Random Thoughts About the Last Couple of Years

I’m permitting a bit more randomness into my life. Like this post. Almost nobody will read this post since I do nothing to promote this blog. And I really have made great progress on my latest project (more in a minute) and have plenty to do if I want to bring it to fruition in the next few months. This post could have waited for a few days, even weeks or months. But I developed an itch to update the blog since the last post seem so long ago. Eighteen months is forever for a guy like me who is ‘future-biased’ and seldom spends much time looking back.

So, a quick summary of the last couple years:

  • I built a house. No, I just didn’t pay somebody to build a house for Bee and myself. I built the house with a friend who is an excellent carpenter and a host of subcontractors. Steve and I were undoubtedly the oldest framing crew in Santa Fe and probably the only crew who used double-walled construction here in 2014. For ten months, I strapped on a tool-belt every morning. See https://ebersolezollo.wordpress.com for the house-building story.  And when the house was done, I decided to write a book with another friend. A wise person would have taken a break but I can’t help myself. I like to be engaged.
  • The book (Rise of the Data Vampires) was a good exercise with a great writing partner, Randy Schultz. Randy did a superb job of getting us signed with a very good NYC agent who pitched us to the top publishing houses. In my view, we got very close if we assess the quality of the ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ responses. The topic was considered relevant, the book proposal was good and the writing was solid (after Randy’s editing). Why were we not picked up? I think there are three reasons. First, and most critical, we lacked a ‘platform’. In the publishing world, this means we lacked a solid public presence (in today’s world that is measured by Twitter followers, Facebook friends and blog feed subscribers). For a non-fiction topic like ours, publishers like to see enough projected sales from a well-defined audience to at least cover the costs. Second, the issue of online privacy was only starting to emerge into the wider public—that is, consumer—awareness and the mainstream press was only beginning to cover the topic. Finally, and most discouraging, I think the publishers knew most consumers just didn’t care about or had given up on trying to maintain a modicum of online privacy.
  • Randy and I bid the book project good-bye and pondered whether we could salvage anything from what we learned. In a nutshell, we decided that there might be a niche market for a paid email service that didn’t scan your private emails like the ‘free’ service providers. After months of coding, marketing and learning just how difficult it is to bring up and manage a paid online email service, we discovered once again that consumers are not concerned enough about online privacy to spend $5 a month for a private, secure email service. Oh, well…
  • With a year gone but not wasted (I learned a lot about the publishing business, writing for consumers and how complex contemporary software development has become), I decided to revisit the project that actually triggered the book effort in May, 2015. Rather than delve deeply into the details of my on-demand, hot water recirculation system project, I will save that for a tutorial I plan to publish on instructables.com to promote the products from my new bootstrapped startup. Of course it involves more technology. In this project, I have learned how to layout simple printed circuit boards (my first order arrived a few weeks ago), program micro-controllers (using C++ makes me long for Javascript), use laser cutters (fun) and debug network systems (a royal pain in the butt). The small, simple devices and systems I am designing and building will require all the operations found in building much larger, more complex products albeit on a much smaller scale.
  • I almost forgot to mention Bee and I decided to become Airbnb hosts. After a rush of family and friends in 2015, our guest house sat empty for several months. After a bit of research and preparation for our first guests, we opened for business in late May. I’m not the most social guy so I was concerned that it might not be a good fit for me but it has been a very positive experience. We were very surprised how quickly the reservations came in and we ended up being booked almost solid for the prime months of the summer and fall. And we already have 83 days booked for 2017 and it’s only January 6. Note to friends and family…you folks have absolute first dibs on the guest house (free, of course) so let us know now. We want to see you so don’t be shy.
  • Finally, I do ‘look back’ occasionally. I am surprised at how much has changed, amazed at how quickly time has passed since we lost Kathy and stunned that I am 68 freaking years old. Surprised, amazed and stunned is probably better than being bored but now and again I think I need to slow down and smell the roses. Oops, forgot about the anosmia…

I should retire someday or, at least, get paid for all the work I am doing but I’m happy. I have a nice house, a wonderful partner, a delightful family who spent Christmas with us and my project is fun as well as intellectually stimulating. As a friend who is advising me on the technical aspects of the latest project said a few days ago after I had resolved a quite gnarly technical problem that consumed several days, it’s nice when you discover “you still got it”. I think I do.

 

The Data Vampires are Coming!!

As I mentioned in my last post about our mission to raise the alarm about the perils and promises of the Internet of Things, I’m writing a book. With my friend, Randy Schultz, we explain the risks of hordes of Data Vampires swarming into our homes. Our book, The Rise of the Data Vampires (http://datavampires.com) tells the story of how the dominant players in the online world—Google, Facebook and Amazon—are using Data Vampires and Big Data to silently steal consumer privacy.

We are wrapping up the book proposal and sample chapters this month. Next month, we will take the proposal to literary agents to see if they share our interest in this compelling topic. An exciting time for us and we are optimistic we can find a publisher. I’ll post more as the story unfolds.

A New Mission

It’s a bit of a long story that I explain more in the introduction to the book I am co-authoring with a friend but a few of us have set off on a mission to alert consumers about the promises and perils of the Internet of Things (IoT). Oddly enough, I have never been very concerned about Internet privacy. For the most part, I was willing to accept some loss of privacy when using the abundant free services on the Internet. Search, email accounts, blogging, video posts, social media. All free and we all knew we were giving up just a little about ourselves each time we used the services. It seemed fair since Google, Facebook, et al made it clear we would see an endless stream of targeted ads if we partook of their “free” services. Not completely free since our privacy has value and we are sacrificing that with these services.

It’s not so fair any longer. The giants of the online world have entered the world of the Internet of Things. Not satisfied with capturing information through Web-based online interactions, these folks are now selling us futuristic devices like the Nest (Google) thermostat, the Amazon Echo and the Oculus (Facebook) Rift. Masquerading as clever assistants to make our homes “smarter” or more entertaining (George Jetson, here we come), they are really stealth devices designed to capture what is happening in the privacy of our homes. Videos, photos, audio, motion, temperature–a steady stream of personal data that can add up to a comprehensive picture of our private lives. Wrong George…it’s Orwell that is coming our way.

Of course, these kindly online services are telling consumers right up front that this data is being collected and will be used to turn them into consumers zombies, right? Wrong. The lack of transparency here is absolutely stunning. “Don’t be evil” may have been Google’s founding mantra but that image should be tossed in the trash. This is evil which takes me to our new mission…trying to raise the alarm that consumers need to beware of these “trojan horses” of the Internet of Things.

Our first step was to create an organization and online venue to be a resource for this mission. The Open IoT Foundation is a California nonprofit with the goal of giving voice to these concerns. We also propose an Internet of Things Bill of Rights for consumers. A couple of us also decided to write a book to highlight the issue. More on this in another post later this week but I have discovered that writing a book is hard work. Enjoyable at times and intellectually challenging but serious work.

So, to use one of my favorite phrases, “my knickers are in a twist” over this stealthy invasion of privacy and serious risk of loss of control over our homes. And I’m not a crazy Internet privacy guy wearing a tin foil cap. I still use the free services on offer but more carefully. I know what I am giving up. What just simply pisses me off is the dishonesty of these companies and their arrogance that they know what is best for us by telling us about the wonders of the Internet of Things while quietly stealing our privacy. Evil buggers.

Cultural Entrepreneurs and Curated Lifestyle Consumption

Several months after Kathy died in 2011, I decided it was time to get out and see more of Santa Fe. In early July, I attended the International Folk Art Market (http://www.folkartmarket.org/) which brings together folk artists from around the world and visitors from all over the U.S. into a delightful marketplace. I was struck not only by how much difference it made to purchasers when the artist was there to tell their story but by the direct financial value delivered to the producer and the heartfelt joy the consumers felt about their purchase. Indeed, I am certainly not someone who typically purchases art at these events but I happily walked away with several items knowing that rather than layers of middlemen skimming most of the margin out of a purchase, these artists went home with over 90% of the purchase price.

As a consummate entrepreneur and someone who was in transition into my ‘third act’ where I had decided to apply my skills to building sustainable social enterprises, I began to think about how this type of narrative-based, interactive marketplace could be extended to a year-round operation and not limited to the handful of artists who were able to attend this event in Santa Fe. After all, we have incredible mobile technology to capture narratives in real-time anywhere in the world, an amazing global logistics system and almost universal Internet access by consumers and many producers. How can we use technology and creative curation to connect these conscious “lifestyle consumers” with artists and artisans? What I wanted to do, in an online world, was re-create the connection between the artist and the purchaser that I felt when I bought art at the Folk Art Market. No, I’m not talking about Etsy or the National Geographic online store. They both serve a purpose but they lack the human dimension that is present where a story connects the consumer and producer…the artist and the lifestyle consumer who appreciates the full context of the art they acquired.

I was energized by the idea which was quickly ‘pooh-poohed’ by several people. Too hard, the logistics won’t work, yadda, yadda. Naturally, this just makes a committed entrepreneur such as myself even more convinced that I was on the righteous path. My natural inclination is to look forward to the way things can be (and should be) done rather than looking backward through the prism of the way things are ‘supposed-to-be’. As I was pondering the scope of this project (it’s a big idea requiring technology and people with vision and resources), I met Praneet Bedi at one of his clothing art showings a week or so after the Folk Art Market. We quickly discovered that he was doing a small-scale version of the market with his clothing line by directly representing cultural entrepreneurs with lifestyle consumers. No middlemen squeezing the producer, no consolidation of production into container-size shipments. Instead, Praneet delivered two critical elements to the transaction—a meaningful narrative about the artists who produced his clothing line and an understanding of what worked for me as a conscious cultural consumer of artistically produced clothing. Anybody who knows me, clothing is not a high priority yet I walked away with two exquisitely designed and sewn linen shirts. It was this combination of the products (maybe better called ‘art’) and the “lifestyle curation” provided by Praneet that created a meaningful transaction between cultural entrepreneurs and a cultural consumer. A fair price was delivered to the producers which was important to me and I was rewarded with two pieces of clothing art enhanced by an understanding of the artists and their world.

Over the course of the next week, Praneet and I discussed our mutual interest in trying to scale up this idea of lifestyle curation and directly connecting artists and producers with cultural (or lifestyle) consumers. The primary objective was to improve the life of the producers of well-designed, high-quality lifestyle art while delivering a richer, more conscious shopping experience to the lifestyle consumer. We knew it was possible but we also knew it was a big project. Unfortunately, over the next few months our discussions and planning were sidetracked because my first Good Karma Now project (our snap.tap.give mobile giving service—http://getgoodkarmanow.com) become far more complex and comprehensive than the short project we envisioned. snap.tap.give finally launched earlier this year and Praneet and I restarted our discussions over the last few days.

The question ahead of us is how to move forward with this venture under the aegis of Good Karma Now. We envision it as a sustainable operation based on a combination of mobile technology, sophisticated online “lifestyle curation” systems and optimal use of modern package delivery logistics. The physical world has small-scale retail metaphors for this type of cultural, lifestyle consumption but the online world continues to be largely a digital representations of “big box” stores. Great selection, reasonable prices and quick delivery yet the transactions lack “soul” and the producer is completely transparent to the buyer. Certainly much of what we consume can be transacted in this manner but the success of the Folk Art Market and farmers markets suggests consumers want more from their shopping experience. We believe that it is possible to create an online analog to these real-world markets.

At the core of this project would be the very real human element of “curation” rather than simple retail “merchandising”. We use this term in the same manner museums do when curating exhibits for visitors. In our case, we we will have a team of “curators” responsible identifying artists and artisan who produce a range home and personal items. They will be responsible for developing the narrative that tells the story of the artist and her community. Our “lifestyle curators” will work closely conscious consumers to bring these pieces of art into their homes and lives. Essential to this curation model is a collection of technology-based tools to enable the scalability that makes this degree personal involvement possible.

Our next steps are to investigate more fully how we actually build such a social enterprise. What kind of people, technology and resources are required? How would such a system of technology and human-centric processes actually be built? Concurrently, we are exploring financing options. The large “human” element of this project and our focus on the value delivered to all parties in a “lifestyle” transaction take it out of the realm of conventional venture capital investors. However, we don’t see this as a nonprofit venture either. Rather, it’s a sustainable social enterprise that must be successful to meet the needs of its many stakeholders but without the requirement for an “exit event”. The convergence of social entrepreneurship and impact investing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_investing) is where we are focusing our attention since we believe many prospective philanthropists are seeking alternatives to traditional giving.

So, snap.tap.give has launched. There is still a ton of work to make it as successful in helping nonprofits reach out to mobile givers but it’s time to start looking at where we direct the Good Karma Now energy next. The story is just beginning…

My ‘Third Act’

As I posted last year, I lost Kathy last year to breast cancer after 41 years of marriage and 45 years of being my partner and best friend. New patterns started forming as life without Kathy began to unfold. I came to realize that much of what drove me before was simply no longer interesting. More significantly, the idea that I was entering my “third act” began to crystallize as I processed my loss. I have never been interested in conventional retirement since working on interesting projects (technical and business) has been intellectually rewarding to me and even entertaining most of the time. My non-professional interests have always been activities I could use to balance my work and none needed the full-time attention that retirement would provide. The path that I would choose for my third act would have to incorporate the themes of technology, startups and a concern that socially-aware business practices were essential for capitalism to evolve to a more sophisticated economic platform that would address the realities of our complex world.

My decision last year to shift my focus to that of a “social entrepreneur” embodies these themes and also maps very nicely to the ‘generativity’ life task George Vaillant describes in his book “Aging Well”. I have reached the stage in my life where giving back is important. As Vaillant describes, if we age well our world expands and community becomes more essential than identity. Being part of something in which success is measured in terms beyond financial ROI gives substance to the generativity life task.

Continuing the theatrical metaphor, founding Good Karma Now as a social enterprise last year with my partner David Allen was the first scene in my “third act”. I am delighted with how the play is unfolding and we will be publicly launching our smartphone giving service soon. Stay tuned for more details.

A New Landscape

We lost Kathy on April 19, the day before her birthday. It was a long battle after her cancer returned in early 2007 but Kathy’s determination was unwavering and she never complained about the pain, the fatigue and the side effects from years of chemotherapy. We had the good fortune of being able to let her pass at home with the help of an excellent hospice team, a wonderful group of caregivers and the loving care of her cousin Mary in her last days. For all that, I am thankful.

Kathy was my wife, best friend and lover for almost 42 years of marriage. I miss her deeply but the positive memories are beginning to prevail over the challenges of the last few years. The image that is most present with me now is her wild, curly hair blowing in the breeze as we did our marathon training runs in San Francisco in the 1990’s. The determination she exhibited then was present right up to the end.

I’m entering a new landscape without Kathy. It feels odd without her but, as Mary said, the dogs and I must simply get up each morning and put one paw in front of the other. We are soldiering on. Each day is a little easier than last but the void remains.