Friday, March 5, 2010

Starting Up in Buffalo

There's this nutso notion out there that you can still make a killing with what is commonly called a "startup" on the Internet. The number of outfits attempting this on a daily basis now is rather astounding. There are even startups which serve other startups. In general it's a game of who has the most viewers/readers and then that person gets to be the market maker, in a food chain from top to bottom. They choose which startups to highlight and which to ignore. And seemingly everyone wants to "go viral."

I work here in Buffalo for a little non-startup called Hoover Blanket, Inc. It's a non-startup because, first of all, we've been at this for quite a long time. And second of all, we don't really believe in making a killing on or off or from the Internet. We actually believe in changing the world, pretty much in the way that people working on the so-called "smart grid" believe in changing the world.

We're like the people working on renewable energy sources. We know where the future has to be, and we know it's only a matter of time before we get there. Investments in oil are only sensible if you desperately want to get yours now, and could give a damn for what's coming down the pike. We think that's pretty sort sighted.

The name, Hoover Blanket, descends from the general derision Americans once felt toward our leader Herbert Hoover. During the great depression, President Hoover would habitually announce how well off we really were, and even make proclamations, all at such odds with reality that people started calling the hobo camps "Hoovervilles." A Hoover Blanket was how you kept warm in those Hoovervilles; you wrapped yourself in discarded newsprint! You go Herbie, rah rah us, and pass the revolution.

These days, lots of people fret the disappearance of bona-fide newspapers; the so-called "fourth estate" of our civilization, without which government might oppress and overwhelm us. So cognizant of this danger were our founding fathers that they enshrined the freedom of the press in our Constitution. No one is certain whether the more recent forms taken by the new "fifth estate" - which must include the blogosphere - are up to the task of replacing what gets lost as newspapers increasingly get shuttered.

The hand wringers do tend to forget how often the professional press has served as a shill to government power and preference. The press has as often endorsed such insanity as the Japanese American Internment, the War in Iraq, the Red Scare and on and on, as they have exposed the lies of government. Newspapers have arguably had too much wealth and power, but there doesn't seem to be anything in line to replace them.

As with the culture of startups, the supposition that the blogosphere can provide a check to power also needs to be examined.

Hoover Blanket, Inc., your local hometown hero, was almost selected as a finalist for the great big Tech Crunch 50 back in September. Tech Crunch is one of the gatekeeper websites. One of the market makers. Getting covered by Tech Crunch pretty much guarantees viewership to your site. You get attention. You get the critical-mass seeding needed to go viral.

We can easily guess the many reasons Hoover Blanket just missed the cut (we know we weren't higher than number 60 out of thousands). We didn't have millions in backing for one. Plus, we are working out of Buffalo, which pretty much guarantees a derisive guffaw from the startup community.  We were invited to travel to San Francisco to join the competition in "the pit;" a consolation prize for the second 50.  We somehow thought that would be beneath our dignity. Imagine that! Dignity in Buffalo. What a concept!

We chose our corporate name pretty deliberately, if you can consider flashes in the middle of the night deliberate. But if fits these times. Lots of people are out of work again, and even though our government this time has taken steps to prevent calamity, it doesn't really feel like we're quite out of the woods. And then there's that pesky worry about the disappearing newspapers. How will we keep warm?

Later on, still trying to get noticed by Tech Crunch, we made the mistake of going by way of a young blogger on their site who had a track record of being sympathetic to new businesses like ours. Just our luck, he was later let go when it was discovered that he had been taking quiet bribes from folks like us. The temptation must be very difficult to resist when you have the power of make or break over so many hopeful entrepreneurs. Our gullibility still stings.

It really isn't clear that what goes viral is really the best of the information or the resources that are out there. Often it's the trainwreck stuff, or the stuff with clandestine funding, just like Lonely Girl who made such a splash in the early days of blogging. And then there are the elephants in the room, like Google, which seems able to print money now with their (proprietary and private) control of keyterm auctions. When the whole world is searching on Google, they pretty much own the territory of how much you won't be able to make without them.

So, what does Hoover Blanket, Inc. set out to do? And why are we in Buffalo? The second part is simple; it's where we live. But it also doesn't and shouldn't matter, unless you really want and need to do your networking face-to-face in the coffee shops of Silicon Valley or, marginally, Seattle. (I'm shortly off to Seattle, and San Francisco for both personal and business reasons, if you really want to know). The first part is a little bit trickier to explain.

Let's start with Google's business model. As you might know, they now spend far more for electrical power than they do for the equipment it powers. They index and cache the entire "content" of the live Internet quite a few times over, far more quickly than any other company could possibly afford to do. And this includes some really really big ones like Microsoft and Yahoo! just to name a couple. Google even caches the content of the Internet as it changes, so you just go ahead and try to expunge that blog post you later wish you hadn't made!

In addition, without your necessarily really knowing that you could have "opted out," they are probably storing lots of things about what you search for, each time you use their services. Those of us who use their "free" email know how spooky it can be when they target ads depending on what we're writing about, and it seems like they might be reading our minds, or our secret love notes. Especially when those ads actually alert us to something we're really interested in but didn't know about beforehand.

Now, we trust Google not to expose this information, even to themselves. They seem nice enough, and their corporate motto - a side-wise jab in a grudge match against arch-rival Microsoft - is "don't be evil." Which pretty much begs the question, but still, they seem nice enough. Until you do something wrong, at which point they've cheerfully announced that they will turn you over immediately upon presentation of official bona-fides, to whatever authority might be asking.

Which pretty much comes right back to that free speech freedom-of-the-press thing about our Constitution. Just in case what you're searching on has something to do with what the government might be doing wrong. Folks in South America or in China aren't always that happy to have their searches stored and cataloged. And at this particular moment, it's not at all clear where Google stands. The Chinese government is blaming over-eager students for the targeted hacking of Google's sites. And Google is claiming a foothold in China in the name of the forces of freedom of information.

Do you really think information is free? If it were, then where is Google getting all its income? Just an innocent question.

Google might have located their data center right around here, just because of the Falls. Maybe all that cheap electrical power's already spoken for? Well, never mind, because we have seen the future and it's not about caching all your search behaviors, nor about storing all the "content" from the entire World Wide Web. It's not about reading your mind either.

Credit scoring companies and market research companies already know more about you than you might know about yourself. Buy a house and you can get that spooky feeling that they even knew about that place where you were hiding your mail from you wife before you divorced. They make mistakes, like sending me a solicitation from the NRA, but not often enough to have an impact on their bottom line. Of course, their mistakes can have a huge impact on your bottom line, but that's another story.

In general, what Google - and this is true for most Internet startups - what Google is all about falls into the overall category of artificial intelligence. In general, the economics of the Internet work by targeting information as accurately as possible, and then somehow getting your attention. The very best way to do this is by harnessing your friends and family, via something like Facebook, now one of the largest membership communities on the planet. Ever.

Somehow, it's become too expensive to do this sort of thing in person, so the holy grail is to get the machines to do it faster, more accurately and more efficiently than people ever could. Which might make you wonder why they all want in to Facebook, where there intrusion would clearly collapse that community in an instant. Well, except for the games. And those little annoying dating ads as if every old guy wanted someone looking younger targeted at the "mature set."

Sometimes we're willing and happy participants in these charades, and sometimes we get the sense that they're pretty skeezy. There are a few laws about it all, but in general Internet business makers move a lot more quickly than our government does. And, unless they're selling porn, Internet geeks just don't tend to look and feel all that scary.

Sometimes, like navigating the auto-attendants now de-rigeur for all the big companies, these automated processes do seem to beg some question themselves. Like maybe they really don't want you to be able to get through, while thinking that there's something wrong with the way you're paying attention.

At Hoover Blanket, Inc., pretty much as in the black community, pretty much as in the GLBT community, pretty much as in any community on the fringes of "mainstream," which is pretty much a definition of what it means to live in Buffalo compared to almost anywhere else in the nation, we think people should be able to be whatever they want to be, even if they're faking it, without worry that whatever they once were might become some kind of indelible stigma for all time. We don't think your searches, your deletions, or anything else for that matter, should be stored for examination either on your behalf or against you.

You might think that we are really "not evil," and we'd love for you to think that because we're not. But that's not even close to why we believe what we believe. We actually have enough sense to understand that "artificial intelligence" cannot, by definition (I love to say that - I'll try to explain in a minute) ever even come close to "real" intelligence. That's because intelligence is a human quality, and therefore includes the whole battery of emotive responses.

OK, so now in addition to thinking we'd like to be considered "not evil" you think we want to be loved too, right? Well, sure, but no, the point here is that while a sophisticated robot might be more "hot" than your wife, you're not about to make an emotional commitment to a robot, right? (I know you love your '65 mustang convertible, but let's not get distracted here) But even more than feelings, the point is that actual humans can distinguish what they want and what they don't far more trivially, quickly, accurately, and - most important - satisfactorily than any machine will ever duplicate. Try getting a machine to identify a friend at a hundred paces from the behind in Beijing, just for a quick example.

Half your searches on Google are really frustrating right now because you really don't want what everyone else is looking for by that name. You know what I'm talking about if you simply try to search on "avatar" say, or "beck" or "bolt" just after the Olympics, or "cronic" when they think you misspelled "chronic." Humans are metaphorical and subtle. Machines just aren't.

The reason that we know this stuff is that my business partner, Kevin Chugh, Ph.D. (yeah, I give him the business for that set of letters too) is pretty advanced in his understanding of these matters. Kevin has a bit of local fame for his invention of the V-Frog, which is a computer-based virtual dissection lab. Behind that is his Ph.D. research into ways for modelling complex structures like living tissues, so that a machine can return a tactile response just like the "real thing." It's pretty exciting stuff. I'm sure the pornographers are all over it!

In order to model structures more complex than a bridge or a skyscraper, engineers have to give up deterministic modelling in favor of something which works more at the level of cellular automata. That's the way, not incidentally, that the terrorists can provide actual real-life challenges to all of our military's technical sophistication. But it's also the way that complex structures can be accurately modeled by machines. You program the interactions among the pieces, depending on their relative properties, and you program their location. You can get something pretty lifelike.

Now you don't have to be too clever to notice that this same technique can be used to power Internet searching. It's actually analogous to the technique by which the micro packets which compose all the information on the internet get routed to their destination. Each host along the way only needs to know the next closer-to-the-destination host to send each packet on its way. It doesn't need the entire route. Designed for the military, it doesn't even want to know the whole route; in case a part of that pathway gets blown up, there will be a virtually infinite number of alternate routes.

A doctor palpating a virtual body can sense an occult tumor. A searcher can sense the right direction for what she's looking for in the same sense, if only we can get the machines out of our way and be presented with some human discernible clues. You get the idea.

So at Hoover Blanket, Inc., we not only don't want to store any of the content of the Internet, we don't need to. Hell, we're from Buffalo, we could never afford it even if we did want to. We certainly have no interest in storing anything about your behavior. It would only get in the way of what you're trying to find today, which might have very little to do with what you were looking for yesterday, when your wife was watching, say.

Our catalog of the Internet looks more like a multidimensional map. We don't care what you call it or what you want to do with it. We just show you where to find it, based on the discoveries of others looking for the same thing. Works every time. Of course we have to believe that most people are genuinely looking and that what they find is genuinely meant to be found.

Right now the Internet works pretty much as if most of us were skeezy sociopaths trying to get you to believe something you never would believe if you knew the truth about what they were really trying to do, or to get you to do. And that's because, right now, the Internet actually favors the gamers of your enthusiasms. Sometimes these same folks even make it into highest office, but that would be another story too, you know the old one about George and the Constitution.

Anyhow, we don't care who you are or what your motives are. We only care that you are human and not a machine, and so, naturally, among our products are sophisticated means to tell the difference. Like CAPTCHAS if you've seen those hard-to-read squiggled-up text boxes that you have to get past. Ours are way more fun, and trivially easy for humans to get past. Impossible for machines. That's because, unlike CAPTCHAS, ours are human-generated. We call them Bafflebots, and if anybody else tries for that name we will sue them with all the firepower of Buffalo's underpaid attorney class (well, not the ones on billboards, the ones used by the stars, you know who I'm talking about).

Where does free speech and the fourth estate - the newspapers - come back in? Simple. By its location in our multidimensional geography of Internet "location" you can see immediately the context for anything and everything. So, if some teapartier, angry at the government because there's no one else ready to hand to be angry at, makes some outrageous claim about, say, black welfare moms, you can see right where they're coming from based on where people go to find such things. Local news can be re-localized, even when it's coming from the New York Times, and speakers out against authority can establish their credentials on the spot, so to speak.

OK, that's enough about our company. Obviously the underpinnings are a little more complicated than what I'm letting on. Just as obviously, Google  knows all this stuff too. They have whole armies of engineers working on these problems. But, as you might be able to see, they would have an awful lot to lose if the obvious got out. Pretty much the way that lots of people don't want you to know where they're really coming from (hint: money is a pretty good way to get a clue).

What about Buffalo? At the SuperBowl, the Stanley Cup, even the Olympics now, we're always almost there. Just missed. Wide right. No Goal! Heck, I've always been almost there myself. I was in a bar near the stadium when the audience started filing out from the game that made the history books; Frank Reich's record-breaking comeback. I wasn't nearly so disappointed as they all were - heck the game was going exactly the way I continued to hope it would.

I very nearly scored prime seats for the Ryan Miller homecoming the other day. I was down at Niagara Square for the Scotty Norwood homecoming, even though I didn't see the game. Well, those tickets were already getting beyond the reach of the normal folks from Buffalo anyhow. But how many times are we doomed to almost, but not quite, win the championship? Hoover Blanket's right there with you.

When New Orleans won this season's SuperBowl, how many in Buffalo wondered if catastrophes have to be considered acts of God before the country will pay attention and root for you? Our states of emergency are the cause for late-night jokes by those stellar wife-cheating hot-car driving multimillionaire hosts (At least we don't get the "act of God" exclusion from our insurance coverages).

Everyone knows the story of the frog who passes the point of no return as he basks in the kettle while it's heating. New Orleans got hit hard and fast, which upped the probability for outpourings of sympathy. They hopped right out of their kettle (there might have been gatekeepers for the way back in). In Buffalo, we're like the v-frog (tm) in the kettle, who stayed just a bit beyond the point where we should have thought about doing something different. Our catastrophes are slow and deliberate, and seem very much as though they're our own darned fault.

And we regret all those things we could have done differently, like where we built our University, where the highways went, where the subway doesn't go to or come from, leaving us a ghost town where there used to be a downtown.

I remember getting a new red winter cap with ear-flaps back when I was a little kid, back when
Naugahyde was cool. We used to stick our heads out the car windows in those days, riding over the
Skyway. I looked like a dork with the earflaps turned down.

Regret for me is watching my new red hat float down and away from the skyway bridge; my caught
heart plummeting with it. It didn't soar like a red balloon let go.

But hey, maybe it's really not our fault. Maybe we're not the dorks they all think we are.

I wonder where our hearts are tending, here at home in Buffalo. We have had some superstars around here lately, and they seem to like us well enough. The famous home makeover folks were impressed enough by our stone soup magic that they've changed the way they do business all over the country. They seem interested in manufacturing hope to almost the same extent as other more powerful forces seem interested in manufacturing fear.

Who knows? Maybe we have the real thing here, in our city of no illusions. Reality City. We ain't got no artificial nothing. No artificial hope. No artificial fear.  And certainly no artificial intelligence, as I learned the other other night listening to our Canadian false friend Margaret Atwood. I call her a false friend because, while she made a point to let us know that there is a real Buffalo in her past, passing through from Toronto, she also spent most of her "talk" giving us examples of questions she gets a bit exasperated with from admirers.

So, naturally, we provided a few more reasons for her to roll her eyeballs. It's what we do, well, especially when the talk we paid for turns out to be more of a definition of the distance between us and her exalted heights. It came off like an attempt to get us on her side; to commiserate with her about silly folks who couldn't, could they?, be anything like this audience.

Atwood makes her living extrapolating the thinking and behaviors of those who are like our American teapartiers. You can just imagine what those Bully Canadian Hockey Moms think of those folks. Oh, I think I'm getting mixed up again.  As if there's not a thinking soul in Buffalo who would accept her challenges if offered them dead on. As if we're not all wishing we were Canadian right about now.

Atwood remembered Buffalo from back when we were "sin city." When the drinking age was lower here, when the bars were open later and the girlie joints were more explicit than the ones now over there. I know, it's hard to imagine now, but we had our glory days.

How about let's overlook the Buffalo that everyone else thinks of. How about we look either farther back or farther forward, skipping over the embarrassing stuff.

I have no illusions. Starting up in Buffalo is really really hard compared to starting up almost anywhere else. But we do have plenty of real people here. We have real intelligence. We have products which are not premised only on being cool. And that's not even to mention the art, the music, the theater, the dance, the ethnic identities, and the food, the glorious food. Even the New York Times gives us credit now for that!

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