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.

On Facebook Advertising

Two things happened recently: Facebook’s IPO fizzled and there was a slew of articles and blog posts about how Facebook ads are ineffective. The majority of the articles follow the same song and dance: we spent $250, got some likes from random people and nothing changed. The one standout it GM dropping Facebook ads. GM’s budget was 10 million dollars, and the way I understand it, this is their equivalent of $250 for a small business.

While I personally dislike Facebook tremendously and want it to fail, I think that the FB ad-bashing articles are off base. Facebook ads are a great deal. I am not an advertising professional, but I drank with a lot of them and I think picked up a reasonable amount of knowledge about the industry. I also stayed at … hmm, can’t remember the name of the hotel, but this is a reference to the TV ads where people say “well, I’m not a [professional that has to be very smart and skilled] but I stayed at [name of the hotel]”.

There are many, many bad deals in advertising. There are big-name websites that have “respectability” plus a huge saleseforce. These guys can charge $15, $20, $30, sometimes even $50 per 1000 banner impressions. cost for 1000 impressions is called CPM: cost per M where M is the Roman numeral 100. At the higher price you get gigantic custom ads known by a variety of names: browser crashers, godzillas, superskyscrapers, page fuckers, etc. There are also “sponsorships” where dumb companies buy little badges on new sites with next to no traffic.

How do these things get sold? Well, the agency people who control how the ad budget is spent are often young and get a lot of free drinks. Also, ad sales people are very good at what they do.

Then there are cut rate ad networks that have 5-20 cents CPM. The traffic for these comes from all kind of low quality sites: lyrics websites, guitar tab sites, all kinds of web farms, dating sites, porn and near-porn sites and the like. Big sites sometimes buy traffic from these sources when they don’t have enough “inventory”, but they’ve already sold a lot of high CPM ads. These are a pretty bad deal, and I suspect much of the traffic is simulated by bots. It is cheap and there’s a lot of it though. Targeting options are pretty weak with the exception of plentyoffish.com: POF allows for very detailed targeting. If you want to target only Canadian redheads between the ages of 18-22 – you can.

Google ads are a better deal: you are targeting people that are searching for something. Google has pretty sophisticated algorithms for detecting fraud, but I suspect click fraud is still rampant. Google’s predominant model is charging per click instead of per 1K impressions, and you have to compete with other people for hot search keywords. For instance, ambulance chasers pay ridiculous money for “mesothelioma” keyword. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos, and layers apparently can make crazy money suing on behalf of people who have it. A click on an ad can fetch as much as $10 or more. There are many other expensive keywords where even a single click is worth paying actual humans to click on them from time to time. There are also pity clicks and punitive clicks: sometimes people click ads to support sites that they like and to punish ones advertisers they don’t like.

Facebook ads by my estimation cost about 1/10th of Google’s, almost in the low quality network territory. The targeting is amazing though: Facebook knows a lot about what people are interested in and lets you have a sniper-like precision of putting your ad in front of them. Do you want New Yorkers who are into planted aquariums, fishing and knife sharpening? If there are 10 people like that you can reach them on Facebook for a few bucks. Unlike Google users who are searching for something, Facebookers are there for ogling hot people and playing Farmville. They tend to ignore the ads, but you can get an even better deal by buying CPC ads. Massive click fraud is difficult on Facebook, most of these clicks are real.

There are many things about advertising in general that are mysterious: starting with the “if I almost never click on ads then who does” to “do tv and magazine ads actually make me buy anything”. Are funny ads where you remember the joke but not what was advertised worth the money? Are people swayed by car commercials? How about those Coca Cola billboards? How about those ads in New York taxi cabs and ads that annoy in general – are they effective? QR codes ( http://wtfqrcodes.com/ ) – are they the advertising equivalent of “free public wifi” zombies? I have a hunch, but I don’t really know.

What I do know is that compared to other options FB advertising is a pretty good deal at current pricing.

eBay and The Michigan Deposit Scam

eBay is such a horrible hassle these days. I tried selling a few things recently, and between the horrible UI, all the hassles with payments, answering questions and shipping it turned out to be a huge waste of time.

I am sitting on a small fortune of items I would like to get rid of, but I don’t want to deal with strangers on Craigslist or going through the eBay rigomarole. An ideal solution would have been an eBay drop-off shop, but it seems that these went the way of the Dodo.

eBay drop-off store is an idea that many have tried, but it turned out mostly like Seinfeld’s Michigan deposit scam.

In one episode Newman keeps trying to find a way to make a scheme that would bring New York cans and bottles to Michigan, which has a 10 cent deposit instead of New York’s 5 cent one. Kramer keeps telling him that it would not work due to the transportation overhead, but finally Newman figures out a way to get a postal truck for free.

It seems that the time overhead is so high on running an eBay store is so high, that most of the bigger ones that tried it went out of business.

In reality the Michigan deposit scam is against the law, but it actully costs the state 14 million a year in lost revenues. It’s doable.

eBay is showing Twitter-like incompetence in serving its customers. While Google gives its customers huge amounts of storage, email, and software for free, eBay can’t seem to provide free image galleries and other useful services, selling out its customers to an unsavory bunch of third party providers. Image storage is not a very difficult technical problem, and neither is url shortening, but eBay and Twitter are still in the dark about it.

Instead of making selling on eBay easy, developing drop off stores, and making its service better eBay seems to be focused on buying and selling unrelated busenesses for billions of dollars (and losing money on it).

Der Kunst Der Headline II

For those of you not familiar with the game, here’s the deal. See, where I live we have two things: very arrogant horny politicians and a certain 25 cent newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton that is famous for its obnoxious headlines (“Headless Body in a Topless Bar” being an unsurpassed classic of a genre). 

Whenever our politicians get caught – and they get caught with surprising regularity, I always try to guess what the headline in NYP is going to be the next day.

My last try I was way off target: thy went with boring “I Quit”. This time I’m banking on “Dirty Tricks Guv Caught With a Trick”. What do you think the headline is going to be?

In fact, I think Da Post Online should create a widget where you can try your hand in headline creation.

gPhone

So, Google announced what we are going to get instead of the gPhone. This is a bit like getting $1000 towards college education instead of that hot new toy for your 12th birthday.

This is excellent news, of course. I really hope this will force the evil cell phone companies in the US to either change for the better or go out of business.

I spent a week in the Ukraine, and experienced what the cell phone experience is like in the rest of world.  I purchased a very nice new Nokia phone for about $60, activated a SIM card that came with it and immediately  received a phone number. It came with enough credits for 100 minutes of non-time-of-day restricted conversation. Later I was able to purchase cards with scratch-off code on just about any street corner that refilled my minutes at very reasonable prices.  The competition is fierce and prices are good because you can change phones and SIM cards at will.  Phone calls and SMS messages in the Ukraine were very cheap, and even calls to the US were only about 25 cents per minute.

On the other hand, Verizon, my provider of choice, increased the length of my contract just because I added a single handset, added extra data “services” to my plan without checking with me just because my phone supports them, made using activation of a third party handset a 4 hour rigmarole, not even counting all the time that I have to spend on the phone with them just to make sure that they are not overcharging me. I hate Verizon so frickin’ much, but at least they have enough towers in the city to actually allow to use my phone to, you know, conduct whatchumacallit — phone conversations. Ironically, the usually more reliable SMS messages are dropped or delivered days late with them.

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?

Use and Usability

I was in my car today, listening to 88.3 WBGO Newark, the local jazz station. They played a song that I’ve never heard before. I instantly recognized the singer as Billie Holiday, but forgot the name of the album that the velvet-voiced announcer mentioned after the song.

When I came home, I remembered reading about a website that supposedly allows you to find the name of the song and the album that you’ve heard on the radio. Unfortunately, I could not remember the name of the website, and a Google search of a couple of minutes turned fruitless. The idea of such a service always seems ridiculously useless to me, and even now when I actually had a chance to use it, it proved much simpler to just go to WBGO’s website and look it up there.

The song turned out to be “Comes Love”, a beautifully formulaic jazz standard. The lyrics tell you about the solvable problems and the one that isn’t.

Comes a rainstorm, put your rubbers on your feet;
Comes a snowstorm, you can get a little heat —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes a fire, then you know just what to do;
Blow a tire, you can buy another shoe —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Oh, don’t try hiding, ’cause there isn’t any use
You’ll start sliding when your heart turns on the juice.

Comes a headache, you can lose it in a day;
Comes a toothache, see your dentist right away —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes a heat wave, you can hurry to the shore
Comes a summons, you can hide behind a door —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes the measles you can quarantine a room;
Comes the mousy, you can chase it with a broom —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

That’s all brother, if you’ve ever been in love;
That’s all brother, you know what I’m speaking of.

Comes nightmare, you can always stay awake;
Comes depression, you may catch another break —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

For some weird reason this reminded me of the horror of learning about computational theory and the Church–Turing thesis. Anyway, the song resonated with me somehow. Maybe it’s because the author of this song was Lew Brown of The Bronx, who turns out to be a former resident of Odessa, Ukraine known then as Louis Brownstein.

More importantly, the song was performed by one of the three best female jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday. The the other two are Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, of course. The three of them generally are not considered equal. Fitzgerald is usually considered to be first, Holiday – second and Vaughan – third. Vaughan has the most beautiful and technically powerful voice, spanning from soprano to baritone. Holiday’s voice was not nearly as spectacular, and downright limited compared to Vaughan’s. But it had way, way more emotion and darkness. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice has both the range and technical perfection, as well as the deepness of emotion. She’s like a hybrid of the other two.

I, personally like Sarah Vaughan the best, followed by Billie Holiday. Vaughan’s voice makes me feel oh so good, and Holiday’s – so bad that it’s actually good. The way Billie Holiday sang “nothing can be done” totally made this song special for me. If there’s one person that knows about things about which “nothing can be done” – it’s Billie.

But I was wondering what the same song would sound like covered by Fitzgerald and Vaughan. Finally, a reason to buy something on iTunes, I thought, as three 99 cent songs makes more sense than three ten dollar cds, even when faced with the perspective of DRM limitations.

“An unknown error occurred (5002)” says iTunes store. Google search says – “nothing can be done”.

Update: iTunes relented and let me buy the songs. The contrast of the three renditions is exactly what I expected. The clarity and cleanliness of Lady Ella’s phrasing, the sexiness and faultless execution by Sassy (although a little spoiled by questionable orchestral arrangement) and the deep, desperate and dark emotional abyss of Lady Day’s voice, the ultimate finality in the words “nothing can be done.” Too bad I could not find a version by Diana Krall or Marilyn Maye.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part III : Monk Money

Money-making schemes are a on my mind a lot lately, so here’s a little bit about ingenious schemes by which Japanese monks are raising money.

As I don’t have much understanding of Buddhism and Shinto, Japanese temples did not leave much impression upon me. After a while, they all started to look alike. One common element was the fundraising gimmicks used by the monks which I found rather ingenious.

First up, there’s omikuji, literally “sacred lottery.” You deposit a 100 yen (about $1) coin in a slot (on an honor system), shake a metal container with wooden stick marked with a hieroglyph (probably a number), match it up to a drawer and take out a sheet of paper. The fortunes contain a variety of outcomes, from blessing – dai-kichi (now I know what Daikichi Sushi restaurants are named after:), through lesser forchunes such as near-small-blessing, sue-shō-kichi, and to great curse – dai-kyō.

The genius of the system is that if you don’t like your fortune, you can tie it on special pine planks (according to Wikipedia it’s a pun – “pine tree” is “matsu” and “to wait” is “matsu”). Then you can try again.

Somewhere, I think it was near Ryoan-ji Temple I encountered this attraction. A little statue of a deity with a little bowl next to it. From what I understand, you need to throw a coin into the bowl for good luck. As you can see, it’s not too easy. My wife managed to get a 5 yen coin in though.

Here are temple workers collecting the bounty. They even have little bamboo rakes!

Then there’s Zeniarai Benten Shrine, where you can rent a special basket to wash your money is an underground spring, that is supposed to double your money. I hope washing a banking card works too :)

I’d like to finish this with a little news item that I pulled from Mainichi news: Man who stole 2 yen from shrine sentenced to 22 months behind bars. A yen is about 1 cent. Pretty rough, eh? Well, the article goes on to say that he also stole some batteries…

The Real Estate Hogs and The Coin Counting Robot

Remember that The Simpsons episode where Starbucks swallows every store in Springfield mall?

“… Bart, while walking through the Springfield Mall, passing several Starbucks, goes into a store called “In and Out Piercing”.
Employee: Can I help you?
Bart: I’d like to get my ear pierced.
Employee: Well, better make it quick, kiddo. In five minutes this place is
becoming a Starbucks.
Bart gets his ear pierced, and has a diamond-shaped clear stone inserted into the new hole. As he leaves the store, it, like all of the other stores above and around it, is transformed into Starbucks.”

New York City was one of the last markets that Starbucks entered, mostly because of high real estate costs. But besides Starbucks, there are two types of businesses that swallow an enormous portion of commercial space in NYC: drugstores and banks. Whenever you see a sizable store for rent, it’s almost inevitable that it will become a drugstore or a bank.

The drugstore business is not particularly profitable, but one chain, Duane Reade, seems to be opening store after store. In my neighborhood there are two Duane Reades one block from each other, and several other equally lame pharmacies. There’s an interesting article called The Mystery of Duane Reade which among other things, addresses a question just as interesting as “Who is John Galt.” Unlike Galt, Duane Reade is not really a person. The crummy drugstore chain derives it’s name from the first store that was located on the corner of Duane St. and Reade St. in Manhattan.

Banks are even worse real estate hogs, and are popping up even faster than Duane Reade and Starbucks. There are two stores that went out of business recently in my neighborhood, and both are being replaced by banks. There’s a bank across the street from where I live, and one or two on almost every block. Yet there are no supermarkets bigger than a tiny little Pioneer in a 20 block radius.

The stiff competition is forcing banks to offer new services to attract customers. Commerce Bank, for instance, offers a service called “Penny Arcade.” They basically have change-counting Coinstar machines without the fee. All you have to do is get the receipt from the machine, and the cashier will exchange it for paper money.

During the last major cleaning fit that I had, I took my overflowing coin bowl and dumped it into a canvas bag. I weighted it on my Health-o-Meter physician’s scale which is exact to within 1/4 lb. The scale read 29 1/2 lb.

Here’s what 29 1/2 lb of coins in a Strand bag look like:

I dragged the heavy money bag to the bank, and proceeded to empty it out, handful by handful into the Coinstar machine. I had to suffer loud and annoying cartoon voice aimed at kids and overall felt like a dork, but I got rid of all the change and cashed in my printed receipt. As I was curious of the how exact the coin count was, I asked the cashier for a copy of the receipt. She had to do it by hand for some reason, but here it is:

To calculate how much this should theoretically weight, I need to do a little bit of math. A dollar coin weights in at 8.100g, quarter at 5.670 g, dime at 2.268 g, nickel at 5.000 g and penny at 2.500 g (according to the US Mint)

This gives us: 5 * 8.100g + 358 * 5.670 g + 987 * 2.268 g + 659 * 5.000 g + 1928 * 2.500 g = 12.423876 kg

12.423876 kg = 27.3899581 lb.

That’s about 2.1 lb difference from my original weight. The machine rejected a Chinese coin, two Boston subway tokens and a few coins with gunk on them. The bag probably weights at most 1/2 lb. So it seems that the coin-counting automaton cheated me out of a pound of coins. That’s about 9 bucks by my calculations.

[Update] I’m told that pre-1982 pennies weight 3.1 grams instead of 2.5, so my calculation is a bit off.

Of course, my experiment is far from exact. It depends on the number of factors, such as the possibility of my scale being not as precise as I think or the possibility that coins lose some weight after being in circulation. But somehow I highly suspect that the Coinstar machines are undercounting. Wall Street Journal journalist ran an experiment with a remeasured amount of money. I can’t find the original article, but this quote about $87.26 seems to be floating around a lot:

“For consistency, we began with equal piles of $87.26 worth of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters that we had gotten from a local bank in coin envelopes.

Talk about a tough economy. The machines at both Commerce Bank and Coinstar gave us less back than we put in — Commerce Bank missed by a whopping $7.02, while Coinstar was off by 57 cents.”

Where is Eliot Spitzer when you need him?

Ad:


Health-O-Meter Physician’s Balance Beam Scale: a must have weapon in the battle of the bulge.

A “rogue” (read “somewhat sloppy, but very interesting”) economist tries to answer tough questions, such as: What do schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common? How is Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? Where have all the criminals gone?

Rank and File

Since a comprehensive list of Microsoft codenames already exists, I would like to move on to another taxonomy project that fascinates me. I would like to collect a list of weird titles so common in many big-name corporations. Here are some notes that I collected already.

Also I am adding a little note about certain not very publicized rules that the company has that might help you get better service, or so to say to hack the system. You’ll see what I mean.

Kinko’s
Every employee carries a title of “Co-worker”. Employees use the term Kinkoid instead.

Kinko’s hacks:
All Kinkoids seem to live in fear of “mystery shoppers”. The corporate mothership sends special agents that pose as customers, and then evaluate the Co-workers. On at least several occasions I asked for some collating and printing jobs and quoted long wait times by Co-workers, which strangely had a change of heart and did the work right away. Your job is to make a Co-worker suspect that you are a “mystery shopper”. How? I don’t know, but apparently I managed to pull it off a couple of times.

McDonald’s:
Generic title: Crew Member. There are special non-management Crew Members with many years of experience called Crew Superstars. Managers carry the title of Crew Leader.

Fast Food Hacks:
This is a little known fact, but almost all soda fountains have a special button that will dispense seltzer. So technically the soda choice include seltzer. Sometimes when I am not in the mood for caramel coloring and phosphoric acid, I buy a medium soda and then ask them to find the button (most employees don’t know about it).

Starbucks:
Barristas are known as Hourly Partners. I’ve seen a title of Coffee Master on a manager’s card.

Starbucks Hacks:
There’s an 8oz cup called “Short” as opposed to the holy trinity of Tall-Grande-Venti. It’s never advertised, but I successfully ordered it on occasion.

I learned a new trick, which I am not planning on using, but which surprised me. I found a tiny sticker which outlined Starbucks refill policy. It reminded me that Spongebob episode where Bubble Bass pointed out to the microscopic print on the Crusty Crab menu that outlined the refund policy. Anyway, it seems like the rule is that if you finish your drink within the hour, you can ask for a refill in the same cup at an unspecified reduced price. How will they know if you consumed your drink in an hour? There’s a label on the cup that records the time when the drink was ordered. You can also apparently bring in your own cup and have it filled at 30 cents off or so.

You can ask for free coffee grinds at any Starbucks store to use as fertilizer for your garden or farm.

Barnes and Noble:
This is a surprising one. All B&N employees carry the title of “bookseller”. Even computer programmers and janitors. Thank you, anonymous tipster for this slice of corporate weirdness.

Disney
Most employees at Disney World are titled “Cast Members”. “Face” characters, like Cinderella and the like are “Union Actors”. Disney weirdness is too huge to discuss here, there are whole sites dedicated to the subject. “No Disney Cast member at the Disney reservation center has the same name. If there are more then two with the same then they are given a name.” Whoa.
Thank you, Merlin!

Pacific Theaters
Ushers and the like carry the title of “Talent”.
Thanks you, Greg!

This calls for a gratuitous Spongebob quote:
“Squidward: Repeat after me. “I have no talent”
Spongebob: I have no talent.
Squidward: “Mr. Tentacles has all the talent”.
Spongebob: Mr. Tentacles has all the talent.
Squidward: “If I’m lucky, some of Mr. Tentacles talent can rub off on me”.
Spongebob: If I’m lucky, Mr. Talent can…rub…his tentacles on my…art… (smiles)”

Toyota Canada
Salesmen carry the title of “New Vehicle Advisor “
Thank you, Aidan R.

WL Gore & Associates
Every employee is – you guessed it – an “Associate”.
Thank you, Joe Grossberg.

NASA
Gouvernment employees are called “Guvvies” and contractors are called “Swaliens” (because they are frequently from Swales Aerospace.

Thank you, anonimous commenter.

IKEA
IKEA employees have the same designation as Kinkos – “Co-worker”. I am not sure if this is a recent development or not.

If you have any information like this, please let me know.