Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction

I live on a high floor of an art deco tower facing a busy Brooklyn street. The acoustics of the building and the street are such that I can sometimes hear what’s going on in the street right from my desk. Once I heard the sounds of a minor fender bender followed by an angry exchange unpleasantness that was escalating into some creative Russian profanity. The driver who rammed the other car was pretty unapologetic and criticized the driving skills of the one who got rammed. Then followed the exchange that made me laugh out loud – the driver who got rammed said – “the way you behave, man, you must be from Odessa.” “Yes, I am,” – answered the other guy, and added – “and you still drive like a moron.”

Odessa, Ukraine, my hometown, is a very special place. It has a Bizarro mirror twin, Odessa, Texas.

Odessa is a resort town situated on the shore of the Black Sea, right across from Turkey. Culturally it’s a bit like Brooklyn (or Brooklyn is a bit like Odessa because of an almost constant infusion of Odessans) – a city with an attitude, a city where a lot of famous people are born and famous people come to live. Architecturally it’s a lot like Vienna and St. Petersburg: a city built on a grand scale (but with softer edges), by the best architects.

Odessa’s ancient past is obscure: a Greek colony, a small town controlled by Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, various Khanates and Kaganates, and finally a Turkish fortress. Odessa’s fortunes have turned when Russian forces invaded it in late 1700s. Catherine the Great apparently wanted to fortify the newly won land, and committed the people and resources needed to make the new city of Odessa a success.

The founding fathers of Odessa were a bunch of distinguished foreigners in the service of the Russian crown: General José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and Count Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron.

Richelieu, or the Duc, as he’s commonly known in Odessa, will forever be loved by Odessans for his accomplishments. The way I imagine the Duc is sort of like the 18th century Steve Jobs, with a reality distortion field of his own, except without being an asshole (Richelieu was known for his kindness and indifference to money). Somehow – nobody know exactly how – Richelieu got Odessa the status of a “free port“. This meant that goods could be unloaded without paying the taxes within the city limit. This brought about an unprecedented influx of wealth, which in turn fueled the building of Odessa by the best European architects in the European manner. Odessa’s opera theater is only slightly smaller than Vienna’s, and is by the same architect.

Another unique aspect of this new city was the ethnic makeup. Besides the usual for Ukrainian cities mix of Ukrainians and Russians, Odessa became a melting pot. Frenchmen, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Armenians: all rushed into Odessa. Even the Jews were allowed in, and not being limited to certain occupations or living in a ghetto. Odessa is a very Jewish town despite what the author of Everything Is Illuminated might have you believe.

I left Odessa when I was 16. I came back for a 10 day visit 15 years later.

Odessa is a a city that makes you nostalgic, and I kept seeing it in my dreams. Luckily there’s a small international airport in Odessa and President Yushchenko kindly lets the holders of an American passport into the country freely, with no need for a visa.

12 hours and $1300 later I was standing in Odessa, looking for a cab. A pushy cabby was very surprised when I did not want to ride in his clean BMW and chose a cheaper and dearer to my heart filthy Soviet-vintage car.

As far as hotels go, Ukraine is much more reasonable than Russia, but there are still no Marriott-like affordable and well-designed chains. There are overpriced hotels with decor that will burn your eyes out, cheaper, but scarier hotels, and apartments that you can rent which cover the gamut. Odessa has a population of about a million, but it swells to twice the size in the Summer season. Because of that there are thousands of very reasonably priced rental apartments with great amenities. Unfortunately I did not plan enough ahead, and ended up reserving a very cheap room in a brand new hotel Zirka that recently opened right in the center of the city.

For a very reasonable $35/night I lived in a tiny-tiny, somewhat flimsily outfitted, but very clean room with a fully functioning shower, air conditioning and beautiful views, right in the historic center of Odessa.

The hotel was still being built when I lived there, and I herd later that it was becoming a bit notorious for renting the rooms at hourly rates.

As far as I’m concerned, you really can’t beat their amenities, their location, and their prices. Also, the staff was very courteous and professional. It was very quiet there during my stay – but worst case scenario – you might overhear noisy sex, from which you are not guaranteed at almost any hotel.

It’s hard to see on picture, but the towels had little dollar sign designs.

My hotel room reminded me very much of the affordable hotel room that I lived in in Japan, down to the picture of soft drinks that I took there.

In Odessa I mostly drank Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water. Borjomi, as far as I’m concerned is the tastiest mineral water in the world.

Odessa has its own mineral water, Kuyalnik, but it’s not sold in restaurants for some reason. I found a few bottles in a convenience store closer to the end of my stay. More about Kuyalnik later – I have a very special connection to it.

Apparently in Europe Diet Coke is marketed as Coca Cola Light, is sold in frosted bottles, and as far as I can tell, in a different formulation. It did taste different, and I know my cokes.

I quickly unpacked, grabbed my camera and went for a walk.

You really can’t enter the same river twice. I left Odessa when the Soviet Union was still intact. When I came back, a lot of things stayed the same.

There’s still a fountain in the City Square, the live band is still playing on Sundays and the pairs still dance.

Acacia trees, the most common plant and the symbol of Odessa, are still filling the city with the aroma and sidewalks with their yellow flowers. Cleaning ladies (and men) still sweep the sidewalks with brooms made out of small branches. I brought a small jar with acacia blooms with me – the smell of nostalgia.

Remember that ethnic markup that I described earlier on? Well, somehow that mixing of genes resulted in the hottest women on the planet. Odessa is still the city of super hot women. This brings a large contingent of sex tourists and mail order (in this case – cash and carry) bride seekers. I was approached (probably because I was typing away on a laptop) by a most distressed gentlemen in a cafe: he could not get online. His hands were shaking. I fixed some gnarly windows crud setup options and wi-fi started working. All he cared about was getting to a dating site, and when it loaded, his hands finally stopped shaking.

Things have changed though. Odessa took on some qualities of Havana, Cuba. Historic buildings are deteriorating, old cars are kept alive way past what’s reasonable.

It’s not like Havana because people seem to prosper. Even the pensioners do not go hungry, there is a lot of new construction, and the rich are really, really rich. I’ve seen just about every expensive car I know in the streets, except maybe a Maybach.

A few things about the new Ukrainian economy. The salaries are paid in US dollars, but dollars are not accepted anywhere. You can easily exchange them into hryvnas and back very easily, and the rate is somehow kept at about 5 to 1, without even having to shop around for a rate.

Real estate is amazingly expensive: for instance the apartment that my parents sold for something like $5K costs about $500K. At the same time the mortgage industry is almost non-existent.

I’m told that the government officials are amazingly corrupt, and they constitute a major portion of the upper crust. A police captain can easily become a multimillionaire, and so can just about any government bureaucrat. There’s a practice of “otkat” – kickback from a government project is rampant. High ranking policemen and bureaucrats are almost outside the law, like in India.

At the same time, even with all the corruption and bribery, the economy is pretty healthy, even without Russia’s oil.

Price-wise Odessa is not the bargain that it once was. For most things I’d estimate the cost of living at about 60-70% of Brooklyn prices. Food and rent is pretty cheap, but electronics, clothing and cars are more expensive. In particular, cars are taxed so much that they cost about 2 to 3 times more than in the US, which makes all those Rollses that I’ve seen even more impressive, and explain the Soviet-era cars.

Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards.

Facebook Page For Deadprogrammer.com

In a desperate bid to shore up deadprogrammer.com readership I’ve created a Facebook page. Please go and become a “fan” of it on Facebook. The idea is that once you become a fan, a message about that will appear in your friend’s news feeds. They’ll become curious and check out Deadprogrammer’s Cafe. That will result in an ego boost for me and a few fresh posts (one about the nature of time, and a series about my trip to my hometown of Odessa).

Facebook fan page is a neat and low effort passive-aggressive way of promotion. They take just a few minutes to create. On the other hand, they look pretty lonely when you only have two fans yourself, and your mother. And my mom doesn’t even have a Facebook account.

P.S. If you are friending me on Facebook, just mention that you are reading my blog or something.

Humorina

April 1 is a semi-official holiday in the city of my birth, Odessa, Ukraine. Humorina, as it is known has been celebrated since the 70s. The first few Humorinas were actually pretty funny and sophisticated, punctuated with elaborate pranks. It was a bit on the downswing by the time I remember it: it is very hard to come up with original Fool’s Day jokes.

In later years Humorina became a tourist event, culminating in a non-organized costumed “parade” and vigorous displays of public drunkenness. Odessa is still widely renowned as a capital of humor, but Humorina is just embarrassing these days.

What is interesting, is that April 1st is becoming commercialized: here’s a garish display that some cell phone company company put up in Moscow.

Now that Soviet holidays are not celebrated anymore, non-Soviet holidays are more important than ever, thus more activity on April 1st. But as with everything, many people take it upon themselves to just get drunk and behave in most unappropriated manner.  Take St. Patrick’s day, for instance. It’s now celebrated in Moscow. Take a look at these pictures of Muscovites parading in  kilts and faux-Irish garb of all kinds, flashing their privates in public and getting drunk in the streets. It’d be funny, but for some reason isn’t.  It all smacks of an American Wapanese and other allied culture copiers.

Use and Usability

I was in my car today, listening to 88.3 WBGO Newark, the local jazz station. They played a song that I’ve never heard before. I instantly recognized the singer as Billie Holiday, but forgot the name of the album that the velvet-voiced announcer mentioned after the song.

When I came home, I remembered reading about a website that supposedly allows you to find the name of the song and the album that you’ve heard on the radio. Unfortunately, I could not remember the name of the website, and a Google search of a couple of minutes turned fruitless. The idea of such a service always seems ridiculously useless to me, and even now when I actually had a chance to use it, it proved much simpler to just go to WBGO’s website and look it up there.

The song turned out to be “Comes Love”, a beautifully formulaic jazz standard. The lyrics tell you about the solvable problems and the one that isn’t.

Comes a rainstorm, put your rubbers on your feet;
Comes a snowstorm, you can get a little heat —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes a fire, then you know just what to do;
Blow a tire, you can buy another shoe —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Oh, don’t try hiding, ’cause there isn’t any use
You’ll start sliding when your heart turns on the juice.

Comes a headache, you can lose it in a day;
Comes a toothache, see your dentist right away —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes a heat wave, you can hurry to the shore
Comes a summons, you can hide behind a door —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes the measles you can quarantine a room;
Comes the mousy, you can chase it with a broom —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

That’s all brother, if you’ve ever been in love;
That’s all brother, you know what I’m speaking of.

Comes nightmare, you can always stay awake;
Comes depression, you may catch another break —
Comes love, nothing can be done.

For some weird reason this reminded me of the horror of learning about computational theory and the Church–Turing thesis. Anyway, the song resonated with me somehow. Maybe it’s because the author of this song was Lew Brown of The Bronx, who turns out to be a former resident of Odessa, Ukraine known then as Louis Brownstein.

More importantly, the song was performed by one of the three best female jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday. The the other two are Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, of course. The three of them generally are not considered equal. Fitzgerald is usually considered to be first, Holiday – second and Vaughan – third. Vaughan has the most beautiful and technically powerful voice, spanning from soprano to baritone. Holiday’s voice was not nearly as spectacular, and downright limited compared to Vaughan’s. But it had way, way more emotion and darkness. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice has both the range and technical perfection, as well as the deepness of emotion. She’s like a hybrid of the other two.

I, personally like Sarah Vaughan the best, followed by Billie Holiday. Vaughan’s voice makes me feel oh so good, and Holiday’s – so bad that it’s actually good. The way Billie Holiday sang “nothing can be done” totally made this song special for me. If there’s one person that knows about things about which “nothing can be done” – it’s Billie.

But I was wondering what the same song would sound like covered by Fitzgerald and Vaughan. Finally, a reason to buy something on iTunes, I thought, as three 99 cent songs makes more sense than three ten dollar cds, even when faced with the perspective of DRM limitations.

“An unknown error occurred (5002)” says iTunes store. Google search says – “nothing can be done”.

Update: iTunes relented and let me buy the songs. The contrast of the three renditions is exactly what I expected. The clarity and cleanliness of Lady Ella’s phrasing, the sexiness and faultless execution by Sassy (although a little spoiled by questionable orchestral arrangement) and the deep, desperate and dark emotional abyss of Lady Day’s voice, the ultimate finality in the words “nothing can be done.” Too bad I could not find a version by Diana Krall or Marilyn Maye.

A Pineapple Grows In Brooklyn

There’s one piece of Americana that I do not like. Lawns. Suburban grass lawns. Keeping a good looking lawn is difficult and expensive. The amount of watering and cutting and fertilizing is mind boggling, considering that you are simply growing grass. Lawns do have a nice, neat appearance, but in my opinion they are way too sterile.

Of course, I am not alone in lawn-hating. Various hippies are also unhappy with vast water-hogging expenses of grass they can’t smoke. They propose various solutions, such as replacing grass with clover, wild flowers, etc. I actually very like one solution I’ve seen somewhere (can’t find the link) – they’ve replaced the lawn with a vegetable garden. It’s not as neat and sterile, but still green most of the year. And you get your own organic berries and vegetables.

Oh, and I got to mention this, my wife always liked this black grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus, I think) that grown across from the waterlily pond in Brooklyn Botanical. Now, that would make one nice gothy lawn.

In any case, my McMansion-owning friends can have their humongous lawns and tractor lawnmowers. Living in an apartment, all I can operate with is a windowsill.

Speaking about windowsills. I grew up in a very old apartment in Odessa, Ukraine. The windowsills there were huge – you could sleep on those things. Some of the newer houses in America don’t even have windowsills – they have picture frame moulding around them. The older, Art Deco era apartment where I live now has decently sized windowsills. They are big enough for a couple of cats to sleep on.

In any case, there’s a lot of super cool stuff you can grow on your windowsill. I, for one have a couple of real pineapple plants.

For the longest time I thought that pineapples grew on palm trees, like bananas and coconuts. Well, I just found out that bananas also don’t grow on palm trees and are technically herbs. Live and learn.

Anyway, pineapples grow low on the ground, kind of like corn. The first pineapple plant that I grew on my windowsill I got from Brooklyn Botanical Garden gift shop. It already had the small fruit and cost me about $30 bucks. That was years ago. It has proven to be amazingly resilient – I generally have a brown thumb, and frequently forgot to water it. It survived a cold New York winter, and finally I ended up eating the slightly bigger pineapple. It was small, but very pineapply.

The plant that you see in the picture is one of the two that I picked up from Ikea in Elizabeth, NJ. They set me back only 20 bucks, together. Thank you, Ingvar.

I bet there are other cool plants that I could grow. Various dwarf citrus plants – lemons, oranges, kumquats, etc. Coffee tree. Maybe even a dwarf banana. The trick, of course if finding plants that already have fruit on them (if you know a good supplier, please let me know) – growing something from a seed is a huge pain in the ass.

Subwaycat

When I lived in Odessa, Ukraine, I once encountered a most strange cat. Odessa used to have a huge open air book market, right in the middle of the city. Kind of like a much larger and organized version of the street booksellers in front of NYU. Me and my dad spent a lot of our time and money there. On one of our trips, my dad pointed out a cat sitting in a tree near the book market. On a number of our visits there that stretched over weeks and months, the cat was still there. Water and food dishes appeared there. Somebody told us that the cat apparently went a bit crazy and refused to leave the tree (even though it wasn’t a very high one). Kind hearted booksellers started to feed the cat. I am not sure exactly how long the cat stayed in the tree, or if he or she ever left it.

New York has strange cats of its own. Subway cats. The most famous one of those, Schatzie the cat that lives in the Fulton Street station, according to Randy Kennedy’s book “Subwayland : Adventures in the World Beneath New York.” The mice and rat population must make living near the deadly third rail and moving trains possible for cats. Sadly, eating those rodents must be pretty dangerous too, because they are frequently poisoned.

Well, I found a subway cat of my own under the platforms of the Kings Highway station.

Actually I spotted two, a tabby and a tuxedo, but was able to take a picture only of the tabby. She sat there calmly, not bothered by my flash. I hope she’ll stay safe there.

New Billboard Day Effect : How to Advertise More Effectively on Your Blog

Advertising. “The Engine of Commerce”. Ideally, it should work like it does in the Simpsons episode 2F12 “Homer the Clown”:

“In the middle of driving down the highway, Homer skids to a halt in front of a billboard.

Homer: [gasps] It must be the first of the month: new billboard day!

Homer: [reading] “This year, give her English muffins.” Whatever you say, Mr. Billboard! [skids off]
[stops suddenly at another billboard for barbeque sauce]
[cars collide behind him and explode]

Homer: [reading] “Best in the West.” Heh heh heh, that rhymes!
[looking at the next one] “Clown college”? You can’t eat that.

At the power plant, Homer piles his purchases (including MSG, “Best in the West”, and English muffins) at his work station. “Well, I got everything I was supposed to get. I’m not going to enroll in that clown college, though…that advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever. In his daydream, he imagines himself sleeping and dreaming of himself eating a sandwich. The billboard for the clown college batters its way into his thoughts. The Krustys on the billboard start dancing to circus music.”

Of course, Homer enrolls in the clown college. Having never enrolled in a clown college because an ad told us to, we all go on thinking: “advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.” It can’t possibly be true: bajillion dollar industries, such as advertising don’t simply exist if they are not effective.

During the dot com bubble even large companies mostly failed to earn much from banner ads. Even the heaviest online ad campaigns did not seem very effective and suffered horrible clickthrogh rates. Online ad companies escalated the war for clickthroughs by inventing obnoxious popunder, popover and floater ads. The more the ad was like a flash-bang grenade mistakenly used by NYPD on an elderly woman, the better. For instance, many sites started using larger sizes of vertical banners known as “Skyscraper.” That was not enough though – extreme, flash-driven skyscraper ads with movies and sound, capable of crashing browsers and known as “Godzilla” and “Pagekiller” started to appear.

The founders of Google decided to address this issue, and as a result, made bazillions of dollars. As a former googler remembered:

” Besides, Larry and Sergey hated these kinds of advertising. In fact they hated most kinds of advertising as inefficient, dishonest and a total waste of people’s (meaning their) precious time.”

We all know that AdWords and AdSense, Google’s advertising programs managed to earn so much money through unobtrusive, mostly text ads. The winning strategy was “relevancy”. Google’s server would read in the page where the ad were to appear, and serve up a relevant ad.

For instance, after parsing pages on chupaqueso.com, a site dedicated to a cheese snack invented by web cartoonist Howard Tayler, in theory shows ads about cheese. And after reading about chupaqueso’s cheesy goodness, I might indeed be in the mood to buy some cheese online.

On the other hand, the AdSense algorithm is not too efficient. On some pages in the abovementioned site it serves ads like this:

Yes, indeed, amongst Howard Tayler’s readers there are a lot of computer geeks. I know I am not a typical web user, but I am a pretty typical web developer. And I have zero desire to “Boost XML app performance.” I also have all the “ODBC drivers” that I need.

Many of you, my readers, are bloggers or have regular web sites with AdSense ads. Look at them. How many you’d say are “inefficient, dishonest and a total waste of people’s … precious time”?

I say – about 99.5%. And clickthrough ratios are pretty horrible. People try to tweak them by playing around with ad types, look and feel, positioning and excluding advertisers, but it’s all rather ineffective.

Google’s ads only pay if people click on them. In the TV, billboard, magazine and the type of advertising that people tattoo on their bodies there’s no such things as clicks. You get paid depending on how many people see the ad. It works really well if you need to make people remember your company’s name or logo.

Side Note:
When I was little, in Odessa ( Ukraine, Not Texas) somebody scribbled in almost every public phone booth “[Some girl’s full name] is a whore.” In a city of about a million people this worked like a charm. The mindshare that that advertisement delivered must have been off the charts.

These 99.5% of unclickable ads can be divided into two categories: a) ad campaigns that build brand’s awareness almost for free and b) those that indeed waste everyone’s time and money.

I don’t think I ever clicked on any Vonage ads, even though I’ve seen thousands of them. They worked without any clicks — if I did not also know that their customer service sucks and reliability is horrible, I’d have their VOIP service now.

The ads that nobody ever cares about still do get some clicks. When people come by a useful and interesting site, they tend to click on random ads so that the site owner would get some revenue. This is the untraceable portion of a much scarier phenomenon called click fraud. I am not even going to address this here.

In short, I feel that even though Google’s ads are a step in the right direction, AdSense sucks, especially for a blog with a smallish audience, such as mine. The useless, stupid ads that clog AdSense are a waste, even though they might generate a few “pity clicks.” Only half of my ad revenue for the site came from AdSense last year. The rest came from my experiment that I think will be of great interest to everyone.

My thinking went like this: I want to serve ads that are extremely relevant to my blog posts and interesting to my audience. Even more importantly, they must be selling something that I would be interested in. Ads I’d click on.

When you have limited advertising space, the problem with AdSense is that it often tries to sell things that your readers don’t want. What you want to do is advertise things that people aready want. As an example of such salesmanship, let me direct you to a post on the very popular waiterrant.net, where The Waiter describes selling dessert to calorie-conscious women:

“”Ladies,” I say sweetly, “We have some excellent desserts tonight.”

“Oh, nothing for me,” Bubbly Blonde replies.
“No dessert,” Severe Brunette says, holding up her hand.
“Me neither,” Lawyer Babe says firmly.

The fourth woman, a Soccer Mom type, looks at her companions and sighs. She wants dessert.

I see the longing for chocolate in Soccer Mom’s eyes. She’s my weak link. My in.

“Would anyone like some coffee?” I ask. Suggesting coffee is the first stage in selling dessert to calorie resistant ladies.”

“The ladies pay the bill, tip well, and leave. As I watch them go I think about how I got them to order dessert. To be a good salesman you have to have a seductive quality about you. Don’t believe me? Look at pharmaceutical reps.”

That’s what I want to do! This means that I need to find something that will be the equivalent of selling chocolate dessert to Soccer Mom types.

I believe that my 1000 readers are a lot like myself. And what do I spend a huge amount of money on every year? Books, movies, cds and gadgets. Also I purchase some rather esoteric items on eBay too, but the majority of my spending happens squarely at Amazon.com. My wishlist there is humongous, and in fact, I spent my advertising revenue there.

Luckily, Amazon has a pretty generous associate program. You can link to any of the products they sell and get a cut of the sale price, if the sale happens as a result of your clickthrough. In fact, you get a cut of the entire shopping cart amount (I am not sure, this could be only the items that were added after the click). In any case, it’s decent money, and most importantly, a great selection of new and even used items to sell.

What to sell, of course depends on your audience. I found some success selling items that tempt me. In fact, many times it’s the items that I am planning to buy or already bought.

In some cases, relevancy is important. My article with pictures from Fog Creek’s party sold 4 or 5 of Joel’s books. It was a combination of a very desirable in this particular audience product with a closely related article. Interestingly enough, I tried to sell the toy that you can see in the picture as well, but none sold. As I own both books and don’t own the toy, this seems logical.

I might have tried selling flat panel monitors and Aeron chars (WOW, Amazon sells them too! ) ,that make Joel’s office so nice (in fact, at home I have the same exact dual monitor setup, an Aeron chair and a window with a view, and I had id before Joel wrote about his bionic office). These are big ticket items though, and the likelihood of someone buying them on a whim is lower. But then again, so are rewards.

The relevancy does not matter as much as I thought, though. For instance, I advertised “Make” magazine subscriptions and Shure E2c headphones, and sold a few.

In fact, I think that the approach to selecting products should be somewhat similar to the one that Kevin Kelly uses for selecting items on his website Cool Tools:

“Cool tools really work. A cool tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true. I am chiefly interested in stuff that is extraordinary, better than similar products, little-known, and reliably useful for an individual or small group.”

In short, advertising video iPods is good, advertising “The world’s greatest 3D IM” is not!

Side Note:
My former co-worker won a $300 gift certificate for a certain gadget catalog in a contest. Now, he’s a guy who spends a lot of money on gadgets, like the uber geek that he is. I mean, he owns planetofthegeeks.com domain. But despite that, he had a lot of trouble picking something to spend $300 of free money on in that catalog! Not only was everything overpriced, but there were very few things he’d be interested in owning!

The great thing about selling items from Amazon is that you know that the prices there are very Wal-Mart-like, and most of your readers already shop there. Some people prefer not to patronize Amazon because of software patents or other issues, but there are “organic” alternatives, like for example Think Geek (in fact they sell through Amazon too).

The one gripe that I have with Amazon is the difficulty in creating the links. The tools that they provide want you to use iFrames to create image wrapped links, which of course do not work well in RSS Readers. This brings me to my final point, the specifics of blog advertisement.

A blog is a two-sided entity: it generates page views from people who don’t use RSS aggregators and those who come in from search engine referrals. And then there are the views from within RSS aggregators, in case you are serving up the entire text of the article in the feed. Some blogs don’t do this, serving up only the title or a title and a teaser. The thinking is, readers will click through to the page where they will see ads and thusly generate revenue. Some do this because they don’t serve ads and want to limit their traffic, and yet some do it because they use a default setting in their blogging software and don’t know better.

The great thing about my advertising scheme is that you can serve ads in-feed. A New York blog Gothamist, for example serves atrociously uninteresting ads that repeat. At some point they had a long run of a flashing ad for something that made me unsubscribe from the feed. If they started selling interesting items, they could greatly increase their advertising revenue.

Advertising my way does not detract from regular content and isn’t cheesy. It is clearly marked, unlike those fake editorials in magazines and newspapers. Advertisement can be entertaining in itself! Since the early years of Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, people look through catalogs like Levenger, Victoria’s Secret Penzeys Spices and Think Geek for fun! My wife has a lot of gardening catalogs that she looks through now and then. After finishing an interesting post, readers would not mind learning about an interesting gadget or book they might want. In fact, they might already be in the mood to buy it! There is no reason to serve partial RSS feeds with this type or advertising.

P.S. I turned off comments to this article because for some reason it attracts a ridiculous number of spam comments. If you would like to contact me, see about the author section. I also changed to a different way of displaying Amazon’s related items.

From the Old Photoalbum

1986. Mir Space Station is launched. Space Shuttle Challenger explodes. Nintendo releases The Legend of Zelda. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are born, as well as one of the London Underground suicide bombers.

Odessa, Soviet Union. Public School #39 (former Madame Balen De Balu’s Gymnasium for Girls), 3rd grade, group A poses for a picture in front of a patriotic mural depicting the fictional underage foe of burgouise, Malchish Kibalchish. Here’s a modern rendering. If I remember correctly, the remainder of the mural depicted Malchish’s main foe, Main Burjuin and his henchmen. I might be wrong about that though.

Somehow I missed school the day when the picture was taken. Of all the people in the picture, I sometimes chat on ICQ with two.

Update:
An interesting thing to notice is the color of boy’s shirts. There were two types of uniforms – one for special occasions and one for everyday use. No doubt that prior to the picture was taken everyone was told to put the special occasion uniform, which for boys means white shirts instead of blue ones, and for girls – white aprons instead of brown or black ones (like seen in this ebay auction). As you can see, all the girls are wearing white aprons, but most of the boys are wearing incorrect blue shirts.

Amen


My paternal grandmother, the matriarch of the family, a mechanical engineer and a workaholic, was the main driving force behind our move to America. She woke up at 5 am every day to prepare a meal for the family and start cleaning. She loved America, but did not live long enough to enjoy her life here. Her luck ran out a several years after my family arrived in the US — pancreatic cancer destroyed her body. The surgeons operated, but could not help her.

My grandfather, on the other hand was a bit luckier. He also had an operation in the US – a quadruple bypass, which fixed his heart that was weakened by several small heart attacks. In all likelihood, if he did not immigrate, his heart would have given out earlier, as these operations were not widely available in Ukraine.

Gramps lived an extraordinary life, squeaking by on his luck more than once. The picture of him and my grandma you see above is from their vacation on a Soviet cruise ship. I took a scan from a page of my personal photo album that he lovingly created for me, complete with his accurately printed titles. “October 1984, Cruise on ‘Admiral Nakhimov’, Odessa-Yalta” the caption reads. In August 1986, Admiral Nakhimov became the Soviet Titanic, colliding with cargo ship Pyotr Vasyev, mostly though gross incompetence of and dereliction of duty by the two captains.

Having survived Stalin’s purges was mostly pure luck for my grandparents. Having relatives in the USA actually tipped the odds in the wrong direction. My grandparents did have a chance to emigrate in the pre-war wave. One of my grandpa’s friends tried to talk him into going to America and starting a construction business. Good construction engineers like you are hard to find there, he said. My grandma did not want to go at that time, leaving their elderly parents behind. I remember seeing a letter from my grandpa’s friend, who actually started a construction business in the US and struck it rich. The zip code on the letter stuck in my mind for some reason back then, and now I know what it meant — it was 90210. In any case, I think the major reason why my grandfather did not get arrested adn “disappeared” is his easygoing personality. He was a very gentle person, with a small circle of good friends and absolutely no enemies. That, and his luck.

My grandfather had some luck in WWII as well. Very early on in the war a few of his egghead friends called on him to volunteer to a newly formed and somewhat secret division. He spent the war very close to the hottest front points, but not actually in them. He did not shoot or got shot at. In fact, he was handling lots and lots of paperwork. That paperwork was generated by strange-looking cars with antennas, egg-headed mathematicians and grandpa’s friends, who were fluent in several languages. I always knew my grandfather as an extremely meticulous person, especially about paperwork. This quality is very important in the business of code breaking as well as in the construction business.

After the war gramps was poor as a churchmouse. His wartime spoils were limited to the fork and the polishing cloth that I wrote about earlier. To fix their finances my grandparents headed to the boom island of Sakhalin. Sakhalin is an island right next to Japan that looks like a fish from above. The history of Sakhalin’s population is strange and convoluted. Chinese, Japanese, Ainu, Russians and others co-inhabited it. Japan and Russia fought for complete control of it, and finally, after WWII Soviet Russia won. Japanese were driven out and it became a Soviet frontier, rich in oil and other natural resourses. Engineers were desperately needed, and even within the confines of non-market economy, wages were much higher there. My grandparents made a good living there, sending money back to their parent and saving a lot to start their independent life back in Odessa. My dad, whom they took along, meanwhile, learned to ski and to catch smelts, strange little fish that smell like fresh cucumbers.

Back to Odessa they went, where they continued their careers. They bought a few things with their Sakhalin earnings, such as the nice modern furniture and a color TV that I later enjoyed. There are many buildings in Odessa that were built under the supervision of my grandfather. Later he became a college instructor, and taught architects and builders.

Without ever hearing about another famous Odessan who also happens to share his first name, one Yakov Pokhis better known as Yakov Smirnoff, gramps liked to repeat the famous catchphrase. “What a country! What won’t they think of!” — he used to say when I showed him a gadget or when he read about something in a newspaper or saw something on TV.

Grandfather’s luck ran out at the age of 91. He caught pneumonia. In the hospital, he started to get a little better, but then suddenly coded. His heart probably simply gave out, and the house doctor could not revive him. I talked to that doctor, and it was bad. Decent doctors say “I am sorry for your loss” and not “what is it that you want to know”; they do not mix pronouns, even if they speak broken English. I can only hope that he did everything that he could to save my grandfather.

Here’s literally the last picture I ever took of him (it was earlier this year). My latest digital camera and flash impressed gramps a lot, as it came a long way from the huge camera he and his father used to have (I pointed out that the quality of that old-timey camera was probably better).

As I learned from the eulogy delivered by a rabbi at the funeral, 91 is a special age. In Hebrew letter code 91 means Amen. Aleph = 1, Mem = 40, Nun = 50. Gramps lived a good life, and I am very grateful for having him with us that long. I am also grateful that his death was quick and I hope mostly without suffering. He is finally back with grandma. Amen.

The Little Cement Platform

I had some of the best times of my life fishing in Odessa. There were two piers (jetties) that I frequented, the I and the L shaped one. 

I probably fished the most on the I shaped pier. I must have known every little nook and cranny there.

The L (Russian Г ) shaped pier for some reason had less fish around it, but allowed for fishing even in windy conditions – the water behind it was calm even when the wind was high.

All the piers were connected by a wave breaker structure, an underwater wall that ran parallel to the shore and about half a meter below the surface. You could walk on it and fish from it. My father would not allow me to wear his waders because I could have drowned in them, so I had to spend many hours fishing from the wave breaker cold, wet, miserable and with feet cut up by mussels.

In theory you could walk on the wave breaker from the I pier, passing a few more piers and reaching a small cement platform a little bit higher than the L pier (it can barely be seen in the photograph). I never got there because there was a break in the wave breaker somewhere in the middle. I could easily swim over it, but for some reason that break always freaked me out, and I never reached that cement platform, although a lot of people did. 

A few days ago I had a dream where I was looking at the little platform from the L pier.