kirk's corn-fed bedfellows, or: libel theater, part 1history

(1 comment)
May 6, 2008

So, the other week I read about one horrified web designer's interview with the people at X10.com, those fine folks who really helped cement hatred of the "popunder" ad part of web culture. ("Well yeah... but honestly they made a shitload of money" said one of the interviewers there.)

Two quotes from the interviewers stood out for me...
You've probably seen our website, and as you can see, it looks pretty shitty. That's pretty much how it's going to stay.
and then on their target audience:
Men from around age 30-40 with a little extra money who like buying gadgets and aren't too concerned if it doesn't work too well.
because when I put those two concepts together in the context of my professional history, one name rung out.. but to be professional, I will keep quiet about it.

I'd like to write about it in excruciating detail now, over the course of a few days, so I need never mention it again.

The year was 1999. (At the risk of getting ahead of myself in the story, my proposed slogan for their ammo catalog then was Ammo @ [REDACTED]: "Let's shoot our way through Y2K"(tm)) I was working for another small company, owned by a major midwest publisher...

<geek>Oy, what a company! Back in their pure dotcom they were pioneers in dynamic websites, claiming to have invented the Virtual Server patch for sun machines that let one machine act as the webserver for various domains. In fact they were such early innovators they had their own templating language that they clung to even after industry standards emerged, until they decided to switch - to a new in-house language based on Reverse Polish Notation. Not being a big fan of HP calculators I plotted my exit.</geek>

My company had been bought by the big (now defunct, huh!) midwestern printing company. That gave my company some strange, corn-fed bedfellows, companies that I assume did their printing through our parent company and were looking to have their web presence.

This catalog is, as far as I can tell, pretty much a "midwest" thing. Part of the issue was that they already had a web presence; a straight-forward retelling of their print catalogs in Microsoft code.

The first task was to port their existing website to our own technology. They really didn't want to make it look any better, and they stuck to their guns that their website should just be a big mirror of their multiple catalogs.

The first part of that made life little fun for me, who had to do the port. I learned a valuable lesson though; when they turned the firehose from their hammered Windows NT boxes to our inhouse solution, our server went down, hard. The volume was relatively enormous, and we had a major failure of due diligence in testing how our stuff scaled. <geek>The emergency fix for that was kind of cool, something to talk about on future interviews: we discovered the problem was with the DB queries, and realized that that each catalog page had a distinct URL that we could use as the basis of a rough-and-ready homebrew cache.</geek>

The second part made life no fun for our design group (who had ambition; they wanted to kind of segment themselves off as "216design.com", some play on the Netscape color safe palette) Every month 2 or 3 catalogs would come out that they had to make into webpages, grabbing the artwork, fixing up the text markup, and correlating the item numbers.
Sheer drudgery, and we lacked the tools to really automate it, since what they got were the raw Quark files (quirky Quark; I remember the lead guy chucking about how the print catalog designers basically used big photos as their wastebasket, hiding unneeded art behind.) I did what I could with my Perl mojo, but it was still a major pain in the ass, a vast parade of guns and domestic wares and crappy closeout specials that had no end in site, and no real way of streamlining the monotony. And making it worse was the "best buddy" style the whole catalog was written, like it was just one guy finding all these deals for you, your best drinkin' buddy look for bargains.

TOMORROW: Kirk Visits the Frozen Wasteland


half my trouble with household neatness: trash bin access. an attention span thing.
new business lingo:"c level executives", c as in CEO, CIO, etc
i kind of forget there's a starbucks like, 5 doors down. i don't like starbucks all that much but maybe forgetting is some kind of defense.