Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for April, 2007

Assumptions, or yes, I’m male

Posted by shannonclark on April 28, 2007

This afternoon my cell phone rang, with a number I did not recognize. Nothing too unusual there, friends change their phones (or I don’t happen to have their cell phone in my addressbook) and at least a few times a month I get someone calling my company’s 800 number who has misdialed (usually wanting a transportation department somewhere).

So I answered.

A long pause, then a slightly confused male voice explained that he had called my number thinking it would be fun having seen it on my profile (not entirely clear which profile he was referring to, though I do list my company’s 800 # in many places online, including this blog, our websites, and my professional profiles on many networks).

He then explained “I thought you were a woman and it would be fun to call you.”

So, in case there is any confusion (though really, it shouldn’t be all that hard to determine my gender). I am male.

Currently single.

Heterosexual.

And while I do not mind random calls – from women or men – I do prefer that they are for a better reason than you thought I was a woman, and would respond well to a random man calling me up directly to chat.

You are welcome to call me to talk business, to respond to my blog, to connect while at a conference or when visiting San Francisco. But please, do know I’m male, know what I do & write, introduce yourself, and whether or not we have met before give the call some context.

i.e. say something like “Hi, this is … I read your blog/met you at …/etc. and wanted to call to introduce myself to you.”

That’s fine.

But the pause after I say hello, the quick check “are you Shannon” and the further pause tell me that you didn’t expect me to be male.

Happens at least a few times a month that I’m aware of (and an unknown number of times as people read my comments/blog posts across the web and just assume my gender). As my online profile grows, it does seem to be happening more and more frequently.

But really, pause and ask yourself what assumptions you are making about others without actually knowing them.

Are you assuming someone is a man (or a woman)?

Are you assuming they are American?

Of a certain age?

Skin color?

Political affiliation? (seems to happen frequently in the Bay Area, especially at large events where the assumption is made that everyone in the room are very left leaning, pro-unions, anti-war Democratic party members or Green party members)

On the political party affiliation, I am an independent. I describe myself as a “radical centrist” – and no, that’s not a contradiction. I am indeed fairly liberal on social issues, but on many other major issues (unions, international engagement, some economic/tax issues) I part ways with the far-left. I have voted for individuals from both parties (or neither) and plan to continue doing so until there is (as I hope someday there will be) a party on a national and local scale which more fully encapsulates my political perspective.

So question your assumptions in your dealings online and off.

Posted in internet, personal | 1 Comment »

At night a sea of green

Posted by shannonclark on April 25, 2007

or as I twittered last night

Sitting looking over the city bridge and lights as a slow moving train passes and a sea of silent green rests below

Posted in personal, photos, San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

Tips for a great business dinner

Posted by shannonclark on April 23, 2007

In the past week I organized 3 different business dinners, all on the spur of the moment, and all very successful.  Here are a few tips for how you too can organize great business dinners.

One – Choose the right restaurant. Simple, but key. Business dinners are not all about the food – first and foremost they should be a chance for people to talk and socialize – restaurants which are too loud, too “hip”, too formal or fancy, or too informal for that matter will detract from your event.

Two – Have a backup. Last Friday I suggested a restaurant which had just opened that week, though the menu was (I think at least) great, when we arrived with a group of 5 we would have had to wait for about 30 people to get their main courses before we could have been seated. Instead we went to a fantastic Indian restaurant across the street.

Three – Keep everything simple for the attendees. All three of the dinners I organized this past week I ordered the food for everyone, and we then shared it family style. While a tad informal, any family style meal is a great way to get people to talk to each other and interact over the course of the dinner. It also means that you can order a balanced selection of dishes which highlight the restaurant’s skills.

Four – ordering family style also keeps payments simple. One of the meals I organized was paid for by one of the attendees, in the other cases we split the bills – but by having kept everything simple this was a quick and very easy process in every case.

Some further suggestions and advice about how to select a restaurant, as well as how to order for groups.

For business dinners I look for restaurants with spacious layouts where we will be able to be seated as a large group, yet have a private and comfortable conversation. Private rooms are great whenever possible. I also prefer restaurants which can seat us at a round table whenever possible – long rectangular tables tend to break conversations up into smaller clusters.

From a food perspective I seek out cuisines and dishes which will be easily shared. I almost always select locally owned restaurants, whenever possible places that use local and fresh ingredients. A locally owned place will usually also remember you after a few events and that always makes everything smoother.

Always call ahead, especially when you have a party of 5 or more people. When I call ahead I usually ask if they can do a group menu – and get their advice about dishes. Whenever possible I stop by the restaurant myself in advance and go over the menu – though I have also always had good results by asking for help and trusting in the abilities of the restaurant (note this is true when I have either already eaten at the place and/or have good reason to trust them – if when I call and ask for help with a group menu I get a sense that this is a challenge for them, I will change restaurants.)

Chances are very high that in any medium sized business group you will have individuals with various food preferences (and/or allergies). As a starting point I always order vegetarian appetizers and at least one vegetarian entree, usually at least two for larger groups serving family style. People with food allergies generally tell you about them – treat nut allergies in particular very seriously (and see above, any restaurant that is unwilling/unable to accommodate  someone with a nut allergy should not get your business).

My typical pattern for business dinners is to order appetizers and entrees, only occasionally salads or desserts. For one thing this usually keeps the costs down. But more specifically it is harder to share salads and desserts – and often by the time you have been eating many courses shared in a group, you have little room left for dessert.

For the entrees I also try to order a variety of dishes with varying ingredients. Having all chicken or beef dishes is, I find, fairly boring. I’ll usually try to get three to four different types of meats plus vegetables for most larger dinners.

The dinners this past week were all in San Francisco. A dinner for 5 at a Chinese restaurant – Canton Seafood at Folsom & Hawthorne, a dinner for 5 at Aslam’s Rosoi an Indian restaurant on Valencia between 21st and 22nd, and a dinner for 11 at Cafe Zoetrope at 916 Kearny. All three dinners were less than $30 per person inclusive of drinks, taxes and tip.

Posted in digital bedouin, Entrepreneurship, restaurants, San Francisco, working | Leave a Comment »

Steaming Sewers in San Francisco – my first youtube video

Posted by shannonclark on April 23, 2007

Taken just minutes after leaving the Podcast Hotel after party

Posted in San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

Taxes, the USPS, and other customer service woes

Posted by shannonclark on April 18, 2007

Every year around this time one of the most popular blog posts I made is one I wrote a few years ago about finding a 24hr post office in Chicago. I had a similar challenge last year finding a post office that was open late in the East Bay. And again I had this problem this year (and actually for the first time in my life failed to get my taxes in on time and will have to pay some penalties and will be mailing them later this week).

Go take a look at the USPS website.

It is, I believe, one of the single worst UI’s for a government website (and for the web in general). Try to find a post office – tonight of all nights – and you get an outsourced to a private firm directory where you have to put in a zip code and an address to find a post office (and that is your only options). You can not just put in a city, you can’t search by any criteria other than precise location, nor can you search by hours. So if you are in a city where you do not know the zipcode, you are out of luck (well they have other tools you might be able to use to get the zipcode and come back).

But you still can’t search for say the post offices which are open late.

And here in San Francisco & the bay area – do they choose to keep local post offices open late? Nope.

Do they keep downtown, centrally located, post offices accessible easily via public transit open late?

Nope.

Do they have directions which do not involve driving to get to the post offices?

Nope.

And what happens if you call, having found the post office that might be nearby and still open?

Well if you select the first number, the one that shows up in the main search it is a general USPS 800 number, calling that and inputing your zipcode gets you a listing that will only tell you two of the post offices nearby (of course in my case, already closed) then literally the automated phone system hangs up on you by itself.

It does say “Goodbye” first.

If you called one of the post offices that was open tonight late, you got their regular voice mail message, a message about leaving a message for them if you lost money in the postal machines (hmmm wonder how often that happens if it is the only possible reason someone apparently might call and leave a message). But no way to reach an actual, live human.

This may not be entirely universal across the USPS, Chicago at least in years past did keep their downtown, main post office branch open and it was not too hard to reach via public transit (but not too easy to reach either).

However the utter refusal of either the website or their phones to let you reach someone to help, or to get timely information is really frustrating.

Especially as postal rates keep going up.

And if my local carrier is to be judged by, service continues to diminish and drop. About once a week I get mail not addressed to me in my mailbox (usually not even addressed to my building – which leaves me to wonder how often mail for me is not making it to me) and recently a package that was mailed to me was stuffed inside my mail box. In a way that only the postal carrier, literally, could have gotten the package out – as it was exactly the same size of the mailbox, and only the carrier could remove all of the outer doors to the mailbox giving the package enough space to be removed (instead I literally had to get a knife and cut open my package in the mailbox, a process that took some time and had the very real risk of damaging the unknown contents of the package – which turned out to metal puzzles from Mexico my ex-girlfriend gave me, but though I knew the package was from her, I had no idea of what the contents were, nor how fragile the might have been).

In short the USPS, especially around tax day gets my vote for one of the worst branches of government. Ironic, because they are one of the few branches which is self-funded.

My other woes this tax season?

One of the mortgage firms which had issued me a mortgage on my condo in Chicago, which I sold this past summer, did not mail me my tax documents. So I tried to call them. I called the company which had issued me the home equity line. The no longer actually owned that division, instead there was a new number I had to call for that group. I tried that. It was Monday, apparently the day before taxes were due – they were closed and not answering their phones.

I then tried to call the company which had serviced the loan (which was yet a third company). Nope, no luck there.  (oh, did I mention that the number on the documents from the mortgage company was no longer the right number – they couldn’t just connect you, you had to take down a new number and call that – based on a voice tree that suddenly said “sorry you have to call # and the stopped. Did not even repeat the number more than once – so unless you had pen and paper at the immediate ready, you had to call back a second or even third time to get the number down).

So I looked at my past records for who had sent me the tax documents in years past. Yet a fourth company.

I called them. Got one person, she couldn’t help me, transfered me to another guy (putting me hold, having already been on hold for a while). He came on, asked me for my id number (i.e. soc. security) I gave it to him. It failed to look up anything in their system (apparently once you have paid off the loan they no longer count you as a customer). But giving him the much longer loan account number did the trick, he could, in fact, look up my details (and verified my identity correctly before doing so).

Turns out, where did they send the end of the year tax documents for a loan which had been paid off after the sale of the property?

Of course, to the property that was sold. Brilliant.

And it means that somewhere, along this massive chain, my correct address, the one that I had given to all parties at the loan closing (for fear of this very occurrence)  had not be delivered up the chain of companies.

So I was able to get the information I needed and a paper copy of the records will be winding its way to me (apparently it takes them 7-10 business days to mail such information – why, I have no clue, but that’s what they said).

Not my best day.

Posted in banking, customer service | 1 Comment »

Google is NOT in the search business, neither is Technorati

Posted by shannonclark on April 13, 2007

Got your attention did I?

What do I mean?

What business a company is in is not the same as asking what do they provide, or how are their resources used by others. Rather the business of a company is what brings value and resources into that organization.

In Google (and Technorati’s) case this is not search. (well in Google’s case they do have a very small < 1% of revenues enterprise search business that does directly generate revenues through the sale of search technologies in the form of dedicated hardware to be installed inside of enterprises as a part of their Intranets, but as a stock analyst might say, at least today not a material part of their revenues).

Both Google and Technorati are, actually, in the business of providing a platform and set of services to other companies to reach customers and spread brand messages (i.e. advertising). Technorati has a further business of selling data – information that companies (or their service provider firms such as PR agencies) can use to track brand impressions, live web opinions etc.

Yes, both Google and Technorati have lots of “users” – but these users are not “customers” – that is, they are not directly (in most cases) paying Google of Technorati (though some may have separate advertising relationships with Google for example).

And certainly in both cases a significant part of their development and technology resources are dedicated to these users. But their revenues are a by-product of the user’s actions – not from the users directly. So the business relationships of the firms are with a smaller set of entities.

This distinction between what a company provides – and the business it is in can be a very hard one to grasp, both for startups and even for long established companies. Some rather large portion of car companies, for example, are perhaps best thought of as financing firms first – and manufacturers second. Further complicated because the actual customer interactions for most car companies are not direct – but are mediated by a layer of car dealers who though licensed by the companies are not directly part of those firms.

So if you modeled a car company, most of their actual business relationships would be with this layer of car dealerships, a number of large fleet buyers (i.e. rental car companies, some government agencies), and the financial services firms that provide the liquidity for the company’s financing activities, and to a smaller degree sales of parts to service dealers (though in many cases mostly only to licensed dealerships – everyone else might often use third party parts). That’s on the revenue in side of things.

On the costs side of things clearly many car companies have a great number of big relationships – to their employees (past and present) mediated via Union agreements, to a handful of large parts providers, to various governments, to many utilities, to transportation providers, and to financial firms for debt financing. Ford, for example, managed to spend $12 billion more than they earned. (that’s a $1 billion loss per month, nearly $33 million/day, or to put it another way 5-10 Web 2.0 startups PER DAY)

Apparently Ford’s business these days is spending.

So what business are you in?

Posted in economics, Entrepreneurship | 3 Comments »

My advice to Rolling Stone on their new Social Network

Posted by shannonclark on April 13, 2007

According to Techcrunch today (and Mike credits a journalism student for breaking the story), Rolling Stone magazine will be launching their own online social network.

In a very long comment on TechCrunch I offered the following advice to Rolling Stone on their new social network. I republish my comment here for posterity

If Rolling Stone does this well they could have a chance to revitalize the value of subscribing – and of their brand more broadly.

Social Networks are evolving to be more open and interactive places (see Marc Canter’s recent discussions about Digital Lifestyle Aggregators).

A few years ago I proposed, but did not end up working on it, that a company with a lot of very niche magazines create dedicated social networks for those publications. Linking deeply to their customer database, to their advertisers, and to their rich archives of content (as well as to the ongoing process of writing new stories and covering the industry). These were very niche publications (think Optometrists) and I still think there is a very good business there for both the publishers and a software provider to provide technology and services to them.

For Rolling Stone my advice would be:

– leverage your subscribers – make it very very easy for them to start using the social network (i.e. use something on their label as their access for example, pre-populate their profile based on info you have, give them visable rewards for things such as Years they have Subscribed).

– deeply integrate the rich archive of content you have – especially content that may not just have been in the magazine (recordings of interviews, photographs that didn’t make it into print, searchable archives of reviews, tour dates etc)

– do not ignore the value your advertisers create in the magazine – and integrate them directly into the network. Not as an afterthought but as another stream of content and resources. Make it really, really easy to access all the ads & offers (i.e. offers of free music from a service like emusic – make sure the offer from the magazine is available easily online as wel) Get metadata for things such as when records are being released, for links to label’s websites, band’s myspace pages etc (this also points out – don’t be afraid of the rest of the web or the other social networks – link back and forth between them)

– respect your audiance and KNOW IT. You should (you being Rolling Stone) know the actual demographics of your readers. Design accordingly. Respect them and do not either talk down to them, or design only for a subset of them (i.e. don’t design the network for teenagers – unlikely to be your current readership)

– make the network open to non-subscribers, but give special notice/prominence/benefits for subscribers (and afterall since you now sell a subscription for very little – I think $10 or so don’t make it too high of a burden)

– LISTEN to your audiance. Make the social network more than just readers talk to each other (though that’s really valuable) – make it readers talking to you, to your advertisers, to the music industry at large. Give people lots of ways to interact, to see their voice being acknowledged

– take this conversation back into your print publication – and outward to the rest of the web.

– Music is a multiple senses businesses – so integrate music, audio, video as well as print and photos into the network. Strike deals with lots of sources for embedable videos, for downloadable music, for music co-discovery (pandora, lastFM, etc)

– consider also focusing on the other strengths of Rolling Stone – your history of covering American culture, not just music (and your long tradition of high quality, long form journalism). Remind people of this, reemphasize it, break out your archives (and btw pay the authors or their estates when you do so).

Now, will they listen?

Who knows?

Shannon

– founder/organizer MeshForum – http://www.meshforum.org an annual conference on the study of Networks, including social networks

Posted in Entrepreneurship, meshforum, networks | Leave a Comment »

Observing the city around you

Posted by shannonclark on April 12, 2007

I do not own a car, though I have in the past, I sold my last car in 2004 and have not replaced it. Since moving to San Francisco I have tried to walk at least a few miles every day, often 4-5 miles.

A few days ago, the Washington Post ran an experiment on commuters in Washington DC. For all the details, take a look at the article Pearls before Breakfast. After you have read the article, click thru and read some of the over 51 pages of comments (over 500). Go ahead and read it then come back here.

Have you read the article?

If not, quick (too quick really) summary, the Post got Joshua Bell, one of the leading violinists in the world to perform in the morning at rush hour at a Metro stop in Washington DC using his over $3M Stradavarius violin and playing some of the hardest pieces in the Classical Canon. And out of over 1000 people who walked by, less than 10 stopped to listen and very few gave any money.

Just a few days ago, I remember hearing a bit of a musical battle between two musicians at the Bart/Muni Powell station in downtown San Francisco. At one space, a man played a saxophone (very well in fact), at the other space, another man played a trumpet (fairly badly). I was in a rush (had to head into the nearby mall to find a bathroom) but I remember noting that they were overlapping in their music – and that the sax player was by far the better musician.

I try as I walk through the city to observe the world around, to notice the buildings, the businesses, the people. Lately I have been trying to take at least a few photos every day.

At the recent Mobile MeshWalk I organized over 900 photos were taken by the participants.

One of the specific goals of the MeshWalk format is to have people see the world with each other. That is, as you walk together through the city actively seek to observe the world around you – and then share those observations with each other. Help others see what you see, add what you know about the city, what you observe to their knowledge and experiences.

In the light of the Washington Post experiment of a few days ago, I think it would be a good thing for all of us if we were a bit more aware of the world around us, if we stopped and looked deeply at the details, at the people, listened to the music.

Tonight, after the fundraiser for Irene McGee I walked down Polk St. looking for a late night snack. Besides many other people out late, I observed a really fascinating building at the corner of Polk and California (well one building in from the corner). Downstairs it is now a Walgreens, garish and lit by fluorescent lights. But clearly from the upstairs architecture, at one time this building was a theater or hall, indeed faintly still there is a name and the words Hall in large letters at the top of the building. However, besides a disused doorway plastered with ads for the Walgreens and hidden behind iron fencing, there is no obvious way upstairs. But I wonder what a space lies hidden above the routine Walgreens, and what was there before it was removed to put in drop ceilings, glass windows and a tile floor?

A few blocks later looking carefully at the businesses on adjoining blocks led me to notice a restaurant that advertised that it was open until 4 am. That restaurant, the Grubstake Restaurant, is housed in a dining car from the early part of the century which has been used as a diner since 1925. I ate a really good burger and a homemade flan. Not bad for just before 1am.

Observe the world around you.

Stop, listen to the music.

Take photos, capture details.

Take notes, make connections, catch someone’s eye. Say hello. Hold open a door. Nod. Smile.

Engage.

Posted in digital bedouin, meshwalk, photos, restaurants, San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

Idea for Outlook (or any contact list tool)

Posted by shannonclark on April 7, 2007

This idea occurred to me tonight while entering in my large backlog of business cards.

It could, I think, be embedded into Office, and certainly could be built into any online contact management tool, however it does require some relatively radical rethinking about how most such systems currently work.

The idea: embed rss feeds as well as clips from websites into a contact record

What I generally try to do when I enter a contact into my address book is enter all the basic contact data – name, mailing address, phone numbers, email address, website – but then also include a short bio as well as a record of when, where and why I met the person.

I am starting with Outlook at the moment, and then planning on syncing it back up to Plaxo, LinkedIn, my cell phone, google/gmail, yahoo/yahoo mail, and to NELA.mobi (via Plaxo)

However I really should, these days, be including a lot of other data – data that Outlook (and most other contact systems do not handle).

– blog address (with space for more than one)

– rss feed(s)

– twitter

– Skype

And instead of fully manually finding and inserting a bio, ideally my tools should be smart enough to try to seek out the contact’s own bio in their own words. Starting, perhaps, with sites such as LinkedIn then on to Facebook, myspace.com, Ryze, Ecademy, Friendster, Tribe, etc. Also looking for an “about” page on their blog (and for their blog) or bios on their corporate website. Lastly looking for a bio of them from a conference where they spoke or other online resources.

In a fully idealized world, I should be able to enter in a stack of business cards into my contact tool, and then through the magic of the Internet and various web services build up a list of their public data and profiles, one that is not a static picture but an updateable one – with RSS feeds ready to be subscribed to, lists of which services they are a part of (and which I too am using – i.e. Skype, Twitter, gtalk, LinkedIn, etc)

Now I don’t necessarily want to import this list of feeds into my primary blog reader – but I do want to look at ways to look at the whole collection. Ideally I also want the reverse to be the case – anyone whose blog I read regularly should probably also be in my contact lists – with as much detail as I can easily find (i.e. their email address if they publish it, phone numbers, city at the very least, full business address even better etc).

Today my network is a very diffuse – yet also very complex entity. Realistically there are probably about 5000 people or so whom I have some significant connection to, close enough that I would want to be aware of them when I am traveling, would invite them individually to events which I organize. That is a large number true, but realize I probably meet 10+ new people a week on average, and have for a decade or more. I generally try to meet at least 2, preferably 5+ new people every day. Of course, not everyone I meet is someone I want to keep in touch with, but I would like to keep in touch with many more people than I manage at the moment.

More importantly whether you are a small business (like NELA is for now, though we don’t plan on staying small for long) or a part of a much bigger business, it is no longer sufficient to enter data about someone once and forget about it – whether they are a random contact, a customer, a partner or a blogger you read – today their online presence will be an ever evolving and changing thing. Even people who are not deeply active online are, increasingly, present online – via their customers writing about them, speaking engagements, writings by or about them etc. Fewer and fewer individual business people or their companies are note present online.

So why do our tools not make it really easy for us to embed this live web of information into our records about who we know? (and yes, technorati searches of the live web would be useful as well.)

Posted in digital bedouin, microsoft, web2.0 | 1 Comment »

Another Vista and Outlook 2007 annoyance – dialing options

Posted by shannonclark on April 7, 2007

I just started entering data into my brand new installation of Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager.

On the very first business contact, however, I have encountered a pretty obnoxious bit of assumptions by Microsoft.

Specifically after I entered a phone number into the new contact record, a dialog popped up called “Location Information”.

In this dialog Outlook is asking that I enter what country I am in, what my area or city code is, what carrier code I would need, and what number I would need to dial an outside number. I.E. the assumption here is that I would, of course, have this machine connected to a phone line and somehow want it to be dialing phone numbers for me.

Now, if this was possible to configure to use Skype, I might, in fact, think about doing that (some of the time).

But I am almost always mobile with this machine (it is a tablet PC after all, I bought it for use on the road).

I will probably NEVER use this machine, at least via Outlook, to initialize a call. Wouldn’t even think about it in fact.

But apparently if I do not enter this data, I can not continue. For if I close this dialog without putting in my area code, an error message pops up and I am returned to the dialog box. If I close it entirely, another message pops up which says:

Windows needs telephone information about the location from which you will be dialing. If you cancel without providing this information, this program may not function correctly when dialing. In addition, some applications respond to your canceling this dialog box by immediately re-posting it.

Are you sure you want to cancel?

Huh?

When/where did I indicate that I would want my tablet dialing out? From this message it appears to be baked into Vista, not just Office 2007 (or else it is a case of really poor error messages – “some applications” in place of the actual application generating this message.

I don’t know what I can do to get past this. I really don’t want my laptop thinking it will be dialing phones. All I want to do is enter data, lots of it, as fast as possible.

I literally have a stack of about 1000 business cards which I want to sort and enter this weekend. The contacts I have made in the past year, most of whom I want to follow up with, and most of whom I have neglected to enter fully into my address lists.

Is it so hard for Microsoft to imagine that a user of a computer, even a business user, might not, in these days of pervasive, high speed wifi, want that laptop using a modem or making phone calls over a POTS line?  (which if I didn’t have to have currently to get DSL service I would gladly do without?)

Posted in digital bedouin, microsoft, working | 23 Comments »