Friday, October 15, 2010

No longer at this address.

This blog is now closed. Please go to my new site:

Friday, June 18, 2010

10 More Underrated Pleasures

A few weeks back I wrote a post on underrated pleasures of life. These are the little things that help me slow down and appreciate life, no matter how fast paced it may get. Soon, I began noticing many more.

With that, here are 10 more underrated pleasures for your enjoyment:

1. Hand washing the dishes. I have a dishwasher, but there are times when I'd rather plunge my hands into warm, soapy water and do them myself. I don't rush through it. Instead, I focus on each dish and spend extra time ensuring that it's completely clean in a way that the dishwasher can't manage. There's something about holding up a wine glass and watching it catch the light that brings pleasure like nothing else.

2.  Sitting with a cup of coffee. Mornings in general are an underrated pleasure. No matter what time we have to get to work, many of us cut it too close to be able enjoy a few moments of silent contemplation before plunging into the rush of the day. I once got a yoga tape that included a "coffee asana." This involved holding the cup in both hands, deeply inhaling the rich aromas. Now that's my kind of yoga!

3. Dinner conversation with family. I read a horrifying statistic recently that said that only 30% of families have a sit down dinner together more than once a week. When I was a kid, we had dinner (or actually "supper") as a family every single night without fail. I guess I'm in a time warp, as this is still how my husband and I do it. It's like a punctuation mark at the end of each day.

4. Grocery shopping. There's shopping--the one most of us know too well, involving rushing down the aisle of the local Safeway and grabbing all of our usual, tried-and-true items--and then there's shopping. This is the one where you stop and take note of what you are buying, testing the weight of a cantaloupe, chatting with the butcher about the best cut of beef, and taking the time to ensure you've found the freshest sourdough baguette in the basket. To me, the difference is like night and day.

5. Sorting the recycling. Another "chore" that gets short shrift. Where I live, there are raccoons about, which means we can't put the garbage out the night before the truck arrives. If we do, the next morning we see our entire week's worth of trash strewn along the pavement. Instead, we rise early on Monday mornings and put all of it out then. I used to hate it. The smelly, fishy cat food cans, the soggy papers, the dirty recycling bins. Then one day I noticed how incredibly crisp the air is at that early hour. Fog drifts onto the street and mingles with the first sun rays of sun, turning every tree branch and rooftop luminous.

6. Clicking "no" to an invite. If you're like me, you get invited to a lot of random events through Facebook. Flattered, I often click the "maybe" button in the hope that somehow I'll fit in that extra networking event, birthday party, product release, handcar regatta, wine tasting or other meetup that I know full well isn't going to fit into my already packed schedule. The word "no" seems so final. But that's exactly what's right about doing it. Taking this step requires bravery, but in doing so, our world settles down. No more penciled-in, half-assed dates on the calendar. The joy of simplicity.

7. Listening to stuff. It's so tempting to wrap oneself in a cocoon of "chosen" sounds. In the car, we blast music or news. As we walk down the street, Pandora pipes our favorite tunes through iPhone earphones. Steve Jobs hath bestowed upon us this magical ability. But once in awhile, I decide to go the opposite way and let it all in. There's something anarchic and wild in the cacophony of street sounds. So much of what we call "noise pollution" can be music if we listen without judgment: the motorcycle engine rev as it blasts past us in traffic, the baby crying in the airplane, the click-click of a turnstile, the vroom of the bus. Even the tinny sounds issuing from others' earphones can be an accompaniment to one's day.

8. Sour food. Why is it that everything we eat and drink nowadays is judged by its level of sweetness? Maybe because sugar is added to so many products. Or perhaps we're all stuck in a perpetual childhood. Whatever the reason, it's rare, in the U.S. at least, to hear someone extol the wondrous sourness of something they just ate. But sour is one of the most basic tastes; our taste buds were specially designed to recognize it. To me, there's almost nothing better than biting into a slice of Meyer lemon, eating a spoonful of homemade yogurt, sipping a lemony soup, or eating one of those salty, sour Umeboshi plums they sell in Asian markets.

9. Doing something you're bad at. There's all kinds of reasons to pursue activities we are good at doing. Oftentimes, this is the key to success. But I've found immense pleasure in attempting stuff I'm bad at. I can't draw. I'm not a good dancer. As much as I love doing them, I pretty much suck at New York Times crossword puzzles. If you know you're bad at something, this gives you freedom. You can fall on your face. Make an utter fool of yourself. And if anyone criticizes, you can just laugh it off--you knew you were bad at it in the first place!

10. Board games. OK OK I can hear you saying now that I'm turning this post into little more than a nostalgia trip into days gone by when the kids played Monopoly while the grownups drank cocktails, puffed on their pipes and played whist around a rickety, card table covered in cheap baize. But to me, there's something amazing about playing a game that requires absolutely no mobile phone, PC, Macbook or other electronic involvement. Picking up that metal car with one's hand and moving it around the squares without punching a single button. Heaven.

What are your underrated pleasures of life? I'd be very interested to hear, so please feel free to leave them in the comments field.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pollsters miss the point on the economy (and everything else)

This past weekend our household was contacted by Gallup for a poll they were conducting on the nation's sense of health and well being. At first, it was exciting. I'd never talked to a pollster before, and I happen to know that it's a small handful of Americans who are chosen to participate.

The young woman on the phone asked me a lot of questions. They were all about me and how I was feeling. Who wouldn't want that kind of call on a Sunday afternoon? It was like getting a free therapy session. The first question had an almost hypnotic effect on me.

"Imagine that your life is a stairway," she said, her tone low and melodious. "At the very top step is the best life you could be having, that's a 10. The bottom step is your worst life, a one. What step are you on?"

I didn't want to seem cocky, so I said "nine." I could see myself standing there, on the ninth step. One foot was already lifting and getting ready for the top of the stairs. As if reading my mind, the pollster asked me which step I saw myself headed towards.

"Ten!" I said, feeling the elation spread through me.

After that, things started to take a turn for the worse. It was like going back to elementary school. I was being quizzed. There were all sorts of questions designed to see if I felt squeezed financially. Then there were the rather intrusive health questions. How many days in the past week had I eaten five or more servings of fruits and vegetables? Had I exercised? How often? Was it for 30 minutes or longer?

I tried to explain that I hadn't expected to receive such a call, and so I had paid no attention to these details. She hid any disappointment she might have had. She asked a question that I could tell was considered a key indicator according to nice people at Gallup.

"Do you have enough time to get the things done that you need to do?"

A long pause ensued. This was, for me, an unanswerable question. If I said "yes," then that meant I  had bought into the presupposition that somehow time was an external factor over which I had no control. If I said "no," then that implied the same thing--only now I was admitting that time had taken such a toll on me that I was failing to keep up with its demands.

Either way, I was trapped. I would be accepting the belief--widely held in this culture, of course--that time is our enemy. It takes away our ability to get things done. How does it do this? Why, it runs out, of course! Like the hourglass in The Wizard of Oz, it drops, one blood red grain of sand at a time, until we have none left. We couldn't do those things that we wanted to do, because time took them away from us. Sneaky bugger.

But of course, this is completely wrong. It's a subjective belief, not an external reality. In fact, the more we believe that time is our problem, the more of a problem it becomes. As Professor Philip Zimbardo explains in this video, people in different cultures experience time in all kinds of ways. In the U.S., we are more "time crunched" than ever. His research found that Americans were admitting that they sacrificed friends, family and sleep in order to get more things done.

Here's the mindblowing part. They then asked people, "suppose you had an eight day week? What would you do with that extra day?" The answer? They would spend that time achieving more. Working harder. Not spending time with friends and family. Not even sleeping more.

There's yet another unexamined assumption buried in that pollster's innocent sounding question. It is the idea that there are things that I "need" to do.  Reasonable enough, on the surface. I'm a functioning member of society. I need to work, earn a living, take care of my home, take care of my family, and so on. But when you take a step back from it, there's a strong implication there that life is essentially made up of activities we just have to do. We're like walking lists, endlessly checking things off of ourselves and then adding more as we go.

Just as with the idea of time, this implies a victim mentality. I am robbed of choice. I don't choose to do things. I just do them, because I must. In fact, the question wouldn't work if they allowed for the presupposition that our lives are our own.

Imagine if she had asked: "do you have the time to do the things you choose to do?"

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? If I choose to do things, then of course I'll make time to do them. Otherwise, I wouldn't be choosing them in the first place. Here's a radical thought. What if we chose to do everything we did? What if all these things we say we "need" to do were just stuff we convinced ourselves we had to do? As Deepak Chopra once noted--the goal of our lives should be to do less and achieve more. Ultimately, the goal is to do nothing and achieve everything.

I'm not saying that Gallup is biased. Bias implies a certain angle on a topic. This runs far deeper than that. It reflects a widely held set of beliefs--a sort of complete wrapper around our culture--that separates us from our own lives, turning us into automatons who do nothing but run around doing, buying and running around some more (this time to achieve our proscribed 30-minutes, three times a week exercise). It's the ultimate victim mentality--about as far from the original American ideal of independence as you can get!

This very headset is actually what got us into the economic mess we're in now. If you look deeply enough, what really caused the recent downturn was the pressure to ensure that the economy continually grew at all costs. Every company had (and still has) to show "growth." Not depth. Not that it served some larger purpose. Just that it got bigger. And so the engines that run the economy had to keep figuring out ways to keep inflating this balloon. The result was that eventually, there was nowhere left to go. The balloon could not get larger. Instead, it popped. And so, Gallup is measuring the little scattered pieces that fell to the ground, never noticing that the balloon isn't us. It isn't even necessary. We'll all be fine without it. We might even be better.

Oh, and by the way, I did finally answer the question. I just couldn't bear to disappoint the lady from Gallup. I said "yes."

Friday, June 4, 2010

A spirited aptonym

By golly, I've found yet another brilliant aptonym--this in the world of wine and food blogging. I speak of Mr. Rick Bakas. Rick is the social media director at St. Supery Winery in the Napa Valley. He's been in branding and marketing for years, and recently he's become something of a social media celebrity. His book "Quick Bites: 75 Savory Tips for Social Media Success" is due out at the end of this month.

As some readers of this blog know, I'm particularly obsessed with the phenomenon of nominative determinism, also known as the "aptonym." This is when a person's name matches their personality or career choice. For example, Dennis Rodman's father, a known philanderer who married four times and had 27 children, is named Philander Rodman. (I don't know why, but that's still my favorite.) There are also many examples of doctors named Doctor, dentists named Tooth, attorneys called Sue, and so on.

Bacchus is the name of the Roman God of Wine. Rick notes on his blog that his family name was originally spelled that way, but his great-grandfather changed it to Bakas so that it would sound more American. The Greeks called this god Dionysus.

I've been following Rick on Twitter for some time now, enjoying his tweets about food, wine and social media commentary. For someone in a field known for its pleasure and relaxation, he seems to have the energy of ten people or more--continually posting videos, photos and other tidbits that pour out of him like an endless, bottomless jug. In Greek and Cretian myth, Dionysus (Bacchus) was half mortal and half god. The Greeks said he was fathered by none other than Zeus.

I got in touch with Rick on Twitter and asked him to comment. Did he get into wine because of his name? Had he ever thought of himself as a Roman god? He was surprised by the request but gamely responded with the following email:

"I didn’t get into the wine biz because of my name, it just happened. I was bit by the wine bug when I turned 21. That year, my parents opened a 1985 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 during the holidays. That was the first wine I had that had quality and age on it. The light bulb went off and I was hooked. Before that, any alcohol I drank came out of a hose connected to a keg in college.
 So I subscribed to every wine publication I could get my hands on and started learning and tasting everything. That led to my wine collection, that led to getting a job as a wine sales rep. Eventually I became a wine broker. 

If I had to recreate the path I’ve taken, I probably couldn’t reproduce it. It’s been a string of happy occurrences. As for my last name, it was actually spelled, 'Bacchus' but when my great-grandparents came to the U.S. In 1912 they Americanized the spelling (which is a bummer). They changed the spelling from Bacchus to Bakas."

He attached this--his version of the family crest:
Rick encouraged me to get in touch with Emily Wines, who is the Master Sommelier at Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco. That is truly the consummate definition of an aptonym par excellence. Emily Wines, and her job is to choose and serve... well, um... wines! Unfortunately I didn't hear back from Emily by press time, but all we can do is marvel at the total aptness of her name from afar.

Update!! We have heard from Emily Wines. She sends the following missive about her truly apt-o-nym:

"My name always comes up in my business. My getting into wine was a coincidence rather than being influenced by my name. Sometimes I think it opened doors as people remembered it though. People always comment on my name. It would seem that my name is Emily 'yes that really is her name' Wines. I usually joke about how if my last name were 'Beers,' I would be in a different career. I first got interested in wine by working in restaurants. As a server, I felt that if I knew more about what I was selling I would be a better waitress. Which is true -- however, as I started reading and exploring I got really hooked on the stories and cultures that inform wine as well as the beverage itself. I began doing side work in the restaurant to learn more which eventually led me to become a sommelier. I am the only person in my family in the wine business. In fact, growing up, my family rarely even drank wine! That has changed now, thanks to me. Now I can't get them off the stuff."

We raise a glass to both Emily and Rick.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Facebook was right about the "like" button

While the attention is still focused on Facebook and privacy, there has been far less talk about the change from "become a fan" to "like" for company and group pages. My first response to this was to "dislike" the whole idea. I know if I'm truly a fan. Liking is far more subjective and changeable. What if I'm sort of lukewarm? Is there a "meh" button? No, there is not.

There was also the torturous way that Facebook was treating the English language. Getting an email that reads something like, "John Major suggests you 'like' British Petroleum" is a skin-crawling experience for anyone who was raised to speak and write properly. He does? I do? This is nothing short of grammatical butchery--and who knows what new horror the folks at Facebook will present to us next.

There was also a certain creepiness factor. While I've been on the side of moderation on the whole Facebook privacy question, I'll admit I had a bad feeling about where this was going. It was clearly an attempt to gather more data for marketers--the larger plan being to spread the "like" button far and wide across the open Internets. This may benefit Facebook and its advertisers, but would it really help me?

In short, I was all ready to hate the whole "like" button idea.

Fast forward a few weeks. I am finding that when people suggest I "like" a company, product or group, I'm doing it. Click, click. I may not be a full-on fan of the thing, but I definitely like it. It's a lighter weight, less cumbersome option. This is exactly the reasoning behind the change, according to Facebook itself. And lo and behold, they were right. And while I'm still a lot less likely to "like" something outside of Facebook, every once in awhile, I do hit that button, and I do it gladly.

What do you think? Are you finding this option to be preferable, or do you miss becoming a "fan?" Or, are you so fed up with Facebook at this point that you don't even care?

Meanwhile, here is Betty White's view of Facebook, in case you haven't seen it (via B.L.Ochman):

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why I'm not leaving Facebook

A lot of folks I know and respect are leaving Facebook right now. Their reasoning, as far as I can tell, is that Facebook has gone too far, and is violating their privacy in new and dangerous ways. And even among those who are staying put, there's a general feeling that Facebook is somehow controlling us and should be treated with suspicion.

At issue, chiefly, is the "Instant Personalization" update announced at the recent Facebook developer's conference, F8. This allows Facebook's partners to load your profile onto its sites automatically. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal, but apparently it is to a lot of people. Even Senator Chuck Schumer is getting into the act---he thinks that a good use of the public money is to complain about Facebook to the FTC.

I'm not completely unsympathetic. I do think that this really ought to have been an "opt in" rather than "opt out" feature-- especially considering how few Facebook users understand how to set privacy options. I probably would've opted into it if that had been the default. Instead, I opted out in protest.

Still and all, it's very similar to what a lot of us Facebook users have been doing all along with Facebook Connect. It's not clear exactly how (or even if) Facebook is actively sharing our data with its partners. If it were, I'm not sure I'd care much. Pandora already knows my musical preferences, because I deliberately told it what they were. That's the whole point of Pandora! I'm annoyed when it gets it wrong. And oh how I wish Yelp knew me better than it does. If it suggests one more time that I go to a crappy chain restaurant, I'm uninstalling the app. In short, if Facebook can help improve my experience, that's just dandy with me.

What we have on our hands here, then, is something psychological. We're hitting a dip in the hype cycle and getting panicky. Here is the tipoff--people are starting to talk about Mark Zuckerberg in emotional terms. The word "evil" is popping up. It reminds me of the way we used to talk about Bill Gates, before he got all warm and fuzzy. Over the past few months, the pressure has been building, especially in the media and among bloggers. Then, last week, Wired lost its mind, and went completely ballistic on Zuck's ass. Maybe this was a way to sell papers, but it sure seemed out of proportion to me.

My view, which parallels that of Robert Scoble and a handful of other brave souls who are trying to counteract the hype, is that I am not and never have been very concerned about privacy on Facebook. Why should I be? It's the Internet for goodness sakes. The public, open, free Internet that we all embraced with open arms--that we championed and cheered on for years and years.

And really, what am I sharing? A few pictures of my cats. A list of my previous jobs and education. Some nice family snaps. As a journalist, I've had a public online persona for 15 years. It's been a pain in the ass at times--like the time a pornbot got hold of my name (yes, first AND last), making every Google search for my name an exercise in porno linkbait. But overall, I've been very happy with these here Internets, and the ways they allow me to share who I am with the rest of the world. Like me or hate me, I "yam what I yam."

And, while I *wish* I could say that I'm special and unique in every way, I know that as far as anything Facebook could find out about me, I'm really not. I like certain types of music, enjoy some restaurants and not others ... big whoop. I don't share information that I wouldn't want the whole world to know. My address is kept private... although, remember the phone book? Remember how you could just look someone's name and address and phone number up? Well, it still exists. I do think that it's important to take sensible precautions. Don't announce that you're traveling, especially if you've left your house empty. Don't give too much information out about truly personal things in your life. And be careful about sharing when you're feeling vulnerable. It's fine to say you're having a bad day, but I do cringe when I see people talking about bad dates, or major relationship issues, or even serious problems they're having with housemates. This stuff is probably best left unsaid in a public forum.

And that is the point. Think of Facebook as a public place, not a private one. If you do, a lot of the fears about privacy disappear. Email should be private. Phone conversations should be private. Social networking, not so much.

Image: Pulled off Wired and messed with:

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Remembering the coast's Santa

I'm often the last to know when big news hits my local area, and so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to hear that it's been nearly a year since one of Half Moon Bay's most beloved residents, Rod Schoenlank, passed away. Rod, who died of congestive heart failure on June 26, 2009, just before his 88th birthday, was one of the first people to befriend me when I arrived on the coastside four years ago. I was confused, scared and lost. I had come here for a job that turned out to be nothing like I'd imagined. After eight excruciating months I quit. I had no plan in mind, and found myself spending my days in a local cafe, scribbling down everything I saw and heard.

Some of these notes, I began turning into short essays with a vague notion of collecting them into a book. Then life picked up again, and all of it was forgotten, except Rod himself. He continued to have his daily "coffee klatsch," and whenever I went to the local cafe I was sure to see him, sitting there surrounded by his amazing friends. He always invited me to join them, and the conversations were never dull. He was like a heavy star, holding people together through the sheer gravity of his personality.

As the pace of my life increased, I had less and less time. I rarely stopped by the cafe. A niggling feeling at the back of my mind told me he must have died--he was getting into his late eighties, after all--but I never bothered to check. Today, something told me to run a search online. Sure enough, there was an item in the Half Moon Bay Review, along with links to some remembrances.

The best is a slide show that an intern at the Half Moon Bay Review did of him a few years ago. He quotes "Hamlet" in the seamless, unconscious way of someone who knew long sections of it by heart. He is shown on his boat, the Lao Tzu, moored in Princeton Harbor for two decades. He doesn't seem old. He never did. Rather, he seemed ageless. We all knew that he'd have to walk off the stage at some point. Yet, it seems impossible that there is now a world that no longer contains him. I felt a wave of shame that I was so careless as to lose track of him, until there was no longer someone to track.

If you have the patience, below find one of the essays I wrote after an early meeting with Rod. It's not about him--he's just another local character woven into the narrative. I preserved his and everyone else's anonymity. I named him "Gary Eagle," based on a story he told me that I've since forgotten--something to do with meeting a member of the Eagle clan in his travels. The dialogue and situation were taken directly from real life, with hardly a detail changed, and I think the part that features him does him some justice. I hope so.


Princeton Harbor on Half Moon Bay is only a half hour south of San Francisco, but it might as well be on the other side of the world. Here, fishermen sell live crab from their boats, sending customers off with long plastic bags stuffed with these heavy, reddish claw-snapping delicacies. They lug the bags back to their Audis and Mazdas, and as they drive home, the interiors of their vehicles fill with the briny scent of the bay.

Just beyond the line of fish and chip shops lies a maze of narrow streets named after the Ivy League and Seven Sisters universities and colleges of the northeast. My own alma mater, Vassar, is a small, ill-paved street that unexpectedly dead ends near a pile of ancient, rotted fish netting. Harvard Avenue, Yale Way and Amherst Streets all meander here and there, taking you past vacant lots, or lots piled high with rusted hulks of various sizes, shapes, and providences. Abandoned wooden boats lie on the grass, moored among weeds that grow over them like the rivulets that once surrounded them during their useful lives. Wildflowers grow everywhere, impervious to rusty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and discarded styrofoam clam chowder bowls, left by careless visitors anxious to return to the warmth of Hayward or Redwood City, beyond the reach of the cold, cloying fog.

Much of the area is made up of warehouses. Many are signless, and when we first arrived I wondered if they were empty, until one weekend several put out sandwich boards on the highway, enticing us with promises of inexpensive records and brick-a-brac. When this happens, we discovered, crowds descend, snapping up flat screen televisions, children’s clothing, gold-plated platters, scented candles, plastic flowers and “Dora the Explorer” lunchboxes.

All through the summer, the air here is as thick and white as milk.
It hangs in front of your eyes and clings to your clothing until everything you own is perpetually damp and cold. If you stand on the shore next to Princeton Harbor, the sea looks like a billowing sheet, white from top to bottom, completely merged with the sky. Flocks of brown pelicans move as one entity, silently skimming the water. They don't seem to mind the fog. I never hear them complaining of soggy feathers; never hear them pronounce, grouchily, to their pelican spouse, "This is our new home by the beach?"

The human residents don’t talk about the fog much either. They seem to have steeled themselves. About the only time they mention it is to laugh at tourists who come here in the summer dressed in shorts, slathering sunscreen on their shivering children.

Those who are determined to meet the locals will eventually find their way to a cafĂ© across the street from the harbor, Cafe Classique. It is where everyone in the area goes, from the fisherman standing in their rubber boots to Mexican farm workers, to Silicon Valley engineers who live on the coast for their love of surfing or the sea. Standing in line, you move forward in fits and starts, feeling your way along as the ordered chaos dances around you. Mothers turn around and find the fathers of their children’s friends, stepping out of the line to greet them. There is talk of summer camp and carpools. Those on their way to work seem to forget themselves, stopping to chat for half an hour by the cream dispensers before glancing at their watches and making their reluctant way out, paper cup full of cooled coffee in hand.

Even on the coldest days, the locals swarm out to the deck, nursing warm mugs of coffee, or eating breakfast made from local eggs. One group of folks has been meeting here every morning at ten a.m. sharp for the past eighteen years. This is the "coffee klatsch," organized by Gary Eagle.

One morning I witnessed a conversation that I took to be fairly typical. Mr. John, a huge man wearing a battered leather cap and overalls was sitting at a small table by himself.

“Cats,” he announced, to no one in particular. “What’s wrong with them?”

“I got a few cats,” volunteered Sally, who sat at the coffee klatch table. “Sometimes, they tear up my sofa. But that’s okay because I hate my sofa. Reminds me of my ex-husband.”

“Which ex-husband?” asked Chip, who sat next to her.

“The fourth one,” she answered.

“Oh him,” said Chip, nodding.

Sally shared her raisin cake with Chip and the others at the table, who pounced on it like mice.

“Let me tell you something. I got a habit of keeping cats,” Mr. John went on. “Me and three Mexican guys. We call it our cat farm. It’s over by …” he paused, looking left and right, then continued, as if assured there were no spies, “…the yacht club. But it’s a totally secret place.”

“How many you got, Mr. John?” asked Doc.

“We’re up to twelve of them. So, let me ask you. Do you think it’s normal for a man to have that many cats?”

Doc didn’t eat the cake.
He’s very careful about sugar. A retired oral surgeon, he is single and always on the lookout. The women he dates complain that he treats them like the mouths of his former patients. As soon as they meet, he begins to drill into their pasts. He is sure he can be the one to uproot the decay and make it disappear for good. This drives them off, he knows, but he can’t stop himself.

“I don’t know, Mr. John. What’s normal or not?” asked Chip.

Chip lives in a boat in the harbor, but you rarely find him there. He’s usually housesitting or paying a friend with a house on dry land an extended visit. He doesn’t like water. He’s still not sure how he ended up owning a boat.

“A man can pick up a lot of bad habits. He can drink alcohol. He can smoke cigarettes. Hell, he can smoke crack,” Mr. John continued. “You stack those things up against cats, and I think you have to agree things are pretty good for me.”

“I had a beautiful gray dog once,” said Gary Eagle. “Now that I live on a boat, a dog’s not such a good companion. Boating life’s hard for a dog.”

A youthful eighty-six, Gary has a long, flowing white beard that makes him look like a slimmed-down Santa. His eyes twinkle and shine no matter what he is doing or saying. His face looks like it was ironed over and over, until some of the creases stayed put. Gary told me he was once the vice president of a steel company in Muskegee, Wisconsin. He keeps his old business card in his wallet to remind himself of what might have become of his life. At the height of his career, he walked out of his office, never to return.

Now Gary’s home is the Lao Tzu. He bought it two decades ago, and has managed to keep it going, despite plumbing problems, and an aging hull. Buying that boat was the best decision of his life, he tells you. The Lao Tzu shelters him through the seasons. At Christmastime, friends bring children’s stuffed animal toys to him. He gathers them on the deck of the Lao Tzu. The children arrive and he tells them to come on board and find the toy that "chooses them." To the kids, there is no doubt who he is.

A couple sat down near the regular’s table, where the topic of dogs was now in full swing. The pair were clearly not locals. It’s possible they were not even from San Francisco. Their faces were pinched, their posture as stiff as wood. Gary’s gaze fell on them, seeking their faces for a smile. The woman turned away, her cheeks going scarlet.

“You must be a regular here,” the man said, letting out a nervous laugh.

Gary laughed so hard he had to wipe a tear away.

“Oh, yes, you could say that. You could definitely say that.”

The couple spotted another empty table as far from the others as possible. They dived for it, all the while explaining themselves, as if talking to a child or a lunatic.

“This one is larger, see?” said the man. “And more comfortable.”

Gary smiled again, his eyes twinkling even more intensely than before. Santa.

The fog began to burn off, revealing sky and trees that had been shrouded. Children played on the sidewalk. An old black dog with white feet and a white nose meandered down the street. It stopped before crossing, looking out for left turners and hot rodders. Finding a large tree, it stood next to it as if taking up a sentry post. The wind picked up. A heavy, green branch above the dog fluttered jaggedly, up and down, up and down. This is not a place for those who want the easy life, I decided. Nor, is it a place for those who want to blend in and be forgotten. Even this dog is a local. And somehow, I think he knows it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

10 Underrated Pleasures

The go-go techy lifestyle means we often lose touch with the simpler pleasures of life. As someone who is in the midst of launching a new business, I speak for myself more than anyone here. Maybe it's the sunny weather we've had, but over the last few days I have noticed that many of the activities I often rush through or treat as chores are actually some of the most enjoyable. Here's the list I came up with:

1. Folding laundry. Lifting warm clothing and sheets out of the dryer. Spending time to fold them with care. The fresh scent from the detergent and dryer sheets. Way underrated.

2. Chopping vegetables. Slicing into a bright radish, with its ruby outer skin and streaked white and pink flesh. The pop of the spiciness as the scent rises up. The natural, rapid pace of the knife on wood. Just about every sense is involved in this task--a real break from staring at a two-dimensional screen.

3. Feeding the cats. I talk to my cats while I put the food in the can and place it on the floor. This seems to calm them down while they wait. It gives us all time to appreciate the bond we have as pets and pet owners.

4. Watering the plants. As with the cats, I have taken to talking to my plants while watering them. (So far, they haven't answered back. Still hoping for that.) I often use water that I've just used to wash vegetables or fruit. There's a good feeling that goes with the idea of not just pouring it down into the waste sewage line.

5. Listening to the birds in my yard. The other day, we sat in awe as a tiny roseate finch belted out some scat worthy of Ella Fitzgerald. I've heard that springtime is when bird songs become more complex. This is the time of year when they need to attract a potential mate. The rest of the year, they are basically singing, "stay off my branch, buddy."

6. Reading a novel. I'm not talking business books, biographies, or anything published by the "For Dummies" or O'Reilly people. I'm talking made up stories about people who never existed. To me, the delivery mechanism isn't important. Kindle, audio book, dead tree, whatever. I know I'm in the true reading zone when my husband says something to me and I don't answer for another 15 minutes.

7. Strolling around the neighborhood. Not power walking, or hiking, or anything involving high tech footwear or pedometers. Rather, one of those languishing, pointless, late afternoon or post-dinner meanders that involves noticing architectural details on houses or a neighbor's daffodils. The other day we took one of these types of walks and stopped in front of a yellow house to admire the small amount of jigsaw trim on the porch. The man who lived across the street spotted us and began telling us a great deal about the history of that house, and the entire neighborhood.

8. Listening to slightly boring stuff on the radio. NPR is great for this. I love to semi-tune out and half listen to Noah Adams, the Car Talk guys, or-- this is the best--that really badly done quiz show, "Says You." The trick, for me, is to not really pay attention, yet not go so far away that it turns into background noise. For some reason, this has a really pacifying effect on my brain. It doesn't work with shows I really like, such as "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me."

9. Writing postcards. For my birthday this year, a friend of mine sent me a huge, honking box of what looks to be about 1000 postcards. The series was put out by writer Dave Eggers' publishing company, McSweeney's and is labeled, mystifyingly enough, "Greetings from the Ocean's Sweaty Face." At first, I was intimidated. Who would want a postcard from me? Did I even know how to write one anymore? Slowly, however I've discovered a certain facility for writing these little missives. They're kind of like extended tweets.

10. Unplugging. Don't do enough of that. But I did start a new austerity program in which I no longer keep my iPhone by my bed. I can't believe how different my mornings are. Instead of immediately checking email and Twitter, I give myself a few minutes to awaken more slowly. My mind wanders a bit, which actually leads to more creative thinking. Highly recommended. And apparently, this is how I used to live.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cruvee - get your social wine on

It's a new day for wine enthusiasts. With the help of social networks, we oenophilic types can meet, greet and chat about our love of the grape with thousands of other like-minded (and paletted) folks. There are myriad ways to get into discussions online about all things related to wine--from social networks like CellarTracker and Cork'd to Tweetups to wine focused blogs, and beyond.

How are wineries dealing with this new onslaught of online discussion? Well... it varies. But overall, the impression I get is that they're a little overwhelmed. In the past, wine reviews were limited to a small, select group of VIPs like Robert Parker and the folks at Wine Spectator. These people perhaps wielded too much power, but at least there were ground rules. You knew when they were going to write their reviews, and there was an agreed upon system of points to rank the best wines. It was a simple, if limited world.

Contrast that with nowadays. Social media has unleashed a total free-for-all. Anyone with a Twitter account and a corkscrew can say anything they like about a bottle of wine. Not only that, but there's a good chance other people will listen and take heed, no matter what the so-called experts say.

Last week, I took a trip up to Napa and met some folks who are working to bridge the gap between this old world industry and the new media landscape. First stop, digital think tank for the wine industry, VinTank. Housed in a sleekly designed office with touches of both old and new, the company represents a fresh perspective on the intersection of wine and technology. I spoke at length on video with the company CEO, Paul Mabray, and will post the interview on our new site as part of the launch (look out for it). Meanwhile, also check out this great interview with Paul on the Vin65 blog.

Paul is a remarkable guy. A boyish 38, he has amassed an immense market knowledge and understanding about the wine industry. In addition to being a sought after advisor for wineries seeking to make the most of the new digital landscape, he's also turning his firm into something of a business incubator. I predict VinTank will do more to bring wine into the 21st century than any other single force in the Napa Valley. One of his investments is in social media monitoring service for the wine industry, Cruvee. I sat down with the two founders of that company, Evan Cover and James Jory and got the lowdown.

Cruvee (rhymes with "groovy") was originally envisioned as a social network for wine enthusiasts.  When he met them, Paul recognized something much more useful in what Evan and James had built. What they had was a giant, living database that could be used to monitor online chatter about wine. The service as it now functions is comparable to Radian6, Meltwater, and other social media monitoring services, but with a big difference: it's completely focused on the wine industry.

As Evan and James explained, a laser focus on one market translates to much better quality results. Anyone who has run a social media program knows about the hours of fruitless searching, endless keyword tweaking and other time-wasting frustrations that often go with getting ramped up. One social media director I spoke to said that he was spending hours every day combing through bad results because the name of his winery had a common meaning in a foreign language.

Cruvee casts a wide net, then delivers a manageable chunk of quality results on a daily basis that reflect real conversations across the open web about specific vintages and wineries.  They estimate that they take 250,000 conversations a day and boil that down to 10,000. "We find the needles in the haystack," said Evan.

The engine they have built can also understand wine lingo. It can tell that when someone is talking about a Cab Franc that they don't mean a taxi in Paris, and that in certain contexts, a post about a Chard isn't going to be a recipe for stir fry vegetables. Above and beyond that, their algorithms are designed to find wine references made in that new language we're all developing known as Twitterese. For example, what if someone tweets something like "Uncorking '08 Twisted Oak Cal Cty Viogner - neutral fr oak, 91 pts."? Chances are, this will be of interest to that winery, even if it sounds like gobblydegook to the average human.

The demo of Cruvee that I got was impressive. It has a clean, readable interface and seems intuitive and user friendly. Below find some screenshots for one of their clients (and one of my favorite Napa wineries) Cornerstone Cellars, below.

Here is the dashboard:

This shows a report on tasting notes from wine social networks. They have a partnership with CellarTracker, and Cruvee also delivers results pulled from over 20,000 online forums.

Here is the screenshot of one of their "campaign manager" pages, which tracks microblog results in near real time:

Evan and James also demonstrated some of the results that Cruvee can get that are on the fringes of wine social networks. For example, they found an obscure post on a forum for audiophiles about which wine the user planned to bring to an outdoor concert. This represents the kind of valuable customer data that takes place on random forums all over the worldwide web.

The price for a yearly subscription to Cruvee is very low (I'll leave it to you to find out just how low.) The reason for this, they said, is that they believe that ultimately the cost of all the social media monitoring services are working their way towards free. And in fact, they offer another service that is completely free to wineries, called OwnIT--or "Your Wine, Your Way" that aims to standardize wine information across the Web and mobile platforms. That might not seem like a big deal to you and me, but for winery owners, there is a huge problem with misinformation. For example, one winery owner told me that someone wrote a scathing review on an online wine forum of one of their offerings because he confusedly thought the bottle he was drinking was supposed to be a dry white, when in actuality it was a sweet dessert wine. For an industry that depends almost entirely on reputation, this service could make the difference.

I look forward to seeing where Cruvee goes next. They shared a few tidbits about their roadmap that sounded very exciting to me. I'd also like to see them (or someone else) build out a few more of these industry-focused monitoring services. There could be a major opportunity to fill in where the more generalized services can't be or get to. In sum, this is a company to watch in an industry that is going places.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Foursquare - are we missing the ball?

The blogosphere has been all a-Twitter about location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla recently. Between the buzz of SXSW and a rumored $100 million Yahoo acquisition there's a whole playground-ful of questions about where the ball will bounce next, and onto whose square. Will Gowalla score big during the last few minutes of recess? Or maybe Facebook will pull a "big college kid" on their butts and steal the ball away entirely. Amid the speculation, I think there are some huge, obvious uses for these applications that most of us have overlooked.

Bloggers and industry observers Louis Gray and Robert Scoble both wrote some of the more interesting posts on the topic this past week, exploring the potential--and potential pitfalls--of these services. They point out that despite the hype, adoption is spotty and limited. It's still pretty darn easy to be named "mayor" of somewhere on Foursquare. Even in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, you rarely find a lot of simultaneous check-ins, unless it's at the Apple store on iPad release day. Louis raises a number of good questions, such as the one in his headline: "Should Boring Married People Check In On Location Apps?" (He has the good humor to include himself in this category.) I also liked Robert's ideas for how to make the services more appealing. He calls for a "malleable social graph" where we get tips and reviews from folks who share our tastes.

All well and good, but in some ways too subtle for where we are right now. We're so immersed in the social networking headset that we have failed to recognize that this is a case where more conventional marketing and sales techniques could be very effective. After all, it's all based around the idea of a game, with its rewards and competition. As Louis notes, game theory really does apply here. There is a lot of talk about the "tips" and other social elements of these games. But what about that amazingly prominent, hard to miss "Special Nearby" button? We don't hear much about it. But that's where companies are going to find immediate value. As Gary Vaynerchuk so succinctly put it, brands get this stuff because it's about moving people around.

There's a reason that Starbucks has signed a partnership deal with Foursquare. They see it. You can use these services to offer rewards and discounts to customers--the types of rewards that keep them coming back day after day. For all the talk about adoption, the smart brands realize this isn't such a huge barrier. If your customers aren't signed up with Foursquare now, give them a reason to do so.

There's nothing onerous here for the user. It's a free application for anyone who has a cell phone. Foursquare doesn't even require a smart phone--there's a text only version of the game. Just the way department stores get you to sign up for credit cards by offering you a 10% discount, your local clothing shop can get people to sign up for Foursquare for an instant cost break. What retailer isn't hurting right now? This trend doesn't need to be limited to big brands like Starbucks or Tasti D-Lite (another company that has leapt into Foursquare with both feet).What about your neighborhood coffee shop, Pilates studio, or wine bar? Or that really great car wash that Robert Scoble sung the praises of on Gowalla?

By creating a Foursquare or Gowalla game within a game, retailers could make shopping into a scavenger hunt. Or, they might creatively reward regular customers. It's great that lots of businesses are offering "mayor" discounts and specials. But really, how many people can be mayor? How about this: two check-ins a week for a month, and you get a free latte. And we all know how hard it is to win the "gym rat" badge on Foursquare. So what? Your neighborhood fitness center can decide to give a different reward every week for active members. Have a "check-in" at every weight station, elliptical machine and spinning class. Then give a free t-shirt to the person who tried a new routine every other week.

In short, this could be huge for businesses of all sizes. No wonder Yahoo wants to own it.

Image: Foursquare demo video (

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Who was Ada Lovelace and why should I care?

I was recently contacted on Facebook by a group asking me to participate in a worldwide event to celebrate the achievements of women in technology. It was hard to tell that much from the email, except that it was named after a female historical figure, Ada Lovelace. The group designated March 24 as Ada Lovelace day, and encouraged one and all to blog, tweet and generally spread the news about women in technology on that date.

I'd heard the name Ada Lovelace, though the only thing I could dredge up about her was a vague memory that the programming language Ada was named after her. As I discovered, her story was a tale of intrigue worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, someone did make a movie about her--or kind of: "Conceiving Ada," a sci fi thriller with a historical twist. But her real story has yet to be told on the silver screen.

Here's the synopsis, based on my online research. Augusta Ada Byron was born in 1815, the only "legitimate" daughter of the famed poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbank. She never knew her father, who separated from her mother and who died when she was nine years old. Ada was often ill as a child.

Her mother, in an attempt to keep her safe from what she perceived could be inherited madness from her poet father, had her tutored in math. As it turned out, her talents in mathematics were immense. She eventually developed what is now considered the first algorithm, for Charles Babbage's analytical engine. There's even some speculation that she came up with the idea of using punch cards to program his machine. For that reason, she is credited with being the first computer programmer. According to the Wikipedia entry on her life: "She also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on these capabilities." She had a long and fruitful professional friendship with the mathemetician for the rest of her life.

Her social position meant that she had to make her way in English society. She was frequently seen at court as a young woman. It's amazing to imagine the young Ada spending her days poring over notebooks detailing Bernoulli sequences and sketches of the Babbage engine (which was never built in his lifetime). Then, somehow she tears herself away from these important musings in order to be stuffed into a massive hoop skirt, boned corset, and sheath by some maid or other, her hair primped, her face powdered in order to be "presented" at court and sized up by the eligible bachelors.

She married a man named Charles King, who later became the Earl of Lovelace. This earned her title of the Countess of Lovelace. They had three children. Meanwhile, she learned that her father's half-sister Augusta Leigh had also been his lover, and that her cousin Medora Leigh was the result of that union. Wikipedia says that she blamed Augusta, calling her "evil." From such a distance, how can we judge any of those involved? Still, one can only begin to guess at the heartbreak and family divisions that plagued those who were intertwined with Lord Byron. Ada died at 36 of uterine cancer, and, according to Wikipedia, the bloodletting she received from her physicians. She was buried next to the father she never knew.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Taste and Tweet

While much of the social media world was in Austin crowding in to hear Ev wax philosophic on Twitter last week, a handful of us headed up to the Napa Valley to enjoy sun, wine and general good times. The first annual, or "inaugural" Napa Valley Tweetup" was held this past weekend and included such tasty activities as an evening of heavy sipping at Robert Mondavi Winery and a panel on social media. Driven by Silicon Valley Tweetup founder Gabriel Carrejo of Excite Social Media, the event drew over 100 participants and raised thousands of dollars for charity.

This seems to be the moment for social media and wine. The Facebook fan page for the event continues to drive all kinds of posting. A week down the road, the Twitter hashtags #NapaValleyTweetup and #NVTweetup are going strong. For an analysis of the buzz that was created during the event itself, go to this post on The Cork Board. For a rundown on the whole event, Hello Vino has a lovely post.

I was part of a an intrepid group of die-hards who toured some of the Valley's hidden wineries on the second day of the event. Among our group were such social media-ites as Rich Reader, who had much to say, ask, photograph and video, and photographer Laura Iriarte, known as @lauralovesart on Twitter. Here's a picture I snapped of her before we took off. She and I both made the mistake of thinking that a dress and heels would be the right garb for the event, with no idea that we'd be hiking through muddy vineyards. But she seemed to take it all in stride.

Our tour guide Steven took us to three boutique wineries: Hall, Krupp, and Chappellet, where we guzzled chardonnays and merlots, sauvignon blancs and cabs, learning about harvesting, mulling, mixing, and cooperage. We were quizzed on the five varietals of Bordeaux and lectured on the finer points of soil mineralization. We found out about must and bladders, malolactic fermentation and the benefits of French oak. At Krupp Brothers, we were unloaded from the bus and packed into four-wheel drives so as to climb an impossibly steep, rutted dirt road. Then stood shivering the wind while sipping wine made from rare varietals.

There's a lot of talk about the wine business in general--and Napa Valley in particular--being in trouble. A recent study predicted that in the coming year, as many as ten wineries in the Napa Valley could be sold under distressed circumstances. Yet, this is also a time of immense promise. Many are realizing that the traditional barriers between wineries and end customers are crumbling. Blogs and forums, Facebook and Twitter, the fame of Gary Vaynerchuk, all are conspiring to change the face of this ancient, traditional industry forever.

A handful of folks are leading the charge into social media in Napa. Among the notables are Rick Bakas, social media director of St. Supery Winery (who was at SXSW during the tweetup) and Paul Mabray, cofounder of tweetup sponsor Vintank, a "digital think tank" for the wine industry. Paul was one of the panelists at the event, along with social media heavies Jennifer Leggio and Michael Brito. Coming from a wine ecommerce background, Paul's built an impressive company so far in Vintank. His clients Stag's Leap and Opus One, along with some wine technology plays like social media monitoring service Cruvee and ecommerce solution Vin 65. After the event I reached Paul by phone.

He explained that wine is very much a "long tail" business. It's hard to think of any other product in which there are over 750,000 different labels for customers to choose from (yes, you read that number right). Compare that with the number of wine reviews that come out each year, and you realize how hard it is to get noticed.  Even one blog post that reaches 10 people can serve as word of mouth, he said. In short, this is the place that wine and social media can be blended to create a full-bodied, toothsome creation with plenty of tones and structure.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Inspiring Teen Women to be Techy

This past Saturday, Foothill College hosted a crowd of 250 female middle- to high schoolers for a day of learning about everything from game programming to how to lead a tech startup. Dare2BDigital was designed to give young women in the 7-10th grades a chance to learn about exciting possibilities in computer science and engineering. This was the first year for the conference, which I hope will become annual event. This seems to be the moment for girls in tech. Similar conferences and events are popping up around the world. (There's even one in Israel, organized by two Israeli Google engineers--if you read Hebrew, check out this article.)

Looking around the room at the end of the day, I flashed on the final dinner scene near the end of every "Harry Potter" movie. There they all were at long tables, packed into the cafeteria. There was the same sense of inspiration and celebration; a feeling that we had all come through the experience and as a result, something inside us had changed.

Then it hit me--the difference was that I was standing in the middle of a room full of Hermiones. If you want a good sense of the day, check out the Twitter hashtag #Dare2BDigital. One of our two live bloggers, Vania of Vabulus Media has posted a good chunk of the tweets on her blog. Our other live blogger, Liz Burr (known as @calinative on Twitter) was on the spot with plenty of interesting observations. This was one of my favorites--tweeted directly from a workshop on web site programming:

Why this age group? Studies show that this is the age when most of us start thinking about what kind of career we'll pursue. At the same time, the computer industry is hamstrung by outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. Many young women are just like I was at that age--they're good at math and science, but they can't picture themselves locked in a basement somewhere, slamming Jolt colas and coding till their eyes go funny.

As conference leader Anne Hardy of SAP explained to me on my weekly women in tech podcast, TechnoGirlTalk, many young women want to do something that gives back to the world. They want to help animals, or the environment. They're also interested in work that involves being artistic and creative. What they might not know is that computer science offers all of this in spades. The workshops and speakers at this conference gave the girls plenty of food for thought. Morning keynote speaker Fei Fei Li, assistant professor at Stanford University Computer Science Department, told the girls that she had a number of challenges as an immigrant to the U.S. from China--but found a home and many worthwhile challenges in computer science. Afternoon keynoter Karen Gundy-Burlet, research scientist at NASA-Ames talked about how her testing and designs enable astronauts to function better on missions. One of her designs was even adapted on a Star Trek movie!

Why an all-female conference? Honestly, this wasn't something that was discussed very much during the event. Maybe because the answer seemed obvious--when girls get together without boys they're more likely to speak up, take risks, and generally take in more learning. But I think there might be another, more subtle reason. Watching the young women interact throughout the day, I couldn't help but notice how much they had to say about what they were learning. They weren't talking about makeup or boys (or if they were, I didn't hear that). They were talking about the Zynga game they'd created, or the fun they had simulating the course of a bit of information as it travels through the pipes of the Internet. In other words, the participants were directly experiencing what it is like to be in a career in computers.

When they looked around at one another they saw a whole lot of other female faces looking back. There's little danger women will entirely take over the computer industry (and this is obviously no one's goal), but there was a sense of creating a new digital culture. It will have many different skin tones, a diversity of skills, and a rich mixture of thoughts and ideas. If this was a peek into the future of high tech, I want to be there.

Photos: Martin Stein, conference co-founder. The remainder are at this link. Also please look out for a video created by the students in my workshop on tech reporting, which will be posted soon.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Born to Brand – Adam Metz, Metz Consulting

This is one of several in a series of interviews, all part of a larger book project tentatively titled “Social Media Success: What these Folks Know that You Don’t.” (Also see my interviews with Louis Gray, Francine Hardaway, and commentary.)

Adam Metz is the Principal of Metz Consulting, a San Francisco-based management consulting firm that works with brands to to acquire, monetize and retain what he terms the "social customer." I first met Adam when was the Social Media Director at LaunchSquad, an SF digital PR firm where I also worked. He stood out a mile with his crazy checked shirts and turbo-charged energy, even in that hyperactive environment.

At the time, he was one of the few people around who knew social media well enough to advise others about it. Turns out, he’s still ahead of the curve. Eighteen months later he’s running his own firm, working with an enviable list of clients that includes several California wineries, numerous apparel brands, Mighty Leaf Tea, SF Convention and Visitors Bureau and  a handful of consumer service brands.

Our interview is slated to take place in person, but at the last minute he apologetically calls to say he’s sick (“something that never happens to me!”). I tap out our interview from a Tully’s on Van Ness, using a combination of my iPhone and AIM to communicate with him. Throughout our interview, he IMs me links and information without ever losing the flow of conversation.

When I ask him what he does for his clients, he answers that Metz Consulting is not unlike any other management consulting firm. They help clients better serve their customers. The difference? Well, for one thing, there are still only a handful of firms that exclusively offer social customer management consulting to mid-sized consumer brands. (His best known competitor is Altimeter Group.)

There are other distinctions. He uses a combination of strategy and customer relationship management (CRM) software that automates the complex and difficult tasks associated with brand management in today’s social media saturated world. We live in a time when like it or not, customers can (and do) say anything they like about a company on very public forums such as Twitter and Facebook. As their advisor, Adam’s number one priority is getting companies to a place where they can track and monitor and engage about everything that is being said about them. This means they can respond in ways that go way beyond crisis management.

Ultimately, they learn how to tap into consumer loyalty and enthusiasm.

“We don’t feel it’s enough to write a social web strategy,” he said. “All collateral has to go to one source. One dashboard. They need to prove a successful ROI. We’re the only shop getting certified by Salesforce Oracle and Microsoft Dynamics.”

An example: one of Metz’s clients’ customers (a thirty-something man) went out to a winery on a Friday night with his wife for their sixth anniversary. Despite a reservation, the couple had to wait an inordinate period of time. They were eventually seated and then all but ignored by the wait staff. Enraged, the man tweeted about his experience. Normally, that would’ve been the end of it, but instead, says Adam, “we immediately got it to them. The chef got through, texted and tweeted a response. The couple got a free tasting dinner. And that person came back as a paying customer.”

“But why the focus on consumer brands? Isn’t high tech still where it’s at?” I ask. “I mean, don’t you miss Silicon Valley?”

“I talk to Silicon Valley companies every day. They’re partners now. Take (cloud sales 2.0 intelligence provider) InsideView. They used to be one of my clients. Now I implement their technology. There’s nothing more fun than going to wine tasting –as I’m planning to do tomorrow--and realizing, this is my client. I’m writing strategy for these folks.”

He talks of fun, but later in our conversation it comes out how dedicated he is to understanding each industry he serves. His engagements substantiate multi-million dollar returns, and he takes his clients intensely seriously. As he admits, if you see him on Muni, he’ll probably have his nose buried in BevNet or Gourmet Retailer—trade publications for the wine and food industries.

There’s another reason he’s chosen to focus on consumer brands. The word “enthusiast” sums it up. Folks often get deeply personal about their favorite beverage or hotel. To illustrate, he had me search for his dad’s favorite brand of scotch on Twitter, Lagavulin. The query yielded hundreds of tweets from around the world.

“There are more reviews on the latest Mighty Leaf tea flavor than there are on the new Dan Brown book on Amazon,” he tells me.

This is beyond brand enthusiasm—it is outright passion. Metz has clearly hit on something. And he’s not keeping it to himself. He’s working on his second book: Dance on the Volcano due out early next year on how to do a million-dollar social customer management implementation.

He describes the book in the following terms: “If Groundswell was Sgt. Pepper, this is Born to Run.” Nice analogy. Think I’ll use it in my headline.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What SWA (and everyone else) can learn from my cats

Until recently I didn't think much about my cats' behavior. After a busy day at the office, all I really noticed about them was that they were hungry. Now that I work at home, I watch them throughout the day. Today it hit me: they're great role models for social media! Here are some of the rules I've come up with.

1. Wait before you pounce. And when you pounce, don't hesitate. Getting social media right takes guts. Here's a perfect recent example: Director Kevin Smith got into a tiff with Southwest Airlines last week when they threw him off one of their planes for being, as he put it, "Too Fat to Fly." It's true that SWA seemed to snap into action--sending him an apology, offering him an (ahem) $100 voucher--what they really did was react, and rather ineffectually at that. Their attitude is summed up in the weak and painful post they later wrote with the snarky headline "Not So Silent Bob" defending their actions. What would my cat Mitzy suggest? Either jump on him right away and sink your teeth in with blood lust coursing through your veins, or stalk off in a huff. Nothing in between.

2. Move around the house a lot. One of the biggest dangers of social media is that it's actually pretty darn interesting a lot of the time. It's easy to become over-involved. We get into twitfights, retweet everything in sight, stay up nights worrying about whether Google has made too many changes to Buzz, read every Mashable post we can get our hands on... Then one fine morning in May we wake up screaming. Our spouse has to hold us back as we threaten to flush our iPhone down the toilet or toss our Macbook off the top of the Empire State Building. Try thinking of the social web as a sunny place by the window where you go to watch the world go by, talking to the birds and squirrels and (if things get dull) plants. After a bit, you jump off the sill and do something else, knowing it will all still be there when you return. And what better way to break up the day than to take a nice cat nap as my cat Clarence might?

3. Know when to sit in the shade, and when to sit in the sun. I've noticed that out on our back deck, there are definitely sunny spots, and then there are spots under the plastic lawn chair. More often than not, Clarence will have commandeered one of these spaces, while Mitzy or Shnitzy will have settled into one of the others. No one seems to mind who is where. Same goes for social networking. Sometimes you want to be in the center of a discussion. You want to be the one who starts a certain thread on Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, a community site because you've got something to say and you want to lead the discussion in certain ways. There are other times when it's more appropriate and useful to be a follower. Yet, what tends to happen is that people fall into one of these two categories habitually, based on their personality or level of influence. Don't be like that. Follow the flow of conversation, and know when to hang back or step up.

4. If you want attention, go and get it. My cats all seem to have been trained by the same assertiveness coach. If someone rebuffs you, ignore their rebuff and come pinging back up onto the sofa demanding a better attitude. Who among the humans does this? Ever heard of Gary Vaynerchuck? How about Guy Kawasaki? Timothy Ferriss? Seth Godin? Robert Scoble? These are not people who are known for being willing to take "no" for an answer. They plow ahead, ignoring the multiple knocks they get along the way and demand that the world notice them. Just like my cat Mitzy, who does not care how many times I throw her off my lap when she wants me to "groom" her. This is a rather unpleasant task as she likes to press her teeth against my hand while slobbering profusely. But nothing--and I mean nothing--will stop her trying to get me to do this when she sets her mind to it. That is, until she herself eventually decides to move on to another activity (see Rule 2).

5. Only meow when you really need help. When I started out in social media, I had so many questions. I wasn't sure how to go about jumping into the tweetstream, and became obsessed for a time with my analytics. I felt I needed someone--some guru--to help me every step of the way. Pretty soon, however, I became the person people turned to for this kind of advice. I now understood why I got so many brush-offs and blank stares. The problem is, social media is a complex arena. Anyone who claims to have it all figured out is kidding you, and probably themselves as well. So, before you call out for help, consider this--you probably just need to hang in there and figure most of this out as you go along. If you legitimately need some guidance, hire a professional.

6. Know when to use your claws. The online world has always had a bit of a rough and tumble element to it. Those of us who started out in forums, chat rooms and Yahoo! Groups remember the flaming that used to go on. That's settled down a bit, but there are still some pretty ugly smackdowns. Some of us are too sensitive and forget we even have claws. We let ourselves get walked all over. Others of us are just the opposite. We'll scratch you in the face before we recognize that it's all been a big misunderstanding. Know when to get involved, and when to back the hell off and retract those claws.

So you see, cats are amazing models of behavior that apply to myriad social media situations. Perhaps you have other rules to add to this list. If so, please feel free to use the comments field below. And Clarence, Mitzy and Shnitzy say they're also taking catnip donations.

Top picture: Mitzy and Shnitzy Mugrabi
Middle picture: Clarence Mugrabi
Photos: Leor Mugrabi

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Barbie - OK so I'm a little obsessed

I didn't have a Barbie doll as a kid. I found her mile-long legs and major boobage a bit too much to handle, and instead was content with a redheaded, slightly tomboyish pre-teen doll named "Angie." All my friends who did own Barbie ended up torturing her in various ways: taking scissors to her hair, thus transforming her into unintentially "punk rock" Barbie, poking holes in her boobs with pins, unscrewing her head and other body parts. It was not unusual, in my childhood, to sit around someone's bedroom surrounded by an array of severed limbs, headless torsos, and staring blue eyes under ratted hairdos.

Still, I couldn't help but be elated when I heard about "Computer Engineer Barbie" -- the newest, and most revolutionary version of the doll since gay leather guy Ken. Computer Engineer Barbie is outfitted with a pink laptop, a shirt with binary code stamped all over it, and a pair of designerey specs (also pink), among other accessories. True, it's a little nauseating to see her tossing her blond locks back so as to make way for a bluetooth. But when I think about a nine-year-old girl geek in training opening this gift and seeing her inner self reflected by such a glamourous, iconic doll, my heart soars.

The whole thing has caused a major stir among techies, who are raising all manner of interesting questions about her high plastickeyness and her new career move. Claire Cain Miller notes in the New York Times "Bits" blog that this is a major step forward from the days when Teen Talk Barbie infamously declared "Math class is tough." And Infosmack's Greg Knieriemen blogs that it could make geeky women in the real world "self-conscious" to see the blonde bombshell take on such a techy career. 

As the BBC wonders, are Barbie's wedge shoes practical for someone who will be crawling under desks in order to hook up cables? To which tech journalist Beth Pariseau retorts, "since when has Barbie been about reality?"

Exactly! And therein lies I suppose my new obsession with Computer Engineer Barbie. She is and always has been the stuff of fantasy. When I was little, I liked to play out all manner of daily lives with my dolls. Well, here's a new story for this new Barbie:

Barbie sets her alarm for 7:30 a.m. and leaps out of bed to beat the early morning rush at her local Starbucks. Ken, who works part-time as a male model these days, rolls over and goes back to sleep. Fine with her. She jumps in her Barbie Dream Prius and zooms off onto the Hot Wheels highway to the office park.

She arrives at work just in time to be called in to intervene in a major meltdown at the data center. Someone was up late and now the VMs are waaay overprovisioned. Silly overzealous Lego boys. She'll put things right. Grabs one of their leftover helmets and dives into the virtual zone headfirst, ensuring that there are no more bottlenecks between servers and storage.

She starts by swimming between each zero and one and making all the changes in the living ether of binary code inside the toyland server. It's like sorting out a bowl of spaghetti-O's, she thinks to herself. Her earlier years as a spoiled teenager in Malibu have well prepared her for such tasks. She used to get so bored she would pile up her soup noodles in all kinds of patterns. Partly an attempt to delve into the potential for a unified field theory, and partly a way to pass the time before Skipper got home and they could continue their ongoing chess game.

Now she swims to the surface, and enters the monitor from the inside. The code is all in mirror language, as she's on the other side of it. She enjoys the challenge of interpreting it from this point of view. But wait, could it be lunchtime? Time to have a cheeseburger with extra fries. Sure, this could mean that her waist will grow to an entire inch in circumference, but what's Ken going to do about it? He needs that shared health insurance plan.

Good luck, Computer Engineer Barbie! Or, put another way: 01010111011001010010000001101100011011110111

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to overcome social media phobia

Social media means a lot of things to a lot of companies. One thing it means more than anything else is loss of control. Marketing folks will put on a good face about social media in public, but when they sit down with me, their fears start to spill out.

When I first began consulting with companies about social media, I had a simple, standard answer to this. You have already lost control. Your message is no longer in your hands. It's out there being tossed around like a hacky sack by anyone with an iPhone or a PC. The horse has left the barn. The train, the station. Pick your hackneyed metaphor--you get the point. As someone recently noted: dissatisfied customers were always there, but now they have the platforms on which to complain publicly. Ignore them at your peril.

As accurate as this response is, I'm beginning to realize it's not always that sympathetic or useful. We all know intellectually that the online world has invaded the bubblelike atmosphere of the corporate one. Folks in marketing aren't stupid. They see the writing on the wall. But human nature is to respond in one of three ways when threatened: fight, flight or freeze. And to be honest, freezing is the most common response. Unfortunately, in the real world, this is the least preferable of all three.

Creativity is the antidote. Once you start thinking about what you would like to see--your ideal outcome--the fears are put into their proper place. Here's an example: EMC, a company that very well might have as many detractors as it does fans due to its size and influence. Rather than shying away from controversy, the company grabbed hold of the social media trend and ran with it in ways that few other companies have. Recent evidence of this: their blogs swept through and took the top four slots in a recent poll of storage vendor blogs.

The strategy is simple. Get out of the way and let those inside the company evangelize, argue, and otherwise engage with anyone and everyone who might be trash talking about them. Some have even given themselves names to underline their controversial attitudes, "Storagezilla," "The Storage Anarchist." EMC also made a shrewd move when it allowed employees to generate their own blogs, rather than keeping them in a playpen under the company banner. This sets them apart from competitor NetApp, which has had significantly less success with its blogging efforts.

They're also building networks from within, as this recent slideshow illustrates. All of which adds up to an energetic community that is engaged in social media on multiple fronts in a way that few companies can boast. This is just one example, but one I've been watching closely in order to model it for the smaller operations I tend to work with. There is a certain bullheadedness in they're approach that goes against the grain for most of us. There's also a sense of play and creativity. In short, this is the opposite of how most of us respond to scary situations.

What are you doing to combat your fears about losing control of your message? If it's not something that goes against your first impulse, it might not be enough.