I’m Moving

I’m moving across the country in two weeks. I accepted a new position with a company I love working for, in a place I’ve wanted to live for some time, working in a role that should teach me a ton. So as I alternate between excitement and anxiety, I’m faced with sorting through my belongings and deciding what I want to move from the east coast to the west.

I’m no stranger to moving. I moved in and out of Loomis Chaffee for three years of high school, Franklin & Marshall for my first year of college, and NYU for the remainder. But unlike my experiences going back and forth between school dorms and home, this is it. There’s no coming back. And even as I type the words, I’m having a hard time coming to terms with it. You see, I always knew those places were temporary. And I approached it like that – to the point of rarely putting anything on the walls of my rooms, since I’d just have to take it down at the end of the year.

Now you might be saying that that’s no different than anybody who rents an apartment, right? So why not decorate? It certainly didn’t stop my peers. But the truth is that while I lived in those dorms, I still had my room at home. Which meant a place to keep important items, an attic to hold left over things, and a house to, well, live in. I suppose moving back in after I graduated didn’t help any in that regard (like a good number of my peers, I ended up back home after college to save money). But I’m not going to have that anymore. Anything I want to keep I need to take with me now. Which has led to a lot of emotional decision making.

It’s such a “first world problem,” right? It’s something that has resulted from the culture I grew up in and afforded to me by my parent’s socioeconomic status. After all, modern American culture allows for the accumulation of stuff, and my parent’s financial resources enabled me to collect and house the flotsam and jetsam of my life. And it’s true that I’ll be able to keep some of it. Hell, I could keep all of it if I wanted to – so long as I don’t mind shipping it to California.

But why should I? What possible reason would I have to keep textbooks from high school and college for things I don’t even study any more (microbiology textbook anyone?) The answer is that I don’t. So I dropped off five boxes of books at the library. And I’ll probably be donating some portion of the contents of my closet in the next few days. But that stuff is easy. The books and clothes are replaceable, and if I haven’t worn/read it in the last six months then I’m probably not going to in the next six.

But some items are difficult. When I graduated from NYU, I put all of my notebooks in the attic (right next to the box containing my textbooks). I haven’t looked at them in two years. Logically, it’s just paper that can be recycled. Emotionally, it represents hours and hours of hard work. This isn’t an issue so long as I had space to keep these things – I could keep my notes in the attic, just like I keep my memories of those classes somewhere in my head. It joined some boxes of childhood toys up there, right next to the suitcases. But I don’t know where I’ll be living in California, so I have no concept of how much space I’ll have. And let’s face it, my notes from school are hardly important. Nor are some of the other items I’m unsure about taking.

I could keep this stuff here. I might still. But unlike when I was in college, I can’t bank on the house being here for a variety of reasons I don’t care to share on the internet. So it’s now or never. It’s take it with me or give it away. A simple dichotomy, right?

So why is this so hard?

Airplane Mode

Aaron Koblin - Flight Patterns
As I write this I’m sitting in an airplane, flying across the country. I can’t help but think of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, in which the coolhunting main character, Cayce Pollard, expresses that jet travel causes one’s soul to be left behind, connected by a thin wire. What you experience then then is caused by your soul floating behind you, slowly being pulled back to your body. It’s a poetic image for me, imagining all those strings in the air, although one Gibson expresses much better in text than I do.

As is required, my cell phone and iPad are in airplane mode. I’m cut off from the world (so I’ll be off the airplane by the time you’re reading this). Yes, this flight has WiFi, but I’ve chosen not to use it. It’s an interesting parallel to early last week, when airplane mode wasn’t optional for me.

You see, Huricane Irene hit New York a week or so ago, and thousands of people lost power for some time. Thankfully, I wasn’t among them. No, I had lights and computers and hot water, but my cable service was offline for four days. It’s an odd state – you know when your power is out that you’re not going to be able to watch TV, surf the web, or use your home phone (if you have VoIP service). But when you can turn on your TV or join your home WiFi network with no issues but not actually go anywhere, it’s disconcerting. And when you combine that with disruptions in cellular service (both data and voice), it left my household cut off from the world.

The area I live in was lucky – we didn’t have to evacuate and didn’t appear to suffer any permanent damage. We didn’t need to call emergency services or anything like that. So the biggest impact from the outage was to our routine. No TV. No tweeting. No access to the world beyond my house. Real first world problems, right?

So of course we were fine. I reread some books (including Pattern Recognition). Played a few Xbox games. But it was weird. I generally watch TV during breakfast. I couldn’t do that, and the silence seemed to almost be a tangible thing. I would be reading a passage in a book and want to check something online and not be able to.

And that’s really the scary part. For four days I was cut off from a resource that I use on a daily basis to supplement my knowledge. A kind of exo-brain I can scan through to become acquainted with a subject, even if that knowledge only sticks with me for a little while. On a plane you expect it. Some even embrace the lack of connectivity – precious time where the office can’t reach them. But at home, where you’re surrounded by your belongings, I found it disconcerting to be offline for such a length of time.

Wouldn’t you?

Not Acceptable

It’s easy to say that something is “not acceptable.” Particularly when we describe the past. Events that can’t be changed, whose results are clear and evident – and ones we disagree with. But the truth is that those results which we so quickly deride must be acceptable because they’re the past. And, unless you’ve got a time machine that I don’t know about, immutable.

Some might say that letting this blog lie for the past year is unacceptable. Consistent posting is thet key to a succesful blog, they might say. You’ll only get views and comments if you provide new content regularly, they advise. And that’s true. But that’s not what I’m here for.

You see, this isn’t about building a community or selling a product or espousing a particular platform. It’s about me. It’s about having a place for me to put down my thoughts. And yes, I make it public for others to review and for search engines to index. Because just like in the real world, I don’t act in a vacuum and an outside perspective can be beneficial. But really this place is what I choose to make of it. And for the last year my energy simply hasn’t been focused on the Internet (I’ve barely tweeted and basically stopped using Facebook).

This is not an apology for not posting. Those are silly because if you’re actually sorry then you probably would have posted something before you felt the need to apologize. What this is is an acknowledgment that this thing (not even sure it’s really a blog anymore) still exists. That I do still think about it. And while I can’t promise that my next post won’t happen for another year, I can at least say that I’m here. At least a little bit. And that’s just going to have to be acceptable, okay?

WordPress Redirect Exploit

After updating my blog yesterday, I discovered that my website had at some point in the last month been subject to a WordPress redirect exploit. After a few hours last night (really this morning) where the entire site was offline, I was able to bring it back up and purge the affected files. My thanks to the folks at (mt) Media Temple, who published this knowledge base article on how to resolve this issue. And also for providing a fresh perspective after a few hours of late night research and even fewer hours of sleep.

I was also able to correct a potential spam issue related to a rouge php file that appeared in my WordPress install some time ago. My apologies if you’ve been affected as a result either of these attacks – I certainly never meant for this to happen. Open source projects like WordPress have enabled millions of people to publish their own voice online. But security issues like this remind me that the Internet is still relatively young; I think it’s obvious that we still have some steps to take to make it a safer place to both publish and browse.

The Art of Inception in Our Reality

The following contains spoilers regarding Inception, and also assumes you’ve seen the film. Consider yourself warned.

There’s a lot of analysis possible with Inception. There’s the questions about the nature of reality (see the Matrix). There’s the examination of how Mal influences Cobb’s actions, much in the same way our own subconscious influences us. And there’s what may be the central point of the film – the nature of the idea and the ways we share ideas with others.

Inception does take a decidedly sci-fi approach (although Margaret Atwood would probably classify it as speculative fiction). This works to engage our ability to suspend disbelief, meaning we better accept a world where dream sharing is possible, where a small team of experts travels the world stealing ideas straight out of people’s minds, and where we are the master of our thoughts….except when we aren’t.

I think the marketing parallels for extraction and inception are pretty clear. It’s not terribly difficult to get someone to tell you what they think (although determining if they’re telling the truth may be hard). Extraction, then, is comparable to the kind of advertising that commands you to do something – buy this, watch this, do this. Inception is organic. It’s growth. It’s planting a small seed of an idea and letting it slowly expand until it drives an action.

Unlike the kind of inception practiced in the film, we can’t expect the goal to be influencing someone without their knowledge. Instead, it’s about creating immersive experiences that don’t lecture, but instead engage. It’s about understanding your target and tailoring your message to them. And it’s about simplicity of form, if not of execution.

We can argue that this is what social media and viral marketing are all about. But just because some modern marketing techniques are better at this than others doesn’t mean that they’re used properly. It’s way too easy to use Twitter and Facebook to bludgeon potential customers over the head with your message. And this can distract both you and your audience from what really matters – assimilating your idea into their world.

One of the most iconic examples of this idea building comes not from today, but instead from over 80 years ago On marketing the piano, Edward Bernays wrote,

“The music room will be accepted because it has been made the thing. And the man or woman who has a music room, or has arranged a corner of the parlor as a musical corner, will naturally think of buying a piano. It will come to him as his own idea.”

Yes, this can be creepy. And hopefully dependent upon us acting in an ethical manner. But doesn’t it also sound an awful lot like inception?

Squaring Mobile Payments

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Square before. It’s the newest venture from Jack Dorsey, one of the co-founders of Twitter. The idea behind Square is pretty simple. Download an app for your mobile phone, and you can charge credit cards just about anywhere, with the only charge being a per-transaction fee. Square can also send you a tiny little credit card reader (for free), which reduces the transaction fee as it lowers the chance of fraud.

Pretty cool, right? Square’s been up and running for just about six months, but only recently became able to fulfill requests for readers en masse. The end result of Square is in a sense the democratization of credit card payments; anyone can use their credit card to pay for just about anything anywhere, with little to no hassle.

This is actually pretty similar to a system that’s been in use for a few years in Kenya called M-PESA (the m stands for mobile and pesa is Swahili for money). M-PESA allows individuals to transfer money and mobile phone minutes from one user to another, with little to no interaction with a traditional bank. As a result, financial transactions become location independent and easy to accomplish, since the system can piggyback upon existing mobile networks.

Using mobile phones as a payment device isn’t all that new though. In the U.S. they’ve been used to purchase ringtones and the like for some time, and they’ve acted as complete mobile payment solutions abroad for years. But what’s great about Square is that it could potentially open up the purchasing power of the U.S. consumer credit system to everyone – from independent artists to tiny companies to international charities.

Brings new meaning to the phrase “accepted everywhere,” doesn’t it?

One Year Later….

I started blogging one year ago last Monday.  I am sadly a few days late in marking the occasion, but since I actually thought it was today, I hope you’ll forgive me.

A few personal facts about the past year:

  • I graduated from college and now work full time.  I suppose this makes me a “grown up,” but I’m still not to sure what this means.
  • I completed two separate virtual internships in my spare time – one for CAREEREALISM and another for Squidoo.  As a result, I was interviewed for a WSJ article (my PR class came in handy!).
  • I went to the 2009 New Yorker Summit and the first 140 Characters Conference in NYC and had a blast at both.

A few facts about this blog:

  • I’ve published 51 posts and have 21 drafts (most of the drafts will probably never see the light of day, but they’re there).
  • Google Analytics tells me the following:

And a few goals for the next year of blogging:

  • Post more uniformly.  As you can see above, I averaged almost one post a week for the entire year.  I think that’s pretty good, but I know that there are some months where I posted a ton and some where I did not.  So I’m going to try to spread out my posting more.
  • Write some posts from this list of seed ideas I posted a while back.  I’ve got some in draft form, but I’d like to finish a good number of them and get them posted.  Right as soon as I remember what they all mean.
  • Incorporate more things I find across the web.  I have both a Posterous and a Tumblr, which are two super simple posting sites.  I’d like to start using one of them more.  I was pushing my Posterous posts to this blog (all three of them), but I didn’t quite like the implementation.  So I need to work on that too.
  • I might also update the design and branding for this.  I’m pretty happy with the current design, but I may start looking for something new.  And I’m not sure I want to stick with “Jed Cohen’s blog” anymore.

So I guess I should get to work.  See you around as this thing heads into its second year!

    Variable Costs, Variable Profits

    I just finished reading this post from Seth Godin about how businesses can play with their margin to afford promotions.  Godin writes about a fictional pizzeria:

    The marginal profit of one more pizza is high. You’ve already paid for the rent, the oven, the sign, the ad in the Yellow Pages, the hourly wage, the uniforms, all of it. Whether you sell that last pizza of the day or not, all those costs are fixed. So, if your ingredients cost $2, your gross margin is $8…

    If someone offers to run a coupon…[offering] a large pizza for $2, is it worth it for you to run it? That’s 80% off! Surely, this is too expensive. You can’t afford 80% off.

    On the margin, of course you can. You got a new customer for free. Unless your store is at capacity, with people waiting in line, one more pizza sold at cost is a great way to build your business…

    Let’s break down the economics a bit (not that it’s terribly complicated).  There are two general kinds of costs, fixed and variable.  Fixed costs are what Godin lists above – rent, oven, employees.  There’s really nothing that can be done to lower them.  Variable costs change depending upon a few different factors.  If we continue with the pizza example, then the more pizzas you sell, the more tomatoes you need to buy.  You might need more gas for the oven.  And so on.  Also, a rise in variable costs doesn’t necessarily have a linear relationship with sales; by purchasing more, you might be able to obtain the same quality goods for less via wholesale.

    Godin is in a way proposing a variable margin, a reverse of variable costs.  The idea is that the more you voluntarily (and temporarily) lower your margin, the more you sell – if not now, then in the future.  The key really is repeat customers, which means a product that is at least somewhat impermanent (think clothes or music, not houses or cars).  By providing potential customers with a reason to initially consume your product, you create the chance for them to become loyal to your brand.  The next time they purchase from you, your margin has been restored.

    Of course this is nothing new.  It’s why we have sales, coupons, “special one time offer only” and “buy now while supplies last.”  What I think is new (or at least refreshing) is the approach.  A variable margin means a focus on future profit instead of immediate gain.  It means building trust before building sales.  And it means understanding that loosing unrealized gains now (discounting your product) is often preferable to loosing everything tomorrow (when nobody purchases from you).

    You might not have to be as extreme as Godin suggests.  You might not gain more customers from discounting 80% off over 50% off.  We could probably throw together an experiment to see.  But either way, it’s still worth trying, right?

    Privacy – Security versus Simplicity

    flickr. from rpongsaj.

    I have two Twitter accounts.  I have two Twitter accounts because on Twitter there is no distinction between public and private.  So if I want to restrict something to just my friends, I can’t.  It’s all or nothing.  I know that chances are you don’t really truly care what I tweet about.  But considering how easy it is to dig up information about someone, I think it’s prudent that I reserve a portion of my online presence for just those who know me in real life. Of course the primary difference between my two accounts may just be whether or not I share what I ate for lunch, but I think that’s okay.

    For Twitter, the privacy feature is simple.  Off or on?  Public or private?  Open or closed.  Facebook, on the other hand, isn’t so simple.  I have complete flexibility in terms of who can see what content and if they can comment on it.  I can lock down as much of my profile as I want, or I can let anyone with an internet connection take a look.  It’s up to me (and you).

    Privacy on Facebook is complex.  Then again Facebook itself is complex (at least when compared to Twitter), so this makes sense.  As a result, Facebook has a tool that lets you look at your profile as if you were someone else:

    Privacy has to be at the core of any internet service.  Users need to feel protected otherwise they probably aren’t going to want to participate.  They may not always recognize how protected they are (consider the modern day urban legend of embarrassing pictures on Facebook costing someone their job).  But that sense of security and trust remains important, even if it’s only in the minds of the users – although it should be forefront in the minds of the service providers as well.  We don’t even have to go very far back for examples.  The Google Buzz launch.  Facebook’s own recent changes to privacy settings.  Concerns about Foursquare leading to robbery.

    But as social sharing services grow more and more complex, do privacy controls need to be scaled to match?  If Twitter decides to add more features, will they have move away from the private/public dichotomy and make things more complicated?  And what happens when another social platform rises up to join Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn in what will then be the “big four” of the social networking space (insert your location based service of preference here)?

    Obviously I don’t know.  Maybe there’s a third model for privacy on social media, one we haven’t even considered yet.  I guess I’ll be dual-tweeting till that happens.  What about you? How do you deal with the different privacy settings across the social platforms you use?

    How I Would Change: Netflix

    Let’s call this the start of a semi-regular series.  In each of these entries, I’ll take a look at some product that I interact with and point out a few ways I would improve it.  Almost like I was a product manager at the company.  Except I’m not so as always these entires represent only my opinion and not the opinion of anyone I’m associated with.

    I’m going to assume you know what Netflix is.  If you don’t, I’d recommend checking out their website and then coming back to finish this post.

    I’m going to break Netflix down into the two services they offer – rental DVDs via mail and streaming movies via the internet.  We can’t really change the DVDs via the mail that much.  You could get more disks at once for the same money.  Netflix could stock more disks or build more distribution facilities, but those wouldn’t really translate into benefits for consumers (since disks are delivered next day anyway).  Or they could open physical stores, but we’ve seen that and it hasn’t exactly been working so well.

    But we can improve the streaming experience.  And we can do it in a few ways.

    Shift control away from the computer.

    In order to stream Netflix content to your television, you’ll need an Xbox 360PS 3WiiRokuBoxee Box, or some other kind of streaming device.  But most of the time watching movies on your TV doesn’t actually start there – it starts on your computer.  This is where you add content to your “instant queue,” which is the main pipeline of content from Netflix to your device.

    But what if you’re not at your computer?  What if you’re at your TV and you want to watch something that’s not in your instant queue?  Then you need to get up, walk to your computer, search for what you’re looking for, and add it to your queue.  Not exactly ideal.  So let’s add the ability to modify your instant queue from your device.

    Yes, this presents problems.  You’d have to input text into a search field using your device’s remote.  This means a lot of arrowing around a keyboard on your screen to type in a title, but a predictive search option will help with that.  And given the convergence between television and computing that devices like the Boxee Box are fostering, you might see more QWERTY keyboards coming to remote controls sooner rather than later.  In addition, the rise of the smartphone means that Netflix could create a mobile application to let users interact with their account and alter their instant queue.

    As streaming continues to grow, Netflix will need to shift the management of the instant queue away from the computer and to where people already are – their couches (and maybe their pockets too).

    Redesign with the family in mind.

    The average US household had 2.59 people in it in 2000.  And I can bet you that at least a portion of those 2.59 people did not all want to watch the same thing at the same time.  So the second major change that Netflix needs to make is to allow multiple family members to establish their own identity within one household account.  Netflix addresses this somewhat with profiles, which are sub-accounts that let you set up individual DVD queues and allocate a set number of disks to each queue at a time, but they don’t translate into the watch instantly queue.  By establishing profiles for the watch instantly queue, Netflix would bring an additional level of customization to their streaming service.

    At the same time, this would add a layer of complexity, which can translate into user frustration.  As such, Netflix might have to redesign aspects of its user interface (to change profiles) and device registration process (perhaps to specify a default profile).  There are difficulties with this, given the fact that most of the devices people use to stream Netflix are made by other companies.  But building this functionality into the streaming experience now will provide them with a leg up as more and more people shift away from traditional cable/satellite towards digital platforms.

    And for a company whose revenue stream is based entirely on subscriptions, that can’t be a bad thing.

    So that’s what I would do to improve upon Netflix (which is already pretty great).  But I’m curious – what would you do?  Leave a comment to let me know!