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Week of 25 September 2006

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Monday, 25 September 2006
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08:20 - Yesterday, I joined Blockbuster Online for a two-week free trial. So far, I'm not impressed.

In comparison to Netflix, the Blockbuster web site is crude. For example, as I was scanning through their list of documentaries, I clicked on the titles of several that looked interesting because I wanted more details. More than once, there weren't any more details available on Blockbuster. I had to go over to the Netflix site and look up the disc to find out anything about it.

Also, Blockbuster's queue management sucks. When I add a disc to the queue, it always goes to the bottom, as it does with Netflix. But when you add a disc to the Netflix queue, there's always a "move to top of queue" link visible. One click moves the disc to the top of the queue. Blockbuster has no such link that I could find. Also, Netflix allows you to re-order the queue in bulk. For example, if I'd just added a two-disc series to the bottom of the queue and I wanted to move it to positions 3 and 4, all I needed to do was change the numbers for those two discs to 3 and 4 and click the button to re-order the queue. Blockbuster has a similar function, but it works for only one disc at a time. When I tried changing the queue numbers for more than one disc and re-ordering the queue, only the first disc was re-ordered properly. The others were re-ordered but not in the proper sequence.

Availability may also be a problem. If you sign up for Netflix, they give you very high priority because you're a new customer. All of your requested discs are typically listed as "Available Now". I expected the same from Blockbuster, but it was not to be. The first disc I added to my queue was listed as "Short Wait". Hmmm. So I added another disc, which was also "Short Wait." Double Hmmmm. So I added yet another disc, which was also listed as "Short Wait." I was beginning to see a pattern here. Fortunately, I was able to get an "Available Now" status on several of the discs we want, so I moved them to the top of my new queue. I'll just hope for the best.

I signed up yesterday afternoon because Blockbuster says they usually ship the first discs the first business day after sign-up, and I wanted to get things rolling as soon as possible this week. When I visited the Blockbuster site this morning, I expected to see something like Netflix provides: a separate section of the queue at the top where it lists the status of my three discs, "Shipping Today" and so on. There's such a section, but it's still blank. Oh, well.

I decided to try Blockbuster because they have several series that we want, such as Cosmos, that Netflix doesn't carry. Unless things improve fast with Blockbuster, though, I'll just get those discs from them over the next month or two and then quit and return to Netflix.


Tuesday, 26 September 2006
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09:12 - I continue to be unimpressed with Blockbuster Online. I finally got emails from them yesterday afternoon telling me that they'd shipped my first three discs, but all three discs had an ETA of Wednesday rather than today. I have no idea where the Blockbuster distribution centers are located. I assumed they have one in Greensboro or Winston-Salem (this is, after all, a metro area of more than one million population) but that may not be the case.

Apparently, Blockbuster Online also ships discs from local stores, although for some reason they don't allow discs to be returned to those stores. I'd think they'd encourage renters to return discs to the local stores as a means of eliminating return postage costs, so I suppose they don't do that because it would complicate things too much.

One of the major reasons I dropped Netflix and joined Blockbuster was because each carries some titles that the other doesn't. One of those that Blockbuster carries that Netflix doesn't is Sagan's Cosmos. I have that in my queue, but I may have to reconsider. Over on the messageboard, Ron Morse commented that I'd better buy a new TV set now, because I'd need one after I finished throwing stuff at the screen when I watched Cosmos. The DVD version has apparently been updated from the original version, and much of that updating consisted of twisting science to suit Sagan's political ends.

I never had any great respect for Sagan as a scientist, at least after he started on his "nuclear winter" kick, but he was at least a superb popularizer of science. If what Ron says is true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, Sagan has become an enemy of science.

Speaking of science popularizers, one title that neither Netflix nor Blockbuster carries is the original Connections by James Burke. I understand why, too. That series is available on DVD, but only from a publisher that focuses on schools. The last time I looked, they wanted something like $700 for the series, which is simply outrageous. Under any rational copyright system, that 1979 series would already be in the public domain, but as it is it's locked up by copyright and available only at extortionate prices. I should probably check to see if it's available from our public library.


Wednesday, 27 September 2006
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08:59 - I am cheered to see that at least one of our senators sees the junk science spouted by the global-warming nutcases for what it is, and is willing to say so publicly.

My position has always been that we should be doing whatever we can to increase global warming, as it's the best way to stave off the coming Ice Age. That Ice Age, when it finally does arrive, will kill off billions of humans. A warmer planet, on the other hand, would do nothing but good for humanity. Sure, sea levels may rise a few inches and tropical areas may become a few degrees warmer. So what? At the same time, vast new areas will be opened to food production. It's no coincidence that during the Medieval Warm Period (about 900 to 1350), people on average ate better than at any time before or since.

Blockbuster delivered the first two discs yesterday, of the three I'd ordered. The ETA for all three was today, but as usual the USPS did better than expected. The first two discs shipped from Charlotte, NC, which I assume is Blockbuster's closest distribution center. With Netflix, most of the discs came from Greensboro, which is only 30 miles from us. Charlotte is about 90 miles, which I assume accounts for the one disc failing to arrive yesterday.

I actually prefer the Blockbuster return envelope. The Netflix envelope is larger, "floppier", and generic. There's a cut-out window on the back of the envelope, through which the barcode on the DVD sleeve shows through, assuming you insert the DVD oriented properly. The Blockbuster envelope has an actual sticky label on it that contains a barcode specific to the DVD it contains, as well as your customer number.

A year or two ago, Blockbuster was receiving scan data from the USPS as soon as the return envelope was scanned in the USPS processing center, and immediately processed that disc as returned and sent out the next disc in the queue. I don't know if Blockbuster still does that, but if they do it will speed up the process significantly.

The Blockbuster web site, to put it politely, sucks. The search feature is pretty much unusable. Oh, it seems to work. The problem is, it doesn't return results for discs that I know they have. For example, some time ago, I searched the Blockbuster site for James Burke's Connections series. The search function returned Connections 2 and Connections 3, but not the original Connections. Fine.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I did the same search and got zero results. That seemed odd, so I started to browse their documentary section, where I found Connections 2 and Connections 3. But despite the fact that they were listed under documentaries, the search function didn't return those titles when I searched for "Connections", "James Burke", or even "Burke". Then, last night, I repeated the search, again with no results. But this time when I browsed the documentaries section, Connections 2 and Connections 3 were missing from there as well. So, unless Blockbuster has somehow lost every copy they own of those titles, their search function can't be trusted.

Even when the search function does locate a title, there's often little more information available than the title itself. It's ironic that I find myself using the Netflix site to find out more about titles that I'm considering renting from Blockbuster. Blockbuster needs to fire everyone associated with their web site and hire some Netflix people to get their web site into decent shape.

The other bad thing about the Blockbuster site is that it does a very poor job on new and forthcoming titles. Netflix does an excellent job at this. Once a title is announced, you can add it to a special not-yet-available section of your queue. When the title becomes available, it automatically moves to the active part of your queue.

You can even add unannounced titles to your queue. For example, Barbara asked me at one time to add the movie Reds to our queue. As it turns out, that movie has never been released on DVD and there are no plans to do so. Still, when I searched for the title, Netflix provided full data about it--actors, date, and so on--with a note that it was unavailable. I added it to the not-yet-available section of my queue, where it would have sat, for years if necessary, until that title was available on DVD.

So, on to Blockbuster. Barbara and I watched and enjoyed Monarch of the Glen, a British series that's still in production. We've seen the first four series, which are the only ones that have been released on DVD. I saw the other day that Series 5 is due to be released in late October, so I attempted to add it to my Blockbuster queue. Blockbuster doesn't have a listing for it, and presumably won't have one until they actually get the discs in inventory.

As things stand now, I suspect I'll stay with Blockbuster for a month or two, until we've gotten the titles they carry that aren't available from Netflix. Once we do that, I'll drop the Blockbuster membership and return to Netflix. Or perhaps I'll just join Netflix for a month or two once or twice a year to get any new titles we want to watch.


Thursday, 28 September 2006
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08:11 - For anyone who thinks Windows Vista provides eye candy, Ron Morse posted this link over on the messageboard, with the subject line "Why I spent $400 on a video card to run Linux".

We're currently working on the new astronomy book, which we'll finish up in the next couple of months. After that, we have no new books under contract, so it was time to start talking to O'Reilly about our next new title. I pitched an idea to my editors yesterday. They liked the idea, but mentioned that they'd want the book to include coverage of Linux, XP, Vista, and ... OS X. So, if we sign this book, it looks like I'll be buying a Mac mini.


Friday, 29 September 2006
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08:18 - I don't think I'll be staying with Blockbuster Online. I joined Sunday. They sent out my first three discs on Monday, but with an ETA of Wednesday instead of Tuesday. Two of them actually arrived on Tuesday. I sent those back on Wednesday, when the third one arrived. I sent that one back yesterday. So far, Blockbuster hasn't even acknowledged receiving any discs back from me, let alone sent out any replacements. Also, most of the discs I want are listed as "Short Wait".

If this is how Blockbuster performs during the "honeymoon" trial period, I can't imagine how bad they'll be after the trial period. With a Netflix trial, I don't doubt that I would have received all three discs on Tuesday, returned them Wednesday, and had three more discs arrive today. Also, all of the discs in my queue would probably have been listed as "Available Now".

Yet another reason I like Linux. The tools are generally better. I'm back to working on the astronomy book. I'm using a planetarium program named MegaStar, which is generally considered the premium general-purpose charting program. One of the key features of MegaStar for this book project is that it allows filtering to specify exactly which objects appear on the charts it produces. (Most other planetarium programs allow filtering by object type, magnitude, etc., but don't allow you to specify that only designated objects appear.) MegaStar calls these filters "observing lists". You can have any number of them stored, although only one is active at any given time.

I spent most of yesterday creating observing lists, constellation by constellation, for the objects that will appear in the new astronomy book. Once I'd created observing lists for all of the constellations, I wanted to create a consolidated observing list that contained all of the objects in all of the constellations. With a typical Windows editor, I'd have created the consolidated list file and then opened each constellation list individually to copy and paste its contents into the consolidated list. It would have been easy to skip one or more of the constellation lists.

But Kubuntu includes Kate, the KDE Advanced Text Editor. With Kate, I simply selected all of the constellation list files with Shift-click and opened them all at once. I'd used Kate many times before, but always with a single file. I was surprised to see how elegantly Kate handles multiple files. When the file list first appears in the left pane, all of the files have a white background. As each file is viewed, the background changes to a blue shade, so it's easy to keep track of which ones you've viewed. That was very nice, I thought, but it was only the beginning. Kate actually changes the shade of the background to reflect how recently you viewed a particular file, as shown in the screenshot below. (Click for a larger image.)

As I worked my way down the list of constellation files, Kate highlighted each with a blue background shade. As I continued down the list, the background shade changed to indicate which files were most recently viewed. (Andromeda, and-v1.obs, is darker because I looked at it out of sequence.) Very nice.

15:33 - Oh, goody. After I posted this morning, I got email from Blockbuster to say that they were shipping me another disc. But the ETA isn't tomorrow, but Monday. Then, just a moment ago, I noticed on my queue on their web site (no email yet) that they'd shipped me a second disc. That one has an ETA of next Tuesday. Geez. I'm still in my trial period and they're throttling the hell out of me already. What a way to impress a potential customer.

So much for their "one business day" claim. Everything they've sent me so far has been with a two business day ETA, and the three discs I've returned have all been two business days in transit. (Actually, they've admitted receiving only the first two; no word yet on the third, which presumably won't be logged in by them until next Monday. Geez.) This service sucks. And it's not as if I'm out in the middle of nowhere. Winston-Salem is, IIRC, the 73rd largest city in the US, and the Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point) SMSA has a population of well over 1,000,000 (larger than the New Orleans SMSA before Katrina).

I was planning to join Blockbuster for at least a month or two, but if this is the best they can do for a brand new customer I don't want to see how badly they throttle me as a paying customer. I'm just going to let this two-week free trial period run out and cancel.


Saturday, 30 September 2006
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09:53 - I don't normally pay much attention to the statistics generated by our web server, but periodically I take a look at them to spot any trends. Here are the numbers for September for operating systems and browsers:

87.2% - Windows (mostly XP, but with significant 2000)
12.8% - Linux

53.1% - Firefox
44.9% - IE
02.0% - Opera

Pretty interesting, huh? Linux already accounts for more than 1/8th the traffic to this site, and with K/Ubuntu that number is growing every month. Even though my readers skew in favor of Linux much more than the general user population, this is still an interestingly large number. In particular, because many of the visits to this site occur during work hours, it's likely that the Windows number is higher than justified, because many visitors count as Windows visitors because they're using a Windows system at work, although they may run Linux at home. Just as interesting to me is that OS X is down in the noise.

Firefox is the dominant browser, as it has been on this site for a long time. Opera is just starting to show up, and is probably more commonly used than the 2.0% number indicates. Many Opera browsers are configured to report themselves as IE, so it's likely that the IE numbers are artificially high and those of Opera artificially low.

In short, I'm seeing a continuing migration from Microsoft operating systems, and particularly from IE to Firefox. Given that my readers tend to be influential in an IT sense, this doesn't bode well for Microsoft.


Sunday, 1 October 2006
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