Monday, September 29, 2008

I Don't Like It There Much, Anymore

Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit used to be one of my favorite blogs on the internet. He's also one of the internet's most successful and popular political bloggers, so he's not exactly an undiscovered gem. But if you've read any of the politics posts on my site, my previous admiration for Instapundit would probably surprise you. "Isn't Glenn just a partisan Republican flack, snarkily repeating every conservative orthodoxy?," you might ask. Why would I put him among my favorites when my own political instincts break distinctly to the other side of the aisle?

After 9/11, Instapundit emerged as one of the so-called "war blogger" sites, providing thoughtful, patriotic commentary on geopolitics, the war on terror, and the mainstream media's tendency to soft-pedal the threat of Islamic extremism in order to score political points against the administration of George Bush.

However, unlike many of the "war bloggers," Glenn, a University of Tennessee law professor, was not a one trick pony. He had an active intelligence and an omnivorous appetite for pop culture. He is an excellent source of science fiction reviews, for example, and has championed many interesting authors on his blog. He likes music. He's interested in digital photography. He covers many compelling legal issues of the day, as well as many local Knoxville or Tennessee issues. He is an astute critic of the self-righteousness of the mainstream media. He has linked to a lot of small bloggers and brought them an audience (the so-called "instalanche" of traffic). And he does it with a nice style -- terse, well-edited commentary that lets the links speak for themselves, with a little editorial cherry on top.

Refreshingly, he was also politically open-minded and independent. He is a hawk on the war (broadly defined), but reasonable and able to criticize the failings of the Bush administration's prosecution of the Iraq theatre, in particular. In fact, he has been something of a lone empiricist on the war in a sea of ideologues -- vis his support of Michael Yon and others who venture outside the confines of the Green Zone to report. He had many socially liberal or libertarian impulses, which he was not afraid to foreground. Reading Glenn, at least in the past, you felt like you were interacting with a real person, with real, complicated political views.

Glenn has gotten a lot of criticism over the years from the likes of Tony Pierce and Oliver Willis for being a crypto-Republican, but I don't think that was entirely fair, at least in the past. Yes, he supported the Republican George Bush over the likes of Gore and Kerry; I know many rational independents who thought Bush was a dangerous lightweight, but who still found Gore and Kerry unpalatable.

Over the last year, though, I feel like Glenn has come unhinged. He's lost his independent spirit, his ability to see through the artifice of politics to the real truths, as he had often done in the past. Honestly, I see little difference in his current politics from the likes of Hugh Hewitt and Bill Kristol. He's become a Republican tool, in the thrall of the McCain campaign.

He clearly doesn't like Obama. That's not the issue. The issue is his utter inability to see the American zeitgeist laid bare in front of him. In the past, he'd have cleverly barbecued McCain for the Sarah Palin selection (while acknowledging the populist, anti-intellectual impulse behind it). He'd have thrown fits over McCain's cynical stunts. But recently he seems so deeply in bed with the right, not just on the war (which has always been his central, defining issue), but across the board, that he's just not that fun to read any more.

I used to not agree with him all the time, but I found him intelligent, challenging, and worthy of engagement. Now, I think he's just another predictable Republican idiot, the moral equivalent of those robotic surrogates regurgitating the party line on CNN. I find myself looking forward to election day, when he's going to get all his monotonic pro-McCain rhetoric, his petty attempt to equivocate Obama's "naivete" and "corruption" with McCain's lack of fitness for the presidency, slammed back up his ass.

And I think it's a damn shame.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stunt Man

You know, I gave McCain too much credit, calling him an antagonist rather than a leader. In fact, he's actually a stunt man, lurching from one massive, insanely risky, and highly self-dramatizing performance to the next. Hurricane's coming .... cancel the convention! Time to select my VP ... pick the hockey mom who has only been outside the US once! Wall Street is in crisis ... no, the fundamentals of our economy are strong!  Woops, did I say that? I meant: fire the chairman of the SEC!  Losing momentum because I'm not perceived as competent on the economy ... cancel the debates!  Suspend the campaign!  It's a joke, really.

I can't believe this is playing well in middle America.  Certainly, the poll moves for Obama in recent days suggest that the combination of McCain pinballing his way through this economic crisis and the unravelling of the myth of Sarah Palin (vis the pathetic Katie Couric interview, including this cringe-worthy exchange on the Alaska-is-close-to-Russia meme) is collectively lifting the democratic candidate to new heights, particularly in the key battleground states. Sending his bullet-headed attack dog, Steve Schmidt, out to snarl at the New York Times every day may work with the black helicopter crowd, but is it working on Main Street?

McCain is increasingly reminiscent of that crazy old dude at the home, who storms out the front door in his underwear, shouting, "You can't tell me what to do," at the nurses. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Sometimes, I really wonder about the Silicon Valley echo chamber. I spent the day yesterday at GigaOm's Mobilize conference, which is really a first-rate show. Great panels, well done.

But the concentration on mobile internet companies and start-ups really masks the reality of the mobile business. If you had just woken up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep and attended this conference, you'd believe that the Apple iPhone was as ubiquitous as the Nokia Series 40, that Google's Android was the second coming, and that everybody in the world was sitting in their homes and cars, just waiting to grab mobile applications and social networking tools on their mobile phones. You'd also wonder why the evil carriers were holding all this magnificent innovation back from the long-suffering public.

I love my iPhone. I think it's great. I love my Blackberry, too. But I am a sophisticated, prosperous, urban geek. I don't presume to believe that the rest of the world is lusting for these devices. I saw this same phenomenon with Palm -- everybody in Silicon Valley had a Palm Pilot, and just presumed everyone else in America did, too. Or wanted one. Guess again.

As I sat in the audience yesterday, I couldn't help but think, man, there is going to be a lot of carnage in the mobile application developer community. Two things are going to drive that.

One, the mobile advertising revenues just aren't there. I've talked to developers who thought they were going to get $10-$20 ECPMs and they are actually getting less than $1. It is simply not possible to get to public company scale as an ad-based pure play right now, and I would bet that it's going to be several years before we see a mobile ad-based pure play with >$40MM annual revenues. So the whole internet idea of free, media model-based mobile content is only viable if you are monetizing somewhere else, like on the web (Yelp, Facebook, etc.).

Two, all these open or pseudo-open platforms are good for developers, but not so great for creating publishing leverage and aggregation points. Sure, it's useful to get something up and out there without the overhead of dealing with slow moving carrier content people, but there is a downside.

There are currently 3,000 iPhone apps, with hundreds of new ones being submitted each month. So you've turned a first order problem (i.e., how to get on the deck) into a second order problem (i.e., how to get noticed amongst the flood of apps on the deck). Instead of bribing the carriers with MDF for placement like we did in the old days, you have to spend even more money marketing direct to consumer. We're back to reach and brands -- that's how you get above the noise.

Think I'm just being old-school? Go do a search for "sudoku" on the app store; there are fifty sudoku games on the deck. Five zero. You think anyone is sifting though that mess on the basis of quality? If you are in a competitive category, like sudoku, you pretty much have to be free. Meaning, ad supported, with limited revenue potential due to the low CPMs, mentioned above. Everyone forgets that the walled garden was great if you were inside the wall. Kept all the weeds and parasites out.

As I've been saying all summer: the killer app for iPhone is the app store itself. It is the very concept of personalization, of relevant content at your fingertips. It's not any one specific application. Apple has no interest in giving any individual app producer distribution leverage or gatekeeper status -- it's not their style. They'll continue to slice and dice the apps by category, and let the oceans run red.

Despite this, there were some compelling comments from the various panelists. Paran Johar from Jumptap was very candid and smart about the nature of mobile advertising. Jason Devitt from Skydeck was spot on about user interface in the mobile world and the need for simplicity. The "mobile gurus" panel was entertaining -- even though I don't like the Zumobi product very much, I thought their founder, John SanGiovanni, had a manic intelligence, a real sense of the future, and many good points about design.

It was good to get the carrier panel and the VC panel at the end of the day. The VC's were at least truthful about the difficulty of creating big businesses and I was happy to hear them mention my start-up, JAMDAT, as the biggest mobile exit in the modern era -- although the iFund guy, Matt Murphy, was kind of disingenuous about his "JAMDAT did it with 5% penetration; iPhone apps are at 10X that rate" -- yeah, but iPhone is far less than 5% of the market, so 50% penetration of iPhone is less than half our 5% penetration rate, since we were on virtually every handset.

The carriers were hopeful but sober about the future. They reminded everyone in the audience that they were in a mass market business, and needed solutions that worked across their range of handsets. I thought Frank Meehan from 3UK was particularly coherent in his thinking.

But for me the best part of the day, the comment that suggested the biggest change, was not from Rich Miner at Google, or from one of the app companies: it was hearing the T-Mobile rep say they were committed to over-coming past problems with developers and offering specifics like transparent business models.

In my day, T-Mo was the absolute worst. They hired a string of boneheaded, tin-pot dictators like Kyle Levine and Michael Gallelli to manage their interface with the development community and everyone who did business with them hated them. They were everything that was wrong with carriers. If T-Mo recognizes they have a problem and is willing to change, then there is hope for the mobile content business after all.

Monday, September 1, 2008

It Gets Worse ...

Ok, the Kos kiddies went on the slander dis tip over the weekend accusing Sarah Palin of covering up her daughter's pregnancy by claiming that baby Trig was actually hers. Offered some pretty convincing circumstantial evidence. The conservative commentators went apeshit -- after all, disgusting slander-mongering is usually reserved to them (vis the Swiftboaters, or the Obama-is-a-Muslim meme).

Lo and behold, Palin then comes out and reveals that her 17 year old daughter is preggers, with a convenient time line that "proves" the Kos meme was a lie. Well, not so fast, says my wife. She thinks that we will see a fake miscarriage in the next couple of months ...

There are actually two legitimate issues here. First, McCain's judgment. Either he didn't do any vetting at all, or he did, and he went with her anyway. Either way, it's a total "fuck you" pick. Like I said in my Six Reasons post, he's not a leader, he's an antagonist. That's what the Palin pick is, pure and simple.

Sure, it's cynical and pure identity politics, but that's just par for the political course. Can't really fault him for doing what every pol does when given half a chance. What it really gives lie to is the "put the country first" bullshit he's been spewing all summer. He just revealed he's willing to fuck the country -- leaving it in the hands of the most unserious neophyte in American political history -- to further his own political advantage.

The second issue is more subtle, but, in my mind, equally meaningful. And, I hate to say it, but it's a class thing. That is, are the Palin's the kind of people we really want in the White House, at the core of our political tradition?

I mean, this family is really a half step removed from what they'd call white trash in my old neighborhood in south Florida. Knocked up 17 year old daughter. Creationist evangelicals. Mom got knocked up herself at 23 by her high school boyfriend. Shotgun marriage. Bounces around five schools in four years before graduating college in Idaho. Works as a part-time sportscaster, goes on the pageant circuit. Husband is a commercial fisherman, snowmobile enthusiast. Has a DUI. Sarah's sister, the locus of "Troopergate," has nine kids from multiple husbands. I mean, do we really want a political version of Brittany Spears' family in the Oval Office?

Most importantly, where is their aspiration to excellence? Are their dreams for their children so limited that they are happy their 17 year old is going to marry some high school hockey player who proudly refers to himself as a "fuckin' redneck." I mean, I'm all for class identity, but isn't part of our duty as parents to protect our children from this sort of result in their lives?

You can call the Obama's "elitist" if you want, but Barry overcame his poor, dysfunctional background to attend Columbia, Harvard Law School, win a US Senate seat and run for President. Michele Obama and her brother Craig rose from their working-class origins to both attend Princeton; she went to HLS as well and became a lawyer at a white shoe firm in Chicago. Craig excelled in the basketball world as a player and coach, worked for a decade at well-known investment banks, and is currently the popular head coach of the Pac 10 Oregon State men's team. These stories are the essence of the American dream -- work hard and rise up.

I know the Republicans think that a large part of the conservative constituency will see the Palin's as "keeping it real" -- with the hunting and snowmobiling, the hockey, the fucked up family issues, the older son skipping college to go to Iraq -- but I think we want for better in our political life than these people.