The Gift of PR

When you are working with true professionals, one of the best things to do is to ask them to choose for you. Japanese have a special word for it – “omakase“. When you say “omakase onegaishimasu” in a sushi bar, the chef will create a custom meal for you, based on the freshest and the best ingredients available at the moment.

If you ever give your money to Warren Buffet, your hair to Jonathan Antin, your floundering computer maker to Steve Jobs, the choice of where and what to eat to Tony Burdain — they’ll do a good job. Doing the same with any stock broker (is likely to churn your investments or worse ), the Supercuts barber (might style you ala Gates) , Carly Fiorina (might make poor H and P spin in their graves some more) is a capitally bad idea.

For a while I’ve been running Amazon’s “omakaseTM” ads on my blog, and I’ve got to tell ya, they stink. I, personally, would fire the business dev suit running (or rather running into the ground) Amazon’s Associates program. This person is never going to be fired, because by it’s nature, Amazon Associates is an amazing thing, one of the best business ideas that Amazon ever implemented. It’s like an Abrams M1 tank – even a drunk moron can drive it around and do a lot of very impressive damage, but it takes a highly trained soldier to really unleash it’s true destructive capabilities.

I am very disappointed in Amazon Associates products, especially omakase, and because of that I am building my own Amazon Associates ad server in my spare time. Lately I haven’t had much spare time, so the project is moving rather slowly. I’ll be pulling omakase ads off though, and meanwhile I’ll replace it with a holiday gift for my readers.

I will replace the ads on my website with promos for some blogs and websites of my readers (as well as some of my favorites). Do you you have a site you’d like to promote? Comment here or send me an email. Suggest as many as you want. If you have some “creative” – that’ll help. And if you won’t suggest anything (as it usually happens when I ask for suggestions) and make me feel very sad, instead of promoting your sites, I’ll do the same with all the splogs that sometimes spam me. At least they take the time to leave a comment.

Cats and the Home Office

My home office is located in the living room these days, across from my wife’s harpsichord and organ. It consists of a sprawling Ikea GALANT desk with office supplies, computer equipment and cats covering most of its surface.

In particular, I have a Sharp AM-900 Digital Office Laser Copier/Printer/Fax/Scanner that I bought on Amazon for two hundred-something dollars. Basically it’s a decent standalone copier, an ok fax (I am not sure if it can actually print out confirmations). As far as printer and scanner functions go, the drivers are rather crunchy – I have to frequently unplug/reinstall them which is a major bummer. Also, Sharp does not have the drivers available online, so I have to keep the installation cd on my hard drive. But the copier and fax functions alone are worth that money, so I am glad I got it.

What I am not glad about is that Tilde the Cat figured out how to press the copy button. She was always fascinated by the printer noise, but now she learned how to produce it. Here’s her self-portrait. She pressed the button and looked at the pretty moving light. Now I’ll have to make an anti-cat button cover, like those on most of my power strips (I make them out of duct tape and steel corners).

Gary the Cat, on the other hand likes to use the keyboard as his pillow. He knows that sooner or later he’ll be able to rest his face on my left hand.

New Billboard Day Effect : How to Advertise More Effectively on Your Blog

Advertising. “The Engine of Commerce”. Ideally, it should work like it does in the Simpsons episode 2F12 “Homer the Clown”:

“In the middle of driving down the highway, Homer skids to a halt in front of a billboard.

Homer: [gasps] It must be the first of the month: new billboard day!

Homer: [reading] “This year, give her English muffins.” Whatever you say, Mr. Billboard! [skids off]
[stops suddenly at another billboard for barbeque sauce]
[cars collide behind him and explode]

Homer: [reading] “Best in the West.” Heh heh heh, that rhymes!
[looking at the next one] “Clown college”? You can’t eat that.

At the power plant, Homer piles his purchases (including MSG, “Best in the West”, and English muffins) at his work station. “Well, I got everything I was supposed to get. I’m not going to enroll in that clown college, though…that advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever. In his daydream, he imagines himself sleeping and dreaming of himself eating a sandwich. The billboard for the clown college batters its way into his thoughts. The Krustys on the billboard start dancing to circus music.”

Of course, Homer enrolls in the clown college. Having never enrolled in a clown college because an ad told us to, we all go on thinking: “advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.” It can’t possibly be true: bajillion dollar industries, such as advertising don’t simply exist if they are not effective.

During the dot com bubble even large companies mostly failed to earn much from banner ads. Even the heaviest online ad campaigns did not seem very effective and suffered horrible clickthrogh rates. Online ad companies escalated the war for clickthroughs by inventing obnoxious popunder, popover and floater ads. The more the ad was like a flash-bang grenade mistakenly used by NYPD on an elderly woman, the better. For instance, many sites started using larger sizes of vertical banners known as “Skyscraper.” That was not enough though – extreme, flash-driven skyscraper ads with movies and sound, capable of crashing browsers and known as “Godzilla” and “Pagekiller” started to appear.

The founders of Google decided to address this issue, and as a result, made bazillions of dollars. As a former googler remembered:

” Besides, Larry and Sergey hated these kinds of advertising. In fact they hated most kinds of advertising as inefficient, dishonest and a total waste of people’s (meaning their) precious time.”

We all know that AdWords and AdSense, Google’s advertising programs managed to earn so much money through unobtrusive, mostly text ads. The winning strategy was “relevancy”. Google’s server would read in the page where the ad were to appear, and serve up a relevant ad.

For instance, after parsing pages on chupaqueso.com, a site dedicated to a cheese snack invented by web cartoonist Howard Tayler, in theory shows ads about cheese. And after reading about chupaqueso’s cheesy goodness, I might indeed be in the mood to buy some cheese online.

On the other hand, the AdSense algorithm is not too efficient. On some pages in the abovementioned site it serves ads like this:

Yes, indeed, amongst Howard Tayler’s readers there are a lot of computer geeks. I know I am not a typical web user, but I am a pretty typical web developer. And I have zero desire to “Boost XML app performance.” I also have all the “ODBC drivers” that I need.

Many of you, my readers, are bloggers or have regular web sites with AdSense ads. Look at them. How many you’d say are “inefficient, dishonest and a total waste of people’s … precious time”?

I say – about 99.5%. And clickthrough ratios are pretty horrible. People try to tweak them by playing around with ad types, look and feel, positioning and excluding advertisers, but it’s all rather ineffective.

Google’s ads only pay if people click on them. In the TV, billboard, magazine and the type of advertising that people tattoo on their bodies there’s no such things as clicks. You get paid depending on how many people see the ad. It works really well if you need to make people remember your company’s name or logo.

Side Note:
When I was little, in Odessa ( Ukraine, Not Texas) somebody scribbled in almost every public phone booth “[Some girl’s full name] is a whore.” In a city of about a million people this worked like a charm. The mindshare that that advertisement delivered must have been off the charts.

These 99.5% of unclickable ads can be divided into two categories: a) ad campaigns that build brand’s awareness almost for free and b) those that indeed waste everyone’s time and money.

I don’t think I ever clicked on any Vonage ads, even though I’ve seen thousands of them. They worked without any clicks — if I did not also know that their customer service sucks and reliability is horrible, I’d have their VOIP service now.

The ads that nobody ever cares about still do get some clicks. When people come by a useful and interesting site, they tend to click on random ads so that the site owner would get some revenue. This is the untraceable portion of a much scarier phenomenon called click fraud. I am not even going to address this here.

In short, I feel that even though Google’s ads are a step in the right direction, AdSense sucks, especially for a blog with a smallish audience, such as mine. The useless, stupid ads that clog AdSense are a waste, even though they might generate a few “pity clicks.” Only half of my ad revenue for the site came from AdSense last year. The rest came from my experiment that I think will be of great interest to everyone.

My thinking went like this: I want to serve ads that are extremely relevant to my blog posts and interesting to my audience. Even more importantly, they must be selling something that I would be interested in. Ads I’d click on.

When you have limited advertising space, the problem with AdSense is that it often tries to sell things that your readers don’t want. What you want to do is advertise things that people aready want. As an example of such salesmanship, let me direct you to a post on the very popular waiterrant.net, where The Waiter describes selling dessert to calorie-conscious women:

“”Ladies,” I say sweetly, “We have some excellent desserts tonight.”

“Oh, nothing for me,” Bubbly Blonde replies.
“No dessert,” Severe Brunette says, holding up her hand.
“Me neither,” Lawyer Babe says firmly.

The fourth woman, a Soccer Mom type, looks at her companions and sighs. She wants dessert.

I see the longing for chocolate in Soccer Mom’s eyes. She’s my weak link. My in.

“Would anyone like some coffee?” I ask. Suggesting coffee is the first stage in selling dessert to calorie resistant ladies.”

“The ladies pay the bill, tip well, and leave. As I watch them go I think about how I got them to order dessert. To be a good salesman you have to have a seductive quality about you. Don’t believe me? Look at pharmaceutical reps.”

That’s what I want to do! This means that I need to find something that will be the equivalent of selling chocolate dessert to Soccer Mom types.

I believe that my 1000 readers are a lot like myself. And what do I spend a huge amount of money on every year? Books, movies, cds and gadgets. Also I purchase some rather esoteric items on eBay too, but the majority of my spending happens squarely at Amazon.com. My wishlist there is humongous, and in fact, I spent my advertising revenue there.

Luckily, Amazon has a pretty generous associate program. You can link to any of the products they sell and get a cut of the sale price, if the sale happens as a result of your clickthrough. In fact, you get a cut of the entire shopping cart amount (I am not sure, this could be only the items that were added after the click). In any case, it’s decent money, and most importantly, a great selection of new and even used items to sell.

What to sell, of course depends on your audience. I found some success selling items that tempt me. In fact, many times it’s the items that I am planning to buy or already bought.

In some cases, relevancy is important. My article with pictures from Fog Creek’s party sold 4 or 5 of Joel’s books. It was a combination of a very desirable in this particular audience product with a closely related article. Interestingly enough, I tried to sell the toy that you can see in the picture as well, but none sold. As I own both books and don’t own the toy, this seems logical.

I might have tried selling flat panel monitors and Aeron chars (WOW, Amazon sells them too! ) ,that make Joel’s office so nice (in fact, at home I have the same exact dual monitor setup, an Aeron chair and a window with a view, and I had id before Joel wrote about his bionic office). These are big ticket items though, and the likelihood of someone buying them on a whim is lower. But then again, so are rewards.

The relevancy does not matter as much as I thought, though. For instance, I advertised “Make” magazine subscriptions and Shure E2c headphones, and sold a few.

In fact, I think that the approach to selecting products should be somewhat similar to the one that Kevin Kelly uses for selecting items on his website Cool Tools:

“Cool tools really work. A cool tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true. I am chiefly interested in stuff that is extraordinary, better than similar products, little-known, and reliably useful for an individual or small group.”

In short, advertising video iPods is good, advertising “The world’s greatest 3D IM” is not!

Side Note:
My former co-worker won a $300 gift certificate for a certain gadget catalog in a contest. Now, he’s a guy who spends a lot of money on gadgets, like the uber geek that he is. I mean, he owns planetofthegeeks.com domain. But despite that, he had a lot of trouble picking something to spend $300 of free money on in that catalog! Not only was everything overpriced, but there were very few things he’d be interested in owning!

The great thing about selling items from Amazon is that you know that the prices there are very Wal-Mart-like, and most of your readers already shop there. Some people prefer not to patronize Amazon because of software patents or other issues, but there are “organic” alternatives, like for example Think Geek (in fact they sell through Amazon too).

The one gripe that I have with Amazon is the difficulty in creating the links. The tools that they provide want you to use iFrames to create image wrapped links, which of course do not work well in RSS Readers. This brings me to my final point, the specifics of blog advertisement.

A blog is a two-sided entity: it generates page views from people who don’t use RSS aggregators and those who come in from search engine referrals. And then there are the views from within RSS aggregators, in case you are serving up the entire text of the article in the feed. Some blogs don’t do this, serving up only the title or a title and a teaser. The thinking is, readers will click through to the page where they will see ads and thusly generate revenue. Some do this because they don’t serve ads and want to limit their traffic, and yet some do it because they use a default setting in their blogging software and don’t know better.

The great thing about my advertising scheme is that you can serve ads in-feed. A New York blog Gothamist, for example serves atrociously uninteresting ads that repeat. At some point they had a long run of a flashing ad for something that made me unsubscribe from the feed. If they started selling interesting items, they could greatly increase their advertising revenue.

Advertising my way does not detract from regular content and isn’t cheesy. It is clearly marked, unlike those fake editorials in magazines and newspapers. Advertisement can be entertaining in itself! Since the early years of Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, people look through catalogs like Levenger, Victoria’s Secret Penzeys Spices and Think Geek for fun! My wife has a lot of gardening catalogs that she looks through now and then. After finishing an interesting post, readers would not mind learning about an interesting gadget or book they might want. In fact, they might already be in the mood to buy it! There is no reason to serve partial RSS feeds with this type or advertising.

P.S. I turned off comments to this article because for some reason it attracts a ridiculous number of spam comments. If you would like to contact me, see about the author section. I also changed to a different way of displaying Amazon’s related items.

The Martha and the other Jamie.

I was watching The Apprentice: Martha Stewart and noticed that The Martha has a pretty nice espresso setup in her kitchen. There’s a two-group commercial machine, not a La Marzocco Linea (wow, you can pick one up at Amazon these days) or Synesso Cyncra, but still a pretty serious piece of machinery. There’s a commercial grinder that I can’t identify, as well as smaller grinder, probably for decaf, that looks like a $500 Pasquini Moka.

Jamie Oliver, on the other hand, used to have a cool looking, but crummy FrancisFrancis! machine. Luckily, unlike with espresso machines, you don’t need a very expensive knife to do food prep like a pro. Jamie, for instance uses a decent, but inexpensive Twin Signature chef’s knife. He uses a few other knives, but the exat brands and models are a subject of heated discussion


Ad:
I recently purchased a J.A. Henckels 8 inch chef’s knife, and I could not be more pleased with it.

Culinary Institute of America publishes this classic knife-fu book. A must have.

Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook: I (well, actually my wife) learned about edamame from this book. Fanseee.

Edamame. The best snack ever.

Logology

Listen, people. Let me do a little follow up, and then I’ll shut up about Starbucks and logos for a little while. Honest.

Firstly, earlier I wrote an article about the progression of the NASA logo – the Meatball, the Worm and the Vector.

Secondly, MTA logo is nicknamed the “Pacman” because it looks like the 25 year old video game character. Waka-waka-waka, watch out for the ghosts.

Thirdly, I wrote about the Roslyn Bank, the Blibbet and Starbucks logos too. All I can add to that are these two fine logos of the Microsoft products of the day gone by:

Funny enough this Microsoft product allows to bring Microsoft BOB back to life. Melinda Getes’ legacy endures beyound Clippy!

Fourthly, Amazon is selling this:

Incredibly, they also have Women of Wal-Mart and Women of Enron.

Barely Legal Cheese

When I met Kitya, he told me that unlike Japan, US does not allow import of unpasteurized cheese from France. Never being into cheese much and thus knowing little about it, I still found it hard to believe that I would not be able to find some good and dangerous bacteria laced cheese in New York.

When I came back, it was time to go onto a gastronautic adventure. I headed over to Murray’s Cheese counter located at 43rd & Lex, inside the Grand Central market. Lo and behold – they had more varieties of French “raw milk” cheese than you can shake an unratified EU constitution at. The only thing is, the cheese was supposed to be aged for 60 days. I can totally live with that.

The “barely legal” cheese was very tasty, and my mighty Russian-American organism did not suffer from the French bacteria at all. I am pretty sure drinking single malt scotch with cheese is wrong, but I don’t really like wine. Now I am on lookout for a cool vintage Art Deco cheese board and knives on eBay and some books about cheese at Amazon.

Michael on Used Books

New York City is home to what is probably the biggest used book store in the world. Strand is a real New York institution. A giant two level store in a pre-war commercial building on 12th Street and Broadway always drew me in with its outdoor book carts. Every time I entered the store proper I was already burdened with a good stack of 1 dollar hardcovers and 25 cent paperbacks. Even though I was rather poor at the time, I spent a disproportionately large part of my income on books written in a language that was still new to me. But at the Strand I got a pretty good bang for my buck.

In my many shopping sprees there I noticed an unsettling fact. I almost never went home with the books that I was planning to buy, but still my hands were crisscrossed by red marks left by super heavy plastic bags. In fact, in the area that I was most interested in, golden age sci-fi paperbacks, the Strand was strangely lacking. So when I learned about bibliofind.com, (which is a part of Amazon now) from a little ad in New York Times), I stopped going there altogether. Why waste my time in a cramped non-air-conditioned labyrinth of bookshelves blocked by frequently smelly bibliophiles and snarky Strand employees with crazy tattoos and piercings, when I could simply go online and order exactly what I wanted at similar prices? All hail long tail!

Just a few days ago I popped up from subway near Union Square and decided to see if the siren’s song of Strand’s outside book bins would still draw me in. Next thing I knew I was inside, checking my bag in and holding a stack of weird books. Inside the changes and forgotten details overwhelmed me. Even though they were slow to get on the whole web bookselling train (to this day when I order at abebooks.com or Amazon that have thousands of vendors, I am yet to get one book from Strand), the store thrived. They opened an Annex on Fulton St, another one which I never visited at 57th st and a tiny little booth almost the size of a porta-john in front of the Pierre Hotel, right next to the train stop. Rupert Murdoch chose a good location for his apartment.

And the original location began a slow barnsandnoblefication. No, they don’t have a cafe yet (and if they will I hope it’s going to be Joe’s and not Tarbucks). But they added 3rd floor, an elevator (so now you don’t need to walk outside into the side entrance to get to the rare editions department) and demolished the horrible little bathroom on the first floor. It was kind of weird standing where it used to be. The funny notes and cartoons were still taped to the bookshelves and columns, and the basement still had many antique pipes and old electrical cables (I noticed what I think was a cut pre-war high voltage cable the thickness of my arm in the wall). I saw – gasp – fresh cat5 runs.

When I paid for my books and went to get my bag from bagcheck, I commented on my relief to the fact that the old duct tape encrusted boxes where not replaced. The bagcheck guy laughed and said – hey, dude, this is the Strand. We don’t replace stuff until absolutely necessary. I hope they don’t change too much, although I welcome air conditioning, the elevator and the extra floor. I need to get a new camera and go and take some pictures there before everything changes again.

One of the books that I bough in the outside bin cracked me up because I am such an avid fan of Joel on Software:

My wife asked – “Timesharing of what?”. He heh, back in the 70s (when I was born) time sharing was a hot buzzword. And not the real estate kind.

Phi, Spongebob?! Phi !?!

Probably the easiest way to dramatically improve your snapshots is to learn about the rule of thirds. You know, divide what you see in the viewfinder by two lines into thirds horizontally and vertically and try to get more interesting parts to roughly be either where the lines cross or on the lines themselves. If your picture did not come out like that, you can usually fix it later with a crop.

Rule of thirds is actually a rough approximation of the golden ratio which is very well explained at Wolfram’s website. The pictures will look even better if you will use lines that are conforming to the golden section.

Just a crack of a difference: fat lines are thirds, thin lines – golden mean (I did not use the plugin when I cropped the photo).

I was playing around today with a plugin that renders golden rectangles, spirals and triangles. I checked some of my old photos – many seem to follow golden mean rather than the rule of thirds.

I was also thinking about writing my own Photoshop plugin like that (that one does not look like it’s worth 32 bucks to me), but Adobe has draconian new rules about who gets the SDK. So instead I decided to write this post.

I ordered a book about golden mean and related stuff from Amazon. Helpful Amazonian electrobrain is suggesting the movie Pi. The dang thing is pretty smart.

Meanwhile I got kind of curious as to how appealing the golden rectangle actually is. Let’s see.

Things that are strangely appealing. Spongebob Squarepants. Yep, the golden section cuts straight across his weird little belt. It’s also interesting to note that he is almost always drawn kind of sideways – in front projection the proportion would be off.

The Greek cup (about which I wrote at length before and mentioned in probably the only poem which I ever wrote. Yep, it roughly conforms to the proportion and “to serve you” is right at the division.

Now, let’s see. Ugly things. That picture of one of the ugliest buildings in Brooklyn. It’s waaaaay off. And so is the SUV in front of it. The older house on the left is good though.

Cars are tricky though. The most beautiful car that I know is Tucker Torpedo. It does not fit a golden rectangle either. But it roughly fits two. I tried to fit two rectangles onto the SUV in the picture and to the Scion xB, which is jarringly boxy. No go. Let’s see, but Chrysler PT Cruiser, a car which I actually like, fits two rectangles also.

This is all terribly crude and unscientific, but might hopefully be useful to you.

100 Views Of the Empire State Building

I am moving ahead with my “100 Views of the Empire State Building” project. If you are just joining the readership of this journal, 100 Views is my attempt to take 100 interesting pictures of the Empire State Building.

I did not know this until now, but apparently “24 Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai” is a Hugo winning story by Roger Zelazny, and the actual number of prints featuring Fuji by Hokusai is far greater. For instance there is one book of them that is called “Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji“. Zelazny’s story seems to be a bit obscure, even though “24 views” is a rather common expression. I found the story in question in “The New Hugo Winners vol 2” through Zelazny’s bibliography, one rare example when Amazon’s search sucked.

I need to do a bit more research into this whole matter of “views” and organize my own photos a bit better, but for now here are two more bringing the total count to 21:

#20 : There can be little doubt about a multitude of parallel dimensions. Multidimensional travel is a part of our everyday life : socks, subjected to 100 Gees in washing machines are frequent interdimensional travelers, so are keys and wallets (they mostly travel in the morning before you leave for work). Now I present you with a visual proof: Empire State Building’s doppelganger from the other dimension:

#21

WML : Fasteners Are Engineer’s Best Friend

While we are on the subject of screws, here’s another thing that I learned about fasteners. As any know-it-all who pays attention to things like that I looked up why screws with what we called cross-shaped screws in the USSR are called Philips screws in the US (I wonder what they call them in other countries) are called so. Of course the answer was one web search away in the Straight Dope Classic Why did this guy Phillips think we needed a new type of screw?

I also purchased One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw used at Amazon. I learned that the screw and the screwdriver is a rather recent invention, interestigly enough one of the very few tools not known to the ancient Chinese.

Useless trivia aside, I hate both slotted and Phillips screws. Of course I would not even think of using slotted screws for anything other than period-correct Craftsman style or Art Deco hardware such as cabinet pulls or outlet covers. But the common Phillips screws, with their falling off from the bit (even the magnetic one) and stripping (not the good bachelor party kind) drive me absolutely nuts.

The solution? I bought a couple of boxes of hybrid Phillips/square screws from Rockler. You can use the regular Philips driver, or you can use a special square one. The benefit of a square bit is that the screw does not fall of the bit and does not strip easily. The kit also includes a bottle of suggestively named Rockler Screw-Lube. The paper box is rather sucky and unusable – the partitions lift up and the screws mix.