Homer Simpson’s Toothpick Method of Blogging

There’s something that has been bothering me for a while, something that I call “Homer Simpson’s toothpick school of blogging”. In one of the Simpsons episodes Homer is marauding a grocery store at brunch, making a meal out of free samples. He proceeds to eat a few non-sample items by proclaming that “if it has a toothpick in it, it’s free” and sticking his toothpic into a variety of items. He even drinks a beer, piercing it with a toothpick. The most successful blogs are basically like that: they either paraphrase or directly quote juiciest pieces of online articles. There might be a little bit of commentary (the snarkier – the better), but the meat of these blogs is in the quotes.

This is known as “curating” – the successful toothpickers have excellent taste in content. The people they quote and take images from are very glad to receive traffic from these A-listers. BoingBoing.net, kottke.org, daringfireball.net are like that: short, high volume (once you get the hang of it, it does not take much to turn that interesting site in your firefox tab into a pithy little wrapper around a juicy quote), very enjoyable. More so than mechanized versions of the same thing like digg.com and stumbleupon.com. For one, submitters don’t do a very good job of quoting or paraphrasing, and you find yourself clicking on links more. Very successful blogs stick their toothpics into so much content that you don’t really need to click through to the originals much: I can read BoingBoing, Gothamist or Lifehacker without clicking too much – the juiciest stuff is already there. In fact Gothamist seems to be almost completely pulled from from New York Times and New York Post headlines. It’s a bit like a segment on some NY TV news stations where they read the latest headlines from local papers.

Now, there isn’t anything unethical about quoting and paraphrasing – it’s all squarely in the realm of fair use. These blogs are a bit like suckerfish that attach themselves to whales or sharks in that they benefit immensely from their hosts. Well, actually, unlike suckerfish they repay the favor by driving traffic.

In fact, I owe most of my readers to the low point in my blogging career, when after failing to submit my post about the Starbucks Siren to BoingBoing through their official black hole form, I begged Cory Doctorow to post it in a personal email. He did, I received tons of traffic and literally thousands of links from BB readers. Now that article shows up at the very top of Google search results for Starbucks logo.

Therein lies a problem: good content on the Internet does not always bubble up to the top on it’s own. Blogosphere is a bit like the Black Sea, which has a layer of very active and vibrant biosphere at low depths. But it’s very deep, and below 200 meters the depths are full of poisonous hydrogen sulfide, which luckily does not circulate very much (unless there’s a particularly strong storm). Think about digg.com or StackOverflow.com– at the top stuff circulates, gets upvoted and downvoted. But below, there’s a poisonous cesspool of Sturgeon’s Law’s 90 percent. And most of the time, new and worthwhile content starts not at the top, but at the bottom, or flutters briefly in above the mediocrity and the bad, does not get noticed and gets buried.

Speaking of StackOverflow, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood recently touched on the topic of blogging success in their excellent podcast. They were discussing Steve Yegge’s retirement from blogging, and tried to pinpoint what it meant to be a successful blogger. “Perhaps one metric of success is getting people you respect and admire to link to your writing in an organic, natural way (that is, without asking them to).” I am a miserable failure on this front. Sure, I have some high profile readers, but their link love is rare, while I’m not really below begging for links.

Jason Kottke, an A-list blogger and a primo toothpick sampler, was reflecting on the monetary success. He likened business blogging to shining shoes: there might be some individuals who can get rich by running a chain of shoe shining stores (Jason Calacanis, Nick Denton), and maybe even some individual outstanding shoeshiners (Dooce) who can make a decent living, but for the majority of shoeshiners it’s not a very good career choice.

I’ve read somewhere about my hometown’s “king of shoeshiners”, a very colorful character. He was the best shoeshiner Odessa has ever seen, famous and loved by all, but he died poor and miserable. On his monument there was a short quote: “life is waksa” (waksa is a Russian word for shoe polish with a connotation of something pitch-black).

For me blogging takes a good deal of effort. In the immortal words of E.B. White “writing is never ‘fun'”. (White almost rejected an assignment to write an article that became the finest piece ever written about New York when an editor suggested that he might ‘have fun’). What makes blogging less fun for me is looking at server statistics, number of comments, ad revenue, and thinking about payoff and success. And feeling like that I maybe should have done something else with my time.

My high school Economics teacher, Mr. Oster, taught me one very valuable concept: “opportunity cost“. Whenever you make a decision do something, you almost always pay the opportunity cost – the difference in value you might have gotten by doing something better. Oh, there could be hundreds of things that have a better payoff than not very successful blogging.

I personally do not blog for money, and certainly don’t blog professionally (the ads on my site cover my hosting expenses). Well, not yet, anyway – I am preparing stuff for a commercial venture that I’ll soon announce. I blog in order to meet people (hanging out a Web 2.0 events and meetups would probably have been more productive), but mostly to get things out of my head. In that sense I’m a bit like Louise Bourgeois. I’ve recently seen an exhibition of her work, and I’m pretty sure that if she did not create all those sculptures and paintings, the inspiration for them (which must have been glipses of extra dimensions, cellular automata that drive our reality, and super disturbing things that can’t even be described) would have made her a raving lunatic and not a lucid and sane 97 year old woman that she is.

I don’t really intend on changing the format of deadprogrammer.com – the intricate, long, winding, interconnected posts about obscure topics. I probably would have had a lot more success if I just kept a photo blog about New York City. If I’d just stick to one popular topic and posted every day – I know I would have attracted a lot more readers. Instead, I’m going to start a new, for-profit blog. You’ll hear about it soon. I think I should be able to make some shekels with my mad shoeshining skills. And while I agree with Mr. White about writing not being fun, the fund is in having written.

The Legend of Kovalevsky’s Tower

I decided that I’ll take a break from a blogging break to tell a story that has two of my favorite things: symbolism and legends of my hometown. In particular, it’s the legend of the Kovalevsky’s Tower.

A fountain and a tower are two very commonly used symbols. A fountain is a symbol for life and creativity, one with a mostly positive meaning. A tower is a darker symbol, one about overreaching achievement, and fall. In Tarot a Tower card is an ill omen. Yet a tower is a very attractive symbol. I am immensely drawn to towers, just look at how frequently I write about them.

There aren’t any skyscrapers in my hometown. There are fountains though. Not just the regular water spritzing ones: there are three very important neighborhoods called The Big, Middle, and Little Fountain. You see, Odessa, although on the sea, is located very far from any rivers that can provide potable water. In the olden days much of the water was procured from three wells, the Big, Middle, and Little Fountains, which were located relatively far from the city center, near the sea. An alternative way to collect water from rooftops was available, but as there’s a lot of dust in the air, people referred to this less tasty water as “this is no fountain”, an expression that survived to this day referring to something sub par.

If you take a tram from the city center, you’ll pass through the many stations of the Little, Middle and Big Fountains which follow the sea shore and are mostly filled with dachas. My grandparents used to have a dacha at the 13th station of the Big Fountain, a little plot of land with a house and outhouse that my father and grandfather built themselves. When we left, it was sold for about $7000. I am told that the land that we used to own would be worth about $1,000,000 today.

The last station is 16th. There you would switch to an ancient little tram with two “heads” (it was needed because there was only a single track, and one tram would service the whole line going back and forth). This tram, nicknamed push-pull would take you to yet another neighborhood called Kovalevsky’s Dacha. There were more dachas there, a large Russian Orthodox monastery, and natural, sand-less beaches with steep rocky cliffs (the rest of the shore used to be like that as well, but the cliffs where dynamited and sand washed on).

There is a legend connected to Kovalevsky and his dacha. This legend is a little bit like Rashomon, as there are many different ways it’s told.

In one version, a wealthy merchant, Timofey Kovalevsky decides to solve Odessa’s water problem by building the first water line. He finds a huge water well beyond Big Fountain and starts laying pipe into the city. At the source he builds a huge tower. He finishes the project, but he is financially ruined due to insufficient revenues. Either the water is of poor quality (not like Fountain water, because of the pipe sediment), or because people are afraid of technology and call his water “machine water”, or because around the same time another water line from Dniester river is completed. One way or another he is ruined, and commits suicide by jumping from the tower. In this version it is a story of pitfals of technology, its quick obsolescence and/or inferiority to older technology.

A famous version of the story comes from Kataev’s “Lonely White Sail”. In Kataev’s version Kovalevsky undertakes his water line project alone out of greed. A slew of bankers beg him to take them as partners, but he refuses, wanting a water monopoly. He builds the tower to get to the water, only to run out of money – the water is too deep, and the machinery and pipes are too expensive. He begs the bankers for money, but they refuse. Kovalevskiy keeps circling around the tower thinking about how to get money to complete the project, getting crazier and crazier, but one day gives up, climbs the tower and jumps off it. In Kataev’s version the legend is a cautionary tale of greed.

An even more disturbing version comes from Paustovsky’s “Slow Time”. Paustovsky tells the story differently. In it, Kovalesky is a very rich eccentric. He buys a plot of land far from the city and builds a dacha. Then he commissions a huge tower to be built, for no practical reason whatsoever. Several times he drinks tea at the top of the tower, and then commits suicide by jumping from the top. In another variant of this the purpose of the tower is mystifying the contractors, until the moment it’s complete: Kovalevsky has it built in order to jump from. This way it’s a story of depression, eccentricity, purposelessness, and suicide.

All stories mention that the tower was preserved until WWII, and did end up serving a purpose: it was a very good nautical navigational landmark. During WWII it was destroyed, similar to Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island. Legend of Wardenclyffe Tower echoes many aspects of the legend of Kovalevsky’s Tower – the running out of funds, the mysterious purpose, etc.

This, of course is all very lame journalism and research. I am basically retelling the same story the way I heard it, the way I’ve read it on a number of websites, and in several books. I don’t have access to archives or any specialist literature that might shed any light on what really happened with Kovalevsky and his tower. I hope maybe commenters might eventually add some more information to this post.

I don’t know exactly where the tower used to be and where its remnants are right now. My understanding that it’s somewhere near the Big Fountain cape. The link provides the rough coordinates and a photo. Maybe it’s possible to find the location in Google Maps.

I was able to locate only a single photo that supposedly shows the tower on a website retelling one of the variants of the story. The tower is indeed humongous, and really does not look like a water tower. Maybe there’s a point to the the story about a pointless tower built for suicide.

[update] I recently found this old photo that provides a view from beyond the lighthouse:

From all the accounts that I’ve encountered the tower was destroyed. But what is this then? I’ll be in Odessa this summer, and I’ll mount an expedition to check this out.

The tower is described as an over-sized chess tower, a tower that looks like a lighthouse, a good navigational aid seen from the sea, and a ominous, dark building.

Here are some two old postcards (a photograph and its retouched version) of the Big Fountain cape. There is a lighthouse, and something that looks like a long slender tower. Could that be Kovalevsky’s tower?

This is what the natural beaches looked like all over Odessa’s coast. I remember beaches near Kovalevskiy’s dacha looking like that when I was little.

Another view of the Big Fountain cape, with a “shalanda” fishing boat. There’s something tower-like in the distance, but it’s very hard to tell.

Ada Lovelace Day: Temple Grandin and the True Nature of Nerds

People walking by my cubicle often pause and look at a picture hanging on my wall. It’s of an old lady in what looks like a meter maid’s uniform. Who is she? Why is this picture so important to you? – they ask.

The picture, of course is of one of the two patron saints of software developers, Rear Admiral Murray Grace Hopper. Admiral Hopper is an old school hacker, mother of Cobol, popularizer of the term “bug”. There is a missile destroyer named after her, her personal motto is very close to my heart, and she looks a little bit like my grandmother (who happened to be a mechanical engineer).

The second prominent woman in software is Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and a celebration of her life is the reason I am writing this post. Countess Lovelace is famous for grokking what computer programming was all about back in Victorian era, and therefore is often reffered to as the first programmer. If I’ll ever make it out of a cube into an office, I’ll comission an oil portrait of Ada Lovelace and hang it there.

There aren’t many accomplished women in technology as these two, so someone came up with an idea of celebrating Ada Lovelace’s birthday by getting people to write blog posts that will draw attention to women excelling in technology. I chose to write about Temple Grandin. I would have written about my grandmother, but unfortunately I don’t know much about her life’s work.

I learned about Temple Grandin from an article in Wired magazine called “The Geek Syndrome“. It was an article about an explosion of cases of autism and Asperger’s syndrome in hotbeds of technology such as Silicone Valley. This article and Temple Grandin’s books, “Thinking in Pictures” and Emergence: Labeled Autistic made me see myself and other techies in a completely different light. I am convinced that some level of autism is what makes people get involved in technology. Being a geek is a bit like having homosexual sex: anybody can do it, very few try it, and only a minority enjoy it and are good at it.

According to wikipedia “the word geek is a slang term, noting individuals as “a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc.”[1] Formerly, the term referred to a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken, bat, snake or bugs.” Indeed, geeks are strange people. They obsess about things, they have unusual interests, they are incredibly detail-oriented. All of these traits are considered by psychologists to be symptomes of Autistic Spectrum Personality disorder or ASD. “Impaired social interaction and communication” – another geeky/autistic trait.

“The prevalence of ASD is about 6 per 1,000 people, with about four times as many boys as girls” – also, according to Wikipedia. Eerily, this seems to be more or less in line with overall percentage of people involved in technology and the male/female ratio.

A human mind is a self-aware and self-adjusting multi-level software/hardware combination, and that makes it very hard to talk about the nature of brain disorders. Autism is particularly tricky: it is a spectrum. People with autism range from those severely afflicted and non-verbal through hundreds of different gradations to a geek with strange hobbies and social interaction problems. Yet it is the same basic thing: some kind of overdevelopment of some areas of the brain and underdevelopment in others, as well as a difference in processing sensory input.

Temple Grandin started out a severely afflicted autistic child, pretty close to the upper end of the scale. She recoiled from being hugged, started speaking very late, had all kinds of behavioral problems. Even with her high IQ nobody expected her to become a very succesful professional. She was lucky in having parents who sent her to a specialized school, and some teachers who channeled her obsessions into productive direction. She describes herself as a “recovering autistic.”

Her professional success is tremendous. She became a foremost expert in livestock handling equipment. Before her the livestock industry did not pay a lot of attention to the way animals were handled and transported. Existing structures used to shuffle livestock from a place to a place had design flaws that would cause animals to balk and refuse to move. This caused unnecessery use of force, stressing the animals and their handlers, costing farmers and processors a lot of time and money. Temple Grandin’s attention to detail allowed her to figure out very subtle causes of animal’s discomfort (autistic people are frequently bothered by minute changes in their environment) and figure out better ways to handle them. It’s very likely that all of us at some point drank milk or ate a steak from a cow that went through a facility designed by Dr. Grandin.

Autism seems to be a hardware-based disorder, something to do with neuron distribution and signal sensitivity. The curious part about problems like that is that they sometimes can be fixed with a software patch and changing some external factors. For instance, if you have a defective computer processor that starts generating errors from overheating, you can fix it by writing error-checking software and cooling it down with a fan.

After seeing a squeeze chute used to calm down cattle, Temple Grandin ivented a so-called hug machine, a device that applies a deep body pressure and through it makes autistic people feel better.

In his book Jpod, Douglas Coupland describes how one cubicle dwelling game developers builds a hug machine. After some ridicule and a few tryouts the machine attracts a long line of software developers wanting to use it. I wonder if any of the Google offices have one. I, personally, find that taking a long bath or wrapping very tigtly in a blanket always calms me down. Even better is diving: I get an unusual sense of calm from it.

Dr. Grandin’s books opened my eyes to the traits of “engineer’s affliction” and allowed me to better understand myself and my fellow geeks. Here’s a short list of the autistic traits that you might find in most software developers:

* Liking to create lists
* Lack of eye contact
* Stimming: repetitive behaviors like rocking in a chair
* Strange patterns of speech
* Ranting, long speeches about obscure topics
* Excruciating attention to detail
* Love of routine, dislike of change
* Love of symbols
* Obsessions with obscure things
* Superior pattern recognition
* Visual thinking
* Liking things more than people
* Bouts of anxiety, especially in social situations

Wired has a test designed by Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat’s brother) – you can see how many typical autistic traits you have. My score is 31.

The good part is that autistic obsessions can be “cashed in” for professional success in technological fields. Think about the level of obsession or concentration necessary to design a computer processor like this one? On the other hand, Dr. Grandin’s books showed me that it is possible to work on problematic traits, like eye contact and social awkwardness. Human minds are strange loops, capable of understanding, rewriting and fixing themselves.

Here’s a list of books that I recommend for better understanding of techies, male and female:

* Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism and Emergence: Labeled Autistic by Temple Grandin

* Jpod and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

* A Spot of Bother and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

A review of personal genomics profile from 23andme

What do I buy: a cleaning robot, an e-ink powered ebook, or a personal genetic test from 23andme.com? This is one of those terrible trilemmas facing geeks who are not willing to sacrifice financial stability for having all the coolest gadgets. I chose a 23andme test, and haven’t regretted it.

The factoid that always is mentioned in the press about 23andme is that its co-founder Anne Wojcicki is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. This of course means that the data that 23andme is collecting is going to be used to help Google’s Skynet to gain the upper hand in the forthcoming war.

23andme’s service works like this: you give them some money (at the time when I write this the price is $399, but it used to be over $800), they send you a test tube into which you spit, some special preservative solution, and a return envelope. You follow some simple instructions and send your spit to a processing facility. Then you wait (this is the hard part). In a month or so (it depends how long the backlog of orders is) you recieve an email telling you that you can log into 23andme.com and take a look at the results.

The processing that they do in the lab creates a data file that represents an impressive number of genetic data points called SNPs or single-nucleotide polymorphisms. The way I understand it, SNPs are known variations that happen in DNA sequences. Much of the DNA stays the same for all people, but there are some variations in a single location. Let’s say there’s a string of DNA in humans that goes


and 6 positions there are the same for everyone, except the seventh, which is sometimes AT and sometimes GC. So basically it’s a single position on the one of the 23 chromosomes or mitochondrial DNA (I guess 23andmitochondriaandme was shot down as a possible name for the company) that statistically is different from person to person as opposed to long stretches of DNA that stay the same.

Scientists all over the world are studying the correlations that SNPs have with disease risks and traits. I guess these studies go something like this: you grab 500 programmers that use emacs editor and 500 that use vi. You have a hunch that editor preference is related to gene C4711. You sequence the dna of all your coders looking for SNPs in the gene C4711 that are one way in your vi-using alphas and another way in emacs-using sub-omegaloids. Then you find that in most of vi users SNP rs1729 is AA. Then you come out and say – AA in s1729 increases the odds of a programmer preferring vi by 47%.

The more people that a study has – the better the results. 23andme has genetics experts on staff that sift through mountains of these studies, rank them, and then tell the website people to add results to the interface. This way you can go to 23andme.com and see (as of right now) that tell you right away what your lifetime chances of getting 10 diseases. Some, like Parkinson’s, they don’t let you see without you agreeing to see it yourself. Sergey Brin was reported in the media to get some bad news from that particular one (mine came back “Typical Risk” which means that my chance of getting Parkinson’s is about 1.6%, same as everybody else).

A lot of people that I talked to about genetic testing told me that they’d “rather not know”. It’s true that some of the things that you might learn will make you worry without being able to do anything about it. On the other hand, there are some that you might be able to do something about.

“24.1 out of 100 people of European ethnicity who share this genotype will get Prostate Cancer between the ages of 35 and 79” vs “17.8 out of 100” on average. Here I learned that I have about 1 in 4 chance of getting prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is one of the relatively treatable ones if caught early, but with unpleasant diagnostic procedures. All of a sound “digital exam” does not sound so bad, and I guess I’ll have to bend over and cough a lot more often than I otherwise would. I’m not sure what coughing does, but the “digital” part has nothing to do with electronics or numbers.

There are also 10 traits that are available right now. The most interesting one for me was “Resistant to infection by the most common strain of HIV people usually encounter, though protection is not complete”. I apparently have two copies of something called “Delta32 version of CCR5”. “Although people with two copies of Delta32 are highly resistant to the most common type of HIV, they can be vulnerable to strains of the virus that do not use CCR5 to enter immune cells”.

This makes me a little bit more at ease when I donate blood, even though I know that the chances of getting infected with AIDS at a blood donation are already less than winning that Mega jackpot. On the other hand Dr. Asimov died of AIDS that he received through a transfusion. What’s more interesting, is that this is the same mutation that prominently figured in the media with the AIDS patient who was cured through a bone marrow transplant.

Then there’s a section that has 79 research reports. These get a rating fоr “research confidence”. I, for instance, have an elevated risk of obesity from research that has a three star rating.

Doctor House would have loved getting access to this kind of data for every one of his patients. There are risks for rare diseases mentioned on the show Ankylosing spondylitis, Hemochromatosis, Bloom’s syndrome, and everybody’s favorite – Lupus (which it’s never).

One of the tests included in 23andme is for muscle performance, the one that was in newspapers lately because it was offered by a few companies. The news angle was that sports obsessed parents paid hundred of dollars to find out if their kids have sprinting or marathon ability. Mine says: “One working copy of alpha-actinin-3 in fast-twitch muscle fiber. Many world-class sprinters and some endurance athletes have this genotype.” This sounds plausible – for a fat dude I have an uncanny ability to sprint, yet suck at long distances.

But wait, this is not all. For the same low price you also get some ancestral info. This comes in a form of maternal and paternal haplogroup. I am not sure I understand the what haplogroup is very well, and found 23andme’s infographics somewhat confusing. From what I understand a haplogroup is a number that is attached to a certain mutation (a few SNPs maybe?) that arose thousands of years ago and that has been statistically crosslinked to people living in certain geographical locations.

My paternal haplogroup is E3b1c1* – “populations: Ethiopians, Jordanians, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews”. My maternal haplogroup is H5a* – “populations: Lebanese, Polish, Irish”. Both of my ancestral branches are supposedly Ashkenazi, and I guess haplogroups are not a high enough resolution to prove or disprove Jewish ancestry. All they do is tell you that the progeny of your very remote ancestor was likely found in certain wide geographic locales “before the era of intercontinental travel.” What’s interesting is that there’s a small chunk of my maternal haplogroup’s population in Siberia.

23andme is a true Web 2.0 service (in the good sense of that expression). There’s a blog called The Spittoon. In between educational (sometimes interesting, sometimes boring) posts about genetics they have a section called “SNPwatch“. There they write about new research and usually provide a link to raw data in your 23andme profile. So for instance there was an article titled “Variants in Genes for Carcinogen Transporters Linked to Lung Cancer” about a mutation that prevents lungs from clearing out cancer-causing chemicals. Then you can click on two links and see if you have that mutation (to my relief I don’t).

There are some social network features: you can compare your DNA profile to your relatives. I’m not sure if hilarity might ensue because I think you can figure out possibility/impossibility of paternity and maternity, like Dr. House did in that episode. You can even compare your DNA to other users of 23andme – you have to accept a “friend” request for that. I’m not really sure what’s the fun in that. You can participate in surveys that might be used for research (there isn’t one yet about vi vs. emacs yet, but there are some other ones).

It does not look like the $400 fee even covers the cost of gathering the data (there no further fees as of now) or paying for staff/website maintenance, and ongoing research. I’m not really sure what the business model here is (and that makes me a little nervous. Businesses like this remind me of an old Yiddish joke:

Moyshe is selling boiled chicken eggs. He buys them for a kopek each and sells them for a kopek each. Chaim asks – “Moishe – where’s the profit in this?” “What, are you stupid?” – answers Moyshe. “I get to keep the broth”.

My guess is that the “broth” here is an opportunity to conduct groundbreaking research and maybe sell the anonymized data. That, and helping Google’s Skynet find and assassinate John Connor.

I don’t really worry too much about being denied insurance in the grim meathook future that surely is coming just because I used 23andme. There’s legislation against that on the books right now, and if insurance companies will be able to deny coverage based on genetics they’ll be much more likely to get this info by requiring a blood test.

I really wish I could get the data from my grandparents (none of whom are sadly alive). I will buy kits for my entire family though as soon as I’ll be willing to part with another chunk of disposable income (I do want that dang Kindle first though).

Cognitive Filtering and Bayesian RSS

I hope one thing from the future will become popular in 2009: cognitive filtering. If the Internet was Dr. Dorian from the hit tv show “Scrubs”, I would be Dr. Cox with his list of things he cares very little about.

I got this idea from a science fiction book. In John C. Wright’s Golden Age Trilogy the singularity happened and people can upgrade and back up their wetware in any way they can afford. They still had the same problem that Henry Kuttner described in his short story “Year Day” – an overbearing amount of very innovative ads that masquerade as information and other spam. The trick in Golden Age was cognitive filtering: configurable software that removed any manifestations of anything an owner considered unpleasant: ads, sounds, pictures, symbols, and even people.

I like Twitter, and I like Robert Scoble. But I am tired of Robert’s relentless posts about friendfeed (sometimes I’m not even sure if he works with me at Fast Company or at friendfeed). Filtering this out would not be too hard – I could just ignore any post that has “friendfeed” in it. In fact, a Bayesian filter for Google reader, Facebook, and Twitter after a bit of training could do this automatically: I’d just flag posts that annoy me and the filter would analyze the words in the post, figure out which ones occur together more frequently in the posts that annoy me and hide future annoying posts based on that.

To take this a bit further, I would also like a Bayesian filter that would find me good posts from the firehydrant rss flow based on the ones I already like. There seem to be a few of these out there, but I find it hard leaving Google Reader.

Paid ReviewMe Post: Phone Spam Filter

These days a controversial company RevieMe.com became downright unethical – they make it abundantly clear that they became a link purchasing company. On the other hand Phone Spam Filter is a site I don’t mind sharing Google juice with, so it’s a quick and fun way to add a 50 bucks to my Kindle fund. Here’s my review:

The goal of this site is pretty simple: Phone Spam Filter is asking you to snitch on telemarketers. You search for a phone number that you received a marketing call from and then complain about it. Besides getting a little relief from venting at the phone spammers, you get a bit of satisfaction from knowing that you added them to a blacklist. Nothing good can come out of this for the dinner-interrupting bastards. Meanwhile it’s a good place to find out if mysterious phone numbers that show up on your phone are from run of the mill telemarketers or not.

The even cooler thing is that they have an API that can help you block calls from this blacklist if you have an Asterisk PBX or are willing to install some Windows software and have a modem connected to a phone line. While Asterisk is pretty awesome, running Windows and having a modem connected to a phone line is a horrible idea these days – there are dozens of viruses that want nothing more than make a few 1-900 phonecalls. In the future Phone Spam Filter guys are hoping to add integration with VOIP providers.

The Phonespamfilter technology is not as cool as JWZ-endorsed audio-cock technology (“their computer’s speakers should create some sort of cock-shaped soundwave and plunge it repeatedly through their skulls”), but I guess it’s a start.

They also have sites in Australia, New Zealand, France, and UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Where’s My Flying Car Part I : KABOOM!

“Celebrating Gertsen, we clearly see three generations,
three classes acting in the Russian Revolution. First –
noblemen and landowners, Decembrists and Herzen.
Horribly distant from the people. But their work was not in wain.
Decembrists woke Herzen. Herzen began revolutionary agitation.”
V.I. Lenin

Computers have existed like for 200,000 years in Internet time, yet the innovation in computer technology seems to be a little slow. Brick and mortar slow. Let me present to you an approximate timeline:

In 1945 Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote an article As We May Think about a device called the Memex.

In 1960 Theodor Holm Nelson, inspired by Bush, coined the term “hypertext” and started on Project Xanadu, a vaporware Superinternet.

In 1968 Dr. Douglas Engelbart delivered the MOAD, demonstrating videoconferencing, email, hypertext, copy and paste, as well as some novel input devices including a mouse.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart show a progression from a dream into reality. Bush was a pure dreamer – he never intended to actually try and build the Memex. Nelson at least tried to build Xanadu, although he failed miserably. He could not even get to the demo stage. Engelbart actually built enough stuff to make very impressive demos, although never to build actual successful products except the mouse. These guys suffered from the RAND Corporation syndrome–the common joke went that RAND stood for Reasearch And No Development.

The problem with these three was that they could not focus on individual problems. Luckily for us, next came Xerox PARC. Xerox corporation had money coming out of its wazoo, decided to invest in a world class R&D center. They used the same approach that Google is using today: spend the extra money on hiring the brightest technologists around and let them run free and wild.

Bush, Nelson and Engelbart were a lot like a character named Manilov in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Manilov was an owner of a large rundown estate. He spent his days dreaming about improving it. Wouldn’t it be nice to build a bridge over the river and on it build little merchant booths so that the peasants could buy stuff there. Of course, none of his projects ever went anywhere, and if they did, they were quickly abandoned.

PARC engineers were men of action. Each concentrated on a particular aspect, and they’ve built working models of many things that we enjoy today: personal computer with GUI interfaces, Ethernet, WYSIWYG text editor, laser printer, and even a computer animation system amongst other things. Sadly, Xerox was able to capitalize mostly on the laser printer, which actually probably paid for all of PARC’s expenses. PARC indirectly influenced Apple and Microsoft in the development of GUI OS. Also Charles Simonyi left PARC to develop Word and Excel for Microsoft, thus creating an enormous amount of wealth. Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs also left PARC, took Ethernet and turned it into 3COM. John Warnock and Charles Geschke left PARC, took PostScript and created a little company called Adobe Systems. Well, you get the picture.

To give you another analogy, the technological revolution of the 60s, 70s and 80s was like a hydrogen bomb. A hydrogen bomb is made of three bombs: a conventional explosive that ignites a fission explosive that in turn ignites a fusion explosion. Semiconductor industry created by William Shockley and the Traitorous Eight was the fuel, Bush and Company–the conventional explosion, PARC–fission, what came after–fusion. KABOOM!

What Do I Know About What People Like?

As you might have noticed, for all my ranting about redesigns, I went ahead and redesigned my own site. It took me all of 3 hours. I changed the template a bit, fixed a nasty WordPress search bug that inserted unsightly escape characters into search strings, changed all the urls for more search engine friendly ones (while preserving all the original ones) and made navigation arrows a bit more consistent. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? This is all a part of my effort to finally get over the thousand reader mark on the Feedburner counter. It stands at 915 today (and I used that counter graphic as one of my Optimus Mini’s applets).

I get a lot of Google and Google images traffic, as my humble blog is the second search result for “starbucks logo”. After reading my article about the Starbucks Melusine, most visitors just scamper away. I realized that I need some kind of a hook at the end of the page. I added the easy subscribe buttons, links to del.icio.us , Digg, Reddit and Netscape and a sampling of what I think are some of my better posts.

What I think are my better posts are, probably is not what you, the readers, think. So, if I may be so bold, please tell me what posts do you think should make “Best of Deadprogrammer” list, as well, as which particular post made you subscribe to my rss feed (or to bookmark my site). Also, in an effort to overcome the 1K reader barrier, I will even stoop so low, as to ask all of you for a link, if you can spare one. The thousand reader barrier must be broken.

Speaking of statistics, here’s a comparison of Feedburner’s breakdown. Since 2005 I went from 47 readers to 915. I am surprised to see a decrease in Livejournal readers since I quit it. Well, what can you do. I think I should give up my blog and move to Myspace. That’s where all the cool kids are and where most of my image traffic is coming from, even after I played a bit of a trick on them.