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The Tao of Pho

LONDON -- Writing is less expression than a way to think, so I often choose topics more from curiosity than experience, floating ideas and testing waters more than arguing a definitive course.

Blogging is especially supportive of this concept, wedding as it does discussion groups and brevity with reactive thought, world events catalyst for discourse and dialogue.

This essay will be an exception, because if I am expert on anything, it is Pho, the global discussion group, the ever-growing mailing list named after the Vietnamese beef noodle soup that spawned its meetings. I am an expert only because I started it with John Parres and continue to finance its digital operation.

I like to visit the United Kingdom generally and London specifically, though they are more and more American every day, more a trip down the street than across the pond. Today's field trip is a day's layover from Helsinki to Los Angeles, a night to share with the London Pho group and several business visits thrown in for good measure. I've not previously attended London Pho and I am looking forward to the evening, especially so because this particular group of Phosters is chock full of huge brains and creative genius the likes of which you rarely find in one place at one time. And the dry British sense of humor is a joyous icing on the cake.

Pho the group was started in Los Angeles when John Parres and I started sharing meals, arguing and exploring the issues confronting and surrounding the digital delivery of art (primarily music, but also video, text, graphics and all media). We relatively quickly added a mailing list that grew dramatically to its thousand-plus readership today (an exact count isn't possible because of the pass-along effect, particulary virulent with Pho, because some fear identification with this sometimes rebellious group).

More than a meeting, more than a list, Pho is metaphor for the larger issues that we discuss. Self-organization is the inevitable rule, anarchy the delicious result, viral growth the usual effect. We've made attempts at democracy, but this group needs none of it; Today we know this group is governed best when governed least.

John Parres and I share administrative duties, adding new users and generally maintaining the subscription list that the (named after the notion of many lives under one roof) server uses to reflect a message from any user back out to the entire group. Like the Los Angeles Sunday brunches in Chinatown at Pho 87, the many Pho groups organize their own meals, notifying the crowd via the list, and meals are generally paid by passing the hat.

Some gatherings are quite regular, others few and far between. If there is a major media conference, or even some small ones, there is probably a Pho group assembling for the express purpose of sharing a meal and good discussion. NAB Pho, Midem Pho and the like take their places with the more established regular groups, and both types happen simply because the attendees want them to do so.

Why Pho and not some equally irrelevant name like First Tuesday? Because soup is good, cheap food and mostly because Pho kitchens generally allow anyone to keep the table without shoeing the group out the door to churn the table. Pho groups can and do meet anywhere, with the only commonality an inexpensive meal, likely at an ethnic dive.

The list generates hundreds of messages a day, none of them censored mostly because it is impossible to control. The server is an automaton that merely reflects traffic to the group. The most we can do to edit the content is to edit the subscriber list and urge the group on occasion to stay somewhere near the topic at hand.

Still, Pho is such community that at times the digital issues of the day give way to the compassion and comfort only familiar voices can provide. September 11th was a prime example, but there have been others, including the war.

The best gatherings, like the best message threads, surround prominent events. The Future of Music Conference, annually held in Washington, D.C., after the turn of the year, hosts the largest, best Pho gatherings at a superb kitchen called Nam Viet in Arlington, Virginia. Specialty Phos like that one I attended in Vienna, Austria, several weeks ago are also hits more than misses, with the result a planted seed that survives the event.

Five years later, the collective wisdom of Pho would fill a wall of three-ring binders, even if printed double-sided in agate type. Its ever-changing roster of participants reads like a combination of the people outside the Velvet Rope, and those within: Industry heavyweights abound, joined by a roster of the globe's finest art lawyers, barristers and solicitors, all of them put to shame by the smartest artists, creators, students and just plain fans.

If you care to join us, drop me a line at

Finland is a Teen-Ager

HELSINKI -- I love Finland, almost as much as I love my America and my family's native Ireland.

I certainly intend no disrespect, and only admiration, when I relate to you that Finland is a teen-ager, bursting with potential, a young person in an adult's body, beautiful to behold and eager to make good on its promise, powerful beyond its own realization, the envy of everyone but themselves, hindered by an awkward self-loathing that is difficult to comprehend.

Finnish women are surely one version of the world's ideal, their blond hair and fitness complementing their role in a society that seemingly knows no gender, the Finnish language without words to discriminate between male and female. Finns grow up knowing that woman or man, they can run the country or the company in which they serve, because women have in fact run the country and are seen as every bit as strong as their male counterparts. Recently a 48-year-old woman led her centrist party to power in a coalition government, succeeding yet another woman leader, and while men drink in the bar the lobby teems with women making deals.

Still, Finnish women often dye their hair, eschewing the blond ideal, and pierce their mouth, their nose and their ears in a form of self-mutilation that rejects their tradition and heritage, one young woman telling me that to be Finnish is not her idea of a positive image, explaining that the blonder than blonde look is a sign of in-breeding she rejects. It reminds me of Finland's hyper-modern architecture, a massive middle finger in the air pointed at its Russian parentage, steel and glass contrasting the buildings of czars and dictators.

Finnish men behave identically, if less loquacious in their expression. It is said that most Finns know six languages and speak none of them, but I've found this to be true only if you seek small talk. If your ideas are big and your goals broad, you'll enjoy high-bandwidth discussion and intense debate. Finland's Paavo Nurmi was a gold-medal-winning marathoner, setting the pace for a long-term society that patiently awaits extended, brutal winter for the reward of a endless summer days of sunshine.

When first I tried to learn Finnish, I mapped out the translation for typically American phrases, such as Hello, How Are You? (Hei, Mita Kuuluu.) I quickly learned that the average Finn doesn't respond well to such inquiries, wondering first why you want to know how they are, and then accurately guessing you don't really want to know how they are, so it was back to the drawing board of learning words for Finnish animals, numbers and foods. By the way, Microsoft still hasn't figured out this gaffe, using the phrase in a series of Internet advertisements as if it were a typical Finnish greeting.

A quick look at the web site shows Finland at the top of the world's list of honest brokers, a country devoid of bribery and corruption to a greater degree than any other, with the transparency extending to the sauna, the posting of every person's salary at the post office once a year, a place where new buildings are as transparent as the culture.

My message to Finland: if you could see yourself through the eyes of the world you would feel no shame and abandon your profound sense of insecurity. This is a country destined for more greatness, a country whose Nokias and Linus Torvalds are the beginning, not the exceptions.

Anglo-American Angling

LONDON -- OK, I guess I'm the last one to come to a complete realization that Britain and America are in fact one, but I have a good excuse: I don't -- I didn't -- want it to be true.

I write this while awaiting a flight at London Heathrow airport's Terminal 3, a seething mass of humanity that nonetheless looks like an American shopping mall. Yes, a HUGE Starbucks in the middle, and gee gaws and gimcracks for sale everywhere. I flew here from San Francisco, and I live in Los Angeles, but in Terminal 3 at Heathrow I've yet to leave home. And that's not a good feeling, especially after flying all night.

I didn't want this to be true any more than I want to find snow in Hawaii. But it is true. And now I have one less stimulating place to which to flee.

I will continue to like London, yes, but it won't be the same. I wish Britain were opting to be more European, but forget that now. I'm not sure it's possible. Out with the pound, forget the Euro, they should be trading in dollars here.

And in this cruel joke of history, this accident of fate, no country has more to fear than our beloved neighbor to the North, Canada. Now THEY should join the EU, and adopt the Euro.

HELLO Vancouver! Toronto, here I come! Because England will be the 51st state long before Canada. It's not geography, it's a State of Mind.

The One That Got Away

There is no better place to write about herring than Finland, and so I will. They serve herring here at least a hundred ways, but unlike most things Finnish, I've not yet acquired a taste for it, and so it was with Red Herring the magazine.

Like lots of bad journalism, they followed, oh, yes, they followed very well, but they never led.

They encouraged the bubble, hot on its trail, and had a special reverence for Hollywood. They bought the premise hook-line-and-sinker that analog distribution would bring digital distribution in much the same way that others thought you could port practically anything from the old world to the "new world" and make plenty of money along the way.

I am sad Red Herring is gone because many of my friends liked it, and because at its best it was chock-full-o-numbers and statistics that could prove useful to anyone measuring the dimensions of the bubble. But I will not much miss it, because it ultimately failed to be anything more than new-new-journalism cheering on the sidelines for the next new-new-thing, and both its audience and the revolution deserved better.

Could anyone need more of an example than than the August 2002 Red Herring cover story featuring John Fanning?

It claimed that by the end of 2002 Shawn Fanning's uncle would launch with Blockbuster's backing a new movie download service that would revolutionize Hollywood. Here's hoping none of you held your breath, or parted with a dollar of investment capital. At the time I laughed out loud and checked the cover to see if it was somehow actually the April issue.

Wrap this dead fish in a newspaper, preferably one with decent digital coverage, like the Financial Times or San Jose Mercury News. The Red Herring started stinking long before it died, it's eyes turning cloudy shortly after its birth. If it had put up more of a fight, it would've been a lot more interesting.

I've never particularly enjoyed the company of naked men.

It's true, and has nothing at all to do with sex -- sex is the last thing that crosses your mind at the temperature extremes I experienced today -- though I suspect that the Freudian Chicago psychologist that is my sister (Dr. Ellen Griffin) would say, tsk, tsk, don't you know everything is about sex -- but in this case my recollections of rooms full of naked men have more to do school locker rooms and towel snapping and the Alpha Male behavior of "jocks" than with lust.

Thank you, readers of this blog, for your very existence. If it weren't for you, I might not have done it: Jump into the Avantouinti, the hole in the ice, after exposure to the hottest sauna (say SOW-na) in which I've ever been, with memories of searing pain when the loyly (steam from water hitting the hot, glowing rocks, and I don't mean my balls) rises throughout the room.

I might not have done it if I hadn't written to you and promised I'd do it, because there were so many opportunities to back out, with one Finnish friend opting out, and on the long walk down the pier there were many admonitions about the shock to the system and questions like "Do you have heart trouble? Any history at all of heart trouble in your family?" and so on and then it was down and into the hole and then I remember nothing except wanting to get out so very quickly but instead swimming in a circle and grasping, without my glasses, for anything to hold to bring myself out, and realizing that anything I might grasp would prove to be more ice, more cold, and then hearing Marko tell me that every step down the pier would feel better, and indeed it did, and when he said the sauna would thereafter feel much less searing hot he proved to be so very correct. For about five minutes, and then it was again cooking time, with hot, hot, hot, searing hot until it was time for beer and sausages and then more sauna.

Words fail me here. There isn't really much to say about all this, other than that you should try it sometime if you are even slightly inclined to do so and healthy enough to handle it, but like most loquacious Americans I will write on, sharing with you, though here I must write that it is becoming easier and easier to understand why Finns say less and do more, preferring less small talk and more action or talk about matters of importance.

By comparison, the Irish will talk forever about something so mundane and insipid as kissing the Blarney Stone, though I guess that is the point: When you've kissed the Blarney Stone, it's hard to shut up, and I've kissed it more than once. An Irish-American in Finland is more shock in a cultural manner than the physical shock of jumping in the hole in the ice.

Still, it is in the Finnish nature to go to the woods and be alone when feeling great joy and happiness, or "onni," and under the same circumstances we Americans can often be found beating our chest and yelling at the top of our lungs. Hell, if Americans were into Avantouinti there'd be a photo booth and souveneirs at the end of every pier.

It is now hours later, and I have less desire to discuss it, and more desire to reflect upon it, so there is something working here, the magic is spreading, and I am beginning to understand this country in ways so many trips before failed to communicate, how the cell phone can be extension of the hand and not the mouth.

Into the Hole

One word focuses my day:


It is Finnish and means "hole in the ice."

Sure, I've been to the sauna and back many times, especially Finnish saunas, here in Finland and around the world. Wonderful stuff, and I am always eager to go and sometimes the last to leave.

Today has a twist. I've been invited to Sauna Society , a Helsinki club, ahem, society I've heard discussed but never visited. This afternoon I am the guest of Marko Ahtisaari and am excited about going. But I must say that the word Avanto and the concept of the hole in the ice are familiar to me only through the miracle of vicarious thrill via television, and I am ready to find out and report back here to the Directory of Wonderful Things.

I've been transfixed by holes before, and not just in the way of most teen-age boys. I had the honor of working for Geffen  Records, where we worked with Courtney Love and the band Hole, so I know just how beautiful and difficult Hole can be, but none have fixated my attention quite so much as Avanto. Neither could her Hole be described as frigid, and having had nice conversations with Courtney I can guess she would feel fine with me making that clear, and she'd insist I be clear that I do not know this from personal experience.

Stay tuned. Keep the cardiac crash cart at the ready. I am going in, and it certainly won't be pretty!

Back from the Brink

I've returned from the long trip North and am now back in Helsinki, enjoying renewed access to tangible newspapers, magazines and huge mugs of Wayne's Coffee that make me forget Starbucks ever existed. Make mine a kupio, not a vente. The Wayne's on Kaisaniemenkatu is an oasis for hungry, caffeine-addicted Finns, and the free, fast net access is great when you've been stuck with a tiny Sony Picturebook with a non-functional USB port.

Sure, I could send it to Sony for warranty service, but many who've experienced what Sony calls service (including me) know better. It isn't service, it's abuse. I sent them a laptop under warranty a few years ago, and they offered two options: Pay over $1,500 to replace the motherboard (they claimed I'd somehow damaged it myself, entirely untrue) or pay about $100 to have it shipped back. I chose the latter when they failed to prove I'd somehow violated the warranty. I complained vociferously, even called the Consumer Electronics Association, and they asked me to ship it back for service, leading to a rinse-wash-repeat scenario where I had to pay to get it back again. Sony are scum when it comes to service, and so for now I am stuck with this beautiful but flawed total product experience. If Sony could match service with product, they'd be close to unstoppable in some markets, but that doesn't appear likely anytime soon.

Enough whining. Here's news: While in Levi, American tech marketing guru Michael Moon tumbled on the tundra and shattered both elbows trodding the same path I walked every morning to breakfast and every night after drinking the only passive recreation the area offers. I feel lucky to get out in one piece, but would happily return, because what it lacks in civilization Levi makes up for in beauty and joyful isolation. Make your limo a snowmobile, try reindeer in your soup or salad.

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of renewing a decades-old friendship with Finnish editor and Talentum exec Hannu Ollikainen (anteeksi, Tatu, I am abandoning those weird characters attached to Finnish letters that bedevil my font choices, but kiitos for trying to help me generate them). Hannu came from Finland as an exchange student to my Park Forest, Illinois, high school (Rich East), and I gave him an old bicycle I'd replaced weeks before his visit, and he remembers it to this day.

I envy Hannu, and I don't envy much. He has a wonderful family, lives in one of the world's most interesting, vibrant cities in one of its most dynamic countries and is documenting the Federalization of Europe and Nokiazation of the world. He also travels the world working with journalists, learning about media and making education a lifelong process. He is a terrific conversationalist (some say most Finns know six languages but speak none of them) and picked a wonderful seafood restaurant where I learned still more about just how great it can be to eat well and healthy as do so many Finns.

I always lose weight in Finland, even though I eat more and better than usual. One more reason to spend more time here, one more reason the rest of you reading this should be checking out the flights here (less expensive than ever before, with Europe's new airlines attacking bloated carriers previously fat on government protection) and finding one of the fine hotels available at a discount. You're thinking, sure, you can do that when it's winter in a place like Finland, but fortunately it's year-round now. Consider the Savonlinna Opera in the summer (the hall is acknowledged one the world's greatest buildings), or the countryside during the third week of June and what they call Johannus and the rest of us call the holiday of St. John the Baptist.

Blogging is about observing, life is about participating. Keep them in balance: Don't let logging-in for blogging satiate your desire for adventure; instead, let it stimulate your desire to find a corner of the world that's always had you curious. Follow the road less traveled -- it makes all the difference.

Brass in Digital Pocket

BoingBoing covered Vertu recently, and I have had an opportunity over the past few days to visit with Frank Nuovo (Vertu founder, chief designer), who handles much of the design work at Nokia. He has much to say about Vertu, enamored of its direction, which takes the instrument from the commodity floor of the cell phone shop to the vaunted halls of fashion and style.

His most interesting comments, though, were directed towards what he calls the Digital Pocket, a concept reminiscent of business school work that expresses market work as a function of fulfilling need or niche in our lives. For example, fast food now refers to share of stomach -- if Taco Bell drops a burrito grande in your mouth and down your throat, they are owning the stomach for a while, with little else headed there.

In much the same way, Nuovo sees the Digital Pocket, with share of digital pocket likely to be held by one device, with a maximum of two or three at most in different pockets, though primarily we are giving the electronics world one pocket with which to work, and whomever grabs that pocket has fulfilled you as a customer.

This seems to me saavy thinking, and compared to the music business it is downright genius, as the denizens of Santa Monica and similar environs seem to have from what I can tell little understanding of the interrelationship of media and entertainment spending. We are competing with the clock for attention, and with a limited wallet for cash. As a result, we need to learn to persuade -- not compel -- customer behavior.

The number one rule of copyright seems to be that you can't take money out of the customer's wallet without permission (unless you manage the compulsories the business rails against unless they are on the buying side, i.e., from songwriters). As a result, we would do well to start thinking about listening to the customer and performing a lot less lecturing them on copyright and the need to make the rich richer.

I hope there is interest in discussing the basics behind the Digital Pocket. It's basic but challenging thinking for industries that can use new ideas for generating money and less defending old ideas for clinging to the old vine in the Tarzan-Economics-like swing we're performing.

Nuovo is a very smart man with experience aplenty in addressing media markets and ph ... ph ... err, instruments, devices, but definitely not phones, unless you have limited imagination and a spare Euro or two laying around. You don't want to be fined a Euro for calling them phones, do you?

On a somewhat less related note, I am gearing up to try a bit of audio blogging, with pictures, too. When I have a day in the week or so ahead I am going to give it a shot, and perhaps I can treat you to a bit of Elvis vs. JXL sung in Finnish. Nothing like it!

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

I am thinking and writing about time these days: What it means, how we measure it, and so forth. Travelling across the earth and tundra does that, as the miles become reminders that gravity and the clock rarely work in reverse. China and the continental U.S. are roughly the same size, but China has only one time zone to the four-plus of North America.

And then my home server crashes -- -- and while I'm across the world wondering whatever and however, it turns out it's the power back home and little else and I am thankful for the little things that go right when it seems they've gone quite wrong. Sorry if that threw off anyone's plans to find out more about whom now Mark, Cory and Xeni have collectively given the car keys of Guestbar blog.

Back to the time: Knowing where you are is now and has always been a function of knowing the correct time. Ships used rocket references fired from Greenwich (hence GMT), and now GPS is little more than a very modern, highly accurate update. The satellites broadcast their known position and the precise time, enabling devices below to judge their position relative to the signals received. These are passive devices, incapable of ratting on you, unless tethered to some transmitter or other means of communication.

What happens if an enemy broadcasts false or blocking signals on the GPS frequencies? What effect might this have on GPS equipment in Iraq? Somehow, someway,   unfortunately it seems we may well find out, and sooner rather than later.

I learned today that the Swiss have watches in use that sample the music they hear, all the better to help divvy up the pools of money that compensate rights holders in music for the performance and broadcast of their songs. And the Swiss  are now apparently levying on photocopy machines, around $30 a year I'm told, to populate a fund for authors.

I like levies for rights compensation, but not on equipment. I think the levy needs to be at an appropriate turnstile point in the delivery chain, and any turnstile that can pick up and leave the country to avoid paying the levy is not appropriate to the task. I'm all for levying on digital providers, but that is a subject for another day, when I am less tired, when time has taken less of a toll, when I don't have to speak the next day. I am headed for a Lappish Village to talk to telecom execs and explain to them why I think they're a good place for levies, and I suspect I will need all the energy I can muster.

Ole Bluetooth, King Harald of Sweden, Would've Loved This

I am in Levi, Finland, at a meeting where we are talking and playing and working wireless. I pull out my laptop, fire up the bluetooth manager to connect with my cell phone to dial up a connection and ... whoa ... is this slooooow ... where *did* the connection go ... and just when I am about to give up I see hundreds of bluetooth devices on my laptop's bluetooth manager! Headsets, phones, devices, all revealing themselves in low security mode. It's a shock, as I can hardly believe my eyes. Like looking at a Windows Networking window at a LAN party or conference, but these are phones and devices and laptops aplenty. Later I try it in my room and the same thing happens, with a few less connections but the same effect. Tempted to play, I quickly put it away, unsure of the laws surrounding bluetooth hacking in Finland and uninterested in the inevitable confrontation with someone who might later find out I am dialing their phone or listening through their headset.

I like being connected. I like being interconnected. But more and more I am thinking about safe computing, about sending every one of them a business card, about how you could broadcast PowerPoint info via bluetooth. The possibilities, for good and ill, are fascinating, omnipresent and for better or worse they are here and now.

I've not blogged before, nor kept a public journal. Journaling was for me a private affair, an exercise for writing, not an end of expression but a means for thinking. It is both fortunate and unfortunate that this becomes an end of sorts, the kind of fixed expression that is copyrighted the moment it hits the screen and becomes affixed to the hard drive, saved in countless buffers and caches, taking on a life of its own without further delivery from here.


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