Vacation Planning Time

We’re looking to rent a luxury villa on an island in Greece, walking distance to a nice beach, for a week or two in July/August, for the family. It needs to sleep around 10 people and be self-catered so we can cook our own kosher meals. If anybody has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

How Many Lies Can You Find In One Direct Mail Piece?

George Meyer, one of the writers on the Simpsons, likes to collect examples of advertising in which “the word-to-falsehood ratio approaches one.” In an interview in the New Yorker, he complained about a magazine ad for a butter substitute called Country Crock. “It’s not from the country, there is no crock,” he told the interviewer. “Two words, two lies.”

Recently I got this piece of junk mail from Earthlink (larger view)

Just for my own personal amusement, I decided to try to count how many lies are on this particular fine specimen.

  1. The whole piece is attempting to disguise itself as an express mail letter. They are working on the assumption that ignorant recipients will confuse it with a Federal Express letter, or perhaps think that “Urgent Express” is a company that competes with FedEx. Uh huh. Ooooh! The marketing slimeballs at Earthlink must have drooled at the thought of old Marge in a nursing home, practically falling over with excitement that she got an urgent express letter, like those letters you get from fancy New York lawyers urging you to sue the nursing home.

  2. It says that it’s urgent, and it isn’t, it’s just a stupid CD trying to get you to sign up for Internet access.

  3. It says that it’s “express”, but it’s mailed using “Presorted Standard” rate, which isn’t express at all, in fact, it probably cost precisely $0.23 to mail (FedEx is $15.34).

  4. It has a tracking number, but it is using a class of mail service that is not tracked, and I’ll bet you anything that everybody gets the same tracking number. Sorry, folks, for $0.23 you don’t get tracking.

  5. It uses a fake handwriting font, intended to make you think that it is not junk mail but rather something that a person made for you.

  6. It says that it’s from Sky Dayton (founder of Earthlink) although it is actually from Earthlink’s direct marketing department. I can just see the thought going through the copy writer’s head. “People won’t open it unless it’s from someone they know, and everyone knows Sky Dayton!”

  7. It has a “sender’s account number” which is, of course, completely fake (Anybody care to try to use it to sign up for Earthlink?)

  8. It has a little “payment” section with a checkbox indicating that it should be billed to the sender, even though this has no meaning on standard mail.

  9. It has a “release signature” with a little annotation that this signature is “required,” when actually no “release signature” is required at all.

  10. It says “Time Sensitive Material Enclosed,” which is almost certainly untrue and meaningless anyway.

  11. On the back, it says “Weight Limit 8 Ounces” even though the actual weight limit for Presorted Standard is 16 Ounces.

  12. It actually has a piece of clear plastic glued on the front. The clear plastic serves no purpose whatsoever except to imitate FedEx envelopes which have the same plastic to hold the mailing manifest, much like those little butterflies which have fierce markings in attempt to convince butterfly-eaters that they themselves are fierce, even though they couldn’t be less fierce if they were dressed up like Julie Andrews in high heels singing “My Favorite Things.” In nature this is called Batesian mimicry.

The biggest problem with direct mail (what we normal people call “Junk Mail”) is that 99% of it (literally) gets thrown away unopened, Batesian mimicry or not. To combat this, direct mailers will do anything to get you to open their junk, no matter how dishonest.

When I went to Earthlink’s home page, it only took me a couple of clicks to find their Mission and Core Values and Beliefs. And what it says there is:

We require complete honesty and integrity in everything we do.

I didn’t even have the energy to open the damn thing and see how many lies were on the inside. Does this mailing strike you as “completely honest”? Or just “business as usual?” Am I too sensitive? Should I go back to complaining about complaining about Bloatware?

[Followup: Earthlink is unrepentant.]


Mark Bernstein writes:

There’s one question that bothers me about huge programs like Excel, though, a question you don’t quite address. What are they doing with all that space?

I actually think that Excel’s “minimum system requirements” come from all the other apps that it installs. For example, if they use a part of Internet Explorer 5.x to parse XML or display HTML documents, they just install ALL of Internet Explorer 5.x (which most people have anyway, so it doesn’t really take up that much extra space for most people). There are a few applications such as Microsoft Query, the Jet Database Engine, and Microsoft’s Picture editor, and the office toolbar, which probably get installed when you install any Office App. The actual Excel EXE itself is under 7 MB.

On my system all of office takes up 190MB, which confirms my belief that it is the shared office components which take up all the space. But who cares? It’s a great app and it’s 1% of my disk space.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Direct Marketing

George Meyer, one of the writers on the Simpsons, likes to collect examples of advertising in which “the word-to-falsehood ratio approaches one.” In an interview in the New Yorker, he complained about a magazine ad for a butter substitute called Country Crock. “It’s not from the country, there is no crock,” he told the interviewer. “Two words, two lies.”

Recently I got this piece of junk mail from Earthlink…

Strategy Letter IV: Bloatware and the 80/20 Myth

Version 5.0 of Microsoft’s flagship spreadsheet program Excel came out in 1993. It was positively huge: it required a whole 15 megabytes of hard drive space. In those days we could still remember our first 20MB PC hard drives (around 1985) and so 15MB sure seemed like a lot.

By the time Excel 2000 came out, it required a whopping 146MB … almost a tenfold increase! Dang those sloppy Microsoft programmers, right?


I’ll bet you think I’m going to write one of those boring articles you see all over the net  bemoaning “bloatware”.  Whine whine whine, this stuff is so bloated, oh woe is me, edlin and vi are so much better than Word and Emacs because they are svelte, etc.

Ha ha! I tricked you! I’m not going to write that article again, because it’s not true.

In 1993, given the cost of hard drives in those days, Microsoft Excel 5.0 took up about $36 worth of hard drive space.

In 2000, given the cost of hard drives in 2000, Microsoft Excel 2000 takes up about $1.03 in hard drive space.

(These figures are adjusted for inflation and based on hard drive price data from here.)

In real terms, it’s almost like Excel is actually getting smaller!

What is bloatware, exactly? The Jargon File snidely defines it as “software that provides minimal functionality while requiring a disproportionate amount of diskspace and memory. Especially used for application and OS upgrades. This term is very common in the Windows/NT world. So is its cause.”

I guess those guys just hate Windows. I haven’t run out of memory in more than a decade, ever since virtual memory appeared in Windows 386 (1989). And hard drive space is down to $0.0071 per megabyte and still plummeting like a sheep learning to fly by jumping out of a tree.

Maybe Linus Åkerlund can explain it. On his web page, he writes, “The big disadvantage of using these bloated programs is that you have to load this very large program, even if you just want to accomplish one tiny little thing. It eats up all your memory… you’re not using your system in an efficient way. You make the system seem more inefficient than it really is, and this is totally unnecessary.”

Ohhh. It eats up all your memory. I see. Actually, well, no, it doesn’t. Ever since Windows 1.0, in 1987, the operating system only loads pages as they are used. If you have a 15MB executable and you only use code that spans 2MB worth of pages, you will only ever load 2MB from disk to RAM. In fact if you have a modern version of Windows, the OS will automatically rearrange those pages on the hard drive so that they’re consecutive, which makes the program start even faster next time.

And I don’t think anyone will deny that on today’s overpowered, under-priced computers, loading a huge program is still faster than loading a small program was even 5 years ago. So what’s the problem?

RA Downes gives us a clue. It looks like he spent hours dissecting a small Microsoft utility, apparently enraged that it was a whole megabyte in size. (That’s 3.15 cents of hard drive space at the time he wrote the article). In his opinion, the program should have been around 95% smaller. The joke is that the utility he dissected is something called RegClean, which you’ve probably never heard of. This is a program that goes through your Windows registry looking for things that aren’t being used and deleting them. You have to be a little bit on the obsessive-compulsive side to care about cleaning up unused parts of your registry. So I’m starting to suspect that fretting about bloatware is more of a mental health problem than a software problem.

In fact there are lots of great reasons for bloatware. For one, if programmers don’t have to worry about how large their code is, they can ship it sooner. And that means you get more features, and features make your life better (when you use them) and don’t usually hurt (when you don’t). If your software vendor stops, before shipping, and spends two months squeezing the code down to make it 50% smaller, the net benefit to you is going to be imperceptible. Maybe, just maybe, if you tend to keep your hard drive full, that’s one more Duran Duran MP3 you can download. But the loss to you of waiting an extra two months for the new version is perceptible, and the loss to the software company that has to give up two months of sales is even worse.

A lot of software developers are seduced by the old “80/20” rule. It seems to make a lot of sense: 80% of the people use 20% of the features. So you convince yourself that you only need to implement 20% of the features, and you can still sell 80% as many copies. 

Unfortunately, it’s never the same 20%. Everybody uses a different set of features. In the last 10 years I have probably heard of dozens of companies who, determined not to learn from each other, tried to release “lite” word processors that only implement 20% of the features. This story is as old as the PC. Most of the time, what happens is that they give their program to a journalist to review, and the journalist reviews it by writing their review using the new word processor, and then the journalist tries to find the “word count” feature which they need because most journalists have precise word count requirements, and it’s not there, because it’s in the “80% that nobody uses,” and the journalist ends up writing a story that attempts to claim simultaneously that lite programs are good, bloat is bad, and I can’t use this damn thing ’cause it won’t count my words. If I had a dollar for every time this has happened I would be very happy.

When you start marketing your “lite” product, and you tell people, “hey, it’s lite, only 1MB,” they tend to be very happy, then they ask you if it has their crucial feature, and it doesn’t, so they don’t buy your product.

Bottom line: if your strategy is “80/20”, you’re going to have trouble selling software. That’s just reality. This strategy is as old as the software industry itself and it just doesn’t pay; what’s surprising is how many executives at fast companies think that it’s going to work.

Jamie Zawinski says it best, discussing the original version of Netscape that changed the world. “Convenient though it would be if it were true, Mozilla [Netscape 1.0] is not big because it’s full of useless crap. Mozilla is big because your needs are big. Your needs are big because the Internet is big. There are lots of small, lean web browsers out there that, incidentally, do almost nothing useful. But being a shining jewel of perfection was not a goal when we wrote Mozilla.”


Version 5.0 of Microsoft’s flagship spreadsheet program Excel came out in 1993. It was positively huge: it required a whole 15 megabytes of hard drive space. In those days we could still remember our first 20MB PC hard drives (around 1985) and so 15MB sure seemed like a lot.

By the time Excel 2000 came out, it required a whopping 146MB … almost a tenfold increase! Dang those sloppy Microsoft programmers, right?


Spring in Cambridge

Even though the weather is in the 40s, and the wind chill is wintry, today I woke up and went outside and felt like spring was finally in the air. Maybe I started to notice this last Friday when I went back to the Fog Creek garden in a t-shirt and wasn’t actually cold. 

Spring conjures up a funny set of associations for me. I think about the fact that it’s still daylight when you go outside after dinner. I think about living in a nice old messy house with real wood floors, lots and lots of books, and flowers in the garden. I think about two of my favorite places in the spring, Berkeley and Boston, cities that revolve around learning and education and the unbridled enthusiasm of youth and the belief that anything is possible. As a first year student I arrived at university without even the basic premise of the shape my life would take, but compared to the unspeakably horrible time I had doing compulsory military duty, any shape of life sounded utopian to me. I could be in theatre! I could write for the school newspaper! Politics! Hacking! Teaching! Art! I could become a competitive swimmer! Play piano! All possible!

Around 1993, I think, I finally got access to the World Wide Web at home. $35 a month for SLIP from Panix. One of the first things that captivated me was Travels with Samantha, by Philip Greenspun. The pictures were almost impossible to make out in 16 VGA colors; the connection was at 14.4 baud; the screen was 640×480. But Greenspun’s style of personal journal was captivating. He told us how lonely it was to live in Las Alamos for three months. He told us how to build an online community. He told us about his $5000 Viking stove.

Greenspun has been a key inspiration to many of us. He started a company called arsDigita, which was really just another consulting company for the Internet, but it had two things which made it uniquely different.

It had a personal voice. When you went to the home page, there was a happy little note about the new offices or the latest course offerings; the style was not boring corporate/marcomm happy-talk, it was Philip telling you that if you’re poor, there are some free services, but if you’re rich, head on over here and we’ll build you a nice service of your own, but bring a lot of money please, because the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades.

And it had education. The web was new and exciting and offered unlimited possibilities. Everybody wanted to learn about it and arsDigita would teach you, for free, starting with a book that cost about $15 more than it should because it was stuffed with completely irrelevant full-color photographs that seemed to be there solely to assuage the author’s egotistical photography hobby, but which really were so bright and colorful and optimistic that nobody could read that book (or any of the photography-filled pages of Greenspun’s websites) without becoming optimistic and excited about the future of the Internet, and when you did, there was a whole chapter on how to start a consulting company just like Philip and get rich off of the Internet, complete with suggested prices and detailed calculations of how you will make $250,000 a year and be able to buy $5000 Viking stoves and a beautiful condo in Harvard Square, in the spring, with flowers budding and optimist young students everywhere practically popping out of their tanktops. Stream of consciousness, random, and interspersed with completely random bogus snippets of half-baked Oracle SQL statements but goddamn it, there was a personal voice there.

(I know, anybody at arsDigita will tell you “no, Joel! It’s open source that made arsDigita different.” Or community. Or content management software. Sorry, all that stuff bores me. What excites me was the way arsDigita had a personal voice on the Internet that made it possible to relate to it in a human way, which is what people want to do, since we’re humans.)

Fog Creek Software was inspired in no small part by arsDigita; the code name for the company was “PaxDigita” and we took inspiration from Greenspun’s tongue-in-cheek corporate slogan “We don’t have venture capital; we have money.” ArsDigita thought that it was enough to be profitable. 

There were two things I thought that arsDigita did wrong. First of all, they didn’t understand that consulting doesn’t scale so well; if you really want to make an impact, you need to license software. A consultant working on a project makes ten or twenty percent profit. If you license software, each marginal unit you sell is 100% profit. That’s why software companies have valuations that are something like 25 times richer than consulting companies. Consulting is important and keeps us in touch with customers, and it funds the software development, but our goal is to be a software company. (ArsDigita seems to have learned this lesson. Allen Shaheen, the CEO, writes that “we are also considering developing and marketing additional software products using a different type of licensing arrangement. This investment is in addition to our investment in ACS as an open source product. We are considering this approach because it would allow us to accelerate our development of new and expanded features.” That’s happy talk for “the new features are going to cost you from now on.”)

The other thing I didn’t like about arsDigita was an almost religious aversion to Microsoft. There was a deep belief that arsDigita “eliminated risk” by never using a Microsoft product. The truth is, they just didn’t know anything about Microsoft products. Their religious bigotry struck me as just that: bigotry. In the words of Lazarus Long, “I don’t believe anything. Gets in the way of learning.” If you say, “we know Unix better, so we get better results with Unix,” you’re a scientist. If you say, “we don’t use any Microsoft crap, it all sucks” you’re just a fanatic, and it’s getting in the way of doing good work. (Greenspun has learned this lesson too; almost all of his bitterness to Microsoft seems to have dissipated and he finally admits, “I’m not motivated to fight a religious war for any particular database management system or Web server.” It’s nice to watch smart people learning.)

But there’s one thing that arsDigita did very, very, right, and that was the personal voice thing. The biggest thing I think about with Fog Creek is how to maintain that personal voice, and if we can do it, I’ll owe a big, big debt to Philip Greenspun.

For ArsDigita, the spring is over. ArsDigita found it impossible to hire engineers during the dotcom bubble without the promises of IPO riches, and took $38 million in venture capital. They grew from 5 to 250 people.

And then the excited exuberance gave way to a completely collapsed market for Internet consulting services. 

The VCs promptly installed boring old-school management who insisted on a happy-talk marcomm website with complete bullshit like “Fully integrated through a single data model to ensure consistency across all business processes, ACS empowers organizations to create Web services that maximize value for the end-user.”

Philip left.

The voice is gone.

To me, arsDigita will always remind me of those silly irrelevant pictures of pretty girls rollerblading and clam stands and boats in the Charles and sunsets in New Mexico and flowers and spring, and if you built it, they will come, and if you have a voice on your website, they will care. When I go to the website today and read that they “maximize value for the end-user,” I think of that dazzling, exciting kid you knew freshman year, who jumped from varsity squash to journalism to drama to campus politics, and was all fired up to change the world. But he got married, has 2 1/2 kids, took a job as an insurance agent and wears a gray suit to work every day.

Maturity is kind of sad.

But spring is in the air, and that makes up for it.


Philip Greenspun has been a key inspiration to many people, including Fog Creek. We owe him a debt. He started a company called arsDigita, which was really just another consulting company for the Internet, but it had two things which made it uniquely different. It had a personal voice, and it had education.

But now it doesn’t have Philip, and that’s a real bummer.

Spring in Cambridge


Normally I love Jakob Nielsen and can’t wait to hear from him.

This week Jakob Nielsen posted an article that’s supposed to tell you how to retain key staff. Now, I read the article again and again and it just doesn’t say anything.  All it does is list a bunch of things and then asserts that they don’t work.

For those of you who are feeling a bit empty after that, may I point you to: