Hospitality Networks:
The Couchsurfing Concept

logo2

Couchsurfing.com (CS) is a social network whose members host each other when travelling, show their visitors around, and organize various meetups and social events. One way to describe it is a free, community-oriented version of AirBnB, though CS came first.

Several years ago, the site went through a somewhat dodgy conversion from volunteer-built non-profit to for-profit startup, taking in $22 million in venture capital funding. It’s been a rocky road, and it’s spawned or rejuvenated a wave of smaller sites who are trying to replace it.

None of these has really achieved much scale yet, and despite its problems, CS still has over 90% of the active user base for this kind of network. But they also have at least 90% of the total payroll and overhead, so their lack of a revenue model is ominous. They’re already on their third CEO since the transition, and last year they fired almost half of their staff; if they burn through the rest of their cash and can’t raise more, it’s unclear what will happen to the site and its member database.

The alternative is to find a sustainable way to generate revenue from this kind of community without eroding its core values, and that’s mainly what I’ll be writing about here. But there are a few other basic problems with the “free hospitality network” concept that we also need to think about. Even if this is your first exposure to the idea, they may have already occurred to you:

1. More “surfers” than hosts: far more people are willing to accept a free place to stay than offer it.

2. Geographic imbalances: everyone wants to visit the same big cities and other tourist destinations. So even if every member was willing to host as much as they travel, there would still be far more surfers than hosts in these places.

3. Safety and trust: a network in which strangers stay in each other’s homes will be a magnet for thieves, sexual predators, con artists, and lower-grade creeps of all kinds.

These are fairly obvious points, and they’re all readily observable problems with CS, so it’s odd how many online commentators have tiptoed around them. The first two especially have received almost no attention, and as far as I can tell, CS has never done anything to address those imbalances. How much they’ve done to address the safety issue is a controversial subject, but it clearly hasn’t been enough.

So what we’re looking for is an operating model that addresses these issues while generating some revenue. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a for-profit business, of course — it could be a self-sustaining non-profit, like a club or membership organization. And even if it is a business, it may not be a venture capital-sized opportunity. There are lots of viable network or marketplace type services that just don’t work at that scale.

What’s the scale of CS today? Well, they’ve got ten million members worldwide, but many of those profiles are stale. From my recent correspondence with the company and a little sampling with their search filters, I’d estimate that their current active member count is between 500,000 and 2 million, depending on your definition of “active.”

The company tells me they counted 24 million hosted nights in 2014, and that’s probably about ten million “stays,” assuming an average length of 2-3 nights. Which suggests that the average active member is very active, hosting at least five times a year — and maybe more, given that some of them are “surfers” who don’t host at all.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got AirBnB, which was founded five years later and is currently running at a pace of 37 million nights booked annually  — not that different in scale, actually. But they raised their last round of financing at a $10 billion valuation, and are reportedly raising the next one at $20 billion less than a year later.

You already know the difference, of course: at AirBnB, those nights are financial transactions on which they take a commission. But why can’t CS do the same? On one level, you might think that a guest willing to pay $10 to AirBnB and another $90 to the host would rather pay $10 to CS and nothing to the host, right? But as social psychologists know, when you introduce a little bit of money into a transaction, you change the nature of it completely. The host starts to feel exploited and the guest starts to feel entitled. There’s still an element of generosity and mutual trust, but the context is very different.

The investors in CS, as well as the founders of the more startup-oriented competing projects, are trying to find a middle ground between the legacy CS model and the AirBnB model, one that can be a successful business without turning the hosting process into an overtly commercial transaction, and reach some demographics that AirBnB doesn’t.

Some of the others have no interest in a startup track or maximizing revenue and user count — they just want to create a sustainable community in a transparent, non-profit framework.

And some may be trying to have their cake and eat it too, combining the member goodwill and positive publicity of the second approach with the potential payoff of the first.

But on some level they’re all facing the same initial problem: how can you generate enough recurring revenue to at least keep the lights on? And ideally this would be done in a way that doesn’t just re-create the “old” CS, but actually improves on it by tackling some of those unresolved supply/demand imbalances and safety issues.

In the next post, I’ll walk through a dozen competing projects and try to estimate their current scale and progress toward these goals. After that, we can start to focus on what’s working, what isn’t, and what to try next — both for the existing networks and any potential new ones.

 

Smart Women Adrift

Renata Adler and Joan Didion
Renata Adler and Joan Didion

Katie Roiphe coined an interesting term in her review of Renata Adler’s Speedboat:

Speedboat belongs to a genre of ’70s women’s fiction, in which a damaged, smart woman floats passively yet stylishly through the world, a genre which includes books like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. In all of these Smart Woman Adrift novels, there is a radical fragmentedness, a supremely controlled tone, a shrewd and jaded observation of small things, a comic or wry apprehension of life’s absurdities, and pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost. They center around an intelligent but emotionally fragile or keenly sensitive woman without a man, or moving from man to man, a woman, in short, without a stable or conventional family situation, in a state of heightened, nervous awareness.

Having recently read these three books, I’ve been thinking about the analogs and precursors of this type in other genres. In a general sense, the “smart man adrift” is such a common protagonist in fiction that he’s almost an archetype of the contemporary novel — it’s largely because of the underrepresentation of women in literature that this female version stands out so clearly.

But getting a little more specific, and setting aside gender, the most direct precursors to these novels may be two cult favorites from 1939 — Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight (which Roiphe mentions) and John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Each is narrated by a thinly veiled version of the young author, down and out in Paris and Los Angeles, respectively, drifting through life and checking all the boxes above — particularly those “melancholy vignettes”:

Walking in the night with the dark houses over you, like monsters. If you have money and friends, houses are just houses with steps and a front door —- friendly houses where the door opens and somebody meets you, smiling. If you are quite secure and your roots are well struck in, they know. They stand back respectfully, waiting for the poor devil without any friends and without any money. Then they step forward, the waiting houses, to frown and crush. No hospitable doors, no lit windows, just frowning darkness. Frowning and leering and sneering, the houses, one after another. Tall cubes of darkness, with two lighted eyes at the top to sneer. And they know who to frown at.

[Good Morning Midnight]

Maybe it’s because I just went through a long private eye phase, but the women of Roiphe’s trio also remind me of private eyes, or at least the more “psychological” type associated with Ross MacDonald and some of his followers. They fulfill the same basic role: a somewhat damaged observer of a badly damaged society. Cynical, observant, clever and well-spoken; attractive to others but always a little detached from them. These women live the way I imagine a private eye like MacDonald’s Lew Archer would live if he didn’t have any cases to solve — as a journalist, maybe, like Adler, or drifting among unhappy friends and lovers like Didion’s protagonist. When he’s not at work, his narrative voice is not so different from hers:

In the dream that took over my sleeping mind I was due to arrive someplace in a very short time. But when I went out to my car it had no wheels, not even a steering wheel. I sat in it like a snail in a shell and watched the night world go by.

The light coming through the bedroom blind changed from grey to off-white and woke me. I lay and listened to the early traffic. A few birds peeped. At full dawn the jays began to squawk and dive-bomb my window.

I’d forgotten the jays. Their sudden raucous reminder turned me cold under the sheet. I threw it off and got up and put on my clothes.

There was a last can of peanuts in the kitchen cupboard. I scattered the peanuts out the window and watched the jays come swooping into the yard. It was like watching a flashing blue explosion-in-reverse that put the morning world together again.

We might think of the private eye as being the way he is because of the things he has to do, but it’s just as valid to say that he winds up doing that kind of work because there’s not much else that a man like him can do. He doesn’t solve the case through Sherlock’s “observation and deduction” but through a kind of critical empathy, sharpening his picture of each character and their flaws and desires until the whole chain of events begins to seem obvious. As Raymond Chandler wrote to his publisher after mixed reviews of The Big Sleep:

I do not want to write depraved books. I was aware that this yarn had some fairly unpleasant citizens in it, but my fiction was learned in a rough school, and I probably didn’t notice them much. I was more intrigued by a situation where the mystery is solved by the exposition and understanding of a single character, always well in evidence, rather than by the slow and sometimes long-winded concatenation of circumstances. That’s a point which may not interest reviewers of first novels, but it interested me very much.

But what do you do with that kind of penetrating insight into the people around you when none of them is a murderer waiting to be exposed, when there’s no constructive purpose for it other than to distance yourself from them? In a way that’s the central question of Speedboat, and it figures heavily in the other two.

There are really two things about Roiphe’s trio that stand out from their predecessors: one is their sharply stylized prose, a different style for each of the three — I don’t like the “experimental” tag because there’s nothing inaccessible about any of them, but there’s no question the writing itself is foregrounded to a greater extent than in my other examples.

The second and more important difference is that all three of these female protagonists, as well as the authors to some extent, were insiders — to the literary world, to Hollywood, to the social set of the cities they lived in. A private eye, by contrast, is always an outsider. So were Rhys, Fante, and the writer/subjects of most of the other romans à clef we might add to the list, like Christopher Isherwood in Berlin or George Orwell in Down & Out. The Smart Women Adrift don’t seem to worry much about money, and they don’t have to worry about being accepted socially. They’re not that concerned with taking care of themselves (maybe not concerned enough) and that’s ultimately what gives them such a detached narrative voice, and the sense of a furiously churning mind without anything really worth focusing on:

My argument with the psychiatrist of Jim’s younger brother, Simon, was as follows: whether the natural gait of the horse is, in fact, the gallop or the trot. I said it was the trot. He said it was the gallop. Or the other way around. The point is that we insisted, all through dinner; we pursued it for a long, long time. It is not an argument that ramifies much. Within the first few seconds one has said all there is to say. There are many such questions, which, once they are stated, are completed. Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s, for example, does not ramify. You have got no further if you go on to Does Saks tell Bendel’s, does Bonwit’s tell Bergdorf’s, does Chanel tell Givenchy, does Woolworth tell Kresge’s, does Penn Station tell Grand Central, does Best’s tell Peck and Peck? You are no longer expounding a proposition. You are having a tantrum. Simon’s psychiatrist and I pursued our tantrum, in duet, all evening long. The horse might have two natural gaits, the Charleston and the entrechat, for all it mattered. I meant, I didn’t like the man and I thought that, within twenty years, his profession would have vanished, leaving no artifacts of any interest except a dazed memory of fifty years of ineffective and remunerative peculation in the work of a single artist, Freud. I also meant I didn’t like his flowered shirt. He meant, I think, he didn’t like me, either.

[Speedboat]

Wearable Tech: Design Doesn’t Matter

apple-watch-keynote

Wearable technology isn’t fashionable, and that’s a problem that can’t be solved with better design.

I don’t think the first half of that statement is controversial. Wearable tech may be somewhat cool among a certain narrow demographic, but even then it’s not exactly a fashion statement.

But why can’t design help? Because the problem isn’t what these devices look like, it’s what they do. The reasons people wear them — productivity, health, fitness, even connectivity — are just not compatible with the aesthetics of fashion.

I’m the furthest thing from a fashion expert, but I think this is obvious enough that it doesn’t take an expert to see it. Most of these goals are a form of self-improvement, and self-improvement is almost the opposite of fashion. The essence of fashion is to project confidence, self-assurance and natural beauty — to look like you don’t need to exercise, be more productive, monitor your standing/sitting time or posture or UV exposure, be notified of every like on your Facebook page, or anything else with even a whiff of ambition or insecurity.

Don’t believe me? How many designer clothing ads have you seen that feature models wearing a Bluetooth headset, or a Blackberry belt clip, or even a Fitbit wristband? If the technology isn’t part of what’s being promoted, it’s not an accessory that any photographer wants to add.

Even if it works with a certain outfit, no one who’s really fashion-conscious is going to wear the same accessory day after day with different outfits. It’s as simple as that. Dressing it up with different watch straps or colors just makes it even more obvious. And if you only wear your device on certain days, or only to the gym, it defeats the purpose of much of the long-term monitoring that was the reason you bought it in the first place, and makes it harder to justify the high cost.

If you really want people to wear your gadget all day, every day, your design focus should be to make it less visible and easier to hide. For the manufacturers, hope never dies that people will want to display their devices and provide free advertising, but somehow it never seems to work out that way. Take a look at one of the newest ones, the Lumo Lift posture tracker, which can either be clipped to a bra strap/undershirt, or secured magnetically with a visible metal square that comes in different colors. Any guesses which option more people will choose?

Actually, I predict one of the first popular third party accessories for the Apple Watch will be a clip or case that replaces the strap entirely and makes it easier to carry the device somewhere other than your wrist.

Fashion can embrace certain forms of technology, but it takes a long time, generally long enough for it to be charmingly obsolete. Watches are one example: mechanical watches are still classier than (far more accurate) quartz watches, almost a century after the quartz technology was invented. And they’re covered with marine pressure gauges and other extras that most wearers wouldn’t know how to read even if they needed to. Technology is stylish in inverse proportion to its utility.

Of course, there’s still a market for unfashionable wearable tech. There are millions of Bluetooth headsets sold every year. But they’ll never be as widespread as iPhones, and I think the adoption of the Apple Watch — along with Google Glass and every other visible wearable device — will hit the same ceiling. The first breakthrough wearable that becomes ubiquitous will be one that can be concealed.

Three Movie Ideas

When I talk to Nick, our occasional London correspondent, we often kick around ideas for movies — and I realized recently that most of them have a rough theme in common: a group of twenty-something friends who embark on a half-baked criminal plot that winds up changing their lives. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good movie like this (Office Space?), and it seems like the perfect fit for the current apathetic zeitgeist among Millenials.

You may have heard about the guy who got a studio deal from a movie idea he described on Reddit. Frankly, that still sounds like an awful lot of work. I’m not sure even the prospect of Hollywood riches could entice the two of us off our asses to actually write a screenplay. So instead I’ll outline three of our best ideas here in the hope that some more industrious person will take them:

#1. A young aspiring filmmaker gets her first big break, striking a deal to have her own script produced with a sizable budget. She can direct herself and have almost total creative control — the one condition is that she has to accept a particular mid-list young star to play a lead role. And this star turns out to be a holy terror to work with, a caricature of a spoiled actor, verbally abusive to everyone on the set and full of terrible ideas for changing the script.

At some point, the protagonist and her crew get the idea that if this star died in some dramatic way during filming, like Heath Ledger or Brandon Lee, it would generate massive publicity for the movie, give them an excuse to write the character down to a more minor role, and make life on the set much easier in general. So they start plotting (in a clumsily amateur way) to bump the star off by inducing a drug overdose, drunken car crash or some other “accidental” death. Whether they eventually succeed depends on just how dark you want to make it, but a lot of the humor would be in the failed attempts (somewhat like Harold & Maude).

#2. A similar group of aimless twenty-something friends come up with a plan to “kidnap” a rich businessman for ransom, without using any force; instead, a female member of the group will seduce him and convince him to leave town with her for an impulsive weekend affair. Maybe he’s her boss who’s been inappropriately hitting on her at work, or there’s some other revenge element, but maybe he’s just a random target.

Anyway, through a combination of “accidents” (she spills her drink on his cell phone) and clever hacking (intercepting the excuses he emails to his secretary and wife) they contrive to make it look like he’s vanished without a trace. Her job is to keep him busy and out of contact for a few days, while the others contact the family or employer and demand their ransom. Their plan is that by the time he gets home unharmed and realizes what happened, he’ll be too compromised by his own attempted infidelity to report anything to the police. (This part works even better if he’s some kind of public figure.)

From there you could go in any direction — obviously the plan has to go wrong somehow, but that could happen in a variety of ways. Maybe the rich guy actually wanted to disappear (shades of Bulworth) and turns the tables on them somehow, or his wife wants him dead (like in Ruthless People), or he and his “kidnapper” unexpectedly fall in love…

This one literally came to me in a dream, and it may have been partly influenced by a German movie called Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei, which has some similar elements. Here’s Nick’s UK-centric take on it:

Jeff Bridges, a banking tycoon who routes a lot of money through the isle of Guernsey (a tax haven), travels there to take care of some paperwork. Our three protagonists, parochial high street bank clerks from the island — flashy suits, fancy themselves young Gordon Geckos, pretend to read the FT every day, totally clueless — know that he’s a big hitter (they’ve seen his name again and again on legal documents), and conspire to kidnap him.

Enter [charming up-and-coming British actress], the most beautiful girl in the village. She’s roped in by our heroes and seduces Jeff into extending his stay. He gets stuck in Guernsey, having a quirky romance with the girl, while the kidnappers are in London trying incompetently to extort money from the bank for his “safe return.” Cue comical boardroom meetings in balaclavas, confusion, absurdity.

The whole thing gets tied into increasingly absurd knots: Jeff refuses to cooperate, wants to become a fisherman, etc. But despite their continuing failure to even get the bank’s attention, our three stooges manage to trigger some kind of international market crisis, and the whole thing, once backed into a seemingly inescapable corner, is resolved by a farcical government intervention (we get punctuating scenes of absurd Fed guys, like the CIA characters in Burn After Reading, who prove equally clueless). In the end everyone wins, everyone loses, and the message is that no one has a fucking clue what’s going on.

#3. So the basic premise is that a one letter typo in a common email address connects you to the inner sanctum of someone’s online life. The protagonists are two cousins or siblings who share a common last name, like Smith or Jones. They both have gmail or yahoo addresses with their first initial and surname, so they frequently get wayward messages for a particular set of strangers with the same last name and similar email addresses.

And they’re both young Americans in Europe, where they’re sharing a messy apartment, half-assing their way through graduate degrees or dead end jobs in between long nights of clubs, drugs and partying, and generally living a stereotypical bohemian expat lifestyle.

But these misaddressed emails they get are all middle-America banalities from the world they’ve left behind. Ironic snobbery ensues: at first they scoff at these idiosyncratic bobs of exactly what they profess to loathe about America, re basketball hoop zoning, Christmas light bills, Mini Cooper promotional offers, etc.

So they decide to start impersonating these suburban strangers, replying to emails on their behalf. It starts with one of them writing back to a mailing list of soccer moms debating that basketball hoop and whether it’s allowed in their homeowner’s association rules — an angry rant mocking them for living shallow, empty lives. After getting a rise out of their targets with a few emails like this, our two “heroes” get hooked and keep pushing the envelope, eventually contriving to get their targets’ passwords and infiltrate their real email accounts as well as just replying to misaddressed messages.

The movie will cut back and forth throughout between the victims of these email pranks and the perpetrators, comparing and contrasting their day-to-day lives and showing how they’re both affected by these online exchanges.

To our protagonists it still seems like harmless fun, but one of them has a real mean streak and keeps coming up with nastier plans. The other, the sensitive one, is starting to worry that they’re going too far, and also developing an online crush on the similarly-aged son/daughter of one of these families, maybe even a correspondence with them under some other false pretense.

It all comes to a head when the mean one sends a nasty prank email that inadvertently results in a tragedy; for example, he might pretend to be the dad in this same family having an affair and “accidentally” send some incriminating email to his wife, thinking it will shake up their boring lives — but instead it leads to a violent altercation in which someone is killed.

This throws our two leads into a panic, with the good one wanting to come forward and admit their involvement, and the bad one insisting they should cover it up. And then the final twist: before they can agree on what to do, they’re found out anyway by another misaddressed email, sent by one of them to the other but accidentally going to one of their victims. After all, since all the main characters, in Europe and America, are connected by a one-letter email typo, it’s just as easy for the smug protagonists to mess up as it is for their targets. As with the first two ideas, how you resolve it from there depends on how just how dark you want the movie to be.

Joyce Kilmer and War Poetry

joyce kilmer

If you’ve ever driven north to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve stopped for gas at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area:

joyce kilmer service area

I’ve probably been there a hundred times. As a kid, I assumed Joyce Kilmer was a woman. When I was tall enough to read the plaques, I learned the two main facts about Kilmer that most Americans know, if they know his gender — that he died in World War I, and that he wrote this stupid poem:

joyce kilmer - trees

This time I decided to find out a little more about him:

Kilmer was considered the leading American Roman Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, whom critics often compared to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc…

With the publication of “Trees” in the magazine Poetry in August 1913, Kilmer gained immense popularity as a poet across the United States…. Over the next few years, Kilmer was prolific in his output—managing an intense schedule of lectures, publishing a large number of essays and literary criticism, and writing poetry. In 1915, he became poetry editor of Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. In 1916 and 1917, before the American entry into World War I, Kilmer would publish four books…

I found a lot of his other poems online too. Some are better than the tree poem, but none are very good. Most have the same sappy Sunday School tone. And I’m not alone in that opinion; at Columbia University, Kilmer’s alma mater, they even have an annual Bad Poetry Contest in his honor.

Kilmer’s fans might argue that he just had bad timing; as one of the last prominent writers of formal, sentimental lyric poems at the advent of Modernism (J. Alfred Prufrock was written in 1915) his work was bound to seem out of place.

It’s instructive, though, to compare him with Britain’s young poets who died in the war — Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen and various others — who are held in somewhat higher regard by modern readers. Their war poems are often considered in two groups: the “early war” poets like Brooke and Grenfell, both killed in 1915, were notably more patriotic, but also more sentimental and lyrical, than those who saw the war drag on. They mixed pastoral and other natural motifs, common in Georgian poetry, with celebrations of soldiers’ valor and glory. 1915 was also the year of In Flanders Fields, penned by the Canadian John McCrae, which is possibly the best-known poem of the war and exemplifies this style:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poets who died later in the war struck a very different tone — as in Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est, whose structure (a rhyming double sonnet) is a bitter mockery of those sing-songy fields-of-glory poems from just a couple years earlier:

…If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

…or Arthur West:

God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,
Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all your minor poet friends — the fools —
Who paint their sentimental elegies
Where sure, no angel treads; and, living, share
The dead’s brief immortality…

Kilmer outlived them both; he was killed in 1918, just a few months before the Armistice. But his last poem, Rouge Bouquet, was the same sort of pious elegy that Owen and West derided — it could just as easily have been written at the beginning of the war as at the end, given its complete lack of cynicism:

…There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band…

It’s odd to think of something like that being written after those classic anti-war poems, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only example. I wonder how much of it reflects a different American experience of the war as opposed to the European one — we obviously had a shorter war and many fewer casualties — and how much it’s just a matter of Kilmer’s own sentimentality and faith. It’s also a reminder that the whole early war / late war distinction may be partly a matter of cherry-picking the poems that fit it, something imposed by anthologists and critics to fit the later “Lost Generation” narrative of postwar disillusionment.

In any case, Kilmer was a brave soldier, but was he really the best American poet we lost in the war? Another candidate is Alan Seeger (uncle of Pete Seeger), a New Yorker who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and was killed in 1916, before the US even entered the conflict. His best-known poem is A Rendezvous with Death:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair…

It definitely fits in that early-war category — natural beauty, battlefield glory and a quick trip to heaven — but considered on those terms, I like it better than Kilmer’s treacle. The first line evokes Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, maybe deliberately, and it’s an interesting parallel to that poem. Admittedly I found some of his other war poems to be a little overwrought or preachy … well, in any case, as a New Yorker, Seeger is presumably not up for a rest area on the New Jersey turnpike.

In fact, as New Jersey poets go, Kilmer’s chief virtue seems to be that he came from an area (New Brunswick) that made a good place for a rest stop. Robert Pinsky is from Long Beach, too far away from the turnpike. William Carlos Williams was from Rutherford, which you’d think would be close enough, but the two nearest rest stops are named for New Yorkers Vince Lombardi and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s fatal duel was fought on the nearby Palisades cliffs, and Lombardi …well, he started as an assistant coach with the Giants, who now play in East Rutherford, so I’m assuming that’s the connection — but when he was with the team, they were still playing in New York, so it seems a little tenuous. Maybe Seeger has a shot after all…

More Bad News at Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing, the troubled nonprofit-turned-startup that I wrote about earlier this year, has now shed almost half of its employees, including the CEO:

The startup, backed by General Catalyst, Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Point Nine and Omidyar Network, is now going to focus on mobile — and we have heard that this is where all new hires will happen. The company up to now had raised some $22.6 million, with the last $15 million in August 2012.

As for the layoffs … a spokesperson tells us that the full number is about 40% of staff, with now no more than 20 people working at the company…

A little more unconfirmed detail: part of the layoffs, apparently, have resulted in deep cuts to its engineering team, with the entire engineering team let go “except for a 3 person skeleton support crew,” according to a tipster.

Our tipster — again, this is unconfirmed — says that the reason for the layoffs and other changes is because the company has seen an $800,000 monthly burn rate. But we understand the company has a long cash runway at the moment to figure out ways to turn that around (staff cuts help, too).

This is sad news, and I don’t take any pleasure in having predicted it. I still hope there’s a going concern to be salvaged here. But it’s very difficult to imagine a business model that will provide a material return on that much investment, or even enough cash flow to keep the lights on when the existing money runs out.

Early on, in an attempt to quell user anger at the for-profit conversion, the company seems to have ruled out advertising, selling member data in any form, or charging any kind of fee for existing site functionality. That didn’t leave many options. One that they floated was to solicit donations to charity every time a “surfer” was hosted, and take a small cut of these donations. Cute but a little pushy, and it likely wouldn’t amount to more than pocket change. They also considered a “freemium” model, but there wasn’t much you could add to the basic services that would really be worth paying for:

cs_freemium

Freemium models work best when the premium features are relatively independent of the basic features. If someone else pays for more space on Dropbox, you don’t get less space in your free account. In the case of CS, the main thing they can offer a premium member is various types of priority over non-premium members. You can dress that up however you want, but in the end you’re not really adding a new service, just pitting your existing users against each other: the premium service degrades the free one. If frequent flyers board the plane first, the rest of the passengers have to wait a bit longer. If premium CS members show up higher in searches, then free members show up lower.

In the meantime, they’ve brought back this “verification” gimmick — a way of aggressively hitting you up for a voluntary $25 donation when you join by arbitrarily attaching it to this “trust” marker whereby they send you a postcard to verify that you have a mailing address, and then you get a little check mark icon on your profile. I don’t know how much money that’s bringing in, but it can’t be very much. (And just think about it: if this process actually does have a material impact on member safety and trust, shouldn’t it be mandatory? Isn’t that the last thing you’d want to charge for if you have any regard for your members’ safety?)

So now they’re going to “focus on mobile”? To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means. They’ve already got mobile apps, which could certainly be better, but this is a network that relies on huge amounts of text-heavy user-generated content — forms, member-to-member references, discussion boards — exactly the kind of content that’s difficult to enter and consume on a tiny touchscreen. It’s about the farthest thing possible from apps like Instagram or Shazam that play to the strengths of a mobile platform. It seems more like OKCupid or Quora: it needs a good app, no question, but it also needs a fully-featured, well-functioning website — not the kind that can be run by a “skeleton support crew” while they redirect most of their budget to mobile development.

Anyway, maybe this “mobile” thing is just the latest round of buzzword bingo at a company that’s out of ideas, but I hope there’s something more substantive behind it. And it does suggest the glimmer of a revenue model, which is to simply charge for a mobile app while keeping the website free. That way they’re not technically charging for any functionality, just charging to make it easier from a phone.

I can imagine a lot of travellers setting up an account on the website, sending out some hosting requests, and somewhere in transit, frustrated with trying to load the full site on their crappy mobile browser just to find a host’s phone number or something, being willing to pony up $5 for the app.

(I can’t imagine many new members joining through an app and filling out a decent profile, because that’s just too much data entry for a small-screen environment. So again, they still need a usable website.)

Anyway, this paid mobile app strategy would be kind of sneaky, I guess, but at least it would bring in some additional revenue, and it’s the only thing I can think of that really would. What else is there?

Incentives in Sports, Part 2

sacrifice bunt
original image

Last year I wrote about situations where NBA and NFL coaches call more conservative plays than the odds would dictate. Today there’s a good article about the baseball equivalent: the sacrifice bunt.

Why do managers call for so many bunts with no outs and a runner on first, when the stats show that it lowers your expected runs scored?

Most sacrifice bunts occur when there’s a runner on first with no outs. In those situations the average offense will go on to score 0.783 runs. Let’s say a sacrifice bunt in that situation is successful … Now you have a runner on second and one out. The average offense with a runner on second and one out scores 0.699 runs. The run expectancy has decreased thanks to the sacrifice bunt.

run expectancies

Well, I’m not sure those stats go into enough detail to resolve the question. You’d have to know what led up to each situation, for one thing, and where you are in the batting order. Sacrifice plays are not called at random; there are a lot of potential confounding variables.

Also, the expected runs scored may not always be the right metric; sacrifices are more common in one-run games in the late innings, where you’d rather maximize your chances of scoring a single run than maximize the total number of runs scored.

But let’s concede for the sake of argument that managers like Dusty Baker are costing their team wins in the long run by bunting too often. Which seems especially likely given that the gap in expected runs has more than doubled in the modern higher-scoring game. Does that fit with my argument in the previous post? Not really.

To recap: the two complaints I talked about were NFL coaches punting too often on fourth downs and NBA coaches not calling for enough three-pointers at the end of close games. In both cases, observers tend to look for the “irrationality” in the coach’s head; I thought it might be a fan preference for minimizing regret, one that interfered at the margin with our preference for maximizing victories.

This doesn’t usually apply in this situation. If a team has a man on first with no outs, doesn’t bunt him to second, and doesn’t score, I don’t usually think “if only they’d bunted.” So I guess we can blame this one on the old-fashioned managers:

…for these reasons of history, psychology, and nerd-hating-ology, the bunt endures, like a cockroach crawling around baseball’s basement, even as other relatively new practices … become uncontroversial. At this point, after all we’ve learned over the past 30 years, calling for the sacrifice bunt feels like muscle memory more than anything else.

What does trigger more regret in baseball, at least for me, is being caught stealing. So you’d think that according to my theory managers might steal fewer bases than is optimal. But I gather that the Moneyball types think that most teams steal more than they should. So … who knows. I guess this is why I’m not a sports pundit.

German Private Eyes

krimis

Germany, Austria and Switzerland are big markets for crime fiction, and they write a lot of it too — but like their northern neighbors they seem to lean towards police procedurals, and most of the private detective sub-genre is translated from English. Even the best-known German private eye, Bernie Gunther, was created by the Scottish author Philip Kerr.

I asked the owner of my local Krimi bookstore about this, and he said “well, we don’t have a lot of private investigators working on major crimes like you do in the US. Here the police do it all. So those stories wouldn’t be as believable if they were set in Germany.”

To be honest, I think the US might disappoint him in that regard. There are many areas in which private operators supplement the police — background checks, surveillance, tracking down deadbeat dads and bail jumpers and maybe the occasional runaway teen — but I can’t remember ever reading about one who played a major role in solving a murder or kidnapping or far-ranging conspiracy, as they do in so many thousands of books. I suspect that the Chandleresque private eye, like the lone Western gunslinger, is far more myth than reality.

Anyway, he had only two recommendations for good private eye characters written in German, and I’ve now read a couple books in each series. The first is Gerhard Selb, whose last name means “self” and is translated that way in the English editions. Selb is a semi-retired bachelor in his late 60s in Mannheim, who’s mopey and somber about the past — particularly his own past as a Nazi prosecutor — but a charming curmudgeon when it comes to the present. He’s a gentleman who listens to classical music, enjoys fine dining, and counts CEOs, surgeons and chess champions among his friends. His cases are complex and highly entangled with postwar German politics and history.

selb

Unsurprisingly for a character who is basically a lawyer’s retirement fantasy, Selb was created in 1987 by two lawyers: Bernard Schlink and Walter Popp. Schlink has since become much better known for his international bestseller The Reader, which was filmed with Kate Winslet, and as with the narrator of that story, there seems to be a good deal of Schlink himself in Selb’s ruminations.

The second private eye is Kemal Kayankaya, a younger man in Frankfurt. Ethnically Turkish, he was orphaned as a child and adopted and raised by native German parents. As a result, he doesn’t speak any Turkish and isn’t accepted by the Turkish immigrant community, but still encounters constant discrimination from ethnic Germans:

So he’s the ultimate loner, the ultimate outsider among hard-boiled private eyes, forever caught between two solitudes, too Turkish to be accepted by German society, and not Turkish enough to be accepted by that community. As he moves through all strata of society in Frankfurt (“the ugliest town in Germany”), through sex shops, gambling dens, government offices and other unsavory centers of vice and greed, only stopping for an occasional drink or two, he’s beat up, harassed, threatened with arrest and torture, even as he peels away layer after layer of corruption and racism. [source]

kayankaya

Written by Jakob Arjouni, who died earlier this year, these books are much more in the Chandler mold. I found them more successful than the Selb books, not so much because of the direct parallels to Chandler, but because Arjouni understood that a good private eye character gets his edge from being an outsider, alienated from his own society — and making his detective ethnically Turkish but culturally German was his device for achieving that distance.

Selb, by contrast, is just not enough of an outsider. He’s got too many friends in high places, too many ponderous thoughts about the past, and, ultimately, too much to lose in his comfortable life. But if these books don’t quite work as traditional private eye novels, they’re still an interesting tour through German history.

A third one that I’m just getting started with is Simon Brenner, a somewhat reluctant and unwitting detective created by the Austrian writer Wolf Haas. Unlike Selb and Kayankaya, who narrate their books in the first person, the Brenner books have a third-person narrator who writes in a very colloquial, folksy, humorous style, and Brenner himself is kind of a comic sad-sack figure. I haven’t read enough of this series to have an opinion yet, but it’s extremely popular.

brenner

The photos in this post are from movie adaptations. The first of the Kayankaya books was filmed in 1992, and I can recommend that as a fun movie and a good place to start. A year earlier, one of the Selb books became a TV movie which I haven’t been able to track down.  And there have been several recent higher-profile adaptations of the Brenner stories starring the comedian Josef Hader, which I plan to watch as I finish the books.

As always, if you’re interested in private eye characters, the place to start is the Thrilling Detective website, which I quoted above on Kayankaya; they also have good summaries and bibliographies for Brenner and Selb.

The Lives of Strangers

german_text_titlepage

This week I found a 100-year-old language textbook in a used book store. Inside were a pair of 40-year-old letters written from a family in East Germany to an American relative:

letter_1

My Dear Frieda! Many thanks for your lovely letter of July 5th. As you wrote, you still haven’t received a visa [to visit East Germany]. If it really doesn’t come through, then please let us know immediately. As you know, from August 5th to the 20th we won’t be at home, since our vacation to Usedom Island on the Baltic Sea is already booked and paid for. But considering your planned route, you could still visit us before then. It would be great!

Now, you wanted to know, if you don’t get a visa, whether we could come to Munich or [West] Berlin. Unfortunately it wouldn’t work, we’re not allowed over the border. Only pensioners receive permission for that. We can’t go from East to West Berlin either.

We wish you lots of fun on the rest of your trip and hope that we can perhaps see each other again.

letter_2

Dear Frieda, I’ve inquired again. If you don’t get the visa, there’s another possibility to see us in East Berlin. You can get a day pass, although you’d have to return to West Berlin the same evening. It’s five marks for one day. We could meet in the Hotel Berolina. You’d have to go through the wall on foot, but then you can get a taxi to the hotel. We could meet in the lobby, it’s a nice place to sit and chat. You’d just have to tell us which day you’re coming.

Who was Frieda? I’ve cropped out the last names as a matter of privacy, but with a little googling it was easy to find some of her official records. She immigrated to the US as a young woman in the early 1920s, settling in the same county where I bought the book, and likely still lived there when she died at the ripe old age of 96, after which her books surely sat around in boxes until they were bought by this shop.

She’d have been in her 70s when these letters were written, maybe taking a long-planned retirement trip back to Europe, bringing this old book along to brush up on her German. (The first letter is sent in care of other relatives she was staying with, possibly in West Germany.)

That’s where I stopped digging. I don’t think the letters are so personal that it would be worth tracking down and intruding on her surviving family to return them — just a few innocuous travel plans in a fairly standard American life. But I hope she got to see these relatives in the East.

That same day, my friend Max sent me this post about the disappearance of used book stores. I told him about the letters, and he replied:

Makes me wonder how well we’ll be able to preserve the memories of peoples’ existence as things continue to go digital… [social media] accounts and profiles get wiped at some point, at the latest point upon our deaths. Which means it’s pretty easy to wipe out a sizable portion of a person’s history, if no one is around to preserve the data. There isn’t even a library or rare books collection you can go to to find scraps. I wonder if future historians will be able to rely on caches of email data, or if those will get lost too. What’s the equivalent of all those black and white photos you find at flea markets?

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Today this whole correspondence would take place over email, and forty years from now it could be gone without a trace. There’s no digital equivalent to the way I found these letters, no way to make this kind of brief but moving contact with the life of a dead stranger.

To be fair, it’s not true that all online profiles are wiped as soon as a user dies. Facebook, for example, will freeze and “memorialize” your profile, hiding it from public search results and leaving it open for your friends to view. But that’s only good for as long as Facebook is around. Social networks come and go. When Friendster finally breathed its last in 2011, they gave users less than two months to export their data before deleting it forever.

Modern social networks are better about this, but how many people have really taken advantage of those export tools? And on the rare occasions when users do think ahead about this, just as often they have the opposite goal, to make sure their data will be deleted when they die. Anyway, even if your family does export all your data or keep a memorial profile up, it’s not something that a stranger would ever stumble across.

Digital media are potentially longer lasting than analog media, of course, because they don’t decay (well, barely) with time or reproduction. But the way we treat them is very different. For example, when I graduated from college, I saved all the emails from my school account, and I had every intention of keeping them forever. But over the next few years, as I moved all my files to a succession of new computers and external hard drives, that email archive just fell through the cracks. By contrast, I still have an envelope full of handwritten letters I had received at summer camp ten years earlier. It’s not that the content of my college emails was any less meaningful, just that it was so much easier to lose them through simple neglect.

As always, technology cuts both ways; without the internet it wouldn’t have been so easy to learn more of Frieda’s story. But those birth and death records would have meant nothing to me without the letter, whereas the letter still carries emotional weight even without any outside context.

I don’t mean to get too misty-eyed about this. I realize that of all the humans who have lived on this planet, the vast majority have left no trace at all. But in the 20th Century, the spread of literacy and consumer photography meant that millions more ordinary people left some kind of physical footprint, some testament to their existence beyond just entries in a government ledger. It would be strange if technology is now beginning to reverse that trend.

“Those family snapshots and handwritten postcards at flea markets are heartbreaking,” I replied to Max. “Either the people involved are dead, or they’ve lost them, or they just didn’t care enough to keep them, and I don’t know which is saddest.”

But wouldn’t it be even sadder if they were never preserved at all?

Was Jesus a Violent Revolutionary?

zealot_cover

I’ve just finished Reza Aslan’s new book Zealotthe subject of this cringe-worthy Fox News interview that’s been circulating on the internet. It would be a shame if that story overshadowed the book itself, because in some ways it’s far more provocative.

In popular culture, secular portrayals of Jesus tend to come from liberal Christians who see him as a peaceful hippie. As Kris Kristofferson sang in 1972:

Jesus was a Capricorn, and he ate organic food
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends
Reckon they’d just nail him up if he came down again

As in so many cases, country singers and historians are not in total agreement here. Scholars have been debating aspects of the “historical Jesus” for well over a century, and there are many competing narratives about what kind of a person he was, what his words really meant, and what he was trying to achieve.

The Jesus that Aslan presents was one of dozens of lone nationalist preachers among the Jews of his time — rebels against a succession of cruel and incompetent Roman governors and the corrupt, aristocratic priests who served as their puppet leaders in Jerusalem. Every few years, one of these guys would pop up, gather a few followers, cause a bit of trouble and then be arrested and executed for treason — which is, of course, exactly the story of Jesus. (And John the Baptist, for that matter, a few years earlier.)

So what differentiated Jesus from these other rebel leaders? Not much, according to Aslan. Like the others, he made no claims to divinity or long-term prophecy. The term “Son of God” was just a standard designation for royalty, and “Son of Man” was a cryptic scriptural reference that essentially meant the same thing: he likely saw himself as the king of a restored Jewish kingdom, in his own lifetime. “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” were references to this kingdom, not to some ethereal realm. In other words, he was planning to depose the priests, expel the Roman soldiers and restore the true “kingdom of God,” not in heaven but right here on Earth.

Even Jesus’s miracles and exorcisms didn’t make him special, according to Aslan, as there were lots of travelling magicians at the time doing this kind of thing. If anything, what made Jesus stand out was not that he and his apostles performed these miracles, but that they performed them for free.

At any rate, Aslan thinks that many episodes in the New Testament have been misinterpreted by modern Christians. For example, when Jesus cast the moneylenders out of the temple and said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” this had nothing to do with anti-materialism or the spiritual life or the separation of church and state, nor was it an evasive answer to a trick question. What he meant was simply that the land was God’s, and that Roman currency had no place there. He was advocating revolt.

Similarly, there are many interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who stops to help a wounded man on the roadside after two priests have passed him by. Our modern interpretation of this story (and use of the phrase “good samaritan”) often neglects the purity element: the priests didn’t want to help the man because he might have been dead, and touching a corpse was impure according to Jewish law of the time. Aslan isn’t the first modern writer to point this out; I remember reading in Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time that this parable was really about replacing an ethical system based on purity with one based on compassion. But Aslan takes it a step further: Jesus wasn’t even concerned about purity per se, but mainly with attacking the priests. He wasn’t telling his listeners to emulate the Samaritan but rather to condemn the priests.

He points out that modern Christians prefer to quote the Beatitudes as presented in Matthew (“blessed are the meek,” etc.) rather than the version in Luke which reverses every blessing: those who hunger now will be fed, but woe unto those who are well fed now, for they will go hungry. In this version, Jesus isn’t talking about a utopian future in which everyone is well fed, but a reversal of the social order in favor of the currently poor.

Now, others have argued that Jesus was more of a pacifist than other rebel leaders of the time, and this is what really set him apart. Aslan doesn’t buy this argument, but he doesn’t fully grapple with it. His main point is that it’s ridiculous to believe Jesus was apolitical, and that once you consider him as a political figure, it follows that he could only have been advocating the overthrow of the current priests and ruling class, and that he must have known that this couldn’t be accomplished without violence.

Like any coherent narrative of the historical Jesus, Aslan’s version relies on a good deal of cherry-picking and convenient ranking of different sources. To be honest, I struggle as a layman to judge which of these many versions has the most scholarly support. But Aslan does a good job of putting the events of the gospels in context, and paints a believable and vivid picture of what the short life of a first-century dissident preacher in Palestine might actually have been like.

One reviewer mocks his Jesus as a Che Guevara figure, but I’m not sure that’s the best comparison — after all, Che was part of a successful revolution. Aslan’s Jesus reminds me more of the writer Yukio Mishima, a cult figure and nationalist who died during a bizarre, staged coup attempt a few years after Guevara. Certainly Jesus’s politics were more like the left-wing Che than the right-wing Mishima, but Aslan presents his invasion of the temple as such a brazen and hopeless gesture that he knew would seal his own fate … it almost sounds like he shared Mishima’s death wish.