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.

Three Firsts

I always thought that the quote went “I’ll try anything once” and it was Andy Warhol who said it. Apparently the quote is “I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure” and it belongs to Mae West.

Living in New York, amongst other things, pushes you to try something for the first time ever almost every single day. Here are three things I recently tried for the first time, mostly under pressure from New York City.

Religious

Probably every New Yorker that looks even remotely Semitic in appearence has been repetidly asked “Are you Jewish?” by the Hasidim. If you answer yes, you’ll get a Billy Mays-worthy pitch to pray/light Shabbat candles/put on at Teffilin. I will admit to occasionally denying my membership in the tribe when in a hurry, but most of the time my answer is “a little bit”, followed by a firm sticking to plain cowardly agnosticism.

Ever since I wrote a long and rambling post about Tefillins, I meant to put one on. So this one time, after being approached by a young Hasid in the Atlantic station passageway, and customarily declining his pamphlet, I accepted his halfhearted offer to help me lay Teffilin. He was particularly surprised – I don’t really think he gets to help a lot of people perform this particular mitzvah a lot.

He produced a Tefillin set from a black shopping bag and a loaner kipah from a pocket, helped me put it on and say the necessary prayers right there on the BMT’s Atlantic Avenue platform, amongst the hustle and bustle of people and trains. It felt strange, yet somehow very comforting – performing this ritual in one of the most familiar places to me.

He also gave me a pamphlet in which the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains to a computer science professor that Tefillin is a symbolic representation of computers. He was very glad to be able to accomplish such an epic mitzvah.

Culinary

I was walking through Union Square farmers’ market, already having sampled and bought a package of organic bacon hawked by an upstate hippie (I’m not a very observant Jew as you might have already noticed in this post). I was passing by a little stall providing free samples of wine made by hippies somewhere upstate. That bit of hippie bacon called for some wine, but I did not want to fight the mob of greedy Manhattan housewifes for a tiny sip, but then I heard a magical phrase – “We also have dandelion wine”.

I never really finished reading “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury, and always thought that there was no such thing – how can you make wine out of bitter yellow flowers? Apparently this is how. I bought a bottle. All I have to say is that dandelion wine tastes just like they say it should: like summer and childhood. I also bought some salad corn shoots that I’ve read about in New York Times. Those tasted like raw corn kernels.

Automotive

You know that nobody really drives in New York because there are too many cars there. I’ve spent many happy car-less years here, but the arrival of a baby forced me to buy a car (a minivan, in fact). Parking is a very sore topic around these parts. I was never willing to splurge on a garage, and had to subject myself to the indignities of alternate side parking regulations.

There’s a whole book about parking in NYC – Calvin Trillin’s brilliant Tepper Isn’t Going Out. I bought it only because I have a friend named Tepper, but ended up immensely enjoying it. Which is what I can’t say about parking in the street.

Well, recently, I finally broke down and shelled out $200 for a spot in a garage. The feeling on the “alternate” days is rather novel – hey, I don’t need to move a car! Also new – not worrying about what those loud teenagers are probably doing to my poor car, or if there’s a used car window repair place that just received a shipment of my car’s specific windows (did you notice how they always have a used window for your car ready, no matter how obscure, when you go to a nearest car window shop for a mysteriously shattered one?). It’s a new and pleasant feeling.

What about you?

The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia

A New York Times Notable Book, 1997

The lavishly illustrated and often darkly hilarious retelling of Soviet history through the doctored photographs under Stalin.

The Commissar Vanishes has been hailed as a brilliant, indispensable record of an era. The Commissar Vanishes offers a unique and chilling look at how one man–Joseph Stalin–manipulated the science of photography to advance his own political career and erase the memory of his victims. Over the past thirty years David King has assembled the world’s largest archive of doctored Soviet photographs, the best of which appear here, in a book Tatyana Tolstaya, in The New York Review of Books, called “an extraordinary, incomparable volume.”

Japanese Brooklyn

Victorian Brooklyn is amazingly beautiful. In Victorian times skilled labour and land was cheaper than it is today and wealthy people were able to build really elaborate and architecturally significant residences rather than Mc Masions of today.

In a big lot of old postcards that I picked up on eBay I found this – a postcard featuring “The Japanese House, Flatbush, N. Y.” It looks like this wasn’t the only time this house was featured on a postcard: here’s another one.

Don Wiss of the Brooklyn photo store photo fame graciously allowed me to use his picture of the Japanese House, which turned out to be
Frederick S. Kolle House at 131 Buckingham Road.


Here are Don’s notes, mostly gleaned from the AIA Guide to New York City.

I did a little bit more digging and found a New York Times article, which somehow is fully available.

The house was built by a developer in order to promote Prospect Park area.

Alvord advertised the house in Country Life in America in the summer of 1903, calling it ”a faithful reflection of the dainty Japanese art from which America is learning so much.” But the house was ”thoroughly practical,” the ad continued, with a ”porcelain Roman bathtub, also needle and shower baths,” and a 22-minute commute to Park Row. It was offered at $26,500.

According to this calculator that translates to somewhere between 600K if you use Consumer Price index to 12 million if you use the relative share of GDP. Stupid Zillow is showing values in $1 million range, which is of course very wrong. I suspect that the current value of the house is much closer to the GDP share range :)

The NYT article goes on to say that Dr. Kolle, the first owner of the house was a pioneering radiologist. It seems like he purchased the house on the cheap after the unusualness of it did not attract many bidders. Also, in 97 the house used to belong (and probably still does) to the director of Flatbush Development Corporation who bought the house in the 70s.

The following quote made me drool:

“Except for the kitchen, the ground floor interior of the Fischers’ house is completely intact, with dragon figures in the stained-glass windows, Japanese decorative detail around the fireplace and a definite feeling of thinness to the partitions — there are leaded glass windows between the sitting and dining rooms. The Fischers have furnished the house with an eclectic mix of furniture and artwork, from Belter to Bauhaus, as well as memorabilia from the Kolle family.”

Apparently the Flatbush Development corporation is holding a Victorian House Tour, that at least in 97 featured the Japanese House as one of the stops. I wonder if they still do – I’d love to see it.

Looking at the butt-ugly condos and renovation in McMansion syle that I see all over, I can’t help but think – will they build houses that are postcard-worthy again in Brooklyn?

Michael on Used Books

New York City is home to what is probably the biggest used book store in the world. Strand is a real New York institution. A giant two level store in a pre-war commercial building on 12th Street and Broadway always drew me in with its outdoor book carts. Every time I entered the store proper I was already burdened with a good stack of 1 dollar hardcovers and 25 cent paperbacks. Even though I was rather poor at the time, I spent a disproportionately large part of my income on books written in a language that was still new to me. But at the Strand I got a pretty good bang for my buck.

In my many shopping sprees there I noticed an unsettling fact. I almost never went home with the books that I was planning to buy, but still my hands were crisscrossed by red marks left by super heavy plastic bags. In fact, in the area that I was most interested in, golden age sci-fi paperbacks, the Strand was strangely lacking. So when I learned about bibliofind.com, (which is a part of Amazon now) from a little ad in New York Times), I stopped going there altogether. Why waste my time in a cramped non-air-conditioned labyrinth of bookshelves blocked by frequently smelly bibliophiles and snarky Strand employees with crazy tattoos and piercings, when I could simply go online and order exactly what I wanted at similar prices? All hail long tail!

Just a few days ago I popped up from subway near Union Square and decided to see if the siren’s song of Strand’s outside book bins would still draw me in. Next thing I knew I was inside, checking my bag in and holding a stack of weird books. Inside the changes and forgotten details overwhelmed me. Even though they were slow to get on the whole web bookselling train (to this day when I order at abebooks.com or Amazon that have thousands of vendors, I am yet to get one book from Strand), the store thrived. They opened an Annex on Fulton St, another one which I never visited at 57th st and a tiny little booth almost the size of a porta-john in front of the Pierre Hotel, right next to the train stop. Rupert Murdoch chose a good location for his apartment.

And the original location began a slow barnsandnoblefication. No, they don’t have a cafe yet (and if they will I hope it’s going to be Joe’s and not Tarbucks). But they added 3rd floor, an elevator (so now you don’t need to walk outside into the side entrance to get to the rare editions department) and demolished the horrible little bathroom on the first floor. It was kind of weird standing where it used to be. The funny notes and cartoons were still taped to the bookshelves and columns, and the basement still had many antique pipes and old electrical cables (I noticed what I think was a cut pre-war high voltage cable the thickness of my arm in the wall). I saw – gasp – fresh cat5 runs.

When I paid for my books and went to get my bag from bagcheck, I commented on my relief to the fact that the old duct tape encrusted boxes where not replaced. The bagcheck guy laughed and said – hey, dude, this is the Strand. We don’t replace stuff until absolutely necessary. I hope they don’t change too much, although I welcome air conditioning, the elevator and the extra floor. I need to get a new camera and go and take some pictures there before everything changes again.

One of the books that I bough in the outside bin cracked me up because I am such an avid fan of Joel on Software:

My wife asked – “Timesharing of what?”. He heh, back in the 70s (when I was born) time sharing was a hot buzzword. And not the real estate kind.

About Air Hostesses, Citizen Journalists and Greasemonkey Scripts

Gothamist is a popular blog that uses New York newspapers the same way BoingBoing uses the Internet: they pluck quotes and pictures from interesting new stories mostly from the Post and New York Times, but also don’t consider it below them to pilfer content from other blogs. Unlike BoingBoing they have a few original posts, including interviews with various New York types. Usually these are no talent filmmakers, D-grade actors, performance artists and other artsie-fartsties. Many times I was tempted to write something similar to this Greasemonkey script, but just like with Xeni’s posts, Gothamist’s interviews have an interesting tidbit in them once in a while:

From an interview with a flight attendant:
“Do you live in a crash pad?
Oh god, there’s like 25 people there. All flight attendants and pilots. It’s crazy. if you want to see a good reality show, they should put cameras in there.”

This is an idea so good that I am truly surprised that Mark Burnett did not think of this yet. A reality show about airline workers would be so awesome it’s not even funny. Those crash pads must be overflowing with sexuality and drama. The only problem will be coming up with a name : “CRASHPADS� and CRASHPAD� are Registered Trademarks of Flight Crew Services”.

I could not pass on the temptation to slap together a Greasemonkey Dumbgothamist script (download it here) that crudely attempts to remove annoying “editorial we” from Gothamist. I spent about 20 minutes modifying Dumbquotes.

“If You Paid Attention, You’d be Worried Too” or Finit Finis Finish Omnious Omnium Shmomnious

The very special 47-50th Street/Rockefeller Center station has some very strange advertisements posted in the decrepit old clock boxes. You know, the ones overhead, the ones to which nobody pays attention too because the clocks are usually way off?

For some reason I thought that the ads that I’ve seen for a long time were cigarette ads. But recently I looked at them a little bit more carefully and realized that something was odd. The ads show a sunset over the forest and a flock of birds in the air. The caption says “Omnium Finis Imminet”. Huh. Hello conspiracy theories.

Well, my crappy knowledge of Latin tells me that “omnium” means “all”, “finis” means “end” and “imminet” since it sounds just like “imminent” means “is coming”.

Apparently graffiti with this nice apocalyptic message has been popping up in other places. On the other hand, this is not graffiti, is it? At the very best this is a well executed hack.

Come Monday (well, if the end of the world is not going to happen before then) I am totally giving a call to Gannett Transit (formerly New York Subways Advertising Co) at (212) 297-6400 to figure out what’s up with this.

Update.
I called Gannett Transit just to be kicked to voicemail, but it looks like the ad is legit. I’ve seen a whole bunch in West 4th Station and comments are rolling in about TV spots too. As commenters pinted out this is probably a “guessing game” ad for the new War of the Worlds movie or some stupid Sci-fi Channel movie or series. Well, at least nobody seems to be paying attention to the ads. None of the people I asked were able to recall what it was about.

Well, at least it seems that my humble blog ranks high in the very sparse search results for “omnium finis imminet”, “omnium finis imminent” and the other creative ways to spell this slogan, so hopefully I’ll gain some readers along the way.

Now, if this were an ad for Darren Aronofsky’s Flicker, that would be way cool. But I am not even sure that he is filming it at all.

Another update
Wow, it looks like New York Times fact checkers are in hot water as the reporters totally pulled this out of their butts (or read on this in my blog as it was the top result on Google for a while) :

“The advertisements portray a flock of birds against an angry red sky, with a single phrase: Omnium Finis Imminet, Latin for The End of All Things Is Near. The advertisements, for Steven Spielberg’s movie version of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds,” cost about $50,000. The film is to open in July.”

They did post a correction later on. Here’s the full ad from a recent Scientific American that my wife brought me today.

Note the Photoshop lens flare and the horrible font. Looks like their art director is about as competent as their marketing director. The letter “T” is probably made to look like the Orange County Choppers dagger logo to capitalize on the popularity of that show.

He heh, the show seems to have a stupid “X-Files” marries “Millennium” premise. The end of the world is approaching, and investigators are a physicist instead of Scully and a nun instead of Mulder. That’s some sexy and original stuff. Just get a bad 80s rock ballad for a theme song and all the geeks mourning Star Trek will flock to see this.

They Are Out of Business I Guess

My phone number at work is very similar to a phone number of some medical office. I used to get phone calls from patients all the time. But this morning I’ve got a message on my answering machine from a doctor, who inquired about a New York Times ad for medical office space (I don’t think he listened to my very professional answering machine message). My guess is that the med office with that phone number is either out of business or moving.

has a phone number at work that is similar to some bank’s. I egged him on to ask people calling him for their bank card passwords, but he is smarter than that. I do not indulge in phone pranks with people who misdialed numbers either. Although I could have offered that doctor to sublet a part of my cubicle. I have a big cubicle.

The Legend of Mavis Beacon

I was thinking of what typing software to get for my wife’s parents. I learned typing with “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing”. Looks like I’ve become much more inquisitive since then, because the question of “Who the hell is/was Mavis?” immediately came into my mind.

The history section of mavisbeacon.com was suspiciously “under construction”, so I started my search elsewhere.

Here is some great useless information that I dug up:

  • She does not age, but her hair style and skin color changes in different software versions.

  • She might fight terrorism.
  • This post is way off base, Captn Crunch is very, very real.
  • She has a competitor, one Mavis Bacon.
  • Mavis Bacon can perform feats of space management.
  • Seems like this New York Times article solved the problem, but I am too lazy to go through their payment screens.

So she was not real after all…

By the way, does anyone know of a program that would check grammar an punctuation as well as spelling?

Damn, it’s almost 3:30 AM.