Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2nd Printing of Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups Sold Out

The second printing of An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups just sold out this week. Fortunately, I anticipated this a while back and ordered a third printing, which showed up on time so there's no interruption in sales (unlike the previous time). It's only been about 6 months since I started shipping this book, but even so I can already see the huge impact e-books are having on the market. When I first started shipping books, most of my sales were paper copies. By the end of May, half my sales were electronic and the other half were paper. At this point, I'm selling 3 electronic copies for every paper copy of the book that's shipped!

Unlike a traditional publisher, however, I am delighted by this turn of events. As described earlier, I've set up my pricing so that I am indifferent to paper sales or electronic sales: I make pretty much the same amount of profit for either. E-books take up no inventory, suffer no shipping costs, and can be revised instantly. If this trend keeps up, this printing ought to last me for at least 6 months.

I am very grateful to every one of you who's made this book a success (by self-publishing standards). I hope my next book does as well.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the last book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy . The previous books in the series The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire were previously reviewed here. This book cannot stand alone, and should be read after the previous title in the series. It also kept me up late last night reading, which is something that a book hasn't done to me in a while.

With this novel Larsson does not set up a mystery at all. This is a thriller through and through. The enemy this time is a government secret agency that covered up certain events in the past, leading to the events in the previous book. Many have referred to this book as redefining the entire series as a feminist trilogy, and I can see where they are coming from. The author makes use of many quotes in the book, and it is clear where his sympathy lies. Yet unlike other books of this nature the plot, story, and characters do not merely serve to deliver the message. There are many men who are sympathetic characters, and the villains, while coming across as evil, aren't caricatures. The novel moves at a fast pace after setup: there's no exposition explaining the characters or the situation, as you are expected to have come off the previous novel directly.

As a techie, the book is a lot of fun, with constant name drops of model numbers and brand names, almost to the point where I wonder whether Apple and Palm managed to get product placement in the novel by paying Larsson. There are a few places where I thought the depiction was unrealistic, but hey, it's fiction.

Larsson died almost immediately after delivering the manuscripts, and one can't help but wonder if he had known it was coming: all the loose ends are tied up very very neatly, and all the characters reach a resolution with regards to their personal lives, even in places where I thought a little bit of mystery would have been better. All in all, I enjoyed this at least as much as any LeCarre I've read, and the prose is quite a bit less dense, so I have to recommend it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Shameless Promotion: Last 6 days to pre-order "Independent Cycle Touring"

There are only 6 days left to get in on the pre-orders for Independent Cycle Touring. I'm about $1000 from the pledges being completed. Kickstarter guarantees that if the funding goal is not reached, nobody pays anything. I'll go one further. If the funding goal is not reached and you're a $100 level (or more) supporter, I'll set up a Google group and you'll get to preview the book regardless, while I'm working on it. (i.e., the Kibitzer option is for real, but you won't have to fork out the dough if the project does not meet its funding goals)

A large chunk of the book is written. At this point I have one more chapter to write, a bunch of appendices (which might turn out to be substantial), layout, photography, and other niceties like cross referencing and indexing. That'll take another couple of months, but I'm aiming to have this on track for ebook release end of the year, and print copies availability a couple of months after that. Obviously, if I find major missing topics that'll slip, but that's why I have a beta audience.

The last few days will be nail biting for me, so rather than stay home and keep hitting refresh on the Kickstarter page, I'm going to spend labor day weekend hiking the Lost Coast.

Friday, August 27, 2010

It's Real!


The Copyright Office has acknowledged that I the copyright to my book! I guess that's not too surprising, but it took a few months for them to mail this certificate to me.
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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: Success Built to Last

It seems that there's no business franchise that can't be over sold and over cooked. Built to Last was a great book, and I still tell people to read it frequently. For instance, one of the sections on "cult-like culture" applies to nearly every successful startup and big company I've ever seen, and a good sign for every company.

Success Built to Last aims to apply similar principles to personal success: interview and survey all successful people, and then see what they have in common. I consider it an abysmal failure. First of all, this process can't distinguish between people who are great con-men, and people who are genuinely successful. For instance, Robert Kiyosaki is given equal billing with Muhammad Yunnus. John McCain, for instance, who was widely considered to have betrayed his own values since the 2000 election is selected as a successful person, but Julia Butterfly Hill wasn't considered successful, probably because she's not a billionaire.

There are lots of pithy quotes in the book, all centered around having strong values and pursuing them. Well, there are lots of people who pursue their strong values right down to murdering their roommates because of religions differences. I don't consider that in and of itself desirable, if there is no way to correct gross mis-judgments at the base level like that. The book does cover people recovering from setbacks and failures, but nothing at that level!

All in all, I consider this book a waste of time and not worth anybody's time. Not recommended.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Moon

I heard all sorts of things about Moon over the last year or two, and deliberately kept myself spoiler free until I found some time to watch it, and what a worthwhile 93 minutes it was!

The premise of the movie is that mankind has developed a usable fusion process that requires helium 3 from the dark side of the moon. All action in the movie itself happens on the moon base that processes and ships helium 3 back to Earth. The movie quickly establishes what normal routine is in the base, and then quickly dives into the plot involving the lone operator of the base, Sam Bell. He's not alone, however, and has a robot assistant, the Gerty 3000, which is used to excellent effect in the movie, constantly confounding audience expectations.

To say more than this will spoil the plot (in fact, you are advised not to even read the Amazon.com reviews). Suffice to say the mystery is interesting and fair (you could figure it out with all the clues), and the resolution satisfying. Highly recommended. While the movie is rated R, as far as I can tell the only reason it got the "R" was for a very innocuous shower scene with Sam Rockwell (shot entirely from the back).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: The Big Bang Theory Season Two

For whatever reason, the library delivered my copy of The Big Bang Theory Season 2 super fast. Season 2 is much more of a mixed bag than Season 1 was.

The in-jokes are still funny, and everything's still pretty accurate. And come on, a TV show that has George Smoot as a guest star can't be all that bad. The various episodes range in themes, from parental approval/disapproval of their geeky children, to on-line gaming addiction. My big problem with the series is that it suffers from episodic amnesia, which I suppose is what people expect from a sitcom. There is continuity in that references to the idiosyncrasies of various characters get made over time, but by and large, each episode stands on its own.

One semi-tragic element of the show is that one of the characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, displays nearly every symptom of Asperger's Syndrome. It's all played for laughs, but I wonder why none of the other characters ever point it out. I guess it would make the show less funny.

In any case, I'll check out the third season from the library when it comes out, so this show still comes recommended.

Panoramas from the Tour


I've been very frustrated with the way Picasa displays my panoramas. The down-sampling sucks, but even if I upload full resolution panoramas, unless you download them to your PC, you have no way to scroll, click, and zoom through the panoramas.

Then the other day, I noticed that PhotoSynth has been integrated into Microsoft ICE. ICE is what I use to composite the images. There are other free tools available, but none are as easy to use as ICE. PhotoSynth, however, is the other half: it solves the viewing problem by allowing the user to pan, scroll, and even zoom in through a high resolution image. Apparently, you can even use it to take a picture of a room from all angles, and PhotoSynth will create a model and let you walk around through it virtually. This is very cool stuff. Yes, it's 100% Windows only (did you expect anything else from Microsoft), but it definitely shows off my Panoramas in full glory. After you've clicked through on the above, visit my Synth Gallery to see all the others.

P.S. Here's one from last year:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Review: Crystal Nights and Other Stories

Crystal Nights and Other Storiesis Greg Egan's latest short story collection. I gave Egan's last book a poor review, but that was a novel, not a short story collection. Egan's talent at crafting a good short story is second only to Ted Chiang's, and this book definitely shows it off in spades.

One big theme of the book is the implications of quantum mechanics. Three stories revolve around it: Oracle, Border Guards, and Singleton. For Border Guards, Egan even invents the sport of Quantum Soccer.

Several stories deal with computation and simulation: Crystal Nights, in particular, but also many of the other stories, including one, Steve Fever, in which humans are used as pieces in an automaton. Another related story, Tap, reflects on the relationship between experience and words, and introduces several concepts that were a lot of fun to explore and think about.

In all cases, the science seems correct: in particular, there's no FTL, and a lot of transportation comes from beaming a scanned person around: Egan clearly believes that in a resource constrained future, sending human bodies around would be too massive a waste of resources to consider.

Most of the stories end with a satisfying conclusion, but a couple of stories felt like the author suddenly stopped when he ran out of paper (or ideas, or had written himself into a corner). Even those stories were full of interesting ideas. The first story, Lost Continent, clearly came from Egan's own philanthropic work in recent years on refugee's rights. I also enjoyed how Egan sets the stories in Australia whenever he can.

All in all, an excellent short story collection, full of stories I somehow missed over the years. Recommended.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review: That was the Millennium That Was

That was the Millennium That Was is John Scalzi's free ebook which is a repurposed series of blog entries written around 2000. It's written in classic Scalzi style: lots of wit, very entertaining, and a lot of fun. It covers all sorts of topics, from the crusades to the invention of the time piece described in Longitude. Each piece is about 3-4 pages long, which makes this a great book to read if you're getting interrupted once in a while.

Recommended.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hoisted from my Buzz Feed

Once again, I have a Buzz thread on leadership and solitude. I tip my hat to Cynthia for pointing me at the article linked to in the Buzz. I'll let you read the Buzz for yourself, but here are a few excerpts to pique your interest:
Things like who you promote, how you promote, whether to have an engineering ladder, how to reward engineers, etc., have a deep and lasting impact on who does well in the organization, and who gets pushed out. That lasting impact in turn impacts how decisions get made and who gets listened to. It's not surprising, for instance, that Yahoo! had a deep blind spot about search and thought it was a media company, or that Microsoft was clueless about why Vista was going to be a disaster, and that Google in turn, ignored social networks until this year. If you trace all those blind spots you eventually come to the root cause, which is the way the organization was built, what got valued, and what got discarded.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: if you look at successful organizations, they all do better when they focus, rather than spread themselves too thin. In the case of Microsoft and Yahoo, though, that focus cost them billions, and despite Microsoft spending billions it hasn't fixed its internet blind spot, and Yahoo doesn't look like it's going to regain the eminent position it once had as a portal. It is too early to tell whether Google's turnaround on social media is happening early enough or quickly enough (i.e., we don't know whether Google is Microsoft circa 1996, or whether it's Microsoft Circa 2001).

In all cases, I believe that the problem is lack of independent thinking at the top levels of the organization, and the problems had the root cause well before the disaster happened. (i.e., the problem at Yahoo happened with Terry Semel's hire, not with Semel's decision to buy Overture, and the problem at Microsoft happened with the decision to ignore the internet after killing off Netscape when Brad Silverberg lost the political battle inside Microsoft and retired, not with the installation of Ballmer as CEO)

Please join in on the conversation if you have questions or have anything to add. I'm not as familiar with Microsoft/Yahoo as I am with Google (though I did meet Brad Silverberg once), so please let me know I'm wrong.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: Happiness

Meng and I had this conversation a while ago:
M: Despite the wealth generated in the past 100 years, people don't seem to be any happier. The Buddhism approach covers this gap in happiness, which is important.
P: Well, if you look back over the last 400 years, the agricultural revolution which feed billions now and the invention of antibiotics has done more for humanity than 3000 years of Buddhism. I think if you want to improve the human condition, Western Science and Engineering has done more for humanity than any religion.
M: Western Science has relieved misery, but is happiness the mere absence of misery?
P: Well, to someone who's starving, that question is moot.

Since I'm generally a pretty happy person anyway, I left it at that. The pieces of happiness research I've read didn't seem terribly actionable, and weren't likely to make me any happier.

Earlier this year, when the Kindle store gave away Matthieu Ricard's Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, I had to pick it up. It's a relatively short read, but unlike the other happiness books, this one is based on Buddhism, buttressed at times by recent scientific research. (Most of the other books I read weren't immersed in Buddhism, so the little scientific tricks to attain happiness seemed more like gimmicks than something tied to a theory)

The main thesis of this book is that the mind is like a muscle: if you train it, you can make yourself calmer, more detached from immediate emotions jerking you around. Chapter after chapter goes over the benefits: not only will you be happier, you'll be able to examine your emotions as they are occurring, and learn not to act on them. You will be more creative, and even be able to face the prospect of death with more equanimity. Topics such as Flow are covered as well.

There is no doubt to my mind that Buddhist meditation and philosophy works to help people become calmer, less angry, and so forth. The problem with this approach is that its not very evolutionarily stable: the reason why people are vengeful, for instance, is that someone who's willing to spend energy to get even will be treated with respect and others will think twice before crossing him. Nevertheless, I do agree with Ricard that the world will be a better place if more people practiced Buddhism (by the way, I don't believe this is true of the Judeo-Christian religions, for instance), and as an individual, it's definitely better to be calmer, less stressed, and able to eliminate your negative emotions at will --- keeping in mind that the purpose behind such emotions can be correct, even if the turmoil they cause in you isn't.

All in all, this book is recommended to anyone who would like a good, non-evangelical view of Buddhist philosophy and practices, or anyone who's interested in the science behind happiness.

Update: Meng reminded me that there's a YouTube video of Ricard's talk at Google:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: Battle Royale (The Novel)

I didn't like the movie, Battle Royale much. Unfortunately, Battle Royale: The Novel wasn't a whole lot better.

The writing is terrible, and the plot is identical. (The movie was very faithful to the book) With significantly more time, the book does have a few additional nuances, and the metaphor that the author wanted to depict stands out better. In particular, you start to see that the book is also partly railing against what its author sees as an overly competitive, dog-eat-dog school system. The ending is quite a bit better, as we see that the authorities are not complete idiots. All the minor characters are also fleshed out, so we do get some insight into the dynamics of the class put into the game.

Nevertheless, the horrible writing (or maybe horrid translation) makes this book a tedious slog, with what I consider an insufficient payoff. Not recommended.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Review: The Big Bang Theory Season One

I first heard about The Big Bang Theory on Fresh Air, and while the interview sounded funny, I was concerned: can a mainstream TV show really depict scientists in a manner that really respects what such people do?

The first episode of the show had me thinking that this was going to be another "let's make fun of the geeks" show (and to some extent a sitcom has to make fun of its main characters). The redeeming feature of the show, though, is that it actually does respect the kind of things you might actually hear when geeks talk. For instance, from Episode 2:
Leonard: Do you wanna join us for Thai food and a Superman movie marathon?
Penny: Wow, a marathon, how many Superman movies are there?
Sheldon: You're kidding, right?
Penny: You know, I do like the one where Lois Lane falls from the helicopter and Superman swooshes down and catches her. Which one was that?
Leonard, Sheldon, Wolowitz: *One.*
[Raj holds up one finger]
Sheldon: You know that scene was rife with scientific inaccuracy?
Penny: Yes, I know men can't fly...
Sheldon: No, no, let's assume that they can... Lois Lane is falling, accelerating at an initial rate of 32 feet per second per second... Superman swoops down to save her by reaching out two arms of steel... Miss Lane, who is now traveling at approximately 120 miles an hour, hits them and is immediately sliced into three equal pieces.
Leonard: Unless Superman matches her speed and decelerates.
Sheldon: In what space, sir, in what space? She's two feet above the ground. Frankly, if he really loved her, he'd let her hit the pavement. It'd be a more merciful death.
(See: IMBD for an extended quote, or you can watch the segment on YouTube)

Yes, as a geek I can critique that dialog: no self-respecting scientist would ever use imperial measurements instead of metric: Sheldon should have said 10 meters per second squared. Superman's arms are also too broad to neatly slice Miss Lane's body into parts. But I can't make even that critique and not add to the humor the show espouses about geeks. My big non-geek complaint about the show is that it has a laugh track. I don't like shows with laugh tracks, and to be honest, I didn't think this show needed one.

Yes, these men are all stereotypes, but the dialog is well-written and interesting. In fact, the dialog is perhaps a bit too well-written. One friend of mine said he couldn't watch the show because it made him uncomfortable, and some of the jokes hit very close to home.

In any case, the show has many laugh out loud moments, and in 22 minute segments is perfectly suited for a portable video device (I watched a lot of it while waiting at airports). The show probably wouldn't get anything out of high def. I enjoyed every episode, even the ones that made me (very very slightly) uncomfortable. If you can't stand the first episode, skip it and go right to the second one. Highly recommended, and I've already checked out Season Twofrom the library.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Seattle Visit

Seattle Visit 2010


I've been in the Seattle area for the last few days, mostly to catch up with long time friends. It's been 18 years since I visited the area, and the first thing that struck me is that the climate hasn't changed: it still rained for my first 3-4 days here, only turning sunny today. Friends told me that this was the worst summer they had ever had, though it being an El Nino year they had an unusually good winter and spring.

I first met with Ashuthosh Tiwary from Doyenz, a startup I helped put together a funding round for. The business is ramping up, and they're signing up customers every week. Apparently, the last year has been very difficult even for large companies selling into the SMB market, but that delay in capital expenditure has led to a backlog of upgrades this year.

I spent the weekend with my friend Scarlet, whom I hadn't seen for a while, and we got caught up with a lot of things, including her son Evan. Scarlet introduced me to the Battlestar Galactica board game. It was definitely challenging, and very well themed.

On Monday, I met with Doyenz's engineering team, and asked a bunch of questions involving the business that interested me. As an investor, it's quite different to examine a company and then worry about business questions, rather than the technology. I did ask if there was anyway I could help leverage my social network to help them, but it turned out that the biggest benefit I provided was that in asking such a question, other engineers revealed that their social network could provide such help better than I could. It's quite clear to me that a way to expose such social networks is very useful and would unlock a lot of value.

I spent a lot of time with Przemek (also a Doyenz co-founder), who'd gotten married since our last sailing trip. We discussed some technical issues going forward, and how to approach Doyenz's potential partners in that space.

I met with Reza, whom I went to high school with. Reza was one of the co-founders of Jambool. He neither confirmed nor denied the truth of TechCrunch's story, but we discussed startups various experiences (Reza used to be at Amazon). Reza was one of the smartest guys I knew in school, and it's great to see that his startup has been quite successful. Reza's startup happened at the same time as Przemek's, but he hadn't gotten in touch with me then and so I did not get a chance to invest.

I stayed with Amy Platt, who was an intern at Google, and now at Microsoft. I hadn't seen Microsoft's campus since 1992, and the company is now so big that it's satellite office in Bellevue took up an entire city block as far as I could tell. Nice views, and posh stores I would never shop at took up most of the first floor.

I revisited Seattle and Elliot Bay Cycles (yes, I'm a geek who will visit bike shops), and found that things had changed quite a bit, including tunnels through down-town that took both buses and trains. Places that I thought were busy 18 years ago are so busy now that I had a hard time navigating!

Finally, today James (a former Mpath person) and I had lunch and he gave me a quick tour of Amazon, which has a very different feel than any other tech company I've visited. Whether this is unique or whether it's because Seattle companies grow very differently, I don't know. All in all, a great trip! Thanks for the tours and the insights, everyone!

Monday, August 09, 2010

上松秀実「時代」- One of the more powerful Greenpeace music you've never heard of. =)

This is definitely one of the strongest new songs I've heard in a while. I found it while trolling around Youtube looking for some of Nakajima Miyuki's singles, and found this song by accident. The lyrics (both untranslated and translated can be found here). This is definitely one of those Greenpeace songs in theme, and her vocals are nothing short of astonishing!

Even better, she composes her own melody and writes her own lyrics. Definitely check it out!


Sunday, August 08, 2010

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Grayis probably Oscar Wilde's best known novel. Nearly everyone has heard of it, though if you've never read it the only thing you know about is the occasional vague allusion to the events in the novel. Since this is an old novel and lots of people have read it, I won't refrain from providing sppoilers in this review. You have been warned!

Unfortunately, the events in the novel are pretty uncomplicated: Dorian Gray is a beautiful, good-looking young man. One of his artist friends was so inspired by him that he paints a portrait of Dorian Gray one day that is exquisite. Dorian, upon seeing it, says that he wishes that all the travails of life that would otherwise be visited upon his body and face would thereafter be reflected in the picture rather than upon him.

Unbeknowst to him, his wishes are granted, but only when he treats a budding actress cruelly, causing her to commit suicide, does he notice that his portrait has turned cruel, while he shows no sign of physical change. Well, the plot then predictably steers Gray, under the influence of one of his friends into decades of debauchery, all the while remaining as young and beautiful as he was when the picture was painted, as the portrait slowly gets ravaged with time and the after-effects of his actions.

The plot is linear. There's a little bit of exploration of philosophy, where Wilde goes into exposition, explaining how one should approach life. Witty aphorisms are tossed about in a tangent to the narrative, but Wilde doesn't even try to explain his the underlying premise of the book, which is that personality and actions inevitably take their toll not upon a person's soul, but also visibly on their face and bodies as well. In fact, everyone in the novel believes it as well, all of whom remarking that with Gray's beauty and obvious youth, no one could believe the rumours of all the debauchery he's committed.

In any case, as morality plays go, the novel ends conventionally. Justice is served, and cruelty is punished. But even then, the novel seems buried in a hidden assumption of determinism, that we cannot change what we are, even if we realize that we must change.

The novel is a short read, but I can't say that I like either of the assumptions it makes, and more, the apparent lack of awarenesss of these assumptions. As such, I can't recommend the book.

Review: Whit

Whitis Iain Bank's novel about religions and cults. Like all novels he wrote that do not use the "M" middle initial, this novel is not science fiction. The narrator and protagonist of the story is Isis Whit, the Elect of God from a small cult in England. She is the elect because she was born on February 29th, which makes her something special. In addition, she has a supernatural gift: the ability to heal.

When an important member of her community sends a message indicating that she has decided to breakaway, Isis is sent on a misson to find her, talk to her, and try to bring her back into the fold. The story then becomes that of a committed and religious innocent coming into the big city of London for the first time in her life.

As you might expect from such a setup, there are many comic moments. In particular, Isis is very proud of her religion, and very committed to it, and seemingly blind to all the hints and messages sent to her by the other members of the community and lapsed members of her community that she encounters. She is single-minded in her pursuit of her quarry, and completely unfazed, even when she discovers that her cousin Morag has not been what she claimed to be all along.

When she finally gets close to tracking her down, the novel suddenly takes a serious turn, and Isis is derailed both by family members as well as a strange sequence of events that indicate that the nature of her mission was not what it appears: someone within the cult has a sinister plot to remove her as Elect of God. Isis proceeds to defend herself and investigate the history and origins of the cult.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the plot hence would degenerate quickly into farce, but Iain Banks manages to keep it funny, poignant, and very realistic. My sympathy for Isis was aroused and when she does come into her own I found myself applauding for her, even though I am not normally sympathetic to religions and their members.

All in all, a quick light read with many funny moments. It doesn't try to explore deep issues about religions and cults, but does portray religious cults somewhat sympathetically, while at the same time acknowledging that the roots of and forces behind such cults are usually very suspect. Recommended as a light airplane novel.

Friday, August 06, 2010

First Impressions: Lenovo Thinkpad X201

All throughout my tenure at Google, I've been a Thinkpad user. In fact, once the ultra-portable class of Thinkpads became an option, I switched to an X30 and never looked back. This class of machines fit in a saddlebag, was light, and typically as fast as the previous generation desktop. The best feature was the full size keyboard, on which I could type almost as fast as my Kinesis attached to my desk.

When the Lenovo ThinkPad X201 showed up as a special deal on working advantage, I noticed that the Lenovo page selling the product had a bug: if you bought the fully loaded package with the 3-year warranty, you were allowed to back out the 3-year warranty at the shopping cart, thereby saving $200, and hence getting a fully loaded model at a 20% discount. This was a very good deal, so I told Phil about it and bought one for myself. One day later, SlickDeals announced it and the day after that Lenovo fixed the bug.While there are many shipping horror stories about Lenovo on the internet, my Thinkpad arrived with no incident, taking just a hair over a week between departing Shanghai and arriving in Sunnyvale.

My goals in purchasing the laptop was two fold. One: I wanted a machine to write on while traveling. I don't typically travel with a laptop on my many cycle tours, but given that I no longer am restricted to one long trip a year, things like sailing trips and photography trips should become more common. So the machine had to be powerful enough to run Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop CS5, and if possible Adobe InDesign CS5. All 3 programs are well-known CPU and memory-hogs, which rules out most netbooks. Since my primary workstation was running Windows 7 as well, and I wasn't about to re-buy all the software I had already purchased, that ruled out Macs. Well, that and buying a Mac would wipe out any profits I had made from the book, and I take a certain amount of pride in keeping the book business profitable. As a travel machine, I opted for the finger-print reader, but opted out of the blue-tooth PAN, since I had a dongle I could transfer from the desktop to the laptop if I wanted/needed blue-tooth. I hate touchpads with a passion, so I opted out of that as well. The "fully-loaded" package that Lenovo sold came with Windows 7 Professional, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB 7200rpm hard drive, SD card reader, integrated video camera, microphone, and stereo speakers. It only has a VGA output, but if you buy the Ultrabase you can get digital display output as well. The native resolution of the display is 1280x800, WiFi. There used to be an option for 1440x900 with the X201s, but for whatever reason I could not find the X201s any more on Lenovo's web-site.

As a Windows Enhanced Experience laptop, the Thinkpad comes with no crap-ware installed. This is very nice, since it meant that the machine startup was fast and clean. It does come with the usual Thinkpad utilities. The laptop boots in about 1 minute, and wakes up from sleep in about 10s. Fingerprint login was easy to setup and easy to use, and I liked it more than expected. I am very tempted to get a solid state disk so that it boots even faster.

Lightroom 3 has had a performance makeover compared to Lightroom 2, and runs very fast on the machine. The pictures from the Pixar trip were processed all on the laptop as a test, and while the screen is small you could definitely work on photos, process them, and post them without a hitch. Even stitching 10 photos into a panorama in Photoshop was fast and easy.

InDesign was a different story. I copied the files over from my desktop and discovered to my shock that the machine could not keep up with my typing! It turns out that once you've put together all the chapters into a book, InDesign tries to keep the chapters all in sync, and so the entire book has to be loaded into memory. Even after loading it all into memory, things were still slower than molasses! It turns out that InDesign's file format suffers from fragmentation if you repeatedly load and save, so a "repackage" of the entire book from my desktop solved that problem. It's still not fast, but now InDesign no longer spins when I type. By the way, this is not a machine issue: the CPU was idle, as was the disk, indicating that whatever it is InDesign is doing, it's wrong.

The machine charges relatively fast, going from 5% to 80% in about an hour. Full charges take quite a bit longer. As far as battery life is concerned, I regularly got about 4 hours out of the 6-cell battery (and that's including all the Lightroom/Photoshop work!), which does not protrude from the back of the machine, unlike the 9-cell battery. For long flights and such, I would probably buy an extra 6 or 9 cell battery. The machine weighs 3.4 pounds. I did not bother testing it with video playing, music playing, or anything else.

It's a truism that buying a new machine always costs you a day. The Thinkpad was no exception, but I'm very pleased with the laptop. It's smooth, fast, and will let me do more work while on the move. Many of the blog posts I've made over the last few days have been made with it, and it was definitely worth the $858 (including tax, recycling fee and shipping) I paid for it. Recommended.

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the middle of the late Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy. Unlike other series, you know this one will actually end because the author died of a heart attack soon after turning in the manuscripts.

Unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tatto, the form of this novel is not that of a mystery or detective novel, but rather a thriller. What I like about the novel is that the characters definitely changed between the first book and the second. In particular, we learn quite a bit about Salander, the computer hacker protagonist, and she does with her skills very few other protagonists in fiction would do, but in a way that is driven by the logic of her motivations and desires. I found that exceptional, and really enjoyed the plot. Her partner from the first book, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, plays a peripheral part in the story until the second half of the book, where he suddenly joins in the frenzied hunt for Salander.

A friend of mine warned me that the novel ends in a cliff-hanger, and I'd better have the third book handy. The book also starts by spoiling itself, foreshadowing what will happen later, which I thought was a very odd decision. The book also has a very slow setup, where it takes its time getting the plot rolling for the first third. Too much of the book is written in an extremely workmanship manner, describing police procedure in a matter of fact fashion, as though describing a kitchen recipe. The climax is also relatively unbelievable, with characters that take punishing amounts of damage like in a typical Chinese Kung-Fu novel, but still come out swinging.

Nevertheless, as entertainment this relatively thick novel is a lot of fun, and hence comes recommended. It might take a 3 hour flight to get into the plot, but once you do, it relentlessly sucks you in.

Pixar Visit

Pixar

Lisa, her friend Tammy, Ellie, and an unnamed Googler and I had a wonderful visit to Pixar yesterday, hosted by former Googlers Matt and Tashana. The central exhibit outside of the main lobby was devoted to Toy Story 3, which unfortunately none of us had yet to get a chance to see except unnamed Googler.

Tashana was the production manager for Toy Story 3, so she answered all our geeky questions about the show, including:
What was the hardest part of the movie to do? It turned out to be the day care center cardboard box. We spent so many meetings discussing its attributes and spent so much time on it that the team thought we should make a T-shirt with just the cardboard box on it. I'm being a little facetious here. The garbage dump was also really hard to get right.

How many movies do you usually have in the pipeline at once? Do any of them ever get cancelled? There can be as many as up to 5 movies in the pipeline at once, and yes, some of them do get cancelled. It's rare, but it happens.

Do you ever have to redo movies because of story changes? Yes. It varies dramatically from movie to movie. Toy Story 3 was pretty stable, but Ratatouille, for instance, had a director change. The characters went from being able to walk only on two legs to being able to run on four as well, and that dictated changes everywhere.

Did you do the story first, and then try to get licensing rights for Toy Story 3, or did it go the other way around? We do the story first. For Toy Story 1, we tried to get rights to Barbie, but Matel refused. For Toy Story 2, they OK'd the scene. For Toy Story 3, they asked us to get more of Barbie in, because they realized it was good for the business. For toys that we designed, lawyers look through the design so as to avoid infringing on other company's rights. Cars, for instance was a headache because of all the stripes, logos, and other designs that showed up on the cars. We had to avoid any designs that could conceivably have started a lawsuit.

What about merchandising? Does Pixar do them in house? Disney has an entire department whose job it is to set up licensing and merchandising. That's what really pays our salary. For Cars, for instance, the merchandising revenue was $3B. John Lasseter took a personal interest in the toys produced from Cars, so for instance you can buy every character in the movie. That was a big help.

There was much much more, including character sketches, model packets, color keys, and other pieces of the process which wouldn't make sense without the exhibits. We were not allowed to shoot photographs of those, so I'm afraid you're going to have to pay a visit to Pixar yourself if you want all the details. On the drive home, Ellie, Lisa, and I resolved to watch Toy Story 3 when we got a chance, I think I definitely have to see The Incredibles again.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Experience

In a comment on my previous post, a reader wrote:
Maybe you can write another post: To work for google or not? from the perspective of experienced engineer or fresh graduate.

I felt that it was a big disadvantage to work at google of you are an experienced engineer with master degree, because you will be hired into with almost the same level as fresh PhD, and had to learn those proprietary frameworks. Your experience does not have much advantage. Numerous review process will frustrate you a lot. Those engineers who joined before or around 2004 have already took good positions, you need to contribute 500% to approve yourself. Climbing the corp ladder becomes more challenge and google stock price is flat. Joining start up seems a better choice.
I disagree that the proprietary frameworks is a big deal. As distributed computing becomes more common, I think Google's way of doing things will become more common, not less. Already, companies like Cloudera are trying to popularize (through Hadoop and other open source implementations) the way Google does development. I wish Google had open sourced more technologies, but I certainly didn't mind learning new stuff, even if I had to fix lots and lots of documentation every time I had to pick up a new framework. Google had cool frameworks, and I certainly enjoyed being able to deploy thousands of machines at once to work on a problem.

It is true that there's danger in joining a company structured like Google. A company transitioning from a startup to a big established firm tends to use experienced engineers in very different ways than new people. For instance, it was experienced engineers at Google that forced a very different approach to testing. That was a thankless job, but people did get rewarded for it, though not without a big fight. Similarly, I had to establish a release engineering team at Google from scratch, but in exchange for that I was adequately compensated. A different engineering management structure than Google's might be more likely to reward (in traditional manners) the kind of non-sexy work that kind of work entails, but pre-IPO Google was quite generous, and those of us who joined pre-2004 had nothing to complain about. Note that Facebook, for instance, is taking an entirely different approach to this type of work than Google did, and I think that's a very good thing.

A fresh graduate, by contrast, can't be put on the un-sexy projects. So almost by definition the probability of being assigned a high profile project is higher. Furthermore, Google can be a great training ground, and the degree of reviews and mentoring (depending on the luck of the draw, of course) is a big help for at least the first couple of years. I would definitely recommend Google for a fresh graduate today. Having Google on his resume is also a much bigger deal for a fresh graduate than it is for an experienced engineer, who has presumably already had several success stories on his resume. And if after a few years it's clear that you're not on the fast track (you'll know within 24 months, usually), then you can reassess your position and look for a new job with the security of Google's excellent benefits package.

Let me tell the story of two experienced engineers who did not take a Google offer.

Y was a friend of mine from graduate school who interviewed and received an offer from Google in 2005. At that time, the stock price was around $200/share, and he was interviewing at Microsoft at the same time. This was a highly experienced engineer who had already co-founded a prior startup and sold it at a number in the 8 figures. Unfortunately, Google treated him like any other fresh engineer and put him through its standard interview process. He did well, but was not impressed. Microsoft treated him like a potential software architect, and put him through an interview process where everyone on his interview panel clearly understood his previous work and could quiz him about it. Unable to trust that what looked like an insanely high stock price could go up higher, my friend took the Microsoft job. After a couple of years, he realized Microsoft was far too big and difficult to change even at a very high level, he left and started another company. I think he had minor regrets about not joining Google, as I think he would have done very well at Google, since in 2005, entrepreneurial people were still having a blast. But given the way Google interviewed him, there was no way Y could have know that!

Fast forward to 2010, and another friend of mine started a job search. She reported to me almost 10 years ago at a previous startup, and was a brilliant engineer, so I vouched for her on a mailing list to help kick-start her search. Within 2 hours of my sending out an e-mail she had 5 contacts from startups. I asked her if she would consider Google, and she replied with two words: "No upside." This was someone who had worked her way up to being a Principal Engineer at a major Silicon Valley technology company. Her reply referred to two things: Stock price (at $500+/share earlier this year, the stock had room to fall and did fall), and the slotting lottery. Nooglers go through 6 months of training and work, and at the end of it get slotted into a position on the engineering ladder. If you're fresh out of school this is no big deal: starting at the bottom is expected, and if you get slotted higher it's a pleasant surprise. A Principal Engineer getting slotted at anything below that would essentially be getting an unpleasant surprise, while getting slotted at that level (which would be exceedingly difficult, since you'd have to prove yourself in 6 months while working on your starter project) would garner a "That's but to be expected." You can see why X chose to take a position at one of the Silicon Valley startups that was profitable and growing quickly. At the very least, the pre-IPO stock would be worth something. I think X made the correct choice for her career. Incidentally, I heard a story that a senior engineering candidate objected so strongly to the slotting lottery that management made an exception for him: by making him a director with no reports. I have no way to confirm this story one way or another though.

In short, there is no simple answer to the issue as to whether an experienced engineer can do well at Google. Obviously, one can. However, I would definitely not take on the risk of starting at Google as an experienced engineer without adequate compensation (i.e., don't take a pay cut) and without considering all my options. Given that the valley today is in the unprecedented situation of having quite a few highly profitable pre-IPO startups, I would be very surprised if a smart, experienced engineer could not get better compensation elsewhere. Hence most of Google's new engineering hires come fresh out of school, through an acquisition (which is one way for Google to acquire experienced engineers at a high price), or from one of the non-Silicon Valley locations where competition for talent is lower.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Tips for Noogler Engineers

I'm surprised by the number of people inside Google who actually read my blog. I once did contemplate writing a "career guide for Googlers", but finally got off my ass when a Noogler asked me for advice on how to thrive at Google. Given that Google is once again on a hiring spree (something that I'll never agree with), I guess more people will want this advice than not. Obviously, you should take everything I say with a grain of salt, since things change rapidly at Google. With that caveat in place...

Disclaimer: Sanjeev says (and I agree) that if you internalize all this, it will make you less likely to succeed at a startup! Being able to do well at a big company and being able to do well at a startup are completely different things!

Tip #1: Never believe anything management tells you. They don't lie deliberately but frequently things change very quickly, so what's true one day is not true the next. I knew someone who gave up a tech lead position because he was told his group would have no manager, and therefore he was doing all that extra work for nothing. Within a couple of quarters after he gave it up, management made the new tech lead the manager, because things had changed.

Keep in mind that management wants things that are good for Google. You care about what's good for you. The former does not automatically lead to the latter. In particular:
  • Interviewing. It absolutely does not help your career one bit, even though it's absolutely critical for Google in the long term. It's not rewarded, considered during the promotion process, and it burns a lot of time. Put it off as long as possible. And don't even bother with hiring committees. That's even more of a time sink.
  • Mentoring other googlers. Just like interviewing, it is under-valued and not considered real work when performance reviews come up. Even worse is rescuing someone on a PIP. Unless you're a manager, don't even spend time on that. If you succeed in rescuing that person, he did it himself. If you fail, you've wasted a ton of time. Only managers can get any credit from this, so decline any requests to help.
  • Changing projects. This helps Google by spreading knowledge around. The reward system, however does not reward this. The way to get promoted is to stay at one project for a long time, not to switch projects every 18 months, as management might sometimes tell you. (Note: if you want to switch projects, the best time is right after a promotion)
  • 20% time. Depending on your manager, it could absolutely hurt your career. triple check to make sure your manager does not take a negative view on this. I liked my 20% time, but I was well aware of the trade-off for my career I was making.
Tip #2: Google's full of distractions. Take as many of those off your plate as possible while you're ramping up. In particular:
  • Don't subscribe to misc. Mailing lists are a big time sink. I never felt hurt by not reading misc, misc-mv, or eng-misc.
  • Set a limit on the number of tech talks/fun talks per week that you should go to. Try to stay under that number. I'll admit I didn't always succeed.
Tip #3: Nothing matters as much as getting a high performance rating. Ask your manager how this system works. Ask him how to get a high rating. Do whatever it takes. Doing so nets you:
  • the best projects, and your choice of projects
  • faster promotions and more money
  • "secret" founder's awards (they're not very secret because people brag to me about them)
  • respect from your peers (comes along with the promotions)
Tip #4: Pick a really good manager and/or tech lead. Internal studies have showed that your performance at Google is tied very strongly to who your first tech lead is/was. The best tech lead that I know personally at Google is Arup Mukherjee. A good way for you as an engineer to judge tech leads is to see how many of their reports get promoted. If they don't get their reports promoted, don't work for them. Arup was very good at getting his team members promoted. One manager I know forgot to check the "promotion" check-box for his team members during promotion time. (The poor guy should have checked it himself --- he ended up hitting the salary cap for his level) You can tell who had his priorities straight. You can also try to work for a politically powerful manager/tech lead, but some of them could be hard asses and tough to work for.
The big picture: Google rewards hard work, but much more importantly, high profile projects. Never sacrifice a chance to work on those high profile projects versus equally important but unsexy maintenance tasks that will get no respect from promotion committees. Google does not reward the maintenance work, no matter how important it is (Exception: War-room firefighting. Google loves those, and loves heroic performances from people in war-rooms). In particular, if you're stuck doing SRE work but you're a SWE, you need to negotiate your way out of that. In any organization, there are work horses, show horses, and horses' asses. Most people have no trouble figuring out how not to be the 3rd. But it's far better to be a show horse than a work horse. You get all the rewards with less effort. It is rare that the Raymond Chens of the world get rewarded for the effort they put in. (Yes, and Microsoft at its best was smart enough to do so)
Finally, if you get fed up of working for a big company, consider joining a startup.
[Update: Looks like there's actually a high quality translation of this page in Chinese]