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

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.

July 4, 2013

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.

I Used DuckDuckGo for a Week and Had to Switch Back. Here’s why.

It was really hard to switch off of Google, and when I finally did it, I didn’t think I would switch back.

In the past, whenever I’ve tried another search engine, I have failed. Searching is such a natural, compulsory thing to do on the internet, that whenever I have navigated to Bing or DuckDuckGo, I find myself staring at a blinking cursor not entirely sure what to search for. The conscious decision to make a search has always interfered with my ability to search naturally.

DuckDuckGoBut the recent revelations about PRISM and the NSA have led to a surge in interest in cutting the chord to big cloud services like Google whose data collection practices are well known. So, following the herd, I decided it was time for me to switch my default search engine. It wasn’t enough to remember to navigate to DuckDuckGo for searches; instead, I had to change my address bar default search engine in Chrome to force me to use the new engine.

Before I knew it, my 50 or so odd searches a day were going through DuckDuckGo instead of Google.

Now, I love that DuckDuckGo doesn’t track searches. In terms of their commitment to privacy and their users, I don’t think there’s a better option. And I love that there’s an alternative for people concerned about their data being collected. But it took me only a week using DuckDuckGo to appreciate the little things that Google does that still make it a far superior product.

Google is Faster

I didn’t think this would be something I even noticed, but it was apparent immediately that with DuckDuckGo, search results take a fraction of a second longer to show up. It must be no more than 200-300 ms, but it really makes a difference. Every time I am faced with that momentary pause all I can think about is switching over to Google to get faster gratification.

Google Keeps Up with Timely Search Queries

Earlier this week, I searched for “Pride,” expecting to find out more about Pride Weekend in San Francisco. DuckDuckGo seemed to have no understanding of that context, whereas Google’s first results were exactly what I was looking for. It wouldn’t require tracking, just an IP lookup to know where I am and return timely results. Google’s natural integration with their news engine is invaluable to my search experience.

Google Doesn’t Index Sites with Code Errors

This is huge for me. Since I am coding all day long, I need to be able to search for errors that crop up from time to time if I don’t understand them. There was one PHP error this morning that I searched (DuckDuckGo’d?), and the top 20 results were sites that had thrown this error. The sites were destinations like OneFreeCoupon.com–completely irrelevant to my query. Google, as usual, returned very useful StackOverflow results that got me on the right track.

Google Knows When Not to Surface Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia, but sometimes it isn’t the most relevant result. The “Pride” search is a good example, but in general if it isn’t a proper noun, I am more likely to go for a news or video result than Wikipedia. DuckDuckGo seems to surface Wikipedia way too much. I like the way Google does it, especially when they float the Wikipedia results to the right so I always know where to find the article.

In short, I love that DuckDuckGo is gaining interest, and that Google has competition, and that there are choices for all of us when we use the internet. But I tried, and for the things that matter to me, it seems that Google is just a better experience. I hope DuckDuckGo improves the product, because eventually I would love to switch back. But philosophical alignment isn’t enough to get me to use an inferior product.

So, Google, you have me back for now.

A Few Words about Ron May

I have to say a few words about Ron May, the legendary tech blogger on the Chicago scene who passed away today at the age of 57.

Ron, for anyone who knew him, was a chore. He was annoying, abrasive, irreverent, and sometimes downright mean. But he was also persistent, tenacious, had a sense of humor, and believed above all in a mission: to document the successes and failings of the Chicago tech scene.

ronmayI got to know Ron as the cofounder of midVentures (now TechWeek), in 2009 when we were holding our first conferences in Chicago. Ron was of an earlier tech generation. As the writer/blogger/chief journalist of The May Report, he had seen and documented the rise and fall of Chicago tech once already in the 1990′s. By the time I came around with my cohort, it was a whole new ball game, and Ron was our unofficial umpire.

Ron covered midVentures and the work we were trying to do before anyone else did. He was one of our earlier supporters, and even when we were hit by “scandal” (if you could call our temporary hiccups scandals), he was an embodiment of that aphorism that Any Press is Good Press. We would search every May Report for mentions of our company–and many times it would be there, if even in the business card section. People found us because of the May Report. And we knew that if Ron wasn’t talking about us, we were doing something wrong. We needed Ron as much as Ron needed us. Though I can’t speak for them, the rest of Chicago tech must have felt the same way.

That the Chicago tech scene is thriving today is no small part thanks to Ron. He was the one uniting force for all of us: someone who had seen the old generation rise and fall and a new one rise to take its place. He was someone who was never to be missed at industry events, except during his bouts of bad health. His report had a rumored distribution of tens of thousands. There was no one in the industry who didn’t subscribe. It was our Yellow Journalism, our Industry Rag, our Hacker News. All reported and distributed by one man.

The quirks of everybody’s favorite “gadfly” were legendary. He would wheel or limp into events loudly and proudly–with absolutely no misgivings about heckling, prodding, yelling, or enthusing about any topic whatsoever. There was always that moment at any tech meetup or event where you would hear an unmistakable voice somewhere behind you yell, “DO I HAVE YOUR BUSINESS CARD?” and you knew that it was only a matter of time before he made it over to you with the same question. His presence was so loud and hard to ignore–but give him your business card you must, lest you not be listed in that week’s Report. He was kicked out of more than a few events for his rambunctiousness, including ours. I’ll never forget the one time he yelled across a crowded room to me, “Hey Brian, I heard you’re the only other kike in Chicago!” Despite the awkward pejorative, it was nice of him to try to bond with me. I appreciated it at the time and still do.

Of course, above all, he was a journalist. An unconventional journalist, to be sure, but one who was dogged in his pursuit of The Story. He called and emailed, followed up and pestered, never to be deterred by what other people thought of him and certainly not to be deterred by rejection. There was never a story he picked up that he didn’t pursue. The last time I spoke with him, he was trying to chase down why I had left midVentures. I didn’t feel a need to give him the scoop, but he got the information he needed elsewhere. Of course he did. If there be any doubt that he was deeply passionate about journalism and took his responsibility as seriously as any other reporter, one only need read his final published words:

And until we meet again Jerry, Dave, Jeff (both of you), Steve, Terry, Gary, Nik, Bob, Fred, Brian, Chris, Flip, Phil, Paul, and the rest of you, your secrets are safe with me, I have carried them to the grave.

We always knew Ron was sick for a long time, so his passing comes as no surprise. But his life shows how someone with quite a few disadvantages–some personal, some physical–can make an impact. How people who work hard can have their own success, despite naysayers and bad wishers. How even assholes can have the last laugh. And we know that Ron got to have the last laugh many times.

Thanks Ron.

Announcing Drillbit: Who’s on your Mailing List?

The genesis of this idea was a couple weeks ago when my cofounder said: “Would it be possible to see what percent of our email list was female or male based on their names alone?” Thus Drillbit was born.

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 6.01.30 PMIn the last couple weeks I have been pouring over data sets and trying different formulas to find the best way to break down a list of seemingly random name data into digestible information. The resulting app allows anyone to upload their mailing lists and see who’s in them, and in perhaps the coolest feature, they can segment their list as well.

The Project

Drillbit uses publicly available datasets to create a likely demographic profile of mailing lists based on first and last names. Upload your mailing, customer or user list with first and last names, and based on that information we will create an age, gender and demographic profile of your list.

The Datasets

Listed here are the foundational datasets of this project, including for analysis tools that haven’t yet been released.

Methodology

The essential principle behind Drillbit is that an individual’s first and last names betray a lot of information about his or her background, origins, language, gender, and even income and ideology. Names can be both varied in their originality and popularity as well as conservative in their staying power. A surname can be passed down for generations, whereas first names have a tendancy to be cyclical.

As an example, take the name “Max.” It is a common name, or common enough it would seem, that one could find out very little information from the name alone. But as it turns out, “Max” only may seem common to us given its surge in popularity in the late 80′s and early 90′s–the birth years of the rapidly matriculating Generation Y. In 1974, only 400 Max’s were born nationwide!

Of course, baby name popularity is not a new idea. But the variance is astounding, and not just in terms of popularity. In 2012, the two most popular baby names for boys and girls were “Jacob” and “Sophia.” Unlike “Max,” both of these popular names seem to have spent the last 100 years on the up-and-coming list.

With this amount of unique variance in names–some names jump and others sink, some names are like fads and others never really take off–it isn’t surprising that, in the aggregate, it is possible to take a list of people and determine how old they are likely to be.

So that’s what I did. Using the above datasets on name popularity, I was able to come up with some pretty convincing initial results, benchmarking against existing lists I knew well.

The first step is to condense the data I had into a table which compared year of birth, and gender, with the % likelihood that any random “Michael” born in the last century was actually born in that year. For example, if 10,000 Michaels were born between 1900 and 2000, and 1000 Michaels were born in 1950, then 1950-M-MICHAEL has a 10% likelihood; i.e., given a random Michael, there is a 10% chance he was born in 1950.

With the charts above, you can see how this would play out. If you were to use Drillbit to upload a list of 5000 Jacobs, you would see the age match pattern roughly cohere to the above chart. The more Jacobs there are, the higher confidence we would have in the result.

There are some obvious complications with this model. The first is that although 10% of all Michaels might have been born in 1950, they would be over 60 now, and their chance of being around is much smaller than that of a Michael born in 2000. That’s where actuarial data comes in. Using the above actuarial table divided by gender, I was able to normalize the distribution based on likelihood of survival in each age cohort. No matter how many Max’s were born in the 1910′s, there aren’t a lot left today.

The second problem is that names are not unisex; in fact, most names in the database aren’t 100% unisex, Michael included. It became clear that age data had to be done on the basis of gender, and not on totals. Names that are popular with one gender are not necessarily popular with the other at the same time.

To compensate for this, age data was tabulated separately, all the way down to the actuarial normalization. Female names were rated and graded against each other, male names were separately, and only at the end were they normalized against each other.

Compared to Age, Gender and Race were quite easier. Gender analysis was a simpler form of the age analysis–likely names were divided by gender and then normalized by age. Race/ethnicity data was also quite simple based on surnames–the data was already organized by the Census, albeit 13 years ago, so getting it into a searchable database wasn’t tricky.

Limitations

There are some obvious limitations to my method. The first is in the nature of large numbers, or small numbers as the case may be. If you were to put a list of 2 names into Drillbit, it would spit out a similar looking demographic profile running the gammut of all ages and perhaps some different races as well. There are few names that are reliably “Black” names or “Over 65″ names (although, there are a few names with a 100% incidence within one to five years–challenge you to find them). Like with any aggregate data project, the larger the list, the more reliable Drillbit will be.

The other limitation is in any sort of list that comes with existing biases. Say, a list of NBA players (heavily 25-35 and black) or a list of sitting US Congresspeople (heavily male, white, and 35-55). These inherent biases will be reflected in the anlaysis, but probably not to the extent that they could be. This is the House of Representatives, according to Drillbit:

Obviously 18-24 year old congresspeople would be impossible. And yet, even with a small list of 435 names, the trends in age in reality poke through.

In short, you shouldn’t use Drillbit to analyze a list whose composition is already known to you to skew heavily in favor of one or two demographics. However, it’s worth nothing that Congress is 18.3% female, and Drillbit predicted 20.5% based on names alone. Not shabby.

The final inherent bias that’s worth mentioning is in skewing toward younger ages. Since younger people are overwhelmingly more likely to be alive, post-normalized numbers skew younger. In addition, in development, I had a category be “Under25″ but it became apparent that although my database could detect age variability all the way to Age 0, babies aren’t going to be on mailing lists, and they were throwing off all the results. So to compensate for the younger skew, I made a judgment call to make a cutoff at 18, and not track any younger cohorts, even though some websites may have 13-18 year olds as users.

Now that you know more about how I did it, upload a list and try it out!

Saving Civilization from Al-Qaeda (and the Weather)

You may have read the article in the New Republic last month about how 300,000 ancient books and manuscripts in the libraries of Timbuktu were evacuated in secret to protect them from Ansar Dine, an Al Qaeda cell. The manuscripts not only survived the burning of the Timbuktu library, but were smuggled in footlockers all the way to Bamako, the capital of Mali, where they are currently being hidden away by volunteers until they can be returned.

The problem is, Bamako is in the south and the climate is much wetter and thus more destructive to the manuscripts. As I write this, thousands of unique, priceless artifacts chronicling history, philosophy, science, literature, law and religion from the peak of medieval Islamic and North African civilization are slowly being eaten away by mildew.

I have teamed up with T160K, Timbuktu Libraries in Exile, to help drive attention and funding toward the preservation of these manuscripts, and by proxy, the preservation of civilization itself. There is nothing more offensive than religious zealots imposing their backwards ideologies on free thinking people. At T160K, we seek to keep these manuscripts safe from the elements while they wait out the Islamist threat in Mali.

300,000 unique books and manuscripts have been there 800 years. They should be around 800 years from now.

There are several things you can do to help, but right now we need to fund the Indiegogo campaign.

Fund the Indiegogo CampaignFind Out More

We are Obsessed with Race, Not Racism

Our obsession with race has surpassed and perhaps even magnified our problems with racism in America.

Let me explain what I mean. Since I’m white, I can’t speak to the personal experience of racism, and I wouldn’t try to do so. As an American, I am part of a society that has made identity politics a most incessant and obnoxious trope, and I have observed that the more opposed to this drivel people get, the more the boundaries of politically acceptable discourse solidify to exclude them (or should I say, us). There are things that just can’t be said anymore, things that we need people to say because without dissent, race politics becomes an orthodoxy, and orthodoxies are dangerous. That said, I have travelled to a very many places and interacted with a great deal of people of all backgrounds, ideas and identities. Almost every person I have met has been full of opinions about racism, despite the fact that few of them are people whom I would consider to be racist themselves. And I’m beginning to wonder if our obsession with race has reached a boiling point and we might need to rethink how we approach issues of race in this country before it boils over and causes some real problems.

For reference, I always look to South Africa, where I studied abroad, and to the particularly virulent, open racism that persists there 20 years after apartheid. In South Africa, everybody talks about race, all the time. It’s talked about with an openness and frankness that is surprising to an untrained American ear. I think we can learn a lot from South Africans in how they openly confront their racist past and spend every waking minute talking about it–as a result, there are no secrets, no closet racists, no sinister feeling of power behind a veil of magnanimity. In South Africa, racists white, black and coloured proudly declare their racism. It truly lays bear the shocking reality of racism; that it exists in droves, that it is self-perpetuating, that it results in bad justice, erosion of social cohesion, etc–these are things we know. But because South Africans talk about it so much, because they confront it and it is politically acceptable for public figures to say some of the most shockingly racist things, I found it oddly refreshing and somewhat hopeful. That maybe there is a post-racial future in South Africa after all.

But it is hard not to contrast the South African free discourse over race with our much more regimented, yet simultaneously boiling, discourse in America. We have confined ourselves to a very narrow and troubling politically correct discourse where the only thing it is permissible to talk about is how bad racism is and how racist white people are, and it has become completely impermissible to talk about the identity politics and tokenism which have resulted from this myopic obsession. As a result, the conversation about race and racism in America is troublingly one-sided. When I am engaged in a discussion about race, it is almost always about racism, the ism being the domain of racists and a racist society (depending on your worldview, this defines a relatively narrow or a very broad band of Americans). But in all this talk about racism, we are engaging in a more important discourse, a discourse on and around capital-R Race. The difference is that while “racism” can be easily used to segment the undesirables in our midst, race is considered not only an important preoccupation but a necessary one in order to combat racism, and thus race, not racism, is what enters the national consciousness and infects our discourse. In short, we no longer are obsessed with racists, we are obsessed with race.

What form does this obsession with race take in our society? We are racial compartmentalizers. We count minorities in positions of power and obsess over racial balance. We talk about racial “firsts” (first African-American so-and-so). We still can’t decide on a good definition of Hispanic. We try to “fix” racism with countless race-specific philanthropies and entitlements. When we encounter people or public figures that challenge our assumptions about race, the we get cognitive dissonance and the discourse gets wrapped up in it. Black men like Herman Cain and Michael Steele were commonly derided as Uncle Toms during their pinnacles of influence. (This isn’t just a racial problem–we even blame women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg for not being feminist enough, which is eerily similar to the time when Sarah Palin was being attacked by the feminist movement who apparently wanted a woman in power but only a certain kind of woman.) This systemic compartmentalization is rampant. We castigate white people with success for ignoring and/or not admitting their privilege. We castigate “minorities” (I hate that word) with success for not doing more to help other minorities. In the latter case, it is very discomfiting to see the expectations of people when it comes to diversity unhinged on those who are providing solutions.

If there’s ever a better exemplar of the problem of race in America, it’s President Barack Obama. Obama is our first black president, but he’s actually half black. It’s interesting how his mixed racial heritage rarely gets as much attention as his blackness. It’s as if there’s an unspoken rule that being biracial is too confusing for a racial narrative. He must be black, or maybe conservatives wouldn’t hate him as much, and he wouldn’t be different than every president that came before. But he’s also a possessor of a litany of American privileges that we usually associate with whiteness. He was raised in a white household by his white grandparents. He went to white colleges. How do we as Americans square that circle? Do we dare create a definition that challenges our inborn assumptions of race, or do we call him black and leave it at that? And if we have decided that a half-black man is either all black or all white, what sort of example is that supposed to set to mixed race children growing up in America, that they have to choose one or the other in order to have a place? Of course, if we make too much of a deal of his white heritage, we have also failed black kids in telling them that you can be successful if you’re black, but only if you’re actually white.

Our race discourse is about constantly deconstructing and reconstructing our racial narratives in order to make the most sense about ourselves. We all think about these things, even if we don’t talk about it. We are conditioned from an early age to internalize notions of race and culture, to be aware of racism, to know our racist history, to understand it. We embrace “diversity” and engage in an uncomfortable amount of social engineering in order to achieve some utopian post-racial future. At the same time, we are conditioned to only speak about race in euphemisms, to avoid offending (which often means avoid discussing) and to tread lightly in the public sphere on the subject. We also are very happy to shut down discussion of race, especially by white people–an uncomfortable ad hominem lobbed at white people who dare to criticize identity politics in America.

A bigger challenge to egalitarianism is that we can’t be satisfied as Americans all seeking for our piece of the American Dream. We can only be satisfied if every person fits neatly into a box on a census form and into a race coalition with its own community spokespeople. We need to conflate race and class, because the alternative is too unsettling. This is a problem because using “white” as a synonym for privilege ignores a very important factor of what constitutes racial “normality” in a society. It is fair to say that white people have a privilege in a white society. It is more accurate to say that X people have a privilege in an X society. Whatever X is in America, it isn’t strictly white. There’s a combination of looks, language, culture and history involved in X. There are plenty of white people with southern drawls who couldn’t land a job on Wall Street even if they had straight A’s. Our culture doesn’t work like that. There are also plenty of black kids growing up in Fairfield County, CT who often act, talk, and subsequently succeed like any white kid growing up in the same circumstance. Incidentally, they are often accused of “acting white.” This is part of the problem: that we use such terminology speaks to a very sad conflation between race and class in contrast to America’s multiracial, diverse reality.

X isn’t necessarily the same thing as white, and indeed, if we want there to be any progress on the racial front, we have to insist that X shouldn’t be white and it is possible, and desirable, to deconstruct the “white privilege” paradigm. This isn’t unthinkable. The definition of “white” itself has changed in history. One of the more interesting books I read last year, Nell Irwin Painter’s The History of White People, tells a fascinating story of how “white” has come to express different ethnic makeups in America. In the last 200 years alone, white has excluded, and then included in turn, people of German, Scandinavian and Irish origin. Imagine that in the late 19th century there was an entire contingent of scientists who didn’t consider Nordic people to be white enough!

I would have to mention Michel Foucault at this point because the parallels of racial discourse in today’s America to sexual discourse in yesterday’s England are too obvious not to bring up. Foucault observes that the people whom we regard to be the most uptight about sexuality were the most obsessed with it. People who spent every waking minute restricting new sexualities and perversities and in doing so opened up sexuality to a whole new universe of intrigue in science, the law, and medicine, in what he calls the Perverse Implantation. Rather than sexuality becoming more subdued, it became more accessible, with the prudish Victorian discourse on sex merely a catalyst for an unprecedented interest in sex, and indeed, it is often misunderstood to have been prudish in the first place.

We have a similar situation in America with race: we spend every waking minute thinking about it and in doing so create more obsession. We can’t get enough of race. Instead of pushing past racism, we are recycling racism into a new paradigm in which all facets of the racial puzzle are reconstructed, pushed into avenues of politics, art, science, the humanities, and thus continually re-examined, obsessed over. Call in the Racial Implantation. Instead of defeating racism, we are creating a new class of racists who, like the racists of old, believe their solutions to the race problem are progressive. They also tend to be inside an echo chamber where challenges to their outlook are deflected, often, ironically enough, with charges of racism.

Given these issues of race in our discourse, racism itself isn’t surprising. I would be surprised to find myself in any modern society today without racism. It either is an extremely natural human instinct in complex societies, or it is going to be a very bad habit to break. I think everyone will disagree on the best “solution” to racism, the discussion of which I think may be part of the problem, but c’est la vie. You can’t argue with the facts: America has racists, and whites sit at the top of the racial hierarchy. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including whites. White people, like myself, find it difficult to square their belief in an egalitarian society with the racial realities of our still predominantly white society. And that’s something that we can and should address, and there are plenty of ideas on how to do so. But the first step to solving a problem is recognizing a problem. And the problem, I believe, needs to include our obsession with race. We need to realize that our race discourse has added to, and perhaps even compounded the racism problem. I would like to see racism become just one part of a larger discourse where we look at ourselves first and foremost as perpetrators of a perverse race logic. Only then can we really begin to address the dreams of a post-racial future.

Thanks to Danilo Campos and Frances Low for reading drafts of this.