Monthly Archives: May 2007

The US innovation edge

Dan Gillmor: “If I am in a position to hire someone, all other things equal, I will absolutely favor someone who’s failed at something interesting — and learned from his or her mistakes — over someone who’s taken the seemingly safe route.”
Dan’s comment, typical to the point of banality in the Bay Area, marks one of the clearest cultural differences between the open, risk-taking, entrepreneurial environments of the US and the closed, hidebound business cultures that prevail almost everywhere else.

Those open houses will be off the family schedule

In another corner of the blog world, the entertaining property blogs from upstart Redfin have been axed because the crucial Multiple Listing Service threatened the company with shutdown. Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman explains:

After almost a year of negotiations came to a head with the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS), Redfin announced yesterday morning that it would no longer publish in-person reviews on our blog. NWMLS rules forbid Redfin from advertising another broker’s listing, and the NWMLS deemed our reviews (particularly the harsh ones) as an advertisement. The NWMLS fined Redfin and has explained that our compliance with the rules is a prerequisite for continuing to access its database of listings. It is Redfin’s first major setback with an MLS, and everyone here is a little blue about it.

In my household, this is of more than passing interest. My wife, Tracey Taylor, is one of the Redfin bloggers – the best of the lot to my mind (I would say that, wouldn’t I, but judge for yourself). Blogging for Redfin enabled her to combine two things she enjoys – looking at houses and writing – and get paid a bit for the pleasure. To my mind, the MLS pressure on Redfin isn’t because of anything that has been written about houses. It’s the discount commission Redfin provides buyers. Realtors are one of the old-style cartels that desperately need to be broken up. It will happen eventually and everyone will wonder why it was tolerated for so long.

The cloak for incompetence

I’ve just started reading Diplomacy Lessons, by John Brady Kiesling, who has the distinction of being the only US government official to resign on principle over the war in Iraq. It looks very promising, but paging through my copy I was startled to see some blanked out passages. Here’s Kiesling’s explanation:

To obtain my State Department security clearance I signed an agreement that I would not publish a book on my experiences without submitting it to the State Department for a security review. I complied. My reviewer, always helpful and courteous, was able to persuade the agencies involved to disgorge my manuscript after five months.

More often than not, secrecy is a cloak for incompetence. Perhaps this is why the current US administration is the most secretive in recent history. Four agencies generated a list of some seventy-two requested deletions, many of them prudent but others based on the misconception that foreigners would read my book but not their own newspapers.

Pretending that covert operations can be kept secret from their victims indefinitely is wishful thinking or worse. Retired CIA officials talk pretty freely to journalists and write self-glamorizing memoirs.

I made a good-faith effort to respect my obligations without undermining the utility of the book to the US public. Where the requested deletions were legitimate I made them without noting them in the text. I also rewrote key episodes to replace arguably sensitive examples with information available to any newspaper reader. Where words or paragraphs are blacked out in the text, it is a plea to readers to be skeptical of their government’s desire to keep them in the dark.

Back from hiatus

Many blogs that I read have the helpful habit of alerting readers to prolonged absence. I used to do the same myself. But I just looked up and realized that I’ve been away from Davos Newbies for more than a fortnight. So here’s a metaphoric clearing of the throat to announce I’m back in the room.

The simple explanation for my long hiatus is that both my mind and my time were too crowded with other activities to write anything I thought worthwhile here. At work, I’ve been involved in a mammoth project that is now nearing completion. There are loose ends to tidy up, but the heavy-duty effort of construction is largely over. At home, my tennis obsession probably got slightly out of control in the last month, as I’ve juggled the two teams I captain and added another one where I’m merely a player. I’ve long had the aspiration of playing tennis every day, and I came close to realizing that dream. But it meant that too much else – most glaringly family life, but the blog, too – got squeezed.

Anyhow, I think mind, body and spare time are now in a more healthy balance. So I plan to return to something like regular posting.

The steady downward path of the New York Times op-ed page

In yesterday’s New York Times, second-rate biographer AN Wilson pontificated on the premiership of Tony Blair. I know there is always a mystery about the Times’s choices for its once-prestigious op-ed pages, but I would have thought that someone with a bit of a record on political observation would be the natural choice. Instead, Wilson was able to vent without any apparent need to check facts on the Blair legacy.

Here is a paragraph that particularly got my goat:

Then there was Blair the Efficient, who told us he would improve the educational system, transportation, hospitals: in all these areas, Britain is in a parlous state, with railway accident rates reminding us of the 19th century and true literacy levels much lower than those of the Victorians. As many as one-quarter of British parents now pay for ruinously expensive private education for the children. That is the measure of Mr. Blair’s success with the schools.

Maybe I’m missing an attempt at satire, but there is hardly a true word in the paragraph. Wilson states that one-quarter of parents go private. Where does that figure come from? The true figure is 6.3% of students in England and Wales attend private schools. According to the CIA World Factbook, 99% of the population of the UK is literate. I’m not sure what Wilson means by “true literacy”, but I’m sure it was lower by any measure in Victorian times. I haven’t sourced statistics on railway accidents per mile, but most people reckon the problems with trains in Britain can be traced to the misguided privatization scheme of the former Conservative government. Health? There are certainly tons of problems in the National Health Service, but the health outcomes for the population are better on average than in the US, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

If you want to read thoughtful, well-argued, well-supported analyses of the Blair decade, turn to Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, David Marquand in The Guardian or even the epistolary responses of David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris in The Times (of London).

My take? I think Stephens gets it pretty much right. Blair led a much-needed transformation domestically and achieved more than he is given credit for and less than many hoped. His social democratic stance has become the political norm in the country, which is wholly to the good. Outside Britain, he did a lot for Africa, the Balkans and the drive to combat climate change. But he will forever be correctly tarred for his terrible misjudgment on Iraq.

The true story of entrepreneurship

Matt Mullenweg, the father of WordPress, provides true insight into the thinking of a good, innovative entrepreneur. Would that they were all like this. Makes me proud to be a WordPress user.

I hardly ever quote at length, but this is worth it in full:

One thing I’ve noticed about talking to certain types of press, particularly mainstream, is that they have a pattern in mind before they write about something, and the better you conform to the pattern the more coverage you get.

I think what they really want is an unusually young founder, possibly with a partner, who stumbled on an idea in an epiphany moment, implemented it in days, and then enjoyed overnight success, preferably capped with some sort of financial hook such as a huge VC funding or selling out to a large company for millions of dollars.

It’s not uncommon to get leading questions trying to hit a point in the above patterns… Yes, WordPress really is four years old. I was 19. No, I didn’t create it alone, if I did you would have never heard of it. Actually, it entered a rather crowded field, not even close to being first. No, not planning to sell it, there isn’t really anything to sell, it’s more of a movement. No, I didn’t make 60 million dollars in 18 months.

What’s worst is I think these stories sell a false promise and hope to people outside of the industry — it attracts the wrong type of entrepreneurs — and inside of the industry it distracts us from what really matters.

Someday I think there will be a realization that the real story is more exciting than the cookie-cutter founder myth the media tries frame everything in. It’s not just one or two guys hacking on something alone, it’s dozens of people from across the world coming together because of a shared passion. It’s not about selling out to a single company, it’s dozens of companies independently adopting and backing an open source platform for no reason other than its quality. I’m not a millionaire, and may never be, but there are now hundreds of people making their living using WordPress, and I expect that number to grow to tens of thousands. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, not the prospect of becoming a feature on an internet behemoth’s checklist.

Finally it’s not Web 2.0, or another bandwagon me-too content management system with AJAX, it’s a mature project that has been around and grown up over four years of hard work, and it has many, many more years of hard work ahead of it. I smile these days when I see WordPress referred to as an “overnight success,” if only they knew how long an overnight success takes.

Ulysses Grant: the new history

I’m completely absorbed at the moment in Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Ulysses Grant. It’s an amazing story, written with real panache and, it seems to me, historical rigor (two qualities that don’t always go together). Why am I so captured by Grant?

First, I grew up at a time when Grant was seen as a rather pitiful figure. A successful general, yes, but also drunk, disheveled and corrupt. And as president? A disaster. Smith makes a very different case and in the opening pages of the book also tries to address that image of Grant that I had. Grant was disheveled, certainly, but that’s part of his charm. He also had a fondness for drink, but when it mattered he was far more sober than most nineteenth century judges. The bad rap on Grant seems largely the work of southern historians eager to promote their guy – Robert E. Lee – at the expense of our guy.

One of the aspects of Grant’s career that I knew nothing about was his complete financial ruin before the war. He had been a successful soldier, but a minor scandal led him to leave the army. He was always poor with money – too kind-hearted and gullible – and he just scraped enough for him and his family to live on by selling firewood door-to-door in St Louis. Yet a couple of years later he was leading the Union army to victory at Vicksburg. Certainly as remarkable a rags-to-fame story as exists in American history. An extraordinary tale.

One useless piece of Grant trivia, sure to stump most people. What does the “S” in Ulysses S. Grant stand for?

The ROWGs gallery

John Ridley: “While the Dems were able to showcase talent that looked like America, the Republicans hit us up with near carbon copies of a ROWGs gallery — for those who don’t read me regularly, that’s Rich Old White Guys.”

It’s increasingly clear that it’s a great time for Democrats. I have growing hope for the US. Some intelligent Republicans (there are still a few) are coming to the same conclusion.

Yes, it is the best newspaper in the world

Brad DeLong declares the Financial Times the world’s best newspaper. He’s surely right about papers in the English language. After a few months of getting my FT fix by website, I opted for home delivery the other week. Reading my FT last night (which included the Larry Summers column on global warming that inspired Brad) I felt that warm glow of satisfaction that comes from holding something truly exceptional.

I still like my New York Times and Wall Street Journal (editorial pages excepted in the latter case), but the FT’s global view and easily worn erudition are far more to my taste.

What interested me, as a sophisticated Web user, is how valuable the paper copy remains. Good editors have value that doesn’t really come across online. Take yesterday’s FT. Online, I wouldn’t have read the articles about the protests and court cases concerning the planned ascent of Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul to the presidency. But since an FT editor had decided to place it as the second lead story on page one, it drew my attention. And the first thing I did this morning was check what had happened (the constitutional court declared the first round of the presidential election invalid, sidelining Gul, which is a fascinating and important development in a key country).

Editors, when they do their job well, are still immensely valuable.

Incidentally, some editor should have done a better job with that Larry Summers column. I thought it was incredibly lame to end by promising to offer solutions “next month”. If you write daily, you can get away with that. A weekly columnist would be on thin ground, to my mind. Summers, who writes once a month for the FT, should have been told it was ridiculous to offer a follow-up one month after the original column. I know it’s Larry Summers, but some editorial backbone was desperately required.