How to create things people want: Beware of your own mimetic desires

"We borrow our desires from others." -- Rene Girard

How do we know what we want? The greatest philosophers of every age have pondered this question. Philosopher Rene Girard says we borrow our desires from others. There are natural desires (that of hunger, thirst, desire for shelter) -- and then there are others -- material and immaterial, that ultimately spring from other people. Desire is mimetic. We emulate and acquire as our own the things that other people desire. These desires come as product of our experiences up until this point in our lives. 

The most dominant force that dictates what people want is from our society, as filtered through media. How could it not? We spend hours upon hours, most of our waking lives wading in the ideas of others, beamed into our heads via coax cable from our wall. What is considered right, fair, admirable, and great -- these value judgments are passed by media ten thousand times a day. Yesterday, Michael Phelps made Olympic history by winning his 19th Olympic medal, the most of any Olympian in the history of the games. His success was celebrated, but not without Bob Costas giving Phelps a hard time about how he wasn't winning more in 2012 -- that he wasn't dominant anymore. Why didn't you work harder, Michael? The disappointment of a disapproving father, sublimated through a TV personality on national stage. We are programmed by the media we consume.

In the same telecast yesterday, Bob Costas asked the Fabulous Five (Team USA's Women's Gymnastics Team that just won gold in London) what their first Olympic memories were. Across the board, the teenagers described watching videos of the 2004 Olympics and desperately wanting to be the Olympians they watched on the screen. This is mimetic desire realized on a grand scale.

No matter how grand or banal our mimetic desires, however -- we are not irretrievably doomed to play them out.

Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

STEVE JOBS

In other words, our values don't necessarily have to be from the outside. It's no mistake that the person who said that also went on to create the most valuable, world-changing products in human history. We are programmed by our upbringing, our schools, and our media to desire certain things. If unexamined, we will pursue these desires -- borrowed, mimetic desires -- for our entire lives. We will live by other people's standards and define our happiness against it. 

If we don't take responsibility for our own desires, then we can never truly speak in our own voice. Ultimately, to create something new, a founder must be able to take ownership and be first to express an idea or viewpoint. To be first means to assert something that is not commonly known yet. No public opinion poll or survey will ever yield tomorrow's Google or Dropbox, which were, as Peter Thiel describes, secrets that were initially known only to few. To point it out is not enough -- one most believe so fully in a thing such as to build it

Be aware of the external nature of your desire. Take ownership of what is yours. And finally, build. In a society driven by mimetic desire, we can either be the imitators, or we can build the future. 

Craig Venter just might save the planet

Craig Venter created the shotgun method of DNA sequencing, massively jumpstarting the way we think about genomics today. He kept going. In 2010, his team managed to create a completely synthetic life -- from a man-made genome. They created DNA sequences, implanted it into a cell, and that cell turned itself into this new life form. Many thought it could not be done. 

In a recent Wired interview, he explains what he's really trying to do with synthetic life

Venter: We’re trying to harness photosynthesis. A key part of photosynthesis is what happens when the sun goes down. Cells convert CO2 into sugar and fat molecules. And they store the fat to burn as energy to get them through the night—the same way we store fat, only that’s just to get us through TV shows. We’re trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what’s happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we’re recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.

Goetz: A massive industrial scale.

Venter: We envision facilities the size of San Francisco. And 10 or 15 of those in this country. We need sunlight, seawater, and non-agricultural land, but you need a lot of photons to drive this. You need a lot of surface area of sunlight to do that. It’s a great use for Arizona. Lots of sunlight there.

Imagine it, huge farms of synthetic bacteria converting our CO2 emissions back into usable energy! It truly would be the exact opposite of our industrial exhausts. Sounds like something right out of a quest in the video game Fallout 3. 

Venter closes his interview with an ominous warning to society. Science remains important, and will continue to be the source of our survival:

We don’t discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs—sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we’re going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we’ll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don’t see much hope for humanity.

More at Wired.

Save Padmapper! Craigslist is wrong to shut them down. An open letter to Craig

I just found out a few moments ago that Craigslist has sent a cease and desist to one of the most valuable sites for apartment renters on the planet, Padmapper. Here's my open letter to them:

Dear Jim and Craig,

Thank you for all you've done for the online community in creating Craigslist and shepherding it through so much. I was saddened to learn Craigslist recently sent a cease and desist to Padmapper, which is a severe punishment indeed.

In a fair society, punishments like this are handed down for bad action. Padmapper has not engaged in this whatsoever. Please consider allowing Padmapper to continue to live. It is one of the top essential tools for anyone who is looking for a place to live. 

As a fan and user of both sites, I urge you to reconsider your decision. 

Yours sincerely,

Garry Tan

Do your part -- send your own letter (stay civil and articulate!) --

jim@craigslist.org – Jim Buckmaster, CEO
craig@craigslist.org – Craig Newmark, Founder

Facebook should build a phone: Henry Blodget will be proven wrong just like iPhone naysayers before him

Is Facebook capable of building a phone? Almost certainly. Should they? Yes. That's why Henry Blodget is so wrong about how Facebook shouldn't build a phone. It reminds me of a 2007 article by Matthew Lynn for Bloomberg, declaring that the Apple iPhone would fail as a late, defensive move

I am one of the biggest fans of Apple, and the iPhone and iPad are by far the best computing experiences I've ever had. But I'm not particularly happy about the current state of computing. Great user experience comes at a cost, but the cost these days is higher than I care for. The trains run great in a totalitarian state, but is that worth the loss of developer freedom?

Blodget says that building hardware is hard -- but if we remember correctly, Apple was a disaster of a place just 12 years ago, floundering at hardware, software, and most everything else. In 2000, the idea that an American technology firm would be the most dominant electronics brand in the world in 2012 was absurd. Apple built its abilities from a place of great weakness -- really near death.

Facebook's biggest asset is its ability to hire and attract the best talent in the world. This was also what Apple has executed on perfectly since its return to prominence. At both places, there is a strong hacker culture and a true belief that what they're doing is the most important, society-changing work in the world. 

The "ability to build hardware" is not some esoteric magic. It is a knowhow embedded in the brains of smart engineers -- engineers who have skills so valuable that they are mobile and they will seek places where they can have maximum impact. Great products are built by talented human beings who will go where they know they can change the world. Outside of startups and a few great companies like Apple or Facebook, there are few places where "change the world" is really something you can wake up to. 

The stakes for tomorrow's computing paradigm is incredibly high. I, for one, hope Facebook does have a phone in the works, and a damn good one too. They've got a visionary founder who is young and in charge and can ship great technology. They're one of the only companies who have the capital, talent, and capability to do it. 

How a train ride helped Mixpanel get into YC

I'm so proud of Suhail, Tim, and the team at Mixpanel -- they just announced their $10 million Series A funding with #1 VC firm Andreessen Horowitz

Back in 2009, I had just moved back to San Francisco and we had just raised our angel round for Posterous. We worked out of our bedrooms in SOMA in San Francisco. A friend of mine, Dan Haubert of Ticketstumbler (R.I.P. Dan) had introduced me to a pair of young hackers out of Arizona State, Suhail Doshi and Tim Trefen. 

They were in town for their YC interview. We met up at the Creamery across from the SF Caltrain for coffee, and I tried to impart whatever wisdom we had about how to get through the process. Good ole' Creamery...

What was supposed to be just an hour meeting turned into a couple of hours, as we talked at length about their vision for analytics done right. Suhail had worked with Max Levchin and the Slide team, and that's where he realized how data-driven decisions could make or break a product. 

I ended up having to jet out of there, since I was headed down to Mountain View by Caltrain. We decided to head over together, since that would give us more time to go over the pitch. They were headed to Mountain View for their interview at YC Headquarters.

On the train, I had the idea of implementing Mixpanel analytics for tracking what people did on the homepage. It was as simple as it is today -- drop one line of javascript on the page. I'd like to say it took just a minute, but it actually took about ten. Embarrasingly, I forgot a semicolon someplace in the Javascript function call! 

When Suhail and Tim walked into the YC offices for their interview with the partners, they were able to say Mixpanel was so easy to implement it happened on the trainride down from San Francisco -- and that you could see realtime data from the Posterous homepage right that moment, just minutes after implementing it. 

Proud to be one of the early datapoints in the now 7 billion Mixpanel has tracked. And many more to come. 

The adventure game lives!

Remember the good old pixelated days of yore? Action packed, story and puzzle-driven interactive fiction of the highest order? That's what Gabriel Knight was. I grew up playing these games. King's Quest. Police Quest. Space Quest. Day of the Tentacle. Indiana Jones. Sam and Max Hit the Road. 

Yet somewhere along the way, the great, cerebral, deep games that told a real story vanished. There are a few more recent examples -- the heart of this lineage lives on in new titles like LA Noire, Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, and yes, even Grand Theft Auto 4. I look forward eagerly to the upcoming Max Payne. But once every few years is not enough. 

Well, maybe it is time for the return of the adventure game. And the creator of Gabriel Knight, Jane Jensen, is back on Kickstarter having just met her goal of $300K raised for her next great project, Moebius.

Contribute to Jane Jensen's Kickstarter. I just did. Let's bring back the adventure game!

Read more at The Verge

PS, I just read about this new Telltale Games adventure game called The Walking Dead. I will be checking it out shortly. 

To soften our view of others

Jesus urged his followers to learn to look at other adults as they might at children. Few things can more quickly transform our sense of a person's character than picturing him or her as a child; from this perspective, we are better able to express the sympathy and generosity that we all but naturally display towards the young, whom we tend to describe as naughty rather than bad, cheeky rather than arrogant. This is the same sort of softening we may feel towards anyone whom we see sleeping: with eyes closed and features relaxed and defenceless, a sleeper invites a gentle regard that in itself is almost love—so much so, in fact, that it can be unsettling to gaze at length at a stranger asleep beside us on a train or plane. That unmasked face seems to prompt us towards an intimacy that calls into question the foundations of civilised indifference on which ordinary communal relations rest. But there is no such thing as a stranger, a Christian would say; there is only the impression of strangeness, born out of a failure to acknowledge that others share both our needs and our weaknesses.

--ALAIN DE BOTTON, in his book STATUS ANXIETY

How does a startup out-recruit Google? Palantir cofounder Stephen Cohen explains.

In a conversation at Stanford with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, my friend Stephen Cohen (cofounder of Palantir Technologies) says:

We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.

My friend and fellow Y Combinator partner Aaron Iba gives incredible lectures when we visit top CS schools on behalf of YC. He says the sense you get from college recruiters is that you get to write new code. Most great hackers love to do this. But that's not what you get from a software engineering position at the tech giants. You get to maintain old code. The job should really be called software technician. 

So that's why starting a startup or working at a startup is so much more rewarding. You get to keep your edge. 

Travel planning software: The most common bad startup idea

At CMU yesterday, I heard a story about how Yahoo Trip Planner has pretty much zero adoption. It has never taken off, though it remains online even today. Yahoo keeps it around because it's fantastic for recruiting. People love to work on this idea! Yahoo recruiters lure talented engineers, designers and PMs to work on this project, then gradually shift them off to real value-creating projects once they're hired. 

Travel planning software (the kind that you would use with friends and family to plan vacations) is one of the most common ideas pitched. It has been attempted, and attempted, and attempted again. 

It doesn't surprise me that people go after this, though. The idea actually points in the right direction: founders pursuing this idea are looking to solve problems or pain points in their life. Brilliant. And practically everyone has the problem of not spending enough quality time with friends and family. Travel is the best and most meaningful way to do that. Surely this is something that solves a big problem that everyone wants. 

Yet so far, this particular idea doesn't lead to massive success and incredible amounts of value creation. My best guess is that a truly great consumer service needs to be something that is can be used every day. My friend Suhail Doshi, CEO of Mixpanel (he'd know a thing or two about analytics), recently told me that 20% daily retention is probably the baseline at which a service has legs. 

This points to the deeper problem that underlies every product or service: obscurity. I only have a finite number of slots in my brain. If I don't remember it, I won't use it. And I only remember things that I use often. Just like I order Coca Cola whenever I get a cheeseburger... the consumer web/mobile services I use need to be things I use all the time.  

Which leads us back to trip planning. How often do people really plan trips? For the typical working adult, probably once or twice a year if you're lucky. In fact, Americans are notorious for shirking vacation, clocking the lowest rates of vacation on the planet. Twice a year just doesn't cut it.

I used to think nobody needs this. That's probably not true. Lots of people want this. They just won't ever be able to remember it. 

Screams of Silica, the college essay that got me into Stanford in 1999

I was spelunking in archive.org and found my old homepage from back in the day. I stumbled across my college admissions essay to Stanford. I wrote it in the winter of 1998. My how time flies.

Screams of Silica

Grains of sand have feelings too. As environmentalists bicker over trees, who will be there for the billions upon billions of grains of sand out there? Soon, entire deserts of sand will be harvested for silicon! These poor creatures will be decimated and irrevocably altered into ungodly silicon wafers. It is time to rise up and fight for our silicon dioxide crystal brothers and sisters.

We've all heard the analogy... If cars evolved like computers, they would cruise comfortably at 10,000 mph, get a million miles to the gallon, and if it broke, you could go to the store and pick up a new one for a dime. Moore's Law of exponential growth has been a godsend to Silicon Valley. With computer technology doubling in speed and complexity every eighteen months, people spend billions annually to replace last year's models. Countless multitudes of crystals of silica are being sacrificed for a short use of but a few years. Moore's Law has resulted in the systematic murder of these unassuming, innocent, naturally occurring crystals.

At the same time, Moore's Law has kept the computer the domain of a privileged few. Prices continue to be beyond the range of affordability for many. Even today, fewer than 40% of Americans own computers. Technological advancement will eventually hit a wall. Moore's Law is not an absolute. Computers have always been getting faster and cheaper. Someday, with that quest for speed out of the picture, cheap will be the name of the game. Imagine the horrors as the other 60% rushes down to the store to buy the next 100 gigahertz Intel Octium VII Pro for $9.95 at the local Fry's Electronics. The horrors of such an age would make the systematic slaughter of silica of today look like children building sandcastles.

The prospect of computers everywhere not only threatens the fate of sand particles everywhere, but also the place of ignorance in society. With information exchange and dissemination at everyone's fingertips, where would ignorance and tyranny go? Evil dictators around the world would be displaced as computer-engendered thought and communication tears millions of minds from abject poverty and subjugation and transforms them into organized, united and educated masses. The world would be at our fingertips. The great WWII-era scientist Dr. Vannevar Bush once postulated a device called the Memex, which would augment the mind with hypertext memories. The rise of ubiquitous network computers could be just the augmentation of humanity that the doctor ordered.

Certainly, the ubiquity of the computer might change society at its core. Sure, it might result in the rise of new media, and the empowerment of the individual on a grand scale. Indeed, it might even result in world peace and harmony among all men. But humanity must not be selfish. We share this planet with the trees, and more importantly, the earth. Can we afford to continue to victimize these helpless crystals of silica? May their silent screams haunt our motherboards as we type away with reckless carpal tunnel abandon.

Now computers are faster and cheaper than ever. Far more than 40% of Americans own computers today. Indeed, 50% of Americans own smartphones, which are a more omnipresent, portable, and totally networked version of the personal computer from 1998. By all means an upgrade.

So far, no 100 ghz Intel Octiums. Empowerment of the individual on a grand scale though? Check.