Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Estate Sale

While thinking about my previous post/rant regarding West Marin, I remembered a sign that I found particularly funny, though not specifically a West Marin problem.

As I was rolling through Lagunitas, there was a sandwich board-style sign for an estate sale. No, I did not get a picture....I was working my ass off in a paceline and if I had stopped to take a picture, I would never have caught back up. Anyway, the sign itself is not at issue.

The question is, what is an "estate sale". Well, denotatively it is the sale of a dead person's belongings. Boy, that sounds like fun.

Connotatively, it has been usurped to describe the common garage sale. People think of estate as in a manor, not a legal construct, and apparently like to think they live in one. In this use, if you see a sign for an estate sale, apparently George Lucas is clearing out the garage, because he is the only guy I know of who has a proper estate in Marin. The rest of us are mere country squires in our little houses. So if we are having a true estate sale, we will not be able to attend.

What is in West Marin's water?

I ride my bike a lot, and I usually choose to ride out in West Marin, in the bucolic countryside. Sometimes I am out by myself, sometimes in a small group, and occasionally in a large group of up to 30 riders. It seems like every ride, I have a negative encounter with an aggressive motorist, angry about sharing the road with cyclists.

What makes these hippies so unhappy? If you have chosen to live in West Marin, you have checked out of the fast lane. You are not in your pickup rushing to a board meeting. The CEO has not summoned you to the office for a critical strategy session. If you have to wait a minute until the road straightens out so you can pass safely, the world will keep spinning. And yet, I often see untempered aggression.

In Marin County, West Marin is the poor stepchild. All the tax base is within 2 miles of 101. Go west, and you are looking at subsidized living.

Bolinas is particularly irksome. Those people are downright hostile to visitors, and yet they have no obvious means of support other than tourism, agriculture (probably more accurately herbiculture) and welfare. The Bovine Bakery, which does serious business with cyclists and other tourists, delights in not having an espresso machine. "We only make real coffee", they say. What would Europeans, who have been drinking it a lot longer than we have, think about that.

During the Tour of Marin, where we had a rolling CHP escort, I actually saw a slackjawed yokel throw a Big Gulp at the riders. He was immediately pulled over...that guy is not just hostile, he is an idiot.

When I have ridden in other rural areas, people are just not like that. When you move to West Marin, you have to accept that there are going to be some inconveniences. When I lived in Oxford, UK, I faced a similar situation. In the summer, the streets were infested with tourists, mostly Japanese. The sidewalks were literally jammed with various tour groups moving like slow schools of fish. And they would not get out of your way as you tried to move through them. Did I start throwing sodas at them or pushing them into the street? No. I am a civilized person. I walked in the street to get around them, or waited impatiently when I had no other option.

So, what makes people in West Marin so unfriendly? If they are so put upon by cyclists, tourists and other money spending inconveniences, why don't they move to Iowa?

End of rant.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review - Bose SoundDock

My not so cheap iPod speaker solution crapped out last week. Feeling spendy, I trotted down to the Apple store and picked up a Bose SoundDock Portable. I got the portable one so I can put it on my shoulder and roller skate down the bike path to P Funk, old school.

This is my first Bose product. I thought about a Wave Radio for a long time, but never pulled the trigger because I am just not enough of an audiophile. I have 3700 songs in my iTunes library, but I rarely listen to music. I don't spend enough time making interesting playlists, but when I put it on shuffle, the algorithm seems partial to my Mandarin lessons.

What finally pushed me to make the purchase was Pandora. F* the iTunes playlists. Dinner party with Mexican food? Cool....that will be the Mariachi channel. Chilling? Flamenco channel. Holiday time? Yeah, there's a channel for that. Polka time? Of course.

I have an old iPod Touch that is the perfect companion to the Bose. The price was steep at $400, but the sound quality is remarkable. My old $100 solution really struggled with any volume, but the Bose pumps it out loud and clear. This weekend I pulled the plug and brought it outside for a BBQ. It played for 4 hours before I turned the music off, so battery life is fine.

The remote is designed for iTunes, and probably works well with it....I have really only used the Bose for Pandora at a couple of parties. It would also do well for NPR in the morning via their iPhone app.....but I can't listen to NPR anymore after seeing this -

I have not heard music out of some of the other high end speaker products, so I don't have a frame of reference, but for its size, the Bose's audio was clear and impressive. The price may hurt, but you will not be disappointed with the sound.

The iPhone will be free of AT&T at last

News today in the WSJ ( that a CDMA iPhone is in the works for the end of the year. That means Sprint or Verizon, or possibly both. Verizon has the stronger network, but it will probably be down to who is willing to stump up the $600 up front price that AT&T currently pays.

Apple's business model is a bit unusual in that it gives away the blades to sell the razor. iTunes barely makes profit, but it moves iPods. The App Store probably does make decent profit, but again, it is primarily a way to move hardware. The wireless carriers are the other way around. AT&T pays buys iPhones from Apple for $600, sells them for $199, but makes it up over time with outrageously priced data plans.

As an iPhone lover who has long suffered on AT&T's woefully inadequate data network, I welcome a new carrier to share some of the load. The iPhone has singlehandedly propelled AT&T into the smartphone lead, for which they reward us by failing to invest enough in infrastructure.

I would actually like to stay with AT&T, because I am emotionally attached to GSM (like the metric system, it makes me feel all international). But will a new carrier for the iPhone make my AT&T experience better? Probably not.

I don't expect current iPhone owners to bolt for a new carrier because of the costs in doing so. You have to pay the early termination fee (ETF) to AT&T, and sign up for a new contract--and Verizon's ETF is now $250. It might happen slowly as people roll off their AT&T contracts and want the latest iPhone. It will somewhat depend on how much of an upgrade this summer's iPhone is. If it is super digital hotness, lots of people will do an early upgrade option (they all upgraded last year to the 3Gs) and bam!, there is that ETF again. If the new model is a snoozer, then perhaps next summer people will make the jump to a new carrier for the 2011 iPhone.

Many just won't bother. I like the fact that GSM lets me be on the phone and using the data channel at the same time. I know that Verizon is working on a 4G network, LTE (Long Term Evolution, I think), that will not be compatible and therefore require a new phone. Many current iPhone users are geeks, and these things will matter to them as well. Unfortunately, they are also the heavy data users.

New iPhone buyers probably consume far less data, on average, than existing owners. Sure, there will be some people whose business required Verizon who will move up from their Blackberries, but I am talking big picture here.

So, unless AT&T continues to invest to upgrade their data infrastructure, a Verizon iPhone won't ease the congestion on AT&T. But, if AT&T fears that their growth will be stunted by a Verizon iPhone, they are going to scale back their network investment to protect their quarterly profits. AT&T still thinks like a demented monopolist.

Want proof? Go into an AT&T store and buy an iPhone. Now go do the same thing in an Apple store. AT&T has decades more experience in retail than Apple. What have they learned? Apparently, nothing.

But AT&T will still manage to sell more iPhones....even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then, and the data use on their network will continue to grow.

Of course, I have a Verizon MiFi as a backup....when AT&T craps out, I fire up the MiFi and ride on Verizon's data network.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review - Water Conditioning System

So after thinking about getting a water conditioning system for over a year, I finally had one installed a month ago. This is not a very interesting topic, but I am guessing that someone out there is thinking about it, and via the magic of Google, might find my experience interesting.

What is a "water conditioning" system? Well, it is just a softening system combined with a filtration system. I had mine put in by Ben Franklin Plumbing after getting bids from specialists that were absurdly high.

My water was not particularly bad....the hardness and chlorine levels were moderate, not severe. But, my daughter has had weird eczema for a long time, and several pediatricians thought that the water conditioning might help. Our water did not taste bad, and overall it just seemed like, well, water to me.

It took a whole day to do the install. The equipment is not attractive, but it went in our "waste area" by the garage, where the air conditioning compressors are. For the first week, I wondered what I had done. Our water tasted funky, taps got clogged with little carbon particles, and our water had lots of little bubbles. The plumber said to hang on....a week of weirdness is normal while the system settles in.

Sure enough, after a week, our water tasted great....slightly more neutral than before. I notice that I use less soap, and we use less detergent. My daughter's eczema is getting better. It actually feels a bit weird...the water has a slightly slimy feel to it because it does not immediately strip the oils from your skin.

So, it basically works as advertised. Worth $6k? I think so, over the long term.

btw...the filters don't remove fluoride, which would be a hassle.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Dumb Teaching the Blind

Last week I had the privilege of delivering a lecture at the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. The class, organized by colleague Alan Mutter, is about the evolving business of journalism.

The students are current or aspiring journalists, and the class is designed to give them some grounding in the current flux that is the journalism landscape. I felt like an agent of doom as I described my thoughts on the current state of the business side of journalism (see my earlier post).

Even worse, I had to give these students an overview of what it actually takes to start a journalism "business". When you are out to save the world by exposing evil, you really don't want to think about incorporation, payroll, Excel models etc. But these things all matter.

A great chef has talents well beyond cooking. If you can't raise money, save money, hire well, fire quickly, market yourself, stay true to vision but pivot tactically on a dime etc. you are doomed.

The challenge for journalism startups (and many other small businesses) is that they don't have to resources to outsource the unsavory bits of running a small business. It takes a long time to get the kind of traction with an audience that will allow monetization of one's efforts.

The costs of publishing and distributing content are approximately zero these days, and social networks can make marketing very inexpensive. However, that has also dramatically increased the noise through which you are trying to push your signal. Got a blog on environmental issues in Berkeley? That is noise to me, but signal to someone else. Breaking through all the noise to find enough people to listen to your signal is a big challenge. And, until you have 10,000+ regular readers, you probably can't make enough to eat. If you want to rely on advertising, better get above 50,000 monthly uniques.

So, I spent some time showing the journalists of tomorrow (and today) all the shit work that it will take to make their dream happen. To their credit, eyes remained mostly unglazed and nobody fell asleep. Questions were intelligent.

These folks really want to make a run at making a living reporting on what they are interested in. I hope they make it. A free press is a requirement of a free society, and having successful professional journalists is critical. By professional, I mean that they check their facts and generally are not idiots, like many bloggers out there. There will always be bias in journalism, and more so in the new model, but hopefully it will be mostly intelligent bias.

If we degenerate into a society that listens only to idiots like Rush Limbaugh and whoever his lefty equivalent is, then our days in ascendancy are over. Thinking is hard work, but someone has to do it.