Friday, August 26, 2016

Stuff I'm reading, coming back from backpacking edition

... Yes, yes, I know, I haven't finished my trip report yet.

But there's too much to read!

  • PACELC theorem
    PACELC stands for: if there is a partition (P), how does the system trade off availability and consistency (A and C); else (E), when the system is running normally in the absence of partitions, how does the system trade off latency (L) and consistency (C)?
  • Engineering Trade-Offs and The Netflix API Re-Architecture
    we are keenly aware that a decision to create two APIs, owned by two separate teams, can have profound implications. Our goals would, and should, be minimal divergence between the two APIs. Developer experience, as noted above, is one of the reasons. More broadly, we want to maximize the reuse of any components that are relevant to both APIs. This also includes any orchestration mechanisms, and any tools, mechanisms, and libraries related to scalability, reliability, and resiliency. The risk is that the two APIs could drift apart over time. What would that mean? For one, it could have organizational consequences (e.g., need for more staff). We could end up in a situation where we have valued ownership of components to a degree that we have abandoned component reuse. This is not a desirable outcome for us, and we would have to be very thoughtful about any divergence between the two APIs.

    Even in a world where we have a significant amount of code use, we recognize that the operational overhead will be higher. As noted above, the API is critical to the Netflix service functioning properly for customers. Up until now, only one of the teams has been tasked with making the system highly scalable and highly resilient, and carrying the operational burden. The team has spent years building up expertise and experience in system scale and resiliency. By creating two APIs, we would be distributing these tasks and responsibilities to both teams.

  • With Windows 10, Microsoft Blatantly Disregards User Choice and Privacy: A Deep Dive
    Windows 10 sends an unprecedented amount of usage data back to Microsoft, particularly if users opt in to “personalize” the software using the OS assistant called Cortana. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of data sent back: location data, text input, voice input, touch input, webpages you visit, and telemetry data regarding your general usage of your computer, including which programs you run and for how long.
  • Notes on Startup Engineering Management for Young Bloods
    The amount of overhead that goes into managing coordination of people cannot be overstated. It's so great that the industry invented microservices because we'd rather invest engineering headcount and dollars into software orchestration than force disparate engineering teams to work together. And even that is an illusion when it comes to true cross-functional efforts. It turns out, there is a reason big companies end up with project managers who spend all day making sure people are talking to one another.
  • Loomio Co-op Handbook
    Then we evolved again, and became a fully agile team. We had always drawn on elements of agile organising in our software development practices, but it was when we started incorporating all work across the co-op into agile sprints that it really clicked together.

    Every 3 months we stop and reassess the team makeup, the coordinators, and the budget to check: are we still making the absolute best use of this money that’s been entrusted to us? This made us super adaptive and efficient, but of course it was really disruptive too.

    In late 2015 we raised money from impact investors, which finally brought us to a level of financial security where we could think more than 3 months ahead. This has enabled us to thinking long-term, resource a solid core team, and settle into a set of functional processes that address different perspectives and time-scales of our work.

  • NetApp’s surprising Q1
    Flat product sales don’t sound too bad, given the wrenching turnaround CEO George Kurian is trying to execute. But gross margins have dropped to the mid-40s, down over 300 basis points YOY, evidence that NetApp is buying business to keep product revenues up.
  • How to rescue Obamacare as insurers drop out
    To understand the problem bedeviling Aetna and other insurers — and the solution — one has to understand five key features of individual insurance markets.
  • On and off the grid – with digitally literate teenagers
    In a weird way my wife and I came to appreciate watching the Olympics each evening around the television. We did it as a family, and without the aid of digital technologies, which made it more social. Here is what I mean: Digital technologies have removed a social dimension of family life. Today my kids comfortably navigate Snapchat and Wikipedia and all of social media, except Facebook, which they and their friends largely left after my generation joined. My kids used to tease me about not texting as much as they do, but the playfulness passed long ago. At this point my children do not enjoy introducing me to a new apps for the smart phone. The regard me as antiquated.

    Going off the grid prevented my children from burying their faces in their parochial online worlds, so we all watched the same televised sporting events. This became a shared family experience. Each evening, after a day in the park, we sat down to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and we talked about it. From a parental point of view, this was a very satisfying family experience.

    ...

    I came to appreciate that Pokemon Go became a filter through which my son experienced the park. The app worked in every location where LTE worked. It motivated my son to understand the park’s layout. His siblings found it amusing and they engaged with him about the experience. When we hiked up Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, for example, he pulled up a virtual map of the trails. He tried it in every popular location – Mono Lake, Mirror Lake, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows – any place where cell service supported it. He bagged his first Pickachu (ever) at the Mono Lake Visitor Center. A few times he showed me and his siblings where the creatures lurked.

    It was rather astonishing how engaged he became. By the end of the stay my son had a mental map of every trail we hiked in Yosemite, and the cell phone service overlay that supported the app on the trails. This filter made him appreciate details about the landscape. We spoke about the ways the glaciers cut the granite, and he understood the geometry as well as he understood any virtual landscape. By the end of our stay I half-expected him to go back to the cabin and recreate the landscape on MineCraft.

  • Corporate sponsors at Yosemite? The case against privatizing national parks
    The empirical record regarding state parks is illustrative. Most states have either cut their funding for state park systems substantially in recent years or required them to be more self-sustaining. This trend has increased pressure on state park managers to generate revenue.

    State parks thus have added hotels, lodges, golf courses, ski resorts and various forms of commercial sponsorship. Now the National Park Service reportedly is considering selling corporate sponsorships to raise money for unfunded maintenance projects.

  • This Man Will Change the Way You Play Board Games
    In an industry that cranks out products by the thousand, Daviau has done the seemingly impossible: created a genuinely new way of playing board games. His “legacy games” unfold over months, changing as you play them. They have a beginning, middle, and—most shockingly—an end, completely overturning the fundamental idea that a board game must be eternal and endlessly replayable, an object you can inherit from your grandfather and play with your grandchildren. Daviau is the co-designer of Pandemic Legacy, which was released last year and almost immediately became the highest ranked game of all time on the influential site Board Game Geek. The Guardian said it “may be the best board game ever created.”
  • Track of the Day: 'Hackensack' by Thelonious Monk
    Few of the men and women who arrange microphones, sit in the booths of recording studios, twist knobs, and commit music to tape (or digital files) are known to the public. But Rudy Van Gelder’s skill and talent were such that his name rightly rose to the top echelons of jazz. Van Gelder died at 91 on Thursday, Nate Chinen reported.

    Van Gelder, a trained optometrist, began recording jazz sessions at his parents’ house in Hackensack, New Jersey, as early as the 1940s. Like many of the greatest studio geniuses, RVG (as he was often known) was basically a self-taught amateur, who gradually figured out how to make what were probably the best recordings in the world. By the 1950s he was recording top-flight professionals. Sessions recorded at the house included Miles Davis’ Walkin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’, as well as Bags’ Groove; the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Django; Sonny Rollins’s Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus; and Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Farewell, Geralt of Rivia

Almost 18 months ago, I sat down to see the world (well, some world, that is) through the eyes of Geralt of Rivia.

Untold hours, weeks, and now even years later, our time together has drawn to a close. Geralt of Rivia has aided Ciri in her journey, dispatched the Lord of the Wild Hunt, played a major role in the war in Temeria, re-united with Dandelion and with Yennefer, formed a life-long relationship with Triss, explored all of Novigrad, Skellige, Velen, and more, investigated Olgierd von Everec, and solved the mysterious murders of the nobility in Toussaint.

In a way, my heart aches to do it all over, each bit, every moment.

Yet, in a way, it is so satisfying just resting there in my memory, bits of lore, scraps of conversation, glimpses of countryside, all part of some life I feel like I've lived, somehow.

Farewell, Geralt of Rivia. Thank you for letting me be part of you, or maybe for being part of me.

Monday, August 15, 2016

It's not just a game, ...

... it's reflecting on a decade-long project that brought more than 500 contributors together: Seeing Red: The rise of CD Projekt and The Witcher

Making a title that as many gamers as possible will enjoy is the biggest challenge in and of itself, but nothing is impossible as long as you work hard enough. So that’s what we do. We listen to players and work very hard to create a title that all of them will enjoy.

There are gamers who want to experience every detail of a story, and those who don’t need to focus on all of its nooks and crannies. So during dialogues, we distinguish between the options that progress the story and those that provide additional details.

What gamers want has always been key to our philosophy as a studio but, at the same time, each and every one of the games we made was something that we ourselves wanted to make.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Premier Cru story is winding down

What's that? You haven't been following the bizarre tale of John Fox and his ultra-high-end Berkeley wine store, Premier Cru?

Well, let me give you the whirlwind tour.

  • Premier Cru was for many years a fairly small operation, first in the upscale Piedmont Avenue district of Oakland, then later in a newer facility in Emeryville. In 2010, they moved to a big splashy new location in Berkeley: Wine seller Premier Cru signs deal for Berkeley complex
    Premier Cru is a long-time wine seller in the East Bay.

    The company was founded in 1980 with two locations on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue, Fox said. In 1998, Premier Cru moved to Emeryville.

    "We're going back to our roots," Fox said. "When we first opened, we were there for the local customers and built our reputation from the kind of wine selection we had then. We will do that again on a larger scale and a bigger audience."

  • But at some point during the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, things had changed, and the wine industry was changing, too: How to invest in wine
    In fact, since 2001, when Liv-ex began its 100 Index, wine has significantly outperformed the leading equity indices in western markets with an average annual return of 16%. By comparing other pieces of research it is also possible to look at fine wine returns since 1950. Again the results are extremely positive and remarkably consistent. Since, 1950, the average gross return is 15% and is 17% if you start in 1960.

    Wine remains less volatile than stocks and shares, making it a less risky investment. However, with the increasing number of wine funds and more and more private investors coming into the market, it appears that the wine market is becoming more closely correlated with the stock market than was the case two years ago. In the past, the fact that it was not highly correlated with equities, made it extremely attractive to investors looking to diversify a portfolio.

    Generally, wine is also regarded as a wasting asset so doesn’t attract Capital Gains Tax.

  • The money started flooding in, and places like Premier Cru turned out to be major players in this new world of wine "investing": the company had $42 million in customer deposits on hand in December 2014. As part of this craze, there developed the notion of wine futures, or "pre-arrivals"
    Premier Cru carries some of the world’s best – and most expensive – wines. For example, it is currently offering a three-liter bottle of a 2010 Mouton Rothschild for $3,615.

    The wine is among vintages advertised as “pre-arrival.” Many wine collectors buy French Bordeaux while it is still aging in the barrel. It costs less then than when it is bottled. But to snare futures, collectors must pay up-front and wait a few years before delivery.

  • Unfortunately, either the business was too complex for Fox to handle, or the temptation became too large, and things went south: Berkeley store sued over $3M of undelivered wine
    Seven disgruntled customers have filed lawsuits against Premier Cru, a high-end wine store on University Avenue in Berkeley, contending that the store purchased thousands of bottles of expensive French wine on their behalf, worth around $3 million, but never delivered it.

    All of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits – many of whom live in Asia – say they paid Premier Cru to buy them “futures” of French Bordeaux (wine that is still aging in barrels and not bottled), but they have yet to see the wine. Some of the customers said they have been waiting years for their wine. Whenever they call the store to complain, they hear a litany of excuses, they said.

  • That was just the tip of the iceberg, though, and a few months later Embattled wine dealer files for bankruptcy
    Premier Cru, a wine retailer and importer based in Berkeley, California, filed for Chapter 7 liquidation Friday, citing $70 million in liabilities and only $7 million in assets. The case is believed to be the biggest wine-seller bankruptcy in recent history, and could rattle confidence in the fine wine world.

    "This is by far the biggest that I've seen," said Marc Lazar, president of Domaine, a leading wine advisor and wine-storage company. "I think people are going to feel burned after this and feel less willing to open up their pocketbooks for wine."

    The case is likely to include some of the richest wine collectors in the world. While the court documents are abbreviated for now, there are more than 9,000 collectors and companies listed as creditors — including billionaire collectors William Koch and Jeff Greene.

  • As the investigation dragged on, the story just became bigger and more spectacular: Premier Cru owner had penchant for expensive cars
    John Fox leased a $199,264 2014 Ferrari, as well as a $90,000 2016 two-door Corvette ZO6 with a 650-horsepower engine, according to court documents. Fox stopped making his $2,206 monthly payments on the Ferrari in November, and the company that owns the car, Ferrari Financial Services, is trying to get it back. Wells Fargo Bank is also asking to repossess the Corvette.
  • It soon became clear that Bankrupt Premier Cru not run in ‘reliable fashion’
    the company had $42 million in customer deposits on hand in December 2014 — most of which was no longer there when the company filed for bankruptcy in January 2016, according to court documents.

    Those two startling numbers, along with some statements from a former employee and an accountant hired to examine the records, reveal chaotic business practices at the Berkeley wine company owned by John Fox and Hector Ortega. Those dealings have prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate whether Fox ran a Ponzi scheme.

  • And, last week, the final shoe dropped: Wine, women and scam: High-end seller guilty in Ponzi scheme
    Fox said little during the hearing. But in his plea agreement, also filed Thursday, he admitted selling about $20 million worth of “phantom wines,” which he said he knew he could not deliver, from 2010 to 2015.

    Fox said he used some customers’ money to buy wine for previous customers — the “Ponzi scheme” practice — and had also embezzled funds from his company. He said he used some of those funds to pay the mortgage on his home in Alamo, to pay credit card bills for himself and his wife, and to buy or lease fancy cars.

    “I also spent more than $900,000 on women that I met online,” Fox said, without offering specifics on who the women were or what he paid them for. He said he made the payments through PayPal. The fraud charge to which Fox pleaded guilty covers a period from about 2009 to 2015. But Fox said in his plea agreement that he first started creating fraudulent purchase orders in about 1993 or 1994.

1993?! And it took 25 years for it all to come crashing down?

Sadly, it seems that it was sort of an open secret that all was not well at Premier Cru, for a long, long time:

From 2002 to 2004, the wine company purchased $296,235 in wine from Mark Anderson, a Sausalito businessman who was charged in 2004 with embezzling $1 million worth of wine from clients at his wine storage facility. He was later charged and convicted of setting a fire in a Vallejo warehouse that destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million. Anderson is now serving a 27-year prison sentence.

Premier Cru didn’t seem to do due diligence on where Anderson got his wine to sell, according to a former Premier Cru employee who asked not to be named. Anderson would pull up regularly to the Premier Cru warehouse in Emeryville in an old burgundy Cadillac with loose wine bottles rattling around in plastic milk cartons in the back. The employees unloaded them, no questions asked. “I doubt John Fox ever asked Mark for documentation regarding the provenance of the wine he sold,” said the former employee. “It seemed like Mark would bring the wine by, then they would agree on pricing, John would cut a check, and that was it.” After Anderson was indicted and articles about him appeared in newspapers, Fox did sever relations. But within two weeks, Anderson turned around and sold $34,800 in French wine to Premier Cru under a different name.

It was all about "image", and about trading on that image to do business online:

Business appeared to be flourishing. Fox and Ortega held a grand opening bash in December 2011 with valet parking, gold and black balloons, and platters of food. Fox often hosted after-hours work parties on Fridays, according to people who attended. Fox would open numerous bottles of fine wine for his friends, and serve bread and cheese as accompaniments.

The bulk of Premier Cru’s business, however, was online. The company became known for its aggressive email marketing campaigns, which went out twice a week with great offers on premium wines.

Well, now it is over, and I suspect all that money is, well, "down the hatch."

For some reason, I find it fascinating that various art forms, whether they are wine, painting, sculpture, etc., all seem to eventually contain some aspect in which the worlds of art and finance intersect.

At which point the discussion becomes less about aesthetics, and more about interest rates, and tax considerations.

And, at that point, once the rich are wishing to hide their money, there always seems to emerge those unscrupulous folk who collude with them, and, all too often, bad things happen.

I suppose this is just what people always do to people.

Anyway, now you know about Premier Cru.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The five albums my daughter gave me in June ...

Ranked by how often I've been playing them in the last three months.

  1. TV On The Radio, Seeds
  2. Shakey Graves, And The War Came
  3. Weekend, Jinx
  4. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
  5. The Weeknd, Beauty Behind The Madness

I like them all.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Congratulations Alexi!

Congratulations to Alexi Pappas, who finished 17th in today's Women's 10,000 Meters at the Rio Olympics, and now holds the Greek National Record for the event!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Software market commoditization

The software industry has a terrible habit of borrowing words from other fields and assigning them new meanings.

For example, software business leaders will talk about an "ecosystem", by which they mean: "a market in which there are a collection of different products built by different companies, each of which is distinct and can be considered independently, but all of which interact with and relate to each other."

An example of such a software "ecosystem" might be the personal fitness market, which is full of products that you can buy and use to improve your personal exercise regimen, as well as products that you can buy and use which augment or extend or enhance the behavior of the other products that you buy and use to improve your personal exercise regimen.

Of course, "ecosystem" is a real word in the biological sciences, and it means nothing like this at all.

But business people in the software industry find this word useful, for it allows them to have discussions about product strategy and such.

Another similar word is "commodity," borrowed from economics.

In economics, commodities are items for sale, such as eggs or crude oil or bars of gold or pork bellies or lumber pulp.

The idea of the economic term "commodity" is that these items are essentially indistinguishable and generic, and so by conducting markets in these commodities (such as the Chicago Board of Trade), people can efficiently arrange to negotiate the price of these items world-wide, even though in practice there are thousands or millions of individuals buying and selling individual cartons of eggs or truckloads of lumber pulp.

The price is set once, on a global market, for a generic good, and that same price is then used repeatedly and independently, in local transactions, for specific actual goods.

But when software business people talk about "commoditization," they don't really mean this. There aren't any actual software goods that behave like commodities in this way, and there aren't any global price-setting bodies like the Chicago Board of Trade that function in the software industry.

No two software products are truly inter-changeable; you can't switch your DBMS like you switch your provider of bacon.

Instead, when software business people talk about "commoditization," for example when they say "the relational database market has become commoditized," or "the enterprise application development market has become commoditized,", or "the source code management market has become commoditized," what they mean is: "purchasers in this market are no longer attracted by unique proprietary distinguishing features. Instead, they fear vendor lock-in, and are choosing to purchase simpler and less unique products, because they are protecting themselves in case they decide subsequently to switch to a different vendor."

Or, more succinctly: "we don't see how to make any money in this market; vendor X's product is good enough, and everybody is simply buying that product rather than shopping around."

So the next time you hear an MBA in a software company talk to you about "commoditization," that's what they mean.