Great moments in dotcom history: DigiScents

The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time story from PC World brought back a memory of dotcom craziness at its peak. #24 on the list was DigiScents iSmell, which was according to PC World “a shark-fin-shaped gizmo that plugged into your PC’s USB port and wafted appropriate scents as you surfed smell-enabled Web sites–say, perfume as you were browsing Chanel.com, or cheese doodles at Frito-Lay.com.” I visited DigiScents back in the day and remember the visit clearly.

Back in the summer and fall of 2000, I was leading an effort to commercialize the CMS we had built at Salon.com. We called the spin-off Creation Engines, and word got around to the media and a story showed up on the Industry Standard. (Thanks to the dedication and efforts of David Wheeler, the project eventually was open-sourced as Bricolage). As CMS’s went, I think it was pretty good, but there were lots of reasons it didn’t end up working out (long story, but you can read the 8-K we filed with the SEC).

One of our early targets was DigiScents — we weren’t particularly discriminate in our sales targets by that point. We visited their offices in a grubby section of Oakland (getting real estate in SF then was impossible — remember?) and we did our usual presentation, then a person on their end of the table uttered a line with a completely straight face that pretty much encapsulated the simultaneous seriousness and insanity of the dotcom era for me:

“We’re building a portal of digital smells — a snortal.”

I almost spit up my free dotcom soda.

Just now, I had to look in the Internet Archive to make sure I didn’t dream up the “snortal” concept. Lo and behold, on their “contact us” page, you see this line:

If you would like to advertise on Snortal (coming soon), inquire at ads@digiscents.com.

Also, run a search for “snortal” and there’s still a trail. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Management lessons from Saddam

I’ve always been fascinated and entertained (i.e. amused) by the types of business books that become en vogue at various times. A few years ago, I started noticing a particular type of book that took a historical figure unrelated to business and extracted key lessons from that person for application to your business. I’m talking about books like Jesus CEO : Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, Lincoln on Leadership : Executive Strategies for Tough Times. Well, of course these guys were great leaders — but what about leadership trainwrecks? What can we learn from them?

Knowing how to do something well sometimes means analyzing how something was not done well. I picked up a paper copy of Foreign Affairs for a recent cross-country flight was particularly attracted by the article “Saddam’s Delusions: The View From the Inside” (online in full text — very cool), which has key excerpts from the recently declassified book-length report of the USJFCOM Iraqi Perspectives Project. I highly recommend reading it. Saddam is an extreme case, but it was interesting to me how some of his greatest leadership failures mirror those I’ve seen (and perhaps been a part of) in my work life. The behind-the-scenes story is pretty incredible. Read and learn how Saddam dealt with key management issues.

Dealing with bad news / demanding loyalty over constructive criticism:

This constant stream of false reporting [from the Military Industrial Commission, set up by Saddam as a means to sustain the military during UN sanctions] undoubtedly accounts for why many of Saddam’s calculations on operational, strategic, and political issues made perfect sense to him. According to Aziz, “The people in the Military Industrial Commission were liars. They lied to you, and they lied to Saddam. They were always saying that they were producing or procuring special weapons so that they could get favors out of Saddam — money, cars, everything — but they were liars. If they did all of this business and brought in all of these secret weapons, why didn’t [the weapons] work?”

Members of the Military Industrial Commission were not the only liars. Bending the truth was particularly common among the most trusted members of Saddam’s inner circle — especially when negative news might reflect poorly on the teller’s abilities or reputation. According to one former high-ranking Baath Party official, “Saddam had an idea about Iraq’s conventional and potential unconventional capabilities, but never an accurate one because of the extensive lying occurring in that area. Many reports were falsified. The ministers attempted to convey a positive perspective with reports, which were forwarded to Saddam’s secretary, who in turn passed them up to Saddam.” In the years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, everyone around Saddam understood that his need to hear only good news was constantly growing and that it was in their best interest to feed that hunger.

A 1982 incident vividly illustrated the danger of telling Saddam what he did not want to hear. At one low point during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam asked his ministers for candid advice. With some temerity, the minister of health, Riyadh Ibrahim, suggested that Saddam temporarily step down and resume the presidency after peace was established. Saddam had him carted away immediately. The next day, pieces of the minister’s chopped-up body were delivered to his wife. According to Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaysh, the head of the Military Industrial Commission and a relative of the murdered minister, “This powerfully concentrated the attention of the other ministers, who were unanimous in their insistence that Saddam remain in power.”

Making big decisions in isolation and thinking “from the gut” (aside from Stephen Colbert: “Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut.”)

A close associate once described Saddam as a deep thinker who lay awake at night pondering problems at length before inspiration came to him in dreams. These dreams became dictates the next morning, and invariably all those around Saddam would praise his great intuition. Questioning his dictates brought great personal risk. Often, the dictator would make a show of consulting small groups of family members and longtime advisers, although his record even here is erratic. All of the evidence demonstrates that he made his most fateful decisions in isolation. He decided to invade Iran, for example, without any consultation with his advisers and while he was visiting a vacation resort. He made the equally fateful decision to invade Kuwait after discussing it with only his son-in-law.

Micro-management:

After 1991, Saddam’s confidence in his military commanders steadily eroded, while his confidence in his own abilities as a military genius strengthened. Like a number of other despots in history who dabbled in military affairs, Saddam began to issue a seemingly endless stream of banal instructions. He could not resist giving detailed training guidance.

On hiring:

Saddam truly trusted only one person: himself. As a result, he concentrated more and more power in his own hands. No single man could do everything, however; forced to enlist the help of others to handle operational details, Saddam used a remarkable set of hiring criteria. As one senior Iraqi leader noted, Saddam selected the “uneducated, untalented, and those who posed no threat to his leadership for key roles.” Always wary of a potential coup, Saddam remained reluctant to entrust military authority to anyone too far removed from his family or tribe.
. . . .
After the war, senior military officers constantly remarked on Qusay’s lack of military knowledge [Qusay was Saddam's son who he had put in charge of the elite Republican Guard, despite almost no military experience] and his unwillingness to take their “good” advice. But even these flaws were not sufficient to explain everything that went wrong. The evidence shows that many of Qusay’s advisers were also unqualified, while those who were qualified often kept silent even when given an opportunity to speak.

Major General Barzan Abd al-Ghafur Sulayman Majid, commander of the Special Republican Guard, was fairly representative. Before the war, coalition planners generally assumed that the quality of Iraqi military officers improved as one moved up the military hierarchy, from the militias to the regular army, to the Republican Guard, and then to the Special Republican Guard. It stood to reason that the commander of the Special Republican Guard — Iraq’s most elite fighting force — would be highly competent and loyal. In fact, after the war, Barzan’s peers and colleagues were all openly derisive of his abilities. Saddam had selected Barzan, one general noted, because Barzan had several qualities that Saddam held dear. “He was Saddam’s cousin, but he had two other important qualities which made him the best man for the job,” this general said. “First, he was not intelligent enough to represent a threat to the regime, and second, he was not brave enough to participate in anyone else’s plots.”

Workplace surveillance and lack of trust of employees:

. . . constant surveillance was the rule. As one officer explained, “All phones in the Republican Guard office were monitored and all meetings were recorded. High-ranking officers were subjected to constant technical monitoring and surveillance in and out of their homes. The Republican Guard Security Office monitored all aspects of senior Republican Guard officers’ lives, including their financial affairs and diet. Republican Guard Security Office personnel even questioned the guards at senior officers’ houses to see what they could learn about the officers’ lifestyles. The Special Security Office knew how many times I went to the bathroom. Republican Guard commanders were not trusted to conduct any movement or even so much as start a tank without permission. Requesting retirement was impossible because the regime would assume one opposed them politically, and one would be arrested and jailed.”

Trying to pump up the troops with talk about “spirit” when resources are sorely lacking:

In the end, Saddam determined that the most important factor for military success lay in the sprit of the warrior. Saddam considered instilling ideological commitment to the Baathist cause to be the best way to prepare Iraq’s soldiers for war. Saddam told his officers that Allah wanted to insult the United States by giving his strongest personal abilities to the materially weak Iraqis. Because Saddam perceived the Baathist spirit of the Iraqi warrior to be far superior to anything American soldiers were capable of bringing to the battlefield, he overlooked the many factors eroding the foundation of his military’s effectiveness.

The conclusion of an Iraqi training manual sums up the regime’s attitude. “Military power,” it reads, “is measured by the period in which difficulties become severe, calamities increase, choices multiply, and the world gets dark and nothing remains except the bright light of belief and ideological determination. . . . If [a soldier] ignores [his] values, principles, and ideals, all military foundations [will] collapse. He will be defeated, shamed, and [his] military honor will remain in the same place together with the booty taken by the enemy. The President, the Leader Saddam Hussein asks, ‘Would men allow for their military honor to be taken by the enemy as booty from the battle?’ “Iraq’s was not the first army to place “spirit” over the reality of firepower and steel, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Extraordinary stuff — be sure to read it.

What to do when sending an SMS makes your Treo 650 reboot

Aside from a post about a certain college sports team’s legal troubles, the most popular post on this blog is consistently “Making built-in Contacts app the default on a Treo 650 with Goodlink.”

I’ve run into another semi-persistent problem that required a bit of research, so I’ll post a solution here. Every now and then, simply sending an SMS to anyone causes my Treo to reboot. It happens every time I try to send an SMS, so I’m essentially without text messaging capability until I fix this (the SMS never makes it to the recipient in this scenario).

When the Treo comes back from the reboot, I dial #*377 (or #*ERR) and it shows me an error that is something like this (the #*377 trick works for any error on the Treo):

A reset was caused on 05/18/06 at 9:31am while running "TreoSMS Stub":

../Src/MessageStore.c,
Line 1297,
MessageStoreOpenItem: item open already

The application that causes the reboot varies, but it’s always the same error related to the message store. Here’s how you fix it (and beware — this deletes all the text messages on your device!):

  1. If you don’t already have it, you need to download and install FileZ on your Treo. All this does is give you access to all the files on the Palm OS filesystem. This is a tool that must be used very carefully, since you can move, copy, and delete any files on the Treo, even ones you didn’t know were there. It’s one of the most useful Treo utilities you can have.
  2. Run FileZ on your phone and choose “View and Edit Files.” In the next screen, you should see “Internal” under Filename. It might also say “ROM.” If you have an SD Card, you should also see “External” or “SD Card.”
  3. Click on the little wedge beside “Internal” to expand the list of files on your Treo.
  4. Find Messages Database and delete it (you do this by checking it, choosing “Details,” and then clicking “Delete”)

That’s it! Your phone should be in working order again (if there’s not something else wrong with it — anyone with a Treo knows how flaky they can be).

Laptop power on planes: observations, tips, and lessons

Before I get into some recent experiences getting laptop power on planes (both failed and successful ones), I wanted to give a plug for seatguru.com. If you want to know which seats are most comfortable on a plane (with detailed commentary on specific seats), whether or not power is available at the seats, etc. go to seatguru.com. It’s an awesome (and free) service — check it out.

Recently, I decided to get the gear necessary to get power at my seat on planes. For years, I have always packed an extra battery to get me through long flights, but my recent trip to Bangalore and London (over 50 hours in planes) made me reconsider. Many domestic flights offer in-seat power, though it doesn’t seem to be well-promoted or even understood at a basic level by the flight attendants (as I learned on a recent Delta flight — see below). Here’s what I’ve learned about in-seat power on planes (British Airways has a decent primer on in-seat power in their planes that seems to be generally applicable based on my experience):

You need a device called an “inverter”. I’m not sure it was the best choice, but I picked up the XPower Pocket Inverter 100 at Radio Shack just before my trip to Bangalore. The inverter has one plug that goes into the plane power socket and then you can plug any typical two or three-prong device into the inverter using a regular power supply. The inverter simply transforms the plane power into power you can use. (If anyone has advice on the best inverter to get, please leave a comment!)

The power jack in the plane is known as an “Empower” jack. It’s not the same as a cigarette lighter adapter (it’s substantially smaller), though some inverters come with a cigarette lighter plug that you fit into the Empower interface on the inverter so you can also use the inverter in a car. I don’t think I’ve seen an Empower jack anywhere but on a plane, so the plug looks unusual. In fact, I would go as far to say that the Empower interface is poorly designed since I had some trouble with it (more below. . . the photo with this post is of an Empower plug, by the way).

Flight attendants might not know anything about the power systems on their planes. On a Delta flight last week, I had checked seatguru.com beforehand for the plane I was taking, and it showed power between every seat in economy. When I boarded, I asked the flight attendant about laptop power between the seats and she clearly had no idea what I was talking about — she said there was no power for laptops in coach. Sure enough, once I sat down, the Empower power port was easily found between the seats, and it worked (mostly anyway).

Don’t assume the power port at your seat will work. On four legs of British Airways flights, I had these experiences: 1) power worked flawlessly, 2) power didn’t work at all, 3) someone had stuffed chewing gum and paper into the power port and I wasn’t willing to dig it all out, and 4) power worked, but only if I held the Empower plug from my inverter at a certain angle with one hand (roughly the same experience you might have with cheap headphones that you have to twist to hear an iPod or other audio device). Of course, this makes it difficult to type or do anything productive.

On my Delta flight last week, the Empower port that my flight attendant didn’t know about actually worked, but I had to hold the plug in the socket to keep it connected properly, which was kind of a pain. It might be my inverter, but the Empower interface just doesn’t seem to click in tightly. It seems like a flimsy interface in general. I suspect that the tight quarters in planes encourage accidental abuse of the ports when they are being used, which makes the plugs wear out over time, leaving a looser fit for future users.

The inverter can get really hot. This could be worse with the particular inverter I got, but I suspect it’s true across the board. When you’re in a coach seat with your laptop running, there isn’t a ton of room for much else. In my case, the inverter sat on my leg and the heat was pretty uncomfortable — think “twice as hot as a laptop” and you’ll get the picture.

You might be able to use your laptop and charge your battery at the same time — or you might not. I don’t know enough about electricity to understand this, but on the British Airways flight, I could use my laptop but the battery wouldn’t charge. On the Delta flight, I used my laptop and the battery charged. On the British Airways flights, they said you could only use laptops with their power system, i.e. you couldn’t charge iPods or run portable DVD players. This doesn’t make sense to me — anyone have more details?

Overall, it’s a good idea to check seatguru.com and pack an inverter in your carry-on if you might need power on a long flight — but make sure you don’t have to do the work you’re expecting to do on the plane, because you might have problems.

Making DSL too hard

My dad recently ordered DSL from Earthlink (provided by Sprint) and was having trouble getting it running. Basically, the software they provided was hanging during installation, so it looked like the overall install just didn’t work and he was doomed to dial-up. The box he had was a basic self-install kit, and the #2 step was “Run the installation software” (after “prepare your PC”), so any normal person would think that installing the software on the CD they provided was a necessary step.

Luckily, I’m visiting my parents now in North Carolina, so I was able to take a closer look. I had the same problem with the install software hanging, and then it hit me — he probably didn’t actually need the software to get things running. I guessed that the software was probably just a bunch of unnecessary marketing crud. He had all the wires connected properly, so I decided to try hooking the DSL modem up to the computer and seeing if it worked. It did — he had it right all along.

Why do DSL companies do this to their customers? Why not just tell them that the software is optional?

What I'm listening to

I’m so immersed in work stuff right now (all fun) that I don’t even want to attempt to make sense of it for a public audience, so here’s a throwaway post on the music I’m listening to right now, with mini-mini-reviews of each:

  • Wolfmother, Wolfmother: OK, the band’s name is Wolfmother — what else do you need to know? Power trio, echoes of early Sabbath so heavy that I expected a young Ozzy to pop out of my iPod. An album cover that would make Jimmy Page proud. Song subjects: women, unicorns, gnomes, and occasional mentions of gypsies, and it’s all so completely unapologetic. I would say it was really stupid if I wasn’t so busy loving it and wishing I had a Camaro (thanks to Ann Robson for the recommendation!) Favorite tracks: “Colossal,” “Woman,” “Apple Tree”. (Pitchfork review)
  • Various, dmdk: a danish celebration of depeche mode: what’s not to like? Favorite tracks: “Dreaming of Me” by Figurines and “Just Can’t Get Enough” by CPH Jet. (No Pitchfork review!)
  • Band of Horses, Everything All the Time: Soaring indie pop of the type that always gets me. Favorite tracks: “Weed Party,” “The Great Salt Lake”. (Pitchfork review)
  • Islands, Return to the Sea: ok, I’m running out of critical steam — I just like this record. Favorite tracks: “Don’t Call Me Whitney Bobby,” “Rough Gem.” (Pitchfork review)
  • Eagles of Death Metal, Death by Sexy: When I heard the EODM’s debut album (Pitchfork review), I did what any Silicon Valley music fan would have done at the time — I started an Orkut group in their honor. The group has over 300 members now, but the talk is mostly in Portuguese, so all I’m left with is this second album, and that’s just fine with me. Favorite tracks: all of them as long as you’re drinking beer with friends out in the sun. (Pitchfork review)
  • The Magic Numbers, The Magic Numbers: Lovely, sweet, tooth-rotting indie pop. (Pitchfork review)

Enjoy the spring.