by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XXI

This Week's Clue: Saint Fred

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This Week's Clue: Saint Fred
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
The Internet of Things
Another Boom Waiting To Happen
Calling For EvHead's Head
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of May 24, 2004

My late father was no saint.

But consider the record.

Frederick H. Blankenhorn (1920-1999) had an 8th grade education yet raised four children in suburban plenitude. Among us we have seven college degrees, four marriages, no divorces, no felonies, and our kids are all doing all right. How many Hiltons or Kennedys or even Bushes could say the same?

My Dad had an unerring ear for what was coming. He got out of TV repair just before computers made it obsolete. He built a water garden and a mulch pit in the 1960s when such things were unheard of. He was into heat pumps in the 1950s, and our homes always appreciated in value.

But he had what we would now call ADD and dyslexia. He hardly ever finished what he started. He had a violent temper. Our home was filled with books but I never saw him reading one. The shop was a mess, clouds of dust, opened TVs lying everywhere, a metal paint tray filled to the rim with screws and nuts that had lost their homes. He was charming to strangers, but infuriating to his family, often scary to me. After I left for college in 1973, I stayed thousands of miles away from him for the rest of his life, except for brief visits which often left me angry and discouraged.

The only way dad knew to show love was to give people stuff. The last time I saw him, in 1997, I tried to hug him at the airport, knowing it was likely our last time together. He flinched as from a blow. Yet when my baby daughter visited him, in 1989, he bought a flat of strawberries, pounds of chocolate and whipping cream by the quart, making her enough chocolate strawberries dipped in cream to choke five babies. She's a teen now, but laughs with me about granddad every spring when I make some for her.

In business he always saw himself as the key man, an idea man, and he had great ideas. But he also fought for the last dollar, and often did business with ruthless men from The City (New York), businessmen who said "trust me" and left him broken. We hid from bill collectors. My mother cried wondering how we'd afford food and clothes, where the mortgage payment was coming from. He broke her heart, and mine too.

I saw this close-up. I worked at his TV shop, called Tower TV, for most of my young life. Some summers I was with him 60 hours a week, stocking shelves, trying to help fix sets, going on service calls, staring at a box of phosphors for hour after hour. You'll never get me doing that, I said.

So in my own life I avoided big commitments. I didn't go into business, I thought, I just wrote. I spent modestly, tried to work for many different people at once, and never let them get deeply in debt to me.

In my working life I want to trust, I accept that I'm giving stuff away for mere social acceptance, and while my mom may have been the rock my father's waves battered, I think of my wife as a rock I'm securely anchored to.

The last recession forced a change. By mid-2003 I had no work and no prospects. My self-published book didn't sell, this newsletter was losing readers to spam fears, my new blog had barely started. I had no money coming in and felt my writing was screaming into a strong wind, unheard.

So when a New York sharpie promised great work for big clients, and giant checks, I grabbed hold. I put his name on my letter, I blogged on his site, I encouraged friends to join, I even tried to get into the marketing of his business.

In terms of the work, he delivered on the promise. I found myself helping the kinds of big clients who matter, the kind who can change the world. True, most of my influence was negative. My fulsome praise for one product moved the client to tone down his claims, which he finally realized he couldn't meet. My call for a "platform strategy" fell on deaf ears with another client, who just wanted a tactical fix. My proof that yet-another client was going the wrong way moved him to kill plans that employed hundreds, and I was never able to get across my growth plans. Still, I saved these people hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions in embarrassment. It was very rewarding.

Yet when I submitted my invoices, when the clients paid their bills, I saw nearly nothing. And when I confronted the boss in New York over this, he said, "trust me." He gave me a check for some of what he owed. It bounced.

Those words, though, stuck. Trust me. I had no idea how deep they stuck.

Months went by. The work went on. The money stayed in the north. And finally we finished the "big project," the one we were convinced would get us over the hump. A week later, I got an e-mail, then a phone call. The company is changing its name, "so you'll be paid," the boss claimed. "Trust me."

It turned out to be a Chapter 7 filing, in which roughly $37,400 in money I was owed, my whole year's salary, was being thrown in the pile and burned. It's just a technicality, I was told by the man in New York, a tax thing. Trust me. We'll have more work, and you'll get your share.

Long story short, I blew up. I called this man a thief, a con artist, a scam, a fraud. I called him this to his biggest client. I said, I've been robbed, don't do business with this man. And then I briefly betrayed my client confidence, to soothe my own ego.

This was wrong. Within 24 hours I blew up a promising career, doing something I enjoyed, and destroyed any hope I might get some of that $37,400 back. Maybe, if I just kept my mouth shut...

But I couldn't do that. My dad did that. My dad did that, repeatedly. It broke his heart. It broke him. He stayed in his small business until frailty and his own incompetence forced us to pull the plug on it. And then he lost the will to live. When you're in your 70s and lose interest in living, dying is just a matter of time. He wanted to go, and did on the day before Halloween, on the eve of the Millenium. I still haven't cried over it. It was his choice.

Then I think, what will happen to me, 20-30 years from now, when something happens and I can no longer write? H.L. Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948, and years later was sitting with a friend, remembering old times. The friend mentioned a mutual acquaintance, who had passed away in 1948. "Ah," said Mencken. "That was the same year I died."

What's the Clue from all this? Maybe there isn't any. We are what we are, our parents' children. No matter how far we run we have to accept that. But I'm lucky. My father was brilliant, he was ahead of his time, he did everything for his kids and stayed married to my mother for 49 years.

I work very hard to avoid his mistakes. I'm careful to hug my kids, tell them I love them. They don't work at my shop, they work for themselves.

But I realize now I'm Saint Fred's son. It's a gift like dark chocolate, bittersweet. When there are strawberries, with whipped cream, it's delicious. When there aren't, there is always this phosphoring computer screen before me, and stories I can tell.

It will do. Love you, dad.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am presently searching for opportunities.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

The Internet of Things

It's inevitable.

Within a few years there will be more "things" (intelligent devices) on the Internet than people.

This is not a bad thing. In fact it is a very good thing. This is The World of Always-On.

It can start with very simple applications, like a Verichip application at the Baja Beach Club. Chips are implanted into customers who can then order drinks by waving their arms. This is just an ID number, linked to credit card data in the cash register, which not only keeps the tab paid but gives an audit trail against the underage drinking police. A larger version of the same chip is called the Champion Chip and it's given to elite runners at Atlanta's Peachtree Road Race. It has a number and can be read by a radio at the start and finish of the race, thus calculating a time for the run.

Now, what if bar patrons were given a chip that also measured, say, their blood-alcohol level? A drink post-.08 would force you to identify a designated driver, another test as you exited might confirm your results before police even get near you, and you'd be warned along the way. Or, what if the ChampionChip were measuring, say, a runner's heart rate? You could be flagged by a volunteer at, say, a heart rate of 170? This could save your life.

These are very early days. These are like the blinking-light applications the old MITS Altair was capable of.

Here's what we might call an CP/M application of Always-On. Philips is developing a Zigbee-based garment that can monitor your physical condition, diagnose problems, and alert you or a doctor if something goes wrong.

This could become a true "killer app." Whether it comes in the form of a garment, or a wristwatch, or something that's implanted, a system that monitors, tweaks, and optimizes the health of a sick person means that person can go out in public, or live at home, much longer than before. The savings from that are enormous and we're all living longer.

And this is just one Always-On application space. You can automate building controls with Zigbee, so as to use less power. You can automate gardens and golf courses, to use less water. (Imagine applying this to the problems of drip irrigation farming.) Stores and manufacturers can use it to save on their supply chains, and reduce theft. You can use it for security, or just so you'll know, from your desk at work, whether you have the ingredients at home for Spaghetti Al Fredo or if you need to zip by the grocer's.

For all these things, the Internet is just one transport mechanism. There are others. Wireless LANs, UWB LANs, Zigbee, Bluetooth, cellular -- these too are just transport mechanisms.

The point is there is a whole world out there, waiting to be born. It's a world that can employ millions, in programming, in sales, in service, in networking, and create trillions of dollars in new value.

What are we waiting for?


Another Boom Waiting To Happen

There's a huge market boom coming in cellular data. This is because the use of nVidia graphics technology, combined with 3G networks, are rapidly bringing cell phones into the computing mainstream.

But greed is causing the industry, most especially Verizon, to miss the boom.

Here's why.

As I noted at CTIA, all the major U.S. cellular networks use different technology. This makes it very difficult to sell simple services like ringtones. You can't advertise them on TV, radio, or in print, because no matter which technology you choose to support a lot of people can't buy your offer.

This is compounded, in Verizon's case, by greed that masquerades as caring.

Verizon, unlike other U.S. carriers (and unlike nearly every other carrier worldwide) doesn't support Java apps. Instead, all apps must be rewritten in Qualcomm's Brew. In addition, Verizon doesn't allow anything to be sold on its network that it hasn't pre-approved, and only allows sales to be made through its own site or "deck." They don't even support third-party "Premium SMS," so there's no way outside vendors can be paid.

This means one-fourth of U.S. cellular users can't buy the cellular data products everyone else can. It's as if you were running a proprietary network in the middle of the Internet boom.

So Verizon is. And we know how that story ends. AOL is fading, France's Prestel died long ago. Anyone remember NAPLPS?

Unfortunately, most customers don't know about this. Verizon is paying no market penalty for this. Its competitors never mention it in ads, so its customers don't even know what they're missing.

This is going to change. And when it does change, Verizon is going to look like New York after this week's big movie.

At that point, send this to Verizon and ask them: Can you hear me now?

Calling For EvHead's Head

I don't recommend firing people easily. I've been fired enough to know how much it hurts. To have someone say "fire" in public must be doubly difficult.

But on my blog I've launched a public campaign to dump Blogger founder Evan "EvHead" Williams from Google.

The straw that broke my back with Williams is the latest version of Blogger, released a week ago. Its aim is to keep blogging simple. You can blog via e-mail. There are new templates and profile pages. But if you have blogged before, as I have, you will still find that other tools are still much better. Movable Type is better. Radio is better. Scoop is much, much better.

There are so many other things that could have been done. This release doesn't even follow the innovations of others, while making no innovations on its own. It reminds me of WebCrimson , only done with more money. And I dumped WebCrimson months ago.

My "campaign" quickly caught the attention of Marc Canter, who criticized it heavily but, in the end, he gave me more reason to be insistent.

"I'm sorry to see that Blogger's latest incarnation doesn't support multiple kinds of syndication formats, and is going with Atom only," he wrote. "It would be trivially easy to do so. (Blogger Pro users can still create RSS 1.0 feeds, as I understand things.)"

What Marc confirms has happened is that EvHead destroyed blog syndication as we know it. In order for a newsreader to give you all the news of the day, it must now be able to read three different formats -- RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0 and Atom.

Why? Because EvHead was playing little Microsoft games. We have to own the standard. Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah. (Remember, he could have been spending time creating something cool like Blogware.)

I thought Google's corporate mantra was, "first, do no harm?"

Well, Williams has done great harm here, and with no discernible user benefit.

Add it all up and I think you have a case.

Again, I'm not convicting this guy of a crime. I'm just telling his bosses they can do better, much better. And they can. Evan will leave richer than he ever dreamt of being, richer than I can ever dream of being, and then has a lifetime to invest wisely and prove me an idiot. I wish him luck.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is always Kurt Vonnegut . Consider this a lifetime achievement award . (As if he should care.)

Clueless is LA Times editor John S. Carroll, who went off to the Oregon woods to bemoan the excesses of Fox News and propaganda journalism. The place to fight that is in the market, directly, not in the woods, John.


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