February 28, 2001 +

Blockbuster and Universal have forged an agreement for distributing movies on Blockbuster's broadband video-on-demand service.

I am one of the technical testers for VOD (I got wired two weeks ago), and this is another good-news-bad-news announcement.

This is good news because thus far Blockbuster's movie selection is just pitiful. There are maybe 300 selections in the system, with only a handful of notable theatrical releases, running the gamut from "Pi" to "Autumn in New York" to "Rocky V" to "Showgirls." Then there's a lot of junky cooking shows and cartoons. Thank goodness Blockbuster convinced Universal to pitch in.

This is bad news because the deal does nothing for the generally poor quality of the service. I had intended to become an active beta-tester, and keep a weblog of my activity. But that was before I actually tried the thing.

Don't tell the shareholders, but between you and me, video on demand is not yet ready for prime time.

I have Enron's DSL-based video on demand system. Verizon technicians (three of them! on time!) upgraded my modem to a 7.1-megabit Westell, installed a switch, and ran an Ethernet connection from my computer to my television, where they installed a Blockbuster-branded set-top box, complete with joystick-operated remote control. After an hour of arguing on the phone, the Verizon technicians got my IP addresses sorted out, and bingo! the system was up and running.

The basics of VOD are fine. The system -- which launches with a nauseating blue screen displaying Verizon, Blockbuster and Enron logos in triangular formation -- runs without error; I haven't experienced downtime yet. The interface, a clunky HTML-based system controlled by the joystick and an Enter button, is straightforward, if mildly annoying. It's easy to sort through movies, and VOD's advantages over pay-per-view, like pause and rewind, work well.

What doesn't work well are the movies themselves. The picture quality is horrendous; expanses of solid color show pixelization and the resolution is murky, not unlike a dub-of-a-dub from a VCR tape. Even worse is any action: fast motion on screen tends to break the signal down into belches of colored squares.

Sound is no better. The audio track has a hard time keeping pace with the video, forcing me to pause or rewind (huzzah for usability!) in order to get things back on track. Its clarity is less than stellar, and there's a noticeable hum when there is no sound, especially on the selection screens.

All in all, I'm pretty disappointed. I'm having fun as a beta-tester, but I'd never consider paying for such poor-quality video service, especially considering that my fat DSL pipe would cost $189 if I were paying retail for it. The technology and bandwidth just isn't there yet.

And if that's not enough, Verizon checks my ID at login, so even though I have a 7.1 MB DSL connection, they still only let me surf at 640K. Damn.


February 27, 2001 +

Lots to dissect today. Let's start with the web-design critique.

Nick Disabato's old-browser redirect page summarizes all that is bad about the Web Standards Project.

I was just starting to read and enjoy his site, But I surf with 4.x browsers -- Mac and PC, Netscape and IE. Nick has decided not to support backward compatibility, redirecting poor fuddy-duddy souls like me to his no-luck WaSP promotional page, where he writes:

"If your browser does not support web standards, the fine one-man management of this site kindly requests that you download one that does."

Quite frankly, who is this guy Nick to tell me I should change my browser? I don't know him, I don't know what his background is, and I don't know that I care enough about his site to spend the time and effort upgrading my system just so I can keep reading his pages.

But Nick's hubris gets worse: "Owing to the fact that I test my site under Internet Explorer, I would highly recommend using it as your browser for either Windows or the Macintosh."

Well, now. To make an analogy, it's one thing to have the Department of Transportation forbid Americans from using right-drive cars in the United States. But imagine if the DOT told everyone they had to drive Pontiacs, because lane widths were optimized for GM tire treads.

I understand the drive to move web design forward. But all that's happened so far is that folks are getting needlessly inconvenienced.


The comment here on web work and Peter Merholz's new company has been squelched due to excessive misinterpretation.


Ideapad readers who know me personally know that my memory is not what it should be. Early medical studies are now showing that I may be a victim of an Information Age existence, unable to remember appointments and names thanks to a self-inflicted information overload. (via the always excellent Good Experience)

--'s Jayson Stark on baseball salaries: "If you earn $50,000 a year, it would take you two centuries to earn the approximately $10 million that [the unhappy Gary] Sheffield and [Frank] Thomas will make this year."


February 26, 2001 +

My Sunday nights aren't the same now that Idiot's Delight is gone.

Vin Scelsa used to be my late-night companion each Sunday, cozily bringing my weekends to a close with his unique mix of music, interviews and storytelling. His style stood out in the homogenized world of commercial radio, specifically because he wasn't commercial -- he was doing his own thing, and that was that.

Whether making odd musical segues or reading from the pages of his favorite new book, Scelsa made each of his shows a treat. Listening to him I could sense the joy his show gave him. His deep baritone voice felt right as I lay in the dark, much the way west-coast Yankee radio broadcasts feel each summer. "Idiot's Delight" was on every Sunday night, helping me wind down my weekend, staying on way past its 2 a.m. close, as if Vin knew I couldn't fall asleep either.

After long stints on K-Rock (in its classic-rock days) and WNEW, the latter decided his loyal, 30,000-strong audience was the wrong market segment for its new talk-radio format, and Scelsa was cut loose at the end of 2000. Scelsa has moved on to a Saturday night show on noncommercial radio, but the station's signal doesn't reach my apartment; he also broadcasts a lunchtime Internet show, but it's just not the same.

Last night I found myself sitting in a half-dark apartment, wishing "Idiot's Delight" was on the radio, like I have every Sunday for the last two months. Vin, this fan misses you.


February 23, 2001 +

Well, this is logical. Over here you have Fucked Company, which perches users like vultures over failing dotcom firms. Over there you get Am I Hot Or Not?, which brings out the self-important critic and top-ten hound in us all. So of course someone was going to see this runaway success and that runaway success and merge the two, which is why we now have DotDoomed.

Admit it, you wish you thought of it first. (via Metafilter)


February 22, 2001 +

From the When You're Too Smart for your Own Good file: Citysearch puts stop-word parsing in their search mechanism, so if a user on Citysearch New York mistakenly types in "sushi and," the search engine skips the "and," giving results just for "sushi."

Quite clever -- until someone decides to search for the Soho Grand, a downtown hotel and nightspot, which the engine cleans up to "soho gr," which returns 0 results. Whoops.


February 21, 2001 +

My name is David, and I'm a Blind Date-aholic.


My unrequited love on the subway is a feeling apparently shared by others in the city. (Alas, this isn't her. Of course, I'm spoken for these days anyway.)


This is a riot: The first Powerbook G-4. (via Mr. Barrett)


Spotted in an email sig file: "Over 90% of all websites suck. Isn't it about time you were part of the minority?"


February 20, 2001 +

Did you know that CNet has a 300-second meta-refresh on its home page?

That's right, advertisers, a good chunk of your impressions show up from my web browser reloading every five minutes while I'm not paying attention. Excellent sales tactic.


February 19, 2001 +

When I was a fourteen-year-old boy going to middle school in Livingston, N.J., I recall being mildly intrigued in pyrotechnics. We all were. We didn't approach Beavis-and-Butt-head level, but there was that day in eighth grade where Howard Wanderman pulled the old Binaca blast through a lighter trick and lit Irene Strauss's flannel shirt on fire.

Still, I don't remember our ever conspiring to blow up the school. Kids today are so sophisticated.


February 16, 2001 +

The day's big news is a browser upgrade and compatibility push being made by the Web Standards Project. Jeffrey Zeldman is promoting the idea and dedicated an entire issue of A List Apart to it. A Metafilter thread has sparked a lively conversation.

I can't say I fully agree with this position. Moving forward is important, but not neglecting one's audience is equally important. Can web designers implore their audiences to upgrade their browsers and expect, or even hope, that everyone does so?

If everyone in California used fluorescent light bulbs, there'd be no power shortage right now. But there was not -- and in many ways still is not -- a compelling reason for consumers to make the switch away from incandescent light.

The same is true online. There's no good reason for most people to upgrade their browsers. The computer comes with one, and that's the one that gets used. This is why Internet Explorer beat Netscape: Simplicity. No install, no reinstall, no upgrade, just click a button on the desktop and there's the Web.

Home upgrades take a long time for most users, who often do not see the need. Office upgrades take time and money from information technology departments, who may not find enough reasons to do so either.

As a result, people don't upgrade or get upgraded. And to ignore these people -- to say, "You must upgrade your browser or our web site will not work as well as it could, and that's your tough luck" -- is just not good information design. Indeed, I would argue that it is the exact inverse of the stated goals of user interface experts.

I still run IE4 on my PC at work. Why? Because I don't care enough to upgrade, and my IT department hasn't cared enough to force me. I think this is a good thing. It forces me to see the web in a slightly antiquated way, just as a sizable portion of the audience that visits my site sees it. That grounding is essential to being a good designer. The most important aspect for my job is not how far forward one can push, but how well one can accommodate the disparate masses that visit my sites daily.

Mr. Zeldman can have his next-generation standards. I will stay with my fuddy-duddy old browser, and I will read A List Apart in the cascading mess that I get, and I will deal with it. More power to Zeldman and Co. for trying to plow forward. And when I'm trying to explain to others the need for universal accessibility, A List Apart will be a fine example of what one should not do.


February 15, 2001 +

And have I mentioned yet that my DSL service has been down for nine consecutive days dating back to the middle of last week?

Oh, right, I haven't. Because whenever I think to comment about it, I can't get online!


In the good-news-bad-news geek department, I got wired for DSL Video on Demand yesterday. I've been selected to participate in a technical trial of Blockbuster's new broadband movie service. I will be keeping a separate weblog/journal of my VOD guinea pig experience; look for it soon.


February 13, 2001 +

Ode to the Motherfucker Who Stole My Pants (with apologies to Keats).


February 12, 2001 +

This page is the busiest one on my web site. But did you know that netWert includes a journal, a music section, the world-famous "Feels Like" Forecast, and a regularly updated home page? Take a look around; you may like what you see.


The big Napster news today is that nothing has happened yet. Legal challenges take a long time.


February 8, 2001 +

I'm a big fan of untimed logic games, and I need a new one. I have mastered Atomica and Bejeweled and I'm a little tired of Cabeem. Suggestions?


Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith announced his retirement yesterday. Why? Partly because he has bad knees, which he doesn't want to decimate, but mostly because he's a nerd. Smith is a scholar-athlete in the best sense.


February 7, 2001 +

A survey from Messagelabs found that there's greater than a one in three chance that folks receiving an I LOVE YOU file attachment in email -- the same name of the virus that decimated systems worldwide last winter -- would still open the attachment, even after eleven percent of those surveyed got hit by the same virus last year.

And you wonder why Jakob Nielsen calls them stupid?


Jason McCabe Calacanis rambles on nicely about's new ad model, stating that he's glad content sites are exploring better ways to make money, but that he's still totally repulsed by the ads.


February 6, 2001 +

Elan on his job: "My work is qualitative, not quantitative."

Yet if Elan does web design (and, among other things, he does), his work is more quantitative than he thinks.

HTML is all about structure -- widths, heights, proportions, ratios, percentages. I often design a web page on a sheet of paper cluttered with numbers, trying to figure out just how many pixels X should be in relation to Y. That's the main shortcoming of WYSIWYG web-design programs like Dreamweaver: they fudge numbers and leave designs mathematically imprecise, which leads pages susceptible to display errors.

There's a certain amount of architectural and drafting skills involved in web design, and a solid numerical foundation is necessary in order to create structurally sound pages. A well-crafted web page relies on understanding this.

Without these skills, designers can still create, but they cannot design.


Well, yes.

For the record, I do not dislike Jakob Nielsen, although I have been ranting against him at work the last few weeks. I usually agree with him; he sure is right in the piece linked above. I'm just tired of him. He has been saying the same thing for years and seems to be in a rut. All budding UI folks would do well to read his essays. I'm just at the point where I have nothing left to learn from him. (Indeed, he has a lot to learn himself.)


February 5, 2001 +

After years of smart, honest searches and a year of smart, honest stock market correction, Yahoo has started accepting payment for positional search result listings. Wired News promptly declared that Yahoo "has succumbed to the lure of filthy lucre."

Business 2.0 reports on CNet's new bannerless advertising model: "With these ads, it is virtually impossible to train yourself not to see them," says an analyst at Forrester Research in the article.


February 2, 2001 +

A new study by the Economic Policy Institue suggests that Internet workers have more to gain by switching jobs frequently than staying with one employer for too long.

I can't help but agree: I could have left my last design job in 1998 for nearly double the income, and if I wanted to hopscotch, I could probably engineer a raise for myself now too. Of course, the benefits of not quitting -- long-term personal growth, a steady career path, the chance to learn beyond the expected job functions -- can sometimes outweigh the raw numbers behind a 15 percent raise in base salary.

Brush up on your job-hunting skills as you prepare to find your next great gig.


February 1, 2001 +

Evan Williams posts news on Pyra's current status. A sad but unsurprising development.


Dack Ragus points out (rather angrily) that Greg Knauss doesn't know his late-model wireless technology (Feb. 1 entry). Point taken. Greg is still funny, though. Of course, so is Dack, and it's better to be funny and right than funny and ignorant.

Speaking of Greg, his link to Web Trumps is the most shudder-inducing proof yet that there is a perceived weblog "in" crowd, whether the "in" folks know it or not.

And speaking of Dack, have you listened to "In Sweet Harmony" from Dack's music webcasts lately?


Big news for my British coworkers! McDonald's has acquired a minority interest in Pret a Manger and plans to open eight Prets around Manhattan in 2001.

For the unfamiliar, Pret a Manger is the United Kingdom's version of Subway, a better-than-average quick-food lunch shop that sells mayonnaise-heavy sandwiches in plastic triangular boxes. The food's not bad, although New Yorkers who can custom-order anything at a deli may not long for a three-hour-old boxed sandwich.


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Copyright © 2001 David Wertheimer. All rights reserved.