We'll Meet Again

We'll meet again,
Don't know where,
Don't know when,
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day.

Actually, I do know where.  This will be my last post here for the time being, and if my MSN Space holds up, forever.  In the meantime, I'll leave this blog up as an archive of 2004 until I can migrate these entries to the new location (which will require some enhancements there).

New blog: http://spaces.msn.com/members/dglasser
New syndication feed: http://spaces.msn.com/members/dglasser/feed.rss

MSN Spaces is live!

Now I have to decide if I'm going to keep my blog hosted here or migrate it to its new location.

There are at least a couple of features that I've been missing in LiveJournal -- trackbacks and categories -- that I am looking forward to having. We'll see if there's anything I'll be missing from here.

Canine Projectiles

Talk to most dog owners and you'll find that they view their dogs as members of their families. When they don't have (human) children, they tend to vest in their dogs some of what other people vest in their children. You wouldn't think that anyone would knowingly put a beloved family member's safety at risk.

That's why I find it sad that virtually everybody continues to let their dogs go unrestrained in their vehicles, often with windows open so that the dogs can experience the great outdoors. Even people who would never think of not wearing a seat belt or letting a child ride without proper restraints do this. I wonder if this is simple ignorance or casual, reckless disregard. I haven't asked any dog owners about this recently but I suspect their reasons would have something to do with a dog's biological imperative to move around and get fresh air. (Perhaps people think that in the wild, wolves ride motorcycles without helmets.)  Virtually any explanation of this sort would echo what people used to say about restraining children in what now seems like the distant past.  I for one remember getting to ride in the tailgate area of station wagons.

A valid but outdated excuse would be the lack of suitable solutions.  A simple search query on the subject yields plenty of results.  Canine Auto is one of the first and best sites on the topic.

My belief is that it's a matter of education and acculturation.  I'd like to think that in another decade or so, letting a dog go unrestrained in a vehicle will be as socially acceptable as it has become for a child.

The New Library

Click to view a slideshow of the Central Library
Yesterday I finally got to see the new library from the inside. In a word, impressive. You can tell when someone sweats the details on a project: Striking yet useful design, lots of natural light while shielding its contents, accessible spaces without making the place too comfortable as a residence. Oh yes, and there are books there too.

If you're in downtown Seattle I'd put it high on the list of places to see. It's kid-friendly, too, should that be a concern.

Somewhat incongruous in the face of this splendor is the fact that the library is struggling to fund its bookmobile.

Boy, You're Gonna Carry That Weight

It's the time of year when The New York Times, the magazine section in particular, starts to resemble Vogue or Bon Appétit.  Fifteen pages of articles highlighting the plights of the unfortunate, surrounded by hundreds of pages of ads for luxury goods.  My favorite Sunday paper of the year is the one right after Christmas, when the ads are gone and the paper shrinks to half its normal size.

Why doesn't the New York Times syndicate its Obituaries section?  Too macabre?  29 RSS feeds at last count, you think they would have one for this.  It's one of the most consistently entertaining and readable parts of the paper, in part because most of the articles are written well in advance.  I supposed its a sign of my age that it's one of the first parts of the paper I read, as opposed to when I was younger and went first to the Sports section.

In the New York area you can get Saturday delivery of the non-news sections of the Sunday paper (magazine, book review, etc.) along with the regular Saturday paper.  It makes it easier to balance the reading over the weekend, since the Saturday paper is about half an hour's worth of reading and the Sunday paper takes most of the week.  Every year or two I call the subscription center to ask when this service will be available locally and they always tell me they have no plans to provide it.

Man, I'm starting to sound like Andy Rooney.

Netflix sucks

I've been a Netflix user for three years and am a generally satisfied customer who has recommended the service to others.  And yet I think their business is at risk and I won't be particularly sorry to see them die off.  Why?  Because they've squandered their first mover opportunity to use technology to build true stickiness into their service.  They've done a great job at addressing fulfillment -- I can send back a disk on Monday and most of the time I have its replacement on Wednesday -- but they've done virtually nothing of consequence in the past three years to improve their user experience.  As a result, the only retention mechanism they have, other than general customer loyalty, is the pain of migrating one's queue, and a determined competitor could easily write a screen scraper that would automatically import a person's Netflix queue into their service (and the rental history and ratings as well).  So they're ripe for the picking by a well-funded, technology-savvy competitor who can beat them on price and features.  I wonder if any of those exist?

I have numerous suggestions for how they need to improve their user experience, but I'll focus first on the ones they should have done years ago to create customer stickiness.  Not surprisingly they're all about social networks and community.
  1. Friends' recommendations -- I know that my mother, my in-laws, and lots of my friends use Netflix, so what do I do if I see something I enjoy and I think one of them should see it? I phone or email them with the recommendation. Instead of creating a system where I can automatically make and receive recommendations from people I know from within Netflix, they've created a general purpose rating and recommendation scheme that is virtually useless. I can't remember the last time I made a rental decision based on those. When I rate a disk that I've returned, I should be able to see a friends picker and choose other people to whom to recommend it (and how highly). And when others recommend disks to me, I should get to see that as well, perhaps even via an email notification.

  2. What my friends are watching -- I should be able to allow my friends to see my queue and be able to see theirs if they let me. For extra credit I should be able to annotate their queue so that they can see my comments on what they're planning to rent or view their comments on what they've recently returned.

  3. Discussion bulletin boards -- Netflix should host or sponsor bulletin boards to discuss movies to foster a sense of community, with one-click rental access any time a title is mentioned.

Any of those things, especially the first two, would have made the switching cost to a competitor painfully high.

While I'm on a roll, I might as well mention a few of their other lamenesses:
  • I should be able to put anything in my queue, even if there's no imminent plan for its release. Who cares that there's no official release date for the fifth season of The Sopranos? I know it's going to be out on DVD at some point, why should I have to remember when? It's a logical improvement to one of my favorite Netflix features: When a movie I'm interested in comes out in the theaters, I put it in my queue so that I remember to rent it if I don't get around to seeing it in the theater (which these days is most of the time). The way I see it, if it's listed in IMDB, I should be able to put it in my queue. Even if they have to create a third "No known current release" queue that has the ability to promote automatically to the "Awaiting Release" queue.

  • Support for multi-disk sets is poor. One of my first Netflix experiences was trying to rent the then just-released second season of The Sopranos. I put all of the disks at the top of my queue, and what happened? The first disk of the series wasn't available because everyone else wanted it too, so they sent me the second disk in my queue, which was the second disk in the series. Nowadays I work around this by always putting at least one consolation disk between the next one I want and the one after it, so I can ensure that I don't get them out of order.  What a waste of time for me.  Oh yes, they did add support for multi-disk sets a while back, but all they did was make it possible to add an entire set to the queue as individual items with a single click.

  • There should be a way to have multiple queues per account or some other way to organize my queue so that it's not just a monolithic list. I could elaborate on family scenarios and the like but I think the value is pretty obvious.

  • The user interface seems to be optmized for people with small queues. OK, so at around 240 my queue is probably much longer than average, but their user experience doesn't scale well beyond around twenty. Their renumbering system is byzantine if you're trying to rearrange more than one movie at a time. Have these people heard of arrow buttons or drag and drop?

I happened to have cause today to request my entire rental history (admittedly a cool feature) and decided to see how much I'm spending relative to traditional rental options.  Thanks to Excel I was able to do some quick analysis.  I've rented 120 disks in 38 months, which at around $20/month works out to $6.33 per rental.  Probably a little more if you assume that a few of those are bonus disks that would have been included if I'd rented from a video store, but in any event assume between six and seven dollars a month.  It drops below six dollars a month if I compute based on their new $18/month price.  So figure I'm paying a 100% premium for the convenience and great selection.  At these prices I'd say it's worth it.

I also decided to see how long I tend to keep the disks, which is something I've tended to beat myself up about.  Basing it on their reported shipped vs. received dates, I've returned around a quarter of the movies within nine days, half within twenty days, and three-quarters within thirty days.  Better than I thought.  Of course, I've kept around ten percent for more than two months.

Phone's a keeper

I've decided to keep the phone.  Today I ported my phone number from my old cell phone and symbolically pulled off the protective plastic.  Now I just have to decide how much energy I want to put into customizing it.  Answer:  Probably not much, though I will invest in a 256 MB miniSD card to give me some options.

My next project is getting better than 480i with the new HD DVR from Comcast.  My projector requires an RGB input for anything better, so I probably have to invest in a component to RGB converter like this one.