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Drugged

Two days ago, someone took away my ability to speak, move, act consciously, and breathe.

I went to Ruby Skye with some friends for a concert. The night started off grand: after making my way through a lengthy line, I had a shot of whiskey and was starting my second gin and tonic while the music picked up. Having recently eaten dinner, three drinks usually wouldn’t have phased me much; I’d be loosened up, but nowhere near drunk.

My second gin and tonic had a special ingredient though. I got very into dancing, my vision started to blur, and my inhibitions were all but gone. It didn’t feel like a normal drink, but I didn’t know what to make of it, and wasn’t in the mindset to think more critically. Then it really hit me. In an instant, I went from dancing like crazy to standing completely still. I tried to talk, but couldn’t. I tried to move, but couldn’t. Everything around me blurred together; the room was now made of fuzzy lights, not shapes.

What happened next isn’t clear to me. I recall stumbling, then holding tightly on to someone who was trying to bring me somewhere. There were voices in the distance, but like my vision the sound just blurred together. It was confusing and terrifying, but I couldn’t do anything about it.

I later found out my friends realized something was wrong and were the ones to carry me outside. I started vomiting. Then I stopped breathing. My fingernails and lips started turning blue.

The paramedics were there in minutes. They whisked me away to the hospital, which was fortunately just a few blocks away. They tried to revive me all the while, but weren’t having much luck. By the time I got into the ER, breathing mask over my face, they prepared to intubate me. I woke moments before they started.

I was kept in the hospital for the following 36 hours. Everything was foggy for the first couple of those hours. In and out, I slowly figured out where I was, my name, address, and how I got there. One of my friends stayed with me, reassuring me all the while.

The doctors ran tox screens but couldn’t find anything abnormal in my system. Their best guess is that I was given a large dose of GHB, a drug known as liquid ecstasy on the streets. One of my nurses mentioned they’re seeing all sorts of concoctions come out of the Tenderloin—some completely new creations—and they metabolize very quickly, so they’re only able to guess. She also said that people come into the ER for this at an alarmingly common rate.

This event was, suffice it to say, terrifying. It is atrocious that someone would do this to another human being. The effects progressed so rapidly, I had no idea what hit me. Had my friends not been so attentive, I would likely be dead.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why—a robbery? rape? random act of violence?—nor am I likely to find out who did this. (I will be trying though. Ruby Skye has cameras, and I’m working with the police to investigate.) It’s frustrating, but I don’t want to let that be the end of this event. I learned a few things going through this that are worth sharing:

  • Protect your drink. I know, it sounds obvious. I kept an eye on my drink almost the entire time. Spiking a drink is so simple though that even the most astute observers will miss someone tossing a substance into your drink as they reach across the bar or dance alongside you. Keep your drink covered, or finish it up off of the dance floor and away from people jostling into you.

  • Encourage your friends to protect their drinks. It doesn’t seem like the cool thing to do, but neither does being drugged by a complete stranger and nearly dying. Remind them anyway.

  • Looked away? Have the tiniest of hunches? (I did.) Buy another drink. Buying another drink might cost you a few dollars, but that’s substantially cheaper than the deductible and paramedic bills I’ll have to pay. At this point, it would’ve been cheaper for me to buy a round of drinks for the whole club.

    More importantly, buying another drink to avoid being raped, robbed, or killed seems is a solid investment.

  • Stay around friends and pay attention to them. Thankfully it’s not nearly as fun to go to a concert alone, so this should come more easily. My symptoms were that of someone who’d had one too many drinks. My friends ordered with me through the night, so they knew how much I’d had to drink and that something was wrong. If you notice something off in one of your friends, play it safe and speak up. I’m glad mine did.

  • If someone is vomiting, put them on their side. This will help increase airflow and prevent aspiration, which can turn into an aspirational pneumonia—I’m no doctor, but I’ve been told that’s not a good thing to get.

  • File a police report. Nurses are required to report acts of assault, but didn’t ask me if I wanted to do this. It’s hard to tell if the patient just let their recreational use get out of hand (seriously, people use GHB recreationally! crazy.) or were targeted by someone with worse intentions. In a case like this, they should assume the worst and encourage people to call it in. As nice as the staff at St. Francis Memorial were, I was disappointed this didn’t happen; I’ve followed up with the hospital administration to encourage them to retrain their ER nurses about being more proactive in cases like this.

    While it’s hard to catch someone who’s done this, having a report is crucial for pattern matching. If the police know there had been other instances at places like Ruby Skye—there had been two girls at Ruby Skye put through this just a week earlier, it turns out—they’ll send in plainclothes officers to figure out what’s going on. This also helps shed truth on what’s going on in our streets: the worst thing we can have is a streak of crimes that are underrepresented, as they then won’t get the attention they deserve.

I believe clubs should also make a movement to educate people about this. Bouncers should remind people how to protect their drinks, and the clubs should give out coasters for testing the common drugs. From a business perspective, not having a reputation as a club where people get spiked is a good thing. As decent human beings, it’s in all our interests to protect one another.

I’m now feeling back to normal, and I’m thankful I’ve been so fortunate. Minutes could have changed this outcome drastically. My friends were incredible Saturday night and throughout the following days. My family stayed by my side as well. I’m incredibly thankful to all of them.

My hope with this post is to increase awareness, even if just a little. Feel free to drop me a note if you’ve had a similar experience or know of other tips I should be sharing here.

This was posted 1 month ago. It has 0 notes.

Accident

At the end of August 2009, I was finishing up my summer vacation and preparing for my senior year of high school. The start of the summer marked one of the most peaceful times in my life: I kicked it off with a road trip to the Stanford campus, met with the heads of the QuestBridge organization, practiced my photography by taking over 16,000 photos along the way, and was on track for a full ride to a prestigious school.

I struggled with the St. Louis Public School system for as long as I can remember. My life in school was wrought with obstacles: school after school closed just after I joined, tax fraud stole already scarce resources from my local elementary school, racist remarks plagued lesson plans, educational mediocrity was embraced by the administration, and an unfortunate event led to an abrupt move just as I finished middle school. I reminded myself that these were temporary pains, and struggles I wouldn’t face beyond high school. Simply making it outside of St. Louis to a campus like Stanford’s meant the world to me, and gave me confidence that I can’t understate.

As my summer progressed, I became increasingly focused on life after graduation. I started early on my college essays, stayed up throughout the night coding, explored my art, and continued getting better at running my business. Everything was working out just as smoothly as I’d hoped.

The day before classes started, I went out for the first time to ride an ATV with my brother. We were a couple hours out of the city, and I went off on my own while he checked in with his girlfriend.

I don’t remember much past driving away from his truck. A stranger found me lying unconscious on the side of the road. The ATV flipped and I’d been thrown down the road, without a helmet. He was lost himself, but thankfully able to get ahold of the fire department, who had me airlifted to the hospital. I was unconscious for just over a half hour. At the hospital, they intubated me; I woke up a few times, but they kept knocking me out because I was moving, and they worried my struggling would interfere with their care.

My mom knew that I liked to talk, so stopped them the next time I woke, slipped a pen into my hand, and a pad of paper below. My eyes were swollen shut, but I managed to scrawl asking about three things: how my brother was doing, where my laptop was, and if someone would get my school books. They knew I’d be alright.

I spent two weeks in the hospital, and was out of school for the first two months. Beyond obvious physical pain, the hospital made light of any head injuries, especially since I could answer basic math questions that most might struggle with. But my parents knew something was off. After insisting for a neuroscientist, who kept in mind that I played with math and programming for fun and could answer basic questions without much thought, he gave a more rigorous test and concluded that something wasn’t right. I had a concussion: insignificant amounts of light bothered me, subtle noises sounded intense[0], and I had a hard time thinking coherently.

I’m pretty stubborn, so I downplayed all of this as overprotective nonsense, and insisted on getting my school books so I could get caught up. (I later found out that it’s common to not be self-aware of your own symptoms when you have a concussion, which is what makes them especially dangerous.) I was studying mostly college-level courses that semester: second-year calculus, chemistry, mechanics and E&M physics, psychology, and literature. I started working on my missed reading and homework two weeks after the accident, on my second day home.

Most of my teachers were understanding, but one made life difficult toward the end of the semester. I wanted to get on track and set goals early on with my teachers, but she left things more open-ended; just as we were heading out for winter break, she suddenly and without communication imposed a deadline that had already had passed, and put a ‘D’ in the gradebook. We fought tooth and nail. She was representing the teachers to review the principal’s performance, and unions are hard enough to come against, so it was an even steeper uphill battle getting the administration to defend me.

A concussion is an invisible wound; I pushed through without making excuses, but this made it difficult for the school to understand what I was going through. (It’s scary that schools don’t understand the impact of concussions; student athletes are especially at risk, and often sent back to the field without care.) I finally threw in the towel on handling the battle myself and called on my parents as reinforcements; they took to the school board and had me removed from the teacher’s class. I took the course with an assistant principle instead, and had another qualified school employee review my work.

In order to spend the time fighting to have work I’d already completed considered for this course, as well as study for all my other classes, I unfortunately missed my college deadlines. I applied anyway with hurried essays, submitted just as the clock struck midnight and the application closed. This was at a time when I still wouldn’t admit anything was wrong with me, that I insisted the concussion had no effect; had I been more self-aware, I imagine I could have communicated with the schools to ask for an extension.

Alas, I realized all of that too late. I didn’t get into the schools I’d hoped. It’s possible (and by the statistics, likely) I wouldn’t have anyway, but it’s clear that the circumstances of my application, and my unawareness of my injury, meant that I’d not finished my applications as I should have.

The remainder of my school year was pretty rough. I didn’t know what I’d do after my summer vacation. My family wanted me to go to college, but I swore it off; I’d already been running a business since I was 14, and I was sure I could make it work. Late in summer 2010, I happened upon a mailing list for a local Perl group, which was hosting lightning talks. I had an inkling that I liked speaking, so in a haste I applied to give a talk about photography.

Everything changed that night. On July 21, 2010, I met Matt Follett and Kevin Scannell, among other key engineers in the St. Louis tech scene[1]. Matt guided me on how to make the talk better next time, and he was generous enough that night to include me in the group’s outing after the event, even though I wasn’t old enough to drink with them. Kevin had also given a lightning talk, his about a transliteration system named charlifter. He and I started emailing the next day, and we went on to turn charlifter into Accentuate.us. It turned out that Kevin was a professor at Saint Louis University; just as quickly as I’d gotten into my ATV accident the day before my high school classes started, Kevin had me enrolled in SLU the day before university classes started[2].

There was definitely a certain amount of luck here, but that doesn’t just come to you unless you put yourself in a situation to be lucky. The lack of support from my high school made me think more than a few times about giving up on my goals altogether, but that’s not my type of personality. (I was also fortunate to have a family that had my back.) Had I not tossed my name out there on a whim to give a talk, I’d not have had the opportunity to meet Kevin and others that have since had such a positive influence on my life. Now I’m living in San Francisco, as I’d originally planned, and loving my life.

I guess life does have a way of balancing itself out, especially if you try.

[0] My poor parents had to keep the TV volume at 7 for a couple of months. It was usually around 25. They were straining to hear anything on the news, I insisted the television was blaring.

[1] As silly as it sounds, I’d only ever coded with a friend I’ve known since middle school and people on IRC, so I hadn’t actually realized that there was a tech scene in St. Louis. It’s a shame that schools, even if they lack the resources to teach these programs themselves, aren’t helping young people be aware of meetups like this. Even if we can’t get schools to change that behavior, I imagine local meetups would do well to incorporate youth as much as possible.

[2] I ended up leaving school early to focus on my own startup again, and then to join Stripe. While staying at university long term turned out to not be the right fit for me, the people I met and concepts I learned in my short time there were crucial to my growth. I’m glad I went.

This was posted 9 months ago. It has 1 note.

Learning to program? Be curious and unafraid.

I’ve been asked a few times now how to learn to program. My advice has varied as I’ve continued thinking about this, but I’ve recently realized the answer has very little to do with programming itself:

There’s something you need beyond just knowing a particular language. It doesn’t matter if you stay pure with Haskell or find your one true way with Python; it’s irrelevant whether you focus on embedded systems or concentrate on infrastructure at scale; and it certainly doesn’t matter whether you end your day with :wq or C-x C-c.

If you want to learn to program (or get better at just about anything), you need to be curious and unafraid. You should frequently arrive at the brink of your knowledge and constantly immerse yourself in the depths of each cliff.

I was fortunate while growing up that my parents ran a computer-based business out of our house. The Macintosh was new enough (at least for St. Louis businesses) that there was no computer store to call. For a business, this is no excuse: a misbehaving computer could not lead to a delay with our newspaper or any of our clients’ printing jobs.

Recognizing that truth, and aware that we couldn’t rely on any local shops for help, my mom bought a huge book on computers and taught herself how to fix the machines as issues arose. My parents quickly learned to stock up on parts (as some organizations took to abandoning their aging or malfunctioning machines, we stocked up on those pieces to fix our own equipment).

As I was growing up at this time and paying close attention to the world around me, I absorbed this one important lesson from my parents: to not be afraid by the possibility of a computer breaking, but to instead relish in its resiliency when it did.

My parents made sure that I grew up on these ideas. With spare computers all around the house, I was encouraged to play around on any machine and not worry about what might go wrong. If I clicked the wrong icon or tugged on a cord that should be left in place, I knew that it’d just be a temporary blip: my mom could fix the computer and I’d pick right back up where I left off.

I’ve carried this throughout my life. In school, of fifty math problems, it was the one that had me wracking my brain for hours that stood out; when I studied taekwondo, it was my sparring partners that knocked me down that had me excited for a rematch; and with programming, it was the symbols that looked most foreign that reminded me how my time with computers was just getting started.

It’s the unknown that can keep us on our toes. If you’re just learning to program, you might look at something like this:

public class Hello {
    public static void main(String []args) {
        System.out.println("Hello, World!");
    }
}

and mutter a few curses about whatever the hell a public static void is.

Great if so! The most important thing is not that you immediately know what all of these words mean; instead, it’s that you be slightly irritated by not knowing. Once you’re ready to start exploring those unknowns, just remember that there’s very little you can really break, so don’t worry about what could go wrong – try it anyway and see what happens.

If you can master being aware and bothered by the constraints of your knowledge, then you’ll always know when it’s time to push your own boundaries and you’ll have the drive to do so.

So go on. Give it a try.

Thank you Alex MacCaw and Patrick Collison for reading my drafts.

This was posted 1 year ago. It has 2 notes.

@Stripe’d

Recently, I decided to join Stripe full-time to help shape and hack on the support team. I’ve actually been working with Stripe since February doing part-time support in the Campfire chat, and even before then in a completely unofficial role as a user and community advocate.

As I also have meld with my mom, I’ve historically been against the thought of joining another company in a full-time capacity, even if I got to continue working on meld. But there’s something really special about Stripe, and I felt it from the moment I first got my beta invite.

When I started using Stripe, my mom and I were just launching an entirely rethought version of meld (then, QR Card Us). Everything was going smoothly (especially when you factor in no sleep for 48 hours—but that’s a post for a different time), but a larger client found our site and was interested for the whole company. There was only one problem: the form wouldn’t generate his card token.

Okay, there were actually two problems: the form wouldn’t generate his card token and I couldn’t reproduce. He was extremely patient (you know who you are—thanks!), but I had to get this fixed. Not knowing what else to do, I blindly emailed support@stripe.com with the customer’s IP address in hopes that they could help pinpoint the problem by verifying whether or not they were receiving his create token request.

What I got back was so much more. Greg Brockman promptly wrote me, not only giving insight into their logs, but actually going to my website, sifting through JavaScript that was completely separate from their end, and helping to point out potential problem areas.

Thanks to Stripe, I was able to find the issue and get the client promptly signed up.

This is not an isolated incident, nor just a matter of Greg being an exception to the rule. Continuing to ask Stripe for pointers along the way, I found myself witnessing a recurring theme: they were, quite simply put, fantastic people.

Thanks to Stripe, I quickly found myself with a whole team of people behind what was really just a 2-person startup.

Many companies claim they care about their customers, but are prompt to levy heavy taxes and curt responses instead. Stripe was different. They surpassed what I had ever expected from a team; even as a total stranger, they actually cared about what was best for me.

In a situation like this, there’s really only one good way to respond: I started hanging around the Campfire room to pay it forward when possible, and I took to the tubes of the Internets to defend Stripe and raise my flag in favor of them. Stripe was not just a product I wanted to recommend, but a group of people I wanted to introduce.

So when Stripe and I started talking about making my role more official, and I gave it some thought, I realized how much of a no brainer it really was. There is no other company that I’d have even considered this for, but Stripe was and is clearly a creative, morals-driven team that truly cares more about the person than the bottom line.

Now that I’m at Stripe, I’m going to work hard to continue this even as we keep growing and becoming synonymous with accepting payments online. If you even just want to say hi, email us at support@stripe.com or come hang out with us on Campfire.

I hope this is never the case, but if you ever feel that we’re not meeting this, please know that you are welcome to email me directly at michael@stripe.com. I also wouldn’t mind hearing from you for any other reason, too :-)

The people behind Stripe are as crazy as you’d expect from a group choosing to turn the entire concept of accepting payments online on its head by actually making it simple and really caring about the customer. If you think you’re just as crazy, come change how payments are done with us.

This was posted 2 years ago. It has 0 notes.