Ze Paul Frank

In my career as a web development I’ve seen a lot of brilliant and competent people, as well as a lot of utter incompetents, on all levels of the corporate ladder and working at all levels of productivity. Basically, if I were to make a competence scale, it would look something like this:

– <–10-9-8-7-6-4-5-4-3-2-1-0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10–> +

Let’s say user data release by AOL would rate at negative 7; setting out to rewrite Netscape from scratch at negative 9; changing all the links of an established website in the name of SEO at negative 5; writing tons of spaghetti code that nevertheless functions and serves users at positive 1; coming up with PageRank algorithm and implementing it — at positive 10. There are also those who come into the office and do nothing at all – that’s 0. Ase we all seem to notice and remember negative things better than positive, sometimes corporate life seems like one big orgy of incompetence and bad ideas.

I’ve long had a theory, why even with so many negative contributions, American companies mostly prosper and thrive, despite incompetency. To explain it, I usually use an ant metaphor. See, when ants are carrying a bug or a caterpillar back to the nest, they almost always succeed. But the thing is, they do not cooperate very well. They all have different ideas about which way to pull, and some, instead of helping, actually climb on the cargo or collide with other ants. Others just watch from the sidelines and generally mill about. But even though ants pull in different directions, the resulting force vector generally leads to the nest, and the caterpillar gets there eventually.

Recently, an article about a designer Paul Frank caught my attention. He is fighting his former business partners who jettisoned him from the company bearing his name. He came up with the design ideas that made the company what it is, as well as lent it his name. The business partners accused him of not contributing to the daily business grind, bought out his shares and either fired him or drove him to resigning (depends on whose story you listen to). It’s getting nasty:

” “Those guys are saying Paul Frank is not a person,” says the designer, whose given name is Paul Frank Sunich. “I hear they’re all wearing T-shirts that say ‘We Are Paul Frank.’ Well, you’re Paul Frank Industries. You’re not Paul Frank.”

I’ve seen the monkey design that Paul Frank is so famous for, but did not know that it was a multimillion dollar business. Apparently it’s very popular – and I definitely do believe that both the business partners that made this quirky brand into such a powerhouse and the guy who conceived it made positive contributions.

What I have the issue with is the person who’s running their web department. It’s not even the unusable obnoxious flash-ridden websites that don’t work in Firefox. It’s the fact that this person apparently never did something very basic – typed in “Paul Frank” into Google. Because when you do, you get this as a first result:

I don’t have a problem with the programmer who used a stock client detection script from somewhere. We all do that. But putting “Client Detection Script” as the title of the first page of your site is rather idiotic. And nobody at the company even searched for “Paul Frank” in Google, even if to see what other Paul Franks there are out there!

Getting back to my ant theory, squabbles, badly designed websites and all those people who prolifically do bad things are balanced out by things done right. The website may suck, but the brand is so good that people will put up with it. Individual ants might be doing stupid and counterproductive things, but it all gets balanced out. The caterpillar gets dragged into the nest, whether it wants it or not.

I Am a Published Photographer

time out new york article

All those years of taking pictures and publishing them on my websites have finally paid off. My photo has been published in a print publication.

See, because of my article about Graybar Building a Time Out New York photo editor asked me if she could use the rat picture. I sent her a hi-rez version (I can’t say that I’d crop it like that though).

So, the moral of the story is – take your own pictures instead of using what Google image search or free sock photo databases give you and one day you’ll also be published in a magazine. There’s no money (or even a free magazine copy) in it and the photo credit is placed in an impossible to read location and did not include deadprogrammer.com url like I asked, but I feel very special anyway. The article is in this week’s Time Out New York – run and get this sure to become collectible issue.

Anyway, if you know anyone who’d like to use some of my pictures, write me an email or something.

The Russian Tea Room Syndrome


“Man told me,” He said, “that these here elevators was Mayan architecture. I never knew that till today. An I says to him, ‘What’s that make me– mayonnaise?’ Yes, yes! And while he was thinking that over, I hit him with a question that straightened him up and made him think twice as hard! Yes, yes!”

“Could we please go down, Mr. Knowles?” begged Miss Faust.

“I said to him,” said Knowles, ” ‘This here’s a research laboratory. Re-search means look again, don’t it? Means they’re looking for something they found once and it got away somehow, and now they got to re-search for it? How come they got to build a building like this, with mayonnaise elevators and all, and fill it with all these crazy people? What is it they’re trying to find again? Who lost what?’ Yes, yes!”

“That’s very interesting,” sighed Miss Faust. “Now, could we go down?”

Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle

The Russian Tea Room, once a popular restaurant created by ballerinas and danseurs (aka male ballerinas) of the Russian Imperial Ballet for themselves and their friends. Later it became an expensive restaurant for the Manhattan high society. In 1996 the new owners closed it down for 4 year and $36 million renovations. In 2002 the restaurant closed, and the owners were bankrupt. In the aftermath, one of the chefs, M.D. Rahman, can be found on 6th avenue and 45th street selling some of the tastiest street food in Manhattan. I bet he’s making more than he did back at the Russian Tea Room now with his little cart.

In the parlance of the Internet this is known as a “redesign” or a “relaunch.” If you are making a living out of web development, like I do, chances are that you participated in a vicious cycle of web site redesigns. They usually happen like this: managers decide to do it and get funding, a lot of meetings follow, specifications are written (or not), arbitrary deadlines are set, designers create graphical mock-ups, then coders swarm and engage in what’s referred to as “death-march.” Managers change their minds about the look and feel a few times during the death-march for an extra morale boost. Finally, a redesigned website launches. Managers start planning the next redesign right away.

In the olden times the CEO’s nephew often got the web design job. Well, these days the nephew grew up, he has a consulting agency. “This is old and busted, let me redesign this mess and you’ll get new hotness” – he says. Pointy-haired bosses everywhere nod and say – “yes, yes, new hotness”, and the cycle keeps on going, redesign after a redesign.

There are a few different types of redesigns. Firs of all, there’s changing the look. In the simplest and best form, this is a very quick deal, especially if the site is properly architected for quick changes. It’s like taking your plain vanilla cellphone, buying a snazzy faceplate, one click – instant new hotness. I have nothing against this sort of redesigns.

The only thing you have to look out for here is what I call the “Felicity effect.” A television show Felicity had a famous redesign failure – the actress Keri Russell cut her trademark long hair. One might argue that she is hot no matter what, but the show suffered a huge drop in ratings. You have to keep in mind that a new look rarely attracts new customers, but often upsets the old ones. For instance, I like Keri’s new look, but I would not start watching that show.

The second type of a redesign involves changing the underlying technology of the site. One might change the content management engine, database engine, rewrite the site in a different language, make it run on a different web server, different operating system, etc. These usually turn out to be the most disastrous and costly of redesigns.

Joel Spolsky wrote about “… the single worst strategic mistake that any software company can make: … rewrit[ing] the code from scratch.” In the web publishing world these kinds of rewrites cause a lot of grief and devastation. A huge technology change always requires a lot of debugging and fixing afterwards, and as soon as most of the bugs are fixed, a new redesign comes around, because, see, ASP.NET 2.0 C# is “old and busted” and Vista Cruiser Mega Platform D## is “new hotness.”

I am not talking here about replacing a technology simply because it does not work or is dangerous. But redesigns are rarely aimed at fixing things – they are done in search of hot technologies and hot looks. By the way, amongst pointy-haired web execs fixing things is less glamorous than perusing new technologies, and that is less glamorous than changing the looks.

A building superintendent I know was in a middle of a huge project – repairing three old and unsafe elevators as well as fixing the crumbling facade of the building. Although the repairs were crucial, they did not earn him the love of the tenants that the old superintendent enjoyed. The old super, instead of fixing broken things, engaged in an almost constant painting projects, changing the color of the paint every time just a little bit. And when he wasn’t repainting, he would leave out the paint bucket and a brush on some rugs in the lobby.

The web execs often go for the best of both worlds – equivalent to changing the foundation of the building (and not the old one was sagging), as well as painting it a new color at the same time. The full Monty web redesign is what the pointy-haired want.

Let’s take a look at the sense that such redesigns make from a capitalist point of view in an area that I know well — web publishing. Web publishing businesses work just like any other. You take some money (aka capital), you spend that money to produce something and you hope that that something makes you even more money one way or another. In economics this is known as Marx’s general formula for capital: Money-Commodity-Money.

Another thing that I faintly remember from my economics class is a rather disturbing concept called “opportunity cost“. See, when you invest money in something you instantly incur this cost. Why? because you can’t invest your money twice, and there always seems to be something you could have invested in that would give you a better return. Let’s say it’s 1995 and you are an editor in, oh, Random House or HarperCollins. You have a budget to publish some children’s books and there’s a pile of proposals on your table. You pick a few. They make money, win awards, etc. Yet, the opportunity cost on every one of those books is about a kajillion dollars, as in that pile there was a certain book by a woman named Joanne Rowling.

In theory, any web executive’s first objective should be to make, and not lose money. Also they should look to minimize the opportunity cost whenever possible. This is of course not the case for many of them. They are thinking: hey I have this fat budget – I can do a big redesign, or …. hmm, what else can I do with that money so it will make me more money?

So how would one go about increasing profits? In the web publishing today content is once again king because of the maturing web advertising, vast improvements in hosting costs and google-inspired web indexing and searching. This was not the case in the earlier days of the web, but now you can directly convert “eyeballs” into profits. The process is rather simple: you create web pages, users visit them, you show users ads (for which you are paid). The relationship is linear – more users = more ad impressions = more money.

So, first of all, you might produce more pages. With search engines like Google, even pages that are hidden in archives of your website will still produce pageviews. The more pages you add, the more revenue you’ll get. In fact, pages with useful information, once placed online become something very dear to a capitalist’s heart – an income generating asset, the very thing that the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad is so excited about. They are like the geese that lay golden eggs.

The cost of producing more pages comes from three sources: the cost of content – you need to pay someone to write, take pictures, etc; the cost of placing it online – “web producers”, the people who write html, create hyperlinks and optimize images draw a salary; and the cost of hosting/bandwidth – if you are hosting huge videos you costs might be more than what you can get from advertising, but if it’s just text and pictures you are golden. As you surely don’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, there’s the fourth cost: the opportunity cost of showing this content for free, instead of asking for subscription money. The main thing to remember, once the content/feature is created, the costs to keep it online and generating money is trivial.

Besides producing more content, there are other ways of making more money. One might improve the relevance of ads on your pages. If you have a third party ad system, you are pretty much can’t do that. But if you have your own, you might create mechanisms for serving super-relevant ads. Sometimes you might add e-commerce capability to your content website. For instance, if you have a gadget review site, injecting opportunities to easily and cheaply buy the gadgets that you are writing about will likely bring in more more money than machine generated dumb ads.

One might create content that is more valuable to advertisers. For instance, keywords such as “mesothelioma lawyers”, “what is mesothelioma” and “peritoneal mesothelioma” generate ridiculous costs per click on Google’s AdSense. If creating content about “form of cancer that is almost always caused by previous exposure to asbestos” that is so popular with lawyers is not your piece of cake, you can create content about loans, mortgages, registering domain names, etc.

Then we enter the murky waters of web marketing, and especially “SEO” – search engine optimization. In short, if you get other websites to link to your pages, you will get more vistits, partially from those links, and even more importantly, because search engines will place your pages higher in their results. The hard, but honest way to do this is to produce unique, interesting and timely content. No body’s interested in that. Encouraging the readers to link by providing urls that never change and even “link to us” buttons is not in vogue: most web execs prefer non-linkable flash pages. Another way is to pay for links – in the best case for straight up advertising, in the worst case – to unscrupulous “link farm” owners that sell PageRank. Then comes the deep SEO voodoo – changing the file names, adding meta tags, creating your own link farms and hidden keyword pages. At the worst, there’s straight up link and comment spamming. Unethical methods of promoting your business work: Vardan Kushnir who spammed the entire world to promote his “Center for American English” had enough money for booze and hookers, but not many people shed a tear for him when he was brutally murdered (maybe even for spamming). In corporate world the equivalent is the PageRank ban from Google.

So, you could spend your money on all of these things that I described, and hopefully make more money. On the other hand, redesigning a website from top to bottom to make it “look good” or “more usable” will not bring in more “eyeballs”. A redesign of a large site takes several months for the entire web staff. The possible positive aspects of the redesign are these:

1) Faster loading pages
2) Easier to read text
3) More straightforward navigation
4) Cleaner look
6) Bug fixes
7) Switching from a more expensive software and hardware to cheaper

Existing users will probably like you better, but will new ones all of a sudden descend onto the redesigned site? Not likely. In fact, some think that the ugliness of MySpace design is an asset rather than a drawback. People want something from websites. Be it news, funny links, videos, naked pictures, savings coupons or product reviews, design does not matter too much to them. If they can click it, read it and (for the valuable geeks with blogs and websites) link to it – users are generally satisfied.

Here’s an example of a well executed major redesign of a high profile website, the New York Times. NYT always had a well designed website, and the new one is pretty nice too. But is there a lot of new traffic? Here’s an Alexa graph.

At the worst redesigns bring:

1) Broken links (sometimes every single url changes and all links from outside break)
2) Heavier graphics, proliferation of Macromedia Flash
3) Slower loading pages
4) Loss of features and content
5) New bugs
6) New software and licensing costs, more expensive servers

Often this is all that they bring. Broken links hurt the search engine positioning. New software costs money. It takes a long while to work out the bugs.

Here’s an Alexa graph of another major redesign on a website, which name I’d like to omit. Just as the traffic recovered after a big redesign in 2000, a new one hit in 2003. It seems to be recovering again.

The thing is, many businesses are very robust and the disastrous effects of web redesigns do not kill them. Pointy-haired bosses make their buddies rich, while getting kudos for the redesigns. Everyone stays busy, and software companies get to sell a lot of server software.

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.

See No Evil

I don’t care what Sergey says; I think that google.cn is evil. Writing about this in a blog that runs Adsense advertising would be more hypocritical than I usually am, so I removed all Adsense advertising and replaced it with my own ad.

There. Look at me. I am claiming a slightly higher moral ground.

I guess I’ll continue using google.com and gmail.com since I am nothing but a drain on their resources anyway. I can’t recall when I clicked on an ad there last time when and it wasn’t a “pity click.” My guess is that they are making their bajillions of dollars from clickbots .

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.

Serenity Now!

I finally went to see Serenity. Being a not-very-rabid-yet-somewhat-enthusiastic fan of Firefly, I had pretty good expectations of this movie. I was not disappointed – the movie indeed was pretty good. My gripes can be best presented in the following bullet points (if I had the time, I would have created a powerpoint deck for you):

  • No blue-handed men (“Two By Two, Hands of Blue”) or any explanation as to why their hands were blue. And mighty Google brings back hilarious, but most unsatisfying results
  • “The operative” is not bounty hunter Jubal Early, but instead what seems like a one-dimensional character based on the early notes for Jubal Early.
  • I don’t like the explanation of the nature of Reavers.
  • The soundtrack was worse than in the TV Series

Meanwhile, it seemed to me that I’ve seen Morena Baccarin, the actress who plays Inara, somewhere else. I was not mistaken – she had a bit role in a movie that I like very much, Roger Dodger. There she is, Cosmo in hand, next to the boss she has a crush on, right after talking to Roger:

I got to give her credit – so 2 out of 4 movies Morena took a part in are really good. I have half the mind to pick up the other two, to see maybe if they are good too.

By the way, I never really understood what’s so great about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It always seemed like a cheesy show with wooden acting, but then again, I never watched an entire episode or learned the backstory. I guess I’ll have to rent the first season DVDs and see if it’s any good.

Shiny stuff:

Serenity comic book prequel – a bit of filler between the TV series and the movie:

Original TV series soundtrack. It’s on pre-order still, but at least it’s happening.

“Finding Serenity : Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly” contains rants about “Firefly” from various pundits, including an inflammatory (and labeled by some as “male-chauvinistic”) article about the role of women in sci-fi by John C. Wright (as much as I like his science fiction and hate his fantasy, I have to say that he’s full of it).

Deadprogrammer Visits The Radiator Planet

If you live in New York, chances are pretty high that you live in an apartment building. We, young generation X-ers, face a tough choice. To be able to afford a house without Google stock options, you need to move either to New Jersey (technically ceasing to be a New Yorker) or to Staten Island. Which is a fate worse than death. The rest, find refuge in the bajillion of apartment buildings on the Isle of Long or in Manhattan itself. There are also some in Jersey City, Queens and the Bronx. Apartment living is a reality for most Manhattanites and card-carrying members of the Bridge and Tunnel society, such as myself.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen central air heating in a New York apartment. Apartments here are heated with radiators. Radiators are noisy, prone to overheating and generally troublesome. As the heating season is about to start, let me share with you my wealth of radiator knowledge.

There are three major heating system types common to the New York area: water, one pipe steam and two pipe steam. Only the oldest buildings have water heating, if you have one of those, you are on your own. I’ve never seen a two pipe steam system either, so the only one I can tell you about is the almost century-old technology – the one pipe steam radiator with a Hoffman valve. It’s very, very likely you have one of these.

In this picture Gary the cat shows you what a typical single pipe system looks like. It’s basically a steam-carrying pipe sticking out of the floor, connecting with your radiator via a valve. A mistake that most people are making, is thinking that by twiddling with this valve it’s possible to control the temperature. This is absolutely wrong. In theory, you should be able to open and close this valve to start or stop the flow of steam. In practice, as most of these are very old, the gaskets don’t hold steam at all even in the closed position. Closed and half-open position usually does not result in much other than noise from the condensed water that can’t get back down and leaks.

This heating system is very simple. Steam enters the radiator through the pipe, condenses as water and leaves down the pipe. It has numerous advantages: steam is more efficient than heated water, there’s next to no chance of the system freezing (when that happens to a water-heated radiator on the coldest day of the winter, it’s not a lot of fun – just ask Joel). Steam radiators like this existed in Victorian times as well, with one exception. They tended to explode if too much pressure was applied, maiming and killing hapless apartment dwellers. That’s why so many brownstones have water-heated systems.

In 1913 George D. Hoffman started a company that produced an ingenious little device that made steam radiators safe. If you look at your radiator, you’ll find a little vent that usually looks like a miniature rocket ship (as you can see both my radiator and the valve have Streamline / Art Deco styling very popular in the period when my building was built). Chances are, it will be a Hoffman Specialty Model 40. This device works like a not very bright Maxwell’s demon: it lets air enter the radiator or escape, but stops steam from escaping.

The whistling noise that you hear at night is air escaping the radiator when it fills up with steam. If the vent is not correctly sized or, which is more frequent, got clogged up with mineral deposits, you will hear water and steam spurting out of it and destroying your neighbor’s ceiling. Worst case scenario – the valve gets stuck on open and fills your entire room with steam, ruining the walls and possibly burning you. When changing a clogged valve, make sure that the steam is off and is going to stay off while you change it, and be around when the steam is going back on to make sure that there are no leaks.

Even if you have a properly sized and regulated valve and you pitch the radiator towards the pipe to let the water drain without making much “water hammer” noise, it’s likely that your apartment will be overheated. Most are. As the intake valve is usually out of commission, the best way to turn off the radiator is to close the steam valve by turning it upside down (I’ve heard about this trick on This Old House. This is rather inconvenient and a bit dangerous – you might strip the threads and end up with a whole room full of steam. My guess is that there would not be an explosion as the valve is engineered to open if the pressure is excessive. Maybe not, I don’t know.

The best thing to do is to purchase a regulated thermostatic valve. These are improved valves with a sensor that closes the valve when the temperature reaches a certain level. While not perfect, these really let you exert a tiny bit of control over your apartment’s temperature. It also lets you easily shut down the radiator, as sometimes the buildings overheat so much, that you don’t need heat at all.

The kit usually consists of three parts: a temperature control device, an adaptor and a Hoffman-type valve. This will run you about $100 altogether. I have one on two radiators, and let me tell you, these are worth every penny.

P.S. I am rather curious as to what George D. Hoffman looked like and what his life story was. Somehow I imagine him as a fat dude in a three piece suit with some ridiculous Victorian hair and beard-style. If you ever find a picture of him, please let me know. All I could dig up was an old brochure (PDF) that featured the Hoffman company logo: “The Use of Hoffman Valves Make a Poor Job Better A Good Job Perfect.”


Don’t you wish you could peer inside the walls to see if there are electric wires there, or leaking pipes? Well, now you can with a Fiberoptic Borescope for way under 200 bucks!

Milwaukee drills are some of the finest drills ever.

Basin wrenches are some of the most useful tools missing from most toolboxes.

Captcha Gotcha

I’ve been using CAPTCHA — Completely Automated Public Turing Test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”, that little graphic showing a string of numbers that needs to be typed in to submit a comment to this blog. Guess what – I see furious reloads of the comment page generated by spambots, yet 0 comment spam. Zero! I changed the script that generates my CAPTCHA so that it would make it easier for people. It’s weak enough that an automated solution might solve it, but I am yet to see a spammer sophisticated enough. There are enough unprotected blogs out there to make this sort of effort useless.

I guess soon enough we will see some kind of a spam Cold War when companies like Google will start using CAPTCHA as a method for email SPAM protection. We need to take our email back – now most of the time I don’t even feel like writing to people – there’s a very good chance that my email will get lost and ignored (well, that might also be that the people I write ignore my emails on their merits, but I like to stay optimistic). What’s funny, is that like with Cold War arms race, we might get some fringe benefits in the field of Artificial Intelligence. I say, bring it on.

Architectural Pain in the Ass

I have to apologize for this cringe inducing intro wherein I attempt to translate an old kindergarten joke from Russian into English. Sorry, but I really can’t find a better way to do this.

So, in an enchanted forest a wolf catches a rabbit. A talking rabbit, apparently, as the rabbit says — look, how about this — I’ll give you two puzzles to solve, and if you do, I’ll take you to the place where my friends and family hang out. If you can’t solve them — you let me go. The wolf agrees. The first puzzle is : “Two rings, two ends and a bolt in the middle.” The wolf does not know. “It’s scissors” – says the rabbit. OK, then, the second one. “No doors, no windows, house full of guests.” “No idea” – says the wolf. “It’s a cucumber” says the rabbit, and the wolf lets him go. Next day a bear catches the wolf, and the wolf makes a similar deal with the bear. OK, what is it – “no doors, no windows, ass full of cucumbers?”

Every time I pass 2 Columbus Circle that’s what I am thinking about. An ass full of cucumbers. (I shudder to think about where this page is going to be located in Google search results).

Edward Durrell Stone created this perforated windowless museum that looks like a Soviet-era public bathroom on crack. In fact, I am pretty sure that’s what Mr. Stone was smoking. Well, actually according to Great Fortune by Daniel Okrent he was a hardcore drinker during his earlier years and later quit. So I guess he either drank too much or not enough.

Unsatisfied with uglification through regular soulless International Style this architect came up with a whole new kind of ugly. He took the starkness of modernism and combined it with unnecessary and non-functional ornamentation. For his own house he took a normal 19th century brownstone and paced a perforated grille over it. Funnily enough, even though he raped the creation of a Victorian architect, his own widow could not undo the concrete monstrosity that he wrought — together with other brownstones his house is now protected as a landmark.

2 Columbus Circle is thankfully not considered a landmark. There are some people out there though that think that it should be. Even they agree that Stone’s building is ugly and useless. But they like the fact that it’s a challenge, a slap in the face of architects who built beautiful and/or useful buildings in Manhattan.

I remember seeing Edward Durrell Stone House while passing it by in a cab and immediately turning my head around and going “WTF!??”. None of the hundreds of good looking brownstones in New York ever evoked this reaction from me. They mostly make me count along these lines as I walk by: “2 million, 4 million, 6 million, 8 million, 9.5 million, 12 million and a carriage house – so let’s say 12.5 million worth of brownstones on this street in Brooklyn”.

Stone reminds me of another architect who also created some terribly ugly and uninspired buildings, in one of which I spent many years. Wallace Harrison spent most of his entire life building terrible International Style buildings. Actually, he started his career together with Stone, working as one of the architects working on the Rockefeller Center design. Rockefeller Center was severely criticized while it was being constructed, but later on became an almost immediate favorite of both critics and laypeople, becoming one of the most celebrated architectural landmarks of New York. His later creations were mostly in International Style. He designed the 6th avenue Rockefeller Center Extension which mixed Deco and International style, and then a horrible row of International style nightmares.

I absolutely love the quote from Grea Fortune: “”The new buildings, with their broad plazas, generous promenades. and underground concourse system… are an exciting integral extension of Rockefeller Center in design, concept and philosophy.” But this was like saying that nuclear war is an integral extension of Quakerism …”

Interestingly enough, Harrison, after being rejected by critics and his patron, Nelson Rockefeller, became very bitter and disillusioned with International Style as evidenced by this rather homophobic quote (also from Grea Fortune):

“His late life, he claimed was “ruined … by the German Bauhaus and its groups of friends who have had a disastrous effect on American architecture.” Elsewhere he characterized the proponents of the International Style as “homos who found it a good public relations [sic] to hang their hats on” “.

Well, I think that homosexuals (yeah, blame it all on them, right) have nothing to do with Harrison’s and Stone’s solidified nightmares. It’s just that they were horrible architects.