Apr 15, 2008

I've been ruminating for the last few weeks about the possibility of canceling my cable television subscription. Anyone familiar with my viewing habits will instantly recognize this as a significant moment, but this is hardly an attempt to ditch television altogether. While this decision would definitely curb my ability to channel surf or catch a movie on HBO by chance, my intent is to miss as little of my current "planned" television watching as possible. That is, I want to find alternatives to watching my favorite shows on live TV (or more accurately recorded from live TV via TiVo).

The alternative many people will immediately suggest is DVD. I know Josh routinely waits until a show is available on DVD, then puts in his Netflix queue. Sadly, I'm not quite there yet. I need the immediacy of watching a show within a few days of its original broadcast. This may be an unnecessary conceit, but I have to take baby steps, folks.

The way I see it, there are three options readily available to me: Amazon Unbox, the iTunes Music Store, and free episode streaming on the internet. For financial reasons, free streaming is the best option. After all, it would kinda defeat the purpose of this little quest if my Amazon and iTunes purchases added up to more than my cable bill. And yes, I know I can get just about any show for free via Bittorrent, but I'm keeping things legal here.

Here's a list of all the shows I watch along with their best availability from a non-cable alternative:

30 Rock
Free streaming (NBC.com)

Battlestar Galactica
Free streaming (SCI FI Rewind)

Free streaming (Fox.com)

Free streaming (CBS.com)

Family Guy
Free streaming (Fox.com)

Free streaming (Fox.com)

How I Met Your Mother
Free streaming (CBS.com)

Law & Order: Criminal Intent
Amazon Unbox ($1.99/episode)

Free streaming (ABC.com)

The Office
Free streaming (NBC.com)

Saturday Night Live
Some free streaming (selected skits on NBC.com)
Amazon Unbox ($1.99/episode)

Free streaming (NBC.com)

South Park
Free streaming (SouthParkStudios.com)

Top Chef

So "Top Chef" and "Saturday Night Live" would be the big sacrifices here. I can probably get by with the clips that SNL posts online, but I would miss "Top Chef" tremendously. Would I miss it enough to singlehandedly justify a monthly cable bill of over $50? Absolutely not. Besides, I can certainly plan one trip to the gym per week based on when I can catch "Top Chef" on the elliptical.

This analysis, of course, fails to take into account special broadcasts, like sports and award shows. Honestly, though, I rarely watch sports anymore and I just don't see spending hundreds of dollars each year just to watch an overly long Oscar broadcast.

So, this pretty much seals the deal that I'll be ditching my cable within the next couple of weeks. The only question is how much my internet bill will increase once it goes a la carte instead of being bundled with my digital cable.

Who knows? Maybe DSL will be cheaper.

UPDATE (2:50pm): Since publishing this post, I discovered that SNL is available for purchase from Amazon Unbox for $1.99, so those selected clips on NBC.com aren't the only option.

Apr 1, 2008

Hillary Clinton compared herself to a movie icon today:
Recalling a famous scene on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Clinton said that ending her presidential campaign now would be as if "Rocky Balboa had gotten halfway up those art museum steps and said, 'Well, I guess that's about far enough.'"

"Let me tell you something, when it comes to finishing a fight, Rocky and I have a lot in common. I never quit. I never give up. And neither do the American people," Clinton said.

And just like Rocky, Sen. Clinton loses at the end of the movie.

[Yahoo! News] Clinton likens herself to 'Rocky'

Mar 31, 2008

As you may recall, I made a New Year's resolution to read 52 books this year. I got off to a great start, but since that first book I've found myself falling into old patterns, like watching too much TV and doing too much mindless web surfing. Since the whole point of the 52 book challenge was to change these behaviors, I'm not going to let a little early failure deter me from my quest. If I'm going to fail, I'm going to do so as publicly as possible.

With that in mind, I'm happy to report that I finished book number two last week: The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta.

The summary from the book's front flap:

The Abstinence Teacher focuses on two divorced parents who each play key roles in the lives of other people’s children: Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school who believes that “pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power.” Her younger daughter’s soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim is a member of The Tabernacle, the local evangelical Christian church that wants to take its message outside the doors of its own sanctuary, and sees a useful target in Ruth Ramsey. Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively distrust one another. But when a controversy on the playing field forces the two of them to actually talk to each other, an uneasy friendship begins to develop.

I found myself far more interested in Tim's story. His motivations were far more developed than Ruth's and his plotline simply more interesting. Because of this, his character rose well beyond the typical evangelical stereotypes and became the more sympathetic of the two characters. Through Tim's experiences, I was able to look beyond my own biases and begin to understand why his religious beliefs were so important to him. Perrotta clearly put in a lot of research to help him understand the evangelical world, and it shows in his writing. But that doesn't mean he ignores the darker side of the born-again world, which is represented in the book by Tim's manipulative (and probably mentally ill) pastor and a few of his fellow churchgoers.

Ruth, on the other hand, was rather one dimensional, and her struggles with work and romance never really come to life. By the book's end I was only interested in her story as it related to Tim's.

Let's hope I finish book number three in less than two months.

Mar 13, 2008

There's an interesting discussion going on right now at Newsvine concerning the possible lack of mathematical support for the media's depiction of the Democratic presidential race as a deadlock. The author of the initial post on the topic asserts that Sen. Barack Obama needs only to win a little more than 43% of the remaining delegates to secure the party's nomination and that he's already favored to win in most of the remaining states. It follows, then, that Sen. Obama is all but certain to be the nominee.

In the comments, however, there is some debate as to whether this calculation accurately reflects the party's superdelegates and the impact they could have in swinging the vote in Sen. Hillary Clinton's favor at the convention. In recent weeks there have been reports of superdelegates defecting from Clinton to Obama, though much of this occurred before Clinton's much-hyped primary victories on Ohio and Texas. In short, the consensus of the Newsvine commenters is that while Obama seems likely to have more regular delegates, the superdelegates will determine the race's outcome.

So what happens if the superdelegates give Clinton the victory? I would expect the party to receive a lot of criticism from voters and the media for allowing high ranking party officials to hijack the primary from ordinary citizens. This kind of pressure could result in the party opting to do away with its superdelegate system by the time the 2012 election cycle rolls around.

Perhaps the best way for the party to preserve its current system is to make sure the superdelegates vote accurately reflects popular opinion, asking them to vote for the candidate who wins the most regular delegates. If that ends up being the case, however, it pretty much renders superdelgates powerless and negates any purpose the system is alleged to serve.

This analysis, however, requires the belief that if a candidate ever won the popular vote but lost the election itself based upon an arcane system of delegates, then America would be forced to change its electoral system due to overwhelming pressure from the people.

Ask Al Gore if he believes that.

Mar 12, 2008

Billy Bob Thornton is finally making plans to return to the director's chair soon, and one of his upcoming projects will be based on the story of well-known Kentucky caver Floyd Collins.

While searching for a new entrance to Mammoth Cave in 1925, Collins spent three weeks exploring the inside of a small cave (dubbed "Sand Cave" by the media). While trying to exit the cavern one day, he became trapped in a small passageway near the cave's entrance, knocking out his lamp and pinning his leg under a rock in the process. He was found the next day by friends, and efforts to rescue him began. A light was passed down for warmth and light, and Collins stayed fed on hot food brought to the cave, however when the cave collapsed in two places near the entrance, rescuers lost all but voice contact with Collins. The cave ins also blocked the recovery effort and rescuers instead began digging a shaft to reach Collins from below. Rescuers reached Collins over two weeks after he became trapped, but by the time they found him, he had been dead for three days. Believing it to be too dangerous to remove Collins at the time, his body remained in the cave for two more months. The news coverage of the rescue efforts and Collins' subsequent death is considered by many to be the first worldwide media sensation of the 20th century.

In the early 1980s, WAVE 3 News in Louisville aired a series of stories telling the tale of Collins ordeal and death. I remember being riveted by the broadcasts in my young age. This fascination stayed with me for many years. In my first two summers during college, I worked as a tour guide at Squire Boone Caverns near Corydon, Indiana, and made it a point during that time to visit as many tourist caves in Kentucky and Indiana as I could. I even went on "wild" cave tours at Wyandotte and Mammoth Caves that lasted several hours each. (At Mammoth Cave I even got to experience the horrible feeling of being in trapped in a tight passage way; unlike Collins, however, I had a professional guide to help me get free.) After I left my cave guide job, I worked for a few years at WAVE television. In my first week on the job, I learned that Steve York, then the Assignment Editor in the news department, had been the reporter who told Collins' story in those broadcasts I'd enjoyed as a child. During my time at WAVE I asked Steve about that series on several occasions.

I can only hope that Thornton's take on Collins will live up to my own hopes. Based on the director's comments, he looks to be interested in setting a dark tone:

[T]he reason I want to make the movie is I want to make the movie about human nature. It's human nature to want to see other people suffer for entertainment. That's why we have reality television. That's why every time there's somebody trapped in a hole, everybody's interested.

The deal for Thornton's Floyd Collins movie is not yet finalized, so casting, filming and release details have not been determined.

Mar 12, 2008

The website RateMyCop.com is back online today after webhost GoDaddy took the site offline Monday for undisclosed reasons. The new site allows users to rate individual police officers in 500 different police departments. Police around the country became upset when the site's administrators began making public information requests for the names and badge numbers of officers. Citing public safety, police groups are even lobbying to have legislation passed that would make the website illegal.

GoDaddy officials aren't commenting on the reasons behind their decision to take the site down, and according to a RateMyCop.com representative, the company has already given them two conflicting explanations ("suspicious activity" and exceeding bandwidth limitations). It remains to be seen whether or not pressure from police played any role in the situation.

It's doubtful any law passed to outlaw RateMyCop.com would pass Constitutional review, particularly considering that rating college professors and other individuals has long been fair game on sites like RateMyProfessors.com. Police officers have the same litigation options against defamatory commenters as private citizens, and in their role as public servants, officers should expect some form of accountability for their behavior to the citizens they police.

RateMyCop.com founder Gino Sesto told Wired.com yesterday that he had already arranged for a new web host and hoped to be back online by last night. A whois search of the domain today identifies the site's host as HostForWeb, Inc.

Mar 12, 2008

Just a few days ago I posted about Yahoo! News's odd practice of not including a link to bookmark articles on del.icio.us, especially odd given that the company owns del.icio.us. To make my point, I used the New York Times website as an example of one of the many media websites that includes "Share" links to del.icio.us and other social bookmarking tools with each and every article. I even included a screenshot from NYTimes.com to illustrate my point.

Well, earlier tonight the Times has made some changes, and del.icio.us is no longer featured as one of the site's bookmarking links. It and Newsvine have been removed in favor of two newcomers to the game, Mixx and Yahoo! Buzz. Mixx, which has only been around for about 6 months, is a social news and multimedia site developed by a former exec at Yahoo! News and USA Today. It's sort of a cross between Digg and Newsvine, where users vote on content found around the web with higher rated content placed higher on the site. Yahoo! Buzz is a similar tool that debuted just a few weeks ago.

With this focus on social voting/ratings (the Digg model) in its "Share" links, the Times appears to be giving a quiet endorsement to that model over simple bookmarking (the del.icio.us model). There is, however, another possibility. Given that Yahoo! owns both del.icio.us and Buzz, its possible that the company simply asked the Times to switch which of its sites the news outlet linked to. Yahoo! clearly is giving Buzz a much bigger push than it has given del.icio.us, illustrated most clearly by the inclusion of Buzz, not del.icio.us, links within Yahoo! News.

What do you think? Is the NY Times betting on the future of the social web, or simply honoring a corporate request?

Mar 8, 2008

In the last couple of years, bookmarking and sharing links have become commonplace on news media websites. Read any article on just about any news site, and you'll have the option to bookmark the story on del.icio.us, Digg, Facebook, Newsvine or several other services. This is becoming as true on a small city newspaper site as it is on a giant like the New York Times.

For those of us who use such services, this is a huge convenience. In fact, that "Recent Reads" block over in the right-hand column of this website is partially powered by my del.icio.us account, with many of the articles in that list added via the kind of bookmark link I'm writing about.

For better or worse, my #1 source of news is still Yahoo! News. Using their RSS feeds, I keep up to date with top stories from the AP, Reuters and others all from one source. Sadly, however, Yahoo! News is one of the few big name news websites that doesn't offer its readers bookmarking links. Sure, they have a link to vote for an article on the company's new Digg competitor, Yahoo! Buzz, but there are zero bookmarking options. What makes this omission all the more notable is the fact that Yahoo! owns del.icio.us. Yes, that's right. Yahoo! owns one of the web's biggest social bookmarking services, a service that is linked to by nearly every major media outlet in America, yet the company doesn't even link to it from within its own site.

Note that, for your convenience, I've included a link for you to bookmark this post on del.icio.us. And I don't even own the company.

Mar 6, 2008

A growing number of libraries, law and otherwise, are migrating their websites to Content Management Systems (CMS). In many cases, due to limited resources, the implementation is performed in-house by librarians, IT staff or even interns. When the money is available, however, many library administrators opt to hire outside contractors to perform the migration. A significant reason for this is the perception that contractors will have better CMS and design skills than in-house staff, thereby widening the technological possibilities for the new website. Having recently worked on a CMS implementation with an outside contractor, I'd like to share the 6 most important lessons learned from that experience.

Lesson 1 - Choose Your CMS First
When selecting a CMS, be certain that it is a system your organization can support. If your contractor is a Joomla! whiz, but no one on your staff has the slightest clue how to use it, your new site will never improve beyond the initial implementation. Similarly, well-funded libraries may be tempted to buy the latest greatest commercial solution and have the vendor itself perform the implementation. But beware: commercial systems often use a proprietary scripting language for extending CMS functionality, meaning the system will be practically unchangeable unless someone on your staff knows how to code with that proprietary language. Unlike PHP or other commonly used languages, the likelihood of finding a qualified librarian who also knows that language is slim at best. Instead, considerable time and resources will have to be spent to bring the new hire up to speed.

This doesn't mean that you're completely limited by your staff's skill level. There are often plenty of options for supporting a CMS. There are even firms out there who offer service contracts for open source systems, meaning you don't have to limit your choices to closed, proprietary systems to ensure the availability of 24/7 technical support. Better still, support contracts for an open-source CMS will likely cost you significantly less than the licensing and service fees associated with a commercial CMS. Further, even if no one on your staff knows an applicable scripting language, there will be significantly more incentive for them to learn a transferable skill like PHP than a specialized proprietary scripting language.

Lesson 2 - Choose Your Contractor Second
Only after you determine the CMS that best fits your needs should you select a contractor, and then be sure to pick a contractor that specializes in the CMS you chose. When you select a contractor first, you run the risk of having them pressure you into selecting the CMS that they are most experienced with, even if its functionality runs contrary to your specific needs. Similarly, if you hire a contractor based on general reputation, but who has little to no experience with your CMS, there's a good chance you'll be their guinea pig for working with a new platform. In the end, you'll receive a flawed implementation that only scratches the surface of the system's potential. Whether you choose Drupal, Community Server or RedDot, you should be able to find reputable contractors specializing in your CMS.

In addition, make sure your contractor understands that a library website isn't just about marketing the physical structure to potential visitors. Web designers usually have a firm grasp on the marketing functions of a website, making sure to include phone numbers, driving directions and lots of pretty pictures. What they don't always grasp are the service aspects of a library website. Patrons arrive at library websites not just for information about the library's building, but instead expect active content: online catalogs, research guides, and links to research databases and full-text articles. A good contractor for a library CMS implementation needs to have a full understanding of both of these purposes.

Lesson 3 - Make Your Contractor Accountable for Delays
In any project involving a contractor, it is imperative to include deadlines in the contract, and include pre-defined financial penalties for any failure to meet them. Otherwise, there is zero incentive for your contractor to complete your project within your desired time-frame. Instead, he will probably take on other projects simultaneously and prioritize those that do define deadlines much higher. This doesn't just mean setting a final deadline for the entire project, but also setting them for earlier milestones, such as design, content migration, and testing. This not only ensures timely progress but also that all necessary steps in an earlier phase of the project are completed before work begins on the next phase. As a result there is a lower danger that your contractor will, say, forget to add several pages worth of content because he was simultaneously designing and testing.

Lesson 4 - Require Detailed Documentation
Not only is there a strong likelihood that many of your content providers will have never used a CMS before, but there's probably a good chance they've never worked on web content at all. Given this likelihood, it's essential that your contractor provide detailed user documentation, both for content providers and system administrators.

Often, contractors will offer only instructional sessions with users. This option is flawed for a number of reasons. First, there is never a guarantee that you will be able to schedule a training session that accommodates all users' schedules. One or more people will likely miss the session. Second, these sessions are completely useless to future hires. If you think your staff will remain intact for the life of your CMS, you're wrong. Someone new will eventually arrive who won't be able to rely on a training session your contractor held two years ago.

Now, this doesn't mean training sessions are a bad idea. They can be very helpful, particularly if multiple sessions are held, allowing users time in between to use the system on their own. By the time that next session rolls around, they may finally "get" your CMS and have a whole new round of questions for the contractor. But even then it is dangerous to rely solely upon such training. By requiring full site documentation, you ensure that there will be training materials specifically designed for your website available long after your contractor (and your staff) have moved onto other jobs.

Lesson 5 - Hound Your Contractor for Updates
There are many good contractors out there who provide timely, detailed progress reports to clients. But there are also many who don't. If you encounter the latter type, then you must be prepared to devote a portion of every day to push for updates. When you arrive at the office each morning, pick up the phone and call. You might get voicemail more often than the contractor himself, but at least you are establishing a pattern of calling every single day. Then your contractor will know he needs to have something to report on a daily basis. If you do get voicemail, follow it up with an email. And in both cases, ask specific questions that require a response. If you ask for vague updates, your contractor can easily ignore your message. When you ask about specific issues related to the site, he'll know he has to respond before you'll be satisfied.

There is often a temptation to use conference calls to facilitate all communication about the project, thus ensuring that all involved parties are present for the conversations. Unfortunately, these can be time consuming to schedule, it's often difficult to find a time that suits most people. This can lead to delays and breaks in the lines of communication. Even if you opt to hold regular conference calls, do not fall into a pattern of holding all issues related to the project until the next call. Instead, pick up the phone immediately. You can still add it to the next conference call's agenda, but add it as a follow up item (i.e., "What progress have you made on the issue I raised three days ago?"). When a conference call is complete, write up all the topics discussed and all the decisions that were made during the call. Then email the summary to the contractor. Never assume he wrote these things down and is already systematically implementing everything you talked about.

Lesson 6 - Make Yourself an Active Participant
When hiring a contractor, it is very easy to let them do all the work. Given the steep price you're probably paying for their services, that's a smart inclination. But that doesn't mean you can't be actively engaged in the technical aspects of the implementation, and given that you will still be the website point person long after the contractor is gone, this is almost mandatory.

As your contractor builds your site, make sure you have access to the backend of the CMS so you can see how your specific needs are being implemented. When you don't understand something, ask questions. When something you specifically requested isn't being implemented the way you envisioned, speak up. You may fear becoming a nuisance to your contractor, and you very well might be, but considering that he is being paid to work for you, you're probably entitled to be a little annoying.

This level of involvement isn't just about holding your contractor accountable. It's about holding yourself accountable. You have a responsibility to understand your library's CMS site because your entire staff will look to you for leadership on the project long after your contractor is gone. If you don't know how the site works, that probably means no one in your organization does. Also, don't assume that just because you understand the selected CMS that you will automatically understand the site your contractor built. Every contractor has unique preferences and methods, and there might be ten different ways to accomplish the same task in the same CMS. You need to understand how your site accomplishes it.

Feb 27, 2008

Sunday was Hollywood's big night, and as always I was glued to my television from mid-afternoon onward. I don't want to call the awards show boring, but while Jon Stewart did a fine job hosting, the overall broadcast was just a bit too, well, boring. With one exception ("Falling Slowly" from Once by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), the best song nominees were spectacularly dull, and the canned montages before each of the big awards grew tiresome. The latter flaw, of course, was due to the recently resolved writers' strike. The show's producers prepared these reviews of past winners when there was a real chance no writers would be allowed to prepare material for the broadcast. Jon Stewart's Daily Show scribes did manage to cull a decent amount of gags in about a week, but some of the preproduced material was left in for padding.

Ironically, the show's highlight came during the presentation of the Best Song award. Hansard and Irglová walked to the stage to a warm reception from the Hollywood crowd. After Hansard gave his thanks, the band started playing, cutting off Irglová before she could utter a single word. After the next commercial break, Stewart took the unprecedented step of asking Irglová to return to the stage to speak. A truly classy gesture from the Oscar host. (Hopefully, the win for Once will mean a bigger audience for this amazing little film.)

As you've probably heard by now, the night's big winner was No Country for Old Men, which took home four statues, including Best Picture and Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem). Blockbuster action movie The Bourne Ultimatum surprised everyone by bagging three awards, though all were in technical categories. Both actress categories were minor upsets, with Marion Cotillard beating Julie Christie in Best Actress, while Tilda Swinton bested Cate Blanchett and Amy Ryan in the supporting field. Otherwise, the big awards went exactly as all the pundits had predicted.

So how did I do with my annual punditry? Not too well. I got only 14 of 24 categories correct. Last year, in a set of unpublished picks, I got 20 right. Two years ago I picked 18 and the year before that 15. Thus, this year marks a low point for me. I got burned by my prediction that Transformers would win three Oscars and Michael Clayton none. Instead, the giant robots were shut out, and Swinton made sure that Clayton got its due. Fine with me.

Here all the nights winners:

Picture: No Country for Old Men
Actress: Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose (My pick: Julie Christie)
Actor: Daniel Day Lewis - There Will Be Blood
Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton - Michael Clayton (My pick: Amy Ryan)
Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen - No Country for Old Men
Adapted Screenplay: No Country for Old Men
Original Screenplay: Juno
Cinematography: There Will Be Blood
Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum (My pick: No Country for Old Men)
Art Direction: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Costume Design: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (My pick: Sweeney Todd)
Original Score: Atonement
Original Song: "Falling Slowly" - Once
Makeup: La Vie En Rose
Sound Mixing: The Bourne Ultimatum (My pick: Transformers)
Sound Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum (My pick: Transformers)
Visual Effects: The Golden Compass (My pick: Transformers)
Animated Feature: Ratatouille
Foreign Language Film: The Counterfeiters
Documentary Feature: The Taxi to the Dark Side (My pick: No End in Sight)
Documentary Short: Freeheld
Animated Short Film: Peter & the Wolf (My pick: I Met the Walrus)
Live Action Short Film: Le Mozart des Pickpockets (My pick: The Tonto Woman)