Avoid the service desk if your flight is cancelled

Photo by Shoreline

I was at Denver International waiting for my flight to Burbank. It was already on the screens as over an hour late, and it was the last flight out, so I was feeling nervous. The lady at the gate came on the loud speaker and announced that while it wasn’t officially canceled, unofficially it looked likely it would be. Her advice for the 50 people waiting was to head to the one customer service desk they had manned and sort something out with them. "Discounted hotel rooms" was one of the less-than-appealing offers mentioned. That resulted in a stampede in that direction, but I remembered the advice I’d received from veterans of business flying. Avoid the service desk at all costs, because if you’re stuck, so are loads of others, and you’ll end up spending hours standing in line. I was determined to get home that night, so I started working on my other options.

There were no more flights to Burbank, but Liz was picking me up so I could fly into LAX instead, which opened up several direct flights. I figured out what the next one I could catch was, and tried to use my iPhone to book it through the internet. The United site wouldn’t let me book that close to departure, but Expedia appeared to. I went ahead and booked the flight I wanted, and then headed over to a bank of self-service check-in machines to print out a ticket. After some futzing trying to use my confirmation number, I realized Expedia had actually bumped me onto the flight at the same time the next day, ignoring the date I specified, and I’d missed that in my rush. Next up was a trip to the bank of phones that went direct to the United reservations system. They also couldn’t handle a booking that close to departure. At this point it was only 30 minutes before the flight I wanted left, so I was getting worried.

I walked past the customer service desk, and sure enough there was still a massive line. Finally, I went directly to the gate where the LAX flight was leaving from. There was only one person in line at the desk, also a Burbank refugee. She booked onto the flight, though her luggage wouldn’t be following. I walked up, and I only had carry-on, so the attendant was able to print me out a ticket and get me a seat in under a minute, all for no cost since I had my Burbank boarding pass. I so pleasantly surprised I was grinning the whole flight home.

My high hopes of technology didn’t work out, but that advice I’d got about avoiding those customer service lines definitely paid off.

Walker Ranch kicked my butt


I was feeling fairly cocky after the last few years of regular road-biking, and wanted to try something ambitious while I was here in Boulder. Climbing 2000 feet up Flagstaff Road and then taking the Walker Ranch Loop sounded like a good way of stretching myself. I didn’t count on quite how stretched I’d be by the end.

I got a 9:15am start, a bit later than I’d planned, but still not too hot. The ride up Flagstaff was tough, but I took it slow and drank plenty of water, since I knew I had a long way to go after that. The steepest section was the first half, before the auditorium turnoff, but it was a relentless grade all 7 miles to the top of the ridge. After catching my breath, I headed down the other side to find the Walker Ranch trailhead, and was a bit worried by how far I had dropped by the time I got there.

The entrance to the property was signed, but I ended up taking a wrong turn and getting scolded by a genuine cowboy at the historic homestead site for taking my bike in a no-bike zone. After being pointed in the right direction, I found the parking lot, and set off left to do the loop clockwise. The first mile or two was rocky single-track, which climbed a little before plunging down to Boulder Creek. As I was headed further and further down, I realized it would be a tough climb back out of the valley. Once I hit the creek, there was a bridge and I got to rest and enjoy the white water crashing down the canyon.


After the bridge, there was a really steep cliff climb of a few hundred feet. I had to carry my bike up steps for most of it, and that took its toll. Then there was a crawl up to another ridge, before heading back down again and crossing the creek again. By this point, I realized I was getting irritable for no good reason, a possible warning sign of dehydration, so I stopped again in the shade and made sure I drank plenty.

I was less than 2 miles from the trailhead, but a long way below. It was getting into the high 90’s by this point, and I walked a fair part of the final climb, taking plenty of breaks in the shade and getting through more water. When I finally made the parking lot, I crashed out under a tree for 20 minutes, and thought about my next move. I’m used to biking in the California summer, so I had brought a lot of water, but I finished off the last of it there. I only had a couple of miles of road-riding to make it to the ridge on Flagstaff and then I’d be able to coast back to Boulder, but I knew I without water my margin of safety was shrinking. In the end I decided to take it very easy up the road, with lots of breaks, and keep an eye on myself for signs of heat exhaustion or dehydration. In the worst case, it was a well-travelled route with houses nearby, and I might have to ask for help.

That last climb was just as tough as I’d feared, but taking it slow I was able to make it to the top of Flagstaff. That was such a great feeling, I shot back down to Boulder in less than half an hour. I returned my rented bike, and by an act of god there was a Coldstone Creamery next door. I don’t know if ice-cream is the best thing for dehydration, but I’ve never tasted anything so good.

What should have been a 4 hour ride turned into 6, and I made some rookie mistakes; failing to take into account the difference the altitude would make, not checking the weather forecast, bringing too little water for the conditions. If you’re looking for a tough ride out of Boulder, it has some amazing views and great technical single-track on the loop, but be smarter than me and make sure you’re prepared!

Really fat tires in Boulder


Everybody knows Boulder’s a great city for mountain biking, but I never realized there were even fatter tires on the Boulder Creek whitewater tubing course. All you need is a tire from the gas station on Arapahoe and Broadway, then head down to the creek at Eben G Fine Park, and take a wild ride.

If you’re visiting Boulder and want to explore the mountains on traditional fat tire, there’s a couple of options for renting one. Rob from Eventvue pointed me towards University Bicycles, right in the center of downtown on Pearl Street, but they were out of mountain bikes when I got there. They were kind enough to recommend the Boulder Bikesmith, about 1/2 mile from the city center, in the mall on the corner of Arapahoe and Folsom. They sorted me out with a Giant XTC1 in good condition, charging about $55 for two days. The lock and helmet were included, but there’s no cages on the pedals or bike computer, both of which I missed once I hit the climbs.

I had no clue where to go, so I hit the Boulder Book Store on Pearl Street and discovered Bicycling Boulder by Burt and Terry Struthers. This is a fantastic little guide to a whole bunch of local trails for road and mountain bikes, with short but clear descriptions, they’ve obviously spent a lot of time on the routes themselves. The only drawback is that their maps and elevation charts are obviously taken directly from their GPS systems, with a few very basic additions, so you may want to pick up a separate map. I didn’t, but there were a couple of points on my ride today where I was unsure if I was on the right path, and wished I had.

That evening I started out gently, taking the Boulder Creek trail. It runs alongside the stream for about 5 miles, from one end of Boulder to the other. With no street crossings and little grade it’s a smooth ride the whole way. It parallels Arapahoe, with ramps onto it from most of the side-street bridges that cross the creek.

Today I had some time free in the afternoon and wanted to go a bit further afield. I’d had lunch with Andy Sautins from Return Path, and he recommended the Poorman Road loop. In the Struthers book this is listed as a variant of the 9th ride on Sunshine Canyon, and is mostly asphalt with a couple of miles of gravel fire road. It’s close to town, so I was able to get to Mapleton Avenue and then continue west as it turned into Sunshine Canyon.

I had to ride 2.5 miles up the asphalt to reach the Poorman fire road. My misery index was fairly high on that uphill, it’s only a 1000 feet gain but felt like more. I felt a bit lost without my cadence meter to help me keep a steady pace, I was missing my clips for getting back power on the upstroke and could feel the altitude in my breathing. Once I got to the turnoff though, I was actually a bit sorry I wasn’t carrying on up to finish the other half of Sunshine Canyon. The view was beautiful and getting better, I’d found my groove with the climb, and hadn’t been passed by any other bikers (though maybe no one else was crazy enough to do the uphill in the afternoon heat!)

Poormans is a dirt road, but it’s in very good shape. It started off level, and then headed more steeply downhill, but it was so smooth I had an exhilarating descent for 2 miles, hardly touching the brakes. That led to the Four Mile Drive asphalt road, which the joined Boulder Creek Road and came back into town.

Tomorrow I’m thinking about attempting Walkers Ranch, with 3,200 feet of gain, so if this is my last post, you’ll know why…

Trust but verify

Photo by Concrete Jungler101

I ran across the Mistake Bank for the first time today (HT Tim Berry via Execupundit). It’s a Ning network where you can post stories of your memorable mistakes. Looking through the contributions drove home a lot of lessons, so I thought it was about time I gave back and shared some of my own screw-ups.

Back when I worked in the game industry, my first job in the US was at a small but established company. It was towards the end of a grueling project, everyone had been working long hours and there was a lot of discontent in the ranks. The manager of the project came into my office and closed the door. He asked if I wanted to join him and found a new company, explaining that I was key to his team, and most of my colleagues had signed on. He painted a picture of a family-friendly, creative environment where we could build games the way we’d always wanted to. He’d talked to some big publishers, and had a contract to produce an NCAA version of a popular NBA basketball game. I’d had dinner at his house, met his family, and felt a lot of affection and trust towards him, so I was excited by the idea and agreed.

With all the good-feeling I had towards him, and the way he always talked about ‘our company’, I never stopped to think about actual ownership. Since I was alone in the US for Christmas I even volunteered to help unpack and set up the office furniture over the vacation, throwing myself completely into making the company a success. The first week we all started it rapidly became ‘my company’, because after all he was the sole owner, and none of us had any stake. He’d needed our resumes to convince the publisher to give him the contract, but after that we were overhead, and far too fussy about quality. He bought a second house and a Mercedes in the first couple of months, and fired or pushed out the experienced artists to make way for untrained people keen to make it into the industry, willing to accept sub-$20,000 wages. He demanded relentless hours, with my personal best topping out at 92 in a week. I finally knew I had to leave when my parents visited for 2 weeks, and I was only able to see them twice in the evening. Another strong memory is seeing a colleague chewed out for being late on a Sunday! I stuck it out for a year, until the end of the project, and then left to start my own business away from games.

The lesson I learnt from this was to never make a deal that relies on good will and assurances. No matter how well you know someone as a friend, the pressures of money and power are very strong, so you need to look out for your own interests. Now when I’m evaluating an offer, I assume that everyone will work within the rules to maximize their own position. Looking back, my mistake was listening to his words instead of evaluating his actions, and not demanding anything concrete to verify he’d deliver on the lofty promises.

Permessa and the depressing constraints of email systems


I recently discovered Permessa, a company that’s been dealing with enterprise email for the last 15 years, with an impressive range of customers, everyone from Toshiba to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The CEO, Stefan Mehlhorn, runs an occasional blog covering email issues.

Their products analyze email and IM data as it flows across the internal network, focusing on automating common admin tasks like tracking down performance problems or enforcing email use policies. They’ve got some smart ideas on improving on the standard rules, like working out the impact of a message by multiplying its attachment’s size by the number of recipients, rather than the usual blanket size limit. This makes it possible to send a 30MB attachment to a couple of people, but block a 2MB one that’s going to 200 recipients, which is handy because the latter takes up a lot more room.

I can understand why their services are very popular at large companies. The performance and reliability of your email systems are insanely critical to running a business, so anything that helps optimize the messaging backbone is worth buying. Looking at the big picture though, it’s depressing that we have to worry about 20MB attachments when a 1TB hard drive costs $200.

The web approach of throwing large numbers of cheap boxes at a problem
has massive advantages compared to having a handful of super-pimped and
expensive Exchange servers. You can actually take advantage of the cheapness of storage, rather than being stuck prioritizing performance over capacity as Microsoft recommends for Exchange. Individual boxes can fail and you don’t have to go into Exchange recovery hell while your boss and all of your coworkers fume. As your requirements change, you can incrementally add or alter hardware.

Twitter’s troubles make it clear that handling communication between large networks of people is still a really hard problem even with a modern cloud architecture, but just like the killer micros ate up the mainframe business, large networks of cheap servers are going to consume Exchange.

Beware of new lines in your PHP include files

Photo by Ben Romberg

The single best thing about PHP is how easy it is to embed HTML within your source files. This makes writing user-interface oriented code incredibly easy, since you can prototype both the presentation and the logic of your pages in the same file.

As always though, there’s a price, as I discovered after some serious head-scratching yesterday. All the executable code in a PHP file is enclosed in special <?php?> blocks. A typical project will have a bunch of included PHP files, with the each file internally enclosed in one of these tags. Anything in those files that’s outside the tag is printed verbatim to the standard output, usually the user’s web browser. That means if you have a new line after the closing tag in an include, that will be printed to the output.

Normally that’s not a problem, floating carriage returns are generally treated as whitespace and ignored in HTML, so it doesn’t make a difference. What if you’re actually trying to pass binary data to the user though? In my case, I’m fetching a mail attachment from a database, setting up the appropriate MIME content type and then printing it to standard output to be downloaded. That nearly invisible new line at the end of one of the include files gets output first, which royally confuses most binary formats, making them unrecognizably corrupted.

Once I figured out what was going on, I did a sweep through my includes and removed any trailing new lines, but I could also have called ob_clean() to wipe the output buffer before I wrote out the file data. There’s a good treatment of the whole topic of file downloads in PHP here, but it feels like the deeper lesson is about using the right tool for the job. PHP is extremely fast to prototype web apps in because it is totally focused on the task of producing HTML pages, but once you’re dealing with arbitrary data, Perl or Python sure start to look pretty.

“Lockdown in Sector 4 (Failure)” – Why relying on Google’s IMAP API is scary

Photo by Illetires

I’ve been downloading email from my Google account onto a local machine to do data analysis, using their IMAP interface. About an hour ago, I suddenly started getting failed connections with the message ‘Lockdown in sector 4 (Failure)’. After a bit of googling, I discovered that’s their whimsical way to indicate that they’ve detected something in your access patterns they dislike, and IMAP access to that account is dead for up to a day.

I’m assuming the algorithm that triggers this is related to the amount of downloads you attempt in a given period of time, and they’re trying to prevent overloading of their servers or hacking attempts. It’s unfortunate that the criteria they use are unpublished, my usage today seemed reasonable, and no different from other times I’ve done something similar.

I’d expect Google to have mechanisms like this in place to protect themselves but it highlights what a scary prospect basing a business on IMAP access is. Any service like Xoopit could trip over Google’s hidden rules, and even if they’ve reverse-engineered their current state, there’s no guarantee that the triggers won’t change. And that’s just assuming that Google don’t want to be evil, if they decide that they don’t like their users handing over their passwords to third-parties, it would be easy enough to block their services in just the same way.

The real answer would be a proper gmail interface for third-party applications, rather than reusing the IMAP transport protocol with its reliance on sharing passwords, but this doesn’t seem like a high priority for Google. Until then, I’m going to keep my main focus on the Exchange world. The APIs may be scary, but at least Microsoft offers unfettered access to the data once you’re installed as an add-on.

Are you building a Leatherman or a Samurai sword?

Photo by Simonella_Virus

One of the classic engineer mistakes is adding features to improve the product. Under the strict eye of the designers at Apple, I had to learn that every increase in complexity decreases usability. Greg Niles, the designer on most of the products I worked on, became my test. I’d imagine "What would Greg say?" as I was working out the technical interface, and usually my first cut would produce "That looks like a space shuttle control panel", or "Um, what does ‘epsilon’ mean?’ The next step would be ruthlessly removing everything but one or two vital UI elements.

This goes against the engineering grain, because you’re setting limits on what the user can do, when you know the underlying code has all sorts of potential knobs they might like to tweak. It’s also extremely hard to know what you can remove, because you have to bring exactly what the user wants into sharp focus. You can’t just throw a bunch of building blocks at them and expect them to put something together that solves their problem. Instead you have to get inside their head, and deal with their frustratingly messy and contradictory requirements.

I was thinking about this today as I read through the incredibly useful Monitor101 post-mortem (via just about everyone), as well as the GameClay retrospective, and remembering Nick’s look at why Disruptor Monkey failed. Every technical founder wants to build a platform, they want to solve lots of problems all at once in a very general way. I like Roger’s term ‘Science Project’ because it’s the urge to build something that all your fellow hackers will stand around and gaze in awe at. You end up with a million features, which makes it very time-consuming to build, and even when it’s done, the number of different gizmos on your Leatherman scare off potential users. You need to have a strong connection to your actual customers, and be hearing about exactly what they need to do. Then you need to design around that, ruthlessly jettisoning anything that distracts from them achieving their goals.

Samurais may not be able to get stones out of horses’ hooves with the sword you come up with, but they should be very effective at chopping people’s heads off.

Kurt’s Catechism

Photo by Chotda

I had dinner with Kurt Loheit last night, and as always I left with a lot of mental cogs whirring. I met him years ago through trailwork, his pioneering efforts building bike trails earnt him a place in the mountain bike hall of fame. He’s also an actual rocket scientist, and has been an internal entrepreneur at a large aeronautics firm for the last 30 years. When we sat down to discuss my new venture I knew he’d have a lot of insights.

He spends a lot of time trying to evaluate engineers’ ideas for funding, working almost as an internal VC, and he shared one of his essential tools with me. It’s a very simple idea, a series of basic questions based on Heilmeier’s Catechism. Answering them forces someone to break their technical focus and think about the bigger picture. The real value is that the answers form a pretty strong overview of the strengths and weaknesses of your idea, so you can evaluate your own proposals before you try and pitch them to a gatekeeper like a VC or someone internal who controls resources. Their simplicity and the structure makes it a lot harder to get lost in the details of your idea, which is always my temptation as an engineer.

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How does this get done at present and by whom?
  • What are the limitations of the present approaches and what are the metrics?
  • What is new about our approach?
  • What is the key technology or concept that now makes this idea work?
  • Why do we think we can be successful and what are your key assumptions about the external environment?
  • Who is the customer and what is the market for the idea?
  • If we succeed, what difference do we think it will make?
  • How long do we think it will take to develop proof of principle?
  • What are our midterm and final exams to see how we are doing?
  • How much do we think it will cost to develop the concept through proof of principle?
  • (For new ideas before a research project has begun: How much do we think it will cost and how long to develop a seedling (i.e. understand idea, metrics and develop concept briefing).