Archives : October 1999

1999 October 1


Well, turn out the lights. Show's over. Move along, nothing more to see here. The weasel has popped. The fat lady has sung. Sha-na-na-na hey hey goodbye.

Stick a fork in me, I'm done.

It felt weird leaving Stanford today, on what may well have been my last day of work there. I logged off of plage, collected my pens from my desk, and looked around the darkened office. It felt like a significant moment. Not precisely sad, or frightening, or exciting, but some strange combination. Like the roller-coaster has been cranking to the top of the big hill and you know it's going to be a wild ride but there's that moment when you get to the crest and time slows down and the pit of your stomach drops out and you wonder what the hell you're doing there but it's way too late to get off.

Well, not quite so intense as that -- in a roller-coaster the whole ride is compressed to three minutes or less, while I've been cranking up to the drop for more than a month, so I get flashes of the butterflies drawn out over days. The real ride starts either Sunday, when I get on the plane, or Monday, when I actually check into boot camp.

In the meantime, I've been got the first problem set at least half done already.

. . .

I hope my tomato plant lives long enough to produce its tomatoes. It's definitely sick, with a fuzzy white mold kind of thing that's growing on the leaves and killing them. This is an unfortunate turn of events.

I know I'm going to be away and was going to miss most of the tomatoes anyway, but there's the principle of the thing. I put a bit of work into growing that thing, and I'd like it to produce enough fruit for it all to have been theoretically worthwhile. And it's a bummer to have a sick plant.

1999 October 3

Four legs good, two legs bad

Taxis are bad; Southwest Airlines is good. Simple morals make the world a nicer place.

. . .

How many times was I lied to this morning? Hm. The cab company twice told me the taxi I booked last night was on its way, before half an hour later admitting they were making that up and had in fact punted the call to some other company (in fact, the one that stiffed me two weeks ago, when I was headed to Vancouver). The other company apparently told company A they were sending someone, then told me when I called to check, that they'd never heard of me -- both statements probably being fiction.

Company A finally got their act together and got me a cab. Curiously, the one that turned up had the phone number of company B on its side, though. Go figure.

You may note I'm not naming either one of these packs of liars. If it really is true there's no such thing as bad publicity, I'm not risking giving them any more benefit out of me than they've already got. My original plan had been to get the train down to San Jose, but after waiting 55 minutes for the cab to finally show up, my only option was to take the cab all the way to the airport. That is, and this is the truly galling part, their dishonest inefficiency meant I also had to pay them $30 more than I ought to have.

Taxis suck.

. . .

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, was something of a revelation. They don't reserve seats -- it's first check-in, first boarding and sit whereever's free. They don't have first or business class -- all the seats are the same, except for the very first row which is set up facing backwards, making a 3-facing-3 arrangement like is common on trains. They did a remarkably good job of explaining what we were waiting for whenever there was a delay. And get this: on their web site, they lay out a simple table of prices for tickets. No ``revenue-managing'' extortion games, and the price was 20% less than anybody else was charging.

It's practically communist.

. . .

Having a laptop on a plane is cool. The only downer is that I'm so depressingly old that I'm not even going to spend the flight blowing up Protoss.

1999 October 4

Boot camp

11:05 am. Argh. I am in South Station in Boston, waiting for my train. It is now 11 am. My train will not be for another hour. I had intended to be at boot camp two hours ago.

And I thought I was being clever by flying in to Providence instead of Boston. LifeSimple, the boot camp site, is right on the Providence-Boston commuter line, sort of midway between. I'd stay overnight in Providence, catch the train in the morning, be there just as quickly as if I'd stayed in Boston, and save a lot of money.

Not clever enough. I've now spent more than $50 in taxi and bus fares, am more than two hours late, and am not even there yet.

What I forgot to do is check the train schedule. It hadn't occurred to me that there might only be one train all day that would do what I wanted, and I missed it by 15 minutes.

And I wouldn't even have done that if I'd been more clever about picking a motel closer in to Providence, so it wouldn't have taken me half an hour to get to the train station this morning.

It's also raining. I should mention that, too.

. . .

8:00 pm. The suite href="">Jason found at the "Inn at Ridge" is amazing. It's bigger than my apartment, has cherry-wood furniture and marble tiling, attaches onto a posh athletic club (that we get access to), and we're paying a laughable $65 a night for it. Neither of us can figure out why we're getting such a good deal for it, three-week term notwithstanding.

I finally made it to LifeSimple for the boot camp a little before one, after a train ride that took twice as long as it was scheduled to, and a mile hike with heavy bags. Fortunately, it didn't seem to matter too much that I was late arriving. I don't know what the 10 o'clock introductory remarks were about -- I asked a few people, and they all told me ``nothing important.''

The boot camp space is a couple dozen low cubicles with a mix of shiny NT workstations and big fat Sun servers. These sit sort of out in the middle of a vast open space, growing dim to the far horizon. I exaggerate, but only slightly -- there is easily room, for example, for a couple simultaneous games of floor hockey, without even really getting in anybody's way. All of this newly-renovated space belongs to a small start-up called LifeSimple -- they are apparently working on a web service that will in some way simplify your life, how, I do not know. But at any rate, they are an Ars Digita client, and have struck some kind of deal to let us use some of their surplus capacity.

The walls are painted in big blocks of what I think are called ``jewel tones'': mustard yellow and jade green and plum purple. There's lots of multi-coloured wiring strung through the rafters, and we have nifty comfy chairs.

I haven't had a good opportunity to meet many people yet, except for Jason.

1999 October 9

Notes from boot camp

Boot camp is going well -- I'm spending longish days there, but am enjoying it. (Actually, I wouldn't mind spending more time there, but Jason isn't a night owl, and I'm fairly dependent on his car.)

I did enough work before coming that I'm managing to stay comfortably ahead in the problem sets, without pushing particularly hard. I think I'm probably spending half my days talking to people there, which I think is fine. If I wasn't doing that, I might as well be working alone in my apt in Palo Alto. (If anyone is curious to see what I've been doing, it's all available from my boot camp workstation.)

. . .

Thursday afternoon Philip and Alex dropped by to meet everyone -- Philip Greenspun is the CEO of ArsDigita/author of the book that brought me here. Entertaining guy; it was interesting to watch him hold court with the bootcampers -- his fan club -- even while I was gathered in the front row.

Alex is cool, too -- very dignified, it seems to me. Was fun to play with him.

. . .

Have been getting to know more of the bootcampers, particularly those sitting around me: Justin Ross, Davi Bock, and Susanna Schroeder. And I've run into another guy who was at Dal a year or two before me -- Paul, one of the other students. Haven't talked to him much, though. He's apparently been working in Hong Kong.

Jason reminds me of Mark. Quiet guy, easy-going. It's sort of awkward to room with him because neither one of us tends to talk a lot, so our conversations often peter out.

. . .

Met Jessica at her office near Kendall Square Thursday evening. It turned out that her company was moving out of the building that day, because it was scheduled for demolition. So she and some friends were staying behind after hours to go nuts painting on the walls. I helped.

Her friends, Deb and Richard, were cool people.

. . .

Jason and I met Matt and Christopher Baldwin last night in Medford Square, way on the other side of Boston. There was a story-telling event going on at a bookstore up there, organised by another friend of Matt's, but with one thing or another, Jason and I wound up being late, then very late, then convinced we'd missed the whole thing. The event started at 7; we wound up not arriving until after 10, feeling doomed, that we were going to arrive at the bookstore after having travelled two and a half hours across Boston to find it closed and everybody gone.

I stepped off the bus in Medford Square and bumped right into Matt trying to get on.

I didn't even see him, but fortunately he recognised me. Fate was very kind.

We went back to his place near Davis Square and hung out for a couple hours, before having to run to get the last train home. Fun evening, but I still can't quite believe it really worked out like that.

1999 October 14

Boot camp midpoint

Those of you who know me will recognise how scary this is. I am now waking up at 8 am without an alarm clock, ready to get to work.

Admittedly, the main reason for this is that I can only work at the bootcamp site (that is, I have no net access from the suite), and I'm dependent on Jason's car to get to and from there. I can't hack until 2 am no matter how much I might want to.

. . .

I spent about half the day yesterday writing toolkit functions, instead of working on this week's problem set. There were some seemingly obvious functions, like get_user_name($user_id), that I couldn't find in the ACS. I asked a TA, Malte, why it didn't exist -- he shrugged and said I should write it. So I have. Haven't got the nerve to officially submit it yet, though. I want to use it a bit first and make sure no more clever ideas occur to me about how to make it more elegant.

Oops, time to go. More later.

1999 October 17

More notes from bootcamp

This is just going to be a dump of a whole bunch of short notes I've been meaning to write down.

I think I was not the first to finish problem set two, but I'm up there, anyway. Actually, I'm not quite finished; there are still a couple minor bugs I have left to fix. But last night I sort of ran out of motivation to fiddle with them. I'll go into Cambridge to the ArsDigita house and finish them up today.

If anybody is amused by this kind of thing, you can now make reservations for fictitious rooms at

. . .

An unexpected talent

LifeSimple (the bootcamp site) has an air hockey table. Kind of a funky one, actually, with bumpers at center ice and two goals at each end (in the corners). A number of us -- Paul, Ken, Davi, Justin and I in particular -- have taken to playing when we need a break.

I am surprised to discover that I am the reigning champion. I went 15-1 yesterday.

. . .


Took Jason along to meet Michael and Nomi and Elka on Sunday. Fun evening -- we had kosher Chinese (which is a lot like regular Chinese except there's no pineapple pork on the menu) and yakked about whatever it is we always talk about when I'm with the Bursteins. Well, except for Gilbert and Sullivan. That never came up.

Random story: turns out Michael happened to decide to finally go visit the Kennedy house (which is in his neighbourhood) the day JFK Jr went down in his plane, and got stuck rather unwillingly on TV as a spokesman for the mourners.

. . .

I went into Somerville Monday evening and played Seafarers with Matt and two of his friends, Caryn and Marek. Was a very good game -- Caryn and I were both very close to winning when I had to leave to catch the subway home.

Matt lives in a neat neighbourhood near Davis Square. You get to walk the Minuteman Trail (a converted rail line) from the T stop to his place, which is particularly cool with all the leaves in colour.

Observations from the train

I had good karma on the T on Monday -- I went through turnstiles three times, and every one of them waved me through without paying. Well, the first and the third did: the second just had a gate propped open with a sign "gone to the bathroom". The coincidence got to be enough that I started looking around for any sign that it was a fare holiday or something of the sort, but other people seemed to be paying.

I'm not exactly sure what to make of it. If this is supposed to be a cosmic reward, it must have been for something pretty small, because I saved a whole $2.55 on the day. Maybe I should have tried to travel farther to get proper benefit from the event.

. . .

When you take the commuter rail into Boston's South Station, you pass a gigantic warehouse with a neon sign a hundred yards long.


. . .

It turns out there are two versions of the southbound Red Line in Boston's subway system, one going to Braintree and another which forks off and goes to Ashmont. If you get on the Braintree train, everybody's white. If you get on the Ashmont train, everybody's black. I found that to be a somewhat depressing observation.


ArsDigita's main office is currently an old house in Cambridge. There's hardwood floors and sort of crooked walls and all the rooms are occupied by tables with huge monitors on them. I've spent the day working in their attic, which is really nifty -- everything's white and maple and there are huge skylights in the ceiling.

I finished my problem set an hour or so ago, at least as far as required functionality is concerned. (The minor bugs turned out to be hiding a rather ugly bit of logical swamp, and took a lot longer to fix than I anticipated. But I'm done now.) I could easily keep fiddling with it forever -- certainly there are lots of obvious things I could do with the code to make it more useful in real life -- but that's not what we were asked to do, and I'm going to save my energy for the next project. Two weeks down and still one to go is going to be a bit of a test of stamina. (I'm not worried about it -- this is cake compared to finishing my thesis, but then I worked myself literally sick doing that. No prizes for that here, I don't think.)

1999 October 25

On the plane again

Once again I am writing from my seat on the plane, cramped elbow room, awkward posture and all. It's great. This is only my second flight with linon and the novelty hasn't worn off yet. Seems to be a nice day to be travelling; Boston was crisp and pleasant, and Maryland glowed leafy and golden from the air -- had to change planes in Baltimore.

. . .

A lot has happened in the past week. Boot camp is now over, obviously, and generally went pretty well. I learned quite a bit, had a good time, and got possibly two job offers out of the deal. I went hoping for a job with arsDigita, but am surprised to find myself much more aggressively courted by a startup called revbox (``because all the other names were already taken''). ArsDigita, meanwhile, sounds sort of positive about maybe making me an offer once I talk to the guys in their SF office, but not half as enthusiastic as revbox. I can't help feeling sort of swayed by that, and have been thinking a lot about how much weight I should assign to such things when making decisions. It's certainly tempting to think it would be more worthwhile to work in place that would really think I was important.

But that's not the only reason I'm finding myself rather tempted by revbox. For one, revbox is still tiny -- they haven't gone live on the web yet. I'd be getting in at something pretty close to the ground floor as employee number 12 or so. I'd apparently wind up being the only technical person actually working in their main office in SF (the others all being in Boston, oddly enough), which means I'd probably become the guy the CEO, Jim Wu, goes to to ask technical questions. And this CEO sounds like a pretty interesting guy -- used to be a shark among sharks as a leveraged-buy-out specialist on Wall St. Okay, working with nothing but MBAs around me might not be the most fun arrangement in the world, but it seems like I could really learn a lot from watching Wu operate, particularly since I'd be starting from knowing almost nothing about how the business world works. ArsDigita could possibly teach me to be a better software engineer than revbox might, but I think maybe I'd learn more overall from revbox.

And hey, what more exciting place is there in the world than riding the pointy end of a technology start-up after they've filled the tanks with money and lit the solid-rocket boosters? I'm feeling kind of reckless.

Oh yeah, what revbox actually does. They've got a sort of boring but convincingly plausible business plan to manage sales of extended warranties and service contracts for online retailers, based on an exclusive contract with a big insurance company that already does this stuff on paper. Like I say, sort of boring, but proven profitable. The nifty internet value-added comes from features that will automatically keep track of everything customers buy, and let them know with one click how much time remains on the basic manufacturer's warranty, and keep track of the exact terms of the warranty so they don't have to worry about keeping track of the booklet that came with the item, and schedule a service call/repair request direct from their inventory (``My Revbox'') page.

. . .

Whoops, out of battery, got to shut down now. These things don't last very long at all, do they? I need a backup battery.