links for 2009-12-30

  • Great data points on air travel to quell nervous nellies. "Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. … These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. … This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune. … There have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade."

UX Critic: Time Warner Cable DVR

Earlier this fall, Time Warner Cable introduced a grand new interface for its digital cable offering. But in its efforts to add features and visual flair, Time Warner Cable managed to worsen many of the features that previously made its system so easy to use.
TWC began by breaking some of the functionality. Not all of it, but enough of the essentials to drive one crazy.
Like the screensaver, for example: on my unit, at least, the blackout that kicks in after pausing for 15 minutes doesn’t actually black out the sidebars beyond the 4:3 screen width. Oops. Good thing I don’t have a burn-in-susceptible plasma TV.
Or the rewind, which, on higher speeds, snaps forward when play is pressed. Forward! Why? I find my self re-rewinding over and over again.
Worst of all is the 10-second back button, which used to be my single favorite feature on the old TWC remote. Missed a sentence? Pop! Hear it again. Click twice to create an at-home instant replay during a sports broadcast; click three times to watch a commercial from the beginning.
For some reason, this button, while still jumping backward, no longer does smooth 10-second increments. Often, the first click only runs back two or three seconds, which is basically useless. Press twice and the system picks what feels like an arbitrary jump-back interval. It’s now almost impossible to pinpoint a moment during playback without rewinding past it and waiting–not horrible in and of itself, but the system used to be perfect.
The list goes on. There’s no more “view this channel now” button in the program guide. No option to view extended program descriptions while in the DVR. Even the movie listings were rejiggered, so that the star ratings systems and year of release were moved to the end of the one-line summary, and directors are no longer mentioned.
Of course, TWC didn’t set out to break things; the company was trying to add features. But here, too, unnecessary problems were created. Introducing features into the current structure means rethinking the user interfaces, and not always for the better.
I was a huge fan of Time Warner’s old font face, which was narrow but easy to read (unlike, say, Adelphia’s narrow, non-anti-aliased displays). On the new TWC system, the fonts have been replaced with a more contemporary, wide font. It’s harder to read at a distance, and the increased width means program names cut off much sooner in lists.
On-screen cues that used to be straightforward have gotten more confusing, not less. TWC’s progressive rewind and fast-forward used to show an increasing number of arrows: >> >>> >>>>. Now, they’ve decided a number count is more useful. Only the number doesn’t appear until two clicks in, when it says “2,” not “3.” So >>> now renders as “>>2” and >>>> now says “>>3.”
My TWC system uses a Scientific Atlanta remote that has three color- and shape-differentiated buttons: yellow triangle A, blue squre B, red circle C. And TWC’s old software made the most of them. Some examples:
– In the program guide: A for show grid, B to sort by genre, C to search
– In the DVR: A for saved shows, B for upcoming shows, C for series management
For this new release, TWC introduced features that pushed the number of options in the program guide and DVR past three. Rather than find ways to nest them, the entire functionality moved into a horizontal scrolling list, which is accessed with a series of arrow keys and a Select button. To find a show by title, I used to click Guide, then C; now I have to click Guide, then scroll right several times to Find Shows, click Select, then scroll right to chose Search. The effort has been doubled, or worse, for many functions.
The new UI also has fade-in, fade-out transitions, which are a huge mistake. The system used to have zippy little central wipes that made screens feel like they were snapping to attention. In contrast, the fades make the system feel slow–the opposite of what I want when I’m channel-surfing.
I still like my Time Warner Cable digital television and DVR. But I enjoy it a whole lot less.
This is a cross-post from aiaio.

links for 2009-12-16

Office neighbors I have known

One of the more random occurrences in adult life is discovering the company one keeps in one’s office building. Companies rent space, and the neighbors can be all sorts of interesting.
I haven’t had all that many exciting office situations over the years, but a few stand out.
1. Viacom. Specifically, MTV, in the Viacom building when I worked in the Viacom building (also in the music industry). Working for a medium-size company in the headquarters of a huge company was all right, because it meant we could sneak into the huge company’s cafeteria and get subsidized cheeseburgers with curly fries and eat on a swanky roof terrace in the middle of Times Square. And I worked at 1515 Broadway during the height of TRL’s run, so we could hear screaming crowds daily at 3 p.m. For all the noise, though, the MTV crews were surprisingly unintrusive.
2. XM Radio, which had half a floor in The Economist’s headquarters when I worked on Economist.com. Having left Billboard to go to The Economist, I was pleased to find myself down the hall from a radio network, and I even auditioned for a job on their alternative radio station. (The program director called me decent but unpolished.) In 2002, XM was where smart, cool, fringe-of-the-industry types worked, so I got to meet folks like Pat Dinizio from time to time. And, of course, Gene Simmons.
3. Butterfly Salon. My current job is on the same floor as a beauty parlor, which means my colleagues and I are subject to any of the following on a given afternoon: lots of strangers on our floor. Embarrassingly dirty bathrooms, often covered in fresh cut hair. Pretty, standoffish young stylists. Chemical smells from permanent wave treatments. Then again, we have a standing discount at the salon, and they periodically ask us for models who get free haircuts and highlights, so it’s not all bad. Our CCO has a standing offer from me that for the right price I’ll volunteer and dye my hair black, but he hasn’t pulled the trigger yet.

An Incomplete List of Rock Stars I’ve Met in Unexpected Places

(And by unexpected, I mean no listing stuff like the time I had drinks with The Pursuit of Happiness at the bar at Mercury Lounge after their gig. That’s too easy.)
1. Gene Simmons, in the XM Radio studios in New York. Unexpected not for the location but for how I wound up hanging out with him. I think he had come in to do some promos. I worked down the hall so at the radio tech’s suggestion I stopped by for no particular reason. This was late-period dickwad Gene Simmons, not mid-period cool-as-fuck I-wish-I-were-in-Kiss Gene Simmons, so he was grouchy and bewigged and all sorts of imagination deflating, but still, Gene Simmons.
2. Ira Kaplan, selling his own band’s T-shirts before one of the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah gigs at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. I was all “hey, whoa, you’re Ira! from the band!” and he was all “well, yeah, I am.” We hung out for a minute or two, mostly because he was selling me a T-shirt.
3. My Sister’s Machine, at the Cheesequake rest stop on the Garden State Parkway at 3 in the morning after their gig opening for King’s X at Tradewinds down the Jersey shore, which I had just seen. They never made it, but I still recall the juxtaposition of a band in full metal mode, off stage, buying lukewarm fast food. And milk, if memory serves. We were all “hey, we just saw you! nice gig!” and they were all “yeah, um, we’re not here ok?”
4. Taj Mahal, at a summer camp, hanging out with a bunch of us CITs after he performed for the camp as a favor to the owner, who was a friend of his. This meeting forever changed how I listened to music and was reprised 18 years later, but those are stories for another day.