Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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May
31

Lance Armstrong Exonorated of Doping Charges From His First Tour de France Victory

In an effort to try to ameliorate the fact that France hasn’t seen a Tour de France victory in over 20 years, the French daily sports journal, L’Equipe reported the premature results of the 2004 re-testing of Lance Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour (Lance’s first of seven victories).  L’Equipe reported that the samples had been re-tested and showed evidence of containing the endurance-boosting hormone, EPO.  The tests they reported on were done by (. . . don’t be too shocked now) the French anti-doping lab, LNDD.  Lance Armstrong has repeatedly denied using any banned substances.

The International Cycling Union (ICU) hired a lawyer to investigate the claims as well as the leak of the information.  He reported the results of his findings today.  In his conclusions, the lawyer stated that his report:

“exonerates Lance Armstrong completely with respect to alleged use of doping in the 1999 Tour de France.”

Of course, the French agencies responsible for the testing, evaluating and publishing of the premature information are all crying foul.

If you can’t win with effort, determination and heart, there’s always false accusations and the destruction of you competitor’s reputation, I guess.

At least France’s cycling record is substantially better than their military record – 0–for-many.

See the article here.

 May 31st, 2006  
 Will  
 Cycling  
   
 4 Comments
May
31

Subaru – The International Symbol for Slow Driving

I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here, but someone has to say something to get this out in the open. 

First let me say that I think that Subaru makes excellent cars.  In fact, they are some of the best engineered cars in the world and are sold at a terrific price point.  They’re not the best looking cars around – I think the common wisdom is that their exteriors are designed by the same engineers who develop the nuts and bolts of their all wheel drive system – but they are reasonable looking (OK, except for the B9 Tribeca), spacious and nicely appointed.  These cars are in no way, shape or form, crippled econo-boxes that can’t get out of their own way either.  When driven sedately, these cars can more than hold their own and when driven hard, like the way that valet who you turned your car over to last night did, they perform superbly.

I don’t have a single problem with Subarus.  It’s Subaru drivers that make me nuts (not you WRX drivers – you drive just fine and can stop reading here).  Inevitably, when I’m stuck behind a line of cars on a two-lane road (or a typical 1.5 lane road as we find often here in New England), there will be a Subaru at the front of the line.  And I don’t mean “once in a while” here.  A recent “scientific” study conducted by . . . me, shows that Subarus are responsible for holding up traffic a mind-boggling 56% of the time (number two on the list – Volvos – but that’s fodder for another post).  What makes this even more amazing is that this driving behavior appears to be consistent regardless of the age, race or sex of the driver.

Yes, I know. This is a broad generalization and you’re thinking that it’s wrong of me to attribute any one characteristic, especially a negative one, to what is probably a diverse group of people.  So PC of you.  But give me the chance to defend my position.

So, back to Subaru drivers.  Geez, they are slow.  Since these drivers have forced me to spend more time on the road, I’ve had more time to consider what Subaru owners have in common to create such a strong correlation between ownership and snail-like driving.  All I can assume is that the combination of the safety (zillion-star crash test ratings), all-wheel drive (good in bad conditions), economy (reasonable gas mileage) and relative low cost to acquire and own Subarus is what attracts a certain type of person that wants to drive like they’re in a funeral procession.  Thats’ right.  It appears that Subaru drivers are people who buy cars to get from point A to point B without any excitement; want to do it safely; and don’t want to spend an excess of money to do it.  Hmmm.  This is beginning to sound pretty reasonable.

Today, a Subaru cost me almost 5 minutes in a 30–minute commute.  I realize how stupid this sounds, but that’s almost a 17% increase in the amount of time it should have taken me to get where I was going.  It’s not like I’m an anxious, go-getting person who drives a car like I’m high on crystal meth or anything . . . well, OK, maybe I’m some of those things, but let’s be reasonable here, the roses exist for some weaker person to stop and smell.  Life’s too short to be spending time in the process of getting where we’re going, you gotta go-go-go until you get there.  After all, they wouldn’t call it “there” if you weren’t supposed to be at that place already!

[taking a break here to meditate and think about the journey – mmmmmmahhhhh, mmmmmmahhhh]

Maybe the problem is that when I’m in my car it is all about me.  I’ll make a deal with you, Subaru drivers.  I’m sure you’re a reasonable person.  Your choice of car is excellent and I’m sure you help bring down my insurance rates.  If you drive at least the speed limit, I’ll try not to have an ulcer while I’m tailgating within 12 inches of your bumper.  Does it sound like a plan?

 May 31st, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 50 Comments
May
31

You Know You’ve Made it When You’re Name Becomes a Verb

Few of us will ever obtain the notoriety that Homer Simpson (Matt Groening, The Simpsons creator) did in June, 2001 when his favorite phrase, “Doh!” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.  The inclusion of a word or term in the OED is globally recognized as its formal adoption into the lexicon of the English language.

Several companies and product brand names have achieved similar distinction over time.  Band-Aid, Kleenex, Xerox (although apparently diminishing), Ace Bandage, Jell-O, Q-Tips, Scotch Tape, Velcro, Post-It Notes and even Aspirin are all product or company names that can be found in the dictionary.  The reason that these brands achieved the status of being the de facto title for all similar products is that each of these products created the category that they are apart of.  This wasn’t always because they were the first to market, although they usually were, but sometimes because they were marketed better than competing products in their respective markets’ infancy.

Today, it’s more difficult for one’s brand to reach such lofty levels of recognition.  Barriers to entry are fairly low in virtually all markets and global competition from a larger range of industrialized countries means that there are more companies competing for recognition in almost all market segments.

My belief is that the next measure of true success for branding is when one’s brand is consistently and commonly used as a verb.  Google has achieved this, of course â€“ “I Googled my own name last night and discovered that I’m wanted by the police in five states.”  “Just Google my company name because I chose a stupid domain name that’s too hard to spell out on the phone.”  People like verbs.  They imply action and motion.  People from all walks of life like to attribute some level of effort to what they do.  The easier it is to use your brand as a verb, the more likely it is that it will be used as such.  Let’s face it, it’s much easier to say “I Googled it,” than it is to say “I opened my browser; went to the Google web site; typed in my search string; then read the results.”

So, as you’re contemplating the name of your new company or product, think about how it will be converted to a verb and what is the likelihood that your customers will use it that way.  Feel free to help them along by marketing the name as a verb and encouraging your customers to follow along.  Remember, only your customers can anoint your brand name as having verb status.  If it’s only you who uses it as a verb, it won’t mean anything.  Make it so they want to use it that way.

The world is full of nouns.  Why would you want to be just another noun?  Be a verb and stand out.  OK, pretty corny, but you get the point.

 May 31st, 2006  
 Will  
 General Business, Marketing  
   
 Comments Off on You Know You’ve Made it When You’re Name Becomes a Verb
May
23

Energy Drinks

Walking through the aisles of my local convenience store, I was struck by the number of refrigerated cases that were now dedicated to new-fangled energy drinks – a substantial percentage of the refrigerated space available, as it turns out.  There are many different brands of these potions, some produced by the soft drink giants and others from smaller outfits, but they all have similar ingredients:

  • Caffeine
  • Taurine
  • Ginseng
  • Guarana
  • Ginkgo Biloba
  • L-Carnitine
  • Sugars (although there are sugar-free and “low-carb” varieties)
  • B Vitamins
  • Antioxidants

Being the selfless person that I am, I decided to pick up a couple of handfuls of these babies – most come in 16oz kegs – to give ‘em a test and report my results. 

The good news is that after the test, the EMTs were able to restart my heart without much difficulty.  That is, of course, after they peeled me off the ceiling of my office.  Prior to consuming several of these drinks cavalierly, I should have realized that they are no more than legalized liquid speed.  The exotic sounding South American and Asian herbs and amino acids are simply amphetamines in a different, “natural” wrapper.  Not surprisingly, though, the key ingredient to these formulations of nitrous oxide for the human metabolism is caffeine.

Interestingly, none of the containers detailed exactly how much caffeine is confined within each of the cylinders-o-power.  It’s a secret until the stimulants are unleashed into your body, causing every nerve and synapse to fire simultaneously.  After I came off my high, I hit the web to find out the comparative strength of each elixir and stumbled upon Energy Fiend, an extremely informative sight that explained why I felt I could do an IronMan in the time between when I dropped my kids off at school and my scheduled lunch meeting.

My only conclusions, so far, are that they appear to work and most of them taste like crap.  If you’re already an espresso junkie and are pumping 100mg of caffeine into your bloodstream 2 ounces at a time many times throughout the day, these energy drinks aren’t gonna give you loads more energy.  If you’re a guy like me though, whose average caffeine intake is about 50mg/day, drinking 16 ounces of this stuff will make you feel like NASA just filled you up with liquid nitrogen.  The moon just doesn’t seem that far away . . .

On the taste part, I envision a bunch of product marketing guys at Coca-Cola sitting around saying something like: if we make it taste too good, they won’t think it’s a serious energy drink and we’ll just rob sales from the good tasting soft drinks – let’s make it taste lousy so people will think it sorta medicinal.  The taste is acceptable for most of these drinks, but it certainly isn’t great.

Enjoy!

 

 May 23rd, 2006  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 2 Comments
May
21

Business Planning – The Big 5

Brad Feld’s post on A Mental Model for VC Investments compelled me to write about something that’s been a hot button for me for some time – business planning.  What I mean by this is the process by which someone plans for the future of their business, whether it be for getting capital, selling the first product/service, growing, expanding, entering new markets, merging, acquiring or even liquidating.  Business planning is what is required to make reasonable strategic decisions for a business instead of day-to-day tactical ones.  It’s what makes luck a secondary or tertiary factor in success, rather than a primary one.  It’s the difference between leading and following.  It’s . . . you get the idea.

I’m not a venture capitalist (I’m unsuccessfully holding back the strong desire to add: “but I play one on TV”), but I do a fair share of angel investing.  In my role as an angel investor, I’m dumbfounded at how many business plans I see that have not been thought out much further than the introduce the product/service to market stage.  Often, even those that include a longer term view, miss discussing what is happening in the meta or micro-world around the proposed enterprise, completely ignoring all the factors outside the inner workings of the new company that will have an impact on it. 

In my experience as a board member of established companies, I’m even more surprised at how few know how to describe their businesses and outline a path to the goals that they’re trying to achieve.  In my experience, being lost without even knowing it is not the sole privilege of companies looking for funding.  There are plenty of ongoing concerns who are, basically, adrift.

OK, Will, stop whining and get to the point . . .

I believe that there are five key areas (The Big 5) that need to be addressed as a part of any complete business plan or business planning process.  There are no guarantees of success, of course, but by thoroughly understanding these items with respect to your company, you’ll have an excellent picture of where you stand and what you need to do.  They are:

  • Product/Service
  • Market
  • Differentiation
  • Channel
  • Competition

Product: What are you making or doing?  Don’t use jargon or buzz-words to describe it.  Explain it like you would to someone from another planet (like my kids).  If you can’t, or you can’t do it in a reasonable number of words, I’d be willing to bet that you don’t know what it is – in an exact sense, anyway.  Also, if there’s a team of people in charge of making the company successful, make sure that each person would give a virtually identical description if they were all moved into separate rooms and asked the question.

Market: Who are you selling to and why do they care?  Describe the need your filling, why it hasn’t been filled by someone else and the source of your customer’s desire or pain.  Make sure you understand what they need now and how that may change in the future.  You’ve got your own take on what’s going on, but also include what impartial observers say about what has happened recently in the market and its future prospects.

Differentiation: Being unique is the most important part of being perceived as a better alternative.  What makes you unique in your customer’s eyes?  Generally speaking, no company gets the free ride that comes from the intersection of market demand and being the only supplier.  You have competition (see below), even if you don’t think you do.  If nothing else, time is always your competitor.  You need to be able to describe, in detail, what makes your product or service different from those of your competitors and you need to do it through your customer’s eyes.  Without this, you can’t hope to effectively position your product/service or to outsell your competitors.

Channel: What is the interface between your company and your customers?  There are dozens of ways to get your product or service to market.  The one you choose is almost as important to differentiating your offering as the product/service itself.  Lesser solutions have become leaders as a result of intelligent channel and packaging choices.  Consider what the competition is doing, trends in how your customer is doing business, how your customer is organized (e.g. is the end-user buying or is a purchasing department making the purchase) and your customer’s budget – the more they spend with you, the more direct contact will likely be required.

Competition: In the broadest sense, what are your customer’s alternatives to where to spend their money?  Your competition isn’t limited to products/services that do similar things to what yours/you do.  Your competition is anything that can attract money from going your way in exchange for what you’re selling.  Your primary focus here, of course, should be products/services that are in a similar domain to yours (although be careful not to ignore the fact that often, your product can be displaced by a service or your service by a product – even one that addresses the customer’s problem in a different way).  Secondarily, however, you should explore the space of the wide range of needs that your customer has and the relative importance of their purchase of your product/service.  Always keep in mind that not doing anything is a often a reasonable choice for your customer.

 May 21st, 2006  
 Will  
 General Business, Management  
   
 7 Comments
May
19

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

I’m new to Christopher Moore and I picked this book up for a quick read on a plane ride after seeing it mentioned by complete strangers on a few web sites (now you know my standards).  If you insist on reading this book in a relatively public place like I did, be forewarned . . . I almost passed an entire baguette through my nose as I tried to suppress my laughter.  I’m not talking giggles, or even chuckles, but full blown tears-in-the-eyes, abdominal-muscle-pain kinda laughter.  Not always, of course, but frequently enough to make the book a complete blast.

The story is about a guy named Charlie Asher, a beta male in San Francisco who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s Death (that’s right, with a capital D).  The passage below is a good example of Moore’s writing – no worries, I’m not giving away anything . . .

“The Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was the perfect show-off of death machines.  It consisted of nearly three tons of steel stamped into a massively mawed high-tailed beast, lined with enough chrome to build a Terminator and still have parts left over – most of it in long, sharp strips that peeled off on impact and became lethal scythes to flay away pedestrian flesh.  Under the four headlights it sported two chrome bumper bullets that looked like unexploded torpedoes or triple-G-cup Madonna death boobs.  It had a noncollapseable steering column that would impale the driver upon any serious impact, electric windows that could pinch off a kid’s head, no seat belts and a 325 horsepower V8 with such appallingly bad fuel efficiency  that you could hear it trying to slurp liquefied dinosaurs out of the ground when it passed.  It had a top speed of a hundred and ten miles per hour, mushy, bargelike suspension that could in no way stabilize the car at that speed, and undersized power brakes that wouldn’t stop it either.  The fins jutting from the back were so high and sharp that the car was a lethal threat to pedestrians even when parked, and the whole package sat on tall, whitewall tires that looked, and generally handled, like oversized powdered doughnuts.  Detroit could not have achieved more deadly finned ostentatia if they’d covered a killer whale with rhinestones.  It was a masterpiece.”

Moore’s characters are terrific and the story is unusual.  I could hardly put it down, and that’s saying a lot since I have the reading speed of an average kindergartener.  Highly recommended.

 May 19th, 2006  
 Will  
 Books  
   
 6 Comments
May
19

The Prius Deception . . . The Other Side of the Argument

I recently received a thoughtful comment on my original Prius Deception post by David H. Hawkins.  In his comment, Mr. Hawkins basically says that I’m full of crap with many (most, actually) of the claims I make – if he knew me, he might not limit his findings to the post in question.  In his comments, he claims that “this article contains a plethora of incorrect ‘facts’ and suppositions” and outlines what  he believes are my “fallacious facts.”  Since I thought his text was insightful, and he seems like a reasonable, intelligent man, I thought I would put my comments on it in a new post rather than in an extended comment to the original.

Below are Mr. Hawkins’ explanations of my allegedly fallacious statements, the truth as he sees it and my further thoughts on the particular topic.

Fallacy:  The difference in price for a Prius over another comparably equipped mid-size car will buy all the gas you would need for the life of the car.

Truth:  If I WERE paying $3000.00 more than a comparably equipped mid-size car (which I am not).  At todays prices, the car would pay for the difference in between 2 and 4 years depending on how much I drive, and I expect gas to go up even more in price.

Will: Well this one is actually pretty simple to validate.  We’ll pick a “comparable” vehicle in the mid-size segment.  How ‘bout the Toyota Camry CE (4–cylinder car).  The Camry is a great car, it’s actually larger in interior space and exterior dimensions, is more luxurious and is faster than the Prius – although arguably not significantly different from the Prius in any of these aspects.  Of course, it’s also manufactured by the same company, Toyota, which hopefully removes some other variables in differentiation.  According to Edmunds, the average selling price (the price people are actually paying for the car) of the new Camry is $19,300.  According to the same source, the average price people are paying for a new Prius is $24,900 (this assumes equivalent options – the Prius must include the optional HF package which adds front seat-mounted side and front and rear side curtain airbags and 6–speaker stereo to be equipped almost identically to the base Camry).  Thus, the difference in purchase price is $5,600.

The Prius gets much better gas mileage than the Camry.  The actual mileage numbers gleaned from various car magazines and car review web sites are the mid-to-high 40s mpg for the Prius and about 30 mpg for the Camry – obviously, these are city/highway combined numbers.  For the sake of discussion, let’s give the Prius the benefit of the doubt and use 50 mpg for the Prius and 30 for the Camry.  Assuming that the average driver drives 12,000 miles/year and gas costs $3.50/gallon, the Prius driver will spend $840 for gasoline/year ((12,000 mi/50 mpg) * $3.50).  Using the same calculation, the Camry driver will spend $1,400 for gasoline in one year.  The difference being $560 per year.

Since the difference in purchase price, as outlined above, is $5,600, it’s clear that it would take 10 years to break even financially on the decision to buy the Prius.  Of course, this does not even include the facts that 1) batteries lose efficiency over time, 2) 10 years is already outside the envelope that Toyota prescribes as the useful life of the battery, 3) internal combustion engines are more efficient after break-in and, 4) the opportunity costs on $5,600 can be significant for many.

Fallacy:    Battery technology evolves at a glacial pace.  There may be breakthroughs in the future in alternative technologies (e.g. fuel cells), but the standard chemical reaction in batteries has not improved much in a very long time.  Quantum improvements in engine mechanicals and fuel chemistry will happen long before similar improvements in battery technology.

Truth:  By this argument, anything on wheels is obsolete, wheels haven’t changed in centuries.  Batteries HAVE come a LONG way, from lead/acid to carbon/zinc to lithium ion.  I should point out that the battery in a current model Prius puts out over 200 volts and is raised to 500 volts for use in the engines.  (as a side note, street cars run on about 600 volts, and no one complains about their efficiency.)  Also, the battery is only used in situations where the gas engine is very inefficient, such as low speeds and high acceleration.

Will: Sorry, David, I don’t understand what the wheel comparison means.  If you believe that I am stating that batteries are obsolete, you need to read my entire post in which I state that I’d love to see simple diesel/electric hybrids with electric motors used to keep diesel engines in their peak torque range.  That aside, the combination of batteries and electric motors HAVE actually increased in efficiency at a glacial pace compared to the combination of internal combustion engines and fossil fuels (this does not mean, BTW, that batteries have not evolved and that new battery technology, as you state, has not been introduced).  And this is true even considering the fact that fossil fuel efficiency is virtually unchanged (actually, it has probably decreased since all the old additives have been removed).  Engine technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades.  Much by electronics, but quite a bit mechanically as well.  The average horsepower/liter of engine displacement is up tremendously.  The output of battery powered electric motors has increased as well, but not nearly as much as for engine/fuel combination.  Even more to the point, the prospects for further electrical and mechanical advances in internal combustion engines looks like it will outstrip advances in battery technology for the foreseeable future.

Fallacy:  Batteries weigh a lot!  My friend John Bower likes to quote a Ford engineer who said: “electric cars are a brilliant solution for the task of hauling around 1,500 lbs worth of batteries.”  All that weight has to be propelled by something and that something is gonna need fuel to run it – whether it be electricity or fossil fuel.  Electric motors are very linear.  If you want more power, you need more batteries.

Truth:  The battery in a Prius only weighs about 100 pounds!
How much do you think a tank with 20 gallons of gas weighs?
(Just for the record, it weighs 124.32 pounds!)

Will: David is right on this one.  The battery on the Prius weighs about 100 pounds.  A truly amazing feat considering all that it does in the Prius.

This one is true:    The Prius has an EPA rating of 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway (city numbers are higher because the drivetrain relies on batteries for power in stop-and-go traffic).  The EPA does not get these numbers by driving around, though.  They take the engine out of the car and put it on a dynamometer to measure it in a lab.  During these tests, the maximum acceleration used is 3.3mph per second – which is how fast you’ll drive on your 97th birthday.  Also, the tests are done with the air conditioning off.  With the extra load on the engine, some tests have shown the Prius’ fuel economy drops by as much as 33%.  In Europe, the car is rated at 47mpg in the city and 56mpg on the highway.  The European ratings are done with the engine mounted in a car, under the hood although, apparently, they still drive pretty slowly.

BUT…:  These figures are quoted by Toyota because they MUST BE BY LAW.  Anyone with sense knows “your milage will vary”!  Most Prius purchasers know enough to expect around 45 to 50 MPG.  Still a lot better than most of the other cars on the road.  Also, the Prius has 295 Ft/Lbs or torque. and that is usable from a standing
start.  The Nissan Z sports car only has about 270 Ft/Lbs torque and that is at an engine speed of 4800 RPM, certainly not from a standing start which is where I personally WANT to have most of my torque overcoming the static friction and inertia of a dead stop.  I also question the quoted  European milage figures because hybrid cars like the Prius get BETTER milage in the city than on the open highway.  The above figures (if correct) are at least reversed.

Will: Actually, David, most car buyers don’t really get the fact that “their actual mileage may vary.”  Even when they do, they believe that there is a slight difference between the EPA numbers and actual mileage.  The Prius’ numbers, however, are significantly different.  You are correct, though, that Toyota MUST publish the EPA numbers.  The law does not say, however, that they can’t publish their own real numbers as well.

You are also correct that the Prius has ~295 ft/lbs of torque available.  This torque is almost all from the electric motors – the gasoline engine puts out an incredibly anaemic 82 ft/lbs of torque.  Electric motors are great at applying even torque across a broad band of motor rpm.  The problem in the Prius’ implementation is that the batteries can’t support the application of that high level of torque for very long.  Great for getting off the line, but not much help 10 seconds after the light turns green.  It should be noted that Toyota claims that the maximum torque for the car takes place at 4200 rpm (I assume that’s engine rpm, not electric motor rpm).  Of course all this is why the Prius accelerates from 0–60 mph in 10.37 seconds.   For reference, the Camry accomplishes this same feat in 8.6 seconds.

Finally, while you’re correct that you want the torque off the line, it’s the results that matter.  Using your comparison, the Nissan 350Z with it’s maximum torque of 270 ft/lbs held at bay until the engine hits 4800 rpm reaches 30 mph in less than 2.5 seconds.  The Prius, with its 295 ft/lbs of torque available as soon as the light turns green takes 3.4 seconds to get to 30.  Of course, if you make this comparison on the continual application of torque, the Z takes about half the time that the Prius does to get to 60 mph.  I don’t believe that these two cars should be compared.  I’m just using your examples to show that the engine specs aren’t indicative of the actual performance.

Also, as a side note, I am an engineer.  To anyone who appreciates engineering works of art, the Prius is the Mona Lisa.  Its internal design is a masterpiece of engineering elegance.

Will: I too am an engineer.  To be sure, the Prius is an engineering marvel and Toyota is a great engineering company.  As I said in my original post, I’m not out to bash the Prius or its manufacturer, Toyota.  The Prius is a good car with terrific technology.  My point is that it’s not what the American public believes it is.  There are better solutions to the problem; many of them available now and many of them considerably cheaper than the gasoline/electric hybrid.  Even more solutions would be available immediately or in short order with minor policy changes in this country (e.g. 5 states don’t even allow the sale of new diesel-powered cars, one of them California – what incentive does this give the European manufacturers of diesel cars to ship to the US?).

 May 19th, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
May
12

Cycling in Holland

My wife and I just returned from a week of cycling, eating & drinking, seeing a zillion tulips, eating and drinking, sightseeing, eating & drinking, touring (and did I mention eating and drinking?) in Holland.  As cycling challenges go, this is the bottom of the heap.  As my wife stated as we were landing at Schiphol Airport outside of Amsterdam, “it’s not saying that there are no hills fully describes it . . . it’s just totally and completely flat.”  In 5 days of riding around the country, the highest point we hit (according to my Garmin Edge 305) was 74 feet above sea level and the lowest point was at 39 feet below sea level (a lot of the country is below sea level).  The steepest grade we saw was 3% and that was only for about 150 feet and was man-made – the bridges over the canals have to leave room for boats to get under them.

Biking in Holland is unique.  Not only because you never change gears, but because biking is deeply ingrained in the culture of Dutch society.  Kids start on bikes as soon as they can sit up.  It’s routine to see moms out shopping with multiple kids on their bikes as well as a load of groceries.  Business people headed to work on their bikes will casually be on the phone while holding their briefcase and riding through traffic. 

There are about 10,000 miles of bike paths in the country.  We’re not talking little dirt cutouts beside major roads.  We’re talkin’ paths that are the same size as many of the roads, many with their own traffic signals and right of way.  In fact, for all practical purposes, bicycles appear to yield to nothing and no one.  Not only do the cars stop to allow bicycles by, but the pedestrians do too.

The Dutch are terrific and friendly people.  Aside from the fact that their language is the closest on this planet to Klingon (one Dutch person described it to us as sounding like everyone in the country had some throat disease), almost everyone speaks English and is happy to help. 

We took this trip with Butterfield & Robinson.  This is our first with them after having taken a couple earlier, and to different locations, with Backroads.  While we don’t have enough experience to generalize, it seems pretty clear the B&R puts sightseeing and eating and drinking well ahead of activities (in this case cycling) on their trips.  Our previous experience with Backroads was that the trips had a slight bias to the activity ahead of consumption.  We are committed to do more experimentation here to test our hypothesis.

Oh yeah, the tulips.  Totally unreal.  There are flowers as far as the eye can see and the smell of the flowers is everywhere, although sometimes barely drowning out the smell of the fertilizer.  We were there the last week of tulip season and most farms were in the process of mowing down the beautiful flowers.  The tulips sold for export are shipped before the buds are open.  The rest remain the ground so that the bulbs mature another year – it generally takes a couple of years for the bulbs to mature.  So, they have these huge tulip mowers that look like reaper/harvesters for corn.  The flowers are unceremoniously whacked and tossed.  Geez, I had no idea.


 

See all the pix here.

 May 12th, 2006  
 Will  
 Cycling  
   
 4 Comments
May
12

Seizing The Enigma by David Kahn

Narrator: Bernard Mayes – Good
Genre: Non Fiction – Military
Writing: Good
Story: Poor
Time: 13 hours 35 minutes 

I know very little about
cryptography or cryptology, but I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the
German Enigma cipher machine used before and during WWII and the efforts of the
Allies during the war to decode German messages.  When I found this book, I thought it would
help me get beyond the rudimentary knowledge that I have on the subject from
movies and anecdotes.  The good news is
that it did that, but at a price.

In your interested in
cryptography and you feel there might be a slight gap in your knowledge of the
history and science for the period from 1914 through 1945, this is the book for
you.  It covers everything  including what the British sailors who
captured the first Enigma from a German U-Boat had for breakfast the day they
boarded the donor ship.  If I haven’t
already made it clear, it might be worth repeating.  This book includes an immense amount of
unnecessary detail – not only of cryptologic advances during the period, but
also of everything in the periphery of those developments. 

The narrator is British and
takes a while to get used to (if you’re American, that is).  The narration is fairly slow as well.  The writing is also from a British point of
view, giving the Poles, French and Americans only passing credit for their
contributions.

If you can find an abridged
version – say 50-100 pages long, it’d be worth a read.  If not, I can’t recommend it.  If after this poor endorsement, you insist on
giving it a try, stop reading here.  For
anyone interested in a few cool facts gleaned from the book, keep reading . . . 

  • The Poles were the first to apply mathematics to
    breaking complex coades and ciphers. 
    Prior to their work, all code-breaking was done through a
    brute-force method.  Early in the 20th
    century, while the Germans were developing advanced cryptographic
    techniques, only the Poles were able to keep up because they had their
    best mathematicians working on the problem while other countries continued
    to try to do things the old way. 
    The reason they were so far ahead was because they were the most
    threatened.  Shoehorned between the Soviet Union and German made fear the mother of
    invention.
  • The pole built huge, complex mechanical machines
    – computers, actually – that worked on breaking coded messages and finding
    clues in the messages themselves. 
    The British continued developing these machines during WWII.
  • The need to break the messages encoded by the
    Enigma cipher machine was huge. 
    During 1942, there were months
    when up to 150 British and American ships were being sunk in the Atlantic.
  • Each branch of the German military and the SS
    used different versions of the Enigma. 
    The Army, Luftwaffe and SS codes were broken fairly early in the
    war.  The naval code and process
    took until much later in the war to break and required the acquisition of
    a naval Enigma machine to be successful.
  • Breaking the Enigma is commonly credited with
    winning the battle of the Atlantic and, thus, winning the war in Europe.  After
    all, food to sustain the British had to come from North America and most
    of the armament, ammunition and men for the invasion of Europe came across
    the Atlantic.  This book points out, though, that by
    1943, the US was
    building ships so fast that the Germans could not put enough submarines in
    the Atlantic to sink enough tonnage to
    reverse the Allied advance.  Also,
    if the Germans were not defeated in early 1945, the first atomic bomb
    would have surely been used on the Germans and would have ultimately ended
    the war.  So, while breaking the
    Enigma certainly saved thousands of lives and caused the war to end a few
    months earlier, it was not reason for the Allied victory.
  • The British did an excellent job disguising the
    fact that they had captured an Enigma and were reading coded German
    messages.  They were very conscious of
    not anticipating too many German moves and even let some German targets
    move freely in the Atlantic so as not to
    give any indication of what they knew. 
    Churchill was actively involved in the use of the deciphered
    information and was gave many warnings about the abuse of their new
    knowledge.

In the end, the biggest
factor to breaking the Enigma – and this is likely true for breaking any secret
code at any time – is the hubris of the people who created and used it.  Throughout the war, the Germans ignored
signals that the Enigma and the coding processed used to create messages with
the Enigma, had been compromised.  These
signals were ignored, for the most part, because the Germans strongly felt
their system was unbreakable.  This
feeling of invincibility ultimately was the biggest failure in their system.

 May 12th, 2006  
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