Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ten Things That Used To Be Better

Ten things that used to be better, why, and how they could be better again

In the spirit of all the top ten type lists that were making the rounds last week, here's a slightly curmudgeonly, negative-but-with-positive-intentions, non-comprehensive end-of-2013 list of ten things I can think of at the moment that were once significantly better than they are now, and that could easily be made better again. Counting down, but in no particular order:

10. ASICS DS-Trainer running shoes

Since its debut in 1995, this was my runaway favorite running shoe. I ran my first marathon in a pair. I could go into a store and buy a box of 11½'s without ever trying them on and know I’d get 400-500 great miles out of them. Until around 2011-2013, that is, when they altered the design such that it went from a comfortable, breathable ride to a poorly ventilated ankle weight. And the colors got really bad too; the men’s 17 model was a nauseating baby blue and the 18 model looked like a garish bumblebee.

How to make it better: Make it more breathable, more comfortable, and better looking. Go back to the design of the 15 model, which was perfect.

ASICS DS-Trainer 18: this is seriously supposed to be a good-looking running shoe?

ASICS DS-Trainer 15: the perfect running shoe.


9. Honda Civics (and maybe sedans in general)

I drove a ’97 Honda Civic for about twelve years. That thing was affordable, comfortable, and just kept going. In 2006, a major redesign signaled the beginning of the end for this car. Sightlines were cut off by too-far-forward posts, dashboards began to prioritize rear-view camera LCDs, and wipers started moving in opposite directions instead of together.

How to make it better: Stop putting stuff right in the driver’s eyeline, be it bright dashboard lights or side-curtain airbag posts. And for crying out loud, just make the wipers go in the same direction again already.

a typical 2013 Honda Civic cockpit;
WHY would they put BRIGHT BLUE LIGHTS right above the wheel in front of the driver's eyes???
at least this model doesn't have a giant LCD rear-backup camera screen taking up console real estate


8. Athlinks

A textbook example of a potentially great website that definitely needed upgrading but got wrecked instead. The original version allowed you to easily see all your race results since race results started going digital (generally late-90's), compare times from similar distances and see averages, and check in on your friends’ times. The new version has larger text makes it hard to see enough without lots of scrolling, loses the “averages” feature, and often never finishes loading and instead leaves me looking at a blinking icon.

How to make it better: Anything at all would be an improvement over this atrocious redesign.

I liked it like this

whereas THIS mess simply sucks
(this is all I ever see; that torch icon just blinks and the page never loads)


7. Google Maps

So, Google did an upgrade to its incredibly useful Maps feature in mid-2013. Now they pointlessly make you do an extra step to get to the Maps feature from the main Google search page. And they eliminated the "terrain view" option, which I used pretty much every single time I used Google Maps, which was often.

How to make it better: put Maps as an icon or hyperlink back on the main Google search page (and while you’re at it, stop making the text jump up into the URL bar from the search box; isn’t that what the search box is FOR??), and for cryin’ out loud bring back the terrain view feature. Jeez, Google.

Mount Desert Island, ME, with terrain (you can see where the mountains are)

Mount Desert Island, ME, without terrain (mountains? what mountains?)


6. The X-Men

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a 42 year-old man. But I submit to any smirkers out there that there’s more here than you realize. I collected comics as a teenager, primarily due to Chris Claremont’s strong writing run on the X-Men in mid-80s. “Classic” storylines like the initial Brood arc, the first Wolverine miniseries (the “failed samurai” one with the ninjas in Japan, drawn by Frank Miller, that the recent movie was based on), the Asgard annuals, and Inferno were all worth a look. There was some fantastic artwork during that time too (Paul Smith, Art Adams, etc.). It all tanked in the 90's, when the writing sucked and the art focused way too much on exaggerated muscles, hyper-inflated boobs, and absurdly giant guns. And when every uniform seemed to feature a diagonal utility belt. More than a decade passed, and I never thought about comics during that time.

Then, to my surprise, there was a revival. Around 2005, someone told me that there was some stuff worth looking at again. I discovered that between maybe 2001 and 2006, some amazing work had occurred. Writers like Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon had fantastic runs on X-Men titles. The artwork veered between daring (Frank Quitely) and exquisitely detailed (John Cassaday) (and occasionally atrocious -- Igor Kordy, cough cough). And there were some OK years after that, too. There was much to like about the Messiah Complex, Manifest Destiny, and Second Coming stories, and the ultra-violent X-Force stuff was a welcome and darkly gorgeous look at what it would really be like with heroes who relied on claws, swords, and guns in battle. But it all sort of fizzled after a while, and the past few years appear to have tended towards lackluster and disappointing (Jason Aaron's early Jean Grey school stories notwithstanding).

How to make it better: Be daring again. And stop stalling with super-long setup stories; jump right in with the good stuff, please. Also, in the movies, bring back Cyclops (who pathetically died off-camera in the third movie) and pay attention to what made X2 so fun.

Paul Smith's first three issues

an Art Adams splash page panel


5. U2

Whether you like them or not, there’s no denying the top-notch craftsmanship that went into U2’s early work, from the October/Boy/War trio right on through The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby in 1991. After that, I admit, it’s more subjective. Personally, I really liked about half of the songs on the Zooropa, Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb albums; I’d even say some of their best stuff is in there. But their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, in 2009, just felt like they sort of gave up. There’s one good song, Magnificent, and one almost-beautiful song, Fez, that could have been something great but which feels like a half-finished demo. The rest is pure meh. After what seemed like a slow decline for the band, this last album was a precipitous dropoff.

How to make it better: On the next album (there's supposed to be one in 2014), either stop writing stupid lyrics for obnoxious music (Get On Your Boots? I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight?) and show some passion for the material (Crumbs From Your Table, Original of the Species… yawn), or call it a day and cede the stage to musicians with more fire in them still.

what's not to like in this list?


4. flickr

I feel terrible about including this one. I really enjoyed flickr for several years, from 2007 to about 2010, before the rise of the thousands of competing social photo sharing sites. Users were generally a pretty sweet mix of professionals and amateurs, and the social dynamic of it was surprisingly positive and fun (though you could find plenty of negatives too). A combination of factors contributed to the experience losing its luster, including the ubiquity of smartphone cameras, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, a gradual erosion of the most interesting users and commenters, and maybe blogging in general. And then around 2011 or 2012, they changed the basic structure and look of it all and did away with the original structure and layout. Long-time users either had to accept the upgraded appearance or spend a lot of time reorganizing their account.

How to make it better: I’m not sure this one is recoverable. All good things?

Now I just see shame messages directed at me; I don't even know what a "photo book" is. 


3. the “edit polygon” tool in ArcView

[all you non-GIS map software geeks, please feel free to skip ahead]
Look, all I’m saying is that in ArcView 3.3 it used to be incredibly easy to edit a shapefile and move vertices in a line. Click click done. The key thing was that whatever shapefile you had highlighted in the Table of Contents was by default the one you wanted to edit when you clicked "start editing." When the switch to Arc 8 was made, that ease went away, and weirdly, it’s never really come back. Why, ESRI… why?!?

How to make it better: Make it really easy to edit a polygon again. I shouldn't have to navigate to the shapefile I want to edit when it was already the one I was clicked on in the Table of Conents.

"When I made maps, we edited polygons easily, and we LIKED it!"


2. journalism

This is a tough one, because I don't have a solution and I was trying to stay positive here. My basic assertion (which is hardly original) is that with newspapers tanking and firing reporters, TV news (seemingly) requiring ever more sensationalism to garner ratings, and the rise in popularity of bite-size blog segments that merely parrot parts of original stories from elsewhere (often with no oversight or fact checking), I just don’t see how we’re not going to end up with a massive and society-damaging erosion of journalistic integrity. And in the big picture... that seems REALLY bad.

How to make it better: I don’t know. Anyone?


1. my marathon time

In 1997, I ran a 3:22 marathon in Virginia Beach. Since then, I’ve actually gotten faster at a lot of shorter distances and added ultramarathons to my list, but my marathon times have never gotten any better. It’s not age; I’m 42 now, but plenty of guys in their fifties break 3 hours on a regular basis. My more recent ones have hovered around 3:37 or so. I need to run a 3:15 to qualify for Boston, and as a lifelong distance runner I kind of want to do that.

How to make it better: eat fewer cookies and train my butt off in 2014? 

'nuff said

So there you have it: my somewhat curmudgeonly list of things that I care to gripe about, none of which in any way make me feel really old right now. What about you? Got any must-list Things That Used to be Better? 

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