There was an Urbanspoon get together at Chai Pani recently, and Grant Goggans of Marie Let’s Eat started teasing me that he’s 500 views from passing me on the Urbanspoon rankings. If he does, more power to him. I’m at a point where between either having a very high stress job situation or no job at all (my present circumstance), I haven’t had the time to eat as I once did. That I’ll get passed is inevitable.

I’ve never wanted to be the conversation around food in this town. I’ve been quite happy just being a part of it. If I can still be a part of that conversation, that’s enough. If I’ve held the ranking for some time, it’s a tribute to the difficulties of the Atlanta commute. I ate in part to deal with the time it took to commute back and forth from work.

~~~

Ok, I’ve been between jobs – still are actually – and I had a job offer last week. In celebration, I decided to do something about those costly cable bills, as my wife had a tech say we could cut the bills. One approach was Comcast Triple play, which would allow us to eliminate phone service bills and the long distance bill. We decided to go that route. So I headed to Grayson kast Saturday, and got a deal, which went something like this:

1. About a $60 reduction in cost once the new service was added. New price good for a year.
2. All my old shows plus HBO.
3. Twice the Internet speed.
4. A service tech to come out this Wednesday to install the phone.
5. I was going to purchase my own cable modem to support, which would be installed this Monday.

So it’s Monday. The modem has arrived, an Arris TM822G. I don’t need more modem, because I have a wifi router behind it. I only need a phone jack for a base set, and we have receivers all around the house.

It’s not easy getting in. I call, find the right spot in the queue, and they offer a call back service, to call me back within “eight to twelve minutes”. Saying yes at this point was my first mistake. After waiting half an hour without any callback whatsoever, I call again and stay on the line, and finally get a tech. So we begin the process of adding the new modem, which in general should be seamless and take about five minutes.

Except of course, she can’t add the modem to the system. She can’t add the modem to the system..

because without informing me, my order was cancelled on Sunday, the day after I made it.

She can’t add my order back because she can’t port my phone number, so I get transferred to Sales. supposedly. The transfer goes on for about 5 minutes and then disconnects. This sets the tone for about two more hours of hell. I call in and get disconnected. I call in and get someone like my first lady, they encounter the same issues, and they transfer me to Sales, and I get disconnected. This goes on and on and on, totalling five disconnections in all.

Finally I call upgrades directly. I get another lady who goes through the same process. At this point, my five minute modem swap has cost me two and a half hours, almost all of it in queue. Then she asks, “did they start the port of the phone number on Saturday?”

“Yes, they did.”

I then go on to say I was called on Sunday to validate that I really wanted my phone number switched.

“Then that’s the problem. We use a third party verification service, and they take 24 to 72 hours to get the confirmation back to us. We’re not going to be able to proceed until that is done.”

Ok, so that’s why the order was cancelled. The phone number transfer wasn’t validated. But it also means I’m in limbo. My new job starts in December. And if this runaround continues, Comcast won’t be able to put in the new phone number until I’m just starting my new job. And out where I live, there is a fair chance that the tech won’t even show, a 100% chance if you schedule them in the evenings.

But the take home for me is that the provisioning system for Comcast is hopelessly broken. The modem add, which should have taken five minutes (and note, while I was on the phone and the new modem connected, my daughter started watching Netflix over our Internet. The modem was working just fine), ended up taking a couple hours and we had to swap back to the old one because the new one couldn’t be added to the system. A software flaw cost me at least two hours.

No one informed me my service order had been cancelled. What if I had taken leave on Wednesday in anticipation of a tech showing up?

Now I’ve lost the appointment I was going to have. The new one? I suspect I’ll get this all set up in December, something that will cost me work time on a brand new job, and if the past is any indication, it will take 2-3 attempts for the tech to even show. As the change nets me $60 a month, this sheer incompetence on Comcast’s part makes them money.

I live tweeted all this. DISH was making offers via twitter as this happened. If I had a satellite view at home, I might have gone that route.

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If I were to create a statistic called “Talk of the Town”, and with it try to gauge which restaurants were in the news, I think most folks would have a good instinctive idea what such a statistic would measure. It shouldn’t be limited to a particular forum. It shouldn’t be limited to a particular group. It should have some sense of who is talking about what, and how wide spread that conversation actually extends.

Urbanspoon provides such a statistic, and it’s called Talk of the Town. In general, they weight contributions by mainstream media, alternative media, and to some extent, their own top 10 bloggers in creating this list. I’m in the top 5 bloggers as ranked by Urban Spoon, and I noted one day that if I reviewed a restaurant, and another top 5 blogger reviewed a restaurant within a few days, that restaurant would end up in the bottom half of the top 10 for a week or so. It was something I noted. It didn’t really disturb me. The metric, as it is currently implemented, is however notably imperfect.

There is an ‘elite’ status that Urbanspoon can confer to an active user of the system, and they are called Primes. Some primes are well known bloggers. Marie Let’s Eat, Foodie Buddha, Chow Down Atlanta and your truly all are Primes. Some Primes, and some of the best Primes, have no personal blog and yet wield, in my mind, considerable influence  on the Atlanta food community. Barney (who also has a handle on 285 Foodies) comes to mind.

Over the past months, there has been a push within Urbanspoon, by a certain set of Primes, to decouple US’s Talk of the Town stat from any meaningful connection with any influence outside of Urban Spoon and make it dependent purely on what Primes think. This is one proposal. Another is to make it dependent on what “Top Contributors” think. Understand that US is a web and phone application whose parent company is small, with few employees. They depend heavily on Prime contributions to do dirty work for them and keep their database fresh. If a particularly important subset of Primes push hard enough, and no one speaks up, things will change, and not necessarily for the better.

The subset pushing for decoupling is noted for another couple peculiarities. They are envious of the mainstream media, and they are jealous of bloggers. Every time they open their mouths, bloggers like me are depicted as giving a less than sincere or “genuine” contribution to Urban Spoon. I’ve seen a ton of blogger versus Prime debates, and this group of Primes disappoint me routinely with their myopia. The notion that a major fundamental difference between Yelp and Urbanspoon might be US’s investment in its blogger community does not occur to them. The notion that Yelp might be more read than Urbanspoon – much less TV or print media – never occurs to them either. And it’s exactly this subset leading the charge to remove any “external” influence from the Talk of the Town stat.

Metrics at times don’t entirely encapsulate the influence of certain people on the food scene. Take Mr Jones of Eat Buford Highway as an example. Take Sean, of Take Thou Food, as another example. These folks have, on occasion, turned the whole of the food community’s opinion on the reputation of various eateries, and yet are not to be found on Urbanspoon’s Prime list, nor among their top 10 Atlanta bloggers (Sean, though, is still the top ranked Athens GA blogger). That said, thinking about how to measure their contributions leads to the abstract notion of reputation.

So what is a reputation? How do you measure it? Why are we concerned at all? It’s because if we’re in the shoes of a small web company with limited resources, we really can’t measure a Talk of the Town. We don’t have the resources to, say, interview millions of people continually. We, at best, have to estimate it. And if we can estimate reputation, and find a subset of folks who have plenty of it, then the “Talk Score” for a restaurant becomes, in pseudocode:

Score = Sum(Mention(i)*Reputation(i)/(Age_Of_Mention + 1 ))

So, who should be counted? How do we measure their influence? But simply put, about the worst solution I can think of is to total a few select members of the US community. Questions that come to my mind are: why should Primes or Top Contributors have any more say than a regular US member, and if the answer is no, don’t we already have the results of what they seek in the regular Urbanspoon restaurant ratings? If not in the rating itself, just look at new restaurants with high approval rankings (< 3 months old, circa 20 votes, over 90% positive).

What’s wrong with a US statistic that is what it claims to be? Call it Prime Picks, or Top Contributors Recommend? That’s the appropriate forum for the “elite” users. It’s otherwise a travesty to call such a stat Talk of the Town, because the notion that I’m paying as much attention to my local Top Contributors* as much as mainstream media in town, is asinine.

Now, much of my points of  view come from someone living in a city with a large number of Urbanspoon users, a large blogger community, a large and active collection of media talking about food. In communities served by one or two newspapers with an indifferent attitude towards food (I’m thinking about Shreveport LA, near where my dad lives), an extended definition of “Talk  of the Town” may create a metric that serves the community better than the current implementation. But a *cough* Talk of the Town *cough*  metric that basically counts only what Primes think is in my mind, exclusive, degenerate, too reminiscent of the top 100 list already, and in many way, overly empowers the vote of those Primes.

* One problem is that it’s too easy to become a Top Contributor. I can become one by making 10 reviews, taking 40 photos of every restaurant I review, and uploading each photo into Urban Spoon. This could be done in the span of a week, and suddenly, I’m a “Top Contributor”.

 

Update: fixed the formula to add an age component. Older mentions should eventually disappear.

Got up this morning and wasn’t happy with the site. Not that anything was wrong, but it seemed to lack pizzaz. Now part of that is deliberate. I dislike cluttered, unreadable sites whose functional text area is the size of a postage stamp. I want my articles to be central to the experience of reading  this blog.  Still, there is more to me than just the classic IT salaryman, and some of that diversity needs to be pointed out. Seeing a sizable exotic tag (“Chamorro”, for example) might help.

Further, I’m updating the “Shopping” page with items I’ve found useful in my exchange diet. That means “Shopping” is no longer just a list of grains. To a surprising extent, grains and omega 3 balance are at odds with one another. Abuse of grains and grain-derived oils is central to the whole omega 6 imbalance in the typical Western diet. Yes, that means you should avoid canola and cottonseed oils in your cans of fish.

I’ve been #1 on US the past couple weeks. An explanation is that almost all the other bloggers had ratings based on Antico Pizza Napolitano, and as it falls off the “hot” list on US, my relative  ranking improves. That’s not the only issue but it’s the most obvious of them. Frankly, I’ve always liked that the top 4 or 5 was a pot constantly stirred. As a site catches some good reviews, it gets hot and rises. A site will fall as other things  (school, life, work, marriage) get in the way.

Oh yes, and clueless me finally realized that Jon Watson of the AJC was the blogger Live To Feast, whom I have met. duh. OU, as a colleague pointed out, is the Kosher symbol. duh.

One note in general are the smaller number of comments per article posted. This seems true across all the Atlanta food blogs. It would be scary if blogging becomes a write only profession, and loses its interaction. Some of my best readers have been bloggers  themselves: are they just growing apart? Wearing out? Interests diverging? Food blogging hasn’t stopped by any measure, it seems to be accelerating, if anything.  But as the readers become writers, and 50-something Atlanta blogs become something closer to 150, perhaps weariness sets in.