Archive for October, 2005

Project 535

Monday, October 31st, 2005

A couple weeks ago, one of the newsletters I follow carried this interesting tidbit:

The One-Topic Reporter
Wow. Journalism sure has changed. Case in point: Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Shawna Richer has been given the go-ahead to spend the entire 2004-05 hockey season covering the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hot rookie, Sidney Crosby, who hails from Canada and is considered the next Wayne Gretzky. That’s right, it’s all Crosby all the time.

According to this column at by Richard Deitsch, Richer has acquired a work visa, rented a one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh, and she’ll be writing stories that appear not only in the sports section but also on the newspaper’s front page (two to three times a week). And she’ll be blogging about Crosby daily (or near daily). …

So that’s one subject, one reporter — for an entire season.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I can see why following young Sidney might have some appeal. But it seems to me that if we’re going to start dedicating reporters to a single person, we could set our sights a little higher. Perhaps, say, Congress?

How many of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress have their own dedicated reporter? I’ll wager the answer is zero, which is quite a shame. Because there’s another group that’s lavishing them with attention: lobbyists.

Oh, sure, we all know they’re out there, but do we really know how many? According to WaPo, there are 34,785 registered lobbyists at the federal level — or roughly 65 per member, a 53% increase from even 5 years ago.

Billions are being spent in this effort, and the article notes that “big-bucks lobbying is luring nearly half of all lawmakers who return to the private sector when they leave Congress, according to a forthcoming study by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.” More ex-Members, more effective lobbying.

So I’m sure Sidney’s a good kid, and who knows, the Canadians might have very little to worry in their government. Me, I’d prefer that American dedicated reporters start up The Hill.

State Your Source

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

Last night I returned from a bit of a road trip to find an interesting envelope awaiting me. It bore a return address of “IP, Inc.” in North Hollywood, CA and was simply addressed to “J,” with no middle initial, no surname. I’d never seen such a thing.

The contents were equally surprising. Turns out the “IP” is Instinct Publishing, and the pitch was for “Instinct” magazine, a rag for those of the Pink persuasion. (“HELLO!” the letter begins. “You’ve been missing out on the world’s funniest, hottest and most hip gay men’s magazine out there!”)

Ever since I opened the envelope, I’ve been trying to figure out what tipped them off. I’ve racked my brain, and can’t come up with an action that would put me on an exclusively gay mailing list. I’ve never subscribed to a gay magazine (I tend to be unimpressed by them) so the few copies I’ve bought are for cash at the newstand (and I always decline the phone number routine.) I buy gay-themed DVDs the same place I buy almost all my DVDs: Amazon. So yes, Amazon surely knows I’m gay, but they also know my last name.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t particularly care that I’m in somebody’s database somewhere. I’d just like to find out whose… and what I did to get there.

And “Trivia” Means “Three Roads”, You Know…

Thursday, October 20th, 2005

Q. What country, a constitutional democratic republic, allows all of its citizens over 18 to vote — except for those in a certain profession? And what’s the profession?

A. Guatemala has universal suffrage for adults over 18, except “active duty members of the armed forces may not vote and are restricted to their barracks on election day.”

Is that fascinating or what? G-d, I love The World Factbook.

Bonus Trivia: why is Switzerland’s Internet extension (and ISO 3166 abbreviation) “CH”? Because it’s Latin for Confoederatio Helvetica, or Swiss Confederation. The Latin designation was apparently chosen so as not to show preference amongst the official languages of German, French, Italian, Romansh. I did not know that!

Power Off

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Wondering if you’ve won the lotto? Don’t ask the Iowa Lottery (the drawing originates in Des Moines) or More than a few people are probably interested in the answer to their $340 million question, but for some reason the lottery folks can only say “Results pending” nearly two hours after plucking the balls (and is that phrase ever fun to say…)

C’mon guys, it takes barely a minute to update a Web page, and the freakin’ TV station already has streaming video of the drawing.

By the way, this offends me as a Web enthusiast and not a lotto “player”. I’ve never actually bought a Powerball ticket, as I tend to see the enterprise as optional taxes…

P.S. Suckers.

UPDATE [Mon 00:36]: Updated now. To be fair, they do add a bunch of additional information (“one Powerball jackpot winner [in Oregon] Wednesday and 4,412,468 additional players won prizes totalling more than $34 Million” — boy, that database must be a monster to manage) but still there is no excuse for not releasing the real info that people want — the damn numbers — right away.

Americans For… Riiiiiiight

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

Ahhh, the joys of being an Iowan. By dint of our early caucus, we’re given the chance to be bombarded with political messages that other states may never see.

Obviously, this tends to take place before major elections, which is why my jaw dropped tonight when our ABC affiliate aired an ad to “draft” a 2008 presidential candidate. Yes, more than three years in advance of the election, a 527 is airing ads to drum up support for… Condoleeza Rice.

That’s right, a group called Americans for Rice has purchased airtime in New Hampshire and Iowa for their cheesy ad with a couple discussing Condi over lemonade.

I just don’t have the words.

New Rule: No Chili Before Bedtime

Monday, October 17th, 2005

I know dreams are only interesting to the person who had them, but I felt like sharing this one all the same:

In the dream, my cousin Trisha has come to spend the night at my house. In that way you just know things in dreams, I’m aware that she was the original designer for Motorola’s RAZR cellular phone, just as I’m sure that the squirrels are pissed that she stole the idea from them. Thus, they send a fat, leprechaun-sized giant squirrel as an enforcer to come get her. As I’m swinging a full-sized ironing board to fend off the bushy-tailed intruder, Trisha sighs, “This happens every time I come here…”

Then I woke up.

Dear Pontiac,

Thursday, October 13th, 2005

Hey there! How’s it going? Heard it’s been a mercurial year there at GM, what with the success of the somewhat embarassing employee discount program, and the plummeting sales of SUVs and all.

But hey, I’m not here to talk about systemic problems related to staggering healthcare costs, legacy facilities, logistical/supply inefficiencies and inflexible labor unions. I’m here to talk about something of real substance: your ads.

Thing is, I — and I’m shocking myself here — I kinda like ’em! I like the funky music choices, I like the fact that you a) show the cars in black on black and then b) tend to use some sort of effect in each ad to obscure the car, so I don’t have to actually see it.

I even like what you’ve done with the names. You’ve finally pulled the trigger on the Aztek, for which we’re all grateful, and now you’ve released the “Torrent” — nice one!

Yes, Pontiac, your marketing is really starting to shape up. Now at last you’re free to focus on, you know, actually making good cars.

Good luck with that!




Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

In a time when national politicians are so staged-managed that some are analyzing the President’s fidgeting and teeth-grinding for meaning, it can be refreshing to return to local leader for a bit of color.

Take our mayoral race, which featured a primary yesterday. Out of four candidates, three of whom had been involved in local politics in the past, the electorate chose the fresh face by an astonishing margin: the winner collected more votes than the other three players combined.

But blah blah, democracy at work. The part that I enjoy is when the paper asked our mayor, a distanct second in votes, how he felt about the race. Rather than subject us all to some generic babble about a tough contest, the democratic process, and all that, our mayor tipped his hat to the front-runner with just three words: “He smoked me.”

That he did, mayor. That he did.

Survival of the Widest

Monday, October 10th, 2005

In the last couple months, I’ve noticed some major sites unveil major redesigns that use more of the screen. I put this down to increases in the size of monitors and the speed and prevelance of broadband connections. I’m a fan of these changes, not just because I own a widescreen LCD and hate clicking “next page”, but because I think these trends will lead to richer, more interactive Web content.

For a hint at where I think things are going, take a look at CBS’ “Survivor: Guatemala.” The show’s annoying, but the Web presence is big and bold, with large photos and liberal use of Flash.

There are plenty of other examples, but I like “Survivor” as an illustration because it has a history. For example, compare the photos of cute boy Jamie (who looks better on the show) in Season 11 with cute boy Ethan from Season 8. The difference is huge: Jamie’s image is four times the size of Ethan’s (which is itself almost double those from Season 4, for example.)

Similarly, the use of Flash has increased markedly. The original Survivor on CBS has GIF (max 256 colors) mugshots with plain pages, though the source reveals a small “songcube” file that plays the annoying background music. Fast-forward 10 more seasons, and the whole screen is big photos, swapped out periodically via Flash.

I’m no fan of gratuitous Flash, but bigger, richer photos? Web sites that use more of my screen real estate and work to take better advantage of the medium’s strengths? Yeah, I’m down for that.

Save Yourself

Saturday, October 8th, 2005

American Express has introduced a new card, “One from American Express” (which almost makes me think of a “Who’s on First?”-style routine: “So what’s the card?” “One from American Express.” “I know, but what’s it called?”) They’re trying to stand out in a crowded market by pitching it as the card that helps you save. Not save as in discounts, save as in 1% of your purchase value is placed in “an FDIC-insured High-Yield Savings Account in your name,” offering around 3% interest.

While I applaud the straightforward approach to rewards (points and double-points and such pale to cash) I find the whole campaign somewhere between a wildly optimistic trip to MarketingLand and just plain idiotic. For example, the ads ask “Any way we can spend and save at the same time? There’s one.” Oh really? Here’s a tip: if you buy something for $100 and later you get $1 back, you’re not “spending and saving at the same time”, you’re spending a little bit less. You’re not really “saving” at all, you’re just getting a rebate with interest.

Now I can imagine one scenario where this makes sense. If you use your card exclusively for things you would need anyway, such as gas and groceries, and you religiously pay it off when due, you might find it worth the trouble to pick up a penny on the dollar. Except… whoops, there’s an annual fee! Yes, your spending+saving card will cost you $35/yr. So in reality, you don’t see any benefit until you’ve spent$3,5001 on the card.

So let’s see: spend a dollar, get a penny — after you’ve spent 3,500 dollars. Or hey, how about this: just take two twenties and put them in the bank.

1 Technically, you could front-load your spending to the first week of your annual cycle, and accrue interest on that such that you realized $35 in interest on roughly $3,400, depending upon when interest was compounded.


Thursday, October 6th, 2005

Tucked away in an otherwise boring newspaper story (“Among straight brothers, gay student finds a home“) is this lovely nugget (emphasis mine):

“There were a couple of members who did have reservations about it back at the beginning,” said Ben Larson, a Teke and a seventh-year senior in civil engineering. “But now, nobody does.”

Ahh, Ben Larson, good for you. Personally, I spent 5 years on my degree*. When people who graduated in four (such as my brother and sister, overarchievers) or the truly insane, those who graduated in less, harp on about how they finished college right on time blahblah, I just gaze at them and shake my head.

Then I beckon them closer and say “Yes, yes, congratulations. You hustled your way out of the only place on earth where 12 hours a week is considered full-time.”

* Technically I spent more than 5 years in college. I got my B.S in 5., then later went back for a B.A. in a different major, then switched to an M.S., then got bored of grad school and fucked off to Australia.


Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

The other day I got it in my head that it might be interesting to compare downloaded TV show figures with Nielsen ratings, to see where they matched and where they differed. While it’s obvious that the popular shows such as “CSI” will do well in both cases, I thought it would be particularly interesting to find programs that might be more influential online than on-air.

I think the idea’s sound, but it’s incredibly difficult to execute. There are many torrent sites and trackers, and the number of torrent downloads does not necessarily correlate to file downloads. Then there’s what magazine circulation audits refer to as the “pass-along” multiplier, not to mention newsgroups, which also carry TV episodes but can’t really be tracked (except by individual ISPs.)

So, essentially, it’s not going to work — which is okay, because in the process of discovering that fact I stumbled onto a new question. Over at Mininova, the biggest torrent directory to my knowledge, they’ve recently added public access to various statistics.

As of this writing, the most popular torrent of all time is an 8th June 05 episode of “The Daily Show,” with more than one million downloads. This seems like it has to be a glitch — the next most popular “Daily Show” is just below 100,000.

So now I’m wondering: assuming the stats hold up, what happened on that day in June that resulted in a 12-fold increase in Stewart love?

Is There a “Slow Down”, Too?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

I was just poking around in VLC‘s advanced options, and I found this panel (excerpt):

options panel

I love the first two options, as they imply I can ratchet them up and the system will dodge bugs and errors; but the really fun one is that checkbox: “Hurry up.”

I think everything should have that option. On any form, I should be able to check “hurry up” and get faster results. Dry cleaning? Driver’s license? Doctors’ offices?

The possibilities are endless…

Ad Check

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

Today’s mail brought a check from my brokerage. Not a disbursement, mind you, but a free check for $5, with a letter urging me to consider electronic statement delivery. If I sign the check, I get the five bucks and then they just keep my statements online.

Now, I’ve got a few of these before (for phone service or “credit protection”), and I’ve always trashed them because endorsing, of course, bound me to some service with a monthly fee. But this is different. It’s a free service, I can cancel at any time, and the way it’s implemented is shockingly clueful: already, TD Waterhouse has an online archive of every monthly statement they’ve sent me for the life of my account (nearly a decade) and they’re all accessible. They’re just urging me to rely on it instead of the postal version.

I just find the whole approach so refreshing. Here’s a company that doesn’t pretend that getting me to switch to electronic statements is all about my convenience — they know they’re going to save more money and provide me with less, so they give me some cash and work to provide the online equivalent in an easy, reassuring way (contrast this with my former credit card company, which would only provide the last 5 months of statements, with anything older incurring a fee.)

So: well done, Waterhouse. (I hope Ameritrade doesn’t fuck you up in the merger.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the ATM…

A History of Ignorance

Sunday, October 2nd, 2005

Caught a couple of flicks today, and in both I ended up sharing a row with a parent and a cute little blond girl of around 6. For the first film (March of the Penguins), this was to be expected. For the second, however, my flabber was gasted at the sight of a young child. I know the rating system is pretty hokey, but what part of an R-rated film called A History of Violence makes one think it’s appropriate for a little kid?

I don’t think you’d even need to know more than that (although the poster with the big gun would be another clue) to realize it’s a movie for “grown-ups.”