That children are now being conditioned to allow strangers to shove hands down their pants, that young women are subjected to genital inspections before being allowed to pursue their careers, that innocent people are adopting poses of humiliation and surrender in response to barked commands, is such a great harm to our society that no one with any sense of history could consider reducing the risk of an astronomically remote adverse event to be justification for TSA’s reprehensible actions. There’s just nothing to balance here. The harms are enormous, the benefits are make-believe. Disband the TSA, now.
An articulate commenter on The Economist’s excellent Bruce Schneier / Kip Hawley TSA debate.
“The Skipper had never been on a boat, other than passenger ferries, until the day the adventure had begun. Nonetheless he had, during the first, critical forty-eight hours, acquired a command of basic sailing principles with a speed and fluency that had struck the Engineer as being almost supernatural. Much like a teenager who starts playing a new video game without bothering to open the manual, he tried things and observed the results, abandoning whatever didn’t work and moving aggressively to exploit small successes. A profusion of ideas spewed forth from his mind. There was no such thing as a bad idea, apparently. But perhaps more important, there was no such thing as a good idea either, until it had been tried and coolly evaluated. It was clear how he had become the leader of a sort of gang back home: not by asserting his leadership but by being so relentless in his production, evaluation, and exploitation of ideas that his friends had been left with no choice but to form up in his wake.”
- Neal Stephenson, Reamde
Starting a company in 2011 is great. Back in 1999, when we started Ximian, the only tools a small startup could afford for their internal infrastructure were mailman and perl. It was ugly.
In 2011, the best tools on the planet cost $25/month, billed to your credit card. In just a few minutes you can have better infrastructure than most fortune 500 companies. It’s incredible.
So part of my first three weeks as CEO of Xamarin has felt like a trip to a toy store. Everyone loves window shopping, so here is a list of some of the tools we’re using to run our startup:
Google Apps. Mail, calendar, internal wiki, and shared document editing. Cost: $5/user/month.
Github Bronze. All of our code is stored in github’s private repositories. We love github. $25/month.
Asana. This is our task management tool and it’s fantastic. It’s the only distributed task system I’ve ever used that’s as fast as typing into a text editor. Asana is a new startup from Dustin Moskovitz, the founder of Facebook, and their product is in Beta. Our team loves using it and we predict great things for Asana as it rolls into launch.
Themeforest. When I first discovered themeforest I thought it would be a wasteland of machine-generated CSS and generic templates. But the site is full of hand-coded, cross-browser gems for $15-30 a pop. There’s no substitute for high-end design, but if you need to get a decent-looking site up quickly, it’s your best bet, and far cheaper than it should be.
IRC + bip. We’re a distributed team, and having a place we can all hang out together online is very important to us. We wanted to find a for-pay, hosted group chat system that we loved, but campfire was too laggy, HipChat didn’t allow you to signin multiple places, and we didn’t feel we could trust a free solution like Convore. In the end we setup ngircd on a low-end, dedicated linode, configured to force SSL. A lot of us use bip as a proxy to maintain a persistent connection and show a backlog when you reconnect.
UnlimitedConferencing. For phone conferencing, we setup a $49/month account with unlimitedconferencing.com. We don’t pay a per-minute fee and international people can dial-in over skype to save money on long distance. It works fine.
Assistly. To handle incoming support requests from our future customers, we’ve looked at TenderApp, ZenDesk, and Assistly. We settled on Assistly after a support tech who’s worked with all three told us she prefers Assistly because it’s faster and easier to use. $69/support agent/month.
Linode and Rackspace. We use linode to setup quick Linux servers, and Rackspace for Windows servers. They’re cheap, reliable, and fast. If you need more power, a dedicated server from somewhere like 1and1 will do the trick. It’s surprising how far you can go on a $30/month linode. I’ve been using Linode for years and love them.
EFax, Scanner Pro for iPhone, and PDFPen. It’s a dwindling fact of life that you need to send and receive faxes to do business. These three items have eliminated fax machines for us. We use EFax to forward incoming faxes to an email address. You can also use it to send faxes online. PDFPen is a mac app that blew me away when I took a JPEG and converted it to an OCR’d PDF in just a few seconds. You can also use it to mark up and to edit PDFs. And you can use Scanner Pro to convert a phonecam photo into a PDF that looks like it came off a scanner. You can even fax it directly from the phone (for a fee). It’s been a lifesaver.
BizSpark. BizSpark is Microsoft’s program to give startups free licenses to basically any piece of Microsoft software, including access to MSDN. If you plan to use any piece of Microsoft software, it’s a great program.
Ravix Group. One of the things we learned from Ximian is the value of signing on a part-time CFO from day one. At the very least you want a controller to keep your books in order and setup payroll and insurance, or you’ll have a big cleanup process later on. A higher-level finance person can also be very useful in helping you think through cap tables and convertibles notes and online billing and taxes and so on. We interviewed a bunch of individuals doing part-time CFO consulting for various startups. Their fees varied from a $6,000 monthly retainer plus 0.25% of post-series A equity, to $125/hour flat. In the end, we got some great references from Ravix Group, a firm that do outsourcing of financial and HR tasks for startups. They have a deep team and can assign various individuals to your tasks as appropriate. We’ve only just started working with them but it looks great so far.
Ropes and Gray. There’s no substitute for a great lawyer, and we have one of the best firms in the country with Ropes and Gray. Our team there is incredibly responsive, works weekends and late nights, and knows their stuff. Like working with a CFO, having a great lawyer has some benefits you might not expect: in addition to their legal expertise, they see a lot of deals, and can tell you what’s “market” and what isn’t. We never would have raised our Series B financing at Ximian without Ropes and Gray, and we’re happy to be working with them again.
I’m sure there are some other great products out there, but this is our list. Hopefully it’s helpful to someone who’s just starting to do the research. It really is a wonderful time to start a company.
In the past year, my wife and I have visited 20 different countries, we sat on the front lines of a conflict with members of the two opposing armies, survived dengue fever, learned to sail, and I got a pilot’s license. We’re lucky people, and it’s been pretty great. What could ever pull me away from this grand adventure?
A brand new adventure.
I’m excited to report that I’m joining Xamarin as co-founder and CEO this week. I’m honored to be joining Miguel, Joseph and an all-star engineering team. And I am very passionate about our mission: to make mobile software development incredibly fast and easy.
In the last year, one thing that I’ve learned is that mobile phones are, for many people, their first direct contact with software. We met people in the most remote areas of the world, living in straw huts without electricity or running water, who have mobile phones. And so anything we do that improves mobile software improves the lives of billions of people. I’m passionate about this, and I’m very excited about the chance we have at Xamarin.
We believe that mobile development is in its first stages and that we can deliver an incredible mobile development experience — far better than what exists today. Our objective is to build great products that people love. We want to pamper our customers.
I’m about to board a plane to Boston this morning where we’ll get things kicked off, before moving to San Francisco later in the year. There’s a lot to be done. I’ll try to keep you posted!
So we saw the Taj Mahal in India. Yes it is amazing. I don’t have any good photos to show you, but here are three things I took away from the experience:
The four minarets on the side are the genius of the Taj Mahal. Without them the building would look much smaller. They create a sense of proportion and perspective. Interestingly, the minarets are angled three degrees away from the center of the building, in case of earthquake.
Everyone knows that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum for a Mughal emperor’s dead wife. The story goes that she saw the building in a dream, described it to her husband, and he built it for her after her death.
What I didn’t know is that the Taj Mahal is situated next to a river, and the emperor’s original plan was to build his own tomb on the other side of the river, in black marble, with a bridge spanning the river, linking the two tombs together. That would have been spectacular.
But his building spree came to an end when he was deposed by his son, who put his father’s coffin inside the Taj Mahal, to the side of his wife’s, destroying the symmetry of the building.
The designers intended you to approach the Taj head on, walking slowly along the center line toward the entrance gate, seeing the building open up through the door in front of you. The effect of this is amazing. First you see the central building, perfectly inscribed within the doorway. Then two of the minarets appear in perfect symmetry, then all four, and then the entire building is in front of you. At points, the building seems to be magnified by the entrance door, and then to recede, and then to grow again in front of you. It is an incredible revelation.
For some awful reason the Indian government has placed the tourist entrance to the SIDE of the building, completely ruining the effect. Everyone catches a glimpse of the building partly obscured by the outer wall, gasps, and then rushes through the door from the side, completely missing the geometry of the central approach. Don’t miss it.
I was also surprised that the Taj Mahal is only 350 years old. I thought it was older. The year construction started, Galileo was beginning his house arrest in Italy.
As a friend said, the Taj Mahal is one of the few legendary world sights that lives up to its reputation.
Copyright © 1998 - 2011 Nat Friedman
The main attraction in Bagan is the hundreds of ancient Buddhist temples scattered over an area of a couple of square miles. From one spot on the ground I counted 35 spires without turning my head. The area between the temples is farmland, and present-day farmers till their fields of radishes and mustard in the shadow of 1000-year old pagodas. The air is hot and dusty and at the end of the day your snot is orange-red.
We spent a morning cycling around the deserted dirt trails that wind from temple to temple. We saw almost no one. Once we rounded a bend and found an old English couple seated on canvas chairs, sketching one of the temples with charcoal and art-supply paper. We stopped and said hello. Made of brick and regularly stepped, the temples beg to be climbed. “Do you think I can climb this?” I asked. “Of course,” said the English lady, “but mind the snakes.”
Whenever we stop we are surrounded by children. They sell hand-colored postcards and I can’t resist.
We climbed into a balloon at dawn and floated through the heart of the Bagan temple zone. I was surprised at how low we flew. The pilot explained that the winds higher up were too strong. Tree tops brushed the bottom of the basket and we had spoken-voice conversations with people on the ground. At one point we dipped even lower so that we could see through the doorway of a temple. I made out the shape of a seated Buddha, glinting gold in the morning light.
By chance we found a guide who offered to show us a local village that is not government-supported for tourist visits. He told us that they were very poor and in need of food and medicine. I smelled a scam but we went along anyway. Ten minutes from our four-star hotel we found ourselves in a cluster of thatch houses with no electricity and no running water. The well was a fifteen minute walk. We had brought rice, toothbrushes, and some medication from a nearby grocery store and gave them to the village headman. He assembled the 20 poorest families in the village and divided everything up evenly among them right in front of us. It cost less than one night at our hotel and these people were so eager, each receiving an equal portion of rice and 800mg of paracetamol. There was no scam, this was obviously just poverty. I felt like an idiot. Why didn’t we buy more? And what do I care about getting scammed out of rice and tylenol, anyway?
After Bagan we went to Mandalay to check out the Burmese stomach flu, which we found both sudden and full-bodied, a potent bouquet of retching and myalgia. For two days we subsisted on Chinese crackers which were disgusting despite the lusty description on the packaging. We were glad for the generally high standard of plumbing in our guesthouse, and also for the rehydration salts our doctor had insisted we take along (his own brand called Drip Drop – tasty and effective).
In Mandalay I was healthy long enough to take an afternoon Burmese class from the woman who ran our guesthouse. A sophisticated and intelligent older lady, fluent in English and an ex-university lecturer, she told me I was the first guest to ever ask for a lesson and was excited to teach me. She knew all about the evolution of Burmese, its relation to the Sri Lankan Pali, and the origins of its odd, circular script. It was a great afternoon.
I do not have the natural language talents of Stephanie, who speaks five languages fluently, but I am always surprised by how easy it is to learn 20 words in a given language, and how much it changes your experience visiting a country. In the small amount of time I spent learning it, Burmese seemed simple, with no conjugations and few difficult sounds. After a couple of hours I could form simple sentences, and Stephanie and I spent the rest of our trip astonishing the local people with monologues like, “This is my wife. She comes from Germany. I am 33. We are hungry. We go restaurant?” It’s not poetry but I think anyone can get to that point in a couple of hours and it opens so many doors. We did the same thing in Cambodia and it changed everything about our trip, not only there but also in the Mekong delta in Vietnam, where we discovered that nearly everyone we met was of Cambodian descent and spoke Khmer as a first language.
From Mandalay we went to Kalaw for a day of hiking among the hills and relatively opulent local villas. This is yet another colonial hill town founded by white people to escape the heat of the colony. The hills were dry and it felt Mediterranean. Besides a strange situation in which our guesthouse presented laminated documents with government seals to prove that the guide we had independently hired was a bad man, “steals your money, builds huge house for himself, nothing for villagers,” we had a good hike (and found the guide to be 100% non-thieving).
Our last destination in Myanmar was Inle Lake, which is a giant shallow lake supporting several fishing villages built on stilts over the water. We thought it would be loaded with tourists and almost skipped it but as it turns out, nothing in Myanmar is overly touristy.
The real attraction in Inle, for me, was the unique one-legged rowing technique of the local fishermen, which I tried to learn. It is unbelievably hard. Simply balancing one-footed on the skinny edge of a narrow plank on the side of a tiny canoe-boat is difficult enough. Actually paddling the boat around with the paddle hooked into the back of your knee without losing your balance was impossible for me. Never mind using your free hand to manipulate fishing nets while rowing, like the Inle fishermen do.
The actual technique, when practiced by a master one-legged Inle rower, does not look graceful, and in that regard I did very well, paddling in an improvised, jerky style without a hint of grace, and falling into the boat every two or three strokes.
So, not in this lifetime.
Meanwhile, we are in India. I’m writing this in a tented desert camp near the Pakistani border. It is quiet except for the screechings of Rajasthani birds and the roar of old MiG jets in service of the Indian air force that fly overhead occasionally, patrolling the border or maybe just flexing the might of the Indian military machine in full view of Pakistani radar.
India is loaded with culture and it’s a huge change from South East Asia. I have many things to say about this country, but first I have to get something off my chest.
What’s the worst part of traveling in India? It is the slimy men who proposition my wife while I am standing next to her. I don’t mean to generalize a country of over a billion people, but in our brief experience here it is the most slovenly, smelly, overweight and greasy men who seem to think they have the best chance with my wife. They make graphic overtures to her in the street. Perhaps it is because they are wearing sunglasses and have slicked their hair back that they have such a high self-opinion. In self defense I have upgraded my sunglasses, but it hasn’t done any good.
I am a gentle person and my wife is a sensitive traveler who dresses modestly in accordance with local customs. Nevertheless, several times in the last week I have had to refrain from triggering a cascade of events that ends with me talking to an American consul, and some pear-shaped Rajasthani slob visiting the prosthodontist. In light of these men, the custom of arranged marriage takes on a rather more sinister light.
Ok, that’s that. We have been miraculously healthy in India and have mostly shuffled from one desert fort to another. Tomorrow we mount Marwari horses with funny ears and ride three days to Udaipur for the Indian Holi festival. Pictures and so forth to follow.