Month: August 2013

Firewire Baked Potato – The Review

I’ve had my Baked Potato over the summer now: time to update my first impressions and get you a real review!

Who Is It For?

The Firewire web site is a little cagey about the intended audience, and they have videos of Gabriel Medina on a Baked Potato. The smallest adult size you can get, though, is the 5’1″ which has a volume of 29.3l. That’s a tad large for an advanced surfer and indicates the board is mostly targeted at an at most intermediate audience.


Since it’s such a short board, it’s really not well-suited for beginners, either. While the small size compensates (to an extent) for flaws in the stance, overall the board is too unstable in the width axis (forward backward) to appeal to a beginner. In essence, it is so short that you might find yourself pearling or stalling more often than you’d have to.

Since I am getting into intermediate territory (or am already there, depending on who’s counting), I thought the Baked Potato was an almost optimal choice. The one problem it has, though, is the price tag: it retails (summer 2013) for $649/$699 (RapidFire/TimberTek), and there are virtually no discounts.


L’America: Buying a Car From a Dealer

One of the first things you’ll need when you move to America is a car. Sure, there are places where you can (and should) do without – Manhattan, for instance. All in all, though, America assumes everybody owns a car, which translates directly into the typical distances you travel to get from anywhere to anywhere.

For the average American, the car is the second-largest expense they will make (the first one being their home). As such, it’s a really important choice, and you should think a lot before committing to anything.

Just kidding: grab your pile of cash and waltz to the nearest dealership. That’ll do the trick!

In all seriousness, car buying in America is fairly complicated. More complicated than buying a house, say, because there it’s almost automatic that you need a mortgage, which means the bank ensures that you don’t get totally ripped off.

With cars, the tension is between the dealer/owner, who wants to close immediately, and you, who should want to compare. In your disfavor, you don’t really like dealing with the buying, so you try to close as fast as you can and get a good deal.

So far, that’s true in the rest of the world, too. What’s different in America is that most people here buy cars with loans, which means they can afford a variable amount of car. When the best you can haggle is a $10 a month discount, you become less price-sensitive.

I would love to be cute and funny here, but you really need good directions. So no joking allowed.


Creating Blog Spam Alerts

Many of the various sites I maintain have comment sections. Some have Forum software (typically Kunena), some allow comments on articles, some on images. All of these site have in common that if the configuration is not perfectly right, you end up with tons of spam. And by “tons,” I mean several gigabytes of uploads a month.

I am slowly getting the configuration down, but every software update, every new installation is another potential trap. Then I will look at the stats and realize there is a sudden surge of uploads from a particular location (so far, Russia and Ukraine have been particularly prolific). I will look at the comments, and they will typically be in English and try to sell (for whatever reason) fashion articles.

I assume, from referrer traffic, that this is a ploy to increase the search engine ranking of sites that sell counterfeit wares. If I have a link to a Guggi handbag (popular with spammers!), and I am a “good” site, then Google et al. will rank the link higher.

So far, I’ve been going for a very low-level approach: I look for IP addresses that generate “too much” traffic, block them, and look at the database tables that hold comment spam. Then I remove the offending comments manually.


Good-Bye, Steve Ballmer

By sheer coincidence, the two most influential computer people of the last decade are both Steves. One, Steve Jobs, is widely hailed as a genius. He started Apple, got fired, and came back to the rescue, making the company he inherited at the brink of collapse the most valuable company of all times.

The other, Steve Ballmer, took the most valuable company of all times and from a position of absolute dominance ran it to a state of also-ran. Mr. Ballmer, after years of the Internet wondering why he was still in charge, finally announced he was going to retire in a year.

But was it his fault? Is Steve Ballmer to blame for the loss of Microsoft’s monopolies in the same way that Steve Jobs is single-handedly responsible for the success of the iPod, iPhone, and the various MacBooks?

To answer that question, we need to look at what type of company Microsoft was. When Bill Gates created it, Microsoft was a smallish company with a knack for doing the same things as others, but better. Better, here, was defined by the business case, not by the technology. And for a long while, Microsoft succeeded with an ethos of being smarter than the competition.


The Real Problem of NSA Computer Surveillance

Slashdot is in an uproar over the demise of Groklaw, a (formerly) amazing web site trying to analyze complex legal issues for a geeky audience. It is on Groklaw that we followed the SCO v. UNIX trials, the Microsoft monopoly trials, etc. For a nerd, losing Groklaw is terrible, like losing your Wikipedia for questions of the law.

Groklaw, on the other hand, died of its own volition. Pamela Jones, the founder and maintainer, wrote a post about why she felt she had to shut down, and blamed government intrusion. She was following the hint of Lavabit, the secure email provider formerly used by Edward Snowden, who shut down rather than comply with a surveillance order.

At the same time as the geek world is spooked by these revelations, we hear the political caste talking about NSA surveillance in glowing tones, as a patriotic duty and a first-grade technical accomplishment of the NSA. I say, political caste, because both parties are in full agreement on this.

I think there is a fundamental disagreement between most if not many geeks and the political establishment. This disagreement revolves around trust: geeks fear what can be done with the data collected; the political establishment is mesmerized by the possibilities. I believe both are correct.


Surfing Banyans on a Costco Foamie

banyansMy older brother came to visit with his kids for the first time ever, and they decided to see as much as they possibly could in two weeks. The trip included San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the high point Hawaii.

Now you’d think it’s a long trip, even from the West Coast. But Hawaii they had been dreaming, and it was just 5 hours away – compared to the 20 hours they would have had to fly from Europe. I thought it doable, and the kids had been dreaming “their entire life” (which is not significantly longer than the life span of a fruit fly, bless their young hearts).

We booked independently, since we were in a rush, and I ended up at my former favorite hotel, the Castle Kona Bali Kai. I splurged this time, since I was staying only two nights, and got a one bedroom oceanfront suite. From there, you can see the break and decide at a whim it’s time to get into the water. I also have a Costco card, and since there is a store in Kona (not in Hilo, for whatever reason), I stopped and got a foamie instead of renting. It would have come out to about the same!

Costco sells two foamies, both made by CBC, which stands for California Board Company. With a name as inspired as that, you’d think they are as unintelligent when it comes to board design. You’d be wrong.


Sea World (Dont’ Forget the Tanning Lotion and Hat!)

Can you believe I set foot in San Diego for the first time 15 years ago, and have been living here for 4 years, and managed never to go to Sea World? That’s really weird, especially considering that the place is just 8 minutes by car from here, a quick jaunt across the bay.

Well, my brother came here with his kids, and we were looking for things to do. Balboa Park was quickly shot down, because Teenagers Don’t Do Museums™. The beach was a favorite, but it seemed a little lame to come all the way from August in Rome to stay at the beach in San Diego. The water park, Legoland, Wild Animal Park, were out of the question. Giant aircraft carriers were strangely not interesting; even Fashion Valley got a mild nod from the girl, who is still eager to land some American hip swag.

So Sea World it was. Leaving on a Monday morning at 9:30. We thought it would be empty.

Turns out it wasn’t. Parking was easy (for $15, I’d wouldn’t wish the opposite). Strangely, the attendants steered us towards a spot much farther away from the entrance than needed, but we managed.

Prices shocked us. I had checked pricing online, and there was a special for $64 per adult (which in the park’s definition is anyone older than 9 years, much to the teenagers’ glee and my brother’s dismay). The prices at the door were quite steep: $79 per person. I managed to reduce the hit with the AAA discount ($72 p/p), but the bill still came out astoundingly high.


The Infamous 2%

That is bound to be the most misleading title in the humble history of this blog. The 2% I am referring to are not related to the much more famous 1% of Occupy fame. They represent the standard allotment of shares given to the technical leader of an Internet startup.

In case you didn’t know, there is such a thing as a standard setup for a venture-backed software startup. Basically, the founders share according to contribution in roughly equivalent parts. People that join later (where later is loosely defined as “after the first funding event”) get a much smaller part of the pie.

In particular, a newly hired CEO get 10% of the company, while the CTO/VP Engineering gets 2%. Going against the grain of this wisdom is anathema to a VC, and if your company deviates too much from this scheme, it draws unwanted scrutiny.

The reverse also happens, and I have been asked several times to join a startup as founding developer and head of development, only to be offered no pay and 2% of the company. The deals I witnessed were particularly bad: once, a guy had a patent filing in hand and no intention to do much of anything for the new company, demanding I quit my job for the opportunity of getting 2% of the pie. Another time, a group of technically incompetent people had a vague idea of what they wanted, and thought that the guy that was going to make it all happen and shoulder the work was not worth more than one fiftieth of the company.