Saturday, November 29, 2008

Perfect for Whom?

Mad Men is one of my favorite shows, so much so that I don't even trust it to the perfect television nanny that is TiVo. The series is an iPhone obsession I treat myself to for my Metro North commute, which runs parallel to the Ossining-to-Grand Central Terminal route Don Draper take when he bothers to go home (which isn't often, as it happens).

I don't need to explain the obsession to people in the know. But I have some personal reasons, too: It takes place at a time in my native New York City that was a Golden Age, during the afterglow of World War II when the Greatest Generation was giving way to a bunch of Boomers who would shepard this nation to a period of great prosperity and fairness.

It was the Boomers who decided that Gays were not "perverts" -- as described by one Mad Man -- and who changed the world just enough so that a black man who's greatest realistic aspiration might have been to operate an elevator at Sterling Cooper could now imagine becoming president of the United States, and make it so.

Alas -- I gush a little. I wasn't even in grade school yet during the Mad Men era, but I was a sentient being during the turbulent '60s when, among other things, feminism stopped being a dirty word.

In those days newspaper want ads still listed positions by gender, as in "Help Wanted - Male" and "Help Wanted - Female." I don't recall specifically what the different jobs were, but I am sure that in the main men were being offered executive positions and women to be their secretaries. This is the caste system in Mad Men -- which is another reason to cheer for Peggy Olson, who earns a spot at the copywriters table and one of the best offices in the place on talent alone.

So, how much has changed in the four generations which have transpired? Fair warning -- I'll make too much of what is to follow.

I was checking my iPhone account at AT&T wireless and noticed they were having a sale. There is one ad which says, "Perfect for Him," and another which said "Perfect for Her." For the life of me, it's difficult to see what features these two phones have which are gender specific, or which could be.

The "her" phone is narrower, but features text and email and all the things everyone (and the other phone) does. Neither Blackberry nor Apple, which dominate the Smartphone phone business, see the need to offer manly and girlie versions of their products.

So what gives? You be the judge:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Watching Obama

President-elect Barack Obama is announcing his economic team, and taking questions, as I write. He is doing his very best to maintain the fiction that there is only one President of the United States at one time, and that he is not it.

It is difficult not to see the night-and-day difference in this appearance and those in similar situations by many past and current holders of the office. It's easy to still be wowed by the man; he will be handled with kid gloves for a while, especially until he is actually president in fact. When Keith Olbermann and especially Chris Matthews lose their youthful crushes on Obama then we'll see the sparks that are necessary to keep everyone honest and working hard.

But, watching Obama's first press conference as whatever he is, I had a thought: As well as he worked the room to get elected, and to achieve all the pre-conditional things that positioned him to vie for that office, Obama has been the recipent of some incredibly good luck.

When he was running in 2004 for the Senate seat that put him in the (mostly) gentleman's presidential prep school his opponent, Jack Ryan, was forced to drop out race over a sex scandal. They were vying for a seat being vacated by a Republican, and the state had been tending Democratic. It could very well have been the case that Obama would have won the seat in any event in time to seek the presidency 304 or 734 or 768 days later. But Ryan's ignominious departure pretty much sealed the deal.

And then, there was the Republican White House office holder. He was there, watching his popularity steadily deteriorate and with it the chances of his party, because of a contested 2000 election and a squandered 2004 election, either of which could have been won by the Democratic nominee (with a little luck).

With a Democrat in the White House Obama would have remained an intriquing question mark for years to come. At 47, he is a kid by political standards and his day may yet have come.

But anything can happen. This might have been his only moment. And how that moment materialized is a bit amazing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wired-o-Nomics: Too Big to Succeed?

It seems like forever but it has actually been only been 52 days since Congress thought the better of providing any bailout money to financial institutions to stave off global economic ruin. They heard the arguments for and against, checked the election calendar, and voted down a $750 billion package.

The market immediately tanked. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed more than 600 points the next day to close at 10,365 (which frankly seems pretty bullish these days).

So lawmakers took another look at it. They heard the arguments for and against, checked the election calendar, watched with as much amusement as the rest of us I hope when John McCain "suspended" his campaign to take charge of things, and voted up a $750 billion package.

The market immediately tanked. On Thursday the Dow was down 33% from the day the original bailout plan was rejected a mere seven weeks earlier.

This is called, in polite company, the law of unintended consequences. It’s called less pleasant things in less genteel circles.

Read the full post on's Epicenter blog.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wired-o-Nomics: Wall Street Bonuses and Abortions

Ever since Congress threw $700 billion at financial institutions to help prop up the economy there have been a handful of reports about idiotic corporate expenditures, like $500,000 off-sites. These incidents speak to a massive disconnect with reality and create a public relations challenge but, like congressional earmarks, the money involved is relatively insignificant.

More serious is the question of whether Wall Street Masters of the Universe should get bonuses this year, at least at those institutions receiving taxpayer money. These year-end bonuses involve staggering amounts: in 2006, USA Today estimated that the collective pool was just a hair under $24 billion, which "works out to an average bonus of $137,580 for every person employed in the financial services industry."

In ordinary times we mere mortals may merely be disgusted by this sort of excess. This year, it isn't just about other people's money. Now, it’s ours. And our representatives have a compelling interest to make sure on our behalf that it isn’t spent on $6,000 shower curtains.

But the laws of economics are not suspended even in challenging times. Retaining top talent always requires what the market will bear, not what a politician thinks is fair. Still, the giver (or in this case, conveyer) of largesse ought to have some say in how money can or can’t be spent, right?

(Read the entire post on's Epicenter blog)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hits & Misses on MSNBC

Contessa Brewer on set, MSNBC
Originally uploaded by John C Abell

On Saturday I made two appearances on MSNBC, subject Barack Obama -- the tech president. I gratefully accepted the Town Car for the 30-mile trip and brought the fam to along for a day in the Big City, punctuated by my two brief appearances on the TV.

It was a quiet day in the studio: We had the green room to ourselves (though a page told us that Beyonce was in the building for her SNL gig later that day) and the halls were mostly empty, except for several tours ambling by perhaps disappointed there wasn't anyone famous in the green room.

I try to be casual about these things, the better to suppress the nerves. But this was only my second time around as a talking head and I may have come off as a wee bit too casual.

In makeup, a woman who clearly worked there and was going to be on the air sometime soon graciously walked over and introduced herself as I was about to be layered with foundation.
"Hi! I'm Contessa."
"Without makeup."
Me: "Oh! Yes! Hello!"
(and then -- wait for it -- the capper)
"The last time we did this I was in Washington!"
I feel compelled to reveal at this point that I watch MSNBC incessantly. I know MSNBC Anchor Contessa Brewer's work very well. So it was not hubris but nerves which prompted me to think she was not being gracious to a stranger but saying something akin to "Nice to see you again." Consummate professional she may be, but it did not dawn on me soon enough how unlikely it was she'd recall me from the three-minute hit I did last July. That and the fact that she didn't say, "Nice to see you again."

Ms. Brewer even tried, I think, to excuse my faux pas by casually saying, "Yes, the bare-faced Contessa," as she strode back to her chair. Then she began chatting amiably with Bertha Coombs of CNBC, who does know how to have a polite conversation and actually needs no introduction.

Things deteriorated a bit from there.

After being mic'd (it's like getting tagged for an EKG with your shirt on) and tested and re-tested by the control booth for sound, I missed my cue when the on-air the moment arrived because I couldn't hear a thing in my earpiece. I knew what was going on (too late) because I could see myself on split screen out of the corner of my eye. They cut to news and when it all got sorted out, my time was cut in half. Lucky viewing public.

Two hours later, on my second hit, more audio troubles. The sound check from the booth was, "Can you hear me Bertha?" -- Ms. Coombs was doing the hit before me, and she was already at the desk with Ms. Brewer. I had the wrong pod. Sound man fumbles around and sorts it out seemingly with seconds to spare. If only.

The California wildfires were getting much worse and coverage of the disaster was extended, as it should have been, so the very thought of talking happily about what a techno-geeky-web-social-network-savvy guy the president-elect is seemed ... out of place.

And -- oh yeah -- the G20 summit was in progress and at the exact moment I was supposed to go on President Bush decided to give an update -- cut to the prez live. By the time he was done I had been in the flashcam seat for about 30 minutes, straining not to move a muscle lest some kind of John Edwards moment be captured.

I did some doodling on post-it notes left on the table. I took out my iPhone and sent some Tweets. About two minutes before I actually did go on my daughter called me, and I had to tell her I it wasn't a good time to talk. Surreal.

No clips of either hit online yet. My money's on there won't be. But if Wired ever sends me back out to do media I'll be doing a lot this: "Hi there! I'm John Abell from Wired!" So, watch out pages and security people and candy stand guy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tribute to Greatness

“Great” is one of those words that we simply use too often. Like the phrases some Oxford people think we have all heard enough, loose usage has devalued it into a pejorative, turning "great" into a lesser compliment than the equally diluted "awesome."

I have a soft spot for greatness. It is the genuine weakness that a parent has for a child or any one of us for a savior. I will spare myself further humiliation by mentioning no objects of my admiration. Except for one.

A few months ago a great man, friend and colleague died. David Mitchell and I collaborated in a world that had yet to coin the phrase “virtual meeting." In my 26 years at Reuters, I never met him or even saw a picture of him.

That is, until someone else I have never met and do not even know provided me with a happy snap of Mitchell in 1976, three years before our first encounter.

Last June I wrote a remembrance of Mitchell on a Reuters alumni site, and repost it here in a slightly different form (with apologies to Fred Gray, mentor and another great man) and the image, which helps to complete the picture.

David Mitchell, who with Tom Guinan and Fred Gray created, deployed and maintained the desktop editing system still in use in Reuters America and elsewhere, has died. Word from a mutual colleague is that Mitchell passed away a few weeks ago. I have no other details, but would welcome hearing anything about this great man.

Mitchell and his cohorts were the Reuters equivalents of the Internet Gray Beards: they practically invented everything that US journalists use to write and edit stories, and they decided on concepts and workflows and interfaces that seem to this day as the only way to do it.

David was one of the first technical people I encountered as a young pre-journalist; when I was a news dictationist, entering copy phoned in live from correspondents, there were endless formatting questions (agate, anyone?) as vexing then as even in more recent days. Mitchell had tremendous patience and a sense of humor which made it possible to for me to battle through one pain barrier after another.

Later on, when I needed detailed system information to create third-party applications that leveraged our quirky editorial mainframe and user interface it was Mitchell again who unlocked secrets and affirmed crazy ideas that just might work. In failing health even 15 years ago, he was always available and always utterly fluent in every matter, however obscure and unintuitive, that I presented to him.

It is not an exaggeration to say the crucial early successes Reuters New Media had creating programmatic desktop publishing solutions -- the core functionalities that powered real-time multimedia Internet news years ahead of the competition -- was possible only because neophyte dreamers were able to stand on his shoulders.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Voting Machine
Originally uploaded by John C Abell

Voting today was the easiest experience I've ever had: no lines, no poll watchers, lots of friendly volunteers. (Also, no free coffee or "I voted!" stickers, but you can't have it all.)

Our district is sparsely populated; we are told that there are 800 registered voters here in the 11th district of Westchester County, where we have lived for only a few weeks. About 500 is the most any have ever turned out to vote, they tell us; I ask if they expect to break that record today, and I get forceful, pronounced, silent nods.

Another reason why it was so easy? The voting machine was a fine beast of a thing, a relic from a simpler time when machines did the work that circuit and main boards are expected to now, with disputable success. Some solutions are better mechanical than electronic, I believe, and this is one of those areas (also, try digging a ditch with a computer).

The machine's caretaker was delighted to explain exactly how it worked. After his proud recitation I asked I could use a butterfly ballot instead. He declared his polling place a hanging-chad-free zone, and laughed.

The picture on this post shows the clearly-marked rows of levers, an at-a-glance view of one's entire voting intentions, leaving nothing to doubt. I have used touch screens, punch cards and ballots that had to be marked with a pencil -- never a paper ballot, though, as we still see in some showy Third World photo ops.

This majestic machine, complete with lever-controlled curtain, filled me with a confidence I have never had before as a voter. It was sturdy, most becoming for the enormous civic duty it enables.

I am going to brag on myself, as a certain Chappaqua neighbor has been known to say: the picture on this post got plucked for use on the flickr blog in a piece about election day.

And for a great read on the enthusiasm we should all have when we vote, read this essay by Nicole Spiridakis.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Now Would Be a Good Time to Rob the Place

Through a series of events -- some personal, some professional, some opportunistic -- the bureau will be empty tommorow, with all of us scattered about takin' care of business remotely.

It's no big deal; our brosephs over at Ars Technica don't even have an office. Their newsroom is an IRC channel, which is much cooler than we will ever be. We do all have iPhones now, however, and there is serious talk about all us having beards, too, which would be tough on Meghan.

It sort of all started with that video by CEOs telling people not to work for an hour and vote. I passed on doing a story about it because most states (or all) require employers to give their workers time off to vote, so, thanks for nothing. And why give Trump more air time.

More to the point, most people don't live near where they work, so having an hour off to vote only makes sense if you come to work late or leave early. And Chris said he'd need six hours to vote, and that pretty much kills the day.

So we will work and vote and get'r done away from base camp. Btw, there isn't much worth stealing, though the reddit bobble heads are pretty nifty.

Shred for the Lord

We don't do a lot of gadget-type stuff out of the bureau in New York. Lately it's starting to show.

Eliot Van Buskirk, who edits our music blog, Listening Post, has had a toy on his desk for weeks. "Guitar Praise" promises to let you "Strap on the guitar and play along with your favorite bands -- tobyMac, Skillet, Stellar Kart, Newsboys -- and more."

Yes, this is "Guitar Hero" for the devote. We can't wait (appearances to the contrary notwithstanding) to fire it up and experience the "Unparalleled Game Play" which includes:
  • Onscreen lyrics emphasize Christian themes (which makes perfect sense), and
  • Power duel mode sends surprises to mess with your opponent's play (which sounds downright unChristian to me)
This thing has become the Christmas gift you don't want but can't bring yourself to tell mom you'll never play with ever and would die if your friends found out you had one. But the truth is that, er, more pressing news has prevented Eliot from making much progress on this story which will probably write itself (no offense, dude).

Eliot finally got around to opening "Guitar Praise" about two weeks after it arrived and, a week after that, finally found a free moment last Friday to start shredding for the lord.

Thing needs batteries. Battery compartment held down by screws. We don't have a screwdriver. Yes, we are pathetic.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I Couldn't Be Less Proud

A couple of years before I was axed at Reuters in a reorganization putsch our very savvy Editor in Chief was asked a long question at one of those town-hall-like meetings with the staff I can't imagine any senior manager looks forward to. The gist was, what do we have to be happy about, what with all the cuts and lack of optimism. His answer was brief: "Be happy you have a job."

The questioner (one of my direct reports) and I, and our four other colleagues didn't appreciate how much we should have taken that particular advice to heart. After all, we were the golden children whose product had unbelievable margins well after the internet news contraction: we were the innovators, the go-to trusted team.

It can happen to anybody.

It's happening now, again, in Silicon V/Alley, as VCs keep their powder dry in an industry where nurturing the possible is still a lengthy and expensive proposition.

We are keeping track of this, in a horse-race sort of way, with the tech layoff tracker. It's mainly by the numbers but I'm hoping the comments give us all a sense of what is going on out there in startup land, rather than just tossing numbers around. Let me tell you -- that never tells the whole story.

Hello, I Must Be Going

The careful reader (you two know who you are) have probably noticed a couple of things: this blog looks a little different, and I haven't been posting much lately.

Let's tackle the easy one first: I meant to change the look, but did not do so an orderly fashion by, you know, saving templates and boring stuff like that. So there are design elements in this off-the-shelf template which I will probably change, because I can't leave well enough alone. But the idea is to get back to basics and shake off all the load-heavy eye candy crap.

The tougher one: I used to tease my good friend Katie King about not blogging. I thought it was especially funny that she didn't blog because she a) taught her GWU journalism students that they had an obligation to blog, and b) because she was also a corporate consultant whose mission was to evangelize to her clients on the need to ... blog.

My goads were unfair (the best ones are). She was working, hard, and I wasn't, at all. I needed to to keep my name out there and my "skills" sharp but, more importantly, I had the time.

Free time is shorter these days as I am no longer a burden on society, so blogging takes a back seat to nearly everything. But something else has changed too, in this age of Twitter: we have rediscovered that short can be more compelling as long, that brevity breeds clarity, and that if you want to be heard, whisper.

I should have known this, as a old hand at various wire-service positions which required short, concise and accurate headlines, alerts and summaries. But that was the dog wagging the tail: technology mostly dictated that this content had to be small. With micro-blogging, the tail is now in charge, and correct on the merits.

Do I believe that blogging has become passe? Too simple. New media seldom if never kills the old. But new media do fill unexpected demands. Twitter won't die simply because we need it, even though we didn't have it even a couple of years ago, and even if they don't have one of them fancy business models.

I read blogs, too many for business, and too few for pleasure. My two friends (there's that number again, Sherlock) are among my must reads: Nicole Spridakis has been blogging for years and never fails to transport me -- armed with a recipe, a keen eye, and a way with words -- to some place I'd like to be. Now, she is apparently trying to kill herself by taking part in NaBloPoMo, which is all about getting people to blog more. I say, in her case, you can't have too much of a good thing.

Samer Farha has take up blogging, a development for which I can't take credit but which I thought was way overdue. The spark was a 61-day trip which began with work at the Bejing Olympics -- but who cares what it took: He's back in the game.

My blog won't be much about politics and media anymore, I suppose, or at least so exclusively about those things which still endlessly fascinate me (that's why God invented Twitter). And there will be less to love.

But, my friends, do as I say -- not as I do. I still have lots of time to read on my loooong commute, and I am counting on you.