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 House of Lamps or Lamp Lust

I firmly believe that expensive and well designed office chairs like Aeron or Mirra make a very good investment. On the other hand my friend, a very successful entrepreneur, tells me that much cheaper 300 dollar chairs are just as good, and that his most prized employees, when asked what kind of a chair they want said that it does not matter. My friend is very smart, very rich, and probably right.

People who have chair lust, like me, sometimes have an even more irrational desire – to buy expensive table lamps. When Joel Spolsky visited me at work, i pointed out to him that everyone at my office had a four hundred dollar Artemide Tolomeo desk lamp. Joel, famous for his office architecture fetish, was not impressed — oh yeah, we have a whole bunch of them too at Fog Creek, — he said.

I noticed that the set designer of the hit show House, MD also has an obsession with lamps. Even more interestingly, I noticed that Dr House’s office has three very interesting lamps.

Lamp A is a paragon of British design, Bestlite, a lamp that I always wanted, and never bought because it’s crazy to spend that much money on a lamp. Designed by Robert Dudley Best and made famous by Winston Churchill, who had one in his office, it’s the Bentley of expensive designer lamps. It’s just crazy to spend over $600 on a lamp, innit?

Lamp B is the Artemide Tolomeo, a floor version of the lamp that I have at work. It’s a beautiful lamp that works very well. The desk version is about half the price of Bestlite, but it’s crazy to spend $300 on a lamp, right? Even if it’s designed by Michele De Lucchi and Giancarlo Fassina?

Lamp C appears all throughout Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital and gets the most screen time. It’s a 25 dollar Antifoni work lamp from Ikea, and the one that I have on my desk at home. Who designed it? I don’t know, it says “Ikea of Sweden”. What does Antifoni mean? According to Nordic Names, a website for translating crazy Ikea names like Bjöberg and Drömma, it means “antiphony“.

By the way, apparently Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad has a Nazi past and chose to name all the furniture because SKUs were hard for him to keep track of due to his dyslexia. Also Gillis Lundgren, besides being famous for designing the Billy bookcase (I have 12 of these in my apartment) , actually invented the concept of flat pack furniture when he sawed off legs from a table that would not fit into a car.

Also on the subject of Ikea lamps:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Recipe for Disaster

Have any of you seen an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa becomes a vegetarian? If you haven’t, too bad, because it has a lot to do with my first paid review on this blog.

Lisa: They can’t seriously expect us to swallow that tripe.
Skinner: Now as a special treat courtesy of our friends at the Meat Council, please help yourself to this tripe. [Class cheers and runs to table loaded with tripe.]
Lisa: Stop it Stop IT! Don’t you realize you’ve just been brainwashed by corporate propaganda?
Janie: Hmmph, apparently my crazy friend here hasn’t heard of the food chain.
Uter: Yeah, Lisa’s a grade A moron!
Ralph: When I grow up, I’m going to go to Bovine University.

Joel Spolsky has his underpants in a bunch because spoiled grade A… I mean, A-list bloggers are currently being showered with fancy laptops, all expenses paid trips and other goodies by PR agencies. Next thing we’ll see is the Webbys attendees start getting Emmys-like gift baskets. It’s a widely known fact in the entertainment industry: if you want the A-listers to attend your crappy awards show, you better give them some stuff that they can buy with their pocket money.

Since I am not an A-list blogger, nobody is trying to bribe me with a drool-inducing HDTV TIVO or a shiny new laptop, so if I want to shed some of my credibility, I’ll have to do some work. I decided to try out the very controversial http://www.reviewme.com.

The deal is simple: an advertiser asks me to write a review on my blog, and if I do, I get some money. I do have pretty good pagerank and a decent amount of readers (aka blog juice), so after a month or so of waiting, I got my first paying reviewee, chefs.com. They want me to review their recipes. Fine. Off to http://www.chefs.com/recipes/default.aspx I go. I do like to cook, and I do use recipe sites all the time.

The last time I searched for a recipe I was looking to do curry. See, I purchased this really awesome Maharajah Style Curry Powder from PENZEYS Spices. It’s pricey, but unlike curry powder that you might find in a supermarket, it’s made out of the best and freshest ingredients with a pound of Kashmir saffron for every 50lb of curry.

So I type in “curry” into chefs.com and sort by cook time (a seemingly useful feature). What do I get? 133 results overall, which is not stellar, but a number of curry recipes that take 0 minutes to prep and 0 minutes to cook. A boon to a busy web developer and blogger like myself. Just to think that I was using Joe Grossberg’s How to Make a Simple Curry “Anything” that takes whole 15 minutes!

Ok, so the supefast curry recipe turned out to be just a case of bad data, a lazy developer and a company (it could be that it consists of that one lazy developer) that does not use it’s own product(or does not care about it).

Moving on. Some time ago I had to look up a recipe for another exotic delicacy, Ä°ÅŸkembe çorbası. It’s a Turkish soup made of tripe. I have it regularly at a Turkish restaurant near my house, and it’s extremely delicious. Tripe can be very tasty when prepared right.

So I type in “tripe” into chefs.com. Here’s what I get:

To my disappointment, the first result, “Lighter Fresh Applesauce in Puff Pastry” does not contain any tripe. Neither do the rest of them.

From what I know, recipes are not really copyrightable. Because of that, it’s possible to get a couple of cds with recipes from somewhere or just scrape the web and start your own site. For instance, the recipe for “Lighter Fresh Applesauce in Puff Pastry” shows up on different websites with the same phrasing down to “Bake puff pastry shells according to package directions.” One of the sites even has nutritional info, but also omits the source of the recipe.

To conclude my review, chefs.com has reviews available elsewhere with one of the buggiest search interfaces I’ve ever seen. The owner of the site probably used some Bovine U-trained developers, and not that the site is generating pretty good revenue, is looking for a way to improve the search engine positioning. He or she has no clue about web development and marketing. I could provide that clue, but it’ll take a bit more than the $50 I should get for this review.

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.

Perfect Workmanship

Perfect workmanship is expensive. Why? Because it means starting over or laboriously fixing tiny little imperfections. Joel Spolsky describes this very nicely in his article about craftsmanship:

“The moral of the story is sometimes fixing a 1% defect takes 500% effort. This is not unique to software, no sirree, now that I’m managing all these construction projects I can tell you that. Last week, finally, our contractor finally put the finishing touches on the new Fog Creek offices. This consisted of installing shiny blue acrylic on the front doors, surrounded by aluminium trim with a screw every 20 cm. If you look closely at the picture, the aluminium trim goes all the way around each door. Where the doors meet, there are two pieces of vertical trim right next to each other. You can’t tell this from the picture, but the screws in the middle strips are almost but not exactly lined up. They are, maybe, 2 millimeters off. The carpenter working on this measured carefully, but he was installing the trim while the doors were on the ground, not mounted in place, and when the doors were mounted, “oops,” it became clear that the screws were not exactly lined up.”

I was recently reading a book by Tracy Kidder called “House”. It’s a great book by the same Tracy Kidder who wrote “The Soul of a New Machine”. “The Soul” is a book about computer architects and builders. “House” is about their counterparts in the business of building houses. In one book Kidder describes the extremely stressful process of designing and building an Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer. In the other he describes the similarly stressful process of designing and building a Greek Revival house.

Both books read like a work of fiction, but they are absolutely factual, written about real people and real products. It’s very strange to be able to go and look up characters that became so familiar thanks to those two books. Steve Wallach from “The Soul” went on to form his own company, Convex Computer, sold it to HP in 1995 and is now a venture capitalist. You can even look up what he looks like now.

Bill Rawn from “The House” heads a big architectural firm of his own. Going there and seeing the buildings that he’s built after the house in the book is somewhat strange: he feels like a literary character, yet there he is, many years later after the events of the book took place. Souweine House, Amherst, MA is listed in the awards section of the website, but unfortunately there is no photo of it.

Interesting to note that while the Eclipse minicomputers are probably worthless now, the Souvweine House must be worth a tidy sum of money.

While building the Souweine house, the builders made a mistake concerning the frieze, an important architectural element. They go on to fix it, but in order to do it perfectly, they’d have to rip everything out and start anew, which is just like in Joel’s door trim case is prohibitively expensive.

“Jonathan feels sorry for the trouble the frieze caused, but not for the little imperfection it represents. No one else will see it, but Bill has said that even when repaired, the frieze won’t quite reproduce his intentions. Orthodox Jews have a tradition that until the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, they will not erect a house or a building without giving it one deliberate imperfection. Though not a member of the Orhodox branch of Judaism, Johnathan believes in the inevitability of imperfection. So why not celebrate it? “There’s a flaw in the house …,” he says, and flashes a smile, a shooting star of a smile, “… which the pernicious part of me sort of likes.””

By the way, I can’t pass up mentioning my favorite, but apparetly later edited out, quote about Kidder. “For a woman, Tracy really know her stuff and gets into a great amount of hardware detail”. What do you think the source for it is?

A Space Potato Made of Poison

Jeffrey Rowland drew me a custom watercolor of my favorite comic character on the internets for a pen tablet that I was not using. Chump.

“A born warrior, Topato possesses a large, loud vocabulary and fears nothing. He is made of a poison that triggers agonizing death in his opponents. Topato is a licensed attorney.”

Deadprogrammer recommends:

The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky

Cokin Starter Filter Kit P with Filter Holder, Hood P, Orange #2, Sepia #5, Diffuser 1 #83, Double Exposure #346, Sunsoft #694.

Canon EOS 5D 12.8 MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)

Canon Speedlite 580EX Flash for Canon EOS SLR Cameras

Rantosourus Rex – Part I

Here I sit, in my favorite seat on the Q train facing the window, writing this post on my Blackberry TM.

Remember, I promised to write a long and involved post about pen computing, mind mapping, memex and electronic books? Well, I don’t think I can cram all of my thoughts on the subject into a well organized linear article. Instead, I think I’ll write a series of hyperlinked rants. I think that will be even more appropriate. So here goes.

Joel Spolsky likes to refer to “future so bright, you’ll need sunglasses”. Most of the people I know, are wearing Mylar goggles. But that future is not bright enough right now, so it only seems like eternal night with a few sparks here and there. That future is electronic books and pen computing.

So, I sit on this train with a copy of the New York Times. And I’ve just read an article about a woman with a Masters degree from Columbia who sells her short stories for two bucks a piece from a cardboard box in a subway station. There is so much wrongness here. And a parallel : me, struggling with turning pages of a gigantic broadsheet that is the NYT, in a cramped subway seat, my hand filthy with newsprint by the time I found something interesting among the piles of information that the editors and advertisers thought I should read; and her, crouched on the cold cement floor, with a pathetic cardboard box, selling her information that way because nobody wants to publish it.

This is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG!

The first thing that is wrong is that the NYT is published in broadsheet (as opposed to tabloid) format. Which means that to read it you need to use some weird folding techniques.to read them on a train. This is something that I might enjoy, but I am absolutely not typical. I enjoy practical applications of the science of topology. I can tie many nautical and surgical knots, and I fold and stack my t-shirts in a way so that the design of the shirt always shows up on the same edge. And I learned how to fold broadsheets from my High School Economics teacher. And even I am annoyed.

So dead tree newspapers are not ergonomic. But that’s not all. I can’t get only the information that I want to purchase. If I were rich, I could employ the services of newspaper clipping service. I would gladly pay to read ‘s articles if they were clipped from Ediot Achronot and translated into English somehow. Even right now I pay 10 dollars a year to get newspaper and online comics from http://www.mycomicspage.com.

Unfortunately most information providers want to lump together everything that they’ve got and sell it as a whole. Out of a couple of hundreds of cable channels that I pay for, I am interested in maybe 15 – 20 shows that run on a few channels. But to get only those channels would cost me just a few dollars less than the whole deal. And that sucks! I am subsidizing a whole lot of stupid no talent shows at the same time when shows that I crave are being canceled. Firefly, Futurama, The $treet – gone. I’d give up 180 channels just to get those three shows back. And so would many, many people.

Sirius satellite radio has two things that I like immensely – a good jazz channel and their hypnotic callsign. Everything else I don’t care about. But to get that I would also have to pay for every other channel they provide. And I am not gonna.

This is socialism, people. Few talented information creators feed hundreds of no-talent parasites. What is even worse, there is a certain threshold that is equally hard to overcome to both talented and non-talented people. That threshold is the editors. They are a proxy, a layer that is supposed to filter out crap. But the filtered stuff has the same proportion of crap in it (governed by Sturgeon’s law).

For instance, a few years ago I picked up a book called Year’s Best SF. I was reading crappy story after crappy story. But one of the stories, “Guest Law” by John C. Wright, Esq. was definitely not crappy. In fact, it was so good that I tracked down every single piece of Mr. Wright’s prose. In fact, after sending money to some two bit sci-fi rag that published one of the stories, through almost half a year I had to send a few dozen emails to the publisher just to get that one magazine with the story. And it was worth it. To me, but not to Mr. Wright. What is very upsetting, is that instead of paying the author directly, I had to pay the derelict editors and all the other authors I don’t care about.

All of these problems can be solved with technology, and I’ll write about that in the next post.

I Am the Lowest of the Low

I am a fanboy. There are these people on the Internet whose web pages I stalk. I don’t stalk the people themselves, of course. Otherwise I would have been a raging fanboy. And I am not. And never will be. I just read most of the stuff that these people write. And learn things from them.

Here’s the list (in alphabetical order):

Philip Greenspun
site: http://philip.greenspun.com/
for : for creating an amazing company and for clarity of thinking

Tom Jennings
site: http://www.wps.com
for: his amazing art

Tema Lebedev
site: http://www.design.ru http://www.tema.ru
reason : for creating an amazing company and for clarity of thinking

Dan Maynes-Aminzade
site: http://www.monzy.com http://www.monzy.org
reason: being funny

Jesse Reclaw
site: http://www.slowwave.com
reson: for his amazing dream comics

Joel Spolsky
site: http://www.joelonsoftware.com
reason : for creating an amazing company and for clarity of thinking

Matthias Wandel
site: http://www.sentex.net/~mwandel/index.html
reason : for the gadgets that he made

John C Wright, Esq
site: http://www.sff.net/people/john-c-wright/index.html
reason : for proving that there are still good science fiction authors around

Jamie Zawinski
site: http://www.jwz.org
reason: for brilliant use of hypertext