Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Few Words On Iraq

I can't say much that hasn't been said elsewhere (and usually better), but let's take a moment to state the obvious:
  • We're not going to get the Iraqis to do what we want. We are making a lot of demands that the Iraqis cannot reasonably be expected to fulfill, and other that the Iraqis largely do not want to fulfill. Their goals and interests are different from ours. Accept it. Get over it.

  • We're not in Iraq for the long haul - we're going to be winding down the occupation, be it before or starting shortly after Bush leaves office. The monetary cost is too high, and the effect of maintaining present troop levels is too burdensome on the troops and the military. At this point it isn't clear that the geopolitical ramifications of withdrawing are worse than those of staying, and hope that with current levels of progress Iraq may be stable in another decade are not sufficient.

  • We can't withdraw overnight - Even a "fast" withdrawal will be a long process, and I would not be surprised if the process took two or more years to complete.

  • Defunding the war is not a realistic option - it would be a political catastrophe, would be shamelessly manipulated by the Bush White House to endanger the troops (who you should not expect to be withdrawn), and ignores the enormous cost of physically withdrawing that many troops and that much equipment from Iraq. I understand that many people thought that the Dems could magically end this war by cutting off funding, but the real world is more complicated than that.

  • If you keep funding present troop levels, as the Bush White House apparently desires, this is an escalation, not a "surge". But if Bush is sufficiently Machiavellian to leave the troops in the field even without the necessary funding, the conundrum is the same for defunding the surge as it is for defunding the war as a whole. (What do you think Bush would do?)

As for Iran... I don't expect anything dramatic to unfold. If speculation that the Bush Administration intends to take military action against Iran turns out to be true, I expect it to be calculated to fall below what might precipitate a broader war or broader support for Shiite militias. That is to say, it would be ineffectual at achieving any of the Bush Administration's goals for Iran, which IMHO should make it an exceptionally foolish thing to do even in the eyes of a Bush Administration insider.

What's A SEO Professional To Do?

As a follow-up to my post on buying links, I found this blog entry by a person who has been offering commercial SEO services "for around 12 - 18 months". The gist is more or less what I suggested before - the modern class of SEO's seem a bit puzzled by the concept of what to do if you can't buy links. One comment suggests finding ways to buy them "under the radar" (i.e., invisibly to Google), and another suggests (of all things) convincing people that you have quality content on your site deserving of their links.

I've never done much to hype my sites and have never purchased (or sold) links; they do pretty well, but I suspect if I were to start them from the ground up (absent a lot of luck) that would not be the case.

Something I Never Quite Pictured Myself Saying, #89745

"Shaving cream is not for the walls, and it's not for the kitties."

Ah, parenthood. ;-)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hot Off The Presses - No Child Left Behind Isn't Good For Smart Kids!

The Washington Post, or at least a guest columnist, has finally noticed. It's been more than three years since it was observed that NCLB was resulting in the defunding of programs for gifted students, and more than two years since I stated the obvious:
... when we make No Child Left Behind the mantra of our national drive toward academic mediocrity, we consistently ignore, underfund, and underutilize initiatives that might let the best students get ahead.
so I am impressed by how fast the Post was to pick up on this story.... Is it in fairness to the Washington Post that they observed almost three years ago that it was not the children most in need of services who were transferring out of "failing" schools, or is that in fact indicting them for failing to notice the implicit effect of NCLB on smart kids?

In any event....
These parents are fleeing public schools not only because, as documented by a recent University of Chicago study, the act pushes teachers to ignore high-ability students through its exclusive focus on bringing students to minimum proficiency. Worse than this benign neglect, No Child forces a fundamental educational approach so inappropriate for high-ability students that it destroys their interest in learning, as school becomes an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.

These predictable problems were reported as early as 2003, when the Wall Street Journal warned that schools were shifting their focus overwhelmingly toward low achievers. Expressions of concern from distressed parents and educators of gifted children have come in increasing numbers ever since.
And I again congratulate the Post for being so quick to get on top of this story.

The column also notes one of the absurdities of vouchers:
Ironically, the private schools to which President Bush and his allies are so anxious to hand public funds are also exempt from the standardized testing these politicians declare to be the critical measure of educational success. Private schools need not impose upon their students the drudgery of preparing for and taking weeks of standardized tests and can offer an enriching curriculum beyond the basics without worrying about No Child sanctions. Given these one-sided constraints, no one could honestly claim that vouchers do anything but drain resources from the public schools this act was supposed to improve.
Cynics, of course, argue that this is part of a larger scheme to undermine and defund public education. I might be convinced to extend NCLB standards to any school which accepted vouchers... except first I would want NCLB's standards to be reformed such that they did not reward "teaching to the test", or have absurd definitions of a "failing school" such that high quality schools can be deemed "failing" because their average test scores aren't improving at an acceptable rate.

No doubt the Bush Administration, which seems to favor benchmarks for everything except it's own political and military actions, would complain that such reforms would undermine NCLB's benchmarks and thus remove accountability.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Buying Links to Succeed in Google

I've been reading quite a few SEO (search engine optimization) blogs this past month, to try to get some insight into what is presently involved in promoting a new or existing site. As I expected, there are no great disclosures. Somebody new to search engines will probably find a lot of good stuff, but somebody who has been even peripherally involved will likely find little new. That's the way it works - nobody wants to give away any secrets before everybody else already knows them.

But maybe it's not that simple. Maybe, at least in terms of "white hat" SEO, there really aren't any secrets. As I wrote some time ago, more than ever, it's all about the links. What's the one thing you can find on virtually any SEO website? Bitter complaints about how horrible Google is for its attempts to devalue "paid links" and perhaps even to punish sites who secretly buy or sell them.

Historically there was a lot of search engine optimization work to be done on any given webpage - and that remains true. There are some large sites which are horribly optimized for search engines. But most sites that are interested in the optimization tricks that used to help propel sites to the top no longer need a consultant to help them - it's pretty basic, by-the-numbers stuff, and most web design software does a pretty good job of prompting people to fill it in, as do the most popular CMS systems. At the same time, search engines have become much better at analyzing on-page content, and manipulation of various on-page tags and titles has much less impact than in the past. A search engine optimization service can recommend changes and improvements, but that's no longer likely to produce much of an improvement in a site's Google ranking.

So what do they do instead? They buy links. In the past this was pretty lazy, and you have probably seen examples of sites which include a set of wildly off-topic links in the page footer. Now it is done more stealthily, and the SEO's use tools to try to find on-topic pages which carry authority in Google, with few or no other paid links on the page. I don't mean to diminish the time it takes for SEO's to identify possible places to buy links, to negotiate prices, to structure links and anchor text to reduce the chance that Google will recognize the links as paid, etc., but Google is correct that this type of linking distorts the accuracy of its algorithms - that's its sole purpose. When Google's anti-spam guru, Matt Cutts, suggested that paid links include a "rel=nofollow" tag, an instruction to search engine robots not to follow the link, the uproar made plain that these links are not about generating natural traffic (people who find them and follow them), but are about boosting search engine performance. (You can get a pretty good overview here.)

Some of the criticism have been clever. One depicted how Google might want celebrity endorsements to appear in TV or print ads - with big red translucent boxes placed over the product, labeled "rel=nofollow". It misses the point, though, as anybody who has given celebrity endorsements any thought knows that the celebrity is paid for the endorsement. Also, the purpose of the ad is to directly generate interest in the product. A paid link is not meant to look like an ad, and isn't about the direct promotion of the linked website. Another complains that to tag paid links would violate Google's rules against cloaking, an objection which suggests that the speaker is either disingenuous or doesn't know what cloaking (presenting different content to different sets of people, or to search engine robots) is.

Another snipes at Google, stating that if they were any good at detecting paid links they wouldn't be making such a big deal about them - a critique that perhaps runs both ways. If this group of noisome SEO's were adept at more than buying links, they would shrug at Google's policy announcement and start emphasizing their other tools. Also, rather than saying "Ignore Google, because they can't tell", they would be advising their clients to plan for a future where Google will quickly identify and discount most or all paid links. Perhaps these SEO's are making big bucks promoting "flash in the pan" sites which don't need to look toward the future, but everybody else needs to be asking, "Where will this promotional technique lead me in a year, two years, five years, or longer?" If your goal is long-term growth and a tactic will potentially make your site suspect in Google's algorithms - and it's generally accepted that Google puts a lot of weight on a site's "trustworthiness" score - that's a big risk to be taking.

I do agree with some of the criticisms, including how difficult it is for new, quality sites to get noticed, how "link baiting" (producing content designed to generate high levels of natural linking) actually results in a lot of content of questionable quality, and a lot of time and money wasted on failed efforts (most attempts to "link bait" fail). Some of the directories deemed "quality" by Google, so as to justify their accepting paid links without differentiation from unpaid links, include very low-quality pay-for-inclusion links. (See., e.g., Yahoo.) I expect that the SEO's are correct, that a lot of smaller webmasters are more selective than Yahoo when they accept paid links for their sites.

The funny thing about some of these guys is that the thing they seem best at promoting is themselves and each other, or selling access to private forums or tools which will supposedly help the little guy get ahead. Some even comment at times about how no sensible SEO would work for anybody else, because they can make so much more money promoting their own sites. (And boy, some of them are absolute royalty when it comes to self-promotion.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Luck, Timing, and... Oh Yes, It's Too Late For You

How Frank Schilling got rich buying domain names.

It's interesting to hear somebody contend that the ".com" domains will dominate for the foreseeable future (his lifetime and then some), given the relative novelty of the Internet. Granted, he has 320,000 reasons to want that to happen (he owns that many domain names), but the fact that he isn't selling (and a lot of other domainers aren't selling) will play a role in the future of the TLD ("top level domain" - ".com", ".net", ".org", etc.). Just as someone might once have argued, "There's no obvious alternative to typing in IP numbers to connect to other computers", the fact that we haven't thought of it yet doesn't mean it's not going to happen. I agree with Schilling that a phenomenal amount of money has been poured into making ".com" the default TLD for the Internet, but just as he and his fellow domainers purchase URL's on other TLD's, money will surely pour into a viable alternative (and probably quite a few that aren't viable, but appear promising) that will eventually emerge.

Schilling is good natured in his commentary on Google, but he obviously doesn't appreciate that Google doesn't believe parked domains are worthy of being indexed. I don't either - and I'm grateful that Google has largely purged them. Were they included, the massive profits domainers make (Schilling joked at one point that he makes $100 in about the time it takes him to exhale - and that's probably not far from the truth) would probably increase by a factor of ten or more. But, other than PPC ads, I haven't seen that many domainers instruct people, "Can't see what you want here - try searching on Google." Google is in a sense their competitor, as it profits handsomely from contextual ads which appear alongside search results, but even considering that the primary issue for me is user experience. I think it is a grave disservice to the user of any search engine to direct users to a website composed of nothing but ads. If Google's search results reverted to the days before it cleaned park domains out of its index, I would switch to one of its competitors.

Schilling's advice to somebody who asked how to break into the business of domaining with $5,000 - $10,000 was telling. He suggested buying a good URL with existing traffic and developing it. He sees the industry as having reached a plateau and, while he's still resistant to content creation for his own domain portfolio, he seems to recognize that if a newcomer wants to make money with domain names they're likely going to need to develop real content. Domaining was nice when it was available, but it's mostly over.

I heard another domainer asserting that you can still make money off of domains on other TLD's, purchasing keyword strings with localities in the URL. (e.g., I am sure he is correct that with a good enough plan you can probably make enough to cover the registration and renewal fees, and hope that in the future a blue widget dealer in Seattle will fork over a handsome price for a descriptive domain name. While the big dogs fight over the meat, you can still grab some table scraps.

I suspect that "the thing that transforms domain names" will emerge from the university crowd, or perhaps even high school, where kids looking for cheap ways to get their ideas online can be expected to balk at spending $5,000 or more for a mediocre domain name. If you can think of a cheap alternative, easy to use, viral, and sufficiently democratic that the domainers can't buy everybody else out of the game, you're doing better than me. And you have the potential to become very wealthy.

Ad Blindness

For those who don't follow these subjects, "ad blindness" refers to your ability to "tune out" advertising. This has been a subject of considerable study for websites, and a recent eyetracking study shows that people are becoming extremely good at tuning out ads.

Speaking for myself, since Google changed the ads it serves above the listings from being presented with a pink or blue background to a pale yellow background, such that they better match the search results, I sometimes overlook the top result on a search that returns no ads.

Here's an example of the ad layout:

The first listing on this page is sufficiently similar to an ad that I bypassed it in favor of the (out-of-date) second:

It will be interesting to see if this trend will lead to more hideous popups and popunders (ads in new browser windows), interstitials (ads you must wait through or click past to get to the content), ads disguised as editorial content, obnoxious in-your-face ads, or something clever and innovative. (I'm not betting on innovation.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

And This Guy's A Serious Candidate?

Here we go....
Every foreigner in America, including British visitors, would be required to carry an ID card bearing photograph and fingerprints under plans drawn up by Rudolph Giuliani, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

* * *

“If you don’t have that card, you get thrown out of the country,” Giuliani said. He intends to call it a Safe card (for secure authorised foreign entry).
That should help with tourism....

Do the Republican frontrunners truly believe that the majority of Republican voters are xenophobic reactionaries who get giddy with excitement at the suggestion of restrictions on immigration (even legal immigration and tourism), border fences, and torture? If not, they're running peculiar campaigns.

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Because There's Nothing We're Too Embarrassed To Publish...."

That's my suggested tagline for the National Review - although given that I found this article through a link from the New York Times....

Other possibilities,

Airport Security, Revisited

U.S. airport security astounds me. It represents a combination of excessively intrusive investigation of all passengers, without regard to risk, the chasing of yesterday's perceived dangers, and ineffectual measures apparently meant to convince passengers that we're safe (such as the stultified "three ounce bottle" limit on the (multiple) liquids and gels you can take aboard, or having everybody remove their shoes). Add to that the fact that my tax dollars pay for "express" security lines for first class passengers, and....

Is this sensible or not? For many years, laptop computers were treated as a special security risk requiring removal from your carry-on bags. This was obviously underinclusive in today's era, given the proliferation of portable electronic goods. The TSA has apparently woken up to that fact and, as of a couple of weeks ago, requires separate screening for laptops, full-size video game consoles, full-size DVD players (not the portable ones, which can easily be as big as a laptop computer), video cameras that use video cassettes, and CPAP breathing machines (that's medical equipment - because everybody wants to take their medical equipment out of its carrying case for inspection in a grubby TSA screening area). Apparently they didn't feel it necessary to inform the airlines of these changes, so they in turn could inform their passengers.

So it appears that the response to intercepting zero (0) dangerous devices hidden in portable computers over a period of decades is to expand the list to include other items in which zero (0) dangerous hidden devices have been detected, while continuing to ignore similar devices - this, like the gels and liquids policy, is an ineffectual half-measure. Either all such items pose an enhanced risk requiring special screening, or none do. Does any particular TSA bureaucrat want to lay claim to this brain child?

Here's a nebulous explanation,
The policy recommendation came from a front line security officer who screens passengers every day who observed that game consoles and DVD players are complex devices much like laptop computers. This change brings more uniformity to their policy.
The laptop computer rule was enacted in response to the Lockerbie bombing in 1998. It took almost twenty years for somebody to notice that the policy didn't make sense? And the response was to enact a new policy that doesn't make sense because, even if not actually uniform, it is "more uniform"?

When the TSA was introduced, it was supposed to bring about uniformity in the security screening process. Having recently flown out of Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago, there were some very significant discrepancies in how security was handled at the three locations. But then, it may be that in addition to forgetting to inform some or all airlines of the new rules, the TSA forgot to uniformly inform its own agents.

I have to say, it was nice to fly back from Canada where another passenger asked security, "Do we have to take our shoes off?" The answer, "Not unless you have steel toes."

Monday, August 06, 2007

Bush's Legacy....

"If all the planets come into alignment, the people of the world hold hands and share a Coke (and a smile), and pigs fly...."

Now, assuming Bill Kristol isn't smoking crack, he had to know that his column suggesting a positive legacy for G.W. Bush was drivel.
Let's look at the broad forest rather than the often unlovely trees. What do we see? First, no second terrorist attack on U.S. soil -- not something we could have taken for granted. Second, a strong economy -- also something that wasn't inevitable.
No second attack occurred during Clinton's years either, but that didn't stop Bush and friends for blaming him for 9/11. Kristol also argues, "What about terrorism? Apart from Iraq, there has been less of it, here and abroad, than many experts predicted on Sept. 12, 2001" - he's dissembling. Maybe some experts anticipated a larger increase than we've experienced, but you still don't build a legacy by having terrorism increase. (Just like you don't balance a budget by having a smaller deficit than the absurdly large one you initially forecast.)

As for the strong economy, well, Kristol wrote that weeks ago and maybe the "housing bubble" issue is overblown. As for the economy, he is speaking from a position of privilege - not where most Americans are coming from. But even assuming the economy doesn't slide into recession, no, you don't get a glowing legacy for creating a context where the people who are supposed to appreciate your accomplishments don't feel any benefit. If we are fortunate enough not to have a recession and things turn around for the average voter, it's unlikely to occur before 2008 and Bush's successor will take the credit.
And third, and most important, a war in Iraq that has been very difficult, but where -- despite some confusion engendered by an almost meaningless "benchmark" report last week -- we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome.
Let's be honest here. If Bush's surge plan fails, he will be blamed. If it succeeds, it will be during his successor's Presidency and his successor will take the credit. And even before we reach the issue of success or failure, Kristol qualifies his projection of what "victory" for Bush would mean:
And then he could leave office with the nation on course to a successful (though painful and difficult) outcome in Iraq. With that, the rest of the Middle East, where so much hangs in the balance, could start to tip in the direction of our friends and away from the jihadists, the mullahs and the dictators.
Overlooking the "and if pigs could fly" wishful thinking, setting things on a path to where somebody else's administration will oversee the benefit? How many Presidents does Kristol credit with "winning the Cold War"? The guy who is in the Oval Office when good things happen tends to get the credit for those good things, no matter what came before.

Recall when Kristol, caught off-guard on the Daily Show, described Bush's Iraq policy as his having driven us into a ditch? Then, as now, he insists that the guy who drove us into the ditch is going to get us out. But how many years do we need to spend bouncing around in the ditch before he finally admits, "Bush isn't much of a driver."

Jackson Diehl is less grandiose in his projections, but when comparing him to Kristol that's damning him with faint praise. Noting what he describes as "aims ... utterly different from those with which Bush began his second term [such as the 'Freedom Agenda'", Diehl notes that the Bush Administration is focusing on possible solutions for the Israel-Palestine conflict and North Korea. Here, if news reports are correct, I will give Condoleezza Rice some credit for her approach to Israel-Palestine - she is reportedly attempting to reverse the traditional (and always doomed to failure) approach of spending years negotiating over minor details, suggesting that an agreement should contemplate what the final Palestinian state would look like.

Diehl doesn't mention that, choosing instead to focus on what he apparently believes are positive signs, such as Olmert's apparent willingness to enter into a "declaration of principles" (whatever that would be worth), and that Mahmoud Abbas (who is desperate for international support in the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and who is also desperate for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions) to "work on the 'declaration of principles'". Wow... If all goes well, we might end up almost back where we were after the Oslo Accords. Diehl all but promises us that this will go nowhere - "Yasser Arafat wasn't ready to conclude a deal, even on the generous terms that Israel then offered (and Olmert now rejects)." This was generous? Diehl believes that the Palestinians can be pressured into accepting less?

I am reminded of old pop lyrics... Joplin's (really, I should say Kristofferson's), "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose" - maybe for the Palestinians the last seven years have been an example of Bush's "freedom agenda" in action. But then there's Dylan's "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose". Diehl presents a callow expectation that the Palestinians will agree to even less than a revival of Barak's "generous" offer that they give up more land, control of their borders and airspace, any real claim to Jerusalem, and the "right of return". When you talk to people who observe the conflict you tend to hear the comment, "Everybody knows what the final settlement will look like, with a border that pretty much follows the Green Line and the Palestinian 'right of return' limited to their new state." I think the expectation that you can get any traction with a "declaration of principles" that offers less than that is naive.

Diehl also suggests that the U.S. may achieve a breakthrough in North Korea, with "a full disclosure ... of of the nuclear bombs and related materials it has been accumulating and hiding for the past two decades" To the extent that this happens, I expect that as soon as Kim Jong Il deems it appropriate he will be right back to blocking inspectors and developing a nuclear arsenal. If the Bush Administration actually achieves "A deal to dismantle bombs and other nuclear facilities could be done by the end of the year", and that deal is verifiable and sustainable, I will give it the credit that it is due. But if North Korea gets concessions while simply postponing its development of nuclear weapons for a few years, it's no basis for a legacy. Even if it works, putting the Korean conflict back into the state where it was fifteen or so years ago is not much of a foundation for a legacy.

I can understand why some people want to cast Bush's presidency in a more positive light, or hope that in his last eighteen months he'll suddenly start pulling rabbits out of his hat, but I suspect his legacy will be one of failure.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Litigation Threat To A Start-Up Business

We all know the story.... A poor, struggling little multi-billion dollar company like Scotts is creating popular consumer products, when all of the suddent an unexpected lawsuit - let's say a customer eats Miracle Gro, gets an upset tummy, and claims there should have been a warning label that it wouldn't make people larger - gets a sixteen trillion dollar jury verdict and puts them out of business. Sure, the story is pure fiction, but that's what the "tort reform" propagandists wish us to believe. But let's interject some reality....

The other day I was browsing through's "30 under 30" series, and read a profile of an interesting company - what deems The Coolest Little Start-Up in America:
If you've browsed in the garden section of your local Home Depot or Wal-Mart recently, you may have seen a new plant food somewhere north of the begonias and south of the perlite. It comes in a yellow and green shrink-wrapped bottle with a familiar shape and the kind of spray top you might find on, say, Windex. It may well be the world's first commercial product made entirely from garbage. The plant food itself is a so-called vermicompost tea, a brew made from the castings (that is, the poop) of red worms that have feasted on various types of organic waste. The containers are reused soda bottles. The spray tops are the unwanted extras that have been dumped by manufacturers of other spray-on products. Even the boxes that the plant food is shipped in are garbage: They're the misprinted rejects of major companies.

But the most striking fact about TerraCycle is the age of its co-founder and CEO, Tom Szaky (pronounced zack-y). He is now 24. A Hungarian by birth and a Canadian by upbringing, he was 19 years old and in his freshman year at Princeton University when he launched the company with one of his classmates, Jon Beyer. At the time, they were simply trying to win a business plan competition. They came in fourth--out of the money--but they couldn't shake the idea that you could build a business selling garbage. And now, five years later, they have done just that. In 2005, TerraCycle had $461,000 in sales, mostly in Canada, where the product was carried by Home Depot and Wal-Mart as well as other chains. With the decision by both retailers to roll it out in their U.S. stores this year, the company's 2006 sales are expected to top $2.5 million.
So it caught my attention when I spotted a Marketplace story about the same company:
Terracycle claims its organic plant food is "as good or better than the leading chemical fertilizer." Tough talk for a little guy when it's obvious the company means it's better than Miracle Gro.

* * *

[Scotts is] suing to see Terracycle's plant food performance study. But Terracycle's refusing for now.*

Scotts isn't leaving it at that. It's also claiming consumers might confuse Terracycle with Miracle-Gro because of the way it's packaged.
As the story indicates, Scotts appears under the impression that it should have the exclusive right to use green and yellow packaging for gardening products - really, there's no confusing the two products - or perhaps it's just that they know how litigation costs can affect a small business:
Hemphill says big companies often use this kind of lawsuit to protect their brands and market share. That's not just bad news for the up-and-comers, its bad news for consumers too, as it can stifle competition, he says.

CEO Tom Szaky says he had to spend 30 percent of his earnings in legal fees this month — and if he's slapped with another lawsuit, it could drive him out of business
Let's see if tort reform propagandists like ATRA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform step in to hold a fund raiser to help with Terracycle's legal fees....

Are you holding your breath?
* I hope Terracycle is able to substantiate that claim.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Idi Amin's son jailed for role in gang attack


Update: More here. I wonder if Amin will assert sovereign immunity as a "Prince of Scotland".