co-branded clinics nationwide.

But part of the problem may be Wal-Mart itself:

Wal-Mart's clinics, however, are typically situated inside near the store's main doors—along the same row as its photo studios and Subway sandwich shops—rather than near its pharmacies, and may catch a consumer's eye only on the way out. Plus, the company doesn't allow signage directly outside the store to promote the clinics and restricts indoor signs to areas near the clinic offices....

But before these stumbles, people were already speculating that the effect of the Wal-Mart clinics on health care would be substantial. RNCentral.com detailed some effect in February 2008. A sample:

1. More immunizations: With immunizations available at Wal-Mart, they're much more convenient for those that may not have time to go to the doctor. As a result, more people will be immunized, and the risk of contagious disease will be lowered.

Read the other 19 here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Facebook is the new AOL

Perhaps it was the Caesar salad.

Perhaps it was the Jack & cola.

But something clicked in my non-trendy brain during my dinner at Applebee's earlier this evening. My stunning realization probably already occurred to you some time ago, but you have to remember that I am not trendy so it takes me a little while longer to figure these things out.

So anyways, I was eating my Caesar salad and drinking my Jack & cola at the Applebee's in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (After being on a business trip for a few days, my body often tells me to keep things as simple as possible; I would have gone to Subway, but the local Subway has been closed all day.)

As I ate and drank at Applebee's, I was half-watching the TV out of the corner of my eye. The TV was tuned to ESPN, which was showing the College World Series in baseball. But ESPN had taken a brief break from the game to let the viewers know about the ESPN page on Facebook. That's when it hit me:

Facebook is the new AOL.

Perhaps the Caesar salad (or something else) was bringing to mind Steven Hodson's June 22 Inquisitr post that touched on Facebook's commanding presence:

For Facebook it is all about having the people using its service believe that Facebook is providing them with a home on the web where they can gather with friends, where they can share their stuff, and where they can find out what their friends think of products and services.

OK, so Facebook is a destination, so why am I referring to Facebook as the new AOL? I've already referred to a Jake Kuramoto post in the Oracle AppsLab blog that asked the question

[H]ow can AOL still be #4 on the April 2009 list and still have 104 million uniques in a month?

Now I'm not talking about AOL's numbers (which, by the way, are actually GREATER than Facebook), but to AOL's presence of mind. Although derided today, AOL used to have a HUGE mindshare. When people thought of online, they thought of AOL. In the same way that ESPN and others have a Facebook page today, companies in the 1990s made sure to have their AOL keyword.

But if you want to realize how big AOL was back in the day, remember this.

Perhaps some of us talk about the "Scoble effect," where a mere mention from Robert Scoble can result in a huge spike of interest in a website or a product.

Perhaps some of us talk about the "Oprah effect," where a mere mention from Oprah Winfrey can result in a REALLLY HUGE spike of interest in a website or a product.

But those are small potatoes compared to AOL's power back in the day. Scoble schmoble. Oprah schmoprah. Hollywood made a whole dang MOVIE about AOL. Top that, Ev, Jack, and Biz. MSNBC, in its April 2009 slam of AOL, talked about the movie - and the heyday of the service:

America Online helped me and millions of others find their way onto the Web and into the world of e-mail at a time when only engineers and scientists had the keys to those kingdoms.

The dial-up service wasn’t the first — Prodigy, CompuServe (later bought by AOL) and others preceded it. But AOL was the easiest and most friendly with its digital greetings of “Welcome!” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

As hard as it is to believe now, there actually was a time when being told e-mail was sitting in your inbox was considered exciting, and not exacting.

And who could quibble with the charming 1998 movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? It marked AOL’s heyday and represented a cultural milestone: We were on our way to blending real life — including romance — with technology.

But there's another similarity between the AOL of the 1990s and the Facebook of today that has nothing to do with mindshare. Let's return to Hodson's Inquisitr post that discussed Facebook as a "home" on the web for many:

It is this place that Facebook strives to give the illusion of openness while at the same time making sure that none of the potentially lucrative data they are collecting every minute after every second....

Already Facebook is in position to cause Google a lot of financial pain as more and more traffic is being driven blogs and websites from within the walls of Facebook. The battle of SEO supremacy may already have been lost without a shot being fired. Google’s big guns of SEO have come up against an enemy that doesn’t need to rank anything because its members are more interested in what their friends suggest rather than cold analytically produced results. To top it off Facebook is the biggest part of the web that Google’s spiders can’t crawl.

You see, companies of the 1990s HAD to have that AOL keyword presence to reach the Americans who were on-line. And the content on AOL was inaccessible to those who weren't paying the AOL membership fees. In a similar way, Facebook is developing this whole ecosystem behind its wall that non-Facebook users cannot access.

Just as AOL was the Internet to many in the 1990s, Facebook is the Internet to many today.

But will Facebook suffer from the same decline that AOL has? While AOL still has a large amount of traffic, the numbers of AOL subscribers have dramatically declined:

AOL had about 27 million customers in the United States at its peak in 2002, but is now down to about 7 million, a relative shadow of itself. Some of those subscribers are folks who live in areas that don’t have high-speed service available; others just don’t need or want to pay for it.

Will Facebook suffer the same decline as AOL? Inquisitr commenter Tsudohnimh thinks so:

All the content within Facebook is a closed system. You can't embed videos, you can link to most pics, you can't share content outside of their playpen and this is not a sustainable system.

Facebook's clunky UI and lack of decent blogging features require content production to be done elsewhere and as long as that is the case their walled garden mentality will not work.

But Hodson is not sure:

I might have at one time agreed with the 'not a sustainable system' unfortunately I'm not so sure any more.

Oh, and in case you're still under the illusion that my "Facebook is the new AOL" realization is new and exciting, Jason Kottke was writing about this on June 29, 2007.

Looking at corollary behavior to answer an age-old question

I'm one of those people who believe in the free market and the invisible hand and all that, and there's a question that's been bugging me for years. Some governments have seen fit to mandate that all bars be non-smoking, for the convenience of non-smokers. However, if the majority of people are non-smoking, it seems intuitive that even without government regulation, some bars would open up that would cater to non-smokers. However, that did not happen, and I always wondered why.

Then I read Outside the Beltway, which linked to a post of Megan McArdle. McArdle also wondered why the free market didn't produce non-smoking bars, but then realized the answer:

You can explain it through preference asymmetry and the profitability of various customer classes: heavy drinkers are more likely to also be heavy smokers, and they are the most profitable customers. Bar owners don't want big groups of people who are going to take up three tables for an hour and a half while nursing one white wine spritzer apiece. They want people who are there to drink. In a competitive equilibrium, they couldn't afford to go non-smoking because they'd lose their most profitable customers to all the other bars.

Yet another example of intuition gone awry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Purchasing from my airline seat? Not exactly.

Pan-Am Flight attendant, 1970 by John Atherton (gbaku) used under a Creative Commons License

I began reading a Riverside Press-Enterprise article entitled "Sky Shopping" and got all excited. Unfortunately, my excitement was a little premature.

You see, the vision that popped into my head when I read the headline was of a personal screen at my seat from which I could buy useless items at will. I have previously written (in my Empoprise-NTN blog about NTN Buzztime trivia games) about the ability to play trivia from your seat on Delta Airlines flights (note: the Delta system is not connected with NTN Buzztime). So if you can play trivia, why not buy things? It would also be green, since you could do away with the printed SkyMall magazines.

So this was the image in my mind as I began to read the Press-Enterprise article. And the opening paragraph certainly supported my mental image:

Air passengers soon could shop, reserve theater and theme park tickets and purchase vouchers for taxis or trains -- all from their airplane seats.

The article then describes the GuestLogix product OnTouch. But I was a little puzzled when I saw this statement:

The Toronto-based company said its "transaction platform" currently serves more than 90 percent of U.S. air passenger trips and 50 percent of European trips.

Huh? I thought to myself. I have NOT seen personal screens on anywhere near 90% of my flights. 9% maybe, but not 90%. But I kept on reading, and I realized that my mental picture was woefully inadequate:

Flight attendants currently swipe credit and debit cards on GuestLogix's hand-held devices to charge passengers' food and drink purchases.

With OnTouch, the flight attendant would enter the code to purchase an item from the SkyMall catalog or for a show on Broadway.

To buy SkyMall's $59.95 noise-canceling headphones, for example, the passenger provides a credit or debit card and shipping information, and the item is delivered to their home, office or destination.

For tickets, the passenger is given a voucher and credit card receipt which are presented at the will-call window.

So instead of my vision, in which I would just punch up the appropriate purchase from the convenience of my airline seat, the true vision is that you have to flag down the flight attendant, in between his/her drink and food runs, and point to the item on page 57 of the printed SkyMall magazine and say that you want to buy that.

This does not strike me as a wonderfully efficient system, and it's no surprise that the flight attendant unions aren't that hot on the idea either.

Flight attendants "are safety professionals, not sales people," said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants that represents members working for 20 airlines....

Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represent 19,000 American Airlines flight attendants, said the group is not taking a vehement stand against the idea. "We're saying it has to be negotiated," she said.

Actually, the underlying issue is money. If flight attendants ARE going to be used as salespeople, then they want to negotiate the commission that they will receive.

It's too bad that the economics don't allow for this to be a way to get personal screens on all of the airlines, so that we can place our own orders without the middleman/middlewoman. But this is a much more expensive proposition than just throwing a few credit card readers on to a flight.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Atlantic City Boardwalk

Between Ballys and Caesars.

Looking away from the ocean, toward Atlantic City.

Told you this was a business blog.

That's why they call it Atlantic City.

Not that they have a...um...monopoly on the ocean.

Bigger is better? Chain stores occupy bigger locations

I grew up in the 1970s, and I remember a store that even at the time was unusual. It was an A&P grocery store in Alexandria, on Quaker Lane just down the road from a small theater. Both establishments are long since gone. You'll note that I referred to the A&P as a "grocery store" and not a "supermarket" - when a grocery store only has four or five aisles, the word "supermarket" somehow doesn't apply.

Several years later I lived in the Upland/Ontario California area, and remember that there used to be a Vons at the southwest corner of Foothill and Euclid in Upland. Eventually that store was closed in favor of another brand store (Pavilions) in another part of the city), but eventually it was decided that a Vons needed to be opened in central Upland again. But when they did so, they didn't try to use the space from the existing Vons. Instead, they built a bigger facility on the NORTHWEST side of Euclid and Foothill.

For those of you who don't live in the Southern California area, I should note that there have been a number of grocery store chain mergers over the last couple of decades. Long-time residents may remember Hughes, Luckys, Alpha Beta, and some other chains that have long since disappeared via merger. And the newly-merged companies eventually ended up closing some of the stores. Just one half mile west of the street-hopping Vons, you can find two shopping centers that used to have two grocery store anchors. The stores closed, and one became a gym while the other became an Office Max. Now the Office Max is closing.

With a few boutique exceptions (Fresh and Easy comes to mind), the general trend for stores has been for small stores to either get bigger, or to close entirely. When I lived in Portland around 1980, Fred Meyer was unusual in providing a bank inside its stores. Now this is the norm (partly because banks have been closing their traditional branches and moving into stores instead).

Of course, as you get bigger and bigger, you end up getting really big. And what happens when the big stores close? A small store gets bigger. This is happening in my local area:

Experts say it won't happen right away, but the [chain store closure] trend will likely send numerous value-oriented retailers into expansion mode as they look to grow their presence by snapping up big-box leases and buildings at bargain rates.

For example, when the Mervyns chain closed down, one of the chains that grabbed Mervyns locations was Forever 21.

The value-priced women's clothing chain Forever 21 is poised to grow again, after it recently acquired 15 leases of bankrupt Gottschalks, which will soon be shuttering all of its stores. Forever 21 by year's end will have new stores up and running at Riverside Plaza and Hemet Valley Mall.

And I'm not even mentioning the very big stores, such as Wal Mart and Ikea. Things are just getting bigger and bigger.

I've seen a lot of changes in the last 40 years, but what will I see in the next 40 years? In 2050, will the site of an old Super Wal Mart be occupied by a 7 Eleven, in which people complain about the paltry selection?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Empoprise-BI News - 21 June 2009

Empoprise-BI News

The news letter for Empoprise-BI - An Empoprises vertical information service for business news.

Welcome to Empoprise-BI News

I apologize for this edition being shorter than usual, and the fact that I don't have companion newsletters for the Empoprise-IE and Empoprise-MU blogs this week.

Behind the Scenes

Nothing this week, but I anticipate that I'll be providing an extended "Behind the Scenes" next week.


Why do large store locations end up getting occupied by formerly smaller stores? Are we seeing a revolutionary change for in-the-air purchases? Why aren't there more non-smoking restaurants in places where smoking is allowed? Is Wal-Mart undermining its own clinic strategy? Is "smoot" a verb? These and other questions may be answered this coming week, or at least I'll spout off about them.

Benjamin Franklin, Twice Born-Again

Obviously I'm not talking about Benjamin Franklin's religious convictions, but it's interesting to note that two modern businesses have cropped up and claim at least a tangential relation to some 18th century business or another with which Franklin was associated.

I'll start with the more famous example, the Saturday Evening Post. If you go to their website today, you'll run across this text:

The grand legacy of The Saturday Evening Post has endured for nearly 300 years in part due to the creativity and innovation of its founders, publishers, editors and cover artists. The rich history of the Post has been thoughtfully reaching its readers since a time before America yet existed.

The story of The Saturday Evening Post begins with Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, first published in 1728, and became known as The Saturday Evening Post in 1821.

Well...sort of. Yes, there was a Pennsylvania Gazette that was published in 1728. Yes, Benjamin Franklin was associated with the paper (but not until 1729). And the Pennsylvania Gazette was published for many years after that, and the Saturday Evening Post began to be published in 1821. But what the Post website neglects to mention is that the Pennsylvania Gazette ceased publication in 1800.

So what's the connection between a paper that ceased publication in 1800, and one that emerged in 1821? A common print shop.

But there's another Franklin-related business that doesn't advance spurious claims, but instead says that it was inspired by a Franklin-connected business. First, let's look at the original:

The Tun Tavern (the "Tavern") was a brew house built by Samuel Carpenter in 1685. It was located on Philadelphia's historic waterfront at the corner of Water Street and Tun Alley leading to Carpenter's Wharf near what is today known as "Penn's Landing."...

In 1732, the first meetings of the St. John's #1 Lodge, a Grand Lodge of the Masonic Temple, were held at the Tavern. The election of the first Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was held at the Tavern; subsequently Benjamin Franklin was its third Grand Master. The Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, recognizes the Tavern as the birthplace of the Masonic teachings in this country; there are estimated to be over 2.3 million Masons in the United States today....

In the early 1740's, the then proprietor expanded the Tavern into "Peggy Mullan's Red Hot Beef Steak Club at Tun Tavern," which was known to host George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and on occasion the lst and 2nd Continental Congress....

In 1756, Colonel Benjamin Franklin organized the Pennsylvania Militia and utilized the Tavern as a gathering place to recruit the area's first regiment of soldiers to suppress Indian uprisings.

So there are a lot of Franklin connections, but this particular story was the most fascinating one:

On November 10, 1775, Robert Mullan, the proprietor of the Tavern and son of Peggy Mullan, was commissioned by an act of Congress to raise the first two battalions of Marines, under the leadership of Capt. Samuel Nicholas, the first appointed Commandant of the Continental Marines. Nicholas's grandfather was also a member of the Tun Tavern Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons and it is this relationship between Mullan, Nicholas and the Tavern which has resulted in Tun Tavern being acknowledged as the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps. There are an estimated three million active and retired U.S. Marines worldwide who have been exposed in their military training to the historical significance of Tun Tavern. Each year on November 10th, around the world Marines toast the Marine's birthplace on the most significant date in the history of the Corps.

This history inspired Montgomery S. Dahm to create a restaurant and brewery, based in Atlantic City, named after the original Tun Tavern. But he didn't stop there:

The [Tun Tavern Foundation] was formed in 1991 as a non-profit corporation for the purpose of reconstructing an exact replica of the Tun Tavern as a museum. It solicits tax-deductible contributions for that purpose.

The Foundation elected to enter into an exclusive Licensing Agreement (April 21, 1994) with Tun Tavern Brewing Company, Inc.; whereby the Foundation receives a license fee from sales of Tun Tavern beer and future product extensions.

Their mission statement is to rebuild Tun Tavern as a museum. The City of Philadelphia executed a 50 year lease in October of 1994 on a 7,000 square foot plot of land at the corner of 2nd & Spruce Streets with the Foundation.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Set things up to test, test, test

I'm sure that we've all experienced it. We go to a website that we often use, and find out that the website is unavailable, or something on the website isn't working properly. Sometimes these are websites that we pay to use, but other times they are websites that we can use for free. Some argue that free websites shouldn't be held to the same standard as other websites - using the "you get what you pay for" philosophy - but even a free website is trying to get someone to pay for it eventually, and Google isn't going to be inclined to buy your company if your website goes down all the time.

In the context of a post that describes various levels of testing, Rob Diana mentions some problems that he was having with Wordpress, and began to wonder how this could happen.

If you Google for “WordPress 2.8 editor problem” you will see a support issue with several people wondering what is wrong. As far as I can remember, WordPress 2.8 was developed fairly quickly. I remember upgrading to 2.7.1 not too long ago. The issue with the editor seems a little too common to be missed during testing, but when you are using FireFox and some plugins, anything is possible. But the real question is how and why did this happen?...

For a problem like the post editor not working properly, their integration tests failed to find the problem. Once they diagnose the problem, they need to document the issue. By having a suite of automated tests, you only need to add another test for the current defect. In the case of the editor, it could be that there is some plugin configuration for Firefox or even WordPress itself that causes the WYSIWYG editor to misbehave.

I'd like to take a step back and reinforce something that my company's testers often impress on me - for them to be able to test a requirement, a requirement has to be testable. Even in the marketing requirements stage (the stage in which I am often involved), you need to write requirements that are SMART - or Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. One could even argue that you need a specific requirement that states that your problem will work with Firefox 3 when using the SuperDuperDooHickey extension. Yes, those types of requirements could lead to a ton of requirements and a ton of testing, but in some cases this may be warranted.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Does Green Dam Youth Escort Need an Escort?

I wrote about Green Dam Youth Escort several days ago, but I missed this little bit of coverage (H/T Technology Review:

"We found a series of software flaws," explained Isaac Mao, a blogger and social entrepreneur in China, as well as a research fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

For example, he said, tests had shown that communications between the software and the servers at the company that developed the program were unencrypted.

Mr Mao told BBC News that this could allow hackers to "steal people's private information" or "place malicious script" on computers in the network to "affect [a] large scale disaster."

For example, a hacker could use malicious code to take control of PCs using the software.

"Then you have every computer in China potentially as part of a botnet," Colin Maclay, also of Harvard, told BBC News.

But is this an exaggeration? Some stories end up being less than what was initially advertised.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The business implications of Project Natal, part two - automated captioning? (pulling inspiration out of your rear end)

Untitled by dno1967 used under a Creative Commons License

On June 1, I wrote a post entitled The business implications of Project Natal that speculated whether this project, initially tailored to the gaming community, may eventually result in advances in business applications.

Project Natal attempts to remove hardware devices that we normally use to communicate with computers, and instead allows us to use our hands, feet, and other parts of our bodies to communicate. If you think about it, a "control x" or even a mouse click is not a natural movement, and (at least theoretically) a Project Natal-like interface supports more natural movements.

But here's the question that interests me - how long will it take to transfer this technology from the game console to the corporate computer? Now this goes above and beyond Microsoft's announced plans to move the XBox 360 into movies, television and social networking. I'm talking about Microsoft server operating systems running on computers that don't need mice.

At the time I wasn't able to come up with any brilliant ideas. But today Ffundercats got me thinking.

For those who don't know, Ffundercats is a weekly podcast, hosted by Josh Haley and Johnny Worthington, that discusses both the FriendFeed application and things that are discussed on FriendFeed. And one of the items discussed (and embedded on last week's podcast was this video, sourced from this FriendFeed discussion:

The video shows Felicia Day (whoever she is; I'm ignorant) trying the Project Natal technology. And during the podcast (go here to listen), Haley and Worthington engaged in some speculation about how these types of interfaces could be used. The discussion about Project Natal starts about 25 minutes into the podcast, and they really get into the topic starting at minute 27.

As an example, Josh noted (29:52) that if you were using a speech-to-text interface, it is unnatural for a person to literally say the letters L O L (for "laughing out loud"). What if the system was instead able to detect laughter, and substitute the "LOL" acronym in the text transcription? Johnny followed (30:15) by noting that visual recognition is necessary to detect the activity referenced by the acronym "ROFL" (for "rolling on floor laughing"). The discussion fell apart, however, when Josh and Johnny thought about the phrase "LMAO."

A silly conversation, perhaps, but it does suggest some possible business applications for the Project Natal technology. You can say that I pulled this idea out of my rear end:

Think of closed captioning. Currently this is all done manually, both the actual words that are spoken and the non-spoken sounds that are made (for example, "JAKE: Let's go. [starts car]" What if you could use a Project Natal-like technology to automate the closed captioning process?

In case you didn't know, the closed captioning process is very labor-intensive. According to the National Captioning Institute, both captioning of pre-recorded programs and live programs is very labor intensive. For example, here is one step in the pre-recorded captioning process:

2) Caption Preparation: At one of NCI's networked caption preparation workstations, a caption editor watches and listens to the program and enters a verbatim text of the dialogue, sound effects and other essential non-verbal features into NCI's proprietary captioning system. The editor breaks the text into discrete captions, assigns appropriate screen placement to each caption and times the appearance and disappearance of each caption with the associated audio and video.

At least part of this step could be completely eliminated via a Project Natal-like technology. In the ideal scenario, the following would happen:

  • The system would analyze the video and audio from a pre-recorded tape (or a live event).

  • The system listens to the audio and detects the text being spoken, who is doing the speaking (video analysis may be needed for this), and other sounds (laughter, gunshots, etc.). These are converted into a series of captions.

  • Software could also be developed for the other functions, including breaking the text into discrete captions, positioning the captions, and calculating the timing.
Granted we're not there yet, but the Project Natal technology suggests where we could go.

And this is just one example of how the Project Natal technology could be transferred to business uses. I'm sure there are plenty of others.

When will we get better contextual ads?

For contractual reasons, I usually refrain from discussing the advertisements that appear on the Empoprises blogs. However, this was just too bizarre to pass up.

I recently added a post to my Empoprise-IE blog (no link, for aforementioned contractual reasons) that talked about the U.S. Flag Day holiday, a celebration of said holiday in Pomona, California, and the Finnish flag. Because I subscribe to my own blog (somebody has to), I received an email including this post that includes an embedded advertisement. Based upon the context of the words in this post, an ad was served up that included the following headline:

American Flag Casket 80% Off

Now I'll admit that my reaction to this was somewhat colored by recent events. Normally, people in the funeral industry apologize in their advertisements if the advertisement appears at an inopportune time. Well, this particular ad didn't have any such message - and, as it happens, I read it a day after attending a funeral.

But it still strikes me as bizarre that a message that I considered to be a message about a Finnish woman's birthday and an American holiday ended up becoming the host of a casket advertisement.

I'm sure that you've noticed the same thing when you visit blogs with advertisements - you read the text of the blog post, and then you see an advertisement that completely clashes with the nature of the blog itself. Or perhaps you're on your own profile - a profile for a service where you've already told them that you're married - and you get served up a bunch of singles ads. (But then again, considering the number of marriages that end in divorce, perhaps the advertisers know what they're doing.)

I wish that ads were more in line with the content of the surrounding text. Hopefully this will improve over the years. It has to.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

MySpace, don't tell your employees one thing and your investors another

Two-Face by Logan Zawacki (LZ Creations) used under a Creative Commons License

At lunchtime today, I wrote about the MySpace layoffs. But there was something buried in my post that even I missed until later, after reading Paul Short's Inquisitr piece.

Layoffs are a tough thing and a trying time, and it's important to be as honest and forthright as possible with employees, both those who are leaving and those who are staying. At the same time, you need to motivate the remaining employees (and, for that matter, the departing ones). In my lunchtime post, I quoted from MySpace CEO Owen Van Natta's message to MySpace employees in which he attempted to accomplish these goals. This is part of what he said:

These decisions are difficult for everyone, but especially for our friends and colleagues who contributed to MySpace’s success and are directly affected by the changes. Through no fault of theirs our company’s size became unsustainable. The future success of MySpace is dependent upon us operating as a nimble and entrepreneurial company with the adaptive mentality of a start-up.

Friends. Colleagues. Language that suggests that the remaining employees, and even the departing ones, are valuable, wonderful people.

Did the MySpace employees believe Van Natta's words? Not if they heard what Van Latta and his boss Jon Miller were saying to outsiders:

“Simply put, our staffing levels were bloated and hindered our ability to be an efficient and nimble team-oriented company,” CEO Owen Van Natta said in a statement....

“MySpace grew too big considering the realities of today’s marketplace,” said Jon Miller, News Corporation’s (NWS) CEO of Digital Media.

Now the inside and outside statements are not factually contradictory, but there's a clear difference in tone.

What if you switched the statements around, and had Van Natta and Miller tell investors that they're jettisoning "friends and colleagues who contributed to MySpace's success," and then tell the MySpace employees that "staffing levels were bloated" and "MySpace grew too big"?

I haven't seen how MySpace employees have reacted to the difference in tone of the two messages, but someone clearly fumbled here. (And it appears that @kbardeesy at the Globe & Mail is trying to solicit messages from laid-off MySpace employees.)

You need to give the same message to ALL stakeholders.

If we do this again, the Canadians may stop being nice (Phoenix, Hamilton, and Winnipeg)

I have an imponderable question that I need to ponder at some point - when we refer to the "National Hockey League," what nation is being referenced? The NHL, like Major League Baseball, straddles two countries - the United States and Canada. And even though hockey is more of a passion to Canadians, teams have tended to move south to our side of the border.

There's been an attempt to move in another direction - an American National Hockey League team trying to move to Canada! - but an American judge has blocked the deal:

Jim Balsillie is considering a new bid for the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team after a bankruptcy court's decision that blocked the co-founder of Research in Motion from [moving] the NHL franchise to Canada.

Judge Redfield Baum ruled on Monday that a June 29 deadline proposed by Balsillie did not allow enough time to settle the complex case.

Balsillie was offering to buy the team for $212.5 million and move it to Hamilton, Ontario, located an hour southwest of Toronto.

The Coyotes actually began their existence as the Winnipeg Jets in 1972, moving to Phoenix in 1996. They were preceded in a southern move by the Quebec Nordiques, who became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995.

Now it has gone the other way. The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980. And there have been other moves that haven't crossed national borders.

But for the moment Phoenix won't be joining them. Although there's one person that argues that if Phoenix moves north, Hamilton shouldn't be the destination:

While the idea of moving the team back to Canada is a good one, and Hamilton is a great place for an NHL team, we feel that Winnipeg is the true home of the team. If the team is going to be moved to Canada it should be moved to Winnipeg and renamed the Jets.

So we may have a Manitoba-Ontario smackdown in a few years. Well, not a smackdown, since Canadians presumably won't act like Marylanders act when the Indianapolis Colts come to town. But it could get not nice.

P.S. Not sure if my good friend Jeremy St. Louis has reacted to the news. I haven't had access to my TV lately, so I'm not sure what the Fox Soccer Report people are discussing to ward off the summer doldrums.

Tom must be bummed. He has fewer friends.

Back in April I wrote about Tom, who is one of my friends on MySpace.

Tom was the first friend that we ever had on MySpace. We didn't know a lot about Tom, and in fact we didn't even know how old he was, but he seemed to be a nice guy, and he'd always pass on messages to all of his friends, such as tips on new music and warnings about compromising the security of your account....

Well, our friend Tom was in the paper. Well, actually it's not a paper any more, it's more like electronic stuff, or at least that's where I saw the story. You see, Tom and his friend Chris are going to be doing some different things....

Yesterday I checked on Tom, and he must be feeling down. He hasn't updated his MySpace profile in a few days.

Today I found out why Tom might be bummed:

The social network MySpace is reducing its staff to cut costs in an effort to return to what it calls a “startup culture.”

MySpace, a division of News Corporation, said the layoffs would affect all American divisions of the company and lower the total number of staffers to around 1000.

And Owen said that Tom has too many friends.

These decisions are difficult for everyone, but especially for our friends and colleagues who contributed to MySpace’s success and are directly affected by the changes. Through no fault of theirs our company’s size became unsustainable. The future success of MySpace is dependent upon us operating as a nimble and entrepreneurial company with the adaptive mentality of a start-up.

And both Owen and Jon said that Tom was fat:

“Simply put, our staffing levels were bloated and hindered our ability to be an efficient and nimble team-oriented company,” CEO Owen Van Natta said in a statement....

“MySpace grew too big considering the realities of today’s marketplace,” said Jon Miller, News Corporation’s (NWS) CEO of Digital Media.

Maybe Tom can get a Facebook account and make new friends. Somehow I suspect that if Owen and Jon don't really like Tom any more, Rupert probably doesn't like him either.

Taking your company to the next stage

I didn't comment on this when it occurred, but given my interest in music I certainly noticed it. MediaMemo:

The founders of Last.fm, the London-based Web music start-up CBS snapped up for $280 million two years ago, are leaving the company. No word yet on whom CBS will appoint to replace the founding trio of Felix Miller, Richard Jones and Martin Stiksel, or what any of the men intend to do next–though Jones did tell users that the trio planned an “epic farewell party” and “a much needed holiday.”

You can also see the original message from the founders in the last.fm blog.

In the Inquisitr, Steven Hodson noted that this is not all that unusual:

It’s not all that unusual to see happen in the tech world. Startups – well start up, they get some big buzz, end up getting bought by a company with big wallets (if they don’t deadpool first) only to have the people who started the company decide it’s time for green pastures. Such is the case it would seem with the founders of Last.fm who have announced that they have resigned.

And this behavior predates the Web 2.0 and dot-com eras, although it used to be that the original company would NOT get sold, but that the founders would leave anyway. If you look at Apple, Steve Wozniak removed himself from day-to-day responsibilities (although John Sculley claimed he officially remained at Apple), and Steve Jobs was effectively forced out of Apple - although, of course, he returned a decade later.

The one notable exception to the "founders exit" behavior was Bill Gates, who remained at Microsoft as it grew from a small startup to a huge software company. For whatever reason (perhaps his upbringing, certainly not his formal education), Gates had the ability, drive, and desire to manage Microsoft through multiple stages of growth.

Monday, June 15, 2009

These colors don't fade, even during ocean transport

I guess you could call me a Wal-Mart supporter, based upon my opposition to anti Wal-Mart building measures, and my previous statements that Wal-Mart is only doing to the traditional supermarkets what the traditional supermarkets did to the older markets in the early 20th century. But even I have my limits.

When Wal-Marts initially appeared in my neck of the woods, they used to have banners that touted how Wal-Mart products were made in America, and how Wal-Mart was providing jobs to people in rural North Carolina or wherever.

After a couple of years, those banners disappeared from Wal-Mart stores. (And union members who make a big deal out of this are somewhat reluctant to publicly state where THEIR employers' products are manufactured.)

This stuck in my head as I read this New York Times article that documents how Old Navy and Wal Mart are dueling it out over the sale of U.S. patriotic t-shirts. The Times article documents how Old Navy is selling these t-shirts at a $5 price...while Wal Mart is selling them at a $3 price.

But as we don this patriotic apparel, there is one question that the New York Times article didn't answer - where are these particular t-shirts manufactured? I couldn't find any current information, but here was the score for patriotic apparel as of 2005, according to WCCO TV:

At Target, WCCO-TV found more than 80 pieces of patriotic clothing. Of all the items, only one T-shirt was made in the United States.

At Old Navy, WCCO-TV could not find any American-made patriotic apparel.

At Wal-Mart, more than 40 patriotic items were checked. Most were made in America, which is no accident. Wal-Mart has a policy where any item with an American flag on it must be made in the USA.

A blanket was the only flag item found by WCCO-TV that was not made in America. It was made in China.

And a 2009 check of the Old Navy website indicates that this $5.00 men's tee and this $5.00 women's tee is imported. I couldn't find the $3 tee on the Wal-Mart website, so I don't know if it's domestically made.


On Sunday I had a little bit of fun with Robert Scoble and Steven Hodson regarding their "Twitter beats CNN" statements. However, both of them are level-headed people who realize that Twitter, or FriendFeed, or a blog, or whatever are truly just tools. And that a tool is not a way of life. But to some, Twitter IS a way of life.

Take the Twitter Chat Room post entitled The Twitter Way Of Life New Beginnings. And it's not just the idea of using Twitter a lot. This particular item states some so-called truisms about how the Twitter way of life should be lived. Here are a couple of examples:

3) You’ll lose followers if it’s not interesting

To be fair, there's another item related to followers:

10) It’s great to get followers but quality followers are what you need

Yup, the Twitter Way of Life seems to boil down to who's following you. That's why all the "social media experts" are out there, telling you how to get more followers. What they don't say is that many of the followers you get are...social media experts. Or at least until they unfollow you.

This reminded me of something Robert Scoble was preaching in 2008, and is still preaching in 2009, and presumably will preach in 2010. Here's how he put it in 2008:

I’ve gone through stages with Twitter. At some point I thought it was important to get lots of followers. But lately I’ve been telling people that the secret to Twitter isn’t how many followers you have, but how many people you are following....

what does following a lot of people say?

1. You’re trying to learn more.
2. You’re trying to meet more people.
3. You’re trying to be a better listener.
4. You’re communicating to the world that you’d like to be listened to (golden rule: treat people how you’d like to be treated).
5. You’re trying to find out about more stuff. More events. More stories.

Basically it boils down to whether you want to use Twitter as a megaphone, or Twitter as an information source, or both. And the same applies to any other tool, be it Facebook or email or the bulletin board with pushpins down at the laundromat.

Now there are times when you do want to use a social media service as a megaphone. And there are times when you want to use a social media service as an information source. And based upon what you're megaphoning or what you're trying to learn, you may want to use different tools at different times. Or, as Steven Hodson put it back in March:

Thank god we aren’t all the same or that we all use these services the same way. Thank goodness that we are learning new ways to do new things but in the end it is all about

Hodson then printed a picture with the caption

just havin' a shitload of fun on the Internet

And I hope that even the "social media experts" are having fun too.

But whatever tool or tools you use, remember that they're just tools...not a way of life.

The Amusement Park Recession Balancing Act

The New York Times and the Washington Post (H/T Outside the Beltway) reported that Six Flags has declared bankruptcy. The culprit? Debt. Here's how the Times puts it:

Six Flags, the theme park operator, filed for bankruptcy early Saturday in Delaware after failing to reach an agreement with lenders to reorganize its debt....The theme park operator, which had $2.4 billion in debt, faced nearly $300 million in payments to preferred stockholders due in August.

Investors, including Dan Snyder and Bill Gates, have been working for years to get the parks back on track by selling underperforming parks, improving the remaining ones, and securing corporate sponsorships. But even though the steps helped Six Flags to narrow their losses, they were still losing money, and the recession obviously wasn't helping matters. Lenders have agreed to eliminate some of the debt during this bankruptcy period.

James Joyner of Outside the Beltway observed:

What’s interesting is that attendance continues to boom. My first impression on reading the headline at Slate was that amusement parks may be, like the circus, a legacy of an era gone by. It would be easy to surmise that kids raised on video games, the Internet, and instant gratification would find standing in ridiculously long lines for a three minue ride boring. The attendance figures, however, would seem to belie that.

But when you consider amusement parks, you have to remember that they have two audiences - the vacationers, and the locals. And recessions do all sorts of things to these audience.

In the first stage of a recession, the vacationers decide that perhaps they're NOT going to drive all the way to the amusement park, and instead opt to do something back at home. Meanwhile the locals decide to scuttle their OWN vacation plans, and decide to just go to the local amusement park instead. So while the hotel owners will see a dip, the park itself won't be as badly affected since all the locals are flooding in.

But when you hit a deeper stage in the recession, then the locals decide to stay home too and watch videos or play Farm Town or whatever.

Obviously Dan Snyder and Bill Gates and the folks at Disney understand this and tailor programs for both vacationers and locals. But there are other things that can affect attendance, including accidents and not-so-accidentals such as planned demonstrations. Oh, and the weather. Regarding Six Flags, the Washington Post noted:

[I]ts summer 2007 attendance was slammed by bad weather in Georgia and Texas, and by an accident on a ride at its park in Kentucky.

Not quite the perfect storm, but a storm nevertheless. But it appears that the parks will get by.

Not that I'm rushing to Magic Mountain any time soon. It has a reputation for wild rides, and I have a reputation for not doing so well on wild rides. I'll stick to the Disneyland Railroad, thank you very much...

What you know isn't so - intuition, angioplasty, and colon cleansing

No matter what you're talking about, whatever you say is based upon an assumed body of knowledge. Sometimes our assumptions are wrong, and are challenged when we learn new stuff or re-learn old stuff. This is especially tough when you're talking about things that intuitively appear to be correct. However, our intuition is sometimes faulty, as BusinessWeek notes in discussing angioplasty.

Once hospitals have made big investments in the catheterization laboratories, where the procedures are done, they have every incentive to use them as much as possible. Plus, patients also have bought into the argument that clogged arteries should be propped open. "There is a huge demand from patients for quick dramatic fixes."...

But recent studies have cast doubt on this.

Several recent studies have found that angioplasty doesn't save lives or prevent heart attacks in patients with stable heart disease compared to treatment with drugs. And now, in a study presented at the American Diabetes Assn. meeting on June 7 (and published in the June 11 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine), the limitations of angioplasty are evident even when the procedures were performed on diabetics with heart disease. For those patients, "medical therapy [the use of drugs] rather than any intervention is an excellent first-line strategy," conclude Dr. William E. Boden of the State University of New York at Buffalo and Oxford University's Dr. David P. Taggart in an NEJM editorial.

But these studies have not only led people to question the procedure, but also some of the thoughts underlying the procedure - such as the whole idea of "clogged arteries":

Years ago, before angioplasty, one prominent idea was that heart attacks were not caused by gradually clogging arteries. Instead, the theory went, heart attacks occurred when unstable plaque in the artery suddenly ruptured, leading to dangerous or fatal clots. This idea lost favor once physicians had the ability to prop open or bypass those clogged arteries. Now the theory is coming back. And if unstable plaque is the real culprit, then drugs that reduce inflammation and clotting, including everything from ordinary aspirin to cholesterol-lowering statins from the likes of Pfizer (PFE), Merck (MRK), and AstraZeneca (AZN) make more medical sense than angioplasty does.

So this whole idea of clogged material within your body may be a bunch of B.S. (pending, of course, the next study).

Think about that the next time someone mentions colon cleansing to you. Note the snopes.com article on the topic that refutes claims that John Wayne and Elvis Presley had 40+ pounds of fecal matter in their colon when they died:

Anecdotes such as these are, in a word, crap.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Empoprise-BI News - 14 June 2009

Empoprise-BI News

The news letter for Empoprise-BI - An Empoprises vertical information service for business news.

Welcome to Empoprise-BI News

Not that I've thought much about Empoprise-BI. Why not? Farm Town took up a bunch of my time.

In my non-trendy way, I hadn't even heard of Farm Town. When I noticed one of my co-workers mentioning it on her Facebook account, I asked her about it, since it sounded like a Second Life-ish sort of thing based on her description. If you haven't heard of it, Farm Town is a Facebook application that allows you to tend a farm, plant and harvest crops, and keep animals. As have others before me, I have found the game to be highly addictive, and reminiscent of the old SimPark game in some ways.

I haven't neglected sleep (yet), but I'm progressing through the game. If you're a FriendFeed user who is also interested in Farm Town, you may want to check my new FriendFeed group http://friendfeed.com/farm-town. I created it because I couldn't find an existing FriendFeed group for the game.

And no, I don't plan to start Empoprise-FT... :) But when I have some time, I have some observations on Farm Town monetization that I should put in blog form.

Behind the Scenes

While this blog (and my other blogs) may seem to be all across the board, in reality there are some recurrent themes in this blog. Since only one person is writing the blog, there can't help but be recurring themes; my writing is shaped by my life experiences, so my thoughts are going to permeate the blog whether I like it or not.

As part of my long-term plan for world domination, I am trying to explicitly state some of these recurrent themes in the blog. Perhaps you've seen my first such explicit statement, "a tool is not a way of life." I'm going to try to work this statement into the Empoprise-BI blog, and into other writings of mine, over the coming weeks and months. And perhaps I'll come up with other pithy phrases that lend themselves to such promotion.

Special Features

Since I've yammered (heh) about Farm Town, I'm not going to write about that here. In case you missed it, however, I did write what turned out to be a four-post series regarding certification in general and product management certification in particular. The first post can be found here.


Still working on the upcoming posts, but I do have a forthcoming one that references angioplasty, colon cleansing, and intuition. And yes, there's a business point to it.

If you disagree, or agree, or whatever, feel free to comment on the posts, or send comments to the empoprises account that Gmail hosts.

If Twitter beat CNN, then perhaps we should refer to Johnny Orangeseed

Apples & Oranges - They Don't Compare by Michael Johnson (TheBusyBrain) used under a Creative Commons License

As I read my feeds today, I see that both Robert Scoble and the Inquisitr's Steven Hodson are loudly proclaiming that Twitter beat CNN in Iranian election coverage. Not exactly. Perhaps it's my extensive experience in the Facebook application Farm Town, but it appears that I, unlike Scoble and Hodson, am able to tell the difference between an apple and an orange.

Not that I'm perfect. I'll admit that I really haven't been following coverage of the Iranian election. Part of the reason, however, is because I admit my ignorance in Iranian politics. While I'm sure that many Americans are of the opinion "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is bad, get him out," I haven't followed Iranian politics closely enough to know if his main opponent is any better. For all I know, Ahmadinejad is perceived as a wishy-washy apostate in Iran because Israel hasn't been nuked into oblivion yet. So if the US were to back Ahmadinejad's opponents, there's no guarantee that things would work out better for us. Just to cite one example, when Iran took U.S. hostages in 1979, the US eventually came up with the bright idea of backing Saddam Hussein. As Kuwaitis (and others, including Americans) will tell you, that didn't work out so well.

But while I haven't followed the ins and outs of Iranian domestic affairs, Robert Scoble has. He has a personal interest in Iran, and was following the news of the Iranian election on Twitter. Scoble:

Yesterday is the day when Twitter thoroughly beat CNN. Badly beat CNN. Embarrassingly beat CNN. And most other USA-based media too.

Scoble then links to various FriendFeed discussions, then jumps into the fire. OK, he didn't jump into the fire, he walked to a fire pit near his home:

My friend Luke Kilpatrick (he lives a couple of blocks away from me) invited me down to the Ritz at about 9 p.m. tonight. He met up there with a couple of geeks....

It was dark, so I couldn’t see who else was there around the fire ring out back.

Anyway, I was pretty passionate about this CNN story, since every hour we had been turning through the channels trying to learn about Iranian news (my wife is Iranian and hadn’t been able to call her relatives in Tehran). So I was telling Luke about how Twitter was totally kicking ass over CNN (CNN, when I kept turning it on, had nothing on and, instead was playing shows like Larry King Live with a couple of guys who build motorcycles).

That’s when I heard a voice say “what are you saying about Twitter?” I looked up and it’s Evan Williams, founder/CEO of Twitter. Oh, hi!

Anyway, I congratulated him on kicking USA’s media’s behind (CNN wasn’t the only one who wasn’t covering the Iranian protests).

Hodson continued the "Twitter beat CNN" thread:

These days though [CNN] seems to be all about some dumb beauty queen having her crown taken way or some other mundane bland repetitive non-news.

A perfect example of this is the recent events in Iran where the people are literally rioting on behalf of Mir Hossein Mousavi because of his unexpected loss to sitting president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, In this case the most current and reliable source of news coming out of the region has been on Twitter. Along with passing along news as it was happening in Iran there was also a growing movement of people calling CNN to task over their coverage of what could be a world changing event.

However, it is NOT accurate to compare Twitter and CNN, because Twitter and CNN are two entirely different types of things.

CNN (the abbreviation stands for Cable News Network) is, as the name implies, a media company with a television network and additional outlets such as its websites, and staffed by "almost 4,000" people. For more information about CNN, go here.

Twitter is not a media network. Twitter is not "staffed." Twitter is a tool that is used by millions of people. In fact, as Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey will happily tell you, one of those Twitter users is...@cnn. And @cnnbrk.

So to say that "Twitter beat CNN" is misleading. Twitter is not a single organized news reporting entity. Twitter is several million services, a few of which were reporting news, some of which were reporting inane stuff, and many of which were not reporting at all. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that some Twitter users were reporting more accurate news than the two Twitter users @cnn and @cnnbrk.

But in a sense a comparison between the two is apt, if you consider CNN the "experts" and Twitter a collection of "the wisdom of the crowd." I talked about this before, and perhaps it's appropriate to return to the issues raised there. One example provided in the post was David Risley's decision to seek Better Business Bureau approval for his online business. And I noted that there are times that you seek an authoritative source, and times that you don't:

[W]e can't decide whether we should trust the wisdom of the crowds, or the wisdom of a selection process. Those who argue for the latter would say that I should check with an authoritative source before doing business with David Risley, I should seek someone employed as a music journalist to evaluate music, I'd better take my car to the dealer that's certified to maintain it, I'd better buy software from a company that screens its employees, and I should trust the elected legislature to make decisions on my behalf.

But what about news? I am not ready to say that Twitter (the crowds) is always better than CNN in terms of news. If I were to believe what I read on Twitter, then I would believe that amassing large numbers of Twitter followers is the way to make lots of money. After all, that's what a lot of the social media experts say on Twitter. CNN doesn't happen to be breaking that story, Robert and Steven. Did CNN miss the boat on this, too?

OK, let's rule out the SEO junk. One could claim that a number of independent tweets about an event seems to indicate that the event is true. But is it? If that's the case, then Patrick Swayze died last month. Here's what Gawker wrote on May 19:

Patrick Swayze is alive and well, his spokesman has confirmed. How did false reports of his passing consume the internet for several hours today? Through the false rumor's vehicle of choice: Twitter....

But there's something about Twitter. Just last week it was the hotbed of a gay-marriage hysteria that fooled even the Los Angeles Times. A month earlier, it was #amazonfail, outrage over a gay-book ban that wasn't. (Although, repetition on Twitter is so powerful that there are some who still think there was something to that.)

Now I don't know if CNN reported the death of Patrick Swayze, or that Amazon banned gay books, or whatever. But Twitter, the same tool (and again, it's just a tool) that reported the Iranian riots, also reported the death of Patrick Swayze.

In essence, anyone can get the story wrong. CNN can get the story wrong, or thousands of Twitter users can get the story wrong. As Fox Mulder used to say, "Trust no one."

OK, Fox Mulder didn't say that. According to this source and this source, Deep Throat said it. But I'm not sure if the sources are correct.

Friday, June 12, 2009

It's all about the calculus - why Max Factor is leaving the United States

The Too-Much-Makeup Mannequin by Shawn Zehnder Lea (szlea) (Twitter) used under a Creative Commons License

I listen to a few podcasts here and there, but (with one exception - I mean two exceptions) the podcasts that I listen to are usually less than five minutes long. One of my favorite short podcasts is the early morning one from the Wall Street Journal, and they had an interesting story last Friday - Max Factor makeup will no longer be sold in the United States, but will continue to be sold in the rest of the world. Obviously a short podcast can't delve into the why's of something, but at least it alerts you to what's going on, which then allowed me to consult other sources, such as this Times of London post, which included a brief history of the company.

Max Factor himself was a Russian emigrant who created the makeup brand in 1909. The business remained in the Factor family until 1973, and Revlon sold Max Factor to Proctor & Gamble in 1991. However, two...um...factors are working against Max Factor in the United States these days:

Max Factor...unlike similarly priced rivals, is not stocked by big drug store chains, such as Walgreens and Rite Aid.

While you can buy cosmetics online, the product often tends to be sold in retail outlets. You have your department stores that sell the high-end cosmetics, with the people in white lab coats pushing whatever, and then you have the low end of the market, a segment where Max Factor apparently isn't participating.

Proctor & Gamble does offer another cosmetic line, Cover Girl. And Max Factor outsells Cover Girl in the United States. So why is P&G discontinuing the better-selling brand? Because, if you look at the trends (or, for techies, the calculus) of the two brands, Cover Girl appears to be the better long-term buy:

At present in the US, Max Factor outsells CoverGirl, with $1.2 billion in sales each year, against $1 billion for its newer rival. However, CoverGirl has increased its US market share every year for the past seven years while Max Factor has stagnated.

So what happens now? Do desperate American Max Factor fans write to their European fans and ask them to ship some cosmetics out our way? This is what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says:

Cosmetic products imported into the United States are subject to the same laws and regulations as those produced in the United States. They must be safe for their intended uses and contain no prohibited ingredients, and all labeling and packaging must be informative and truthful, with the labeling information in English (or Spanish in Puerto Rico). All color additives must be approved by FDA; many cannot be used unless certified in FDA's own laboratories. If the product has an intended use that causes it to be considered a drug, it must comply with the requirements for drugs, it must comply with the requirements for drugs, including establishment registration and drug listing.

As long as P&G doesn't change the formula, and the FDA doesn't change the regulations, this in itself doesn't appear to be a problem. Something legally sold in the United States in 2009 should theoretically be legal to be sold in the United States in 2010. But the products have to get here, which means that an entity such as the U.S. Postal Service comes into play:

Hazardous materials come in a wide variety of forms and can be chemical, biological, radioactive, or a combination thereof. If a material or substance can cause harm to someone or something, it can be considered a hazardous material.

The Postal Service’s definition of a hazardous material includes many common household and consumer products. These items may not be hazardous during normal use or storage in your home but can present a significant hazard when placed in the mail due to vibration, temperature changes, and variations in atmospheric pressure.

The first two items on the Postal Services' list? Perfumes and nail polish.