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Tuesday, February 22, 2011


How I won a luxury hotel stay in Hawaii for dirt cheap

I Won!

www.offandaway.com is a very interesting site. They put luxury hotel rooms up for auction. I got wind of it last year from Techcrunch Disrupt.

I observed the site for a few days and realized that indeed excellent hotel rooms were going for dirt cheap at the auction. Given that I could not afford to pay full price ever, this was very tempting. And I had nothing to lose, because the money I spent bidding would be usable for any other regular hotel booking, if I didn't win the auction.

So I started bidding, observing and learning as I went. After about 450 bids spent on bidding on about a dozen hotel rooms (various places across the US), over several months, I finally won an awesome deal for Big Island!!

Here is how I did it and what I learnt:

This is NOT a scam

Many people tend to think this is a scam. It is clearly not and I can attest to that. It has it's own flaws, but it is not a scam. You CAN win an auction if you plan and understand properly. Keep reading.

Understand the auction

This is not a normal auction. This is a "Time Elapsed" auction. Time Elapsed auctions do not have a fixed ending time. When you place a bid in such an auction, it extends the auction deadline by a few seconds, giving everyone else a chance to bid again. Normal auctions do not.

The key insight is, that your winning is not dependent on just you bidding last - you also need other people to NOT bid, during the time period (a few seconds) that your bid added to the auction. And that is really not in your control. So your bid simply thwarts the last bidder's chances of winning, but does not guarantee that you will win.

Make sure you have enough time in the day

Auction can run for several hours. Be prepared to get glued in front of the computer during the time. My last win started at 1 pm and ended at 7 pm! I did have someone else helping me though.

Pick a weekday auction

Weekend auctions tend to end at higher prices, obviously because more people have time to sit in front of their computers on weekends or holidays.

Buy extra large bid packs

You can always get a refund for unused bids. I got it twice; it was dramatically easy.

Enter the auction as late as possible

Enter the auction at about 10% of the room retail price. Two reasons: 1) Empirical observation - a large number of auctions have gone beyond 10%. 2) Because each bid adds 10c to the auction price, at 10% Offandaway has already made enough money to cover the entire retail cost of the room. Market hence tends to adjust to that price.

Yes, there is a chance that the auction may end before 10%, and many have, but in that case you haven't spent any money on it, so it's not that bad.

Have a fast Internet connection

Internet is not perfect. Your bid may not reach Offandaway's servers fast enough, and you may lose. This is especially important if you are planning to bid towards the end.

Bid as late as possible

Never bid before you see 'GOING' on the screen. That way, you will spend way less bids and will be able to extend your runway if the auction runs longer. Many people get anxious and bid before it reaches GOING. That is a good thing for you, because you saved that bid. You can always bid sooner and increase your chances of winning, but you will spend many more bids.

The only real reason you'd not want to bid late, is to make sure that your bid indeed reaches their server, sans any Internet hiccups. If you want to be that sure, you can do that, but be prepared to shell out a LOT more bids.

Don't chase extremes

In theory, you can win the auction with just one right bid. But there is no practical way to find that moment and you should not rely on it, obviously. On the other extreme, you can also win by placing a bid every single time. But that way you will spend too many bids and will not really gain any useful cost-advantage.

Get aggressive towards the end

When auction goes beyond say 20% of the price, then bid aggressively. Your competition at that point is less and your winning is more and more dependent on how consistently you bid. At that point, start bidding a little early (say 5 seconds) and ALWAYS bid. I tried that with the one I won, and I only ended up having real competition from one person. The moment they gave up, I was the winner, simply because I kept bidding like clockwork when the price went past 20%.


1) There is no incentive to start bidding early. In fact, there is a dis-incentive. If you start early, you will shorten your runway, because you only have limited bids. We use this to our advantage (by entering the auction late), but that's not how it should be. When a new person enters the auction late, they come with a fresh chest, and people who have been bidding for a while, get discouraged. It's good for Offandaway, but not for bidders.

2) This is very dependent on the speed of your Internet connection, your browser and their servers. When you press 'bid', the bid may not actually reach their servers in time, simply due to congestion over the Internet, on your computer, or on their servers. I once lost an auction due to this reason.

What is the worst that can happen?

At worst, you won't win. The bids you placed are not going anywhere though. You can use them towards full price of the same room, or you can pick any other hotel (just like hotels.com or expedia.com they have the same selection of thousands of regular hotels). They also sometimes run deals upto 30% off on rooms of the same hotel, for people who do not win. If you really want to make a trip, there is nothing to lose.


Despite its shortcomings, I think this is great. I have come out substantially net positive and I now have a repeatable method to win auctions that I described above. Next time I need a vacation, I'm definitely coming back!

I can win it for you!

As you see above, I have a great handle on this. If you want, I can win an auction for you, for a small fee. If I don't win it, I won't charge you anything. Try it?


Thursday, December 23, 2010


Will the real'istic' interviewers please stand up?

A few days ago, I came across an old post by RethinkDB: "Will the real programmers please stand up?". This is a post in response.

No, I did not interview at RethinkDB. And no, I'm currently NOT looking for a job. I actually like how boldly RethinkDB are going after the database market. I wish them well.

But after having reviewed countless resumes and interviewed hundreds of candidates, their post is too sensitive to not feel strongly about.

"Write a function that reverses a singly linked list"

Why is this an important question and a yardstick? Why do you think that one who can answer this question in a nanosecond is likely a "real programmer"? That's a very narrow view of the world.

* In real life, most people do not work with linked-lists. Basic Linked lists, while inevitable to understand CS fundamentals, are largely an academic topic by now. Once you are out of school, you hardly ever touch them. People actually like to build libraries so these functions can be encapsulated and they don't have to touch them on a daily basis, because touching these low level functions on a daily basis is actually quite dangerous. If every employee in your company mucks directly with linked lists frequently, there is likely something wrong. Encapsulation should have already happened before hiring your first employee.

And if you don't work with things frequently, you cannot expect to excel at them. Anything worth its salt takes time to get good at.

* Not everyone works well under time pressure. You're time-boxing the candidate over phone, which may not bring out the best from them. Not to mention that your workplace most likely never presents time-boxed challenges where there is no help available from colleagues.

* There are several programmers who will struggle with this question, but can still get you running with a solid system sooner than you will expect. They probably only know how to do those in Java, or .Net or LAMP, or a stack of their choice. And they probably know the stack much better than you do. Why are they not "real programmers?"

* There are several programmers who are not great at these questions, but they are critical to a team they are in. They have very complimentary skills and that makes the group tick very well. They are very real.

* So what if someone takes 2 hours to solve this question? Many programmers are aware that they are slow, but they put in whatever time they need and still do solid work. Speed at which code is churned out is but one factor in how fast you can succeed. Market absorption, vendor delays, poor project management, people dynamics etc usually take a much bigger toll.

* What this question tests for, is the speed of that candidate on the phone in answering this particular question, or for this class of questions - not how they are going to fit your team and be able to contribute to your vision. You may end up hiring a brilliant jerk who will kill your overall team-productivity.

* Last and probably the most important: the best programmers are often not looking for a job. Why do you expect to find them in the pile of resumes and answering linked-list questions over phone?

So what to do? IMHO, you should emphasize on more open-ended questions, if you want to know a person's abilities. e.g.

* Ask a question that has progressively improving solutions. Let the first one be easy, then ask them to find the problem with it. Keep doing that until you reach the most robust solve. Such questions quite likely mirror your day-to-day challenges. Does the candidate hold up with tenacity?

* Ask questions that you and the candidate can work with together. e.g. design a class or an interface. Working together and bouncing ideas is also something you quite likely do everyday.

* Ask a question which you just don't expect them to solve (something too hard or too arbitrary). If they give up too soon or too late, they are not what you're looking for.

* Give them a piece of code and ask them to spot bugs and make it faster. Shows if they have gone back and looked over their own code. And if their code has even run in production.

* Present them with a few multiple-choice questions, where the best answer is not present as a choice. See if they just go with what's available or challenge the assumptions.

Last and probably the most important - see if their eyes light up with curiosity as you throw questions at them, and if they have inspirational insights in their solutions. That's an excellent sign.

Happy hiring!

Sunday, April 23, 2006


The first...

Came across the very first message posted by Linus Torvalds, evangalising a 'minix-lookalike':

Google Groups: comp.os.minix

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Got a minute? Let's buy a Mercedes...

Yes, it's true :-). Dwipal bought one today - just like that. I was the lucky guy this morning to be asked to join in his quest.

Sitting in my new bright white 'lengho' in my living room, waiting for the comcast guy to fix my connection, his question came in as quite a contrast. But nevertheless, it piqued my interest and the two of us set out for his trip to the dealer.

The dealership was quite a character itself. Dwipal was so quick in making the decision (to buy) that his staff found themselves unprepared :-). It's not like we were any more prepared. We didnt have anything on us - checkbook, pay stubs, insurance - nothing. But "as a team", we figured it all out. Made someone run to fetch paystubs, called the insurance to fax the details, found a bank to take the loan out, found another bank open late to draw the cash and finally sealed the deal, same session. Not to mean it was an impulsive decision - Dwipal had done enough research before popping the question this morning. Everything just happened amusingly fast :-)

Also made a new relation which Dwipal (and I) will hopefully keep - the dealer himself. John is an Afghan native, raised in Germany, doing upper-class-used-car business in US. Fun, frank, take-it-easy, drama-free guy. California Motors in Fremont.

Stay tuned for pictures of the sharp black shiny sporty SLK 230!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006



I've been using this for quite some time now (thanks Dwipalfor pointing out). Like it a lot. Alpha (aka buggy), but does a very good at aggregating all messengers - online. Some really cool benefits:

1) No need to install any messengers - Yahoo, MSN, Gtalk, AIM, ICQ
2) Go to any computer with an internet connection and your messengers are with you -
3) No need to worry about your chat records (private, if you are concerned) being saved on a particular computer. I'm sure they are working on providing that archiving online.
4) Now you can talk to you GF/BF from a computer in the Public library - no need to worry about the administrators not letting you install your favorite messenger.
5) Save your passwords and remember only one to log into Meebo.

Anybody use it? Like it? Hate it? Other benefits you see?

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Skiing first time?

There are many articles on this topic. But here is one that gives you things which really matter. Straight from the heart -

1) Dress waterproofly, not necessarily warmly. Why? It's simple. Skiing is on SNOW, which is COLD. So if it happens to touch your body while you are skiing (or falling), you will be very uncomfortable and wont be able to continue for long. And because skiing is a relatively strenous exercise, your body WILL get warm soon. So it's more important to dress waterproof and less important to dress a whole lot to keep yourself warm. The following would be necessary and sufficient:

-A pair of underwear, regular. Use thermals if you have 'em. It's ok if you dont.

-A full-sleeve shirt/T-shirt

-something called a "bib", which you wear in place of pants. It has straps that go over the shoulder and get buckled up. Search for it on google to see the pictures. Then go and buy from Target/Walmart. About $20.

-A jacket that is waterproof.

-Regular socks and shoes.

-A cap/hat that covers your head and ears.


-) Sunglasses
-) Sun-screen
-) Thermals
-) Warm socks

2) Take lessons. Take lessons. Take lessons. Yes, it's expensive ($70-$80 per person per day inclusive of everything), but completely worth. It will certainly shorten your learning curve. You must know the ABCD before starting to read English. The instructors will teach you ABCD of skiing. Yes, the investment is worth.

3) Accept the fact that skiing is strenous. If you are with average stamina like me, you can start at 10 am and expect to continue until about 4 pm (6 hours). Beyond that, you are spoiling your next day. You WILL get tired, but it will be very satisfying at the end of the day.

4) Realize that you WILL fall, and also realize that you WILL NOT to hurt yourself badly when you fall. Snow cushions you reasonably well. Doesn't matter how often you fall - but it's important to fall. Falling brings you psychologically closer to the snow beneath you. You will slowly lose the phobia of falling if you fall more. That is the key to faster learning.

5) Don't get disappointed if you can't get a hang of it the first time. It takes atleast 3 full days of skiing (maybe separate days) before you can try to make sense and patterns out of it, before you can realize your limits and strengths, before you get comfortable with the equipment and your body movements.

The rest matters less and is sometimes not in your control - the time, place, type of equipment, what to learn first, who to go with, the type of instructor, etc. So dont worry about those and take them in your stride.

It's one thing to listen to pros with awe-inspiring skills, but most pros are not good teachers (anymore). Ask beginners like me who like to ski themselves and would like to see you start skiing too :-)

Let's go hit the slopes!

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Googled Google

So I got lucky enough to visit the Google campus (Mtn View) a few weeks ago. A kind soul (yes, they do have such people there), a friend of a friend (ok, a friend) let us (me and an other friend) in as guests. It was a fascinating visit to say the least.

From the outside, it appears just an ordinary workplace. Security is present at all entrances in the huge parking lot. Nothing exotic about the buildings - it is the old SGI campus. We found our way to the visitor's building. We signed in using an electronic signer/label-printer (give it a good name) - that was impressive. When I's at Microsoft doing my internship, they didn't have such a thing there (it was all manual) - but that was 5 years ago. eBay currently has a hybrid process. :-)

We headed straight out to their famed, acclaimed cafe. It has a stunning variety of food, which appeared more stunning because the food was free - absolutely free (read that again) - Indian, Italian, Mexican, American (yes, there is such a thing), followed by a variety of desserts. The food quality if awesome. It won't be an exaggeration to say that there, I've had the best coriander-chutney so far. Same goes for Roasted Chicken, for my friend.

Turns out, Google interviews its Chefs with the same intensity as it interviews its employees. (there goes my chance to cook for Google). There was also a news agency there, trying to set up its backdrop with Google's name on it. The cafe was full of hungry free-fooders when we went. To prevent 'unauthorized entry' (isn't hunger enough authority? oh well), they have security guards randomly keeping an eye on the badges. :-)

We then walked into the building where they host most of their engineering folk. Inside is surely a pretty place - lava lamps, colorful posters, each paper-millionaire's cube has its own identity made out of unique things. Everyone has envious huge-screen monitors (bigger than big-screen) on their desks. There are also some funky permanently temporary cubicles set up. Also passed by their (discount) massage room. They don't have a museum kind of a thing set up yet - they should.

We then sat down talking. Exchanged a bunch of questions and answers. I learnt that Google has a flat reporting structure - employee to manager to VP. Larry and Sergei hold meetings regularly where they discuss upcoming products (sorry, visitors are not allowed). Timings are generally flexible and you can choose not to do anything special with your 20% time! :-)

We headed out with a full stomach. All in all, worth 2 hours spent. Hope to do that sometime again! :-)

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