On “Lost”

“Lost” has come to its rather satisfying conclusion, and I’d like to assert a twist on the good/bad, Jack/Locke theme that has wound through the show’s six seasons.
We heard for several seasons about the push and pull of science versus faith. Jack, the doctor, represented the former, of course; Locke, the healed cripple, the latter. The interweaving of Jacob and the Man in Black started to invert this, and the finale brings it all the way around:
Jack represents science-based faith, while Locke represents faith-based science.
The show’s theme is not just science and faith against one another. It’s about how theology can be shaped by exploration and fact, and vice versa. Strict interpretation of science does not succeed without an underlying belief. Strict adherence to ideas without investigation is destined to fail.
The recurrent declarations of “you were right” and “you were wrong” in the final episode underline this concept. Desmond releasing the water and light, proving Jack wrong? Part of the scientific method. The Man in Black becoming mortal? The triumph of curiosity over conviction.
A heavy spirituality of the show’s final scenes shows how much a belief in faith guides “Lost.” By coming full circle–showing that Locke’s philosophical guideposts can indeed thrive, but only when grounded in process and understanding–“Lost” is unquestionably making a statement about the order of the world.
Audiences are slowly putting together the various loose ends in our minds, making peace with the questions we viewers are left to answer on our own. But a definite context now exists from which to consider the show’s six seasons: the triumph of faith when based in science.

Super

I am once again pleased as punch to report that my talented, hard-working wife has produced a commercial running in the Super Bowl, this time for Snickers.
The spot runs early in the game on Sunday, and there’s a teaser on Facebook for the curious and impatient.
I will go on the record as saying I think the full spot is great: perfect for the Super Bowl. And I think I’m more proud and impressed than she is.
Update: Snickers topped the Ad Meter as best commercial of Super Bowl XLIV. Kickin’.

I may help kill print

When it comes to the news, I am a proud anachronism. I read the New York Times in print every single day that I am home (and many when I’m not). We get seven-day home delivery, and on Mondays and Wednesdays, when my wife and I want the same things (the media business coverage, Metro Diary, the Dining section), I buy a second copy at the newsstand.
I love my Times. I literally read it cover to cover, leafing through every page, glancing at headlines and diving into a relatively large number of articles. I’m an expert in the dying art of the accordion fold. I read nyt.com online during the day, of course, but despite my career in new media, I’ve never so much as considered deviating from my print copy of the daily paper.
Until.
After shrugging off the Kindle for the past year or so—I’m not much of a book reader; I read a few gajillion websites, half a dozen magazines and the aforementioned paper—I stumbled across the amazon.com page advertising daily Times delivery. A few days later I found myself on the subway playing Toobz on my signal-less iPhone, staring jealously at a woman reading on her Kindle. And suddenly it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Less money. Less waste. And other stuff to read when the paper is done.
I began to seriously wonder, should I buy a Kindle and switch to electronic delivery? I did a little cost assessment and realized my newspaper is a very expensive habit. The Times, to its credit, gives daily subscribers a break: our papers cost us $11.70 a week (at the newsstand it’d be $17). Factoring in the Monday and Wednesday purchases, and assuming we remember to stop it when we go on vacation, 50 weeks of the New York Times in print costs us $785 a year.
Compare that with the Kindle, which costs $259 for the small version—the pocket-sized, and therefore commute-friendly, one—and $13.99 for a monthly subscription to the Times. After one year, I’ll have spent $427, and I’d have a shiny gadget to boot. Heck, we could get a second one for Amy, and after 14 months, our spend would be tied, $910.60 for print versus $909.72 digitally.
More intriguingly, I could just download the Kindle iPhone app, save $259, and read the Times right there. Then again, I’m not sure I want to permanently downsize to a 3.5″ screen; the Kindle would reduce eyestrain while still being cost-effective.
Regardless, the piece of the future that I was willfully neglecting has suddenly come into sharp relief. Getting the newspaper on a gadget, nicely designed for comfortable reading and invisible updates, has become a realistic option. Even for a daily-paper addict like me.
I do still enjoy reading things on, y’know, paper. So I’m not about to toss our subscription out the window. (I suspect that even if we went digital, we’d keep getting weekend delivery, just to have the Sunday New York Times Magazine and its crossword in hard copy. Then again, Jeff Bezos has bathroom reading covered, too.) But the news here is that I am at long last considering it. And if I’m ready to give up my beloved newspaper, the horizon just got a whole lot closer.

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.

Latest column, and a history

My latest column was published last night: Five Steps to Start Your M-commerce Strategy on Multichannel Merchant.
Anna points out that there’s no one place on my site that logs all my published moments. So I made one. The list is both nice and long, and way too short. Always keep writing!
I’ll have to find a home for this information, but for now, a quick rundown of my solicited external work, in reverse chronological order:
COLUMNS AND FEATURES
Multichannel Merchant, 2009
Five Steps to Start Your M-commerce Strategy
iMedia Connection, 2008
Tips for making the best impression with your emails
5 ways to avoid common email blunders
Digital Web, 2002-2004
Better Than a Human
Don't Forget to Architect the Home Page
The redesign of Economist.com
Making a Timeless User Experience
99.9% of Proper Grammar Is Obsolete
Beyond the IA Guy
Look Before You Ask
First Time Caller
Billboard, 1996-1999
I published a series of year-end Top 10 lists that appeared on both billboard.com and in Billboard magazine. Sadly, the online ones are gone and the print ones are behind a pay wall (if they’re there at all). For some reason my byline is on this article about Sugar Ray, which I may have written, although I don’t remember talking to Mark McGrath, but we’ll run with it.
BOOKS
I co-authored Usability: the Site Speaks for Itself and was a technical editor of Practical Web Traffic Analysis.
BLOGS
I write regularly here and on aiaio, the Ai blog.
I penned Timely Demise semi-professionally for 15 months until, well, yesterday.
Boing Boing, 2009
Review: Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 in-ear monitors
Review: A week with the Etymotic hf2
Review: three weeks with Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC3 noise-canceling headphones
Review: two tough weeks with the Shure SE310s
Review: JVC's HA-NC250 noise-canceling headphones
Review: Klipsch's Image X5s headphones
Review: Audio Technica ATH-CK7 headphones
Review: a week with the Etymotic ER-4 microPro
Review: Shure's SE530 headphones and faith restored
Review: Sennheiser's IE8 noise-isolating headphones
Dack.com, 2001
In Sweet Harmony
Pop Goes the Fuzz Rock
Musicrag, 2001
I did a couple of posts that are floating around the archives somewhere.

Its own timely demise

I shuttered Timely Demise today, 18 months after conceiving it, 16 months after launching it and three months after I generally lost my taste for publishing melancholy.
By most measures, the site was a success. I gained a ridiculous amount of knowledge about retail trends and the mechanics of restructuring. I received some fun press coverage. I developed a regular readership that, as of this writing, is still tuning in for news.
Google News added me as a source. I got the inestimable Choire Sicha to be my guestblogger. I began receiving anonymous tips, including one from an angry creditor pointing me to his debtor’s bankruptcy. And I had one actual news scoop hand-delivered by a company’s public relations firm.
I knew all along that this would be a tough subject to cover neatly. After all, I work for and with retailers; how can I be associated with bad news? So I tried to keep the blog objective and matter-of-fact, and that was usually enough. Yes, I know it had a rough name and a difficult topic. But at launch I felt a bit of provocation was appropriate for its moment in time. (See also: It Died, among others.)
Mostly, I found it all fascinating, as did my readers. I am much wiser about retail now than I was a year and a half ago. I suspect we all are.
A few months back, I registered timelyrevive.com with plans on shifting my focus toward expansion and profit statements. But I found that much harder to track from Timely Demise’s dedicated angle, which focused on consumer-level impact and not corporate maneuvers. Stories of 90-year-old corner stores closing make for better (and more trackable) journalism than Applebee’s #1997 opening in the local mall. I began running short on news.
So, three hundred and fourteen posts, five hundred fifty thousand page views, and eighty-nine dollars in ad revenue later, I’m hanging up my tough-news journalist’s hat. We’ll see if I can brew up something new–and more upbeat–for 2010.

The Awl

A week on, I’m really enjoying The Awl, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk’s new project. (And I’m not just saying that because Choire is a friend. Hell, I don’t even know what Balk looks like.)
There’s something starkly refreshing and pleasant about the site, greater than the sum of its parts: forced lack of design, missing headlines, unironic self-consciousness. With a crack staff of professional writers but no publisher overhead, the site is as snarky as it damn well pleases, but not in an off-putting way. It’s more of, “This is how we feel, read it if you like, wander over to one of Nick Denton’s sites if you must, we’ll still be here. Fucker.” Well, okay then. And so I’m reading it all day.
I’m also a fan of the subject matter, which, thanks to its writers’ sensibilities, hews toward the Spy/Radar/Gawker-circa-2003 detached observer’s angle. The Daily Show-style news dissection is a nice addition to the daily RSS routine, and it’s varied enough to keep me paying attention.
The juxtaposition of top-quality, to-the-moment critique and messy, low-budget blog hasn’t been executed quite like this, at least not in some time, and not by a staff. Choire and Alex ostensibly have a business model up their sleeve, but as of now, the site is creeping along, filled by a roster of un- and underemployed bloggers. It’s a fascinating experiment, and one that, even if it cleans up before it turns platinum, will no doubt make for great reading. I wish them much success.

Déjà vu

Reuters: Blockbuster CEO open to partnerships with telecoms. “As we move toward video-on-demand and pay-per-view, Blockbuster is well positioned not only to compete on our own, but also to partner with others,” said CEO Jim Keyes.
Not mentioned in this news bulletin is that Blockbuster was a smart but failed early innovator in this space. Your host pilot tested a Blockbuster-Enron VOD partnership back in 2001, when high-speed connections and video compression were not ready for mass consumption. Perhaps this time around Blockbuster will fare better.
I will also note here that due to Time Warner Cable’s less-than-robust bandwidth in my area, and its less-than-robust widescreen VOD offerings, I still go to Blockbuster and rent DVDs when I want to see a movie at home.

Refresh Recharge Renew

Hot on the heels of my unwanted catalog abundance, I received in the mail today the premiere issue of Refresh Recharge Renew, a new magazine from Rodale Custom Publishing.
Funny thing, that. Because I didn’t subscribe first. Actually, I’m not a subscriber to any Rodale magazine at all. Never have been, although I did work for them for three weeks in 2004, and I pick up Men’s Health on occasion at the airport. Nothing in that suggests that I should be on any of their mailing lists.
Yet lo and behold, here it is, a magazine that looks a lot like the healthy-living-past-age-50 magazines that show up (also unsolicited) at my parents’ house. “Smart ideas for healthy, balanced living,” promises the tagline on the cover. How’s this for healthy: don’t pad your subs list with unwitting recipients, and save us all a tree or two.
Perhaps, dear reader, you think my tone is a bit uppity and huffy for something of this nature. In response, let me point you to this magazine’s website, which has on its homepage a rather easy-to-find Unsubscribe link. The page states it boldly: “Want to cancel your reFresh | reCharge | reNew magazine subscription? Just fill out this form and we will remove your home mailing address from our subscription list.” But I didn’t want to be on your subscription list in the first place! Why is it my responsibility to say so?
I thought email spam was frustrating. But the loads of unwanted printed mail I’m getting lately is in some ways much worse.