I am a product manager, developer and entrepreneur in San Francisco. I update my blog infrequently. About me.

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.

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!

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 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.

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.

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.

“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.

Design a Magical Product

Yesterday I took part in a workshop on Design Thinking. The exercise that fascinated me most was when we paired up with strangers to create a product for them. We started by empathizing with the “customer” by talking to them. My partner was international and was carrying all these receipts in his wallet for reimbursements and filing taxes back home. He clearly needed a product that digitally scanned receipts but also was able to provide the physical copies on demand in case of a tax audit.

elfWhile ideating and brainstorming on how to solve this problem, I wrote down standard solutions like pre-stamped envelopes, pocket receipt scanners, and more. But I also wrote down “Magical receipt reading elf.” It was not a serious brainstorm, and indeed I had already started to cross it out when my partner latched onto the idea. “It’s perfect! It can eat my receipts and scan them and then if I need the physical receipts in the future it can regurgitate them on request.”

Yes, a magical receipt digesting elf (MRDE). With an MRDE, you don’t have to worry about carrying all your receipts. You can load them digitally into your accounting software. And, if the IRS comes knocking, you can have the elf regurgitate the receipts, sorted by date and itemized.

It’s a perfect solution to a common problem. It’s innovative. It would fly off the shelves. Problem is, it’s magic!

Magic Comes First

That got me thinking about magic, and especially Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. About what people have always said about Apple products, that they are like magic. And what they mean by this is that good products “just work.” They don’t ask questions of you or require your permission. They function as an extension of yourself.

Good products are one step down from magic without being magic themselves. So why not use magic in the design process? Why not design elves, fairies and spells before designing MVPs, prototypes and demos?

Our magic elf was of course not possible to build…or was it? A pocket-sized receipt scanner and storage unit is not completely unthinkable. If the magic elf that performs these functions is a perfect solution to this common problem, certainly a slightly less magical mechanical solution would be an ideal MVP.

By using a Harry Potter approach, you are no longer constrained by what’s feasible. You are only constrained by what the user wants and needs. All iterations on the magical product can be done on paper. Only when your magic spell is written, do you step down and think about how to make the magic real. I think in most cases there would be a way to do it. And if there isn’t, then start thinking about what technology you would need to be invented (or invent yourself!) for it to be reality.

I’m going to try to apply “magical thinking” to product design from now on. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, wingardium leviosa!

What Google Knows About Me

I started keeping a list of what Google knows about me. Even knowing full well that I gave this information to Google freely, it’s pretty awe inspiring.

  • Google knows every website I’ve ever visited (Chrome)
  • Google knows who all my friends are (Gmail)
  • Google knows who my closest friends are (Gchat, Gmail)
  • Google knows what products I’ve purchased and how much I’ve spent (Gmail receipts)
  • Google knows what mailing lists I’m subscribed to, and to which clubs I belong (Google Groups, Gmail)
  • Google knows what stocks I own (Google Finance)
  • Google knows how popular my websites are, and, by proxy, how well my startup is going (Google Analytics)
  • Google knows where I travel and when I am traveling (Google Maps, Google Maps on iPhone)
  • Google knows what I look like and what my friends look like (Picasa)
  • Google knows where I am during the day, and who I’m with, and for what purpose (Google Calendar)
  • Google knows intimate details about my work and personal projects (Google Docs)

Obviously it’s an algorithm, and there isn’t a dude sitting at a computer in Palo Alto learning everything about me. But if someone wanted to, they would have a pretty easy time of invading my privacy to an insane degree.

We put a lot of trust in Google to handle our information on a day to day basis. There’s no grander point here, just something to think about. And I’m glad at least I can always walk away from Google if I wanted to.

Towing is Extortion

So, I got my car towed this morning.

I’ll rephrase. I got my rental car towed this morning, after parking overnight outside my apartment because there was no overnight drop-off.

I’ll clarify. I got my rental car towed this morning after parking six inches over the line, my Hyundai’s ass sticking into my neighbor’s driveway. In his defense, he had left me a very nice note on my windshield informing me my car would be towed if I didn’t move it.

I got a $100 parking ticket at 7:55am.
The city towed the car at 7:59am. The bill: $520.

Tow Truck Cartoon_fullNow, let me be clear. I screwed up. The tow zone was clearly marked. I took a risk butting the car into the driveway, and it was because I was lazy and tired and didn’t want to hunt for another space, and I thought I could get downstairs in the morning before anyone was leaving for work. I was wrong.

But let me ask you a question: isn’t $520 a ridiculously exorbitant fee to pay to get your own car back? Isn’t that an absurdly, unrealistically high amount of money to expect the average citizen in San Francisco to pay?

Now, I’m not poor, and I count my blessings that I have (had) the money to pay the $520 tow fee, plus the $100 parking ticket, plus the $20 cab ride to get to the car lot before the $56.50 daily fee kicked in.

But not everyone is so lucky. Most people can’t just conjure up $520 within the designated 4 hours of towing. I made a quick count of the “Auction List” of cars in the impound lot. 75 people in San Francisco were losing their cars today because, presumably, they couldn’t afford to pay to get them back.

The fact is, whether or not you live in San Francisco, you don’t even have to be remotely poor for $520 to be a lot of money. It’s a lot of money.

It doesn’t need to be this way, and it wouldn’t be if it weren’t for a carefully engineered, state-sponsored extortion racket.

As I discovered today, that $520 is neatly parceled between the city and the private monopoly contractor that does the towing. When you call the tower, they proudly tell you in their voice message that they are the “only” tow service for San Francisco. It’s their game. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the circle jerk at play here.

The towers get paid by the tow. They’re out there looking. All the time. 24/7. Their job is to tow as much as possible, and charge exorbitant fees backed by the force of law. And San Francisco walks away with half the fees anyway, so it’s not like they have a reason to change the system. And the fact that the $520 towers showed up 4 minutes after the city gave me a $100 parking ticket–two punishments for the same crime–only makes me more sure that there is a close cooperation happening here.

Public meets private: the worst of both worlds.

Law enforcement being mobilized to clear cars parked in the bad places is important, and of course people should be responsible for their property, and should pay the cost of towing their car. But if we are going to make towing the purview of municipal government, then the government has to actually step in and clear the roads, and those should be the only costs that people pay. If the city contracts out to a private monopoly, it is doing nothing more than creating a giant corporate subsidy. People must pay double or triple what they would have paid otherwise, and although most of the fee goes to a private corporation, it still is backed by the force of law.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love private enterprise. And we should privatize just about everything we can, especially services that could be provided competitively like transit. But towing is not a service, it is a form of law enforcement, which puts the incentives in the wrong place. It pays people to find–or create–lawbreakers. And what we have here is nothing more than state-sponsored extortion: making someone pay you for a “service” that you didn’t ask them to provide, on threat of losing your property. Extortion is extortion, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the mafia or the City of San Francisco.

But at least the mafia would provide some protection.