Article Limits on News Sites

Today I decided to take a look at the New York Times website for the first time in several years. I probably read one or two articles there each month, but only when I find the link from another source, but I haven’t gone to the site to look for news for quite a while. I started browsing the tech section, looked at a few articles and pretty soon got a windows telling me that since I had seen 10 articles, I needed to pay  or come back in a month.

Obviously the NYTimes can handle their subscriptions however they like, but I had to wonder if this really accomplished what they want. For me, it means I’ll probably never browse their site. Instead I’ll wait for links to be sent to me by friends or posted on social news sites. The chances of ten of those articles being something I want to read are quite a bit higher than 10 articles I read while clicking around on their site.

So basically their strategy prevents me from using their site as my default go-to page for news, but allows me to read anything that I probably want to read. This would seem indicate that the value of a reading coming in to read a handful of articles each month is worth more to them than someone who visits the site a few times each day. I would think that the advertising value of a regular visitor would be greater than an occasional one.

Of course their goal is to get people to sign up for a subscription.  This approach may be driven more by the idea that someone who pays for the subscription can fetch a much higher cost per impression from advertisers than someone who doesn’t pay. But that still seems backwards to me. The value of an impression to an advertiser is less related to how much the viewer paid to read the content and more related to how well the impression can be targeted.

The NY Times previous policy of requiring a free login to read articles seemed to be taking that approach. By requiring a login, they could track what readers interest and then sell advertising that target specific demographics by reading habits. I’d be very interested to know if they decided this approach just didn’t work or if it was never fully developed and the company just defaulted back to the old model of charging for subscriptions.

Why You Need Domain Knowledge


This is the Feinwerkbau P11 Piccolo Air Pistol. It costs somewhere around $1,500 and looks like it is mainly designed for people doing competition. The black barrel is what shoots the pellet and the silver barrel is the compressed air.

If you have a gun that runs on compressed air, it would be nice to know how much air you have left wouldn’t it? I’m not sure the design was fully thought through.

I don’t know the story of the gun, but I do know that you shouldn’t need to point the barrel toward your face to read a gauge.

When I see something like this I like to stop and think about whether or not I make the same mistakes in my field of software development. Poor design decisions aren’t limited to guns.

Domain Experts & Software

Mistakes in software design aren’t always as easy to spot, but often it comes down to the same thing. To design something you must have at least a basic level of domain knowledge.  That doesn’t means you have to be a world famous chef in order to write a recipe webapp, but you need to make sure you at least know the basics.

If you don’t have the domain knowledge, then partner with someone who has it. I’ve been working on an application for the past year where I partnered with non-technical people who know the industry. It would have been easy to discount the value of people who can’t really contribute to writing the software, but it has been well worth it. Not only do they have the knowledge of the industry that let us create the right product, but they know the people who would be interested in buying it.

Just having a good idea and the ability to create software isn’t enough to succeed. You can significantly increase your chances by partnering with people who are in your target market who can use the product from the very beginning. If you choose carefully you can get not only their expertise in the domain, but also their network of connections–people who have the exact same problems that your product can fix.

Now some people have pointed out that a company that makes guns probably has much more domain knowledge about air powered pistols than I do. That is probably true. I  have a reasonable amount of domain knowledge about guns including some classes, etc. One of the first things you learn anytime you learn anything about guns is not to point it at your face.

But this brings up an important point. Having domain knowledge and applying it are two different things.

Testing Software

When it comes to software, we have the luxury of testing. Get your code to a usable state and then let someone use it. Sometimes you’ll find that there is a disconnect between what works and what the domain experts tell you will work. This doesn’t mean you have a bad expert. They may be an expert in their field, but that doesn’t mean they are an expert at explaining it to you. Often this means that as part of the development process they will say you need to do X and then after they use it, change their mind and say you need to do Y.

This isn’t a bad thing and is a natural part of building something correctly. What you can do  is try to make sure that those experiences come early and with as little pain as possible.

I was working on a project awhile back where we put most of our effort into the public facing portion of a web app. The backend was a mess through. It worked but it was very ugly. But it let us launch quickly and get some real world experience. By the time we were ready to redo the backend, the people who were using it had a lot better idea of what they needed. Many of the initial things that they wanted to change turned out to be irrelevant, but there were a bunch of other assumptions that it turned out were wrong and needed to be changed.

Domain expertise will usually get you headed in the right direction, but you don’t know if you’ve done the right thing until someone is actually using your code.

To Give Or Not To Give

Jordan Visco had an interesting post discussed at Hacker News where said he was starting to consider giving to beggars. I found this interesting because I’ve typically given to beggars in the past and I’m starting to think I should stop.

Jordan wondered what would happen if every time someone begged, people would surround them and give them what they need. One person commented that we’d probably see a huge increase in begging if this were to happen.

A few people said they don’t mind giving money even if it gets used on alcohol or drugs with the logic that if the person’s life was that bad, they were happy to do anything that would make them feel better for a while.

It is all interesting discussion and well worth reading. The problem is that most people don’t make a decision based on a desired longterm outcome. Lets say you find someone asking for money for “food” and you give him $5 based on the belief that he will spend the money on food not alcohol or drugs.  So your desired outcome is for him to not be hungry for 3 hours. If he is actually hungry and the money gets spent on food, all you’ve done is push back the problem 3 hours. Still you’ve helped a fellow human who was in need and that isn’t something we should take lightly.

But what if that person is actually making several hundreds of dollars every day? Have you helped reinforce that begging is more lucrative than getting a real job? If that is the case you may have done some real harm to society.  Maybe not a lot of harm, but you’ve been part of creating something that we probably don’t want.  However, there is no real way for you to know who needs the funds and who is just milking public generosity.  Or is there?

What if a city got together and decided that to help beggars, one organization would provide people with work in exchange for lodging, clothing, a meal, food voucher, or even cash.

They could pickup trash in the parks, rake leaves, etc. But the point wouldn’t be so much to get valuable labor for the money. The point would be to give them a way to earn what they need. Even if there was nothing that needed done and everyone was just asked to sort red and blue marbles into two separate containers for an hour in exchange for lunch, it would be giving them something to do in exchange for their meal.

I recognize that some homeless people have mental problems. However, if they have enough mental capacity to show up where there are other people, ask for money and then spend that money on something, there is some task that they could do.

What would a community look like if anyone who was hungry, knew they could go work for an hour and get a meal? What if citizens stopped giving to the beggars and instead would help arrange transportation to get them to the work center? I doubt if a “professional” beggar would stick around for long.

This isn’t such a new idea. During the depression, some communities paid people to turn over the bricks that made up the roads so the less worn side was on top. My hometown’s football stadium was built by WPA workers as part of a program that hired the unemployed.

When we give someone free handout after free handout, we do them a great disservice. Most people understand that regularly giving wild animals easy food can teach them to stop scavenging/hunting on their own and eventually kill the animal. Why are we willing to do the same thing to fellow humans?

The problem is that giving someone a few dollars is more about making ourselves feel good than it is about helping them. It is a lot easier to give someone a five dollar bill than it is to try to find a solution that helps move them toward self sufficiency.

WPA programs were not without criticism in their day. Some employers felt that people working for WPA learned poor work habits. WPA wasn’t necessarily known for having highly efficient workers, so sometimes it was harder for a WPA worker to get a job somewhere else because employers assumed they were accustomed to working in a lazy manner.

But compared to what we have now, even this would be an improvement. Just the shift from thinking “people will give me free money” to “I can work for the things I need” is a huge step forward.

As a society, we aren’t going to be able to create a solution overnight. Handing out a few bucks here and there can make us feel like we’ve “done our part” and keep us from trying to come up with better solutions.

So will I give to the next person who asks?  Probably. Even thought I know I may be doing harm, right now I don’t know of another solution that will solve their immediate problem. But I’m going to try to be very conscious that the short term benefit is part of a system that is (often) doing long term damage to the individual I’m trying to help. Our options right now come down to choosing what (we hope) is the lesser of two evils.

Giving money is easy. Actually helping is very hard. There are solutions, but it is going to take some concentrated effort by people who are really concerned about making things better in the long term.

Android Daylight Savings Time Change

My Sprint Android Nexus S had a problem with the time zone change last night. Not only did it set the time back by an hour (possibly based on the carrier signal), but it also switched from Central Time To Mountain Time. I am able to fix the problem by unchecking the “Automatic – use carrier supplied values” and manually specifying central time, but if I recheck the “Automatic” box it changes back to mountain time.

It seems as if Sprints Carrier signal accidentally started sending out a different timezone instead of sending out time code and saying it was CDT. So basically the Android clock fell back by two hours instead of one.