This Post Starts On A Bus

The doors of our bus close. We just start moving when two additional passengers catch up to the vehicle and are let in.

On a quiet ride, the voice of the younger of the two immediately fills the bus, as she chats up her fellow passengers. She is from Nigeria. It is her first time out of her country, first time on a plane, first time in America. She moved here with her Aunty, to live in Clinton Hill. She is going to go to school, then get a job and get rich. She wants to learn to drive and buy a car. She asks me if I am rich.

She is so excited about everything: street lights, bridges, rivers, churches and buildings; people walking dogs on “strings”; a passenger who admits to having had his dog sleep in his bed.

With an enthusiastic and energetic delivery, the backdrop for Roadkill is set. This hauntingly powerful performance running for a few more days tells the story of a young girl who is brought to the U.S. to be forced into the sex trade. But we don’t know that yet–and neither does she.

Shadowing the characters, we ride to her new home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Arriving at a tranquil, tree-lined block, we follow the two into a tastefully decorated townhouse and sit in the parlor. We learn Aunty isn’t really her aunt, and the young one is given an American name, Mary. We learn that a few other girls live in the same house, and that Mary will have her own room. Her smile stretches, her eyes shine brilliantly. She is joyous and jubilant–so full of hope about this new start, this new opportunity. A big TV is mounted on the wall and she dances, childishly imitating Beyoncé. After this point, nothing will ever be the same.

As the performance progresses, we are subjected to a harrowing recounting of her life. Beginning with the first man who violently rapes her, leaving her battered and bleeding, we are treated to front row seats of a morbid descent into the world of sexual slavery. That first act sets the tone, as the TV forces a ghastly animation on us. The young, vibrant person who was just dancing in front of us is reduced to two-dimensions, shrinking, as she is cornered, into a doll that is thrown around and ripped into by a pack of ravenous dogs. We move from the parlor, to her bedroom, to a party, fading into the background and absorbing her abuse, accomplices in the crime for observing and not doing something about it.

We are as helpless as she is.

We hear “John Reports” in forums where users like FuckForce69 casually report their experience: what they did, or tried to do to Mary; how much they paid; whether she was worth the price. They speak in plain, but explicit language, as if she was a book purchased on Amazon’s used marketplace. Meanwhile, Mary is on her bed suffering the consequences of their careless, cruel and cold actions.

We see Martha, the “aunty”, training her in the art of seduction, tainting her innocence. And as she poisons her, she comforts Mary, using her family back in Nigeria as the carrot to reach for. After all, Martha did bring Mary from Nigeria so she become a “proper lady”, and the money she is making will be helping her family tremendously.

As Mary takes one step, and then another towards her ruin she is becoming blasé, accepting of her fate, or at the very least convinced by the tales spun by Martha. She tries to run away, only to return immediately with the realization she has nowhere to go. We find out she is pregnant. Later, we find out she is just 14.

She surprises us all when she writes up her real name, Adeola, on the wall in chalk in an attempt to find the human part of what she used to be. She eventually finds courage in the baby growing inside of her, and almost confides in a cop when things go really bad.

This particular story is based on a true case recounted to the show’s creator, Cora Bissett. Like the African girl who was brought into Scotland and managed to escape, Adeola also leaves her prison. She puts on a pair of sneakers, stands dumbfounded in the street and then takes off, running. And running.

But this isn’t the norm, and, if you believe Martha’s stories, you might even be tempted to agree that Mary had it “easy”: she is brought to a country where women are empowered, where she has a real opportunity and where she is being looked after. Don’t fool yourself, the sheer number of people who are trafficked, sold into slavery and prostitution pales only in comparison to the billions of dollars the industry makes. This isn’t a “Third World” problem; the U.S. is among the biggest customers for these victims, with New York, California, Texas and Nevada holding the dubious title of leading destinations.

And I still feel as helpless about this from the comfort of my home as I was last night, in a house I would buy in a heartbeat–if I was richer, that is. A house like any other in that beautiful stretch of Clinton Hill, a house whose peaceful and stable facade betrays the horrible pains it afflicts on those who reside in it.

November Crossroads, The Story Of Two Speeches

This post will be a little different than the rest. This is not the post I have been working on originally, but I felt compelled to write something right away, it is not exhaustive, and it is reactive. It shares just a fraction of my opinion. The trigger this time was reading Obama’s speech at the DNC last night. More accurately, it was his speech when compared side by side with Romney’s speech a few days prior at the RNC. They were both simple, contained personal anecdotes, invoked the individual citizen and played on emotional strings. But the two speeches vividly paint the crossroads the United States is at, highlighting the contrasting paths each candidate intends to follow if chosen. November is when we reach the diverging fork and have to choose which road to take. It is the time to determine what direction this country heads in and it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

I have been rather vocal about how in the past electoral campaign, Obama did not convince me at all, but that I would have still voted for him (if I could) against the Republican alternative. As the more progressive candidate, his platform was looking forward, attempting–in words, at least–to target real issues in healthcare, education, the economy and foreign policy rather than the populist, “values”-driven agenda. A line of discourse that is sure to incite passion but is secondary to, and invariably links to or stems from, the real problems plaguing this country.

I have also said that Obama failed to convince me during his presidency, predominantly as a result of too many compromises and half-measures when he still had a stronger mandate. But, at the same time, I wasn’t deluded enough to think that he would have been able to solve everything in four years.

Tonight’s speech, while not without its faults, was one of his best. Other than one of his State of the Union Addresses, this was probably the only time he “got through to me”. He said all the right things, punctuated them for maximum effect, and had actually given me reason to believe that he has a real plan, not bullet points. That the change he spoke of last time around can actually happen. That said, I am still not deluded enough to think that it is possible with the current congress.

Romney speaks of a United America while undercutting any political possibility of progress, and running a campaign based on furthering the divide among citizens. He applauds immigrant as the driver for what made this country great, while alarmingly xenophobic measures are enacted by his fellow party members. He sings the praise of women and even quotes his mom in emphasis, while relegating them to second class citizens, not even in control of their own body. He attacks healthcare, job creation, the economy and the overall state of the nation as a result of bad leadership, lack of direction and shortage of business experience, yet he stumbles from one diplomatic snafu to another, sets a clear backwards direction on many individual rights and nominates a VP who, other than a high school McDonald’s grill position and college summer salesmen positions at Oscar Mayer, has no business experience to speak of.

But actions speak louder than words and Romney’s party’s actions have been shouting incessantly during this presidency, intensifying after the mid-term elections to reach a deafening pitch. No matter how hard he might try to portray himself otherwise, all his declarations are but a faint whisper trying to break through the noise. They won’t be able to, though, as they are hypocritical half-truths, wrapped in fanaticism and reeking of spin.

I am hopeful that common sense, that rarest of ingredients for some unknown reason, will triumph over medieval darkness, over close mindedness, hatred, bigotry and ignorance. I am hopeful those who will be taking to the ballots will evaluate ideas over emotions, make decisions based on their country’s critical priorities over glossy but substance-less soundbites and cast their vote based on the best interests of their country as a united whole, rather than advancing a fragmented sub-group’s agenda.

I realize Obama is catering to an audience with his speech, and measures his words carefully but I would have loved to see a stronger commitment to separation of church and state. His is still infinitely better than the intertwining of God and country in Romney’s speech, but why bring a “Creator” into the fray, Mr. President, when a Humanistic, universal language would have worked just as well, if not stronger?

As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights – rights that no man or government can take away.

No Flying Spaghetti Monster endowed you or me with those rights, they are, or at least should be, ours on the simple premise of being Human. A future filled with hope is no less full if it does not remind Obama of Scriptures. Providence is not his to declare, or his constituents’ to exclusively enjoy. They are not blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth, nor is it their right, it is a job and a commitment which never ends.

It starts with choosing to continue forward this November.

The Supreme Court, Obamacare and Information Design

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Apologies for the lapse in posting, a small database issue required recreating this post from various back ups with certain modifications to address the passing of time. Originally meant for July 9 publication, I hope it is still interesting enough to read, even if it’s not completely top-of-mind anymore.
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Thursday, June 28th 2012 was a momentous occasion in US history.

It was the day in which the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) announced its decision in National Federation of Independent Business et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. Most of us know it as the ruling on whether parts of Obamacare were unconstitutional.

Equally momentous, in some respects, was the media kerfuffle–to put it mildly–that ensued in the minutes following the Court’s announcement. With both CNN and FOX rushing to announce their assessments, and getting it wrong, the first 10 minutes following the announcement will not be soon forgotten. The SCOTUS’ website crashed as millions rushed to read the opinion. Fortunes were made and lost as traders rushed in to back who their preferred news outlet told them benefited most from the decision. But bar the select few who were physically at the Supreme Court building, the whole nation was rushing nowhere, and, together with its president, were left confused. We were left wondering for several minutes more until the fine folks at SCOTUSblog.com released their assessment and clarity began spreading. In hindsight, it was terribly amusing to witness semantic back-paddling, networks’ retractions and public mood swings as the real decision filtered through, but it was quite a roller coaster in real time!

On July 7th, SCOTUSblog.com published a truly fascinating post titled We’re Getting Wildly Differing Assessments, chronicling in minute details the events following the announcement. A riveting blow-by-blow from those who actually made the news. The post’s title, by the way, is the words of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during the ensuing confusion.

My trigger came after I reached SCOTUSblog’s “Lessons Learned” section. I read it once over, and then a second time. I then scrolled all the way up to reread two early paragraphs. Something bothered me.

How could experienced producers (plural), who have covered legal affair in general, and Supreme Court decisions in particular, make such a mistake. The FOX producer confirmed he was “100%” certain before they ran the news. SCOTUSblog mentions that “one of the best lawyers in America”, closely familiar with the case, can be heard in the background of a CBS report also stating that the mandate was invalidated. Until he corrects himself some 12 seconds later.

Where it went wrong

I do not think anybody can accuse either producer with deceitful intent. In the race to be the first out with the report, they rushed to conclusions after skimming the document. But how do you skim a legal document? Legal documents are notoriously obtuse. Legalese is never straightforward.

I needed to see the document as what caught my eye in the earlier paragraphs were the following two excerpts: “Eight lines from the bottom of page 2, they see the following language” and “having read the Commerce Clause holding and then turned the page”. Without proper context, these lines are rather cryptic: “they” in the former refers to CNN and FOX’s producers, the latter excerpt, to the Bloomberg team. Downloading the official document (PDF link, 193 pages) from the Supreme Court’s website, I died a little.

This last-line-justified sprawling beast features very few glanceable section headers or any other location-aiding devices in its 193 pages. It is hard to look at, let alone comprehend. My trigger: With a document like this, no wonder they got it wrong.

Both, it seems, scanned the first sentence of each paragraph up to page 2 of the Syllabus. An optional part of the document that constitutes “no part of the opinion of the Court but [...] prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.” In essence, this is a sort of an executive summary for the document. A dense six page read that mislead at first those who scanned it.

How to start fixing it

If one is to go through the trouble and effort of creating an additional document for the convenience of the reader, I should hope it highlights the decisions reached by the Court above all. I will not attempt an actual design but since I’m not versed in legalese, I believe it can be dramatically improved upon. It is a matter of understanding what is meant to be communicated in the Syllabus and finding the right format of doing so.

Consider the current Syllabus structure: opening with the case’s background and then, with nary a break or visual distinction, transitioning to the Court’s Opinion:

From SCOTUS Syllabus, beginning of Court Opinion

That “1.” you see there is the first of six sections of the document discussing the Court’s decision. Each section cites supporting cases and precedences, all bleeding into each other. It is not until eight lines from the bottom of page 2 that the individual mandate is struck based on the Commerce Clause, and only three lines into page 4 that the real conclusion is announced:

From the SCOTUS Syllabus, upholding mandate as tax

The individual mandate can be upheld, Obamacare is constitutional and a Go!

There is a certain theater to delivering the opinion, both verbally and in writing. Hell, there’s a similar theater to delivering this blog post. But the Syllabus isn’t the opinion, it is its cover page, if you will, written for its reader’s convenience.

So with that in mind:

1. Lead with what is being decided on

The opinion covers two topics, as Chief Justice Roberts states in his delivery’s opening statement:

Today we resolve constitutional challenges to two provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010: the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase a health insurance policy providing a minimum level of coverage; and the Medicaid expansion, which gives funds to the States on the condition that they provide specified health care to all citizens whose income falls below a certain threshold.

This is the first clue as to the structure: two topics, two decisions. Highlight them upfront as headers. No need to explain them or cite precedences, simply state that the Court will make a determination on the individual mandate and Medicaid expansion.

2. Follow each topic with respective decision

Of the six bullet points, the first four deal with the individual mandate. To me, that means the individual mandate header should be followed by no more than 4 bullet points in order of importance: in this case, that the mandate can be upheld as within the congress’ power under the Taxation Clause. Same with the Medicaid Expansion. Everything else is supporting material. It can be expended upon in later parts of the Syllabus, and broken down in great detail throughout the Opinion, but to me it must be made unambiguously clear upfront using definitive statements in digestible chunks.

That’s it. These two simple points would have most likely prevented the debacle. With additional time for design, it is not inconceivable that legal documents can actually be read and understood by the layperson, and wouldn’t that be nice?

How Many Refs To Screw Up A Goal?

And now for something totally different.

John Terry's Post Goal-line Clearance

The image above restarted the debate regarding introduction of technology in football. For those unaware of the incident, a recount. The Euro 2012 tournament saw the introduction of additional referees standing just next to each goal with a solitary duty to perform: watch whether the ball crosses the goal line. In an England vs. Ukraine game delicately poised at 1-0 to England, the Ukraine broke through and Marko Devic lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper and into the goal. From this angle, which is similar enough to that shared by the new referee, it is a clear goal. But John Terry’s (who’s scum, which is beside the point) last ditch effort to clear was adjudged successful. No goal was given to the Ukraine. The ref had one thing to do, and he failed. Miserably.

In the build up of the play, there was an offside by the Ukrainians, so the goal should not have stood, but that was not what disallowed the goal. The live play-by-play write up of the game by The Guardian notes:

64 min: Replays show that ball was over the line when Terry hooked it clear. The goal-line official couldn’t advise the referee to give it, however, because the goal-post was blocking his view.

Emphasis mine. What could possibly be the point of a referee in charge of determining whether a ball pass the goal line if a solid obstacle is strategically placed in the only place where controversy over passing the goal line could possibly occur, on the goal line?

Despite the futility of introducing these refs by Michel Platini (organizing body UEFA’s president, and former striker for France) who is vehement in his opposition to the introduction of any technology, this was not my trigger. I fully expected a calamitous error in this (and in every other tournament), but such is the nature of the game. No, the trigger was as an extremely poor article by John Nicholson on one of my favorite football sites, Football365.com, titled “An Argument Against Goal-Line Technology”. In it, John shows just how dangerous logical fallacies and slippery slopes can be.

The full article, which is very short, is suggested reading, but here are two choice quotes:

The introduction of such technology is to iron out injustices but injustice happens all the time in football, stop one and you have to stop them all or you are no further forward as Tuesday night showed. Thus it is unsustainable to only have one form of technology and more will follow as sure as rhythm follows blues.

Soon the whole game will be policed by cameras and replays and no referee would ever be able to trust his own judgement because if he did, and got it wrong, when a replay is available, he’d be crucified. Therefore, stopping all the time to assess correct decisions is inevitable; the game changed forever. Is that what you really want?

I don’t comment on Football365. I enjoy their articles, op-eds and reader generated mailboxes. But this article sparked me to action and I had to post a comment. That would have been the end of it were it not for the imposed character limit. I edited my comment mercilessly, but wanted to have the whole thing somewhere for my own edification. Presenting my view on goal line technology and responding to various alternate proposals and slippery slopes. Below is the original draft of my comment before it was edited down to 1,900 characters:

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To call this an “argument” against (or for) anything is an insult to arguments. In this particular case, John here is committing a logical fallacy through hypothetical conjecture. He assumes that because this (goal line technology) will be implemented, we will find ourselves on a slippery slope from which there is no return, other things will necessarily follow and for that reason the issue in hand should be rejected. There is no proof whatsoever that such a linear progression will actually take place, so at the end of the day, this is an emotional appeal to readers who fear the ruin of their beloved sport rather than a logical argument against it.

What is needed here is an actual argument for or against goal-line technology and I would like to present mine urging in favor of its implementation. Depending on the proposal’s framing, goal-line technology can prevent costly errors without impeding the pace and thrill of the game. It’s not often that one can use hockey as a good example for a sporting decision, but they’ve had video refs specifically for goals for close to 20 years without introducing any additional delays. Nor has there been a sinister progression towards milking the “game” out of the game with every decision stopped and reviewed. They have made a very clear decision that the technology will only be used to determine whether the puck crossed the line and not for subjective decisions (were there infractions in the process, was the stick too high, etc.) There is no reason football can’t do something similar.

My proposal calls for a “smart ball” that has a chip in it, and its full crossing of the line can be detected without needing to involve any TV replays or stops of play. When the ball passes, a visual indicator alerts of the complete passing of the ball. This could be a light going off, a firecracker exploding, a cow being launched in the air with a banner, anything that can be indisputably seen. We can still curse at the linesmen for missing the offside, we can still laugh at the pathetic dive that preceded or the shocked/indignant expressions on players face when their goal does not stand, we can still theorize that referee A is in the pocket of team B, nothing else will change. There are no delays in the game, and no interference with the current system of refereeing.

Other comments requested an appeal system. While that system works well in tennis, American football and others, I wouldn’t introduce it here: the only thing that really matters and should not be subjected to human error is whether a goal occurred or not. If there is a frictionless way of doing it, it should outrank an appeal system. A “smart ball” will more than achieve this and I think it behooves us to give it a fair chance.

Once again, no camera replays, no video referees, no stops or appeals for reviews, just a sensor in the ball to make certain a goal is a goal. All other decisions are up to the ref to make a mess of.

Speaking of decisions for the ref to make a mess of and that pathetic dive: the public debate over diving, acting, time wasting, shirt pulling and other cheating practices is growing louder every year. The problem is that there is no way to stamp out these incidents, as they happen, with 100% accuracy without introducing potentially lengthy reviews and stops of the game like in American football. Coupled with a pretty spineless disciplinary reviewing committee (very obvious in the UK which I follow closest) that seems hell bent on protecting referees’ image and the integrity of their match reports, we’re left with a haven for cheaters and a firing squad constantly following referees. The consequences are just not grave enough to deter the former and the latter can’t ever do right.

The stakes must be higher for cheaters. Much higher. And if you can’t fix them during the game, impose them as deterring measures after. A disciplinary committee must have full power to punish any instance of unsportsmanlike behavior, whether observed, reported, treated or ignored in an official match report. This committee should include additional outside, non-biased members and operate in complete transparency, providing public reports on games and rationale for decisions. That way refereeing mistakes will be amended post-fact without the guise of “saving face” corroborating incomplete or uncertain reports. Unbooked offenses can be made right and bookings can be up- or downgraded as needed. They must also have full power to rescind any booking born of an unsportsmanlike act, with an immediate fine and suspension to the offending party. Repeat violations will result in cumulative and successive bans, and after a certain point, will reach point-docking for the offender’s team. It might take a season or two, but incidences will thin out dramatically if the carrot is not tempting enough and the stick hurts this bad.

And that’s how you ensure goals are counted correctly and minimize cheating without slowing down the game, or introducing even more pointless officials. Plus, I can’t wait until goal posts have some LED lights in them that light up in fancy patterns every time a goal is scored!

P.S. – Been looking for an excuse to talk about this goal: In a bygone era, Beitar Jerusalem’s István Sallói (who always reminded me of a poor man’s Hungarian Dennis Bergkamp) was fouled rather recklessly in a play’s build up. Instead of falling and clutching an imaginary injury, he continued his trajectory forward in a half-roll, half-somersault, stood back up, found his feet and passed to Eli Ohana who scored following an impressive slalom. Watch it (starts at 5:13 if automatic link fails) and tell me who would not have stayed down today to get a booking or even a send off for the opposition.

The Great TLD Forward

When I installed WordPress, I promised myself I won’t write to simply fill space. I wasn’t going to force posts without a worthy trigger, even if I missed writing. The big reveal of Top Level Domains (TLDs) by ICANN was just what I needed.

I took a long, hard look at the applicants and submissions. I then took the whole thing into excel and had some fun with it.

The trigger this time was pretty simple: ICANN is laughing all the way to the bank, and that’s wrong.

The first image in my mind once I did the math was that of Scrooge McDuck diving head first into gold coins (which I had thought was a horrible and painful idea since childhood) and a fat, mustachioed walrus in a top hat and monocle, fanning himself with wads of cash. But after I stopped giggling, I thought seriously about how this should be evaluated, and what will probably happen instead. I have a lot to say, so get comfortable.

Let’s start with some fun numbers.
1,930 overall applications, 1,409 of which were for unique TLDs.
13 applicants went for .APP, the most requested TLD, among them Amazon and Google, but not Apple.
4 proposals had more than 10 solicitations, 36 had more than 5, 230 more than one.
503
individual applicants.
307
applications by start-up Donuts.co (who apparently raised $100M in VC for this exercise. There goes $57M on application fees alone! But there is no bubble, no siree!)
101
applications by Google, 76 by Amazon, 11 by Microsoft, 1 by Apple.
66 were filed as Geographic TLD, 84 as Community.
Upwards of 400 applications for brand names (I’ve counted over 375 well known brands, but with non-Latin character application and smaller brands I am not familiar with, I’ll give this number some wiggle room).

$357M to ICANN for application fees alone.
-$20K is the loss ICANN projected in their budgets for 500 applications (if that means they’re expecting a ~$100K loss, there needs to be some serious inquiry into this not-for-profit’s inefficiencies).

Between the existing generic and country-specific TLDs there are currently about 300 Top Level Domains. If only half of the new applications are approved, we’ll have a thousand “.something” in play. Is this a good thing? Is it even needed?

Personally, I think the answer is no.

Overall, the expansion of generic TLDs did not work as planned, and as a business model, I would argue the experiment had, so far, failed. The gTLDs approved over the past decade have not gotten the traction hoped, despite a legitimate business case that can be made on their behalf. The true “innovation”–if you can call it that–with TLDs has been domain hacking, or the use of unconventional domains to creatively spell words or create associations. Most of the domain hacking has been accomplished using country-specific TLDs such as .ly (Libya), .tv (Tuvalu), .it (Italy), .is (Iceland), .me (Montenegro) and others.

But for each successful hack, there’s a gTLD that isn’t nearly as successful with a legitimate purpose. Only one .info site is accessed somewhat regularly by me (mta.info). The trusted .com continues to be preferred over .biz, unless you’re in Turkey and you use it as a hack (Biz means “we”). The .museum registry managed a commendable global collection of registrants, but with the majority continue using their existing domains, this appears to be more about protecting brand than an earnest exploitation of the new gTLD’s potential. The MoMA and the Guggenheim among others use .org, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay celebrate their “Frenchness” by using .fr and the Getty goes for a .edu. Other notables like the Uffizi gallery, Tate Modern or the State Hermitage did not apply. .mobi was a misguided attempt from the start, and with responsive web design slowly becoming standard, I hope it is retired. Even .xxx is facing opposition from the adult entertainment industry who do not wish to be segregated and potentially overly regulated, and it is unlikely to be adopted as the industry standard.

I won’t even mention .coop, .pro, .int, .aero and others. I don’t doubt there are valuable sites out there using the expanded gTLDs, but not enough, to me, to justify the business case. The internet still predominantly uses the original gTLDs, and the viable alternatives since have seen their success born of unintended usages.

So how can anybody approach an approval process for such a program? While I do not have business models for any applicant, below is my proposed guidelines, based on the evaluation criteria set in ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook, and why I believe it will eventually be ignored in favor of money. Yes, I’m a cynic. (*Note, I will not be touching on non-Latin characters applications, because I can’t decipher or know enough about them).

The first evaluation criterion is similarity to existing TLDs. With no exact duplicates, no applicant threw away $185K. Other similarities are very limited, so I doubt any will fail here. There is a possibility, however, of a stricter interpretation, which may reject proposals such as .eus and .frl for being too confusing with the existing .eu and .fr; or Google’s .gbiz and the multiple .mobile applications for similarity with existing .biz and .mobi.

The second criterion addresses confusion with other applied-for TLDs, and here there is a potential for rejections. There are three types of “confusions”, in my opinion: singular vs. plural applications, string synonyms, and base vs. compound words.

When singular and plural forms of the same word have both been applied for, just one should be approved. Examples include: .coupon/s, .deal/s and .hotel/s. While this will be a case-by-case decision, my gut says the singular will be awarded in most cases.

With competing synonyms, only one should be approved as well. Notable examples which will likely be approved include .film vs. .movie, .auto vs. .car, .audio vs. .music vs. .song, and the mega-fight of the century between .site, .web, .webs and .website.

For base vs. compound words, approving the base word only will make it is easier and faster for users. The highest profile example is .tech vs. .technology, but there are others, including .now vs. .nowtv.

Unfortunately, that’s the evaluation criteria extent set by ICANN’s Guidebook (a third one addresses similarity with Internationalized Domain Names, and is out of this post’s purview). With the above the only criteria for rejection, my estimate returns over 1,000 likely approvals. I would not be surprised to see all of them approved as each new TLD carries a yearly maintenance fee of at least $25K, which means a guaranteed $25M in ICANN’s coffers. And that, sadly, is reason enough to approve them all. Moreover, for IP protection purposes, brands are likely to purchase additional secondary domains, especially if a gTLD like .suck is approved. That means additional money lubricating the wheels of the system, but no clear benefits for users.

There are several additional criteria I would like to see incorporated into the evaluation process to truly foster the user innovation they desire. My extended evaluation criteria cover: scope and usage potential, overarching TLD user experience, trust through regulation and transparency, streamlining to reduce user confusion, embracing domain hacking, and guidelines for treating branded applications. There are natural overlaps here, so the following will not necessarily map 1:1 to these topics.

Many gTLDs’ potential seem to be exhausted with generic directory-like applications. Some have a small possible universe: .nba might be a great solution for each team, but there are only thirty of them. It is a big enough brand to potentially merit it, but maybe the generic .basketball should be preferred. Others have an infinitely larger universe, but to me lack value unless handled by a single company with a unified experience throughout: .forsale has been requested by two applicants and could compete nicely against a Craigslist for example, but unless one body orchestrates the experiences throughout all secondary domains, I don’t see it succeeding. .bbb (Better Business Bureau) or .ieee (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) are similar propositions. Extended directories and reviews can only benefit consumers and facilitate information gathering, but unless they control the entirety of the experience, there is no added value to a simple search on their current domain.
My take: I would like to see priority given to non-branded, larger-scoped TLDs. I think there can be benefits for both single-source and decentralized secondary domains, to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

In theory, I like the idea of approving more semantic directory-TLDs like .author (from Amazon) or .cpa which could be used as regulated personal/professional pages, but where is the line drawn? What occupations get a TLD?

A similar argument can be made for .pharmacy, what business is worthy of a TLDs? A unique feature for .pharmacy is creating trust through transparency and regulation. If consumers know the application process for a .pharmacy domain, and understand that only verified pharmacies can secure one, e-commerce potential may increase as a result of established authority and authenticity.
My take: Despite liking the idea of semantic TLDs, I would concentrate exclusively on regulated TLDs. Ensuring quality sites through registration requirements is valuable. .cpa applicants will be required to prove credentials to secure a domain, as will .pharmacy, and as a result consumers will be able to rest assured they are transacting with trusted entities.

Confusion with other submissions was covered as an official criterion, but I think it is prudent to go beyond ICANN’s definition. Similarity is defined as the probability of user confusion: so how should .education, .college, .university, and the handful of universities applying for gTLDs (.mit, .latrobe and .monash, .rmit) be evaluated when .edu exists? Similarly, how are .army, .airforce and .navy evaluated with .mil in use, and with most branches using a .com for their user-facing official sites? Other examples include potential confusion between .phone and .tel or .sex, .porn and .adult with .xxx.

A similar issue arises when considering word sets. Is it necessary to offer .corp, .inc, .llc, .llp, .gmbh, .sarl for businesses when .com has served them well, and .biz has not caught on? What of .ngo with .org already extensively used?
My take: I would reject all. Simple.

Another type of confusion is exemplified with .dwg, .mov: the formats for AutoCAD’s drawings and the popular movie extension. Confusion could also translate to servers interpreting the page: should it initiate a file download or render a site?
My take: Deny all applications matching file extensions or potentially triggering server conflicts.

The best source of TLD innovation came from domain hacking, embrace it. There is an application for .ing by Google, and given the complexity of securing .ng (Nigeria) domains, the most active verb has yet to be hacked, .ing can change that completely. Another application is by the city of Istanbul for .ist and that could be fun.
My take: More of these. Please. The fine folks making sites and start ups that advance humanity and technology (or just provide yet another way to share a photo on Facebook) have said their piece and approve of domain hacking. I’m disappointed there were not more three-letter nouns or propositions. I can make a business case for a .out TLD, which could be appropriate for outdoorsy or active pursuits, for reviews, for fun hacks and even for the gay community. And can there please be a new country with a .up country code?

Lastly, brands. Lastly, because they are obviously the thorniest. New operators stand to make a tidy sum from hundreds of brands looking to protect their IP and prevent anybody unauthorized from saying bad things. This is likely to happen on TLDs that are both generic- and targeted-enough. Looking at the applications, there are hundreds clear cut brands, product names, brand extensions, and service marks and taglines. Is there really a need for branded TLDs? What are the determining factors in approving one?
My take: Bad idea. This might be the most controversial statement in this post, but I think brands are not TLD material. If they don’t exist, neither company nor user will be any poorer for it, and creating them will not necessarily add value, might end up hurting innovation, or create orphaned TLDs that will be decommissioned like microsites currently are.

Often, brands are rather common, generic words. Among the applications there are a good number which could catch on with consumers, but not if they’re held by a company for brand use only. Examples include .off, .live, .open, .mini, .express, .office. If these are not available to users I see branded applications as too narrow to be useful. An interesting application by Google for .plus also falls under this category. I guess the intention will be for each Google+ user to become a secondary domain, securing a foothold in personal pages, fully trackable and controlled, as gateway to the social web Google struggle to make a serious play in. I would still rather see .plus as truly a generic, non-Google affiliated TLD, if approved.

Service marks and taglines, for their part, should be denied categorically. I spotted .onyourside (Nationwide), .afamilycompany and .rightathome (SC Johnson). These are too focused on potentially transient campaigns, are long and awkward, and add no value to users.

I can see massive corporations with many internal systems, intranets and protected employee systems getting branded TLDs for internal purposes. There’s value for IBM employees in timesheets.ibm or directory.ibm. For users, though, ibm.com just makes more sense than website.ibm. In a way, this is the inverse to single-source directory-TLDs. For them to make sense, directory-TLDs need one company orchestrating a unified experience across all secondary domains; here, standardization of secondary domains across branded-TLDs are needed for users to count on always having say, shop.ibm available. An easier, more intuitive implementation will still be for a .shop to be approved and each brand can house their e-commerce efforts in a ibm.shop

Even with this extended evaluation criteria, there are still potentially hundreds of approved TLDs, but at least it will be a bit more manageable. Phew, that’s all, I think.

Oh, one more question, am I really missing something here? Can there really be 4 separate individuals that thought up a business model for .pizza? Does anybody know what?

 

If Only Time Warner Cable Was More Like A Restaurant…

I’m eagerly awaiting the day when I can get my football (soccer) fix in HD and not through cable. It is the only thing I need to watch live. It is the only thing that relies on its timeliness to be of interest; everything else, and there isn’t much, is time-shifted.

With a combined Internet and Cable bill at $170 a month, I made up my mind that until such day comes and I “cut the cord”, I will start by dropping the Premium Channels I had. Ween myself off gradually. So goodbye HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and Starz, you have been great. When I can get you directly, I will gladly take you back.

My decision made, I went online to find a site which allows easy addition of new channels and services, but not their removal. I had to resort to chatting to two representatives to accomplish this. When I asked to confirm the new price, cross-referencing the one displayed on their site, I was informed that was a new customers only price, mine is higher.

And so, the next trigger was born: If only Time Warner Cable was more like my neighborhood restaurant. Then I might actually want to stay a customer…

I have been with Time Warner for over 8 years. A quick calculation estimates a spend of over $15,000 as their customer, a sum I find ludicrous and terrifying in equal measures. And yet, no special offers, not even a “You know what, keep those premium channels until the end of this billing cycle, on us. As a thank you for your continued business“. The channels were removed the instant I confirmed the rep’s action. New customers on the same plan as me, by the way, pay $40/month less for their first year. $480 acquisition cost.

The acquisition game is not unique to cable companies. Cell phone carriers, among others, also play it but unlike cable they at least entice existing customers with subsidized new phones at the conclusion of a contract. This is not news to anybody, but this country’s top service companies only care about customer acquisition; customer retention is just never as much of a priority. Mind you, I don’t stick around because TWC is so great, but because I have no other options; they are the only company servicing my building so it’s them or nothing.

It is a backwards approach to what is ultimately a commoditized service. It does not offer any uniquely inherent value. It is in a sector that is ripe for disruption and will be thrown on its ear soon enough. No matter how they try to portray themselves, they are currently just a dumb pipe. Cord-cutting is getting more and more mainstream, more options are available every day. And without belaboring the point, with the economy as it is, their priority should be to move up the value chain, ensure those signed up stay signed up and find ways to get more out of them.

Neighborhood bars and restaurants get it right: a free drink, appetizer, dessert show up at your table, making you happier, which often results in higher tips, higher likelihood of a return visits which lead to additional revenues. Next time you are there, a customized greeting or a “welcome back!”, you might even bring a friend who hasn’t known of the place; if you become a regular, you are likely to introduce the place to many new customers. Perhaps oversimplified, but a $7 acquisition cost can translate to thousands more in additional direct and indirect revenue.

They construct a more gratifying, satisfying experience, and strengthen their positioning as a preferred destination. Compare, or rather, contrast that with the cable company. When was the last time you heard somebody gushing over their interaction with an on-screen menu? How many Instagram photos have you seen of a set-top box? While the content is enjoyable, the middlemen is either ignored or seen as a necessary evil. There is no incentive to stay, and there is no delight in the service, it is a default selection.

So can Time Warner Cable be more like my neighborhood restaurant or watering hole? What kind of things would make them more comparable? I mentioned delight in the service, and I believe cable can accomplish that and, putting aside for the moment the lack of competition and all the other business reasons for them to not give a damn, should strive for it.

Consumers don’t require much to be happy, it’s really the little, unexpected things, the treatment of details, that make a lasting positive memory. In addition to making a good impression, it might even lead to increased revenue both directly and indirectly through word of mouth, social media and all that.

Consider the following example, where, to thank me for my loyalty, I am sent a message directly on the TV and given a free Pay-per-View/OnDemand movie. Despite my years as a customer, I cannot tell you what channel that’s on, I know I am not alone in that. Once made aware of the service, however, it is plausible that return visits will be made and a new revenue channel established. It is even more likely that I will go to my friends and social networks and announce, or even brag about it. And if not? The cost is negligible, especially when put in the larger context of the life of the customer. This does not have to become a formalized thing like anniversaries at your place of employment, but by making a customer feel a tiny bit special, they could make a big difference.

Another example is the common offer of premium channels free for a limited time, in the hope that the customer keep the expensive bundle. This is a tried and true acquisition tactic, but what about retention? I think a “reverse-tier” pricing plans for premiums, applying a small discount to those who stick around with the service for prolonged periods of time is an interesting experiment. Particularly if this is not an announced part of the plan, receiving a message that your bill is actually going down rather than up, even if by just one buck, is sure to be given a warm welcome. Again, small step that can go a long way with the customer. The cynic in me says that any such attempt will be offset by the routine increase in price, or be built into the pricing structure to compensate for it, but I still think it is a win-win.

Accomplishing this delight in service is more than just offering pricing-based incentives. Just like you have “the usual” in your restaurant, or your bar starts serving you your favorite pint when they see you walk in the door, so can Time Warner be more in tune with you, personally. The current system does not know anything about me, and the result is a bland sameness of experience.

With more households purchasing HD television sets, I am still amazed at the amount of folks watching standard definition channels thinking they are watching HD. Nobody likes relearning channel numbers, and for those who have been accustomed to specific numbers, or worse yet, the number is part of the channel’s name, the instinct is to go to what you know. There were channels where I continued with the SD version simply because I was not aware an HD version was available. Then there are those who just do not have the right cables. How great would it be if Time Warner recognized that you have an HD box (which they know, since it is a separate line item than the standard digital box which you get charged for) and forwarded you to the HD broadcast whatever version of the channel you punched in? Or, using the same logic, informed you that it recognized a non-HD cable connected and that your resulting experience is therefore compromised, offering you to have the right cable sent to you, for a small price? As an aside, I would personally love to have all SD channels replaced completely with their HD variants and the channel lineup made more manageable.

The “usual” could be more than just how I access channels, but also what shows I follow. If I always watch a certain show, how about a little unobtrusive reminder that it is about to start if I’m not currently on that channel? Or switching the TV on to that channel automatically if I am running home to it, so that I do not miss too much?

Lastly, let me select the channels that I care for. No more bundles of 80 channels from which I only ever use 4. The idea of À la Carte programming is far from a new one, and the common response is that pricing will be prohibitive. Until there is transparency in that claim by both content publishers and cable companies, I cannot simply accept that. But even if that is the case, there are ways to make this work for all parties. This might make it into a future post in a more comprehensive fashion, but the short of my suggestion is subscription tiers at various price points. At the bottom is the ability to rent specific shows for a set price, above that access to a more comprehensive database of shows from the channel, both can be monetized with ads and revenues shared with content publishers. Finally, a full live access to the channel. A potential variable pricing based on bundling multiple channels by the same content publisher should also be explored.

There is a lot of potential in improving the user experience around the cable company, your interaction with them as a company, and with their products in particular. As a provider of hours worth of entertainment, I really should love them, but I am indifferent at best. Some require additional technological investment, many will demand a much needed user interface overhaul (no way around it, this 10ft experience is just atrocious across all companies,) but all scream out for renewed dedication to customer service and the injection of more human-ness into the brand in all its forms.

Concentration and Distraction

The day after I write about wanting time to think uninterrupted, about living in a culture that does not allow us time to explore thoughts because we constantly have the next something thrust upon us, I come across this video by Joe Kraus about the creation of a culture of distraction.

Without further preamble, here is my first trigger:

(Or read the whole thing on his site)

This post is not about endorsing the SlowTech movement Joe advocates for, although I do think some actions proposed are, overall, in our best interests. What listening to the talk made me realize was how concentrating on one thing for a prolonged period of time, with everything else happening around us, is getting harder and harder. It made me reflect on the way I work, on the way my behavior in front of a computer has evolved over my 25 years of using them.

Looking back at early pre-Internet days, when I sat down to type something, it would be the only thing the machine, and I, were capable of. When I was playing Asteroids, Digger, Shinobi, I was completely immersed in it. When I connected to a BBS, I could not do anything else until I disconnected. This single-task state of being was simple but effective, I was using computers for a specific task and then I was done and back to my life.

Compare that with today, where visual notifications in my pinned app tabs in Firefox are threatening to steal me away from writing this post, if just for one moment. Where I work for a short period of time and then feel the need to take a break and spend a few minutes playing some mindless Flash game, or check Facebook, or Twitter, or Stellar for the hundredth time. Steal a glance at the phone for a new text message or email. Just for a minute. Promise. But once I start down that path, I inevitably open up another article to read, or another video to watch, and by the time I switch back to the original purpose, an hour or two might have passed.

I do not think this is a question of self discipline–and if it is, whether I am especially poorly disciplined–but to state the obvious, everybody is doing it. I know a handful of people who are capable of blocking out all distractions, put in a solid shift at the office and peace out back to their lives. But they seem the exception to the rule, and they do not seem to interact with the people around them in the same fashion as the rest. Walking around the office, I normally see blogs, sports or news site, social media and video sites on colleagues’ screens. I see scholarly studies on how distractions are helping us focus (for example, this brief study [PDF link] on task switching and vigilance decrement published in Cognition); there is a book which was recommended to me on how taking additional breaks actually makes us more productive (The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwartz).

These distractions, furthermore, do not seem to translate to lower quality output. I think we have adapted rather well and have co-opted them in our quest for maintained sanity in the connected workplace. But have we lost efficiency? Our ability to concentrate? Or have these concepts taken on new definitions as a result of technological integration?

Our relationship with technology has changed completely, that much is certain. It is no longer just a tool for completing discrete tasks, but a lens through which to view and go through life. It seems that our devices have become the end rather than the means to something else. More than just black holes sucking time that can be dedicated to other, more worthy, things, they are both work and the gaps between work in our day. They are eliminating our gaps with more stimulus, causing a “crisis of attention” as per Joe Kraus. The following quote from his talk seems to sum things up rather nicely:

We’re radically over-developing the parts of quick thinking, distractable brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them.

I cannot see how I am ever going to be able to sit down and do work without distractions for a prolonged period of time. As far as my work day, I am resigned to these interruptions and have learnt to embrace them, actively seek them out and, to some degree, I believe I have learnt to control them. It would be beneficial, however, to select the right type of interruptions and resist some current ones. What I am also conscious about doing, and do so happily, is nurture that long-form thinking parts of my brain so they do not atrophy; a process that usually prevents me from sleeping as many hours as I would like, but a very effective thought space for me. Incidentally, the determination to finally create this site, and its name came about at 5am, when I was in bed and unable to sleep. I think it is healthy for us all to have a space or time that is dedicated to ourselves alone. While I do not agree with a full tech-less day, I will take Joe’s sentiment a step further and say that during that disconnected time, I will not even be looking for books; I want to be alone with my thoughts.

As it stand, they are already always fighting for my attention, and even when I dedicate time to one, another want to steal me away, to spend time with them.

 

P.S. – In writing this post, I have taken two breaks to respond to Facebook messages, three more for text messages, one to follow up on an email that required nudging the recipient to complete something, a review of both Twitter and Stellar updates, a read of some online comics and my routine, daily ten-minute game playing. Point proven. *sigh*

Announcing: triggered

As we go through our lives, we experience things. All the time. We talk, we listen, we interact with the world around us and have it respond. In some cases, these experiences spark thoughts.

I find that with the pace of life–the next thing to happen to us probably just a second away–many of those thoughts go unexplored. We fail to notice them, to file them, to give them their proper weight and time. Sometimes the environment is not conducive to having them fleshed out. And sometimes, we are just limited by the medium in which we begin to express them.

So I am announcing triggered, my own place to take an experience which triggered a thought, an idea, a reaction which I found was worthy of exploration and give it its proper home. My intention is to always share the trigger along with the actual thought, giving you the larger context and background.

For too long I have held back from starting this kind of thing simply because I did not have time to properly design the site. While I do have time now (at least temporarily) I think I’m going to skip the full blown design in favor of concentrating on getting some consistency of posting. I make no promises, but I want this to be as much an exercise in writing and giving myself uninterrupted time to think as it is an opportunity for you to get to see how my brain functions, so get used to the default theme and lack of bells and whistles. At least until I convince myself that dedicating time to them will not prevent me from writing. I am excited to see where this can take me, hope you will follow along.