To the Moon, Alice

I recently visited my alma mater, Brooklyn College. Some things changed for the better, like the gorgeous new library addition, some for the worse, like the Campus Sugar Bowl restaurant replaced by Starbucks.

On the other hand, the science classrooms and offices in the old and new Ingersall building seem to have been frozen in time, down to the wall niches. You see, most floors have these glassed in niches which the various departments fill. Compsci displays books written by professors, Geology shows off a collection of minerals and fossils (a fancy one at that), Biology has a series of stands with pickled and dried specimens that I think dates to the 1940s, like something out of a Hellboy comic.

The Physics department has a very old, dusty and ironic display, seemingly not opened since the 80s:

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.

State of the blog 2008

A while ago Merlin Mann gave a pretty neat definition of what makes blogs good:

” 1. Good blogs have a voice.
2. Good blogs reflect focused obsessions.
3. Good blogs are the product of “Attention times Interest”
4. Good blog posts are made of paragraphs.
5. Good “non-post” blogs have style and curation.
6. Good blogs are weird.
7. Good blogs make you want to start your own blog.
8. Good blogs try.
9. Good blogs know when to break their own rules. “

My list would have been very similar, and I am pretty sure deadprogrammer.com is a good blog. God knows I try :)

On the other hand, I seem to have about the same thousand readers I had 4 years ago. I was kind of hoping that my writing and photography would work on their own, bringing me a steady stream of new readers. It does not seem to be working. Every time I try to put some extra effort into a post, my hopes of somebody linking to it, digging it, twittering about it, or even just leaving me a thoughtful comment are dashed. After a few years of this, it gets harder and harder for me to write. My posting frequency is not what it used to be.

Several hundred readers still subscribe to my blog from Livejournal. The majority of the rest resulted from a single Boing Boing post. I don’t really think it’s the most interesting post I ever wrote, but to this day it brings in about 25% of my search engine traffic, and the majority of outside links.

Back then I actively tried submitting my posts to Boing Boing. Boing Boing submission form can rival magazine publisher’s black hole. I finally practically begged Cory Doctorow in a personal email to take a look at at the Starbucks post (which the submission form vaporized previously), and I did get that link.

I tried to get Jason Kottke interested in my blog, especially since it seems to me that a lot of the stuff that I write about is very much up his alley, but after a chat or two I got tired of pitching. It just does not fell right for me to buttonhole busy A-list bloggers – hey, look, I wrote this, you might like it.

Anyhoo, what’s the point of all this? Apparently I suck at PR and self-promotion, and I would really like some help here from the audience. Do you know somebody who’d enjoy reading Deadprogramemer.com? Please, tell them, especially if it’s an A, B, C, D or E list blogger. Please?

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

In his fifties, Michael Gates Gill had it all: a big house in the suburbs, a loving family, and a top job at an ad agency with a six-figure salary. By the time he turned sixty, he had lost everything except his Ivy League education and his sense of entitlement. First, he was downsized at work. Next, an affair ended his twenty-year marriage. Then, he was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor, prognosis undetermined. Around the same time, his girlfriend gave birth to a son. Gill had no money, no health insurance, and no prospects.

One day as Gill sat in a Manhattan Starbucks with his last affordable luxury—a latté—brooding about his misfortune and quickly dwindling list of options, a 28-year-old Starbucks manager named Crystal Thompson approached him, half joking, to offer him a job. With nothing to lose, he took it, and went from drinking coffee in a Brooks Brothers suit to serving it in a green uniform. For the first time in his life, Gill was a minority–the only older white guy working with a team of young African-Americans. He was forced to acknowledge his ingrained prejudices and admit to himself that, far from being beneath him, his new job was hard. And his younger coworkers, despite having half the education and twice the personal difficulties he’d ever faced, were running circles around him.

The other baristas treated Gill with respect and kindness despite his differences, and he began to feel a new emotion: gratitude. Crossing over the Starbucks bar was the beginning of a dramatic transformation that cracked his world wide open. When all of his defenses and the armor of entitlement had been stripped away, a humbler, happier and gentler man remained. One that everyone, especially Michael’s kids, liked a lot better.

The backdrop to Gill’s story is a nearly universal cultural phenomenon: the Starbucks experience. In How Starbucks Saved My Life, we step behind the counter of one of the world’s best-known companies and discover how it all really works, who the baristas are and what they love (and hate) about their jobs. Inside Starbucks, as Crystal and Mike’s friendship grows, we see what wonders can happen when we reach out across race, class, and age divisions to help a fellow human being.

Pour Your Heart into It : How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

Since 1987, Starbucks’s star has been on the rise, growing from 11 Seattle, WA-based stores to more than 1,000 worldwide. Its goals grew, too, from the more modest, albeit fundamental one of offering high-quality coffee beans roasted to perfection to, more recently, opening a new store somewhere every day. An exemplary success story, Starbucks is identified with innovative marketing strategies, employee-ownership programs, and a product that’s become a subculture. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a manager, a marketer, or a curious Starbucks loyalist, Pour Your Heart into It will let you in on the revolutionary Starbucks venture. CEO Howard Schultz recounts the company’s rise in 24 chapters, each of which illustrates such core values as “Winning at the expense of employees is not victory at all.”

The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion

Introducing the life you’d gladly stand in line for

You don’t stand in line at Starbucks® just to buy a cup of coffee. You stop for the experience surrounding the cup of coffee.
Too many of us line up for God out of duty or guilt. We completely miss the warmth and richness of the experience of living with God. If we’d learn to see what God is doing on earth, we could participate fully in the irresistible life that he offers.
You can learn to pay attention like never before, to identify where God is already in business right in your neighborhood. The doors are open and the coffee is brewing. God is serving the refreshing antidote to the unsatisfying, arms-length spiritual life–and he won’t even make you stand in line.
Let Leonard Sweet show you how the passion that Starbucks® has for creating an irresistible experience can connect you with God’s stirring introduction to the experience of faith.

What It’s All About?

I recently picked up “It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks”.

As you might know, I am a bit of coffee coin-a-sewer, owning a $2000 espresso machine and such. You might also remember the only popular blog post I’ve ever written – the one about the Starbucks logo. I was always very interested in everything Starbucks. The reason? Well, I really could not understand how a company with coffee that is so bad could be so popular.  I mean, have you tasted the stuff?

“It’s Not About the Coffee” – wow, I thought, this should clear some things up. Because, I for sure know that it’s not about the coffee. I’ve had good coffee. It just can’t be about the coffee. 

The first sentence of the book (int the A Note to Readers) reads: “Although this book is titled It’s Not About the Coffee,  of course it is about the coffee–it’s about the people and the coffee.” Leadership lesson number one: start out with a lie, then weasel out. 

Cloying, sacchariney  corporate doublespeak only got worse on the following several pages, I am not even sure I can get through the book at all.  There might be some interesting Starbucks anecdotes further down, so I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile I get a weird feeling about Howard Behar – the same I used to get about Soviet Politburo members: I could not understand if they believed themselves in the ideals that they extolled. 

Ok, I read a couple of more pages, and was instantly rewarded by learning this interesting, although disturbing fact: besides the coffee passport, which I knew about, there’s a piece of corporate propaganda known as the “Green Apron Book.”  Almost like Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”. Neat.

All of this reminded me a story that I’ve read somewhere about a North Korean student at a Moscow university that used to carry around with him a little portrait of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. He would meditate, looking at the picture for hours, and even used it instead of a mirror while shaving. When asked – how could he shave without a mirror, he said – this is better than a mirror.

I guess, if you can make people shave in front of a portrait, you can make them believe that Starbucks coffee is tasty. There are ways…

What Do I Know About What People Like?

As you might have noticed, for all my ranting about redesigns, I went ahead and redesigned my own site. It took me all of 3 hours. I changed the template a bit, fixed a nasty WordPress search bug that inserted unsightly escape characters into search strings, changed all the urls for more search engine friendly ones (while preserving all the original ones) and made navigation arrows a bit more consistent. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? This is all a part of my effort to finally get over the thousand reader mark on the Feedburner counter. It stands at 915 today (and I used that counter graphic as one of my Optimus Mini’s applets).

I get a lot of Google and Google images traffic, as my humble blog is the second search result for “starbucks logo”. After reading my article about the Starbucks Melusine, most visitors just scamper away. I realized that I need some kind of a hook at the end of the page. I added the easy subscribe buttons, links to del.icio.us , Digg, Reddit and Netscape and a sampling of what I think are some of my better posts.

What I think are my better posts are, probably is not what you, the readers, think. So, if I may be so bold, please tell me what posts do you think should make “Best of Deadprogrammer” list, as well, as which particular post made you subscribe to my rss feed (or to bookmark my site). Also, in an effort to overcome the 1K reader barrier, I will even stoop so low, as to ask all of you for a link, if you can spare one. The thousand reader barrier must be broken.

Speaking of statistics, here’s a comparison of Feedburner’s breakdown. Since 2005 I went from 47 readers to 915. I am surprised to see a decrease in Livejournal readers since I quit it. Well, what can you do. I think I should give up my blog and move to Myspace. That’s where all the cool kids are and where most of my image traffic is coming from, even after I played a bit of a trick on them.



How Do You Like Them Apricots?

Today I received in the mail a fresh shipment of coffee from Victrola Coffee. Inside, along with the coffee was a handwritten postcard, thanking me for buying their coffee and encouraging me to let them know what I think about it.

I bought a pound of their house blend, Streamline Espresso ($13 /lb), as well as half pound packages of pricier special coffees, Colombia La Esperanza #1 Cup of Excellence ($18/lb) and Kenya AA Mtaro ($14/lb).

If I had sufficient financial resources, I would buy coffee in half pound increments, on a weekly schedule, because coffee is only at its best for a few days after roasting. I would also buy a Synesso Cyncra and a Clover machine. Well, ok, enough dreaming, as what I have in terms of coffee and equipment right now is pretty damn good.

I loaded the award winning Colombia La Esperanza into my grinder and pulled a shot. There was a lot of crema (as there always is with coffee this fresh), but it wasn’t deep red. There were little dark flecks which I guess could pass for “tiger flecking.”

“Juicy, complex citric notes in the dry aroma turn into dried apricots in the crust. The cup is astonishingly clean with brilliant cranberry acidity, white wine, honey & melon.”

– says the website.

Tasting wine, coffee and cigars is highly subjective, and gets rather ridiculous, just like judging audiophile equipment. I never know if I am so stupid and insensitive that I can’t detect all the subtleties that the real fanatics detect; or so stupid that I believe that generally vacuum tube amps sound more pleasant and that there are “notes” of different stuff in good coffee, wine and cigars.

Starbucks has a huge variety of coffees. They all taste pretty much the same though, because they are over-roasted and under-extracted. Espresso made from any of their beans has the same notes: hydrochloric acid, burnt coffee and donkey. Yet they go on and talk about notes of chocolate, toffee and oranges; conduct coffee tastings and train their employees to talk about it to the customers.

Once you properly pull a shot of well roasted coffee that is also fresh, it does not have enough acid that would cover up the thousands of complex aromatic organic molecules that really confuse your taste buds. Your brain starts trying to assign familiar tastes to the weird electrical impulses generated by your taste buds. Without overpowering bitterness and burnt character, the playing field is leveled for these subtle and rather weird flavors. Coffee starts tasting the way freshly ground coffee smells.

The beans of Colombia La Esperanza had a smell that I have not encountered in my life yet. It was similar to the way really expensive chocolate-covered dried apricot would smell, although that wasn’t it. It was something else. But if it were sold, it would come from an expensive store individually wrapped in tissue papers inside a well-made wooden box.

Espresso made from the beans was amazingly tasty. The major taste element was that weird apricot smell which actually went away after a while, replaced by something very similar to an expensive white wine aftertaste.

In short, some of the best espresso that I’ve had in a long while. And that apricot-like taste still haunts me.