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Nathan's interests include open source, open web protocols, and programming languages.

Nathan co-founded Intrigo, a software development house in Portland that develops web applications that power startup companies.

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3 June 2008 - 17:30Startup delegation to Greenlight Greater Portland

There’s a new group in Portland that’s been put together by business heavy weights with the charter of enticing businesses to choose and keep Portland as their home. Or, as they put it:

Greenlight Greater Portland is a consortium of private sector leaders dedicated to growing a sustainable and vibrant economic future for the seven-county metropolitan statistical region that surrounds the city of Portland.

Props go to Rick at Silicon Florist for recognizing an opportunity to put together a “startup delegation” that will attend their launch event tomorrow. I’m honored to have been asked to be a part of the delegation, and wanted to echo Rick’s call for input.

Looking at the GGP’s board of directors it appears to be made up of mostly reps from big business. I’m hoping that there will be opportunities tomorrow to expose this group to the great things that the startup community brings to Portland, as well as what Portland can do to bring more great startups here. If you have any opinions on the matter, or questions you want fished around let me or anyone else on the delegation know.

Also related: I was recently interviewed by the Silicon Florist about Intrigo’s decision to move to Portland.

3 Comments | Tags: Intrigo, business, economics, policy

28 April 2008 - 4:06Three discussions that rocked my weekend.

Below are three articles that I came to read this weekend that really just rocked me. I wanted to share and comment on them here in hopes that someone else will find them similarly thought provoking.

Adam Greenfield - “Anti-social Networking”

Adam’s position can be summarized as such: that the social webs we weave in places like Facebook and LinkedIn are broken, severely so, and at a very fundamental level. Adam further argues that “the only way to win is not to play” and makes the claim that we are better off as a society with out those tools at all (at least, as implemented).

His main argument is this: within these social networks we are asked (read: required) to define our complex, dynamic and often ambiguous real-world relationships in a very concrete way, often having to make a binary choice between defining a ‘friend’ or ‘not-friend’ relationship with the people in our lives that we varyingly know, like, love, dislike and with as many nuances as we have encounters with those people. This is bad as it leads to social interaction that is hopelessly “autistic” in behavior. I’ve read similar positions from others, including one from Joel Spolsky in 2004 who in turn referenced a talk by academic Danah Boyd.

Adam writes:

By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand where Adam is coming from; there is a severe awkwardness that comes with attempting to reify our relationships with other people as a mathematical model and it occasionally (or maybe even often) leads to the hurtful and decidedly anti-social behaviors that he describes in his post. That much I agree with.

Where Adam loses me is in his argument that this is a fundamental flaw of social networking as it exists on the web and that the only solution is to abandon the concept full stop. His conclusion, though, misunderstands the reasons people maintain their presence on these social networks and ignores the the many ways that these networks have proven themselves to be uniquely useful and, arguably, have net positive outcomes for their users.

The most glaring bad assumption is that people use social networks for the purpose of modeling their real world relationships instead of as a means to efficiently disseminate information among the people that are most likely to find such information relevant. While “friending” someone as an indication of a meaningful real world relationship is, I agree, ridiculous, stating explicitly that “this person’s information is, in some form, relevant to me” isn’t really all that awkward of a concept and I don’t buy the idea that because some providers have chosen to borrow words we usually reserve to indicate a more intimate relationship than “relevancy” that it condemns the concept as a whole. In fact many networks have transcended this awkwardness to a large extent simply with a change in wording and a slight tweak to the model.

There are examples of this working successfully all over the web. Twitter, just to name one, allows a person to ‘follow’ the updates of another. The word itself lacks any implication of relationship: I may follow you because you’re a close friend of mine and I want to stay up on your happenings or I may follow you because you’re an industry commentator and your updates may be relevant to my work. The social tool itself is very similiar to what you’d find on Facebook or LinkedIn, only the wording is different and the social awkwardness is gone.

In short, I share Adam’s views that current implementations are to a certain extent broken but I don’t agree with his conclusion that social networking’s inherent properties make the situation hopeless. Which ever side you lean towards, though, you should read the discussion that followed because there are some absolutely brilliant comments embedded in there. My favorite (perhaps because I agree with it ;) ) is a comment made by ‘Even’, an excerpt here:

I think my greatest problem with the ’social networks bad, no social networks best, contextual situated social networks maybe ok’ contention is that it seems, how should I put this, somewhat lacking in nuance.

Abstraction will be useful and we often benefit from simplifications carried out by many processes. I am fairly certain a blanket argument could be made against theatre for its failure to be anything but a bleak imitation of life itself, but I am uncertain how effective it would be. However grotesque we may find the mapping between social relations of real life humans and joined database columns, we do need to look at what use social networks are actually being put to in different services. Most often the network simply eases the dissemination of information.

Read the excellent discussion on Adam’s blog: Anti-social Networking

Clay Shirky - Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

It’s a story we’ve heard again and again over the last 10 years: Old Media consistently fails to “get it” when it comes to the profound changes that the web is catalyzing. Ground-up community-led (often merit-based) efforts that are birthed on the Internet are not a “passing fad” (as one TV producer puts it) but represent a fundamental shift in the way that society creates and disseminates information, on par with prior revolutions such as the introduction of the printing press, the grand scale availability of communications systems to individuals (ie. the telegraph and telephone) and, ironically, the triumph of broadcast radio and television. Old Media’s naivety (or, more likely, willful ignorance) of the changing times would be maddening if it wasn’t so funny. I rest easy at night knowing that the coming tsunami of change does not require the understanding or support of the old guard but that it can and will route around them, as revolutions are apt to do.

Clay’s argument is that this change doesn’t necessarily lead to better production or better content (as anyone familiar with the quality of YouTube comments or Digg posts can attest) simply that it is a different model of social participation, one that has proven not only to be possible but seems now inevitable and one that will fundamentally change a whole lot of existing structures.

Looking forward twenty years I think we’ll see a few of the media companies that will able to reinvent themselves enough to stay in the game (that is, stay in business) but their relevance to society will be greatly diminished, replaced in many instances by self-organized information communities and self-publishing professionals and professional groups. Monolithic top-heavy media behemoths are the steam locomotives of the web revolution.

Read Clay’s take on this: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Michael Pollan’s “Why Bother?” (New York Times)

While the web revolution barrels down the track there’s another fledgling revolution, wholly more important, who’s inevitability is not so clear. From Michael Pollan’s excellent article about how individual choices affect global climate change:

Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.

Read the rest of Michael Pollan’s excellent answer to the question: “Why Bother?

4. (BONUS!) Tim Bray - Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

I actually read this earlier in the week, but I’ll include it anyway. This one is pure candy, just for fun. There’s not a lot of substance to it but if you (like I obviously do) buy into the idea that we are at an inflection point in society facilitated by the new types of tools that ubiquitous Internet provides, then you’ll like this post by Tim Bray.

I was up late on IM with a much-younger computer programmer and he asked “Damn, there’s a lot going on. Is it always like this?” Well, no, it hasn’t been. But in the future, it may be.

Near as I can tell, we’re simultaneously at inflection points in programming languages and databases and network programming and processor architectures and Web development and IT business models and desktop environments. Did I miss anything? What’s bigger news is that we might be inflection-point mode pretty steadily for the next few years.

Read the rest of Tim’s post at: Multi-Inflection-Point Alert

5 Comments | Tags: computer science, economics, politics, software design

6 March 2008 - 23:17From the IRS: Tax deductable donations are for sissies and home owners.

Warning: I’m about to teach you something about taxes. Most you of won’t care. It’s safest to leave now before the boring reaches dangerous levels.

By the way I’m not an accountant. I’m about as likely to be fully correct on the statements below as Neil Patrick Harris is to correctly diagnose your colon cancer. That won’t, however, stop me from trying.


Doogie Howser: not a real doctor.
Nathan Bell: not a real accountant.

I’ve left out a few details because a) I want to keep the examples simple and b) talking about them won’t change the main point:

For large swaths of givers, charitable donations are not incentivized by the government.

Guess what, my donations don’t make a damn of a difference on my taxes. And unless you pay an obscene amount in mortgage interest neither do yours.

Here’s what I learned: You have two options when you fill out your 1040.

  • Option A: Take a standard deduction of $5,350. Every renter does this because it’s simple and gives you a very large deduction.
  • Option B: Itemize your deductions. This only makes sense if your deductions add up to more than $5,350.

Only if you chose Option B can you deduct:

  • Either state sales tax or state income tax (choose one).
  • Mortgage interest payments
  • Donations made to non-profits

This has huge tax implications for renters who donate a significant portion of their income to tax exempt entities.

Let’s be generous

Let’s pretend you’re a renter. I’ll also give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re a generous person. Last year you decided you were spending way too much money on booze and hookers and you instead donated $4,000 to a worthwhile cause. Las Vegas mourns the lost income. Also, you paid $1,500 in state income taxes.

What kind of break will the government give you for not being such a worthless hedonist this year?

We’ll approximate: most of you with jobs are either in the 15% or 25% tax brackets. That means for every $1 you make above a certain amount you’ll normally be taxed at either 25% (for my friends who majored in engineering) or 15% (for my friends who majored in English). But if that $1 is deductible then it won’t be taxed at all (via income tax, at least).

$4000 donation + $1500 state income tax deduction = $5500 x 25% = $1375 off of your taxes

Wow, your donation just saved you $1375 on your taxes! Except it really hasn’t because you could have always chosen the standard deduction:

Let’s be greedy

What if, instead, you had kept all that money? Forget the children, you want a big screen.

Well then you would have skipped all that deduction nonsense and instead taken the standard deduction of $5350.

($0 donation deduction + $1500 state tax deduction + …) x 0 (You chose Option A, so you can’t claim any of these) + $5350 standard deduction = $5350 x 25% = $1337.50

Tax credit when you’re generous $1375.00
Tax credit when you’re greedy $1337.50
Tax difference for all you generosity $37.50


Greed wins!!!

Even if you own a home your mortgage interest payments have to be approaching $4000 a year before tax incentives for donations kick in.

Does greed win?

So, fine. It seems that the government has stopped incentivizing donations for all but the very rich. But why?

I’m still trying to figure that out. What I’ve found is this:

  • The government doesn’t like to give up revenue. We already knew that.
  • The government trusts that despite not getting a tax break, you’re going to make that donation anyway. This is backed up by research done here.
  • The above research is hardly definitive, as shown here, here and here.

It all revolves around one very important question: what is the price elasticity of charitable contributions? In other words, are people likely to donate more if there is a tax deduction that comes along with it?

If you can answer that, then you can answer an even more important question: is it more efficient for the government to encourage people to donate to non-profits, or to take the money itself to provide additional services and hand out grants?

I know what I hope the answer is, and I intend to learn more about this. Stay tuned.

3 Comments | Tags: economics, policy, taxes