LA’s guilty pleasure

Photo by mxlanderos

If there’s one thing that unites Angelenos, it’s a fascination with car chases. The main news shows will completely shut down their regular coverage for the whole hour if there’s a live chase happening, no matter how uneventful it is. The anchors turn into sports commentators, with lots of informed speculation about the exact tactics police will use, when the PIT maneuver is safe, if the CHP or sheriffs have jurisdiction at every point. KTLA even has a helicopter pilot with the perfect name of Johnny McCool to cover it all.

Liz asked me last night, "Is that morally correct?" and the answer has to be "No, but I still can’t look away". It’s glorifying criminals who are putting a lot of innocent people in danger for the sake of entertainment, and feels like a disorganized version of The Running Man.

Still, to LA residents who spends a significant portion of their life at a frustrated standstill in traffic, the sight of someone breaking free and using every trick to speed along the freeways is mesmerizing and vicariously liberating. The fact that they almost always get caught at the end provides a moral alibi, but the real payoff is seeing them in flight.

I had dinner last night with a friend who’s been collecting the most gripping examples on his blog, and we talked a lot about this local obsession. This New Yorker article is the best exploration I’ve seen, with Sheriff Baca blaming the large number of chases on a shortage of cops and lots of "highly mobile idiots", but it never manages to really explain their popularity. It looks like the number of local car chases is actually declining since the peak in 2004, but I’m betting LA stays way ahead of the rest of the country for a long time to come.

Where to hike and camp in Los Angeles

Photo by Caroline on Crack

I’ve posted a lot of local hiking and camping guides here, but there’s never been a good way to find them all. If you use this search link, you’ll see an up-to-date list of all my outdoors posts, but here’s a collection of my greatest hits to date:

Camping on Santa Cruz Island
Camping in the Santa Monicas: Sycamore Canyon

Camping in the Santa Monicas: La Jolla Valleymy favorite ‘secret’ campground
More on the La Jolla Valley hike-in campground
Camping in the Santa Monicas: Topangaa little-known hike-in campground
Camping in the Santa Monicas: Circle X
Camping in the Angeles: Chantry Flat

Hiking trails on Santa Cruz Island
Fancy a trail with oil bubbling from the ground?
How to hike to the highest point in the Santa Monicas
Slickrock in LA
Big Sky trail in Simi Valley
Condor Peak trail in the Angeles
Bike trails in Sycamore Canyon
See where they filmed MASH

The best barbecue and butchers in Los Angeles


Driving along Simi Valley’s main street near lunch time, you may spot a cloud of smoke in the distance billowing from a sidewalk. As you get closer, going past the motor bike and hot tub stores, something will start to smell really, really good. That’s Green Acres market, where every day they have a massive outdoor barbecue with the tenderest chicken I’ve ever tasted.

The first time I came across Green Acres was at my local Vons meat counter. It was the second place I’d visited that day on the quest for a nice joint of beef on the bone for a traditional Sunday roast. The old butcher behind the counter shook his head at my request, that’s not something they had any demand for, straightforward cuts and ground beef were all they carried. Seeing the disappointment on my face he looked from side to side and then leant over the counter. "Try Green Acres market on Los Angeles Avenue, between Sycamore and Tapo Canyon".

Walking in, it wasn’t much bigger than a 7-11, but the whole of one long wall was taken up with fresh meat. One end started off with more styles of steak than I knew existed, ready to be cut to your liking. After that there was everything from pork, chicken and fish to pre-mixed marinaded selections for all sorts of dishes. Talking to the butcher serving me, he was able to help me pick out exactly the cut and size I wanted. After handing over a lovely prime rib joint, he reached under the counter and gave me a printed note card with their house recipe for perfect prime rib. It surprised me with a low temperature only 200 degrees farenheit for the last couple of hours, after an initial browning phase, but the result was the best roast I’ve ever cooked, with the meat melting in your mouth.

Their lunchtime barbecue is made with the same fresh meat they sell, and expertly cooked. Biting into their chicken sandwich is a beautiful experience, though probably one you want to keep a secret from your cardiologist thanks to their buttered rolls. The chicken is light and soft, with a barbecue sauce that still lets you taste the meat. I’ve never used their catering service myself, but it’s top of my list for the next time I food at an event.


What makes software patents so damaging?

Photo by Indrani Soemardjan

I have a visceral aversion to software patents, after several incidents in my career where I’ve been forced to deliver a lower quality product to the customer purely because of absurd patents. We ended up having to cut out not only a ghost car mode from one game, but any way of comparing your current time against your previous laps since that was also covered. I was also involved in finding prior art for a crazy patent for retiming video based on audio output, something that had been done for years but still got granted.

I know I’m not alone, pretty much every engineer I know agrees the system is broken, but I’ve had a hard time explaining that to people outside the industry. I recently came across a new book that might help explain the impact, Patent Failure by James Messen and Micheal J Muerer. Tim Lee has an extended review in three parts (1, 2, 3) on Megan McArdle’s blog, and for me the most fascinating evidence were these two graphs:



The dotted lines on each graph are the profits made from licensing patents, and the solid lines are the total costs to alleged infringers. The top shows the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, where the costs of defending against patent litigation are a small fraction of the licensing fees. By contrast, in all other industries a lot more money changes hands to defend infringement actions than is made by licensing.

The graph only goes up to 2000, and if my experience is anything to go by, the gold rush by patent trolls to sue deep pocket companies has only increased since then. This seems like a pretty clear and quantitative sign that something is rotten in the state of non-chemical patents, since infringement penalties were meant to be a deterrent to trespassing on someone else’s IP, not the main way of making money from inventions. Either the non-chemical industries are full of bad actors stealing other people’s ideas, or it’s simply not possible to avoid being vulnerable to patent infringement actions, since there’s obviously a big financial incentive to not infringe and it’s still happening.

Tim digs up a couple of reasons why there might be such a difference between the two sectors. With chemical compounds, there’s a very standard way of describing them in a formula, and so it’s a simple process to search patents and see if what you’ve discovered has already been claimed. By contrast, with software patents it’s literally impossible to first find all the relevant patents, and then tell if you’re infringing.

Searching patents for software and expecting to find all or even most is like searching the web for every page that talks about a subject. There’s an almost infinite set of natural language variations that might find what you’re after, and any search will also bring up a large number of irrelevant results. Worse, it’s not obvious even to patent attorneys if a given piece of engineering infringes a patent. Tim gives the great example of the point-of-sale kiosk patent that suddenly got accepted as applying to websites with no physical presence. Not even an attorney would have imagined that was relevant until the court decision accepted its broad scope.

The original rationale behind patents was to distribute information about new inventions in exchange for a temporary monopoly for the inventor. Software patents are almost entirely useless as an information source, and it’s pretty obvious from these figures that their main effect is as an employment boon for lawyers and patent trolls who produce nothing that helps society. The damage to the software industry in stifled innovation is huge, when patents were supposed to do exactly the opposite.

Where to hike and camp in Big Sur

Photo by Jon Iverson

I was preparing my own article on some of the trails and camps I went to last month in Big Sur, but then I discovered the wonderful This site is beautifully designed with some breathtaking photos, clear, witty and concise hike directions, and well-drafted maps.

On my last trip I car-camped at Limekiln State Park, but we took a day hike to check out some of the walk-in campgrounds nearby in southern Big Sur. These are always handy if you want to camp out at a busy time of the year, or on short notice, since walk-ins rarely require reservations and are generally lightly used thanks to the hurdle of backpacking everything in.

We started off at the Salmon Creek trailhead, near one of my favorite waterfalls, and headed towards Spruce and Estrella campgrounds. Jon has a great description and map of the hike, and we checked out the camps along the way. The first one is Spruce, at around 2 miles up the trail, after some stiff climbing. It’s in a nice location, near the junction of two streams in a shaded grove. There’s some fire pits and flat areas for tents, but no other amenities. You’ll need a fire permit from the Forest Service to stay overnight at either of these campgrounds. It’s also a good idea to check in with a ranger station to let them know you’ll be staying overnight, and check on conditions. Here’s one of the fire pits:


About 1.5 miles further on is the second campground, Estrella. There’s a couple of steep, slippery sections that might be tough to navigate with a backpack, though it’s probably safe if you’re careful. It’s located under some firs in a small meadow, with a stream below. I couldn’t find out if this and the one at Spruce were year-round, but it seemed likely based on the strength of the flow in May, and seeing the Salmon Creek waterfall going strong in late summer. You should always bring enough water to get you there and back in case it is dry, but otherwise relying on treating the stream seems safe. Like Spruce, there’s a few fire pits scattered around, as well as some flat sites for tents.


If you want to find more hike-in campgrounds, check out the forest service maps. Here’s one for the Ventana Wilderness that we were hiking through:



Eat at Husky’s in West Seattle


If you’re ever in West Seattle, check out Husky delicatessen for some gorgeous sandwiches. We were staying near California Avenue this week visiting family, and wandered in by chance to pick up some lunch. After trying their Chicken Cashew on Sourdough, we ended up coming back again for the next three days! They’re a family-owned store with a long history, and a great selection of custom-made candy and ice cream along with the sandwiches. The servers are all on the ball, ready to help you pick through all their choices, and happy to give you two half-sandwiches for the price of a whole. They use fresh, local ingredients, and it shows in the taste.


I wasn’t active enough to justify ice cream, but I was enviously checking out everyone else’s, and it looked soft and creamy.


I’m getting hungry just remembering Husky’s, I think I need to pick up some brunch…

Welcome to the United States of America


I’ve just been accepted as a permanent resident here in the US, with the green card (actually mostly white) arriving a few days ago. It’s taken me 7 years of patience and struggle, but now I’ve graduated from a temporary work visa tied to a single employer, to an independent person, free to follow my dreams. It’s a giddy feeling, both the new-found security that I won’t have to leave the country and the liberation of having no restrictions on my professional life.

I’m counting down the days to naturalization now, just 5 years from now I can be a full citizen. I knew very quickly after arriving that I belonged here, as much as I miss my family and friends from Britain. America is full of encouragement for people dreaming big dreams, it’s the best place in the world for doing something that’s never been done. Thanks to everyone who’s kept me going through the long process of getting this sorted out, especially Liz.

Why the passive voice is considered harmful

Photo by MadMannequin

I really, really hate the passive voice. I had to rewrite my bachelor’s thesis after my supervisor rejected my active version. People use it to add an aura of faceless authority to what they’re writing, as if it’s not just someone’s opinion, it’s the way the world is. Things occur, there’s nobody to argue with, they just are. George Orwell agreed too, including it as one of his 5 rules of effective writing.

Most companies I admire write their copy in the active voice, see Feedburner’s about page for a good example. It’s part of a stance that they are in a conversation with their customers as equals, not talking down to them. The passive voice says "There’s no one you can talk to, this is a one-way communication". Active verbs give the feeling that you’re hearing from a human being who might welcome a response. Blogs use the active voice, and that’s what makes them seem so fresh and energetic.

It’s tough when you’re starting off to steer clear of passivity. You want as much authority as you can fake, since a big hurdle is getting anyone to take a chance on a startup with no history, but the language you use affects your thoughts and actions. Using the passive voice is all about putting distance between you and your customers, and you’ll end up losing out. Be active and engage people instead.

Chantry Flats is burning

Photo by Moondabor

Just last week I discovered Hoegee’s campground in the mountains above Altadena, and now the whole area is being swept by the Sierra Madre wildfire. I know that the Chantry Flats buildings, and the cabins in the canyon must be at serious risk, though from this map the trail to the campground has burnt, but not the area we stayed in.
The area was full of extremely dense brush when we hiked through, I’ve heard this is the first fire in 30 years, and the hillsides are very steep. The hot, dry Santa Ana winds kicked in on Saturday too, giving us temperatures over a hundred while we were working on the trails. That makes this a very tough fire to fight, and my thoughts go out to the wildland firefighters who are in the middle of it. So far they’ve protected the city at the base of the mountains, but the hills themselves are so hard to access I hope they’re being very careful as they go deeper.
If you want more information, Jae, a city employee in the thick of it has been blogging about the situation. Moondabor has put up a chilling series of photos of the approaching fire, and Flickr has better coverage than any newspaper I’ve seen. Altadenablog gave me some links to other sites with information, like the Crime Scene Blog and the USGS online maps at GeoMac.