This is a hyper-local post. My out-of-town regulars may want to skip this one.
It’s Philly Tech Week (“a week-long celebration of technology and innovation taking place April 4–12, 2014” according to the website). So far I’ve been able to attend 2 events. On monday night it was the Content Camp Preview (my review and pics will be over on the Content Camp blog eventually). Last night was the Entrepreneur Expo, billed as a “chance to connect with this community, whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business, an organization or a community member.” I’m a community member, alright, but a trespassing one at that; I crashed the Expo. TicketLeap was bone dry and I found myself ticketless (or “ticket-free” for you marketers out there). With a little help from friends, though, you too can become a Philly Tech Week Party Crasher. More on that in a minute.
DA MAYOR & A PRO TIP #1
Mayor Michael Nutter was there. I was disappointed to see that he didn’t snap a pic of the audience to share. I’ve seen him do this at social media conferences in the city. He’s a funny guy, that Mayor. I wonder if he shows up at these things too often. People seemed more interested in the free beer. Perhaps it was just the proximity, as the free beer was right under the balcony where Mr. Mayor pontificated about the partnership between the Philly tech scene and the city.
As typical of these things, the audience was probably about 75% male (as is evidenced by the pic). The exhibitor tables were a few people deep and because of this I didn’t visit many. The ones I did visit, I had prior contact with: Zivtech and Beacon & Lively. Their people had emailed me the day before. PRO TIP: Entrepreneurs who use these expos to get exposure and crowd-sourced ideas should email their supporter lists with a specific invitation to come by the booth. I visited the Beacon & Lively booth after CEO Dave Becker sent out an email thanking his early survey respondents. Like I tend to do, I threw out ideas to the Beacon & Lively folks that they loved.
Here’s what Dave tweeted me back today:
— Dave Becker (@Dave_Becker_) April 10, 2014
I wouldn’t have stopped by if Dave hadn’t emailed out a special invitation to his early survey participants. Now he has more ideas, my buy-in and my imagination ignited.
Tech Week Crashing 101 & PRO TIP #2
Zivtech CEO Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg and I had been chatting via email regarding some hubbub on the Philadelphia Start-up Leaders listserv, and he invited me to come by the Zivtech booth. Putting a real live face to a name is mainly the reason I go to these things. When I finally caught up with him, it was nice to shake his hand and take in his slightly rock-hipster fashion sense.
PRO TIP #2: If you’re a start-up CEO and you need exposure for your product, everything you’re involved in becomes a marketing tool (whether you like it or not). In our email exchange, Alex and I were discussing subjects other than Zivtech, but because of our conversation and his invitation to be his “guest” at the event (I dropped Zivtech’s name to get past the guards), I’m now interested in the company’s growth. Today my brain will start “working on the problem” in the background, meaning it’ll try to come up with some new market or vertical for them. My brain mashes up products and placements for fun. Or obsession. Perhaps it’s the hazards of writing cyberpunk and being a futurist. At any rate, my brain’s on the job, because of our conversation about a completely different issue and his generous permission to let me name-drop him at the door (Even though the event was free and set up in an open warehouse, there still were greeters who stopped me and asked me my intent.)
Wandering around, I found a bunch of people in the crowd, like Karen Meidlinger, her husband Elliot, and Kevin Brophy from VUID (no table there guys?). Alex, Karen, Elliot and I had a big conversation about Philly schools and tech in the ‘burbs vs. tech in the city, basically the same conversation that blew up on the PSL list. I also found my old friend Reed Gustow, who was dressed to the nines, as always, this time in a dapper suit and fierce black beret (WHY didn’t I get a pic?!). Armed with his camera, Mr. Gustow looked ready to do serious damage. He was there with his lovely lawyer wife Heather, who happens to be the aunt of my neighbor who is a local pub-owner in my town (Small Philly World [SPW] #1).
Also there was Steve Goodman, an intellectual property(?) lawyer at Morgan Lewis, who is such a fixture in the Philly start-up culture that Mayor Michael Nutter thanked him in his address to the crowd. I was standing next to Steve when this happened. I was too flustered to take a pic. Before Mr. Mayor started speaking, Karen, Steve and I had been chatting. I had just been telling Steve about Mr. Nutter’s crowd-pic shots at previous events, wondering if he was going to pull out his camera this time. I also had recounted to Steve part of Reed’s point about the sad lack of style amongst the 20-and-30-something male techies. Steve joked that he himself was quite dressed up for the occasion. I gave him a doubtful look and he admitted, no, that his outfit (a cashmere turtleneck and corduroy sport coat) was very dressed down for him. He looked fab. I can’t imagine “dressed up” means when he calls cashmere “dressed down.” Then Mr. Nutter spoke and I have a mini-cringe moment as I realize I’ve just been talking fashion, of all things, with a tech bigwig everyone in the room knows except for me. Foot, meet mouth. Steve was a nice guy, though, very down to earth. I figured out later that Steve and my husband had probably crossed paths a bunch at Half.com back in the early days. (SPW #2) Steve was kind enough to ask what I did and for my card. I do electronic cards; I sent him one.
Reed and I ended up chatting with one of the Indy Hall crew who uses the alias “Phil Ives” on the PSL listserv. Turns out that (here comes SPW #3) Phil and I grew up not far from each other in the real Poconos (anywhere outside of Monroe county is NOT Poconos, people). Phil’s t-shirt sent me into a bit of a meta-moment mess. I stood there, confused, looking at the very same day’s date on the shirt; my head spun as it tried to process the varied implications: Panem-like tragedy-as-entertainment, typical geek humor, cut-throat pop-up business opportunity, hipster hilarity vs. hipster exploitation, death tourism, etc.
A bit of background for all you non-locals who have been crazy enough to ignore my warning at the top of this post: an iconic, 60-year-old store in Philly’s historic district went up in serious flames yesterday. Before the fire was even under control, Phil bought a t-shirt commemorating the event from a street vendor mere steps away from the engines and hoses. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; the fire ended up being quite the media blow-out. A local news station put up a live feed almost instantly and all traffic reports warned people away from 3rd & Market in Old City.
The store was called Suit Corner. Technically, it did sell suits. There was definitely a –how shall I put this?– cultural tone in the clothes. The suits were more of the zoot variety than anything else. Although the store did carry the regular fare of menswear, the suits were more likely to be crafted from shiny acrylics than not. When my husband and I were avid (and at times professional) swing dancers in the ’90s, we shopped there for his two-tone spectators, wide 40′s style ties, fedoras, suspenders and ginormous baggy suit pants. The store was fly. No-one was hurt, thankfully, but 8 people lost their jobs and an old family business no longer exists.
Phil says he got a bit of pushback at Indy Hall about the shirt. He reported that the general consensus was that it was in bitingly bad taste. One would tend to agree, after watching this heartbreaking video with the owner as he watched his business burn. I’m sure Phil was going for the sarcasm or the irony of it. The real irony, though, will come in a few short years when that shirt loses it’s bite and instead is a bittersweet memorial of a loved neighborhood staple(…aaaand my mind is spinning again on the metaphysics of it).
Next I ended up at the NexFab table with Reed and Heather. A few weeks ago I went on a quest to find out what it would cost to 3D print a broken gear from an electric pencil sharpener. NextFab was one of the places I contacted, but I never ended up speaking to someone. James Fayal of NextFab was behind the table, filled with cool 3D printed and laser-cut steel ephemera. James became the lucky recipient of all my questions. Apparently the materials and fees to print the gear would probably only run about $25-30. The auto-cad design of the gear, though, starts turning up boucoup clams. Designers bill by the hour, and manually replacing the lost teeth of the gear in the gear’s design document (the one that’s fed into the 3D printer) would drive up the price to ludicrous levels. OK if you’re Jay Leno and you need a part for a classic car refurb. Not OK when $30 buys you a whole new pencil sharpener. Basic lesson: 3D printing isn’t for us common folk. Yet. I told James I’m holding out for a fabric printer, or a 3d printer for shoes. And in a lovely final twist of irony, James gave me two carpenters pencils and told me to whittle them because their odd shape doesn’t fit into pencil sharpeners. I’m on the look-out for a whittling knife. It’s time my kids learned how to do some good ol’ wood carving with a knife. That’s all we did in the Poconos, way back in the old days, before Sega Genesis.
Soon after this, I headed out. My sense of pride was sufficiently damaged, my imagination sufficiently stirred, and my brain sufficiently fried. That’s a full night, right there. That’s Philly Tech Week. Hope to see you here next year!
UPDATE April 14, 2014: Technically Philly has a review of the event plus a ton of pics.
Is spam really the problem?
The costs of spam to business and individuals is estimated anywhere between US$20 and 50 million a year. I’ve talked about behaviors and habits that can help us from getting phished or taken in by a spammer, like not checking email when you’re tired and using anti-viral software. But is the problem really spam? Let’s do some quick estimates.
Even if we all are falling for a trick or two because of our lowered defenses and bad habits, our mistakes wouldn’t add up to 50 million bucks. And even if every single poor person and every luddite over 65 were tricked into forking over their pesos, these email spammers wouldn’t stay in business. Middle class, high-school- and college-educated people are falling into the traps.
Really, though, I don’t think spam is the big problem. Yes, it’s inconvenient. And falling for phishing can lead to serious headaches, but as a whole the spam won’t impact our culture so much. The middle classers are getting scammed, alright, but not by the trillions of Nigerian Heir or UK lottery spams in general. These are successful campaigns just by sheer number (send out a trillion emails, get 5 bites a month, you get a living wage), but eventually they will become less and less of a threat. Email filter systems will get stronger and user behavior will become more defensive. These aren’t the scams we should worry about.
SCAMS (*ahem*) movements do threaten our culture and why?
These more damaging ventures come in the “improved ________” claims. All sorts of products and theories, like iffy energy suppliers, vitamin supplements, diet fads and even a historically debunked (no pun intended) sleep pattern that seems to be all the rage online lately are the invading species of our time.
Sure, snake-oil salesmen have always existed. But now they are online, and they are tapping into a deep schema in our culture that some find impossible to resist. These are the really dangerous scams, because they have life-altering potential. They can suck years and savings away from someone’s life (and in the case of the sleep deprivation, cause death to the person and others; in 20% of all fatal car accidents fatigue is a factor).
Why are we falling for this crap? The narrative of “the revolution” lures us. The romantic wash of major disruption to the status quo paints us dreamy pictures of uncovering a long-life or untold-riches secret long hidden from “the people” by the elite or governments. We always tend to assume there is a cover-up. We love the story of information oppression and the lone Che-in-a-beret who leads the way to discovery. We love the feeling of being in our own elite small group of ever-the-wiser secret-holders who will rise above the ignorant masses.
The Ideal Story
Thousands of years of human history have formed this perfect story of secret Revolution. The Internet’s more evil types are cashing in on this legend and the legacy of the most recent 60 years, with the cultural revolution of the 60s, the mistrust of the government after Watergate and the Vietnam Era, and lately, the dink in our sense of security from 9/11.
Now more than ever, we assume we are on our own, individually, to discover what is best for our health and our fortunes. To some extent, this is true. We are responsible for our own lives. But what is this tendency, especially among older generations and online circles, to steadfastly believe that there is some sort of system that is methodically banning us from life-improving knowledge? Why has the Revolution narrative taken a hold of every start-up founder, every hopeful youtuber, every FOX viewer, and every QVC health shopper in the country?
There is no “system” and there is no fountain of youth or pot of gold. Yet we hold steady onto the rare examples (of dumb luck) of success and twist them to fit this romantic ideal of revolution. When the proliferation of the Internet came into existence, I had hoped that the miracle-cure market would suffer under the sheer weight of debunking information, but it seems the opposite is true. An influx of information has just led to a confused and grasping public that will try anything to feel good again.
Perhaps I’m being too cynical here. Perhaps we’re just in a “shiny!” phase and the snake-oil conspiracy-theory sellers will slink back into the slimy craigslist ads where they belong. For thousands of years, we’ve been told that there is a system, that there’s order, that there’s law in place, which means that there is some governing culture that can be brought down. We’ve been told there is such a thing as a single revolutionary idea and that even the most humble creature can happen upon it and change the world.
As long as we cling to that narrative, we’ll still have to suffer through relatives trying to sell us on their latest pyramid scheme over Thanksgiving dinner.
Spam collage: PurpleCar.net
A great article by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org talks about how Virginia Wolff’s private suicide note to her husband Leonard was misconstrued and manipulated by the media, back in the days of WWII. When Leonard wrote a rebuttal to the published note and its subsequent public commentary, the media further twisted the truth. From brainpickings:
But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Timesreprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.
Media twist isn’t new and it isn’t news. You would think respectable journalists at the time would’ve done a better job, but the significance of WWII shaded the large editorial bent on the reporting. Today, the significance of the anonymous online comment fuels similar behavior. Even as we move away from anonymous IDs into public sharing, we lose context as we post. We forget that there are real, live, struggling, humans on the other end. It’s easy to go for the quip, the acerbic taunt, the funny jab that will get us attention. After all, the culture of the Internet has always been one of sharp, witty one-upmanship. I’m not sure we can change this basic element, and I’m not sure we want to.
But we’re stuck in the mess of the editorialized Internet. I simultaneously fear and crave the push toward “real IDs” online. I’d love for some users to take some accountability for what they post but I worry the oppressed opinion will never have the freedom the early anonymous Internet promised. Anonymous opinions are central to democracy. We need a balance. We need less editorializing and more critical analysis, named or unnamed.
But perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps the real point of the Internet isn’t democracy. Maybe it’s totalitarianism, a loved Newspeak we’ll all adopt happily to avoid looking at any desperate, silenced, suicidal truth.
Photo and portrait: Christiaan Tonnis on Flickr
One day a year, though, I find the site, and its readers, to be quite helpful: The yearly April 1 April Fool’s Day round-up. Catch ‘em while you can, a lot of these sites stop their joke come April 2.