Welcome Back Poster

My office door is on the second floor in front the major staircase in my building. I work with my door open so that my colleagues and my students know when I’m in. The only time I consider deviating from this policy is the first week of the quarter when I’m faced with a stream of students, usually lost on their way to class and that, embarrassingly, I am usually unable to help.

I made this poster so that these conversations can, in a way, continue even when I am not in the office.



Trust your technolust.

"Trust your technolust." from Hackers (1995)If you’ve ever lusted for a “Trust your technolust.” poster like the one seen in background of the climactic sequence in the 1995 film Hackers, you’re in luck. Just print this PDF template (also an SVG) onto a piece of yellow US letter paper.

Although I’m not even the first person I know to reproduce the poster, I did spend some time making sure that I got the typeface, kerning, wordspacing, and placement on the page just right. I figured I would share.

TheSetup ChangeLog

Several years ago, I did a long interview with TheSetup — a fantastic website that posts of interviews with nerdy people that ask the same four questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What hardware are you using?
  3. And what software?
  4. What would be your dream setup?

Because I have a very carefully considered — but admittedly quite idiosyncratic — setup, I spent a lot of time preparing my answers. Many people have told me that they found my write-up useful. I recently spoke with several students who said it had been assigned in one of their classes!

Of course, my setup has changed since 2012. Although the vast majority is still the same, there is a growing list of modifications and additions. To address this, I’ve been keeping a changelog on my wiki where I detail every major change and addition I’ve made to the setup that I described in the original interview.

Understanding Hydroplane Races for the New Seattleite

It’s Seafair weekend in Seattle. As always, the centerpiece is the H1 Unlimited hydroplane races on Lake Washington.

EllstromManufacturingHydroplaneIn my social circle, I’m nearly the only person I know who grew up in area. None of the newcomers I know had heard of hydroplane racing before moving to Seattle. Even after I explain it to them — i.e., boats with 3,000+ horse power airplane engines that fly just above the water at more than 320kph (200mph) leaving 10m+ (30ft) wakes behind them! — most people seem more puzzled than interested.

I grew up near the shore of Lake Washington and could see (and hear!) the races from my house. I don’t follow hydroplane racing throughout the year but I do enjoy watching the races at Seafair. Here’s my attempt to explain and make the case for the races to new Seattleites.

Before Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, etc., there were basically three major Seattle industries: (1) logging and lumber based industries like paper manufacturing; (2) maritime industries like fishing, shipbuilding, shipping, and the navy; (3) aerospace (i.e., Boeing). Vintage hydroplane racing represented the Seattle trifecta: Wooden boats with airplane engines!

The wooden U-60 Miss Thriftway circa 1955 (Thriftway is a Washinton-based supermarket that nobody outside has heard of) below is a picture of old-Seattle awesomeness. Modern hydroplanes are now made of fiberglass but two out of three isn’t bad.

miss_thriftwayAlthough the boats are racing this year in events in Indiana, San Diego, and Detroit in addition to the two races in Washington, hydroplane racing retains deep ties to the region. Most of the drivers are from the Seattle area. Many or most of the teams and boats are based in Washington throughout the year. Many of the sponsors are unknown outside of the state. This parochialness itself cultivates a certain kind of appeal among locals.

In addition to old-Seattle/new-Seattle cultural divide, there’s a class divide that I think is also worth challenging. Although the demographics of hydro-racing fans is surprisingly broad, it can seem like Formula One or NASCAR on the water. It seems safe to suggest that many of the demographic groups moving to Seattle for jobs in the tech industry are not big into motorsports. Although I’m no follower of motorsports in general, I’ve written before cultivated disinterest in professional sports, and it remains something that I believe is worth taking on.

It’s not all great. In particular, the close relationship between Seafair and the military makes me very uneasy. That said, even with the military-heavy airshow, I enjoy the way that Seafair weekend provides a little pocket of old-Seattle that remains effectively unchanged from when I was a kid. I’d encourage others to enjoy it as well!

RomancR: The Future of the Sharing-Your-Bed Economy


Today, Aaron Shaw and I are pleased to announce a new startup. The startup is based around an app we are building called RomancR that will bring the sharing economy directly into your bedrooms and romantic lives.

When launched, RomancR will bring the kind of market-driven convenience and efficiency that Uber has brought to ride sharing, and that AirBnB has brought to room sharing, directly into the most frustrating and inefficient domain of our personal lives. RomancR is Uber for romance and sex.

Here’s how it will work:

  • Users will view profiles of nearby RomancR users that match any number of user-specified criteria for romantic matches (e.g., sexual orientation, gender, age, etc).
  • When a user finds a nearby match who they are interested in meeting, they can send a request to meet in person. If they choose, users initiating these requests can attach an optional monetary donation to their request.
  • When a user receives a request, they can accept or reject the request with a simple swipe to the left or right. Of course, they can take the donation offer into account when making this decision or “counter-offer” with a request for a higher donation. Larger donations will increase the likelihood of an affirmative answer.
  • If a user agrees to meet in person, and if the couple then subsequently spends the night together — RomancR will measure this automatically by ensuring that the geolocation of both users’ phones match the same physical space for at least 8 hours — the donation will be transferred from the requester to the user who responded affirmatively.
  • Users will be able to rate each other in ways that are similar to other sharing economy platforms.

Of course, there are many existing applications like Tinder and Grindr that help facilitate romance, dating, and hookups. Unfortunately, each of these still relies on old-fashion “intrinsic” ways of motivating people to participate in romantic endeavors. The sharing economy has shown us that systems that rely on these non-monetary motivations are ineffective and limiting! For example, many altruistic and socially-driven ride-sharing systems existed on platforms like Craigslist or Ridejoy before Uber. Similarly, volunteer-based communities like Couchsurfing and Hospitality Club existed for many years before AirBnB. None of those older systems took off in the way that their sharing economy counterparts were able to!

The reason that Uber and AirBnB exploded where previous efforts stalled is that this new generation of sharing economy startups brings the power of markets to bear on the problems they are trying to solve. Money both encourages more people to participate in providing a service and also makes it socially easier for people to take that service up without feeling like they are socially “in debt” to the person providing the service for free. The result has been more reliable and effective systems for proving rides and rooms! The reason that the sharing economy works, fundamentally, is that it has nothing to do with sharing at all! Systems that rely on people’s social desire to share without money — projects like Couchsurfing — are relics of the previous century.

RomancR, which we plan to launch later this year, will bring the power and efficiency of markets to our romantic lives. You will leave your pitiful dating life where it belongs in the dustbin of history! Go beyond antiquated non-market systems for finding lovers. Why should we rely on people’s fickle sense of taste and attractiveness, their complicated ideas of interpersonal compatibility, or their sense of altruism, when we can rely on the power of prices? With RomancR, we won’t have to!

Note: Thanks to Yochai Benkler whose example of how leaving a $100 bill on the bedside table of a person with whom you spent the night can change the nature of the a romantic interaction inspired the idea for this startup.

Kuchisake-onna Decision Tree

Mika recently brought up the Japanese modern legend of Kuchisake-onna (口裂け女). For background, I turned to the English Wikipedia article on Kuchisake-onna which had the following to say about the figure (the description matches Mika’s memory):

According to the legend, children walking alone at night may encounter a woman wearing a surgical mask, which is not an unusual sight in Japan as people wear them to protect others from their colds or sickness.

The woman will stop the child and ask, “Am I pretty?” If the child answers no, the child is killed with a pair of scissors which the woman carries. If the child answers yes, the woman pulls away the mask, revealing that her mouth is slit from ear to ear, and asks “How about now?” If the child answers no, he/she will be cut in half. If the child answers yes, then she will slit his/her mouth like hers. It is impossible to run away from her, as she will simply reappear in front of the victim.

To help anyone who is not only frightened, but also confused, Mika and I made the following decision tree of possible conversations with Kuchisake-onna and their universally unfortunate outcomes.

Decision tree of conversations with Kuchisake-onna.
Decision tree of conversations with Kuchisake-onna.

Of course, we uploaded the SVG source for the diagram to Wikimedia Commons and used the diagram to illustrate the Wikipedia article.

My Government Portrait

A friend recently commented on my rather unusual portrait on my (out of date) page on the Berkman website.  Here’s the story.

I joined Berkman as a fellow with a fantastic class of fellows that included, among many other incredibly accomplished people, Vivek Kundra: first Chief Information Officer of the United States. At Berkman, all the fellows are all asked for photos and Vivek apparently sent in his official government portrait.

You are probably familiar with the genre. In the US at least, official government portraits are mostly pictures of men in dark suits, light shirts, and red or blue ties with flags draped blurrily in the background.

Not unaware of the fact that Vivek sat right below me on the alphabetically sorted Berkman fellows page, a small group that included Paul Tagliamonte —  very familiar with the genre from his work with government photos in Open States — decided to create a government portrait of me using the only flag we had on hand late one night.

fellows_list_subsetThe result — shown in the screenshot above and in the WayBack Machine — was almost entirely unnoticed (at least to my knowledge) but was hopefully appreciated by those who did see it.

Images of Japan

Going through some photos, I was able to revisit some of the more memorable moments of my trip to Japan earlier this year.

For example, the time I visited Genkai Quasi National Park a beautiful spot in Fukuoka that had a strong resemblance to, but may not actually have been, a national park.

Genkai Quasi National Park

There was the time that I saw a “Saw a curry fault bread.”

Saw a Curry Fault Bread

And a shrine one could pray at in a barcalounger.

Shrine Comfortable Chair

There was the also the fact that we had record snowfall while in Tokyo which left the cities drainage system in a rather unhappy state.

Japan Unhappy Drain

Google Has Most of My Email Because It Has All of Yours

Republished by Slate. Translations available in French (Français), Spanish (Español), Chinese (中文)

For almost 15 years, I have run my own email server which I use for all of my non-work correspondence. I do so to keep autonomy, control, and privacy over my email and so that no big company has copies of all of my personal email.

A few years ago, I was surprised to find out that my friend Peter Eckersley — a very privacy conscious person who is Technology Projects Director at the EFF — used Gmail. I asked him why he would willingly give Google copies of all his email. Peter pointed out that if all of your friends use Gmail, Google has your email anyway. Any time I email somebody who uses Gmail — and anytime they email me — Google has that email.

Since our conversation, I have often wondered just how much of my email Google really has. This weekend, I wrote a small program to go through all the email I have kept in my personal inbox since April 2004 (when Gmail was started) to find out.

One challenge with answering the question is that many people, like Peter, use Gmail to read, compose, and send email but they configure Gmail to send email from a non-gmail.com “From” address. To catch these, my program looks through each message’s headers that record which computers handled the message on its way to my server and to pick out messages that have traveled through google.com, gmail.com, or googlemail.com. Although I usually filter them, my personal mailbox contains emails sent through a number of mailing lists. Since these mailing lists often “hide” the true provenance of a message, I exclude all messages that are marked as coming from lists using the (usually invisible) “Precedence” header.

The following graph shows the numbers of emails in my personal inbox each week in red and the subset from Google in blue. Because the number of emails I receive week-to-week tends to vary quite a bit, I’ve included a LOESS “smoother” which shows a moving average over several weeks.

Emails, total and from GMail, over timeFrom eyeballing the graph, the answer to seems to be that, although it varies, about a third of the email in my inbox comes from Google!

Keep in mind that this is all of my personal email and includes automatic and computer generated mail from banks and retailers, etc. Although it is true that Google doesn’t have these messages, it suggests that the proportion of my truly “personal” email that comes via Google is probably much higher.

I would also like to know how much of the email I send goes to Google. I can do this by looking at emails in my inbox that I have replied to. This works if I am willing to assume that if I reply to an email sent from Google, it ends up back at Google. In some ways, doing this addresses the problem with the emails from retailers and banks since I am very unlikely to reply to those emails. In this sense, it also reflects a measure of more truly personal email.

I’ve broken down the proportions of emails I received that come from Google in the graph below for all email (top) and for emails I have replied to (bottom). In the graphs, the size of the dots represents the total number of emails counted to make that proportion. Once again, I’ve included the LOESS moving average.

Proportion of emails from GMail over timeThe answer is surprisingly large. Despite the fact that I spend hundreds of dollars a year and hours of work to host my own email server, Google has about half of my personal email! Last year, Google delivered 57% of the emails in my inbox that I replied to. They have delivered more than a third of all the email I’ve replied to every year since 2006 and more than half since 2010. On the upside, there is some indication that the proportion is going down. So far this year, only 51% of the emails I’ve replied to arrived from Google.

The numbers are higher than I imagined and reflect somewhat depressing news. They show how it’s complicated to think about privacy and autonomy for communication between parties. I’m not sure what to do except encourage others to consider, in the wake of the Snowden revelations and everything else, whether you really want Google to have all your email. And half of mine.

If you want to run the analysis on your own, you’re welcome to the Python and R code I used to produce the numbers and graphs.


My friend Noah mentioned the game VVVVVV. I was confused because I thought he was talking about the visual programming language vvvv. I went to Wikipedia to clear up my confusion but ended up on the article on VVVVV which is about the Latin phrase “vi veri universum vivus vici” meaning, “by the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe”.

There is no Wikipedia article on VVVVVVV. That would be ridiculous.

Aaron Swartz — A Year Later

My friend Aaron Swartz died a little more than a year ago. This time last year, I was spending much of my time speaking with journalists and reading what they were writing about Aaron.

Since the anniversary of his death, I have tried to take time to remember Aaron. I’ve returned to the things I wrote and the things I said including this short article — published last year in Red Pepper — that SJ Klein and I wrote together but that I forgot to mention on my blog.

I’m also excited to see that a documentary film about Aaron premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. I was interviewed for the film but am not in it.

As I said last year at a memorial for Aaron, I think about Aaron frequently and often think about my own decisions in terms of what Aaron would have done. I continued to be optimistic about the potential for Aaron-inspired action.

My Geekhouse Bike Frame

In 2011, Mika and I bought in big at the Boston Red Bones party’s charity raffle — supporting MassBike and NEMBA — and came out huge. I won $500 off a custom frame at Geekouse Bikes.

For years, Mika and I have been planning to do the Tour d’Afrique route (Capetown to Cairo), unsupported, on bike. People that do this type of ride sometimes use an expedition touring frame. I worked with Marty Walsh at Geekhouse to design a bike based on this idea. The concept was a rugged steel touring frame, built for my body and comfortable over long distances, with two quirks:

  1. It’s designed for 26 inch mountain bike wheels and mountain bike components to ensure that the bike is repairable with parts from the kinds of cheap mountain bikes that can be found almost everywhere in the world.
  2. It includes S&S torque couplers that let me split the frame in half to travel with the bike as standard luggage.

As our pan-Africa trip kept getting pushed back, so did the need for the bike. Last week, I finally picked up the finished bike from Marty’s shop in Boston. It is gorgeous. I absolutely love it.

Picture of Geekhouse frame (1)Picture of Geekhouse frame (2)Picture of Geekhouse frame (4) Picture of Geekhouse frame (3)

I’m looking forward to building up the bicycle over the next couple months and I’ll post more pictures when it’s finished. I am blown away by Marty’s craftsmanship and attention to detail. I am psyched that his donation made this bike possible and that I was able to get the frame while helping cycling in Massachusetts!

London and Michigan

I’ll be spending the week after next (June 17-23) in London for the annual meeting of the International Communication Association where I’ll be presenting a paper. This will be my first ICA and I’m looking forward to connecting with many new colleagues in the discipline. If you’re one of them, reading this, and would like to meet up in London, please let me know!

Starting June 24th, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan for four weeks of the ICPSR summer program in applied statistics at the Institute for Social Research. I have been wanting to sign up for some of their advanced methods classes for years and am planning to take the opportunity this summer before I start at UW. I’ll be living with my friends and fellow Berkman Cooperation Group members Aaron Shaw and Dennis Tennen.

I would love to make connections and meet people in both places so, if you would like to meet up, please get in contact.