Quitting time

On this date fifteen years ago, several employees of NCD Software, formerly Z-Code, resigned simultaneously. I was one of them.

Two years earlier, Z-Code’s founder, Dan, sold out to Network Computing Devices over the objections of most of his staff. NCD, whose line of business had no discernable overlap with Z-Code’s, proceeded to drive Z-Code and itself right into the ground. Dan was the first casualty, lasting only a few months after the merger. NCD’s CEO and top VP, informally known as “the Bill and Judy show,” followed not long after. A lot of clueless mismanagement ensued. The energy of our once terrific engineering team dissipated before our eyes. We tried to turn things around, to make our bosses understand (for instance) that you can’t just tell an e-mail software team to make their e-mail suite into one of those newfangled web browsers that the new CEO had heard so much about, or that if you don’t pay your salespeople a commission for selling the company’s software, they won’t sell the company’s software.

Each time management did something boneheaded, we convened a session of “The Alarmists’ Club,” which met at lunch over beers and tried to think of ways to effect change at NCD. After enough of those proved fruitless, our discussions turned to how we could do things better ourselves. And so some time early in 1996 we sought the advice of a Silicon Valley lawyer about how to leave NCD en masse with minimal legal repercussions. The bulk of the advice was to put off discussion of any new venture until after the separation was complete; and to be aware that NCD was liable to use veiled threats, emotional pleas, and vague promises in an attempt to get us not to leave.

On 14 February 1996, NCD did all these things. We had prepared our terse resignation letters, offering two weeks notice, and delivered them in the morning. Within a couple of hours, Mike Dolan, one of the bigwigs from NCD headquarters in Mountain View, made the trip to the Z-Code offices in Novato to meet with us individually.

I was not yet 30, and when Dolan, an industry veteran, leaned on me in our one-on-one meeting I was definitely cowed. But my co-resigners and I had coached one another on how to withstand exactly the sort of combined intimidation and guilt trip that I was now getting, and so I stuck to my guns, kept the pointless justifications to a minimum, and refrained from blame or recrimination.

We maintained our solidarity, and because NCD declined our offer of two weeks’ notice, that was our last day there. We left feeling victorious, though what exactly we had won was never clear, and our sense of triumph was tempered by having effectively sandbagged our erstwhile coworkers.

After enjoying a few days of freedom it was time to start planning our new enterprise. But that’s another story…

Score one for the engineers

I’ve been asked about the reason for my low opinion of Microsoft. It isn’t just me of course — a lot of technologists regard Microsoft that way. Here’s an anecdote that illustrates why.

The year is 1993. No one’s ever heard of the World Wide Web. Few people have even heard of e-mail. Too often, when I explain my role at the e-mail software startup Z-Code to friends and relatives, I also have to explain what e-mail is in the first place.

Those who do know about e-mail in 1993, if transported to 2009, would not recognize what we call e-mail now. To them, e-mail looks like this:

It’s all plain, unadorned text rendered blockily on monochrome character terminals. For the most part, variable-width, anti-aliased fonts are years in the future. Boldface and italic text exist only in the imagination of the reader of a message that uses ad hoc markup like *this* and _this_. Forget about embedded graphics and advanced layout.

However, in 1993 something has just been invented that will catapult e-mail into the future: the MIME standard, which permits multimedia attachments, rich text markup, and plenty more. Almost no one has MIME-aware e-mail software yet. Meanwhile, at Z-Code, we’re busy adding MIME capabilities to our product, Z-Mail. The capabilities are primitive: for instance, if we detect that a message includes an image attachment, we’ll launch a separate image-viewing program so you can see the image. (Actually rendering the image inline comes much later for everyone.)

The Z-Mail user is able to choose an auto-display option for certain attachment types. If you have this option selected and receive a message with an image attachment, your image-viewing program pops up, displaying the attachment, as soon as you open the message. (Without the auto-display option set, you explicitly choose whether or not to launch the viewer each time you encounter an image attachment.)

There comes the time that the marketing guy at Z-Code asks if we can add automatic launching of Postscript attachments, too. In 1993, Postscript is the dominant format for exchanging printable documents. (Today it’s PDF.) Turns out that a lot of potential Z-Mail users are technically unsavvy business types who exchange Postscript files often, jumping through tedious hoops to attach them, detach them, and print them out. Automatically popping up a window that renders a Postscript attachment right on the screen would be pure magic to them, changing them from potential Z-Mail users into actual Z-Mail users.

But there is a problem. Postscript files differ from image, sound, and other document files in one important respect: whereas those latter types of file contain static, inert data, requiring special programs to render them, Postscript files are themselves full-fledged computer programs. The Postscript renderer is just a language interpreter — like a computer within the computer, running the program described by the Postscript document.

Virtually every Postscript program — that is, document — is completely innocuous: place such-and-such text on the page here, draw some lines there, shade this region, and so on. But it’s perfectly conceivable that a malicious Postscript document — that is, program — can act as a computer virus, or worm, causing the computer to access or alter files, or use the network or CPU in mischievous ways without the user’s knowledge or approval.

So launching the Postscript interpreter with an unknown document is risky at any time. Doing so automatically — as the default setting, no less, which is what the marketing guy wanted — is foolhardy. (The reason it’s generally safe to send Postscript documents to Postscript printers — which include their own Postscript interpreters — is that unlike computers, printers do not have access to resources, like your files, that can be seriously abused.)

We, the Z-Code engineers, explain the situation and the danger. The marketing guy dismisses the possibility of a Postscript-based attack as wildly unlikely. He’s right, but we point out that adding the feature he’s asking for would make such an attack more likely, as word spreads among the bad guys that Z-Mail (a relatively widely deployed e-mail system in its time and therefore a tempting hacking target) is auto-launching Postscript attachments. Marketing Guy argues that the upside of adding the feature is potentially enormous. We say that one spam campaign containing viral Postscript attachments could cripple the computers of Z-Mail users and only Z-Mail users, a potential PR catastrophe. Marketing Guy says that our users don’t know or care about that possibility and neither should we. We say it’s our job to protect our users from their own ignorance.

The issue gets bumped up to Dan, our president, who is clearly leaning toward the marketing guy’s enormous potential upside. But after we vigorously argue the technical drawbacks of the plan and our responsibility to keep our users safe in spite of themselves, he goes with the suggestions from Engineering: do add a Postscript-launching option but turn it off by default, and educate users about the danger when they go to turn it on.

This is a run-of-the-mill example of the kind of tension that exists between Marketing and Engineering in all software companies. Issues like this arose from time to time at Z-Code, and sometimes Engineering carried the day, and sometimes Marketing did. It was a good balance: it took Marketing’s outlandish promises to keep Engineering moving forward, and it took Engineering’s insight and pragmatism to keep the product safe and reliable.

As an industry insider, my impression of Microsoft is that Marketing wins all the arguments, with all that that implies for the safety and reliability of their software.

The strangeness

Yesterday’s trip to our new corporate overlords (I mean protectors) was disproportionately strange to me, as the entire past two weeks have been, ever since I learned that Microsoft is acquiring my company, Danger.

What’s more natural in Silicon Valley than a rich but hidebound old company trying to stay ahead of the market by snapping up a successful, innovative startup? What could be less surprising? And yet there is a persistent sense of unreality for me that is itself taking me by surprise. When I first heard the news I was momentarily stunned, and then I recovered and said to myself, “OK, that’s that,” and expected to remain cool and unperturbed about it from then on. What other reaction even makes sense? But that’s not how it’s turning out. I’ve been in a kind of a daze. Why?

Obviously it’s due to the echoes, for me, of NCD’s acquisition of Z-Code in 1994 (which also happened mostly in February; which, come to think of it, was the same month that I first interviewed for the Z-Code job in 1992). I was a very early employee at Z-Code and along with the rest of the engineering staff expected that we were on a path to taking the company public. We had a successful product and some lucrative partnership deals, we’d won some industry awards, and we always got good press.

Now that I have a much better understanding of what’s involved in taking a company public, I can see how naïve it was to flatly insist that Z-Code turn down the NCD offer and continue trying to IPO. In 1994 the dot-com boom was still a few years away and Z-Code was having distinct growing pains; it was by no means certain we could remain a leader in the e-mail software market.

But at the time none of this was obvious to us. All we knew was that the upside of this deal was much, much smaller than what we’d been toiling for, and that NCD in particular was an odd choice of an acquisition partner. (They produced X terminal hardware; we produced an e-mail client to run on a huge variety of platforms.) The engineering staff was disappointed and bitter. We opened bottles of tequila and vodka the night we got the news that the deal had closed; it’s the drunkest I’ve ever been. Z-Code’s founder, Dan Heller, who sold out to NCD over our objections, became the focus of our resentment. It has taken me this long to be able to say: sorry, Dan.

It’s hard to overstate the intensity of my emotions when the NCD deal happened. I had committed myself body and soul to a vision that was being allowed to die. It was the biggest trauma I had ever suffered. I threw tantrums. For example, I just found this in my e-mail archive:

From: bobg
To: schaefer, lowery
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 1994 14:26:20 -0800

I am staging a work stoppage. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Bye.

In the end I grew a little more mature, professional, and jaded; the deal went through and the companies combined; and NCD managed Z-Code (and then itself) into the ground over the next few years. Our Z-Code equity translated into just enough NCD stock options to allow me and three co-workers to leave two years later (again, in February!) and bootstrap our own e-mail startup, which still exists today, so, not a bad outcome. But the psychic damage had been done, and my reaction today to being gobbled up by Microsoft is perhaps not so hard to understand.

Déjà Mountain View

In 1994, Network Computing Devices bought Z-Code, the startup where I had been working. The staff of Z-Code was bussed from our Novato office down to Mountain View for a come-to-Jesus meeting.

Later today, the staff of Danger will be bussed to Mountain View for a come-to-Jesus meeting with Microsoft.

The first time, there was drunken carousing by the vanquished on the bus, and a videocamera to capture every embarrassing moment. Today there is likely to be drinking and videocameras again but this time there’s also YouTube for broadcasting the embarrassing moments to a global audience.

The Jefnet

I learned of Jef Poskanzer when I became immersed in the then-small worlds of Usenet and free software in the late 1980’s. He was a Usenet celebrity and the author of the ubiquitous PBMPLUS package, among other things. PBMPLUS, and its successor NETPBM, were the standard for batch-mode image processing tools in the stone-knives-and-bearskins days of computer graphics.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I moved from Pittsburgh to California in 1992 that one of my new coworkers in the tiny e-mail startup I was joining would be none other than Jef Poskanzer! As it turned out, we overlapped at Z-Code only for a short time, but we kept in loose contact for a long time thereafter.

Fast forward to several months ago. One Sunday morning my wife woke up wanting to take the kids to see the sea life in tide pools at a local beach. She asked me to determine when low tide would be that day. I googled “bay area” and “tides” — and damn me if a site run by Jef didn’t appear at the top of the search results!

Now fast forward to yesterday. I followed a link from a recent blog post by SF Chronicle sex writer Violet Blue to a silly picture of herself on Flickr. And who should have added a Flickr “note” to the image but Jef Poskanzer!

In the 80’s, it took only a modest amount of such sprinkling of one’s name around the Internet to become well-known. Now it’s much less easy. In a twist on Norma Desmond, if you tell Jef, “You used to be big,” he might say, “I am big. It’s the Internet that got much, much, much bigger.”

Fifteen years of MIME

Fifteen years ago this month, Nathaniel Borenstein and Ned Freed published MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions): Mechanisms for specifying and describing the format of Internet message bodies, a document also referred to as RFC 1341. An RFC (“Request For Comments”) is the democratic way new Internet standards get proposed, reviewed, and approved.

Fifteen years earlier saw the publication of RFC 733, Standard for the format of ARPA network text messages. (The “ARPA network” was the forerunner of today’s Internet.) This established the rules that allowed computers to exchange e-mail, but the phrase “text messages” in the title of that RFC is telling. According to that standard, e-mail consisted solely of plain text, specifically text arranged in relatively short lines. Furthermore, the text could only be expressed with ASCII characters, that is, the fifty-two upper- and lowercase letters of the English alphabet, the ten digits, and thirty-odd typographical characters, and no others.

In those bad old days, you could not attach a picture or a spreadsheet and mail it to someone; you had to settle for letting your correspondent know from which directory on which FTP server they could download your file. You could not emphasize text with boldface or italics, you had to settle for emphasis that looked *like this*. And if you wanted to say something in Russian or Greek or Hebrew or Chinese or Thai, you had to transliterate it using English letters (“na zdorovia”). You couldn’t even include the accent in “Buenos días.”

By the early 1990’s, the need for these expanded abilities was starting to be felt, in part due to the burgeoning of the Internet, in part due to the ever-increasing storage and display capabilities of the computers attached thereto, and in part due to experiments such as the Andrew project, which I worked on with Nathaniel Borenstein and others. In the Andrew project, users running the appropriate software within a closed community (such as the Carnegie Mellon campus) could exchange rich e-mail with fancy text styles and a wide assortment of attachment types (or “insets” in Andrew parlance), including pictures, sound, and an inline “hyperlink” object (due to my friend Michael McInerny) that prefigured the invention of the World Wide Web.

As I say, users within a closed community could use Andrew and other systems like it, but they could not exchange “rich” mail with the Internet at large. There was no widely accepted standard for the format of such messages. The only widely accepted Internet mail format was RFC 822, which by this time had superseded but not meaningfully expanded upon RFC 733. Like its predecessor, it too insisted on treating e-mail as short lines of plain ASCII text, and across the Internet there was a huge installed base of RFC 822 e-mail systems. There was no possibility of replacing all those e-mail systems with anything that could handle other kinds of content. To complicate matters, the conformance of most e-mail systems to the rules in RFC 822 (and its companion, RFC 821, which dealt with the details of transporting RFC-822 data between computers) was only approximate in many cases. Cobbled together as they were by amateurs and academics, the mail systems of the early Internet often got things wrong.

All of which I mention in order to highlight the genius of Borenstein and Freed. With MIME they invented a collection of mechanisms for expressing and transporting all conceivable kinds of e-mail content, including text using foreign alphabets, that worked entirely within the rules of RFC 821 and RFC 822. By variously encoding, labeling, and encapsulating the many data objects in a rich e-mail message, they were able to make it look like a standards-compliant text message, consisting of short ASCII lines. They even managed to work around the many different ways in which most mail systems failed to obey the standards.

In this way, MIME messages could be exchanged across the Internet without the need for any of the existing mail software even to be aware that the messages were special. Of course, if you happened to have one of the handful of MIME-aware mail systems that existed at first, it would decode the message and display it richly, giving you the full benefit of MIME. But if your mail system was not MIME-aware, that was OK; your mail program would simply show you the un-decoded MIME content, which, thanks to more ingenious MIME mechanisms such as “the preamble,” “quoted-printable,” and “multipart/alternative,” was usually somewhat legible anyway.

Thus did MIME take over the e-mail infrastructure of the Internet in viral fashion. Immediately upon its introduction, it worked at least bearably for everyone, and terrifically for some. Of course everyone wanted it to work terrifically, so bit by bit, users across the Net upgraded their mail systems to be MIME-aware.

After I left Carnegie Mellon I went to work for Z-Code, which made e-mail software called Z-Mail. No sooner did I start there, trying to convey the wonders of the Andrew system to my new coworkers, than the MIME standard appeared, and Z-Code went to work making Z-Mail MIME-aware. Thus by Nathaniel’s efforts was my career not only begun but perpetuated. I write e-mail software professionally to this day.

Nowadays users think nothing of sending e-mail with pictures, spreadsheets, and even movies attached, and being unable to receive and view them properly is now the rare exception and not the rule. But the infrastructure is largely the same as it was in 1992. At bottom, e-mail messages are still arranged as short lines of ASCII text. Only MIME makes possible such wonders as Korean Viagra image spam.

A boy and his dog, part 7: Winnemucca to San Rafael

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

Alex and I woke up fifteen years ago today in Nevada, a few hours’ drive from our final destination of San Rafael, California. My first thought, though, was to play some roulette.

All across the country I had been planning to place a single five-dollar bet on the number 28 when I got to Nevada. Why 28? Because 28 is perfect.

A perfect number is a mathematical curiosity, of interest mainly to math nerds. It’s any number that is the sum of its factors (excluding itself). The factors are all the ways you can divide the number into integers. So 28 can be divided by 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14; and 1+2+4+7+14=28. Very few numbers are “perfect.”

Like all the other motels I stayed at during this trip, the management would not permit me to leave Alex unattended in the room while I went to one of the tiny casinos along the main street of Winnemucca. So I found a place to park in the shade and left her in the car while I ducked into a saloon-style casino, bought a single five-dollar chip at a roulette table, and placed it not on 28, but on 14.

Why 14?

When I left Pittsburgh with Alex, Andrea and I had been together for three and a half years. We agreed that she would follow me to California some indeterminate amount of time later, after I’d had a chance to settle in and find us a place to live. But would we stick to that plan? I was severing my ties with Pittsburgh; Andrea was not. Moving clear across the country was an almost irresistible opportunity to make a fresh start. When would Andrea feel ready to move — in a month? A year? Would I still be the same person she bade farewell in April? Would I have moved on? Would she?

These thoughts were ever-present as I headed west all week. I fully expected to arrive in a place full of tanned, blond beauties, and that thought was ever-present, too. Who would I be — the swinging bachelor, or the committed boyfriend? Who was I?

On the spur of the moment, in a tiny casino in Winnemucca, without even realizing I was doing it, I chose. 28 was my number, just as a swinging single lifestyle was my fantasy. But 14 was a number that Andrea and I shared. It’s the day each month that she and I celebrated our menseversary.

I placed my bet on 14. On sharing my life with Andrea.

The wheel spun, the ball bounced. It landed… on number 28.

I spent the rest of the drive — through Reno, into the Sierra Nevada, past Tahoe, and down into the Sacramento Valley — cursing myself. What had I done? The plan was 28. It had always been 28! There went a hundred and seventy-five dollars I could have had, free — not to mention an infinitely more valuable opportunity to polish my “Mr. Lucky” cred and enlarge my legend. What on earth could have made me change my mind so unexpectedly? What interfered with my plan?

I wrestled with this over the following weeks as I settled in to life in California, and slowly it dawned on me: this is what love does. You can try to control the way your life unfolds, but that’s just an illusion. A seductive illusion, to be sure — easy money, like the hundred seventy-five I didn’t win. But if you always insist on controlling your life, you renounce the incidental, the random, the serendipitous. You miss all the interesting stuff that you can’t possibly anticipate. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Though it hadn’t gone when or how I’d expected it to, somehow I’d found the right person for me.

Alex and I passed up the turnoff for highway 37 (which led more directly to San Rafael), intent on riding I-80 to its very end. We crossed the Bay Bridge, wended our way through San Francisco, crossed the Golden Gate, and took 101 up to the Freitas Parkway exit, as I’d done back in February. We walked into Z-Code late in the afternoon to a very warm welcome. At Dan’s signal I let Alex off the leash and she tore across the wide-open lobby area, a black and tan blur, greeting all my new co-workers for an instant apiece before racing to explore more of her exciting new environs. A short time later we followed Dan to his house, where a guest room was ready for me and Alex.

We lived there for a few weeks, then found our own place. A few weeks later, Andrea left Pittsburgh, had her own cross-country odyssey, and joined us in California — the rest is history. My doubts had disappeared. Who was I? I was the steadfast guy, the committed boyfriend.

Perhaps I had found myself after all.

(The end.)

A boy and his dog, part 3: Davenport to Omaha

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
Then it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska

That silly campfire song, sung to the tune of “Red River Valley,” is well known to Boy Scouts. In ninth grade, my Eagle-Scout friend Chuck suggested performing it for the school talent show. But rather than merely sing it, we (Chuck and I and five other friends) developed some supporting schtick: we all got bad haircuts and plaid flannel shirts and presented ourselves as “The Epiphany County Choir,” freshly arrived in New York City from rural Nebraska. We sang three heartfelt refrains of the song with fish-out-of-water expressions plastered to our faces. The audience — our classmates — laughed and cheered. We won the talent show. (I’ve never quite gotten over the guilt of beating another contestant, my classmate Stephen, who demonstrated actual talent with a virtuoso violin solo.)

“The Epiphany County Choir” went on to make a brief appearance on a local cable TV show, and gave another, much longer performance to our school the following year. The cable appearance is best forgotten — perhaps I’ll tell the story some other time. But the longer performance at our school was a comedy triumph.

So it was with some excitement that I set out with Alex this morning fifteen years ago for Omaha, Nebraska. But as before, the drive itself lacked any hint of poetry or romance, and the only thing to distinguish the city of Omaha during my brief stay was a plate of especially terrible pasta.

I was racing across the country, not taking the time properly to enjoy or appreciate it, mainly because of the urgency in Dan Heller‘s voice. Two months earlier I had visited Northern California on a job-hunting trip. Apple Computer had paid for my airfare and my room at the Cupertino Inn and I interviewed with them. I managed to stretch my stay on their dime to include interviews at one or two other computer companies in Silicon Valley too, plus a visit with my friend Bruce, who’d left Pittsburgh for California a couple of years earlier. On my last day in the region I drove up to San Francisco for an interview with a computer magazine there. (They were looking for an editor. They administered a written exam to me during the interview, and I was the first applicant in their history to complete all the questions in the time allotted. And I answered them all correctly! They hounded me for weeks afterward trying to get me to agree to accept a job offer.) Finally, late in the day, I headed way, way up to Marin County for an interview at Z-Code, a tiny e-mail software startup whose founder, Dan Heller, began calling me a couple of weeks later asking how soon I could start. They needed me “yesterday.”

(I almost didn’t bother visiting Z-Code. Marin County was far out of the way, and I was all interviewed out. But I knew that Marin was also the home of George Lucas’s filmmaking empire, and I was such a Star Wars nerd that that tipped the balance. It didn’t seem such a momentous decision at the time…)

I was still in the comfortable cocoon of academia. Nathaniel Borenstein had hired me as an intern to work on Andrew, the innovative campus computing environment for CMU. When I graduated I became a full-time staff member. It was my first job out of college. But by 1992 the Andrew system was essentially complete and the department was in decline, casting about for new projects to work on, trying to stay relevant. Nathaniel himself had left a couple of years earlier. At the time it seemed hard to leave the nest and relocate across the country, but in hindsight the time couldn’t have been more right.

I accepted the Z-Code job. I wrapped up my affairs in Pittsburgh. I arranged for my things to be shipped to Dan’s house, where the guest room was ready and waiting for me and Alex. I told Dan, “I can be there in six days.”

(…to be continued…)

Hershey bar(f)

[Continuing an unintended run of anecdotes from the 90’s.]

In the spring of 1992, Alex the dog (who was then just four years old) and I were newly transplanted to California, where I’d moved for my first real job in the private-sector, writing software at an e-mail startup called Z-Code. Andrea had not yet followed us from Pittsburgh. To help us get settled, Z-Code’s founder, Dan, let me and Alex live with him for a couple of months.

One afternoon I came home to find the shredded remains of a Hershey’s “Big Block” chocolate bar wrapper on the floor. It had been on a table and Alex had obviously reached up and devoured it.

I knew that chocolate is poison to dogs. I grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked up the local veterinary emergency number. They told me that I needed to induce vomiting. To do so, I needed a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a plastic syringe to squirt the stuff into Alex’s mouth a bit at a time.

A big drug store was three long blocks away. I ran. The day was quite hot, and by the time I got back to Dan’s house, panting, gasping, and sweating, I was ready to vomit.

There was Alex, looking perfectly happy, completely unsuspecting of what was about to happen to her. I took her onto the back deck with the peroxide and the syringe, sat her down, and squirted some into her mouth. She obviously hated it. When I came near her for another squirt she tried to slink away and I had to grab her in a headlock. Then again. And again. She seemed no nearer vomiting (or dying from chocolate, for that matter), but she was increasingly unhappy about the situation. For my part, I was completely miserable: torturing my sweet pup under the blazing sun, already wiped out from my dash to and from the store, sweat pouring off me, cursing because Alex won’t stay put. I took a break from feeding peroxide to Alex and we retreated to opposite corners like prize fighters. I waited for any signs of imminent vomiting but there were none, so I picked up the syringe again and resumed.

Twenty long, hot minutes later Alex’s face finally began screwing up in the familiar grimace that signals an upcoming barf — but she was still not quite there yet. I didn’t have the heart to keep pouring that stuff down her throat — I hadn’t for a long time by this point — but I forced myself to continue on the purely intellectual knowledge that responsible dog ownership required me to. (Any emotional sense of alarm I initially felt was long gone.)

Finally Alex backed away from me; her sides heaved a few times; she pointed her mouth at the ground; and out it came. Not much, and I saw no sign of chocolate in it, but I had no idea whether I should. I didn’t know if more vomiting was to follow, so we had to wait outside, the late-morning heat making everything worse. One thing was certain, I decided: whether or not Alex threw up more, I was done with the peroxide. I went inside for a big glass of water, brought it out, and drizzled it over Alex. She seemed grateful.

After a while she recovered. We both went back inside and cooled off. I hung out with her and made sure she knew I still loved her. That afternoon, by way of an apology, I took her for her first-ever visit to a dog park, the then-brand-new, trailblazing Remington Dog Park in Sausalito.

What’s in a number?

In 1996, three friends and I left our jobs at Z-Code Software (which by then had been acquired by NCD, which is a whole story in itself) to found our own e-mail software company, Zanshin. To get the company going, we each put in ten thousand dollars of our own money.


Zanshin is a Japanese word relating to follow-through (particularly in the martial arts), but it has other nice connotations too. We chose it after reading this passage in Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash:

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese, but it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo. […] “Emotional intensity” doesn’t convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word “zanshin” is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.

Zanshin (the company) still exists, though I’m no longer involved day-to-day, it’s in a completely different business from the one we started, and it now operates under the name iPost.

Sitting down with our lawyer to draw up the paperwork for the new corporation, he asked us what the ownership structure of the company was. We replied that we were four equal partners. He next asked how many shares of company stock we wanted to issue.

We looked at each other and shrugged. We were all novices at this. “Uh, I dunno,” we muttered in various forms. I ventured:


The lawyer looked at me as if I’d just suggested we eat the table for lunch. “No,” he said with a smile, as if getting my joke.

But I was sincere. “Why not?” I asked.

“Because each share would then cost ten thousand dollars.”


“So, what if you want to accept investment in something other than multiples of ten thousand dollars? To make the shares worth twenty dollars each, we’d have to do a 500-for-1 stock split!”

“So?” The mathematician in me was kicking in and I wasn’t letting it drop. “If we want to accept outside investment there’ll be stock-related paperwork anyway, so why not also do a 500-for-1 split at that time?”

“Well, it’s just not what new companies do,” he said. I protested a couple more times — one share apiece was both necessary and sufficient, any other number would be arbitrary — and he countered. He seemed as sure that I was nuts as I was about him — though only I could articulate my side of the debate, his obviously consisted of nothing but inertia from decades of unquestioned acquiescence in tradition. My partners were beginning to roll their eyes, the lawyer was growing uncomfortable (and costing us money!), and I was aware I didn’t know everything about starting companies, so finally I let it drop. On the lawyer’s advice we issued 800,000 shares in the new company, each worth a nickel, and we each got 200,000 of them.

Trivial though the matter was, to this day it bothers me that I caved. You might say that makes me stubborn. I call it a healthy mistrust of authority.