Monthly Archives: November 2010

Startup Tools: Easily Beats

Over the past decade or more, I’ve been developing various websites, so I’ve had some experience with a bunch of different services for registration, hosting, and promotion. And in that time, only two such services really stood out: and

I don’t know how to say this nicely, so I’ll just unload: is the biggest crapfest of online services that I’ve ever had the sorry pleasure of dealing with. By comparison, is a breath of fresh air.

Let me explain why, because there is a lesson in this for all of us who deliver services over the internet.

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I’m done here

I’ve been an observer of politics and people for the last thirty years or so.

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in how groups of people get together, make decisions, and make progress. What structures work better than others? How is it that some small number of people effectively control much larger groups? How do groups change their mind from one position to another?

It’s all very fascinating to me, whether its politics or technology. Five person technology teams work drastically different than 50-person technology teams. Something very interesting happens in that initial growth phase.

It’s been a good run. Looking at how people develop relationships among each other has helped me become a decent project team leader and eventually a strategic technology consultant. It’s also helped me sharpen my libertarian leanings. What is the state entitled to? What do the people need in order for the state to work?

I haven’t come up with any super-insights, but I have decided that you can tell the health of any system of people by the ease in which it can completely change course. If it can change too quickly, the mob rules and individuals are trampled. If it changes too slowly, it stagnates and there is a general feeling of malaise. The system fizzles and collapses on itself.

I believe these observations to be true both in technology teams and in governments – in fact anywhere there are people coming together.

Over the last decade, I’ve watched several very interesting developments at the macro scale. First of all, I think its clear that national parties are giving way to world-wide parties. People are sharing their prejudices forming collective opinions regardless of locality. As promised, it’s becoming a global village. Pretty neat.

I’ve also seen vast sections of the internet turn into echo chambers. Instead of the internet providing challenges to the way we live and think, it seems to be validating whatever we already believe and keeping us from reality. Internet consumption seems to be equal parts self-reassurance and digital narcotic. My facebook page and blog and tweets mean that I am an important person. My games tell me I am a level 60 Druid. I am important. I am special. I am powerful. I am correct. I have insight that others do not have. Why change?

Not so neat.

It disturbs me to come to the conclusion that our system of governing in the west has become so broken as to be a danger to myself and other law-abiding citizens.

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The Startup Attitude

You become amazing by studying what attitude winners have. Learn the attitude, the rest is muscle memory and coordination.

I’ve been a startup junkie for about ten years now. I’ve read dozens of books and hung out with as many successful startup founders as possible. I’ve attempted half a dozen startups — really cool projects which I’ve described before.

I have swam in startups.

I’m that way: I pick a topic and immerse myself totally in it. I live, eat, breathe, and sleep it.

I’m not an expert. In fact, over the years I’ve grown a profound disdain for book authors and experts alike. There’s something about saying that you know something that inevitably makes you look stupid sooner or later.

But now that I’m starting to get just a tiny bit of traction, and I’ve gotten used to looking stupid so much that it doesn’t bother me anymore, I’d like to tell you the things that were wrong with my attitude that took so long to fix.

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Stoics Among Us

Read a really good book this weekend: “A Guide to the Good Life The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”

I’ve already written a review over on my hn-books site, so here’s the link:

Also, for those of you HNer’s, here’s the HN link for voting and comments.

I think you’ll like it.

I don’t want to ruin the review, but I can tell you it’s not what I expected.

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The HN Heartbeat

Tired of coding today, so I thought I’d look over some server stats and make some observations based on the data. Perhaps my thinking aloud can help other bloggers.

server statistics graph for last 90 days

Average traffic is passing through 80K visits per month. This puts the blog in sort of a transitional space — not really anything to be tremendously interested about, but a little more than just a hobby.

HN Traffic is a big part of that growth. This makes sense, as HN is really the only place I post my articles. Been doing it like that for years. That’s not as a promotional tool — I just like hearing what my fellow HN’ers feel about what I’m writing.

Traffic is very spikey. That’s because the HNers have sort of become a huge herd of elephants, running from site to site The vast overwhelming majority don’t like or dislike my site per se, they’re just along for the ride. It’s also because I only publish 5-7 articles a month. Most of them aren’t that good, and what’s there to read in the intervening days? I’ve also noticed with my other sites that internet traffic in general is much more spikey than you would think, although there are long-term trends.

The danger here — as it has always been with blogging — is that I start writing articles as a way to keep the heartbeat going. I love writing. I love putting my thoughts down on paper (or in a blog). And I can’t describe the feeling to you of writing what you know is a good article and then watching something like forty-thousand people come by to read it. It’s freaking incredible. But the minute I start thinking in terms of “what can I write for the HNers so a lot will come visit today?” is the minute I start writing crap. Must remember.

As an observation, as the HN traffic firehose grows ever larger, the temptation is there for a lot of people to become “HN hangers-on” — people who provide marginally useful apps and services just for the HN audience. HN is like its own city by now — very strange. While I played around with this idea a bit in my site, really the idea for that site was to see if I could put together a multi-page targeted site with lots of functionality without a backend server. The HN gang were just my guinea pigs. (Plus I love books and respect their opinion). If it’s difficult for me to separate writing for myself and writing to suck up to the HNers, I imagine it’s going to be impossible for a lot of people. Expect to see a LOT more HN-stuff sites and services being pumped over on HN. They mean well. But it’ll get noisy. I guess nothing lasts forever, right? Sigh. Much better that than the endless supply of nerd-drama that seems to fill the front page.

So what are people reading?

pages viewed in the last 90 days

Spikey traffic is probably not as important as it appears. Ah, here’s the biggest slice of humble pie: remember that “agile ruined my life” article I wrote? Folks loved that. It got 78,000 views. But coming up right behind it, with almost 60 thousand views, is an article that I wrote 18 months ago that has nothing to do with technology, management, or humor. It was just an article I wrote on a lark, to see how the internet would respond. Well, respond it did, and every month I get thousands of people coming by to look at the article about she-who-must-not-be-named-again-on-this-blog. Coming in at #7 on the list is an article I wrote three and an half years ago. Yes, spikey traffic drives the numbers and averages up, but there’s a huge component of evergreen content in blogging. If I stopped writing tomorrow, I’d still be generating tens of thousands of visits, and probably would continue doing so for a long time. Traffic might even increase over time.

Throw-away articles lead to throw-away traffic. Over the years I’ve written many kind of fun articles, like “nerdy girls in cute t-shirts” or “important online research” I don’t regret writing these articles — I write whatever I feel like — but I notice that quickie articles generate quickie traffic. People don’t stay around to read much. Whereas articles with a lot of heft drive folks to stay for a while. Six thousand people stayed an average of more than 8 minutes reading my “putting the fun in functional programming”. I don’t know a lot, but that seems like an incredible number. Most articles tank, yes, but in general the more thought I put into writing something the more in-depth value people get out of it.

People are searching my blog for web design tips. This seems like going to a bar to ask for alcohol abstention advice, but there it is, on line 17. From 10 to 20 folks a day are searching the blog for web design advice. Wish I had some to give!

Why are people visiting, anyway?

traffic sources for past 90 days

Most folks come directly here. As counter-intuitive as that sounds, even though HN gives me a big bump on the days I write something worthwhile, most of the people visiting get here because they know the site and check it out from time-to-time (probably on an RSS feed). These folks are probably going to hang around longer.

A close second is HN, and beyond that we really are getting into Google territory.

Images count a heckuva lot more for organic search than you think. People are visiting my site from search engines because, well, I like graphics and I like putting in fun images from time to time. A full 37% of my search-engine traffic visitors are visiting — and you’ll like this — because I put pictures of a teenage track star up in an article about what’s fair game on the internet. Yes, at the time I knew it might be “junk” blogging, but I was genuinely interested in what the effects would be. Well, year and a half later, thousands of pimply teenagers a month are still flocking to my blog to see the derrière of a mmse stocke (purposely misspelled) Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. Following her up is “bikini”, “Walt Disney”, and “Pluto” (which should still be a planet. Long live Pluto!)

I really enjoy blogging, and I love numbers, but looking at stats is always a dangerous thing. I remember when I first got my blogging account; I would watch each and every visitor as they showed up. Wonder why they came? What interests them? Wonder if I put the graphic on the left if it would be better?

This type of thinking is perfectly fine for a business, but in a freeform medium it’s very easy to get the cart ahead of the horse. Blogging as an engineer has a way of sucking you up into the numbers instead of focusing on the reason for blogging. Yes, when I write thoughtful articles people spend more time here, and yes, when the folks over on HN like it there’s a huge spike, but none of that is a reason to change what I do. That was a difficult lesson to learn, but I’m glad I learned it.

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To code quickly, you must quit coding

I did something yesterday that doubled my daily coding performance. It was easy, cheap, and made a tremendous difference in my life.

Some of you may already know what it is. For the rest of you, its going to sound wacky.

I stopped working.

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Make something people hate

“Make something people want” is the first rule Paul Graham and other leaders of the startup community will tell you.

But they’re wrong. Or rather, what they say is incomplete.

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Good and Evil in the Garden of Hackerdom

I was reading today about some technology reporter-editor who is mad at another technology reporter-editor and it occurred to me how many hours I’ve wasted spending time watching pointless drama on the internet.

No, I do not care if the latest iPad has a video camera. No, I do not want to know what sorts of personnel shakeups are occurring at Microsoft. And no, I am not at all concerned about how venture capitalists choose to waste their money and time.

I understand that some folks do care. Perhaps you have to pitch some of these VCs. Perhaps you are interviewing for a job at Microsoft. Perhaps your business model heavily depends on video being available in portable formats.

But I suspect not. I suspect that articles like this attract internet readers because it gives them something to sit around on their fat assess and pontificate about. Apple getting a new CTO? Well you know, this guy was heavily invested in company X, and company X is highly regarded among this community.

WTF? Come on, guys. If done anywhere else about any other topic this would be called out plain and simple for what it is: idle gossip. It’s the technology version of painting the bike shed: somebody can have some sort of drama anywhere in the world that involves technology, and suddenly we’re all speculating on motives, emotions, and impact. Bickering with each other over semantics and versions of history.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of such communication is good — it helps us form and maintain a community. But it’s critically important to recognize what these topics are: social candy. A little bit is fine now and then, but it’s very easy to do too much.

I just got an email from a person who is also doing some fine work around hackers. He has a monthly newsletter with all sort of good advice. He’d asked to include an article of mine, and I was more than happy. In his follow-up, then he asked if I had a chance to read the latest issue.

Well gee, I do not like being so blunt, but no, I have not decided to consume yet more material of a randomly technically tangentially interesting nature. I’m sure its a great publication, and I’m sure with my technical bent I would love reading it, but I’m really trying to be a bit more useful in my life.

And I think that’s the insidious nature of the problem. It’s very enjoyable to read about some legal battle involving two big corporations which we have attachments to, or hear about some programmer somewhere who made a million dollars attaching lasers to flying turtles, but it’s probably not a good use of our time. When we consume these things, it’s like we’re stuck in neutral, just ambling around without direction. That’s a fine way to be every now and then, but — like I said — it’s very easy to do too much of it.

This gets back to my application of Kant’s Categorical Imperative to technology: don’t put a constraint on a user unless you are willing to put that same constraint on every user who seeks a similar goal. It’s very likely you don’t need a login service for your web-app (unless there are some monetary or privacy reasons, of course). You don’t need to email or text me when your service upgrades. You don’t need to pop up in the corner of my window just to tell me that you’re still running.

These are all things that as programmers we have done at various times, and I think they are all evil to a certain degree. They take millions away — if only for a few seconds — from whatever they were doing before. And for no good reason. Daniel’s rule of big numbers: anything times a big number? It’s also a big number.

I just wrote this blog article. It took you ten minutes to read it. If there are six thousand of you, and your time is worth 40 dollars an hour on average, I just “consumed” forty-thousand dollars of worth in the world. Now it’s up to me to make sure I provide this value back in my content. And that’s assuming that you can immediately switch back to whatever you were doing after you finish reading this, which studies have shown is highly unlikely.

More of us should be doing these calculations.

The same goes for Technology Drama — stories that provide emotional impact, that consume large portions of our energies, with little or no return for us directly (except for advertising revenues for those who provide the drama)

It’s evil. Perhaps not evil in the way we’ve grown up understanding, but evil nonetheless.

After 9-11 I was on a political board and we were talking about the nature of evil. “Well,” one commenter said, “what is evil, anyway? It’s all so vague. I don’t think it has a definition.”

To which I replied, “Evil is somebody who wants to come over to my country and kill me — to take away my life”

Of course that gets into whether or not there is a universal definition of evil, but lets not go there.

That definition of evil was true then, and it’s true now. Evil is people creating material that is purposely designed to take away my life — if only a very small part of it — for somebody else’s benefit. Killing one person is a horrible tragedy. Aside from your religious or moral feelings, the world lost the benefit that one life could have provided. Playing out your drama about some fanboy topic for fifty-thousand people that consumed several hours discussing it? From the world’s standpoint, same amount of harm done, perhaps more.

Searching was the killer app of the 1990s and 2000s. Filtering is going to be the killer app of the 2020s and 2030s. Either that or we’re all screwed.

We hackers and programmers are a lot more involved in the world or good and evil than we’d like to admit. Or that we’re comfortable discussing.

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