Perfectly Safe

My wife’s friend’s pet is a female Pitbull rescued from a dog shelter. Having a 4 year old daughter and two cats I do not approve of pet Pitbulls, or in fact any large dogs bred for attack/defense duty: Rottweilers, German Shepherds, etc. There are other horse-sized dogs capable of grievous harm, but since they were bred for other purposes, like pulling sleds/rescuing people, they are somewhat safer.

But any Pitbull owner will tell you that their dog is “perfectly safe”. No amount of statistics will persuade them that “shnookums” can rip off a toddler’s face or maul a person or kill a cat. I always tell them about “Chekhov’s gun“. The genetic memory of dogs bred for attacking might be dormant most of the time, but you never know what might activate it.

Yet, there are always people out there who underestimate animals, like that woman who had a pet chimp and ended up on the front page of the Post. I’m sure that chimp used to be perfectly reasonable previously. Chimps are seemingly cuddlier than Pitbulls, aren’t they?

Even professionals are sometimes underestimating animals. You probably heard about the tragic death of Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter. He made a career out of teasing dangerous animals on camera and yelling “whoa, crikey” when they lunged at him. He was done in by a stingray, a docile and non-threatening creature.

When you take an unorthodox position about safety of something, there’s alway a chance that your death will be tragically ironic.

For instance, if you rail hard against seat belt laws and die in a car accident in which everyone wearing seat belts walked away from, people will talk. Or poor ol’ Dr. Atkins, promoting the high fat diet dies of heart attack (while weighting 258 pounds). To me, these cases, while ironic, are not absolutely moronic. A lot of people became healthier on the Atkins diet, and a small number of people were killed by properly worn seatbelts.

But when it comes to dealing with wild animals, thinking that they are “perfectly safe if you know what you are doing” – there’s no such thing. If you hang out with wild animals long enough, chances are they’ll kill you. Or at least will try to.

A prime example is Roy Horn, and his tiger accident. It’s not like The Simpsons writers did not predict it. While I was not surprised that a tiger could do harm to Roy (even if he was “carrying” Roy offstage to “save” him), I was very much surprised at what level of medical treatment millions of dollars and fame can get you. They performed a decompressive craniectomy, a procedure that involves removing a quarter of a skull top and storing it in an abdominal cavity(!) for a while to relieve pressure in the brain. I doubt that an HMO patient would last long enough after a tiger attack.

The worst tiger story that comes to mind though is from the Soviet times. There was this guy by the name of Berberov, an architect. He kept a lot of animals in his apartment, but really achieved fame when he raised a lion cub. The lion, named King, lived in a city apartment with Berberov, his wife, kids and a host of other animals (including a wildcat). The lion starred in a number of Soviet films and they wrote a book titled “Don’t be afraid, it’s a lion.” The lion was shot by a policeman when it got away and tried to play with some kid’s dog.

Things were about to get worse. Like the Simpsons, the Berberovs decided to raise an new cat. The Simpsons got Snowball II, the Berberovs – King II. Mr. Berberov died of a heart attack, but his wife insisted on keeping the lion in the apartment still. It ended up badly – the lion, provoked or otherwise, attacked the wife. Her son tried to restrain the lion, which in turn, with a swat of a paw killed him by breaking his neck and scalping. Once again, a policeman shot and killed the lion. The puma, which escaped in the melee was also shot and killed.

What’s a worse idea than keeping a lion in a city apartment? Living with grizzly bears, of course. This lunatic tried to do just that and ended up mauled and half-eaten:

“In the Werner Herzog-directed documentary, Treadwell is shown singing and reading poetry to grizzlies, calling them names like Mr. Chocolate, and even petting one on the nose.

Experts say Treadwell was an example of how not to behave around these animals.”

The right to risk ironic death and/or injury, is somewhere in the Declaration of Independence. It falls under liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you for sticking with my rant. Here’s a song about Pitbull Teriers from one of my favorite movies – “Black Cat White Cat“:

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Jpod and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

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

Here’s My Card

I want to have a personal business card. All the cool kids have one. The thing is, as you know from reading my blog, I am a bit eccentric. Just a plain ol’ boring business card won’t do.

I ventured forth into the depth of Interweb to find out about fancy business cards. One of the more useful articles was found on Robert Scoble’s blog, of all places. He has some good pointers.

Unfortunately I can’t do a card that will say “go and type in Michael into google and click 47234524th page of results”. It’s because I hope that you all will link to my blog and my pagerank will improve some day.

Another famous type of a cool business card was popularized (or even probably invented) by JWZ: his cards often had a neat title – they varied from “Scientist” to “Hacker” to “Hacker Emeritus” to “Benevolent Dictator”. I am not cool enough to pull something like that off.

The next though that came into my mind – titanium! There are companies that make metal business cards, and you can special order titanium.

The problem with cards like that is that they are prohibitively expensive, and since I am not
“King of All Pimps”, I simply can’t afford them.
By evening, Itzler could be found at Cipriani, washing down plates of crushed lobster with yet another bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue label and making sure everyone got one of his signature titanium business cards engraved with NY Confidential’s singular motto: ROCKET FUEL FOR WINNERS.

“Michael Krakovskiy – Pimp Programmer.” Hmm, that’s won’t work either. By the way, Jonny Walker Blue Lable sucks. Any decent single malt is much, much better.

CD Rom business cards, while cool looking, are not that useful. Their unusual shape and thickness make them hard to keep, and nobody ever puts them in a cd rom. Ever. Well, almost.

There’s another side effect of cards like this: they don’t work in and may break slot-loading cd rom drives, like those on some macs. I know this firsthand as one certain magazine ran a promotion with a small cd in one of the issues. I hear that it broke a few car cd players.

The funniest type of cards that I could find is the chocolate one.

These are wildly impractical, expensive and probably don’t taste good. And unlike cd rom and metal cards can’t even be used as deadly weapons.

I even did some digging on Wikipedia. This Victorian card made me smile. I love the caption under the engraving.

I also found amusing the entry screen for Boris Akunin’s works. It shows calling cards (similar but not the same thing as a business card) of two of his book characters separated by 100 years. You can clearly see the decline of the art of typography today :)

Let me know if you have any ideas, as I seem to be stuck.

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.

Victory Day

Time is slowly erasing the traumatic memory of the two world wars. That is to say that the people who fought in it are dying out, and the younger generations do not like to think of the horrors that the two great wars brought.

When I was growing up, World War II did not seem very exciting to me, from the infantile militarism standpoint. Bootleg American movies, like Rambo and Star Wars seemed oh so much cooler. WWII killing machines seemed outdated and andand reminiscences of veterans who were invited into Soviet classrooms prior to every May 9th – boring.

I did like the Polish movie serial about WWII, called “Four tankers and dog” (“Четыре танкиста и собака” in Russian and “Czterej pancerni i pies” in Polish). It was an awesome, awesome serial about a Polish tank’s crew in WWII. Recently I purchased it on DVD from a Russian movie store as a present for my childhood friend. We watched it a bit, and I’ve got to tell you, it held up amazingly well.

Later, I realized that “Star Wars” technology was based on WWII, down to space battles mimicking real aerial dogfights. The rest of ideas Lucas lifted from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. That was probably one of the reasons why the original 3 episodes were so much cooler then the new ones.

WWII is all the rage these days. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an awesome WWII game. Mike Mingola brought back WWII chic in his Hellboy comics, Nazi mad scientist and all.

I particularly like WWII-style superheroes, without overabundance of superpowers and in baggy costumes with many gear pockets and bandoliers. In Hellboy’s origin story, there’s a panel where a group of Allied soldiers poses for a picture with Hellboy and Liberty Torch, a wartime superhero, that appeals to me a lot. I also liked how in Batman: Year One Batman uses thermite as a weapon that he gets from his military-looking bandolier belt.

For the firts time since Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and Charles Babbage, computer programmers became active, this time being driven not by intellectual curiosity, but by a dire need to break Nazi codes. If not for the Polish scientists who created the first Enigma-breaking mechanical “bombes”, Alan Turing and the rest of the computer pioneers, me and my dad not only wouldn’t be computer programmers, but probably would not have been born.

That reminded of an echo of WWII that I once encountered. I used to work as a doorman, porter and elevator operator in an Upper West Side residential building where Robert Oppenheimer was born. There was a very nice old man who lived alone in a huge pre-war apartment. Every year he asked one of the staff to help him set all the clocks in the apartment during the daylight savings switch. It remains one of the more memorable experiences for me from my employment there. I remember a huge apartment with many clocks. The old guy seemed to be very anxious to have all of them set, and all of them set correctly, asking me several times to check and doublecheck. Must have taken me half an hour to get them all. Once I set all the clocks he became very relieved.

I guess the guy had a very special relationship with time. My boss told me he saw a number tattoo on the old man’s arm. That most likely means that he had a “user id” for an IBM punchcard machine in Auschwitz.

Looking Up, Part 1a

I’d like to start a series of articles about looking up. This is the first one.

Truly cool New Yorkers do not look up. I on the other hand, look up not much less than a tourist fresh off the bus. Unlike most tourists though, I own a really expensive long lens.

In the beginning of the skyscraper era, architects were confused about how to design the look of these super tall buildings. One of the decisions facing them was – what to put on the top. There were many choices. A very popular one was to use a little temple/colonnade on top, based on the ancient minaret that was later converted into a bell tower – the fabled Giralda Tower. Then you could use a giant torch or lantern, a mini ziggurat, statue, a spire or a combination of several of these. In following posts of this series I’ll give you examples of those buildings. But today my theme is crowns.

The Crown Building on 5th Ave.


You can’t really see that without magnification – the crown features what seem to be colored glass jewels.

New York Life Insurance Building.

They have an awesome series of ads featuring the building. My favorite one is where they do a time-lapse walk through, with changing eras, people and New York Skyline, ending in the future where a girl with a futuristic haircut steps out of the building, into a hovertaxy and zooms away. Please let me know if you find a video of that.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. “The Light That Never Fails”, the old symbol of the company (now it’s Snoopy) is set inside a crown-looking lantern top.

The American Radiator Building : A crown fit for the king of the Radiator Planet.

The Old RCA Victor Building has such an expensive and complicated top, that one might question it’s usefulness – it’s almost impossible to see any details from the ground.

Wireless Maiden, close up.

later, architects decided that it wasn’t worth it to decorate tops of the buildings – they are hard to see. The era of International Style did not allow for interesting skyscraper tops. You’d be lucky to see a neon sign. Fortunately the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill brough back the practice of decorated tops, as can be seen on the Bear Stearns Building. Another example of an SOM topper is the World Wide Plaza Building.

Seinfeldiana

You know, living in New York you actually get to experience many Seinfeldian moments. The Soup Nazi’s store is shuttered and for sale, but it’s still there for the moment. Almost everyone I know, me including, got an unvitation (aka nonvite) to a wedding in India at least once. Loads of people are celebrating Festivus. And if you want, you can get to see Dominicans rolling cigars right before your own eyes. For 400 bucks you can hire them for your party (that comes out to 8 bucks per cigar which is not bad at all). Cigar rolling is a very intricate art and a very cool thing to watch.

La Rosa Cubana cigar store/factory is located on 6th avenue between 30th and 31st.

The guys there were kind enough to let me take a picture. Here is a cigar maker’s workstation, complete with inspiration.

Unlike in that Seinfeld episode, these guys know how to roll cigars just right. Their King Churchill is very good.