Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Believe It or Not / I Started to Worry

While listening to my iPod today, I had something of a revelation when it came to a set of lyrics I'd heard at least a million times before.

I was listening to Prince's "Little Red Corvette," which was on the album "1999," officially listed as The Purple One's big breakthrough cross-over hit. The lyrics that caught my attention were these:
Cuz I felt a little ill
When I saw all the pictures
of the jockeys
That were there before me
Now, I've been familiar with all the usual imagery suggested by these lyrics, about riders... on thoroughbreds... maybe a little whip involved... getting bow-legged... It's not Chaucer, put it that way. Or maybe it's like a modern-day Chaucer, who was also quite dirty-minded.

On this day, however, these lyrics made me wonder: what kind of man worries about jockeys stealing his girl away from him?

Someone who is not very tall himself! According to the fan forum and other sources on the Internets, Prince goes about 5'2" tall...

...before heels!! It's the reason why he's always wearing big-heeled boots. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It just makes me chuckle a little, and wonder why I never thought about Prince's height when it came to hearing that song before.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Come On!

I have to laugh when I see some of the advertisements offered up during my usual perusal of what's new on the Internets. Does every single banner ad have to show a picture of some pretty woman, just to get our attention?

These guys want more people to enroll in their school. Does the pretty coed come with the textbooks?

Here's another ad for another online degree-granting program:

What do women doing yoga have to do with a federal stimulus package for homeowner relief?

Do they really expect me to believe this woman is any older than 22 or 23 years old? C'mon, she never had wrinkles to begin with!

This woman appears to be handing off the keys to the Used Car of My Dreams. Too bad I can't see the car.

For some advertisers, naturally, it makes all the sense in the world to market the women that may or may not be available for dating.

There's this example:

Thank goodness I don't need a credit card! I might get the wrong idea. Or it's a cash only transaction.

Here's one that is so close to porn, it might be NSFW:

This ad doesn't even pretend that the women in the ad might possibly be actual members of the dating service:

What I also love are the specialty dating services:

Which, of course, is bookended by this one:

I may not have an example, but the Christian online dating services have racy ads, too. I couldn't find an online ad for an Amish dating service, though...

Talk about knowing the target market. These guys were advertising their fantasy football draft kit, which is nothing more than stickers to put on a piece of cardboard. The picture really sells it, though, doesn't it?!

There seems to be no faster way of getting undersexed geeks' attention than through two babes in bikinis.

And yet, I have to admit, there are advertisers who plod along with non-eye-catching ads like this one:

He's even marketing a dating service!

And then there's always the trustworthy talking lizard selling car insurance:

I had heard long ago that having a pretty girl bring in the customers was called a "come on" in marketing parlance, but doing a quick Google search turned up nothing along those lines. I'm beginning to think it may have had more to do with the old Carnival barkers, whose job it was to hustle people into parting with their hard-earned cash. They always had a pretty lady in skimpy clothing by their side to help close the deal, even if all they were selling tickets for was the freak show.

So, what does it say about society when the default ads being placed all over the Internet are typically for dating services or shady deals? They certainly aren't using a profile of me or my browsing habits. When a person never clicks on a single link, perhaps the ad engines don't really know what will catch a person's eye. It just makes me laugh.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What is This... Kindle I See Before Me?

Because forewarned is forearmed, I'm going to tell the reader right up front that this will most likely be a very long, mostly rambling post related to many issues of disparate natures, but all of which are united by one thing they all have in common: the Amazon Kindle e-reading device. I also would love to turn this into much more of a business case study, standard fare in any MBA program, but the lack of published data available on the number of Kindles sold or just how much of an impact they've had on Amazon's total revenue prevents me from doing so.

Let's start by dwelling on that first piece of information. Despite extensive news coverage of the Kindle, Kindle2, and now the newly announced Kindle DX, Amazon continues to guard sales figures for all Kindles as extremely sensitive information. Why is that? In many cases, public companies don't want to release such data because it might show a weakness in one area of their business. If Amazon were losing money on each Kindle they sold, their shareholders might not approve and send the stock price lower. Because there were significant resources devoted to the research and development of the Kindle, Amazon probably needs to sell a significant number of the e-readers before they recoup their costs. That might be one reason for the secrecy.

Another reason could be that Kindles simply are not selling in the numbers originally projected by the development team at Amazon. To avoid any embarrassment, they may keep the sales numbers secret until the initial projections are met, if ever. At this point, most Kindle buyers most likely fall into the category of "early adopters" of technology, people who are willing to accept the role of public beta testers, living with and perhaps reporting any bugs back to Amazon, simply for the pleasure of being the "first kid on the block" to own the latest tech gear. These were the same types of people who purchased the very first iPods, long before the iPod became the digital music (MP3) player of choice for the masses. The same holds true for those early adopters willing to pay $300 to own the first generation iPhones. If Kindle sales take off like the iPod or iPhone did, then Amazon will feel much better about releasing sales data.

Think about it for just a second: if the Kindle were a huge cultural phenomenon like, oh, say, some crazy blanket with sleeves, it would be selling like hotcakes. News reports say they've sold over 4 million Snuggies already, and those numbers may be way out of date. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there are Slankets, Snuddles, and how ever many other different versions of the Snuggie already on the market. And at 4 million Snuggies sold, that is still less than 2% of the total population of America! So if Amazon has sold fewer than 1 million Kindles, they simply aren't penetrating the market very quickly.

Based on the assumption that Amazon simply hasn't sold many Kindles yet, the blizzard of news coverage announcing new and improved versions of the e-reader make complete sense. The Kindle was not out for all that long before Amazon rolled out the Kindle2 back in late February. We are just now into the month of May, and Amazon already rushed back to the news to promote the newest Kindle*, the bigger screen Kindle DX. If sales are lagging, why not try to get as much free publicity for the product as possible? WSJ readers tend to be higher income, highly educated readers who are comfortable paying for news content they cannot get elsewhere. In other words, WSJ readers make for a natural market for the Kindle, and the WSJ has been blanketed with Kindle stories recently.

* What's interesting is the official Amazon Kindle website makes no mention of the Kindle2 alongside the feature comparisons of the Kindle and Kindle DX. It could be that the website linked above is specifically for the Kindle2, with no mention being made of the original Kindle. Either way, it seems odd. They have a separate page for the DX model, by the way.

Assuming the sales blitz for the Kindle is on, what would prompt a person to purchase an electronic reader device? What is the one killer application (or, in this case, content) that tips the scales in favor of purchasing another electronic device for a very hefty $359 or $489? Those price points* are not insignificant by any stretch of the imagination. The questions becomes one of simple economics, really. What can motivate large numbers of people to shell out that much money for just the device, knowing that they have to spend more money above and beyond the original purchase price in order to buy content for that device?

* One reason for the easy sales of the Snuggie is it fits a comfortable price point for most people: $20 or less. I hate to say it, but many people consider $20 these days to be "throw-away money." Meaning, if they purchase something for $20 and it breaks right away, they don't seek a refund. It used to be the "throw-away" limit was $5 or so. Not any more.

Think about it: people were willing to spend $300 for iPods, knowing they already had vast libraries of music at home on CDs already. The software needed to rip the songs from CD to a computer hard drive was provided by Apple free of charge (iTunes), so it was easy to justify the cost of the device simply because all the content was "free" -- the CDs were already purchased, or a sunk cost. The same is not true for the Kindle -- no software exists that makes it easy to load the many books people have purchased already onto the Kindle. Amazon in theory could take a person's ordering history and offer to make electronic versions of those books previously purchased through Amazon available for download onto a Kindle. But that still would not help for any books purchased anyplace else. The iPod was CD purchase location agnostic, which was a huge plus.

On the other hand, sales for the merged Sirius XM satellite radio continue to suffer in large part because they charge $200 for a radio capable of receiving the signal (plus more for installation!) on top of the $12 monthly subscription fee necessary to continue receiving the signal. I always maintain that if Sirius XM wants to increase the number of subscribers willing to pay for their service, they need to give away the radios for free.

Perhaps the better question for Amazon would be this one: why buy a Kindle, which might be a very clever little tool that is very good at doing just one thing (reading books, magazines, and newspapers, with a little music on the side), when a person can buy either a netbook or a full-function laptop for the same amount of money or even less? As part of its latest news coverage, Amazon announced content-sharing or delivery agreements they negotiated with major textbook publishers representing 60% of the overall textbook market. Clearly, Amazon thinks providing textbooks to college students will be the killer content needed to drive sales of the Kindle and Kindle DX. That may very well be so, but college students still need a way to write papers, crunch statistics in spreadsheets, and update their Facebook pages at all hours of the day. While many of a college student's daily activities are possible on smart phones, writing a term paper and crunching a spreadsheet full of data really require a computer. Others reached the same conclusion, as well (read the 10 reasons NOT to buy a Kindle).

Amazon, essentially, is asking for students to carry not one but two electronic devices with them wherever they go. It could be that millions of college students will jump at the chance to carry fewer pounds of textbooks with them in their backpacks, and they will gladly purchase their textbooks through Amazon's e-book service. If the textbook prices are significantly reduced, as have the prices on other books offered by Amazon, this strategy could be a winner. My college days are behind me, but I wouldn't necessarily want the hassle of lugging around multiple electronic devices, with multiple power cords, and risk the chance of losing one of them in the student union.

What the Kindle really represents to me is a reach back to Amazon's origins. Those beloved b-school case studies chronicled the rise and fall of Amazon 1.0, for lack of a better term. The quick synopsis goes like this: Amazon, as one of the first true Internet retailers, needed no "bricks and mortar" outlet to sell its wares. In fact, the real lure of selling product through the Internet was that Amazon employees were to never physically touch the products they were selling, which all started with books. Amazon would take an order through the Internet, then match that order with a bricks and mortar store that would ship the product to the buyer. In theory, it worked perfectly, and Amazon never needed to build expensive warehouses full of unsold inventory sitting on very costly real estate. In reality, Amazon found their virtual system could not keep up with demand, and they took huge losses due to angry customers demanding refunds when they could not deliver the products people wanted during the Christmas shopping season of 1995 or 1996. Amazon had to become much more like a traditional retailer, with vast stores of inventory, just to keep up quality standards. Just-in-time inventory, at least in this case, didn't work as advertised.

So, with the Kindle, Amazon really goes back to its roots. They never wanted to touch a physical product with their original model. If the Kindle sells in tremendous numbers and all books start selling as e-books in just bits and bytes, then Amazon could rid themselves of their shipping centers around the country. The Amazon Marketplace could handle orders for things other than books, and the leaders of Amazon would be happy.

At this point, I wanted to also touch on the Kindle's impact (or purported impact) on the future of newspapers. Suffice to say, numerous people are pointing to e-readers like the Kindle and proclaiming the death of news in print. One of my favorite sportswriters, Joe Poz, founded another blog specifically called The Future of Newspapers to chronicle some great ideas, some sad ideas, and some funny ideas about moving towards a paperless society. It's definitely worth a read, especially this post about e-readers like the Kindle. Since I'm also a big Bill James fan, it's worth also linking to his post and quoting his classic line: "... in the modern world it is unnecessary to cut down trees to spread ideas."

I just worry that, if newspapers disappear completely (specifically, the printed word on a piece of paper of a significant size), what will I use to line the floor beneath my two cat litter boxes? That's not a trivial matter, is it? What will people use when housebreaking a new puppy? There's food for thought.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What about Brett... ...Fav-reh?

I know, I know. It has been since forever that I last posted a blog entry here. Believe me, I've been busy. Either work or family has kept me dutifully occupied since my last post back in March.

However, I really could not let this story about Brett Favre pass without comment. The first thing I noticed was that Brett and the Vikings were meeting in former VP Dick Cheney's infamous "undisclosed location." What a riot! Maybe a little waterboarding will be in order. Hey, there's really nothing funny about torture.

What really gets me about this entire Will He or Won't He Retire saga, however, is just how spiteful Brett must be to hold a grudge against really the only team he played for (yes, the Falcons drafted him, then traded him), the team that gave him his big break in the NFL when Don Majkowski went down to injury, the team that paid him umpteen millions of dollars over the course of his career and stood by him even when he threw more picks than TDs. It makes me wonder: when Favre eventually enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH, which uniform will he wear? Perhaps the bust of the inductee doesn't include any uniform details, but wouldn't it be incredibly odd to see Favre enshrined in anything other than a Green Bay uniform?!

I know that playing the premier position in the number one spectator sport in America, the number one media market in the world, lends itself to creating a number of prima donnas. And yet, the other QBs in the league tend to not hold the official title of most self-centered players on the field. That distinction usually belongs to the Number One Receiver. Funny how that works, isn't it? WR is a position that totally depends on the play of all the other positions on the field: Offensive Linemen (and often TEs and RBs, too) gotta block, the QB has to deliver the ball at the right spot at the right time, and even the secondary receivers have to distract the defensive secondary to allow one WR to get open. And yet, WRs generate more complaints about "You gotta get me the ball!" than any other position. Ah, but I digress.

When we're talking about Brett Favre, we're talking about the one man who holds ALL the records. Most TDs, most yards, most INTs, and soon to hold the record for most starts in the NFL. Maybe that last record is the one reason why he wants to play one more season. I'm pretty sure he already holds the record for most consecutive starts (call it the Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken record), but there is one player from the NFL who has more starts than Brett, still. I just read that in SI recently, but I'm too busy to go find the reference now. At any rate, Brett needs to do nothing more to ensure a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection five years from whenever he hangs up the cleats for good.

So, why does he want to come back? Just out of sheer spite against the way his departure from Green Bay was arranged? That appears to be one reason, from what has been reported thus far. Brett probably couldn't understand why the GM and owner in Green Bay didn't wait for him to unretire before last season, although their rationale for moving on certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe he expected to be waited on and treated more like royalty, despite the fact that old, formerly great players get shuffled out the door all the time in today's NFL. It is a young man's game these days.

Many of these great QBs do tend to try to hang on too long in the NFL. The list is long: Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Steve Young, Dan Marino, Matt Hasselbeck, Brett Favre. Whether these QBs had their brains scrambled one too many times by concussions or simply held on beyond when their arms could deliver those post pattern strikes to the end zone, they all tried to keep their glory alive longer than most fans could really bear to watch.

Favre most likely thinks he will step into the starting QB position right away with the Vikings and lead them to the Super Bowl, thanks to their stout defense and phenomenal running game. He thinks he doesn't need to mesh with the receiving corps during OTAs and voluntary off-season workout programs. He thinks his 39-year-old legs can help him evade the Green Bay pass rush, among others. Give him one more shot at true glory, right?

What I would love to see more than anything else is for the Vikes to make Favre an offer to back up their starter, Tavaris Jackson. Don't tell him he can come in on day one of training camp (or day 21) and immediately assume the starting role. Treat Favre the same way they treated Randall Cunningham in 1998: sure, we'd love to have you on the roster, since you're an upgrade over Sage Rosenfels. But you're our insurance policy in case Jackson gets hurt. Yes, Cunningham had a monster year teaming with Randy Moss in '98, but that didn't happen until after Brad Johnson got hurt. That's what I would really, really love to see, and what I think Favre deserves after all is said and done. If Favre is willing to tarnish his legacy once more with yet one more team, let him ride the bench.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Whole Lot of Wonderful

Back during football season last fall, I griped about not being able to watch the college football game I wanted to see. The way the TV deals are structured between the NCAA and the TV broadcasters (mostly ABC and ESPN, both owned by Disney), people in certain parts of the country are able to watch only pre-defined regional coverage. Even if I wanted to watch other football games, I would be unable to do so without paying for a monthly subscription package plus the College GamePlan from DirecTV. Or I could go out to a sports bar and spend a lot more money than I would like. Watching games over the Internet is not an option where I live, since ESPN360 is not brought into our area.

Contrast that limited availability of content, much less customizable content, with the current NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament coverage. I've been watching games on CBS, the primary carrier for the coverage. Not only does CBS have the ability (which they frequently use) to switch between games to keep up with the most compelling action, but they also stream all the games live on the Internet on the website www.NCAA.com. Using a standard cable broadband connection, I can pick and choose my own game from whichever games are being played right at that moment. I am in control! When CBS's over the air coverage focused on Xavier and Wisconsin, I switched over to the Internet to catch the Oklahoma State game against Pitt.

Sure, they show ads during the online coverage, but they are no more or less intrusive than watching the games on regular TV. They seem to be the same ads. The in-studio team of commentators who provide halftime analysis of the games is clearly the "not quite ready for primetime players," to borrow from the early days of SNL. But they aren't bad, and they do provide decent analysis of the in-game matchups.

I'm just thrilled to be able to watch the game I want online, streaming live as it happens. That is simply wonderful!!! If the technology exists to make this happen, then certainly college football games need to be 'unlocked' like this as well.

I read that the epic Ohio State - USC rematch this fall at the 'Shoe in Columbus, OH will be broadcast on ESPN only. Obviously, that does NOT make me happy! To watch what will be one of the best early-season games next fall, I'm going to have to go to a sports bar. You can bet I'll keep an eye on NCAA.com next fall, but I'm not getting my hopes up that they will be streaming football games being carried by other networks.

It's just sad that such a double-standard exists for network coverage of men's basketball and football.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Bad Hair Day for Lance Armstrong

I saw this news item today on Yahoo! It shows that the French anti-doping agency AFLD is willing to go above and beyond the legal limits imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in its pursuit of any evidence showing Lance Armstrong guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Keep in mind the article very clearly states:
Testing of hair samples is allowed under French law, but is not recognized by the World Anti-Doping Agency or cycling's governing body UCI.

International doping controls are based on urine and blood tests.
It also seems the only logical explanation for this action by AFLD is because they suspect Armstrong of using DHEA, "a banned substance that can boost testosterone levels." That is the only PED that can be detected in a hair sample that would not typically show in a blood or urine sample. Otherwise, why conduct a test that isn't sanctioned by either the WADA or the UCI?

I always go back to the fundamental truth that you can never prove a negative. A person can claim that pink and purple polka-dotted rabbits exist in the wild, and no one can prove that person wrong. You cannot prove that something does not exist; only that something does exist. There are many examples of suspected but not yet 'discovered' particles in theoretical physics, of which the Higgs boson is one.

The simple fact that Armstrong has passed, and continues to pass, every single in season, out of season, in competition, random, pre-scheduled, unannounced, and expected drug test does nothing to exonerate him in the eyes of those who believe he's guilty of doping. People might point to an athlete like Marion Jones, who never failed a drug test, but her example should not be used to cast a shadow of suspicion over Armstrong. They are two different individuals, two different athletes in two different sports, unrelated to one another.

Sadly, the suspicion of Armstrong continues to haunt his every move in cycling. It doesn't have to be that way, but the French won't let it go. What now happens if the hair sample tests positive for anything? It's an unsanctioned test. The WADA spokesperson said there is a significant risk of outside contamination for hair samples. A false positive could keep Armstrong out of this year's Tour de France, depending on how quickly his legal team could mount appeals.

The better question would be what impact a false positive would have on Armstrong's stated goal of raising worldwide awareness (and funding) for his cancer fighting foundation through his return to competitive cycling. Armstrong never needed to return to cycling, to expose himself to the repeated and invasive drug testing procedures that strip away any sense of privacy, but he did so anyway. Why would he risk his own reputation and that of the Lance Armstrong Foundation if he were not riding clean?

Just try convincing the French of that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Trouble From Browns Camp

You may recall that, not very long ago, I was singing the praises of the new General Manager and head coach of my beloved Cleveland Browns. At the time, they were not very active in picking up high-priced free agents, which I maintain is a smart practice.

Well, since the beginning of March, the level of activity originating from Berea has picked up. A LOT!

Given that most of these new hires are guys familiar to Eric Mangini (the new head coach), there could be some method to his madness. He might just be grabbing the guys he knows can help the Browns win in 2009. Mangini might even be smart to let the hot free agents go early to teams willing to overpay for their services, and then pick up the retreads no one else wants for not much money. Since the New York J-E-T-S! JETS! JETS! JETS!!! were 9-7 in 2008, I can't imagine these guys were in high demand. That winning record belies the fact the Jets crumbled down the stretch, losing four of their last five games, after starting 8-3 and leading their Division through week 12.

Having read about some of the other moves being made by Mangini lately, it's hard to imagine he will have any more success coaching the Browns than he had coaching the Jets. His lifetime record as a head coach in the NFL: 23-26 (including one loss in the postseason).

So are the recent player personnel moves an indication that Mangini knows what he's doing, or not? We won't really know if Mangini deserves the nickname Man-Genius or something much less flattering until they start playing the games in September.