Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Food Allergies

Well, I did. And his reply was: "How the hell should I know??"

Moving right along...

I'm back from New Orleans and wrangling hundreds of food photos, takeout menus and dim memories into coherent reports. It reminds me of that Chow Tour I did a few years ago (bookmark that link for an archived, cleaned-up version whose formatting, navigation, and readability hasn't been destroyed by incompetent redesigns).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Foxconn Outrage Is Misdirected

The glimpses we've seen and the stories we've heard about the deplorable conditions of Foxconn workers are shocking and upsetting. But what people don't seem to get is that life in the Third World is, to our eyes, shocking and upsetting and deplorable in general. Much more so than anything seen in these factories.

The problem's poverty, not Foxconn. And the solution to poverty is jobs - jobs like these which are more dependable and lucrative than what rural folks there are otherwise able to find. So Foxcon's the solution, not the problem. This is amply demonstrated by the great many who choose to work there, and the many more who clamor for job openings. This sort of work, appalling though it may seem from a Western perspective, represents the best hope for rural Chinese, who've suffered starvation and deprivation for centuries immemorial.

That said, it's good that pressure is being put on Foxcon to be a tad more first-worldish in their worker management. Very large aggregations of human beings toiling under an uber-powerful single point of authority creates the potential for worse atrocities than long hours and crowded housing.

But our outrage is misdirected. Poverty is awful; life in the Third World can be awful. That's the problem we're seeing, and that's where our attention ought to be directed. The glimpses of comparatively mild awfulness at Foxconn actually represent the very best edge of poverty in the Third World. It's a ludicrously misplaced battleground.

Pressuing Foxconn to offer wages and conditions even further above the prevailing norm would bring only cosmetic improvement. In the end, it would be economically distortive, inviting more Third-Worldish inefficiency and intrigue as management plays to American TV cameras, rather than contributing to building a robust and sustainable economy capable of raising a billion souls up to something resembling a middle class. As-is, these workers are toiling to make a better life for their kids. Isn't that what our grandparents did?

In a sense the Foxconn workers are like baby seals - conveniently photogenic victims spotlit to elicit outrage, distracting attention from far greater perils.

I own an iPhone, an iPad, and a Mac laptop, and I'm delighted that my purchases have helped create jobs for people whose ancestors were subjected to endless waves of famine and pestilence. I can't imagine feeling the slightest guilt over my role in this life-saving economic chain, and it absolutely astounds me that some strident parties find themselves moved to buy fewer Chinese-made gadgets, as if this shows staunch support for exploited workers. Sheer lunacy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Resurrect Lost Browser Tabs in iPad

I'm still alive. Let me just explain that the, er, lifestyle in New Orleans doesn't exactly lend itself to diligent blogging. Or diligent anything else, for that matter. But I just found a tech tip so hot that I need to rouse myself from my food coma to send it your way.

Say you've opened the maximum number of tabs in your iPad web browser. And then you choose to open a link in a new tab. Apple thoughtfully drops one of the tabs, seemingly lost forever, without any warning. Open more new tabs, and you'll quietly lose more old ones. I hate this!

But in iOS 5, there's a fix, albeit hidden and almost completely unknown. In the upper right of Safari, there's a "plus" sign you use to launch a new tab. Press and hold there, and you'll be offered a chance to reopen previously closed tabs.

Thank you, Cheeses....

Monday, February 13, 2012

New Orleans Trip #2: Weeping Over My Poultry

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

I routed my flight via Miami specifically to eat at La Carreta in Terminal D. It's part of a local chain of Cuban coffee shops, and I spent an awful lot of time at the Coral Gables branch during the year I lived in Miami.

That was decades ago, and I haven't had great Cuban since. I've eaten decent Cuban in Union City, NJ, and indecent Cuban in Corona, Queens. But never the serious real thing. It's been eating at me...and I'll do the eating around here, thank you very much. Hence my 70 minute Miami layover. 

Is the La Carreta location in the airport as good as the ones in town? No.  Are the La Carretas in town the very best places for Cuban? No. But while I'd ordered modest, generic-seeming stuff - a quarter baked chicken with moros (black beans mixed into rice) and yuca with mojo, or garlic sauce, with tres leches cake for dessert -  I writhed in my seat and beat my breast. I nearly burst into tears at several points. Those around me must have figured I was listening to Wagnerian opera over my iPod.

You see, Cuban food has a soul, and it has nothing to do with Puerto Rican or Dominican soul. It is its own thing, immediately recognizable to those who know it. Even after  years. And, like all soul realms, if you do without for too long, it can be an emotional thing to fall back under its sway. And this sublime yet unexceptional lunch just totally nailed it.

How can food this simple and generic so specifically evoke a certain culture? It's not something that can be analyzed. If it were, jambalaya would be killer up in Vermont, and Albuquerque would be rife with great chowder. Olive Garden's fare would evoke Rome, and Chipotle Grill would take you straight to Mexico. The recipes are known. Culinary secrets don't respect state boundaries. But if the ju-ju were knowable and definable, billion dollar entities would be on top of it like gandules  on rice. 

Years ago, food lovers accounted for this by pointing out that it was impossible to find the right ingredients. Well, that situation has certainly changed. Yet you still will have a devilishly hard time finding a strong sense of Place in your food whenever you're very far from that place. Why is that? Who knows. It's like Von and his cookies: even those who succeed can't account for it. It can't be bottled, and it can't be faked. It's magic. 

Well, that and vinegar. I'd forgotten how much vinegar Cubans put in everything. 

Read the next installment (#3)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Orleans Trip #1: First Class All the Way!

Here I sit at a Laguardia Airport departure gate, chastened.

As everyone knows, air travel has become unendurable. So I've been avoiding the whole scene. But it was time to go to New Orleans, and I have a slew of frequent flyer miles, so I splurged, and paid double miles to go first class!

First class! Woo!

I arrived at the airport, and proceeded to what I assumed was the first class check-in - there was a sleek hush, and only three people waiting on line. But no. That was coach. A bit further down (wait...I'm WALKING to 1st class check-in? My dormant sense of entitlement piques. I don't walk. Let the cattle walk. I'm first class, and this is an outrage!

But after WALKING like TWO HUNDRED FEET to the first class check in (sleekly hushed with three people waiting on line), I asked the check-in agent if she could lay a few of those small liquor bottles on me to tide me over till the flight. The insolent worker replied "No drinking in the lobby!". Like my comfort was some sort of joke for her or something. Can you imagine? This is someone who KNOWS how ultra-special I am!  After all, she just checked me in. Into First Class!

I peeked into the VIP Admiral's Club door, inquiring as to whether my first class ticket entitles me to privileges. "Are you an Admiral's Club member?" I was asked. Something about the situation transformed me into Larry David (worse, TELEVISION Larry David). I replied:

"What if I said "Yes"?"

"Sir, if you're a member, you're welcome to use the club"

"Really? I've been spending hundreds of dollars each year for my club membership, and never realized, until you just told me, that I'd be allowed in! So, wait, to review: you're telling me that if I'm a MEMBER, that means I'm ALLOWED TO COME IN?"

"That's correct, sir."

"Well you know what? I don't need your lousy club," I sniffed, and headed to my gate.

At the gate sat the few dozen passengers, total, who'd be flying on my enormous jumbo jet. I could have had an entire row to myself in coach, though I'll be seated next to Mr. Suede in Shades up in first class, watching him mainline Vitamin C to address the nasty cold he's obviously nursing.

They called for first class passengers to board first, but by the time I reached the jetway, they'd also invited all passengers in the rear 50 rows to board. I shuffled glacially up the tube with the hoi polloi, my trombone constantly bustled by the chatty, twitchy woman on a cell phone behind me. When I reached my seat, I found that all the overheads, even in first class, were full.

First class! Woo!

Read the next installment (#2)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Coconut Water Response (and a Discussion of Snobbery and Reverse Snobbery)

I just got an email from an old friend regarding my recent coconut water tasting. He pointed me to this interesting article from today's Wall Street Journal ("The Beverage Wars Move to Coconuts"). Thanks for the link!

But he was unhappy with my tasting report:
"I was shocked at your decision to report on "high-end" coconut water. Seems so out of character for you. My false image of you is the guy who discovers the cheap little out of the way places, not the guys with the big ad budgets."
False is right! I've been dogged by that misapprehension since I first started writing in 1988. There's a subtle snobbery at work.

25 years ago, it was just barely acceptable to write seriously and respectfully about restaurants that weren't high-end French, Italian, or Japanese. Just barely! But swathes of the culinary spectrum remained untouchable. When I submitted a serious, respectful review of a Colombian street cart vendor, my editor smirked and refused to publish it. Eventually, he was persuaded. But it was perceived to be some seriously dodgy stuff, and ridiculed in print by no less than the future NY Times critic Sam Sifton (who was also, interestingly, my editor at the time).

Today, it's become acceptable to respect the full range of creative offerings, even when scandalously inexpensive. But those who do so are forever branded as bottom-feeders. For reasons that can only be attributed to snobbery, it's assumed that this is all they're interested in. If you eat only high-end French, you're a gourmet. But if you eat high-end French and also Dominican chicharrones, you're a cheap-eats person, period (even though chicharrones are lardons!)

As I wrote in the introduction to the "Chowhound's Guide" series for Penguin:
"Different pleasures come at different prices, and a chowhound seeks to enjoy the full spectrum, so we cover it all. Chowhounds are neither snobs nor reverse snobs because both miss out on too much pleasure. The mantra is "deliciousness is deliciousness"; a wonderful brownie baked with ample love, skill, and pride is as worthy of respect and admiration as the richest Persicus caviar. You'll get the best possible use from this guide if you, too, embrace deliciousness in all its many manifestations."
I've written extensively about Vintage port since the early 1990's. After Alain Ducasse opened his first titanically expensive Manhattan outpost on a summer night in 2000, there were several Chowhound reports the following day, from the same folks who'd been gleefully reporting on congee and tacos. Chowhound has always teemed with savvy and complete analysis of some of the world's most high-end restaurants. Yet, to this day, the users of my web site and I are considered by a surprisingly large number of people to be declassé at best, and reverse-snobs at worst.

As stated in the old FAQ:
So chowhounds are bottom-feeders, the types who eat the cheapest possible chow?

No. Chowhounds are not unshaven men in dirty raincoats, darting out of foul-smelling storefronts while shoving cheap greasy yum-yums in their mouths. Chowhounds are driven to deliciousness, period, and they'll go way out of their way to find honest, evocative eating at any price range. That said, they're also savvy enough to appreciate value, so they'd rather not buy their rugelach at Balducci's when the same pastries are available at the baker's outlet in Brooklyn at a fraction of the price. And they hate to pay $50 for dishes cooked better elsewhere for $20. But you can't get foie gras for six bucks, and Chateau Margaux is one heckuva great drink.
It seems uber-reasonable to me. And it's the very point I was always trying to make with Chowhound. And it was, indeed made. Resoundingly! Thunderously, even! Yet the misapprehension remains.

Back to my friend's email:
"And also an odd concept - if it's a natural product, why is Zico "higher-end" than Goya?"
Coffee is a natural product, as well. As is orange juice, saffron, mushrooms, chicken, and any number of foods, including water itself, which are known to range widely in quality. The main variables, as elsewhere, are sourcing (all coconuts are not alike, much less equally fresh), processing methods and diligence, and packaging quality. Plus overall diligence and caring.

I was interested in coconut water well ahead of the trend. And I grew tired of the "cooked" flavor and sour aftertaste I experienced from brands at the time, all of them cheap. Over the past couple of years, new brands have appeared, some of them taking greater care in sourcing and processing. I wanted to check them all out side-by-side.
"In any case, it looks like there is no guarantee that a particular brand will source from a particular place, so it's probably a moving target..."
There is certainly pooling, and there are any number of purely marketing-driven brands (as I noted in the article). And that includes plenty of Goya-esque sour, "cooked" coconut water being marked up in fancy packaging. But the tasting uncovered some standouts. Which was, after all, the objective, no?

Friday, February 10, 2012

High-End Coconut Water Tasting

See also my massive granola tasting from 2009.

Coconut water has several markets. First, it makes a dandy thirst quencher and electrolyte-replacer, much more natural and less sweet than Gatorade and its ilk. So its become the drink of choice for lots of athletes.

Revelers love it because when you're feeling queasy (e.g. the day after), you need electrolytes. Regular water will only make you more nauseous.

And because it has half the calories of soda (about 50 calories/cup), it attracts dieters.

Coconut water also tastes great, attracting food lovers. And that, of course, is my angle.

Because of its wide appeal, coconut water is a huge trend. Zillions of brands are on the market, each claiming to be more natural, pure, and clean-tasting than the others. For purposes of this tasting, I ignored down-market brands (Goya, Vita Coco, etc.) and concentrated on new products, obscure products, and/or products making a big hoo-hah about how super-premium they are.

Biggest surprise of the tasting: I didn't realize how malty-tasting much coconut water is. That may be why I like the stuff (give me malt balls, give me malteds, and I'm a happy man).

First, a distinction. Coconut water comes from young coconuts. What Americans usually think of  - the sweet, oily, coconut used in, say, macaroons - is made from mature coconuts, and is a whole other thing. Young coconuts, like any young fruit, are relatively unsweet. Its flesh is much more tender.


Taste Nirvana

Wow. All the others seem comparatively anemic. The aroma is like a virtual reality experience of fresh young coconut - even better, it smells like some sort of exotic Thai varietal (note: I didn't read the marketing for any of these products, so I'm just riffing on what I tasted).

In the mouth, it's a few degrees sweeter than the others, but still by no means sugary, and the flavor is deliriously layered and nuanced. This is the only product which merits an out-and-out cry of "delicious!" - rather than, say, "refreshing!", or "clean!". I don't know how thirst-quenching this would be, but since it contains a generous amount of coconut pulp (the others did not), Taste Nirvana doesn't seem intended for hardcore athletes, anyway. Amazon link

Nature Factor
Pure young coconut nose (with a distinctively Southeast Asian nuance, ala Taste Nirvana). Slightly sweet, and with a good hit of malt, so there's more going on, flavor-wise, than in some of the more austere products, yet the finish is so dry and clear and clean that this would still function well for the athletic, the hungover, or the athletically hungover.
Amazon link

Coco Libre organic
Clean. No "off", processed flavors. Grassy and quenching, especially in the finish. Sole objection is a slight "cooked" flavor.
Amazon link

Coconut water is such a huge trend that there have appeared myriad "marketing-driven brands", meaning shiny repackagings of the same-old stuff. Coco Libre has made a big push in the market, but good luck probing beyond the marketing to figure out who actually makes this stuff. The source is a shadowy outfit called Maverick Brands, which also sells a line of juices for the Sunkist brand....including Sunkist Coconut Water. And I'll bet that's the same stuff. But I've never seen it anywhere. But if its the same, and it becomes widely available at a good price, that'd be a good thing.

C2O was a favorite of several tasters on the panel, so it gets an honorable mention even though I thought it tasted a bit processed and cooked. Wonderful aroma, though, of good fresh young coconut, and I suspect that's what won people over.
Amazon link

Note: this blended really well with dark rum, for a piña-less colada.


Cali Coco
Super dry and minerally. Nary a dab of sweetness; in fact, it's so dry you can almost taste the trace natural sodium. Indisputably quenching. Good if you're running a marathon. But this stuff is so obscure it hardly googles, so good luck actually finding any.

The most famous and widely-available coconut water we tried (it's at Trader Joe's, among other retail). Quite malty, and just slightly funky, as if some element of the bottling line wasn't completely cleaned. Otherwise nicely natural-tasting, though it lacks the clear, clean finish of Coco Libre.
Amazon link

Perfectly ok. Nothing very noteworthy to report. Just not up to the standards of many of the other products.
Amazon link

Has taffy/candy-ish flavor, yet is paradoxically unsweet. Neither very pure-tasting nor very interesting.
Amazon link

Harmless Harvest 100% Raw
I had high hopes. This is a tiny little bottle, with an expiration window akin to milk (the others have the lifespan of drywall). Label looks like it was created by a 4th grader with a crayon. Nobody's ever seen this stuff before, and it hardly googles.

But it's got a toasty/brown-sugary flavor (one taster compared it to Captain Crunch), which makes it the very opposite of-thirst-quenching...and isn't that the point of coconut water?


Very unpleasant industrial/chemical aroma. The flavor is weird, and doesn't coax a second sip. It's possible my sample wasn't fresh (I tried to check all sell-by dates, but may have missed one or two). But it didn't taste spoiled so much as just plain lousy.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Graduates of the Chelm School of Business

This may be the most insanely misguided biz idea of the century thus far.

VisionArt allows you to "disguise" your big clunky large-screen TV by having it display art. Great idea, no? does it work?

Why, via motorized retracting canvas, of course! And you can buy arty images for a nominal few thousand bucks each (alas, no flying toasters)! And it goes without saying that there's a Ponzi scheme element.

Forgive any typos, I'm nearly epileptic with laughter as the full weight of this craziness registers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Don't They Let Me Write Obama's Speeches?

I'd have done it like this:

"I remain staunchly opposed to the power of big money in election campaigns, generally, and to the Citizens United decision, specifically, which has led to the formation of these superpacs which, as we all know, have been distorting our elections.

"However, for now, the rules are the rules. And just as a major league manager may be firmly opposed to the designated hitter rule, and think it's bad for baseball, but nonetheless must swap out his pitchers in order to compete, so my campaign is forced to play by the current rules if we're going to have an even fight.

"My efforts will, however, remain undiminished in favor of campaign law reform, and reducing the domination of big money in American elections."

Hey, it's at least better than this:

Monday, February 6, 2012

The People Who Know

In "Disappointed by Obama?", I wrote: "in the case of foreign policy, I think Obama was profoundly shaken when made fully aware of threats we know little about (his reversal on issues like Gitmo and drones certainly weren't done to garner political capital - conservative hawks may have been quietly pleased, but they ain't ever voting for the guy)."

To that point, here's a revelatory story from Daniel Ellsberg's early years as an establishment analyst, before he turned radically anti-war. Henry Kissinger had just entered government for the first time - as Nixon's National Security Advisor - and Ellsberg was offering him some advice (this is an excerpt, but you ought to read the whole thing, which is pretty short):
"Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

"You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hire a Dynamite H.R. Person!

During my time with CNET, the single most competent and decent employee I met in the entire company (other than Max Mead) was part of the human resources department. I'll call her Linda.

The complexity of corporate employment issues keeps increasing, and it will only accelerate as the new health insurance rules cut in. Linda has a gift for patient, clear, kind explanation, both one-on-one and in the documents and materials she created. She designed a web page explaining some pretty unexplainable aspects of health coverage, and I found myself dumbfounded and moved by the level of care she'd taken, and the deep clarity she'd achieved.

One doesn't expect to be moved by a corporate health coverage materials. But magic can appear anywhere. It's a byproduct of caring, and diligently working until the result's completely permeated with that caring. Everything Linda did was like that. She was ace.

Decent, honest, smart, and eminently competent, Linda was let go by CNET, and now works elsewhere. But the current job's a poor fit, and her employer is going through merger spurts, so the position's future is not assured. Linda reports:
"I'm not located close to Silicon Valley which is causing problems. My dream would be to have a pod small space to crash during the week in Silicon Valley and come home on the weekends, but I don't know who is doing that besides maybe Google. I've talked to Google, Facebook, Zynga, no luck. They are looking for innovators since that's what they do - - I think innovation is getting a company to pay for good medical coverage."
Damn right, Linda.

I've offered some good tips here over the years (SIGA may seem like a dud for now, but we'll see how it works out in the end!), but this is as good as any: If you - or anyone you know - is in a position to hire a human resources person, Linda will be one of the best hires you'll ever make.

To be put in contact, shoot me an email.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Anti-Obama Hatred is Racially Healing

If the right hadn't despised Bill Clinton so brutally and viscerally, and so far beyond any sane justification, America would now be embroiled in the most savage race conflicts of its history. Because without the precedent of Bill Clinton, the right's vicious disparagement of Barrack Obama would have been seen as flagrantly and exclusively racist.

While some anti-Obama hatred does likely stem from racism, recent history of ferocious white-on-white hatred re: Clinton (and, for that matter, Bush) makes it reasonable to chalk much of it up to politics. And having working class Americans detest a black man for his party affiliation is really quite a wonderful thing, unimaginable just a couple of decades ago. It's comparatively easy to elect a charming, brilliant African-American president. But to have him despised for his politics - now that's transformation!

But, again, it weren't for anti-Clintonism, anti-Obamaism would register as a pure and relentless torrent of racism. Outrage in the black community would have erupted, and that's where the real harm would start. Because in reaction to such outrage, white Obama haters - including those against him purely for being on the wrong political team - would have accepted the gauntlet and escalated the conflict. It's what we humans do. We respond to side-taking by taking sides and escalating conflict.

Thank heavens for Clinton and his insane blow job impeachment trap, etc.. As a result, hatred of Obama, even with its occasional innuendos, is the most racially healing phenomenon in America's recent history. The country sees conservative blacks who are rabidly anti-Obama, and liberal and moderate whites who are avidly pro-Obama. We see an African-American man under widespread attack for reasons largely unrelated to race. A shift has occurred, swiftly redrawing the lines of "us" and "them", and, as a result, racial side-taking no longer has a place at the table among the grown-ups. This has got to confuse the bejesus out of those who still see the world in terms of old conflicts and polarizations.

Donate to Planned Parenthood's Breast Health Fund

I've made a generous donation to the Planned Parenthood Breast Health Fund to help make up for the suspended funding of cancer screening as a result of pressure from crazed idiots. I'd urge you to do likewise. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg says,
"Breast cancer screening saves lives, and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care. We should be helping women access that care, not placing barriers in their way."
If you happen to be philosophically opposed to abortion - as many non-crazed non-idiots are - you should know that your donation goes exclusively to breast cancer screening, rather than to Planned Parenthood as a whole, if you use this link (which also ensures that Mayor Bloomberg will match your contribution, up to a total of $250,000).

If you donate, be sure to contact if you'd like to be opted out of mailing lists.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Apple Genius Seizes and Screws With My Phone

Last year, there were reports that any iPhones coming in for servicing were being returned with tamper-proof screws swapped in, to prevent people from modifying the innards. The Geniuses and techs reported (off the record) feeling "icky" about doing this, but they had to follow orders. It was creepy, but probably borderline legal, since the phones were being serviced anyway.

Well, how about this? Yesterday, I brought my iPhone 4 and wireless keyboard to an Apple genius (sic) to help with a problem connecting the two. It was fixed, working perfectly, and I was about to thank her and leave when the genius abruptly told me she'd take my phone to the back room just "to make sure it works with her keyboard" ....and off she ran. With my phone. Stunned by the non-sequitor, I had no time to object. Reappearing five minutes later, she beamed about how, yep, it works with her keyboard! And my phone had the new screws.

This is a whole other level. If they replace screws during a servicing, there's weasel room to excuse the swap, creepy though it is. But if they grab your phone from you and do unrelated, unapproved, and unacknowledged stuff under false and ridiculous pretenses (wait, you want to try it with your keyboard? Huh?!?), that's well outside weasel boundaries and into impropriety and, likely, illegality.

I'm trying to decide how big a fuss to make over it. Anyway, I guess we need to treat Apple Store genius visits like prison visits - hold onto your stuff and don't let it be taken from you under any circumstances.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Facebook Ain't It

Facebook's going IPO, and we'll all soon be able to invest. I believe it's a sucker's bet, and here's why.

Facebook's valuation is so ginormous that they've got to grow their advertising market by something like 30% over each of the next ten years. That's just to break even with expectations. To actually make profit for investors, results must exceed even that!

Such a future might, in fact, be imaginable if this were the Ultimate Web Phenom everyone's been waiting for. Netscape wasn't it. Yahoo wasn't it. AOL wasn't it, nor was MySpace. A number of increasingly large companies have been anointed Ultimate Web Phenom, only to be swept aside in turn. Facebook seems different because of its immense userbase, cultural ubiquity, and thriving revenue (something none of those other companies enjoyed). But it will be another transitional player, because it's still not the optimal model for matching viewers and ads.

Facebook makes its money by selling eyeballs to advertisers in highly specific bundles (teenaged dance enthusiasts, 40-ish female tennis players, etc). Marketers love this specificity, and pay through the wazoo for it. But while Facebook, and its vaunted data, allows much smarter advertising than the old gambit of sticking big banner ads in front of everyone en masse, it's still not optimal. In fact, it's pretty damned primitive, and may never mature within Facebook's framework.

Facebook categorizes us via our stated interests. But we state as our interests those areas in which we're already experienced - the realms we're so deeply into that they define us, and are therefore labels we publicly don. For example, several of my stated interests are yoga-ish, so I get flooded with ads for yoga sticky mats and hatha yoga books. But I'm already into yoga, so I don't need Facebook to tell me where to buy sticky mats and asana books. I'm the guy other people ask for tips on that. I never click on yoga ads, just like you never click on ads for things you know lots about. Facebook knows what we're knowledgable about, but knowledgeable people don't click random topical little ads. They're for saps and neophytes.

The areas where I'm more receptive to ads are ones where I'm a sappish neophyte. For example, I'm considering taking up Chinese cookery. So I'm open to ads for woks, stir frying classes, etc. If I were a seasoned enthusiast, I'd already be tapped into all that, and spurn such ads.

The problem is that we don't list our new and passing interests in our Facebook profiles. And while Facebook may eventually encourage us to do so, none of us would keep that up religiously. I put care into listing interests which define me. They're solid and static; in fact, they're the things that solidify me. But I really have to think to come up with a list of things I'm toying with being interested in at any given moment. That stuff's dynamic, semi-conscious, and volatile - not the sort of thing we proudly broadcast in a static profile.

Facebook will likely never be the vehicle for tallying fresher, more impressionable interests. It's just not what it's built to be. So I will continue to smirk at its ads for yoga, trombone, beer, travel, and art, knowing none will hit the vanishingly small sweet spot of interest for a devotee like me.

So, unless Zuckerberg has something remarkable up his sleeve (not that it's easy for monstrously huge public corporations to make dramatic shifts), Facebook's not the final word.

(Obviously, not every Facebook user is a deep expert in every listed interest. And, obviously, lots of ads are being clicked on, hence Facebook's $2B annual ad revenue. But my point stands. The ability to advertise to groups via "interests" is heady and new for marketers, but Facebook's deeply dug in to the wrong end of that continuum. Yes, people are clicking - more than they ever did on mass banner ads - but they could click a lot more. So, like Netscape, Yahoo, AOL, and MySpace before it, Facebook may be bigger and better than what's come before, but it ain't the final word, either.)

(Also: I do realize that, ideally, Facebook would sell demographics, rather than individual interests. But most people don't tell Facebook their age, their job, their income, their religion, their race, etc. The demographic info is actually quite weak. The data hinges on interests, which is why, for all their prowess and advancement, I'm still seeing slews of frigging sticky mat ads whenever I surf in, even though I have never ever clicked a single one of them - so much for the vaunted narrow segmentation!

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