Dumb Things I Have Done Lately

Friday, February 29, 2008

An Unexpected Blog Makeover

For a while now, I've been using a modified Snapshot Sable template; in addition to the usual sidebar tweaking, I'd also widened the main content column so it could take 500px wide photos (the Flickr medium size) and customized the header images.

Sometime overnight, one of the external CSS files changed. Or something. It ended up disappearing my text. So this afternoon, I did an emergency template switch -- I'm now using TicTac Blue with similar modifications, just as a stopgap measure. Though there are still a few problems with the layout that I need to adjust.

The reason why it's a stopgap measure is that I need to move to a new platform. I've pretty much hit the wall with Blogger. Plus, it doesn't help that my category pages are a mess -- the "dumb things" and "photos" pages are frickin' huge, since they're just one big page.

Plus, I want to add in a few new features, like private posts on a per-post basis. I also need to create a separate blog for the social media and community stuff -- it's getting too messy keeping everything together. So that means Wordpress.

Anyway, that's the plan. I've mentioned it before, but I really need to get it done. I just need to make sure I can migrate all my content and retain the URLs (I've bookmarked the appropriate articles), since I don't want to lose my superior search rankings for, say, the people looking for Reston strip clubs, who think "virginia" is a portion of the female anatomy, Asians trying to fight the flush, and the rest.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I Can't Hear You Right Now

I flaked on the Web Content Mavens Meetup tonight -- I'd been planning to go, but I took a decongestant this afternoon and it really knocked me out. Which was a pity, since they were going to be looking at open source Web CMSes.

The greater pity is that my head is still stuffed up. I feel like I'm underwater. So I'm a little iffy on Thursday night's DC New Media Technology Happy Hour. Though I hope to be fully up and running for this weekend's eDemocracy Camp.

In other news, I was looking for a knife sharpening video on YouTube, and found a way to use your car to sharpen a knife in seconds:

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

If They're Carding for Cough Syrup, It Must Be Really Cool to Abuse

I stopped by CVS tonight to stock up on cough syrup and decongestants. I think the cold part is done, and what's left is a sinus thing. It's hard to say.

I was a little surprised when the cashier asked me for ID, since I picked up the crappy, pseudoephedrine-free, can't-make-meth-from-it decongestant. But it wasn't for that -- it was because the cough medicine had dextromethorphan. The stuff that the kids go robotripping on.

The receipt helpfully explained the situation:

Preventing Teen Cough Medicine Abuse
Preventing Teen Cough Medicine Abuse

Now I'm all sorts of curious. I kinda want to chug the bottle now.

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Missed Opportunities: Playing the Star Wars Imperial March in Pyongyang

I'm not saying there wouldn't have been repercussions (perhaps even nuclear ones), but the New York Philharmonic, in its historic Pyongyang concert this week, had a golden opportunity to play the Star Wars Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) in one of the world's most repressive, fucked-up places, and they didn't.

In fact, (begin lie now) some speculate that Kim Jong Il didn't attend the concert precisely because he was afraid that they might play the song.

And, being the leader of an entire country which hasn't seen any of the original Star Wars trilogy (nor the prequels -- the only thing North Korea has got going for it), it's not like he'd be able to storm out of the room or anything -- none of the North Koreans would know why without an embarrassing explanation, and to the foreign press, it would have been a tacit admission that he indulges in decadent Western vices.

It would have been the perfect setup.

Less the nuclear repercussions, of course.


Monday, February 25, 2008

A Canned Coffee, to Go

I had a morning meeting last week, just as I was getting sick. I was in a rush, so I grabbed a canned coffee drink (a Trader Joe's Triple Espresso Mocha) for the drive over.

After the meeting and a few errands, I came home. I still had the empty can, which I crumpled up and parked on my windshield as I went to check the mailbox.

This morning, when I went out to the car, guess what I saw on my windshield, four days later?


Because I'd been sick, I didn't leave the house much over the weekend, but I'm pretty sure I ran at least one errand in the car. And I'm also pretty sure that, while driving to that errand, I kept hearing a rattling noise that I couldn't figure out.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ode to the Toy Tec-9, and a Humiliating Defeat at the Assassination Game

In my crazy gangbanger poseur entry, I used a toy gun that I've had for at least 20 years: It was made by Larami sometime in the mid-to-late 80s, and was very clearly modeled after the infamous gangsta favorite Tec-9 (Kurt Russell also sports one in the poster for Big Trouble in Little China):


You can tell it's an artifact from another era, because it doesn't have a "Don't Shoot Me" blaze orange muzzle.

In fact, other than adding a Larami logo, you can tell that they just looked at the real Tec-9 design and toy-ified it, all the way down to the barrel shroud, magazine release, and cocking lever.

Here's proof: The toy shoots little yellow rubber "bullets" -- which just happen to be same size as a real 9mm cartridge (shown next to a spent shell casing for comparison):

DSCF4097 DSCF4093
Confusing the two would be bad.

The gun is a bolt-action; you have to cock the handle with every shot. (Though you have to be careful -- the handle is pretty fragile. I gave one of these to a friend as a birthday gift, and he broke it off the first time he tried it. That sucked.)

The "bullets" were hollow rubber and the gun was air-powered, so they'd just sting a little if you were close. Also, you could use them as suction cups and stick them to your face. Though they'd leave a little hickey mark after you pulled them off. So you probably wouldn't want to do that, say, the night before you had to give a speech in front of the whole junior class because you were running for student council Vice President. (Don't ask me how I know this.)

Closeup of the ammo.

Yes, in the 80s, we still played with cheap, realistic-looking toy guns, and relatively few of us got shot by police officers. In fact, I'm pretty sure I bought this in middle school or high school to use in The Assassination Game (Wikipedia calls it a LARP game -- ugh), though I don't think I ever brought it to school -- it was a little too unwieldy for that, and the fad died out for us shortly after.

The Beretta Dart Gun and The Assassination Game

No, while we were locked in the throes of The Assassination Game/Killer fad, I preferred carrying something a bit more pocketable. Like this dart gun version of a Beretta .380:

It's pretty small, even for my hands.

Of course, the concealability came at the expense of increased reload time. Which ended up costing me in a not-insignificant way.

I had two of these, and I had them on me at what could have been my greatest assassination game triumph, but what ended up being my most humiliating defeat.

My targets were twin brothers, Mark & Chris, so I rode my bike over to their house. As luck would have it, they were outside in the driveway, cleaning the trunk of their family's car (a classic diesel Mercedes Benz sedan).

In fact, as I walked up to them, they were both bent over deep into the trunk. I was maybe four feet behind them, and they had absolutely no idea I was there.

I calmly pulled out my two guns, one in each hand, John Woo-style (this was years before I had any inkling who John Woo was), aimed, and fired.

And missed completely.

This is one of the problems with the two-handed John Woo gun-fu -- it's hard to aim, especially if you're kind of mixed dominant like I am. I ended up criss-crossing the darts.

In retrospect, I should have gone for the contact shot: pressed the guns into their backs and fired. I still kick myself when I think about it.

I'm not sure exactly what happened next. I probably tried to reload and fight, instead of doing the tactically sound thing and fleeing (they may have blocked me from my bike). The twins were able to get to their guns, and they got me. I had the perfect opportunity, and I blew it.

I still live with the shame.

Anyway, you can see the rest of the set here: Toy Guns: Larami Tec-9 and a Beretta Dart Gun.

(Incidentally, the rubber suction cups come off pretty easily, revealing the hard plastic tips beneath. I almost shot my dad in the eye this way. It would have been bad.)

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

I Told U Reston Was Hardcore (as I Am a Crazy Gangbanger)

DSCF4070In case you were wondering, Reston's a pretty rough town unincorporated part of Fairfax County. Reston-related gun crime made the news again -- from Saturday's Washington Post: Armed Woman Arrested at D.C. Police Headquarters:
"A Reston woman armed with a pistol walked into D.C. police headquarters Thursday afternoon and attempted to take a guard's gun before she was wrestled to the ground, authorities said."
Now, there are several odd elements to this story. For starters, isn't it usually suburbanites who worry about crime being exported from the cities? But then we find out:

* The woman's name is Cynthia Nixon. Presumably, it isn't the Sex and the City actress. Although they're about the same age. I couldn't tell you anything about her -- the only relevant Web result for the Reston Nixon was a 5k race result from 1999.

* " The charging papers quoted Nixon as telling police that her plan was to 'rob a police officer of his weapon.'" This alone suggests all kinds of crazy, because:
  1. Robbing a cop of his gun. Yeah. Somehow, I don't think you thought your cunning plan all the way through. You could probably get some bullets this way, though.
  2. It's a long way to go to get a gun -- especially if you live in Virginia, where it should be a lot easier to get a handgun than in the District (legally, that is).
  3. Oh, and did you miss the part where she already had her own gun (real, loaded, and presumably functional -- though she pulled the trigger when she tried to shoot the guard and it didn't go off)
* In addition to the gun and 36 rounds, she had two joints and two baggies of pot. Judging by her previous statement, this was probably for Phase II: Steal drugs from a narc.

However this particular episode turns out, it only adds to the growing body of evidence that Reston is hardcore. (Check out the Brandon Vedas story if you don't get the reference.)

To that end, I will show you what a vato loco I am, by mean mugging for all you civilians:

We gangbangers have poor trigger discipline.

Normally, for your typical MySpace gangbanger self-portrait, you have to be able to see the camera in the bathroom mirror. Also, my wifebeater is gray and not the usual white. But that's just how we roll in South Reston.

Here, I am double-strapped in the 20191-3512:

My Imperial Rifle Blaster does my talking.

Since we don't sacrifice accuracy for style, here you can see my slightly-modified gangsta grip (canted, not fully horizontal):

Note the extra-gangster orange safety tip.

The "Tec-9" is a toy, of course -- it was made by Larami about 20 years ago, in the late 80s, when life was cheap, and so were toy guns that were realistic enough to get you shot by cops (as opposed to the much pricier airsoft guns these days). The rest of the photo set is here: Mean Mugging With a Toy Tec-9.

Since I was raiding the toy closet anyway, I took a few more photos of the Tec-9 and its accessories, which I will post in a followup entry.

Why yes, I am feeling a lot better now: Yesterday was pretty bad in terms of overall sickness. I've over the hump now, but still wasn't well enough to go out. So here we are.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Trinity of Minor, Food-Related Suburban Miracles

Minor, Food-Related Suburban Miracle 1: An image of the Virgin Mary in the bottom of this can of cream of chicken soup:


Okay, maybe it's not the Virgin Mary. Possibly not even one of the Holy Trinity or the accepted canon of saints. In fact, it might be hedgehog of some sort. A ghost hedgehog.

Minor, Food-Related Suburban Miracle 2: I ordered pound of sliced turkey at the Giant deli counter, and the guy sliced it thin without me having to ask.

When I discovered this, I was so astonished, I almost forgot that he'd first called me "ma'am" (that's two so far -- one more ma'am and it's time for the first haircut of 2008).

Incidentally, I was buying groceries, not to stock up for potential February snowpocalypse #2, but to feed this damn fever. (You know what they say: "Feed a cold; feed a fever." Well, that's what I say.)

Minor, Food-Related Suburban
Miracle 3: Not really even a minor miracle, more of a brand manager's nightmare -- I was picking up lunch at Teocalli Tamale in Herndon yesterday (I'd been in the mood for a torta, which is basically a Mexican cheese steak, only with pork and avocado -- they seem to have expanded their menu over the past few months), when I saw a guy wearing a Baja Fresh manager's polo eating at one of the tables.

That's an endorsement, right?

In closing, this cold sucks, but at least it's not the flu. Also, an addition to the "locking the barn door after the horses get out" file: I finally caved and bought some hand sanitizer, including a little bottle to carry in my laptop bag. I may also spring for one of those fancy designer SARS masks (I already have plenty of vinyl gloves). Achoo and good night.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eclipse-Watching, With a Laptop to Keep Me Warm

I was half-watching the Mythbusters MacGyver special, and I almost forgot to go outside to look at tonight's lunar eclipse. It's about 8 minutes from the total eclipse halfway point, and I'm sitting on a chair on my front sidewalk, with my laptop and bare fingers so I can use the trackpad. So my lap is warm, and my hands are freezing.

At about 10pm, a bunch of clouds rolled in (even though we'd avoided another snowpocalypse), so I expected yet another skywatching near-miss, but I went inside to grab a cup of tea, and when I came back out, it was pretty clear.

You know, it just occurred to me that I am probably outside of the recommended operating temperature parameters for this computer.

About three minutes to go now.

The reason I'm choosing to freeze my ass off is because I'm procrastinating. I need to do some work before I go to bed tonight. Between that, the threatened ice storm, and the lingering sickness I've been trying to quell, I bagged on this month's edition of the Washington Blogger Meetup Group, even though I'd RSVPed yes. So maybe this is my penance.

Okay, we just passed the peak, and my fingers are going numb. Getting back inside.

That's a little better. Back to work. But first, these two items of local significance:

* The Awakening: I've been down here for close to 12 years, and I'd never gone down to Hains Point to go see it. Oh well.

* Shaking My Tiny Fist in Rage: Anyone who's had braces will understand -- I'd missed this the first time around, but Christmas Eve, a bunch of teenagers in McLean jumped a random 14-year-old kid and bashed his front teeth out. For no apparent reason. So now the kid faces more exciting oral surgery and dental implants. And just a few days earlier, he'd had his braces taken off, after seven years.

Anyway, they arrested 3 suspects. The suspects might have videotaped the attack. If it turns out they did this just to get some material for YouTube... maybe that's why I grind my teeth. Which explains the oh-so-sexy orthodontist-recommended nightguard.

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Foreclosure - Impressive!

Won't You Be My Neighbor? A "for sale" sign on the townhouse across the street from me -- the FORECLOSURE bit is a new wrinkle:

Foreclosure - Impressive!
Another victim of the housing market implosion?

It's had different for sale signs out in front for a long time. I don't think I've ever met the owners -- between the different signs and the various moving trucks, I'm not sure how many times it's changed hands (I'm assuming people had been trying to flip it), or if it had just been on and off the market.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I'm Not Unemployed -- I'm Merely Underemployed

I'm working on a small project right now -- have a signed consulting agreement and everything -- so I'm not technically unemployed right now. It's not a lot of hours, though, so I'm underemployed. But it's something to do.

I'm easing back into things.

Actually, I don't have to worry at all; not only do I have a comfortable savings cushion (that is, a big sofa cushion stuffed with cash), but according to my e-mail inbox:

* I've won at least two separate European lotteries.

* A US soldier deployed to Iraq e-mailed me, offering me a finder's fee to help him move some of Saddam Hussein's ill-gotten millions, which turns out to be, like, two million dollars. Hey, I support the troops.

Then again, if I'm looking for an honest, 9-to-5 gig, I got an unsolicited offer from a reputable company operating in Latvia. It seems pretty lucrative -- a $5000 USD guaranteed monthly income, and all I have to do is comply with all reasonable and lawful instructions given by the company.

Hey, they say upfront that they are reasonable and lawful.

So I got that going for me.

In other news, I'm apparently getting sick again. I blame a party I went to on Saturday... though in retrospect, I almost didn't go to that party because I'd had this massive headache. So maybe the other party-goers have something to blame me for.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Week-Old Stuff: A Primary, a Military Funeral, and a Valentine's Day Burrito

The Potomac Primary: Kucinich. Sure, he was technically out of the race, but never underestimate the power of the "shorter, older, dorkier guy/taller, younger, hotter gal (who's also a redhead with an English accent)" dynamic.

The Military Funeral: On Friday, Scott's dad, Lt. Col. Vincent Mazza, USAF (ret.), was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was quite an elaborate ceremony -- Full Honors, if I'm not mistaken -- with an honor guard, a color guard, a band, a horse-drawn caisson, and a 3-volley salute (7 rifles, though that's not the same thing as a 21-gun salute, which uses cannon).

I took a discreet cameraphone photo after the ceremony ended:

A guardsman salutes the ashes, as the two busloads of honor guard marches away.

[Obligatory "I am dumb" content: Luckily, traffic was kind, or else I would have been late to the ceremony. I had to try on three suits before I found one that fit. (Marginally -- the fly flap was stretched out in very immodest fashion, and not for any male enhancement pill reasons. I kept my jacket buttoned. This pants thing is killing me.) I'd last worn it to a wedding in 2002, according to the card in the pocket.]

The Valentine's Day Burrito: Yay, free burrito on Valentine's Day. That was about the extent of it.

Other than that, there was another AOL Reston office furniture auction, but I didn't feel the need to gawk this time, since I'm all done with that topic.

Also, we found that half of all clicks on online ads are worthless -- but we don't know which half. I just wanted to make the quote reference.

Lastly, I know this entry's items were out of chronological order -- the headline just scanned better that way.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Unintended Consequences: An Exercise for the Reader

Item the first: Slashdot article about how a Danish court-ordered block on BitTorrent tracker site The Pirate Bay has backfired, actually increasing traffic from Danelandia.

If true, the traffic increase presumably results from increased media attention, raising awareness of the site, causing new people to seek it out, adding the court-ordered block to the long list of examples of the "no such thing as bad publicity" phenomenon.

Item the second: A series of self-congratulatory articles on Digg about the recent anti-Scientology raids and protests by Anonymous (yes, yes: we are legion, we do not forgive, we do not forget, we are your waiters, we have seen Fight Club too many times), culminating this weekend in a series of coordinated global real-world protests.

Exercise for the reader: Assume that Anonymous eventually gets bored and switches targets or otherwise moves on. Once the dust settles, what will be the long-term impact on Scientology: Net gain, or net loss? Show your work.

Is Scientology a deserving target? Of course it is. And this is not a new thing -- the anti-Scientology fight has been going on for years; remember when Usenet was the big battleground? But to imagine that this is for some higher purpose than lulz or notoriety or whatever is just silliness.

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BoingBoing Without Cory Doctorow: Sucks More, or Sucks Less?

Cory Doctorow is a polarizing figure. He's obviously popular and well-known, but lots of people really, really dislike him. (Though he seems to have outlasted many of his detractors.)

Part of the reason why is that he's so prolific. (He's also Canadian and a science fiction writer, though you can't really hold that, or any social maladjustment stemming from that, against him.)

What's more, he stands upon a very big soapbox and he knows it. Though he doesn't appear to play to his audience: Even if he didn't have any readers, he would probably still write about the same idiosyncratic, self-indulgent crap he does now. So I would call him uncompromising in that respect.

Similarly, he's a foaming, humorless zealot on many issues, and he's an inveterate self-promoter. So he's definitely in that "love him, hate him, or love to hate him" category.

In fact, he's kind of like Howard Stern.

I also think most of the Cory Doctorow hatred comes from unalloyed jealousy -- given the chance, who wouldn't love to have a loyal following of millions of eyeballs on which to inflict whatever inane blog musings they could come up with?

(Attention is kind of like the One Ring: "Sure, those other guys were corrupted by all that power... but if I had it, I could do some really cool things.")

Personally, I find his schtick annoying -- in his BoingBoing role, you could gin up a Random Cory Doctorow Post Generator, and I'm pretty sure it would pass the Turing Test (in that it would be indistinguishable from the human).

Notable in His Absence

Anyway, Cory Doctorow is on paternity leave right now, which means BoingBoing is free of his usual flood of posts about knee-jerk anti-DRM/copyright absolutism, steampunk, Canadia, his latest book translation or XKCD mention of him, Disney-fanboyism, etc.

Oddly, to those of us who thought BoingBoing might suck less in his absence, the exact opposite has occurred: BoingBoing seems to suck more now.

Partly, it's due to the sheer decline in output. I haven't bothered to crunch the numbers, but the daily post count looks to be about 5-8 posts lower than before he went on his paternity hiatus.

However, volume alone doesn't explain it. My theory: In his absence, it's clear that the role of Cory Doctorow and his inane posts at BoingBoing is to make everyone else's posts look better by comparison.

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from this.

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Weekend Mockup: Meet Head Coach Max Zorin and More

Skimming through weekend events:

* Semiconductor mogul/supervillian Max Zorin was named head coach of the Redskins. (I may have read that incorrectly.)

Grace Jones will replace him as offensive coordinator.

* Herbie Hancock won Best Album of the Year on the strength of his song, Rockit. Once again, Grammy voters show their unwavering support for jazz in their boldest move since Steely Dan beat Eminem.

* The WAMU Winter Membership Campaign is happening. Do they use canned phone-ringing noises to fill dead zones during the on-air pitches? If not, they should. Or at least do an A/B test to see if playing phone-ringing sound effects generates more calls. It's radio, they're used to that sort of thing.

* The McCain campaign responds to the will.i.am "Yes We Can" Obama video:

[Technically from today -- via Corey, who saw it on DailyKos because he is a communist]

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Trying to Reconcile the Brunswick Stew

I can't remember the last time I had Brunswick stew. It was definitely during a visit to Durham, probably about 10 years ago.

It kind of stays with you (there's something about how Southern cuisine likes to cook stuff until it falls apart.) Since I have a slow cooker now, I gave it a shot on Saturday:

My first attempt at Brunswick stew.

None of the recipes I found seemed quite right, so I ended up mashing a few of them together (primarily from About.com, Epicurious, someone named Amelia, and one that's on a few different blog sites but was actually taken from Southern Living).

I don't think I got the proportions quite right -- it was kind of tough trying to reconcile the different recipes. Some called for differing amounts of cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce (which I had to get). I also ended up overfilling the crock pot, and it ended up being a little chicken-heavy.

After about 5 hours, I took the chicken out, shredded it and added most of it back in, along with adding extra corn, tomato, and lima beans, which helped the ratio.

I'd also made some substitutions -- instead of regular chili sauce, I used Sriracha. I also added okra, which I don't get to eat very often (I like it, in spite of, or perhaps even because of, its odd sliminess).

The Verdict

The taste was a little off -- an odd kind of sweetness. And not enough heat -- maybe more cayenne pepper next time. And I'd left out potato, which was a mistake: It wasn't quite thick enough (I didn't check to see if it passes the spoon test). But all in all, it was still pretty good.

It had better be -- unless I freeze the leftovers, I'm going to be eating it for the rest of the week.

Want some?

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The Geekiest License Plate & Car Combo Yet

I was driving on Reston Parkway this afternoon when I noticed this vanity license plate. It's pretty geeky: "TO SOL-4" -- in other words, "To Mars."

Then I pulled up behind the car at a light, and saw that I had barely scratched the surface of the geekiness:

See the photo on Flickr for notes.

Please note the following items (you'll have to take my word on it, since it's not my finest cameraphone pic):
  1. "TO SOL-4 [Mars]" vanity license plate, in a Planetary Society license plate frame
  2. Matching Planetary Society bumper sticker
  3. Linux penguin sticker
  4. Discordian bumper sticker
  5. And of course, it's a Saturn.
Bonus: "I'm Pro-Choice on Everything" Libertarian bumper sticker.

And those were just the items I could identify.

In other news, it was really windy late this afternoon. I was driving north on Route 28 and I swear my car was headed northeast.

But at least the days are getting longer.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Lawyers Acting Like Lawyers: Sock Puppetry in Real Life

I had a meeting in DC this afternoon, and afterwards I stopped by the Hirshhorn and took a few pictures of the recent acquisitions. Of course, since I'm in a coffee shop right now and I forgot to bring a card reader (even though I specifically bought a couple of extra -- they're cheap -- so I would always have one around), that will have to wait.

In the meantime, here's an item from the City Paper's City Desk Blog, relating to one of this week's stories about a controversial cop's promotion. It shows how sock puppetry is a little easier to pull off online than offline -- the article's author got a call from an enthusiastic, but anonymous supporter of the cop. Then, in a masterful bit of timing, the cop's lawyer calls him the next day. And it's the same person.

Pure genius, that.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

All the News You May or May Not Use at LiveNewsCameras.com

Al's Morning Meeting had an item yesterday about LiveNewsCameras.com, which is an online video news experience that comes out of the Chicago Fox affiliate. It launched this week:


It's a moderated mashup of Fox news affiliate feeds -- if you click one of the updating thumbnail photos, you'll see the video stream from that station. If they're doing a news broadcast, you'll get it; at other times, you'll get a variety of things: Beauty shots of the scenery, raw live feeds from remote crews, traffic cams, weather radar, streaming feeds from their Web site, etc.

You can see the human element in the upper right -- they've got commentary from live video moderators who will highlight particular feeds. (Yesterday, you also overheard chatter from neighboring cubicles, though I think they've fixed that.) Just now, reporter Andy Roesgen was moderating. He'd been talking continuously for some time now -- it was kind of impressive.

The human moderation does add an extra dimension to the coverage (they also take great pains to point out that you can mute the moderator, but when you do that, you lose a lot of the value), but it also raises a significant problem: Having a human moderator is not particularly useful when there isn't anything going on. Which is going to be most of the time.

So, to avoid awkward dead air, the moderator either has to come up with filler (like rampant, unbased speculation during a crisis), or try to find something, anything, interesting from the available feeds.

And interesting doesn't mean relevant -- just because you get the unfiltered, raw scoop on a Philadelphia row house fire, doesn't mean it's relevant to you; you may find the illusion of relevance, which just means you get invested in something that wouldn't otherwise matter to you. It's kind of an artificial investment.

In many ways, it's kind of the news extension of the kind of "ambient intimacy" that many people ascribe to Twitter.

However, in Twitter may be kind of a solution to this -- they're already using their Twitter account and displaying the feed under the moderator video. Instead of trying to have a talking moderator 24/7 (or however long they're using human coverage), maybe they can pull in humans only when events warrant, and use Twitter (or similar alerts) to let people know.

Al has an interview with their news director -- it's in the nature of an experiment, and they're still feeling things out. Like I said, it has an interesting flavor, so we'll see what becomes of it.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cognitive Lock-In, in Living Color: The AOL FDO Message Boards

In my feedreader today was an item from Joe Manna in the AIM Social Media Blog (the group blog I spearheaded before I got canned) that AOL is finally retiring its legacy FDO message board interface.

The FDO front-end is the old ("Classic") view of the message boards seen only from inside the proprietary AOL client. It was superseded by the Web board front-end a couple of years ago, though you could still backdoor your way into the FDO view.

And many people did just that -- partially because the Web front-end had some problems, but also because they were simply used to things as they were. And why wouldn't they be? Outside of a back-end transition near the beginning of the millennium, the FDO message board interface was substantially the same as it had been, going back to the early days of the AOL service. It wasn't fancy, but it worked (mostly), it was pretty fast, and most important, people were used to it.

We've Always Done It This Way: Cognitive Lock-In

So, this is a particularly dramatic example of cognitive lock-in (an issue I'd written about in the AIM Social Media Blog last year: THIS SUCKS! Or, Cognitive Lock-In: The Familiar Is Better (Even When It's Not) .

Cognitive lock-in is a fancy term for "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," usually combined with a flavor of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It means that once people learn one way of doing things, they usually prefer it to a newer way, even if the newer way is "better" (by any objective standard -- like it takes 3 steps to do something instead of 5).

Which means that, even if the new product is a lot better, it would still have a couple of strikes against it, simply because people -- especially the stereotypically non-tech savvy AOL users -- were so invested in the old version.

It doesn't help, if, as in this case, the newer Web front-end is not a lot better. It had a lot of problems, dropped a few features, and still lacked many, many features any Web board user-at-large would take for granted (I remember a new internal employee who could not believe that people couldn't edit or delete their own posts.)

Psychology Strikes Again: Emotional Lock-In

So, when change like this happens, people complain. Often and loudly.

You can't expect people to understand the business and technology rationale for doing stuff like this (even if it's valid, which isn't always the case). And sometimes, you just outgrow the product, or the product outgrows you. In cases like these, I often wondered why people didn't just vote with their feet: If things were so bad, why didn't they just... leave?

If you weren't one of those paying customers who needed the dialup, there wouldn't seemingly be a lot to hold you -- there are lots and lots of robust interest communities out on the Web that match or surpass the communities that had developed on AOL, and they've definitely got more features.

This is where psychology comes into play -- especially for long-time community users, there's a sense of ownership and entitlement. For the folks who got to be the old guard, who were the big dogs and got to feel like they owned the joint: If you go to a new community, you're starting over from scratch -- a newbie all over again. If you've already paid your dues, why should you have to do that again? It's a powerful disincentive to leave, so you stay and complain, even beyond the point where it makes any rational sense to an outside observer (there's community in complaint and commiseration, too).

We saw another prominent example of this in the recent Digg algorithm change top user revolt. If you're an outsider, it looks silly and self-important there, too.

So What Can You Do?

You can't not update your products -- that way lies stagnation and the death spiral. The lesson to companies, then, is make sure that when you're making changes that could hit the walls of cognitive and emotional lock-in:
  • Don't do it unless you can make demonstrable, positive improvements with clear benefits you can show regular users (Note: Telling people about the cost-savings you'll realize because you're not trying to support dead or multiple platforms is not a user benefit)
  • Don't just add new features -- Make sure that you don't lose any of the old ones
  • Find user advocates to help evangelize and message the changes
  • Communicate the changes early, incorporate meaningful user feedback, and tell people what you do as you do it.
  • Prepare to take your lumps, because there will always be those folks who hate any kind of change... and in that group, you'll find the folks who won't leave unless they absolutely have to.
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The Worlds of Atoms and Bits Collide

My 10 free Moo MiniCards arrived a few days ago (I got a coupon code when I renewed my Flickr pro account last month) -- here they are perched on my laptop:

Since the Flickr set from which some of the pics are drawn is showing on-screen, it's got that whole juxtaposition-of-virtual-and-physical-worlds thing going on.

They're neat, though I'm not sure they're 20-cents per card neat. If I bought a set, I probably would have to charge people a quarter each before I could part with them.

Other things I've done today (thus far):

* Signed up for eDemocracy Camp (March 1 & 2).

* Submitted my Currency Conversion Fee antitrust litigation settlement claim -- it's good for 25 bucks because I used my credit card in Mexico and China a few years ago.

* Made a meatloaf. My usual recipe -- ground turkey, an egg, dash of olive oil, Sriracha sauce, random shakings from my spice rack, and other things I have lying around (in this case, chopped jalapenos, tortilla chip crumbs, dash of grits).

* Figured out that the reason why the rice from my rice cooker has been so dry these past few months was because I wasn't putting in enough water. Duh.

* Bothered a bunch of people via LinkedIn connection requests.

* Found my iPod Nano was completely drained.

More thrilling breaking news as it happens.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super Bowl XLII: Great Game, Lousy Commercials

At the Super Bowl viewing party I was at, pro-underdog and anti-Boston sentiment was in full effect. Outside of a smattering of Patriot fans (and not counting those with a strictly financial stake in the matter), most of us were pulling for the Giants.

It was probably the best game I can recall in recent memory -- looking at previous Super Bowls, I see that New England has had more than its fair share of 3-point margin games, though they've usually been on the other side of things.

As to the commercials (for which MySpace was the official online partner, though AOL's page is still good) -- the best were okay -- mostly for fizzy, sweetened, or alcoholic drinks -- the worst were horrible, and the rest were bleh:

* Sales Leads Are for Closers!
They could be peddling the Glengarry leads for all I know, but those horrible, horrible animated Sales Genie "100 free sales leads" commercials inexplicably employed unfunny, edge-of-racist ethnic stereotypes for no apparent reason.

And the fact that there were two of them gave me a horrifying flashback to the worst of the dotcom bubble 1.0's burn rate excesses.

* For Your Next Supercar Purchase: The Godfather parody ad for the Audi R8 was okay (though they might as well have gone the whole way and done a shot-for-shot remake) -- but it was for a US$100,000+ supercar. Yes, yes: Halo effect and all that. But come on.

* Women Loved Temple of Doom, Right? Careerbuilder chose poorly with the gruesome images of the heart jumping out, Alien-like, from the woman's chest. I felt like shouting, "Indy, cover your heart!"

* Guilty Pleasures: With shame, I have to say that I liked the Tide talking stain (the nonsense syllables put it over the edge for me), and people (I'm not saying I was one of them) did laugh at the commercial for the Adam Sandler movie. Though it's still not enough to make me want to go see an Adam Sandler movie.

* Last Words:
Overheard outside a Harris Teeter after the game: "There's no difference between a foreigner and someone who just doesn't watch football."

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