The Train that Sang, What You See is What You Say, and Subway Gymnastics

I haven’t written about the subways for a while. My commute changed somewhat and after years and years of seeing  the peeling paint at the 47-50th street station, I am now instead being watched by the mosaic eyes of the Chambers Street station.

Those remind me of Sauron, his eyes and his “chambers of doom” (I think I encountered that particular expression  in LOTR somewhere).  By the way, MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign has a new poster, that claims that last year 1,944 new yorkers saw something and said something. As my former co-worker Gur rightfully noted, this is a rather crappy PR move (and Gur knows a thing or two about PR). 1,944 does not seem like such a great turnout, especially considering that trains and bus stations were plastered with the ads imploring to IYSSSS. If I understand it correctly, those 1,944 people saying something did not foil 1,944 terrorist acts. If they did, it’s not very clear from the ad.

Besides the eye mosaics, my new subway station has another interesting feature. Some of the trains arriving and departing make a very strange, I would even say haunting sound. I’ll try to record it somehow and post it then. My guess is that the “singing” trains are the R142 on the IRT 2 line – they have induction motors that are said to produce a weird sound when accelerating and decelerating.

NYC Subway is a stage to many performers of various level of annoyance. I’ve seen many hip-hop acrobats and gymnasts who dance,  and jump around to the headache aggravating boombox. The kids I recently encountered demonstrated a very interesting move. After an impressive, but not uncommon gymnastic routine in a semi-crowded train, one kid announced – “ladies and gentlemen, please do not try this at home.” The other kid took a running start, somersaulted, and then vaulted off the third team member  into the air. He positioned himself parallel to the floor and  reached the ceiling of the train car, slamming into it with a loud bang, then proceeded down for a controlled landing. I wish I recorded that on my Treo camera.

LibraryThing

When I attended a party thrown by Joel Spolsky at his apartment, I got to browse through his library. Joel’s library was somewhat bigger and better organized than mine, but with a significant overlap: on almost every shelf I encountered at least several books that I already had or had in my wishlist.

Keeping a large library is something that I feel a little guilty about. Living space is precious and books take up a lot of it. One of my livejournal friends told me that he does not keep more than a small bookshelf of books at home (although he reads more than I do). Once he’s done with a book he either sells it at Half Price Books or gives it to a friend or acquaintance.

So why do I keep all the books? Besides the obvious vanity: look how sophisticated and edjumacated I am, there are other, more subtle reasons. When I was little, my father had an even bigger library. It was a great: exploring hundreds of books right at home was a great joy. My bed was located right under a huge bookshelf – if I wanted some bedtime reading all I had to do was to stretch my hand.

Joel put it best that evening: he feels that if somebody would read all the books that he has read, that person would start thinking similarly. A library is a sort of a mind dump, a memex chain. It becomes a part of who you are. Giving my library up would be extremely difficult for me. Call it the collector’s instinct, a fetish – it does not matter. Some poor people just are attached to physical books.

One of the reasons I got a job at TV Guide was because at the time it purchased two most promising eBook companies, NuvoMedia and Softbook. It thought that the electronic revolution would finally happen and we’d be reading from small electronic tablets, like on Star Trek. I do love paper books, but the promise of instant gratification and the library in a chip that was promised to us so long ago was even more tempting.

Sadly, the two companies were deprived of resources and smothered. I still think that the tablet reader is in our near future, and the Sony eInk tablet is a step in the right direction, although I am so displeased with Sony for a number of reasons (about which I’ll rant some other time) that I refuse to buy any of their products. In any case, my former co-worker Martin Eberhard, the founder of NuvoMedia (maker of the more successful and practical RocketBook) is now building awesome electric cars. I really wish I had a chance to interact with him at TVG — I share his fascination with Tesla and world changing technologies.

Since the ebook revolution is not coming any time soon, I finally decided to do something about keeping my books organized and joined LibraryThing. LibraryThing is a great online tool that allows you to create a catalog of your books by either typing in an ISBN number or book title. The interface is super usable. To make cataloging even faster I dug out my good ‘ol CueCat that I “declawed” back in the day. Seeing how crappy it was, I broke down and bought a real usb laser barcode scanner off eBay. It works like a charm – there’s a rotating laser inside and everything. Indeed, you get what you pay for.

I simply scan the barcode (if there’s one) or type in the title, add a tag that contains a shelf number – and that’s it. Now if I need to find a book I can simply search for it and find out which shelf it’s on. I don’t really need a more exact location. So far I’ve entered about 250 books. This covers the kitchen, bathroom and a couple of shelves in the living room. Altogether I have 2 Ikea Billys in the living room, 2 in one bedroom and 3 in another. In my estimation there should be at least 2000 books in my library, although a friend of mine thinks that it’s more like 1000. We’ll see who’s right once I’ll finish the catalog. My friend estimated (conservatively) that I spent about $5 per book, so my books must have cost me $5-10K. I feel kind of like Carrie from Sex and the City who had about $40K worth of Blahniks in her closet.

Looking Up, Part 2

My former co-worker, he of the Planet of the Geeks, asked me a few questions about selecting a telescope recently, and inderectly inspired me to write this post.

Backyard astronomy is one of the most popular geek pastimes. Like espresso making and photography, it’s one of those hobbies where there’s basically no limit on how badly it makes you want to break your budget. There are such gadgets, oh such gadgets

The rule of thumb in purchasing a telescope is the same as in purchasing an espresso machine – “poor people can’t afford to buy cheap things.” I am not going to write a telescope purchasing advice post though – enough is written on the subject already.

What am I going to write about is the motivation for purchasing telescopes, eyepieces and other stuff. Really, why should you want to buy these expensive toys, drag your butt out into the cold of the night and crouch in uncomfortable position when there’s Hubble Space Telescope and Astronomy Picture of the Day?

Well, first off, seeing a high resolution picture of Saturn taken by a billion dollar space probe somehow pales in comparison with seeing a blurry tiny speck of an image produced by the cheapest telescope. There’s something magical about having the actual photons reflecting of or generated by the celestial body hitting your retina. These almost physical things travelled over ridiculous distances end up hitting your eye forming an image. The feeling is completely different.

Most scope advice sites tell beginners to not even think about astrophotography. My advise to you is to disregard this. Astrophotography is one of the most rewarding things you can do. That picture won’t be of Hubble quality, but it will be yours. A detailed mosaic of the lunar surface makes a great wall hanging or wallpaper. Again, there’s something different in the pictures that you took. People don’t stop snapping pictures of New York just because they can buy professionally made postcards, do they? If you do buy a telescope, buy one that can be made suitable for astrophotography.

Note

I don’t own a serious telescope right now, and never did. All I have is an old Celestron C90 spotting scope (actually mine is an older model that looks rather differently. The idea was to use it later as a telephoto lens (which I did) and a spotting scope for a big telescope that I ended up not buying. Even with that, I managed to take this photo of the Moon.

Besides subjective experiences, there’s a very good reason to own your own gear and doing your own observations. The space is so huge that there’s still room for a complete amateur to make a discovery or just gather some useful scientific data.

The humblest in amateur research is doing Cepheid variable observations. You basically record how certain stars change their brightness from night to night. It’s painstaking and boring work, but it helps to chart galactic distances or something to that effect.

On the plus side, while looking for Cepheids, you can spot a nova or even a supernova. Nova discoveries by amateurs are not super frequent, but are not too rare either. Here’s one, for instance.

Another mainstream field of armature research is occultation recording and timing. Occultation is a transit of one celestial body behind another. For instance, you can watch Saturn disappear behind Moon’s disk and reappear again. By watching a bright star or planet pass behind the Moon, for instance, you can get some interesting information. First of all, by recording the time you can help calculate Moon’s orbit more precisely. Secondly, yo can see lunar terrain backlit, seeing outlines of mountains. In theory, something can be learned about atmosphere of planets and maybe even moons by watching occultations, but that requires some serious gear. In any case, space probes do a much better job.

Blah blah, meticulous observations by amateurs, blah, tiny little pieces of data, blah. Let’s kick it up a notch, crank up the hubris. Remember that Simpsons episode where Bart discovered a comet? Although the chances are low and the competition is fierce, it is possible for an amateur to discover a comet. And comets are the only things that are named after their discoverers these days.

They don’t let you name asteroids, but discovering one is rather cool. If you find an Earth orbit crossing one, you can _potentially_ join the Planet Savior club. They’ll name stuff after you then.

If that’s not enough, start looking for a planet. They won’t let you name it too, but putting “found a planet” on your resume is very cool. Of course, there is a lot of debate if those huge Trans-Neptunian objects such as Pluto and 2003 UB313 aka Xena are really planets. I say the more the merrier. Xena is magnitude 19 by the way, which is bright enough to be seen in high end amateur telescopes in dark sky conditions.

There’s also the category of looking for major stuff that most probably isn’t there. Searching for planet Vulcan is likely to be futile, as Einstein explained away Mercury’s orbit.

Major planets probably have way more satellites than are catalogued. It’s probably impossible, but maybe the Moon might have one too? In any case, hunting for satellites might be fun.

Also, you have the Nemeses theory. It might just be that good ol’ Sol is really a binary star (binary stars are much more common than single ones) – Nemeses, it’s partner is a brown dwarf beyond the Oort Cloud. It’s possibly bright enough to be detected with an amateur scope. Now, that would be a discovery.

How do you look for all of that stuff? Well, you mostly line up and “blink” photographic images of the same piece of sky taken at different times. Most stars are so far away that they don’t change their positions. Planets, asteroids and satellites have larger proper motion and appear to move in blinked photos. A lot of them will be artificial satellites and already discovered stuff, but hey – you never know. Public astrophotographs are available for this sort of thing, and there are ways to cheaply rent time on professional telescopes over the web, but it’s not as fun and generating your own.

Even if your scope sucks and you live in a very light polluted place, you can still look for transient Lunar phenomena. Maybe you’ll see some aliens while you are at it.

The Dimmest Lightbulb

Reading Joel on Software I’ve learned about “rosh katan” and “rosh gadol” – two expressions common in Israeli Army, but very applicable to IT work.

“Rosh katan”, literally “little head” is used to describe incompetent and/or passive-aggressive behavior. It usually involves following orders literally, without understanding their goal, or understanding, but actively wanting not to achieve it.

“Rosh gadol”, “big head” – is a way of working proactively, anticipating problems that might arise from orders that are not overly detailed, and following the spirit or the order. You really need to grok your task in order to act “rosh gadol”.

I asked a co-worker who happened to be an Israeli paratrooper captain in his previous life. He said that they also had a third expression – “rosh nitz-nitz” (I am not sure of the spelling here). “Nitz-nitz”, he told me, is a nickname for an ingenious little device that paratroopers use for identification at night. It’s a little infrared emitter invisible by unaided eye. But when looked at with infrared goggles at night, it allows helicopter pilots to find paratroopers who are ready for extraction.

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.

Top of the Rock

I have been looking forward to the opening of the “Top of the Rock” for a long while. As soon as the online ticketing system became available, I got the tickets for the first day, and the first sunset that this observation platform became available to regular shmoes like me.

The entrance, which is located in the underground concourse is decorated with this fancy Swarovski Crystal chandelier. Top of the Rock chose two somewhat strange marketing alliances – with Swarovski and with Target.

The elevator ride to the observation platform features a ceiling-projected movie of cheesy historical images and newsreels. Though that you can see exposed and lighted elevator shaft which is much more impressive.

Once you get to the multistoried observation platform, you start to notice and and photograph hundreds of interesting things otherwise unseen from the ground. The rooftop of the building where you work.

The cross of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

You get to stand basically face to face, on the same level with the spire of the Empire State Building, only separated by the annoying bulletproof glass. The spaces between panes allow you to take decent pictures, and the top setbacked platform does not even have the glass. That’s where you can entertain your superhero daydreams – by quietly standing there, of course, and not by jumping off of it.

Besides the glass and the loud tourists, the only annoyance that I can name is a little bit of sewage smell. I am pretty sure that came from the plumbing vent that you can see in this picture.

Overall, I have to say that the whole experience was superior to the Empire State Building observatory. Online ticketing interface allows you to buy tickets for specific time, avoiding lines (the guy who coded the ticketing system even dropped me an email on my previous entry). You get to see the Empire State Building itself, as well as views of Central Park. The top deck without the glass is very cool.

Unfortunately I forgot my own camera and had to borrow co-worker’s Nikon, so I’ll be back with my own gear, the long lens and possibly a tripod. One unsettling thing about Top of the Rock, though, is that the ticket (but not the website) states that you are only allowed to take pictures for non-commercial purposes. That’s not very nice. I did see a lot of people with tripods and fancy cameras though – hopefully they are not going to hassle me.

Why Was I Not Informed Earlier

A certain typographically exuberant poet wrote these lines about an Irish bar that I was recently taken to by a co-worker.

I was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.

Inside snug and evil. the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of
screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows swallowing revolvingly
pompous a the swallowed mottle with smooth or a but of rapidly goes gobs the
and of flecks of and a chatter sobbings intersect with which distinct disks of
graceful oath, upsoarings the break on ceiling-flatness

The bar, McSorley’s (15 E. Seventh St) turned out to be one of the most famous and unique bars in New York. And it’s not like New York is short on old or famous establishments frequented by poets. In fact, even though McSorley’s Old Ale House started operating in 1854 (or 1862 by some accounts) , Bridge Cafe at 279 Water has it beat hands down by going back to 1794. There are also Pete’s Tavern (1864), Landmark Tavern (1868) , PJ Clarke’s (1870s) and a few others in the Century Club.

What makes McSorley’s stand out is that it operated continuously through the Prohibition, keeping renovations and changes in customs to the absolute minimum.

The traditions and customs are especially strong in this Irish bar that can proudly tell anybody, even the 124 year old Zabani Khakimova of Chechnya: “we were here before you were born.” Another McSorley’s old slogan, ” No wine, no whiskey, no women” is only partially true. In 1970 New York State passed “McSorley’s Law” that disallowed discrimination in public establishments. I’ve heard that it’s still possible to have a gender specific private club still, but it has to have less than a certain number of members to be considered such.

These days, a man or a woman, when you walk into one of the two rooms at McSorley’s and sit down at a WWII vintage table continuously soaked with beer, you’ll find that you only have three choices of alcoholic beverages. A dark, a light or a “one and one”. The dark ale or the light ale always come in two little 8oz mugs. You can have one mug of light and one mug in the same round.

The food is only slightly more varied, but just as old fashioned. The daily specials might include liverwurst sandwiches, burger and fries, shepherd pie and “cheese and crackers”: a package of saltines in cellophane, some cheese and cut onions.

“Begood or Begone” is yet another slogan of this institution. Don’t drink too little, don’t be troublesome when drunk. “distinct disks of graceful oath” are Ok.

The waiters are both gruff and friendly at the same time. If you don’t want to begood, they won’t begood either and there’s no doubt that they’ll make you begone quick.

Here’s E.E. Cummings’ biographer’s description of the place:

“It has two rooms, each with its individual admonitory sign, “Be Good or Be Gone.” The walls are crowded with photographs and lithographs in which a vanished city dwells, and dead, buxom ladies and derbied men. The room in front has the bar, but the room in back boasts a famous lady of smooth and beautiful nudeness. . .”

The place is truly “snug and evil”. It smells funky, the ceiling is ancient and low, the floor is covered in sawdust, the glasses are clinking and the ale is flowing. Cummings got it so right, it’s ridiculous.

With the exception of smoking prohibition and admission of women, McSorley’s did not change too much. In E.E. Cummings’ time one of the two kitchens was already converted into a bathroom with Art Deco/Sanitary Style urinals (these days there’s a women’s bathroom too). But the walls and the bar are still crowded with patron-donated artifacts, prints, paintings and photographs. Unlike the crap-o-la encrusted restaurants, the artifacts and images are authentic and full of meaning.

There’s an old gas lamp converted to electricity over the bar. A group of regulars being shipped out to WWI placed wishbones on the lamp with the intention to remove them when they come back. Those that were not removed continue hanging over there collecting gobs and gobs of dust.

Any attempt to touch the almost century-old wishbones will surely get you a lifetime ban and probably a good beating.

There are a few other interesting artifacts, like a pair of handcuffs that either belonged to one of the owners who was a retired NYPD detective, or to Harry Houdini. The helmets over the bar range from 1911 firefighter’s to the 9/11.

“I was sitting in the din thinking drinking the ale, which never lets you grow old … Darkness it was so near to me,i ask of shadow won’t you have a drink?”

My only regret is that it was not snowing outside this time. Also, the cat that is said to live at the bar did not make an appearance.


Crass Commercialism:

They sell McSorley’s-style mugs over here

Celebriboobies

New York City is literally overrun with B and C-list celebrities. It seems they are the only ones who can still afford apartments in Manhattan.

I was having drinks with my co-workers across from Roundabout Theater. There was a bunch of D-list celebs in front of it, nobody I could recognize. And then my former co-worker and the owner of planetofthegeeks.com points and says – hey, I already bumped into one of Sex and the City actresses earlier this week, and there’s Sarah Jessica Parker. Now I need two more to finish the set. I snapped this photo right from our table, without getting up.

Having learned from the time when I missed Tara Reid’s boob escape, I was ready for a repeat, but no matter how much pressure Sarah Jessica put on her mammaries, they stayed in place. That fold looks painfull though. Also it looks like Matthew Broderick is growing one from his head, but I only had about 10 seconds before they entered the theater to take this picture.

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.

Side Effects Of Programming

“Nelson: Ah, he’s the greatest showman since that kid who eats worms!
Kid Who Eats Worms: My 15 minutes of fame are over!”
The Simpsons, Episode 3G02

The post about Durian seems to have been the most popular one in the recent history of deadprogrammer.com . This once again proves that eating gross things is entertaining to the masses. To prevent the surging popularity of my blog I absolutely must write a little bit about something that I almost never write about. Programming.

My co-worker who could not understand why he could not increment a variable in XSLT found an amazing piece of technical writing in an O’Reilly book about XSLT. Here it is:

“Although these XSLT variables are called variables, they’re not variables in the traditional sense of procedural programming languages like C++ or Java. Remember that earlier we said one goal behind the design of the stylesheet language is to avoid side effects in execution? Well, one of the most common side effects used in most procedural languages is changing the value of a variable. If we write our stylesheet so that the results depend on the varying values of different variables, the stylesheet engine would be forced to evaluate the templates in a certain order.

XSLT variables are more like variables in the traditional mathematical sense. In mathematics, we can define a function called square(x) that returns the value of a number (represented by x) multiplied by itself. In other words, square(2.5) returns 6.25. In this context, we understand that x can be any number; we also understand that the square function can’t change the value of x.

It takes a while to get used to this concept, but you’ll get there. Trust me on this.”

(full text here)

The quote that I highlighted in bold absolutely gets me. Yeah, that’s one good side effect. I get the feeling that XSLT was committee designed with the specific purpose to make life miserable for programmers. Also that committee must have had some really good stuff to smoke.

Update
Uh, see, now this is what happens when you try to write programs without actually understanding computer science fundamentals. I did not realize that XSLT was functional, not procedural. Like most mediocre programmers out there I was not exposed to much functional programming (I did try to teach myself Lisp, but quickly gave up). Having to do a lot of SQL(which is near-procedural) over the years improved my understanding of functional programming, but not enough to realize what the XSLT book was talking about (reading it from beginning would have been helpful too). Now hardware XSLT accelerators, which made me laugh when I first heard about them, make sense too.