Presidential Visit

Once again most of Inc and FastCompany staffers spent hours gawking at the spectacle of our president visiting WTC site.

We could see the snipers on the WTC memorial

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And on the top of Century 21 (as well as a few other buildings)

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Our senator has arrived

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The firemen lined up

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Tourists were sardined a few blocks away

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The presidential cortege was significant. It went on (notice the suv with a popped hatch)

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and on

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and on. And then it went on some more, but I got tired of clicking.

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The black ambulance style car looks scary, but even scarier is the creep-o-van behind it. I later saw a few of similar cars outside our building – they were crazy eery, for inside was a full-size cubicle, complete with gray cloth pinboard and fluorescent light overhead. I can’t describe the look very well, but I did not have the nerve to take a picture. It was almost like a portal into a dreary office somewhere, but in a shiny black van.

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They found a primo parking spot for the two limos

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Some flesh was pressed

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You probably saw the rest on TV

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And away they went. From the looks of it the logistics of this were mind-blowing and the price tag was significant.

obama visit

Burying the Lead

Every time I reread my blog posts, the same thought comes to my mind – “man, I buried the lead again”.

I learned about leads from “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. It is a short book, but one that influenced me deeply. Every blogger out there should read it.

Burying a lead“, in the jargon of journalists means boring the reader before getting to the juicy part. A “lead” or “lede” is the first sentence of the story.

In the book, there’s an anecdote about a journalism teacher giving his students an assignment:

” … They would write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher reeled off the facts: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Amnong the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown. “

Apparently, most students produced a lead that lumped all these facts into a single sentence. The teacher read all the submissions and then announced:

“The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday’ “

I am having a huge problem with writing in “inverted pyramid” style. The juicy parts of my posts are usually at the bottom.

Think about it, most blog readers, especially the ones that matter suffer from add, and often do not get to the bottom of the article. This means they won’t link to it, won’t digg it.

I am trying to improve, but writing is a difficult art to master. I just wish I took more writing classes.

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.

“Dear Japanese Newspeople”

“No news is good news” – that’s what one of the old Usenet newsreaders used to say when there weren’t any new articles to read in your subscriptions. Is that a coincidence that CNN, one of the two evil companies that employs Lord Vader himself as its mouthpiece, is so obsessed with violent, fiery death? Cartoonist Jeffery Rowland even felt that he needed a special new word coined for this phenomenon.

CNN.com is a news site that I frequently visit, mostly because the url is so much nicer than http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is superior in all regards to CNN. As far as news goes, I am mostly interested in what’s happening in five countries: the US, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Israel and Japan. Why Turkmenistan? Because of the Great Serdar, of course. In any case, not many interesting things happen in Canada or the UK, and I could not care less for France, Germany and the rest of the Snootyland. Communist China and North Korea do not let out any interesting news and news from the entire African continent are usually too depressing.

Japan, on the other hand, is very close to my heart. Recently I found an outstanding English language Japanese news source, MSN Mainichi Daily News. There’s even an RSS feed for it.

What’s different in Japanese news? Well, first of all there’s a lot more sex-related news. American news are heavy on violence, but light on sex. MSN Mainichi Daily News are full of headlines very much in the spirit of one famous hacker’s “Dear Japanese People” posts.

Right now, the headlines are full of stories about a 57 year old fortune teller living with a “harem” of “about 10 women.” An older popular news story featured an embezzling accountant who spent stolen money on 17 mistresses.

Swimwear photo specials are frequent and highly detailed. Booth bunnies also get photo coverage. Sadly, Japan Swimsuit Association does not have its own website.

There’s some coverage about “maid cafes” for “otaku” in Akihabara (you can see Kitya’s post for photos.

Unhealthy Japanese obsession with schoolgirls is clearly present in the news: not a day goes by when there isn’t a schoolgirl sex-related article on Mainichi. Here’s a typical one:

“A man who licked the tongues of more than 30 young girls after making them open their mouths, telling them he was checking for tooth decay, has been arrested, police said”.

It gets more complicated than that:

“The two 18-year-old, third-year high school girls, whose names are being withheld under the Juvenile Law, threatened on Dec. 29 to reveal that the 19-year-old private 1st class had sex with one of them unless he handed over 2 million yen, local police said.

They forced a 21-year-old lance corporal who was accompanying the private to withdraw 400,000 yen from an automatic teller machine at a convenience store in Sasebo and received the money from him.

The girls subsequently demanded 1.6 million yen from the GSDF soldiers. However, the soldiers consulted police, who arrested the two girls.

A fisherman and two other men were earlier arrested for giving the girls advice on how to extort money from the victim.”

US military men are frequently in the news for murder, rape, tresspassing, and robbery. This is not good, and mostly unreported here, in the US.

Japanese news agencies are no stranger to violence. A particularly unsettling trend that I noticed is an abundance of stories about family violence in Japan: “Man stabbed parents because they wouldn’t drink his miso soup“, “Man arrested for leaving bed-ridden, elderly mother to die“, “Woman nabbed for fatally kicking boyfriend“. It gets weirder, too: “Jobless man sets fire to futon in house after mom refuses to buy him dolls.” Overall, all these stories feature jobless people.

Violent (“Homeless man stabs abusive youth in stomach“) and non-violent homeless people (“Homeless man can officially register a public park where he lives as his residence, a court has said“) are often in the news.

We all think about how safe life in Japan is, but according to the news that I see, if the jobless, the homeless and the US servicemen won’t get you, train crashes, heavy snow, natural gas or sticky rice cakes will: “4 die after train blown off tracks in Yamagata“, “Elderly woman trapped in heavy snow freezes to death“, “Natural gas kills mother and children at hot spring“, “4 Kanto residents choke to death on sticky rice cakes“.

All those people got killed in heavy snow, yet mount Fuji was missing it’s snow cap last year. Strange.

The conflict of Japanese whalers and Greenpeace activists gets a lot of coverage: for some reason I’ve never seen this picture of a Greenpeace dude nearly harpooned to death anywhere else.

Two Japan-specific stories that don’t get much play in the US news is the Livedoor scandal and the badly constructed “twin” condo buildings. The Livedoor news get funny sometimes: “Convenience store chain am/pm Japan has decided to pull an energy drink developed by former Livedoor President Takafumi Horie off its shelves because it doesn’t want to sell items associated with scandal-tainted people, it has been learned“.

New Year’s cards (“nengajo“) are apparently a very serious business in Japan. From what I understand, they are supposed to be delivered exactly on January 1st. There was a flurry of news items like “Feces in 2 mailboxes stain 140 New Year cards“, “Post office to redeliver New Year’s postcards that arrived too early“, “Post office in Osaka to deliver 35 New Year’s cards a year late“. Big whoop. By the way, while we are on the subject, check out Japanese New Year’s prints by master woodblock printmaker David Bull.

There’s a section called “WaiWai“(with its own RSS feed). I am not sure what it means, as Wikipedia tells me that “Wai Wai” is a noodle snack.

The headline writers for Mainichi are prone to using puns and old-fashioned American slang, although not always very smoothly: they really overuse the words “nab”, “pinch”, “clink” (prison). Sometimes it feels like you are reading an old detective story.

This quote also is kind of unsettling:

Foreign sex workers get dirty digging for Japanese roots: “Gentlemen may well prefer blondes, but Japan’s not-so-gentle men seem to, as well, sparking a rapid increase in the number of South American sex workers with more yam than Yamato running through their veins to claim Japanese heritage, according to Spa!”

“More yam than Yamato”? What the hell?

eBookery

I am going to break my rule of not repeating slashdot news. Why? Because Apple called. They want their ipod ebook back.

Eink. How the hell can do you pronounce that? Oink? Well, if it’s not vaporware and actually performs I might forgive them this silly name.

Yeah, the design looks horrible from the first glance, especially in comparison with my beloved Rocket and Softbook. But they have this shiny new screen.

Check out their management team. Jerry Kaplan is nowhere in sight. Maybe they have half a chance. Also, one of the co-founders clawed his way to a President. They did not make him CEO, so that makes me think that a search for a “professional” CEO is underway.

Interesting, the entire team except for the CFO majored in chemistry, math, physics or engineering. Even the sales dude. Does a chem major a good sales dude make?

Deadprogrammerbashi

I have many role models. But when I was writing that post I forgot about a few people. One of them is Saparmurat Turkmenbashi.

Saparmurat Niyazov is the fearless leader of Turkmenistan, aka First and Lifetime President of Turkmenistan High Commander of the Army Saparmurat Turkmenbashi. Turkmenbashi is a honorific, meaning Father Of All Turkmen. Few leaders in the history of mankind can come even close to achievements of Turkmenbashi:

  • Ordered all statues of Themis to be remade in the image of his mother.
  • Ordered the horse on the coat of arms of Turkmenistan to be replaced with the likeness of his favorite horse
  • Renamed the month of January into Turkmenbashi, April into Kurban Saltan Edje (Turkmenbashi’s mother), September into Runham (Title of Turkmenbashi’s book)
  • Renamed the city of Krasnovodsk into Turkmenbashi.
  • Changed names of the streets in Ashabad into numbers, starting with 2000 “to symbolize a new era in the life of Turkmen People”. Some streets kept ther names though. Those were Turkmenbashi Street, Turmenbashi’s Mother’s street and Tukmenbashi’s Father’s street.
  • Disbanded Ballet Theater of Turkmenistan because ballet “is not in Turkmen’s blood”.
  • Prohibited sitizens of Ashbad from having more than one cat or dog, thus eliminating the problem of cat ladies.
  • Turkmenbashi is a master detective. After he was told that he survived an assassination attempt from some people in a KAMAZ truck who were armed with an assault rifle, he immediately named the perpetrators. They were VP Boris Shihmuradov, Agriculture Minister Imamberdi Yklymov and the President of Central Bank Hudayberdi Orazov. Overall about 100 people were arrested and most of them convicted.

    Turkmenbashi is probably the most important writer and philosopher ever, comparable maybe only to . He wrote an amazing book called Holy Ruhnama (Book of the Soul). Revel in the genius of Turkmenbashi:

  • “Length of beard is a sign of stupidity. This is because beard grows from the brain. The longer the beard – the less brain matter a person has. Less brain matter – less wisdom. Less wisdom – stupidity.”
  • “Market economy – we are approaching it”
  • “Don’t commit a crime! Change your mind! Change your mind!”
  • “Only a Turkmen can make a Turkmen out of a Turkmen.”
    (I translated these quotes from a post in )

    Ruhnama is compulsory reading for all students in Turkmenistan. In fact, Ruhnama is it’s own subject.

    One day I want to be known as Deadprogrammerbashi. That will be so sweet! But for now I will probably undertake a deep study of Holy Ruhnama and Turkmenbashi’s poetry. I should also start writing poems in honor of Turkmenbashi. I wonder, if I write him a letter with a poem, will he answer?

  • How I Went Fishing With Michael Pryor

    Ok, since I started ranting about fishing, here’s a good story.

    I went fishing once with Michael Pryor, whom you might know as the president of Fog Creek Software. We went on the Dorothy B VIII for a half day of fluke fishing.

    The trip wasn’t going well. The boat was a bit crowded, there was an obnoxious redneck with a loud kid right next to us. And neither of us were catching anything. Well, actually I caught two really big skates. But skates are not fun to catch. It was still nice to be able to get some fresh air, fish and talk, but I was afraid Michael was regretting taking the train all the way from Manhattan to Sheepshead Bay for that.

    Exactly the second the captain announced “lines up, let’s go home” Michael got a bite. And caught the biggest damn fluke on the entire boat, effectively winning the pool for the biggest fish. Fishing on that boat for years, I never caught a fluke that big.

    The secret, is of course luck, but in addition, we were both fishing with a special kind of a bucktail called the Atomic Bullet. A bucktail is a sinker with a hook attached to it. I never liked those, but I’ve been hearing that the biggest flukes were caught on that. And it looks like that’s true. I’ll be using those this season.

    P.S. If you know of any good fishing blogs, please let me know.

    Hail to the Chief

    Since I am talking about my bathroom, here’s another thing that I want to get to complete the picture. There’s this gimmicky “stolen” White House towel.

    Well, you know, it’s a fact that Clinton’s staffers stole a bunch of crap from the Air Force One and White House (including many “w” keyboard keys). I was hoping that some real towels would show up on eBay, but it looks like White House bathrooms have paper towels (which makes sense, right?)


    Item description:
    “Last time being offered here. LOW RESERVE! Plain and simple. I was in the Oval Office, meeting the President, (President Reagan), I used the bathroom and these were in there. He’s getting on in years, 92 this year I believe. A fantastic Reagan piece of Presidential memorabilia. You’ll never get this anywhere, probably ever! They were used and thrown away. Now they are all gone. I kept mine. I take PAY PAL, check and money order. Check to clear before shipping. Winner to pay shipping. Own a very unique piece of American history from a President that is ill and almost 92. Thank you. “

    ACH! BONJOURRRRRR! You Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys!

    A while back I finished an absolutely amazing book about Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. It’s by Ben Rich and it’s called “Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed“. I’ll write more about that book later.

    Here’s an amusing little anecdote from Lt. Colonel William Burk Jr., an SR-71 Blackbird pilot.

    “In the fall of ’82, I flew from Mildenhall on a mission o Lebanon in response to the Marine barrack bombing. President Reagan ordered photo coverage of ill the terrorist bases in the region. The French refused to allow us to overfly, so our mission was to refuel off the south coast of England.”

    “We completed our pass over Beirut and turned toward Malta, when I got a warning low-oil-pressure light on my right engine. Even though the engine was running fine I slowed down and lowered our altitude and made a direct line for England. We decided to cross France without clearance instead of going the roundabout way. We made it almost across, when I looked out the left window and saw a French Mirage III sitting ten feet off my left wing. He came up on our frequency and asked us for our Diplomatic Clearance Number. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I told him to stand by. I asked my backseater, who said, “Don’t worry about it. I just gave it to him.” What he had given him was “the bird’ with his middle finger. I lit the afterbumers and left that Mirage standing still. Two minutes later, we were crossing the Channel. “