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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, , , Rebecca, Sarah, search algorithms, Shlomo, Soviet Union, 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, , , , , , , real estate market, , SECAM, Soviet Union, , 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 5:03 am on December 2, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , HMS Beekeeper store, , , , Soviet Union, , , Webkinz, Webkinz Webcast   

    Entrepreneurship Heros I 

    To celebrate my 2 year anniversary of working for Fast Company and Inc magazines, I decided to write 2 posts about entrepreneurship. Here’s the first one.

    The owner of super awesome HMS Beekeeper store recently complained that people told her that she should close “because it’s ‘buy nothing day'”. I’m pretty sure that these people would have enjoyed my childhood in the Soviet Union, where most days were ‘buy nothing day’. Soviet Union was the kind of place where reporting your father to the secret police could make you a national hero, while engaging in business activity was a crime.

    I was brought up in an environment where 99% of non-governmental commercial activity was outright illegal, and the allowed kind was considered extremely unwholesome by association. Just about any item produced by the Soviet industry would be stamped with a price in order to discourage illegal arbitrage, like this condom, for example:

    These days outside of California it’s hard to imagine a society that considers this much commercial activity evil, but when I was a kid, any schoolchild caught engaging in commercial activity of any sort could get in a lot of trouble. Personal entrepreneurship was literally a criminal activity. This kind of an environment tended to produce excellent jet fighters, but pretty crummy condoms.

    In America entrepreneurs get a lot of respect (outside of government and hippie circles), and they tend to start early. You always read about the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates having business ventures in high school and college.

    My former co-worker told me a story about his daughter who got into trouble for her entrepreneurial activities in 2nd grade. She and her friend decided to cash in on the popularity of Webkinz. They went into the business of selling hand-drawn counterfeit Webkinz trading cards. Surprisingly they were able to sell a good deal of those. The trouble came when the teachers noticed that they were engaged in market segmentation and variable pricing (which is a topic of one of my favorite Joel on Software articles). You see, the girls were selling cards at a discount to the popular kids and at inflated prices to unpopular ones.

    This episode only increases my dislike of schoolteachers. If I were in their place I would have praised the girls for entrepreneurship, and explained to them that it’s copyright infringement that is problematic, while market segmentation is perfectly kosher, even if a little sneaky. I’d teach them about premium vs generic branding and how some people happily pay a lot more for identical items in different packaging.

     
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