Incognito, Streaming, and Live Sports on Cable

March Madness. One of the most watched live sports events of the year, and one of the few that is available online (at least in part) without a cable subscription. In 2012, my wife and I were happy to pay what seemed a ridiculously low fee (something like $5) for complete access to the tournament online. We still had cable at that point, but we were away in VT and not near a TV, so we were happy to be able to stream the games.

Imagine our dismay when, at the very end of a close game, we found out that this year was different. The broadcasters had changed their offering – 4 hrs free streaming of games on Tru TV and TBS. Games on CBS did not count toward the total. Once the 4 hrs expired – in the middle of a busy night of 2nd round action – we were directed to log in to our cable provider.

Unwilling to give up so easily, I thought about how sites track unique users and soon realized that the NCAA’s site was likely tracking me via browser cookies. Remembering that Chrome’s incognito mode does not leave cookies, I opened a new window and voila! – back in business. We went on to watch the rest of the early games with no problem.

At first, this seemed like a ridiculously simple way to defeat broadcaster’s attempts to limit access to content – surely their developers must have thought that someone would try incognito browsing or a proxy server. Thinking about it more, I realized that this might be a variation on the porous paywall strategy that the NYT has successfully implemented – basically forcing users to interact with content via subscription, while accepting that some will find ways to beat the system.

If so, it could be a model for the intersection of live sports and the internet. In allowing viewers to access content for free, broadcasters increase their audience and ad views, which bring in significant revenue for them. Eventually, as the number of cable free households increases, I hope broadcasters will see the sense in allowing consumers to pay “a la carte” for certain sporting events – The World Cup, Champions League, NBA, etc, without having to sign up for cable or an expensive season subscription. After all, most events can already be streamed online if you know where to look. By bringing streamers back into the fold, cable companies would be increasing their audience in the short term, and embracing a different medium of interaction that appeals to younger consumers. Eventually, though cable companies are powerful and entrenched, I believe that the vast openness that is the internet will prevail over attempts to control content. Therefore, those rights holders that figure out a sustainable model that includes internet viewing will win.

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Zero Dark Way Too Real

My wife is away for a few days, and I took the opportunity to go to the movies, something she rarely wants to do. I had been wanting to see Zero Dark Thirty, as I had kept track of many of the events chronicled in the film. Don’t take my word for it, but “Zero Dark” is an excellent, challenging, difficult, and sobering film.

Many who have not seen it might think first of the detainee torture portrayed in the first 30 minutes. Much was made of it, with arguments that depiction of torture without an explicit repudiation amounted to condoning the practice. I would argue, as Director Kathryn Bigelow does, that portrayal does not automatically mean endorsement. Also, to my eye the film suggests that not only is torture a repugnant act, it is ineffective, as information is only obtained from detainees when they are relatively well treated.

“Zero Dark” was the early front-runner for Best Picture, but as we know was beaten to the post by “Argo”. I didn’t watch the Oscars, and I haven’t seen “Argo” (see aforementioned lack of movie-going opportunity), but I suspect that “Argo” is a well packaged, more typical action movie story line, though it too is based on a true story. My sense is that what caused “Zero Dark” to lose Best Picture is the same thing that makes it such an important, challenging film: the attempt to truthfully portray how messy, violent, and demoralizing the “Global War on Terror” is. In short, just as many people don’t want to know how their chicken gets from farm to table, people do not want to know in detail what our service members endure in order to prevent our enemies from repeating the attacks of 2001-2007. “Zero Dark” spares the viewer very little. 

Finally, one other thing that the film did well. The last scene reenacts the takedown of UBL’s compound, and shows the SEAL who actually shot Bin Laden shaken and dazed by what he had done. Likewise, the movie ends with Jessica Chastain defeated, demoralized, and lost as she flies back to the US after the raid. I remember when I heard that UBL had finally been killed, and I also remember feeling bewildered that there was so much public jubilation. My sense is that, while UBL certainly had it coming, putting two 5.56 rounds in anyone’s head from close range is a solemn business and should not be cause for mass celebration.  The final message of the film is the right one: this isn’t and probably never will be over.

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If You Are Having a Bad Day, Read This

It’s Monday, and many people will not be happy to go back to the grindstone today. If you are having a rough day, the story below may help put things in perspective. It is the story of my great-grandfather and namesake Stephen McGown, who lived to a ripe old age and is buried in his hometown of Cherry Valley, NY. I found this through a family friend, and it is posted on Stephen’s page on Ancestry.com. It definitely made me think about my life, and made the odd bad day at work seem trivial compared to Stephen’s trials.

Stephen McGown served in the Revolutionary War, Private 6th NY Infantry, Col Alden’s regiment under Captain Thomas Whitaker.   At the Cherry Valley Massacre in November of 1778, he received a musket ball in the wrist and was taken prisoner, and forcibly marched to Fort Niagra near Niagra Falls with a group of women and children. The reason that he was not killed in the massacre was probably his age. He would have been just shy of his 16th birthday. At Fort Niagra, he was taken sick and confined in the hospital. While in the hospital, he was purchased by Captain Powell of the British Army. He was released in 1785 and walked back to Cherry Valley. See Frontiers Aflame by Eugenia Campbell Lester for the story of the massacre and Jane Cannon Campbell’s capture. Jane was married to Samuel Campbell, the brother of Stephen’s mother in law Sarah Campbell Willson.

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Management or Drive by Truckers

Finally after several weeks, I was able to sit down and write a bit. I spent a few minutes fiddling with an old post on management and motivation with little success – I just couldn’t make it work. I thought – “lord, what a dull topic, important as it is – I am falling asleep trying to write about it.” This after two hours spent making potato leek soup, steaming brussels sprouts and watching a Skillshare class on writing Ruby on Rails (I am in the infant stages of learning to code, more later.) This is my life.

Anyway, I decided instead to write about a band I have been listening to often – Drive by Truckers. I’ll make a bold but oft repeated declaration: the Truckers are the best rock band in America. Period.

The Truckers offer three guitars, southern rock pedigree, and brilliant and varied songwriting – check out tracks like “Outfit” and “3 Dimes Down”, but listen most of all to the songs by Mike Cooley such “Uncle Frank” and “Pulaski“. These songs portray downtrodden characters but give them dignity and power while unflinchingly describing their circumstances. Combine this with an incredible array of memorable lines, and you’ve got something to savor.

This recent Truckers kick  – I had known about them but only became obsessed in the last 6 months – is a small part of an alt-country trend in my music habits. Steve Earle and his son Justin Townes Earle, Townes van Zandt, John Prine, et. al. have all been in rotation. I like the simple, pithy songwriting and the honest, no BS perspective. It is a strong antidote to the top 40 and proof that there is plenty of good, new music.

Anyway, that’s all. Listen to the Truckers. Take time to absorb the wit and skill of the lyrics and their rock and roll power, and forget all about management, motivation, and work for a second.

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Don’t Pay for Storage – The 11″ Macbook Air

My mid 2007 Macbook is the bast computer I have ever owned, period. In more than five years it has never let me down. However, time waits for no machine, and it was becoming obsolete. I couldn’t use the latest versions of Firefox or Chrome, and it was too full of pictures to update properly. Even Delta Airlines’ site told me that my browser was out of date. So, it was time to purchase a new machine. One thing I have always hated about getting a new computer is the process of moving all of your data from the old to the new, and it was no different this time. I had to remove all the pics on the old Mac to an external drive so it could be wiped, upgraded, and put back into use. No more – my new machine is the TINY 11″ Macbook air, and I love it. This is a ~$1000 computer that two days out of the box only has 40GB of storage free. To many, this sounds like a bad deal, but its not as crazy as it sounds.

First, external storage is CHEAP. You can buy a fancy 500GB extrnal drive with a shock resistant, waterproof coating at the Mac store for $150 – compare this to the $100 you pay to upgrade from 64GB to 128 in the air.

Second, I plan to use Google Docs for all my Word Processing and Excel needs (if I really need an INDEX MATCH or COUNTIFS function for something personal…well it might be time for a rethink of how I spend my free time…). This eliminates the need for Office, and saves space. Similarly, I plan to take advantage of the cloud to store images, with a external drive backup.

Third, this thing is really pretty awesome. It weighs something like 2 pounds, and fits easily into the smallest of spaces. With the upgraded 8GB RAM it is super fast, and the new OS allows you to purchase apps from the store just as you can on other Apple devices….Fruit Ninja?!

So, I am not usually a hardware nerd, but I am making an exception for this sweet little machine. It is small, powerful, and really, really cool.

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Questions with Patrick Campbell of Price Intelligent.ly (New Series) cc @ Patticus

Hello All – I’m back! After a GMAT enforced hiatus, I decided to start a new series. In the next several weeks, I will post interviews with some (mostly) Boston based tech and/or businesspeople. My goal with this is basically to satisfy my curiosity about people and businesses that I am interested in, not to mention spreading good word and having a little fun.  We start this week with Patrick Campbell, a former Googler and all around whiz who recently co-founded Price Intelligent.ly, a startup that he can explain far more cogently than I…

1) You have had a diverse sequence of jobs – DoD, NGOs, Google, Gemvara, and now Price Intelligent.ly. How have these experiences been helpful in founding your own company?
Even though my experiences look fairly divergent, each provided valuable insights that shaped the way I think and the way I run a company. For example, the US Intelligence Community gave me an unparalleled education in analytical frameworks and scrappiness; Google taught me the importance of culture and management through coaching; and Gemvara laid a foundation for cuddling with the chaos that a startup embodies and keeping the customer first.

More importantly, these experiences were more instrumental in shaping why I made the leap in the first place. When the decision point came, I knew what was already out there (different industries, type of work, etc.). I also knew that co-founding Price Intelligently was the only option that floored my passion and revealed the best way up the mountain to my goals.

2) Landing a job at Google is an accomplishment – what was your role there like?
My time at Google was phenomenal and not just for the scrumptious food. I worked as a Strategist, initially pounding the pavement selling Adwords solutions to small, medium, and large businesses. While there I went back to school to learn to code, and although I would never call myself a developer, I combined my Economics background with script to build some web applications that helped solve the Traveling Salesman Problem and facilitated in the proper prioritization of a sales team’s book of business. After scaling things out across the North American sales team, I knew I needed to find a role where the time between concept and implementation was considerably quicker, something easily found in the world of startups.

3) What led you to take a big risk, leave Gemvara, and found Price Intelligent.ly?
I loved (and still love) Gemvara. What Matt and the rest of the team are building is truly remarkable. I spent the bulk of my time there working on their pricing opportunity. Imagine trying to build out a framework to price 1.3 million different pieces of jewelry that a potential customer could access at any one time. While I dug into the problem though, I discovered how enormous of an opportunity the pricing space provided. Mostly everyone is just guessing or guessing based on faulty data. After some more research, I realized I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make the leap into helping folks optimize their prices.
4) What is your long term goal for Price Intelligent.ly?

We’re going to show businesses that after putting so much time, effort, and cash into their products, there’s no excuse for guessing on the lever that has the largest impact on your revenue. We’re going to revolutionize the space by making pricing technology accurate, affordable, and accessible to ensure no one is leaving cash on the table – including us.

That’s all for now. Many thanks to Patrick for agreeing to feature. More interviews to come soon. In the meantime, if you are guessing at prices, you know who to call.

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Simplify

The last few months have brought a few changes. They started when I learned about Perkstreet Financial, which is a new banking system based in Boston. Their basic principle is “Perks not Fees” – they seek to offer an alternative to big banks by offering 1 or 2% cash back on your debit, free ATMs, no checking acct fees, and 24 hour, friendly customer service. They can do this because they are online and do not have the overhead associated with physical bank branches. The timing was good, as I was frustrated with Citizens Bank – they charge $30/year for checking, don’t have many ATMs, and have the typical outsourced, disinterested service. The proverbial straw came when I realized that they had increased their non-network ATM fee to $3, meaning that (with the ATM host’s matching charge), that I could be charged a $6 fee to withdraw $20 – 30%!!!.

Since moving to Perkstreet, I have earned over $60 dollars in cash back, and have been well treated whenever I have a question. I heartily recommend their banking product, and using it has set off a wave of reevaluation of the services that we pay for. First on the list was my gym membership. I work out a good deal, 3 or 4 days per week, and had always justified the ~$70/month that I was paying Boston Sports Club because it is SO close and I used it frequently. However, I never used the premium services like the steam room, classes or the nice free weights. When I learned that I could join Planet Fitness for $10/month, I canceled my BSC membership. PF is not as fancy as BSC, but they have everything I need and I am saving $60/month!

Next was the cable TV situation. This one is a thornier issue. What is clear is that we pay way too much for too many channels that we don’t watch. Our total each month for internet and cable can exceed $120, which is crazy! The alternatives are 1) not having TV at all 2) purchasing a Roku box or Boxee 3) Nexflix streaming on the computer. We did some research on the Roku box, which seems like the best option. For $50 and no monthly fee, you can stream Netflix and other online services direct to your TV. The trouble is – and this is an indulgence – it’s very difficult to watch my beloved Arsenal Football Club online – at least legally. Arsenal is a Saturday ritual for me, and I usually am able to work on a blog post while the game is on. So, we are still working the TV situation out, but I suspect that I will give in and admit that being able to watch Arsenal 1x per week is not worth the extra $60/month we pay for cable. Stupid right?

Anyway, the point of all this that it is clearer to me than ever before that many people pay way too much for what I think of as status quo services – cable, banking, gyms, etc. Not only do they pay too much, they receive far too little in return  – this is particularly true of big banks, which have high switching costs – this means you, Bank of America. I have resolved to look for the new, smaller companies that are doing things differently, and who value their customers, rather than treating them as nameless sources of cash.

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