Monthly Archives: August 2009

Is Craigslist a mess?

There’s a recent piece in Wired entitled, “Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess”. The answer according to the article is that Craig Newmark is a pretty weird dude. But while it’s an interesting profile, the real question about Craigslist isn’t “why is it such a mess” but “why, given that it’s a mess, is it so widely used?” And as the article mentions, people use it because (a) it’s free, and (b) everyone else is using it, so it’s the best place to find what you’re looking for. But “Craigslist is widely used because it’s widely used” isn’t terribly satisfying as an answer.
What I really want to know is: how do people find anything at all on Craigslist? Because I just can’t do it, but it certainly wouldn’t be popular if everyone else was in the same position. And indeed, the comments on the Wired article are overwhelmingly people objecting to the title alone, protesting that Craigslist isn’t a mess. So lots of people find it a useful tool.
Nevertheless, every time I’ve tried to use it (and I’ve looked at it at various times for apartments, job hunting, and dating) I’ve given up after encountering a spectacularly low signal-to-noise ratio. Because there’s no cost to posting, and it lacks sophisticated filters, I end up with a huge and unmanageable stream of nearly-undifferentiated posts. And while there’s something to be said for its free-form character, this seems to lead to listings that are either unhelpfully vague or hyper-specific.
So I feel like I’m doing it wrong. There must be some techniques out there to using Craigslist successfully (hopefully some Craigslist power users in the readership can tell me what they are). I have some guesses as to what might work:

  1. Liberal use of the search box. I always feel like my search terms narrow the field either too little or too much. But maybe a clever selection of search terms, applied in lots of variations, would improve things.

  2. Less reading, more skimming. Just because it doesn’t filter for me doesn’t mean I have to read every post. If I learn to recognize useless items and move on quickly, I could move much more quickly through the stream.
  3. Persistence. I know that some people read Craigslist painstakingly every day, looking for the perfect bargain. (From the Wired article, this seems well suited to Craig Newmark’s style.) I don’t have the patience for it, though, and I generally don’t believe the perfect bargain exists. (Or rather, when they do appear they get snapped up immediately.)

Any other advice? Anyone else find Craigslist unusable?

Tacky, as in sticky

As you may have heard, the City of New York has decided to turn Times Square into a pedestrian plaza (on a trial basis), and closed down Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets starting this May. (Seventh Avenue remains open to traffic.) In the newly opened space, the city intended to place some tables and chairs, but the permanent versions had yet to arrive. So instead they bought some garishly colored lawn chairs from a Brooklyn hardware store.
I thought the lawn chairs were fantastic, but not everyone agreed: apparently they were pretty controversial. I guess the objection was supposed to be that they’re tacky, since tackiness was a quality unprecedented in Times Square before their arrival. Anyway, the complainants can rest easy, as the new furniture is coming in and all the lawn chairs have been removed. All, that is, except for those that were incorporated into a public art installation this weekend to commemorate the lawn chair era. The sculpture is by artist Jason Peters and looks like this:
lawn chair katamari
So, this Jason Peters wouldn’t happen to be four inches tall and green? Because it looks like he rolled up a big lawn chair katamari. Run, tourists! He’ll be rolling you up next!
(From other angles it looks less like a katamari: it’s more like a 180-degree arc of lawn chairs. Like most sculpture, it looks better in reality than in photos. But if you want to see it, you only have three hours: it’s coming down at 9pm tonight.)

Danke Schoen, John Hughes

I’m a little late in commenting on the death of John Hughes, but I learned today that he suffered his fatal heart attack on my very street here in New York. (There’s a shrine at the spot, with candles: sixteen of them, naturally.) Anyway, this gives me an excuse to bring it up a week after the fact.
Here is where I would launch into a discussion of the John Hughes oeuvre, but I have actually only seen three of the films he directed: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and Uncle Buck. I was too late for the Brat Pack age bracket: I started high school in 1993, nearly ten years after Sixteen Candles. If any of you are Hughes aficionados, you’ll have to tell me which essentials I’m missing. The Breakfast Club? Weird Science?
For the moment, let’s ignore Uncle Buck and talk about the other two I’ve seen: Bueller and Planes, Trains. Hughes directed the two consecutively, and they make an interesting pair. They’re both basically road movies, but in Bueller the trip is an adventure taken purely for fun and escape, while in Planes it’s a hellish experience and the only goal is to get home. And they’re both buddy movies, with Alan Ruck and Steve Martin as the respective straight men opposite Matthew Broderick and John Candy. But the latter two are very different characters: Candy’s Del Griffith is very irritating at first, but turns out to be well-intentioned and generally a nice guy. Ferris Bueller, on the other hand, is very charming but actually kind of a jerk. (The movie portrays him as a hero, but just look at how he treats his alleged best friend Cameron.) It’s as if Hughes, in his attempt to move out of the teen movie genre, made the anti-Ferris with Planes, Trains.
In the end, Planes, Trains is the outlier, and while it’s genuinely a classic, what he’ll be remembered for are the high school comedies. Unfortunately, that’s where my John Hughes knowledge ends, so those of you who have actually seen these movies will have to take over in the comments.
[Yes, two posts this month! Maybe I should have spread them out more.]

Interest: kindled.

I’ve been debating whether to buy a Kindle, and so the famous Nicholson Baker review in The New Yorker was of interest as one of the more high-profile negative reviews of the device. Although I don’t really believe him when he says that funny passages get less funny when read on a Kindle, he mentions some other downsides like the (so far) limited library and the DRM concerns. These seemed like good points.
To address his aesthetic objections to the device, he goes on to suggest downloading the Kindle app for the iPhone instead. I ignored this advice at first, but some time later my curiosity got the better of me and I got the app. It’s free, after all, and would be a good way to try the format. And I was pleased to see that there are a few books available for free. Mostly the initial volumes of various long-running series, under the favorite business model of drug dealers everywhere. (I went for His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novick; a better choice from the free selection is Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, but I’d already read it.) So I was able to follow Baker’s suggestion at no cost. Still, I thought, it seemed crazy. I’d much rather read on the book-sized Kindle. Who wants to read an entire novel on the tiny iPhone screen, flipping pages every paragraph?
The answer, apparently, is me. The Kindle app is completely awesome, and I feel like it’s doubled the utility of my iPhone. It has one gigantic advantage over the actual Kindle that Baker doesn’t even mention: if I owned a Kindle, I would probably take it with me on vacation, or on long train rides, but I wouldn’t carry it around with me all the time, since it’s not small enough to fit in a pocket. But the iPhone I already carry with me everywhere. Which means that now, I always have a book to read. If I find myself waiting in line, or on the subway, or at the doctor’s office, I can just start reading. I even catch myself looking forward to waiting for something so I can read a few more pages. Sure, before the Kindle I could surf the net or play games on the iPhone, but for waits of longer than a few minutes, being able to dive into a book is much better.
So, I’m a convert. I finished His Majesty’s Dragon tonight, and I’m shopping right now for my next book. There is one problem, though. Sometimes I’ve been reading, say on the subway, and I get to my stop in the middle of a chapter. I walk home from the station, and when I get home I naturally want to continue reading. But who wants to read on the tiny iPhone screen? If only I had some kind of book-sized device that would automatically sync with the page I’m on…
And that, of course, is why Amazon gives away the iPhone app for free.