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Government Motors

As you might suspect, my confidence that the government is going to go into GM and fix everything that needs fixing is pretty low. The problems that GM (and Chrysler and Ford) have been long in the making and represent intractable conflicts of the kind that government is a poor arbitrator of, between labor and management and investors.

At it’s core, the government sees the problem as the Big Three not making the vehicles they should be making and losing share as a result, which suggests that the government’s plan is to get us to buy the vehicles that they think we should be buying.

It’s more complex than this simple assessment would suggest and no doubt a big factor that the government will have to come to grips with is that the U.S. new vehicle market has simply collapsed as a result of the credit crisis and eroding consumer confidence, and as a result there is a lot of excess capacity in the manufacturing base that will need to be consolidated. Government is a poor manager for consolidation because the direct result is that a lot of UAW jobs are going away forever.

As it stands right now, the total U.S. market sales for new cars and lights trucks is on a 9 million unit run rate for 2009, which is down from about 13 million in 2007. For the Big Three this would not be as devastating as it has been were it not for the global slowdown of record book proportions, which affects GM more than Ford or Chrysler because GM has been very successful in China and moderately successful in Europe.

The Federal government’s assessment is simplistic at best and their willingness to force significant concessions from labor, bondholders, management and shareholders is untested. They are effectively putting themselves in the place of being a bankruptcy judge and trustee when the bankruptcy process is perfectly adequate to handle the task at hand. Having gone from rescuing banks and insurance companies, the Feds are now guaranteeing car warranties.

All of this reminds me that truth in animation often more appropriately aligns to reality, as when the IRS took over Krusty Burger (must watch) and on South Park when the boys went into the gnomes cave and learned about corporate takeovers in the underpants business… the problem with plans that begin with “phase 1″ is that they often never get around to “phase 2″.

Twitter Ghostwriters Wanted

The notion that Twitter is just content to be manufactured to support a brand, in this case a celebrity, is pretty damn offensive. It shines an unflattering light on the nature of celebrity, that of glossy veneer over a porous substrate.

I gotta go with Shaq on this one…

“It’s 140 characters. It’s so few characters. If you need a ghostwriter for that, I feel sorry for you.”

[From When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking - NYTimes.com]

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Big Media Cartel About To Punish Netflix?

Hollywood tried this with iTunes and failed miserably. There is no data to suggest that when consumers can’t use their favorite online media service for specific content that they abandon it altogether and flock to a studio or label branded alternative, what happens is that they simply stop watching or listening that label or studio content and select competing content.

“Netflix fans take note: A correction is looming.”

[From Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily » Big Media Cartel About To Punish Netflix?]

Content owners and distributors are backed into a corner because they simply don’t have the leverage that they are accustomed to despite continuing to behave as if they do. NBC’s honcho Zucker walked away from iTunes over a pricing dispute only to come back last year despite having a solid success with Hulu.

Any of these content owners playing hardball and pulling content from Netflix is the equivalent of P&G telling Wal-mart that they cannot carry Tide anymore… it hurts P&G more than Wal-mart. Whether it be Netflix or Amazon or iTunes, these are high volume distribution channels and each one is, and should remain, compelled by their underlying business model that remains focused on what is best for the customer, not Hollywood.

At any rate, Hollywood’s dilemma is only more entrenched when you accept that playing hard ball with Netflix only works if they all hold the line, in effect colluding with their competitors to raise prices, which brings a whole different set of problems to Hollywood in the name of the Department of Justice that they really don’t want to have to deal with.

Vanishing Honeybees Revisited

A few years ago I wrote about the now discredited link between cell phone signals and honeybee colony collapse disorder. Here’s an interesting followup on what the latest research is indicating.

The growing consensus among researchers is that multiple factors such as poor nutrition and exposure to pesticides can interact to weaken colonies and make them susceptible to a virus-mediated collapse. In the case of our experiments in greenhouses, the stress of being confined to a relatively small space could have been enough to make colonies succumb to IAPV and die with CCD-like symptoms. More recent results from long-term monitoring have identified other unexpected factors for increased colony loss, including the fungicide chlorothalonil. Research is now focused on understanding how these factors relate to colony collapse.

[From Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees: Scientific American]

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NewsSift, First Impressions Matter in Search

I’ve been curious about the Financial Times’ news search service, called NewsSift, because it promises to leverage the substantial amount of metadata about financial news held by the FT for a pseudo semantic search experience. In other words, better targeting and categorization about news stories.

So I fired up the browser and headed on over to NewsSift only to be confronted by a less than obvious user experience. The obligatory keyword search box is up top along with a 6 category boxes for Organization, People, Place, Theme, and Business Topic. As you type the boxes under the keyword search term dynamically change to reflect found elements, which while useful is also not obvious what is happening in the absence of UI cues to guide the user.

I decided to watch the online demo of the service after having determined through several less than fruitful searches that I wasn’t educated on how the service works. The demo is clear and having got the gist of it I gave it another run, this time using the search term “Apple” as was used in the demo video. Here’s what it returned:

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There are some interesting sidebar features, as you can see above, that point to usefulness despite the less than stellar search results displayed above. I am also curious how they differentiate online news from blogs and why news portals should be included at all if they are largely aggregating the other sources, i.e. how is AP via Yahoo Finance different from AP in any other category? At any rate, that news source widget is dynamic and does change according to the search you do. I would have also liked to see the inclusion of wikipedia-like sources as these are often very valuable in the context of search.

Even with the potential for skewing, the sentiment potentially does present a feature largely unavailable in other search services and it is useful, as evidenced by the the search I did on Geithner. What was interesting about this example is that the sentiment on the blogs category largely mapped to the online news source category.

200903230954.jpg

The NewsSift service shows promise as it attempts to extract key entities and phrases for a better search experience but this thing need more time in the oven before the FT can claim a win. There are many features that are badly needed, like sentiment analysis, but if the search results are noisy then you really can’t assign too much value to the extras.

While I am actually quite positive on NewsSift the fact remains that if they do not deliver better search results the service will be destined to be a follower and not a leader. First impressions matter tremendously in search and no one can claim that within minutes of the first search they do on a newly found service that they haven’t formed an opinion, it’s binary and if you are running a search service there is nothing more important than the accuracy of the results (especially when using a search term that is used in the online demo).

Facebook and the Nature of Power Struggles in Social Networking

Robert may well be right in his analysis but his comment about Facebook always pissing off its users reveals another dimension to this current kerfuffle, who really owns Facebook?

Before we get deeper into this, remember that Facebook has always pissed off its users. First, you’ve gotta realize that in Facebook’s life it will go through at least seven phases. We are moving from phase four to phase five right now. In each phase change people have gotten pissed off.

[From Scobleizer: Technology, innovation, and geek enthusiasm » Blog Archive Why Facebook has never listened and why it definitely won’t start now «]

From the moment that social networks achieved critical mass there has been an uneasy conflict between users and the sponsoring company over ownership. Clearly Facebook owns the intellectual property that is Facebook but without all the user contributed content it would be quite meaningless, therefore the user community believes quite passionately that they are not subservient to the company in this regard and from time to time there erupts an insurrection.

Whether it be over data security and privacy, content controls, third party service integration, or user experience, all of those prior incidents point to a struggle between two groups that are more equal and co-dependent than either realize.

What the user community doesn’t accept is the notion that the only rights they have are those granted by the company underwriting the platform. It’s not a democracy and there is no Bill of Rights that a separate “judicial branch” will interpret and enforce. Users want a voice that has the power to override what the company believes will be strategic decision setting with profit and long term growth at its core.

For their part, the companies behind these networks seem oblivious to the fact that the very social connectedness they are enabling provides the user community with a lot more leverage than companies are used to dealing with. What starts as individual complaints can quickly snowball into large public protests that effectively suck all of oxygen out of the message cycle and take control of the message away from the company.

In the end this will all go away like previous protests because each individual user has far more invested in their Facebook experience than Facebook the company has invested in them. It goes against every grain of my belief system to suggest that the individual user doesn’t matter but it’s likely true here as it has been in the past and it will be so until Facebook crosses some undetermined and unpredictable threshold that constitutes a tipping point that drives users to a compelling competitive option.

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IRS offers guidelines for Ponzi scheme victims

Does this mean I can deduct my share of the mortgage bailout?

Among the guidelines the IRS issued yesterday was allowing investors to claim their losses from a Ponzi scheme as a theft loss rather than a capital loss, a personal casualty loss or a personal theft loss. Investors who lost in Ponzi schemes will also be able to include not only the net amount invested but also the fictitious income reported on tax returns in the year the scheme was discovered.

[From IRS offers guidelines for Ponzi scheme victims -- Newsday.com]

Friday Link Post

Here’s some links to keep you busy today:

UPDATE: Here’s a couple more that I overlooked earlier.

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