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Brian Mayer: product, engineering, creative.

I am based in San Francisco and I update my blog infrequently. About me.
OK Shift: Manage your workplace shifts via text message

OK Shift: Manage your workplace shifts via text message

The idea was simple: why isn’t there a good system for hourly workers (60% of the US workforce) to swap their shifts out via text message?

Enter OK Shift, a text message-only based system that allows hourly workers to swap their shifts via text message, and get those swaps approved by managers. The system allows for shift management, directory management, the ability for managers to call off a shift or call in workers, and more importantly to communicate with the entire team at once via group chat.

screenshot-1screenshot-2

It all works by texting the number 513-OK-SHIFT (513-657-4438) and the system prompts you through the rest: posting shifts, adding coworkers, adding managers to approve, and broadcasting.

On the technical side, it uses the Twilio API with a PHP/MySQL backend (like all my projects). It’s free for now, but eventually I want to add a paid scheduling layer on top of the system for management.

Try it out!

October 28, 20140 commentsRead More
A Personal API

A Personal API

Why is the API model traditionally built around a central entity node connected to many consumer nodes, rather than the other way around? Why is it possible for me to connect with various APIs from cloud services like Twilio and Dropbox but I can’t create an API for myself that allows companies to connect with me?

Instead of going to the cloud, why can’t the cloud come to me?

Put it this way. I watch Star Trek on both Hulu and Netflix. My episode history is out of sync on both platforms. Why is that? Because these are separate services with their own backends. There’s no way for them to talk to each other, and there isn’t because there’s only one point of intersection: me.

But what if I could store my own episode history in a personal API, which then Hulu & Netflix would talk to? Both would have permission to update my episode history, and both would have read access. I would give Netflix billing access to the banking endpoint of my API, and so they would enable additional access on their platform. They could push content to my API endpoint and it could be synced between all my devices, including my phone which would also have read access to my API.

Everything would remain “in the cloud,” but the cloud would be my own personal cloud. A mini-cloud, if you will.

There are several types of information that could be stored in a personal API:

  • My personal contact information
  • My correspondence
  • My media
  • My preferences: brands, things I read, movies I like
  • My shopping history
  • My payment information
  • My medical history and prescriptions

Pretty much all the things I do online I could do with a personal API, but there would be a few advantages introduced by creating a new protocol:

  • I would be able to control my own data. Companies/services would need to request access to my data on an individualized basis. I would only give data that would be needed for each service.
  • Privacy becomes completely up to me. I would be able to control how access to my data is granted and revoked. My data is only in place accessible only through authentication to my API. I can revoke access tokens upon request.
  • “Add-ons” to my API service could be enabled like encryption or new REST endpoints, that would allow me to evolve what my API is able to achieve.
  • I could create direct P2P connections with fellow users of the Personal API protocol without having to connect through a third party server.
  • The protocol could integrate with multiple devices, but the nature of these devices would need to change. For example, if I wanted to send a message to my brother, right now I send a text message to his phone which gets routed through AT&T’s cell phone towers (for example). But with a personal API, I would send a message to his API endpoint, and his devices would all pull from it. So it would be like iMessage, but an iMessage that would integrate with *everything* I interact with.
  • On that note, the “internet of things” becomes much more possible. Instead of having to program all my devices, my devices would be adapted to me. When I buy a new product, it requests access to my API, and then can interact with other services that also have access to my API.
  • It weakens the government data dragnet. Right now, one clandestine program by the NSA can tap into Facebook once, and have access to everyone’s data. With a distributed personal API, the government would need to focus its attention on just nefarious or dangerous individuals. The legal status of a personal API would be more akin to a lockbox in my house than a self-storage center that is analogous to the current cloud.

If a personal API protocol were to be created, that would only be the first and easiest step. Cloud services would need to play ball, adapting their account creation and sign in systems, not to mention data access and storage, to work off of my personal cloud rather than their common cloud.

Speaking of Facebook, everything I have listed above is something Facebook could create tomorrow (or Google or Apple), and they may even be considering doing so. They certainly have access to the data necessary to create the API. But they also have the problem of centrally storing that data, creating a single point of failure/weakness/whatever. A centrally stored backend does not meet the criteria of a truly personal API listed above. It needs to be distributed.

Again, it’s a specious concept, and I can’t be first person to think about it, but I would be interested in A) If anyone has fleshed out an idea like this a bit more or attempted to build it, B) Either way, if anyone would be interested in working on something like this with me.

Would love your input in the comments.

October 13, 20142 commentsRead More
The Giving Season

The Giving Season

Note:  This was originally published in the Hypocrite Reader in September 2014.

Every morning Wentworth stakes out a corner of the Square because that’s where the out-of-towners congregate. He knows their patterns. With his pressed suit and slicked-back hair, clean shave and faint perfume, he gives these people exactly what they expect to see on the streets.

They idle by, each with a purpose. Men hunched over in dark jackets float around him like silent shadows on the wall. A woman in drooping rags pretends not to notice him there with his hand outstretched. His plight is obvious but they move on.

He tries different techniques. He holds a wad of cash in his hand, to show his generosity. He tries stacking the bills neatly in piles around his feet. He puts the big bills on top so they beg to be taken. He puts the small bills on top so he looks less desperate.

One time a child notices him presenting a solitary, crisp banknote in his manicured fingers. The child stops and outstretches his dirtier fingers to take what he desires. But his mother yanks him away with a rebuke. (At least Wentworth assumes it is his mother. He can never tell with these people.) They roll off with their shopping cart piled high with bags and old clothes and sandals. She steels her eyes forward.

The days go on, and sometimes Wentworth has some luck. Occasionally, he manages to give away some cash to a caring passerby or an older fellow. His clothes need constant replacement. His fingernails need constant trimming. Once in a while he does not go to the Square at all, but sits and weeps in the corner of his house, clutching his last remaining suitcase full of money. Every day the suitcase becomes lighter. Every day he walks a little quicker.

One winter evening he rests on a bench near his usual spot on the Square, and buttons his fur coat to the neck. The winds are whistling Christmas music. It is the giving season. He cannot remember the year.

The sound of rustling steps in snowdust catches his attention. He looks up to see several boys, seemingly restless with the slog of adolescence, approach him across the whitewashed plain. They drag heavy bags. Scraps of cloth hanging from their pants tickle the ground as they quickstep over. Tappity-tap, quicker and quicker, the soles of their shoes scrape the street as they snicker.

He has heard of such attacks, but they have never happened to him.

He doubles over as the first boy kicks him in the side. The other boys take turns on his stomach, his legs, his face. His nose is dripping blood on his pressed white shirt. His tie is ripped. His feet are swelling. One of the boys has a backpack that he has to lift with both hands as he brings it down onto Wentworth’s prostrate body. The bag bursts at the seams. The last thing Wentworth remembers is a shower of green money raining onto him. His eyes swell shut as the boys stuff the useless cash in his pockets, his pants, his collar, his mouth.

The next morning, he is awoken by the bells of the holiday carolers as they make their way ghostlike across the Square. They are speaking in hushed and excited tones. Wentworth peers through swollen slits at his pristine body ruined, his black and white turned green and dirty. He struggles to right himself as a wave of out-of-towners crests the hill and bustles past. They notice him but quickly avert their gaze and move on. He collects handfuls of green bills from his body. Some are covered in vomit. He stacks them all in neat piles. Then he exhales and pushes himself up on the icy ground. His corner on the Square beckons him only a few steps away.

He knows now he needs to start again. He needs a new suit and haircut and manicure and shower. He needs to put the money through the wash so it comes out clean. It will take a lot more work than before. But his corner is waiting. He will be back. After all, it is the giving season.

September 18, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
Ferguson is America

Ferguson is America

I apologize in advance for invoking Godwin’s Law, but as always, Nazism is such the prime historical example of snowballing fascism it’s hard not to bring it up. So I’ll get it out of the way with a brief look at Martin Niemöller’s well known and probably over-quoted poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We know the poem, and we know the message of the poem is supposed to be “speak out before it’s too late.” But I think a more important message of the poem is that fascism never announces its arrival with jackbooted stormtroopers marching down the town square. It arrives slowly, with the creeping support of legitimate and well-intentioned citizens who desire greater safety, more control and maybe more comfort. Friendly politicians with ambitious plans are far more the province of fascism than angry men with beards. There’s that old nickname the Egyptians had for their dictator of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, “La Vache Qui Rit,” The Laughing Cow. It’s easier to convince people to surrender their liberties and critical faculties with a smile on your face and a plan to eradicate undesirables in your back pocket. If these undesirables are socialists or trade unionists or Jews, all the better.

It is also a fact of fascism that ideology comes long before cults of personality dominate the scene. We are historically trained to look for dictators who seek to create fascist societies, but if you read the biographies of dictators it is as likely the dictators are created for the society they live in. They fill the power vacuum created by inept government or a weak economy, or they take advantage of scripture which demands a strongman to usher in a god-fearing society. The fascisms of the world today in full force–whether it’s the monarchical fascism in T h a i l a n d or the Islamofascism of Boko Haram or ISIS or Hamas–started as ideologies in need of leadership. We know where to look when we seek out the hot spots for burgeoning fascism: places where ideology trumps individual liberty, or threatens to do so (Zionism certainly falls into this latter category, as does Russian exceptionalism/Putinism and a host of other almost-fascisms).

Which brings me to another quote from author William Gibson:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It is this quote that has had me thinking the most since protests and the violent police crackdown erupted in Ferguson last week, and the world has been watching images of our country the way we often look in disbelief at images from oppressive regimes all over the world.

I will for the moment suspend my judgement on what happened in the Michael Brown shooting, because we are always too quick to jump to conclusions about things we don’t know based on what the media has told us. I’m not going to participate in speculation about motives or racism. This is what I care about right now:

Police-officers-point-their-weapons-at-demonstrators-protesting-against-the-shooting-death-of-Michael-Brown-in-Ferguson-Missouri-August-18-2014.-REUTERS_Joshua-Lott1outrage-in-missouri-town-after-police-shooting-of-18-yr-old-1

I am not in the out group this time. I’m not black, I’m not poor, I don’t live in a place where police suspect me and everyone around me, and I don’t think I’m likely to even commit a petty crime that would get the police called on me in the first place. But I see this picture and the first thing I think is, how hard would it be for those guns to become pointed at me? What laws have I broken that no one knows about yet? What situation in this country could lead for more security such that such scenes become commonplace?

The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Despite the fact that most of us remain isolated from this sort of show of force, we’ve known that local police forces in small towns like Ferguson have been acquiring military grade gear for years, including tanks, grenade launchers and assault rifles. And we know that SWAT teams are becoming more and more normal as responses to small crimes, with the inevitable consequences of innocent causalities. And even agencies of our own government are stockpiling ammunition. What does the Department of Homeland Security need with its own military?

The fact that they’re coming for poor black people concerns me, not only because of the wrongness of it on its own, but because I know that somewhere down the line, I’ll be on their target list, too. There’s a long list of types of Americans that other Americans, if they had the means, would love to lock up or outright execute: everyone from petty thieves to looters to drug dealers to the homeless to Muslims to “the 1%” to meat eaters. Do you really want to sit here and take your chances that the police next week don’t have something against you? Especially if we’ve handed them all the tools they need to make your life miserable?

Most Americans are fortunate that we don’t encounter police every day, or situations don’t become tense enough to merit this sort of military presence on our own streets. But we saw during the Boston Marathon Bombing that it takes very little to panic Americans into creating a police state around themselves. And when you create a police shield for yourself, you have to find someone to shield against.

I don’t think the problem is “speaking out.” We all know it’s a problem, and the media–since we have a blissfully free press in this country–has reported constantly on overmilitarization of the police. The problem is despite the fact that we see the images on TV, and we know that one day it’s very possible that our own worlds will be turned upside down by a SWAT raid or a bad shooting in our neighborhoods that tips off a riot or police crackdown, we don’t do anything about it.

And what can we do? Knowing your rights is a good place to start. But what’s the best response as citizens to an omnipresent, obviously growing threat from the police of America to our own freedoms? Should we all buy guns, as people near Ferguson are doing right now? Other than arming and waiting patiently, how do we stop the rising tide of police violence and intimidation in America? Or do we just hope that at some point, our politicians come to their senses and limit their own power? Historically speaking, I don’t think that’s very likely.

I welcome ideas in the comments for immediate, actionable things that citizens can do right now to stop the tide of police militarization in America before we all get swallowed up by it.

August 25, 20148 commentsRead More
EphChat: An Ephemeral Chat Program Written in PHP, JS + Firebase

EphChat: An Ephemeral Chat Program Written in PHP, JS + Firebase

I took a break from ReservationHop today to build a new chat program.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 9.08.30 PM

EphChat, which stands for, you guessed it, “Ephemeral Chat,” is a chat program with a twist. No data is stored server side, and messages are only visible to participants for 60 seconds before they fade away into nothingness.

Anyone can create a new chatroom with a random URL hash, or can create their own chatroom.  Users are anonymous but you can edit your name if you wish. Messages are encrypted all the way to the server, where they are relayed to the chatroom participants and then immediately deleted. User sessions are stored until a user disconnects, then they are deleted, too.

Why did I build this?  Well, partly as an experiment with Firebase, but also because I like the idea of people being able to communicate in an encrypted, anonymous way without governments snooping on them.  Reporters can use this to do sensitive interviews; protesters under despotic regimes can use it to organize resistance.

The code is up on GitHub, which I felt was necessary to provide transparency into the app’s inner workings and security.  I don’t usually make my repositories public, for fear of being ripped apart by the hackersphere, but if anyone is going to use this app they’re going to want to know how it works.

I had a lot of trouble with Firebase’s security rules, but I think I figured it out.  Here’s the current security schema:

{
    "rules": {
      "rooms": {
        "$RoomId": {
          "connections": {
              ".read": true,
              ".write": "auth.username == newData.child('FBUserId').val()"
          },
          "messages": {
            "$any": {
            ".write": "!newData.exists() || root.child('rooms').child(newData.child('RoomId').val()).child('connections').hasChild(newData.child('FBUserId').val())",
            ".validate": "newData.hasChildren(['RoomId','FBUserId','userName','userId','message']) && newData.child('message').val().length >= 1",
            ".read": "root.child('rooms').child(data.child('RoomId').val()).child('connections').hasChild(data.child('FBUserId').val())"
            }
          },
          "poll": {
            ".write": "auth.username == newData.child('FBUserId').val()",
            ".read": true
          }
        }
      }
    }
}

I welcome any and all feedback on the app, especially security.

Go ahead and start a new chatroom at https://ephchat.com!

July 17, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
ReservationHop Does a Soft Pivot

ReservationHop Does a Soft Pivot

It has been a crazy holiday weekend.

In three days we went from relative obscurity to being the punching bag of the entire tech industry. I suppose some might envy me for all the media attention I’ve received for a side project I built in my underwear one night after waiting in line for a burrito, but that sort of attention does not a legitimate business make. Getting covered in CNN has its perks, to be sure, but a business needs customers, and most of all, trust.

Let’s start with customers. Opening a firehose of traffic on ReservationHop, with the sales that followed, showed that there is indeed a validated secondary market for restaurant reservations. Paid restaurant reservations are not only desirable, but the market is heading that way as people awaken to the inefficiencies in the current system. Some restaurants, annoyed by empty tables reserved for no-shows and short-sats, are moving towards ticketing and deposits anyway. Multiple chefs and owners have pointed to OpenTable as more of a problem than a solution. A paid reservation system makes sense as a way to dissuade no-shows, distribute covers throughout the week, and even increase fairness for customers. As Tyler Cowen put it in the New York Times, “Money is ultimately a more egalitarian force than privilege, as everyone’s greenbacks are worth the same.”

The biggest criticism we have received has not been about the principle of selling reservations, but rather the methods we initially employed to hack this project into existence. We appreciate the criticism and honest feedback, which is why today ReservationHop is doing a “soft pivot” to address the same customer demand, and in addition work with the restaurants directly to cut them in on the deal. We believe that restaurants can benefit from selling reservations for a couple tables per weekend. This will not only reduce no-shows and mediate demand for their peak reservations slots in favor of off-peak times, but they will also get paid for filling these tables, instead of the other way around.

It was never our intention to harm the restaurants. In fact, as we promised from the beginning, we called to cancel 15 or so reservations that didn’t get claimed this weekend 4-6 hours in advance, so restaurants would not have to deal with no-shows.

In addition, I spent a lot of time in the last couple days speaking and meeting with restaurant owners personally, offering my apologies for the troubles we may have caused them and discussing how we may work together in the future on the massive opportunity that has presented itself. It has not been lost on many restaurants that with the sort of media coverage ReservationHop is receiving and the hundreds of local customers begging for instant access to their tables, they are not only getting free advertising as the hottest ticket in town, but are given the opportunity to make money filling their best tables at near-zero risk of no-shows. This is of course an opportunity that we need to explore with them over the next couple of weeks.

This also means that ReservationHop will be evolving, as all early-stage startups do, as we experiment to find a product-market fit. We may find that our early assumptions about customers or restaurants are faulty, or there are better services we can offer to the foodies of San Francisco that are more scalable.  Or we may find that this entire venture doesn’t really have a large enough addressable market.  One of the interesting things about the last couple of days is how our initial in experiment in customer demand was taken to be “what we do,” with little acknowledgement or understanding (at least outside of the lean-startup-model-aware tech community) that rapid iterations on business models are the norm. As far as I can tell, it is rare for early stage startups to have this much press attention this early in the game. One of the challenges for us will be to navigate the extreme press scrutiny while simultaneously experimenting to find a model that works.

As we evolve, we will continue to let customers have exclusive access to the best tables in the city, while making a new promise to restaurants: we hear your concerns, and we want to work with you. As always, if you are in the restaurant business please drop us a line: admin@reservationhop.com.

July 8, 20144 commentsRead More
July 4, 2014

July 4, 2014

In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of AMERICA.

WHEN, in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another; and to assume, among the Powers Of The Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them and formidable to Tyranny only.

HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the people.

HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, Incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining, in the mean Time, exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

HE has kept among us, in times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our Legislatures.

HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:

FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

FOR depriving us in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:

FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies:

FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection, and waging War against us.

HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with Circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

HE has constrained our fellow Citizens, taken Captive on the high Seas, to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

HE has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

IN every Stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them, from Time to Time, of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our Connexions and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the Rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be,FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connexion between them and the State of Great-Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of Right do. And for the Support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.

July 4, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
How I Became the Most Hated Person in San Francisco, for a Day

How I Became the Most Hated Person in San Francisco, for a Day

This morning I put the finishing touches on, and launched, ReservationHop.com, a site where I’m selling reservations I booked up at hot SF restaurants this Fourth of July weekend and beyond.

logo

I built it over the weekend after waiting at Off the Grid for 30 minutes for a burrito from Señor Sisig, and realized that there’s got to be a market for the time people spend waiting for tables at our finest city dining establishments.  Turns out I’m not the first person to think it, as there are two startups doing this very thing in New York City (here and here).

It’s a simple site with a simpler backend. I book reservations under assumed names, list them on ReservationHop, and price them according to the cost of the restaurant and how far in advance they need to be booked up. I don’t use OpenTable; I call the restaurants directly. And I have a policy of calling and canceling reservations that don’t get snapped up, because I don’t want to hurt the restaurants (the assumption being that on-demand restaurants with high walk-in traffic won’t have trouble filling those tables).

I anticipated some mild interest when I launched this morning, emailing the 20 or so potential customers I had interviewed at Off the Grid and some friends. I expected maybe having to make somewhat of an effort in order to get people to discover what I’m doing.  I never expected a maelstrom of internet hate.

Not all of the responses have been negative, but an overwhelming number of them has been.

I totally understand the frustration people have with SF’s particular brand of “innovation.” And it seems that everywhere you look cherished public resources are being claimed by startups, whether it’s Google laying claim to bus stops or parking apps laying claim to, well parking spaces. I’d half expect someone to come along one day and put picnic blankets down in Dolores park and sell them at $25 apiece.

I also understand that this represents, as one Tweeter put it, “a caricature of SF tech bro shithead.” And as someone who spends a lot of time complaining to my friends about how much of an insular bubble San Francisco has become, what with apps built by the 0.1% for the 0.1%, I completely agree. In fact, I would have much preferred the media raised this much a fuss about Drillbit or The Creative Action Network or any of my other startups over the years.

But there’s something peculiar about SF, in that our media seems to love hating on stuff like this, so I guess I’m not surprised that I got Valleywagged almost immediately, followed by a post from The Next Web. I responded to an interview request from TechCrunch so it’s written up there too.

Meanwhile, traffic has gone through the roof. Here’s my actual Google Analytics graph from today.

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 5.50.59 PM

I guess you can say that any press is good press.

But let’s talk about the questions/criticisms everyone has. What was I thinking! How dare I sell something that’s free! Is this even legal? Is it ethical? Restaurants are going to hate this!

To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking through these questions. I built this site as an experiment in consumer demand for a particular product, and the jury’s still out on whether it will work. But I can tell you what I have thought through.

The initial criticism has been about the fact that restaurant reservations are free, and I shouldn’t be selling them. First off, reservations aren’t free. Restaurant tables are limited, in high demand and people wait a good long time as walk-ins to get them. Reservations take time and planning to make and the restaurant assumes an opportunity cost from booking them. My friend joked that it took me less time to build this site than most people spend hunting for OpenTable reservations in a given year.

What about ethics? We are talking about an asset that most people don’t think about having a value. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t have a value, or that people wouldn’t be willing to pay for it. For instance, no one would have thought that taking a cab during rush hour should cost more than a normal ride, until Uber launched surge pricing and we realized that people are willing to pay for it. Clearly, the service of booking a reservation in advance has value to patrons. This is evidenced by the startups doing this right now in New York City.

If someone does pay for it willingly, is it really unethical? The consumer has made a choice, the reservation stands, the restaurant gets a table filled as planned, and I have made money for providing the service. That seems perfectly ethical to me. I am aware that the ethical conundrum is around the “what if” question: If I book a table and no one buys it, the restaurant loses business, doesn’t it? I don’t know if that’s true yet, and I’m also working at a volume so low that it probably won’t matter.  I’m canceling the reservations 4 hours before if they don’t get bought, and certainly a restaurant that’s booked weeks in advance won’t have trouble filling a table with their high walk-in traffic, or someone who gets lucky and snaps up the reservation for free on OpenTable.

But more importantly, I think that a paid reservation lets customers get skin in the game, and that means that restaurants might even reduce no-shows if paid reservations become a thing. When Alinea introduced ticketing (pre-paid reservations), they dropped their rate of no-shows by 75%. That’s a pretty good deal in an industry with razor-thin margins.  I’m just speculating on whether this might provide value for restaurants; I can’t speak for them and need to parse this out over the next couple days.

So, back to becoming the most hated person in SF. I learned a lot today about how media, culture and technology in this city interact, and I have to say that overall, I think that the people who have sent me violent threats via email and Twitter, while excessive, may have a point. So in the interest of ethics and fairness, I want to talk to restaurants about working with them directly on a better reservation system. I’ve heard that OpenTable is loathed by many restaurants who don’t want to pay to fill tables. There may be a ticketing solution to high-demand restaurants. If you’re a restaurant, please drop me a line.

And if you’re a regular Jane or Joe, and you missed an opportunity to get a reservation at a hot SF restaurant for your first wedding anniversary this weekend, check to see if there are any reservations available for you at ReservationHop.com.

UPDATE: We have made a “soft pivot” to address feedback from the restaurant and tech industries. Read more here.

July 3, 2014132 commentsRead More
Being a Productive Animal

Being a Productive Animal

We all feel unproductive at times, some of us more than others.

For me, personally, I have high expectations of myself and what I’m able to do, so I feel unproductive frequently. It’s very rare that I put in a solid 10- or 12-hour day of work and feel good about it. Sometimes it’s because I don’t work solidly and I know it. Other times it’s because I work solidly but don’t feel like I accomplished anything.

I’ve been through long periods of employment and “funemployment” and it’s easy to feel unproductive in both cases. When I’m employed, it’s easy to work very hard and look back and not have anything significant to show for it. It’s not always clear if it’s the sort of work that adds up and pays off at the end or if the entire project, concept or enterprise is on the wrong track from the start. At other times you have a bad manager or conflicting goals from the top that make productive work in one direction difficult. In either case it’s easy to feel unproductive even if you’re spending all your time working.

When not employed, there’s even less of a way to tell whether your work is productive or not. If you’re spending your time looking for a job, a similar type of busy work can be had sending out hundreds of applications. It’s easy to be unproductive whilst seeming productive, especially when looking for a job.

If you’re spending your funemployment trying to start a startup or build a project, you face a similar crisis of confidence. You can spend all day building a website or a MVP only to take it to your first customer and be told it’s useless. Or you can scrape a list of all the hospitals and clinics in the world from a directory site only to decide that the market testing you spent $500 for came up a dud. Or you can do nothing, which sometimes feels more productive than working in circles.

I feel most productive when I feel like I’m building something, even if it’s something no one wants or will use (or read). But the sense of accomplishment is fleeting; then there is another task ahead, another project to tentatively poke and see if it’s got some life in it.

I don’t like committing wholeheartedly to a project unless I can see how it’s worth it. But that often means not doing enough work on it to reach the right conclusion. That’s a trap to avoid.

This is what I think the cult of “failing fast” is all about. Not simply doing something and failing, but doing something seemingly productive and then realizing it was all for naught. To then be able to pick up again and feel productive about something potentially useless is a rare gift.

I felt productive writing this post. I will hopefully feel productive later today when I’m done cranking out the finishing design touches to my new site so that people will actually buy what I’m selling. I think that’s probably the easiest way to tell if what you’re working on is productive: not whether you feel productive working on it, but if before you work on it, you can define why you’re doing it and how it will help your project succeed.

June 30, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
“Check Your Privilege” is Actually Just a Lousy Argument

“Check Your Privilege” is Actually Just a Lousy Argument

Like you, I’ve read Tal Fortgang’s piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for my White Male Privilege.” And like you, I’ve enjoyed watching him get skewered by blog after blog in the never ending one-upmanship that is the who-had-it-worse awards. As the internet froths at the mouth, I hereby declare that, like you, I think he made a big mistake! He should have elaborated on his first sentence and stopped there.

The point he should have made, but skipped over instead, was that the “check your privilege” riposte is not relevant to almost any discussion in which it is invoked. It is a rhetorical flourish used to discredit the proposition based on the identity of the speaker, and not the merit of the proposition itself. There’s a word for this logical fallacy: ad hominem. When employed, it can pack a powerful punch, but in reality it is lazy, lousy, and liberally lobbed in lieu of any legitimate point.

Although I’ve rarely heard the literal words “check your privilege,” I have been exposed to many, many forms of this non-argument. You might recognize these examples from your own experience:

“You wouldn’t know what it’s like to not have healthcare. If you did you would see that [Obamacare/socialized medicine/Healthy SF] is desperately needed in this country.”

“Have you ever been poor? No? Well then how can you have an opinion on [welfare reform/minimum wage/etc].”

“You’re white, and your built-in privilege makes it difficult for you to see how affirmative action merely levels the playing field.”

“It must be really easy for you to argue for school vouchers having gone to a fancy private school.”

THESE ARE NOT VALID ARGUMENTS. They sound good, and they might even sound credible, especially so if the speaker is actually a member of the disaffected group in question. But you’ll realize that it’s a completely invalid point if you reverse the roles and you find that it suddenly makes no sense. I’ve actually seen, in the heat of an impassioned discussion, a “check your privilege” practitioner contort their definition of privilege to include the very, very, unprivileged individual who had taken a contrary view. It was as if he would go to any lengths to avoid making a real counterpoint with actual evidence.

What’s weird is that this line is almost exclusively employed against those who challenge the liberal-Democratic axis of thought on political or economic issues, even though no one seems to apply the logic consistently. After all, surely an Ivy League grad who checks the privilege of another Ivy League grad over minimum wage is no more qualified to have an opinion just because, in her mind, she has better aligned herself with the interests of the poor. Obviously, or at least it should be obvious, there is more than one way to approach a complicated issue like poverty and there are no easy answers, or else we would have solved it a long time ago. In any event, “check your privilege” is not productive discourse in pursuit of solving real political and socioeconomic problems.

The big secret is, you and almost everybody you know is unbelievably privileged. If you live in America, you are privileged. If you read and speak English in a world where English is the lingua franca, you are privileged. If you have an internet connection, you are privileged. If you grew up with two parents you are privileged.

Here’s the good news, though: your privilege doesn’t disqualify you from having an opinion on almost anything. To present that opinion you must have evidence and support for your claims, of course, but you need not settle for a life of lazy rhetorical flourishes in pursuance of quick debate points. Hold your position against the ad hominem, because it’s likely that when the “check your privilege” card has been played, your interlocutor has already run out of counterarguments and you’re winning.

So don’t worry about checking your privilege. Check your facts instead.

May 5, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More