Monday, December 16, 2013

Holiday Letter 2013

This year has been one of settling in and getting ready for new things, like schools, cars, roommates, and construction.

We took delivery of a Tesla Model S for Shannon in January. It has yet to catch fire, electocute us, or leave us stranded. It does, on occasion, ignore the key or get confused about where we're asking to go, but otherwise, it's a pretty impressive car.

In the past few months, Davis has started to become conversant. While he’s done some storytelling in his own language (with the primary word being "op-lop"), he seems to have moved on quickly to putting together two and three word phrases. This lets us get quickly past the first phase of communicating with him ("What is he asking for?") and spend more time on the all-important second phase (“No, Davis, you need to wait for college before you can have rum.”). At least he’s able to ask to wear his tutu without us saying no.

Moira’s now a certified (well, ribboned and pinned - there was no actual certificate) skier, as well as a kindergarten student. There’s a Seattle Public School District-supported program for homeschoolers that offers some classes and helps with documenting that you aren’t just letting your children run around feral, so Moira is taking a language and math class on her own, along with a pottery class with Shannon and Davis.

In addition to quilting, Shannon has started hosting cultural discovery parties monthly for kids to learn about various traditions. So far, Hawaii and the local Tulalip tribe have been big hits. We’ll see how many families keep coming after they see Gamer culture.

We were back at Disneyland this year, celebrating a graduation with two friends of the family who have moved in with us. Moira was overjoyed, got to show Shannon all her favorite parts, and didn’t want to leave. Davis was enthralled, and learned plenty of new words, like "ride" and "tea cups". He probably would have also learned "churro", but there are still ongoing gluten issues.

Throughout the summer and fall, we've been having a garage built, primarily to house and charge Shannon's new car, although given that Walker's car drew enough attention to file two insurance claims, it'll also be moving in once the floor is finally finished. The rest of the house has continued to host birthday parties and other gatherings, whether or not we're around. Given its popularity, we're a little surprised it hasn't been invited to anything without us yet, but that's probably just a matter of time.

Other than work and coordinating with contractors, Walker spent the year being complimented on Shannon’s car, and somewhat successfully demonstrating that he’s at least a competent driver when on a level playing field. That's currently due to change in early January.

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2014,
Walker, Shannon, Moira & Davis

Thursday, November 14, 2013

There and Back Again

I bought my first Porsche in 1994. It was a 1972 911T. These were they days of Usenet and mailing lists, and the overwhelming advice I saw going out to new Porsche owners was to take the car to some sort of drivers' ed event to learn how they handle. At the time, wasn't aware of PCA, POC or Excellence, so all I had was the fledgling Internet for assistance. Not surprisingly then, the first thing I found was the PCA Zone 7 Autocross School at Candlestick Park. From the first session on the skid pad, I was hooked, and there was no looking back. Well, at least until my racing budget had to coexist with making house payments.

Fast forward to 2005 or so, I was engaged, had recently started working for Google in Mountain View, and the Cayman was announced. This sounded like a terrific car to me, but my wife-to-be, with memories of being stuck in the cargo box of her dad's RX-7, insisted that any new car I got needed back seats in order to accommodate future children. I got agreement that, if I found a car that met that constraint, I'd be allowed to get it. She agreed. I had something in mind, but it was still more of a fantasy, well beyond my financial means.

My biggest concerns around having children were financial. I saw my parents struggling to raise four kids on one modest income, and I didn't want to be anywhere close to that situation. By 2007, there was no way that I could say, with a straight face, that we couldn't afford to have children. By the middle of 2008, three important things happened, at least as far as this story is concerned: we had our first child, we moved back to the Seattle area with my transfer to the Kirkland office, and Porsche announced the first 911 with DFI and PDK. 

I've always been susceptible to upgrades, and the Porsche product line at the time was pretty much perfect for that. The cost differences from a Cayman to a Cayman S to a Carrera to a Carrera S to a GT3 to a Turbo are all roughly equal. Each step was tempting and not _too_ outlandish. Yes. jumping straight to the top of the product line-up was outlandish, so just don't look at it that way.

After the dust settled with moving, I went to the local Porsche dealership and said when they announced a Turbo with DFI and PDK, they should give me a call. It took about a year, and the announcement came in August, during one of the two weeks that year I wasn't in the Seattle area. When I got to the dealer, I was apparently third in line to get one of these, and the dealer didn't have firm allocation numbers yet. Over the next month or so, the other two people backed out. I wound up getting the first one delivered to the Seattle area, and all was good.

Well, for the first 18 months, all was good. Sure, there was a cooling system failure at an autocross, which meant getting the car towed back from Bremerton. I also lost a radiator due to an unfortunate cone, which meant another tow, but other than that, it was above reproach for about 18 months, graced the cover of the local PCA newsletter (, and got me a couple jackets.

The real problem began in August. A number of different alarms went off in the car, mentioning things like the transmission being in emergency mode, start assist being disabled, etc. The dealer said the main problem was a bad coil, but they also noticed a leak in the transmission. Apparently, with PDK, the dealer can't actually service the transmission, so that means a replacement. The first replacement wouldn't select reverse. That led to replacing everything else around the transmission to try to figure out what the problem was. It eventually became clear that there wasn't anything else wrong and the problem must be in the replacement transmission. By the time the second replacement transmission arrived and the car was reassembled, plus the time the car was out for the failed cooling system, it had been at the dealer for 30 days during its first two years. In Washington State, that means it met the terms of the Lemon Law.

Before this failure, I was really happy with the car. When I got it back, two days before an autocross, we were back at square one with the the throttle mapping. By the end of the weekend, it had mistakenly learned that I didn't want a gradual throttle response at low speed, but preferred to get a bunch of power all at once. It was bad enough that my wife noticed the difference, and she maybe drove the car a total of 10 times over my two years of owning it. Add to that our decision to move from Kirkland to Seattle as I'd started working in our Fremont office, and the fact that, if anything else went wrong with the car after this opportunity had passed, I'd be kicking myself, I decided to have Porsche repurchase the car. Besides, soon after all this started, Porsche announced the next generation 911.

Yesterday, in Zuffenhausen, my next car rolled off the assembly line. It should be here by mid-January. I'm optimistic that they've figured out the problems this time.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Vancouver and Back Again

Just got back from our first family trip in the Tesla, which is also the first time I've driven the car for more than about 30 minutes at a stretch in familiar territory. Overall, it worked great for a trip of this length, but it does have a few issues I didn't expect.

For the trip from Seattle to Vancouver, we planned a stop in Blaine, where they have a 70A charger, which turned out to add one mile of range per minute. We stayed for about an hour, which is a challenge if you don't plan on having lunch at one of the handful of places along the waterfront. There's a fine ice cream parlor, which was good for killing half an hour or so, followed by walking around most of the west side of Blaine, and stopping in the library for a bit. As it turned out, we really didn't need the additional range. It also served to be yet another demonstration that these are the early days of electric cars. Most of the electric cars out there are tiny (Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV). They also seem to have standardized on having the charging port in the front. The Tesla Model S is big, and the charging port is in the back on the driver's side. This matters especially in Blaine, since the rear driver's side corner is the farthest point on the car from the curbside charger, and the cord is just barely long enough to reach if you run it over the top of the hood. In the future, I'd probably try backing into the spot, like I have to do at work.

One feature I hadn't experienced with the car before was that, as part of the navigation system, it gives you lane hints under some circumstances, so you know which lanes are going to go away or force you to turn well in advance. Discovering that as we crossed the border and came to the first freeway exchange was a nice surprise, although it didn't really make up for the other surprise we got upon crossing the border...

The car comes with its own 3G connection / contract. The first year of service is included with the car, and they'll contact us at the close of the year to let us know what our options are, with the expectation from the salespeople that most people will choose the option of tethering through their existing phone contracts. As we crossed the border, we turned our phones to airplane mode to avoid international roaming. Apparently Tesla also didn't opt for international roaming, since we lost 3G connectivity as we got into Canada. This means we also lost map tiles for the navigation system for the large tablet-style display in the car. It still plotted the route over a black background, which was something, The smaller navigation display for the driver still had imagery. Once we got close to our destination, we found we had a cache of the tiles around our destination, which was quite helpful. We also found out that, even when we tried using them, our phones wouldn't pick up a signal either. Not surprising for my Verizon phone, but not at all what I was expecting from my other Galaxy Nexus or the Nexus 4.

We managed to fully charge the car overnight in downtown Vancouver for about $6, plus two one-way trips on the SkyTrain. As my first SkyTrain experience, all I can say is that I was very disappointed, because the entire trip was underground. If you're going to go with that sort of name, you need to embrace it.

The trip home was pretty uneventful. It was nice to get network connectivity back, especially for traffic information coming into Seattle. For audio, it wasn't such a big deal, as the car has ports for two USB drives, which works out really nicely. In theory, it can also pull music via Bluetooth, but apparently that hasn't been working for a little while on our car, so we need to have that looked at (along with a bit of a rattle in the dashboard somewhere). It doesn't seem capable of streaming audio from the phone via Bluetooth, so you can't play podcasts or books at any speed other than 1.0x, but it definitely beats dealing with CDs.

The one big issue coming home was also a bit of an issue heading north, but became more frustrating as time went on. The cruise control isn't terribly intuitive. With every other system I've used, if you tell it to accelerate by pressing a button or lever, it goes up or down by 1 mph or so. With the Tesla, the first press does appear to adjust by 1 mph. The second one adjusts by about 5 mph. So, if you want to change by 3 mph, you wind up having to disengage the system, get to your preferred speed, then figure out how to get it to reengage at the new desired speed. Pretty awkward. Maybe I need to look at the manual or something.

Notes on range anxiety: we did plan an hour long stop on the way up that didn't turn out to be necessary. We skipped that on the way back, and finished with about 90 miles of range left. "Max Range" mode was good for an extra 20-30 miles, so it still would have been comfortable, in both directions, without using that. However, one really confusing thing was that, for a significant portion of the trip, our average power consumption line was below the "ideal" line on the energy display, but our predicted range was lower than it said the ideal range was. Not sure how that math works out.

After we got home, I went to fetch Stewie, and decided to poke at the voice commands, which I hadn't gotten to work before. As it turns out, you need to hold the button down the entire time you're speaking, and the audio notification that you've activated the system sounds a couple seconds before you're supposed to speak. There's a text prompt that tells you when it's actually time to speak. Seems to work okay for navigation: it picked up the dog boarding place on the first try, but didn't know what I meant when I told it to navigate to home. Telling it to play songs was much more hit and miss. I attempted about 15 songs, and managed to get 4, I think. Of those I did get, in every case, the car popped up a search on the big display and I had to then manually select the song I wanted. When the car understood me, which didn't happen as often as it should have, it generally got the right result. When I asked for "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden, though, I was given a long list of options with various phrasings ("Number of the Beast " vs. "The Number of the Beast", etc.), all claiming to be Iron Maiden. I know from my own collection, I have ten different versions of this, so getting such a list wasn't too surprising (and also happened with some of the other songs I successfully pulled up). There wasn't any way to tell which would be the original studio cut, which was from Live After Death, etc., so I picked the fourth one on the list. That one turned out to be "Cowboys From Hell" by Pantera. A fine song, but I'm not quite ready for the future where my car stereo overrules me on musical selection.

In summary, it worked fine, was very comfortable for the trip, performed better than I expect a car of that size to perform, both on acceleration and handling. Honestly, I'm pretty sure that's the second quickest non-Porsche I've ever driven, only topped by Mikey's M3 with the Dinan supercharger installed. It did seem to pull a bit under braking in the rain, so we probably need the alignment checked. As a car, I'm pretty happy with it. As Car of the Year, though, while it has a number of really amazing features, I certainly can't say it's automotive perfection.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On consumer rationality

I have two hobbies involving control at high speed - driving and skiing. I'm currently in the market for new equipment for both, and it's a little odd how I approach this decision in each realm.
I'd say, in the grand scheme of things, I'm a better competitive driver than I am a skier. I can manage to get into the daily top 10 at some karting venues, am within striking distance of a weekly top 10 spot, and have done okay in classes where my car was in line with my competition (meaning not the past three years).
For skiing, I'm probably intermediate at best. I've gotten down all the local black runs I've tried, with varying amounts of turns vs. just sliding straight down on the edges of my skis when things get a bit too steep or tight. It was likely one of those steep, tight spots that led to me cracking a ski last Sunday.
With my work schedule, getting replacement skis in time for Moira's class today was going to be rough. Without my father-in-law and his connections, it wouldn't have happened. They came up with a perfectly reasonable pair of used slots that worked great today that I should be content with, but I'm left wondering, if things have progressed this far with ski equipment, is there something even better that I'm missing out on?
Contrast that with my next car purchase. I've bought six sports cars in my life so far, and have a deposit down on the next one (seeing aside the debate over what makes for a true sports car versus a GT car versus I don't know what else). I did not test drive any of those. For two of them, I had a decent idea of what I was getting, but the rest, they weren't terribly well-formed decisions. For skis, where I have less experience, I'm trusting that experience far more to guide me, where in the realm I have more skill, it's a crap shoot. I suppose I am putting more constraints on the car purchase than the ski purchase - I don't expect the skis to have rear seats, nor am I restricting myself to a particular brand largely due to accidental historical reasons.

I've actually only driven four different 911s (although one of those changed dramatically over the course of time), one 944, two S2000s, one MR2, and one WRX STI. I can't say I spent enough time in anything other than the 911s to have strong opinions on how they handle, so that really limits my practical experience. As a rational consumer, I should probably be evaluating a GT-R, which also has rear seats for the kids. Plus, now that the tow vehicle is separate from Shannon's day-to-day car, I could look at things that lack rear seats, meaning that a Cayman R could work (or a Farnbacher Loles Cayman GTR if I could find one somewhere). Looking at the used market, a used F430 would also be an option. Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Aston Martin and Lotus all have offerings that could be interesting. The new Corvette and Viper would also be in the running. I doubt I'd be able to test any of these at an appropriate venue to really compare it to what I know already, so I suspect that won't happen. Maybe that's the difference - I'm forced to rely on the opinion of others to make this decision, and I'm not sure who I can really trust in that department. Jeremy Clarkson is right out, and it's hard to know how much weight to give any other reviewer, since I haven't seen them drive.

I suspect the answer will be the path of least resistance - stick with what I'm familiar with, which will let me again be that jerk who buys his way to the front of the field. It feels akin to "no one ever got fired for buying microsoft / cisco / ibm", and at least I feel better about Porsche than I do about any of those, even with the existence of the Cayenne, Panamera or the backfired VW acquisition. I suppose I have at least a year to change my mind if I can figure out a good way to make a rational decision that doesn't involve three days and thousands of dollars per car.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fritter Quest 2012

At the beginning of November, several of us gathered in the LA Area for Rodney's wedding. It is not possible for those of us who do not live in the LA area to assemble there without the subject of doughnuts coming up, leading to the inevitable trip to what we used to call Far Fosters.

The discussion this time turned to the apple fritter. There was a disagreement about whether Far Fosters or the local contender, Top Pot Doughnuts, has the better apple fritter. When we made the obligatory doughnut run, it was 10pm, and there were no fritters to be had. We were told they were made at 2am, so we should come back then. Being old, and having Moira in tow with us, that just wasn't going to happen. Our family continued to San Diego on Monday morning, and made a stop by Far Fosters at 9:45am. Again, no fritters. Hrm. However, I had plans to be back in LA around Thanksgiving, and so I decided I would accept the challenge of obtaining the fritter, and try to compare it to others, to see if it's worth trying to get one of these things in the first place.

The entries in this comparison were from Far Fosters, Top Pot, and FROST Doughnuts. My employer, quite by happenstance, brought in a bunch of doughnuts from FROST on the Friday before my trip, saving me quite a drive up to Mill Creek. The FROST apple fritter looks like it ought to be the best of the three, with two types of frosting in addition to the regular glaze. However, I couldn't really detect any apple to speak of. At least now I know, when I do get back there, I can skip the fritter and focus on figuring out if there's anything that sounds better than the bacon maple bar option.

Top Pot was the second one I tried. It's probably the smallest of the three that I tried, although I didn't think about doing a proper survey of all of them, with photographs, measurements, etc. At $2.75, it was also the most expensive to me. It definitely had apple to it, and was a perfectly fine fritter. If you're looking for an apple fritter in Seattle, I'd highly recommend Top Pot.

We flew into Burbank Tuesday evening, had dinner, and settled into our hotel room. Davis had been waking up most nights between 1am and 3am, and things seem to go better when I take him out of the room for a while to try to get him back to sleep. Well, this time, he woke up at 2:45am. After a couple minutes of wishing he'd just fall back to sleep, we saddled up and were on our way.

We arrived at 3:15am, and the third time was indeed the charm. There were three fritters left, so I took two. Hey, after three trips, I figured I deserved it. It turns out, the reason these things are so scarce is that people call ahead to reserve them. It's also, by far, the largest of the three. At $2.00, I suspect it's also the cheapest. I'm pretty sure that's what, way back when, drew me to the fritter in the first place - it's about the best doughnut per dollar you can find, especially if you're trying to avoid raisins. This isn't perfect, since there's the occasional raisin in the Far Fosters fritter, since they're made with the leftover dough from all the other doughnuts.

After the initial bite, the clear winner was Far Fosters. Not only at least as much apple as Top Pot, with a far more interesting dough. It's only fair to note, though, that I ate this one a little differently than the others.

As noted, this is a big doughnut. With the others, I'd just pick them up in one hand and eat them. With this, I tore out a section and took a bite of that. As I finished off the piece, though, there was a problem. The outside ring of the doughnut tasted a bit burnt. Meanwhile, the middle bordered on uncooked. This held true with both of them, and is something I don't remember at all from college.

Given the price and size, I'd say I prefer the good parts of the Far Fosters offering to Top Pot, even though it bugs me that a good chunk of the doughnut goes to waste. It also wins the early morning availability category, since I'm not a local professional athlete. Since I'm not often out and about at 3am, though, Top Pot wins for being actually available.