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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Geyserville Ride

Geyserville Ride

The Western Wheeler Geyserville weekend ride started out close to Chad's weekend retreat, so he invited Lisa and I to join him and Drea at their country house not more than 5 miles away from the ride start. I had been years since I saw Chad, but he didn't look a day older than the last time I saw him --- the years had been good to him.

Chad had been a fearsome rider in his day, so I expected the pace to be fast, but it was also Drea's first ride of the year. Nevertheless, their S&S coupled Supremo with DuraAce parts and a carbon fork looked intimidatingly fast. Phil and his friend Elliot also joined us from the South Bay. With memories from the past of how this ride kept kicking my ass, we opted for the easier C ride.

The ride was gorgeous, with the first blooms of spring showing up along the road. The Geysers road is a lonely lovely county road with a very few gravel sections, and the initial rolling hills would lull you into a sense of complacency with how beautiful the whole thing was. That is, until you get to the stop sign and turn right. The 3-part climb starts out with a consistent 14% grade for 1.5 miles. On a tandem, this just means getting into your lowest gear and suffering. Add to it hot afternoon sun and no breeze, and we were in a world of hurt. Fortunately, even at 2 miles per hour we eventually made it to the initial, false summit. We drank pretty much all our water, ate a bit of food, and waited for the folks who had to walk to catch up before starting the rest of the climb.

The rest of the ride was uneventful, with glorious, sweeping panoramas of the valley as we swept back down to lunch, after which Chad, Drea, Lisa and I opted for the short cut home, since we were running late, and even with the short cut would still get 58 miles and quite a bit of climbing. Unfortunately, Lisa's camera conked out at this point so we had no more pictures the rest of the weekend. I'm hoping Phil posts his.

Day 2's ride started at Healdsburg, and we rode along the vineyards before tackling Sweetwater Springs road, a gorgeous 3 stage climb that mixed sun, hills, lovely redwoods and a beautiful stream all in good measure --- and a painful 16% grade at the end that nevertheless felt easier than the Geysers because it was shorter and shaded. Chad had a trip elsewhere planned, so he and his family had to drive to San Francisco early in the morning.

Bob & Betty pulled us for the remainder of the ride, at speeds well in excess of 20mph most of the way, which made the ride quite a bit of a workout, but we had slept well the night before and so felt quite good despite desperately just hanging on to their rear wheel. What a fun weekend!
[Update: Phil's Pictures]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Clipless pedals

A lot of people buy clipless pedals and then on their first try, fall over at a stop light because they can't clip out. This is very silly, and it has never happened to me because I did something very few other people did when I bought mine: I practiced. Here's how:
  1. Find an empty parking lot that's level, and clear of cars.
  2. Straddle your bike and clip in on the right.
  3. Clip out.
  4. Repeat 2-3 until you can do it repeatably without looking down.
  5. Raise the right foot to the 2 o'clock position, and push down
  6. The bike will move, so now that your leg is straight, lift your butt up and over the seat and sit down.
  7. Pedal and push down on the left foot until your left foot clips in. Do not look down. If you're using Looks you may have to use your toe to flip the pedals up to the correct side, but with SPDs, you can just push straight down.
  8. Slow down a bit with your brakes, and unclip your left foot.
  9. As you slow down to a stop and brake, turn the handlebars slightly to the right. This will cause the bike to fall to the left and onto your outstretched left foot.
  10. Repeat 5-9 until step 7 and step 8-9 become natural and easy.
  11. Practice emergency stops. From about 10mph, brake hard and unclip and land.
  12. As you gain more confidence, start from higher speeds and try it with both left and right feet. Once you can do this from about 15mph or so you're safe for the streets, though more aggressive types will want to try it from 20mph.
I did all this about 14 years ago when I bought my first clipless pedals. The entire learning process will take about 1-2 hours in a parking lot, though body geniuses can do it in half an hour or less. It sounds involved, but as a result I've never had the experience others may have had, which is that of rolling up to a stop light or stop sign and then falling over because I forgot to get my feet out of the clips. One note about buying pedals: don't buy pedals without wrench flats. In other words, the cheap SPD M520Ls are good, but the expensive XTs are not. The lack of wrench flats make putting on and taking off pedals a major pain in the ass. Needless to say, if you're anything but a racer, buying pedals/shoes/cleats that you can't walk in is stupid.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Primitive

Primitive is billed as a thriller by Mark Nykanen. When I saw that it listed global warming as a theme, I read it (it was one of the Amazon giveaways on the kindle) just to see whether a novelist could actually get climate change right.

The plot revolves around a model who gets kidnapped by an environmental commune for her participation in various consumerist ads. The model tries to escape, and her daughter tries to find her. Most thrillers are simple-minded black-and-white, good-and-evil affairs. This one surprised me. There are no heroes.

The environmental commune commits basic mistakes (including settling on poisoned land), the authorities that's try to chase them down also commits predictable mistakes (unfortunately, no twist there). About the only sympathetic character is Sonya, the kidnapped model, who unfortunately also got a predictable consciousness raising epiphany.

On the other hand, the science isn't all made up, which surprised me. The idea of methane under the arctic ice being a driver of climate swings is well-known. The characters are believable (and believably stupid).

I hesitate to recommend this, but if you do read it, at least the science isn't terribly far off, and the characters aren't as black and white as you would expect from a thriller.

Review: Dear Undercover Economist

Dear Undercover Economist is a collection of columns of that name from the Financial Times newspaper. As you might expect, Tim Harford answers questions like an advice columnist, only from the perspective of an economist.

For instance, when a woman writes in to ask if she should propose rather than waiting for her boyfriend to do so, Harford points to a 1962 paper indicating that a world where men propose and women accept or reject is the very worst for women and the best for men. When another person writes in to ask how many different people she should date before settling down, he points to optimal experimentation theory. He similarly explains why grandparents tend to spoil grandkids (as well as providing a way to keep them from doing so).

The answers are mostly written in a flippant advice-columnist style, so reading more than 2-3 at a stretch taxed my patience. That's the main reason this book took me 5 weeks to work through. All in all, while I enjoyed the book, it's definitely not something you would read a second time. Recommended only for economics geeks.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is the inverse of all the traditional English mystery novels. Instead of being set in England or America, it's set in Botswana, in Southern Africa. Instead of having skinny spinsters or fat Frenchmen detectives, we have a fat African woman, Precious Ramotswe, who started a Detective Agency after her father died and left her a herd of cattle.

The mysteries start off being very whimsical, and we get a good feel for Ramotswe's character: her mysteries aren't resolved so much as with brilliant deductions, but rather with a direct approach and smart questioning of subjects. It's quite obvious that this is not a set of mysteries intended to challenge your deductive skills, but a series of character and situation sketches.

We do learn quite a bit about Ramotswe's background before the novel proceeds onto more serious topics. The plot unrolls like a TV series: each episode has a main mystery, while another sub-mystery unfolds in the background, as well as a very unsubtle romance. By the end of the novel, everything's been unraveled, with the ending tied up very neatly, but we don't get the feeling that Ramotswe's done any introspection whatsoever --- none of the feeling of change or bleakness of characters found in Sue Grafton or Raymond Chandler is in evidence here.

At $2.00 for the Kindle edition of the book it was quite a bargain, but I don't think I'd pay full price for this. It will, however, make a fine airplane novel.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hacker News Dinner

Xianhang Zhang, founder of Bumblebee Labs placed a notice on Hacker News a few weeks ago asking if there was anyone interested in having him visit their house and cooking dinner for them. I was intrigued, and signed up. Another couple of Yahoo employees were interested as well, and since we all lived in Sunnyvale, agreed to batch up our meetings. Of course, a Googler's home is unlikely to have to be better equipped for cooking than almost anybody else's home (it makes sense if you think about it!), so we ended up choosing Jaisen's home for the event.

Lisa and I walked into a kitchen that was already in full swing. What amazed me was that XianHang had already done everything since he got off the train at 5:30pm, including shopping, prep, etc. He drafted us into service to shell pistachos, form the lamb sticks (which I did very badly), and various other duties, but it was quite clear that XianHang was in charge and knew what he was doing. You can look at Jaisen's pictures to see what was involved. Lisa and I clearly didn't have what it would have taken to host this dinner.

After dinner, XianHang gave us his pitch about social interaction design. He had a very important insight, which is that most companies and social software is built as a tool, whereas in reality, what social software should do is to be built as a space (as in a building, meeting room). This is a very important distinction. For instance, he pointed out that mailing list software seems almost designed to facilitate flame wars and endless discussions over minutiae, rather than useful discussion, and you don't have to be a social software expert to realize that. In any case, it's a great presentation and I think anyone involved in social software should consider hiring XianHang for his insights. The unfortunate thing about the internet is that most software platforms are designed by engineers for engineers as a demonstration of technology and tools (my own TinyMuck 2.0 was just one such example amongst many), rather than as a space for useful interaction.

Any way, the dinner was very much time well spent. Afterwards, I gave Xianhang a copy of my book for his long train ride home. I'm glad he seemed to have liked it!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pigeon Point 2010 Edition

Pigeon Point 2010

This year's Tour of the German Speaking Alps qualifier turned into a much larger group gathering with 13 people participating, including a sag wagon!

The day before the tour, it rained horribly and temperatures dropped to a low of 36 degrees. The morning of the ride, it was cold, but it was clear and beautiful. Mike Samuel, Lea Kissner, Kekoa Proudfoot, Phil Sung, Cynthia Wong, Scotty Allen, Katelyn Mann, Heather Whitney, Chris, Kyle Stickle, and Li Moore all showed up to ride. In addition, Catherine Rondeau and Tiffany Lau showed up with a SAG wagon to carry the gear. This being a qualifier, Cynthia and Kekoa had to do without the SAG and ride it with gear. Lisa and I put panniers on and carried our gear as well out of sympathy.

The route took us up Montebello, which can be a bear when it's hot, but this year was pleasantly cool, which meant we could work as hard as we like and sweat only a little bit. Li elected to do the bonus climb up to Peacock Court, and did it so quickly that he had enough time to catch us before the regroup at the Montebello school. Once we got up to the end of the pavement, the fire road turned out to be well-packed due to the recent rains, making it ideal for riding: our retire tire only spun out once and I had never had such an easy time on the fire road.

On the Black Mountain summit we had a glorious panorama of the area: it was so clear that we could see all the way to San Francisco, a first for the year! Descending the fire road we saw lots of deer, and got to Page Mill Road with no incident.

Coming down West Alpine, we spotted over the local mountains Big Sur looming behind it. That makes for about 120 miles of visibility. The redwoods were cool, but not as cold as I feared, though Lisa's toes went numb. The stream down West Alpine road was as broad as I had ever seen it, and together with the Redwoods in the area was a sight to behold.

Climbing Haskins Hill was nice and cool, and the descent down the other side was as smooth and pretty as always. Pescadero Creek looked like a miniature version of the Russian River, swollen with recent rains, and brown with sediment. We rode into Pescadero and made a turn onto North road to visit the baby goats newly born at the farm. Lunch immediately followed at the Pescadero grocery, where 3 loafs of the artichoke garlic bread was quickly consumed in short order. Catherine and Tiffany showed up to help cart the partially baked bread we bought for the hostel, and reported that the hostel staff was cranky that so many of us were showing up as a group.

Li had hurt his knee and so opted to ride to the hostel in the SAG with Catherine while the rest of us went back over to Cloverdale road and went down it to Gazos Creek road. On Gazos Creek road, I had front flat, but Scotty and Katelyn kept us company while I fixed it.

Upon reaching Highway 1, we faced a painful headwind but fortunately it was only 2 miles to the hostel. Once we were checked in and hot tub spots were reserved, we commenced eating. This was the first time we had ever had this much food at the hostel, and as far as I could tell, the eating started at 5pm and did not stop until 9pm. The hot tub was as good as ever, with the cold wind outside serving as a lovely contrast for the warmth of the tub.

The next morning, I woke up a full hour later than I had wanted to. This meant that with all the cooking and eating (yes, more eating, though for the first time I did a pigeon point trip without waking up the second morning hungry), and then we made our way up the coast towards Bean Hollow Road. I cheated by leaving my CPAP machine with the car, saving us 1.5 pounds (or the weight of a full water bottle). Kyle wanted to try China grade, so opted to ride South. Heather and Chris wanted to do more mileage, so chose to ride North to Half-Moon Bay. Li's knee still wasn't any better, so he opted to ride the SAG. That left only 9 riders riding to Pescadero from Pigeon Point. The descent from Bean Hollow Road into Pescadero Road was glorious, causing Scotty to say, "Piaw knows all the pretty little roads."

Stage road was pretty as well, and we got to it after a quick stop in San Gregorio where we ran into Western Wheelers Bob & Betty on a tandem. Tunitas Creek was amazingly beautiful as well, with little waterfalls flowing at a high, and the Redwoods providing ample shade for our climb. Once at the top, we quickly decided that the fastest route home was appreciated, so I jettisoned original plans to add more climbing to the ride and we headed home on Sand Hill Road and Foothill Expressway, getting home around 3:00pm with 99 miles on the odometer.

Congratulations to Phil for finishing his first ride to the coast and back, and special thanks to Catherine and Tiffany for the amazing SAG service. What an amazing ride.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Compensation is hard, let's go shopping!

Whenever you hear about a spate of acquisitions by big companies of innovative small companies, there's always a temptation to point fingers and laugh at how the behemoth can't innovate any more. Of course, that's a myth, as How the Mighty Fall shows: most big companies are quite innovative (especially in capital intensive industries), and failures of large successful firms aren't usually caused by too little innovation. The problem usually has to do with incentives.

With the cost of starting a startup decreasing by the year, it is far easier for entrepreneurial employees to leave big companies and start their own thing than to push through the bureaucracy at a large company to launch their product. Part of it is because large companies have a lot to protect (compare YouTube's early days with Google video's early days, and you'll see that the innovation differences had very little to do with technology), and the other part is that a large company like Microsoft cannot launch a product without it having to scale immediately, while a small unknown startup has the luxury of making mistakes and trying several ideas out in order to find one that gains traction.

But what about incentives? Leaving aside the fact that it's very difficult to use compensation to reward creative problem solving, it turns out that it's very difficult to reward entrepreneurial activity in a large firm. You might think that you could for instance, offer an entrepreneur a higher risk/reward ratio by asking him (and possibly his team as well) to risk a portion of the salary in order to potentially receive startup-like rewards. Now, you can't offer everyone this, or you'll discover that everyone who's part of your existing fast growing revenue engine will take the deal and get out-sized rewards without actually taking any risks. The problem lies in that any project/employee who has strong enough connections to get this offer, by their very nature also has the political capital to negotiate their own goals and metrics by which they can get that out-sized rewards. This leads to extremely negative incentives, like launching a product while knowing you can't possibly scale to meet demand, or launching a product missing a critical feature that would have been needed to drive adoption in order to meet an artificial, pre-negotiated deadline. In fact, this problem is so endemic that even for external-acquisitions, earn-outs are being abandoned because of the costs and undesirable side-effects associated with them.

Ok, pre-negotiated goals don't work. How about post-facto awards? Since those aren't expected, you won't have negative incentives, and people would stay on if they believe in their projects, right? It turns out that people are actually pretty good at figuring out that a project is successful or going to be successful. Someone I know was on a project that obviously had great trajectory, and he was amazingly unhappy about large groups of senior engineers and managers suddenly descending on his (previously under-the-radar) project trying to take credit for a piece of it in order to get an out-sized award. The resulting feeding frenzy isn't good for morale, and obviously leads to entrepreneurs thinking that starting their own companies just isn't that bad an idea after all. Worse, after you hand out that out-sized awards, everybody now has an incentive to leave that project in order to find the next big thing so they can repeat the process. Of course, not rewarding such successful projects doesn't work either, since you then risk losing valuable employees to other companies.

If you ask me, there's no real easy solution to any of these problems. You'd have to have an amazing top-level manager, who is so aware of everything that happens at every level of the company to be able to avoid all of the pitfalls I detailed above, which doesn't even scratch the surface of the fundamental problems in compensation. This is one reason why when faced with these issues, many top-level executives just throw up their hands and say, "Compensation is hard, let's go shopping for acquisitions instead!"

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why the rush to get big?

I really have to wonder. What was going on in the Board of Directors when Microsoft decided to become a 60,000 person company? Were they thinking, "We are doing so well now at 30,000 people. If we were bigger, we would be even better!" Because from where I'm sitting, the bigger companies get, past a certain point (that point can be very different for different companies --- Google when it was at 1500 people was more agile than many 200 person companies), the more they suck. Now, if you take a survey of all the managers in a given company, very few of them would say, "I'm over-staffed. Take some of my folks away, please." That's because generally, the more people a manager manages, the better his chances of promotion, since he's seen as having more responsibility. So no one ever says, "I've got enough people."

This might make sense in the industrial setting, where more people means more widgets you can build. But we build software. More people usually makes a late project later. More people adds to confusion, and leads to more communications overhead. Even if you add more people and had them work on different projects, unless they're all in completely different spaces to the point where they might as well be different companies (in which case, maybe they should be!), you still have the overhead of coordinating strategy and making sure that the products fit together. So why the hurry to get big? What goes on in the head of the executives and board members' heads that lead them to think that you can double or triple the growth in headcount without dire consequences down the road? Is it always just foolish optimism? Or is it that when you're at that 30,000' level running the business, all you see are opportunities everywhere that you could get to, if only you had another 500 people here and 500 people there?

Or maybe, just maybe, there's the thought that you could lock up all the smart talent in one company and then all your competitors would suffer?

I don't know. All I can say is, the thrill of fast growth is fun, but you really pay for the consequences a few years down the road, and as far as I can tell, it just isn't worth it. Far better to grow at a pace where new people can be assimilated thoroughly, and new people always have enough old-timers around to show them what's going on. I think the ideal growth rate is somewhere between 20-50% a year, not doubling every year that many fast-growth advocates are so fond of.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Review: Manifold Time

Manifold Time is Stephen Baxter's novel about The Carter Catastrophe.

Baxter starts the story off about commercial space flight, getting you to think that it's a classic "entrepreneur-in-space" novel. The commercial space-flight section of the book (mostly about mining asteroids) is kinda hokey, since I don't see the point of sending water-based creatures into space. The amount of additional ballast required would be really prohibitive.

The Carter Catastrophe piece is not really all that convincing, either. Then Baxter brings in time-travel, casual time-like loops, and a mysterious new race of super-smart human children called the Blues. No reason is given for the rise of the Blues, and the human reaction to these seems highly suspect.

Everything escalates to a climax and then we get a let down at the end, when we see the fate of humanity in a surprising conclusion that's not very satisfying.

As is usual with Baxter novels, the characters are wooden. The female protagonist is even called Emma Stoney, and she's definitely appears to move through life as though she's stoned, hanging on after the male protagonist even after a divorce. You could see the puppet strings behind the characters.

Ultimately, I don't know why I even bothered to finish the book. I guess the plot felt a lot like an scab I can't resist picking at. It did take me more than a month though! Not recommended. (Disclosure: I picked this up during one of the many Kindle giveaways)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Checking Your Accountant's Work

Someone recently at work wrote the following in favor of getting someone else to do your taxes:
Has anybody talked about time spent and stress yet? I'm in and out between 1 and 2 hours, sip some coffee while sitting on a leather chair, and I'm out to have lunch right after.
Well, because of my Munich trip 2 years ago, I still have lingering after-effects due to tax-equalization, foreign tax credits, and what not. Therefore, my employer paid a tax-accountant to do my taxes. Unfortunately, with such a complicated tax return, the number of ways for errors to creep in multiply, not just from the accountant doing things wrong, but also from your very own communications to him as well. This makes it imperative that even if someone else does your taxes for you, you still have to check the numbers yourself. Here's how:
  1. Check all the sources. That means that for every 1099-INT/DIV/B, those numbers need to show up in your tax forms. If they don't or they've been aggregated, you need to do the aggregation yourself to make sure that everything lines up. The same goes for W-2, etc.
  2. Look for obvious missing items: If you usually have to file a Form 2210 but don't have to this time, make sure you find out why.
  3. Schedule E (if you have one) needs to be triple-checked, as it's very hard for someone else to guess what expenses of a business are deductible, and what are not. You really can't just dump the receipts onto someone else and have them guess.
  4. If you have incoming tax credits (such as first time home buyer's, energy efficiency improvements, etc), make sure those line items exist in the tax forms as well.
  5. If you have foreign tax credits and they are large, make sure that all the forms exist (you need one for each form of foreign tax credit, and one for each tax system, so that's 4 Form 1116).
  6. Run Turbo Tax and verify your own numbers for income tax purposes and make sure that your accountant isn't very far off. If he is far off, make sure you get an explanation in writing.
Does this all seem like so much work that you might as well do your own taxes? Yes. Even though you paid someone else to do it, you are still liable for paying the taxes, and ensuring that nothing gets lost. You're the one stuck dealing with the IRS if your accountant gets too aggressive. Unfortunately, by paying for someone else to do it, you can't just make the changes to the tax form, you'll have to get your accountant to understand why his numbers are wrong, and get him to fix it.

Over the years, if I've learned anything about finances it's this: You cannot outsource or abdicate responsibility for your finances. No one else will know or even care as much about our financial situation as you do, and if you think otherwise, you'll end up learning that lesson expensively.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Paperback edition of "An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups" now available!

It took over a week for CreateSpace to deliver, but the books are now here and ready to ship. You can now place orders at the book's web-site. Pre-orders will ship on Monday (Post Office doesn't open on Sundays).

Before the books arrived, I had nightmares about how I'd screwed up in the final order process and ended up with 100 books with nothing but blank pages. But now that the books are here and are as specified I feel relieved. I'm also glad that I kept my initial order size small, as 100 copies of a relatively thin book still takes up a sizable amount of my tiny home office. I have no idea how John Reed copes with 1500 copy runs. Then again, if I sold enough books I'm sure I could find a way to store books vertically rather than just having boxes lying around on the floor.

It does amuse me that the envelopes and the books all came in same-size boxes. Of course, lifting the book box is back breaking work!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Game for Old-Timers

When I was in college, I spent way too much time at the Workstations in Evans Basement playing Net-Trek. Well, if you're feeling nostalgic, here's Altitude, a Net-Trek clone with wacky 2-D physics and a choice of planes, brought up to date with modern graphics. Cute, addictive, and a lot of fun. Give it a shot! Each session is short (5-10 mins), but you'll keep playing just one more session. Recommended.