There’s always something to howl about

Archive for January, 2012

Escrow number one for 2012…

…went under contract tonight. Day Six of the new year. Give me one a week and I’ll retire on the beach…


Product (category) idea: Antoinette the anticipator.

I first thought of the idea of an anticipator as hardware, I kid you not. The early 1980s? Software was dear in those days, but early computer-on-a-chip chips were cheap and abundant. There still would have been a software component to an anticipator, of course, but not much.

Here’s what I thought about then: Anything that could be monitored by signal processing — as, for example, the communication between a micro-computer and its peripheral devices — could have an anticipator in-line, monitoring all the signal traffic back and fourth. By maintaining a probabilistic database of past events, the anticipator could, over time, evolve strategies for anticipating resources likely to be called for in the near future, and, using otherwise dead time on the computer’s data bus, cache that data in advance, eliminating time lost on fetch requests made in real time.

Wow! How kludgey our world used to be! In the bad old days, there were pre-fetch routines built into operating systems, but they were a brute-force solution to a vast array of very small, fussy problems. An anticipator would strive to be optimally efficient and mission critical by dealing only with the specific data most likely to be requested.

An example? If a font required for a document is not stored on your printer, the printer must fetch the outline data from your hard disk. It’s a small job, on its own, but you could maximize your productivity from the printer if those fetch calls in real-time were ameliorated by intelligent pre-fetching. The anticipator could both maintain the most-often used outlines in the printer’s memory as well as anticipating exceptions to the everyday rules — for example, by keeping the boss’s favorite Christmas font on the printer from Thanksgiving through Christmas. That implies real secretarial smarts, but it’s simply probabilistic database mining being perfected over time.

So what about now?

Antoinette the anticipator harkens back to Heidi and Sarah, and to Constance, which I haven’t gotten to yet.

Imagine an anticipator function in Sarah that, when Sarah figures out that you are going to be late for a meeting, sends out all the appropriate notices, all on her own. What if Sarah knew how to gather all the information necessary to initiate a new for-pay job in your systems — creating the accounts, copying in the CRM data, issuing the work orders, generating the PERT chart — whatever. In my world, opening escrow for a new home-sale transaction entails a lot of (now mostly virtual) paperwork and a host of arcane details. I want for Sarah (or someone!) to do that work without my involvement, except for oversight and quality control.

How would she do this? By watching you and generating, over time, probabilistic rules for highly-repetitive functions. Let her talk to you and she can learn that much faster by asking you what you are doing. Data does not know what it is, and data-processing software does not know what the data it processes is. But signals are real — both digital signals and real world events — and kinds and qualities and quantities and frequencies of signals can be collected, measured and analyzed. In the example above we had one anticipator watching one printer connection, but Sarah watches everything. She can not only cache fonts better than anything I imagined in the 80’s, she can watch the toner levels and order consumables on a just-in-time basis.

Any data that can be collected can be analyzed, pattern-matched and acted upon. This is how your dog’s brain works, in essence. But software can be so much smarter and more productive than a dog. A long time ago, I wrote about spell-checking as a crowd-sourceable phenomenon. I was making jokes, but that turned out to be humor-for-one. But imagine if the text editor in your operating system used an anticipator as part of its spell-checking and auto-correction. Over time, it could adapt itself to you uniquely, correcting virtually all of your errors in real time. Signals are signals, and most of what you do, by now, consists of generating measurable signals. The kind of software I am describing could be incredibly productive, in your own unique life, in just a few weeks of working with you.

Now: Who wants to hear about Constance, a software idea that ties all of these ideas and some others together?

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Product idea: Sarah, Heidi’s helper in the real world.

The big buzz in the mobile computing biz is augmented reality, your phone or tablet takes in a scene and then echoes back to you what it can infer from an image and its GPS coordinates, compass direction, etc. This may be cool, or it may be cool like a QR-code, an idea whose time will never come.

Augmented reality will be that much cooler when it’s like Arnold-the-Terminator’s eyes, but that illustrates the key defects of the idea, as it is currently implemented:

Augmented reality is not done continuously but only on demand, and only in static and affected ways.

And, in consequence, it’s not doing anything terribly useful, except possibly in vertical market applications.

But reflect that an iPad can run continuously for 10 hours without recharging. Next year’s models may double that number. Soon you will get reminders to plug in, or your devices will find ways to provide for themselves while you’re asleep.

So instead of a truly amazing augmented reality presentation on the Black Hills of Dakota, how about a piece of software that watches you and your life all the time, and augments your activities however it can.

This harkens back to an idea I’ve brought up before, a hypothetical self-maintaining CRM called Heidi:

An email comes in over the transom. The spambot says it’s not spam and the sender is not already in your CRM database, so let’s extract as much information as we can from the email. With a name and an email address we can probably get the sender’s full contact information, and possibly a whole lot more.

Make that first contact a phone call instead. Caller ID is lame, but Google is not. From the phone number, can you get back to a name? A location? From those, can we effect the same kind of searches discussed above?

There’s more: Once your CRM knows a name, it should be watching for any changes in publicly-available databases that should be reflected in your private CRM database. That is to say, your CRM should be maintaining itself.

Sarah’s going to monitor every phone call, of course. She or Heidi should be doing all the cloud-mining discussed above, but Sarah should also be listening for names, appointments, addresses, contact information, etc.

Now that Sarah is listening in on your phone calls, why shouldn’t she listen in on — or even save audio or video of — every person you come into contact with? It’s CYOA for honest folks, of course, but Sarah should be augmenting your life in real time every which way she can. Not as Siri-like requests, but simply doing all that database mining all the time. You should not be able to have a factual question raised in your dealings with other people that Sarah has not already sought to answer, as soon as the question comes up. If she can’t answer the question herself, she can at least build smart links — into the MLS, Realtors? — to make your work easier.

I actually thought about this while watching television. Cathleen had a question about a commercial that had just ended. I hadn’t watched it, but Sarah could easily have monitored the commercial, identified the product, found the best on-line and brick ‘n’ mortar deals, etc. Mostly you would never need this information, but you would always have it when you did.

You live your live in a vortex of factual data. A piece of software like Sarah should be watching all of it and making sense of everything she can. Even if you ignore 95% of what she comes up with, she will significantly augment your life with the other five percent.

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The Reformed Broker: “Five Reasons Facebook is Over”

It’s probably wrong for me to talk about Facebook at all, since I simply do not get it. I have been trading ideas on the nets since there was only one net, but I have never understood small talk in real life, much less in HTML with loosely-connected strangers.

Even so, I have been convinced all along that Facebook (and all purely-social media, for that matter) is a fad, the Pet Rock of the microsecond. Doesn’t matter to me, either way, since I will never get small talk. But I found this article on Facebook’s forthcoming IPO interesting:

Users lose interest in the faddish social games – The dirty secret of the early days of Web 1.0 is that pornography was the only revenue source that allowed companies to survive until real business models evolved. Social gaming has thus far provided the same service to Web 2.0. We are currently in an Air Pocket of Retardedness where kids and housewives have figured out how to submit their credit card information for utter stupidity like Farmville and Mafia Wars but haven’t yet realized how dumb they are for having done so. It is only a matter of time before the spell wears off and people realize how utterly ridiculous it is to be buying virtual crops and power-ups with money that can otherwise be used in the physical world. Remember ringtones? How about The Sims? Or Garbage Pail Kids or Pogs or Pokemon or Texas Hold’em or Beanie Babies or any of the other “flush your money down the toilet” fads of the past 20 years? These things pass and we eventually laugh at ourselves. That moment is coming soon for social games that require continual charges on our credit cards.

I like this:

The initial appeal of creating a Facebook profile for the average person was that the ability to code or “understand” the web or HTML was completely unnecessary. Which was brilliant, it allowed users to generate a page with next to zero knowledge about the ways of the web. The problem is, as time marches on, ignorance turns into curiosity and then experience. The web is now a native environment to the kids born in the 1990’s, they don’t know a world without it. And their ability to create their own blogs, web pages and websites will place them at the vanguard of an eventual mass exodus from the closed-off, institutionalized Facebook.

This has always been the promise of the Web 2.0 idea, user-generated content. Facebook (and Twitter, etc.) deliver on the user-generated part, but the content is pretty thin gruel. I love the idea of the web as the new Agora, with Aristotle walking, deep in thought, wherever he finds himself — and with everyone on earth able to find him.

Is that a pipe dream? Yesterday, walking with Cathleen and the dogs on the Arizona Canal, I marveled at how fitness-conscious people our age are. This was the very rare exception when I was a kid. Just as lots of people are providing for their own bodily defense now, I think people are waking up to the fact that they must also provide for their own intellectual defense. Facebook could be the very last instance of the megaphone media, the echo-chamber media, the me-too media. That’s a notion that should have a “like” button!


SplendorQuest: Someone to thrive with.

I wrote this nine years ago today, but it describes events that happened fourteen years ago. You’ll figure it out…

This is my best-beloved and me yesterday:

If you wonder what a gorgeous woman like that is doing with a schlub like me, I commend you to the power of poetry.


Someone to thrive with.

So… She says it’s time she goes
But wanted to be sure I know
She hopes we can be friends

I think… “Yeah, I guess we can,” say I
But didn’t think to ask her why
She blocked her eyes and drew the curtains
With knots I’ve got yet to untie…

What if I were Romeo in black jeans?
What if I was Heathcliff, it’s no myth?
Maybe she’s just looking for
Someone to dance with…

The song is ‘No Myth’ by Michael Penn, a very folky kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll. There’s this one and ‘Thunder Road’ by Bruce Springsteen: “You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain, make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain.” We never had an ‘our song’ because we always had two.

I found her on the internet, like every good thing. It was just after Christmas in 1997. She was a widow awash in sadness, and her sister pestered her into posting this completely impersonal personal ad:

Women Seeking Men, Phoenix, Arizona

Intellect, Hubris Appreciated

Relationship: Talk/E-mail
Religion: Gnostic, Hermetic
Other: Doesn’t Smoke, Drinks, Doesn’t Have/Want Children

Description: I haven’t started dating since my husband
    died… and I’m not ready to start yet. I do, however,
    enjoy stimulating discussions, and am interested in
    expanding my network of gentlemen friends without
    having to go out and meet anyone. You may fantasize…
    I am lovely… but do not be crude or too graphic. It
    seems that the chatrooms I’ve scanned are populated
    with people looking for anonymous opportunity to be ill
    mannered. Please do be eclectic, though. There is so
    much fascinating knowledge to be shared and adventures
    to be enjoyed, that the mind should not be limited by
    crassness or trite vocabularies. If you don’t
    understand, please go to the next on the list.

I was in the same sort of spot. I had been through a completely vicious divorce, very costly financially and emotionally, and I had no need or use or plans for a woman in my life. A friend had been bugging me to do something despite all that, and I was reading those personal ads to get him off my back. But this ad was catnip to me. I mean, she had me at ‘hubris.’ I wrote back as follows:

> Such a breathtaking snob! Most impressive. Especially
> do I like the recognition that hubris can be a virtue.
> I have what you need, assuming you can stand it. See me
> at my web page beforehand. It’ll save us both time.
> Talk to me as and when.

Just the right kind of indifference, if you ask me.

See…, it was just too soon to tell
And looking for some parallel
Could be an endless game

We…, we said goodbye before hello
My secret she will never know
And if I dig a hole to China
I’ll catch the first junk to Soho

What if I were Romeo in black jeans?
What if I was Heathcliff, it’s no myth?
Maybe she’s just looking for
Someone to dance with…

She wrote back, saying,

> I thoroughly enjoy your writing. Your prose is poetry.
> But like Ayn Rand, you are to be savored, not skimmed.

Oh, my.

But then,

> I was once fortunate enough to have found kinship
> within romance and romance within kinship. I don’t
> believe I have the right to ask for such a miracle
> twice in a lifetime.

But wait…

> You, however, still have an unfulfilled experience,
> somewhere in your future; so please, in the name of
> romance, don’t let go of hope.

Not me. Not ever.

> If you would like to correspond, I believe you would be
> very interesting and very good for my soul. I fear,
> however, that I could not reciprocate. I’m very dark
> and very morbid just now. Especially in the midst of
> all the holiday joy. So, write back at your own risk.

But what if I was…?
So what if I was…?
Maybe she’s just looking for
Someone to dance with…

We batted things back and forth by email over the next few days, and then she surprised me by calling me on this very day, January 2nd, five years ago today. She asked me to meet her for dinner in downtown Tempe, a mildly-bohemian quarter of Phoenix quarantined safely outside city limits. Almost I declined, so disgusted was I by the thought of dating. I met her by the giant statues of Alice’s rabbits, by the little burbling fake lake, and she was tall and willowy and unbearably beautiful. And she was wearing black jeans…

What if I was Romeo in black jeans?
What if I was Heathcliff, it’s no myth?
Maybe she’s just looking for
Someone to dance with…

And she was, too, dinner or not. Someone to dance with, someone to dine with, someone to not-be-involved with. She told me as much.

We ate and then we walked all the way up to the little amphitheater in front of the America West building. We sat on a little circular concrete stage and I told her everything I never knew. I talked to her as I have never talked to anyone, and she let me, let us both drench ourselves in a geyser of words.

That was a Friday night, a long, sweet, slow drenching. She sent me home without a kiss. Someone to dance with. On Sunday she made me go with her to the Phoenix Art Museum. To demonstrate, I am sure, what was and what was not going on between us. But she forgot that I am a novelist, a hoarder of small details. Her behavior was above reproach, but the skin at her collarbone was flushed and mottled.

I know how to prosecute my advantages, so I took her back to my house and made her lunch. Later we went to the mall and I made a point of taking her right past Victoria’s Secret: Say the truth or say nothing, but don’t tell me a lie when your chest is flushed like that. Even so, she sent me home without a kiss.

The next day we met for lunch and then did she kiss me, alone in her office and then again in the light of the winter sun on a bench by the pond in Encanto Park. The photo is of my Cathleen on that day, in that sun. Her chest was flushed from the first, but her hair wasn’t messed up before we started kissing.

A few nights later we were out in my car, just out driving in the dark on the empty desert roads in Papago Park. I had a tape of Melissa Etheridge’s MTV ‘Unplugged’ performance, and we listened over and over again as Melissa sang ‘Thunder Road’ with Bruce Springsteen himself.

Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely and there’s words that I ain’t spoken
But tonight we’ll be free, all the promises’ll be broken

Her name is Cathleen Collins, my wife. I saw her for the first time five years ago tonight. I love her better than I ever knew I could love any woman. And she’s mine — to dance with, to talk with, to dream with, to thrive with — to be with — forever…


Me in 2012: Writing Splendor’s sound-track, among other things.

I’ve been living for years now with my daily calendar system of staying focused on my goals. Some months I do better, some I do worse, but having a regular agenda has proved fruitful for me.

These are my daily goals:

  • Work-out with free weights
  • Walk with Cathleen and the dogs
  • Write or update software
  • Blog or write essays or Willie stories
  • Practice the guitar

Software and writing came and went, strong and weak, in 2011, but the guitar got the benefit of end-of-day exhaustion almost every day: Mindless sitcoms on the TV, internet radio playing in my office, eye-candy on the iPad and “a Telecaster through a Vibralux turned up to ten.”

I love it, to say the truth, especially the sound of a solid-body electric amped up very loud but played very quietly. This is what made those Chicago blues gods such great underpants gnomes, and it’s the trick the British blues-rock gods missed when they doubled the tempo on all those old riffs and called it rock ‘n’ roll. I feel sorry for poor Cathleen, who by now has heard the I,IV,V blues played crudely in at least half of its infinite variations. But it works for me so well that sometimes I take pity on her and play through a headphone amp. This also promotes dancing — by me, that is, since I’m self-contained and free to move where I will.

But I’m wary of it, too, because the guitar gives me two benefits I must always find in my work: A creative outlet and something to do with my hands. I don’t want to give it up. To the contrary, I think I might take up the piano, as well, this year, as a looping and recording platform. My solution is to learn to write songs. I know I can do this, but by now it is possible to carry the song-writing process all the way through to a marketable demo — or even a release-ready recording. I have no desire to perform, but I would love to find an ambitious act to feed tunes to.

My other big blue-sky project for the year is to write a full exposition of the idea of Splendor, essentially an operating manual for the human ego. I did this once, in 1988, and, of course, everything I have written in the past 30 years touches on this theme. But I don’t think I have done the job properly yet — and I’m starting to think that time is running out. Not for humanity — reports of our doom are always exaggerated — but simply for myself.

And then there’s money work, of course. We started doing property management in 2011, and, allowing for some rough patches, that’s worked out pretty well. We’re at 15 houses now, still basically a pilot project. But we’ve gotten most of the kinks out of our systems, and the promise we make — happy tenants, happy landlords, happy neighbors — is being borne out by our results. We’ll build that business this year, along with some others.

Here are the businesses I want to grow this year:

  • Property management
  • High-end listings
  • BloodhoundBlog Unchained
  • Book, audio and video publishing
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Referral marketing

I’ve got other stuff cooking, too, but my focus for now is multiple streams of income. If I can scrape up the dough, I’d like to flip some homes this year, as well, and I always have big ideas for big money, when I get my hands on it.

I’ve been reading a lot of end-of-year stuff in the past few days, and most of it seems pretty dour. Here is John Hiatt (with Sonny Landreth blistering a Stratocaster) with an answer to all that:

Happy New Year! The time of your life is your sole capital. Make the most of it.


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