Monthly Archives: March 2015

Porn talk

My older son is closing in on 13 years old, has Internet access, and wears the same size shoes as I do. So I figured it’s time to have the Porn Talk with him.

I sat down to write a bullet list of talking points that I wanted to be sure to cover, but it came out in essay form instead. It’s reproduced below. Note the careful omission of judgmental and heteronormative language. If the values expressed are similar to yours, please feel free to repurpose this for your own parental porn talk.


There are good things about porn, bad things about porn, and in-between things about porn. It’s important to know about all of them before you get too involved with it.

First, the obvious. Porn can be fun. It’s exciting, it’s arousing, it’s a sort of “preview of coming attractions” before your actual sex life begins. It can help you learn about what sexual things you like and what things you don’t at a time when experimenting with other people is not possible (or at least not a good idea). It can answer some of your questions about sex, ones that maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask, or ones you simply didn’t think of. Being interested in porn is normal and OK. I’d be more concerned about a 13-year-old boy who wasn’t.

Now the not so obvious. Most porn is very different from real-life sex. In porn, the men and women have perfect bodies, are easily excited, and are always up for anything. They do not worry about pregnancy or about sexually transmitted diseases. This is a fantasy. You should not expect real sex to be just like porn any more than you’d expect real archaeology to be like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In real life, bodies aren’t perfect, people aren’t always in the mood, and sometimes you or your partner will say “ow” or “stop” or “no, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t mean that real-life sex isn’t amazing – it often is. It’s also sometimes just OK, and sometimes it’s even bad, like everything else in real life.

There is a serious problem that exists among some people who look at porn: they can develop unrealistic expectations about sex and about their partners. When things aren’t just like what they learned in porn, they get disappointed and disinterested. This can really interfere with their intimate relationships and mess up their lives. This doesn’t mean that you should accept a partner who disappoints you. The point of dating is to find someone with whom you’re compatible, who is into the same things (sexually and otherwise) and whom you find exciting. It’s OK to want a little fantasy in your sex life. But if all you know is porn, you risk closing yourself off to the wider, richer world of real-life sex.

Beyond that, there are worse problems. One is the problem of porn addiction, which is a real thing to be feared. You can become addicted to anything that gives you pleasure. It’s a biochemical change in the brain, which is what makes it so difficult to reverse. (You can read more about it here.) This is why we say that things should be enjoyed “in moderation.”

How can you tell the difference between innocent enjoyment on the one hand, and problematic addiction on the other? It’s actually pretty easy. When it starts interfering with other parts of your life, it’s an addiction. You may act towards other people in ways you wouldn’t normally choose to. You may skip activities in which you would normally participate. You might perform poorly on schoolwork or other tasks that you could usually do well. You definitely want to avoid getting addicted, because once you have an addiction, breaking it is very, very hard. To avoid addiction, exercise control over when you look at porn. Don’t let it exercise control over you. To reverse addiction, you first have to be able to acknowledge it exists, which can be hard all by itself. (A good rule of thumb: if you ever find yourself insisting, to yourself or others, that you don’t have a problem, that’s a sign that you probably do.) Seek help from someone, and get yourself involved in one or more different activities to divert your brain’s attention from what it’s craving.

Another serious problem is that, although there’s plenty of porn out there depicting joyful and even loving sex between consenting partners, there is also unfortunately a lot of the opposite: porn that is humiliating to someone, or degrading, or even violent. Porn with one or more of the people clearly not enjoying themselves. Sometimes it’s just an act, but much more often the people in this kind of porn are trapped in a life that’s little better than slavery, and the people producing this kind of porn are genuinely evil. Stay away from this stuff. Not only does looking at it encourage the scum that makes it; the bad vibes can take you to a dark place, messing up your head and your future sex life.

Some porn is actually illegal – illegal to make, and even illegal to look at, and people go to jail for it all the time. This does not apply to most normal porn featuring consenting adult men and women, but even that exists in a grey area where very many people disapprove of it, sending the police and the courts after them at every opportunity. (A great movie about this, which is also a true story, is The People vs. Larry Flynt.) As a result, the whole porn world is sort of semi-legal, and that invites certain kinds of scam artists. Beware of identifying yourself in any way to any porn site. If you are invited to chat, ignore it. Don’t answer survey questions. If you are offered a free signup to some new site, ignore it. Definitely do not respond to requests for photos or video of yourself or others. Disable “browser cookies” if possible. I can show you how. And do not download files; they are almost guaranteed to turn your computer into part of a criminal botnet under the control of Russian gangsters!

The point of all this is not to scare you or to be a killjoy. It’s only that if you’re not aware of this stuff and you’re not careful, it’s all too easy to land on content you’re better off avoiding, or to mess yourself up in a variety of ways. Forewarned is forearmed.

The most important thing is to remember that you can talk to me about any of this any time you like. If you have questions, if you see anything that bothers or worries you, if you have anything you want to express, I’m here. I promise never to embarrass you and to keep everything just between us. Don’t forget, I was a 13-year-old boy once too, and I was also every age you’re going to be for the next few decades. There’s bound to be some info in my head that you’d find helpful, and even when there isn’t, sometimes all you need is someone who’ll listen.

We’re not fledgling

THIS ASSET PURCHASE AGREEMENT (this “Agreement”) is made and entered into as of and shall take effect on March 1, 2015 (the “Closing Date”), by and among [company that may not wish to be named quite yet], a California corporation (“Buyer”), ZANSHIN, a California corporation (“Seller”), and Seller’s principal shareholders, BARTON SCHAEFER, STEVE WEBSTER, GREGORY FOX, and ROBERT GLICKSTEIN (collectively the “Majority Shareholders”).

Thus ends, for all intents and purposes, the story of Zanshin, the company that my friends and I started in 1996 after resigning en masse from Z-Code. It will continue to exist in name and in certain administrative functions, but [unnamed company] is buying substantially all its assets and hiring away most of its employees.

Z-Code was the producer of an award-winning cross-platform e-mail client, Z-Mail. In 1994 Z-Code’s owner Dan Heller sold the company to Network Computing Devices (NCD), a hardware company. Much of Z-Code’s staff was baffled by the sale and considered it ill-advised. Indeed there followed a corporate comedy of errors as first Dan was let go and then NCD’s top leaders, Judy Estrin and Bill Carrico, were fired. As we’d predicted, NCD’s sales staff had no idea how to sell software. As the World Wide Web started gaining traction, we were alarmed when NCD’s clueless new CEO, Ed Marinaro, tried to repurpose Z-Code’s staff of e-mail software experts as developers of a new Windows-only web browser called Mariner. Meanwhile, we were denied opportunities to make badly needed improvements to Z-Mail, and finally, after a number of grassroots efforts to turn things around had failed, a bunch of us gave up and quit to start our own e-mail software company.

After considering and rejecting several names we settled on Zanshin, a Japanese word meaning some badass combination of “emotional intensity” and “follow-through.” We discovered it in this passage in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, describing a swordfight between avatars in the high-resolution virtual reality called the “Metaverse”:

The businessman reaches across his body with his right hand, grips the handle of his sword just below the guard, draws it out, snaps it forward so it’s pointing at Hiro, then places his left hand on the grip just below the right. […]

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese, but it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo. He charges directly at Hiro, hollering at the top of his lungs. […]

“Emotional intensity” doesn’t convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word “zanshin” is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.

And Hiro thinks, frankly, that most of it is pseudomystical crap, on the same level as his old high school football coach exhorting his men to play at 110 percent.

We incorporated with our own money (proceeds from selling NCD stock) and the help of a fancy Sand Hill Road lawyer. We rented a house in Petaluma where some of us lived and all of us worked on bringing to life our vision of a beautiful and functional e-mail manager built on the theory that, done right, e-mail could serve as the repository for all one’s private information and communications. In hindsight our plan was not sufficiently well-defined, and neither was our project development timeline. More than two years passed of writing code together every day, grappling with the early web and our ever-problematic dialup Internet access, pushing the boundaries of the IMAP e-mail protocol and the fledgling GNU C++ compiler, and taking turns cooking for one another, watching The Simpsons together, and generally not operating with an adequate sense of purpose or urgency. By the time our e-mail client, code-named Lawndart, finally began sparking to life, the entire e-mail landscape had changed beneath our feet. Free clients like Outlook Express and Eudora had become ubiquitous and were good enough for most people, and free web-based mail from Microsoft and Yahoo was starting to take off. Even if we had gotten Lawndart to market, no one would have cared.

The only software we ever released was a Lisp-like text-markup language called Latte (“Language for Transforming Text”) and its followup, Blatte (“Better Language for Transforming Text”), which we open-sourced and gave away as a kind of corporate calling card. Somehow or other this led to Zanshin getting an extended consulting gig with Amazon.com, for which a couple of us ended up traveling back and forth to Seattle a lot. Things I remember from that time:

  • Checking in and out and in and out of the Residence Inn on Lake Union week after week;
  • The offices in which we did our work, and several of the people we worked with;
  • Various meetings and meals;
  • Keeping in touch with my new wife via the late-90’s-vintage phone I carried on a belt clip;
  • Being extra fastidious about tracking my time, reporting my progress, and keeping expenses down

but I’m damned if I can remember the nature of any actual work we did for them. Nevertheless, the gig went so well that Amazon offered to relocate us all to Seattle and hire us. Andrea flew up to Seattle to get the vibe of the place. Together we decided it was definitely doable.

Back in California we had a few long talks about Zanshin’s prospects and how we all felt about packing it in and moving to Seattle. Some of us were in favor, some were opposed and felt that Zanshin had some life left in it. We recognized that our dream of a high-tech e-mail client was dead; but in those long-overdue discussions we started to conceive of some exciting new ideas for the server side of e-mail and, in the end, convinced ourselves to stick it out as a software startup. We turned Amazon down.

We began describing to ourselves, and then to some business consultants, a collection of server-side e-mail features that collectively we called “MSpace.” Zanshin moved out of rented houses and into actual offices, and we took a little extra investment to keep us going (including from the notorious Gary Kremen, owner of the sex.com domain).

One way and another, our plans for MSpace took a detour into the realm of e-mail marketing — spamming, essentially, but ethical spamming as we were always quick to point out, for reputable marketers only, never sharing e-mail lists, and always providing no-hassle opt-out. I wrote a high-performance e-mail delivery engine and the aforementioned Blatte language for creating dynamic customizable templates, and Zanshin, operating its e-mail marketing service under the name iPost, finally started earning money.

This whole time I had been moonlighting as a founding member of the Internet Movie Database. In 1998 Amazon.com bought the IMDb (a coincidence not related to Zanshin’s consulting gig) and early in 2001 they asked me to join full-time. Five years of earning first no salary and later only a token amount had taken its toll, particularly since Andrea and I were planning to start a family; and the e-mail marketing business, though it was taking off, failed to move me. After consulting with my partners we agreed that I’d wrap up work on iPost’s delivery engine and then be done.

However, Andrea had joined Zanshin a couple of years earlier herself and she remained even as I went on to work full-time for the IMDb, and later for other companies. The e-mail marketing business amassed a surprisingly healthy client list and collected enough revenue to pay competitive salaries to a growing staff of developers and salespeople. I returned for a couple of short contract gigs from time to time. But as the years passed, the margins got slimmer and slimmer and the industry consolidated behind a few ever-larger players. Two of the other original founders had also left. New-product ideas always came second to dealing with never-ending customer issues. There was still momentum in the business, but it was unclear for how much longer. The time for a change had come, and I am grateful to Andrea and my Zanshin partners for making it happen.


Postscript. The title of this post comes from an episode at Z-Code. When a magazine, in its review of our product, Z-Mail, called our company a fledgling startup, we bristled, having by then grown quite a bit and able to count companies like Chevron and Silicon Graphics among our business partners. I undertook to make a sign for the office reading, “Z-Code Software: We’re Not Fledgling,” and it became a frequently heard catchphrase.