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.

Cinematic New York

When you live and work in New York, you spend a huge amount of time on tv and movie sets. Most of the time the sets are abandoned by the shooting crews, but very frequently tv or movie magic is happening as you are walking by.

Why is New York so overrepresented on screen? Part of it is because it’s New York. But it’s also because the city government is also very friendly to the moving picture industry.

When I worked on a website for Kenneth Cole, I learned an interesting factoid: the real name of this fashion powerhouse is Kenneth Cole Productions. It turns out that in the early days they abused a perk that the city gives to movie people: ability to park their huge trailers in places where normally only city services vehicles can linger. Cole applied for a permit to shoot a movie called “The Birth of a Shoe Company”, parked a huge truck in front of a hotel where a major shoe show was taking place, and proceeded to sell enough shoes while cameras were rolling (sometimes even with film) to start a company.

While watching a movie or a show set in New York I get a lot of “oh, hey it’s” and a lot of “hmm, where’s that?” moments. Sometimes a movie or a show becomes more memorable just because its locations are so familiar to me.

Let me give you some examples about how cinematically impregnated my environs are. Take, for instance 30 Rock. I spent 7 years working in two buildings that are behind 30 Rock, and every little thing in, under and over Rockefeller plaza is seared in my brain. Also, I have the same last name of one of the actors (is Jane Krakowski a relative? Probably not).

The 47-50th Street/Rockefeller Center subway station that I got out at almost every day for those 7 years (unless I missed a few stops while reading or sleeping) is the one featured in a key scene in Darren Aranofsky’s “Pi”. The Brighton Beach bus stop in “Requiem for a Dream” – one of my first American jobs was right there, handing out fliers for a gypsy psychic. One of the buildings where I worked, 1211 Avenue of the Americas was very subtly featured as Sideshow Bob’s prisoner number in a Simpson’s episode.

Sterling Cooper corporate headquarters are famously located at a non-existing 405 Madison Avenue. On the other hand 415 Madison Avenue is a very real building where my wife used to work.

When I go to and from work now, I pass a grating which John McClane ripped off in one of the Die Hard movies to jump on the top of a moving train. The building where I work? Well, it doubles as the Massive Dynamic headquarters on “Fringe”. They do a lot of shooting at the floor where I work. You can see our big conference room called “Jail” in a number of commercials. You know, Doctor House, he’s supposed to stay in New Jersey, but one time he slept on “my” couch at the office after shooting a commercial there. The butterflies of doom from Fringe also live in “Jail”.

Ironically, the only famous person who went to my hight school is Larry David, the co-creator of a certain show about nothing set in New York, but shot in LA.

Keep It Under Your Hat

Thanks to John Kennedy the only people who wear hats these days are hipsters and cops. Hipsters do it ironically and cops have to. Cops don’t particularly like wearing hats, and the hats even have a special loop for attaching them to a belt carabiner.

NYPD duty hats have a special little pocket in the lining. Over the years I noticed many interesting items in there: icons, shopping lists, wanted posters, family photos. By far the most common is this little card featuring Archangel Michael, the patron saint of law enforcement.

It seems to be this particular holy card with a prayer on the back. Interesting to note that in Guido Reni’s painting from which this card was made, Michael holds a chain instead of a scale, his cape is pink, hair is longer, there are pink ribbons in his outfit, and there’s a very prominent nipple showing.

Just DOITT

Whenever I see New York City parking signs, I’m always reminded of this Futurama quote:

“Tour Guide: I direct your attention to this ancient and mysterious tablet which has yet to be deciphered.

[He points to a parking sign. Leela turns to Fry.]

Leela: Do you know what it means?

Fry: Yeah, I asked a cop once. It means “Up yours, kid”.”

The parking signs are indeed mysterious: for instance does 7am-7pm refer to unauthorized vehicles? One thing I can tell you – DOITT means Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and probably refers to which NYC government fiefdom is allowed to park on that street.

House: Seasons 1 – 4 Collection

Every compelling and provocative episode from the first four seasons of House is now available in the House Seasons 1-4 collection. Join two-time Golden Globe® winner and Primetime Emmy® Award nominee Hugh Laurie in his critically acclaimed role as Dr. Gregory House, a brilliant physician who can solve the most baffling medical questions but is always a puzzle to his staff and patients with his sarcastic bedside manner. Don’t miss a minute of the show that critics hail as “entertaining and interesting on every level” (Chicago Sun-Times).

Boooo, HBO. Yay, Netflix

My TIVO has fallen on hard times. It seems that the network executives cancel shows faster than I find new ones to watch. The ones they don’t cancel, become bad. Let’s have a moment of silence for the dearly departed…

Futurama, Firefly, The $treet, Invader Zim, Deadwood, Carnivale, The Restaurant, Six Feet Under, The Job, Insomniac With Dave Attell, Samurai Jack, Sex and the City, NYPD Blue, Friends, That ’70s Show

SEO for CTOs and CEOs
Note to those working hard on search engine optimization. How did IMDB get me to give them so many valuable links? Why does it have a pagerank of 9? Why didn’t I use some certain other TV and movie review site? Simple. IMDB does not change URLs every couple of years, the search is simple and fast.

Well, in fact most of the shows that were on my old TIVO list. In particular, HBO has been especially keen on destroying my viewing list. Granted, some of the shows like NYPD Blue and Friends have lived longer than they should have, but on HBO Deadwood and Carnivale have been cut down in their prime, most annoyingly, not even ending cleanly.

In light of this, and to protest the cancelling Deadwood and Carnivale, I cancelled my HBO subscription and got a Netflix subscription instead. I still like Rome and The Sopranos, but I can wait until they are out on dvd. So HBO, I have only one thing to say to you. Booooooooooooooooooooooo. Boo. Well, OK, that was two things.

Compared to $12 a month for HBO, Netflix is a bargain at $9.99. The only problem is that I don’t like the DVD player’s interface – I have to wait for the menus to load, skip the previews. Fast forward and back is not as smooth as in TIVO and there’s no way to watch some other disk, and then come back to where I stopped watching another. I think I need something like Kaleidescape, except cheap and with storage for only a couple of DVDs at the time. Or maybe just a well-designed dvd player.

Sadly, Netflix does not have a particularly impressive inventory. Peerflix has a much better one, and is also a good way for me to get rid of the dvds that I don’t need anymore and get some obscure stuff that I do need.

All’s not too bad in TV Land overall though. I am frustrated with DirecTV TIVO not having networking and online scheduling and for that reason I am not upgrading to HD DirecTV TIVO. Tivo Series 3 does not work with DirecTV and is outrageously expensive. Well, at least there are some new shows that I like.

At the top of the pile is How It’s Made. It’s a Canadian show that mostly takes you inside factories and shows you amazing manufacturing and automation techniques. There’s a number of similar shows around, but they are all suffering from the same problem: TV personalities. It’s annoying to see idiotically grinning morons making bad jokes and drawing attention to themselves rather than to what the show is about.

For instance, Dirty Jobs is not really about messy, smelly, funny and horrible jobs. It’s about messy, smelly unfunny and horrible host, Mike Rowe. The last segment of Dave Attell of Insomniac with Dave Attell often had a segment similar to Dirty Jobs, but Attel, unlike Rowe is both charismatic and funny. Well, at least I think so.

Overall I feel that in a show about working a host is not very important. Take This Old House, for instance. It’s really about Tommy, Norm, and the lesser subcontractors such as Richard and Roger. But you can take one host with another and then with another without the show suffering. I, for one, find the last host least annoying.

Anyway, what’s different about How It’s Made is that it does not have a host, only an invisible narrator. The show walks you through various industrial manufacturing processes accompanied by the Wakka Chikka Wakka Chikka-like music and almost hypnotic narration. It’s pure engineering porn. It seems like youtube has pulled down most of How It’s Made clips, but there’s still one on google video.

Now I can’t look at any mass-produced item without trying to picture the assembly line that created it. Some of the machines that I’ve seen are still haunting my mind–the ingenuity with which they are made are just amazing. I wish the show would interview the engineers who made the machines and spent more time on some of the more complicated ones.

Bionic Social Networking

The words bionic and cybernetic kind of lost their original meanings in the English language. I squarely blame The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and The Bionic Boy and the rest of TV and movie cyborgs as well as William Gibson.

Cybernetics is the science of control and communication. That does not only include electronic communications and numeric control. All kinds of control and communication. Thus we are all technically cyborgs or cybernetic organisms. Cyber- was a hot bizz-prefix in the 50s and 60s, but today steadily deteriorated into something anachronistic. People say “cyberspace” to sound old-timey, like when Mr. Burns from The Simpsons says “alienist” instead of “shrink.” Meanwhile, the study of usability, which in demand because of its apparent usefulness, is basically a subset of cybernetics. Yet when something is described as cyber-something, everybody promptly imagines gleaming steal and humanoid robots or cyborgs.

The word “bionic” fares even worse because of The Six Million Dollar Man. Something bionic is not necessarily “better, stronger, faster”. It means that it’s modeled on something found in nature. Like the Coca-cola “contour bottle” that is based on the cacao pod.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about has something to do with both cybernetics and bionics. As a web professional, I have witnessed and participated in the rise of online social networking. Social networking squarely falls into the cybernetics category as communication through technological means. The though that occurred to me is that it’s also bionic.

The only difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 or Web Beta is ease of use. Things have become slightly easier, but personal web pages, blogs and social networks like myspace are basically the same thing that has a rather interesting counterpart in nature. The best example from nature is the behavior of bowerbirds. These birds build garish and elaborate nests “called bowers” to attract mates, which is a rather counter-intuitive behavior, as blinged-out nests are a prime target for predators.

“Depending on the species, the bower ranges from a circle of cleared earth with a small pile of twigs in the center to a complex and highly decorated structure of sticks and leaves – usually shaped like a walkway, a small hut or a maytree -, into and around which the male places a variety of objects he has collected. These objects – always strikingly colored – may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, pieces of glass or similar things. The bird will spend hours carefully sorting and arranging his collection, with each thing in a specific place. If an object is moved while the bowerbird is away he will put it back in its place. No two bowers are the same, and the collection of objects reflects the personal taste of each bird and its capability to procure unusual and rare items (going as far as stealing them from neighboring bowers).”

Isn’t a bower strikingly similar to a myspace profile? If these birds could figure out how to set background music and master JavaScript copy and pasting they definitely would. Myspace is not better, faster or stronger than other social networks or blogs, but it’s sure bionic.

I, personally already attracted a mate years ago. I’ve accomplished that with an old-fashioned web page (true story) that any modern myspace bowerbird would be jealous of. As I don’t need any more mates, the only reason for me to use social networks is to find friends. Also, as a web programmer I am interested in seeing the interfaces, technical tricks and various doodads that earn other developers kajillions of dollars.

Also, recently I was talking with a friend of mine (whom I’ve known for many years online and never met offline, by the way), and got into an argument about privacy feature trends in social networking sites. He countered my argument about something that Myspace does by saying that I don’t even have a Myspace account and thus don’t know what I am talking about.

Well, I went ahead and created one. I also got an account at LinkedIn, Facebook, and del.icio.us . I even created an account in William Gibson’s wet dream, Second Life, although thanks to my geek-atypical aversion to role-playing games I could not suffer though more than 15 minutes there.

In any case, I welcome all of you to go and check out my digi-bowers and add me as your friend.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part V: Japanese Architecture

Pilot: Welcome to Japan, folks. The local time is…tomorrow.
The Simpsons, Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo

If you want to know what Japan is like architecturally, go watch Samurai Jack cartoons. The future world created by Genndy Tartakovsky looks a lot like present day Japan.

I picked some photos of buildings to give you a general idea of what I have seen. Here’s a Habitrails-inspired otaku-infested electronics shop in Akihabara.

Here’s a very elegant Stalinist-style skyscraper somewhere in Tokyo.

Philippe Starck blemished Tokyo skyline with a giant golden turd on the top of Asahi Beer Hall. It’s supposed to symbolize a flame that in turn is supposed to symbolize the company spirit of Asahi. Giggling tourists take a lot of pictures with creative shot framing. By the way, I’ve tried a lot of different beers that Asahi makes, and they all taste like, uh, flame. I, personally like Sapporo much better.

The Japanese society is highly stratified. For instance, in the hotel complex where I was staying there were at least 5 different classes of buildings (each of a different prestige level) and the ANA plane in which I travelled also had 4 or 5 types of seating. On this picture you can see two layers of Japanese society: well-designed plastic huts built by homeless with a backdrop of what I’m told is company-provided employee dorms.

Here’s an amazingly eclectic little building (I think it’s a firehouse). It combines elements of Art Deco, Modernism and traditional Japanese architecture.

And this building is pretty typical of modern designs. I love the huge wrap-around windows, the dna-like staircase and the efficient use of space.

I was most shocked by architecture in Kyoto’s Gion, the geisha district. Near all-traditional Japanese buildings there was a number of super-futuristic mostly metal buildings that looked like spaceships. I think they were nightclubs of some sort. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else.

Many building tops had antenna clusters, one more cyber-punkey than the other.

As we all know, land is pretty tight in Japan. Here’s a pretty typical small house somewhere in Kamakura (I think).

What makes construction in such tight quarters possible is this marvel of technology: a cute pocket-sized excavator.

Old Photos

I borrowed some pictures from my grand-aunt for scanning. Amongst them was this awesome picture of my great-grandfather.

In the picture he looks very much like Seth Bullock. Here are for comparison pictures of great-gramps, Timothy Oliphant as Seth Bullock in HBO’s Deadwood, and the original Seth Bullock.

In reality my grand-grandfather was more of a Sol Star character. I learned from my grand-aunt that he studied to become a bridge builder, but his father refused to support him because in that profession he would have to work and study on Saturdays (great-great-grandfather was very religious). Instead, grand-grandpa was forced to enter the family business which was, just like for Seth Bullock and Sol Star – a hardware store. He became rather wealthy, owning 3 hardware stores at some point.

Then during the Bolshevik Revolution his hardware stores were nationalized and he became a lishenets. Thinking on his feet, he made a quick trip to Kiev and quickly learned the photography trade. That was a pretty good profession and it allowed him to support his large family in the Soviet times as well.

Amongst the pictures I found a photo of my dad (looking eerily similar to myself at that age) wearing a flat cap, just like an outstanding comic book character The Goon.

I wonder if in the age of flying cars, teleportation, personal robots, spaceship yachts and the like, someone will post a picture of me on the interplanetary network and marvel at my new-media-blue shirt, fatness (I believe by then they’ll solve this problem) and a cubicle with a primitive computer in the background.

Quotin’

I am currently reading Douglas Coupland’s latest book, “Jpod” and absolutely loving it. My favorite quote so far:

“Here’s my theory about meetings and life: the three things you can’t fake are erections, competence and creativity. That’s why meetings become toxic–they put uncreative people in a situation in which they have to be something they can never be. And the more effort they put into concealing their inabilities, the more toxic the meeting becomes. One of the most common creativity-faking tactics is when somebody put their hands in the prayer position and conceals their mouth while they nod at you and say, “Hmmmmm. Interesting.” If pressed, they’ll add, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Then they don’t say anything else”.

By the way, according to his website, on 14th of June 2006 at 7 pm, Coupland is going to be at Barnes & Noble Union Square, apparently promoting “Jpod.”

One of the running themes in the book is the never ending references to the Simpsons cartoons. By my estimation, probably good third of my posts have an Simpsons quote. And you know what, I feel rather pathetic while watching old episodes I stumble upon obscure references that are not even documented in very, very obsessive snpp.com.

Here are two latest ones that I found. I’ll let you guess, and then announce the right answer. My hope is that some of you are at least as nerdy as I am for knowing this.

What is the significance of Bob Terwilliger’s prisoner number, 1211 in episode [9F22] Cape Feare? (this one’s is too easy for some of my friends :)

Answer: Newscorp headquarters are located at 1211 Avenue of the Americas

In episode 9F19 Krusty Gets Kancelled what is “Eastern Europe’s favorite cat-and-mouse team” based on?

Answer: They are based on Kazimir Malevich-designed costumes for a futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun”. This 1913 opera was written in Zaum, an artificial avant-garde language, similar to glossolalia or “speaking in tongues”. And I thought that Malevich only drew black squares