Thursday, December 3, 2009

Blogs Are Godless Communist Bullshit

This might be for newbies. It's about how to avoid getting tricked. If you've been in the business a few years, you already know there are corporate shenanigans out there.

However, you could be in the business for a while before you run into the worst of it. A guy I know was recently shanghaied into a death march development situation after being promised an impressive title and the responsibilities to match. I actually envied him his shock and dismay; it meant there was innocence there for him to lose. For me, that was the first thing that happened to me, with my first job in technology proper, when I first arrived in San Francisco in the early months of 1997. They promised me a Perl job; they gave me HTML to do; and when they saw I was disgruntled, they called me surly and ungrateful behind my back.

This is common practice in the Bay Area. It's why you should be very cautious any time you see an ad for a job which involves all the coolest technologies in the world and no sign at all for any actual compelling necessity that they be used in the first place. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. I got shanghaied more times after that first one, in different ways and to different extents, so much that I came to consider technology to be a fundamentally fradulent business and wanted no part of it for years.

Eventually I came back, but I came back wiser. Since returning to it, I haven't been tricked. I did have a couple experiences where hiring managers and founders promised me things they couldn't deliver, but in each case I have very good reasons to believe they did in fact intend to deliver. And of course I've had a bunch of experiences where they did deliver. And just in case you think that the way to avoid this kind of problem is to only work for reputable companies - sorry, that isn't it. One of the companies that shanghaied me early on, when I was still very new to the industry, was as reputable as they come.

However, let's say for the sake of argument you're in that same position I was, just before I got shanghaied for the first time. Assume for the sake of argument that you, the reader, are kind of like how I was in those days: young and inexperienced, but skilled in new and innovative technologies, filled with excitement about the promise of the Web, dreaming constantly of the extraordinary possibilies that these technologies create for people, and impatient to start building awesome shit.

If that's you, you are in the crosshairs of one hundred thousand snipers of bullshit. You need a bullshit-proof vest, because those motherfuckers are gunning for you, and they do not miss.

Let's start with Joel Spolsky. Spolsky's latest is very transparent. Check this out:

At one of the recent DevDays events, I asked the audience (almost 100% programmers) how many of them were incredibly satisfied with their job, found it fulfilling, and were treated well by their employers. Only about 25% of the hands went up. I asked how many people either hated their job and couldn’t wait to find something better, or were actually actively on the job market. Again, about 25%. The rest were somewhere in the middle: maybe they can tolerate their job, but they’re keeping an eye open for something better.


That’s unacceptable. I’ve been saying for ten years that the top developers have a choice of where to work, and the top employers need to work harder to attract them, because the top developers get ten times as much work done as the average developers.

And yet, I still keep meeting ridiculously productive developers working in shitholes.

Some people might, in the event where they keep saying something and keep discovering evidence that reality does not match what they are saying, decide to start saying something else - something, for instance, which matches the reality that they see over and over again, everywhere they go. Not Spolsky. He's not going to wuss out like that.

Our intrepid hero decides instead:

We’re going to fix this, right now. Thus, Stack Overflow Careers.

We’re going to completely turn the job market upside down, for the best software developers and the best companies.

This is a talent market. Developers are not even remotely interchangeable. Therefore, recruiting should work like Hollywood, not like union hiring halls of the last century.

In a union hiring hall, downtrodden workers line up like cogs, hoping to make it to the front of the line in time to get a few bucks for dinner.

In Hollywood, studios who need talent browse through portfolios, find two or three possible candidates, and make them great offers. And then they all try to outdo each other providing plush work environments and great benefits.

This last part is laugh-out-loud funny. That's not how Hollywood works. I'm an actor, I've been studying acting for years, and I know award-winning actors who still have to go out on auditions like everybody else. You might wonder how a newbie like me, with nothing but Cop #3 in a student film to his credit, can claim to know award-winning, seasoned professionals. It's simple: because they have to go on auditions like everybody else.

You might be like, "yeah, Giles, but that's because you don't know movie stars." Guess what? It's true for movie stars too. Robert Downey Jr. had to fight like hell to get the lead role in Iron Man. In the 80s, Sean Young showed up on a studio lot wearing a Catwoman costume and spent all day trying to find director Tim Burton, who wasn't even there, because she wanted to convince him that she was perfect for Catwoman in the next Batman movie. You might say "who?" today, but this happened in 1992, only ten years after Young starred in the Oscar-nominated Blade Runner, and the same year as the release of the director's cut version of Blade Runner.

Hiring in Hollywood is a horror story. Highly successful actors sometimes get plush offers, of course, but sometimes have to fight like rabid baboons to get the parts they want. Megan Fox spends a lot of her free time painting; do you think anybody's trying to put her in an art-house movie about Georgia O'Keefe? Do some research on the number of movies any star has tried to make and failed to make; it's eye-opening. Not even Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt can just wave their hands and make a movie deal appear out of thin air. Even at that level, getting a movie greenlit can take decades.

And that's just the established talent. Movie stars have it easy compared to entry-level talent. Starving actors would sell their souls just for the opportuntity to fight like hell to star in Iron Man. The process at the entry level is insane. There's a very good reason that more books for beginning actors talk about how to survive an audition than how to win one.

The Hollywood job market doesn't work the way Joel thinks it does. It barely works at all. If you thought Google and Microsoft interview questions were ridiculous, wait until Joel Spolsky has us all dressing up in Catwoman suits just to get a job, after we've established ourselves as stars.

in the future, all of us will have to wear Catwoman suits - not just the legless women who can fly

Nobody in their right mind would ever look at Hollywood and say "the way they handle recruiting is the way our industry should handle recruiting too." Not for any value of "our industry." Hollywood is a beautiful and terrible thing, but when it comes to its recruiting process, it's pretty much all terrible.

Plus, think of it from the point of view of a hiring manager. You've heard of the casting couch? You really want some overweight engineer with bad skin and worse breath on the casting couch?

Or think about this:

In a union hiring hall, downtrodden workers line up like cogs, hoping to make it to the front of the line in time to get a few bucks for dinner.

This is particularly bad logic coming from a man who wants you to believe people will hire you because of your posts on Stack Overflow. They might! It happens. But the logic is terrible. Spolsky says that a bunch of people hanging around in one place waiting for the chance to get a job is a bad thing, and then he tells you, if you want to get a job, Stack Overflow is the place to hang around with 109,000 other people (3131 * 35 = 109,585), and the reason to hang around there is that you (or one of them) might get a job. Which he just told us was a fundamentally bad way to get a job! This man has balls of steel and a brain of feathers.

Or check this out:

Instead of submitting a resume, you’ll fill out a CV

Yeah, that's some revolutionary game-changing shit there. No more resumes. What year are you in? These days it's a whole different ball game. It's all about CVs. Smell the future, baby! Smell it! It smells like future. You can use a resume all you want, but I'm going to rock my digital watch and my CV. It's like a resume, but different.

Now that I think about it, almost all of what Spolsky says here is laugh-out-loud funny. He starts out telling us how he goes around saying one thing, but everywhere sees that the opposite is true; then he explains that his new service will meet this need which he imagines to exist, yet can demonstrate no existing market for. Along the way he says that hanging around in hopes of getting a job is terrible, but implies that hanging around on Stack Overflow will get you a job, and to top it all off he says we should all get to enjoy the lovely, wonderful, comfortable, stress-free hiring process of Hollywood actors - a process so fucked up, anybody who manages to stay in business using it ends up needing therapy.

More Spolsky not making sense:

Who is this DevDays audience? They’re the elite of the elite of the best programmers out there. They’re the people who participate in Stack Overflow, the people who read, the people who are constantly trying to learn more about programming and software development. More than half of them paid their own money to attend a one day conference. They’re the most desirable software developers on the planet. And 75% of them are not delighted with their job.

Is that true? Participating in Stack Overflow makes you elite? Is that true if you're asking stupid questions, or only if you're answering them? Or is it only true of the people who participate in Stack Overflow and are already elite by other metrics? I know a lot of the so-called "elite" programmers in the Ruby community, and I had never even heard of DevDays before this, and I have never heard of it since, or ever, through any source other than Joel Spolsky, in any place other than this blog post.

Spolsky is one of the major promoters of DevDays, and Spolsky blogs constantly about programmers and hiring. He also runs a job ads site. If your audience consists mostly of programmers who want to see job ads and want to read about job-hunting, is there really any surprise at all in discovering that they're not satisfied with their jobs? It's like a guy who runs a grocery store telling you there must be a famine out there because everybody who comes into his building is looking for food.

well, golly!

There's no logic to this at all. Instead there's a pitch for an unnecessary service that might get you saturated with spam - what do you think the odds are? - along with what Spolsky (I imagine) must hope is enough ass-kissing to distract anyone from the logic fail. This is where he's coming from: "I'm going to tell you a bunch of shit that doesn't make sense at all, but I'll get away with it, because the only way you can buy into it even slightly is if you believe that you deserve to be a star. I'm going to bet that you want to believe that so badly that you won't even direct a moment of critical thought at anything I say."

Anyone who believed Spolsky, or even took him seriously for a fraction of a second, needs to read Trick Baby by Iceberg Slim. Iceberg Slim wrote great crime novels. He was a pimp and street hustler who became a writer in prison. (One hell of a writer.) Trick Baby tells the true life story of a con man. It's essential reading for the tech industry. It's the reason I don't get tricked any more into taking jobs that aren't what they say they are. Learn the rules of the con, and you won't get conned.

The number one rule of the con: you can't con an honest man. If you're out to make a quick buck, somebody will make a quick buck off of you. If you're looking for ways to earn, you'll earn.

If you believe you deserve to be a star, well, maybe you do, maybe you don't. Either way, it can be done. There are ways to become a star. However, the best, time-tested route to stardom is absolutely NOT based on believing claims which are implausible (and seem dishonest) while neglecting logic (or indeed abandoning it completely). Try to get something for nothing, just because Joel Spolsky said you could? You're going to get burned.

By the way, understand something here. I'm not saying Spolsky intends to be a liar. Actually, maybe I did say that, but if somebody calls me on it, I won't stand by it. I don't really know how the man thinks. If it was me saying this shit, it would be a lie, because I would see the faulty logic. I double-check things by writing them down and reading them back to see if they make sense. I don't know if Spolsky reads his own blog. He might be a liar, but he might just suck at logic. Maybe he should read Trick Baby himself, just to find out what he's been doing to people.

One way or another, I'm not saying it's deliberate. I can't go that far. But I can say with no fear of error that he's set himself up with financial incentives that put his integrity at risk. And that's the real risk to you as a reader in following advice from somebody like that. A person with no financial incentive to accuracy might just make shit up to fill space.

or even throw in a picture of a car for no reason

Now I said Spolsky had balls of steel, but the truth of the matter is, Obie Fernandez puts him to shame. I sometimes think of them this way: Spolsky is the more talented bullshitter, the one who can bullshit a bigger audience, but Obie is the one with the cojones. Spolsky defended some poor logic recently by pointing out that he had a tight deadline. Obie Fernandez has gone on record saying that he uses blog posts to manipulate his readers:

I think that Alex is slyly pushing his Scala agenda forward...Have I been guilty of this stuff in my own past as a Rails advocate with a strong agenda? Yeah, probably so. Which is why I know it when I see it.

I don't mean to disparage Obie's talent as a bullshitter. I recently saw a blog post by some impressionable newbie who very much appeared to believe Hashrocket had invented pair programming. It takes talent to create that kind of misconception.

All I'm saying is, if you write a blog post where you explain that your blog posts often manipulate your readers and exist for only that purpose, you probably need a wheelbarrow to cart those gonads from place to place.

I've got some criticisms for Obie, but before I get into it, there's nothing you can do when faced with balls like that except salute and emulate. So here we go: this blog post exists to manipulate my readers. Yes, you. I am going to pummel you with logic and then sell you something. I need to start with the logic before I can get to the sale, because currently, you are being misinformed, by numerous people, and whether that is through malice or incompetence, it makes no difference. If you want to make a rational decision, you need to start with the truth.

So let's get back to the lecture at hand.

Consider this crazy thing about Obie and pair programming. The New York Times did a piece on pairing at Hashrocket, and Obie followed it up with a blog post about why pair programming wasn't for everybody. Both were very popular posts which saw tons of traffic. Now we have this very extreme (and hopefully very unusual) phenomenon of newbie programmers, who don't know what pairing is, finding out about it from the NYT and then imagining Obie invented it. Again, I'm hoping that this is very unusual, but it's wonderful in one respect: it illustrates beautifully why blogs fail so badly, in some ways even worse than academia, at training people to be programmers.

Blogs and academia both fail aspiring programmers in different ways, but because of the same reason. Smalltalk co-inventor Alan Kay said it best: "Once you have something that grows faster than education grows, you’re always going to get a pop culture." Academia fails to teach young programmers everything they need to learn because the subject matter changes too quickly for colleges to keep up.

Blogs fail because they're popular culture. They're up to date, but the fact-checking just isn't there. It's a problem all pop culture has. The annoyance a veteran programmer experiences when some clueless newbie acts as if Obie invented pair programming is identical to the annoyance a fan of classic Detroit R&B experiences when somebody tells them that the 80s New Wave band Soft Cell wrote "Tainted Love" - which actually first saw release in 1964 on the Motown label.

Pop cultures are fantastic at developing new things quickly - witness how electronic dance music spins off several new subgenres every year - but absolutely terrible at preserving history and authorship. The closest thing to history that popular cultures can provide is gossip.

This gossip about Obie inventing pair programming isn't worth disputing; it's only interesting because it illustrates the severity of the problem. It's not as if he created it deliberately or even encourages it. He may not even realize it exists. That's not the criticism I have. The criticism I have, I've already stated in extravagant detail.

Brief summary: Obie presented pair programming as something that only elite programmers could do, and used his post (and the traffic it got, in followup to the NYT article) to advance the idea that Hashrocket programmers are better than programmers at other companies, and that most programmers will never learn to pair because they and/or their companies are simply not worthy.

The irony is, there's one piece of truth in Spolsky's blitzkrieg of bullshit:

...they all try to outdo each other providing plush work environments and great benefits.

Spolsky often blogs about how great his company is as a work environment for programmers. Obie tries to outdo Spolsky with a plush work environment that carries an intangible benefit: moral superiority. Working for Hashrocket is like driving a Bentley. It just makes you a better human being.

By the way, don't get me wrong, I would love to have a Bentley. I'm sure Hashrocket is a lovely place to work. One of the reasons I'm sure of it is that Hashrocket makes videos about it.

All sarcasm aside, you can't hire Shay Arnett without doing something right.

But just because it's a great place to work, that doesn't make it a great place to get your information about pair programming - especially not any information about whether or not your company is worthy of pairing. Obie Fernandez has minimal financial incentive to publish accurate information about pair programming, and plenty of strong reasons to make pair programming seem harder and more mythical than it really is.

I don't actually think Obie is a liar. I know the guy and he's a good guy. But he's not good at logic. The common theme here is that both Spolsky and Obie are polluting the global namespace with bad logic because it makes recruiting easier for them. And if I'm going to talk about that, I might as well say a few words about Paul Graham, the great grand-daddy of feeding bullshit to impressionable young hackers for the sake of recruiting.

Paul Graham recently wrote:

Publishers of all types, from news to music, are unhappy that consumers won't pay for content anymore. At least, that's how they see it.

In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren't really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format?

The emphasis is mine.

I emphasize those sentences because of a recurring theme discussed on Hacker News: downloadable ebooks. One interesting thing about downloadable ebooks is that price has nothing to do with format. Another interesting thing about downloadable ebooks is that people have been discussing the hell out of them on Hacker News, Paul Graham's news site.

I believe the discussion first came up with regards to an ebook on parrots - parrot care, parrot feeding, making your parrot happy, and training your parrot to talk - which pulls in $700,000 a year for a guy in India who doesn't even own a parrot and hired somebody else to write the book. Since that first post, the theme keeps popping up again.

Polly want some Benjamins

Of course part of the interest is in the simplicity of the business model. Consider JavaScript Performance Rocks! and Getting Real. If you've done well on the Web, there's probably an ebook worth writing in the story of that. You build a web page, you write a book, you add a shopping cart, you're done. But the ebook discussion on Hacker News mostly centers around the money, and there's a lot of money.

People pay astounding amounts for ebooks and other similar downloadable information products. Gamblers will pay $97 for a 20-page ebook on somebody's allegedly foolproof gambling system (although they shouldn't). Video courses run to four and five figures - all for the ability to watch a small number of online videos. There is absolutely no connection between price and format in that field.

Which begs the question, does Paul Graham read Hacker News?

He asks, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? - but it just ain't so.

He goes on:

There have always been people in the business of selling information, but that has historically been a distinct business from publishing. And the business of selling information to consumers has always been a marginal one. When I was a kid there were people who used to sell newsletters containing stock tips, printed on colored paper that made them hard for the copiers of the day to reproduce. That is a different world, both culturally and economically, from the one publishers currently inhabit.

People will pay for information they think they can make money from. That's why they paid for those stock tip newsletters, and why companies pay now for Bloomberg terminals and Economist Intelligence Unit reports. But will people pay for information otherwise? History offers little encouragement.

Again: does anybody believe that they will make money by training their parrot to talk? The sheer number of compelling counter-examples to Graham's argument boggles the mind. The information product marketplace reports its current client earnings at well over $1.4 billion. Fuck history; Clickbank offers all the encouragement anybody could need. No matter how insecure you might feel, $1.4B will help you get over it.

To get an idea how big the blind spot is here, understand: there isn't just a market for ebooks. There's a market for ebook businesses. People set up these businesses, turn a profit, and then sell them on sites like Then they write ebooks about it.

Here's search results on for web sites about Mafia Wars (the Facebook game). The listing includes a web site which sells an ebook about winning Mafia Wars. This web site was netting $7,000 per month when it sold for $50,000.

Guess how much effort it takes to maintain?

The ad for the site's sale answers that question:

I can honestly say I spend less than an hour a week on this site.

The site has been hosted on Hostmonster, along with all my other domains, which costs me $4.95 a month. Bandwidth for the site is about 50 GB/month. The two videos are hosted on Amazon Web Services. The cost for video hosting was $47 in August and $79 so far in September.

And Paul Graham seriously believes that "history offers little encouragement" for the existence of content markets? The history of September 2009 kills his argument! How far into history was this guy looking? People have been successfully marketing information since at least 1928, when Napoleon Hill launched the Law of Success home study course with Andrew Carnegie. That's 81 years of historical encouragement.

Law of Success was about making money - fair enough. But people pay for lots of information that they can't make money from - everything from parrot care to psoriasis cures. I myself bought an ebook on making gold in World of Warcraft and learned a trick that made me Warcraft rich almost instantly. The ebook cost me less than an expansion pack and added a lot more fun to the game.

Some links in this blog post are affiliate links, which pay small sales commissions. Polly want some Benjamins.

I guess that technically qualifies as buying information which can make me money, although it's a stretch, but consider another niche: people who want to get back together with their ex. So many ebooks exist on this topic that review sites exist which compare them all. And it's not hard to see why. Some relationship problems are difficult to solve.

Does this seem like an easy problem to solve? It sure looks like a doozy to me. Faced with trouble like this, you might well resort to an ebook. You might need more than one. (And in fact, if you're looking to decide which one you need, there's a profitable business model in just assisting that decision-making process.)

Everybody knows affairs of the heart are, to most people, more compelling than money. Anybody who reads Hacker News has seen these ebook discussions. Paul Graham founded Hacker News and remains a presence on the site to this day. How in the hell does he think that people won't pay for content?

To figure out the problem here, consider the source. Paul Graham is a venture capitalist who runs Y Combinator, a unique and innovative incubator which incorporates elements of a private school, the Boy Scouts, and angel investing. Paul Graham didn't consider Clickbank because Paul Graham is not writing for the sake of being accurate or discovering anything new. Paul Graham is writing to encourage people to start the kind of startups that he can sell. If you make $700,000 per year selling an ebook on parrot care, guess how much money Paul Graham can sell that to a venture capital firm for? If you guessed $50,000, you guessed wrong. If you guessed "nothing", you guessed right.

I'm sure he's a great guy, but again, his financial incentives lead him away from the truth. He's not going to see the truth about content because he's looking somewhere else. In fact he's looking somewhere so completely different that, from his point of view, there's no distinction between "content" and "consumer entertainment." His argument makes sense for consumer entertainment, which is the real thing he describes whenever he says "content." He's just so completely blind to his own bias that he assumes anything outside of what he can sell upstream to bigger VCs doesn't even exist.

Paul Graham thinks he's on a search for truth, but he isn't. He's written whole blog posts about how he's "writing to discover", but if you ignore what he says and look at what he does, it's pretty clear that the only thing he's discovering is what kind of companies he's interested in funding, and parrot ebooks aren't on that list. There's nothing wrong with limiting your funding decisions to whatever fits your business model or your interests - but there is something wrong with making shit up out of thin air and calling it Truth™, when the research is easy to perform and the reality contradicts almost your every word. There's something especially wrong with it when your whole business model revolves around finding young people who haven't gone into business yet, and you find them by telling them things they want to hear.

I'm not a cop. I'm not some kind of religious figure or moral authority. I can't condemn Paul Graham to the lake of fire for all eternity for his malfeasances or whatever. I am certainly no saint. I'm just saying, if you're a young programmer and people are telling you things, ask yourself what motivates them to bring up the subject with you in the first place. Ask yourself if they know what they think they know. Because Paul Graham is bullshitting you.

And please understand - I don't blame the guy personally. I don't even think he knows he's bullshitting anybody. I think he believes every word that he posts on the Web, despite the fact that nine blog posts out of ten, he's got holes in his logic big enough to drive a truck through. The problem isn't this person. He's just a person like anyone else. The real flaw is in the assumption that you're going to find the answers to hard questions by dicking around on a news site and listening to some dude with a lot of free time.

News sites aren't about great information; they're about giving you some very low-grade edutainment while you watch the clock and pretend to be working. Even news sites that don't want to be about that are doomed to be about it anyway, because they structure their user interactions in ways that make that result inevitable. The idea that this edutainment wouldn't owe its content to the experiences and financial interests of its authors is absurd.

That's where the "communist bullshit" comes in, although honestly I don't care about "godless" one way or the other, and all I really mean by "communist" is "ignorant of economics." You could call it capitalist bullshit if you want. One way or another, the idea that you can depend on blogs for good information is bullshit, and, further, it is bullshit which could not happen without a total failure to understand economics. All you have to do is a little bit of thinking the way an economist thinks to discover all kinds of financial incentives that lead bloggers away from the truth.

The most obvious of these incentives: advertising dollars. That's why I saved TechCrunch for last. Lots of ambitious, adventurous young programmers are likely to find TechCrunch interesting and exciting. Watch out! It is interesting. It is exciting. It is also a bullshit factory.

I've ranted about this elsewhere, so there's no point repeating myself, but I'll give a quick overview. Here's a list of TechCrunch headlines. See if you can spot the pattern.

Chrome OS and the Microsoft Squeeze

A Religious Storm is Brewing Over Best Buy’s Black Friday Ads

Phil Schiller Grants Interview About Apple’s App Store, Claims Devs Actually Like Approval Process

Hulu Gets Ripped Out Of Rippol

Gmail Creator Thinks Email Will Last Forever. And Hasn’t Tried Google Wave.

Brizzly Opens To All. And Snatches Someone From Facebook.

What ChromeOS Means For Netbooks And Why Microsoft Needs To Be Scared

#{company/person} Says #{whatever}; This Means A Fight With #{company2/person2/product}.

In every one of these headlines, TechCrunch describes a fight in progress. (A fight which may or may not exist.) This is a regular pattern with them. Choose any arbitrary period of time and read some TechCrunch headlines; there's always a few like this in the mix. They occasionally switch it up a bit, with headlines like "Amateur Hour Over At Twitter?" - picking a fight instead of alluding to a fight already in progress - but the common theme is discord.

TechCrunch picks the occasional fight, and posts so many headlines about fights that may or may not exist, for a very simple reason: it works.

Penny Arcade ran this comic strip about a blogger who said some nasty things about a video game:

In the same way that our taste buds are highly tuned for sugar, and therefore badly prepared for the modern overabundance of sugar, the human brain is extremely optimized for gossip, and the type of gossip it is most attuned to concerns power struggles. What does it mean when a blog runs articles about power struggles? It means the blog will see traffic - maybe more traffic than necessary.

But that doesn't mean the fights are even there. Sometimes the fights aren't there. Sometimes TechCrunch will tell you things that just aren't true. I've seen them do it, and of course it's not just them. Valleywag blogged that Yahoo was buying GitHub. Not in a million years!

TechCrunch gives articles away for free to its readers so it can sell advertizing space to its customers. So consider its readers and consider its customers. Who does it care about more? Whose interests align more closely with its interests? Who pays the rent?

Do you think TechCrunch would lie to you if somebody else was paying them to do it? I think they would. I think that's their business model. They play fast and loose with the truth because the truth doesn't pay the bills. The traffic pays the bills, and you can build up a lot more traffic by telling people there's a fight going on.

Read the tabloid covers at a grocery store sometime; they use the same tactic. Jennifer Kardashian is constantly fighting with Angelina Holmes over Tom Pitt (or whoever). If you believe the tabloids, these people all live on the same block and spend all day fighting with each other. TechCrunch sells the same story. It just gives the characters different names.

Again, I'm not even saying that you won't sometimes see good journalism on TechCrunch. You sometimes do. But then again, you sometimes find good journalism in the tabloids.

this McCain thing was true, including the charity part

I discovered all this by accident. I have always loved destroying bullshit with logic. But I've also always loved all kinds of writing. Since I started blogging, I accidentally discovered a powerful feedback mechanism that tells me in no uncertain terms that when I use logic to destroy any particular person's bullshit, it sends pageviews through the roof.

I don't know what I said on May 9th, but I know somebody's mad at me for saying it
(screenshot from Google Analytics)

TechCrunch could have made a similar surprising discovery. TechCrunch could be running a deliberate strategy. TechCrunch might not even realize what it's doing. None of that makes any difference.

Irrespective of intention, TechCrunch, the business, is structured in such a way that sensationalism and gossip will be the rule, and quality journalism the exception. Its financial incentives are destructive to its signal/noise ratio. They could be wonderful people. They could be terrible people. It makes no difference. The force that drives their evolution is pointed towards gossip, and that's where they're going to go.

I'm not just saying that to get out of the consequences of criticizing people. What I'm talking about here is the fact that habits are more powerful than intentions, and what you direct your habits at determines your eventual result. Hacker News is a great example. I wrote a blog post about how Hacker News structures its content aggregation system with consistent incentives to low-quality content. People interpreted that as me being like, "Oh, Hacker News sucks, I hate Hacker News, blah blah blah." What I was actually talking about was a way of thinking that I learned from reading economics: look at the habits, or the consistent patterns, that a system will engender.

Your intentions are much, much less powerful than your habits. If you set a system up in such a way that it consistently rewards some undesirable outcome, the undesirable outcome will predominate. If TechCrunch has a vague intention of journalistic integrity and works every day to achieve heavy blog traffic, it's going to get heavy blog traffic at the expense of its journalistic integrity. If Paul Graham has a vague intention of "writing to discover" and works every day to sell startups to bigger VCs, he's not going to "discover" certain things because he'll never do the research necessary to uncover the relevant facts. If Obie Fernandez has a vague intention of promoting pair programming and works every day to promote his company, both to potential customers and to potential hires, he's going to promote his company at the expense of promoting pair programming. And if Joel Spolsky has a vague intention of making sense at all, and works to recruit users for his new job-hunting web site, he's going to recruit new users, and he's going to sacrifice making sense in order to make that happen. Not that it's a huge sacrifice in his case, but you get the point. None of this makes anybody a bad person; the flaw is in assuming that you can find valuable insight on blogs in the first place.

There are a ton of people who would love to find out what the people scaling Twitter know. There isn't any blog that tells you. But there is a blog which leverages all that public interest and turns it into income - not by getting the actual answers from those guys, but by calling them names. Because that's where the money is. Or, more accurately, because that's the only way TechCrunch knows to monetize that ambient public curiousity.

And in fact this flaw is everywhere. The whole blogosphere is a festival of bullshit, where people search for truth and meaning despite the total absence of economic incentives to produce it. It's a goddamn communist party.

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This shouldn't really surprise anyone. A lot of it is common sense. As I said, this post might be for newbies. But there's just one problem with all of this.

I'm a blogger.

I like blogging. I'm good at it. But blogs are godless communist bullshit. Should I even write a blog? Is it pointless? Am I just fucked?

Or to put it another way: if I want to keep blogging, how do I structure my financial incentives so that they lead me to the truth?

To answer, let's look at somebody on the web whose financial incentives already work that way.

PeepCode never bullshits anybody. If they don't give you good information, you don't buy from them twice. So they give people good information, and people buy from them twice. In fact people buy so much from them that PeepCode moved to ten-packs, where you could buy packs of ten videos at a time. Then they abandoned that, and they now sell unlimited subscriptions instead. People are willing to buy PeepCode videos before they even find out what the videos are about.

You see, if you're honest about the fact that you're saying things for the financial benefit it'll bring you, that generates trust.

trust is a wonderful thing

I can think of another example which will be less familiar to programmers in general, but very familiar to anyone who reads this blog on a very regular basis. Let me give you some background: I've recently lost about 75 pounds (since around April).

Scotland on Rails 2008. Photo by Graeme Mathieson. Approx 255 pounds.

Thanksgiving 2009. Photo by Dad. Mom's worried about the turkey. Exactly 178.5 pounds.

It started with a terrifying health scare. I had heart surgery, twice, at the age of 35 - and this was after I had heart surgery for the first time at the age of 33.

So I went on a book-buying spree. I did a lot of reading. I ended up with a great book by a doctor specializing in nutritional medicine. I ordered another book by the same doctor, adopted the doctor's diet plan, and lost 75 pounds - along with at least 100 points of cholesterol, 78 points of triglycerides, and similar dramatic improvements in blood pressure and other relevant metrics.

For perspective, both my father and my uncle have achieved similar improvements in their cholesterol levels. They did it with statin drugs as prescribed by their (more conventional) doctors. It took them each about ten years. My 100-point cholesterol drop took two months.

Some links in this blog post are affiliate links, which pay small sales commissions. The FTC requires me to tell you what a typical consumer's weight loss results are with Dr. Fuhrman's dietary advice. Literally every single person who I have persuaded to try this diet has lost at least six pounds in the first week. One friend lost 20 pounds and my mother lost 30 pounds. Another friend only lost six pounds, last time I checked. However, they stopped losing weight because they went off the program. The discipline to eat right is rare. The system itself is excellent. Several other friends have lost weight using this system as well. I think one of them lost about 40 pounds. Another, I don't know her exact weight, but she did say she's the lightest she's been since she was 19, and I think she's in her 30s. That's a total of 171 pounds lost between five people, so I'm going to say the typical results are 171/5 = 34.2 pounds lost.

This amazing doctor, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, has a members-only Web forum. It's $35 to join, including your first month, and $8/month thereafter. The signal-to-noise ratio is fantastic, and the financial incentives all drive towards accuracy and truth. This man not only very probably saved my life, not only enabled me to effect an extraordinary physical change, he's also got the most honorable Internet business model I've ever seen in my life.

Update: I'm told Dr. Fuhrman may have raised his prices to $44.95 to join and $14.95 per month.

Here we have a tale of two Joels. I could give Joel Spolsky my personal information and let him sell it to recruiters, and I could give Joel Fuhrman $8 to ask him questions about my health, study his past newsletters, and listen to his MP3s while I'm working out. Which Joel do you think is a better Joel? I like the Fuhrman Joel better myself. They both want to make money out of me. One of them is honest enough to ask for it. One of them blows smoke up my ass; the other one, I had already lost 40 pounds by reading two of his books, at a total cost of less than $40, before I even signed up for his web site. That's a dollar per pound. That's a good deal.

Now I've already said that if you see balls-having as extraordinary as Obie's acts of balls-having, you can't do anything but salute and emulate. How do you think I feel about extraordinary acts of honorable? Does the "salute and emulate" rule apply here?

Let me ask it a different way. Is there value to me in a business plan whose financial incentives drive towards truth and accuracy, when so many other bloggers have such counter-productive financial incentives that you can't believe a word they say on their blogs? Do you think I'm going to emulate this wonderful, honorable business plan - when I'm facing a field so filled with dishonorable people that you can't always even guarantee that the job you agreed to take is really the job you're going to be doing?

Of course I'm going to emulate this business plan.

Join now, motherfuckers.

Here's the sales pitch:

You give me $149 a month. I give you an hour of my time every month. You tell me what you want to change about your career, your code, or yourself as a programmer. I tell you what to do to make it awesome. Then you go do it. (That part is important.) And the cycle continues.

Whatever you want to improve will improve. Want to get really good at Ruby? I can show you how. Want to improve your blog? I can show you how. Want to make presentations that wow your audience? I can show you how. Want people to contribute code to your open source projects? I can show you how.

As I said before, there are ways to become programmer-famous. And as I said before, I don't care about telling you that you "deserve" fame. You probably don't. Most programmers are pretty stupid people who watched too much television when they were kids and came away from it with the idea that all you have to do is put on a pair of glasses and play with a computer, and boom, you're a fucking genius, like magic. You know whose web site to go to if you want somebody who will tell you that you deserve to be a star, just for visiting their web site.

But it doesn't matter if you deserve it or not. A system that only works for people who deserve it is a religion. I'm not interested in selling programmers a religion. You want that, go to Paul Graham. I'm interested in selling you a system.

Here's how I became a "name" programmer: First I did a lot of research. Then I came up with a plan. Then I put it in action. Then I got the result I was after.

It's a good plan.

It's simple, too.

You can do it.

You want to know how?

Or, if you don't want to pay, that's cool too. I'm sure you can get plenty of free career advice from Joel Spolsky, Obie Fernandez, Paul Graham, and Mike Arrington (of TechCrunch). Or gazillions of other people, all over the world, who have absolutely no obligation to give you anything but self-promotion on their blogs either.

Plus you might not even need a better job. You might already be a so-called "rock star." You might already be making good money. You might prefer reading a blog post and talking about it at lunch with your friends to setting aside an hour a month to actually work on something and change your life.

And if so, rock on. Do what you want to do. But my bet is, Joel Spolsky wouldn't be able to bullshit so many people with such atrociously bad logic if he didn't get one thing right: there are a lot of programmers out there who are dissatisfied with their careers. If you're one of them, you know what to do.

By the way, if you're wondering how this provides me with financial incentives to truth and accuracy as a blogger, it's because I forgot to mention that you'll get access to a secret blog that will be private and closed to outsiders. And yes, the secret blog will have comments enabled. Emulating Dr. Fuhrman, it'll also have a private community feature that allows you to post things to share with other members. (It will not run on snazzy new software; I'm too busy for that. Maybe next time or something.)

If you only want access to that blog, including the community, but without any consulting, you can subscribe here. I don't remember how much I'm going to charge you for that, but I know it's less than $20 per month. I think it was $17 or $18.

private blog closed

Or, if you're not ready to sign up but you want more info, click here to tell me what your questions are.

The other way this solves my financial incentives problem: I can guide other people through my strategy and explain it on a one-to-one level. Teaching it individually to multiple people will enable me to also discover how I can make it clear to people who don't necessarily think the way I think. I'll find out what things people get right away, and what things they need clarification on. Then I can package it into a system which anybody can use simply by reading an ebook.

remember me?

If you want to hear about the ebook when I make it, click here.