Halo 2 Ships, Teen Productivity to Plummet

There was some after-school drama around the Churbuck household yesterday afternoon, the official ship date of Halo 2, the second version of the first-person X-Box shooter which has dominated the minds of my two sons for the past two years.

Having pre-ordered via Amazon the long delayed second version of the game for the two over a year ago, I have been receiving shipment updates, not from Amazon or the game’s developer – Bungie – but from my ten year-old who has been anticipating the game with the impatient anxiety that used to be reserved for Christmas. His reaction yesterday, the first official day the game was available, when he learned the game had not arrived in the daily mail was on the order of magnitude one would expect from the accidental amputation of a limb or the death of the hamster.

The eldest has already declared that he intends to shut the blinds and eschew college applications and all school work until he dominates the game and explores all of its dark corners. The two natter on at the dinner table about rumored new weapons, aliens, battle tactics and plots like CIA analysts going over satellite photographs.

The USPS package tracking site has been refreshed with the invoice number about a thousand times over the past 12 hours. The news that the disc has left Springfield, Massachusetts and is somewhere on the Massachusetts Turnpike, on its way to Cape Cod, was the cause of more teeth grinding this morning, with demands that if it does not appear in the Cotuit post office by the end of the school day that I will drive to the local game merchant and part with another $50 to get a copy into their sweaty palms by nightfall, before the commencement of tomorrow’s school holiday (Veteran’s Day).

I can find no historical parallels of anticipation and anxiety in my own adolescence. No movie, book, comic, or other entertainment event ever worked me into as much of a lather as this single game has foamed up my sons.

Anyone who has questions about the future of media and entertainment needs to understand the joys of walking around in a virtual world with a rocket launcher and blasting the stuffing out of a virtual sibling while screaming smack-talk.

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.