Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Trump, Escalation, and a Taoist View of Political Extremism

So I've been sitting here listening to Donald Trump say more vile things about Hispanic people. His latest truthy newsflash is that there've recently been a couple of high-profile rapes allegedly perpetrated by our 12 million Mexican immigrants. See? He told you they were mostly rapists! Meanwhile, I wonder what atrocities were committed by our 536 billionaires over the same period, and what their deportation threshold ought to be.

My compulsion is to groan "what an asshole." I know a very large number of Hispanic immigrants, and never met one who didn't exemplify the hard-working, honest, family-oriented values America always proudly claims for itself but (like much else in American life) has long outsourced to its immigrants.

The Africans, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans, the Asians, and now the Hispanics represent an unbroken chain demonstrating the best American values (while also serving as the perennial backbone of the nation's commerce). And as the baton's been passed from group to group, the majority's never failed to shit upon every one of them*. When we "crown thy good with brotherhood", it inevitably involves a hard-swung baseball bat to the skull.

* - Africans to an entirely distinct degree, no doubt.

People who say nasty things about immigrants always seem to be those who are out of touch with real live immigrants; they traffic in cartoon caricatures (much as Libertarians tend to be sheltered types who don't know actual poor people). There's undoubtedly a lot of plain old ugly prejudice here, plus metric tons of pandering demagoguery on Trump's end (he's also been going on about how awesome the bible is). But I once observed that "just because people keep proposing really bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem." I feel less inclined these days to dismiss assholes out of hand as aberrations from Planet Asshole. I suppose I'm getting more Taoist; one extreme always leads to another. It's helpful to cultivate a reflex to cast one's focus on what preceded; immoderate reciprocal pendulum swings are the way of human society, and they never come from nowhere.

I am as pro-immigrant and pro-Hispanic as I imagine it's possible to be. And yet the Left's way of framing immigration often infuriates me. But, alas, I can't discuss it. Now that Trump's spewed his filth, it would feel wrong for me to say "Yes, he's an asshole, but..." That's a trope that's never tolerated by the left. He's a Bad Man saying Bad Things, period. Full stop. One may proceed no further.

The Right does the same. Remember after the 9/11 attacks, how people were trying to fathom the mindset, and some even dared speculate about political causes? They were shouted down and vilified. No. The terrorists were Bad, period. Full stop. One may proceed no further.

Yet we live in a cause/effect world; everything comes from something. Stupid angry people always have a kernel of a point, even when that kernel is almost totally obscured and corrupted. Our national divide is stoked by policing on both sides against soul-searching. Bad People Saying Bad Things are beyond the pale. We must bombastically and utterly shout them down. Never pause to consider!

And I understand this! What, after all, would be my reaction to someone who'd start a discussion with "Y'know, Hitler actually had a few decent ideas..."? There's an undeniable visceral sense that we must summarily reject that which is beyond the pale, not engage with it. No amount of careful repudiation can excuse whatever's about to be spoken. The person is marked as someone not worth listening to.

I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum. If I did, I'd tell you how I think the Left's immoderate stance preceded the Right's escalation to Crazyville. But there's just way too much ugliness, prejudice and general cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs tied up in it for me to repudiate all that before spelunking out anything thoughtful. I don't want to get any of that on me! So I'll take the lazy route and join the chorus yelling at Trump and the nativist belligerent meatheads he's so skillfully pandering to. What an asshole...

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Circle of Human Folly

If I could tweak just one line of code in the human operating system, it would be the one which instills the bizarre conviction that recognition of stupidity makes one superior.

Human folly is a given. The recognition of this spurs a period of disillusionment we all must undergo, i.e. adolescence. But the perfectly obvious next realization - that none of us is exempt - escapes even the brightest among us, fueling pedantism, racism, sexism, and most other -isms, and even makes us lousy investors.

The failure to follow up recognition of human folly with a humbling jolt of self-awareness fuels a vicious circle of folly. The entire mechanism can be clearly seen by observing that most people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Zero Interest For 15 Months

Notes Andrew Tobias:
ZERO INTEREST FOR 15 MONTHS
Chase generally gets good JD Power ratings as a decent credit card provider to deal with . . . and currently offers a card with 0% interest for the first 15 months and no transfer fee if, within 60 days, you use the card to pay off your balances on other cards. (Normally, the catch in those 0% offers you see all the time is a 3% transfer fee.) It’s all described here, and worth a look if you, or someone you love, needs help paying off high-interest credit card balances.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Note to a Dying Friend

I heard you're not doing so well, and I wanted to offer a pep talk.

In your lifetime, you've had times where your body didn't work well, or your mind wasn't its sharpest. Your mind and your body have constantly changed. But over all those 90+ years, one thing never changed: it's always been the exact same guy looking out of your eyes. The same silent presence.

The world has been in constant change, and your mind and body have constantly changed. But that presence - the silence peering out of your eyes - has never wavered for as long as you can remember.

That's you. You are the silent thing that never changes. You never change; everything just changes around you.

That silent hum will, as always, continue, steadily. It's solid. It's the only solid thing! It was never born and will never die. Your mind and your body, which have always changed and transformed, will continue to do so. Fuck 'em.

I'd suggest you not get overly wrapped up in drama. You are not the drama. Changes are observed by you; they don't happen to you. You are the untouchable silence; the humming presence. You are the good stuff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Political Prayer

Please join me in praying for a Trump vs Sanders election.

Two guys actually speaking their minds, instead of controlled robots spouting canned mush! It'd feel like salve, even though I disagree with both their politics, and think Trump's an ass. The dueling outer boroughs accents would just be icing on the cake.

If I get the chance, I'll vote for the newest candidate to enter the field, Lawrence Lessig (here's his statement). I think he's right that the issue of money in politics precedes all other problems (for example, climate change will never be addressed unless we ease the chokehold of billionaires on politics).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Frickin' Chuck Schumer

I'm angry that Chuck Schumer went the wrong way in choosing to oppose the Iran deal (that said, if the deal gets killed, and we're forced to choose between a nuclear Iran and an Iran invasion, I'll be apoplectic with him).

I'm even angrier that his week spent supposedly studying the agreement turned out to be a week of holding his finger up to the political winds (i.e. watching how his state's many Jews fall out on the issue).

And I'm absolutely furious that this Harvard grad, with personal access to John Kerry and the other negotiators, was unable to properly inform himself about the deal.

As for the deal itself, the Daily Show nailed it by showing video of Netanyahu warning that the deal means Iran might be in a position to build nuclear weapons "within 10 or 15 years", and contrasting it with video from 2012 where he warned that, a year hence, it'd be "only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched Uranium for the first bomb". No one paying attention needed the show's video archive savants to highlight this fundamental irrationality, but it says everything you need to know.



And, to tie it all together, I doubt it's coincidence that frickin' Chuck Schumer announced his long-awaited decision the day after Stewart retired.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Epilogue

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Several people have described my "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" tale as a classic case of "Founder's Syndrome"...an inability to let go, manifested by endless peevish frustration with "the idiots who took over my company".

Perhaps it's true. But I don't think so. As I stressed repeatedly in the series, I completely expected the new owners to do as they liked. I expected the operation to change. I expected the promises made to me not to be kept, and my suggestions to be disregarded even though they'd hired me on, ostensibly to run things. Above all, I expected changes in the name of profitability, with insensitive regard for the quality of the resource (though I have warned, all along, that the quality of the resource is crucial to its profitability; there are lots of places to randomly squawk about restaurants, but Chowhound's value - the lure for its traffic and the basis for its wide public recognition - has always been in the startling expertise of its contributors).

I've also heard, over the years, from a number of entrepreneurs, both massive and modest, who've described this series as a painfully accurate depiction of what we go through. Of course, this may just represent confirmation bias from like-minded whiney control freaks - my fellow sufferers of Founder's Syndrome!

So which is it? Is it that founders maintain a rigid, narrow-minded view of what's best for their creations, or that things tend to go south once founders sell out?

I think the answer can be found in the distinction I've often returned to, between creative and non-creative people. Founders are creative types able to make something from nothing. Corporations are vehicles for relentless management of Something. Ideally, the two would constitute a symbiotic yin/yang, and, indeed, the standard course is for the former to launch and the latter to acquire (it's very rare for founders to remain in charge as their companies mature; Zuckerberg's a mutant).

As I wrote a few installments back:
The best route for creative people with business impulses (or vice versa) is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pudpuds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it.
Both sides screw up when they encroach too far on the other's territory. I am absolutely a poster child for the woes of a creative founder hitting a wall after sticking around too long. With some funding, I might have instituted the revenue scheme on my own early on. But I lacked the funds and the time, and that's on me (though, in my defense, I was perennially being drowned by relentless scaling). I should have been talking to investors (learning to polish my shoes, to carefully modulate my voice, and to project gravitas), when I was mostly freaking out about the latest spammer, or getting the newsletters out on time. But, as I've explained, there's a point where you're so locked into daily overhead that the marginal time to push ahead disappears.

I make a terrible pudpud, and CNET made a terrible creative founder. I stuck around too long and, paradoxically, they jumped in too early. The operation suffered from my poor pudpud skills as well as from CNET's poor creative skills.

The pass-off was the problem. If my boss - who mistakenly fancied himself as highly creative - was a few notches less cocky, realizing his limitations, as I understood my own - he'd have left the creativity to the creative and motivated founder he'd hired, and supported with the tools, skills, and funds I lacked. And I'd have gladly passed the result on to him to manage. And he'd have done a fine job with it, as would have CBS. Sure, it would have degraded, but it wouldn't have rankled me. Again: I went in expecting degradation! I had no illusions.

Instead, bad creativity was injected, and corporations, which are not vehicles for deep vision, have flailed in their attempts to undo and redo. And since that's my skill set, it's been awfully tough for me to watch from the sidelines.

A prescient version of this entire arc was posted by a blogger named John Wilson, shortly after Chowhound was sold. Noticing my sole public gasp of exasperation, he wrote:
Oh, the joys of becoming an employee in a big company.

Lifecycle:

1. Talent starts innovative business

2. Big company buys talent & their company

3. Big company "B listers" sit on top of talent, using their experience of never having had to build value from scratch to direct the new division activities

4. Big company can't figure out why it hasn't continued to see the success achieved by the business it acquired, in the period since purchase and decides even tighter control of new division is required

5. Acquired talent leaves in disgust [taking most of their riches] and lives on yacht for a while

6. go to 1.


Yup. Only no yacht for me (2005 was not a time when tech founders were being paid yacht money), but I have definitely moved on to new projects. Watch this space!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 25

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Note that a previous installment posted just before this one did. Read it here.


A tale this tortured and tumultuous probably deserves a proper dismount - a contemplative final assessment of The Things I've Learned. However, this entire Slog fits that bill. Since launching it in 2008, not long after I left CNET, I've covered a wide range of topics - creativity, corporations, human behavior, marketing, fame, demoralization and resilience, and much more - which were slow-cooking as I gradually unpacked this disorienting experience. As bits of insight have congealed, I've shared them here. It's telling that almost nothing on this Slog could have been written by me prior to 1997. My 1996 self browses the more than 1400 postings and wonders, "Who is that guy?".

This origin story has, for seven years, weaved through my attempts to catalog the evolving psychic fruits of that very same story. This Slog is the result of having been made stronger by that which nearly killed me. The good, the bad, and the ugly are three avatars of the same teacher, and while some life lessons may flay you, the trick - always in this world - is to open oneself up, fully, come what may. To steer into skids. As I wrote in that last link,
If you can train yourself to respond to adversity and setback with an open, loose attitude, redirecting attention forward rather than obsessively locking attention on previous injury, life transforms miraculously. Just from that one tiny adjustment.
I can't say my equanimity has been perfect. Perhaps that's why the resultant insight has been slow-cooked, rather than swiftly served. But this much is for sure: throughout events both harrowing and triumphant, as I've been places I'd have preferred not to visit and learned things I'd rather not have learned, and as my forbearance was rewarded with small hors d'oeuvres of wisdom, the entire experience leaving me a stranger to my former self, I have, paradoxically, felt like exactly the same guy through every moment of all this.

The same humming awareness has peered out from my eyes through it all - since earliest childhood, really - blithely unaffected. Everything that happens, it turns out, happens around you, not to you. If this seems an odd note to end on, I can assure you it's not. It is, after all, customary for grand sagas to conclude with a return home.


Read the next installment (Epilogue)

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 24

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A few installments back, I explained how management that is both stupid and ineffectual is not necessarily a bad thing. Bad ideas paired with poor execution at least maintains status quo. However, I teased:
One horrible initiative was actually pushed through...and put us on a shaky business trajectory which persists to this day.
And, the following installment left off with this note:
CNET/CBS's failure to capture, organize, and repurpose Chowhound's prodigious data torrent is the basis of the problem, as we'll discuss next time.
So here, finally, is exactly how CNET and CBS failed to capitalize on Chowhound's potential, giving rise to a painful decade of decline and dilution.

Clay (the pseudonym I've assigned to my slightly unhinged, tantrum-prone boss at CNET, who's long gone from the company) faced one overarching challenge. As a community site, Chowhound was a poor setting for ads, because advertisers prefer their products to be touted in highly-controlled surroundings. Ads positioned amid free public discussion might wind up associated with crazy, offensive, digressive crowd noise. Random big-mouths might even poke fun at the ads. Chowhound needed a shiny, composed, controlled front end where most of the ads could go.

Also, Chowhound's discussion needed to be screened off. The geese who laid our golden eggs, contributing the savvy, cutting-edge food information and news that made the site such a draw, wouldn't enjoy having their clubhouse diluted by hordes of Olive Garden fans raving about free breadsticks. Hardcore chowhounds would bolt in a nanosecond if all of America ever dropped by to inject food opinions. This was another reason we needed a shiny front end; a glossy layer to absorb and entertain less fervid newbies. The discussion part would be de-emphasized, requiring persistence to find and join. Ideally, only serious people would make the effort, and the resource wouldn't dilute. The rest would be entranced by shiny baubles up front.

So this was Clay's big idea: he bought a defunct magazine brand called CHOW, to serve as our shiny editorial front end. Get it? Chowhound and...CHOW! A natural! The fact that CHOW's frivolous tone and approach was completely at odds with the astute, passionate vibe of Chowhound was immaterial. The front end, after all, was for unserious eaters, and such people would surely prefer a lightheaded approach.

Corporate types frequently mistake ditziness for accessibility. I've never understood the assumption that intelligent people prefer unthoughtful treatment of topics outside their expertise. That we turn into babies when we start something new. This mistaken assumption explains all sorts of needlessly dropped standards and senseless pandering. The media have been trained to cast swine at pearls.

And Jesus H Christ did they ever sink money into this. Kitchens were built. Hordes of staff and reporters were recruited (identical-looking well-put-together 20-something females; don't ask). Photography studios were built, editorial power circles diagrammed, and, very quickly, millions spent to launch a new media brand with all the needless weight and inefficiency of old media. Watch out world, we're building a whole new Conde Nast! It's gonna be HUGE!

No. It wasn't huge. It was just another soulless, indistinguishable entry in a wide field. They did everything possible to divert Chowhound's healthy traffic through the Chow.com domain in order to juice the stats (e.g. Chowhound user profiles, the oft-loaded hub for every hound, routed through Chow.com), but CHOW never caught on, and just annoyed the chowhounds, who didn't appreciate the ceaseless cross-promotion of obnoxious, crass, fake-edgy articles like "Craptails", "Does Your Ice Cream Truck Sell Heroin?", or "12 Alt-Milks for Today’s Alt-Bros" as they tried to finess the fine points of Japanese curry.

It was a catastrophic waste of money, so budgets kept slashing and workers kept shedding until CHOW had retracted into a skeleton operation. I'm not an "I told you so" kind of guy, but, sheesh, at least they could have listened to my idea; the plan I'd conceived during the lean years while hell-bent on finding a route to Chowhound profitability. The plan I'd have implemented if I was actually in charge of the brand after CNET acquired both it and me.

They didn't listen, because they'd decided I had nothing valuable to say about monetizing Chowhound since I'd failed to do so on my watch. My having built, grown, and run the operation with zero funding and zero assets did not mitigate this apparent failure. Neither did the fact that it had never been my original goal to monetize it. My aim was to create something useful and beloved, and it succeeded beyond all expectation. But that success was on my terms, not their's. So I was the kooky, food-obsessed founder, and they, the grown-ups, knew better.

The following is the plan this kooky founder implored his genius corporate overlords to consider:

During the last years of my reign, we'd built a system for encapsulating the best tips from the message boards, adding fact-checked address/phone information and map links for restaurants, and organizing it all into sleek weekly executive summaries. We'd email this to subscribers, who felt relieved of the obligation to follow a zillion busy, digressive discussions. They could relax without ever missing hot tips or news. And more casual users, unwilling to devote hours to surfing the forum, could receive primo chow tips - the crème de la crème - like chocolates neatly left on their pillows.

Great editors (serious hounds who'd have been reading every posting every day, anyway) churned this out for three geographical regions, and it was a very low-cost and high-value operation. Though the backlog of forum discussion was a dense morass of terrabytes of impenetrable chat, our process of steadily culling this data and normalizing it into database-readable format would, over time, tame the beast of messy, digressive discussion into a sleek info trove, easily available for all sorts of re-use. We'd already sold a book series built from this content to Penguin, and we could syndicate it, just for starters, to local newspapers and web sites nationwide. Great fresh nearby food discoveries weekly! Who wouldn't want that?

We'd also created CHEW, the Chowhound Editing Wizard. Searching through years of backlogged discussion was a nightmare suitable only for fanatical hounds. But as CHEW digested the weekly newsletters, it build up a database that could be searched for orderly information about a given restaurant. Or to find recommended restaurants near you. Or any of the other modern functions modern web sites are expected to offer (and which, to this day, Chowhound does not).

With just a dozen part-time editors, we could have ordered data chaos and created a never-ending stream of food news, tips, and information in polished, ready-to-publish format (while leaving the hounds alone to happily do their thing). Chowhound was an engine for aggregating great, smart content, and my scheme harnessed that power; winnowing, organizing, and polishing a gusher of content into valuable media product.

And Chowhound wasn't just about restaurants. Our Home Cooking discussion overflowed with ingenious recipes. Our General Topics discussion was a fountain of smart opinions on food brands and cuisine info. Our Trader Joe's coverage, alone, was unprecedentedly deep, smart, and current; the essential resource for all TJs customers. The best of it all could be edited and polished to stock the site's front end with glossy editorial content. New cooking or dining trends? Check. Clever workarounds for old kitchen problems? Check. Frying secrets of Malaysian grandmas? Check. Rice cooker tips from fanatics who've tried every model? Check. All this and more, to infinity.

The immense fire hose of Chowhound's data, massaged by smart editors, could supply far more, better, smarter, timelier, sexier content than any cubicle jungle of scrubbed English majors, at a tiny fraction of the cost. And it's all intrinsically focus-grouped to ensure interestingness. Dull topics wouldn't have caught on!

For a couple hundred thousand dollars per year, we could have jump-started a media brand no one could have touched, taking advantage of Chowhound's new-media efficiencies by harvesting the crowd-sourced savvy of its huge community, which, within any five minute span, spewed great information about every topic under the gastronomic sun. A dozen people, working from home, could have empowered something boffo - the ultimate expression of everything Chowhound was about. Like Chinese chefs and their proverbial pigs, we'd make best use of every part of the Hound (except the bark?)

Instead, millions were spent creating and maintaining a stale, inflexible, inefficient old-media source for perky/ditzy junk, while the perpetual outflow of smart, juicy content from Chowhound was left to molder on the floor.

No one listened. And with each subsequent regime change, as the failure of Clay's brainstorm began to register and anxious execs began to rejigger, I repeated the suggestion, and was ignored by a succession of visionary geniuses, none of whom, in the end, was able to effectuate anything more than short-sighted, cheap ploys for traffic.


As I write this, in Summer 2015, the latest regime at CBS is poised to reveal an all-new Chowhound site. Apparently, CHOW has been jettisoned (no big secret; the current brand manager announced this in, of all places, his LinkedIn profile at least three weeks ago, long before any announcement, but apparently none too soon to bolster his tally of bold professional accomplishments).

I suppose this means Chowhound will bear the blame for the backlog of editorial atrocities perpetrated under the CHOW brand - which previously were segregated.

Dilution!

Plus, the forum will no longer be shielded by an editorial front end.

More dilution!

Plus, there will likely be a new round of marketing, drawing hordes of Olive Garden fans - and their breadstick raves - directly to the forum's door.

Big dilution.

Most of the hardcore hounds have already bolted. I imagine we'll say goodbye to many more as Chowhound completes its devolution into a technically stunted version of Yelp. Personally, I'm delighted and astounded that it's lasted even this long (having originally been conceived as a three hour tour; a three hour tour). But I don't, alas, see a way to reverse the dilution, even if the powers that be were suddenly to become clueful. As I wrote way back in Installment #3:
Running a site like Chowhound is like gardening, in that keeping it up requires the deflection of all sorts of entropy...[Chowhound was] a polished oasis, which self-reinforced by attracting great, discerning users - folks who valued intelligence, authenticity, and focus. If Chowhound were permitted to suck, even just a little, the spell would be broken, finicky experts would leave in droves, and in would flood the Olive Garden People, who, no longer intimidated by the high prevalent savvy, would let loose en masse with ditzy opinions. Entropy would jeopardize the precious climate of passionate expertise that made our data irresistible. The essential issue - the issue that kept me glued in front of my computer for most of a decade - is that entropy can't be undone. When online forums degrade, they do so irreversibly.
...and, returning to the same metaphor in Installment #8:
Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed.

Read the next installment (#25)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

So How Do You Like It?

Whenever The Powers That Have Been have made deep changes to Chowhound (per the latest), they inevitably ask for "feedback" from the community...after the changes are a fait accompli. It always strikes me like this:
"So how do you like it? We're not going to change a thing, and we didn't give enough of a crap to ask your opinion while we were actually planning any of it, but kindly notice how solicitous we're being as we ask how you like it! You like it, right?"
It's just like when waiters ask, as they quickly blow by your table, "So how's your meal.....good?"


Note: coming up in the next day or two, the dramatic conclusion to "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", my epic series about the sale of Chowhound to CNET (now CBS). If you're not up to date, consider a binge-read!

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