The battle for the call

The integration of telephony into Google Gmail this week is realization of a long standing desire on my part to be able to easily initiate a phone call from my contact list. For phone intensive users, like reporters, the ability to search for a contact, hit a call button, and be connected in seconds can’t be underestimated.

While Google’s move was judged a Skype-killer by some, the war is not on who’s platform initiates the call, but what contact list dominates the user’s attention.  Contact management is a massive pain in the ass — the history of Personal Information Management starting with flat file databases like AskSam in the 1980s, up through Lotus Organizer, ACT! then Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes — all seemed to divide a user’s world between the enterprise directory and their own personal method of organizing friends, phone numbers, email address, birthdays, etc.. Migrating a contact list from one system to another was an evil process of CSV export files and the usual comma-delimited b.s. designed to lock one’s world into a single system. Throw a cell phone into the mix, and things became uglier and uglier to sync.

Skype’s contact management is meager — essentially no more than a list of names on a par with any standard IM client. It doesn’t integrate with one’s other lists and stands alone, as a window within a window, with few hooks out to other contact management services.

Google has underplayed its contact management capabilities in Gmail, but it is obvious that of its suite of applications, Gmail is become the keystone and as such, some overdue attention is being paid to contact management. Adding the capability to call from that list is a wonderful feature, and Skype and others need to quickly build hooks into those lists and make it possible to extend their client or risk being stranded on their own desert island.

CLF sues EPA over Cape wastewater cleanup

The deterioration of the estuaries, bays and harbors of Cape Cod has come to the point where action is demanded. The death of the region’s eelgrass beds, the rafts of vile slimy algae and “sea lettuce”, the closing of beaches and the general decline is probably only visible to someone my age who can recall the gin-clear waters of the early 60s which were destroyed by the subdivision sprawl that raped the Cape in the 1970s and 80s. The solution? Tax the heck out of the residents and build a massive sewer/wastewater treatment system. Even so, the waters will likely take decades to clear, and the likely impact of the sewers will be to encourage yet more development as they have on Long Island.

There’s no turning back now, but leave it to the Conservation Law Foundation (of which I am a dues paying member) to force the EPA and local towns to wake up and deal with the mess caused by ignorant selectmen and planning boards who let the locals cash in their land for quarter-acre zoning and acres of cesspool leeching subdivisions.

“Joined by the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, the Conservation Law Foundation has sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to “adequately permit and regulate the discharge of nitrogen into the Cape’s water.”

“CLF and the Coalition also sent EPA, the Cape Cod Commission and the Barnstable County Commission (board of county commissioners) a 60-day notice that it intends to sue them for failing “to implement an areawide Water Quality Management Plan, also in violation of the Clean Water Act.”

via The Barnstable Patriot – UPDATE: CLF sues EPA over Cape wastewater cleanup.

Android at sea: my favorite nautical apps

Vern Graebel, the founder of my ISP, Cape.com, was walking down the hill to Ropes Beach after a Cotuit Kettleer’s baseball game a few weeks ago. I caught up to him and we started talking about sailing and a particularly great spot to spend the night, Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, the largest of the Elizabeths. I shared my fear of anchoring there and dragging during the night and how anchor-dragging-paranoia made it tough for me to get a good night’s sleep aboard the sloop.

“There’s an app for that,” Vern said, drawing his Motorola Droid out of his pocket. And indeed there was, “Anchor Alert” — an cool little $15 app that uses the GPS receiver in the smartphone to determine one’s position. You anchor, pay out so many feet of chain and line, determine the length of scope of that, and tell Anchor Alert which then draws a series of concentric circles with your “anchor” in the middle and an icon of your boat out the specified length from the mooring point. Using the GPS’s  accuracy rating, the program waits until you move N feet away from the radius of the circle formed by your anchor and boat. Slip 30 feet and you receive an alarm (or a SMS if you aren’t aboard).

I use my HTC EVO for a few other nautical tasks. I may need to invest in a decent waterproof case (I use a kayak bag to keep it dry now), and the battery life with the GPS enabled is pretty sucky. But …. it is amazingly useful for some essential tasks.

  • Tides: I use “TideApp” to give me the times for high and lower water at any of the dozen locations I sail to. It also gives me essential data about the ebb and flow times of the current, an essential aid in navigation for determining the offset of one’s course caused by the lateral forces of the moving water.
  • Chart Plotter: Okay, so it isn’t a $3000 binnacle mounted Garmin chart plotter with integrated radar — that has to wait for more flush financial times, but the Navionics USAEast chart pack is awesome for giving me an accurate and detailed fix on a valid NOAA nautical chart. This is a little expensive at around $15, but it is great to have a precise fix when I need it on the water. I use it sporadically because of the battery draw down, but suppose I could rig some 12v car adapter sort of rig to keep it going 100% of the time. Again — smartphones and the cockpit of a sloop in Nantucket Sound are not a felicitous combination, keeping the thing dry is a constant worry.
  • Google Sky: “Give me a tall ship and star to steer her by …” It’s been years since I’ve taken a noon shot with a sextant (something I might brush back up on this winter), but knowing the stars while at sea is always good fun and Google’s star map is awesome to play with.

Any sailors out there have other apps to recommend?

What I’m Reading: Hitch-22

Memoirs are generally untrustworthy affairs, especially when penned or ghost-penned by retired politicians or athletes seeking to cash in on their glories with a fat advance and a chance to put onto the record their version of the past with no arguments or contradictions. But rare is the memoir of a man of letters, a literary autobiography as it were. Some writers, like Steven King, have written strong reflections on the craft of the writer, weaving in their own life’s plot as a framework, but for the most, the autobiography is at best an opportunity for we readers to be taken into the conspiratorial confidences of the tale-teller and given a version of events that at best is written with the same verbal grace as their non-Onastic work, and at worse whitewashes controversy and settles past feuds with the awesome singularity of the printed page.

Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway … few literary lions have written about themselves, indeed some like Pynchon are impressive in keeping their biographies off of the page, and limited to but a few cryptic paragraphs on the edge of the dust-jacket and end papers.  Literature resists critical psychoanalysis and the text is supposed to speak for itself, but yet the reader wants more insights into the dark influences behind the fiction: hence the cottage industry a few years back into tell-all biographies of John Cheever, the tortured alcoholic chronicler of Mad Men-era suburban New York and Westchester. The result was a bit embarrassing in the end.

I have not been a close fan of the political journalist Christopher Hitchens over the years. His work in Vanity Fair has occasionally come into view, but I haven’t been a fan in the sense of buying his books and seeking out his work in the Nation and television talking head-fests. For some reason I bought his memoir Hitch-22 and have been picking away at it this summer, slowly immersing myself into the life of what could be one of the last true British men-of-letters. That he has esophageal cancer didn’t come to my attention until I was half-way through the book, a relief as I am glad I didn’t come to the book with some morbid rubber-necking as a motivation. I had first become aware of him when he assailed my former employer, The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and my late colleague, Susie Forrest, for their first Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Willie Horton scandal during Michael Dukakis’ failed run for the presidency in 1988.   Then came this astonishing video of Hitchens undergoing waterboarding so he could report on the experience first hand.

The book is remarkable and opens with the type of astonishing development that any novelist would crave. Hitchen’s mother, a relentlessly self-improving English woman hiding her Jewish roots from the strictures of post-WW II English society, abandons her career naval officer husband and ends her life in a lonely Athens hotel room with her new lover. The effect, the development puts into place a foundation for the rest of the tale that never relents.

Hitchens intelligence and ambitions are unwavering. His mind is obviously astonishing. But it is is dogged refusal to back down from a life-long hatred of totalitarianism, to proudly wear the jingoistic labels of “Trotskyist,” to reject religion and faith and willingly face his attackers that makes this work a true profile in courage. His early calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his proud embrace of American citizenship despite an upbringing as the consummate Englishman, his love of the language and the fun of word play …. in the end it combines into what I have to declare is my favorite literary autobiography ever.

Android tablets. Too little too late?

The photographs of  Chinese iPad clones running Android are filtering their way west and indeed, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to port the operating system onto anything from a flat screen television to a cheap large screen smartphone.  Android seems destined to become the mass market OS for mobile internet devices, and as hardware manufacturers figure out how to junk it up with their own skins, you can be sure to see a plethora of 10″ screens sometime soon. After a month in the Android world on my HTC EVO smartphone, and several months on the genuine iPad, I have to wonder what the mass market appeal of an Android tablet will be once they start shipping in volume later this year.

The significant application for the tablet — the so-called “content consumption” device (consumption is so tubercular in my mind) — is e-readers in my opinion. Sure, you can watch a nice movie or video courtesy of iTunes on the iPad, and doubtlessly Amazon, Netflix, and Doubletwist will be pushing moving picture content onto Android tablets with ease. But in my experience the big application is reading, be it the Kindle app on the iPad or the new magazine formats such as Flipboard and the traditional magazine publishers. So far the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have the lead in iPad formats, and I tend to make a point of refreshing them before hopping onto a plane. Flipboard is a nice enough user experience, integrating links from my Facebook and Twitter network, and it is a good platform for prolific publishers like AllThingsD and others with a need to push their content.

The point of this post is to wonder outloud how publishers will port from the iPad to Android tablets and if the experience will be as compelling as the early iterations on the Apple platform. If I were leading the platform decision at a Conde Nast or Time Inc. I would be very concerned about the production challenges of supporting the two platforms. While Wired may be declaring the Web to be dead, I have to disagree, seeing Android as an extension of the desktop browser/HTML model we’ve lived with for nearly two decades. iPad as a closed example of “splinternet” — yes, I concede that Apple model is a walled garden for developers and consumers, but a short lived one as Android gathers momentum and steam this summer and into the holiday season.

Prediction: next year the dominant launch-first platform will be Android.

Moving along

Today I’m leaving Lenovo after four and half years as the vice-president of  global digital marketing. I had set myself a two-year timer for the job when I joined in January of 2006, planning on moving on to the next big thing following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. But the Great Recession intervened in the fall of 2008 and for six months I had a very enjoyable career shift into the development of a fascinating cloud PC called the Skylight.

After the CMO — Deepak Advani — who hired me departed in the winter of 2009 and the company restructured itself to weather the recession by focusing on its China base and emerging markets, I found myself  in a marketing organization scaling back from the halycon days leading up to the Olympics. My focus on social media shifted to the formation of a digital marketing organization focused on delivering sales, and for the last six months I’ve been pushing string inside of the organization to re-focus Lenovo.com and deliver some value to a company in the midst of a profound transition to a new world of handheld mobile internet devices, slates, phones, etc..  This past spring a new CMO was brought in from HP to rebuild the brand.

All combined to make it the right time to move on.

What’s next? The cliche that I have irons in the fire is an understatement and I have a book or two I should be writing, I’m looking at cloud services, software and Web 2.0. I miss media, fraught with change as it is, but I won’t be rushing back into the hardscrabble margins of the PC hardware business.

Thanks go out to:

  • Deepak Advani, the Chief Marketing Officer who hired me in the fall of 2005  and gave me a huge amount of freedom to launch Lenovo’s corporate blogging program, transform web marketing, and in general be as creative as possible.
  • Bill Amelio, Lenovo’s former CEO, for emphasizing the new world order of conversational marketing, and seeing the value of a brand that listens and responds to its customers.
  • Glen Gilbert, Craig Merrigan, David Hill for their amazing creativity and willingness to take risks.
  • Gary Milner for being one of the smartest digital marketers I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
  • Ajit Sivadasan for being a partner in web marketing and an amazing force of nature unto himself.
  • Mark Hopkins, Nano Serwich, Matt Kohut for having a passion for blogging, social media and doing the right thing for the customer and the company.
  • Peter Hortensius, Fran O’Sullivan, Peter Gaucher, and Ninis Samuel for giving me the chance to watch a fascinating hardware development project up close.
  • Lenovo’s China team. Alice Li, Leon Xie, Elijah Degan, Cissy Yang and countless others for permitting me a glimpse into the most dynamic market in the history of the world.
  • Andrew Flanagan, Mark McNeilly, Jeff Shafer, Ray Gorman, Lisa Sonntag, Kevin Beck and all the great people in Lenovo marketing.
  • Steve Starkey — for a shared love of the Red Sox and for his friendship, advice, and counsel.
  • And my team: Vivian Young, Maureen Ahmad, Regina Leonard, Nano, Gavin — Esteban Panzeri (who left in February). We did some great things together.

Thanks to all for the well wishes.

The Year the Team Missed The Parade

Okay, so the Fourth of July water fight was getting a little out of hand but the baseball team started it, or actually the EPAC Grotto’s peeing clam float started it, but that’s my theory. The local landscape company towed a trailer the size of a tennis court behind a big dump truck and loaded it with the best college baseball teams in the country. Young men at the peak of their capabilities, armed with SuperSoakers the size of Iwo Jima flamethrowers and an endless supply of softball-sized water balloons, wreaking havoc down Main Street from the Kettle-Ho to the elementary school.

Someone was sure to get hurt. Some toddler diving for a piece of penny candy was going to get crushed beneath the trailer wheels like a fanatic hurling himself under the wheels of the legendary Juggernaut. Old ladies in lawn chairs were being rudely entered into a bad wet t-shirt contest that no one wanted to judge. We had to defend ourselves, and over the years the sidewalks were lined with garden hoses, pressure washers, water cannons and the war was on, escalating to the point that finally reason had to step in and say enough.

The Cotuit Kettleers sat out the 2010 Cotuit Fourth of July parade and the village was upset.

Would we take out our aggressions on the Mason’s Mariner Lodge, and do away with a dozen old men wearing white shirts and natty little aprons? Would the librarians get it next? What could be done? The omission of the boys of summer was the talk of the counter at the post office. We were mad. A ritual had been taken away from us.

The season had already opened in early June, when snowflakes still could be imagined in the rickety wooden bleachers in the shade along the third base line at Elizabeth Lowell Memorial Park, the gem of all the Cape Cod Baseball League’s ballparks, an oasis carved out of the pines and oaks a few hundred yards away from Cotuit Bay. Was this our year? Had coach Mike Roberts (UNC Chapel Hill’s coach from 1976 to 1998 and father of Oriole second baseman Brian Roberts) recruited a dugout full of superstars? It was impossible to tell. June was a difficult month, of rosters churned by the College World Series, the Super Regionals, Team USA try outs, and even the Major League scouts knew not to come with their radar guns as the college freshmen and sophomores made the wrenching transition from metal to wooden bats. The scouts would come, trying to answer the question we all asked:

Who would be the next major league superstars? They were out there, on the dusty basepaths and achingly green outfield. We knew they were out there, every summer revealed them to us. Chase Utley. Ron Darling. Mo Vaughn. Jason Varitek. Kevin Youkilis. Nomar Garciaparra. All had once stepped up to the plate, dove for liners, fumbled and stumbled for our ticket-free enjoyment on the hallowed grounds of Lowell Park. But who were they? We wouldn’t know for a few years, not realizing that the tanned pitcher who sold us our 50-50 raffle tickets in the stands would soon be standing on the mound at Wrigley or Petco or Fenway heaving heat on national television. What was clear was how blessed we were to be living in the town with the team that had won the most championships in the country’s most prestigious amateur baseball league, the league where the best of the best came to learn how to swing wood and get noticed by the scouts.

As the season progressed one learned to pick one’s place in the bleachers very carefully, to arrive precisely 45 minutes early while the basepaths were being hosed down and the coaches spraypainted new baselines. The musical cliches of the game blared through the PA – a weird playlist of country music, jump-around fist-pumping hip hop, and hair band anthems that we wished would just stop — and we all snickered at the interns behind the microphone who mispronounced “Cotuit” and referred to Cape Cod as “The” Cape Cod. Top row, back corner, brown paper sack of popcorn from the Kettleer’s Kitchen and a bottle of Poland Springs. Layout the scorecard, fill in the teams, the date, the names of the umps, the start time, and wait for the announcer to list the lineups. A few rows down, the founder of the dynasty, Arnold Mycock, for whom the Cape Cod Baseball League championship trophy is named, dean of the scorers, always presented early with the coaches’ lineups by an intern sent from the press box. Avoid sitting near the bozos — cell phone man who loudly calls his friends and always repeats the same silly cliches “…it’s the best wooden bat league in the country …,” anyone with kids under the age of ten, the Fountain of Misinformation who plaintively repeats over and over the obvious plea to the pitcher to “Throw Strikes.”

Rise for the National Anthem, cap over heart, as Nicky Chevalier takes the microphone out to home plate and we all look out to centerfield, the maroon (or is it Cranberry) uniformed Kettleers standing in a long line in front of their dugout, everyone’s eyes on the flag waving flaccid in the summer southwesterly breeze.

Play ball.

The pitcher superstitiously skips over the third baseline on his way to the mound. The umps and coaches swap line ups at home plate. The announcer reads the same script he’ll read at every game. The first pitch it thrown out by some account manager from Wells Fargo Private Wealth Advisors LLC. Their picture is taken with the catcher, they are handed the ball as a souvenir, the only one that will be given out as balls are too precious to give away blithely like they are in the majors. Shag a foul ball and return it to the red tent for a coupon to the Kettleer’s Kitchen.

And so it goes for 22 home games. The same routine, the same script, the same vista, the same rules, the same nine innings. But the players are all new. Few ever return for a second season. Yet instantly they become Our Team, their names gradually memorized through rote and repetition until they are as familiar as nephews at a family reunion.

Would this be the year? Cotuit hadn’t won the champs since 1999 and Coach Roberts didn’t have a title on his mantle yet. Bandy legged from years of hitting of swinging a fungo bat during batting practice, he gamely rises from the dugout and takes his place before us in the third base coach’s box, semaphoring hand signals and truly coaching his new charges in the art of Roberts Small Ball, a game of bunts and steals, and devious tricks like the mythical Hidden Ball Trick. His temper is wonderful to behold, a mixture of ferocious indignation and bewilderment over the genetic stupidity of umpires and the appalling rudeness of the visiting team’s fans, all philistines who should know when to sit down and shut up in the presence of his righteousness.

My scorebook gradually fills with the record of games won and lost. Exclamation points cryptically marking moments of greatness, moments uncaptured on film, lost in a park with no replay, no statisticians, no grotesque mascot dressed like a kettle. Sweat stains mark the heat waves. Mustard the hot dogs. Every page has a dogeared greasiness from the popcorn butter.

The girls in their summer clothes parade back and forth behind the dugout trying to catch a ballplayer’s eye. Vacationing bozos in Yankee caps self-consciously preen. Every foul ball into the parking lot where only a fool would park is greeted with a warning of “Heads Up!” and cheers as yet another windshield gets smashed with a spidery thunk and the line at the snack bar cowers and holds their hands over their heads.

The sailors from the yacht club arrive in the fourth inning, salt stained, barefoot and sunburned. “What’d I miss?” they ask. And I dutifully read back the highlights from the scorecard. “Bushyhead lined to third into a double play. Coach intimidated the visiting Meat into a balk. Yaz hit a dinger to center. And there’s a yellow jacket nest behind the the bathrooms that just attacked a herd of anklebiters and made them cry.”

The lack of a parade concerned us. Would it cast a dark cloud of bad luck on the home team?  Cotuit baseball fans fight all change. “The day they install lights is the day I stop coming.” But no parade? It was wrong. Something would happen and it wouldn’t be good.

It did happen. And it was good. Yesterday the Kettleers won the championship in a beautiful post-season run that saw them sweep their way into the finals against the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. I missed it, obligated to attend a meeting, but the game played on my phone, a little window of video that suddenly saw a flood of cranberry colored uniforms rush the mound, silent with the audio muted, a clutch of bouncing hopping happy young men surrounding a weathered coach with tears in his eyes.

from the Cape Cod Times

There won’t be any parade this year. In the 70s, when the Kettleers won a consecutive string of championships, the fans would drive up and down Main Street for an hour blaring their car horns. But last night the village was quiet, chilled with a harbinger of the fall to come, silent except for the emerging crickets.

There won’t be any parade this year. The players have scattered back home or back to college. Soon the Volvos and Range Rovers will file out of town, pink children’s bikes on their racks, back to what seems to be an earlier and earlier start of school every year. The skiffs will be hauled. The yacht club dock dismantled and stacked in the bushes. And the town will go quiet for nine months, waiting for them to return.

I’ve quoted it before, but I must quote it again, Bartlett Giamatti, late President of Yale, former commissioner of baseball, quoted in this summer’s baseball sermon by my friend (who also has sadly moved away) the Reverend Jeremy Nickel, quite possibly the saddest obituary of summer and baseball that I know:

[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”


Jerry Flint 1931-2010

The greatest part of my journalism career will always be the people I met in the newsrooms along the way, the old timers and crusty senior members of the masthead who would consistently display some courage or curmudgeonly craziness to inspire a young reporter. One of the greats will always be Forbes’ automotive editor, the great Jerry Flint, who passed away on Saturday, August 7 at the age of 79.

Jerry was the king of Detroit car reporters, covering the beat for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times before setting off on a 31-year career at Forbes. I best remember him for three things:

1. Convincing me in my first year at Forbes, when I was working out of an apartment in Boston as the “New England Bureau Chief” (a bureau of one, me), that I could expense my utilities and even a cleaning service through my monthly expense report. “Really? Gee!” and I took the bait, filing the receipts only to get called on the mat by my boss for being the Mark Hurd of Forbes in 1988. “But Jerry Flint said …”

2. After starting Forbes.com in 1995 the ad sales force was told to take me around to the big accounts to sell them sponsorships on this new thing called the World Wide Web. One of the first stops was Detroit, center of a lot of print ad pages back then, as GM was the magazine’s biggest account. I was hauled around the city (my first time there) by the ad guys and eventually taken to the offices of J. Walter Thompson to pitch the Lincoln account. Jerry was in town and used as a lever to get the meeting with the Lincoln execs. I had no idea the kind of clout he carried, but there I was, a “portable” projector in tow (the thing had wheels and a handle and weighed 50 pounds) and my Toshiba Satellite, and Jerry flies in, dapper as always, and the kow-towing began. I had no chance to make my pitch. We were taken into a windowless conference room, the table covered with ominous lumps shrouded in cloth.  Next year’s models were going to be unveiled to Jerry and the Lincoln designers were very nervous. As they unveiled one car after another, Jerry looked on, finally saying with a sarcastic smile, “Hell, they’ll always be cheap Cadillacs with big lumps on their asses, won’t they?”

3. On Nova, the PBS show, there was a documentary about America’s love affair with SUVs and minivans. Jerry made a cameo inside of some Soccer Mom Wagon, sitting in the back seat and popping open, one at a time, all the cup holders. When he got to 17 his point was made. “May drive like a shoe box but it holds a hell of a lot of Slurpees.”

Jerry was old school, but Jerry owned the car beat. As the New York Times obituary said this morning, he loved big noisy cars.  Here’s Forbes memorial.