December 2009

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It’s almost 3am in Zermatt, which turns into one huge party town for New Years. First we rode in from a nice day in Lausanne on a train packed with rowdy party-goers. Then we found Zermatt turned into one wild-ass place. Fireworks — big ones — were set off from everywhere all over the town, and up on the steep mountain sides. It looked and sounded like a war was going on. The fireworks started before midnight, became a solid cacphony when the cellphones (not very evenly) struck midnight, and went on, solid, for at least an hour more. Meanwhile, on the ground, we were soaked, repeatedly, by shaken bottles of champagne squirted everywhere. Another one was dropped and exploded like a grenade at my feet. I’m surprised I wasn’t cut by it. Bottles, butts and debris are everywhere. Hate the be the ones cleaning the mess up in the morning.

The shot above was looking straight up from in front of the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof. Guys set off these boxes of fireworks, only a few feet from the crowd of spectators. Very different from the more cautious U.S. stafety procedures.

That’s the full moon on the right, by the way. Earlier it was partially eclipsed. That’s about as full as it gets.

Tomorrow is our last full day here. Looking forward to another day in the mountains. Meanwhile it’s still yesterday if you live in the Americas. Welcome to the New Year, everybody.

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There are mountains, and there is the Matterhorn. It’s all a matter of sculpture and presentation. Great art, great framing.

The Matterhorn is ice sculpture. It was carved by ice out of rock pushed to the sky by a collision between Italy and Europe that’s still going on. The ice was as high as the mountain, or higher, and the carved off parts are scattered all over the Alps and its alluvial fans, discarded by water and wind when the ice cap melted, only a few millennia before the Pyramids showed up. Go back to when the ice was at high tide, and the Alps looked like the near-buried parts of Greenland do today. (See here, here and here.)

The shot above was what the Matterhorn looked like by moonlight on our way back to the hotel tonight. There’s hardly a thing on Earth more impressive than that.

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The shot above is a pano taken by The Kid with my iPhone, which isn’t good for much else here in Switzerland. (Click here or on the shot to see the original, including larger sizes.) On the left is the Matterhorn, which may be the most impressive mountain on Earth. It’s hard to imagine more glorious ski slopes than those surrounding Zermatt, all of which either face the Matterhorn or occupy its flanks.

Skiing was good on the upper runs, but icy on the lower ones. The four inches of fresh powder yesterday, plus fresh artificial snow in places, was a big help. But the heavy rains on Christmas day are still preserved in a layer of ice.

Near the end of the day, the kid and I took a wrong turn and had to navigate our way down runs that were a bit advanced, at least for me. (I’m an intermediate skier at best.) I fell more times than I bothered to count, though not on the steepest sections. I think I just wore out. So we’re taking a day or two off from skiing and doing less strenuous things.

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Back when I started coming over to Europe for work (mostly to France), in the mid-90s, I listened almost every night to U.S. armed forces radio (then called the Armed Forces Radio Service, or AFRS) on 873KHz on the AM (or, in Europe, MW) dial. I’m listening again now, almost surprised to find it still there (at the top of this handy list in Wikipedia). Big station: 150kw, or 3x the max allowed in the U.S.

It’s the Armed Forces Network now, or AFN. Playing country music.

Here’s a Wikipedia page for the transmitter itself, in Weißkirchen.

Meanwhile, I’m also listening to ‘s 96Kb AAC stream, from New York. Specifically, Strauss’s Elektra, Johannes Brahms, Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79/1, Ivo Pogorelich, piano, the station website tells me. Sounds terrific on my Sennheiser headphones.

Consider the fact that I’m listening at the far end of a weak wi-fi signal in one of the cheapest hotels in Zermatt, which is at the deep end of a long valley in Switzerland’s Alps. (Outside our window, the Matterhorn.) Puts some perspective on the comment thread, still lengthening here, that was set off by WQXR’s move to a weaker over-the-air signal (among other moves by when they took over the station from the New York Times).

Earlier today we visited some of the other hotels. The most impressive one in town is the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof. The Internet is not among its featured offerings. They do have a tiny “Internet corner,” occupying what appears to be old phone booth locations, and which we found occupied by two twelve-year-olds on the only terminals there. Makes me glad we’re at our good-enough hotel with its free wi-fi. Elsewhere service seems to be most commonly provided by Swisscom, at prices that make sense only to them. (I’d show a screen shot, but I lost it, alas.) Given the brutal prices already charged by the better hotels here, it would make far more sense just to bake the service into those price and let the guests use the Net for free, just like they use water, bedding and electricity.

But actually I care less about the right thing to do now than I care about the only thing to do in the future. That’s to build out the Net as a basic utility. Not as a secondary (or tertiary) service of phone and cable companies.

I know that’s not how it is now, and that’s not how it’s gong to be for awhile. Right now the Net is still seen as gravy rather than as meat. But this will change. Count on it. And count on more money being made on the transition than on maintaining today’s defaults. Also count on it all going faster if we can also handle our own end of it, in our own homes and neighborhoods.

Companies betting on the free and ubiquitous Internet of the future have the best chance of winning in the long run. They just won’t win by continuing to monetize the Net on the pay toilet model. (Or, for those who recall, the coin-operated television model. Yo, here’s the patent.)

Please get rid of the @#$%^& region coding.

See, our family meant to bring along some movies when we came to Switzerland for our holiday vacation. Forgetting them was my fault. But not being able to watch other movies, that we would be glad to pay for, on our laptop, is not our fault. It’s Hollywood’s.

Thanks to the insanity of region coding, we can’t (or won’t) watch on our laptops because we’d have to buy or rent a DVD for Region 2, while our laptops are Region 1. There are workarounds, but we don’t feel like screwing with those.

We also thought, Hey, we’re Netflix customers. Maybe we could watch live online. The wi-fi connection at the hotel here is surprisingly good (considering that we’re way back up in the Alps). Alas, when we go to Netflix, it says,

  Watching Instantly is Not Available Outside the US

  Our systems indicate that the computer you are using is not located within the 50 United States or District of Columbia. Due to studio licensing reasons, movies are available to watch instantly only on computers in those locations.

So, studios, why screw your own customers? You have a direct relationship with me. I’m one of your customers. I pay to watch your movies.

There has to be a better way than this.

If you can’t figure it out for yourselves, how about working with customers to figure out something that involves point-to-point, customer-seller relationships that enable business, rather than prevent it?

I want to give some linklove to Mike Warot, and point to his latest post, Indeterminant Intermediaries Imminent. Mike has been a stalwart contributor to the VRM conversation, and a thoughtful dude. A teaser quote: The future of the live web is in doubt, for good reasons.

I would like to add some things that may bring us into overlapping or new territory.

First, I don’t think today’s tools, including blogging ones, are good enough. They’re still too complicated and hard to use. You’re still managing “content” in a “site,” rather than writing directly on the Web in a live and linky way. I think this difficulty is one reason why Twitter became so popular. It partially fills a gap left open by WordPress and Drupal.

Again, as I’ve said often before, it’s still early. We’re still looking for corporate sites and services (“the cloud, etc.) to do what we should be able to do for ourselves — and we can’t, as long as easy-to-use DIY tools are absent from our tool sheds and boxes.

Sure, there are plenty of things that should only be done at sites and by services. But why should everything happen there?

We passed the Winter solstice at 17:47 today, universal time, or 12:47pm Eastern time here in the U.S. It’s 4:02pm right now in Boston, as the Sun enters the horizon at the lowest angle of the year. From now until the summer solstice, the days will only get longer.

That’s the optimistic angle on the official first day of Winter, anyway.

So I ordered a bunch of gifts from Amazon for my sister to open on Christmas. Did it all last week so we’d have time for screw ups.

Turns out we needed it.

I won’t go into the details (including stuff that was my fault), but will instead jump ahead to a bug that needs to be fixed: When an order is canceled by Amazon, the history of the order is erased on the Amazon website. It’s like the order never happened. No information remains. The items bougtht, the gift wrap, the shipping details, the credit card used, the fact that the order was made in the first place… all gone. The cancellation details survive only in an email Amazon sends out — and in Amazon’s own memory. If you call them up and ask for help tracking problems down, they can find what they won’t let you see online. I just spent the better part of an hour on the phone with Amazon doing exactly that.

This is wrong. You should be able to look back and see past orders, whether they were completed or not. You should be able to see why orders were canceled (out of stock, credit card glitches, whatever).

While I’m a big fan of self-tracking, the tech for that isn’t here yet. In its absence it would be nice if pioneering (now landmark) companies like Amazon did a better job of remembering what happened, when, and why.

‘Smart’ Electric Utility Meters, Intended to Create Savings, Instead Prompt Revolt is a New York Times story that perhaps suggests a deeper truth: People don’t want their utilities to get smart on them. Except, occasionally, on request. Like, when a bill one month is strangely high.

These paragraphs encapsulate several problems at once:

At the urging of the state senator, Dean Florez, Democrat of Fresno and the chamber’s majority leader, and others, the California Public Utilities Commission is moving to bring in an outside auditor to determine whether the meters count usage properly.

In response to a wave of complaints from the Bakersfield area in the Central Valley, Pacific Gas & Electric has been placing full-page advertisements in newspapers in the area promising benefits from the new meters. It says customers will save money not only by paying rates based on hourly fluctuations in the wholesale market, but also eventually by displaying real-time rates.

To reduce their bills, customers could cut back at pricey peak times and shift some activities, like running a clothes dryer or a vacuum cleaner, to off-peak periods. Utilities will then have lower costs, the argument goes, because the grid will need fewer power plants as demand levels out.

Customers will become “structural winners,” said Andy Tang, senior director of the company’s Smart Energy Web program.

The first problem is that some customers (enough to cause a stink, and cause newspaper stories) think their new “smart” meters are cheating them. Let’s say the meters are fine. (And I’m betting they are.) What’s this say?

The second problem is that the meters complicate usage. Who (besides people paid to care) are interested in wholesale energy market price fluctuations? And how many customers are ready to modulate usage based on fluctuating real-time demand?

The third problem is cultural, normative, and to some degree explains the first two: We’re not used to caring about this kind of stuff. Much less about being “structural winners,” whatever those are.

What’s being called for here is not just new gear that helps users use less electricity, water and gas. And what’s proposed is not just the need for all of us to “go green” and care about wasting resources and cooking the planet. What’s proposed is re-conceiving what a utility is.

Utilities, at least to the end user, the final customer, the one paying the bills, are simple things. They are dumb. Their availabiliy is binary: it’s there or its not. When it is, you want to hold down costs, sure; but you expect it to be there full-time. There should be enough gas or oil to run a furnace, to boil an egg, to produce hot water. There should be enough electricity to light bulbs and keep appliances running. There should be enough water pressure for people to take showers and wash dishes. More than enough doesn’t get noticed. Less than enough is a problem. That or none requires a call to the utility company or the landlord.

“Smart” so far looks complicated. And most people don’t want complicated, especially from their utilities.

Now, what we’re talking about here is making all utilities digital. That is, computerized. Again, complicated. True, for a mostly good cause. But entirely good? I gotta wonder. When I see big companies like GE and IBM talking about making our power “smart,” I think they’re talking about making it smart their way. Which is not like other companies’ ways. And selling “solutions” to utility companies that are different than the next company’s “solutions,” and lock the customers into proprietary systems that can cause more annoyance than convenience down the road.

I haven’t studied any of this, so I don’t know. I’m just saying what I suspect. And I invite correction on the matter. If there are standard ways to smarten power, so that customers can swap out one company’s gear for another’s, that’s fine. But again, I dunno.

Meanwhile, let’s table that and look at the Internet. This is a place where we have a degree of intelligence in a utility. Customers in many places have choices about variables such as bandwidth, and “business” versus “home” levels of support.

But I think what we want out of the Internet is what we already have with water, gas and electricity: it’s just there. Nothing more complicated than that.

I hope that’s where we end up. But my fear is that old-fashioned utilities will get smart the way the phone and cable companies have made the Internet smart. And that would be dumb.

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The comment thread in my last post was lengthened by Seth Finkelstein‘s characterization of me as “basically a PR person”. I didn’t like that, and a helpful back-and-forth between the two of us (and others) followed. In the midst of the exchange I said I would unpack some of my points in a fresh post rather than branch off in the comment thread. So here we are.

We tend to be defined by what we do. Or, in some cases, what we’ve done. Many of our surnames describe the work of an ancestor. Carpenter. Baker. Weaver. Tanner. Of my own surname, it says here,

In his book, Surnames of the United Kingdom, Harrison writes that the surname Searle, Searls, Searles, Serle, Serles, Serrell, or Serrill is of Teutonic origin signifying “Armour or Arms”. It is derived from the Old Teutonic Serlo, Sarla, Sarl, Sarilo, Serilo. Serli ” and the Old English “Searo”, it is the equivalent of the Old High German “Saro” which is the same as the old Norse ” Sorus” meaning Armor arms, skill or device.”

A soldier, I guess. My father, Allen H. Searls, was a soldier, both before and during WWII (he re-enlisted at age 36). But basically he was a carpenter: a builder. So was his father, George William Searls. Also George’s father, Allen Searls. Also Allen’s father, Samuell Searls. I’m not, but my daugther Colette married Todd Carpenter. So my grandson is a Carpenter too.

By the time I knew him, my father was an insurance agent. But he saw himself more as an builder of useful stuff. Thus our basement was a workshop. Pop’s brother-in-law, Archie Apgar, was a banker by day and a builder the rest of the time. In the summer of 1949, the two of them together built our summer house in the woods of South Jersey. (In a paradise of pine, oak and blueberries, now home to a shopping center.) My father was also a longshoreman, a cable-rigger on the George Washington Bridge, and a builder of railroad trestles. He did that in Alaska, where he met my mother, a social worker who had grown up in North Dakota. They married after the War and moved to New Jersey, where Mom worked for many years as a teacher. Her maiden name was Oman, borrowed by a grandfather from a fellow Swede on the boat over from Malmö (or maybe it was Göteburg… someplace with an umlaut).

Mom was a good writer, and in that respect I took more after her than Pop. I started writing in high school, covered sports for my college paper, and the wrote for a variety of newspapers and  magazines across the many years since.

But I’ve done lots of other stuff too. I was a moving man. I drove an ice cream truck. I worked in frozen produce wholesaling (which consisted of moving skids of goods with forklifts and carrying clipboards in and out of freezing warehouses, railroad cars and tractor trailers). I worked in the fronts and the backs of restaurant kitchens, and waiting tables. I flipped burgers and worked counters in fast food joints. I worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and delivering food to patients. I worked in retail, both in sales and management. I worked as a community organizer in a social welfare project (a job that later gave me respect for Barack Obama’s work at the same job, especially since he was good at it and I was not). I worked in radio, doing everything from selling ads to spinning records to engineering, including maintaining transmitters and tower-climbing to change bulbs. I did site studies for FM stations, and made new facility applications to the FCC. I worked in academic parapsychology, helping with research and editing publications. I worked in a landlord’s sawmill when I couldn’t make the rent. And I worked in advertising and PR. Next to writing, that’s the job I held longest.

In 1978 I co-founded Hodskins Simone & Searls, an advertising agency in Durham, North Carolina. By 1980 we came to specialize in what as then called “high tech”. We did well and opened a second office in Palo Alto, moving there completely in 1986. A couple years later we created a division called The Searls Group, which specialized in PR, and eventually spun off on its own as a marketing consultancy. Our clients included Farallon, Symantec, The Burton Group, pieces of Apple and Motorola, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi Semiconductor, Zenith Data Systems and many more.

I had mixed feelings about doing PR, because I was still a journalist at heart, even though I was only freelancing at it during that time. And, while being a journalist made me a better flack, it didn’t make me less of one. I also found that PR folk had little leverage on corporate strategy. Their function was output, not input. So, after awhile, I moved The Searls Group’s work up the client stack, to the point where we did consulting at the CXO level, helping clients understand and engage their markets, rather than in helping them craft and send messages to those markets. You might say our job was delivering (often unwelcome) clues to the places where those clues were needed most. This shift started in the early ’90s and was done by the time Chirs Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, in 1999.

Not long after Cluetrain came out as a book in early 2000, Jakob Nielsen noted the use of the first person plural voice in the original Manifesto. When we talked about “we”, as with this here…


… we were not speaking as marketers. We were speaking as human beings, out in the marketplace. What happened, Jakob said, was that “You guys defected from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing.”

He was right.

The great irony that followed was that Cluetrain was generally classified as a marketing book, and its closest followers have been in marketing as well. Many marketers have been inspired by Cluetrain to improve marketing, including the practices of advertising and PR. Along those same lines, Cluetrain has also been credited with foreseeing the “social” movement in computing and communications, and with inspiring and guiding that movement as well. Look up Cluetrain+social on Google and see what comes up. (Here’s a Twitter search for the same.)

I’m not proud, or even happy, with either of those developments. Not long ago I even suggested that “social media” is a crock. My point was not to denigrate people doing good work in the social media space, but rather to point out that our collective vision of this space was wrongly limited to what could be done on Facebook, Twitter and other commercial “platforms”. Ignored was the freedom and independence granted by the Net’s own open and essentially ownerless platforms and protocols — and the need to equip individuals with their own instruments of independence and engagement: work that’s still mostly not done.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to add fresh chapters to Cluetrain for its 10th anniversary edition. For the last few years I’ve been working on Cluetrain’s unfinished (or unstarted) business, through ProjectVRM, at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and through its collection of allied efforts and volunteers, both around the Center and around the world. Thus my own chapter of the latest Cluetrain is titled Markets Are Relationships, and unpacks the ambitions behind VRM (which stands for Vendor Relationship Management):

  1. Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. These tools are personal. That is, they belong to the individual, in the sense that they are under the individual’s control. They can also be social, in the sense that they can connect with others and support group formation and action. But they need to be personal first.
  2. Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data aren’t scattered throughout a forest of silos.
  3. Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
  4. Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by organizations, and for how long, including agreements requiring organizations to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
  5. Give individuals the ability to assert their own “terms of service,” obviating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
  6. Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
  7. Make individuals platforms for business, by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers.
  8. Base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces) and open code. This will support a rising tide of activity that will lift an infinite variety of business boats, plus other social goods.

We don’t have those tools yet. When we do, they will change the way customers relate to companies, and therefore change the reverse as well. That will change the job of marketing, sales, and pretty much everything else a company does — so long as it responds to customers who are far better equipped to express demand, and otherwise relate, than they are today.

So, to sum up, there is a place where I stand in respect to all the above. That place is alongside customers, in the marketplace. Not alongside sellers, even when I’m consulting those sellers. My consulting hat is not a PR or a marketing one. It’s a customer hat. A user hat. (And, to the extent that I’m hired to help make sense of free and open source development, a geek hat.)

This is why I took offense to being labeled a “PR person.” I have no problem with good PR people. In fact I try to help them out, along with everybody else who’s interested in my input. But what makes me valuable, I believe, is where I stand in respect to customers. I’m on their side. I’m trying to help them out, and markets along with them. Maybe I’ll succeed, and maybe not. But I do believe that, in the long run, we will have VRM tools, and that these tools will make life better for everybody in the marketplace, including vendors.

Meanwhile, there is a temptation not only to confuse the past with the , but the present with the future. We tend to assume that, as John Updike once said (at a time when copiers, answer machines and faxes seemed miraculous), “we live in the age of full convenience”. We don’t. The present is just a draft for the future. Our conveniences are just prototypes.

I’m glad Seth and others (Dave Rogers, where are you?) are out there, calling bullshit on techno-utopians like me. A lot of what Seth and others on that thread had to say was sobering stuff. The flywheels of Old Skool industrial practices, and thinking, have not gone away. They even spin inside “good” companies like Google.

Markets are different now that the Net runs beneath them. There are fewer secrets, and both good ideas and bad can spread with alarming speed. Lately the split between the static and the live web (which most of us call “real-time” and some of us saw coming half a decade and more ago) has become dramatic and confusing. So has the split between fixed and mobile computing and communications. One can get lost through enthusiasm, despair, or both. Hey, the iPhone is a wonderful thing, but — what next? And why? And how?

Markets are no better than we make them. I’m not sure what one should call a person who works on tools to make markets better. But hey, that’s my job.

Guess I’m a builder after all.

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