The America’s Cup is Actually Interesting

I may be a traditionalist when it comes to racing sailboats — I like them wooden, leaky and gaff-rigged — and I have bitched about how the America’s Cup needs to come back to Newport, Rhode Island and be raced in those oh-so-elegant 12-meters of my youth. But after spending a rapt half hour on the couch with my tablet and a half-hour of coverage from San Francisco Bay I take it all back. AC-72 catamarans are amazing things.

Catamarans have the reputation of being the jet-skis of the sailing world. The people who sail them tend to be adrenaline freaks who zip back and forth looking for speed and little else. The boats point into the wind like square-riggers, require elbow and knee pads and a crash helmet, and beg to be sailed while yelling “yee-hah.” They entered the America’s Cup under desperate circumstances in 1988 when Dennis Conner showed up in one to kick New Zealand’s ass after they showed up in a 90-foot mega yacht and convinced a judge to uphold the move away from 12-meters as perfectly legal under the terms of the “Deed of Gift” — the rules that govern the strange and venerable competition. Dennis and his catamaran sailed circles around the New Zealanders, the credibility of the America’s Cup hit an all-time low, and all semblance of dignity went out the window. But catamarans were in.

Not that the America’s Cup was ever a fair fight. As my buddy Charlie points out, the name of the game has been getting a technical edge from the very beginning when the American’s sent an overpowered schooner over to England to kick the best butts in the Royal British Yacht Squadron. Half the battles have been in the courts, with challengers and defenders contesting the ambiguous rules every chance they get and giving full credence to the cliche of the “sea lawyer.” Winged-keels,  crews of ringers from foreign countries, billionaires with more bucks than brains … what’s not to love?

Whatever. I tip my hat to Larry Ellison for making it a total tech fest on Silicon Valley’s home waters. These boats represent the cutting edge of aquatic technology, use nothing but the wind to scream along at more than 35 mph, and thanks to overlaid graphics, helicopters, onboard Go-Pro helmet cams, and crazy color commentary that would be more in place in a UFC cage match, finally putting to rest Mark Twain’s old tired complaint that watching yacht racing is less exciting than watching paint dry or grass grow.

The US is behind — docked two races for cheating — and it’s do-or-die with them needing to win all of the remaining race to stay in the game.

The decline and dilution of the Byline

Consider the state of the byline. The name of a writer on top of an article or blog post isn’t enough anymore to let readers know the implied qualifications of that author  now that publishers are opening up their mastheads and page-views to unpaid contributors, consultants, thought-leaders and advertisers in what New York Times media critic David Carr recently called “an oven that makes its own food.”

Carr made that reference to Forbes.com and its decision to open its digital pages to external contributors, and in a brilliant revenue building move, to advertisers who pay to appear in an advertising channel Forbes calls BrandVoice, part of the current craze in digital advertising formats known as native advertising. Forbes isn’t the first nor the last online publisher to welcome contributions from witers other than their full-time staff of reports and editors. Nor is it the first to practice native  advertising, formerly known as “advertorial” or “custom” publishing. The Huffington Post was founded as a cacophony of bylines and voices, all vying for attention and traffic in the “look-at-me” economy. For publishers it’s a sweet deal, letting them become Tom Sawyers who persuade others to paint the fence for them.

Bylines haven’t always been a given in journalism. Jack Shafer, writing for Reuters in 2012, offers up the interesting historical note that General Joseph Hooker demanded reporters covering his campaigns during the Civil War put their names on their stories so he could hold them accountable.  Hooker insisted on bylines “as a means of attributing responsibility and blame for the publication of material he found inaccurate or dangerous to the Army of the Potomac.”

The purpose of a byline is to simply attribute a story to a writer: one part vanity, another part accountability. Bylines aren’t biographies of that writer, just a single three-word attribution (“By John Smith”)  that imply that the words and fact and opinions that follow were written by that person (Shafer writes about the proliferation of fake bylines flowing from off-shore content farms, but that’s another story for another day). In the dinosaur days of mainstream print journalism there was an unspoken sense that if a publication granted a byline to a staff writer then that writer had a certain validation as being judged competent and experienced enough to grace the publication’s masthead and pages.

A degree of professionalism in an unlicensed craft was assumed if the byline appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes or Time.  Earning a byline from the Boston Globe implied a different level of professional quality and experience than a byline in the MetroWest Shopper. In short, a byline was a writer’s equivalent to a doctor or lawyer tacking MD or JD onto their name. It was hard to earn but ultimately the only public recognition a reporter received. It took me a long time to earn a Forbes byline. Now any extroverted hyper-social networker with a craving for a high Klout score and a taste for LinkedIn/Quora influence points can start bloviating for free and walk away with “Forbes Columnist” on their resume.

Today the appeal of giving it away for free to Forbes is simple — it’s a great resume inflator. Now any aspiring expert can add Forbes to their resume and point to some digital clips as proof. The mounting number of would-be pundits on LinkedIn who proclaim themselves to be Forbes columnists or contributors reminds me of people who send away for mail order coats of arms.

You can call it the democratization of the press, the breaching of the walls of conceit that doomed dinosaur journalism, the wall that said “we’re better than you” when it came to publishing the reader’s letters of complaint and disagreement, the walls that said the only persons qualified to put a word on paper were those deemed qualified to do so by the editor who hired them and paid them. Mastheads were tough to crack — ask any young journalist in the late 1970s who dreamed of breaking into the Washington Post and getting a seat at the same table as Woodward and Bernstein. Those seats were rare and hard to obtain, Ben Bradlee didn’t hand them out to K-street lobbyists and Congressional staffers. Today? Hey, if you’re willing to work for free and can string some words together into a coherent sentence, preferably with a provocative, link-bait point of view, then publishers are more than happy to give you a shot at OpEd immortality.

In this blurry world of “content marketing and native journalism,” it is getting harder to tell the reporters from the advertisers. The wall between the journalism and the ads is coming down, and Carr and others (like Andrew Sullivan) are lamenting what we’ve lost. Sure, the money is nice and helping publishers make payroll (or avoid paying it) — and some graphical efforts are being made to fence off the advertorial native stuff with tinted boxes, hairlines and little “sponsored by” tags — but the blurring issue is out there and it isn’t so much about segregating the paid words from the “real” words, it’s about the qualifications of the byline as well.

Bylines are a relatively new phenomenon in journalism. They rarely appeared in 19th century newspapers, and indeed many writers used pen-names to mask their identity, particularly on political polemics. Thomas Paine, in writing Common Sense, one of the most influential calls-to-revolution in the years leading up to the American Revolution, chose to mask his identity and byline the work as merely: “Written by an Englishman.”

As correspondents began to make a name for themselves and were prime draws for a newspaper during the lurid days of yellow journalism, when war correspondents like Richard Harding Davis and Ambrose Bierce were the stars of the press, bylines were marketing devices to build circulation. Some magazines don’t grant bylines at all: The Economist is the best known practitioner of the anonymous policy.

I’ve freelanced under pseudonyms — I got hired by Forbes when I wrote a try-out story about digital mapping in 1988 under a bogus name because I didn’t want my then-current employer to know (that story won second place in the Computer Press Association awards in 1988, so the validity of the byline didn’t have much to do with its credibility, though it was indeed a tacit deception on my part and Forbes’ on their readers. )I have ghostwritten books, and continue to freelance edit and write assorted articles and whitepapers anonymously for a few clients in the consulting and corporate world. They evidently like my assistance due to my background in the professional press, and I like the fees they pay. There are a lot of ex-journalists like me turning a good buck writing corporate journalism these days and I don’t begrudge them a penny.

The point of all of this is that the editorial authority of the old stalwarts is gone like their paper editions. They’re trading on fading memories of being brands that stood for something important but are losing their mojo to Buzzfeed and TMZ. Newsweek? Dead. Businessweek? Sold for a dollar to Bloomberg. Forbes? Still alive and flourishing thanks to its experimentation, but still attracting the ire of the Times and other media critics for pushing the limits and definitions of the first medium to get truly disrupted and overthrown by the digital revolution.

With the Red Sox, nothing is a sure thing

The Red Sox bandwagon is officially rolling. The checkout lady at the grocery store told me “Go Sox” yesterday and the simple fact that I am screaming at the television set late in the games is a leading indicator that post-season fever is building.

It was with some superstition that I saw this post-season probabilities chart on MLB.com that give the Sox a 100% chance of making the post-season. Sorry, but the magic number is down to 12 to keep Tampa out and dependent on the wild card. Nothing is 100%, especially since the Sox set the record for the worst September meltdown in the history of the game back in 2011, the season of beer and chicken.

Yet here is proof some statistical, Monte Carlo simulating fool thinks the Red Sox are a sure thing. Bring on the Rays and I have tickets for Friday’s game against the Yankees at home:

sox

Three Books I’d Like to Write But Won’t

Book writing pays about a nickel an hour, so other than inflating one’s resume in this modern attention economy, why bother? Anyway, here’s three non-fiction book ideas that should be written but won’t be written by me:

1. The Seedy Underbelly of the Internet: someone needs to get into the semi-sleazy, ethically challenged, weird world of spammers, hate bloggers, affiliate marketers, SEO whores, search toolbar installers, pay-per-posters, belly-fat miracle advertisers that buzz away on the edges of the noblest ambitions of the Interwebs. This is the desperate world of the grifters who exploit every technical advance and loophole from permalinks and trackbacks to page rank and SERP. They are work-at-homers, con men and women who produce garish content-marketing blogs, conduct seminars on how you too can make a stack of cash from Facebook and Twitter, whoring out your content link blog, and play the affiliate marketing game. They put pictures of girls with cleavage on their fake avatars, invite you to be their LinkedIn friend, then send you a message extolling their polystyrene packaging plant in South Korea. They scrape your blog posts and call them their own. They run automated spam bots that write semi-coherent comments on your blog. They pick epic flame battles with other scammers and revel in being hated. These are the true geniuses of precision marketing.

I get depressed just thinking about researching that one.

blogger

2. Conference Whore: if I were a rich man, and had nothing to do all day, I would spend my time attending a full year’s worth of conferences and idea-fests like Davos, Burning Man, Demo, TED, a Microsoft Sharepoint convention in New Orleans, SIGGRAPH, Le Web, Forrester Consumer Experience, DrupalCon, CES …… A life spent in airport lounges, business class, fancy golf resorts on the edge of San Diego, Palm Springs, Tahoe, a world of registration tables, name tags hung around the neck, keynotes, panel discussions, calls to raise my hand if I’ve ever …., breakout sessions, hashtags and live-tweeting, questions from the audience (please wait for the microphone), networking events, happy hours, breakfast buffets, bio breaks. This would amazingly depressing — a year on the road tracking the idea circuit, a perpetual junket in the weird alternate reality of the face-to-face event. To make it doubly depressing, combine Conference Whore with the Underbelly pitch and do nothing but attend sleazy marketing seminars on how to make a million buying domain names ….

The year of living at conferences would be very unhealthy, probably worth 25 pounds in ass fat and would probably lead to some sort of psychological warping.

(search for “conference badges” on Flickr. Tara Hunt is amazing)

badges

3. Ziff Knew Weeds: The rise of the tech press in the 70s and 80s hasn’t been written, but should, before the original old guard passes away.  The title comes from my ex-boss, the late Bill Ziff, who was a super smart eccentric polymath who legend had it would strike up bizarre conversations with his employees about roadside weeds (he was an accomplished amateur botanist) .

From the first newletters and enthusiast bibles, to breakthrough pieces like Stewart Brand in Rolling Stone, the battling empires of Pat McGovern and Bill Ziff for dominance of the PC industry through PC World vs. PC Magazine, PC Week vs InfoWorld, MacWorld vs. MacWeek, Computerworld, Computershopper, Release 1.0 ….. the power of the tech press, a blend of geeks and old newspaper hacks and the sleazy tactics they deployed from dumpster diving in Silicon Valley to read Apple’s trash to bribing teen-age printers apprentices in Iowa with t-shirts to cough up the first copies of IBM’s user manuals, partying with Bill Gates at Comdex, refereeing epic pissing matches between boy wonders who would go onto become the richest men in the world, snorting coke in the review lab on deadline night …. The tech press of Boston and Silicon Valley chronicled the wild birth of an industry that changed the world, until they were waylaid by the Internet and put out of work by a new crop of gossipping gadget bloggers.

 

Anyway – there’s three free book ideas for anyone with the patience and gumption to tackle them.

Indoor Rowing Makes It to the Big Leagues

It was only a matter of time before the exercise-cultists discovered the rowing machine, aka “ergometer”, aka “erg.”  I wondered why the concept of group rowing classes haven’t taken off — Chris Ives sort of pioneered the concept in the 90s, Swiss sculler Xeno Mueller has a devoted following out of his studio in Newport Beach, Josh Crosby breathed a new life into the Water Rower (the stylish piece of furniture rowed by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) and now, thanks to Crossfit, the wheel-of-pain has come into its own as the flavor of the month for gym rats seeking the next big thing to go along with their smart wristbands and perpetual search for the new and different.

While it would be tempting to point at the Sunday New York Times Style Section article as either the moment in time when ergs came into their own …. or jumped the shark, it is good to see the misunderstood, much maligned erg make its debut in the national press as something other than a weird thing used by masochists.

You can read the piece here.

Here’s where Crossfit gets credit for taking the erg out of the boathouse and into the gym:

“Why the surge in popularity? Thank CrossFit — and nearly everybody selling indoor rowing does. That craze’s high-intensity strength and conditioning workouts sometimes require ergs, and CrossFit offers rowing certification for instructors. Some CrossFit boxes, as the gyms are called, offer temporary homes for group indoor rowing start-ups as they already have the machines and the space.”

My Yale buddy and fellow-rower Mike Ives gets a prominent mention in the piece:

“And on a steamy recent Tuesday at the West Side Y.M.C.A. in Manhattan, Michael Ives, 55, a former Yale rower (toting the gold medal he and his team had recently won at the Henley Masters Regatta in England) had to turn away some 10 hopefuls from one of his evening classes.

“I don’t think it’s a case of misery loves company,” Mr. Ives said. “It feels good, and it sounds good,” he added, referring to the rhythmic, almost meditative, whooshing of all of the ergs moving in unison. His class — pioneered by his younger brother Chris, widely credited with being the first to offer indoor group rowing, in 1995 — is a polished version of what crew teams might do off-season. There is no music, only the sound of Mr. Ives’s preternaturally calm voice offering pacing instructions.”

NYTimes: Hollywood’s Tanking Business Model

http://nyti.ms/17JGhdU

An interesting observation in a piece in the New York Times about Hollywood’s Summer of Flops (Lone Ranger, etc.) that states the obvious but is worth keeping in mind during this era of severe “digital disruption:”

“The instinct to retrench and overemphasize strategies that have worked in the past is a common problem in companies as they get bigger and have more to lose, particularly as technologies change. Polaroid and BlackBerry doubled down on their time-tested formulas despite market changes, suggesting that this behavior can undermine even the most successful companies. “The more successful and larger they become, the more antibodies they develop to doing anything new,” said Alan MacCormack, a Harvard Business School professor. “

“Because persuading an industry’s largest companies to experiment is challenging, smaller and more entrepreneurial companies are usually tasked with figuring out the next-generation business model.”

The biggest impediment to innovation is an installed base (to paraphrase Mitch Kapor), and management strategy consultants have made bank for decades advising the CEOs of the biggest companies on how to make the transition from an ailing cash cow to a refreshed, innovative stance that will drive growth and defend against upstart startups without the baggage of the old cow. The problem is, other than Apple’s resurrection by the Second Coming of Jobs, and the Gerstner rebuilding of IBM from big iron to big services …. what old brands have managed to deliver a second act?

The obvious solution for a lumbering dinosaur sitting on a big mound of money is to buy the next-generation start-ups and develop a sort of internal VC radar to identify the hot upstarts out on the edges of the industry and simply buy their IP and talent. The internal skunkworks model of delivering breakthrough innovation (innovation in my book is invention made commercial) may have worked at Lockheed and a few other rare cases, but these are dire times for big players, most of whom are watching formerly dominant players in mobile — Nokia and Blackberry — blow marketshare dominance down to the point of single digit irrelevance in a matter of two or three years.

It’s silly to try to oversimplify the reasons for big organization sclerosis, but in my experience it has more to do with organizational design, governance, quarter-to-quarter focus on earnings, and the self-preservation instincts of incumbent senior leadership. In other words, it’s not about ideas or magic insights, it’s about behavior and bureaucracy and the terror of possibly failing.

Thriving in a ‘PC-plus’ world: An interview with Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing | McKinsey & Company

http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/thriving_in_a_pc-plus_world

Great interview from June by McKinsey’s Gordon Orr and Rik Kirkland  with Lenovo Chairman/CEO Yang Yuanqing. Genuinely great leader who was part of the original Lenovo crew from the mid-80s.  Probably the tech sector rock star, their version of our Bill Gates/Michael Dell rolled into one.

He makes some key points about Lenovo’s rise to #1 in the sagging PC industry.

1. The company followed a “protect and attack” strategy of protecting its enterprise/commercial business in the west while attacking in emerging markets, particularly Brazil and India through acquisitions and organic growth.

2. It diversified out of PCs into mobile early and has been a scrappy player inside of China’s fierce smartphone market.

3. It isn’t reluctant to invest in R&D to differentiate its products.

4. Being Number One is a self-fulfilling brand builder, as he put it: everyone knows the name of the tallest mountain in the world, but what’s the name of the second tallest?

yangyuanqinglenovo

What I’m reading, Labor Day weekend

My fellow Kettleer fan and baseball wiseman Jim D. loaned me “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey” by Edward Achorn. Faithful readers know my guilty pleasure is reading baseball books and this has been one of the best, introducing me to the history of the game in its earliest years after the Civil War, focusing on the 1883 pennant race between the St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics. The title is appropriate. Some players were drunks, syphilitics, cheats, brawlers, racists and stars. All were colorful and all were hard men — playing barehanded, pitching until their arms could pitch no more, crashing through fences, and fighting for room to play in outfields mobbed with spectators.

The game was coming out of a low period of gambling and cheating., but showmen such as St. Louis owner Chris von der Ahe knew how to repackage the game for the working man by playing on their only day off (Sunday) and serving beer (he owned a bar and brewery). The result was the birth of the national pastime.

Second up, Alec Wilkinson writes about Cape Cod’s Great White Sharks in the September 9 issue of The New Yorker.  Shark porn is an industry unto itself, fueling the annual Shark Week, weirdness like Sharknado, and other oddities that play to whatever deep horror we have about the evils of the deep. I have a family member who has some sort of amazing Bloomberg terminal alert set to shark attacks, and not a day goes by without some forwarded link to a horror story about a decapitated abalone fisherman. Bottom line: “Don’t get out of the boat.”

Wilkinson tells the story about how Great Whites have always been around the Cape, killing a teenager in the 30s in Mattapoisett, freaking out Henry David Thoreau during his walk down the peninsula, and now coming back in droves to a diner stocked with a ton of grey seals who are booming thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that made it highly illegal for commercial fishermen to keep their population down with an onboard .30-.30.

The piece focuses on the Ocearch expedition that just wrapped up its second summer off of Monomoy Island catching and tagging Great Whites aboard a specially equipped former Bering Sea crabber.  I printed out a copy from the New Yorker’s horrible digital edition and my son and I spent a happy half hour reading it together, me handing over each page to him as I finished them.