Memories of Obtaining Books

Early 1980s (Odessa, Soviet Union)

Most of the walls of my parent’s apartment were lined with bookshelves. When bored, all I needed to do to get a good book to read was to climb the shelves, read the titles and colophons, and taked one. It was best to look in the areas that proved fruitful previously, mining the locations full of science fiction anthologies and historical prose. All that I needed to do was to replace the book when done and not let my father catch me leaving the book open face up or otherwise mistreating it.

Mid 80s (Odessa, Soviet Union)

I remember sitting in a public library while my father combed the bookshelves for something interesting. It always took him hours because 99 percent of the books contained political propaganda, speeches by various politburo members and turgid prose of social realists. The pickins were slim.

Late 80s (Odessa, Soviet Union)

Decent foreign and homegrown sci-fi books were available for purchase in an outdoor market. While pricey, my dad purchased everything good in sight. The home library was overflowing. This is also when I learned the meaning of arbitrage.

Early 90s (New York City)

I spent hours in the bowels of Strand Bookstore. My hands were plenty sore bringing home stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks that cost me from 25 cents to $3. I could not understand why anyone would want to spend more than 25 cents on a paperback. Besides Strand there were library sales – I once bought a dozen tete-beche pulps for a quarter each.

Mid 90s (New York City)

Besides raiding Strand, I would sometimes go to Barnes and Noble and splurge on paperbacks that I really wanted at $6.99 each or worse.

Early 2000s. (New York City)

My first job at a publishing company introduced me to free review books. My library swelled. I also purchased my first real ebook readers (reading on a Palm device does not count): a Softbook and a Rocketbook (at the time I worked at a company that produced both of them). Converting text files and web pages into .rb format was a pain in the ass, but these kinds of “books” were free. After reading a Rocketbook for a couple of hours in a dark bedroom I’d see the glow of its backlight for the next 15 minutes. The future of the book was freaky. The official ebook pricing for Rocketbook was the same as for hardcovers (if I remember this correctly) and seemed like an insane waste of money. Rocketbook died a slow death, so it actually was.

2000s. (New York City)

The online ordering of books at Amazon, ABEBooks and the like revolutionized book buying for me. Now I could get exactly what I wanted for a few bucks over what a paperback would cost me at Strand. An average price of a purchase was $3-$5. Sometimes I’d splurge on a rare or an autographed book (this is how I ended up with a $250 Cray at Chippewa Falls. More free books at work – working for publishing companies is awesome.

Now (New York City)

My home library is a drag: finding a book is hard, searching inside a book – well, impossible. Plonking down $13 on a Kindle copy does not seem like insanity any more: the book arrives in minutes and is completely searchable. But staring me in the face is a $2.99 paperback of the same book on Amazon. The cost of instant delivery, searchability and the cost of keeping the clutter down turns out to be about ten dollars. But what about books that are not available on Kindle and have a $2.99 used copy available? These are heartbreaking.

I keep wondering about the fate of my library – should I purge it? Should I donate it? Should I have the nice people of Strand Bookstore drag it away completely? Should I put every book into a database and then pack everything away into plastic boxes and store in the basement?

In the past I was usually heartbroken because I could not obtain a book at all, or could not afford it. The modern book buying heartbreak is of a very different type indeed.

Sorny

[3F11] Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield

Homer: [gasps] Look at these low, low prices on famous brand-name electronics!
Bart: Don’t be a sap, Dad. These are just crappy knock-offs.
Homer: Pfft. I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s Magnetbox and Sorny.

People often ask me why I refuse to buy Sony products. Indeed, I boycott Sony, and I am not the one to hold a grudge against evil multinational corporations. The level of incompetence on the high levels of Sony’s management disgusts me.

I used to be inspired by the story of Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita starting a company in bombed Tokyo, and growing it from a radio repair shop into a giant corporation. I loved my Walkman, and thoroughly enjoyed the Playstation. I used to buy Sony Trinitron monitors which were brighter and sharper than the competition, but had visible horisontal lines formed by support wires made out of tungsten.

Over they years I felt that the quality of Sony products declined, while the company stopped to innovate and instead began to rely on brute force. They mostly missed the MP3 revolution. Instead they started to figh format wars.

The MiniDisk, the Memory Stick, Blu Ray: Sony would stop at nothing to control the format. They won with the CD and Blu Ray, lost with Betamax and just about everything else. None of these formats made me want to buy Sony products, and I’m very grateful that I don’t have to.

Sony would not stop at what’s legal – they even resorted to hacking their users’ computers – some Sony CDs installed rootkits on Windows machines in the name of copy protection! This is equivalent to breaking into your apartment just to make sure that you haven’t stole anything.

Normaly Hanlon’s Law is in effect, but I highly doubdt that things like these are benign byproducts of Sony being a large corporation. It seems like lawyers are doing a lot of thinking at Sony, and they aren’t thinking about winning people over.

Instead of trying to make their technology cooler, Sony through its lawyers started sending cease and desist letters to people who did things like making handmade iPod cases or toy racing cars out of outmoded Walkmen (I can’t find the original article mentioning the lawsuit about the racecars, but I remember reading it).

Then came the last drop. My wife runs a website about pipe organ event that she coded herself. She included an Amazon store that randomly showed different music-related items – it was a proprietory piece of software over which she had a rather limited control.

Sony employs a company called Net Enforcer that sends out DMCA takedown notices whenever they think they see any unauthorized “retailers” selling Sony products. My wife’s store’s algorithm used to include some Sony products sold by Amazon. Rather than dealing with the offending items, Dreamhost simply took down the whole store and notified me.

NetEnforcers would have you believe that they are protecting Sony’s brand, not letting various riffraff sell Sony products. I had to spend a good deal of time trying to figure out how to fix my wife’s store and not include any Sony products. As a result I refuse to buy any Sony brand electronics. I’m pretty sure this is not what Akio Morita would approve of.

wi.nr

A couple of my friends created a new url shortener. Wait, stop booing. There’s a twist – it has the coolest url ever – http://wi.nr. And you can win something or other by just using it. And you get statistics. Well, I guess it’s about it. Did I mention these are my friends that are doing that?

Why should you care how short your url is? Well, it’s basically because the retards at Twitter don’t allow for inline urls (if they will one day, url shorteners would die like they deserve to), and if you want your stuff retweeted, you need to leave a couple of characters for RT and the username. Of course url shorteners are evil in general, and people at Twitter are incompetent technologically, but very lucky. And being lucky is more important than being competent.

The funny thing is, I absolutely legitemately won their first $5 Amazon gift certificate.

Zombie-free Mac Children’s Games

I was born at the beginning of the age of information. I welcome the content deluge.

I’m not a snob. I do not discriminate amongst the sources of content, gladly consuming books, television, movies, music, magazines, websites, wikis, and blogs. I like to think that thanks to technologies like ebook readers, blog aggregation, suggestion engines at Amazon and Netflix, and Tivo I limit my input to only the stuff that is “awesome” on the “Normal people” scale.

I remember the time when the flow of information available to me was limited to my father’s sizable library and a few hours a week of interesting TV culled from the 3 horrible channels of Soviet television, and really don’t miss it.

My 4 year old daughter is swimming in the sea of information together with me. We read books to her (the quality of children’s books these days is amazing), she watches dvd and tivo’d shows, youtube videos on a laptop. She really wants to play with a computer as well.

Unfortunately the only game that I have is “Plants Vs. Zombies“. We play it together usually as a reward for good behavior. She enjoys the “zen garden” part of the game, as well as the regular “zombie” part. This, of course led to the questions on the nature of zombies (uhh), their diet (brains), the nature of brains, and the absence of female zombies in the game (uhhh).

When Natalie was younger and I used to have a PC, there was a whole bunch of craptastic PC games (one even with a special keyboard, if I remember) that we used to play. These crashed often and were pretty retarded.

Now that I have a Mac, I’m looking for some better, zombie-free games suitable for a 4 year old. Finding good computer games is much more difficult than finding good children’s books. Do you have any suggestions?

Amazon Ads in RSS Feeds

A while back I’ve added an advertising module to my site that allows me to inject amazon item ads both into the site content and into the rss feeds. I hand pick the items, which most of the time fall into one of the three categories: stuff that I would probably want myself, stuff that I already have, stuff that I mentioned in the post, and stuff that is just funny. Four categories.

This is not “punch the monkey”, not the same one ad that some bloggers stuff into their rss feeds and keep there forever until you are sick of it. From time to time the amazon items are really funny.

On the other hand, at my level of readers, the princely 6% commission that I get on Amazon purchases that come through the site, it’s not really a major financial incentive. The ads do cover my hosting expenses, but I do kinda feel guilty of thrusting the ads on my readers.

So, tell me, what do you think about the ads? Should I just junk them? I already replaced some of the ads on the site with links and ads for products that I simply like, without getting any payment, just as a way to say “thank you” to the people who make these products. I might do the same thing with the rest of the ads.

Link Love 1

Stack Overflow: What do programmers listen to when they write code?

The best note taking tool in the world, Evernote, finally released an API. I really, really love Evernote.

Jesse Reklaw has a new Slow Wave book, The Night of Your Life, out. You can get signed copies from Slow Wave website or buy them at Amazon. Slow Wave is in the top 5 of my favorite comics, and Jesse drew the cat and programmer graphic used in the masthead of my site.

For some reason, my former co-worker Sean posts more New York City photos than I do these days.

7 Things You Can (Mostly) Do Without in Your Web Business

I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings about websites. Not as much as I’ve spent building websites, but a sizable chunk of my career. I mostly spent that time listening and not being listened to. But now that I’m older, have “Sr” in my title (it stands for Senor), a beard, those cool designer glasses, and have a lot more weight in meetings. Mostly due to the fact that I got pretty fat.

Previously I wrote about the evils of redesigns in The Russian Tea Room Syndrome, and about how web developers are like cooks and prison inmates. Restaurants are a notoriously difficult businesses to run, mostly because there are a lot of amateurs who do not understand what is not important. It’s not what’s important. Everything is important. It’s knowing what can be cut, especially in the beginning, that makes some restaurants succeed when others fail.

Here’s my list of 7 things that seem like they are important in websites, but really aren’t. These are not deal breakers. These are the things to think about last.

1) Looks. It’s nice to have a clean and beautiful design. But making a site pretty is not going to make you more money. Just look at plentyoffish.com – probably the ugliest dating website in existence. It does not stop its maker from raking in 10 mil a year without any hard work whatsoever.

2) SEO. SEO is the alchemy of the web business. I’ve seen more sites get sandboxed by Google than gain pagerank from SEO efforts. Most big url rewriting efforts create broken links, which are bad no matter how you look at it. Don’t break urls, if you can – make them descriptive, and try to make your site linkable (i.e. GET instead of POST search forms), but that’s about all that might help you. Spending a lot of money on SEO is just plain stupid.

3) Performance. Everybody hates slow and crashing websites. But unless this lasts for years, it’s not a deal breaker. Twitter suffers from worst imaginable performance trouble. Livejournal went through a long stretch of bad performance. Even the big dogs like eBay and Amazon have a slow spell or outage or two. MS Windows became the most popular OS in the world not because of its stability. Of course it’s currently losing market share to Apple, but this precess took decades. If anything, it looks like Twitter outages make its users miss the service so much, that when they get back in the twitter their brains out after bitching about the outage for a bit.

4) Good branding. A good name, url, and logo are not going to make you more money. They are just not that important. As long as it’s not too embarrassing, like therapist.com it’s going to be ok. If you look on Alexa, icanhascheezburger.com has almost as much traffic as tvguide.com.

5) Pure CSS markup and web standards compliance. I’m sick and tired of being told that “tableless” design is somehow important. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. Go to google.com, amazon.com, ebay.com, nytimes.com and view the source. You will see tables galore. Wasting time eliminating tables is just plain stupid. And all-div completely web standards-compliant XHTML markup is not going to make you any more money. I refuse to feel bad about using tables. And perfectly validating XHTML is only going to help page scrapers.

6) Keeping the site ad-free. Site users are ok with ads. They really, really are. If you have what they want they will suffer through the biggest ads you can throw at them. “Half Page Godzillas”, “Skyscrapers”, “Page Killas”, “Shrieking Flash Sound Diddlers” – whatever you call your most annoying ad – despite heated assurances from the users, it’s not going to make most of them leave. Some will and more will follow, but it’s not as drastic as you might think. If you have something unique. I’m not advocating horrible Flash ads. “Flash Sound Diddlers” are not more effective in selling stuff than tasteful Adsense ads which will not have anybody at all leave. You can use ad money to buy more servers, more content, ads of your own. This will bring in more users.

7) Widgets. If your entire web strategy is based on building widgets, well, you are in trouble. You are entering an frenzied and very crowded market. Widgets are the bastard child of old school web “badges” and “push technology.” Widgets sometimes work great for increasing pagerank, just like the “web awards” that were given out by some sites in Web 1.0 times. They might get people to link to you, especially if these people are Myspacers that are constantly looking for shiny things to line their pages with. But in the big scheme of things widgets are not a great way to spend ttime and money.

Blue Sun Corporations

Blue Sun Corporation is and important, but not very noticeable part of the the brilliant, but so very canceled TV series Firefly. Their logo is everywhere you look, but they are oh so very evil. They conveniently provide all sorts of goods and services, but at the same time they run sinister human experiments, employ vicious killers and wallow in their crapulence in every imaginable way an evil corporation could.

You can buy your very own Blue Sun t-shirt at Think Geek.

In Manhattan there are two corporations that very much remind me of Blue Sun: Verizon and Chase. Every time I deal with them I feel that I am forced to do things that I don’t want to do and that I am getting a bad deal. The only reason everybody’s dealing with Chase and Verizon is because they are everywhere you look. In Manhattan you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Chase branch, and Verizon cellular signal reaches underground into some subway stations.

Chase advertises its omnipresence with this sinister ad that could just as well be from an alien infection film.

This kind of ubiquity allows these corporations to charge above market prices and have bad customer service.

Why do I hate Chase? Well, they keep thinking of ways to make depositing money more difficult. First they changed their deposit slips. Am I the only one inconvenienced by that? No. Here somebody altered the little poster announcing the change.

Now they started using cash machines that do not take envelopes, but scan your check. As you, me, and the people who plowed money into Riya, you can’t rely on computers to non-trivial optical recognition. I tried depositing 3 checks several times. The machine ate one of the checks (not giving me a receipt) and rejected the other two. I wasted a lot of time and cell phone minutes trying to report the issue (they did not even provide a courtesy customer service phone). I still haven’t seen the money from that check.

Lying commission-driven customer service is another big problem. At Chase they constantly trying to sell you something. Once a customer rep tried to sell me a historically market out-performing mutual funds. He had this awesome “prospectus” with charts carefully selected to show crazy returns, but refused to give me a copy so I could research it.

Verizon reps will routinely forget to tell you about contract extension that comes with any service change, even if you don’t have get a new phone. Then they will refuse to change anything in your contract. They will add expensive features you don’t ask for. Good luck trying to have your defective phone repaired – it’s an ordeal.

Both Chase and Verizon are a bad value, but great convenience. I suspect that part of their penchant for name changing is not so much because they keep buying up competition, but because their customers don’t think very well of them at all. I was their customer when they were Chemical Bank and Bell Atlantic. They sucked back then too.

The worst part of dealing with banks and communications companies is that they heavily penalize you for your mistakes, but there’s not much you can do to charge them for theirs.

Chase stopped sending me Amazon credit card rewards for about a year. An hour of customer service phone calls and a month later I got my Amazon gift certificates. It’s free for them to mess with you: you have to do a lot of work to make sure that what you get from them actually comes through. Instead of digitally depositing the certificates, they send them on paper slips containing long strings of letters that you have to type in. It’s cheaper to splurge on the cost of printing and mailing in the hope that it will get lost. And if they stop sending them and you forget? Bonus. Also, there’s something called “float.”

On the other hand, send your credit card payment late and you get a huge fee.

Use a bit more minutes than are in your Verizon plan, and you’ll get a bill that will make your teeth grind. But on the other hand, they overcharge you and then sheepishly return the money (which just now happened to me), you don’t get to charge them a fine.

I think there was this guy who charged his bank a fine for every mistake that they’ve made, but I can’t find a link.

Anyway, to make the long story short, Verizon and Chase make me want to vomit in terror. I’ve been with them for years, but it’s time for a change.

It’s interesting to note that I’ve worked for both Chase (briefly as a consultant) and for Newscorp. What’s interesting about it? Well, Newscorp owns New York Post which was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The “Manhattan” part of Chase Manhattan Bank (as Chase used to be known) comes from The Manhattan company, founded by none other than Aaron Burr. Because I currently work at the World Trade Center, I frequently walk past Hamilton’s grave in Trinity churchyard.

Design Precognition

I am known to fanboy design firms. Yes, I used fanboy as a verb. Sue me. In any case, the three companies that I most admire, sorted by coolness in descending order are: IDEO, Art. Lebedev Studio, and frog design.

On my bookshelf I had a coffee table book called Frog: Form Follows Emotion, which is sadly, just not very well designed. It does have a lot of design eyecandy, but provides very little information about the design process and philosophy, about the story behind the beautifully designed objects.

The book is already 8 years old, so some of the projects seem dated. It’s still worth a read, especially since it sells for only 65 cents, used, on Amazon.

I was looking through it recently, and found a very interesting picture.

Looks pretty similar to the “table lamp” mac, which itself is pretty dated now, doesn’t it?