TL;DR: I’ve locked myself out of facebook for a week. Don’t try to contact me via it for anything that’s time-sensitive.

As soon as I click the log-out button on Facebook, I will have effectively locked myself out of the site for a week. Why? I have a hypothesis that the site is a net-negative on my life, and I wanted to test that hypothesis. Going further, I have a hypothesis that social media in general (though there are exceptions) isn’t a particularly worthwhile use of my time. Facebook just happens to be the most obvious (and, in my case, the most used) example of social media.

I’ve been on the site for a few years now, since sometime in 2006, when (if memory serves me) you still needed a .edu email address to sign up. At that point, it was touted as a needed refuge from the staried gif-backgrounded world that was MySpace. It was a place where your peer group had a place to share. MySpace had lost its luster. Mostly, I think, due to the fact that our parents had gotten on the site (sorry, parents). Well, now the same thing has happened to Facebook.

I don’t blame the current lack of utility of Facebook on parents. Social norms have simply pushed “friending” to the point where there are people who I’m “friends” with on Facebook who I wouldn’t ordinarily consider friends. This places a definite limit on what I can or will say on that site.

Looking through my feed, it’s largely dominated by things I actually don’t have any interest in. This isn’t to blame on the people who share things. If that’s their perogative, I don’t take issue with it. It’s just that it doesn’t offer me a whole lot of value.

That largely leaves the final use-case of Facebook: voyeurism. This, I feel, is the most damning of any argument I could have against the site. Facebook has become a way to deciminate information amongst a large group of people who you have some affiliation with. In doing so, it becomes easy to keep up to date with people without actually talking to them.

If you read through my recent posts, you could probably surmise the biggest events in my recent history: an end of a relationship, a commitment to get out of San Francisco, and the purchase of two vehicles. The first is actually unusual in that I’ve posted something about the impact that has had on me in a deeper sense than what I’d ordinarily share on FB, but, even then, it’s hard to get a sense for what I’m actually doing or going through. The insights into my personal life gleaned from FB are largely skin-deep. So it goes for most of the people who I’m friends with on the site.

I don’t know what will come of this. It’s only a week.

I’m ditching my beloved TextMate for Vim. I’m also considering moving from OS X to Linux. The times they are a-changin’.

I’ve been toying with the idea of jumping ship from Wordpress and moving to something where I have a bit more control. Wordpress has been a great place to host my blog, but some of the limitations don’t offset the advantages it gives me.

First, the good. It’s great that I don’t have to worry about hosting or maintaining another site on my Linode slice (the primary reason why I’m not moving to something self-hosted, whether it be Wordpress, another blogging platform, or something custom). The post creator is pretty good. It’s fairly flexible, allowing me to drop into HTML when needed, but having enough use cases covered that I rarely feel the need to. It has stats, comments, moderation, and spam-filtering built-in. I also don’t pay anything for it.

The bad is that I can’t have use custom CSS or a custom domain without giving money to Automattic. I don’t fault Automattic for doing that; they need to make money, but there are other platforms out there that don’t require me to fork over cash for some basic utilities. Tumblr and Github Pages both support custom CSS. I don’t know if Tumblr supports custom domains, paid or otherwise. Github, does, however, and they do it for free.

I could have gained custom styles and a custom domain by going with a self-hosted solution, but that’s such a pain that’s it’s not really worth it to me. A self-hosted Wordpress would take all that I like about Wordpress, plus solve my two gripes, but I’d have yet another site to maintain. I’d also have to learn how to actually create Wordpress templates, which would also require me to brush up on my PHP. Even blogging platforms built in Rails tend to annoy me as it’s such a simple thing that I shouldn’t have to learn yet another way of doing things. If I was going self-hosted, I’d probably just build my own blogging platform.

So, I went with Github pages. It offers me the flexibility to write my own HTML and CSS with a custom domain, it doesn’t cost anything, and I already use git and Github every day so the deployments aren’t an issue. Since the cononical domain for this site will be andrew-lat.com (rather than ahlatimer.github.com), I can switch to something else without anyone on the outside being aware of it. Even going to ahlatimer.github.com will redirect to andrew-lat.com. The only downside, so far, was that I had to learn how to use Jekyll.

18 Oct 2011

My First Post

Hello, world! This is my first post using Jekyll.

30 Sep 2011

It's not magic

There was a comment on HackerNews the other day from a user who was shocked that some developers get offers north of $95k/yr right out of school. I replied that I got an offer of $115k/yr + $10k relocation right out of school as an undergrad who didn’t go to a prestigious school. The commenter replied:

Frankly, that's amazing. I hope you took/get to take something that's not too far off that mark.

I replied:

I do alright. I went with something that's lower salary, but there are things in life that are more important to me than money. Dailybooth, the company whose offer I accepted, seemed to have the maximal overall combination of the things I was looking for.

What I did wasn’t magic, though. I worked my ass off to get relevant work experience starting as soon as I could. I used that to get into a YC company. They liked me and my work enough to write me a letter of rec and forward my resume to the YC founder’s list. FWIW, no one even asked about college beyond “how’s college going?” as I was in final’s week of my last semester when I interviewed with a bunch of companies after the forward.  I want to focus on that second paragraph because, really, what I did wasn’t magic. It was little more than hard work and proper positioning.

The story of how I got to that point isn’t really that interesting. I can sum it up in a paragraph: I learned Ruby on Rails on my own time. Impulse hired me and added a bunch of real world experience to that self-taught base of knowledge. OwnLocal hired me based on the experience I had from Impulse. The ~3 years of Rails experience I had, three technical interviews that went fairly well, and a little bit of negotiation was enough to get an offer of $115k/yr.

Once I started at Impulse, I had no gaps of employment in the field. These weren’t summer internships; I was working and going to school at the same time. There were times it was incredibly difficult. My grades probably would have been better had I not been working and going to school at the same time. Without that experience, though, there’s no way I would have been able to do what I’ve done. My grades were a necessary sacrifice to get the experience I needed to get in the door at higher than an entry-level [1].

The offer I eventually accepted was lower, monetarily, by a non-trivial margin than the $115k/yr I opened this with. It was still nearly twice what the highest offer was for the class from the year before mine. I’m not twice as smart the people I went to school with, or twice the developer, or twice as hardworking. I just had more proof that I’m smart, competent, and hardworking, and that’s what made the difference.

You, the imaginary CS student I’ve created in my head, are probably thinking, “Well, duh. Experience is valuable. I knew that. How do I get that experience?” I can’t tell you because I don’t know your story. I can tell you what I did. I went out and learned a new technology in the field I had interest in (web development). Maybe web development interests you. If so, great, learn Rails. Or Django. Or Node. Learn something newish that’s being used by startups. Don’t know what startups are doing? Better start reading HackerNews. Fill up your RSS reader  with people that seem to be well-respected in that niche. Read, read, read.

In between reading about startups and web development, going to class, doing homework, and learning this new technology, you’re going to start curating a list of companies you want to work for. You’re going to write out a personalized cover letter for each of these companies. You’re going to write about specific problems they have that you’re going to be able to solve. You’re going to know this because you’re going to actually research the company before you send them any email. This will limit the number of companies you are going to apply to. That’s okay. Your conversion rate from application -> interview will likely be much, much higher.

Still no luck? Start contributing to open source. Hell, contribute to open source anyway. Find an itch, scratch it, and throw that solution up on Github. Fix a bug in that new framework you’ve been learning. Rewrite or expand some of their documentation. Anything to show you’re capable of getting stuff done.

Go back to the research company phase (and keep reading) and show them this awesome body of work you’ve been creating and giving away. Rinse, repeat. Don’t give up. There’s a huge market out there for engineers. You’ll get hired.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is. I assume that’s why more people aren’t doing it because the steps aren’t amazing, and they certainly aren’t magic.

[1]: I still graduated with a 3.18, so it’s not like my grades totally tanked. I don’t include my GPA on my resume, though, and in the 17 interviews I had right before graduation, no one asked. Take that as you will.

31 May 2011

The Last Four Years

I’m in this strange space between graduation and starting at my next job. It’s a pause longer than I’ve had in a considerable amount of time, and I’m finally being afforded the opportunity to reflect. What follows is a late-night (it’s almost 3am!) introspection of the last few years and the people who got me to where I am.I graduated on Saturday the 15th, and, on the 18th, I was on a plane heading for San Francisco to interview. I spent a week and a half talking with some really awesome startups and flew back to El Paso the 27th. I ended up getting offers from four of the seven companies I interviewed with, and picking just one was a harder decision than I’ve had in a while. I really wish I could have went with all of them, but, alas, I am but a mere mortal, and the prospect of working 160 hours a week wasn’t all that appealing. I ended up picking Dailybooth for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here (primarily because I haven’t yet fully processed it).

Looking back on the past four years of my life, I’m finally coming to grips with how hectic it all was. I went two years without a real day off. Those three days in between graduation and interviewing were the first three where I honestly had nothing to do but sit back and relax. It was nice. Now I’m back at home, a freelancing project in the works, but nothing nearly as pressing as my time spent juggling 17 hours of classes on top of 30 hours of work. And you know what? It’s really boring.

I don’t know that I want to go back to working as much as I was (although, for the right project, I could certainly see myself doing just that). I do know that only working 8 hours per day probably isn’t going to cut it. I can only read so much reddit or HN or watch so much TV. I’m completely befuddled by people who choose to be unemployed, but I digress.

Trying to go back much further than the past few weeks is proving to be exceptionally difficult. It’s all sort of blurred together. It’s honestly hard for me to believe that it’s been four years since I graduated from high school. Going through it, it certainly didn’t feel that fast, but the aggregate of all of those days certainly went by quicker than I had anticipated.

Even though I can’t come up with specific insights about my previous four years, what is blatantly obvious to me is that I certainly couldn’t be where I am without other people.

I certainly couldn’t have gotten this far without my father, who got me my first job in the industry, paid for my college, and was always there to offer me advice when I needed it. Or my mother, who showed me that college is hard, working while going to college even more so, but with enough determination, you can survive. Or my grandparents, who were the only familiar faces I saw with any frequency when I spent a year 600 miles away from home. Or the rest of my family and friends who might as well by family, whose support got me through the toughest period I’ve yet to experience. I’d no doubt be much worse off without them. I love you guys.

There’s no way I’d be working at a kick-ass Bay Area startup without Brandon and Andrew of Impulse. Andrew, who first got me interested in Rails, showed me the ropes, and continues to be the person I go to for front-end issues. And Brandon, who took a shot on me, giving me my first job doing Rails, and over a years worth of real experience building Rails applications. I’ve had a ton of great experiences with both of them, and there’s no way for me to adequately articulate how much I appreciate what they’ve given me.

Jason and Lloyd of OwnLocal was my introduction to a YC-backed startup, and I loved every second of my tenure with them. They were also gracious enough to help me find another job after I left, the result of which was more interviews from interested companies than I ever dreamed possible. Thank you both.

To those both mentioned and unmentioned, thank you all so very much. My life is pretty awesome, and it would certainly be less so without you in it.

I had intended on writing about where I see myself in the future, but this blog post is already longer than I anticipated it to be. Another story for another time…

I watched Dust to Glory the other night, an excellent documentary on the Baja 1000. I suggest anyone with even a slight interest in off-road racing to watch it. It’s a great flick.

It mostly follows the story of Mike “Mouse” McCoy and his team while he attempted to complete all 1,000 miles solo. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but it’s a pretty impressive feat to do all 1000 miles of Baja by yourself, and you definitely see the toll it takes on Mouse. It also shows the family aspect of racing, which, coming from a racing family, I can definitely relate to.

Mostly, what I took from the film, is that racing in the 1,000 (or 500) is something I need to do at some point in my life. Whether it’s entering a motorcycle, buggy, or truck, Baja has gone on my bucket list. I have no delusions of winning the thing, or even really being competitive, but simply competing in it would be worthwhile.

Speaking of 1,000 miles, I hit my first 1k on a two-wheeler about a week ago. It’s been a fun ride thus far, and I’m happy that I decided to get one.

06 Sep 2010

3 1/2 Weeks

It’s been three and a half weeks since I bought my ‘09 KTM 530 EXC (8/12/2010 was the purchase date). I took delivery the following day after some starting issues. I’ve sorted those out myself. It turns out these bikes are jetted way lean and corked up to meet EPA restrictions (yay California). New pipe, rejet, and blocking off the hose going into the intake from the smog system made the bike easy to start, and it runs like a champ.

The good part about buying a KTM is I look like I know what I’m doing standing next to it. On the bike, however, my riding doesn’t exactly inspire. I’ve dropped it a few times poking around in the desert, cutting up both of my shins from hitting the footpegs. I have a pair of shorty boots, which I think is a big reason why my shins have sustained any damage. The realization that I should be wearing full boots really sank in when I had a low-speed collision with an ATV rider Sunday, Sept. 5th. I now have a rash on the back of my left leg from scraping on something. The bike is unharmed, and the rash isn’t that bad, but I now have a set of Alpinestars Tech 3’s on order. I also went ahead and ordered a pressure suit. The spills I’m likely to take in the near future shouldn’t be bad enough to really injure me, but I’m worried about another ATV rider coming around a corner full-blast without looking and plowing into me. Should that happen, I’d rather have the protection, thank you very much.

My impressions of the bike so far:

First, the bad: it comes off the factory floor jetted way, way, way too lean. I understand why KTM did this, but it’s somewhat annoying to have to crack open the carb just to get a bike that runs halfway decent. The stock headlight is a joke, and the stock seat is a really mean joke.  The rear blinkers also have a tendency to break off if you drop it.

Rejetting isn’t that big of a deal to me, and, since I’m in a hot place that’s 4,000 ft. above sea level, I’d probably have to rejet it anyway. Really, I didn’t need to replace the exhaust, but I wanted to have the stock pipe around in case I ever need to pass an emissions test. So, figure $75 for the jet kit, an hour or so to rejet, cut part of the stock exhaust off, and desmog. Not a big deal.

I really can’t find any excuse as to why the stock seat is so uncomfortable (except to say that, from what I’ve heard, all KTM seats are like that) or why the stock headlight sucks so badly. They could have at least put on a headlight that was pointed at the road instead of the trees. Calling that thing a “light” is a bit of a stretch of the imagination as well. It’s horribly dim, so, even if it were aimed properly, you’d still have trouble using it to see.

I imagine that the blinkers are the way they are to meet DOT standards. They’re easy enough to replace, so I haven’t sweated it.

The good: once you rejet, desmog, and modify the exhaust, the bike runs amazingly. I haven’t even come close to needing more power. It’s smooth power, though. It doesn’t unexpectedly hit in random parts of the RPM range. The suspension is set up very nicely, from what I can tell. It handles well. It’s light. It handles pavement well enough (it’s definitely a dirtbike with lights, but that’s the reason I bought it). The brakes make you stop. The tires haven’t given me any trouble. It’s also an absolutely blast to ride, which I think is the point.

Bottom line: Even though the lights, seat, jetting, and rear blinkers sort of piss me off, it’s definitely a great bike. I have zero regrets, and if I had to do it again, I’d snatch this one up in a heartbeat. It’s exactly what I wanted.

Mods so far: TrailTech X2 dual-sport headlight, Sicass flush-mounted rear indicators, JD jet kit, FMF Factory 4.1 complete exhaust, and an EE soft, standard height seat. Notice how all of my complaints have been covered? Yeah, no more real complaints (just a few “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I did this to it?”).

Here’s a picture.

Uncle Bob (Robert Martin) delivered an incredible keynote at 2009’s RailsConf entitled “What Killed Smalltalk Could Kill Ruby.” Uncle Bob went over a number of things that I knew I should be doing, but I wasn’t. The primary one is testing. I know I should write more tests, but I don’t unless pressured to. I’d have trouble even writing tests for Ruby or Rails, and that’s a disappointing thing for me to admit.

I have and do spend a lot of time learning about programming so I can become a better programmer. I know that to reach the top tier of my passion (because programming is a lot more than a profession or a degree for me), I have to put in the hours. I also know that there are going to be things that aren’t nearly as exhilarating as solving a difficult problem or learning a new tool, and I need to push myself to actually do those things. That thing I’ve been really slacking on is testing. I need to force myself to get in the habit of testing first (or testing at all, really) because I know that it will only help me in the long run. That’s my New Year’s resolution, four months late.

Uncle Bob also talks about writing readable code. When talking about clean code, he quotes Ward Cunningham, “you look at a routine and it’s pretty much what you expected.” It’s a kind of “well, duh” sort of thing to say, but it’s true. That’s something I actually do strive to do already. Clever hacks have their place, I suppose, but I’d rather write something other people can understand. Matz’s quote seems particularly relevant: ”Often people, especially computer engineers, focus on the machines. They think, “By doing this, the machine will run faster. By doing this, the machine will run more effectively. By doing this, the machine will something something something.” They are focusing on machines. But in fact we need to focus on humans, on how humans care about doing programming or operating the application of the machines. We are the masters. They are the slaves.”

I got a pair of Vibram FiveFingers KSO Treks (that’s a mouthful) after my dog ate my pair of regular KSOs. I’ve been trying to take them out on a hike since I got them, but I hadn’t had a chance until yesterday. Overall, I like them. I’m not sure I like them more than the regular KSOs yet, but the cleating helps maintain traction and the thicker sole makes for happier feet. I look forward to hitting more trails in them, and if rocks are bruising your feet in the KSOs, I’d suggest picking up a pair of the Treks. You lose some sensitivity in your feet, but the thicker sole protects a lot better.

20 Feb 2010

You use a ____?!

When I first brought my laptop (a Macbook Pro) into the office of a previous employer, people gawked. “You develop on a Mac?” they said, like I’d somehow committed a huge faux pas by not using Windows. I’m still a little impressed by how inane some people, computer people, are when it comes to OS choice.

I’m also getting tired of people giving me crap for using OS X over Windows or Linux, and I’m tired of hearing others give people crap over NOT using OS X. The problem that I have is one of ignorance.

Before I even stop to listen to you try to elaborate your viewpoints, first, define for me an “operating system”. If you can’t, shut up. You don’t even know what it is you’re arguing at that point, so your opinions are entirely useless to anyone but yourself. If you get passed the first hurdle, tell me what your experience is in the OS that you’re a proponent of, and what your experience is in the OS that you’re against.

Personally, I used to bash OS X all day long when I was a Windows user. I was probably what you could call a “power user” of XP, and I’m still more than comfortable working in whatever flavor of Windows you throw at me. Now, though, I use a Mac. When I was a Windows user, my use of a Mac was extremely limited, so I was basically throwing around insults that were completely baseless. My use of a Mac basically amounted to the few hours I was forced to use it in the writing lab my Freshmen year of high school. Not the most fair comparison.

Now, though, I don’t tend to bash Windows as often as I did OS X. Why? Because I realized that it really doesn’t matter. People like to make these sweeping generalizations about how one system is so much better than the other without considering certain use cases. If I ended up building applications for Windows, I’d be stupid to do so in OS X. For things like web development, I personally find OS X to be better. That’s especially true if you’re doing web development in Rails, since using Rails is a headache on Windows compared to OS X or Linux.

Even things like web development, where OS X can be seen as generally better, there are edge cases where another OS tops it. Are you doing work with IIS, C#, and .NET? Well, Windows is the best bet there. Linux also has great LAMP support (the L in LAMP actually stands for Linux).

Even ruling out edge cases doesn’t leave you with much. If you have someone who basically uses their computer to connect to the internet, it doesn’t really matter what system they’re on, so long as it generally works. I convinced my mom to get a Mac when she was shopping for a new computer, but that was because, at the time, OS X was more stable than Vista. I wouldn’t have to come over or troubleshoot that much, and she wouldn’t have a worthless hunk of technology while waiting for me to fix it. It was a win-win, but really, she would’ve used a Windows laptop the same way.

There’s also something to be had for familiarity. If you have someone that is very, very used to a certain way of getting things done, having them change platforms for modest improvements is going to be more of a headache than it’s worth. My productivity dropped slightly when I went from Windows to OS X because I had to relearn a few things. And I’m someone who can define an operating system! I’ll even be building a small, toy one next semester, but once you’ve done something enough times (like use ctrl-c to copy), it starts to move into your subconscious. I don’t think about how to copy; my fingers just naturally move toward the shortcut. Relearning that was kind of a pain.

What makes my opinion on this even marginally valid? Well, I actually have experience in Windows, OS X, and Linux. I can comfortably get most of my work done in any of them. I can tell you some of the architectural differences between Windows and OS X. I know what UNIX is, and I know why using OS X, a certified UNIX, is good for me. It probably won’t make any difference for you, because you aren’t going to spend much, if any, time using the Terminal.

That leads me to the heart of the matter: even if one OS is generally better than another, it still depends on what you’re doing, and how you do it. If people were to stop to make this consideration, I doubt we’d hear a whole lot of Windows/OS X bashing.

12 Jan 2010

BART Solution

It seems people are still having problems figuring out this cryptic BART ad. In the interest of sharing information, I’ll go ahead and walk you through the solution. I think this is fairly obvious, but a spoiler follows. If you’d rather solve it for yourself (and I think you should), quit reading now.

Jacques Binet is known for, among other things, the Binet formula, or the closed form of the Fibonacci sequence. If you’re unfamiliar with the Fibonacci sequence, it’s a sequence of numbers, starting at 1, where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. So, F(n) = F(n-1) + F(n-2) where F(0) = 0 and F(1) = 1. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…

Writing a recursive function that computes the Fibonacci sequence is fairly trivial, and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. Next, you need to know that it’s not an actual formula that’s displayed in the text of the BART ad. It is, instead, encrypted text. There’s nothing really special about the encryption. It just offsets the letter by whatever number of the Fibonacci sequence the letter corresponds to. The first character, or index 0, is offset 0, so t is the first letter. The next character, index 1, is offset 1, q -> r. Keep going through until all characters have been transformed.

One note, if you’re going to do this programmatically, you need to use a language that allows for actual representation of individual characters instead of strings. I used Java, but C/C++ should work as well.

The final solution is tr.im/binet. It’s just an ad for a job.

09 Jan 2010

Oh, Linux

If people generally use their computers as internet machines, why is Linux (Ubuntu especially) not in higher demand? It’s so free and awesome, and you can use Firefox instead of IE and OpenOffice instead of Office!

October 20th was the fifth anniversary of Ubuntu, the Linux distribution that was built for the desktop. It was built for normal people, unlike every other distro that seems to be built for that weird guy that lives in his mom’s basement eating hot pockets and reading slashdot in between grinding for that next raid in DKLSTVLKNT. The guy who gets his jollies off reading about the latest release of the NVIDEA XL24P-Super-Mega-Plexar-Tech-Tech-Techy-Tech-Tech.

So why isn’t Ubuntu taking off, given it’s aims to be this OS of the people, by the people, and for the people? Oh, right, because Linux is still a complete usability clusterfuck. I’ve read plenty of articles where people have commented on how all those problems that Linux had are things of the past, but I’ve personally been unable to get a WiFi card working. That was within the last year. I’ve seen strange graphics driver problems that cause colors to be horrifically skewed, with no apparent fix. That was about six months ago. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all a problem with hardware vendors not supporting Linux. But, guess what? Software runs on hardware, and I don’t care how totally awesome your OS is, if it doesn’t run on my hardware, I think it’s total crap.

Oh, but wait, there’s always a workaround to whatever problem you’re having. Well, that’s what they say. And, chances are there is in fact a way to get past whatever issue you were having, but it involves searching forums that are filled with esoteric jargon to figure out you need to fire up that good old terminal to edit some config file that looks makes about as much sense as ethics being a required course for upper division computer science courses. I’M NOT GOING TO BLOW SHIT UP BY TAKING AUTOMATA THEORY. But I digress. My point is, if you have to go through a bunch of hoops that make no sense to your average user, you’ve already violated the whole premise of Ubuntu. And that’s just to get enough things working to actually use your computer, let alone be productive.

Then, once you get everything set up and installed, you still have all these weird details you have to go through to get things done. Yes, emacs and vim can make you really, really productive, but it can be a headache to learn the stupid things. Yeah, the command line is a really powerful tool, but it’s also a nightmare to anyone that doesn’t know what’s going on (How do I show all the things in the current directory? Oh, right, ls. THAT makes sense).

So, no, Ubuntu isn’t a desktop of the people, and Linux will probably never gain traction outside of servers unless there’s a serious shift in the people behind the software.

I can applaud open source software, but I still prefer to do all of my work on the most closed platform of them all, OS X, and I’m someone that probably has more in line with that aforementioned hot pocket-eating, slashdot-reading, grinding nerd than your average individual. People don’t want freedom. They want security. They want a platform that works, and until a Linux distribution works, you’re never going to see the year of the Linux desktop.

The staff of Newspaper Tree, as some of you may know, are on an indefinite hiatus according to http://newspapertree.com/opinion/4311-letter-from-the-editors and, since I’m currently unable to sleep, I figured I’d throw in my two cents.

There’s an indelible connection between the creation of the modern internet and the shrinking readership of newspapers, both local and national. Rupert Murdoch has recently taken a pretty hard-lined stance on the internet in reference to his content, going so far as to say that Google is “stealing from him.” He says that despite the fact that you can disallow Google (or any major search engine, for that matter) from indexing your site with the robots.txt file, or simply blocking the IP of the spiders outright in your htaccess files. That, however, isn’t really the problem.

People have been accustomed to “free” on the internet. You pay for your connection, but beyond that, any and all content you receive should be free. But, running a website isn’t free. Programmers aren’t free. Servers aren’t free. Designers aren’t free. And, except in the case of social media, content producers aren’t free either. There’s also management, PR people, accountant, lawyers, and a whole host of other people one would have to pay if one were so inclined to have a successful site.

So, how, then, do these content providers support the cost of the operation? Most free sites are ad-supported. Google’s offerings, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, and yes, even Newspaper Tree are all ad-supported. The problem, though, is that a lot of these ad-supported sites, even the big name ones, aren’t really turning a profit. Facebook is, I believe, only expected to turn a profit this year. They’ve just barely become cash-flow positive. Five years and 300 million users later. Pretty ridiculous, right? Even more ridiculous when you consider Facebook isn’t even paying someone to produce the content. You (and me) are producing the content for them, and we’re even paying them to do so in the form of mind share in advertising!

How, then, does a site like Newspaper Tree compete? The content coming out of NPT was certainly better than a lot of the crap one would find on FB. The ads aren’t particularly obtrusive, and they can be pretty well targeted. One is, conceivably, in El Paso, or concerned about El Paso, if one is reading NPT. That should make it pretty easy for an advertiser who wants to target El Pasoans to target El Pasoans, and I’m sure there were plenty of advertisers willing to do so…until the recession hit.

The recession may very well be the death knell for NPT (although I certainly hope they manage to persevere), but even when the economy was on the upswing, newspapers, both online and in print, weren’t really doing particularly well. There’s a number of things that are probably causing that, but I’d imagine the internet is one of the primary factors. I don’t think it should be, though. It’s conceivably a lot cheaper to publish something on the internet than it is to publish it in print. The internet also opens up your content to a lot more people than a physical paper would bring. All other things being equal, cheaper distribution + more readers = greater profit, but it doesn’t work like that. Attention grabbing is a zero-sum game where newspapers are apparently on the losing end. People seem to be more interested in checking Twitter or Facebook updates than reading actual news.

How do newspapers, and Newspaper Tree in particular, start winning this game, then? Well, I don’t rightly know, and if I did, I’d probably be working on developing instead of writing this. I do know how it starts, though: someone has to approach the problem of news on the internet from the standpoint of turning a profit. Yes, there are some sites that have managed to make money on advertising, but that isn’t necessarily the norm, and it certainly isn’t working.

Instead of trying to force an obviously broken model, why aren’t we developing a newsolution? Instead of attempting to fight the internet, as Murdoch has taken to doing, why not embrace it head-on? NPT did try to embrace the internet as a means of publishing content, and I applaud them for it, but I can’t help but question the validity of the ad-supported model. It was a good effort, but the approach was misdirected.

David and the gang, I certainly hope you guys pull out of this, but I think it’ll take more than the economy rebounding to really make the site successful. It’s going to take a paradigm shift in the way that content is being monetized on news sites. Without that, it’s never going to be smooth sailing.