Just finished David Byrne's book Bicycle Diaries. It's mostly about riding bikes in cities, from New York to Istanbul to London to Manila. It's also about various other musings, thoughts on what cities could be like if we planned for things besides driving, and Byrne's foray into urban planning activism in New York.

It's fun. As a Talking Heads fan, it was interesting to get inside the head of their sardonic frontman. I also found the subject interesting.


From Invention to Startup

I spoke this week as part of the From Invention to Startup lecture series produced by the University of Washington's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. My topic was bootstrapping a company with SBIR grants. Slides from the talk are available here. There is also video. If that doesn't work, my slides are also available here.



Sven, Aki, Sven's friend Simon, and I all got to see our first national championship: the MLS Cup at Qwest field. This was a birthday present for Sven. It was pretty much uniformly fantastic, and a close-fought, interesting game.

It would have been more fun to cheer the Sounders (and we did cheer them a bit anyway) but it was still a great game, and RSL deserved their win. Obviously the boys had a great time.

Thanks for the great tix, Jane! Happy birthday, Sven.


Strength in What Remains

There aren't any breezy books about genocide. There are such books that are worth reading, however, and Strength in What Remains is one of them. Tracy Kidder tells the story of Deo, who had the misfortune to endure the genocidal violence in both Burundi and Rwanda.

Such an experience damages the individual in a seemingly endless variety of ways. The remarkable thing about Deo is the ways he was unchanged. Who he is, what he values, and even his life goals are essentially unchanged by a vicious catastrophe that changed everything around him. This is a story about the most terrible human actions, but also about the inner strength of one remarkable individual.


Spoke Tension Gauge

The DT Swiss spoke tension gauge is a thing of beauty for anyone with a serious bike tool fetish. (That would include me.) It feels good in the hand. It does a cool thing. It looks good doing it.

It's also over $500. Oops.

So I have lusted after a DT Swiss spoke tension gauge in vain. But no more. No, I haven't decided to pay more than most people pay for a bicycle on a tool I use for maybe ten hours per year. No indeed. I have done much better.

Bryan found a spoke tension tool from Park that cost only $60. Is it as accurate as the DT Swiss gauge? I'd guess not. But how accurate a spoke tension number can one actually make use of anyway? Plus, the Park tool seems very repeatable, and repeatability is actually much more important than absolute accuracy.

How accurate it is depends on how well it's calibrated and how well it holds calibration. The design looks like it will hold calibration tolerably well, so I think this gauge will serve well.

So far, I find the Park tool positively lovely. I'll compare it to the DT Swiss unit at Wright Brothers' bike co-op and report back.

So what does a spoke tension gauge do? It measures the tension of bicycle wheel spokes. This is useful when building wheels, particularly back wheels, to make sure you have the spoke tension right. Guys who build wheels all day long don't need a tool like this because they can do it by feel. Except there aren't any guys who build wheels all day long anymore. And back in the day, those guys were probably not nearly as good at feeling spoke tension as they thought they were. I'm never going to build 100 wheels a year, or probably even 10 wheels a year, so I do much better with a tool.


Earthquake-Proof Your Wine Cellar

I added to the new DIY section of my web site with an article on how to earthquake-proof a wine cellar.

Originally, I wrote this for Wired's How-to Wiki. That article got dozens of Diggs, but Wired's How-to wiki seems to be dying a slow death. In fact, my vanity web site has a higher pagerank than the wiki article. So maybe more home handypeople will find this information useful, now that it's in a more prominent place.


DiNotte Light Charger

Like many, I'm a fan of DiNotte bike lights. They're bright and durable. The Pro series uses ordinary AA batteries, and so can be powered with inexpensive rechargeable batteries. The only problem is prying the batteries out of the battery pack to recharge them.

Not any more. About a year ago, I built a couple of chargers that allow me (and my friends) to charge the battery packs without taking the batteries out. (It was Brian Pratt's idea, so props to Brian.)

I have put up a web page with complete instructions to build your own DiNotte battery pack charger. It's preposterously simple.


High Pass Challenge 2009

This time, gold! Six hours, 38 minutes. Exactly 40 minutes faster than last year. I finished 57th out of about 500 riders.

Six an a half hours of riding about as hard as possible without bonking. I have trouble imagining anything I would have rather done with that day. So many great things happened, so many wonderful moments shared with other riders, so many friends and casual acquaintances met for one last time this season. It would have been a good day if I had missed my goal of 7 hours. But I didn't miss it; I exceeded my goal and then some.

Also, High Pass Challenge is an absurdly beautiful ride. You get great name-drop views of Mt. St. Helens and Rainier, plus a whole lot of other stunning high-altitude scenery.

Update: Here are the final statistics:
  • 538 started.
  • Of which 449 finished.
  • Of which 112 finished within the gold time limit.
High Pass Challenge is a true challenge, and a beautiful day in the mountains.


Spike spiked

Update: after several conversations with SDOT about spikes in Seattle streets, I marked the location of the spike in the street. SDOT sheared the head off and pounded it down. I think it's going to stay there. Good on ye, SDOT.

An Apple a day

I used to say life would be easier if I just wrote a check to Hugo Boss every month and a random sport shirt or suit in my size would show up periodically. Now I could say more or less the same thing about Apple. However, unlike products from some other companies (Dell, I'm looking at you and the laptop that needed three motherboards to make it out of warranty) every thing I have ever bought from Apple still runs. OK, I did need to get a $7 battery for my old Fat Boy iPod, but now it runs better than ever. Too bad I have more than 40GB of music. Snif. I'll just have to learn to love my new 120GB iPod classic Aki got me for my birthday. Thanks, Aki.


SDOT promises to address street spike problem

I received mail from Tracy Burrows at SDOT today. She promissed on SDOT's behalf to address the problem of SDOT crews leaving spikes in Seattle streets. The solution is to leave spikes in Seattle streets.

Well, OK, she did say they'd pound them all the way into the pavement. It sounds scary, but if SDOT actually does it, and the spikes stay there, I'm happy.

Of course, SDOT crews still have to find the spikes. Tracy told me that SDOT went looking for a spike I told them about, and couldn't find it, even when I told them almost exactly where it was. I saw it on the way to work this morning. The spikes can be very hard to see in asphalt, despite their size, because they blend in very well. That's a big part of the problem, in fact.

Comcast: Delivering the Internet even when it isn't really there

Comcast's roll out of Domain Helper (also know as "DNS Helper") hit us at work this morning. This fascinating typosquatting tool would be illegal if it were done by anybody but an ISP. (And might actually be illegal under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. If it isn't illegal, it should be.) As designed, Domain Helper is a supremely irritating form of network damage that makes complete hash out of DNS. What it's supposed to do is return a paid search page for any URL that doesn't exist. What Comcast is effectively doing here, is giving themselves a free domain name registration for all domains that have yet to be registered. To me, that's stealing. (Comcast isn't alone either, apparently Verizon and Virgin also engage in this nefarious practice.)

That's when Domain Helper works correctly, which it doesn't always. Sometimes, it keeps you from getting to web sites that actually exist. So, possibly because of design errors that Comcast may have little incentive to fix, Comcast users will now occasionally get a search page instead of the legitimate web site they asked for.

To top it off, Comcast doesn't follow their own published rules for Domain Helper. Comcast says they'll only intercept pages that begin with "www." This is important, because it makes it less likely that Comcast will sweep up an obvious typo. But today at our shop, "wwww.google.com" is intercepted by Domain Helper.

Even Comcast wouldn't do something this evil without an opt-out. Except the opt-out is broken, at least for us. The following conversation would be funny if it weren't sad. Apparently, Comcast replaced an earlier opt-out system that didn't work well, with a whizzy new opt-out system that doesn't work well. When people ask what ISP we have at work, I answer, "we don't have internet service at work; we have Comcast."

[Edit: Comcast can't figure out why their opt-out won't work for us, but they did give us URLs for DNS servers that provide the correct DNS service. Since we're geeks, we can hardwire our DNS at the router instead of getting it via DHCP. It's not super-hard to do, but it's pretty ridiculous.]

Help Chat room text follows:

user Brian_ has entered room

Brian(Tue Sep 8 16:37:14 PDT 2009)>
wish to disable Domain Helper, but primary login does not display that option below the "Device 1" info. Oddly although I am logged in [...] says "hello, *".

analyst Mark has entered room

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:38:35 PDT 2009)>
Hello Brian_, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Mark. Please give me one moment to review your information.

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:38:53 PDT 2009)>
No problem. I can help you with your account.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:39:02 PDT 2009)>
great, thx

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:40:27 PDT 2009)>
What is Domain Helper?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:40:37 PDT 2009)>
it's that whacked out DNS hijacker

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:41:42 PDT 2009)>
Is it a toolbar on your browser or a web site?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:41:39 PDT 2009)>

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:41:59 PDT 2009)>
its your web site

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:44:05 PDT 2009)>
Ok. That looks like a feature of the browser..

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:44:32 PDT 2009)>
NO. It's your routers intercepting DNS errors and substituting a search page instead. Bad juju.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:45:11 PDT 2009)>
Let's go ahead and kick this upstairs to somebody who understands the product offerings, shall we?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:49:45 PDT 2009)>

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:51:52 PDT 2009)>
This actually can't be 'switched off' because it is on all our servers for resolving domain names and helps get you to a valid page.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:53:01 PDT 2009)>
Do I need to dig up your own FAQ for you on that as well? Search on "Domain Helper Opt-Out" while you're transferring me to your manager.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:53:49 PDT 2009)>

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:56:50 PDT 2009)>
That's the FAQ for turnging it off, except of course it doesn't work. The promised opt-out link isn't where it's meant to be. I'm thinking it has something to do with the weirdness in my primary account where [...] it calls me "*".

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:57:15 PDT 2009)>
But really, please just boost me to somebody more senior. This is getting silly.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:58:37 PDT 2009)>
Also you might enjoy https://dns-opt-out.comcast.net/help-index.php

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:58:50 PDT 2009)>

Mark(Tue Sep 8 17:00:13 PDT 2009)>
You may need to clear the browser temporary files and cookies and set the security levels to the defaults.

Make sure you have the following:

- the latest version of adobe flash and shockwave installed from http://www.adobe.com
- the latest updates installed from Windows Update.

analyst Mark has been temporarily disconnected. Please wait while the analyst attempts to reconnect.

Analyst has left the room. Your problem is being escalated to another analyst

analyst Amber has entered room

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:07:52 PDT 2009)>
I can certainly relate to your needs and to have you in this chat is as good as fulfilling my own. I am committed in wanting to provide you with the best customer service experience. You can surely take your worries out. Let me prove my expertise.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:08:42 PDT 2009)>
OK! Per that last suggestion: Two fully up to date PCs, three different browesers (IE, Firefox, Chrome), same effect. No opt-out link in the CustomerCentral page, and that weird "hello, *" thing.

analyst Amber has been temporarily disconnected. Please wait while the analyst attempts to reconnect.

analyst Amber has entered room

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:10:57 PDT 2009)>
hello again

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:11:05 PDT 2009)>
Is Domain helper installed on your computer?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:11:40 PDT 2009)>
is this the right chat room? Please read the FAQs I've already posted in this chat.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:12:12 PDT 2009)>
Or can you see the previous exchanges?

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:13:04 PDT 2009)>
Brian, is this a business account?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:13:07 PDT 2009)>

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:14:41 PDT 2009)>
I apologize Brian, as much as I wanted to assist you with your concern however for Business Accounts, you need to call our Business Accounts Department. I will provide you with their telephone number.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:14:54 PDT 2009)>
sure, great, whatever

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:15:20 PDT 2009)>
Phone number is 800-316-1619

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:15:48 PDT 2009)>
It was my pleasure assisting you today. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:17:26 PDT 2009)>
I sincerely doubt it.


SDOT Still Leaving Nails on Seattle Streets

I blogged last summer that Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is leaving metal spikes in city streets. They're still doing it. This spring, SDOT conducted a traffic study around Univeristy Bridge. On June 5, 2009, I noticed that SDOT had removed the traffic sensor but once again left the metal spikes behind in the pavement. As the picture above shows, they're still there. The spikes are on the southbound bridge approach from NE 40th. This street is marked with sharrows indicating it as a bike route. The spikes are somewhat over a foot from the curb, roughly in the center of the area you'd expect a bike to travel. The spikes stick up out of the pavement over a centimeter. Hitting the spike with a tire would probably cause a flat, and could cause a bike to lose control, even if the spikes didn't cause a flat. Eventually, the spikes will work themselves loose, presenting a hazard to cars, bikes, and pedestrians.

Taking the spikes out isn't difficult. They pop right out with a crowbar. It happens I don't carry a crowbar with me on my bike, or I would have taken them out myself. But apparently, SDOT crews don't bother to take spikes out, at least some of the time.

I'm trying to fathom a situation where somebody thinks it's a good idea to leave a spike in the pavement rather than take 5 seconds to pull it out and dispose of it. Is SDOT doing this all over town? This just seems idiotic to me.


Xconomista Me

Last month, I was on a panel with Janis Machala, among others, that peripherally addressed the topic of how hard startups really work, and how hard they optimally ought to work. Luke Timmerman of Xconomy reported it, and set off a minor firestorm.

In one of those 6-degree things, Luke, Janice, and I all ended up face:face a few days later. Luke invited me to make some comments on work/life balance. I guess they turned out well enough, because Luke published the first installment today, with a second part to follow shortly.


All Fun and No Work Makes Jack a B-Lister?

On Wednesday, I was on a panel on "How to Find, Fund, Protect and Launch New Technologies" sponsored by WBBA, University of Washington School of Law, and Fenwick & West. The panel was moderated by Fenwick's Stephen Graham and the other panelists besides me were WRF CEO Ron Howell, supernetworker Janis Machala, and UW Law's Sean O'Connor.

Luke Timmerman reported it under the title "Seattle’s Lifestyle Keeps Us Trailing the Bay Area, Says UW Startup Maven Janis Machala." That pretty much sums up Luke's take-away from the meeting. Luke certainly reported the most newsworthy event of the panel: Janis saying that quality of life gets in the way of startup success in Seattle. “There’s a lifestyle element here. People want balance. People in Silicon Valley don’t know what balance means.” Janis specifically faulted Microsoft Millionaires for not starting enough new companies.

My comments on the panel were in a different direction. A big problem Seattle has starting companies is lack of a ready bench of people in all roles who have started companies. Seattle is just barely big enough to really make it, or maybe not quite big enough. Seattle has bobbled just above or below critical mass for decades without really breaking out or really failing. Also, the current crisis is a potential opportunity for Seattle. The current uncertainty gives us a chance to redefine Seattle's role in the nation’s and world’s biotech community.



Did RAMROD again. The weather was beautiful, from a scenery standpoint. A little hot, though. Actually, it was pleasantly cool all the way to Packwood. Then it was hot. Then later, hotter, then on the way to Crystal, hotter still. And the last five miles? Even hotter.

I finished in about exactly 11 hours. Considering the heat and that I'm still recovering from being hit by a car a few weeks ago, I was entirely satisfied with that performance.



Gyula Krúdy wrote 60 novels. He loved at least that many women, and this book, like many of those loves, is intense, abundant, and memorable, but not the labor of many years. Sunflower was instead serialized around 1918 in a Hungarian newspaper.

Sunflower tells the story of a well-born Hungarian woman, her friend, and their mutual and mutually exclusive loves. Also, much is reputed to be lost in translation. If that doesn't sound promising, let me recommend Sunflower as among the most lavish books ever conceived. A meandering plot yields wistful views of a lost Hungary, from sharp, snow-laden nights to hazy, sweltering summer afternoons, and everything in-between. Plus, it's funny and not a little saucy. I think of Krúdy as a kind of Hungarian Czesław Miłosz. Put down that forgettable Harlequin penny dreadful and get your lovin' from the house of Krúdy.


STP 2009

Took the first 100 miles fast. Too fast, actually, and I spent too much time on the front of pacelines. Got to within 10 miles of Centralia by about 9:00. The next 100 miles were a constant dance on the edge of bonking. Finished a few minutes before 5pm anyway. Had dinner with the family then went out and saw my brother's band. A good day. Thanks to Aki and Sven for meeting me at the finish. It is always nice to see a familiar face after a long day like that.


Three Cups of Tea

The remarkable story of Greg Mortenson, who got lost climbing down K2, and wandered into a world he could hardly have imagined in rural Pakistan. As Pakistan becomes an increasingly critical key to world stability, Mortenson's book is a fabulous window into some of the peoples who live there, what they want out of life, and how outside forces can change their and our lives for the better or otherwise. (Oh, and Mortenson goes to rural Afghanistan, too.) Read this book as a great human story, and as one point of reference to personalize news from that part of the world.



Nic Sheff is a meth addict. The first 130 pages of his book Tweak detail a harrowing 27-day train-wreck of late-stage meth addiction. (Nic Sheff hadn't actually been using for all that long before this time —apparently meth addiction can come on very fast.) It's remarkable he isn't dead several times over, by the end. It's also remarkable that someone who has messed up their head that badly can still write very, very well.

But that's not the whole way down the rabbit hole. It gets far deeper, and hard as it may be to believe, darker. It's odd that some of the darkest moments of the book are when Nic starts trying to clean up. I won't tell you how the book ends, but since Nic is still alive at the end of the book, the book in any case isn't a whole life story. So however bleak or hopeful the end, it's not really the end.

David Sheff, Nic's Father, wrote Beautiful Boy as a companion to Tweak, but it's really an alternate reality. For one thing, while Nic always knows more or less what is happening to him, David quite often doesn't know whether his son is using or not, or even if he is still alive. David details the pervasive, consuming anxiety that becomes a companion illness to his son's.

Beautiful Boy is a well written book, but surpisingly not as well-written as the best parts of Nic's book. It's almost beyond belief that Nic could macerate his psyche to the extent he has, and still write better than his father. One can't help wondering what kind of writer he could have been.

The other interesting insight that only comes from comparing the books is how comprehensively dishonest Nic's addiction is. Surely, one important point of meth is to try to avoid life's hard truths. The cruel irony is that meth makes those hard truths so much harder. But it seems that meth comprehensively poisons away the truth from every aspect of Nic's life. Nic lies to everyone including himself. In the end, he even lies to us, his readers.

Most of Tweak is flayed down to a raw, festering honesty. Nic does change certain facts to protect the privacy of people who appear in the book. But reading David's book, we realize that Nic changed more facts than he absolutely had to. Perhaps lying is a habit and nothing more, but in a very subtle way this is a window into the Sheff's joyless funhouse. We realize we can't trust Nic as much as we thought we could. Just as David discovered over and over that every time he trusted his son it was a mistake, and just as Nic learned over and over than even he couldn't trust himself.


Day of Empire

Amy Chua's first book World on Fire, was a fascinating mix of personal and global observations about how small communities make big economic impacts within their larger societies. Here, Chua examines all of the global powers (by her definition) throughout recorded history. Her conclusion is that they all practiced what she calls strategic tolerance: a willingness to embrace new ideas and make use of capable people, whatever their provenance.

Strategic tolerance is an interesting concept. It articulates the self-interested motivations for diversity, as independent from altruistic motives. Chua notes that Genghis Khan didn't form his inner circle from widely diverse ethnic and religious groups because he saw diversity as a social good. He merely wanted the best and brightest people available, so as to be a successful as possible. Diversity has an inherent moral value, at least to some people, including me. Chua articulates the practical benefits that have historically motivated diversity, and documents the world-changing consequences.