Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Need for Shelves

The burden of things is their need for space. Each thing must occupy its own space and no two things may occupy the same space. Waves are exempt but none of my possessions are waves. This is why I need shelves.

The burden of company is the same. Bodies are like things except they complain when stacked in the corner or strewn about the floors. At least, living ones do, and I don’t invite the dead. This is why I need sofas.

I learned how to tie my shoes when I was 22

Don’t let the title fool you. Like any kid, I was taught to tie my shoes at a young age. I didn’t know a bowline from a Double Windsor and I sure didn’t know a square knot from a granny knot. I simply learned to do it the way I was taught. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that my knots never lasted more than a few hours. I had been taught to tie my shoes and my teacher had approved of my knots. Tying them this way several times a day had turned the knotting action into a habitual chore but its effortlessness kept it below my annoyance threshold for several years.

It was at the ripe and rebellious age of twenty-two that I finally got fed up with the constant need to re-tie my shoelaces. I was this close to buying Velcro shoes but I decided to make the effort to change my habit. It suddenly required great attention to tie my shoes but I found that I only had to do it once a day. After a few weeks I had altered the habit and it became easier to tie them in the new, more effective knot. After a month it was difficult to remember the old way.

Soon I discovered that I could remove and put on my shoes without untying them. I knew that some people did this and I had chalked it up to laziness. In fact, my inferior knots were seldom tied when it came time to step out of my shoes. My poor shoe-tying skills were the reason I never picked up the habit of stepping into tied shoes. With my new knotting habits came new shoeing habits and I began to step in and out of tied shoes. I had a pair of orange Saucony Jazz sneakers that stayed tied for years. I hadn’t tied them especially tightly. My new knots simply lasted longer than shoes!

If your shoelaces won’t stay tied, don’t commit to a double-knot until you have discovered exactly what kind of knot you’re tying. If it’s a granny knot with loops like mine was, try switching to a square knot. You just have to reverse the direction of the second twist. (You know, make the left bunny ear run around the right one for a change, or whatever does it for you. I don’t know from bunnies. Ask Ian.)

Forms of Flattery

When I talk about spammers, I’m usually not talking about email spam. Since I started using Gmail, I’ve had very little contact with that sort of spam. The spam that has the power to get my attention is spam in blog comments.

The first time I saw comment spam, I had been blogging for just a few weeks and I took it as a sign of success. Somebody wanted their links on my page and that meant my page was important. I felt a little bit flattered as I deleted the comment, removing the link from my page to some fly-by-night online pharmacy.

Later that year, Akismet came to town. Akismet is a centralized service, free for personal use, that examines new comments as they are submitted and tells your blog software whether each comment is probably spam. It learns about spam from the feedback of bloggers who report false positives and false negatives.

Thanks to Akismet, I only see a small fraction of the spam that is hurled at my blog. Only when the spam is of a new type or was actually entered by a human does it reach my email inbox as notification that I have a comment awaiting moderation. Though it’s not perfect, Akismet has saved me from countless hours of manually filtering tens of thousands of spam comments.

I have seen several comments get past Akismet. These usually involved some sort of “social engineering” designed to trick people into telling Akismet that the comment is not spam. This is done in the hopes that the spammer’s comments will evade Akismet in the future. For example, a comment saying “Great blog, I’ve bookmarked you” is somewhat more likely than one saying “Play poker online” to be approved by an unsuspicious blogger. Flattery strikes again.

I got tired of finding spam comments on my blog—five per year is not much, but it was too much for me—so I turned on moderation for all comments. If you post a comment here, it will be a few minutes or hours before I approve it. This spam-proofs my blog but it does not deter spammers. They don’t care whether their comments hit the mark because it’s cheaper to just keep spamming a vast list than to spend time removing spam-proof blogs from the list. Remember, spam is primarily economically driven.

Rather than stanch the flow of spam into my life, comment moderation secures my blog against publishing unwanted comments while increasing the flow of notifications into my email inbox. I don’t think I have to tell you that the initial feeling of flattery wore off long ago. Now it’s just annoying.

Well, a few weeks ago I started seeing a new sort of spam that Akismet wasn’t flagging as spam. This is a typical comment:

Evening to you all! I came across your blog posting after searching for and your post on Andy Skelton makes an interesting read. Thanks for sharing. I will research more next Friday when I have the day off. Peter

And another one:

Hey! Nice blog posting about Andy Skelton. I would have to agree with you on this one. I am going to look more into . This Friday I have time. Swiss Dude

I wondered. Where did they get the idea that my blog was about Andy Skelton? Is my name a valuable search term now? Are they spamming other people with my name? Then I noticed that the name of my blog, which appears in my RSS feed, was “Andy Skelton” and that’s probably where their spam software found my name. Regardless, Akismet now catches these comments so I don’t have to moderate them.

Today, a few hours after posting to this blog, two WordPress blogs published posts quoting my post and linking back to me. Their blogs automatically notified my blog so that my blog would publish a link back to their articles about my article. This is what their posts look like:

unknown wrote an interesting post today on Buying my first house
Here’s a quick excerpt

There are way too many real estate agents in the world and I have known way too many flaky ones to expect to find a good agent at random. I looked at the online Realtor directory for Austin and it didn’t set any of them apart. …

Read the rest of this great post here

This is not only flattering, it appears to be perfectly selfless and harmless because they link to my post and they don’t seem to be deceiving anybody. Don’t believe it for a second. This spammer is counting on my links to pump up the Google PageRank for their domains, increasing their value in spam systems capitalizing on the word Realtor. I sure won’t be allowing these links on my blog but I sure appreciate the links to me they published.

I may take away some tiny PageRank benefit from this relationship. Higher PageRank means my pages appear higher in the search engine result pages and that means more traffic for me. So PageRank is good, right? PageRank is what made Google a household word and made its investors rich. It makes our lives easier because instead of searching through directories (remember Yahoo! in the years before Google?) we enter search queries and get instant results.

It would seem to be all rainbows and unicorns but, as you might have figured out by now, Google is the root of all web spam because PageRank is what makes web spam profitable. This is the unintended, evil consequence of a brilliant invention. An invention which has the laudable basic purpose of serving the public, which is capable of estimating the relevance of billions of things in a few milliseconds, which operates on the largest and fastest-growing dataset ever conceived by humanity, which is fooled by mere flattery.

Buying my first house

Three weeks ago today, I got another one of those “Stop renting! Buy a house!” brochures in my apartment mailbox. I had already put in my 60-day moveout notice with the apartment complex and I had to be out by the end of the month. Looking for an apartment made my skin crawl. I knew I wanted to stop renting but I had a pile of reasons to put off the purchase of a home.

  • No cash for a down payment
  • Credit score below average
  • No knowledge of the market
  • No idea where to start

That brochure gave me a place to start. It wasn’t a great place (a builder’s website) but it got me interested and it gave me some hope.

What I did next was to start looking for a Realtor. There are way too many real estate agents in the world and I have known way too many flaky ones to expect to find a good agent at random. I looked at the online Realtor directory for Austin and it didn’t set any of them apart. I needed help.

Working on WordPress.com, I had seen a lot of real estate blogs built for SEO purposes, so I never expected a real estate blog to be of any help and I didn’t want to search for “best real estate agent in Austin” on Google.

Instead, I turned to the real estate forums on Craigslist. Somebody had posted a link and disclaimed affiliation. It looked like a WordPress permalink. I clicked. I read. I agreed. I emailed. I had found my best real estate agent in Austin and he was a real estate blogger.

What made my agent stick out from the crowd was not the fact that his blog was powered by WordPress. His articles were a showcase for his attitudes and opinions, his professional strengths, and general intelligence. These are things you can’t learn from a Realtor.com profile page or a recommendation from a third party. They must be demonstrated. It’s not as good as meeting in person, but a blog is better than any other online system for feeling these things out.

I knew I wasn’t buying my dream home. I didn’t even want a house that I wanted. I wanted a house that would pay off. This was to be my first “portfolio” property and the fact that I would occupy the house was incidental. The point was to make a good investment. Thus I wanted an agent who could help me find a good investment and not try to find a home to match my personal tastes. I had had found an team of Realtors who are also investors. They own a handful of rental properties and they have a lot of experience with property management.

So I got a pre-approval letter from a lender and we went out for a few hours over two days and looked at houses. I picked a house on the second day and we started the race to close. I set the target date for the 28th, which was exactly three weeks from the day I got the brochure and two days before I had to vacate my apartment.

The entire process went off without any major hitches. I chose a house listed at about 90% of my pre-approval amount and made an offer. The seller countered and then accepted my second offer. My parents generously kicked in the 3% down payment on my FHA loan. We closed the deal on the 26th, giving me two extra days to move and a whole lot less to worry about this weekend. I called the utilities and except for a day without internet, the transition has gone quite smoothly. The moving company was able to schedule an appointment within two days of my call and they performed brilliantly.

I want to thank everyone who helped make this transaction happen in under three weeks:

Having a blogging Realtor may not be for everyone. It was definitely for me. Just after I wrote this article, I checked Steve’s blog and found a shorter version of my story. I wish him and his wife continued success.

How can you tell a nightmare?

I, as my present self with my present possessions and obligations, woke up in a hotel in my college town at the end of a spring semester. All my gear was gone. I was without clothes, wallet, keys, phone, briefcase, computer.

My house—it had ceased to be a hotel room—was full of excited people taking their things and leaving for the summer. Boxes filled every room and corridor so that it was hard to move around. A woman repeatedly caught my eye while flitting in and out of rooms and collecting objects. It was strange to find every bed in my house occupied. These people had made themselves at home in my home and I didn’t recall inviting them but I didn’t mind because they were all getting up and leaving.

Many wonderful items littered the open spaces of my house. There were boxes of music and movies, each one bearing the mark of a well-loved friend and their signature odor. Piles of gadgets flowed out from fireplaces. Happy dogs caromed off everything.

Everywhere I looked, there was a friendly stranger saying goodbye. I would have liked to own any of the things they were taking away but I did not want any of their things and I could not see anyone taking anything that I needed, or that belonged to me. My possessions were still missing and I continued to hunt for them.

After searching every other place, I returned to the room where I had woken up. There was no lock on the door. Somebody was there. It was the woman! She was putting on a shirt. It was my shirt! She was glancing at an empty spot on the table. It was the spot where my things had been! I snatched her by the wrist and demanded, “Where is it?”

The woman yelped and protested. She looked guilty but she was becoming more beautiful before my eyes. I called out, “Help! Theif! Police!” Moving into the corridor with the woman in tow, I found a friendly policeman. The woman denied taking my briefcase with my wallet and phone and computer inside. I hadn’t named the stolen articles! She had obviously taken my things but the policeman urged me to embrace the loss.

“What will happen if you lose those things?”

“Nothing much. I’ll report the credit cards stolen and suspend the phone service. I’ll get new cards, a new phone, a new computer. It’s just a pain.”

“It is a pain. How would you like it if you never replaced those things?”

“That is my dream.”

“Why don’t you let the woman go?”

I looked at her. She had become the most beautiful person in the world and her eyes swore that she was mine.