Friday, July 31, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 14

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


A rage management problem, combined with a healthy streak of paranoia, had appeared in Clay, our business development guy at CNET, as he became increasingly convinced, in spite of much evidence that I'm no business sharpie (I hadn't, for one thing, tried to get him to raise his offer) that we were using CNET's offer as a bargaining chip to get a better deal elsewhere. "If you're shopping our offer around, I need to tell you right now that this offer is off the table!!!" he screamed into the telephone one afternoon. I understood this was just twitchy dealmanship - just doing his job, albeit in a brutally ungraceful way - and that the people I'd actually be working with at CNET, guys like Martin Green, were far more temperate and low-key. But coming to the end of this long, long, saga, "off the table" was not a phrase I received calmly.

So I pressed The Washington Post for a decision, but they'd had too little time to consider the idea, and couldn't put together an offer within my dwindling time frame. When I informed the CEO of their Interactive division that I felt compelled to accept CNET's on-the-table offer, this woman, who I'd never met, and had only spoken with twice via phone, offered an uncommonly heartfelt expression of congratulations. She told me she was genuinely thrilled I'd found a home for Chowhound and that I'd be paid for my efforts. I hadn't expected such warmth, but managed to get off the phone without choking up.

The mogul was less gracious. In spite of my clear ambivalence to his offer, he'd apparently thought we were a done deal. We parted on more or less polite terms, but I've never heard from him again.

I gave the nod to CNET, and thus began a period known in corporate circles as "Due Diligence". This is when the acquiring company picks up a fine toothed comb (and a studded cudgel) and pores over your accounting, your paperwork, your figures, your disclosures, the sensitive skin beneath your fingernails, all to determine that you're not really what you've said you are.

Due diligence is, in other words, the time when otherwise powerful, aggressive execs, who'd been compelled to act meek in order to do the deal, give way to otherwise meek accountants and lawyers, who are compelled to act powerful and aggressive in order to ferret out sufficient dirt to undo that very same deal. As with drug-sniffing dogs, trained to froth hysterically for a whiff of crystal meth in your luggage, vindication is definitely not the goal.

The experience of due diligence can best be described as combining, like an emotional spumoni, three distinct hues: 1. the stomach-wrenching anxiety of receiving a letter from the IRS informing you of your massive audit beginning tomorrow; 2. the raw animal fear of opening one's front door to find a team of FBI agents holding a search warrant and brusquely instructing you to stand aside while they rummage through your closets and drawers and rip open your couch cushions; and 3. the frozen horror of watching the prison doctor crisply and efficiently snap on a plastic glove and asking you to drop pants....at what you'd presumed to be a simple blood pressure check.

Only the stakes are considerably higher. The offer you'd been talking about, focusing on, agonizing over for the past few weeks could be revoked as if by a single keystroke if something - anything - seems out of order. Cops know ways of making innocent civilians nervous. The bean counters who do due diligence put them to shame. Presumption of innocence? Ha! The presumption is one of filthy, shameful guilt. Your life is a lie, a sham, and IT'S ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE WE UNCOVER THE TRUTH, BEEEEYUTCH, snarls bald, pudgy Marvin Schnitter, CPA (not a real name). Due diligence is where the nebbishes get to play superhero, smiting the wicked and so forth with their sharp, sharp pencils.

Stockholm Syndrome ratchets up, and you start believing it. You develop an all-consuming need to DESTROY THOSE FRIGGING PAPERS, if you could only remember which papers hold the incriminating evidence. Maybe you should just torch your entire house. After dousing yourself with gasoline. Along with your business partner, your accountant, your lawyer, and your immediate family, all cowering helplessly in the bunker. It's been real, guys, but this is the end of the road. It's only a matter of time before the diligence doers find out...um....whatever. But we'll be in a better place then.

When the bean counters finally, reluctantly, receded, like a rabid pack of German shephards who'd been allowed to bare their furious fangs within an inch of your temptingly juicy calves, but forced to retreat to their lairs at the very last moment, the transparently thin veneer of Clay's honey-dripping voice came close to feeling like Good Cop.

Ok, I've exaggerated (it's my sole self-indulgent spree of exaggeration in this tale, by the way; the rest is all true). CNET's treatment was actually comparatively quick and mild. But due diligence is, inherently, an unpleasant process even under the best of circumstances, especially given the heightened stress of the situation - not to mention my bedraggled condition. Non-meticulous with paperwork, I spent weeks diving, under monumental pressure, through spotty, randomly strewn documents, and trying hopelessly to recall minute details of actions hastily taken over the course of eight years of panicky white-knuckled hyperextension. And, like many honest people, I find it unnerving and embarrassing to be treated with suspicion.

Though CNET's diligence doers were impeccably polite and professional, the very machinery of this process is set up to fill the diligence-ee's ears with the phrase "Deal's Off...Deal's Off..." like an unceasing echo from Hell. So, while I hope you'll forgive my dramatic license, that's truly how it felt.

Read the next installment (#15)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nothing's Ever Shot To Hell

As I posted here, I've spent a couple of years immersed in diet, fitness, and weight loss (total to date: thirty five pounds). And there's one insight I've had a hard time trying to express, but it just came to me. The issue is perfectly encapsulated in the old joke about the woman (not sure why it's always a woman, but it is) primly pouring Sweet-N-Low into her coffee after having eaten a massive meal of fattening food. Ridiculous, no?

No. Sweet-N-Low Lady is dead-on right, and understanding this is absolutely key to successful dieting: no matter what you just ate (at this meal, or during this day, week, month, year, or lifetime), the decision you're making right this second about what to eat - and whether to eat - next is what matters. In fact, it's all that matters. This moment-to-moment deciding is your sole means of exerting control.

I used to figure that if I've just scarfed three slices of meatball pizza, I may as well have a fourth, since everything's all shot to hell, anyway. And a cannoli? Why not.....

But after two years of ongoing decisions to (mostly) not ingest such things, it's clear that there's no difference at all between no pizza slice yesterday - when I've eaten healthy - and no pizza slice right now, after having already consumed four of them. The declined slice has the same health impact, regardless! An extra 400 calories in a 4000 calorie day might seem a petty trifle. But calories don't magically devalue in the presence of lots more calories. It's the most logical thing in the world, but it took me 45 years to see it. And now that my perspective has flipped, I no longer deem Sweet-N-Low woman even mildly amusing.

Nothing's ever "shot to hell". That's a fallacy. All we have in this life are our moment-to-moment decisions; i.e. what am I going to choose right now?

Idiot Box No More

One recurring theme in my life (and Slog) is the floundering for creative approaches to problems which have impossibly obvious and simple solutions I'd somehow missed (most recent: Breaking Free of the Adhesion Mafia). This is one of them, I guess.

I've never owned a TV. For the past three years, I've had a monitor to watch DVDs, but never hooked up cable. I've always noted, with smugness, that everything I've gotten done -interests explored and skills acquired - was possible by opening the hours of leisure time most people tie up in passive viewership. Besides, TV sucks. We all know that.

Then, a few years ago, a really good television series or two appeared. I bought DVDs, and caught up late. No problem. But more and more shows appeared that I wanted to follow, and I started having trouble keeping up. DVDs are expensive, even though I mostly resell them when I'm done with them, and they invite a sort of compressed viewing that can feel overly intense (to get the idea, try watching the entire last season of dreary, hopeless Battlestar Galactica in a week). And for shows not available on DVD, I've faced the obstacle course of grabbing torrent or streaming video, converting to AVI (ten hours, minimum), burning to DVD, and hoping my Oppo upconverting DVD player will handle the file. And I've still never seen Mad Men, The Wire, True Blood, Doctor Who, Weeds, or Lost...though a few of their DVD boxed sets sit dusty in my bookshelf as I fall further and further behind.

I've had a brainstorm, though; a solution that will allow me to spread out my viewing, ensure a quality hi-def image quality, avoid the surfing for DVDs and files, and catch everything much sooner to broadcast: get cable and a TIVO, like everyone else.

Television has been so transformed that those trapped in outdated prejudices have been caught out. In every era, there's a realm where creative talent happens to cluster. In the 50's, it was jazz; in the early 70's, it was filmmaking; and in the 90's, it was restaurants. Right now, the zeitgeist is in television. Truly great work is being done; hearts poured out and brilliance expressed while the creative bar raises higher and higher. And if you don't dive into a zeitgeist, you may has well be dead. I'd certainly have spent the 1950's in smokey nightclubs and the 70's in movie houses (if I were alive in the 10's, I'd have been sipping absinthe and arguing philosophy in European cafes). And lord knows I put in my restaurant time in the 90's. So...I just need to shake the outdated notion that TV time is wasted time.

This week, Amazon has an amazing sale on boxed DVDs of some great TV series (if you want recommendations of the best ones, check out the blog I keep recommending: "What's Alan Watching?".

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shatner Recites Palin

Do...not...miss William Shatner dramatically reciting Sarah Palin's resignation speech as a work of beat poetry. Complete with bongos. Here's the video from Tuesday night's Tonight Show.

Update: even funnier, last night Shatner returned to recite Palin's Twitter feed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Interesting Perspectives on Health Care Reform

Andrew Tobias ties together some counter-talking points about health care reform.

1. "The Canadian and British systems are failures, and their citizens are unsatisfied": nope

2. "Health care programs must make sense in terms of free market economics": nope

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 13

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


To recap: Rupert Murdoch had paid a quadrillion dollars for MySpace in the summer of 2005, and investors were all bubbly about Web 2.0 - an innovation I'd unwittingly anticipated years earlier (just trying to get folks to swap food tips, for chrissakes) and which threatened to make my web site a hot property. I viewed this reversal with ambivalence, coming after a heinous eight year slog that had left me yearning with every cell of my body to close down Chowhound.com, a labor of love which had scaled into a high-maintanence monster leaving me exhausted and bankrupt. Parties of varying degrees of nefariousness had come out of the woodwork, plus I'd pitched the Washington Post, but CNET Networks had swiftly approached me and flown me out to California, where a business development drone I've called "Clay" made me a viable-sounding offer. The previous installment was a shocking tale of venture capitalism, but to really get back in the mood after the long gap, I'd strongly suggest reading from a couple of installments back!).


Everyone at CNET had bent over backwards to emphasize that Chowhound would be handled with a light and sensitive touch; Clay kept repeating his mantra that "if it ain't broken, we're not gonna to try to fix it!" On this one point, I believed them. CNET seemed duly impressed by the quality of our data, and understood that entropy only runs one way: if the focus and smarts of our community were to erode, those qualities would be impossible to reacquire. So our formula could be tinkered with only at great peril. I was confident that this truth had registered.

And the financial offer had been satisfactory. Once all was said and done - after splitting proceeds with Bob, paying off debts, taxes, lawyers, etc, I'd be left with good, though by no means spectacular, salary for my aggregated (not to mention aggravated) eight years of work. I'd essentially endured the world's most demented austerity savings plan. Try it yourself! Here's what you do: work 100 hour workweeks for the better part of a decade, and have someone hide all your paychecks. Live like a cockroach, foregoing most human pleasures, then, at the end, toss all the cash on your bed and exclaim "Wheee! Look at all the money!" Anyone could do it, really. It's the masochistic moron's route to financial security!

There'd be no premium to repay my gamble, but I certainly couldn't complain. Just two months earlier, after all, I'd been on the brink of shutting it all down and rustling up temp work.

The amount, really, was immaterial. Literally. Below a certain point, publicly traded companies need not disclose acquisition costs. Our price was never announced (and I'm sworn to secrecy) because it was below that threshold. The official term really is "immaterial". It's the businessman's way of saying "pocket change".

In fact, here's a flash-ahead. Our law firm, which had racked up a five-figure tab for nothing much more than handling our incorporation (a $200 job), and against which we had a dandy potential malpractice case for breathtaking incompetence and egregious overbilling, owned a chunk of our equity in exchange for allowing us to defer payment. We had hired a new lawyer to handle the CNET closing, and he and the old lawyers were at the point of brawling when the latter stopped for a moment and thought to ask how much this impending deal was actually FOR, anyway. Informed of the figure, they immediately and summarily dropped all claim to equity. They told us, with a derisive smirk, not to sweat it (we did, however, have to pay off their bill).

Of course, an amount laughably immaterial to the business world is material indeed to a jazz trombonist/freelance writer. If I remained modest in my overhead, I could, post-CNET, enjoy a few years off to handle long-deferred personal maintenance. I would never again be forced to take crap from clueless authorities (which I hate), and could concentrate exclusively on doing quality work (which I love). And I'd be able to afford as many pizza slices and secondhand dvds (here's my library!) as I want. Awesome!

If I were some hot-shot operator, and had energy left, I might have ferreted out a higher price from CNET or other parties. Values of companies like ours were increasing daily. That's why they call it a bubble!

In fact, Clay, who had other deals progressing in parallel, was distraught over the fast-inflating price tags he was seeing. From my position at the leading edge of the bubble, I could feel our value escalating from the moment Clay had made his offer. But readers of this tale will understand that I was in no mood to be a wise guy. It was time to grab an in-hand bird.

But there was still one bird left in the bush. I hadn't spoken to Washington Post since CNET's approach, so I informed them of the offer, and awaited their reply. Clay knew that we'd been talking to other parties, and that we needed to tie up loose ends before deciding on his offer. In fact, it was in CNET's interest that we remain on friendly terms with those media players, because we'd need positive press to relaunch the brand post-acquisition.

Bob and I also needed time to process the situation. Sudden reversals are hugely disorienting, and in our bedraggled state, these developments felt downright surreal. We needed to consider all factors, and understand the potential pitfalls in this unfamiliar landscape. It was time to consult with lawyers and accountants, read up extensively on CNET, and generally try to get a handle on things. All while running Chowhound, of course. Between all this and waiting for Washington Post, a couple of weeks were slipping by.

Clay had worked hard to put together this offer. We were to be a keystone for CNET's upcoming lifestyle division. The rising valuations of Web 2.0 companies were making him queasy with anxiety, and he let us know he didn't appreciate our delay. I mean he REALLY didn't appreciate it. I began seeing the Mr. Hyde behind the honey-toned, agree-with-everything-you-say Dr. Jeckyll facade, and the sight of Clay's fangs coming out was not pretty.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Charging for Access to News Sites

This 542 word essay by John Gruber is the best pithy analysis I've seen of the newspaper crisis, online pay-for-content schemes, and Chris Anderson's buzzy new book ("Free").

A Different View of the Professor Gates Case

In the handful of instances when I've forced a broken lock on my house to get in, or have climbed in a window because I've forgotten my key, I'd have felt downright gratified to see police show up and confront me. That would mean they're efficiently doing their job, and would increase my confidence that a real burglar might be speedily apprehended. And if I happened to be African-American, I'd certainly not want cops holding back to avoid the appearance of racism, any more than I'd want them to hold back if an African-American real burglar ever tried to break in!

Furthermore, as a middle-aged white dude, even I know better than to mouth off to the police. If I felt officers were treating me unfairly, I might say something, but I certainly wouldn't be dumb enough to keep on belligerently venting my righteous indignation (as Prof. Gates did). That sort of thing leads to handcuffs for those of any race! Yes, it's an abuse of power, but it's one all adults know to expect. And if I happened to be African-American, I certainly wouldn't expect an exemption - hoping the police's fear of appearing racist might override their instinct to save face when an angry loudmouth won't stop haranguing them.

If the police had chosen not to investigate what reasonably looked like a break-in simply because Prof. Gates was black, that'd have been for strictly racial reasons. And if they hadn't arrested him after he wouldn't stop raging at them, that'd have been for strictly racial reasons, as well.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth

There's lots of excitement out there over the Torchwood: Children of Earth series, currently playing on BBC America. I heard about it from the splendid "What's Alan Watching" blog, hosted by Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall. It's the Internet's most intelligent discussion of high-quality television (not an oxymoron these days).

This is the third season of Torchwood; the first was reportedly fair, the second better, but this one's supposed to be awesome. If you get cable, you can watch Torchwood on the aforementioned BBC America. Or you can purchase and download episodes on iTunes (which also offers a free 10 minute making-of download). Or pre-order the DVD on Amazon for its July 28th release.

Torchwood is loosely descended from Dr. Who, which started out as a long-running camp/cheesey/wonderful series, but was recently recreated in a slicker and hugely lauded BBC series. Dr. Who's first season boxed set costs $58 on Amazon, but you can get it for about $40, including shipping, from Amazon.co.uk.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Overextended Syndrome

I heard from a friend who's feeling seriously overextended - a condition with which I'm well acquainted. I suggested she take a few days off, and she replied:
"I worry that if I relax at all, I'll epiphanize and decide to ditch the frenzy and go off the grid entirely... Cut to me wearing no shoes and foraging for berries off the Interstate."
I can sympathize to an almost nauseating degree. And now that I've had a good bit of decompression time (no shoeless foraging, but close to it), I have some perspective, which I shared with her...and now share with you:
"Life is extremely short. Even shorter than one imagines when one hears that cliche. If you don't believe it, ask any old person.

"If what you're working on brings satisfaction, then great. Redouble your efforts and work even harder! Life is too short to work half-assed on things you deeply believe in. This ain't a dress rehearsal!

"If what you're working on is just stemming from inertia and grind, know that you are your own jailer, and you hold the keys. Just because you started a process doesn't mean you must forever be a slave to it.

"If what you're working on is about pursuit of accomplishment, a brief look at humanity will quickly illustrate that accomplishment is an ever-thirsty treadmill. We will die and be utterly forgotten very very quickly. So we may as well make every day count by doing what's meaningful to us, in blithe disregard to illusory notions of stature and other external appearances."
(Re: "thirsty treadmills": it's my Slog, and I'll mix metaphors if I want to!)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to Make Friends and Influence People

The people closest to me over the years weren't drawn in by my personal qualities, or by things like generosity, sense of humor, intelligence, shared interests or lively conversation. They've invariably been people who I have in some way flattered.

I can only conclude that the key to making friends is to flatter the bejesus out of everyone you meet. Because, really, human relationships are never about you!


Update:
My sloppy language has been pointed out to me. I was referring, at least in my first paragraph, to genuine praise, whereas the dictionary insists that "flattery" is always insincere.

The problem is that there's no equivalent noun for sincere expressions of admiration. "Praise", for example, includes terse off-handed dabs of encouragement ("Attaboy!"). It also, says the dictionary "usually suggests the judgment of a superior." And "compliments" doesn't cut it. So it's become common to use/misuse "flattery" to describe any fervent expression of admiration - sincere or not. In a few decades, lexicographers may have to acknowledge this new usage. So...I'm not wrong, I'm ahead of my time!

But, to clarify, I'm referring here to sincere praise. Again and again, I've observed the mirroring effect - the offerer of compliments appearing nobler, smarter, just simply better to the recipient (a process that's always unconscious for the latter). I stand by my proposition that for most people, no display of kindness, generosity, intelligence, or humor can trigger the same degree of reflective admiration as a single dab of flattery - sincere or not.

The dark, scary question I refuse to examine is the extent to which this same unconscious bonding-via-praise process has affected me when I've been a recipient. I won't go there because I have a fair bit of ego invested in my comparative egolessness.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recession Starting to Get Scary

A few months ago, I scoffed when people guessed that economic recovery might be within sight. I'm pessimistic about our escaping this anytime soon. But some recent experiences leave me feeling like we're downright drowning.

First, in the last few weeks, I've been noticing retailer desperation ratcheting up to an unprecedented degree. My local supermarket's shelves are suddenly filled with cheap meager items. For example, I found a box of eight small kitchen garbage bags for a mere $1.75. Eight small garbage bags! In better times, such micro-portioning would be found only in convenience stores, and sold at obscene markup to those needing a quick few this or that. But eight bags for $1.75 isn't convenience store pricing. It's more "Jesus-Christ-does-anybody-out-there-have-a-lousy-buck-seventy-five-in-their-wallet??" pricing. And that's scary.

Then there was Warren Buffet's announcement yesterday that his data shows consumer sales to be "very, very soft". When speaking Nebraskan, the use of two "very"s in conveying bad news is the local equivalent of pitiful shrieking and sobbing.

And, as I mentioned yesterday (sorry, I can't stop thinking about it), UK's Daily Telegraph reports that American authorities are thinking about bulldozing the downtowns of a bunch of cities - the better to concentrate remaining survivors. Naturally, we're talking about cities like Flint and Detroit. Oh, and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis. Perhaps you've heard of them.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Raze Parking Lots, Put up a Paradise

Holy crow!

If you were to spot the following headline:
"US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive: Dozens of US cities may have entire neighbourhoods bulldozed as part of drastic 'shrink to survive' proposals being considered by the Obama administration to tackle economic decline"
....you'd probably figure the article had appeared in some whacky ultra-right-wing publication, right?

Uh-uh.

Makes good sense, actually. Take Detroit, which might really do well to be "split into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside," per this report.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Important iPhone Tip

If you use an iPhone outdoors and one single raindrop gets in the headphone jack, it may trigger a water sensor which will permanently void your warranty - even if the phone is otherwise unaffected by the moisture. And there's a second water sensor on the bottom, at the charging plug.

Both of these open jacks permit all sorts of stuff to get into the inner workings of the phone, including
dust and pocket lint. And, for convenience, most cases leave these jacks wide open.

One solution is a
water-resistant case, but those tend to be insanely bulky.

But even better is the simple $15 "Colors" case from SwitchEasy, which comes with protectors for both jacks.

Also, just to blow your mind, someone's actually selling an
iPhone stylus! Which reminds me: where can I get a head cleaner for my MP3 player?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Giving Misanthropy Its Due

When I was a kid, Polish jokes were all the rage. And it surprised me to discover that each culture has its Polish analog - a group deemed stupid. And its Jewish analog - a group deemed stingy. And its black analog - a group deemed lazy. How bizarre it was to learn that Norwegians tell jokes about "those dumb Swedes"!

The same negative labels persist all over the world, regardless of the group being pinned with a given label. And that's because plenty of people, of any given group, are, indeed, dumb, stingy, and lazy. Those are human qualities, but since our perceptions are set up to focus on the unfamiliar, we notice those qualities more readily in those unlike us.

We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.

Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Contrarian View of Racism

There are two varieties of racism: an explicit type that consciously scorns other tribes, and a more insidious type where prejudices are less conscious and less flagrant. We naturally consider the first sort the most virulent. But I think otherwise.

Explicit racists are all about hating abstract categories, so they can be "won over" by individuals. An unfairly prejudicial bar must be scaled, but once you demonstrate you're "not like the others", a relationship of affection and respect can be formed. By contrast, quieter racists can never be won over.

I once had an elderly black musician friend who was a holocaust denier and virulent anti-white racist. And we absolutely loved each other. It took some time to clear his defenses, but after I had, I knew I could count 100% on this fellow; that I was as good as gold with him. And I was far from his only white or Jewish friend.

But I had another elderly black musician friend with whom I closely worked and traveled for twenty years. We had incredible musical rapport, and got along great. He was a kind man; very religious (in the best possible way), good-humored, and generous...and he recognized my good qualities as well. But I clearly understood, right to the bitter end, as I stood dejected at his hospital bedside shortly before his death five years ago, that the foremost adjective in his mind for me had always been "white". Not in a hateful, or even negative, way; certainly not in any way you'd deem "racist". But, to me, it felt like the worst sort of prejudice: a quietly immutable chasm that could never, ever, be bridged.

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