Zack Urlocker, Author of
Valley of the Geeks
interview by Douglas Chick
this interview I speak with Zack Urlocker, author of "Valley of the
His book is as hilarious as his website, www.valleyofthegeeks.com.
If you love parody humor such as The Onion, you will want to read High-Tech
Hijinks from Silicon Valley. Zack is the creator of some of the most
popular spoof banners, some of my favorites are, Apple,
Products So Cool We Don't Need Customers. or
inspired the banner idea?
not really sure. But I think I was just sick to death of spam and banner
ads, especially the bloody X10 ads popping up everywhere. So I thought
of the worst possible banner ads. The banner ads have really been one
of the most popular items on the site I encourage folks to post them and
lots of people have put them on their own sites. Of
course, there's a long tradition of spoofing advertising. Mad magazine
has done it since the 1960s, and others did it before and after that.
But I think I managed to corner the market on fake banner ads.
any company given you grief over spoofing their banners or mocking their
I did get a boiler plate "cease and desist" notice from one
company. It was basically a form letter from someone in their legal
department saying that they believed I was infringing on their trademarks
and copyrights. This is a load of crap though. The US
constitution and copyright laws protect parody as a form of free speech.
You can make fun of someone's protected work quite freely. Again, much
of this has been proven in the courts so it's not worth discussing here.
What pissed me off was that the company cc'd my ISP provider as a threat. This
is what's known as a chilling effect. They raise the spectre of doubt
and then it causes the ISP to get concerned. So I modified the artwork
slightly and used a different, perhaps funnier name. The legal person
who contacted me admitted she thought the banner ads were quite funny, just
following rules. With a corporate focus like this, I'm sure these guys
will end up bankrupt at some stage anyways. I haven't had any
complaints from larger companies though. I suspect their legal departments
know what's protected in the constitution. I do get a lot of traffic
from big companies like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, AOL and other
"regulars" featured on the site.
are there monsters on the cover of your book?
I'm not really sure I know the answer to that. My brother
actually got the cover art work done. It was a surprise and greatly
belated birthday gift that arrived basically two days before the cover art
was due at the publisher's. It was miles better than what I had put
together on my own, so I went to Kinko's, scanned a framed picture and spent
several hours trying to email a 50MB file to myself. I think it came
out quite nicely. The original artwork actually says "Weird Tales
from the Valley of the Geeks" and it looks like a classic EC Horror
comic book. So I guess it makes sense that there are monsters
representing Enron, WorldCom, AOL and the others.
type of feedback have you gotten from your readers?
best feedback is when someone tells me they laughed out loud. That's
really why I created the web site and wrote the book. If someone posts
a link to the site or mentions it in a blog, that's always nice. Of
course if they buy the book, or an RTFM mug, that's even better! Which came
first the book or the web site?
Well the goal was always to write a book. But it
seemed to me to be a very difficult task. I'd put it off for a long
time and I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. And one day I was
trying to think of a good name and I thought "Valley of the Geeks"
sounded pretty good. I was surprised there was only one reference on
all of google. Then I checked and the domain name was available. How about that, I thought. So I bought the domain name
and a friend of mine helped me pick out an authoring system, CityDesk, that
made it very easy to create a site and add new content without being an HTML
guru. I tried to write two stories a week, though admittedly I was
well above average for the first few months and below average the last few months. Once November came around I realized I had enough material to
put together the book. Overall the project was completed in less than
a year to build the web site, write the material, build an ecommerce store
and publish a book. Plus ten years of stalling before hand, of course.
you had to choose one best story from the book, what would it be?
Some of the stories I like the most are
the ones that are in interview or Q&A format. There's an interview
with Rich Young ("Fast Track to the Ground Floor") CEO of a
mythical company called SoftBrain. There's quite a few things in there
that make me laugh out loud: SNOT systems, Spam on X, the ORC 6000.
The interviewer asks him "What's important" and Rich Young says:
"Well you know, its not the money. You can have money and fly your own
plane and buy Rolex watches and throw them away rather than reset the time,
but that doesn't really mean anything in the long run. I mean, I could be
just as happy with $50 million dollars, ya know? You've got to stop and
roses. Or if you're too busy at least buy the roses and record them with the
I also think that the interview with Steve Ballmer is quite funny. The
IRS Tax Faq is pretty good.
close are some of your stories to actual events?
lot of the stories are obviously modeled on real world news headlines,
especially the fake news releases. I wrote a story called the
Microsoft PR Machine that's a fill-in-the-blanks news release from Microsoft
where they "bet the company" on some new technology and some exec
resigns. I mean, they do that every six months, right? Of
course, I managed to get a lot of mileage out of companies like WorldCom,
Enron and Arthur Andersen also. A lot of the scandals were easy to
make fun of. Mostly I just make stuff up. There isn't a lot of
stuff in here that's derived literally from actual
events in companies.
many of your friends told you not to use their real names?
have a few anonymous contributors who prefer not to be named so I don't.
you even have any friends?
wish I had more because then maybe they'd feel compelled to buy the book!
computer companies are the easiest to pick on and why?
biggest companies make the best targets. I think Microsoft is quite
funny and I've covered them quite a bit. But to make fun of a company
it has to have a personality and an image. It's hard to get the same
yucks out of, say Intel. I have tremendous respect for Intel and
especially for Andy Grove. But there isn't as much of a personality there
for people to relate to. Carly Fiorina and HP were an easy company to
make fun of during the whole HP Compaq drama. I mean, it's just hard
to make up stuff as funny as that. The Unofficial HP Compaq Merger FAQ
was very popular at a lot of
spots in California and Texas if you know what I mean.
banners are your most favorites?
think they're all about the same to be honest. But a few like
"Linux: Preferred by Cult Leaders Everywhere" and "The
Federal Reserve: Rates So Low We Must Be Crazy" stand out.
Everyone has their favorites though. Some I didn't think were that
funny ranked highly. When I'm working on banners, I usually try to
write about 20 and then pare it down to the ten best based on polling of a
few informal advisors.
real test for me is if my wife laughs at something I've written. What kind
of review have your wife given your book? (Authors in California may
substitute wife with: Life-partner, Common-law spouse or Spiritual
obviously have the same litmus test. I often pester her to see if she
reads stuff. Then I ask her if she laughed out loud. Then I ask
her what bits where the best. My wife isn't hardcore technical so she
might not get the really obscure stuff, but generally she likes a lot of the
older material. There are a few pieces that actually date back to when
I was a
columnist for Windows Tech Journal and I think getting her to laugh out loud
was a key reason she married me.
forced to choose between working for Microsoft, Oracle or Sun, owning a
computer with Linux, Mac or Windows, and investing your money in an energy
company. I've already forgot where I was going with this.
Yeah. I'll take operating systems for $500. What is a monopoly?
Although I make fun of a lot of stuff, I'm still pretty mainstream. I
run Windows, I work in the high tech industry. This is just something
I do in my spare time. It's not meant to be some deeply meaningful
social commentary or critique of the industry. If you want that, there
are better sources. But I think you probably get more laughs from
Valley of the Geeks than a Gartner Group report or a Linux book.
you have any other books in the makings?
still write new material for the web site, but I don't think I'll do another
humor book, or at least not a collection of essays. If I wrote another
humor book, it would be a novel, more akin to Christopher Buckley's
"The Whitehouse Mess". And if I wrote a more serious book it
would be about high-tech marketing, akin to Guy Kawasaki's "Rules for
Revolutionaries". But it takes a lot of time to write a book so I
don't have another project in mind for the short term.
the readers something you'd like them to know about your book.
I meet a lot of people who say they'd like to one day write a book (or play
the piano or run a marathon or whatever.) None of these tasks are
particularly easy. But if there's something you want to do, set a
goal, write it down and then move towards it. Even if you write 2
pages a week, you will move towards your goal. I think I have a better
knack at writing humor than a lot of people, but what really enabled me to
write a book was sheer determination and willingness to sit down at the
computer and write under deadline pressure.
Also, the book "Valley of the Geeks"
is available on Amazon.com and
if you don't laugh out loud at least once, you've got bigger issues than the
$14.95 it costs.