Always. Be. Shipping. A lesson from Jacopo da Pontormo, circa 1545.

In 1545, an artist named Jacopo da Pontormo was chosen to create a fresco for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence by Duke Cosimo I de'Medici. He cloistered himself in his chapel, closing it off with partitions and curtains so nobody could witness the creation of his masterpiece or steal his ideas. 

Robert Greene describes Jacopo's story in his classic work 48 Laws of Power

He would outdo Michaelangelo himself. When some young men broke into the chapel out of curiousity, Jacopo sealed it off even further. 

Jacopo filled the chapel's ceiling with biblical scenes -- the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, on and on. At the top of the middle wall he painted Christ in his majesty, raising the dead on Judgment Day. The artist worked on the chapel for eleven years, rarely leaving it, since he had developed a phobia for human contact and was afraid his ideas would be stolen.

Pontormo died before completing the frescoes, and none of them survived. But the great Rennaisance writer Vasari, a friend of Pontormo's who saw the frescoes shortly after the artist's death, left a description of what they looked like. There was a total lack of proportion. Scenes bumped against scenes, figures in one story being juxtaposed with those in another, in maddening numbers. Pontormo had become obsessed with detail but had lost any sense of the overall composition. Vasari left off his description of the frescoes by writing that if he continued, "I think I would go mad and become entangled in this painting, just as I believe that in eleven years of time Jacopo spent on it, he entangled himself and anyone else who saw it." Instead of crowning Pontormo's career, the work became his undoing. 

The frescoes were visual equivalents of the effects of isolation on the human mind: a loss of proportion, an obsession with detail combined with an inability to see the larger picture, a kind of extravagant ugliness that no longer communicates... Artists who hole themselves up in their fortress lose a sense of proportion, their work communicating only to their small circle. Such art remains cornered and powerless. 

One's fear of failure, judgment, or just mistrust of others will often be the very thing that buries a project. That's why you've always got to be shipping.

Empathy vs Analysis - you can't do both at the same time

Human beings have two systems in their brains -- an empathetic social system that allows us to simulate other people's experiences, and an analytical system that allows them to solve logical problems. 

In an experiment at Case Western Reserve, it turns out you can't run both systems at the same time. (Story via Luke Bearden via Lookmark) After watching test subjects alternate between empathetic and analytical problems in an fMRI, they noticed that one would turn off when the other turned on.

The MRI images showed that social problems deactivated brain regions associated with analysis, and activated the social network. This finding held true whether the questions came via video or print. Meanwhile, the physics questions deactivated the brain regions associated with empathizing and activated the analytical network.

"When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks," Jack said. "This tells us that it's the structure of the adult brain that is driving this, that it's a physiological constraint on cognition."


"You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business," he said. "But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking."

The researchers speculate that this separation between two networks within the brain account for the gap between facts that we know scientifically and facts that we know experientially. 

It seems astonishing to what extent our conscious lives are defined by the physical limitations and parameters of our brains. Surely if you're building software, it is the ultimate in swapping between analytic (making / coding) and empathetic (something people want).

Further, maybe this mechanism of switching between analytic and empathetic/experiential explains why there are diminishing returns past 50 hours of work per week. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy indeed. 

How to write and think: Use conjunctions

Why can't Johnny can't write good?

Not necessarily vocabulary, or simple grammatical mistakes like the above. It's because he can't use simple conjunctions. Teachers at a Staten Island school changed the game by teaching them how to write... and as a result, how to think. 

What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, andso. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

Being able to express complex thoughts in language is the first step towards thinking in meaningful ways. When I first started at YC, I was astonished at how tough it was to understand what people were doing. I assumed that most founders had some specific concept in their head and they were merely struggling to find words to express them. PG set me straight though -- if a founder can't express their ideas clearly to others, then the simplest and likeliest explanation is actually that the idea is not particularly clear to them either. 

Full article at The Atlantic

Give a fuck about your lifestyle: Manufacturing desire vs satisfying it

"Give a fuck about your lifestyle." KID CUDI, Mojo So Dope

Kid Cudi rejects mimetic desire. He says he doesn't care about your lifestyle, he's just busy living his own. This is cool -- it makes us want to be like him. We care about his lifestyle all the more. Surely he is closer to some source of truth than we are. Cool and mimetic desire are wrapped up in one, from Kid Cudi to James Dean. 

In contrast, Facebook is about manufacturing exactly the kind of desire that Kid Cudi rejects. We see what our peer group is doing -- the people who are like us. They go to our same schools. We grow up together. We work at the same places. But some do better than others, and we see it in their trips, their new purchases, their latest hobbies. All the things about what they do with their time. 

But this is specifically what traditional media (music, movies, TV, magazines, newspapers) have been doing since the beginning. Celebrity news manufactures desire for clothing, food, travel -- all manner of lifestyle choices. Did you hear Larry Ellison bought an island? I'd like to buy an island someday too. Lil Wayne is giving up rapping for skateboarding. I want to skateboard. But it costs money to manufacture desire. PR, display ads. That's why every business in the world spends money on marketing. It's a cost center, a means to an end. Ads are a means to manufacturing desire.  

What's better than manufacturing desire? Satisfying desire. That's what Google is about. When we want something, we look for it there. AdWords means that when someone wants something, you can probabilistically buy a piece of their brain by showing them an ad that they might click on at the moment they want it. You don't have to spend any time manufacturing desire, they've already got it. The entire world's media is already busy generating desire, from Facebook to CNN to the magazines of Conde Nast, to the party I went to last week. In some sense, that is why Google's insistence on gearing their entire strategy around Google+ is inexplicable. What they have is already superior. Satisfying desire is orders of magnitude more valuable than manufacturing it. 

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