Control and cages: What a shocking experiment teaches us about making bad software

You and your buddy Steve are rats in two cages. The cages have electric floors. Every day at the same time, you get shocked by electricity. It's excruciating, and both of you scream for relief as you search frantically for an escape. After a few days of this, you learn that there's a button in your cage that lets you shut off the shock. It still happens every day, and each day you get better at shutting off the electricity faster. It becomes a mere annoyance to you. 

Steve, on the other hand, looks thin. He's wasting away next to you. Why? What's going on? It turns out, Steve doesn't have the same switch you do. He can't control the electricity (even though you are able to shut off the shock for both cages with your switch), and so he gradually eats less and less as his body deteriorates and develops stomach ulcers. 

This scenario isn't just a thought experiment. It's real. Professor Jay Weiss at Rockefeller University used just such an experiment to show how profoundly important it is for organisms to have control over their own environments. Control, pardon the pun, is shockingly important.

It's no mistake control is one of the most important concepts for programmers too. We create software that other people use. We try to create a space in which people can control an information space. Their email, their photos, their thoughts, their work -- the degree to which users can control their digital lives is largely determined by us. 

And our users, like the rats in Weiss's experiments, are subject to electric shocks of both mild and severe intensity. Bugs and poor user experience are the daily shocks. And like our poor rat friend Steve, most users don't have a control switch to shut it off. (If you've ever fixed a bug in open source that you use, you know the feeling of having a control switch, which is probably one of the major reasons to program in the first place.) 

When we write software that sucks, we are (consciously or not) pressing a red button that makes people feel powerless, helpless, and ultimately makes their lives worse. As creators, it's our responsibility and our duty to make our users happy. Software creators are an optimistic lot and we love to focus on the positive impact the things we create can have on society and other people. If Weiss's experiment teaches us anything though, it's that this power cuts both ways. Wield it well, friends.

The light comes from within

My wife is on a cruise right now in Alaska with one of the big cruise liner companies. It's a linear experience -- come on this ship, go here, eat, buy stuff, pay money to get specific experiences, and return to the ship by this time. She can't believe how cheesy everything is, but is doing her best to have a good time. In stark contrast, I just came back from Burning Man, probably the exact opposite of a pre-manufactured form of commodified entertainment.  

You don't buy things at Burning Man. You don't buy products. You don't buy experiences. You just go and experience them, and it's free. There are nightclubs, but there are no bouncers, and no lines, and no bad attitude. This is intentional -- those opening the first dance venues at BM in the early 2000's wanted to create the ultimate clubbing experience -- just great music and dancing, and none of the other terrible crap. At night, that's what people do -- dance and party, but with no BS. Radical self-sufficiency means it's up to you to bring your own intoxicant of choice, show up when you want, and leave whenever you want. 

In bars, there's a weird pecking order. VIP bottle service, long lines, and always -- NO RE-ENTRY. Have you ever thought about that rule? Why wouldn't a place allow re-entry? It's because drunk angry people who were affronted in some way sometimes go back to their car, get a gun, and come back and shoot someone. So you need rules and security people to prevent that from happening. At BM there aren't even bouncers, or walls, or even anything to really get pissed off about. 

Me and my campmates were enjoying a set by Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza in one of the main arenas at 2 O'Clock last week. Someone was causing a ruckus, having just thrown their water bottle at the stage. Fellow dancers noticed and politely tapped the guy on the shoulder -- "Don't do that here. We don't do that here." We're here to chill out and have a good time. Don't ruin it.

I admire that deeply. A self-regulating utopia of mutual respect. There's something odd about treating experiences like commodities. We talk about travel experiences like they're things to visit, it's something we go to and to take something back. Most of the time when we're on vacation, we're there to *extract* something. But what happens when money is removed from the picture? Well, then rather than pay, you contribute. You add your funny dance to the crowd. You bring your own gifts, and participate. You make your own art.

That's the main lesson I learned after a week out on the playa. I believe more than ever that we were put on this earth to create. We are not here to consume and extract -- we are here to put out our own intentional THING -- whatever it is. Art. Business. New knowledge. Music. 

Imagine, for a moment: 

You enter a crypt filled with pirate treasure. The crypt is absolutely dark. You have a flashlight with you and switch it on. You gasp as the flashlight beam illuminates red rubies, glittering gold, green emeralds and cobalt blue sapphires. What beautiful colors these precious objects have!

Actually, this is the illusion of projection, these objects have no color, no light energy, the light, color and energy are mere reflections and refractions of the white light of the flashlight which contains all colors.

Excerpt from

There's light within you, and the shiny things you see are reflections of that light. It's been in you this whole time, all you have to do is create and let it shine.

Infanticide: How anti-competitive lawsuits by deep-pocketed incumbents are killing early stage startups

These days, Southwest Airlines is synonymous with low airfares and solid customer experience. But in the late 1960's when it was founded, the fledgling airline (then Air Southwest) was almost sued out of existence. Shortly after raising $543,000 in seed funding from investors (roughly $3.5M in today's dollars, inflation adjusted), the founders were barred from starting their disruptive low-priced airline by a restraining order filed by incumbent airlines Braniff, Trans Texas, and Continental. The money was raised and the license was granted, but Southwest's would-be competitors decided they didn't want the competition. 

Seven months later, Southwest's initial $543K had been spent entirely on legal fees fighting the anti-competitive incumbents who wouldn't let them fly. 

The same thing is happening again-- only now the year is 2012, and the industry is one that is what you'd normally consider to be one of the most egalitarian in the history of business. 

Techcrunch reports young and promising startup Touch of Modern was sued by today. I've been an advisor to the company for years, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more hard-working, dedicated founding team that has endured every roadblock and frustration a startup can experience. They recently decided to pivot to selling modern design-oriented furniture, art, electronics and housewares aimed at young professional men -- a segment they understood well since it was one to which they also belonged. Things have been going great for them, and I couldn't be happier for them.

Until today, when Fab decided it didn't like a Southwest springing up in their backyard. The suit claims violation of trademark and trade dress infringement, improper use of IP (apparently the UI) and ironically, unfair competition. While there are similarities between some pages of the design, I find it difficult to believe Fab can claim all right to the use of Helvetica, or industry-standard design elements like checkout buttons. Ultimately, design elements that are defacto industry standard, just like business models, shouldn't be copyrightable or patentable -- yet today's lawsuit seems to indicate that some entrepreneurs believe they are. 

This is merely the most recent lawsuit in a series. Craigslist has been waging war against widely loved website Padmapper for some time, even going so far as to impose insanely inappropriate and radically intrusive exclusive copyright terms for ALL content posted to Craigslist. (Thankfully they've seen the error in that, though the lawsuit persists.)

What makes me angry about this kind of legal action is that it's just bad for the consumer. Padmapper saves people millions of hours a year of wading through disorganized text-based posts just to find a place to live. Touch of Modern actually seeks out modern products exclusively, to the exclusion of the standard bourgeois bohemian hipsterdom of Fab -- and their customers love them for it. Anti-competitive litigation has always happened in business, and it will continue to happen, but that doesn't mean it can't or won't incite outrage among the people who actually matter -- us, their users. 

I for one will never shop at so long as they insist on anti-competitive practices and crushing young founders who don't have the fat pocketbook of investor cash to spend on lawyers. I wish I could say the same for Craigslist, so I'll use it grudgingly for now. But I'll gladly pay for, invest in, and do whatever I can to help tomorrow's Craigslist killer. 

Oh, and Southwest Airlines? They fought, they won, they flew, and the rest is history. Trans-Texas Airlines went out of business in 1982, and Braniff went out of business in 1990. Southwest is one of the most well known and loved brands in the world. 

To Padmapper and Touch of Modern, I say don't give up. Southwest didn't. 

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.


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 Buckmaster, CEO – 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.