Archive for March, 2005

I Promise I Won’t Subject You to This

Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

A company called, oddly, “Serious Magic” wants to start a new trend: video blogging, or, in the rather painful neologism they have conceived, “Vlogging.” (I’m not even sure how to pronounce that.)

media player showing bald guy with zany TV-esque background. overlay: video + blogging = vlogging

All it takes, according to the serious magicians, is the purchase of their “Vlog It!” product and you’ll be faux-newscasting like a champ. Why, just listen to this ringing endorsement from the WashPost: “…generates a personal video that looks much like a regular TV newscast or documentary.” Actually, that’s what the Post said in a photo caption, a fact you’ll have to resort to Google to learn. (The magicians don’t link to the article.)

Anyway, let me just take a stand (even without being able to watch the demo video, as it’s not Linux-friendly) and say I oppose this trend. Blogging is supposed to be for those of us can dole out the bon mots, carefully crafting quips and witticisms for you, the adoring public. The interweb was our refuge from the cruel world where the pretty people rule. Now they’re going to come roaring into this last bastion.

I think my African American friend on the company’s home page knows what I’m talking about:
cropped version of Serious Magic homepage
(cropped version; full screenshot which also reveals my rampant addiction to tabs)

Seriously, what is this dude doing? At first I thought he looked pissed, which I thought was an odd choice for a happy-fun-buy-stuff page. Then I realized he was actually sad, nay, mournful at the prospect of blogging overrun by visual tyranny. “Please,” he seems to silently plead, “get me out of here!”

I hear you, friend. I hear you.


Tuesday, March 15th, 2005

Back in the old days, when I was a grammar Nazi, there were a few phrases that really annoyed me. One was “giving 110%” (okay, that one still irks me) another, thanks to B, was “I’ll try and…” (hmm, ditto) and still another was “The score doesn’t reflect how close it was.”

On that last, I used to always have the same mental response: oh really? Then what does it reflect? That all changed once I started going to basketball games, where I had the chance to feel the wrenching agony and soaring joy that came with each minute of a hard-fought contest.

So that got me thinking: what would better encapsulate a close game? I reject box scores as not “scannable” enough. Ultimately I thought some sort of bar graph, with bars above and below the axis showing points scored. A tight grouping of high bars at the end could show a rally, a relatively consistent spacing and height of bars would show if one team was consistent.

A few days ago, I learned that these very things exist. They’re called “sparklines”, and they look something like this: (a baseball season.) Sparklines are “intense, simple, word-sized graphics” according to Edward R. Tufte in his book Beautiful Evidence. (I believe it’s still forthcoming, as it’s not in Amazon. I can recommend The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Visual Explanations though, if you’re a bit of a graphics/stats geek.) The goal here is to convey information in a tight little space, and the sample chapter linked above Tufte breaks out examples for everything from medical charts to how planets look.

I don’t expect sparklines to show up in the sports pages anytime soon, but I think it would be fun if they did.

Well, I’ll Be Damned

Monday, March 14th, 2005

(Not like we didn’t know that.) I was poking around Travelocity today, looking up some fares, and I was dumped into a page I hadn’t seen before. One of the links was called something like “Search by budget”, and it brought me to this Dream Maps page.

It’s pretty slick. You choose your home airport, specify your max budget, and it shows you destinations. It even allows international segments using the link alongs the top. Almost exactly what I wanted! Now if they can just de-clutter the display a little bit. Maybe talk to the guys who made Google Maps…

The Mystery (and Money) of Dating

Sunday, March 13th, 2005

I’ve been pondering an article by Paul Graham called “How to Start a Startup” (courtesy the Slashdorks.) There’s plenty in there that’s got me thinking, and maybe we’ll discuss that another time. For now, let me focus on one bit:

There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before Google. I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t suck.

For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there’s a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked.

This got me thinking. First, how valuable is online dating, anyway? The answer shocked me: according to Hoovers, industry leader collected $185m in 2003, for 48% growth. That, friends, is a truckload of money. Consider my interest piqued.

So am I ready to launch my new super-dating site to get my piece of the pie? Well, no. Maybe I need to hire an undergrad, but damned if I know how to better approximate “how dating works in the real world.” Yes, I can see his point about how the focus seems to be on databases: I am a (blah) seeking a (blah) for (blah) within (blah) miles of (blah) ZIP Code is lame. But on the other hand you have things like eHarmony, which (supposedly) does all sorts of fancy slicing and dicing of your questionnaire to find your match(es).

Obviously these seem more analagous to store locators and online job applications than actual, you know, dating, but damned if I can think of a better approach. Have to ruminate on that one when I have a free moment. (Feel free to jump in on the comments if you’ve got a thought.)

Update [Mon 03:45]: Okay, I randomly remembered a friend’s story of how one of his friends was using the “social network” services such as Friendster to meet people for casual sex. That’s not really dating, but maybe it’s prelude. Or not. Anyway, it fascinates me. I wonder about the specific mechanics. Do you e-mail somebody and say “Hey, you know Todd, I know Todd, let’s fuck?”

I suppose it’s more complicated.

Also as it happens I’ve been sorting through various stuff on my hard drive, and in the “random stuff that amuses me” category I found this: banner ad

Now of course I hate any banner ad that uses fake pulldowns and submit buttons to incite you to click. But this one did work, because I had to follow through and see if you could actually choose “I am a Man / Looking for a Man” on the site itself. Alas, you cannot.

Not to worry, though. Church doesn’t want you? Site operator FriendFinder Network, Inc. still wants to serve you, whether you’re Indian, Korean, Filipino, or just good old-fashioned horny. In fact, the same servers that bring you BigChurch provide this, which limits your “I am seeking” choices in a very different way…

AIMing to Eavesdrop

Saturday, March 12th, 2005

Slashdot just ran a story referring to “AIM‘s New Terms of Service” including a provision granting Time Warner rights to everything you post with it.

License excerpt:

Although you or the owner of the Content retain ownership of all right, title and interest in Content that you post to any AIM Product, AOL owns all right, title and interest in any compilation, collective work or other derivative work created by AOL using or incorporating this Content. In addition, by posting Content on an AIM Product, you grant AOL, its parent, affiliates, subsidiaries, assigns, agents and licensees the irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote this Content in any medium. You waive any right to privacy. You waive any right to inspect or approve uses of the Content or to be compensated for any such uses. [emphasis added]

This doesn’t even appear to be new (the opening clause references 5 Feb 04), which says something about how many people actually read those click-through licenses.

I know most of the stuff on AIM is ephemeral, but this really horks me off all the same. I don’t expect my friends and family to switch to Jabber en masse (though wouldn’t it be nice if ISPs ran Jabber servers like e-mail servers?) but I hope they will consider taking two steps:

  • Uninstall the AIM official client and switch to Gaim. Gaim’s free, ad-free, open-source, with multiple network support and the ability to sign in as multiple users simultaneously, plus tabs and all that goodness. (You can even group friends’ accounts under one alias so you know that HotisK, WendysisA, IHateA, etc. are all one person.)
  • After getting accustomed to Gaim, add in Gaim Encryption. That way you can talk about, say, your plot to overthrow the government (or even just your love for naked Matt Damon) with the knowledge that AOL won’t replay your conversation in their next asinine commercial. As one Slashdot commenter put it, “Folks, it is time to start putting your letters in an envelope. You can no longer trust the letter carrier to protect your privacy.”

In the long term, however, we need a solution that allows us to track “presence” (available, busy, away) without resorting to services that are little more than walled fiefdoms, subject to the latest corporate whim.

Flying Low

Friday, March 11th, 2005

I just discovered Yahoo! Next, which is apparently a sort of Google Labs-like proving ground for developing technologies.

One of the things Y! is cooking up is a service called FareChase, which does a good job of aggregating prices from various airline sites and breaking them out by time/price and other factors. It’s a good idea, especially when the airlines are only offering their best fares on their own sites and not the Tr/Ex/Or triumvirate. However, it needs to search a lot more airlines and allow for more flexible dates (I really like the +/-1 day feature on Orbitz, and like it even better on Travelocity, since you can do entire months, as well as choose non-U.S. destinations.)

What I really want to see is a fare chaser to which I can say “I usually fly from ORD, what’s a good deal right now?” Often, I don’t care about dates, or even destinations. As my friends can attest, I’m open to going just about anywhere.

Which is why I find the whole days/destination prompt so limiting.

Amateur Actors Attack!

Thursday, March 10th, 2005

Can we all agree it’s time to rename “reality” shows? Maybe we should call them “reality-derived.” Or “based-on-a-true-story TV.” (Hmmm. Clearly we’ll need something catchier.) We need something, though, because the men and women who work to craft these programs have toiled behind the scenes for too long. They need to stand up and claim credit.

Now, true, some of it is clear. If we’re very alert we might catch the work of the sound editor, adding a dot matrix sound to an inkjet, or a dialtone to a cellphone (or pomp and circumstance to Donald Trump’s every entrance.) The eagle-eyed amoung us may notice how, as a participant makes an observation, during the course of a few sentences (s)he may seem to occasionally change outfits, hairstyles and locations. (A favorite on The Real World.)

But the “loggers” who record this data, the writers who re-arrange it, and the editors who make it all happen — where’s their love?

Or look beyond the craftspeople who gather the raw materials and begin to shape a finished product. Good effort, but let’s not forget the folks — also un-sung — who work to shape the events themselves.

I’m not talking about casting, desiging tasks/challenges, or other components. I’m talking about the people who step in and say “Nope, reality just ain’t good enough.”

For example, take a look at our friend Jeff again:
Jeff, looking down, with surprisingly shiny hair

Not there; look at his hair. That, my friends, is a little something we hometrosexuals like to call “product.” Unless these islands have a salon we don’t know about, it seems a stylist has dodged out from behind the green screen and helped out.

No big deal, you say? Fine. I’ll agree that we all want to look good, even when we’re ostensibly stranded on an island. But you’ve gotta admit this next one gives you pause.

In the last episode of Survivor, competing players had to swim out and retrieve a life ring, then bring it back and throw it on a pillar.

Here’s on overhead shot of the first two competitors, Tom and Jeff, with Tom down-frame, holding the ring, and Jeff blocking his path to the targets:

Now, we’ll allow that they have a helicopter, glider, or perhaps even a UAV for the overheads. But look at the next shot that’s intercut in the scene a few seconds later:

Obviously, that’s tight in on Jeff, waiting for Tom to bring it. But hold on a second. Look back at the frame above. Where is the camera that’s shooting Jeff?

Another: here are the next competitors, Annoying Girl 1 and Annoying Girl 2. First we see them headed out, upper left:

Then, a moment (30 frames, ~1 second) later, we’re in tight:

Two seconds (65 frames) after that, we’re overhead again (note the clear blue water, nothing is submerged except the device that launches the rings):

Obviously, time has elapsed between these shots; that’s the whole purpose of editing. That said, there is no chance in hell you could capture all of these, then get out of range of an overhead, all in one take while leaving no wake.

Which is why, again, I applaud the people behind the scenes. That includes the directors and producers who mandate the pretty shots, the camerapeople who capture them…

…and the body doubles who make it all possible.


Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Whilst I was Googling for some potential Big Print Bank billboard images, I came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald discussing two guys who had made this wearable television ad. Obviously, I think it’s a fucking terrible idea. As if we’re not bombarded by invasive marketing messages as it is?

Worst of all, the article was so obsequious. So I just couldn’t resist adding a few comments.

The human billboards

by Kate Cox, 23 November 2003

Dork 1 and Dork 2.

It takes selling your body to a whole new level.

(Nice intro.)

Two young Sydney entrepreneurs and best mates have come up with an innovative marketing scheme: canvas vests with built-in mini televisions that show moving advertisements.

(Innovative? Yeah, the idea must have taken a full 5 seconds. Are these guys behind Golden Palace marketing?)

The world-first concept has already been sold to Telstra and was unveiled last night at the Rugby World Cup final – with “Telstra girls” turning heads in the T-shirts.

(Okay, obviously not my specialty, but don’t these vests, um, obscure two of the main reasons you use models? Plus: world-first? Doubtful.)

Veeran Naran, 28, began developing the idea – and a company, Channel Zero – while working as a graphic designer and editor for large sporting and entertainment clients.

(Channel Zero indeed…)

“The 25- to 31-year-olds market, in Australia especially, are not at home watching television, they’re at pubs watching television and people,” he said. “So I decided to put televisions on people.”

(What if they’re in pubs watching people and billiards?)

Two years in the making, the “TelePAK” is powered by a lithium battery and run by DVD, meaning the screening time is unlimited and the interactive “program” can be changed by the model via remote control.

(TWO YEARS? Buy this and a few of these, fuck around a little bit and see what works. Two weeks, tops — if you take a week off. Don’t know how to find an “unlimited” lithium battery, though…

P.S. All you have to do to make something “interactive” is include a remote control?)

Mr Naran’s best mate, 29-year-old former geologist Ben Perry, looks after the business affairs.

(Because nobody knows money like rockhounds.)

The company’s “fusion between a bag and a T-shirt” (and rather large fashion statement) is the latest marketing ploy following the use of Vespas, cars, moving billboards and pavements as advertising mediums.

(Wait — it’s a bag and a t-shirt?)

It is attractive to advertisers because there is no parking needed and it is moveable and immediate.

(Or perhaps because they would paint their grandmothers blue if they thought it would generate “buzz”.)

For consumers, it is interesting rather than evasive – and it is humorous. For the wearer, it is lightweight (about two kilograms) and generally fun – and they can finally co-ordinate their outfit with whatever’s on TV.

(There’s so much wrong with these two sentences. How “interesting” will it be when there’s some sap wearing one everywhere you go? How can a TVbagvest be “evasive”? What’s funny about it? Who wants to wear 2 kilos of electronics on the chest? Finally, if you have an interest in coordinating your clothes with the television you’re wearing, please grab your mouse and smack yourself with it. Don’t worry, it’s interactive…)

Plans are afoot for involvement with the Sydney Festival and the men are also in discussions with large corporations for campaigns during next year’s Athens Olympics.

(Annoy many nationalities at once!)

The second prototype is expected to have more features. “It’s going to be out of this world,” Mr Naran said.

(Excellent. Let’s keep it there.)

Channel Zero finds the people willing to advertise on their bodies and assists with the creative campaign.

(Because nobody knows creativity like two guys who strapped a TV to the Telstra girls’ tits.)

“We believe we are revolutionising outdoor marketing. The advertising market is flooded with creative wallpaper so that people are blind to the message. With this, people will know it is there – not only is it completely different, but it has sound too. People love it – they want to take it home.”

(Sweet Jesus, it makes noise too!)

Announcing Big Print Bank

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

That’s it — I’ve had it. I’ve seen my last ad for “free*” checking.

I’ve decided it’s time to start my own bank. I will call it “Big Print Bank” (yes, dumb, but certainly not the dumbest.) Why Big Print? Well, in part because it’s fun to say. But mostly because our mission will be to remind you what other banks may have forgotten to mention… and to do it in big print, naturally.

Here’s a few mock-ups for our first billboards:

(References Citi’s “live richly” campaign.)

(You know my feelings on MBNA.)

(More on payday loans.)

I think that’s a good start. (I also think I am shockingly out of practice. Time spent on concept: a few minutes. Time spent in Photoshop: way too damn long!)

* Except during regular business hours.

2 True

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

IMDb is looking to hire. Since they’re an Amazon subsidiary, clicking the jobs link will take you to the Amazon page. There you’ll find this:

2-Pizza Team Leader – Personalization and Site Automation, #04-011898
The data mining and personalization team at Amazon develops the algorithms and website features that help drive customers to the website, and helps them find highly relevant products[…] Join us and innovate in earth’s largest experimental laboratory.

Two observations. One, I like that they think of themselves as experimental. Amazon has been leading the charge in e-commerce, and I hope they do keep innovating. But the interesting thing is that job title: a “2-Pizza Team Leader”? What’s that? Well, as it happens, I read an interview with Jeff Bezos a few months ago and I recall his explanation: if you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, then it’s too large.

Nice to see he wasn’t kidding. Of course, if I were working there it would mean I’d have to be on a team with maybe 2 other people, provided at least one of them had a big lunch.

Mac and Novak

Monday, March 7th, 2005

So, somebody/ies leaked the details of the Mac mini and the iPod shuffle to gossip sites. Apple sued. On Thursday, a California judge tentatively ruled that Apple can demand the names of the source(s).

Apple’s being pretty aggressive on this one. Maybe we should sic them on Novak and finally get some answers. (It’s now been 20 months since the Plame affair began.)

(Bonus weirdness, from the top link:

Judge James Kleinberg tentatively declined to extend to the Web sites the protections of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the California Shield Law, which is designed to protect journalists from having to divulge the names of sources or supply unpublished materials.

How do you “decline[] to extend” First Amendment protections? “Oh, thanks, fellas, but I’m just not into the whole Bill of Rights. Better luck next time”?)

Ideas I’d Like to See Implemented: “PrivaShip”

Sunday, March 6th, 2005

This is the first in a new category, Ideas, to which I will sporadically add things that I wish service providers/manufacturers would create.

Have you ever stopped to consider what a pain-in-the-ass e-commerce is? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud member of Generation FedEx(?) and therefore a massive fan of sitting in my chair and having my clicks result in products on my doorstep.

But why must I fill out so many damn forms? And, further, why does every little random vendor I’ve never heard of need to know all this information?

“Why John,” you’re thinking, “how else do you expect them to deliver your purchases?”

No problem. Consider this: all the major carriers (UPS, FedEx, DHL, the Postal Service) assign tracking numbers for their systems. You may not be aware of this, but packages such as UPS WorldShip actually create “placeholder” tracking numbers before the package is even scanned.

So why not make a plug-in for my browser that lets me generate these? Here’s the scenario I envision:

  1. Visit a site and add item(s) to the cart.
  2. Click “checkout.”
  3. Embedded code in checkout page causes browser helper (i.e., a local program) to ask “Generate Tracking Number for:” with a choice of carriers used by that vendor, service type(s), and the addresses I use.
  4. With a maximum of 4 clicks (FedEx, Express, Home, Save), a “Destination ID:” box is then pre-filled on the order page.
  5. Click “Complete order” and we’re done.

Now, you may have noticed I’ve called this “PrivaShip”, an admittedly horrible name meant to emphasize another part of this idea: in addition to saving data entry, there’s no reason the vendor need know my address at all. FedEx (or whomever) could sort it to the distribution center nearest the delivery point, then auto-print an actual address label right on top.

Similarly, there’s really no reason why any vendor need have my credit card number. Before I gave MBNA the boot, I was a big fan of their “disposable credit card numbers” service (Citibank and AmEx also have it.) When I wanted to make a purchase with an online store I didn’t expect to use again, I would load up the small Flash app, sign in, and enter the amount. The app would create a custom number/expiration and CVC2, which would only be honored once for my pre-set limit (or just above to allow for shipping.)

I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t integrate a similar browser plug-in to generate credit card numbers on the spot. And if I enter a password and thus verify my identity, why should it even display my (real) name?

In short, I want online purchases to be as quick and quasi-anonymous as cash. Because how cool would it be to have my packages delivered to:
1Z 932 332 39 9983 182 4

* A little something I coined awhile ago to refer to those who came after GenX, and who demand instant gratification. – Return

Tell Her “Tide” is Tasty, Too

Saturday, March 5th, 2005

The Register has reported that “actress”/”singer” Jennifer Love Hewitt is now ready to begin a crucial part of adult life:

Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt has decided to behave like a grown adult now that she’s turned 26 — she finally plans to do her own laundry.
“It’s time that I learned to do my own laundry, I think. Twenty-six just feels very grown up.”

The following is a public service announcement.

If you see Ms. Hewitt, approach carefully so as not to startle her. Then do your part for humanity. Speaking slowly and clearly, let her know that most operating manuals for washing machines fail to mention a crucial step in getting clean clothes: visual verification of detergent adhesion.

Advise Ms. Hewitt that once the tub fills, she should dunk her head in the water and look to be sure each item of clothing is getting cleaned. An uninterrupted stretch of 3-5 minutes should do the job.

Then go find Paris Hilton.

Comments Active

Friday, March 4th, 2005

I was tempted to title this post “Bring It On”, but Arbusto has forever ruined the phrase, no? Anyway, due to a very special request, I have now enabled comments for all of the ’05 posts on

We’re having a little experiment here. By all means, feel free to make use of the facility to call me out or to show me that sweet, sweet e-love.

Or both, as the mood strikes you.

Fuck This Indecency Shit

Friday, March 4th, 2005

Wow, I had so much to say about Senator Ted Stevens’s (R-AK) vow to place satellite and cable under the same indecency restrictions as broadcast TV that I was going to split it up into three posts. But your time is valuable, so I’ll keep it short(er).

First, let’s consider the audience. Telling the National Association of Broadcasters you’re going to regulate cable is a lot like telling the National Organization of Women you’re going to tax penises: wildly impractical, but a real crowd-pleaser. Maybe he was just pandering; we’ll know soon enough. Perhaps he’ll wise up and find his ticket for the cluetrain.

Still, my pick for biggest bonehead in this whole sordid affair is Mr. Edward Fritts, president of NAB. Sayeth Ed: “A 5-year-old doesn’t know if they’re watching cable or over-the-air.”

True enough, Ed. Of course, a 5-year-old also can’t tell the difference between sour grape juice and a nice Riesling, but I don’t hear anyone clamoring to ban alcohol.

I kid. Yes, youngsters may not be able to appreciate the minutiae of spectrum policy, but that’s why they have, um, parents. And parents have options:

  • Use the book, the Internet, or the paper to determine suitable programs in advance.
  • Use on-screen ratings to determine suitable programs on the spot.
  • Use the TV’s “delete” feature to hide channels from young’uns. (Adults can still key in the channel.)
  • Use the “V-Chip” functionality Congress mandated into TVs in 2000.
  • Ask the cable company to block channels, which is possible on a per-house basis.
  • Don’t get cable in the first place.
  • Don’t get a TV in the first place. (We didn’t have one in the home for my 2d – 14th years, and I’m not too fucked up.)

I’ve left out the most obvious one: be a parent! When your kid wants to watch TV, watch along. Yes, there might be risky stuff out there — when it comes to cable, questions of “indecency” should be matters of taste, not law. It might take a village to raise a child, but we don’t have to reduce every channel to the level of “Blues Clues” to do it.

Now back to my reading.