Censorship

I’m currently reading Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It’s an epic Russian novel about World War II, centered on Stalingrad-but really a critique of the Soviet Union. There are many great passages in the book, but I’m particularly taken by this one about a former editor of a Communist paper:

Sagaydak had a particularly fine grasp of such matters. He had worked on a newspaper for a long time; first he had been responsible for the news pages, then for the agricultural section. After that he had worked for about two years as editor of one of the Kiev papers. He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader-not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kind of probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might have considered it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideologically inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to lose his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring them to the notice of readers, journalists and writers. Sometimes he would have to give his own explanation of an event; this was often boldly original and entirely contradictory to ordinary ways of thought. He himself felt that his power his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational benefit.

This is a brilliant way of describing self-censorship and paternalism. One of the true joys of living in today’s Internet-connected world is that despite the Facebook algorithm telling you what to do, despite the trolls, despite the filter bubbles, despite the content farms, despite Google’s algorithm – the truth is still out there and if you’re willing to look, you can find it. No one can truly censor your inputs (although the Chinese sure are trying…).

Portland in 2015

1.

Portland in 2015 is a city of charismatic pedants. And that’s not a bad thing. Everyone seems to be making something. And they want to tell you about it. Plus they’re really into it. They don’t make a lot of things, rather they make one thing and are trying to do it really well.

Maybe it’s ice cream and they’re doing almond brittle with salted ganache. You can have as many samples as you want because they want you to. And that’s why there’s a line up of 100 people at 10:30 at night.

Or it’s espresso. Actually, it’s coffee. Because they roast their own beans and they’re so confident of their beans that each can be used for espresso. After all, espresso is technically a style of preparation. If your beans are as good as theirs, you don’t need to roast a blend for espresso preparation.

Perhaps leather? The family’s been doing since before anyone was living in Oregon and handing it down to the kids with every generation. Why would you ever wear anything other than leather and how come you don’t need a saddle that’s so well made that you can give it to your grandkids?

Maybe you think that bamboo should be harvested in America and you want to build a $100 million plantation and factory? That’s just a vision right now but you’ve transported bamboo up from Louisiana and you’ve build a showroom that includes a bathroom where the floor, ceiling and walls are all bamboo. You even convinced some guys to open up a bamboo-theme coffee shop in your showroom. And it’s amazing

Like whiskey? Want to know why it’s called whiskey vs. whisky? Can you savor the difference? We can help. And we’ll send an old-timey-dressed-but-with-perfectly-coiffed-tasteful-facial-hair-20-something-male to your table to both explain and pour something for you. He’ll serve you from a cart because… Well, because that’s what you do when you’re a pedant: you don’t just tell, you show.

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2.

The hostess has high cheekbones and brown or black hair. It’s definitely not blonde and it’s definitely not flat; it’s got a braid or a twist or curls – but it has not been flattened. She’s wearing bright red lipstick that contrasts with her pale skin. A complex pattern that may or may not be organic and possibly even alive is navigating down her shoulder but stopping tastefully before her elbow. Her dress is flowing but neither long nor short; it is made out of something natural and has thin straps. Your hostess is part of a tribe that appears wherever busy restaurants exist at the confluence of young people, cheap urban rents and good public transportation.

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3.

Everyone in Portland seems to be making something. The charismatic pedantry referred to above is a form of charming hucksterism for what is being made. What’s interesting is that the making seems to be about rediscovering the old and taking the good from it. Portland recycles the best and razes the best.

You see this everywhere. Glass and steel are superimposed near brick. The new wraps around the old.

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The family leathermaker uses Square to take payments. That incredible coffee is prepared by a guy who has graphs showing different roasting profiles. The local makerspace is doing things with wood that defy description. CNC milling machines grind out new designs from old materials.

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And Portland is definitely not archaic. The evidence of old does not dictate an absence of new. In fact, it’s the opposite: the city is a juxtaposition of the best of the new style with the best of the old. The tension over which will ultimately win is what makes the city so fun to explore.

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4.

And Portland remains weird. It’s the sort of place where your Uber gets stopped by naked cyclists at 10pm on a Saturday. And no one’s angry about that, in fact, everyone’s kinda sortof proud that it’s happening. Because even if you don’t know one of those naked cyclists and would never join them, you’re happy to be in a place where people feel inclined to do so and act on it.

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I’ll be back in 2016.

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The Ur And The Horn

Yesterday I came into work to find a horn lying on the ground. Some animal had its horn chopped off and it had found its way onto the third floor of our building. It was there because my coworker has a dog and this is one of the many treats we offer it to not annoy us all day (she’s actually a very cute dog).

I was overcome with a sense of something primal. Like this scene – a dog eating a bone in the midst of several people in a circle – had been played out for millennia. Except that instead of us being hunters sitting around a fire with our dog feasting on a recent kill, we are product managers sitting at door desks with a hypoallergenic puppy who is tithed with gifts to abate her ADHD.

I couldn’t help but think that English lacks a great word to capture that fleeting instinct I felt. I was reminded of the German prefix ur-. It translates roughly as “primeval”. But because it’s a prefix, Germans can combine if with words like Wald (forest) to get Urwald. Urwald refers to the primeval forest found when humans were nomadic or in small settlements. Much for fun to say Urwald than “primeval forest found when humans were nomadic or in small settlements.”

So I propose a new term: the Urinstance. This is when you find yourself doing something and get a flashback to what the same moment was in ancient times. Enjoys Internets.

What’s Getting Backed on Kickstarter: Technology Edition

I’m a huge Kickstarter fanboy. The creativity that they’ve unleashed is mind-boggling and embodies exactly what the Internet is capable of.

The projects I’ve backed tend to skew tech-heavy and I recently wondered if there were any identifiable trends as to what sort of tech projects get backed. I hear all the time about companies that started with a Kickstarter campaign; are there any patterns?

Kickstarter is really open about what projects get backed (note that it’s not clear how accurate the project counts are; they seem to appear/disappear/dramatically change based on when you access the site), so I went out and scraped some data (code here).

I managed to get data on 1700 successful tech projects, which raised a cumulative total of $212,472,913. That’s an average of $124,984 per project-but this is no even distribution. The winners (like the Pono music player, Reading Rainbow or Zano drone) raise millions while Kymira smart sports apparel is limping in at $8,000 or so (but still successful; kudos). The median raised is $45,992.

I wrote some code to try and cluster these projects and found a few categories that people like to back:

Physical Computing: Arduino clones and shields; Raspberry Pi accessories galore. Examples include Microview, RFDuino and the Touch Board.

3D Printers: Every type you can imagine, including the Micro, the Form1 and the 3Doodler.

Home Automation: Smart plugs, dimmers, remotes – Kickstarters want a connected home. Sample projects are Ube Wifi dimmer, the NEEO remote and  the Ninja Sphere controller.

Lighting: Make it glow-whether lights attached to your stereo, fancy bike lights or an enhancement to your GoPro. Examples are the Notti Smart Light, Lume Cube flashbulbs or Playbulb candles.

Phone Accessories: Anything that can pimp your phone. Check out the Jorno foldable keyboard, Thermodo thermometer or Chipolo item finder.

Solar Powered Gizmos: Kickstarter backers seem to really want to take their electronics outside. Witness the WakaWaka Base, SPOR and Solarpod Pyxis chargers/lights.

Here’s how many projects fall into each category:

That’s a high of 433 for Home Automation versus 181 3D printers.

(Hate that there are no numbers in these graphs? I do, but can’t figure out how to add labels. All the raw data is here.)

The total funds raised varies dramatically across the categories ($M):

Surprisingly, Physical Computing has clocked almost $50M ($46.4M), closely followed by 3D Printers at $41.4M. Solar Power is half this at $21.5M.

There’s a similar difference in the the amount raised per category-both the average and median ($K):

On a per-project basis, 3D Printers have captured peoples wallets (most likely have a much higher per unit cost than other projects) and clock in with a $229.0K/$79.9K average/median raise. This median is almost as high as the average for solar power projects: $89.4K/$42.3K average/median.

A couple of closing thoughts:

  • I was amazed at how much money has gone towards backing Physical Computing. I imagine that most of these devices were bought by geeks to make geeky devices, so I’m guessing that we’re only at the starting of a big revolution in Internet-connected devices
  • There was no major cluster for robotics or drones. This surprised me as I would have guessed more based on the buzz in the press. Big difference between what is bought vs. what is talked about
  • Some of the major success stories (like Pono or Reading Rainbow) don’t fall into an of these categories. I don’t yet know how to interpret these “one hit wonders” but its interesting to think about why they succeeded as a product but didn’t launch a category

2014: Rear View Mirror Edition

So, it’s a wrap. 2014 has mere hours left; 2015 has actually already arrived for most of the world’s population.

As I look back, 2014 is the year that kicked my ass. This blog reflects it: a whopping 4 posts, year-to-date with the most recent one being over six months ago. I also checked the goals I made for the year – and I accomplished 1 of 21. A spectacularly low success rate.

So what happened? Why did nothing turn out as planned in 2014?

One hypothesis: I had a second child. On my daughter’s second day of life in mid-December 2013, we took her to get her inaugural tune-up checkup. The doctor was a true expert: 55 or so & head of pediatrics, on the top of his game like he’d just walked out of Ian McEwen’s Saturday. He grinned and told us “Oh, two kids under three years old? You’re about to enter what most people consider to be the hardest year of their life.”

Right. But what does he know? He’s only been doing this for 30 years. He doesn’t know our family…

And of course he was right. I was destroyed this year by the act of child rearing. The simple act of trying to keep two children alive turned out to occupy an almost unimaginable amount of time. They really do both need 100% of your attention, they don’t understand the concept of sleeping in and why, oh why, would they ever forgive you in the unlikely event you found yourself hungover.

Hence the 1 of 21 goals achieved.

However, all was not for nought. I feel like I still got a lot done. Both of the two above-mentioned children are not just alive, they’re healthy. To the best of my knowledge, my wife is no planning to divorce me and considers our relationship a success.

More seriously, I got a new job mid-year (no more worrying about getting paid) and we bought a house. I started running again and managed to do two 50km races. I learned how to cook sous vide. I picked up a new programming language (R). I raised $750 for charity and helped out with Seattle Coderdojo. I squeezed in a night photography class. And I built Cam a blinkybox.

And I read a few books: The Everything Store. The Bone Clocks. The Peripheral. Hooked. Scarcity. Your First 90 Days (guess why). Invisible Engines. Influence. Elements of Japanese Design. Too much seriousness; not enough fiction.

All in all, a year that kicked my butt. But not a failure. Tomorrow I’ll write about what I hope to do in 2015.

More importantly: happy new year y’all.

And let me close with a ridiculous photo from the fundraising period.

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