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November 2008 Archives

November 4, 2008

Why I hate Ballot Measures and Other Votings Rants

With election day upon us, here are a few random thoughts:

1. Lots of chatter about long lines at the polls. There were none at my polling place - although I went later than most people i guess.

2. Even with no lines at the polls, voting in San Francisco is about a 1/2 hour process. Everyone is given three separate ballots. The first has the big races on it: President, House of Representatives, etc. The second has all the state propositions on it and the third has all the city propositions. All three are double sided and pretty small font. Getting through them takes a while.

3. The ballot measures annoy me. Not any one of them in particular, but the entire concept. The point of a representative democracy is that making an informed decision on many issues is actually a full time job. You need to research the issues involved, consider the various subtleties of all sides of it and then, only then, weigh in with a vote.

But neither you or I have the time to do this. So we outsource it - pay a legislature to represent us geographically and do this job for us. Makes sense, right? By outsourcing we make strides in ensuring that issues get the consideration deserved. Ballot measures are a disservice to this idea.

4. In lieu of a thoughtful decision making process, the authors of the ballot measures try to use flowery language to sway you to their side. There was a ballot measure about the humane treatment of animals. Of course I'm for that - every one is for that. But what does that mean? Is there a standard? How can I be expected to make an informed decision on this based on the 50 words in the ballot measure? It's really frustrating - and the flowery language annoys me further.

5. It's no surprise that as far as blue states go, California is about the bluest. And San Francisco is famous for its interesting approach to politics. With that, I think it takes away from some of the dignity of the political process (if there is any left) when the ballot - like the SF one did - is allowed to include naming a city sewage plant after George W. Bush. I know, i know, I sound like a humorless, old man - but I couldn't help but be put off by that.

6. If you vote they require you to vote on EVERY measure. You can not leave any blank or your ballot is not accepted. I learned this the hard way when I tried to punt on some measures I had no clue about. &*$#'ing ballot measures!

7. Most important election of our lifetime, eh? For some reason, I'm thinking that's not going to be so.

7. We got our problems, but IMHO we're still the best country in the world to live in. People from elsewhere will go through unimaginable personable hardship just to come over here and live in this country. That we've built a place so unique, successful and appealing is something we can all be proud of. Ballot measures and all...

November 6, 2008

Obama and Yang: Hopefully a Contrast of Leadership

If I was Barack Obama, I would take close note of Jerry Yang's current situation. Obama will be taking over a job held by an unpopular predecessor, the perception of whom is that he has made a mess of what otherwise was a good thing. If you follow Yahoo's fortunes over the past couple of years, this should sound familiar.

Jerry Yang's rise to the CEO role of Yahoo followed Terry Semel's ignominious departure in 2007. Semel's exit, because of a poor strategy around search as well as a culture clash with the company's rank and file, was not a tearful one. On the flip side though, people were cheering the idea that Jerry Yang (a technical founder!) was triumphantly returning to take over.

The groundswell of support had people believing that Jerry was not only going to right the ship, but was going to steer it to new heights. Clearly, those days are over.

So what went wrong? How could it all turn so bad so quickly? First things first - this goes way beyond the bungled Microsoft deal. Yes, that was screwed up royally. Steve Ballmer may end up looking like the smartest guy in the world if he buys Yahoo now for $20 billion or so less than what he would have paid a year ago. He can certainly thank Jerry for that.

But really Jerry's problems at Yahoo started much earlier. It all boils down to leadership. A leader's job is easy: inspire, motivate and lead. Go out, have a clear, explainable vision, communicate it well and inspire those around to execute on it. This is true whether you are talking about a platoon leader, a CEO, a President or a baseball team captain.

A bad leader doesn't make bad decisions - a bad leader actually makes no decisions. They are paralyzed by fear, modesty, vanity, lack of confidence, or whatever. Pretty normal stuff, if you think about it. That's why not everyone is meant to be a leader.

Jerry Yang's first order of business as Yahoo's CEO? Take 100 days to evaluate the company. Oy. Jerry announces layoffs - they'll happen over the course of "several weeks." Ugh. The masses want to be led. They don't want to hear your thinking about it, or you'll get back to them. They want you to have answers and make decisions. That's what inspires.

That's the heart of Jerry's problems: no vision, no authoritative decision-making, no inspiration. Throw on top of that the Microsoft fiasco and now you know how Yang completely lost support (other than friends on the board) in a remarkably short period of time.

So what's this have to do with Barack Obama? Well, it struck me that the situations were similar. Both Barack and Jerry took/ take over the chief office from a not so well liked predecessor. Both came/come in with a ton of support from the masses. And both have/ had huge expectations on what can be accomplished.

I hope Obama takes note of Jerry Yang's failures and doesn't repeat them. Articulate a vision, act decisively and remember the old adage that, if inspired, men can be led where they might otherwise not go.

I'll say it once more: bad leaders don't make bad decisions, they make no decisions.

November 7, 2008

Stimulus Bill Back to the Future?

Today's news that Obama's first order of business as President will be to pass an economic stimulus package to kick start the economy immediately shot me back to 1993. One of then President Bill Clinton's first orders of business as President was to propose a $19B stimulus bill (a quaint number in today's terms).

That didn't go to well for him: "Senate Republicans killed President Clinton's economic stimulus program today, maintaining their filibuster until Democrats surrendered and agreed to limit the bill to $4 billion for extended unemployment benefits."

The Republicans won that fight because they were successful in characterizing the bill as a pork barrel handout and not an actual effective way to stimulate the economy - which, in 1993 needed help (remember, "It's the economy, stupid"). This same strategy was then used by the GOP to kill the Clinton crime bill, Hilary Clinton's health care plan and build momentum for a party that just lost the presidency for the first time in 12 years. No big deal, right? Clinton had a great run anyway - who cares?

Well, most importantly for the Republicans, this strategy was the building block for the 1994 congressional elections. If you recall in that election (i) the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years; (ii) then sitting House Speaker Tom Foley actually lost his bid for re-election in his district; and (iii) the (soon-to-be-new-House Speaker) Newt Gingrich led Contract with America had such a groundswell of support that it caused at least a couple of Senators (Shelby is the one I remember) to actually switch parties from Democrat to Republican. And all of this was before anyone had ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky.

So, yeah, it kind of matters.

Anyway, I'm sure that none of this will be lost on Obama and his team as they press forward on the stimulus bill. They will presumably be more careful in their navigating these waters. Because one thing is for certain, I'm positive the Republicans remember this history.

November 12, 2008

Michael Lewis on the End of Wall Street

Michael Lewis' article on the demise of Wall Street is definitely worth the read. My favorite part of the article though was the first couple of paragraphs:
To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall....I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage.

This phenomenon always made me scratch my head too. I knew plenty of people who got jobs as "financial analysts" or "financial planners" at young ages. The year before they were bartenders and then all of a sudden, without any training, *poof* they were experts in stocks, bonds, the market? Always struck me strange.

Many times the truth of the matter was that while they had the fancy title, most of their job was really apprenticing - cold calling and doing other grunt work that was the first step in their on the job training. But, with that, that didn't mean that if their firm had an opportunity to make some money off of these junior folks giving advice, making recommendations, etc. that they wouldn't.

I get cold called from time to time by brokers (not as much anymore). Whenever I do, the broker inevitably tells me that what they are particularly good at is finding gaps in the market, or undervalued stocks, etc., etc. and that we can make a lot of money together. My response to them is that if they're so good at finding these gaps, why the hell are they cold calling me? Shouldn't they be executing trades while sunning on their yacht?

Most of the time they hang up on me when I ask that.

November 14, 2008

Memo to Jerry Yang: Time to Re-Brand Yahoo Search

In only a brief period of time, Jerry Yang went from Chief Yahoo to Chief Executive Officer of Yahoo to Chief Punching Bag of the technology world. Lots of people - myself included - have publicly questioned his decisions, his strategy and his leadership. Most think he needs to go.

Is there anyway to fix it? Can he right the ship?

A good start would be to re-brand their search business. Search is the only way to make a decent buck from online media and having a search brand is the only way to do that well. Right now Yahoo search is anchored to a Yahoo brand which stands for.....really nothing.

But Yahoo knows how to build a strong search brand. They've done it before. In an interesting quirk in history, Yahoo created the #1 brand for internet search years ago when they decided to outsource search to Google. Putting Google's name next to the search box on the web's most trafficked site was the kickstart Google needed to become THE search brand.

So why not have history repeat itself? To do this, Yahoo should spin off its search assets into a newco and brand that new company something/anything other than Yahoo Search. Keep the Yahoo name as far away from it as possible. Also, make sure that whatever name is given to newco, that it is prominently displayed next to the search box every time it shows up on a Yahoo.com page - including, obviously, the search results pages themselves. Powered by....

This is how brands are built - put a unique name on a specific service and have that service and the name become equated. With billions of page views every month, Yahoo is actually uniquely situated to create a brand on their own, without an additional huge marketing spend behind it. Like I said, they did it once before.

While re-branding doesn't cure all their ills, it's a very good start. They still need to make strides from a product standpoint, fortunately for them they start with a product where relevance is actually pretty good. But they still need to differentiate. The Google clone won't overtake Google. Now, we have lots of ideas on how to do that - which we of course aren't at liberty to share :) - and I'm sure Yahoo's search team does too.

The bottom line is that display ads are not going to get Yahoo to where it wants to be. It needs to make a stronger run at search and to do that it needs a singular search brand. Spin out, re-brand, tool up and start marketing (on-site and off). That's what I would do if I was Yahoo.

November 15, 2008

The Shallowest Generation

Here's a great rant (via Hacker News) on our current financial predicament. Written by a Wharton professor, "The Shallowest Generation" is informative, depressing and anger inducing all at the same time.

Here's his summary of where we find ourselves today:

The facts are: we have a $10.5 trillion national debt; $53 trillion of unfunded liabilities; a military empire that has U.S. troops in 117 countries and has spent $700 billion on a pre-emptive war that has killed over 4,000 Americans; a $60 billion trade deficit; an annual budget deficit that will exceed $1 trillion in the next year; a crumbling infrastructure with 156,000 structurally deficient bridges; almost total dependence on foreign oil; and an educational system that is failing miserably. We can not fund guns, butter, banks and now car companies without collapsing our system.

Oy. Like I said, it is depressing but it should be considered required reading. After all, you can only start to fix a problem after you understand it.

November 16, 2008

The Advantage of Disadvantages

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book Outliers is getting lots of buzz these days. I just ordered my copy on Amazon, so obviously haven't had a chance to read it yet.

A lot of the online chatter revolves around his claim that 10,000 hours of practice/ study/ dedication is the pre-requisite to becoming an expert in a field. This should sound familiar to reader's of this blog.;)

Anyway, while I haven't read his book yet, I did read his latest New Yorker column about how being an outsider can actually work to your advantage of at times. In this article he profiles the success of Sidney Weinberg who rose literally from the mail-room to become the managing director of Goldman Sachs for 30 years. A true rags to riches story where the article claims that Weinberg actually benefited from not being a product of the the system.

As Gladwell states, alot of people view success "as a matter of capitalizing on socioeconomic advantage, not compensating for disadvantage." But contrast that with what he notes was Andrew Carnegie's view:

[h]e believed that poverty provided a better preparation for success than wealth did; that, at root, compensating for disadvantage was more useful, developmentally, than capitalizing on advantage.

I think there is some truth to Carnegie's view. Deprivation inspires people to want more and to achieve more. They always say that the life cycle of most family businesses last 3 generations, because the third generation always screws it up.

Why the third generation? Because they're the generation that grew up with all the advantages. The first generation built the business with hard work and raised their children (the 2nd generation) with these same values. The third generation didn't have the advantage of disadvantages. They were born to privelege and accordingly were perfectly equipped to screw it up.

Obviously there are no hard and fast rules here, but the article has lots of interesting observations in it and is worth the read...

November 21, 2008

Search Me: A Hit on the iPhone

John Holland, the SearchMe co-founder, just posted on Twitter that the SearchMe for iPhone is already one of the top 100 free iPhone Apps. Congrats to him and his team.

For those unfamiliar, SearchMe is a relatively new search engine that allows you to preview search results while searching, as opposed to clicking through to the destination page. So for instance, if you searched "mike markson" on their engine, you would see a smaller version of Marksonland show up as a result within the SearchMe environment. If Marksonland isn't the page you are looking for, you "flip" through the other pages like you would would pages in a book - seeing each one.

All that is well and good, but up until now I haven't gotten a lot of value out of the site. On my laptop screen, the visual preview of the page doesn't do me much good. In the SearchMe environment, the page preview is too small for me to see my search term or the the context with which it is used.

However, on the iPhone it makes perfect sense. The touch screen on the iPhone allows users to expand the browser to zoom in on a page. So even though the iPhone screen is much smaller than my laptop, the zoom capability makes it a much more suited environment for visual style search like SearchMe's.

Sometimes taking advantage of a slight change in environment can make all the difference in the world.

Here's a demo of SearchMe on iPhone if you are interested:

November 23, 2008

Saturday Night's Alright For....Food Shopping?

For the first time in....well, ever, actually, I'm not trekking east for Thanksgiving. We're staying put, and I'm happy not to have to fight the airport crowds this year. Now, with that, it's not all fun and games. We're actually hosting a Thanksgiving dinner this year. Oy.

Between Kelly and myself we have a grand total of zero years experience in stuffing and cooking a turkey. Which would be fine, except we are having 8 other folks over for dinner....in other words, the pressure is on.

Fortunately, Kelly is a pretty good cook and my job will be to pretty much stay out of the way. However, I did make a MAJOR contribution yesterday. As much as I dread airport lines, fighting the masses at the supermarket this week is going to be hell. Crowded supermarkets are always bad, but they're even worse when everybody is trying to buy the same stuff(ing).

My awesome idea? Let's spend our Saturday night at the Safeway - it'll be empty and we can get most of the stuff we need without dealing with the masses. Worked like a charm.

We got almost everything done last night (a few odds and ends to still pick up) and the place was empty. Only issue was that when we came home, shopping bags in hand, our neighbors saw us - and proceeded to make fun of how boring we are spending our Saturday night at Safeway. ;)

Anyway, step one complete. Onto to preparation and here's hoping the turkey doesn't end up too dry. (BTW, any hints, tips, or recipes for Thanksgiving are much appreciated - feel free to comment them or email them to me.)

Microsoft Rebranding Search

While my memo to Jerry Yang advising him to re-brand Yahoo search was sent a bit too late, looks like Steve Ballmer, who's Live Search suffers from the same woes as Yahoo search, got it:
Microsoft will relaunch Windows Live Search under a new brand sometime early next year, says a source within the company....Now LiveSide is saying there’s evidence the new search brand will be Kumo, which means “cloud” or “spider” in Japanese.

Creating a stand-alone search brand is just one step in the process. Differentiation in the search product is also required as is distribution. Speaking of the latter, as a commenter to my last post noted, it would be great if this wasn't a single company effort. How about a new search brand, with a differentiated product, where other highly trafficked sites - like say, I don't know, Yahoo? - sent their traffic?

Now that would be a Microsoft - Yahoo deal that made sense to everybody. It certainly would make life more interesting in the search space. Especially for the folks down in Mountainview.

November 26, 2008

Now That's A Bridge

Found this story (via Hacker News) about a bridge being built in China. Not just any bridge, it's the tallest bridge in the world.
[T]his bridge, when completed, would be the tallest in the world by some way and smash the record for highest deck-to-ground distance held by the royal gorge bridge in colorado (1'053ft)....the deck of the bridge has just recently been connected over the valley below and is so high above the ground that you could fit the empire state building underneath it, and still have 360ft spare.

Now that's a tall bridge. So, you're building a suspension bridge taller than the Empire State building, how do you string the support cables from one bridge tower to the other? You tie them to rockets of course.


More pictures and the story are found here. I konw its not turkey day related, but still pretty cool stuff.

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 28, 2008

How to Drink Coffee In Space

You never know the next time you'll find yourself in zero gravity and in need of a caffeine boost.....

About November 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Marksonland in November 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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