Friday, 30 September 2016

Startups and Expansionism - Just Don't

When our company first got some funding, we found some very inexpensive, pleasant office space and moved in. There was room for about 20 people in comfort. For the first few months the half dozen of us rattled around in all that space. Then we got our A-round, and we started to build up a team. I hired several really good engineers. Our product was, as we thought then, ready to start getting some customer exposure. We hired sales people, sales engineers, a head of operations... and so on. Quickly we were approaching the capacity of what had seemed until then our palatial office space.

It's human nature to anticipate the future, meet problems before they arrive, stay ahead of the airplane, all that stuff. So our new operations guy started worrying that we would soon fill up the space we had, and somehow we all tuned in to this mindset and agreed with him. This despite the fact that we were now operating at the burn rate assumed by the funding plan, and couldn't afford to hire any more people until we got a serious revenue stream. We had to get more space!

The ops guy started looking round, and then by chance a company in our building suddenly and instantly ceased to exist. They were in the pharma business and their new wonder drug failed its clinical tests. Instant death, in a way that doesn't happen in the computer industry. Literally, at 11am they told the landlord and their employees that they were closing down, and by 1pm we could go and look at the deserted space, which was about twice what we had - big enough for 35 people, including a huge board room. It was perfect for our "planned" (actually "dreamed of") expansion. Within a few weeks we'd reconfigured the space, got some more furniture, and moved ourselves and all our test systems into the new space.

I'm prompted to write this blog because this week we just completed an office move back into half of the new space, thanks to a very cooperative landlord. We never, ever needed more than our original space. The whole pair of moves, which cost us a month's runway in extra rent and moving costs, was completely unnecessary.

It's not just office space. We hired sales people before we had a product to sell. We hired even more sales people when we had a product, but no idea how to sell it. We hired operations people to make the sales process run smoothly when we had no sales. We hired support engineers to support the customers we didn't have. We hired an expensive CFO when we had no finances to speak of. All in the name of being "ready".

And it isn't just us. This has been the story at every startup I've been involved with. My first was in Germany, funded by some German banks who were desperate to jump on the high-tech startup bandwagon (this was 1998). They barely had a product, they had exactly one customer... and well over 100 people! There was a fully staffed support team of about 6 people to support the non-existent customers, there were about the same number working on a next-generation product before they'd either finished or sold the first one. All this to be sure of being ready when we did have customers - and guess what, they ran out of cash and closed down before those customers ever showed up.

The moral here is simple, but hard to get people to apply. Don't let expenses get ahead of income. Or even simpler: just don't. Wait for a problem to happen and then solve it. During the time when you have the problem but not the solution, improvise. Humans are good at that. Not enough space? Double up on desks. Not enough support people? Divert the engineering team for a couple of months. The worst that can happen is a bit of extra work, a bit of discomfort, maybe a few tricky incidents where you have to juggle customer problems. And at least you'll have the money still in the bank.

All this aggressive expansionism results from the belief that sales are suddenly going to surge ahead, leaving everyone struggling to deal with them and, much worse, losing sales because of lack of capacity. But the thing is, this never happens. In reality it always takes a while for sales to ramp up. There are lots of reasons for this: the need to build a reputation, the need to build channels, and many others. It's a different story if you're Apple launching the iPhone 7, when you know people will buy tens of millions on the first day. But that's just the next generation of an established product. It isn't a startup.

It's just so easy to seduce yourself into believing that you need to expand right now. And just about invariably wrong.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Harold Hill Grammar School

What is a Grammar School?

In 1944, the UK Government passed the Butler Act, which defined how post-war education would be structured. As implemented, it meant that eleven-year old children took an exam called the Eleven Plus, which decided whether they would continue with an academically-oriented education. This took place at a Grammar School, and was aimed primarily at sending them to university or other further education.  Otherwise, they would attend a Secondary Modern School, whose goal was to give a basic education for children who would for the most part leave school at 15 and end up doing manual jobs (yes, they still existed in 1944, and even in 1964).

In theory there was an intermediate level, leading to Technical Schools which would produce future engineers and technicians. In practice very few were ever created, though as it happens my sister did attend one.

The system ended up being very controversial - it was true that once a child had failed the Eleven Plus, they were pretty much on the scrapheap, educationally speaking. A tiny handful managed to escape (including my first wife) and proceed to university, but this was very much the exception. In the 1970s it was abolished, along with the Grammar Schools. But since I was 11 in 1964, I got the full advantage of a system which, for all its injustices and failings, did an excellent job for the 10% or so it was designed to benefit.

HHGS

I grew up on the largest of the London County Council's housing estates, Harold Hill, just east of London. This was a completely planned, largely self contained community, of about 30,000 people. It included numerous schools, one of which was Harold Hill Grammar School (HHGS). Just across the street was one of three Secondary Modern schools, Broxhill, but we had absolutely no contact with them except the occasional sports match.

In 1964 I took and passed the Eleven Plus exam. From then until 1971, I attended HHGS.

It had been open for about eight years by then. The headmaster, George Armstrong (universally referred to by pupils and staff alike as George) had created it very much in his own image. He was a language teacher by training (and still taught some Italian). At 11 years old I was terrified of him, somewhat justifiably since in those days the cane was still in use. Being "sent to George" for some breach of discipline invariably meant a stroke of the cane. It happened to me a couple of times. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the experience, more daunting than painful.

From the school he created, it was obvious that he was a great leader. In about 1968 he moved on to become a Schools Inspector, to be replaced by a Mr Bracken. The latter was a huge disappointment, regarded with contempt by staff and pupils.

Every morning at 9am there was a full assembly of the whole school in the main hall. This consisted of a short morale-building address by one of the teachers, some prayers (strictly Church of England of course), a couple of hymns, and the reading of the school notices. I think we all enjoyed the hymns, whether religious or not - all those magnificent jingoistic words with their military tunes. Our school was very unusual in having an electronic organ, contributed by the Parent-Teacher Association, and a music teacher who could actually play the thing. I can still remember the sound of 400 teenagers singing "To Be A Pilgrim" (the official school hymn) accompanied by a full two-manual organ. It was magnificent, and the words are still in my head even today.

The catchment area of the school was much larger than just the Harold Hill estate. Pupils came from as far as ten miles away, from distinctly middle-class Brentwood, Gidea Park and Hornchurch as well as our very working-class area. One of my best friends came from sunny Shenfield, travelling for an hour on the bus every morning and afternoon. His Dad was something important in the UK nuclear power station industry, unlike mine who scraped a living selling zips and buttons. When I first went to HHGS, my mother threatened me that now I would have serious competition, I would have to struggle to keep up with all these privileged kids. For better or for worse they were no smarter than us street urchins, as it turned out.

George and his Acolytes

George was a distant figure, mostly seen only at school assembly in the morning or occasionally swishing around in his black gown. Many of the teachers still wore these, straight out of Goodbye Mr Chips. But his two deputies were much more visible. Miss Davies was the Headmistress and seemed to actually run the place as well as taking care of all the "girls' affairs" side of things. She was frankly a very unsympathetic character, a dry, small-boned woman in her 50s with frizzy grey hair who never had a kind word for anyone or anything. All the pupils called her Daisy, though her real name was Winifred. Little was known about her private life, even by the staff. In keeping with her character, she drove an elderly Morris Minor.

The Deputy Headmaster was a bluff Yorkshireman, Mr Bracegirdle (what a wonderful name!). Everyone called him Percy - and his son, who was a couple of years ahead of me, Young Percy - though his real name was Philip. He taught maths - including two years of my A Levels. He was a very kind and sympathetic man behind that exterior, who would sometimes drive me home from our visits to the Royal Liberty School's computer in his Ford Anglia. He smoked a foul-smelling pipe, whose miasma filled the car to the point that you could barely see the windscreen from the back seat.

Teachers

Our first year form teacher was an attractive young woman who would sit on her desk showing off her stocking tops (no tights back in the pre-miniskirt era). I confess I'd forgotten that (well, I was only 11) until reminded recently by a fellow pupil. She disappeared mysteriously at Christmas, with a widespread rumour that she was pregnant. She was replaced by Michael Hursey, in his first year of teaching and determined to be a "character". He wore a red bow-tie to teach, and wrote everything in brilliant turquoise ink. His subjects were English and Drama which was, well, dramatic. I'm not really sure what it was for, neither then nor now, but we would prance around the stage pretending to be teapots or bananas for 40 minutes. It never extended to anything remotely resembling actual theatre.

The other first-year teacher who made a huge impression on me was Mme Julien, in French. At George's direction, the school was a testbed for a new way of teaching languages, the Nuffield Method. This was remarkably similar to the modern Rosetta Stone, where a mixture of graphics and recorded speech are used to avoid misleading exposure to the written language - a huge problem for English children learning French (and vice versa). Mme Julien injected her own unique twist to this. She wanted to write, yet wasn't allowed to use written French. Her solution was to use the International Phonetic Alphabet, a language-independent way of writing phonetically absolutely any language in the world.

This illustrated very well a characteristic of the entire school. Everything was aimed at making the best of the best pupils, and doing an OK job with the rest. Probably most of the pupils were completely baffled by this bizarre writing system with its unique characters like ə and ʃ, but I loved it so much that I studied phonetics as a minor subject at university.

Classes

It was a small school. There were three entry forms, of about 20 pupils each, organised alphabetically in the absence of better criteria. Tony, my best friend throughout school (we're still in touch today) was sitting behind me, simply because his name differed from mine only at the third letter.

For the first two years, we studied every subject: sciences, liberal arts, and foundations like English and maths. Or almost, because I dropped art (I was hopeless) and geography (boring beyond belief) at the end of the first year. It was decades later before I realised that geography is a fascinating subject - when it isn't focussed entirely on knowing the principal towns and industries of every county in the British Isles.

For the second year, we had to choose a second foreign language. We had a wide choice: German, Italian, Russian (very unusual for a school) and Latin. In practice what you asked for made little difference. If you were good at French you did Russian, if you were bad at it you did Italian (I guess on the basis that it's quite similar to French), and in the middle you did German. You did Latin if you were mad enough to ask for it. One of my friends was selected for Russian and his parents had to make a huge fuss for him to be allowed to do German, which they considered more useful.

Russian was taught the same way as French, using slide projectors and reel-to-reel tape recorders which would be in a museum now. We were allowed to see written Russian - had to be, because we had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately written Russian is quite phonetic. I can still remember господин кирш (Citizen Kirsh) and his dog.

An oddity of the British system then and for another couple of decades was that pupils had to have one lesson a week of Religious Studies. There was a teacher who taught nothing but this. He was very odd. His name was Mr Farnell, but everyone (I suspect including the staff) called him Creeping Jesus. I think he really did make an effort to make his subject interesting, utterly useless though it was. It wasn't just a case of pouring Christian dogma down our throats. But I'd been a convinced atheist since I was 10 (as soon as I realised that while "God created everything", there was no good answer to the question "So who created God?"), and I did everything I could to make the lessons at least slightly interesting by asking unanswerable questions. There was a very dogmatically religious boy in our year (he was insufferable in a number of other ways too) called Roger, who would always leap to the defence of both Christianity and Creeping Jesus as I quibbled with the lesson. It at least added spice to an otherwise unbearably tedious 40 minutes. Later on I learned that Mr Farnell lived, with a wife and child, in an almost completely unfurnished council flat, determined to live an ascetic lifestyle in accordance with some religious principle.

We were also required to do two lessons a week of physical education and sport. I hated both and the teacher, Jack Wilsmore, knew it. We did not have a good relationship, at least not until at 16 I went on a school ski trip and astounded him by being reasonably good at it. My report book consistently contains his entry, "Makes little effort". From time to time we would get sent on that classically useless English exercise, the cross-country run. Tony and I regarded it as a great opportunity to chat with each other while ambling through the mud, returning to school long after everyone else was showered and dressed.

Uniforms

Like all secondary schools at the time, we wore strictly enforced uniforms. For boys it was completely unremarkable - dark grey trousers, white shirt, and the inevitable blazer (a kind of summer jacket) with the school badge taking up the entire breast pocket. A simple striped tie completed the outfit. Sixth form boys had a different tie, and were permitted to wear straw boater hats in 1964, though sadly this completely archaic custom had ceased by my time in the sixth form,

Girls had distinct summer and winter uniforms. I remember little about the winter one, maybe a dark skirt, but the summer one was a very 1950s full-cut dress, below the knee, of a blue fabric with white spots. Even in 1964 it was distinctly retro. The rules laid down everything girls should wear, even the colour of their underwear (white, of course - what would you expect, black with red trim?) But very suddenly in about 1968 it changed, to the mini-est of minidresses, in either citrus yellow or electric blue. To a hormone filled young lad, the spectacle presented by a nylon-clad thigh as a girl sat on one of the high benches in the science labs was something to behold.

Architecture

The school's buildings were quite imaginative considering they were part of a giant post-war estate, with sweeping rooflines. There were five parts to them. My own memories are mostly of the science block, with dedicated labs for each of chemistry, physics and biology, and three more general purpose labs. And what labs they were! They had vast teak benches with all the trimmings - gas taps for Bunsen burners, water, sinks. Mr Pryke insisted that the each and every session concluded with polishing the benches using vast drums of wax polish, so they always shined. Down the middle were bottles of ten common reagents, including both dilute and concentrated sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids. It was a health-and-safety nightmare, but I don't recall any accidents beyond the occasional hole in a shirt.

There was a three-floor general purpose classroom block, the only part with more than a single story. Its staircases were very narrow, a constant source of congestion in the brief interval between classes. We were told that this was done deliberately to encourage people to mix, or something equally bizarre. Adjacent to that was the main hall, large enough for the whole school, and various offices. Leading from that was a wing with the "arty" classrooms - music, art, cookery, and at the very end the workshop for metal and woodwork, with a generous array of heavy machinery.

At the back of the hall were the changing rooms and gym, from which you could access the very generously sized sports fields with pitches for football and rugby, tennis courts, and large amounts of just grass.

Specializing

At the start of the third year we had to choose whether to be artists or scientists, dropping several subjects. That's a surprise to most non-Brits, who generally study a broad range of subjects up to at least 16. The French (and International) Baccalaureat takes about ten subjects right up to 18. In Britain even now, past 16 it's normal to focus on just three or maybe four subjects. At 13 I chose the science track, meaning I could forget about music, history and geography for ever. History was taught in strict chronological order, so my knowledge of the subject stopped somewhere around Henry VIII. 

From then on I studied chemistry, physics, biology, French, Russian, English and maths. I was good at all of them but some were more interesting than others. I think it depended entirely on the teachers. Our chemistry teacher, Colin Pryke, was extraordinary. He loved his subject and, if you had natural talent for it, transmitted it effortlessly. He eschewed all traditional chemistry teaching, learning great lists of compounds and their properties. His view was that if you understood how chemistry works - the periodic table and electronic configuration - everything else followed by itself. And he was right.  I have loved chemistry ever since, though my attempt to study it at university came to a rapid end when I realised how badly most people teach it. I was saddened to learn that he died just a few months ago.

It has to be said though that he was quite a strange chap. He lived with his mother, in fact he lived in the same house in Goodmayes for the whole of his life, all 82 years. All of us were perfectly sure he was gay, or "queer" as we said then since the word "gay" had yet to be appropriated. Most likely we were right, though he never did anything even slightly inappropriate. His passion was making  amateur movies, at a time when this meant special cameras and fiddly Super 8 film, edited by splicing bits together with sticky tape. In 1966 he and Michael Hursey made a docu-drama called Sugar Nightmare, about the perils of using LSD. It won several awards though I think it did nothing to endear him to the local education department.

Every summer he would go on a holiday, often with one of the other teachers, and make a film documenting it, which he would show later in the year. The most memorable was when he and our physics teacher, Norman Bacrac, drove all the way to Turkey in his ancient-looking black Rover 75. The film was called "Istanbul or Bust", which indeed his car did, throwing a connecting rod on the autobahn and disappearing forever. He never took to its replacement, a very distinguished Rover 3-Litre, in the same way.

Physics, by contrast, was just boring. I have always thought of physics as a ragbag of odds and ends, all the bits of science that aren't something else (chemistry or biology).

O-levels

The first formal school qualification, taken at 16 years old after five years of secondary school, was officially called the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level, universally abbreviated to O-levels. That is still true today, although it is now called the GCSE. At that time you could leave school at 15, without any qualification at all, and probably half the population did, going on to manual labour or menial jobs.

That meant that teaching started to get serious in the fourth and fifth years. The Nuffield French course had been quietly abandoned after two years. We had been taught formal French grammar by the formidable Miss Davies for one year, whose knowledge of the theory of the French language was matched by an appalling pure-English accent - our French language assistant (a French lady studying English and on assignment for a year) said she was completely incomprehensible when she spoke French. As a result we got good results in French.

Russian was a different story. For some reason our Russian teachers (we got a different one part way through) had stuck rigidly to the slide projector and ancient tape recorders. As a result nobody really knew any Russian at all. It turns out (this is equally true for Rosetta Stone) to be a great way to get an initial ear for the language, but a terrible way to get anywhere close to mastery or fluency. You just have to do the hard work of learning the vocabulary and the grammar, all those irregular verbs and case endings and all the rest. I'd realised this in my last couple of years and thanks to my local library's extraordinary breadth of books, I'd borrowed some Russian grammars and textbooks and got my head around them. (I can still remember the Russian case endings, most of them anyway, 50 years later and despite having practically never used the language).

As a consequence I was the only pupil, out of twelve, to pass O-level Russian. Even then I only got a bare pass grade. but it was better than failing. I don't know what happened to the Nuffield method after that disaster, but I certainly hope it was rapidly abandoned.

For chemistry Mr Pryke insisted, over and over, that even though I was good at it, it was vital to revise, to learn all those inorganic analysis reactions that he had never actually taught us - "white powder A reacts with green solution B to form purple precipitate C, which dissolves in hydrofluoric acid... and so on and so on, identify A to M". So, in my usual contrarian way, I never spent a single moment doing chemistry revision. After I got the highest possible grade, I told him. I don't think he was amused.

English was taught as two subjects, language and literature. I can't for the life of me remember what we learned in English Language, other than writing pointless essays. For sure it wasn't English grammar, which I have never been taught in my life. Literature consisted of reading three or four novels and plays each year, with an exam consisting of a comprehension test. It was nearly as boring as geography, and completely useless as far as I can see. It gave me a lifelong distaste for Victorian novels. All I remember is tedious, uninspired readings of Shakespeare in our twice-weekly lessons. 

For one year we had an English teacher who was really rather a sad case. She was called Miss Mavor and she had a very strong Scottish accent, which (sadly) made her a bit of a laughing stock in southern England - apart from her, none of our teachers came from further north than Lancashire or Yorkshire, and most were from the home counties. It didn't help when the class learned that her first name was Morag - a perfectly fine Scottish girl's name but as foreign to us then as something in Chinese or Arabic. She simply could not control a class of 14-year olds and on one occasion ran crying from the classroom. She only lasted one year and I wouldn't be surprised if she abandoned teaching.

I managed to pass all nine of my O-levels, with Russian being the only one that was marginal. And now it was time to move to the next level.

Sixth Form

The last two years of secondary school, for those who stayed on past 16, were spent on just two or three subjects, in preparation for the GCE Advanced Level (A-level). That's still the case today. For some reason these last two years have always been the "sixth form", the "lower sixth" (16/17) and the "upper sixth" (17/18). The reason no doubt lies in the arcane history of the English public (i.e. private) school system.

At this stage, school was no longer mandatory. That meant all kinds of relaxations of the rules. For example, Religious Education and Games were no longer obligatory. Most people did three subjects (some only did two), meaning lots of free time in the Portakabin-like sixth form lounge that the Parent-Teacher Association had generously funded a couple of years before our time.

I was one of the few who took four subjects, Chemistry, Physics, and Maths taken as two distinct A-levels, Pure (mainly calculus) and Applied (mechanics). That meant practically no free time and a lot of homework. Each subject set us a past A-level paper every week for two years. That sounds impossible, until you understand that Britain had numerous GCE boards, which each set their own papers.

Colin Pryke continued to teach me chemistry, with much more emphasis on organic (carbon related) chemistry - his real love - than before. He was a bit worried by my approach to practical work and tried to scare me by saying "you won't survive the course". I took it lightly, but it certainly got my parents worried when he said it to them. In truth we never did anything very dangerous, although the abandon with which mercury, sodium, hydrofluoric acid and such were handled would never be accepted today. He once had us handle some potassium cyanide, saying it was the safest substance in the lab precisely because everyone was so scared of it - which we most certainly were. Yet we would cheerfully prepare the much more toxic hydrogen disulphide (bad egg gas) without any worry.

Pure Maths was taught by Percy. For Applied Maths we had another odd character, Malcolm Snow. He was single, lived with his parents, was rather odd-looking, and I think was desperately lonely. He would often give me a ride home after our weekly computer sessions at a nearby school (the subject for another whole article), then we would sit outside my house for an hour or more while we talked about all sorts of things - though nothing inappropriate. It used to worry my mother, no doubt imagining all kinds of unhealthy goings-on, but there was no such thing. But he was most definitely an odd chap.

The GCE system had one odd feature, the S-level (scholarship) exams. I think these were originally intended to parallel the special entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge, but they really had no practical use. But they were there, so I decided to tackle two of them - the maximum permitted - in Chemistry and Applied Maths. They were just a bunch of harder questions based on the same syllabus.

Finally the A- (and S-) levels came around. I did work hard for these, with lots of revision, so it was gratifying to get the highest possible grades in all of them. And that despite my Lower Sixth form teacher's report that "Harper does not appear to be making much effort and will probably struggle with his A-levels". That remark annoyed me enough that I persuaded my parents to insist on a formal retraction, which was grudgingly produced.

Friends and Colleagues

There was a little clique of four or five of us who hung around together in the sixth form. My friend Tony had saved up enough to buy himself a car, a pale blue Mini, and we would go out together in the evenings and at weekends when we weren't working. A handful of times we dared to go at lunchtime to a pub a few miles out in the country that would happily sell us pints of beer, completely illegally and obviously so considering that we were wearing our school uniforms.

In my science stream, there were just six girls. Then as now, most girls were in the arts stream.

This was the Swinging Sixties, when teenagers were supposed to be living wild sex lives. All I can say is that if they were, they were jolly discreet about it. There were a handful of boy/girl relationships (any other kind was most definitely not spoken of back then), but I suspect they were mostly pretty innocent.

Postscript

The Grammar School system did not survive the Labour governments of the 1970s. I left HHGS in 1971, the same year my brother joined, and it was merged with the adjacent Broxhill to become a new-fangled Comprehensive (i.e. for everyone, of all ability levels) school in about 1975. George Armstrong would surely have been turning in his grave, except that he was still very much alive.

The buildings survived in various local government roles until about ten years ago. The whole thing has been flattened now, and new houses built on both the school site and the very extensive grounds and playing fields. Sadly, not even Google could find a picture of it in its heyday.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Drive to the North: Bandit Country, Redwoods, and Shelter Cove

For day 1, see here.

Our plan for the second day was to drive north from Covelo, taking the long dirt road that leads 50 miles northwards through truly empty country.

There is just one problem. The triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties account for a large part of California's marijuana production, worth billions of dollars. Nearly all of this is illegal, though enforcement is rare. The geography is perfect, with plenty of rain and plenty of empty places to hide in. The growers aren't in a big hurry to be discovered, so as a visitor the last thing you want to do is accidentally stumble across a plantation. They also aren't especially nice people. They do enormous damage to the environment, diverting streams, destroying forests and generally acting with no accountability. Legalisation, likely to happen later this year, will be a huge improvement, regardless of whether or not you use the stuff.

Violence is commonplace. Just two weeks before our visit, two growers right in Round Valley itself, no doubt stoned out of their minds, set upon each other. One is dead, his body found in a shallow grave, while the other fled to the other side of the country but has since been found. Our journey that day led through the tiny and oddly-named settlement of Kettenpom. If you look it up, the first couple of pages are all about a double murder, and double attempted murder, that happened there five years ago. The perpetrator, who was killed shortly afterwards in a car chase, had stolen money and dope from the victims.

But everyone we spoke to assured us that as long as we stayed on roads and didn't venture onto private driveways or hike into woods or fields, we'd be safe. The biggest danger, we were told, is the huge water tankers that zoom around blind bends way too fast - marijuana takes vast amounts of water, and we certainly saw plenty of those. We took bends very slowly, and way over to our own side of the road.

The first part of the drive was on the hardtop road through the Indian part of the Valley. There is absolutely nothing to distinguish this from the southern part - there is the same mixture of modest but well maintained houses, dilapidated shacks, and decrepit trailers surrounded by junk and rusting cars. Soon though the road changes, it starts to twist and climb and becomes a dirt road. It was well graded throughout and could easily be driven by any car, even my Audi TT.

There are "no trespassing" signs every few yards, nailed to trees and fenceposts. Many of them have a light green star as a background, exactly the same colour as the crop they are protecting. It really doesn't leave any doubt.

Middle Fork Eel River, from the only bridge that crosses it.
After many miles of twists and turns, the road descends a steep zigzag to a valley. And there, miles from anywhere in any direction, is a very impressive concrete bridge across one of the bits of the Eel River. It's the only place in the whole 35 mile or so length of this fork that a road comes near it, which gives an idea of just how empty this area is. Soon after, the road passes through what's left of the settlement of Mina. There's a nearby ranch, but that's all. Yet there was a post office - and presumably some people who wanted to use it - until 1938. What on earth did those people live on?

Next the road climbs to the top of a ridge, running along for several miles at over 3500 feet. The views in both directions are spectacular, tree covered valleys in the foreground, then successive mountain ranges behind them. And there is not a single sign of human habitation or existence in sight anywhere, in a few hundred square miles. It is very impressive.

The road becomes hardtop again exactly where it crosses the line into Trinity County. But the hardtop is in very poor shape, with many deep holes where it has disintegrated. Even in a normal car, the dirt road would be easier and a lot more pleasant to drive.

After 35 miles, the odd mailbox starts to appear, the first sign of any kind of civilization. One valley away is a smaller version of Round Valley, a tiny agricultural plain in the middle of the hills. It even has its own airport - private, but charted - with the odd name of Heller Highwater (CL45). I noticed it when I was flying over, but I doubt that they welcome visitors. It's very odd, the business of which private airports are charted and which aren't. In the backcountry there are numerous private strips, often shown on the USGS topological maps, but rarely shown on FAA charts. Which is a shame, because if the engine stops over the mountains, you need all the help you can get.

Shortly afterwards the road leads to the tiny hamlet of Kettenpom, with its general store. This gained notoriety in the double murder of 2011, when one of the non-victims raised the alarm by showing up there gushing blood from an attempt to slit her throat. The two non-victims were only involved because one of the actual victims had managed to make a 911 call before dying. But the nearest presence of the Trinity County Sheriff's Department is a couple of hours away over the kind of road we'd just driven. So they called the nearest neighbour (half a mile away) to "pop round and see if everything is OK". Which it seriously wasn't, and the already-double murderer made a serious effort at finishing them off too. The latest twist to the still unfinished saga is that the surviviors are now suing the Sheriff's Department. It's an exciting life out there in the middle of nowhere.

Kettenpom - sinister truck not in shot!
I like these country general stores, making a living on the needs of a few dozen local residents and the occasional tourist (extremely occasional on this road), filling their need for booze, tinned food, and expensive gas. We stopped to go inside, but just then a big black pickup arrived and two very sinister looking guys got out. The looks they gave us, as they spat on the ground and hushed the sullen pitbull that remained inside the truck, suggested that they were very interested to know who we were and why we were there, and anyway would much rather that we weren't. It seemed wise to oblige them, so I still haven't seen what's for sale in the Kettenpom General Store.

The end of the road is a few miles later at Zenia. The general store there has closed - maybe the competition from Kettenpom was too much. But amazingly there is still a post office, and it was even open - though we didn't have anything to post. And to prove what we had achieved, there was a sign showing the distance to Covelo as 51 miles. It had taken just under two hours, including stops.

Our next planned stop was the Avenue of the Giants, a stretch of road through the Eel River valley completely surrounded by Redwood forest. The road is the original two-lane US 101, now bypassed by a modern highway. The obvious way to get there was straight to Garberville then north on 101. But some studying of the road map and the topo map showed there was a more interesting way, with more dirt roads that would take us straight to the central part of the highway.

So, passing an intriguing looking car, loaded up to the gills and surrounded by way more Chinese people than should ever have been able to fit inside it (what on earth were they doing in the deeper wilds of Humboldt County?), we set off on yet another just-barely hardtop road. Our initial aiming point was Fort Seward, on the Eel River.

A word about the Eel River. Pretty much every stretch of water in Humboldt County is called the Eel River. My personal suspicion is that "eel" is a word in one of the local Indian languages meaning "river", just like the several River Avons in England ("avon" is a Celtic word for river). They are distinguished by modifiers like South Fork, North Fork, Middle Fork and various other Lesser Forks. Isabelle says it reminds her of all the Hounslow stations on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, of less than fond memory.

The old Northwestern Pacific main line passes through the Eel River valley. Mostly it is all by itself, with no accompanying road. Trains haven't run there since some natural disaster (a flood, I think) did tremendous damage in 1996. It must have been a magnificent line to travel, back in its day when it was the only way to get from San Francisco to Eureka. Before it was built, as late as 1914, the only way was by boat up the coast - what a pleasure that must have been during a Pacific storm.
Our picnic spot in the Eel River valley.

Fort Seward was a whistle stop on the railway. It started life in 1861 as a military fort, against the Indians, but the fort didn't survive its first winter. While the trains were running, it was a busy little place, with a sawmill and a post office. There isn't much left, though we didn't get a chance to look round since even the roads were marked with light green "no trespassing" signs.
View into Eel River valley.

We did manage to find a trail that led down to the river. That was where we ate our picnic, in complete tranquility, sitting on the vast gravel banks with our toes almost in the water, FJ happily standing guard over us. The Eel River (all of them) has tremendous variations in its flow - in the winter it completely fills the valley, but in summer it's relatively just a trickle - one one-hundredth of the flow. Occasionally it floods - in 1964 the flood left a huge trail of destruction, washing away whole towns.

Thus refreshed, we set out for the Avenue of the Giants. The road was the usual mixture of graded dirt and gravel, and past-its-best hardtop. The views down into the valley and across the hills were magnificent.
The drive through the redwoods is very impressive. They are... well, giant. The road has been threaded through them and you are always under their very dense canopy. Under them, the only thing that grows is ferns. There is an excellent visitor center with a very impressive display of the local wildlife.
From there we drove along a side valley to the "Giant Tree", which claims to be the biggest redwood alive. It's certainly pretty big, once you find it - it's on a long loop trail through the woods, which isn't really signposted. From there we had two choices to complete our journey to Shelter Cove. One was to continue along the same side valley, leading eventually to a dirt road down the coast. The alternative was to go back to 101 and take the much longer route through Garberville. But we'd had enough back roads for the day, so we went for 101. Even so we ended up on a long, just-barely hardtop road going past the airport in Garberville, where I'd been a couple of weeks earlier. On the map it looks like it would be reasonable to walk into town (if it wasn't 104ºF), but the reality is different - it involves a long descent down into the valley, then a long climb back up the other side.

It's a long, twisty road across the mountains to Shelter Cove. The mountains rise very abruptly from the sea, so the road drops 2000 feet in just the last couple of miles.

Shelter Cove is essentially a runway surrounded by houses. The runway was the first thing to be built, while the developer tried to sell the building lots around it - there's a picture in a bar showing the state of things in 1964, with just the runway. Before then, it was a tiny fishing port, with a sheltered beach forming a decent natural harbour - there is still quite a bit of fishing activity. It's still a tiny place, with a permanent population under 1000. It has several hotels but they're all small with maybe 50 rooms between them. We'd chosen ours, right on the beach, because it had a good restaurant - the only one there. Except it didn't - they'd told us the previous day that it was "temporarily" closed.

That left two choices, a bar and a take-out pizzeria. We visited the bar, which supposedly served food, but we didn't see any evidence of it. They did make a good margarita though. All the other customers were locals, fishermen for the most part. When we went to the bar, two guys who were having a very quiet conversation conspicuously moved out to the terrace. We would have liked to have our drinks there ourselves, but we didn't dare follow them.


There remained only the pizzeria, at the opposite end of the town. It was a bustling place, with people sitting at the few tables and a long line. It was a long wait for our pizza - long enough to go for a walk along the cliffs - but well worth it, with an excellent crisp base and perfect toppings as well. If there's only one place to eat in town, you really can't count on it being good - but luckily it was. We took our pizza back to our hotel room, and opened one of our bottles of Saracina Malbec to go with it. It was a very pleasant (and inexpensive) evening, and we didn't regret the hotel restaurant at all.

I'm still intrigued by the question of just who would own a home at Shelter Cove. The houses around the airport are big, but you'd have to be retired, or not need to work, to live there permanently. It really is a long way from anywhere else. It's a 5-6 hour drive from the Bay Area, too far for a weekend place. The only towns close enough are in the Eureka area, but that's not an especially wealthy area and anyway Shelter Cove would just be more of the same. Isabelle's theory is that it's a retreat for the growers and dealers from inland, but I'm not so sure.
For the next day, see here.

A Drive to the North: Lost and Found Coasts, with some Wine

For previous days, see here and here.

The Shelter Cove General Store - if you look carefully you'll
see that the truck on the right is carrying everything
including the kitchen sink!
Shelter Cove is right in the middle of the so-called "Lost Coast", the 50 mile stretch of coastline which is completely inaccessible by road. The mountains rise directly and almost vertically from the sea to 2000 feet or more. When Route 1 was built along the California coast in the 1930s, it was decided that this part was too hard. A few miles north of Fort Bragg, Route 1 gives up and turns inland to twist over the mountains and merges with US 101, which joins the coast at Eureka.

After my flight to Shelter Cove, I was looking at maps and realised that in fact there is a road which runs close to the Lost Coast. The southern part is called Usal Road, running from Shelter Cove to Usal Beach and then a few more miles to join Route 1 where it departs from the coast. One of the goals of this trip was to drive Usal Road. From the map, it looked as though it should have fantastic views of the ocean and coast from high up on the mountainside.

First we wanted to visit the Sinkyone State Park. (It's pronounced "sinky-on", named after the local Indian tribe). This has to be the most remote State Park in the country. It's reached by a steep, rutted dirt road, descending from 1200 feet to sea level in just over a mile - a ruling gradient of about 20%. I was very glad we had FJ.

It is well worth the drive though. The trail arrives at the coast at a place called Needle Rock. Once, this was an active port, shipping logs for the construction of San Francisco. But now, all that is left is a visitor centre, an old barn, and a primitive camp site. It's a beautiful and tranquil place, with magnificent views up and down the coast as far as Shelter Cove a few miles north. When we arrived a group of elk were ambling along the coast.

Needle Rock, surrounded by strange-looking seaweed.
We had a long talk with the warden - he probably doesn't get to talk to many people. He told us a lot about the way the marijuana industry works, and the damage it is doing. He lives there for a month at a time - just as well, it would be a terrible commute. Amazingly, his wife's car, which was also there, was just an ordinary VW Golf. I would not like to try and get that up and down the trail.

Shelter Cove from Sinkyone.
When we mentioned our plan to drive the Usal Road he said, "Why on earth would you want to do that? It's a terrible road, much worse than the trail down here. It's long and you can't get above 5 mph."

"I thought the views would be magnificent," I replied.

"There aren't any. It's in the trees the whole way, and anyway it's mostly on the wrong side of the ridge."

There was another guy there, talking with the warden, who was three quarters of the way through the round-trip walk along the Lost Coast - he'd spent four days so far, and was expecting to need another two. There is a hiking trail which goes from Route 1 in the south, all the way to the Mattole estuary in the north, the next place accessible by road. It's 50 miles from end to end, and there are long stretches along the beach which are submerged at high tide - so careful planning is needed, or in the worst case you can drown. The southern part goes up and down the mountains - there's a great blog about it here. It's only for the seriously fit.

We did a much shorter walk to see the eponymous Needle Rock. The northern coast is studded with rock formations, often, like this one, pyramidal in shape. But this one had a nasty accident - in the 1906 earthquake, whose starting point was close to here, its top fell off, a ten-foot high chunk of rock which now sits in the water next to what's left of its parent.

We drove back up the narrow, twisty trail to Four Corners where the Usal Road departs to the south. Despite the warden's disparaging remarks, we thought we'd give it a try. FJ has dealt effortlessly with plenty of challenging trails.

Usal sounds like it ought to be an Indian word. But actually it's short for USA Lumber, who logged this part of the coast and created the road.

The first mile was easy enough, dirt with a few ruts but mostly driveable at 10-15 mph. After that things got rapidly worse. The ruts were continuous and up to a foot deep, so we were mostly travelling slower than walking pace, gently dropping the wheels one by one into a rut then climbing out again. Even at that speed it was uncomfortable, especially for a passenger, and taking a lot of concentration. A quick calculation showed that it would have taken four or five hours of this to reach the other end. Finally after about three miles we looked at each other and agreed, "Enough". We had seen nothing but trees the whole way - very pretty trees, it's true, but not the magnificent coastal views we'd hoped for.

FJ resting at our picnic spot after the traumatic drive
along Usal Road.
We turned around and found an idyllic clearing where we ate our lunch. After that, 15 more minutes of the painful trail took us back to Four Corners, from where we could take the much longer but still faster and much more comfortable road back to the coast.

The first part of the route is through the hamlet of Whitehorn. Something we noticed here and everywhere else on these little roads is that nearly every single house has a solid wooden fence in front of it, completely blocking any view into the surrounding lot. Sometimes the fence seems to go all around the lot, but often it's just alongside the road. There is an obvious explanation - but really, every house? Is everyone here growing illicit pot? And even if so, is it really a good idea to draw attention to the fact with a massive - and expensive - fence?

The long way round back to the coast is very long, and it ends with the very twisty mountain crossing at the northern end of Route 1. Just when you think it's over, at the point where it rejoins Usal Road, it suddenly dives back inland again for the next few miles. Finally it reaches the coast just north of the tiny settlement of Westport.

From there on it is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, even more spectacular than Big Sur and with a lot less traffic. Every bend and every bay is breathtaking. The sand is dark, almost black, and the bays and headlands are dotted with rock formations.

Eventually it passes through Fort Bragg, the only real town along the whole coast from San Francisco to Eureka. It's an unlovely place of strip malls, car dealers and such, but it does have the only Starbucks on the whole coast, which made a welcome break.

Beyond Fort Bragg, the next place is Mendocino - which is more fancy tourist trap than real town. After that, there really is nothing but tiny hamlets right down to Marin County.

But our destination for the night was Boonville, inland on Route 128. This initially follows the gorge of the Navarro River, deep in the redwoods with 2000 foot mountains on either side. It is really a beautiful road, equal in every way to the more famous Avenue of the Giants but with hardly any traffic.

After the redwoods, the road turns into the Anderson Valley - really just the upper part of the Navarro Valley. It's famous for its wineries, which thanks to the influence of the ocean breezes blowing up the valley can produce wines very comparable with the Alsace region in France. But that was for the next day.

The garden of the Boonville Hotel.
At Boonville we'd booked a room at the best hotel in town, the Boonville Hotel. One reason was their restaurant, so were disappointed to learn that on Sundays they have a single-serving table d'hôte dinner, which was sold out and anyway we were too late. We went across the street to a small tapas-ish place called Aquarelle, where we ate and drank well.
Next day the plan was to take a look around some wineries before going back to the coast for a gentle, scenic drive home. Only problem is, we prefer red wines, and not pinot noir, and the Alsace-style wines of the Anderson Valley are mostly either white or pinot. Since the wineries open at 11, we spent much of the morning at the hotel, taking advantage of our little terrace looking out over their beautiful garden. They grow a lot of their own fruit and vegetables for the kitchen, in a superb mixture with flowers and other decorative plants. The hotel is a real pleasure, marred only by their eye-watering prices and the little problem with the dinner.

Our first call was at Roederer, owned by the famous French champagne house. Their regular champagne is OK, no comparison with a good French champagne but eminently drinkable. The big surprise for us was the identical champagne, but bottled by magnum (a double-size 1.5 litre bottle). It was a completely different wine, much more rounded, much deeper, and really comparable to a French product. We bought a magnum although I'm not sure when we'll drink it.

We visited a couple of others, but we weren't really impressed. The grapes for the deeper reds (Syrah, Zinfandel) are trucked across from the warmer inland valleys. It's de rigeur in California for a winery to make some of everything. Even if their local climate is totally unsuitable, they have to make available everything from Sauvignon Blanc (cold) to Syrah (hot) and everything in between.


At Point Arena.
Point Arena lighthouse.
From there we drove back to the coast at a place called Elk, and then gently southwards. It's impossible to resist stopping at practically every bay and every twist and turn in the road, the scenery is so magnificent. But there was one problem. I hadn't seen a gas station in Boonville, though there must surely be one, and by now FJ with her famously unfrugal appetite was getting seriously low. Just as we pulled into the parking lot for the Point Arena lighthouse, the low fuel warning lit up. That means at best 20 miles before running dry. I was very grateful for the 5-gallon can on the roof, the first time I've ever actually needed it. My new siphon pump worked a treat, and we managed to transfer all of it without spilling a drop, never mind the usual experience of getting it all over my shoes and trousers.
Manchester, California, from the air.
The harbour at Point Arena.
Just before that we passed through Manchester, California. It's a bit of a contrast to its counterpart in northern England (or even New Hampshire) - the population is under 500, and there isn't even a gas station. I have a picture of it that I took from the plane on my flight to Shelter Cove but even that makes it seem bigger than it really is.

Of course a couple of miles after using our emergency gas supply, we found a gas station, in the village of Point Arena. We were very happy to see it. From there we planned to have lunch at a famous chowder house out at the fishing port on the estuary. And indeed we did, but honestly it was a disappointment - more potato soup than chowder, with a handful of gritty, chewy clams. But the onion rings were good, even though each one is enough to harden the arteries of a whole football team.

Pelicans at Jenner.
The beach and Russian River estuary at Jenner.
And then, more coast, as lonely and as hauntingly beautiful as ever. We passed through a string of little places that I'd only ever flown over previously, like the vastly etiolated retirement and second-home community of Sea Ranch. The further south we went, the busier the road became. At Bodega Bay we turned inland to join 101, and the urban route back home. It had been a wonderful journey.

On our way home!

A Drive to the North: Day 1, to Covelo

North of the Bay Area and west of the Central Valley, California is trees, mountains, a lonely and beautiful coastline, and very little else. The population of this whole area, 15% of the area of the state, is less than 250,000 - less than 1% of the 37 million people in California. I've flown over it many times, fascinated by the wilderness. You can go a long way without seeing more than the occasional dirt road or ranch, whole valleys with just trees, trees and more trees.

This adventure started several years ago when, looking for a destination for an afternoon's flight, I chose Round Valley (O09). This is a rare populated area right in the middle of the wilderness, a circular plain about three miles across high up in the mountains. You'll never go there by accident - the only good road into it goes no further, so there's no such thing as passing through. I flew back there a couple more times, including the time we arrived by sheer chance on the day of the annual rodeo. We had a wonderful time that day, at our first ever rodeo.

A year ago I chose as another flight destination Shelter Cove (0Q5), a very isolated airport on the so-called Lost Coast, of which more later. The weather went from poor to terrible in the time it took me to shut down and secure the plane, and I was very lucky to get out again in just-barely VFR conditions. But still I was intrigued by the place.

Round Valley and Covelo from the air
Then just two weeks back I went to Garberville (O16), 20 miles inland from Shelter Cove. It was hot, over 100ºF, and I got out of the plane only to seek some shade to eat my lunch. On the way back I flew inland, towards the tiny, remote airport at Ruth (T42), buried deep in a steep valley, then back south over the totally uninhabited mountainous back-country. On the way I passed just east of Round Valley, the perfect position to take a panoramic aerial picture.

We were talking about my trip the next day, and Isabelle said, "Let's go there". So we planned a four-day, three-night weekend, staying the first night in Covelo, the only town in Round Valley. And the adventure began.

The drive to Covelo is straightforward, up 101 to the little town of Willitts, then route 162 into the Eel River valley and over the mountain into Round Valley. Route 162 has a strange existence. It fizzles out as a one-lane road in the hills to the east of Covelo, but continues as an unnumbered dirt road over the 5000 foot Mendocino Pass and down into the western borders of the central valley. Then it becomes 162 again and continues eastward to Chico. In this it is like route 190 further south, which is interrupted in the middle by Mount Whitney - the highest mountain in the Lower 48. I guess it's easy to overlook this kind of thing when you're a road planner.

We stopped three times on the way. Once was for lunch in a vineyard. Afterwards we visited the Saracina Winery, in Hopland. We had a long talk with the lady there - probably we were the only person she saw on a quiet weekday. She told us a lot about the vineyards in the area - the upper valley of the Russian River, southwards from Ukiah. They're separated from the sea by a mountain range, so the hot climate allows them to grow serious red grapes like Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah. We bought a few bottles, for which we were grateful later in the trip. Hopland is an interesting little town. Unlike Cloverdale and Geyserville further south, which look unchanged since the 1930s, it has a bit of a revival going on, with several tasting rooms, art galleries and so on. It's just the right distance from the Bay Area - far enough to seem to like a real outing, but not "are we there yet" too far.


Our third stop was at Willitts, to visit the home of the Skunk Train. Properly known as the California Western Railway, it was built a hundred years ago to connect the port of Fort Bragg with the main Northwestern Pacific line from San Francisco north to Eureka. When traffic started to decline in the 1920s, they started running gasoline-powered railcars. The story is that they smelled so bad, the locals called it the Skunk Train - and the name has stuck. It still operates as a tourist service on summer weekends, but keeping the line in good shape is a major headache and at the moment it is blocked by a landslide towards the coast, limiting the service to an out-and-back shuttle from Willitts. We had a long talk with the lady in the gift shop, who also turned out to be one of their diesel locomotive drivers.

The road follows the Eel River for a while before branching off down its Middle Fork, which drains Round Valley by a very circuitous route first to the east, then south, and finally westwards to the tiny settlement of Dos Rios where it meets the main river. For some reason the road takes a shorter, but very twisty, route directly over the mountain, climbing to 2000 feet at Inspiration Point before descending nearly 1000 feet into the valley. The view from there is, well, inspiring, with a panoramic view of the whole valley laid out in front of you. I've seen it from the air, but even so this view is spectacular.

Round Valley from Inspiration Point
It's a short downhill drive from there to the long, straight main road through the valley. There are a few shops and such along it, but we didn't find our hotel - the Golden Oaks Motel, the only place to stay in the valley. It turns out to have a very large and conspicuous sign - but facing north, which is to say never the direction people will arrive from.

The motel is pretty basic, but clean, modern and in good shape. It's as good as you can expect in an out of the way place like this (I gave it five stars on Yelp). Once we were checked in, I set off again to drive to Mendocino Pass. Isabelle had had enough of FJ's creature comforts, so I went alone. It was a very pleasant drive. The first few miles are on a twisty hardtop road that eventually meets the main river again. Then, even more in the middle of nowhere, is the Black Butte Ranch, a campsite, modest resort and general store.

From there the road is dirt, climbing steadily up the flank of a side valley. It rises 3500 feet in a few miles, yet it never seems particularly steep. It was freshly graded and could easily be driven in a regular car, though that may change depending on rainfall. I'd hoped for a panoramic view across to the Central Valley from the summit, but the mountains are too convoluted for that. The best views are back westwards towards Round Valley. It is possible to continue eastwards, eventually hitting the eastern hardtop section of route 162 to Willows and Chico. The round trip just to the pass took me over two hours, so it would be a slow way to travel, though certainly faster than the alternative for the rare traveller who really needed to get from Willows to Covelo.

It was dinner time when I got back to the motel. There are exactly as many dinner choices as hotel choices: one. The North Fork Cafe, right on the central crossroads in Covelo, had good reviews. It has about a dozen tables, of which a handful were occupied when we arrived. As far as we could tell, we were the only non-locals - everyone very obviously knew everyone else. We had a very pleasant server, and a very enjoyable meal of baked halibut. After some discussion we tried a couple of fairly local red wines, which were both very drinkable. Some vines are grown in Round Valley itself, but there are no wineries there - these wines came from the upper Russian River valley, that we had driven through earlier.

We'd parked just behind another FJ, very smart in the recent dark green colour. Someone had obviously spent a lot of money on it - the suspension was lifted with good equipment, and it had after-market metal bumpers and a winch. I asked inside whose it was - it turned out to belong to the cook, who had just bought it from a friend. It is the perfect car for the area - robust enough for any of the available dirt (or worse) roads, yet comfortable for the inevitable long drives to civilization. But then, I would think that.

After dinner, the night was yet young. We crossed the street to a bar (you guessed - there's only one of them too). We'd been there before, when we walked into town from the airport. They made a good margarita (this time - not when I was flying!) and best of all, they had a pool table and it was empty. We played a couple of games, then a local guy (a fantastic looking Indian, who could have taken a star role in any old-fashioned Western) offered to play. He won - I'm sure he has played a lot more than either of us - but I put up a decent fight.

And speaking of Indians (Native Americans if you want to be super politically correct, but since they call themselves Indians, I see no reason not to)... the Valley is home to a reservation for the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT). It occupies the northern half and up into the hills, while the southern half is owned by white ranchers and farmers. The dividing line passes just north of the main crossroads, although the hotel is Indian-owned. The story is very typically sad. Until the white man arrived, the Valley was home to the Yuki tribe. They had a one-off unique language, unrelated to any other (just like Basque). One of its unique features was that counting was in base 8 (like octal) rather than base 10, because they counted using the gaps between their fingers rather than the fingers themselves.

The Yuki were rapidly corralled into a reservation, so the ranchers and loggers could take their land. Then later the government did the same with several other tribes, and moved them all in with each other. This must have been a tad uncomfortable since some of these tribes had been enemies for generations, not to mention having no language in common.

But then the ranchers and loggers wanted more land, and the government took away 80% of the reservation they had created. Only a few square miles of Round Valley were left to share amongst half a dozen or so tribes, or what was left of them after multiple forced migrations and epidemics.  Inevitably, the individual tribal identities and languages died out. The last native speakers of Yuki died last century, and the only remaining memories are in obscure anthropological journals. The "Round Valley Indian Tribes" is a convenient invention to hide this sordid history.

Anyway, after all that, and dinner and pool as well, it was time for bed.

The story of the next day's long, long drive through absolutely nowhere at all is in Part 2...

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Zetters

In the Clerkenwell district of central London, there's a very up-market hotel called The Zetter. It's an odd and unique name for a hotel. There must be some history behind it.

When I was 16, I needed a weekend job to make some pocket money. The typical job was in a shop, but my mother had another idea. While my brother was small, she had worked on Sundays, checking football pools coupons at what was then one of the biggest pools outfits in Britain, Zetters in London. This paid a lot better than working in a shop, so it was obvious for me to try it.

Football pools are a uniquely British institution (though they have spread to some of the former dominions). The basic idea is very simple. Of the 55 or so matches played on a Saturday, the objective is to predict 8 which are draws, i.e. where the two teams have equal scores. The coupon is a grid, where each row is a game. In each column you put 8 crosses, and if those 8 matches happen to be draws, you win a big prize. There are secondary prizes if just 7 of them are draws. That's why it's called the Treble Chance - you get a first dividend for 8 draws, a second dividend for 7 draws and an away win, and a third dividend for 7 draws and a home win. You pay a fixed amount (a fraction of an old penny back then) for each line.

If you want to cover a lot of possibilities, writing them all out individually would be an impossible task. You can write more than 8 crosses in one column, and you win if any 8 of them are draws. This rapidly increases the cost - 10 crosses will cost for 45 lines, while 12 will cost for 495 lines, and 14 gives 3003. (Mathematically, this is the function nCr, where n is the number of crosses and r is the number of matches - 8 in this case). This was called a "full perm" (although mathematically it is a combination, not a permutation). There were various subterfuges for trying to cover more matches at lower cost - more on this later.

I duly applied for a job, and went up to London for a test. This was fairly simple, especially under my mother's tutelage. I passed, and started work the following Sunday, arriving at 9 am. It was a lonely and quiet journey - trains that were jam-packed with standing passengers during the week were deserted on Sunday morning. Only at Farringdon station, on the Circle Line, would you run into fellow checkers all hurrying in the same direction.

Football results were announced late on Saturday afternoon (and what a ritual that was), so checking the entries took place on Sunday. Now computers can do it, but then only humans could, armies of them at each of the pools companies still in business: Littlewoods, Vernons, Zetters, and some smaller ones.

Zetters had a large five-storey building just off Clerkenwell Green. Most of the floors were one gigantic open-plan work area, with the checkers sitting close together at long, narrow tables, with just enough room to work. The building had a very characteristic smell, of stale sweat and old paint. Smoking was (luckily for me) not permitted, I suppose because of the fire risk. Coupons were brought around in bundles of 35, held together with wire and a lead seal. The only aid we had to speed things up was a piece of thin card, with the draws marked on them in red. Simple though it was, most losing coupons could be disposed of in a few seconds.

Potential winners were a different matter. Any line that had 7 or more draws in it was a potential winner. If the entry was a simple one, it could be marked immediately as a winner, by putting a coloured sticker on the top of the coupon. Many cases required further checking later on, and in that case a different colour sticker was used. When a bundle was finished, after ten or fifteen minutes, it would have a little forest of coloured stickers on the top.

Security was taken very seriously. It would have been very easy to introduce a winning coupon on Sunday, already knowing Saturday's results, and it would be impossible to search everyone entering the building. Each bundle of coupons was punched through with a unique pattern, during the week before the results were known. It would have been near-impossible to reproduce this, even with an example in hand. It was permitted, though discouraged, to visit the toilet during checking time - but the time spent was strictly monitored, so you couldn't go and hide for long enough to try and sneak a coupon into the system.

It was very important not to miss a winner. Football pools work by taking the income for the week, taking off a (large) margin for costs and profit, and dividing the rest amongst the number of winners. A missed winner ate directly into the profit margin. Punters would get their winnings during the week. If someone didn't hear by the following weekend, they'd write in. Every Sunday there was a "walk of shame" where checkers who'd missed winners would be called up to the supervisor's desk in front of everyone. It was pretty much impossible not to miss the occasional small one, but there was a cash bonus system which meant it was certainly worth making an effort. If someone consistently missed winners, they'd be summarily fired and walked out of the building, but this was very rare.

Missing a really big winner would be a different matter. The size of the payouts depended directly on the number of draws that week. Typically there were ten or twelve of them, which meant there would be lots of winners and the individual payouts would be quite small. A week with only seven or eight draws would generate the legendary "pools winner" payouts of tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. That would make a big dent in the profits.

Fortunately, the amount of work went up directly with the number of draws. If there were very few, checking was quickly done, so there was time for a second verification pass over all the non-winning coupons. Even then we would often finish early, getting to go home at 5 o'clock or earlier instead of the usual 6. If there were a lot of draws, the opposite was true. In that case, work would go on until 10, with voluntary and well-paid overtime. I was delighted when this happened. Occasionally they would even ask people to go in on Monday if they could - though I never could since I had to go to school.

There was a a one-hour break for lunch. Some people went to the pub, but I always took a packed lunch that my mother had prepared - a sandwich, usually corned beef, and a bottle of that uniquely British concoction, Tizer. As a result I have never been able to eat corned beef since - the association with the Zetters experience is just too strong. That would leave time for a short walk around the neighbourhood, uninspiring at the best of times and completely dead on a Sunday afternoon.

A new hire started as a "grade 4" checker. There were three further grades, which could be reached by taking a test, though not more often than every six months. I passed the grade 3 test, covering some slightly more complex bets. That meant slightly higher pay, but I left before I could move up to grade 2. As far as I could tell there was never any difference in the work for grade 3. There were very few grade 1 checkers, but when I was there one of them was a certain Alan Solomon, at the time a PhD student at one of the London colleges. Later he went on to found Dr Solomon's anti-virus product and make a lot of money.

Mid-afternoon, the job changed. All the coupons that had earlier been declared possible winners now had to be checked to see if they really were. Mainly, this was about "plans". As I explained above, the simple way to cover multiple matches without laboriously writing out hundreds of lines is a simple "perm". In addition, all of the pools companies and popular newspapers published books of plans. The idea was that you would mark, say, 16 matches, and if any 8 of them were draws, you'd get at least a second dividend (7 draws correct). Or maybe if 9 of them were draws. There were all sorts of associated guarantees. They didn't actually give any greater probability of winning, but they gave the punters the impression of having a better chance.

There were hundreds and hundreds of plans, but only a dozen or so were frequently used. Zetters had their own, and Littlewoods Plan 2 was very popular for some reason. Each source had its own thick book. To simplify the job, all possible winners using say Daily Express plans were put together into bundles and checked together. I've forgotten exactly how it was done.

One thing that intrigued me at the time and still does, nearly 50 years later, is just how these plans were contrived. There is a whole mathematical discipline about it, called variously the "lottery problem" or the "football pool problem", but I'm pretty sure the people who did the job didn't have PhDs in group theory. It turns out there is still no algorithmic way to construct the best way to cover say 16 matches, nor even to know the minimum number of lines required. A few years back I wrote a program, using what I thought was a fairly sophisticated algorithm. The results were close to the published plans, but not as good as what was undoubtedly done by some old guy with a fag hanging out of his mouth, using no more than squared paper, a pencil and eraser. There is no literature on the subject, so it must remain a mystery.

There were other pools besides the Treble Chance, though few people did them. But something was needed to fill up the back of the coupon, so there was the Twelve Results, the Eight Homes, and others I've forgotten. Each of these had its own special checking technique. A few entries, maybe one in a hundred, were beyond the ability of a normal grade 4 checker. There was yet another coloured ticket, buff pink and marked "FC", which meant "further checking" - i.e. "this is too hard for me". I almost never used them, preferring the challenge of figuring out something like a no-consecutive perm, but there were checkers who put them on any but the simplest of entries. Occasionally someone would get in trouble for it. But since there was a productivity bonus, for checking an above average number of coupons, it was worth trying it on.

Zetters carried on the pools business long after my 18 month stint there. But the arrival of the National Lottery in the 90s was the beginning of the end. The prizes were a lot bigger and absolutely no skill was required. Zetters diversified into other gambling businesses and sold their pools activity in 2002. They didn't need a huge building full of checkers every Sunday any more. The building was purchased and converted to a luxury hotel. As you will surely have guessed, this explains the unusual name of the Zetter Hotel.