Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Pixar Story

Sitting at home? Unwrapped all your presents, eaten all the food you can eat? I recommend watching The Pixar Story. I love stories of smart people struggling for technological change, and this story certainly delivers. Pixar might seem like an overnight success, but there was plenty of drama: Lasseter got fired from Disney, and had to leave Lucasfilm where George Lucas didn't see the point of what he wanted to do. Even Toy Story almost got killed multiple times.

Chances are you won't even have to buy this: The Pixar Story is included on most Wall-E DVDs, and most Netflix members can watch it online here. Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Early Stage Spaceship

In our pre-release startup, it feels like we’re on a spaceship sometimes, trying to reach a distant planet.


Picking a Planet

With that little ship, and planets that are far away and far apart, you want to make darn sure you're flying to a nice one:
  • You don’t want to find yourself on a planet that doesn't seem to support life, like the Facebook app planet.
  • Or one that is as unwelcoming like the music planet, where you will find a great beast called the RIAA.
  • You'd also want to steer clear of wanting to fly to the operating systems planet: It takes too long to get there and is inhabited by John Hodgman and that annoying Justin Long kid you kind of want to smack in the face.
Oh, you also don't want to pick a planet to which another, bigger spaceship, is already on its way. For example, when Microsoft flies to a planet (for example, video game consoles), their spaceship looks like this:


We looked at various planets through a telescope, and found one that seems pretty appealing and is not too far away. So how do we get there?

Thrust vs. Stabilizers

We're pretty fast already, but are thinking about adding more thrust and stabilizers.



Thrust, in this metaphor, are more engineers/coders/designers who accelerate development and help us get there faster. Adding too much uncontrolled thrust, can lead to veering off course. We could add stabilizers, product and project managers who can keep us on track, but also don't directly add to getting there. We're still debating the right balance.

We’re on Our Way

Please remain seated with your seatbelts buckled. The captain will have some weather updates for you when we’re closer to our destination.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Revisiting Google’s Python Style Guide

I like code style guidelines. When properly done, it just gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling of consistency. We’ve been working with Python here, but each of us has been hacking in a slightly different style.

Subconsciously, I've been longing for Google's internal python style guide. I remembered it as a good balance of dos and donts. It errs on the side of readable code, fewer power features, and promotes a nice naming scheme. It covers more ground than PEP-8. Thus, instead of trying to make up my own, I searched the Internets and found this gem here. It’s essentially a copy of Google’s Python style guidelines, slightly modified for one of the Summer of Code projects!

In my previous job, people sometimes accused me of trying to clone Google processes. I always saw that as a compliment. Still, I adjusted the guidelines to what we’re building. One thing about that guide annoyed me in particular: 80 chars per line!? It's 2008, people have widescreen monitors! We upped the ante on that one.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A New Setup

A little more than a week ago, we moved into an apartment in Foster City/San Mateo. The big plus here is that we don’t have to rush through an hour of traffic to get to meetings in the Valley. Suburbia provides fewer distractions here than you would have in San Francisco, but the hipness level is low, and a good bar is hard to find.



Fewer distractions have allowed us to make progress on the prototype. It turns out that this is more productive than working in a coffee shop. My commute now takes 10 seconds, and my workspace has a nice Dell flatscreen monitor and my favorite ergonomic keyboard. In addition, we have blocked YCombinator’s Hacker News and similar sites on our router, which resulted in an additional productivity boost.



Things are progressing well on other fronts, too - I’ll keep you updated. For now, it’s back to work.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Welcome Fabian!

I'm happy to announce that for the next 3 months, I'll be working with an old high school friend, Fabian Siegel. He's in Germany but he'll help code up prototypes and the initial product. He's not my cofounder: I'm still working on that (watch this space!).

I met Fabian over a decade ago in school where we shared a common love of computers. Together, we wrote a Command-and-Conquer-like isometric real time strategy game. We had DirectX graphics with little vehicles moving around the a map. However, we never got to the point where the vehicles would shoot at each other, thus severely limiting the game's commercial potential. Fabian went on to study Computer Science in Munich, Germany, and later switched his focus: He now has an M.D. and can resuscitate us in case we pass out from working too hard. On the side, he's also been running a web hosting company and is a mail server guru.

In his words: Let's rock!

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Model of Your Inbox

I've been thinking a lot about how users view and manage their inbox. This post is about the model I came up with. I'm basing this on my own experience and on having talked to dozens of people about their email habits. But since this blog also is read by lots of email enthusiasts, I'd love to hear your feedback: Does this make sense? What am I missing?

Four Quadrants

Every single email message youreceive can be classified into one of the four quadrants below. Important emails are the ones you need to take action on. Urgent emails are time-sensitive. Urgency does not necessarily imply importance: Your coworker's cake will be gone in a few minutes, but it's not necessary to take action on that, especially if you're on a diet.


The key insight here is that the stuff you care about are the emails on the left. These are the emails that make it worth checking your Crackberry every few minutes. They emails that keep you awake at night.

Filtering the Important

How can you filter out what's important? My theory is that for humans, that's actually the easy part: You often easily determine importance by just looking at the sender of the message. Roughly, senders fall into three categories:
  1. Crap: these are easy to remove: iTunes Receipts, Amazon notifications, LinkedIn emails, frequent flier statements, and the like. Not important.

  2. VIPs: You know who they are! Major customers, your manager, and your girlfriend belong in this category. Important.

  3. People you know: These are the non-VIPs that you still want to deal with. I like to think of this category as the intersection of your Facebook and LinkedIn connections. Mostly Important.

  4. Everyone else: Recruiters and salespeople, senders you don't recognize. Mostly not important.

Research indicates that people use senders as their main importance indicator [1, 2]. The task of filtering out important email is easy, and you could probably train a classifier to very high degrees of accuracy.

Managing Later vs. Now

I believe that this is the heart of email overload. Remember how I said that the left side is what matters. I like to label the two subcategories as "Later" and "Now" [3].


The workflow should be that you decide whether you want to deal with an email now or later. You respond to the "now" emails and they disappear into the archive. The "later" emails haunt you until you're done with them.

This is the point where today's email clients fail. Users try various mechanisms to manage now/later and to do/done: Keeping emails unread, starring them in Gmail, and filing away stuff that is done into an intricate foldering system. The number of email management strategies that users come up with impressive [4].

But none of this works. Emails that are unread and starred disappear from your main view. Out of view, out of mind. Poof. There is no pressure to act upon them. In contrast, filing away emails that are done requires an amount of discipline that few users have. I think that the inability of managing now/later and to do/done is one of the main reasons for email overload.

Wrapping Up

Let's review. I've outlined three theories here:
  1. Your incoming all fall into one of the four quadrants of urgency and importance. What really matters is the important stuff, which breaks into "Later" vs. "Now".

  2. It's easy to filter important vs. not important.

  3. It's hard to manage Later vs. Now because the current tools are broken.


I'd love to hear your views on my theories. Drop me a line or leave a comment.

References


[1] Gina Danielle Venolia, Laura Dabbish, JJ Cadiz, and Anoop Gupta. Supporting email workflow. Technical report, Microsoft Research - Collaboration and Multimedia Group, September 2001.

[2] Olle Baelter and Candace Sidner. Bifrost inbox organizer: giving users control over the inbox. In NordiCHI '02: Proceedings of the second Nordic Conference on Human-computer interaction, pages 111-118, Aarhus, Denmark, 2002.

[3] The "Getting Things Done" school of thought has a more intricate system than this, but I think that Later / Now is the essence of it.

[4] Steve Whittaker and Candace Sidner. Email overload: exploring personal information management of email. In CHI '96: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pages 276-283, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1996.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Questions for Cofounders

I'm in the middle of solving the highly nonlinear equation of idea, cofounder, and investment. I wrote about my cofounder search here (if you're interested, drop me a line).

Startups fail for many reasons: Running out of money, no product-market fit, and cofounder drama. Now is the time to protect against drama. I want to set reasonable expectations on both sides and have good conflict resolution mechanisms.

Below is the list of questions I want to address with potential cofounders, somewhat inspired by Dharmesh Shah's list (his list is more generally applicable - mine is more about personalities).

  1. What's your long term life goal? Some want to be the next Bill Gates, Larry Page, or David Filo. Others want to get rich and retire. How did they come up with their goal? How does this startup fit into that goal? If this fails, would they do another one?

  2. What kind of company do we want to build? Should it be a 37signals – a profitable thought leader? Or do we want to shoot for the moon and be a Google? Get a clear reading on your cofounder's ambitions and long-term commitment.

  3. What kind of work environment do we want to create? How are we going to treat employees? Lavish perks like Google? Strict hierarchies like GE? Think about what kind of employees you want to have, how open you want to be with them, and whether you want to hire fresh hotshots or experienced veterans.

  4. How are we going to split responsibilities? What will we be doing on a daily basis? The best situation is where founders all have clear ownership of one part of the product, or processes like fundraising and bizdev. Make sure you can trust the business guys. Avoid situations where cofounders with similar backgrounds all focus and battle about one part of the puzzle.

  5. How are we going to resolve conflicts? Is it enough if we have a one-on-one meeting every week where we discuss problems, or do we feel more comfortable with a written mechanism? A friend pointed out the book Under the Radar which described the Red Hat founders' protocol: A founder with a problem could write a one-page memo on letter paper. The others would have to respond in writing within the next 24 hours.

  6. What are our preferred work patterns? You'll have to be able to stand each other all day. Make sure you understand each other's work styles, hours and quirks.

  7. Who makes the final decision? I.e., who's the CEO? Multiple founders might want this this position. It seems prestigious but it's hard. Choose wisely.

  8. How much of the company will each of us own? A conversation that can easily get heated. Equal parts are probably wrong. Cofounders who contribute less to the equation should get less. Yet it's hard to measure contribution. Also, you should vest - agree on the parameters.

Once you get into the details, the list goes on endlessly. Are we going to sign emails "Founder" or "Co-founder"? Do we have full access to each other's calendars? Who's going to authorize payroll? Do we reimburse our cell phone bills? Most of these won't make a difference though.

Let me know if I'm forgetting something. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences from similar situations. What results did you get out of these conversations? Any sources of drama I forgot?

P.S.: I recommend keeping Dharmesh's questions and conflict lists bookmarked.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Making up Emails for Mockups

When mocking up communications software, you have to make stuff up: You want to show a realistic inbox, messages that seem real, and clearly illustrate the use case you’re trying to support. Mockups help others grasp what you're building, and they help get you rolling on the prototype.



Photoshop and Corel Draw are my friends, and it's easy to find design inspiration on the web.

But how do you come up with the data? Some ideas:
  1. Use your own email. Duh. Sounds reasonable. But you don't want your confidential emails in your business plan. The girlfriend might not appreciate the shoutout. And startup founders’ emails do not represent a common use case.

  2. Enron Corpus. This is good for business scenarios, with some small problems: No attachments, no sender names (although you can make them up), and the depressing emails towards the end of the company: "Dear top management, please don't fire us now!". Use the Trampoline Enron Explorer to get to the data.

  3. Celebrities. Great for consumer email scenarios. My friends at Google used to mock me for including Natalie Portman in most mocks, but People Magazine is your friend: Just use your personal email and add celebrity names. Added benefit: If you choose the right celebrities, that will trigger positive emotions with people looking at the mocks.

If you have a more ideas, let me know.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What's in a Cofounder?

I’m currently recruiting a cofounder for my new startup, and I'm in talks with a couple of people. The choice of cofounder is the most important decision I'll be making anytime soon, and I've thought a lot about what the ideal candidate would look like. Below is a list of criteria I came up with.

  1. Honest and open. It's important to work with people you can trust, especially under the pressure of a startup. I’d like to work with someone who is open about their feelings and intentions. A low-drama person who doesn't avoid confrontation if it leads to better decisions.

  2. Technical ability. Specifically, this is the ability to make sound technical decisions, and to implement a large part of the product in high-quality code. The controlling variable for the success of this startup depends on that we can launch and iterate a useful product quickly, and my cofounder needs to contribute to that in a major fashion. Ideally, my cofounder would have a degree in computer science, and work experience in an engineering-centric environment such as that of Google or Microsoft.

  3. Long-term commitment. I don't want to pull a build-and-flip, and the current environment has made that scenario very unlikely. I can imagine staying with this company for decades, and I expect that my cofounder make a multi-year commitment after some initial period. If after a month, we discover that it isn't working out, that's OK, but I want to avoid the drama of a cofounder bailing when the company is in full swing.

  4. Enthusiastic about email and messaging. I believe that this is a field full of billion-dollar problems. I would like to work with someone who shares my optimism.

In the beginning, a large majority of our time will be spent hacking, but we’ll both be spending 10-25% of our time on business stuff. In YCombinator style, I’d like to work out of an apartment. Living and working together is the most effective way to get a product out quickly. We could stay in San Francisco, but I might want to move somewhere around San Mateo, which is strategically situated close to investors and potential employees, and provides fewer distractions than the city.

It's in our best interest to understand each other's styles before we embark on this journey. I'd like to chat, hang out, and work with potential cofounders for four days to a week. That should give us enough time to see if we gel.

If you're interested, drop me a line. Please include your resume.

"Gabor hits Send" - New Name, New Focus

This blog has been successful beyond my expectations. There have been 215 posts, more than a quarter million visits, hundreds of comments, and an incredibly diverse readership: Students in Germany, consultants in Switzerland, entrepreneurs in the US, and IT workers in India all read this blog. Dear readers, for creating this success.

I'm refocusing my life around starting an email company, and it's only fitting to refocus this blog as well. Thus, I'm rebranding it: Say hello to "Gabor hits Send"!

Should you read this blog? If you fall into one of the groups below, the answer is yes.

1. Email Enthusiasts

My forte and passion is improving email and electronic communication. Email today is becoming a drag on productivity: Users are flooded with messages, and today's applications are not designed to cope with these volumes. You'll read a lot here about ideas, promising research, and new tools to improve the state of email.

2. (Future) Entrepreneurs

I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I've always wanted to start a great company, build products that delight users, and a workplace where people can be happy and productive. This isn't trivial and will take some time. I want to be an authentic voice that talks about the entrepreneurial experience. If you want to know what it's like to start a company and build great products, this is the blog for you. I hope I can provide valuable insight, even encouragement to follow your dreams.

Logistics

I intend to post once a week. Sometimes less, sometimes more.

My comments policy: I encourage you to post comments and share your views. Please write in English: My readers can't read Hungarian or German. I don't censor comments unless it's clearly advertising or spam, racist, pornographic or vulgar. I also reserve the right to delete stupid comments that demonstrate the person hasn't read the post.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. Hope you like it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I'm Back. What's Next?

I'm back from my trip. This was the journey I’ve always wanted to make and it didn’t disappoint. As one journey ends, another begins: I've started working on my startup.

During my trip, I’ve done lots of thinking, and I’ll publish some of it here. In the coming weeks, I’ll write about:
  • How I want to refocus my blog,
  • the core philosophy of my new company,
  • the email problems I want to solve, and
  • what I’m looking for in a cofounder.
There’s no shortage of things to do – many small steps. As with the last journey, I’ll write about it here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

World Tour: Australia

I'm driving up the East Coast of Australia, beach bumming away the last days of my world trip. Avis gave me the tiniest Hyundai Getz rental car, and after just a day of driving, I'm now able to manage the combined difficulties of driving on the left side and switching gears with my left hand. I've even stopped wiping the windshield every time I change lanes.


My mental image of Australia had been formed by Outback restaurants, and stories of Swiss friends spending months there after high school, as bumming away months in Australia before you join the military is a quintessential Swiss thing to do. Thus, I thought Australia would be a country of rough individualists, crisscrossing the Outback in their 4WD Range Rovers. I didn't know just how wrong this would be.

Instead of being some permutation of the US, Australia seems most like Western Europe with a huge backyard. Taxes are high, health care is free, education is cheap, workers have lots of vacation. Cities are well organized, and roads are well maintained. Thus, Sydney looks more like Hamburg than LA.


A friend at Google explained that while Americans celebrate fame and fortune, Australians lack respect for wealth, power and assorted pretensions - "tall poppy syndrome" (not tall puppy syndrome, see the comments).


A great example of this might be the Q1 Tower in Surfers Paradise. It is the tallest residential building in the world! Yet, the info brochure doesn't even name the architect, and there was indeed no star architect of the likes of Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, or I.M. Pei involved. Instead of praising the vision of the planners, the brochure talks about the labour of love of the hundreds of construction workers. The resulting building is no Chicago Spire, but still very pleasing to the eye. Oh, it also has fantastic views from the observation deck.



Other highlights so far: Fabulously pretty beaches. Wildlife World in Sydney, where they have kangaroos, koalas, and you can watch them feed the world's most dangerous snakes. Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge was also quite an experience, although it took us hours to get geared up - I've climbed the alps with less safety equipment -, but the views were worth it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"The Future of Email" Talk in Sydney

Yesterday, I gave a talk about my views on the future of email at CSIRO / Macquarie university in Sydney. Thanks to Andrew Lampert for the arranging and promoting the talk. Here's what it was about:

Mail clients haven't moved forward since the mid-1990s. Most applications have added superficial features, but the basics remained unchanged: Folders, lists of disconnected emails sorted by arrival time. Clients have no sense of priority, urgency, workflows, or connectedness. Their search features are simple and are sometimes painfully slow. Users today are bombarded with email and find popular email clients hard to use and inefficient.

How did we get here? How do we get out of it? This talk presents new ideas of improving the email experience for overloaded users.
I promised to put the slides online. Here they are (also on SlideShare).



I'd also like to thank the audience for the great discussion that ensued after the talk - I might post some of the best questions here at a later date.

A video of the talk is available on the CSIRO website here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Good Time to Start a Company

Fabrice Grinda is one of my favorite entrepreneurs. He writes:
Aspiring Entrepreneurs: There is no better time to start a company!

The opportunity cost has decreased as many high paying jobs have disappeared and employment opportunities in general have lessened. If you have a job, companies will have less room to give generous bonuses and/or raises.

It’s going to be harder for entrepreneurs to raise money, but competitive pressures decrease dramatically in downturns giving you more chances to establish yourself as the leader in your field and more time to do so. [...]

If you have been thinking of creating a company, now is the time to make the plunge!
Paul Graham writes:
The economic situation is apparently so grim that some experts fear we may be in for a stretch as bad as the mid seventies.

When Microsoft and Apple were founded.

As those examples suggest, a recession may not be such a bad time to start a startup. I'm not claiming it's a particularly good time either. The truth is more boring: the state of the economy doesn't matter much either way.

People have been asking me what the downturn means for my plans. The answer is "little". I want to be very capital efficient, and if the investment climate is indeed as bad as the doomsters say, there will just be fewer of us, working more slowly on fewer features. The product might turn out even better.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

World Tour: Hong Kong

Hong Kong overwhelms the visitor with its great density, dramatic vistas of highrise buildings, and the busy harbor.


From Victoria Peak, you get a good grasp of what it looks like when you have 7 million people living in a small space like this: The highrises look almost a little too tall and skinny for their own good.


Beyond the upscale shopping in Central, the fake watch hawkers in Kowloon, and the crushing density of Mongkok, Hong Kong has many peculiarities.


Against all economic incentive, shops that sell similar goods are all clustered together: For example, in Wan Chai, there is a block of a dozen shops which all sell high-end kitchen goods. In Kowloon, there is a street with pet shops selling only birds. Normally, retailers would want to be as far from their competitors as possible, in order to create a local monopoly. Is this government regulation at play or do all the stores belong to the same owner?


One thing I hadn't realized is that Hong Kong's center is on an island: Before the subway (1980) and the cross-harbor tunnel (1972), the only way to get to the financial center of Hong Kong was by boat.


I always wondered why Britain gave back Hong Kong to China. Here's what the Rough Guide says: The reason, ironically, seems to be the influx of people escaping communism: In the 1960s, millions of people fed from China to Hong Kong. The government was forced to heavily populate the New Territories, leased from China for 99 years in 1898. Dozens of planned new towns sprung up in the territory they were supposed to eventually give back to China, and became an economic unit with Hong Kong. This made it impossible to separate the two without damage to the population. Thus, the British were forced to return the whole thing and Margaret Thatcher negotiated the current "two systems, one country" deal in 1985 which returned everything to China in 1997. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that negotiation.


My stay here has been pretty memorable: It'll be hard to forget the tiny Internet cafe full of young Chinese girls chatting on webcam with Chinese boys, some of whom were topless. Lots of giggling all around. High tea at the Peninsula was quite an experience: As I was leaving, some celebrity was getting picked up by the hotel's very own fleet of Rolls Royce limousines. While it wasn't quite the peninsula, the first hotel I stayed in here was quite upscale and had dramatic views of the harbor. It was also quite expensive. Realizing that I had just blown a large part of my budget, I switched to a cheaper one. Only after I checked in did I notice that prices were quoted in hours, and the noise turned out to be pretty interesting as well.

It would be very interesting to live in Hong Kong for a little bit and there seems to be a steady stream of expats from all over the world. Maybe someday.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Questions about the Startup Economy

I've been watching the meltdown from afar, catching bits and pieces on CNN International and the newspapers (which here in Thailand are focused on an entirely different problem). Like Sequoia, the media is all doom and gloom, but what does it really mean for startups? I don't have the answers, just questions:
  1. Will there be venture capital? This time, dotcoms are not the cause, but Silicon Valley could come to a halt if investors are too spooked, or have no money to invest. There have been no IPOs lately, and the pace of acquisitions has slowed. Are VCs still thinking with a long enough horizon to invest in good ideas and teams? Do they have enough money from limited partners? I read somewhere that funds raised in the harsh times of 2001-2004 all had great performance. Let's hope limited partners remember that and will put money into 2008+.

  2. Will there be layoffs? Are we about to see Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo shed thousands of workers? I think we are. I still remember Jerry Yang and David Filo teary-eyed, announcing Yahoo's layoffs in 2001. For great startups, this makes things easier: While great people won't get fired, they will be more poachable if you can offer a solid, productive environment free of drama.

  3. Will enterprises still make IT investments? If not, any enterprise software startup is hosed.

  4. Will consumers still have money to spend? If not, see point 3.

  5. Will there be regional differences? In contrast to the US, European economies look surprisingly healthy, if you look at things like personal savings rates, foreign account deficits, and so on. This will make these markets much more interesting than before.

  6. Will big companies reduce R&D expenditures? If Microsoft et al slow investments in new initiatives, this will be a great opportunity for startups to pull ahead, and just get bought when the down cycle ends.

  7. What will be the effects of new regulation? Last time there was a problem, Congress introduced Sarbanes-Oxley, with the unintended effect of shutting down the ability to IPO. Almost certainly, there will be new legislation this time around - what consequences will it have?

  8. How long will this take? I'd be surprised if this took decades, but it's entirely possible that this situation will take years to resolve.

On the plus side, I'm very happy that this is playing out while I'm on vacation. Instead of being caught up in the vortex, I can adjust my new company's strategy once there is a bit more clarity about what's going on. Also, I'm relieved to not be working for anyone right now. Nothing is more paralyzing than the fear of getting laid off.

Let's hope for the best.

World Tour: Chiang Mai

I'm in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand (no riots here like in Bangkok). This is a place with lots of temples, but also plenty of activities. Here's me playing with a a five month old baby tiger(!):


Later, I rode this elephant around the jungle, and I'm not sure it had my best interest in mind, judging from the number of tree collisions.


I'd headed to Hong Kong tomorrow. I made the "mistake" of getting a room with a TV, so I've caught bits and pieces of the global economic meltdown. More on that later.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

World Tour: In the Land of Squeaky Clean

After almost a week on island beaches, I decided to make the short hop to Singapore to see a friend from ETH who's now working there.


I imagined Singapore to be squeaky-clean, if somewhat sterile and commercial, and it was. The places I went to were lined with malls selling fashion, jewelery, and other useless items. Kind of like what you'd find in an airport.


This has advantages as well: At 31°C/88°F and 100% humidity, walking around outside can be a pain. My aforementioned friend has thus mapped out his walk from work to home such that he maximizes the distance covered inside air conditioned malls. Judging from the architecture, Singapore had its brightest days in the 70s and 80s, when most of the skyline seems to have been built. There is some new construction, such as the casino they dubbed "integrated resort", but downtown lacks any adventures in architecture.


Singapore clearly wants to be all business, at the expense of fun: No chewing gum, no spitting, and no pornography. Alcohol is expensive, and restaurants seem to close at 10 pm. The Internet is censored I couldn't even access YC Hacker News.


On the plus side, the place in an oasis of wealth, cleanliness, and safety. People seem educated and cosmopolitan. As I was geting into a taxi heading back to the airport, I had the urge to negotiate the price - a Pawlowian reflex from weeks of India and Thailand. But then I realized I was in Singapore

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

World Tour: Ko Samui

I'm living in a little hut on the beach. This is what I see when I look out the window.


My days are spent reading, tanning, jetskiing, and scootering around the island.



Ko Samui is like paradise: In the part where I'm staying, there are only bungalows and small hotels, no big resorts and crowded beaches. I'm spending less here than on an average day in San Francisco. Things are very informal: Even the airport isn't some glass and steel monument, but looks roughly like 3000 Sand Hill Road with an airstrip attached.


I only wish is that I had planned to stay here longer. My mentor at Google used to say that she didn't understand why people take weekend trips when it really takes 2 weeks to be effective at vacation: one week to forget work and stress, and the next one to really relax.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Alchemist

Some have ridiculed me for only having read business, programming, and economics books in the last few years - maybe with the occasional spy novel as long-haul flight fare. Thus, I was ready for some fiction, and I'm happy to say I chose the right book: The Alchemist by Paul Coelho [1]. Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and Will Smith all liked it, so I figured it must be good.

The Alchemist is a fable about following one's great goals in life. While the religious side of the book is not for me, it's underlying message is very strong: Identify your dreams, and follow them at all costs. Santiago, the main character, suffers various setbacks and distractions, spends a year working on something unrelated, and leaves much behind in the search for his treasure. The writing is simple and the book is brilliantly written. Perfect reading for entrepreneurs.

[1] Ironically, I read about The Alchemist in David Rothkopf's Superclass, a non-fiction book about how a small group of 6000 people runs the globe. I disagree with that book in many parts - more in a future book.

World Tour: Bangkok

Once again, I was surprised. From the moment you arrive at Helmut Jahn's Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport, Thailand screams at you with its newfound prosperity.


I wasn't sure what the country would look like, but 9.4% average GDP growth from 1985-1996 and the ~5% average growth from 2002-2007 have certainly left their mark. Downtown Bangkok is full of new skyscrapers and malls selling designer goods and Rolex watches.


I still have a high level of nostalgia for a weeklong vacation on the island of Crete in 2001, interrupting a 6 month internship at Yahoo Germany. During that trip, I read Charles Petzold's Code and many other books while chilling on the beach. I was worried I wouldn't have enough to read while travelling and relaxing. Yet, in Bangkok, I found B2S, an upscale book store that puts any Borders to shame, complete with its very own Starbucks.


If anything, it's almost too much like America here. But Bangkok has other sides as well. Teeming markets with ventors cooking Pad Thai, fried rice in the open (And other delicacies such as these little delicious pancakes I don't know the name of.) Long-tail boats are zigzagging the river, floating markets - that's Bangkok as seen on TV.


Than there is the Grand Palace, with its impressive temple, impeccably maintained. To see the temple, there "gringo tax" of 300 BHT ticket for foreigners, common in India, but unexpected in otherwise highly developed Thailand.


I'd never been exposed to Buddhism before. I'm fascinated by the ritual of taking off your shoes before entering, but I'm having serious trouble in keeping my toes from pointing forward at the Buddha statue, which is a big no-no.


Then there's the sex tourism. There's nothing covert about it: One of the parts of town with many hotels is full of middle-aged European men, with a Thai "lady" in arms. I'm not sure what to think of this, but it's apparently accepted in the local culture. Oh, and the smog and the density of traffic are also a bit disturbing.


Most importantly, Thai people are very friendly. I don't know a word of Thai yet, but misunderstandings are soon forgotten with a smile and a laugh. Even the hawkers try to charm rather than giving you the hard sell, even while haggling. The Lonely Planet says Thai culture regards visitors as guests from heaven - I've definitely been feeling that way.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Arrividerci, India

I'm about to leave for Bangkok, where I'll be for the next 2 weeks.

I was just getting the hang of India. But I only planned to stay for a few days because I'm a wimp. I didn't think I could figure it out in just a few days.

I guess the core insight for the India traveler is that you have to work with probabilities. The engineer's mind wants to allocate blocks of money and time and keep planning the trip. But the train might not show up. Prices depend entirely on bargaining skills. Hotels will charge by how much they think you make. I was almost going to start planning with probability trees, but then saw how ridiculous that was. I figured I'd just go with the flow. I miss the plane, so what? I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

But the county is very impressive. In terms of culture and development, it's different from what I've seen so far, ever. And I used to think I was well travelled. India's monuments are timeless and make all the craziness around them seem unimportant. I'm sure I'll come back with friends someday to travel more and see more.

India Negotiation Tactics - Addendum

Sometimes hawkers initially quote you an insanely high price. For example, they'll tell me the ride to the airport is 1200 Rupees, when the ride from the airport was 250 Rupees.

My reaction to this in the past was that I tried not to get emotional. I wouldn't scream or laugh at them. That didn't seem like an adult thing to do. A great example of this was when years ago, my Google recruiter named me the number of shares and options I'd be getting. My reaction internally was "you've gotta be kidding, there's a digit missing," but instead it was "let me think about it ...".

The lesson: When confronted with obviously imbalanced deals, I should express my emotions. As for the taxi driver, I just started laughing. The ride ended up costing 350 Rupees, after 10 minutes of bargaining. I did learn something in India after all.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

India: Touts and Scammers

I should probably be writing about how much I liked the Taj Mahal, and how it effortlessly transcends the vibrant chaos around it. But instead, more about hawkers and scammers in India. Sorry guys, but I'm just really fascinated with this whole phenomenon.



First of all, huge thanks to the Rough Guide to India authors. They've included so much information about scams in Delhi that I was able to steer clear of most. Without this book, I may have been screwed over many times: Taxi drivers that forget where your hotel is, take you on a shopping tour, and tourist bureaus that sell you overpriced train tickets - I was able to steer clear of all.

The one time they got me was in my morning drowsy state at 5:00 am at the New Delhi train station, on the way to Agra. My reservation didn't have a seat number on it, and an official-looking man took my ticket, said "you have to go get a stamp at the tourist ticket office", anbd I followed him to its entrance. It was only fair, I thought, to give him 20 Rupees of baksheesh. The ticket office, of course, turned out to be closed, but there was another guy who said that he knows another place that was open. He took me downstairs and pointed me to it. At this point I saw through the charade: The shop he was pointing to was outside of the train station. I went straight to the train where the conductor just gave me a seat number. No stamp needed.

Otherwise, I was able to steer clear of most scams, but I'm sure plenty of other visitors might fall for this.

Side note: While there seem to be lots of scammers, there seem to be virtually no pickpockets. At least that's what I've heard from other travelers. Is this a cultural phenomenon?

India Negotiation Tactics

There are no prices in India, anywhere, and everything is up for negotiation. Having negotiated in various countries, with various levels of success, here's a contrast to Switzerland and the US.



Switzerland: The price on the sticker is the price you pay. Swiss salesmen will always insist there is no room for negotiation. Not always true. Sometimes they'll throw in a goodie for free. Some companies will give you a "Neukundenrabatt" of 10-20% for new customers if you promise more business and insist long enough.

US: Before any prices are named, salesmen will go for minutes, if not hours about why their product is the best, and try to get you to connect emotionally to what they're selling. Only then are prices named, once you're predisposed to saying "yes". Price drops happen only after they've talked to their "manager" or some other - possibly imaginary - higher authority. Insist, assert yourself, set a limit, and be prepared to walk out.

India: A price is named quickly, but it can be a long way to go from there: My guidebook suggests to counteroffer one-third of the price they name. I'm often not brave enough to go that low and counteroffer one-half, then listen to them drop the price by 10%, and then pretend to walk away. Usually, this results in another price drop and puts be at around 75% of the original price tag.

Impressions from India

Huge disclaimer: Limited travel experience + overgeneralization == travel wisdom. What I write here is based on just a few days of travel in New Delhi and Agra, which are far from representative for the whole nation. However, nothing adapts to new circumstances faster than the human mind, so I figured I'd write it down while it's still fresh on my mind.


What Transformation?

I guess I was a little bit naive about coming here. After reading Friedman's The World is Flat, where he describes the gleaming HQs of outsourcing companies in Bangalore / Bengaluru, I expected a country on the verge of a big transformation to modernity. i guess that's the dangers of comparing the max of one country - the Electronic City Industrial Park on the outskirts of Bangalore - with the median of the West. I expected something on the level of communist Hungary where I spent my childhood, but found conditions significantly worse.


You see more construction cranes in Munich, Germany, than you see in New Delhi. Still, around the city, you see a lot of construction for the New Delhi Metro. Inside, you will find sparkling new stations and trains that put Europe to shame. Yet, you see only Indians riding it.


Poverty

The level of poverty, and its contrast to the rich few is striking: You see bicycle rickshaws and tut-tuts, buses teeming full of people, next to a Mercedes S-Class sedan. When you ride one of those tut-tuts, beggars and children will beg you for money at every red light.


My first impression was the most shocking: After leaving the glass, marble, and steel Indira Gandhi International Airport, I took a taxi to Paharganj, a cheap tourist area in New Delhi where my hotel was. after avoiding the driver's "I don't know where your hotel is, let me take you to another one" scan - more on that in a later post -, I found myself in an area that was crowded, smelly, dirty, with ramshackle buildings, and cows, goats, and dogs walking the streets.


Highlight

The highlight for me so far was the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi. It's the house in which Indira Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India, not related to the Mahatma) was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984; and in which she lived quite plainly for the leader of a huge country. Her study with the bookshelves stuffed with books reminded me, for some reason, of my grandfather's library. Streams of Indians of various backgrounds and religions are pushing themselves through the museum all the time.


While I don't agree with her policies, the exhibition about her and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who followed her as a PM and was also assassinated, is very moving. Formerly an airline pilot, he became quite the reformer and seemed to have almost Obamaesque speaking qualities:

In the heart of a truly non-violent person, there is a profound belief
that hate can only be driven out by love,
that anger can only be driven out by compassion,
and that fear can only be overcome by courage.

-- Rajiv Gandhi

Monday, September 22, 2008

World Tour: Europe

I'm on my way to India, the next stop on my world tour. In Germany, I went to Munich to pick up my new O-1 visa, and to Berlin for some sightseeing. Then, to Switzerland to hold a talk and see friends from ETH Zurich. I spent the last few days in Rome, where I checked out the sights. With this many stops, this part of the trip wasn't quite as relaxing as I thought it would be.

Some random observations from the last few days:


German infrastructure: There's something very pleasing about how well-maintained German roads are. On the entire autobahn from Munich to Berlin, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single pothole or even faded lane markers. The same applies to much of the rest of the country: Clean streets, freshly painted houses, and many modern glass-and-steel buildings. I guess growing up there probably formed my tastes: My love for Bauhaus-style modernity, my worrying about maintainability before even starting a software project, or all the little checklists I write for myself. More self-reflection is in order.


Outdoor dining: In the summer, Europe has tons of outdoor dining, and some restaurants double or even triple the number of available seating. I wonder why San Francisco doesn't have this, although this might be a consequence of cold summer evenings.


Rome: So much history in one place! I only wish I'd been able to go see the Sistine chapel, but for reasons that are beyond me, the Vatican museum is closed during Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Aren't those the times when visitors would most expect it to be open? The rest of the city was a blast, though. Loved the food! I recommend standing and snacking at the crowded Caffe Greco by the Spanish Steps, where amusingly pretentious waiters in suits serve you possibly the best pistachio cake in the world.