Category Archives: Geek Stuff

A Classy Exit for the Groupon CEO

The board kicked Groupon CEO Andrew Mason to the curb today. Regardless of the business record under his tenure, his exit memo shows a lot of class:

(This is for Groupon employees, but I’m posting it publicly since it will leak anyway)

People of Groupon,

After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why… you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.

You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance. The board is aligned behind the strategy we’ve shared over the last few months, and I’ve never seen you working together more effectively as a global company – it’s time to give Groupon a relief valve from the public noise.

For those who are concerned about me, please don’t be – I love Groupon, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve created. I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. If Groupon was Battletoads, it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the company this far with all of you. I’ll now take some time to decompress (FYI I’m looking for a good fat camp to lose my Groupon 40, if anyone has a suggestion), and then maybe I’ll figure out how to channel this experience into something productive.

If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!

I will miss you terribly.




On Making the Switch to Sprint

With last Friday’s iPhone 4S launch, the stars were finally aligned to allow Carolyn and me to make the move off AT&T’s accursed network onto Sprint’s. It involved paying an early termination fee and buying new phones, but after the zillionth dropped call (even with our additional Microcell), we’d had enough.

A few thoughts on making the move:

– First off, reception is _way_ better–5 bars vs. 1-2 on AT&T.

– Carolyn can probably explain the reason for it, but the switch in network types also means the call defects are different. AT&T’s GSM network would just not make calls (call failed when dialing), or drop them suddenly with no reason. Afterward, it was typically hard to get a solid connection. The two times I’ve had problems with Sprint’s CDMA network, the calls got “static-y” for several seconds, then dropped. A call-back would result in a crystal-clear connection. Is this a cell tower/band switching thing?

– Data speed seems the same or better with Sprint. I’ve noticed, however, that most of my data traffic these days is moving over Wi-Fi (Thanks for the free Wi-Fi, Starbucks!), so 3G data may not be as important as it once was.

– I went with Sprint over Verizon mostly due to the total plan cost for a family being much higher on their network vs. Sprint’s.  I hear overall good things about their network, though.

– For the first time, I recouped a ton of cash with no trouble whatsoever by selling back my now-obsolete phones. Sprint has a buyback program which instantly credits you about $250 for an iPhone 4 and $180 for the old 3Gs Carolyn had been using. Redemption was as easy as bringing in the (wiped) old phones into the store. Nice! (I also got $100 instantly on eBay for the now-obsolete Microcell I’d bought in a vain attempt to have my phone calls improved at home by routing them over my stupidly fast internet connection here. The Microcell managed to deliver 5 bars, but just as many stuttery/dropped calls as before. I never figured out why, despite two advanced troubleshooting calls with AT&T).

– If you’re thinking of moving over to Sprint, make sure to take advantage of discounts available to credit union, AAA, or military folks. I hear there are often corporate discounts as well. The discounts tend to be about 10% of the monthly bill.

A Sharper Image for Blurry Photos

Anyone who shoots with a digital camera should have a look at this demo video from the latest Photoshop conference (the good stuff starts at about 1:30).

Although the algorithm can’t make awful images into works of art, it seems to do a masterful job of making unusable images usable again. I’m also curious to know more about the “blur kernel” mentioned in the algorithm. I’d been under the impression that blur of this sort was a simple shifting (e.g. you jiggle your arm to the right as you take the photo) — the reality looks more complicated.

Is Comic-Con About Comics Anymore? (And if not, does it matter?)

“So how was Comic-Con?” asked what seemed like the millionth friend of mine who knew I just got back. “From what I can see on the news, is it even about comics anymore?”

I’ll confess, I’m of two minds on the subject. On one hand, the ghosts of some eighteen previous Comic-Cons keep rattling around in my head, and I remember when the entire show floor was full of people selling actual comic books. Fifty-cent and dollar comic boxes were everywhere, and I managed to haul away several long boxes full of finds for my own collection. It was a glorious time.

But over time, actual comic sellers became a smaller and smaller part of the show. Today, purveyors of comic pamphlets occupy a mere four or five aisles in a sprawling convention hall that runs the length of eight city blocks. Even when comic publishers, artists, and small press are figured in, actual comic books are almost as much a minority in the convention hall as straight male hairstylists in the Castro. In my darker moments, this fills me with something approaching despair (about the lack of comics, not hetero hairdressers, mind you).

But really, when you look over the vast nerdapalooza that Comic-Con has become, it’s hard to stay dour for long. Just think about it: for every conceivable sub-section of geek culture, Comic-Con offers five days where you can tribe up and enjoy the company of your fellow fans. Whether you prefer to dress in a snarky gamer T-shirt, as Wolverine, or as a laser-toting Victorian dandy, you can find others who share your love for your particular brand of pop culture.

Catwoman and Joker Cosplayers (picture from the fabulous cosplay gallery)

You can spend your loot on action figures, video games, steampunk-inspired watches, or even software to manage those thousands of comics you’ve been piling up since you were a kid. You can meet the people who created and starred in your favorite movies, wrote your favorite books, or drew that amazing painting of the robots with donuts. This year, I even bumped into a guy who produces old-time radio dramas about zombies.

And yeah, even as the convention spills out to dominate downtown San Diego during its run, having overflowed the bounds of a million-square-foot convention center, you’d still turn it into a tiny, diminished thing if took all the comics out of Comic-Con. It’s no longer a great place to find that copy of Batman #473  you’ve been searching for–the internet has taken over much of the action on that front. But instead, Comic-Con glories in Batman video games, Captain America movies, and more comic-themed art, T-Shirts and action figures than you can shake a Batarang at.

So yes, Comic-Con is still about comics, even if it’s not so much about comic books. It’s about being a fan, loving cool things, and getting a chance to have fun with other folks who love the same things you do. And that, is a wonderful thing indeed.

Please Don’t Let This be the iPad 2

It looks like Apple will be taking the wraps off the iPad 2 next Wednesday, but if the specs posited by Analyst Min-Chi Kuo of Concord Securities are on the money, I may just be leaving my wallet in my pocket.

Kuo’s report indicates that the new iPad will be a little thinner, non-reflective, and sport more power under the hood in terms of memory, CPU, and GPU capability. Beyond that, the biggest new features are likely to be two lowish-res cameras, facing front and back. This should allow video conferencing, a feature I was a bit shocked wasn’t part of the original offering.  No word was offered on price, but it seems likely to be in line with the current structure given the paucity of new features.

The biggest–and most unwelcome–omission from the feature list is the lack of a higher-resolution display. The current iPad can boast just 1024 x 768 resolution — enough to read web pages, but–it turns out–not quite enough to read the hand-drawn-style fonts typically used in comics. Although some, such as Dark Horse, have apparently taken pains to ensure that the typography in their digital offerings reads well on tablets, many of Marvel and DCs offerings are nigh-illegible at full page view. These comics desperately need the higher-resolution that a “retina” display (akin to the iPhone 4, but larger) might have offered. If Kuo is to be believed, however, this is  not in the cards for the iPad 2.

Here’s hoping he’s wrong…


Rock Band: TV Suicide

For the 2010 Human Computing Christmas Party, we had a big Rock Band 3 party over at Casa Bickford. It wound up being the usual silly-good-time full of merriment, missed notes, and off-pitch singing, but the whole thing was nearly scrapped when my Sony Receiver apparently achieved sentience and tried to shut the party down.

Yes, all those years it had spent dutifully processing sound for everything from Project Runway to Fallout  had apparently given an ordinary Sony STR-DG510 stereo receiver the necessary input to achieve a sort of intelligence of its own. But, as Neil later theorized, it must have still have been bound by Asimov’s 1st Law of Robotics (“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”).

Thus, as several alcohol-energized partiers wielding plastic instruments were about to launch into Blondie’s “One Way or Another”, the receiver sprung into action and immediately abruptly cut off the sound, flashing a one-word message on its matte-black, minimalistic display: “PROTECT”.

Stunned by this act of apparent free will on the part of a faithful piece of electronic equipment, we performed that most cherished of tech rituals: turning the power off and on. Once again the receiver was apparently back to its old dependable self…until the first guitar strum of the song. Then, as before, the sound suddenly muted and the Sony glared enigmatically at us, “PROTECT” flashing insistently on its display.

“Oh, if only we had some engineers around who might be able to solve this…” I wailed in mock anguish. Knowing, of course, that this pretty much described half the attendees in our geekified little gathering. After a flurry of rewiring and patching, we soon managed to route around the troublesome receiver and kick into probably the most tragic rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody ever heard in our–or any other–reality.

But what the heck: WE had fun, and our poor, suddenly sentient receiver’s efforts to save the Multiverse had come to naught. As it was replaced the next day, my newish Mitsubishi TV also decided that it had had enough and began blinking out a pathetic, “Just kill me already” signal which the repairman interpreted as a sign that its brain had melted. It must have been that version of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” we attempted…

Neil Sets a Math World Record (?!!)

To celebrate his 13th birthday, Neil Bickford (yes, that Neil) appears to have set the world record for computed terms of pi as a continued fraction, with 450 million terms computed–extending the old record of 180 million recorded by Hans Havermann.

See Neil’s blog for the whole story–including a lucid explanation of what a continued fraction is in the first place.

Neil worked for months on the custom C# program to do the computation, with additional weeks of work to prove the answer correct. A big thanks also goes to Bill Gosper who advised him throughout the project and has been a real gift as Neil’s friend and math tutor.

Dear Marvel and DC: You’re Blowing It on Digital Comics

The Devin’s Advocate has a great column on the shortcomings in Marvel’s Digital comics. I’m a believer in digital comics, and I do think that devices like the iPad may someday become the preferred way of consuming digital content. But through a couple of momentous decisions, I think Apple, Marvel and DC are delaying that day–perhaps by years.

Problem #1: Pricing

The Marvel Unlimited program for their regular comics is a perhaps over-generous way of dealing with comic content, but the $1.99/issue pricing that their comic store sets overshoots the mark in the other direction–probably by around 50%. I understand the complexities of pricing and positioning, but the adoption rate for a digital comic would explode if the price for at least inventory releases got to the magical 99 cent mark. Or why not explore bundled pricing (like when you buy tokens at an old arcade) where you can charge up your account with money, and the more you spend, the lower the per-comic price. So, for instance, if you committed to a $50 spend, comics would drop to a buck each, whereas at $25, they would cost $1.65 each. (or some such).

#2: Flash

As I’ve written earlier, Apple has apparent decided to throw down with Adobe over Flash support, and companies that have invested in Flash content delivery–like Marvel–are getting caught in the middle. Unfortunately, this issue doesn’t look like it’s getting ironed out anytime soon. Either Android tablets have to make headway and solve the issue by effectively obsoleting the Apple offering (unlikely), or Marvel is going to need to re-do their content delivery mechanism in a hurry. The alternative just reeks of a failed digital initiative and burned customers.

#3: Resolution and Typography.

Images pop on the iPad, and I’ve no complaint with the level of detail and color I can see on the iPad. Unfortunately, the now almost entirely-computer-based typography of the panels is often dense and nearly illegible without magnification on most current comics. Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see if publisher pass a “no fonts smaller than 14 pt” rule, or if some next-gen iPad with super-hires display solves the issue. Right now, however, the reading experience isn’t quite there.

#4: Lack of Content

If you’re going to wade in to producing Digital Comics, for goodness sake don’t tiptoe your way into the pool. Dive in, hire a small army of interns if necessary, and get entire titles converted to your preferred viewer format. Having been produced in digital editions multiple times, there’s no reason that the DVD compendium editions of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, etc. shouldn’t be available in their entirety in digital format. And for goodness sake, every new issue published should be available in digital format moving forward.

In short, either do digital or don’t–half-assing it will make you a burst of money to start with, but you won’t see the years of bumper profits that the record companies saw with the shift to CDs unless you embrace the platform for real.

The Quickie iPhone 4 Review

Got it in a day early (thanks, Apple!) and just had a bit of time to play with it. Here are the highlights:


As nice as you’ve heard, although (as usual), absolutely a magnet for fingerprints. If you liked the current line of iMacs and MacBook Pros, this fits the same line style perfectly.


Smooth as can be. No fooling around was required at all–just plugged it into iTunes and it transferred over my old phone’s activation and software without a problem. Do be sure to back up your old iPhone first, if you’ve got one. Carolyn (who’s meant to be the recipient of my old iPhone as part of the Great Bickford Technology Pass-along) hasn’t activated hers yet as you need to upgrade to iTunes 9.2 first to get going and she hadn’t done that as quickly as her tech-obsessed husband has.

The Screen

Nice, but not earthshaking. Fonts do look better, but it’s still the same physical size, so don’t expect to be reading full-format web pages full of teeny, high-res type unless you have better vision than I do. It’s more of a qualitative difference than a game-changer.


Having Pandora running (at last!) while using other apps is a huge plus. Most other apps seem to use the multi-tasking model for quick app switching, but it causes some real problems as there’s not an obvious way to close an application (although I did discover that a double-press of the home button followed by a long press of an app icon in the new launcher that appears lets you do this). All last night, however, I was getting what sounded like text messages going off telling me that such-and-such an application was “going to sleep” to save my battery, even though I’d already switched to another application and assumed I’d closed it. I didn’t figure this particular trick out until well after a nigh-sleepless night.

The Camera

Here’s where most of my hopes lie in terms of improvement. The first iPhone 3G camera was a nightmare. The 3GS camera was barely usable for the most casual of pictures. My hope is that this one–being the camera I’m virtually guaranteed to actually have with me at all times–will be the one which manages to be about as good as an old basic point-and-shoot. Certainly the responsiveness is far improved–it actually takes shots immediately if there’s enough light–and the simple LED flash does a reasonable job of at least getting light on subjects. The resulting images range from “viewable but reasonably ghastly” to “looks decent”. If I can manage to keep most of my pictures in the second category, all those spur-of-the-moment casual shots of kids and events have a chance of making it into the scrapbook at last.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve already got a working 3GS iPhone and your wife’s phone hasn’t got a cracked screen, it would be hard to justify the extra $360 (with California tax!) that I had to shell out to get the newest and best. It’s an incremental upgrade to be sure. That said, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an older iPhone, or for those wanting to know what the whole iPhone nuttiness is all about. The applications available for this platform (which also run on your iPad or iPod Touch) are nothing short of amazing in their variety and there are sure to be several you’d be lost without.

I May Be an Apple Zombie…

This feels way too familiar.

On the day of the iPhone 4 pre-order launch, the company I’m contracting at was half shut down as all the tech staff spent the morning trying to get through to Apple’s ordering system so they could drop hundreds of dollars on a phone with tiny incremental improvements over the one they already had.

And me? I was as guilty as anyone, tapping away on my new iPad attempting to order a new iPhone on launch day.  (Although I will point out in my pathetic defense that my purchase was to replace the iPhone 3G I’d spent hours in line waiting in line to buy two years ago, but which now has a cracked screen). And yes, I did manage to eventually get my order in–my moment of triumph replaced almost immediately by a feeling of shame as I realized I just may have a problem…

Darn you, Apple, and your lovely, lovely toys!