Blogging since 1998. By David Wertheimer

Month: February 2021

The “Feels Like” Forecast

Every now and again, the “Feels Like” Forecast bubbles into my consciousness—via a tweet from someone with a long memory, say, or a time-shifted reference to the day of the week not seeming right, or when a pandemic reduces our collective view of the calendar to mush. It came up again this week, so I thought I’d tell the tale of my one moment of viral internet glory, way back in the twentieth century.

The forecast dates to the era of Yahoo, back when search was useful but not ubiquitous. Yahoo was a success because it catalogued the web, back when it was somewhat feasible to do so. Early netizens saw Yahoo’s well-organized directory of links as a tool and a note of validity, which made Yahoo something of an arbiter of taste; they also had “New” and “Cool” GIF slugs that website owners craved.

In its attempts to be comprehensive, Yahoo didn’t just organize obvious links, like news and sports; they also had fun subcategories for the humor, games and fun that populated much of the early, homemade Internet (capital “i”). One of the pages I frequented was Cool Links, a regularly updated list of entertaining destinations.

At the time, there were a few online zines that were must-reads, including Slate and Salon. The latter carried some comics, including Tom the Dancing Bug, a strip I’d been reading since college. One week in 1997, this appeared:

Tom the Dancing Bug
The original “Feels Like” Forecast. Thanks to Andy Baio for hunting it down.

I thought that was a stroke of genius, and I also thought to myself, That would make for a funny website.

Now, in 1997, web programming was simple and quick; I was building pages daily for work and play. So I whipped up a real-world version of the Tom the Dancing Bug “forecast,” complete with my own predictions (e.g. long weekend? Two Saturdays, no Tuesday). I promised myself I’d update the page a few times a week, and posted it live.

In the pre-social-media era, there were two ways to get the word out: personal website cross-linking and search engines. I posted it on my site and got folks to link back to it, which started to generate traffic. I also submitted the site to Yahoo. And sure enough, they put it on their Cool Links page, complete with yahoo_new gif. (I don’t know that it ever achieved “cool” status, but for the record, those listings got shades: yahoo_cool_rating2)

Yahoo’s site used to showcase new links at the top of the page, and when the Forecast appeared, the floodgates opened. Traffic spiked by a few thousand percent. My site host warned me of an unwieldy surge in daily data transfer. Most amusingly to me, an early ad network called ValueClick invited me to add their banners, and I said sure, why not, and got a check for $127 a few months later. The spike was quick but oh so satisfying.

I kept the site up to date for nearly six years. At one point, my friend David Miller and I pulled together a PHP database and rendering engine, so I could set the forecast weeks in advance, rather than updating the HTML by hand every morning. We also put in a visitor poll. But the site was past peak, and the poll never got more than a few dozen votes, and my ad revenue slowly dwindled to zero.

A few years later, my site host updated their servers and broke our primitive PHP, so we installed a new script that keeps the dates current. That’s the last the site was touched. Around 2009, some coworkers and I relaunched the concept as a Facebook app, but it broke before we built up an audience, and the developers quickly lost interest. Not much has happened of consequence since. The Forecast had all of 327 page views in the 90 days leading up to this post.

But! I am still proud of the “Feels Like” Forecast, for a few reasons, all of them deeply personal.

  • I built a thing, amused myself, and then amused others with it.
  • I managed to create and ride a wave of viral popularity, however early and brief.
  • The site’s HTML is pristine. Look at it! The page renders perfectly and it’s 24 years old. No linkrot here, either.
  • And hey, I made a few bucks. (Very few, but hey!) Those ValueClick ad scripts are still in the page source. Maybe I should turn them back on.

Day 339

We are learning as a society that extended shutdowns of communal spaces lead people to strange and unexpected behavior. We, for example, drove to Florida.

It’s twenty hours on the road, more or less, from the Upper West Side to Grandma and Grandpa’s house down here; they are up north, finishing the vaccination cycle, and the house, which has sat unexpectedly empty this winter, needed some company. So we packed up—two adults, two growing children with overstuffed bookbags, one dog, clothes and supplies and snacks and four laptops—and, nestled into our compact wagon, hit the highway for a day and a half.

I am happy to report that with good kids, good internet connections, new tires and an extraordinarily calm Labradoodle, the drive was not a big deal. With a nice overnight stay in Richmond, we almost enjoyed it (sort of). And it was totally worth it: so far, we’ve missed out on a cold snap, many days of below-freezing temperatures, and roughly two feet of snow, in exchange for sun, space and swimming. (Although Eli is a bit bummed to have missed the snow, which, fair.)

This would have been our winter break destination in normal times, flying down for a week with the family. It’s nice to anniversary the trip, even in modified fashion. Parts of it almost feel normal.

Of course, reality is everywhere, from eating every meal at home to our family drive to the curbside covid testing center on our fifth day in town. (I can only imagine how my kids will reminisce: “Remember the year we drove to Florida in the pandemic? And then we had to get tested, and we rolled our windows down outside some clinic, and we brought the dog for some reason, and all the nurses wanted to pet him, and then Dad wiped Yogi’s head off with an alcohol prep pad in case they got covid on him?”)

We have to go home soon, back to the reality of New York rhythms, apartment life, in-person schooling, and the like. It’s been nice having what amounted to a four-week vacation surrounding work and school, though, and the temporary suspension of our daily urban landscape. Until we head back, though, we’ll be fully enjoying our time in the south. Because, as we now know firsthand, wintering in warm weather while covering one’s responsibilities remotely turns out to be a pretty good plan of action.

(Previously: 1, 2.)

My Cars

Inspired by (okay, copying) Steven Garrity, I am documenting my life in cars. Unlike Garrity, I am a “car person,” as my choices and accompanying writeups will indicate. And like Garrity, listing all the cars I’ve owned certainly brings back memories of where I was in life at the time. 

While I’m feeling inspired (or plagiaristic) I too will do the executive summary he did:

  • I’ve owned five vehicles.
  • Two were manual-transmission, three automatic.
  • Across four decades I’ve stuck two two manufacturers.
  • There’s been two sedans, two coupes and a wagon.
  • One was totaled.

Herewith, my cars.*

1986 Nissan Maxima (1990–93)

My first car was my mother’s 1986 Nissan Maxima, a hand-me-down when I turned 17 and got my license. As a teen’s first car, it was fine. It was actually pretty full-featured, since my mother bought it, complete with cutting-edge 1980s technology like a keyless touchpad for unlocking the doors and, critically, an early voice feedback system. Yes, I had the car that talked to you. “Lights are on.” “Right door is open.” “Fuel level is low.” My friends loved it.

Not my actual car, but this was the model year, color, and crazy hubcaps.

I never felt cool driving my Maxima, but I felt good; it was comfortable, upscale and smooth. I kept it until the transmission went (at only seven years old).

Sidenote: my mom replaced this car with a black 1990 Maxima, which was a fantastic car in pretty much every way, from the slick styling to the powerful engine (Nissan called it “the four-door sports car”) to the unbelievable Bose audio system. My brother got that one.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R (1993–96)

When the Maxima gave up, I got to pick a car of my own, one that reflected what I wanted. And what I wanted was to have fun driving. I’d been reading car magazines since the age of 13, and from 1990 on, I was a Car and Driver subscriber, and I knew fun-to-drive was my main criterion.

Fortunately, Car and Driver had anointed a superlative fun-to-drive car, and an inexpensive one at that: the Nissan Sentra SE-R. Four times a C/D Ten Best winner, the Sentra was a two-door economy car that Nissan had decided to bestow with the engine from their larger and heavier Infiniti G20 luxury sedan, and they took pains to keep the car’s weight down (no power windows or door locks!) to max out the power. It also had “a shifter that finds gears as if by divine guidance,” which meant that I had to learn how to drive a stick to get the most out of it.

Again, not my car, but exactly the same as the one I had.

Which I did, thanks to my friend Mike and his indestructable Chevy Blazer four-speed, and off I went. It was everything I wanted in a car. It was cute, comfortable, practical, and yet an absolute hoot to drive. I had to crank the windows and lock the doors by hand, yes, but it had a moonroof, a good stereo, and narrowly mounted fog lights that looked like fangs.

This car made me love driving. I volunteered to drive all the time. I took it to 100 mph at 3 a.m. (sober, thank you) and got stared down by a sleepy cop on Route 322 in Ephrata, Pa. I drove three friends four hours to Yankee Stadium in it. I mounted a 6-disc CD changer in the trunk. I learned how to fishtail on purpose.

Then I totaled it.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R (1996–2002)

You know the drill, although I have a teeny tiny gif of my actual car in my archives.

I got hit on the front left corner pulling out of a parking lot—not a major crash, but enough to set off my air bag (my left hand still has less hair than my right) and to knock the front axle into the engine bay, which the insurance company deemed not worth repairing. The car was only three years old.

So I flipped through the classifieds, and found my car, and bought it again: a used one, same model year, in pristine shape, and in fire-engine red. It was much cooler than my first one and drove just the same. I kept my upgraded SE-R for five years, learning how to deal with Manhattan street parking and enjoying every moment of it.

Sadly, this car also failed before it turned 10, and that was the end of my relationship with Nissan, which had moved away from fun-to-drive as a baseline for its cars.

2002 Audi A4 1.8T Quattro (2002–2016)

In 2002, I was living in Manhattan, so I didn’t need a car. I’m a car guy, though, and I’m from New Jersey, so I couldn’t not have a car, either. I lasted four months before deciding to get another one. My brother had also moved to the city, so we came up with a great idea: we shared one.

I was 29 and soon to be engaged, so it was time to graduate out of the car-as-toy that was the SE-R. My brother vetoed a manual transmission (“You want to keep dealing with a clutch in traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel?” was his winning argument), but I still wanted a car that was fun to drive, just more mature. A friend of mine had a 1999 Audi A4 that I adored; Car and Driver did, too, and they’d put the new model on their Ten Best list, which I knew was a green-light to a solid buy. So we got the A4, with Quattro all-wheel drive and Tiptronic shifting, and took turns with it, a few weeks with me, a few with him, winters in our folks’ driveway in Jersey. It worked out remarkably well for many years.

The A4 was pretty terrific—easy to deal with in the city, yet comfortable for road trips and carpools, and it drove and handled beautifully, as hoped. We put 143,000 miles on it, deciding after awhile to just drive it into the ground, and by the time we finally gave up, refilling the power steering fluid every two weeks and putting duct tape on the leaky moonroof, my brother and I were each married with kids and pets, somehow still sharing the same car we purchased in the Pataki administration.

This is actually my car. You can see and learn more here.

2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen SEL (2016–)

Now in my 40s with a family, we needed a capable yet practical replacement for the A4. I’d become an inveterate street parker over the years, so I wanted something small enough to toss around the Upper West Side; I still yearned for a fun car (and not an SUV); and we needed a bit more practicality for our family. Car and Driver’s Ten Best didn’t have any obvious candidates that summer. Then Amy came home one afternoon and said, “I saw the cutest wagon on the walk home,” and we discovered the SportWagen.

This actually is our car, right when we bought it.

We’d lucked into the right car for the moment: compact yet versatile, with a comfortable interior and a roomy cargo area, nimble and quick while getting great gas mileage (I’ve managed 40 mpg highway a few times). We’d backed into a Ten Best car after all: Car and Driver loves the Golf, every year, and this was the same driver-oriented car, only longer.

And for four-plus years, the sport wagon has done what it says on the tin. It’s great fun to drive, it swallows a ton of stuff, it’s short enough to fit into cozy parking spaces yet big enough that we drove to Florida in it last month (four people, one dog, tons of stuff) without leg cramps. Our one complaint was with road noise, which we successfully fixed before our epic road trip with a set of Continental Purecontact tires. We got it detailed today.

*My Car is also a delightful children’s book that I read to my sons many, many times when they were toddlers. It’s my favorite of all the early readers we enjoyed. And it’s never too early to fall in love with cars.

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