Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Extended Edition on Kindle

I used to subscribe to science fiction magazines on paper. Pulp magazines really haven't changed for decades, though the content has changed quite a bit. In particular, the paper magazines were printed very cheaply, and as the costs of paper went up and the number of buyers (news-stand and subscriptions) went down, the magazines have gone bi-monthly.

Electronic delivery makes a lot of sense for pulp magazines: the cost of mailing and printing is gone, and the guilt of throwing away paper disappears. But most of the pulp magazines to date have been more expensive in electronic edition than in print edition. This sucks, because I don't like the fiction in them any better just because it's in electronic format.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) is the exception to this rule. Priced at $0.99/month or $2 per issue, it's cheaper than a subscription to the print magazine would be, so I tried it. Ironically, the thing I miss most about going to electronic edition is the ads: the print edition would have full page ads for upcoming books that I might miss otherwise, and this edition does not have them.

The fiction is hit & miss, and though not always to my taste, is always of reasonable quality. I certainly feel like I get $2 worth per issue. The restriction on the format is that you only get to keep 7 back-issues at any given time, but that's well over a year's worth of fiction. Since I read nearly every issue cover to cover, this is not a problem for me.

I don't usually review short stories on this blog, so the only way to find out how much you like the magazine is to go for the free trial.

It always feels ironic to me that science fiction magazines are the last on-board the digital bandwagon, and it feels to me like science fiction writers will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into e-books. But Gordon Van Gelder of F&SF is doing a great job in this new world, and I feel like I can't pimp his forward thinking approach on pricing enough.

Recommended

Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: Scott Pilgrim

I came to Scott Pilgrim by way of the movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I could explain the plot, but you'd probably have more fun watching the trailer:

In any case, I thought the movie was unique and very enjoyable in many ways, if not exactly deep. A more literary movie, for instance, would have each of Ramona's ex-boyfriends represent something, either about love or about Ramona, but most of the exes are played for laughs.

I thought the comic book series Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Box Set might have the ability to provide more than the movie's relatively shallow plot.

The verdict: the books do a little better, but not so much better that I would recommend them over the movie. One of the best things about comic books is that they have an unlimited special effects budget, so you would expect the comic book to be even more over the top than the movie. But in many cases, the movies one-ups the books. For instance, the vegan police segment on the movie works way better than what's in the books.

You can read the books in a couple of days (they're comics, each about the size of a Japanese manga). The style is not quite manga-style, though there is a lot of negative space in use, with certain scenes told entirely via pictures rather than with words. The plot is largely the same as the movie, and the characters, while a little bit more fleshed out, aren't vastly different from that in the movie.

I would recommend either watching the movie or reading the books, but don't do both like I did. The movie's a lot shorter, and gets all the highlights of the book right.

Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Two of my books are now available on Amazon!

The 3rd Edition of An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups is now available on Amazon.com. Since paper books are now a vanishingly small percentage of my sales, I'm outsourcing the production and shipping of paperbacks to Amazon whenever I run out of inventory. This comes at a price: while I was able to store and ship books at a low price of $29.95 per copy (just $5 more than the digital edition), Amazon has public shareholders and thus I have to price the book much higher to have the same profit. Fortunately, the ebook is still at the same price of $24.95.

Coincidentally, I'd finally sold out of paperback copies of Startup Engineering Management as well, and that's now also available from Amazon as a paperback. Given that this book started shipping September last year, needless to say it has outperformed my expectations for it!

The last book for which I'm still shipping copies is Independent Cycle Touring. I have 5 copies left, and once those are gone, expect the paperback prices to go up substantially, just like it has for my other books.

I'm now very close to automating my business completely. Electronic fulfillment is now done by E-junkie Shopping Cart and Digital Delivery, and integrates nicely with paypal and Google Checkout (the former better than the latter). Thanks to Gayle Laakmann McDowell for pointing me at them.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Banana - The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

I love bananas. They are by far my favorite fruit, and judging from the statistics in the book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, I am not alone. Americans consume 26 million tons of banana a year, and it is a more popular snack than anything except the potato chip. (I find that amazing)

So when I read that the banana is under threat from Panama disease, I put this book on hold from the library in order to learn more about my favorite fruit. Bananas are essentially clones, since the edible bananas are all seedless. (By the way, apples are also mostly cloned, since while you can plant an apple seed, chances are, the fruit that results is unlikely to resemble the sweetness of its parent) As a result, the fruit is susceptible to disease: once a virus has figured out how to attack one banana tree, it can essentially ravage a plantation, leading to widespread decimation and even extinction of an entire banana species.

In fact, this has happened once before, when the Gros Michel was replaced by the modern Cavendish banana. The Cavendish was brought in because it resisted panama disease... until banana companies tried to plant the Cavendish in Asia and discovered that it too, succumbed to another variant of the disease. In essence, the existing banana plantations live under the threat of a time bomb - sooner or later, that disease will migrate to South/Central America where all those big plantations are and decimate that population, at which point we will have no choice but to switch to a new variety of banana or give up our favorite fruit.

Breeding a seedless plant is full of challenges, and Dan Koeppel does a good job of exploring all the avenues and detailing everything that's been tried and failed. While there are candidate successors, the cost has been high, and the taste of those bananas just different enough from the Cavendish that it would be risky for existing banana companies to try to get the market to switch over until absolutely necessary. Another interesting approach is genetic engineering, which Koeppel explains is far less dangerous with a seedless plant like the banana than with other plants. Of course, we all know about the political problems with that approach.

A large portion of the book is about the history of the banana companies in Central/South America and the politics behind it. This section was less personally interesting to me, but it is absolutely huge! Basically, the banana companies have been instrumental in various juntas and deposition of dictators in various countries (with and without the assistance of the U.S. government), and clearly this has led to the rise of the "banana republic", with the resulting degradation of worker conditions in various countries. Our favorite fruit is cheap only because it is paid for, in many cases with worker's lives and widespread land-grabs by the banana companies.

All in all, this is an entertainingly good book, and I urge everyone who has a chance to read it to do so. Especially if you like bananas. Recommended

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Just Ride, A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike

I've known Grant Petersen since his Bridgestone days, and have ridden with him several times, as well as contributed to his newsletter, The Rivdendell Reader. I am a fan of Petersen's bikes (my current ride is a copy of his '93 Bridgestone RB-1 geometry with a few personal tweaks), and a lifetime member of the Rivendell club. I say all this up front because try as I might, I couldn't recommend this book.

Just Ride is a guide to cycling for non-racers. That's the claim. There's a shortage of such a book, and as someone who raced his bike once in his life and decided it wasn't all that interesting, you would think I would like the book. I'm also a league cycling instructor (LCI #1040), and am always looking for good books to recommend to people who like cycling.

First of all, the book's organization is a pain. Petersen discusses bike fitting at the end of the book, for instance, rather than at the beginning, which is the natural place for people who aren't already devoted cyclists. It seems crazy to go through 7 entire sections of the book (including secionts on bike safety) before you get to making the bike fit you. I'd practically have to rewrite the table of contents for it to be a book that you can read cover to cover to decide whether cycling is for you.

Secondly, the book's a reaction to racing, but tries too hard to define itself against racing, as opposed to defining what cycling is for. As a result, it manages to offend commuters and tourists though its implied assumptions! For instance, there's a deep assumption in this book that you would only ride for fun, and you should only ride for fun, and riding for maximum speed or something like that is racing-wannabe. I know many bike commuters. Getting to work faster is a goal for many of them, just like car drivers who don't want to race might still want to minimize their time spent commuting. Eric House (who is mentioned in the book) once said something like, "Just because I'm on a bicycle doesn't mean that I can't occasionally be late for a meeting and want to go as hard as I can."

Then there are these technical errors. For instance, Grant espouses using rain ponchos (also known as rain capes), but makes no mention that if you use them, you must also use fenders. Sure, he mentions fenders later on in the book, but there's not even a cross reference. It's real obvious to an old-timer like Grant, but it might not be to his target audience. He recommends riding in the door zone, and then when someone opens a door in front of you, "hit the brakes, swerve out of the way, and hope the driver behind you saw this coming." Hope is not a plan, and it's probably a good thing that this book will most likely not be read by many newbies, because that sort of advice will get Petersen sued.

Similarly, the advice on quick release sounds good, but follows the "impression on palm" advice, which is unreliable. It seems as though Petersen did not get any other person to read this book and check it for technical accuracy before publishing it!

Then finally, there's lots of advice about not riding your bicycle: it makes you fat (yes, he says that), it causes all sorts of other health problems, and you shouldn't ride your bike too much. I'm not sure anyone reading this book who's not already a cyclist would be persuaded to become one. There's diet advice (Petersen's jumped onto the low carb bandwagon), and exercise advice (don't ride your bike, do cross fit instead), and health advice (get a blood glucose monitor!).

Is there stuff I agree with in the book? Yes. I like saddlebags and panniers over carrying stuff on your back. Petersen and I see eye to eye there. I like fenders, and I don't think carbon fiber is suitable for the kind of riding I do. I agree with Grant that helmets are not an unmitigated good thing. But all in all, there's a lot not to like about the book. One would think that Petersen was selling cross-fit sessions rather than bicycles, and I can't imagine why any cyclist would support such an anti-cycling point of view.

Not recommended. I'm going to see if I can get Amazon to give me the $9.99 I paid for the Kindle edition back.

An Inflated Sense of Risk

I was at the Berkeley alumni panel organized by Dan Wallach a week or so back, and was very fortunate to be seated next to Jon Blow when someone asked if joining a startup, or doing an indie game was risky. Jon immediately went into this rant about how in this modern world, we have an inflated sense of risk: almost all risk has been taken out of society by civilization --- if you startup fails, you don't go to debtor's prison, and you are not at risk of getting eaten by tigers or wolves. As a result, we have people who inflate the little risks in life to a ridiculous amount, to the point of not letting kids walk or bike to school because they might get abducted by strangers!

This came to me again recently when someone asked me for advice. He was about to leave his current giant employer for another employer that was much smaller, but was well on its way to being public. From a business point of view, neither company had significant risk. Yet he wavered. "I have two pre-school kids, and I can't afford to take the risk of even joining a high quality startup such as OSMeta."

Here's the deal. If you join a smaller company from a giant firm or even a tiny startup, and then face new challenges, overcome them, and work with really smart people, there's zero chance that if everything goes belly up over the next few years the giant corporation will not hire you. Zero. By contrast, if you do spend your time at a large corporation with reduced risk and perhaps a fat package that comes to you every year no matter what happens, would you push yourself as hard? (Some people might: if you're one of them, this does not apply to you, and you're probably a super star at the large corporation anyway and are not reading this) And if you don't manage to push yourself as hard and giant corporation falls onto bad times, what's going to happen? You could be pushed out of your job (by better politicians, perhaps), and now you're actually less employable than if you'd taken the small company "higher risk" job.

So what I think is that people inflate the risk of going solo, doing the startup thing, or even joining a smaller firm, and forget the risk of staying stagnant at a large corporation where you might not get a chance to stretch, and the political game is far more vicious as it's practiced by many people who have nothing better to do all day precisely because the business faces effectively no risk. Startups eliminate such behavior because if you don't pull your weight, it's very obvious and the business is at risk, and good startups fire such people.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Don't Blame The Engineer

I was talking to someone at a big company recently, and we talked about their retention problem. The person said something to the effect that "We have so many engineers that you just can't cover everyone. There's too many places to hide!" My reaction was: "Wait a minute, why is it a problem with the individual engineers! In an organization this size, your problem is not the 300 bad eggs hiding in your organization. Your problem is the 300 directors (and up) and VPs you have of whom 50% are corrupting your culture intentionally, and 90% wasn't even aware of what your original culture was because nearly every manager you have was hired from the outside!"

Here's the hard truth about organizations. It's almost never the problem of a few "bad egg" engineers that's the root of your culture problem. I've a number of very bright friends at Yahoo, and they keep telling me that Yahoo still has great people, but you couldn't tell that from the outside: the problem is that at the top, the organization is dysfunctional, and no amount of great engineering can save you when you can't get your act together: even if one engineer somewhere in the organization were to invent the next billion dollar idea, that person wouldn't get heard, and wouldn't get sufficient resources in order to execute and deliver it to the market in order to generate that value.

Yet engineers persist on blaming other engineers for the problem. I'll never forget sitting down with a very senior engineer at Google several years ago discussing G-Drive. "The tech lead wasn't any good. If he was more persistent or more forceful, G-Drive might have launched." My jaw dropped. Knowing what we now know about how G-Drive was originally killed (it's documented in great detail in Steve Levy's book, In The Plex), we now know there was no way any engineer, no matter how forceful or brilliant, could have kept the project from the chopping block no matter what. The kind of people who could have saved that project were the people who were politically savvy enough to have the ear of Larry Page. Most of them were not engineers, they were managers, directors or "executives." I have no idea why the engineers I talk to feel the need to blame the engineers: it could be that just like with family quarrels, it's easy to turn the anger on the people you know well rather than the strangers.

Yes, there are circumstances under which engineers can and should take the blame. If you chose to build an entire website on PHP, or tried to scale a web-site based on Ruby on Rails, you deserve all the derision you get from your engineering peers. But even such screw ups, by and large, do not tank the company. And as long as you don't screw up management big time, you'll get a chance to rectify those errors. And yes, if you're at a 3 person startup and the product sucks because of engineering decisions, then blame the engineer(s) involved. But seriously, at a large company (anything over 200 people), blaming the engineer simply means that the management sucks and won't take responsibility for its mistakes. If you're such an engineer in such a firm, go get yourself a new job. Waiting for management that sucks to admit its made a mistake could take a really long time.

In Startup Engineering Management, I note that peer based systems cannot scale past Dunbar's number. One of the unnoted pernicious side effects, however, is that peer based systems also make it easy for management to shirk the important management tasks: that of choosing new managers as well as promoting the right people.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Choosing between jobs

One question that occasionally comes up at the end of a Negotiation cycle is, "Ok, now I have all these offers, how do I choose?" Typically, if you end your negotiation cycles in this state, it means that you've done an amazing job in your negotiations, since frequently, there's one stand out company and it's clear which one you should go. (When I had a choice between Yahoo, Google, and Versign in 2003, the answer was pretty obvious. Similarly, in 2010, when one of my friends had a choice between Google and Facebook, the answer was also obvious, even when the compensation numbers were ostensibly close)

In An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups I mention creating a spreadsheet so you can compare the companies involved. Well, one of the contributors to the third edition, Santhosh Srinivasan, has actually gone ahead and created it and shared it on Google Docs for all to use.

Santhosh writes that the inspiration behind the spreadsheet was LAAAM, the Lightweight Architecture Alternative Assessment Method. The idea is that you create a weighting that's important to you, and then rank each job offer independent of the weightings and then the highest scoring total would be your preferred offer.

In reality, I've never actually had to use such a spreadsheet, and neither do most of my clients. The intuitive approach works for most of us because ultimately, if you do a good job with negotiating compensation, the money difference should be so minor that who you want to work with should determine where you land. Since people are the least fungible of all, that approach works well unless you end up at a company so unstable that people come and go without your having an opportunity to work with the people you joined in order to work with. (That can happen, but your interview process should weed out such companies)

I do have friends who've built compensation models using spreadsheets, and then used that to get corporations to bid up their offers by showing that spreadsheet around to various companies. That's a viable approach.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sharing on G+: It doesn't always mean what you think it means

Sharing on Google Plus has always bothered me, but it wasn't recently until I got a grasp on why it bugged me so much. Most of it is because Google + has no concept of where a posts comes from. Let's say I share a post to a few friends. That means only they can see it, right? Wrong. It means that they can only share it to their extended friends circle, which can be a lot of people, if one of them happens to be Robert Scoble. Given that most people can barely deal with 2 circles (friends and following is all I can bring myself to manage), what this means is that sharing privately isn't as private as you think it is. The only way to really ensure privacy is use the "Lock" feature, which prevents anyone from sharing anything.

This is annoying, but hardly the end of the world. I really don't care about privacy, and it's very likely that the future generations of internet users will care much less than the average current user as well. What truly annoys me is when somebody mis-understands the use of the circles sharing feature, and shares a previously public post as a non-public post. If I like that post, and then try to share it, I get a big red sign saying, "No, you're not allowed to share this as public, all you can do is to share it to your Extended Circles." As previously noted, the extended circles is almost as effectively public as Public, but not quite. But darn it, the original post was Public. Just because one of my "privacy conscious" friends (who isn't actually privacy conscious --- see above) didn't choose to share it publicly doesn't mean that I should have to go hunt down the original poster and search for the post and then repost it if I want it back to its original status, Public.

I'm guessing most Google+ users aren't as annoyed at this as I am, but each time I run into a post that was originally Public that I can't share publicly, it screams to me as: "Google+ designers and engineers can't keep track of the original status of the post, so now you have to do it for them." And don't blame the users. The users think they're sharing privately.

Review: The Power of Habit, why we do what we do in life or business

I first ran across The Power of Habit through a New York Times excerpt from the book about How Target knew you were pregnant even if you didn't want it to know. It was an article that was data-science bait, all about big data and the power of analytics. So I stuck it into my wait list for my local library and forgot about it.

I'm all too familiar with the standard non-fiction book spiel: 80 pages worth of content, and 50 pages worth of notes and references to bulk it up with scholarly weight, and another 70 pages of fluff that adds nothing to what you learn. I'm very glad to report that this book breaks the mold. I could not put it down, even when the fluff hit big time, it's not "fluffy" by standards, and you'll learn a lot by reading the book cover to cover.

The opening of the book is rather conventional, covering the neurological basis for habits and how they get formed. But it gets interesting as Duhigg takes you to various applications of that neurology, from how Febreeze was marketed, to why toothpaste became popular and brushing your teeth became a habit. We explore case study after case study about how corporations, marketing types, and people make use of this neurological code in order to get people to behave however they want. There's even a study of how a football coach got his players to break old habits and win games, though I personally feel that the chapter on this is the weakest, because getting the team to finally gel and trust in the coach required an event entirely out of the control of the coach. However, Duhigg redeems himself by pointing out that there are keystone habits that once you establish, actually make changing many other parts of your life easier. (One of them is having good exercise habits)

We then see how organizations form habits and routine themselves in order to operate. The star of this is a pair of case studies: one about a hospital, and one about the subway system in London. The emphasis here is that habits and routine usually develop out of the need to keep political fiefdoms of a large organization out of each other's toes, rather than maximum efficiency, which is what many economists would have you believe. The result is that many important things go unemphasized. What it takes to break these habits and realign an organization is a crisis, whether it is real or imagined. As a result, you hear the axiom, "Never let a crisis go to waste." Unfortunately, Duhigg ends this section with an example drawn from the Obama administration, which did let a crisis go to waste without getting very much out of it.

There is a fascinating case study, however, about Paul O'Neil and how he ran Alcoa, realigning the organization by emphasizing something that few would have considered important to the bottom life: workplace safety. The net result was far beyond expectations, and is a highlight of the book, even more so than the Target excerpt linked above. The insight that institutional habits and routines can be created deliberately rather than evolved out of a need to keep the political types happy is an important one, and organizational builders and startups would do well to pay attention to this chapter.

In any case, by the time you're done with this book, you would have read about Starbuck's training program, gotten an analysis of why Rosa Parks arrest sparked off the civil rights movement, and gotten into the heads of a compulsive gambler and a man who murdered his wife in his sleep. Every case study is interesting, and adds value to the book. At every point you're tempted to put the book down, you're also tempted to say, "Just one more chapter," until you finish it. There's a short appendix on how you can change your own habits, though again, it's really hard so don't expect this to change your life without a ton of work.

Highly recommended.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: Bringing up Bebe

I had very low expectations for Bringing up Bebe. The author's a journalist, and I didn't expect a densely packed tome of information like Brain Rules for Baby or even The Happiest Baby on the Block, which while not being rife with research, at least has a ton of practical tips on how to go about dealing with the first few months.

Druckerman's book is not dense. However, it contains a few very good tips for parents that it really should be required reading as well as the other two books. The first one is that according to Druckerman, there's a window between 2 and 4 months where sleep training can happen fairly easily. As long as the parents don't make a habit out of immediately picking up the baby for every noise he makes, the baby can learn to connect his sleep and sleep through the night without Ferberization or crying it out. This is such an important result that I'm surprised that it's the first time I ran across this study in a book. I'm going to have to track down the paper (it's a 1991 paper so it's fairly old) and see what it really says. According to Druckerman, all French parents manage to hit that window which is why all French children sleep through the night by the time they're 6 months old. If true, this is huge and worth the price of the book alone.

The overall thesis of the book is that French parents, unlike American parents, do not re-orient their lives completely around their children. The expectation is balance: moms should have their own lives, not just orient them around their children. Children should be taught to behave and wait (including fairly rigorous schedules for eating and bed time), so that adults can actually have a life. That the French have a monolithic parenting culture helps here: there's no confusion among the French as to what to do and how to bring up babies.

This includes pre-natal care. Doctors are more than happy to let pregnant patients eat seafood, including raw Oysters, under the assumption that the patients will be careful and vet the seafood properly.

The book is not very rigorous, though it does a good job of pointing out that for instance, despite the French almost universal adoption of formula feeding as opposed to breast feeding, all their birth and infant mortality statistics are better than America's by very large margins. There's no exploration of any rebellion against the status quo by French parents, and there's universally accessible day care (in the form of government run creches and kindergartens).

What I find interesting about the book is that it doesn't contradict Brain Rules for Baby, for instance. In fact, you could almost read it as a practical how-to-guide for applying the research results reported in Brain Rules, applied earlier than you would consider it possible. For instance, there's a section in Brain Rules about how setting firm boundaries and rules is important. Well, the French apply it almost as soon as their children can talk, by teaching them to see Bonjour and Au Revoir, in addition to please and thank you. There are lots of little sections that are good case studies on how to do this. Druckerman also sprinkles liberally throughout the book incident descriptions on how Americans bringing up their babies have much harder times with their children but with no better result (or rather, no better short term results --- nobody knows whether the American lead in Nobel prizes has anything to do with upbringing). There's a section on how French parents get their children to actually sit down and eat at meal time, and not make a fuss, including how by denying children snacks until actual meal times, they end up with children who are actually hungry and will eat their food rather than throwing it around.

In any case, I think this book's definitely worth reading, with lots of little pieces in it about children that are not very well organized, but nevertheless add up to good stuff. It's a pity that Druckerman's a journalist, so she feels obliged to add in lots of irrelevant personal interest material in there, but I understand that many people like that stuff, and in any case, she's no worse and usually much better than the usual parenting book. Given the competitive climate around child-rearing in America, I don't expect Bringing up Bebe to sell better than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but in terms of useful tips and tricks it's actually a much better book, so I hope it does well. We could do with less baby-induced neurosis and better parenting.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

D&D at Google

An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups describes how I ended up joining Google because of a D&D Game I joined in late 2001. Soon after I joined Google, however, most of the players in that group retired to escape California taxes, moved away, or otherwise left Google. I still ran an intermittent D&D game outside work, but there were no D&D games at work.

Ironically, one interviewee I once spoke to rejected Google's job offer because he felt that while he would fit in at Google if he was nerdy and played D&D, he didn't think that as a ballroom dancer he would fit in. He was thoroughly wrong. Ballroom dancing has always been and will probably always be more popular at Google than D&D. In terms of social acceptability, of course, there's no contest: ballroom dancing simply doesn't have D&D's stigma attached to it.

In any case, someone on the SRE team bugged me and bugged me about running a D&D game at Google until I gave in and announced that I was willing to run one. At which point she promptly backed out of being in it. Nevertheless, I started the game in November 2005, and it ran until the end of 2007, with players shuffling in and out. The players included at one point or another, Paul Tyma, Shyam Jayaraman, Taylor Van Vleet, Ron Gilbert (who didn't actually work at Google), Tom Jiang, Neal Kanodia, Roberto Peon, Mike Samuel, and various drop-ins at one point or another.

One innovation that I got from my pre-Google days was to start a blog with in-character descriptions of the game. I would award experience points for writing the blog entries, which were very very fun. Ron, in particular, would draw cartoons involving his character Deathspank and members of the party in their exploits, including some very unheroic moments. Unfortunately, Ron has since yanked the cartoons from the blog, so I'm afraid you won't get to see them.

At the end of 2007, I wrapped up the campaign after all the characters hit 20th level, and moved to Germany. That ended my involvement with D&D at Google. Just yesterday, Tom told me that there hasn't been an epic game like mine since. It was fun and challenging DMing for Googlers (I minimized prep work by running from pre-written adventures whenever possible), and I enjoyed every minute of it. It definitely taxed and challenged my organizational skills to keep the game going for so long, and I definitely felt like I lost control at the end when the characters got too powerful. But that's a fact of the game, and since then there's been another edition of D&D that I have not bothered to play with or pick up. It might be that for me, D&D is something that happens every odd edition.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups, 3rd Edition

My first book, An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups continues to sell very well, considering that there's essentially no marketing budget for it and it's spreading only by word of mouth. I recently ran out of the 2nd edition printing, and coincidentally, there were a few updates that needed to go in for the 3rd edition.

Over the last 2 years, it's clear that the market for books that are mostly text has shifted dramatically. When I first started selling books, printed copies accounted for 70% of sales while digital copies were the other 30%. Now it's the other way around and the tide continues to shift in favor of ebooks. As such, the costs of storing, shipping, and postage of printed books is no longer worth the amount of additional revenue I get.

Fortunately, Amazon is happy to print and ship books on an on-demand basis, so that's what I will do for printed books. This unfortunately means increased prices: Amazon wants their pound of flesh, so printed copies now cost $43.95 a pop, as opposed to $29.95. On the other hand, if the book is popular, Amazon could discount it, and of course, Amazon provides free shipping. For a limited time, you can pre-order the 3rd edition at the old price ($29.95 + shipping) from the book's web-page. I need to order copies for the freebies as well as for the library of congress, so you would be pigging back on this process. (I also need to look over the final proof one more time)

The new edition features new sections on green cards, surviving a big acquisition, negotiating between co-founders, as well as an expanded financial planning section that was asked for by readers. In addition, my friend Scarlet Tang has re-designed the cover. One big disappointment was that I had moved the book over to InDesign CS 5.5 in the hopes of producing an EPUB and Kindle-compatible editions. Unfortunately, InDesign CS 5.5 crashes whenever it attempts to export an EPUB, so I'm stuck with still only shipping PDFs. You can still use Mobipocket creator to create a Kindle edition from the PDF, but the results were not satisfactory to me, so I'll let those who want to do this bear the consequences for it.

As with the 2nd edition, everyone who's bought a copy within the last month (i.e., from April 8th) gets a free digital copy of the book. For everyone else, upgrade pricing is available. Note that you can only upgrade from a 2nd edition to the 3rd edition. No skipping from the 1st edition to the 3rd edition for $12.50. Note that Kindle edition owners do not get upgrades, nor will the Kindle version get updated to the 2nd edition. It's $9.95, which is already a hefty discount. As I've previously mentioned, if you're actively job-hunting, the full version is what you want. If you're poor or in school, then by all means buy the Kindle edition.

As for my other books, expect them to go in the same direction as the print copies run out. I aim to be done with shipping and handling by the end of the year if not sooner.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Review: End this depression now!

I'm a big fan of Paul Krugman, and his latest book, End this depression now! made it to my kindle as a pre-order, something I hardly ever do.

The thesis of this book is that our current recession (which Krugman considers a depression) is easily cured with existing tools in our knowledge of economics, dating all the way back to the great depression and Keynes' theory of employment. Krugman provides data and evidence for this, and then goes on to debunk opposing views one at a time, providing a fair explanation of the opposing explanation (more fair than they deserve, in many cases), and then explaining how his proposed solutions would work better.

You might think that the book is mostly focused on the USA, but Krugman spends a fair amount of time on the EU, and the Eurozone, discussing how the Euro contributes to the Eurozone's malaise. Interestingly enough, Krugman does not propose dismantling the Eurozone, which makes a solution to their economic problems much less tractable than if he had assumed that the Euro would go away, at least for the European periphery.

Would his policy prescriptions be adopted? In an ideal world with an educated citizenry that understands that prescribing more of a depression is poor policy, there's no question something would already have done. However, when examining history, even FDR had a hard time getting the New Deal passed, and that turned out to be insufficient until world war 2 came along. Neither Obama nor Romney are as enlightened as FDR, so I expect that we will muddle along until the housing crunch plays itself out.

Nevertheless, if you want to understand the financial crisis, how it played out, and how the economy in aggregate works, you can hardly turn to a better writer than Krugman. His use of the baby sitting coop as a metaphor for the economy makes the grasp of complex economic concepts clear even to those who are not economics junkies like me, and the only problem with this book is that not enough people will read it.

Recommended.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Review: The Four Hour Body

I'm of two minds about The Four Hour Body. For one thing, it covers topics that I have yet to see in any real workout book elsewhere. For instance, much has been made of Dave "The Man" Scott's Iron Man triumphs as a vegetarian. This is the only book I've seen that actually talked to Dave Scott, where he reveals that he went back to eating meat after retiring from competition and had improved performance.

The book covers a huge amount of area. From how to lose fat to how to gain muscle, what causes infertility, how to prepare for a marathon on 3 15 minute sessions a week and some strength training, how to eat right, how to get yourself tested.

However, the problem with the book is that none of this is scientifically tested. All the results Feriss has are anecdotal. He admits in the appendix that his recommendations on diet, for instance, suffers from survivorship bias: people who've tried and failed aren't likely to report their failures. This is pretty serious, because his prescriptions are dramatic: for instance, he recommends that you eliminate variety from your diet and stick to eating the same things week in week out, except one day a week when you binge on forbidden foods. The diet recommendations are pretty standard low-carb stuff, which obviously has been shown under some circumstances to work.

He recommends working out as little as possible by relying as much as possible on interval/high-intensity training. Again, this has been shown to work. However, his test case is running a marathon. I've on the other hand, seen a number of cyclists become very strong by pursuing a Feriss-style interval-training program. However, by actually doing so little cycling, they never develop the skills to handle their bikes properly, and then end up with accidents that wouldn't have happened if they had trained traditionally, ramping up their strength by using on-bike time, ensuring that their cycling skills kept pace with their endurance, speed, and strength. Feriss gives a slight nod to this in an unrelated chapter, but I feel that he gives this short shrift.

Then there's the section on sleep, where he pushes the Everyman and Uberman polyphasic sleep cycles. The reality is, I don't think there's ever been a documented case of someone actually managing the Uberman, and it doesn't look like Feriss has even tried these for an extended period of time.

All this makes it seems like I wouldn't recommend the book, but I found it worth reading mostly because of the intense approach Feriss takes. While I'm not willing to take most of his steps (seriously, if you never found a sport you enjoyed and love enough to spend more than 4 hours a week on it, then I feel sorry for you, and this book might be your answer), I found it filled with little titbits that would be interesting, if I could find some way to verify them. I would take most of the book with a large burlap sack of salt (by the middle of the book you're convinced that Feriss has had every ailment known to man, when in reality he's a very healthy 28 year old hyping up his minor ailments as big problems so he can sound good when he "conquers" them), but as entertainment it's kind of fun reading. Just make sure you verify anything he says with a different source before undertaking the drastic changes in lifestyle he recommends.

Finally, stuff that a twenty-something can get away with doing to his body isn't something that a forty-something can get away with. I would be very cautious with his recommendations if you do not fit his profile.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Review: Google Drive

I was one of the enthusiastic early users of Google Drive way back in 2007, when it launched internally at Google. It was great. I would drop stuff into it, and I could pick things up from my laptop, desktop, or if my laptop's hard drive crashed, I'd get all the data back. Thanks to the magic of VPN, I could even get those files sync'd to my home machine. I was very sad when Google Drive got canceled.

When I started Independent Cycle Touring, I discovered that Dropbox worked better than Google Docs. I managed to wrangle some more free quota, and started putting all my important files on Dropbox. (The source files for Independent Cycle Touring alone were more than 4GB, so getting extra quota was important) At last year's Worldcon, big name authors were telling newbies to get and install Dropbox and put all important work in there so it would be backed up.

With Dropbox now worth $4B, Google Drive was hurriedly revived and launched recently. My wife and I were curious, so we played around with it a bit. First of all, the UI is lousy compared to Dropbox. When you create a new folder and move files to it, there's no way to specify "Share this with someone" directly from the Windows Explorer. You have to know to visit Google Docs on the web and then select the folder and then share it. The recipient then has to move the shared folder into her "My Drive" folder before the files are sync'd to her hard drive!! This is a major botch up! On Dropbox, if you share a folder with someone, they receive an e-mail and once they click "accept", the folder is automatically sync'd to their local drive, no questions asked. It took a while for us to figure this out.

Conflict resolution is crude: we both edited a file at the same time in Microsoft Word. On Dropbox, the simultaneous edit and saves would create multiple copies of the same file with our different edits. This could be annoying to resolve, but at least you knew what happened. On Google Drive, the first copy would save just fine, and then the other person would get a "Cannot sync this file" message with no explanation.

We didn't try syncing large numbers of files, which we know works well on Dropbox, and works badly on SkyDrive (one file at a time, no smart scheduling of small files to sync first).

Conclusion: Dropbox is still the one to beat. If I was a Dropbox user, employee, or investor, I would not be worried by Google's entry into this field. If you're already a Dropbox user, there's no need to switch. If you're a Google Drive user, you should consider switching to Dropbox. (I am not an investor in Dropbox, just a happy user)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Review: Among Others

Every so often, you run across a novel so sublime and brilliantly written that you want to go out and recommend it to everyone you know who loves books. Among Others is just such a novel.

The novel is clearly autobiographical in many areas, as anyone who's met Jo Walton (as I did during last year's WorldCon) might guess. But it's clearly fictional as well.

The first thing that Walton does is to turn the typical fantasy story upside down by having all the important fantastical events happen prior to the start of the novel. The protagonist has already saved the world. Now she's dealing with the aftermath and consequences of her prior actions: she'd lost her twin sister, she's made enemies out of her mother (a witch who tried to take over the world), and one of her legs is crippled, forcing her to walk with a cane. She now has to be cared for by a father who abandoned her as a child, attend a boarding school, and is in general ripped away from her previous life.

All that she has left is books. And of course, like Jo Walton (and hopefully many readers of this blog), she's a science fiction and fantasy fan, having grown up with Dying Inside, Heinlein, Asimov's, and of course Tolkein. Walton does a great job of in-cluing readers so that even if you haven't read all the novels mentioned in this novel (and you'd have to be incredibly well read to have read all of them), you will have a good understanding of what the novels are about and what the highlights of the authors' writing style is. Walton is an extremely well-read book critic, and her taste and sensibility and ability to summarize say, The first four Amber books in succinct phrases that resonate with the reader serves her well here.

Yes, it's a teenage coming of age novel, but unlike popular teenager novels nowadays, this book could be described almost as the perfect antidote to Twilight and others of its ilk. The heroine/protagonist doesn't do anything stupid, is incredibly level headed about love and sex, but the author also takes care to bring you the subtle nuances of what it means to be a girl in an English boarding school, with all the intrigues and pointless shaming. However, since the protagonist had already done so much with her life, she doesn't succumb to typical high school angst. When she acquires a boyfriend, she does so with no drama, though there might have been a little magic involved.

Yes, there's magic in the book, and fairies. But it's done in a very subtle fashion, very appropriate to the setting of an English boarding school. There's nothing flashy about it, and how magic goes about its business isn't obvious.

This is a slow paced book, similar to Crossing to Safety, and it is a testament to Walton's skill that the reader does not feel the slow pace at all. When the climax comes, it sneaks up on you, and when you see how the protagonist resolves it the thematic fit and elegance almost hits you in the head, which would be a little too much for any other novel, but works very well in this one.

If you enjoy novels, especially science fiction and fantasy of the era (the book is set in the late 1970s), then you owe it to yourself to read this book. It really is a trip and if not the best novel I've read this year, pretty darn close.

Highly recommended

Independent Cycle Touring at Google

For bike to work week, I've agreed to reprise the Independent Cycle Touring in Europe presentation at Google's campus at HQ. It will be held at Serville Tech Talk area on May 9th, from 1:00pm to 3:00pm (bring your boxed lunch, I don't mind you eating while I talk).
Independent Cycle Touring in Europe:
Imagine pedaling through quaint mountain hamlets in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, past fields of wildflowers in Germany’s Black Forest, along the shores of lovely lakes near Salzburg in Austria, or high above the Mediterranean in the French Pyrenees… With its diverse landscapes, vast network of roads and cycle paths, and bike-friendly accommodations, Europe is a fantastic cycling destination. Tonight, independent cyclist and guidebook author Piaw Na will share his expertise on planning bike tours in Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany, Italy, England, and Scotland. Piaw will cover the nuts and bolts of organizing an independent tour, including route-planning, seasonal considerations, lightweight gear, training, transporting bikes on planes/public transit, navigation tools, accommodations, and more.

The organizer, Anna Walters, is open to allowing outside visitors to attend the talk. If you are not a Google employee, please RSVP to me by the end of the week by leaving a comment on the blog so we can get a headcount, and Anna can see if Google is willing to accommodate that many visitors.

Googlers: I will keep the Q&A period relevant only to the talk, so bring your cycling questions. I worked at Google for many years, and remember teaching the League Road 1 course on campus in building 42 one evening. I was demonstrating how to fix a flat when Wayne Rosing walked by and peaked into the conference room we had commandeered for the session. He smiled, shook his head, and walked on by.

This talk was very well received at REI, so I look forward to giving it at Berkeley, where I launched many many bike tours (as well as supporting wheel building sessions). If you can make it, please come.