Spam Ruminations

The conviction of two North Carolina brothers for spamming AOL users with a fraudulent “FedEx Return Processing” work-at-home scheme is welcome news. The sentence, which includes jail time, was decried by the spammer’s attorney as cruel and unusual, but may serve as the head on a pike for other would be e-morons.

The legal process is serving up a few prosecutions but according to Techweb, Can-Spam isn’t doing the job, citing data by MX Logic that compliance in July fell to less than one percent. Unlike the Do Not Call registry — which is turning into a more accurate representation of Americans than the Census — Can-Spam and various state initiatives to put the lid on spam are fighting the Sisyphean reality that most spam has, or will, move offshore.

The Russian lonely-hearts scam described in Tuesday’s New York Times is a classic.

For the past year I’ve subscribed to a spam filtering service called MessageFire which acts as a POP3 go-between. The service is remarkably good at nailing most spam, but is now commercially unavailable to new consumer subscribers following an acquisition that positions the product as a corporate solution. Still, it can’t filter image-spam – which for the most part is HTML-formatted GIFs of people bumping uglies.

The point of all this is that the arm of the law and the arms race of technology are never going to have an impact on spam. What will turn the tide in favor of the consumer is their rejection – as resoundingly ratified by the embrace of the Do Not Call Registry – of intrusive marketing tactics. Marketers who continue to view pop-ups, pop-unders, telemarketing, junk mail, and spam as statistical shotguns are doomed. Publishers who host such crap, who underestimate the intelligence of their audience, are condemned to irrelevance.

VC off sharply in New England

The Boston Globe reports
on the third-quarter MoneyTree survey of national venture capital activity that the region had a steep drop in venture financing in the third quarter: down 57% from the second quarter, compared to a national decline of 26%.

Divining the reasons is difficult as the summer quarter is traditionally the slowest for v.c. activity in any region. The question is what is driving the region so much lower than the rest of the country? My sense is that IT investment opportunities – the traditional bedrock of the region – have all but dried up. If the early 90s were driven by networking startups founded by displaced minicomputer engineering talent tossed on the street by the extinction of the dinosaurs at DEC, Wang, Data General, et al – Stratacom, Chipcom, etc. – the early part of this decade hasn’t seen the talent spinoffs expected from the region’s early strengths in search services. Alta Vista and Lycos in particular did not cast off much of a halo effect, and the dot.com froth seemed particularly harsh up in Andover as CMGI flailed through its last stages as an investment holding company before being reborn under George McMillan out of the ashes of an incubator into a focus on supply chain management via SalesLink.

The VCs in the region have traditionally been the more sober members of the species, exemplified by firms such as Charles River Ventures which steered clear of the dot.coms and focused on companies such as Parametric. I sense that with a lot of overhang from uninvested funds, the region’s VCs are following two strategies: one, if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything; and second, if you can’t spend what you have, don’t raise more.

The transition from an IT/software technology economy to the life sciences is the big regional story. Lifesciences startup salaries are the highest in the nation in New England, and where the talent goes, so goeth the dollars. Indeed, as the MoneyTree survey reports, the largest percentage of the third quarter funding activity went into the life sciences.

Communities of blogs?

Can anyone point me towards a community model for “bloggers of a feather” — an umbrella community that sits over a group of bloggers with the same special interest

Here’s the scenario. For the last 9 years I’ve been running a site for saltwater fly fishermen — Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Fly Fishing — which began as an experiment in niche publishing focused on community. The 7,500 + users have flocked around a straight-forward threaded forum system (vBulletin) , generating a hundred postings per day.

There seems to be a good opportunity to introduce a blogging model so each can maintain their own content.

Pointer appreciated.

Another reason why I left daily journalism …

Newspapers – especially local rags – occasionally display flashes of brilliance but can be counted on to do the wrong thing every time when given the chance.

Today’s controversy over the Boston Herald running a bloody front page color photo of a dying coed, shot in the eye by a “pepper ball” during a fan riot outside of Fenway Park has sparked the usual hand wringing and reader outrage over the tabloid stooping lower than usual. Pissing on the city’s Red Sox love-fest with front-page bummer art will call on the shrieking handwringers faster than dissing the archdiocese.

Reporting on death was, for me at least, the single worst thing about being a reporter. Knocking on the door of the home of some family man killed in a car crash with the single mission of getting a photo for the story was painful enough, but doubtlessly the most ugly moment in my career was waking up a woman who’s son had been clipped and killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking home from hockey practice in the dark the night before. No one had notified her. The cops messed up. So I found myself on her door step at 6 am delivering the news.

That’s when I decided to switch from dailies to the technology trades.

PCs don’t bleed.

The general idiocy and reputation erosion of the newspaper industry has grown ever more stark as they try to blunder through their online strategies. Prohibiting deep linking, forcing useless “free” registration, and then doing their best to annoy with pop-ups and pop-unders is evidence of their conviction that somehow, somewhere, the public should and will be screwed. I fought pop-ups at a former online provider who shall go unnamed, but lost due to a moron from circulation who heard it was a great way to build print subscription at a Magazine Publisher’s Association symposium. Same employer also bought into one of the most moronic technologies ever inflicted … but that’s another story for another time.

Hey, the first duty of a free press is to turn a profit, but annoying, aggravating, shocking and disgusting the public is no way to insure one.

Current Projects

I’m ghosting a book on outsourcing strategies for IT executives with a team of analysts and consultants at Gartner. Tight deadline, so this one is eating most of my time. Manuscript due at Harvard Business School Press in three weeks.

Then onto a long-delayed project I started at McKinsey on the history and strategic implications of technology standards (Beta vs. VHS, Windows vs. OS/2, railroad track gauges, etc.) while simultaneously beginning a book on self-surgery (people who trepan their own skulls, amputate their own limbs, and attempt their own sex changes). Then finishing a private history of a Boston rowing club (an exercise in procrastination.)

Developing a business plan for a service company serving the online newspaper publishing market.
Consulting to an environmental bio startup here on Cape Cod.

And the usual steady diet of freelance assignments, etc.

Gartner Symposium

I’m writing from Gartner’s ITExpo Symposium in Orlando this week, here to follow the outsourcing/offshoring tracks to gather string for a book I am ghosting for a trio of Gartner analysts and consultants on the subject.

Gartner’s new CEO, Gene Hall, ex-CIO of Automatic Data Processing, McKinsey director, and general wunderkind was unveiled this morning as he introduced the keynote sessions. Hall gave an upbeat presentation to the assembled horde of CIOs and their direct reports, most provocatively telling them the winds of change that are messing up their best laid plans is not coming from the technology but from the consumer side, where insatiable appetites for innovation and device-independent delivery is having the greatest effect on their businesses.

The keynote presentation – by five Gartner analysts – was on software operating architectures – promulgating the view that IT strategy has to get in synch or ahead of business strategy or continue to lag and disappoint. With CIOs under heavy heat from the bottom line of their businesses (and many find themselves at the feet of a yet another c-level exec, the newly born IT CFO) after the spending binges brought on by Y2K terror and e-business conversions five years ago, they have to do something, and fast, to dispel the seminal Harvard Business Review article by Nicholas Carr that IT Doesn’t Matter.

The answer, according to the Gartner panel, is “agility”, to achieve some nimbleness in IT planning and execution by isolating business processes, sourcing them better, and having IT take off its white coat and leave the Big White Room to participate more in business strategy.

I think, given the shifts in IT theory these past few years – from IT as the basis of transformation, to IT as the “lights-on table stakes” for staying in business — that we’re in for a massive change in IT management and spending. Already more than half the $1.3 trillion annual spend is spent outside of the organization, and as more CEOs come back from their CEO confabs telling their leadership councils that “they have to outsource and offshore everything”, the acceleration out to external service providers will increase dramatically.

Give the offshoring issue another month and it will go away after the elections to be replaced by security and intellectual property preservation as the top issues in taking work offshore. Jobs and trade barriers always rise to the top of the shrill meter of political rhetoric during elections, but the substantive concerns going forward are going to be security and risk, not jobs.

More on sourcing theory and trends later.

In general, mood is upbeat, so I’ll presuppose that IT spending is loosening up for many in the crowd.

I’ll skip the Scott McNealy keynote and spend my afternoon grinding away on the book.

Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes

In this political season, Tip O’Neill’s observation that all politics are local struck me when I received an email last night alerting me and about 50 other neighbors to a developer’s efforts to build condominiums on a small lot in our quaint Cape Cod village.

The impact of email on local activism has been huge in the last year, with calls to arms being issued for opposition to piers in the crowded bay, a proposed wind farm in the center of Nantucket Sound, and other issues, which in years past, would have required phoning, petitions, and public meetings where the opposing side would have had little, if any, concerted strategy.

The availability of online petition services such as icount and ipetitions is a tool for local activists has the potential to transform the red-faced shouting of town meetings and other anachronisms of New England democracy into a much smoother process. For Wal-Mart haters, the tools are powerful – the issue is whether local officials and regulators will give them any credence.

Kick Off

“As a former reporter – 13 years at Forbes, four at PC Week, four at daily newspapers – I still have a verbal itch to scratch, and this is the leg of the couch I choose to do it on.”

Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes et aegro in corde senescit. – Juvenal

Juvenal wrote that an incurable itch for scribbling [cacoethes scribendi] takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breast.

Oliver Wendell Homes wrote: “So many foolish persons are rushing into print, that it requires a kind of literary police to hold them back and keep them in order.”

It is said that 12,000 so-called blogs are launched every day. Here’s yet another.

In the mid-90s such efforts as these were known as “online diaries.” The late Suck.com had its way with them back in 1996.

“These gonzo journal-ists
scattered the contents of their
lives across the information
highway and now simply wait for
rubberneckers to crane for a
view of the twisted wreckage of
their minds …”

Having succumbed to the “tipping point” meme of this political silly season I gave in and set up an RSS feed reader and subscribed to those blogs commended as the best and brightest. Sigh. The reader – SharpReader — notifies me in ever-more-irritating popups, of new postings from everybody from the New York Times to some guy named Fred – all pig-piling onto the latest newsflash like word paparazzi. The good stuff, the focused stuff, shows some real reporting, and is not someone’s bloviations on current events.

So what’s my point in greasing the ways, knocking out the chocks, and swinging the champagne bottle against the prow of my ship?

Boredom, a cluttered mind, and a terminal case of cacoethes scribendi.

As a former reporter – 13 years at Forbes, four at PC Week, four at daily newspapers – I still have a verbal itch to scratch, and this is the leg of the couch I choose to do it on.