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  • Michael Krakovskiy 10:35 pm on January 26, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ATM, , , brilliant programmer, closest bank, computer programmer, DNS, Dr. Watson, favorite support engineer, Hot Air Balloon, , , Natural Disaster, , Odessa, Rebecca, Sarah, search algorithms, Shlomo, , Watson   

    Technically Correct 

    “Bureaucrat Conrad, you are technically correct — the best kind of correct.” (Futurama, 2acv11: How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back).

    Today I would like to talk to you about an afflicion that affects a large number ot tech workers: a penchant for finding the most technically correct and the most useless way to answer one’s queries.

    Here’s an example of my interaction with my favorite support engineer at our hosting company. We were chatting about DNS setup, and it was perfectly clear to him that what I meant to ask was “is it an A record or a CNAME record”.

    “2:31 PM me: what kind of a record is it?
    2:31 PM him: A DNS record :)”

    This brand of humor probably has its beginnings in early computer games, like Zork, where the computer would answer your questions only when they were asked “correctly”. Techies often take this kind of humor to ridiculous extremes.

    For instance, I have a high school friend, L. A brilliant programmer, he likes to think that it’s hilarious to answer every single question this way. L lives in New York. I once was talking to another friend of mine, R, who is not a techie and who lives in Boston. I was telling her about L’s penchant for being technically correct. I illustrated this phenomenon with an old Soviet joke:

    “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a hot air balloon ride. A storm took the balloon above the clouds, and after a few days brought it down close to the ground. Below a man was herding sheep.

    • “Where are we?” – Dr. Watson cried to him.
    • The man looked at them and replied – “You are in a hot air balloon.”

    The wind once again picked up and pulled the balloon beyond clouds.

    • “What do you think that man’s profession is?” – asked Holmes.
    • “Why, he’s a shepherd” – answered Watson.
    • “No, he’s a computer programmer”.
    • “Why do you think so?”
    • “Elementary, my dear Watson. His answer was technically correct, but absolutely useless. So, where do you think we are now?”
    • “I have no idea – he didn’t say, did he?”
    • “We are in the Soviet Union.”
    • “Why?”
    • “A computer programmer is herding sheep.””

    My friend laughed, but I insisted that L was really like that in real life.

    A few months later R called me and said, “You won’t believe this story. I was in New York, walking down Brighton beach. I really needed to get some cash. I asked a passerby – “Excuse me, where’s the closest ATM?”. “Why, in the closest bank, of course” – he answered with a smile. R stared for a bit, and then said, “say, is your name L, by any chance?””.

    It was indeed L, whom she randomly met in NYC.

    I laughed, and told her another, old Jewish joke about search algorithms and certain applications of the Drake Equation.

    “Two Jews, one young and one old, are riding Kiev – Odessa train. The old one is looking at the young one and thinking to himself –

    “This young man, he’s either going to get off at Zmerinka or at Odessa. You only go to Odessa to make money or to spend money. He’s too young to make money and too shabbily dressed to spend money, so he’s going to Zmerinka. You only go to Jmerinka for weddings or for funerals. Nobody died for a while, so he’s going to a wedding. He’s not carriying a present, so he’s going to his own wedding. There are only two eligible brides – Sarah and Rebecca. But Rebecca just got married, so this means he’s going to marry Sarah. Sarah is not very good looking and has a bad temper, so only a total putz would marry her. Now, who’s a total putz in Kiev?”

    • “Excuse me, are you Shlomo, Moishe Rabinowitz’s son?” – he asks the younger gentleman.

    “Yes I am, do you know me?” – says they youngster.
    “No, I don’t know you,” – says the old man – “but I figured you out”.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:27 am on December 8, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Burn, cab driver, Cart, century state law, Dan Rossi, Department of Parks, Department of Sanitation, , , , , , food cart licesnses, food cart vendors, , food vending wood, food vendors, Georgia, Heros II, , Kentucky, Metropolitain Museum, Metropolitain Museum of Art, Museum If, , , Odessa, , , , real estate market, , SECAM, , , Tamir Sapir, , , , , , Videocassette recorder, volt round plug devices   

    Entrepreneurship Heros II: Night at the Museum 

    If the Seal of New York City were designed today, it would not have a sailor and a Native American on it. It would have a cab driver and a food cart vendor.

    Cab driving and food vending wood seem like the two of the most democratic enterpreneurial options, the foundation of which is the public streets New York City: you just wheel out your vehicle and try to make some commerce happen. The only thing that you need is a license. The one for cab driving is called a “medallion”, costs $766K, and as an investment vehicle outperformed just about any commodity and stock index. The food cart licesnses are also very expensive. Plus you are hounded by NYPD, Department of Sanitation, and who knows what else. Cab drivers and food cart vendors are some of the hardest working and most prosecuted businesmen in the city, but sometimes they have their own victories, big and small.

    You don’t need to go any further than the Metropolitain Museum of Art to see two interesting examples. Right in front of the museum there’s a collection of food carts. They all are very typical carts, none of them are of the fancy variety. There are two types represented – the basic “dirty water hot dog” cars and “street meat” carts. But there’s one important difference – they all have stickers that say “Disabled Veteran”, and there’s usually an actual veteran somewhere nearby.

    In the past years the space in front of the museum was either empty or occupied by one or two carts licensed by the Department of Parks. Then one day Dan Rossi, a disabled veteran, discovered a 19th century state law that allows disabled veterans to sell food in areas that are off-limits to others. The location in front of the museum is particularly lucrative because there are no affordable restaurants as far as an overweight tourist can walk. This hack is a small, but significant victory for food vendors. They are still ticketed mercelesly by NYPD, have to work crazy hours, and deal with the need to urinate in some kind of a miraculous way. At least they got an article in the New York Times written about them.

    Across the road from the veteran’s carts is a mansion that belongs to billionaire Tamir Sapir, a former cab driver.

    Mr. Sapir’s legend starts in Georgia, USSR. He found an interesting niche business: filling out complicated emigration forms for the Soviet Jews. At some point he was persuaded by his mother to give up his excellent life (it was a very lucrative business, from what I understand) and emigrate to Israel himself. He found himself in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, and quickly emigrated to the United States. He worked hard to earn enough money to leave rural Kentucky for New York, and then even harder to buy a cab medallion (which was a lot more affordable in those days). Then he risked everything again by putting up that medallion as collateral for a loan that he needed to open up an electronics store with a partner.

    In the 80s there was a bit of a thaw in Sovet-American relations – Perestroyka and whatnot. There was a significant amount of people visiting the US – diplomats, scientists, sailors, and those invited by relatives. These people were allowed to exchange a small sum of rubles into dollars at the official rate – if I remember correctly, 60-something kopeks to a dollar.

    What these lucky tourists wanted the most was electronics. In particular – vcrs, doule deck cassette players, and Walkmen. They had the money to buy these things, but here’s a problem: they needed 220 volt round plug devices, and more than that, VCRs needed to support the SECAM standard. You could not just walk into any store and find these: American market was all 110V and NTSC.

    Every child in Odessa back then knew all of this, as well as that if you found yourself in New York City with some money, all you needed to do was trudge over to Timur’s (this was before he changed his name) store in Manhattan and find 220V SECAM VCRs.

    Mr. Sapir was making a mint, but more importantly he was making connections with the Soviet ministers, diplomats, and future oligarchs. A little later he was invited back to the USSR, and made more connections there. These connections allowed him to play on the Soviet deregulation arbitrage market.

    You see, when the Soviet Union was transitioning to the market economy all prices were regulated except those for commidities like metals, oil, and fertilizer. Those with connections could buy these commodities for already devalued rubles and sell them abroad for hard currency, making millions of dollars. All you needed was connections, which Mr. Sapir had.

    He made millions, but the game became very dangerous as people tougher than NYC cabbies entered it. Mr. Sapir did not continue his career as a commodity exporter. Instead he invested his millions into New York City skyscrapers. The real estate market bottomed out, and you could buy a whole skyscraper for 10 million dollars or so. He bought a whole bunch of them. The price of Manhattan real estate exploded, and he became a billionare.

    He bought a mansion across from the Metropolitain Museum to house his collection of carved ivory (for some reason this was a very popular area of collecting in the Soviet Union), has a yacht that used to be stuffed with a collection of exotic animal taxidermy that could rival Mr. Burn’s wardrobe or Amy’s car from Futurama.

    Well, the two lessons here are: 1) you have to take risks and 2) you have to find a niche. The rest is luck.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:17 am on June 3, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: B. White, , , BoingBoing.net, , Corporate blog, , daringfireball.net, , , , , , , , , , , , kottke.org, Louise Bourgeois, , , , , Nick Denton, Odessa, online articles, Oster, , , , Steve Yegge,   

    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.

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