Sunday, December 23, 2007

Overheard in an elevator

A woman's cell phone conversation overheard in an elevator:
"No, you won't see me tomorrow.. I'm out for two weeks vacation."...
"I'm heading home to get drunk!!!"
(Chorus of hooting from the rest of the elevator)
"I think the people in the elevator like that idea"
"No I'm not going to be drunk for the whole two weeks!!!!"
"No..."
"I'm not"

Then the doors opened and we all went our separate ways.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Quotable Quotes

The large print giveth and the small print taketh away

This week was the first time I heard this and I dig it. It's probably pretty common but it was new to me.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Jesus built my hotrod...

Jesus built my hotrod by Ministry is basically a rock and roll version of the hamster dance.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Right Way

My Dad always said that there's no point doing something if you're not going to do it the "Right Way" (tm).

What life has taught me is that the "Right Way" is frequently not the right way and that "Good Enough" is usually good enough. The thing about doing something the "Right Way" is that the "right-ness" depends on what you are doing. If you're reroofing your house or you're redoing your bathroom, you do it "the right way" because getting it wrong will be very painful and expensive and the risk is very high. If you're putting down some paving blocks in your backyard to make a little patio, "Good Enough" is good enough.

There's an old view of the Software Engineer sitting high upon his ivory tower writing software the "Right Way" and if the users aren't smart enough to understand how to use, then they shouldn't be allowed to use it. I still come across this frame of mind from time to time and not only is it almost always patently wrong, it is tremendously frustating because the purveyor of said "right-ness" can't understand why you can understand and gets supremely frustrated at your lack of understanding.

Feh.

At Amazon we need to move fast; be nimble and quick. In fact a recuring trend in the software development world is fast iteration. You rarely get it right the first time, so it's better to take a couple of passes at the problem, learning from mistakes along the way. It's the old joke about Microsoft taking 3 releases of any product to get it "good". The first launch gets it out the door. The second launch makes it usuable and actually gains some marketshare. The third launch is where it gets better than sliced bread.

The trick to being nimble and being able to keep operational overhead down is to walk the line between speed and quality. If try to you build the super bullet proof ivory tower system, not only is it unlikely that your 3 year project will ever launch, but it will be pretty impossible to change and bend with changing times and changing requirements. You'll build in big, hard to fix bugs early on. Building enough to get you through the next 2-3 years nets you a lighter, simpler system that is easier to iterate. And in all those fast ierations, you have many more chances to find and fix bugs. It's not "the Right Way" but the better way. :->

Friday, October 12, 2007

Happy things

One of the things that always brings a smile to my face is seeing a toddler happily running for mommy.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Galatic Conquest

Ogame.org is a web-based resource management strategy game. You start off with a few resources in your pocket, enough to build a Solar Engery Plant and a Metal mine and you are off and running.

You can work your way up to building spaceships of all sorts, planetary defense shields, missles, espianage probes. You can attack planets and steal resources. It's real-time but generally slow as you ramp up your empire. It doesn't require a lot of attention and can be fun if you like the idea of "leveling up".

Coffee

Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all.

If this statement isn't true than you haven't fully embraced your caffeine addiction.

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press_releases/2004/09_29_04.html

If you missed your morning coffee and now you have a headache and difficulty concentrating, you might be able to blame it on caffeine withdrawal. In general, the more caffeine consumed, the more severe withdrawal symptoms are likely to be, but as little as one standard cup of coffee a day can produce caffeine addiction, according to a Johns Hopkins study that reviewed over 170 years of caffeine withdrawal research.

The researchers identified five clusters of common withdrawal symptoms: headache; fatigue or drowsiness; dysphoric mood including depression and irritability; difficulty concentrating; and flu-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting and muscle pain or stiffness. In experimental studies, 50 percent of people experienced headache and 13 percent had clinically significant distress or functional impairment -- for example, severe headache and other symptoms incompatible with working. Typically, onset of symptoms occurred 12 to 24 hours after stopping caffeine, with peak intensity between one and two days, and for a duration of two to nine days. In general, the incidence or severity of symptoms increased with increases in daily dose, but abstinence from doses as low as 100 milligrams per day, or about one small cup of coffee, also produced symptoms.

The research also showed that avoidance of caffeine withdrawal symptoms motivates regular use of caffeine. For example, the satisfying feelings and perceived benefits that many coffee users experience from their morning coffee appear to be a simple reversal of the negative effects of caffeine withdrawal after overnight abstinence.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Upsell / Cross-sell

I need to change the oil in the Pathfinder and I happened to be near a Jiffy Lube so I stopped in. They are the kings of the Up-sell / Cross-sell.

First you pull your car up in back and then go inside to wait. Then a few minutes later they call you out to talk to you about what services you want. I just wanted a simple oil change.
Synthetic? (3 different kinds of synthetic to choose from)? Nope. Regular.
Which regular (2 different kinds of regular oil)?
Air filter? Fuel Filter? Transmission fluid? Transfer case fluid? Differential fluid? No, no, no, no, really, I just want my oil changed, nothing else, no, no, no, just an oil change, really.

At this point the guy apologized and said that he had to ask all those questions. Poor dude.

I go back and sit down for a few more minutes and then some guy in "Auto Glass network" coveralls comes to get me. He shows me a few dings in the windshield and asks me if I want to replace my winshield while they change my oil. No, I just want an oil change. Really? Your insurance will cover it 100% (how does he know that?) and we can do it in the time it takes to change your oil. (no they can't. They don't even have my winshield there and it takes more than 20 minutes.)

I felt like I was running a gauntlet in old school movie where the very caucasian hero wanders through some third world market surrounded by salesman. Yikes.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cost of Operations

For a lot of companies, cost reduction is a focus in profitability. For retail merchandisers, cost reduction is a major focus, because while there isn't much control over the per unit margin, there is a lot of control over how much is spent to sell the product.

Online retailers, like Amzaon, are really part software company. We build, deploy, and operate a lot of software. Since we're a 24x7 retail website, every minute that customers can't find and buy product is lost revenue. That means we have a lot of energy applied to ensuring that the website is running in top form all the time.

When cutting costs, there are a number of different avenues to focus on. When I worked for Aetna, pencils were metered and carefully handed out. At one company I have worked for, Ibuprophen was removed for a while from the first-aid stations as a cost-saving measure. Pencils and Ibuprophen don't move the needle. Staff reduction does move the needle. Unfortunately, after you layoff your workforce, your ability to do much of anything is supremely hindered. You may be able to keep your operation running, but forget innovation.

Instead of cutting staff, a better focus would be to focus hard on reducing operational cost and generally increasing productivity. We've been focusing a lot on reducing the cost of operations at Amazon and the result is that we have more developers spending time on developing (and golly, the stock price is up too, go figure). If you consider developers as fixed costs and their value add is new stuff, by increasing the amount of time they have to work on new stuff, you increase their efficiency. By reducing operational cost you get more value from your staff.

What's hard about reducing operational cost is that you usually have to dedicate a good chunk of said staff to that task. By doing that you don't build new features with those folks. So you are basically taking a hit up front to get your house in order. While it can be a bitter bill to swallow -- that you let yourself get so far gone -- the net results are marvelous.

Software developers tend to feel a sense of ownership for their software and services and nobody likes owning some custy, junky, crappy software that always dies and just generally "sucks"! Nobody! Having a smooth running system that doesn't wake people in the middle of the night and handles your peak transactional volume well is something to be proud of and makes you feel good about your job. When your developers are feeling good about their jobs, they tend to germinate ideas at a higher rate and the ideas tend to be better as well. And then... then... since the developers are busy spending all their time fighting fires, they actually have time to explore these cool new features which makes the website that much better.

Reducing operational cost is not something you can usually do in a month or three. It requires a long term commitment AND it requires a culture shift to build software in an operational friendly form -- which also makes it take a little longer to build. The value there is that you spend the extra time in software, up-front, once vs the death of a thousand cuts as you spend countless hours over time dealing with software that is hard to manage.

Spend a little now or spend a lot later.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Technology

It dawned on me the other day that keys are on the way out. Car keys. House keys. No more keys on your keyring.

It's been progressive and started with cars. First an (assumedly) RFID chip was embedded in car keys to prevent popping out the locking mechanism. The car won't actually start -- it will crank but not start -- without that RFID chip in close vicinity.

This has been taken a step further on a number of high end vehicles such as Corvette, Mercedes, Lexus, Infinity, and Porsche. All you need is to have the RFID chip in your pocket and the car will start. No keys in the ignition. Just a push button starter. It's only a matter of time now for this to make its way down to the mid-priced and then the rest of the car market.

This is very cool by the way. Not having to fish keys out of your pocket when you are jumping into your car with hands full on a rainy day (not that it ever rains in Seattle). Not having to have keys in your pocket at all. As an aside, my wife's new Subaru Outback has the biggest key I have ever seen and then it still has a great big keyfob remote attached. There is no way I have room for that in my pocket.

The other thing that will happen over time is that the keyfobs themselves will get smaller too. For those of you who dig the idea of embedded chips in your skin that you can wave around to make stuff happen, that'd be just as possible for your ride but you'll always need some kind of remote control available for remote lock.

What will be really exciting is when those RFID "keys" will be general enough to be used for more stuff that just your car -- like your house.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kids and Sticks


IMG_0878
Originally uploaded by SquidgeyFlint
We went to an appreciation picnic this past weekend for my boy's second grade teacher. Even knowing how much kids like sticks, we parents were surprized when we saw them drag this branch out of the bushes. Normally I'd be worried about this but the branch was heavy enough that they needed at least 4 kids to carry the thing. They were so slow with it that they couldn't chase anybody down. They tried of course but were too slow and uncoordinated. Once they figured out how how to up-end the thing -- like a flagpole -- then we had to intervene. That would hurt, getting squished by that big branch falling down.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Technology

Cell phones are technolgoy that we take for granted. Yet 15 years ago they were still very expensive and rare. Once the prices came down on both the hardware and the service, the super-fast adoption rate is a key indicator of the chell phone's "just right" technology. In case you remember what cell phones used to look like, here's a nice retrospective image set from msn.com. It was only about 10 - 12 years ago that phones got to the order of small that we know them today and that was still bigger than what we'd consider average today.

I would go a step farther to say that cell phones really turned out to be an enabling technology. The wide-ranging wireless network that cell phones are based on has grown and expanded to support an increasing volume of data transaction as well. This trend will clearly continue and cell phone like personal devices -- will be everywhere had by everyone.

They clearly still have a ways to go with the interface but they are getting better. I think the Apple iPhone is the start of the next generation of personal devices. I do have to say however that I like the current form factor of the small flip-phone and don't like the form-factor of the iPhone for being a phone. As a UMPC, the form factor is interesting and the multi-touch display is definitely trend setting.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Technology

Add-on GPS units are another example of technology that just makes sense and provides such a valuable service that it's easy to become dependant upon it.

Earlier this week I went up to Redmond for an after work Microsoft Playtest. Since traffic can be highly variable I choose to potentially be hungry instead of late. I got there with enough time to spare to find food. Fortunately, I had my trusty GPS with me and asked it to tell me what food was nearby. It couldn't've been easier to get food and get back in far less time than had I just started driving around looking for stuff. I'd've definitely got lost. After the Playtest was over, I needed some fuel, so score another one for the GPS.

While GPS units are still pricey, these are definitely going to go the route of power windows and anti-lock brakes -- eventually coming standard on every car. The touch screens are easy to use and while the quality of the user interfaces can vary, they're all easy enough to use. The real value here (besides the core functionality) is the built-in database of businesses. That are many other pluses but being able to do things like hit the button for 'GAS' and have it show you all the gas stations near by, closest ones first, is an awesome use of personal technology.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Good design and good technology

I'm a generally old dude and in my lifespan I've seen a lot of change in technology... maybe not as much as my parents but it's still pretty impressive. Compare 4 VHF channels with an audio signal remote control to 500 channels of Satellite TV via an integrated Tivo (DirecTivo).

Tivo is a great example of a technology so well placed and well designed that once you have it, you can't imagine life without it. The MrsSquidgeyFlint thought I was buying some techy gadget / stereo equipment kind of thing. It didn't take her long to become so comfortable with the concept that she couldn't imagine life without it -- like when we'd go visit her parents in CT.

Tivo's greatness hits on two fronts:
  1. It's such a simple and obvious idea that you can't believe you didn't think of it.
  2. The interface design was easy enough to figure out and remember.

While bungling either of these elements can sink an idea, I'd say that if you can only have one, you need the first option - the simple, obvious idea. "What if you could record TV without having to mess around with tapes. What if you didn't have to worry about what time your show was coming on? What if you could pause live TV. What if you could rewind to hear that last little bit again?

You could already do most of this with a VCR except that it was a lot of work... and hard to do. And then you had to mess around with all those tapes... and you had to get the times right. And then you had to swap tapes to make sure you didn't record over shows you hadn't watched yet. Tivo took that all and made it super easy to do with a simple set-top box, virtually no setup, no maintenance.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fun stuff on Amazon.com

I work @ amazon and it seems like every week I find something new and interesting that we sell. Take this Hello Kitty Bowling Ball for example. It looks like it comes in 2 sizes. 6 lb and 16 lb. I thought 8 lb was the lightest ball made. What I really find amusing is the 16 lb ball. That's the heaviest "size" of bowling ball and at least back when I was bowling regularly, you didn't see many women throwing 16 lb balls.

Then there's this dummy hand grenade that I found last week while looking into an issue in the Sporting Goods store.

The creme de la creme of course is the well known JL421 Badonkadonk Land Cruiser/Tank. You should definitely check out the customer reviews. Who knew that the JL421 would be so popular?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Goodbye squidgeyflint.spaces.live.com, hello Blogger.com

I originally setup a space over at spaces.live.com b/c MSN Messenger assumed I had one there and there were some built-in widgets to pull xbox live stuff like my GamerCard and my last played games.

Recently I decided that I want to start actively blogging (again really -- the first time was way back in 1995 before the term was coined) and in trying to get the MS place set up nicely was hard.

To me it looks like they want to be more like MySpace and less of a blog spot. That makes them heavy and hard to use. Too many widgets. Too much dynamic in browser stuff for editing. It's hard to find a simple html widget to try and hook in things like a