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Interview with Engadget’s Ryan Block

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Ryan Block is the editor-in-chief of tech and gadget news blog Engadget.

Where did you grow up and when did you move to New York?
I grew up in Southern California, in Orange County. I moved to New York in 2001. I had like $400 in the bank account and I just figured I’d try to make a go of it. So I shipped whatever I could out here.

What neighborhood did you move to?
I was living in this rat nest in Jersey City. I could talk about that one apartment and my roommate there for an hour, that’s like a whole in and of itself. But I stayed there my first four months and then I spent the next three years moving constantly. I temporarily moved to the border of West Village/Soho on King Street, and then back and forth between the East Village and Williamsburg, which was my last stop before I moved to San Francisco last year.

How did you get started with Engadget?
My friend Peter [Rojas] moved out here just a couple months after I did and later started a new site called Engadget. We hadn’t talked for a while because we were kind of on weird, if not bad, terms, because the first time we’d met we’d gotten into an argument about Linux, which is totally random. I think we didn’t realize it at the time, but we were too similar and had a clashing of similar personalities. I saw that he’d left his previous site, Gizmodo, started Engadget, so I sent him a tip on some news item and he wrote me back and asked me if I wanted to try my hand at writing about technology. Which, looking back on it is so completely obvious, I love technology, I love writing, why did I never even think to write about technology, so you know I guess I’ve got to hand it to Pete for giving me some pretty obvious direction there.

And it makes sense when it all clicks into place, it’s just, it’s so beautiful. Everything started to take off, Engadget blew up really quickly, we were having such a good time and eventually we got acquired by AOL and we were able to really take the site and the publication to the next level. You know, it’s just one of those things where I feel unbelievably lucky and blessed to have fallen into it. I mean, I never would’ve thought that it would be like this, I just thought it was something fun that we would do and have fun and play with toys and enjoy ourselves.

At what point did Engadget become a full-time job for you?
I started in June of 2004 and I quit my day job to write full time in June 2005. So basically one year after it started. It was a pretty rapid growth overall. I think over the last couple of years everyone has really become a consumer electronics buyer and you know, in many ways everyone’s become really obsessed with consumer electronics in ways that they weren’t, basically ever.

How big is Engadget now?
We’re at about 10 million unique readers a month, we’re still growing. Surprisingly, we’re still growing. I thought that we were going to plateau or at least really slow down by mid-2006, and we did for a while, but by fall of 2006 we’d picked up growth again and we doubled our traffic and readership in about a year. So I mean either we’re doing something right or the amount of people who want to read about technology news is constantly growing—I have a feeling it’s a combination of the two.

Would you attribute some of this success to New York?
I feel like the things that Pete and I were able to do in the early days and the opportunities that we had had so much to do with where we were, in the sense that we were accessible to a lot of the companies who had presences in New York. It is such a media centered town and there are so many media companies here. So I think Engadget’s success, and my own personal success at Engadget, has had everything to do with New York. And if I’d have started doing Engadget, say from San Francisco, I don’t know how things would’ve been. At least not for me, you know. I might still have a day job, I might have never gotten really wrapped into this and eventually taken over as editor-in-chief and all those things. The reason that I agreed to do this [ontheinside.info profile] even knowing that I don’t live in New York anymore is because New York has really defined who I am as a person, you know, from the moment I lived here until today. And I think that it would be pretty naïve of me to suggest that I would never live here again because I miss it, a lot. And there are a lot of things that just keep me coming back, five, six times a year, constantly. And it’s become so intertwined with my own personality and my career.

How was it moving to San Francisco?
It was really emotional for me, because I did love, and I do love being here in NY so much and I do miss it. And I was in a lot of ways unsure that this was the right decision for me to make. I mean I know in hindsight that it was and I’m very happy in San Francisco. I just think that the city is kind of strange right now. I hadn’t really tried to think about it too much, or to codify it, but I was listening to that, I hate to drop the name, but I was listening to an LCD Soundsystem record, the new one, and he has that song, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. James Murphy is a big New York scenester and he’s talking about how depressing New York has gotten and how it’s kind of just filled with boring people and he kind of writes the same song over and over. I think it really spoke to how important New York is but how it can just really wear on you after a while. It’s like living here is like being in a relationship, you have to really put a lot of work into it and you have to really love it a lot. And if you don’t just love it completely, and if you’re not really prepared to put a lot of work into it, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. You shouldn’t be in it. It’s not a city that caters to you. I don’t necessarily think a city should cater to you, but as time went on, and as my personal life continuously got more hectic and my career got much more busy with Engadget, it started becoming a bit of a hindrance in some ways. You know, fighting the weather, ridiculously hot summers, unbelievably cold winters, how some things like shopping, getting fresh produce and things like that are so difficult, so I think there were a lot of appealing things about moving. But there’s no place that could ever replace New York, that could endear me to it like New York did. I think that’s how most New York ex-pats feel. Like they never get over living here.

What advice would you give to someone moving here?
You can’t just move to New York and not work your ass off, right? I mean, you have to be prepared to do that, you really have to be willing to step up your own game when you come here and just do whatever is necessary, because it’s so incredible and dynamic here but it’s also so much competition from all sides. So many people from so many walks of life with different perspectives on everything, different talents, different abilities—think of anything and you’re going up against a crowd to do it. That’s why it still kind of surprises me that we found this niche, this opportunity and it kind of blew up, especially given all of the talent in New York, but I guess we were some of that talent too.

Can you tell us briefly, what’s a typical day for you? Or is there a typical day?
No two days are alike. Everything is constantly in flux and there are so many balls in motion at any given time. I mean, a typical day is, wake up at 7:30-8 in the morning, head straight to my computer, read news feeds, triage email, write some stories, work on some features, and then you know probably take an appointment or two with a company that’s in town and wants to show a new gadget or something. I’ll probably get visits from FedEx, DHL, and UPS each delivering new products from whatever company, and if I’m not too busy I’ll try to sit down and play around with the new devices I just got and if I am too busy then I’ll ship it out to somebody else.

So you get first dibs on any product to play with it and then write about?
Yeah, I mean I’m not doing as much news content as I used to, we’ve got a pretty good team and they do a really amazing job at keeping the site going. There’s a lot of managerial overhead that goes into any publication, especially one that’s scaled to millions of readers. So I do have to spend a lot of time interfacing with our AOL side. And then you know, we’re also looking at all manner of things that come through, anything from content syndication deals to you know, getting Engadget integrated on devices. There’s just always so much going on. The demand and the number of companies that want a piece of your time, it’s just absolutely enormous in the consumer electronics industry.

What were some of the jobs you had before Engadget?
I was doing a lot of freelance technology, I was working at a software company doing system administration. I’d never really written professionally. I’d written a lot, but I’d never really sought to get it published. It was one of those things I figured I would do eventually, but it wasn’t an itch that I was burning to scratch. So yeah, I mean, things really, I’m kind of a believer that you find the best things when you’re not looking for them.

What should we look out for in 2008 from a tech perspective?
You know you never really know what’s around the corner. I mean, you do, and that’s why people read Engadget is because we tell you what’s around the corner, but in terms of like larger trends, it’s not so easy to say. What I will say, here’s something really interesting that’s going to go out in January—federal government is going to auction off a bunch of wireless spectrum, 700 megahertz spectrum that used to be used as UHF channels. The government has mandated that we’re all switching off analog broadcasts and switching to digital broadcasts. So they have all this wireless spectrum that they’re not using so they’re auctioning it off to companies. So a bunch of companies like AT&T, Verizon, possibly Google, Frontline Wireless, a bunch of these companies are going to bid on this wireless spectrum. And it also looks like the 700 megahertz spectrum could become a worldwide standard. If that happens, this might be the first time we’ve had a single ubiquitous worldwide wide range wireless standard. For most people it’s not going to matter for a while, but that could become a turning point for mobile electronics for the next 50 years. Devices would become more ubiquitous and open, they would transmit data faster and possibly use less power and best of all, everybody would be able to rally around a single standard. The way wireless works for most of the world, besides stuff like wi-fi, look at cell phones, it’s all very regional cause everyone has different wireless spectrum standards, especially America, we have like our own thing for everything, so it’s really fragmented and it’s really kept devices, like the ipod which for all intents and purposes should have wireless access, from doing that, because there’s no real standard to bring all the stuff together. You know, they add wi-fi and stuff, but it’s not the real deal. Think about what it would be like if your ipod was kind of like a cell phone and you picked up your ipod and you were able to just get on the internet anywhere. And maybe it was free, maybe it was really cheap, that’s what the future’s going to be like. And the 700 megahertz auctions next year are going to have a really big part in that.

- interview by Thomas Collardeau, photo by Scott Gordon Bleicher.

See Ryan Block’s profile and favorite NY places at http://ontheinside.info/ryan-block.

Bite of the Week: Sunny and Annie’s

Artist David Hochbaum on Sunny and Annie’s.

 
icon for podpress  sunnie-and-annies: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

{Bite of the week are short audio clips of OTI personalities talking passionately about their favorite foods.}

Bite of the Week: Le Grainne Cafe

Hairstylist Michael Angelo on Le Grainne Cafe.

 
icon for podpress  le-grainne-cafe: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

{Bite of the week are short audio clips of OTI personalities talking passionately about their favorite foods.}

Cartoonist Matt Diffee does NOT recommend

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We have recommenations at ontheinside.info, but what about places you should avoid? New Yorker cartoonist Matt Diffee, from Texas, states Dallas BBQ is such a place:

They have crappy meat that I think they cook in the microwave, and then they put sauce on it. I’m sure they don’t do that, but it is not authentic barbeque. It’s not slow cooked with an indirect heat which is essential. Part of it is, I think, that you can’t have a barbeque pit smoker in Manhattan. You’re not allowed by law, so all the good places actually do their smoking out in Queens or somewhere and then bring it in every day. But they do spend the time, the 16 hours or whatever, it takes to slow cook this to the point where it really tastes good. At Dallas, they just cook it as fast as they can and put sauce on it. And I hate particularly the fact that they call it Dallas BBQ, because having grown up outside of Dallas, it’s just sacrilegious. I feel like telling the Texas tourist board about it, and they can come shut them down. The tragic thing is that people from up here who’ve never really had good barbeque, go there and think this is all barbeque is and that’s just the saddest thing because real barbeque is so good.

Listen to the audio below:

 
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Google Ads

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We’re currently testing out some Google ads at the bottom of all OTI pages. Google figures out the content of your page and places ads it thinks relevant. It’s interesting seeing what ads show up for each page, from personality to recommendation. If we like them and find them relevant to our audience, we’ll make them more prominent.

Interview with cartoonist Matt Diffee

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You’ve lived in NY for eight years now, did you want to move to the city growing up?
I love the country, I grew up in Texas and North Carolina. But if you’re going to move to a big city, this is the one. There was always a bit of a New York fantasy in my mind. Early in my life, I wanted to be a gallery artist, move to New York, have an artist’s loft and walk around with paint smeared jeans. I was also interested in comedy. And certainly this is the place for that too, you know come here and be a Saturday Night Live writer or have a sketch comedy team.

How did you become a cartoonist?
I was pursuing art and comedy at the same time, but I never thought of putting the two together because I guess I was kind of a snob on both ends I guess. I was living in Boston in ‘98 when I saw this Frontline or Nightline special about the first ever cartoon issue of the New Yorker. I went out and picked up a copy at the newsstand and inside there was a contest form that the New Yorker and the Algonquin Hotel were co-sponsoring. You were supposed to send in your best cartoon idea that had to do with hotels, or hotel life. I spent a few weeks on it and sent some things in. Bob Mankoff, the current cartoon editor at the New Yorker, was the juror of the contest. I was one of the three finalists and got to come down to New York and I met Bob and a couple of the other cartoonists, and I ended up winning the whole thing. So Bob suggested I submit for the magazine. From then on I was doing three cartoon ideas a week and sending them down from Boston. And the third week I sold one, which was just a huge validation. I’d done everything to try to make the rent and to be a comedian and an artist, trying to get in those doors. So to get into a door like the New Yorker, especially something that I’d never intended to do, it really felt like, “ok, this is probably what I am supposed to do”. And so, after you sell your first one you can come down and turn in your ideas in person on Tuesday mornings to the New Yorker. You’re kind of in the club, at least enough to come in on pitch day.

And so you became a New Yorker?
Yes, but I should tell you the bad end of that story. I came down and was doing three ideas a week. You know I’d write a lot of ideas but I’d pick three good ones and pitch them every week. At that point Bob told me ‘you know most cartoonists do about ten a week’. So I started doing fifteen a week because I was wanting to be the young impressive guy. And that whole first year I sold a total of four. It wasn’t a meteoric rise, I definitely had to pay some dues. Each year got a little better, but I wasn’t able to make a living from it for probably four years. And the last four years I’ve been able to. But even now, I mean at the very best, when you turn in your ten, you’re lucky to sell one. So 90% of your stuff gets rejected every week. And that’s top tier, that’s if you’re really hitting, and there’s certainly weeks where you don’t sell any.

That ties right into the books you edited The Rejection Collection, right?
It was an idea I had when I started gathering a pile of rejected cartoons that I still liked. I knew all these other cartoonists who had been doing it for 50 years must also have huge piles of rejects. So I just talked to them and got all their favorites and we’ve done two volumes of The Rejection Collection now (volume 1, volume 2: The Cream of the Crap). Hopefully, we’ll keep going.

What kind of cartoon can we expect in the books?
A lot of the stuff in The Rejection Collection is right for this type of book but very wrong for the New Yorker. To me that adds a level of comedy to it—if you see a joke that’s really sort of tasteless and lowbrow or just stupid, you know the New Yorker’s not going to buy it, but the idea that the cartoonist did it, and actually pitched it to the New Yorker, makes it even funnier to me, like ‘what were they thinking’? These are cartoonists whose work is regularly in the New Yorker, and this is the stuff that they’ve never been able to sell to the magazine over the years. And most of it, yeah, most of it’s outrageous and racy and politcally incorrect.

Also the New Yorker cartoons are famous, but hardly anyone knows the New Yorker cartoonists. So it was a big part of the book for me to share these personalities. In both of the books we have photographs to show you what the cartoonist looks like and then questionnaires about their craft and the way they think. Volume 2 has an appendix about the life of being a cartoonist. A lot of people don’t realize that we’re scraping by, hoping to sell. And that’s my career in a nutshell. I tried a lot of stuff, I’ve been third shift convenience store and done construction and road work, and every other thing. It is the truth that something takes way longer than you think. Like the people who are “overnight successes” you look at it and they’ve been doing it for 10 years in one way or another.

How long does it take to conceptualize a single cartoon?
It varies hugely, sometimes an idea will come to you fully formed, instantaneously while you’re making coffee and you have no idea where it came from. And then other times you just sit there and grind it out and write a lot of really bad ideas and then eventually something comes together. I wish there was an easier way, cause it’s not easy, just sitting there, forcing myself to think of something. For example I’ll start thinking ‘igloos’. Then I go from there to ‘eskimos’ and from ‘eskimos’ to ‘whale blubber’ and maybe there’s a joke about you know some sort of blubber product and then that doesn’t go anywhere so you go back to ‘eskimos’ and say ok, I’ll do an eskimo on a sled and his dogs are, instead of dogs they’re cats. It’s a concept.

Can you take us through the pitching process with the New Yorker?
At the end of each week I take my best ideas and sketch up the best ten, you know, the ten that I can live with. I do that pretty quick, fifteen minutes a sketch probably, maybe less. And then if they buy one I have to do a finished version of it, art-wise. That can take hours, sometimes weeks.

Do the publishers ever send back the finished version?
Not really. You finish it to your liking and you take it in and occasionally they’ll point out something, like the fact checking-department will point out something. The classic is that your buttons are going the wrong way for a men’s shirt or a women’s shirt, or patterns on a bird’s wing are wrong. Their fact-checking department is pretty legendary at the New Yorker, for their articles, but also for the cartoons. But it’s kind of funny because you’re nit-picking about the plumage of a bird not being accurate but ignoring the fact that the bird is talking. Which is also not factually correct.

At what point do you come up with the caption?
That’s the bulk of what I spend my time doing, writing words. I don’t draw anything until I’ve got a good joke or a gag or a concept. It’s word based but there has to be some added element in the visual. Because I had a tendency, coming from a stand up background, to write a one-liner joke and then just draw somebody saying it. Which is not really a pure cartoon, there’s gotta be something in the visual that is essential to get the joke.

Would you say cartoon styles go in and out of fashion over time?
There’s a difference in the drawing style when you look at the old magazines. They were really rich and well-drawn, and today it’s almost better to be ‘badly’ drawn, in a way, it frees up the joke a little more. I tend to draw in an old fashioned way, kind of overly. And sometimes I have to bring it back to keep it funny, otherwise it gets real stale. Like you draw it too well and suddenly it’s not a cartoon, it’s a documentary moment.

But in my work, and in the New Yorker cartoons in general, there’s a dryness to the delivery that typifies them. To me it’s the equivalent of a stand up comedian who does his stuff with a straight face without overselling it with the energy of his delivery. There’s a lot of comedy that is about the momentum that you build in the room. Dane Cook might be a good example of this, it’s more about the energy of him as a performer rather than just the thought behind the joke. He’s almost surfing the audience’s energy, whereas a Steven Wright or somebody, almost lets the energy dissipate in order to focus on the next thought he’s going to give you. Two different things, I personally gravitate to the latter.

Do you perform stand up in the city?
Yeah occasionally. Mostly within the context of speaking as a cartoonist and showing cartoons. But I still occasionally write a random one-liner joke that I can’t fit into a cartoon so I try to tell it on stage.

Do you think New York is a good place to be a cartoonist?
Tremendously. I think what people like about the New Yorker, even if they don’t live here, is that it’s about New York. There’s certainly that element. Because people everywhere used to live here or maybe wished they lived here. So we almost have a responsibility to report in a comedic way what’s going on in New York. And just walking around, you constantly see typical New Yorker set-ups. You know, the hot dog vending cart with a scene taking place, or a homeless guy with a sign, that’s a classic, or even the crazy street prophets, all that stuff. The only thing you don’t see is the desert island, that’s not in New York much.

- interview by Thomas Collardeau, photo by Scott Gordon Bleicher.

See Matthew Diffee’s profile and favorite NY places at http://ontheinside.info/matthew-diffee.

See Matthew Diffee’s cartoons at the Cartoon Bank here.