The Nevada City Xtracycle Connection

February 20, 2008

We were in Mill Valley, visiting our friends (see Dipsea Redux), and at the end of the Dipsea stairs I saw this guy grinding up a hill on a bike, with three (that’s right, three) kids on the back.

Xtracycle with Xtrakids

Now after a few years of living in Hong Kong, this wasn’t so strange to me – though he was missing a side of pork, and his wife (smiling in the background above, because she wasn’t hauling that load) should have been sitting on his handlebars.

On closer look I realized it was an Xtracycle, which is what you get when you let the Xtracycle company convert your regular bike into an SUB (sport utility bike). And the cool thing for me is that they’re based in Nevada City, or more accurately in North San Juan just up Highway 49 a few miles.

Profit-maximizing Vending Machines

February 17, 2008

Back in the early ’80s, MIT got vending machines with prices displayed using LCDs.

Coke vending machine

At the time, I was taking a Principles of Microeconomics class. I noticed how these machines got most of their business during the break between classes. And thus began my speculation about profit-maximizing vending machines, based on supply and demand curves.

Imagine that this machine tracked buying patterns by time of day, day of week, and month. It should be able to reasonably predict the expected odds of a purchase (the demand) being made in the next 10 minutes or so. Given that information, what would happen if the price fluctuated up/down based on the expected demand? Heck, you could even throw in the number of remaining cans and the anticipated restocking time.

I’d expect that the price between classes would jump up dramatically, and fall over the weekends. This doesn’t seem like classic supply and demand theory, in that it’s really taking advantage of local, repetitive variations in the overall demand curve, but the basic concept is still similar.

Supply and demand curve

But what happens with a similar machine from the Pepsi-Cola company gets installed next to it? A cola price war? And would students start sneaking out during lecture to get the better price? As you might guess, my micro-econ lectures provided lots of opportunity for such idle speculation.

Dipsea Redux

February 11, 2008

It’s been almost 15 years since I last hiked the Dipsea trail from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.

Stinson Beach

My wife & I used to regularly do this 7.1 mile trek across the coastal range to the ocean, with traditional celebratory beer at The Sand Dollar. The food there is so-so, but as one reviewer on Yelp said, it’s not about the food, it’s about the atmosphere.

Then when we were living in Hong Kong, we simulated this by hiking from our apartment in Happy Valley to The Curry Pot in Stanley. Not as far, but the Hong Kong humidity was a big equalizer.

Things are different now, with kids and all that, but I recreated part of the old ways by having a beer in Stinson Beach and at least hiking the first two miles of the Dipsea. And yes, the stairs are still painful, though no worse than I remember – I think as I get older, I just achieve the same pain level sooner and slower.

But perhaps with age comes some wisdom. We took a side trail and wound up at the Tourist Club.

The Tourist Club

I can’t wait for a Sunday when I can enjoy their beer garden. I only hope the selection and quality are as good as what Rob described in his blog post from a few years back.

Still a few holes in the system

February 9, 2008

When my daughter was a toddler, my wife & I would joke about starting a “child-proofing” service. We could show up at a house with our daughter, and in 10 minutes Jenna could locate every way that a child could hurt themselves. Exposed electrical sockets, sharp corners, stairs with no gates – you name it, she’d find it.

I kind of feel the same way about the Capitol Corridor commuter train system. I’ve got a long list of issues that I’ve run into over the years, and sometimes it feels like it’s just me, pushing the extreme commuter envelope.

Sacramento Station

On Thursday, for example, it was the Sacramento parking garage. The Sacramento train station lot was full when I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, but if you ride the train you get the same rate at the nearby parking structure.

But when you leave the garage, you have to give them something they can keep that proves you rode the train, to some definition of the word “prove”. Normally this would be your train ticket, but I use a multi-ride 10-pass.

Now I’d run into this same situation a few months before. The garage attendant refused to give me the commuter rate unless he got my ticket, but there’s no way I’m giving him my $150 10-pass. In desperation I gave him the stub attached to the ticket, but then the next time I rode the train the conductor gave me grief about the ticket not really being valid unless the stub was still attached.

So this time I was better prepared. I asked the conductor on the train if he could give me some proof of ridership. No go. He suggested I ask at the Sacramento station…they also had no good suggestion, but the guy at my window did give me several stubs from old tickets he had on his desk, so I had something to hand over when leaving the garage.

I asked the attendant a “what if I had a 10-pass” question, and he admitted that it was a hole in the system. His suggestion was to copy the 10-pass and give a copy to them. Unfortunately I don’t carry a portable copying machine around with me, and I’m guessing that’s true of most other people on the train.

So it’s time for my semi-regular email to Gene Skoropowski, managing directory of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. He’s a minor deity, by the way – an effective bureacrat who cares. It’s amazing how much good a single person like that can do in the right job.

Catching the WordPress Wave

February 6, 2008

My friend Carol just started her own WordPress blog, called life on the corner (of Winter Street, in Nevada City).

Carol, Faye and Eve

I’m looking forward to reading what she writes, given the quality of her regular Editor’s Letter column in the Family Post. She also runs Winter Street Design Group, so maybe we’ll get some handy web design tips too.

Tarptent – another Nevada City story

February 4, 2008

A while back I blogged about Home town news from Nevada City, and all the fun connections I’ve found.

One that I somehow forgot was the Tarptent story. It starts back in 2003, when Matt Strain did an email intro to another friend named Bob who was talking to this company called “Tarptent”. They make lightweight backpacking tents, and he knew I was into lightweight hiking, so he thought Bob & I should talk.

Then in 2005 a friend (Dave White) bought a tent from Tarptent:

Dave’s Tarptent

And he had a successful outing with it on the 2006 Sabrina/Evolution Romp (photos start here).

So this past summer I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a lightweight alternative to my bivvy sack, which isn’t so great in bad weather or bugs. I wound up getting the Rainbow, since I liked the free-standing design.

Rainbow Tarptent

It worked great on our Sierra High Route trip from Convict Lake to Cox Col/Dade Lake, where we met up with the Krugle climbing trip participants. Some photos here, a bunch more from Stefan are here.

But the funny thing was when I poked around the Tarptent web site, looking for a fast delivery option. I was leaving on a test hike in a few days (of course), so I needed it soon. Just for grins I clicked on the “Local pickup” option – imagine my surprise when I saw that the Tarptent corporate offices are located in Nevada City, about 4 miles from my house.

Sugarbowl gets a customer service star

February 2, 2008

You read about how companies are realizing that the real key to repeat customers is the one-on-one interaction between the customer and individuals at the company. I know, kind of a no-brainer, but sometimes truths like this get lost at companies in noise about efficiency, quality, marketing, sales, technology, and the habits of really effective people.

So now the latest rage is to focus on training personnel how to ensure their interactions with customers wind up being a plus, even when the conversation is about a problem. Or rather, especially when the customer is having a problem.

That all makes sense, but where it hit home for me was this past Monday morning. I was snowboarding at Sugarbowl, and the toe strap binding broke. Which put me in a bind, as I’d rented the snowboard back in Nevada City, not at Sugarbowl.

I went to the rental shop at the Mt. Judah lodge, prepared for the worst – waiting in line to rent a new board for the remainder of the two hours I had. But it was a great powder day, so I was ready to do whatever it took to get back on the slopes asap.

Sugarbowl Powder

And that’s when Alex stepped it up. He quickly finished helping another skier, then checked out my bindings, took a credit card imprint, and swapped in a pair of his bindings for mine. 5 minutes later I was back in the lift line. And when I finished up, I went back, he swapped in my broken binders, and tore up the credit card slip.

So now, instead of being unhappy about my bad luck, I’m telling my friends about the quality of service at Sugarbowl.

My winning streak continued when I got back to Nevada City. Mountain Recreation gave me a rain check because of the problem, so I’ll get a free rental next time. Again, they turned something bad into a positive.

There’s hope for customer service in the US 🙂