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October 2005

The Re-emergence of Interrelativity

After months of seclusion, Interrelativity, Inc., is finally ready to re-emerge and open up to new business opportunities.  By way of brief background: Interrelativity designs, develops and deploys proactive display applications, software that runs on computers connected to large displays and sensors (e.g., RFID readers) that detect people nearby and show visual content that is related to those people (e.g., from their online profiles).  Our goal is to bring the benefits of social networking in virtual communities into physical communities, enhancing face-to-face networking opportunities at places and times -- such as conferences, meetings and other events -- where people gather to connect with one another.  I'll share a brief history of Interrelativity below, but first I want to be explicit about our current status: if anyone is organizing, hosting or sponsoring any events that could be enhanced by our proactive display applications, please contact me -- we're ready to roll!

I founded Interrelativity, Inc., in February as a business venture to support the mission of using technology to help people relate to one another.  As I noted in an earlier blog post in the midst of my most recent career transition, I have pursued this mission through various paths over the past 9 years (and in less direct ways before that).  I didn't know much about entrepreneuria at that time, but I decided to exercise some gumption and follow the path with heart.  I am still on the steep end of the entrepreneurial learning curve, but I have been fortunate to connect with some fabulous organizations (e.g., the Northwest Entrepreneur Network) and people (most notably, Doug Miller and Melissa DeLong) who have been helping me in a variety of ways since I took this leap of faith.

As I started developing the business, my friend and erstwhile intern, David Nguyen, started developing the technology.  At the time, David was traveling the country, visiting friends and family, applying to graduate schools, and working on the technical design and development of software for Interrelativity as time permitted.  In May, he was accepted into the graduate program at UC Irvine, where they recently initiated a focus area on ubiquitous computing and applications.  Shortly thereafter, he made the sound career decision to accept an offer for another summer internship at Intel Research to work with another friend, Trevor Pering, where he could focus more on research  ... and actually earn a salary.

Fortuitously, another [mutual] friend, Khai Truong, was finishing his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and he agreed to join Interrelativity to take over the technical development on the same day that David started his internship.  Around that same time, I was contacted by Darryl Drayer of the Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia National Labs, who is part of a team exploring the idea of using technology to build community to help secure "soft targets" -- public and semi-public places (such as malls and transportation centers) where it is impractical to deploy guns, gates and guards for protection.  I was honored and excited to have an opportunity to work with Darryl and his fellow team members Curtis Johnson, Judy Moore and John Cummings, to help organize an event, Foil Fest, that brought together a host of brilliant people inside and outside the Sandia community to brainstorm about the topic.

The Foil Fest, held in Albuquerque in July, also represented the first opportunity for Interrelativity to deploy proactive displays, as well as incorporate some innovative new features -- such as a group weblog and a mechanism for posting and viewing biographical sketches of the participants -- into our solution.  While the event itself was very successful, the deployment was a mitigated success.  A new application that Khai developed, which generates semi-random collages of profile photos, ran flawlessly, but we had some problems with the RFID reader interface for the Ticket2Talk application (so it, too, ran in semi-random mode).  There was some confusion among the participants about the different profiles, usernames and passwords required for the Interrelativity web site and the group weblog, hosted by TypePad (and for which we configured password-controlled access ... so I'm not [yet] at liberty to reference it in this blog).  In a post-event survey, the vast majority of respondents reported that the applications added "moderate" or "significant" value to their experience at the event, and the identification of areas for improvement provided invaluable feedback, and overall, I was very grateful for the experience.

However, shortly after the Sandia deployment, family health issues lead to my refocusing priorities from business matters to family matters.  Khai, who had already accepted a faculty position at University of Toronto that starts in January 2006 before joining Interrelativity (and so, even in the best case, I knew he was only intending to be actively engaged in Interrelativity for a limited period of time), decided that the intensity of effort required for ongoing technical development of Interrelativity software was taking away too much time from his research ... in fact, it was taking all of his time.  So, after walking me through the code -- which I tried to understand as best I could, having never programmed in Java, PHP or MySQL before -- he turned his attention to research, and preparing for his new job and upcoming move from Atlanta to Toronto.  I was (and remain) grateful for all his help in getting us to a stage where we could do a deployment, and understand why this was the right decision for him to make. 

Given that I still had/have no financial means to offer a respectable salary (although I was, and am, willing to offer respectable equity), and was running out of friends who were both technically proficient and available for unpaid work, I decided I had to either seek financial investment -- which [I believe] would require learning a lot more about business planning, finances, marketing and sales, in order to develop a comprehensive and compelling business plan -- or assume the technical development responsibilities myself -- which would require learning a lot more about Java, PHP and MySQL.  To be honest, the challenges of the former path scared me more than the latter path, as the fomer path deviated more significantly from my past experience, whereas I did have strong technical skills at a earlier stage in my career.  Under other circumstances, I might have been more inclined to feel the fear and do it anyway, but I was already near the edge of my stress threshold in dealing with Amy's cancer and its treatment, so I selected the latter path (first).

In the long run, I decided it would be better to redesign and redevelop the proactive display code from scratch (informed and influenced by the code that Khai had developed), so that I would truly understand how everything worked, and be in a better position to make subsequent modifications to accommodate future deployments ... and/or future alliances or partnerships.  I had forgotten how much joy -- and accompanying occasional frustrations -- I used to experience in programming.  I was delighted to discover a suite of valuable resources to assist me in this path, including my new favorite technical book, Head First Java, the incredibly helpful JavaRanch forums that were initially created to augment that book, and my new favorite blog, Creating Passionate Users, written by Kathy Sierra, one of the book's co-authors (and which, er,  recently recommended that bloggers reduce talking about themselves by 80% ... oh well).  When I put all the software components together this weekend, and saw a complete working system, I felt a wave of joy -- and empowerment -- that I haven't felt in a long time.

So, now that the technology is in a stable state -- and, just as importantly (if not moreso), Amy's health is in a more stable state -- it's time to turn my attention to the development of the business of Interrelativity ... and I hope I will experience a similar measure of joy and empowerment as I stretch to meet the challenges that lay before me down this path.

Further Along the Road to Recovery

Amy has been showing continuing signs of improvement.  Yesterday, she felt up to getting out of the house for a few hours to watch both Meg's and Evan's soccer games (and both of them scored goals at their respective games (!)), and do a little pumpkin shopping at a nearby farm.  She has been eating more regularly, taking a few tentative excursions from her restricted fiber diet, resuming her daily routine of having decaffeinated coffee in the morning, and even enjoying an occasional sip of wine.  Her weight is the lowest in the 25+ years I've known her (117 pounds), and she is looking forward to putting some of that weight back on.  The pain and some of the gastrointestinal ailments that she has been experiencing have diminished -- though they resurface from time to time -- and fatigue is an ongoing challenge.  One of her biggest challenges, at this point, is coping with huge body temperature swings, alternating between feeling chilled (due to her lower body mass) and experiencing hot flashes ... but we prefer these challenges to some of the others we have faced recently.

We continue to enjoy an embarrassment of riches, in the form of support from our network of friends and family.  Evan was able to have a small birthday celebration last weekend thanks to the generosity of one of his/our friend's family (I earlier noted how Meg would not have had much of a celebration of her birthday if not for the intervention of other friends).  Also, some of the members of Amy's bunco group have taken it upon themselves to keep us well nourished, with a steady stream of meals that has been a welcome respite from the rather narrow repertoire of meals that I have been cycling through over the past several months (and freed up some of my time to focus on other activities).  Amy and I both share a disinclination to ask for help, and a measure of discomfort when receiving assistance, so it has been a growthful experience to accept these acts of kindness with gratitude and grace ... and release the sense of non-deservedness ("you shouldn't have...").

Speaking of grace, the title of this post was inspired by the book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Towards Spiritual Growth, by M. Scott Peck, the sequel to one of the most personally influential books I've ever read, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.  The inspiration stems from his opening sentence in the chapter on discipline in The Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult".  The book continues on to talk about the importance of discipline in meeting life's difficulties (I would call them "challenges"), the varieties of love (including its highest form, which is simply the desire to promote the spiritual growth of one's beloved), proposes that we've all got religion (which is simply one's world view, regardless of whether or how it correlates with a so-called "established" religion), and a notion of grace that emphasizes growing toward godhood (that I now recognize as aligning with the concept of namaste).  Scott Peck died recently, and I heard a great interview on NPR in which Megory Anderson credited him with being a pioneer in the are of spiritual growth, while noting that other authors have since expanded beyond Peck's work to extend our understanding of love, discipline, religion and grace.  I had wanted to note his death -- and his influence on my perspective -- at that time ... but, well, I had other challenges that life presented me that assumed a higher priority, and so I applied some discipline to focus on meeting those challenges.

Blogosphere vs. LinkedInosphere: Free vs. Restricted Association

Joi Ito announced that Technorati is now tracking over 20 million blogs (!).  David Sifry recently provided more statistics on the state of the blogosphere, including:

  • it is doubling in size every 5 months
  • it is currently growing by 70K new blogs per day (nearly one per second)
  • between 2% and 8% are fake or spam blogs
  • between 700K and 1.3M posts are made per day (33K / hour, 9.2 / second)
  • 5.8% of posts are fake or spam

These are all interesting statistics, but given that blogs are -- or can be -- conversations, I'd like to know more about the comments and trackbacks in the blogosphere.  One of the commenters on David's post claimed that there are an additional 30M+ blogs on Xanga and MySpace that are not tracked by Technorati.

Last Wednesday, during a panel on social computing, Konstantine Guernicke (co-founder of LinkedIn) reported that his business-oriented social network service (SNS) has 3.8M users.  I wonder how many SNS "nodes" there are across all the various SNS systems, and what kind of growth these systems are seeing.  I suspect there may be 5 to 10 times as many blogs as there are SNS nodes ... and further suspect the rates of growth of blogs is much higher.

All of this brings me back to a point another panelist, Liz Lawley, started out with on Wednesday: she said the social networking service she uses is called a "blog".  At the time, I was thinking this was a rather tongue-in-cheek comment (and probably was, in part), but blogs really do provide a  platform for social networking, especially with hyperlinks, comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and blogrolls.  Blogs provide more latitude than SNS systems not only in the types and targets of links, but also in the various [other] ways one can represent one's self -- or selves -- online (text, photos, music, ...).

The restricted nature of SNS profiles may be a feature rather than a bug for some users. I wonder what proportion of LinkedIn users also maintain blogs -- less than 20% of my LinkedIn connections have blogs (that I know about), and while most of the 200 people attending the panel were LinkedIn users, I suspect few of them have blogs (I'd estimate less than 10%).  In the other direction, I would assume that most bloggers have at least experimented with one or more SNS systems.

In any case, both blogs and SNS systems provide platforms through which people can more easily reveal more aspects of themselves.  And, with this explosive growth (at least in the blogosphere), I hope more of the richness of the online world will increasingly find its way back into the physical world.

The Fun, Utility and Frustration of Social Networking Systems

The MIT Enterprise Panel on Social Networking in Bellevue this week was engaging, entertaining, and edifying.  Mike Flynn (publisher, Puget Sound Business Journal) moderated the interview-style panel discussion with Liz Lawley (professor, RIT, and "A-list" blogger), Bill Bryant (CEO, mophone) and Konstantin Quericke (Co-founder and VP Marketing, LinkedIn).  I chose the title for this post based on my general observation that Bill was representing a social networking service that is primarily focused on fun (with a demographic target of 15-30 year olds), Konstantin was representing a service that focuses on business utility (targeting the 30-65 age range), and Liz shared many of her frustrations with many/all of these social networking services (SNS). 

Heidi Drivdahl introduced the panel, with a reference to 43 things, a goal-based SNS I've blogged about before, highlighting how one might use this service to help get a sense of a place, e.g., contrasting the three most popular goals in Seattle with the three most popular goals in Omaha.  Mike then conducted an audience-participation experiment in "offline" social networking by askng three carefully chosen attendees (of the 200 present) to stand up, then asking each person who knew one or more of these three people to stand up, and then asking each person who knew anyone standing up to stand up.  Nearly everyone in the room was standing ... though I was a bit concerned about whether this may have increased the feeling of isolation or exclusion among the many "first-timers" who were in the room ... a few of whom were still seated at the end of the experiment.  In any case, it was a compelling demonstration of how connected we are ... and [for me] how that connectedness often remains hidden.

The panelists had many interesting gems to share throughout the evening, and their interactions added a lively dimension to the proceedings.  One of the key issues that arose -- repeatedly -- was initially articulated by Liz: the nuances, subtlety and ambiguity that exists in our interactions and relationships in the real world is not well-represented in the interfaces provided by any SNS.  Bill claimed that this was a generational issue, noting that MySpace doesn't need nuance and that Rupert Murdoch's US$580M investment demonstrates that nuance-free services can be very successful.  Liz responded that the relatively young (and inexperienced) users of MySpace aren't concerned about nuance because "they haven't been burned yet", suggested that MySpace may be a friendster-like fad, and with respect to the investment, invoked the concept of a "bubble" in a rather blunt way.

The need for -- and lack of -- nuance in these systems may also be a gender-related issue, as Liz noted that women are not well represented among the movers and shakers in the social computing space (as evidenced by only 7 women among the 107 speakers at Web 2.0).  Konstantin admitted that only one third of the 3.8M LinkedIn users are women, and they have an explicit goal to increase that proportion to 50%.  One feature intended to make the service more appealing to women is the absence of user photographs as an explicit design decision, to reduce the likelihood that people would browse photos and use business pretexts in LinkedIn for, er, non-business goals (and although he used the example of men cyberstalking attractive women, he did say that such uses could expand beyond such stereotypical heterosexual orientations ... especially given that the company is headquartered in [stereotypically omnisexual] San Francisco).  Bill noted that Mophone has been in public beta for only three weeks, and its userbase is in the thousands (perhaps tens of thousands), so in my view it's too early to tell what kinds of gender-based differences will emerge in the use of that service.

The last issue I'll note here is that of interoperability among social networking services.  Liz highlighted the need for open standards, saying that if the door is locked, she doesn't want to come in, and contrasting the interoperability of instant messaging and SNS with that of email (though a commentator from the audience noted that email systems and subnets were not interoperable in the early days of computer networking).  Konstantin said that LinkedIn wants to move more toward an API model, so that developers can write applications on top of the LinkedIn network (a step toward interoperability ... if that API is adopted by other SNS providers).  Although this didn't arise in the panel discussion, Mophone is a service that is not tied to any particular wireless carrier and supports a variety of phones, although it's too early to tell yet whether mophone will achieve the critical mass that is more critical to the success of any SNS than it is for some other technology-enabled services industries.

Harking back to the title I chose for this post, I think it's interesting that LinkedIn is not [primarily] intended to be fun, and mophone is not intended to be useful (in the business sense), and wonder what this implies about the "price" of maturity in this culture.  There is an increasing awareness of the business value of engaging the passions and emotions -- of employees, partners and customers.  I hope that we will see more convergence between fun and utility -- in social networking services and other technologies -- and believe that such a convergence will require a concomittant decrease in the potential frustrations encountered in the use of such tools. 

In fact, I think I'll post creating a social networking service that is fun and useful as a new goal among my 43 things.

Mistakes vs. Lessons, Masculine vs. Feminine

image from One final note about the NPR interview with Paul McCartney and his producer, Nigel Godrich: Godrich mentioned a "mistake" that McCartney made during a cut that was his "favorite moment in the song" (Fine Line)... and he convinced McCartney to incorporate that into the final cut. This called to mind Sheryl Crow's song My Favorite Mistake, and also reminded me of one of my favorite life rules articulated by Cherie Carter-Scott in her inspiring book, If Life is a Game, These are the Rules, which presents a very different view of mistakes than that expressed in McCartney's song:

Rule Three - There are no mistakes, only lessons. Your development towards wisdom is a process of experimentation, trial and error, so it's inevitable things will not always go to plan or turn out how you'd want. Compassion is the remedy for harsh judgment - of ourselves and others. Forgiveness is not only divine - it's also 'the act of erasing an emotional debt'. Behaving ethically, with integrity, and with humour - especially the ability to laugh at yourself and your own mishaps - are central to the perspective that 'mistakes' are simply lessons we must learn.

... which, in turn, reminds me that I read that she will soon be appearing locally at a one-day workshop on Liberating the Feminine.  Normally, I would not even consider attending an event that seems so exclusively designed for women ... but the the current issue of Utne, that just arrived yesterday, includes a special section on Embrace your Feminine: The Power of Nurture in a Man's World ... so perhaps I'll hold off a bit on making relevance / value judgments.

Openness, Vulnerability, Kindness and Greatness

I was catching up with Dan Oestreich's blog this morning, getting inspired by Dan's writing about -- and modeling -- the value of being conscious and open.  I took a break to drive the kids to school, and on the way back, listened to Steve Inskeep's interview with Paul McCartney on NPR, which provided yet another example of the benefits of openness and vulnerability.  The producer of McCartney's latest album, Nigel Godrich (who, as Inskeep notes was not even born yet when the Beatles broke up), was critical of some early cuts on the album, and by being open and responsive to some of that criticism, McCartney was able to craft better music, resulting in what may be his greatest album in years.

Indeed, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is the first McCartney album since Let it Be (the title track of which is one of those "goosebump" songs I mentioned a while back) I am willing buy.  I liked all the tracks played during the course of the interview; the following verse -- from How Kind of You -- resonated particularly strongly with me, given all the kindness we have experienced throughout our recent challenges:

How kind of you to think of me
When I was out of sorts
It really meant alot to be
in someone else's thoughts
someone elses's mind
someone else as kind
as you

Signs of Improvement

While it is sometimes difficult to discern improvement on a day-to-day basis, Amy is definitely doing better this week than last.  She has been spending more time out of bed than in bed during the day, is joining us more regularly for meals, is taking phone calls again and is gradually getting more involved in some of the many aspects of our homelife that she used to take care of entirely on her own (he admits, rather sheepishly).  There have been no new blood tests or other quantifiable measures of Amy's health condition since last Monday, so we content ourselves with these more subjective signs of improvement.

We enjoyed a 5-day visit from my mother and stepfather (they just departed today), and I was grateful to temporarily turn over responsibilities for meal planning and cooking, as well as other household and even yard tasks.  My cousin, Cindy, came over for dinner on Sunday -- our first dinner guest outside the immediate family in  months -- and she even brought dinner for yet another night (probably several nights).  Despite -- or perhaps due to -- our hardships, we recognize and gratefully acknowledge that we are very fortunate in many respects.

Dances with Coyotes

Our yard appears to have been adopted by a coyote, who is spending more of his or her time taking meals by our compost heap.  On the one hand, I enjoy the prospect of being so close to this animal, and I'm sure I'm being influenced, in part, by memories of the movie Dances with Wolves (one of my all-time favorites).  On the other hand, I'm concerned that our dog JoJo -- who ferociously barks whenever she senses the coyote in our yard, and did so this morning when there was only about 20 feet separating them -- may be no match for her wilder cousin.

Coyote1 Coyote2 Coyote3

Social Networking in Seattle

There are two events in the next two weeks that may be of interest to local social networkers.  The  MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest is hosting a dinner panel on "Two Degrees of Separation - How Social Network Technology is Connecting Us for Money, Jobs, and Love" next Wednesday evening, October 19, at the Bellevue Hyatt.  The panelists include

I've been a LinkedIn node for nearly a year now, and have found it to be one of the more useful social networking services I've explored, so I am interested to hear what Konstantin has to say.  I am always interested in what Liz Lawley has to say; she is one of my favorite people -- and favorite bloggers -- and she knows more about social computing than anyone else I know [socially].  I have to admit I had not heard of Bill Bryant or Mobile Operandi before, but given the careful planning done by the organizers of this event, I'm sure he will round out the panel effectively.

Another local opportunity to learn more about a [locally-based] social networking service will be provided this Friday morning, October 14, at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network Venture Breakfast (also held at the Bellevue Hyatt).  Jim Crabbe, CEO of Konnects, will talk about a business-oriented social networking service that includes special features of benefit to membership organizations at the NWEN 5-Minute Forum.  [The 5-Minute Forum immediately precedes the main presentation at a Venture Breakfast, which this month features John Nesheim, who will talk about "The Power of 'Unfair Advantage'".]

MITEF and NWEN events traditionally offer excellent opportunities for social networking in the physical world; it will be interesting and fun to learn about and discuss online social networking in these "offline" settings ... which I acknowledge are not actually in Seattle itself, but within one degree of separation.

Delicious Ambiguity

A scheduling mistake at the hospital today resulted in an extra long wait before seeing the phlebotomist for a CBC test, but there was, as so often happens, a silver lining: Amy and I used the time to stroll through the courtyard and see the Red Doors created by various local artists to support Gilda's Club Seattle, an organization inspired by Gilda Radner and dedicated to providing "a free program where men, women and children living with cancer, along with their family and friends, build emotional support as a supplement to medical care."  The doors are being shown in various places throughout the local area, and will be auctioned off on October 20, with the proceeds being used to help fund the program.

Many of the doors were captivating, each in different ways.  My two favorites were Gilda Cubist (by Freeda Lapos Babson, a [human] artist -- and breast cancer survivor -- from Edmonds) and Pachyderm's Pride (by Watoto, Bamboo, Chai and Hansa, four elephant artists from the Woodland Park Zoo), shown below.  The former had all kinds of inspirational scrabble-like words embedded in various places, and a caption across the middle and bottom crosspieces reading "Treat everyone well" and "We are all one family" ... resonating with my own increasing connection to (and through) compassion and growing awareness that, on a certain level, we are all survivors.  The second evoked powerful imagery of elephants using their trunks to create art.

Cubistgilda   Pachydermartists

The poster introducing the Red Door Campaign began with a quote from Gilda Radner that prompted the title for this post:

Some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.

This sentiment reflects our own experience with cancer, though I'm not sure that either Amy or I have reached a stage where we might use the term "delicious" to describe either of our feelings about the heightened awareness of ambiguity we've come to know over the past several months.

As for the test results, Amy's red blood cell counts are slightly higher (hermatocrit level is up to 32%), but her white blood cell counts are a bit lower than last Wednesday (neutrophils down to 1.42 and lymphocytes down to 0.32), so we will continue taking precautions against potential infections.  She has been eating more regularly, having fewer bouts of diarrhea, and the pain from the radiation has subsided a bit.  However, the fatigue persists ... and we were told today that it is likely to persist for several more weeks.  Meanwhile, we will do our best to make the most of our moments.