David Brooks doesn't know technology, which is why we shouldn't listen to him when it comes to his opinion on surveillance

From a recent PBS transcript, David Brooks has been very publicly engaging in ad hominem attacks on Snowden. That's just fine — you can tell his case is weak because he's resorting to the weakest of all arguments: the ad hominem attack. But the justification for mass data sweeps makes no sense. He says:

He betrayed the cause of liberty, because, if you don't have mass data sweeps, well, then these agencies are going to want to go back to the old-fashioned eavesdropping, which is a lot more intrusive.

This statement is plainly false. "Old fashioned" eavesdropping is actually far less intrusive than what we're talking about today. Eavesdropping on a telephone conversation on an analog telephone (e.g. back in the day when J Edgar Hoover wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr.) required a court order, and actual people to record and listen in on specific conversations in realtime. 

You could only eavesdrop on a specific person at one time. Now there's infinite lookback on anything you've written, who you've talked to, and any email, text message, or IM for your entire life. That was one of the most important topics of Laura Poitras's NY Times mini-documentary "The Program", with NSA whistleblower William Binney. A 32-year old NSA insider turned whistleblower, William Binney describes the actual goal of NSA surveillance:

Think of a domain as an activity. A specific type of activity. Phone calls. Banking is another. If you think of graphing each domain, and then each graph turn it in the third dimension... pulling together all the attributes that any individual has in every domain, so that now I can pull your entire life together from all those domains and map it out and show your entire life over time.

This is the shift. Now we live in an age of infinite storage! We are only now capable of keeping every aspect of our lives accessible at any time, within milliseconds. We find great utility in it, and we entrust our greatest tech companies in the world with our data: Facebook, Twitter, and Google. 

We use these services believing that they are personal, for ourselves. Yet this is the same capability that now, via PRISM, the government can potentially have, all through secret courts and little oversight. All the things you do, and everybody you talk to, and down to the very thoughts you care to put down in both private and public communications. 

Temporally, that means this new surveillance (what David Brooks dismisses as merely mass data sweeps) is actually past and present. Whereas the "old-fashioned" form of surveillance could only be one the present. It's a capability not even touched upon by Orwell when he wrote 1984. It's not enough to be clean, sober, free and clear right now. You've got to be spotless and perfect over the course of your entire life. 

To dismiss mass data sweeps as less intrusive than old fashioned wiretaps is either ignorance, or a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. David Brooks isn't an engineer, and doesn't seem to understand the technical differences between the old regime and the new, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

Rageskitching Facebook 2013 Edition: 3px of padding makes all the difference in the world

I'm sorry for rageskitching about Facebook, but I can't help it. I've seen this bug too many times and I would really like someone with commit access to the Facebook CSS to fix it. 

It's a matter of 3 pixels, but it matters. Here's what it looks like right now live:

And here's what it would look like fixed. 

Can you see how much more crowded the text is in the unfixed version, and how much more balanced it could be?

I also couldn't help myself and fixed the bottom area of the comment addable extra too— that stuff needs just a tiny little bit of love. I can't stand uneven padding. A site that fixes these problems is a site is being taken care of with the loving attention to detail of someone who can see the difference.

3px means a lot more for a site like Facebook than the pixels themselves. 

Bitcoin is not a toy - it has the potential to disrupt credit cards and banks and make payments zero-fee. That's the real deal.

I spoke with Michael Copeland of Wired recently for his piece on Bitcoin businesses, What’s Riskier Than Bitcoins? Bitcoin Companies

Y Combinator Partner Garry Tan is making the bet that Bitcoin succeeds with his investment in digital wallet startup Coinbase. He agrees that having some Bitcoin squirreled away is wise (and you can bet the craftiest VCs are leveraging up their own Bitcoin caches by investing in companies that takes a whack at improving the Bitcoin ecosystem).

“I have done some of that,” Tan says laughing. “But the buy and hold thing, that is not interesting to me.” What is interesting to Tan is backing companies like Coinbase that he believes can help Bitcoin make the transition from speculative “toy” that people horde like gold rather than spending, to something that people can actually use.

Tan’s vision for Bitcoin is as a universal currency that will make money transfers easy and cheap from any person or business to any other person or business across the globe. In that scenario Coinbase becomes a far-cheaper version of Visa. “Bitcoin has the potential to destroy credit cards and banks as we know it, maybe that is a good thing or a bad thing,” Tan says. “But I like the idea that if someone needs to remit payments they can do it without being gouged.”

If Bitcoin starts to become a widely used digital currency, something that people actually spend on products and services, Tan’s vision, and that of every Bitcoin economy startup and their investors, begins to make sense. 

Read the full article on Wired

Anything that has the potential to break Visa/Mastercard/American Express's stranglehold on 2% of every consumer transaction is awesome in my book. It's an absurd relic of the past and should not continue to exist, yet it does.

In my conversation with Michael, I did say that it felt to me that Bitcoin has established itself at this point -- barring a major technical flaw, I think Bitcoin is probably the right currency and others that come along will find itself like Beta in a world where VHS has already established itself. He cleverly inverted it in his conclusion. It's an open question who is right as yet -- but as investments go, Peter Thiel is widely known now for saying that the most disruptive revolutions start with a simple idea where everyone says I believe X, but the founders believe NOT X. 

Bitcoin hasn't won the world over yet, but that's OK. This is one NOT X that I think is right. 

Lessons from 2^5 that I wish I knew at 2^4

I just turned 32, and I've been thinking about things I wish I knew when I was 16. Here's the shortlist:

Products beat consulting: Zero marginal cost is amazing

When I was 16, I was happy to get paid $7/hour for working on computers. I loved computers, and $7 was more money than I really knew what do with. But it's one thing to make something for one person or one need. It is vastly more useful to create something for lots of people that can be used over and over again. When you can either create products that sell again, or you can sell your own time, always choose the former.

Learn or earn

You're always on one side or another of the learn vs. earn. Given the nature of equity and corporations, always know that owners reap the rewards and workers are transacting their time for money. But unless where you work is a co-op where profits are evenly distributed, you'll never extract the full amount of value that you create for the company. Always know whether at that moment you're learning or earning. If you're learning, then it's worth it. If you're not, you better be earning (e.g. being a founder, being a share holder). Otherwise you're just wasting time. 

Human beings are mirrors

If you have good will towards others, others will have good will towards you. That's why it is better to assume people are fundamentally good, until there is evidence to the contrary. You'll be better to others, and then they'll in turn be better to you. In contrast, if you assumed most people had ill will towards you, you in turn would likely treat them in ways that would invite that. Life seems full of self-fulfilling prophecies like that. 

These lessons I learned in just the last 2^4 years. I can only hope the next power of two will be as instructive and amazing as this one. 

Airbnb and the Sharing Economy on the cover of The Economist this month

I'm so proud of Brian, Joe and Nate at Airbnb-- it was an incredible opportunity to get to know them when they came into YC in 2009, and they continue to change the world. 

“We couldn’t have existed ten years ago, before Facebook, because people weren’t really into sharing,” says Nate Blecharczyk, one of Airbnb’s founders. Airbnb doesn’t require its users to connect their accounts to Facebook, but when people find they have friends in common with another user it sets their minds at ease. 

The article really underscores how technology progresses through society. There's a layering process happening on the Internet. People began to feel comfortable with using their social graph for proof was what allowed the sharing economy to prosper online at all. A more connected world.

In the end, Yuri Milner's belief in “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer” is one of the underlying themes of the past 10 years of Internet services. No doubt, it is this insight that led Yuri Milner to invest in Facebook. The rest of the world is merely catching up.

Read the full cover story in The Economist and the sidebar, "The Rise of the Sharing Economy"

Posterous is shutting down April 30th. I'd like you to move to Posthaven.

Hi Posterous friends (of which there are thousands of you who I've had the pleasure to talk to, email, and get to know through your posts.) It's a sad day when I have to report that Posterous is going to be shutting down April 30th. Twitter acquired the company for the talented team, but sadly not the service.  

Make sure you back up your posts by logging into Posterous and clicking Backup. 

But I also have some happier news -- I've teamed up with another one of our cofounders Brett Gibson and we're launching a replacement for Posterous called Posthaven. Instead of having to worry about whether the service you choose today will be around in ten years, we're taking a pledge to keep your URLs and data around forever.

We also want to be your best choice for next platform as you decide where to move your data. Everything you came to expect from Posterous, you'll get with Posthaven -- multiple sites, privacy, post by email, customization, you name it. Only since we're the guys who wrote a lot of it the first time, we'll be able to make it even better the second time. 

This time we're going to charge -- so we know how to pay for the servers and keep the service online no matter what. 

So come on over. We're accepting name reservations right now ($5 and it'll be applied to your first month of service) and I'll report back with more in a few weeks when we have the Posterous Importer ready for you to use. 

Reserve your spot at posthaven now

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at garry@posthaven.com.

David Gelernter predicted Dropbox in 1996

David Gelernter is prognosticating the future of the web in Wired today. He's got a history of being right:

The most important way people are going to make money on the Net is on the model of the electric power utilities or cable TV companies, by providing a service that you are going to pay for monthly. I am going to hire a server to manage all my documents, I am going to throw out my desk and file cabinets, I am not going to care what computer I use, and I will be happy to pay $12.50 a month for an absolutely reliable storage facility. This company stores my documents, supports all sorts of fancy searches, and makes my documents available anywhere.

DAVID GELERNTER, Professor of Computer Science at Yale

via Digerati, published in 1996

What's a good startup domain name?

Naming is a tough biz. You want to create something that will stand the test of time, that so many people will remember and invest their time, money and effort into using it. 

Here's the cheatsheet: 

  • It's meaningful
    It should be related to the purpose or service you provide.
  • It's a .com
    When normals think of the Internet, they think .com. You could do others, but they just plain don't have the same kind of authority. 
  • As few characters as possible
    Complexity means people won't remember it. The shorter the better. This minimizes the number of keystrokes to try it as well.
  • As few syllables as possible
    See the last rule. This minimizes the number of things people have to remember. 
  • Unambiguous spelling
    It's better to be two simple, commonly used words mashed together like sitemint.com (leandomainsearch.com is useful for this) than one super long complex one. 
  • Unambiguous pronunciation
    When people talk about your site, it should be obvious how to pronounce it. This reduces the cognitive load of telling someone your site name. Be careful with names that might have ambiguous word boundaries. Expertsexchange.com is a notorious example of this. (Obviously this is one where posterous.com failed... but it can work to your advantage if it turns into a mini-conversation e.g. paw-sterous or post-erous, since in memory, every second you think about a given thing makes it more likely you will recall it.)

One or more of them can be broken, but the best names conform to as many of these as possible. 

Other useful resources include instantdomainsearch.com and wordoid.com. I've also had success finding usable domains for under $1000 on sedo.com. For those buying domain names from squatters, Fred Wilson's post on buying a domain is probably best practice. 

Good hunting!

Tenth Grade Tech Trends: My survey data says says rumors of Facebook demise exaggerated, but Snapchat and Instagram real

Branch cofounder Josh Miller's recent post about how his 15 year old sister uses the Internet blew me away with its observations the other week. I'm 31, so young enough to remember what it was like to be young, but old enough to be out of touch with the youngest millenials and those even younger. To be honest, it's a sobering notion that there's some piece of technology out there that you and your peer group doesn't use and doesn't understand. As far as I can tell, it might be a first for me and my geezer friends. 

I kept turning it over in my head. I wanted to understand this phenomenon -- if I didn't have an intuitive sense, then I wanted to at least get more data. 

That's where YC startup Survata came in. With their help, I surveyed 1,038 people in two groups -- those aged 13-18 (546 responses) and 19-25 (492 responses) and asked which services they used regularly (defined by several hours per week or more, multiple answers OK). 

Here's the result:

And the raw numbers:

Survata cofounder Aaron Wenger noted: "Usage levels were higher among 13-18yr olds than 19-25yr olds for every social network.  The biggest differences were for Snapchat (13% for 13-18yr olds vs 4% for 19-25yr olds) and Instagram (21% vs 11%)." 

This confirms Josh's observation that there is some significant usage among the younger generation -- particularly among high-school age teenagers. Whether they continue to use it as they mature, get email addresses, and enter the workforce will be an interesting thing to watch. 

It turns out Facebook's doing just fine with the kids these days -- in fact, slightly more of the younger demographic reported using it regularly. But perhaps most impressive was Tumblr topping the list at #1, with 59% of respondents saying they used it regularly. 

Survata showed my question as a content survey-wall to people throughout the United States -- respondents were slightly female skewed (60% vs. 40% dudes) -- and they appeared on blogs and content providers like Hyperink. I was impressed with how the data came back just overnight, and how it ended up costing so little to get such useful data. 

Perhaps the most heartening observation from the Snapchat/Instagram phenomenon is that new social behaviors can and will happen. For a time the door may have seemed closed. Yet Flickr sprung out of nowhere in 2002 when nobody else believed in consumer web. Ten years later, it might be deja vu all over again. 

If you're curious like I am and are wondering about how people think or use anything, run your own Survata and share the results -- real data from real people is like dietary fiber -- we need more of it, and more often.

You should follow me on twitter here

Writing online will surpass that of the printed page. What will you write?

"More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." -- Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

It's possible that online writing will actually surpass that of the printed word. The only thing that is necessary to make this so are:

a) quality writing
b) a sufficient shift in the perception of that which is written online

In certain groups of people on this planet, this may already be true. Svbtle is a great example of this, but so too Longreads, a curated set of long-form magazine-style articles that cut across a wide swath of media, both personal blogs and the long-form stalwarts of the existing publishing superstructure. 

Indeed, when browsing these new forms of media, I find that they are even more compelling and relavant to than a typical flip through any given magazine or book down at my local bookstore. It's instant, more interesting, much more curated, highly accessible -- anything that has this many things going for it can be considered an inevitable winner. 

To earn the audience of thousands of people once took a lucky break (guess who I met at the lunch counter today), the right connection (often nepotistic), or once in a long while, an editor taking a curious look at the latest submissions pile. (Incidentally, even this is changing, with recent YC company Submittable). Today, an audience can be built consistently from the comfort of your own home. 

You supply the insight. It turns out, that's the hard part. 

What will you write?