Archive for June, 2007

State of Fear

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

State of Fear

State of Fear
by Michael Crichton
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers in the U.K. in 2004
717 pages
ISBN 0007181604

Michael Crichton has been a master at creating real page-turners for decades. He brought us The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, Rising Sun and the awesome Airframe, to name just a few. But when in the past he was focusing on delivering suspense-packed thrillers with a bit of opinion, he now has reversed this scheme: State of Fear is a lot of (Crichton’s) opinion with a wrapper of suspense. So, what is it all about?

The National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF) is an environmental organization that wants to make the world a better place. The problem du jour is climate change and global warming, caused by human CO2 emissions. In order to raise public awareness for this, NERF is preparing a lawsuit against the US government for polluting the air (which raises the sea levels, which will inevitably lead to the flooding of the small island state of Vanutu). They also engage in planning a big international conference on the topic. Now, NERF is run mostly by smart lawyers and clever marketers rather than researchers, a fact that comes handy when collecting money from sponsors like George Morton, a wealthy guy from Los Angeles. And NERF is quite successful. They just know which cards to play and how to address their target audience, the rich and the beautiful. And so, Morton is willing to give ten million dollars to NERF, for the good cause. That makes him NERF’s “Concerned Citizen of The Year”. Morton, however, discovers that the facts on global warming presented by NERF are not as simple and clear as he always thought, and that NERF is running a huge bill. When he complains to the head of NERF, Nick Drake, he just gets an angry response without any real explanations. And then Morton dies in a car accident. This leaves just Peter Evans, one of Mortons independent advisors, to dig out the truth about NERF and Morton’s death…

I’ll leave it at that as I do not want to spoil the story for those who are looking for a well crafted thriller. The story needs some time to build up (unusually long for Crichton), but then it becomes a Crichton-esque chase around the world: Paris, Tokyo, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Antarctica. Our hero gets to see the most remote places and brilliantly masters several deadly situations in order to solve the NERF puzzle. All the action is a bit forseeable, but still a page-turner; one simply has to know whether and how Evans can survive the trip to Antarctica, and so the pages just fly by. Crichton’s experience in writing exciting screenplays clearly shines through these action sequences. So, if you are looking for a good thriller, this book is it. But I have to warn you: State of Fear is certainly not Crichton’s masterpiece in this arena. Yes, people get murdered by mysterious killers using strange weapons. Yes, he takes you to exotic locations. Yes, it all comes together in the end. But with the big picture missing until the end, the focus is put on the individual scenes, and these are often just a bit too obvious, and for my taste simply not innovative enough. But then again, the book is still better than average compared to your typical thriller.

Which brings up the question: What else has Crichton in store for the us? Why should you read it? Well, the real dynamite lies in the environmental discussion. By using real facts and official statistics (e.g. from NASA’s GISS), Crichton drives home point after point, basically saying that the whole CO2 discussion appears to be a massive scam to keep the masses in a state of fear (hence the title of the book) and thus docile.

One example of how superbly Crichton does this: Evans, who is a strong believer in CO2 causing global warming at that time, visits the Vanutu lawsuit team to meet Drake. As he is still on the phone, the team is interviewing Evans to see how he reacts to facts that might be presented by the defendant. They start to ask nasty questions about global warming and present evidence to him, e.g. this chart showing the Global Temperature and CO2 levels from 1880 to 2003:

Global Temperature 1880-2003

Evans interprets the chart as follows: “World temperatures have been rising since about 1890, but they start to go up steeply around 1970, when industrialization is most intense, which is the real proof of global warming.” When asked, he explains that the rapid increase in temperature since 1970 is caused by “rising carbon dioxide levels from industrialization.” Then the interviewer brings his attention to the period from 1940 to 1970, and presents another chart, a close-up of that period:

Global Temperature vs. CO2 1940-1970

Then the interviewer wickedly asks: “So, if rising carbon dioxide is the cause of rising temperatures, why didn’t it cause temperatures to rise from 1940 to 1970?”, to which Evans can only answer: “I don’t know.”

And indeed, little do we know. Crichton fills that gap by presenting a wealth of information, the result of three years of researching this topic, and interestingly enough – way ahead of his time. The book was first published in 2004, long before the climate discussion among mainstream politicians started to take off. Crichton’s extensive bibliography provides excellent pointers for further reading, and in a closing note he actually explains what he really thinks about this whole issue.

But I recommend this book to you, even if you are not interested in environmental topics at all. This book might change some of the views on the CO2 issue (which are re-iterated relentlessly by the media) that you might have today. It will put a bright spotlight on the real reasons why politicians, scientists and environmental organizations around the world are jumping on the CO2 bandwagon right now.

Mind you, I am all for protecting the environment and using energy cautiously, but I am against those new restrictions, new taxes and new laws that the politicians may force upon us by claiming that it will protect us from global warming. They have discovered that global warming seems to be a perfect tool to keep the masses in check.

In his book, Crichton concludes that mankind can not change the climate anyway. One of the figures says towards the end:

Our planet is five billion years old, and it has been changing constantly all during that time. [...] Our atmosphere is as violent as the land beneath it. At any moment there are one thousand five hundred electrical storms across the planet. Eleven lightning bolts strike the ground each second. A tornado tears across the surface every six hours. And every four days, a giant cyclonic storm, hundreds of miles in diameter, spins over the ocean and wreaks havoc on the land.

The nasty little apes that call themselves human beings can do nothing except run and hide. For these same apes to imagine they can stabilize this atmosphere is arrogant beyond belief. They can’t control the climate.

The reality is, they run from the storms.

It’s an excellent book. Read it!

* * *

P.S.: A note for German readers. If you are capable of reading English, I strongly suggest to go for the original English version as the German translation (Welt in Angst, Blessing Verlag) seems to have completely lost it. Zoran Drvenkar points out that several important passages have been left out or not been translated correctly. Please read Drvenkar’s excellent German review on Amazon.de.

boo hoo

Monday, June 18th, 2007

boo hoo

boo hoo
by Ernst Malmsten, Erik Portanger, Charles Drazin
Published by Arrow in the U.K. in 2002
406 pages

ISBN 0099418371

The subtitle for this book is “$135 million, 18 months… a dot.com story from concept to catastrophe”. And the book delivers exactly what it promises: a captivating recount of the company boo during the first Internet bubble in 2000.

The facts are quickly summarized: Ernst Malmsten, a Swede in his Twenties, discovers the Internet and recognizes its full commercial potential immediately. He creates a startup company (boo.com) in 1998, planning to sell fashion globally over the Internet using a sophisticated web site and lean processes. The startup team is right on time with their ideas, and soon they collect investors’ money from around the globe. The whole team is having a jolly good time, a neverending party where money does not matter. The party ends when problems begin to show: suppliers and logistics are not as easily implemented as expected, the launch of localized web sites turns out to be very difficult, and the web site is in general too slow for modem users (this is 1999!). And then, in March 2000, boo.com becomes the type example for the dotcom crash, generating news headlines across the world for having lost $135 million of venture captial in just 18 months.

Supported by co-authors Erik Portanger of the Wall Street Journal, and film writer and editor Charles Drazin, Malmsten re-lives the short life of boo.com for us, from the first idea and concept to its ultimately bad ending. In the preface to the book, Malmsten explains that “as a sort of therapy, I would work out what had gone wrong and what mistakes I had made”. And so he does create a personal account of all the decisions and events, big and small. Just one example – in April 1999, the team is still planning the start of the company and for the first time in their lives hires a private jet for a flight from Hamburg to London:

It was 13 April 1999 and the two of us [Ernst Malmsten and boo co-founder Kajsa Leander, Ed.] had just spent a day with Christoph Vilanek, head of our German office, meeting magazine editors in Hamburg. We’d arranged the trip weeks earlier and couldn’t cancel, even though more pressing commitments had since emerged. Germans tend to attach great importance to meeting times and do not like to see them altered. As we were anxious to create a good impression in a country with a huge market of 80 million people, we had to think of some other way of solving our timekeeping problems.

It was now 4 p.m., and that evening we had to be in Chicago for the beginning of a three-day fund-raising tour of the US. But as there were no direct flights from Hamburg, the only way we could make the schedule was to get back to London in time to catch Concorde to New York, where we could pick up a flight to Chicago. Hence, the private jet.

In a little under three months we had managed to spend something like $4 million, and, as we strove to build the business as rapidly as possible, costs were continuing to rise by the day. Our staff costs were a large part of this – by the end of March, we had spent $436,000 on salaries and another $586,000 on headhunters’ fees (for the staff we had then and for new staff who had been recruited but had yet to start work at boo). The time had come to think about the next funding round. To take us through to our launch, we estimated that we would need another $12 million. But it could be no more than an estimate, because the costs of bullding such a complex business defied precise analysis, particularly in this period of hypergrowth.

The story goes on and on and on, like a roller coaster. The costs mount, mostly caused by unnecessary purchases or outright stupid business decisions, the launch is being delayed further and further, they look for more money on the market (and get it!) while revenue still does not come in as projected, until in the inevitable end – the bubble bursts. To the reader, the end certainly does not come as a surprise, as the Prologue opens with a quote from the Financial Times on the dramatic situation at boo, dated 17 May 2000, on the day before the crash. In this way, boo hoo pretty much resembles the story of the maiden trip of the Titanic. You know exactly how it will end, but an exciting story carries you through the pages to this bitter end.

Boo Hamburg Team (1999)
Boo.com Munich Team, photographed by Armin Brosch
Source: Online Today 12/1999

You know, I have been part of the dotcom area as well (I was working for AOL at that time), so I pretty much know how the times were “back then”. But even as I read the book today, with a healthy distance of seven years, all I can do is shake my head about the stupidness shown by the unexperienced boo team. Despite being well-written, its topic does not make it a joy to read, but definitely a must-read. Especially for those who have experienced that period and want to capture the spirit of the times, and for those who are currently running a startup company, maybe based on some shady Web 2.0 idea. Todays market is already starting to feel very much like 1999/2000, with bizarrely expensive acquisitions or investments ignoring the real value of a company (e.g. the YouTube acquisition at $1.6 Billion).

A fantastic book. Go read it!

Where The Hell Is Matt? In Munich!

Monday, June 18th, 2007

The other day I was spreading the word that Matt Harding was coming to Munich to do a bit of bad dancing at the Monopteros in the English Garden, this time with a twist: a group dance! And so, 32 co-dancers followed the call, traveled to Munich and danced with Matt.

Matt showed up at 2.45pm, joined by Melissa. He quickly gathered his fans (and soon to be co-stars), greeted every single one of them, explained the rules, registered the release forms, and took photos of each participant. One couple had even been traveling 400 kilometers from Wiesbaden to Munich, just to meet Matt and be on the video. Talk about passion!

Matt Harding greets Munich Dancers
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Then the long and exhausting search for a good shooting location began. Matt finally decided that the Monopteros itself (that’s the building in the back) would not be a good location for the dance. A better place would be the area just below the monument. So the whole group walked down there, and after a short rehearsal and some further arrangement of the group, the bad dancing started.

Matt Harding group dance in Munich
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Bad Group Dance in Munich
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Matt Harding Dance in Munich
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

This went on for about ten to fifteen minutes, with pauses, and as you can see on the photos – the whole group was having a fantastic time. Everybody is all smiling and laughing and enjoying the experience. Matt himself appeared also to be in a good mood, despite of the uncertainity of the weather (there had been heavy rain the evening before) and the fact that arranging the whole event apparently is hard work.

But being the friendly guy you have seen on the video, he did show the dancers the final take. He made clear, that there is no guarantee that the Munich piece will end up in the final cut (scheduled for release in summer 2008), but that did not at all matter to the group. The guys and girls were just enjoying their image on that small screen of the video camera.

Matt Harding Munich
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

The bad dance was re-done for a group of CO2 activists (I have my own view on the CO2 issue), and then Matt and Melissa kissed passionately to celebrate the good shooting! As I write this, they are probably on their way to their next stop: Warzaw, Poland. If you want to keep track of where Matt and Melissa are heading next, please feel free to visit their official website, www.wherethehellismatt.com.

See also Matt’s interview with FHM online.

Ich brauch mal ne Umarmung!
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Matt Harding and Melissa
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Lessons from the Flickr Disaster

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

You have been flickred!
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

OK, here’s an update on Flickr. My last post summarized pretty much the situation, and provided some pointers to stories and sites with all the details and some opinions.

Now, three days after I have become aware of the Flickr censorship in Singapore, Germany, Hong Kong, and Korea, I want to evaluate where Flickr is heading and what everyone can actually learn from the Flickr experience.

1. A business is a business is a business…

The headline says it all. It’s a business. Everyone is in it for the money (at least the guys from Flickr and Yahoo! are). Flickr had expertise in creating a photo community. They were acquired by Yahoo! who are in the Internet business but were clearly lacking this expertise. It was a perfect match, making the founders of Flickr rich and richer, and giving Yahoo! what they wanted. Easy.

That this business actually involved users, and that these users got emotionally captured by the service, this is merely a side-effect. A nice one, because people who are addicted to a service are more likely to buy more services and less likely to cancel their subscriptions. So in a nutshell, it’s all about the money, really.

2. A business is not a democracy.

Now that we know that Flickr is just a business, please also rest assured that this business -just as any other business- is not a democracy. Even if you are a paying subscriber, you do not have any say in the development of the service. The owners of the business do not have to ask you about changes to the service. They can basically do as they wish.

Having said that, I recommend to any business to do detailed market studies prior to major changes (something that any marketeer learns during his first year at university) and really make the right decisions from these studies. Otherwise you might end up like Flickr, caught in the fire between the headquarter and your paying customer base. Also, as you might have noticed, the damage to the brand can be quite impressive. As I write this, mainstream media are picking up on this, and subscribers from all around the world are supporting the German protesters. I guess that nobody at Flickr/Yahoo! actually envisioned this development. They probably thought it was a local problem. But it isn’t.

3. Users are sheep; the service operator is the farmer.

Flickr is the perfect example for a successful Web 2.0 service. It has been growing only from user generated content. That’s why Flickr could run the company with surprisingly few employees. Unfortunately, users (sheep) do have completely different interests than the service operator (farmer). The farmer just puts the sheep on the farmland, allowing the herd to develop from there. At some point in time, it’s time to harvest, and then the (hopefully larger group of) sheep pays off for the farmer. The more the merrier. It would be naive to think that the Flickr guys wanted to save the world with their company.

4. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

Do you remember Geocities? That was one of the first community driven services on the Net. They basically offered free, easy-to-use webspace for everyone, neatly arranged in “city districts” and “house numbers”. There were different city districts for various topics, and you could sign up for a house number in order to “move in”. This metaphor, and its easiness, made Geocities very popular. In fact, Geocities became so popular that Yahoo! acquired them in 1999 for a whopping $3,600,000,000. Today, while still part of the Yahoo! family, the service is forgotten. I guess the investment never paid off. (For those who wonder: At just $40 million, Flickr was rather cheap compared to Geocities. By the way, a good review of all Yahoo! acquisitions from 1997 to 2006 can be found at pulse2.com.)

Or take CompuServe. What an impressive, great, and unique service. Not just an ISP, but the first global online community, dating back to before the Internet. In 1998, a company named America Online acquired CompuServe and basically alienated the CompuServe community so much that today basically just the CompuServe brand still exists. Alexa today says that CompuServe.com is the 4,418th popular site on the Net. Bravo. Well done, AOL. From #1 to #4,418 within 10 years.

So, I am convinced that Flickr is not the only bad acquisition/merger that has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last bad acquisition. Please also read Don Dodge’s excellent article on The worst Billion dollar Internet acquisitions.

5. Entrepreneurs, beware!

If you are running a startup or thinking to do so, I recommend to not get too emotionally attached to your company. The second you sell it to someone else, you better let go and prepare yourself to really get caught up in the mess. This is even more true if you are running a community service where you add little more than a framework for others to use. If you ever find yourself emotionally attached to your user base, basically agreeing with their demands, but have to follow the gag orders from the headquarter (even if you are a millionaire by then), then you know how the Flickr folks probably feel today.

Another good tip: get top-notch PR guys. If you are launching new features, do a communication plan, and think about all possible scenarios. If you start to restrict access to certain service features, better prepare for the riots that may (or may not) arise from this. Even more so, if this could be seen as “censorship” by some. Good PR people will be able to avoid a potential disaster right from the start.

6. What can YOU do to stop all this nonsense?

Get out! Now! It’s as simple as that.

This is what I am doing. Despite having a free account, I am pulling most of my photos from Flickr and moving them over here. Many shots were duplicates anyway, just with fresh, better scans. Sure, I will miss the great comments and some of the groups, but hey, I got along without Flickr before, and if I may say, I did so for a very long time. :-)

If you are a paying subscriber, cancel your account. Right now! As outlined above, Flickr is a business. They are in for the money. Only if you withdraw your money, there is a potential that they will start to think. If you do nothing (or just whining), then they might get a feeling of being able to get away with this. The next change might be even worse. (Just think: if they got away with the censorship stuff, they can get away with pretty much anything.)

There are several web services that offer a similar feature set; my favorites right now are: ipernity, smugmug, PBase, photo.net, 23hq, and the German View and fotocommunity. I will take a deeper look at these services (and their TOS) and let you know what I think over the next few weeks. In any case – I do expect new services to pop up shortly, seeing a business opportunity by taking the recent problems at Flickr much more serious. Yes, it will hurt to let go of Flickr, but that’s a lesson to be learned. If you are lucky, it hits you at an early stage, when you are not yet too emotionally attached to the service. Then it will be less painful for you.

But the only really hard rule is: if you do not agree with this censorship stuff, then cancel your account. Even if you are not personally affected, just imagine that the next time it could be your account or your country that is affected. Out of the blue. Remove the photos, and cancel your “pro” subscription. Then, once you’ve found a suitable alternative, cancel your account.

Move on, life goes on. Flickr is not everything. Really.