Salon on Amazon's Mechanical Turk#

The 21st century twist on the Turk doesn't try to hide the people inside the machine. On the contrary, it celebrates the fact that we have become part of the machine.

Comcast, you never cease to amaze me

August 18, 2007

To Comcast's credit, everything was working within an hour of the technician leaving my place, and both the tech and his supervisor were very nice, but this story had to be told.

A couple of weeks ago I received my new TiVo HD, but I haven't been able to actually use it until today because I've been waiting on Comcast to install the cablecards. I was under the impression that I could just go to my local Comcast store, pick up the cards and install them myself; I figured my computer engineering degree meant I was qualified to slide what amounts to a PCMCIA card into a slot, but apparently not.

Today was the first day they could pencil me in, two weeks after I received the TiVo. In addition to the half-month the new DVR sat useless on my floor, there was a $16 fee for doing what a monkey would dismiss as boring.

Anyway, here's the play-by-play as it went down today. I actually wrote most of this while the tech was "configuring" the TiVo.

  • My appointment was from 8-12; they won't give you a smaller window.
  • At 11:50, because I was still waiting for someone to arrive, I called Comcast, and was now told someone would be here by 1. On the upside, I was also told that I would be credited $20 for the delay. Fair enough.
  • Someone arrived at 1:30.
  • He walked in and asked me if I was getting cablecards for a TiVo, to which I responded, "Yeah, that's the plan."
  • I asked how long this should take; he bent over and pulled 10-15 minutes out of you know where.
  • He said he needed to go back to his truck.
  • 15 minutes later he returned (was it already working?!?) and walked into my apartment without knocking. I mentioned that he should probably knock in the future.
  • He then called someone to ask for help (before he had done anything), which didn't go very well.
  • He spent 10 minutes writing numbers down and reading a one-page manual.
  • He attempted to insert one of the cablecards into the TiVo, but it just wouldn't fit; I told him that it may work better if he took the cablecard out of its clear, hard, plastic shell (I had a hunch that for this thing to work metal was going to have to come into contact with metal). Could I make this stuff up?
  • At this point he said, "This is my first time installing cablecards," to which I feigned shock and resisted the overwhelming urge to ask about the rigorous training he must have gone through before getting the title of "technician."
  • After finally getting one of the cablecards installed, I explained to him the difference between single-stream and multi-stream cards (you know, something he should probably know if he's going to be installing these things in the future).
  • He called someone again, asked me what that "multi-thing" was I mentioned earlier, and told me that everything would be setup soon.
  • The screen on the TiVo changed (because it was tired of waiting for these guys to actually do something), and I said, "Is it supposed to do that?," to which he responded, "Yeah, Comcast's computer systems are pretty advanced now." WHAT? I nodded affirmatively.
  • He tried to make a call in my apartment, but "couldn't." He went outside for about five minutes and then let himself back in without knocking, again.
  • He went in and out of my place two more times and then finally stayed outside for about 20 minutes.
  • He laid on my floor for a while and talked to the guy on "dispatch," who apparently had no idea what he was doing either. According to my boy, "Dispatch is very busy today" and will call us back. Did I mention that we are installing two of these cards today? Fun!
  • He used my bathroom.
  • He talked to some guy on the phone and walked through every single menu option on the TiVo; he kept returning to Tivo Suggestions for answers (which was empty by the way). I didn't have the heart to tell him that that screen holds suggestions, from TiVo.
  • At this point, I'm kind of, uhh, upset.
  • He got off the phone and called someone else, his "supervisor."
  • He told me that his supervisor told him that it can take up to two hours for the card to "hit" (presumably, that means for it to be activated). They're backed up today, which happens "every two months or so." I'm sure he meant to say "every day," but I didn't correct him.
  • I asked my boy to let me talk to his supervisor. I explained to the supervisor that no one knows what's going on or what they're doing. He told me that they're just backed up, and that there's nothing more his technician can do. I wanted to tell him that there were probably a couple of options on the TiVo the tech hadn't looked at yet (you know, like Amazon Unbox or something), but I refrained. Truthfully, the technician had three more people to see today and needed to get moving.
  • I told the supervisor that the tech couldn't leave just yet because we still needed to install the second card. I guess my boy had told him that he did that already, and for all I know, he probably thought he had, but the card on the floor (still in its plastic case) belied his assessment.
  • He asked some guy on the phone if he is supposed to leave the first cablecard in there while installing the second. It took all of me to keep my mouth shut.
  • He inserted the second card, called someone, rattled off some serial numbers and told me everything would be working in a couple of hours.
  • I knew he was lying, or rather had no idea what he was talking about, but I was cordial nonetheless.

And that folks, is how you eat up seven hours of your day messing with something you could have done yourself in five minutes, and for free. It's a good thing I'm not a busy person or the whole ordeal just might have upset me.

The strange case of iPhone-only websites#

I agree with Scott that the practice is a little hypocritical and that this conversation needs to happen, but at the same time, and despite how well MobileSafari renders most web sites, the iPhone is still a 480x320-pixel device with low-speed connectivity -- customized sites are inevitable.

Craig Hockenberry benchmarks the iPhone#

[T]here are huge performance wins with native applications: lower function call overhead along with faster iteration and calculation. Even transcendental functions and object allocation sees a 700-900% speed increase. More reasons for developers to crave a real iPhone SDK.

Google's $10 local search play#

As part of the Business Referral Representative program, Google is offering individuals up to $10 to visit local businesses and tell them about Google Maps and Google AdWords, collect information (such as hours of operation and types of payment accepted), and take digital photos of the business.

The Singularity Summit 2007#

I may have to go to this; the speaker line-up is unbelievable. Any readers of this site thinking about going?

Shaun Inman's Fix Width bookmarklet#

This bookmarklet "assign[s] a fixed width of 800px and auto-margins to the body element resulting in more readable line-lengths on sites that need to span the entire width of your browser window."

This is a wonderfully simple solution to the complaint I voiced in Death to liquid layouts.

Blueprint#

Blueprint "is a CSS framework, which aims to cut down on your CSS development time. It gives you a solid CSS foundation to build your project on top of, with an easy-to-use grid, sensible typography, and even a stylesheet for printing."

Very, very cool. If interested, Khoi Vinh recently interviewed Blueprint's author.

What makes Southern sweet tea so special?#

By ‘sweet tea,’ we mean ‘sweet.’ As one food technologist told me, some of the sweetest glasses can hit 22 Brix of sugar. That means that 22 percent of the liquid consists of dissolved sugar solids, or, to put it in more meaningful terms: close to twice what you'd find in a can of Coke.

When it comes to foodstuffs, there aren't too many things I miss more than sweet tea (especially my grandma's). Other ‘staples’ I've been denied since moving from Florida to California include Chik-fil-a chicken sandwiches, Waffle House waffles, and fried okra.

I've switched to Google Reader, for good

August 04, 2007

Or at least until something better comes along. I've obviously been playing around with Google's web-based aggregator since it launched a couple of years ago, but not until recently (err, not too recent anymore — MarsEdit tells me I started this post in March!1) was I ‘forced' to use it for longer than a day or two.

Bloglines, the aggregator I've used for three straight years (wow!), has a hard cut-off when it comes to the amount of posts it will keep as unread — 200 — while Google Reader has no such limitation (it probably has some upper limit, but it's much greater than 200). I was in a situation where I knew I wasn't going to be able to check my feeds for about a week, and I, of course, didn't want to risk missing a single one, thus my first ‘serious' use of Google Reader.2

While I've always had love for NetNewsWire, it's been a non-starter for me these last few years as I find its browser-based syncing partner, NewsGator Online, a bit clunky; I think Bloglines and Google Reader really are the only choices a "power" user has if he requires browser-based access.3

Why Google Reader is the best

First of all, Google Reader allows multimedia embeds (e.g., YouTube, Google Video, etc.), while Bloglines acts like they don't exist (i.e., you can't even tell they're there half the time, much less play them). While I don't usually like to watch videos inside the main feed window (I generally prefer to open interesting links in background tabs), it's nice to have the option, especially when I know the video is short and isn't something I'm likely going to want to comment on through the linked-list posts. If the idea of multimedia embeds excites you, be sure to check out Julien Carosi's Google Reader Preview Enhanced, which allows you to view everything within Google Reader (i.e., the actual page being linked to).

I find the "tags" feature very useful. I use it mostly to flag items I might want to write about later (if, of course, I'm away from MarsEdit at the time; if not, I'll just go ahead and open and save there). Using the excellent keyboard shortcuts, I simply punch "t" when I'm on an item of interest, and tag it as a bit, a post, whatever.

Trends is kind of neat, but it could probably be given more utility. That said, I do rather enjoy seeing how many "news" items I'm reading on a daily/monthly basis. For example, it currently tells me, among other things, that over the last 30 days I've read 36,517 items from 312 subscriptions.

While fairly new, and something I've yet to actually need, Google Reader can now take advantage of Google Gears, an "open source browser extension that enables web applications to provide offline functionality." With the Gears+Reader combination, you can bring the latest 2000 items from your feeds onto your local machine and access them when you're without connectivity (e.g., when you're on an airplane).

Jon Hicks hasn't designed a skin for Bloglines.

And finally, Google Reader's pièce de résistance — inline e-mail. From the Google Reader blog discussing the launch of the feature:

  • send email from within Reader — no more second window for sending email
  • send the entire item as it appears in Reader, including formatting and images
  • use your Gmail address book (if you have one) to add contacts with auto-complete

I constantly use this time-saving feature. It's always the case as I'm speeding through posts that I come across articles I know friends of mine would be interested in, and it's so nice to simply click "e-mail" and have an inline, auto-completing interface present itself. It's a wonderful thing. The only downside to this feature is that it can't easily be replicated by competitors (i.e., Bloglines can't offer this functionality because it doesn't talk to my e-mail service, Gmail). I'm stuck.

Problems/issues

Gushing aside, it's not all roses in Google Reader land, and I'm going to do the rest of this post the same way I did my earlier On using Gmail exclusively write-up (I should note that a fair chunk of the things mentioned in that post have since been fixed by Google), which is to say I'm going to list what's still ‘wrong' with the service and how us "power" users might be sated.

  • No way to batch-change all of your feeds to sort by oldest post. I prefer to read my news from oldest to newest — as events occurred/posts were published — but Google Reader won't let you change this except on a per-feed/folder basis.

  • When using folders, it sorts by date and offers no way to sort by feed (not even alpha). For example, my "Apple" folder contains quite a few feeds, and if I click on the folder instead of one of its constituent feeds, I'm shown all the unread posts, sorted by date. The problem with this only-sort-by-time approach (at least for some of us) is that it can significantly increase the amount of time it takes me to skim the posts. The reason for this is that I give some sites more intellectual "weight" than others; if Google Reader sorted a folder's posts by feed instead of time, I could rifle through a folder much more quickly because I could do super-quick skims of the sites I don't care too much about or don't expect to get much from (i.e., the posts from each site would be grouped together).

  • "100+" is meaningless. This probably burns me up more than anything else. How hard is it to say 43423 unread items? Hint: it's not hard at all.

  • Can't search feeds. Huh? This thing has been out for almost two years now and it still won't let you search through your feeds. I don't get it. A few kludgy workarounds have been devised (see here and here), but seriously, come on Google.

  • It fails to refresh a post after there has been some change made to it. For example, let's assume that I wrote, "Google Reader is kinda neat," in a post, and then decided to change it to, "Google Reader is kind of neat"; if I read the post in my aggregator, before the change, it won't show me the new language when it eventually slurps up the modified post. This isn't a glitch, but rather a deliberate decision made by the designers. I can kind of understand their reasoning — presumably to not confuse novices — but it really bugs me. If someone has made a change to a post, and that post hasn't yet been pushed out of the feed, I'd like to see it.

  • It still doesn't support authenticated feeds. There are a few sites I subscribe to that require me to have a login/password. These feeds are utterly inaccessible through Google Reader. This is obviously something they'll eventually fix, but…

  • It doesn't let you look at all the unread posts for a feed (or folder) at once, but instead presents them to you 20 at a time in a kind of show-as-you-go way. Initially, I loathed this feature, but I've since come around to it, and now quite like it. While the underlying idea is a good one, namely that posts are only marked as read as you scroll past them (instead of immediately after clicking on a feed/folder), the 20-at-a-time thing is by no means set in stone. I'd like to see all my posts at once (for the feed/folder I've clicked on), while still maintaining the mark-as-read-as-you-go functionality. This would be especially useful when I'm on a slow connection.

  • Can't "unstar all." This is actually something that Bloglines suffers from too. The idea is that when you "star" a post (or "clipping" in Bloglines) you are giving yourself a way to find it again. I only use this feature while at work (read: all the time), because I'll come across something that I know I don't have time to read (and don't want to open in yet another tab), but want to make sure I come back to later. Using the "starring" functionality is a bit easier in Google Reader than Bloglines, because the former has some Ajaxy goodness that really speeds up the process, while the latter requires multiple clicks and a pop-up. That said, neither service lets you mass-unstar the starred items, so when I finally get around to revisiting these saved posts I have to click each of them twice — once to open the post in a tab, and once to unstar it.

  • No "print" feature. To be fair, I don't think any aggregator has such a feature, but I think it would be incredibly useful. Yes, of course you can just use your browser's built-in print function, but that's not what I'm talking about here; what I want is a way to print an individual post, in a general, common way, somewhat irrespective of its markup. I think Google Reader should, and definitely could, provide a kind of generic "print" stylesheet that could be applied to any individual post (much like some thoughtful site maintainers already do). In light of the fact that most sites now publish full-content feeds, you shouldn't have to go outside of the aggregator to print something (i.e., currently, if you want to print a particular feed, you are probably going to want to open the post on the original site, and then look to see if that site has some sort of "print" mechanism).

  • Google Reader's Achilles heel? Its mobile implementation. Google Reader's mobile effort has always left a lot to be desired, even when you don't juxtapose it with Bloglines'. If you are going to force me into viewing my unread items as a disparate river of news, at least allow me to star — from within the list view — those that look interesting. That said, the Google Reader experience on the iPhone is quite nice; I'm still forced to go ahead a page to star something and still can't look at individual feeds sorted by folder, but it looks good and is responsive. Not to be outdone though, Bloglines' iPhone interface is fantastic.

In summary

Has Google Reader become the web-based aggregator? In my humble opinion, yes. Bloglines has a lot going for it — it kept me there for years, an incredible feat — and while it isn't necessarily known for being "innovative," it is known for being a joy to use, and I think that's what ultimately keeps it in the game. But, Google Reader simply provides a better all-around experience, and inline e-mail really puts it in a league all its own.


  1. I'm still not dead.   

  2. To be fair, Bloglines stores everything you, or anyone else, subscribes to, and so getting back all of those posts for the week is a trivial thing (i.e., choose "Display items within the last week"), but not so trivial as to not be an easy excuse for me to have to use Google Reader for a while.  :)   

  3. If and when Apple releases an "ultra-portable" (which I probably want more than anyone on the planet), I may go back to NNW; I'd run a copy on the Mac Pro and the notebook (which I'd bring to work), they'd sync up through NewsGator Online, and only rarely would I have to actually use NewsGator Online (i.e., when I'm away from both machines).