Ready, Fire, Aim! - Mihail's Public Blog

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Realtors get rich

This story in the New York Times (registration required) is not an unusual scenario. Fifteen months ago our realtor set up exactly the same chain reaction and made a significant chunk of change. He did deserve credit for working hard for over six months to make the two sales and two purchases happen for two households even if there was some conflict of interest because he was representing both the buyer and the seller.

Earlier this month, Michael Neeley, a real estate broker in this leafy, upscale suburb, closed on the sale of a contemporary ranch house. A few days later, the sellers of that house bought another, larger ranch house.

Then, in a chain reaction, the sellers of the larger house closed on a $900,000 four-bedroom new colonial house. Mr. Neeley had a stake in all three deals, as well as the sale of two more homes, both for prices well above $1 million. In less than two weeks, he said he cleared nearly $98,000 in commissions, after splitting with other brokers and his firm.

...Real estate agents in the United States collected $61.1 billion in commissions last year, up 43 percent from $42.6 billion in 2000, said Steve Murray, editor of Real Trends, a real estate industry newsletter.

Chrysler Building turns 75

This New York Times story (registration required) celebrates the 75th anniversary of what is perhaps the most elegant, beautiful building ever built. Completed in May 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, it was criticized by architectural historian Lewis Mumford as "inane romanticism, meaningless voluptuousness, void symbolism", all the characteristics that make it so stunning today. The Times story is accompanied by a great slide show of gorgeous photos and narration by an architect who once worked in the building.

It is fitting that the most poetic expression of these forces was built by Walter P. Chrysler, an automobile manufacturer. He was not the nation's top seller of cars; those on top do not need to strut so conspicuously. The Chrysler Building is the act of an upstart, cockily challenging the supremacy of General Motors and the Ford Motor Company. (In 1927, when Ford unveiled the Model A, with its revolutionary hydraulic brake system and a choice of colors as bright as neon - another novelty of the 1920's - there were mobs and near riots in every city where it was shown.) Unable to best those companies on the streets, Chrysler took them on at the skyline.

THE genius of Chrysler and Van Alen was not in making a carlike building. (Their whimsical frieze of hubcaps, which wraps around the building midway up, was along the lines of an in joke.) Instead, their building was about the idea of the car, and its associations: speed, excitement, liberation. To do this, a new architectural language was required. Most skyscrapers, shaped by New York's zoning codes of 1916, which required setbacks at prescribed heights, were bulky ziggurats; Van Alen's building, by contrast, was a missile, its energies surging up rather than down. The final ecstatic leap of the spire is no afterthought, but is implicit almost from the sidewalk. The gargoyles are placed where the building tapers, flaring out as the walls tuck in. It is as if the building is jettisoning weight and picking up momentum as it rises.

According to another story also in the Times today:

The project was hatched by William H. Reynolds, the financier of Dreamland at Coney Island, before being taken over by Walter P. Chrysler and turned into a marvel of marketing that continues to generate oblique publicity for his company half a century after it moved out. (The word Chrysler appears more than 150 times in this section. Talk about product placement.)

Updated 11:43 AM

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Deep Throat identity confirmed

According to this Washington Post story published a few minutes ago (registration required) that I just heard about on CNN's Wolf Blitzer:

The Washington Post today confirmed that W. Mark Felt, a former number-two official at the FBI, was "Deep Throat," the secretive source who provided information that helped unravel the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s and contributed to the resignation of president Richard M. Nixon.

The confirmation came from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story, and their former top editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee. The three spoke after Felt's family and Vanity Fair magazine identified the 91-year-old Felt, now a retiree in California, as the long-anonymous source who provided crucial guidance for some of the newspaper's groundbreaking Watergate stories.

Updated 6/1/05 2:49 PM

Friday, May 27, 2005

Online retail sales expected to hit $172B

According to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required) based on a study conducted by Forrester Research:

U.S. online retail sales are expected to climb 22% to $172 billion this year, spurred by growth in categories such as cosmetics and jewelry, according to a new report.

...Online sales will grow fastest in categories such as cosmetics, jewelry and flowers, the report predicts. All remain relatively small. Online sales of cosmetics and fragrances are projected to rise 33% to $1.6 billion; flowers, cards and gifts, 30% to $4.8 billion; and jewelry and luxury goods, 28% to $3.2 billion.

7.5M millionaires in the US

According to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required), the ranks of American millionaires hit an all time high thanks to the stock market and other investments:

The number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more rose 21% in 2004, according to a survey released yesterday by Spectrem Group, a wealth-research firm in Chicago. It is the largest increase since 1998, according to the study, which was based on data from more than 450 qualified respondents. There now are 7.5 million millionaire households in the U.S., breaking the record set in 1999 of 7.1 million. The study excluded the value of primary residences, but included second homes and other real estate.

A separate study, also released yesterday, by Boston Consulting Group found that the U.S. continues to lead the world in creating new millionaires. The number of households in the U.S. with liquid assets of $20 million or more is increasing by 3,000 households a year.

Wanna hear the next Harry Potter on your iPod?

No can do. No plans at this time for the newest book that'll be released on July 16, 2005 according to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required):

In fact, Ms. Rowling has been burned by unauthorized digital publication of her five earlier novels. "You should NEVER trust any Harry Potter e-books offered for download from the Internet or on P2P/file-trading networks," she wrote in January on her Web site, She urged readers not to fall for these "scams." She ended her warning with a quote from Mad Eye Moody, one of her characters: "Constant vigilance!"

...Ms. Rowling's stance comes at a time when downloadable audiobooks are commanding a larger segment of the estimated $900 million audiobook market, which now is dominated by books on CD and tape. "The key has been the growth of books being played on iPods," says Gene Munster, a technology analyst at investment firm Piper Jaffray Inc. Listeners can download digital audiobooks onto their iPods or other music players from a Web site operated by Audible Inc., the country's largest purveyor of digital audiobooks; from Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store, and from other locations. Projections for the size of the digital audiobook market in 2005 range from $50 million to $80 million.

What's interesting are the growing numbers of the digital audiobook market.

Forget Paris? Heck, no!

The Paris Hilton saga continues as our local news and the Today show and this Wall Street Journal column (subscription required) continues coverage of the how, why, what of the new Carls Jr. ad featuring the hotel heiress and star (who's mother will soon follow...not in a burger ad, no, but star of her own reality show).

There's no point in asking why Carl's Jr. deployed Ms. Hilton. It is perfectly obvious that she appeals to a healthy muster of young men (and to more than a few libidinous geezers). She will shift a few million burger combos for the company. Why? "Sex. In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact." (Marlene Dietrich said that, in case you thought it was Ms. Hilton.)

Updated 4:21 pm

Google facing hiring challenges

With rumors flying in Silicon Valley that Google is bad-mouthing the competition in an attempt to hire people away from other companies, CEO Eric Schmidt went on the record that there will be multiple winners in the Internet/search space and that the company continues to have a tough time hiring enough people according to this Dow Jones Newswires story:

"We actually underperformed our budgets because we can't hire the quality of people we want," Schmidt said.

...As it adds new centers [in Kirkland, WA, New York and India], Google will try to limit the size to between 150 to 200 employees, large enough to stimulate creativity but small enough to encourage individual initiative.

Lipstick lads in Asia overturn stereotypes

For all our openness in this country, this veritable melting pot of immigrants and races, of lifestyles and orientations, it seems that other cultures are way ahead of us in not resorting to stereotypes (read to the end of this earlier post).

According to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required) on the so-called "lipstick lads" of Asia, delicate men are increasingly being used to pitch cosmetics to the growing population of strong, independent women without any concern that these pretty faces will be considered gay (maybe Ryan Seacrest should head to Asia now that the latest season of American Idol is over?! :) And how come the independent women here don't want the same? Maybe they do but advertisiers haven't caught on yet...look at the success of Will & Grace, Queer Eye, Desperate Housewives etc.

Marketers aren't out to poke fun at the lipstick lads of Asia. Instead, they are pushing shampoos and makeup by tapping into a powerful shift in gender images taking place in a number of developed East Asian countries. The conservative, macho male stereotypes that have long dominated society in countries like Japan and South Korea are falling out of fashion. Women are gaining power and independence and expressing a preference for different kinds of men.

...Instead, while acceptance of homosexuality varies in Asian cultures, it doesn't occur to most Asians to assume that a man with some feminine qualities is gay. A survey late last year by Cheil found that more than 66% of men and 57% of women under 40 were living self-described "androgynous" lifestyles -- with men having more traditionally female traits, and women having more traditionally male ones, than they might have years ago. But the respondents didn't link that with sexual orientation. There's a nickname, the "flower men," for the gentler sons of Korea's stolid patriarchs, but the term carries no more opprobrium than Western terms like metrosexual.

Tom DeLay pulls a Quayle-Dobson

What is it with the conservative right (the "family values" vigilantes) and attacks on TV characters?

It appears I wasn't the only one watching a recent episode of Law & Order (a franchise which often/always? has story lines inspired from the headlines) in which judges are getting assassinated. According to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required):

Mr. DeLay wrote the [NBC] television network to complain that one of the characters on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" invoked his name in a story line about the shooting death of a federal judge. "Maybe we should put out an APB for somebody in a Tom DeLay T-shirt," the fictional police officer said.

...Mr. DeLay (R., Texas) criticized the federal judiciary after the courts refused to stop the death of Terri Schiavo. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," he said in a statement on March 31, hours after Ms. Schiavo died. Mr. DeLay apologized the next week, saying he had spoken in an "inartful" way and meant that Congress should increase its oversight of the courts.

Besides the official response that clarified that the cop-talk was neither an accusation nor a political statement, creator/executive producer Dick Wolf responded with:

"But I do congratulate Congressman DeLay for switching the spotlight from his own problems to an episode of a television show."

Can you spell Murphy Brown, anyone? And how about that child-threatening SpongeBob?

Updated 3:16 pm

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Global broadband adoption

eMarketer's country-by-country breakdown of broadband penetration at the end of 2004 is eye-opening, especially in light of my previous post on China.

According to this report, The Global Broadband Market (available to subscribers only after May 30, 2005), while the US has the largest number of broadband households (34.3 million), its penetration rate no longer even falls in the top 10.

China is in second place with 23.2 million broadband households (up from only 4M broadband households in 2002!). But the most astonishing fact is that this absolute number of households is based on a penetration rate of only 6.5% vs the United States' 29.9%.

And two other Asian countries, Japan and South Korea, came in third and fourth place for absolut numbers of broadband households.

China = Wal-Mart

What's big, efficient and crushes most competition?

At an interesting (and entertaining) Silicon Forum lunch earlier today in Redwood Shores, Brian Halla, CEO of the $2B National Semiconductor shared his views about all things China (and several passionate rants against Congress and the government that are continuing to make it harder for American companies to do business).

As Auren Hoffman, the moderator of the talk and organizer of these quintessential Silicon Valley lunches suggested. and Brian Halla agreed, China = Wal-Mart, after Brian claimed that China was "all about logistics" and gave several examples of how the Chinese are making it their highest priority to help companies that want to do business there. Unlike the environment in the US, a theme that came up several times.

Halla started his lunch-time chat with a pro-immigration stance, suggesting that the US start to attach H1B visas to every PhD degree awarded in the US. Following on a 2-1/2 hour hour conversation I had with a Western state candidate for state senator yesterday, this seems to be the theme of the week. Why doesn't the US encourage the smartest students who're here to study to stay after they graduate? Why are we instead making it tougher for them to even attend school here in the post-9/11 environment?

Halla mentioned the example of Andy Grove, founder of Intel (where Halla spent many years) and a Hungarian immigrant. Had he not started Intel, and founded the PC industry, upon who's success have been built so many hundreds of subsequent success stories. Without Intel there may not have ever been a Yahoo! or eBay. And so Halla pointed out that this one immigrant single-handedly created tens of millions of jobs; he added: "jobs are created by those who innovate."

Going back to China. Halla suggested that everyone visit Shanghai, and then visit again in three months, just to see the difference. Things are moving that fast. But here we're slowed down by government regulations that are hardly pro-business (the new rules that require companies expense options, which he felt was the elimination of options, the post-Enron reaction called Sarbanes-Oxley that costs companies tens of millions to comply with each year etc.). Said Halla, we're ready to compete with our "nostrils flared" but "will our politicians please give us a chance?"

Email addiction by the numbers

According to this MediaPost article detailing a survey unveiled by AOL, the San Francisco Bay Area leads in how many times we check our email each day (6 times on average).

Uh...I have email being checked, and my Outlook window open, all the time. I'm sure I'm not so different than many Silicon Valley folks although I do not check email in bed or in the bathroom. I am surprised that people admit to this...but then again people go online looking for help after they've dropped their Treos into the toilet. 

In addition to reading personal e-mail at work (done by 61 percent of users who work away from home), account holders also check e-mail in bed (23 percent), classes (12 percent), and business meetings (8 percent). A small proportion even admit to checking e-mail in the bathroom (6 percent), while driving (4 percent), and in church (1 percent).

eBay CEO goes on the record, sees growing opportunities for company

According to this Dow Jones story in the WSJ (subscription required), eBay CEO Meg Whitman answered questions for over an hour at the Goldman Sachs Internet Conference, including admitting that she underestimated how much attention her decision would get if word leaked out that she had gone thru an afternoon interview with Disney for the CEO position, the only company she would have considered leaving eBay for:

"I think we feel like we're still at the beginning of the growth curve in the U.S.," Whitman said...."We are an entirely new business," she said, referring to its online auctions. "There is no playbook here."

VCs make fickle friends for Friendster CEO #2

After pushing out the founding CEO of Friendster last year, it appears that the VCs behind Friendster didn't like the choice they'd brought in a year ago, Scott Sassa, either.

Huh? What, the West Coast president for NBC, the man behind the development and production of Fear Factor wasn't able to take the Internet's version of a reality show, as one Blogit member calls a social networking site like Blogit (and by that logic, Friendster), and turn it into a profitable franchise?

According to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required) the justification for the change at Friendster -- which has struggled to stay relevant in the face of competition and make money -- was explained as follows:

Friendster of Mountain View, Calif., said Mr. Kwon, 31 years old, who currently serves as executive vice president of product and technology at IAC/InterActiveCorp's, will join the closely held company on June 13.

..."Scott was brought on to build a business model that could generate revenue, but at this point the company's emphasis, with Taek coming on, is building the product and technology," said spokeswoman Carleen LeVasseur. She said the focus would be on both improved usability and new features.

The fact is that free sites always have a hard time going from free to paid. A site like Craigslist has been able to make that leap by focusing its charging to a handful of categories in three cities where it gets 50% of its traffic, as I was told by the Craigslist CEO a couple of weeks ago (over drinks at Le Colonial with former Red Hat founder Bob Young -- more on that in another post since Bob is doing some very interesting things with his new startup).

Of course, Craigslist is not VC-backed which means that it doesn't have to deliver huge returns to its venture investors. Would Craigslist have been on its third CEO too by now if VCs were looking over its shoulders...and wondering why they weren't converting their 2B page views per month into significant revenue, beyond the salaries it pays out to its 18 employees? Probably.

Google gets gimmicky, rivals follow

Since Google Maps now shows streets in a colorful yellow with a cartoon-like shadow over the location you are searching for, Microsoft has announced plans to follow with a cool 45 degree angle view of buildings. I can't stand Google Maps so even though I use Google for many of my searches including addresses, I always click on the Yahoo Maps option in the results.

And of course Amazon's which I like for its integration of the results launched its new search with an attempt to photograph every block in American cities starting with a handful few in an attempt to reinvent the lucrative yellow pages. According to this Wall Street Journal story:

Indeed, MapQuest, a mapping service of Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit, offered satellite images several years ago but discontinued the feature because "usage of it just dropped" over time, says AOL spokesman Brian Hoyt. (Mr. Hoyt says MapQuest is considering reinstating the images as consumer interest has been stoked by the addition of the feature by rivals.)

This race to out-gimmick each other is all directed towards figuring out new local search-based applications and increasing advertising potential for the companies providing these new ways to search.

Oddly the same Wall Street Journal story writes about how Microsoft hopes to build a Citysearch-like yellow pages but fails to mention how Yahoo! Local (without a gimmicky aerial map, at least for now) has already launched successfully several months ahead of the competition.

That's why over the next year the race will likely shift to trying to attract a mass of people to contribute their knowledge of local places to the new services. Mr. Lawler says that Microsoft sees the first iteration of that as a short of "enhanced Yellow Pages," in which a search for a particular restaurant, for instance, could not only list directions to get there but also have food recommendations written by regular customers.

I was skeptical at first but lunch with Chris Shipley, who had advised the team behind Yahoo! Local, made me look at the service seriously and I've become a loyal user since. I'll be curious to see how new iterations from all these companies deliver on their promise of a more useful local search rather than gimmicks galore that only deliver more opportunities for them to generate ad revenue.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Turn your worst nightmare into the American Dream

Carl's Jr. posted a 60-second version of its new soft-porn Paris Hilton ad on a website devoted to it,, featuring her now signature line "That's hot". The site came to its knees last Friday, one day after launch, due to too much traffic from the male audience Carl's Jr targets with much of its advertising. According to this Reuters story:

The 30-second commercial, which features the hotel heiress washing a Bentley and chomping on Carl's Jr.'s Spicy BBQ Burger in a stringy black swimsuit, has generated media attention since hitting the TV airwaves last Thursday.

..."It was a mixed blessing," Carl's Jr.'s executive vice president of marketing, Brad Haley, said in a statement. "It turned out that Paris was too hot for our servers."

Great way to keep generating more press about this ad which had already generated significant pre-launch buzz. You have to give it to Ms Hilton for taking her social status and turning it into way more than 15 minutes of fame. And many more hundreds of millions of dollars. From just another socialite to media (dare we say, super)star.

And all the scandals and problems (sex video, hacked Sidekick and an abandoned sidekick, her best friend for decades) have done nothing to hurt her celebrity-induced career. Only in today's world (especially the United States) can you take your worst nightmare and turn it into the American Dream!

To name just a few, look at Paula Abdul, Martha Stewart, Hugh Grant. OK, maybe not Hugh Grant; but, come to think of it, sure he had to end his relationship with Elizabeth Hurley, sure he hasn't had any blockbuster films although Love Actually was charming, he is now dating Jemima Khan -- heiress to one of the biggest fortunes in England and former wife of Pakistani cricketer and current member of parliament, Imran Khan. So kids, listen up, scandal does pay.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Google takes on the world

As expected, Google has unveiled a beta of its Google home page that can be personalized -- a portal basically taking advantage of RSS -- directly taking on Yahoo's MyYahoo and Amazon's (see the CEO's interview here) and every other company that provides any of the information or services they already provide (email, news, blogs, weather, groups, answers, translation, social networking... the list goes on and on).

Of course, as Adam Penenberg writes in this Wired News story late last year, there's a reason why some of Google's services such as Google News (and Froogle that doesn't seem to work very well) are still in beta.

According to this San Jose Mercury News story:

The new personalized home page is part of larger strategy dubbed ``fusion'' that aims to fuse together Google's services with content on the Web, said Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products for Google.

``Our goal here was to give users tools to customize and organize their own information,'' Mayer said.

The changes to the home page are strictly optional; users need to log in with a Google account and visit the Google Labs Web page (http://labs. to activate the feature. They can switch back to the standard home page at any time by clicking on a ``Classic Home'' link.

Updated 9:23 AM

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Amazon, eBay encouraged to take on advertising

An interesting (and very obvious but not frequently heard) observation by the Smart Money editor at large in this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required) below. He suggests that Amazon and eBay take advantage of their platform to deliver advertising.

While I believe Amazon should be considered a retailer first and an Internet company second, it does operate an impressive and sophisticated Web site that attracts millions of visitors. In theory, there's no reason Amazon (and eBay as well) can't tap the burgeoning market for Internet advertising that has been such a boon for Yahoo and Google. I leave it to them to figure how best to do this, but as an investor I'd be pleased to see some initiatives that begin to unlock some of the value inherent in their Web platforms. I haven't yet bought Amazon, but when I next consider adding to positions or shifting among sectors, it will be on my shopping list.

Of course, is already toying quite successfully with its new search engine. Although powered by Google and requiring a very conscious effort on my part not to automatically go to Google when I do a search, I've become a huge fan of the Amazon service. A9 has been especially useful as I've been searching for works by artist Sean Scully since it allows me to see all images and text results in one place unlike Google.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

The Creative Class

So I finally bought Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, to read in full rather than having just read excerpts and reviews of it when it first came out.

And I bought it at a real-life, local bookstore. A few months ago I had read a sign at Keplers in Menlo Park which urged customers to buy where they shop. Meaning, don't check out books at your local bookstore and then head home to buy them online at Amazon for a significant discount. Not if you want those local bookstores to still be around in the long term, bookstores where you can go browse and read and feel the books in your hands.

Talking of signs, driving into San Francisco last week, I came off Hwy 101 into the city and found myself waiting for the light to change. Waiting quite a bit since the offramp backs up as the city redos one of the main exits and turns a street off Market (adjacent to the LGBT Community Center) into a boulevard that goes thru Hayes Valley.

So as I waited to get thru, I saw a homeless man trying to get drivers' attention with a sign. Not just any sign but a gosh-darn imaginative sign that had four different messages written on it. Two messages on each side the way he'd constructed he flipped the strips every few seconds just like one of the billboards which changes as the vertical strips rotate 180 degrees. One of the messages declared:

Sometimes I do rhyme
with my creative flip sign

Only in San Francisco. Can't wait to read the Rise of the Creative Class.

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