Friday, May 20, 2016

Movie Reviews: Captain America: Civil War, Straight Outta Compton, Noah, Anomalisa, The Prophet

Captain America: Civil War: Another Marvel MCU movie. Yippee.

Iron Man (1) is the only MCU movie that I think stands as an actual good movie. The Toby MacGuire Spiderman movies were also good movies, but these apparently don't count as MCU movies. (Spiderman 1 and 2 were very good movies; Spiderman 3 was a good but rather silly movie: a good movie ruined with too much "Jar Jar Binks". I don't consider any of the other MCU movies to be "good"; they are entertaining, sometimes fun or funny, but their stories are puerile, characters are one-dimensional, the conflicts have no tension (since no one ever dies, and frankly we wouldn't really care if they did), and they engage nothing but a love of cinematic special effects.) Still, I enjoyed The Avengers, I kind of enjoyed The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and kind of, sort of enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy.

Add this one to the list of MCU movies that I kind of enjoyed. The central conflict is a rehash of the plot of 2000's X-Men and this year's Batman vs Superman (which just goes to show you how empty of ideas these movies are. By the way, I also consider X-Men to be a good movie, and I kind of enjoyed X2, X-Men Last Stand, and X-Men First Class, and X-Men Days of Future Past). The plot of these three movies is:

Government(s) wants to register people with special abilities. Those who have them take sides as to whether they wish to comply with the registration. Some kind of misinformation gets cooked up, people with more muscle than brains start fighting each other, but they try to avoid actually hurting each other. The setup is always far-fetched and highly unlikely. In the end, they have to combine to fight something even bigger, typically someone who was behind pushing the registration act to begin with (which was a front for some nefarious purpose).

They never really explore the actual implementation of this idea in any of these movies. Apparently, America registering superheroes is more of a theoretical problem than an actual one. What would happen if it was China or Iran that wanted to have a say about these guys? How would this impact the Israel-Palestinian conflict, for instance?

Anyhoo, this movie rises a little above the fray in that it doesn't start from a blank slate (as if the other superheroes don't exist) or end up all back where it starts, which is the case for most of the other MCU movies. So something happens. Just not enough to really matter.

I was unimpressed with yet another Spidey backstory. I was unimpressed with Black Panther; in fact, his existence diminished Captain America's specialness. Bucky seems like he could have something interesting to provide, but his screen time is wasted in action sequences.

Still, the movie is upbeat and friendly looking, unlike the recent Batman vs Superman. It remains comic. It moves from sequence to sequence without feeling like it is dragging. The acting within its limited scope is fine, and the directing and production are top notch, and usual. Go team.

Straight Outta Compton: This is perhaps the best movie of 2015, bearing in mind that a) I only watched about twenty movies from 2015 (I haven't seen The Revenant or Room), and b) I actually enjoyed some of those movies more (The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Inside Out, and The Age of Adeline). That it was only nominated for one Academy Award is a crime.

It is roughly based on true material and has no specific story arc. It follows the creation, disbandment, and near recreation of N.W.A., who are essentially the co-creators of gangsta rap or reality rap: rap music that doesn't just play around, but speaks poems of gang bravado as well as the pain, frustration, and anger about the treatment of blacks at the hands of whites. These latter themes are only now recognized in the wider community, following the ongoing publicity of apparently indefensible beatings and killings of unarmed or unhostile black residents in major American cities.

The story revolves primarily around Easy-E - it's really his story - Ice Cube, and Jerry Heller (the manager). The characters of the other band members are less defined, although Suge Kinght and Dr Dre play important roles. The acting is superb and so is the direction. Jerry the Jewish manager has a complex story arc: he is both the person who recognizes their talents, promotes and positions them for success, and defends them as best as he is able against irrational police harassment, as well as the person who ultimately drives them apart by favoring Easy over the other members (and apparently embezzling some of their money; the real Jerry is suing the movie for defamation of character, so it's hard to know exactly how much of this is true). Easy E and Ice Cube transform in believable ways.

It's entirely possible that you will hate the music and still like the movie. You may also hate the unabashed explicit language of the songs. Their lyrics are horribly misogynistic and occasionally antisemitic. Now, there is a difference between casual, cultural antisemitism and deep personal antisemitism. Casual and cultural antisemitism can be unlearned when its purveyor actually meets and listens to a Jewish person. He or she can unlearn bad habits and learn to be respectful. Deep personal antisemites never learn; they interpret every Jew they meet and every event that happens in the light of their antisemitism. It either reinforces their narrative or they see it either as an aberration or a conspiracy. I would like to think that the antisemitism of N.W.A. was casual and cultural - which is what the members have said, apparently - although that doesn't make me feel much better about it.


The sexism appears to have been pretty deep, however. (Who are the girls that show up at these parties and take off their tops and clothes? What are they hoping to achieve in life? Money and drugs?) The movie doesn't help with this. Of the two women who have any major roles in the movie (and these are not very major), one is a mother who forces her kid to get a job and the other is a girlfriend who has a single moment in the movie where she uncovers Jerry's shady accounting practises.

You may also find something oddly unsettling about the message: some of these guys really WERE gang members, dealing cocaine, carrying unlicensed firearms, and occasionally killing or threatening innocent people. The police's methods were highly ineffective, they were unnecessarily brutal and corrupt, and they harassed many innocent people, and maybe they harassed these guys for no reason on many occasions, but you can't exactly claim that you're innocent victims when you are often and demonstrably not. In one song you talk about being the biggest and most violent gang member who will blow away innocent people just for fun, and in another you complain about being harassed by the police for just being black. Well ...

Noah: This is a story that is not actually the story of Noah from the bible. It uses the semiotics of the story to tell another, parallel myth. Which is okay by me, but bothered my friend Bill a lot.

In this version, Noah wanders about trying to find safety for his family. He has some kind of vision to build the ark because the world will be destroyed; this vision is confirmed by Noah's grandfather Methusellah. He is able to built the ark because of a magically grown forest, magical troops of animals that make their way onto the ark and then fall asleep, the magical refidim - fallen angels that look a lot like treants from Lord of the Rings, and the lack of coordination to stop him by the rest of humanity, apparently led by Tubal Cain (in the bible, he is the son of Cain).

The movie introduces a number of conflicts to the story, apparently out of thin air: Shem finds an abandoned girl to marry named Ila - Emma Watson (I kept wondering how Hermione ended up on the ark, and then I remembered that she might have misused the time turner). However, she is barren until Methusella magically heals her, for some reason. Noah's other sons, Ham and Japhet, don't have wives, and Noah is determined for them not to have any. Why? Because the extent of his communication with God was just enough to know he has to build an ark and that humanity is going to be wiped out. He then makes up the idea that God intends to wipe out ALL of humanity, including his line and the line of his children; he thinks this whole ark thing is so that there will be a witness to the destruction? Who then dies out and has no one to tell about it? Huh?

And then, when Ila mysteriously gets pregnant, Noah decides to kill the baby if it is a girl to enforce his non-divine interpretation (Isn't her miraculous pregnancy a sign of something? And how would killing her baby boy stop her from getting pregnant again?). His wife tells him that if he does this she will abandon him. And Ila gives birth to two twin girls (which should also be a sign, since Noah has two unmarried boys). Noah tries to fulfill his mission of killing the babies. Does he succeed?

Meanwhile, Ham, who is upset that he couldn't bring his own girlfriend onto the ark, lets Tubal-Cain onto the ark and hides him for many days until Tubal-Cain is ready to kill Noah with Ham's assistance. Tubal-Cain is convinced that the ark is humanity's means of survival, not just a window to its destruction, and that Noah is misguided. Which makes sense. Will Tubal-Cain and Ham kill Noah?

It's a big spectacle movie, and I've left out the resolutions of these conflicts. Frankly, I'm not sure about the accuracy of the moralities displayed by the main characters. Did motherhood really work like that back then? Did wives issue ultimatums to their husbands about the possible killing of their grandchildren, especially after keeping silent about hundreds of thousands of other deaths? Where did they get all of that Crusader-looking armor and those British accents? Why is Noah more like a modern false prophet who makes up his prophecies rather than a real prophet?

The movie isn't bad, and it's rather odd - it's certainly not the bible story. It has a few things to say, but the spectacle and oddness drown out these messages in a mix of adventure, conflict, and confusion.

Anomalisa: This is a stop-motion animated movie for adults: it's sad and depressing, par for the course for a Charlie Kaufman film.

The main character is a male author traveling to a hotel to talk about one his books about sales or motivation or something. He has Fregoli delusion: everyone sounds like the same person to him. Small girls and grown men all have the same voice, even his ex-wife. To bang this home, the animation is perfectly realistic, except that everyone's face looks like a mask.

Until he finally hears the voice of a woman who sounds like a woman. There doesn't seem to be anything special about her, but it's an exciting change that lasts until ...

Well, really not much happens in the film, which takes place over the course of a single night and the next day. It's surreal and well developed, and they probably saved a bundle on the voice acting talents since they only needed three actors. It's also grim and depressing, the way small town films about people who aren't going anywhere tend to be.

It makes a great film for an student of films and animation. It makes an interesting exploration of symbolism for those who can tolerate grim films about sad people. It's not a date movie.

The Prophet: This is a cartoon story that incorporates some of the text of The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran's famous and lovely series of poems (read it online here) about love, children, work, death, and so on. Some of the book is beautiful, some is rather obscure and unspecific, which is to be expected from a work whose author called it "The Prophet".

The movie has an added plot that is not in the book: A young woman who lost her husband two years ago, and her daughter, visit The Prophet who is under house arrest for the last seven years. The girl hasn't spoke since her father died; she is a known troublemaker and thief in the small village, but she is also good-hearted and curious. The guard at the house appears to be in love with the woman. On the day of the movie, The Prophet is "freed" on condition that he immediately board a boat and leave for his country. On the way to the dock, he stops and recites several portions of the titular book to the crowds. At the dock, he is told that he can board the ship only if he signs a paper disavowing all that he has said and written; if he doesn't he will be killed the next morning.

The recited portions of the book are accompanied by beautiful animations by different artists in varying styles. Some of the more beautiful animations didn't work for me: they were too pat; some of the lesser ones, such as a dancing couple, were quite moving. Some of the poems are simply recited (by Liam Neeson, who is a fantastic voice actor). Some of them are sung, and these didn't work at all, since they cut out most of the words of the poem, it's hard to understand the words, and the melodies are unremarkable. The one exception to this was the song On Love, sung by Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard, beautifully sung with clearly enunciated words.

The subject matter of the book, the recitations, and the apparent death sentence would have made this a perfect film if it had been aimed solely for adults. But some of the in-between scenes of the walk to town are done in the silly, slapstick method prevalent in modern cartoons aimed at young children, which makes the entirely somewhat disconcerting. Is this for kids or for adults? Kids are going to be bored by the poetry. Adults don't need the slapstick.

Overall, it's rather prettily done, but not enough. Only a small part of the book is brought into the movie. Not enough to really make it into an epic work. The story of the girl and the mother fits thematically and adds something, but it doesn't add enough or go anywhere. The movie is a nice introduction to the topics and the ideas of the book. It makes a nice date movie. Better to just read the book.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Necessary Invention: Dual Call Waiting/Voice Mail

Has anyone ever heard: "If this is an emergency, press 1 to go to call waiting. Otherwise, leave a message at the beep"?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Movie Reviews: Zootopia, Batman v Superman, The Jungle Book, The Tale of Princess Kayuga, 20 Feet From Stardom

Zootopia: A funny and interesting addition to the Disney canon. I think I enjoyed it more because I literally knew nothing about the movie before seeing it, other than its name, promotional poster, and that it was well received by both critics and the IMDB public.

The story takes place in a world where a) everyone is an anthropomorphic hoofed, rodent, or jungle mammal: no simians or marsupials (I may have missed one); b) animals once had an uncivilized past, where predators preyed on prey, but now animals are civilized: they wear clothes, talk politely, and have human-like jobs, if their physique is suited to it. The city Zootopia is divided into climatological and size-scaled zones. Somehow this city has a single police force, made up of large, imposing prey animals with a few predators mixed in. 90% of the population is prey; 10% are predators.

The story is about a rabbit from the country who decides to be on the Zootopia police force, and somehow manages to get onto it. The large imposing captain assigns her to traffic duty, since he doesn't think a rabbit can do much actual police work. She runs into a fox who is a con artist, and together they end up looking for a missing mammal and a mysterious case of one or more predators that may have relapsed back to their vicious animal state. It's essentially a buddy cop/detective story.

Other than its humor, the movie's major goal is to teach political correctness. It features a strong and brave female protagonist without any hint of a love angle, which is a breath of fresh air for a children's cartoon. The fox is captivating, too; he's not really a criminal, he's just a con artist, buying low and selling high. Like all modern Disney movies, the visuals are spectacular. The story is coherent and entertaining. One scene with sloths working at the DMV (M = mammalian) is particularly funny. There are several denouements. There are references to other Disney movies and other movies in general (The Godfather features prominently), and one rather odd scene in a mammal "nudist" colony where the animals don't wear clothes. The female protagonist is shocked at the nudity, but when the animals bend over or spread their legs there is just a blank expanse of flat monochromatic surface.

The movie has heavy-handed tolerance, anti-stereotyping, and anti-racism messages: don't jump to conclusions about animals based on their type or history. I counted at least half a dozen cellophane-veiled translations of PC messages about stereotyping, cultural self-definition, appropriation, racial insensitivity, and so on, all within the first few minutes of bunny arriving in the city and all using the same language you will find in numerous YouTube videos about blacks, Muslims, and so on (at least it's a nice break from the "be brave" and "family/love matters" that pretty much dominates every other Disney movie). A not very deep analysis of the actual messages of the movie are more muddled. I can't discuss it without giving away the plot. but some of the PC messages seem to contradict each other and sometimes I wasn't sure if they were saying what they thought they were saying, since what they were actually saying didn't make much sense given the biology or situation on screen. Nevertheless, the context was always clear.

No reason not to bring everyone to see it: it has some good messages and it might make for some interesting discussion afterwards.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: You've probably already heard everything you need to know about this movie. Batman is upset about the collateral damage caused by Superman in his battle to save the world from Zod (in the previous Superman movie). He thinks that Superman is too powerful and too reckless. Meanwhile, Superman thinks that Batman is too much of a vigilante and not following the rule of law. Lex Luthor arranges for them to fight, for some reason, and then sics a Big Bad Boss on both of them. In this movie, Superman and Lois Lane are lovers, which, if you read Man of Steel, Women of Kleenex, you would know is impossible.

I didn't watch the previous Superman, since it looked unrelentingly grim. This movie is also unrelentingly grim, and the setup is unbelievable, so there is little to the movie other than the fights. Superman and Batman are both powerful and acting outside the law. It is ridiculous for everyone to hate on Superman when he obviously saved the world. Unlike the superior Batman trilogy, the moral quandary in the movie (whether absolute power corrupts absolutely) is cursorily raised but not really dealt with.

Plus, you know that no one important is going to get hurt, or if one does, he/she is just going to come back to life again, just like they do in the Marvel movies, so the fight is without tension, a senseless spectacle of booms and crashes. Lex Luthor is ok when he is not overly annoying, but it's hard to see why Superman doesn't put him on ice very early on. Wonder Woman is the best part of the movie, catalyzing the only humorous and/or less grim verbal exchanges, but she has little on screen presence; if she was the main protagonist, the movie would have been much, much better (she has her own movie coming soon). Amy Adams is forgettable as Lois Lane. Holly Hunter is good as a politician, but also on screen for too little time.

Watch it if you like that kind of thing. It won't be on my replay list.

The Jungle Book (2016): I fail to understand the need for reboots and reworkings that we are seeing nowadays. While this movie is ok, it is entirely unnecessary, just like last year's unnecessary new version of Cinderella. Still, it's very well executed, and some of the story is original. Neel Sethi as Mowgli is the only human on screen, and he is on screen the entire movie. Since he likely had to act the entire movie in front of a green screen, his performance is most impressive.

They reuse lines and the occasional snippet of songs from the original movie. I suppose if you never saw the original, the line reuse won't be noticeable. But the two songs taken from the first movie are halfhearted - only a verse or two without the accompanying music, and their presence makes no sense in context, given the seriousness of the movie.

The story is a combination of the original movie and the original book, filling in many of the grimmer aspects of the story. Mowgli is a human child who somehow has survived in the wild, raised by wolves and a panther. He wanders around with a bright red cloth around his waist (a) why is is still bright red? b) wouldn't it attract attention from predators? c) why does he feel the need to wear this when it doesn't protect his body from the elements?). There is little fun to be had; the exception is Bill Murray's Baloo, and his scenes are out of place given the rest of the story. Something is off with the timing of his lines. I blame either the director or the editor. Shere Khan is nasty but oddly not as frightening as the cartoon one in the original. The final battle is insane and doesn't make sense, at least to me. Mowgli has skills with axes, cutting, and ropes that even a trained boy scout would find difficult, and it's impossible to believe that he would have learned these living with the wolves.

Pass.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya: It's always good to step away from Disney once in a while to see what else is possible in the world of animation. Disney creates ever-more beautiful and realistic animation, but always in the same way; like a single art movement, without variance. There is no artistic difference between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Zootopia; they're just on a spectrum of drawing talent. (There are a few exceptions to this: Fantasia and the original 101 Dalmatians had some distinctive animated styling.) Disney's stories, on the other hand, while they are getting better, are still mostly insipid. The best you can say is that some are touching and some are very funny. The messages are always simplistic and boring: be brave. Be true to yourself. Family is important. Don't be judgemental. La la la.

Kaguya is a stunning piece of art. Every frame is a absolutely gorgeous: pause is at any moment and you could frame it. Looks, of course, are not enough (c.f. Song of the Sea). The story is also lovely and mythical, and feels ancient: a peasant finds a miniature girl and a pile of gold when he cuts into a bamboo tree. He raises the girl and takes her to live in the city as a princess using the gold. Various suitors compete for her hand, while she pines for the ordinary life of her childhood. There is much more to the story than that, but it is complex, and yet simple enough to understand on many levels.

Admittedly, the story is sometimes slower than the frenetic pacing of a Disney movie, and may test the patience of modern children. Set in an ancient Japan, the young peasant children spend a lot of time roaming around naked (anatomically correct, although tastefully presented), which is also something you won't see in a Disney movie. I wasn't thrilled with the ending, but I can't really complain about it, as it suits the story well enough.

20 Feet From Stardom: The idea of hearing about the backup singers of famous singers is a good one. This movie is a documentary with interviews of both the famous singers and their backups, with a bit of some of their backgrounds. The cinematography is fine, and the movie is filled with good music clips, but it's nothing more than a shallow praise of a few of these singers, particularly black backup women singers.

It seems like there were a whole lot of interesting stories that could have been told but weren't. They very briefly mention that backup singers were all white until so and so came along, so there might be something interesting to say about racial barriers and so on, but the movie doesn't go there. They briefly mention that some early records with a backup singer's vocals were incorrectly attributed to the famous singers instead, so there might be a story there, too, but other than a shake of the head, the movie doesn't go there either. The movie didn't cover how they became backup singers (except cursorily), how much they are paid, what their relationship with the famous singers or with each other are like, or any other interesting questions. After 2/3 of the movie basically saying nice things about some women and going nowhere at all, I gave up.

Friday, April 01, 2016

UX vs Game Design

Speaking of cloud computing (see my previous, sponsored post), I will be celebrating my birthday on Sunday by attending an all-day UX conference at UX Salon in Tel Aviv, including evening cocktails on the rooftop of Wix at Tel Aviv harbor. Ok, that's not exactly cloud computing, but my company Ex Libris is sending me, and their platforms are heavily based on cloud computing.

Learning UX is parallel to, and integrated with, being a better technical writer, as I wrote in my presentation at MegaComm.

I feel that game design and gamification are opposites but parallels to UX design: game designers want you to spend more time with the product because they want you to find it entertaining or recreational, while UX designers and technical writers want you to spend less time with the product because they know that you're using the product in order to accomplish something else. A game should be involving and engaging; figuring out how to run the game or use the controller should not be, unless that's part of the entertainment.

Both of them carefully consider presentation and how to create a better user experience. I feel, after having been a game designer and having learned gamification, and now working for many years as a technical writer and starting to learn UX, that I am filling in my knowledge on both sides of the same coin.


Understanding Cloud Based Virtual Desktops

The following is a sponsored post:

Cloud based virtual desktops combine two powerful trends in technology – virtualization and Cloud computing. Virtualization or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) enables more efficient use of the resources of a physical machine such as a desktop or server. Similarly, cloud computing results in more efficient use of network infrastructure, servers, and expert resources; while improving accessibility, reliability, and security. Combining the two, a virtual desktop behaves like a regular windows based desktop, but lives on a server located in the Cloud and is accessible from all kinds of devices.

Among the different virtual desktop and application platforms available today, Microsoft VDIs are the favorites; based on Hyper V, these VDIs need Remote Desktop Services server role in Windows Server 2012. The Microsoft VDI platform uses Remote Desktop Gateways to support individual user PCs, individual and pooled virtual desktops, session-locked desktops as well as RemoteApp software. Across devices that run on Windows or Windows RT, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android, a Cloud Desktop is able to provide a personalized yet consistent user experience.

As for the end-users of virtual desktops, they can use any workstation/device with internet connectivity such as PCs, laptops, netbooks, tablets, slates, or even smartphones to access the VM over the internet – they will go through a remote display protocol which makes the virtual desktop get rendered locally. Among several other inherent benefits, virtual desktops heavily bring down the support as well as management costs. This is made possible by virtue of centralized and simplified administrative tasks; more significantly, the budgets needed to maintain and keep the individual PCs up to date is also done away with – Microsoft VDIs can even work well with thin clients or dumb terminals.

In term of technical administration, a quick rollout of Microsoft virtual desktop can be automated by configuring server roles using the Deployment Wizard. Direct/network attached or clustered/storage area network route can be used by the administrators for storing and accessing the VMs. A single console for management helps in centrally managing the server roles, the users, and the VMs as well. A Microsoft VDI implementation involves two licenses – for the virtual desktop infrastructure connection and for access to the virtual Windows Client OS. In addition, those using RDS for accessing the infrastructure would also need to procure a license for RDS client access, which would be calculated on the basis of each device or user. Users that are under the Windows Client Software Assurance (SA) will not incur any additional charges for VDI, while those who do not hold SAs will have to pay Microsoft for each device’s license through Windows Virtual Desktop Access on a per year, per device model.

Tier -1 Microsoft Cloud Solution Providers like Apps4Rent simplify this whole process and offer packaged plans for Microsoft VDIs (see https://www.clouddesktoponline.com) that are made available and go live in a matter of minutes. The latest Microsoft VDIs from Apps4Rent even come with the option of Office 365 ProPlus pre-installed, making them a truly comprehensive cloud desktop solution. Users can install, connect to and use all their custom/line-of-business applications from anywhere, exactly the same way they would on a regular PC. Besides, these Apps4Rent virtual desktops also come with 24 x 7 technical support that is available over phone, live chat, and email to help the end-users resolve their issues in the quickest possible time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Movie Reviews: Spotlight, Hail Caesar, Brooklyn, Mistress America, Carol

Spotlight: This is a nicely done, tight movie about the Boston Globe investigation that brought to national consciousness the abuse of children by Catholic priests and the systemic attempt by the church and their sympathizers to cover it up. The story is nearly all journalism, with small bits here and there about the lives of the reporters, but not much, really.

The natural comparison is to 1976's All the President's Men, which is unfair. The earlier movie was a far better movie, not only because it came first and had Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at their peaks, but because the story of Watergate was a completely unknown story that had to be revealed from scratch. The various pieces of the priests' abuse stories were actually known - buried on pages 27 here and there in different papers. A lot of the journalism was just putting together these stories and finding a pattern.

But still, this is a very good movie. There are no re-enactments or fights or anything, just a journalism arc and the resistance from the community and the church. Well worth a watch.

Hail Caesar!: Behind the scenes at a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, a "fix it" man has to attend to problems as they occur. I went into this movie knowing it was a Coen Brothers movie, and resigned to that fact, but it turned out to be even more so. I'm not a fan; I liked Fargo a lot, tolerated The Big Lebowski, and couldn't be bothered to finish any of the others.

This movie is basically a comedy, except it's not funny. Well, it's almost funny in a few offbeat ways. It's a "send up" of 1950's behind the scenes Hollywood. The scenes of dancing sailors that seem kind of "gay" to us now are redone by "gay" actors, which they probably were, anyway. A giant statue that is supposed to look impressive doesn't look impressive when only its bottom half is extant. The only real communist is the only non-Marxist. A British director can't get a southern guy to speak a line without sounding like a southerner. It's supposed to be funny, but I stared and yawned the entire movie, waiting to see something that impressed me. There was no drama, no tension, and no real interest in how it would end.

I can only say that the movie is undoubtedly, frame for frame, exactly what the Coen brothers intended it to be, some kind of perfectly shot directorial exercise in self-indulgent narcissism that will appeal to Coen brothers fans and just about no one else.

Brooklyn: This is a mildly flawed but otherwise beautiful dreamy movie, also about the 1950s but worlds away from the above Hail Caesar! In this movie, a young Irish woman, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), leaves her small gossipy town, mother, sister, best friend, and not much else for work in a department store in Brooklyn, where she lives with and among many other Irish who have come to do the same. She starts off homesick, meets a lovely, uneducated, but hard working Italian man Tony (Emory Cohen (a Russian Jew?)), and then has to go back to Ireland to visit her mother where she rediscovers the beautiful country she forgot and finds opportunities that she hadn't had before she left. Will she stay in Ireland or go back to Brooklyn and her Italian fellow?

The filming is beautiful, as is the acting and directing. I loved the clothes, all of them, from the cable-knit sweaters and green overcoats of Ireland to the print dresses, skirts and bobby socks of Brooklyn. And those sunglasses! The central drama is not one we see in movies too often, and it was laid out pretty well: personal love vs love of country. The movie takes its time showing how the characters develop and, at least in Eilis' case, the development was satisfying. Actually the movie starts off fairly slowly, but I was captivated from the moment that Jessica Pare showed up, and enthralled from the moment the guy started singing at the church.

And now here be the problems and spoilers, but don't let it worry you: this kind of movie is seen for the experience of the acting and period costumes, and the heartfelt choices that have the heroine in tears for nearly half of her time on screen.

One problem is that Tony is perfect (other than being uneducated), a true gentleman so well-mannered and hard working that he is hard to believe. But the main problem is that Tony and Eilis marry before Eilis returns to Ireland. She hides this fact from everyone in Ireland. The cover up is supposed to add something to the tension, but it didn't make any sense to me. Yes, I believe that Tony would WANT to marry her before she returns for her "visit" to Ireland, in fear that she may not return. But the movie shouldn't have let it happen. If they had remained engaged, then there would have been believable tension: I could have believed that she might end the engagement to stay in Ireland. But once she was married - and she is Irish Catholic - there is no way that she is going to fall in love with an Irish guy and stay in Ireland. And it was pretty sucky of her to string an Irish guy along for five weeks and then suddenly say "Hey, I'm married! Sorry!" So the ending was forgone, although, given the screenplay, the process in getting there was as well done as could have been.

Mistress America: I'm beginning to think that Greta Gerwig isn't capable of playing more than one character: quirky and self-deluded. That's her here, to a T, just as she was in Frances Ha, basically playing the same character. She plays Brooke, and her foil is freshman in New York Tracy (Lola Kirke), her soon-to-be step-sister and straight girl to dazzle with her free-thinking, half-formed, enthusiastic and obviously doomed projects.

The group takes a trip to Connecticut to get money for a restaurant that will never happen, and they spend an hour or so in a house where odd people come in and out and motives are questioned in a Neil Simon-like manner. It is cute and diverting, in the way that Frances Ha was, and it's fun to watch, but ultimately doesn't add up to much.

Carol: This is a well-shot and acted movie about a lesbian relationship, also in the 1950's. The movie reminds us of the great difficulties that such relationships had to - and occasionally still have to - endure: sham marriages, secret encounters, charges of depravity, and threats of losing one's children.

The movie is based on an important book, one of the first to portray a lesbian relationship that might in fact end happily. Unfortunately, the story is dated; it is a somewhat insignificant story, unless one keeps in mind its significance. Our society is hardly shocked to hear about either lesbianism or the adverse reactions to it. You can try to forget that and enjoy the fine acting and filmography.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Don't Be a Technical Writer, Be an Interface Designer

Here is my presentation at Megacomm February 2016, slide by slide, with my accompanying talk and some notes. I don't write down what I say on the slides, nor do I have a script, so the text is an approximation of what I said.
In this presentation, I propose the following two theories.

One: technical writers are actually interface designers. A good technical writer approaches his or her work as someone who designs an interface. A good technical writer is a good interface designer. Two: Since the core competency of a technical writer is designing an interface, technical writers have the core competency required for other interface design jobs, and should a) help their company in this capacity, or b) with some additional technical knowledge, consider alternative work doing other interface design jobs.

That's it, I'm done. Any questions?

Just kidding. Actually, I want to start with an old joke, so old that some of you may not know or remember it.

Two guys are in a two-seater airplane flying in Chicago. The pilot knows Chicago like the back of his hand, but there is a pea-soup fog and he can't see more than 10 feet out the window. The plane is almost out of fuel and the passenger is getting very worried. If they could only figure out where they are, the pilot could land the plane safely. Suddenly they pass a building on the left, and a man is standing at an open window. The pilot yells "Where are we?!" The man in the building yells back "You're in an airplane!" The pilot yells "Thanks", turns left, turns right, and lands at Chicago airport. The passenger is thrilled, but confused. He says "I'm so glad we were able to land safely, but how did that man's answer help you?" The pilot replies "Well, what he told me was technically accurate but completely useless, so it had to be the IBM documentation building.

The point of this presentation is to remind you that some people forget what the job of a technical writer is, and it's not to provide technically accurate information about a product. It's not to explain procedures or describe how the product works in detail. The job of a technical writer is help someone do something with your product because they have to use your product. They don't want to use it, and they don't want to use your documentation. They would rather be at the beach; using your product, especially if the product doesn't immediately communicate its function to them and they have to use your documentation, is not what the customer wants to be doing. Your job is to design a good interface. It is to help him or her get back to the beach. Of course, sometimes you have to provide technical information to do that, but if you have to you've already lost part of the battle.

But first, I will define what an interface is.

An interface is something that helps you use something to do something. The emphasis here is on "do something". You have no interest in the tool that you have to use to do the something, you just want to do the something. If you could think it and have it happen without having to use the tool, you would do that. But you can't; you have to use the tool. The interface is how you use that tool. For example.

Here is a mountain. The interface to the mountain is the mountain's surface, which is how you "use" the mountain. If you live on one side of the mountain and you want to shop at the grocery store on the other side, you use the mountain's surface to do that. You would like the mountain's interface to be as simple and straightforward as possible, because you don't really want to use the mountain; you have to use it to get to the other side.

Of course, there are people who actually like to use a mountain's interface; people who like to climb mountains. Some people use products for recreation or for entertainment; these products are designed for their interface; these people want to use the interface. These people enjoy the interface in its own right.

This talk is not about these kinds of people or these kinds of interfaces. For most of us, who are not making recreational or entertainment products, the interface is something that HAS to be used. Even if the product has a great feature that we want to use, we would prefer to just think what we want to have happen and have it happen. Since we can't, we HAVE to use the product to achieve the result. We want the interface that is required to achieve that result be as simple and as invisible as possible.



The challenge is that companies, and R and D departments in particular, design products and documentation that is the exact opposite of that: they design IBM documentation, under the belief that people WANT to use their product or read their documentation. That people want to spend their time learning things, and defining and managing and configuring things, just because that's what the inside or back-end of the product does. R and D departments are proud of their tools and they think about the ways that things are done internally in products, and then they want to communicate this to users: how the product works. They do this not only with documentation that is uninteresting to the users, but with the interfaces, asking you define profiles, and configure internal configuration parameters, asking you to learn new languages and terminology and acronyms in order to understand how the product operates. But people don't care about your products or how it operates; they just want to do their thing and get back to the beach. They don't want to learn, they want to know already.

Your job as a technical writer, just like the job of anyone designing the interface to your product, is to not teach the user a new language or have them think hard about how to work or manage the product, as far as possible.

What makes a good interface?

A good interface is invisible; it doesn't make you think. It is, as much as possible, an extension of the user's will to just think it and have it done. The more a user is thinking about your interface, the less good your interface is (unless the interface is, itself, entertaining).

A good interface is unsurprising; features and controls are where you would expect them and work how you expect them to work. If there is a back, there is a forward. If there is a left, there is a right. If the menu is scrolled using a finger flick in this area, then the menu is scrolled using a finger flick in every area. In this iPod, the sub-menu is going to look the same no matter which menu option I select, and the same command will return to the main menu from any sub-menu.

A product may be the best product in its class, offering the most features, but if the features are hard to find and difficult or even surprising and complex to use, the interface is not good. A good interface will always provide less options for easy to understand features, hiding the complexity as required. More features may make a better product, but don't always make a better interface.

A good interface doesn't ask you to learn a new language. It doesn't replace standard words - like dogs - with brand names - like BarkBuddies - forcing you to learn the terminology before you can use the interface or read the document. Your company may send acronyms back and forth in internal emails, but of course a good interface doesn't use these acronyms, making you learn the language in order to understand what is written. Don't make the user learn; inform them and let them forget.

A good interface exposes tasks, not tools. You use the product to do something, not learn about the product. In the iPod here, it could have said "Artists", "Albums", and "Genres", but it didn't. It says "Play this artist", "Play an album", "Get help", offering you the actions you want to take. If it just said "Artists", you wouldn't know if that's a tool to add an artist or view the artists, or what have you. Yeah, you could probably figure it out in a few seconds, but the interface doesn't make you do that. Help your users get back to the beach, get over the mountain, as quickly as possible.

Lastly, a good interface makes the customer feel that the time they spent using the product to do what they really wanted to do was worth it. If your mountain's surface is too hard to use, the user is going to find another way around the mountain or another grocery store. In the end, the user has to feel that the time and money spent were worth it.

Who designs interfaces? Or who is supposed to design interfaces, anyway?

Physical products, such as doors and chairs, have designers - sometimes good and sometimes bad. Apple, of course, puts a lot of thought into the design of their interface. In most tech companies, whether they produce hardware or software products, the designer is typically a product manager. The problem with the product manager is that most of them don't know much about product design. They are skilled at talking to customers, deciding on features, making specifications and time charts and budgets and so on, but they don't understand design - even though it's one of their jobs. And they don't always know that they don't know it.

Of course, technical documentation is done by a technical writer, who is really making an interface, so there's her. And your company may have other, actual interface designers, like a UX designer or product designer. A UI designer is the one who makes pretty flash screens for your web sites, and they are supposed to be good at UX (user experience) design, but they tend to suck at it, as you can see by visiting any bank website in Israel: every one of them has a long loading flash screen that blocks the site and hover-happy menus that cover the entire page when you try to navigate. That's not thinking about the user experience, that's being in love with your programming toolbox. A UX designer does actual interface design from the user's experience, and that's what I'm talking about. A good technical writer has a good start for learning to be a UX designer, since they share the same core skills and perspective.

Why are product managers and development teams bad at design? Because they are in love with and proud of their products, which is fine. But then they want to communicate all about these products to the customers, whether by means of a fancy over-communicative interface or a ton of useless technical documentation.

As an example, here is the "K Key" story: I received a page and a half from a developer to document ("just fix the English!" he cheerfully told me). It read: when the user presses the "k" key, the key presses a spring that hits a contact, the contact sends a burst of electricity over the chipboard to a multiplexer/demultiplexer, which translates the signals into hexadecimal blah blah and so on for a page and a half until finally a "k" appears on the screen. After looking at this for a few minutes, I realized that the only thing I had to write was "Press the 'k' key to continue".

And even that was too much really, because the product should have been designed to not need this documented; in fact, it could have been designed to not need the "k" key pressed at all. It should just have continued to the next page. The only reason it didn't was because R and D had developed it to stop at that point during testing, and they figured that that's good enough for the customer.

Product creators love their products, god bless them. But what the customers need is an interface that lets them cross that mountain/get back to the beach as quickly as possible. I'm sorry it took you four months to develop a working "k" key, and I'm really happy that it works so well, but that doesn't meant that we have to make the customer aware of that process.

Product managers typically care only that the product works. So if this API uses one set of parameters and that API uses a different set of parameters, who cares? It works. How did this happen? This one was developed by Itzik and that one was developed by Galit. The product manager should care, because the customer is going to have to use both APIs and he doesn't want to learn a new set of parameters with every new API. "It works" isn't good enough.

It turns out that there is this hole in development, that in theory is filled by a product manager or developer, but in practice it isn't. It's a hole that happens to be exactly what a good technical writer does. Development has the programming skills to develop and the product manager is good at creating user stories, but they are missing the ability to design a product that is simple and invisible for the user. This is a hole that a technical writer can fill, but not if she is at the end of the development process, handed a working product and told to document it. By then it is too late.

After the design is done, a technical write can complain about the product design, but - at best - that becomes a bug to fix in some later development cycle that is at least two months away. And the problem with an interface, particularly an API, is that once it is in use it becomes very hard to change. So the fix never happens.

Technical writing should be sitting in the design review meetings. With their overall view of the product (having documented the entire product), they can ask why this feature doesn't work the same way as the other feature that was designed last month, or why this screen uses a different methodology for entering input than the other screen that was just documented. They can feel out the flow of the product, and find ways to make the experience less bumpy for the user.

To do this, you have to be a good technical writer, who thinks about interfaces. You have to have a good overview of the product's entire interface, one that the product manager(s) doesn't. And you should have some basic technical skills, enough to understand how methods and web sites work (or whatever your company is using as an interface).

Why should  you do this? Because it makes a better product. It increases your value to your company, and makes you more than just a technical writer. It makes you more integrated with and more respected by the development team. And, the more you develop a general skill at designing interfaces, the more able you are to switch to a different kind of interface design job, should you eventually choose to do so.

I did a presentation on proper API design. For now, I'll just cover the basics about why a good technical writer already has many of the skills necessary to be a good interface designer, even without too much technical knowledge.

A good technical writer thinks about what the customer wants to do, not how to describe the tools. He uses action verbs. He ensures that the customer has all of the information he needs to do that task, and then considers what the customer wants to do next, until he is done. In other words, he thinks "How do I get the customer out of this documentation as soon as possible and back to the beach?"

In contrast, bad technical writers and bad designers think the customer wants to spend time learning and figuring out your wonderful site. The above slide presents a UI for using the mountain, like many bad UIs I have had to document. What is a mountain profile and why should I have to learn that? What is an MMID? How do I find it? Why do I need to define three different IDs for what I'm trying to do? In fact, why do I have to define any? Is this helping me get to the other side of the mountain? Can't all of this be created internally without my having to learn what it all means? Of course it can, and it should. What we have here is a development team in love with its programming methodology. The program uses profiles internally; that doesn't mean that the user should have input fields that match the internal descriptions one for one. The development team has been programming this for 2 years, so they know what an MMID is (they usually just enter 1234). But the customer doesn't, and doesn't need to. The acronym should be spelled out, and the term either hidden or pre-filled, or a link added to navigate to the screen that gives you your ID. As a good technical writer, you already know that.

Technical writers know to use less words, present only relevant concepts, and don't abbreviate terms. They present what is required, and no more than what is required. This same skill is necessary for any type of interface.

A good technical writer ensures that information is not ambiguous. You don't write "x may be created", because the reader doesn't know if the system might create x or the user is now allowed to create x. Similarly, the technical writer knows, without much technical skill, that an API like DogBarks is ambiguous. Does it mean that the dog is able to bark, or does it mean that the dog has just barked? Verbs indicate actions, and nouns indicate states. A good technical writer can help with the API names, as well as the parameter and value names, even with little technical skill.

A good technical writer thinks about consistency. Especially in Israel, technical writers can review the interface's field names and parameter names for spelling mistakes, and ensure that case is used consistently across the product. Why would it be inconsistent? Because Itzik programmed this API and Dalit programmed that one, and the product manager didn't care because they worked. Similarly, just like information in documentation should be presented in an easy to navigate, consistent manner, a good API uses the same parameter names to mean the same things and orders the parameters in the same ways in each command. Or displays the fields in the same way on different pages.

These are just examples; I cut out many other examples owing to time.

If you want to joint the development team, interface design is a great start, but you will be more effective with language or technological skills in the areas that your development team works. If you
want to move to another profession, like UX design, the core skill is a great start, but  you still need to learn more about the other professions and what skill sets they require. The transition will be easier, because the core focus is similar in technical writing and the other profession.

To conclude: A good technical writer is a good interface designer, because that is the job of documentation. And a good interface designer can contribute his or her skills to other areas of the product, and can consider moving toward another profession that requires similar skills.

Thank you.

Yehuda

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Cow that Can Be Told is not the True Cow: Reflections on a Month of Veganism

My diet during the first half of the month was insanely good: lots of dark green leafies, mixed complete proteins and whole grains, low fats, little processed food or sweets. Being a vegan makes it hard to grab a cookie or cake as a snack, since they have eggs, so a snack tends to be healthy (unless you go out of your way to surround yourself with jelly beans and the like).

By the second half of the month, the diet got worse. I didn't eat jelly beans or potato chips, etc, but I ate more carbs, including white rice and flour, since these were more readily available. I should have cooked one or two more times to avoid this. I was hungry and tended to eat more food than I do on a meat-based diet. I still ate pretty healthily - fruits, veggies, not too many pre-packaged items. I was supposed to do more exercise and eat meals at specific intervals during the day, but I didn't do either.

I gained about 2.5 kilo by the end of the month.

I didn't feel cravings for meat or cheese or eggs, but I don't feel a need to continue being a vegan. I'm not more in touch with my chakra, and I'm not more sensitive toward living creatures. I took a blood test this morning, so I will see later if my triglycerides, glucose, and/or cholesterol are any different.

It is easy to be vegan, and there are many varied and delicious vegan foods to eat. It is about as difficult to be vegan as it is to keep kosher in the US: easier, actually, since I can eat vegan food that was cooked on non-vegan cookware in a non-vegan kitchen. My friends endured my food requirements, in the way that non-kosher or non-vegetarian friends endure the kosher or vegetarian. My only slip up was a bite of a piece of hallah, where I had remembered to ask the hostess if the bread had honey but I had forgotten to ask if it had eggs.

Yesterday evening, I saw a dark bovine shadow in a fedora underneath the lamppost near my apartment complex. It tipped its hat at me and then vanished in the foggy gloom. I found a wrapped, fresh cut steak at the foot of the lamppost. It seems that I have survived my one month vegan challenge unharmed, and essentially unaltered.