Extra Edition

I've been tweaking isbn.nu, my comparison service that finds the prices for a given book via online bookstores, for days, and I have some neat new offerings that are subtle, but useful.Among other elements I've added is a list of books that Amazon.com says other people who bought a given ISBN also purchased (when available for a title), which appears in the blue bibliographic box below the price comparison. I also finally completed the first stage of a long-envisioned project to add "authority" to the system so that multiple books by the same author would show up as editions of a single work. This is now working for author and title searches. It also shows up as Other Editions below a price comparison list of prices for individual titles. Feedback, anyone? I'm hoping to make my service more and more useful for people trying to find specific books and editions.

Googling Me, Observed

I figured out accidentally a neat trick to find out how often people are searching on your name or seeing pages on which your name is prominent in some fashion. Buy a set of Google AdWords with your name. I composed a goofy ad for my name.I was quoted in a business story in The New York Times today. Google's AdWords reporting system shows that nearly 90 impressions of this ad were fed out, most on partner sites, which means that either people searched on my name or saw content pages in which my name was significant. For instance, this search at the NY Times brings up my ad. I'm increasing my person brand message awareness! Please stop me.

Eternal September, Mark 2

When AOL's millions start blogging, we'll have the second wave of what a friend called Eternal September.When AOL first opened its Usenet gateways almost 10 years ago (Sept. 1994, I believe it was), the veterans of the Net sighed endlessly. Every fall, a rush of freshmen with newly minted Internet accounts would start posting idiocy and RTFM questions on Usenet. My friend commented that with AOL, it was Eternal September -- you never exhausted the newbie community. Blogging is a different animal as it's not per se distributed, but Google may make that a different issue than it would have been three or four years ago.

Clean Living

Today is the fifth year anniversary of my last chemotherapy appointment. I was treated for Hodgkin's Disease throughout 1998. The disease responded well, and I was clearly in remission early in chemo, but it's always better to beat the odds by sticking it out. I had 12 visits (six cycles, for those in the know), and I'm awfully healthy here five years later.Yes, I have the signs of age: thinner hair and less of it (it never grew back into the amazing lushness pre-chemo), a bit of paunch that I recently shaved 20 pounds off but could reduce further, and a variety of little ailments which are highly treatable and not at all inconvenient. The flip side to age: I ride my bike about 11 to 12 miles a day, 3 to 5 times a week to my office, and have being doing Pilates, a form of exercise that's extremely fine for retoning and reshaping muscles, about twice a week. I've ridden over 2,000 miles in the last three years. I sleep well, I think clearly, and if I shot, I would shoot straight. Call me a poster child, but call me ahead of time. I've practically forgotten I ever had cancer, which is the way it should be.

Hydra Spawns Many Heads

There's an increasing buzz about Hydra, a collaborative writing tool for Mac OS X that allows people to share a document and then edit it simultaneously over the Internet or local networks. Hydra's uniqueness is in the live editing: you can see other people's insertion points and selections, and use a following function to track someone's editing as they type.In a daisy chain this morning, I discovered Steve Gillmor linking to Clay Shirky who links to Bill Bumgarner's description of using Hydra at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) a few weeks ago. The organizers of the show had set up Hydra templates to allow participants to make notes on the talk and to queue up questions! Good gravy. My co-author Adam Engst on The Wireless Networking Starter Kit and I just spent a couple of hours using iChat AV (audio only) and Hydra to rework the outline for the book. We easily saved 50 percent of the time by both being able to take notes and point out items to each other simultaneously in a long text stream. Reading aloud and working separately on documents just isn't as efficient.

Do Not Call Unless You're a Special Interest

My friend, mentor, and colleague Pete Lewis picks apart the federal do not call list exemptions. While he's right about there being too many exemptions, there are good reasons for a few.First, do we really want the federal (or state) government restricting political speech by maintaining a list -- even a voluntary one? No. I'd rather get 1,000 political calls (which have some return on investment behind them, but aren't typically boiler-room, make money fast operations) than to give government a simple means to prevent it. Second, insurance companies are exempt partly to provide necessary information. Of course they'll misuse this exemption, but, again, I'd rather get a few extra insurance calls -- I can't recall a single one I've ever received -- than to miss a serious problem that might result from issues with a company that hasn't established a business relationship with me but might have business with me. It happens. Third, if a company has done business with you, they can call you, but only for a limited time under limited circumstances. Further, they have to keep a local do not call list if you request them to specifically not call again. That's been federal law for some time, along the junk fax law. (The junk fax law is broken due to lack of recent enforcement. It's civil law, and I have thought about suing some of the junk faxers who have our number. You get $500 per incident -- if you can track them down and they can't prove a business relationship.) On the whole, even with the exemptions, it looks like 90 percent or more of the unsolicited calls we get could go away along with widespread job displacement. If two million people will lose their terrible, terrible telemarketing or indirectly related jobs, where do those jobs go? That means that the elderly and the unwise who reply to phone solicitations (even legitimate ones) will have more to spend on -- what? Perhaps just less to lose. My wife and I have had Caller ID for some time, and I used the Direct Marketing Association's own do not call list (telephone preferences, I think they call it) to remove our numbers. We currently receive very few calls, and we don't answer when the phone says Unknown Number.

Reach Out and VoIP Someone

Ironically, on the same day long feature on voice over IP calling appears in the Seattle Times, I receive my regular Qwest phone bill -- with an offer awfully similar to Vonage, Packet8, and Addaline: unlimited local and long-distance calls for a flat rate.The advantage of many of the VoIP services that use hardware to handle the calls (the Cisco ATA 186) is that they route incoming calls to a number in any area code you pick -- or several area codes all routed to the same line, if you like. It's been possible to do this with some effort and cost in the past, but not with such portability: pluck your Cisco off your local network and route it over a Wi-Fi connection, on a home broadband feed, or at a friend's house on their cable modem, and you still have all your calling features and inbound calls find their way to you. The unlimited outbound calling is a great way especially for small businesses to put a cap on costs. For $20 to $40 per month (depending on the service), you can make an unlimited number of local and long-distance calls. This takes the unpredictability out of phone bills even at five cents a minute. Qwest's latest offers mirror these, perhaps to try to bleed some of the revenue off the VoIP services. We currently pay $25 per month (before tax) at home for voicemail, caller ID, and dial tone. Qwest is offering a $36/month package that includes 7-cent-per-minute long distance with no minimum fee and a bunch of "advanced calling features" including call waiting (which I despise). Ratchet it up a notch and for $50/month, Qwest provides all the advanced features plus unlimited local and long distance. The hardware VoIP services also throw in most or all advanced calling features. One of the differences: Qwest's $50/month service requires about $10/month in tax. The VoIP services aren't phone lines, so their tax burden is currently lower: more like a few bucks a month. Vonage would be about $45/month for what Qwest wants $60/month for, in other words. (Also Qwest warns that usage of more than 5,000 minutes per month puts your account in review -- hardly unlimited, but I suppose they have their reasons.) Obviously, the local telcos have gotten wise to the threat from VoIP, but the reasons I spell out in my sidebar (no 911 service, no alarm circuits, etc.) should restrict VoIP generally to second line status for the near future.

AIM Lower

In my column in today's Seattle Times, I write about the uses and requirements of iChat AV and the iSight videoconferencing camera. I noted you could get a free .Mac account to use iChat by signing up for the $99/year service and then cancelling within 60 days; Apple promises to keep the iChat account active after that.But readers wrote in to note that AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) works fine with iChat AV, and that it's entirely free. You can download AIM for OS X here. I haven't signed up with AIM for a long time, so I'm not sure which part of the process gets you an AIM account, so you may have to install AOL's client and then remove it later. (Update: You can sign up at the AIM Web site.) One reader wrote to complain that I'd stated you had to pay to use iChat or iChat AV. He's right that you don't need to pay for .Mac or sign up for AIM to use iChat. But you can't talk to people outside your local network (using Rendezvous) without a chat account at .Mac or AIM. Another issue in the column: I didn't have the room to elaborate on what pre-600 MHz G3 systems can support in terms of audio/video with iChat AV. My iBook can handle audio, apparently, through a built-in microphone even, but video is supposed to be below the capabilities of older processor. I stated bluntly that my machine could use iChat AV, but more specifically, it can't use all of its capabilities. (Also, many PowerBooks/iBooks and certain desktop machines and monitors have or had mikes built in that you might not even know about.) A reader noted that tweaking the video bandwidth settings in iChat AV might allow an older G3 to use video conferencing, too (see Comments below for more details).

Call for Mac OS X Freeware Project: Secure Networking

This is an open call to any and all Mac OS X software developers who would like to create an open-source or free (your choice) set of tools to make it a simple operation for a remote user on a laptop or desktop to connect back over SSH, SSL, or your choice of secure protocol through a simple one-interface login and create encryption mail, FTP, Web, and other services.Right now, if you operate a mail server that supports inbound SSH connections, you can run a simple script under OS X to use SSH to port forward. But a user interface coupled with a small piece of server software to handle redirects would go a long way towards making Mac OS X users the encryption kings. I have no application programming experience, but I can define and shape the problem. Any interest?

Losses, Debt, Bankruptcy

An ongoing irritation for me in reading coverage of companies that give up the ghost or might is that reporters, even business reporters, confuse several concepts around bankruptcy, investment, and losses, such as this report on Salon.com.If a company has $100 million invested in it and spends it all, it does not have $100 million in debt. If a company spends $100 million it does not have $100 million in losses. Money that's spent out of investment doesn't count against anything but cash on hand or other financial instruments. Actual debt is what's owed to creditors or is in the accounts payable stream. Losses aren't just money that's spent, but a track using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) (for SEC filings) or other methods that calculate the difference between revenue and expenditures accounting for goodwill and one-time expenses, such as what it will cost to lay people off. Many dotcoms suffered huge GAAP losses because of extraordinary one-time expenses that were non-cash expenses: they didn't run out of money, but they looked terrible on paper because that expressed the future viability of the company. When MobileStar went into bankruptcy in late 2001 -- this is the outfit that originally equipped Starbucks with Wi-Fi -- reporters kept saying that they had huge amounts of debt. The debt wasn't huge, from what I can tell; the loss of investment was, possibly $80 million or more. T-Mobile (Voicestream) bought MobileStar's assets out of bankruptcy for $4 million (including a $1.5M bridge loan while in bankruptcy), and it is continually reported that T-Mobile bought MobileStar. They didn't. Salon.com has suffered largely at the hands of this kind of reporting. Although their financial future is not assured, getting 62,000 subscribers and lopping $600,000 per year off their rent (forfeiting some money they couldn't get access to, anyway) is a substantial achievement. The fact that they've spent a lot of money doesn't mean they owe a lot of money, nor does their lifetime losses to date necessarily reflect on the viability of the organization. Salon should probably run some articles on how to report on financial statements. But would any of these reporters read them?