Monday, August 31, 2009

Furano to Tokachidake Hot Springs


Waking up early once again gave me a chance to walk around in the forest around our hotel/onsen, and then take in the onsen again. The Highlander Onsen was unique in that overnight, it would swap the male and female baths, which meant that the morning bath would be a different bath than the evening one.

Since the day was going to be a short one, we decided we would visit the cheese factory to see what they have. We arrived too late for the cheese-making class (which took 2 hours and started promptly at 9:00am), but enrolled for an ice-cream making session. It was my first time making ice cream, and all the utensils in use were very cute (tiny bottles of milk, for instance), and we got to even make the waffle cone as well as eat the ice-cream.


After that delicious morning, we headed back to town where we had to find a drug store for Yana's contact solution. After that, we prepared for the afternoon ride by eating at the cheese Ramen place in town, and then stuffing ourself with pastries at the local pastry shop.

Mark wanted to visit the Rokugo highlands, which looked real close on his tourist map, but didn't look very close at all either on my GPS map or the touring Mapple. Nevertheless, we had ample time, and arriving late was not an issue since we had reservations. I plotted a course in the GPS and soon we were on another gently rising road. Rokugo was featured in a well-known Japanese TV series, but since we neither saw it or read about it, all we saw were signs in Japanese pointing at interesting set locations during our ride.

Once past Rokugo proper, at about 400m, we started seeing beautiful views which needed no knowledge of Japanese to appreciate.
From Hokkaido
I recognized a signboard from Mark's tourist map and pulled into the publicly available spring, where car drivers filled bottle after bottle of what was billed as the best tasting spring water in the region, complete with regular testing to prove it.
From Hokkaido
We then descended a fast but straight road back to the North end of Furano, where after a short flat section we started climbing to Tokachidake Hot Springs under cloudy skies.

Like most gentle Japanese climbs, Takachidake's grade changes subtly, until at 700m or so, I found myself in my granny gear for the first time on this trip. At the intersection with 966, I dug out the brochure to show to the Inn at the corner, and the receptionist's desk pointed me up the hill, past the 13-14% grade sign. I was familiar with similar grades from years of touring, but this was everybody else's first tours, so there was no shortage of declaration as to the steepness of the climbs by the time we arrived at the Onsen at 5pm.

Any complaints faded away, however, when we saw the outdoor onsen which looked down from 1100m into the Furano-Biei valley. Lit up by evening light, it was a sight to behold, sitting in a lovely and well-constructed Japanese bath which we practically had all to ourselves.
From Hokkaido
From Hokkaido


Dinner was a self-administered BBQ, with lots of toppings and additional food.
From Hokkaido

69.1km, 1272m climbed

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Yubari Forest Youth Hostel to Furano Highlander Onsen


We woke up again at 5am, still slightly jet-lagged. I walked around while Mark went riding, looking for a place to shoot the valley with fog rising from the bottom.

Breakfast was at 7:30am, and the food was again wonderful, but light. Seeking to get the 100km day over, we left at 8:30 to ride up 452. 452 was billed as the loneliest highway in Hokkaido, since apparently you could ride it from one end to the other without finding any food and water. We expected a fairly rural ride, but at the intersection saw a super market and a half dozen camping cycling tourists in front of it enjoying breakfast. Whhat I did not realize at the time was that the summer vacation season was winding down, and this would be last of the camping cyclists we would see for quite some time.

Past the supermarket, 452 lived up to its reputation, offering us rural but not lonely riding, first along Yubari river, which led to a dammed lake, and then a series of rolling hills punctuated by an occasional tunnel.
From Hokkaido
Near the second lake, we stopped for a snack and were captivated when a fox came out of the hills to beg us for food. It was so tame and fearless of people that Mark was able to get several shots of it almost eating directly out of his hand!
From Hokkaido


At the intersection with 116, traffic started getting heavier, with cars and tour buses coming past us at regular intervals. Yet Japanese drivers were so polite that it was never uncomfortable --- most drivers would use the oncoming lane to overtake, and buses would do likewise. When it was unsafe to do so, they would wait patiently for an opportunity without honking or otherwise behaving aggressively. Japan indeed lived up to my expectation as a mountainous country with polite drivers. After a series of tunnels, the road took a big dip and dropped us onto rest stop with a 3-sectioned water-fall. We took that opportunity to take a rest break and eat the rest of our food.
From Hokkaido
Not long after that, we hit highway 135 and turned off, beginning a brisk descent into Furano. Once in Furano, we found the visitor center, where the helpful receptionist provided a list of onsen in the area to choose from. We picked a cheap one but that required backtracking. Thinking ahead, we also booked an onsen at the Tokachi-Dake area, not the most expensive one, but one just below that.

Highlander onsen wasn't all that high, around 200m or so, but it had both indoor and outdoor onsen looking towards the mountains we would be riding the next day. Dinner was typically Japanese, accompanied by a glorious Alpenglow over the hills around us.
103km, 886m of climb.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sapporo to Yubari


We woke up to cloudy skies but dry roads, so after breakfast, we made ready and set out for Yubari.

In conversation with the hostel manager the night before, I had been told that 274 would be a decent route once we managed to get out of the city. To get there, I chose to pick up the bike path from the river at the center of town and then ride it until I got to route 12. Once on route 12, we stopped at a 7-11 for the ATM and some snacks. (Yes, 7-11 is one of the few places guaranteed to have an ATM that can access foreign bank accounts!) We then found the entrance onto 274, but I somehow got turned around and ended up on 274 North instead of 274 South. Of course, I didn't realize it immediately, so we spent the next half hour or so riding as though I knew what I was doing.

Riding on the sidewalk is expected of cyclists in Japanese cities, and really there were many places where the main road was moving extremely fast, and the sidewalk was the only place where we had a prayer of being able to read the signs at leisure. At one point, we saw a woman walking her dog on the sidewalk ahead of us. As we rode up to her, she saw that she was in our way, and then pulled her dog over and then bowed down and apologized to us repeatedly for being in her way!
From Hokkaido

Finally, we rode up to a river that looked familiar, and I realized my mistake. Not wanting to backtrack, we decided that we would try to recover by riding through Oasa. Once onto the side streets it was a relief, as the road took us over tiny bridges and little streams.

In Oasa proper, we stopped at a supermarket to use the rest room, and I spotted a bike shop and walked over with the map, hoping to get some knowledge. There was a road that looked like it went right through the park, and we decided it looked like a very pleasant alternative to all the roads around the park. The shop owner pointed me at the direction of the park, but then said that it was only suitable for mountain bikes. Of course, I've learned over the years to take such declarations with a large sack of salt, so we proceeded to ride to the park and check out their nature center and trail map.

The trail itself was wide with soft soil backed with a little gravel, which was very ridable unless it got very muddy. The sign in front of the trail said (to my Chinese eyes) that typical cars were not allowed. Well, none of us had typical cars (or bicycles), so away we went! As trails go, it wasn't technically challenging, but there were enough mosquitoes and other bugs that kept me moving at a good clip. It was also quite nicely shaded, a respite from the day which had warmed up quite a bit.

Midway through the ride, however, we found the reason for the closure --- the trail was blocked by a fallen tree, so once again portage was required. "You're 2 for 2 now --- every day on this tour we've had to carry our bikes over obstacles!" declared Mark.

By and by, we got to the end of the trail, which even Yana enjoyed. Tired of riding in busy traffic, we opted out of 274 in favor of the country road designated as 1080.

By this time, it was almost 1pm, and after a few kilometers, Yana spotted some cars turning right into a driveway. We followed, and sure enough, that turn off led to a restaurant placed right next to a produce store which served ice-cream. Lunch was an interesting hybrid of Japanese and Western food, all eaten with chopsticks.
We followed that up with ice-cream from next door, only to find that the restaurant closed while we were having ice-cream. Japanese lunch places close at 2pm, so if we had pressed on we would have missed lunch altogether.

We turned off onto 337 towards Naganuma, where a buddhist temple caught our attention and we took a quick visit, interrupted only by Brooks losing the cleat covers for his Speedplay cleats and then finding it again. Once onto highway 3, the flat farmlands gave way to gentle hills as we crossed Yubari river. Characteristic of what we would discover about Japanese roads, the climbs were gradual, even subtle, until we hit a brightly lit tunnel, after which we found ourselves at a quiet ski-resort with a convenience store, where we stocked up for tomorrow's ride.

The descent into Yubari was similarly gentle. At the intersection with 452, we made a left into town and then zig-zagged our way into the hills where Yubari Forest Youth Hostel was indicated on the map. Not seeing any signs to the hostel after a good bit of riding, I stopped at a house where a woman was gardening outside and asked her where it was. She ran to find a man who explained (also in Japanese) that it was right around the corner. Sure enough, we had stopped to ask about it not more than 400m away from the entrance to the hostel.

Yubari Forest Youth Hostel looks much more like a country lodge than a youth hostel --- there were 2 log buildings, and the bathroom (as separated from the shower room) had a bath big enough for 2. It amazed me how much they fit into such a small house. The surroundings were all farmland, looking very rural, though the driveways were carefully manicured if you took the time to notice, with trees giving way to flowers that lined the roadside. I was impressed.

If the physical facilities impressed me, however, the food blew us away! We each got a piece of fish on a plate, and then a separately baked fish wrapped in aluminum foil, with salad carefully arranged and presented. One bite into the fish and I was sold --- flavors subtly seeped into my mouth as the fish yielded up juices. I couldn't believe that I was in a country where gourmet cooking was served in its youth hostels. After dinner, the hostess served us tea and then asked if we were alright with Japanese food the next morning? We said, "Sure!" "How about Natto?" she asked. "A little difficult," came my reply. I didn't like Natto any more than any of the others.

The hostel also had a laundry machine and dryer, which we took advantage of, discovering that the washer worked really well, but not the dryer.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sapporo

From Hokkaido

I woke up to a light drizzle, and stepped out to find that Mark and Yana had gone out for a morning ride to explore the city and take pictures. At breakfast, Brooks, Mark, and Yana, brimming with enthusiasm, declared this weather ride-able. Well, the hotel served breakfast with Natto, so I took the opportunity to teach them how to eat Nori on rice as well as cajoling everyone into a taste of Natto. The look on their faces said it all.

It was a little blustery, and since we had a full day, we bought a day-use pass for the subway (which with its easy to use menu, and English options, was a far cry than my first attempt to negotiate the Munich transit system). We couldn't agree on where to go, however, so Brooks and I ended up exploring the fish market while Mark and Yana went to the Botanical gardens. The sushi was really excellent for the price, and well worth the trip.
From Hokkaido

Brooks wanted to buy some Japanese pens, and I discovered I had forgotten lubricant for my CPAP machine, which led me to a drugstore where I discovered that Google translate did a good job in helping me tell the pharmacist what I wanted.
From Hokkaido


Brooks and I walked around town some more, and then relaxed a bit at the hostel before visiting the Beer Museum for Jingus Kan (Genghis Kahn), the well-known lamb BBQ dish that's a Hokkaido specialty.
From Hokkaido

The museum's style was very cute, full of tiny diaoramas of various parts of beer making, and posters of Sapporo Beer ads all through the decades.
From Hokkaido

Dinner was Ramen for Brooks & I, while Yana and Mark, intrigued by Jingus Kan, went back to the beer garden for it. We regrouped after our respective dinners at the McDonald's for ice cream, and took a final walk through Pole-Town, the Sapporo underground shopping center, before returning to the Youth Hostel to make a phone call for reservations at the next day's accomodations. We then turned in for the night.

Chitose to Sapporo



Between jet-lag and the time it took to put together our bikes, it wasn't until about 11:00am that we had checked out of our hotel and taken the lift down to the surface street. It was drizzling, so I put on my rain cape and everyone else put on their rain gear.

We left the airport in the drizzle, riding across 4 lanes of traffic to get to the exit lane leaving the airport and marked for Sapporo. Within about 10 minutes, the heavy traffic convinced me to ride on the sidewalk that was marked as a bike path, especially since the road went almost immediately under a long tunnel. Fortunately, the rain was relatively warm, so I did not regret leaving my Skoody behind.

As I rode over an overhead bridge, I spotted the Sapporo highway (Number 36) below me. That convinced me to turn everyone around and ride towards the highway on the surface bike path which from the bridge looked like it led directly to Highway 36 rather than the bridge. A couple of false starts later, that bike path dead-ended right into a wire fence. Since it wasn't very tall, I proposed that we lifted our bikes over and climb over the fence:

"We're not even 20 minutes into the tour yet! The airport's still in sight and Piaw's already found something to climb over. We better document this!"

Brooks had his speedplay shoes, which were decidedly unsuitable for such adventure, and decided to take the long way around, meeting us on the other side of the fence. This gave us time to get all three of us over, and for Mark to adjust his brakes and for me to doff my rain cape (since it really was pretty warm) while waiting for him. (The detour around the fence turned out to be incredibly long, as I would discover later)

Riding towards Sapporo, we rode past a Nissin Ramen factory and a Sapporo beer factory before the the traffic got annoying enough to force us to ride on the side walk here and there. I pulled into a mall that had a sports shop, and for 1000 yen, bought an LED light that happened to fit onto my light mount in substitute for my Joystick Maxx which I had left in the charger hanging in my garage. I would discover later that the light was inadequate for any purpose except for being a placebo.

As the rain got heavier, I started getting hungry --- all I had was a Nutrition Bar this morning, and it was inadequate. At the next road side cafe, I looked at the picture menu --- it looked really great, so we went in. It was good to get out of the rain, and I ordered the biggest dish they had and was surprised to find that it came with both noodles and Katsu:
From Hokkaido

I ate quickly and with relish---everyone had told me how expensive Japan was, but this meal blew me away, not only with how tasty and yummy it was (the flavors were extremely delicate, while still being very rich), it was less than $9!

City riding in Sapporo was boring. Not only was the road busy, the rain kept coming on, though never very heavily. Once in Sapporo proper, I saw a sign for a youth hostel. Following it took us to the Sapporo International Youth Hostel, where not only did the staff spoke English, they put us in 2 Japanese style rooms since they weren't busy (they would usually put 4 people in one room).

We took Japanese style baths in the hostel's huge bath --- a Japanese bath is shared --- you take your shower and scrub outside the bath, and only get into the bath to relax, as in a hot tub. Then we went out in search of dinner, though first stopping at the 100 yen store to pick up that most essential of touring gear, the nail clipper. We also got side tracked by Nakajima park right as we crossed the bridge over into Sapporo downtown.

I'm told that Sapporo at night is a pale reflection of nightlife at a major Japanese city, but I definitely suffered a major case of sensory overload by the bright lights, crowds, and smells. In addition, since election day was just a couple of days away, vans with loudspeakers cruised the streets, providing a cacophony of competing political advertising.
From Hokkaido


We never did find Ramen Alley, but we found the new Ramen Alley, and after a bit of browsing, settled at one and had a delicious meal. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by a convenience store to try out some Japanese snacks, including chocolate crusted potato chips.

Brooks had brought his netbook, and took advantage of the free Wifi at the hostel to read e-mail. We didn't know it at the time, but it was the last time we would see internet access on the trip that wasn't tied to my rental phone.

Tatami mats and bedrolls are comfortable if you like sleeping on hard surfaces. Even though our ride wasn't too substantial (45.2km, 121m of climb), we slept early and well.

First day in Hokkaido


20 minutes out from the airport, I find a dead-end, and we end up climbing over the fence to get to the road we actually wanted to ride on. That means we actually are having an adventure!

It was kind of rainy, though, and tomorrow's going to be really bad, so we'll be in Sapporo for 2 nights to wait out the rain and do our touristy things, before heading towards Yubari and Furano.

The food is amazing. I knew I liked Japanese food, but the quality and price has blown me away (yes, cheap!). If you want good food cheap, forget France. Tour Japan!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Prologue

The flight from San Francisco to Narita was the easiest flight with a bicycle I had for years. Not only was I charged only $25 for my bike box being over the 23kg limit, Mark and Yana's cardboard boxes were so unscratched that I could only attribute that to ANA's careful handling. Upon arrival, we had to pick up all our luggage and check it in onto the domestic airline. Since there was no X-ray machine big enough to inspect the bike boxes, we had to open up the boxes at the airport for inspection --- yet ANA's representatives (all beautiful Japanese women) were so polite and apologetic that we did not mind.

The second check in took quite some time, but we had plenty of time to go pick up our free rental phones, and then head out to the sun to try to get enough light to reset our body clocks:
From Hokkaido


Japanese domestic security was a breeze, and once inside we got access to some surprisingly good airport food (though rather ungenerous in portions --- I had to order 2 meals to feel decently full), and met a bunch of mathematicians who were going to Sapporo for a conference.

Arriving in Chitose at 8:10pm, we were glad that we had opted to stay at Chitose airport's Hotel Com. Not only did it save a 45 minute ride to the Sapporo while wrestling bike boxes (not to mention searching for our hotel), the staff spoke English, and was happy to store our bike boxes and other luggage while we were away on tour.

I looked at the weather forecast for the next couple of days, and saw that it called for rain, with a 50% chance of thunderstorm on the 28th. I thus made the executive decision to scrap our original plans and spend a day exploring Sapporo instead, shifting the city exploration to the start of the trip rather than to the end.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why all the moaning about Kindle DRM is a crock

Much like the inane obsession over security, I consider the endless moaning over Kindle DRM to be a crock.

In June, my Kindle broke. Since I already had 6 Kindles locked to my account, this was the DRM-fear-mongering person's nightmare. All my old books which I had bought had become unusable. I wasn't using the Kindle much at that time (when I'm at home, I rely on the library, rather than spending money on books), so I wasn't motivated to even call Amazon about it.

Now, on the eve of my Japan trip, I finally was motivated enough to call Amazon's customer support. I explained my problem, and in 3 minutes, Amazon's customer service rep released all my licenses and I could download all my books again. Now I have to leave the Kindle plugged into the wall charger while it re-indexes the universe.

Seriously, I don't understand the hyper-ventilating over DRM. If Amazon goes out of business or de-supports the business (very unlikely --- I expect Google to give up on books first), the DRM is so insecure that it's probably crackable. If not, I'm happy to keep giving them money for such a useful device.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pre-Japan Shakedown Cruise


I normally manage to ride my bike in touring configuration for 2 weeks before a tour, but between the house move, my touring wheel being out on loan, and random other things, I just didn't get it together until today. Since I now have to carry a CPAP machine, I can no longer rely on the Nelson Longflap I've had over the years, and ended up with a Camper Longflap, which is a huge bag!

Yana and Mark joined me on their unloaded bikes, and we proceeded to take local roads to Piece. On Pierce, I felt the rear wheel rubbing, and at a local crest discovered that my rear tire was getting ready to blow. I quickly deflated the tire, reseated it, and then pumped it up again. At the top of Skyline, Mark observed that my rear wheel was out of true. I checked it out, and indeed, it looked pretty bad, but not enough to justify abandoning the ride --- we intended to drop by the Cupertino Bike Shop on the way home anyway!

The day was really warm, and by the time we got to Los Gatos, it was 1:15pm. We ate Pizza at the local place, then rode up to Cupertino, where one block before the shop, Yana snapped her deraileur cable! Luckily, we were right at the bike shop, so I borrowed the truing stand from the shop, and proceeded to tension up the wheel, adding a full turn on the right and a half turn on the left side. The only reason I stopped was because the nipples started binding --- I'd have to wipe dirt off, add oil, and then try to turn the nipples. Ah well. Nothing lasts forever, I guess. I think it'll survive the Japan tour.

Mark replaced Yana's brake cable, I bought some spare spokes, and we both bought rim tape, and now we're all ready for the tour!
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Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: Squeezebox Duet

Short summary: DO NOT BUY. STAY AWAY

When I first bought a nice stereo system, someone recommended that I try a Squeezebox. I didn't bother because in the apartment, my computer was so close to the stereo I could just plug it in, so why bother.

Well, now I have a house, and the office with the equipment closet (NAS, wireless router, cable modem, and the EEE PC running Skype) is far away from the living room, so something like the Squeezebox makes sense. I ordered one and got it on Thursday, hoping that if it worked out, Lisa wouldn't have to deal with CDs while I was in Japan.

The box contains 3 items: a charging cradle for the controller, the receiver, and the controller. The first sign that the product was sub-par in quality was that the cradle was too big for the controller. What this meant was that when you put the controller in the cradle, the controller wouldn't charge! I had to resort to tearing up little pieces of paper and wedging them into the cradle so that the controller would have a good contact with the cradle's charging posts. This felt very silly, since if Logitech couldn't get their manufacturing act together, they should have used a simple, mini-USB port on the thing, skip the cradle, and everyone would be happier.

OK, then I had to install the SqueezeCenter software on either the EEE PC or my NAS. I installed it on both just to see which one would give me a good experience. Both installations went very smoothly --- products that rely on servers are usually nightmares, but this phase of the install went really well and I started looking forward to it.

I then connected the controller (which runs over WiFi, not infra-red) to my WPA network, started playing music, and all was well. Well, all was well for about 15 minutes. I showed the controller to Lisa and she loved it. Then midway through one of the songs on our playlist, the controller said, "Music stopped." That's it. An attempt to play got us nothing. The SqueezeCenter also would do the same thing. I rebooted the controller, and it got stuck at "connecting to Music source". I let it sit overnight, and woke up the next day to find all was well again.

For all of 15 minutes, then the controller started dropping out of WiFi. This time, though, controlling the receiver from the SqueezeCenter software worked. But the whole point of the deal was to be able to run music from the controller! My guess is that Logitech cheaped out on the Wifi Antenna for the controller (which is insane, given the price, but companies have been known to do insane things). I did a quick web-search and discovered that indeed, this was a common problem, and not isolated to just my house (which has great WiFi coverage everywhere, as you might expect --- it's just not that big!).

Well, at that point, I quickly packed everything backed into the box, printed an Amazon return label, and shipped it back. Logitech made way too many poor decisions in this product.

The standard system for this kind of stuff, according to people who would know, is Sonos. But at $1000 for a basic system, that's insane! I could buy another EEE PC, have it connect to the Firefly server, and dedicate to playing music, and still have enough money to buy a round trip ticket to Zurich for that! (Sure, the EEE PC won't have a remote, but I think I can write code to allow anyone to control the EEE PC from another PC)

I think my next step (to be done after I get back from Japan) is to try the Roku Soundbridge. It won't have as nice a remote controller, but it also won't break the bank either. If anyone has experience with this, let me know.

Review: Wireless

Wireless is a short story collection by Charles Stross. I had missed many of his earlier short stories so when it came out I immediately bought it.

The first story, Missile Gap made me think I had made a mistake --- it's about all of humanity being transplanted to a flat earth. There wasn't much resolution, and I didn't get any sense of the story going anywhere. I then discovered that I had read two of his previous stories, Rogue Farm and Down on the Farm. Despite their names they're not related. Down on the Farm is a lot of fun, but only if you've already read one of his earlier laundry novels, such as The Atrocity Archives.

Unwirer was written with Cory Doctorow. I've learned that I don't like Doctorow's work, so it wasn't surprising that I didn't like this one, either. Trunk and Disorderly was very reminiscent of Saturn's Children. It's a lot of fun, so I picked up at that point.

The kicker, however, was Palimpsest, easily the best novella I've read all year. This is a truly unique take on the typical time-travel story, and it was worth the $9.99 Kindle price all by itself, and boosted the book from mediocre to highly recommended all by itself. Buy this book just for that novella.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Joys of Homeownership

I'm going to start a series of blog posts about owning a house. I'm learning about this homeownership stuff as I go along, and it's amazing how much there is to learn. Most of it, unfortunately, has to do with the house being a financial burden in unexpected ways.

Here's an example: we had the house remodeled (put in central heating/AC, a laminate floor, and double paned windows everywhere) before moving in. When I got the first water bill on Saturday after moving in, I was stunned by how much it was. It turned out that the previous owner had put in a new lawn, and new lawns have to be watered frequently while they establish themselves. Well, they don't have to be watered that frequently after a month, which was when we bought the house, but of course, I didn't know to turn down the water frequency. Sigh.

Then there's the Radon problem. Turns out that the ground under many parts of California is radioactive. Not in a directly harmful way, but enough so that irradiated air can come up into your home, since your home has a lower pressure than the outside. Well, breathing that air can be pretty bad for you, so we have to do some radon testing. The state of California subsidizes the test, so it's only $5 for a self-test kit. But it's one of those things that nobody seems to know about (about 12% of homes are affected, so it's worth your while to get tested!) Mitigation is relatively cheap, but it's non-trivial.

On the plus side, when it was 90 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, I really enjoyed having a well-insulated and air conditioned home! Boy, it was worth every penny. And it turns out that you can sign up for the smart AC program and get regulation of your AC system at peak demand times, which is pretty cool. And of course, not being in a carpeted environment is expected to do good things for my allergies as well.

I'll get into other housing annoyances as I find them, and I'll try to keep in mind that I really do enjoy living in a house as well.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Yellowjacket Sting OWOWOW

 

I got stung by a stinging insect on Saturday while riding my bike. I didn't even see it, since I was descending Stevens Canyon road at well over 30mph. First I felt a burning, and then I felt my glove feel extra tight and a burning sensation. Fortunately I was headed home anyway and got home within 15 minutes. By that time, my hand had become incredibly swollen! I had been stung many times before by insects, but never had such a reaction!

What really scared me, however, was that old sting sites started popping out of my skin as my body remembered every sting, every insult inflicted upon my body by insects previously. It was scary. I went to a doctor and he didn't seemed terribly worried, but prescribed me an epipen and prednisone "just in case I wanted to take a more aggressive approach." I did take Claritin right away, since my research on the web told me I should take an anti-histamine and I had it handy.

The next day, the swelling still wasn't down, so I took Prednisone and Benadryl. It took until Monday for the swelling to come down a little, and I stopped taking prednisone then, but kept taking claritin. By Tuesday I could ride and now I'm almost perfectly normal.

I did see my allergist today, however, and she told me what I should have done. First of all, epipen is nothing more than adrenaline, and your body knows how to produce it. So the first thing I should have done was to immediately turn around and hammer up a hill at maximum heart rate to induce my body to generate adrenaline. That works for at least 15 minutes, and apparently there are stories about folks who produced enough adrenaline to eliminate any reaction whatsoever (usually those were folks running from angry beehives!). Then, I should have immediately popped benadryl and then prednisone. Apparently, the sequence of events goes like this: sting -> epipen (works within a minute, lasts about 15 minutes --- long enough to get you to a hospital) -> benadryl (works within an hour) -> prednisone (takes about 6 hours to be fully effective, but starts working after a first hour). The epipen is just to get you to a hospital where the doctors will make you pop benadryl and prednisone. Claritin works too slowly to be of use in insect sting situations. Apparently, if the doctor I saw knew what he was doing, I could have saved myself a lot of grief, and might even have averted a severe reaction. This is not the first time that made me realize that the same huge difference between programmers also leads to a huge difference between doctors.

I asked, "So why don't I just do that and not go to a hospital?" "Because you're not a doctor," came the reply.

In any case, I was warned not to get stung again within the next month (I wasn't planning on it, thank you!), and then to submit to a skin test and then start insect venom immunotherapy sessions. She also gave me a prescription for 2 more epipens, along with instructions to carry benadryl and prednisone while I'm traveling in Japan.

Followup: I'm now on allergy immunotherapy shots

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Review:Schlage Keypad Locks

We've had contractors in and out of the house to remodel it before moving in on Saturday. One of the last things to do would have been to change the locks. Then on Sunday I saw Amazon advertise a fingerprint door lock, and thought, hey, that's not a bad idea --- I can go key-less, and then authorize or de-authorize users as I please.

I quickly ruled out fingerprint readers, however, since all it would take is one flat tire on the way home from work and I would not be able to get into the house on account of dirty fingers. A keypad system, however, seemed to be the ideal compromise. For the front door, I chose the dead-bolt, because I wanted locking to be an explicit decision --- I didn't want to walk out to fetch mail and then end up having to press four buttons to get back into the house. For the back, I had no choice but to go with a self-locking handled setup, since the back door didn't have a dead bolt.

Incidentally, the place to order from is factory locks. They charge a bit more, but if you order more than one lock, they'll automagically key all the locks to the same key, which is very nice. Furthermore, if you order more locks in the future from them, you can give them your order number, and they'll key the new lock to the same keys! That's worth the extra cost in my opinion. They also ship extremely fast --- I got mine in 3 days.

I got the locks today and they were installed immediately by one of our contractors. The system works as described by the manual, though programming it is a little tricky because you really have to wait for the interface feedback before proceeding --- since there's no LCD display, you have to wait for the buttons to flash or change color before you start the data entry. But the results are very slick! It's amazing how freeing it is to not have to worry about keys when I leave the house any more. It's also nice to give each contractor and/or cleaning person an individualized pin that you can then enable just for the day of their visit and delete after they're done.

One potential flaw that someone pointed out to me was that the keypad itself could become worn down after a while, and if you stick to using the same pin over and over again, it suddenly becomes apparently which keys are frequently used, so you should switch pins every so often. And then there's the problem that there's a manual key override. What this means is that the lock system combines the security flaws of both the physical keys as well as the security flaws of the keypad system. You could disable the physical key system, but then now you have no backup override if you went for a vacation and the battery on the system drained while you were gone! My take on the whole thing is that security is a massive boondoggle anyway, and the real security you have is to buy in a neighborhood with low crime, because if a really determined person wanted to take your stuff, they'd just break a window and climb in. So I'll just not worry about it.

The big flaw I can see in the system so far is that the batteries will have to be changed, and it's not an easy battery change. You basically have to unscrew the whole door knob or dead bolt to put in a new 9-V battery. If the batteries last for the specified 3 years that's not too annoying, but it does mean that you should leave a manual override key with a relative just in case you go on vacation and come back to find yourself locked out.

Despite all these flaws, this is an incredibly slick system. I really like it, and it's the first thing about buying a house that hasn't been incredibly costly and a major pain in the neck. That makes it highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Management

Reed Hastings and I had a conversation in April to catch up. I was reminded of it again when his presentation on corporate culture came to circulate around various social networks. One of the questions Reed asked me at the time we had the discussion was whether I had any thoughts about management in the valley, having worked at more startups than he had (and also being in the less enviable position of not being the CEO at any of the startups).

One thing that conversation did was to get me thinking about the academic model of management that Google espouses. When I say management, I'm really talking about promotions, because that's how company culture reinforces its values (slide 7 in Reed's presentation). In 2004, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the academic peer-driven model. It felt much better than having a manager evaluate an individual contributor --- that model, I felt, always risked the problem of having a manager that was susceptible to brown-nosing. By the end of last year, however, I was seeing weaknesses in the academic model, many of which are articulated better than I ever could in The Trouble with Physics. In particular, what I saw was that certain types of problem-solvers and approaches were systematically under-valued --- and in many ways it's better to be someone who puts out fires than someone who prevents them from happening in the first place (note that it's not just the academic model that has this problem --- the top down model also does this --- in many large organizations, it's far better to quietly prepare a fire-fighting scheme if you see a fire happening than to try to prevent fires). The problem was that I couldn't see a better model, despite all the weaknesses of the peer-driven model. Like Democracy, I thought, the peer-driven model was the worst one in the world, except for all the others.

Reed told me he was a big fan of the traditional top-down model well done. The problem was that at startups (or even most big companies), I had yet to see the traditional top-down model well done. I frequently saw yes-men type middle management who couldn't say no to senior management, and all too frequently talent ignored in favor of hiring yet another manager from outside (something that startups do all too frequently). So I started asking around. I was struck by an insider's explanation of how Silos were broken down at Microsoft: the top 50 or so managers were called "partners", and their compensation was not at all related to their areas of influence, control, expertise, or title. Their compensation was tied completely to how the company performed, which basically made it so that all partners would help each other out if it was important to the company. That's a fascinating approach to solving the Silo problem, and to me, anyway, it provides an alternative to the academic peer-driven model that I saw as being imperfect. The problem is that the top down model still depends very much on having good managers. Even having had the luck to have exceptionally good managers at Google and elsewhere, I still run into enough poor managers at otherwise high quality places to believe that management hiring is anything but a crap-shoot at best --- no amount of interviewing will tell you that this guy who's a super-star on his resume is actually going to lead all your good people to leave over the next 5 years because of the way he plays favorites amongst his reports. This is why I believe that startups should grow managers from inside if at all possible. As Andy Grove once wrote: "People often complain that when you turn a great engineer into a manager, you get a mediocre manager and lose a great engineer. But think about the alternative? What message do you send if you pass over the smartest folks on your team in favor of someone from outside?"

In any case, I see the Netflix culture document as Reed's expression of his ideal approach to management --- it's another data-point in how to approach the fundamental problem of how a company organizes itself. There're also many ways of doing it wrong --- the worst of which is to pick a model that doesn't fit your management style and then coming across as hypocritical to all employees.

Ultimately, however, one must bear in mind that these discussions are moot if the business is unsuccessful --- that Google, Netflix, and Microsoft have to contend with these organizational headaches is a good sign --- failed businesses never have to worry about scale.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Gazos Creek Loop

Only Brooks Sizemore was interested in this ride, so I meet him at the corner of Homestead & Foothill at 9:35am. He was joined by 3 other friends, and we rode together up Redwood Gulch on what turned out to be a surprisingly warm day. At the top of Highway 9, the others said goodbye to us and we proceeded down 9. Traffic was unusually heavy down 9 and 236, and indeed when we arrived at Big Basin State Park HQ there was a massive traffic jam.

We filled up our water bottles, ate some bars, and then proceeded down to Gazos Creek road, the highlight of the ride. It's a wide double-track fire road, and in the summer it gets quite loose and dusty, but it's a nice shaded easy grade with no traffic --- until we got past the second gate and ran into the first of two BMWs driving up the road. I guess it can't be too steep if BMWs can drive up it!

The road then got a little steep and gravelly, and in places my bike fish-tailed around a bit as I hit gravel and sand together --- the toughest part was how rough it was, and there were moments when I started seeing triple because I was being bounced around quite a bit.

I kept waiting for the steep and tough part that I remember from many years ago --- dust that came up to ankle deep so I was forced to walk, but it looks like the road had been regraded and we made it all the way down to the pavement without any need to walk whatsoever. The paved part of Gazos Creek road was really pretty, which surprised me --- I had no recollection of doing it before, having done it last about 10 years ago.

Brooks was hungry and had brought no food, so we headed to Pescadero where there was again another traffic jam and we proceeded to wolf down a loaf of that Garlic-Artichoke bread. After that we headed over to North road, and made an easy climb out of Haskins hill and West Alpine before descending Page Mill road. From the top of West Alpine, we could tell it was getting late in the afternoon as we could see fog coming in from the coast, slowly covering up the coastal hills.

I got home around 5:30pm, making it an elapsed 8 hours. A challenging ride with 82 miles, 8091' of climb, 7 hours saddle time, and interesting scenery. Recommended for those who have decent enough bike handling skills for the 11 miles of unpaved fire road portion of Gazos Creek Road. Folks will tell you that 28mm tires are required, but Brooks had 23mm tires and I only had 25mm tires.