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.

Transit Strike: Day 2

I worked from home all day yesterday, but today I got a lift from my father in law and made it to the office. On the way there, I saw a rather weird thing – a small plane was skywriting what seemed to be a huge frowning smiley emoticon. Did anyone else notice? It dissipated before I had a chance to take a better picture.

Despite the strike, the streets were choked with grim-faced New Yorkers, as usual. Also on the way I saw several MTA buses (probably ferrying union members to picketing locations) and an ungodly number of stretch limos. Cruising in limo when the hoi polloi are forced to carpool, bike or walk seems like an irresponsible thing to do. On the other hand, maybe the rich and the famous are limopooling…

The most photographed sign is ready for its close-up.

The always open 47th street station is sporting some classy art deco gates. I think I’ve seen them only once or twice before.

The neon-encrusted Times Sq. station is simply shuttered.

It looks like Kringle would not negotiate with the Reindeer Local 100.


Back when Al Gore took the initiative in creating the Internet, this dude named James Parry figured out an interesting promotional trick. He built a homegrown Usenet search utility and tirelessly trolled it for the mentions of his own nickname, “Kibo“. When he found some, he would join the conversation. This feat of persistence gained him thousands of fans and even a homegrown religion, Kibology. I don’t think anyone has figured out a finer way to waste time, especially considering that commercial application of search technology in the past tended to mint millionaires and billionaires.

I have a special folder in my Bloglines accounts that holds a set of very popular, but surprisingly unreadable blogs. Remembering Kibo today, I think I understood why Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble has so many readers. He’s the Kibo of bloggers! Look (and this is just one page):
Joey is 10x the guy I am
Rick Segal debates my impact
Alfredo asks what Wired’s top 40 list says to me
And this is just the first page! The quick pitter-patter of Scoble’s posts is filled with references to other people’s posts about him! Can Scoblelology be far behind? So far no hits.

Still, this does not explain why people read Joi Ito’s blog. It could be more properly described as “Where in the World is Joi Ito”. It’s all “Off to Japan“, “Off to SF“, “Off to Japan“, “Off to Australia“. I get it, he’s a world traveler.

Three Years of Poor Grammar, Bad Spelling and Procrastination

I started this blog in May of 2002. I got my first digital camera around this time as well. So, it’s time to look back at my 3 years of blogging and 3 years of digital photography.

My mostly backed up (is yours?) photo folder holds about 27 gigabytes of photos, which translates into about 16,500 files (I use Picasa to organize them and a usb drive for backup). That’s about 458 rolls of 36 exposure film. At 5-6 bucks a pop for film and then a couple of bucks for processing that’s a lot of mon-ay. Of course I print a lot less and mostly show pictures in the blog, but still this is a huge economy.

In three years of blogging I wrote 824 posts containing 117,274 words. Considering an average of half an hour per post that’s about 50 eight hour work days. That is a lot of time, people. Considering that I do not write posts at work, this is a very sizable chunk of my free time. I could have written a book in this amount of time.

According to Feedburner my current readership is puny. 47 (a special number, isn’t it?) livejournal readers, 8 from Bloglines, and a couple of others, some of which are probably bots. When I hosted my site in Livejournal it seemed like I had about 250 readers, but as it turned out most of those were just “you added me, I added you” kind of deals. Even then I was far behind Ripley the Cat (and I find it very hard to get over this fact).

So, sob story about the number of readers aside, now I am a member of the elite group of bloggers who have been doing this for 3 years. How elite, you might ask? Let’s ask Mighty Google. Here is a graph of how many results come back to “x year(s) of blogging”, where x is “one”, “two”, “three”, etc. This, of course has just a slight correlation with the number of years people have been blogging, as “hundred years of blogging” brings back three results.

My website that hit the Information Superhighway back in 1996. It helped my future wife find me and gave me some rudimentary skills for my first web job. The blog hasn’t been so useful or popular, it seems. Maybe back then there was less good content on the web, and now there are shite waterfalls of it. Or maybe I need do something to market it. Like asking my staunch 47 + 8 + x readers to link to their favorite post or two (all of the old posts are searchable from http://www.deadprogrammer.com). Right?

Deadprogrammer.com is Moving

Once again instead of writing something good for you to read I am changing my blogging software. Movable Type was a little better than Livejournal, but looks like WordPress is the right tool for me.

It will take some time for me to fix the feeds, lins, etc, so bear with me for a while.

IHA: I Heart Acronyms

I am reading blogs with bloglines.com aggregator these days. I have four categories of blogs there : FIMB, PIMB, RB and LJ.

FIMB stands for Famous Incontinent and Mostly Boring. These are “A-list” blogs like Scobelizer, which are updated with the frequency of bunny poop and are so full of mentions of wiki, podcasting and other buzzwords that it’s not even funny. Still, amongst bunny pooplets there are often interesting links. FIMBS rarely generate original content, but mostly comment on what’s going on. Being gadflies they do that pretty well.

PIMB stands for Pompous Incontinent Multiauthor Blogs like Gothamist. These are usually for-profit blogs with several authors that post even more frequently than FIMBs. There’s mindless link and meme propagation galore, but with a twist. First of all they often have a unifying topic, like NYC or gadgets or politics. Then there’s the attempt to emulate print journalism with things like editorials. The most bizarre trait of some PIMBS is when different authors start to express opinions on behalf of the blog : “Gothamist will go back to finding baseball kinda boring” or “All Gothamist can say is we can’t wait to see Douche or Turd”. My guess is that PIMBs happen when a couple of IMBs or FIMBS get together. I separated PIMBS because they are not as boring as FIMBS, but left unchecked they fill my reading with buzz and white noise.

RB is a set of regular blogs, authors of which make well crafted and original posts. There are some FIMBsh blogs lumped in there, but those usually don’t have the most annoying traits of FIMBs. LJ is a set of all of my livejournal reading.

Top 10 Reasons Why Deadprogrammer Left Livejournal

1) Old entries are hard to get to: “back n entries” works only for a while, after that you need to go day by day. Which makes paging through a blog that is not updated daily a nightmare.

2) Can’t run ads.

3) The degenerate “friends” system with it’s stupid add/remove politics. It’s better to read stuff in an aggregator.

4) Livejournal is widely known for drama and teenage angst. Having a Livejournal blog is similar to having an AOL email – it doesn’t matter that the famous hacker JWZ has one. People will still think that you are a loser.

5) No categories. You have to keep a separate journal if you want to give your readers an ability to read only stuff that interests them. I want to write some entries in Russian, but do not want to have a separate journal for that. Also some of my readers might be interested in my photos, but not in what I think about Livejournal.

6) Constant outages, lost posts, slowness and other technical fun. What else can you expect if you share your servers with a million teenagers frantically refreshing their “friends lists”.

7) No trackback.

8) Image hosting that is still in beta, but a fully released “phonepost” system that instead of using MP3 format uses OGG. I spent a couple of hours trying to find a player that would actually play these files when I click on them, but for the most part miserably failed. Those are a couple of hours of my life that I’ll never get back. I mean, what the hell is wrong? You click on a file, the player opens, but doesn’t play anything. You click play button – nothing. You click again…. Arrrgh, it’s driving me nuts!

9) No web logs – you have no idea how many people actually read your stuff. The only indicators that you might have are how many “friends” you have and how many comments you get (both of which are poor indicators). Since you can’t run JavaScript, you can’t have a reliable third party tracker either. I’ve had a visitor from northropgrumman.com at my new shiny (well, not so shiny yet) MT based site, and I would not have know that if it was still at Livejournal. Hey, Northrop Grumman reader, who are you?

10) If you set an article with a future date in Livejournal, instead of showing up if your readers lists normally, it sometimes disappears. There’s a bug there somewhere.

Livejournal does have a superior comment system, but since I don’t get too many comments it doesn’t matter that much.

Did you expect the Spanish Inquisition? No? Well, nobody does. But it brings you 11th reason:

11) No integrated search.

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