Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How not to find great employees

If you're in a startup and are trying to attract great employees, whatever you do, do NOT post a job ad that looks like this:

CompanyX is a tiny technology startup in Seattle. We are working on some amazingly cool technology, and we face the ongoing challenge of matching people with other people (contextually and behaviorally) and scaling a complex Web application.

We're looking for scary smart people who are willing and excited to jump into a startup, work hard, have fun, make their mark, and work for part equity and part cash. We want to make a lot of money, but you should know this is not your Mommy's station wagon rolling down the freeway at 60mph. This is a pimped out Hummer on extremely rough terrain with life-threatening hazards around every corner. And we're going too fast. If that actually sounds FUN to you, then give us a yell and tell us exactly why we should have a conversation.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Trail Critters and Other Biking War Stories

So after non stop mountain biking for the past week up here at Whistler, I can say with confidence, bears rule the land. A few days back, I was flying through the woods on a cross country ride; I was descending some tight technical single track and ready to shoot out onto a gravel road when I noticed a rather large black bear mulling around in the trail exit onto the road. I stopped as fast as I could, smiled and waved at the bear, and proceeded to back out slowly. He watched me until I was almost out of sight. I then turned my back to him and zipped away -- heart racing of course.

Yesterday, there was a big fella grazing just a hundred yards or so at the top of the lift. I also met a French guy who told me all about his best friends grizzly encounter that had recently happened. Apparently his friend and another friend were mountain biking not too far from here, and a grizzly attacked the other friend. The Frenchman's friend charged the bear to save the other guy, and smacked the bear with his bike. The bear was pushing toward him while he was holding it back with his bike. He then tried to break the bears nose by punching it - to no avail of course. The bear then swiped him with his paw, and apparently ripped deep into his jaw bone. He then passed out, and awoke over half an hour later. Apparently the grizzly left him after determining he was dead, or unworthy. He escaped with only 256 stitches.

This is what riders up here do whenever talk of the furry ones comes up - we all have our war stories. Today, there is a section right above lower Whistler downhill, where you turn a tight corner and launch in the air and down fast into a long open descent. As I was rounding the corner just a moment before committing, I noticed a huge black bear grazing only a few feet from the trail at the bottom. Fortunately I slammed on my brakes and was able to back track out. Another instant and I would have had to race by him praying all the way that I wouldn't blow out a tire or that he wouldn't give chase.

Another rider up here had a mountain lion incident on Tuesday by the mini-disc golf course - he got confronted, and the lion kept pushing toward him. Finally he hopped on his bike and tried to out run the lion. Fortunately for him, he was a downhill racer so he was pretty quick. Apparently the lion chased him for quite a while. The lion story brought me back to my own lion encounter, but I'll save that for another time.

Once this sort of stuff creeps into your mind, its very hard to get rid of the thoughts. The past few days, I've been scanning for critters like mad. Its actually an annoying distraction when there's enough obstacles immediately in your path to pay attention to. Today I was dropping off a steep ladder when I got completely spooked by what turned out to be a life threatening squirrel. Ridiculously, I did end up with quite a crash - fortunately for my ego, it was a tough and terribly slippery spot. Well at least I got to test out my helmet and armor. In any event, I've had enough furry encounters in the past week to last me the year.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Continued Adventures of Mateo: Fidel Oaxaca

My good friend Matt, now known as Mateo, dropped his life as a Seattle software geek, packed up his trailer, and drove down to the lovely beaches of Zipolite, Oaxaca. He has set up a new life down there. Occasionally I post some of his letters, with his permission of course, to remind us all that there is a world out there away from mortgages and 9 to 5 gigs. Here are some snippets from the latest:

Hey man. Thanks so much for getting back, I really appreciate it. [...] I'm now working with two other Mexican guys starting yet another Mexican non-profit to apply for world bank money to do a deforestation project. This is more Manolo's baby, he worked at the world bank for a number of years and his program was canceled by Wolfowitz. Needless to say he is quite pleased that W got the boot. Anyway he has retained a ton of contacts; I'm helping him prepare English applications and he is helping me find international money for things I'm interested in. The coolest thing, is learning from him.

In Mexico you can't do anything without the support of a local heavyweight. The local heavyweight can be a business leader, a member of an old family, a particularly good fisherman, or even somebody who tells good jokes. It has nothing to do with money or explicit power, it has to do with their personal power, their charm, their charisma, who knows what... Some people have this power [and] people follow them[;] they just know how to talk to all different kinds of people. With them you have a project. Without them you don't, they just take your money and nod. Usually if you go to a small town there are one or two guys who are heavyweights and you will quickly learn who. But one in a hundred, you can take the guy anywhere and plop him down and hell if he can't get everyone behind him in 30 minutes... no matter if they have never seen or heard of him.

Manolo is one of those. He looks like Fidel Castro at 50 with [a] gray beard, rides an old horse everywhere, and is shitfaced by 10:30 every day, but he's an incredible community leader. We went for a business meeting last week in the early morning sober hours. We were all in our bathing suits. We drank cheap Nescafe and he smoked cigars that he rolled from a single tobacco leaf at the table. He gave me the names of about 30 different international organizations that fund the work I'm interested in with tips for writing proposals and the names of his personal contacts. Then Filemon came by to borrow his gun to kill his cat, which had developed a [terribly] incurable disease. Manolo produced a small firearm and dispatched the poor cat, after which he announced he needed to take a ceremonial bath to cleanse himself of the bad vibes from killing an innocent animal. But no matter; we would resume the meeting with Alexis and I at the table and him out on the patio naked in a tub of water under the [bougainvillea] and next to his horse, who lives with him in his house. His house is the most amazing place I've seen, a sprawling decaying concrete estate with 180 degree views of the coast that he built himself over the last 20 years.


Nothing new here really. Things have quieted down a lot, we are waiting for the rain to start. Best to Ameen and the kids. take care, hasta la proxima,


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Book Review: Come Back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar

I just completed an amazing book called Come Back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar, a 17 year old teenager from California. For anyone interested in the current state of Afghanistan, I highly recommend this book.

Books like this, i.e. personal accounts of a foreign and politically relevant land, are typically written by seasoned news reporter type folks, or other adults who already have a solid world view. Witnessing Hyder, a youthful teen, struggle to make sense of this world, often through colorful pop culture references, is so unique. In addition, I've always been fascinated by the recent history of Afghanistan. I was similarly glued to Soldiers of God, by Robert Kaplan, a detailed account of his experiences with the Soviet fighting Mujahideen. Perhaps it is the vivid descriptions of these rugged mountain war zones, places like the Khyber Pass or the Hindu Kush, that get to me. I'm also always interested in understanding the forces of tribalism, especially in South Asia.

Anyway, back to the book, not sure exactly how it happened, but somehow Hyder was given a microphone and recorder by Susan Burton who ultimately produced a show for This American Life, the NPR radio show hosted by Ira Glass. You can listen to the complete This American Life episode HERE. This show kicked off much of what appears in more vivid detail in the book. You can also buy the book on Amazon HERE.

Here's a snippet from a Publisher's Weekly review on Come Back to Afghanistan:

Akbar's refreshingly unsentimental reminiscences of visiting his father's homeland as a teen make for an intriguing portrait of Afghanistan at a time of significant transition. On 9/11, Akbar, who was born in Peshawar in 1984 but grew up in the U.S., was living near Oakland, Calif., where his father ran a clothing store. After the attack, the elder Akbar, a descendant of an Afghan political family, returned to his country to take a job as President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman and, later, as governor of Kunar, a rural province. The author visited his father for three successive summers, and the result is this account, a closeup view of the creation of the country's post-Taliban democratic government, told from a perspective that's impressively both insider and objective. Akbar reports on chats with cabinet ministers and warlords, and sketches the lay of the land, visiting both sumptuous Kabul palaces as well as bombed-out villages. His youth and curiosity send him on some dangerous adventures (he retraces a mountain route between Afghanistan and Pakistan used by fleeing members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban), and that youthful flavor also infuses the writing with a hip stream-of-consciousness that is by turns funny, insightful and, occasionally, breathtaking.

All in all, I give this book 4 out of 4 stars.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Big Whistler Air

Here's a great video of riders getting some big air. By the way, that reminds me, there's a popular trail up here called Dirt Merchant - there's a lovely spot where you launch over a creek that flows between the launch and landing. Its such a great feeling - a middle aged guy like me can feel like Evil Kenievel for a wonderful few moments. But I digress, back to these far more talented kids, enjoy:

Whistler Fun and Lots of Sun

We got up to Whistler yesterday morning and have been having a blast ever since. Yesterday I had a great time riding a bunch of cross country trails all around the Lost Lake area. There are some really fantastic trails that I've never found before. Lots of great wooden planks and roller coaster fun on Rhinoceros Furniture - my these Canadians sure know how to make some unbelievable trails. Poor Maya didn't make it out of the house today; alas her paws are really sore from our heavy riding yesterday; I really want to find some good running shoes for her.

Today was a hoot doing some downhill riding. I ran into an old friend randomly who I haven't seen in 15 years. We had a blast riding together. And the weather has been just stunning - perfectly sunny and around 75 degrees.

Google Keeps Tweaking Its Search Engine

A recent NY Times article that is lighting up the search blogosphere called Google Keeps Tweaking Its Search Engine by Saul Hansell provides some insights on how the Google ranking system works. For anyone that has ever spent some time tweaking ranking metrics, this is an article worth checking out. Here are some snippets:

“Someone brings a query that is broken to Amit, and he treasures it and cherishes it and tries to figure out how to fix the algorithm,” says Matt Cutts, one of Mr. Singhal’s officemates and the head of Google’s efforts to fight Web spam, the term for advertising-filled pages that somehow keep maneuvering to the top of search listings.

Some complaints involve simple flaws that need to be fixed right away. Recently, a search for “French Revolution” returned too many sites about the recent French presidential election campaign — in which candidates opined on various policy revolutions — rather than the ouster of King Louis XVI. A search-engine tweak gave more weight to pages with phrases like “French Revolution” rather than pages that simply had both words.

At other times, complaints highlight more complex problems.


Mr. Singhal introduced the freshness problem, explaining that simply changing formulas to display more new pages results in lower-quality searches much of the time. He then unveiled his team’s solution: a mathematical model that tries to determine when users want new information and when they don’t. (And yes, like all Google initiatives, it had a name: QDF, for “query deserves freshness.”)


THE QDF solution revolves around determining whether a topic is “hot.” If news sites or blog posts are actively writing about a topic, the model figures that it is one for which users are more likely to want current information. The model also examines Google’s own stream of billions of search queries, which Mr. Singhal believes is an even better monitor of global enthusiasm about a particular subject.

As an example, he points out what happens when cities suffer power failures. “When there is a blackout in New York, the first articles appear in 15 minutes; we get queries in two seconds,” he says.

Mr. Singhal says he tested QDF for a simple application: deciding whether to include a few news headlines among regular results when people do searches for topics with high QDF scores. Although Google already has a different system for including headlines on some search pages, QDF offered more sophisticated results, putting the headlines at the top of the page for some queries, and putting them in the middle or at the bottom for others.
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